Category Archive 'History'
16 Apr 2017
Peter Paul Rubens, The Resurrection of Christ, 1611-1612, Vrouwekathedraal, Antwerp
From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869:
Easter, the anniversary of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, is one of the three great festivals of the Christian year,—the other two being Christmas and Whitsuntide. From the earliest period of Christianity down to the present day, it has always been celebrated by believers with the greatest joy, and accounted the Queen of Festivals. In primitive times it was usual for Christians to salute each other on the morning of this day by exclaiming, ‘Christ is risen;’ to which the person saluted replied, ‘Christ is risen indeed,’ or else, ‘And hath appeared unto Simon;’—a custom still retained in the Greek Church.
The common name of this festival in the East was the Paschal Feast, because kept at the same time as the Pascha, or Jewish passover, and in some measure succeeding to it. In the sixth of the Ancyran Canons it is called the Great Day. Our own name Easter is derived, as some suppose, from Eostre, the name of a Saxon deity, whose feast was celebrated every year in the spring, about the same time as the Christian festival—the name being retained when the character of the feast was changed; or, as others suppose, from Oster, which signifies rising. If the latter supposition be correct, Easter is in name, as well as reality, the feast of the resurrection.
Though there has never been any difference of opinion in the Christian church as to why Easter is kept, there has been a good deal as to when it ought to be kept. It is one of the moveable feasts; that is, it is not fixed to one particular day—like Christmas Day, e. g., which is always kept on the 25th of December—but moves backwards or forwards according as the full moon next after the vernal equinox falls nearer or further from the equinox. The rule given at the beginning of the Prayer-book to find Easter is this: ‘Easter-day is always the first Sunday after the full moon which happens upon or next after the twenty-first day of March; and if the full moon happens upon a Sunday, Easter-day is the Sunday after.’
The paschal controversy, which for a time divided Christendom, grew out of a diversity of custom. The churches of Asia Minor, among whom were many Judaizing Christians, kept their paschal feast on the same day as the Jews kept their passover; i. e., on the 14th of Nisan, the Jewish month corresponding to our March or April. But the churches of the West, remembering that our Lord’s resurrection took place on the Sunday, kept their festival on the Sunday following the 14th of Nisan. By this means they hoped not only to commemorate the resurrection on the day on which it actually occurred, but also to distinguish themselves more effectually from the Jews. For a time this difference was borne with mutual forbearance and charity. And when disputes began to arise, we find that Polycarp, the venerable bishop of Smyrna, when on a visit to Rome, took the opportunity of conferring with Anicetas, bishop of that city, upon the question. Polycarp pleaded the practice of St. Philip and St. John, with the latter of whom he had lived, conversed, and joined in its celebration; while Anicetas adduced the practice of St. Peter and St. Paul. Concession came from neither side, and so the matter dropped; but the two bishops continued in Christian friendship and concord. This was about A.D. 158.
Towards the end of the century, however, Victor, bishop of Rome, resolved on compelling the Eastern churches to conform to the Western practice, and wrote an imperious letter to the prelates of Asia, commanding them to keep the festival of Easter at the time observed by the Western churches. They very naturally resented such an interference, and declared their resolution to keep Easter at the time they had been accustomed to do. The dispute hence-forward gathered strength, and was the source of much bitterness during the next century. The East was divided from the West, and all who, after the example of the Asiatics, kept Easter-day on the 14th, whether that day were Sunday or not, were styled Qiccertodecimans by those who adopted the Roman custom.
One cause of this strife was the imperfection of the Jewish calendar. The ordinary year of the Jews consisted of 12 lunar months of 292 days each, or of 29 and 30 days alternately; that is, of 354 days. To make up the 11 days’ deficiency, they intercalated a thirteenth month of 30 days every third year. But even then they would be in advance of the true time without other intercalations; so that they often kept their passover before the vernal equinox. But the Western Christians considered the vernal equinox the commencement of the natural year, and objected to a mode of reckoning which might sometimes cause them to hold their paschal feast twice in one year and omit it altogether the next. To obviate this, the fifth of the apostolic canons decreed that, ’ If any bishop, priest, or deacon, celebrated the Holy Feast of Easter before the vernal equinox, as the Jews do, let him be deposed.’
At the beginning of the fourth century, matters had gone to such a length, that the Emperor Constantine thought it his duty to take steps to allay the controversy, and to insure uniformity of practice for the future. For this purpose, he got a canon passed in the great Ecumenical Council of Nice (A.D. 325), that everywhere the great feast of Easter should be observed upon one and the same day; and that not the day of the Jewish passover, but, as had been generally observed, upon the Sunday afterwards. And to prevent all future disputes as to the time, the following rules were also laid down:
‘That the twenty-first day of March shall be accounted the vernal equinox.’
‘That the full moon happening upon or next after the twenty-first of March, shall be taken for the full moon of Nisan.’
‘That the Lord’s-day next following that full moon be Easter-day.’
‘But if the full moon happen upon a Sunday, Easter-day shall be the Sunday after.’
As the Egyptians at that time excelled in astronomy, the Bishop of Alexandria was appointed to give notice of Easter-day to the Pope and other patriarchs. But it was evident that this arrangement could not last long; it was too inconvenient and liable to interruptions. The fathers of the next age began, therefore, to adopt the golden numbers of the Metonic cycle, and to place them in the calendar against those days in each month on which the new moons should fall during that year of the cycle. The Metonie cycle was a period of nineteen years. It had been observed by Meton, an Athenian philosopher, that the moon returns to have her changes on the same month and day of the month in the solar year after a lapse of nineteen years, and so, as it were, to run in a circle. He published his discovery at the Olympic Games, B.C. 433, and the cycle has ever since borne his name. The fathers hoped by this cycle to be able always to know the moon’s age; and as the vernal equinox was now fixed to the 21st of March, to find Easter for ever. But though the new moon really happened on the same day of the year after a space of nineteen years as it did before, it fell an hour earlier on that day, which, in the course of time, created a serious error in their calculations.
