Monday, February 13, 2017

Farewell to Alleluia


For reasons beyond my understanding, there's been a significant uptick of interest this year in the curious (and commendable) ceremony of the depositio: the "burying of the Alleluia". In those places which observe pre-Lent (such as traditional Latin Mass communities and, now, the "Anglican" Ordinariates), the hallowed word "alleluia" disappears from the liturgy from Septuagesima Sunday until its glorious return at the vigil of Easter. In the post-Vatican II calendar, this is carried over to Fat Tuesday.

The final alleluias of Vespers the evening before Septuagesima, as given by the Liber Usualis, give a foretaste of Easter in their melody.
The word "alleluia" is, of course, derived from the Hebrew expression in the Old Testament, meaning "praise Yah(weh)!" Outside of Lent and Advent, we sing this before the Gospel reading at Mass. During the Easter season, we go above and beyond by ending all sorts of antiphons with a double-alleluia. However, during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, we temporarily set this word aside to give a sense of restraint. Pope Alexander II (the same pope who gave William the Conqueror his blessing for an invasion of England) ordered a simple rite of dismissal for the Alleluia in Rome. The end of First Vespers on the evening before Septuagesima was punctuated with two final alleluias as though to get it fully out of one's system before the great season of penance was to begin. But in the northern countries, these rites grew to ever-more-splendid lengths of ceremonial. In an article from 2010 on the New Liturgical Movement, Matthew Alderman writes:
"Special antiphons marked this event in some places, as well as the singing of the hymn Alleluia, Dulce Carmen. At Auxerre twenty-eight separate Alleluias were troped into the mass text. A procession, with the word Alleluia inscribed on a banner or plaque, might be conducted round the church, with the Alleluia inscription solemnly entombed at the end, the plaque sometimes having the shape of a coffin. In some parts of France, the Alleluia might even be burned in effigy in the churchyard!"

He goes on to remark that the rites were typically done by choirboys, rather like the old enthroning of the boy bishop--which made me think of how jovial, almost child-like the ceremony can be, and what power it has to captivate the imagination of a young student at a Catholic grade school where it's performed, such as the school attached to my former parish: the Atonement Academy. My old pastor described the effect that this custom had in an old blog post:
"The students in our parish school get ready for this every year, and take it very seriously.  In fact, a few years ago just after Lent had begun, one of our very young students asked if he could see me because he had to tell me something “very, very important.”  When he came to me, he wanted to tell me what one of the other boys had done earlier that day.  It sounded serious, so I encouraged him to tell me about it. In a half-whispered voice the offence was reported: "He said the 'A' word!""

A friend recently asked me if I could furnish him a rite for burying the Alleluia so his own community could use it this weekend, so I sent him the one used by Atonement. It goes:
Alleluia, abide with us today, and tomorrow thou shalt set forth, Alleluia ; and when the day shall have risen, thou shalt proceed on thy way, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. 
May the good angel of the Lord accompany thee, Alleluia, and give thee a good journey, that thou mayst come back to us in joy, Alleluia. 
May Alleluia, that sacred and joyful word, resound to God's praise from the lips of all people. 
May this word, which expresses glory as chanted by the choirs of angels, be sweet as sung by the voices of believers. 
And may that which noiselessly gleams in the citizens of heaven, yield fruit in our hearts by ever growing love. 
May the Lord's good angel go with thee, Alleluia ; and prepare all good things for thy journey. And again come back to us with joy, Alleluia. 
Let us pray. O Lord, we beseech thee favourably to hear the prayers of thy people; that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness, for the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

There are, I'm sure, many other worthy variations out there! Rites like this could even be adapted for use in the domestic Church. If you have one, feel free to share it as a comment so I have more ideas for when my children are old enough.

The Alleluia chest at my old parish, Our Lady of the Atonement. After the schoolchildren lay their alleluia sheets into the chest, the chest is put away until Easter.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Order of Malta: what it means to be sovereign

A macro I made several months ago after reading H.J.A. Sire's book The Knights of Malta: A Modern Resurrection.

It's been a harrowing week for the Modern Medievalist. Some of you may remember that my first parish church, where I was baptized and married, was the "Anglican Use" community of Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio: a phenomenally successful Roman Catholic parish whose unique liturgical and cultural identity is now in danger after the Archbishop of San Antonio suspended my old pastor in an attempt to keep it from joining the Personal Ordinariate (see SaveAtonement.org). The situation quickly escalated into a headline in the San Antonio newspaper's Sunday edition and exploded all over Catholic social media. I've done what little I could to help via writing a letter and doing an interview for the local paper, but the fate of the parish is now in God's hands as authorities in Rome evaluate the case and make a decision.

What happens to Our Lady of the Atonement, however, is small potatoes in the grand scheme of ecclesiastical drama compared to the situation that subsequently unfolded with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta when, after a meeting with Pope Francis, Fra' Matthew Festing tendered his abdication as Grand Master. (A general summary may be read here.) For Atonement, as special as that place is to me, is still but one parish--but the Order of Malta is a military order of the Church with a truly global presence, numbering upwards of 13,000 invested Knights and Dames, 25,000 employees, and over 80,000 volunteers including yours truly

The Order's motto outlines its twofold mission as it has always been since the time of the Crusades: Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum, the nurturing (or defense) of the faith and the care of the poor and sick. The latter part is carried out by both local initiatives (here in Philadelphia, we partner with Aid for Friends to pack meals for the homebound, as well as assist a shelter for unwed mothers) and global projects such as Malteser International, which assists especially with disaster relief and basic medical care in the third world, and the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem: the only place in the very cradle of the Christian faith where women can give birth in a quality environment. There is also, of course, the Order's famous annual pilgrimage to the Lourdes shrine to assist malades from around the world to the miraculous healing waters.

A great deal of these works are made possible by the Order's status as a sovereignty by many national and supra-national bodies, despite its lack of a territory to govern. From its humble foundation by Blessed Gerard as a hospital under the patronage of St John the Baptist in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem, the community and its scope of service both rapidly expanded after the First Crusade. In 1113, Pope Paschal II recognized the importance of the Hospital and granted it sovereign status in the bull Pie Postulatio Voluntatis. The bull guaranteed that Gerard's successors (the Grand Masters) and the work of the newly established religious order could be impeded by no king, bishop, nor any other authority. 

The Knights Hospitaller continued to serve the sick, as well as fight bravely alongside the Templars and other crusader state armies until the fall of Acre in 1291. They found a new home on the island of Rhodes, transforming the Order from an army into a naval power--and, in the process, taking on the responsibility of governing the island, complete with their own currency, trade agreements, and all the other trappings of an independent state. The heroic siege of 1523 against the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent forced the Order to surrender Rhodes and wander stateless for a time until they acquired the island of Malta, where the Order's role as a bulwark against Turkish naval aggression in the Mediterranean resumed with accolades (especially in the famous siege of 1565) until the arrival of Napoleon's Egyptian expedition. Then, it was not defeat on the battleground but a needless surrender, perhaps at the behest of a small faction of French Knights, that caused the Order to at last surrender its territory.

