Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday 30 June 2020

St Otto of Bamberg

One of the pleasures of belonging to the Medieval Religion discussion group, which recently celebrated its twenty fifth anniversary has been the contributions by several members who have undertaken to post a series of Saint of the Day pieces. I have in the past copied and reposted some of these on this blog. Unfortunately in recent years the custom fell into abeyance, but happily the last compiler, John Dillon from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has re-started posting.
Today he produced the following about St Otto of Bamberg (d.1139, canonised fifty years later) which I thought I would copy and share. Not only does it celebrate a great bishop, the apostle of Pomerania, and a patron of the arts, but also provides links to some fine examples of medieval German ecclesiastical sculpture and painting.

An influential Imperial servant, Otto (d. 1139) was named bishop of Bamberg by Henry IV in 1102.  Previously he had directed the building works of the cathedral of Speyer, the burial church of the Salian emperors (the vaulting of the central aisle, the dwarf gallery, and the four tall towers at the east and west ends are attributed to him); just prior to his investiture he had been Henry's chancellor. In 1106 Otto was consecrated bishop by Paschal II at Anagni. He rebuilt Bamberg's cathedral (it had been badly damaged by a late eleventh-century fire), founded numerous monasteries, negotiated successfully between Henry V and the papacy in a series of missions and meetings leading up to the Concordat of Worms (1122), acted decisively to avoid famine in his diocese after a crop loss in 1125, and led evangelizing missions in Pomerania in 1124/25 and 1128 (whence he is known as the apostle of Pomerania).

Otto is buried in Bamberg's abbey church of St. Michael. He has a closely posthumous Vita by a monk of Prüfening, one of his foundations, (BHL 6394) and two Vitae written in the next generation by monks of St. Michael's in Bamberg, Ebo (BHL 6395) and Herbord (BHL 6397). In addition to detailing his missionary work these emphasize the personal asceticism of this rich and powerful bishop and ascribe various miracles to him. Otto was canonized in 1189. Today is his _dies natalis_ and his day of commemoration in the "new" RM (prior to 2001 the RM commemorated him on 2. July). In the diocese of Szczecin-Kamień he is celebrated on 1. October.

Otto's fourteenth-century tomb (1335/1340) in Bamberg's St. Michaelskirche:
A distance view of the 1335/1340 tomb:
Another, showing how flattened is Otto's presentation there:
Otto as sculpted on the cover of this tomb:
Detail view (headshot):

Earlier tomb's cover (1288) mounted upright on a wall in Bamberg's St. Michaelskirche (photo from 2011):
another view:

An illustrated history of Otto's tombs:

Otto as depicted in an earlier twelfth-century fresco (1130) in the Klosterkirche St. Georg in Regensburg-Prüfening:
Context (Otto at bottom center):

Otto as sculpted in a 14th-century statue (prob. 1346) now in the Muzeum Narodowe w Szczecinie (p. 58 here):
modern copy (1934) mounted on the belltower of the ducal castle in Szczecin:

Otto (at left) as depicted in the fifteenth-century dedication portrait in the Münster in Heilsbronn:

St Otto of Bamberg Pray for us

Monday 29 June 2020

Using ritual charms in the Middle Ages

Medievalists.net has an interesting piece about the magical charms used by medieval people to assist them in farming. 

As the article brings out these were often complex rituals that blended Christian and pre-conversion religious practice and elements of sympathetic magic. They also demonstrate a lively, vivid use of language. As such, whatever their efficacy or likelihood of success, they do indicate considerable sophistication in their complexity and imagination. The author points out they were designed in many cases to deal with matters of real threat to the survival of a farmer and his family. Others are concerned with giving birth or other medical matters, or in anticipation of a journey. Hence the complex formularies. This is a world of superstition, but one that has its own rationale. The charms are far more than a throw away line.

Of the many instances which do survive in manuscripts the article concentrates on the Old English Metrical Charms - twelve rituals that were recorded about the year 1000.

The article, which has a link to the text of these twelve charms, can be read at Farming with Charms in the Middle Ages. Should your cattle go missing or your soil be unproductive they might just be the answer...

