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The Long Nineteenth Century began in the waning years of periwigs and knee britches and didn’t end until World War soured everything. In between, it was the age of Victoria, of expansive optimism, of smug colonialism, of scientific, commercial and engineering progress, of George Stephenson, Richard Trevithick, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  

It was also an age of the sacralization of middle-class family life and a sentimentalized ossification of gender roles. Even the queen acted like a bourgeois burgheress. But if women were ever more restricted in their fields of endeavors, they picked up the slack by becoming ever more powerful within those limits. They were, among other things, accorded the authority to run the households, including family finances, hiring and firing servants (even modest middle class families had servants), the dealings with merchants and butchers, and complete oversight of the kitchens. The men might have the offices and streets, but the women were domestic executives. (I am not making the claim this was a fair trade; please don’t shoot me.)

And many seized that power and made good with it. Cookbooks were already ceded to the fairer sex, but most of them wrote a single cookbook and had done with it; in the 19th century, several women upped the ante and turned their cookbooks into an almost industrial level, and became franchises, pumping out books in their names one after the other, as proto-Martha-Stewarts. They became brand names.

Earlier, in the previous century, there arose an appetite for books written for women, either as family cooks, or ladies in charge of a servant kitchen. The first such book was published in 1674 by Hannah Wolley; she was followed by Mary Kettilby, Eliza Smith, Sarah Harrison, Elizabeth Moxon, Susannah Carter, Elizabeth Raffald and Amelia Simmons — the last being the first cookbook author in America. And Hannah Glasse, who wrote the best-selling cookbook of the 18th century. 

The following century begins with books very like those of the previous century. Ages don’t develop their character with the flipping of a calendar page. The first best-selling cookbook of the new century was Maria Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed Upon Principles of Economy; and Adapted to the Use of Private Families from 1806. It was much like its predecessors, but better organized. The book went on for 67 editions, and usually known generically simply as “Mrs. Rundell.” In addition to recipes, it offered advice on how to set up a home brewery, and the usual medical prescriptions and how to give directions to servants. 

The book was first published with only the attribution, “By a Lady.” So many of the cookbooks of the time did the same. In 1810 The Cook’s Complete Guide on the Principles of Frugality, Comfort and Elegance came out, “By a Lady,” who proved to be Esther Copley. In 1827, Copley’s The New London Cookery and Complete Domestic Guide came out, also “By a Lady.” She was a prolific author of children’s books, religious texts and an abolitionist tract, A History of Slavery and its Abolition (1836). She also followed up her New London Cookery success with a series of other cookbooks and household instruction books: The Housekeeper’s Guide, or A Plain and Practical System of Domestic Cookery (1838), Cottage Comforts (1825), The Young Servant’s Friendly Instructor (1827), Catechism of Domestic Economy (1850).

In the new United States, however, the older model persisted: single books by women authors, beginning with American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, “an orphan.” Many of the new American cookbooks were expressions of regional tastes, most famously in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, of 1824. It was republished 19 times before the Civil War and contained some 500 recipes.

Historian Cynthia Kierner wrote of Randolph that she “presented a Southern — specifically, a Virginian — model for Southern readers. … using Virginia produce for dishes influenced by African, Native American, and European foods. the book included recipes for Southern classics such as okra, sweet potatoes, biscuits, fried chicken, barbecue shote (young pig), and lemonade.” 

She also included a recipe called “Dough Nuts — a Yankee Cake.”

She was  born to a prominent Virginia family and when she died in 1828, she was buried in what later became Arlington National Cemetery. 

Chef Jose Andre cites Randolph as an influence and he serves her Gazpacho at his America Eats Tavern in Washington, D.C., and says the recipe “demonstrates just how far back the notion of this country as a cultural melting pot goes.” 

Gaspacho-Spanish — Put some soft biscuit or toasted bread in the bottom of a sallad bowl, put in a layer of sliced tomatas with the skins taken off, and one of sliced cucumbers, sprinkle with pepper, salt and chopped onion; do this until the bowl is full; stew some tomatas quite soft, strain the juice, mix in some mustard, oil and water, and pour over it; make it 2 hours before it is eaten.

Other regional cookbooks followed. In 1839, Lettice Bryan wrote The Kentucky Housewife and in 1847 Sarah Rutledge wrote The Carolina Housewife, again acknowledged only as “a lady of Charleston.” Rutledge was the daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A report says that until about 1920, “the name of a Charleston woman appeared in print but thrice — when born, when married and when buried — legal necessities.” When Rutledge was outed as the author after her death in 1855, it was said that the disclosure would have made her “spin in her grave.”

Here is her recipe for Hopping John:

Three books by African-Americans should be mentioned. Malinda Russell was a free Black woman from Tennessee who wrote the first known cookbook by an African-American woman. Her Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen came out in 1866 and included recipes for catfish fricassee, Irish potatoes with cod and sweet onion custard. 

Former slave Abby Fisher wrote What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking published by the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office in San Francisco in 1881. Mrs. Fisher was a pickle maker by trade and her book includes many recipes for pickles, in addition to fried chicken and biscuits. Here is one:

Breaking the mold of cookbooks written by women for women, the first recipe book by an African-American author was written by a man for other men. In 1827, Robert Roberts published The House Servant’s Directory: A Monitor for Private Families. Roberts was butler and majordomo for Massachusetts governor Christopher Gore. His book is aimed at those running a household, including how to complete chores, how to clean, how to behave properly and then, to prepare foods. 

“In order to get through your work in proper time, you should make it your chief study to rise early in the morning; for an hour before the family rises is worth more to you than two after they are up.” He also includes his method of curing a drunk of his habit:

All of these cooks and authors were impressive, but none holds a candle to the formidable Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880). She wrote in many veins, probably best remembered today for the lyrics to “Over the River and Through the Woods,” she took on many dragons: She was an abolitionist, a women’s rights activist, a spokesperson for Native American rights, and opponent of Manifest Destiny, white supremacy and male dominance, an advocate of women’s education, a novelist taking on issues such as miscegenation. And she was a journalist and poet. Mrs. Child could walk through walls, and don’t get in her way.

In 1833, she wrote An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, calling for instant emancipation with no compensation for slaveholders. In it, she wrote “The intellectual inferiority of the Negroes is a common, though most absurd apology, for personal prejudice.” She went on to publish The Duty of Disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act and act as editor of a national abolitionist periodical. 

As a women’s rights activist, she wrote that significant progress for women could not be made until after the abolition of slavery, because women and slaves were similar in that white men held both groups in subjugation and treated them as property. 

She also worked for Native American rights, too. Her novel Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times concerns an interracial marriage between a white woman and an Indian man, who have a son together. 

Beyond that, she was a notorious freethinker. She wrote, “It is impossible to exaggerate the evil work that theology has done in the world,” and “What blooming paradise would the whole earth be if the same amount of intellect, labor and zeal had been expended on science, agriculture and the arts.” 

But I have become sidetracked by my admiration for Ms. Child. What we are concerned with here is her cookbook, The American Frugal Housewife for Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, published in 1829 when she was 27 years old. It went through 33 printings in 25 years. In it the same indomitable schoolmarm certainty reigns. I have to wonder if she ever told — or even heard — a joke, in her life. 

The book was aimed at women cooking for their families without servants to do the work. It is written simply, and always with an eye to saving money. It begins:

“The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials. Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be; and whatever be the size of a family, every member should be employed either in earning or saving money.”

That includes children, who shouldn’t be wasting their time in “useless play:”

“Children can very early be taught to take all the care of their own clothes.

“They can knit garters, suspenders, and stockings; they can make patchwork and braid straw; they can make mats for the table, and mats for the floor; they can weed the garden, and pick cranberries from the meadow, to be carried to market. … it is a great deal better for the boys and girls on a farm to be picking blackberries at six cents a quart, than to be wearing out their clothes in useless play. They enjoy themselves just as well; and they are earning something to buy clothes, at the same time they are tearing them.”

In a chapter concerning “The Education of Daughters,” she enjoins: 

“The greatest and most universal error is, teaching girls to exaggerate the importance of getting married; and of course to place an undue importance upon the polite attentions of gentlemen.”

Her recipes extoll the frugality of finding the best cuts of meat and of using those parts that others snub. 

Or:

Another multi-tasking and prolific writer was Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, who published under the simplified name as Frances Green, although, for her cookbook, she was listed on the title page of The Housekeeper’s Book (1837) as “By a Lady.” 

She was a poet, abolitionist, women’s rights advocate and spiritualist. Her many books include Memoirs of Elleanor Elbridge, a Colored Woman (1838); Might and Right (1844), a book about the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island; The Primary Class-Book of Botany (1856), a botany text for students; and Beyond the Veil (1878, posthumous) about communicating with the dead. 

