Monday, June 24, 2013

The History of Sexual Deviation, 500AD-1500AD, Part II

Joan of Arc:

A statue of Joan of Arc, Rue Tivoli, Paris

By any standard, the story of Joan of Arc is an unusual one, so surely it is unusual for illustrating how sexual deviance was represented in the fifteenth century.  For Joan was put to death for heresy, and was only charged with that because witchcraft was ruled out on a technicality.  Joan was a virgin--yes, they checked, twice, in fact—and any good church legalist, and the laity too, knew that witches were never virgins.   Joan’s heresy was that she cross-dressed.  Twice, for heresy was only a capital crime for the second offense.

The circumstances that brought Joan to ecclesiastical trial for heresy were not about sex.  They were about warfare between France and England, with Burgundy, then a country in its own right and allied part time with England.  The war in question was the Hundred Years War, a vicious on again, off again set to that just about exhausted both countries just after they had been ravaged by the Black Death in the previous century.   The war began in 1337, and in 1428, The French had been just about knocked out.  The English had taken most of Northwest France, occupied Paris, and Burgundian territories that had originally owed allegiance to France had seceded and were allied with the British.  On top of all that, the English had advanced up the Loire Valley, occupying the breadbasket of France, and invested the last remaining serious fortress in the area at Orleans.  The Dauphin was hiding out in the French interior, but his father had died before his son could get coronated in the traditional church in Reims where all previous French monarchs over the last 950 years had been crowned.  The English held Reims, and the Dauphin had no real prospects of legitimacy among the French nobility if he wasn’t crowned there.  France’s position could hardly have been any gloomier.

Henry V at Agincourt, 1415

The English also had their difficulties, however.  Many of the recent gains in the war had come from the energetic leadership of Henry V.  After destroying 40% of the French nobility in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Henry V conquered northern France and marched on Paris where he forced the French to terms and married the daughter of the French king, securing the throne of France for his heir.   In 1422, however, Henry died from dysentery contracted during the difficult siege of Calais.  Henry VI was less than a year old.  He had claim to the French throne, but no ability to enforce it.  While he came of age, a weak stewardship had struggled to prosecute the war in a desultory manner.  They had managed to roll up the Loire valley, but could only throw together a weak investment of Orleans, and couldn’t fully besiege it.

Jeanne D'Arc, by Eugene Thirion (1876)  This painting was executed after the French lost the Franco Prussian War (1870-71). Many new cathedrals and religious works were made at this time.

Joan was born to landed farmers, what passed for a microscopic French middle class in the late Middle Ages.  She had no schooling, could neither read nor write, and lived in a part of what is now Lorraine that was remote from the fighting.  At 12 years old, 4 years before Orleans was besieged, she first saw visions of several saints telling her to take the Dauphin, who had already been crownless for two years by that time, to Reims for his coronation.   In 1427, she prevailed upon the local garrison commander to send her to the Dauphin.  Seeing a totally unremarkable, if devout, young girl, he reacted predictably.  Miraculous visions were commonly discussed in the Middle Ages, but that did not mean they were common occurrences, and Joan could offer no corroboration.  But the next year she petitioned again, and made an unlikely prediction of a military reverse at Orleans.  Shortly thereafter the commander got news of the skirmish, and decided the French military situation was so desperate that the Dauphin should make his own determination about Joan’s uncanny claims.  So he outfitted Joan with a male disguise and escort across Burgundian territory to Chinon, the Dauphin's residence.

To this day, there is continuing debate about how to interpret Joan’s visions.  Analysis of her carefully transcribed statements at her trial strongly suggests she was not psychotic during that period, and showed amazing intelligence and grace under pressure.  Suspicions about the political motives for her trial and the hostility of her adversaries make her clarity in the trial transcript particularly credible.   Although some of her statements as a military commander sound somewhat high-handed, this was the standard of the day.  It is highly probable that Joan really believed her leadership was divinely inspired. 

