Thomas Aquinas might cycle on the footpath (but Immanuel Kant wouldn’t)

Bike commuters in London; Credit: Paul Kubalek; Licence: Creative Commons

My mother taught me that it was ok to steal.

The nuns taught my mother that it was ok to steal.

Thomas Aquinas taught the nuns that it was ok to steal.

I suspect that some context is needed here.

In the Summa theologiae 2a2ae, q66, where Aquinas deals with the morality of theft and robbery, he considers whether it’s lawful to thieve in a case of necessity.

Aquinas argues that:

In cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common (2a2ae, q66, a7, co)

He gives qualified acknowledgement to property rights (albeit in a way that would make most red-blooded capitalists blanch). But he argues that in cases of “manifest and urgent” need, when no other remedy is available, a Christian may take the property of another in order to help him or herself or neighbours in need. It is clear from the context that Aquinas isn’t thinking of poor people robbing each other, but of those who have more than they need forfeiting their surplus to those who don’t have what they need. Here he quotes Saint Ambrose’s reproach to the wealthy:

It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.

What the mediaeval church thought happened to our “wealth creators,” Chartres Cathedral, South Portal; Credit: Nick Thompson

This is what the nuns taught my mother and what my mother taught me. As a theologically minded child, I engraved it upon my heart.

I mention all of this to draw attention to a broader point: that Aquinas is always sharply aware of the distinction between the letter and spirit of laws (as well as other rules and regulations).

When lawmakers make good laws, they do so with the intention of promoting the welfare of their subjects – i.e. of upholding the common good. But lawmakers can’t foresee all of the individual circumstances to which those laws will be applied. This means that in some cases, a law may have to be “bent” or even broken in order for the original intention of the lawmaker to be fulfilled. In other words, the spirit of a good law must always take precedence over its letter.

This in its turn is a round-about-way of coming – at last! – to an ethical dilemma I contemplated on my bike-ride into work this morning: all other things being equal, would Thomas Aquinas approve of biking on the footpath?

Dear reader, as you have probably already guessed, I am no ethicist, and I seek your judgements on this matter of great import (to me at least).

Most mornings I bike to work along Ash, Rata Street and Great North Road. If I travel in rush hour, the traffic is chaotic. Because of the geography of the Whau Estuary, I have little other choice but to take this road.

What worries me is not just the frenetic lane changing and sheer volume of traffic.  The route includes many “pinch points” (it’s narrow) and it’s easy for a cyclist to be hemmed in against the gutter, because traffic can’t pull out far enough to pass you safely.

For both reasons there are a few places where it seems safer to bike along the footpath for 100-200m during rush hour.

But if I do that, I’m breaking the law.

(I should say that I’m not alone in this; school kids and the elderly cyclists in that area also use the footpath; for their sake, I’m glad they do)

If the kids, the elderly cyclists and I were to observe Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (crudely put: don’t do anything that’s not universalisable) none of us would be on the footpath. That’s because a footpath full of cyclists would be dangerous to pedestrians. And in general, that’s sound advice. As a pedestrian, I get a bit antsy if I feel hemmed in by a cyclist on the footpath – especially one travelling at speed. It’s not safe, and the intention of the lawmaker is that everyone – pedestrian, cyclist, motorist – should be able to travel in a way that is as safe as possible.

(Photo credit:; Licence: Creative Commons)

But, what if it is clearly safer to ride on the footpath – especially in the case of school children? What if there are no pedestrians on the footpath, or if I dismount and walk while I’m passing pedestrians? Is the intention of the lawmaker not better fulfilled by a bit of judicious law-breaking?

In general New Zealand public discourse about any kind of rule-breaking is crudely and savagely Kantian. In fact, I’m not sure I’d even dignify it with that term. Anyone reading the letters to the New Zealand Herald would be hard pressed not to conclude that New Zealanders – religious or heathen, conservative or liberal – are on the whole self-righteous, censorious and punitive. Not for us the humane casuistry and good sense of the tradition that Aquinas represents.

So I feel sure that New Zealand public opinion would gladly see me heavily fined for meandering along the footpaths of west Auckland during rush hour.

But I’m not sure what Aquinas would say.

Advent offering – 13 December

I’m taking up the slack today while Caroline attends a conference.

I just got back yesterday from Europe, where, among other things, I attended a magnificent conference at Leuven in Belgium marking the 450th anniversary of the closing session of the Council of Trent. More on that later.

I also took a lot of photos of historical places and objects for use in Church History courses.

I spent a week based in Zürich visiting places in eastern Switzerland and southern Germany. Then I had a week in Belgium at the above-mentioned conference.

