At war memorials, shrines, churches and RSL clubs, public places and private homes, people around the country will gather together this ANZAC day to remember the men and women of Australia’s armed forces. One thing that they may all hear on April 25 is the fourth stanza of Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen, which was published in 1914 – ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;/ Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn./ At the going down of the sun and in the morning/ We will remember them’. For many, this is an especially moving moment in ANZAC ceremonies, as is the playing of ‘The Last Post’, that haunting bugle call that marks the end of the military day, the literal ‘going down of the sun’.
Although contemporary remembrance of war draws on older traditions of commemoration, both religious and secular, both political and emotional, war memory is still mostly understood to be a modern phenomenon. This is because war is often associated with the formation of nationhood in western history. In Australia, ritual observation of ANZAC day has become an increasingly nationalist statement; at Gallipoli, young people drape themselves in the Australian flag in the darkness of the dawn service, sometimes weeping as they hear Binyon’s words, ‘remembering’ and affirming what some think to be the foundational moment in Australian history.
But remembering conflict and finding ways to commemorate fallen soldiers has a much longer history, one that is also emotional, political and culturally rich. In the pre-modern world, before the rise of the nation state and before narratives of war came to be politicised as crucial to national mythologies, fallen soldiers were remembered and rituals of memorial observance were respected. Memorials were constructed and histories were written about the transcendent meaning of war. All these things occurred in very different historical, cultural and political contexts to how they now play out. Yet the existence of war remembrance independent from the defining temporality of modernity invites us – perhaps even on ANZAC day – to reflect on the centuries-old pull of war remembrance and its emotional resonance.
The crusades are a particularly rich source of information for pre-modern remembrance of war, given their longevity, variety of locations and regional diversity of participants. The crusades were also strongly memorial events in themselves: sharing in their collective identification as Christ’s body, crusaders – wherever they travelled and fought – were conducting themselves in imitatio Christi and in memoriam Christi. As holy land territory gained by the crusaders in the early twelfth century slipped out of their hands by the thirteenth century, memory of the success of holy war, remembrance of triumphant crusaders and good Christians, and commemoration of defeats just as much as celebration of victories, became more and more frequent. Indeed, the early thirteenth-century witnesses something of a medieval ‘memory boom’ in relation to the act and meaning of crusading.
War remembrance was often attached to place during this time. Gathering points for memory sprang up around the Mediterranean, sometimes at places where older victories could be celebrated to inspire a new generation of soldier. Lisbon was one such place, where men on their way to the Fifth Crusade in 1217 stopped to remember their fallen brethren of the Second Crusade, which had besieged the city in 1147. Paying their respects at the tomb of Henry of Bonn at São Vicente de Fora, these new crusaders heard of the miracles that had taken place at this crusader’s tomb including the growth of a wondrous palm tree the healing fronds of which could cure all sorts of illness.
Once in the Holy Land itself, members of the crusading army visited holy places, sometimes finding themselves quite overwhelmed – ‘moved with great joy’ in the words of one pilgrim – by the landscape of Christ’s life and death. Others were specifically encouraged to see sites associated with crusading history. Oliver of Paderborn, who both preached and accompanied the Fifth Crusade wrote a Descriptio terre sancte in the middle of that crusade, detailing not just the marvellous sites of biblical history that pilgrims could see in the Holy Land, but also sites of war memory, including the castle of Montreal that was established by the first Frankish king of Jerusalem ‘to protect the land that the Christians had subjugated’. Jerusalem itself was out of reach to Christians from 1187-1225 (although pilgrims could still enter the city), but as crusading played out in more and more diverse locations, other places came to develop into sites of crusading memory.
Fallen soldiers were also central to remembrance. Their bodies or body parts were taken home if possible, and some were laid to rest in family tombs or religious sites associated with their families. Saher IV de Quincy was one of many soldiers who died during the Fifth Crusade at the siege of Damietta in 1219; his organs were cremated while his body was interred at the port city of Acre. He had wanted his ‘heart and vitals’ to be buried at Garendon abbey in England, which had been founded by members of his wife’s family (the earls of Leicester). Those whose remains were not returned were remembered by their families in tombs far away from the battlefields. Count Louis III of Chiny was not brought back to France when he died in 1189, but a memorial inscription to him was erected in the family necropolis at the monastery of Orval, which told the family that although his remains (exuviae) are not ‘in this place’, nevertheless ‘his memory will not perish’.
Such burial places were both locations for mourning and memory, but they were situated in particularly medieval landscape of ancestral accomplishment and family memory. The exploits of heroic former crusaders such as Godefroi of Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade, had entered the realm of romance by this time; but more recent crusaders of the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries were still remembered in familial places, locations of spiritual resonance, dynastic importance and, perhaps, emotional comfort.
Stories of battle told by eyewitnesses and later writers attempted to communicate a transcendent meaning to what were clearly sometimes chaotic and distressing events. Writing of the battle for Damietta during the Fifth Crusade, Jacques de Vitry reported that it was God’s will that the city was captured and lost, while those who fought and died during a siege that claimed the lives of most of the city’s population, ‘wore the martyr’s crown’. Jacques listed the names of his fallen brethren in letters he wrote home from the battlefront, reporting that ‘the pious Lord rewarded them with this consolation [death] because they had abandoned their fathers and mothers, wives and children and their friends for Christ’. He urged his readers to remember the fallen crusaders, who had died for the triumph and spread of Christendom whilst also recording his own emotional frailty after months of observing warfare – ‘I just wish to end my life in peace and quiet’, he wrote in a letter home.
Those on the home front could participate in liturgical rituals which were both commemorative and motivational. At the commemoration of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, which celebrated the 1212 victory of Las Navas de Tolosa in Spain, the entire population of Rome prayed in three different churches, and then made their way in separate processions to the Lateran where the Pope presided over a prayer meeting. En masse, they went to various other churches, including the Basilica of the Holy Cross, where a fragment of the True Cross was held and where they offered prayers for the success of future crusades.
Participating in such rituals of remembrance indicates that war could be a meaningful event for medieval people in many ways. Indeed, remembrance was expressed and communicated through place, ritual, the written word and material culture. These commemorative forms were used to assert the value and ongoing meaning of holy war, and to celebrate victory and explain defeat. Remembrance work was done outside the national frameworks which shape how modern people remember war. But it is clear that medieval people understood that maintaining connection to conflict could serve powerful and dynamic purposes, communicating present sentiment just as much as commemorating the past.
By CHE Associate Investigator Megan Cassidy-Welch.
To mark the anniversary of the end of World War II the curators of the Bode Museum in Berlin have created an extraordinary and haunting exhibition, The Missing Museum. It is an exhibition about what they have lost and what was destroyed by war. I have been wondering why a show about what isn’t there (or what is ruined), should be so powerful as a viewing experience. Ultimately it isn’t the great skill that went into creating the art, nor even the irony of something created to project the vision of a world of beauty falling victim to a darker reality. It is simpler than that. It is personal. The Gemaldegalerie alone lost 400 works of art, but the curators know that statistics are just numbers in the end, that they fail to convey the individual nature of the losses, nor the remarkable quality of the art that is gone for ever. So they decided to blow up black and white photographs of the missing paintings to their actual size and display these on the walls. The effect is compelling and eerie.
