‘Say Sorry You Bastard!’: Postcolonial shame, reconciliation and National Sorry Day

'Sorry' painted in the sky during Corroboree 2000. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

‘Sorry’ painted in the sky during Corroboree 2000. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

On a cold Sunday in 2000, two days after National Sorry Day had been commemorated on the 26th May, over 300,000 Indigenous and non- Indigenous people walked together across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of Indigenous Australians and Reconciliation. Known as the great ‘Bridge Walk’, for over six hours the tide of walkers formed a ‘human sea of goodwill’, making their way across Sydney’s most iconic bridge together. According to one participant, ‘a huge snake of people moved over the bridge, a giant rainbow serpent wearing a skin of colour, predominantly red, black and gold’[1] The committee that organised the event, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, requested that people bring ‘bells, whistles, drums and colourful dress or other props to add to the fun’ to create a sense of hopeful celebration. The mass Bridge Walk would be a new start. It would inaugurate an affective and powerful national refounding, and participants were to be part of this crucial moment in the life of the nation. There were people in wheelchairs, and children in prams; there were countless Aboriginal flags and banners. The vast number of people and the physical act of walking together provoked charged emotional responses. Evelyn Scott, chairwoman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation described the day as ‘awesome’ and ‘emotional.’ Linda Burney, the chairwoman of the NSW State Reconciliation Committee, was quoted on the day as saying ‘a week ago, I was despairing about living in this country. Today, I feel great.’[2] Many walkers report moments of poignant interaction and friendship with people they had never met before. Australian author Kate Grenville recalls that:

Almost at the end of the walk, on the southern end of the Bridge, I noticed a group of Aboriginal people leaning against the railings watching us. … At the end of the row, a tall handsome woman frankly staring, as if to memorise each face. Our eyes met and we shared one of those moments of intensity- a pulse of connectedness. We smiled, held each other’s gaze, I think perhaps we gestured with our hands, the beginning of a wave.[3]

At the heart of this great tide of walkers was a genuine hope for a new beginning between peoples, for a new moral covenant, and a desire for recognition of past wrongs.

Huge crowd on Sydney Harbour Bridge during the Walk for Reconciliation, Corroboree 2000, by Loui Seselja. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Huge crowd on Sydney Harbour Bridge during the Walk for Reconciliation, Corroboree 2000, by Loui Seselja. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

But for some the Bridge Walk was more protest than celebration. Many people walked in silent reflection. Banners in the crowd declared the word ‘Sorry !’ voicing a demand for an apology. Some marchers sang ‘Treaty’, the top-hit song by Aboriginal rock group Yothu Yindi, which could be heard being played down at the harbour. For some this powerful, en masse and state-choreographed journey of ‘Walking together’ for Reconciliation provided the good feelings of hope, pride and release. Yet for others attentive to the ‘bad feelings’ of national shame and the need for an apology, political redress was absent.[4] For the Reconciliation Bridge Walk addressed a hopeful future, but it did not directly acknowledge the past.

Today, May 26, marks Australia’s seventeenth National Sorry Day. But it origins are for some unclear, and its entanglements with the Australian movement for reconciliation and the highly charged cross-currents of emotion that Sorry Day generated in this period have only partly been explored.

National Sorry Day was first commemorated on the 26th May 1998, on the first anniversary of the day that the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report was tabled in parliament. This key report, produced by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, recommended changes in laws and practices surrounding the forced separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their parents and communities in the past and today. The report proposed that a ‘national ‘Sorry Day’ should be held each year to commemorate the history of forcible removals and its effects.’[5] However, despite people participating in events around the nation for National Sorry Day, it was recognised in a ‘semi-official’ manner only, with events largely state-based and sponsored by various government agencies, churches and business leaders.[6]

Crucially, in 2000 despite there being a national day of sorrow and mourning, no formal apology had been given by the Australian government. Indeed, Indigenous Australians would have to wait another ten years until Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s national Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples of February 2008.

The Sydney Bridge walk of 2000 then was a heady emotional mix; Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike reported feelings of intense sadness and shame at past practices, and expressed hope in the future of reconciliation. The eudaimonic emotions of good feeling, unity, hope and celebration were entwined with an intense undercurrent of anger and frustration focused on policies of the contemporary government. Prime Minister John Howard had refused to make a formal national apology to the Stolen Generations, and he would not walk across the bridge. In a packed Sydney Opera house at the ‘Corroboree 2000 – Towards Reconciliation’ meeting, held on the day sandwiched between National Sorry Day (26th May) and the Bridge walk (28th May), highly respected Aboriginal activist and former public servant Charles Perkins shouted at Prime Minister Howard: ‘Say sorry you bastard!’ to great applause.