Anyway, while I was wandering around art galleries and museums, I was struck by four examples of an image that seems to have appeared a lot in late mediaeval and early Renaissance art, but, as far as I know, hasn’t shown up since then (I’d gladly be corrected on that if there are Art Historians amid our readership).

Below are four representations of Jesus’s family. The first three are photos I took. The fourth I saw in the exhibition at Leuven of works by Michiel Coxcie (1499-1592). They didn’t allow photography, so I’ve linked to the image provided by the exhibition.

Mary and her two half-sisters Mary Salomé and Mary-Cleophas and their sons. Altarpiece, c1502 by Matheis Miller of Lindau. From the diocese of Chur. Landesmuseum, Zürich.
Mary and her two half-sisters Mary Salomé and Mary-Cleophas and their sons. Altarpiece, c1502 by Matheis Miller of Lindau. From the diocese of Chur. Landesmuseum, Zürich.
Saint Anne and her family, central portion of an altarpiece made in the Brabant, Low Countries, c1500-1510, Cinquanentaire Museum, Brussels.
Saint Anne and her family, central portion of an altarpiece made in the Brabant, Low Countries, c1500-1510, Cinquanentaire Museum, Brussels.
Saint Anne and her family from the top of a folding altar, 1505 from the church of Gräpplang, Flums, Switzerland. Landesmuseum, Zürich.
Saint Anne and her family from the top of a folding altar, 1505 from the church of Gräpplang, Flums, Switzerland. Landesmuseum, Zürich.
Michiel Coxcie, Heilige Maagschap, Stift Kremsmünster

Around Christmas we’re used to seeing pictures of the “Holy Family” (TM): i.e. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Sometimes they’re with other figures from the biblical narratives – particularly the wise men and the shepherds. But the Holy Family proper is always now a strictly nuclear unit.

In large part this is because the canonical scriptures are pretty vague about the exact nature of Jesus’s whanau. Arguably, they’re not even that interested in it. But the Middle Ages had no such scruples about canonicity, and its religious art presents us with a very different view of Jesus’s family life.

In these images of the Heilige Maagschap (Holy Kinship) the women are at the forefront. There’s Saint Anne (once described to me by a Welsh friend as “Holy Annie, God’s Granny”), her daughter Mary the Mother of God, and Mary’s two half-sisters, Mary Salome and Mary Clopas/Cleophas (thereby, I suppose, God’s aunties).

According to an extremely complex mediaeval tradition based on a mixture of non-canonical gospels like the Proto-Evangelium of James, and some pure confusion (codified by Haimo of Auxerre in the 9th century) the Virgin Mary’s mother Saint Anne married two other husbands after the death of her first husband Joachim. For reasons best known to her, Anne named all three daughters Mary. Mary Salome married one Alphaeus and became mother of Jesus’s cousin James the Lesser and a Joseph. Mary Cleophas married her step-father’s brother Joseph (this is getting Jeremy Kyle complicated), and bore James the Greater and John the Evangelist.

This story’s bound to send members of the Society for Biblical Literature into a tailspin of historico-critical despair, and it’s clear that it fell from favour because of 16th century Christianity’s new concern for historical authenticity. But it does tell us some interesting things about late mediaeval Christianity.

It’s often said that 16th century began the institutionalisation of western Christianity. In other words, Christian life was increasingly focussed on the parish, the parish school, Christian instruction, and, as John Bossy once rather pessimistically suggested, the social discipline needed to turn people into obedient and cooperative subjects of the emerging modern state.

If inclulcating obedience was the focus of early modern Christianity, the focus of mediaeval Christianity was “charity,” by which English-speakers meant the the kindness and generosity that one owed to friends and family (or, as they would have put it, “kith and kin”). While early modern Christianity taught children to obey the ten commandments, pre-modern Christianity taught them the “seven corporal works of mercy” (i.e. of their duty to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.). An early modern child learnt to be a good Christian by memorising the catechism; the pre-modern child learnt to practice “charity” in the context of a large extended family and in groups of peers like trade guilds or holy clubs for laywomen and men (e.g. the confraternities that have been such hot topic of research in mediaeval/early modern church history)

As with all historical generalisations, one can find counter-examples in both periods. Also, I don’t want to romanticise pre-modern Christianity. Extended families and social groups can be as stifling in their own ways as church hierarchies and modern governments.

Moreover, when modern Christianity focusses on “family values” to the point of glibness and stridency, it’s useful to be reminded that, in the New Testament at least, the importance accorded to the family seems a bit ambiguous.