A cycle was then framed at Rome for 84 years, and generally received by the Western church, for it was then thought that in this space of time the moon’s changes would return not only to the same day of the month, but of the week also. Wheatley tells us that, ‘During the time that Easter was kept according to this cycle, Britain was separated from the Roman empire, and the British churches for some time after that separation continued to keep Easter according to this table of 84 years. But soon after that separation, the Church of Rome and several others discovered great deficiencies in this account, and therefore left it for another which was more perfect.’—Book on the Common Prayer, p. 40. This was the Victorian period of 532 years. But he is clearly in error here. The Victorian period was only drawn up about the year 457, and was not adopted by the Church till the Fourth Council of Orleans, A.D. 541.
Now from the time the Romans finally left Britain (A.D. 426), when he supposes both churches to be using the cycle of 84 years, till the arrival of St. Augustine (A.D. 596), the error can hardly have amounted to a difference worth disputing about. And yet the time the Britons kept Easter must have varied considerably from that of the Roman missionaries to have given rise to the statement that they were Quartodecimans, which they certainly were not; for it is a well-known fact that British bishops were at the Council of Nice, and doubtless adopted and brought home with them the rule laid down by that assembly. Dr. Hooke’s account is far more probable, that the British and Irish churches adhered to the Alexandrian rule, according to which the Easter festival could not begin before the 8th of March; while according to the rule adopted at Rome and generally in the West, it began as early as the fifth. ‘They (the Celts) were manifestly in error,’ he says; ‘but owing to the haughtiness with which the Italians had demanded an alteration in their calendar, they doggedly determined not to change.’—Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, vol. i. p. 14.
After a good deal of disputation had taken place, with more in prospect, Oswy, King of Northumbria, determined to take the matter in hand. He summoned the leaders of the contending parties to a conference at Whitby, A.D. 664, at which he himself presided. Colman, bishop of Lindisfarne, represented the British church. The Romish party were headed by Agilbert, bishop of Dorchester, and Wilfrid, a young Saxon. Wilfrid was spokesman. The arguments were characteristic of the age; but the manner in which the king decided irresistibly provokes a smile, and makes one doubt whether he were in jest or earnest. Colman spoke first, and urged that the custom of the Celtic church ought not to be changed, because it had been inherited from their forefathers, men beloved of God, &c. Wilfrid followed:
‘The Easter which we observe I saw celebrated by all at Rome: there, where the blessed apostles, Peter and Paul, lived, taught, suffered, and were buried.’ And concluded a really powerful speech with these words: ‘And if, after all, that Columba of yours were, which I will not deny, a holy man, gifted with the power of working miracles, is he, I ask, to be preferred before the most blessed Prince of the Apostles, to whom our Lord said, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and to thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven” ?’
The King, turning to Colman, asked him, ‘Is it true or not, Colman, that these words were spoken to Peter by our Lord?’ Colman, who seems to have been completely cowed, could not deny it. ‘It is true, 0 King.’ ‘Then,’ said the King, ‘can you shew me any such power given to your Columba? ’ Colman answered, ’ No.’ ‘You are both, then, agreed,’ continued the King, are you not, that these words were addressed principally to Peter, and that to him were given the keys of heaven by our Lord?’ Both assented. ‘Then,’ said the King, ‘I tell you plainly, I shall not stand opposed to the door-keeper of the kingdom of heaven; I desire, as far as in me lies, to adhere to his precepts and obey his commands, lest by offending him who keepeth the keys, I should, when I present myself at the gate, find no one to open to me.’
This settled the controversy, though poor honest Colman resigned his see rather than submit to such a decision.
On Easter-day depend all the moveable feasts and fasts throughout the year. The nine Sundays before, and the eight following after, are all dependent upon it, and form, as it were, a body-guard to this Queen of Festivals. The nine preceding are the six Sundays in Lent, Quinquagesima, Sexagesima, and Septuagesima; the eight following are the five Sundays after Easter, the Sunday after Ascension Day, Whit Sunday, and Trinity Sunday.
The old Easter customs which still linger among us vary considerably in form in different parts of the kingdom. The custom of distributing the ‘pace’ or ‘pasche ege,’ which was once almost universal among Christians, is still observed by children, and by the peasantry in Lancashire. Even in Scotland, where the great festivals have for centuries been suppressed, the young people still get their hard-boiled dyed eggs, which they roll about, or throw, and finally eat. In Lancashire, and in Cheshire, Staffordshire, and Warwickshire, and perhaps in other counties, the ridiculous custom of ‘lifting’ or ‘heaving’ is practised.
On Easter Monday the men lift the women, and on Easter Tuesday the women lift or heave the men. The process is performed by two lusty men or women joining their hands across each other’s wrists; then, making the person to be heaved sit down on their arms, they lift him up aloft two or three times, and often carry him several yards along a street. A grave clergyman who happened to be passing through a town in Lancashire on an Easter Tuesday, and having to stay an hour or two at an inn, was astonished by three or four lusty women rushing into his room, exclaiming they had come ‘to lift him.’ ‘To lift me!’ repeated the amazed divine; ‘what can you mean?’ ‘Why, your reverence, we’re come to lift you, ‘cause it’s Easter Tuesday.’ ‘Lift me because it’s Easter Tuesday? I don’t understand. Is there any such custom here?’ ‘Yes, to be sure; why, don’t you know? all us women was lifted yesterday; and us lifts the men today in turn. And in course it’s our rights and duties to lift ‘em.’
