Wednesday, May 31, 2006

pulp fiction

Fifteenth-century Flemish tapestry.

Via Ted at The Late Adopter, a Slate article on pulp fiction that begins by quoting a wonderful example of the genre's attention-grabbing opening sentences:
On this spot where Hollywood would one day grow, two vaqueros were crushing a priest to death with his own wine press.
—J.J. des Ormeaux, in Dime Western
I might have to hunt that story down. I have very little time for literature now, and after a day of academic articles and Latin charters, I'm really not in the mood for rereading Ulysses. I choose fun things of differing literary quality. Right now I'm reading Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories by M. R. James (1862-1936), Cambridge medievalist and one of the masters of the ghost story genre. A wee bit back I read Matthew Lewis' magnificently over-the-top gothic novel The Monk.

In between the two I went for something sillier, The Lustful Turk, an example of nineteenth-century British "erotica." I apologize if anyone is shocked by my indulgence of Victorian porn, but I have always found it terribly amusing. The variety of euphemism is wonderful, and the weird mix of sex and proper old-fashioned English prose is hilarious. It's sort of like getting Queen Elizabeth II drunk on tequila and asking her what the Duke of Edinburgh is like in the sack. It is also fascinating just as social artifact: what can you learn about a society from its porn? I don't want to do this for our own society, it's too depressing, but nineteenth-century England is another question.

The Lustful Turk lives up to these expectations, and yet is mercifully short, since it relies on repetition of the same story as a plot point. It follows the capture by pirates of the young, beautiful, and virginal Emily Barlow who is presented to the Dey of Algiers and promptly initiated against her will into the pleasures of the flesh. At first horrified, she soon becomes an enthusiastic participant. Then she meets two of the Dey's other wives, and we hear the same story of conquest repeated with little variation.

Even though I was not taking the book seriously, I found the repeated emphasis on rape disturbing. Culturally, I should have expected it -- the male "other" is often represented sexually as both aggressively threatening and exaggeratedly potent. The African-American man is portrayed this way in our society and so was the Jew in medieval society. Since it was a Victorian treatment of "the east," I took my copy of Edward Said's Orientalism off the shelf. Said refers only briefly to The Lustful Book, but he led me to a 1964 book that has more to say about it: The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England by Steven Marcus. Marcus remarks that our book is one of the first of a long line of books in the genre. He focuses on the story's phallo-centrism and how it relates to literature. Although his discussion is fascinating, he does not mention what seemed obvious to me when reading the book: the relationship of rape and conquest to imperialism.

The Lustful Turk was first published, it appears, in 1826, just a quarter way into the great century of European colonial expansion. Marcus, discussing the historical development of pornography (although he concentrates on more domestic aspects of sexuality), says:
Although the impulses and fantasies with which pornography deals are trans-historical, pornography itself is a historical phenomenon. It has its origins in the seventeenth century, may be said to come into full meaningful existence in the latter part of the eighteenth century, develops and flourishes throughout the nineteenth century, and continues on in our own [p 282].
That is, it follows the same path as European (and later American) imperialism. There are many interpretations that could be drawn from this observation, but I will limit mine to what I felt as I read The Lustful Turk: the fantasy of domination extends to both sexual and political spheres. The Dey is terrifying and violent, but in the end he is right. He has to take what he wants by force, but as the violator and the violated settle into the situation, the violated realizes that what seems like brutal and unfeeling exploitation by the violator is actually a gift and to the benefit of both parties. Domination by violence seems brutal, but in reality it brings peace through the gifts the dominator can only give by imposition: sexual pleasure, civilization, democracy...

Of course there is an odd tension throughout the book: the violated women are European and the rapist is the ultimate "other," an Oriental, a Turk. Marcus warns us against using literary analysis too much in studying pornography: pornography and literature serve different purposes. The anonymous author of The Lustful Turk is out for thrills, not consistency. The fact that Emily is English allows the male reader to read her thoughts expressed in his language and idiom. It also may provide the misogynistic thrill of seeing the domination of a woman of his own society, the nearest "other" to him. It permits the projection of one's own aggression onto the orientalized Turk, and the exotic location in which there is complete domination of women (the harem) is probably another thrill for the Victorian man. Still, the tension causes the author to flip the situation on its head in the bizarre ending of the novel: the Turk attempts to rape a Greek girl who defends herself by castrating him. He allows Emily not only to return to England, but to take with her the severed member preserved in a jar! The author has it both ways: domination of women and castration of the threatening other.