On the other hand, as someone who was fortunate enough to grow up in a large and close extended family, I’m struck by the way in which these pictures capture the joy that can emerge from this kind of relationship (OK, I admit the Holy Kin look a bit dour in the third picture), and the way in which the children are celebrated and loved not just by their parents, but by siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and various other kin. In the Chur altarpiece, in particular, there’s a joy on the faces of the three Maries which, as a kid, I was very conscious of receiving from the adults in my family, and now experience every time I meet the next generation in my own extended family.

May we all have the opportunity to experience that kind of enjoyment in the company of kith or kin – preferably both.

[Addendum: I found a couple more images of the Holy Kinship as I was looking for the Michiel Coxcie image. So I’m adding them down here, because I’m on a roll]

Anon, The Holy Kin, c1470, Wesphalia.
Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Holy Kinship, 1493, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Upholding Christian Standards of Marriage

Tonight we’ll be looking church opposition to a 1920 amendment of the Divorce Act in THEO104: Christianity in Aotearoa-NZ.

I didn’t time this choice of topic to coincide with the third and final reading of the 2013 Marriage Amendment Bill.

However, in terms of church rhetoric, the similarities are instructive.

The following extracts are from an account of discussions of the latest threat to Christian marriage from the Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Wellington in the Evening Post, 13 July 1921.

Mr Stent said he brought forward the motion [against an amendment in the Divorce Act] with a great sense of responsibility. He would, first of all, ask the Synod to consider what the Christian standard of marriage was […] First of all: the marriage contract was a lifelong one; secondly, no marriage should be recognised as marriage that came within certain degrees of relationship. The amended marriage laws of last year permitted a divorce to take place within three years of separation, no matter whether the contracting parties had lived chastely or not. It seemed to him that the standard of marriage laid down in the Word of God was in very, very grave peril, and, if that was so, it behoved every Christian priest and every Christian layman, with one voice and with one determination, to pass the resolution, to do his best to bring about a return to the paths of righteousness for the sake of Him who gave them life and powers of procreation of life […]

Bishop Sprott [of Wellington] said [he] did not think they realised the revolution that had taken place; the Christian ideal was now not necessary. The ideal recognised by the community was such that Christian people were now in the position of being tolerated. There was a sign last session [of Parliament] that even tolerance might go. They had been allowed to hold up before their own people the Christian ideal of marriage, but, as they knew, that was very nearly ended, and, indeed, if they took the strict letter of the law, that right had gone…. Bishop Sprott went on to say that he believed that ultimately tolerance would go, and a few Christians would have to endure persecution. No community, of course, would tolerate any individuals casting discredit on its laws.

Angelic Popes and Antichrists

"Ego sum papa" (I am the pope), the pope revealed as Antichrist in what is alleged to be a 15th cent. French handbill directed against Pope Alexander VI, though looks to me more like a 16th century Lutheran production
“Ego sum papa” (I am the pope), the pope revealed as Antichrist in what is alleged to be a 15th cent. French handbill directed against Pope Alexander VI, but looks to me more like a 16th century Lutheran production.

Change of Popes Doesn’t Sit Well With Traditionalists” is just one of the recent headlines describing the reaction of some conservative Catholics to the new pontificate. Chief among the pope’s transgressions to date has been that he last week washed the feet of a Muslim woman during Rome’s Holy Thursday ceremonies. It is not clear from conservative comment whether her religion or her gender stirred the greater alarm. It seems clear, however, that no good can come of it.

Such dire prognostications have been rivalled by headlines drawing favourable attention to the new pope’s “humility.” These reached self-parody in the tweeting of Los Angeles’ former archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony who effervesced about the new pope’s choice of black shoes. As not a few of his twitter followers pointed out, his comments were rich coming from a man who had not that long ago lavished cUS$180 million on a new cathedral.

By their shoes shall ye know them
By their shoes shall ye know them

One of the less attractive features of the Christian genre known as “apocalyptic” is what Nietzsche described as ressentiment: a strain of passive aggression biding its time until Jesus returns to exact brutal, final and disproportionate vengeance on behalf of the writer. Of course, any theologian will point out that apocalyptic literature also expresses (to quote another nineteenth century writer) the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, religious revenge-fantasies have an appeal that extends well beyond the circle of the objectively oppressed.

I think that there is a faint echo of this dynamic in the fascination of the media (and many Christians) with “what kind of pope” this one is going to be. The implicit question underying media scrutiny seems to be: is this pope going to compel me to adopt a posture of permanent outrage, or he going to help me exact revenge on my opponents?