The Bridge Walk marking a crucial, celebratory national refounding was expected to do an enormous amount of symbolic, affective, and political work. But it became a dense site of performative and emotional contestation concerning Australia’s history. ‘Sorry’ appeared as a subversive moral counterpoint at the Bridge Walk. In the blue Sydney sky the colossal words ‘SORRY’ appeared three times. A plane had been hired by a group of citizens to write in the sky the word that the PM refused to say. Indeed, the word ‘Sorry’ was emblazoned on tee-shirts, hats, banners and placards carried by the walkers. Howard’s refusal to apologise meant that the reasons for saying ‘sorry’ had not only expanded, but that the emotional load it had to bear was even greater. Originally it was to address the National Sorry Day context of apologising to and commemorating the Stolen Generations as an act of political redress and healing, but the broader message of sorry that appeared at the Bridge Walk was an apology and a protest against the history of violence, Aboriginal dispossession of land, past government policies, the separation of families, Aboriginal deaths in custody, as well as John Howard being a ‘bastard’. One walker wrote:

Isaw the river of people pouring onto the bridge … Over the railing, I glimpsed the sails of the Opera House and saw the first fleet’s arrival at that very spot. I saw the beginnings of our tragic slaughter and abuse of the indigenous people. And I felt shame; shame for my ancestors in country Australia who introduced disease and appropriated land, who saw themselves with unalienable rights, rights we now recognise they never had. Then I looked up and saw the word ‘Sorry’ being written in the blue, blue sky and I cheered with everyone else.[7]

The interruption then of ‘SORRY’ in the sky emerged as a moment of emotional truth for some walkers. One Aboriginal woman, a member of the Stolen Generations, said that she had not wanted to walk across the bridge because she was felt overwhelmed by bitterness and grief, yet ‘gradually as she walked in this crowd, that sense of bitterness began to recede but it was when the word ‘SORRY’ appeared in the sky that it struck her heart and lifted the veil of hurt and trouble.’ [8]

‘Sorry’ would carry diverse emotional significance for different people. Non-indigenous author Kate Grenville also reflected on how the Bridge Walk’s vague sense of purpose offered a good feeling of camaraderie and triumph that, for her, would turn out to be empty of historical significance. She wrote: ‘The walk itself promised to be another big symbolic thing. Its aims were large and vague enough to make us feel cosy in spite of the bitter westerly wind. Everyone was smiling. We were all pretty pleased with ourselves.’[9] But, like the giant ‘SORRY’ in the sky, her joy quickly faded when she realized that nothing had been risked, sacrificed or properly confronted. She recalls that after exchanging glances with an Aboriginal woman, a ‘sudden blade of cold’ ruptured her good feeling as she began to question seriously her sense of ancestral belonging. Contemplation of who her forebears were and what they might have done cut through any sense of pleasurable affinity, inspiring her to research her own complicit heritage:

I wanted to get away from it all now: the smiles, the benign feeling of doing the right thing, the shuffling crowd of people whose pleasure in the moment hadn’t been sliced open. … The imagery of our walk, across a bridge, suddenly seemed all too easy. We were strolling towards reconciliation – what I had to do was cross the hard way, through the deep water of our history.[10]

The collective emotions of pride, honour, shame, frustration and anger that attend the question of the colonization of Australia as invasion or settlement sat at the very heart of the ‘History Wars’ debates during this decade of Reconciliation.[11] The Bridge Walk carried these many diverse and ambivalent emotions. It also became a space for counter-political narratives demanding apology and treaty that would be reported in the national and international media.

What work did these emotions of good will, unity and togetherness generated by such state-based reconciliatory performances achieve? On one level they did have the potential to build trust and to raise the prospect of an emancipatory future. And for some the sudden appearance of ‘SORRY’ did ‘lift the veil of hurt and trouble’. Such cross-cultural, mass participatory performances had the power of feeling to move people to change. Yet such good feelings were also heavily entwined with the politics of shame and shame’s release, that is, the desire for a new covenant to overcome settler shame.

We must attend more closely to the ‘affective economies’ of sorry and shame in post-colonial settler nations argues sociologist Sara Ahmed. Suggestive is her insightful examination of the ‘Sorry’ books of the 1990s and 2000s, where thousands of Australians signed their name to apologise for past wrongs, and her extended critique of national shame. Ahmed posits ‘shame’ as comprising very much a coloniser presence-to-self dynamic. She argues that settlers work through their shame in order to become reconciled with themselves and the aspired settler nation, thus reinscribing its hegemonies.[12] Here the ‘recognition of shame – or shame as a form of recognition’ she writes, ‘comes with conditions and limits.’ For those who feel shame (eg. the colonisers) ‘shame becomes not only a mode of recognition of injustices committed against others, it is also a form of nation building’.[13] For Ahmed, those ‘who witness the past injustice though feeling national shame are aligned as well meaning individuals, if you feel shame then you mean well’. And, since we ‘mean well’ we can ‘work to reproduce the nation as an ideal’, in other words, the feeling of shame reconciles the coloniser with their preferred idea of themselves. Shame can thus be recuperative of the offender, not of those offended. Shame then can ultimately be transformed in to pride, entailing a reduplication of repressive national norms. Here ‘non-indigenous Australians express sorrow, sympathy and shame in order that they can ‘return’ to their pride in the nation.’[14]

When the national enunciation of ‘Sorry’ finally arrived in 2008 it was to great emotional release; it was a poignant moment of national affect. Prime Minster Rudd’s speech was also threaded with affective crosscurrents of shame, stain, pride, and honour. The Stolen Generations, he stated, represented ‘a blemished chapter in our nation’s history’. Casting not settlers but Aboriginal people as proud and honourable, he apologized for the ‘indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture’. Rudd spoke of the need for the ‘healing [of] the nation’ and, echoing the language of redress, stated that the ‘unfinished business’ was to ‘remove a great stain from the nation’s soul’.[15]

Today, fifteen years after the great Bridge Walk for reconciliation and seven years after the national apology, the political space of negotiation is in some ways closed off. Perhaps ‘sorry’ as Ahmed argues has served largely to recuperate the settler nation as benevolent, rather than promote progressive change. We inhabit now a post-reconciliation and post-apology moment. Pressing arguments around the recognition of Australia’s first peoples in the constitution, and heated debates about the closure of remote Aboriginal communities appear in the news. While the affective power of Australia’s reconciliation movement and the politics of apology have been marked for all in various ways, their substantive effects in terms of real political gains for Aboriginal people remains to be seen.

