Category Archives: Church History
The Great Bible is often seen as a monument of English reform – but could it also contain the first known example of political photoshopping in early modern England? Printed in 1538-9, it was to be purchased by every parish church in the realm. Its creation was overseen by Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. The Great Bible ushered in the English parish Bible and its large size and meticulous printing set the bar for centuries to come. Nowhere is its iconic appearance more evident than in a unique presentation copy made for the Tudor court. This copy was printed on vellum and hand-coloured by highly skilled illuminators.
I encountered this lavish copy while carrying out an in-depth study of the production and use of Bibles in late medieval and early modern England. Researchers have long known about the Great Bible and used its striking title page for illustration. But little or no scientific analysis has ever been carried out on it. So I asked Paola Ricciardi, scientist in residence at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, to help me with a new investigation which utilised the latest technology to study the Bible in forensic detail. The results blew us away.
Our analysis revealed a new – and hitherto unknown – plot by Cromwell to literally change the balance of power on the Bible’s front page, just one year before his execution for high treason. We plan to publish our research results in full later this year.
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As Lord Privy Seal and Vicegerent in Spirituals (Henry’s deputy in matters relating to the church), Cromwell was the most powerful man in Henry VIII’s court. Henry’s break from the Catholic Church and the dissolution of the monasteries became an opportunity for Cromwell to advance religious reform. For Cromwell, support for a vernacular Bible (translated into English for the general population) was linked with obedience to the King. But he had to counter a strong opposition and a substantial conservative faction in court and within the church. Henry’s support for religious reform was always limited. His stance on religion was influenced more by his political aims, rather than faith, so his support for a vernacular Bible was hesitant from the start.
Cromwell thought that the best way to ensure royal support was to produce a Bible worthy of royal patronage – both in its content and in its material grandeur. Such a Bible would combine Cromwell’s own evangelical leanings with the political aim of consolidating Henry’s control over the English church. Production began in Paris. English printers were simply not equipped to produce a book of the magnitude sought by Cromwell.
A letter to Cromwell from the production team in Paris dated June 23, 1538, reveals that two luxurious vellum copies of the Bible were being prepared. It reads: “We have here sent unto your lordship two examples, one in parchment, wherein we intend to print one for the King’s grace, and another for your lordship.”
Printed on parchment and meticulously hand-coloured, these copies have survived – one at the National Library of Wales and the other in St John’s College, Cambridge. In November 2019, with the kind assistance of St John’s College, we engaged in a technical and scientific investigation of their copy of the Great Bible.
We employed various non-invasive analytical techniques to examine the St John’s Bible, including X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy, reflectance spectroscopy (in the ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared range), high-resolution digital microscopy and advanced technical imaging. Scientific investigation of works of art has much to offer and is more reliable for material identification than visual analysis (historically the primary identification method for painting materials and techniques).
The focus of our technical examination of the Bible was the decoration. Knowledge of the painting materials and techniques used to decorate books can provide a wealth of information on production methods and artists’ skills –and, occasionally, on their identity. All of the hundreds of black-and-white images printed in the Bible were painstakingly hand-coloured by a group of talented artists for this special presentation Bible. In some cases, the artists did not simply colour in the print, but made significant changes to the black-and-white printed images used in the regular editions of the Bible.
Our investigation focused on 14 images, spread out across the volume. First, we used a range of spectroscopic methods to analyse a selection of small areas in each image, allowing the identification of individual pigments. The pigments identified throughout the volume were consistent with what is known about the materials used by Continental painters and illuminators during the 16th century. One of the most interesting results of this investigation was the fact that different “palettes” can be identified in different images, which suggests the presence of no less than six (and quite possibly more) artists at work on the decoration of this Bible.
The spectroscopic analysis was followed by high-magnification digital microscopy (in direct as well as raking and transmitted light). The close-up images captured using these methods not only provided greater insight into the stylistic preferences and working methods of the artists, but were also crucial in revealing the extent to which the printed images were modified at the painting stage.
From black and white to colour
We paid special attention to the Bible’s title pages. Each of the book’s five parts is preceded by a full, illustrated and meticulously hand-coloured title page. The title pages depict scenes from the parts of the Bible they precede (historical books, the words of the prophets, or the New Testament). We discovered that the St John Bible’s main front page was actually a hand-coloured adaption of the printed black-and-white version which would have been present in all the mass-produced Bibles. But this luxurious front page – meant for the eyes of King Henry VIII – contained some key differences, as the slider image below illustrates.
The main black-and-white title page depicts an ideal scenario in which the majestic Henry VIII distributes bibles to lay and religious subjects, assisted by two of his faithful ministers – Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cromwell. Renowned art historian Tatiana String believes the printed title page was the visual manifestation of Henry’s authority. Henry reigns at the top of the page, distributing bibles to laypeople and clerics, aided by Cromwell to his left and Cranmer to his right (each identified by his coat of arms). The Word of God then reaches the general public in the lower part of the page, who duly proclaim “vivat rex” and “God save the king” (apart from those in prison, who are seen on the bottom right and shout nothing).
