Twelfth Night

The night of January 5, the vigil or eve of Epiphany, is so called because it is the twelfth night from Christmas, if Christmas is counted as the first. (The Twelve Days are not calculated in the same way everywhere. In some places Christmas is counted making Epiphany the thirteenth day. In England it is particularly confusing because January 6 is Twelfth Day but January 5 is Twelfth Night.)

In England, Twelfth Night had long been a period of partying marking the end of the Christmas season. Masquerading was a common activity on Twelfth Night along with dancing, cross-dressing, and gambling. It was a time of social inversion when a mock king was elected to supervise the misrule. 

By the nineteenth century its reputation of riotousness was working against it and Twelfth Night was losing out to Christmas as the date for festivities. Victorian values were making the season more respectable and domestic. The gender-swapping and role reversals were theatricalized and absorbed by the pantomime where they became harmless family fare.

January 2

About that foreskin. Yesterday’s blog post was about the medieval celebration of the Circumcision of Jesus and curious readers may be asking: whatever happened to that particular prepuce? Thereby hangs a tale.

While the bodies of Christian saints have yielded thousands of relics, the bodies of Christ and the Virgin Mary, both of which were taken into Heaven, are much less productive of remains. The faithful believed that some of the Virgin’s breast milk and hair were preserved for veneration and that drops of the blood of Jesus at his crucifixion had been saved, but the only body part of Christ that was available as a relic was his foreskin.

How it came to be safeguarded is told in a pseudo-gospel called the Arab Infancy Gospel from the fifth or sixth centuries: And when the time of his circumcision was come, namely, the eighth day, on which the law commanded the child to be circumcised, they circumcised him in a cave. And the old Hebrew woman took the foreskin (others say she took the navel-string), and preserved it in an alabaster-box of old oil of spikenard. And she had a son who was a druggist, to whom she said, “Take heed thou sell not this alabaster box of spikenard-ointment, although thou shouldst be offered three hundred pence for it.” Now this is that alabaster-box which Mary the sinner procured, and poured forth the ointment out of it upon the head and feet of our Lord Jesus Christ, and wiped it off with the hairs of her head.

In the year 800 the Frankish emperor Charlemagne gave the relic to Pope Leo III, telling him that he had received it from an angel. It was preserved in Rome until the city was sacked by Germans in 1527 when it was stolen. The Italian village in which it was recovered kept the foreskin in its reliquary until it disappeared either in 1945 or 1983.

But fear not, because as many as 18 other foreskins of Christ were said to be in circulation during the Middle Ages, though none now can be found. The Catholic Church eventually grew weary of celebrating the Feast of the Circumcision and removed it from the church calendar.

December 26

A devoted reader has asked me about the motto of this website: “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” The phrase comes from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun and refers there to the weight of guilt and experience we carry with us, inescapably, through life.

For historians, particularly those interested in the history of culture and ideas, it takes on a slightly different meaning because we know how closely we are linked to events, artefacts, symbols, styles, stories, practices, and technologies of the past. They are all around us in our everyday lives though they are seldom noticed.

When I taught the history of Western Civilization I always played the following clip from Life of Brian in which the revolutionary Reg, leader of the People’s Front for Judea, learns that his culture owes a lot to the Romans. And so do we. As we have debts to the Greeks. And the Anglo-Saxons. And the Normans. And the Chinese. Even that murderous scabby crew, the Vikings influence us today. 

A lesson for students of history.

Our architecture, language, literature, art, music, religions, dress, etc., etc., etc., are saturated in the past. We plunder the stories told by our predecessors for our entertainments: Norse sagas, Greek myths, Germanic epics, Regency novels, Egyptian religion fill our screens. Our technologies are built on thousands of inventions and insights of our ancestors – Indian mathematicians, Polish astronomers, Cistercian monks, Franciscan scientists, Muslim physicians. The foods we eat come to us from around the world, first cultivated in the Andes, Persian orchards, Indonesian islands, Mexican jungles, or the Ganges delta. 

In our political systems, why do we speak of republics? Why is the American upper house called a Senate? Why did Charlemagne (a Germanic king originally named Karl) and Napoleon dress like a Roman emperor? Why did Hitler and Mussolini adopt Roman symbols? Why did the Turkish sultan call himself the Kayser-i-Rum, the Roman Emperor? Why was the Canadian Parliament built to resemble a medieval cathedral? Why were our banks, libraries and public buildings built to resemble Greek temples?

Because the past matters. We breathe it in every day; we wear it, eat it, read it, watch it, work in it, and hang it on our walls. That’s why being a historian is so much fun.

December 25

Merry Christmas, everyone. Or as they say in some Celtic parts of the British Isles: Blythe Yule!

