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Traditionalism and the Ancestral Cult in Ancient Rome

January 29th, 2011 No comments

Traditionalism is a quality that can be found within every culture and civilization. Humankind’s obsession with historical convention spans beyond the limits of recorded history, but takes root at a time that has arguably been called the beginning of civilization. The people of Ancient Rome emphasized the importance of traditionalism to the extent of extreme fanaticism, which ultimately became the Roman Ancestral Cult. The Ancestral Cult is significant because it laid the foundation for Roman religion, which made vital use of ritualism, folklore, and ancestral praise. I contend that tradition and ritualism were two defining qualities of Roman culture, which thrived for thousands of years afterward.

Much of what we know about early Roman life comes from the Greek writer Polybius, who published the earliest preserved historical narrative about Roman life . Ploybius writes about Roman burial practices, which involved the practice of ancestor worship at the funeral and afterward at ritual sacrifices and holiday observances. It was customary for the eldest son to speak first at the funeral. He would begin by praising the virtues of the deceased, as if he were sizing up the shoes that he was expected (or perhaps destined) to fulfill. The Romans honored their dead with tenacity, casting masks of the deceased into household shrines along with other family heirlooms and paraphernalia . The masks would be carefully adorned only during special religious services. Men of the same physical likeness as the deceased would don themselves in clothing that was symbolic of the forebear’s rank, and arrive to the ritual in ceremonious chariots so that all would be reminded of their glorious deeds. This practice of reenactment helped to solidify feelings of pride and ambition in the younger generation, who also sought to bring honor and glory to their family.

Many Ancient Romans preserved a family member’s legacy just as we do, in the epitaph on a tombstone. A noteworthy difference is evident in the dialogue, which would often display an intense amount of grief for whomever was buried below. Basic knowledge regarding Roman history tells us that the Romans were lovers of drama, and this assertion is supported by the poetic nature of their epitaphs. An excellent example of this artistic grieving practice is evident on the gravestone of a Roman woman named Turia, who had been outlived by her dear husband . The kind words of her widower transcend the barrier of linguistic translation, which often taints the poetic nature of the original message. In the closing lines he writes: “Your last wishes I have regarded as law; what-ever it will be in my power to do in addition, I shall do.” Although such passionate words require a great amount of skill, as well as emotion to write, similar messages can be found on many other tombs .

These grieving practices can all be looped into the phenomenon of the Roman Ancestral Cult. This institution provided Romans with religious framework that lasted until the Emperor Constantine converted the empire to Christianity. Many of the customs that were established as a part of the cult survived the Christian conversion, and evolved into practices that can still be observed in Western civilization today. They evolved as parts of a greater phenomenon, which dictated many of the rules and customs in Ancient Roman Culture. Social conventions such as patriarchy and death rituals have roots deep within Roman history, and we continue to exercise them today.

Muslim and Christian Interaction During the Crusades and its Lasting Effects

January 15th, 2011 Comments off

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The early 11th century was a time of tumult, growth and expansion in medieval Europe. The Christian church had become the most powerful influence in the lives of the people. It defined law, social expectation and intellectual pursuit and created perceptions about the meaning of life and death in the minds of nearly every person on the continent. The Church was intertwined with the legal and governing systems, and at the very least influenced, but normally had direct authority over who would be a lord, who would be nobility and who would be king. At the time of the first crusade in 1096, the only non-Christian religious sect which was tolerated in Europe was Judaism, but even they were daily being persecuted by the ruling Christian government. The first crusade took European knights (mainly French) all the way to Jerusalem, slaying anyone and everyone, including innocent women and children and capturing the Holy Land for The Christian Church. This set the tone for what would ultimately become 200 years of war and terror, mainly in the Middle East but technically all over the western region of the world. Fighting wars for the Christian God became a lifestyle and a mentality. It was around the end of the 13th century that the desire and vision of the crusades had finally played itself out. The ultimate goal of the crusades, to secure and maintain influence and control for the Christian Church in the Holy Land was a dismal failure and, in fact, the last four Crusades were fought without Papal support. While the Christian presence in the Holy Land did not hold for long, the crusades certainly had an effect on the perceptions of the people involved. These wars, while mainly destructive and ultimately non-productive, fostered an exchange between the west and east that clearly molded the world views and intellectual pursuits of the people of the east and west. The mixture of the Muslim and Christian cultures caused people of these backgrounds to investigate their counterpart ways of living and observing life. Language, foods, clothing and lifestyle were altered through this extended contact with the other.

