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Confronting John Milton: How and Why?

30 August 2019

In this further blog arising from my new study of Milton’s Christian Doctrine, I’m reflecting how I came to write it, as reflections on the purpose and meaning of this kind of research.

See also my other blogposts: Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology and A Cover You Won’t Soon Forget.

Till just before I finished my BA at Oxford (1957-61), my working mind was fully occupied by Greek and Latin, and their history and philosophy. These demanded full attention, in vacations too, the way I was being educated! Then it occurred to me that “work” and “working life” had other meanings. If I wanted to be paid for working, I might well have to do something else for the rest of my days. Rather belatedly I considered: banking; librarianship; the civil service; other things, unspecified. None appealed as much as continuing to engross myself in Greece and Rome. I trained to teach secondary-school Classics, since I saw no future tertiarily, feeling overshadowed by the swifter greyhounds (prizewinners and the like) in my Oxford’s Classics cohort.

   All I knew was: I wanted to be paid to do what I could enjoy; and conversely.

Training instead as a secondary teacher (1961-62), I discovered the joy of teaching English. Then, teaching at a grammar school (1962-65) confirmed the scope and delight of working within my own mother tongue. It showed me too that I did not enjoy teaching more Latin than Greek, nor teaching compulsory Latin to unwilling students. I went back to university, to Edinburgh (1965), to train in English studies, which then meant English literature; canonical, the good and proven stuff. That way I could be paid to do what I could enjoy more of, and enjoy more of what I would be paid to do.

Just before taking this plunge, which I have not once regretted, I consulted my Oxford mentor, Eric Gray. “If you do this,” he said, “do focus on scholarship not criticism.” I took him to mean, “Avoid the evaluative subjectivism of the likes of F. R. Leavis.” Yet I found Leavis stimulating to read, in fact exciting, alongside the works he deemed “great,” as in his “Great Tradition” of the English novel. Only five novelists! Then six, when he readmitted Dickens. Freakish but challenging. Was I taken in by Leavis’ egotistical rhetoric, as if no one knew what was good literature but him? No, I had my own unsystematic but quite varied reading experience to compare with his. Strong personalities can inspire or mislead students. So can one-eyed teachers. But English studies, and reading itself, remain “the common pursuit of true judgment.” Good reading, and comparing notes, is life-blood for the mind.

Scholarship, however, must guide and control it. Leavis’s narrowness led him into mistakes. John Butt, lecturing us by tape-recorder from his deathbed in my first days at Edinburgh, pointed some out. It makes a difference in which edition you read Henry James; or the Prelude, or Hamlet. And in each case it makes a different difference. How best can scholarship inform evaluation? Both are part of our civilized heritage, as for music.

I learnt something of systematic scholarship and its value in that first year at Edinburgh. Eclectically, in only two or three papers, and their periods of literature. How spotty English studies can still be! Now more so, taught by specialists, and wooed into taking our humane subject at all in these mad utilitarian times, students can ignore most authors and periods and even genres if they choose. It has been made worse.

So real immersion, and responsible learning of what there is and how it has been preserved and studied and theorized, tend to wait till graduate studies. Now, by the chance of my own changeover from Classics to English, this happened to me. I waited till the doctoral years, having at last found how I wanted spend my working life, to study literature seriously, systematically, for practice and theory— every which way, in the year of “reading into my field,” Shakespeare’s comedies. I knew I wanted to stay with Eng Lit, to the highest level of research and teaching I could attain. This was in the vague hope that research would equip teaching, without needing too much dilution or compromise. Good reading should achieve this: good reading, I had by now found from exemplars, is infectious.

Sometime in the four years at Edinburgh I was sitting in the Library café with a friend, Brian, discussing The Future, our futures. I had been reading Anna Karenina, and somehow or other this led me to confide that all I wanted out of life was to write books, have children, and garden. Career, apparently, didn’t figure, though somehow or other the three prime aims would need to be funded. Was I being realistic, absurd, pathetic, or what? Some satisfactions of life are simple and deep, and if you feel this, then you find some way or other to fulfill them, often without foreseeing how. If you want to be a medievalist you will write books. If scholarships won’t fund you, you do it the old way, in the rest of your time. Publishers likewise: will find ways, one way or another, to connect intelligent people with each other through books.

Not that I thought mine had been the right way of coming to these realizations! Far from it. Much too roundabout and accidental. But that’s showbiz.

And I was still doing catch-up with reading of basic authors through the first few years of my working life. Not at first in Canada (1969-71), where the students’ first degree, and consequently my own teaching load, remained spotty. I got away with being narrow and eclectic while still completing my PhD (1971). Not so at Otago (from 1971 onwards), because of its belief (then) in the canon, and its peculiar way of encompassing it in the BA degree. Continuing from an earlier time when staff resources were few, and New Zealand did not attract many expats, we lectured to all three years of students at the same time, for one period of literature. Next year, similarly, on a second period. Same on the remaining third, the year after. This was called the Cycle. It compelled me to read just ahead of my students for the first three years. No time to publish anything!

It wouldn’t happen now. It couldn’t. I’m a unique species, if not extinct. Yet I must just say, I met some of the great minds at an age when I could appreciate and understand them, better than if I had met them at age 17 or 18. Coleridge for example: the thinker, about poetry and much else. “Mind-blowing” is for once the right word.

Of course I knew that if I wanted to secure tenure, and make my mark among peers, I must also research and publish. “Publish or perish” is a cliché from before my time (where it is becoming “Publish and perish,” more of which in a moment). I should have had a book, or at least essays, to peddle, from my thesis work. I didn’t, for some years. Why not? Isn’t a doctoral dissertation meant to contribute original work to our knowledge, and to be publishable?

So it was said, yet already this was doubtful —papering over the cracks, ignoring the funding imperatives and societal / bureaucratic realities. Universities obey money imperatives, including student consumerism, and institutional pandering to it. Laboriously, I made chapters into conference papers, and sometimes published essays. But fashions were changing. My thesis topic, how Shakespeare used his sources — evaluation based on scholarly research, thereby meeting the criteria of both Gray and Leavis, in fact—did not suit Shakespeare studies by the 1970s. The air was filled with performance study, with political or feminist or postcolonialist readings, and the imminent surge of theory. And it soon got worse, taking attention further from a base in literary scholarship. I finally published my book The Shakespeare of the Comedies: A Multiple Approach in 1996! It incorporated a few of the emerging trends, this time just before they changed again.