At Chinon, the Dauphin took counsel of Church officials, addressing questions about the authenticity of Joan’s visions and the appropriateness of her wearing male disguise and armor as befitted commanders on the battlefields of the Late Middle Ages.  It made no sense to send a commander into the medieval battlefield without armor.  Not only were there many edged weapons about, but enemy archers targeted commanders.  The proper construction of fitted armor was a lengthy process, so Joan had to wear used armor that had been worn by a man.  She was sent to Poitiers, and there her virginity was verified by a Charles VII’s mother in-law.  The church officials were sanguine about Joan, noting the authenticity of her faith and simplicity, but they were cagey about her visions.  If Joan was going to fight for the Dauphin, it would be on his decision, not theirs.  But they did suggest that her performance at Orleans would be the test of the authenticity of her mission.  If it was divine, she should prevail.  Joan was given arms and armor befitting her station as military commander, and traveled from Poitiers to Orleans with a modest retinue.

Joan enters Orleans, May 1429

As can easily be imagined, her arrival outside Orleans on April 29, 1429 with a put the local commanders in a bind.   They had been on the defensive since their own earlier aggressive move had turned out badly.  A serious reverse here could lose their town and the entire war.   She had not brought the substantial force of new troops they thought was needed for safe offensive action.  They counseled caution; she demanded action.  Without awaiting local permission, she attacked and took one of the English redoubts investing Orleans on May 4.  She would attack repeatedly over the next 4 days, eventually fighting a pitched battle for the final redoubt and dramatically returning to lead the final successful assault after removing an enemy arrow from her neck on May 7.  That evening, the English forces withdrew from Orleans.  Joan had her victory.  Her personal leadership and courage under fire were obvious, and undeniable.  Despite the total absence of any established battlefield experience, Joan was seen as having saved Orleans and had validated her visions.  From now on, the local French forces acted like they were led by God.  Joan would lead her army down the Loire Valley, fight several more brief sieges and ended the English expedition to the Loire by slaughtering their longbows, the heroes of Crecy and Agincourt, while they were disorganized in an open field at the Battle of Patay.  After a skillful campaign, with no real fighting, Joan liberated town after town.  On July 17, 1429, Joan forced the surrender of Reims, and the French heir apparent was properly crowned King of France, Charles VII, after receiving holy anointment with the same special oil that had christened Clovis I, the first French King of the Merovingian Dynasty way back in 496AD when he converted to Christianity.  The Dauphin had become the proper king of France.  Later Joan would come within a hair’s breadth of liberating Paris when Charles VII cut a deal with Burgundy, forcing her to withdraw.

The Coronation of Charles VII in Reims, July 17, 1429

The reasons for Joan’s success as a battlefield commander have also been hotly debated.  Her initial success is almost certainly a reflection of the boldness of her beliefs.  She was willing to try things that the local commanders had learned would fail through past experience.  As she succeeded, her momentum grew.  She clearly was personally courageous, and was wounded three times during her campaigns.  It is highly unlikely she was an especially formidable swordswoman, the few months she had to practice prior to beginning the campaign would not have been anything close to the experience most nobles had.  They trained from an early age in horsemanship, melee weapons, and fighting in armor, which required strength and coordination.  However Joan did make good battlefield decisions, had able commanders beside her, and the fighting men believed in her.  The French morale and the momentum of her victories had a huge effect on battlefield performance and in the readiness of English controlled towns to surrender.  And Joan effectively made The Hundred Years War into a nationalist struggle against an occupying invader, which greatly assisted in the levying of troops and their willingness to sacrifice for the cause.

Despite this favorable turn, the Hundred Years War was far from over.  Next year, campaigning against Burgundy, Joan was captured by Burgundian forces on May 30, 1430.  They offered customary ransom, which Charles VII ungallantly declined to pay, and eventually they sold her to the English, who lost no time exploiting their windfall.  Despite desperate attempts to escape, including a 70 foot jump from a tower onto soft ground, Joan was put on trial for heresy.  It was obvious that Joan could not have undone the English cause without supernatural aid.  But was it divine or diabolical?  Joan’s career as a military commander had lasted less than 14 months.

Joan and the Bishop of Winchester.  Excuse me, who exactly is cross-dressing here?

