By Weiao Xing (@WeiaoX)
Basking in the sacred light, the Virgin Mary is greeted by Gabriel in an oriental wooden house ornamented with delicate lines and patterns (fig. 1). This unique Annunciation, as one of the fifteen hybridised images, appeared in a seventeenth-century print for Chinese rosary prayers. Its source version was Evangelicae historiae imagines, which was published in 1593 (fig. 2). The Portuguese prelate João da Rocha (1565–1623) is believed to have ‘translated’ these copperplates into indigenous-inspired woodcuts in Nanjing, a vibrant city in East China. This endeavour was completed in around 1620, after the local persecution of Christians which erupted in 1616 when European missionaries were arrested and repatriated to Macao.
Philippa Carter (@extispicium)
In The accomplisht cook (1660), the English chef Robert May recommended to his readers a feast ‘to be used at Festival Times, as Twelfth Day [of Christmas]’. All the budding cook had to do, May explained, was to construct – in pastry – a castle, a ship laced with gunpowder, a wine-filled stag impaled with an arrow, one pie containing live frogs, and another live birds. Once served, it was simply a matter of persuading ‘some of the Ladies’ Read more
By Eleanor Warren (@elmwarren)
I was shown this sculpture by the local key-holder on a visit to Stanwick Church in 2014. It was a surprise and a joy to see this sculpted stone, which was not on display but languishing in a cupboard in the church vestry.
The stone is the head of an early medieval cross, depicting an image of the crucifixion on one face, and interlaced foliage on the other. Christ’s arms end in three-fingered hands with the thumbs held apart, and a line across the left arm suggests he is robed. The centre of the cross is marked by a boss. Figural representations are the rarest surviving category of pre-Conquest sculpture, but the iconography is similar to a small group of other cross heads from Yorkshire and displays an Irish-Scandinavian influence. It is likely to date from the late ninth or early tenth century. The crude carving shows a low level of skill and a lack of iconographic knowledge from the sculptor, and this, alongside the number of surviving cross fragments found in Yorkshire, suggests that sculptures in this region were produced for secular patrons with varying degrees of wealth and education.
By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)
In May 2018, the Republic of Ireland voted by a landslide to remove the 8th Amendment from its constitution. The Amendment stated that the right to life of the unborn child was equal to that of the mother, which essentially made abortion illegal unless the mother’s life was at risk. The referendum result was heralded as a sign of Ireland’s rapid secularisation, and the declining influence of the Catholic Church.
In the summer of 1985, just over thirty years before Ireland would overwhelmingly vote to decriminalise abortion, the nation witnessed a wave of Marian apparitions. It became known as ‘The Summer of the Moving Statues’. Read more
By Stephen Preston, Heritage and Cultural Coordinator at St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh (@StGilesHighKirk)
The National Covenant of Scotland of 1638 was a document designed as a nationwide petition to King Charles I of England and Scotland, requesting that he cease trying to impose Anglicanism on Scotland and leave it to be Presbyterian. This, at a time when both England and Scotland’s reformations were less than 100 years old and Anglicanism was still a little too close to Catholicism for some. In this context, the authors of the Covenant attacked Anglicanism with some pretty damning language. Phrases such as ‘…his five bastard sacraments…’ and ‘…blasphemous opinion of transubstantiation…’ but also ‘…seeing that many are stirred up by Satan and that Roman Antichrist…’ perhaps hint to the feeling against Anglicanism in Scotland. Unfortunately, the Covenant did not have the desired effect. Whilst the Covenant clearly attacked the King’s policy, the Covenant never questions the King himself, the Scottish lords ‘…stand to the defence of our dread Sovereign the King’s Majesty …’. Charles appears to have ignored this olive branch from the Covenanters, and pressed ahead with the imposition of the Anglican Church in Scotland.
