“Stuff I Did”: The Res Gestae, Tulips, and Squeezes

We tend to think of the Latin language as fancy, formal, and technical. But my favorite Latin word when I am teaching ancient Roman civilization in Origins of the West is “res,” which means “thing.” In Origins, we encounter it in the term res publica, literally the “public thing,” which began, according to tradition, in 509 BCE, when the Roman people, led by Brutus the Liberator, exiled King Tarquin the Proud and replaced the monarchy with a republic. A monarchy is a private thing—the king treats the kingdom like he owns it—but a republic is a public thing, owned by the people as a whole.

We also encounter the word when we read Vergil’s Aeneid, which begins in medias res—in the middle of things.1 Book one of the Aeneid begins with Aeneas already in Carthage; we learn the previous events, the fall of Troy and his voyage to north Africa, through flashbacks, as Aeneas narrates them at the banquet Queen Dido throws for him in books two and three. By book four, we’re back to the present.2

I made this diagram to illustrate how the Aeneid is structured in medias res. The numbered items on the outside of the arch are the events in the order they occurred; the book numbers on the inside of the arch are the order in which we read them.

Finally, my favorite use of my favorite Latin word is in the phrase res gestae, or “things done.” This is the title of a document written by the emperor Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) near the end of his life.3 The title is usually translated “accomplishments” or “achievements,” but it basically means “stuff I did.” So we’ve got “public stuff,” “in the middle of stuff,” and “stuff I did.” So much for fancy, formal, and technical.

We know of the existence of the Augustus’ Res Gestae from a passage in the biography of Augustus by the ancient Roman author Suetonius, written around 120 CE. Suetonius tells us that Augustus compiled a list of his accomplishments and arranged for them to be published on bronze tablets to be erected in front of his mausoleum in Rome.4

The bronze tablets no longer survive, but a copy that was sent to the provinces does. The Latin text of the Res Gestae is carved into the interior walls of the cella (the inner room) of the Temple of Augustus in what is now Ankara, Turkey (then Ankyra, provincial capital of Galatia). A Greek translation is found on the exterior wall (which makes sense, as Galatia was in the Greek-speaking part of the empire). The inscription is also known as the Monumentum Ancyranum.5

The ruins of the Temple of Augustus in Ankara. Only the cella is still standing.

I use a translation of this text whenever I teach the Age of Augustus. It’s a rare example of an extant ancient historical text that is not only contemporary with its subject but also written by the person in whose voice it is. (Unlike, for example, the Suetonius biography, written about a century after Augustus died, or the Funeral Oration of Pericles, written by Thucydides in Pericles’ voice.)

A portion of the Latin inscription of the Res Gestae on the wall of the Temple of Augustus.

In the document, Augustus lists the achievements he wishes to be remembered by. It’s a combination of a memoir, curriculum vitae, and a completed to-do list. The document is not particularly well-organized, but if we were to reorder the items and group them under headings (which is what I have my students do), they might look something like this:

  • Military Victories and Conquests
  • Diplomacy and Peacemaking
  • Public Works
  • Donations
  • Restoration of the Mores Maiorum (the “ways of the ancestors”)

If you are familiar with the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where John Cleese’s character asks, “What have the Romans done for us,” you might think of the Res Gestae as Augustus’ answer to the question, “What has Augustus done for us?” And both answers would include “the aqueduct” and “brought peace.”

Equally as fascinating as the document’s content is the story of how it was found. I knew that it survived only in the provincial copy carved into the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, and I knew that at some point it was recognized as the work of Augustus. Beyond that, I vaguely assumed that it had been identified by a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat—like Lord Elgin, only less destructive.

