The Green Children of Woolpit: Anemic Medieval Migrants or Otherworld Abductees?
Who were the Green Children of Woolpit and where did they come from? Speculation has ranged from the story being merely fanciful folklore to extra-terrestrials and everything in between. Over 800 years later, the mystery remains.
During one summer harvest in the middle of the 12th century, during the reign of King Stephen (reigned 1135-1154), villagers from Woolpit in Suffolk, England, discovered a boy and a girl wandering the fields looking lost and bewildered. And they were far from ordinary. Their skin was entirely green, they spoke a language no one had ever heard before, and they wore strangely colored clothing of an unknown material.
The villagers took them to the house Sir Richard de Calne, a local knight who lived at Wykes, 6 miles north of Woolpit. For days the children refused to eat, believing bread and other food they were offered to be “inedible”. At length, someone brought in beans, freshly picked and still in their pods. The children, near starvation, grew excited and examined the stalks, thinking the beans would be inside them. When they didn’t find any, they began to weep. Bystanders then opened the pods and offered them the beans inside. These, the children gladly ate and would eat nothing else for some time after.
It is said that over time they grew accustomed to “normal” food and their skin color gradually faded to a normal hue. The boy ended up dying, but the girl carried on and learned to speak English. She ended up serving in Richard de Calne’s household and later married a man at Lynn; one of the sources even speaks to her character, stating that “she remained wanton and impudent”.
When she was able to communicate how she and the boy had come to Woolpit, her answers only raised more questions.
She said that she and the boy, her brother, came from a land of perpetual twilight, where everything and everyone, were green. She called it St. Martin’s Land since, according to her, the saint was revered there and Christianity was practiced. She also said that they could see a luminous land not far from their own, but separated from them by a broad river.
One day, as they were tending their father’s flocks, they heard a noise, like a bell. They followed it, entranced, into a cavern. They wandered through the caves for some time, eventually emerging close to where the villagers found them – near the “Wolf-Pits”; old ditches from which the town derived its name.
The two were struck by the brightness of the sun and the warmth of the air. They grew afraid when they heard the villagers coming but could no longer find the entrance to the cave from whence they’d come.
The story itself comes from what are generally considered two reliable primary sources. The first is from the Historia Rerum Anglicarum (“The History of English Affairs”), a history of England from 1066 to 1198 and written by William of Newburgh (c.1136 – 1198), an Augustinian Canon at Newburgh Priory in Yorkshire. William makes it clear that despite the story being widely circulated, he was skeptical at first. It was only after he was overcome by the testimony of so many reliable witnesses that he was compelled to believe it.
The second source comes from a manuscript known as the Chronicon Anglicanum, another history of England from 1066, but written by several 12th Century authors. The section dealing with the Green Children was written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died c. 1226), the abbot of a small Cistercian abbey at Coggeshall in North Essex, 26 miles south of Woolpit.
While each account contains minor variations, the whole of the story is the same. What’s more, both mention the testimony of witnesses. Ralph even tells us that his information regarding the girl serving in Sir Richard de Calne’s household and that she remained “wanton and impudent” into adulthood, came directly from Sir Richard and members of his household. This tells us that the story was not one that was merely invented as a fable or folktale, but that something, at least resembling it, actually occurred.
Pages from the Chronicon Anglicanum (The English Chronicle), a history of England from 1066 to 1226 by several authors. The section dealing with the Green Children was written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died c. 1226). Ralph claimed to have gotten information straight from Sir Richard de Calne and his household.
ANEMIC CHILDREN OF FLEMISH MIGRANTS?
The most commonly accepted explanation is that they were children of Flemish migrants who had settled in or around the nearby town of Fornham St. Martin, a center of the local cloth making industry. According to the theory, this would explain their strange language (Flemish) and unrecognizable clothing, as well as their reference to St. Martin’s Land. The broad river the girl mentioned would be the River Lark and their parents victims of persecution either after Henry II ordered Flemings expelled from England in 1154 or after Flemish mercenaries participated in a rebellion against Henry in 1173. And their strange coloration? A form of anemia called chlorosis caused by malnutrition, which is said to sometimes give the sufferer’s skin a green tint.
While attractive, however, this hypothesis does not hold up well under scrutiny.
While there was a significant Flemish settlement in Pembrokeshire, in south Wales, there is no evidence of any Flemish settlement(s) in the Woolpit region at this time. Even if there were a Flemish family or two, the English wouldn’t have seen them as something so drastically different to warrant their reaction to the Green Children.
Likewise, Fornham St. Martin did not become a hub for the cloth making industry until the 14th century. It’s true there was growing trade between Flanders and England. Flemings were renowned for their superior weaving and dying skills and the English for wool. There would have most certainly been some Flemish merchants at the annual trading fairs in the area. But with that being the case, the people of Woolpit and Sir Richard de Calne, at the very least, would have surely recognized the children’s language for what it was. Likewise, the River Lark would have been far too narrow to match the description given by the girl. The date of the 1173 rebellion also places the timeframe outside of the reign of King Stephen; thus contradicting William’s chronology.
It is also highly unlikely they were the children of mercenaries either. Mercenaries do not typically bring their children with them on campaign. In this case, the few who managed to survive the battle either tried to flee but were taken prisoner, were beaten to death by local peasants, or died in some other way. Whatever the case, if they were Flemish, their language would have been identifiable.
Chlorosis was also most likely not the culprit for the children’s green skin color. The green tint that it produces in the skin is both very slight and not the defining characteristic of the malady. It is more pale than green. Ralph of Coggeshall goes so far as to describe the hue of their skin as prassinum colorem (“leek-green”) at one point. The deep green of leeks is a far cry from the slight greenish pallor that sometimes accompanies chlorosis. It is also noteworthy that as a type of anemia (Hypochromatic anemia), the condition would have been caused by an iron deficiency. Since the children were only willing to eat beans for some time, it is hard to see how they would have been anemic since beans are packed with iron.
This explanation also doesn’t adequately explain the twilight conditions and green quality of their “homeland” or why they saw the food they were offered as “inedible”.
BACK FROM THE OTHERWORLD?
Could they have come from the Faerie realm or Otherworld? The description of their homeland certainly implies another “world”. The presence of a river with a bright land on the farther shore recalls the Celtic idea of the Otherworld separated from our own by a great river. The bright land itself bears a hint of the notion that the Faerie world is somewhere in between earth, heaven, and hell. The subterranean passage allegedly taken by the children finds strong parallels in Celtic routes to the Otherworld as well.
Similarly, in myth, legend, and folklore, green is considered the color most favored by the Fae. While faeries are more often described as wearing green, there are references to some being green.
That the children would only eat raw beans may also be an inversion of the idea that visitors to the Otherworld mustn’t eat its food, lest they be trapped there forever. The children’s inability to even recognize normal human food as edible or to think beans were to be found in beanstalks (and not the pods), certainly suggests their point of reference was far removed from ours.
Yet there is no doubt that they were physically human since their “normal” color returned after regularly consuming a regular human diet. This isn’t incompatible with an Otherworldly explanation, however, since Fae stealing human children and leaving a changeling in their place is common in Faerie lore. Ralph of Coggeshall’s description of the girl in adulthood as being “wanton and impudent”, only further hints she possessed a (Faery?) wildness that never left. Could the children have therefore been Fae abductees who found their way back to human society?