In Rouen, the English administrative capital in France, Bishop Pierre Cauchon, an English partisan, put Joan on trial for heresy.  Proceedings were delayed while attempts were made to press charges of witchcraft, but Joan was inspected for virginity a second time and found to be intact.  Her crime was cross-dressing.  The English forced her to abjure cross-dressing, given that the military necessity for it had lapsed given her incarceration.  She was then visited in her cell by an English noble who attempted to molest her, and she returned to cutting her hair short and demanded male clothing as a deterrent to any repeat performance.  In the meantime, senior English Church officials interviewed her in an attempt to get her to claim her visions were Divine visitations.  She steadfastly refused to do this, saying only God knew their true nature, and that her personal statements to Charles VII were protected matters of state she could not reveal in an ecclesiastical trial.  The clerics attempted to trap her into admitting that she thought she was in God’s grace, which Catholic theology claimed she was not qualified to know, and was thus an heretical assertion.  Joan dodged this with the brilliant response:  'If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.’   Left with no better alternative, the English found her guilty of recidivism on the cross dressing, and burned her at the stake.  Any doubts about the political motivation of this trial were dispelled when, on May 30, 1431 they burned her ashes three times, then threw them in the Seine to avoid the later collection of relics lest the French side try to have her sainted and brandish her bones as religious relics to lead further rebellion against them.

The soaring modern Church of St Joan in Rouen.  The windows were rescued from the Church of St Vincent, wholly destroyed in World War II.  The French often removed the windows, thus were these saved.

Twenty-one years later, the Pope Callixtus III convened a ‘nullification trial’ and the conviction on heresy was overturned on technical grounds.  It seems Bishop Cauchon had never had proper jurisdiction.  In 1456, Joan was found innocent of heresey.  And in 1909 Joan was beatified, and in 1920, canonized.  After World War I, and France’s titanic sacrifices in that conflict, The Third Republic and the Roman Catholic Church were looking for new sources of belief.   Since then, she has been a patron saint of France, and extremely popular.  The Hundred Years War petered out in 1453, with Charles VII having recovered all their territory except Calais.  The English refused to sign a peace, but internal dissatisfaction over their collapse in France soon resulted in civil war known as the the War of the Roses.

Popular understandings about witches were a formidable deterrent to variant gender expression in the 15th century, but Joan’s case is unique in that her exploits were so remarkable and politically decisive, that her life as a commoner was uniquely documented.  While the logic of cross-dressing as proof of heathenism was pretty thin, local superstitions about magic were far more likely to prove fatal than transvestism.  The lives of commoners mattered too little to provoke most sanctions.  But if your neighbors already didn’t like you, and you then behaved strangely, witch burnings did happen.


A Procession of Flagellants by Francisco de Goya, (1812-19)

The Flagellants were a succession of religious cults that broke out in Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  Their inspiration was Roman Catholic doctrine regarding penance, which was commonly practiced through Church-sanctioned whipping.  When Henry II did penance following the murder of Thomas Becket, it meant he was publicly whipped by church officials.  As such, it was an attempt to expiate guilt through suffering. 

But with the advent of famines and especially, the Black Death, spontaneous cults arose where self-flagellation was practiced without church sanction.  The process was much like copycat suicides.  In the face of some little understood stressor, one cult, then many more would spring up and march around for a month at a time, whipping themselves.  At first, the Church tolerated the practice, but it soon became clear that dissatisfaction with the Church underlay these cults.  In the fourteenth century, the Holy Inquisition descended on several Flagellant groups and burned them at the stake for the heresy of attempting to petition God directly without the proper intercession of Church officials.  So unauthorized self-flagellation was first and foremost an issue of social control, not sexuality.  By the Fifteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had mostly suppressed flagellants.  The importance of religious dissatisfaction in their ecology probably explains why they did not reappear during the Protestant Reformation, when direct supplication to God became pandemic, and there were plenty of other outlets for hostility to Roman Catholicism.

Nonetheless, the feasibility of whipping oneself into altered states of consciousness was repeatedly demonstrated by many similar rites in other religions, including Greek and Roman Dionysian rites, Native American sun dances, and certain Shiite festivals.  Even today, there are some Latin countries including Italy, Spain and the Philippines where extreme believers subject themselves to crucifixion on Good Friday.  Some practices are about suffering, and others are to provoke altered states.   I am not aware of any widespread modern formal religious observances that combine sex and suffering, but there are specific minority faiths associated with the BDSM community.

Fakir Mustafa (aka Bob Flanagan) doing a sun dance.  Flanagan claimed he used pain to manage his cystic fibrosis to which he succumbed in 1996.