The photographs function like ghosts or witnesses of the great works they represent, and on this scale they do convey something of the original’s physical presence [Fig 1]. Just enough to make you aware of what has been lost. The black and white photograph of Botticelli’s Madonna and Child is displayed in an ornate and beautiful gilt frame, all that is left now of the work [Fig 2].
For some artists, like Caravaggio, the loss is huge. His first version of St Matthew writing the gospel, which was rejected, and which tells part of the story of his daring naturalism and the problems it caused the Catholic church, is gone, as is a much smaller painting of the prostitute Fillide, who was the model for his painting of St. Catherine. There will never be an opportunity now to assess a third painting also destroyed, an Agony in the garden, whose authenticity was disputed.
I can’t decide what is worse; the huge photographs of missing paintings lining the walls, or the before and after displays of sculpture. These consist of plaster-casts of the originals before the war, displayed alongside what was retrieved after the war. Some never came back at all. The most distressing of those on display is a early medieval bust of a Madonna and Child by Tino ad Camaino, which originally showed the Madonna tenderly clasping the Christ child’s foot [Fig 3]. This came back as just a fragment, or shard of the Madonna’s face and the upper part of the child’s face [Fig 4]. The majority of sculptures were burnt in two disastrous fires in the Friedrichshain bunker where many masterpieces were being stored in 1945, just days after it came under the authority of the Soviet army. The heat was so intense that the marble turned back into lime and plaster, and the delicate maiolica plates and sculptures exploded.
Particularly harrowing are two statues of Renaissance shield-bearers by Tullio Lombardo c.1493 [Fig 5]. From the photos the originals appear to have been beautiful, full of grace, elegance and self-assurance.
What remains is laid out on a plinth like two corpses [Fig 6 ].One statue is burnt beyond recognition, a battered and blackened trunk with a disfigured face. The other, whose legs and feet are displayed still upright but separated from the body, is recognisable as one of the figures in the photograph. His face survived more or less intact but his torso is blotchy and strangely mottled, the result of being treated with hydrogen peroxide, a bunsen burner and a rasp, in an attempt to restore the original sheen of the marble.
It is a relief to come across François Duquesnoy’s small, chubby statue of Cupid in the next room, comparatively unscathed, missing only his bow and his wings [FIG 8].
At close range though the bullet hole in his temple [FIG 9] is visible and another can be seen in his back. The juxtaposition of vulnerability and extreme youth and the stark evidence of violence is chilling. In part the shock is that a figure representing love should so obviously be the target of a very different kind of emotion, but my strong reaction to the deliberate damage is also due to the sculptural medium itself. Where sculpture represents the human body we respond to it as if it were real. As Johann Gottfried Herder wrote at the end of the eighteenth century: ’Because a [sculpture] represents a human being, a fully animated body…it seizes hold of us and penetrates our being, awakening the full range of responsive human feeling…’. In other words what we see is violence done to a small boy. Leaving the bullet holes visible was a controversial decision, one that is defended by the conservators on the audio-guide. They argued that the damage to the statue was not so pronounced that it compromised the figure aesthetically, while other scholars expressed the view that it fetishised one moment in the history of the object, the wrong moment, and instead any display strategy should have prioritised the moment of its creation.
Sitting in the café at the Bode Museum afterwards, I was surprised how much the exhibition made me care about the fate of these works of art, to the extent that I personally mourned their loss. The first message is that culture is one of the first casualties of war, something we have becoming increasingly aware of after watching videos of the Isis assaults on ancient artefacts at Mosul museum (luckily mostly copies) and the monumental statue at the Nergal gate to ancient Nineveh. At Nineveh the group combined destruction with systematic looting. Recently the group also attacked the ancient city of Dur Sharrukin, razing the walls. The current widespread destruction of cultural heritage makes the other objective of the exhibition also highly topical: the deliberate act of remembering. In this is echoes so many recent ceremonies globally to mark the end of the war. All the curators, none of whom have ever seen any of these works of art in their original state, are determined not to allow their destruction to disappear from public memory.
By CHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow Lisa Beaven.
Cherry Boone was the beautiful, talented, eldest daughter of the famous pop and gospel singer, Pat Boone. She and her three sisters formed The Boones, a pop group of the 1970s, and achieved fame and celebrity status in their own right. While the public saw only glamorous images of fame, fortune, and a happy family on stage together, Cherry herself suffered a hidden hell of anorexia nervosa for many of her performing years and beyond. Theirs was a close knit, loving, and protective family, with a strong commitment to the Church of Christ, and it is Cherry’s religious education which is of interest here. In her biographical account of her struggles with bulimia and anorexia nervosa, Starving for Attention, Cherry does not ascribe any causal link between her illness and the family’s religious beliefs and practices, yet there are sufficient indications in her biography to suggest that religion was a significant factor in both the onset of the condition, and in her eventual recovery. Some of these indications—fear of the devil, sexuality as sinful, an overwhelming sense of guilt, turning to the Bible as source of guidance—are remarkably similar to the experiences of many young Puritan girls in seventeenth-century England, who suffered religious anxiety marked by severe eating disorders (religious anorexia).
The role of the devil
Perhaps the most fundamental and damaging feature of the Boone family’s religion was the doctrine of fear rooted in an understanding of the devil as an ever-present force for evil at work in human nature. As Cherry tells it:
I can’t count the times that Daddy would negatively respond to my requests to go somewhere or do something beyond our predetermined limits with the statement, “It’s not that we don’t trust you. We just don’t trust the devil and we don’t trust human nature!” As far as I was concerned that meant they didn’t trust me. (17)
Pat and Shirley Boone subscribed to a religious doctrine which believed in the devil as inherent in human nature, and which regarded the Bible as source of all truth. The choice of metaphors used by Cherry to describe her torment reveals how forcefully their daughter absorbed this culture of suspicion of the body:
I still occasionally yielded to the old temptations as they moved against me with a kind of relentless power. . . .When I would relax my vigilance, the “demons” that haunted me would rear their ugly heads and attack at my weakest point. . . . repeated promises to myself and to God, I still could not control this one remaining habit [bulimia]. (94)
Temptations, demons, vigilance, attack, these are all terms commonly found in historical accounts of young women suffering from religious anorexia, starving themselves in a desperate attempts to overcome what they experienced as internal demonic influences, and to live up to expectations of religious virtues. Distinguishing between the body’s natural inclinations (appetite, sexuality), and the subtle influences of the devil was probably the principle cause of the high incidence of religious anxiety in young women in seventeenth century England.
