Apr 17

April 17: Light on the “Dark Ages”

Pope Benedict III (d. 858):
The Dark Ages

It was on this date, April 17, 858, that Pope Benedict III died in Rome, having served two years and 252 days. He had been elected in 855, but the Emperors Lothair I (795-855) and his son Louis II (825-875) preferred an ambitious cardinal named Anastasius (Anastasius Bibliothecarius; c.810-c.878). Consequently, there was a power struggle. The issue was decided in favor of Benedict, and Benedict was magnanimous enough not to have Anastasius killed or excommunicated. Indeed, the antipope outlived three papacies.

The period in which Benedict lived is known popularly as the Dark Ages, and the dark fact is that, from about 500 to about 1000, when the pagan epic Beowulf appeared, not a single piece of literature was written that anyone but a medieval scholar reads today. The age of cathedrals was nearly 300 years in Benedict’s future and the Renaissance a distant dream. And it won’t do to say that the age only appeared dark because there is little documentary history on which to judge it: that’s precisely the point! That respectable modern historians shy away from the term Dark Ages, or Dark Age, may be true—if they desire respect from only the clergy and disrespect history honestly told: the term Sæculum obscurum (Latin for “Dark Age”) was coined by a Catholic historian, Cardinal Caesar Baronius (1538-1607).*

Benedict was no great scholar, and his three-year custody of the keys of Saint Peter was unremarkable but for his efforts to curb the excesses of the likes of a powerful subdeacon named Hubert. And in this we get a window into the barbarity of Europe in the age. Writing to all the archbishops and bishops of France, Benedict said:

…we hear that the cleric Hubert … is sunk in such filth that he has no share in eternal life. … he does not scruple to spend his days with actresses, women who ruin souls and bodies and drag them down to the lowest depth … and that he is for ever committing murders and adulteries, vile fornications and intolerable outrages. And not only this but we have many witnesses that he has debauched the monastery of St. Maurice … The resources that once supported servants of God are now squandered upon whores, hounds, hawks and wicked men.

Was Hubert’s conduct uncommon? In fact, he was a member of one of the highest noble families in France and brother of the Queen. Monk-chroniclers of the time tell us that half the prelates were what you might call “worldly”—more interested in gold and girls than God—so much so that statutes had to be passed barring clerics not just from having female housekeepers: these housekeepers could not even be a mother, a sister or an aunt! Indeed, there were stories circulating about Hubert’s less-than-holy relationship with his royal sister!

Benedict’s successor, Nicholas I (later a “saint”), who occupied the chair of St. Peter from 858-867, tried to use forgeries to expand the power of the Papacy—the Pseudo-Isidorean (i.e., Forged) Decretals—and was stopped only by the scornful repudiation of Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims. After Nicholas came what Cardinal Baronius called the “Rule of the Whores”—modern historians call it a “pornocracy”—directed by what the polemicist Bishop Liutprant of Cremona called “two voluptuous Imperial women.” These were Theodora (“a shameless whore… [who] exercised power on the Roman citizenry like a man”) and her daughter Marozia (who “ruled the papacy of the tenth century”).** After taking some as lovers, these two installed and removed popes at will, engaging freely in intrigue, nepotism, betrayal and murder. Theodora died most probably by poisoning in 916; her daughter Marozia died in prison in 937.

But back to Benedict III. He was said to have been the successor of the legendary “Pope Joan” (in fact, he followed “saint” Leo IV) although the story has more satire than sincerity to it. And you might conclude that even the existence of such a story is a sign of the times—the times being semi-barbaric, with 95 percent illiteracy, 90 percent bound to the land in serfdom, scant trade, brutal torture (including removal of eyes, ears, tongues, hands, feet, breasts, genitals and so on), coarse culture. And, of course, everybody went to church. The century following the death of Benedict saw the demise of 25 popes. Unlike many of them, Benedict died of natural causes.

* Cardinal Baronius coined the term in his Annales Ecclesiastici, Vol. X. Roma, 1602, p. 647. ** Bishop Liutprand of Cremona, Antapodosis c.950. Additional material is borrowed from The Criminal History of the Papacy, by Tony Bushby, extracted from Nexus Magazine, Volume 14, Number 1, (December 2006 – January 2007)

Originally published April 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Permanent link to this article: http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=1930

Apr 15

April 15: Emma Thompson (1959)

It was on this date, April 15, 1959, that British actor, screenwriter and author Emma Thompson was born in Paddington, London, England, into a family of actors. At Newnham College, Cambridge, Thompson she became the first female member of the Footlights troupe. She won her first film role in 1989 in The Tall Guy. That was the year she married fellow actor and director Kenneth Branagh. They performed Shakespeare together on stage—A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear—and on screen, with Branagh directing her in Henry V (1989) and Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Thompson would appear again with Branagh when he directed her in the 1991 mystery, Dead Again and the 1992 comedy Peter’s Friends. Thompson captured English reticence in the 1990s: in the Merchant-Ivory film Howard’s End (1992) and the E.M. Forster adaptation, The Remains of the Day (1993), as well as in the film she adapted from the Jane Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility (1995). Thompson went on to star as a campaigning lawyer alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in 1993’s In the Name of the Father, a goofy doctor alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in the 1994 comedy Junior and in her biggest commercial success, Love Actually (2003), alongside Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley, and Colin Firth.