Toward the end of William’s account (in his version, the boy dies only after he and the girl tell the story) he tells us, “These, and many other matters, too numerous to particularize, they [the children] are said to have recounted to curious inquirers.” It’s a shame he didn’t record more of these “other matters”. Would they give us the answers to this solve this centuries-old enigma? Or would they only make the tale of the Green Children of Woolpit even more mysterious?
Woolpit Today from www.britainexpress.com/counties/suffolk/woolpit.htm
Clark, John. “Martin and the Green Children.” Folklore, vol. 117, no. 2, 2006, pp. 207–214.
Clarl, John. “"Small, Vulnerable ETs": The Green Children of Woolpit.” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 33, no. 2, 2006), pp. 209-229.
Clark, John. The Green Children of Woolpit. 2018, www.academia.edu/10089626/The_Green_Children_of_Woolpit.
Keightley, Thomas. FAIRY MYTHOLOGY: Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries ... (Classic Reprint). FORGOTTEN Books, 2016.
Patch, Howard Rollin. “Some Elements in Mediaeval Descriptions of the Otherworld.” Pmla, vol. 33, no. 4, 1918, pp. 601-643.
“William of Newburgh: Book One.” Internet History Sourcebooks, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/williamofnewburgh-one.asp#27.
In India there is said to exist and ancient book of astrology that contains information about the past, present, and future lives of millions of people. Known as the Book of Bhrigu, or Bhrigu Samhita, it is believed to give the soul horoscope of anyone who is destined to find it. Written in Sanskrit, some claim that the Book is the physical counterpart of the Akashic Records – an astral library spoken of in esoteric circles that allegedly holds the records of all humanity’s “lives”.
Legend states that it was originally written on palm leaves thousands of years ago by Maharishi Bhrigu, a great sage who assisted Brahma with the Creation of the universe. He intended the book to provide a livelihood for future generations of Brahmins, as only they had the knowledge and training to locate the correct horoscopes on behalf of seekers. The book survived in parts; copied through the ages onto new leaves. But waves of invaders and foreign rule at various times in India’s history meant that it was broken up into parts with no known complete version existing today.
THE BOOK TODAY
The most famous manuscript that currently exists is in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, and is 400 – 500 years old. It had been discovered (or re-discovered) in 1923 by Des Raj, the grandfather of the current family of astrologers/librarians who preside over it. Others are rumored to exist in Dehli, Meerut, Poona, and Benares, but their age is hard to establish since information on them is sparse.
What makes the Book of Bhrigu unique in terms of astrology is that only those who are destined to consult it can find it. While birthdate and place are factors, the most important element in finding a person’s horoscope in the book is the date and time of their arrival to the consultation.
Though scholarly information regarding the Book of Bhrigu is next to non-existent, due in part to the Brahmin families who own parts of the book being unwilling to allow anyone to study it, there are records of people consulting it and walking away astounded at its insight and accuracy. As such, its veracity is attested to by an impressive list of famous Indians, and even some Westerners.
The most publicized encounter with the Book in modern times comes from a 1982 article in Fate magazine, written by David Christopher Lane, Ph.D, Professor of Philosophy and Sociology at Mt. San Antonio College, California. While conducting research on the Radhasaomi Movement in 1978 he heard about the Book, and was invited to consult it by a trusted friend, Swami Yogeshwar Ananda Saraswati, and a local scholar. When they arrived at the “library”, located amid the back streets of Hoshiarpur, Lane saw that the Book consisted of two large bundles of leaves. The astrologers/librarians drew his chart based on birthdate/place and the date and time of his arrival at the library. After 15-20 minutes they found his horoscope-leaf. The first lines read:
“A young man has come from a far-off land across the sea. His name is David Lane and he has come with a pandit [Hindu scholar] and a swami. The young man is here to study dharma (religion) and meet with holy men and saints.”
This presents another interested facet of the Book – that it is precise enough to give names. This has prompted some, such as Vedic scholar Dr. Jai Narayan Sharma, to claim it is a fraud since there are no astrological theories that predicts an individual’s name. Of course, this presumes we are privy to all information and astrological theories from all time.
At this point, he was asked to pay the equivalent of $20 to remove a sin from a previous life. Although Lane says that he wasn’t pressured, he later uses this as an argument to express his skepticism of the document. This is despite claiming complete trust in his friend Swami Yogeshwar and the scholar he went with; who, in his own words had “…unremitting belief in the book's validity, which they claim resulted from their own experiences with its awesome accuracy…”. However if it were a fraud, as Lane suspects, the logistics and coordinated dishonesty involved to set up a scheme to swindle him out of $20 would have been monumental.
Two years later, in 1980, Lane discussed the Book with a Swedish astrologer, Anders Johannsen. Johannsen told Lane that he had consulted it 7 times himself and found it to be authentic and the most accurate astrological treatise he had encountered.
If the Book of Bhrigu is authentic, then the implications are astounding. Certainly, supernatural powers have been attributed to yogis throughout the ages, but the Book would argue strongly in favor of not only reincarnation, but also the existence of, and the ability of people (at least in the distant past), to access other dimensions (e.g. the astral realm).
Anyone going in search of the Book of Bhrigu today would be well advised that countless frauds have sprung up to prey on well-intentioned tourists. It is best to bring along someone who can translate Sanskrit in order to at least confirm that what the “astrologer” is saying is accurate. It’s true that many have tried and failed to consult the Book. But to those who are successful, astonishment and wonder await.
“Bhrigu Samhita.” Encyclopedia.com, updated February 11 2020, www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bhrigu-samhita.
“History of Bhrigu Samita.” bhrigusamhita.co.in/history.htm
Lane, David. “Ancient Astrology: An Adventure with the Bhrigu Samhita in India.” Integral World, April 2013, www.integralworld.net/lane51.html
Tarkovsky, Sacha. “The Book of Bhrigu - See Your Past Present & Future.” Ezinearticles.com, November 28 2006, https://ezinearticles.com/?The-Book-of-Bhrigu---See-Your-Past-Present-and-Future&id=370939.
Vinayak, Ramesh. “Punjab: The Bhrigus thrive on 500-year-old copy of 'Bhrigu Samhita' to draw crowds.” India Today, July 31st 1993, www.indiatoday.in/magazine/offtrack/story/19930731-punjabbhrigus-thrive-on-500-year-old-copy-of-bhrigu-samhita-to-draw-crowds-811330-1993-07-31.
CHARLEMAGNE’S LEADERSHIP RESHAPED “DARK AGE” EUROPE AND OFFERS IMPORTANT LESSONS FOR LEADERS TODAY
On Christmas day 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charles the Great (Charlemagne) Holy Roman Emperor. Under Charlemagne’s leadership, Europe had begun to emerge from the long dead ruins of the fallen Western Roman Empire into something more civilized, at least for a time. Long-standing conflicts were put to rest; learning and trade grew, and the concept of justice become more than a relic. This has led historians to call Charlemagne’s reign, “The Carolingian Renaissance”; and Charlemagne himself, “The father of Europe.” As one of the most successful leaders in history, Charlemagne’s reign conveys lessons for leaders today.