Trends are constant in change. It was a fashion to favour criticism over scholarship. The proportioning of theory to reading practice keeps changing, and also which theories out of the centuries of theorizing, are trending. What endures is reading, and sharing the understanding of it. To these, scholarship is essential. And, despite protests, personality— not our own but those enduring authors’. Writers are our companions. Great writers are good companions. Think of Chaucer or Dryden, They still illuminate books, and life, and our lives, social or existential. Reading and research must always serve them, connect us with them, on their terms as well as our own. Books, in whatever form they come to us, must on the whole and in the main serve these constants.

From the outcome with Shakespeare, I saw that my research and publishing life had to change. Yet it was initially only by chance that I switched to Milton, to his voluminous Latin works, and so eventually (Eureka!) combining what I had studied, to appraise his works on their own terms, terms Latin and Neo-Latin, Classical in the broadest sense. That I did this was necessity but first of all, a happy accident. A reading-group was formed from among humanities departments and medicine, to read later Latin classics; anything between Augustine and Newton. We began with Boethius. (What a key text for medieval studies! Everyone for centuries knew this, Chaucer translated it, and so on.) After Boethius, Augustine, then Galileo. Tough stuff. Not many of us could understand Galileo’s study of the moons of Jupiter even after translating its Latin… Which prompts the thought, that some of the time spent on Latin, for example doing Latin proses ad nauseam, would have been better spent on Galileo. Syllabuses and curriculums and timetabling were imperfect, then as now.  Let us hope today’s nonsensical mixture of utilitarian constraint and unthinking permissiveness will change; and teaching and publishing with it. (Humanities are cheaper than most STEM subjects…)

At all events, one such neo-Latinist neophyte turned to me and said: “what about English Latinists? What about Milton? Didn’t he have a reputation for his Latin poems?….”

Indeed he did! And then I knew nothing about it. It was not merely time to catch up on Milton, but time to know his work as a whole, and (since I had Latin, and needed a second string to my research bow) the time was NOW. Since that moment, circa 1980, I have never looked back. All my books on Milton involve his Latin as much as his English.

My new book is my seventh on Milton. His multilingualism became my gladsome niche, through the 1980s. By chance I had learnt Italian at school, but ad hoc I undertook classical Hebrew in that decade, to equip myself for exploring all of Milton’s languages.

It also happens that the world has fewer and fewer people who have those languages and share this interest. While there are any at all, and while I keep my wits, I have a niche indeed.

          My perspective pays dividends all the time, by understandings, and equally by avoidance of misunderstandings. It is a general and autonomous good, that we preserve understandings within a culture. Not to know our past is to be impoverished, and less prepared for future uncertainties.

§§§§§§

But still it might be asked, why do you expend so much effort on what is the most obscure and least read (and longest and most fatiguing) even among his Latin writings? Haven’t you got better things to do? After all, De Doctrina Christina is a glorified commonplace-book, in an antiquated approach to an obsolete metaphysic; tedious and schematic even to look at.

A meek reply might be: (1) Milton wrote works more boring than De Doctrina! (2) It is read more, not less, these days, partly because the revived authorship controversy publicized it. (3) Theologians and intellectual historians, early-modernists in general, have ben alerted to the mid-century crisis in Protestantism, the stirrings of secularism which go with historical study of scripture.

The truer reply is personal. Because of my work on Milton’ languages from 1980 to 1991 I was recruited to the multidisciplinary research team investigating the authorship of De Doctrina. Some scholars thought it inauthentic. Most disagreed. The team looked at all the evidence afresh — signatures, writing, paper, scribes, stylometry, history of the MS, just about everything. My role, as the Latinist, was to assess the statistics of word-usage: did the work use “bad” or late Latin in ways which Milton the purist could not have? Do favourite words within De Doctrina match ones in Milton’s echt– Latin? I put much effort into this collaboration, so enjoyable after all the earlier lonelier toiling.

I used this work again in my writing for the book of the project, Milton and the MS of De Doctrina (Oxford 2008). And more still in editing De Doctrinafor the new Oxford Complete Works of John Milton (2012). Yes, Milton: our research had vindicated his authorship. All of this work helps establish what we mean by “Milton,” his body of writing, the person, his views, beliefs, his opinionated personality. How could a Miltonist not rejoice to be a part of this!? And never mind how many hours or days it needed; or how long it still takes. There is always more to do. This is really living.

           To keep company with a person you admire and respect, through their thoughts even after their death, is what makes me tick. The same holds good for anyone who enjoys living through reading, critically but with admiration. If a job or emolument comes with it, so much the better.

            These three large undertakings with De Doctrina were all collaborations. After envying scholars who had a team to slot into (as scientists do in a lab) or many other disciplines with fieldwork, I relished the teamwork and companionship, at long last. But collaboration had also meant suspending my own individual likes and dislikes regarding De Doctrina. Was Milton always so rigid? Yes and No.  So now I have written my own response to the work. Subtitled “Confronting” it. I feel I have earned the chance to offer a shorter, much more personal monograph. Milton’s Scriptural Theology, yes, and Confronting it.

I see M’s Scriptural Theology as culminating and completing my odyssey. It offers critique and scholarship, on a rare and valuable expression of Milton’s genius; made more not less intriguing by its warts and kinks. I offer a reading of it which combines scholarship with critique (true to my early belief in using both). It harnesses my Latin, too, paying incidental tribute to my languages, and to the authenticity of reading original not translated words. I dwell on this, even to Latin-less readers.

To them especially. No previous study of De Doctrina has so insisted on Milton’s original words, dictated in his blindness to a motley succession of scribes. Sometimes he was desperate, and used whoever was passing and had some Latin. A great man. What guts! Many, many thanks to Simon Forde and the noble seaworthy ARC that rescued my manuscript from the perils of publishing in these troublesome times.

by John Hale

 

A Cover You Won’t Soon Forget

 15 August 2019

The cover’s Latin words and phrases are chosen equally from Milton’s topics and from his personal style in examining them. 

Its prevailing monochrome is chosen to suggest print, and bibles, and academic and clerical garb, or the pen and ink of a controversial manuscript. 

Polemic is suggested in the lineation, by jagged diagonals, tilting and crisscrossing. 