The first crusade was instigated by Pope Urban II at the council in Clermont. He was addressing the nobility present, but expected that his message would be spread far and wide. He was calling to arms all of those devout in the Christian faith, decrying the Muslim expansion by the Turks, warning that if these good Christians did not fight they too would be condemned and promising the reward of forgiveness and eternal life to all of those who would obey. “Remission of sins will be granted for those going thither, if they end a shackled life either on land or in crossing the sea, or in struggling against the heathen. I, being vested with that gift from God, grant this to those who go.” While the pope’s speech eloquently outlined the pious reasons to fight this crusade, the realistic reasons for inciting and following such a movement were quite different. The crusades were mainly fought by medieval knights who for some time had been flooding the population of Europe and causing an undue amount of contention within society. The Church saw the crusade as a way to get these young nobles out of Europe and stop the infighting at once. From the soldier’s points of view, traveling to a far off land in the name of God was an amusing way to gain status, build their monetary worth or possibly be granted title- all with the promise of being forgiven any sin that they may be forced to commit in serving their God.

The

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Muslim and Christian Interaction During the Crusades and its Lasting Effects (Part 2)

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Capture of Jerusalem by the Franks went on for five weeks and resulted in the deaths of more than 70,000 of the inhabitants of the city, including innocent women and children. While the Frankish telling of this siege is one of glamour and glory, the Muslim and Byzantine perspectives of the Franks were not quite as complimentary. Fulcher of Chartres, who was present at the address by Pope Urban II in Clermont, followed the crusade to Jerusalem to document his people’s activities. His description of the Frankish soldiers was plainly sympathetic- as one would expect, while his opinion of the people of Jerusalem, the Saracens, was that they were the heathen, godless creatures whose final end was deserved, and even willed, by God himself. “Then the Franks entered the city magnificently at the noon-day hour on Friday, the day of the week when Christ redeemed the whole world on the cross. With trumpets sounding and with everything in an uproar, exclaiming: ‘Help, God!’ they vigorously pushed into the city and straight-way raised the banner on the top of the wall. All the heathen, completely terrified, changed their boldness to swift flight through the narrow streets of the quarters.”

Anna Comnena, the daughter of emperor Alexius, had an alternate opinion of the Frankish crusaders. When they arrived at Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land to be received as friends by the emperor, she had grave doubts as to whether they should be trusted. She understood them as uncivilized barbarians who had neither honor nor integrity. That only one year before the very same people had made war with her people, and won, certainly didn’t help matters. In this instance, the Byzantine Empire had been under the threat and attack of the Turks, and had asked the western nations to send mercenaries to aid in their fight. They sent the Frankish crusaders instead. In addition to the aforementioned, she describes them as cowardly: “Propontis put off the decision day to day; the crossing was deferred with a series of excuses. In fact, of course, he was waiting for Bohemond and the rest of the counts to arrive.” Later in the text she describes them as conceited and foolish: “Although for the day’s sake, he refrained from shooting straight at the Latins, yet whenever one of them in his foolhardiness and arrogance not only fired at the defenders … poured forth a volley of insults in his own language as well, the Caesar did bend his bow.” Comnena’s impression of these brutish crusaders is obviously not parallel to Chartres’ brave, noble knights who so deservingly took Jerusalem.

Ousama Ibn Mounkidh, an Arab author during the 12th century, had yet another opinion on the crusader’s demeanors and abilities. Even more importantly, however, he showed in his writings the contrasting religious and social views of the Muslim and Christian people. In one of his writings he sums up his overall feelings about the new Frankish transplants in Jerusalem: “It is always those who have recently come to live in Frankish territory who show themselves more inhuman than their predecessors who have been established among us and become familiarized with the Mohammedans” He goes on to describe an incident which occurred while he was praying in the mosque, which the Franks had converted into a church. A Christian Frank who had not yet been exposed to Muslim custom grabbed him by the face and turned him east, yelling at him to pray in the proper direction. He says “I went out and was astounded to see how put out this demon was, how he trembled and how deeply he had been affected by seeing anyone pray in the direction of the Kibla.”

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Muslim and Christian Interaction During the Crusades and its Lasting Effects (Part 3)

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He makes many observations of the customs of the Christian people, but above all, regardless of his judgments, he seems confused by them. In his view, honor and courage are the building blocks of a virtuous and godly man. He believes that without honor one cannot be brave and without bravery one cannot be honorable. In the Christians, however, he observes brave and courageous men, capable and successful in battle, but seemingly without honor. His solution is to conclude that they are mere brutes, not even men, and therefore cannot be held to the same standards: “Anyone who is acquainted with what concerns the Franks can only glorify and sanctify Allah the All-Powerful; for he has seen in them animals who are superior in courage and in zeal for fighting but in nothing else, just as beasts are superior in strength and aggressiveness.” It is evident that the mixing of these two cultures had a lasting effect on the views and judgments of all peoples involved.

