Maimonides and Western Medicine

Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) was born in Cordova, Spain, the heart of the intellectual and economic Umayyad state known as Andalusia. In the twelfth-century, Cordova was dramatically different than the rest of Europe; religion was less a reason for intolerance than an inspiration for craft and art, leading to a kind of renaissance unseen elsewhere in Europe for another century. It was in this environment that Maimonides was educated and trained, not only in the Torah (as precursor to becoming a Rabbi), but also in the art of medicine. The reason behind this training was purely practical, as “until rather late in the Middle Ages, rabbis were not paid for their services…for that reason, Maimonides like any other rabbi had to adopt a profession in the world, and like many intellectually gifted medieval rabbis he became a physician.” (1)

The state of western medicine in the late 12th century was one of stasis. “In an age when the voice of authority was the most significant influence in determining belief, philosophy, and the understanding of nature, the persisting ghost of a single man loomed over medical thought like an overpowering colossus. That man was the second-century C.E. Greek physician Galen of Pergamon.” (2) To a large extent Galen’s death left medicine in a 1500-year state of perpetual doldrums. The great Arab thinker Avicenna (980-1037) changed that somewhat; his work The Canon was perhaps the most important medical writing to come out of the Arab medical system in the middle ages, and became the standard textual work in medical schools of Europe until the 18th century. But despite even his towering achievements, Galenic medicine was persistent juggernaut that stymied even the most brilliant minds.

Did Maimonides change this? Did he challenge the supremacy of Galen? To a certain extent yes, but even Moses was unwilling to completely tap the empirical keg when confronted with the sheer volume and historical march of Galen’s work. Sherwin B. Nuland’s biography Maimonides looks at this very question, of whether the Rabbi deserves membership in the pantheon of western physicians…"What was the contemporary state of “the theory and practice of medicine” in the twelfth century, and how was it affected by Moses’s teachings and his daily round of patient care? Did he add to the general sum of knowledge? Did he make any new discoveries? At his death, were the “theory and practice” of medicine of “the time” significantly different than they might have been had he never lived? And most important for posterity, did he leave a heritage that succeeding generations of physicians could look to as a model of the grand tradition of their art and science?" (3)

To be succinct, the purpose of this short essay is to bring some clarity to those questions. I intend to explore three areas in which Maimonides could be considered to have contributed greatly to the continuance and evolution of the western medical tradition. This essay will explore those three contributions, and make a case for their relevance and importance to the present state of the Great Art. Those three areas of influence are: First, a challenge and clarification of the work of Galen; second, an insistence to the separation of religion and medicine; and third, a prescient understanding of the necessity of preventative medicine. It is for the last that he is considered truly brilliant, and deserving of the title The Prince of Physicians.

Though Maimonides is less known for his work as a physician than he is for his commentary on the Torah and his Guide to the Perplexed, he remains a highly respected author and thinker even into the modern age, and it could be said that his work “Mishneh Torah, the fourteen volume systematization of all Jewish law from Scripture to his own day” remains unsurpassed. It has been suggested that to get Judaism right, one must first get Maimonides translation right, because it was he who honed and clarified the disparate parts of his faith. Though that was separate from his work in the field of medicine, I begin with it for the reason that it was the same brilliance that found him a leader in Judaic thought that underlies his work in medicine.

Maimonides challenged Galen generally through most of his medical work, but specifically in his Medical Aphorisms, a collection of 25 treatises on healing and medicine within which were approximately “1,500 passages culled mainly from Galen, with critical comments, providing the physician with a handy desk manual, reducing Galen’s 129 books to one.” (4) The heading under the 25th Treatise (last in the book) suggests an alternate title for the last chapter, “which may be called ‘The Holy War for Independent Scientific Investigation Against Galen.” (5) It is an ominous way to begin a chapter, and precludes any thought that the content will spill praises toward Galenic thinking. Indeed, “in medicine, as in other fields, Maimonides strived to reduce complexity to system and order. He chafed under Galen’s prolixity and reduced the Roman physician’s massive literary output to a single book of extracts that a physician could carry around in his pocket.”(6) Thus a clear picture arises of Maimonides challenging the status quo. Part of his influence on the western medical tradition derives from this simplification and clarification, and his bold challenges against the supremacy of Galenic thought. Maimonides contests the “arrogant presumption” of Galen, writing that he “considers himself more important than he really is.” (7) The following passage perhaps elucidates the point at hand, written by Maimonides himself.

"If anyone declares to you that he has actual proof from his own experiences, of something which he requires for the confirmation of his theory, even though he be considered a man of great authority, truthfulness, earnest words and morality, yet just because he is anxious for you to believe his theory, you should hesitate. Do not allow your mind to be swayed by the “novelties” which he tells you, but look well into his theory and his belief, just as you should do concerning the things which he declares that he has seen; look into the matter without letting yourself be easily persuaded. And this is true whether the person is notable or one of the people. For a strong will may lead a man to speak erringly—especially in disputation. I offer this in order to awaken your interest in the statements of that wise men, that prince, Galen." (8)

It is this challenge of Galen, the juggernaut of western medicine, which sets apart Maimonides as truly unique. This uniqueness sprang from an independence of thought, and an insistence on rational inquiry and historical skepticism. “Maimonides was among the first to point to the feet of clay that would eventually crumble sufficiently to bring down the entire icon.” (9) Maimonides challenged Galen, and got away with it.

Though Maimonides was a Talmudic Rabbi, better known for his religious contributions than his scientific ones, his “medical writings contain no references to Talmudic medicine, nor is there a hint of magic, superstition, or astrology, widespread at the time in medical practice.” (10) The rabbi was a natural scientist when it came to the understanding and treatment of disease. It could be said, in a sense, that he was Aristotelian, that he implicitly understood the process of scientific rationality. “In principle, Maimonides divorced medicine and science from religion,” (11) which brings me to my second point.

Certainly there was much need for this in the medieval age, a time when the monks were the practitioners of medicine (though this was the case primarily in Europe). There is a story of Maimonides, when, after becoming a physician at the court of Sultan az-Sahir Ghazi (son of the great Saladin), he prescribed a medical treatment (wine and music) that went against Islamic law. When asked why he would recommend this, his answer falls in line with his rigid insistence on maintaining the independence of medical authority: “The physician, qua physician, must advocate a beneficial regime regardless of the religious law, and the patient has the option to accept or decline. If the physician does not prescribe what is medically beneficial, he deceives by not offering his true counsel.” (12)

At a time when the lines of demarcation between scientific inquiry and religion were at best obscured, Maimonides provided the physician with ammunition to defend his profession. In contrast, St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a famous Christian cleric and near contemporary of Maimonides, “asserted that ‘to consult physicians and take medicines befits not religion and is contrary to purity’ – and it was a popular gibe that ubi tre physici, dui athei (where there are three doctors, there are two atheists).” (13) Of course this was hyperbole from the most dogmatic of churchmen, but it gives an understanding of the confused nature of medical thought at the time, and the necessity of the separation Maimonides insisted on. To be fair, Maimonides (being first and foremost a man of god) argued that the reason for good health was ultimately desired not for an end in and of itself, but for the great praise of the almighty. One cannot praise God in a state of disease and sickness. He commented in the Mishneh Torah that “since, when the body is healthy and sound one directs oneself toward the ways of the Lord—it being impossible to understand or know anything of the knowledge of the Creator when one is sick—it is obligatory on man to avoid things which are detrimental to the body and seek out things which fortify it.” (14) This though is not a negation of separation or an affront to the authority of medical practitioners, but a conclusion as to why one would want to maintain optimal health. As such, it does not discount his original insistence on the independent authority of physicians. This then is the second great offering of Maimonides to the history and evolution of western medicine, manifested through his insistence on the supremacy of physicians in all things medical.