Fear of sexual development
Menstruation came early to Cherry – too early for her to reconcile herself to this change in status: ‘On my eleventh birthday, I had received the “curse” of womanhood. It was for me a truly baffling experience in emotional contradiction—feeling so adult and so hopelessly juvenile at the same time. Physically I was becoming a woman while my parents continued to regard me as a child.’ (17) Again, the choice of term, ‘the curse,’ harks back to the Christian understanding of the pains of menstruation and childbirth as God’s curse imposed on all women as punishment for Eve’s original sin. Most girls from secular families would have been unaware of the biblical link, or have dismissed it as outdated, but that’s unlikely to have been the case for Cherry given her intense religious education. It is a remarkable fact that many of the accounts of religious anorexia from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seemed to coincide with puberty, or the onset of menarche. For girls from godly households in Puritan England approaching ‘ripeness’, as the time of menarche was popularly called, there were powerful reasons to be apprehensive for both spiritual and physical health. Fourteen (the age commonly used to depict transition to fertility) was considered an extremely vulnerable age, either for the onset of green sickness (a secular form of eating disorder common in the seventeenth century) or for fear of the onset of sexuality and unchaste thoughts and behaviour. For girls educated in religious piety the arrival of menstruation may well have become a fearful sign of the devil’s invasion of the body, not a joyful sign of fertility, but a foretelling of lust and damnation. The Bible does nothing to alleviate such fears, since it uses the biblical symbol of menstruating women to define profanity. The Protestant religion has not been kind to sexual development in girls in the past, but is this still the case today? Cherry’s early experiences with boyfriends were overwhelmingly guilt-ridden: ‘I felt secretive, deceptive, even tainted by the ongoing involvement. Overwhelming guilt and an undefined fear overtook me. … After this, any sexual involvement beyond the most innocent of kisses produced anxiety and alarm.’ (26).
Guilt as trigger to anxiety
Feelings of guilt feature throughout Starving for Attention, as they do so frequently in historical accounts of religious anorexia. Quite often the path into anorexia seems to be triggered by some sense of guilt over an event in the family. For example, young Sarah Wight (b.1632), brought up in a godly household and aged about 12, committed the sin of lying to her mother about a piece of lost clothing. This triggered a fear of damnation and ‘the beginning of her more violent Temptations’ as she spiraled into self-starvation (Jesse, The Exceeding Riches of Grace . . . in an Empty, Nothing Creature, viz. Mris Sarah Wight 1647). In the case of Sarah Davey (1670s), also brought up in a religious household, when she was only 10 she blamed herself for the death of her baby brother, convinced that it happened because she had not observed the Sabbath, but rather taken care of the younger children. When the following day the baby died, she interpreted this as divine punishment (Davey, Heaven Realized 1670). Cherry Boone’s sense of responsibility as eldest child similarly weighed heavily on her. She writes that her most painful childhood memories were of two accidents which happened to her younger sisters when she was looking after them. She can have been barely more than 6 or 7 herself at the time, and neither accident was serious, but the incidents left her with a deep sense of guilt (5).
The dangers of Bible reading
As members of The Church of Christ, the Boone family were bound to base doctrine and practice on the Bible alone. Cherry’s biblical references are few, but one in particular is of interest; this is where she turns to the Book of Job for comfort: ‘I identified with Job, who said “my only food is sighs, and my groans pour out like water. Whatever I fear comes true, whatever I dread befalls me. For me there is no calm, no peace; my torments banish rest.”’ (Job 3.24-26). Was Cherry making the same error as so many pious girls in previous centuries, for whom the torments of Job clearly resonated with their own experiences of despair and torment? When Sarah Davey was about 15, and in desperate need of guidance, ‘I would fain have related my condition and declared my doubts, but could not do it,’ she writes; instead she turned to the Book of Job which she finds mirrors her own feelings of despair. Similarly, when sixteen-year-old Sarah Wight turned to the Bible for comfort, she found only further condemnation of her state, often citing Job. (7, 11, 9, 12). Another whose misreading of scripture only aggravated her trauma, was Hannah Allen (c1638-), who, later in her life, would attribute much of her despair to her reading: ‘I would wish I had never seen Book, or learned letter; I would say it had been happy for me if I had been born blind’ (Allen, A Narrative of God’s Gracious Dealings 1683, 34, 49, 59.) In her preface she particularly singled out Job as an example of the most tormented soul.
While religion is likely to have been a contributing factor in the onset of Cherry Boone’s anorexia, it also seems to have been a component of her recovery, with her conversion to Catholicism, and with her marriage and birth of a daughter. Her dedication of thanks ‘to God, for His endless grace and His gift of joy’ suggests her faith was instrumental in her recovery. Like Cherry, Sarah Davey’s recovery came through her conversion to a different church, in this case the congregational church known then as Independents. Hannah Allen’s marriage and birth of a child stabilised her for several years, until the loss of her husband when she lapsed back into anorexia. Sarah Wight, having reached the depths of her affliction, finally turned a corner with a religious revelation that she felt God’s mercy on her. She claimed, interestingly, that her ‘uncleannesse’ had been forgiven, possibly inferring the ‘uncleannesse’ of the onset of menstruation. Behind all these published historical accounts of religious anorexia, was a proselytising purpose intended to serve as witnesses to salvation, thus it was true religious faith which put the suffering girl back on the path to recovery. For the many girls who did not survive, their faith may well have failed them.
International research suggests religious faith can play a role in the onset or development of anorexia nervosa, and that it can be either beneficial or detrimental. Recent surveys endorse these findings, suggesting a well-grounded, private faith (intrinsic) may protect against susceptibility to eating disorders, whereas a faith which is contingent upon external observance (extrinsic) may have the opposite effect. The first Australian survey of this kind is to be undertaken in the coming year as part of a collaborative research project on spirituality and eating disorders by the universities of Sydney and of Western Sydney.
If you or anyone you know have been affected by the issues discussed in this article, help or support in Australia is available through The Butterfly Foundation at 1800 ED HOPE / or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Ursula Potter is an Honorary Associate with the Department of English, University of Sydney, researching greensickness and puberty in young girls in early modern drama.
This year’s Renaissance Society of America (RSA) Conference was held at the Humboldt University in Berlin and had over three thousand attendees. The programme weighed just under a kilo and was also downloadable online and available as an app.
For someone used to conferences of about four parallel sessions, the seventy or so that RSA provided verged on the overwhelming. Tantalising panels about bodies of conversion clashed infuriatingly with sessions promising gossip and nonsense. But before I recount the wonderful panels that I did manage to get to, it is important to discuss an even more serious side of the conference.
