Ada’s second novel, book two of the Terra Ignota quartet, Seven Surrenders, is published today, so at last people who have been waiting since reading Too Like the Lightning last May can read it.
If anyone hates cliffhangers so much that they have been waiting to read Too Like The Lightning until Seven Surrenders came out, you can safely now read both, because there’s a proper pause at the end of Seven Surrenders before the other two volumes. You’ll still really want the other volumes, but it has satisfying volume completion.
The series will be complete in four books. The third book, The Will to Battle, is currently scheduled for December, and Ada is presently writing the fourth and final book.
In the comments to the Progress post, a reader asked for clarification on what was so awful about Hobbes, and this was Ada’s response, which I am reposting as a post so that it doesn’t stay buried down there:
The Hobbes reference referred, not to my opinion of him or modern opinions on him, but contemporary opinions of him, how hated and feared he was by his peers in the mid-17th century. I’ll treat him more in the next iteration(s) of my skepticism series, but in brief Hobbes was a student of Bacon (he was actually Bacon’s amanuensis for a while) and used Bacon’s new techniques of observation and methodical reasoning with absolute mastery, BUT used them to come to conclusions that were absolutely terrifying to his peers, attacking the dignity of the human race, the foundations of government, the pillars of morality of his day, in ways whose true terror are hard for us to feel when we read Leviathan in retrospect, having accepted many of Hobbes’s ideas and being armored against the others by John Locke. But among his contemporaries, “The Beast of Malmsbury” as he was called, held an unmatched status as the intellectual terror of his day. In fact there are few thinkers ever in history who were so universally feared and hated–it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that for the two decades after the publication of Leviathan, the sole goal of western European philosophy was to find some way to refute Thomas Hobbes WITHOUT (here’s the tricky part) undermining Bacon. Because Bacon was light, hope, progress, the promise of a better future, and Hobbes was THE BEST wielder of Bacon’s techniques. So they couldn’t just DISMISS Hobbes without undermining Bacon, they had to find a way to take Hobbes on in his own terms and Bacon better than Hobbes did. It took 20 years and John Locke to achieve that, but in the meantime Hobbes so terrified his peers that they literally rewrote the laws of England more than once to extend censorship enough to silence Hobbes.
Also the man Just. Wouldn’t. Die. They wanted him dead and gone so they could forget him and move on but he lived to be 91, a constant reminder of the intellectual terror whose shadow had loomed so long over all of Europe. To give a sample of a contemporary articulation of the fear and amazement Hobbes caused in his peers, here is a satirical broadside published to celebrate his death:
My favorite verse from it is:
“Leviathan the Great is dead! But see
The small Behemoths of his progeny
Survive to battle all divinity!”
So I chose Hobbes as an example because he’s really the first “backfire” of Bacon, the first unexpected, unintended consequence of the new method. Hobbes’s book didn’t cause any atrocities, didn’t result in wars or massacres, but it did spread terror through the entire intellectual world, and was the first sniff of the scarier places that thought would go once Bacon’s call to examine EVERYTHING genuinely did examine everything… even things people did NOT want anyone to doubt. So while Hobbes is wonderful, from the perspective of his contemporaries he was the first warning sign that progress cannot be controlled, and that, while it will change parts of society we think are bad, it will change the parts we value too.
Hope that helps clear it up? I’ll discuss Hobbes more in later works.
Is progress inevitable? Is it natural? Is it fragile? Is it possible? Is it a problematic concept in the first place? Many people are reexamining these kinds of questions as 2016 draws to a close, so I thought this would be a good moment to share the sort-of “zoomed out” discussions the subject that historians like myself are always having.
There is a strange doubleness to experiencing an historic moment while being a historian one’s self. I feel the same shock, fear, overload, emotional exhaustion that so many are, but at the same time another me is analyzing, dredging up historical examples, bigger crises, smaller crises, elections that set the fuse to powder-kegs, elections that changed nothing. I keep thinking about what it felt like during the Wars of the Roses, or the French Wars of Religion, during those little blips of peace, a decade long or so, that we, centuries later, call mere pauses, but which were long enough for a person to be born and grow to political maturity in seeming-peace, which only hindsight would label ‘dormant war.’ But then eventually the last flare ended and then the peace was real. But on the ground it must have felt exactly the same, the real peace and those blips. That’s why I don’t presume to predict — history is a lesson in complexity not predictability — but what I do feel I’ve learned to understand, thanks to my studies, are the mechanisms of historical change, the how of history’s dynamism rather than the what next. So, in the middle of so many discussions of the causes of this year’s events (economics, backlash, media, the not-so-sleeping dragon bigotry), and of how to respond to them (petitions, debate, fundraising, art, despair) I hope people will find it useful to zoom out with me, to talk about the causes of historical events and change in general.
Two threads, which I will later bring together. Thread one: progress. Thread two: historical agency.
Part 1: The Question of Progress As Historians Ask It
“How do you discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?” a colleague asked during a teaching discussion. This is a historian’s succinct if somewhat technical way of asking a question which lies at the back of a lot of the questions people are wrestling with now. Progress — change for the better over historical time. The word has many uses (social progress, technological progress), but the reason it raises red flags for historians is the legacy of Whig history, a school of historical thought whose influence still percolates through many of our models of history. Wikipedia has an excellent opening definition of Whig history:
Whig history… presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasize the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms, and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment… Whig history has many similarities with the Marxist-Leninist theory of history, which presupposes that humanity is moving through historical stages to the classless, egalitarian society to which communism aspires… Whig history is a form of liberalism, putting its faith in the power of human reason to reshape society for the better, regardless of past history and tradition. It proposes the inevitable progress of mankind.
In other words, this approach presumes a teleology to history, that human societies have always been developing toward some pre-set end state: apple seeds into apple trees, humans into enlightened humans, human societies into liberal democratic paradises.
Some of the problems with this approach are transparent, others familiar to those of my readers who have been engaging with current discourse about the problems/failures/weaknesses of liberalism. But let me unpack some of the other problems, the ones historians in particular worry about.
Developed in the earlier the 20th century, Whig history presents a particular set of values and political and social outcomes as the (A) inevitable and (B) superior end-points of all historical change — political and social outcomes that arise from the Western European tradition. The Eurocentric distortions this introduces are obvious, devaluing all other cultures. But even for a Europeanist like myself, who’s already studying Europe, this approach has a distorting effect by focusing our attentions onto historical moments or changes or people that were “right” or “correct,” that took a step “forward.” When one attempts to write a history using this kind of reasoning, the heroes of this process (the statesman who founded a more liberal-democratic-ish state, the scientist whose invention we still use today, the poet whose pamphlet forwards the cause) loom overlarge in history, receiving too much attention. On the one hand, yes, we need to understand those past figures who are keystones of our present — I teach Plato, and Descartes, and Machiavelli with good reason — but if we study only the keystones, and not the other less conspicuous bricks, we wind up with a very distorted idea of the whole edifice.
Whig history also makes it dangerously easy to stray into placing moral value on those things which advanced the teleologicaly-predetermined future. Such things seem to be “correct” thus “good” thus “better” while those whose elements which did not contribute to this teleological development were “dead ends” or “mistakes” or “wrong” which quickly becomes “bad.” In such a history whole eras can be dismissed as unworthy of study for failing to forward progress (The Middle Ages did great stuff, guys!) while other eras can be disproportionately celebrated for advancing it (The Renaissance did a lot of dumb stuff too!). And, of course, whole regions can be dismissed for “failing” to progress (Africa, Asia) as can sub-regions (Poland, Spain).
To give an example within the realm of intellectual history, teleological intellectual histories very often create the false impression that the only figures involved in a period’s intellectual world were heroes and villains, i.e. thinkers we venerate today, or their nasty bad backwards-looking enemies. This makes it seem as if the time period in question was already just previewing the big debates we have today. Such histories don’t know what to do with thinkers whose ideas were orthogonal to such debates, and if one characterizes the Renaissance as “Faith!” vs. “Reason!” and Marsilio Ficino comes along and says “Let’s use Platonic Reason to heal the soul!” a Whig history doesn’t know what to do with that, and reads it as a “dead end” or “detour.” Only heroes or villains fit the narrative, so Ficino must either become one or the other, or be left out. Teleological intellectual histories also tend to give the false impression that the figures we think are important now were always considered important, and if you bring up the fact that Aristotle was hardly read at all in antiquity and only revived in the Middle Ages, or that the most widely owned author in the Enlightenment was the now-obscure fideist encyclopedist Pierre Bayle, the narrative has to scramble to adopt.
Teleological history is also prone to “presentism” <= a bad thing, but a very useful term! Presentism is when one’s reading of history is distorted by one’s modern perspective, often through projecting modern values onto past events, and especially past people. An essay about the Magna Carta which projects Enlightenment values onto its Medieval authors would be presentist. So are histories of the Renaissance which want to portray it as a battle between Reason and religion, or say that only Florence and/or Venice had the real Renaissance because they were republics, and only the democratic spirit of republics could foster fruitful, modern, forward-thinking people. Presentism is also rearing its head when, in the opening episodes of the new Medici: Masters of Florence TV series, Cosimo de Medici talks about bankers as the masterminds of society, and describes himself as a job-creator, not the conceptual space banking was in in 1420. Presentism is sometimes conscious, but often unconscious, so mindful historians will pause whenever we see something that feels revolutionary, or progressive, or proto-modern, or too comfortable, to check for other readings, and make triple sure we have real evidence. Sometimes things in the past really were more modern than what surrounded them. I spent many dissertation years assembling vast grids of data which eventually painstakingly proved that Machaivelli’s interest in radical Epicurean materialism was exceptional for his day, and more similar to the interests of peers seventy years in his future than his own generation — that Machiavelli was exceptional and forward-thinking may be the least surprising conclusion a Renaissance historian can come to, but we have to prove such things very, very meticulously, to avoid spawning yet another distorted biography which says that Galileo was fundamentally an oppressed Bill Nye. Hint: Galileo was not Bill Nye; he was Galileo.
These problems, in brief, are why discussions of progress, and of teleology, are red flags now for any historian.
Unfortunately, the bathwater here is very difficult to separate from an important baby. Teleological thinking distorts our understanding of the past, but the Whig approach was developed for a reason. (A) It is important to have ways to discuss historical change over time, to talk about the question of progress as a component of that change. (B) It is important to retain some way to compare societies, or at least to assess when people try to compare societies, so we can talk about how different institutions, laws, or social mores might be better or worse than others on various metrics, and how some historical changes might be positive or negative. While avoiding dangerous narratives of triumphant [insert Western phenomenon here] sweeping through and bringing light to a superstitious and backwards [era/people/place], we also want to be able to talk about things like the eradication of smallpox, and our efforts against malaria and HIV, which are undeniably interconnected steps in a process of change over time — a process which is difficult to call by any name but progress.