The royal dynasty that preceded the Carolingian (Charlemagne’s) was called the Merovingian. For over 200 years the Merovingian monarchs ruled the Kingdom of the Franks in a political climate of shifting borders, unsteady allegiances, cruel assassinations, and a culture of near constant conflict. Theirs is what we think of when we think “Dark Ages”. More than anything else, the early Merovingian kings were powerful warlords. Yet as time wore on, custom and tradition began to weaken their real power. Eventually they became little more than ceremonial do-nothings. By the end, custom had become so ossified their role that they could neither cut their hair nor their beard and had to ride in an ox-pulled cart whenever they traveled.
Real power came to rest with the mayors of the royal household. This office had been held for several generations by Charlemagne’s family. In 751, Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short (c. 714 - 768) deposed the last Merovingian king, Childeric III (c. 717 – c. 754). With the blessing of the Pope, he became King of the Franks and started the “Carolingian” dynasty. Pepin went on to expand Frankish territory and assist the papacy by acting as its protector against group of barbarians in northern Italy called the Lombards. For this he was given the title, “Patrician of Rome” – which would be passed on to Charlemagne, his son.
When Charlemagne took on the mantle of King of the Franks, he made improvements that not only drastically improved its practices and institutions but expanded his father’s kingdom to the greatest it had ever been (or would be). The successes and reforms that resulted from his leadership altered the face of Europe and made the Medieval Renaissance periods possible.
BE HUMBLE AND LET YOUR COMPETENCE SPEAK FOR ITSELF
By the time of his imperial coronation, Charlemagne had defeated the Lombards (and declared himself their king), expanded the Frankish kingdom to include Saxony and Bavaria, and improved the administration and infrastructure of his kingdom beyond what any of it had known since Antiquity.
Yet Pope Leo’s coronation of him came as an unwelcome surprise to Charlemagne. In fact, Eginhard, his royal biographer, states that Charlemagne so disliked the title of emperor that he would have never entered the church that day had he known the Pope was going to do such a thing. Despite the coronation being against his will, no one could deny that Charlemagne had earned it. His humility in this regard therefore only magnifies the quality of his character and enhances the depth of his accomplishments.
GET THE BEST PEOPLE AND EMPOWER THEM
The office of missi dominici (Envoys of the Lord) was one that began with Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel and was meant to represent the king and ensure his orders were followed. The position lasted a year and those assigned the role were usually sent out in pairs; 1 from the Church and 1 from among the lay nobility. Until Charlemagne they were only used sporadically. Recognizing their potential for information gathering and local influence, however, Charlemagne made them a regular feature in his administration. They were highly effective because they were fully empowered to affect change and set things right.
He granted them greater authority that included the investigation and execution of justice, the enforcement of royal rights, the administration of courts, and the supervision of both secular government and clergy. In order to ensure impartiality, Charlemagne also gave the missi dominici jurisdiction over regions they were strangers to. He also appointed those who were already wealthy enough to not be swayed through bribes. Likewise, their word carried the weight of the king or emperor himself and any violation of their person was considered a violation against the royal family.
BE VISIBLE AND UNPRETENTIOUS
Charlemagne had no permanent capital. Until the last few years of his life, his was a traveling court. It followed a circuit of palaces and estates located at key points in the kingdom/empire. This served a dual purpose. The first was that he could reduce local expenses by not relying on the resources of any one region for too long. The second, and more important, was that it allowed his subjects to see him; and to witness local lords setting the example of paying homage and reinforcing their allegiance to him.
Apart from special occasions, he preferred common clothes. He was not above resolving disputes at any time; even while putting on his clothes and boots. His visibility and unpretentious nature no doubt made him more likeable. This would have inspired a greater degree of loyalty than if he were content to issue commands from the Dark Age equivalent of the Executive Suite.
For generations the nations that Charlemagne ruled over had their own local laws. Charlemagne allowed the national laws to remain intact and even had them codified. However he did enact decrees of his own called "capitularies". These were similar to modern federal laws and dealt with items like military obligations, criminal law, the conduct of clergy, and the authority of the missi dominici.
By allowing nations to maintain their individual laws, the acceptance of capitularies would have been much less onerous. They were designed to improve rather than impose. One example is the capitulary issued in 794 at the Synod of Frankfurt. In it, he introduces a new standardized coinage across his kingdom to facilitate trade: “'these new denarii shall be legal tender in every village, town and market, and shall be acceptable to everyone.”
Had Charlemagne insisted on more direct interference in every aspect of his subjects' lives, internal unrest would surely have followed; making territorial expansion impossible.
INVEST IN LEARNING
Apart from his military and civic achievements what makes Charlemagne had a keen mind and love of learning.
At a time when the sword was mightier than the pen and the overwhelming majority of the population could neither read nor write, Charlemagne required that his officials be literate in order to govern effectively. He also gathered about his court the most learned men of the day and funded a network of monasteries (where most education took place) and even established schools for secular clergy and lay persons.
His efforts resulted in a revival of classical studies and production of manuscripts; without which, few ancient texts would have survived to today. Some scholars even assert that had the monks of this period not so laboriously copied the writings of antiquity, the Medieval and Renaissance periods (and the Modern Era) would not have been possible. He also reformed the style of writing so that it was easier to read; even titling one of his capitularies, On Scribes – That They Should Not Write Corruptly.
On a personal level, he studied and understood both Latin and Greek, and educated his children in the liberal arts – Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy. While he ate, he had the deeds of men of old sang or read to him. This served as both entertainment and learning from past examples of excellence – much like you’re doing now.
After Charlemagne’s death in 814, his empire began to disintegrate. Infighting and the lack of strong leadership such as he provided contributed much to this. By contrast, however, it only highlights how effective his leadership actually was and why we can learn from it today. In short, because it worked.
Burbank, Jane and Frederick Cooper. Empires in World History. Princeton University Press, 2010.
Coupland, Simon. “Charlemagne and his Coinage.” in Rolf Große and Michel Sot (eds), Charlemagne : les temps, les espaces, les hommes. Construction et déconstruction d’un règne (Turnhout, 2018), pp. 427-451., 2018, www.academia.edu/41560329/CHARLEMAGNE_AND_HIS_COINAGE.
Davis, Jennifer R. Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Eginhard. The Life of Charlemagne. Translated by A.J. Grant, In parentheses Publications, Medieval Latin Series, Cambridge Ontario, 1999.
Ganshof, François L. “Charlemagne.” Speculum, Vol. 24, No. 4, October 1949, The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Medieval Academy of America, pp. 520-528.
Tierney, Brian and Sidney Painter. Western Europe in the Middle Ages 300-1475. 5th Edition, McGraw-Hill, 1992.
“Missi Dominici.” Encyclopedia Britannica 1911. theodora.com/encyclopedia/m2/missi_dominici.html.
Do you spend time alone contemplating what Life is all about? Ever worry that it has no meaning? Like your efforts are futile? Like your life has become a prison where the hours and days stretch on and on and on and on...? That might sound like the adult working life to some, but the early Christian desert monks had a name for it: Acedia.
If you’ve never heard of it, it’s probably because not too many people have used the term over the past few hundred years. The modern phrase “dark night of the soul” is close, however. Ever the bane of early Christian hermits and solitary monks, one might speculate that it has made a comeback in our own time; assuming it ever left.
The Desert Fathers of early Christianity were the first to report Acedia as a condition among their brothers and sisters. They were the leaders of early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who exchanged the pleasures of the city for the harshness of life in the desert. By withdrawing from society, they believed that they could become closer to God. Their style of living would give birth to what later became Christian monasticism. While some formed communities, where sharing and working together was the goal, others preferred solitude. These individual contemplatives were the hardest hit by Acedia.