This year’s RSA had four plenary speakers, all excellent and, rather disappointingly, all male. This imbalance was noted by a number of attendees and a group of early career scholars decided to voice their concerns in a statement to the RSA executive. In the past three years, as the statement pointed out, there have been thirteen plenaries delivered at the RSA – only one of these was given by a woman. As the statement correctly asserted, this is an unequal representation of the field of renaissance studies and does a great disservice to the contribution of women to the field. These scholars hoped that we were long past the point where women were spoken about rather than being allowed to speak for themselves. Other unfortunate events, such as the placement of a panel containing Lyndal Roper and Natalie Zemon Davis in a room with approximately forty chairs, did little to alleviate these concerns. The panel, an excellent one on early modern personhood with papers by Gadi Algazi and Oded Rabinovitch (both Tel Aviv University) as well as the above famed scholars, was so well-attended that guests sat on the ground, stood in corners and even outside in the hallway. Many were forced to leave for lack of space.
The statement to the RSA went viral on Twitter (as I write it has been shared over two hundred times) and after a few days the RSA responded. The executive board acknowledged that this year’s plenary speakers did not reflect the true nature of the field. It committed to reflecting gender parity and confirmed that Ann Blair had already been asked to be one of two plenary speakers at RSA’s 2016 meeting in Boston. The board explained that the University of Humboldt had chosen many of the plenary speakers and that in future, if the speakers were being selected by an outside organisation, the board would enter into conversation with them. It plans to do this next year when the Erasmus of Rotterdam Society has the choice of the second plenary. RSA’s response is encouraging. The statement by the early career scholars is a timely reminder that large organisations must lead the way in gender equality.
It is impossible to sum up a conference the size of RSA. For me, three or four sessions really stood out. The first day saw a series of panels on street singers with papers by our very own Una McIlvenna (now at Queen Mary) and Angela McShane. As usual, Una brought the ballads to life by singing them as they would have been sung four hundred years ago. Una’s and Angela’s research on the types of people who sang street ballads was fascinating.
Another session highlighted the role of men in pregnancy and miscarriage. In yet another debunking of Lawrence Stone, Jennifer Claire Evans described how parents named their children while still in the womb. Jennifer examined the overlooked role of men in miscarriage by highlighting letters written by fretful fathers to their friends sharing their concerns that their wives would miscarry. This panel also highlighted the interplay between the infant’s body and health and that of the new mother’s.
Finally, a panel made up of scholars from Monash provided an interesting insight into analysing emotions in letter writing. Jessica O’Leary explored how Ferrante (1458-94) developed an ‘emotional vocabulary’ to draw on his power as either ruler or father to pressure or persuade his daughters to do his bidding. When using his paternal voice, Ferrante attempted to invoke loyalty, whereas his royal voice was designed to invoke family feeling. The panel explored how letters could still express emotions even when being written by a third party (a clerk) and how letters are extremely useful documents for the study of early modern emotion. This panel was one of a number which focused on emotion, emphasising the growing trend for scholars to look at their sources with new eyes by using emotions methodologies.
RSA Berlin was an extremely rich conference, one that spanned hundreds of years and dozens of countries. I only wish I could have seen more.
Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar, The University of Melbourne
April fools’ day is here again. The tradition of pranks, hoaxes, little japes and cruel tricks supposedly give us (perhaps only some of us) an opportunity to bring a little fun into our “serious business”. Perhaps it lets out our cruel side too. And all in the name of ‘April fools’. Yet that licensing little phrase, along with the familiar ‘relax, I was only joking!?’ reminds us of something rather serious about the kind of ‘humour’ we often encounter at April fools’. It is the all too delicate threshold between laughable fun and the seriously painful.
A little searching on the internet will tell you that April fools’ traditions have a long history perhaps originating in festivals of foolery that existed all throughout medieval Christian culture. However, the day gives us the opportunity to think about some of the larger questions that constantly arise when humour becomes serious, or rather when humour’s seriousness comes to the fore.
Many websites offer us guides on how to play the ultimate ‘harmless prank’. But what makes a prank harmless for some and harmful for others? We’re all familiar with the joke that goes too far and the disorienting effect it leaves. When you’re left down-right offended, not to mention annoyed, by the fact that someone has had the gall to sticky-tape up your entire computer, cover your car with decorative post-it notes, or set your stapler in a jelly-cake, what does it mean when the irritating prankster is ‘only joking’ because it’s April fools’? Are you just being a party pooper?
A recent online article bears the disclaiming title: “10 April Fool’s Day Pranks For The Office That (Probably) Won’t Cost You Your Job”. The “Probably” says it all. And in our increasingly micro-managed and micro-regulated social environments, not to mention digital work environments, we might wonder how anyone can really get away with a good old truly disruptive prank anymore anyway. In our world of ever-increasing order and regulation, it can be hard to imagine how the desire to inflict real disruption could possibly be funny to anyone, unless they possess some kind of psychotic will to enact cruelty or a downright contempt for the safety of others. Some might say our culture doesn’t really tolerate cruelty anymore let alone find it amusing – at least not the same kinds of cruelty as cultures of the past have tolerated. If that is so, it is a good thing. Even so, it affects the way we laugh.
Even the ordinary flavour of that word ‘prank’ conceals the seriousness lurking in its history. The word is at least 600 years old and not even the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary has a narrative for where it comes from. Though we often use it to mean a relatively lighthearted trick nowadays, for most of its history it has also meant something dishonourable, truly malicious, something with intended harm.
So let’s consider some examples of April fool’s pranks. Your partner attaches a picture of a ghoulish monster to the underside of the toilet seat rim to jolt you into required delectation when you stumble sleepily into the bathroom and lift the lid. He or she puts a cup of water on the top of your partially opened wardrobe door so you get a second shower as you contemplate what to wear. Your roommate leaves a bunch of tasty looking donuts out for breakfast covered with nasty baking power instead of icing sugar. Perhaps one must be North American to appreciate that one!
All of them sound to me though like a recipe for lost friendship. I might be able to lend myself to the idea that these amusing constructions of disorder are something to be laughed together with my so-called friend. However, I am not amused. I am late for work. No doubt that says more about me than the pranks but indeed this is why studying humour can be so very interesting and illuminating personally and socially. So then, what on earth is a harmless prank? What makes it harmless?
It doesn’t really help us just to say that the answer depends on what we personally think is funny. All of us have what we might call a ‘funniness threshold’, and we know this intuitively. There’s a threshold between the sudden apprehension of enjoyable and laughable silliness or disorder, on the one side, and on the other, a sudden sense of offense when what is made out to be ‘silliness’ for us to laugh at has become actually painful instead or when we don’t even see as silly at all that which someone is asking to see as such. Religious satire skirts this edge all the time. So does standup comedy.
The line is difficult to draw, and to predict, and not just because a personal ‘sense of humour’ is so subjective. It also has something to do with our ideas about how things in the world ought to be. Some of these ideas are shared with other people in so far as they come from the culture that shapes our sense of self. Some beliefs about how things ought to be are indeed not shared with others. This can be visible not just in outright political disagreement but also when cultures clash over humour. Another way of putting the idea is that our funniness threshold can make our moral standpoint on the world – or better yet, our evaluative standpoint – all the clearer.