I propose we think about fantasies of domination and forced gifts of pleasure. Perhaps after all, The Lustful Turk is not, as I had thought, light reading.

PS: Please read the post below about the internet if you have not yet done so -- it's important.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

save the internet

Medieval internet users.

Sunday's New York Times included an editorial that correctly identified a danger to "net neutrality" from telecommunications companies that are aggressively lobbying for the ability to charge sites for access to customers. This means companies like Verizon or AT&T could control the speed at which certain sites load, and even cut access to a given site.

"Net neutrality" means that it is as easy to access Ford Motor Company's site as it is to access a site criticizing Ford. It is as easy to watch YouTube as it is to watch CNN. The tremendous possibilities that the internet offers culturally, intellectually and politically exist because of this thoroughly democratic ability to access any information someone is willing to put on a webpage. A battle is going on in congress right now that could put an end to these possibilities.

Please act. To sign a petition as well as to learn more about the issue, go to Save the (I especially recommend the video "Ask a Ninja About Net Neutrality" for an entertaining take on the issue). Save the is a coalition of individuals and groups concerned with the issue, remarkable diverse group (it includes, The Christian Coalition, Gun Owners of America, and US Pirg, to give you an idea of how the support of Net Neutrality reaches across the political spectrum). Their f. a q. page is a good place to start for understanding the issue.

Keep the internet what it is, for at least a little while longer.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

this and that

Rockers of the fourteenth Century.

A few posts ago, I wrote a post called Things I don't believe in any longer, and I complained about the Democratic Party. I was going to write at least one other installment about Rock & Roll. I still listen to quite a bit of it, depending on how you define it (I really don't care what section the cd is in the store -- there's a place by my apartment where they break music into two categories: 'independent" and "establishment (released before 1990)." Oh, so The Residents are establishment and Britney Spears is independent, you smirking young mamones? -- anyway, I'm getting off the subject). Still, I don't see it, as a style of music, as really being more liberating or anti-authoritarian than any other. When I was an angry teenager growing up in the Reagan years, it seemed different. I bought my electric guitar and listened to the Who, and it seemed that the music had some kind of redemptive force. As Lou Reed sang, it could change your life:

Jenny said, when she was just five years old
You know there's nothing happening at all
Every time she put on the radio
There was nothing going down at all
Not at all

One fine morning, she puts on a New York station
And she couldn't believe what she heard at all
She started dancing to that fine-fine-fine-fine music
Ooohhh, her life was saved by rock n' roll
Hey baby, rock n' roll

Despite all the amputation
You could dance to a rock n' roll station
And it was all right
It was all right

Of course, Lou was singing partly tongue in cheek and partly recognizing the force popular music has had on youth since long before rock was invented: the liberation for the hormone-crazed, angry and confused that comes from dancing to that fine fine music. There's nothing really political about it. But forty years of pretentious rock critics and the marketing of a faux-rebellious attitude has made rock & roll what my friend Guillaume le Fou refers to as "one of the great all-time liberal myths." It is nothing more than a consumer product that allows people to pretend they are more rebellious than they actually are. Once again, I am not talking about any given song or performer, but rather about a concept: rebellious, anti-authoritarian rock & roll.

I say this as a prelude to an article about some very silly people that was in the Times today. A silly writer for the National Review put together a "top 50" list of songs he considers "conservative." Here's the article and here's the list. This is what John J. Miller, the silly writer, has to say about the project:

"Any claim that rock is fundamentally revolutionary is just kind of silly," he said. "It's so mainstream that it puts them" — liberals — "in the position of saying that at no time has there ever been a rock song that expressed a sentiment that conservatives can appreciate. And that's just silly. In fact here are 50 of them."

