Friday, December 30, 2011

Playing mind games with the fat woodcarver, part 2

Continuing yesterday's post, retelling "The Story of the Fat Woodcarver," by Antonio Manetti, in Lauro Martines's book An Italian Renaissance Sextet.

When the officers went to arrest Grasso for debts, he protested to his supposed creditor, insisting on his identity: "What have I to do with you, that you are having me arrested? Tell them to let me go; you've mistaken me for someone else; I'm not who you think I am, and you're committing a great injury by shaming me like this when I have nothing to do with you: I am Grasso the woodcarver, not Matteo, and I don't know what Matteo you're talking about."

The young man pretending to be his creditor responded with outrage, insisting that the man under arrest was clearly Matteo and not Grasso, "Don't I know who Matteo my debtor is, and who the Fat Woodcarver is?...We'll see whether you're Matteo or not." And poor Grasso was hauled off to debtor's prison.

When they arrived, he was thrown into the cell, loudly protesting. The other prisoners had heard him called Matteo, so they called him that, too. They treated him kindly, offering to share food and bedding with him (prisoners were responsible for their own bedding, so there was none for Grasso). But Grasso couldn't sleep, wondering who he was and what was happening to him.

The next morning, Grasso waited at the window of the jail, hoping to see someone passing by who knew him and could tell him who he was. Soon enough (and not by coincidence) one of his patrons passed by and poked his head into the window. Grasso looked at him eagerly, but the patron stared back at him as if he was looking at a total stranger. Recognizing the look, Grasso asked him if he knew a woodcarver named Grasso. The patron replied that he did, and was planning to go see him later that day. The woodcarver begged the patron to tell Grasso that "a friend" was in jail, and would he please come see him? The patron, trying hard not to laugh, replied "Who are you? Who should I say is sending for him?" Grasso refused to mention a name, and the patron agreed.

Grasso was by this point becoming convinced that he had somehow turned into Matteo. This belief was further confirmed when he spoke with a judge, who had also been sent to the debtor's prison. Grasso decided to tell everything that had happened to the judge, in the hopes that he could offer advice. The judge was not part of the plot, but decided that Grasso was either insane or the victim of a trick. So he told him that it was very possible for a man to turn into another man, citing classical examples of transformation, and eventually claiming that it had happened to a man who had worked for him. The conversation did not put Grasso's mind at ease, to say the least.

Finally, that afternoon, Matteo's brothers showed up. And I'll continue the story next week.

Happy New Year to everyone.

Playing mind games with the fat woodcarver, part 1

"The Story of the Fat Woodcarver" is a rather odd textual artifact; the apparently true story of an elaborate and humiliating practical joke, carried out in part by a couple of the most important artists of early fifteenth-century Florence. It's really quite a story, and it's a great example of the way that the really strange moments from the past can provide particularly good windows into how people of that time thought. The tale can be found in Lauro Martines's book An Italian Renaissance Sextet.

The fat woodcarver of the title was Manetto Ammanatini, known to his contemporaries as Grasso. He was young, probably in his mid-twenties, and apparently notable for being both tall and heavy. He was also known for his skill at carving wood, especially altarpieces and elaborate frames for paintings.

He was part of a circle of men who met regularly to eat supper together; the circle contained both men from the city's wealthy and powerful families and craftsmen from the more prestigious crafts, including goldsmiths, painters, and sculptors. Among the latter were the painter and architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the sculptor Donatello.

One evening, the group noticed that Grasso was not there; they didn't know why he hadn't come and felt insulted. So, Brunelleschi proposed that they play a trick on him as punishment. And it was quite a joke.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Lock, snakes and horse hooves

This bit of nightmare fuel is "Allegory of the Wise Woman," an engraving by either Anton Woensam or Wolfgang Resch, first produced in Vienna in about 1525, but remaining in print until the seventeenth century.

What, exactly is going on? Why does she have snakes around her waist? Why does she have horse's hooves? Each is meant to be symbolic of what a good woman does and is helpfully explicated by those text boxes.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Merovingian Mondays: Merovech's Marriage

Continuing the tales from Gregory of Tours's History of the Franks.

The death of Sigibert immediately put the future of his kingdom in doubt. His son, Childebert, was only five. He inherited the throne, but that put him in grave danger: it was very likely that an uncle would kill him in the hopes of gaining his kingdom. So a loyal duke took the young king away to a safe place.

The rather odd thing, though, was that Brunhild, Sigibert's widow married Chilperic's son.