The Housekeeper’s Book: Containing Advice on the Conduct of Household Affairs: with a Complete Collection of Receipts for Economical Domestic Cookery (earlier centuries doted on enormous titles) was written for middle and upper class women and those in their employ and covers everything from freshening up bedding to making cordials. 

“The work has been founded on the results of actual experience, and is intended for every day use; that the receipts, directions, and general advice have all been prepared with strict view to utility, and true economy; and that nothing has been omitted which the author deemed subservient to the general design – the promotion of domestic happiness by attention to the constantly recurring and inevitable duties of good housekeeping.”

 

Back in England, the absolute queen of the kitchen and cookbook was Isabella Beeton. Her books were everywhere. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management came out in 1861 and by 1868, had sold nearly 2 million copies. It was reprinted well into the 20th century. In fact, it can still be bought today.

The book was first published as 24 installments in her husband’s magazine, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Samuel Beeton was a magazine editor and publisher and brought out the first British edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was also a proponent of the equality of the sexes.  There seemed to be a connection in the 19th century between abolitionism, feminism and cookbooks. 

Mrs. Beeton’s work was published and republished in many forms, re-edited and resold under many titles after her early death at age 28 in 1865. At her death, she was working on her Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery. 

After her death, her husband sold the publishing rights to Ward, Lock and Tyler, a firm that continued to resell the book through dozens of editions, sometimes with only the flimsiest connection to the original. By 1891 the term Mrs Beeton had become used as a generic name for a domestic authority. They suppressed the fact of Mrs. Beeton’s death, so that the name became, like Betty Crocker, really a brand name rather than a person. The book became for the 19th century what The Joy of Cooking has been for the 20th. 

Mrs. Beeeton was one of the first cookbook authors to present her recipes with a list of ingredients and their measurements, in the modern style. In her introduction, she wrote: 

“I have attempted to give, under the chapters devoted to cookery, an intelligible arrangement to every recipe, a list of the ingredients, a plain statement of the mode of preparing each dish, and a careful estimate of its cost, the number of people for whom it is sufficient, and the time when it is seasonable.” 

She explains that she was thus attempting to make the basics of cookery “intelligible” to any “housewife.”

Author Christopher Clausen, in his study of British middle classes, wrote that Beeton’s book reflected Victorian values, particularly hard work, thrift and cleanliness. “Mrs. Beeton has … been for over a century the standard English cookbook, frequently outselling every other book but the Bible”

Did I mention that they loved preposterous titles in those days? The full title of the book was The Book of Household Management, comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort.

The closest thing America had to Mrs. Beeton was Marion Harland, pen name of Mary Virginia Terhune. She published some 50 books during her life, including novels, short story collections, biographies, travel guides, histories and cookbooks. Her first novel, Alone, came out in 1854. Her first cookbook, Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery, came out in 1872. It eventually sold more than a million copies. 

Harland became a franchise, much like Beeton, but lived to see her success. She died at 91 in 1922. Among her domestic books, published after Common Sense in the Household, were Breakfast, Luncheon and Tea (1875); Bills of Fare for All Seasons of the Year (1889); House and Home (1889); Marion Harland’s Complete Cookbook: A Practical and Exhaustive Manual of Cookery and Housekeeping (1903); and The Helping Hand Cook Book (1912), written with her daughter, Christine Terhune Herrick. 

If there is a theme beyond food in all these cookbooks, it is one of moral improvement. Each of them has chapters on proper deportment, how to run clean household, and frugality. This tendency runs on hyperdrive in Ella Eaton Kellogg’s Science in the Kitchen (1892), which features vegetarianism and hygiene as aspects of the same thing. She married John Harvey Kellogg, superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and the inventor of corn flakes, which he saw as an anaphrodisiac, and proponent of eugenics. Ella Eaton joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, becoming associate superintendent of the Social Purity department. 

She ran the kitchen at Battle Creek and wrote that:

 “One of the evils of unwholesome food is its decided tendency to create a craving for intoxicants. Bad cookery causes indigestion, indigestion causes thirst, and thirst perpetuates drunkenness.” 

Kellogg recommended bland foods, as being not only healthier, but leading to a more moral behavior. Vegetarianism is the key:

“The use of large quantities of animal food, however free from disease germs, has a tendency to develop the animal propensities to a greater or less degree, especially in the young, whose characters are unformed. Among animals we find the carnivorous the most vicious and destructive, while those which subsist upon vegetable foods are by nature gentle and tractable. There is little doubt that this law holds good among men as well as animals. If we study the character and lives of those who subsist largely upon animal food, we are apt to find them impatient, passionate, fiery in temper, and in other respects greatly under the dominion of their lower natures.”

And spicy foods cause terrible diseases, she said:

“Physicians have long observed that in tropical countries where curry powder and other condiments are very extensively used, diseases of the liver, especially acute congestion and inflammation, are exceedingly common.”

The undercurrent of racism is unmistakable throughout the book. 

And her instructions for cooking macaroni makes for mush:

“The length of time required may vary from twenty minutes, if fresh, to one hour if stale. When tender, turn into a colander and drain, and pour cold water through it to prevent the tubes from sticking together.”

So much for “al dente.” 

There is more real and systematic science found in The Boston Cook-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer, from 1896. Farmer revamped the former Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book. Mary Johnson Lincoln had been head of the Boston Cooking School and published her book in 1884 as a textbook for her classes. Farmer expanded the book to some 1,850 recipes and her version eventually became the most popular cookbook in the country and was known simply as the “Fannie Farmer Cookbook.” 

At a time when most American cookbooks were still saying to use a “dollop of butter” or a “teacup of cider,” Farmer used precise measurements in 8 oz. cups and leveled tablespoons. She organized recipes with ingredients and measurements before the text. 

Her book became so popular, she followed up with a series of books,, including Chafing Dish Possibilities (1898); Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent (1904); What to Have for Dinner: Containing Menus with Recipes for Their Preparation (1905); Catering for Special Occasions (1911); A New Book of Cookery: Eight-hundred and Sixty Recipes (1912); The Priscilla Cook Book for Everyday Housekeepers (1913); and A Book of Good Dinners for My Friend, or “What to Have for Dinner” (1914). 

There are many books I have been forced to leave out, including The Epicurian by Charles Ranhofer, who was chef at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York. His book was an encyclopedic guide to haut cuisine. 

Or Mary Jewry’s Warne’s Every-Day Cookery; Mrs. W.G. Water’s Cook’s Decameron and her Just a Cookery Book; or Mrs. A.B. Marshall’s Larger Cookery Book; or Mary Harrison’s Guide to Modern Cookery; or Mary Doncaster’s Luxurious Modern Cookery. 

But I want to end with Elizabeth Black Kander, a Progressive reformer and founder of a settlement house in Milwaukee where she wrote a book titled The Way to a Man’s Heart, but almost universally referred to as The Settlement Cook Book. 

Daughter of European Jewish immigrants, Kander joined the settlement movement in America, a movement meant to bridge the gap between the poor and the middle class through education and assimilation. Jane Addam’s Hull House in Chicago was a famous example. Kander founded the Settlement House in Milwaukee in 1900. To help fund her relief work, she wrote her cookbook, using recipe that were taught to immigrants in her Settlement House classes. The book became a surprising success and was revised and updated every year from 1901 to 1954, selling more than 2 million copies. 

The World War that came soon after twisted a knot in history, and what followed after, in everything from politics to literature to economics and even to cookbooks, was qualitatively different. The world became modern, for better and for worse. 

Epilogue

Taking the long look from Sumer through Apicius to Ina Garten, there are eon-long trends in cookbooks. The earliest made little distinction between food and medicine and recipes were as often apothecary, mixed with gustatory. 

Somewhere, in the 16th or 17th centuries, the medical part shrunk and became a appendix chapter or two on how to feed the feeble, sick and convalescent. But those same centuries, and especially the 18th, also added chapters on how to deal with servants and how to maintain a household. 

The Victorian age added moral uplift and chapters on proper deportment, mostly for young wives, and the need for cleanliness and rectitude. At its fringes, it advocated crank fad diets. 

After World War I, cookbooks dropped most of the admixture and concentrated on clear recipes, with measurements, serving sizes and instructional information on processes, such as found in The Joy of Cooking or Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook. 

In the past few decades, there has been a resurgence in fads and weight-loss or coronary-health, but also a growth in combining recipes with travel and culture, such as you find in Diana Kennedy, Madhur Jaffrey, Joyce Chen, Patricia Wells, and so many others. 