As usual, I was partially right. My instincts were correct, but I was off on the details (just like with King Arthur flour). It wasn’t a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat; it was a classically-educated sixteenth-century Flemish diplomat. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592) was ambassador of Emperor Ferdinand of Austria to Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. During his time there, between 1554 and 1562, Ghiselin de Busbecq traveled around the Ottoman empire and later published his observations in Turkish Letters (1581). He wrote,6

Here we saw a very beautiful inscription, containing a copy of the tablets in which Augustus gave a summary of his achievements. We made our people copy as much as was legible. It is engraved on the marble walls of a building now ruinous and roofless which formerly may have formed the official residence of the governor. As you enter the building one half of the inscription is on the right, and the other on the left. The top lines are nearly perfect; in the middle the gaps begin to present difficulties; the lowest lines are so mutilated with blows of clubs and axes as to be illegible. This is indeed a great literary loss, and one which scholars have much reason to regret; the more so as it is an ascertained fact that Ancyra was dedicated to Augustus as the common gift of Asia.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq

 Recognizing the Res Gestae wasn’t Ghiselin de Busbecq’s only accomplishment. He was also interested in plants, and claimed to have been the person who introduced tulip bulbs to Europe. This claim was an exaggeration, but Ghiselin de Busbecq probably contributed to their popularization. 7 Tulips became so popular in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century that the buying and selling of the bulbs is referred to as “Tulipmania,” and the rise and subsequent collapse of the market in 1637 is considered an early example of an investment bubble. 8

‘Still Life with Flowers,’ 1639, by Hans Bollinger (fl. 1623-1672), now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The striped tulips, known as ‘broken,’ were the most highly sought-after during the tulip craze. It is now known that the ‘break’ is caused by a virus. Coincidentally, the name of the most valuable broken variety was ‘Semper Augustus.’

The surviving copy of the Res Gestae was mentioned by classical scholars a few times in the subsequent centuries, but serious study of it was only undertaken in the nineteenth century, beginning with the work of Theodor Mommsen, a groundbreaking German historian of ancient Rome. Mommsen was not an archeologist, and he did not travel to Turkey to study the inscription in person. Rather, he relied on drawings made by others to produce his scholarly edition of the Res Gestae in 1865, and a second edition that utilized plaster casts of the inscription in 1883.9

Another technology that has been developed by epigraphers (people who study inscriptions) is known as “squeezes.” A squeeze is made by pressing dampened paper onto the inscription, letting it dry, then lifting it off. The resulting impression is lightweight and easy to work with (although the image is reversed; epigraphers have to become adept at reading ancient languages backwards). Taking a squeeze allows for prolonged study of the text off-site, and for simultaneous study of inscriptions from multiple sites.

I was delighted to learn that Cornell University, my doctoral institution, has an extensive collection of squeezes, including the Res Gestae. The Res Gestae squeeze was obtained as part of the Cornell Expedition to Asia Minor and the Assyro-Babylonian Orient (1907-1908). I was not aware of this collection’s existence while I was studying there, although ancient Greek and Roman history was one of my minor fields. At that point, in the pre-digital era, the squeezes were just sitting in storage in the attic of Goldwin Smith Hall, home of Cornell’s Classics department. But the squeezes have since been restored and digitized.

One of the squeezes of the Res Gestae now in Cornell’s collection.

Another Cornell connection to the Res Gestae, slightly more tenuous, is that Theodor Ernst Mommsen (1905-1958), grandson of Theodor Mommsen, taught medieval history at Cornell beginning in 1954 (having escaped Nazi Germany in 1935) until his untimely death from suicide in 1958. His successor was Brian Tierney, with whom I studied.

In the 1930s, archeologists excavated the Ara Pacis, an Augustan monument mentioned in the Res Gestae10

When I returned to Rome from Spain and Gaul, having settled affairs successfully in these provinces, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quinctilius [13 BC], the senate decreed that an altar of Augustan Peace should be consecrated in thanks for my return on the field of Mars, and ordered magistrates and priests and Vestal Virgins to perform an annual sacrifice there.

As part of his program to connect his rule to the glories of imperial Rome, Mussolini had a museum constructed to house the Ara Pacis, located near the ruins of the mausoleum of Augustus on the banks of the Tiber. The text of the Res Gestae was carved into an exterior wall of the museum. The Ara Pacis museum opened in 1938, a year celebrated as the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus.11

Mussolini’s Ara Pacis museum. The Res Gestae was carved on the wall in the foreground.

