Our Lady of Mercé

First written for Time Out Barcelona Guide.

Our Lady of Mercé
Our Lady of Mercé

You’d have thought that being mother to God would take up all of your time, but you’d be wrong. In fact, as with her Son, not even death has been able to put a stop to the activities of the young woman from Nazareth, and on 1 August 1218 Mary appeared in a vision to a young Catalan named Peter Nolasco, instructing him on how to continue his work of redeeming captives. During the seven-and-a-half centuries of conflict between Christian and Muslim Spain a common feature was the taking of captives for ransom. Now this was all very well if you were a member of the nobility and had someone to pay for your release, but many Christians from poor families were also captured in the general trawling for profit and plunder that took place during a gaza (a religiously sanctioned raid into the dar ul harb or house of war, that part of the world that had not accepted Islam). To be captured during a gaza was by definition to become a slave, a state which could be escaped only by conversion to Islam (which many prisoners did) or redemption. It was this work of buying out of slavery the ‘poor of Christ’ that Peter Nolasco embarked upon, helped by his background as a merchant. In fact, Nolasco switched from buying goods to buying people, but all his efforts seemed only to swell the number of captives held in Muslim hands.

It was at this point that he received his vision of the Blessed Virgin, who advised him to form an order dedicated to the redemption of captives. The next day Nolasco sought an audience with the king, Jaume I, who received him well and agreed to help in the foundation of the Order of the Virgin Mary of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives (or Mercedarians as they are called). The order set up a redemption fund to buy back captives but, if all else failed, each member of the order took personal vows to hand himself over in place of a prisoner. The best estimate we have is that the order brought 11,615 slaves out of captivity between 1218 and 1301.

If that wasn’t enough, Our Lady of Mercy delivered the whole city of Barcelona from a plague of locusts in 1637. A grateful city adopted her as patron and celebrated her feast on 24 September, or at least it did until Franco clamped down on all things Catalan. But sometimes things suppressed simply wait for an opportunity to burst forth, and that’s precisely what happened with the Festes de la Mercé. What had been a simple religious feast turned into a week-long celebration of Catalan identity, all inextricably bound up with a long-dead Jewish girl. But then, what else would we expect of her?

Book review: Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England by Richard Abels

Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England
Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England

A clear and thorough examination of, well, lordship and military obligation in Anglo-Saxon England. Abels is particularly good on the changes brought about by the rise of bookland, that is, land that was given by hereditary right, first to the Church and then to the king’s retainers, and way the kings of Mercia and then Wessex responded by redefining the three common burdens of service, fortifications, bridge maintenance and military service, into the Alfredian system of burhs with garrisons and a standing, mobile army.

An extra commendation for this book having the longest section of footnotes I’ve ever encountered; the text runs from page 1 to 187, the footnotes from 204 to 282! Add in the other appendices, bibliography and index, and there’s an additional 126 pages of text. That’s what I call a proper academic book! But Abels writes well too, so don’t be put off if you’re interested in this, rather specialised, subject.

Book review: Godric by Frederick Buechner

Godric by Frederick Buechner
Godric by Frederick Buechner

I very rarely give a book five stars; Godric deserves it. This short book contains some of the most intensely poetic language I’ve ever read in a novel, but it’s poetry used in service of the story, never in the flashy, look-at-me manner that disfigures self-consciously clever novels. Buechner evokes, mimics and recreates the language and rhythms of the medieval period without ever sacrificing readibility. The protatgonist, St Godric, tells his story from beginning to end, and end to beginning, each telling coming to a natural, beautifully wrought conclusion at the climax of the book. Godric is a saint, but no plaster statue; rather, he is a cantankerous, decrepit old man, alive with fire.

The novel succeeds in bringing to life a man and a spirituality that is almost completely out of step with modern sensibilities: Godric is intensely ascetic, practises mortifications of the flesh including walking barefoot for half a century, immersion in bone-cold water, physical chastisement – all the things we find most incomprehensible nowadays – and yet Buechner makes it all completely natural and matter of fact. Of course Godric would do this. He almost makes me want to do it too, to waken the tepid embers of my own faith. After all, his privations are such small things in comparison to what he sees. This is a world of miracles, but the miraculous is everyday and thus as precious and simple as a new-born’s cry or the first spring flush. In some ways it is impossible to enter into another era, but with Godric, Frederick Buechner has come as close as anyone I’ve read.