The Times of course got a counter-opinion from a silly liberal:
Asked to comment on the list, Dave Marsh, the longtime rock critic and avowed lefty, saw it as a desperate effort by the right to co-opt popular culture. "What happened was, my side won the culture war, in the sense that rock and related music is the dominant musical form, not only in the U.S. but around the world," he said. "Once you lose that battle, you lose the war, and then a different kind of battle begins: the battle over meaning."
They are both silly because both of them miss the point. Rock is conservative, not because of any of the lyrics are or are not conservative, but because it is a perfectly marketed item that makes rich people richer, repeats the same forms it's been using for fifty years, often harkens back to a golden age of simpler and purer rock, and confirms rather than challenges simple senses of identity. I mean, really. I see 17-year-punks with mohawks, safety-pin jewelry, and tight red plaid pants. That's 1977 -- I'm too young to have worn that style in its heyday, and I'm turning 40 in two months.

Miller's lists of songs do contain some songs whose lyrics would probably not offend and might well please the most rancid reactionaries on the far-right wing of the Republican Party. Other choices show a certain amount of fantasy on his part. Some show the weird sense of definition of political stance that some conservatives have, for example, "Revolution," by the Beatles. Since John Lennon sings "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow," Miller identifies it as conservative. Right, I guess liberal = Maoist. "Why didn't you vote for John Kerry?" "I was afraid of the Cultural Revolution."

One of his picks that annoyed me personally was the following:

6. "Gloria," by U2.
Just because a rock song is about faith doesn't mean that it's conservative. But what about a rock song that's about faith and whose chorus is in Latin? That's beautifully reactionary: "Gloria / In te domine / Gloria / Exultate."
Excuse me, dude, but I love Latin. Look at the title of my blog. I have a secret to tell you: I can be a person of faith who loves Latin and my politics are way, way to the left. Amabo te, tace stulte Miller. Potesne etiam hoc legere? Linguam et liturgiam latinam diligo, sed rationem tuam et partidem Rei Publicani parvi aestimo.

Enough of this -- I have to get to work.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

gloria cibi africae occidentalis

Mansa Musa, the "Lion of Mali." A great ruler of the 14th-century Empire of Mali.

This is a blog post that I have been planning for some time. In fact, I have been photographing meals for the past month and a half or so, and now I know that if the PhD does not work out, I have a backup profession: food stylist.

My dearest, imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis, is one of the Mandingo people of West Africa. Her family is from Liberia, but its origins are in Mali and perhaps she is a descendent of Mansa Musa. She has so many good qualities I have no hope of listing them all, but the one I would like to honor today is that she has introduced me to the food of her country, which she makes exquisitely.

West African cooking has a great deal of variety, but the basic premise is this: throw all the animals you can find into a pot with some water and very hot pepper. Stew it. That's about it. If you are a vegetarian who doesn't like spicy food, sorry. There's not much you can do. I will now describe three of the dishes, but I can't give you any specific recipes. It doesn't work that way. You throw things into a pot, that's about it.

Pepper Soup with Fufu

This is the purest expression of the "throw it all in the pot" approach to gastronomy. In this case, we have chicken parts, stew beef, smoked turkey, and pork or lamb, I can't remember. Anything that walks, flies, swims or crawls can be added. Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis will use shrimp when she makes it for others, but I'm allergic, so... You season the meat with salt, pepper, and bullion. Brown it in oil with chopped onion and hot pepper, then add water with bullion and stew it.

This is served with fufu: a majestic doughy ball of starch. Fufu flour is made with cassava or yams or plantains, etc. You mix it with water, form a big ball, and pour the stew over it. Filling and delicious, it is a meal that asserts itself with authority and dedication. Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis often makes it for us when we are sick, since it combines the healing properties of chicken soup with the skin pore-opening and nasal passage-clearing effect of hot pepper.

Spinach and Rice

I have made pepper soup before, but now we are moving onto things I have only eaten, so my knowledge of the cooking process is a bit more shaky. As you can tell from the variety of meat here, once again we are following a "kill them all" approach to the barnyard. This dish is prepared in a similar fashion to pepper soup, only with less water and the addition of chopped spinach and palm oil at the end. It is served on top of a healthy serving of white rice. Pepper soup can also be served with rice instead of fufu; chez nous we serve it in another bowl on the side. You need some kind of starch because it is very spicy.