Ploughing on a French ducal manor in March
Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c.1410
Image: Wikipedia 

Assessing the Papabile

St Peter vested for his Feast Day in the Vatican


Today being the feast of SS Peter and Paul has been a suitable day upon which to come across a useful article by the American Vatican journalist John L Allen Jr.  In it he writes about the suitability and importance of books which seek to identify and assess those Cardinals most likely to be leading contenders in a future Conclave to elect the next Pope. 

I think he makes good points about the value of such discussion - especially for the Cardinal electors themselves in preparation for such an important decision. 

I think it fair to say that such books and articles as I have read in the past - and that is going back to the later years of Paul VI - have often turned out to be far from accurate in their suggestions as to which Cardinal might succeed to the Chair of Peter - hindsight is a wonderful thing of course. In looking at such forecasts the crucial thing may well not be the facts as the emphasis, indeed bias, of the journalist or commentator. Knowing that will tell the reader how far they should believe the interpretation on offer.

Image: Apostolado Caballero de la Inmaculado blog

Saturday 27 June 2020


My friend Fr John Hunwicke posted the other day on his blog about Dr William King and his celebrated “Redeat” speech as Public Orator of the University of Oxford in 1749 at the opening of the Radcliffe Library - now known as the Radcliffe Camera. His post, with extracts from the oration, can be read at dr-william-king.

Dr King was Principal of St Mary Hall, now fully integrated into the foundation which had always owned it, my own college of Oriel.
There is an online account of William King at William King (St Mary Hall)

This does have one error, as I understand it, in that Dr King met the Prince in London at Lady Primrose’s house in Essex Street off the Strand, where HRH was staying on his remarkable visit to the city in 1750. Just along the Strand was Temple Bar, still decorated with the heads of Jacobites executed in 1746. It was not a case of the Prince  popping down to Oxford to take tea with Dr King. 

                    Dr William King
1750 portrait by John Michael Williams
                   Image: Wikipedia 

The 1749 speech might just be dismissed as Oxford Jacobite nostalgia, but the occasion was a major event in the life of the University - Gibbs’ great domed Library changed the skyline of Oxford henceforward and was a significant addition to the resources of learning. The great and the good of both the University and the County were in attendance. Elsewhere the Elibank plot of 1752 was still in the making, and as Dr King was himself to see Prince Charles Edward sufficiently committed and plucky to venture to London in 1750 to meet Jacobite minded aristocrats such as the Duke of Beaufort, and to, briefly, become a communicant Anglican. To think of Jacobitism as finished at Culloden is too tidy and too simple. It might well have been over, but then again it might not. A decade later, in 1759, the French once again sounded out the Prince about a possible invasion. The Duc de Choiseuil dismissed the Prince’s requirements after meeting him as too much - but maybe the Prince was the one who was realistic in the light of his experiences in 1745-6.
There is a useful survey of the Jacobite movement at Jacobitism and this takes account of recent scholarship.

Middle English?

The current situation of pestilence and disorder, not to mention general apocalypticism, is distinctly reminiscent of the fourteenth century - though without all the splendour of that complex century “when the ideas of the Middle Ages could neither live nor die” - but which did inter alia see the re-emergence of a rich and lively English vernacular literature, “... all the exuberance of the age of Chaucer with none of the concomitant vulgarity” *

With this in mind one of my regular correspondents, The Shropshire Lad, has shared this recent discovery from the world of Middle English: 

Sunac is icumen in
Llude sing Rishi!
DresseÞ flash
And bloweÞ cash
And shakeÞ money tre
Sing Rishi!

Leader of Þa sumer six
Locdoun haÞ a key
Boris siccens 
Cumings chiccens 
Merrie sing Rishi!

Rishi! Rishi!
Wel singes ye Rishi!
And set Þam folces fre

Sing Rishi ye! Sing Rishi!
Sing Rishi! Sing Rishi ye!

* To quote from Kind Hearts and Coronets

Friday 26 June 2020

Letters of a Bridgettine Nun

Earlier this evening, thanks to the technology of Zoom, I was aable to attend an international webinar to launch this book:

Volker Schier, Corine Schleif, and Anne Simon (ed. and transl.): Pepper for Prayer: The Correspondence of the Birgittine Nun Katerina Lemmel, 1516–1525. 2019. SEK 200. ISBN 978-91-88568-76-2.