I thought I might include a few curious Christmas facts to enlighten your journey through this sacred and festive season.

Let’s begin with The Pooper, or the “caganer” as he is known in northeastern Spain.  In the Catalonian region it has long been the custom to place in every nativity scene a caganer, the figure of a red-capped peasant who has dropped his drawers and is in the act of defecating. This has been the case since at least the sixteenth century and is probably some sort of fertility symbol, though now retailers have got into the act and will happily sell you a figurine of a pooping pope, politician, soccer star or actress. In 2005 the administration of Barcelona committed an outrage on public decency by failing to include a caganer in the city’s official nativity scene. Many saw this an affront to Catalan customs and thus a not-so-subtle attack on demands for greater political autonomy in Catalonia. The government said this was not the case at all but that the city had just passed ordinances banning public urination and defecation which made the caganer a bad example for urban hygiene. A “Save the Caganer” campaign was launched with wide media support and the next year the official pooper was back on the scene.

As well as being the Feast of the Nativity, December 25 is also sacred to the memory of St. Anastasia. She was a Christian martyr, legendarily a noblewoman noted for her kindness to the poor and martyred on December 25 in Diocletian’s persecutions of the late third century. By the fifth century her cult was well-established in Rome with devotions centred on the Church of St Anastasia (which may have been named after the Greek word for resurrection). Though her popularity diminished in the Middle Ages, she is commemorated in the second of the three Christmas masses celebrated by the pope every Christmas morning in the church of St Anastasia.

You might wonder if Santa Claus really has a wife. As a bishop Saint Nicholas was, of course, celibate but his spiritual descendant Santa Claus has at various times and places been blessed with a spouse. Katherine Lee Bates, author of “America the Beautiful”, spoke of her in the 1889 story “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride”. There she asks

Santa, must I tease in vain, dear? Let me go and hold the reindeer,/ While you clamber down the chimneys. Don’t look savage as a Turk!/ Why should you have all the glory of the joyous Christmas story,/ And poor little Goody Santa Claus have nothing but the work?

In Finland she is known as Mother Christmas; in Austria she is the Nikolofrau and has the reputation of being a bit shrewish. In Switzerland she goes by the name of Lucy while in the Netherlands she has been known to answer to Molly Grietja.

Words matter

There has been much talk recently about what constitutes a genocide. President Trump has opined that the atrocities visited on the Armenians by the Turks a century ago did not fit his definition of the term and a Marxist professor at the University of Alberta claimed that the reports of deliberate mass starvation in Ukraine under Stalin were merely Nazi and capitalist propaganda. This is a piece I wrote for the the Frontier Centre for Public Policy on the subject.

If you are an activist who wants to persuade your fellow citizens of the correctness of your views, the first thing you should do is take control of the English language. Change the meanings of words so that your enemies can be accused of any crime and your side can always claim the moral high ground. 

Here is a good example. “Racist” used to mean someone who held nasty views about other people because of their racial ancestry. It is a terrible accusation which no one wants to be on the receiving end of, so you must be sure that it applies only to people you disagree with. You now define racism to be a sin that can only be committed by white people. You now accuse anyone who wishes to discuss immigration as being a racist. When, over time, that term gets to be shop-worn because you have pretty much accused everybody of it, you switch to “White Supremacist”. So, in our last election you tell Canada that all members of the People’s Party of Canada (even the Afghani refugee candidate in my constituency) are white supremacists. It works.

The same applies to terms such as “sexual assault” or “sexual harassment” whose borders are now so ill-defined that they can apply to conduct ranging from rape and gross indecency to putting up an auto-parts calendar with a pretty girl on it. 

What about “holocaust”? That word moved from meaning a burnt offering to the calculated massacre of millions of Jews and non-Aryans at the hands of Nazis, but which now can be used, for example, by vegans who speak of “the Holocaust on your plate”, or open-border enthusiasts who liken illegal immigrant detention camps to Auschwitz. 

And so it is with genocide, which most users of the English language would say was a word to describe a deliberate attempt to wipe out a whole people. History is replete with such atrocities which have been committed by people of every race on every continent. The most egregious misuse of that term is committed by Canadian aboriginal pressure groups who claim that the Canadian government carried out a “cultural genocide” in its residential schools and that the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls amount to “genocide.”

Let me tell you what a real genocide looks like. “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.” Signs to this effect appeared in the Soviet Ukraine during the Stalinist era in the early 1930s. They were necessary because the communist government had created a man-made famine so devastating that millions starved to death in 1932-33. 