Thompson received high praise for the 2001 Mike Nichols-directed HBO TV-movie “Wit,” in which she played a Harvard University professor diagnosed with ovarian cancer, who finds her values challenged. Returning to HBO two years later, Thompson appeared in three small roles for the 2003 TV mini-series “Angels In America,” about the AIDS epidemic in Reagan-era America. She wrote and played the title role in the children’s films Nanny McPhee (2005) and Nanny McPhee Returns (2010), appearing as well, as professor Sybill Trelawney, in two Harry Potter films: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007). For her versatility and sensitivity, in a wide range of roles, Thompson has been cited as one of the greatest British actresses of her generation.

To her acting and writing credits should be added credit as activist: for being a supporter of Greenpeace, ambassador for the charity ActionAid, a patron of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and Refugee Council and for having been a member of the British-based ENOUGH! Coalition, seeking an end to the “Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.” As well as being outspoken on religion as well as politics, the environment and human rights, Thompson has been outspoken on religion, as well. Although she has said, “The guiding moral principles, the ethical principles, much of the philosophy [of the Christian tradition], if properly applied, is very good,” Thompson maintains that it is Christianity’s treatment of homosexuals that made her question religious faith, saying, “I was brought up, partially, by these remarkable, intelligent, wonderful men, and they made me consider and question all moral systems from a very young age,” she explained in an interview with The Advocate. “They were the reason I rejected Christianity outright, because it said that homosexuality wasn’t allowed. I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous! It’s perfectly normal, so what do you mean it isn’t allowed?’”

It was in a 15 October 2008 interview in The Australian, that Emma Thompson said, “I’m an atheist; I suppose you can call me a sort of libertarian anarchist. I regard religion with fear and suspicion. It’s not enough to say that I don’t believe in God. I actually regard the system as distressing: I am offended by some of the things said in the Bible and the Qu’ran, and I refute them.”

Permanent link to this article: http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=7830

Apr 08

April 8: Yip Harburg (1896)

It was on this date, April 8, 1896, that American popular song lyricist Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg was born Isidore Hochberg (Yiddish איסידור הוכברג) on the Lower East Side of New York City—into a Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox Jewish family that had emigrated from Russia. Best known as Edgar “Yip” Harburg, he attended high school and became friends with another future lyricist and freethinker, Ira Gershwin. After going deeply into debt following the stock market crash of 1929, Harburg collaborated with new friend Jay Gorney for musical revues on Broadway. The most memorable lyric, from Americana in 1932, was for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” which became a kind of anthem for the Great Depression. Other popular songs included “April in Paris” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Hollywood called later in the 1930s and Harburg collaborated with composers such as Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Jerome Kern, Burton Lane and Jule Styne. His signature lyrical achievement was for The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, which won him the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Over the Rainbow.” The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the American Film Institute (AFI) judged Judy Garland’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” as the Number One recording of the 20th century.

While Hollywood was scared of Joseph McCarthy’s inquisition about liberal politics, Harburg could let his social conscience run free on Broadway. “The House of God never had much appeal for me,” Harburg once said. “Anyhow, I found a substitute temple—the theater.” Harburg believed people should be guaranteed basic human rights, political equality, education, economic opportunity and health care. His musicals included Bloomer Girl (1944), about temperance and women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer and Finian’s Rainbow (1947), with its groundbreaking integrated chorus line and the songs “Old Devil Moon” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” The writer of the lyric for the 1937 song “God’s Country,” who never joined the Communist Party, was nevertheless blacklisted from Hollywood from 1950-1962. Harburg’s lyrics satirized the hysterically anti-communist sentiment in the U.S. in the short-running 1951 musical Flahooley.

Yip Harburg was not shy about satirizing popular religious beliefs, as well. Here are some selections from a collection called Rhymes for the Irreverent

Poems are made by fools like me, 

But only God can make a tree;
And only God who makes the tree 

Also makes the fools like me.
But only fools like me, you see, 

Can make a God, who makes a tree.

No matter how much I probe and prod,

I cannot quite believe in God;

But oh, I hope to God that He

Unswervingly believes in me.

“A Nose Is A Nose Is A Nose
Mother, Mother,
 tell me please,

Did God who gave us flowers and trees,

Also provide the allergies?

“Federal Reserve”

In ’29 when the banks went bust,

Our coins still read “In God We Trust.”

And in a lyric for Cabin in the Sky (1943), but performed by Lena Horne on Broadway in Jamaica (1957), Harburg wrote—

Life is short, short, brother!

Ain’ it de truth?

An’ dere is no other

Ain’ it de truth?

You gotta rock that rainbow while you still got your youth

Oh! Ain’ it de solid truth?

As if there were any doubt about Yip Harburg’s opinion of religion, he gave a radio interview with Jack O’Brian on 21 May 1977, heard on WOR, New York City. O’Brian asked him, “In the abstract, what is your religion?” Harburg replied, “Well, that’s a tough question, but I would say—quickie—that my religion is to make people laugh, and in return, to give me love and I want them to make me laugh and I want to give them love.”

Edgar “Yip” Harburg died of heart failure in Hollywood, while his car was stopped at a traffic light, on 5 March 1981. It would seem his feelings about a life beyond death were influenced by similar words from Mark Twain when Yip Harburg wrote “Small Comforts”—

Before I was born, I seemed to be
Contented with being non-be-able;
So after I’m gone, it seems to me
My lot should be not less agreeable.

Permanent link to this article: http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=7816

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