Episode 3: Passover and Easter, part 1


Em and Jesse retell the story of Passover, and then discuss the story of the crucifixion in the New Testament and how the two dovetail. In the process, they cover Medieval traditions surrounding Easter week in a wide-ranging discussion that also touches on Gilgamesh, the harrowing of hell, and Peeps.

Citations, Annotations, and Corrections

1/ While listening back to this, I had a moment where I realized how many new varieties of yogurt are available now than were available when I was in college.  For those unfamiliar, the forbidden Passover grains are wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt, and “kitniyot,” which means “legumes,” but in Ashkenazi tradition is a category that includes rice, corn , soybeans, lentils, and products derived from them. For weird historic reasons, potatoes are okay. (Also the key to really surviving while keeping kosher for Passover if you’re vegetarian is to keep Sephardic Kosher. Or eat a lot of sad potatoes.)

2/ Rivers are powerful symbols of purification and cleansing, travel and liberation, and boundaries. The Israelites had to cross the Red Sea to reach freedom, but the Biblical (New Testament) importance of the River Jordan–where John the Baptist baptized Jesus–becomes synchronous with the idea of freedom in the USA, where rivers formed boundaries between Slave states and Free states. While the Mississippi looms largest in the mythological psyche of the USA, the most famous crossing in American literature is probably Eliza’s escape across the frozen Ohio River in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No artistic statement on the subject is greater than Alvin Ailey’s, seen here in a clip of the second movement (“Take Me to the Water”) from Revelations. –JN

3/ Yul Brynner: Hotter than a slave owner. But also–the guy was from Vladivostok, but played, among others, a pharaoh and a Thai king. C.f. “The Romans in Films” from Mythologies by Roland Barthes (Editions du Seuil, 1952; trans. by Annette Lavers, Paladin, 1972) . (I realize that this is a podcast about Medieval history and not a chance to critique films that came out in 1956. But all of this is to say–Ramses didn’t look like Brynner, and Moses didn’t look like Charlton Heston. That is Hollywood whitewashing.–Em)

4/ [7:30] “…People who are trying to derive that the Earth began on October 15th, 5032 BC…” Actually, October 23, 4004 BCE. Em was slightly off.

5/ The whole discussion of “the Egyptians built the pyramids” reminds me of the short story “Tower of Babylon” by Ted Chiang (in Story of Your Life and Others, Tor, 2002) . [Nat Geo article on the so-called “workers’ villages.”–JN]

6/ Suzan-Lori Parks, who is an amazing playwright, does “Watch Me Work”. This is a public art piece, but also an opportunity to carve out time for writing. Since we taped the episode, I’ve done one, and it was pretty cool. She works for 20 min (and so does everyone else), and then she answers questions from the audience for 40 minutes. [SLP is the BEST.–JN]

7/ I should clarify: Moses is allowed to lead the Israelites to the promised land, and he is technically allowed to see the promised land (which he famously does from the top of Mount Nebo before dying), but he’s not allowed in. In War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), Caesar similarly leads the apes to the promised land and dies within sight of it.–JN

8/ Transubstantiation: the conversion of the substance of the Eucharist (bread and wine) into the body and blood of Christ during communion. Consubstantial (the word I am trying to remember): of the same substance or essence, often used with the trinity (e.g., Christ is consubstantial with God the Father). As I allude to, a significant amount of my knowledge about Catholicism comes from reading Ulysses (and other books–Paradise Lost, Inferno, The Master and Margarita, etc.). –Em

9/ Triduum: From the evening on Holy Thursday until the evening of Easter Sunday. It sounds like I’m saying it to myself as “tri-deum,” which is–not right.–Em

10/ Palmesel donkey. Here is one in the collection at the Met from the fifteenth century. It weighs 182 lbs and is 62 inches tall, making it basically life-size.

11/ Palms symbolized victory. Palm branches were thrown before Jesus on his triumphant return to Jerusalem to signify his (future) victory–i.e., Jesus’s return is being compared to the triumphant return of a Roman conqueror. Jesus has not yet been victorious (his victory will be to conquer death one week later on Easter Sunday), but the fact of his return makes it certain that he will achieve his victory. Throughout the Middle Ages, martyrs are pictured with palm branches to signify their martyrdom–a spiritual victory.–JN

12/ In case anyone is curious or (like me) confused about the terminology, the Septuagint is actually a translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek that was made for use by Greek-speaking Jews. It also includes several books now considered apocryphal. And the Vulgate is the Latin version, which we discuss more later.

