In which we discuss iconography (the study of icons), primarily so we can talk about the protests relating to/attempting to tear down the Robert E. Lee (and other major Confederate) statue(s) in Richmond, VA. But there’s also some good stuff on Medieval iconography, Kehinde Wiley, GB Trudeau, and Beyoncé.
If heretics go directly to hell, and saints go directly to heaven, what happens if you burn as a heretic someone who later turns out to be a saint? Em and Jesse talk about Dante, sainthood and the inquisitio process, and finally look at the cases of two female saints, one of whom was initially burned as a heretic, and one of whom was treated, ultimately, as a saint rather than a demoniac.
Annotations, Corrections, and Notes
1/ In fact, George Floyd was murdered on May 25th, so even though on the 31st it felt like the protests had been going on for weeks already, it was only one week, as noted, when we recorded this episode. Viva la revolution!
2/ Caroline Walker Bynum and Paul Freedman, Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999 (link). [Quote from page 1.–Jesse]
3/ Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Good Omens. The miniseries (available on Prime) is extremely charming.
Jesse: For more on Margery Kempe, see episode 6, note 29; episode 7, note 23; and episode 8, note 4. For apophatic mysticism, see episode 7, notes 12 and 15 (and the whole section on Marguerite Porete.)
4/ Jesse: [The millennium] has to mark something. What does it mark?
Em: Bigger fines at Blockbuster video.
For our younger listeners, during the “Y2K Crisis,” people were worried that when the year turned to “2000,” computers would read it as “00” and assume it was 1900, thereby somehow messing up a bunch of things. This was solved by people updating computers to read a date stamp with a four-digit year instead of a two-digit one, and nothing happened, except in a few cases overdue videos were found to have absurd fees (which were then waived).
For our even younger listeners, Blockbuster Video was a place you could go to if you wanted to rent video cassettes and DVDs in the days before internet-based streaming services.
5/ Back in the late 90s/early 2000s there was a series of movies about Americans fighting the end of the world: Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow, and The Core are just a few of the films in this genre. Will Smith does actually literally punch an alien in the face in Independence Day. [I love Will Smith, and I love this scene (relevant moment at 0:46.)–Jesse]
Jesse: Monster movies can signify many things, but Godzilla’s apocalyptic sensibility is a direct response to nuclear war, which had made the end of the world suddenly appear to be an achievable goal for humanity. Specifically, Godzilla is a response to the US dropping two atomic bombs on Japan and causing a humanitarian catastrophe in a manner not previously seen in global history. So while the movie contains the message that humanity has caused its own destruction (by awakening Godzilla), there’s also the stark reminder that only the US has ever dropped a nuclear bomb on a country, and that country was Japan.
6/ Supernova records: Supernova SN 185, which appeared in 185 CE, was the earliest supernova to make it into human records, although some researchers have suggested that HB9, which happened around 4600 BCE, may have been captured in rock carvings in Kashmir, India.
7/ Eschatology: The study of the end of the world. [Quote from Bynum and Freedman, page 3.–Jesse]
Jesse: For an example of Christ at the Last Judgment in a rainbow nimbus, see Giotto’s Last Judgment in the Scrovegni or Arena Chapel. The Doomsday pageant from the Middle English York Cycle play was produced by the Mercers, and a very famous document (the Mercers’ Indenture) from 1433 details all the items used in the pageant, including “A cloude & ij peces of rainbow of tymber” or “a cloud and two pieces of rainbow made of timber.” Presumably, the cloud and rainbow covered the “brandreth of Iren” (or iron) that Jesus sat on when he was lowered from and lifted back up to heaven at the beginning and end of the pageant. The document is reprinted in the Records of Early English Drama (or REED) York, volume 1, pages 55–56.
Jesse: Lorraine Hansberry’s father case, Hansberry vs. Lee, deals specifically with restrictive covenants.
