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This post is the third installment of a series concerning the astonishing 1600 year backstory of Santa Claus (you should start here with part 1, if you want things in chronological order). At the conclusion of yesterday’s post, Saint Nicholas was a beloved saint from Greek-speaking Anatolia who was the focus of miracle stories about fighting demons, helping the poor, and raising the dead. Many lesser-known saints have similar stories (although few miracles are as impressive as the story of Saint Nicholas resurrecting the murdered boys). So how did Saint Nicholas transition from an ascetic Mediterranean wonder-worker to de-facto god of the winter solstice?
The answer involves the multi-century conversion of northern and central Europe to Christianity. In order to facilitate the widespread conversion of Germanic and Scandinavian tribes into the Christian fold, churchmen drew on preexisting traditions and customs. Many pagan deities thus became conflated with traditional saints (a cultural syncretism not dissimilar from what we wrote about in this post about Afro-Caribbean voodoo loa) and many pagan customs worked their way into Christianity. Saint Nicholas was a stern bearded figure whose feast day occurred near Yule (winter solstice). Additionally he had a history of giving gifts, punching people, and performing strange resurrection miracles. Because of these traits Saint Nicholas became identified with Wotan (or Odin), the otherworldly wandering king of Germanic gods.
At Yuletime, Wotan would hunt through the sky on his flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir. Many of Wotan’s old names and characteristics are those of a wizard-like winter king. He had a long white beard and his epithet “Jólnir” meant “Yuletime god”. He held suzerainty over tribe of magical gnomes/dwarves who acted as his smiths and crafted wonderful weapon for him. If a youth was worthy, Wotan would bring him a shiny knife or axe (which was slipped into a shoe or under the bed). If a youth was unworthy, then the hapless dullard was in for a round of physical punishment or was simply dragged away by trolls and demons. Wotan knew who was worthy and who was not because he had two black ravens “Thought” and “Memory” who traveled through the world taking note of mortal proclivities. Speaking of animal helpers, at Yuletime it was characteristic to leave apples and carrots for Sleipnir (the flying horse) just in case Wotan decided to visit.
Stepping into these big northern shoes was a heady transition for an orthodox Mediterranean saint. Additionally, northern Europe was not culturally homogenous. Saint Nicholas took on different names and characteristics in different parts of Europe. In Germany he was known variously Weihnachtsmann, Nickel, Klaus, Boozenickel, Hans Trapp, or Pelznickel. Sometimes he was served by bestial underlings like Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus. In other regions he worked alone or opposed these winter demons. In the north Sant Nick’s dwarvish smiths morphed into a tribe of elves but in Switzerland they morphed into Moors. Wotan’s ravens turned into the famous naughty/nice list.
Later, in Holland, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas, a magical gift-giving bishop who traveled by means of flying sled—and who kept a captured Surinamese servant to help out (you can read about the eyebrow-raising modern interpretations of Zwarte Piet in this article by my friend Jessica). For some reason Sinterklaas was thought to live in Spain during his off-season. England (with its mix of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French culture) had its own traditions of Father Christmas—a nature god clothed in green. Children from France waited for Père Noël to bring them gifts on his magic donkey (and don’t even ask about Ded Moroz, the Slavic Frost King who travels around Russia with Snegurochka).
In other words Saint Nicholas became more interesting and diverse as he was adopted by different folklore traditions. However he also became confusing and strange to the point of unrecognizability. However by the 18th and 19th centuries, new trends of globalization and industrialization were sweeping Europe—and the globe. Santa was ready to put on his red suit and drive his reindeer to his toy factory.
Gotland is the largest island in the Baltic Sea. It is culturally and politically part of Sweden (although it has ancient ties to Denmark, Norway, Germany, Poland, Russia, and lands beyond). Many historians believe the Goths, the tribe of invaders which sacked Rome, originated from Gotland (a story which will have to wait for another post). The main town of Gotland is Visby, the city of roses and ruins, which was a principal port of the Hanseatic League. Gotland is scattered with strange ancient rune stones (some of which are graven with valknuts) and ancient hidden treasure hordes, but todays post concerns the island’s 94 medieval churches. These buildings executed in the Romanesque and Gothic architectural style are one of the Island’s top tourist draws.