By 1291, Christian control over the Holy Land had disintegrated, and was back in the hands of the Muslims. After nine crusades, the last of which were not supported by the Christian Church, the people of Europe had grown less interested in flying off to a far away land to risk their lives in the name of Christ. There were more pertinent issues to deal with at home, a massive population of people to support and waning resources. Pope Innocent III had stopped supporting the crusades to the east as they began to fail to secure The Holy Land. With popular support and Papal support gone, there was very little reason for the men to soldier on. The original intention had become a faded memory.

The overall impacts of these 200 years of war can still be seen to the present day. The most evident of the lasting effects are actually only the very worst. There remain Christian inhabitants in the Middle East, and of course the Christian and Muslim peoples of the world are aware of the history between them, as animosities between Christian and Muslim peoples in the world today remain. The persecution of the Jews which began in excess during the crusades in Europe set a standard for their treatment by Muslims and Christians alike as we have seen in the horrific attack of the Judaic faith over the last several hundred years. It isn’t shocking that religious wars only create more hostility between cultures of people. A religious war isn’t like a war over territory or property or even people- it is any attack on the very identity of the man himself. In this way, the most devout soldiers will always be those who go into battle for God and the most tragic and profitless wars will always be the ones that are fought over religion.

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Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale

January 13th, 2011 Comments off

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Through her words and actions, the prioress of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale makes it plainly evident that she is a hypocrite who does not understand her own religion. The prioress’s misconceptions about her own religion lead to an illogical condemnation of Jews, a people who could scarcely be found in England in Chaucer’s period. Her insecurities regarding her sex and confidence in the validity of her faith and also her close-mindedness prevent her from gaining any sort of meaningful knowledge of other religions and peoples. Instead, she tries to spread her bigotry and willful ignorance with an inflammatory version of a tale common in the 14th century. Her tale seeks to elevate Christian women, such as herself, by constant invocations to Mary and the denigration of Jews. Tearing down another group makes hers seem, by comparison, better. To that end, she spews vitriolic anti-Semitism in her ridiculously macabre tale.

To ensure outrage at the murder to come, and to set up her tale, the prioress first must establish the victim as a wholly sympathetic character. While no one doubts the boy’s innocence, the prioress goes to almost comic (and satirical? lengths to also establish his near inhuman virtue. After learning that the Alma Redemptorisis about Mary, whom the boy and prioress both venerate with obsession, he declares:

“Now certes, I wol do my diligence

To conne it al, er Cristemasse be went.

Though that I for my prymer shal be shent,

And shal be beten thryes in an houre,

I wol it conne, oure Lady for to honoure. ” (105–109)

This sort of dedication may be expected from a member of a religious order, such as the prioress, who clearly approves of such a sacrifice. Indeed, the boy’s willingness to suffer multiple beatings for failure to study his primer could even be described as self-flagellation. The problem is that this boy is only seven years old. No amount of indoctrination is going to make a child that young eagerly accept physical abuse in exchange for the opportunity to memorize “by rote” (88) a song. He is not even going to truly study the song and its depths. How could he? He learned of the song by hearing other boys singing it. His peers, even the older ones, have only a superficial understanding of the prayers. So, too, does the prioress. Later on, the boy survives, temporarily at least, a vicious attack. The boy explains to an abbot that “for the worship of his moder dere Yet may I singe O Alma laude and clere” (220–221). Does it matter that he lacks all meaningful comprehension of the prayer? Not according to the prioress. He can mimic the sounds of the prayer and he worships Mary. That is more than sufficient for her. She doesn’t understand the prayer much better than he does; by her standard, he has done all that he needs to. After all, “in Chaucer’s day you were ignorant, or mad, or demonic to think that God did not exist, or could be anything other than the ultimate reality” (Besserman, 60). The laity did not need to spend much time contemplating metaphysics and ethics. However, a religion that lasts requires a careful and thorough examination of its fundamentals. Incoherent mysticism can gain an ephemeral following, but for a religion to survive a millennium, smart people must dedicate time and energy to the development of cohesive, internally consistent theological concepts and tenets. The prioress fails to comprehend the complexities of Catholicism. She reduces Christian virtue to rote memory of prayers. While such memory work is at least valuable in a Christian context, it is not fundamental to the religion.

