Tag Archives: History

Rambling thoughts from a morning brain….

I’m trying to finish a paper on Pope Innocent III’s idea of the papacy. It has taken me 9 months, and while I shouldn’t compare it to the pain of giving birth….

OK. But seriously, it has taken a great deal of emotional processing–which for me, means hours of staring at a wall and feeling various unformed thoughts struggle inside me. Only at the very end do I have words.

This is it: Pope Innocent III was a good man. He defended prostitutes, gave indulgences to men who would marry one and get her out of that lifestyle, and (if legends be true) set up an anonymous infant donation center, so that they wouldn’t end up drowned in the river like kittens. He was an idealist and a romantic: and one of those ones who probably cried for those who had lost, especially their innocence. But….he trusted far too easily. And when his grand plans of heroism went terribly awry (e.g. when would-be crusaders lost control of their soldiers who then pillaged/raped/slaughtered)…he commanded, he complained, and when they did not listen, he gave up and compromised with them.

I suppose one can’t condemn someone for failing. But it is still sad.

Also…he corrupted the symbol. Oh, he had the best of intentions, but he innovated the symbol: of what the Pope was. In his teaching, he changed the symbol of the pope, from friend of the Bridegroom (Christ) to bridegroom himself (albeit temporarily and technically only for the city of Rome). That was a very dangerous thing to do. Because symbols are sacred, latent with terrible power (like a nuclear reactor), and generations will reap the fruit of it. And generations did reap the fruit.


When he describes the past the historian has to recapture the richness of the moments, the humanity of the men, the setting of external circumstances, and the implications of events; and far from sweeping them away, he piles up the concrete, the particular, the personal; for he studies the changes of things which change and not the permanence of the mountains and the stars. To recover the personality of Martin Luther in a full rich concrete sense – including of course all that some people might consider to be the accidents and non-essentials – is not only the aim of the historian, but is an end in itself; and here the thing which is unhistorical is to imagine that we can get the essence apart from the accidents; it is to think of Luther in terms of a formula, “the founder of Protestantism”, “the apostle of religious liberty”.

Butterfield, pointing out the point of history is to understand persons.

“There is a kind of awareness that only comes through insight and sympathy and imagination, and is perhaps absent from us when we are too alert for a purely scientific end….It is necessary that we should go with instinct and sympathy alive and all our humanity awake.”

Random thoughts about certain dead males

Once I heard a university teacher say a certain dead white male  “hated women” because he wasn’t pushing for their right to vote, and probably made some chauvinist comments about smart menfolk. It’s the stupidest litmus test for being ‘anti-woman’. So many men who praise women’s brains/equality/freedom, etc and gallantly attack monogamy/motherhood/etc for being ‘oppressive’…..


How do they treat the women in their lives? Those girls freshman year, that they never called back the next morning? The girlfriend who they told to ‘just take care of it’? The driven successful father who drives his crying high school senior daughter to the abortion clinic so that she will be able to enter that Ivy League in the fall as a pre-med, so she can become the successful doctor whose future he has planned for her since she was ten?


How much does it matter that a man made some huffy chauvinist comments and insisted that he could do better math than those womenfolk? What I want to know is….did he give his shoulder to his teenage daughter to cry on? Did his eyes light up when his wife walked into the room after being gone for a week? Did he spend an hour with a comb and a bottle of conditioner, gently pulling apart the bird’s-nest tangles of his  his 3-year-old daughter’s hair?


Verbal admissions to mental superiority are very nice and all. But in the scheme of things, its nothing compared to the other stuff. There are so many more things that modern ‘pro-woman’ men DON’T do. In all honesty, I think alot of the dead males now condemned as “sexist”…well, I dare say their girlfriend/wife/daughter had it ALOT better than the ones of modern progressive guys.


Talk is cheap. Love isn’t.

ill-written College essay talking about meaning of life

One of my (numerous) favorite quotes is from the novel Plague Journal by Michael D. O’Brien. It is winter, and a father and his two young children are fleeing through the wilderness from the badguys. The father is narrating as his children sleep.

Zoe stirs and rolls over. There is ice on her parka hood. Her cute little nose sticks out. I remove my own blanket and cover her, tuck her in. She doesn’t really need it, because she has the 40-below eiderdown…Still, I think I need this fatherly gesture even if she does not. It’s an act that has been repeated billions of times in the history of mankind. Perhaps it is such needless gestures that compose the true history of the world.

History is the story of our race, a summary of the important parts. What really are the important parts? Is it that Queen Isabelle executed her husband Edward II, or that Alexander conquered the Persian Empire? Or is it that an exhausted peon held his sick child through a hot summer night, as he waited for the fever to pass? Maybe the great moments of history are not the first step on the moon and the storming of the Bastille, but a husband and wife apologizing after a nasty fight for the hundredth time. Maybe the real great victory is not the battle of Agincourt, but a peasant family, emaciated, making it through another harsh winter. Maybe the truly great men and women of the human race are the unknown nobodies who plowed and suffered, still sang their grating tunes as they sweated, and still begot children after slaughters and plagues–those unimportant illiterates with their small triumphs who carried on the human race day by day, waiting for the sun to rise the every morning.
…People who kept (and keep) faith, hope, and love from perishing off the face of the earth.

the sun coming up after a dark night, pulling covers over a miserable, hot, tired kid— singing Shema Yisrael,—-the quiet rain pouring over a dry-cracked field, green shoots coming up in a scorched field, rebuilding the broken walls of a village after war, singing their grating tunes as they sweat,—- harvesting a full crop dead tired on a bright cold night,—– the mass mumbled out in slaughtered Latin in a wretched hut,—- husband and wife apologizing after a nasty fight,—– making it through, emaciated and alive, another harsh winter—ordinary people, their small triumphs, men who wait for the sun to rise the next morning.
The real history of this human race—
Their sweat, their laughter by the fire, their sobs on a cold night, waiting for the sun to rise in the morning, waiting for the rains to come down, waiting for the fever to pass, waiting for the crops to grow, exhaustion, persistence, struggling, rebuilding, blood, hope, not despairing, still bearing children and plowing the (rocky) fields, still laughing, still singing their crazy ballads.