This made Lenten Fridays much less penitential. I was not allowed to follow the making of the secret fishballs, but I know it involved bluefish, kingfish, chopped onions and peppers, flour and very hot oil. The sauce you see has something to do with tomatoes and onions. As I said, it was a secret. The fishballs were gloriously spicy and flavorful.

I'm not a great fan of fish usually, but imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis has a gift with seafood. She also makes a non-African fish stew that I can't get enough of.


The peppers are essential. We get what are called here in New York "Jamaican peppers," available in supermarkets in neighborhoods with a sizeable Latino population. Accept no substitutes. These peppers have a superb flavor and have powerful spice magic. One or two is enough to make a pot of pepper soup that can make a whole family sweat.

I buy fufu flour at a store in "Little Senegal" on 116th Street, but it can be found in surprising places (imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis actually found it in a store in Salt Lake City). Google it and you can probably find it online. The same goes for palm oil, thick, red, oily and flavorful.

Everything else is pretty standard.

I have to admit there are parts of West African cuisine that I'm not so crazy about. Imagine a nuclear warhead detonates over a lake. You walk the dry lakebed and find the radioactive remains of the fish that once swam peacefully in its now-vaporized waters. You can find this fish in African stores. I refer to it as "post-apocalyptic death fish." It has a strong flavor, and I really don't like it.

Post-apocalyptic Death Fish

(I should say that imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis does not agree at all with my characterization of the aforementioned Death Fish. She insists that I explain that it is actually smoked with herbs and peppers, and tastes "wonderfully delicious." She says one should think of it as fish jerky. I will let the reader decide.)

Friday, May 19, 2006

slow day

St Jerome, hanging out. Note lion to the right of him.

The hardest thing about dissertation land is its complete lack of structure. I've been trying to dive into work after finishing teaching and things have not gone so well. I have dipped into some charters and read a couple of articles, but that's about it (one account of a trial did contain an oath that was interesting because of the religious language in it). So... Monday. I promise. If any of my blogging friends find me leaving long comments on their blogs Monday morning, say to me, "Very interesting, Liam... NOW GET TO WORK."

I plan to rest this weekend. Last weekend was the First Communion of Filius imperatricis pulcherrima Africae occidentalis with party afterwards, both of which were great, but I could have rested more. The Mass was at ten o'clock on Saturday, and I awoke to find I had no more coffee in the house (serious concern). I found myself in the horrible situation of being at a Starbuck's at 8:00 AM Saturday morning surrounded by peppy people in jogging attire, all of this at a time at which all good Christian women and men should be at home sleeping off their gin. Not good.

A couple of things to comment on: The Catholic blogosphere is buzzing about the Vatican's restriction of the ministry of the 86-year old founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Father Marcial Marciel Degollado (whose second last name means in Spanish, curiously enough, "one whose throat has been cut"). Marciel has been accused of several cases of sexual abuse and although he has not been removed from the priesthood, he can no longer preside at public masses or give conferences. There will be no formal canonical procedure against the founder of the conservative organization due to his advanced age, but according to the National Catholic Reporter, "In effect, Vatican sources told NCR this week, the action amounts to a finding that at least some of the accusations against the charismatic 86-year-old Mexican priest are well-founded."

There is more than one way to look at this. Marciel was held in great esteem by the late Pope John Paul II, who praised him publicly, so this could mean that the Church actually is getting serious about the issue and that even high-ranking and influential churchmen are not free from facing the consequences of their reprehensible actions. On the other hand, the fact that their will be no canonical procedure could mean that there is no formal condemnation and the Church is once again responding to sexual abuse by evasive tactics more concerned with image than justice. I myself have not decided what to think of the whole thing, but I have heard these different evaluations of the situation.


Yesterday I actually left the neighborhood and went to go see a movie: The Proposition, with a screenplay by Nick Cave. It was a brutal Australian Western: imagine Sam Peckinpah meets Joseph Conrad. The New York Times has a good review of it. Then I went to my favorite restaurant in New York, Fried Dumpling, which stands nobly between Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and offers five tasty dumplings for a dollar. Lovely.