Acedia had both a physical and psychological dimension, and was said to be the worst in the early afternoon – it therefore came to be known as the “noonday demon”. It was viewed initially as demonic since it aimed to cause the monk to give up on their spiritual lifestyle.
Acedia’s physical symptoms included chills, headaches, sleepiness, a bodily heaviness, and an inability to pray. Psychologically however, it was much more devastating. A strong sense of alienation, dejection, and listlessness would lay hold of the sufferer, and cause him to see all of his efforts as futile. He might also become hypersensitive and critical of fellow monks or the monastic way of life in general; believing he could do better elsewhere, with different people, with a new teaching. A species of bitter indifference and indignation would begin to permeate his thoughts. This resulted in a form of spiritual inertia: Either in overzealous efforts at asceticism and work, to the point of obsession (what we would call workaholism), or the inability to focus even on a few passages of scripture (boredom or ennui). The sufferer may also indulge in overeating/drinking, oversleeping, or flipping back and forth between lethargy and nervousness. This is why Acedia would later become lumped under the category of the deadly sin of sloth in the Middle Ages, and depression by psychologists. But neither sloth nor depression really captures the nuances of Acedia.
It was more than both of these actually. Much more existential, as it were. It’s when existence itself gets put on review and there’s little to answer for it. Like looking at life and saying, “Is this all there is?” To which life responds, “Sorry, bruh.” Or worse, doesn’t respond at all.
One website, “The Hermitary”, which deals with the history of hermits and solitaries, cites John of the Cross (1542-1591) (the same who originally coined the term “dark night of the soul”), when he identifies Acedia as an ailment that afflicts mostly newer monks. He reasons that their thoughtful nature, not yet tempered by experience, causes them to have a lower threshold of “non-virtue”. This means that they are less able to tolerate all the nastiness in worldly culture and essentially become disillusioned with their own pursuits as a result.
Disappointed dreamers and idealists everywhere, know just how easy this can happen.
The same site concludes that Acedia is “a personal statement against the contrivances of culture, the hypocrisy of public morality, alienation from the natural patterns of nature and simplicity.”
Does anyone with a conscience NOT feel this way today?
A strong sense of community and fellowship in itself might provide a good enough remedy to this. And it’s why Acedia doesn’t show up all that much in literature dealing with monks who lived in more communal settings. But for the introverted and the overly thoughtful, this was, and is, less of an option.
In a 2005 article for the Harvard Theological Review, Dr. Andrew Crislip advances the hypothesis that Acedia was in fact, a response to the concept of “anomie”. The renowned sociologist Emile Durkheim first introduced anomie in 1897, in his book, Suicide. In societies where individual achievement is heralded as supreme, when an individual feels he or she is unable to meet the standards set by that society they experience anomie. They become alienated and withdraw from “social norms and obligations.” As Durkheim pointed out, this also results in an increased rate of suicide - hence the title of the book.
When placed in the context of the early solitary monks, Crislip argues that Acedia happens as a result of the anomie they felt when, in their solitude, they were unable to reach the lofty heights of communion with God as quickly as they anticipated. Thus, their anomie gave way to Acedia and life’s purpose became as barren as the desert they lived in.
Seen in this light, when we translate anomie and Acedia to today, we see conditions for it are fertile. In fact, as recent as the middle of the 20th Century, Aldous Huxley said Acedia was the primary affliction of his age. And it’s only gotten worse. This is not to imply that there’s been a rise in contemporary populations of solitary desert monks, but rather, with advances in communication technology and the dissolution of traditional sources of community, solitude has become a much more common phenomenon. Meanwhile, the social standards we’re meant to strive for have become ever more artificial and/or hard to reach.
So what’s the antidote to Acedia? Older sources advocate perseverance, courage, and detachment. In modern parlance, one might translate this to the phrase, “keep on keeping on.” The Hermitary, proposes that gratitude for living and consciously altering one’s “threshold for non-virtue, in the ability to seek contentment” might do the trick. One might also consider some honest soul-searching and holding fast to teachings and traditions that are enduring and offer meaning. They do exist, but in the modern “winner-take-all”, disposable, culture we live in, they are largely forgotten or ignored. Regardless, we can take solace in knowing that even though the Noonday Demon has visited countless people throughout history, for those who persist, he eventually goes away.
“Acedia, Bane of Solitaries.” Hermitary, http://www.hermitary.com/solitude/acedia.html
Crislip, Andrew. “The Sin of Sloth or the Illness of the Demons? The Demon of Acedia in Early Christian Monasticism”. The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), pp. 143-169.
Norris, Kathleen. “Got Acedia? Who Cares?” The Washington Post, September 16, 2008. http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2008/09/got_acedia_who_cares.html
Robertus Magnus is the creator of Totally Awesome History. He hold and MA in History, B.Ed, Hons. BA (History and Classics), and a post-graduate Scriptwriting Certificate. He is also the author of "Perduo: Obadiah Emerson in the Place Where Lost Things Go".
How the Reverend Robert Kirk revealed the secrets of the Fairies and how he was kidnapped by them.
This is a true story.
It is a rare occasion, indeed, when a minister of the Faith goes in search of Faeries. Rarer still, is when his purpose is to use their existence to counter the claims of atheists and prove the existence of God and the spiritual realm. Even more exceptional is when that minister is kidnapped by the Fae for his troubles! But that is exactly what happened in 1692 to the Reverend Robert Kirk, Master of Arts, Gaelic scholar, and Minister of Aberfoyle.
A year earlier, in 1691, Reverend Kirk completed his manuscript, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, & Fairies. In it, he reveals the “nature and actions of the Subterranean, Invisible People heretofore going under the name of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies.” His sources were Low-Country Scottish Seers of the Second Sight who for generations were familiar with the comings and goings of this mysterious race of beings. To be sure, the Scottish lowlands were a hotbed of fairy activity throughout history. But until Kirk, no one had sought to systematically assemble fairy lore in a comprehensive and scholarly way. What’s more, the famous folklorist, Andrew Lang, who composed the Introduction to the 1893 publication of the manuscript, notes that if Kirk had conducted his investigations in any other part of Christendom, the charge of witchcraft would be close behind him. Instead, as Lang tells us, “Yet Mr. Kirk of Aberfoyle, living among the Celtic people, treats the land of faery as a mere fact of nature, a world with its own laws, which he investigates without fear of the Accuser of the Brethren.”
Unencumbered of the need for religious subterfuge, Kirk’s work is a glimmering gem of authentic folklore. It represents the only honest investigation into the Fae before the smoke stacks of industrialization would distort our view of them forever. As such, Stewart Sanderson says in his 1964 article for Folklore, “A Prospect of Fairyland”, The Secret Commonwealth is “one of the most important texts in Europe dealing with fairy belief and the second sight.”
The following is what he discovered.
In ages past the Fae were said to live above ground, but with the coming of man, they were driven below. This explains why Kirk identifies them most frequently as, “The Subterranean Inhabitants” since their residences are located underground; most commonly in the fairy hills of the Scottish countryside.
They are a type of being that exists between Man and Angels. He also echoes older traditions that see Fairyland as a third, alternative option to Heaven and Hell. It is not Purgatory, however. To Kirk, the idea of Purgatory was really just the “Secret Republik [sic]” of Fairyland by another name (and given a religious white-washing).
