The dos and don’ts of spitting

No spittingJust to bring things back down to earth with a bump after the elegant, spare prose of St Augustine, here’s a post about spitting.

I’m currently working through Norman Davies’ magnum opus, Europe: A History. As well as the main narrative, stretching over 1,000 pages, Davies includes around 300 “mini-essays” on specific topics, which he calls “capsules”. One of these is on “Mores” (pp.346f.), and looks at how social etiquette has varied over the years.

Davies opens with the story of a Byzantine princess who arrived in Venice in the late 11th century to marry the Doge, and was reprimanded for her “anti-social” use of a fork to eat her food:

People in the medieval West took meat with their fingers from a common dish. The fork only came into general use during the Renaissance, and only for lifting morsels to one’s own plate. The table set of knife, fork, and spoon was an eighteenth-century innovation.

He goes on to describe the equally dramatic reversal that has occurred in the etiquette of spitting. Quoting the German writer Norbert Elias, he sets out injunctions on spitting from various etiquette guides over the centuries:

  • Do not spit over or on the table. (English, c.1463)
  • Do not spit across the table as hunters do. (German, 15th cent.)
  • Turn away when spitting, lest your saliva fall on someone. If anything purulent falls to the ground, it should be trodden upon. (Erasmus, 1530)
  • You should abstain from spitting at table, if possible. (Italian, 1558)
  • Formerly. it was permitted to spit on the ground before people of rank. … Today, that is an indecency. (French. 1572)
  • Frequent spitting is disagreeable. At important houses, one spits into one’s handkerchief … Do not spit so far that you have to look for the saliva to stamp on it. (Liege, 1714)
  • It is very ill-mannered to swallow what should be spat … After spitting into your handkerchief, you should fold it once, without looking at it, and put it in your pocket. (La Salle, 1729)
  • It is unpardonably gross for children to spit in the faces of their playmates. (La Salle, 1774)
  • Spitting is at all times a disgusting habit. Besides being coarse and atrocious, it is very bad for the health. (English, 1859)
  • Have you noticed that today we [hide] what our fathers did not hesitate to display openly? … The spittoon is a piece of furniture no longer found in modern households. (Cabanes, 1910)

As the quotations above suggest, spitting’s social acceptability declined rapidly in the nineteenth century, possibly due to fears about tuberculosis. However, as late as the 1960s, Davies recalls, London buses still considered it necessary to display signs saying “NO SPITTING”.

Just in case you find yourself transported back to medieval times and wish to avoid any social faux pas, here are some other examples which Davies quotes (again from Elias) of the etiquette of the time:

  • It is bad manners … to wear a helmet when serving ladies.
  • Don’t blow your nose with the fingers you hold the meat with.
  • If you have to scrape [the back of] your throat, do so politely with your coat.
  • Farts may be concealed by coughing.
  • Before you sit down, make sure that your seat has not been fouled.
  • It is impolite to greet someone who is urinating or defecating.

The last item on the list, though, is one that today’s wealthy guzzlers might also consider adopting:

  • When you eat, do not forget the poor. God will reward you.

“Not going to let Hitler mess me around”

Dad's ArmyToday is the 70th anniversary of VE Day. To commemorate it, here are the answers given by my wife’s paternal grandmother (who died in January at the age of 94) to some questions our middle son asked her about the Second World War for his homework a couple of years ago:

1. What happened to you during the war?

I was living in Salisbury, working as a hairdresser. The government said I had to go to Bristol and make guns in a factory. They sent me to a house where the lady provided bed and breakfast. The factory gave me lunch and supper. I was hungry for the whole war, from 1940 to 1945.

2. What responsibilities did you have?

Mainly making sure the guns I made were properly made so they didn’t blow up and kill our own men. Once a fortnight I had to be on fire watch all night – I was on the roof of the factory, looking out for fire bombs. Other buildings were hit, but ours was not.

3. What job did you get at that time?

Cutting huge metal blocks with a machine – workmen lifted the blocks on to the bench, and I used the cutter to make the right holes. All day, every day for 4 years.

4. Where were you at what times?

Bristol from September 1940 to 1945. Allowed to go home for a 1 day visit every 2 weeks. I worked 1 week on day shift, 7am to 5pm, followed by 1 week on night shift 5pm to 7am.

