“Pizzagate” and the Nocturnal Ritual Fantasy: Imaginary Cults, Fake News, and Real Violence

Post from the Histories of Emotion Blog:


I, like a lot of people, have been thinking lately a great deal about endings: the curtain falling upon the American moral leadership of the West, the possible transformation of democracy into totalitarianism, the passing away of our familiar global climates, the termination of economic mobility (and all the familiar patterns of acquisition and enjoyment based upon it) for entire present and future generations, and the destruction of fundamental values and institutions of education which were until relatively recently regarded as cornerstones of our civilization, to name only a few. Despondency, apocalyptic despondency to be precise, is the term often applied to the emotional experience of this kind of thinking about endings, and it is almost a defining feature at the present moment of many of our actual and virtual communities, like the faculty tea room or Facebook.

I kept finding my mind returning to these worries about endings while I prepared to teach Augustine’s Confessions this semester. Augustine lived his life in an age of endings. Born in North Africa (part of modern Tunisia) in 354, he was trained to pursue a career in the schools and bureaucracy of the late Western Roman Empire. In his lifetime, most of the institutions and rhythms of life (some that endured for centuries) that defined the empire came to an end. In the Confessions, when Augustine describes his youth and his early efforts to find a fit in his world, he explains that he kept finding that his culture was somehow sick, spinning down in ways he struggled to understand and to describe. In response to this sense of wrongness, he departed from his earlier course, converted to Christianity and later became one of the most influential theologians and intellectuals ever to live. He died in 430 while his city was under siege during the Vandals’ conquest of North Africa, and the world he had known was itself in its death throes.

We teach students about this long-dead African for many reasons. His theological work continues to shape the religious lives of many millions, if not billions, of people – Catholic and protestant – to this day. For the Middle Ages, he was a towering father figure. As antiquity ended, what he wrote and what he imagined gave form to what followed. Intellectuals interpreted and reinterpreted what he had said in commentary after commentary, and they viewed their own experiences through his theories of the mind, of vision, of emotion and of grace.

So it is that in my own deep fear of endings I continued to find his voice portentous. Some time ago, I introduced Augustine of Hippo to a class of undergraduates with words something like these: This was a man who had one of the best educations money could buy to set him up for success in the world into which he was born. By his death, the entire intellectual, political, and economic world he had been trained to navigate had passed away and changed into something else. He did what he could to make sense of this change and influence what came next.

Unanimously, the entire class interjected that the situation I outlined seemed to them familiar. They saw that the Bishop of Hippo confronted and tried to address questions like those they faced in the current world. As I re-read the Confessions for a new course this semester, I came up with a new version of such a question: what do we do within the world and within ourselves at the ends of things?

The answers I imagined Augustine would offer to this question were seductive, because they offered a way to think through the experience of a cacophony of endings and a way to respond to the apocalyptic despondency slowly creeping upon my world and its institutions. While his answers cannot be identical to mine (if I ever have them), he faced an ending world and gave answers to my questions that can help us even if they alone cannot save us. He argued that one should find a neglected truth, somehow both inside and outside the self, that does not change. In the light of this thing once found, the world that passes away is not the most important thing. For Augustine, the important thing was an immutable God, who did not succumb to chaos and in whom a stable love and motivation for human action in the present world could be located.

For Augustine, placing value upon changeable things was the errand of a fool. A person who wanted wealth and success in this world, he said, would be dominated by fears and anxieties that would never end. Lovers of the changing world would either fear never possessing what they wanted or losing possession of what they desired even if they attained it. There was no rest and certitude in such desiring or troubled possession. Indeed, by his death, the very world order that he critiqued had largely itself passed away. Looking at the troubled, and often short, lives of the late Western Roman emperors, there was little joy in their type of possession. With this and similar arguments, Augustine suggested that the basic values of his late Roman world had played themselves out to a point were they could be critically understood and rethought in fundamental ways.

I do not want to push my students to process their current experience of our many (actual and potential) endings through a religiously shaped otherworldliness (although I would not be bothered if they did); instead, I hope to help them critically understand and rethink a wobbling world, because this is what needs to be done. In such a necessity lies the trouble that kept leaping into my mind as I re-read the Confessions: what is the shape in which I can rethink the world and my role in it?