This phenomenon is not easily explained by a good single mono-causal explanation.  The Flagellants arose out of a combination of guilt, acute anxiety, unavoidable suffering due to natural phenomena which were primarily understood in moral terms, and a certain transgressive rejection of formal social conventions, such as Roman Catholic ritual, that ordinarily eased such feelings for most believers.  But endorphins clearly played a role in coping with the suffering, and adrenaline and endorphins can easily be imagined to form a kind of palliative to uncontrollable natural events.  Perhaps the Flagellants exploited our natural human tendencies to turn passive into active.

Penance has not disappeared from modern Roman Catholic doctrine but remains a recurring theme from antiquity to the present.  John Becket, Martin Luther and Pope John Paul II were said to wear hairshirts or cilices.  (Cilices are uncomfortable garments named after the Cilicia region of central Turkey where they were prevalent even before Roman times in religious penance rituals).  Indeed, it is possible that Shi'ite practices of self-mortification were derived from these also, as the regions are very close to the birthplace of Shi'ism.  Devices for self-punishment, including Cords of St. Josephs, which are knotted and then cinched uncomfortably about about the waist, and knotted cats of nine tails for self-flagellation are available for sale on the Internet to the religious and kinky alike. Sites selling these emphasize their clerical authenticity, rather than their sexual potential.

Modern and medieval flagellants, like modern BDSM, were subcultures which developed in relation to a larger set of conventional social understandings, and selectively borrowed and re-purposed meanings from them.  As such, modern kink has practitioners who enjoy religious play.  If it’s in the parent culture, then chances are good that someone is finding a way to turn intense non-kinky stimulation to lustful purposes.

Ivan the Terrible's hair shirt.  I guess that explains his epithet!

A modern Chord of St Joseph
A metal chain flogger for religious self-mortification.

A metal cilice, worn on the thigh.  The wearer has considerable control of the discomfort in deciding how tightly to tie the device.  Typically the points don't break the skin.


General Background on Western Civilization:

Diamond, Jared Guns Germs and Steel
Morris, Ian Why the West Rules, for Now  Great for understanding systemic causes of Rome's decline.
Barzun, Jacques From Dawn to Decadence: 500 years of Western Cultural Life  The early chapters summarize this period.  Barzun may be more conservative than suits many readers here, but he is thoughtful and a great writer.
Tuchman, Barbara A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century  Stops before it gets to Joan, but very well written.

Becket (1964)
The Lion in Winter (1968)

Much of the Joan of Arc segment was taken from various Wikipedia articles.  For more on what medieval personal combat really looks like, try:  Robin and Marion (1976)  Another screenplay by James Goldman, incidentally.

For more on Fakir Mustafa, aka Bob Flanagan, self-styled sites on him are still maintained.  He is the subject of a documentary that is not for squeamish viewers: Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

For modern tools of religious penance, including the photos ending this piece

© Russell J Stambaugh, PhD,  Ann Arbor, June 2013.  All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The History of Sexual Deviation, 500AD-1500AD, Part I

In the previous post on Augustine of Hippo, I suggested that Christianity became the dominant religion in Western Civilization because of changes in doctrine had primed the Roman Catholic Church to compete with the ideologies of competing pagan religions.  But these changes of religious doctrine would have been no value if they had not proved to be the right ideas at the right time for other changes occurring then in the societies in which they were imbedded.

The Destruction by Thomas Cole (1836)

Just as St Augustine was putting the finishing touches on the City of God (409), economic, demographic and even climatological changes were placing the Western Roman Empire under extreme pressure.  Climate change in the form of a mini-ice age displaced tribal people from the central Asian periphery and drove their migrations to the west, and these incursions would lead to protracted attrition on Rome’s borders.  This led to a contraction of the Western Empire, and, in 410, Rome was starved into submission to Alaric the Visigoth and sacked.  In 455, the Vandals sacked Rome, forever giving their name to the concept of wanton destruction.  By this time, the center of political gravity in the Roman Empire had shifted to Byzantium.  The crop failure, starvation, depopulation, liberated and escaped slaves and collapse of trade routes due to barbarian depredations resulted in declining markets which would eventually leave the spiritual center of the Roman Catholic Church too politically weak to dominate the diversity of the faithful.  This resulted in the Great Schism of 1054 and the establishment of the Eastern Church.  The Fall the Eastern Roman Empire would not come for another millennium, and the fall of these two “Roman” cities bookends the medieval period.