The edition contains the first complete and unredacted Early New High German texts of the Lemmel letters together with a revised modern English translation. Readers experience the joys and challenges of late-medieval Birgittine life through Lemmel’s own words as she communicates her thoughts and feelings from her perspective as a member of the Maihingen community in order to garner the empathy and support of her urban patriciate family, whom she left in Nuremberg. This unique collection of missives documents the complexities of spiritual economies, medieval gift-giving cultures, domestic and international commerce, as well as theological tensions leading to the Reformation.

Born in 1466, Katerina Imhoff Lemmel was raised in the famous Imhoff Trading Company, an international firm that specialized in spices and metal goods. She married Michel Lemmel in 1484 and became a widow in 1513. Herself a successful businesswoman, Lemmel, against the wishes of her family, decided to enter the Birgittine monastery of Maria Mai, where she died in 1533. From 1516 to 1525, she maintained regular contact with her relatives through the letters she sent back to her native Nuremberg, primarily to her cousin Hans V Imhoff, general manager of the family company, banker, and member of the Inner City Council of Nuremberg.

From the material quoted from the letters by the authors in the webinar this is indeed a remarkable and lively insight into the world of a Birgittine ( Bridgettine ) community and to the social and commercial life of the Nuremberg patriarchate. Katerina herself emerges as an intelligent and articulate woman, forceful and determined, but also devout and concerned for both her family and her religious community. This is a book that should take its place alongside the established collections of late medieval and early modern correspondence, not only for its main protagonists but also for it incidental glimpses of life at the time.

The portrait on the cover is of Katerina from a family monument which still survives in Nuremberg. She is wearing the distinctive headless of members of her Order. 

My interest in the Birgirrines / Bridgettines stems in part from their importance in the spiritual life of fifteenth and early sixteenth century England as Northern Europe, and to an interest in their one English house, Syon Abbey, founded by King Henry V, and which, amazingly, survived exile and all manner of events until it finally closed in 2012. I did once manage a fleeting visit to their home in Devon in 2004, and saw a sister taking her morning stroll in the grounds - a precious link to a glorious past.

The religious illiteracy of the “woke”

I am often hesitant to sign online petitions but this is one I had no hesitation in signing and forwarding, and urging readers of this blog to sign.
The petition has been started by Caroline Farrow at CitizenGO 

There are currently calls to redesign the St Michael and St George medal given out to public servants, because the image is  purportedly racist. 

This is clearly nonsense. The image is based upon a biblical reference of the triumph of good over evil and has nothing to do with either racism or 18th century slavery. 

Sign our petition asking the Honours Committee not to succumb to the cultural vandalism of social justice warriors who are using racism as an excuse to expunge religious belief from the public square. 


The brutal and unjustified  killing of George Floyd was a wicked and abhorrent act which has been rightly condemned, but we should not allow our horror to lead to   knee-jerk reactions, such as the tearing down of statues and monuments, which for better or worse, form part of our   country’s history.  

It now seems like every aspect of our country’s history is up for grabs and activists are taking advantage of the desire for racial equality and using it as a weapon to destroy any views or beliefs that they do not like.  

The latest piece of nonsense has been a petition set up by a social justice warrior demanding   that the St Michael and St George decoration which is awarded to diplomats and   ambassadors who have provided outstanding service to the UK, is redesigned, because the image depicted on the medal is supposedly racist because it depicts the victory of St Michael the archangel standing on top of a defeated Satan and casting him back down into hell.  

The image, say the protestors, is racist because St Michael is depicted in white clothing and the devil appears to have a darker skin tone and because Satan’s defeat evokes the way in which George Floyd was killed. This is patently absurd.

Join our petition and ask the Honours Committee not to allow themselves to be driven by religious illiteracy and to keep the design of the medal as it is

This image of St Michael standing on top of the devil is centuries old and clearly has nothing to do with George Floyd. This interpretation is clearly a case of agenda-driven activists attempting to put a negative spin on Christianity and the country’s cultural heritage and take offence where none was intended. 

