January 31, 2009

The man who believed he was king of France

During the Hundred Years War, a Siennese merchant named Giannino di Guccio claimed to be King of France. Tommaso di Carpegna chronicles in an unusual and interesting biography the way that Guccio went through Rome, up to Hungary, to the Papal Court in Avignon, to Venice and through Naples to attempt to gather armies and men to pursue his claim. He even made diplomatic contact with the Muslims, promising that he would abandon French claims to the Holy Land if they would support him with troops and money through a converted Jew. Carpegna takes us through the story and the evidence expertly, Guccio's career involved support from such colourful characters as Cola di Rienzi, dictator of Rome and the Kings of Navarre, who themselves maintained a claim to the French crown. It is tempting though for us to ask the question of why this story, bizarre as it is, should claim our attention. Guccio comes into the historical record at some time in the 1350s, there are two sources apart from his own (edited) biography which refer to him, and then he disappears in 1361- a prisoner- and though we know he must have died by 1367 (we have a will from his wife saying he is dead), we do not know how (or by whose hand) or where he died.

Guccio is a minor offstage presence- but he himself represents something that is not so minor. Pretenders to the thrones of Europe arose continually throughout the Middle Ages- Henry VII faced two for example. Guccio came to the fore in the Hundred Years War, just after a major French defeat at the Battle of Poiters. He also came to the fore at a moment when it was just plausible that the French crown may well have been diverted: an infant King Jean I had died almost as soon as he was born. The French crown was weak and rumour had it that it was held by someone who had gained it through murder. Throughout the Middle Ages, the state of the Kingdom was held, in terms related to the Old Testament to depend on the will of God. Though we might see them as unrelated phenomena, defeat at Poiters was a confirmation that an unrighteous King was leading the French- just as the Kings of Israel had been awarded with defeat after not following the guidance of God- so defeat and victory on medieval battlefields could be seen as praise or reprimand from a jealous God.

Going further, it is possible to see in Guccio's story the importance of the Biblical narrative in another way. As Carpegna argues, Guccio's story was not unusual not merely in that he was a pretender- but in that he was a pretender who came from obscurity. Like Christ, who was King of the Jews, King of the World, despite having been born in a manger- so Guccio was King of France despite being born a merchant in Sienna. Again there are plenty of other Medieval pretenders who follow the same pattern- one might even point to another biblical parallel, David the shepherd's son, the youngest son, who was God's annointed. Medieval people definitely took Guccio seriously- he had forged certificates of his birth from various notables- and his mercenaries for example only followed him when they were convinced he was whom he said he was.

That takes us into a last area where Guccio's position is interesting- imagine Prince Harry were to die in Afghanistan- imagine someone claimed to be the Prince. Everyone in the UK would instantly know that the imposter was not who he claimed to be- because Harry's portrait has been seen in millions of newspapers and websites. Jean I of France was unknown to his subjects- no French King had been seen by anyone but the major nobles and occasional commoner- for Guccio raising troops in Italy, his certificates proved he was who he said he was. Common report or fame proved your identity in the Middle Ages- with no passport, letters from notable witnesses reinforced that fame when you had gone further than it would travel. So Guccio's forgeries from the King of Hungary or the dictator of Rome helped prove to anyone who he saw that he was who he said he was.

Ultimately the point I want to get across in this article though concerns the Bible. To understand medieval or early modern European politics you have to understand the shaping power of the Bible: whether it be Henry VIII claiming to be a new Josiah or the importance of the crusade in Christian history, the Bible was written deep into the consciousness of the society. Exploiting that language was the business of political propagandists. Someone like Guccio fitted into Biblical templates- the obscure but rightful King who would come to restore a covenant between crown, people and God and sustain the nation in its hour of need. Guccio himself probably believed that he was Jean I, rescued miraculously from birth, he forged certificates to back up a rightful claim and others believed him, not because they were credulous but because of his certificates and because he fitted into a template- a template that came straight out of a political faith that was ultimately biblical.

January 28, 2009

Morton Smith and History

Morton Smith thought he had found what he thought was a letter confirming that there was a secret gospel of Mark, whether he had or not has been a subject of discussion ever since. Anthony Grafton, a superb and thoughtful scholar, has laid out the controversy better than I could ever in the Nation this week. What I think is interesting about the article is the way it shows the scholarly process: if Smith was right and the secret Mark is a true ancient text, then the issues of how early Christianity developed would be revolutionised: a text with the potential claims that Smith invoked- claims about the nature of morality and the nature of the Trinity- would if authenticated demonstrate the plurality of beliefs about the nature of Christ which ran right back to the generation of the Gospel writers (approximately fifty years after Christ was crucified)- so the stakes are high.