The current despondency to which we must help our students (and ourselves) respond echoes the despondency Augustine observed in his world: the endless fear of either always wanting or always fearing losing. Take, for example, the recent book by Wolfgang Streek, the emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute, How Will Capitalism End?. It has as its thesis that the economic model of the current Western World will murder itself. This end will come despite the fact that there is nothing else to take capitalism’s place. The crisis for Streek is that we simply do not know what we are going to do or what is going to happen at the end.

In my attempts to find an answer, I fall back to the idea of history and the duty of historians, trying to argue with myself that even when endings are a thing of terror they are nonetheless a familiar presence. History (even the history of ‘irrelevant’ subjects and far-removed places) has a role to play in dealing with the convulsions of the present because it lends itself to the creation of perspective, and it does so through critical and analytical confrontations with the ends of things. An historical narrative takes parts and explains how they can be made to fit into a whole, and endings are the stuff with which historians work. In fact, the experience of life is a continued sequence of endings. In the memory, these many ended things come together, as Augustine explained:

Not all the parts exist at once, but some must come as others go, and in this way together they make up the whole of which they are the parts.

I hope that in a future time there will be people with memories to take the parts before us now and fit them into wholes.

My new article is out in the LHS“Bodies of Spirit and Bodies of Flesh: The Significance of the Sexual Practices Attributed to Heretics from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Century” is now available in the Journal of the History of Sexuality 25.3 (2016): 387-419. Please see my publications page for further details and an abstract. I’m very happy that this piece is now out, and it reflects the current direction of my work.

I’ve been so busy with my work in Perth that I’ve neglected the website. In order to share some of what I’ve been doing down under, I thought I should post a podcast of a recent public lecture I delivered on May 11, 2016 as part of the “What’s New in the Medieval?” series for the Institute for Advanced Studies at UWA. Its title: “The Limits of Tolerance: Arguments for and against Religious Violence in the High Middle Ages.” Get it on iTunes!

Killing your religious opponents in the Middle Ages was neither an easy choice nor unquestioned. Leading intellectuals condemned executions for heresy when they began in Western Europe during the eleventh century, reminding Christians of their duty to reserve such judgment to God. This response, however, did not remain dominant in following centuries, as persecution, sometimes deadly, continued to increase. Contemporaries described this escalation not as the growth of hatred, but rather as the realisation of the very virtues that constituted the basis of Western Christian civilisation. In this presentation, Michael Barbezat argued that medieval calls for divinely sanctioned murder relied heavily upon a discourse of love. He followed the use of the parable of the wheat and the tares in discussions of the use of deadly force as a response to Christian heresy. At its point of origin, the parable seems like a call to religious tolerance, but this interpretation does not remain stable. As he moved through examples from the third to thirteenth centuries, the role and necessity of violence will expand, until the parable’s earlier interpretation has been turned on its head. Instead of a call to toleration, the parable by the thirteenth century was, in the eyes of some of the most learned commentators, a call to deadly violence. This presentation concluded with an example from the infamous Albigensian Crusade that illustrates these principles in action, portraying the massacre of hundreds as a necessary, divinely sanctioned act of love.

We are accepting abstracts for the 2015 Symposium. Details below:

12 September 2015
The University of Western Australia

A public lecture by Professor Anthony Bale (Birkbeck, London) will precede the conference on the evening of 11 September 2015.

The ‘material turn’ has increasingly drawn the attention of scholars interested in the art, history, literatures, and cultures of pre-modern Europe. This one-day conference will explore aspects of embodiment and corporeality in medieval and early modern worlds, both within Europe and between European and non-European cultures. We expect the conference to focus on analysing the interactions, meanings, and symbolism of three key bodily substances: blood, sweat, and tears. Existing scholarship has laid the foundation for work on bodies and disciplines, gendered bodies, medieval and early modern anatomy, the bodies of saints, and the body of Christ, but fruitful new lines of enquiry still wait to be investigated. Papers that probe the boundaries and intersections between the cultural history of violence, medical humanities, and theories and practices of affectivity are especially welcome.

