Thursday, May 24, 2012

More Anglo-Saxon thoughts, and what I want to learn next

The bad part about having strep throat is, well, strep throat.  The best part about having strep throat is that, while contagious, everybody left me alone so I had lots of time to read.  I finished The Anglo-Saxons edited by James Campbell.  I learned a lot more than can be mentioned in just one blog post, so I'll mention only the things I learned pertaining to Anglo-Saxon England overall.

First, contact with the Continent, particularly France, was much greater than I had realized.  I knew Anglo-Saxon England had contact with Scandinavia through the vikings, and Rome through the Church.  Somehow I'd  missed the large amount of influence England and France had on each other at this time.  Carolingian France influenced English politics, law, art, religion, and commerce.  Toward the time of the Conquest,
England developed strong ties with Normandy.  Queen Emma was a Norman!  How could I have not known this?  The relationship between England and Normandy must have been important to the events leading up to the Norman invasion.  I want to read a biography of Queen Emma, at least a translation of her Encomium, to understand this better.  I also want to learn more about Cnut's reign.  What were the differences between his rule and Duke William's?  Why did the Norman rule stick, while the Danish rule ended in a generation?

Second, the early medieval English economy was quite well developed.  Coins were widely available and in circulation.  I should keep an eye out for more information on Anglo-Saxon coin distribution and its implications on their economy.

Third, the early medieval church in England had a different flavor than the early medieval church in Rome.  While I don't agree with those who hold that the modern Church of England has its roots in Anglo-Saxon Christianity, it does seem to me that the Church in England differed in some ways from the Church in Rome in response to the Anglo-Saxons' Germanic culture. I would like to learn more about the history of early Christianity in England and in Italy to get a better sense of the similarities and differences.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

On neutrality in writing history

All scholars make assumptions in their writing, but good writers will lay out their assumptions at the outset and then will present information in as unbiased a manner as possible.  When I read an account of a historical event, I expect the historian to put aside the historian's own values and look at the event from the point of view of the people who lived it.  I also expect the historian to address more than one side of the event, if possible.

That's why I was disappointed in a podcast I listened to last week on the History Network.  I have had no complaints about the History network before, nor did a quick check on Google bring up any complaints of non-neutrality from other people.  Their podcasts are generally well-researched and well-presented.  The podcast I listened to last week was well presented, too.  But it was not neutral.

Simon IV de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester
Bust by Jean-Jacques Feuchere
Photo by Ray9
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The podcast was entitled The Fires of Languedoc:  The Cathar Crusade.  The guest writer identified the Cathars as a heretic sect of Christianity (they believed in dualism rather than monotheism) and identified the Cathar Crusade (also called the Albigensian Crusade) as a 20-year war in southern France between the Catholic and Cathar armies.  The Northern French army, backed by Paris and Rome and led by Simon de Montfort, fought the Southern French army, backed by the Cathars and led by Raymond VI of Toulouse.  The Cathars, during the crusade, had to choose between renouncing their beliefs and rejoining the Catholic Church, or fighting.  Most chose to fight.  Thousands died.  Following the war was an inquisition and destruction of Cathar writings until the sect was nearly stamped out about 100 years later.

Raymond VI, Count of Toulous
Photo by Guerin Nicolas
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This is all true enough.  The question which follows is why did the Catholic Church label the Cathars to be heretics, and why was it so anxious to suppress the movement?  The podcast painted a picture of the Church that was less than flattering.  It displayed the Church as a fearful, power hungry organization that demanded complete control of medieval Europeans' faith and was willing to wipe out entire communities and cultures in order to maintain that control.  I don't doubt that power and politics influenced the decisions of the Church to call a crusade.  But they weren't the entire story.

The entire podcast was written from the point of view of the Cathars.  The writer pointed out several discrepancies  between Catholic and Cathar doctrine, always from the Cathar perspective.  Where was Rome's rebuttal?  It ought to have been included.  The writer also spent time discussing the Cathars' argument that the Languedoc region was, and ought to remain, independent from Paris.  Where was the French Crown's argument that Languedoc was, and had been, subject to the French King?  Again, this ought to have been included.

Further, historians ought not to make judgments on the events of the past based upon the values of the present. Medieval people did not always think like 21st century people, and it does them an injustice to be treated as if they did.  The podcast condemned the northern French armies for, among other things, not allowing the southern French people the freedom to worship as they pleased.  When governments today fail to offer their citizens freedom of conscience, we condemn them, and I believe rightfully so.  800 years ago, however, western Europeans did not have the idea of freedom of conscience.  Expecting them to behave as if they did have the idea is illogical.  Judging them for it is unfair.