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Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale (Part 2)

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But, the prioress is not concerned so much with the adherence to legitimate Christian principles but rather to the institution of the Catholic Church, of which she is a part. Her insecurities about her beliefs, a result of not thinking them over, result in her desperate need to cling to the institution. This explains her position as a prioress. She lives in her own cloistered world, leading a group of nuns who do not bother her with provocative or critical questions about the nature their religion. She is a shepherd so engrossed with the affairs of her own flock that she is incapable of understanding outsiders of any sort. Thus, the attack against the boy receives a sudden, too-broad and ultimately unthinking reaction in the tale.

The prioress goes further than mere childhood innocence; she makes the boy Christ-like. She calls the Jews the “cursed folk of Herodes” (140). This not-so-subtle epithet invokes the Biblical account of Christ’s birth and his escape from the infamous order by Herod to slay all the baby boys. The boy in this tale also suffers an untimely death for his Christianity, but at a much earlier age than Jesus. Nevertheless, the parallel between the two is still clearly present, fixed in the minds of the audience. The song itself also conjures associations between the boy and Christ. It was commonly sung during the Boy Bishop rituals, popular in England at the time, which coincided with the Mass of Holy Innocents. “In the Middle Ages, the Holy Innocents were traditionally understood as types of Christ, who was himself in turn often represented in late medieval religious writing and drama as a sacrificial child” (Patterson, 510). Thus, the boy’s Christian goodness is magnified to that of the ultimate exemplar, Christ Himself.

Having elevated the sacrificial victim to a quasi-divine status, the prioress continues her over-the-top tale by vilifying the Jews. She gives the setting as Asia Minor, a Muslim area. In the Middle Ages, Judaism and Islam were often conflated by the Christians of Western Europe. Both groups have darker skin and write using alphabets different from the Roman alphabet. To many of the less than well-traveled people of medieval England, the differences between Judaism and Islam were minor and, more importantly, irrelevant. After all, if Christianity is true, then other religions are necessarily false—at least in the popular view. The special status of the Jews, God’s “chosen people,” within a Christian culture was largely overlooked in the Middle Ages. The particular region she describes is ruled by a Christian, but with a Jewish quarter, sustained by the lord of that country “For foule usure and lucre of vileynye, Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye” (57–58). Medieval Catholic teachings forbade Christians from usury, but that did not mean the practice disappeared. Economic enterprise requires the lending of money—and people tend to be unwilling to lend money without any sort of benefit. In short, usury is a vital component of a healthy economy. The Church condemned a requirement of the society that sustained it. To have it both ways, they simply let Jews become the bankers. According to the prioress, this makes the Jews “hateful to Crist. ” This is blatant hypocrisy. The Christians condemned Jews for taking up a profession that they were simply unwilling to do themselves. This snap-judgment further reveals the Prioress’s own simplistic world-view. She uses inappropriate absolutes to describe religiosity: Christians are good; Jews are evil. What is not evident here is any attempt to understand Judaism or even Christ’s own comments regarding the Jews. She shuts out the Jews, immediately dismissing them as evil.

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Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale (Part 3)

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In so doing, she destroys any possibility of gaining new insight into the religion from which hers derived.

The prioress seeks to further validate her anti-Semitic views by associating Jews with Satan. As the boy sings Alma Redemptoris through the Jewish quarter, Satan whispers into the Jew’s ears. Evidently, Jews are close friends, or at least loyal subjects, of Satan. Indeed, the dark lord “hath in Jewes herte his wasps nest” (125). This is demeaning on several levels. Not only is there the obvious association with Satan himself, but apparently the very hearts of Jews are empty, sub-human shells. Love may dwell in Christian hearts, but Jews have only a wasp’s nest. Satan goes on to admonish the Jews for allowing the boy to sing his prayer against “oure lawes” (130). This is an inflammatory creation on the part of the prioress. The “oure” is slightly problematic; some lesser manuscripts read “youre. ” Either Satan is the lord of the Jews or he at least functions as a protector of their laws. In either case, the implications are the same. Jewish law, as conceived of by the prioress, is violently anti-Christian. By created this falsehood of mutual antipathy, she can better justify her own rabid anti-Semitism.

