Getting Medieval: An Intellectual Journey

In memoriam Brian Tierney, part 1

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t yet done any posts on a medieval topic, my actual scholarly specialty (or, you could say, the one thing I’m not a dilettante in). My dissertation director (or Doktorvater, as they say in German), died recently, so now seemed like a good time to remedy this situation. These entries will serve as my memorial to Brian Tierney, medieval history professor emeritus at Cornell University, who died on December 1, 2019, at the age of 97.

Back in 1990 I gave a paper at a medieval studies conference in New Hampshire. One night there was a dinner for the participants, most of whom didn’t know each other. Someone at my table decided to do an icebreaker and asked everyone to say what had inspired them to go into medieval studies. People gave only two answers: everyone either said it was reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or having an inspiring teacher. At that point I had not yet read Ivanhoe; my answer was “inspiring teachers,” namely, Thomas Turley, the medieval history professor at my undergraduate institution, Santa Clara University, and Brian Tierney.

Me and my undergraduate advisor, along with some other Tierney students from his generation, at the American Historical Assocation convention in San Francisco in 1983.

I didn’t start college with the intent of becoming a medieval historian, or indeed any kind of historian, or even any kind of academic. After taking a school trip in ninth grade to Washington, D.C. and visiting the Smithsonian, I’d dreamed of becoming a museum curator, and I entered Santa Clara University planning to do an interdisciplinary self-designed major that would prepare me for that. In the meantime, I got myself a job as a student worker at our university museum, the De Saisset.

You couldn’t propose the self-designed major until sophomore year, so at the beginning of that year I was still undeclared. I signed up for a course in Ancient and Medieval History, taught by Tom Turley, to fulfill a requirement for the University Honors Program; I also registered for the first course in the Philosophy sequence (also required for the Honors Program) and the first course in the Art History sequence (which I figured would be useful for a future museum curator).1 In other words, I was studying ancient Greek history, philosophy, and art all at the same time, and similarly throughout the rest of the term. Many years later, when I began teaching at Mount St Mary’s, we would call such paired courses (we only did two at a time) a “cluster”—we clustered history courses with either art or literature. Back in 1977, I didn’t have a name for what I was doing, but I knew I loved it.

When we got to the medieval part of the history course, Turley assigned us the book Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, written by his own Doktorvater, Brian Tierney. Crisis is an anthology of primary sources on the medieval conflicts between empire and papacy, introduced by Tierney’s own historical commentary. I was hooked. I had known nothing about this topic; I probably just assumed that back then the pope ran everything. I had never heard of events like the Investiture Contest. I found it all fascinating, and loved reading both the primary documents and Tierney’s clear and insightful analysis of them. I thought to myself, “I wish I could do something like that.” This was the beginning of my conversion to the academic life.

The edition of Crisis of Church and State that we used back in 1977. It has since been reprinted in the series “Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching.”

By the end of that year, I’d ditched the idea of an interdisciplinary major and declared a history major (I’d decided that even to prepare for a museum job I could benefit from the rigor of disciplinary study). The next year I signed up for Turley’s medieval history course and wrote my first history research paper on the eleventh-century pope Gregory VII, whom I’d first encountered in Crisis of Church and State. That summer, at Turley’s suggestion, I expanded my Gregory VII paper from 10 to 25 pages. We didn’t have a required senior project in either the history major or the Honors Program; I didn’t do the expanded version to fulfill any requirement or even for course credit. I did it because I thought it was worth doing.2 By this point I found myself thinking how much more I enjoyed research and writing than I enjoyed working in the museum, and eventually I decided to pursue an academic calling. When it was time to apply to graduate school, I figured I’d probably end up at UC Berkeley, just 50 miles up the road, but just for fun I also applied to Cornell University, where Brian Tierney taught (I liked the idea of studying with my teacher’s teacher). Much to my surprise, Cornell not only accepted me but also made me a better financial offer than Berkeley. So off to Ithaca I went.

That was one of the best decisions I ever made. I loved living in Ithaca. I even loved the winters and took up ice skating to take advantage of them. I loved my courses. I didn’t end up writing my dissertation about Gregory VII; I chose a new topic after hearing about it in a course on medieval and Renaissance Florence taught by another inspiring teacher, John Najemy. I loved my topic—the political thought of the Florentine Dominican Remigio dei Girolami—and I loved working with both Tierney and Najemy on it. And, of course, I also found love—I met my husband in a Cornell dining hall.

NEXT: What I learned about the Middle Ages from Brian Tierney.