Individual words are chosen for prominent topics, for individual aptness or for typical style and reasoning:

Haeresis: In Greek, hairesis meant simply “choice,” as you find it used in Aristotle’s Ethics, for example. But in New Testament Greek it was producing the adjective, hairetikos, “heretical” (choosy, picking and choosing, by willful wrong-headedness). Milton claims to be no heretic, only one choosing in freedom, like Paul. The word exemplifies Milton’s learning and self-advantaging use of definition.

De filio: “Concerning the Son.” By far Milton’s longest and most original chapter (I. 6) in De Doctrina. He does not find any evidence for the Trinity in scripture, or else (it’s not always clear which) evidence supporting the explanation prevailing in his day: “three persons in one God.”

persona, and drama personalitatum: “person” and “the drama of personhoods”, where drama is sarcastic. The Latin words are reduced in meaning and coverage, being late Latin, marred by churchmen’s obfuscation. Strictly, he says — that is by more reductive etymologizing— it translates prosopon, the “mask” of a Roman or Greek actor. How can that help explain the Trinity?

Amesius noster: in what sense is William Ames “ours,” noster? As another English Protestant, or as a hero who went into exile for his beliefs? Or as a basic source of Milton’s own theology? Or one who agreed with him? But in the same chapter Milton flatly disagrees with him! At any rate, Ames like John Selden is one of the remarkably few thinkers whom Milton names as friend or ally.

mihimet ipsi: what is safe “for me myself”? Strong emphasis is made by the lengthened form of mihi, “to me”, and ipsi extends it further. Does this declaration in the Preface point to Protestant individualism? Egocentricity? Existential firmness… How best to describe it, is the question to which my book responds, and which Milton is asking of us. I relate it to his use of the parable of the talents. “That one talent which is death to hide”: it would be “death” to him if he were to hide his own talent for inquiry.

duntaxat: an emphatic word for “only.” Milton uses it to restrict a definition, to what he finds in scripture (rather than in traditions or liturgies), and also at times to what he is prepared to find in scripture. Once he uses duntaxat three times in the same sentence, to keep civil and church government out of Christian practice.

non nisi: similarly to duntaxatnon nisi or “not unless” helps Milton keep necessary regulation to a minimum…

nihil mihi tutius: but this time the negative expression works more like a litotes, to make a strong positive. “Nothing is safer for me” in ascertaining what beliefs are safe and sure than to go back to the Bible, and to accept nothing but what (in Milton’s judgment) is to be found there.

O vos exigua fide: “O ye of little faith!” After reasoning more and more passionately against clergy pay, and established churches which abuse their power, he lets fly against these feeble believers. Using the words of Jesus himself, more in anger than in sorrow, the allusion reproves the churches by the words, and voice, of the strongest possible authority. The Latin version seems to be Milton’s own.

by John Hale

What does Medieval Podillya, an Unknown Multicultural Fronteer in the East of Europe, Tell the World?

 16 August 2019

In the middle of the 14th century, the expansion of Europe eastward, where no one had ever heard of Europe, seemed hardly possible. However, a bizarre endeavour of Lithuanian princes, who themselves became Christians not long ago, managed to move the European border further over to the territories that belonged to the nomadic Empire. This expansion created a new historical region of Podillya. It was a remote land at the very end of Medieval Europe, where contested territories regularly turned into a battleground. Currently, it is a territory of Ukraine. Right there the European values fought their way to people’s everyday practices. Sounds contemporary, doesn’t it? This book demonstrates how six centuries ago a settled Christian population, which until the second half of the 14th century lived under the Tatars, succeeded in getting free from the hardships of the steppe and gained a new set of rules, which stipulated the way they administered their property, practiced law, and lived as a multi-ethnic community. It tells how the new rulers of the territory, the Koriatovych brothers, the ancestors of the Great Lithuanian Duke Gediminas, turned this vast territory into the easternmost province of Medieval Europe. It shows how the new law coming from the west attracted nobles, bourgeois, and mercenaries from Central Europe to come over here to advance their careers.

 

I talk about three things in this book. First, where Europe ends in the east in the Late Medieval time.  What makes Podillya interesting is that it undermines an idea that the formation of a new region in Europe on the territory that never knew any kind of statehood or governance of any ruling families stood very little chances. Nowhere else the conditions provided for such a fast and far move of a European frontier. And yet, Podillya managed to take advantage of the trade routes running from the east to the west and carrying eastern goods – silk and expensive fabrics, spices, and also slaves – to Europe. Second, I determine how the Podolian territory integrated rulers from different countries and traditions, and how they came together to support the Koriatovych brothers in their gaining support of the Polish King Kasimir III the Great and the Hungarian king Louis I and becoming their vassals. This led to them establishing a Catholic diocese in the city of Kamyanets and introducing European practices in Podillya, first of all, the fief land ownership. Third, I outline how after Podillya’s partition in two parts, the Western Podillya became the easternmost province of the Polish Kingdom and turned into a place where the amalgamation of local and newcoming nobles created a specific elastic community, which served the king in return for offices and lands, and at the same time found a protectorate of magnates, such as the Buzcackis. All of these factored in making the Podolian voivodeship a unique territory on a great European frontier in the 15th century.

 

While writing this book I made a personal discovery that the history of Podillya is a kind of model of something bigger. This bigger thing is a history of a modern Ukraine – a large country that emerged on the great European frontier. The events of the second half of the 14th– first half of the 15thcentury closely match a contemporary Ukrainian experience. Then, European practices won at a certain part of the country. Some of them survived till today as a vague understanding about the rule of law and justice. They manifest themselves in a form of a public protest against the abuse of power. Now Ukraine is facing a choice very similar to the choice Podillya faced six centuries ago. This choice is difficult and not obvious for many. Back then, Podolians could have continued to pay the tribute to Tatars and considered that a fee for a calm life. Now, Ukrainians face a similar dilemma of choice – a choice to live as before and serve people in power or foreign rulers or to bring power in the hands of the people. A history of Late Medieval Podillya provides examples of identical situations. In 1464, the Podolian nobles opposed an authoritative power of local magnates, the Buczackis family. The nobles agreed to collect a special tax to reclaim their own and the king’s control over the main city of the Podolian Voivodeship – the city of Kamyanets. The money was paid to the family of Buczackis who was the king’s creditor at the time. A joint action aimed at asserting the king’s and the local nobles’ authority over their major city became a good school of solidarity that later evolved into parliamentary practices.