The convenors of the UWA Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies & Perth Medieval and Renaissance Group 21st Annual Conference invite proposals for twenty-minute papers or ninety-minute panels on the following themes:

  • cultural exchanges and conflict, particularly their material dimensions and repercussions as meetings and mixings of bodies and bloods;
  • social, theological, ethnic, and physiological definitions of bodies and bloods;
  • the formation of metaphorical bodies through affective discourses and discourses of violence;
  • boundaries, bodily integrity, dismemberment, and contagion;
  • somatic expressions of emotion (the force of tears, sweat and blood as tangible emotion);
  • intersections between medical theories and practices relating to humours and effluvia.

Submissions for individual papers should include a paper title, a c.300-word abstract, participant’s name, affiliation (if any), email address, and audio/visual requirements. Submissions for panels should include a panel title and brief description, the name and affiliation of the panel chair (if one is being provided), paper titles, 300-word abstracts, participants’ names, affiliations and contact details for individual papers within the panel, and audio/visual requirements.

Please email submissions to Dr Joanne McEwan joanne.mcewan@uwa.edu.au by 1 July 2015.

For more information, see the official website.

Blog post for the “Histories of Emotion” blog.

Raven_1899On some night in the mid-twelfth century, Martin, the parish priest of All Hallows on the Cellar was interrupted while going to bed. Just as the priest was taking off his shoes, a serving-boy entered his house bearing a message from his employer. This employer was the wife of Roger Bat, a member of a powerful and wealthy London family. The Bats were urban oligarchs, one of the sixteen major interlocking families that provided seventy-percent of the aldermen who held office in the city of London before the civil war. The boy told the priest that he was needed immediately for “some business” with Roger’s wife. Annoyed, the priest asked what the business was. Martin especially wanted to know if she was ill. The boy did not know, but added that his mistress “didn’t seem sick.”

That Roger’s wife appeared well convinced Martin that there was no immediate danger to her soul, and that he could safely go to bed. If she had been ill, Martin would have been duty-bound to return with the serving-boy to administer the Last Rites. Since the boy’s mistress apparently suffered from no physical illness, the priest dismissed the interruption in his evening as a nuisance call. Martin told the boy, “Perhaps she’s drunk. Go and say to her that it isn’t convenient to talk with her tonight about any business.” The priest said that he would gladly meet with her tomorrow, after his morning services.

The boy returned and told Roger’s wife what the priest said, and her response was tragic. The woman agreed that she was very drunk, but added that the priest “hereafter will not speak with me in this life.” She retreated into her room, locked the door, and hanged herself with a noose.

The woman’s suicide, according to the theology of medieval Christianity, condemned her soul to Hell, and the priest eventually paid the price for his negligence. Martin lived for a long time after the woman’s suicide. He lived badly, breaking his vow of celibacy and living with a concubine with whom he had multiple children. After many years, Martin grew old and sickly, at last taking to bed while suffering from a final illness. On his deathbed, the priest cried out, “Woe is me! Woe that I ever took up the name and responsibility of a priest. For my miserable and filthy life and especially that woman, who hanged herself through my negligence, now drag me to damnation.” During the night, as Martin’s final moment drew near, ravens flew into the room through the windows extinguishing all of the candles. The ravens disappeared suddenly as Martin exhaled his final breath, signalling the priest’s entrance into Hell.RaveninFlight

This story combines specific pieces of medieval religiosity with expressions of mental illness familiar to a modern audience. The woman’s cry for help is discounted because her problem isn’t immediately visible as a bodily disease. The priest also dismisses what a modern reader might regard as a symptom of the woman’s interior illness, her drunkenness, as something that she just needs to get over. Martin’s easy assumption that Roger’s wife is drunk suggests that intoxication was a regular issue for her that the priest had dealt with before. These familiar elements represent an extraordinary continuity in the history of emotions.