Jokes conceal impulses that Freud called ‘tendentious’. Aggressive instincts, however, are not the only ones that are relevant. Our view of how things ought to be plays a role as well. Philosophers from Plato to our own time have consistently identified the fact that what we often find amusing are deviations from the very things we value, as if our laughter expresses a critical (albeit pleasurable) attitude to the breakdown of important things, which simply reinforces that importance and the social bonds involved. You can even explain the cup-on-wardrobe joke with this idea. The unexpected drenching is a stylized violation of the very act of dressing appropriately, an ordinary social norm, not to mention basic human dignity. Same goes for pie in the face gags and home videos of people in wheelchairs rolling backwards down ramps. Laughing at such things does not necessarily imply our delight in human suffering if it is the violation of human dignity we are laughing at critically. But, as we all know, a certain emotional distance from such suffering, either through poetic license or lack of empathy, is necessary for amusement to be possible in these cases. Buried within critical laughter is perhaps also, as Freud taught, a desire for the disorder that is not allowed.
Rather than surveying the full richness of humour studies theory here, I am going to suggest one line of thinking that may be helpful when reflecting on those awkward April fools’ pranks that cut too close to the bone. If our moral standpoints on the world are revealed in the threshold I’ve been talking about then one standpoint our society asks us everywhere to feel is the value and pleasure of order in the social system. The order that exists is not valued by everyone of course. At least, not everyone shares the same sense of what makes for the right ‘order’. But I don’t just mean some abstract idea that it is good for the social system to be stable. I mean what is revealed in a prank when our sense of order and our delight in it is broken for a while. Those of us who find great privileges in the prevailing order often can’t stand its true violation, sometimes even a stylized one such as a joke or a prank where the intention is to laugh away the disorder together. There is safety in order, and power in its predictability. April Fools’ Day pranks can reveal just how much this is so.
The long history of fooling and foolery, as well as the figure of the fool in cultural history, gives us further ways into this idea. Medieval authorities gave license the to“feast of fools” and other carnivalesque festivities, as more recent scholars have shown us, because they reinforced the value of the ordinary social order. People could laugh at (critically) the silliness of boys in cardinal hats and monkeys in the pulpit. Such inversions allow for the desire to explore what ordinary life throws off in such a way that ordinary life and its contours of order become desireable once more.
Shakespeare and his contemporaries dramatized two different kinds of fools. One is a simple ‘natural’ fool, whose oblivious idiocy may be laughed at from an evaluative standpoint shaped by the value of intelligence. This is the kind of laughter that isn’t on the threshold, unless you have some sympathy for the scorned and confused natural fool. Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps an example. On the other hand there was the artificial fool – the fool of artifice. Such a one, while a whipping boy of sorts for the kings and courtiers who employed them, was always using his wit both to entertain and to expose contradictions and problems with the way things are. In doing so, he often came close to the bone, representing disorder in such a way that it tipped from being laughable to being offensive. Shakespeare’s fool in King Lear is a masterful example. The ‘fool’ as he is simply known tries to bring to the old king’s attention to another way of looking at himself, one with more emotional distance perhaps, a fresh evaluative perspective, from which life could be less painful. It didn’t work. Still, that seemed to be what the fool was aiming at.
The later kind of artificial fooling draws, in part, on Erasmus’s justly famous Praise of Folly. Folly, personified there, announces the silliness of worldly pursuits from an alternative evaluative standpoint, the Christian hope of heaven and its rewards. But looking back the other way, such hopes of heaven and rewards look like stupidity too. Erasmus’s lesson is that what looks like ‘folly’ from one standpoint is wisdom from another. Both standpoints conceive of the way we ought to operate in the world differently, and with a totally different vision of order.
So fools are beings who embody the common sense of disorder so that they can be laughed at. In doing so, however, they are often encouraging in us, at the same time, an alternate stance on the world and what is important. Such ‘fools’ come all the way down to us in much standup comedy where the fool on stage must embody ordinary disorder first before showing its wisdom from another angle. Feminist comedians often have a have a hard time in getting across their wisdom and insight into the disorders of patriarchy because it is much easier for an audience shaped by the forces of patriarchy to laugh at women themselves as ‘deviations’ of the norm. Feminist ‘fools’ often have to toy with the need to embody disorder (from a patriarchal perspective) themselves before they can reveal the contradictions and inequality in patriarchy (disordered, from a feminist perspective) that we see all through our social system.
Fools do two things then. On the one hand, they construct a bit of disorder for us and ask us to see it with enough emotional distance that it is laughable. That kind of laughter is socially bonding and can be deeply pleasurable. It is, in effect, an expression of our values, our order. In this way, fools expose to us just how important order, control, predictability, and dare I say it, profitability are within our dominant culture. They make the obvious visible to us again. This kind of fooling, perhaps the spirit in which most April fools’ pranks are conducted, acts as a mirror reflecting ourselves back to us, exposing our standpoints afresh.
One of the most arresting public April Fools’ Day pranks of relatively recent years, pictured above, was the Copenhagen metro hoax in 2001. An old train had been sheered at an angle and placed in the town square with bricks all around to make it look like chaos bursting up out of its channels and rupturing the city’s otherwise composed and orderly place of business. This is an arresting spectacle not immediately funny until the comic frame of reference brings with it sufficient emotional distance from the terrifying prospect to render it laughable. The spectacular prank no doubt kept its first live viewers at the border of horror and humour for a while. At those borders, our everyday reliance on order, stability, and efficiency becomes palpably, indeed viscerally clear, afresh. In the recognition of its safety as comedy such a spectacle then becomes a powerful social enactment of shared value.
But on the other hand, fools can also help us to see our sense of order afresh. When they push us to the edge of what we can tolerate, they ask us to find a different kind of distance, not just the one from which we all laugh together at a safe stylized violation of what we really value, but a dangerous kind of distance, one that begins to alienate us from our very values. Does the Copenhagen metro example even move in this direction? Perhaps the implied ‘order’ behind the spectacle of disorder here is itself made out to be problematic from other angles. Perhaps, that is to say, spectacles like this suggest that we are too reliant on our systems, too complacently inured to their security, unconcerned with what will happen to our world when they break down.
The history of the fool helps us to see those two sides of order in disorder and disorder in order because we can watch the play of historical values in past comic cultures from a distance. Historical investigations into past emotions are not dusty old questions. History is never dusty. It’s exciting because it’s something we make, or better, something we make. It tries to illuminate our own world/s. Next time you find your sense of order threatened, or dashed to pieces, by an annoying fool who tells you to lighten up because they’re only joking, it may be time to get out the boxing gloves or the rule-book, but it may also be worth considering whether the fool has anything worth listening to.
By CHE Associate Investigator Daniel Derrin.
When discussing his decision to vote against the government’s proposed higher education bill on the 4th of March, Clive Palmer made a rather alarming remark, suggesting that Prime Minister Tony Abbott “commit suicide” over the issue. Pressed to clarify, Mr Palmer continued, “it’s suicide, political suicide, to go against the will of what’s good for the Australian people.” By afternoon, he had tweeted an apology, saying he had “inadvertently used the term suicide” when he really “meant political suicide”. That is to say, he intended to use the term in a figurative rather than a literal sense.