Fairy bodies are “astral” in nature: light and changeable, like “condensed cloud” or “congealed air”. They are able to appear and disappear at will and slip into any “Cranie or Clift [sic]” in the earth where only air might otherwise enter and descend to their underground hill dwellings. Their abodes are “large and fair, and (unless at some odd occasions) unperceivable by vulgar eyes.” They are lit by lights, lamps, and fires that have no apparent source of power.
A fairy’s lifespan is much longer than ours, but they are not immortal. To try and harm them with a human weapon is useless; like trying to split the air with an axe. They are, however, fearful of iron and do their best to avoid it. Mortals who do find themselves in combat with them often find themselves rendered temporarily invisible and transported some distance away.
They are wiser than us since their “brains, being long clarified by the high and subtle air will observe a very small change in a trice [sic]” (instant). Such subtle perception allows them to be able to predict the future much easier than us.
The image of a fairy procession is one that also confirmation in The Secret Commonwealth. This is because they are nomads who change their lodgings four times a year. At these times, the Seers of the Second Sight are sure to attend Church so they may avoid getting assaulted by elf-shot (now thought to be Neolithic flints).
From this, we may conclude that Fairies are not the miniature ballerinas with dainty wings they transformed into during the Victorian period, but rather ethereal beings deserving of caution and respect.
THEIR SOCIETY, SOCIAL CUSTOMS AND BELIEFS
Socially they are organized into tribes and orders and ruled by an aristocracy. Like us, they have “children, nurses, marriages, deaths, and burials”. They also experience “controversies, doubts, disputes, and feuds.” Though they don’t indulge in swearing or reckless behavior, their chief vices are “envy, spite, hypocrisy, lying, and dissimulation [guile].”
For food, some consume “spirituous liquors that pierce like pure air and oyl [sic]”, while others have a fondness for corn. One can only imagine the great celebrations in Fairyland when Moonshine (corn whiskey) was invented! Like witches, they have the ability to steal milk and food at a distance. Some may even attach themselves to individuals and consume the essence of that person’s food. This is why some people can eat as much as they like and never gain a pound.
Surprisingly, they dress a lot like us; taking on the dominant fashions in whichever locale they inhabit. They are “seen to wear plaids and variegated garments in the Highlands of Scotland, and Suanochs [skins] therefore in Ireland.” The quality of their attire, however, is more refined than ours. Kirk is not sure if they use materials and tools as we do or it they make use of “curious cobwebs, impalpable rainbows, [or] a fantastic imitation of the actions of more terrestrial mortals.” Similarly, when they speak, it is in the language of the local country. Their voices have a clear, smooth, whistling quality.
Fairies have no discernible religious beliefs but are said to disappear at the mention of Jesus’ name. They do believe that “nothing perishes, but (as the Sun and Year) everything goes in a circle.” Thus a cosmic view of the Circle of Life seems to lay at the core of their belief systems. Likewise, their books are mostly of an esoteric, mystical nature and often contain charms and counter charms to affect other beings.
INTERACTIONS WITH HUMANS
It could be that the majority of fairies prefer just as much to pay us no mind at all. But Kirk focuses more on those who do. Of these, they are likely than not to be mischievous. What we mistake for poltergeists, for example, are more often fairies having their fun at our expense; though they do so with harmless intentions. It is also said that they are “ever readiest to go on hurtful errands, but seldom will be the messengers of great good to men.” On the other hand, some apparently like humans so much they sometimes become someone’s fairy lover; coming to them at night like succubi.
Their most common crime is the kidnapping of human children (and leaving a changeling in its place). They also kidnap human nurse-maids to feed their children (or those they have stolen), leaving a double of them in human society. Once the faerie children no longer need their milk, the maids are either taken back to the human world or given the option of staying in fairyland. If any of them pry too much into the affairs and mysteries of the fairies, however, the fairies may take offence and strike them blind and dumb. We may speculate that in revealing the Fairy secrets to the world, Robert Kirk met a similar fate as nursemaids who knew too much.
WHAT HAPPENED TO ROBERT KIRK?
On May 14th, 1692, a year after completing The Secret Commonwealth, Kirk took his usual twilight stroll to the fairy hill (Doon Hill) beside his house and suddenly died. Or so everyone thought.
Soon after the funeral, Kirk appeared to a relative and declared that he was not dead. Rather, the body in his tomb was a changeling and that he was in reality, a captive in Fairyland. One hope remained for him to be returned to human society: the relative was to find his cousin, Grahame of Duchray, and deliver a message. According to Sir Walter Scott in Letters on Daemonology and Witchcraft, it was this:
“When the posthumous child, of which my wife has been delivered since my disappearance, shall be brought to baptism, I will appear in the room, when, if Duchray shall throw over my head the knife or dirk which he holds in his hand, I may be restored to society; but if this opportunity is neglected, I am lost forever.”
Kirk’s relatives confirmed that he did indeed appear at the christening, but that Duchray was so astonished, that he forgot to throw the knife over Kirk’s head. Thus Kirk presumably returned to Fairyland to become, as Andrew Lang writes, “Chaplain to the Fairy Queen”.
Lang goes on to say, “Neither history nor tradition has more to tell about Mr. Robert Kirk, who seems to have been a man of good family, a student, and, as his book shows, an innocent and learned person.” For gifting the mortal world a look at what Fairies were believed to be like in their most pristine state, he was taken to Fairyland, never to return.
For the more curious minded Kirk left instructions on how one might see the Invisible People for oneself. But his story comes with a warning: don’t peer too closely or speak too much about what you see or you may find meeting a similar fate, spirited away to Fairyland. Of course, some of us would be okay with that.
Kirk, Robert. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies: A Study in Folklore and Psychical Research. London: David Nutt, in the Strand, 1893.
Lang, Andrew. Comment. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies: A Study in Folklore and Psychical Research. By Robert Kirk. London: David Nutt, in the Strand, 1893. 2-23.
Sanderson, Stewart. “A Prospect of Fairyland.” Folklore, Vol. 75, No. 1, Taylor and Francis, Spring, 1964. 1-18.
HOW GLADIATORS GOT ALL THE GIRLS
The history of gladiators and gladiatorial combat is one that conjures to mind crowds cheering for blood and the armed athletes in the arena who would oblige them. In short, we think of the violence. But outside of the arena gladiators sometimes doubled as husbands and lovers; even to some of Rome’s highest-ranking women.
Gladiators were viewed as belonging to the lowest of social classes: prisoners of war, criminals, and slaves. Even free-born citizens who volunteered to fight as gladiators, called auctorati, were considered little more than pimps or actors, “selling their blood”, as it were [i]. Despite this, as athletes held to the highest physical standards, perhaps in all of history, they would have been paragons of masculinity. As such, they were just as popular in Roman society as modern professional athletes are today; their power over women equally as strong. Girls or women would scratch graffiti on the walls of gladiator schools declaring their love for those who had captured their hearts. Graffiti in Pompeii, for example, identifies “Creces, with his trident, who catches the girls at night in his net” and who is the “lord of the girls”. And “Celadus, the Thracian, who makes the girls’ hearts beat faster”[ii].
Some gladiators took mistresses and even wives. In the gladiatorial school of Pompeii, the bodies of eight men and one woman were found. Expensive jewelry lay next to the woman, allowing us to hypothesize that she was a woman of means engaged in a rendezvous with a gladiator lover [iii]. This, along with other accounts, tells us that female members of the Roman aristocracy were just as vulnerable to their charms as anyone else.