Relocated to Rome and granted the Magistral Palace as a shadow of its former possessions (much like the Vatican City today as a vestige of the old Papal States), the Order's sovereign status somehow lived on. The Grand Masters continued to be recognized as Princes. The Order still issues commemorative stamps and passports to its highest officials, and it enjoys observer status in the United Nations. These are, however, but symbols of something greater: the Order of Malta's unchallenged reputation as a provider of humanitarian aid, and even as a moral authority amongst powers that grow ever more skeptical of the Catholic Church's place in the table of world affairs. The Knights defy all those who proclaim the death of chivalry and the irrelevance of religion by their very existence, daily keeping to their roots as a religious order devoted to defending the faith and caring for the poor and sick. It would be a mistake to dismiss, as even some faithful Catholics have, the Knights as just another religious order. (Last I checked, even the august Franciscans and Dominicans don't have ambassadors to foreign countries. Advantages like that in practicing the works of mercy, as emphasized by the recent Jubilee Year of Mercy, are forever gone once lost.)

Christ said "a house divided against itself cannot stand". Just as Anglicans who may have been tempted to swim the Tiber and enter full communion with Rome have watched aghast at the situation surrounding Our Lady of the Atonement, the whole world is watching as one venerable old sovereignty challenges another's. Should the Order's sovereignty be compromised in the eyes of the world, its mission to care for "our lords the sick" will suffer in the years and generations to come. As canonist Edward Condon suggests in his latest column, who's to say that, when the dust settles and the Holy See's honor has been satisfied, the long knives of state won't come for them next?

The Order's Sovereign Council convenes on Saturday to decide whether or not to accept the Grand Master's resignation. Should he abdicate, the Order will lose the leadership of a man who, from my listening to his speeches (such as his radio interview here) and from anecdotes from Knights and Dames, is truly devout (he regularly leads the recitation of Vespers in Latin for the Knights in community in Rome) and an unimpeachable gentleman in every sense of the word.... and there will be one fewer sword standing between us and the forces gathering in Mordor for the great battle to come.

I took this photo of His Eminent Highness myself last year while attending a Mass of solemn profession for a new Knight of Justice (one of the members fully professed to poverty, chastity, and obedience). It was a rare occasion for the Grand Master to come to the United States.

The Grand Master in an outdoor procession in Dublin prior to the first solemn profession of a Knight of Justice in Ireland since the Reformation. The profession was made during a solemn high Mass in the traditional Latin rite. Full photo gallery here.

Friday, January 20, 2017

For the inauguration


Pictured above: the first inauguration of George Washington in New York City. The crowd went wild. #madeAmericagreat

After taking the oath and adding the unscripted "so help me God", Washington, Adams, and the members of Congress proceeded to St Paul's Chapel nearby to hear divine services, as was resolved by Congress as standard inaugural procedure three days prior. The service was led by William Provost, Episcopal Bishop of New York and chaplain of the Senate (also, interestingly, a former rector of Trinity Church, which I've posted pictures of before). 

Before the custom was abolished by Elizabeth I, it was usual in England at the annual state opening of Parliament for its members to accompany the king to Westminster Abbey to attend a votive Mass of the Holy Ghost. It seems to me like a good idea for Catholic churches everywhere in the United States to continue the spirit of this old practice by celebrating a votive Mass of the Holy Ghost on the day of a presidential inauguration. This may be even more true if you hate the new guy coming in, rather than because you like him.

(Also note Washington's wearing of a sword, as commander in chief. He also deliberately wore a fashionable domestic-made suit as a gesture of faith in American industry.)

The interior of St. Paul's Chapel today. As a young militiaman, Alexander Hamilton did drills in the churchyard outside.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Reflection on exercising the office of subdeacon

Assisting at the blessing of gold, frankincense, myrrh, and chalk this past Epiphany.
In the months following my institution as an acolyte in the Ordinariate, which I wrote about in my piece here last September, I unfortunately haven't yet been able to exercise the subdiaconal role for an Ordinariate liturgy because our parish doesn't have a deacon (which, as in the traditional Latin Rite, is required to have a proper high Mass with the three vested ministers). You could say my institution was partly in anticipation of us eventually getting one of our priestly candidates ordained transitionally to the diaconate. The good news is that in the meantime, I've been blessed to lend out my services in the role of subdeacon for three solemn Masses in the traditional Latin Rite at the local Cathedral-Basilica in Philadelphia, and once for a friend's wedding.

It's safe to say that in the western Church today, the vast majority of men who assist as subdeacons are either already priests, or they're seminarians from the Ecclesia Dei societies (such as the FSSP) who are just one or two years shy of being ordained as such. For them, the role is a stepping stone on the path that brings them ever closer to offering the holy sacrifice in their own right. This may be one reason why I haven't been able to find a written reflection anywhere on the Internet about one's experience in serving Mass as a lowly subdeacon--perhaps it's not been thought of as worth writing about. So, for today's column, I'll aim to fill the void by penning a brief reflection on my experience serving in this important but near-totally forgotten ministry.

The subdeacon, in essence, is the deacon's first minister, just as the deacon is to the celebrating priest. By wearing such a similar vestment and standing at the priest's left side just as the deacon stands to the priest's right, it's almost as though this ministry allows the deacon to "bilocate"--to stand in two places at once and more effectively carry out his own office. This will be clearer as we progress through the column. While it's true that subdeacons weren't used by the twelve Apostles, they're referred to in Christian literature as early as the 3rd century, demonstrating how cavalier it was to dispense of the office after 1970 like yesterday's garbage.


The subdeacon's office begins in the sacristy. Typically, when you walk in, the sacristan has already laid out three sets of vestments atop the central armoire, with the subdeacon taking the one on the left. Like the other ministers, after donning the cassock and washing his hands, the subdeacon starts with the amice, kissing it, laying it briefly over his head, then pulling it down and around his neck and shoulders. Ideally, he also recites the traditional vesting prayers before putting on each item, just as the priest does (I read them off of a card of my own design).

While the alb has become standard for altar servers in most parishes, most servers at Extraordinary Form or Ordinariate communities will have never worn one because they're reserved to major ministers. Instead, servers wear the abbreviated version known as the surplice. The traditional alb has to be gathered around the waist with the cincture, which also has its own prayer and special way of being tied. Since I've never been in the habit of using a cincture and I don't exactly keep one at home to practice with, I still have to ask for the MC's or a knowledgeable acolyte's help every time I put it on. (Also, a reason I picked the Army over the Navy after high school. The knots would have killed me.) Thankfully, according to tradition, the ministers are assumed to not be able to dress themselves for high Mass, anyway. Ceremonial books like Fr J.B. O'Connell's The Celebration of Mass suggest that the first and second acolytes help the deacon and subdeacon to vest, and then in turn the deacon and subdeacon assist the priest. It goes against our American do-it-yourself pride, but the implied help is a lot better than vesting oneself and then asking the MC, "does this look crooked to you?"