Harlem by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Em: Redlining was a relatively common practice for quite a long time–technically, the term is used for any systematic denial of services to any group(s) of people. So if a bank were giving loans to White people with lower incomes but denying loans to Black people with the same or higher incomes, that is redlining. But so would be the police or fire department refusing to go to certain neighborhoods. The term originated from a time when banks drew on actual, paper maps to mark areas that were considered good and bad for investment–red lines meant risky area, do not invest here. In response, communities would create racial covenants in their housing deeds that would be used to keep non-White and Jewish people out of certain areas, thus creating the ethnicly/racially segregated neighborhoods we often associate with big cities without any need for the city’s government to do anything. In some places (like in nearby Monona, WI), there are some neighborhoods that still carry covenants within their paperwork stating to whom houses may or may not be sold–although they are unenforceable now, they can be extremely difficult to remove from deeds and such, so they remain as an unsavory reminder of our recent past. This article on racial covenants and redlining has a good overview. Covenants were declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 1948, but they persisted a while longer before falling into disuse. Redlining and other forms of housing discrimination have sadly persisted a lot longer.
10/ Odysseus (aka Ulysses) is in the eighth ring of the eighth circle, along with Diomedes, reserved for counselors of fraud–because of all his schemes used to win the Trojan War. Dante would have been referring to the version of the Trojan War recounted in The Aeneid, so of course he doesn’t see Odysseus as one of the good guys. [To be fair, Homer wrote around 750 BCE. Once we get to 5th century Athens–i.e., democratic Athens during the 400s BCE, the century of the Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides–Odysseus is no longer a hero. The classical Greek plays depict Odysseus as Dante depicts him, because a man who can scheme and convince anyone to do anything by verbally manipulating them is obviously a danger to a democracy.–Jesse] [Em: I am weirdly disappointed to know this. Odysseus forever.]
11/ We talked a little about the pope losing the papal states in the notes from episode 8 (note 10). It was around 1870. The era in which the pope was basically a prisoner in the Vatican is called the Savoyard era and it stretches from 1870–1929. See also the first two minutes of this video.
12/ Specifically, the doctrine of papal infallibility was proclaimed in 1870 (first Vatican council), and it states the pope cannot “err or teach error when he speaks on matters of faith and morals ex cathedra” (source). Meaning that if you ask him what the weather is going to be and he tells you he thinks it will rain and then it doesn’t rain, there’s not considered to be a contradiction. However, per that same NYT article, it seems as though if he doesn’t declare that he’s speaking infallibly, it doesn’t necessarily count as infallible–the doctrine doesn’t mean all teachings the pope gives are assumed to be infallible ex post facto.
13/ Pope Nicholas III apparently got the job of pope through family connections (some connections!) and was never a priest until that point (although he was a cardinal earlier? Catholicism is weird).
14/ The next evil pope, per Dante, was Boniface VIII. Nicholas also predicts another evil pope, Clement V.
15/ New question: Who would we ADD to Dante’s Hell? You can only choose one. Clearly Stephen Miller belongs in the 8th circle / 8th ring. (Okay I will save it for the “Em Is Angry about Politics” podcast.)
The modern circle of Hell that can replace the sodomites is people who call meetings for things that could have been an email. (Clearly this is a form of pride? But a specific one that deserves mention.)
16/ “Our grandfather was taught to baptize kids…” Our grandfather was a cardiologist, so if he was taught to do baptisms it must have been part of the standard medical curriculum, because I don’t think he spent too much time doing deliveries. [All doctors were theoretically supposed to be able to reassure a parent that their child had been baptized in the case of a stillbirth. I don’t know if he *really* knew what to say, and I imagine that once Vatican II took hold it was no longer an issue. He did have a wonderful story about safely delivering a healthy baby in a car–just outside the hospital, I think–as a med student. When he proudly recounted the tale to one of his fellow residents, the guy just wanted to know what kind of car it had been.–Jesse]
17/ Michael Camille, “The Pose of the Queer: Dante’s Gaze, Brunetto Latini’s Body,” in Queering the Middle Ages, Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger, eds. University of Minnesota Press, 2001. (Link). (PS If you buy and read this book, please leave it a nicer review than the current one that is up there on Amazon, which is crummy. Like dude, why did you do that.) This is the illustration:
As a side note, Brunetto Latini was a respected politician and philosopher who, among other things, was married (he had a daughter). A lot of the paper can be read here.
