"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

A Grand View of History

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“History writing today has passed into an Alexandrian age, where criticism has overpowered creation. Faced by the mountainous heap of minutiae of knowledge and awed by the watchful severity of his colleagues, the modern historian too often takes refuge in learned articles or narrowly specialized dissertations, small fortresses that are easy to defend from attack. His work can be of the highest value; but it is not an end in itself. I believe that the supreme duty of the historian is to write history, that is to say, to attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man. The writer rash enough to make such an attempt should not be criticized for his ambition, however much he may deserve censure for the inadequacy of his equipment or the inanity of his results.” – Steven Runcimen, A History of the Crusades

Written by Mesocosm

September 22, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Posted in Ephemera, History

Pilgrimage: A Therapy of Distance

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I’ve discovered an author of the highest rank in Peter Brown – his The Cult of the Saint is a masterful study of the character and evolution of saint cults in late antiquity. The clarity, perceptiveness, and synthetic force of his ideas is beautifully conveyed throughout.

I was so struck by this characteristic observation on the nature of the pilgrimage that I had to share it with you:

The cult of relics … gloried in particularity. Hic locus es: “Here is the place,” or simply hic, is a refrain that runs through the inscriptions on the early martyrs’ shrines of North Africa. The holy was available in one place, and in each such place it was accessible to one group in a manner in which it could not be accessible to anyone situated elsewhere.

By localizing the holy in this manner, late-antique Christianity could feed on the facts of distance and on the joys of proximity. This distance might be physical distance. For this, pilgrimage was the remedy. As Alphonse Dupront has put it, so succinctly, pilgrimage was “une thérapie par l’espace.” The pilgrim committed himself or herself to the “therapy of distance” by recognizing that what he or she wished for was not to be had in the immediate environment. Distance could symbolize the needs unsatisfied, so that, as Dupront continues, “le pèlerinage demeure essentiellement départ”: pilgrimage remains essentially the act of leaving. But distance is there to be overcome; the experience of pilgrimage activates a yearning for intimate closeness. For the pilgrims who arrive after the obvious “therapy of distance” involved by long travel found themselves subjected to the same therapy by the nature of the shrine itself. The effect of “inverted magnitudes” sharpened the sense of distance and yearning by playing out the long delays of pilgrimage in miniature. For the art of the shrine in late antiquity is an art of closed surfaces. Behind these surfaces, the holy lay, either totally hidden or glimpsed through narrow apertures. The opacity of surfaces heightened an awareness of the ultimate unattainability in this life of the person they had traveled over such wide spaces to touch.

Brown P. The Cult of the Saints. The University of Chicago Press. 1981. pp. 86-7.


Written by Mesocosm

September 6, 2012 at 8:26 am

Early Indian Religious History: Severe Problems of Chronology

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I’ve been reading Geoffrey Samuel’s outstanding book The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, and I’ve been astonished by his criticisms of scholarly chronologies of the Indian subcontinent prior to 300 CE. Samuel observes that “a series of conjectural datings adopted as working hypotheses by the great nineteenth-century Indologists and Buddhologists had become a kind of received doctrine. It is now clear that many of the details are wrong and that the scheme as a whole is quite shaky and problematic….” (pg 12).

This amplifies the uneasiness I feel when I encounter historical dates for early India without rationale, with the authors frequently referring to “scholarly consensus” in a vague sort of way.

I knew the chronology was conjectural, but I am startled by how bad the situation actually is. “For the whole of the first millennium BCE there is only one reliable fix point,” he writes, “the invasion of Alexander in 329 to 325 BCE, which coincided with the rise to power of Candragupta, the founder of the Mauryan empire. Everything else – the datings for Aśoka (including the dates of the Aśokan inscriptions), the Buddha, Mahāvīra, the Upaniṣads and the guesstimates for the Vedic texts – is inference and guesswork on the basis of this one figure.” (pg. 22)

Samuel G. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra. Cambridge University Press. 2008.

Written by Mesocosm

March 19, 2012 at 8:46 am

Posted in Ephemera, History

Joan of Arc: Eternal Fire

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Joan of Arc Interrogation570 years ago today, on May 30, 1437, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at the age of 19.

First loved and feared, then condemned, then canonized, the 14-year-old Joan of Arc professed to be inspired by divine visions that directed her to lead the French against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Possessing no military training, she persuaded Charles VII to grant her leadership of the French reserves, which she led against the English at the besieged city of Orléans. In nine days the troops under her direction successfully turned the tide against the English, winning the city, and ultimately the war.

Joan was captured by the Burgundians and ransomed to the English, at whose hands she was tried, condemned, and executed. Trial transcripts show her to be intelligent and thoughtful. Medieval Sourcebook hosts the full transcript in The Trial of Joan of Arc here.

Passion of Joan of ArcHer life story has inspired great works of art for centuries. Carl Theodor Dreyer based his highly-praised film La passion de Jeanne d’Arc on her trial transcripts. Roger Ebert describes the film as indispensable to understanding film history in his review, and notes that Pauline Kael described its central performance as perhaps the finest performance ever captured on film. Ironically, the only known negative was destroyed in a fire, and the film was believed lost until a new negative was discovered in pristine condition in 1984. It can be viewed on YouTube beginning here, and is available on Netflix instant streaming.

George Bernard Shaw based his play Saint Joan on the trial transcripts.

Leonard Cohen’s beautiful ballad “Joan of Arc” was recorded for his album Songs of Love and Hate.

Written by Mesocosm

May 30, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Posted in Ephemera, History

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