5. Did you face any serious problems, and how were they solved?

  • shortage of food – was hungry for 5 years. Solved by beating Hitler.
  • had to wear head scarf at all times in the factory to keep hair out of the cutting machine – worst bit of the war. Solved by beating Hitler.
  • the factory foreman hated having women working in his factory – a terrifying man, much more frightened of him than of the Germans and their bombs. Solved by going home as soon as we had beaten Hitler.

6. What was your most dangerous moment?
Bombed whilst shopping in Bristol – town centre badly damaged. They missed me, so I went on shopping. Not going to let Hitler mess me around.

7. What times were you in mortal danger?
Air raids at work at night – all lights out – factory stopped working – everyone waiting – heard bombs whistling and hitting CRUMP elsewhere – all clear siren – back to work – more guns for our men.

Lots of love from Grannie Magpies

Etty Hillesum: “the girl who gradually learnt to kneel”

Etty Hillesum, 1914-43I’ve just finished reading An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43, a book I started reading in 2011 after hearing a lecture by Rowan Williams in which he describes her life and spirituality (similar to this lecture here), and which I resumed recently.

Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam when the Germans invaded Holland in 1940. Her diaries cover a nineteen-month period from March 1941 to October 1942, and take up around 280 of the book’s 430 pages. During that period, Etty falls in love with Julius Spier, a “psychochirologist” and unconventional Jungian therapist. Having started as his patient, she becomes his assistant and eventually his lover, until Spier dies of natural causes in September 1942.

It’s hard to shake off the sense that Spier is a manipulative charlatan, to be blunt. At any rate, his behaviour would certainly get him struck off whatever register of therapists a “psychochirologist” might end up on. That said, Etty is an intelligent young woman who goes into the relationship with her eyes open, and clearly has a genuine respect for Spier. What’s more, her relationship with Spier is the catalyst for the extensive spiritual reflections that come to form the heart of her diaries.

An early entry (from November 1941, on p.74) establishes a theme that recurs throughout the book, that of Etty’s conception of herself as “the girl who could not kneel”:

Sometimes several different dialogues run through me at the same time, images and figures, moods, a sudden flash of something that must be my very own truth. Love for human beings that must be hard fought for. Not through politics or a party, but in myself. Still a lot of false shame to get rid of. And there is God. The girl who could not kneel but learnt to do so on the rough coconut matting in an untidy bathroom. Such things are often more intimate even than sex. The story of the girl who gradually learnt to kneel is something I would love to write in the fullest possible way.

That quotation also hints at another feature of the book, one which sets it apart from most spiritual memoirs: Etty’s frankness about her sexual relationships. As mentioned above, she becomes Spier’s lover, in addition to already being in a relationship with the owner of the house in which she had been living since shortly before the war.

While she remained a Jew to the end of her life, Christianity has a strong influence on Etty’s developing spiritual life, as she reads the New Testament, St Augustine and Meister Eckhart, among others. All this against the backdrop of growing persecution for Dutch Jews. As she writes on 11 July 1942 (p.212):

We must speak about the ultimate and most serious things in life when the words well up inside us as simply and as naturally as water from a spring. And if God does not help me to go on, then I shall have to help God. The surface of the earth is gradually turning into one great prison camp, and soon there will be nobody left outside. The Jews here are telling each other lovely stories: they say that the Germans are burying us alive or exterminating us with gas. But what is the point of repeating such things, even if they should be true?

By the end of 1942, Etty is living in the Westerbork transit camp, working with the Jewish Council as the freight trains roll in and out of the camp, bearing off thousands at a time to a fate in Poland that all can guess at, without knowing the details. (She refers at one point to witnessing people’s slow realisation that they never heard anything back from those who had been transported “to the East”, and the quotation above shows that rumours of extermination were already circulating by mid-1942.)

