Showing posts with label Romantics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Romantics. Show all posts

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Valentine—Saint Credentials Revoked but His Day Rolls On

An icon of St. Valentine
So just what do we know about this St. Valentine whose feast day is the occasion of all of today’s romantic hoopla?  Absolutely nothing, nada, zilch.  A Valentine was evidently venerated in the very early Latin Church and likely a martyr.  The name appears in the rolls of the Martyrologium Hieronymianum which was compiled from older and mostly lost local documents between 460 and 544.  In 496 when Pope Gelasius I was regularizing the calendar of saint feast days he assigned Valentine February 14 and listed him among the saints, “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”  In other words at that early date, the Church knew nothing about his life.
Legends grew up about possibly two Saints Valentine who were celebrated on the February date, martyred, and buried somewhere along the Via Flaminia outside of Rome or perhaps they were the same man.  Later hagiographers elaborated on those sketchy oral traditions.  He has been identified as a 3rd Century bishop of Interamna—modern Terni.  He has also been identified as Roman priest of about the same period.

A church window celebrating the Bishop of Terni adopts the theme of secret forbiden weddings usually associated with the Roman priest known as Valentine.

A a miracle the Bishop promptly performed.  In gratitude Asterius, his entire family, and his large household inn elaborate story about the Bishop has him held under house arrest by a certain Judge Asterius with whom he discussed his faith.  Asterius challenged Valentine to show the power of God by healing his blind daughter. In gratitude Atserius and his entire household including slaves were all baptized.  He also smashed all of the idols in his villa and released all of his Christian prisoners.  Although the Bishop was off the hook with Asterius, he later fell afoul of other Roman officials, perhaps while visiting Rome itself, was tortured, refused to denounce the Faith, and was then executed in some suitably grizzly manner.

Other tales spoke of the Roman priest among whose crimes may have been marrying either/or Christians or soldiers who were forbidden to wed during their lengthy period of enlistment.  He also may have personally tried to convert the Emperor Claudius Gothicus (Claudius II) who ordered his execution.  Or so the stories went.  And perhaps the priest executed by Claudius was also the Bishop of Interamna…or not.

The beheading of St. Valentine from a Mideviel illuminated manuscript.
Even if they were not sure who they were venerating, Valentine was one of the more popular saints in the early Middle Ages and his feast was widely celebrated.  He was associated with love as the Patron of Affianced Couples.  That romantic connection may have been as much due to his feast being fixed the day before the pagan Roman festival of Lupercalia which was noteworthy for its sexual excesses.  As we saw in an earlier post this year on Groundhog Day/Candlemas Pope Gelasius also fixed the date of the Feast of the Candles near Lupercalia.  Both Christian feasts were supposedly helpful in luring stubborn pagans to the Church.
In the Age of Chivalry he became identified with courtly love.  Marriage between the feudal nobility and their knights was expected to be dynastic and business relationship meant to cement alliance, preserve or enhance wealth (estates and land) and produce children and heirs with prestigious blood lines.  Romance or love between the parties of the arranged marriages was neither expected nor encouraged.  For the excitement of love the noble young man or dashing knight was permitted to turn his attention to some lady of his court or some other lord and she was allowed to return his admiration.  The lady might be a maiden but more frequently was the dutiful wife of another.  The gentleman could woo her with poetry, dedicate his victories in battle or tournament often by carrying some token given to him by her, to perform routine acts of gallantry, defend her honor against all who would sully it, and slay any dragons that might annoy her.  In return she was supposed to inspire him to greatness and demurely adore him.

Courtly love and its later facination for the Romantics helped popularize St. Valentine's Day as a celebration of love in the Victorian  Era.
Theoretically this love was pure and chaste with the lady reserving her body for the production of her husband’s heirs.  In reality, of course, things were messier.  Husbands often had their own courtly love interests.  Sometimes everyone whistled and hummed ignoring what was plainly going on and tacitly accepting it.  Other times jealousy or mere possessiveness reared its ugly headthink the nasty Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle.  More than one blood feud, war, or spousal murder was the result.
Either way, bards composed ballads some of which became folk songs and others which became literary epics. 
All of this happened under the apparent approving eye and protection of good ol’ St. Valentine, whoever he was.  None of it, however, applied serfs, peasants, and other commoners who were supposed to be slaves of carnal desire and indiscriminate rutting barely restrained by church marriages and expected to be fertile and breed in sufficient numbers as to insure a steady supply of field drudges and expendable levies of ground troops.  Also their wives and daughters were expected to be available for the less noble urges of their overlords.
Courtly love and St. Valentine took a hit with Renaissance, Reformation, and the rise of the absolute monarchs and the nation state.  Those reliable killjoys the English Puritans did their best to stamp out such nonsense as did Protestant Reformers in Germany, the Low Countries, and elsewhere in Europe.  Even in the Catholic Italian states, the, you should pardon the expression, throbbing heart of Valentine veneration things got dialed down for a while.
That changed with the rise of the Romantics and Victorians.  They ate up tales of courtly love and expanding on them in French poetry, Wagnerian opera, and in the insatiable appetite for Arthurian tales and Sir Walter Scott novels in England.  Young girls swooned over knights in shining armor and boys dreamed of winning fair damsels by daring do

A victorian hand made lace Valentine by Esther Howland circa 1870
St. Valentine’s fortunes also rose.  The custom among the better classes of exchanging elaborate handmade Valentines took hold and spread to the rising middle classes who followed the lead of their betters.  By the late 19th Century the development of inexpensive color lithography made commercial valentines available to the masses.  It turned out shop girls and ordinary clerks could dream of romance, too.