 

One more striking aspect of the Late Medieval Podolian history is its multiculturalism that imposes itself on the work of a historian both thematically and linguistically. A few Podolian sources are written in Ruthenian; the majority – in Latin hugely influenced by Old Polish. This makes an explosive cocktail for a scholar and causes a collision with spelling and interpreting proper names. For example, Podillya is a Ukrainian name of the territory. However, it is not present under this name in hardly any English texts. One can rather come across a transliteration from Polish – Podole; or from Latin – Podolia. It is even more complicated to work with proper names that have been in use in English for a while: Kamyanets, as it should be transliterated from Ukrainian, is spelled as Kamianiec, Kamenets, and Kamenetz reflecting Polish, Russian, and Jewish spelling versions of the city’s name. When writing this book I had to always keep in mind that the family of Buczackis should be spelled in Polish version to follow an established convention, while the name of their city is transliterated as Buchach. Everyone who came to Podillya from the Czech Kingdom should be spelled in Czech version, Lithuanian princes – in Lithuanian, and Moldovan rules – in Romanian. The multiculturalism of Podillya strongly invaded the present-day English narrative of its history. This is a kind of historical irony.

 

One more point I make is that border provinces of Empires are never homogeneous. They do not always want to stay in a political and cultural orbit of the old imperial centers. When they become the objects of expansion of the European countries, as the Podolian case, the provinces actually face a choice to accept or protest the new rules. And it’s a process. The locals and the newcomers take time to find a common language and align the past and new values. This has a direct impact on the ability of the locals to establish their own state. The incapability or the lack of desire to unite is directly tied to the heterogeneity of the population. It is extremely hard, painful, and time-consuming to shape a community that has a chance to later evolve into a nation out of different people who are united only by a place of residence.

 

by Vitaliy Mykhaylovskiy

Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology

Why did Milton write De Doctrina Christiana?

He didn’t. He dictated it, being blind.

Then how do you know he composed it?

His name is on the MS, which survives. Views expressed, such as on Predestination or Divorce or Tithing, match Milton’s views expressed elsewhere. His prodigious skills in the biblical languages match those of his other prose works.

So all the more, why did he undertake this enormous task?

Irritation, he says, with the mistakes and bad logic of other theologians; for only the Bible can be trusted as evidence for safe belief, and he will now assemble what the Bible says on every single point.

What does he mean by safe belief? And unsafe?

Unsafe beliefs include ones based on tradition and church authority. Safe beliefs on the other hand may be lesser ones. He’s very thorough. Tiny texts preponderate as proofs in the manuscript’s earlier layers.

Give some examples.

Milton works his way through all details of belief, worship and conduct, systematically, and often with prosaic declarativeness.  But at the other extreme he demolishes the current explanations of Trinity, as three “persons” in one God, in a chapter of many thousand words. This orthodox understanding of godhead in scripture, he says, is not to be found in scripture. He forgoes his usual organization by commonplace book topics, to tackle orthodoxy head-on. What he attacks, however, is both the current explanation of personhood in terms of hypostasis, and any explanation whatever. He won’t have a bar of it.

Is he usually heterodox?

Quite often, but more eclectic.  On Predestination he opposes Calvinism and sides with Arminian orthodoxy. On Divorce he opposes all the mainstream churches. On Tithing he rails against established clergy, the English one especially. The common thread is free will, and individual choice.

Is that all?

No, the other aspect is personal fervour, do-it-yourself, and a Latin eloquence which can become positively incandescent. In these places, the work waxes most readable, at its most passionate.

Doesn’t he seek to persuade by reason?

By his version of reason, yes. But “reason” includes many axioms, and a way he has of limiting interpretation, to a bare minimum. Least is best—for no obvious reason, since theology has grown rather than shrunk in scope, developing as needed or challenged such applications as the Trinity. Trinitarian theology has begun stirring even in the Old Testament. How much more likely that the New will become more, not less, open to it. It is well visible in Matthew 28.19, or in Pauline invocations.

Milton grinds axes, then?

Yes. And his presuppositions blind him to the very perspectives from which historical scriptural theology began, in Leviathan and elsewhere.

Stern words! What do you mean?

Milton says the Old Testament’s textual authority outweighed that of the New. This assists his line of thought (pre-known from the English pamphlets) on Divorce. The patriarchs divorced, just as they upheld polygamy: ergo both were still permitted. Yet how could the O. T. have a more reliable text than the N. T. when it tells of Moses describing his own death? But Milton must disallow development in the New, just as marriage customs must not have changed.

Then would not De Doctrina be a backwater, even had it reached publication before the Restoration prevented it?

Yes and No. Hindsight does negate Milton’s timeless and nitpicking scholastic synthesis. But his onslaught on the Trinity makes it count, as part of the mid-century questioning of the traditional thought-forms. In all his enquiries alike he has an admirable driving eagerness, not to mention a power of expression which is ill-served by translation but is manifest in the original Latin.

How would you sum up his undertaking?

He himself summed it up as a treasure, gained like that of the householder in the parable, and readied to be given forth. Perhaps the true imperative was more personal. To change the parable, De Doctrina expresses “that one talent which is death to hide.”

What do you think your own study [link] of De Doctrina achieves?

It recovers the commitment and intensity of Milton’s undertaking, its energy and zeal. Though these qualities seem at times misguided, and somewhat unlikely to produce safe belief for anyone but Milton himself, my study shows how his mind works, in a systematic theology—kinks, curves, and presuppositions included. And in his other theology, the poems, his mind works differently, with an awakened imagination that is revealed by the contrast.

By John Hale

Plagues Past, Paths Forward

July 29, 2019

Just about this time five years ago, I was finishing up what had been an extraordinary adventure. I had spent the year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, ostensibly to work on the impact Arabic medicine had had on 11th– and 12th-century Europe. I made good headway on that project, discovering at least a dozen new manuscripts, “cracking the code” on several key developments in intellectual history, and finally putting a human face on my key protagonist, the immigrant Tunisian monk, Constantine the African.

But at the opening reception for Visiting Members in September 2013, the Director of the IAS, Robbert Dijkgraaf, had done what directors are supposed to do: he had given us a directive. “Forget the proposal you submitted when you applied last year, and do something big, bold, and urgent.” Those probably weren’t his exact words, but they were what I remembered. So, while I continued my manuscript hunting and textual collations, I jumped headlong into an additional pursuit: figuring out how to turn a new area of genetics into a new kind of history.