So how do historians discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?
And how do I, as a science fiction writer, as a science fiction reader, as someone who tears up every time NASA or ESA posts a new picture of our baby space probes preparing to take the next step in our journey to the stars, how do I discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?
I, at least, begin by being a historian, and talking about the history of progress itself.
Part 2: A Brief History of Progress
In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.
Let me unpack that.
Ideas of social change over time had existed in European thought since antiquity. Early Greek sources talk about a Golden Age of peaceful, pastoral abundance, followed by a Silver Age, when jewels and luxuries made life more opulent but also more complicated. There followed a Bronze Age, when weapons and guards appeared, and also the hierarchy of have and have-nots, and finally an Iron Age of blood and war and Troy. Some ancients added more detail to this narrative, notably Lucretius in his Epicurean epic On the Nature of Things. In his version the transition from simple, rural living to luxury-hungry urbanized hierarchy was explicitly developmental, caused, not by divine planning or celestial influences, but by human invention: as people invented more luxuries they then needed more equipment–technological and social — to produce, defend, control, and war over said luxuries, and so, step-by-step, tranquil simplicity degenerated into sophistication and its discontents.
Lucretius’s developmental model of society has several important components of the concept of progress, but not all of them. It has the state of things vary over the course of human history. It also has humanity as the agent of that change, primarily through technological innovation and social changes which arise in reaction to said innovation. It does not have (A) intentionality behind this change, (B) a positive arc to this change, (C) an infinite or unlimited arc to this change, or–perhaps most critically–(D) the expectation that any more change will occur in the future. Lucretius accounts for how society reached its present, and the mythological eras of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron do the same. None of these ancient thinkers speculate — as we do every day — about how the experiences of future generations might continue to change and be fundamentally different from their own. Quantitatively things might be different — Rome’s empire might grow or shrink, or fall entirely to be replaced by another — but fundamentally cities will be cities, plows will be plows, empires will be empires, and in a thousand years bread will still be bread. Even if Lucan or Lucretius speculate, they do not live in our world where bread is already poptarts, and will be something even more outlandish in the next generation.
Medieval Europe came to the realization — and if you grant their starting premises they’re absolutely right — that if the entire world is a temporary construct designed by an omnipotent, omniscient Creator God for the purpose of leading humans through their many trials toward eternal salvation or damnation, then it’s madness to look to Earth history for any cause-to-effect chains, there is one Cause of all effects. Medieval thought is no more monolithic than modern, but many excellent examples discuss the material world as a sort of pageant play being performed for us by God to communicate his moral lessons, and if one stage of history flows into another — an empire rises, prospers, falls — that is because God had a moral message to relate through its progression. Take Dante’s obsession with the Emperor Tiberius, for example. According to Dante, God planned the Crucifixion and wanted His Son to be lawfully executed by all humanity, so the sin and guilt and salvation would be universal, so He created the Roman Empire in order to have there be one government large enough to rule and represent the whole world (remember Dante’s maps have nothing south of Egypt except the Mountain of Purgatory). The empire didn’t develop, it was crafted for God’s purposes, Act II scene iii the Roman Empire Rises, scene v it fulfills its purpose, scene vi it falls. Applause.
Did the Renaissance have progress? No. Not conceptually, though, as in all eras of history, constant change was happening. But the Renaissance did suddenly get closer to the concept too. The Renaissance invented the Dark Ages. Specifically the Florentine Leonardo Bruni invented the Dark Ages in the 1420s-1430s. Following on Petrarch’s idea that Italy was in a dark and fallen age and could rise from it again by reviving the lost arts that had made Rome glorious, Bruni divided history into three sections, good Antiquity, bad Dark Ages, and good Renaissance, when the good things lost in antiquity returned. Humans and God were both agents in this, God who planned it and humans who actually translated the Greek, and measured the aqueducts, and memorized the speeches, and built the new golden age. Renaissance thinkers, fusing ideas from Greece and Rome with those of the Middle Ages, added to old ideas of development the first suggestion of a positive trajectory, but not an infinite one, and not a fundamental one. The change the Renaissance believed in lay in reacquiring excellent things the past had already had and lost, climbing out of a pit back to ground level. That change would be fundamental, but finite, and when Renaissance people talk about “surpassing the ancients” (which they do) they talk about painting more realistic paintings, sculpting more elaborate sculptures, perhaps building more stunning temples/cathedrals, or inventing new clever devices like Leonardo’s heated underground pipes to let you keep your potted lemon tree roots warm in winter (just like ancient Roman underfloor heating!) But cities would be cities, plows would be maybe slightly better plows, and empires would be empires. Surpassing the ancients lay in skill, art, artistry, not fundamentals.
Then in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.
If we work together — said he — if we observe the world around us, study, share our findings, collaborate, uncover as a human team the secret causes of things hidden in nature, we can base new inventions on our new knowledge which will, in small ways, little by little, make human life just a little easier, just a little better, warm us in winter, shield us in storm, make our crops fail a little less, give us some way to heal the child on his bed. We can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own. There are — he said — three kinds of scholar. There is the ant, who ranges the Earth and gathers crumbs of knowledge and piles them, raising his ant-mound, higher and higher, competing to have the greatest pile to sit and gloat upon–he is the encyclopedist, who gathers but adds nothing. There is the spider, who spins elaborate webs of theory from the stuff of his own mind, spinning beautiful, intricate patterns in which it is so easy to become entwined — he is the theorist, the system-weaver. And then there is the honeybee, who gathers from the fruits of nature and, processing them through the organ of his own being, produces something good and useful for the world. Let us be honeybees, give to the world, learning and learning’s fruits. Let us found a new method — the Scientific Method — and with it dedicate ourselves to the advancement of knowledge of the secret causes of things, and the expansion of the bounds of human empire to the achievement of all things possible.
Bacon is a gifted wordsmith, and he knows how to make you ache to be the noble thing he paints you as.
“How, Chancellor Bacon, do we know that we can change the world with this new scientific method thing, since no one has ever tried it before so you have no evidence that knowledge will yield anything good and useful, or that each generation’s experience might be better than the previous?”
It is not an easy thing to prove science works when you have no examples of science working yet.
Bacon’s answer — the answer which made kingdom and crown stream passionate support and birthed the Academy of Sciences–may surprise the 21st-century reader, accustomed as we are to hearing science and religion framed as enemies. We know science will work–Bacon replied–because of God. There are a hundred thousand things in this world which cause us pain and suffering, but God is Good. He gave the cheetah speed, the lion claws. He would not have sent humanity out into this wilderness without some way to meet our needs. He would not have given us the desire for a better world without the means to make it so. He gave us Reason. So, from His Goodness, we know that Reason must be able to achieve all He has us desire. God gave us science, and it is an act of Christian charity, an infinite charity toward all posterity, to use it.
They believed him.
And that is the first thing which, in my view, fits every modern definition of progress. Francis Bacon died from pneumonia contracted while experimenting with using snow to preserve chickens, attempting to give us refrigeration, by which food could be stored and spread across a hungry world. Bacon envisioned technological progress, medical progress, but also the small social progresses those would create, not just Renaissance glories for the prince and the cathedral, but food for the shepherd, rest for the farmer, little by little, progress. As Bacon’s followers reexamined medicine from the ground up, throwing out old theories and developing…
I’m going to tangent for a moment. It really took two hundred years for Bacon’s academy to develop anything useful. There was a lot of dissecting animals, and exploding metal spheres, and refracting light, and describing gravity, and it was very, very exciting, and a lot of it was correct, but–as the eloquent James Hankins put it–it was actually the nineteenth century that finally paid Francis Bacon’s I.O.U., his promise that, if you channel an unfathomable research budget, and feed the smartest youths of your society into science, someday we’ll be able to do things we can’t do now, like refrigerate chickens, or cure rabies, or anesthetize. There were a few useful advances (better navigational instruments, Franklin’s lightning rod) but for two hundred years most of science’s fruits were devices with no function beyond demonstrating scientific principles. Two hundred years is a long time for a vastly-complex society-wide project to keep getting support and enthusiasm, fed by nothing but pure confidence that these discoveries streaming out of the Royal Society papers will eventually someday actually do something. I just think… I just think that keeping it up for two hundred years before it paid off, that’s… that’s really cool.
…okay, I was in the middle of a sentence: As Bacon’s followers reexamined science from the ground up, throwing out old theories and developing new correct ones which would eventually enable effective advances, it didn’t take long for his followers to apply his principle (that we should attack everything with Reason’s razor and keep only what stands) to social questions: legal systems, laws, judicial practices, customs, social mores, social classes, religion, government… treason, heresy… hello, Thomas Hobbes. In fact the scientific method that Bacon pitched, the idea of progress, proved effective in causing social change a lot faster than genuinely useful technology. Effectively the call was: “Hey, science will improve our technology! It’s… it’s not doing anything yet, so… let’s try it out on society? Yeah, that’s doing… something… and — Oh! — now the technology’s doing stuff too!” Except that sentence took three hundred years.
We know now, as Bacon’s successors learned, with harsher and harsher vividness in successive generations, that attempts at progress can also cause negative effects, atrocious ones. Like Thomas Hobbes. And the Terror phase of the French Revolution. And the life-expectancy in cities plummeting as industrialization spread soot, and pollutants, and cholera, and mercury-impregnated wallpaper, and lead-whitened bread, Mmmmm lead-whitened bread… And just as technological discoveries had their monstrous offspring, like lead-whitened bread, the horrors of colonization were some of the monstrous offspring of the social applications of Reason. Monstrous offspring we are still wrestling with today.
Part 3: Progresses
We now use the word “progress” in many senses, many more than Bacon and his peers did. There is “technological progress.” There is “social progress.” There is “economic progress.” We sometimes lump these together, and sometimes separate them.
Thus the general question “Has progress failed?” can mean several things. It can mean, “Have our collective efforts toward the improvement of the human condition failed to achieve their desired results?” This is being asked frequently these days in the context of social progress, as efforts toward equality and tolerance are facing backlash.
But “Has progress failed?” can also mean “Has the development of science and technology, our application of Reason to things, failed to make the lived experience of people better/ happier/ less painful? Have the changes been bad or neutral instead of good?” In other words, was Bacon right that human’s using Reason and science can change our world, but wrong that we can make it better?
I want to stress that it is no small intellectual transformation that “progress” can now be used in a negative sense as well as a positive one. The concept as Bacon crystallized it, and as the Enlightenment spread it, was inherently positive, and to use it in a negative sense would be nonsensical, like using “healing” in a negative sense. But look at how we actually use “progress” in speech today. Sometimes it is positive (“Great progress this year!”) and sometimes negative (“Swallowed up by progress…”). This is a revolutionary change from Bacon’s day, enabled by two differences between ourselves and Bacon.