Smith was a great linguist and scholar with a very methodical bent: the problem with his thesis lies though in the fact that scholarly evidence itself is uncertain. Take a text like a Gospel: imagine it was written down on a piece of parchment sometime in the first century A.D., now imagine all the wars, revolutions, natural disasters and human errors that have occured since then. This evening I spilt a cup of tea on a book- just imagine for a minute how many times that manuscript would have had food, alcohol, tea, water, whatever else spilt on it across the centuries it existed. Imagine the amount of erosion from damp, the amount of times that as it was taken out rain damaged it- and you will see why most of the texts we have from that era, from any era are actually copies. It is no accident that many ancient texts that we do have are partial- so we are missing the entire reign of Caligula in Tacitus's Annals for example because at some point that part of the manuscript was damaged. But now of course you come to the copier- who particularly with religious texts- may have their own agenda. Furthermore sometimes documents were invented- purported to be older than they were (for an example the famous Donation of Constantine which confirmed the Papal Church's authority over the Western Empire was forged probably in the early middle ages)- or copiests inserted words- or sometimes just misread words.

I am just trying to give some idea of the difficulty of dealing with ancient history. It is not impossible- obviously we have good historical sources from the Roman Republic and Empire- sources that often corroborate each other and great libraries like that of Nineveh or Alexandria or later private libraries in Constantinople or monastic houses preserved texts: but it is difficult and scholars continually face the problem of interpreting fragments of evidence. For some scholars, they spend a career putting together a papyrus to make a sentence- it depends on realising that that part of the sentence probably goes with that end of the sentence but of course it could be based on an error, and errors are simple to make. Everyone afterall comes to the evidence with their own idea of how it will look: the best methods of scholarship teach you to have a dialogue with the evidence- that your ideas change to fit what you see and then as you see more, the ideas you had about the last source change- but there is always the possibility of being wrong. And everyone who has studied history properly knows that feeling- the sensation that having added the pieces together what you have actually done is created a vision of your mind's idea of the world, rather than a vision of the world.

What has that got to do with Morton Smith and the Clementine letter? It explains I think something of the controversy- I do not have the learning to take a position on the issue though Grafton's is a voice that I would listen to- however what I do know about is doubt. A historical religion like Christianity which depends on a historical issue like the resurrection is always going to draw strong arguments to it: and for those who have faith, their faith provides them with the truth. But if we look at it from a historical perspective, rather than a fideist one, I do not think that there are reasons that we can say either that Smith was right or wrong: we will have opinions but those opinions are subject to doubt. The issue is that whereas I can say to you that Rome fell on such and such a date and that Gibbon wrote his history of that fall on such and such a date, what I actually mean is that the probability of Rome falling then and Gibbon writing then exceeds some limit, I am not saying there is an absolute truth. The limit may approach, like a rising curve, certainty but it never reaches it. The more fragmentary the evidence the lower the probability until I get to the position where I have to say that possibly x or y happened. Historical truth is not absolute and it is important to realise that everywhere you look in history there is reasonable doubt: that is as much true of 'religious' questions as it is of normal historical questions (whether for the former there is a separate level of proof because of the greater nature of the claim made by religion is a separate and interesting question)- but it is important to realise.

When we claim absolute certainty about the past, given our fragmentary evidence about it we can be confident that that is the begginning of error. There is such a thing as historical truth- but there is no such thing as historical certainty.

January 27, 2009

Inverting the Pyramid

Football has not, despite the efforts of James Hamilton at More than Mind Games, been a field renowned for intelligent journalism. Much that passes for sports journalism is a summary of what two managers said or a too hasty analysis of a game that has just passed: much of what passes for commentary is banality (see under Redknapp, J.) or hysteria (see under Sky). When football commentators try and be intelligent, too often they seek to make the game an analogy for something else- in 1956 for example the Hungarians played with a socialist style, in the late 1960s the Argentinians, we were told, played in a militaristic style. There may be merit to such approaches- when it means that you take a disorder in a society and say that it effects what happened on the pitch (Madrid was Franco's club) but the merit is limited and as an analogy to politics, football soon breaks down. Ultimately the best football commentary is simple and intelligent: it is about a game played by eleven people, with two goals and a ball. Jonathan Wilson exemplifies how such an intelligent account can be written: his book is not flawless but it has the merit of being about some real interesting problems- the relationships (as Arrigo Sacchi understood them) between players, space and the ball itself. We will pass on to Wilson's flaws later- but the essential, telling, important fact about this book is that it is one of the few which actually analyses the game of football and tells us something about it.