Etty’s diaries from Westerbork went with her on the train to Auschwitz. The final section of the book consists instead of letters that she wrote to and from Westerbork during late 1942 and 1943. She vividly describes the horrors of the camp – though perhaps the most horrific and haunting aspect is the way in which even her spirits can be seen to sag as time drags on and conditions become ever more dehumanising. Despite this, though, she insists on rejecting hatred and despair:

I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place. And I also believe, childishly perhaps but stubbornly, that the earth will become more habitable again only through the love that the Jew Paul described to the citizens of Corinth in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter. (18 December 1942, p.312)

An Interrupted Life is not always an easy book to read. At times, especially earlier in the book, Etty can come across as rather self-absorbed. As noted earlier, Julius Spier, whose relationship with Etty dominates the first half of the book, is a deeply ambivalent figure. If you try reading it and find yourself struggling, it may be worth jumping ahead to sections such as the remarkable diary entries beginning on 1 July 1942, the date on which Holland’s Jews had to start wearing the yellow star:

Very well then, this new certainty, that what they are after is our total destruction, I accept it. I know it now, and I shall not burden others with my fears. I shall not be bitter if others fail to grasp what is happening to us Jews. I work and continue to live with the same conviction, and I find life meaningful – yes, meaningful – although I hardly dare say so in company these days. (p.188)

Also, the final surviving diary entries, beginning from 15 September 1942, the date on which Spier died.

Of the letters, the best are the two that were illegally published by the Dutch Resistance in 1943, from 18 December 1942 and 24 August 1943. The first of these includes Etty’s description of the moment when (unbeknownst to her) she saw Edith Stein arrive at Westerbork as one of a group of Jewish Catholic nuns and priests. It would have been fascinating to see what Stein (later canonised as St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) and Etty made of one another. Etty was no nun, but perhaps Stein would have seen (and helped develop?) Etty’s remarkable capacity for spiritual insight. Sadly, however, that was not to be: Edith Stein was transferred straight to Auschwitz upon her arrival at Westerbork, and was dead within days of this near-encounter.

In the end, time runs out for Etty and her family, too. Etty, her parents and her brother, Mischa, are loaded onto the trains to Auschwitz on 7 September 1943. Etty’s final postcard, written on the train and posted to its recipient by farmers who found it when she threw it out of her freight car, says:

In the end, the departure came without warning. On sudden special orders from The Hague. We left the camp singing, Father and Mother calmly, Mischa too.

The Hillesums arrived in Auschwitz on 10 September 1943. Her parents were gassed immediately upon arrival. Etty died on 30 November.


The History Boys: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

The History Boys, original castThe History Boys by Alan Bennett is one of my favourite plays. I saw it almost ten years ago in the original National Theatre production (*swank alert*), and greatly preferred it to the film (which I found disappointing, mostly because of the misportrayal of Irwin, who – despite being played by the same actor, Stephen Campbell Moore – lost all the silkily meretricious charisma that he had in the stage version).

One of the most celebrated lines from the play is said by the rugby-obsessed, laddish Rudge (played by Russell Tovey) when asked, during his mock interview, “How do you define history?”:

How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another.

This line isn’t just a throwaway joke, but a key to understanding the play. It certainly captures the sense in which the attempt (personified in Richard Griffiths’ Mr Hector) to derive meaning and purpose for life through history and language is ultimately destroyed by a mixture of human frailty and contingent, random events. Rudge, who sees history as “just one fucking thing after another”, ends up as probably the most balanced and well-integrated adult of all the boys, a successful property developer; Posner, who buys into Hector’s worldview most thoroughly, ends up tragically damaged.

However, I now think there is another line, rather less obvious, which gives an even deeper indication of what Bennett’s play is about. The Headmaster of the school is obsessed with getting his boys into Oxbridge; it is something of a running joke that the intellectual insecurity which drives this ambition results from his having ended up studying geography in, of all benighted places, Hull. When the Headmaster hires Irwin to help sharpen the boys’ interview style (“Mr Hector has an old-fashioned faith in the redemptive power of words. In my experience, Oxbridge examiners are on the lookout for something altogether snappier.”), Irwin mentions having studied at Oxford himself, leading to the following exchange:

Headmaster: I thought of going*, but this was the fifties. Change was in the air. A spirit of adventure.
Irwin: So, where did you go?
Headmaster: I was a geographer. I went to Hull.
Irwin: Oh. Larkin.
Headmaster: Everybody says that.

(* Cue uproarious laughter from, as my father-in-law pointed out on the night, the 50% of the audience who had been to Oxbridge.)