After a little further parley, the reverend traveller compromised with his fair visitors for half-a-crown, and thus escaped the dreaded compliment. In Durham, on Easter Monday, the men claim the privilege to take off the women’s shoes, and the next day the women retaliate. Anciently, both ecclesiastics and laics used to play at ball in the churches for tansy-cakes on Eastertide; and, though the profane part of this custom is happily everywhere discontinued, tansy-cakes and tansy-puddings are still favourite dishes at Easter in many parts. In some parishes in the counties of Dorset and Devon, the clerk carries round to every house a few white cakes as an Easter offering; these cakes, which are about the eighth of an inch thick, and of two sizes —the larger being seven or eight inches, the smaller about five in diameter— have a mingled bitter and sweet taste. In return for these cakes, which are always distributed after Divine service on Good Friday, the clerk receives a gratuity- according to the circumstances or generosity of the householder.
12 Apr 2017
When did human beings start tipping their weapons with poison to hunt prey? This is a question at the forefront of recent archaeological research.
In southern Africa San (or Bushman) hunter-gatherer groups, such as the /Xam of the Western Cape and the Ju/wasi and Hei//om of Namibia, used poisoned arrows for hunting during the 19th and 20th centuries. The origins of this technology, though, may be far older than we thought.
Recently, traces of the poison ricin were found on a 24 000 year-old wooden poison applicator at Border Cave in South Africa’s Lebombo mountains. If this identification is correct it would mean that people in southern Africa were among the first in the world to harness the potential of plant-based poisons.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.
28 Mar 2017
Back in the 1960s, young conservatives used to sing a parody of “Rock of Ages” that, in part, went:
“Rockefeller’s not for me,
He is anti-GOP.
He is for the Welfare State,
And he’s had more than one mate.”
Throughout the 2016 Presidential Campaign, theoretically-inclined Americans struggled to identify exactly where Donald Trump belonged on the scale of ideology.
Trump had no political record. And Trump’s combination of positions, including Nativism, Protectionism, along with promises to repeal Obamacare, yet at the same time, “take care of everybody” had little to do with either conventional liberalism or conservativism.
Last week’s Obamacare Repeal-and-Replace effort failed because the small, actually seriously principled portion of House Republicans, the Freedom Caucus, declined to follow Trump’s leadership, when that leadership insisted on retaining the socialist heart of Barack Obama’s great leap forward into conformity with the Bismarkian model of National Health Care embraced by so many European and Asian countries.
Just yesterday, I happened to catch Fox News’ Chris Wallace referring with Establishment disdain to the Freedom Caucus’s insistence on removing key Obamacare features such as universal coverage including the subsidizing of health insurance for the elderly and ill by an insurance purchase requirement for the healthy and young.
Last week’s breakdown of Republican solidarity exposed the ideological fault line dividing Donald Trump (and his Nationalist Alt-Right inner circle) and the mainstream GOP. Serious, ideologically-principled Republicans are still Goldwater Republicans, determined to fight for government consistent with the ideals and principles of the founders, firmly resistant to Progressive appeals to sentimentality, Populism, and the example of European countries.
Donald Trump lacks Nelson Rockefeller’s Dartmouth polish and patrician accent, but we begin to see revealed the basic similarities. Like Rockefeller, Trump is a divorcée and a flagrant sexual opportunist, utterly indifferent to conventional Middle American sexual morality. Trump has the advantage of operating decades further along in the progressive decline of Religion and morality in the United States. Back in the 1960s, a divorced man was looked upon as an untrustworthy oath-breaker and loose-liver, unfit for national office. By 1980, when Ronald Reagan (who had been long divorced) ran, it was a non-issue. Last Fall, Trump proved that, in the 21st Century, a fellow on the record with having approximately the same sort of approach to romance as Hugh Hefner, would have little difficulty brushing off even feminist indignation and could easily be elected.
Last week’s events, on the positive side, confirmed again that Donald Trump is a man of his word. He promised a great and beautiful replacement of Obamacare bill that would cover everyone and he attempted to ram that through. On the negative side, all this confirms that Donald Trump has no ideological aversion to the Welfare State and no theoretical commitment to stopping, or turning back, the Left’s step-by-step march toward universal socialism. Trump is, at best, a “Me Too, But a Little Less” Republican in the style of Eisenhower. More accurately, in the combative New York-style of the late Nelson Rockefeller.
Like Rockefeller, Trump is (mostly) pro-business, though he will expect business to play ball with government. Like Rockefeller, Trump is a law-and-order Republican. Trump means to enforce immigration laws. He will continue to wage the War on Drugs. He will continue to lock ’em up, and will probably increase sentences at some point. Like Rockefeller, Trump will devote a serious effort to making Big Government more efficient and more economical, thus enabling the Welfare State to avoid longer its inevitable bankruptcy.
In the political contest for the Presidency, Trump went from triumph to triumph. Trump’s fidelity to his campaign promises, and his business-like style of going right to work and expecting results NOW, not next year or the year after, was refreshing and gave the opening months of his presidency a positive tone. Wall Street responded by booming.
Now, Trump has experienced his first real setback, his first political defeat. How Trump responds to this one will obviously have a major impact on the overall success of his presidency. If Trump simply sulks and blames conservatives for saving Obamacare, the same pattern of failure is bound to repeat itself. If Trump instead learns to compromise and goes back and puts together a renewed alliance with conservative Republicans, there is nothing stopping him from trying again and finally repealing and eradicating the legacy of Barack Obama from American life, and then moving forward more strongly than before to fulfill the rest of his promises and agenda.
He has already comfortably surpassed the political achievements of Nelson Rockefeller. Hopefully, Trump will avoid Rockefeller’s example of bitter progressive Republican animosity toward conservative Republicans and Rockefeller’s ultimately futile isolation.