The “prompt” to this work were developments in genetics research that had occurred since the beginning of the 21stcentury. That might not sound very “medieval,” but you’d be surprised! New work in genetics had shifted the ground in studies of plague, one of the most lethal diseases in the world and the cause (“alleged cause,” some doubters might have said) of the pandemic events that bookended the Middle Ages: the Justinianic Plague of the 6th to 8th centuries, and the Black Death of the 14thcentury. This was history done not by traditional historians, but by “historians in lab coats.” I had been wrestling with this question myself since around 2005, when I first heard rumors that research was being done by microbiologists who do what microbiologists do: study microbes. (“How dare they?”) It took two iterations of a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar in London to persuade me, but by 2013 I was finally convinced that maybe this “new genetics paradigm”—studying the history of infectious diseases by working from the molecular level on up—had something going for it.

My bold adventure at the IAS resulted in the inaugural issue of The Medieval Globe, produced under the visionary editorship of Carol Symes at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The volume, entitled Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death, brought together historians, biologists, and anthropologists to address a simple question: “So what?” What difference, we asked, did the new findings from genetics about the mid-14th-century Black Death, or other plague pandemics, make for what we did as historians of medicine, paleopathologists, immunology researchers, or bioterrorism experts? As noted in the review of the volume by historian Lester Little, the enterprise was intended from the outset to be provisional. We knew that new work from the sciences about the evolutionary history of the single-celled bacterium, Yersinia pestis, was coming so fast and thick that keeping up with it was a vertigo-inducing endeavor. With funding from the World History Center at the University of Pittsburgh, we were able to publish open-access, making the volume readily discoverable and facilitating interdisciplinary awareness of our work. 13,500+ downloads later, it has been a stunning success—its own quick obsolescence being the best measure of that.In the past five years, the field of plague studies has transformed several times over. In 2015, researchers discovered Bronze Age plague strains, and in subsequent years have pushed that new chronological horizon back into the Late Neolithic. Studies documenting the existence of what seems to be a unique European lineage of Y. pestis, seeded by the Black Death strain, offer strong support for our initial idea in 2014 that, as Ann Carmichael hypothesized, plague may indeed have focalized within western Europe itself. And while we knew already in 2014 that a Y. pestis genome from the First Plague Pandemic in the sixth century had been successfully sequenced, it has still been flabbergasting, in 2018 and 2019, to see genetic evidence of how early that lineage must have emerged out of the Tian Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan and how much the Justinianic Plague strain diverged within Europe.

The work in genetics thus continues to dazzle. But traditional bioarchaeologists and historians have been no sluggards these past years (even if we remain much more poorly funded). Indeed, we’ve been keeping the geneticists on their toes. Medieval Globe contributor Sharon DeWitte has continued her prolific and pioneering studies, looking for factors that might have created differentials in survival or subsequent health of populations in northern Europe. Some of that work has been in alliance with Fabian Crespo, who has continued to investigate the immune competence of historical populations. The work of Anna Colet and her colleagues on the tragic persecution of the Jewish community in Tàrrega has become the focal point for new work by Susan Einbinder exploring the post-Black Death commemorations of Jews for the afflictions they had suffered.

Stuart Borsch has carried forward his efforts to document and quantify the demographic effects of the plague in the Islamic world, while Michelle Ziegler has pushed forward her interests in disease landscapes. Robert Hymes’ work on the possible presence of plague in Mongol China has begun to win converts, with a new book by Timothy Brook set to feature plague as a key factor in the fall of the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty and the rise of the Ming. My work with Kathleen Walker-Meikle and Wolfgang Müller on the “misdiagnosed” leprosy image was taken up and furthered by Lori Jones and Richard Nevell, who not simply turned the mighty juggernaut of Wikipedia around, getting the leprosy image removed from the plague/Black Death pages in multiple languages (which get millions of views every year), but also persuaded numerous Internet outlets and publications to rethink their uses of other “misdiagnosed” images.

Fig. 1: Since 2014 when we first published our study about this image of leprosy in James le Palmer’s Omne bonum, the British Library has scanned the entire two volumes of Royal MS 6 E VI, thus allowing anyone in the world to examine for themselves the chapter “On Ministrations by a Disabled Cleric.”

And as if all those transformations weren’t enough, there has been the stellar success of Nükhet Varlık’s work, which she previewed in her 2014 essay, “New Science and Old Sources: Why the Ottoman Experience of Plague Matters.” Her 2015 book, Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347–1600, has earned an astounding four book awards, all from different academic societies, most recently the American Association for the History of Medicine. If ever there was proof of the broad historical significance of the intersections of disease and history, or the value in using the most rigorous methods to explore them, it is this pioneering study.

The most daring offshoot of the Pandemic Disease volume came out in December 2018: a special issue of the online journal Afriques on the theme, “The Black Death and Its Aftermaths in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Critical Exploration of Silence.” “Silence” was the operative word, since aside from a few passing references, the possibility that plague had penetrated Africa below the Sahara has not been a part of Black Death narratives. The work of archaeologists in Europe, where the presence of plague was now confirmed by aDNA, offered a new model of what might be considered a “plague imprint” in the physical, built environment: signs of contracted, or even abandoned, human settlements. Gérard Chouin, on the one hand, and Daphne Gallagher and Stephen Dueppen, on the other, took paradigm-shifting work, such as that by archaeologist Carenza Lewis, as a charge to look for absences in the West African late medieval landscape: things that are not there, signs that, in negation, mark an unnamed catastrophe. Marie-Laure Derat, another contributor to the Afriques volume, looked to the eastern part of Africa and found surprisingly rich documentation in Ethiopian written sources of the effects of plague there, right down to the importation of European plague saints by the local Christian communities.

And where was the “net” of genetics to support this great leap of faith in carrying plague’s story into Africa? What promise did palaeogenetics hold for other parts of the world if no plague aDNA had yet been retrieved outside of Europe and western Russia? As Lori Jones and I muse in a forthcoming paper on infectious disease history in the Indian Ocean World, local aDNA is not necessary to start seeing the larger, global implications of an evolutionary approach to infectious disease history. In my chapter of the 2014 Medieval Globe volume, I had laid out why the new evolutionary understanding of Yersinia pestis was pointing a finger at East Africa and saying “There’s something going on here!” In my essay for the Afriques volume, I revisited that genetics evidence. Just as a philologist infers textual transmission from a stemma, so an evolutionary geneticist can infer lines of biological inheritance from a phylogenetic tree. (In concept, the two kinds of diagrams are identical.) Using my 2016 observations about a split in the branching of Y. pestis’s evolutionary tree right after the Black Death, along with evidence from colonial records and oral traditions, I sketched out how a Russian strain of plague may have reached East Africa in the late medieval period. It survives there to the present day.