The Mussolini-era museum has since been demolished and replaced with a new building, completed in 2006, designed by American architect Richard Meier. The wall with the Res Gestae was preserved, however. So if you want to see an inscribed version of the Res Gestae, there’s no need to visit Ankara; there’s one in Rome, near its original location, although not on a bronze tablet.

Whenever an academic administrator asks me for the goals of a course, I always use the same three (polished a bit more for administrative consumption):

  • Teach them stuff (content).
  • Teach them to do stuff (skills).
  • Teach them how it relates to other stuff (connections).

The Res Gestae is a perfect example of this approach in action. Teach them stuff: the document is literally made up of, and named for, the stuff Augustus did. Teach them to do stuff: in addition to the skill of reading and interpreting a document, the Res Gestae also gives students the opportunity to learn about disciplines like archeology and epigraphy and techniques like squeezes that lie behind the conveniently anthologized, printed, translated text in front of them. Teach them how it relates to other stuff: the history of the Res Gestae not only connects to the history of the interest in and study of the classics—by Ghiselin de Busbecq in the 16th century, Mommsen in the 19th, and Mussolini in the 20th—it also, more unexpectedly, connects to the history of horticulture and early-modern capitalism. No wonder it’s one of my favorite texts to teach.

The Huguccian Moment: Medieval Origins of the Declaration of Independence

In memoriam Brian Tierney, part 2

Brian Tierney’s portrait as president of the American Catholic Historical Association, 1965.

I wrote this essay originally for a summer faculty seminar at Mount St Mary’s University held in 2007 on the American founding, directed by Dr Peter Dorsey of the English department. I learned most of the medieval material from the graduate seminars I took from Brian Tierney at Cornell: Francis of Assisi and the Franciscans, Church and State in the Middle Ages, Medieval Conciliarism, and Medieval Canon Law, as well as from his published works as specified in the notes. I publish it here as a tribute to him.

A Brian Tierney bookshelf.

In the preface to his 1927 book The Twelfth-Century Renaissance, Charles Homer Haskins wrote,

“The title of this book will appear to many to contain a flagrant contradiction. A renaissance in the twelfth century! Do not the Middle Ages, that epoch of ignorance, stagnation, and gloom, stand in the sharpest contrast to the light and progress and freedom of the Italian Renaissance which followed? How could there be a renaissance in the Middle Ages, when men had no eye for the joy and beauty and knowledge of this passing world, their gaze ever fixed on the terrors of the world to come?”

Haskins’ rhetorical questions apply equally to my subtitle. Medieval Origins of the Declaration of Independence! Do not the Middle Ages, that epoch of ignorance, stagnation, and gloom, stand in the sharpest contrast to the light and progress and freedom of the Enlightenment? How could the Middle Ages have anything to do with the Declaration of Independence, when medieval people knew nothing of natural rights, government by consent, or a right of rebellion, their gaze ever fixed on the terrors of the world to come?

Haskins justified his title this way: “The answer is that the continuity of history rejects such sharp and violent contrasts between successive periods, and that modern research shows us the Middle Ages less dark and less static, the Renaissance less bright and less sudden, than was once supposed.” 1 The historiographical movement Haskins represented has been termed “The Revolt of the Medievalists”; this is the historiographical tradition in which Brian Tierney worked. I would like to extend this revolt to tracing the medieval roots of the Declaration.

In an episode of the 1980’s sitcom Family Ties, Alex Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox, dreams that he is watching Thomas Jefferson (played by Alex’s father in the dream) draft the Declaration of Independence. In addition to proposing a few changes in wording (“try ‘self-evident,’ Mr. Jefferson”), Alex also suggests that he use “brown crinkly paper” to write it on. 2 The scene works because not only do we know what the Declaration is supposed to sound like—we know that it says “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” not “really obvious”—we know what it’s supposed to look like. And what it looks like is medieval.