Of course, cookbooks are facing the same changes as everything else in the digital age, and more people are now turning to YouTube or television for their cooking instruction, which really only brings us, by a commodius vicus back to the days when cooking was taught chef to apprentice or mother to daughter by hands-on verbal instruction. 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. 

Click on any image to enlarge

“Kitchen” Vincenzo Campi, 1580

Between the 14th and 16th centuries two big changes came over cooking and cookbooks in Europe. The first was a change of taste, leaving behind the spices of the East and taking up the herbs of the garden; the second was the invention of the printing press. 

It needs to be remembered that until 1450, all cookbooks were written in manuscript and copied when needed. Their reading public was limited by the literacy of the populace when only the very few could “reckon letters.” And so, those cookbooks were aimed at the kitchens of the wealthy and aristocratic, and their instructions were given to those who already knew the basic techniques. The cookbooks rarely mentioned quantities or explained widely understood preparations. 

And, beginning in 1517, as northern Europe emerged, and Protestantism grew, it shifted the locus of thought there away from the Mediterranean. Rome saw Paris flex its muscles and a rivalry began. 

Le Viandier and Le Managier

The first of these European-aimed cookbooks is Le Viandier, traditionally credited to Guillaume Tirel (1310-1395), aka Taillevant (“Cut Wind”), who was chef to the court of France during the Hundred Years War, although the earliest of four surviving manuscripts is dated from 10 years before Taillevent was born, making the attribution a bit dodgy. 

The book contains about 130 recipes and they are still heavy on exotic spices, such as this one for a Fish Grané:

Take pike or carp or other fish. Scale and fry the fish. Then toast bread and soak it in a puree of peas. Strain it and put in large slices of fried onion. Boil it all together with ginger, cinnamon and other spices, infused with vinegar. Add saffron for color. 

Other 14th century manuscript cookbooks include the Portuguese Llibre de Sent Sovi from 1324 and the German Daz Buch von der guter Spise from 1350. And the English The Forme of Cury, by “The Chief Master Cooks of King Richard II.” From 1390, it is written in Middle English and sounds very like Chaucer.

The Forme of Cury, pages

One recipe begins: “Sawse madame. Take sawge, persel, ysope and saueray, quinces and peeres, garlek and grapes, and fylle the gees therwith; and sowe the hole that no grece come out, and roost hem wel, and kepe the grece that fallith therof.”

Translated into modern lingo, the whole recipe runs:

Sauce Madame. Take sage, parsley, hyssop and savory, quinces and pears, garlic and grapes, and stuff the  geese with them, and sew the hole so that no dripping comes out, and roast them well and keep the dripping  that falls from them. Take the gelatin and dripping and place in a posset (a hot drink made by curdling milk with ale or wine). When the geese is roasted enough, take and chop it in pieces, and take what is within and put it in a posset and put in wine if it is too thick. Add to it powder of galangal, powder-douce and salt, and boil the sauce and dress the geese in dishes and lay the sauce on. 

Here is the original recipe for rabbit in gravy:

Translated, it reads: “Take rabbits, smite them to pieces. Parboil them and draw them with a good broth with blanched and brayed almonds. Do therein sugar and powdered ginger and boil it and the flesh therewith. Flour it with sugar and with powdered ginger and serve forth.” 

I love that “smite them to pieces.” The language has an almost biblical feel to it. Another recipe says to “Shell the oysters and seethe them in wine and in their own broth.” 

In 1393, Le Ménagier de Paris, or “The Householder of Paris” was published. It is less a cookbook and more a treatise on how to be a good wife, presented as an older husband counseling his young bride. It includes gardening tips, etiquette and even sex advice. Its second section contains recipes. It set the model for many books in the coming centuries aimed not at professional kitchens but at the edification and instruction of women. 

Other Medieval cookbooks include Du Fait de Cuisine (On the making of cuisine”), written in 1420 by the master chef of the court of Burgundy; and the mid-15th century Venetian book, Libro per Cuoco. Who knew that the name of the star of TV’s Big Bang Theory was “Kitchen full of Kale?” Perfect for a Hollywood actress.

Bartolomeo Sacchi, aka Platina

Then came Johannes Gutenberg and cookbooks ever since have been largely printed in large numbers for a growing literate public. The first real bestseller cookbook was printed first in 1475 and called De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine, or “On Honorable Pleasure and Health,” by Bartolomeo Sacchi, better known as Platina. He was a courtier and soldier born near Cremona in Italy and wrote dozens of books on diverse subjects. 

De Honesta Voluptate was written in Latin and cribbed from the notes of Martino da Como, who some have described as the world’s first “celebrity chef.” He was kitchen-master in the Vatican. Sacchi credits him in De Honesta Voluptate. The book went through untold editions and translations for the next century or so. 

Sacchi tells us that the lentil is “digested with difficulty, generates black bile and creates scaly skin disease, causes flatulence and a stuffed feeling, harms the brain and chest, dulls the eyes and represses passions.” 

A recipe for eel pie includes almond milk, rosewater, raisins, sugar and spices, but why he includes this is questionable. His comment on the dish: “When it is finally cooked, serve it to your enemies, for it has nothing good in it.” 

The shift from the Mediterranean to more continental tastes should, in part, be credited to Martin Luther. His insistence that people learn to read the Bible for themselves caused a great increase in literacy in northern Europe, and with Gutenberg’s press, led to a new profusion of cookbooks in vernacular languages.

In 1570, a second Bartolomeo came out with his cookbook, both printed and in ordinary Italian. It was the Opera dell’Arte del Cucinare, or “Works on the art of the kitchen,” by Bartolomeo Scappi (1500-1577), who was chef to three popes. It continues the old tradition of exotic spicing, but it is the first cookbook to include illustrations. 

The book is divided into six parts and contains 1000 recipes. It begins with a dialog between the chef and his apprentice, laying out the workings of a smoothly operating kitchen, its implements and ingredients. A second part discusses meat from quadrupeds and birds, and how to make sauces. A third covers fish, eggs and vegetables. The fourth lists foods by season. The fifth teaches the making of pastries, cakes and a miscellany of things. The book ends with a chapter of food for the infirm; so many of these early cookbooks mingle food and medicine, as if they were two sides of a single coin. 

Scappi’s braised beef

He writes of preparing frogs for Pope Pius IV “in the way the pope was used to eating them.” He writes, “Frogs abound in Lombardy, and especially in Bologna, where they are transported in bags on carts.” 

And although it was published some seven decades after Columbus sailed to the New World, the only Columbian Exchange item to show up is the turkey. No potatoes, chiles, tomatoes or chocolate. 

So far, most of these cookbooks are written by cooks for popes or royalty, and their menus are often exotic and call for an abundance of spice. But as the printing press pumped out more and more material, their buying audience widened to include middle class cooks, too. And that also means that their demographic shifts from male chefs to women at their home hearths. 

And this shows up in the number of books aimed at teaching women the best or proper way to make their homes. Often the recipes are only a portion of the books’ contents, which spreads out to include etiquette, home finances and household management. This is a trend that expands in the 17th century and exponentially in the 18th century. 

Thomas Dawson published The Good Huswifes Jewell in 1585 and Gervase Markham wrote The English Huswife in 1615. 

The Jewell gives recipes for pancakes and haggis and is the first in English to mention sweet potatoes — a New World ingredient. It also has a recipe for “A Sallet of All Kinde of Hearbes:”

“Take your hearbes and picke them very fine into faire water, and picke your flowers by themselves, and washe them al cleane, and swing them in a strainer, and when you put them into a dish, mingle them with cowcumbers or lemmons payred and sliced, and scrape suger, and put in vineger and oyle, and throw the flowers on the toppe of the sallet, and of every sorte of the aforesaide things and garnish the dish about with the foresaide things, and harde egges boyled and laide about the dish upon the sallet.”

The full title of Markham’s book is quite long and runs: The English Huswife: Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman: as her Phisicke, Cookery, Banqueting-stuffe, Distillation, Perfumes, Wooll, Hemp, Flaxe, Dairies, Brewing, Baking, and all other things belonging to an Houshold.” Which gives some sense of the direction cookbooks in general will be headed in the following centuries. 

Markham was by profession a soldier, and he shows some humility in his introduction: Thou mayst say (gentle Reader) what hath this man to doe with Hus-wifery, he is now out of his element,” but goes on to say that he had his manuscript vetted by an honorable lady of quality. But no doubt, he was not the original mansplainer. 

There are quite a few 17th century cookbooks, and I cannot include them all, but I can’t avoid The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened, from 1669. Digby was a courtier, diplomat, natural philosopher, astrologer and Roman Catholic intellectual, once called “The Ornament of This Nation.”