An important moral of this story is that inattention to the interior emotional and mental states of others is a form of negligence. Martin tells the reader as much right before he is carried off to Hell. Modern responses to suicide and mental illness often stress similar messages (although for quite different reasons). While this medieval story suggests that the priest should have been more attentive to saving souls, the modern concern most often lies with saving and improving lives.

When I read this story, I am also struck by how deeply it is shaped by class and gender. We only have a record of this suicide because it involved the wife of a remarkable man. If this event did not touch one of the wealthiest families in medieval London, it would have been entirely lost in time. How many other similar struggles were not only nearly invisible in their own time, but have also been entirely lost because of the low social status of the people involved? We do not even know the woman’s name. Her value and her memory are entirely bound up with the person of her husband, Roger Bat. The author of the story tells us not only the name of the priest (Martin), but also the names of several of the priest’s sons and a servant, who are present when Martin dies. The woman, in contrast, who is central to the story’s plot, has no name of her own. The role of class and gender in this medieval story remind us of the on-going importance of these issues in access to mental health resources and even in the wider visibility of the need for access to these resources for marginalised populations.

Background on the Story:

The story of the bad priest Martin comes from the Liber revelationum or Book of Revelations of Peter of Cornwall. This work is a very large collection of visions and revelations put together around the year 1200. Much of this collection is now available, in both Latin and English translation, as Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations, edited by Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe. The manuscript’s author, Peter of Cornwall, was an Augustinian canon and the prior of Holy Trinity, Aldgate. It is the twenty-second chapter of the first book (pages 288-91 in the edition by Easting and Sharpe). Modern Mitre square roughly corresponds to the cloister of Peter’s priory, and the only visible remnant of it is an arch inside Swiss Re House.

Information on the Chapel of All Hallows on the Cellar:

The church called All Hallows on the Cellar, or All Hallows the Less, stood on Upper Thames Street. It took its name from its location on top of arched vaults. It is not to be confused with the larger All Hallows. The Third Edition of the London Encyclopaedia claims the church is first attested in 1216, but the story of the bad priest Martin is a good deal older. In John Stow’s survey, the church is attached to a large house called Cold Harbour (Survey of London, 1598 and 1603, 1:235-37). The church burned in the Great Fire of 1666 and was not rebuilt.

Click here for a map of the locations mentioned in this story.

Anyone seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue 1300 22 46 36.

I am very pleased to announce that I have accepted an offer for a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100-1500) at the University of Western Australia (UWA). This position will allow me to continue my current book project and enlarge my publications to engage more directly with postmedieval scholarship in a wonderful interdisciplinary community. I am truly looking forward to joining the team at the Centre and contributing to the intellectual culture of UWA and Australia.

I have just begun final review and revisions for my article, “The Fires of Hell and the Burning of Heretics in the Accounts of the Executions at Orleans in 1022 for the Journal of Medieval History. It now looks much more certain that we will make the December issue. I’m looking forward to getting this article into press as it sets the stage for the current direction of my work. I’m also hoping that I will be able to make more publication announcements in the coming months.

I’ve just returned from the 2014 meeting of the Medieval Academy of America at UCLA. After the brutal winter in Toronto, a trip to Los Angeles was like a voyage to paradise. My paper, “The Role of Emotion in Travel Between Worlds in Medieval Visionary Journeys,” was in the last concurrent session of the conference on the afternoon of the 12th. The session gave me a chance to present some material adapted from a chapter of my dissertation to a wider audience, and the Q&A gave me some ideas regarding future publication.

The larger theme of the meeting, “Empire and Encounters,” provided an opportunity to see how medievalists are both leading and responding to the current imperative for humanities scholarship to address the spirit of globalization. In one of the sessions I visited, I heard work regarding European portrayals of attempts to conquer the Canary Islands that found themselves stuck between chivalry, crusade, and something that sounds more like familiar colonialism. In another session, the encounter was between different social classes in medieval English towns and cities.

My own current work is also attempting to approach the issue of encounters between cultures, regions, and ideologies by interrogating how the categories of “same” or “different” were conceived. I found the meeting an exciting chance to see the evolving state of the field as well as the diversity possible within the current “global” imperative.      .