Thursday, 28 November 2013

"I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man" - William Blake

28 November 1757, the poet, painter and printer William Blake was born in London.

"I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's. I will not Reason & Compare; my business is to Create." (William Blake, “Jerusalem”)

William Blake: "Newton" (1797)

While emotion and reason, sensibility and sense, the antagonistic brothers, fought for dominance in the arts of the late 18th century, the ideal of "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" of Neoclassicism asserted itself and antique imagery was at least as omnipresent as during the Renaissance. Scriptural symbolism and prophetic visions were not exactly en vogue. Pietistic movements and religiousness were certainly there and engagement with religion played a major role in the works of artists who felt obliged to the Age of Enlightenment and the revolutionary movements of the day, always good for a public scandal, as well as for the first Romantics some of whom soon developed their very own approach on religion and the divine, but prophetic visions of Old Testamentarian vehemence and off-hooked enthusiasm stood out, even among the outré romanticists. William Blake was different.

William Blake: The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun" (1805)

Visions of angels, spirits and prophets, having the second sight even, seem to have been a part of Blake’s everyday life since his childhood. His parents were dissenters, probably belonging to the Bohemian Brethren, and the imagery of the scriptures had a marked influence on him throughout his life, far more than on any artist of renown of his day. Idiosyncratic young William was judged to be unfit for formal schooling as well as learning a trade, but was enrolled in the Royal Academy of Arts, fell out with the president of the institution, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and finally became a copperplate engraver. He opened a print shop, earned his meagre living with that skill as well as an illustrator and worked obsessively on his own poetry and paintings that defy classification. He propagated gender equality, despised slavery, admired the American and French Revolution, nothing very unusual at the end of the 18th century, but Blake linked the political and philosophical thoughts of the day with a self-defining piety and spiritualism close to nature that defied the established churches as well as the emerging materialism. Blake was the prophet of his own religion.

William Blake:" The Ghost of a Flea" (c 1820)

The prophet has no honour in his own country, or, in Blake’s case, in his own time. It was the Pre-Raphaelites who rediscovered his works, both written and visual, and cherished his non-classicist, dreamy and quasi-biblical oeuvre. The trend continued into the 20th century and every artist with a predilection for symbols who had a chance to become acquainted with the works of Blake was usually enthusiastic and did not remain uninfluenced, at least not to a certain degree. The highest appreciation Blake experienced posthumously was from artists who made the expansion of consciousness their sujet from the mid20th century onwards and the baton was exchanged from Rossetti and Swinburne to Yeats, beat poetry and finally, the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison.

Blake’s frontispiece of “Europe a Prophecy” called “The Ancient of Days”, 
showing Blake’s own mythological creation Urizen, a complex embodiment 
of conventional reason and law and the representation of abstractions 
and an abstraction of the human self, as the first entity. (1794)

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Sparse Sources and a Larger-Than-Life-Figure - The Death of Clovis the Merovingian

27 November 511, The Merovingian King Clovis I died and having united all Frankish tribes under his rule, the kingdom was divided between his four sons.
“And having killed many other kings and his nearest relatives, of whom he was jealous lest they take the kingdom from him, he extended his rule over all the Gauls. However he gathered his people together at one time, it is said, and spoke of the kinsmen whom he had himself destroyed. "Woe to me, who have remained as a stranger among foreigners, and have none of my kinsmen to give me aid if adversity comes." But he said this not because of grief at their death but by way of a ruse, if perchance he should be able to find some one still to kill. After all this he died at Paris, and was buried in the church of the holy apostles, which he himself had built together with his queen Clotilda. He passed away in the fifth year after the battle; of Vouillé, and all the days of his reign were thirty years, and his age was forty-five.“ (Gregory of Tours)

A pivotal point in Frankish and later European tradition - Clovis routs the Alemanni after the Battle of Tolbiac in 496, an event that allegedly lead the king to accept the Christian faith 

According to legend, it was Clovis Thuringian mother Basina, who chose the name, an early variant of Louis, meaning “renowned in war” and not his father Childerich, a Merovingian petty king of the Salian Franks, who had established his kingdom around Tournai on the modern Franco-Belgian border around 458 CE, when Roman rule in Gaul finally began to crumble. Basina had left her Thuringian husband for Childerich, according to Gregory of Tours, because she wanted to be with the most powerful man in the world. Her son Clovis at least came close to the claim. Around 500, he was indeed one of the most influential and feared Germanic kings reigning in the ruins of the Western Roman Empire. Without much concern for family relations, Clovis had not only conquered the other Frankish petty kingdoms in Gaul, but defeated the last Romans in Gaul and his Visigothic and Alemannic competitors as well, ruling the region of the modern Benelux states, West Germany and France, except Burgundy and the Provence.