Image: Photograph by Stephen Preston
By Madeleine Armstrong
If you’ve ever had to make a difficult choice, you’ll be familiar with the nauseating conflict between the head and the heart. You may have drawn a dozen pros-and-cons lists, only to go with the option that simply felt right. We are accustomed to seeing reason and passion in conflict, and always feel we need to choose one over the other. This is one of the reasons I, as a historian, am drawn to the eighteenth century: it is an era which appears caught in the crossfire between a ‘rational’ Enlightenment, and a cult of ‘sensibility’. But reason and passion were not always enemies. In the mid- to late-eighteenth century in Britain, many philosophers tried to bring the two together in harmony. The movement for ‘rational sentiment’ is an important and overlooked feature of the eighteenth century, and offers wisdom for our own time. Read more
Tom Smith and Helen Sunderland (Doing History in Public) talk to Judd Birdsall, Managing Director of the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies based at Clare College, Cambridge
Doing History in Public: Hi Judd. Could you tell us a bit more about CIRIS and its work?
Judd Birdsall (CIRIS): The Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies (CIRIS) is a multi-disciplinary research centre at Clare College, Cambridge. We aim to provide students, practitioners, and the general public with credible and engaging insights that will shape new scholarship, sound policy, and constructive debate on the role of faith in international affairs. Read more
By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)
Vladimir Putin was unsurprisingly victorious in this month’s presidential elections on the 18th of March. As with all political campaigns, candidates routinely utilise powerful self-branding images. In Putin’s case, historic forms of Russian exceptionalism were re-imagined to run on a distinct platform based on anti-Americanism, similar to his previous campaigns. Michael Bohm, in a 2013 article, suggested that Putin was determined to turn Russia into the only leading world power that can hold its own against the U.S. This anti-American branding of Russian exceptionalism alongside long held notions of Russian Orthodoxy and Holy Russia were harnessed to amass public support throughout the election. His conservative stance on gay rights and support of the Russian Orthodox church are indicative of this. Read more
By Fred Smith | @Fred_E_Smith
The disturbing events which have recently unfolded in the small English town of Salisbury appear to belong more to the set of a Hollywood spy thriller or the pages of an Ian Fleming novel than to reality. From a historical perspective, the role of spies and informants on all sides during both the Second World War and the Cold War is well known. However, over the last twenty years, historians have increasingly come to recognise that it was during the early modern period that ‘modern’ methods and strategies of international espionage first began to develop. Stephen Alford, for example, has shone new light on Francis Walsingham’s role as Elizabeth I’s ‘Spymaster’ – research which informed a three-part BBC series last year. Similarly, a recent article by Sebastian Sobecki has uncovered the importance of an English spy, John Peyton, in providing intelligence on Spanish diplomatic activity in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth around the turn of the seventeenth century. Read more
By Elly Barnett – @
On the Monday before Lent, wrote comedic poet John Taylor in 1639, a farmer returned home to his wife ‘busily making Pancakes for him and his family’. After he criticised the quality of the fare – ‘the coursenesse of the flower, the taste of the Suite [suet- fat], the thicknesse of the Batter’ – the farmer’s wife decided to teach her husband a lesson, ‘knowing he was better experienced in the Plough, than the Panne, and to eate Pancakes better than to make them’! Telling him to wait outside with his back to the door and the plate outstretched in front of him, she promised to toss the pancake through the chimney from which it would land merrily onto his dish. Instead, in retribution for his snide comments, the wife ‘came suddenly behinde him, & with the pan and all clapt the Pancake upon his head’. With his hair ‘well basted with the fat of the Panne’, the ridiculed husband scorned his wife as ‘an arrant Shrew’ and named the day ‘Shrewes Munday’ and the next ‘Shrews Tuesday’ in her honour. Read more
By Robert Evans @R_AH_Evans
Five hundred years ago this October, the German monk, Martin Luther (probably) nailed his famous 95 theses to Wittenberg’s cathedral door. This sparked a lengthy and complex process of religious transformation across Europe. Luther’s views continue to have consequences for the modern world and as this anniversary approaches, there are many questions to ask about Luther’s legacy. It is, however, also instructive to consider the parallels between the Reformation and earlier Christian debates. How radical or new was the Reformation within the broader sweep of Christian history? Read more
By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys
Theoretically, twenty-first-century Britain is tolerant; it is a place where diverse opinions can flourish. However, when opinions come into conflict, the appropriate course of action is not always obvious. As last year’s “Gay cake” row highlighted, the line between intolerance and a principled stance can be unclear. At the same time, as the recent resignation of the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron demonstrates, those who appear willing to put aside their personal belief in the name of promoting the principle of tolerance can find their integrity under scrutiny. Read more
By Robert Evans @R_AH_Evans
This Sunday, millions around the world will gather to celebrate Easter. They will listen to historical documents written almost two thousand years ago, purporting to describe the last hours, death, and physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a religious teacher from first-century Palestine. Those events, and the documents which supposedly describe them, have had an unsurpassed impact on world history. Yet for many in modern society, the first Easter seems clouded in mystery and suspicion. Among the writings known as the New Testament, we have four lives of Jesus, known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but what are we to make of them? What is a ‘Gospel’? Why and how were they written? What do they claim to be? Read more
By Alex Wakelam – @A_Wakelam
Anyone with even a passing awareness of western politics over the last year will have been bombarded with the phrase “Fake News”, whether to describe genuine falsehood circulated as fact or as the rallying cry of bombastic autocrats denying the validity of news sources that disagree with them. While the phrase seems like a recent development (the Wikipedia page for fake news was only created in January 2017), the concept of disseminating falsehoods as factual recaps of events is certainly not a new one. Probably one of the most famous pre-modern examples is the Donation of Constantine, an excerpt of the Constitutum Constantini which was itself drawn up from a ninth century Frankish work entitled Peseudo-Isidorian Dectrals, also known as the False Dectrals. This forgery supposedly consists of a decree of the Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Emperor) giving the Pope control over Rome and the Western Roman Empire. Unsurprisingly, it was used by a number of Popes from the eleventh century in their attempts to enforce authority over unruly feudal lords until it was finally proved to be a forgery in the fifteenth century by humanist Lorenzo Valla. Spreading deliberate, politically motivated, fake news in the middle ages took a serious amount of effort and while false stories of a mythical nature travelled across Europe organically, it took the printing press and the continent wide paranoia that came with the Reformation to usher in the first great age of fake news. Read more
By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys
In October 2004, Christians, trade-unionists, and the festively-inclined rejoiced at the introduction of the Christmas Day (Trading) Act. Ever since then it has been illegal for large shops to be open on Christmas Day; workers theoretically have the chance to rest and spend time with loved ones; Christians can celebrate the festival undisturbed by other commitments. Three-and-a-half centuries before this legislation came into force the picture was somewhat different. In December 1643, zealously Christian shopkeepers stubbornly tried (and failed) to keep their businesses trading on Christmas Day against the riotous objections of the apprentice-boys of London. The dispute over Christmas trading and other festivities that lasted for much of the next two decades meant that for the rest of the seventeenth century it was the opening of shops of Christmas Day, rather than their closing, that was regarded as an expression of a pious Protestantism. Read more
By Alex Wakelam | @A_Wakelam
It should come as no surprise to most that the festival of Christmas, as practised by Europeans, did not come into existence at this time of year by itself. Long before the supposed birth of the Nazarene, ancient cultures celebrated a number of winter festivals. Nor is this acknowledgment necessarily a new one; in 1560 the new Church of Scotland issued its First Book of Doctrine (whose authors included John Knox), which declared that ‘the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady’ were the inventions of papists as they had no basis ‘in God’s scriptures’. Christmas was clearly an invention of the Church, but it is also clear that this invention was not without its own sources even if they were more pagan than biblical. Read more
Harriet Lyon (@HarrietLyon) reviews the recent world premiere of Kepler’s Trial: An Opera by Tim Watts based on Ulinka Rublack’s book The Astronomer & the Witch.
In December 1615, the renowned astronomer Johannes Kepler first received news that his elderly mother, Katharina, had been accused by a neighbour of witchcraft. A victim of the witch craze that swept through early seventeenth-century Germany, Katharina’s torment lasted for six long years, during which time Johannes temporarily abandoned his research to concentrate on building his mother’s defence. After being subject to a humiliating criminal trial and serving a spell of more than a year in prison, Katharina was finally exonerated in September 1621. This was an ordeal from which she never recovered: Katharina died just six months later aged seventy-six. Read more