Friday, June 29, 2012

Reformation and Goodbyes

Today was a bittersweet day for many of us, as it was the last day of class and everybody flies home on Saturday. Upon waking up, we all realized that we had two days left to check off things from our London Bucket Lists. So, we went to our last class, and enjoyed a good lecture and discussion on the English Reformation, and then proceeded to hunt down extra luggage, grab Iranian food, spend time with friends, and go to Camden Market (and not spend all the money we had left).

As far as class goes, we were each assigned a different sermon organized and preached by Thomas Cranmer -- the Archbishop of Canterbury under the reign of Henry VIII. These homilies described and outlined the various beliefs that the new Protestant, English parishioners (as well as the priests) needed to know. Some of the doctrines included how people are “saved” by God, an explanation of “true faith”, the importance of obedience to the King as Head of the Church, and the reading and knowledge of Holy Scripture.

These texts are important because they provide insight into the changes of the Reformation. Until revisionist history became a popular trend in interpreting the past, many historians considered the medieval church to be corrupt, and the Reformation occurred with the purpose of breaking away from this supposed corruption of the medieval Catholic Church. However, if anything, this class has demonstrated that these are simply interpretations, and evidence that the medieval church in England was actually a thriving, communal and non-corrupt institution. For example, lay people would donate candles or money to the church, and in doing so, they were practicing the giving of alms. People would pay the church money upon their deathbeds in order to ensure that priests would say prayers for them after they died, in hopes of shortening their time spent in purgatory. Many critics see this as having the wrong intention and buying your way into heaven.

The existence of mystics such as Margery and Julian, as well as the heretical trials that occurred throughout the country, also pointed toward a church that was potentially heretical in the beliefs of its mystics, and was politically power hungry. However, we were constantly asked to challenge this cynical outlook throughout the course. Perhaps Margery and Julian were so overwhelmed by their true faith that they did in fact have visions, or felt the need to have a closer relationship with God. This desire led to their theological concepts and ideologies. It is completely possible that clergymen did not hold the heretical trials because of blood-thirsty men, but instead, for a genuine fear of a corruption of the church, its beliefs and its community.

In any case, the history of anything always has multiple interpretations. Our course examined a period of time in which church history has always been seen in a slightly more negative light, and a time in which great change was about to occur. We read valuable, numerous texts (and original manuscripts!) which enabled us to challenge the previous interpretations, and potentially come up with our own.

Finally, I think it is important to mention all of the FUN we had while we lived in this beautiful city. There were good times, namely: the Jubilee, the nights of clotted cream ice cream (yes, that happened. And it is simultaneously as fantastic, and terrible for you, as it sounds), the early morning tube rides (which make you want to shower immediately after stepping onto the platform but funny in any case), the pubs and pasties, and the many wonderful excursions outside of London. And, of course, there were some bad times, too…like Stonehenge, which luckily did not result in sickness and thus can become a positive experience to remember for a lifetime. Overall, the trip was quite wonderful, and everyone will miss the beautiful city, the experiences and each other.  

(Special thanks to Professor Hornbeck for all the work, guidance, and everything else he has done for the class!)


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Heresy Trials and Royal Palaces

We began our final week with one last class excursion to Hampton Court Palace.  This complex outside of London was built by Cardinal Wolsey in 1514, but became King Henry VIII’s palace in 1529.  The buildings are filled with Tudor and Stuart history for which an abundance of signs, costumed actors, props, and a dramatic audio tour are kindly provided to assist the imagination.  Henry VIII divorced Anne of Cleves and married 2 of his other wives there, Catherine Howard and Kateryn Parr.  His son, Edward, was baptized in the Chapel Royal at the palace.  This gorgeous chapel still holds regular daily services and enforces a strict code of silence.  Interestingly, the Chapel Royal retained many Catholic features and was relatively unaffected by the newly launched Reformation underway just outside.  

Our class today looked at a few of the heresy trial records from Norwich (1428-1431) and Winchester (1511-1513).  The Winchester trials were almost contemporaneous with the building of the palace.  While there is no direct link between the palace and the heresy trials per se, imagination involuntarily kicks in and starts forming a big picture of a world-in-which.  One of the more interesting architectural features of both the palace and the extensive gardens is the enormous number of nooks and hiding places scattered everywhere.  These were certainly designed to facilitate the private and politically sensitive conversations going on endlessly behind the scenes at court.   In secretive meetings like these, heresy was also believed to spread, and simply hosting a known heretic in one’s house could put that person on trial.