Jesse: Camille’s essay is great! Many gay and bisexual people throughout history have been married, of course, specifically to have children to carry on the family name and/or fortune, etc. Latini seems to have written at least one love poem to a man (one poem has been discovered so far), possibly to Bondie Dietaiuti. It’s important to note that Dante and Latini were friends, and they’re glad to see each other in this scene. It’s truly fascinating, because Dante draws a brilliant portrait of his former mentor Latini. Dante clearly admires and respects him, using the formal you/voi form that Dante presumably used in real life when Latini was alive. The scene is extremely moving, and it’s tempting to think that Dante treats Latini this way because homosexuality is a love-based sin. Presumably this is not how Dante viewed it when he wrote the Inferno, since he makes homosexuality a Seventh Circle-level sin (a sin of violence). Interestingly, Dante may have changed his mind about homosexuality by the time he wrote Purgatory, where homosexuality is a sin of incontinence (lust), the same as heterosexual sinners who sinned because of lust. So–maybe what we see here is Dante’s indecision on the sin of homosexuality. At any rate, Latini certainly isn’t ashamed (even though he’s in the Seventh Circle, which is fairly far in), and he and Dante have a wonderful conversation.
18/ Agnes Nutter explodes in episode 2 of the Good Omens miniseries.
19/ Kevin Smith, dir., Dogma. [Morgan Freeman has frequently played God, but that doesn’t manifest in possession, just in an awesome portrayal of God.–Jesse]
20/ Feast of Corpus Christi: See episode 6, notes 14 and 16 (and accompanying audio, of course).
21/ Jesse: For more on Dyan Eliot, Proving Woman, see episode 6, note 11. This comparison on testing people like gold is from page 282 (and check out Fallen Bodies as well). Latin probare (to prove). A probatio is a proof (the test itself or the evidence).
22/ [35:40] “The way you test people… is compared to the same test…that you gave a gold coin to prove that it is real.” For a minute I legit thought Jesse was going to say you bite the person making the claim (you bite a gold coin to look for teeth marks, which indicate gold + lead, a softer metal, and therefore a forged coin). But this is a slightly different type of test. (I know that there was at least one neurologist who wrote about it, and I think it was Harold Klawans in Toscanini’s Fumble, but it has been so long since I read it that I am not altogether sure.)
Jesse: Ha! Biting might work too. (Does she feel it? If not, the possession might be divine.)
23/ Jean Gerson: See episode 6, notes 25, 27, and 33 and also episode 8 (he’s mentioned in the audio accompanying note 9) because he keeps coming up for some reason.
Jesse: To find these Gerson’s “On distinguishing true from false revelations” (1401) in English translation, see McGuire’s Paulist press collection Jean Gerson: Early Works. Gerson compares testing the coin of spiritual revelation to testing gold on page 338. For more on Gerson’s texts mentioned here, see Elliott’s Proving Woman, 283–284. See Elliott’s introduction for this quote: “Ultimately, the distance between saint and heretic practically disappeared” (6).
An inquisitio is a seeking, searching, examining, inquiring.
24/ University of Paris, aka the Sorbonne: originally emerged in 1150 in association with the cathedral school of Notre Dame de Paris, it was officially chartered by King Philip II in 1200 and recognized by Pope Innocent III in 1215. It was the second oldest university in Europe (the University of Bologna being the oldest; although Oxford claims to be older) and, following a suppression during the French Revolution, was reestablished by Napoleon as the University of France in 1806 and remained open continuously until it was divided into thirteen autonomous universities in 1970. So…is it the same university today that opened in 1150? This is a Ship of Theseus question.
Jesse: a scholastic disputatio is an arguing, reasoning, or debate. As Dyan Elliott notes in Proving Woman, “[i]n the disputatio, a scholar first isolates an area of investigation in the form of a proposition, which is presented as a quaestio. The quaestio is then interrogated so that two opposing sides emerge,” one for the proposition and one against it (234, 236). The disputatio is also closely related to the inquisitio or inquisitional procedure. An inquisitio is an inquiry into heresy in which the inquisitor often “combines the roles of prosecutor and judge” (234).