Horses on the Wall? A Delightful Dickensian Discovery at the V & A

Last summer my husband and I traveled to the UK for a family wedding and combined it with a brief vacation. Having just binge-watched the mini-series Victoria before we left, the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V & A) was a must-see.

Mosaic on the facade of one of the buildings of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The silhouette behind the figures is the profile of the Crystal Palace. Photo by Teresa Rupp.

We were thrilled to discover a small special exhibit in celebration of the bicentennial of both Victoria’s and Albert’s 1819 births entitled “Building the Museum.”1 The exhibit chronicled the role of the Queen and the Prince Consort in the planning of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (also known as the Crystal Palace) and how the V & A grew out of it. We’d just seen the Victoria episode on the Exhibition, so this was perfect. We must have looked interested, because a docent stationed in the gallery came over to us and gave us an impromptu tour.

One of the things we learned was that Henry Cole, who organized the Great Exhibition, was also the first director of what became the V & A. Cole saw the mission of the new museum as educational, and part of that mission was to elevate the taste of the public. To that end, he put on an exhibit in 1852 called the “Gallery of False Principles” that provided both good and bad examples of design (the press referred to it as the “Chamber of Horrors”). The “False Principles” included decorating a home with representations of objects rather than the objects themselves. For example, one of the items in Cole’s original exhibit also included in the”Building the Museum” exhibit was a sample of wallpaper printed with a pattern of Gothic architectural ornamentation. This is a “false principle” because the papered wall doesn’t really have Gothic ornamentation on it but only a printed representation of it.

”False Principle #31: Imitation of Architecture.” Wallpaper sample exhibited in Henry Cole’s 1852 exhibit, ”Gallery of False Principles.” Photo by Teresa Rupp.

Another example, our docent explained, would be a flowered carpet. At that point I interrupted her, saying, “It’s just like that scene in Dickens’ Hard Times where the government official tells the students that they shouldn’t have flowered carpets or wallpaper with horses on it!” The docent responded excitedly, “Wallpaper with horses was one of the examples!”

I teach Hard Times every fall in my modern European history class. The novel, first published in 1854, is set in Coketown, a fictional northern English industrial city. Hard Times opens with a scene in a school founded by Mr Thomas Gradgrind, a wealthy industrialist who believes in teaching only Facts.2 Gradgrind, along with an unnamed visiting government official (referred to only as “the gentleman”), is visiting a class taught by Mr M’Choakumchild.3 The gentleman asks the students,

“Would you paper a room with representations of horses?”

Some say yes, some no, whereupon the gentleman explains,

“Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality—in fact? Do you? . . . Why then, you are not to see anywhere, what you don’t see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don’t have in fact. What is called Taste, is only another name for Fact.”

In case the children didn’t get the point, he poses another question:

“Would you use a carpet having a representation of flowers upon it?”

One of the students, Sissy Jupe, daughter of a circus clown, says she would. When the gentleman asks her why, she says,

“If you please, Sir, I am very fond of flowers.”

“And that is why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?”

“It wouldn’t hurt them, Sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, Sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy—”

“Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn’t fancy,” cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. “That’s it! You are never to fancy.”

This opening scene sets up the conflict between Fact (represented by Gradgrind and his school) and Fancy (represented by Sissy and the circus) that drives the rest of the novel. (Spoiler alert: Fancy wins.)

I was very pleased to be able to show my students this fall the photo I took of the objectionable Gothic wallpaper. I couldn’t take a photo of the equestrian wallpaper, as it wasn’t included in the “Building the Museum” exhibit, but I have since found it in their collection.

”False Principles 35.” Wallpaper sample exhibited as part of Henry Cole’s ”Gallery of False Principles” and satirized by Charles Dickens in Hard Times. Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I had always assumed that the nameless government inspector who intimidates poor Sissy Jupe was exaggerated to the point of absurdity in order for Dickens to make his point about the weaknesses of an education based solely on Fact. I was stunned, but delighted, to learn that the character was not an exaggeration but was, if you’ll pardon the expression, based on fact—a thinly disguised version of Henry Cole. The inspector’s closing remarks could easily have been spoken by Cole:

“You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,” said the gentleman, “for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colors) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.”

Having served his philosophical and narrative purpose, the gentleman from the government with the limited taste in wallpaper does not appear again in the novel. Maybe Dickens didn’t give a name to the character because he knew that 1850s readers would recognize him as Henry Cole–and now you can, too.