06 Mar 2017
Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, Fall of the Alamo, 1903, Texas State Archives.
March 6, 1836: Following a thirteen-day siege, more than 2000 Mexican troops launched a pre-dawn attack from all four sides on the fortress defended by 180 men. The Mexicans were repulsed twice, but a third assault gained the north wall and broke through the west wall. After fierce fighting, the defenders were killed to a man. The casualties included Colonel William Barret Travis, James Bowie, and former Congressman from Tennessee David Crockett.
25 Feb 2017
Ruins of Hvalsey Church, Greenland.
Tim Folger, at Smithsonian, describes the current academic debate over the vanishing of the Viking colony on Greenland.
Archaeologists once assumed that the Norse in Greenland were primarily farmers who did some hunting on the side. Now it seems clear that the reverse was true. They were ivory hunters first and foremost, their farms only a means to an end. Why else would ivory fragments be so prevalent among the excavated sites? And why else would the Vikings send so many able-bodied men on hunting expeditions to the far north at the height of the farming season? “There was a huge potential for ivory export,” says Smiarowski, “and they set up farms to support that.” Ivory drew them to Greenland, ivory kept them there, and their attachment to that toothy trove may be what eventually doomed them.
When the Norse arrived in Greenland, there were no locals to teach them how to live. “The Scandinavians had this remarkable ability to colonize these high-latitude islands,” says Andrew Dugmore. “You have to be able to hunt wild animals; you have to build up your livestock; you have to work hard to exist in these areas….This is about as far as you can push the farming system in the Northern Hemisphere.”
And push it they did. The growing season was short, and the land vulnerable to overgrazing. Ian Simpson has spent many seasons in Greenland studying soil layers where the Vikings farmed. The strata, he says, clearly show the impact of their arrival: The earliest layers are thinner, with less organic material, but within a generation or two the layers stabilized and the organic matter built up as the Norse farmwomen manured and improved their fields while the men were out hunting. “You can interpret that as being a sign of adaptation, of them getting used to the landscape and being able to read it a little better,” Simpson says.
For all their intrepidness, though, the Norse were far from self-sufficient, and imported grains, iron, wine and other essentials. Ivory was their currency. “Norse society in Greenland couldn’t survive without trade with Europe,” says Arneborg, “and that’s from day one.”
Then, in the 13th century, after three centuries, their world changed profoundly. First, the climate cooled because of the volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Sea ice increased, and so did ocean storms—ice cores from that period contain more salt from oceanic winds that blew over the ice sheet. Second, the market for walrus ivory collapsed, partly because Portugal and other countries started to open trade routes into sub-Saharan Africa, which brought elephant ivory to the European market. “The fashion for ivory began to wane,” says Dugmore, “and there was also the competition with elephant ivory, which was much better quality.” And finally, the Black Death devastated Europe. There is no evidence that the plague ever reached Greenland, but half the population of Norway—which was Greenland’s lifeline to the civilized world—perished.
The Norse probably could have survived any one of those calamities separately. After all, they remained in Greenland for at least a century after the climate changed, so the onset of colder conditions alone wasn’t enough to undo them. Moreover, they were still building new churches—like the one at Hvalsey—in the 14th century. But all three blows must have left them reeling. With nothing to exchange for European goods—and with fewer Europeans left—their way of life would have been impossible to maintain. The Greenland Vikings were essentially victims of globalization and a pandemic.
“If you consider the world today, many communities will face exposure to climate change,” says Dugmore. “They’ll also face issues of globalization. The really difficult bit is when you have exposure to both.”
So what was the endgame like in Greenland? Although archaeologists now agree that the Norse did about as well as any society could in confronting existential threats, they remain divided over how the Vikings’ last days played out. Some believe that the Norse, faced with the triple threat of economic collapse, pandemic and climate change, simply packed up and left. Others say the Norse, despite their adaptive ingenuity, met a far grimmer fate.
For McGovern, the answer is clear. “I think in the end this was a real tragedy. This was the loss of a small community, a thousand people maybe at the end. This was extinction.”
The Norse, he says, were especially vulnerable to sudden death at sea. Revised population estimates, based on more accurate tallies of the number of farms and graves, put the Norse Greenlanders at no more than 2,500 at their peak—less than half the conventional figure. Every spring and summer, nearly all the men would be far from home, hunting. As conditions for raising cattle worsened, the seal hunts would have been ever more vital—and more hazardous. Despite the decline of the ivory trade, the Norse apparently continued to hunt walrus until the very end. So a single storm at sea could have wiped out a substantial number of Greenland’s men—and by the 14th century the weather was increasingly stormy. “You see similar things happening at other places and other times,” McGovern says. “In 1881, there was a catastrophic storm when the Shetland fishing fleet was out in these little boats. In one afternoon about 80 percent of the men and boys of the Shetlands drowned. A whole bunch of little communities never recovered.”
Norse society itself comprised two very small communities: the Eastern and Western settlements. With such a sparse population, any loss—whether from death or emigration—would have placed an enormous strain on the survivors. “If there weren’t enough of them, the seal hunt would not be successful,” says Smiarowski. “And if it was not successful for a couple of years in a row, then it would be devastating.”
McGovern thinks a few people might have migrated out, but he rules out any sort of exodus. If Greenlanders had emigrated en masse to Iceland or Norway, surely there would have been a record of such an event. Both countries were literate societies, with a penchant for writing down important news. “If you had hundreds or a thousand people coming out of Greenland,” McGovern says, “someone would have noticed.”
Niels Lynnerup, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen who has studied Viking burial sites in Greenland, isn’t so sure. “I think in Greenland it happened very gradually and undramatically,” he tells me as we sit in his office, beneath a poster of the Belgian cartoon character Tintin. “Maybe it’s the usual human story. People move to where there are resources. And they move away when something doesn’t work for them.” As for the silence of the historical record, he says, a gradual departure might not have attracted much attention.