If you open his closet, as it were, you find many directions for alcoholic drinks, but also a fair number of delicacies, such as Capon del Conte di Trino, which calls for ambergris (from the intestines of a whale), dates, raisins, currants and sugar, all boiled inside an ox bladder. 

To boil eggs: “A certain and infallible method to boil new-laid Eggs to sup up, and yet that they have the white turned to milk, is thus: Break a very little hole, at the bigger end of the shell, and put it into the water, whiles it boileth. Let it remain boiling, whiles your Pulse beateth two hundred stroaks. Then take it out immediately, and you will find it of an exact temper.”

The language and spelling are a delight. Here is another:

“A FLOMERY-CAUDLE — When Flomery is made and cold, you may make a pleasant and wholesome caudle of it, by taking some lumps and spoonfuls of it, and boil it with Ale and White wine, then sweeten it to your taste with Sugar. There will remain in the Caudle some lumps of the congealed flomery, which are not ungrateful.”

Markham in An English Huswife defines flummery as a soft, starch-based sweet pudding: “From this small Oat-meale, by oft steeping it in water and clensing it, and then boyling it to a thicke and stiffe jelly, is made that excellent dish of meat which is so esteemed in the West parts of this Kingdome, which they call Wash-brew, and in Chesheire and Lankasheire they call it Flamerie or Flumerie.” A caudle, by the way, is potion or porridge for infants or the infirm. 

And to feed your chickens and make them plump and juicy, Digby writes:

“AN EXCELLENT WAY TO CRAM CHICKEN — Stone a pound of Raisins of the Sun, and beat them in a Mortar to Pulp; pour a quart of Milk upon them, and let them soak so all night. Next morning stir them well together, and put to them so much Crums of Grated stale white bread as to bring it to a soft paste, work all well together, and lay it in the trough before the Chicken (which must not be above six in a pen, and keep it very clean) and let a candle be by them all night. The delight of this meat will make them eat continually; and they will be so fat (when they are but of the bigness of a Black-bird) that they will not be able to stand, but lie down upon their bellies to eat.”

Chickens gotta eat, too. 

Next: The 18th Century where we will not forget the ladies. 

I grew up on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. At the other end of the bridge was the wider portion of the world. It was the escape from parochial suburban concerns and into a life infinitely richer. 

New York city was not just the gateway to the larger world, it was the larger world. 

One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking me at age three, maybe four, into Manhattan to see the Christmas display windows at Macy’s department store. I remember being frightened by the subway and being returned like Odysseus from the underworld up to the snowy Seventh Avenue. 

It was only a few years after the war and the city was still the one described by E. B. White in Here is New York, published a year after I was born. It was the city of yellow cabs, of subway roar under the sidewalk grates, Con Edison steam pouring out of street vents. The Third Avenue El blocked the sky and the Horn and Hardart automat flipped out sandwiches and soup. Barges carrying freight cars crossed the Hudson from Weehawken and Hoboken; Penn Station and Madison Square Garden — the old one — were still standing. The GWB was still only one level. Skyscrapers were still mostly stone, brick and steel. The Empire State Building was still the tallest in the world. 

When you are young and the world is that new, every encounter with it imprints and becomes the ur-version of your Weltanchaung. Everything you later learn is first compared with these initial impressions. 

And so, two great geographical “gods” I grew up with were the Hudson River — every other river until I crossed the Mississippi failed to earn the name — and New York City. A city wasn’t a city unless it had sun-blocking canyons of impossibly tall offices, apartments and hotels. If it didn’t have a subway or a ring of bridges and ferries. Or the wharfs with their ocean liners and longshoremen. 

As I grew up, the city remained the touchstone not merely of urban-ness, but of civilization itself. It was where I went to find bookstores. There was Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem and Spanish Harlem. I saw Puerto Ricans and Arabs, Norwegians and Hindus. The idea of a mixed population seemed absolutely normal. 

As White wrote, “The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.”

And all that makes a kind of poetry: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal [combustion] engines.”

That music includes the sound of jackhammers, car horns, squealing bus brakes, street-corner arguments, police whistles, sirens, and on special occasions, marching bands. 

Through high school, and later when I returned home from college, I would take the Public Service bus to the bridge and walk across it from Jersey to Manhattan, looking down on the way to the little red lighthouse. Up past Cabrini Boulevard to the 175th Street IND subway station where a 15-cent token would take me anywhere in the city: Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner, the Hayden Planetarium. 

The city became so much a part of my world-view that it took traveling halfway around the world to break me open. That is the importance of travel. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The Mississippi River was more river than the Hudson, and the Columbia was a drained a greater area. The St. Lawrence was a wider gouge on the continent. And once I left the New World and stood on the banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf, I marveled at night over the racing current and the moon reflected in the waves — so big a river and so rapid a flow. This was the Rhine of the Lorelei and the Valkyries. Robert Schumann wrote his Rhenish Symphony in Dusseldorf. 

And so it was with cities. Philadelphia and Chicago were smaller imitations of New York, but so many others created their urban civilizations on other patterns. I would have to come to terms with Los Angeles, with Seattle, with Miami. 

I had avoided LA for many years — decades, really — with the unearned disapproval of an East Coast snob. It wasn’t really a city at all. What did Dorothy Parker call it? “Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” 

LA was the city where the people who pass you on the freeway are always better looking than the people you pass. The city where all the women are beautiful and all the men wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles. 

My tune has changed. After many trips to Southern California, I have come to love LA, with all its traffic and sunshine. 

Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.

St. Louis

Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.  

Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”

You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.

From Simi Valley to Costa Mesa, you find every food, every culture, ever language, every social class, every fast-food joint. There is high culture at the LA County Museum of Art and history at the La Brea Tar Pits; there is outdoor dining at the Farmers Market on West Third Street and Fairfax; there are the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills, pecking at the ground like so many chickens. 

When my late wife and I first began to travel, we avoided cities. As long-time Easterners, we were besotted by the empty West and its long horizons and open skies. Driving down carless roads that measured straight for 20 miles or more at a stretch, wiggling in the distance through the lens of desert heat, it was the isolation that fascinated us. Cities only slowed things down and gummed them up with stoplights and bumper-to-bumper glue. 

It was only later that the cities opened up their gifts to us. Since then, I have come to love several cities, and cherish their idiosyncrasies and talents. 

First among these is Paris. I have been back many times. It is so different from New York, so compact, so comfortable. You can walk almost anywhere, and with only a miserly few skyscrapers, it is a human-scale place. In New York, restaurants can seat hundreds at a time; in Paris, a typical restaurant has maybe a half-dozen tables and only two workers: the waiter and the cook. 

Tourists think of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or the streetside artists of Montmartre, but we never went there. Instead, we walked the streets near where we were staying and got to know the butcher, the florist, the baker. A morning visit to the patisserie for a pastry, a stop at the bookstore to pick up a Pleiades edition of Victor Hugo, a duck-in to a small neighborhood church that has been there for only, say, 400 years. 

Cape Town

The most beautiful city I have ever seen, based on its setting and geography, is Cape Town, South Africa. It sits in a bowl surrounded by peaks, including Table Mountain, which is a long, flat cliff over which a fog often drapes, like a tablecloth. The streets are wide and sunny, and the houses clean in the sunlight and often brightly colored. I was there near the end of the apartheid era, and while the Afrikaners to the north held fast to their racist ideology, in British-heritage Cape Town, I saw black and white Africans comfortably together on the beaches, despite its being technically illegal. 

Chicago (left) and Johannesburg

Back north in the former Transvaal, the city of Johannesburg, or “Jo-berg,” was more familiarly urban. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were, you could easily confuse the city with, say, Chicago. If you thought of Africa as elephants and zebras, the high-rise congestion of Jo-berg could come as quite a surprise. 

Durban

I have a special warm spot for the city of Durban, on the Indian Ocean, with its thick tropical humidity and dense pack of various humanity.

Seattle

I lived for a while in Seattle, and came to love it for its weather. What elsewhere might be called rain is hardly noticed in Seattle, unless it’s a downpour. Most days, it seems, the air just hangs with a slowly-dropping mizzle. The city is built on hills, and you are always going up or down, and until the recent and ugly development of a self-regarding amour propre, Seattle was a kind of forgotten city. That was the city I came to love. Now, it is overrun with Starbucks and hipsters. It used to be cool; now it knows it is cool, which is never cool. 

New Orleans

New Orleans is a city I used to despise. I thought of it as infested with cockroaches and humidity. But as I’ve gotten older and have begun to decay myself, I find a bit of deterioration admirable. Now, it is one of my favorite cities. How can you not love a place where the restaurants feature 60-year-old waiters in formal dress? 