The third contribution of Maimonides to western medical tradition is perhaps the most important, and certainly is what he is most remembered for (within medical history). It is a cogent and surprisingly modern idea, though in his time perhaps not so much. It is a simple concept, lacking in his day, of the necessity of preventive medicine. One needs look no further than his Aphorisms for support of this revolutionary idea. In the seventeenth treatise, titled Aphorisms Pertaining to General Rules of Health, he lays out the argument. “Immobility is as great a detriment to the maintenance of health as activity is of benefit.” (15) He continues by adding “one’s attention should first focus on the maintenance of natural [body] warmth, before anything else. That which best insures this is [the performance of] moderate physical exercise, which is good both for the body and soul (soma and psyche)”. (16) He prescribes for the elderly a daily regimen of walking, something that has an uncannily modern ring to it. Likewise, Maimonides posits the benefits of massage and touch as a means of stimulating the innate ‘heat’ of the body, insofar as it rejuvenates the body naturally.

As part of his preventive medical techniques, Maimonides also intuited modern medical procedure by noting the beneficial effects of positive thinking, leading to an early form of psychosomatic medicine. Whether certain amulets or trinkets were anathema to his practice was often overlooked when the needs of the patient were at hand. He was “committed to the thesis of the mind’s effect on the body, [and] it was permissible to discard even the most cherished of medical convictions in the interest of a patient’s psychological needs.” (17) Case in point was the mental stability of the person during medical treatment, in which case amulets and other such pagan paraphernalia were permissible “lest the mind of the patient be to greatly disturbed.” (18) It was this flexibility that served Maimonides in his work as a physician, and gained him the trust and respect of his peers.

Though it may be said that Maimonides didn’t necessarily advance any of these three points to a degree that they were ultimately reality changing for western culture, he represents a marker in the road to modern medical techniques. Perhaps none of his work was truly original, but he, and to a lesser extent his Arabic counterparts al-Rhazi and Avicenna, represented a slow chipping away at the immense façade that had come to be understood as Humoral Theory. Each in their own way advanced the art, each chiseled another chip from the concrete theories of Hippocrates and Galen. As for Maimonides it may be said, “of the several aspects of the Ramban’s genius, the one that was surely most appreciated by readers in his time and later was his extraordinary ability to separate wheat from chaff and to collect, classify, and correlate needed information into a helpful, compact, and easily remembered whole.” (19) This perhaps more than any other thing made Moses a genius, a polymath not unlike Galen.

In considering the above conclusion, it can also be stated that it wasn’t Maimonides’ original intent to advance the art of medical practitioners. Certainly his most profound work was in the area of Judaic law and Talmudic revision, and even to a certain extent the formation and dissemination of what is known today as the Kabbalah. Nevertheless, his work in the court of Saladin, and of course his few medical writings, earned him a hallowed place in the annals of the western medical profession. He exhibited a prescient mind; his work at separating religious and medical law, his challenging Galen, and finally his work in the field of preventative medicine, all combined exhibit an intuition of the direction and future of western medicine. As suggested above, he is more a beacon in the road than an individual who diverted the traffic, but that fact doesn’t make his work less special. He is remembered today primarily for his Guide to the Perplexed, but that is perhaps only because he is less studied as a pioneer in medicine than as a giant in Judaism.


  1. Neuhaus, Richard John, ed., The Second One Thousand Years. Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001. p. 16.
  2. Nuland, Sherwin B., Maimonides. New York: Random House, 2005. p. 155.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Seeskin, Kennith. Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p. 39
  5. Rosner, Fred. Muntner, Suessman. Eds. The Medical Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides. New York: Bloch Publishing Company. p. 171
  6. Seeskin, Kennith. Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p. 39
  7. Nuland, Sherwin B., Maimonides. New York: Random House, 2005. p. 167
  8. Id. at 168
  9. Id. at 169
  10. Seeskin, Kennith. Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p. 39
  11. Id. at 40
  12. Ibid.
  13. Porter, Roy. The Greatest Benefit To Mankind. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1997. p. 110
  14. Nuland, Sherwin B., Maimonides. New York: Random House, 2005. p. 176
  15. Rosner, Fred. Muntner, Suessman. Eds. The Medical Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides. New York: Bloch Publishing Company. p 41, Volume II
  16. Id. at 42
  17. Nuland, Sherwin B., Maimonides. New York: Random House, 2005. p. 179
  18. Ibid.
  19. Id. at 173
D. Reese Zollinger, 2007
(fair use of above material)

Happy slogging!



We live in the age of the image. Never before in history has such a barrage of unconnected ideas moved through our lives. From iPod to YouTube our culture has become a streaming channel of endless icons, branding with thought tattoos each individual who dares to tune in.

From the early days of western corporatism advertisers have been rubbing the bottled genie in hopes of magically increasing corporate revenue. What they soon realized was that the attention of consumers was easily bought by employing controlled symbolism to market their products, drawing the customers loyalty more through attachment to the symbol than the item being offered. When deconstructing this morbid state of affair- something that I'll attempt in this short essay - it should first be understood that it is not the image (icon, brand, or logo) that is important, but what that image solicits as an emotional response.

The fact that we can find historical precedent for modern advertising doesn’t make it easier to understand. Symbols litter our minds; from the golden arches to bitten apples our world has become a crowded arena of patented images. The consumer’s attention is battled for on the front lines of supermarket isles, in the halls of malls, or even driving down the interstate. We are told we can become members by simply buying products, as if this act was itself the sacrament. So deep has this symbolism penetrated that in Kalle Lasn’s words (Culture Jam, 2000), “advertisements are the most prevalent and toxic of the mental pollutants.”

This toxicity, rising as it has through the need to sell products, has left an indelible mark upon the human mind. Lasn continues by noting that, “Corporate advertising…is the largest single psychological project ever undertaken by the human race.” Strong words, but not altogether unreasonable when you see as Lasn does that the symbol has gone from simple iconography to complex and multidimensional abstraction. In that symbolism is historically one of the most powerful tools for uniting people, we must recognize that its nature is two-fold; first, the symbol is itself inherently benign, and second, any meaning applied to a particular image is what becomes important.

There is an old iconographic precedent that justifies modern advertising. In the year 312, while preparing to battle for control of the Roman Empire, Constantine received a vision telling him to unite his men under the banner of the Cross. “In hoc signo vinces,” the angel told him, “In this sign you shall win.” This symbol, already having ancient ties to Egyptian and Phoenician cultures, was easily accepted, and eventually became the most complex and powerful banner of western civilization.

Beyond the West we find other cultures using similar means to achieve similar ends. Chinese thought manifested as the symbolic duality of yin/yang, Judaic representation would be expressed by the Star-of David, Native American as Totem; all of these symbols being expressed in glyphs designed to establish instant connection between image and idea.

The consumer provides the fresh skin for the hot iron, so without cultivating critical minds, our bodies will continue to be treated as perfect receptors for the corporate logo. More than our wares, but our whole selves, our thoughts and deeds, should define what makes us different. By seeing necessities as more than iconographic trophies, we displace ourselves from the corporate battle. We begin to make informed decisions based not upon form, but upon function.

It was realized in the mid-eighties that (Naomi Klein, 2002) “successful companies must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products.” (No Logo) That we have allowed the Corporation to move from production of goods to the manufacturing of Icons is our mistake, one that we must claim and work to remedy. Does it really satisfy, does it bring us happiness? We should ask these questions and others as we confront the barrage of commercials from day to day, because the symbol has turned from representing deeper, universal ideas, to selling materialism. We can imagine a young man saying: “Under the shadow of the sears tower I found myself,” because it was that symbol that his city presented as most important. This experience is common. As the sacred retreats from the Vegas Strip, cowers beneath the overwhelming magnitude of the “stars and stripes,” or huddles away to avoid contamination from ethanol or elmer’s glue, we begin to understand her reticence.

Advertisers long and systematic policy of targeting the ego has produced a morally inept culture, dependant not upon deeper meanings but on colorful veneers. Once again, it is the emotional reaction to the said media that is in question, because, (William Bernbach, 1989) “you can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen.” There are numerous examples of advertisers soliciting emotional responses to commercial products. Ads such as, “Drive = Love,” or “Bigger is Better,” show that the aim is our emotional insecurity. We are reminded again and again about the body’s endless needs and infinite wants, that we must have a certain thing to be up-to-date, or fashionable. What was natural and sustainable has become demonized by the consumptive majority; our new prophets are corporate leaders and tycoons.