“Bend thy neck, proud Sicambrian: adore what thou hast burned, burn what thou hast adored”: A 9th century ivory miniature, showing St Remy baptising Clovis. One of the potential candidates for "Birth of the Christian West"

Basing his rule on the apparently still more or less operational administrative apparatus, replacing the local Gallo-Roman governors one by one with loyal bishops after his legendary conversion to Christianity, Clovis laid the foundations for the Frankish super power that would dominate Europe throughout the early Middle Ages until the Treaty of Verdun in 840 marked the junction where the later Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire took separate turns. Clovis or Clodovech himself appears as a larger-than-life figure from the sparse sources describing the end of Antiquity. Allegedly, his conversion to Roman Catholicism followed a promise á la Emperor Constantine that he would accept the new faith if he’d emerge victorious from the Battle of Tolbiac against the Alemanni, with a snappy comment by St Remy who baptised him in Reims (“Bend thy neck, proud Sicambrian: adore what thou hast burned, burn what thou hast adored”, Sicambrian is an old eponym for the Franks), and a lot of other traditions that would manifest the claim to power of the later Pippinid and Carolingian successors of the Merovingians over the Pope. The Lex Salica, the Salian Law that would play an important role during the Hundred Years’ War, is attributed to him as well.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema's (1836–1912) “Education of the children of Clovis“ (1861)

The ghastliest story handed down about Clovis is certainly the tale of him hunting down every other male Merovingian relative, having them killed and delivered their heads as proof to his new capital in Paris to secure his own line. When he died near Paris, his empire was, according to his will, divided among his four sons – Chlothar would get Aquitaine and the Auvergne, Chlodomer the central region around Orleans west to Poitiers, Childebert the later Normandy and Theuderic the Champagne and everything north and east up to the banks of the River Elbe. And being true Merovingians, the happy family was soon at each other’s throats as well as their offspring and the emerging two successor kingdoms, Neustria, the West, and Austrasia, the East fought each other more often than not until the mighty Austrasian mayors of the palace, Charles Martell and his sons, put an end to that during the 8th century. Clovis himself, ironically enough, was venerated as a saint in late medieval France and claimed during the nationalist nonsense of the 19th and 20th century as either the first King of France or German Emperor.

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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

"Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen" - Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff

26 November 1857, the German poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff died on his estate in Nysa (Neisse) in Upper Silesia at the age of 69.

“Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen, / Die da träumen fort und fort, / Und die Welt hebt an zu singen, / Triffst du nur das Zauberwort.“ (There is a song sleeping in all things / that dream on and on / and the world begins to sing / if only you can find the magic word, Joseph von Eichendorff, “Wünschelrute” / “Dowsing Rod”)

Franz Kugler: "Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff"

When the birth pangs of the modern age allowed Europe a breather in 1815, after the end of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, a generation of turmoil had bred all kinds of spiritual confusion and the motto of the day was – back to normal. Or, if possible, back to the state of things as they had been before the world was plunged into a chaos. Poetic souls and their disciples suffered from the apparent normality, though, and the disappointment of the failed revolution shone through the works of art of the fading Romantic Age. Orientation towards a conservative world order and a non-classical past, enchanted with nature, folk and fairy tales, was a variant dominant in the German states between 1815 and 1848, not only through the immense popularity of the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, but with popular authors like Brentano, Arnim and Joseph von Eichendorff.

It was a spectacularly unspectacular life that Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff led, at least for a Romantic poet. Born as the son of a Prussian officer on the family estate in Racibórz, then Ratibor, in Silesia, he studied jurisprudence in Berlin and Vienna, even graduated and entered civil service where he climbed the career ladder until the next revolution, the one of 1848, when he retired for health reasons at the age of 60, was happily married and had four children. Nevertheless, he fought for two years in Lützow’s Freikorps against Napoleon during the Wars of Liberation and wrote and published plays, novels and poems, the latter being among the poetry of the Romantic Age most often set to music. And there was always homesickness and yearning, for bygone childhood and things that never had been.