13/ A shout out to Hesiod (active between 750–650 BCE), who is awesome.–JN

14/ St. Jerome is, among other things, the patron saint of librarians. There are many exceptional paintings of him, including this one by one of my favorite painters, Caravaggio:

And here is another excellent one by Albrecht Durer that even gets the lion in there:

St. Jerome in His Study

15/ Androcles and the lion. A story strongly associated with Aesop, and also with Aesop’s fable “The Lion and the Mouse.”

16/ [31:05] I cannot believe I got through this discussion of Jerusalem under the Romans without making a ”Romani ite domum” reference. I correct that defect here.–Em

17/ Jesse: Everyone knows what’s going to happen at the end of the week.
Em: Chocolate?
Jesse: Salvation.
Em: Oh.

18/ They made a movie about the temptation of Christ called, um, The Last Temptation of Christ, starring Willam Dafoe, who ALSO c.f. note 3 above probably didn’t look like Christ. I actually haven’t seen the whole film, just the bit of it that turns up in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. (Extra side note, David Bowie played Pilate. Which–first of all, I love the way he says “So you’re the king of the Jews?” at the beginning of that clip as though he just bumped into Jesus at a cocktail party, and second, THAT HAIR is EXACTLY what Barthes is talking about.–Em)

19/ The “sons of Aaron set alien fire before the L-rd” was part of my Torah portion. The actual story is Leviticus chapter 10, but my parsha was Numbers 3, which is a much less interesting retelling.

20/ Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (HarperCollins, 2007). Summary of relevant parts: it’s hard to be the chosen one.

21/ Godspell: “Alas For You” (clip from the 1973 movie, which is awesome).–JN

[I hadn’t seen Godspell, so I looked it up and learned that the 2001 revival used former presidential candidate and crystal fan Marianne Williamson as one of the philosophers in “The Tower of Babel” song. That…takes a very broad view of what constitutes a philosopher.–Em]

22/ Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries. Here is Michael Billington’s review in The Guardian of the 2009 remount. The more political 2001 version that I reference here (and that Billington references in his review of the remount) can be seen on DVD from WorldCat when libraries reopen! Here is the Wikipedia article for the Isango Ensemble, and here is their website.–JN

23/ [39:13] “It’s perfectly correct to use ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively.’ ” Bluh. Fight me, Njus. [You got it! English is an inclusive, not an exclusive, language! That’s one of English’s best qualities. The OED’s [Oxford English Dictionary, the be-all and end-all of English language dictionaries] definition for “literally:” I.1.c. “colloquial. Used to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’. Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’).” Earliest usage cited in the OED for this meaning is 1769! I rest my case; people who consider this “irregular” are stodgy, inflexible, afraid of change, and 250 years behind the times.–JN]

24/ [39:30] I left it in, because having offended all the Hasidic Jews already, now I can also be very offensive to all the Christians listening. Buddhists in the audience, sorry I couldn’t get to you today, we’ll see what we can do in future episodes.

Actually, I hope that by asking questions like this, I can help people see that the things that they take for granted as normal parts of their lives (taking communion at church for example) are actually really weird and, as Jesse says, they come from very old roots.

Some stories where people eat bits of gods: Kronos/Saturn famously eats his children (as rendered by Goya in everyone’s favorite painting). In Gilgamesh, he and Enkidu kill and eat the Bull of Heaven, although it’s not totally clear that the bull is a deity. And in Marvel Zombies (Marvel Comics, Dec. 2005–Apr. 2006) mini-series, the X-Men/Avengers/Fantastic Four kill and eat Galactus.