Elliott comments that “the scholastic disputatio can be regarded as but another version of the inquisitio,” an academic variation in which “the verdict [is] preordained, the same side always wins” (234). This preordained ending is obviously dangerous, and helps explain why Gerson could not effectively defend Joan of Arc.
25/ Famously, Christopher Hitchens served as an advocat diaboli for Mother Theresa’s sainthood inquisition. Spoiler alert–she was still sainted. [Yes, but we don’t canonize people the way we used to, and it’s not just because of modern skepticism—a lot of it is based on medieval sKepticism (and sexism).–Jesse]
Jesse: Quick language note–Henry IV was the first English king after the Norman Conquest to speak English as his first language. During the reign of Richard II (whom Henry IV deposed in 1399 and murdered in 1400), English had become an important literary language (see Chaucer, for example).
Barbara Newman “Possessed by the Spirit: Devout Women, Demoniacs, and the Apostolic Life in the Thirteenth Century” Speculum Vol. 73, No. 3 (Jul., 1998), pp. 733–770.
WorldCat link to the translation of Thomas of Cantimpré’s Life of Christina the Astonishing.
Thomas of Cantimpré (1201–1272) was a Dominican who wrote a number of Lives of holy women.
30/ Richard Kieckhefer, another Northwestern scholar. Interestingly (for those of us who are devoted readers of fiction, anyway), there’s a fair amount about the Inquisition in The Name of the Rose without really discussing that the Inquisition was not the organized machine we usually think of (whose main weapons are fear, surprise, and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope–).
Jesse: See Kieckhefer’s “The Office of Inquisition and Medieval Heresy: The Transition from Personal to Institutional Jurisdiction,” in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 46.1 (Jan 1995), pp. 36–61.
Come with us into Hell. We’ll accompany Dante and Virgil as they pass through the nine circles and out into purgatory and heaven. On the way, we’ll chat about Margery Kemp and Julian of Norwich, Hellboy, D&D, Giotto’s Scrovengi Chapel, and the tendency of ogliarchs to use philanthropy to try and make people like them.
Notes and Annotations
1/ Minne/affective piety: see episode 7, note 1.
2/ Hildegard: see episode 6, notes 17 and 23.
Marguerite Porete: see episode 7, notes 15 and 17.
5/ Dante: Writer, failed politician, egoist. [“Failed politician” is a little unfair–he’s probably a better person for having been on the side that got exiled. I think he’d agree though–and with “egoist” too. –Jesse]
7/ For the terminally curious, here is the D&D Chick tract. I like that this comic includes two young women in the D&D group and…apparently the DM is some older woman? Anyway, it’s extremely unrealistic that the DM would just kill off a character like that. It’s very rude. Serious D&D players can hang onto their characters for years, and killing off a character permanently is a pretty intense situation. Also I have never been invited to join a coven devoted to ANY deity after participating in D&D, which honestly is a little disappointing.
Interesting and relevant side story, I’ve also been involved in the creation of a D&D adventure that started in limbo and worked its way through Dante’s Inferno. [So awesome! I want in on that adventure.–Jesse]
Jesse: In Medieval Crossover, Barbara Newman points out that “for us, the secular is the normative, unmarked default category, while the sacred is the marked, asymmetrical Other. In the Middle Ages it was the reverse” (viii). She goes on to comment that “the secular had to establish a niche” within the sacred paradigm that framed medieval society (viii). Barbara Newman, Medieval Crossover: Reading the Secular against the Sacred (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013)
8/ I think Jesse had read the Hellboy pancakes comic because I bought the collection that included it while I was staying with her in Manhattan one weekend, and true to form she read the whole thing before I flew out. [Yes that’s right!! I actually hadn’t read that one before, probably because it’s not based on . . . uh . . . myth/folklore. Now I own the complete Hellboy in nice editions, and I have a small figurine of young Hellboy with his pancakes. The figurine is marooned in my office on campus, and I can’t get back in the building without special arrangements because of quarantine, which is why I can’t include a picture of it sitting on my desk. When it comes to Hellboy, the Mignola illustrated ones are the best, but they’re all amazing, and the stand-alone short stories are all phenomenal. Mignola spoke at VCU last year, and it was magical.–Jesse]
For more on the famous inscription over the gate of Hell (and the complete translation and original text) see episode 7, note 25.