The scholar of mediaeval apocalyptic thought, Bernard McGinn, has noted the way in which the papacy began to take on an apocalyptic mantle in the early Middle Ages.* From the 10th century the popes either promoted or hitched their wagons to the cause of ‘reform.’ Reform in this case meant wresting control of church offices and monasteries from the grasp of wealthy European dynasties. The result was supposed to be that the clergy now devoted themselves to the mission of the church rather than the amassing of dynastic power and wealth.

The association of the papacy with the reform movement led a Calabrian abbot, Joachim of Fiore (d1202), to speculate that in the last ‘status’ or age of the church, Christian society would be purified by an “angelic pope” working in cooperation with holy monks.

Illustration from Vaticinia de Pontificibus (Prophecies concerning the Popes) (London BL – Harley 1340 f. 15r), a text written in the tradition of Joachim of Fiore

Joachim’s complicated speculations about the Christian future proved wildly popular (and their influence can still be seen in the fascination with the “End-Times” of some Evangelical Protestants). This strain of apocalypticism could work extremely well for the mediaeval reform movement. But when the revolution in the medieval church inevitably failed to meet the reform movement’s high ideals, Joachimite apocalypticism could also turn against it.

Margaritone d’Arezzo also called di Magnano (c1216-1290), Francis of Assisi, (c1270-80), Musei Vaticani, Rome; Photo by Nick Thompson

Apocalyptic disillusionment can be seen in the case of the Franciscan ‘Spirituals’ – the radical followers of St Francis, who turned against the church’s hierarchy, and began to speculate that bishops and pope might in fact be instruments of the devil. The Franciscan Spirituals resented the fact that the papacy appeared to have relaxed the stringent poverty of St Francis’s movement – for example, by allowing Franciscans to live in houses and use property held on their behalf by individuals who didn’t belong to the order. A pope who reneged on their founder’s commitment to holy poverty could be none other than the Antichrist himself.

Thereafter the papal antichrist entered western Christian thought alongside the promised angelic pope. The former could be expected to wreck everything; the latter to make it all better. Who was which depended on your theological commitments, and for that reason they were usually exactly the same person.

Scene from the Lutheran "Passionale Christi und Antichristi" (1521) contrasting Christ driving the money changers from the temple with the pope encouraging the traffic in religious goods
Scene from the Lutheran “Passionale Christi und Antichristi” (1521) contrasting Christ driving the money changers from the temple with the papal antichrist encouraging the sale of indulgences

I admit that I, too, have felt heartened by some of the gestures that Francis I has made toward a different papal style. To that extent I conform to the aspirations of what the media describe as “liberal” Catholicism. However, I can think of nothing more stultifying than a church fashioned in the image and likeness of “liberalism” — or, for that matter, of the church’s other ginger groups.

As the liberal political thinker John Stuart Mill pointed out, difference within any body of human beings isn’t just something to be tolerated; it serves a common good:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth, produced by its collision with error. (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty)

One of the things that discourages me about both religious and political liberalism – for all its frequent talk of attentiveness to the “other” – is its tendency to slip into the same all-or-nothing game as that played by its opponents. To that extent, we “liberals” should treat the apocalyptic prognostications of Catholic traditionalists as a mirror held up to our own behaviour – and as a warning against treating the papacy as a vicarious way of “getting our own back.”

I recognise that, along with Pius IX, Catholic traditionalists would deny that liberal political thought offers a valid analogy for the way things might work in the Catholic church. Catholic truth, they would argue, isn’t reached by either the values or processes of liberal democracy.

I don’t have the space here to scrutinise the accuracy of that kind of claim. But I will at least observe that, ever since the mediaeval theologian Peter Abelard (d1142) titled his theological textbook Yes and No (Sic et Non) the Catholic church has recognised the value of hearing all sides of a question and arguing the toss.

More to the point, whether or not John Stuart Mill had in his mind the work of that notorious liberal St. Paul when he wrote on the value of dissenting voices, it seems to me that he was working within a tradition that has its roots in Paul’s observation that:

If the foot were to say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?

*See: Bernard McGinn, “Angelic Pope and Papal Antichrist” Church History 47, no. 2 (June 1978): 155-173.

Religious multiplexes

This, I’m afraid, is ecclesiastical ephemera at its most ephemeral (i.e. proof that a lot of the time the only good reason for studying church history is that one day it will help you win a pub quiz). However, I was moved to write this piece by one of Wayne Brittenden’s consistently engaging Counterpoint pieces on National Radio’s Sunday Morning programme (you can download it here).