The vestment unique to the subdeacon is the tunicle with the prayer: "May the Lord clothe me in the tunicle of delight, and the garment of rejoicing." In theory, the tunicle is supposed to be a bit shorter and less embellished than the deacon's dalmatic, but in practice these days, they tend to look identical. Subdeacons began wearing these in Rome as early as the sixth century, although at various points in Church history, its use spread also to simple acolytes when serving in positions of honor such as carrying the processional cross--a custom still maintained in some Anglican and Ordinariate communities, and even some EF ones like our Cathedral Masses from time to time.

The tunicles laid out for me are usually of the stiff Baroque kind, which my longtime readers know I'm not fond of compared to the elegance of Gothic and other styles dating to the medieval era. On the other hand, I've come to accept that Baroque vestments are still infinitely preferable to the abominations you'll find in 98% of all the sacristies worldwide--polyester rags which any dime-store Wiccan priestess would be embarrassed to put on. Further, when I put on that tunicle, I become a servant, both to God and the people assembled to pray. If the vestments are devoutly made, meet the liturgical precepts, and edify the people who look at the ministers wearing them, who am I to complain? So, when I say "the garment of rejoicing", I really do mean it. It's a privilege to take up the subdiaconal office whenever I can.

Waiting for the signal, like "greyhounds straining upon the start", we line up for the procession in single file according to the order of precedence, although if the celebrant starts out with the cope instead of the chasuble, the deacon and subdeacon stand to his left and right to hold the edges up. Depending on how many people show up for a Mass at the Cathedral, we might take a circuitous route around the back of the church to make for a longer procession down the central aisle. Upon entering the Cathedral's enormous sanctuary, we turn left and right to salute anyone sitting in the choir stalls, then gather at the foot of the altar. The MC walks by to collect our birettas, then we begin reciting the Prayers of Preparation while the choir chants the Introit.


In the vast space of Ss. Peter & Paul, Psalm 42 and the Confiteor actually take on quite an intimate nature because no one in the congregation, and possibly not even the acolytes over by the credence table, can hear what we're saying. In fact, I can barely hear the deacon to match his cadence when reciting our versicles together. There's also the awkward feeling when you're standing to recite the Prayers at the Foot, because any altar server for the Extraordinary Form from the MC on down has, until this point, only ever recited the Prayers at the Foot while kneeling (at my Ordinariate parish, we stand for the Prayers of Preparation in English, but we recite them in the sacristy immediately before processing in for Mass, so that's different). When the priest turns from side to side during his confession to say et vobis, fratres ("and to you, brothers") and you're standing beside him, you get a sense that he's reciting the prayer as it was originally meant to be. At least in my mind, fratres doesn't seem to ring quite as true when the only one being addressed is a 10-year old boy.

We ascend the altar together so the priest can incense it. Whenever I go up the steps with the priest, I pinch and lift up the hem of his alb to give him greater freedom of movement as he goes up: one of many gestures that modern man derides, as though we treat the priest like an enfeebled old man. Every time the priest genuflects, I place my hand on his elbow to stabilize him and help him get back up. When he walks from side to side swinging the thurible, I lift up the edge of his chasuble to let him extend his arms freely. Of course, with a fiddleback, this is purely symbolic, but if he were wearing a voluminous conical chasuble, holding up the edges would be a practical necessity.

On the Epiphany, the poinsettias were really getting in the way of things....
You'll notice that the ministers go through much of the Mass lined up like ducks in a row above. The Roman Rite is fond of visually emphasizing order and how everyone has their assigned place. (Practically, it means the subdeacon spends a lot of time looking at the back of the deacon's neck.) Every old parish church with this series of steps leading up to the high altar was built with the idea that they at least had the potential to celebrate a high Mass with the traditional three vested ministers all lined up in a path of ascent. Just one of many signs of how radically priorities have changed is in the way altars are arranged in most modern churches: with no steps, but rather, placed just so that as many people as possible can gather around it horizontally.


The subdeacon's most visible, and audible, "job" at high Mass is chanting the Epistle reading. At the Cathedral, the MC walks up beside me, presents me with the Book of Epistles, and shows me to my place. It's a cavernous space to fill with one's voice, especially if you're facing ad Orientem ("away from the people", as the other party calls it). Right away, you appreciate the genius of requiring a minister to sing the text because, from a purely practical point of view, to merely shout the reading across the cathedral in the spoken tone without the aid of a microphone would make anyone go hoarse by the end of the lesson. Once that's done, I return to the priest, going up the altar steps at the Epistle side to present the book to him, kiss his hand, and receive a blessing.


After the priest privately reads the Gradual and Alleluia (or Tract in Lent) out of the altar missal, I go up to switch the missal over to the Gospel side, then return to the foot to help form up the gospel procession. We all follow the candle-bearing acolytes to the place where the Gospel is to be read, and I hold the Gospel-book for the deacon in such a way that he can chant it facing north (sideways, from the congregation's point of view). After the reading, I make a beeline for the priest, presenting the Gospel-book to him while pointing to the beginning of the lesson so he can kiss it. It's one of many small actions that you can easily miss just watching from the pew, but I like to think of it as one of many gestures that give lie to the idea that Catholics don't revere the Bible.

During the sermon (and possibly the Gloria, or even a very long Gradual) we sit at the sedilia. Unless the celebrant is also preaching, we feed his chasuble behind the back of his seat to let him sit down unencumbered, then the deacon and subdeacon bow to each other and sit. Sometimes we'll have the first and second MC on either side of the sedilia to even attend to the deacon and subdeacon with their birettas and the backs of the vestments. If that seems like an excessive chain of waiting-and-being-waited-upon, I'll assure you that there's no comfort whatsoever in sitting in a prescribed posture (upright, hands on knees, not gazing mindlessly around the church) with stiff vestments. Strictly speaking, just as in Downton Abbey, you're not supposed to lean against the back of the sedilia because the backs are strictly ornamental. With so many things to remember, both at the bench and throughout the whole liturgy, one can appreciate the wisdom, yet again, of having the MC prompt the ministers on when to doff their birettas (such as at the uttering of the Holy Name of Jesus, and certain sung phrases like suscipe deprecationem nostram/"receive our prayer"). It may be different for those subdeacons who are privileged to assist in the role on a weekly basis, but for those whom only perform the office on occasion, there's a lot to mentally keep track of while also maintaining any kind of prayerful reverence all at once.