Music and History, National Anthem Edition: Italy

Almost all the anthems I’ve blogged about so far are quite well known. If I had given a quiz, asking my loyal readers to identify the anthems of Great Britain, France, and Germany, probably most of you could have come up with “God Save the Queen,” the “Marseillaise,” and “Deutschland über alles.” You might even have been able to whistle the tunes. Russia would have presented more of a challenge, but my husband, who is neither a historian nor a musician, hummed it easily—“I know it from the Olympics,” he said. But what about Italy? I had no idea, and I am a historian, a musician, and the granddaughter of Italian immigrants. Unless you’re a big international soccer fan and watch the Azzurri play, you probably don’t know it either. 1

The story of the Italian national anthem has many parallels to the story of the German anthem, because nineteenth-century Italian history has parallels to nineteenth-century German history. Both Italy and Germany consisted of multiple states at the beginning of the nineteenth century; both had unification movements inspired by political nationalism and dominated by liberal republicans; both succeeded in creating unified nation-states by 1871, and both those national states were formed as monarchies rather than republics.

Just as the “Deutschlandlied” grew out of the campaign for German unification, so did the song that became the Italian national anthem. It is variously known as “Il canto degli Italiani” (“The Song of the Italians,” another parallel to “Deutschlandlied,” the “Song of Germany”), the “Inno di Mameli” (“Mameli’s Hymn,” named for its lyricist, Goffredo Mameli), or “Fratelli d’Italia,” named for its opening words (“Brothers of Italy”). Mameli wrote the lyrics in 1847; they were then set to music by Michele Novaro. It was used as a rallying-cry throughout the Risorgimento, the movement for Italian modernization and unification. But when the Italian nation-state was created in 1861, it was not the republic that Mameli and Novaro had dreamed of but a monarchy, under King Vittore Emanuele II of Sardinia, from the royal house of Savoy.2

Vittorio Emanuele II, first king of united Italy.

Just like the “Deutschlandlied,” “Fratelli d’Italia” was thought to be too closely associated with republicanism and was rejected by the new Kingdom of Italy in favor of a royal anthem, the “Marcia Reale,” or “Royal March.” The lyrics of the Marcia Reale are actually surprisingly liberal—lots of references to libertà, for example. But it is nonetheless unmistakably a royal anthem: the opening words are “Viva il re” (“Long live the king”).

Allow me to pause for a genealogical interlude. When my mother was growing up, her maternal grandmother told her she was related to the house of Savoy and that she therefore had “blue blood.” This backfired on my mother when she told the kids at school, and a boy chased her around the playground trying to stick her with a pin so he could see for himself. When she retired, she did some genealogy, hoping to trace her royal lineage, and found instead that her ancestors listed their professione as contadino or contadina (that is, “peasant”).

On her father’s side, there was no claim of blue blood. Her father, Giulio Valentino, was born in 1895, the youngest of 13 children. One of his older sisters was named Italia. I’d love to know exactly when she was born to see if, as I suspect, she was named in honor of Italian unification. This will be one of my retirement projects.

Back to the anthems. Again like Germany, Italy became a republic after defeat in a world war (World War II for Italy instead of World War I). And like the German Weimar Republic in 1922, the new Italian Republic created in 1946 replaced their royal anthem with the older song from the reunification era.3 As I pointed out above, “Fratelli d’Italia” is much less well-known than “Deutschland uber alles.” I think this is due to the relative weakness of Italian nationalism. Italians even today are likely to feel more loyalty to their region or city than to the nation as a whole. They even have a name for it—campanilismo, or attachment to the campanile, or bell tower, of one’s hometown. My grandparents, both Italian Catholics who came to the US as children, were considered by their families to have a mixed marriage because she was from northern Italy while he was from the south. So it’s not surprising that hardly anyone knows “Fratelli d’Italia.” Or maybe it’s just that Haydn was a better composer than Novaro.

Music and History, National Anthem Edition: Germany

National anthems, as the name implies, are an expression of nationalism. Cultural nationalism is the belief that one’s own nation, or Volk, to use the nineteenth-century terminology, is unique and should be celebrated. Picture children in folk costumes dancing folk dances and singing folk tunes at a folk festival. A political nationalist believes that the most natural form of political organization is the nation-state. If you don’t have one, the true patriot must work to get one, either by breaking up a multi-national state or by unifying many states into one nation. Unification into a single nation-state was the dream of both German and Italian nationalists in the nineteenth century, and this process influenced the developments of both national anthems. Germany today, Italy to follow!