Now, I would like to write something completely absurd:
The young Lady Flatterswhip grew bored of her surroundings. Bored of the Sussex estate, bored of the visits from the vicar, bored of the rose garden and tea parties, bored of the longshoremen and zebras that mysteriously congregated around the front drive of the manor on alternate Tuesdays. She even longed on occasions for what now seemed like the happy bygone days of the Mongolian prison. Dreading the oncoming storm of social obligations as croquet season approached, the only relief for her came from a letter in the hand of her brother Denby in South America, which brought with it the shocking news that...

Monday, May 15, 2006

da vinci, etc

Look! Who is that right in front of Jesus with soft features and no beard? It must be... Mary Magdalene, the secret wife of Christ whose descendents are the true Holy Grail and whose story has been ruthlessly suppressed by the evil Catholic Church! Jeepers! It's a good thing that Leonardo was a member of the secret Priory of Sion and knew the truth, and could transmit it through a code... Wait... That's not Leonardo's Last Supper, it's a medieval wall painting from the south of France. Oh... So the apostle John was always represented that way? Oh...

I swear, I don't know why The Da Vinci Code gets my goat so much. I mean, I read the damn thing and even enjoyed it after I got over the vapid prose, wild historical errors, and cardboard characters. I'll probably see the movie if I get the chance. Still, when I hear mention of it on a blog (like Steve's or Crystal's), I go on and on about it. Why is that? It's not so much a question of blasphemy or offence to my religion (although it really is insulting to Catholics), rather I think it's offensive to my calling as a historian. Look, we historians work very hard. We read lots and lots of documents, some of them very old and written in dead languages with very difficult scripts, and we are methodologically almost pathologically anal. We realize that history is complex and never easy to explain. The real causes of events are myriad and intangible, the evidence is often spotty and the questions usually outweigh the answers. When we teach history, we want to give our students a coherent story of what happened in the past, fighting in a Sisyphean manner against an accepted narrative based on pop-culture simplifications and vulgar prejudices. The last thing we need is a testacazzo like Dan Brown making things harder for us.

Oh, please do not tell me "it's just a novel." Yes, but Brown places a page at the beginning claiming that certain of the things referred to are "facts." These "facts" include the existence of both the ancient "Priory of Sion" (invented in the 1950's by a fanatical French anti-Semite) and the documents about the "priory" in the French National Library (forged and planted there by the aforesaid anti-Semite). This sets the tone for many discursive passages in the book in which characters explain even more "facts" about early Christianity, the Church, art history, etc. Brown makes it obvious that he wants the reader to see his information as based on a real, credible alternative reading of history. Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" is "just a movie," but I'm sure Lee would be upset if we were not to take seriously the many brilliant insights about race and American society he transmits through the film's fictional story. Both works claim a certain seriousness, even if Lee's film is good movie-making and profound social commentary whereas Brown's book, although admittedly a page-turner, is from the literary and historical point of view a pure exemplar of birdie doo-doo.

Perhaps the Catholic in me is slightly annoyed as well. I mean, there is so much to criticize in the Church, why come up to me and spout this drivel in order to get me to change my beliefs? A couple of Christian commentators, being wise and generous, have pointed out that the fact that people get excited by conspiracy theories of this type or look to the gnostic gospels as evidence of some kind of cover-up of "true Christianity" may be due to the fact that what they see as Christianity is disappointing. Perhaps. But it takes very little investigating to see how clearly they are barking up a wrong tree (to see some responsible debunking of the Da Vinci claims, here are two alternatives from the official Catholic and secular perspectives). Maybe my annoyance is primarily that of an academic. Why even try if people will not check with the experts to see if a particular theory holds water? Once again, the triumph of anti-intellectualism. Why read a book on early Christianity by a respected scholar when you can read the Da Vinci Code? Why listen to every responsible scientist in the country about global warming when you can just invite a guy who writes thrillers about dinosaurs to the White House to help formulate your policy?

I'm beginning to get whiney, I'm sorry. I'll shut up now.

One more thing: a moment of silence for one of our oldest poets, Stanley Kunitz who died this weekend at age 100. Flights of angels, Stanley.

PS: Speaking of loss and scholars, one of the great historians of Christianity, Jaroslav Pelikan, died this weekend at age 82. Requiescat in pace.

Friday, May 12, 2006

outrage, french roves, and the australian gothic

The panther, from the Aberdeen bestiary. Why? Because it's cool.