The Romanesque churches of Gotland were built between 1150–1250 AD. Then the style switched to Gothic from 1250 to 1400 AD (nearly a millennia after the original Goths began to cause unrest in the northern provinces of the Roman empire). The era of church building was a golden age for Gotland which grew rich from Baltic trade. Priest, sailors, merchants, bankers, fishermen, architects, monks, and all manner of other folk walked the thriving streets of Visby. Many of the churches remain (though many have been rebuilt) and their elegant architecture provides a window to the vanished medieval world. Here is a little gallery of some of the churches of Gotland. If you are wildly curious about any particular building you can visit this site for a more comprehensive explanation.
Aren’t they beautiful? I am sorry that I could not find the names of a couple of churches, but there is a “find the six differences” aspect to this group of images which I didn’t appreciate at first. I was hoping to make this an easy Friday post, but I have been trapped at my computer comparing the slants of steeples and the shape of windows. I’ll leave you with a little picture of the gorgeous cathedral at Visby and let you look for the rest of the churches of Gotland on your own!
Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have reviewed all sorts of meanings of the word “Gothic”–From Gothic painting to Gothic literature to Gothic history to Gothic architecture, a review of the changing history of this word has taken us through thousands of years of western culture (and beyond). Although this blog has described the Gothic alphabet created by Bishop Wulfila in order to proselytize to the Gothic tribes, the term Gothic has yet another meaning in the context of the Roman alphabet.
From approximately 1150 to well into the 17th century, Blackletter script was widely used throughout Western Europe. Renaissance humanists from 15th century Italy onward thought the various varieties of Blackletter script were barbaric and they called the fonts “Gothic” to belittle them as un-Roman and hence primitive (the Germans however did not suffer such prejudice and Blackletter–or Gothic–scripts are still used for writing and printing German).
The main Blackletter scripts were Schwabacher, Fraktur, , and, above all, Textualis (although typographers may disagree with me about this—and indeed about everything I am writing here). Blackletter was developed in a world where ink made of bone soot was cheap but parchment was heavy and expensive. Letters and Lettering by Frank Chouteau Brown describes the development of Blackletter as a pursuit of both beauty and practicality:
The original Gothic letter was a gradual outgrowth from the round Roman Uncial. Its early forms retained all the roundness of its Uncial parent; but as the advantages of a condensed form of letter for the saving of space became manifest, (parchment was expensive and bulky) and the beauty of the resulting blacker page was noticed, the round Gothic forms were written closer and narrower…until a form was evolved in which the black overbalanced the white–the Blackletter which still survives in the common German text of to-day. Thus, though a Gothic letter may not be a Blackletter, a Blackletter is always Gothic, because it is constructed upon Gothic lines.
Thus generations of medieval scholars, scribes, and copyists carefully transcribed the Roman classics by hand into Blackletter manuscripts. When Guttenberg carved the font for his 42-line Bible (an original copy of which I saw last year at the Huntington) he chose Textualis as the most appropriate for the printed word of God.
I find Blackletter fonts to be extremely beautiful (although I am disquieted by how quickly they edge towards illegibility). Throughout this short article I have not attempted to provide any sort of true overview of the endless variety of Gothic fonts, but I have attempted to include an overview of these extremely gorgeous alphabets.
There is one addendum to all of this. Nobody seems able to stop calling things “Gothic” and of course contemporary typography designers were no exception. Your word processing program probably has a variety of modern sans-serif typefaces named “something-something Gothic” (“Frankln Gothic being especially popular). These scripts have nothing to do with Gothic Blackletters but instead are a throwback to true classical Roman and Etruscan letters. Unfortunately American publishers and designers called the new fonts “Gothic “since that was their term for German alphabets (and it was 19th century German designers who first introduced some of these letters).
Next week, as a lead-up to Halloween, Ferrebeekeeper will feature a week’s worth of dark harrowing spooky posts about…um, flowers. However, just in case botany, herblore, and gardening are not terrifying enough for you, today’s disturbing subject should provide ample horror to fill up your Halloween nightmares [He isn’t kidding, this is a grim subject and squeamish readers should go look at kitten pictures-ed]. I first encountered this subject when I was looking at The Triumph of Death, an epic painting by Pieter Bruegel which portrays an army of skeletons erasing all life from a sweeping sixteenth century landscape. The painting is a bravura combination of surrealist fantasy and extreme harrowing realism: the abstract and alien wave of death is sweeping away the realistically painted living humans . Among Bruegel’s most nightmarish inventions are the high torture wheels dotted around the landscape which feature tiny sad carcasses suspended and spinning in the sky–except it turns out this was not some invention of Bruegel’s dark imagination. The Catherine wheel or breaking wheel was in fact a common form of capital punishment from late antiquity up through the early modern era.