Figure 2: Detail of the Yersinia pestis phylogenetic tree marked to show the later medieval polytomy (the “Big Bang,” circled in red) and the new branches it created, both those retrieved from aDNA (black labels) and those from modern isolates (peach-colored labels). The African branch is “1.ANT.” From: Monica H. Green, “Putting Africa on the Black Death Map: Narratives from Genetics and History,” Afriques 9 (2018), https://journals.openedition.org/afriques/2125.

My ultimate goal in diving headlong into plague research had always been pedagogical. The blogpost I wrote for Arc Humanities in 2015 focused on my teaching, and I’m proud to say that my 2018 essay, “On Learning How to Teach the Black Death,” has been the second most frequently viewed and downloaded item on my public webpage.

So yes, this project was “big.” And “bold” (or boldly ambitious), too. But was it “urgent”? Five years ago this month, I left Princeton and was driving home to Arizona. When I had radio reception, I was listening to news coming out of West Africa. The still-uncontained outbreak of Ebola was taking dozens of lives every week. The barely contained panic in the reports was palpable. When I returned home, I knew that my task—the one way I could help as a historian—was to “teach the crisis.” With a new colleague-in-arms, Stephen Casper, I started an Ebola Archive: the crisis could best be understood, we thought, by getting a sense of where the disease came from, where it might be heading, and how those most immediately affected (not simply healthcare providers but the local populace) might have understood what they were experiencing. In other words, we attempted to bring all the perspectives that I and my colleagues had just used to approach the Black Death. In January 2015, I wrote up a new foreword to the print edition to Pandemic Disease: “The Black Death and Ebola: On the Value of Comparison.” It breaks my heart to re-read it now, with a new Ebola epidemic still out-of-control in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What does the medieval past have to teach the present? Sometimes, looking for “medievalness” is the wrong thing to do. Madagascar’s outbreak of plague in 2017 had nothing to do with the Middle Ages, but everything to do with the modern processes of globalized trade and labor. But we only know when and how to make such comparisons by having a deeply immersed understanding of both past and present. The “new plague paradigm” has proved a powerful tool, not simply for geneticists (for whom Y. pestis has now become a “model organism”), but for historians and archaeologists, too. If I could give a directive to other medievalists, it would likewise be to “do something big, bold, and urgent.”

by Monica H. Green

Elite Byzantine Kinship

By the end of the twelfth century, Byzantine aristocratic families looked in many ways like the more familiar noble lineages of Western Europe. Marked by a surname and a strong sense of collective identity, these families both dominated imperial politics and developed a distinct system of cultural values and social hierarchy. Within this system, the genose merged as the cornerstone of aristocratic self-awareness and factional politics.

The Byzantine aristocratic genos (γένος, pl. γένη/genē)is alternately treated by modern scholars as a western European-style lineage, some kind of nebulous “clan,” or is simply left untranslated. Most scholars have viewed it as a kind of amorphous, poorly defined Byzantine “extended family,” and have contrasted the genos with the oikos/household or nuclear family. Despite the fact that it was foundational to the social and political structure of the Byzantine aristocracy from at least the eleventh century, the precise nature of the genos as a distinct form of kin group remains relatively unexplored among modern scholarship. Even a basic definition of the concept can be hard to come by.

Elite Byzantine Kinship, ca. 950-1204 is a study of the genos as both a social group and, importantly, a concept. Its purpose is to ascertain the role and function of the Byzantine aristocratic genos as a distinct entity as it appears in a variety of sources between the tenth and twelfth centuries. The analysis focuses primarily on the social and political elites of the Byzantine Empire both because of the nature of the sources and because many of the structures and ideals associated with the genos as kin group pertained primarily, if not exclusively, to them. Even if some aspects of the genos were shared by all people in the empire, a central argument of the book, the average peasant farmer probably had a more restricted view of his lineage and extended kin than a member of the Constantinopolitan court in the eleventh century. As in contemporary Western Europe, for the lower social orders in Byzantium, the household probably reigned supreme.

Each chapter utilizes a different approach and methods to bring to light various aspects of the Byzantine genos. The first chapter offers an analysis of both the Byzantine sources and the modern historiography in search of a clear definition of the genos, while chapter two traces broader changes in the vocabulary of kinship between the ninth and thirteenth centuries to argue for the central place of the genos in the Byzantine understanding of kinship. Chapter three focuses on legal sources and contends both that the genos was the principal form of the singular family in questions of marriage law and that debates in marriage law at this time were framed as debates over the nature of the family itself.

The fourth chapter turns to philosophical and medical treatises to explore the culturally specific knowledge of reproduction and the significance of shared blood, which gained momentum in the period covered by the study. This includes an exploration of the role of gender in the intergenerational reproduction of the family. Chapter five contends that the heritable surname was perhaps the single most important development for the aristocratic genos in the period covered in this study. The surname, as the outward marker of one’s genos, encapsulated the family’s reputation and was more likely than most other properties to survive intact from one generation to the next than other possessions. The power of the family name could even outlast the social or political relevance of members of the genos itself. The final chapter of the book places the genos back into the politics of the tenth through twelfth centuries, offering a broad overview of political and social changes in this period with a special focus on developments related to family and kinship.

To say that the genos played a central role in the Byzantine aristocracy of the eleventh century and later is not a controversial statement. The histories, hagiographies, orations, poetry, and lead seals of the late tenth century onward are full of references to “noble lineages” (εὐγενεῖς γένη). Praise is consistently lavished on individuals for their famous and wealthy family members, past and present. Heritable surnames become ubiquitous by the eleventh century. The political maneuvering and civil unrest that so dominated Byzantine politics in the late tenth and eleventh centuries consisted of factions largely divided along family lines and built upon family ties. Under the Komnenian dynasty (ca. 1081-1185), the genos formed the very basis of both the government and of the aristocracy as a whole. This book attempts to bring some clarity to the precise nature, role, and function of the genos in Byzantine society between the tenth and early thirteenth century by approaching it through a wide variety of sources and methods.

by Nathan Leidholm, Ph.D.