Michael J. Fox as Alex Keaton encouraging Thomas Jefferson (his father Steven Keaton, played by Michael Gross) as he writes the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson didn’t produce the famous version on the brown crinkly paper (actually parchment, which is also what medieval documents were written on); his handwritten draft survives, written in a surprisingly legible hand and with no special formatting. After the final text of the Declaration was approved on July 4, the Continental Congress directed that the text be “engrossed on parchment.”3 This task was undertaken by Timothy Matlack, assistant to Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Congress. 4 The layout of Matlack’s version follows point by point the layout of medieval papal documents.

Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Here we see the familiar image of the official copy of the Declaration below a privilege issued by Pope Gregory IX in 1234. The languages and the scripts are different, of course, but otherwise the two documents look strikingly similar. Both highlight their opening words in larger letters that use a different script from the main body of the text.  Both occasionally vary the script used in the body. Both have witnesses’ signatures, each of which is accompanied by a distinguishing flourish, arranged in vertical columns at the bottom of the page, with the main signatures (John Hancock and Pope Gregory IX) larger and in the center.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that Timothy Matlack had a papal charter next to him when he dipped his quill into the ink to begin writing “In Congress.” My hypothesis is that the visual format of ecclesiastical documents influenced the look of royal documents, probably by means of clergymen working in royal chanceries—it’s no accident that “cleric” and “clerk” are the same word in Latin (clericus). Then I suspect that colonial charters followed the format of other royal documents, and the colonial charters influenced the look of the Declaration. Someday I’ll take the time to document this hypothesis (yet another retirement project!).

This same path was followed by several of the important ideas in the Declaration.  Concepts developed in the church, especially by canon lawyers, were applied to secular governments, including the kingdom of England, and then some of them crossed the Atlantic. These ideas include the existence of natural rights, government by consent, and the right of rebellion.

Among the truths that the Declaration of Independence holds to be self-evident is that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson, clearly, is drawing on the early modern philosophical tradition of natural rights, especially as developed by John Locke (whose formulation was “life, liberty, and property”). But the early modern rights theorists were themselves drawing on a medieval tradition that began with the twelfth-century Decretists and really got going in the fourteenth-century disputes between the Franciscans and the papacy, a tradition that has been documented in the works of Brian Tierney and which I studied in his courses.

Gratian’s Decretum is a collection of canon law texts compiled around 1140; it includes papal decrees, conciliar pronouncements, and excerpts from the Church Fathers, all arranged topically. Many of the texts contradict each other (the collection’s official title is Concordia Discordantium Canonum, or “Concordance of Discordant Canons”), so canon lawyers immediately began to write commentaries that explored the issued raised by these opposing texts.  These commentators on the Decretum are called Decretists.

One of the issues the twelfth-century Decretists debated in their commentaries was the origins of private property. The Decretum includes a text that states, “by natural law all things are common.” Human institutions are supposed to reflect natural law, so the Decretists needed somehow to account for the existence of private property. The Decretist Huguccio, for example, concluded that “common” (commune in Latin) meant “to be shared [communicanda] in time of necessity.” But otherwise, individuals had a right to their own property. 5

All the definitions, distinctions, and speculations of the Decretists regarding property were put to good use in the fourteenth-century Franciscan poverty disputes. For centuries Benedictine monks had given up all personal possessions when they joined the monastery, but the monastery as a whole owned plenty of property which the monks were able to share (their model was the early Christian community described in Acts 4:32-35, which “held everything in common”). In his attempt to follow the commandments of the Gospel literally, Francis of Assisi had embraced absolute poverty, enjoining his friars, as the formula had it, to own nothing “either individually or in common.” The problem is that it’s difficult to live that way, especially as the order grew larger and expanded its ministry. The working solution, established in the bull Ordinem vestrem issued in 1245 by Pope Innocent IV, was that buildings, furniture, books, clothing and so forth donated to the Franciscans would be owned by the church as a whole and just “used” by the Franciscans.