I have turned in the finals I was grading. No more school, no more books, no more students' dirty looks. Next year I have funding without teaching and I can spend all my time dissertating. Ole.

Filius imperatricis pulcherrimae Africae occidentalis is celebrating his First Communion tomorrow and I have to go downtown and get a bow for his arm (odd). First, a couple of information tidbits:

The United States, though the wealthiest country in the world, is at the bottom of the list of industrialized nations for infant mortality. This is obscene. Why is there not an outcry? Where are the family values here? Where are all the patriots? I demand anyone who claims to be patriotic to stop worrying about flags and which language the national anthem is sung in and to do something to make this a major issue. Would it not show greater love for our country to be concerned about the health of our infants? For God's sake, children are dying when they don't have to.

For those of you out there who believe there is no longer racism in our country, African-American babies are twice as likely to die as white babies.

Enough of my soapbox (the title of my blog does mean "opinions and shouts"). Other subjects: I don't believe in reincarnation, but some things make me wonder. Karl Rove, for example, appears to reoccur throughout history. At the beginning of the fourteenth century he was an advisor of the King Philip IV "the Fair" of France under the name of Guillaume de Nogaret. Nogaret was a specialist at inventing charges to attack the King's enemies. He was instrumental in Philip's purely mercenary suppression of the Knights Templar, and left his mark in the trumped-up charges against them (sodomy, witchcraft). He accused Pope Boniface VIII of keeping a mistress in order to cover-up his homosexuality. He was also a master of the vindictive political gesture -- after Boniface had died, he wanted to dig up the pope's body and put it on trial for heresy (something that actually had happened in the tenth-century trial of the dead pope Formosus at the famous cadaver synod). Hmmm... Perhaps it does take more than one life to make a Rove.

Last thing: For a long time now I have been a great fan of the Australian singer Nick Cave. His music is dark and powerful, his lyrics gothicly exaggerated but evocative and intelligent. Again and again he returns to religious themes (for example, his eerie portrayal of John the Baptist in the song Mercy or his spare portrait of the twelfth-century mystic Christina the Astonishing). He also sings about sex and violence, so I was never quite sure how much his interest in religion was purely aesthetic. The other day, however, I found something he wrote on the Gospel of Mark, and it seems he is, in his own way, a believer. Oh, the many ways to approach the Gospel.

Monday, May 08, 2006

no one has to read this

The crypt of San Isidoro, burial place of Leonese kings.

The semester is winding down. When I finish grading finals this week, it's over and I can concentrate on the dissertation. I have decided to paste the introduction of my dissertation prospectus below, withour footnotes, in case anyone wants to see what I will be doing for the next couple of years.

The Use of Religious Language in the Construction of Royal Power: León-Castile, 1037-1157

One of the major pillars of growing monarchical power in eleventh- and twelfth-century Western Europe was religion. The king’s relationship with the institutional powers of the church both inside and outside his realm (i.e., the bishops, abbeys, religious orders and the papacy) was occasionally contentious, but it often served to cement the king’s authority, an authority which was never unquestionably secure against the nobility and other claimants to the throne. In addition to this negotiated political and institutional support upon which the king could rely, there was also a less tangible but perhaps more potent factor that he could summon to his aid: the sacral nature of kingship itself. The king, as king, was holy. Kings came and went, and this sacrality was never a guarantee that a king’s authority, or even necessarily his person, would be respected. Still, that sacrality could provide at times the king’s strongest source of support for his claims of prerogative (as it was for the eleventh-century French Capetian kings, for example). Sacral power is intangible, but important, and underpinnings of royal power cannot be grasped unless we can find some way to show how it functioned, who fashioned it, and what possibilities it provided monarchs who were trying to cement their authority.