What WIlson has written is an account of football tactics from the begginings of the organised game in the 1870s to the present Manchester United team of Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez. The analysis is global. So we move from the England of 2-3-5, through Herbert Chapman's W-M formation (3-2-2-3), to the Italian Catenaccio, the Brazilian parallelogram, the Austrians in the thirties, the Hungarians in the fifties, through Ukrainian method and Dutch total football onto the great Milan side of the 80s and Mourinho's Chelsea team in the nineties. He takes in the development of new techniques of play- like the invention in Ukraine of pressing the man in possession, and the battles for the soul of Argentinian football between Carlos Bilardo and Carlos Menotti. It is all told with verve and pace- sometimes too much pace- I would personally have liked more discussion of individual games: towards the end of the book Wilson demonstrates the way in a game against Finland, a Yugoslav tactical change won them the qualifier and it would have been interesting to see similar discussions of other particular games. Maybe a discussion of tactics through the way that they have impacted particular games should be Wilson's next endeavour. But overall the themes are interesting- football started as a game about kick and rush, with several forwards and very few defenders or midfielders, at the end of the twentieth century it has become much more patterned and defenders and midfielders have become much more focussed on positioning (so that a good physical defender like Titus Bramble who has pace, tackles well and is tall became a liability at Newcastle because of a failure to be in the right position).

There are common threads through this story which are worth dwelling on. One is the opposition between two ideas of what football is about: is it about entertaining a crowd or about winning a trophy, ultimately what matters more- attendances or prize money? When Arrigo Sacchi said of his Milan team that he wanted them in the history books, what he sensed was that trophies are ultimately not an objective measure of quality- nothing is an objective measure of quality. Great teams do not always win trophies- the Dutch in the total football era never won a major international trophy, England were arguably better in 1970 than they were in 1966 but they won the World Cup in 1966 and went out at the quarter finals in 1970. Wilson reserves his own praise for the innovative- dwelling for example much more for example on Rinus Michels at Ajax than on the great European dynasties established by Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley- finding more room for Graham Taylor at Watford than for Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest. There is one great lacuna within his history- I suspect owing to this focus on tactical innovation- and that is Germany. Germany contested the 1982 World Cup Final, and won the 1990 final- but Wilson prefers to concentrate during the 1980s on the development of Russian football. That is not incorrect- for from his perspective the sides from Kiev and Minsk were more interesting than the disciplined side of 1990 from Germany but it is important to realise.

Wilson's book has flaws- but it also has acheivements. Why did the English not adopt more innovative tactics after World War II? Well the old W-M used wingers in profusion and the English had two of the best wingers that ever graced the field in Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews. Why did a side of Brazilians manage to play a football unconstrained by defence in 1970? Think about conditions in Mexico and you will realise that that World Cup allowed plentiful space for the likes of Pele to thrive- their opponents were worn out by the altitude amongst other things. Why did 5-3-2 fade and 4-5-1 triumph in the 1990s? If you play 4-5-1 against 5-3-2, your opponent has lost a player with a surplus centre half and your wingers and full backs can pressurise the wingbacks on the opposing side and cause problems for them (the Gary Neville-David Beckham partnership at its most devastating was all about finding an isolated full back and making him have to choose to go toward the player with the ball, at which point a simple pass set up a perfect crossing opportunity). Wilson understands the space of football brilliantly and I will go back to his book again and again. The problems with what he has written boil down to the fact that it could be longer, and more detailed, those are not bad flaws for a book, particularly a sports book to have. It is not often that a sports commentator leaves you wishing for more, Jonathan Wilson, like James Hamilton, is a very good example of someone who writes and thinks acutely about sport: he ought to have a booth on the radio or television, move over Redknapp, move in Wilson!

January 25, 2009

Europa 51

Part of the British Film Institute's Ingrid Bergman season, Europa 51 is a collaboration between the great actress and her lover, the director Roberto Rosselini. The film opens in an apartment in Rome where a wealthy bourgeoise couple- played by Bergman and Alexander Knox- are having a dinner party. Thanks to traffic, Bergman's character, Irene has arrived late home and George her husband and Michel her son both want and need her attention: George to prepare for the party and Michel because he is upset. She neglects the son to prioritise the party and quickly dresses- however during the party, Michel falls down the stairs and eventually dies. The film then becomes a story about Irene's response- she becomes a servant of all she meets particularly the poor, supporting a boy going to hospital with her money, helping a young mother to get and retain a job, aiding a prostitute in her last hours and performing countless other acts of kindness. She eschews the simple Marxist prognosis of her cousin Andrea, and instead cleaves to a religious and spiritual (yet non-denominational) renaissance which provides her with a meaning for her life. It also alienates her family: more and more they are distressed by what she has done, her husband is estranged gradually, her mother uncomprehending and various other members of her social circle criticise her as she abandons convention.