The ruins themselves hint at an orderly departure. There is no evidence of conflict with the Inuit or of any intentional damage to homesteads. And aside from a gold ring found on the skeletal finger of a bishop at Gardar, and his narwhal-tusk staff, no items of real value have been found at any sites in Greenland. “When you abandon a small settlement, what do you take with you? The valuables, the family jewelry,” says Lynnerup. “You don’t leave your sword or your good metal knife….You don’t abandon Christ on his crucifix. You take that along. I’m sure the cathedral would have had some paraphernalia—cups, candelabras—which we know medieval churches have, but which have never been found in Greenland.”
Jette Arneborg and her colleagues found evidence of a tidy leave-taking at a Western Settlement homestead known as the Farm Beneath the Sands. The doors on all but one of the rooms had rotted away, and there were signs that abandoned sheep had entered those doorless rooms. But one room retained a door, and it was closed. “It was totally clean. No sheep had been in that room,” says Arneborg. For her, the implications are obvious. “They cleaned up, took what they wanted, and left. They even closed the doors.”
Perhaps the Norse could have toughed it out in Greenland by fully adopting the ways of the Inuit. But that would have meant a complete surrender of their identity. They were civilized Europeans—not skraelings, or wretches, as they called the Inuit. “Why didn’t the Norse just go native?” Lynnerup asks. “Why didn’t the Puritans just go native? But of course they didn’t. There was never any question of the Europeans who came to America becoming nomadic and living off buffalo.”
We do know that at least two people made it out of Greenland alive: Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson, the couple who married at Hvalsey’s church. They eventually settled in Iceland, and in 1424, for reasons lost to history, they needed to provide letters and witnesses proving that they had been married in Greenland. Whether they were among a lucky few survivors or part of a larger immigrant community may remain unknown. But there’s a chance that Greenland’s Vikings never vanished, that their descendants are with us still.
Read the whole thing.
22 Feb 2017
The submersion of the national holiday honoring George Washington into a generic and meaningless “Presidents Day” is one of the nearly too-many-to-count bad things we owe to the administration of the late and unlamented Richard Nixon. A number of editorialists this year are arguing that America needs to do the right thing by going back to honoring our first, and possibly greatest, national hero.
John R. Miller:
In 1968, the public-employee unions, seeking a three-day weekend, convinced Congress to move the commemoration of Washington’s birthday to the third Monday in February. This eventually led to what we now call Presidents Day, which marks the birthday not only of Washington but of Lincoln and all other presidents. By celebrating every birthday, we effectively celebrate none.
Washington’s contemporaries hailed his Revolutionary War victories at Trenton and Yorktown, but they honored him more for risking his fame, fortune and life in taking on military responsibilities for which he wasn’t paid—and then giving up command to return to his farm and family. The young American citizenry esteemed him for bringing together and presiding over the Constitutional Convention, but they honored him more for his steadfastness in holding the colonies together and facing down potential insurrectionists who might have seized the government and made him a military dictator. And while they appreciated him returning to public service as president, they honored him more for leaving an office that many expected him to hold for life.
Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries were unaware of, but they would not have been surprised by, what King George III supposedly said upon hearing that Washington, after winning the Revolutionary War, had refused to be king: “If that is true, he must be the greatest man in the world.” …
Our ancestors expected that America would produce other great leaders. But they celebrated Washington’s birthday because, as the Connecticut Courant observed in 1791, “Many a private man might make a great president; but will there ever be a President who will make so great a man as WASHINGTON?”
17 Feb 2017
Leah Libresco Sergeant Y’11 contemplates Yale’s renaming of Calhoun College, and observes that, in a peculiar way, the Jacobins and their toadies are really honoring John C. Calhoun.
Late last week, Yale announced that it would remove the name of John C. Calhoun from one of its residential colleges—but clarified that the name would not be expunged wherever it was literally written in stone as part of the building’s architecture. While the college will officially bear the new name of Grace Hopper College, honoring a pioneering computer scientist and veteran, to chisel off Calhoun’s name would be to neglect the “obligation not to efface the history.” (It would be expensive, to boot.)
Other than the physical presence of the name, there’s little else to erase about Calhoun. The drawn-out fights (and serial committees) questioning the appropriateness of Calhoun’s name miss how little tradition exists to be expunged—in Calhoun’s namesake college, or in any of the other Yale colleges.
When I was an undergraduate, John C. Calhoun went largely unmentioned and unthought of in residential college life. If the college had instead been named (as a puckish friend suggested) for William Barron Calhoun (Yale class of 1814, a lawyer and politician from Massachusetts, ardent opponent of slavery), nothing about the day-to-day life of the college would have been different.
Yale’s residential colleges derive very little personality from their namesakes, or from anything else. Freshmen are assigned to them randomly, which prevents the colleges from developing reputations (as “the arty one” or “the sporty one”). And Yale’s goal in recent years has been to homogenize the residential colleges even further, pooling money that alumni had given to their own colleges and distributing it equally, so that no college may have more or do more than another. …
Why have a namesake at all, if the college is not to be colored by his or her character? In my own college, Jonathan Edwards, there was never a mention of the Puritan preacher’s theology—except that our intramural team was called the Spiders, a reference to his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon. Jonathan Edwards’s theology exists for J.E. students only as a quaint, even comical, historical artifact. Why give a man the trappings of honor without ceding him any respect?
John C. Calhoun, in being removed, was awarded an odd sort of honor: His ideas were treated as relevant and dangerous. …
17 Feb 2017
Dyers at work. Bartholomeus Anglicus and Jean Corbechon, Le Livres des Propriétés des Choses, Manuscript, Brussels, 1482.