This compromise distinguishing between ownership and use was not acceptable to all the Franciscans, however. A splinter group, known as the Spirituals, saw this compromise as a corruption of Franciscan ideals (and therefore of the Gospel). They insisted on what they called “poor use”—it wasn’t enough simply to renounce legal ownership; one should actually live in poverty. The papacy saw the Spirituals as dangerous, because they could easily go from claiming to be holier than churchmen who lived in luxury to claiming that all property held by the church was illegitimate, because it was contrary to the absolute poverty of Christ and the Apostles.

The Spirituals’ position played into the hands of supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor against the temporal claims of the papacy. Faced with this threat, in 1323 Pope John XXII, in the bull Cum inter nonnullos, declared the belief that Christ and the Apostles were absolutely poor to be heretical. To justify the papal position, opponents of the Spirituals asserted a natural right to property. They argued that it is impossible to renounce this right (in other words, it is inalienable) because, while one might give up one’s possessions, one can never renounce the right to one’s own body or to items consumable in use (like food—how can you say you don’t own the food that you swallow and digest?). The rich tradition of medieval discussion of rights was passed on to the seventeenth-century theorists. 6

Another self-evident truth found in the Declaration of Independence is that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The idea that this consent could best be expressed by means of a representative assembly such as a Parliament developed in the Middle Ages. Eighteenth-century American Whigs frequently referred to the Magna Carta as one of the sources of their rights as Englishmen. Item twelve of Magna Carta states that the King agrees that “No scutage or aid [types of monetary contributions to the crown] may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent.” (This, of course, is the urtext for “No taxation without representation”).

But an additional source for the idea of consent comes not from common law but from canon law. Beginning around 1200, canonists began to cite a formula they found in Roman law (although in a completely different context 7), Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbetur, or “What touches all ought to be approved by all,” when referring first to the operation of ecclesiastical corporations (such as monasteries, religious orders or cathedral chapters) and then as a justification for church councils. 8

Soon the phrase began to appear in secular contexts as well. For example, in 1293, the government of the Florentine popolo issued a law code called the Ordinances of Justice whose first rubric echoes Quod omnes tangit:  “that is agreed to be most perfect which . . . is approved by the judgment of all.” 9 Two years later, King Edward I of England issued a summons to Parliament that included these words: “a most just law, established by the careful providence of sacred princes, exhorts and decrees that what affects all, by all should be approved.” 10

When a government based on consent begins to act tyrannically, wrote Jefferson, the people have a right to rebel against it: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” This passage is another part of the Declaration that is usually considered to be Lockean. But again, medieval canonists also wrote about circumstances in which a people might remove their ruler. In the twelfth century, Decretists became concerned about what would happen if the pope were to be a heretic. This would be very dangerous, because a heretical pope could infect the faithful with his incorrect teachings and thereby jeopardize their eternal salvation. The Decretists concluded that the Church, as represented in a General Council, could depose a heretical pope. But some Decretists took their logic a bit further—what if the pope committed not heresy but some other serious sin? Given his position, wouldn’t that be just as bad? What if, for example, he were a fornicator? Huguccio imagines the situation:

“But I believe that it is the same in any notorious crime, that the pope can be accused and condemned if, being admonished, he is not willing to desist. What then? Behold, he steals publicly, he fornicates publicly, he keeps a concubine publicly, he has intercourse with her publicly in the church, near the altar or on it, and being admonished will not desist. Shall he not be accused? Shall he not be condemned? Is it not like heresy to scandalize the church in such a fashion?”11

Huguccio’s list of imaginary papal sins reminds me of the crimes Jefferson attributed to George III. Huguccio denied that a General Council could actually sit in judgment on a sinful pope, because a pope can be judged by no one. Rather, because of his sins he was incapable of being pope and therefore automatically deposed himself. The Council simply “declared” that he had done so. Is that possibly what Jefferson thought he was doing when he listed the king’s crimes as part of declaring independence?

