Sunday, September 27, 2009

Happy Birthday, Ermentrude of Orléans!

Born this day in 823, she would become the wife of Charles the Bald, who was Holy Roman Emperor as well as king of an area either referred to as West Francia or France, and the mother of nine children including Louis the Stammerer, another king of either West Francia or France, depending on who's telling the story. (Why did 9th and 10th century Europe produce so many rulers with names which sound like insults: Charles the Bald, Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Fat and so forth? And were these rulers actually ever so called to their faces or within their hearing? I would think they were only so called beginning some time after their deaths, but I don't know. And as if the whole thing weren't already perplexing enough, it has been suggested by some historians that Charles the Bald may in fact have been unusually hairy, and his nickname applied ironically.)

"Ermentrude of Orléans," that's a very interesting name to me: "of Orléans" sounds very French, but "Ermentrude" sounds very German. Not that it's at all unusual, down to the present day, for thoroughly French people to have German names, but I wonder how thoroughly French Ermentrude was. She and her husband Charles were distant cousins, both descended from Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne. Charlemagne had created the largest empire in western Europe between the decline of western portion of the ancient Roman Empire, and the short-lived empire of Napoleon. Charlemagne's territories extended from the Pyrenees in the west to Croatia in the east, from the southern edge of Denmark in the north to Italy south of Rome. But Charlemagne saw to it that the area he had unified would be divided again upon his death, dividing it among several sons who quickly fell to fighting each other.

Charlemagne's native language was German. In fact, the origin of the German language as distinguished from other Germanic languages is often, and I think quite sensibly, dated from the reign of Charlemagne, because the first known written German was produced in his reign and with his very powerful official blessing. For whatever reason, however, Charlemagne's Germanic tribe, the Franks, ended up giving its name, not to the central, German section of his empire, but to the western part we now know as France. This territory had already long been a distinct country, with its own language developing from a mix of Latin and other elements, but it had been called Gaul since several hundred years before Christ.

So, Ermentrude was descended from Germanic nobility, but lived all of her life in Gaul, and became Queen of Gaul. Or France. Or western Francia. I have no idea what the country was called in Ermentrude's day. I strongly suspect that it was called all sort of different things by different groups. How did Ermentrude refer to her country? And did she speak French, or German? Again, it's very hard to say. Women of the early middle ages are mentioned very sparingly in the historical accounts of the time, and when they're mentioned usually not much more is said than that they were married to so and so and that these were their children. Perhaps both Charles and Ermentrude spoke German in a land where most people spoke something else, as continued to be the case for centuries to come with German rulers in territories to the east of Germany proper, where slavic languages and Hungarian and Romanian were spoken, as late Franz Joseph, still emperor of Austria-Hungary at the beginning of World War I. Perhaps Charles and Ermentrude spoke the native French of the land they ruled. Perhaps their primary language was neither French not German, but Latin. Latin certainly was the primary written language all over western Europe, and kings and queens would have to be able to speak it at least a little, and comprehend spoken Latin. Almost all of the written records of Ermentrude's world are in Latin, and while Old French, or the ancestors of French, again depending upon who's telling the story, may have been spreading quite widely already, very little of it has survived, and the Latin chroniclers don't seem to have appreciated how much the occasional mention of developments in the written vernacular would've meant to historians today.

Nobody seems to know very much about Ermentrude, other than her ancestry and who she married and what children she bore, and that she seemed to have liked to make embroidery and to support churches and abbeys. A lot of aristocratic women of her age seem to have liked to sew and support religious institutions, which is hardly surprising when you consider that they were allowed to do very little else between pregnancies. Perhaps the religious activity allowed her to become more literate than were most men of her class, aside from the younger sons who became monks, priests and bishops. (Literacy was monopolized by the Catholic Church. If you read something which was written in the early middle ages in western Europe, it was almost certainly written by a monk or priest, or very occasionally by a nun.) Perhaps she had a very adventurous spirit, and widened her reading from prayer-books and psalters to the classics of Latin, or even Greek antiquity. Maybe she would have had to do such reading on the sly, queen or not, and wouldn't dare to leave written evidence of it.