While Russia’s national anthem changed with every change of regime, the anthem of Germany has remained surprisingly constant. The national anthem of Germany is the Deutschlandlied (“Song of Germany”), also known, from its original opening words, as “Deutschland über alles.” First adopted in 1922, it remained as the German national anthem through the Weimar Republic, the Nazi era, postwar West Germany, and the post-cold war re-united Germany.

“Deutschland über alles” is a national anthem like the Marseillaise, but it originated as a royal anthem, and not for Germany. The tune was composed by Franz Josef Haydn in 1797 to celebrate the birthday of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. Haydn had visited London in 1794-95 (one of the trips for which the London Symphonies were written) and had been impressed by hearing “God Save the King.” Since in 1797 Austria was at war with revolutionary France, it seemed like a good time to have an Austrian equivalent to Britain’s anthem. Haydn’s composition was given lyrics by Lorenz Leopold Haschka and titled “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser,” or “God Save Emperor Francis”; it is also known as the Kaiserhymne. Haydn used the same melody again in one of my favorite string quartets, Opus 76 no. 3, now nicknamed the Emperor or Kaiser Quartet. The Kaiserhymne served as the anthem of the Austrian Empire until its dissolution in 1918.

Portrait of Franz Josef Haydn, by Thomas Hardy

Meanwhile, a liberal German nationalist poet, August Heinrich von Fallersleben, wrote new words for Haydn’s tune to promote German unification. In this context, “Deutschland über alles” refers to placing a united Germany over its constituent parts, not necessarily over other nations. The new combination of Haydn’s music and Fallersleben’s words was sung by the liberal revolutionaries of 1848. But when Germany was finally unified in 1871 as an empire ruled by the Kaiser, the new government found the song to be too identified with liberal republicanism and instead chose a German version of, you guessed it, “God Save the Queen.”

When, like the Austrian Empire, the German Empire ceased to exist after World War I, its replacement, known as the Weimar Republic, chose the Deutschlandlied to reinforce its break with the recent imperial past and its connection to the earlier 19th-century liberal republicanism (liberal in the 19th-century sense and republican in its constitutional sense of a non-monarchical elected government).

When the Weimar Republic fell in its turn in 1933, the Nazis kept the anthem, but now the words “Deutschland über alles” took on a different meaning. The Nazis also paired the Deutschlandlied with the song of the Nazi party, the “Horst Wessel Song.” After World War II, the new West German government stuck with the Deutschlandlied, but without the problematic first verse, with its Nazi associations, or the second, which sounds like a sexist drinking song. West Germans sang only the third verse, which celebrates unity, justice, and freedom (Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit). Although East Germany had its own anthem from 1949-1990, Auferstanden aus Ruinen (“Risen from the Ruins”), after 1991, the third verse of the Deutschlandlied was adopted by reunited Germany, emblematic of the dominant position of the former West Germany in the post-Cold War era.

Next: do you know the Italian national anthem?

Music and History, National Anthem Edition: Britain and France

Last week’s blog entry on the various Russian national anthems and their connections to historical events got me thinking about connections between history and the patriotic music of other European countries. National anthems are an expression of nationalism, one of the ideologies that arose in nineteenth-century Europe. Nationalism demands that an individual’s first loyalty should be to one’s nation—not to one’s family, or city, or religious denomination. Nineteenth-century nationalists understood the nation to be defined by shared history, customs and traditions, and especially language. 1 The national anthems of many nations arose out of their specific historical circumstances and reflect those countries’ own national identities. This is apparent in the anthems of Britain and France.

The oldest example of a tune with patriotic words being used in a public capacity (which can be our working definition of a national anthem) is probably Britain’s “God Save the Queen” (or King, as the case may be). It is first documented in 1745, during the Jacobite rebellion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Here is how the British royal family’s website explains it:

In September 1745 the ‘Young Pretender’ to the British Throne, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, defeated the army of King George II at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh.

In a fit of patriotic fervour after news of Prestonpans had reached London, the leader of the band at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, arranged ‘God Save The King’ for performance after a play. It was a tremendous success and was repeated nightly.

This practice soon spread to other theatres, and the custom of greeting monarchs with the song as he or she entered a place of public entertainment was thus established.2

The tune is probably older than 1745. I found references to it as originating in medieval chant, but that doesn’t seem likely. It doesn’t sound at all medieval, to me at least, and I suspect this is an example of medievalizing—falsely attributing a medieval origin to lend antiquity and legitimacy. Interestingly, the British Parliament has never officially recognized “God Save the Queen” as a national anthem, but that seems appropriate for a country with an unwritten constitution.