It is abundantly obvious that the image was not inspired by racism - there are many different versions of it in which the devil is always portrayed in various dark shades and angels are always displayed or described as wearing shining light garments. It is an artistic convention dating back millennia that the duality of good versus evil is portrayed as light versus darkness. 

What next - are activists going to demand that Star Wars is re-edited because Darth Vader wears a black helmet and Princess Leia, a white robe?!

It may sound daft but once we start allowing our history, cultural and religious heritage to be obliterated, then there will be no end to the madness. Left-wing local authorities and institutes   are already beginning to exercise a knee-jerk reaction by removing historic monuments. Many activists have already demanded the removal and destruction of religious icons, statues and stained glass windows because they have taken gratuitous offence if Jesus or His Mother are depicted with a white skin. 

Ask the Honours Committee to say no to the obliteration of our religious and cultural history and reject the demands of social justice warriors who are only seeking to inflame and exacerbate cultural tensions. 

Christianity  is not racist   - it   celebrates and uplifts people of all race   and upholds the innate human dignity of everyone, regardless of their colour of skin, their faith, their sex, their sexuality and their background.  

If we look at the bible, then the first non-Jew   to be baptised was in fact an Ethiopian. St Paul makes it very clear that in Jesus Christ people are not categorised or labelled into competing groups of differing superiority - we are all one.
In case you were in any doubt - the image of St Michael standing on the devil, does not depict human beings. The devil is even sprouting a giant pair of green wings! These are not physical but spiritual creatures and therefore they do not have human bodies or skin colour.  

The cause of racial and cultural equality is not advanced by wiping out our cultural and religious heritage. At a time when the economy is floundering thanks to the devastation brought by the coronavirus lockdown measures, there are much better uses for taxpayers’ money, than a redesign of a medal which is hundreds of years old, depicting an image which has never had anything to do with either the slave trade or ideas about racism.  

Redesigning the medal would be nothing but virtue-signalling, doing nothing to address the inequalities which still exist such as modern slavery which still exists in many parts of the world, or the disproportionate numbers of black children who are lost to abortion every single year.

Sign here and tell the Honours Committee to stand up for this country’s religious heritage, not to further exacerbate racial tensions and to keep the design of the St Michael and St George medal as it is. 

Thanks for all you do,

Caroline Farrow and the entire CitizenGO Team


More information:

Calls for redesign of royal honour over ‘offensive’ image (The Guardian)


Archbishop Cramner: a racist royal honour or apocalyptic dualism? (Archbishop Cranmer website)


Black Lives Matter wages war on Archangel Michael (Church Militant):


The Clever Boy wonders if the next thing will be ‘Friends of the Komodo Dragon’ objecting to the insignia of the Garter or vegans complaining about the Golden Fleece.

Thursday 25 June 2020

Back to church

Whilst I was in the city centre today I called in and spent some time in the Oxford Oratory. This was the first opportunity I have had since the church reopened last week for private prayer, and the first time I have been in the church - any church - since March 19th.

The management of access with hand sanitizer at the door, volunteer stewards and roped off pews was well arranged and it was good to be able to actually sit in a church before the Tabernacle rather than rely on livestream coverage of liturgy, however well transmitted.

It was also good to see other members of the congregation to nod to and exchange greetings. Quite a number of familiar faces came into church whilst I was there, suggesting how much people have missed being able to go in during the closure. The church is open from 2 until 5 each day at present.

One beneficial side effect of the closure is that it has afforded time for a pretty drastic spring cleaning of the interior of the building, which now looks very much better than it did.

Omens in the heavens

The academic research website The Conversation has a short but interesting post today about the way medieval men linked the appearance of comets to visitations of disease, political upheaval and occasions of great moment. It can be read at Comets, omens and fear: understanding plague in the Middle Ages

One of the co-authors, Francis Leneghan, is a friend of mine, and some time reader of this blog.

At the end of the article are links to other postings which relate to the varied practical and political, spiritual and scientific response of people in the past to pandemics and to the world around them. They are very well worth looking at as well.