10/ [27:15] “Some [popes] . . . are much more bent on conquest and territory.” For those unfamiliar with the history of the Catholic Church, during this period the Pope had control not just of tiny Vatican City, but also a much larger swath of territory called the Papal States. This YouTube video is a good explanation of the origins of Vatican City.
11/ Interestingly (or not), Guelph is now the name of a suburb of Toronto.
12/ Purgatory, canto 6. I had no idea that there was ANY basis in reality of Romeo and Juliet. [The Montecchi and the Cappelletti–known to us as the Montagues and the Capulets–were apparently two factions in the political feuding of time.–Jesse]
13/ Sleeping and mortality: See episode 3, note 27.
Jesse: The beasts are a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf (taken from Jeremiah 5:6). They symbolize (probably but not necessarily in this order) malice and fraud, violence and ambition, and incontinence (i.e., lack of self-restraint–sins like avarice, gluttony, and lust).
14/ On the dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets: As the local nerd, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there’s an episode of Doctor Who (new series) in which it’s implied that the Doctor’s companion Martha Jones is the dark lady.
15/ Re names: is this related to the choice of “Beatrice” as a character in Much Ado About Nothing? [Probably! It becomes a famous Italian name because of Dante.–Jesse]
16/ “We know nothing about what Dante’s marriage was like . . . they had kids.” Crucially, they had kids before he started writing Inferno. Also, interestingly, his daughter took the name “Sister Beatrice” when she became a nun. [Yes, which I think is a positive sign that means Dante was a good dad?–Jesse]
Jesse: We’ll have an episode on the vernacular at some point, but in the meantime check out episode 4 note 16 for St Francis’s vernacular poetry.
17/ Jesse: Not the Georgics! The moment occurs in Virgil’s Eclogues (specifically Eclogue 4). Here is the Wikipedia page about it!
18/ List of trips to the underworld: see episode 3, note 32 (and corresponding discussion in episode).
I should have said that Virgil was buried in Naples. His tomb is still there, but his remains seem to have disappeared. Dante is buried in Ravenna. He’s never left, but he’s had a hectic afterlife (mostly to prevent stealing him–no wonder Virgil disappeared!). Check it out!
19/ [41:24ish] Elijah is carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot in 2 Kings 2:11. And at the end of that chapter, Elisha commands two bears to tear apart a bunch of kids who make fun of him for being bald. So. Interesting section of the bible overall, that. [Jews frequently believe that Elijah bodily entered heaven–still alive–but Christians frequently do not, because of the importance that Jesus was first and that Mary is the only other so assumed into Heaven. By this reasoning, Elijah was carried away but not directly into heaven. Elijah is worthy of a whole episode, so I kind of hurried on by him. Sorry Elijah!–Jesse]
The mystic or celestial rose (like rose windows in a cathedral) is the final level of Paradise before God. The flowering rose is a symbol of divine love and light, while the tiered petals reflect the hierarchies of heaven. See this link.
22/ Saturn is the outermost planet that was known at the time; Uranus had been observed possibly as far back as 128 BCE but wasn’t identified as a planet until 1781.
23/ “They thought the stars were fixed . . . in an orbit, like the planets.” Ted Chiang also wrote a short story about this: “Omphalos,” from Exhalation. [Clarification–this all works a lot like electron shells, except that the Middle Ages didn’t know about electrons. The Middle Ages envisioned the universe as a nesting doll, but with spheres. The Earth is in the center, and it is enclosed by numerous (increasingly large) spheres. The planets were thought to be able to move in their individual spheres like electrons in an electron shell, but the stars were all thought to be fixed in one single sphere that moved as a whole (like sparkles on a twirling Christmas ornament). It’s easy to demonstrate and draw but hard to explain in words!–Jesse]
24/ Jesse: Catherine of Cleves (1417–1476) is most famous for her Book of Hours (from Utrecht, ca. 1440). Books of Hours were personal prayer books (frequently divided by days of the week) and medieval bestsellers. Catherine’s Book of Hours was illuminated by one of the greatest Dutch masters of the time, known to us only as the Master of Catherine of Cleves (active ca. 1435–60). Here is the Morgan Library’s homepage on the book.