Merovech was one of Chilperic's sons from his first wife, and Chilperic sent him to seize Poitiers. But Merovech decided to change the plans, and went to Rouen, instead. Rouen was the city to which Chilperic had sent Brunhild after he seized her and her treasure. While there, Merovech married Brunhild.

That was an odd decision for both to make. For one thing, marrying your aunt was illegal by church law. Then there was the rather strong enmity between Chilperic and Brunhild. Why would Brunhild want to marry her enemy's son? Why would that son want to marry her?

Gregory doesn't offer any explanation, but if you think about their respective positions, both had reason to think the marriage would be a risk worth taking. Brunhild was in a terrible position. Her husband was dead, her son was too young to protect her, and she had very powerful enemies. Remarrying quickly was a way to ensure a greater degree of protection for herself and potentially for her son. Merovech was fairly strong, and being married to him might give her a degree of protection from his father.

Merovech's motives are less apparent, since he had to recognize that marrying Brunhild would seem threatening to his father. It was very likely a bid for a base of power that didn't depend on Chilperic. It is possible that he was wanting to gain power immediately, rather than wait for his father to die. I also suspect that he didn't trust his stepmother. Fredegund likely wanted to see her own sons gain the most from her husband, so the sons from his first wife likely saw her as a potential threat. For Merovech, getting out of a position of dependence on Chilperic also meant that Fredegund had much less opportunity to destroy him.

As one might predict, however, the marriage made Merovech's relationship with his father much rockier. Initially, Chilperic received Merovech and his new wife cordially. But then troops attacked the city where Fredegund was staying. Chilperic defeated the attackers, but assumed that Merovech was behind the attack. He took his son prisoner, and had to decide what to do with him.

Gregory reveals that the attacks were in fact sponsored by a nobleman named Godin. Godin had been a follower of Sigibert, but after receiving gifts from Chilperic, changed his loyalties. But when Godin showed cowardice in battle, Chilperic seized the estates he had given him. The failed attack, then, was Godin's attempt at revenge.

The further consequences of Merovech's marriage drive the next major events.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Merovingian Mondays: Exit Sigibert

Now you can't just set up a reason for hatred between Chilperic and his brother Sigibert (see last Monday's post) without it paying off, and Gregory does his best to deliver. What proceeds is a rather complicated series of wars between Chilperic, Sigibert, and Guntram. At the beginning, it's mostly Sigibert and Guntram fighting over the possession of various cities, with Chilperic only occasionally entering the action. Gregory does not go into much detail on these wars, and does his best to make Guntram look as good as possible.

Then Chilperic gets going, or rather his son Theudebert (a son of his first wife, not Fredegund). Chilperic sends Theudebert to capture the cities of Tours and Poitiers, and more territory further south, all of which belonged to Sigibert's kingdom; Gregory points out that Theudebert was thus breaking an oath of fealty to Sigibert. But oathbreaking was, according to Gregory, the least of his crimes. He killed the civilian population, and threatened to burn cities. Worst of all, according to Gregory, were his attacks on the church: "He burned the churches, stole their holy vessels, killed the clergy, emptied the monasteries of monks, raped the nuns in their convents and caused devastation everywhere. There was even more weeping in the churches at this period than there had been at the time of Diocletian's persecution."

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Luther and the bigamous landgrave

I have to admit that today's post isn't much more than 450-year-old gossip, but it's an interesting look at the political angle of the Reformation.

Landgraf Philipp of Hesse was one of the most important secular supporters of Protestantism in its early years. He was ruler of the state of Hesse, and in 1526, he was one of the first princes to publicly break with the Catholic Church and declare his allegiance to the Protestant movement (indeed, he was the one who organized the "Protestation" of the territories interested in the new religious ideas, a way of forming them into a voting bloc at the 1529 Diet of Speyer. That event is the root of the word "Protestant"). In 1527, he founded the University of Marburg in his capital city, the first Protestant university. In 1529, he tried to bring Luther and Zwingli together to iron out their differences and unify the Protestant movement; it failed when Luther refused to compromise on the question of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. But he was instrumental in organizing the pan-Protestant military league, the Schmalkaldic League, which proved to be a vital protection for the growing movement. His leadership, in short, was vital for the Protestant movement.