Valentine's Day was well on it way to being a commercial bonanza when a young Elizabeth Taylor was featured in this early 1950's Whitman Sampler magazine ad.
The discovery of the commercial potential of St. Valentine’s Day and its promotion by the greeting card industry, florists, candy makers, jewelers, restaurants, and entertainment venues is a story in itself.  Suffice it to say that Valentine’s Day has become a very big deal and the second biggest gift giving occasion in the United States.  It has also become an emotional test both embraced and dreaded by couples and lonely singles.
What of the Saint himself?  Well, he seems to have become crowded out of his feast day.  In the U.S. at least almost no one even calls it St. Valentine’s Day anymore. 
Although the Anglican Communion and Lutherans as well as some Orthodox Churches include St. Valentine’s Day in their calendars, he was dropped by the Catholic Church from the General Roman Calendar in 1969 because so little was known about him that his very existence might be called into questions.  He was not, however, completely erased from the roster of Saints like other popular but probably apocryphal figures like St. Christopher and St. George the Dragon Slayer.  Local Bishops have the option of keeping his Feast Day on February 14.  That was a tribute to his mythic power.

A relic suposedlyof St. Valentine's skull is preserved at the Santa Maria Basilica in Rome.  Other churches, including one in Dublin, Ireland also claim to have relics.
It should not have been a surprise.  In 1960 a St. Valentine’s Church was built to serve the athletes in the Rome Olympic Village.  When the Games were over the Church became the home of a new parish in the Eternal City.  It is one of the most visited churches in the city with a vibrant membership including many young adults and is frequently sought out by tourists. 
Proving you just can’t keep an old Saint down or the romance he invokes. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Man or Myth—Swiss Hero William Tell

A 19th Century lithograph gives the William Tell legend the full Romantic treatement.


On November 18, 1307 Wilhelm Tell, who may or may not have existed, allegedly shot an apple off of the head of his trembling son with his trusty crossbow on the orders of a tyrannical local Austrian official or Bailiff who may, or may not, have existed.  Subsequently Tell may, or may not, have assassinated the villain and led a rebellion that led to the creation of the Old Swiss Confederacy.  Or so the story goes.
Known to the English speaking world as William Tell and Napoleonic Era European romantics as Guillaume Tell, he became a heroic symbol of Swiss independence, revolutionary resistance to oppression and tyranny, and a blank page various political ideologies claimed for their own.  Americans know him mostly as a motif in countless comedy sketches going back to vaudeville and animated cartoons, built around gags of the boy and the apple stripped of any context.  They also may remember the Overture of an opera by Gioachino Rossini became the theme song for another mythical hero—The Lone Ranger.
Most modern scholars believe Tell is a mythical figure, analogous to the English Robin Hood.  They can find no evidence her or his son ever existed or that Albrecht (sometimes Herman) Gessler ever oppressed the people of Altdorf in the Canton of Uri.  The Swiss tend not to take kindly to these scholars and have been known to burn them in effigy in the streets.  Some Swiss scholars still make a living producing tomes that make historical claims for the truth of at least a nugget of the folk tale.  And like Englishmen love and believe in a rebellious Saxon noble, the Swiss, no matter which of four languages they speak, swear by the reality of William Tell.
Here is the story in its most familiar form. 
Gessler arrived in Altdorf to assume his duties as Landvogt, a local tax collector/enforcer for an Austrian feudal prince—very analogous to the authority of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood tales—already drunk with his new power.  He erected a pole in the market place and demanded that the locals bow down to his hat which he perched on it.  He stationed troops to enforce the order and often sat watching the locals grovel in fear.  Enter Tell and his ten year old son Walter.  Tell was by all accounts a large and powerful man—a hunter, mountain climber, and boatman in early accounts was a local gentleman of wide repute and respect and in later accounts a rustic peasant leader.  He happens to be carrying his crossbow.