Facsimile of a 1907 edition of Eichendorff's poetry

Eichendorff was indeed the poet of travel preparations, not arrival, of homesickness, not of home, of yearning without origin nor designation. The priest-poet who would heal the rift that ran through the world and the individual with magic words of art would not find more than an abstract purpose for himself and even though he was revered as a great one of poetry, he was considered “old” and “behind the times” already during his life and times and his novel „Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts“ (Of the Life of a Good-For-Nothing) marks the conclusion of Romanticism in German literature and Eichendorff remains a poet in a time of inner conflict who, with simple words, benign Catholicism and a profound sense of wonder, sings of a things as they should be with his multi-layered web of symbols for reading the world, nature and soul as a Romantic counterdraft at the dawn of the Industrial Age.

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Monday, 25 November 2013

"delicate as they were, they became food for the monsters of the deep“ - The Sinking of the "White Ship" in 1120

25 November 1120 off Barfleur on the coast of Normandy, the “White Ship” ran onto a reef, drowning the English crown prince William Ætheling, four of his siblings and 300 others.

“When, therefore, it was now dark night, these imprudent youths, overwhelmed with liquor, launched the vessel from the shore. She flies swifter than the winged arrow, sweeping the rippling surface of the deep: but the carelessness of the intoxicated crew drove her on rock, which rose above the waves not far from shore ... delicate as they were, they became food for the  monsters of the deep“ (William of Malmesbury)

An illustration from an early 14th century chronicle, showing the sinking of the “White Ship” 

Crossing the English Channel in late autumn or even winter was never a pleasure. However, since William the Conqueror had broadened the territory ruled by the Normans to both sides of these waters, even royalty had to undertake the trip under these inclement circumstances every now and then. By the end of the 11th century, the ships used for that purpose had changed significantly from the longships used by William’s ancestors. While the vessels depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry still look like high-sided knarrs or drakars, adorned with the well-known prow beasts the Vikings famously used, a few decades later, a new type of ship began to assert itself in European waters, the so-called nef. The coat-of-arms of the historical Cinque Ports in Kent and Sussex shows their stylised versions as do depictions of crusader fleets, the Norman nef had a single mast with a first attempt of shrouds with ratlines, a characteristic castle on bow and stern and no oars, usually seaworthy enough, even for longer sea voyages, slow but with a high cargo capacity. Thus, In 1120, the Blanche Nef, the White Ship, was quite state-of-the art and with a length of more than 60’ big enough to house the group of 300 revellers in the port of Barfleur in Normandy, including the jeunesse dorée of Anglo-Norman aristocracy.

Joseph Martin Kronheim’s (1810–96) imagination of the disaster from “Pictures of English History“    

William Ætheling or Adelin, only legitimate son of Henry I, was born in 1103 and became Duke of Normandy 1115, he swore fealty to the King of France in Henry’s stead and his father had to fight a few skirmishes over the inheritance with Normandy’s neighbours, notably the King of France, but emerged victorious in the Battle of Brémule in 1119, married William to Matilda of Anjou to integrate the county into his continental alliance system and he and his court prepared to return to England in November 1120. William Ætheling and his friends must have had quite a farewell party in Barfleur, among them many sons and daughters of the Norman aristocracy. Confident that the Blanche Nef would overtake King Henry’s ship that left Barfleur early that day, the party continued until late in the night, the party-goers climbed on board, the crew joined in and the Blanche Nef put out to sea well after midnight, only to be steered on a rock by the drunken helmsman, two planks broke and the vessel quickly foundered. William could manage to climb on a boat, returned when he heard the cries of his dying half-sister Matilda, the boat was swamped quickly with other survivors and sank as well. The Blanche Nef’s captain, one Thomas FitzStephen, son of the captain of William the Conqueror’s flagship “Mora”, rather drowned than face the wrath of King Henry. Only one man escaped with his life, a butcher named Bérold. 

King Henry being devastated - image from a 14th century genealogy  

The finely dressed bodies of the drowned nobles were washed upon the shore for weeks afterwards and King Henry I was devastated. Besides the loss of his heir and four other of his 20 illegitimate children, Henry's dynastic and alliance plans were ruined. There was no legitimate successor left to the throne except his daughter Matilda. And until his death 15 years later from a surfeit of lampreys, no other heir was born. One man was prudent or sick enough to leave the Blanc Nef in that fateful night before she sailed, the king’s nephew Stephen of Blois, son of the Conqueror’s daughter Adela. He was crowned in 1135 but Matilda and her supporters contested his claim and plunged England and Normandy into a civil war, known as the Anarchy, lasting until Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet was crowned as Henry II in 1154, the first of the Norman Angevin kings.

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