The Catherine wheel was named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a beautiful (and probably fictional) martyr who spurned the courtship of Emperor Maximinus and was then sentenced to die on the wheel. Fortunately Jesus intervened on her behalf. As soon as Catherine touched the wheel it broke to apart and the Romans were forced to merely behead her (sometimes I wonder if divine intervention could be more wholehearted in these sorts of stories).
Catherine’s wheel appears on a great many heraldic devices including the crest of Catharine’s College Cambridge and the coat of arms of Goa. With its metal spikes and hooks it looks rather different from the wagon wheels in Bruegel’s artworks and it seems like it might be a more fanciful interpretation of the actual torture device. Additionally Catherine’s wheel has given its name to a jaunty spinning firework!
The breaking wheel as historically known was a rather crude implement of torture. It was reserved for the lowest and most debased criminals—commoners who had killed their families, committed murder during the course of theft, betrayed their lords, or otherwise outraged the community with excessive crimes. The condemned prisoner was lashed to a large stout wagon wheel (or to a sturdy restraint if the available wagon wheel looked fragile) and then an executioner broke all of the prisoner’s limbs and joints with a cudgel or metal bar. Then the broken limbs were secured to (or threaded through) the spokes of the wheel and the prisoner was hoisted into the sky atop a pole. If the criminal was a gifted briber or a likeable person, the executioner would make sure the beating was fatal. If however the victim was despised or came upon a particularly sadistic torturer (what are the odds of that?) he would probably end up hopelessly maimed but still alive to contend with dehydration and birds. In fact there is an unhelpful looking bird perching on the wheel in the corner of that Bruegel painting (see the detail below).
This grisly punishment was popular throughout Northern Europe during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries (although apparently Russian overuse of the practice during the Great Northern War rather turned people off of it). The breaking wheel lingered for long enough in continental Europe that it dark left shadows lying across many different languages. To quote Wikipedia:
In Dutch, there is the expression opgroeien voor galg en rad, “to grow up for the gallows and wheel,” meaning to come to no good. It is also mentioned in the Chilean expression morir en la rueda, “to die at the wheel,” meaning to keep silent about something. The Dutch phrases ik ben geradbraakt, literally “I have been broken on the wheel,” the German expression sich gerädert fühlen, “to feel wheeled,” and the Swedish verb rådbråka (from German radbrechen), “to break on the wheel,” all carry a meaning of exhaustion or mental exertion.
Additionally the word roué, a French word which has made it into English as a borrow word, originally indicated someone so dissipated that they were destined to end up executed on the wheel.
Ugh enough of that. The moral of this story is to be thankful for the Eighth Amendment. Next week—the flowers of the underworld!
Welcome back to armor week at Ferrebeekeeper! Yesterday I introduced an ancient order of armored mollusks, the chitons, with an allegorical story about a knight of the Holy Roman Empire. This reminded me of gothic armor, one of the most beautiful and functional styles of plate armor ever devised. Gothic armor was, in fact, used by knights of the Holy Roman Empire (and lands beyond) throughout the 15th century. The style was characterized by a full plate armor which covered the entire body. This plate was designed with intricate structural flutings, ridges, and curves influenced by the ornamentation of Gothic art and architecture. However the ridges and crenellations of gothic armor served a double purpose: such features strengthened the armor and deflected arrows (which had become more prevalent in the warfare of the day). Additionally the major joints and breaks of gothic armor (armpits, crotch, and knees) were protected with chain mail underneath. A warrior in gothic armor was well protected (particularly considering he was most likely an insane German nobleman carrying a great sword).
In the 1480s, gothic armor from Germany was considered the finest in Europe. Protective headgear had changed as well: although some knights still wore bascinets from the previous era, the most prevalent helmet of the day was the gothic sallet, a close fitting helmet with a long sharpened tail to protect the neck. The sallet was complimented by a bevor which protected the knight’s chin.
Gothic armor influenced English and Italian suits of armor. By the sixteenth century, Italian innovations in turn caused the style of German armor making to change. Gothic armor was left behind as armor suits became even more rounded and covered in grooves (a style known as Maximilian armor after the Holy Roman Emperor). However the great German printers, painters, and illuminators of the 15th century had already immortalized gothic armor–which is forever associated with knights to anyone familiar with such art.