Jesse: Cannibalism isn’t as widespread as people probably think (colonialist propaganda!)–usually it’s taboo and done out of necessity (starvation). As a taboo, it’s one of the great fears of humanity. There’s lots of symbolic cannibalism in Greek myth–Kronos (devouring your children so they don’t replace you), Tantalus (testing the gods), and Thyestes (revenge! and the story from which Shakespeare got parts of Titus Andronicus. There’s our Shakespeare reference for today.). There’s also Metis (“metis” means wisdom or craft) who was swallowed whole by Zeus when she was pregnant (again, so Zeus’s kids wouldn’t replace him), leading to Athena bursting from Zeus’s head fully grown and armed as a warrior. Despite all these myths, the Greeks didn’t practice cannibalism or theophagy (god eating). Instead, like many religions that have come down to us, they sacrificed animals to the gods and ate the sacrifices as animals (not as a means of ingesting the gods). Humans are occasionally sacrificed to the gods (Pentheus), but they aren’t eaten (presumably! The whole Pentheus myth cuts it a little close). Nor are gods eaten directly by humans, although we do eat their “fruit” (wine from Dionysus, grain from Demeter, etc). This is what makes Jesus so phenomenal–he IS the sacrifice to god which must be eaten (even though he is also the god to whom the sacrifice is being made). Wut. Death and resurrection happen a lot (Osiris for example), but to be both god and sacrifice is highly unusual. There do seem to very, very old roots to the idea of ingesting a god, but they can be hard to parse–usually information is not coming from the source but from outsiders who are primed to misunderstand it, and once Christianity arrives, it can be very hard for Christian colonizers to recognize that other people’s practices are unique and special. (In addition to viewing non-Christian practices as barbaric, there was a tendency to conflate anything that seemed similar to eucharistic practice with the concept of ingesting one’s gods.)

All this being said, symbolic ingesting of gods (or life force–wine for blood, etc), is suuuuuuuuper old and definitely well documented. Cannibalism has also been documented. Ingesting gods in a manner similar to the Eucharist is…fuzzy. There’s lots of very old overlapping symbolism though.–JN

25/ The Last Supper. Famously depicted at the very end of the Middle Ages by Leonardo Da Vinci. [Yes! If you’re wondering why they’re all facing us and sitting on one side of the table, it’s because they’re the high table! It’s like the Harry Potter movies here. It’s not clear that Da Vinci knew the room would become a refectory, but the Last Supper was a common subject for refectories–the monks or nuns could eat their meals, with Jesus and his apostles as their high table. The room did, in fact, become the refectory at the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.–JN]

26/ Paradise Lost: in book 3:

I formd them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change
Thir nature, and revoke the high Decree
Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain’d
Thir freedom, they themselves ordain’d thir fall.

(Full text: Project Gutenberg. You’ll have to figure out the lines of the quote here yourself, I cannot find my physical copy and the Gutenberg version doesn’t have line numbers.)

27/ This is tablet 11: On Gligamesh’s search for immortality, he is asked by Utnapishtim to stay awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh falls asleep after a while (I [Em] forget how long it takes) and Utnapsihtim’s wife places a loaf of bread next to him for every day he sleeps. So then he wakes up and the ferryman Urshanabi takes him home. On the way they stop and pick a plant that will make him young, but while he’s bathing a snake eats it. [Sleep! It’s a sign of mortality–i.e., death.

Sleep is also the thing that “knits up the raveled sleave of care,” of course (Macbeth II.ii), and in that play its counterpart (death) is also seen as peaceful sleep. Macbeth describes the dead Duncan: “After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well” (III.ii), giving us the sense that mortality and death provide a spiritual rest and renewal from the hardships of life. Nonetheless, Shakespeare’s most famous analysis of sleep is probably Hamlet’s, who has a very different view (despite not having committed the horrors Macbeth has):

To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished! To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. (iii.i)


28/ “Pilate…washes his hands of it.” I believe in The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov writes that Pilate realizes Jesus’ divinity and that he has to let him die. (Recognizing Bulgakov might not be the best person to take theology lessons from, it is a really excellent book.)

29/ The Medieval legend about the cross being planted where Adam was buried: this actually came up back when I was interviewing Jesse for the comic that started everything, and there’s SO MUCH mythos surrounding trees, all I could fit in was a skull underneath the tree in this panel.

If you click on this link to Giotto’s depiction and enlarge the image (or click here), you’ll see Adam’s skull peeping out from the broken rock in which the Cross is planted. Adam’s skull is in many medieval depictions, but Giotto is the master. Here is a link to Adam and Eve being tempted in the Garden with Christ hanging in the tree (foreshadowing Christ as the new Adam, symbolizing Christ as the fruit of the Tree of Life–the Tree that Adam and Even are forbidden–foreshadowing the the legend of the Cross, and symbolizing many other things we’ll probably talk about in the future–not least of all the female serpent!) Early 1460s illumination is by Flemish artist Willem Vrelant (active 1454–1481).–JN

30/ “Pom…mus?” Yeah, one of the two of us took Latin, and twas not me [Em].

31/ “The preferred Northwestern translation…” (meaning Northwestern University). There are a lot of various translations of the New Testament that one runs into–this is not one of them.