First we have watched the last several centuries. For us, progress is sometimes the first heart transplant and the footprints on the Moon, and sometimes it’s the Belgian Congo with its Heart of Darkness. Sometimes it’s the annihilation of smallpox and sometimes it’s polio becoming worse as a result of sanitation instead of better. Sometimes it’s Geraldine Roman, the Phillipines’ first transgender congresswoman, and sometimes it’s Cristina Calderón, the last living speaker of the Yaghan language. Progress has yielded fruits much more complex than honey, which makes sentences like “The prison of progress” sensical to us.
We have also broadened progress. For Bacon, progress was the honey and the honeybees, hard, systematic, intentional human action creating something sweet and useful for mankind. It was good. It was new. And it was intentional. In its nascent form, Bacon’s progress did not differentiate between progress the phenomenon and progress the concept. If you asked Bacon “Was there progress in the Middle Ages?” he would have answered, “No. We’re starting to have progress right now.” And he’s correct about the concept being new, about intentional or self-aware progress, progress as a conscious effort, being new. But if we turn to Wikipedia it defines “Progress (historical)” as “the idea that the world can become increasingly better in terms of science, technology, modernization, liberty, democracy, quality of life, etc.” Notice how agency and intentionality are absent from this. Because there was technological and social change before 1600, there were even technological and social changes that undeniably made things better, even if they came less frequently than they do in the modern world. So the phenomenon we study through the whole of history, far before the maturation of the concept.
As “progress” broadened to include unsystematic progress as well as the modern project of progress, that was the moment we acquired the questions “Is progress natural?” and “Is progress inevitable?” Because those questions require progress to be something that happens whether people intend it or not. In a sense, Bacon’s notion of progress wasn’t as teleological as Whig history. Bacon believed that human action could begin the process of progress, and that God gave Reason to humanity with this end in mind, but Bacon thought humans had to use a system, act intentionally, gather the pollen to make the honey, he didn’t think they honey just flowed. Not until progress is broadened to include pre-modern progress, and non-systematic, non-intentional modern progress, can the fully teleological idea of an inescapable momentum, an inevitability, join the manifold implications of the word “progress.”
Now I’m going to show you two maps.
This is map of global population, rendered to look like a terrain. It shows the jagged mountain ranges of south and east Asia, the vast, sweeping valleys of forest and wilderness. The most jagged spikes may be a little jarring, the intensity of India and China, but even those are rich brown mountains, while the whole thing has the mood of a semi-untouched world, much more pastoral wilderness than city, and almost everywhere a healthy green. This makes progress, or at least the spread of population, feel like a natural phenomenon, a neutral phenomenon.
This is the Human Ooze Map. This map shows exactly the same data, reoriented to drip down instead of spiking up, and to be a pus-like yellow against an ominous black background. Instantly the human metropolises are not natural spikes within a healthy terrain, but an infection clinging to every oozing coastline, with the densest mega-cities seeming to bleed out amidst the goop, like open pustules.
Both these maps show one aspect of ‘progress’. Whether the teeming cities of our modern day are an apocalyptic infection, or a force as natural as the meandering of shores and tree-lines, depends on how we present the narrative, and the moral assumptions that underlie that presentation. Presentism and the progress narrative in general have very similar distorting effects. When we examine past phenomena, institutions, events, people, ideas, some feel viscerally good or viscerally bad, right or wrong, forward-moving or backward-moving, values they acquire from narratives which we ourselves have created, and which orient how we analyze history, just as these mapmakers have oriented population up, or down, resulting in radically different feelings. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s model of the Noble Savage, happier the rural simplicity of Lucretius’s Golden Age rather than in the stressful ever-changing urban world of progress, is itself an image progress presented like the Human Ooze Map, reversing the moral presentation of the same facts.
Realizing that the ways we present data about progress are themselves morally charged can help us clarify questions that are being asked right now about liberalism, and nationalism, and social change, and opposition to social change. Because when we ask whether the world is experiencing a “failure” or a “revolution” or a “regression” or a “backlash” or a “last gasp” or a “pendulum swing” or a “prelude to triumph” etc., all these characterizations reorient data around different facets of the concept of progress, positive or negative, natural or intentional, just as these two maps reorient population around different morally-charged visualizations.
In sum: post colonialism, post industrialization, post Hobbes, we can no longer talk about progress as a unilateral, uncomplicated, good, not without distorting history, and ignoring the terrible facets of the last several centuries. Bacon thought there would be only honey, he was wrong. But we can’t not discuss progress because, during these same centuries, each generation’s experience has been increasingly different from the last generation, and science and human action are propelling this change. And there has been some honey. We need ways to talk about that.
But not without bearing in mind how we invest progress with different kinds of moral weight (the terrain or the ooze…)
And not without a question Bacon never thought to ask, because he did not realize (as we do) that technological and social change had been going on for many centuries before he made the action conscious. So Bacon never thought to ask: Do we have any power over progress?
Part 4: Do Individuals Have the Power to Change History?
Feelings of helplessness and despair have also been big parts of the shock of 2016. Helplessness and despair are questions, as well as feelings. They ask: Am I powerless? Can I personally do anything to change this? Do individuals have any power to shape history? Are we just swept along by the vast tides of social forces? Are we just cogs in the machine? What changes history?
Within a history department this divide often manifests methodologically.
Economic historians, and social historians, write masterful examinations of how vast social and economic forces, and their changes, whether incremental or rapid, have shaped history. Let’s call that Great Forces history. Whenever you hear people comparing our current wealth gap to the eve of the French Revolution, that is Great Forces history. When a Marxist talks about the inevitable interactions of proletariat and bourgeoisie, or when a Whig historian talks about the inevitable march of progress, those are also kinds of Great Forces history.
Great Forces history is wonderful, invaluable. It lets us draw illuminating comparisons, and helps us predict, not what will happen but what could happen, by looking at what has happened in similar circumstances. I mentioned earlier the French Wars of Religion, with their intermittent blips of peace. My excellent colleague Brian Sandberg of NIU (a brilliant historian of violence) recently pointed out to me that France during the Catholic-Protestant religious wars was about 10% Protestant, somewhat comparable to the African American population of the USA today which is around 13%. A striking comparison, though with stark differences. In particular, France’s Protestant/Calvinist population fell disproportionately in the wealthy, politically-empowered aristocratic class (comprising 30% of the ruling class), in contrast with African Americans today who fall disproportionately in the poorer, politically-disempowered classes. These similarities and differences make it very fruitful to look at the mechanisms of civil violence in 16th and 17th century France (how outbreaks of violence started, how they ended, who against whom) to help us understand the similar-yet-different ways civil violence might operate around us now. That kind of comparison is, in my view, Great Forces history at its most fruitful. (You can read more by Brian Sandberg on this issue in his book, on his blog, and on the Center for the Study of Religious Violence blog; more citations at the end of this article.)
But are we all, then, helpless water droplets, with no power beyond our infinitesimal contribution to the tidal forces of our history? Is there room for human agency?
History departments also have biographers, and intellectual historians, and micro-historians, who churn out brilliant histories of how one town, one woman, one invention, one idea reshaped our world. Readers have seen me do this here on Ex Urbe, describing how Beccaria persuaded Europe to discontinue torture, how Petrarch sparked the Renaissance, how Machiavelli gave us so much. Histories of agents, of people who changed the world. Such histories are absolutely true — just as the Great Forces histories are — but if Great Forces histories tell us we are helpless droplets in a great wave, these histories give us hope that human agency, our power to act meaningfully upon our world, is real. I am quite certain that one of the causes of the explosive response to the Hamilton musical right now is its firm, optimistic message that, yes, individuals can, and in fact did, reshape this world — and so can we.
This kind of history, inspiring as it is, is also dangerous. The antiquated/old-fashioned/bad version of this kind of history is Great Man history, the model epitomized by Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (a gorgeous read) which presents humanity as a kind of inert but rich medium, like agar ready for a bacterial culture. Onto this great and ready stage, Nature (or God or Providence) periodically sends a Great Man, a leader, inventor, revolutionary, firebrand, who makes empires rise, or fall, or leads us out of the black of ignorance. Great Man history is very prone to erasing everyone outside a narrow elite, erasing women, erasing the negative consequences of the actions of Great Men, justifying atrocities as the collateral damage of greatness, and other problems which I hope are familiar to my readers.
But when done well, histories of human agency are valuable. Are true. Are hope.
So if Great Forces history is correct, and useful, and Human Agency history is also correct, and useful… how do we balance that? They are, after all, contradictory.
Part 5: The Papal Election of 2016
Every year in my Italian Renaissance class, here at the University of Chicago, I run a simulation of a Renaissance papal election, circa 1490-1500. Each student is a different participant in the process, and they negotiate, form coalitions, and, eventually, elect a pope. And then they have a war, and destroy some chunk of Europe. Each student receives a packet describing that students’ character’s goals, background, personality, allies and enemies, and a packet of resources, cards representing money, titles, treasures, armies, nieces and nephews one can marry off, contracts one can sign, artists or scholars one can use to boost one’s influence, or trade to others as commodities: “I’ll give you Leonardo if you send three armies to guard my city from the French.”
Some students in the simulation play powerful Cardinals wielding vast economic resources and power networks, with clients and subordinates, complicated political agendas, and a strong shot at the papacy. Others are minor Cardinals, with debts, vulnerabilities, short-term needs to some personal crisis in their home cities, or long-term hopes of rising on the coattails of others and perhaps being elected three or four popes from now. Others, locked in a secret chamber in the basement, are the Crowned Heads of Europe — the King of France, the Queen of Castile, the Holy Roman Emperor — who smuggle secret orders (text messages) to their agents in the conclave, attempting to forge alliances with Italian powers, and gain influence over the papacy so they can use Church power to strengthen their plans to launch invasions or lay claim to distant thrones. And others are not Cardinals at all but functionaries who count the votes, distribute the food, the guard who keeps watch, the choir director who entertains the churchmen locked in the Sistine, who have no votes but can hear, and watch, and whisper.
There are many aspects to this simulation, which I may someday to discuss here at greater length (for now you can read a bit about it on our History Department blog), but for the moment I just want to talk about the outcomes, and what structures the outcomes. I designed this simulation not to have any pre-set outcome. I looked into the period as best I could, and gave each historical figure the resources and goals that I felt accurately reflected that person’s real historical resources and actions. I also intentionally moved some characters in time, including some Cardinals and political issues which do not quite overlap with each other, in order to make this an alternate history, not a mechanical reconstruction, so that students who already knew what happened to Italy in this period would know they couldn’t have the “correct” outcome even if they tried, which frees everyone to pursue goals, not “correct” choices, and to genuinely explore the range of what could happen without being too locked in to what did. I set up the tensions and the actors to simulate what I felt the situation was when the election begin, then left it free to flow.