Yesterday I wrote about beheading as a theme in gothic art. It’s a chilling subject because if a person (or other vertebrate) is so fundamentally cut apart…well that’s pretty much it for him or her except for obsequies and obituaries. However this weakness is not universal among organisms. Many invertebrates like worms, jellyfish, and sponges can be cut apart and continue to thrive. The animal world is not really the direct subject of today’s post though. Certain plants are particularly good at regenerating despite trauma. A large number of common forest trees can be entirely cut down and still regrow from the stump. This fact formed the basis for coppicing, a practice of woodland management which involved harvesting certain trees by cutting them down for firewood or timber and then waiting for the living stump (which foresters call a stool) to regrow.
This method of forest harvesting/maintenance was most effective when different parts of a wooded land were kept at varying stages of regrowth. Certain areas of trees would be cut back to ground level. Other trees would be back to full mature size. Most trees were somewhere in between. The cycle depended on the location and the sort of trees being harvested but it was apparently a favorite way for communities to have their woods and burn them too. Chestnut, hazel, hornbeam, beech, ash and oak were all frequently coppiced. The process was extremely common during medieval times but seems to have fallen away as mercantilism (with its emphasis on shipbuilding) and industrialization took hold.
This is a shame because coppicing was not as environmentally devastating as clear cutting. To quote an online article at The Great Escape Treehouse Company:
Coppice management favours a wide range of wildlife, often of species adapted to open woodland. After cutting, the increased light allows existing woodland-floor vegetation such as bluebell, anemone and primrose to grow vigorously. Often brambles also grow around the stools. Woodpiles (if left in the coppice) encourage insects, such as beetles to come into an area. The open area is then colonised by many different animals such as nightingale, nightjar and fritillary butterflies. As the coup grows up, the canopy closes and it becomes unsuitable for these animals again but, in an actively managed coppice, there is always another recently cut coup nearby, and the populations therefore move around, following the coppice management.
Forests that can survive and thrive despite coppicing probably evolved to do so in conjunction with animals. Beaver are infamous for cutting down forests both as food and as building materials. Deer and related artiodactyls are also hard on forests (though not like elephants—African and Indian trees must be hardy indeed).
Woods which never had to deal with any of these animals are susceptible to vanishing when tree-cutting invaders appear. When beavers were introduced to Patagonia they caused an ecological crisis, both from flooding caused by their dams and from cutting down trees with their teeth. The local trees could not survive coppicing and quickly vanished before the onslaught of the industrious rodents.
The Geats are the protagonists of the epic poem Beowulf (in fact, the titular character Beowulf himself was a Geat). The poem gives us a picture of a society of northern Germanic warriors who lived near the coast. They spent the summer accomplishing feats of valor–raiding and fighting through the lands around the Baltic and the North Sea–and then they returned home to pass the winter in their mead halls drinking and telling great tales.
It is a compelling picture and such a tribe did indeed exist. Historiae Francorum by Gregory of Tours recounts a raid against Frisia by the Geatish king, Hygelac, which took place in 516 AD. The Geats inhabited what is now Götaland (“land of the Geats”) in Sweden. Their lands were bounded by the Baltic Sea to the South and the haunted forest of Tiveden to the North. In the great Norse Sagas they are referred to as the “Gautar”. It seems they lived much in the manner suggested by Beowulf and the Sagas–albeit with fewer mythical monsters and less political unity. Wikipedia somewhat blandly informs us that, “The Geats were traditionally divided into several petty kingdoms, or districts, which had their own things (popular assemblies) and laws.” Ultimately the Geats were integrated into the Kingdom of Sweden. This annexation was more a matter of political expediency than via conquest: the Swedes and the Geats shared many cultural similarities and they shared a terrible enemy—the Danes. In fact many Swedish rulers and elite were Geats.
All of this has a larger context: looking further back into ancient history, one discovers that the Geats are the presumed Goths. Jordanes, a sixth century Roman bureaucrat who wrote The History and Deeds of the Goths decided that the ancestral home of the Goths was the southern edge of Scandinavia–which he describes as a great island named Scandza. Here is how Jordanes explains the origin of the Goths:
Now from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name. As soon as they disembarked from their ships and set foot on the land, they straightway gave their name to the place. And even to-day it is said to be called Gothiscandza…But when the number of the people increased greatly and Filimer, son of Gadaric, reigned as king–about the fifth since Berig–he decided that the army of the Goths with their families should move from that region. In search of suitable homes and pleasant places they came to the land of Scythia, called Oium in that tongue.