32/ The harrowing of hell is one of those cool Medieval traditions that doesn’t much get talked about today, as far as I [Em] know. We will discuss it further in a hell-focused episode because there is a lot to say about it. But I do believe that in Dante’s Inferno, it is much remarked upon. Of course, there are a lot of other, older myths describing a heroic figure or deity descending into hell and returning–Ishtar/Inanna, Persephone, Odysseus, Orpheus, Aeneas, and Enkidu (in the epic of Gilgamesh) all descend into hell and return, some more successfully than others.

Jesse: Quick note on Dante! Dante is led through Hell by Virgil, who’s been there before (because Virgil wrote the Aeneid, and Aeneas went to the underworld.) Virgil keeps getting tripped up by stuff in their path–since he went down to Hell before Jesus died, he hasn’t been there since things have changed because of the Harrowing. The Harrowing included a giant earthquake, resulting in blocked paths and various problems that Virgil didn’t have to deal with last time.

33/ The ten plagues: blood, frogs, lice, boils, hail, wild beasts, cattle dying, flies, locust, darkness, and the death of the firstborn (which the Jews famously avoided by killing a lamb and putting its blood on the doorposts of their houses–immortalized on the Seder plate by a bone, typically a shank bone or a chicken bone, or if you cannot get a bone, like say you are a vegetarian and do not just have bones lying around your house, a carrot labeled “bone” will do in a pinch).

34/ Jewish tradition is to bury people very quickly after death (it still is) without embalming. Also, Shabbat (the Sabbath) is thought to begin at sunset the night before (so Friday night–this is because Judaism follows a lunar calendar), and you aren’t allowed to do work/labor on the Sabbath, so you have to get the burial done Friday afternoon or wait until Sunday, pretty much.

35/ Mary Magdalene: She comes up again in future episodes! But also, what is with naming all the characters Mary? SMH.–Em

36/ “Noli me tángere” is also a really important Philippino novel by José Rizal. And a weird throwaway line in the best X-Files episode ever, Hollywood, A.D.. Um, probably it’s a lot of other things, too. [Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt”–JN]

37/ “The eleven [apostles] who are still left.” I assume Judas dropped out. And since Jesse didn’t say otherwise, he probably moved to a farm downstate and had a nice retirement and nothing bad ever happened to him, since he wasn’t really a bad guy, just compelled by fate to do an unpleasant job. [I assume we’ll talk about Judas later, so I won’t waste the words now!–JN]

38/ “The immaculate conception.” Mary was born free of original sin. C.f. “The Ballad of Joking Jesus” in Ulysses, “My mother’s a jew, my father’s a bird,” [1.585], also later on Joyce quotes from an (incredibly controversial) 1884 work entitled La vie de Jésus, “[Joseph:] –Qui vous a mis dans cette fichue position? [Mary:] –C’est le pigeon, Joseph” (3.161–162).

Jesse: Immaculate conception was extremely controversial in the Middle Ages, and didn’t become official Catholic orthodoxy until Pope Pius IX promulgated Ineffabilis Deus in 1854.

39/ Mary visiting Elizabeth. This is officially  “the Visitation.” Some artistic examples:

Stained Glass Panel with the Visitation, 1444.
The Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, 42v, 1405–1408/9.

Episode 2: Plague

“Death and famine stalk the land like two great stalking things.” — Blackadder


It’s the Black Death, the original plague! Em and Jesse discuss the outbreaks of plague that bookended the Middle Ages–the Plague of Justinian (around 540 CE) and the better-known outbreak that spread across Asia into Western Europe and eventually hit the British Isles in the 1300s. We discuss Medieval responses to plague, such as quarantine, scientific inquiry, and pograms, as well as the ways the plague is reflected in literature of the time.

Notes, Citations, and Corrections

1/ Sorry about the sound quality this episode. We both had some various technical difficulties.

2/ No letters! We know Latin, and we know that technically the word bacteria is plural, and the word bacterium is singular.

3/ Notice the beginning and end of my “pretend I don’t know anything” interviewing technique. For the entire rest of the episode it’s totally clear I know at least a bit about the plague, so I don’t know why I decided to start off like I was totally clueless. Oh well. (Related suggestion: if you’re interested in the biological nitty gritty of the plague, check out the relevant episodes of This Podcast Will Kill You. They talk a lot about the actual physical effects of the disease and the bacteria behind it, Y. pestis. Fair warning, it’s a bit gory.)

4/ Concerning plagues that are not THE plague, if you ever want to really freak yourself out, check out this story on Smallpox  (full article here if you don’t have access to the New Yorker archives). There is a really good reason, in my opinion, why it was not only one of the first diseases humans started experimenting with vaccinating against, but why it was the first eradicated.