The eleventh- and early twelfth-century was a period of great expansion and definition of royal power. In France, Capetian monarchs were beginning to assert themselves against the superior power of their nominal vassals, the counts and dukes that surrounded their reduced area of influence in the Isle-de-France region around Paris. England and Sicily saw the advent of powerful and centralized Norman monarchies. Meanwhile, in the north-western regions of what is now Spain, Christian rulers took advantage of infighting among the Muslim leaders of the mini-states that had replaced the once-hegemonic Caliphate of Cordoba at the beginning of the eleventh century. Rulers of the Christian kingdom of León-Castile, having enriched themselves with tributes from Muslim rulers, went on the offensive, and expanded their territory twofold by 1150. At the same time, the division of royal patrimonies among surviving princes, intrigue, and warfare among the Christians themselves created a shifting political situation: León, Castile, Portugal, Navarre, Aragon, and Galicia were all independent kingdoms at one time or another over this century and a half. Institutions were rudimentary and authority was uncertain; at the same time León-Castile enjoyed the reigns of some very accomplished monarchs. This makes the study of the Leonese monarchs of this period very useful for understanding the cementing of monarchical authority that was taking place throughout Europe. The political and institutional elements of Leonese kingship have been the target of excellent scholarship, but their use of religious language and their sacrality is still terra incognita, and study of those subjects will shed light on the religious nature of kingship beyond the borders of León-Castile.

The sacral nature of kingship takes many forms and is expressed or indicated in a variety of ways. Charlemagne’s advisors referred to him as a new David, providing an intellectual model of an Old Testament kingship that was divinely ordained. Other forms of giving religious force to rulership were liturgical and performative, and perhaps the most striking was the anointing of kings during a coronation ceremony. The Capetian kings of France practiced this with great effect and were anointed with a sacred oil kept at Rheims and which according to legend had been brought down from heaven by angels on the occasion of the crowning of Clovis, the fifth-century founder of the Merovingian dynasty. This conveyed great symbolic force, reserving for the king a act that was at least quasi-sacramental and possibly fully sacramental, for at this time the nature and number of the sacraments was not yet definitely set by the Church, and some theologians included the anointing of a king in their lists of sacraments. Anointing also directly connected the body of the king with the sacred, in a public ceremony performed in a liturgical setting.

Although we know the Visigothic kings who ruled Spain before the Muslim invasion of 711 were anointed, the evidence about the kings of León-Castile is inconclusive. Even if the kings were not anointed, an examination of the sources we have leaves no doubt about the connection of Leonese kings with religion in one capacity or another. A study of these texts may reveal different and hitherto uninvestigated modes of sacrality that explain how religious kingship functioned both in León and in the rest of Western Europe.

The most direct surviving sources for the Leonese kings are royal charters written for them, usually in connection with a donation to a religious institution. These charters often feature elaborate religious language, invoking the Trinity, dedicating the donation to the patron saints of the institution, or discussing the religious duties and aims of the monarch. They are signed not only by the king, but by important bishops, abbots, and magnates of the realm. This suggests a public occasion featuring the reading and signing of the document in which the person of the king would become associated with the religious ideas expressed.

The fact that the charters were written in Latin need not mean that they would be unintelligible to those present who were not clerics. The distinct separation between “learned Latin” and “vulgar Romance” in this period has been questioned and there is no reason to suppose that those present would not understand language they had already heard on various other occasions. Also, and perhaps more importantly for the evaluation of the effect this language had on the listeners, the charters were filled with the same biblical quotations and references that their hearers knew from the liturgy, and the liturgy – the Mass and other sacred celebrations – was the major point of contact of the medieval believer with the Bible and other religious texts. Elaborated over centuries, it allowed for a complex act of worship that was codified and set to reflect the passage of the year, marking major feasts as high points and also commemorating the great wealth of saints to which the medieval church paid homage. Studious monks who spent a great deal of time copying or reading books of scripture, exegesis, and theology spent even more time in the opus Dei – the “work of God,” that is, the liturgy of hours that convoked monks for prayer seven times a day. Since religious texts—especially the Bible—were experienced primarily in the liturgy, that means they were experienced primarily orally and communally.

If it is given that both charters and biblical language were not experienced by those around the king only—or even primarily—as texts, but rather as oral, public, and liturgical acts, we can then investigate how the religious language that was used effectively conveyed sacrality to the monarch. The charters, when read in public, might have created a liturgical event that associated the king with prayer. Studying their language from this perspective, we can begin to see exactly how this process worked, and what associations were created for the monarch – what aspects of religion were chosen to be in some way transferred to the king. This way a more precise idea of how religious kingship functioned in this period may emerge. This model of sacrality need not be a construction made purely by the monarch, or purely as part of a conscious and well-thought-out program. Documents not prepared by the king’s notaries themselves and even forgeries give us an idea of what religious associations were credible in this context for this period. They show what possibilities of religious power existed for the king to tap into and what possibilities made sense for the other power players in the king’s realm.