After discussing some of the theological contentions and the extent to which a trial record represents real historical circumstances, we began a prosopographical analysis of the text by mapping all the names indicted and linking them according to how they knew each other.  At first, tracing who had the heretical book when someone came to dinner felt a bit like a game of Clue.  Once a root system of heretics began to emerge, however, the method felt more like hunting cells of terrorists.  It was a strange feeling in a history and theology class, but essential work for close reading of these sources.

Why heresy and heretics were so feared is a difficult and troubling question for postmoderns.  Understanding this fear is further complicated by the tarnished image we have of the object of that fear, which survives almost entirely behind the polemics and judicial proceedings against them.  While many people now are receptive to explanations from social control, Eamon Duffy has argued for more pastoral motivations that were deeply concerned with the seriousness of right belief and eternal salvation.  Neither one of these seems entirely adequate, however.  The reduction of history to a string of power struggles is unnecessarily cynical and two-dimensional.  On the other hand, the excessive use of violence by both Church and State in some of these trials is hard to attribute charitable intent.  Maybe tomorrow’s class will bring the answer.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Trewe Cristen Men and Lollards

In my first extensively historiographical course in college, every time someone made a point about "scientists" or "feminists" or "social radicals," the professor would stop the conversation and ask, "but is that what they would have called themselves? How would they have defined their activities?" I was struck again by the importance of this question of self definition while reading Conner's blog post, in which he discusses experimenting with a pagan identity, and how attending the solstice helped to shape this identity through an experience of community.

In class, we encountered this issue repeatedly over the past week, while struggling with questions like "what is a heretic?" and "what is a Lollard?" "Lollard" itself is a term loaded with problematic associations: outside of its particular historical context, it means very little, but in the middle ages it was often an indistinct pejorative, as we saw in The Book of Margery Kempe. In the primary source documents we've read, none of the "Lollard" writers identify themselves as such; rather, they put the title in the mouths of ecclesiastical authorities: "... men which [bischoppis] clepen Lollardis (Bishop, 19)." Nor, as these documents further reveal, were their belief systems always identical.

Rather than opting to call themselves Lollards or heretics or even Wycliffites, the authors we've been reading self-identify as "pore men" and "trewe cristen men." Their identity is loosely grounded in a conviction in the importance of strict adherence to scripture and the commandments. They order their business, govern their household, and select their associates accordingly.

Unfortunately, the surviving records-- mainly either polemics or heresy trials-- make it easy to misread the movement as entirely grounded in opposition to the church, rather than a belief system with positivist claims. This has furthered a teleological view of these texts and their authors as a movement leading towards inevitable Protestant reformation-- indeed, as a premature reformation. Certainly the "trewe cristen men" were interested in personal reform-- in the care of their souls and the careful ordering of their households and social networks-- but we have yet to encounter, in the texts we've read, any investment in over-arching church overhaul. The "trewe men" place themselves outside of the church, but they don't take a hammer to its statuary or throw rocks through its windows.

In order to work with these texts as they are, and not through the lens of later agendas, we must begin by interrogating the claims that the authors make about themselves in their own historical moment. Now, as then, "Lollard" is a term that must be handled with care.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Stonehenge Adventure

Few words could describe the events of the Summer (really?) Solstice at Stonehenge. Since Conner blogged about it, I will post a few supplementary pictures which will hopefully tell the tale of last night/morning.

the last time we smiled that night

they looked quite nice until the torrential downpours hit

words cannot describe how we were actually feeling. soaking wet, wearing garbage bags

And.....the following day. Needless to say, we were still recovering. 

It was just what we needed

The highlight of the night
an ode to our friend, Margery

Thursday, June 21, 2012

To Stonehenge for the Solstice

Traveling to Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice was one of my main goals while here in London.  Partly because I thought it’d be a rare opportunity and a good story to have, but I also had a religious interest in the event.  For the past three years I’ve been experimenting with other religions out of both curiosity and desire to join a new religion.  So, attending the Stonehenge Solstice Ceremony was also a way for me to observe the Pagan religion.  I mention this mostly to offer a semi-rational reason for why I would be willing to wait for the sunrise in a field for several hours, during heavy rainfall with only a hoodie, a thin leather jacket and a garbage bag to keep me warm.