Who knows. All we can do is guess. Perhaps someday, somehow, we'll be able to learn a little bit more about Ermentrude of Orléans. Again, happy birthday!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"South Park" -- Closet Religious Guys?

All in all, I have an enormous amount of respect for Trey Parker and Matt Stone and "South Park." Timmy and Butters and Tweek are three of my favorite fictional characters ever. I find the episode where Timmy has a pet turkey named Gobbles to be profoundly moving. If I'm not mistaken, this was the one and only time Timmy ever said anything other than "Timmy!" He said: "Gobbles." And, two words: "CRIPPLE FIGHT!!!" That's just magnificent TV.

I know, they make a lot of fun of religion. On "South Park," for example, God looks like this:

Their reaming of Scientology is justly famous, and it cost them their longtime cast member Isaac Hayes, a Scientologist.

But I think I have to call them out for being soft on religion. What first concerned me was the ending of the episode where the Marshes have Mormon friends. Sure, Mormonism was made fun of, but the kid who was briefly Stan's friend had the last word. He tore Stan a new one for pointing out that Mormonism was "Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb." I believe his little speech wrapped up with something like, "You've got a lot of growing up to do, Stan. Suck my balls."

And then last night I saw the episode with the Jonas Brothers, and Mickey Mouse is their abusive manager, and they want to stop peddling sex to little girls, but it looks like Mickey really has them in a jam, until he's exposed when the kids get him on audio when he's going on backstage about the master plan, winding up with how stupid Christians are. That statement is put into the mouth of an arch-fiend, Mickey Mouse.

And I also vaguely remember Stan wrapping up some episode with a wishy-washy feelgood monologue about tolerating religious people and how hardcore atheists are just as much huge douchebags as religious nuts.

And, of course, Jesus is a recurring character, and although He's pretty ineffectual, He's also presented as being a pretty nice guy.

Maybe He was. (If he existed.) And Parker and Stone are right that a lot of Mormons are just awfully nice. And perhaps Parker and Stone is also right about Disney enriching itself by cruelly manipulating guileless Christians.

So what exactly am I so upset about? That's a tough question. This is the point where I usually become inarticulate from anger. Not just in discussions about "South Park"'s treatment of religion, but in discussions about religion generally. I suppose I'm angry because I'm accused of intolerance. I haven't tortured or executed anyone because their beliefs converge from mine. I'm not interfering with scientific, historical, philosophical, or theological inquiry, or teaching anyone that certain sexual orientations are evil. I am not preventing anyone from attending religious services or handing over their money to religious organizations. I'm not withdrawing my friendship from people because they have religious beliefs. I'm not insincerely playing on people's religious beliefs in order to get their money.

Why exactly did Parker and Stone have that Mormon kid tell Stan off? What exactly did Stan do that they themselves don't do on a regular basis?

The inarticulateness is here again, unfortunately. Anger is welling up inside of me, making me feel congested in my chest and clouded in my thoughts. I think I'm angry because I feel an inconsistency here: apparently it's all well and good to mock religion as it's done on "South Park," but only in an agnostic way. If you cross some line from agnosticism into atheism, or from criticizing dogma to criticizing believers of dogma, you're a douche, apparently. Sorry, this post may be a jumbled mess, but it was that or just be silent. This is the best I could do at the moment.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

2,518 Years Ago Today -- More or Less --

September 13, 509 BC is the traditional date of the dedication of the Temple of Jupiter in Rome. 509 BC, according to tradition, is also the year in which the last king, known as Tarquinius Superbus, "Tarquinius the Haughty," was exiled from the city and the Roman Republic was established. To us it would have looked much more like a very exclusive oligarchy than a real republic, but it had some advantages over the monarchy, and over the Empire which would come centuries later. Leaders were elected, albeit by a small group of aristocrats, and they served short terms. Typically two co-rulers, consuls, were elected yearly. if they were unsuitable -- to this small group of aristocrats -- then it was only a short wait until their terms expired, they didn't have to be assassinated. "Regnatum Romae ab condita urbe ad liberatam annos ducentos quadraginta quattuor." writes Livy at the end of Book 1 of his history of Rome. "The rule of Romans by kings (lasted) two hundred and forty-four years from the founding of the city until their liberation."