For National Sorry Day events please visit Reconciliation Australia:

Penny Edmonds is a CHE Associate Investigator, and an ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor in the School of Humanities, University of Tasmania. Her forthcoming book ‘Settler Colonialism and Reconciliation: Frontier Violence, Affective Performances, and Imaginative Refoundings’ (Palgrave Macmillan) is due out 2016.

Dr. Alicia Marchant is an Honorary Research Fellow and CHE Associate Investigator, based at the University of Tasmania.


[1] Margaret Allum, ‘Bridge walk ‘must be built upon’’, Green Left Weekly, June 7, 2000.

[2] Tony Davis, ‘Marching for a Fresh Beginning’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May 2010.

[3] Kate Grenville, Searching for the Secret River, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2006, pp.11-12.

[4] See Sara Ahmed, ‘The politics of bad feeling’, Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association Journal, Vol. 1, 2005, pp.72-85.

[5] ‘Bringing them home: The “Stolen Children” Report’


[6] Mike Head, ‘The Politics of Australia’s “National Sorry Day’, World Socialist Web Site, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1998/06/ausz-j02.html?view=print

[7] Excerpt from a letter to Council Following Corroboree 2000 by Suzanne McCourt, Birrag, Victoria’ in ‘Reconciliation: Australia’s Challenges. Final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation to the Prime Minister and the Commonwealth Parliament, December 2000’. http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/orgs/car/finalreport/index.htm

[8] Ronald Wilson, ‘Faith and Ethics in Contemporary Society’, Church and Civil Society: A Theology of Engagement, edited by Sue Leppert, Francis Sullivan, ATF Press, Hindmarsh, S. Aust, 2004, pp.28-29.

[9] Grenville, Searching for the Secret River, p.11.

[10] Grenville, Searching for the Secret River, p.13.

[11] See S. Macintyre and A. Clark, The History Wars, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2003; R. Manne (ed.), Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Melbourne: Black Inc., 2003; P. Brantlinger, ‘“Black armband” versus “white blindfold” history in Australia’, Victorian Studies 46:4, 2004, p. 655.

[12] Sara Ahmed, ‘Shame before Others’ in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Routledge, 2004.

[13] Sara Ahmed, ‘The Politics of Bad Feeling’, Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association journal, vol.1, 2005, p.72.

[14] Sara Ahmed, ‘The Politics of Bad Feeling’, p.80.

[15] K. Rudd, ‘Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples’, http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/our-country/our-people/apology-to-australias-indigenous-peoples (accessed 22 May 2015

My Reading Adventure (or when the dots begin to connect)

Posted by Grace Moore

The Aldine Adventure Book.  Public School Collection, Special Collections, University Library.

The Aldine Adventure Book. Public School Collection, Special Collections, University Library.


One of my projects at the moment is a small exhibition, ‘Reading Adventures’, which will open in the Noel Shaw Gallery (the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne) in July. The library holds around ten thousand rare books for children and adolescents, and the exhibition will offer a taster of its many adventure stories, drawing on the McLaren, Morgan, and Public School collections.


This is my first time as a curator, and when I became involved in the project it was mostly because it connects to a long-standing research and teaching interest in writing for children, rather than because it might speak to my CHE work. If I’m truthful, I was also very happy to have been asked! As the weeks have passed and I’ve thought about this work alongside my emotions-based research, I’ve realized that it isn’t quite so removed from that work as I had initially thought. On a basic level, I’ve found a number of books for my fire project that I probably wouldn’t have known about otherwise, but I’ve also begun to think much more about the emotions surrounding books and reading, both in terms of stories, but also in relation to the book as a material artefact.


I first visited the university’s special collections about a month after my arrival in Melbourne in July 2004. Armed with torches, my colleague Jenny Lee rounded me up one afternoon and marched me across to the library’s basement, where, she told me, there were things I ought to see. I’m not certain that the torches were strictly necessary, but they certainly added to the sense that we had embarked upon something intrepid. Having just spent two years at a university with very few library resources, I remember being quite overwhelmed by the array of books, many of which are extraordinarily beautiful.


At various intervals over the intervening years, I’ve ordered books from the collection and they’ve arrived, as if by magic, in the library’s special collections reading room. I didn’t really think to go back to look at the shelves, at least partly because I felt that I knew what was there. Over time, though, my research interests have shifted and (hopefully) broadened. As a consequence, returning to the stacks to select books for the exhibition involved being delighted all over again, and viewing things rather differently than I did a decade ago. It also involved a cascade of recollections—partly through re-encountering works I’d grown up reading, and partly because, in the case of the library’s nineteenth-century holdings, I’d encountered many of the works for the first time at the home of my beloved PhD advisor, Chris Brooks—a passionate collector, and owner of more than 12,000 rare Victorian works. When I hold a volume of Henty in my hands, I can hear Chris reading it to me, even though he died more than a decade ago.