The USSR was no stranger to mass starvation. Lenin’s policy of “war communism” in 1918-21 had crushed private economic production and mandated confiscation of “surplus” grain from the peasantry. The result was a massive drop in the food supply and widespread starvation that necessitated accepting foreign aid from the hated West. A switch to the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the later 1920s encouraged peasants to keep some of their production with the result that granaries were full again. Learning nothing from this, Joseph Stalin instituted a set of economic reforms that collectivized agriculture which once more brought about peasant resistance and shrunken food production. 

In 1931, a bad harvest forced the government to institute rationing and order the forcible seizure of peasant food stocks to feed the urban proletariat. Stalin, fearing a nationalist movement and despising the notion of a prosperous class of farmers, seems to have seized this opportunity to bring Ukraine more completely under his thumb. Hundreds of thousands of productive agricultural workers were shipped to Siberia, or conscripted for work in heavy industry, unrealistic levels of food confiscation, which included farm animals as well as grain, were set for Ukraine, Communist party officials relentlessly hunted for hidden food caches, and grain continued to be shipped out of the country for foreign cash as the people began to starve. The very possession of food was tantamount to a crime. Villages which failed to meet the production quotas were put on a blacklist with death by starvation or typhus a certainty. The life expectancy of a boy born in Ukraine in 1933 was less than 7 years but Moscow refused to alleviate the situation or accept the outside aid which was offered. 

For internal consumption, Stalin blamed “saboteurs” among the peasantry and hidden enemies in the Party itself – special tribunals were set up to try and execute the traitors. For public opinion in the rest of the world, Stalin denied there was anything amiss, bringing in British and American leftists to testify what they saw in the well-stocked hotels of Kiev.

In his grim masterpiece The Bloodlands, historian Timothy Snyder sums up the effect: The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did. 

This is what genocide looks like.

November 8


Julian of Norwich, English mystic is born. The author of Revelations of Divine Love, the first published book in English written by a woman, was a religious recluse whose true name is still unknown. In the 1370s she began to experience visions whose meanings she explored in a series of books. Her view of God focused primarily on His loving nature: “God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall.” Recent scholarship (Denys Turner’s Julian of Norwich, Theologian) takes her seriously as a thinker.


The birth of Vlad III, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Drakul, aka Dracula, prince of Wallachia. Though known in folklore for his extreme cruelty and for his inspiration for Bram Stoker’s literary villain, Vlad is renowned in the Balkans for his defence of Christian lands against Turkish Islamic expansion. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman emperor Mehmet the Conqueror attempted to complete the Muslim conquest of southeastern Europe. Vlad refused to acknowledge Turkish overlordship or pay the jizya tax imposed on Christian subjects. His armies inflicted a number of defeats on the Turks before he died in battle in 1476.


Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,/With loss of Eden, till one greater Man/Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, Sing Heav’nly Muse . . .

John Milton, English writer, dies. Though his reputation as a poet had been in the making before the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, his work during the Puritan Commonwealth was of a polemical nature. He argued for the legitimacy of Christian divorce, for free speech (Areopagitica) and for the right of a people to overthrow a tyrannical ruler (On the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates). His blindness, which became total in 1654 did not prevent him from continuing his political writings or his poetry (see his sonnet “On My Blindness”). The restoration of the monarchy forced him into hiding for a time but he managed to live peacefully until his death. In 1667 he published Paradise Lost, the epic poem on the Fall of mankind. Milton’s standing as a literary figure has always been controversial. C.S. Lewis was a fan; T.S. Eliot was not. Curious readers unwilling to attempt an ascent on the summit of Paradise Lost might try his Christmas poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: “See how from far upon the Eastern road/ The Star-led Wizards haste with odours sweet”.

October 25

1938 An archbishop denounces “swing music”

Churches have always been ambivalent about dance music, some clergy fearing it is the devil’s tool, an incitement to lascivious behaviour; some have made use of dance music in liturgy and in Christmas carols. The waltz, where a man and a woman hold each other in their arms and sway rhythmically, was denounced in the 19th century. The bishop of Santa Fe condemned dances as “conducive to evil, occasions of sin, [providing] opportunities for illicit affinities and love that was reprehensible and sinful.” In 1938, Francis Beckman, the Catholic Archbishop of Dubuque campaigned against “swing music”.

Beckman (1875-1948) was no stranger to controversy. He was an isolationist in foreign policy and a supporter of the radical priest Father Charles Coughlin whose radio broadcasts beamed antisemitic messages to millions in Depression-era America. He believed that calls for the USA to oppose Hitler were a communist plot. In October 1938,  in a speech to the National Council of Catholic Women, he launched a crusade against contemporary dance music which he termed  “a degenerated musical system… turned loose to gnaw away the moral fiber of young people”. “Jam sessions, jitterbugs and cannibalistic rhythmic orgies occupy a place in our social scheme of things,” said the archbishop, “wooing our youth along the primrose path to Hell!” He went on to say that though the Church was zealously trying to promote and preserve the best of modern art, swing music was among “the evil forces … hard at work to undermine its Christian status, debauch its high purposes and harness it to serve individual diabolical ends.”