This is an essay I wrote in 11th grade, for why I wanted to be a history major. As can be easily gathered from the essay, it is also why I am not one. This wasn’t a very academic desire. (Emotions =/= skill. I find myself weeping over the beauty of /or/ grinding my teeth over the awfulness of historical characters/research/events. And I can’t write papers. I know something isn’t right when I’ve finished doing research for a paper, but I can’t come up with a thesis–but a stream-of-consciousness poem.)


When I was eight, my father started a new tradition of reading to the whole family for an hour before bedtime. He read us fairy tales, science fiction, biographies, and adventure stories: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Day Boy—Girl Night.
I loved them fanatically, though I didn’t understand why. As a kid, my siblings and I would run around the back yard fencing with sticks, blowing on imaginary war horns, fighting desperate battles, and dying selfless deaths. I wished the world had orcs so we could fight them and be heroic.

Then one night my father read us some article in a history magazine. It was about the Alamo.

I cried, sitting on the bedroom floor in my pajamas, overwhelmed. I did not cry because it was sad, but because it was too beautiful. I realized what mattered was not the war horns and banners; it was things on the inside—things that were more beautiful than everything else in the world—and that were inside even boring commonplace people with no swords and capes. Real, normal people could not only be good and bad, but also…too beautiful.

It was strange, but I noticed that the people who were too beautiful were ordinary ones caught in the dark times when there was ugliness, injustice, and pain. But they were different. They were not overcome by it. They did not succumb to bitterness and hatred, something could not be taken from them, despite all the ghastly suffering. People like the POW in the death camp who took a beating for someone else, a middle-aged Dutchwoman in WWII who was sent to concentration camps for hiding Jews from the Nazis, a twenty-four year old facing her death from tuberculosis with courage and without bitterness, the Jews singing “Shema Yisroel” even as the Nazis herded them off. They stayed human when inhumanity surrounded them; they stayed sane in an insane world.

Sometimes my parents would get on a historical topic during dinner. I remember listening, rapt, my heart pumping, trying to soak up every word. I would listen very carefully whenever grownups talked about such things as what humanity had done, why they had done it, and the repercussions, good or ill, which ensued. I heard about the Japanese view of life that drove on the kamikaze, the effects on Korea, what the marines fought for at Iwo Jima, the Bronze Age cultures, why the Romans triumphed and then fell, the conversion of the Vikings, Mohammed’s conquest, Washington’s soldiers marching through the snow.

There is a part of me that so badly wants to learn as much as I can about the human race, both dead and living. I want to know the actions of people, their different beliefs and how it influenced their actions, and the legacy, good or bad, they have left us. I want to understand what has happened in the world and what is happening now–what was at stake then and what is at stake now. The past, like our age, has plenty of bloodshed and pain, and occasionally one stumbles across something (or someone) that is too beautiful.

And then I find myself an eight year old, crying on the floor in my pajamas.


I want to study history, especially the history of the rough times, after the fall of Rome and before the Enlightenment. There is a great beauty in the large sum of history: the masses–the exhausted peons. They were oppressed; they were poor; they didn’t get justice. They plowed the hard dirt: life stayed the same—father like son without hope of betterment. But they still held their feverish kids, and rocked them through the long dark night, waiting for the morning. They held on to the faith: they sweated, cried, prayed, and raised their kids.

the sun coming up after a dark night,
pulling covers over a miserable, hot, tired kid,
Shema Yisreol,
the quiet rain pouring over a dry-cracked field,
green shoots coming up in a scorched field,
rebuilding the broken walls of a village after war, singing their grating tunes as they sweat,
harvesting a full crop dead tired on a bright cold night.

Their sweat, their laughter by the fire, their sobs on a cold night,
waiting for the sun to rise in the morning,
waiting for the rains to come down,
waiting for the fever to pass,
waiting for the crops to grow,

exhaustion, persistence, struggling, rebuilding, bleeding, hoping, not despairing,

still bearing children and plowing the (rocky) fields, still laughing, still singing their crazy ballads.

Someone—the unseen living sap flowing through the wood that keeps the tree alive,
the wind in the branches, cooling sweaty faces, rustling in the trees, harbinger of rain
the melody behind the melody that dives through the folk music,

That kept them from despair, even when the rains didn’t come, and horrific wars dragged on, and the kids burned with fever, while they themselves were powerless.

but still marrying and begetting children, still rocking fussing two year olds, fathers plowing the dry earth coming home to hold their feverish children,
Waiting. Praying. Waiting for the rains to come, the fever to pass, the wars to end, the ravaging hordes to leave. Carrying on, through the golden horde, Black Death, 100 yrs war.
They waited. And carried on. And still sang, towards heaven.

THAT is why I want to study history
Not that that is what I’ll get, of course. We have fragments and pieces: a few half-preserved manuscripts, a few tales, a few ballads, some broken pottery and buried houses, a handful of voices speaking to us across the centuries. Memories, letters, diaries, photographs. And six billion living descendants.

432 A.D.

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same
The Three in One and One in Three.
I bind this today to me forever
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in Jordan river,
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb,
His riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom

I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of cherubim;
The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.
Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility
I bind to me these holy powers.
Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord
—St. Patrick