Which sets us up nicely for this remark from Mr Hector in the next scene:

I am summoned to the Presence. The Headmaster wishes to see me, whose library books, we must always remember, Larkin himself must on occasion have stamped. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

Now, when I came across that line again earlier this week, I assumed that the quotation – “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” – must be from Larkin. On googling it, however, it turns out to come from T.S. Eliot’s poem Gerontion. Here’s the stanza from which it comes:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or is still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.

Now, without going into too much detail, all this is so relevant to The History Boys, it hurts. How history “deceives with whispering ambitions, / Guides us by vanities” (applicable variously to Hector, Irwin and the Headmaster); how “what she gives, gives with such supple confusions / That the giving famishes the craving”; how she “Gives too soon / Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with” (Posner?); how “Neither fear nor courage saves us”; how “Unnatural vices / Are fathered by our heroism”; and so on.

And if we needed further evidence that Bennett intends the whole stanza to be alluded to by that single line, consider this: why does Hector, having cracked a joke about Larkin, then proceed to quote Eliot? After all, there is an extremely well-known line from Larkin that would have made much the same point on a surface level: “Never such innocence again” (from MCMXIV). I think we are forced to the conclusion that Bennett has quoted a more unexpected line precisely because he intends it to bring with it the rest of Eliot’s stanza.

Just goes to show (for those who needed it showing): there’s much more to Alan Bennett than nattering to Thora Hird about chocolate HobNobs and tea.

Oh, and the film omits the line altogether, which is an interesting reflection of how it fails to reach the depths of the original play.

A message from the Hart

This is  St Botolph’s church, Lullingstone, Kent – a tiny parish church set in the grounds of Lullingstone Castle, the family home of the Hart Dyke family for several centuries:

St Botolph’s holds a special place in my heart, because it is where my wife and I were married. But I also love it for this magnificently splenetic epitaph to Percyvall Hart (1666-1738) in the side chapel:

Percyvall Hart memorial

The text of the main section reads as follows:

The munificent Repairer and Beautifier
of this Church;
Himself a true Lover of the Church of England,
And Representative of this County
in the two last Parliaments of her most Pious Majesty
During which time the Church and Clergy received
greater Tokens of Royal Bounty
than from the Reformation to her time,
or Since to this day.
Mr HART’S steady Attachment to the
Disqualified him from sitting any more
in Parliament;
Abhorring all Venality,
And scorning as much to buy the Peoples Voices,
As to sell his own.
Conscious of having always preferred
the interest of Great Britain
to that of any Foreign State,
He passed the remainder of his Life
in Hospitable Retirement;
with as much Tranquillity as possible,
Under the Declension, both of his own Health,
And that of his Native Country;
which, when he could not serve,
He Could not but deplore.

I assume that “Mr HART’S steady Attachment to the OLD ENGLISH CONSTITUTION” refers to Tory opposition to the Act of Union in 1707 (see also here), though the fond references to “her most Pious Majesty QUEEN ANNE” (who died in 1714) and to his “having always preferred the interest of Great Britain to that of any Foreign State” suggest that Percyvall Hart wasn’t too thrilled about the Hanoverian succession, either (or at least the Whig Ascendancy).

As the final section of the monument mentions, this is only one of several fascinating memorials to the Hart Dyke family in St Botolph’s:

The Curious inspector of these Monuments
Will see a short Account of
An Ancient Family,
For more than four Centuries;
Contented with a moderate Estate,
Not wafted by Luxury,
Nor increased by Avarice.

And modest with it! One of these “monuments” can be seen in the third image in the gallery at the start of this post: a memorial to Sir George Hart (d.1587), of whom the inscription informs us that:

Queen Elizabeth of famous memorie (that ever caried a sparing hand in bestowing of honour) gave him the order of knighthoode.

While I adore that little aside – “that ever carried a sparing hand in bestowing of honour” – for me nothing can beat the posthumous political score-settling of Sir George’s enraged Tory squire of a successor, 150 years later.

The rise and fall of great predictions

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy“Making predictions is difficult, especially about the future.” (attrib. to Niels Bohr)

Someone mentioned Paul Kennedy’s 1988 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers on Twitter the other day. I owned a copy of this book as a teenager, but never finished it – and my copy has disappeared somewhere in the intervening couple of decades. So I was glad to find a copy in the library at work, because I was interested to see how Kennedy’s predictions had stood the test of time. 