The Who, Where, When and Why of The Vikings

It is almost a thousand years since the Viking Age ended, and yet the exploits of the so-called Vikings, malevolent or otherwise, continue to figure in the popular and academic imaginations. Indeed, the ‘Nordic hoards’ might be said to hold a similar fascination – albeit with different characteristics – as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and the Romans. In a concise book written to be accessible to interested laypeople, students and academics seeking a route into current perspectives, our survey analyses Viking religion, economic life and material culture in and beyond the Scandic homelands.

Although there is a conventional Viking Age timeframe of ca. AD 800 to 1050 (the Scandinavians are usually associated with hit-and-run attacks beginning with the raid on the Abbey of Lindisfarne in AD 797), their military expeditions actually started earlier and were directed eastwards. The end date of 1050 is a movable feast, reflecting a mixture of Christianization, notable deaths, or simply convention. We explore social and economic attributes associated with Scandinavian-led population movements as warriors/marauders, traders and farmers moved beyond the Baltic coast to Constantinople, to western and southern Europe, including the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. The essentially unpopulated islands of the North Atlantic Ocean were subjected to a Norse-led diaspora with the Scandinavian settlers perhaps over-reaching themselves in Newfoundland and ultimately abandoning their Greenlandic colonies.

The book is well illustrated with maps, photographs and diagrams – many in colour – and text-boxes reproduce important and fascinating written material ascribed to Nordic chieftain Ohthere’s witness statement to King Alfred late in the 9thcentury; Arabic traveller Ibn Fadlān’s candid 10thcentury depictions of the Scandinavian Rus; and the Irish monk Dicuil’sdescription of what is generally interpreted as the Faroe Islands, indicating that the archipelago was populated before the Vikings arrived – as seemingly shown by recent archaeological discoveries.

Landscape and ruin group from Hvalsey Fjord in the Eastern Settlement, showing the church (thirteenth century) and the adjacent ruin group which may date originally from the early Norse settlement of Greenland.

 

Texts can enliven histories in a way that other sources cannot. Of course, like the later saga literature, we need to be circumspect about the veracity of such material. Other evidence suffuses contemporary Viking studies, and the opportunity is taken to foreground the enormous contribution from such areas as archaeology, place-names, genetics, and environmental science.

The Vikings have maintained a resonance up to the present day. Re-enactment groups, films, and television series keep their history alive – more sinister is their appropriation by ultra-conservative political movements. The actions of the Vikings when venturing beyond their homelands provide distant echoes of other invasions and migrations closer to our time. This book is intended to appeal to those who want an up-to-date account of the who, when, where and why of the Vikings.

by Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide (Bergen) andKevin J. Edwards (Aberdeen and Cambridge)

Vikings in the East

While a whole library has been written on Vikings in the West, much less is known of Vikings in the East, and what is written of the subject, mainly discusses the stories about Rus’. The Viking Eastern Baltic talks about Viking Age Eastern Baltic peoples, who have often been depicted as predominantly passive in the large-scale Viking movement towards the East. This seems to be far from the truth!

The quite broad zone between Scandinavia and Kiev Rus’, present-day Finland and the Baltic States, was unavoidable in East-West communications. During the Viking Age, it was a land full of harbours, hill-forts and international trade routes. Several distinct features of the period – for example, the emergence and development of trade centers or the struggle for the spheres of influence – were directly mirrored in Eastern Baltic archaeological material. This evidence is often little known in English-speaking countries, and more or less never before taken into consideration in one interregional study.

An initial point presented in the book is that there was never any common “Baltic” archaeological culture incorporating the territories of the present-day Baltic countries.  The Viking Age Eastern Baltic could indeed be divided into two larger spheres based on their language and the concomitant culture: the Baltic Finnic and the Baltic. Viking Age trade and also the role of the maritime element in the local culture, contacts, and cultural influences from east to west all functioned differently in these different regions. Recognition of this is crucial if we want to have an adequate picture of the processes operating in the Viking Age Baltic Rim.

This book demonstrates how communication networks over the Baltic Sea and further east were established and how they took different forms in the northern and the southern halves of the Eastern Baltic. Archaeological as well as written sources indicate the impact these networks had on the development of local societies.

Based on available information, raids in the Baltic Sea were earlier than the Vikings’ first forays into Western Europe. As a result of these, the common cultural sphere of warriors emerged in the East Scandinavian and Baltic Finnic coastal areas in the last centuries before the Viking Age. This shared cultural milieu was evidently based on not just mutual raids but also on close personal contacts, adopted values and beliefs. Archaeologically, the shared cultural milieu of warriors renders it somewhat difficult to decipher what is of “Scandinavian character” in the eastern territories, thus illustrating the international and multicultural nature of the processes at work during the period.

The situation in the southern half of the Eastern Baltic was different. The only Scandinavian colonies in the region are known from areas inhabited by ethnic Balts – in Grobiņa and Kaup. At these sites, a number of Scandinavian burials, both male and female ones, have been unearthed. The Scandinavian influence on the material culture of the surrounding areas, on the other hand, remained modest.

A lot of attention in the book has been paid to written sources – and the understanding of them changed remarkably when looking at the written sources from a transregional perspective. The first surprise was to find out how much more frequently the northern half of the Eastern Baltic had been mentioned in certain kinds of sources when compared with the southern half. Discussing changes in place names in sagas and other documents, it was possible to put forward a theory that the name Garðaríki did not include simply areas in present-day Russia, but also in Estonia and Latvia. In addition to this, the origin of the name Rus’, as well as its interconnection with the name Chud’ was discussed.

The book is a short version of many years of research published in other places. The main result of the study is, however, that the inhabitants of present-day Finland and the Baltic States were more engaged in the Viking eastern movement than is generally believed. We hope that the study presented here encourages interest in the role the Eastern Baltic played in the Viking world, and thus leads us to a better understanding of this special epoch in European history.

by Marika Mägi

Q&A on A Companion to Global Queenship

What is the main argument presented in your book?

This collection argues that we need to expand the focus of queenship studies to embrace ruling and royal women in a global context in order to truly understand the queen’s role. There has been an incredible amount of fantastic scholarship about queens and queenship in the medieval and early modern periods but much of this has been done in a purely European context, with a real emphasis on Western Europe. Our collection aims to push the boundaries of previous studies, bringing in examples of female rulers and royal women from Asia, Africa and Australasia as well as from the ‘fringes of Europe’ such as Kievan Rus’, Georgia and Islamic Iberia. Such a diverse group of case studies opens the door for fruitful comparisons of how queenship functioned in different places and in different periods. Indeed, many of the studies, such as the one by Tracy Adams and Ian Fooker on the courts of early modern France and the Ooku of Japan were deliberately comparative—juxtaposing the experience of royal women in very divergent settings to look for common threads.