San Francisco

There are other cities I hold dear: London; Oslo; Vancouver; Miami; Mobile, Ala.,; Halifax, Nova Scotia; San Francisco; St. Louis; Tijuana — yes, if you leave the tourist center, it is a wonderful city. 

Las Vegas

And there are places I have never come to love. I really dislike Las Vegas, for instance. It gives me the creeps. I see those retiree women sitting at the slots, their eyes turned into lifeless ball bearings in the soulless, windowless casinos with their dead, ringing bings. The horror; the horror. 

Atlanta seems like nothing but traffic; Dallas like endless freeway flyovers; Houston like a fungus that grows to eat up a wedge of southeastern Texas. Once you enter the city limits, it seems as if you can never get out. Houston covers more ground than Rhode Island, and paints it with minimalls, Comfort Inns and tire dealerships. 

Phoenix

I have been avoiding mentioning Phoenix. That is because my feelings are ambivalent. I have always called the city “Cleveland in the desert.” It has little actual character and the roads are as regular as jail bars. I lived there for a quarter century and came to love many things about it, and made many friends, who I now miss since I left. But the city itself has little to recommend it, outside of being in the middle of a desert paradise. Of course, you have to drive at least 60 miles in any direction to even get out of the city into the desert, and the remoteness of the desert only increases as the city expands. 

Yet, even in Phoenix, I get the feeling of civilization — both good and bad. Civilization is defined by cities. Before cities, life was villages and farms. After the growth of Sumer and Ur, and the creation of writing and the spread of trade and political power, it became possible for the cooperation and interaction that cities allow. 

And, even if an urbanite doesn’t leave his city, he will encounter those who have come from elsewhere. He will be forced to give up his “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” City life tends to make one cosmopolitan and therefore, tolerant. Maybe not universally, but largely. 

It explains, in part, the vast political gulf we face, not so simply between red and blue states, but between urban and rural. As cities grow, the nation gets bluer. If we encounter what is “other” and discover it is not, we give up fear and dampen hatred. Cities work because everyone has to put up with everyone else. It is what makes New York such a model. 

“The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity,” wrote White. “The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite.”

But it doesn’t. Not normally. In fact, the diversity of the city is more than merely tolerated, it is enjoyed: Who would want to live in a city where you could not get a good mu-shu pork or a good osso buco; not find a movie theater showing the latest Iranian film; not be able to buy a kofia and dashiki; not hear a Baroque opera? 

Asheville

I have learned to widen my definition of what counts as a city. Even the Asheville, N.C., I now occupy has, in its tiny compass, an urban feel. The downtown is old and brick, and pedestrians walk up and down its hills. The stores and restaurants are busy and it is hard to find a parking spot. It is a concentrate of urban-ness. I can eat Ethiopian injera or find a well-used copy of Livy. It is a blue city in a red state. And thank the deities in the stars for that. It still echoes the New York that is buried in my deep heart’s core.

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We all have roots. We draw up family trees, naming as far back as we can our ancestors; sometimes we discover Charlemagne or Henry II hiding in the branches. Many of us have tested our DNA to discover the nameless past before that and perhaps trace our route from Africa through Europe or Asia by haplogroup. 

There is a lineage — a straight line that leads from some familial Adam to ourselves. Or at least, we see it that way: The reality is messier. Each of the names above ours on the family tree doubles; parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. That lineage becomes a mesh, a network of interconnectedness. Thousands of Adams and their Eves woven together.

Yet, there is still the sense of having gotten from there to here. A sense that, however complex the root system, the florescence is now. 

This seems to me to be true culturally as well as genetically. I am certainly American, with my bona fides in Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne. But there is still something behind those names. When one marries and begins a family of one’s own, there is still the family in which you were raised and it never really goes away. One day when you are 50, you look down and at the ends of your arms you discover your father’s hands. Or you find yourself saying something that rings the bell of remembrance: This is what the old man used to say. Your wedded family, like your friends are acquired later, but your original family stays with you forever. It is somehow more unshakable than the one you later don. You may divorce a first wife, but you can never lose your birth family: It is traced in your muscle and bone. 

And it is, at least for me, the same for the culture I resonate to. I find ever more as I grow older, that I am at heart European. It is European literature, music, thought — even landscape and city — that I respond to. France has always felt like home to me. And the painting and sculpture of the Old World — from Ancient Greece, through Rome, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and into the horrifying terrors of the 20th century — they all speak to me more directly than the neotenous and optimistic culture of the New World. 

This is not to claim any supremacy for Europe. There are many great cultures in the world, and just as one knows one’s own family may not be the greatest one — indeed, it has its characteristic neuroses and scars — it is nevertheless your own and has a deep comfortableness and familiarity that you cannot get from other families. I am inoculated against any sense of European supremacy; I’ve read my Jared Diamond. But that can’t change my cultural genes.

And so, I see my grandfather’s nose taking over the center of my face. I find the patience so inborn in my father taking over my own, and his natural moderation in all things political guiding my own, and overtaking the youthful certainty and idealism that drove me to chant “Hey, hey, LBJ” and stew in a smug self-righteousness. 

So, there is Homer, Aristotle, Ovid, Montaigne, Dante, Gibbon, Tolstoy — these are my cultural parents and great-grandparents, and I find their hands at the end of my cultural arms. 

Yes, American culture owes a great deal to Africa, Asia and Native America, but underneath it all, the “dead White guys” are peeking out. Whether it is Indian art on canvas or blues riffs over triadic harmony, the basement layer supporting all the ethnic and cultural overlay, all the borrowings and tinctures, is European.

It’s so etched into the American memory, even on a pop-culture level,  that it’s the starting point for all American culture, both highbrow and lowbrow. Can we recognize it when we see it? Do we know how European we are? The older I get, the more I know it. Others feel the amalgam in their blood. They grew up on pop music and TV. I grew up on Stravinsky and Bach, and the pop culture never quite took hold. 

First, what do we mean by “Europe”? We sometimes have to laugh at any definition of Europe; after all, Europeans cannot agree on it. The European Union is now contemplating whether Turkey is part of Europe — a Muslim nation in Europe, and the United Kingdom is trying to divorce itself from the rest of the continent, as if you could divorce your parents. 

The continent got its name from ancient Greece, which divided the world into three: Europe was where “we” lived; to the east was Asia, meaning primarily Persia, the Levant and what is now Turkey; Africa was usually called Libya and included Egypt and Ethiopia. These three continents were surrounded by Ocean, the great river that circled the known world. That is the world as Herodotus knew it. 

Nowadays, Europe usually is defined to include Iceland, the western end of Turkey as measured from the Dardanelles, and Russia to the Ural Mountains.

It’s a huge and disparate place, including cultures that are Mediterranean, Germanic, Slavic, Celtic — even Turkic. But when we talk generically about European culture and art, we most often mean that of Western Europe: a cultural tradition that began in classical Greece, spread through the Roman Empire and flowered again in the Renaissance.

But what makes European art European? What distinguishes Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Shakespeare from art made in China, Ghana or Pre-Columbian Peru?

There are many things Europe gave us, from rationalism to colonialism, from democracy and humanism to the nation state and patriarchy, to say nothing of two world wars. Each aspect is cheered or booed, depending on whether you have come to praise Europe or to bury it.

But there is something familiar to it, whether it’s a Madonna or an Apollo: It is the heritage I feel in a way that Japanese noh theater and Tibetan thankas — no matter how beautiful or meaningful — I do not.

(Do not get me wrong here: I try to be as cosmopolitan as possible. I’ve read the Mahabharata three times, Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, Naguib Mahfouz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Mao’s little red book. As a teenager, I took up the use of the shizuri and sumi stick; I have a collection of African sculpture. I hope I am not a completely ignorant yob. But I can never drink as deeply from the vast elsewhere as I can from my backyard  European well.) 

For me, it is European art that is a touchstone for history, for ideas of beauty, for widely held social values, some of which are out of date and some of which are lamentable, even shameful. But an Old Master painting has just as much validity in our cultural ambience today as learning about Shakespeare in literature or Mozart and Tchaikovsky in music. It’s a huge spectrum of cultural experience, all tied into European art and culture.

What makes it European? I suggest five key things:

—First, there is a bias toward realism.

—Second, an astonishing persistence of Classical antiquity.

—Third, a belief, justified or not, in the idea of progress. 

—Fourth, the pervasive influence of Christianity.

—And finally, the singular importance of the human body and the nude that we might distill into the word “humanism,” a belief in the nobility, or divinity, of corporeal human existence.

(Also, in music, the use of harmony as the basic building block.) 

Deeply rooted realism

In the caves of southern Europe you can find the world’s oldest art, dating to 30,000 years ago. Even that long ago, proto-European artists created paintings that looked like the world they lived in: the aurochs and horses of Lascaux and Altamira often are so naturalistic that they can be taxonomized by zoologists into genus and species.