I have now run the simulation four times. Each time some outcomes are similar, similar enough that they are clearly locked in by the greater political webs and economic forces. The same few powerful Cardinals are always leading candidates for the throne. There is usually also a wildcard candidate, someone who has never before been one of the top contenders, but circumstances bring a coalition together. And, usually, perhaps inevitably, a juggernaut wins, one of the Cardinals who began with a strong power-base, but it’s usually very, very close. And the efforts of the wildcard candidate, and the coalition that formed around that wildcard, always have a powerful effect on the new pope’s policies and first actions, who’s in the inner circle and who’s out, what opposition parties form, and that determines which city-states rise and which city-states burn as Italy erupts in war.
And the war is Always. Totally. Different.
Because as the monarchies race to make alliances and team up against their enemies, they get pulled back-and-forth by the ricocheting consequences of small actions: a marriage, an insult, a bribe traded for a whisper, someone paying off someone else’s debts, someone taking a shine to a bright young thing. Sometimes France invades Spain. Sometimes France and Spain unite to invade the Holy Roman Empire. Sometimes England and Spain unite to keep the French out of Italy. Sometimes France and the Empire unite to keep Spain out of Italy. Once they made a giant pan-European peace treaty, with a set of marriage alliances which looked likely to permanently unify all four great Crowns, but it was shattered by the sudden assassination of a crown prince.
So when I tell people about this election, and they ask me “Does it always have the same outcome?” the answer is yes and no. Because the Great Forces always push the same way. The strong factions are strong. Money is power. Blood is thicker than promises. Virtue is manipulable. In the end, a bad man will be pope. And he will do bad things. The war is coming, and the land — some land somewhere — will burn. But the details are always different. A Cardinal needs to gather fourteen votes to get the throne, but it’s never the same fourteen votes, so it’s never the same fourteen people who get papal favor, whose agendas are strengthened, whose homelands prosper while their enemies fall. And I have never once seen a pope elected in this simulation who did not owe his victory, not only to those who voted, but to one or more of the humble functionaries, who repeated just the right whisper at just the right moment, and genuinely handed the throne to Monster A instead of Monster B. And from that functionary flow the consequences. There are always several kingmakers in the election, who often do more than the candidate himself to get him on the throne, but what they do, who they help, and which kingmaker ends up most favored, most influential, can change a small war in Genoa into a huge war in Burgundy, a union of thrones between France and England into another century of guns and steel, or determine which decrees the new pope signs. That sometimes matters more than whether war is in Burgundy or Genoa, since papal signatures resolve questions such as: Who gets the New World? Will there be another crusade? Will the Inquisition grow more tolerant or less toward new philosophies? Who gets to be King of Naples? These things are different every time, though shaped by the same forces.
Frequently the most explosive action is right after the pope is elected, after the Great Forces have thrust a bad man onto Saint Peter’s throne, and set the great and somber stage for war, often that’s the moment that I see human action do most. That’s when I get the after-midnight message on the day before the war begins: “Secret meeting. 9AM. Economics cafe. Make sure no one sees you. Sforza, Medici, D’Este, Dominicans. Borgia has the throne but he will not be master of Italy.” And together, these brave and haste-born allies, they… faicceed? Fail and succeed? They give it all they have: diplomacy, force, wealth, guile, all woven together. They strike. The bad pope rages, sends forces out to smite these enemies. The kings and great thrones take advantage, launch invasions. The armies clash. One of the rebel cities burns, but the other five survive, and Borgia (that year at least) is not Master of Italy.
We feel it, the students as myself, coming out of the simulation. The Great Forces were real, and were unstoppable. The dam was about to break. No one could stop it. But the human agents — even the tiniest junior clerk who does the paperwork — the human agents shaped what happened, and every action had its consequences, imperfect, entwined, but real. The dam was about to break, but every person there got to dig a channel to try to direct the waters once they flowed, and that is what determined the real shape of the flood, its path, its damage. No one controlled what happened, and no one could predict what happened, but those who worked hard and dug their channels, most of them succeeded in diverting most of the damage, achieving many of their goals, preventing the worst. Not all, but most.
And what I see in the simulation I also see over and over in real historical sources.
This is how both kinds of history are true. There are Great Forces. Economics, class, wealth gaps, prosperity, stagnation, these Great Forces make particular historical moments ripe for change, ripe for war, ripe for wealth, ripe for crisis, ripe for healing, ripe for peace. But individuals also have real agency, and our actions determine the actual consequences of these Great Forces as they reshape our world. We have to understand both, and study both, and act on the world now remembering that both are real.
So, can human beings control progress? Yes and no.
Part 6: Ways to Talk About Progress in the 21st Century
Few things have taught me more about the world than keeping a fish tank.
You get some new fish, put them in your fish tank, everything’s fine. You get some more new fish, the next morning one of them has killed almost all the others. Another time you get a new fish and it’s all gaspy and pumping its gills desperately, because it’s from alkeline waters and your tank is too acidic for it. So you put in a little pH adjusting powder and… all the other fish get sick from the Ammonia that releases and die. Another time you get a new fish and it’s sick! So you put fish antibiotics in the water, aaaand… they kill all the symbiotic bacteria in your filter system and the water gets filled with rotting bacteria, and the fish die. Another time you do absolutely nothing, and the fish die.
What’s happening? The same thing that happened in the first two centuries after Francis Bacon, when the science was learning tons, but achieving little that actually improved daily life. The system is more complex than it seems. A change which achieves its intended purpose also throws out-of-whack vital forces you did not realize were connected to it. The acidity buffer in the fish tank increases the nutrients in the water, which causes an algae bloom, which uses up the oxygen and suffocates the catfish. The marriage alliance between Milan and Ferrara makes Venice friends with Milan, which makes Venice’s rival Genoa side with Spain, which makes Spain reluctant to anger Portugal, which makes them agree to a marriage alliance, and then Spain is out of princesses and can’t marry the Prince of Wales, and the next thing you know there are soldiers from Scotland attacking Bologna. A seventeenth-century surgeon realizes that cataracts are caused by something white and opaque appearing at the front of the eye so removes it, not yet understanding that it’s the lens and you really need it.
So when I hear people ask “Has social progress has failed?” or “Has liberalism failed?” or “Has the Civil Rights Movement failed?” my zoomed-in self, my scared self, the self living in this crisis feels afraid and uncertain, but my zoomed-out self, my historian self answers very easily. No. These movements have done wonders, achieved tons! But they have also done what all movements do in a dynamic historical system: they have had large, complicated consequences. They have added something to the fish tank. Because the same Enlightenment impulse to make a better, more rational world, where everyone would have education and equal political empowerment BOTH caused the brutalities of the Belgian Congo AND gave me the vote. And that’s the sort of thing historians look at, all day.
But if the consequences of our actions are completely unpredictable, would it be better to say that change is real but progress controlled by humans is just an idea which turned out to be wrong? No. I say no. Because I gradually got better at understanding the fish tank. Because the doctors gradually figured out how the eye really does function. Because some of our civil rights have come by blood and war, and others have come through negotiation and agreement. Because we as humans are gradually learning more about how our world is interconnected, and how we can take action within that interconnected system. And by doing so we really have achieve some of what Francis Bacon and his followers waited for through those long centuries: we have made the next generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own. Not smoothly, and not quickly, but actually. Because, in my mock papal election, the dam did break, but those students who worked hard to dig their channels did direct the flood, and most of them managed to achieve some of what they aimed at, though they always caused some other effects too.
Is it still blowing up in our faces?
Is it going to keep blowing up in our faces, over and over?
Is it going to blow up so much, sometimes, that it doesn’t seem like it’s actually any better?
Is that still progress?
Because there was a baby in the bathwater of Whig history. If we work hard at it, we can find metrics for comparing times and places which don’t privilege particular ideologies. Metrics like infant mortality. Metrics like malnutrition. Metrics like the frequency of massacres. We can even find metrics for social progress which don’t irrevocably privilege a particular Western value system. One of my favorite social progress metrics is: “What portion of the population of this society can be murdered by a different portion of the population and have the murderer suffer no meaningful consequences?” The answer, for America in 2017, is not 0%. But it’s also not 90%. That number has gone down, and is now far below the geohistorical norm. That is progress. That, and infant mortality, and the conquest of smallpox. These are genuine improvements to the human condition, of the sort that Bacon and his followers believed would come if they kept working to learn the causes and secret motions of things. And they were right. While Whig history privileges a very narrow set of values, metrics which track things like infant mortality, or murder with impunity, still privilege particular values — life, justice, equality — but aim to be compatible with as many different cultures, and even time periods, as possible. They are metrics which stranded time travelers would find it fairly easy to explain, no matter where they were dumped in Earth’s broad timeline. At least that’s our aim. And such metrics are the best tool we have at present to make the comparisons, and have the discussions about progress, that we need to have to grapple with our changing world.
Because progress is both a concept and a phenomenon.
The concept is the hope that collective human effort can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than the previous generation’s. That concept has itself become a mighty force shaping the human experience, like communism, iron, or the wheel. It is valuable thing to look at the effects that concept has had, to talk about how some have been destructive and others constructive, and to study, from a zoomed-out perspective, the consequences, successes, and failures of different movements or individuals who have acted in the name of progress.
The phenomenon is also real. My own personal assessment of it is just that, a personal assessment, with no authority beyond some years spent studying history. I hope to keep reexamining and improving this assessment all the days of my life. But here at the beginning of 2017 I would say this:
Progress is not inevitable, but it is happening.
It is not transparent, but it is visible.
It is not safe, but it is beneficial.
It is not linear, but it is directional.
It is not controllable, but it is us. In fact, it is nothing but us.
Progress is also natural, in my view, not in the sense that it will inevitably triumph over its doomed opposition, but in the sense that the human animal is part of nature, so the Declaration of the Rights of Man is as natural as a bird’s nest or a beaver dam. There is no teleology, no inevitable correct ending locked in from time immemorial. But I personally think there is a certain outcome to progress, gradual but certain: the decrease of pain in the human condition over time. Because there is so much desire in this world to make a better one. Bacon was right that we ache for it. And the real measurable changes we have made show that he was also right that we can use Reason and collective effort to meet our desires, even if the process is agonizingly slow, imperfect, and dangerous. But we know now how to go about learning the causes and secret motions of things. And how to use that knowledge.
We are also learning to understand the accidental negative consequences of progress, looking out for them, mitigating them, preventing them, creating safety nets. We’re getting better at it. Slowly, but we are.