At the Offertory, I go over to the credence table and allow acolytes to help clasp the humeral veil around me. With it, I carry the chalice and paten up to the deacon. Usually as an altar server, you might present the wine and water cruets to the priest for him to pour into the chalice himself, but at solemn high Mass, the deacon and subdeacon do the pouring for him. The deacon then gives me the paten to hold and "hide" under the humeral veil at the foot of the altar for the whole Canon of the Mass. This curious custom has had a lot of mystical associations fixed to it over the centuries, but its origins may stem from practices of the early Church that have otherwise long since passed into history. Mr. Louis Tofari has a detailed column on this very subject (using a photo from our nuptial liturgy for the header) here.

Another one of the subdeacon's duties is going around, "passing the peace". The Roman pax, however, is a lot more deliberate and dignified than what most of us are accustomed to when we think of the "sign of peace".
The most powerful moment of the Mass for me when serving as subdeacon is the priest's Communion. In the Ordinary Form, the priest's and people's Communions are done in a fluid sequence, but in the old rite, the order of Mass makes it clear that the celebrant's act of receiving Communion alone is what completes the holy sacrifice. There's a whole series of prayers and actions leading up to it, and the Communion for everyone else in attendance (even be he a cardinal) is made in a separate ritual which, for centuries, was more often done completely outside of Mass altogether. But when the priest receives, the deacon and subdeacon wait upon him on either side until right before he's about to receive the Host. At that point, they step a few paces back and bow to give the priest some space to reverently receive. We then return and I uncover the chalice so he can receive the Precious Blood. Again stepping back and then returning, after I replace the pall on top of the chalice, the deacon and I switch sides and proceed with the "second Confiteor".


Perhaps the worst aspect of assisting as subdeacon is in distributing Communion to the faithful. What I mean here is that, in the traditional arrangement, the deacon and subdeacon accompany the celebrant to every person who receives the Host from him. The deacon at least has a real job to do by holding the altar paten under each communicant's chin. The subdeacon, however, merely stands the celebrant's side ornamentally. I suppose he could come in handy if a ruffian came up to assault the priest, or if the priest accidentally dropped the ciborium.... but otherwise, the subdeacon just stands there, hands folded, watching God's children of every size and shape receive the Body and Blood of Christ. One thing I do like is how often I see someone come forward, sticking their hands out even while kneeling. Obviously to most of my readers, there's no Communion in the hand allowed at a traditional Latin Mass! But what it means to me when someone does this is that they've come to discover something new. It may be their first time attending a Latin Mass, or perhaps they accidentally walked into the "wrong Mass". That's okay, though, because the old liturgy is for everyone--not just a select few who have long cultivated an appreciation for dead languages and seemingly esoteric worship. The rebuilding of what was lost is done by just these sorts of encounters: one by one, soul by soul.


My last major duty is at the very end of Mass, or perhaps more properly speaking, just after the end. As I did for deacon during the Gospel reading, I hold up the Gospel again, this time for the priest to read John 1:1 off of the card. In other forms of Mass, the priest simply reads off of the card as it rests on the altar, but in a high Mass, the subdeacon will actually go to the corner and pick the card up for him to read. At the words et verbum caro factum est ("and the Word was made flesh"), the subdeacon is the only one in the church who remains standing because everyone else genuflects with the priest.

We're given back our birettas and recess out just the same way we came, back to the sacristy. Before removing our vestments, there's a beautiful little devotion that we do at the Cathedral which the congregation never sees. As the ministers approach the cross in the sacristy, the priest says, Prosit ("may it be to your benefit"). The deacon, subdeacon, and all the servers respond, pro omnibus et singulis (for all and for each). Then we all kneel to receive a final blessing. Thus, we put away our vestments, and the long, thankless work of our sacristans and servers in dismantling the high altar and all the EF-related items begins.

The subdiaconal ministry is a privilege to me for allowing me to be so close to the altar, and a blessing for those attending who get to partake in the full ceremonial of the Church's rich liturgical tradition. However, in the end, all I do is follow a set of instructions as closely as I can manage by people who know the ceremonies better than I do, all while maintaining a reverent and respectful bearing. The real work in making these grand liturgies possible is done behind the scenes. Remember that many Latin Mass communities (and Ordinariate groups as well) ultimately run the sacristy out of a few dedicated laymen's car trunks because they're using borrowed space. If you ever attend Mass at such a place, be sure to offer a kind word of thanks or a helping hand to those laymen who make it all possible!


Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmas and the Incarnation in the Middle Ages



Last week, I was honored to appear on the radio with old friends from my hometown: the Poor Clares of the Monastery of St. Michael the Archangel. The sisters invited me to chat with them for an hour on the development of Christmas in the Middle Ages. I was glad to do so, particularly emphasizing a growing focus on the Incarnation in the west. Here's a link to the recording on Mixcloud

A good deal of the program referenced the visual arts and architecture, so I'm going to post a few images below for you to glance at while listening.


The Palatine Chapel, built in the Romanesque style, is the only surviving part of Charlemagne's palace in Aachen. The Holy Roman Emperors held their coronations as Kings of Germany here for many centuries until 1531.
The Romanesque church of Ss. Peter and Paul, Rosheim (currently in France, along the German border). Note the sturdy, box-like walls and high, narrow windows. The Gothic style would later allow windows to be much more expansive, turning cathedrals from dark halls lit by candle and torchlight into riots of color.

The famous mosaics of Theodora and Justinian in San Vitale, Ravenna may bear marks of heavy Byzantine influence, but western and eastern iconography had much more in common until the Gothic age.

The principles of Romanesque (or "Norman") architecture also, of course, lay the foundation for the stone castles of the medieval age. The Tower of London and the original keep of Windsor Castle are but two iconic examples of the Normans using Romanesque to subjugate the conquered Saxons.
When I speak of a pre-Gothic crucifix, I think of ones like this: the Santa Majestat at the Chapelle de la Trinité (Prunet-et-Belpuig). Fully clothed, gazing intently at the viewer, no crown of thorns or sign of suffering. The focus is on Christ triumphant on the cross, not sharing in the suffering of mankind.

Romanesque crucifix and mural of the Christ Child juxtaposed at the Cloisters at the Met in New York. Observe the continued similarities to eastern iconography.

Giotto paints the story of Saint Francis of Assisi instituting the Christmas crib at Greccio.


The 13th century sees an explosion of interest in the Incarnation. Above: a stained-glass window of the Nativity in Canterbury Cathedral, dating around the 13th century.

As the cult of the Christ Child grows, so too does that of the Blessed Virgin. Above: 15th century painting by Hans Memling of the Annunciation at the Met, New York. One of my favorite details is how the angel is painted in a deacon's dalmatic.

Toward the end of the program, I also mention the tree of Jesse: a common motif in medieval art to illustrate Christ's lineage from King David and his father, Jesse.

Don't forget to buy the sisters' organic soap!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Radio appearance today

Today at 1pm central time (2pm eastern), I'll be on the radio with the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in San Antonio, whom I've known and worked with over the years, to chat about Christmas in the Middle Ages. If you happen to be in the San Antonio area, tune in to 89.7 FM. Otherwise, visit the Guadalupe Radio Network's website and listen through there.