This black-and-white title page of the Bible masterminded by Cromwell, distilled his theory of scripture and obedience. The dissemination of the Bible was from top to bottom (literally), resulting in greater submission to the monarch. Its details reveal, however, that it moves away from the more radical reformation ideal of putting the Bible “in the ploughboy’s hands”. The laity at the bottom of the page do not hold the Bible, they simply listen to the Word of God preached from the pulpit. This was a nuanced and hierarchical way to disseminate the book and it reflected the unease Henry had with common people reading the Bible.
In the St John’s copy, the printed title pages were carefully hand painted, with the original print at times peeping through. For example, in the hand-coloured version the prison was obliterated and replaced by a dedication scene. The original brick background is still visible through the red stockings of the green-clad figure.
Cut and paste politics
The most striking modification we found has so far been hidden from scholars working on this Bible. Under a microscope with raking light, it becomes evident that some of the faces were painted on separate pieces of vellum and pasted over the existing page. A thin line can be seen under Cromwell’s face where the image was pasted in. This was done in a highly professional manner, covering much of the border area with paint overlapping the edges and creating the impression of a single image. This major modification applied to Cromwell and another key figure.
We believe that the instigator of this modification was Cromwell himself and the change had much to do with his representation on the page – a page which illustrates Henry’s complex attitude towards the lay readership of scripture, wavering between distribution and retraction. The same phenomenon, more nuanced but equally powerful, is evident in this careful modification. The pasting of Cromwell’s portrait had reshuffled political powers and affinity to the monarch.
In the original black-and-white design, Cromwell is affiliated with distributing the Bible to the laity – his coat of arms is in the middle of the page, below the figure whose features resemble Cromwell, handing the Bible (inscribed verbum dei, or “the Word of God”) to lay nobility. He mirrors Cranmer’s image, on the other side of the page, distributing a similar book to the clergy. This accorded with Cromwell’s central role in lay administration, as with his reformed leaning and his support for the printing of the Great Bible. In this image, then, Cromwell is on the level below the King and positioned in the middle of the page.
In the painted version of the title page, on the other hand, Cromwell is moved up a level and transformed into the person receiving the book from Henry’s left hand. This serves two purposes. It enhances the affinity between Cromwell and Henry, placing them next to each other. It also renders Cromwell in a more passive position, receiving the book from Henry rather than actively distributing it. Given Henry’s ambivalence towards the lay readership, this was a much less hazardous position. The careful and extensive modifications of the title page demonstrate Cromwell’s political prowess and his ability to read the political map and manipulate the visual image accordingly.
This transformation was both careful and premeditated. A back-light exposure reveals that the faces underneath the pasted elements had not been previously painted in, but rather left blank – anticipating the subsequent pasting. The scientific analysis reveals that the two faces were painted at the same time, most likely in a setting different from the painting of other features in the Bible. Very similar pigment mixtures were used across the two faces and they differ from those employed for flesh tones in the rest of the Bible.
Similarly, the pigments used in the uppermost sections of the fur garments in which the two figures are cloaked (those closest to the faces) differ from those identified in the lower portions of the garments. The same is true for the green brushstrokes surrounding the faces, painted with posnjakite (a copper sulphate mineral) unlike the rest of the grassy landscapes, which were painted in a different sulphate of copper.
This all suggests a targeted campaign. The separation between the painting of the other elements of the presentation copy and the faces reveals that the latter was carried out in a different location and at a later time – most likely in England – after the Bible had arrived from Paris. Reallocating the painting of the faces to London ensured greater accuracy, especially for those whose likeness was less well known outside of England.
In London, very few artists were capable of such skilled and intricate work. The workshops of either Lucas Horenbout or Hans Holbein are the likely location where these portraits were painted and inserted into the title page. The involvement of artists with such close ties to Henry’s court (Horenbout was King’s Painter and court miniaturist from 1525 until his death in 1544, and Holbein was also painting for the court by the mid-1530s) would have guaranteed great accuracy in the depiction of key people. The features of the upper pasted face on the title page closely resemble known depictions of Cromwell. The image of him in the hand-coloured title page is probably his last accurate portrait.
But who was the second person, distributing Bibles below Cromwell? There is no obvious answer. Based on court politics at the time, and the iconography of the portrait, we believe that this could be Richard Rich, Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations (responsible for dissolving English monasteries) and Speaker of the House of Commons. A comparison between Rich’s known portrait and the pasted face supports this hypothesis.
This would demonstrate, once again, Cromwell’s political manoeuvring. Rich, once an affiliate of Cromwell and a leading politician at the court, would have been a natural ally in the dissemination of the Bible to the laity. By placing him underneath, further removed from Henry and closer to the more tricky endeavour of empowering the lay readership, Rich was presented as subordinate to Cromwell (which was not the case at the time) and with a clearer evangelical stance (again, this was not the case).
Rich was instrumental in facilitating the execution of Cromwell soon after and this may attest to Cromwell’s distrust of him. A few years earlier, Rich’s testimony was key in the executions of John Fisher and Thomas More.