Monday was devoted to the Hours of the Dead (their pains supposedly ceased on Sunday but were renewed on Monday). The opening page has a man dying (with a lot of drama around him!), and there are souls in the mouth of Purgatory on the page opposite him (because he hopes to go to Purgatory). Yes, this is technically a “Purgatorymouth” not a Hellmouth, but hey. Check out the full description and see the image here.
This AMAZING triple Hellmouth (Do you see the mouth in the red of the middle mouth?) is from the Office of the Dead, which was prayed to free friends and relatives from Purgatory. That being said, this image of Hell was a reminder of what happened when people went beyond redemption. The Office of the Dead does them no good.
29/ Ultramarine blue: Seriously, look at the chapel (see note 24 above). It is gorgeous. But this is like in modern terms putting gold or platinum on every surface of your private jet. Ultramarine blue is made from lapis lazuli, which was only mined in one area in Afghanistan.
Jesse: Chartres blue is the equivalent for stained glass windows. There’s a myth that we don’t know how to make it anymore, but really it’s just that we can’t necessarily recreate it exactly the way the medieval glassmakers made it (or, more specifically, we can’t be sure that we’re recreating it the same way they did–medieval recipes and instructions can be difficult to follow). Check out the Virgin window (the Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere)!
What is the purpose of sin, and why is it allowed? Why does Hell exist? When people go to Hell, do they stay there forever, and is there any way of getting them out? Em and Jesse take a look at the Medieval personification of God’s love and how several major female mystics tackled these questions, and then dive into Dante’s vision of Hell in The Inferno.
Annotations and Corrections
1/ Minne: love personified. [Minne is also German/Germanic and is part of the medieval courtly love tradition (“Lady Love”). The women in this episode frequently make use of the conventions of courtly love–for example, portraying Christ as a knight. However, Minne also extends far, far beyond courtly love in the philosophies of affective piety described in this episode. Minne becomes a pillar of these women’s philosophies, and consequently it takes more than one episode to describe Minne fully. But we tried to provide a start! I specify Dutch here because of Hadewijch, who wrote in Middle Dutch.–Jesse]
2/ Hadewijch of Brabent or Antwerp. If you’re really interested in more on her philosophy, check out episode 237 of the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast.
Jesse: Hadewijch lived in the first half of the thirteenth century presumably (based on her writings in the Brabant region). Her Wikipedia article is here. For more on Hadewijch and Minne, also see McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism, pp. 199–222.
3/ [5:55] For reference, the printing press was invented in the West around 1440. (It was invented in China about 900 years earlier, in 593.)
4/ Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms. We should definitely talk about this as soon as we finish this series on mysticism and Hell. Also, this was one of my grad school readings, thanks.–Em
5/ We talk a bit in this episode and in several others about the change from writing in Latin to writing in “the Vernacular”–whatever the local language was. Dante and Chaucer are two early examples in their respective languages, but I’m not certain exactly when it became a “thing.” Certainly I think it must have started as education moved out of monasteries and into universities in the 12th century. [This seems like part of a future episode! I love the question of the vernacular. Manuscripts, writing, and illumination might be a future episode as well.–Jesse]
6/ The Crusader Bible in our site header is actually in Latin, Persian, and Judeo-Persian (Persian written in Hebrew characters). See the Citations tab for links to more info on it!
7/ Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)–see Episode 6 beginning around 34:00 and notes 17 and 23.
8/ Jesse: Poem 16 (this is a short excerpt, the full poem is pp. 168–171) in Hadewijch: The Complete Works, introduced and translated by Mother Columba Hart O.S.B. This is part of a series I mention frequently, The Classics of Western Spirituality, published by Paulist Press.
10/ Phaedrus: I remember it as one of the more interesting of the Platonic dialogues, primarily because the main character in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance refers to himself as “Phaedrus,” and also because Socrates really seems to be low-key trying to seduce the guy he’s interviewing.