Wednesday 24 June 2020

The Battle of Sluys

Last month whilst following the virtual Marian pilgrimage to medieval English shrines of Our Lady I posted Our Lady ‘of Ardenbergh’ at Great Yarmouth. This is about devotion to Our Lady of Aadenberg in Zeeland and originated with English sailors from Great Yarmouth who were a significant contingent in the victorious English fleet in the battle of Sluys, fought on this day in 1340. With that in mind it seems quite appropriate to post the link to the detailed Wikipedia account of the battle which can be viewed at Battle of Sluys.

There is more about the battle and the fate of one of the French commanders at 1340: Nicholas Behuchet, Battle of Sluys naval commanderHanging a defeated admiral from the mast of his ship, and beheading his co-commander, straight after the battle seems a bit unsporting by later standards I suppose... but then their previous actions had affronted contemporary proprieties in such matters.

The Nativity of St John the Baptist - Midsummer Christmas

The weekly reflection for parishioners from the Oxford Oratory Fathers which was sent out today is particularly interesting as it has an account of today’s feast of the birth of St John the Baptist from both a theological and an historical standpoint. Particularly for those not on the Oratory mailing list I am therefore republishing it here:

Midsummer Christmas: The Nativity of St John the Baptist

Some years ago there was an exhibition at Hampton Court palace, one time home of Cardinal Wolsey before he gave it to Henry VIII in a failed attempt to stop himself falling from favour, which included a model of the great kitchen as it may have looked in the first half of the sixteenth century on 23rd June, the Vigil of the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. The buzz of activity was almost palpable: figures were to be seen scurrying around laden with platters of meat and vats of wine; the roasting fires were stoked high and sauces were being ladled onto whole boars as they were turned on the spits by the spit-boys; already-roasted pheasants were being decorated once more with their plumage; the steward could be seen gesticulating and giving orders; whilst the pantler, baker, wafer maker, brewer, poulterer, fruiterer, and a whole army of lower servants and kitchen maids, were busily in evidence amid the hustle and bustle of one of the most hectic days of preparation in the calendar. All had to be in place before the Earl Marshal came to inspect the proceedings ahead of the banquet which would begin as soon as the King returned from a day’s hunting.

Beyond the palace, St John’s day was marked with pomp and ceremony as well as, at times, with vulgar celebration. There were festive fires and processions, dramatizations of the Saint’s life and death and the staging of Mystery Plays, there were songs, and games, and revels. 

In the Middle Ages, and right up to the early modern period, St John the Baptist featured far more prominently in popular devotion than he does today. Many churches were dedicated to him (including some pre-Reformation churches that are now dedicated to St John the Evangelist), and images of him, in the form of statues and stained-glass windows, were to be found in almost every church. His feast day was preceded in Germany, from AD 1022 onwards, with a fortnight of fasting and abstinence, and from the Council of Agde (in modern-day southern France) in AD 506 the feast became a Holy Day of Obligation, when the people abstained from servile work and priests celebrated three Masses, one at midnight, one at dawn, and one during the morning, just as at Christmas. Indeed, the Feast of St John’s birth was, to all practical intents and purposes, a midsummer Christmas.

This mirroring of the Christmas festivities was not accidental. Not only did it allow for a great holiday halfway through the year, it also heralded an important event in the history of our salvation.* In the Christian liturgical calendar, a saint’s feast day is ordinarily observed on the day of his or her death, that is, on the day that he or she is born into heaven. Even so, there are three birthdays that are celebrated throughout the year, that of Our Lord at Christmas, of course, that of the Blessed Virgin on 8th September (nine months after the feast of her Immaculate Conception), and that of St John the Baptist. The first two seem obvious to any Catholic, but why should John the Baptist get special treatment? The answer is not so much that John was a cousin of Our Lord’s, after all, there are several of His cousins mentioned in the Gospels. The answer is to be found in the story of his annunciation and in the Visitation of Mary to her kinswoman Elizabeth, St John’s mother.

When the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the Temple as he took his turn at the priestly duties, the message proclaimed that Elizabeth, though herself in old age, would conceive and bear a son. There would be joy and gladness, and ‘many shall rejoice at his birth’ (Lk 1:14). Moreover, his named was to be called John, a name which means Graced by God, or God is Gracious, and ‘he shall be great before the Lord… and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God’ (vv.15-16). 