Once the recorded version is online, I'll share that with you along with some images to accompany whatever we end up talking about.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The chancellor: Hamilton as a modern model of a medieval archetype

Three men of humble birth who rose to manage kings and presidents.
There's an immortal trope in fairy tales--and in political history--that when corruption is afoot in the kingdom, the fault lies not with the wise king himself, but with his wily vizier. You know him by many names: Jafar, Grima, Haman.... He's typically a man of obscure origins whose talents have nonetheless gained the king's attention and allowed him to rise above his station to become the real power behind the throne. Of course, the king's noble heart blinds him to this upstart's devious schemes until the hero unmasks the vizier's betrayal and saves the day.

The villain of Aladdin and the Prince of Persia games was inspired by an historical figure, Ja'far ibn Yahya Barmaki, a vizier to one of the early Islamic caliphs. Ja'far brought papermaking and Greek science to the Islamic world, only to be beheaded by the caliph for (allegedly) sleeping with the caliph's sister.

A skeptic might say "it's a feature, not a bug" in traditional monarchy. That is to say, the unpopular chancellor is a convenient fall guy for the king to blame and sack when his policies go adrift. While there's probably some truth to that theory, what I find more fascinating is how the trope of the evil chancellor is a survival of the old nobility's suspicions of lower-born bureaucrats--how "new men" undermine their standing in relation to the ruler. What are fairy tales and myths, if not artful expressions of what we really hold dear? I suddenly realized that some of us in 21st century America have our own bogeyman embedded in our founding mythos when, sometime last month, I scrolled past an article shared by former Congressman Ron Paul's Facebook page. Dr. Paul; or at least, his social media manager; naturally had to weigh in on the "Hamilton" controversy erupting at that moment. (Summary for those who missed it: liberal stage actors express disapproval of Trump at end of performance attended by Pence. In other news...) While most of the Republican world was clutching their pearls with some form of "how dare they disturb Pence's night of entertainment?", Paul's site pulled a bait-and-switch by reposting excerpts from an article criticizing not the actors, but Pence from daring to patronize a musical about the worst American who ever lived (emphases mine):
"But Governor Pence’s bigger mistake was to somehow believe that Alexander Hamilton is someone that he should admire.  This is hugely ironic, since Hamilton was the founding father of corrupt crony capitalism funded by a crooked central bank, exclusively for the benefit of the one-percenters of his day.  He stood for everything that the Trump campaign stood against. Hamilton was the consummate statist and imperialist and political water boy for the big business interests of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston (the Federalists) who wanted to essentially establish the rotten, corrupt, imperialist, British mercantilist system in America. The very system the American Revolution had just deposed, in other words.  Hamilton was a traitor to the principles of the Revolution who spent the last fifteen years of his life attempting to transform the American government into a government for crony capitalists, by crony capitalists, of crony capitalists, all centrally planned by clever Machiavellian political manipulators like himself."

This trip down the time machine with rehashed Jeffersonian propaganda goes on and on:
"Alexander Hamilton was the founding father of constitutional subversion who denounced the Constitution as “a frail and worthless fabric” because it imposed so many limits on governmental powers.
He was the inventor of the subversive idea of “implied powers” of the Constitution and of using the General Welfare Clause to create a government of unlimited powers.  He was perhaps the first to spout The Big Lie that the states were never sovereign, the lie that was at the heart of Lincoln’s case for invading his own country in order to destroy the system of federalism and states’ rights that had been primarily the work of the Jeffersonian tradition of the founding generation. Hamilton and his political heirs (like Lincoln) worked mightily for some seventy-five years to destroy the Jeffersonian, states’ rights tradition of federalism and decentralized government once and for all.  Instead of self rule, they believed, Americans needed to be ruled by their wise “Yankee” betters.  Or else.
The Hamiltonians eventually succeeded at this when the War to Prevent Southern Independence destroyed federalism and consolidated all political power in Washington, D.C., after which corporate welfare, protectionism (another form of corporate welfare), a nationalized money supply, and military imperialism —  Hamilton’s Orwellian-named “American System” — was cemented into place.  It was really an American version of the British mercantilist/imperialist system."

Like many of Dr. Paul's other, increasingly embittered posts of late, this hatchet-job on the memory of Alexander Hamilton; an immigrant who rose from orphanhood and obscurity and hazarded his life in battle multiple times to win independence; wasn't well-received by his readership (save, perhaps, his most die-hard followers). Nevertheless, it's hard to fault the Paulites entirely because they're taking cues from one of this country's most successful smear jobs, two centuries in the making--and, to be fair, the bastard of St. Croix plays perfectly into the trope of the Evil Chancellor which we've subconsciously inherited from days of yore.

Today, after a long hiatus, I'm pleased to take a long, leisurely walk through the annals of history with you as we explore how the Chancellor has manifested himself over the ages. But before we hop into those terrrrible Middle Ages you and I both know and love so well, let's take a brief look at the life of General Hamilton, this time without the Jacobin-tinted glasses.


Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804): America's evil vizier

It's true enough that Hamilton was never even Vice President--he was something more. (Then, as now, the Vice Presidency was mostly ornamental in nature, leading John Adams to call it "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived".) At age 34, President Washington bestowed upon his old protégé the unassuming title of Secretary of the Treasury. On paper, Hamilton was junior to Vice President Adams and Secretary of State Jefferson... but only Hamilton had actually fought in the War of Independence and commanded Washington's complete trust. While Adams played the courtier in Europe and Jefferson, as Governor of Virginia, fled Benedict Arnold's army and let Richmond burn to ash, Washington and Hamilton put their lives on the line of battle for independence--usually in the same tent, as Hamilton was effectively the General's chief of staff. As the war progressed, Washington's trust in Hamilton grew until the latter was ghostwriting whole letters perfectly in Washington's voice and even issuing orders in his name. And just as Washington secretly allowed his aide-de-camp to influence his strategy during the war, so too did he take Hamilton's advice into account in all matters of statecraft, well beyond mere economics, in our first presidency.

The first Cabinet. Rather like Donald Trump, Washington favored military men. Excepting Jefferson, all men above were high-ranking Army officers in the War of Independence.
Hamilton, who considered the British Constitution the finest government model on earth, probably saw himself as a stand-in for the mother country's First Lord of the Treasury... better known to most of us under the name of "Prime Minister"! In England, he who controls the nation's purse strings controls the entire government--and so it was in Washington's presidency, with the bastard from Nevis effectively managing the rest of the Cabinet while the Declaration of Independence's author was consigned to being a voice of opposition. To illustrate Jefferson's fear over the influence his rival held: according to biographer Ron Chernow, Hamilton oversaw a staff of over five hundred Treasury employees. Jefferson's State Department, by contrast, had a measly twelve. Hamilton's invisible hand continued to pull strings after he stepped down from the post, and indeed, even after Washington himself retired. President Adams had to fire some of his Cabinet members after finding out that they were taking orders from Hamilton instead of him.