All of the evils in this tale stem from a lack of knowledge, or misinformation. Bad information ultimately stems from bad epistemology. Neither the prioress, nor any character in her stories, exhibits an understanding as to how to obtain legitimate, truthful knowledge—the kind from which progress flows. As a substitute for real knowledge, rationally ascertained and disseminated, the prioress relies on the emotional response of the audience to physical gore. Acting on direct orders from none other than Satan, the Jews conspired to kill the boy. They hired a murderer who grabs the boy on his way home from school and “kitte his throte, and in a pit him caste” (137). This highly sensational murder is told to incite a purely emotional reaction. There is nothing wrong with emotions, per se. Emotions serve as an automatic manifestation of our most sincere and innate values. However, they are not infallible. A misidentification of how a specific action applies to our values, or even of the values themselves, can result in the wrong emotional response. Emotions wield a strong power over us, but we are still fundamentally rational beings and we need not act on our emotions when reason tells us otherwise.

After the throat slitting, the tale quickly turns even more macabre and disturbing. The boy’s mother finds him and he sings the prayer loudly. Through divine intervention, he is able to overcome physical limitations. He tells the people, “Me thoghte she leyde a greyn upon my tonge” (228). The act of Mary extending the life of a fatally injured boy is theologically complex. How can someone live with a slit throat? How can that person sing? The “greyn” has no direct, logical connection to its effect. It is not a bandage or ointment. The “greyn” is not even placed that close to the wound. So what is the “greyn”? Communion wafers are placed on top of the tongue by the clergy in the Catholic Church. This “greyn” could be a literal grain or seed, or it could be a metonymy for a communion wafer. The prioress, despite her position of religious authority, operates on a very simplistic level regarding religion, just like the boy. She needs a concrete object present. The same principle applies to the sale of absolutions by a pardoner. It is too abstract to just say that by God’s grace the boy was allowed to stay alive a little longer.

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Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale (Part 4)

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There are actually several layers, each progressively more concrete. God is highly abstract, Jesus less so. Mary, who is just a human being, is even more concrete. But even that is not enough. The prioress needs something she can touch. It is highly unlikely that the prioress fully grasps the concept of transubstantiation, but she clearly appreciates religious rituals. She advocates going through with the rituals, such as prayer, even if the person performing the ritual has absolutely no idea what it all really means. Her need for visuals to convey knowledge carries over into the discomforting violence of the final dozen stanzas. Not only is there the violent crime against the boy, and his supernatural singing, but also the retributive justice and dirge by the public and the boy’s mother over his death.

This odious murder of the little boy incites barbarous violence against the Jews. The prioress attempts to justify the wholesale execution of a large number of people though their often tenuous complicity in the heinous crime. The local magistrate gathers up the Jews, declaring:

“Yvel shal have that yvel wol deserve:”

Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,

And after that he heng hem by the lawe. (198–200)

The offending Jews are not only drawn by horses, but also hanged. More importantly, all of this is done in accordance with the law. The prioress already established that this region had a Christian ruler. It follows that the laws and punishments should reflect this Christian background. Christian theology is ostensibly based on love, which when consistently applied should not promote murder. Christ taught his subjects to “turn the other cheek” and love their “brothers. ” The prioress, in being both a woman and more specifically a nun, might reasonably be expected to be a pacifist. She is not; the outraged populace in her tale wants vengeance and they get it. A calm, reasoned approach to the murder (if such a thing is possible), would be to methodically determine whom to blame. With guilt established, perhaps even a Christian argument could be made to justify execution of those involved. Instead, the entire group is mercilessly slaughtered. What follows is treacle displays of mourning for the murdered boy, then a stanza of pure hypocrisy. The prioress offers a final prayer emphasizing, of all things, mercy: “That, of his mercy, God so merciable On us his grete mercy multiplye” (254–255). In only two lines, “mercy” appears three times. In one respect, the prioress is finally getting something right: Christianity does indeed teach mercy. However, they just had an opportunity to show mercy to the Jews, or at least humanity. Instead, they brutally murdered them. Once again, she is able to express the Christian ideas without even beginning to grasp what they mean. A request for mercy is not a meaningless string of words offered because social institutions say it’s the right time. It is a profound statement of humility before a person whose powers exceed your own or, in this case, before God Himself.

The Prioress’s Tale is one of brazen self-righteousness, gross ignorance of other cultures and religions. The title character is hopelessly solipsistic with no ability to look beyond her own carefully constructed fantasy world. As a result, she ends up blindly advocating a host of evils and lesser wrongs.

Bibliography

Besserman, Lawrence. “Ideology, Antisemitism, and Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. ”The Chaucer Review 36. 1 (2001) 48-72

Patterson, Lee. “‘The Living Witnesses of Our Redemption’: Martyrdom and Imitation in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. ” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31. 3 (2001) 507-560.

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