The tendency today is to see life in monetary terms, because that is our world; that is capitalism and democracy in action; that is free-market economics, the newest revelation from the bible of modern affairs. We are looking through the glass darkly, not because we don’t own it, but because we're only leasing it. Some argue that the corporation has brought us what we love most, entertainment and material goods. They have given us a world where we may theoretically take more time to enjoy the finer things, the subtler things, but in the end we pay for it.

The corporation has hijacked the icon. Our deepest fears are played against us in hopeless tugs-of-war. Should I buy Coke or Pepsi, Nike or Converse, Gucci or Gap? The Icon rules, we are the first generations to have brand names as kings, to be raised on cartoons and commercials. It is a life we have been given and must somehow sort out. As each generation has its challenges, so this is one of ours. In a world where one watches the Super Bowl not for the game but for the advertising, we should be concerned that the wool keeps inching down.

It is ours to reclaim for ourselves what it means to be human, to redefine our approach to society. In this postmodern hyper-technical culture of competing interests we may choose or we may not. Whatever our do, the concept of marketing symbolism will surely survive, because our need of image and icon date to the very beginnings of humanity. Again, the conclusion is to not see the symbol as destructive, but to question what the symbol solicits as an emotional response. As we realize this, we can cultivate symbols with deeper meanings, ones that illicit a beneficent reaction, ones like the mythic Shiva that remind us of our mortality, that we must live well for tomorrow there may be no more living.


Man's Fate

La Condition Humaine by André Malraux. Published, 1933

The April 12, 1927 incident officially destroyed what cooperation existed between the United Front of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT). The events leading up to the Incident began with the Northern Expedition, launched by the two groups to root out the northern warlords and bring unity to China. At heart it was meant to defeat a common enemy, and in that there was some early success. Yet, in the spring of 1927, all that changed. The CCP (and the KMT left) was determined to gain its support through the peasants and the proletariat, and in Shanghai it succeeded in doing that by forming labor movements. It was an important watershed moment for the emerging Chinese nation, the result of which carved out some of the most important characters of the Chinese Revolution, both revolutionaries and reactionaries.

The April 12 incident coalesced around the reactions and revolt to the CCP’s success at unionizing and militarizing the workers. The Northern Expedition was now focused primarily on Shanghai, dominated by both parties bid to counter the revolution. Yet, while the

spring of 1927 was to be…dominated by the fate of Shanghai…the outcome depended on the interconnections among a considerable number of factors: the reactions of various northern warlords to events in south China; the strength of the local labor movement; the nature of the anti-labor forces in the city; the attitudes and actions of the foreign community and troops in the concessions; the position of the Guomindang leaders in Wuhan; and the long-range strategy for the CCP action decided on by Stalin and relayed through the Comintern. (1)

It was in this milieu that Chiang Kai-shek waged a war of terror against the Communists and local labor movements, first in Shanghai and then around the country. During these same years, André Malraux, in his propitious catlike way, documented the events into his classic novel Man’s Fate.

While Malraux himself wasn’t in China long, his book details intimately the scenes and figures surrounding the April 12 incident, and the emotional and physical reaction of the characters involved. Those characters (both local and foreign) found themselves in the center of a fight for the future of the KMT, and of China itself. In the concessions of Shanghai, the merchants and consulates gravitated increasingly toward the side of the strongman, Chiang. For them, the preservation of a capitalist environment was more important than anything else. Above all, keep the pot boiling.

The chief protagonist of Man’s Fate is Kyo Gisors, son of the opium addict and former sociology professor Old Gisors. Kyo was the communist leader of the insurrection in Shanghai. His character is based on Zhou En-lai, who was “ordered to prepare an insurrection and help the Nationalist Army seize Shanghai…Chou and such Shanghai labor leaders as Chou Tse-yen, Chao Shih-yen, Ku Shun-chang, and Lo Yi-ming…succeeded in organizing 50,000 pickets.” (2) They succeeded in winning everything except the foreign concessions. With this early victory for the CCP, the “foreign community in China was nervous,” (3) in particular because the Northern Expedition’s successes in Nanjing turned into a looting of the foreign consulates. The reaction in Shanghai to this seeming anti-foreign campaign forced them to choose carefully which figure they would embrace.

Foreign business interests, like Ferral in Man’s Fate, understood which side of the revolution proved a continuation of their capitalist affairs. In the novel, Ferral strong-arms the chief of the Shanghai Bankers’ Association into coughing up fifty-million dollars to support Chiang, offering in the process a bit of advise: “There is also our money, and there is no question of promises. He [Chiang] cannot do otherwise. And mark my word: it’s not because you pay him that he is going to destroy the Communists: it’s because he is going to destroy the Communists that you pay him.” Within this atmosphere, Ferral, President of the French Chamber of Commerce, considers his position: “This is one of the moments when the world’s destiny hangs in the balance.” (4)

What the CCP didn’t know, but certainly should have suspected, was that “in the French Concession and the International Settlement, Chiang’s envoys had secretly conferred with representatives of foreign powers. They reached agreements to cooperate against the Chinese Communists and their Russian allies.” (5) This spelled certain disaster to the labor movement and to the chances of the CCP in Shanghai. Its arming and organizing of the proletariat would be challenged, and without ammunition equaling that of the Nationalist Army, they were certainly ruined.

Of course not all foreigners were on the side of the Chiang Kai-shek. As seen in André Malraux’s novel, one of the main characters of the insurrection is Katov, a Russian. The significance of Moscow's role in the insurrection is a repeated theme in Man’s Fate. In a sense, the Russians were trying to control the method and channel the revolution took, molding it to look similar to that of Bolshevik Revolution. Through the words of Malraux, one is painfully and repeatedly reminded of the crippling effect the partnership is having on the efficacy of the CCP.

In the novel we see the slow existential crisis of the characters unfold, from early successes against the police units, to a failed attempt by Ch’en Ta Erh to assassinate Chiang Kai-shek with a suicide bombing. They are under-funded, without a proper arsenal, and facing an increasingly bifurcated leadership. “Moscow and the enemy capitals of the West could organize their opposing passions over there in the night and attempt to mold them into a world. The Revolution, so long in parturition, had the moment of its delivery: now it would have to find birth or die.” (6) It is this sense that surfaces through in the words of Malraux. This crisis of meaning in the face of opposition appears episodic throughout the novel, and in the end we are left sympathizing with the insurrectionists, much as I would presume Malraux originally intended. As the leaders of the insurrection were marginally controlled by Moscow throughout this period, we also see a split with the ideology formed by the Russians about what a revolution should and does mean, and how to achieve it.

For Moscow, the peasants were off the map. The Comintern considered the bourgeoisie to be the true fuel of revolution, and in that sense urged the leaders of the CCP to not break entirely with the KMT. The repeated advise out of Russia was to maintain the propaganda of the United Front. As Kyo explained: “To break means certain defeat. Moscow will not tolerate our leaving the Kuomintang at this time. And the Chinese Communist Party is even more favorable to an understanding with Chiang than Moscow.” (7) Of course, this was the attitude of the top officials of the CCP, and not the proletariat or the fighters who had been remarkably successful in forming their unions. It was certainly not the attitude of Kyo or Ch’en, the two principle revolutionary characters of Man’s Fate.

The Nationalists were facing a similar dilemma, namely how far to go in supporting the mobilization of the proletariat. “For Chiang Kai-shek and the leaders of the Kuomintang it was possible, after the success of the Northern Expedition in 1926-27, to dispense with the support of popular forces against the northern militarists. Indeed it became a necessity to dissociate from such allies, whose activities threatened the position of the privileged classes in town and countryside.” (8)

In Man’s Fate, we see the growing dilemma of where the CCP intends to focus the revolution. For the Nationalists, it was an obvious choice of supporting the economic status quo, which amounted to really nothing more than a military coup within the country. But for the CCP, the choice was now really existential, facing as they were their immediate demise. The revolutionaries would have to morph and innovate, something the Comintern was unlikely to fully accept. Out of the Shanghai spring came a torrent of revolutionaries and reactionaries who, like Chiang Kai-shek, had proved themselves and their relative worth. After the purge, the Communists fled to the countryside to regroup and lick their wounds, and no single revolutionary figure came out on top, as leader. It would not be until the Long March that the CCP would find its leadership in Mao, but that is another story.