One of the earliest graphic depictions--a woodcut illustration from Ein Schönes Spiel…von Wilhelm Tell.
Tell haughtily refuses to bow down to a hat and is seized by Gessler’s troops.  The cruel tyrant has already filled the jails and local dungeons and had recently blinded an elderly man for some trivial or imagined offence.  Gessler, aware of Tell’s reputation with his weapon, offers his prisoner a choiceimmediate death or a reprieve if he can shoot an apple off of the head of his son’s head at several paces with a single shot.
Tell comforts his son and then with unerring calm splits the apple with a bolt from his crossbow.  Gessler notices that Tell had a second bolt.  He demands to know what he intended to do with it.  Tell demurs until he is assured that no matter his answer his pardon would be honored.  Then he tells Gessler that the second bolt was meant to kill him should the first have gone astray and wounded the boy.  Infuriated Gessler has Tell and his son seized.
The Tells are put on a boat to transport them across Lake Lucerne to Küssnacht to a dungeon in Gessler’s new castle.  But a terrible storm erupts and the boat is nearly lost.  The oarsmen, in fear for their lives, unbind the powerful Tell who take the rudder and brings the boat to shore—where he leaps to safety on a rocky point now known as Tellsplatte.  He also somehow still has his famous crossbow and that second bolt. 

An American take on the embellished legend--William Tell Escapes the Tyrant by Nathaniel Currier.
He runs cross country to Küssnacht where he lays in wait at a narrow point in the route he knows Gessler must take from Altdorf.  There from hiding he ambushes the official, assassinating Gessler with a single shot.
Escaping into the mountains Tell joins existing bands of rebels and/or raises a guerilla army to rise up against the Austrians.  The successful revolt that follows unites most of the Swiss Cantons into the Old Confederacy and thus begins the history of the Swiss as a nation. 
Tell was said to have died heroically 40 years later as an old man w/hen he tried to rescue a child from a raging river.
None of this is corroborated in contemporary annals.
The first mention of Tell in relationship to the rebellion seems to be in the White Book of Sarnen by a country scribe named Hans Schreiber in 1475.  Shortly thereafter a song called the Tellenlied began to be sung.  Its first appearance in a manuscript was in 1501 although it was clearly already widely sung.  In neither of these accounts is Gessler named or is there mention of his assassination.  The Tellenlied calls Tell the “First Confederate.”
The first printed version of the story appeared in 1507 in Chronicle of the Swiss Confederation by Petermann Etterlin, a soldier/scholar who wrote in German but supported the French factions ruling Lucerne.  Around 1570 Aegidius Tschudi from Glarus compiled his monumental Chronicon Helveticum which in turn was the main source for Johannes von Müller’s History of the Swiss Confederation in 1780—written under the ideological influence of rising French radicalism—and for Friedrich Schiller’s play William Tell in1804.
In each of these versions the story of Tell becomes more elaborate with details filled in, names and dates supplied and a mantel of historical verisimilitude draped around it.  The story also adapts to more modern political developments—There really was a Gessler family, for instance, that administered a fiefdom of a Hapsburg prince around Zurich in the late 14th Century.  He became a stand-in for imperial Austrian designs on Switzerland three hundred years later.
Tell inspired The Three Tells—heroes of the 1653 Swiss Peasants’ War who dressed as Tell attempted to assassinate Ulrich Dullike, Schultheiss (Mayor) of Lucerne for the Hapsburgs in 1653.  In the writings of early 19th Century Romantics they became similar to certain Nordic myths and King Arthur in English folklore, sleeping under the mountains and waiting to be resurrected and come to the salvation of the nation in a time of peril.
Napoleon's pupet Helvetic Republic sought legitimacy by draping itself in the mantle of Williiam Tell as an anti-Austrian patriot.  The  short lived Republic incorporated Tell into its official seal. 
During the French Revolution Tell was adopted as a model for rebellion against authority.  He was re-cast as a peasant leader and his role as a revolutionary elevated over earlier versions which emphasized his individual defiance.  In the Napoleonic Era Gessler becomes a tool of an unseen—and not even historically accurateAustrian Emperor.  In the post-Napoleonic era Tell becomes the symbol to resistance against all oppression—including that inflicted in the false hope that Bonaparte   would be a liberating force in Europe. 

When Napoleon invaded western Switzerland and imposed the Helvetic Republic in 1798, the new central government sought legitimacy by making Tell and his son the central device in their official seal.  When the Republic was overthrown in 1803 and the Confederacy of Cantons restored in the period known in Swiss history as the Restoration, Tell became a symbol for resistance to all foreign meddling in Swiss affairs.  This is the Tell of Schiller’s play and Rossini’s opera.

The title page of Frietrich Schiller's William Tell, a Romantic play in verse which first inspired Hitler with the image of a Germanic "man of action" and later frightened him when Tell inspired an assassination attempt on him.

Since then he has been schizophrenic—simultaneously hailed as a hero of left populism and of right-wing Swiss nationalism.  He has been cited as the inspiration for Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters in England in 1604, along with Brutus by John Wilkes Booth for his assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and by late 19th Century by anarchist assassins and attempted assassins of European rulers.
Adolph Hitler in Mein Kampf praised Tell as the prototype of a Germanic hero and man of action.  He sang a different song after young Swiss Francophone patriot Maurice Bavauddubbed the “New William Tell” by his admirers—attempted to assassinate him in 1938.  He subsequently banned all performances of both Schiller’s play and the Rossini opera.  At a banquet in 1942 he complained, “Why did Schiller have to immortalize that Swiss sniper!”