Palmer’s remarks were clearly inappropriate and insensitive. For a start, they reaffirm the stigma attached to mental illness, and trivialise what is a serious problem for many individuals and families across the country. And whatever we might think about Tony Abbott and his macho bravado, we should acknowledge that the comments were potentially hurtful at a personal level. It was also, in short, just plain rude.
But Palmer’s subsequent clarification – that he “meant political suicide” – also underestimates the potential impact of this well-worn metaphor, and how easily the figurative can slip into the literal and into reality.
The phrase “political suicide” first emerged in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century, and was used amongst other things to describe seemingly self-destructive policy at national level (such as Britain’s hard-line stance against the American colonies that spiralled into war). But, more commonly, it was used to describe political manoeuvres that would likely to lead the end of a statesman’s career, and as a barb against political opponents to suggest they remove their impeding presence from the democratic process for the good of the country.
And we can see these senses in Palmer’s remarks, which first suggest that the Prime Minister concede on the issue of higher education reform, and that to persist with such reforms against the will of the nation would be politically self-destructive. In brief, he was saying, that – at least on this issue – the Prime Minister should get out of the way for the nation’s sake.
But in some cases, as criticism became more sinister and vitriolic, the figurative was not always easily separable from the literal, as “political suicide” became an easy way to express a half-wish that any offending politician might do himself in once winter came in November.
Take, for example, one of the most famous political suicides in British history – that of Lord Castlereagh (1769-1822). Castlereagh, by reports, was a marvellous diplomat, but never a popular figure with the masses. He was hated in his native Ireland for his role in suppressing the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and reviled in England for his clampdown on radical elements, which escalated into the Peterloo Massacre at Manchester in 1819. Byron subsequently depicted him as a cold-blooded miscreant in Don Juan (1819), and Percy Bysshe Shelley cast him as smooth-looking murderer in his Masque of Anarchy (written in response to Peterloo in 1819). Castlereagh also survived a riot outside his home and an assassination attempt for his part in trying to bar King George IV’s estranged and adulterous wife, Caroline, from taking the throne in 1820.
Many of his political opponents begged for Castlereagh’s “political suicide”. Satirical cartoonist George Cruikshank even added a visual element to the phrase when he depicted Castlereagh dolefully contemplating the noose, and again shortly after, hung up with two political allies, former Prime Minister Viscount Sidmouth (1757-1844) and future Prime Minister George Canning (1770-1827).
Opponents wished to remove him from the political sphere in one way or another. So he duly obliged—he took his own life in 1822, much to the surprise of his parliamentary allies and opponents.
And so did many British politicians during the latter half of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth centuries, in part to abide by classical codes of honour to do what’s best for the state, but also driven in part by the pressures associated with public criticism calling for their political death, even if it was couched in metaphorical terms.
The lesson? Even though the Prime Minister appears on our TV every day, and we hear his voice most other days on the radio, we, nor Clive Palmer, are privy to his mindset when hidden away from his political adversaries and critics.
We, therefore, always need to be mindful of the potential personal and social impact of discussing suicide, even if only figuratively speaking.
If you have been affected by the issues discussed in this article, help or support in Australia is available by contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or www.lifeline.org.au, or by calling the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
Dr Eric Parisot is a Lecturer in English at Flinders University and an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100-1800). He is currently researching representations of suicide in British eighteenth century and Romantic culture
Johann Sebastian Bach: Christmas Oratorio I-III. Leopold Lampelsdorfer (boy soprano/Tölzer Knabenchor), Thomas Riede (alto), Jan Hübner (tenor), Georg Lutz (bass), Musicalische Compagney, les hautboïstes de prusse (director, Georg Corall),
Holger Eichhorn (musical director). Querstand 1238 (1 CD)
Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio) is a Christmas-holiday music standard in German-speaking countries, similar to our holiday favourites like ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’, ‘Silent Night’ and even, in more classical circles, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Accordingly, musicians often approach these ‘sacred’ pieces with trepidation. Should they even attempt to re-record these classics? Or, should they leave them be, allowing the listening public to keep worshiping at their same tried and true recordings (which are usually decades old)?
In the end, musicians tend to opt for the two safest routes: either, they leave these ‘sacred’ pieces be, admitting defeat to a finicky and demanding public who would likely reject their renditions; or, they record them in the safest route possible, modelling their version on the previous best-selling style and interpretation.
For the Querstand’s label release of the World Premiere Recording, Part I-III of Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium (Querstand/Codaex: VKJK 1238), the collective Musicalische Compagney rejected these two safe routes. Instead, they opted for the boldest approach possible. Under the guidance of musicologist Holger Eichhorn as musical director, singers Leopold Lampelsdorfer (boy soprano of the Tölz Boys’ Choir), Thomas Riede (alto), Jan Huebner (tenor) and Georg Lutz (bass) and instrumentalists from les hautboїstes de prusse recorded a truly unique interpretation of this German Christmas classic in September 2012.
For 76 minutes, these musicians threw caution to the wind, approaching Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium with complete abandon. As such, they accomplished the impossible. By rejecting its ‘sacred’ status, they approached this work as they would any other less publicly ‘sacred’ work. They disregarded its public status in favour of revealing the true nature and beauty of the work, letting it shine through with new and vibrant historical performance practice interpretations.
Needless to say, this abandonment of public opinion and corresponding novel interpretations did not go unnoticed by the German public nor its music critics. Rather, as Michael Wersin wrote on 21 December 2012 in Rondo Magazine (a German Classical and Jazz music magazine), it caused quite the ‘small sensation’ shortly before the Christmas holiday, with the record selling out completely in less than four months. Those who had not scored a copy by the 2012 Christmas season had to wait until a new batch of recordings were released the following year.
Recorded in Berlin, the musicians wanted to offer something new, refreshing today’s dialogue on this piece. One of the ways they did this was to exclude the use of a choir, which is typically used in other recordings of this piece. The German audience took notice with Neue Züricher Zeitung reporting on 14 December 2012 that such choices as this ‘remind[ed the critic]…a bit of the pioneer days of historical performance practice’, labeling the Musicalische Compagney and its director Holger Eichhorn as ‘…pioneers indeed’.
In early music, one of the few places musicians can still experiment is the number of musicians who perform a piece. Of course, sometimes it is successful when musicians experiment with this; other times, it goes disastrously wrong. For Eichhorn’s experimental choice of a male solo quartet with boy soprano, to perform the recitatives and arias as well as the choruses and chorales the oratorio was remarkably refreshing. It certainly made me sit up and take notice on my first listen through of the recording.