Portrait of Charles Edward Stuart, aka the Young Pretender, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie, by Allan Ramsay, 1745

In the nineteenth century, other countries decided that they wanted national anthems just like Britain’s—and I mean just like Britain’s. It became the fashion for countries to write their own words to fit the tune of “God Save the Queen.” Russia did it; the imperial anthem of Russia from 1816-33 was “The Prayer of the Russians,” set to the tune of “God Save the Queen” (replaced after 1833 with “God Save the Tsar”). Other examples include various German states, Norway, Sweden, Greece, Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and (I didn’t see this coming) the nineteenth-century kingdoms of Siam and Hawaii. Even the United States got into the act, with “America,” usually referred to as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”3 Most of these countries eventually replaced the borrowed anthem with a homegrown one, although the English tune sometimes remains as an additional patriotic song (as does “America” in America).

The first song officially recognized as a national anthem was France’s “Marseillaise,” first sung in 1792 by soldiers from Marseilles marching to fight in the war to defend the French Revolution against the Austrian Empire. Strictly speaking, “God Save the Queen” is an example of a royal anthem, as is “God Save the Tsar” (the American equivalent is “Hail to the Chief,” played to greet the president). The “Marseillaise,” in contrast is truly a national anthem. Compare the lyrics “God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen,” to “Allons, enfants de la patrie.” Instead of being addressed to a royal him or her, the “Marseillaise” is addressed to a national “us.”

These two anthems not only had their origin in specific historical circumstances; they also reflect each nation’s national identity. Britain’s “God Save the Queen” is a royal anthem, appropriate for a nation united under a monarchy. This identity is found even in the name “United Kingdom.” More specifically, Britain is a constitutional monarchy created by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a constitutional settlement that was challenged (but not overturned) by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 (when the song originated). The “Marseillaise” is a revolutionary anthem, appropriate for a revolutionary nation—the French Revolution began in 1789 when the delegates of the Third Estate declared themselves to be the National Assembly. It is telling that during nineteenth-century regimes that were counter-revolutionary—under Napoleon and the Restoration monarchs Louis XVIII and Charles X—that the “Marseillaise” was not used.

Stay tuned for a discussion of the anthems of Germany and Italy!

Music and History, National Anthem Edition

Last week the Frederick Symphony Orchestra, in which I play viola, played our opening concert of the 2019-20 season. It was an all-Shostakovich concert, featuring the Festive Overture, the 2nd piano concerto, the Waltz from the Suite for Variety Orchestra, and the 1st Symphony. (I thought we should start referring to ourselves as a Shostakovich tribute band.) As is our custom for our season openers, we began the concert with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” At the dress rehearsal, the principal violist jokingly said to me, “maybe for this concert we should play the Russian national anthem.” He immediately thought better of his suggestion, but it got me thinking: what is the Russian national anthem these days? Some quick googling when I got home from rehearsal told me what I had suspected—the Russian (and Soviet) national anthem has changed several times to correspond with historical changes.

In the nineteenth century, the anthem of the Russian Empire was “God Save the Tsar.” You might be familiar with this tune from Tchaikovsky’s use of it in both the 1812 Overture and the Marche Slave. I first heard it as the theme music to the 1972 BBC production of War and Peace, starring a very young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov, which I watched in high school and which hooked me on costume dramas.

Obviously, “God Save the Tsar” was no longer appropriate after the Russian Revolution, and in fact a national anthem of any kind was thought to be inappropriate for a Marxist state. The Communist Manifesto, after all, ends “Workers of the world unite.” The new Soviet Union adopted the Socialist anthem, fittingly called the Internationale.

You might think that the Internationale would have remained as the Soviet anthem until the fall of the USSR in 1991—but you would be wrong. The anthem was changed in 1944, during what the Russians call the “Great Patriotic War.” Stalin set aside internationalist principles during the war and promoted nationalism to keep up morale; a new anthem was part of that strategy. 1 The new anthem, the “State Anthem of the Soviet Union,” composed by Alexander Alexandrov, is what we would hear at Olympic medal ceremonies. In 1991, it was replaced by a piece by the 19th-century Russian composer Mikhail Glinka. This “Patriotic Song” was a song without words, however, and Russian athletes complained that they couldn’t sing it at international competitions. In 2000, Vladimir Putin scrapped Glinka’s Patriotic Song and re-introduced the tune of the “State Anthem,” with new, less Soviet-sounding lyrics, now known as the “State Anthem of the Russian Federation.”

