Monthly Archives: September 2009

It’s often said that journalism is the first draft of history, but I think that diaries have a better claim.

George Orwell’s diaries beginning in 1938 were put to blog just over a year ago. I was excited, but, along with other readers of the blog, I was quickly bemused by how much of the diarising had to do with his garden and the passage of the seasons.

Orwell’s novel Coming Up for Air (1939) anticipates the war several times, and I expected that he also might mention it in his diaries. Instead we get week on week of slugs or the size and price of the eggs laid by his hens.

When Germany invaded Poland and war was at last declared a few weeks ago, readers of the blog anticipated a change of pace. But, no. As I write we have weeding of onions and swallows gathering on the telephone wires.

Some of the readers of Orwell’s diary attribute his determined gardening to British sang-froid, but I’m not so sure. One of the major reasons for our dashed expectations is the compression of perspective that results from historical distance. From our perspective, the War was a series of invasions, blitzes, atrocities and liberations. The diary reminds us that during much of any ‘historic’ period life carries on in its mundane detail. Hens keep laying eggs, even if the Luftwaffe is on its way.

On the other hand, Samuel Pepys, does seem to have had an eye to or for history. His ‘blogging’ of the Great Fire of London went live at about the same as the invasion of Poland. But instead of the selection of broilers for the pot, we had Pepys’s description of pigeons dropping from the air as Great Fire singed their wings.

Bucer, Martin: Ein Christliche Erinnerung (1545)

Bucer, Martin: Ein Christliche Erinnerung (1545)

Almost as soon as I began my Master’s dissertation in 1994, I ran into the difficulty of conducting research on Early Modern history from New Zealand. To get to my primary sources, I had to order microfilms from the United States. It was an expensive and tedious business. Besides this, not everything I wanted was available on microfilm. Much it hadn’t been re-published since the 16th century. For an impecunious postgrad a trip to the special collections of Europe was out of the question.

Even once I got to Europe with a scholarship for doctoral research, it wasn’t that straightforward. I had to travel all over the UK and even once to Switzerland to get access to primary texts (not that I minded the travel!).

How things have changed since then.

For the last eight months I’ve been keeping a growing list of Martin Bucer’s works digitised and available free online (Bucer is the subject of much of my research). Most of this material is available through the generous and extensive digitisation project of the Bavarian State Library.  Today, though,  I noticed that for the first time that it’s becoming available on Google Books.

I came across these new Bucer texts today, because I was using Google Books to track down some secondary material.  I can understand the reservations that are being expressed about Google’s ambition to make 5+ million scanned books available online. The prospect of a private monopoly is a worry. But the academic in me finds the current legal objections and delays frustrating.

Even as an increasing number of primary documents come online — and let’s hope that more Early Modern archives start to appear — the secondary texts I want to read are often just as hard to obtain. I’m thinking of those recondite scholarly papers that were published in tiny quantities in, say, 1948, but may still contain just the information you need.  Of course you can order them by inter-library loan, but you can’t always guarantee that, once they arrive, it will have been worth the  expense of hauling them across a couple of oceans to Auckland.

The Google digitisation project has the power to make all of this material readily available, even to scholars working in remote locations.

On the other hand, it would be nice to have just the odd excuse for a bit of overseas travel.

Georg Tannstetter, Iudicium astronomicum pro anno Ch. 1513 (1513)

Georg Tannstetter, Iudicium astronomicum pro anno Ch. 1513 (1513)

*the stars incline; they do not compel

Last month a student presentation in our undergraduate course on mediaeval and Reformation church history drew  attention to the frequent appearance of zodiacs in the art and sculpture in the mediaeval cathedrals. The presenter commented on how odd it seemed that horoscopes should feature so prominently in Christian art and architecture.

I was reminded of this today when I came across Dr Patrice Guinard’s great new site Digital International Astrology Library: a Repertory of Ancient Astrological Works which contains links to a growing number of digitised sources for the history of astrology.

I’m not sure (to plagiarise C.S. Lewis) what they “teach them in schools these days,” but even my fairly lacklustre Catholic religious education left me with a vague sense that horoscopes weren’t quite legit (though everyone seemed to know whether he or she was a Gemini or a Scorpio).

And of course, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2115-2116) would later inform us:

God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints. Still, a sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it. Improvidence, however, can constitute a lack of responsibility.
All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

So I remember feeling similar bemusement when I first realised what an important role casting of horoscopes had played in Christian Renaissance courts — Catholic as well as Protestant — and in the plans both Catholic and Protestant churchmen. Luther’s colleague Philipp Melanchthon was a notable example of this obsession.

In fact, even in the Renaissance, astrology was controversial. There was, of course, the  debate about the morality of casting horoscopes. Some doubt was also raised as to their reliability as a forecasting tool.