As a Victorian scholar, I’ve always loved working with archives and with rare books. My own relationship with them is both highly affective and visceral., even though I’ve no interest in possessing these objects for myself—it’s their seclusion, their comparative inaccessibility that is part of their draw. Carolyn Steedman notes that we can both fetishize and mystify the experience, while writing with great beauty of how scholars can almost commune with their subjects when working in rarefied environments. In Dust (1992) Steedman invokes the example of Michelet, who wrote of breathing the dust of the dead, ‘and making them live as they had never really done before’, a slightly obsessive process that AS Byatt captures brilliantly in her novel Possession.


Hazel Armitage, With Lucinda in London.  Public School Collection, Special Collections, University Library.

Hazel Armitage, With Lucinda in London. Public School Collection, Special Collections, University Library.

There is little dust to inhale in the Baillieu’s immaculate special collections area, but the books themselves yield lovely moments of connection with some of their original readers. Page-turning can sometimes evoke memories—particularly when working with a collection of children’s books. It can also occasionally yield childish ephemera, including the carefully pressed—but long-forgotten—flowers that slipped out of one adventure volume, or the painstakingly traced design for a portable wireless, tucked into an annual of stories for boys. While I squirm at the fuss of having my own personal page-turner (as I did when I worked on the original Hard Times manuscript at the V&A), I love leafing through books or manuscripts that nobody has touched for decade. I love being in an environment that only a few scholars visit, and I love the spade-work that can sometimes, just sometimes, lead to an exciting find.   On a couple of occasions I’ve had experiences in archives which—without sounding too batty—have almost bordered on the mystical, and these tend to collapse into each other when I begin work on something new.


The nature of the ‘Reading Adventures’ exhibition means that a lot of the work I’ve undertaken thus far has been about the books as objects, rather than about the stories they contain. As a consequence, part of the excitement of this project has been about deferral of pleasures, as I identify things to which I want to return and compile lists of books I want to read over the months and years ahead. The generosity and patience of the team from the library means that I’m learning a huge amount as I go, sometimes about the spatial dynamics associated with displaying objects, and at others about what Dianne Mulcahy calls ‘sticky affect’; the lasting emotional response that can come from visiting an exhibition space. I’ve had to re-think my sense of the aesthetics of the book, trying to anticipate what might look engaging when it is placed behind glass, and inaccessible to readers. At the same time I’ve learned that while for a scholar issues associated with the book’s age, such as foxing, are part of a book’s patina, they mean something very different when the volume becomes an exhibit.


My first discovery was that making decisions about what to exhibit is incredibly difficult and, yes, quite emotional. In the early stages there were weekly and sometimes bi-weekly meetings in which Anthony, the rare books curator, walked me through the shelves, answering questions, making suggestions, and generously sharing his remarkable knowledge of the collections. At the end of this process, I found myself with a shortlist of more than 350 books and an enormous collection of grainy photographs to help me to remember the appearance of the many volumes I’d pulled from the stacks. Some works (like the fabulous Scouts in Bondage and Jancy Scores Again) were, sadly, out before they were in. But reducing the list to around sixty volumes was quite, quite agonizing and, while we’ve now finalized the case content, I still have moments where I find myself thinking, ‘But if only we could make room for…’.


The selection process is inevitably a highly subjective one, and so rich are the library’s holdings that it is possible to configure any number of reading adventures that would be markedly different from my own. While some of my decisions have been informed by a sense of writers who ought to be represented (visitors will, for instance, expect to see books by Enid Blyton), personal taste and nostalgia also play important roles when working with this type of material. I’ve written in the past (with my wonderful co-author, Sue Pyke) about re-reading and the ways that we bring our past selves to favourite books, creating layers of extra-textual narratives that are unique to each of us. Although Sue and I were thinking specifically about the process of (sometimes obsessively) revisiting novels by the Brontë sisters when we wrote the piece, the process of re-reading a book from childhood can be very similar. Our memories of a book’s narrative may be imperfect, but they are often inflected by the context in which we read or re-read the work and, especially for child-readers, recollections of being read to by adults.


W.H.G. Kingston, Snow Shoes and Canoes, or the Early Days of a Fur-Trader in the Hudson’s Bay Territory.  Morgan Collection, Special Collections, University Library.

W.H.G. Kingston, Snow Shoes and Canoes, or the Early Days of a Fur-Trader in the Hudson’s Bay Territory. Morgan Collection, Special Collections, University Library.

And this is where my projects begin to collide. I’m in the early stages of working with a group of musicologists and a psychotherapist, thinking about the therapeutic uses of reading and music in the wake of natural disasters. We’ve been using ventures like Read Me Something You Love and By Heart as springboards to think about the role that the cherished, remembered story or poem can play in helping people to assimilate traumatic experiences into their lives. Books are, of course, often lost in catastrophic events and increasingly, as I’ve been working with these lovingly preserved volumes in one area of my research, I’ve also been thinking about absent books in another. As a Dickensian, this connection makes complete, almost instinctive, sense to me. Dickens had a phenomenal memory and, growing up in a household where money was often short, he recalled walking the streets and reciting classic novels in his head, citing it almost as survival mechanism. Erich Auerbach famously wrote Mimesis while in exile from his library, drawing on his memories of the books that were being burned by Nazis and writing what Arthur Krystal has termed a ‘book about books’ as a kind of fortification against the destruction. When books are no longer present, the memories of their stories live on, just as childhood memories inform our affective encounters with books in museum spaces.