5/ Just to add–the San Francisco plague outbreak of 1900–1904–we didn’t discuss it because we already had enough plague to discuss, but it was shockingly like the current COVID-19 outbreak in several ways, including the quarantining of boats in San Francisco Bay and a lot of blame falling (unfairly) on Chinese Americans.

6/ Around 6:50 Jesse mentions an outbreak in the late 1900s, but she means late 1800s (late 19th century). [Again, I get excited and misspeak! I’m working on this.–JN]

7/ The death rate of plague with antibiotics is about 11% (with the CDC noting it’s hard to study because of a paucity of cases). That’s…not great.

8/ Monica H. Green, “When Numbers Don’t Count: Changing Perspectives on the Justinianic Plague,” EIDOLON (Nov. 18, 2019), https://eidolon.pub/when-numbers-dont-count-56a2b3c3d07. Monica Green, ed., Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death, The Medieval Globe, vol. 1, no. 1 (Arc Medieval Press, 2014), https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/medieval_globe/1/. Google her work!

9/ “Three to four thousand years ago” was around the year 2000 BCE. The first Egyptian pyramid was already 600 years old at that point. [I also mention early Aegean and Greek civilization as reference points. Cycladic civilization is roughly 3200–1050 BCE, Minoan civilization is roughly 2700–1100 BCE, and Mycenean civilization is roughly 1600–1100 BCE. 1100 BCE was a system collapse, possibly the one remembered in The Iliad as the Trojan War.–JN]

10/ Rats! A reminder (in case we weren’t clear enough) that fleas are primarily responsible for transmitting the plague. Rats can carry the flea, but so can other rodents (some squirrels, for example). Also, not all rats are equally likely to carry the flea. Be nice to rats!

11/ “If you saw a rabbit while you were pregnant, it could make you give birth to a rabbit or something.” Or more likely a baby with a harelip (the term dates from the mid-16th century). There were weird case reports of women giving birth to things like rabbits and cats (e.g., Mary Toft in the 1720s). Unclear to me how much of this is hysteria/some other mental illness vs outright fraud. [Ooooo, I can’t explain it all here, but hysteria and the medicalization of gynecology would make a great episode, if anyone is interested. In a relevant context, Horrox quotes Jean de Venette, who suggested that imagination as well as contagion could make someone sick (i.e., someone imagined they were going to become sick, so they did): “death and sickness came by imagination, or by contact with others and consequent contagion” (p. 55). Horrox explains more on page 107. For this and many other sources from our episode, see Rosemary Horrox, ed. and trans., The Black Death, Manchester Medieval Sources, book 1 (Manchester University Press: 1994), pp. 41–45 (link)–JN]

12/ (26:37) Jesse: The basilisk…who we all know because of J.K. Rowling.
Me: Right… (you can actually hear my brain panicking as I try to remember whether it’s a lizard or a snake. Now, looking at some pictures, I can see that it is described as a “serpent” but occasionally drawn with legs.) [The basilisk is the king of snakes–basil from Greek basileus, or king. The basilisk is hatched from the egg of a serpent or toad that’s been incubated by a rooster. The basilisk can kill with one glance, and its venom is instantaneously poisonous, probably even by touch.–JN]

13/ A Winter’s Tale: A later Shakespearian play sometimes felt to be a “problem play” because it begins very seriously and tragically and eventually has a happy ending. Contains one of the most famous stage directions of all time, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” [It’s a gorgeous, brilliant dramedy about a jealous man and the women (and children) who deal with him. It’s also an extraordinary commentary on the mother/daughter relationship, and one of Shakespeare’s many great discussions on female friendship. It also has some very medieval moments–we might talk about it again!–JN]

Additional Jesse note: Shakespeare! We’ll probably talk about him in every episode. Shakespeare was obviously familiar with the plague and experienced quarantines and closed theatres. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo would have received the letter explaining Juliet’s “death” if Friar Lawrence’s fellow friar hadn’t been quarantined because he wanted to travel with a friend, and the friend had been visiting plague victims! (No good deed goes unpunished.) Friar John couldn’t even get someone to take the letter in his place or simply to return it to Friar Lawrence because everyone was worried about infection. (They didn’t have Purell to wipe down letters.) This is a plot point that used to seem silly, but now it presumably makes sense again. Friars were among the high risk health care workers of their day (and ours, presumably).