Noting shrinking congregations and the financial burden imposed by post-Christchurch earthquake safety provisions, he suggested that denominations might put more thought into sharing church buildings – maybe dividing them up in much the same way as the grand old cinemas of the 20th century received a new lease of life after being divided into multiplexes (As a devotee of Mark Kermode, I’m aware that not everyone will accept the the claim that multiplexes represent a “new lease of life” for cinema).

Anyway, in the follow-up segment, Professor Peter Lineham expressed scepticism about the multiplex proposal, though he acknowledged that church-sharing was already happening all over New Zealand.

Although the examples that Peter offered were of Protestant cooperating parishes, it’s worth pointing out that there are also instances in which some of the ecumenically more stand-offish churches are in on the act as well.

Sign advertising times of worship outside "The Intersection" at the intersection of Great North and Blockhouse Bay Roads, Avondale, Auckland
Sign advertising times of worship outside “The Intersection” at the intersection of Great North and Blockhouse Bay Roads, Avondale, Auckland. Photo: Nick Thompson

For example, in Twizel, All Saints church is used by the Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics — and, for all I know, by other denominations as well. A shortish walk from my house, Avondale Baptist Church (aka The Intersection), houses a remarkably diverse group of congregations, including the Ethiopian Orthodox, The ‘Indian Fellowship’ (I’m not sure of the denomination), a Korean Presbyterian church, a Tongan Wesleyan, and a Seventh Day Adventist one.

More to the point, I thought it was worth noting that there are plenty of more ancient examples of this kind of church-sharing, particularly in parts of the world where political circumstances have forced Christian denominations into these partnerships. They have usually been less civil arrangements than the ones found in New Zealand, but they’ve also lasted a lot longer.

The ecclesiastical multiplex par excellence is the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. For the first six-or-so centuries of its existence, this was home to a largely Greek-speaking congregation of the “undivided church” (a term signifying the Greek-Latin church before 1054, which conveniently forgets the great schisms of the 5th century). However, under Crusader rule – for much of the 12th century – The Holy Sepulchre became a Latin church. In the centuries after Muslim reconquest (read Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography for the unedifying details) the basilica gradually became the site of an uneasy stalemate, in which the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenian Apostolic Church, Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox were all able to gain control of a part of the basilica or the adjacent space (Ethiopian monks, for example worship in a small chapel that shares a wall with the basilica, but live in cells on the basilica’s roof; the Copts have their own lean-to shrine of the resurrection through which pilgrims can look through a hole in the wall into the Greek-Orthodox-controlled edicule over the supposed site of Jesus’s resurrection). As is well-known, this co-existence is occasionally disturbed by physical brawls among the custodians of the basilica, and since 1192 the keys have been entrusted to a local Muslim family; the Christians can’t be trusted with them.

The green doors in the background mark the homes of some of the Ethiopian monastics who live on the roof of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo: Nick Thompson
The green doors in the background mark the homes of some of the Ethiopian monastics who live on the roof of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo: Nick Thompson
Greek Orthodox edicule built over the site of Jesus' resurrection. At the left-hand end is the Coptic shrine through which pilgrims can reach into the Greek Orthodox side of the tomb. On the right of this picture you can also see an Armenian Apostolic altar. Photo: Nick Thompson
Greek Orthodox edicule built over the site of Jesus’ resurrection. At the left-hand end is the Coptic shrine through which pilgrims can reach into the Greek Orthodox side of the tomb. On the right of this picture you can also see an Armenian Apostolic altar. Photo: Nick Thompson
Chancel screen, which until the 19th century divided the Strasbourg church of St-Pierre-le-Jeune into Roman Catholic and Lutheran halves. Photo: Nick Thompson

A later example of multiplexing can be seen in the mediaeval church of St-Pierre-le-Jeune in Strasbourg. Along with all of the other Strasbourg parishes, this became a place of Evangelical or Protestant worship in the late 1520s. At this point Strasbourg was a free city in the (German) Holy Roman Empire. However, when Louis XIV annexed Strasbourg to France in 1681, the Lutheran congregation was forced to give up some of the space inside the church to house a small Roman Catholic congregation. Though the Catholics moved out in the 19th century and built their own (much larger) church of St-Pierre, the old church east of the chancel screen is still decorated in the baroque style of the Catholic parish, while the church west of the screen has the slightly more sober demeanour of a Lutheran church interior (no statues, for example). Apparently the two congregations had a fairly gentlemanly arrangement for sharing the keys.

My last multiplex isn’t Christian at all. It’s a striking arrangement I saw when visiting the largely Palestinian city of Hebron in December 2012. According to tradition, Hebron is the site of the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah (see Genesis 23; Rachel’s buried near Bethlehem). At various points in its long history, Abraham’s burial ground was marked by an Herodian shrine, Christian churches and Muslim mosques. Since the 12th century, it’s been the site of the Ibrahimi Mosque. At various times, Jews and Christians have been granted more or less restricted access to the site.