Arts and Letters Daily excerpts a bit from Michel Pastoureau’s Red: The History of a Color.
The late Middle Ages and the modern period have left us works by great painters that are particularly remarkable for their range of reds. Let us mention Van Eyck, Uccello, Carpaccio, Raphael, and later, Rubens and Georges de La Tour. But all artists seemed to love this color and tried to draw various tonalities from it. Accordingly they chose their pigments, taking into account not only their physicochemical properties, their ability to cover or make opaque, their resistance to light, and how easily they could be worked or combined with other pigments but also their price, availability, and—what is most disconcerting to us—the name they went by. Indeed we can observe in the laboratory that in panel paintings from the late Middle Ages, symbolically “negative” reds—those coloring the fires of hell, the face of the Devil, the coat or feathers of infernal creatures, and all impure blood of one kind or another—were often painted with the same pigment: sandarac, a resin lacquer more commonly called “cinnabar of the Indies” or “dragon’s blood.” Various legends circulated in workshops regarding this pigment, a relatively expensive one because it had to be imported from far away. It was believed to come not from a plant resin but from the blood of a dragon, gored by its mortal enemy, the elephant. According to medieval bestiaries, which followed Pliny and the ancient authors here, the inside of the dragon’s body was filled with blood and fire; after a fierce struggle, when the elephant had punctured the dragon’s belly with its tusks, out flowed a thick, foul, red liquid, from which was made a pigment used to paint all the shades of red considered evil. Legend won out over knowledge in this case, and painters’ choices gave priority to the symbolism of the name over the chemical properties of the pigment.
Unlike the dyers, the painters of the modern period hardly profited at all from the discovery of the New World or the settling of Europeans in the Americas. No truly new colorants resulted from these events. But Mexican cochineal, transformed into lacquer, allowed them to perfect a subtle, delicate pigment in the range of reds, superior to earlier lacquers from brazilwood or kermes for fixing a glaze over vermilion. Beginning in the sixteenth century, vermilion experienced a steady rise in popularity and its production became something of an industry, first in Venice, the European capital of color, and then in the Netherlands and Germany. It was sold in apothecaries, hardware shops, and paint stores, and even though it was more expensive and less stable than minium, it eventually contributed to that pigment’s decline.
14 Feb 2017
Jacopo Bassano, St Valentine Baptizing St Lucilla, 1575, oil on canvas, Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa
The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e., half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair. Thus in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules we read:
For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
For this reason the day was looked upon as specially consecrated to lovers and as a proper occasion for writing love letters and sending lovers’ tokens. Both the French and English literatures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contain allusions to the practice. Perhaps the earliest to be found is in the 34th and 35th Ballades of the bilingual poet, John Gower, written in French; but Lydgate and Clauvowe supply other examples. Those who chose each other under these circumstances seem to have been called by each other their Valentines.
In the Paston Letters, Dame Elizabeth Brews writes thus about a match she hopes to make for her daughter (we modernize the spelling), addressing the favoured suitor:
And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.
From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869: Feast Day: St. Valentine, priest and martyr, circ. 270.
ST. VALENTINE’S DAY
Valentine’s Day is now almost everywhere a much degenerated festival, the only observance of any note consisting merely of the sending of jocular anonymous letters to parties whom one wishes to quiz, and this confined very much to the humbler classes. The approach of the day is now heralded by the appearance in the print-sellers’ shop windows of vast numbers of missives calculated for use on this occasion, each generally consisting of a single sheet of post paper, on the first page of which is seen some ridiculous coloured caricature of the male or female figure, with a few burlesque verses below. More rarely, the print is of a sentimental kind, such as a view of Hymen’s altar, with a pair undergoing initiation into wedded happiness before it, while Cupid flutters above, and hearts transfixed with his darts decorate the corners. Maid-servants and young fellows interchange such epistles with each other on the 14th of February, no doubt conceiving that the joke is amazingly good: and, generally, the newspapers do not fail to record that the London postmen delivered so many hundred thousand more letters on that day than they do in general. Such is nearly the whole extent of the observances now peculiar to St. Valentine’s Day.
At no remote period it was very different. Ridiculous letters were unknown: and, if letters of any kind were sent, they contained only a courteous profession of attachment from some young man to some young maiden, honeyed with a few compliments to her various perfections, and expressive of a hope that his love might meet with return. But the true proper ceremony of St. Valentine’s Day was the drawing of a kind of lottery, followed by ceremonies not much unlike what is generally called the game of forfeits. Misson, a learned traveller, of the early part of the last century, gives apparently a correct account of the principal ceremonial of the day.
‘On the eve of St. Valentine’s Day,’ he says, ‘the young folks in England and Scotland, by a very ancient custom, celebrate a little festival. An equal number of maids and bachelors get together: each writes their true or some feigned name upon separate billets, which they roll up, and draw by way of lots, the maids taking the men’s billets, and the men the maids’: so that each of the young men lights upon a girl that he calls his valentine, and each of the girls upon a young man whom she calls hers. By this means each has two valentines: but the man sticks faster to the valentine that has fallen to him than to the valentine to whom he is fallen. Fortune having thus divided the company into so many couples, the valentines give balls and treats to their mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport often ends in love.’
St. Valentine’s Day is alluded to by Shakespeare and by Chaucer, and also by the poet Lydgate (who died in 1440).
The origin of these peculiar observances of St. Valentine’s Day is a subject of some obscurity. The saint himself, who was a priest of Rome, martyred in the third century, seems to have had nothing to do with the matter, beyond the accident of his day being used for the purpose. Mr. Douce, in his Illustrations of Shakespeare, says:
“It was the practice in ancient Rome, during a great part of the month of February, to celebrate the Lupercalia, which were feasts in honour of Pan and Juno. whence the latter deity was named Februata, Februalis, and Februlla. On this occasion, amidst a variety of ceremonies, the names of young women were put into a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed. The pastors of the early Christian church, who, by every possible means, endeavoured to eradicate the vestiges of pagan superstitions, and chiefly by some commutations of their forms, substituted, in the present instance, the names of particular saints instead of those of the women: and as the festival of the Lupercalia had commenced about the middle of February, they appear to have chosen St. Valentine’s Day for celebrating the new feast, because it occurred nearly at the same time.”