1. Spence, Jonathan D., The Search For Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. p. 349.
2. Snow, Edgar. Red Star Over China. New York: Grove Press, 1961. p. 75
3. Spence, Jonathan D., The Search For Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. pp. 352-353
4. Malraux, André. Man’s Fate. New York: Vintage, 1990. p. 116
5. Snow, Edgar. Red Star Over China. New York: Grove Press, 1961. p. 75
6. Malraux, André. Man’s Fate. New York: Vintage, 1990. p. 152
7. Ibid. p. 145
8. Chesneaux, Jean. Peasant Revolts in China 1840-1949. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1973. p. 99

Fair Use of above material.

Reese Zollinger

Man's Fate


7 Deadly Sins (Project P.A.S.S.G.A.S.)

This was submitted this morning to a small film competition called the "Duke City Shootout". The idea was to make a short film (3 min.) about the 7 Deadly Sins, and this was what Tor and I came up with. It was shot and edited within 30 hours.

It's called "Project P.A.S.S.G.A.S." because one Catholic priest told us that the acronym for the 7 sins is Pass Gas, but we're still trying to figure out how he arrived at that conclusion.



Religion vs. Reality

We face today one of the great challenges of modern civilization. We stand at a crossroad of social evolution, with half of humanity pulling us back the road of belief, while the other half, marginalized by their disbelief, struggle to push us toward a new way of seeing the world. We are faced squarely over an issue that, for all the thought I pour into it, doesn't seem to offer any real means of resolving itself.

I would like to think that the rapture is soon coming, so that the believers will be carted away to their pie in the sky and leave the rest of us here to finally get around to the business of making this world a livable one. But, as I don't believe in the Judeo-Christian god, I think that scenario is unlikely. All humor aside, humans today are facing a deeply serious threat of religious fundamentalism. While this isn't entirely a modern problem, it has become critical today because of the increasing boldness of non-believers, and the subsequent threat believers feel when faced with the rules of logic and science.

Jonathon Miller, producer of the recently aired A Brief History of Disbelief, gives a brilliant historical account of atheism, trying to make sense of why it has taken so long for non-believers to aggregate into a cohesive movement. The 3 hour documentary aired across the country on PBS, yet some of the affiliate stations refused to broadcast it because of its sensitive nature. While I don't agree with the stations who refused to run Miller's piece, I do understand how some might be challenged by it. But then, if belief is so solid, why would believers reject a serious, historically critical look into the history of non-belief.

Without asking serious (and sometimes dangerous) questions, we'll continually reject any such effort to modernize our morality. This rejection will invariably come from those whose beliefs dictate their reason, their action. True belief stands directly opposed to reform, because it states that laws written down in sacred texts are eternal and unchanging, and any attempt to modernize them is the work of some devil. In that light, all free thinkers are minions of the fallen one, put here to test their faith. The great British Philosopher Bertrand Russell said:
"You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world."
Perhaps that is why our moral progress is today so antiquated. Religion disallows advancement in morality, primarily because of this unchanging principle. In an online debate between Theologian Douglas Wilson and Atheist Christopher Hitchens, the latter gives a telling example of this continuing question of whether our morality derives itself from Christianity, or something else...
Although Christianity is often credited (or credits itself) with spreading moral precepts such as "Love thy neighbor", I know of no evidence that such precepts derive from Christianity. To take one instance from each Testament, I cannot believe that the followers of Moses had been indifferent to murder and theft and perjury until they arrived at Sinai, and I notice that the parable of the good Samaritan is told of someone who by definition cannot have been a Christian.

To these obvious points, I add that the "Golden Rule" is much older than any monotheism, and that no human society would have been possible or even thinkable without elementary solidarity (which also allows for self-interest) between its members. Though it is not strictly relevant to the ethical dimension, I would further say that neither the fable of Moses nor the wildly discrepant Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth may claim the virtue of being historically true. I am aware that many Christians also doubt the literal truth of the tales but this seems to me to be a problem for them rather than a difficulty for me. Even if I accepted that Jesus—like almost every other prophet on record—was born of a virgin, I cannot think that this proves the divinity of his father or the truth of his teachings. The same would be true if I accepted that he had been resurrected. There are too many resurrections in the New Testament for me to put my trust in any one of them, let alone to employ them as a basis for something as integral to me as my morality.
Hitchens doesn't necessarily disagree with basic moral codes like The Golden Rule, only to those codes being the direct product of Christianity. Common sense allows us to understand that if we treat our friends terribly, we'll in turn be treated this way. It's obvious, and we don't need verbose scripture to get that point across. Hitchens finishes his short essay be observing the following...
I cannot, of course, prove that there is no supervising deity who invigilates my every moment and who will pursue me even after I am dead. (I can only be happy that there is no evidence for such a ghastly idea, which would resemble a celestial North Korea in which liberty was not just impossible but inconceivable.) But nor has any theologian ever demonstrated the contrary. This would perhaps make the believer and the doubter equal—except that the believer claims to know, not just that God exists, but that his most detailed wishes are not merely knowable but actually known. Since religion drew its first breath when the species lived in utter ignorance and considerable fear, I hope I may be forgiven for declining to believe that another human being can tell me what to do, in the most intimate details of my life and mind, and to further dictate these terms as if acting as proxy for a supernatural entity. This tyrannical idea is very much older than Christianity, of course, but I do sometimes think that Christians have less excuse for believing, let alone wishing, that such a horrible thing could be true.
Thought provoking, to say the least. It is impossible to prove the non-existence of Yahweh, but then it is also impossible to disprove unicorns, or Zeus. I find it telling that Wilson opens his rebuttal with this:
P. G. Wodehouse once said that some minds are like soup in a poor restaurant—better left unstirred. I am afraid that I find myself sympathizing with him as I consider atheism.
Now why would that be? Why is it better to not ask the difficult questions? I remember my own experience of leaving the religion of my parents, when, one Sunday I stood up and asked a question that the speaker thought couldn't be answered, and his response that "such questions shouldn't be asked" basically booted my believing ass out the door. It is not enough to say we shouldn't stir the mind, because that's the tool that the universe has given us. Frankly, we slap nature in the face when we refuse to look at things rationally and logically, because those are our gifts. Faith proves nothing, and as we have seen in recent years, can be hijacked by those with inhumane intentions. Suicide bombings are done in faith that one is dying for a 'higher cause', but in the end one is just acting out of selfishness.

Morality is in need of modernization. But, as Emile Zola notes...
Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest!
I think there may be some truth here. Religion is a weight that keeps our ship anchored in the port of the past. It defies social evolution, it marginalizes unbelievers, and it is based (almost entirely) on things that are not independently verifiable. In this age of science and reason, we would be well served by understanding that it is not religion that keeps us good humans, but it is ourselves, our innate desire to be good humans. Call it enlightened self interest, call it common sense, call it what you will, just don't attribute it to texts that were written thousands of years ago. Because, after all, those texts have also been used to propagate some of the most horrific atrocities in human history.

I've yet to meet a scientist who wants to die for his equations. Science, it must be understood, is disprovable and verifiable, the very opposite of religion. So what is to be done? I don't know, but it appears the dialogue is heating up, and the unbelievers are finally finding their tongues.


Hildegard of Bingen

There are few women of the late Middle Ages that ignite the fascination of modern historians like Hildegard von Bingen. While the dust of Asia Minor was settling upon the victors of the first crusade, twelfth-century Europe was undergoing in its own transformation. Peter Abelard, the progenitor of the Theologic, fought as any crusader against the tyranny of systems that had come to represent the Catholic Church. Bernard of Clairvaux, a fierce dogmatist and Cistercian, became self-assigned taskmaster to the inertia that had become Christianity. He polished, as an artist his stone, the imperfections that had appeared over the darkest days of Europe. It was a renaissance balanced by war, a thing often done in the west.