Archbishop Beckman’s career was curtailed during the Second World War when it was discovered that he had borrowed money in his diocese’s name to invest in a shady gold mine scheme. He was allowed to retain his post but all decisions were left in the hands of a coadjutor bishop.

Over Niagara Falls

Doing dangerously silly things is usually the province of men, who for hormonal reasons are much more prone to teasing alligators, climbing icy mountains and trying to go fast in a rocket-power shopping cart.

Imagine the surprise of the world, therefore, when on October24, 1901 an elderly woman climbed into a barrel constructed of oak and iron and padded with a mattress and floated down the Niagara River toward the famous falls. Annie Edson Taylor, on her 63rd birthday, clutching her lucky heart-shaped cushion, was the first person to survive a trip over the mighty cataract.

Her motive was financial but she made little money from her perilous drop, especially after her manager ran away with her barrel.

Of her stunt she would say: “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat … I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.”

October 21

1096 The End of the People’s Crusade

In 1095, Pope Urban II summoned the princes of Europe to form an army to journey to the eastern Mediterranean and do battle with Islamic armies threatening the Byzantine Empire and occupying the Holy Land. Thousands of nobles and knights heeded the call and took part in what is known as The First Crusade or the Princes’ Crusade. At the same, millennial crazes were obsessing the common people of western Christendom who felt that they too had a part to play in liberating Jerusalem. Listening to itinerant preachers such as Peter the Hermit, tens of thousands of ordinary folk, peasants, soldiers, minor nobility, men women and children formed into columns and set out for Constantinople.

On the way, the People’s Crusade proved to be an ungodly menace. They perpetrated anti-Semtic massacres in the Rhineland, extorted food and supplies from the towns they passed through and attacked Byzantine garrisons who were astonished at the arrival of these motley forces. In August 1096 perhaps as many as 30,000 of these folk, drawn from Germany, Italy and France, reached Constantinople. Emperor Alexius, who had no wish to see them linger and become a worse nuisance, arranged to have them ferried across to Asia Minor, which was largely in the hands of Turks. He cautioned them not to take on Muslim armies themselves but to await the arrival of the heavily-armed knights of the First Crusade.

Once in enemy territory the People’s Crusade broke up into quarrelling factions, some reluctant to advance further, some anxious to start the battles they had journeyed so long to fight. While Peter the Hermit was returning to Constantinople to arrange for more supplies the poorly-armed crusaders engaged in several battles and were routed by Turkish forces, particularly at the Battle of Civetot which turned into a massacre. Only a few thousand made it back to the safety of the Byzantine lines; fewer still would survive the rigours of the remaning campaigns and see victory at Jerusalem in 1099.

October 20

1939 Pope Pius XII attacks Nazi and Soviet war aims

Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli (1876-1958) was elected pope as Pius XII in 1939, having spent much of his ecclesiastical career as in the Church’s diplomatic service. He was well acquainted with Germany have negotiated with its imperial rulers, its democratic regime and its Nazi officials — Pius XI’s encyclical Mit brennender Sorge which condemned Nazi policy was written by Pacelli. His election took place while peace was collapsing in Europe and Adolf Hitler was plotting a continent-wide war. In September 1939, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR collaborated to invade Poland and divide the conquered nation, an act which triggered World War II.

Summi Pontificatus was Pius XII’s first encyclical, appearing on this date in 1939. In it the pope notes the growing strength of the “host of Christ’s enemies” and the outbreak of war. These calamities he blamed on the denial and rejection of a universal norm of morality as well for individual and social life as for international relations; We mean the disregard, so common nowadays, and the forgetfulness of the natural law itself, which has its foundation in God, Almighty Creator and Father of all, supreme and absolute Lawgiver, all-wise and just Judge of human actions. When God is hated, every basis of morality is undermined; the voice of conscience is stilled or at any rate grows very faint, that voice which teaches even to the illiterate and to uncivilized tribes what is good and what is bad, what lawful, what forbidden, and makes men feel themselves responsible for their actions to a Supreme Judge.

Pius XII went on to condemn racism, totalitarianism and the rape of Poland. The Nazi government in Berlin recognized the encyclical as an attack on their policies; in neutral America, the New York Times praised the pope: A powerful attack on totalitarianism and the evils which he considers it has brought upon the world was made by Pope Pius XII in his first encyclical…It is Germany that stands condemned above any country or any movement in this encyclical-the Germany of Hitler and National Socialism. The French air force scattered copies of the bull over Germany.