Six months later, the Archangel again appeared, this time to a woman called Mary in the town of Nazareth, announcing that she, too, would conceive and bear a son. As soon as the angel departed from her, Mary rose and went into the hill country, and entered the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth where she greeted her kinswoman. And here, we have the answer to our question. We are told that as soon as Mary’s greeting reached Elizabeth, ‘the infant leaped in [Elizabeth’s] womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Lk 1:41). In other words, St John the Baptist was deemed to have been baptized by the Holy Spirit whilst he was still in his mother’s womb. As a result, he was one of only three people in history – along with Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin – ever to have been born already filled with grace. St Joseph is deemed never to have sinned throughout his life, but even he was not born already in a state of grace, whereas St John both was born in a state of grace and he preserved his baptismal innocence right up until his martyrdom under King Herod. **

St John the Baptist is the great Precursor of the Divine Saviour, the Herald of the Messiah. He it is who was to proclaim and make known the coming of the Incarnate Word of God and to prepare God’s People for their long-awaited salvation. In other words, along with the birth of the Blessed Virgin and of Christ Himself, St John’s birth both heralded and actually began to usher in a new era. Whilst symbolism is involved in St John’s birth, nonetheless his nativity – along with the other two nativities – went beyond the merely symbolic and actually accomplished the inauguration of the new creation, the creation in the order of grace. 

If the age-old tradition is correct, that Mary bore Jesus when she was only about fourteen years old, then, in the space of around fourteen years, we have all three grace-filled births that inaugurated ‘the acceptable time… the day of salvation,’ as St Paul calls it (2 Cor 6:2). And it is noteworthy that the number fourteen, as the double of the perfect number seven, signifies perfect holiness and salvation, for example, it was on the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan that the Angel of Death passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and so began their deliverance from slavery (Ex ch. 12). 

This, then, is what we celebrate with the feast of Midsummer Christmas, namely the nativity of the one whose birth heralds the coming of Our Saviour in just six months’ time. Truly, with the Church and in the words of the Benedictus, we can sing today, 

‘And you, child, will be called the prophet of the most high; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’ (Lk 1:76-79).

*24th June was not chosen for the feast in order to Christianize the pagan summer solstice as some claim. After all, it was only from the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 that the solstice fell around 23rd/24th June. Instead, and according to the old Roman way of counting dates, just as Christmas was kept on the eighth day before the Kalends of January, so St John’s Day was kept on the eighth day before the Kalends of July which, as June has only thirty days, brings us to 24th June. 

** The Clever Boy will add that the Orthodox celebrate September 23rd as the Conception of St John, making a further parallel with the births of Our Lord and Our Lady and their antecedent conceptions in March 25th and December 8th

To further celebrate the feast the Clever Boy is adding this altar piece on the birth, ministry and death of St John the Baptist.

St John Altarpiece
Rogier van der Weyden circa 1455
Image: Wikipedia 
There is more about the altarpiece at St John Altarpiece with details from the painting and a discussion of its iconography.

The Return of the Image-Breakers

The latest copy of The Minute Missive from the FSSP has an excellent piece putting  contemporary events in their historical and cultural setting. I have copied it and am reproducing it here.

The Return of the Image-Breakers

Catholic history knows them as the iconoclasts–the image-breakers. And at various points of history they have reared up in riotous defiance of the Church and have smashed and broken their way through the sacred arts.

In 726 the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Isaurian published an edict declaring sacred images to be idols and ordered them destroyed, sending swarms of enforcing soldiers across the Empire and causing riots among the people. Orthodoxy was restored after a while, but again in 814 a new wave of iconoclasm broke out.

Then the mania died down again and there was relative peace, until a new bout of iconoclastic fury broke out after the Reformation in many parts of Europe. In the Beeldenstorm or “statue storm” that gripped the Low Countries in 1566, a merchant in Antwerp saw “all the churches, chapels and houses of religion utterly defaced, and no kind of thing left whole within them, but broken and utterly destroyed, being done after such order and by so few folks that it is to be marvelled at.” At Ypres witnesses testified that the iconoclasts were not single-minded religious fanatics but were largely drunken looters who were robbing and stealing from private homes as well.