Prehistoric art from other cultures — South African, Australian and Southeast Asian — tend to be more diagrammatic: symbolic stick figures rather than shaded, colored images mimicking what the eye sees.

Aristotle said it 2,300 years ago: “Art imitates nature.” You can see it in Greek art from the fifth century B.C. The Greeks were intensely interested in realism. It is not just in the physicality of the statues, the lifelike figures, but in the drapery that clothed those statues. Later European artists, going back to that, like Poussin or Courbet, those lush mythological landscapes with that gleaming pink flesh. It is a love of the actual, of the real, physical world.

In our sophisticated provincialism, after a century of increasingly abstract and intellectualized art, we may think we have left all of that behind. But is Andy Warhol’s soup can any different?

Antiquity endures

We often say Europe was born in ancient Greece, which gave us so many of the philosophical and political ideas that we still live with. But even in art, antiquity remains in our lives. Go to any neighborhood and notice the homes with porticos, columns, architraves and pediments. Or listen to a pop tune sung in major or minor key and hear the remnants of a medieval and Renaissance idea of how the music of antiquity sounded.

Even in films, you have things like 300 and Troy. Even O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a take on Homer’s Odyssey. Theaters have their prosceniums and orchestras. 

Our poets still write odes, 2,500 years after Pindar, and the statues in our city squares mimic the poses of Augustus and Constantine. Turn to the back of your Yellow Pages and you’re likely to see a chiropractic ad with a photograph of a man in pain, in the pose of the famous Greek statue of Laocoon. These things persist in our visual memory.

And where do you think that cupid on your Valentine’s Day card comes from?

Artistic progress?

Technological progress has been a hallmark of Western culture, and the tendency has been to see a parallel development in the arts.

Giorgio Vasari, writing his influential Lives of the Painters in the 16th century, argued that “one artist supersedes the last and is better.”  Always march on to the next style.

But while European art history is a parade of changing styles, science and medicine move forward and improve our lives, but it isn’t so clear in art. Is Tom Clancy really much of an improvement on the Iliad? 

It’s not so easy to embrace the idea of cultural progress anymore. Progress covers up a lot of really nasty stuff, like the looting of other cultures. And as we have come to know and understand other cultures better, it’s harder to maintain that our art is “better” than theirs. 

Christianity’s sway

If you were to name the single-biggest source of imagery in European art, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to step into the ring with Christianity. It’s the winner by default: The central role of religion in the arts is manifest. Just as Islam governs the art of the Middle East and Buddhism colors the art of China and Hinduism the art of India, so the themes and subjects from the Bible are central to Europe.

Christian themes are an overwhelming component of the European sense of morality and ethics. It is through Christian stories, illustrated in art, that we see how we should think about our own lives. The good Samaritan, the prodigal son, doubting Thomas, the woman at the well — these serve in our art as parables and lessons.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the universal grief and suffering of Michelangelo’s Pieta. At the other end, you have the plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of your car.

The human figure

It has become an emblem of art: The nude figure. Whether it’s Aphrodite born from the seafoam, King David gazing at a naked Bathsheba or the painter’s lover dropping her dress in the studio, the human figure is primary.

It isn’t just men ogling naked women: It’s Myron’s Discus Thrower and Michelangelo’s David. From the Greeks on, the male nude is just as important.

You won’t find this in the art of Asia, Africa, Australia/Oceania or the New World. When you find the naked figure there, it is almost always a fertility talisman or a figure with exaggerated sex. In Asia, you find such things in “pillow books” and other intentionally pornographic images. In Europe, the figure isn’t only sex and generation, it’s a mirror of the divine. It is man as the measure of all things, and that means men and women.

‘Dead White males’

It has been a long ride from the caves of southern France to the latest pickled roadkill of Damien Hirst, and European culture has changed at least as much as it has persisted.

Listen to the music of Osvaldo Golijov, for instance, and hear the legacy of Beethoven mixed with the Arabian oud, the Balinese gamelan, the pipa of China and Peruvian flutes. It’s all one big mix.

As Europe has changed the cultures it has come in contact with, its own is being changed in return. Globalization isn’t only economic.

But there’s still a great deal to be learned from the long march we have taken. We think it all must be irrelevant because it comes from so long ago. It’s what people mean when they complain about all that art, literature and music from the so-called “dead White males” that have been taught in universities for centuries. Yes, the world has opened up to include more, but the old art is still as meaningful as ever.

Cultural DNA

Just as genealogy fascinates many people, who trace a great-great-grandfather back to the battle of Appomattox or look at old photos to see in faded black and white where the family nose comes from, so a look at our cultural ancestors shows us where we came from. That cultural DNA is still there.

Again, this is not to make any special claims for European culture: It can speak for itself. And the rest of the world is equally compelling. I love Chinese painting, African carvings, Australian designs, Hopi pottery. The case I’m making is that for myself — and I am speaking primarily for myself here — there is a nest in Europe that my psyche fits almost perfectly. Fragments of its past often show up unacknowledged in my prose or my photographs. The art and poetry speaks a language I was born to. I get the idioms, when other cultures, no matter how much I love them and respect them, are a second language — its idioms will always elude me. 

When I go to Brittany or the Vosges Mountains, or visit the Roman arena — now a bull ring — in Arles or the aqueduct at Pont du Gard, or see the stained glass at Saint Denis, or the stave churches in Norway or the polders of Holland, I have an overwhelming sense of being home. This is my family, for all its faults. 

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“There is something sinister about the past.”

—Artist Kahinde Wiley

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

— Character Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses

The study of history is endlessly fascinating. It is the biggest segment of non-fiction book publishing, a favorite of Civil War re-enactors, the grist for endless op-ed writers, a healthy chunk of the lecture series offered by the Great Courses, and a third of C-Span’s weekend programming. We are all at least amateur historians. 

Everyone knows the major narratives: George Washington as father to the country, Abe Lincoln as martyred Great Emancipator, Hitler as madman, Napoleon with his hand in his shirt, D-Day as the greatest victory of World War II. 

But almost all such interest in history is falsely benign, even when not entirely false. It is history as familiar story, and history with beginning, middle and satisfying end. Rather too neat compared with the messy, chaotic reality. 

It isn’t just that I wish to point out that it is largely a white male history, justifying the status quo, but that the overwhelming lesson of history is human misery. History is not a pageant on a grade-school stage, it is the eternal recurrence of peoples massacring, conquering, colonizing and enslaving each other. 

What we are taught in schools as history is overwhelmingly a list of the dates of the great battles and world-changing wars. There is a reason for this. The bulk of history is one of improved ways of bashing the skulls of opponents into bloody splinters. 

Yes, you can read about how Lincoln used and corralled his team of rivals, or how LBJ managed to pass the Civil Rights bills, but a better gauge of the norm is Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, about the millions of human beings starved, shot, bombed, buried alive or tortured.

Einsatzgruppe shooting naked women

One writer summarized the theme of the book as the “deliberate mass starvation and shootings in the Soviet Union in the period from 1933 to 1938; mass shootings in occupied Poland more or less equally by Soviet and German killers in 1939 to 1941; deliberate starvation of 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and mass shooting and gassing of more than 5 million Jews by the Germans between 1941 and 1945.”

And that is separate from the wartime military deaths, which is more millions of abruptly ended lives. 

Wikipedia lists more than 125 mass killings, genocides, pogroms and massacres before 1945, counting only those that have deserved names: St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; Mountain Meadows Massacre; Wounded Knee Massacre; Rape of Nanking; Babi Yar; Holodomor; Shoah. 

Since World War II, massacres notable enough to have acquired names have occurred on the average of more than two per year. 

Skulls of Spanish, Djerba, Tunisia, 1558

I could make a list, but it would go on for pages, from the pyramid of skulls left by Tamerlane to the Cathar genocide of the 13th century to the death of 90 percent of the Carthaginians during the Third Punic War in 149 BCE. 

We can think of all these genocides and massacres as something that took place in distant years and distant lands. But there is ethnic cleansing going on right now, and as for the distance, the U.S. has to answer for both the decimation of Native American populations and the enslavement of millions of Africans and African-Americans. 

As written about in American Philosophy: From Wounded Knee to the Present, by Erin McKenna and Scott L. Pratt, It is also apparent that the shared history of the hemisphere is one framed by the dual tragedies of genocide and slavery, both of which are part of the legacy of the European invasions of the past 500 years. Indigenous people north and south were displaced, died of disease, and were killed by Christian Europeans through slavery, rape, and war. In 1491, about 145 million people lived in the western hemisphere. By 1691, the population of indigenous Americans had declined by 90-95 percent, or by around 130 million people.”