The image of the woman on the bottom right of the page (and in front of the prison in the black-and-white page) was also changed in the painted copy. In the printed image, a woman is sitting next to a group of children, her hair in curls, possibly with a white undercap. Her hands instruct the children, while she is facing the man on her left (who appears to be the prison warden).
In the painted image, however, this was completely transformed. The woman now faces the children and her features are more distinct and more subtle. Her headgear has been turned into a lavish gable hood, worn by nobility and royalty. This sumptuous gable, trimmed in gold and possibly jewelled, together with the distinctive facial features are reminiscent of Holbein’s portrait of Jane Seymour, painted in 1536.
The portrait was well known at the time and served to inspire other depictions of Jane Seymour, who was Queen of England from 1536 to 1537 as Henry’s third wife. One such portrait was made in 1539 – the same year as the hand-painted title page. The importance of this figure is revealed when looking at the materials used for its creation.
The woman’s headdress and collar are the only instances where gold leaf was used on the page. Every other gilded area was decorated using “shell” (or powdered) gold. Pigment analysis also reveals the dress, which appears white with dark grey lines, contained tarnished silver. This combination of dazzling gold and silver makes the woman a truly spectacular addition to the colour title page.
Cromwell and Cranmer had previously used the King’s affinity to Seymour to elicit his support for the English Bible. In 1537, they evoked her pregnancy in the dedication to Henry which prefaced the Matthew Bible. The title page of that Bible proclaimed: “Set forth with the King’s most gracious licence.” Seymour’s pregnancy led to the birth of the future Edward VI – Henry’s much sought-after male heir. It is little wonder then that the woman in the painted title page is instructing a group of children, with her gaze directed to them – unlike the turned head of the woman in the original image.
Seymour died shortly after labour on October 24, 1537. Henry grieved for her and cherished her memory. Her loss permeated throughout the remainder of his life and he was subsequently buried at her side at Windsor Castle. A further change of mind about this female portrait is evident in the hand-painted title page. The analysis of the woman’s dress reveals an additional layer of modification, which attests to a later transformation of the figure. Under a microscope, it becomes evident that the white of the upper part of the dress conceals a red layer of paint.
The dress was therefore originally red with a low neckline, mirroring the dress worn by Seymour in the Holbein portrait and was later modified. The motivation for this later transformation is not yet known.
Political upheaval and betrayal
The importance of this presentation copy of the Great Bible – and its sister copy held in Wales – should not be underestimated. These copies were most likely the first ones seen by Henry and his court.
The modifications we have uncovered provide a unique insight into Cromwell’s thought process. Between the design of the printed title page and the hand-colouring, he has grown more cautious and more weary of Henry’s support of the English Bible and reform in general. As a result, he wished to distance himself from the role of distributing Bibles and instead put in his place the person who was to play a key role in his downfall and execution.
The Great Bible was reprinted in six subsequent editions, all produced in quick succession between 1539 and 1541. Henry approved of the printed title page, which was kept in all editions – and later even replaced the title page to the New Testament. However, further transformations to the title page reveal the political upheavals which were to come and the ultimate fate of Cromwell.
Shortly after the appearance of the Great Bible, Cromwell devised Henry’s ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves in January 1540. The conservative faction in court used this opportunity to move against Cromwell, leading to his execution in July 1540 – in which the perfidious testament of Rich was instrumental.
The printers of subsequent editions of the Great Bible faced the problem of retaining the image of a convicted traitor. The solution was not to replace the woodcut used for printing altogether (a cumbersome and very costly endeavour). Instead of erasing Cromwell’s image entirely, they erased his coat of arms from the fourth edition of November 1540 and all subsequent editions thereafter.
Rather than completely obliterating Cromwell’s memory, the blank circle reminded readers of the fate of traitors to the Crown. Henry also grew disillusioned with the dissemination of bibles to the laity. He came to realise that reality was different to the ideal of the printed title page, and that reading the Bible did not necessarily lead people to shout “long live the king”, but rather to think for themselves.
Cromwell’s fear, leading him to rejig the images, became a reality. Henry’s distrust of lay reading led to legislation in 1543, prohibiting lay women and men of the lower classes from accessing the Bible. Our analysis reveals how key players reacted to political and religious changes. The image modifications have laid bare the truth of the English Reformation period and illustrated just how dangerous and political 16th-century England was – especially in the court of King Henry VIII.
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Vikings are often seen as heathen marauders mercilessly targeting Christian churches and killing defenceless monks. But this is only part of their story. The Vikings played a key role in spreading Christianity, too.
Norse mythology has long captured the popular imagination and many today have heard stories about the pagan gods, particularly Odin, Thor and Loki, recently reimagined in Marvel’s comic books and movies. Some now even follow reconstructed versions of these beliefs, known as Ásatrú (the religion of the Aesir).