As President Adams readied for possible war  with
revolutionary France, Washington wouldn't even accept
leadership of the Army unless Adams appointed
Hamilton as second-in-command.
It's said that in order to make an omelette, you need to break some eggs. To build up the American empire, Hamilton had to make a lot of enemies in the process, particularly those who imagined the newborn United States as a quiet republic of rural landowners where everyone kept to themselves, instead of a mercantile behemoth destined to one day take its place among the major powers of the world. Further, in order for his President to stand above partisanship, Hamilton ended up taking all of Washington's would-be critics to himself as well: the convenient scapegoat whenever someone drew the short end of the stick on a policy or ran into a tax they didn't like. Jefferson and James Madison, fellow members of the southern planter aristocracy, saw Hamilton's vision as a threat to everything the Revolution stood for and so took it upon themselves to create an opposition league, complete with its own newspapers, slogans, and scathing op-eds. The political party system was thus born.

In my late re-examining of Alexander Hamilton's life, I was struck with how many similarities and recurring themes his biography shares with certain medieval and Renaissance figures whom I've always found compelling. The surest way to rise above one's station in a feudal society was by mastery of the quill. The keeping of accounts and the managing of bureaucracies were two skills that existed firmly outside of the training bred into the average knight of the warrior aristocracy that ruled medieval Europe. They had neither the talent nor the interest in such mundane matters, but the more savvy and ambitious rulers at least valued their importance. Therefore, the administration of county and kingdom was typically entrusted to a clerk; and in this era, that literally meant a cleric, for the clergy were the class of men most likely to be taught the art of letters in the course of learning how to administer the sacraments. The more talented they were, the further they would ascend in an otherwise stratified hierarchy, and the more jealousy they would arouse from those of noble blood who believed their privileges were being trampled afoot. This was just the sort of course taken by one of the medieval Church's most famous saints: Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury... and, for a time, chancellor to King Henry II of England.



St Thomas Becket (1118-1170): from Cheapside to Chancellor

The historical Thomas Becket was probably not quite so lowborn as one of my all-time favorite films (1964's Becket, starring Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole) suggests. The film, based on an earlier play, recycles the legend that Becket was born of conquered Saxon peasants. This backstory was more likely contrived by Becket's enemies in the nobility, rather like a medieval "birther" conspiracy. Nevertheless, his origins from amongst a merchant family in Cheapside, London suggested he would probably never rise above a middle-class burgher's lot in life.... unless, of course, he joined the clergy, furthered his education, and gained the attention of a prominent bishop. This he did, eventually entering the household of Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of England.

Theobald found the young Thomas a promising lad and paid for his education in canon law abroad. Following his return, Thomas was ordained to the diaconate and given the office of Archdeacon of Canterbury: the Archbishop's right-hand man, a title commanding tremendous authority in its own right. The modern Catholic Church has opted to split the ancient archdeacon's responsibilities between the vicar-general, the chancellor, and one or two other diocesan offices, but the archdeacons of the medieval Church were forces unto themselves. They were at once prime ministers and regents, with the power to manage the Church's temporal goods near-independently of the bishops themselves. The more worldly bishops of the age were probably happy to leave the archdeacons alone to do this while they played as courtiers or built episcopal palaces for themselves. In any event, Thomas Becket, aged about 34, was already the number-two man in the English church.

Not long after, Theobald elevated his protege even higher by recommending Thomas for the newly vacant office of Lord Chancellor: the keeper of the royal seal and senior-most civic official in the kingdom. This, in itself, in unsurprising given that every single Lord Chancellor prior to Thomas, going back to the Norman Conquest, was also a cleric (usually a bishop).

Henry II and Thomas Becket according
to one of my all-time favorite films.
But if Theobald gave his archdeacon away in the hopes of having an inside man in the royal court, he was to be disappointed. As Chancellor, Thomas Becket proved to be a king's man through and through: zealous in executing Henry's will in all matters, even to the point of encroaching against the Church's tax exemptions. He seems to have cultivated Henry's personal friendship during this time (probably not quite to the extent made famous by the film), and made himself a reflection of the King's glory. If King Henry was scheduled to process through a village decked in a gold tunic with twenty horses, Thomas would precede him in a silver robe with a team of fifteen horses, and then give it away to a beggar, all the more to demonstrate the King's generosity. All the while, the nobles of the realm glared and seethed at the upstart's place in the sun.

Perhaps it was not a conscious betrayal of the Church so much as it was simply in Thomas's nature to excel in whatever job he was given, which led him to execute the Chancellor's office with such rigor and magnificence. When Theobald at last gave up the ghost, King Henry saw a chance to return the late archbishop's favor by returning Thomas, now firmly a king's man, back to Canterbury as a new puppet prelate. Once the mitre settled on his head, Thomas Becket famously began to take his new job even more seriously than his old one--and made a foe of his former friend in the process. The ensuing war over the rights of the Church reached a fever pitch when Henry, in a moment of rage, uttered aloud in his court: "will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Four of his knights took the outburst in deadly earnest and slew the archbishop right at the altar of his own cathedral during Vespers a few days after Christmas.

The sword blow heard 'round the world: December 29, 1170.


The murder of Becket sounds like sheer lunacy to have taken place in the Age of Faith, but it also goes to show how much contempt the gentry and nobility of the kingdom had for him, even well after he had resigned his royal office. Here was a man who needed to be punished for reaching above his station, consequences be damned. In the end, it was the humble monks of Canterbury Cathedral who had the last laugh, as they took the lash to King Henry's bare backside in an act of penance. The common-born Saint Thomas of Canterbury's cult soon overshadowed King Edward the Confessor's and grew to become the premier saintly devotion in England for over three centuries to come.


Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530): the chessmaster

Simon Sudbury's skull
Though the shrine of Saint Thomas put Canterbury on the map, few of his successors lived up to his legacy of sanctity and fortitude as archbishop. Quite the contrary, more of the archbishops seem to have followed the younger Becket's footsteps. They continued to serve the king as chancellors, often to the detriment of their flocks. The trope of the Evil Chancellor caused Simon Sudbury (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1375 to 1381, as well as Chancellor) to pay the ultimate price for serving two masters. In 1381, peasants driven to violence by taxation and other economic turmoils stormed the Tower of London to take their frustrations out on the one they blamed most for their ills: the Chancellor-Archbishop. So unpopular was he that his own guards, like the Praetorians in the final scene of Gladiator, stepped aside to let the mob have their way. The archbishop's mitre didn't save Simon's head from being clumsily hacked off his head (it took eight blows to do the job) and put on display on Tower Bridge. If he cried out to his illustrious predecessor, Thomas Becket, his prayers were unheard: when Simon was Bishop of London, he discouraged the people of his see from taking pilgrimages to Saint Thomas's shrine in Canterbury, only adding to their hatred of him.