14/ A case where the goods were unloaded…but then no one would buy them. See Rosemary Horrox, ed. and trans., The Black Death, Manchester Medieval Sources, book 1 (Manchester University Press: 1994), pp. 41–45 (link). Louis Heyligen was a musician in the service of a cardinal at the Holy See (aka the Roman Curia or the home of the papacy) in Avignon. (For the Avignon Papacy, which I’m sure we’ll discuss in a future episode, see Wikipedia. The pope wasn’t in Rome, he was in Avignon.) Louis wrote a long letter home to Bruges warning them of the coming plague and describing the plague in Avignon, including the various forms the disease takes, the danger of contagion, and the fact that the disease is known to travel and that ships have been chased from the harbor due to suspicion of contagion. He adds that “no kinds of spices are eaten or handled, unless they have been in stock for a year, because men are afraid that they might have come from the galleys [ships–JN] of which I spoke” (p. 45). He also recommends self quarantining. Sadly his employer, Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, died of the plague.

15/ The ultimate Italian pasty is Sfogliatella. Don’t @ me.

16/ Medical and scientific manuals for how to treat plague: the “most authoritative” (Horrox, p. 158) is the Paris medical faculty’s two-part treatise on causes (part 1) and preventions/cures (part 2). For an excerpt in English, see Horrox, p. 158–163.

17/ “A friend who works on relations between Jews and Christians…has discussed the ways in which there would be questions…” Dr. Katelyn Mesler is the friend! We’ll discuss this and cite more in a future episode.

18/ Copernicus (1473–1543) was known for reorganizing the model of the solar system (“everything goes around the Sun, which is the center of the universe”, c.f. the previous model which had Earth at the center of everything). Galileo (1564–1642) noticed moons orbiting Jupiter and suggested that the Sun was only one thing around which things were orbiting among many and probably wasn’t that special.

It is interesting to note that all the planets up to and including Jupiter were known about since ancient times. Saturn was discovered in 1610 (by Galileo, natch–right around the same time he discovered the four moons of Jupiter now known as the Galilean moons). Uranus was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel, and Neptune was discovered in 1846 by a bunch of mathematicians. That’s a lot of science done with visible light telescopes using hand-ground lenses.

19/ Interesting but not really relevant–in the scifi novel The Three-Body Problem, the appearance of three stars in conjunction is also a bad omen (albeit for different reasons).

20/ I have read some of Petrarch’s sonnets, but I don’t think I realized Laura was a real person. [Dante’s Beatrice was also a real person, but…the distance between real and literary trope is fairly wide in both cases. –JN]

21/ The Decameron: If you’re making a list of “books from the Middle Ages that come up again and again in literature from the Medieval period to the present day,” The Decameron should definitely be on that list. Also, Aubrey Plaza was recently in a film based on some of the stories in it called The Little Hours. (I haven’t seen it.)

22/ Quarantine! Jesse’s Note: The Middle Ages tried to quarantine during the first outbreak of the 1347 plague, but (as we have found today with Covid-19), it was already too late. However, an early instance of quarantine that appears to have worked took place in 1377 in Ragusa (Dubrovnik). See Jane Stevens Crawshaw, “The Renaissance Invention of Quarantine” in The Fifteenth Century XII: Society in an Age of Plague, edited by Linda Clark and Carole Rawcliffe (Boydell & Brewer, 2013), especially page 163 note 10 (link). (I am using quarantine to mean purposeful isolation, not the technical 40-day period–some early quarantines were 30 days, etc. We’re going to talk about isolation as a medieval concept, religious trend, and more in a future episode. The basic point is that quarantine may have seemed a more obvious solution to the Middle Ages than it seems to be for us–even though it absolutely works! We just have a society that discourages isolation.)

23/ Apparently, Pope Francis recently granted a plenary indulgence to anyone who watched/listened to his blessing urbi et orbi. So this is definitely still a thing that happens!

24/ The specific question of “is electricity fire” is discussed briefly in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (you can read the specific section here). Rereading this I’m struck by how much I disagree with a lot of what he’s saying now, and the definite anti-Colonialist bent some of the other speakers seem to have…a long time before Fanon and Said! But “the early fifties” was a pretty different world from now, so it’s not that surprising that I might disagree. I did really enjoy his books and they were very influential on me when I was younger.

25/ Pope Gregory I: The guy Gregorian chant was named for. The guy/name was so popular that it was used for fifteen more popes and two antipopes.

26/ The Golden Legend.