But let’s not make this into a game of blame the nasty Europeans. Everyone has his share of guilt. We cannot forget the Qing Dynasty’s 18th century Zunghar Genocide, which wiped out 80 percent of the Oirat Mongols of the Altai region; or 19th century genocide of the Moriori, on the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, when 95 percent of them were eradicated by Maoris; or the Indonesian mass killings of 1965 and ’66, when up to 3 million people were murdered; or another 3 million by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who eliminated a third of the country’s population, including 100 percent of the Cambodian Viets, 50 percent of the Cambodian Chinese, 40 percent of their Lao and Thai, and a quarter of all city dwellers. 

The Hopi — called the “Peaceful People” in their own language — murdered the entire male population of their village of Awotovi in 1700 for being ka-Hopi: “un-Hopi.” This is the universal truth of humanity. 

2.

All this — and a hundred times more I am not writing about — is just prologue and context for what I want to say. Not just that the past is a slaughterhouse, but that history continues either to make us do stupid and bloody things or to justify our doing them. The past is not only always with us, it too often governs the present.

History oppresses us; it’s what we mean when we say the generals are always fighting the previous war. Or how so-called “originalists” use a 230-year-old Constitution to attempt to halt the flow of time and bind us to outdated strictures. The past is a ruler-wielding schoomarm. It is the punitive fantasy of MAGA. It is the excuse used by every murderous regime.  

The present is simply the sharp point of a blood-smeared sword whose shaft extends at least 3,000 years back into the past. While it is not the cause of every war, history fuels much of conflict. Even when there is more proximate cause, history is soon recruited to justify the fight. History is animated by grievance and payback. It is the Greeks and Turks, the Arabs and Israelis, the Tamils and Sinhalese, the Croats and Serbs, each side revenging the slights of centuries past, even millennia ago. 

The justification made for flying airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was that it was payback for Western interference in the Middle East, which includes the partition of the Levant after World War I, and before that, going back to the Crusades. In turn, we invade Iraq, in turn ISIS slaughters women and children. Hamas (which means “violence” in Hebrew and “Zeal” in Arabic) shoots rockets into Israel; Israel fires artillery into the Gaza Strip. 

It’s like the back seat on a road trip: “Peter hit me.” “Johnny hit me first.” 

You can carry it back, no doubt to Deuteronomy 20, when Jehovah demands genocide toward the Canaanites: “…you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you…”

Massacre at Drogheda

During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as during the Irish Revolt of the early 20th century, retribution was taken for the deprivations of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century (estimates of Irish death during that campaign range up to 80 percent of the Catholic population.) 

The power of grievance to sustain is appalling. There is a great line in Auden’s poem, September. 1, 1939: “I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”

When I first went to college in North Carolina in 1966, the first day on campus I was puzzled by a banner hanging from the second story of my dorm. It read: “Forget? Hell!” Being a naive Northerner, I did not fathom the historic resonance of the Civil War in the South. There is still a sectional animosity that plays out. 

This mechanism of grievance and retribution is the mythic substance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy of Greek tragedies. The short and oversimplified version is this: Tantalus butchered his son, Pelops, and cooked and served him to an assembly of the gods. Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes; Atreus killed his brother’s sons and cooked and fed them to Thyestes. For revenge, Thyestes then fathered another son on his own daughter, Pelopia, in order that the son would grow up and kill Atreus, which he did. Then, Atreus’ son, Aegisthus, took up with the wife of another of Atreus’ sons, Agamemnon, while Agamemnon was away at the Trojan War. I know this gets complicated, but stay with me. When Agamemnon returned from war, Clytemnestra murdered him, upon which, their son, Orestes was tasked with revenging his father’s death by killing his own mother and her lover. This tit for tat might have continued forever, revenge upon revenge, but for the intercession of Athena, who put an end to the vengeance by putting Orestes on trial in Athens, where he is acquitted. Hence, justice was to be meted out by a jury rather than by blood feud. 

Or that’s the story, anyway. Please let no Classical scholar take umbrage at the violence I have done by streamlining the plot and vow vengeance upon me. 

One can take this myth and open it into the macro world and see the attempt to do as Athena did by setting up first, the League of Nations, and then the United Nations as means of circumventing the natural antipathies that lead to war in the modern world. Alas, we have seen how well that works. 

The world and history is one big Hatfield and McCoy back-and-forth.  A lex talionis writ large and over millennia. 

So as W.B. Yeats had it: “… when they know what old books tell/ And that no better can be had,/ Know why an old man should be mad.”

I read the Iliad once a year, and every time I do, Hector dies at the end and Achilles in an act of compassion gives the Trojan hero’s body to his grieving father. 

And every time I read Moby Dick, Ahab dies tangled in rope to the whale, and the beast sinks the Pequod. Likewise, the Maltese Falcon always turns out to be lead, and Dorothy always returns to Kansas.

These are stories and they have beginnings, middles and ends. We may know that Achilles is destined for an early death, even though it is not in the Iliad, and we may wonder if Ishmael ever gets on another boat or Brigid O’Shaughnessy hangs by that pretty neck of hers or spends 20 years in Tehachapi, or if Dorothy ever gets a Ph.D. or lives to bear children to a dunce. But all this is outside the knowledge of these stories. 

There is self-containment in a story, even one with sequels, in which each sequel is its own story, with its own beginning, middle and end. There is a front cover to the book, and a back cover, and when we close it over, we put the book back on the shelf. 

This seems to work for books about history, too. We know that Cornwallis will surrender at Yorktown and that Lee will surrender at Appomattox. When we read about Abraham Lincoln, we know his story ends at Ford’s Theater. 

Napoleon ends in Moscow, at Waterloo, or St. Helena, depending on the focus of the history book. Hitler will lose the war and the Berlin Wall will come down. No matter how many times we turn the pages, the end is always the same. We know it even before we start. 

So history seems to be constructed of discrete bits, sewn together. Each with a beginning, middle and end. Alexander will die in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar and the Middle Ages will come to an end in the Renaissance. 

So, when we read about Neville Chamberlain, we know he was a failure because we know what happened after Munich. We know in advance that Communism fails and that computers didn’t go all cattywampus after Jan. 1, 2000. 

It is seldom we acknowledge, even if it is obvious, that Washington didn’t know that he would win the battle, that Lincoln didn’t know he wouldn’t return from Our American Cousin, or that anyone living in AD 800 didn’t know they were living in the Middle Ages. Middle of what? They were modern at the time.

We get a false sense of the world when we look at history as a story. One thing follows another in consequence and bingo, Napoleon comes to the end we always knew he would come to. 

History as it happens isn’t history. It is simply the now of back then. Its participants are just as ignorant of the outcome as we are of what will happen in Syria or North Korea. Or the legacy of Trumpism. Eisenhower didn’t know that D-Day would work; Oppenheimer didn’t know if the plutonium bomb would actually explode; Neil Armstrong didn’t know if he would ever get back from the moon. It is all contingent. 

History is not a story. It is a flowing chaos, a million-billion strands floating out into the ether and gathering in unanticipated knots. You might as well stand at the banks of a river and ask, “Where did that water start, where does it end.” 

So, we don’t know where our future is going, where those knots will form. Only afterwards do we go back, pick out the bits that make sense to us at the moment and weave a story out of them, creating coherence where there never was any. Doughboys never called their fight World War I. They had no idea that their suffering was only prelude to a sequel. World War II was the “Good War.” World War I was “the War to End All Wars.” These are tales we tell to ourselves as if we were our own children. 

A story is a pattern. We may call it plot, or timeline, but in essence, a story is designed to fulfill our innate desire for pattern. In fiction, that pattern is engineered from the episodes the author invents. In history, it is created by simplifying the complexity so that we can impose the same sort of pattern we are used to in a story. 

Different eras find different patterns in the evidence, and so history is constantly rewritten to the specifications of a certain time and place. The old guard cries foul and calls this re-organization of data “revisionism,” but history will always be pushed and pulled like clay, into whatever form is needed for the day. 

So, Napoleon was a great man, a monster, an exemplum, or, like Tolstoy claims, an irrelevance. Which was the real Bonaparte? They are each a story fabricated from bits, like a Frankenstein reanimation. 

Reality offers an infinity of possibility and for mere comprehension, we cut and prune to make the whole digestible. To make it a story. 

For years I was a journalist, and I cringed at the idea that what I was writing were newspaper “stories.” Reporters are trained to make the news comprehensible by making them stories: beginning, middle, end. The truth is always muddier, always messier. 

There seems to be a biological need for stories, or why would we keep writing them, writing fictions we know are not literally true, but reinforce the patterns we know. A story is a theater of shadow puppets. 