SENATORS' WIVES AND EMPRESSES
One curious case involves a gladiator named Sergius and the wife of a senator, Eppia. Eppia fell in love Sergius and ran off with him to Alexandria. Their story is documented by Juvenal. He begins by asking,
“Was it good looks and youthfulness set Eppia on fire?
What did she see in him to endure being classed with
The gladiators? After all, her Sergius had already begun
To smooth his throat, an injured arm presaged retirement;
And his face was seriously disfigured, a furrow chafed
By his helmet, a huge lump on the bridge of his nose,
And a nasty condition provoking a forever-weeping eye.”
Sergius was decidedly not a looker. Juvenal can only justify Eppia’s attraction to him by saying:
“He was a gladiator, though. That makes them Hyacinthus;
That’s why she preferred him to children and country,
Husband and sister. They love the steel.”[iv]
His description captures what must have been a common sentiment among “ordinary” Roman men at the time – that were it not for the fact that they were gladiators, no one would have looked once in their direction.
Another story involves Faustina, the daughter of Emperor Antoninus Pious (AD 86-161) and the wife of Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180). It was said that she had fallen in love with a gladiator and that she grew obsessed with him. When she confessed this to her husband, he consulted with Chaldean soothsayers on how best to remedy her obsession. They advised him that the gladiator must be killed and that Faustina needed to bathe in his blood. According to the Historia Augustina, “When this was done, the passion was indeed allayed, but their son Commodus was born a gladiator, not really a prince;…[and that] Many writers, however, state that Commodus was really begotten in adultery, since it is generally known that Faustina, while at Caieta, used to choose out lovers from among the sailors and gladiators.” [v] Cassius Dio (AD 155-235) likewise describes how another empress, Messalina, third wife of Emperor Claudius (10BC – AD54), intervened to save a defeated gladiator who was one of her lovers. [vi]
Although we mostly think of gladiators in terms of their activities in the arena, like modern professional athletes, they held a strong appeal to women from all walks of life. Their claim to definitive masculinity (all modern gender theories aside) gave them a halo that many found hard to resist. It also allows us to consider them in a more nuanced light. They were more than just fighters engaged in life and death spectacle. They were the male sex symbols of the Roman world. And they were the ones who got all the girls.
[i] Nossov, Konstantin. Gladiator: The Complete Guide to Ancient Rome’s Bloody Fighters, Lyons Press, 2011, p 148.
[ii] Meijer, Fik. The Gladiators, Thomas Dunne Books, 2004, p 70.
[iii] Nossov, 155.
[iv]Juvenal. The Satires, translated by A.S. Kline, 2011, web.ics.purdue.edu/~rauhn/Hist_416/hist420/JuvenalSatirespdf.pdf, SatVI:82-113.
[v]“The Life of Marcus Aurelius: Part 2.” Historia Augusta, Loeb Classical Library,
1921, penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/Marcus_Aurelius/2*.html, 19.
[vi] Cassius Dio. Roman History. Vol. VII, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1924 http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/60*.html Book 60, 28.
“Toxic Masculinity” is a hot topic these days. A minority even imply that all masculinity is “toxic” and that there’s too much of it. Upon reflection, exaggerated arrogance, aggression, and ignorance are what they really seem to be describing; though these qualities are hardly limited to men. What is clear is that we are experiencing a cultural crisis of masculinity. As traditional values fade and men are increasingly being left without any clear direction of how to be in the world, it begs the question: is there a healthy masculinity? One that is worth saving?
The Romans experienced a similar crisis of masculinity in the 1st Century BC. For them, masculinity was defined by their concept of virtus. Unlike today’s critics of masculinity, they saw the problem as there not being enough of it.
VIRTUS = ROMAN MASCULINITY
Virtus is where we derive our own word, virtue, but the two are not the same. Virtue covers a much wider set of qualities than virtus alone. To the Romans, virtus was among the most noble qualities a man could possess and was often counted as the single most important moral quality that made Rome and Romans superior to other nations and peoples. It represented nothing less than the Roman national character.
The basic definition of virtus is “manliness”, or “the qualities of a man at his best”. In early Roman history, it meant prowess in battle, courage in the face of the enemy, honesty, and self-control. While the military connotation of virtus would remain throughout Roman history, strength of character, readiness for action, and service to the state came to be key qualities of it for civilians as well as soldiers. Further, as the state developed and politicians and orators held greater influence, virtus also came to include courage in the face of shame. The satirist Lucilius (180-103 BC) also tells us that having a strong sense of morality was essential. He writes:
“…[a man should] be an enemy and hater of bad men and bad habits…a defender of good men of good habits or morals, to make much of these, to wish them well, to live with them as a friend, and, beyond these traits, to think of one’s fatherland, then of one’s relatives, and third and last of our own interests.”
In short, there was no room for thuggery in virtus. Rather, it was held as the quality by which a man could face life’s challenges bravely, responsibly, and morally.
Virtus was also not limited to men, citizens, or the elite. Livy (59 BC – 17 AD) tells the “novel” story of a woman named Cloelia who, in 506 BC, escaped an Etruscan camp and led a group of maidens to safety. The Romans later rewarded her with a statue to honor her virtus. Likewise, the paradoxical way Romans viewed Gladiators shows virtus cutting across class. In one sense Gladiators were the lowest of the low: slaves, prisoners of war, or criminals. Even those who voluntarily joined their ranks were held in contempt since they were “pimping their blood”, as it were. But they were also paragons of virtus. The way they courageously entered the arena, the valor they displayed in combat, and their willingness to face death when they lost served as an example of how a man should behave in the face of his duty and destiny.
ROMAN CRISIS OF MASCULINITY, 1ST CENTURY BC
But by the 1st Century AD, however, Roman masculinity, as demonstrated through virtus was in decline. With Roman successes came luxuria (luxury). Sallust (86-35 BC) writes that with luxuria “arose envy, evil ambition, the desire for domination and honors”. This was their “toxic masculinity”; though Sallust believed it was not masculinity at all. He saw in the character of Catiline (108-62 BC) the destination where such moral decay eventually led. In his time, many considered Catiline a demagogue; appealing to the lowest common denominator in society and seeking power through any means. He was accused of murder (including organizing the murder of his wife and son), adultery with a Vestal Virgin, bribery, and eventually treason – he had organized an armed coup to assassinate his political enemies and overthrow the Republic. It was only through the leadership of Cicero (106-43 BC), himself an advocate of virtus, that Catiline was defeated.
The antidote to luxuria was more virtus. Unfortunately, it was in short supply. It had even come to be seen as a little old-fashioned. Sallust identified Cato (95-46 BC), and Caesar (100-44 BC) as exceptions. Cato was a Senator known for his purist morality and strict support of the Republic. And Caesar was, well, Caesar. In a bizarre twist of fate, Cato and Caesar would find themselves on opposing sides in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.
A STAR TO STEER BY
Though it may have been understood as something belonging to an earlier age, virtus would remain as an ideal of masculinity to be aspired to throughout the classical Roman period; only losing steam as Christian modes of thought and values become more dominant. Whether or not they fully lived it, however, virtus gave Roman men a star to steer by.