Landgrave Philipp of Hesse, as a rather young man. He had only one wife at this point.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bad history and great stories

The Cornbury legend is a great case of the perpetuation of bad history. Patricia Bonomi explains in the introduction to her book The Lord Cornbury Scandal that it was a basic part of the historical narrative that Cornbury was the worst colonial governor ever. He was corrupt, wanted to be called "his high mightiness," and insisted that all the men attending his welcome banquet file past his wife's ears in order to admire their "shell-like conformation." These stories turned up in popular media, but also consistently in the work of professional historians from the nineteenth century on.

The cross-dressing story was a basic part of the narrative of Cornbury's badness, indeed, it became symbolic of it. But it also had something of a life of its own. The portrait hanging in the New-York Historical Society is a very visible and visually arresting way of telling it. And it's a great little bit of juicy narrative, just right for putting into a lecture, an "Amazing Facts You Didn't Know About American History" book or article (or a blog like this one). I know I first encountered the story in just such a book.

As the story was passed on, nobody bothered to check the sources. The story about Cornbury, including the cross-dressing, appeared in a history of New York written in 1757, and was repeated over the course of the nineteenth century. It appears that historians just repeated what they had read in earlier books.

Bonomi argues that all of this story goes back to a few letters written by Cornbury's enemies. He had his share (he was, after all, a committed agent of royal power attempting to assert it over a population that had been used to doing things its own way, especially in New Jersey), many of whom were very talented at invective. But there's extremely little actual proof of any of those problems, from the bribe-taking to the cross-dressing. It appears that a major revision of Cornbury's reputation is warranted.

For the most part, it's not that big of a deal. How many of us really care whether or not Cornbury was the worst colonial governor? But the cross-dressing seems destined to linger on.

Portrait of an unknown woman

Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, was the colonial governor of New York and New Jersey from 1702-1708. He was not particularly successful, facing fierce opposition in the colonies, and was recalled to England.

Colonial governors rarely enter into the general narrative of American history. With a few very rare exceptions (especially William Bradford from Massachusetts) they are now known primarily to specialists in Colonial history, especially to those who study politics. But Lord Cornbury has become somewhat more notorious, mostly because of a portrait that has hung for years in the New-York Historical Society.


The label on that portrait, added in 1867, explains what's going on: "Among other apish tricks, lord Cornbury ["half-witted son" of the earl of Clarendon] is said to have held his state levees at New York, and received the principal colonists dressed up in complete female court costume, because, truly, he represented the person of a female sovereign, his cousin, queen Anne."

That's a quotation from a book written in 1847. The portrait was exhibited at the South Kensington Museum in London in 1867, part of an exhibit of British portraiture. It's not a particularly great painting, nor was Cornbury that important a figure. It was there because the story attached to it was so great: a prominent cross-dresser.

The New-York Historical Society bought the painting and displayed it. Their justification is a bit better, he was colonial governor of the state, after all, but it's clearly there primarily because it's such a good story.

Too bad it's almost certainly not true.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Merovingian Mondays: Introducing Fredegund

Last week, we saw that the brothers were all getting married, especially to women of low birth. Chilperic was among those who married a servant, taking as one of his wives a woman named Fredegund. For such a major figure, Gregory barely gives her much of an introduction, however; she is at first mentioned only in passing in the context of another story.

It's quite a story, though.

King Sigibert decided that it would be a good idea to make a dynastic marriage. So he arranged with a Spanish king to marry his daughter Brunhild. Brunhild will prove to be a recurring character, and it's clear that Gregory admired her. His description: "This young woman was elegant in all that she did, lovely to look at, chaste and decorous in her behaviour, wise in her generation and of good address." It should also be mentioned that she had a very large dowry, too. She was an Arian Christian (a sect of Christians who denied the Trinity, believing that God the Son was a seperate and lesser being than God the Father. It was quite prevalent in Late Antiquity, especially among the ruling families in the West), but willingly converted to Roman Christianity when she married Sigibert.

The idea of marrying for political reasons was evidently quite appealing to Chilperic, who decided to copy his brother. He went to the same Spanish king and offered to marry one of Brunhild's sisters, promising to dismiss all his other wives. The king agreed, and Chilperic married Galswinth, Brunhild's older sister. Gregory quite wonderfully reports, "He loved her very dearly, for she had brought a large dowry with her."

Friday, December 9, 2011

Giovanni and Lusanna and the meanings of marriage

Wrapping up this week's posting, (see parts 1, 2 and 3 first).