Unlike the crusades, those fighting of the front lines of Europe were engaged in a personal battle; reclaiming Jerusalem became akin to the rediscovery of ones self, ones relationship to divinity. Hildegard of Bingen represented this perfectly. Born into a world dominated by patriarchy, Hildegard defied convention by rising above the standard tariff imposed upon most women of her age. She was confidant to Kings and Popes, a prodigious letter writer and orator; yet more importantly Hildegard was the darling of her Deity.

Until very recently, Hildegard of Bingen was nothing more than a footnote in the great Christian book, yet as Donald Logan points out in his seminal work The History of the Church in the Middle Ages, “one neglects an examination of her accomplishments at the risk of gaining only a limited and incomplete view of the twelfth-century.” (1) And why is it important that we gain a more complete view of this period of Christianity? The twelfth-century was, according to many historians, the period in which the Catholic Church shed its old skin--the dense shadows of medieval Europe were receding and it was incumbent upon the clergy to embody this progression into a new era, to open doors leading out of centuries of darkness. As Hildegard was female, and therefore not of the clergy, it is all the more fascinating that it is she who would come to most perfectly embody this great shift.

Of all the accomplishments afforded Hildegard, perhaps most stunning are the strange and colorful visions that attended her (often as migrainous fits, it has been said) through most of her adult life. She summarizes the genesis of these visions in her preface to Scivias.
When I was 42 years and 7 months old, in the year 1141, the heavens opened to me and my brain was flooded by an exceedingly brilliant light. It warmed my whole heart and being in the same way that sun gives warmth. (2)
And continues by noting how the vision also coalesced her understanding of the scriptures, not their “grammar and syntax” but their meaning, a kind of divine exegesis. At a time when clericalism dominated the hierarchy of the Church, tugging at it like dead weight, Hildegard’s illuminations infused the Catholic system with a much-needed buoyancy.

The process leading to Hildegard’s recognition of these visions was made critical when, after one such experience, she fell ill. In her own words she illustrates how it was “not in stubbornness but in humility…I refused to write for so long that I felt pressed down under the whip of God into a bed of sickness." (3)

One can sympathize with Hildegard’s reticence when pressed with a situation that has often led to heresy. To accept her visions as divinely originated would be tantamount to reopening an old Christian wound, the same that were made sore by the great heretic Montanus. But there was little choice for Hildegard, as her pen, once dipped, seemed to be the natural remedy she was seeking:
Beaten down by many kinds of illnesses, I put my hand to writing. Once I did this, a deep and profound exposition of books came over me. I received the strength to rise up from my sick bed, and under that power I continued to carry out the work to the end, using all of ten years to do it. (4)
The work she refers to, Scivias (Know the Ways), contained the bulk of her visions and was made popular by Pope Eugenius III at the council of Trier, where he read from a section of her work. This move by Eugenius was critical in sanctioning Hildegard’s visions, and one can only assume the kind of self-confidence it infused in its author.

Soon after completing Scivias, Hildegard found herself suddenly facing an entirely new situation; the reading by Eugenius had formally sanctioned her work, and she was fast becoming a household name throughout Christendom. The following decade found Hildegard writing a voluminous collection of letters, correspondences that not only solidified her role as ambassador and teacher, but also made her prophetess to her theological community. In a letter to Frederick Barbarossa, she chastened the emperor to quit acting “like a little boy, like one that has lost his mind.” Letters to Bernard of Clairvaux and Eugenius’ successor Pope Anastasius IV (1153-54) also figured strongly in her ever-widening circle of acquaintances.

Far from being the culmination in what could already be seen as a staggering achievement, Hildegard forged along an unmarked path in a forest of patriarchy to achieve a kind of success rarely seen, by any man or woman. Barbara Newman, in an essay entitled Sibyl of the Rhine, extrapolates the exact nature of Hildegard’s influence:
Among countless “firsts" and “onlies” to her credit, Hildegard was the only women of her age to be accepted as an authoritative voice on Christian doctrine: the first woman who received express permission from a pope to write theological books; the only medieval woman who preached openly, before mixed audiences of clergy and laity, with the full approval of church authorities; the author of the first known morality play and the only twelfth-century playwright who is not anonymous; the only composer of her era (not to mention the only medieval woman) known both by name and by a large corpus of surviving music; the first scientific writer to discuss sexuality and gynecology from a female perspective; and the first saint whose official biography includes a first-person memoir. (5)
The list is overwhelming, to be sure, and is included here to offer the reader a greater understanding of her role, not just as author and visionary, but icon. Because Hildegard was unable to become educated in the traditional manner, her insights and accomplishments can only be understood by taking seriously her connection to what she termed lux vivens (the living light). She describes this active force in much the same way early Christian disciples did, as the energy and presence of the Holy Spirit, but diverges from the clerical tendency “to employ more static notions of supreme being or goodness"(6) to the Divine. In this Hildegard “shifts attention away from an unchanging truth beyond creation to a light that is alive.”

An active relationship with Divinity is often the first casualty of religion, as the tendency of organizations is to lean toward solidity in effort to preserve the original intention. Heresy (unaccepted revelation) is ever struggling to spark movement in the system, to challenge it lethargy. Hildegard’s use of the phrase lux vivens offered the same challenge, but as she was not proposing radical shifts in theology her message was never opposed. Rather, it could be seen that her revelations were a gentle reminder to an aged system, prompting her spiritual community to reconstitute the original relationship to spirit so enjoyed by the early disciples.

For all Hildegard’s accomplishments, it could be argued that this period of Christianity did in fact find its purest expression in her visions. It is perhaps symbolic of her life that she published The Book of Divine Works—a study that explored relationships between microcosm and macrocosm—as it is Hildegard who most perfectly embodied the external repossession of Jerusalem by reclaiming its metaphoric corollary, the human heart.

  1. Donald Logan, The History of the Church in the Middle Ages (New York, 2002), p. 174.
  2. Ibid, p. 174.
  3. Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen (Santa Fe, 1985), p. 27.
  4. Ibid, p. 27.
  5. Barbara Newman, Voice of the Living Light, ed. Barbara Newman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 1.
  6. Constant Mews, Voice of the Living Light, ed. Barbara Newman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 55.
Reese Zollinger
(Fair use of above material)

Edit to add:

This essay was written just over a year ago for a university class - The History of Christianity. Since that time I have grown steadily more critical of all religious organizations, but reserve some deep respect for certain historical members of the various faiths - like Bede and Hildegard of Bingen in Christianity, Rumi of Sufism, or the now mythical sixth-century Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. The brilliance of these individuals though is not the exact product of their religion, but merely gained expression under that particular moral system. Hildegard's Lux Vivens could be the very same thing as the Buddhist Samadhi, or the drunkenly poetic love of Rumi.


The Ouroboros Dispatch

Photo via wikicommons.
  • BBC, producer of the documentary, has a disbelief quiz for all you atheists.
  • A 4,200-year-old temple in Peru is home to the New World's Oldest Calender. Great article by the Smithsonian magazine.
  • Continuing coverage of the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder of Bee's worldwide.
  • Via truthdig. Scott Ritter: Calling Out Idiot America. The website also has a great interview of Gore Vidal by Robert Scheer.
  • An older article on sunspots, but still relevant.


The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry illustrates one of the most decisive points in western civilization: the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The video above shows a bit of it in animated form. The tapestry itself is an incredible 230 ft. long by 20 in. high; an embroidering of wool thread on a linen background. As you can see from the video, it is divided into three seperate bands, with the middle containing the story while the upper and lower bands being used mostly for decoration. It is an incredible piece of artistry and history, and our best source for understanding how the Normans justified their attack on England.

In the Anglo-Saxons and the Pirates of Vin post, I tried to give a brief history of the Viking invasions of England, and how the stage and characters were set leading up to the Norman conquests (remember the Normans were also Vikings who had come to settle in France). In this post, my aim is to look at the Bayeux Tapestry and its historical importance in understanding this event.