What seems to be emerging here for me is an unwieldy new project about the emotions surrounding books, memories, objects and reading. It’s something for me to chew over as the exhibition planning gathers momentum and I move—very willingly—out of my regular comfort zone to be guided through discussions about colour schemes, book cradles, and a whole host of things I’ve never thought about before in my life. I’m drawn to the tensions between the present and the absent, as I think about these different forms of love for the book, and I’m struck by the forces of memory and nostalgia that bring them together. I don’t have that many answers yet, and need to think carefully about how this work will sit alongside other research programs, such as Andrew Stauffer’s Book Traces.  However I’m conscious that the reading adventure upon which I’ve set sail might turn out to be something of an odyssey for me….




Reading Adventures will open to the public at the Noel Shaw Gallery, the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne on 16 July 2015.




Depression, Guilt, and a Parish Priest in Medieval London

Raven_1899On some night in the mid-twelfth century, Martin, the parish priest of All Hallows on the Cellar was interrupted while going to bed. Just as the priest was taking off his shoes, a serving-boy entered his house bearing a message from his employer. This employer was the wife of Roger Bat, a member of a powerful and wealthy London family. The Bats were urban oligarchs, one of the sixteen major interlocking families that provided seventy-percent of the aldermen who held office in the city of London before the civil war. The boy told the priest that he was needed immediately for “some business” with Roger’s wife. Annoyed, the priest asked what the business was. Martin especially wanted to know if she was ill. The boy did not know, but added that his mistress “didn’t seem sick.” That Roger’s wife appeared well convinced Martin that there was no immediate danger to her soul, and that he could safely go to bed. If she had been ill, Martin would have been duty-bound to return with the serving-boy to administer the Last Rites. Since the boy’s mistress apparently suffered from no physical illness, the priest dismissed the interruption in his evening as a nuisance call. Martin told the boy, “Perhaps she’s drunk. Go and say to her that it isn’t convenient to talk with her tonight about any business.” The priest said that he would gladly meet with her tomorrow, after his morning services. The boy returned and told Roger’s wife what the priest said, and her response was tragic. The woman agreed that she was very drunk, but added that the priest “hereafter will not speak with me in this life.” She retreated into her room, locked the door, and hanged herself with a noose. The woman’s suicide, according to the theology of medieval Christianity, condemns her soul to Hell, and the priest eventually paid the price for his negligence. Martin lived for a long time after the woman’s suicide. He lived badly, breaking his vow of celibacy and living with a concubine with whom he had multiple children. After many years, Martin grew old and sickly, at last taking to bed while suffering from a final illness. On his deathbed, the priest cried out: Woe is me! Woe that I ever took up the name and responsibility of a priest. For my miserable and filthy life and especially that woman, who hanged herself through my negligence, now drag me to damnation. During the night, as Martin’s final moment drew near, ravens flew into the room through the windows extinguishing all of the candles. The ravens disappeared suddenly as Martin exhaled his final breath, signalling the priest’s entrance into Hell. This story combines specific pieces of medieval religiosity with expressions of mental illness familiar to a modern audience. The woman’s cry for help is discounted because her problem isn’t immediately visible as a bodily disease. The priest also dismisses what a modern reader might regard as a symptom of the woman’s interior illness, her drunkenness, as something that she just needs to get over. Martin’s easy assumption that Roger’s wife is drunk suggests that intoxication was a regular issue for her that the priest had dealt with before. These familiar elements represent an extraordinary continuity in the history of emotions.RaveninFlight.jpg An important moral of this story is that inattention to the interior emotional and mental states of others is a form of negligence. Martin tells the reader as much right before he is carried off to Hell. Modern responses to suicide and mental illness often stress similar messages (although for quite different reasons). While this medieval story suggests that the priest should have been more attentive to saving souls, the modern concern most often lies with saving and improving lives. When I read this story, I am also struck by how deeply it is shaped by class and gender. We only have a record of this suicide because it involved the wife of a remarkable man. If this event did not touch one of the wealthiest families in medieval London, it would have been entirely lost in time. How many other similar struggles were not only nearly invisible in their own time, but have also been entirely lost because of the low social status of the people involved? We do not even know the woman’s name. Her value and her memory are entirely bound up with the person of her husband, Roger Bat. The author of the story tells us not only the name of the priest (Martin), but also the names of several of the priest’s sons and a servant, who are present when Martin dies. The woman, in contrast, who is central to the story’s plot, has no name of her own. The role of class and gender in this medieval story remind us of the on-going importance of these issues in access to mental health resources and even in the wider visibility of the need for access to these resources for marginalized populations.  Background on the Story: The story of the bad priest Martin comes from the Liber revelationum or Book of Revelations of Peter of Cornwall. This work is a very large collection of visions and revelations put together around the year 1200. Much of this collection is now available, in both Latin and English translation, as Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations, edited by Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe. The manuscript’s author, Peter of Cornwall, was an Augustinian canon and the prior of Holy Trinity Aldgate. It is the twenty-second chapter of the first book (pages 288-91 in the edition by Easting and Sharpe). Modern Mitre square roughly corresponds to the cloister of Peter’s priory, and the only visible remnant of it is an arch inside Swiss Re House. Click here to link to a Google map with locations of this story.

Link to: http://ow.ly/MZ0Fa for a google map of sites in this story.