In this respect, one can see parallels between our present situation and that which befell the virtus of Roman men. With historically undreamed of wealth and prosperity, have we succumbed to the vices of luxuria? Have our own ideals of traditional masculinity such as chivalry, gentlemanliness, and living honorably become too old-fashioned to be practical? As we experience our own apparent crisis of masculinity perhaps we can learn something from the Romans. The answer lies not in destroying traditional masculinity altogether, but in promoting the very best qualities of it.
Bell, Sinclair. “Role-models in the Roman World.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 7, Role Models in the Roman World. Identity and Assimilation (2008), pp. 1-39.
Boyd , Barbara Weiden. “Virtus Effeminata and Sallust’s Sempronia.” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014), Vol. 117 (1987), pp. 183-201.
Buckingham, Timothy. “The Novus Homo and Virtus: Oratory, Masculinity, and the Self-Made Man.” CAMWS Meeting 2014, camws.org/meeting/2014/abstracts/individual/109.NovusHomo.pdf.
Cox, A.S. “To Do as Rome Does?” Greece & Rome, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Apr., 1965), pp. 85-96.
Elliot, Susan M. “Gladiators and Martyrs: Icons in the Arena.” The Fourth R, Volume 29, Issue 5
September – October 2016, www.westarinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Elliott-Gladiators-and-Martyrs.pdf.
Lind, L.R. “Concept, Action, and Character: The Reason for Rome’s Greatness.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 103 (1972), pp. 235-28.
Meijer, Fik. The Gladiators. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007.
Was Merlin the Magician Real?
Perhaps the one figure to have a name in Arthurian Legend as memorable as Arthur himself was Merlin. At various times he has been hailed as a prophet, a wizard, advisor and friend to Arthur, and an archetype of the Pre-Christian Celtic Sorcerer. But was he real?
In truth, it is impossible to say; especially if we are to look for the Merlin described in legend. But we do have a reference in the Annales Cambriae to someone name Merlin (or Myrddin) living in the 6th Century. The trouble is, if we are to accept a relative date of 495ish for the Battle of Mount Badon (where Arthur allegedly halted the Saxon advance) and 520 for the Battle of Camlann (where “Arthur and Medraut fell”), the Merlin that is mentioned would have been far too young to be the long-bearded sage and wizard described in the legends – at least while Arthur was still alive.
Myrddin Wyllt (the wild) (c. 520-590) was a bard at the court of Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio, a Brythonic, pagan king, whose kingdom was located in south-west Scotland near Hadrian’s Wall. The Annales Cambriae tell us that Myrddin fought alongside Gwenddelou at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573. But upon seeing his king and master killed during the battle, he went mad.
After the battle, it is said that Myrddin fled to the forest where he lived with the animals and developed the gift of prophecy. It is also believed by many scholars that it is this Myrddin that Geoffrey of Monmouth based his character of Merlin on.
When we think about it, though, it seems somewhat bizarre that Myrddin, a Scottish bard, should come to be directly connected to Arthur. What was the point? Why not just have him be a legend unto himself, separate from Arthur? Certainly, the exploits of each of them would have been sufficient for them to stand alone.
One possible explanation is that Arthur did have a bard or advisor whose qualities later came to be merged with those of Myrddin. Like all kings and warlords of the time, Arthur certainly would have had a bard to act as a sort of PR man who held an esteemed rank in his court. And it was quite common for kings and chieftains to have spiritual advisors such as priests or missionaries (many of whom resembled wild men as Merlin later did). Likewise, pagan kings would have hosted wizards, sorcerers, or pagan priests in lieu of their Christian counterparts. Often, these men would conduct a sort of spiritual warfare of their own against each other while their lords fought in the flesh. Rodney Castleden, author of King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend, has even suggested that Arthur would have been seen as doubly remarkable if he was a Christian King who had a pagan wizard in his entourage.
Was there someone in the oral traditions that was later identified and merged into the figure of Myrddin? We may never know. But it does beg the question how Myrddin Wyllt, a mad pagan prophet, came to be so strongly associated with a “Christian” King Arthur.
Ashley, Mike. A Brief History of King Arthur: The Man and the Legend Revealed. Running Pr, June 8 2010.
Castledon, Rodney. King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend. Routledge; 1 edition, May 11, 2003.
Morris, John. The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. Charles Scribner’s Sons, June 1973.
Snyder, Christopher. The World of King Arthur. Thames & Hudson; Reprint edition, February 1, 2011.
For hundreds of years people used what were called Commonplace books to help them learn, remember important information, and generally improve their overall knowledge base and intellectual ablities. Here’s the thing. You can, too. Maybe you already do.
Commonplace books were a lot like intellectual scrapbooks where the owner would copy down passages or quotes that they have found interesting or worth remembering as well as, in many cases, their own annotations on the material. This process came to be referred to as “commonplacing”. They were usually organized under various headings and could include anything from recipes to literary passages. But they weren’t notebooks like the kind we keep in school, because they were much more personal. Neither were they diaries since they were much more than the stream-of-consciousness stuff that randomly kicks around in our minds or a record who we had lunch with. Most often they were used as an organized source of knowledge and wisdom the owner could quickly draw upon.
The idea itself originated in the classical period as a memory device for orators. “Commonplaces” were seen as general points of assumed knowledge, discussion topics, or go-to arguments that someone could reference in composition or during a debate, like: “if you work hard you’ll be successful”. Or, “Slow walkers should just stay indoors, ffs!” The Greeks called them Konoi Topoi (general points) and the Romans, Communes Loci. Unfortunately the English translation of commonplaces doesn’t fully convey the idea or what commonplace books would become. More often than not, there was hardly anything “common”, in the sense of mundane, at all about the knowledge they contained.
From there, commonplace books had a long and popular career in the Western World. While they did have some predecessors in antiquity, they really came into their own during the Renaissance. The great Renaissance humanist scholar Erasmus was among the first to zealously advocate for their use as an educational tool, and would be joined by many others who saw their potential not only in learning, but in personal development. Not the least of which was the famed English philosopher, John Locke.
For a time, the commonplace books of learned men were even published for others to derive insights from them. But as the Enlightenment began to take shape in the 18th Century, and anthologies and encyclopaedias became more popular, commonplace books were published less and less as “authoritative” knowledge became less important.
But this didn’t mean they were gone altogether. People still kept them for themselves so that they could take note of and remember anything they deemed personally significant enough to remember. Among some of the historical greats that kept them (in no particular order): Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Henry David Thoreau, Francis Bacon, Jon Milton, Thomas Jefferson, Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson – and that’s only scratching the surface.
Emerson actually summarized what to keep in mind when creating a commonplace book:
“Make your own Bible. Select and collect all those words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you the blast of a trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul”.
And while commonplace books were intended to help their owners remember things for the purposes of writing, conversation, or plain old self-development, the intention behind them was not to simply memorize and repeat what others had said. In fact, by the 18th century, simply parroting others’ words was considered pedantic, impolite, and boorish – #socialmedia.
Adding one’s own annotations and thoughts came to be held as a crucial part of commonplacing. It encouraged thinking on one’s own over just memorizing and repeating what others had said – a practice known helps us memorize and understand material
Unfortunately, as time went on commonplace books began to be used less and less. Their popularity began to dwindle in the 19th century and they effectively disappeared from public consciousness in the early 20th Century.
But here’s the thing, some people still use them, only they might not know they are.