Our main source for this mythology, the Prose Edda, was written by a 13th-century Christian, the Icelandic politician Snorri Sturluson. Scandinavia converted to Christianity later than many parts of Europe, but this process is still an important part of the Vikings’ real story. Indeed, there are fascinating works of Norse literature with a Christian theme, including sagas of bishops and saints.
It would be wrong to minimise Viking violence, but raiding – hit and run attacks for plunder – in the medieval period was not confined to these Scandinavian seafarers. The Irish annals, such as the Annals of Ulster, record far more attacks by Irishmen on other Irishmen, including the raiding and burning of churches, than attacks by Scandinavians.
An ideological clash is one suggested cause of the “Viking Age”. This line of thinking suggests that pagan Scandinavians sought to avenge Christian attacks, such as the Frankish emperor Charlemagne’s invasion of Saxony from 772AD to 804AD. This 30-year conflict involved forced mass baptism, the death penalty for “heathen practices” and included the execution of 4,500 Saxon rebels at Verden in 782AD.
It seems more likely, however, that Christian monasteries were initially targeted because they were poorly defended and contained portable wealth in the form of metalwork and people. Settling in richer Christian lands also offered better prospects for some than remaining in resource-poor Scandinavia.
The rise of Christianity
The conversion of Scandinavia was gradual with Christian missionaries preaching intermittently in Scandinavia from the eighth century. While there was some resistance, Christianity and Norse paganism were not always fundamentally opposed. A 10th-century soapstone mould from Trendgården in Jutland, Denmark, allowed the casting of metal Thor’s hammer amulets alongside crosses. The same craftsman clearly catered for both pagans and Christians.
The first Scandinavian king to be converted was the Danish exile Harald Klak. He was baptised in 826AD with the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious as his sponsor, in exchange for imperial support for an (albeit unsuccessful) attempt to regain his throne.
Guthrum, a king from the Viking Great Army which attacked England in the ninth century, was also baptised as part of his agreement following defeat by the West Saxon king Alfred “the Great” in 878AD. Indeed, coming into contact with Christian kingdoms which were more politically centralised arguably led to greater unification of the Scandinavian realms.
One of the most significant turning points in the Christianisation of Scandinavia was the conversion of the Danish king Harald Bluetooth in the 960s. Bluetooth technology is named after Harald because he united disparate parts of Denmark, while the technology unites communication devices.
Harald proudly proclaimed on the now iconic Jelling stone, an impressive monument with a runic inscription, that he “made the Danes Christian”. And this connection between kingship and Christianity continued.
Norway was converted largely due to two of its kings: Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldsson. The latter was canonised shortly after his death in battle in 1030AD, becoming Scandinavia’s first native saint.
Future Norwegian kings benefited from their association with Olaf Haraldsson, who became Norway’s patron saint. Other royal Scandinavian saints would follow, notably Erik of Sweden and Knud the Holy of Denmark. The Norse earldom of Orkney also produced a martyr from its ruling family: St Magnus, who was killed in around 1116 in a dynastic squabble.
The 2018 Danish Eurovision entry (Rasmussen’s song Higher Ground) portrays Magnus as a pacifist viking refusing to fight. Saga sources do suggest that Magnus refused on one occasion to raid with the Norwegian king and fled from the fleet, but his career was not without violence.
Scandinavians who settled abroad in Christian lands were also converted to the dominant religion. While Scandinavian settlers initially buried their dead in traditional pagan ways, they soon adopted the customs of those living around them. And their settlements became part of the political and cultural makeup of their host societies.
Some of the most celebrated pieces of medieval Irish ecclesiastical art were likely made by Hiberno-Scandinavian craftsmen from Viking-founded towns like Dublin. These objects also feature stylistic elements which had spread from the Scandinavian homelands.
For example, the 11th-century Clonmacnoise crozier is decorated in the Scandinavian art style of Ringerike, with snake-like animals in figure-of-eight patterns. Clonmacnoise in County Offaly, associated with the sixth-century St Ciaran, is one of Ireland’s oldest and most important ecclesiastical sites. And the ancestors of these craftsmen might have been the very raiders who had attacked Irish churches.
Soldiers of God
Even Scandinavian settlers in the remote islands of the North Atlantic joined the European mainstream with some enthusiasm. Partly due to pressure from Norway, Iceland officially converted to Christianity in the year 1000. Following consultation at their national assembly (the Alþing) it was decided that the country would convert but that some pagan practices would still be tolerated.
The settlements on Greenland eventually failed in the 14th and 15th centuries, but even when the inhabitants were starving they still devoted precious resources to importing luxury goods for the church, including wine and vestments.
Scandinavians also joined the Crusades; now they were the Christians attacking the so-called heathens. The Norwegian king Sigurd “Jerusalem-farer” – named for his visit to the Holy Land – was, in fact, the first European king to participate in the Crusades personally, making a journey from 1108 to 1111, a short while after the First Crusade culminated in the Christian reoccupation of Jerusalem in 1099.
Crusading was, after all, not so different from Viking raiding, but this time the killing and looting had Christian backing. Instead of an afterlife of feasting in Valhalla as a reward for dying in battle, those who died on Crusade would go straight to Heaven.