Link to: http://ow.ly/MZ0Fa for a Google map of sites in this story.

Information on the Chapel of All Hallows on the Cellar: The church called All Hallows on the Cellar, or All Hallows the Less, stood on Upper Thames Street. It took its name from its location on top of arched vaults. It is not to be confused with the larger All Hallows. The Third Edition of the London Encyclopaedia claims the church is first attested in 1216, but the story of the bad priest Martin is a good deal older. In John Stow’s survey, the church is attached to a large house called Cold Harbour (Survey of London, 1598 and 1603, 1:235-37). The church burned in the Great Fire of 1666 and was not rebuilt. By CHE Postdoctoral Fellow Michael David Barbezat.

Anyone seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue 1300 22 46 36.

Recipes in the Archives: ‘Honey Ointments’ and Early Modern Motherhood

On this Mother’s Day I find myself in Dublin, embarking upon the archival phase of research for my Centre for the History of Emotions project, ‘Mother’s Milk: Breastfeeding, Infant Care and Domestic Medicine in Early Modern Ireland.’ I am lucky enough to be able to spend the next few weeks ensconced in the National Library of Ireland, absorbed by their collection of manuscript receipt (recipe) books.

Fig. 1 ‘To Cause early labour’. NLI Ms 14,251, mid- eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Fig. 1 ‘To Cause early labour’. NLI Ms 14,251, mid- eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

I first encountered these fascinating sources when I was just starting my doctorate. Back then I was interested in their cookery recipes, and although I occasionally stopped to cast my eye over the equally rich collection of prescriptions and cures they contain, for the most part I rushed over them, my thesis on food history requiring complete devotion. I remember, at the time, being somewhat curious as to why everyone needed cures for ‘Sore Breasts’ in the eighteenth century (how naïve I was), but I didn’t think much more of it- the quest to find the earliest potato recipe seeming much more important. Three babies later, I now understand what all the fuss was about. The need for a cure for sore breasts, advice regarding milk supply and a remedy for colic, have since become very real. So, with three wee boys in tow, I am back to explore these tomes of early modern wisdom, with a very different set of (somewhat sleep-deprived) eyes.

Fig. 2 A prescription to assist in the delivery of a dead child or after birth, and to quicken labour, NLI Ms 14,251, mid- eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Fig. 2 A prescription to assist in the delivery of a dead child or after birth, and to quicken labour, NLI Ms 14,251, mid- eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Domestic sources like manuscript receipt books give us an intimate window into the lives and concerns of women in the early modern world. They contain a rich variety of materials, including cookery recipes, medical cures, housekeeping advice, beauty remedies, meal plans, prose and poetry, which collectively provide us with a highly detailed account of life within the early modern home. The unique contents of each volume can also help us to understand the everyday concerns of individuals in a degree of detail which is quite rare. One volume I was examining just this week contained at least a dozen cures for baldness in men, and the image of a wife consulting her collection of cures gathered from far and wide, while a concerned husband fretting over his receding hairline hovers anxiously in the background is conjured vividly (National Library of Ireland, Ms 42,009).

Fig. 3 Prescriptions relating to infant and child health, including recommendations for teething, urinary retention and worms. NLI Ms 14,251, mid- eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Fig. 3 Prescriptions relating to infant and child health, including recommendations for teething, urinary retention and worms. NLI Ms 14,251, mid- eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

One of the most striking features of early modern receipt books is the fact that they bear the creative input of people from a wide social circle, and were clearly a place in which familial and kinship knowledge, legacy and networks were maintained. Through attributions, which respectfully acknowledge the original source of an entry, we are able to see how women shared knowledge relating to the care of their families. Letters containing cures and recipes are also frequent components of domestic collections, demonstrating how women bridged geographical distances and maintained an active involvement in the care and nourishment of one another and their children. Generational divides could also be overcome through these manuscripts. If we look closely at the lifecycle of an individual book, we can see that many of these volumes became family heirlooms, handed down from one generation of women to the next. As cherished items of property, bequeathing a receipt book to a daughter or daughter-in-law was both a sign of affection, but it was also a gift of invaluable practical knowledge. Given the wealth of information they contain relating to domestic medicine, which was gathered over generations, it was also a gift that could provide critical to the health and well-being of the family in the future.

The volumes contain a range of cures and prescriptions for a host of illnesses from every day complaints such as worms and rheumatism to far more serious conditions including cancer and rabies. Given their importance in the sphere of domestic medicine, and their association with women as their primary authors and custodians, it is unsurprising that these manuscripts also contain extensive advice relating to reproductive health [Fig.1 to 2], breastfeeding and infant and child care [Fig. 3 to 4].

Fig. 4 ‘Receipt for Children ill with Hives’. From the receipt book of Lady Elizabeth Maguir[e], NLI Ms 42,228, mid- to late eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Fig. 4 ‘Receipt for Children ill with Hives’. From the receipt book of Lady Elizabeth Maguir[e], NLI Ms 42,228, mid- to late eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Such material reveals a great deal about early modern infant and maternal healthcare, but also demonstrates the importance of the intergenerational kinship networks through which this essential knowledge was handed down by women, ensuring the health of future generations. Among the most common breastfeeding related entries, which I am focusing on in this particular phase of research, are cures for ‘sore breasts’ [Fig. 5 to 6], but others relate to regulating milk supply and curing colic. Over the next few weeks I will be collating as many of these cures as possible for future detailed analysis, but for now, I am able to enjoy being immersed in these manuscripts, which allow you to discover the world of their authors in great detail. Through the very personal medium of their own handwriting, in their own family volume, we can learn about the authors’ concerns for their children and the trials of being a mother in the early modern world.