Many historians have questioned Jordanes’ accurac–not least because he wrote a century or more after the events described had taken place. In fact some scholars have written off The History and Deeds of the Goths as utter mythology. Other writers, however, accord Jordanes greater respect for his primary source of information was Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman who served under the king of the Ostrogoths at the end of the fifth century. Many of Cassiodorus’ works are lost, but Jordanes had access to them. Archaeological and linguistic evidence has indeed tied the Wielbark Culture to the Geats. The Wielbark culture in turn gave rise to the Gothic kingdom of Oium, a part of the Chernyakhiv culture. Um, hopefully the following map will make this more clear.
If you have been following my topic thread concerning all things Gothic, you will know that I am baffled and delighted by this inpenetrable muddle. The origin of the Goths seems to flow into the north in the distant past and dissolve into myth. Yet somehow these ancient barbarians have lent their name to lovely Northern Flemish art, horror fiction, the sack of Rome, medieval architecture, and an entire contemporary youth movement. With this in mind, it seems completely appropriate that the original Goths were Geats (or their progenitors). The violent and exquisite Anglo Saxon Poetry of Beowulf seems as appropriate a place to find the Goths as anywhere. I like the idea that the Goths did not vanish forever in the sands of northern Africa. Some of them stayed home and became the Vikings. The Swedes like the idea as well and the name “Goth” is to be found everywhere in southern Sweden. Indeed until 1973 the King of Sweden was also styled as the King of the Goths. But can any of that explain why kids in black still identify as goths?
Since prehistory, cinnabar (mercury sulfide) has been sought after for its brilliant red-orange hue. Crushed into a pigment, this mineral becomes vermilion, and it is one of history’s great colors. The bright red-orange of vermilion is unmistakable and takes pride of place in many—maybe most–of the great paintings created prior to the introduction of modern cadmium paints. The villa of the mysteries in Pompeii was painted with vermilion. Medieval illuminators made extensive use of vermillion to color the bibles, codexes, and prayer books of the times.
In the 8th century, Chinese chemists discovered how to artificially synthesize cinnabar. The alchemists of medieval Europe mastered this trick later in the 12th century (after which both painting and chemistry made great strides forward). The brightest reds in the great masterpieces of Renaissance art are vermillion as are the brightest reds in the masterpieces of Baroque, Rococo, and Romantic painting.
Because of its high mercury content cinnabar is very toxic to humans. People affected by mercury poisoning develop tremors, violent mood swings, and tunnel vision. They lose first their hearing, then their eyesight, and ultimately their sanity and lives. The Romans knew these problems were associated with cinnabar mining and so they sent criminals and war slaves to man the mines of Spain and Slovenia. Such wretches had an average life span of only three years.
Because of its magnificent red color, and because it could be refined to yield liquid mercury (which was regarded as a magical regent of life) cinnabar was thought to be one of the keys to the fabled elixir of life. Taoist charlatans and magicians made extensive use of raw cinnabar for allegedly rejuvenating cups, trinkets, and potions. Contrasting this paragraph with the one prior to it yields an obvious irony: the magical life giving elixirs quaffed by Taoist mystics were toxic. Many Chinese emperors, aristocrats, and elites probably greatly shortened their life by becoming too enamored with the deadly beauty of vermilion
In medieval art, hell was frequently portrayed as the flaming gullet of a terrible monster. This image of the literal mouth of hell never exactly appears as such in the bible and it has been speculated that the iconography derives from pre-Christian pagan mythology. Perhaps the poisonous all-devouring maw of the Fenris wolf was transformed into the flames of damnation due to the words of early Christian proselytizers (who sometimes incorporated pre-existing ideas into their teachings). Since the imagery originated in England first before becoming standard throughout Western Europe, it has been posited that the hellmouth concept originated in the Danelaw—the Norse settlements of England.
Whatever its origin, the picture of tiny naked sinners imprisoned and tormented inside of a huge merciless hellmouth is one of the most vivid images from gothic art. The images which I have embedded in this blog post all came from a single book of hours which was created in Utrecht, around 1440. The prayer book was once a treasured possession of Catherine of Cleves, who was the wife of Henry, Duke of Guise. The Duke, a powerful and important nobleman was assassinated on the orders of Henry III during the War of the Three Henrys. Catherine never forgave the French monarch and it is believed her support was instrumental to the king’s own death at the hands of a crazed assassin-monk. It is interesting to imagine her eyes running over the burning sinners as she plotted the death of kings and fed fuel into the fires of the religious wars of France.
The book was divided up in the nineteenth century, but, through good fortune (and thanks to large sums of money trading hands) it is now completely in the possession of the Morgan Library and Museum. Going to the fine online site allows one to examine the book in great detail and gain many insights into day-to-day life in the fifteenth century (and get a taste of the larger zeitgeist).