Can you summarize what your book is about? What are its findings?

By bringing together such a wide range of studies, we hoped to show both ‘constants’ of queenship which can be seen across different time, places and cultures as well as the variety of experience that women had in these very different monarchical settings. For example, one area which was very different was the experience that royal women had in monogamous cultures—where there would be only one woman who could be the wife of the ruler at any given time, versus areas which practiced polygamy or allowed for concubines as well as wives for the monarch. Yet, while this did make a clear difference to the framework that royal women inhabited and to their official position, we still find queens operating in similar ways. For example, Renee Langlois’ chapter compares the regents of early modern France with those of the ‘Sultanate of Women’ period in the Ottoman Empire. She demonstrates the both the French and Ottoman regents used similar strategies to maintain and display their authority, in spite of very different practices within both monarchies and courts around the role of royal women and their theoretical visibility. The role of maternity which gave royal women a key role in terms of bearing, or selecting the heir can also be seen to be a vital element of the queens role in different geographical and cultural contexts as Diana Pelaz Flores’ comparison of queen mothers in Europe and Africa or Seokyung Han’s chapter on the role of dowager queens in Choson Korea both demonstrate.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired by a keynote speech given by Merry Wiesner-Hanks at a conference a few years ago. She has long been a proponent of global studies and encouraged us all to think of our own disciplines in a global way. It made me think about both queenship and royal studies and how they have been perhaps too Eurocentric. Even since then, I have been striving to push the field in a global direction, to try to seek out those who are working on queenship and royal studies in extra-European contexts and bring them into discussion with other scholars so that we can gain a much deeper understanding of how queenship and monarchy work across all times, places and cultures.

What was the most surprising or exciting thing that you discovered during your research?

One of the things which really struck me when I was writing the introduction of the book is the difficulty of nomenclature-even the word ‘queen’ is linked to a very Eurocentric notion of monarchy. The word doesn’t translate easily into other languages and cultures-Fatima Mernissi talks about this in her fantastic book The Forgotten Queens of Islam in terms of how difficult it is to find an equivalent word in Arabic for example. Some of the chapters in our collection, like Jane Hooper’s, Lennart Bes’ and Aidan Norrie’s discuss how Western visitors to Africa, India and New Zealand tried to apply the term ‘queen’ and the European meaning that they were familiar with to the situation of royal women abroad, but it was an awkward fit which demonstrated that these visitors didn’t fully understand how power and authority were exercised by these women. In the end, even though it isn’t a perfect solution, I decided that it made sense to use the word ‘queen’ for the women in this collection, even though it is both loaded and limited by its own etymology and cultural context, to denote the position of the highest woman in the land and/or the consort of the ruler so that we could have a foundational term to build on.

What impact do you hope that this book will have?

I really hope that this book will kickstart a conversation about global queenship and inspire more scholars who currently work in a European context to look at royal women in other periods and places. I also hope that it will encourage scholars who are already working on royal women in an extra-European context to collaborate with others working in the field of queenship so that we can continue to produce more comparative studies like this one. Hopefully, this collection is only the beginning of a new direction and approach to queenship studies.

 

by Elena Woodacre

How a Study of Processional Theatre Grew into a Book about Donkeys, Dissonance, and Blasphemous Pageants

What began for me as a fairly simple history of the processional theatre of Palm Sunday soon ran up against some puzzling questions:

  • Why is there no verifiable record of a live donkey taking part in a Palm Sunday procession before 1424? (A few retrospective “records” are demonstrably false.)
  • Why is Christ’s entry into Jerusalem still widely celebrated on Palm Sunday as a “triumphal” entry when biblical scholars of liberal and conservative persuasion alike agree that it was “nontriumphal,” “atriumphal,” or even “antitriumphal”?
  • If early Church authorities also agreed that Christ’s entry was a deliberate rejection of the pomp of imperial and other military entries, when (and why) did Palm Sunday processions start to resemble triumphal entries and when (and why) did military triumphs start to appropriate the language and iconography of Palm Sunday?
  • Why were life-size, wheeled, wooden images of Christ on a donkey, generally known as Palmesels (palm donkeys), introduced to Palm Sunday processions in the mid-tenth century?

  • Why were children allowed to ride behind Christ on the wooden donkey? Why were Protestant reformers and “enlightened” Roman Catholic prelates so hostile toward Palmesels? And, if all other processional images were (and are) carried at head height or above, why has the Palmesel alone been pulled at ground level?

Digging into these and other general questions soon unearthed a number of even more specific historical questions:

  • Why do scholars insist that the Quaker James Nayler’s ride into Bristol on October 24, 1656, was a deliberate reenactment of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? Nayler rode a horse, not a donkey. He did so six months after (or before) Palm Sunday. His followers neither waved palms or other foliage nor shouted “Hosanna.” At his trial before the Puritan parliament, Nayler was accused both of “horrid blasphemy” and of being a “traitor,” but not of imitating Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. The coronation of Oliver Cromwell as king was thought to be imminent. Is it possible that Nayler’s series of muddy entries into Wells, Glastonbury, and Bristol, for which he was cruelly punished and imprisoned, was a parody of a triumphal royal progress?

  • In the annual Moscow Palm Sunday procession, why did the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia ride a white “horse, covered with white linen down to the ground, his ears being made long with the same cloth, like to an ass’s ears”? And why did the ruling tsar lead the horse?
  • Why do villages in lowland Bolivia still pull a wheeled image of Christ on a donkey in procession on Palm Sunday? How did the Palmesel, which flourished in German-speaking lands north of the Alps, reach Bolivia?

  • Why was the first person recorded as having ridden a donkey in a Palm Sunday procession of sorts in Rome not a member of the clergy but a startlingly eccentric, fifteenth-century, apocalyptic lay preacher?

Answering these and a host of other questions gradually transformed my book-in-progress from a simple work of theatrical and liturgical history into a much more complex exploration of the radical dissonance between Palm Sunday processions and other public enactments of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and the biblical story to which they all claimed allegiance. A curious theme emerged: those embodied representations of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem that were, at one time or another, labeled blasphemous, idolatrous, or superstitious by those in power were arguably most faithful to the biblical narrative of Palm Sunday, while those staged with the purpose of exalting those in power and celebrating military triumph were arguably blasphemous pageants.

By Max Harris