Indeed, the Viking world was as much populated by missionary kings, bishops and saints as it was by raiders, gods and giants.
In 1997, my students and I traveled to Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo, as part of a study abroad program course on Irish literature I was teaching for the University of Dayton. I wanted my students to visit the place where, each July, thousands of pilgrims pay homage to St. Patrick, who, according to lore, fasted and prayed on the summit for 40 days.
While there, our tour guide relayed the story of how St. Patrick, as he lay on his death bed on March 17 in A.D. 461, supposedly asked those gathered around him to toast his heavenly journey with a “wee drop of whiskey” to ease their pain.
The mention of whiskey left me wondering if St. Patrick may have unintentionally influenced the way most of the world celebrates the holiday today: by drinking.
It wasn’t always this way. The Festival of St. Patrick began in the 17th century as a religious and cultural commemoration of the bishop who brought Christianity to Ireland. In Ireland, there’s still an important religious and cultural component to the holiday, even as it has simply become an excuse to wear green and heavily drink in the rest of the world.
The legend of St. Patrick
Because historical details about St. Patrick’s life remain shrouded in speculation, scholars are often stymied in their attempts to separate fact from legend.
In his spiritual memoir, “Confessio,” St. Patrick describes how he was brought to Ireland as a slave. He eventually escaped, rejoining his family in Britain, probably Scotland. But while there, he had a recurring dream, in which the “Voice of the Irish” called to him to return to Ireland in order to baptize and minister to them. So he did.
The Irish revere the account of this dream described in the “Confessio”; they accept the simplicity and fervor of his words and feel a debt of gratitude for his unselfish commitment to their spiritual well-being.
St. Patrick’s efforts to convert the Irish to Catholicism were never easy. Viewing him as a challenge to their power and authority, the high kings of Ireland and the pagan high priests, called Druids, resisted his efforts to make inroads with the population.
But through his missionary zeal, he was able to fuse Irish culture into Christianity, whether it was through the introduction of the Celtic Cross or the use of bonfires to celebrate feasts like Easter.
Again, many of these stories could amount to no more than myth. Nonetheless, centuries after his death, the Irish continue to show their gratitude for their patron saint by wearing a spray of shamrocks on March 17. They start the day with mass, followed by a daylong feast, and prayer and reflection at night.
St. Paddy’s Day goes global
From 1820 to 1860, almost 2 million people left Ireland, many due to the potato famine in the 1840s and 1850s. More followed in the 20th century to reunite with relatives and escape poverty and joblessness back home.
Once settled, they found new ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and their Irish identity in their new homes.
Irish-Americans, especially, were quick to transform March 17 into a commercial enterprise. The mandatory “wearin’ of the green” in all its garishness is a far cry from the original tradition of wearing a spray of shamrocks to honor St. Patrick’s death and celebrate Irish solidarity. Parades famously sprung up – especially in New York and Boston – revelry ensued and, sure enough, even the beer became green.
Children of Irish-Americans in the United States have absorbed Irish culture at a distance. Many probably know that St. Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint. But they might not fully appreciate his mythic stature for kids growing up on the emerald isle.
Ask children of any age in Ireland what they know about St. Patrick, and they will regale you with stories of his magical abilities, from his power to drive the snakes out of Ireland to his use of the three leaves and one stem of the shamrock to demystify the Trinity doctrine of the Catholic Church.
They see St. Patrick as a miracle worker, and as adults, they keep the legends alive in their own ways. Some follow St. Patrick’s footsteps all around Ireland – from well to hill to alter to chapel – seeking his blessing and bounty wherever their journeys take them.
Raising a glass
Of course, in America, the holy day is really a party, above all else.
This year, Americans are expected to spend US$5.61 billion celebrating, with 13 million pints of Guinness consumed. Some parts of the country plan a pre-celebration on Sept. 17 – or, as they call it, “Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day.”
Where all of this leads is anyone’s guess. But beginning in the 1990s, Ireland seemed to grasp the earning potential of the Americanized version. Today, March 17 remains a holy day for the natives and a holiday for tourists from around the world, with pubs raking in the euros on St. Patrick’s Day.
But I’ve always wondered: What if St. Patrick had requested a silent prayer instead of “a wee drop of whiskey” to toast his passing? Would his celebration have stayed more sacred than profane?
There are many sides to the beloved figure of Santa Claus – a giant of pop culture, he also has “miraculous” powers and ties to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Santa’s blend of religion and popular culture is, however, not modern at all. Several of Santa’s modern features, such as his generosity, miracle-working, and focus on morality (being “naughty or nice”), were part of his image from the very beginning. Others, like the reindeer, came later.
The original Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a fourth century CE bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) with a reputation for generosity and wonder-working. St Nicholas became an important figure in eighth century Byzantium before hitting pan-European stardom around the 11th century.