As for King Henry II... his dynasty, the Plantagenets, came to an end in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth when the forces of Henry ap Tuddor defeated and slew Richard III on the field. Tudor became Henry VII and, in a sense, ushered the end of the Middle Ages in England. For his entire reign, Henry VII's claim to the throne was questioned and threatened by the possibility of uprisings from powerful lords. Determined to ensure the Wars of the Roses would never erupt again, Henry used his yet-another-evil chancellor, Cardinal Morton, to ruthlessly tax the nobility, especially by the levying of fines against "livery and maintenance" (basically, the great lords' use of private armies and their own ranks of civil servants). One of Henry's many policies to divide and conquer the nobles was in his reliance of the burgher class to run his kingdom.

Thomas Wolsey, said to have been a butcher's son, rose to prominence in much the same way as Thomas Becket. He entered clerical life early, showed promise in his studies (graduating from Oxford at 15), and became a chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury. At some point, he gained the king's attention and transferred his service to the thus became a royal chaplain. When Henry VII died and his son, the 18-year old Henry VIII came to the throne, Wolsey was in the perfect position to secure his own rise to prominence.

In his youth, Henry VIII was more interested in pleasure than governing, but felt the need to at least staff his court with officers more amenable to his ambitions for military glory in the field. Showcasing his brilliance and flexibility in changing his views to whatever the king happened to be supporting at the time, Wolsey began as Almoner and acquired one title after another until, by 1515, he was a cardinal, Archbishop of York and bishop of several other sees besides, and Lord Chancellor. For the next fifteen years, the butcher's son ruled England in the king's name: an alter rex (other king). After 1518, he was also named papal legate, effectively guaranteeing his control of the entire English church. Wolsey's critical role in orchestrating diplomatic relations between the great kingdoms of Europe prove how far a man of humble origins could go in the Church hierarchy of that age--the "butcher's son" moved kings from one alliance to the next like pieces on a chessboard. The most famous of his efforts to secure peace in Europe was the 1520 summit between his master and King Francis I of France.

Well before the tyranny of his later years, Henry VIII was renowned as an enlightened prince for a budding golden age in Europe; an image he would have had to maintain at the summit by what we now call "conspicuous consumption". The two rivals met near Calais, along the border between their realms. So splendid were both their camps that the summit was forever known after as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Wolsey, as chief architect of the meeting, had to play his part as well. The Legate arrived with 300 servants: more than the Archbishop of Canterbury's and the dukes' retinues combined... and a hundred more than the King's. As the cardinal celebrated Mass for the two eminent princes, the nobles gritted their teeth at Wolsey's flaunting of power and laid in wait for the right moment to strike back.

One of the most celebrated events at the Field of the Cloth of Gold was when Henry VIII challenged Francis I to a wrestling match. Henry quickly lost.
The summit's greater purpose was, in part, to give force to the Treaty of London signed two years prior. Another brainchild of Wolsey's, the Treaty was beyond ambitious for 16th century Europe. It aimed to bind the leading 20 powers of Christendom in a perpetual peace. Its provisions banned Christian states from going to war with one another. If one state broke the peace, the terms of the treaty would require every other signatory to declare war against the violator. By keeping the peace, all the powers would conserve their resources for a renewed crusade against the Turks. The Treaty was, of course, a pipe dream, destined only to be trampled into the dustbin of history by the ambitions of England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Rome recognized its visionary quality and gave Wolsey the prestige he needed to become a contender for the Papacy in the conclaves of 1521 and 1523. Ultimate power, so it seemed, was now but one heart attack away for the ever-ascending Archbishop of York.

Wolsey debates More over the matter of Henry VIII's annulment.
Whether by the grace of God or the machinations of Emperor Charles V, the 1523 conclave passed Wolsey over in favor of Giulio de Medici, Clement VII. This outcome would eventually prove ruinous for Wolsey's prospects since it was Clement VII who, years later, blocked all of Wolsey's efforts to secure an annulment for Henry VIII's marriage to Queen Katharine of Aragon. In this so-called "Great Matter", the Cardinal's sole failure in a lifetime of successes shattered the King's confidence in him. While he was away from England on a diplomatic mission, the Boleyns and Howards took advantage of Henry's fickleness and convinced him that Wolsey had fumbled the annulment trial on purpose. On his return, Wolsey, who had heretofore relied entirely on the King's patronage to maintain his status in court, found himself a pariah in court and, soon enough, without a job. There was nothing left for him to do but go to York and fulfill his long-neglected vocation (he had not actually been to York the whole fifteen years he had been archbishop). For a few months, far from the distractions of court life, it seems the world-weary Wolsey was making an honest attempt at shepherding his flock. The Boleyns' revenge, however, was not yet complete. They knew Henry could change his mind again and restore the cardinal to his good graces. And so, Henry was persuaded to revoke his pardon and summon Wolsey back to London on charges of treason. The cardinal, afflicted with poor health, died in transit, saying "if I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs".


Favourites in the age of absolutism

After the Cardinal, Henry only ever entrusted the chancellorship to laymen, but he continued to draw on the best and brightest of the realm's educated middle class in order to execute his vision... even if that meant executing his chancellors whenever his ambitions took a new turn. Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, and Richard Rich may have been as far apart in beliefs as heaven and hell, but like the statesmen of today, all three caught the King's eye through a combination of university education, civil or military service, and legal practice (and, of course, a recommendation or two from Cardinal Wolsey). Like Wolsey, the next two Thomases were undone, in part, by the jealous whispering of the nobility behind closed doors.

Henry VIII's reign nailed shut the coffin of merry ole England, and with his death came too the end of burghers and other baseborn men ascending to high office. Successive kings into the age of absolutism had their favourites, but they were chosen from among old playmates in the nursery, not lawyers or ex-mercenaries. This was the age of the Duke of Buckingham and the Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu. The French maintained the tradition of entrusting high offices to cardinals, but there were no butchers' sons in red hats to be found here. Cardinals Richelieu (whom Dumas' Musketeers called their equal in class if not in office) and Mazarin were both nobly born. After Mazarin's death, Louis XIV determined he would thenceforth rule the kingdom on his own. Where the old medieval order had commoners play their part among the three estates, no such place existed for them in the gilded cage of Versailles.

Little did the great lords and ladies of the realm know that Versailles would become their cage, trapping their ambitions within its walls. It was the maxim "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer" set in marble.