It's a complex story, to be sure. So to simplify it, I'll just give you the basic details of the Tapestry itself, and a brief overview of the situation leading up to William's conquest.

Edward the Confessor died on January 5, 1066, just over 9 months before William the Conqueror invaded England. Edward, like his father Æthelred the Unready, was given an honorific to define his role in the breakdown of Anglo-Saxon rule in England. Unlike Æthered, Edward's title was not disparaging, and seems more like a religious coronation (his confessor status comes from this refusal to have sex with his wife). In Christian parlance, this title is just below martyr, meaning he stood for his religious principles almost unto death.

Edward spent 28 years living with his mother, Æthelred's wife (and confusingly, the later wife of Cnut) Emma, in Normandy, France. He came of age there, and it is also there that he developed relationships that would influence his reign many years later. After the death of Harthacnut, his half brother, he returned to England and took the kingship. But, because he spent his childhood among the Normans, his loyalty and strength were highly uncertain

But that's not the end of the complexity, and the back-story is seemingly infinite, so I'll try to be concise. After the death of Edward in early 1066, Harold (son of Godwin) took the throne. Godwin was a powerful Earl of Mercia, and since Edward had left no children, the royal succession was left uncertain.

Or was it. The major theme in the Bayeux tapestry is that Edward sent Harold to the court of William in Normandy years earlier to reaffirm Edwards’s commitment that it would be William that would succeed him. Harold is shown in the tapestry affirming (on holy relics) Williams right of succession, and it was this contention that allowed William to get a papal blessing from Rome before invading England.

The Anglo-Saxon side of the story is different, and claims that neither Edward nor Harold made this oath to William. But the victors are often the authors of history, and to this day historians are uncertain what actually happened.

Nevertheless, William did invade later in the year 1066. He got news of Harold’s ascension earlier that year, but because of unfavorable winds and his need to increase the size of his navy, he waited until September to invade. On October 14 he encountered the forces of Harold at the now infamous Battle of Hastings, and was victorious. It is said that Harold died by taking an arrow in the eye, an ignominious end to the great son of Godwin.

Soon after the battle, William’s brother Odo commissioned the tapestry to be made for commemorating he and his brothers work in subduing England. It was finished around 1082 and presented at the dedication of a cathedral (Odo was a bishop). Until the 19th century, the tapestry was nearly unknown outside of Normandy, France. It escaped a few near mutilations, and was finally popularized by Napoleon, when in 1803 he used it as a kind of propaganda piece to argue that England could be conquered.

During WWII, Hitler also studied the Bayeux tapestry to see if it held secrets to invading and subduing the English. That didn’t happen, of course. Today, it is held in a special building in Bayeux, France, where visitors can enjoy its incredible artistic and historical features.

Evolution vs. the GOP

The big elephant in the room: creationism

In last nights republican presidential debates, John McCain was asked point-blank whether or not he believes in evolution. His answer, yes.

The Politico's moderator then asked for a show of hands from the ten candidates as to who didn't believe in evolution. One would have expected a no show on that one, it being the 21st century and all...

But, three of the ten candidates raised their hands, claiming they didn't believe in evolution. What??? They have got to be kidding, right? What has happened to America? Have we hit a cultural speed bump? The three candidates, for your information, are Sam Brownback, Governor Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo.

Now, I just have to say, because this is really disturbing. I think we need a new rule about who can and who cannot become president of the United States. If you discount scientific theories because they go against your beliefs, you shouldn't be able to become president. Its very simple, really. We wouldn't allow believers of The Great Flying Spaghetti Monster or the tooth fairy to have high public office, so why believers in creationism? No evidence exists for it, but people believe it, regardless. It is truly perplexing.

It's fine that people believe as they want, but it isn't OK for someone holding high public office to not understand basic scientific theories, and the scientific method. After all, even the staunchest believers enjoy the fruits of the scientific method, so it is just hypocrisy when they claim to believe in creationism while standing in front of a Boeing 737. It is science, after all, that has given us these modern conveniences.

Update: Crooks and Liars has the video up, check it out.


Bill Moyers is Back

Moyers interviews John Stewart.

Because of finals consuming every ounce of my spare energy, I haven't been able to devote much time here. But, I wanted to post this Moyers interview of The Daily Show's John Stewart. Many of you have seen this already, I'm sure. For those that haven't, here is the first part of the the interview. It is of questionable digital quality. For the high-res version you should visit the site of Moyers new acclaimed PBS program Bill Moyers Journal.

I think we are privileged to have Moyers around. Sometimes, I think he is the only media personality (other than Olbermann and the party over at Comedy Central) who dares talk truth to power. If you haven't heard of his new program, it airs on PBS every week. His 90 minute documentary about the complicity of the media in the run up to the Iraq war is essential, and you can also find that on the link above.



Homer and the Hebrew Bible

April is National Poetry Month (all who knew that please give a show of hands). As postmoderns, we are poetically illiterate. We have exchanged poetry for technology, finding an almost romantic inspiration in the great god html. I would ask this question fist, for those who would be willing to respond in the comments section: who still composes with a pen? I don't. I write everything (except notes, and the occasional journal entry) digitally, and find when writing longhand that I'm dealing with an awkward medium. For me, there is an added element of creative editing when being able to delete obtuse nonsense that has just vomited out of my head.

Nevertheless (getting back to my point), if you were to give a sweeping title to western culture, it could be something like The Muse and the Poet. Abraham and Moses had Yahweh, Homer had Zeus and Achilles, and later poets played with the great ideas of Reason and Beauty to describe the complex relationship between their words and their inspiration. Without a doubt, the origin of western verse lies with the ancient god of the Levant and the scribe of the fall of Troy, and their memesque swimming through the rivulets of the occidental stream.

Both Yahweh and Homer would take center stage in any play depicting the protagonist of western verse, the hero of writ and wit. One could readily imagine a tragedy by Aeschylus or Sophocles that pitted Homer against YHVH, as if one were enlightened reason and the other were strict faith. But the Tetragrammaton wasn't entirely faithful, and Homer was but a minstrel, orally memorializing the past. And yet, because they both continue to intrigue our collective imagination so many thousands of years later, they must have symbolized some internal process that we all are looking for: the meeting of the lover and the beloved.

So, in recognition of the long and complex history of western verse, and the end of National Poetry Month, I'd like to offer another example of the simple but intriguing process of inspiration (this time with a bit of political garnish). Without further adieu.
fish and wine

the sickness,
came slowly; day in and day out the nine and eleven
made war. the eleven and nine roared with lungs, loud;
the thickness of their tone,
the fire and the smoke, they allowed.
the breaths we take, we thank nine and eleven;
three and three multiplied;
one and ten, acting
terrified: it is a mental sickness,
like heaven.

she drank wine.
and smoked a fish for her trek.
she could almost taste the fish as it smoked;
the wine went well with the fish smoking.
the fish lived once.
and once caught the taste of wine from wine coated cheese.
it was on a hook, the wine coated cheese.
there was hope,
before, then.

the path,
she would take,
on her trek,
would take her by the river,
on a certain day,
when nine and eleven worked;
we can almost remember her,
but for all those
who she is a symbol for.
but oh the fish and wine!
and wo! the hook.

rr zollinger c2007


Poetry in Synchrony

Guest Poet: Shari Z.

In the triskaidekaphobia post, I brought you the poetry of the illustrious RR. Now, I would like to share with you the work of one of the few people I know who has her ear to the pulse of the planet, Shari Z. Following are two recent compositions that she was so generous to share.

The first is Pantoum, and has its stylistic origin in Malaysian poetry. In a Pantoum, the second and fourth lines of each stanza are reproduced as the first and third of the next. The second poem We Never Did Become Friends is more subtle, and seemed to me like an arrow rushing through a small golden hoop. My ears were left ringing.


Her pain was so purple, the daughters cried.
And father fell white like blossoming plum.
She bloomed thistle from an organ
that a wetland wouldn’t waltz.