Examined together with religious language from other sources, such as chronicles, and examples of patronage of religious art, these charters allow us to see how a particular image of sacrality that was transferred to the king as religious power became a source of political power. More subtle than constructed ideology (referring to Charlemagne as David) or unequivocal ceremony (anointing), this use of language might reveal the more intangible aspects of medieval religious kingship. By studying a dynamic monarchy in one of the most rapidly changes areas of eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe, we have a unique chance to understand the powerful nexus between religious and political power—a nexus as vital today as ever.

Monday, May 01, 2006

yo era inmigrante ilegal

Medieval pilgrims. Were they there legally?

I was an illegal immigrant. I don't say this in a vague sense of solidarity, as in "we are all (insert name of persecuted person here)." For the first two or three years that I lived in Spain, until I got official residency, I was there illegally. Unlike for Africans, Arabs, or South Americans, this wasn't much of a problem for me, and I can't say that I know what the millions of undocumented, frightened, and exploited immigrants in our country are going through. Still, it makes me bristle when I hear people who support cruel draconian measures justify their inhumanity by saying, "Well, they broke the law coming here. We can't reward them for that."

(Of course I know that not one of those who say that ever cheated so slightly on their taxes, took a hit off a joint, or even went 50 miles an hour in a 45-mile-an-hour zone. No, because any breaking of any law is unpardonable, even for someone who has been working in this country for twenty years. I know that each and every one of those indignant immigrant-haters have not so much spit on the ground, because if so, what would be their justification? Maybe... racism? Hmmm...)

I broke the law in Spain. Of course, in a Mediterranean country, "breaking the law" is seen quite differently than here, but still... Am I ashamed? No. It was 1989. Spain was undergoing a burst of prosperity after joining democratic Europe and there was a desperate need for native-speaking English teachers. No one cared. The economy needed people like me.

Right now, in the United States, we have millions of hard-working, family-oriented people who love this country, and have not been able to regularize their status. The system is broken. No one obeys laws that don't make sense.

Look at it this way: imagine that in order to feed your family, you have to work downtown. The only way to get there is to drive. Your employer wants you there. There are many parking spots, but every last meter is broken. According to a city ordinance, you cannot park in a space with a broken meter. There are no other spaces, and everyone is parking next to a broken meter. Enforcement is spotty, almost non-existent. There is nothing you would love more than to pay your quarter and go to work, but your only option is to break the law.

The system is broken.

Most immigrants would love to come legally if it were an option. They obey the laws once they're here.

It is not always immoral to break a law. Sometimes it is immoral not to break the law.

Rose Parks broke the law.

The system is broken.

PS: I wrote this last night, and thinking of it this morning, it may seem that I accuse anyone who is concerned about the effects of immigration of harboring racist sentiments. I do not. When I refer to "draconian" measures against immigrants, I mean the current plan offered by the House of Representatives, that would give undocumented immigrants felony status and criminalize anyone who aids them -- according to the Catholic bishops, this could be anyone who gives someone food or medicine without asking for their papers first. I realize that someone may disagree with about the economic effects of the level of immigration we have now without xenophobia playing a part. What I was really thinking about are people like this guy:
"When the rule of law is dictated by a mob of illegal aliens taking to the streets, especially under a foreign flag, then that means the nation is not governed by a rule of law — it is a mobocracy," Jim Gilchrist, a founder of the Minutemen Project, a volunteer group that patrols the United States-Mexico border, said in an interview.
This concern about law is from a leader of a vigilante group.

The fact that so much stink can be raised about what language the national anthem is sung in (that grown-ups are even discussing this shows that demagoguery is being employed here in full force) is evidence of an uneasiness about cultural issues. A lot of what is said about this new cultural element in society was said about my Irish ancestors and the ancestors of most non-WASP people just a hundred years ago. People should be honest about their motives.