The result of this ‘Weihnachtsoratorium experiment’ was pure sacred bliss. The voices shone through the music, emerging rather than bombarding the listener – which is one of the greatest differences between true early music practitioners and those from classical music who merely foray (or rather stomp) into the genre, making excessive noise to make their presence known. Instead, the musicians in this recording took into account the true nature of the work: recognising, after all, that it is a religious oratorio.
And although some critics, like Peter Uehling Großmeister of the Berliner Zeitung may feel that the work’s vocals ended up ‘…a bit pale…’, no one can deny the effect of such a choice. Should not the voices sound heavenly rather than if they shriek from the depths of hell?
Eichhorn continues this approach to the instrumentalists, never overburdening the delicacy of Bach’s work. les hautboïstes de prusse took it even further, dedicating themselves to fastidious articulation, which beautifully support the Bach’s text. Their use of historical reeds, which lacked the modern-day enhanced ‘heart’ in the reeds’ cores, elicited a true sensory experience. Going against today’s homogenous, mainstream Bach recordings, les hautboïstes de prusse brings the listener closer to their – and Bach’s – intensions. Clearly, the instrumentalists are more than simply accompanists in this recording. They are equal collaborators with their own voices.
The result is simply sublime: a beautifully balanced and certainly poignant recording which will surely become the new tried and true Weihnachtsoratorium recording. It is a unique textual interpretation, which kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time. This recording of Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium breaks today’s recording barriers, enticing today’s audience to experience this time-loved piece in a whole new and exciting way. Finally, its well-worn competitors can be replaced with a breath of fresh air.
Nanjing diary notes
A conversation between some of the most inspiring historians of emotions, published in the American Historical Review in December 2012, revealed quite forcefully that ethnocentrism is a limit of the historic profession and of the history of emotions as well. The prominent American Sinologist Eugenia Lean shrewdly observed that “the very question of ‘do emotions change over time’ more often than not results in a temporal mapping of emotions in the West”. Likewise, she had reservations about the growing attention historians of emotions are devoting to the life sciences, as these too generally reflect “a vision of medical science, and assumptions about the body, that are historically specific”. Significantly, Lean added, “the idea that emotions are to be located and managed by the brain is quite foreign to Eastern cultures”. In traditional Chinese medicine “the kidney—not the amygdala—is identified as crucial in governing emotions”.
My recent visit to the University of Nanjing as part of an exciting series of collaborative initiatives set up by the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne and the Nanjing History Department proved an invaluable opportunity for stimulating debate about cases, concepts, and challenges in the history of emotions, with special attention being given to the associated risks of cultural bias, over-interpretation, and ideological fault lines, not to mention the failings of armchair comparativism.
My lectures focused on early modern Waldensian cartography, namazu-e prints (i.e. Japanese disaster prints from the final decades of the Tokugawa Era), and a late 18th-century Japanese hanging scroll illustrating the efforts of three different groups of countrymen to extinguish a fire consuming a multi-storey pagoda (probably a subtle metaphor of broader cultural and medical comparativism). I tried to show how cultural differences and cultural encounters profoundly influenced early modern emotional responses to natural disasters (earthquakes, fires, etc.), conflicts, and collective experiences of displacement and exile, and the enduring memories they produced. A visit to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial provided further and poignant awareness of the tension between the inner life of emotions and their public and collective expression, apprehension, and standardization.
In Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings (New York: Routledge, 2001) art historian James Elkins notes regretfully that for the most part professional scholars – perhaps worried they might comes across as unprofessional – claim to don a protective shell of earlier, preparatory readings when approaching a text or painting. This armour makes them invulnerable to any emotional faltering, laceration, or gushy sentimental involvement, which befit the ignorant, uneducated, or illiterate alone. Learning appears to kill emotion. (Elkins also relates how Ernst Gombrich once told him that despite writing a whole book about caricature, he had hardly ever smiled let alone laughed about it). And yet, Elkins concludes, history itself is an addiction and as such cannot be entirely unemotional. The meeting with graduate students at NJU, kindly organized by my delightful host Prof. Luo Xiaoxiang, provided the setting for a stimulating discussion about the emotional involvement of the researcher, in other words, the degree to which personal and identity-related motivations, and the feelings that attract us towards a particular area of research, as historians,, can take over and impact on the reliability of the research results themselves.
I am deeply grateful to Professor Antonia Finnane (the proactive coordinator of the Visiting Programme to NJU), to Professor Zhang Shen, Chair of the History Department at NJU, and to Professor Luo Xiaoxiang and all her colleagues and students for offering me such a wonderful opportunity for personal and intellectual development.
A brief report submitted by MA student Zhan Shaowei appeared in the NJU newsletter. Shaowei has kindly agreed to submit the following extended version in English for our Blog. His piece appears below.
Dr. Giovanni Tarantino’s Visit to Nanjing University
The “University of Melbourne Historians Forum” started at Nanjing University in November 2014. The theme of the lecture series was History and Memory. The first lecturer was Dr. Giovanni Tarantino from the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions at the University of Melbourne. During his visit to Nanjing, he gave two lectures, hosted by Prof. Luo Xiaoxiang from the History Department, entitled Early Modern Eastern and Western Emotional Responses to Fires and Associated Memories, and Emotions, Cartography and Memory. In the first lecture, Dr. Tarantino introduced his recent study about collective emotional responses to natural disasters, more specifically earthquakes and fires in Eastern and Western societies. Such responses, he showed us, are not merely instinctive, but are manipulated or influenced by social practice, cultural tradition, religious belief, or political propaganda. In both Western and Eastern societies, natural disasters were often interpreted in early modern times as divine punishment for corruption, disorder, or lack of morality in the secular world. In his second lecture, Dr. Tarantino introduced us to the “affective turn” in historical studies. We learned that the meaning of “emotion” has changed over time. Pleasure, pain, passion, and hatred have all played important roles in the historical process, and it is the historian’s job to find the “agency” of emotions, thereby adding a further dimension to our understanding of past society.
Besides the theoretical introduction to the history of emotions, the audience was also intrigued by the methodology of this new field. In his lectures, Dr. Tarantino showed us how prints and maps are interpreted and used in his studies. A scroll painted by Japanese scholar Shiba Kōkan, for example, shows, in the lower part, three men, respectively from Japan, China, and Holland, sitting around a table, while the upper part contains a representation of a burning pagoda. Different fire-fighting techniques – Japanese, Chinese, and Dutch – are also depicted by the painter. Compared to the buckets used by the Japanese and Chinese, the modern pump and hose used by the Dutch are obviously more effective. Shiba Kōkan seems to be acknowledging “Western” and “modern” techniques and knowledge. But in a small illustration in an anatomy book on the table, Dr. Tarantino also detected an element of parody of the Dutch. Self-criticism, we were reminded, does not mean self-denial. Tarantino offered a similarly thorough interpretation of Waldensian cartography. The illustrations, cartouches, and even the orientation of the maps are shown to have been carefully conceived by cartographers to convey important messages to viewers.