During the medieval period there was an absolute decline in population, trade, the size of armies leaders could field, industrial activity, and city size.  By just about any metric that mattered, the feudal states of Western Europe were smaller and less vigorous replacements for the central Roman government they supplanted.  Carbon dating of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean documents a precipitous decline in trade after 100AD.   The city of Rome, which surged to more than a million inhabitants at the time of Christ, fell to about 50,000 by 1000AD. These lost inhabitants had not simply moved to the suburbs.   The West’s largest city would not reach Rome’s peak again until London exceeded it sometime in the 19th century.   Analysis of glacial deposits suggests world metal smelting and refining didn’t return to peaks established during the Roman period until about 1780, about the time Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown.

During the Medieval period, population was low; social order fragmentary; fertility paramount even for commoners – aristocrats needed male heirs and daughters to marry off to expand their dynastic influence; peasants needed labor to work the lands, lords needed subjects to tax-- and the focus of church teachings and official regulation of sex was based on marriage and fecundity.  Most people traveled little, subsistence agriculture and peonage tied them to the land, and small intimate communities made social norms, customs and mores powerful restraints on deviant sexual expression.  In this period, homosexuality was mostly below the radar.  Serious deviance included sex that threatened marriage, marital property rights, and the clear attribution of parentage of children.

The Great Chain of Being derived from Aristotle, Plato and St.Augustine by way of Ptolemaic Astronomy

In the years following Augustine, church thinkers worked out a cosmology, The Great Chain of Being, which ordered the entire cosmos, with Heaven at the top traveled by the planets in their perfect spheres, Hell below, the earth in between, and all living and spiritual entities arrayed by rank.  God was at the apex, followed by saints, angels, men, beasts, and demons, with Satan ruling the material realm from Hell.  Men too were ranked, with the Pope at the top, followed by his prelates, cardinals, bishops and priests, and kings (and occasionally queens) arrayed above their nobility, followed by landowners, and serfs and peasants who occupied the lowest social ranks.  This was a system of modest and predictable change.  Comets, famines, personal deviance and wars were all signs of moral disorder.  Social mobility had no place.  Authority was fully apportioned and static.

Sexual variations as we know them today constituted perversions of God’s law when they were noticed at all. The more that unusual sex behaviors resembled pagan practices, the more likely they were to draw attention and sanctions.    Spiritual agents were known to be alive in the world, and ghosts, saints, angels, witches, demons and devils populated the medieval world and were thought to control human behavior.  Sexually variant behaviors were often attributed to evil supernatural agents, and seen as cause for spiritual interventions.  The 1966 film The Exorcist depicts actual church practices that continue today, but were commonplace and unchallenged until late in the Enlightenment.

A detail from The Temptation of St. Anthony by Grunewald (c 1515)  Demons were real, even if no one agreed on what they looked like!

The central struggle of Western political life in this period was between clerical and secular power.  For each sphere had its ranks, but the relative balance of power of church and state was a work in progress.  Partly this is a legacy of Augustine’s Gnosticism, partly it reflects the infusion of barbarian practices as the tribes that conquered and stayed in Northern and Western Europe had required effective militaristic cultures to overcome the Romans, and used these skills to hold power.  For these peoples, might was an important determinant of right.  The church became the primary source of literacy, and all that was remembered of Greek and Roman culture was filtered through clerical stewardship.  Many rulers could neither read nor write, and could only govern areas they could directly dominate through force of arms and alliances, often cemented by marriage.  The collapse of trade meant that the most able men chose either military or clerical life, the arenas in life where the strongest traces of meritocracy remained.  The church provided the binding morality for Western culture during the period.

An important consequence of this was the rise of the idea that church lands were governed by churchman appointed by the Holy See, rather than local landowners or nobility.  Catholic doctrine held that sinners needed to be forgiven if they repented their sins.  Since churches were sacred places consecrated against evil spiritual influences, subjects who broke secular law were afforded sanctuary, or asylum, in churches where they might repent and save their souls without interference from corrupting spiritual agents before becoming subject to secular law.  This is the source of the modern concept of asylums for the insane, and the practice of granting political asylum.

Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) and Henry II (Peter O'Toole) in conflict in Becket (1964)

Just how serious this conflict between secular and spiritual powers could become is illustrated by the murder of Thomas รก Beckett, the subject of T. S. Eliott’s play Murder in the Cathedral and the 1964 film Becket staring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.  In 1152 Henry II arranged to have his friend and courtier Thomas Becket appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, expecting some responsiveness to royal prerogatives in return.  But a crisis ensued when Henry Plantagenet’s efforts to limit church powers led to a series of conflicts and Becket sided with the Church.  Some of the allegations were as modern as today’s headlines, with claims that a priest had molested local boys.  This was a serious violation of holy and secular law, but Becket insisted that the priest was subject to Becket’s authority.   Generally, this is just one special case of a much wider conflict about taxation and confiscation of church lands and Henry’s attempts to extend Norman authority over a still restive priestly class he felt was too responsive to Anglo-Saxon interests.  And the churchman were not entirely blameless of intrusions on royal authority, having prematurely crowned Henry the Young King, Henry’s son, king, without Henry II’s permission.   The seditious influence of rival France was suspected.  This conflict escalated to the point that Becket threatened Henry II  with ex-communication, and Henry forced Becket to flee the country, but  Pope Alexander III eventually brokered a rapprochement.  Upon his return, Henry continued to pressure Becket to acquiesce to the extension of royal powers, Becket again resisted and in 1160 nobles allied with Henry entered Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Becket in the nave of the highest church in England.  Two years later, lightening speed by Vatican standards, Becket was declared a martyr and canonized.  Those famous pilgrims populating Chaucer’s tales were traveling to visit St. Thomas’s tomb in Canterbury.  Henry II, recognizing how much he had overstepped, did public penance in Canterbury.

Pope Urban II, Commander of Kings
Before the 11th Century, secular Western Europe was more fragmented, and the power of the church was ascendant.  In 1095, Pope Urban II declared the first crusade, and ordered the monarchs of the West to help defend Byzantium from the Seljuk Turks and retake Jerusalem for Christianity.  Over the next two centuries, the monarchs complied, many losing their lives and kingdoms in the process, before the Papacy had frittered away its power in internal conflict, corruption, and the Babylonian captivity 1309-78 in which three men claimed to be pope simultaneously and the church moved from Rome to Avignon. 

Sainte-Chapelle, Louis IX's home for the Crown of Thorns (1239-48)

At the height of its power, Catholicism found a sovereign who modeled perfect submission to holy will in King Louis IX.  At the height of his power between 1226 and 1270, he created a Western bastion to replace declining Byzantium.  He built Sainte-Chapelle as his personal chapel, and bought the Crown of Thorns, carefully authenticated over the ensuing 1200 years since its wearer’s sacrifice, from looters fleeing Constantinople.  That the crown had been removed at all from the declining Eastern Roman capital was a sign of how fragile the Byzantine Empire’s grip on holy authority appeared to be at the time.  But it proved to be a false alarm, by hook and crook, Constantinople remained intact for another 200 years.

The Reliquary containing The Crown of Thorns

But I mention the Crown of Thorns because to all but the faithful, the Crown of Thorns is a fetish.   It is not a sexual fetish, and no one, even infidels, would have called it a fetish at the time.  The term is from 18th century anthropology.  It signifies that a material artifact has become imbued with mystical powers, with the culturally imperialistic subtext that the scholar wielding the term doesn’t believe the attributed magic is real.  But to the faithful, the Crown of Thorns had caused many reported miraculous healings, and was considered so powerful because of its close proximity to Christ that many reliquaries were made by breaking off individual thorns and donating them to consecrate new cathedrals.  Its powers were beyond question, and rebounding Western population required spectacular new places of worship.   Louis had a fabulous Gothic reliquary built for it, which now resides in le Cathedral de Notre Dame de Paris, completely oblivious to that portion of Christ’s teachings that called for poverty, humility, and emphasis on good works.  The reliquary looks like a caricature of the Nazi-sympathizing industrialist Walter Donovan’s poor choice of grails in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade!  What St. Augustine would have thought about all this materialism can only be guessed.