When we look at Giovanni and Lusanna's arguments about whether or not the marriage would plausibly have taken place, we see two visions of marriage in conflict. On the one hand, there is Giovanni's argument: why would he ever agree to marry her? She is of lower social standing, too old, and infertile. At the heart of this argument is the assumption that marriage is primarily about the exchange of property and the strategic alliance of families. Lusanna had nothing to offer a wealthy and powerful family: her wealth was insignificant compared to theirs, her family offered no political or commercial advantage, her birth offered no social prestige, she would give no children to carry on the family. That was the center of the secular view of marriage at the time.

Rubens, The Marriage by Proxy of Marie de Medici to Henry IV, 1622-25. Perhaps the ultimate in idea of marriage-as-alliance, a royal marriage between the King of France and the daughter of the Grand Duke of Florence. The king didn't even attend the ceremony; the bride's uncle stood in for him.
Lusanna appealed to the church's view of marriage. Marriage was about the union of two consenting people before God. Those secular concerns, including procreation, need not enter into it. In her own mind, if we accept Gene Brucker's interpretation, the marriage was about their love. She had plenty of opportunities to make a marriage with a man of her own class, but she wanted to marry the man with whom she had a passionate love affair. She wanted her marriage to be about the mutual affection of the couple, not material or social concerns. Giovanni might even have thought that way, too, for awhile (it seems likely to me that there was a wedding, presumably he thought it was a good idea), before changing his mind and making a conventional marriage for a man of his age and class.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"It is not credible that he would ever have accepted her as his wife"

We know about Giovanni and Lusanna (see yesterday's post for the basics) because we have the transcripts of the trial. Thus, we have the story that both of them (and their varying witnesses) tell, and the arguments that their advocates made. What we don't have, obviously, is what actually happened.

But as Gene Brucker points out in his book about them (called, appropriately, Giovanni and Lusanna) is that even the stories that they tell are not necessarily their versions of events, but the version of events that they think the court would want to hear and would find believable. Thus, Lusanna portrayed herself as an honorable woman and widow, who wouldn't have dreamed of even meeting with Giovanni until he promised her marriage. Giovanni portrayed her as a woman without honor, who had affairs with several men, including Giovanni, before the death of her husband. He even implied that she might have killed her husband. If you were to ask them to narrate their stories privately, they might have told them differently, but in front of the court, they had to assign roles both to themselves and to the other. It seems very likely that the affair between Giovanni and Lusanna began before her husband's death, but "adulterous spouse who, nonetheless, contracted a valid marriage with her lover" was not a role calculated to win the court's sympathy.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Was there a marriage, or not?

In yesterday's post, I outlined just how loose the rules about marriage were in the Middle Ages. For the next few days, I want to look at one of the best-known cases to emerge from those problems.

Gene Brucker's book Giovanni and Lusanna is one of the classic microstudies, a brief, in-depth account of a case involving otherwise obscure people. It provides an excellent window into the complexities and multiple understandings of marriage in the mid-fifteenth century.

In the 1450s, Giovannia and Lusanna met. According to Lusanna, Giovanni followed her and approached her in public areas, making his amorous intentions clear. She says that she would have nothing to do with him until 1453, when her husband died. At that point, Giovanni became even more public about his intentions, walking back and forth outside her father's house. Her father spoke with him and made it clear that she would have nothing to do with him unless they married. Giovanni agreed, and the two were married in her father's house. A friar officiated at the ceremony and several members of her family were in attendance. But there was no notary to document the marriage (in Florence, it was normally a notary, not a clergyman, who performed the ceremony), and the marriage was not made public. Giovanni did not want his father to find out that he had married a woman of much lower birth.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Love, marriage, property and consent

Yesterday's discussion of marriage among the Merovingians led me to think about one of the odder aspects of marriage in the middle ages: there were, according to official church rules, very few set rules for how you got married.

If a couple wanted to get married all they had to do was to exchange words of consent in the present tense ("I marry you." "I marry you." That's all). If they exchanged words of consent in the future or conditional tense ("I will marry you when I am eighteen." "I will marry you if my parents say it's all right."), and then consummate the marriage, the marriage was valid.

That's it. They didn't have to be in a church. They didn't need a clergyman. They didn't even need witnesses. It didn't matter if they were both fourteen. It didn't matter if one or both of them was drunk. It didn't matter if their parents didn't want them to marry each other. The two could exchange those words of consent all alone, but the marriage would be valid.