Ibrahimi Mosque / Cave of Machpelah, Hebron. Photo: Nick Thompson
Ibrahimi Mosque / Cave of Machpelah, Hebron. Photo: Nick Thompson
Hebrew inscription against the backdrop of Arabic calligraphy in the Synagogue within the Ibrahimi Mosque, Hebron. Photo: Nick Thompson
Hebrew inscription against the backdrop of Arabic calligraphy in the Synagogue within the Ibrahimi Mosque, Hebron. Photo: Nick Thompson
Jewish worship at the tomb of Abraham, Hebron. Photo: Nick Thompson
Jewish worship at the tomb of Abraham, Hebron. Photo: Nick Thompson
Tomb of Abraham through the grille from the Ibrahimi Mosque, Hebron. Photo: Nick Thompson
Tomb of Abraham through the grille from the Ibrahimi Mosque, Hebron. Photo: Nick Thompson
Tombs of matriarchs and patriarchs (I'm not sure which ones) Ibrahimi Mosque, Hebron. Photo: Nick Thompson
Tombs of matriarchs and patriarchs (I’m not sure which ones) Ibrahimi Mosque, Hebron. Photo: Nick Thompson

Today the Ibrahimi mosque is a tense site in a tense city. On different sides of the mosque, access is controlled either by Israeli or Palestinian soldiers. Although, as a tourist, I had free access to the mosque, Israeli Jews did not. However, part of the mosque has now been turned into a synagogue in which Jews are able to pray at the tomb of Abraham, at least. The synagogue is reached through a separate entrance into the mosque compound. On both the Muslim and Jewish side, worshippers are separated from Abraham’s tomb by a grille.

At the end of Sunday’s Counterpoint programme, Peter Lineham touched briefly on the possibility that Anglicans and Catholics in Christchurch might eventually replace their ruined cathedrals with a shared building, but he poured cold water on the idea; denominational sensitivities wouldn’t allow it.

Given the precedents, however, I’m not sure we need to be quite that pessimistic.

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch. Photo: Mark Lincoln, Creative Commons Licence, some rights reserved.


A eulogy for the handwritten letter

Letter signed by Jean Calvin from the papers of Jean Hotman at the Library for the History of French Protestantism in Paris

Academics are supposed to love books. I don’t. Five years working as a librarian – as well as the experience of moving my 600-odd book collection across the world four times – have relieved me of any sentimentality I might harbour on that score.

By this I don’t mean that I have no interest in what books make possible – a conversation with a text. To that extent you’ll still find me haunting the dark reaches of Auckland’s second hand bookshops. But I do mean that if the words can be delivered more efficiently, and with less weight and dust, then I’ll gladly dump most of the books I’ve accumulated so far. I admit that a room full of books can look mighty picturesque, but there are other less cumbersome ways of decorating your environs.

This is why I’ve embraced the e-book revolution with a glad heart. The ease with which I can read and annotate books on my iPad increasingly makes reading a paper book a frustrating experience.

However, last week as I was wandering across campus, I saw a man standing in a patch of sunlight reading a handwritten letter, and I realised that my callousness towards books doesn’t extend to letters. The number of the letter’s days seems even more limited than that of the printed book, but I feel much sadder about the former’s passing.

When someone writes you a letter, their choice of stationery, their handwriting, and sometimes even the coffee stains they leave on the page tell you things (or feel as though they tell you things) that a printed book doesn’t. Even the fact that the letter’s writer has invested time and effort solely for you, conveys something that a book can’t. Sure, effort and choices have gone into the writing, typesetting, binding, etc. of a book, but the printed book doesn’t convey the sense of intimacy that accompanies the presentation of a handwritten letter.


One thing I have noticed about historians is that they are often gossips. Not necessarily malicious gossips, but still the kind of people who delight in the minutiae of other people’s lives. This is why, for my money, reading other people’s letters is one of the best things about being an historian. Your profession gives you licence to do something you couldn’t normally square with your conscience.

Of course, hand-writing a letter involves a kind of self-presentation (e.g. a post-it note left on the refridgerator vs. a thank-you letter to your grandmother) and to this degree the sense of intimacy we feel with the author may sometimes be illusory. But it’s the inadvertent things like the coffee cup stain or the worse-than-usual handwriting betraying the writer’s tiredness (or drunkenness?) that invests letters with a sense of immediacy that a book doesn’t possess.