He became a focus not just for religious devotion, but Medieval dramas and popular festivals – some popular enough to be suppressed during the Reformation
The naughty list
St Nicholas had his own version of the naughty list, including the fourth century “arch-heretic” Arius, whose views annoyed the saint so much he supposedly smacked Arius in the face in front of Emperor Constantine and assembled bishops at Nicaea.
An even more surprising listee is the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis. In popular Byzantine stories, Nicholas acted like a one-man wrecking crew, personally pulling down her temples, and even demolishing the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s almost a shame, as they probably would have agreed about the importance of reindeer.
The idea of St Nicholas’ conflict with Artemis probably relates to religious change in Anatolia, where the goddess was hugely popular. Historically, the temple was sacked earlier, by a band of Gothic raiders in the 260s CE, but hagiographers had other ideas. Perhaps these furious northmen even count as Santa’s earliest “helpers”. He was after all (as part of his extensive saintly portfolio) the patron of the Varangians, the Viking bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors.
Santa’s greatest miracle is intrinsic to modern Christmases: his ability to reach all the children on Earth in one night. NORAD, the US and Canadian air defence force, has tracked Santa’s sleigh since the 1950s, presumably trying to figure out the secret of his super speed. But really, they just need to check their ancient sources.
In one story, sailors in a wild storm in the eastern Mediterranean cried out for the already-famous wonderworker’s help. With the mast cracking and sails coming loose, a white-bearded man suddenly appeared and helped them haul the ropes, steady the tiller, and brought them safe to shore. Rushing up the hill to the local church to give thanks, the sailors were astonished to see Nicholas was already there, in the middle of saying mass.
Suddenly appearing to save people became a favourite trick in accounts of the saint’s life and in folklore. He once saved three innocents from execution, teleporting behind the executioner and grabbing his sword, before upbraiding the judges for taking bribes.
There’s also the tale of Adeodatus, a young boy kidnapped by raiders and made the cupbearer of an eastern potentate. Soon after, St Nicholas appeared out of nowhere, grabbed the cupbearer in front of his startled master, and zipped him back home.
Artists depicting this story stage the rescue differently, but the Italian artists who have St Nicholas swoop in from the sky, in full episcopal regalia, and grab the boy by the hair are worth special mention.
The flying reindeer
None of the old tales have Saint Nicholas carrying around stacks of gifts when teleporting, which brings us to the reindeer, who can pull the sleigh full of millions of presents. The popular link between Santa Claus and gifting came through the influence of stores advertising their Christmas shopping in the early 19th century. This advertising drew on the old elf’s increasing popularity, with the use of “live” Santa visits in department stores for children from the late 1800s.
Santa Claus became connected to reindeer largely through the influence of the 1823 anonymous poem, A visit from St Nicholas.. In this poem, “Saint Nicholas” arrives with eight tiny reindeer pulling a sleigh full of toys. The reindeer have the miraculous ability to fly.
The origins of the animals’ flight may link back to the Saami reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. Here, the herders were said to feed their reindeer a type of red-and-white mushroom with psychedelic properties, known as fly agaric fungi (Amanita muscaria). The mushrooms made the reindeer leap about, giving the impression of flying.
The herders would then collect and consume the reindeer’s urine, with its toxins made safe by the reindeer’s metabolism. The reindeer herders could then possibly imagine the miraculous flight through the psychedelic properties of the mushroom.
The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, was created as part of a promotional campaign for the department store Montgomery Ward by Robert Lewis May in 1939. May himself was a small, frail child, who empathised with underdogs. In May’s story, Rudolph Shines Again (1954), the little reindeer is helped by an angel to save some lost baby rabbits, once again blending Santa’s religious and popular sides.
And … invisible polar bears
A number of modern depictions have connected Santa with polar bears, such as the 1994 film The Santa Clause. It seems likely the association grew as Santa’s home became accepted as the North Pole — though in one of the oldest stories, St Nicholas saves three Roman soldiers, one of whom is named Ursus (“Bear” in Latin).
Polar bears are undoubtedly useful companions for secretive Santa, and don’t even need his powers to move about unseen – the special properties of their fur mean they are hidden even from night-vision goggles.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas (1976), written by the Lord of the Rings’ author to his children, features the (mis)adventures of the North Polar Bear. Like St. Nick, the North Polar Bear isn’t shy about getting physical with those he perceives as wrong-doers. In one letter, the North Polar Bear saves Santa, his elves, and Christmas from a murderous group of goblins.
So with Santa Claus once again coming to town, remember — ancient or modern – it’s better to be on the “nice” side of this teleporting saint and his motley crew of miracle-workers.
Every two years, when the Winter or Summer Olympics comes around, we hear about how the games staged at Olympia in Greece since 776 B.C. came to a sudden end in the late fourth century A.D. The finger is pointed at the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I (A.D. 379-395), who is said to have banned the Olympics in the 390s as part of a wider political program directed against pagan religion, its rituals, and its festivals.
The idea that the athletic contests – held in honour of the Greek god Zeus for over a thousand years – were shut down by a puritanical Christian emperor makes for a good story. But is it actually true?