Jan Van Eyck, Arnofili Portrait, 1434. Art historians have been debating exactly what's going on in this painting for the better part of a century, so I'm not going to try to make a definitive statement. But it's worth noting that a wedding is a plausible reading of the portrait. The ceremony is being held in a private house, with just a few witnesses (visible in the mirror), but no clergymen. The fact that this could be read as a marriage shows just how loose the rules for marriage were in the Middle Ages.
You can imagine the possible problems, especially given that proving the exchange of consent took place can be tricky if there are no witnesses and one member of the couple (usually the man) denied that any such exchange took place. And, of course, there were the angry parents.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Merovingian Mondays: Charibert and his many wives

The Merovingian kings were Roman Christians; their grandfather, Clovis, had quite famously converted in the fifth century. This fact set them apart from many of their contemporaries; most of the Germanic kings of the era followed a heretical Christian sect. As a result, the Roman church was quite eager to support them. But there was one major Christian custom that the Merovingian kings were not willing to embrace: monogamy. Almost all of the kings took multiple wives.

They did not limit themselves to members of the aristocracy when choosing wives. Rather, the kings took whatever woman attracted them. King Charibert, for example, married a woman named Ingoberg. But the king "fell violently in love" with two poor women, named Marcovefa and Merofled, who were servants to his wife. Gregory reports that Ingoberg was jealous of the two women, and so put their father, a wool-worker, to work where the king would see him; her plan was to remind him of the women's low birth. Ingoberg called Charibert to her, but when he saw the woolworker at work, he knew immediately what his wife was intending. So he dismissed her in anger, and took Merofled as his wife.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Scandal, translation and Voltaire's shadow

For a long time, Émilie du Châtelet was known primarily as Voltaire's mistress. She was called "Voltaire's divine mistress" and known primarily as the woman who lived with him for sixteen years at her husband's chateau, setting it up as a center of intellectual community. (Her husband was a career military officer; the two had very different interests and agreed to live their lives separately. She bore him three children; he ignored her very public affairs after that.)

She did lead a pretty scandalous life (her death in 1749 was a result of giving birth to the child she conceived from her affair with a young officer), and she was the subject of a lot of gossip in her lifetime. But over the last seventy years (the shift in interest in her began as far back as 1941), she has emerged as a significant Enlightenment thinker in her own right, as "la docte Émilie."

Émilie du Châtelet. Not your typical portrait of an eighteenth-century noblewoman, though she is stylishly dressed. The portrait emphasizes her learning: note the books and the compass. Even her pose emphasizes that she is a thinker.

She had a deep interest in learning from childhood, an interest that her parents, both active in the intellectual world of Paris, supported. She had excellent teachers, and was allowed to participate in the discussions held at her parents' house. After her marriage, she hired some of the top mathematicians and physicists in France to tutor her.

Gaining in translation

Last week we looked at Prague; tonight, it's Poland. Poland in the Renaissance, in fact.

Not a place we normally think about as a major center of Renaissance culture, but there was, indeed a Polish Renaissance. It's most visible now in the form of architecture, but there was a great deal of interest in Renaissance ideas there, at least among the nobility.

Krasiczyn Castle, an example of Polish Renaissance architecture. It's the sort of place that the people who read the Polish translation of The Courtier would have lived.

The Renaissance, as a cultural movement, began in Northern Italy, and as it spread to the rest of Europe in the sixteenth century, its Italian origins were high in people's minds. People associated Italy with the new and exciting ideas and techniques. Italian artists and writers who couldn't make it in Italy were often able to get jobs in foreign courts. And Francis I of France even managed to hire Leonardo da Vinci for awhile.

Written materials, too, went from Italy to the rest of Europe. Many of the more important works of the Italian Renaissance were translated into other languages, and they could be pretty influential. The Decameron for example, was a major inspiration for Chaucer (both the basic form of The Canterbury Tales and the plot of the Clerk's Tale come right from Boccaccio) and Shakespeare (All's Well that Ends Well, not one of his best, is a Boccaccio plot, too).

One of the most popular texts of all was Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier, a book in the form of a discussion between several men and women in the court of Urbino, in Central Italy. The participants are playing a game, seeking to define the ideal courtier. They discuss what he should know, how he should act, and how he should dress. As the idea of the court was becoming more important throughout Europe, the book was a model for how those in the court should be acting.

In his book The Renaissance, Peter Burke examines the Polish translation of The Courtier. What he finds is that it's not a direct translation. Rather, it's an adaptation, reworking the book to fit a Polish context.