But it’s the word ‘forecasting,’ that sheds some light on the rather different way in which astrology was understood, even by its opponents. We watch the weather forecast, and it plays a role in our decision about whether to pack an umbrella tomorrow. Even though we don’t necessarily trust the relentlessly perky presenter, we usually let him or her play some role in our decisions about the future — in this case the future weather. In New Zealand there’s also the  longstanding folklore concerning those driven mad by hot, north-westerly winds in Canterbury.

Likewise, then, even the Renaissance writers who expressed reservations about astrology, recognised the general principle of planetary influence. So, while Calvin’s Warning against Judicial Astrology (1549) censured the use of astrology to predict the future, it conceded that the planets’ motion affected the sublunary world. Since this influence extended even to the human body, a doctor had to understand astrology in order to diagnose a patient’s symptoms.

Where astrology became problematic for its Renaissance opponents  was when it became an expression of what the CCC calls the ‘desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings.’

So, if one were to read the newspaper horoscope in the same spirit as the weather forecast a few pages later, I’m not entirely sure that the church could find fault. While reading horoscopes may well be a crime against rationality and the scientific method, it is not necessarily a crime against the pre-Copernican universe in which the church first framed the rules of the game.

Anyway, in the spirit of useless knowledge to which this blog is dedicated, I thought I’d translate a couple of the predictions from an almanac for 1513 linked from the site above. The work is Georg Tannstetter Collimitius, Iudicium astronomicum pro anno Ch. 1513 (Judicial astronomy for the year of Christ 1513) (Nuremberg, 1513).

In fact the predictions strike me as remarkably unremarkable. No enigmatic Notstradamian utterances here:

On peace and war. Chapter three. Mars… is prefigured as lord of the year… Therefore there will be rancor and hatred right from the beginning of the year. Both will move and rouse the minds of kings, princes, governors and their subjects to bitter court cases and cruel wars. Because of this nations will be cruelly afflicted by slaughter and rapine. The cities, castles and towns of some kingdoms will be partly destroyed through burning and plunder.

The above prediction was a pretty safe bet in most years and most places during the sixteenth century. However, things looked a bit better if you were under the sign of Aries:

On the state of certain regions and cities. Chapter six. Whatever kingdoms, provinces, cities, towns and castles come under Aries, such as Germany, Poland, Britain, Krakow, Batavia etc. will have a fortunate year of honour and glory and will receive an increase in wealth, and will be very safe from the above named illnesses (discussed in chapter 5).

Considering the form of recent economic forecasting, one could do worse.

Zachariah, Joseph, 1867-1965 : Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, [ca 1911]  Alexander Turnbull Library Reference Number: PAColl-6181-22

I’ve always been fond of Suzanne Aubert, aka. Mother Mary Joseph (1838-1926). I hope that she is never canonised — not because she doesn’t seem eminently canonisable, but because of the layers of hagiographical saccharine that would be lavished on her biography as a result. And if the causes of Jean-Baptiste Pompallier and John Henry Newman are anything to go by, we would also have to dig up her mortal remains and parade them round the country in a gilt cake tin.

But I came across a passage from her Directory of the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion (1922) in Jessie Munro’s outstanding biography, and it endeared me to Mother Aubert even more:

–You have to be patient with others

–With everybody?

–With everybody and everything.

–But when we are tired and extremely sleepy, and when we have to pacify a capricious child, who will scream all the louder, as if to provoke us, can we not give him a slap?

–Slap your own temper, and be patient with the child whom your impatience will not calm. You know it is Jesus. Surely you will not slap Him. Be patient.

Quoted in: Jessie Munro, The Story of Suzanne Aubert (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997), 209.

I don’t have any right to more than a provisional opinion on the smacking referendum. Moreover,  I’m like a bear with a sore head if deprived of my eight-hours of sleep.

Even so…

Part 4 of a 10 part panorama of Dunedin, 1865  Alexander Turnbull Library Reference Number: PAColl-3824-04

While getting things ready for a course on the Church History of New Zealand, I was amused by this prescient remark about my hometown:

I found myself in Dunedin at the end of January. It was the moment of her glory. Gigantic plans were under study, but the hopes went beyond the plans. The future glory of Dunedin would eclipse Melbourne, and Dunedin would not be slow to become the capital of a vast British empire in the southern hemisphere. Whatever the case, the setting of this town is surely quite picturesque, but it is hardly convenient.*

This is the city that one of my former colleagues at the University of Aberdeen once unkindly described as “Fort William with a university.” Anyone who knows Fort William will understand the extent of the injury done to my feelings of civic patriotism.

*From: François Victor Poupinel S.M. ‘Missions de l’Océanie’ Annales de la Propagation de la Foi 220 (1865); 226-228; translated in A. K. Davidson and P. J. Lineham, eds. Transplated Christianity: Documents Illustrating Aspects of New Zealand Church History (Palmerston North: Massey University, 1995), 98.

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