Since then, it seems, this madness has not tended to fade away completely but has been recurring with some frequency through the centuries — in the French Revolution of 1789, in the rise of the American Know-Nothings in the 1850s, and again in the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

While the earlier iconoclasts claimed some divine support for what they were doing — however misguided — the most modern iconoclasts, having expelled God from the picture entirely, had their contempt for the created order descend even further into an erasure of  history itself.

A Russian critic once observed that “Bolsheviks topple czar monuments, Stalin erases old Bolsheviks, Khrushchev tears down Stalin, Brezhnev tears down Khrushchev….No difference. This is classic old Moscow technique: either worship or destroy.”

And George Orwell observed in his 1984:

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Much of the same ideological underpinnings are now at work in cities and suburban areas around the world — a sort of Bolshevik Beeldenstorm aimed not only against the icons of the Church but all of history itself.

This, we know, shall pass as every similar episode of madness eventually has–and orthodoxy will triumph again.

But not necessarily without pain, without lasting damage, and without a profound miscarriage of justice by elected officials. In the case of Ypres, the magistrates of the town who helplessly watched the madness unfold were later forced to defend their inaction before the Habsburg government. During the American Know-Nothing * riots of the mid-1850s, Bishop Martin John Spalding of Louisville, KY wrote in a letter to Bishop Kenrick:

“We have just passed through a reign of terror surpassed only by the Philadelphia riots. Nearly one hundred poor Irish have been butchered or burned and some twenty houses have been consumed in the flames. The City authorities, all Knownothings, looked calmly on and they are now endeavouring to lay the blame on the Catholics.”

In some cases, when the authorities failed them Irish and other Catholics banded together together to defend churches against the Know-Nothings. When a fire was started in the church of St. Peter and Paul in Brooklyn, the building was only saved by the police and the local militia driving off the mob.

And lest we be too despondent about the horrors of the news, lest we see the devil have his due and we give up hope, it is worth recalling what Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria said about the Know-Nothing era some twenty years later:

“It was not the American people who were seeking to make war on the Church, but merely a party of religious fanatics and unprincipled demagogues who as little represented the American people as did the mobs whom they incited to bloodshed and incendiarism. Their whole conduct was un-American and opposed to all the principles and traditions of our free institutions”.

So closely do the events of these historic periods mesh with our own, so perfectly do today’s rioters play out this hackneyed role trod by so many violent mobs before them, that we would be forgiven for wondering if those behind today’s lawlessness are truly as “progressive” as they claim.

* The Clever Boy, not being so clever himself when it comes to what has gone on in the former colonies, found a piece on Wikipedia which was useful in understanding the political movement known as Know Nothing

Says it all somehow....

The Birth of St John the Baptist

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist

The annunciation to Zacariah by the Archangel Gabriel

Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, appears in an elaborate vestment with pendant bells and pomegranates. Recent scholarship has shown that these indicate his role as the High Priest, whose unique privilege it is to enter the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. Around his leg is a rope held by another priest, whose job it would be to extract the body of the High Priest if he died as a result of not properly carrying out his sacred duties.

The Birth of St John the Baptist

Both panels are from a Retable painted by the Aragonese artist Domingo Ram, who was active 1464-1507

Images:Metropolitan Museum New York
Accompanying notes adapted from Met website

The other surviving panels from the Retable and which depict scenes from the life of St John the Baptist were acquired by The Cloisters in 1925, and are not on public display, can be viewed at: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search#!?searchField=All&sortBy=Relevance&artist=Ram,%20Domingo$Domingo%20Ram&offset=0&perPage=20

There is more about Domingo Ram and his contemporaries in this illustrated blog post in Spanish at http://pintura-gotica-aragon.blogspot.com/2009/02/7-gotico-naturalista-nicolas.html

The Field of Cloth of Gold

Five centuries ago, on June 24th 1520, the Field of Cloth of Gold meeting between King Henry VIII and King Francis I came to an end.

