Showing posts with label Victorian Era. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Victorian Era. 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. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Charles Dickens and The Spooks Who Saved Christmas

Marley's Ghost is the herald of the spirits which will haunt Ebenezer Scrooge's Christmas Eve in this illustration by Arthur Rackham for a popular 1915 edition of A Christmas Carol.

NoteA hardy perennial makes another appearance.  Is it just me, or has our culture, led by Ebenezer Trump elevated unrepentant Scrooge to icon and roll model?
To borrow a phrase from one of the author’s other books, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  I’m talking about the 1840’s in the early years of what is now recalled, usually through rose colored glasses, as the Victorian Era.  Britain mastered the world unchallenged since the final defeat of Napoleon more than 20 years before.  It presided over a world girdling Empire whose riches and treasures were pouring into the country.  It was ground zero of the industrial revolution, production of every sort of goods was on the upswing, and innovation was making consumer goods cheaper. 
The already very wealthy got wealthier.  So did a limited number of clever commoners.  A middle class, serving the administrative needs of government and corporations, was growing. 
But in the countryside tenant farmers were being evicted to make way for sheep to feed the humming textile mills.  Skilled weavers and other tradesmen found themselves replaced by whirring machines and plunged into poverty.  The displaced made their way with little hope to the teaming cities where they were crammed into unspeakable slums.  There was little chance for work for many of them and they could be—and were—disposed of immediately if they complained about 12 hour days or starvation wages.  Many turned desperately to begging, petty crime, and of course prostitution and vice of every sort.  In London tens of thousands of children lived by their wits on the street. All of these poor folks were considered dangerous, useless burdens who deserved their fate because of a lack of moral fiber, natural indolence, and sloth.  If the Crown had given up on public hangings of 12 year old pickpockets, it was only because there was a whole continentAustralia—to populate with transported prisoners.  Otherwise the jails, workhouses, and cemeteries were filled.
Characteristic of prevailing attitudes was what would happen in Ireland just a handful of years later.  When the potato crop that fed the peasantry failed, British authorities steadfastly refused relief while hundreds of thousands died because charity would “undermine the moral fiber of recipients and sap them of the will to work.”  Sound sort of familiar?
Anyway, this is the England that a successful 31 year old writer named Charles Dickens found himself in.  Once a child of the comfortably middle class when his father failed and was jailed for debt young Charles had been forced to leave his beloved studies and go to work in a shoe blacking factory at age 14.  The experience scarred him deeply and affected his whole world view. 
The slums of London and British industrial cities were filthy, wretched, crowded, and dangerous places in early Victorian England with many actually living on the streets.  The conditions moved Dickens to try to do something about them, but what?
After achieving fame and some level of modest comfort for his serialized novels, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, Dickens decided to employ his fame to decry the condition and treatment of the poor, with which he was all too familiar.  After a tour of the Cornish mines which employed child laborers in dangerous conditions, and visiting a London ragged School for street urchins, he planned to pen a pamphlet to be called An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.  But finding an audience at a speech in Manchester covering the gist of his planned opus was bored and unresponsive, Dickens abruptly changed his plans.  He would recast the appeal as a fictional story.  
Thus A Christmas Carol was born.  The author hastily scribbled the manuscript in just six weeks, barely finishing in early December 1843 in time to rush the manuscript to publication.
A youthful Charles Dickens in 1839 in the first flush of success as a writer four years before publishing A Christmas Carol.
In setting his fictional appeal at Christmas, Dickens was being doubly counter-cultural.  It seems that the holiday, once the happiest of seasons, had fallen into disrepute and was in actual danger of being officially abolished from the calendar—for the second time. 
Christmastide had once been a popular event, the official occasion of Christ’s supposed birthday folded into ancient traditions from both Druidic and Roman times marked with singing, dancing, general merry making, drinking, and a sort of social-turn-the-tables in which masters and servants switched places for at least a day.  Oliver Cromwell and the scandalized Puritans put an end to that.  They outlawed the holiday and imposed draconian punishment on those discovered trying to celebrate, even in the privacy of their own homes.
Although the Restoration had put the religious celebration back on the calendar, its association with Popery—it was after all Christ’s Massdiscouraged celebration by “loyal” Anglicans and most Protestant Dissenters.  Over the years many customs vanished or were marginalized—the hanging of greens, country dancing, and caroling.  In fact the words for many traditional carols were lost until a fad for folklore began resurrecting them in the early 19th Century.  Christmas Day was generally considered a work day.  Factories and shops were open, as were government offices and courts.  
When German born Prince Albert erected a table-top Christmas tree in the Palace for Queen Victoria and their children he helped energize Christmas as a sentimental, children oriented occasion and spread the introduction of trees on both sides of the Atlantic amid the fashion conscious middle class.  But he also stirred a backlash among powerful conservative Anglicans and most Protestant dissenters who clamored for official abolishment of the holiday because of its supposed Papist and pagan roots.
After seeing some backsliding on Christmas celebrations—Queen Victoria’s  husband Albert, a Christmas loving German princeling, had erected a Christmas Tree at the Palace and the fashionable were taking up the customconservative Protestant  leaders energized by new round popular evangelism  and hostility to Catholics—were once again agitating for the holiday to be officially abolished.
Dickens himself was an apostate Anglican with no interest in the religious observation of the Nativity, which had caused the final alienation of his tenuous ties to his family.  He was at this point in his life associating and worshiping with Unitarians, the most radical of all of the Dissenting sects who rejected both the divinity of Christ and miracles like those in the Christmas story as distractions from “pure” Christianity.
He was however, influenced by the stirrings of nostalgia for old time Christmas celebrations which seemed to him to be both more egalitarian and warmer in human sympathy.  Christmas had played a key part in his first success, The Pickwick Papers in which Mr. Wardle relates the tale of Gabriel Grub, a lonely and mean-spirited sexton, who undergoes a Christmas conversion after being visited by goblins who show him the past and future—obviously a seed for his new story.
Without the trappings of religious conversion on which to hang its tale of personal and social redemption, Dickens fell back on elements of spiritualism, which was widely popular, especially in the middle classes at the time and even imbued with some pseudo scientific justification.  Not that Dickens personally believed in communication with the dead, but in the spirit of old time fairy tales, the kind with pointed morals, he was quite willing to employ them as literary devises. Thus was born a Christmas ghost story, as frightening in some parts as any fashionable gothic novel.  But the terror came less from the spirits—despite Jacob Marley’s groans and chains and the fearsome, black, and silent Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—the familiar specter of Death as depicted since the time of the great Plague—than from the poverty of the Cratchits and their bleak prospects, the alienation of family and love, and the hardening of a miserly heart.
Redemption is accomplished when Scrooge is re-united with his own humanity