The twelfth-century canonists were thinking hypothetically, but in the late fourteenth-century a situation actually arose in which the pope appeared to be endangering the whole body of the church. During the Great Schism, which began in 1378, first two, then (after 1409) three men all claimed to be the legitimately elected pope and all of them refused any concession or compromise. Drawing on the ideas of Decretists like Huguccio, writers known as Conciliarists argued that in such a dire situation the whole church, as represented in a General Council, had a right to depose the schismatic popes. The first attempt to do so, the Council of Pisa, failed (that’s where the third pope came from), but the 1415 Council of Constance successfully asserted the powers of a General Council, deposed all three popes, and elected a new one.

The Conciliarists, however, went beyond the emergency situation; they believed that the church would be better off if General Councils met regularly, instead of only in a crisis, in hopes that crises would not develop. In other words, they believed in parliamentary government for the church. In 1417 the Council of Constance issued the decree Frequens, which stipulated that from then on General Councils should meet at regular intervals. 12

The Conciliarists, as you may have noticed, ultimately were not successful; the Catholic Church did not become a constitutional monarchy. But their writings were eagerly adapted by seventeenth-century English Parliamentarians during the English Civil War—wherever they read “Pope” they substituted “King,” and for “General Council” they substituted “Parliament.” The 1689 English Bill of Rights includes a provision “that for redress of all grievances, and for the amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently.” This was clearly inspired partly by Charles I’s failure to summon Parliament between 1629 and 1640, but it is also a definite echo of Frequens.

Alan Gibson, in Interpreting the Founding, characterizes J.G.A. Pocock’s republican approach to the American founding as

“a sweeping narrative that traces the transmissions and transformations of the civic humanist tradition of political thought through three reconstructions: the first in fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Florence (“The Machiavellian Moment”), the second in early modern England (“The Harringtonian Moment”), and a third in revolutionary America.” 13

I would like to suggest that Pocock’s “sweeping narrative” didn’t begin far enough back, and further that it is itself trapped in a sweeping narrative invented in the Renaissance and strengthened in the Enlightenment—the threefold periodization of the western tradition into ancient, medieval and modern. American history is modern history; it therefore by definition can’t be medieval. Brian Tierney, the historian who has done the most to uncover the medieval, and especially the canonical, roots of modern political ideas, has written that the history of constitutional thought can’t be understood “unless we consider the whole period from 1150 to 1650 as a single era of essentially continuous development.” 14

Or, to put it another way, perhaps we should consider the ideological origins of the American Revolution to begin, not with a Machiavellian, but a Huguccian Moment.

Brian Tierney with several of his former students in 2005, at a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Foundations of Conciliar Theory.

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.

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.

Renaissance Gettysburg

One gorgeous summer afternoon a few years ago, while in Gettysburg, PA for a chamber music camp, I used our afternoon break from playing string quartets to visit the Gettysburg National Military Park and take some photos. I stopped the car at the most prominent monument I could see, which turned out to be the Pennsylvania Monument.

As I was walking around it looking for good photographic angles, I noticed how the summer sky was framed by the monument’s arch. “That’s beautiful,” I thought. “It looks just like a painting.” Then I realized, “Hold on—it looks like THE painting.” A quick search on my phone confirmed my suspicion. The Pennsylvania Monument is indeed very similar to the architectural setting of Raphael’s 1509 fresco The School of Athens, right down to the sky framed by the arch. (The other tourists visiting the Battlefield that day probably wondered why I was jumping up and down in excitement).

So, was The School of Athens the inspiration for the design of the Pennsylvania Monument? The monument was commissioned in 1907 by the Pennsylvania state legislature; architect W. Liance Cottrell was awarded the job. (Sculptor Samuel Murray, who studied with Thomas Eakins, got the sculpture commission.) The monument was still incomplete when dedicated in 1910; more money was appropriated and the finished memorial was rededicated on July 1, 1913, as part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg.

I have so far been unable to find any evidence that Cottrell had Raphael’s fresco specifically in mind when he designed the memorial to Pennsylvanians who fought at Gettysburg. Cottrell was trained in the Beaux-Arts school of architecture, which made extensive use of classical style. Raphael and Cottrell may simply have chosen the same classical elements for their creations. But I like to imagine that Cottrell tried to bring Raphael’s imaginary building to life on the field of Gettysburg.