27/ H.P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark,” Weird Tales of December 1936, vol. 28, no. 5, pp. 538–553 (link) is a pretty prime example of this. And–look, I know that a lot of people have strong feelings on Lovecraft, both pro and con. My feelings are most easily summarized as “Racism bad, creepy architecture good.” [Yes, and so many extraordinary works have been strongly influenced by HPL–Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Alan Moore’s Providence, and Megan James’s Innsmouth, to name a few.–JN]

28/ The flagellants–see Richard Kieckhefer, ”Radical tendencies in the flagellant movement of the mid-fourteenth century,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol 4 (1974), pp. 157–176 (link).

29/ Em: What actually does happen if you are a priest leading prayers for the end of the plague and they don’t work? Do you just say, you know, G-d is not happy yet, we haven’t repented enough? Jesse: Yup, basically.

30/ Henry Knighton’s wonderful opinions can be found in Horrox, p. 130.

31/ The Westminster Chronicle is in Horrox, p. 131.

32/ Pogroms related to Jews possibly spreading the plague–see Horrox (throughout). There are so many sources about this–I (Jesse) definitely underplayed it for this episode, because I assume we’ll talk about these horrors in the future.

33/ Henry Suso. This story is in Horrox, p. 223–226.

34/ The Pardoner’s Tale.

35/ The Three Living and the Three Dead: The British Library has a great article on this, with some really neat pictures from illuminated manuscripts.

36/ St. Sebastian is the patron saint of plague. I think he’s also the patron saint of gay men (er, not literally, but “Sebastian Melmoth” was a name used by Oscar Wilde during his exile, and something about those arrows is suggestive?).

37/ Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets,” originally published in 1988 link. To quote from the notes, “Greenblatt’s title refers to the way the English colonists duped the natives of North America into believing that the English god had shot those natives who were dying of diseases imported from Europe by the colonists with invisible bullets” (first endnote at link). Rereading his essay, I feel that he is a little too credulous of what the Europeans reported their experiences with the Native Americans to be, rather than questioning the extent to which the things they are reporting (viz. a lack of sophistication among the natives, their belief that perhaps the gods favored the Europeans or the European god was “true” and theirs wasn’t) might be a product of mistranslation, wishful thinking, spin doctoring, and so forth. Greenblatt was (is, I guess) part of a movement called New Historicism that tried to use literature to understand history. My problems with his essay aside, New Historicism apparently made Harold Bloom cranky, so I can only support it.

38/ Not necessarily related to the episode, but more reading if you are interested in this topic: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe is an interesting chronicle of an outbreak of plague a bit later (1665). One striking moment being, persuant to Jesse’s comment that even if the plague was kind of a curse from an angry deity, it was good to go to a doctor, the narrator suggests that instead of leaving town (because he has no one to watch his shop), he will stay where he is and trust in God, and his brother replies that it is stupid to stay and trust God with your life rather than leave town to save your life and trust God with your things.

Episode 1: An Introduction to the Middle Ages


Em and Jesse discuss the inspiration behind the podcast and try to answer a few questions: What are the Middle Ages? How are they different from the Dark Age? Where did the name “Middle Ages” come from? Why study the Middle Ages? Also, Jesse makes controversial claims about Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus.

Notes, Corrections, and Citations:

1/ This is the comic referenced

2/ Neil Gaiman (esp. Sandman) / Reading Rainbow. This was a Twitter Thing (actual tweets can be seen here)…here’s an older podcast LeVar Burton did reading a Neil Gaiman story called “Chivalry.”  It looks like he did livestream “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale,” but I don’t see the actual recording–maybe it didn’t get archived? 

3/ John Dee: Professional weirdo. Ben Jonson did have a book of Dee’s; it is called Liber Iuratus Honorii [usually translated as “the sworn book  of Honorius”]. Here is the catalog entry, courtesy of Dr. Kate Mesler.

4/Marlow’s Dr Faustus–was it secretly about John Dee? Probably not. Dee probably didn’t have this reputation yet (i.e., super powerful and/or evil), and anyway he was abroad in Europe when Marlowe wrote his play. Also, Faustus was a real guy who died around 1541. His legend was already spreading in chapbooks by the 1580s, and there was an English translation by 1588. Marlowe wrote his play between 1589-1592, clearly based on the legend of Faust.

5/ Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist–Jonson ended up with one of Dee’s books, so he certainly knew about him. Also, Dee had probably just died (with his reputation in tatters) when Jonson wrote the play, so–it’s not impossible that Jonson had Dee on his mind when writing the play.