Fig. 5 ‘Honey Ointment for Sore Breast’. From a receipt book by A. Corry, NLI Ms 4175, 1829 (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Fig. 5 ‘Honey Ointment for Sore Breast’. From a receipt book by A. Corry, NLI Ms 4175, 1829 (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Sometimes as historians we are astounded by how much has changed, but at other times, we can be touched by just how much in the human experience stays the same. The other day, upon returning home from the archives to a hungry baby, I emailed my sister back in Australia to ask when she introduced solids. I then checked the advice of a breastfeeding forum on Facebook I regularly use, to see what other mothers had to say on the subject. The medium for sharing information may now be email, text or social media, and technology may have rapidly expanded the scope of our networks, but the essence of the practice is still very much the same- women circulating knowledge and assisting one another in the care of their bodies and babies.

This symmetry of experience became even more apparent the following day, as the afternoon wore on and the risks of missing several feeds seemed to be catching up with me. I was struck immediately by the irony of the fact that a research project about cures for breastfeeding ailments had in fact led to my own predicament, but my own dull ache also gave me a very real and immediate sense of connection to the late eighteenth-century woman whose advice for ‘sore breasts’ I was hurriedly transcribing (NLI Ms 14,901).

Fig. 6 ‘A Plaister for a Sore Breast’. NLI Ms 14,251, mid-eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Fig. 6 ‘A Plaister for a Sore Breast’. NLI Ms 14,251, mid-eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

She recommended a concoction of white wine, olive oil and flour spread on leather and applied to the afflicted breast, sound advice I am sure, but instead I opted for cabbage leaves and some paracetamol on the way home, my own mum’s orders, and after all, she knows best.

By CHE Associate Investigator Madeline Shanahan.

The executions of the Bali Nine duo: a long history of publicising emotions

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, eight prisoners were taken to a forest on a prison island and each tied to a stake. As they in unison sang ‘Amazing Grace’, a firing squad executed them for crimes the authorities had judged so heinous that the only appropriate punishment could be for them to pay with their lives. Their violent end would, it was argued, act as a shocking deterrent to anyone thinking of committing the same crimes. The account of their executions was immediately relayed to audiences around the world eager for details of their gruesome end.

As a historian of capital punishment in early modern Europe, I am struck by how much of the story of the executions on Indonesia’s Nusa Kambangan prison island resemble those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There are, to be sure, small differences: the crime here was drug smuggling rather than heresy or treason; the condemned were killed with sophisticated guns, a weapon not yet in widespread use four hundred years ago; and the news of the deaths was known instantly around the globe thanks to social media, a speed of news travel unthinkable in the period of handwritten newsletters that could take weeks to travel from one end of Europe to the other.

But so little about executions has changed. Tied to a stake and singing hymns while awaiting their violent deaths, the eight prisoners killed on Wednesday remind me of the ‘Lyon Five’, five young Calvinist students burned at the stake for heresy in Lyon in 1553, who went to their deaths singing psalms in French to steady themselves in their final moments. This in itself was shocking: singing the words of the Bible in the vernacular rather than Latin was an activity that marked them as reformers who threatened the Roman Catholic orthodoxy and thus the security of the French state. Some might argue that it is unseemly to compare religious martyrs to drug smugglers, but in the end, the authorities viewed the crimes from the same perspective: the activities of the condemned presented a danger to social order, and the executions had to be violent in order to act as a deterrent to others.

The broadcasting of information about the executions also throws up interesting points of similarities between our modern era and the past. Although I live in the UK rather than Australia I am nevertheless aware of the saturation of the news media there by the plight of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the duo already notorious for their involvement in the Bali Nine case that has long gripped the Australian imagination. The media coverage here is, naturally, somewhat more balanced – greater attention has been paid to the story of Mary Jane Veloso, another prisoner sentenced to die whose apparent innocence and exploitation at the hands of traffickers profiting from the precarious nature of Filipino overseas workers caused international outcry. The videos and photos of the distressed relatives of the condemned, including the heartbreaking video plea by the young sons of Veloso, have saturated the media, including – importantly – the Twittersphere, where the hashtag #savemaryjane gave the campaign for her reprieve a worldwide impact. While the 24-hour news cycle now allows us instant access to developments in these events, the emotional effects of capital punishment have always been a key part of the way in which they are reported.

In the early modern period, a time in which the majority of Europe was illiterate, news was often transmitted via the means of song, and ballads about crimes and executions were so popular that they form their own sub-genre of news-song. Full of sensationalist language, ballads about the condemned were often written in the first-person voice of the criminal, allowing the singer to momentarily embody the role of someone about to meet a grisly end. Like Alice Davis, burned at the stake in London in July 1628 for stabbing her husband to death, who sings in her ballad ‘A Warning for all desperate Women’,

Magdalene College - Pepys 1.120-121. English Broadside Ballad Archive. Retrieved from: http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/20050/image

Magdalene College – Pepys 1.120-121. English Broadside Ballad Archive. Retrieved from: http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/20050/image

God and the world forgive my sinnes,

which are so vile and foule,

Sweete Jesus now I come to thee,

O Lord receive my Soule.