244 years, from another traditional date, that of the founding of Rome in 753 BC, to 509. The story the ancient Romans told of the founding of their city sounds very much like a legend: Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers and founders of the city, were raised by a she-wolf. While the boundaries of the city were being laid out, Remus jumped playfully back and forth over the boundary-line, and for this lack of respect for the awesome solemnness of the occasion, Romulus killed him. None of it sounds very true to life. By the time we get to Tarquinius the Haughty and the beginning of the republic, the traditional story has started to sound much less legendary and much more life-like, but it's hard to know what parts may be true. After Rome was sacked by Gauls led by Brennius in -- or around -- 390 BC, the chronology seems much more solid, there seems to be now something which we can call a reliable historical record, with the consuls listed for each year and so forth. Maybe there were similar records before the attack by Brennius, in the form of inscriptions, monuments and written records, which the Gauls either destroyed or carried off. Or perhaps the Romans only started keeping meticulous records after this invasion -- perhaps in part as a psychological defense mechanism against the trauma of the destruction of their city. Keeping exact dates for historical events, whether these dates are reliable or not, can help citizens to feel that their state is solid and secure.

If Americans feel inclined to chuckle at the Romans for so carefully preserving, even in the sophisticated age of Cicero and Caesar, Augustus and Livy, an early history which may have been mostly myth, with Romulus and Remus, and insisting that they knew the exact day when an important temple was dedicated, I would urge them to ponder things like George Washington shopping down a cherry tree and and throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac. We're not so different from them.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Thawing of a Misanthrope

"I'd rather see this on TV. Tones it down." -- I had thought that William S. Burroughs wrote that. He said it during a Laurie Anderson performance. Maybe Laurie wrote it for him.

Whoever the Hell wrote it, I have concurred heartily with the sentiment many times. In fact, when it has come to a lot of things -- everyday things which many people seem to take for granted and find perfectly acceptable, if not downright nice -- I didn't even want to see them on TV, and experiencing them in 3-D for realsies was just not pleasant at all. And it by no means is restricted to things I see. Things I hear give me the heebie-jeebies on a regular basis. Holden Caulfield said something in The Catcher in the Ryeabout how you can sometimes hear someone laughing in the middle of the night in New York City about something that probably isn't funny, and how it can make you feel terribly lonely. I could always relate to that, but lately I'm questioning that attitude -- on my part, and on yours, too, JD, not fer nothin. I hope you're okay. I'd like to emulate you in some things -- for instance, Wiki sez The Catcher in the Rye still sells ca 250,000 copies a year. Sweet -- but in the reclusiveness and hyperirritability and automatically assuming that some stranger you hear laughing is an asshole, maybe not so much. It's getting better -- on my part, that is.

Don't get the impression that I know what's up with JD. I never met the man. This is about me. The fact that I can write about it is a sign that I'm no longer utterly in the grip of a paralysing horror of the world around me in general.

Hells yes I'm trying to change and grow and improve the nature of the interface, to climb the Hell down out of my head and join the human race. You betcha. I've been noticing people much more just lately. I mean in the past couple of weeks. My perceptions have really broadened. I'm used to automatically shutting out all but a very small percentage of the people I see and hear, picking out just a few I find interesting or potentially useful, or with whom I have to interact through no choice of my own, and shutting out the rest. Today I sat in a hallway where crowds of people of all ages, shapes, sizes and life situations streamed past in both directions, and today it wasn't overwhelming or gross, I didn't wish I was experiencing it on TV instead of for real, or not at all. It was just really really interesting -- they were all really, really interesting. And this is new for me. I'm still a long way from what you might call Whitmanesque. I still do recoil a lot, and often, if I can't be with just a select few of you, you general public, I'd rather just be by myself, or with cats. But I'm changing. One thing William S. Burroughs definitely did say, in some interview or other, was that a piece of advice he regularly gave to writers was quite simply for them to keep their eyes open. We tend to walk along with out heads down, lost in thought, and so we miss a lot. I read that interview about 25 years ago, found the advice quite good, and have been struggling to follow it ever since. Lately I've been making a little bit of progress there.