So if the FSO had decided to open our concert with the Russian national anthem, which one should we have used? Perhaps the Internationale, since the 1st Symphony was written in 1924 and the Festive Overture was commissioned in 1947 to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the October Revolution? Or should it have been “State Anthem,” since the Concerto and probably the Waltz were both composed in the 1950s? On the other hand, given Shostakovich’s troubled relationship with the Soviet state, it’s probably best that we stuck with the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Many other countries’ national anthems also reflect historical events; stay tuned!

Pumbaa the Philosopher

My favorite scene in the movie The Lion King is the one where the three friends—Timon the meerkat, Pumbaa the warthog, and Simba the lion—are lying on their backs looking at the night sky and discussing the stars. Pumbaa asks the others if they’d ever wondered what “those sparkly dots” are. Timon replies that he knows what they are—they’re fireflies that got stuck in “that big bluish-black thing.” Pumbaa answers that he always thought they were “balls of gas burning billions of miles away.” Finally, after much prodding, Simba says, “Somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there watching over us,” and the other two laugh at him.

This is my favorite scene because it’s the perfect way to introduce a class discussion of the beginnings of ancient Greek philosophy. Simba’s explanation is different from the other two. It is mythical, in the original ancient Greek sense of “storytelling”—a mythos is literally a story. Simba even presents it as a story that someone told him (the audience knows it was his father Mufasa): “Somebody once told me” that the stars were “the great kings of the past.”

In contrast, both Timon’s and Pumbaa’s explanations are what we could call scientific—based on observations explained rationally. Timon’s explanation is based on everyday sense experience. Fireflies are sparkly things that fly around at night, so the stars must be fireflies that got stuck in the dome of the sky. Pumbaa’s explanation (which, of course, is the right one—the stars really are “balls of gas burning billions of miles away”) depends on observations made at a distance incorporated into a rational framework. 1

Timon’s and Simba’s explanations are analogous to the ideas of the earliest Greek philosophers. In the 6th century B.C.E., some Greeks who lived in cities in the region known as Ionia (the west coast of Asia Minor, or modern Turkey) began to give rational instead of mythical answers to questions about the natural world. “Nature” in ancient Greek is physis, so they are called the “Ionian physicists”—the guys from Ionia who studied nature.2 These early philosophers were convinced that the universe, although apparently chaotic, is actually orderly and can be explained rationally. The Greek word for “chaos” was chaos; the Greek word for “order” was cosmos, which was then extended to refer to the orderly universe (the cosmos has a cosmos). The Ionian physicists thought that the apparent diversity and disorder of the universe could be reduced to a single underlying principle, which they called the arche. Thales, for example, proposed that the arche was water; for Anaximenes it was air.

Herodotus, the first Greek historian (literally, “inquirer”), mostly inquired about human events. But his curiosity was so omnivorous that he sometimes inquired about natural phenomena—physis—as well. For example, in book II of the Histories, where he discusses Egypt, he wonders about the annual flooding of the Nile. He presents three possible explanations, all of which he rejects, but which correspond well to the three friends from Lion King.

One of Herodotus’ explanations, like Simba’s “great kings of the past,” is mythical. The Nile “flows from Ocean,” which flows “round the whole world.” Herodotus says that this explanation “has less knowledge” and is “more wonderful in the telling” than the others because it has its source in poets like Homer: this “story . . . is indeed only a tale” [mythos]that “cannot be disproved. . . . . For myself, I do not know that there is any river Ocean, but I think that Homer or one of the older poets found the name and introduced it into his poetry.”3

In contrast, Herodotus’ other two explanations of the Nile floods are rational, similar to Timon’s and Pumbaa’s understandings of the stars. One is based, like Timon’s fireflies, on everyday sense experience. The Nile floods, some say, because winds from the north prevent the river water from flowing into the Mediterranean, causing it to back up and overflow its banks. Unfortunately, says Herodotus, those winds don’t always blow, yet the river still floods. 4 The other rational explanation, like Pumbaa’s, depends on processes that are far removed from what we can see. It is “more reasonable-seeming than the others yet is the most deceived; for it too makes no sense at all. It declares that the Nile comes from the source of melting snow.” But that is contrary to reason, Herodotus argues, because upstream the Nile flows through climates even hotter than Egypt’s—so how could there be any snow there to melt?5

After debunking the three explanations, Herodotus proceeds to give his own—which is also wrong, as it turns out.6 The Nile actually flooded because of monsoon rains far from Egypt.7 But the first three explanations are a textbook demonstration of the shift from mythical understanding of the cosmos to a rational one. It’s almost like Herodotus saw The Lion King.

Thanks to my colleague Michael Sollenberger for consultation on Herodotus’ language.