And father fell white like blossoming plum
into a tumble that forced bend and snap;
that a wetland wouldn’t waltz.
We climbed through the forsythia for help.

Into a tumble that forced bend and snap
she coiled her belly and whimpered distress.
We climbed through the forsythia for help
to green grass doctor and hyacinth nurse.

She coiled her belly and whimpered distress,
calling for opium’s cloud and thunder
to green grass doctor and hyacinth nurse.
They pulled the weed and planted daffodils.

Calling for opium’s cloud and thunder
she bloomed thistle from organ.
They pulled the weed and planted daffodils.
Her peace so pointed, the daughters cried.


We Never Did Become Friends



Like sevens
back doors

Unlike evens
I un-enter you


Shari Zollinger, ©2007


Anglo-Saxons and the Pirates of Vin

The Anglo-Saxon response to the Viking invasions.

The story of England in the Middle Ages is an enchanting one. It’s a long, complex poem—illustrated in a few of the surviving manuscripts from that age—and traces in an undulating parabola the rise and fall of the ideas of men. Just a generation after the Venerable Bede’s death, in the late 8th century, the Vikings orchestrated their first strike. That famous raid, of course, was the initial act in what was to become a symphonic litany of incursions onto British soil.

It is difficult to gauge the exact effect of the Viking invasions upon the Anglo-Saxons, and while this essay will set out to bring some sense to that very topic, I concede at the outset the lack of space and time to adequately answer the question. In that vein, I would like to narrow my argument to concentrate on only a few of the primary events during this period (793-1066), and see if or how those events helped shape the overall Anglo-Saxon response to the Vikings.

The author through whom we can most closely conceptualize the early Norse invasions is Alcuin (735-804), the great displaced Northumbrian teacher and thinker at the court of Charlemagne, and so it is there that the story begins.

One immediately wonders upon reading the Letter of Alcuin to Ethelred, king of Northumbria, what darkness has come over the face of England. “Behold, judgment has begun, with great terror, at the house of God,” he chides—referring here to the Viking raid on Lindisfarne in the year 793. “God chastiseth every son whom he receiveth; and thus he perhaps chastised you more harshly, because he loved you more.”(1) In the eyes of Alcuin, the suffering of his kinsmen was a kind of Biblical scourging, a wrath of God’s making solely designed to test the weak faith of his children.

To be fair, Alcuin’s language should put in context. He is referring here—with intended irony—to the likeness between the sufferings of his kinsmen and those of Israel (one almost sees Alcuin as the Deuteronomistic historian in the foreign court), God has forsaken you, because you turned away from him. Alcuin’s religious advise to the paling faith of the English was not an isolated event. His clear message of ‘faith determines fate’ was foreshadowed in Gildas’ The Ruin of Britain. Gildas, like Alcuin centuries later, framed a geopolitical event in Biblical terms, and those terms were very stark indeed.

By exchanging the rhetoric of Alcuin for the insights of modern scholar and author Peter Hunter Blair, we might explain how the Anglo-Saxons (indeed, the whole of Europe) were unprepared to sustain the damage that they themselves (as invading Germans) inflicted only centuries previous.
The success of these expeditions [Viking] was mainly due to the complete unpreparedness of Britain to meet such attacks and it was this factor more than any other which led to the ultimate conquest of large parts of the British Isles. Once the most vigorous phase of the Germanic migrations was over, western Europe seems to have been so fully engaged in adapting itself to the resultant changes that the seas and their opposing shores were left undisturbed for a long time…The English themselves seem largely to have abandoned seafaring once they had become established in Britain….(2)
The causes, as Hunter Blair illustrates, really had nothing to do with faith and everything to do with the vacuous space left trailing in the wake of the Germanic invasions, a space capitalized upon by the Vikings, just as the Anglo-Saxons had benefited themselves from on the collapse of Roman culture. This is obvious now, and one wonders why it wasn’t so obvious to Alcuin residing in the court of Charlemagne. Alcuin must have, in some sense, aided in the geopolitical awareness of the court of Charles, thus it seems even more strange that he wouldn’t tell them to do the obvious: build yourselves a navy!

The Vikings were great seafarers and traders; their skill at maneuvering through rough northern seas gave them an obvious advantage. Donald Logan writes in his work The Church in the Middle Ages, of the Viking age:
Out of the fjords and viks (inlets) in their homelands, they sailed westward to the British Isles and further west to Iceland, Greenland, and the shores of North America…They sailed as pagans, as worshippers of anthropomorphic deities like Thor, the thunder god, Odin, the god of the spear, and Frey, the god of sexual pleasure.(3)
Fierce and feared, they rolled across the waves westward, taking different approaches to their plundering. At first, the raids were an entirely economic operation, sacking monasteries on the coast of England in the summer, and returning back home in the winter. Monasteries were easy targets, offering the Vikings high return for little risk, no doubt emboldening them to do it over and over again. Had Alcuin known that the Viking raid on Lindisfarne was only the precursor of a centuries long event (known as the Viking age, 793-1066), perhaps he would have offered more strategic and practical advise. As it was, he didn’t, and it took nearly another century for the Anglo-Saxon kings to birth a soul determined enough to deal with the issue, in the character known as Alfred the Great.

During the reign of Alfred (871-899), we begin to understand not only the psychological effect of the previous centuries attacks, but the fallout and disorder that those attacks produced. The political and religious confusion was so great that, upon success in defending the attacks of Guthrum in 878, Alfred spent the next 14 years designing a vast cultural and educational reconstruction program. It is difficult to know whether this lapse in cultural and literary knowledge was due to the loss of the libraries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and other religious-cultural sites around England, or whether it was just a general slip in education. Either way, by Alfred’s time the renaissance of the Northumbrians, the age of Bede and Biscop, was nearly forgotten.

But Alfred was a clever king, and his treaty with Guthrum created a clear demarcation to the acceptable wave of the Viking hoard. The treaty begins:
First concerning our boundaries: up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, then up the Ouse to Watling Street.(4)
Geographically, the Norse invaders had control over most of eastern England, and much of the north. That Alfred and his progeny were able to wrest this tidal movement remained temporary at best; perhaps he understood that, and set out to make certain he brought a renewed cultural understanding in their language and ideas. It seems likely he did understand that his culture was itself at stake. One must act, sometimes with the sword, but most often with the word.

Alfred’s life and times mirrors a court already mentioned, that of Charlemagne. Alfred penned law codes (mostly Anglo-Saxon variations of Mosaic Law), translated numerous works including Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy and Pope Gregory the Greats Pastoral Care. There were seven works in total (described by Alfred as certain books all men should know), and translated from Latin into the local vernacular. Alfred’s great work was codifying law, history, and religion together, and writing it all down in Old English. But his project, despite procuring lasting cultural effects, only bought the Anglo-Saxon’s another century of security, and in the year 981, the Vikings, as if propelled by some epoch clockwork, returned.

In the 82 years between the death of Alfred and the new wave of Viking raids, the Anglo-Saxons (as a nation) had a chance to solidify themselves. They did that relatively well, and I might be tempted to say here that Anglo-Saxons won the long fight in the battle for England. Through the efforts of Bede, Alfred, and the voluminous work of medieval manuscript engineers, cultural ideas bent their way northward for much of the middle ages. The Anglo-Saxons represented a repository of western cultural evolution, and the Vikings had little choice but to submit to that dominant culture.

Just a decade after the raids of 981 occurred the Battle of Maldon. Led by Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, the battle was fought near Northy Island. Memorialized as the last heroic Anglo-Saxon poem, it clearly shows the arrogance and determination on the side of the Vikings, and the conflict between cowardice and bravery on the side of the English. Byrhtnoth delivers a stirring rally to his forces, before dying in battle:
Can you hear, you pirate, what these people say? They will pay you a tribute of whistling spears, of deadly darts and proven swords, weapons to pay you, pierce, slit and slay you in the storm of battle. Listen, messenger! Take back this reply: break the bitter news to your people that a noble earl and his troop stand over here—guardians of the people and of the country, the home of Ethelred, my prince—who will defend this land to the last ditch.(5)
History has tended to look harshly on king Æthelred, enough to give him the honorific Æthelred the Unready for his apparent unsuccessful attempts at dealing with the impact of the Danish army. The Battle of Ashington (1016) pitched the last stroke against the head of a very determined nail. Cnut, son of the great Viking leader and military commander Swein Forkbeard, struck a deal with Æthelred’s son Edmund Ironside, allowing Edmund to remain king of Essex. Edmund died a year later, leaving Cnut as undisputed king of England for the next 26 years (1016-1042).