I have addressed two forms of bias that can appear in a historical account:  failing to account for multiple points of view, and judging decisions made in the past using values of the present.  A good, unbiased account will do neither.  Then, after presenting the information in a clear, neutral manner, a historian will add their own analysis, thoughts, and opinions.  The readers, likewise, will be able to draw their own conclusions.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bram Stoker's use of folklore in writing Dracula

(NOTE:  In the following post I use the terms myth, folklore, and folktale interchangeably)

Bela Lugosi as Dracula; courtesy wikimedia commons

I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay may be very interesting. (Mem. I must ask the Count all about them.) Jonathan Harker's journal, 3 May

Last week I was distracted from The Anglo-Saxons by a copy of Bram Stoker's Dracula.  I must have liked it; I put all other non-essential tasks on hold until the book was finished.

Wikipedia claims that Stoker spent 7 years studying vampire folklore before writing the novel.  While I have no information to back this up, I am inclined to agree.  The novel has the feel of a tale steeped in centuries-old legend, as opposed to a tale that feels completely made-up (I think some fantasy authors would do well to do a bit less world-building and a bit more world-borrowing).  His research, combined with his writing, produced a novel that felt factual as well as fantastic.  What follows are three examples from Stoker's Dracula mythos and how it fits into what I know of supernatural folklore.

Only at certain times can he have limited freedom. If he be not at the place whither he is bound, he can only change himself at noon or at exact sunrise or sunset. These things we are told, and in this record of ours we have proof by inference. Thus, whereas he can do as he will within his limit, when he have his earth-home, his coffin-home, his hell-home, the place unhallowed, as we saw when he went to the grave of the suicide at Whitby, still at other time he can only change when the time come.  Mina Harker's journal, 30 September

The above quotation from Dracula caught my attention.  I had noticed something similar a few months ago while reading the Breton Lay Sir Orfeo.  In the lay, Queen Heurodis first met her fairy lover and abductor when he and his court passed by her house at noon.  This appears to be a common trait of supernatural being in myth:  supernatural creatures are most likely to be seen traveling through mortal lands at sunrise, at sunset, and at noon.  At all other times, if they are seen by mortals at all they are seen withing the bounds of their own country--for example, fairies caught dancing at midnight atop their fairy-mound.

It is said, too, that he can only pass running water at the slack or the flood of the tide.  Mina Harker's journal, 30 September

Another folklore motif I noticed Stoker used was water-as-boundary.  Commonly in myth the realm of mortals and the realm of Fairie are separated by a body of water:  sometimes a river, sometimes a sea.  Sir Launfal, another Middle English Breton lay, contains an example of this.  At the end of the poem, Sir Launfal lives happily-ever-after with Tyramour, his wife and the daughter of the Fairy King, in the Fairy King's island realm Olyroun.  As a more modern example, Tolkien used this idea successfully in his writings.  Rivendell lies across the Bruinen, and Lothlorien across the Silverlode.  Stoker used water a bit differently.  Instead of the water marking the perimeter between the natural and supernatural worlds, water creates a barrier over which the vampire cannot cross except under special circumstances.  Regardless, the idea of water acting as a boundary is still there.

Beside the bed, as if he had stepped out of the mist, or rather as if the mist had turned into his figure, for it had entirely disappeared, stood a tall, thin man, all in black. . . . For an instant my heart stood still, and I would have screamed out, only that I was paralyzed.   Dr. Seward's diary, 3 October

Finally, I noticed while reading Dracula a use of the supernatural to explain sleep paralysis.  Sleep paralysis occurs when the sleeper is conscious but the body is asleep and therefore unable to move.  As a result, the sleeper is aware of external stimuli but cannot respond to it, which generally leads to a feeling of panic.  I have occasionally experienced this, and can attest to feeling terrified.  Typically, folk belief connects sleep paralysis to an evil supernatural presence.  Old English medical texts contain remedies for banishing the night-mare (maere) that sits on a person's chest, paralyzing them and giving them bad dreams (see here for an example).  Bram Stoker used this, substituting vampires for the night-mare.

Vampires in Dracula have other attributes that I will have to keep an eye out for as I read folklore.  They can shapeshift into wolves or bats and summon rats and wolves at will.  They cannot cross a threshold without an invitation, and they do not cast a shadow or have a reflection.  They are harmed by the crucifix, communion wafers, bullets sanctified by a priest, and garlic.

They do not, however, sparkle in the sunlight.