The first edition of Dicken's privately published  A Christmas Carol.  He fussily rejected the first printing resulting in production costs so high that despite the books immediate popularity, it made the author next to no money.
With, you should pardon the expression, great expectations, Dickens arranged to have an edition printed at his own expense taking as payment from the publisher, Chapman & Hall a percentage of sales rather than the customary lump sum.  He commissioned original engravings for a fine edition, including some tinted with color, to be bound in leather and gilt edged.  He quarreled with the publisher and the book had to be re-made with new end-papers and cover to meet Dickens’s exacting specifications, delaying publication to within days of the holiday.  All of this cut deeply into the profits the author hoped to earn to support his young wife.
But the book was finally published on December 19, 1843 and was an immediate popular and critical success.  The first edition sold out almost immediately and seven more were printed the same year.  Pirates soon had cheap paper editions out, which the ever vigilant Dickens fought with law suit after law suit.  He authorized a stage version which premiered in February 1844.  Six other unauthorized productions were soon playing simultaneously in London.

America, except for a handful of fans, was at first cool to the book, largely because the young nation felt insulted by Dickens’s account of his first tour there a year before.  Christmas, especially in New England, was still suspect in much of the country.  But over the next decades that would change.  One after another Christmas traditions were introduced and spread.  By the time Dickens returned for a post Civil War tour, both he and the book were beloved.

Much of Dickens' income came from platform readings of his works and  A Christmas Carol was his favorite.  He staged his las reading in London in 1870 less than three months before his death at age 58.

The little book was always Dickens’ personal favorite.  He staged his first public reading with it in 1858.  Such readings were a principle income for him for the next decades.  His last reading, in ill health on March 15.1870 in London, was a final sharing of A Christmas Carol.  He died in the manor home in Kent which his literary work had earned him, on June 8, 1870 at the age of only 58.
A Christmas Carol has never gone out of print.  It is perennially popular on both sides of the Atlantic and was perhaps the main engine of Christmas becoming a popular, sentimental, and family holiday all over the English speaking world. In addition to countless stage productions there have been at least 28 film versions for theatrical or television release, the first in 1901.  Alistair Sym in the title role of Scrooge in 1951 is thought by many to be the definitive version.  Other notable versions include those with Reginald Owen in 1938, Albert Finney in a 1970 musical, George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart in two notable TV versions, and the horrible Disney disaster with Jim Carey in 2003.

Many consider Alistair Sim in Scrooge, the 1951 British film, to be the definitive performance of the part in the many film and televisions versions.
There have been multiple musical versions, three operas, notable radio broadcasts—especially one with Lionel Barrymore—and several animated versions.  In addition there have been parodies, and just about every TV sitcom that lasts a few seasons eventually does an episode in which a principle character is visited by Christmas ghosts.
Yes, A Christmas Carol, that odd seasonal tale devoid of both traditional religion on one hand and Santa Claus, magical animals, or elves on the other, maintains a grip on our imagination after all these years.  Maybe because it speaks to the real spirit of the holiday better than any other tale.