Since I’m writing about two earlier, more martial Anglo-Saxon saints, St Edwin (Edwin: High King of Britain is just out from Lion Hudson) and St Oswald (Oswald: Return of the King will be published next Easter), I’ve found Buechner’s approach particularly fascinating. Edwin and Oswald were warriors rather than monks, but the ascetic, miraculous, natural brand of Godric’s Christianity is much like their own.

Book review: Vikings by Neil Oliver

Vikings (and Neil Oliver's lustrous locks)
Vikings (and Neil Oliver’s lustrous locks)

I am naturally inclined to dismiss any book written by a TV presenter, particularly one with locks as lustrous and flowing as Oliver’s, so it pains me to admit: this is really good. Oliver – and I think it is him, not his editor – writes with a sureness of touch and an ability to find the telling detail that brings his subject as close to life as is possible for a people that raged against the dying of the historical light a thousand years ago. His description of the taste, smell and texture of eating preserved basking shark – like ‘a French kiss with the living dead’ – is a classic, and he makes good use of the opportunities offered a TV presenter to bring us closer to Viking life: meeting, at sea, a replica long ship sailing from Norway to Dublin and finding the crew soaked, exhausted, cold and morose, and all too willing to deal out some violence to interlopers, provides a better understanding of life on a drakkan than most academic texts.

Ramon Lull – the Fool of Love

Ramon Lull
Ramon Lull

All right, he’s not strictly speaking a saint, only a blessed, but Ramon Lull (1232-1316) deserves a place in any list of Catalan holy men. However, the Fool of Love was for the first 30 years of his life fool to an altogether more earthly sort of love. Lull was attached to the household of the future James II of Majorca and he eventually became its seneschal. Marriage and two children did nothing to cool his ardent pursuit of the court’s women, to whom he composed many songs in the romantic troubadour style of the period.

‘The more apt I found myself to sin the more I allowed my nature to obey the dictates of my body,’ he wrote later. Not even the shock of one of his amours yielding to his advances, only to reveal breasts ravaged by cancer, could stop his philandering. But then, in the summer of 1263, while Ramon was busy writing another song in honour of a new love, he looked up from his work to see ‘our Lord Jesus Christ hanging upon the Cross’. Lull, his poetic flow seriously interrupted, escaped to his bed, no doubt assuming that a good night’s sleep would clear his mind of such troublesome visions. But when he next returned to songwriting, the figure returned and a terrified Lull again retired to bed. However, Ramon was no dilettante libertine and three times more he returned to his love song, only to be faced with the same figure. Lull decided that these must be authentic visions rather than mental phantoms and he set himself to working out what they meant. In the end he decided that ‘our Lord God Jesus Christ desired none other thing than that he should wholly abandon the world and devote himself to His service’. This he decided to do by trying to convert the unbelievers (in Ramon’s world, this meant chiefly Muslims), by writing a book, ‘the best in the world, against the errors of unbelievers’, and setting up colleges to teach Arabic to missionaries.

Ramon then sold his possessions, though keeping some back to support his wife and children, distributed the proceeds to the poor and spent the next nine years in study. It was only then, approaching his 40th year, that Lull began the literary and missionary work for which he would become famous, known in later centuries as the Doctor Illuminatus, the Illuminated Doctor, from the series of mystical visions he had on Mount Randa in Majorca. The sheer scale of his labours almost defy belief. Lull was the author of 265 works in Catalan, Arabic and Latin; the writer of the seminal Catalan novel, Blanquerna; a missionary in almost constant travel between Europe and north Africa; a teacher at the University of Paris when it was the foremost institution of learning in Christendom; a suitor at papal and imperial courts; and the originator of the Art, a systematisation of, well, everything with respect to God’s attributes. This was the book, ‘the best in the world’, that Lull believed showed the truth and which he illustrated through diagrams, tables and, literally, millions of words.