Zooming back in hurts. It’s easy to say “the French Wars of Religion” and erase the little blips of peace, but it’s hard to feel fear and pain, or watch a friend feel fear and pain. Sometimes I hear people say they think that things today are worse than they’ve ever been, especially the hate, or the race relations in the USA, that they’re worse now than ever. That we’ve made no progress, quite the opposite. Similarly, I think a person who grew up during one of the peaceful pauses in the French Wars of Religion might say, when the violence restarted, that the wars were worse now than they had ever been, and farther than ever from real peace. They aren’t actually worse now. They genuinely were worse before. But they are really, really bad right now, and it does really, really hurt.
The slowness of social progress is painful, I think especially because it’s the aspect of progress that seemed it would come fastest. During that first century, when Bacon’s followers were waiting in maddening impatience for their better medical knowledge to result in any actual increase in their ability to save lives, social progress was already working wonders. The Enlightenment did extend franchise, end torture on an entire continent, achieved much, and had this great, heady, explosive feeling of victory and momentum. It seemed like social progress was already half-way-done before tech even got started. But Charles Babbage kicked off programmable computing in 1833 and now my pocket contains 100x the computing power needed to get Apollo XI to the Moon, so why, if Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen in 1791, do we still not have equal pay?
Because society is a very complicated fish tank. Because we still have a lot to learn about the causes and secret motions of society.
But if there is a dam right now, ready to break and usher in a change, Great Forces are still shaped by human action. Our action.
Studying history has proved to me, over and over, that things used to be worse. That they are better now. Progress is real. That’s a consolation, but a hollow one while we’re still here facing the pain. What fills its hollowness, for me at least, is remembering that secret meeting in the Economics cafe, that hasty plan, diplomacy, quick action — not a second chance after the disaster, but a next chance. And a next. And a next, to take actions that really did achieve things, even if not everything. Human action combining with the flood is not powerlessness. And that’s how I think progress really works.
Hello, all. Deadlines, page proofs, preparing for tenure, and an extra heavy autumn teaching load with classrooms full of enthusiastic-and-therefore-time-consuming students have continued to keep me too busy for another skepticism essay, but here for your enjoyment (and with some help from the excellent Jo Walton who’s wonderful at hunting down saint pictures for me) is a new addition to my Spot the Saint Series, on how to recognize saints in art (click here to start the series from the beginning).
Today: more Dominicans.
As we all recall, the key to recognizing Dominicans in art is that they look like penguins. (Black mantle over white robe – black wings, white belly.) Dominicans are generally scholar monks, dedicated to the idea that the best way to reach Heaven is through knowledge, reason and study. They are associated with Spain, through their founder Saint Dominic, and were particularly prominent at the University of Paris. For many years the primary theological adviser to the pope (called the Master of the Sacred Palace) was always a Dominican, and when the Roman Inquisition started kicking into high gear in response to the printing press and the Reformation, the Dominicans were in charge of it. If you are familiar with the Jesuits, the Dominicans did a lot of the things the Jesuits would start to do in later periods.
In addition to Dominic, Thomas Aquinas and Peter Martyr, there are three other Dominican saints who show up frequently in Renaissance art, or at least in Florentine art. They are St. Antoninus, St Catherine and Siena, and St Vincent Ferrer.
St. Catherine of Siena
Common attributes: Nun in Dominican robes, crown of thorns, lily
Occasional attributes: stigmata, book, model church, rose(s)
Patron saint of: Nurses, the sick, women tempted by lust, people mocked for their faith
Patron of places: Italy, Europe (yeah, she’s a big deal…)
Feast days: April 29-30
Most often depicted: Looking otherworldly & contemplative, marrying Christ, giving alms to the poor
Relics: body in Santa Maria sopra Miernva in Rome, head in Siena
Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) is one of the two patron saints of Italy, along with St Francis. In 1970 she was one of the first two woman ever to be named a Doctor of the Church (along with Saint Teresa of Ávila).
Catherine was born immediately before the Black Death, the twenty-third child in her family. It was a poor family, and she received no education, and did not learn to read until quite late. Growing, up she had every attribute of a classic un-learned female mystic. As a girl she had visions, and conversations with Christ, St Dominic, and the Virgin Mary. She refused to marry, but also refused to retreat into a cloistered life within a monastery, since she wanted to preach and travel, as male Dominicans did. At the age of twenty-one, she went through a mystic marriage with Christ, where he gave her his foreskin as a wedding ring — it was invisible to other people. Much like Francis of Assisi, she fasted almost constantly, and performed other extreme mortification of the flesh including drinking pus from the sick in hospitals. She also developed stigmata like Saint Francis, though some reports say they were invisible. Given how hard Catherine was on her body, it is no surprise that she only lived to be thirty-three.
What made Catherine an ecclesiastical superstar, differentiating her from scores of similar female mystics who were popular in their day but remained only minor local figures, was that in the later part of her (not very long) life she began to transition from a mystic to a theologian. Mysticism was one of few paths to respect and authority that were open to women within Medieval Christianity. A religious vocation for a woman would traditionally have led to a cloistered life (as Saint Francis prescribed for Claire of Assisi) but Catherine rejected this. She chose instead to join the Dominican Tertiaries, an order of lay nuns created for widows who wanted to have a spiritual life while continuing to live with their families to care for children and family fortunes. Catherine was the first non-widow to join the order (over much protest), and thus granted a unique new status as a nun without a convent, and a spiritual woman without a place or superior to anchor her. This let Catherine wander widely to do good works and preach. Her mysticism and reports of visions, and her frequent transports into dramatic ecstasy, earned her great fame, so people crowded to see her wherever she went, even when her words began to sound less like mysticism and more like serious scholarly theology. Her ideas were very different and substantially more penetrable than the learned, Thomist, Aristotelian content of many sermons. She was taught to read by the Tertiaries when she became one, and the Dominicans assigned a scribe to follow her around and write down everything she said. At first this simply produced accounts of her ecstatic visions, but over time she began to dictate more polished and serious works, and letters to people in many corners of politics. She even served as Florence’s ambassador to the Avignon papacy for a time. When she turned thirty, she learned to write, and helped to edit and polish her corpus, which includes nearly four hundred letters, a dialogue, and some prayers. This constituted the first substantial body of theological writing by a woman of the Renaissance (though there had certainly been Medieval female theologians such as Hildegard of Bingen), and the first written theology ever by a woman from such a poor background who would not normally have had access to education.
Before this starts to sound too progressive, Catherine of Siena never stopped being a traditional mystic, having visions, ecstasy etc., and it was absolutely because of her status as a mystic that everyone (the Dominicans, Florence, Rome) started to care about her. Mysticism was a traditional path which Catherine never left, though she did add something new to it, which women generally had not done before, through her preaching and written works. It is really in the posthumous reception of her work that the transition becomes more significant. Over the centuries since Catherine’s life, people in the Catholic Church and in the West in general have come to care more and more about education and especially education for women, and less and less about mysticism. Society’s taste in saints has changed, and as it changed the many dozens of female mystics came to fit it less and less, while Catherine-the-groundbreaking-theologian came to fit it more and more. Hence the expansion of her cult over the past centuries while many other saints’ cults have diminished, and her elevation to the prestigious positions of Patroness of Europe, Patroness of Italy alongside Francis whose life hers modeled so much, and in 1970 Doctor of the Church.
Catherine died in Rome at the age of thirty-three, after a stroke probably caused by what would now be called anorexia. Her body was immediately put on display in the Dominican headquarters church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and began to be venerated there even though she would not be canonized for another 80 years.
This kind of sudden veneration of a non-canonized body was really not allowed, and happened a lot in more peripheral towns where Rome had little control, so the fact that it happened in Rome itself was quite remarkable.
Her head was stolen almost immediately, and smuggled back to Siena, where it was encased in a bronze bust, which was honored in a parade which Catherine’s (very tired) mother attended.
Catherine was canonized in 1461 by Pius II, who was himself from Siena, so he had strong personal reasons to encourage the veneration of this great celebrity who would bring honor and pilgrims to his hometown. He was also a scholar and theologian himself, so his enthusiasm for Catherine was certainly motivated by sincerity as well as hometown pride.
Siena’s excitement about Catherine is overwhelming to this day.
One time I was visiting Siena to see a manuscript, and got to chatting with the taxi driver, who told me I should visit Catherine’s head while I was in town. I told him I had just visited her body in Rome. He became very quiet for a moment, and then said very seriously, “The head is the important part.”
In art Catherine can most easily be spotted as a female Dominican, sometimes balancing a female Franciscan, who will be St Clare. (If there’s a female Benedictine, it’s usually St Scholastica.) She often has a lily, representing her chastity and connecting her to Saint Dominic who also holds one. In later art, 17th century and on, she pretty consistently has a crown of thorns. In some early art she was depicted with stigmata, but the Franciscans protested, and got the Church to rule that only Francis may be depicted with stigmata, so any images of Catherine with stigmata are technically heretical. Sometimes Catherine wears a starry headscarf (especially in paintings by Fra Angelico), which can lead her to be confused with the Virgin Mary. There are paintings of her visions, and of her mystical marriage. She is sometimes depicted holding a rose, reflecting a miracle that happened when her head was being smuggled out of Rome to Siena, and guards inspected the mysterious package as the thieves were leaving the gates of Rome, but when they looked in the bag they just saw a pile of roses instead of the head, so the head made it safely to Siena.
IMPORTANT: DO NOT confuse CATHERINE OF SIENA with CATHERINE OF ALEXANDRIA.
They have a lot in common, and are often depicted together, so the names can make it easy to mix them up. Both are virgin saints, and both had a mystic marriage with Christ, but Catherine of Alexandria is depicted having a mystic marriage with the INFANT Christ, while Catherine of Siena is usually depicted as marrying the ADULT Christ. In addition, Catherine of Alexandria has a wheel, a crown, a martyr’s palm, and Roman clothes, while Catherine of Siena has a nun’s habit, and a lily, and if she has a crown it’s thorns, rather than a queenly crown. Here they are together:
Though before you get too comfortable, they do sometimes reverse which Catherine marries the adult Christ and which marries the baby:
St. Antoninus of Florence
Common attributes: Dominican robe with white T-shaped sash with crosses on it across his shoulders (indicating that he is a bishop)
Occasional attributes: Bishop’s hat, bishop’s robes over Dominican habit
Patron saint of: Florentine Dominicans
Patron of places: The town of Moncalvo near Turin, + Florence
Feast days: May 2nd and 10th
Most often depicted: In Florence
Relics: Florence, San Marco
St Antoninus (1389-1459) is Florence’s own saint, the first Florentine to actually be made a saint since Saint Zenobius (d. 417 AD) which is a long time for Florence to wait, while their neighbors kept accumulating more and more: Saints Francis & Claire of Assisi, Saint Peter Martyr of Verona, Saint Antony of Padua, Saint Dominic buried in Bologna, Saints Bernardino and Catherine of Siena, etc.