This was the great foreshadowing of the Norman invasions of 1066, leading to the famous Battle of Hastings. The Vikings had succeeded at barraging the Anglo-Saxons long enough that they relented the throne, abdicating a long line of familial kingships, marking the end of their state.

It seems fitting somehow to close mimicking the diatribes of Alcuin with the Sermon of the Wolf to the English, by Wulfstan (written in the early 11th century). Perhaps unstoppable change drives men to stretch their imaginations about the nature of change, the cause of cause: regardless, for Wulfstan, and Gildas and Alcuin before him, an old tradition of uttering apocalyptic reasons to geopolitical events is entertainingly potent. Wulfstan begins his sermon on a sour note:
Dear men, understand that this is true: the world is in haste and it approaches the end, and because it is ever worldly, the longer it lasts, the worse it becomes; and so it must necessarily greatly worsen before the coming of Antichrist because of the sins of the people, and indeed it will become then fearful and terrible throughout the world.(6)
God’s chosen people, again, being brought under the hammer of love and justice. It is a deal with the devil, in a way, to tie ones ship to the sails of the Tetragrammaton. For Wulfstan, this is the reality of Gods punishment. For modern scholars, it remains a poignant lesson of the rise and fall of empires and human ideal. Like the numerous other Germanic invasions before them, those of the Vikings ended in a similar fashion. They had the strength to attain the thrones of other states, but not the cultural strength to maintain rule under pagan practices. In nearly all cases, conversion was immediate and final.

In that sense, I repeat my earlier sentiment that it appears the Anglo-Saxons won the penultimate battle, while loosing the military one. Their culture was well dug in by 1066, and the only choice left to the Vikings was to embrace it.



1. Whitelock, ed., English Historical Documents, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (London, 1979), pp. 843.
2. Hunter-Blair, Anglo-Saxon England (New York, 2006), p. 63.
3. Logan, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages (London, 2003), p. 80.
4. Keynes, Lapidge, Alfred the Great (London.2004), p. 171.
5. Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology (Oxford, 1982), p. 12.
6. Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology (Oxford, 1982), p. 294.


Reese 4.24.07

The above essay was written yesterday, and submitted this morning to my professor. I put it off to the last moment, and then had to spend the entire day composing it...but, as I've often thought, stress is inspirations inebriant. I enjoyed writing it, here's hoping you'll be entertained reading it.

Fair use of above material.


Political Theatre

Barney Frank goes to Washington.

Frank (D-Massachusetts) really delivers here, you have to watch the whole bit to understand exactly how. His parliamentary procedure about whining caused the house to roar...and more, much more.

Thanks to thinkprogress for posting it.


Gore Vidal and the Minuscule W.

“Hail and Farewell: the End of the American Empire."

Vidal published his latest reflections on hubris and empire at truthdig.com, and the site has the audio up of Vidal reading the article. He begins,
Whenever The New York Times finally gets the point to what is going on in our native land a celestial choir can be heard in Times Square, shouting hosannas.
and slowly absolves our doubts concerning entirely more important issues.

I considered quoting more of the article here, but thought it would be better to encourage you to visit truthdig and listen to Vidal's recitation of the essay. His voice inflects well with his thoughts, giving them a particular gravity.

(picture from wikipedia of a youthful Gore Vidal, found here)


Linguistic Ginko

In the tradition of early Graeco-Roman humor, Symposius, a fourth century aristocrat, composed in Latin a series of 100 riddles. Symposius, whose name suggests a heavy inclination to dine with Bacchus, popularized what was to become an enduring tradition, composing the perfect riddle...
"Letters sustain me--yet I know them not,
I live on books, and yet I never read,
The Muses I've devoured and gained no knowledge."
Easy enough, but others are woefully obscure.
"You can behold what you can scarce believe
There is but one eye, yet a thousand heads,
Who sells what he has, whence shall he get what he has not?"
Most of Symposius' riddles are three lines long, and no doubt reach at capturing the typical scenes of daily life in the Empire. To a degree, his work inspired a host of later plagiarisms and copycats, yet the riddles themselves became more nuanced and acculturated over time.

The literary work of the Anglo-Saxons is highly treasured. One would expect to find obscure poetry and prose mixed in with the overwhelming amount of beatific work. And in fact, we do. Aldhelm was the first Anglo-Saxon to produce a book of riddles. Titled Aenigmata ex diversis Rerum Creaturis composita it closely follows Symposius' earlier work by being composed in Latin and numbering also 100.
Dudum compositis ego nomen gesto figuris :
Ut leo, sic formica vocor sermone Pelasgo
Tropica nominibus signans praesagia duplis,
Cum rostris avium nequeam resistere rostro.
Scrutetur sapiens, gemino cur nomine fingar!

I long have borne the name of hybrid form:
Both ant and lion I am called in Greek
A double metaphor, foreboding doom;
My beak cannot ward off the beaks of birds.
Let wise men search out why my names are twain.

(The Riddles of Aldhelm: Text and Translation by James Hall Pitman)
Unlike Symposius, Aldhelm's riddles varied in length, with the shortest line count at four, and the longest at around 80. Continuing the tradition after Aldhelm was Tatwine, who followed earlier patterns of composing in Latin. In the 8th century Eusebius, a monk at the Wearmouth-Jarrow complex in Northumbria, wrote a series of his own, albeit numbering less than his predecessors.

Within the largest single collection of surviving English poetry--The Exeter Book--is a collection of 10th century riddles composed in the Old-English vernacular (as opposed to Latin), which makes the tone of the verses somehow more real, and critical. For your amusement and frustration, I'll post a couple of examples here to challenge the extent of your patience.
A lonely wanderer, wounded with iron, I am smitten with war-blades, sated with strife, Worn with the sword-edge; I have seen many battles, Much hazardous fighting, oft without hope of comforts or help in the carnage of war Ere I perish and fall in the fighting of men. The leavings of hammers, the handiwork of smiths, Batter and bite me, hard-edged and sharp; The brunt of the battle I am doomed to endure. In all the folk-stead no leech could I find with wort or simple to heal my wounds; But day and night with the deadly blows the marks of the war-blades double and deepen.

Time was when I was weapon and warrior; Now the young hero hoods me with gold, and twisted silver. At times men kiss me. At times I speak and summon to battle Loyal companions. At times a courser, Bears me o'er marchland. At times a ship Bears me o'er the billows, brightly adorned. At times a fair maiden fills me with breath; At times hard and headless I lie on the board, Bereft of beauty. At times I hang Winsome on wall, richly embellished, Where revelers drink. At times a warrior Bears me on a horse, a battle adornment, And I swallow, bright-shining, the breath from his bosom. At times with my strains I summon the heroes, Proudly to wine. At times I win back spoil from the spoiler, with sounding voice, Put foemen to flight. Now ask what I'm called.

(Charles W. Kennedy, translator)
Here's another riddle, if those above were too easy. This is from a translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland in The Exeter Book Riddles (London, 1979.)
Favoured by men, I am found far and wide,
taken from woods and the heights of the town,
from thee downs and thee dales. During each day
corbiculas carried me through the bright sky,
with care they brought me to a safe shelter.
Then men bathed me in a tub. Now I blind
and chasten them, at once throw a young man
to the ground, sometimes an old churl too.
He who struggles against my strength,
he who grapples with me, will find
he must hit the hard floor with his back
unless he forgoes such a foolish fight.
Robbed of his strength, but not of his tongue,
he has no say over his mind
or his hands or his hands or his feet. Who knocks
young men stupid, and as his slaves binds them
in broad, waking daylight? Yes, ask me my name.