Irene's behaviour is touched off by the tragedy of her son's death- a death which is caused by the Oedipal jealousy that Michel feels for George- but its consequences are profound. Irene is faced with three options as a consequence of Michel's death: the first is to continue in the route that she has lived through in Rome, the life of a bourgeoise, a life ringed with dinner parties and triviality, that relegates the condition of the poor to being a subject for after dinner and finds more entertainment in frivolity. The second is to become a Marxist- who sees a system opressing the poor and responds in Irene's words by teaching the poor to hate the rich- the alternative does not attract Irene because it does not deal with the spiritual life of the poor and nor does it meet her real need, for a philosophy that can embrace the dead Michel as much the living suffering excluded citizens of Rome. Lastly she reaches a kind of individualistic Christianity- similar to that Rosselini discussed in Francesco Guilare di Dio- she recognises that the only route to salvation lies in becoming a holy fool.

The film is about the response of the rest of society to that decision: significantly of course what Irene finds is that being a holy fool is incompatible with modern capitalistic society. It is incompatible with modern morality- how for instance can she explain to her husband that she has deserted him to live with an ailing prostitute? The policeman suspects that when she appealed to a criminal to surrender himself and aided him to escape so that he would not be arrested with his family, she was infatuated with the criminal and not seeking his redemption. There are a thousand other examples where Irene's actions are either unbelievable or imprudent: this is a woman who is quite happy to give up an entire day so that another woman can go off to have a night with her boyfriend, a woman who never condemns, but who takes others as she finds them with all their sins. A woman who finds ultimately two truths to be central to her life: the first being that she has nothing but contempt for herself- that to quote Cromwell she is the 'worst of sinners'- and finds that as a resource to comfort others and who secondly decides that she cannot love those that are close to her unless she loves everyone, who finds that she cannot excuse the faults of those who are close to her (as her husband does with her) unless she can excuse the faults of all those who suffer and sin (including prostitutes and theives).

The Christian imagery pervades this film- Rosselini was seeking to see whether a St Francis could live in modern society and what he found was that she or he could, but only behind the gates of a mental asylum. Perhaps more impressive is what he finds as the content of the Christian message- like Bergman, Rosselini took refuge in the sense that the heart of Christianity was love- that everything else came second and should come second- and for Rosselini it is the practical and unjudging charity of Irene that is the centre of the Christian message. The priest in this drama is reduced to mumbling bourgeois banalities- and the Catholic church is at its most impressive only when it too recalls the medieval saints, it is religious in its ceremonies and yet not in its sanctimonies.

The film makes this point in lots of interesting ways. Firstly there are the spectacular performances- Ingrid Bergman was at the top of her proffession with such masterpieces as Notorious and Casablanca behind her and Autumn Sonata to come. Alexander Knox as her husband is equally impressive- his subtle and thoughtful performance is a wonder to watch and should be better known. Teresa Pellati as the prostitute, Ines, does a fine job. Some of the other performances particularly of the proletarian characters and Andrea the Marxist cousin do not work as well- Rosselini has partly romanticised the working classes here. Secondly though there is the direction- the use of shot is interesting. Rosselini indicates the shape of the story through his use of lighting and camera angles: so when Irene and George discuss her reaction to Michel's death, her face is clouded in shadow whilst his is lit fully denoting the fact that her reaction is more mysterious than his conventional grief and insistance that life must go on. Thirdly though the script occasionally particularly in the working class scenes is mawkish, at other points it is sublime- Bergman is given a wonderful speech to explain herself to a judge towards the end of the film which is one of the keys to understanding her freedom as a fool.

These three elements would mean nothing though without Rosselini's mind controlling and gathering the threads of his story: this is a film about the difficult subjects- love, religion, charity and the meaning of freedom- set in modernity. It is a film under the shadow of war and industrialisation- a film about a society where children have heard the bombs fall and where factories ressemble in their brutal mechanisation the machines of destruction. What Rosselini offers, like Bresson, is a Dosteovskyan message- a message that is difficult to homogenise with our categories of political thinking- that ethics not politics is the only way to rebuild something out of the chaos of modernity. That the ethical will be rejected and destroyed, but serene in their vanquished state. It is an argument that is suffused with a religion of a particular kind- which sees the centre of Christianity in love- the answer for Bergman to Neitsche's declaration of God's death was to declare that love did exist- and in a sense that is Rosselini's answer too. Abandoning prescription, the film is both a diagnosis of the condition of society- and the way that it is unethical and brutal- and a call to a renewed ethics. It has no politics- and Irene's religion is not prescriptive- but emancipatory and based on love.

Even if, like me, you do not accept the divine instigator that lies behind Irene's conversion, the argument that ultimately the only way to cope with modernism is to turn to ethics is an important one and an appealing one. Irene's life and personality may be utopian- like every holy fool before her and since- but it is an important thought experiment for it reminds us of how selfish and unloving our relationships with strangers often are.