Who could fail to be convinced of the need to avoid sin upon hearing poor Alice sing her song of remorse in her final moments? Songs like these were designed to cause the maximum amount of emotional response – executions were meant to be horrific, terrifying, and painful. Those who think that the early modern period was a time so violent that its people were inured to grisly sights of dismemberment and death are missing the point: it was precisely the horror of witnessing a prisoner have his limbs severed that was supposed to frighten citizens into leading an orderly life. The greater the publicity of these gruesome events the more people would get the message.

In fact, the reporting of the executions of convicts has always been central to the entire project of the execution itself. How the state chooses to publicise its ability and determination to execute its citizens is at the core of both its rationale for execution and, interestingly, its specific methods for doing so.

So China – believed by Amnesty International to execute more people every year by far than any other country – treats its executions as a state secret because its condemned are usually political prisoners. Rather than publicise its actions, the Chinese government would simplify prefer to pretend that these troublesome comrades are merely ‘gone away’.

The US, which executed 35 people last year but which had 3,035 people on death row as of October 2014, still has retribution as its motivation for execution. Statistics have repeatedly proven that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime, so it cannot claim – as Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo has – that executing people reduces crime rates. Rather, execution is punishment born out of revenge, not an emotion that the US authorities would like to be known for. Therefore the convicted must have their life removed in an environment supposedly devoid of emotion: death should be painless, private, rational, and so lethal injection in front of a small group of selected witnesses is the method of choice.

By contrast, Iran (which, at over 289 officially reported executions in 2014, comes #2 on Amnesty International’s list of top executing countries) sometimes chooses to execute its criminals by hanging them from cranes in public places – the higher the hanging the more people can see. The execution in Syria in February this year of a man convicted of homosexuality who was thrown from a high-rise building offered the same extreme level of public visibility.

Similarly, the recent beheadings of prisoners by ISIS were all documented on professionally filmed videos that were addressed to Western leaders and broadcast around the world. These are authorities, whether politically recognised or not, who want to ensure that the execution sends a very specific message of deterrence to a chosen audience – who watches the execution is as important as who is executed. In this way, they profoundly resemble early modern states who used the capital punishment of criminals as a moment not only to exact revenge on the perpetrator of a crime and offer a visual and terrifying deterrent for the spectators, but also to demonstrate their own power over their own citizens. The crimes committed, such an authority argues, are not crimes against individuals but crimes against the entire society, and therefore all of society must be a part of their expiation.

In the end, therefore, for President Widodo the result of this mass execution could not have resulted in a better outcome: eight of the nine prisoners, all of whom were believed to have been guilty of drug smuggling, were violently killed, sending a message to the world that Indonesia will be tough on those smuggling drugs into the country, while the one prisoner believed to have been duped, wrongly accused and then convicted, was reprieved, demonstrating – as he would see it – Widodo’s openness to due process and his merciful compassion. Whether the weeping families of Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan, Rodrigo Gularte, Jamiu Owolabi Abashin, Silvester Obiekwe Nwolise, Martin Anderson, Zainal Abidin and Okwuduli Oyatanze would see it that way is another matter.

By Dr. Una McIlvenna, Lecturer in Early Modern Literature, Queen Mary University of London, Honorary Research Fellow, CHE

For more on her research with CHE, see Singing the News of Death: Song in Early Modern European Execution (1500-1900)
or follow her on twitter at @UnaMcIlvenna

Long Memory: A history of war remembrance on ANZAC day.

Pope Innocentius III excommunicating the Albigensians (left), Massacre against the Albigensians by the crusaders (right) (British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 374v)

Pope Innocentius III excommunicating the Albigensians (left), Massacre against the Albigensians by the crusaders (right) (British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 374v)

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.

The missing museum

Fig. 1: The Missing Museum, Berlin, Germany.

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.

Botticelli’s Madonna and Child

Fig 2: Botticelli’s Madonna and Child

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.

Fig 3: Photograph of Madonna and Child by Tino ad Camaino

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.


Fig 4: Remaining shard of Madonna and Child by Tino ad Camaino.

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.

hield-bearers by Tullio Lombardo

Fig 5: Shield-bearers by Tullio Lombardo

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.

Fig 6: Fragment of shield-bearers by Tullio Lombardo.

Fig 6: Fragment of shield-bearers by Tullio Lombardo.





 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].

 Fig 8: Cupid by François Duquesnoy

Fig 8: Cupid by François Duquesnoy

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.

Fig 9: Closeup of Cupid by François Duquesnoy

Fig 9: Closeup of Cupid by François Duquesnoy

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.

Religion and its role in eating disorders in the Renaissance and today

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).

Image: St. Catherine of Siena besieged by demons. c 1500. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Image: St. Catherine of Siena besieged by demons. c 1500. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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 support@thebutterflyfoundation.org.au.

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.

Gender Inequality at the RSA?

Fra Filippo Lippi, Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement, c. 1440. © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fra Filippo Lippi, Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement, c. 1440. © Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

Fool for thought?

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.

 Subway Car Surfaces    (April Fool's Day - 2001). Retrieved from:  http://hoaxes.org/af_database/permalink/subway_car_surfaces

Subway Car Surfaces (April Fool’s Day – 2001). Retrieved from: http://hoaxes.org/af_database/permalink/subway_car_surfaces

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.


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