This indefatigable man continued working throughout his long life. At 75 we find him, on a mission to north Africa, ‘beaten with sticks and with fists, and forcibly dragged along by his beard, which was very long, until he was locked in the latrine of the thieves’ jail’. Ramon continued in this vein until the end and whether his death occurred in Tunis, or on a ship sailing back, we can say that few men have ever packed so much life and adventure into the second half of a life.

Catastrophes and Cataclysms

The discovery of the deep past in the Victorian era by geologists such James Hutton and Charles Lyell carried with it an equally deep commitment to the principle of uniformitarianism: that the Earth of the past operated in the same way as the Earth does today and, as a corolllary, that the planet was formed and is formed by gradual processes; an immortal sparrow, wiping its beak every day upon a mountain will grind even Everest down to dust, given enough time. In part this commitment was born from revulsion against Biblical catastrophism and the explanation of everything by reference to events like the Flood.

Only, it turns out, the Earth’s history is full of catastrophic events that wiped lands from the face of the planet and brought peoples to extinction. Here’s just a couple that occurred over the last few thousand years, a heartbeat in geological time.

The Storegga Slide happened 8,000 years ago, when a huge area of coastal shelf off Norway slipped into the Atlantic abyss, triggering a huge tsunami that inundated the eastern side of Britain and drowned Doggerland, the low-lying land mass that stretched into the North Sea and physically linked Britain to the continent.

Here’s a short video about the Storegga Slide.

The Earth had suffered through the long cold of the last Ice Age and, at last, the glaciers were retreating and people started moving north again. The warming seems to have been extraordinarily fast, and the glaciers melted quickly. Unfortunately, melting glaciers produce water, lots of cold water, and that has to go somewhere. Most drained into the oceans, but the geography of North America was such that an immense lake formed roughly where Lake Winnipeg lies today – only it covered a vastly greater area. Lake Agassiz contained more fresh water than all the lakes and rivers in the world today, and a chain of still unbroken glaciers held it in place, stopping the water draining into the ocean. But then, the dam broke.

Lake Agassiz
Lake Agassiz

Vast amounts of cold fresh water drained into the North Atlantic Ocean, reducing its salinity and stopping the Gulf Stream dead in its tracks. The Ice Age went into reverse, the glaciers started grinding south again, and the cold returned, just as quickly as it had left.

The Battle of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto by Andrea Vicentino.
The Battle of Lepanto by Andrea Vicentino.

A neutral observer in the sixteenth century would have concluded that it was only a matter of time before the armies of Islam conquered all of Europe. Since the Arabs had burst from their desert fastnesses in the seventh century they had carried all before them. The first surge had seen all the previously Christian lands of north Africa and much of the middle East become Muslim, while the Persian Sasanian empire had also fallen. By 750 Islam ruled all the countries in a broad band from Spain in the west to what is now Pakistan in the east. Only the Byzantine Empire, the Christian successor to Rome founded by Constantine, prevented the advance of Muslim armies into Europe.

Centuries of consolidation and gradual expansion followed, as the strength of the Byzantines was gradually whittled away until, a millennium after its foundation, Constantinople fell in 1453 to the forces of the expanding Ottoman empire and its great sultan, Mehmet II, who was aptly nicknamed ‘the Conqueror’. Internal struggles temporarily halted the Ottoman onslaught, but with the accession of Suleiman I (1520-66) the attack on Europe resumed. Hungary was conquered and Vienna besieged in 1529. If freak rain storms had not caused Suleiman to abandon his artillery it’s almost certain that Vienna would have been taken, leaving the advance into Germany clear.

So by the 16th century the Christian world had been reduced to a remnant of its former extent and Europeans gloomily forsaw a time when Islam would have conquered all. Even the Crusades, which we so often see as some sort of imperialist adventure, were more like a desperate attempt to turn an inexorable tide. Sebastian Brant, in one of the most widely read books of the era, The Ship of Fools, summed up the mood:

Our faith was strong in th’ Orient,
It ruled in all of Asia,
In Moorish lands and Africa.
But now for us these lands are gone
‘Twould even grieve the hardest stone….

Four sisters of our Church you find,
They’re of the patriarchic kind:
Constantinople, Alexandria,
Jerusalem, Antiochia.
But they’ve been forfeited and sacked
And soon the head will be attacked.