Antoninus was the son of a Florentine notary. In 1405 he became a Dominican and joined a monastery in the small hill town of Fiesole, just outside Florence. At that time, there was only one large Dominican monastery in Florence, the one attached to Santa Maria Novella (now by the train station). The Dominican brotherhood at Santa Maria Novella had been founded in 1221 to celebrate a peace settlement between the Guelphs & Ghibellines (which lasted all of 30 seconds before civil war resumed…), but it was a somewhat peripheral location Franciscans at Santa Croce and the Benedictins at the Badia. Thus Antoninus aspired to found a larger Dominican congregation, somewhere within the heart of the city. Even though monastic life is supposed to be cloistered and separate, a central location would bring prestige and influence. His attention focused on a small 12th century monastery in the north end of the city, built originally for Vallombrosan monks but occupied at the time by a small community of Benedictines, who were content to sell the property for the right price.
To muster the funds to buy the property and replace the cramped 12th century complex with a grand Renaissance one, Antoninus turned to his good friend Cosimo de Medici, who, in the first decades of the 1400s, was in the process of advancing from simply having a lot of money to controlling all of Florence with his money. Cosimo was very willing to spend on public works projects in general–both because it won the good will of the people and because he was worried about going to Hell for usury–and he was especially happy to spend on humanist and scholarly projects such as libraries, and setting up a community of scholar-monks to use said libraries. Antoninus extracted a lot of money from Cosimo over the years, not just for rebuilding and decorating San Marco, but for feeding and clothing the poor. Cosimo joked that it didn’t matter how much he gave, he could never close the books, he’d always be in God’s debt.
When Cosimo de’ Medici rebuilt the monastery for the Dominicans in 1433, Antoninus became the first prior of San Marco, and then became Archbishop of Florence in 1446. All archbishops of Florence in this period went through a mystical marriage with the Abbess of S. Pier Maggiore, which included a full wedding ceremony in the Duomo and spending a night in a special bed in the convent. Oddly enough, this incident, which is on record, does not appear in the great fresco cycle of Saint Antoninus’s life and miracles that decorates one of the courtyards in San Marco.
As well as feeding the poor, Antoninus went among them to give them last rites when they had the plague, which was a big deal. So many priests had refused to put their own lives at risk doing this in the Great Plague of 1348 that the pope at the time (Clement VI, one of the Avignon popes) granted an indulgence to everyone who died of it, meaning they’d go straight to heaven, which was probably the largest indulgence ever granted, as that plague killed a third of Europe.
While we tend to think of the Black Death sweeping through in 1348 and then leaving again, it was actually endemic in Europe until the 18th century, and fresh outbreaks were frequent in Italy throughout the Renaissance. There was a bad outbreak in Antoninus’s time, not as deadly since everyone alive in the 1420s was the child of somone who had resisted the 1348 outbreak so many had stronger immune systems (yay natural selection), but most people including priests still preferred not to have contact with the sufferers, so his ministration was exceptional.
Antoninus disapproved of gambling, cheating and usury. He didn’t have a dramatic life or dramatic miracles, but he was famous for living a simple and austere life even after he became famous and influential. He was also a great scholar and advocate of Church reform (which made his works popular during the Reformation and Counterreformation), not to mention incredibly popular with ordinary Florentines. As soon as Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici i.e. Cosimo de Medici’s great grandson) was firmly seated on the Throne of St. Peter, he began the process of pushing for Antoninus’s canonization, but it was not completed until the (very brief) reign of Leo’s successor Adrian VI.
There’s an entire fresco-cycle running around the top of the first courtyard of San Marco devoted to Antoninus’s life of genuinely impressive public works and fairly unimpressive miracles. The most fun miracle is the time they had lost the key to a chest, and then he had a fish for dinner and the key miraculously turned up in the fish. He also performed some exciting exorcisms.
You very seldom see Saint Antoninus represented outside Florence — or even very far from San Marco, so he is usually recognizable by context. Are you in Florence, or looking at Florentine art? If so, that Dominican with a bishop’s white T-shaped sash is pretty certainly Antoninus. In general he is differentiated from other major Dominican saints by the white sash.
St. Vincent Ferrer
Common attributes: Dominican robes, flame.
Occasional attributes: Book, wings or winged cherubs, trumpet.
Patron saint of: plumbers, construction workers
Patron of places: Vannes (in Brittany), Valencia somewhat
Feast days: April 5
Most often depicted: With other Dominicans
Relics: Vannes Cathedral
St Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419) was born in Valencia in Spain. He became a Dominican very young, and spent his life travelling around Europe preaching and converting Cathars and Jews. He was canonized by Pope Calixtus III (Alfons de Borja i.e. Rodrigo Borgia’s uncle), who himself came from Valencia — yes another hometown canonization.
Vincent Ferrer was a contemporary of Catherine of Siena, and the two of them ended up on opposite sides of the Western Schism. For those who need a refresher, in 1305, after a big fight between Pope Boniface VIII and the King of France over who got to appoint French bishops, a rough and frightened papal conclave elected a French pope, Clement V, who stayed in Avignon, and for the next several popes the papacy remained in Avignon, under the control of France. This ended when Pope Gregory XI returned from Avignon to Rome in 1377 and then died in 1378, but upon his death Rome elected one new pope (Urban VI) and Avignon elected another (Clement VII), and when these died yet more rival popes were appointed, until the whole mess was finally solved by the Council of Constance in 1416 (a long time to wait to know who’s pope!) During the controversy, Vincent Ferrer was a strong and loyal supporter of the Avignon popes (note that Avignon is quite close to Valencia), while Catherine of Siena supported the Roman popes, and was sent to argue for them as Florence’s ambassador (unsuccessfully but her work probably helped set the stage for later embassies). Thus the fact that both Vincent and Catherine were eventually canonized shows how spread out and complex the Dominican order was, and how it was often part of many different Church movements at once, even contradictory ones: pro-Spanish/French v. pro-Italian, pro-scholarly v. pro-mystic, and of course how, later on, it could at the same time be a great promoter of intellectual study and innovation and also run the Inquisition.
In art, at least outside Valencia and Vannes, Vinecnt Ferrer is generally just an extra Dominican. His most common attribute is a tongue of flame, either on his head or in his hand, though Antony of Padua sometimes has the same, as do apostles and evangelists, so make sure to look for the penguin robes before reaching for Vincent Ferrer as an identification. If Dominic and Thomas Aquinas and Peter Martyr are accounted for and there’s an extra one, even without attributes, it usually turns out to be Vinecnt Ferrer. So if you’re looking at a painting and there’s another male penguin monk who doesn’t he have a lily and a star, isn’t chubby, doesn’t have the ability to interpret Aristotle blazing from his chest like the son, and doesn’t he have a knife in his head or gore dripping down his shoulders, then he’s probably Vincent Ferrer. There’s a slight possibility he may be St Raymond of Penafort or St Hyacinth of Poland, higher if the picture is from Spain or Poland. Albertus Magnus is another possibility, but he is depicted rarely enough that he generally seems to get labelled.
Spot the Saint Mini-Quiz
And now, for the first time in a long time, your spot-the-saint review quiz. If you review earlier Spot the Saint posts, you should be able to identify all these figures except the man all the way on the right, with a harp and a crown (though those of you with biblical knowledge can hopefully recognize him. Hint: he’s not a saint):
The moderately peculiar title may be intended to illuminate an inchoate suspicion that this tale may be all about how lightning precedes comeuppance (as always) but stops short of the thunder: Too Like the Lightning seems to be how two hundred years of an immensely complex and constantly negotiated peace are about to explode in an immense light show, leaving tatters, but does not tell us anything about the thump and consequence of landing. Its large loquacious cast—each member of which is significantly involved in maintaining a utopia responsible for the weal of ten billion souls—seems by the end of this volume to be running out of words: illustrated men and women about to char. You can almost feel the electricity.
This isn’t so much a review as a long essay. There have also been reviews on NPR, in the Chicago Tribune, and all over, as well as lots of interviews, including Scientific American. There are long lists of guest posts, interviews, and interesting reviews here.
Second water, St Gregory, and temperance: The Gelato Atlas has been updated to include not only Gelateria della Passera, the great new place Ada spotted from fifteen feet away when it wasn’t even open — so exciting to have good gelato in the Oltrarno! — but gelato other people have found in Finland, Rome, the USA and other exotic locations.
Fourth, earth, St Jerome, and patience (thank you for yours!) — after Readercon, Ada will be doing three events in bookstores in the north-eastern US. She’ll be reading from Too Like the Lightning, and I’ll be there too, reading from my new novel Necessity. We’ll also be discussing the books, answering questions, and signing books.
Off to Italy again. This seems like a good time to share a link to a video of an illustrated talk Ada gave at the Lumen Christi institute in Chicago in February. It’s a fascinating overview of the place of San Marco in Florence, with lots of excellent pictures. It’s like an audio version of an Ex Urbe post, with Fra Angelico, the meaning of blue, the Magi, the Medici, Savonarola, confraternities, and the complexities of Renaissance religious and artistic patronage.
And here’s one of the pictures mentioned but not shown in the presentation, a nine panel illustration by Filippo Dolcaiati “The History of Antonio Rinaldeschi.” It depicts the real historical fate of Rinaldeschi, who became drunk while gambling and threw manure at an icon of the Virgin Mary. A fascinating incident for demonstrating the functions of confraternities, and for demonstrating how seriously the people of Florence took the protection offered by saints and icons.
The long wait is over at last, and Too Like the Lightning came out yesterday! This is just a simple little links round-up post by Jo. Too Like the Lightning is available right now as a hardback book and as an e-book in multiple formats, and the audiobook was also just released — and here’s the audiobook cover, which makes me think we’re very lucky indeed with the main cover.
First, unrelated to the book, on Lawrence Schoen’s Eating Authors Ada has an essay about “Her Favorite Ever Meal”which, naturally, was in Florence…
Meanwhile Ada’s been guest blogging about it all over:
Hello, friends & readers. This is a quick update to share links to a couple short essays I’ve written for other blogs.
My first science fiction novel Too Like the Lightning comes out very soon now, May 10th! Initial reviews and reactions have been extremely enthusiastic, and these days Twitter sometimes feels like a surreal dream, with authors I’ve admired deeply for years gushing over… me? (Karl Schroeder: “most exciting SF future I’ve encountered in years.” Ken Liu: “reflective, analytical, smart, beautiful.” Max Gladstone: “I’m kind of in love with this book.” Fran Wilde: “Too Like the Lightning = AMAZEBALLS! GET! READ!”)
In honor of the occasion (and to help pre-orders & first week sales which can do so much for a new author!) I’ve been asked to write a bunch of short guest blog pieces which I hope you’ll enjoy. You can also read the first four chapters up on Tor.com.