When we got to Stonehenge, it was only about 11:30 P.M., so we had a substantial wait until the ceremony would begin.  Throughout the entire night, even during the rain, there was a large party inside the actual stone circle with multiple drummers, dancers and singers.  There were a good amount of people there for “less religious reasons”, but actual practitioners of Paganism were easy to identify.  Amongst all the people bundled up in North Face jackets and waterproofed tarps were others dressed in robes and cloaks while carrying staves.  The color and style of their clothing indicated what branch of Paganism they practiced as well as their status within their faith.  When the rain started about two hours later, a large amount of non-Pagans headed back to the buses to get back home, but the people celebrating inside the circle continued the entire night until the sunrise.  To be fair, I expect that a good amount of those people stayed because they treated the entire event as a party as opposed to a religious event.

The rain cleared up a bit before the ceremony began at 4 A.M.  The sky was still very cloudy, but this did not prevent people from gathering around one of the outer stones.  The ceremony was led by the Head Priest of the Druids, Arthur Uther Pendragon.  In the Druid tradition, he is meant to be the reincarnation of King Arthur leads all major Pagan ceremonies in England.  The ceremony itself was only about an hour long and did not have a concrete schedule or format.  There were specific prayers and chants that Arthur performed, but the more significant part of the ceremony was the performance of music and poetry.  Anyone there who had something they wished to perform in celebration of the solstice was welcome to step forward, whether it was Arthur himself reciting a poem about Druid beliefs, a scraggly man named Hock playing the banjo and singing or a young girl who had typed out a poem on her iPhone.  All of this was very entertaining, but more importantly it was about community.  After each performance, Arthur would thank the person and say a few words about their piece.  Usually, it was about how the performance related to the Pagan tradition, but Arthur really did stress how important being a community was.

Arthur Uther Pendragon - Raised Druid King of Britain
In a Catholic mass, community is mostly fostered through silence and solemn, communal prayer.  It’s very tame and structured, and it’d be a rare sight for someone to come up to the altar and recite their own poetry.  Pagans, on the other hand, foster community through music, dance and even shouting.  It’s very loud and energetic, but the participants have fun, which is not something I used to seeing Catholicism or many other religions for that matter.  They have their moments of reverence and quiet, but largely the ceremony was a celebration of life.  Several times Arthur congratulated and praised the people for showing up and braving the weather and seemed to be just as amazed by Stonehenge as we were. 

What was even more interesting to see was that during the mass, there were two weddings and two knightings.  About halfway through, Arthur asked if there were any couples who were there to be joined.  What was interesting to see was one couple was dressed in regular clothing while the other was in full medieval garb.  Both marriages were very short and consisted of a prayer, wrapping their hands with cords and jumping over Arthur’s staff.  What I was surprised to find out is that these marriages are legally recognized by the British government.  Paganism is considered a “legitimate” religion in England and is entitled to the same rights and respects as any other major faith.  So, while it’s fun to see a man claiming to be King Arthur marry a couple in medieval garb, this was also a legitimate wedding.  The communal aspect of the ceremony showed during this as well.  The second couple had forgotten to bring a rope to be tied around their hands.  When they realized this, most of the people in the crowd quickly began to remove a cord or rope from their clothing to give to the couple so that they could proceed.  This was not a provoked response either, but their way of showing strong support for a member of their community.

As for the knighting, Arthur has the power to induct people as members of his own court in the Pagan religion.  While I was not able to find out exactly how someone gains candidacy for this, the procedure was just as quick as the weddings.  Two times, a man was presented as a candidate for Arthur’s court.  After being introduced, they would kneel in front of Arthur and repeat a pledge as Arthur places his sword over their shoulders.    And then they are treated to a cheering from the crowd and welcomed by Arthur into his court.  The interesting thing to note about this was that, unlike the weddings, you could not simply step forward, nor did Arthur ask if there were any candidates.  Both men had to be presented by other high-ranking priests or priestesses present at the ceremony.  Essentially, the men needed a sponsor of some kind to vouch for them.  But, even with that difference, Arthur was just as happy to oblige the candidates as he did the couples.