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers caused quite a stir at the time. Kennedy’s central thesis was that the power and influence of nations depends on their economic growth or decline, relative to that of competing powers. So it was possible for a great power to continue growing its economy, while nevertheless slipping to second-rank status as other countries outstripped it economically. On that basis, Kennedy predicted that the US would find its hegemony challenged over the coming decades by a rising Japan. Oops.

The bulk of the book is an analysis of five centuries of shifting global power balances, showing how these were determined by changes in relative economic performance. In the closing chapter, however, Kennedy sets out his predictions of what the future might offer for the five great powers of the late 80s: China, Japan, the EEC, the USSR, and the USA.

Here’s a very brief summary of his predictions (though please note that I can’t pretend to have done more than flick through the chapter over the course of a few minutes):

  • China: Kennedy quotes extensively from a 1986 article in The Economist predicting that China’s economy would quadruple between 1980 and 2000, and that it was therefore only a matter of time before China would become a significant military power. He probably now wishes that the book had been marketed on the basis of that prediction rather than on the next one.
  • Japan: Kennedy predicted that, while Japan’s economic growth might slow a little, it would continue to grow faster than any other major power, leading it to become “much more powerful” than it was in 1988.
  • EEC: Kennedy predicted that the EEC was likely to continue in relative economic decline compared to other major powers – not helped by the extreme unlikelihood of the USSR ever agreeing to a reunification of the two Germanys.
  • USSR: the Soviet Union was facing formidable demographic and economic problems, but “this does not mean that the USSR is close to collapse”. Oops.
  • USA: the USA would face problems of military overreach, and on the current trends its deficit would reach $13 trillion by 2000. However, despite its relative economic decline, the USA would remain “the decisive actor in every type of balance and issue”.

The point of this is not to take cheap potshots at the differences between Kennedy’s predictions and what actually came to pass. He seems to have been broadly right about China, and about Europe’s relative economic power, for example, and (for what its worth) his overall argument about the importance of relative economic performance strikes this layperson as basically sound.

What’s interesting, though, is to see what eventualities were clearly unthinkable even as recently as 1988:

  • Japan’s post-war “economic miracle” being succeeded by two decades of economic stagnation and deflation, from which the country is still struggling to emerge.
  • German reunification.
  • The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end to the bipolar world of 1945-89.

In fact, all three of these had come to pass within four years of Kennedy’s book being published. The lesson to learn is banal, but remains useful: when it comes to social, economic and political affairs, extrapolating confidently from current trends is always a dangerous business.

Yan tan tethera and the Rock of the Old North

The Old North
The Old North: source and licensing.

Just read this interesting post on the origins of the various, related counting systems used by shepherds in northern England, Scotland and Wales, often referred to as yan tan tethera.

This called to mind the fascinating chapter on “the Old North” in Norman Davies’ fascinating book Vanished Kingdoms. The Old North consisted of what are today northern England and southern Scotland, though Davies counsels against imposing this later division on the places, peoples and events of the period “between the dusk of the Roman Britannia and the dawn of England and Scotland” (p.43).

The Old North began as one of the areas of Britain – along with Wales and Cornwall – to which (Celtic) Britons, often highly Romanized, were pushed back by Anglo-Saxon invaders. Ultimately the Old North, unlike Wales, would succumb to the waves of Anglo-Saxon and Viking invaders and settlers that swept across it over centuries. Its “Cumbric” languages, too, largely vanished.

Some linguistic traces of the Old North have survived, however. One of these is the name Cumbria (“land of the Welsh”); another is the yan tan tethera counting systems.

The linked post gives some variants of this. Davies provides a table of three versions, the Keswick, Ayrshire and (modern) Welsh, as set out below:

Keswick Ayrshire Welsh
1 yan yinty un
2 tyan tinty dau
3 tethera tetheri tri
4 methera metheri pedwar
5 pimp bamf pump
6 sethera leetera chwech
7 lethera seetera saith
8 hovera over wyth
9 dovera dover naw
10 dick dik deg

What is rather moving is the reason that Davies ascribes to these survivals:

It is well attested that people faced by the decline of their native language are particularly reluctant to abandon two things: the numbers, whereby they learned to count, and the prayers through which they addressed their God.