In this light, it’s no wonder that the battle of Lepanto in 1571, when a Christian fleet commanded by the 24-year-old Don Juan of Austria defeated the hitherto invincible Ottoman navy in one of the great naval encounters in history, caused rejoicing all over Europe. Poets, painters and writers celebrated the victory, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I decreed services of thanksgiving for the triumph of the Catholic Holy League and Pope Gregory XIII declared 7 October, the anniversary of the battle, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. For once, Europe was united. Miguel de Cervantes, who fought in the battle, losing the use of his left hand, called it ‘The most noble and memorable event that past centuries have seen or future generations can ever hope to witness.’

The Museu Marítim in Barcelona has a full-scale replica of Don Juan’s flagship, La Real, on whose forecastle ‘the last knight of Europe’ danced a joyful galliard in the face of an enemy fleet that stretched to the horizon.

Constantine the Great

It’s rare for an emperor to earn the title ‘the great’. It’s even rarer for that same emperor to also be called a saint. So with Constantine I we’re dealing with no ordinary man. Now, while Constantine’s right to be called a saint is disputable – saints not being generally known for executing both son and wife – what is not open to question is that he was the greatest emperor of the late Roman Empire.

Bust of Constantine.
Bust of Constantine.
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California Forming – the life of Junipero Serra

California is a state of contradictory perceptions: the golden land of opportunity on one hand, the diseased home of the tarnished American dream on the other. So it’s no surprise that Junipero Serra, the man who could be called the founder of California, should attract a similar range of views. But who was Junipero Serra and how did he earn such differing evaluations?

Junipero Serra
Junipero Serra

The facts are straightforward enough. He was born in 1713 in Majorca and entered the Franciscan order at the age of 16. For 20 years he followed the usual path for a bright Franciscan: study, ordination, teaching. If he had continued in that vein Serra would have merited no more than a footnote in obscure textbooks of theology. But the man wanted something more and, inspired by the missionary example of St Francis, set off to Mexico to…do more of the same for the next nine years. But a hint that that would not remain the case forever was given by the fact that he walked from the port all the way to Mexico City, some 200 miles. Another was his unusual practice, when preaching on repentance, of pulling his habit down from his shoulders and whipping himself. Apparently this was done not only to mortify himself but to encourage contrition in his congregation.

And sure enough, things did change for Serra. Spain, worried about a Russian claim on the Pacific coast (remember that at this time the Tsar still owned Alaska), wanted to establish priority in Alta (upper) California and to this end the governor agreed to fund missions there. Serra was placed in charge, setting off at the age of 56 and, 24,000 miles, nine new missions and 14 years later, he died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. The missions he founded, including San Francisco de Asis (or Dolores), were linked by El Camino Real, a dirt road that eventually stretched some 600 miles, along the length of present-day California.

And here’s the controversy. Was Serra the ecclesiastical face of Spanish hegemony, pulling the free-spirited Native Americans of the coast into a life of stifling monastic discipline in the missions, the unwitting vector of the exotic diseases that killed thousands of natives and the general of the forces of cultural genocide? Or was he a man burning with an ideal of love that we find today hard to comprehend, a priest who continually fought with the secular authorities to protect the Indians  and who offered up his life and labours for their salvation? The question seems inextricably bound up with our as yet unresolved questions about the nature of our own society, and because of that the legacy of Junipero Serra seems likely to remain uncertain for many years to come.

The First Iconoclasm

Individuals fall prey to illness, but the contagions that infect a civilisation are ideas. In the 8th and 9th centuries a Byzantine civilisation reeling before the onslaught of expansionist Islam was simultaneously torn apart by a controversy that might seem ridiculously abstruse from our vantage point: whether or not it was permissible to paint images of Christ and the saints. But to conclude that the Byzantines were wasting energy desperately needed for the defence of the empire is to make the mistake of judging them with the myopic gaze of the 21st century. Icons expressed the civilisational core of Byzantium, therefore their creation or destruction was vital to how New Rome saw itself.

Interior of an Orthodox church.
Interior of an Orthodox church.
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