Asking Historical Questions: Wait, that’s Redundant

One of the history courses I took as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University was History of California with the late Father Jerry McKevitt, S.J.1 The class was very interesting, and I enjoyed doing my research paper on Helen Hunt Jackson, a 19th-century reformer whose novel Ramona became known as the “Indian Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”2 I didn’t go on to study California history in graduate school or to teach it in any of my classes. I do, however, frequently make use of something I learned in the class. One day Father McKevitt was returning graded papers to us, and they must have been pretty bad, because I remember him saying, “Listen, people. History answers two questions: ‘What happened?’ and ‘So what?’” (I assume that this particular set of papers had not done a good job of answering one or both of these questions.) I remember thinking to myself, “Whoa. That’s so true.” In just about every one of my history courses, at some time or other I quote Father McKevitt to the students.

Father Gerald McKevitt, S.J.

Approaching the study of our discipline by means of asking questions is particularly appropriate for historians. Of course, practitioners of any scholarly discipline might say that they begin by asking questions. But for us historians, it’s right in our name. The first writer to use the word “history” in the context of the study of the past was the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, known as the “Father of History.” The English title of his work is Histories, a translation of the original ancient Greek Historie, meaning “inquiries” (from the verb historien, “to inquire”). This is his opening sentence:

“These are the researches [historie] of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud.” 3

Because what Herodotus inquired about was the events of the past (“the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians”), and because he presented the answers to his inquiries in book form (“These are the researches [historie] of Herodotus of Halicarnassus”), the word historie came to mean not just the act of inquiry but also the subject of the inquiry (the history of the Persian Wars) and the result of the inquiry (A History of the Persian Wars). But students of history should always keep in mind that doing history begins with asking questions. And make sure that your historical writing clearly and completely answers both the “what happened?” and the “so what?” Father McKevitt said so!

Mercurial Connections

I teach a course called “Harry Potter and the Middle Ages.” It’s an approach to medieval culture that takes the Harry Potter books as a starting point; we learn about the medieval background to many of the elements JK Rowling used to construct the Harry Potter universe. The course is organized around the Hogwarts curriculum. For example, in conjunction with Care of Magical Creatures, we study medieval bestiaries and medieval map-making (both Fantastic Beasts AND where to find them). Transfiguration and Potions classes offer the opportunity to learn about medieval alchemy.

Alchemy is clearly an important theme in the Harry Potter books, starting with the title and plot of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 1 It does not appear to be one of the courses offered at Hogwarts, however; perhaps Rowling wanted to save it for her underlying structure. In any case, learning more about alchemy enhances our understanding of both the Harry Potter books and of the Middle Ages.

The more I read about alchemy, the more I realized that mercury is a key substance in the alchemical worldview. Many medieval and early-modern alchemists hypothesized that the starting point for generating the Philosopher’s Stone was to mix mercury and sulfur (which may or may not refer to the physical substances that go by those names); this is known as the Mercury-Sulfur principle. I also realized that the meaning of Mercury is multivalent, with multiple connections to multiple things. Let’s trace some of those connections. The words in bold face are shown on the accompanying diagram.

Mercury was a Roman god, the Roman counterpart to the Greek messenger god Hermes. In late antiquity, Hermes also became identified with Hermes Trismegistus, or “thrice-blessed Hermes,” a figure to whom many early alchemical writings were attributed, known collectively as the Hermetic corpus and which were influenced by Neo-Platonist thought. This Hermetic tradition is evident in the term used by medieval alchemists to describe what they did to keep air out of a piece of equipment, a term we still use—“hermetically sealed.

In addition to being the name of a god, Mercury is also the name of a planet. Ancient and medieval astrologers believed that the stars and planets influenced life on earth. Which planet a person was born under influences that person’s personality. Someone born under the influence of Jupiter might grow up to be jovial (jolly), while Saturn’s influence would make you saturnine (gloomy). The influence of Mercury, the fastest-moving planet, results in a personality that is mercurial (quick to change).

In ancient cosmology, each of the seven planets was associated with one of the seven metals. (“Planet,” from the Greek for “wanderer,” was the term for any heavenly body that “wandered” in relation to the fixed stars that form the constellations, which stay put. So the Sun and Moon were considered planets, but the stationary Earth was not.) Some of the associations are obvious—gold goes with the sun, silver with the moon. Mars is associated with iron, both because of the planet’s rusty-red color and because the god of war would have used iron weapons. Venus is copper, which in the ancient Mediterranean came from the island of Cyprus, where Venus was born from the sea.2 Saturn is lead, the heaviest of metals for the slowest of the planets. Jupiter gets tin because that’s what’s left over, and the planet Mercury, the fastest-moving planet associated with the god with winged feet, gets the slippery-slidy metal Mercury.