Built around his father's old hunting lodge, far enough from Paris to avoid the smell and noise pollution of the chattering rabble, Versailles was a spectacle designed to enthrall the aristocracy and, in the process, finally put a leash on their designs. The third estate existed chiefly as a source of taxable revenue to fund Louis's palaces and foreign wars. Give them an inch and they'll take your head, as befell England's Charles I. Even so, Louis needed a man who knew money, regardless of his origins--in France's golden age, there was no master of coin greater than Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

I was privileged to see this portrait of Colbert
in person at the Met in New York just last month....
Colbert (1619-1683) was raised in a family of merchants, though beyond that we know little of his early life. His rise to prominence mirrors that of the Thomases in Henry VIII's court: that is, it all started by gaining a cardinal's attention. Cardinal Mazarin brought Colbert on as a secretary but then grew to entrust him in serious matters while the Cardinal was away. Once Louis XIV came of age and Mazarin died, he never again had a prime minister... but Colbert came close. The King's greatest obstacle to reshaping France as a modern world power was the archaic tax system he inherited. The two greatest landowners, the aristocracy and the Church, were mostly exempt from taxes thanks to centuries of privileges conceded by kings past. The bourgeois, too, were adept at dodging taxes by claiming exemptions of dubious authenticity. In the end, the royal treasury was filled chiefly by whatever meager scraps could be collected from peasant farmers.

Even while Mazarin's secretary, Colbert identified the troubles plaguing Louis's purse and their prescription: an overhaul of the tax system and initiatives to stimulate and expand trade in both Europe and the New World. The King saw Colbert's merits and conferred one office after another upon him over the years: Superintendent of Buildings, Controller-General of Finances, and Secretary of State in the King's Household, to name but a few among dozens. To impose direct taxes on the nobility was beyond his grasp, but Colbert was able to hit them with indirect taxes and confidently stamp out fraudulent exemptions. Once a steady stream of taxable revenue was established, he then set his sights to establishing corporations, securing trade monopolies, and enacting laws to prevent French laborers from leaving the country. Colbert was the first man to articulate the economic theory we now call mercantilism, which of course had already catapulted Spain and the Italian city-states to power and prestige earlier in the era.

After decades of loyal service, Louis XIV's esteemed finance minister died at age 64, probably overworked, never to be matched by any of his successors. For all his efforts, Colbert was never quite able to balance the royal checkbook, so spendthrift was the King in pursuing glory for France and himself. These habits were to prove ruinous by the time of Louis XVI's reign. It's worth mentioning that Colbert plays the role of an "evil chancellor" in Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask, whom the great author casts as planting false evidence to ruin his predecessor, Nicholas Fouquet. It also bears mention that Colbert was a figure of inspiration for the man who would enact many of the same economic reforms in America: Alexander Hamilton.


The Chancellor vs. the agararian myth

If there's one recurring theme to the opposition against all of these great personalities through history, it's probably that each one of them, Hamilton most of all, acted in the ruler's name to undermine the role of the great landowner or gentleman farmer. Our pundits today are diagnosing the rise of Trump as a battle in the ever-widening divide not between red and blue states so much as between urban and rural America. The Paulites are right to say that Hamilton's policies favored city over country folk. Madison and Jefferson, being lords of vast tracts of land and hundreds of slaves, were right to fear the Federalists' encroachment on their way of life. What the Paulites fail to mention is that Hamilton's biggest backer was the most famous gentleman farmer of all: George Washington. 

Our first President conducted himself much like a modern-day monarch: aside from making great progresses through the land while being drawn by a fancy carriage and liveried servants and speaking of himself in the third person, Washington preferred to act as a non-partisan figurehead in the public eye. He rarely spoke his mind in the papers or in speeches, but Hamilton's policies on the national debt, the first national bank, and the whiskey tax were all made a reality by Washington's approval--the two knowing fully well that Hamilton would take the brunt of the heat whenever the Jeffersonians ran another hit piece on the administration's latest act of imperialism. Although Washington embodied the gentleman farmer above all the other Founders (no one showed quite such a keen interest in agricultural science or a desire to leave the public spotlight to return to his plow), he knew that a land of perpetual yeoman farmers wouldn't survive a return visit from Great Britain. For the Union to keep her independence, she would have to become like the mother country: an economic power with strong commercial hubs.

My readers may be surprised that a self-styled medievalist would take the side of the city and commerce over the agrarian myth so beautifully illustrated in manuscripts like the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and idealized in Tolkien's Shire. These are treasured and time-honored concepts, but I would invite you to consider a few examples of the city's contribution to medieval culture:
  • First, that the Church, the ideal society of the medieval age, is divided not by nation or county, but by dioceses drawn around cities. Virtually all bishops were bishops of a particular city. The perfect society is described by Saint Augustine of Hippo in De Civitate Dei: The City of God.
  • Second, that while the feudal hierarchy was extolled as a reflection of the hierarchy in heaven, no serious moral philosopher of the age applauded the condition of serfdom. There's a reason why so many serfs fled to the cities in the hope of emancipation from their lords. The medieval city, with its charter of liberties, was a symbol of freedom--not slavery.
  • Third, the full flowering of the medieval spirit and imagination in Gothic art and architecture took root above all in the cities, especially those of the mercantile city-states of Italy and the Low Countries. The output of feudal England and France in high Gothic art and architecture is but a drop in the bucket compared to those of Venice, Florence, Genoa, Bruges, and Amsterdam. Where the great kingdoms saved the expenses of Gothic architecture for cathedrals and royal palaces, the city-states used their empires of trade to furnish entire city blocks, down to their own private homes, in the splendid Christian pointed style that directed all eyes up to heaven.

There's no doubt that, in the years since Hamilton's death, much evil has been done by the misuse of the economic powerhouse which he built ("as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be"). On the other hand, the honest inquirer must admit that, just as the Commercial Revolution of the 14th century catapulted merchant families like the Medicis into the palaces of kings and popes and thereby expanded the Third Estate's share in medieval/Renaissance society, it was the genius of a bastard orphan from a faraway island in the Caribbean, who stayed up late into the night pouring over dense economic treatises while dreaming of a better future for himself as a young lad, that built up the empire which so many immigrants after him sought refuge and work. 

In 1846, as a million Irishmen passed through Ellis Island to seek a better future when agriculture failed them back home, Manhattan saw the completion of the rebuilt Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton was affiliated (if not quite a regularly communicating member) and buried, in the new Gothic Revival style. Just as the medieval guildsmen of old raised up grand Gothic edifices to compete with other cities and visibly proclaim God's blessings as far as the eye could see, Trinity Church's spire soared 281 feet, making it the tallest building in the entire country at that time. As I walked through the nave during a visit to Manhattan last month, admiring the "high Federalist Gothic" handiwork which mentally transported me to any one of the great chapels of medieval England, I wondered to myself if the merchant families that rebuilt Trinity Church to evoke such past glories were conscious of the same spirit that first brought those churches to life.


Trinity Church, Manhattan: an exemplification of the "high Federalist Gothic" style in America.

The Modern Medievalist's family paid respects to A. Hams, buried outside Trinity Church. To steal a line from Batman v. Superman (or, I suppose, Wren's tomb at St. Paul's Cathedral): "If you seek his monument, look around you." New York was a fantastic city to visit!