After what must have been hectic preparations that spring this famous meeting took place between June 7 and 24 1520. If its aim was to confirm what diplomacy had achieved its practical side was an extraordinary and extravagant meeting of the two Courts. The Wikipedia account lists those attending, and it was a

huge number drawn from the governing elites of both realms. Perusing it I was interested to see the name of Bishop Fisher, about whom I posted the other day, amongst those attending. The useful illustrated account can be viewed at Field of the Cloth of Gold

This was not the first such Anglo-French summit meeting in the Pas de Calais. About a century and a quarter earlier the nearby villages of Leulinghem and Nort-Leulinghem had hosted the discussions that led to the Truce of Leulinghem in1389 and then in 1396 the meeting of King Richard II and King Charles VI and their retinues together with the handing over of the French king’s daughter Isabella to be the English king’s child bride. This is covered in considerable detail in Nigel Saul’s Richard II and had similar elements of lavish display and generous gift exchange. In 1475 at Picquigny King Edward IV and King Louis XI met to negotiate the Yorkist King being bought off by the Valois monarch following his invasion. On this occasion security was at a premium, with the two kings embracing through a wooden grille - after what had happened at Montereau in 1419 people were not taking chances.

The 1520 meeting was set in the context of a jousting tournament. Such occasions were also not unknown in the area: in 1390 the international jousts of St Inglevert were convened by Marshal Boucicaut  and his two friends, as referred to in my recent post Tournament Time

However the Field of Cloth of Gold was, so far as we can tell, the grandest and most opulent Grandest and last of its type. When King Henry VIII and King Francis I met on a second, and last occasion in 1532 at Calais the meeting was on a much smaller scale.

King Henry VIII embarking at Dover for the Field of Cloth of Gold.
Dover Castle is depicted at top left. 

Image: Wikipedia from Royal Collection Hampton Court

The Field of the Cloth of Gold, oil painting of circa 1545. King Henry VIII is depicted as he appeared then, not as in 1520, and flanked by Cardinal Wolsey arrives on horseback at Guines Castle at bottom left.
Image:Wikipedia from Royal Collection Hampton Court

To mark the quincentenary the very useful  website The Tudor Travel Guide - 

https://thetudortravelguide.com - created by Dr Sarah Morris organised an online conference about the events of 1520. Given that one has been in ‘lockdown’ I have virtually attended recently several historical conferences. This particular series of talks and interviews are available through the Tudor Travel Guide website as YouTube videos. They are all excellent, different one from another and all well worth watching. Informative and engaging, they are worth subscribing to if you are at all interested in the period. 

One thing that was brought out was the sheer scale of the operation to organise and provide for the Field. The logistics are a tribute to the Henrician Office of Works and its staff, the officers of the King’s Court and the general ability to get things done in an age without so much of what we would think essential.

Another aspect was the concern about the precise management of contact between the two monarchs so that neither could feel slighted by the other but that absolute parity was achieved and maintained at all times.

The accuracy of the painting of the arrival of King Henry VIII, though painted about a quarter of a century later, was demonstrated with reference to maps and walking the landscape today. The setting at Guines, the temporary palace, the tented city that accommodated the courtiers and the landscape with its water courses and plashes linking Guines to Hammes and thence to Calais are actually highly accurate in this panoramic view.

Also interesting to observe was the fact that the recently elected Emperor Charles V was hovering around, travelling from his Spanish kingdoms to his Netherlands territories and anxious to meet his uncle by marriage King Henry when he was on his way to Calais at Dover and at Canterbury and then again, afterwards, at Gravelines. The report of the Venetian ambassador, with a keen eye for the expensive fabrics and jewellery worn by the royal suites, made the spectacle of King and Emperor, assorted Queens, a Cardinal and the Archbishop at Whitsunday Mass in Canterbury Cathedral rise before ones eyes.

Here is a link to the advance publicity for the series and especially about the temporary palace built by the English King adjacent to the castle at Guines on the border of the Pale of Calais with France: 

The Field of Cloth of Gold: Henry VIII's Spectacular Temporary Palace

I particularly commend that because by following the link about the Exchequer in Calais one comes to a previous post from Tudor Travel Guide about Calais. The description there of Calais in the 1530s is the best I have seen, and really helps to conjure up in the mind this important part of the King’s dominions from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Little of what still survived of medieval and sixteenth century Calais survived the events of 1940.