Shepherds across the Old North:

continue to count their sheep using the numerals of their Brythonic forebears. The correspondences are unmistakeable, and they were reflected in inscriptions still visible until recently on the old sheepmarket at Cockermouth. They are the very last echoes of the Old North.

Later, Davies describes the decline into obscurity of Dun Breteann, “the fort of the Britons” – now better known as Dumbarton Castle, but previously known as Alt Clud, “Clyde Rock”, capital of the British kingdom of Strathclyde. Echoes of that “Brythonic” past can, he suggests, still be heard in such names as “Clan Campbell” (from the Gaelic for “a person whose speech is unintelligible”). He concludes:

One would like to think, therefore, that somewhere in the shadow of the Rock the old ways lingered on. Perhaps, in some modest tavern or fisherman’s cabin, the old-timers might have chatted in the old Cumbric-Brythonic tongue, singing the old songs, and telling the old tales about Ceredig and St Patrick, about Mungo and the Salmon, about the great battles of Catraeth, Nechtansmere and the Seven Sleepers. They would have wondered about the fate of the kinsfolk who had sailed away into exile, never to return. And they would have taught their children to count on their fingers: yinty, tinty, tetheri, metheri, bamf… (p.80)

Luther and Vatican II: were you there? Can you help?

Thirsty Gargoyle posted a link to this Catholic Herald article from 2005 on the Second Vatican Council. It’s a discussion between various Roman Catholics on the effects of Vatican II, which had ended forty years previously, and it contains one intriguing exchange concerning the relationship of Vatican II to the Reformation:

At one point, concert pianist Stephen Hough says:

It strikes me, in a way, that the council was the continuation of the Reformation. It was the real Counter-Reformation. Not just a reaction to Luther, but an acknowledgement that a lot of what Luther was saying was true. The Council took so much of what was true about what the Reformers were saying. The Church was eventually able to say it in a way that was acceptable to Catholics.

Historian Desmond Seward replies:

I agree with that entirely. I’m a great admirer of Luther, who very nearly got it right. If the Dominicans had been given a free hand he probably would have.

Like Thirsty Gargoyle, I am fascinated by these tantalisingly brief comments, especially that final reference to “if the Dominicans had been given a free hand”. My understanding had been that the Dominicans were, if anything, Luther’s most implacable opponents, especially during the crucial period from 1517 to 1519, rather than being thwarted bridge-builders.

Anyone have any idea what Desmond Seward was referring to here?

“Watch and pray”: Jesus’ call to “revolutionary patience”

In my post last week, we were looking at Boris Gunjević’s interpretation of the Gospel according to St Mark, in his final essay in God in Pain. We saw how St Mark’s purpose in the first half of his gospel was to demonstrate that Jesus was “the apocalyptic Son of God” (rather than just another “apolitical charismatic healer”), so that his readers would not misunderstand his account of Jesus’ suffering and death in the remainder of his book.

Mark was “deconstructing the Messianic scenario by refusing to endorse any version of Jewish Messianism”, says Gunjević. He argues that Mark was doing so against a very specific backdrop: the Jewish rebellion against Rome between AD 66 and 70, and the would-be Messianic figures who arose (and competed for recognition) during that period.

Gunjević describes the three main contenders for the role of Messiah during the revolt:

  • Menahem, leader of the Sicarii, supposed grandson of Judas of Galilee, who captured Jerusalem in AD 66. “Through his remarkable organisational skills … he drew together what is known as the Zealot coalition, … and quickly proclaimed himself ‘king’.” His followers killed the high priest Annas at the start of the uprising, and Menahem ordered the Temple records to be burned – thus releasing the people from the debt-slavery in which the religious establishment had held them.
  • Simon bar Giora, commander of Jerusalem’s defence against the Romans. He became “a renegade, a robber and a despot”, and “captured Idumea and Judea without a fight”. However, he lost control of Jerusalem, leading to an internal struggle between Simon’s supporters and those of the third contender…
  • John of Gischala, who “mustered a considerable band of disgruntled peasants in northern Galilee and formed them into a respectable military unit” before his own entry into Jerusalem.