Symposium: Probably the second-most famous of Plato’s dialogues (The Republic is the most famous). Here is Neal Patrick Harris singing the song “Origin of Love,” which is the story Jesse is referring to. (Wikipedia describes John Cameron Mitchell as “deeply Roman Catholic,” so there’s a chance he knew about Hadewijch. He’s also a former member of the Northwestern Theatre Mafia.)
Gnosis: Knowledge. See also Gnosticism. The character of Tommy Gnosis in Hedwig is very purposefully named.
11/ South Park: I believe this is the episode under discussion. [Yes!! Say what you will, South Park can be brilliant. This episode really illustrates the “unpayable debt” quite well. Also, it’s Kyle (the Jewish character) who buys the unlimited credit card of course, NOT Stan. Kyle essentially lives out a parallel of the Passion throughout the episode. Cartman is obviously Judas.–Jesse]
12/ Apophatic mysticism: Here’s the Wikipedia article, but really you should check out the books on Marguerite Porete. See note 15 below.–Jesse
13/ Ted Chiang, “Hell Is the Absence of God,” in Your Life and Others, Tor, 2002. It feels like Chiang has written stories about a lot of what we talk about.
14/ Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit. I don’t have a preferred translation or anything, but here’s the Wikipedia page for a summary.
15/ Marguerite Porete: History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps did an episode on her, too. Interesting fact, from the 12th century on, Middle Ages glass mirrors would have been made by blowing a sphere of glass, flattening it, and then cutting it to the desired shape and backing it with steel or silver. Prior to that, mirrors were usually just polished metal (and probably after that, too–glass mirrors were very expensive).
17/ [31:20] “…you could match up specific passages with the trial transcripts…” The Inquisition kept very good records.
Jesse: In 1946, Romana Guarnieri identified Marguerite Porete as the previously unnamed beguine author of the Mirror. This dovetails nicely with Episode 6 note 29 on Hope Emily Allen’s identification of Margery Kempe’s Book. There was work done on the Mirror prior to 1946 (in the early 20th century) as the book of an unknown mystic, and this work was also done by excellent female scholars, Evelyn Underhill and Clare Kirchberger (although they attributed the work to a male author, probably based on the fact that the translator of the Middle English manuscript refers to the author as “he”). Women recognizing and writing about women seems like a good topic for the future. (Also, it’s important!)
Guarnieri found a Latin text of the Mirror in the Vatican, thereby proving that all the copies of the condemned text had not been destroyed despite the fact that they were supposed to have been destroyed (along with the condemned Porete herself). Instead, the Mirror exists in multiple translations–“no fewer than six versions in four languages with thirteen manuscripts, making it among the more widely disseminated of the vernacular mystical texts of the Middle Ages” (McGinn, Flowering, p. 246). The languages are Middle English, Latin, Middle French, and Medieval Italian. The original Old French does not seem to have survived (or just hasn’t been discovered yet!).
Guarnieri “based her claim [of Porete’s authorship] on the near identity between the three condemned passages cited in the trial documents and the chronicle of Nangis and portions of the Mirror” (Hollywood, Acute Melancholia and Other Essays, p. 137).
Guarnieri published her discovery in “Lo Specchio delle anime semplici e Margherita Poirette,” in L’Osservatore Romano, 16 June 1946. It’s reprinted in Guarnieri, “Il movimento del Libero Spirito,” Archivio Italiano per la storia della pietà, Vol. 4 (1965), pp. 661–63. For more on Marguerite Porete as the author of the Mirror, see Sean Field, Robert Lerner, and Sylvain Piron “A return to the evidence for Marguerite Porete’s authorship of the Mirror of Simple Souls” in Journal of Medieval History, 43.2 (March 2017), pp. 153–173.
18/ Jesse: Council of Vienne (1311–12). I’m quoting p. viii from the Foreword by Kent Emery, Jr. of the Colledge, Marler, Grant translation published by University of Notre Dame Press.
McGinn, Flowering, chapter 5! The specific page numbers are cited above a lot.