Theodosius I did issue a series of edicts against pagan sacrifice in the years A.D. 391-392. These have been preserved in a collection of laws known as the Theodosian Code, which was compiled in the fifth century A.D. by the emperor’s grandson. An excerpt from one of these edicts states:
No person at all … shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place at all or in any city. He shall not, by more secret wickedness, venerate his lar with fire, his genius with wine, his penates with fragrant odours; he shall not burn lights to them, place incense before them, or suspend wreaths for them.
Neither this passage, nor any of the other edicts in the Theodosian Code, actually mentions the abolition of the Olympic Games, as the historian Ingomar Weiler has pointed out. Sacrifices and libations to the gods had long been a part of the ancient Olympics, as with other Greek festivals. But the evidence suggests that sacrifices had largely ceased to take place at these events by the mid-fourth century as a result of changes in religious practices.
The games at Olympia remained popular throughout the Roman period, with athletes competing both for their personal fame and for glory for their home city. A recently discovered inscription listing victorious athletes demonstrates that the games were still going strong through to Theodosius I’s reign. The court poet Claudian then refers to the Olympics in A.D. 399, after the emperor’s death.
The most conclusive evidence of the games’ survival after Theodosius I issued his ban on sacrifice can be found in the work of an anonymous literary commentator. He states that the Olympics ceased to be held in the fifth century A.D., during the reign of Theodosius I’s grandson, Theodosius II (A.D. 408-450):
Since the Temple of Olympian Zeus had caught fire, both the Elean festival and the Olympic Games came to an end.
Olympic festivals (named after the original games at Olympia) continued to take place elsewhere in the Roman empire as well. The Olympics at Ephesus are attested until A.D. 420, and they continued at Antioch in Syria until the early sixth century A.D. Even though public entertainments were often criticised by Christian clerics, a prominent Christian senator, Leontios, intended to stage his own Olympics in Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century A.D. He would not have dared to do this if the imperial administration had banned such festivals.
What did cause the games at Olympia to end in the fifth century A.D.? Archaeological evidence shows that the site and the infrastructure for the contests (such as the buildings used to house athletes) fell into disuse. The statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the world, was removed from the temple and taken to Constantinople. The workshop of Phidias, who built the statue, was converted into a church. This evidence suggests a gradual decline and re-appropriation of the space at Olympia.
The historian Sofie Remijsen has argued that the end of the games was not the result of an imperial edict against paganism, but a change in economic circumstances. Long-term developments in the administration of the empire during the fourth century A.D. meant that rich elites increasingly had to sponsor contests out of their own pockets, and the civic funds set up to support the games were used for other purposes. The contests at Olympia ended because no one could afford it. Such a fate may eventually befall the modern games, as spiralling costs make hosting the Olympics an unattractive proposition.
Let the games continue
The notion that Theodosius I banned the Olympics has quite a history. Back in the 11th century, the Byzantine author Georgius Cedrenus cited the now familiar story of the ban, but it came back into the popular imagination with the advent of the modern Olympic Games under the auspices of Pierre de Coubertin in the late 19th century.
De Coubertin, a French aristocrat, had an inherent belief in the “character-building” capacity of sport. Alongside English educator William Penny Brookes, he formed a committee with a mission to restore the Olympic Games to their former glory, minus tripods, incense, and sacrifices. Athens was the place and 1896 was the year. Following the games, de Coubertin reflected upon his achievement in Century Illustrated Magazine:
It was a thrilling moment. Fifteen hundred and two years before, the Emperor Theodosius had suppressed the Olympic games, thinking, no doubt, that in abolishing this hated survival of paganism he was furthering the cause of progress; and here [opening the games] was a Christian monarch, amid the applause of an assemblage composed almost exclusively of Christians, announcing the formal annulment of the imperial decree; while a few feet away stood the archbishop of Athens, and Père Didon, the celebrated Dominican preacher, who, in his Easter sermon in the Catholic cathedral the day before, had paid an eloquent tribute to pagan Greece.
De Coubertin highlights a problem: for centuries newspapers, periodicals, and literature had propagated the belief that pagan practices, including the Olympics, had rightly been stamped out by the rise and spread of Christianity. Yet the modern Olympic founder was taking pleasure not only in the fact that the games had been revived but also that a Dominican preacher (who was, incidentally, also the inventor of the Olympic motto) had paid tribute to pagan Greece.
The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in de Coubertin’s wider modern Olympic message, which itself was based on an idealised version of Classical Greece. However critically Greek and Roman paganism were viewed, the status of Classical Greece as the home of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had always confirmed its place at the centre of European education. For physical educationalists such as de Coubertin, nothing topped the pinnacle of the Olympic Games, Greece’s oldest and most popular sporting event.
The key was to adapt the games to “the needs and taste of the age”. This meant no more trappings of religious cult. Thus, when Père Didon praised “pagan Greece”, it was as the home of “beauty, grace, and strength all in one” (de Coubertin’s words); the perfect, philosophical place to educate the energetic youth of any era.