This makes me think that there is perhaps one thing I will genuinely miss as the number of books dwindles: other people’s annotations and coffee stains. You can’t doodle in the margin of an e-book or drip grease on it (you can theoretically share your notes on an Amazon Kindle, but that feels plain clinical in comparison).

I will also miss the ability we have to write a dedication on the first pages of paper book. When most of my current book collection is at some second-hand bookshop being fingered by a sentimental bibliophile, the books that remain on my shelves at home will be those containing other people’s annotations or the handwritten dedications when they kindly gave the book to me.

Coffee Stained Reporter's Notebook

Conference Notice


Virgin and child

Hei Kohikohinga Kōrero mō te Hāhi Karaitiana ki Aotearoa

Re-evaluating Christianity’s Influence in Shaping Aotearoa New Zealand c1800-c1860

27-29 November 2012

Pōwhiri, Welcome and Opening: Te Tii Marae, Waitangi, Bay of Islands, 27 November 2012

Plenary Sessions: Copthorne Hotel, Waitangi, Bay of Islands, 28-29 November 2012

For further information about the conference, please contact Alan Davidson:


Long, shiny, gleaming, steaming hair

Auckland Theology’s Movember poll coincides with news from the US that federal authorities have charged seven members of a “renegade Amish group” with, “a series of beard- and hair-cutting assaults against Amish men and women.”

What is it with hair and religion? I’m glad you asked that. Or at least I’m glad someone in class recently asked why the Protestant reformers grew big beards. Cases in point: Johannes Oecolampadius, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, plus a less impressive but nonetheless commendable effort by Jean Calvin.

Clement VII
Clement VII (r1523-1534)

Someone else in class suggested that they were doing it to differentiate themselves from shaven clergy of the traditional church.

Maybe, but the counter-examples to that theory are the reformers Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther (both clean shaven) and all of the bearded popes between Clement VII (elected 1523) and Alexander VIII (died 1691).

But, even if beards didn’t mark out some Catholic/Protestant divide, something did change in the early 16th century to make beards fashionable among the previously clean-shaven clergy.

In 1531 a scholar at the papal court, Giovanni Pierio Valeriano Bolzani felt compelled to write a tract In Favour of Priests’ Beards against those who argued that priests should be clean-shaven. I came across this work a couple of years ago, while rifling through a collection of 16th cent pamphlets in the British Library. I’ve always meant to go back and look at it, but now I don’t need to, because it’s available on Google books.

The pamphlet is interesting because it wouldn’t have been written (a) unless clergy were growing beards, and (b) someone thought it was worth getting upset about.

Bolzani recognised that, until recently, western clergy had usually been clean-shaven. But, as a good Humanist scholar and historian, he also recognised that this had not always been the case. Canon law had once required priests to have short hair and beards. At some point, and with no explanation, that ruling had changed to require both short hair and shaven faces.

Ingeniously, Bolzani suggested that his change had been introduced prior to the 10th century, arguing that if earlier popes in this period had been required to wear beard like his own pope Clement VII, Pope Joan would never have got herself elected.

Bolzani claimed that Pope Clement VII started wearing a beard as a sign of his grief after the German sack of Rome in 1527. It’s not clear whether Bolzani thought this was the beginning of the new fashion, but he did point out that it had good precedent: obviously – he thought – Jesus, John the Baptist and the apostles all had beards, too.

Bolzani didn’t speculate on why western clergy started shaving their faces, and modern commentators aren’t really sure either. In his “The Symbolic Meaning of Hair in the Middle Ages” (yes, people do research on this stuff) Robert Bartlett argues that there’s no clear evidence that hairiness or the lack of it had any stable meaning across the Middle Ages. Instead:

What mattered, it seems, was the function of hair as a marker in a system of oppositions (57)

In other words, if people on your side were hairy, then theological justifications could be found for it; if not, not. Bartlett thinks it’s possible that shaven heads and faces came in with the priestly celibacy promoted by the Gregorian reform movement: it may have distinguished the clergy from their hairy, married counterparts in the Eastern church.

Second, as Bartlett points out elsewhere in his article, long hair was often associated with effeminacy in this period. He notes that:

On Ash Wednesday 1094 Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury refused to give ashes or his blessing to those young men who ‘grew their hair like girls’ unless they had their hair cut…. (50)

If this is the case, then all-over clerical hairlessness may have been intended to represent a kind of hyper-masculinity!