On SF Signal I have talked “Middle Future Science Fiction” i.e. SF set later than near future but while the majority of human culture is still on Earth, and why I think this is an exciting and new space for speculative fiction. Take-home quote: “We have many ways to talk about the End of History, so many that talking about the Future of History is now the novelty.”
Ten or so more guest blog pieces will be going up over the next weeks, many of which I’m very proud of, and I’ll gather and post links here. Meanwhile reviews on Barnes & Noble, Fantasy Literature and Romantic Times (<=best ever plot summary!) do a much better job describing the book than I can manage.
Here on Ex Urbe, with readers who know me well through my essays and travels, I can describe it a different way. I’ve poured myself into this book. This is the real thing, the centerpiece. You’ve seen my essays here. You’ve seen my love of craftsmanship, and rhetoric, of playful structures and framing twists, describing a stick in water as the “antagonist” or suddenly letting Descartes stray into a dialog with Socrates. You’ve also seen the depth of my empathy, my Machiavelli series which so many readers have written in to say moved them to tears, and moved me to tears too as I wrote it. I love essay writing, and history writing, but every bit of skill I have at it, every hour I’ve put in, I’ve put in for the novels. “Writing is a long apprenticeship.” That was the best and most important piece of advice I got from my favorite writing professor when I started college. He was right, and I took him seriously, wrote every morning for two hours before breakfast, did extra drafts beyond what class required, spent my summers and my breaks taking more writing classes. Hours and hours and hours. I love writing nonfiction, and I love writing essays, but it was these stories, the ones I wanted to tell in the novels which kept the fire burning through a long, long apprenticeship. Too Like the Lightning isn’t an easy book and it’s not for everyone. It takes a lot of concentration, reading with your brain at your best. It takes skill at reading genre fiction, at picking out the puzzle pieces of world building and piecing them together, which can be difficult if you aren’t used to reading in the genre. It takes patience as you watch very complicated things play out as fast as I could make them when you need to know so much to understand. It takes trust as the narrator and narrative take twists or show idiosyncrasies whose true purpose may not be clear until the end (or until the next book, which comes in December). I hate spoilers, and hate recommendations that give half the story away, and believe strongly that the very best recommendation is simply “You’ll like it, trust me” from a friend who knows me very well. So I’m not going to talk about the plot and themes and characters, since Romantic Times does that much that better than I can. I will just say that this book may be for you, if you like philosophy, and history, and challenging books that really stretch your mind, and new ideas about society and culture, and my essays here are a good sample. But you have to enjoy and be able to handle challenging world building. And above all you have to be willing to trust me, the author, that all the threads will come together, and that in the end the tapestry will be beautiful, the kind of tapestry I can only weave if you give me four books, 700,000 words, a lot more time and trust than I have with my essays here. I will absolutely keep writing essays for Ex Urbe (no worries there!), but if you have enjoyed them, then you may enjoy the real work they were practice for. It comes out in five days; hard to believe it’s real.
Meanwhile, the primary reason it’s been so very long since I wrote a proper Ex Urbe entry is simple: a fire at the end of February drove me from my home. Happily no family members (or books!) were harmed, but the complications of temporary quarters, construction and insurance have eaten the few hours research that already consumed by research and preparing for the book launch. I’m still struggling my way out from under the to-do mountain that has caused, but as I make my way out Ex Urbe is starting to get toward the top of the pile again, and I’m really, deeply looking forward to finishing the essay I did manage to start in February before fire became more than a metaphor. Meanwhile I’ll post here when new guest blog pieces go up. And I’ll try to write another little piece next week to share my feelings when the day comes. May 10th. Five days. So many, many years… five days!
Meanwhile, for general human edification, here are some photos of fascinating plants with cards explaining their interesting historic uses, which I got to see at the botanical gardens in Sydney Australia, where I was for a conference last month. (Did I mention I’ve been overwhelmingly busy?)
Second, due to a recent policy change in Italy’s national museums I was able to finally take literally thousands of photos of artifacts and spaces in museums that have been forbidden to cameras for years. I’ve started sharing the photos on Twitter (#historypix) so follow me on Twitter if you would enjoy random photos of cool historical artifacts twice a day.
Meanwhile I don’t yet have another full essay ready to post here, but I’m happy to say the reason is that I’m working away on the page proofs of Too Like the Lightning, the final editing step before the books go to press. I’ve even received a photo from my editor of the Advanced Release Copies for book reviewers sitting in a delicious little pile! It’s fun seeing how many different baby steps the book is taking on its long path to becoming real: cover art, page count, typography, physicality in many stages, first the pre-copy-edit Advanced Bound Manuscripts, then the post-copy-edit but pre-page-proof Advanced Release Copies, evolving toward the final hardcover transformation by transformation. My biggest point of suspense at this point is wondering how fat it will be, how heavy in the hand…
And now, a quick piece of history fun:
There is a dimly-lit hallway half way through the Vatican museum (after you’ve looked at 2,000 Roman marbles, 1,000 Etruscan vases and enough overwhelming architecture to make you start feeling slightly punchy) hung on the left-hand side with stunning tapestries of scenes from the life of Christ based on cartoons by Raphael. But on the right-hand side in the same hallway, largely ignored by the thousands of visitors who stumble through, is my favorite Renaissance tapestry cycle, a sequence of images of The Excessively Exciting Life of Pope Urban VIII. My best summary of these images is that, when I showed them to my excellent friend Jonathan (author of our What Color is Pluto? guest post) he scratched his chin and said, “I think the patronage system may have introduced some bias.” And it’s very true, these are an amazing example of Renaissance art whose sole purpose is excessive flattery of the patron, a genre common in all media: histories, biographies, dedications, sculptures, paintings, verses, and, in this case, thread.
These tapestries are fragile and quite faded, and the narrow hallway thronging with Raphael-admirers makes it awkward to get a good angle, but with much effort I think these capture the over-the-top absurdity which makes these tapestries such a delight. Urban VIII now is best known for engaging in unusually complicated military and political maneuvering, expanding and fortifying the papal territories, pushing fiercely against Hapsburg expansion into Italy, finishing the canonization of St. Ignatius of Loyola, persecuting Galileo, commissioning a lot of Bernini sculptures, and spending so much on military and artistic expenses that he got the papacy so head over heels in debt that the Roman people hated him, the Cardinals conspired to depose him (note: it usually takes a few high-profile murders and/or orgies to get them to do that, so this was a LOT of debt), and his successor was left spending 80% of the Vatican’s annual income on interest repayments alone. But let’s see what scenes from his life he himself wanted us to remember:
My favorite is the first: Angels and Muses descend from Heaven to attend the college graduation of young Maffeo Barberini (not yet pope Urban VIII) and give him a laurel crown. If all graduation ceremonies were this exciting, we’d never miss them! Also someone there has a Caduceus, some weird female version of Hermes? Hard to say. And look at the amazing fabric on the robe of the man overseeing the ceremony.
Second, Maffeo Barberini receives the Cardinal’s Hat, attended by an angel, while Pope Paul V who is giving him the hat points in a heavy-handed foreshadowing way to his own pope hat nearby. What could it mean?!
Next, the fateful election! Heavenly allegories of princely virtues come to watch as the wooden slips are counted and the vote counter is astonished by the dramatic result! Note how, propaganda aside, this is useful for showing us what the slips looked like.
In the one above I particularly like the guy who’s peering into the goblet to make absolutely sure no slips are stuck there:
On the other side of the same scene, our modest Urban VIII is so surprised to be elected he practically swoons! And even demands a recount, while the nice acolyte kneels before him with the (excessively heavy) papal tiara on a silver platter.
Now Urban’s adventures as pope! He breaks ground for new construction projects in Rome, attended by some floating cupid creature holding a book for the flying allegorical heart of the city:
He builds new fortresses to defend Rome:
He makes peace between allegorical ladies representing Rome and Etruria (the area right next to Rome: note, if there is strife between Rome and Etruria in the first place, things in Italy are VERY VERY BAD! But the tapestries aren’t going into that):
And finally, Urban VIII defends Rome from Famine and Plague by getting help from St. Peter, St. Paul, Athena, and St. Sebastian. Well done, your Holiness!
How about that for the exciting life of a late Renaissance pope? You get to hang out with lots of allegorical figures, and vaguely pagan deities as well as saints, and everyone around you is always gesturing gracefully! No matter they fought so hard for the papal tiara. Also, no bankers or moneylenders or interest repayment to be found!
More seriously, another century’s propaganda rarely makes it into our canon of what art is worth reproducing, teaching and discussing, but I often find this kind of artifact much more historically informative than most: we can learn details of clothing, spaces and items like how papers are folded, or what voting slips looked like. We can learn which acts a political figure wanted to be remembered for, what seemed important at the time, so different from what we remember. A tapestry of him canonizing St. Ignatius of Loyola would certainly be popular now, but in his day people cared more about immediate military matters, and he had no way to predict how important St. Ignatius would eventually become. Pieces like this are also a good way to remind ourselves that the Renaissance art we usually see on calendars and cell phone cases isn’t representative, it’s our own curated selection of that tiny venn diagram intersection of art that fits the tastes of BOTH then AND now. And a good reminder that we should always attend graduation ceremonies, since you never know when Angels and Muses might descend from Heaven to attend.
Separately, in case anyone missed it, I also had a shorter piece up on Tor.com on December 1st, an obituary honoring Japan’s Folklore Chronicler Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015), a great folktale collector, war historian and manga author. Even if you aren’t interested in manga/anime, I recommend glancing at it to learn about his powerful contributions to anthropology, folklore preservation, and post-WWII peace efforts. Meanwhile…
Too Much Shakespeare?