With one exception, we no longer use these associations. But alchemical texts might speak of combining Jupiter and Mars when they mean tin and iron. The only one of the metals that still retains its planetary name in common use is Mercury. There is, however, also a name that refers to the metal only—quicksilver. “Quick” here means “living,” rather than “speedy”; think of cutting your nails to the quick. So “quicksilver” is “living silver.” The Greek name for the metal is “hydroargyrum,” or “liquid silver.” This is the source of the modern chemical abbreviation for mercury (or quicksilver)—Hg.

So what does all this have to do with Harry Potter? Well, which character has a name that’s a form of the god/planet/metal we’ve been talking about? That’s right, Hermione (a feminine form of Hermes). And what’s her last name? Granger. So what does that make her initials? HG. And what do her parents do? They’re dentists. What do dentists traditionally make fillings out of? Mercury. Coincidence? I think not.

For further reading:

Lawrence M. Principe. The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Paderewski, Parlor Music, Piano Professors, and Progress: The Piano at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Part 4

Progress and Piano Professors

While white women were pushed to the margins of the Fair, the contributions of African-Americans to the story of American progress were not simply marginalized; they were erased. Not for nothing was the Fair nicknamed the “White City.” Only European-derived culture and achievements could be displayed in those gleaming neo-classical buildings. Visitors to the Fair could see Africans themselves displayed on the Midway in Dahomey Village, one of the living ethnological villages whose purpose was to set the utopian vision of progress in the adjacent White City into sharper relief.1 But no African-Americans were on the Fair’s planning commissions; no building was dedicated to the progress they had made since the abolition of slavery. There was a “Colored American Day,” analogous to other special “Days” at the Fair arranged to boost attendance. Antonin Dvořák, who was summering that year in Spillville, Iowa, conducted his Eighth Symphony and other works on Bohemian Day, for example. African-American musicians Harry T. Burleigh and Will Marion Cook (both of whom studied with Dvořák at the National Conservatory in New York) joined poet Paul Laurence Dunbar for a program on Colored American Day at which Frederick Douglass also spoke. Otherwise, African-American participation was unofficial and undocumented.

It is generally believed, based on oral traditions, that several “Piano Professors,” as they were called, playing music that would soon be known as “ragtime,” performed either on the Midway or at various establishments in the neighborhood of the Fair. Despite a lack of written documentation, scholars concur that Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime Writers,” was probably one of these Piano Professors. Ragtime has been called the first indigenous American musical style. Joplin established the ragtime form in his “Maple Leaf Rag” of 1899, which also became his biggest hit. Joplin composed over forty other rags after “Maple Leaf,” including the “Cascades” Rag inspired by the 1904 St Louis Fair commemorating the Louisiana Purchase, which he definitely did attend.2

Scott Joplin

The World’s Columbian Exposition closed over 125 years ago, on October 31, 1893. Little of the physical Fair remains today. The buildings of the White City, which were never intended to be permanent, are all gone, except for the Fine Arts building, now the Museum of Science and Industry. Besides its name, the Midway survives only as a wide grassy strip on the University of Chicago campus. The legacy of the Fair remains, however, in perhaps unexpected places. If you’ve ever ridden on a Ferris Wheel or enjoyed the midway at a county fair; drunk Welch’s grape juice or eaten Cracker Jack (both introduced at the Fair); recited the Pledge of Allegiance (written for the Fair’s Dedication Day ceremonies) or sung the fourth verse of “America the Beautiful” (with its reference to “alabaster cities”), you can thank the Chicago World’s Fair.

The Fair also left a musical legacy. Concert-goers who attend classical performances still mostly hear the music of dead European males, although, after being mostly forgotten after her death in 1944, Amy Beach has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Similarly, ragtime faded in popularity in the early twentieth century (although not before it influenced jazz), but experienced a revival in the 1970s, especially after the 1972 movie The Sting used Joplin tunes in its soundtrack. (For a time, it seemed that every piano student in the land was playing an arrangement of “The Entertainer.”) The issues raised by the experience of music at the Chicago World’s Fair—what to play, who should play it, how do you get an audience to come hear it, and how do you pay for it—are familiar to every classical music organization today.

For Further Reading:

Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his Era. New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994.

Curtis, Susan. Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin. Columbia and London: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1994.