Ending with a whimper not a bang
Ultimately, the blame for ending the Olympic Games was laid at the feet of Theodosius I because it was difficult for people to believe that the festival – a defining cultural symbol of antiquity – simply fizzled out after more than a thousand years. The conflict between paganism and Christianity in the later Roman empire became an easy way of explaining the end of this great athletic contest.
By the time de Coubertin came to revive the Olympics in the 19th century, this story was set in stone. In restaging the games in a modern world, he drew inspiration from the athleticism of the Classical Greeks, but left the pagan rituals of the ancient world far behind.
Type “Holy Grail” into Google and … well, you probably don’t need me to finish that sentence. The sheer multiplicity of what any search engine throws up demonstrates that there is no clear consensus as to what the Grail is or was. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people out there claiming to know its history, true meaning and even where to find it.
Modern authors, perhaps most (in)famously Dan Brown, offer new interpretations and, even when these are clearly and explicitly rooted in little more than imaginative fiction, they get picked up and bandied about as if a new scientific and irrefutable truth has been discovered. The Grail, though, will perhaps always eschew definition. But why?
The first known mention of a Grail (“un graal”) is made in a narrative spun by a 12th century writer of French romance, Chrétien de Troyes, who might reasonably be referred to as the Dan Brown of his day – though some scholars would argue that the quality of Chrétien’s writing far exceeds anything Brown has so far produced.
Chrétien’s Grail is mystical indeed – it is a dish, big and wide enough to take a salmon, that seems capable to delivering food and sustenance. To obtain the Grail requires asking a particular question at the Grail Castle. Unfortunately, the exact question (“Whom does the Grail serve?”) is only revealed after the Grail quester, the hapless Perceval, has missed the opportunity to ask it. It seems he is not quite ready, not quite mature enough, for the Grail.
But if this dish is the “first” Grail, then why do we now have so many possible Grails? Indeed, it is, at turns, depicted as the chalice of the Last Supper or of the Crucifixion or both, or as a stone containing the elixir of life, or even as the bloodline of Christ. And this list is hardly exhaustive. The reason most likely has to do with the fact that Chrétien appears to have died before completing his story, leaving the crucial questions as to what the Grail is and means tantalisingly unanswered. And it did not take long for others to try to answer them for him.
Robert de Boron, a poet writing within 20 or so years of Chrétien (circa 1190-1200), seems to have been the first to have associated the Grail with the cup of the Last Supper. In Robert’s prehistory of the object, Joseph of Arimathea took the Grail to the Crucifixion and used it to catch Christ’s blood. In the years that followed (1200-1230), anonymous writers of prose romances fixated upon the Last Supper’s Holy Chalice and made the Grail the subject of a quest by various knights of King Arthur’s court. In Germany, by contrast, the knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach reimagined the Grail as “Lapsit exillis” – an item more commonly referred to these days as the “Philosopher’s Stone”.
None of these is anything like Chrétien’s Grail, of course, so we can fairly ask: did medieval audiences have any more of a clue about the nature of the Holy Grail than we do today?
Publishing the Grail
My recent book delves into the medieval publishing history of the French romances that contain references to the Grail legend, asking questions about the narratives’ compilation into manuscript books. Sometimes, a given text will be bound alongside other types of texts, some of which seemingly have nothing to do with the Grail whatsoever. So, what sorts of texts do we find accompanying Grail narratives in medieval books? Can this tell us anything about what medieval audiences knew or understood of the Grail?
The picture is varied, but a broad chronological trend is possible to spot. Some of the few earliest manuscript books we still have see Grail narratives compiled alone, but a pattern quickly appears for including them into collected volumes. In these cases, Grail narratives can be found alongside historical, religious or other narrative (or fictional) texts. A picture emerges, therefore, of a Grail just as lacking in clear definition as that of today.
Perhaps the Grail served as a useful tool that could be deployed in all manner of contexts to help communicate the required message, whatever that message may have been. We still see this today, of course, such as when we use the phrase “The Holy Grail of…” to describe the practically unobtainable, but highly desirable prize in just about any area you can think of. There is even a guitar effect-pedal named “holy grail”.
Once the prose romances of the 13th century started to appear, though, the Grail took on a proper life of its own. Like a modern soap opera, these romances comprised vast reams of narrative threads, riddled with independent episodes and inconsistencies. They occupied entire books, often enormous and lavishly illustrated, and today these offer evidence that literature about the Grail evaded straightforward understanding and needed to be set apart – physically and figuratively. In other words, Grail literature had a distinctive quality – it was, as we might call it today, a genre in its own right.
In the absence of clear definition, it is human nature to impose meaning. This is what happens with the Grail today and, according to the evidence of medieval book compilation, it is almost certainly what happened in the Middle Ages, too. Just as modern guitarists use their “holy grail” to experiment with all kinds of sounds, so medieval writers and publishers of romance used the Grail as an adaptable and creative instrument for conveying a particular message to their audience, the nature of which could be very different from one book to the next.
Whether the audience always understood that message, of course, is another matter entirely.