Even though they’ve fallen out of popular awareness, commonplace books are just as powerful a tool as they ever were. If you’re a writer they’re especially invaluable since they can help broaden your knowledge of different topics and give you a more engaging platform from which to compose than you might have otherwise had. And even if you’re not, keeping a commonplace book can help you to have more interesting conversations and deepen your own personal storehouse of wisdom. They can also boost your brain power and memory by helping you to make connections between disparate materials and synthesizing them into your own unique ideas – a skill that neuroscience tells us is being lost in our Internet Age.
Some have tried claiming that blogs or social media are the modern equivalents of commonplace books, but they’re really not. With a physical commonplace book you have essentially, an artifact of your own intellectual growth. It’s like making a mixtape of your mind. And it can make you feel like a wizard. Seriously. Try it.
Commonplace books also show us that many of the brilliant ideas of great thinkers and writers throughout history didn’t come out-of-the-blue, fully formed, but rather that they were a synthesis of ideas they were exposed to and made new or original. By keeping our own commonplace books today, we can do that, too. And with analog making the comeback that it is, it’s time that the world got reminded of the incredible intellectual technology that is the commonplace book. These are just some of the reasons that commonplace books have earned their place on the shelf of Totally Awesome History.
Blair, Ann. “Humanist Methods in Natural Philosophy: The Commonplace Book.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1992), pp. 541-551
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. WW Norton & Company, 2010.
Cave, Terence. “Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structure of Renaissance Thought.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Summer 1997), pp.337-340
Dacome, Lucia. “Noting the Mind: Commonplace Books and the Pursuit of the Self in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Oct., 2004), pp. 603-625
Katsev, Richard D. In the Country of Books: Commonplace Books and Other Readings. Matador, 2009.
Price, Gayle B. “A Case for a Modern Commonplace Book.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 31, No. 2, Recent Work in Rhetoric: Discourse Theory, Invention, Arrangement, Style, Audience (May, 1980), pp. 175-182
When most of us think of the Knights Templar we either think of the secrets they may have held or the military role they played in the Crusades. Less considered, however, is the iron discipline their Rule demanded they exercise in their day-to-day lives off the battlefield. Today, their fierce commitment to it even in peacetime is both extraordinary and mind-boggling.
PRAYERS, PRAYERS, AND MORE PRAYERS
When the Templars were first officially recognized as an Order in 1129, the “Templar Rule” consisted of 72 rules for them to follow. By the mid-thirteenth century, it had expanded to over 700. The Rule demanded that when not training or at war, these “warrior-monks” were to dedicate their days to work and prayer; a lot of prayer. Like monks of other Orders, they were required to observe the Seven Canonical Hours; times of the day set aside for prayer and devotion.
Their day would have started at 4am with the first of these, Matins (Morning prayer). Later would come Prime (First Hour of the day) and the hearing of Mass at around 6am, Terce (Third Hour) at 9am, Sext (Sixth Hour) at noon, Nones (Ninth Hour) at 3pm, Vespers (Evening prayer) at 6pm, and Compline (Night prayer) at bedtime. Silence was then to be observed between Compline and Matins and knights were to sleep with a candle lit to avoid the temptations that darkness could bring.
Meals were eaten 2-3 times a day, also in silence. Only the priest who blessed the meal and the clerk who read aloud from the Bible or the Templar Rule were permitted to speak. Templars were also required to eat in pairs both to save on dishes and to ensure that no one fasted without permission. Since it was important that they remained fighting fit, a number of rules in the Templar Rule were designed to prevent them from indulging in too austere a lifestyle. To that end, unlike other monks, they were allowed to eat meat three times a week and occasionally drink diluted wine before Compline.
In between the hours of prayer and meals, Templars were expected to work. Idleness was not permitted. When engaged in business outside the Temple, they were to bring honor to the Order by being models of holiness, above reproach.
COMMUNAL LIFE OF THE TEMPLARS
Their communal lifestyle and rigid hierarchy also meant that nothing was kept private. When a Knight joined the Order he handed over all of his possessions, including his clothing, and was issued new ones. Since the concept of personal property was discouraged, everything was regarded as belonging to the Temple (as opposed to the individual knight). Templars were not even permitted to trade clothing or equipment without permission. This emphasized the importance of the brotherhood over the individual. Any personal items were to be modest and approved by superiors. Nothing was kept secret. Gifts and letters from relatives were no exception and could not be received or sent or without approval.
Similarly, although they promoted cleanliness (both inwardly and outwardly), permission had to be granted before they could take a bath. In truth permission was required for a great many things. Some others included being bled, taking medicine, and/or riding into town.
STRONG MORAL FIBER – AND NO POINTED SHOES!
What’s more, a Templar’s personal conduct was meant to be free of disruptive qualities such as pride, envy, backbiting, or anything that could lead to discord in the community. The vanity that came from trimming beards or growing long hair was also to be avoided, as was the wearing of pointed shoes and shoelaces.
Having also taken the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, a Templar was forbidden from kissing any women or even looking at them too much. Even his mother, sisters, and aunts. If he was unfortunate enough to succumb to the temptations of a prostitute, his first priority was to ensure that no one found out. If someone did and there was a public scandal, he would be put out of the Order.
Likewise, sodomy and heresy were punishable by immediate expulsion from the Order. Apparently this policy worked. Unlike the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights, the Templars never experienced a public sex scandal or accusations of heresy until Philip IV of France accused them of that and more in 1307; around the same time he realized the Templar wealth would look much better in his own treasury.
Their strength of character also earned them a reputation of honesty and trustworthiness. As the Order expanded at an unprecedented rate, this led to popes, monarchs, families, and individuals, either donated or entrusted their riches to the Templars. As a result, some have compared the Templars as financiers, bankers, and/or investors to modern multinational corporations. The difference, however, was that any profit the Templars made was put toward funding their efforts in the Holy Land.
Individual Templars were not permitted to possess more than 4 dinars, a paltry sum. If they were caught with more, they would be punished. If they were caught with a hoard, they were thrown out. Of course at higher levels, senior Templar officials were known to engage in political intrigue that would not have been permitted among the rank-and-file. In this regard, the comparison between the Order and a modern multinational corporation is even more on the mark.
A TEMPLAR’S DEDICATION
To live the life of a Templar, one had to embrace these and dozens of other rules provided for in the Rule. Looking back, it makes their dedication to the Order and the Rule both impressive and bizarre to our modern sensibilities. And just before you think they may have only taken it seriously when the boss was around, consider the words of an English Templar named William Watson:
“The Rule is the bones of my body, it runs from my feet to my head, and it is in my arms; these fingers… The Rule is my marrow. Am I not also garbed in the Rule, for it tells me what I wear. The Rule is within me and about me. It is my hand when I fight and tells me what my weapons are. Within and Without.”
Barber, Malcom. The Trial of the Templars. Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Bernard of Clairvaux: Patron Saint of the Templar Order. www.electricscotland.com/books/ries/BERNARD%20OF%20CLAIRVAUX%20011713.pdf
Frale, Barbara. The Templars: The Secret History Revealed. Translated by Gregory Conti, Arcade Publishing, 2009.
Newman, Sharan. The Real History Behind the Templars. Berkley Books, 2007.
Ralls, Karen. The Templars and the Grail. Quest Books, 2003.
Wojtowicz, Robert T. Trans. The Original Rule of the Knights Templar. Western Michigan University, 1991, scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2029&context=masters_theses.