February 14th, prior to 1969, was the feast day of two, or possibly three, saints and martyrs named Valentine, all reputedly of the Third Century.
The first Valentine, legend holds, was a physician and priest in Rome, arrested for giving aid to martyrs in prison, who while there converted his jailer by restoring sight to the jailer’s daughter. He was executed by being beaten with clubs, and afterwards beheaded, February 14, 270. He is traditionally the patron of affianced couples, bee keepers, lovers, travellers, young people, and greeting card manufacturers, and his special assistance may be sought in conection with epilepsy, fainting, and plague.
A second St. Valentine, reportedly bishop of Interamna (modern Terni) was also allegedly martyred under Claudius II, and also allegedly buried along the Flaminian Way.
A third St. Valentine is said to have also been martyred in Roman times, along with companions, in Africa.
Due to an insufficiency of historical evidence in the eyes of Vatican II modernizers, the Roman Catholic Church dropped the February 14th feast of St. Valentine from its calendar in 1969.
02 Feb 2017
Tintoretto, Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, 1550-1555, Gallerie dell Accademi, Venice
From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869:
From a very early, indeed unknown date in the Christian history, the 2nd of February has been held as the festival of the Purification of the Virgin, and it is still a holiday of the Church of England. From the coincidence of the time with that of the Februation or purification of the people in pagan Rome, some consider this as a Christian festival engrafted upon a heathen one, in order to take advantage of the established habits of the people; but the idea is at least open to a good deal of doubt. The popular name Candlemass is derived from the ceremony which the Church of Rome dictates to be observed on this day; namely, a blessing of candles by the clergy, and a distribution of them amongst the people, by whom they are afterwards carried lighted in solemn procession. The more important observances were of course given up in England at the Reformation; but it was still, about the close of the eighteenth century, customary in some places to light up churches with candles on this day.
At Rome, the Pope every year officiates at this festival in the beautiful chapel of the Quirinal. When he has blessed the candles, he distributes them with his own hand amongst those in the church, each of whom, going singly up to him, kneels to receive it. The cardinals go first; then follow the bishops, canons, priors, abbots, priests, &c., down to the sacristans and meanest officers of the church. According to Lady Morgan, who witnessed the ceremony in 1820:
‘When the last of these has gotten his candle, the poor conservatori, the representatives of the Roman senate and people, receive theirs. This ceremony over, the candles are lighted, the Pope is mounted in his chair and carried in procession, with hymns chanting, round the ante-chapel; the throne is stripped of its splendid hangings; the Pope and cardinals take off their gold and crimson dresses, put on their usual robes, and the usual mass of the morning is sung.’
Lady Morgan mentions that similar ceremonies take place in all the parish churches of Rome on this day.
It appears that in England, in Catholic times, a meaning was attached to the size of the candles, and the manner in which they burned during the procession; that, moreover, the reserved parts of the candles were deemed to possess a strong supernatural virtue:
‘This done, each man his candle lights,
Where chiefest seemeth he,
Whose taper greatest may be seen; And fortunate to be,
Whose candle burneth clear and bright: A wondrous force and might
Both in these candles lie, which if At any time they light,
They sure believe that neither storm Nor tempest cloth abide,
Nor thunder in the skies be heard, Nor any devil’s spide,
Nor fearful sprites that walk by night,
Nor hurts of frost or hail,’ &c.
The festival, at whatever date it took its rise, has been designed to commemorate the churching or purification of Mary; and the candle-bearing is understood to refer to what Simeon said when he took the infant Jesus in his arms, and declared that he was a light to lighten the Gentiles. Thus literally to adopt and build upon metaphorical expressions, was a characteristic procedure of the middle ages. Apparently, in consequence of the celebration of Mary’s purification by candle-bearing, it became customary for women to carry candles with them, when, after recovery from child-birth, they went to be, as it was called, churched. A remarkable allusion to this custom occurs in English history. William the Conqueror, become, in his elder days, fat and unwieldy, was confined a considerable time by a sickness. ‘Methinks,’ said his enemy the King of France, ‘the King of England lies long in childbed.’ This being reported to William, he said, ‘When I am churched, there shall be a thousand lights in France !’ And he was as good as his word; for, as soon as he recovered, he made an inroad into the French territory, which he wasted wherever he went with fire and sword.
At the Reformation, the ceremonials of Candlemass day were not reduced all at once. Henry VIII proclaimed in 1539:
‘On Candlemass day it shall be declared, that the bearing of candles is done in memory of Christ, the spiritual light, whom Simeon did prophesy, as it is read in. the church that day.’
It is curious to find it noticed as a custom down to the time of Charles II, that when lights were brought in at nightfall, people would say—’ God send us the light of heaven!’ The amiable Herbert, who notices the custom, defends it as not superstitious. Some-what before this time, we find. Herrick alluding to the customs of Candlemass eve: it appears that the plants put up in houses at Christmas were now removed.
Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe;
Instead of holly now upraise
The greener box for show.
The holly hitherto did sway,
Let box now domineer,
Until the dancing Easter day
Or Easter’s eve appear.
The youthful box, which now hath grace
Your houses to renew,
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.
When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside,
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin’,
To honour Whitsuntide.
Green rushes then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments,
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift; each thing in turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.’