19/ In the intervening time, it seems both Eckhart and Porete have been rehabilitated with the Church–or at least, The Mirror of Simple Souls was published by Burns Oates and Washbourne, LTD (publisher to the Holy See) with nihil obstat (meaning “nothing objectionable”) and imprimatur (meaning it was authorized by the Church).
21/ [43:00] It has often been observed, mostly by writers of children’s stories, that children have a remarkable ability to accept punishment to bad people as appropriate and not seem especially frightened by it. However, there are plenty of adults today with traumatic memories of watching when Bambi’s mom gets shot or the evil queen comes after Snow White who serve as evidence that a lot of what kids are responding/not responding to is the presentation rather than (exclusively) the content. When you read a kid a Grimm Brothers story at bedtime, you’re probably not acting it out like you were C3PO telling the Ewoks about Darth Vader, while on the other hand movies make everything more vivid and dramatic. The reason kids are okay with Henry the train getting walled up in a tunnel is that it’s not presented as a terrible thing to have happen but as an appropriate punishment for someone who is being naughty. It’s only as adults that we become aware of the larger context (i.e. being bricked up in a tunnel forever is terrifying) and understand that what’s being presented is often quite horrible. On the other hand, my child is terrified of Kermit the Frog right now, so clearly presentation isn’t everything.–Em [Kermit is definitively the best.–Jesse]
22/ “Sin is necessary”: I was told a long time ago about a theory that the fall of man (i.e., original sin) was necessary, possibly because if people never had free will to choose between sinning and not sinning (between good and evil), salvation would be meaningless. But Google is not bringing this theory up, so maybe I made it up in my head? –Em
Jesse: No, no this is absolutely true. The “felix culpa” or “fortunate fall” refers to the idea that Adam’s sin/fall actually made things better for humanity. One common explanation is that without sin Jesus would not have been needed to save humanity, which would deprive humanity of the full extent of God’s love. This theme is discussed around Milton a lot.
However, Julian does not seem to be aiming at the idea of “felix culpa.” Goodness of any kind, for Julian, cannot come out of sin (which exists outside God’s Love and goodness). In the episode, I’m quoting from the Paulist Press translation of Julian’s Showings by Colledge and Walsh, pp. 224–225 and 233. The original is in the Watson and Jenkins edition, pp. 207 and 209; 221 and 223.
25/ Dante. Wrote some books. We’ll talk more about him next time. Jesse has promised to transcribe the Italian of the gate text, so this is a stub for her to do that.
Jesse: “I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.” (Ophelia to Laertes in Hamlet, I.iii).
The inscription over the gate of Hell opens the third canto of the Inferno. My English translations of Dante are always John Ciardi’s translation.
I am the way into the city of woe,
I am the way to a forsaken people,
I am the way into eternal sorrow.
Sacred justice moved my architect,
I was raised here by divine omnipotence,
Primordial love and ultimate intellect.
Only those elements time cannot wear
Were made before me, and beyond time I stand.
Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
Per me si va nella città dolente,
per me si va nell’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:
fecemi la divina potestate,
la somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore.
Dinanzi a me non fur cose create
se non eterne, ed io eterna duro:
lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.
26/ Jesse: I can’t believe I got this slightly wrong (and also didn’t trust my instincts enough to say it was Blake, because who else would it be?): “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” (William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
From the feast of Corpus Christi to the mystical marriage between St. Catherine of Siena and Jesus Himself, Em and Jesse dive into the world of Medieval mysticism and affective piety, exploring the ways in which women were able to co-opt the stereotypes of men into positive portrayals of female piety. Brief content note–there’s nothing explicit, but we do mention circumcision in this episode.
Em and Jesse begin a journey into the world of Medieval mysticism with a discussion of hermits and anchorites/anchoresses. With some interesting discussions of cats, Michel Foucault, Plato, and Siddhartha Gautama.
Em and Jesse continue their discussion of Passover and Easter, including the Venerable Bede’s take on Easter’s pagan origins, blood libel, and some long digressions about monasteries, Pope Francis, Saint Francis, and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
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.
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
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:
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.
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]
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:
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.