"This certainly is the Cup of the King of Kings!"  He chose poorly.  From Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

The power of Louis IX’s faith was not to be denied.  He was the only Western monarch canonized for his contributions to the church.  In addition to building Sainte-Chapelle, buying another holy relic from Byzantium, leading two crusades, and dying in Tunis attempting to lead the second one, Louis altered the center of gravity in the Roman Catholic Church so much that the power of the French monarchy could leverage the Roman Catholic Church to leave Rome!  For over 80 years, it resided in Avignon, admittedly a compromise relative to more populous and prosperous Paris.  But the power of the Crown of Thorns conferred legitimacy on the succeeding French monarchs.  It truly had magical political powers, and remains an object lesson in the power of fetishes.  Louis IX Capet was so blessed that over three centuries after his death, cities were named St Louis all over the New World, including St Louis Missouri, St Louis Obispo, CA, and St Louis, Quebec, to name only a few.


For those of you who are family therapists, The Plantagenets were the subject of another film, the Lion in Winter, written by James Goldman and released in 1968.  During the late 60s and early 70s, it was the focus of countless graduate writing assignments designed to demonstrate the power of structural family therapy on the fractious family.

Eleanor, John, and Henry the Young King having trouble getting along in The Lion in Winter (1968)

Historically, the Plantagenet clan was admittedly rather conflicted.   Henry II allowed his son Henry the Young King to be crowned king before dad was ready to step down out of fear that his more capable and ambitious,  but junior, siblings would depose Henry the Young King if he didn’t have a running start.  Fallout from that effort led to conflict with Becket and the Holy See as I described above.  But things were hardly peaceful in his relationship with his wife, the firebrand Eleanor of Aquitaine, eleven years his senior.   Henry showed no lack of ambition in marrying her for her rich lands in Southern France (Bordeaux wine comes from there, a valuable commodity even in a weak medieval economy! )  She had already had her marriage to Henry’s main rival, King Lois VII of France annulled by the Pope himself after a protracted but failed attempt at marital therapy!  Henry would eventually die after losing a battle to his middle son, Richard Lionheart.  So it is no fiction devised by Goldman that the Plantangent clan under Henry II was a hotbed of conflict.  The genograms of the Capet and Plantagenet dynasties with all their resultant conflicting claims to each other’s lands would be the focus of political conflicts between Britain and France for centuries to come.

One thing Henry II and Eleanor probably didn’t need was a sex therapist.  Despite the fact that he was happy to see her out of the way for years at a time in Aquitaine, where she participated in the creation of the tradition of courtly love, he also imprisoned her for inciting his children to rebellion against him.  In between all this ill-managed conflict, Henry and Eleanor managed to sire 8 children.  Henry II was famous for his philandering, and he is a study in contrast to the equally entitled, but more constrained Henry VIII, who needed to behead and imprison wives who could not provide him with sons.  Henry II’s ill-managed family conflict led to civil war, and eventually, his death.

Richard Lionheart and Philip Auguste in The Lion in Winter.

However Lion in Winter is a work of fiction, and there is no evidence that King Philip Auguste and Richard Lionheart had a homosexual affair, or that Henry, who took numerous mistresses, had an actual relationship with the alleged mistress in Goldman’s play.  Lion in Winter is an interesting challenge in social constructionism, in that it is unclear the Goldman didn’t profit as much from the study of structural family therapy in the writing of this play as all those later family therapy student’s did deconstructing it!  It is still a great deal of fun.  The Lion in Winter and Becket are noteworthy for being the first big-budget depictions of medieval life that were not grossly idealized.  Gilded tableware, fancy thrones and ornate costumes were far from the rule in the real medieval West of this period, relative to the Arthurian legend as depicted in Excalibur and glamorous earlier cinema.  Neither is the social construction of family life glamorized.  I can’t help thinking Goldman is challenging the conventional contemporary idealization of the family prevalent in the 1950’s with is choice of material.  Speaking of family, James is the brother of the more famous screen writer William Goldman.

For those of you who enjoy this sort of history beyond the contexts of psychotherapy and sexual variation, here are some blog posts on a different blog which cover some closely related material about Henry II, Richard Lionheart, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Louis the IX.  That author’s generic name and similar initials suggests some shadowy pseudonymous connection to the present writer.  Enjoy!

Richard Lionheart:  Les Andelys 
Eleanor Of Aquitaine: Eleanor of Aquitaine
Louis IX:  Sainte Chapelle  

© Russell J Stambaugh, PhD,  Ann Arbor, June 2013.  All rights reserved.