The lecture audiences were mostly graduate students and faculty staff from the fields of history and sociology. They expressed appreciation of the lectures and raised some interesting questions. The “history of emotion” is a very new concept for Chinese scholars and students, and the questions, content, and methods of Dr. Tarantino’s studies are completely different from traditional practices in Chinese academic life. As graduate history students, the two lectures gave us lots of food for thought, offering insight into one of the vanguard fields of historical studies, and encouraging us to interpret textual and visual materials in new ways.
During Dr. Tarantino’s visit to our university, Prof. Luo Xiaoxiang also arranged a student meeting. About 10 graduate students from the field of Chinese history met Dr. Tarantino on Wednesday afternoon. The meeting started with an introduction to the “Robbers Cave Experiment” (an experiment in social psychology conducted in the United States in the 1950s). After showing us a marble similar to one found by a graduate student when visiting the site of the camp, and which she invested with a meaning that most likely reflected her feelings, Dr. Tarantino raised the question of subjectivity and objectivity in historical studies. The meeting then turned into a progress report. Each student introduced their research interest and master thesis topic. In turn, Dr. Tarantino made suggestions, especially about how to relate our topics and materials to emotion. The meeting provided a valuable chance for us to talk about our own researches and studies with foreign scholars. We were all grateful to our department and the University of Melbourne for having organized this academic exchange activity.
MA student, Department of History, Nanjing University
According to Wikipedia, St. Valentine’s day, possibly celebrating the early Christian Valentine who performed marriages for Roman soldiers who were forbidden to marry, first became associated with romantic love in the time of Chaucer; and in the Victorian period, in addition to the other tokens we would recognize today, lovers were giving each other keys meant to unlock the heart’s secret, as well as to children, to ward off Valentine’s malady – epilepsy. How did epilepsy come into symbolic contact with romantic love?
Plato’s notion of two loves, the good love—Urania, the heavenly Aphrodite—and bad love, Pandemia or earthly love—holds the key to two opposed concepts of love which are equally crucial for the thought and art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Western Europe. The first views love as a divine force and the only way for Man to transcend the limitations of this world; the second, as a dangerous physical, mental and spiritual condition, and a threat to Man’s sanity and salvation .This dichotomy runs deep in medieval and Renaissance thought and art, and it should come as no surprise that it is still with us today.
Clearly, love and loss of equilibrium go together, and not everyone was happy to idealise the spiritual rewards of love’s suffering. Fear of love is the second most important attitude to love in Medieval and Renaissance societies, diametrically opposite to the attitude which idealised it. Medieval Renaissance medical and theological treatises consistently portray love as a condition which can lead to weakness and death. Galen describes the symptoms in the second century AD and recommends sex as a cure, as does Constantine the African in On Melancholia and Sexual Intercourse in the eleventh century. Andreas Capellanus, Bernard de Gordon, Timothie Bright, Jacques Ferrand, Robert Burton, Pierre Petit and other medieval and early modern thinkers also catalogue love’s torments and devote much attention to cures, some of which are quite outlandish, such as rubbing the patient’s genitals with gall of cramp fish, or beating him until he begins to rot.
Christian works on spirituality treat love madness as lust, one of seven deadly sins, which should be resisted rather than sought. And since the story of Genesis links women’s agency in the medieval mind, the joint workings of the medical and theological discourses contribute to love madness (and women, who cause it) becoming viewed as a source of danger that virtuous men should avoid. Early modern treatises on mental and spiritual health –Thomas Adams’ Diseases of the Soule (1620) and Mystical Bedlam, or the World of Mad Men (1621), Phineas Fletcher’s Joy in Tribulation (1632) or Richard Overton’s Man’s Mortalitie (1643) all treat erotic love of women as a thing of the Devil. This, of course, is in delightful contrast with the poetic discourse of courtly love and Petrarchism, which accord women beatific and salutary powers.
As a result, Renaissance love poetry is never at peace with itself and teems with frustration, pain and violence towards the woman it purports to adore. It is the vitality and power of this contrast that speaks to us of love across the centuries— and goes a certain way towards explaining love’s eternal relevance.
by Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr. Danijela Kambaskovic of The University of Western Australia. For more information on work on the subject of ‘Love’ within CHE, visit the deliciously named ‘Love Cluster‘ of researchers working on this complex emotion.
Posted by Kimberley-Joy Knight
This week the British Museum Shop has been running a Valentine’s Day competition to win afternoon tea with bubbly – all you have to do to enter is tweet them what inscription you would engrave on a love token. I couldn’t resist: my research on love tokens has uncovered so many emotionally charged statements of affection and desire that it wouldn’t be difficult to find inspiration.
Some of my favourite medieval love inscriptions are not found on expensive jewelry or precious objects, but on small scraps of wood. These sticks are inscribed with runes and have been found across Scandinavia. Many inscriptions were discovered in Bergen after a fire in 1955 razed part of the historical wharf to the ground. In the aftermath of the fire, archaeologists began to excavate the area discovering items of everyday life including leather goods, ceramics, jewelry, objects relating to craft, and metal items. In 1956, the first runic inscription on a piece of wood was discovered and many others followed until around 600 had been collected.
A significant number of medieval runic inscriptions contain messages that provide an insight into licit and clandestine interactions. These disposable inscriptions range from the sexually crude, to expressions of unrequited love, homosexuality, adultery and betrothal, and demonstrate the ways in which love and desire were communicated in the high Middle Ages.
Some of the rune sticks from Bryggen appear to have been inscribed in the moment. One thirteenth-century inscription on a 14cm scrap of flat wood reads simply: ‘My darling, kiss me!’
Other inscriptions appear to have been carefully composed, containing both rhythm and rhyme:
Not all runic inscriptions were in the vernacular. Some rune carvers took their inspiration from Virgil, inscribing Omnia vincit amor (love conquers all), into their sticks.
Such intriguing communications revealed in these inscriptions add a valuable dimension to the study of emotion as they are free of the binding conventions of literary narrative and present a faithful picture of how love and desire were expressed and enacted. Just as love tokens can be mnemonic devices that can transport us across time and space by evoking memories and eliciting emotions, these inscriptions conjure images of the people of Bergen exchanging their messages of affection.
Of course, these ‘twigs’ or ‘sticks’ are not love tokens in the traditional sense as they do not appear to have been treasured keepsakes. These inscriptions are more likely to have been disposable, perhaps not too dissimilar from our own Valentine’s Day cards. The messages that we write in Valentines cards might be poignant and filled with emotion on the 14th February and then thrown away by mid-March.
With so many wonderful inscriptions from which to choose, you might imagine that selecting a love inscription for the competition was difficult. It wasn’t. I adapted my favourite inscription which gives an insight into the emotions of a man who was conducting an adulterous affair with a woman:
Thus, my entry for the love inscription competition read: ‘I love you so much that the fire feels cold.’ What better way is there to express burning love in a cold climate?
See all the entries to the British Museum Shop competition at #BMshopValentines
Tweet me your favourite love inscriptions @drkjknight