The last thing I was to point out about the ceremony is that it really was a very informal event.  Arthur and the Head Priestess had control over the ceremony, but it was an open participation event.  Arthur actually made a specific point to welcome not just Pagans, but people of other religious backgrounds and asked them to contribute a song or prayer at the start of the ceremony.  The only person to do so was a woman who sang a couple Native American songs, but the lack of participation did not stop Arthur from repeatedly encouraging people of other faiths to step forward.  I’d never seen something like this happen at any kind of religious event, but I think that just shows evidence of how both informal and communal Paganism is.  Its practitioners do not seek to make the religion powerful and institutionalized, but are perfectly happy to just be able to practice their faith.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Norwich excursion


With many of my classmates choosing to blog insightful, scholarly entries regarding Julian and Margery,  I decided to focus on the events of our excursion to Norwich on Monday. It was a wonderful journey to the far east coast of England, into the quaint, yet historic town of Norwich. 

more after the jump

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Julian and Margery: Unlikely Bedfellows

Over the course of the last several class meetings and during our visit to Norwich yesterday, our class has been analyzing the texts of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, both of whom produced "mystical" autobiographies of their experiences with faith during their lifetimes. I studied mysticism a lot as an undergraduate as well as witchcraft/heresy, and I have found that one distinct link between these two seemingly anterior fields is the suspension of disbelief that the modern student must employ to work with the related texts objectively. Just as medieval society believed that "witches" were actually committing acts of diabolical sorcery, they also had a fair amount of faith in the visions that mystics claimed to be having as divinely inspired manifestations of God's grace. So regardless of how irrational or crazy we think Margery or Julian were, we must constantly keep in mind the medieval context of their chronicles.

That being said, I'd like to try to compare Julian and Margery as so-called mystical women. I tend to come down on the very cynical side of modern scholarship on mysticism, so I'll attempt to keep this tame. However, I will be explicit in saying that I am of the opinion that if true mystics existed, Julian was a prime example, but I think Margery was a wannabe saint who had a lot of guilt about her failure to live a cloistered life from the outset and tried to overcompensate.

Julian of Norwich was brilliant. I think it fair to say that her life as an enclosed anchoress obviously gave her plenty of time to contemplate on theology and inwardly exaggerate whatever intimate experiences she had with God prior to her enclosure, but one can not argue that the woman was not incredibly intelligent and well-spoken. She wrote about the "revelations" she had during a period of illness about 16 years thereafter, which I think is a little suspect. Sixteen years of isolation certainly gave her enough time to craft a fantastic narrative about an event that may or may not have been as intensely spiritual as she claims, although I do not think she malevolently sought fame through falsehood. Regardless of the accuracy of her tale, Julian managed to deeply analyze the teachings of Christian patriarchs and reinvent contemporary theology despite her gender and isolation. Her writing is fluent and nuanced with tokens of brilliance and just enough apostasy from contemporary church institutions to show that she knew the Catholic doctrine but had her own ideas about how it should best be used to honor God. I think it telling that she did not seek out publication of her work, but rather that it was reproduced after her death, because she clearly was not overly extroverted about her mystical tendencies. For me, that makes her a little more credible.

I do not think Margery could have survived one day in Julian's shoes, but I think she really really wanted to try them on. Julian managed to have a complete mystical career in a tiny stone cell, whereas Margery literally roams across the European continent in search of the kind of spiritual experiences that Julian had over a three-day period while lying in her bed. Margery certainly seems to be of the mindset that her life would be better spent living alone with God in chastity and poverty, but she also seems to have had the means to do whatever she wanted and couldn't get enough of wandering around and talking to people, so I tend to think the life of an anchoress would not have suited her. I think Margery probably spent several months of her life crying about the deep religious emotions that her various exploits fomented, but I also think it telling that she couldn't seem to crank out some decent descriptions of what exactly was going on her head. In my opinion, Margery wanted to experience the same kind of revelations that Julian claims to have had, but they never really came, so she tried to overcompensate by manifesting her piety in physical manifestations of religiosity. She wore white clothes, cried all the time, made several pilgrimages, all to, I think, force the mystical experiences that she couldn't manage to pull out. Don't get me wrong, I think it's awesome the kind of social agency she wrought by virtue of her own obnoxiousness, but I wouldn't necessarily call it mysticism.

All shall be well.