According to the recent stories about the Amish hair assaults, Amish men grow their beards long “for religious reasons.” Yet we’re never told what those religious reasons are, and these alleged religious reasons sound to me suspiciously like one of those things journalists receive on hearsay but never actually investigate. I suppose that it is possible that the Amish have developed a biblical case for beardage, though I can’t imagine what it is. And even if they have an explicit religious justification, I suspect the historical origins of this fashion are just as complex and obscure as those of clerical hairiness (and otherwise) in the west.

Groping the pope

I’ve just finished teaching CTHTHEO 254/354 Continuity and Change, a survey of the history of Christianity between c500 and c1600. It coincided happily with TV3’s screening of The Borgias.

In the first episode Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (played by Jeremy Irons) is elected Pope Alexander VI (r1492-1503) and before his election is announced, he’s required to sit on a portable throne while his nether regions are groped by a functionary. The assembled cardinals are then assured: habet duos testiculos et bene pendentes (he has two well hung testicles).

Pope Joan giving birth during a procession. Illustration from Johann Wolf, Lectionum memorabilium et reconditarum centenarii XVI (1600)

Some of the students in Continuity and Change already knew about the ritual and its connection with the story of Pope Joan. It’s alleged that this test of the pope’s masculinity was introduced after “Agnes” a German woman of English descent managed get herself elected as “Pope John” in the 9th century. Her subterfuge was only found out when she gave birth somewhere between the Colosseum and the basilica of San Clemente while on a procession to Saint John Lateran (there’s a little edicule at the corner of via dei Querceti and via Santi Quattro which is said to mark the spot — but probably doesn’t).

People I once thought quite reliable have assured me that the ritual shown on the Borgias (or something like it) was performed well into the 20th century. Ex-MP and raconteur Giles Brandreth likewise claims on BBC’s QI, that it “still happens”. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve even passed this anecdote on to a class or two.

Habet! ("He's got them") illustration from Johann Wolf, Lectionum memorabilium et reconditarum centenarii XVI (1600)

But in fact it doesn’t happen and and never did. It’s not clear whether the story of Pope Joan or that of the ceremonial grope came first. However, as Alain Boureau suggests in The Myth of Pope Joan, the two became connected in a well circulated rumour which coloured what eye-witnesses to mediaeval and early modern papal coronations believed they were watching. The result was the oft-repeated report of a, “a public rite always seen by others, never by the narrator” (Boureau, 27).

In fact there were at least two rituals involving seats or chairs around the Lateran basilica, both of them connected with the papal election and coronation. One of these seats was called the sedes stercoraria or stercorata (the “dung seat” or commode). Cardinals ritually seated and then raised the pope from the chair in the portico of the Lateran basilica. This was supposed to represent the words from Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:8 (“He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap – de stercore erigit pauperem — to make them sit with princes, and inherit a seat of honour). The pope then went into the Lateran basilica and was invested with symbols of office as he sat alternately on two seats made of porphyry. Both seats had holes in them; they were originally either posh toilets or birthing chairs. One is apparently preserved today in the Vatican Museums (though I don’t trust anything anyone tells me about this stuff any more). The 15th century historian of the papacy Bartolomeo Platina confused matters by claiming (understandably) that the “dung seat” was the one with the hole in it. Whatever the case, rumours of a gender test became attached to the ritual involving a seat with a hole, and thus handy access to the papal undercarriage.

The mediaeval sources relating to the legend of Pope Joan and the gender test were collected together in 1600 by the German legal scholar and antiquarian Johann Wolf in a book with the racy title, Sixteen centuries of memorable and abstruse reading matter. This became the chief source for later purveyors of the Pope Joan legend and of the papal gender test. Thanks to the wonders of Google Books, a digitized version can now be read online, and it’s the source of the illustrations above.

All of this leaves unanswered the question of where the original rumour came from. Alain Boureau’s Myth of Pope Joan deals in lavish and entertaining detail with the origins and long life of Pope Joan story. The female pope may have her origins in Roman carnival rituals designed to mark and mock the papal coronation. Interestingly, too, the oldest surviving version of the story is from the mid-13th century, about the time a cult developed in Italy around Saint Guglielma, who was venerated by her followers as the Holy Spirit incarnate. Her successor, a Sister Maifreda was described as a “popess” and Guglielma’s “vicar” on earth.

Regarding the test itself, I haven’t been able to find any source earlier than the connection made between Pope Joan and the ritual chairs. I wonder whether the rumour echoed some earlier procedure for ascertaining whether or not a bishop was a eunuch. The Canons of the Council of Nicea (and western canon law subsequently) forbade the ordination of those who’d deliberately castrated themselves. On the other hand they permitted the ordination of those who’d been involuntarily castrated — e.g. by barbarians or doctors — so this conjecture is a pretty flimsy one.

I’d welcome any further information.