The same poet elsewhere recommends very particular care in the thorough removal of the Christmas garnishings on this eve:
‘That so the superstitious find
No one least branch left there behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.’
He also alludes to the reservation of part of the candles or torches, as calculated to have the effect of protecting from mischief:
‘Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn,
Which quenched, then lay it up again, Till Christmas next return.
Part must be kept, wherewith to tend
The Christmas log next year;
And where ‘tis safely kept, the fiend Can do no mischief there.’
Considering the importance attached to Candlemass day for so many ages, it is scarcely surprising that there is a universal superstition throughout Christendom, that good weather on this day indicates a long continuance of winter and a bad crop, and that its being foul is, on the contrary, a good omen. Sir Thomas Browne, in his Vulgar Errors, quotes a Latin distich expressive of this idea:
‘Si sol splendescat Maria purificante,
Major erit glacies post festum quam fait ante;
which maybe considered as well translated in the popular Scottish rhyme:
If Candlemass day be dry and fair,
The half o’ winter’s to come and mair;
If Candlemass day be wet and foul,
The half o’ winter’s gave at Yule.’
In Germany there are two proverbial expressions on this subject: 1. The shepherd would rather see the wolf enter his stable on Candlemass day than the sun; 2. The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemass day, and when he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining, he draws back into his hole. It is not improbable that these notions, like the festival of Candlemass itself, are derived from pagan times, and have existed since the very infancy of our race. So at least we may conjecture, from a curious passage in Martin’s Description of the Western Islands. On Candlemass day, according to this author, the Hebrideans observe the following curious custom:
The mistress and servants of each family take a sheaf of oats and dress it up in women’s apparel, put it in a large basket, and lay a wooden club by it, and this they call Bríd’s Bed.; and then the mistress and servants cry three times, “Bríd is come; Bríd is welcome!” This they do just before going to bed, and when they rise in the morning they look among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Bríd’s club there; which, if they do, they reckon it a true presage of a good crop and prosperous year, and the contrary they take as an ill omen.
Groundhog Day is simply a modern commercialized adaptation of the earlier weather traditions associated with the Christian feast day.
28 Jan 2017
An elaborate allegorical illustration used as the frontispiece in Jane Cobden’s book The Hungry Forties (1904) which was part of the free trade campaign against Joseph Chamberlain’s pro-tariff movement in 1903. There is a very large sheaf of wheat (the “Fairy Wheatsheaf”) in the centre with the heads of Cobden and Bright near the base (other heads are visible in the grass beneath and around the sheaf but these are hard to identify); to the left is a destitute family which has been impoverished by tariffs; to the right is a prosperous family which has been enriched by free trade. The writing at the bottom of the page is hard to read but it is called “The fairy Wheatsheaf. Free Trade & Protection Contrasted”
Richard Ebling, at the Foundation for Economic Education, explains how free trade triumphed in the mid-19th century making Europe into a great and prosperous modern civilization.
Great Britain became the first country in the world to institute a unilateral policy of free trade. For the rest of the nineteenth century — indeed, until the dark forces of collectivism enveloped Europe during World War I — the British Empire was open to the entire world for the free movement of men, money, and goods.
Its economic success served as a bright, principled example to the rest of the globe, many of whose member countries followed the British lead in establishing, if not complete free trade, at least regimes of much greater freedom of trade and commerce.
British free trade policy helped to usher in the age of nineteenth-century free trade, and fostered what has been called the classical liberal era of “the three freedoms” which only came to an end with the First World War in 1914. The German free market economist Gustav Stolper explained these three freedoms in his book, This Age of Fable (1942), written while in exile in America during the Second World War:
They were: freedom of movement for men, for goods and for money. Everyone could leave his country when he wanted and travel or migrate wherever he pleased without a passport. The only European country that demanded passports (not even visas!) was Russia, looked at askance for her backwardness with an almost contemptuous smile. Who wanted to travel to Russia anyway? …
There were still customs barriers on the European continent, it is true. But the vast British Empire was free-trade territory open to all in free competition, and several other European countries, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia, came close to free trade.
For a time the Great Powers on the European continent seemed to veer in the same direction. In the sixties of the nineteenth century the conviction was general that international free trade was the future. The subsequent decades did not quite fulfill that promise. In the late seventies reactionary trends set in. But looking back at the methods and the degree of protectionism built up at that time we are seized with nostalgic envy. Whether a bit higher or a bit lower, tariffs never checked the free flow of goods. All they affected was some minor price changes, presumably mirroring some vested interest.
And the most natural of all was the free movement of money. Year in, year out, billions were invested by the great industrial European Powers in foreign countries, European and non-European … These billions were regarded as safe investments with attractive yields, desirable for creditors as well as debtors, with no doubts about the eventual return of both interest and principal.
The nineteenth-century victory of free trade over Mercantilism and Protectionism represented one of the great triumphs in the history of classical liberalism. It was the achievement of the Scottish Moral Philosophers and those that are now referred to as the “Classical Economists” in demonstrating the spontaneous order and coordination arising from a free, competitive market system – Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty” and the cooperative gains for all through a system of division of labor.
The momentous importance in human history of this triumph is not always appreciated for what it was: a crucial institutional transformation that heralded the beginning of the material and cultural improvement of mankind through the private and peaceful associations of humanity for the mutual betterment of the mass of mankind. This transformation continues today, even in the face of the reactionary return to paternalistic government and political interference with human life over the last century.
19 Jan 2017
This photograph was taken in late February-early March 1864 by Julian Vannerson. Lee is shown in the Confederate colonel’s coat he habitually wore and the photograph certainly supports the diarist Mary Chesnut’s description of the General as “cold, quiet and grand.”
Robert Edward Lee, the greatest American military commander of all time, was born January 19, 1807 at Stratford Hall Plantation, Westmoreland County, Virginia.