Tuesday, November 28, 2006

reading charters with one's heart

Leon, cathedral. Photo by Trepanatus.

Let's face it, the charters I read are not always the most exiting documents. Sometimes they're as dry as week-old toast. So, my imagination takes over and usually I turn the charters into conversations. The boring and legal charter of Alfonso VI #131 becomes, in my mind, the following conversation:

Alfonso: "Dude, I'll give you one tenth of all the cows I own in Somoza if you pray for my victory over the Ishmaelites."

Bishop Pedro of Leon: "Cool."

Sometimes I get a whole scenario from one bit of text.

For example, Alfonso breaks me up. He (his scribe, really) dates one charter as: "Regnante et imperante ego me medipso in Toleto et in Legione," etc. That's like saying "Reigning and commanding me, myself, and I in Toledo and in Leon," etc.

I can just see him having dinner with Queen Constance.

Alfonso: "Hey Connie, you know who's king?"

Constance (familiar and bored with this game): "Who, Al?"

Alfonso: "I am!"

He laughs, she sighs. A pause.

Alfonso: "You know who else?"

Constance (stifling a yawn): "Who, Al?"

Alfonso: "ME!"

He can't contains his giggles. Another pause.

Alfonso: "You know who else?"

Constance (distracted, picking at quail bones): "Who?"

Alfonso: "Myself! Isn't that a riot?"

Constance: "Are you going to eat that last quail leg?"

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Portuguese manuscript from 1189.

Crystal posted on David Hart and Voltaire, commenting in passing on one of the cities most dear to me, Lisbon. This led me to think of the beautiful, sad Portuguese song known as the fado. I found a decription of fado on the NPR website in an interview with my favorite fado singer, Misia:
Songs of longing and despair are a national tradition in Portugal -- a musical tradition called fado. The word comes from the Latin fatum, meaning fate, destiny or doom.

Fado emerged from the brothels and taverns of Lisbon about 200 years ago, and were first sung by lonely sailors. Today the songs are mostly performed in restaurants and special fado clubs.

I have seen Misia a couple of times in Spain. She has a strange, ethereal beauty, with pale skin, and black hair in a Lousie Brooks cut. Dressed in black, she stands still as she sings, moving only one arm in a slow, expressive arch like a ballet dancer. You can listen to the interview and hear some of the music on this site.


The fado is spine-chilling in its nostalgiac beauty. It's different than the firey, Mediterranean flamenco. It is cooled by the Atlantic breeze and filled with the longing one feels looking at the westward ocean, so different from the welcoming mother sea that warms the Eastern shores of Spain. Portugal is much, much different.

You can see an interview in Spanish with Misia here, and a 1961 video of the great "Queen of the Fado," Amalia Rodrigues here. Misia's website is here.

Friday, November 17, 2006


The Arca Santa in the cathedral of Oviedo, Asturias, Spain.

I have been neck deep in charters for the past two weeks or so, typing entries into my database magna cum furia. I feel like I have been making progress, but my blogging has suffered. Oh well.

I have decided that a chapter or at least part of a chapter of my dissertation will be on forged charters. They are, content-wise, some of the most interesting documents I have studied. I will be presenting a paper at the Medieval Conference at Kalamazoo next May on one of them, but there are several that are just... just...


Especially one that purports to be a donation from King Alfonso VI to the cathedral church of Oviedo in 1075. It may be based on a real document that is now lost, but this charter is probably one of the many forgeries created under Bishop Pelayo of Oviedo in the early twelfth century. The best part of it is its long narrative telling how the Arca Santa (Holy Ark) was found and opened in the 1030's by then-Bishop Pontius. It emitted a light so brilliant that it blinded the bystanders. It was then re-opened in 1075 in the presence of the king, and there was a great treasure of relics (I did a quick translation from the original Latin). There were relics...