6/ Geoffrey Chaucer: I’m not going to say he’s a big deal, but if you know of one person from the Middle Ages, it’s probably him.

7/ Rocca Paolina https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocca_Paolina Jesse got the timeline of the discovery/excavation a little off. 

8/ Tolkien 

9/ Monty Python and the Holy Grail / Terry Jones. Terry Jones died in January 2020. Because of his fame in other arenas, it’s actually quite difficult to find a bibliography of his medieval works online. A few prominent ones are Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (co-written with Alan Ereira) and Chaucer’s Knight.

10/ Aztalan state park. Aztalan is the name of a city that was founded around 1100 CE. I’m not actually sure how many people lived there–the sources I see note the largest city of the Mississippians during this period was 30,000 people, but that was in Cahokia (IL). Why is it called Aztalan? Because the Aztecs’ origin stories claimed that they had migrated to Mexico from somewhere to the north, and because the site has 1/ earthen pyramids, and 2/ apparently, evidence of cannibalism (this claim doesn’t seem widely repeated, so take it with a grain of salt). There has been significant evidence that the Americas were very much shaped by the Native Americans: example

11/ The Hungry Woman and Heart of the Earth by Cherrie Moraga

12/ The Popul Vuh is the Mayan book of creation. There are many translations out there (I own at least two of them somehow) so I won’t link to any specific one. But it’s an interesting read.

13/ There have been a ton of books written about the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the various terrible things they did there. If you are interested specifically in the ways Christianity and native culture interacted, one more interesting book I have read is Inca Bodies and the Body of Christ by Carolyn Dean. (Join in next week for more of my new secret series, Em Recommends Her Grad School Reading List.) 

14/ Genghis Khan: If you really want to know about the Mongols, check out the relevant episodes of the Hardcore History podcast as a starting point.

15/ Kublai Khan took the throne in 1260 and ruled until 1294. He was Genghis’s grandson.

16/ Ibn Daniyal: A brief biography with a disappointingly bowdlerized summary of his plays can be found here.  

Plays in translation (they are XXX rated): English version, another cheaper English version, Arabic version.

17/ At around 29:40 Jesse asserts that Medieval Theatre is “in many ways” more interesting than Renaissance theatre, and that’s not even the most controversial thing she has alleged in this episode!

18/ ”It’s almost a cliché in certain…time traveling shows…” specifically I was thinking of an episode of Stargate SG-1 (which typically has no time travel in it, sorry). Looks like there were a bunch of scenes where Dr. Daniel Jackson badmouths the Dark Ages, actually. Example. Example

19/ Miracle Workers: The Dark Ages. I haven’t seen it (neither has Jesse) but apparently it has Daniel Radcliffe in it. And a duck. So.

20/ Blackadder: best show ever? … 

21/ Agricola: Spend a good four hours pretending to be a mud farming peasant. 

22/ Europa Universalis 4: Spend a thousand hours conquering the globe. It really will teach you a lot of geography. (I definitely haven’t spent a thousand hours playing this, but it is how I learned about a shocking number of kingdoms/countries/sultinates/etc. that existed before the modern era.)

23/ During the discussion of plays, Jesse was unclear. [Sorry about that! Em thought I conflated Mankind and the Ordinalia. This is what happens when I get excited–I talk very, very quickly and skip key details that I forget everyone doesn’t already know. I will work on this for the sake of the podcast! And also my students.-JN] Mankind is a great morality play from East Anglia. The Ordinalia are three Cornish plays: the Origo Mundi (The Origin of the World), a Passion, and a Resurrection. The “world play” refers to the first play, even though usually a “world play” contains the entire history of the world from creation to doomsday (and in this case, even the entire cycle doesn’t include a Doomsday). 

24/ Henry VI is a series of three plays by Shakespeare, not to be confused with Henry V (one play, quite good) or Henry IV (two plays, first one is generally thought to be better than the second). Jesse says Henry VII gets the throne back for a year before being killed by Edward IV–this is actually Henry VI! 

25/ National Theatre Live: this is probably the link you want

26/ Mary Shelley wrote during the summer of 1816, which was actually made famously cold by the 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora (or Tamboro). Krakatoa (also an Indonesian volcano) has erupted many times, but the one everyone thinks of as “the eruption” was in 1883.

27/ It’s also worth noting that Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, so the fact that Frankenstein was specifically about man’s hubris is probably not accidental? I don’t know. I wanted to shoehorn that Mary Wollstonecraft fact in because she was awesome and a much overlooked female philosopher.