It’s been an odd experience, but I have been watching pretty-much no media that isn’t Shakespeare for 2 years. I’ve made exceptions for the kinds of ubiquitous media (i.e. Star Wars) which are bare minimums for keeping current in nerd culture, but between my transition to Chicago and looming novel revisions there hasn’t been time for anything else. It’s fascinating observing what that’s done to my brain, shifting my entertainment expectations. I’ve joked a couple times that, “Now when I try other TV it just isn’t as good as Shakespeare,” but it’s more complex than that, and there are certainly sections of Shakespeare–a bad, un-funny production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, or the second half of Timon of Athens–which do not shine in contrast with today’s best TV. I discuss most of my observations in my Tor essay, but my main observations are these:
First, people don’t say very much in current TV, at least in drama. Lots of screen time is devoted to vistas, establishing shots, standing there looking cool, and to gazing dramatically at one another. A giant, long-awaited confrontation or confession scene will still often only involve ten or fifteen lines of dialog at most, leaving my Shakespeare-saturated brain demanding, “Tell him more! Tell her more! Tell me more! Ask questions! Explain your reasoning! Say what you really think!” It’s amazing to me how many conflicts in the few TV dramas I have watched recently are caused by Character A facing Character B and announcing “I want X” and Character B responding, “I oppose X so now we’re enemies,” and the viewer knows the real reasons both characters want these things and that if Character A would just tell Character B her/his thought process they would reach a compromise, but they don’t because they don’t explain, and don’t ask. I think such scenes are aiming at sympathetic tragedy, the viewer realizing that all the strife to come is the result of a misunderstanding, and making it easy for the viewer to sympathize with both sides. Over and over, five minutes’ more conversation would mean no one has to die. With the exception of Othello, Hamlet and some moments in the comedies, Shakespeare’s characters generally explain their why in addition to their what, but Shakespeare then makes the conflicts insoluble all the way down, so the tragedy feels grand and fated, not just a product of accident and misunderstanding. An interesting shift in storytelling technique, and possibly in how we think about conflict. In general, though, it means that I feel I know the characters a lot less well in modern TV than I do in Shakespeare, where they have unpacked their thoughts at length. The silence and dramatic gazes are partly in service of giving the audience a chance to gaze at CG backgrounds and beautiful TV stars–not generally a goal in Shakespeare productions–but I wonder whether it also facilitates the practices of fan culture and fan fiction, defining the characters less well and leaving more of a blank slate for the viewer to imagine the details of personality and motivation, to make the character their own.
My second observation is this: Shakespeare’s Histories are so good! So so good! Even the ones people say aren’t very good are good! My Tor essay explains more, and how to get a hold of them, but I cannot overstate how good the (frustratingly hard to find) Jane Howell productions of Henry VI and Richard III are!
And since they are hard to get a hold of, I want to discuss a few aspects of the Jane Howell productions here, not going on about the acting (absolutely stunning!) or the script and plot of the plays themselves (how can these be considered among his weaker plays?!?!) but about the powerful staging and production choices of this unique performance of the three parts of Henry VI plus Richard III, the four consecutive plays performed and filmed (as they should be!) as a single unit.
How Great is Jane Howell’s Henry!
I talked in my essay about the Borgias about how sometimes historical TV can have a conflict between communication and accuracy, in which showing things precisely as they were won’t necessarily communicate successfully to the audience. Another impediment to accuracy is budget, at least in earlier decades when TV did not have the opulent effects and costume budgets that recent historical dramas have enjoyed. Working on a BBC budget in 1982-3, Jane Howell and her team absolutely understood the choice between accuracy and communication, and chose communication.
The costumes are not accurate in materials and construction, but are incredibly accurate in what they get across.
For the costumes of court, the patterns are period but the fabrics, instead of being budget-breaking silks and velvets, are over the top, layering brightly patterned floral upholstery-type fabrics one upon another in an overwhelming way-too-much mass of opulence. The effect is more effective at communicating than accurate period costume would be, since with accurate stuff we would sit back gazing, “Ooooh, pretty… I wish I lived in an era when people wore beautiful clothes,” but instead these costumes communicate a sharper message, “Wow, those are way too much, too opulent… this court life is too lavish and corrupt, it needs to change.” We feel the right things, the foreshadowing of instability and radical transformation, even if these costumes don’t belong in any history textbook.
For the armor, the production uses padded armor, almost like one wears for combat sports, brightly painted with the coats of arms of the different sides.
It makes it easy to keep people straight, and see at a glance which nobles are related to which other nobles (like the many cousins of the French royal house above), while keeping everything within budget. And the armor evolves over time, more complex helmets and metal studded surfaces coming in only in the final stages of the Wars of the Roses, invoking the real advances in armor technology that happened in those decades, more effectively than the real armor would since a modern eye is untrained in the subtleties of armor design.
The set too makes virtue of economy. The four films are shot on a single set, a large, colorful, wooden playground, like a kids’ play castle, with turrets, doorways, ladders, climbing nets and connecting bridges, all brightly painted, cheerful reds, yellows, blues. It makes the first battles feel intentionally light and playful, like children playing at knights and kings.
This sets up the viewer’s expectations of a “battle” as light and playful, as the first few conflicts have nothing but wrestling, or a little bit of stage blood smeared across a heroic cheek. But the Wars of the Roses are all about things getting worse, the violence escalating, the destruction mounting. The fourth battle has more blood, more victims. We see bodies. The fifth battle, the sixth, more bodies, gore smeared across young flesh, screams, fire. The violence is still just twenty actors on a wooden set but it feels viscerally more horrible because it escalated from something so light, and is thus more upsetting than many realistic high-budget battle scenes. And the set changes, or rather doesn’t changes. It gets bloodsmeared, smashed by invaders, charred, stained. And they don’t clean it. Scene by scene we watch England ruined:
Like the battles, because the set was so stylized to begin with, its transformation–the ruins and desolation–fells far more absolute and thus far more compelling than if we saw realistic battle effects on real countryside. England has been ruined by these selfish wars, economically, culturally, populations wiped out, and all the unspoken suffering of peasants and townsfolk is present in those charred and blackened sets without adding a word. And then when the wars are finally over, and there is peace, and Richard starts the conflict up again… the horror of it, war coming back again, is so heartbreaking.
Economy also becomes a virtue in–believe it or not–casting, as Jane Howell reuses actors in multiple roles, but not just for efficiency’s sake. She cultivates intertextuality, reusing actors as characters who echo, or ironically reverse, or otherwise connect to their other parts. Here’s one concise example: Henry VI Part 1 begins with three messengers arriving with bad news from France. First Messenger reports that Henry V’s conquests in France have suffered heavy losses, many cities taken by rebelling French, all because the nobility of England are divided into many factions, arguing with each other, unable to unite to send support and direction to the English forces in France. And this herald of the dire consequences of weak rule and factionalism is the actor who (seven hours later) will be Edward IV, the weak and imprudent son of York who will be thrust to the throne by this same factionalism and cause the worst of the civil wars because of his rashness. Then Second Messenger enters with more bad news from France, of enemies uniting, the various French powers drawing together on the far shore–and this actor will be York’s second son, Clarence, who will eventually be a linchpin of that deadly alliance of the French King with Margaret and Warwick which will such a terrible force against war-scarred England. Enter Third Messenger, to tell of a fierce battle between the French and the valiant English Lord Talbot, a small and unhandsome knight but terrifying in battle, who makes a fierce last stand against the overwhelming force, “Hundreds he sent to Hell, and none durst stand him;/ Here, there, and every where, enraged he flew:/ The French exclaim’d, the devil was in arms!” This messenger will eventually be Richard III, and here is describing his own hellish ferocity, and foretelling his own death, which–eleven hours later–precisely matches the details of this first description.
One last detail about the production which is
Henry VI Part 1 begins with the funeral of Henry V, and the Jane Howell version begins with a song (not in Shakespeare’s text) which is a prayer to the ghost of King Henry. The text is period, pre-Shakespeare in fact, probably dating from the reign of Edward IV or Richard III (see a slightly useful reference), and an amazing example of what I have talked about when discussing the Medieval concept of “Grace” and the court of Heaven, how saints were thought of as residents of a royal court, full of “Grace” which (from Latin, gratias) can be translated as “political influence” i.e. having the ear of the King (God/Christ) or Queen (Mary) and the ability to persuade them to help a poor petitioner, just as nobles could persuade earthly monarchs. Look at this text, how it seeks to remind ghostly Henry
Oh Gracious king, so full of virtue
The flower of knighthood, ne’er defiled
Now pray for us to Christ Jesu
And to his mother Mary mild.
In all thy works wast never wild
But full of grace and charity,
Merciful ever to man and child.
Now, sweet King Henry, pray for me.
Oh crowned king, with scepter in hand,
Most mighty conqueror I thee call,
For thou hast conquered, I understand,
A heavenly kingdom imperial,
Where joy aboundeth and grace perpetual,
In presence of the One In Three.
Now of thy grace make me a part,
And, sweet King Henry, pray for me.
Powerful. But even more powerful is the context Jane Howell places it in. This text is not a prayer to Henry V. It is a prayer to Henry VI. Best guess (I haven’t worked in depth on the sources) it would have been written by a supporter after Henry’s death, used secretly under his Yorkish successors, a prayer to the spirit of the famously pious, mild and charitable king, whose conquests are spiritual not Earthly, to be sung or chanted by a former supporter still trapped on the imperfect Earth. Jane Howell places the song at the beginning of Henry VI, foretelling the end, and has it sung by the actor who plays King Henry himself, who is thus singing his own dirge, addressed as a plea of help to his lost, heroic father. Of course, we who just watched the main Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV 1 & 2, Henry V) know that our roguish Prince Hal cannot be described by “in all thy works wast never wild”. This dirge is young King Henry VI’s prayer to the imagined spirit of the father he never knew, a hope for heavenly aid from a pious ghostly king which will not exist until he himself dies and becomes it. Amazing.
And ALL the acting is SO INCREDIBLY BRILLIANT. Especially Richard. And everyone else. And Richard.
Those are just my thoughts on the production, which I really cannot praise enough. For more general discussion of the Henriad itself (and ways to get to see it) see the Tor.com essay.
FYI sadly the easiest way (though it isn’t easy at all!) to get the Jane Howell productions is to buy the complete DVD boxset, hard to get anywhere but Amazon or from the BBC direct) but (if you’re in the US) it requires a Region Free DVD Player as well. Still, it’s a good price for 37 plays, and includes many other treasures including Jane Howell’s Titus Andronicus, and many other great productions and fantastic actors including Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren, Jonathan Pryce, Zoë Wanamaker, Robert Hardy and others, plus you get to see all the weird plays like Troilus & Cressida that no one puts on. (And Jack Birkett as Thersides is amazing!) Alternately, you can get the individual plays in a special educational-use region 1 DVD format for $39.99 each (alas) from Ambrose Video, an educational video supplier, but getting all four of the Jane Howell sequence costs practically as much as getting the full boxset and the region free DVD player, so you may as well get the box to enjoy the other 33 plays, unless your priority is to have a copy you can lend to friends who don’t have a special player. Jane Howell’s brilliant Richard III also appears in the $70 Region 1 BBC Shakespeare Histories boxset, along with the BBC Histories’ excellent Richard II and okay Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V, but the boxset contains only those five plays, skipping the three parts of Henry VI, clearly because the boxset was edited by Iago, who wants to keep us all from having nice things). Thus the most affordable way to have a full region 1 set is to get the Histories box for your two Richards, and the three Ambrose Video discs of Henry VI, which gives you all eight, though I recommend topping it off with (my recommended productions) the magnificent Globe Henry IV Part 1, Part 2, and Henry V, more lively and powerful than the ones in the Histories box.
Final note: Yes, I will give Descartes his day in the Skepticism series soon, I promise, just as soon as I’ve prepped my talk on “Renaissance Biographies of Classical Philosophers” and completed a few more work obligations. Happily the supply of hypothetical pastries is infinite.