All these Messianic pretenders were following a script established in the Book of Maccabees:

On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year,the Jewsentered [Jerusalem] with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. (1 Maccabees 13:51)

Mark, however, shows Jesus following a very different script, in which the Old Testament prophecies are deployed as “a subversive model of resistance to the dominant ideology of nationalistic Messianism”. Specifically, Jesus’ own entry to Jerusalem is modeled not on the triumphalism of Maccabees, but on the prophecy of Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

Gunjević interprets this as a form of “political street theatre”, in which Jesus:

…ridicules, parodies, trivialises, and takes to the absurd the political symbols of the “earthly kingdom” … In this madcap way, within a “liturgical carnival”, the carpenter from Nazareth is not merely mocking the title of emperor but bringing into question the very notion of Messianism…

Mark’s Jesus “rebuffs any vestige of Messianic identification” in order to “suggest a new notion of Messianism”: one which rejects the religious and political elites and identifies with “the disempowered and the multitude”, who are currently oppressed by a system doomed to destruction – as exemplified by the poor widow donating “all she had” to the Temple. The “Messianic practices” of “hearing and seeing, watching and praying” to which Jesus calls his disciples:

…are an anticipation of that destruction and a model of how to live when the old structures are in ruins and there is nothing new on the horizon.

That last sentence is surely the heart of Gunjević’s argument throughout his contributions to God in Pain. For Gunjević, our present-day situation is also one in which “the old structures are in ruins and there is nothing new on the horizon”, and we’re called to a similar practice of “revolutionary patience”: “hearing and seeing, watching and praying”.

Not that this is a call to passivity and quietism. Gunjević concludes by looking at Jesus’ call in Mark 9:43-50 to “cut off” your hand, foot or eye if it “offend thee”: the hand being the organ of charity, of labour, of care for those around us; the leg and foot being “a metaphor for hope, with which we stride forth into the future”; and the eye being both the means of our first contact with others, and a metaphor for faith. Hence the Messianic lifestyle of “hearing and seeing, watching and praying” is one of active involvement in working with, and caring for, others.

From Catholic confession to Protestant institution

Like my master the king, I am a faithful son of the holy Catholic church. Only just now we are not in communion with the Pope.

– Thomas Cromwell in Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, p.101.

I’m currently reading Eric W. Gritsch’s book A History of Lutheranism, and in one chapter he describes how Lutheran “confessional identity” developed between the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 (which established an uneasy modus vivendi between Lutheran and Roman Catholic states within the Holy Roman Empire) and 1580 (when the Lutheran confessions of faith took their final form in the Book of Concord).

Gritsch emphasises that, throughout this period, the Lutherans were seeking to retain their self-identification as reformers within Catholicism, rather than a new church or denomination. Hence the Lutheran emphasis on retaining, so far as possible, the inherited traditions of the church, such as the liturgy of the Mass, private confession and (in Sweden at least) the historic episcopate – albeit with the removal of “abuses” in each case. “Lutherans agreed with the ancient wisdom that abuse should not eliminate proper use,” Gritsch writes, summarising the position as follows:

Lutherans wanted to be reformed Catholics who lived in harmony with Scripture and tradition as faithful witnesses of Christ in the world. Although the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 prescribed a territorial settlement of religious issues (“whoever rules the region determines its religion”), Lutherans tried to make the best of it by remaining committed to Christian unity, even though it seemed to become an increasingly elusive goal. For the Book of Concord understood Lutheranism as a reform movement within the church catholic, indeed within sixteenth-century Catholicism. At stake was the retrieval of the ancient Christian convictions for all of Christendom, and Lutheranism became the inevitable historical constellation for such a retrieval, even though it became an organized church when medieval Christendom refused reform.

The Lutheran confessions – especially the Augsburg confession – are expressed as a voice within the Catholic Church. To put it another way, Lutheranism as a confession is, at heart, a Catholic movement. However, given Rome’s rejection of the Lutheran confessors’ agenda for reform, and the polarising effects of the century of division and war following the Reformation, it was perhaps inevitable that we would end up where we are now: where to be in the church that holds to the Lutheran confessions is to be in a Protestant denomination.

Which explains the tension that I can often find myself in (and my periodic susceptibility to bouts of “Roman fever”): because to be a Lutheran now, particularly in a country where Lutheranism’s presence within the wider “church catholic” is so miniscule, is to be in a situation which our own confessors would not have chosen, and which is fundamentally unnatural within the terms of our own confessions.