... of the Wood of the Lord, of the Blood of the Lord, of the bread of the Lord, that is, from his Last Supper, of the tomb of the Lord, of the holy earth where the Lord stood, of the dress of St Mary and of the milk of the same virgen and mother of the Lord, of the robe of the Lord that was divided up and of his shroud, relics of St Peter the apostle, St Thomas, Bartholomew the apostle, of the bones of the prophets, of saints Justus and Pastor, Adrian and Natalia, Mama, Julia, Verissimus and Maximus, Germanus, Baudulus, Pantaleon, Cyprian, Eulalia, Sebastian, Cucufatus, from the robe of St Sulpicius, St Agatha, Emeterius and Celedonius, St John the Baptist, St Romanus, St Stephen the Protomartyr, St Fructuosus, Augurius and Eulogius, St Victor, St Lawrence, saints Justa and Rufina, saints Severandus and Germanus, St Liberius, saints Maxima and Julia, Cosme and Damian, Sergius and Bacchus, St James the brother of the Lord, St Stephen the pope, St Christopher, St John the apostle, the robe of St Tirsus, St Julianus, St Felix, St Andrew, St Peter the excorcist, St Eugenia, St Martin, saints Facundus and Primitivus, St Vicent the levite, St Faustus, St John, St Paul the apostle, St Agnus, saints Relix, Simplicius, Faustinus and Beatrix, St Petronila, St Eulalia of Barcelona, of the ashes of saints Emilianus the deacon and Jerimiah the martyr, St Roger, St Servant of God the martyr, St Pomposa, Anania, Azaria and Misaele, St Sportelius and St Juliana, and many others the number of which only the knowledge of God can touch...

The Wood of the Lord is, of course, the cross. It is interesting how many relics of Jesus and Mary there are -- most relics are from a saint's body, but the bodies of Jesus and his mother are in heaven. So the relics are either contact relics -- clothes or other objects that have touched the holy bodies -- or things such as blood or milk that are produced by the body. Other relics of Christ get even stranger -- there was talk in the Middle Ages about relics of Jesus's baby teeth and even his foreskin.

Most of the relics are bones. This is quite a collection, although I wouldn't trust Pelayo too much. At any rate, many relics are just mere slivers, so maybe there were a lot of good slivers in the Arca Santa.

Our typical reaction as moderns to relics -- even as modern Christians -- is that they disturbing, morbid, even sick. Keeping body parts on display and venerating them! I suggest we open our minds. Medieval people were more honest with themselves about death and less separated from their own bodies than we are. We keep death at a distance, send our old off to homes, pursue youth with all our money and all our time. Good Cartesians that we are, we think of our bodies as something we live in, not as something we are. People in the Middle Ages knew death was as real and as present as life, and as natural. Their dead were close to them and memory of the dead was intensely important. Their bodies were part of their selves, bodies that would resurrect on the last day. A body part of a dead saint was an actual physical object you could touch that you knew would one day be in paradise. Having that relic in your church did not mean that you had the cast-off shell, the shuffled-off mortal coil of the saint, you actually had part of the saint him/herself with you, and he or she would protect you and stand by you.

Is it sick and morbid not to forget the dead, not to be amazed at the physical? Perhaps we can learn from attitudes that appear distasteful when we don't understand them.

Monday, November 06, 2006

sententiae et clamores endorses...

The Sistine Chapel. You want to elect a pope, put on a red beanie and vote here. For the US midterm elections, go to your district polling place tomorrow.

It's time for this blog to make its endorsements. True, very few people read this blog and those that do are clever enough to make up their own minds without getting my opinion, but since blogs are supposed to be the new journalism or something, I am providing endorsements, though they have come too late to be put on anyone's brochure. Oh well.

S & C endorses:

1. Voting. The system is messed up and both parties are full of corrupt morons who seem incapable of doing anything except insult our intelligence, but the less people vote the more they know they can get away with it. Not voting is not an effective protest: are you not voting because the system is not working or because you're catching up on the "American Idol" programs on your TiVO? Vote, and if you really can't stand the Republicans and Democrats, vote for some strange small party you've never heard of or hand in a blank ballot or write in Mickey Mouse. Just let them know you care enough to show up at the polls and that you're paying attention.

2. Vote Democratic in House and Senate races. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised at this. We have been under the rule of one party for far too long, and the scandals and incompetence that have been the result abroad (Iraq) and at home (Katrina) are the natural consequence of unaccountability. This congress has refused to question the administration on just about anything and in the new military appropriations bill, they have even closed the office of the Auditor in Iraq. It doesn't matter if your congressman is one of the moderate, sane ones, or an honest Christian man. There has been no oversight and that has to change. Yes, I could complain about the Democrats, too, but this is urgent and they're the only alternative right now.

3. Vote intelligently in other races. Yes, I want you to vote for Democratic governors and for Lamont if you're in Connecticut and progressive dog-catchers, etc., but I will only insist you vote Democratic for the US Congress. After that, just vote intelligently. Don't listen to the ads. Go to the candidate's websites and see how they really stand on the issues. Who endorses them? Google them and read up on them in reasonably authoritative media. Do not reward these bastards for lying to you about their opponents.

Enough punditry. I will be glad when this is over and the ads stop and I can concentrate on eleventh-century Leon and the now 3-0 Utah Jazz.

UPDATE: The Jazz are now 4-0 and Carlos Boozer has been named player of the week for the Western Conference. The eleventh century is still where it should be, between the tenth and twelfth centuries. All these things are good signs (knock on wood). Have you voted yet?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Feast of All Saints

Tapestry from the Communion of Saints, Cathedral of Our Lady of Los Angeles.

The Feast of All Saints is an ancient feast day, going back to at least the fourth century and celebrated on the first of November since the ninth century. From the Franciscans at American Catholic:
The earliest certain observance of a feast in honor of all the saints is an early fourth-century commemoration of "all the martyrs." In the early seventh century, after successive waves of invaders plundered the catacombs, Pope Boniface IV gathered up some 28 wagonloads of bones and reinterred them beneath the Pantheon, a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods. The pope rededicated the shrine as a Christian church. According to Venerable Bede, the pope intended "that the memory of all the saints might in the future be honored in the place which had formerly been dedicated to the worship not of gods but of demons" (On the Calculation of Time).

Bede is the guy in the middle of the group of saints in the picture, by the way.

"Some 28 wagonloads of bones." Cool. Also cool is the fact that the reading for today is from the Book of Revelations:

After this I had a vision of a great multitude,
which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,
wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne,
and from the Lamb.”

All the angels stood around the throne
and around the elders and the four living creatures.
They prostrated themselves before the throne,
worshiped God, and exclaimed:

“Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving,
honor, power, and might
be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me,
“Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”
I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.”
He said to me,
“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”


I'm sorry, did you want more profound commentary than just "cool"?


Speaking of saints, there was a great article by James Martin, S.J., in the Times today. He comments on last month's canonization of Mother Théodore Guérin. Mother Guérin founded a religious order and several schools in what was then the wilds of Indiana. She did this fighting tooth and nail with her bishop. Father Martin mentions she was not the only saint who was at odds with the Church hierarchy during their lives:
Many people think of the saints as docile, but Mother Guérin is not the only saint to have found herself at odds with local bishops, church officials or even the Vatican. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at the behest of church officials. The writings of the great theologian Thomas Aquinas came under suspicion during his lifetime in the 13th century. And Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was jailed during the Spanish Inquisition over complaints about his ideas on prayer.

Somewhat more recently, in 1871, Mother Mary MacKillop was excommunicated — the church’s severest punishment — four years after founding a religious order for women in Australia. One biographer wrote that the bishops of the day were intimidated by Mary’s “independent spirit and steely character.” In 1995, Mary MacKillop was beatified, the final step before canonization, by Pope John Paul II.

Of course, one could think that canonization after death is the way the hierarchy appropriates and domesticates its dissidents, but I would think rather it is all a part of the continuing dialogue between individuals and the institution in preserving the Church. When either of those two parts of the Church act as if it is the whole Church, problems arise. The institutional Church has realized this at certain inspired moments, like Vatican II. Martin comments on this:

The church’s long history of “faithful dissent” offers both hope and perspective to Catholics in our time. It echoes the call of the Second Vatican Council, which, in 1964, declared that expressing opinions “on matters concerning the good of the church” is sometimes an obligation for the faithful.

An obligation. Of course the leash has shortened since 1964:

But, as some saints knew firsthand, a sincere intention is no guarantee that everybody in the church will listen — even today. Members of Voice of the Faithful, the lay organization founded in response to the sexual abuse scandals, are sometimes barred from meeting in Catholic parishes. Local chapters often gather in nearby Protestant church halls. Who knows which future saints are lurking there?

Read the whole article, it's good. And then get to Church, it's the Feast of All Saints.