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “Panta Horein:” Everything changes, or everything flows, depending on your translation. A story petrifies that flow into a single unmoving image, which always distorts the cascading reality. 

It is 14 years after the assassination of Julius Caesar and three decades before the birth of Christ and the Greek queen of Egypt is about to die. The 39-year-old Cleopatra VII is the mother of four children by two fathers, both now dead. This much everyone seems to agree on. What happens next is romantic fairy tale, or conjecture, or cynical posturing — or all three.

The most widely believed version, used by Shakespeare in his tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, has the queen, fearing to be taken captive to Rome by the conquering Octavian, has a basket of figs delivered to her, with a smuggled asp hidden under the fruit. She takes the venomous snake and applies it to her tender bosom and expires from the poison.

The problem is that there are conflicting stories told by the ancient writers.

The best known version, and the one Shakespeare cribbed from is that of Plutarch in his essay on Mark Antony.

The two rebellious lovers, having  been conquered by the young Octavian were at odds over what to do. Cleopatra had a false message sent to Antony that she is dead. Antony ran himself into his sword, but botched his suicide and was brought to Cleopatra, where he then expired. Cleopatra mourned and locked herself in her mausoleum. And then, according to Plutarch:

“Having made these lamentations, crowning the tomb with garlands and kissing it, she gave orders to prepare her a bath, and, coming out of the bath, she lay down and made a sumptuous meal.”

An old man came with a basket. The guards Octavian had sent to keep Cleopatra in check stopped him to examine the contents.

“The fellow put the leaves which lay uppermost aside, and showed them it was full of figs; and on their admiring the largeness and beauty of the figs, he laughed, and invited them to take some, which they refused, and, suspecting nothing, bade him carry them in.”

The queen then sent a letter to Octavian describing her intent to kill herself and locked herself in the monument with her two servants, Charmion and Eras. When Octavian got the note, which asked that she be buried next to Antony, he sent messengers to stop her from killing herself. But they found her already dead, “lying upon a bed of gold, set out in all her royal ornaments.”

Eras lay dying at her feet and Charmion, just ready to fall, barely able to hold up her head, was adjusting her mistress’s crown. And when the soldier that came in said angrily, “Was this well done of your lady, Charmion?”

“Extremely well,” she answered, “and as became the descendant of so many kings”; and as she said this, she fell down dead by the bedside.

“Some relate that an asp was brought in amongst those figs and covered with the leaves, and that Cleopatra had arranged that it might settle on her before she knew, but, when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said, ‘So here it is,’ and held out her bare arm to be bitten. Others say that it was kept in a vase, and that she vexed and pricked it with a golden spindle till it seized her arm. But what really took place is known to no one.

“Since it was also said that she carried poison in a hollow hairpin, about which she wound her hair; yet there was not so much as a spot found, or any symptom of poison upon her body, nor was the asp seen within the monument; only something like the trail of it was said to have been noticed on the sand by the sea, on the part towards which the building faced and where the windows were. Some relate that two faint puncture-marks were found on Cleopatra’s arm, and to this account Caesar seems to have given credit; for in his triumph there was carried a figure of Cleopatra, with an asp clinging to her.

“Such are the various accounts. But Caesar, though much disappointed by her death, yet could not but admire the greatness of her spirit, and gave order that her body should he buried by Antony with royal splendor and magnificence. Her women, also, received honorable burial by his directions.

“Cleopatra had lived nine and thirty years, during twenty-two of which she had reigned as queen, and for fourteen had been Antony’s partner in his empire. Antony, according to some authorities, was fifty-three, according to others, fifty-six years old. His statues were all thrown down, but those of Cleopatra were left untouched.”

European asp

While Plutarch’s story has been repeated many times, it must be remembered that it was written 120 years after the events. Other historians and poets also told stories of Cleopatra’s death: Strabo, Velleius, Florus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius and Galen, Virgil, Horace and Propertius.

Of the historians, the only one who was alive at the time of Cleopatra’s death was Strabo, who wrote: “(Octavian) took the city at the first onset, and compelled Antony to put himself to death, but Cleopatra to surrender herself alive. A short time afterwards, however, she also put an end to her life secretly, in prison, by the bite of an asp, or (for there are two accounts) by the application of a poisonous ointment.”

Strabo was about 34 years old when Cleopatra died, but his account was written at least 10 years after that. It is thought he might have been in Alexandria at the time of the queen’s death.

The poet Horace wrote his ode, “Nunc est bibendum,” within a year or two of the queen’s death and mentioned it near the end of the poem: “Caesar came back to put the deadly monster in chains, but she, wanting to die more nobly had no feminine dread of the sword, and finding no way out of the situation, went to her palace lying in ruins and with a tranquil face was brave enough to handle vicious serpents and drink their black venom into her body. Having chosen death, she was fiercer still, unwilling to be taken back to Rome and led in a humiliating victory parade.”

The physician Galen (AD 130-200) wrote in De Theriaca ad Pisonem that “The queen had bit her arm and then rubbed the wound with poison.”

Virgil in the Aeneid says she died of “two fatal asps.”

Modern commentators tend to suspect that all the stories of Cleopatra’s suicide may very well be spin concocted by Octavian (by then Augustus Caesar) to cover up her murder at his orders. We know he had Cleopatra’s oldest son killed. Caesarion was the natural son of Julius Caesar and was 17 when Caesar’s adopted son had him quietly eliminated. “Too many Caesars is not a good idea,” he supposedly said.

So, Cleopatra either killed herself by taking poison, or by rubbing herself with poison ointment, or by stabbing herself with a sharp comb laced with poison, or held an asp to her arm to bite her, or scratched her arm up and rubbed it with venom from the smuggled asp, or — and the list goes on — it probably wasn’t an asp, since there are no actual asps in Egypt and if there were, their venom causes a very slow and painful death, and would more likely have been an Egyptian cobra, which is the sacred snake of the Egyptian pharaohs. Or she was killed by Caesar.

As Plutarch admits: “What really took place is known to no one.”

Among other accounts, Cleopatra tested various poisons on her slaves before picking the one that would cause her the least suffering. A good deal of the gloss on Cleo comes from the Romans, who had a vested interest in presenting her in the least flattering light. She was, after all, an enemy of Rome — at least after the disputed empire fell from the likely rule of Antony into the sure hand of Octavian.

Denouement: In addition to Caesarion, born to Julius Caesar, she had three children by Mark Antony. A son named for the sun and a daughter named for the moon survived her. Ptolemy Philadelphus was the youngest. Octavius spared them but gave them to his sister, the legal wife of Antony, to raise. The daughter, Cleopatra Selene, eventually married King Juba II of Numidia in north Africa. The son, Alexander Helios, is lost to history along with his brother.

Of course, you will have noticed that in none of the ancient stories of her death does Cleopatra apply the serpent to her firm but supple breast. That version comes later, especially as painters attempted to give us the version not so much of Plutarch as of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. There is a Cecil B. DeMille quality to most of the historical paintings of Cleopatra, who ranks second only to Eve as a ripe subject for images of naked women with snakes.

Not that they are the only two: There are paintings and sculptures of the Roman goddess Hygea, goddess of health, which show her feeding a snake — the snake being the sacred animal of Asclepius, the god of medicine.

Lord Leighton, the English painter, gave us a grand tondo of the Hesperides, the home of the golden apples Hercules was to gather, which was protected by a serpent.

And there is the story of Harmonia and Cadmus. Cadmus, king of Illyria, had killed a serpent and the gods then turned Cadmus into a snake. His wife, Harmonia, stripped herself naked and begged Cadmus to come to her. As she embraced the snake the gods turned her also into a snake.

There is an obviously salacious element in these stories, especially as they are told, painted and sculpted by artists in the Victorian age, where they could be hypocritically sanctimonious about expressing the moral uplift of the glory that was Rome and the grandeur that was Greece while at the same time thinking “Look at the boobies on that one,” and, as the French say, “L.H.O.O.Q.”

But the crown of this Orientalizing prurience must be in Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbo — his followup to the scandalous Madame Bovary. It is the tale of the daughter of a Carthaginian general, set shortly after the first Punic War (264-241 BC). The plot is silly enough for an opera or a Hollywood epic. But there are scenes of sex and lasciviousness, not the least when the priestess Salammbo enters the enemy camp to retrieve the MacGuffin and encounters a prophetic snake. It is hard to avoid the Freudian undertones. They can hardly be called undertones.

“The moon rose; then the cithara and the flute began to play together.

“Salammbo unfastened her earrings, her necklace, her bracelets, and her long white simar; she unknotted the band in her hair, shaking the latter for a few minutes softly over her shoulders to cool herself by thus scattering it. The music went on outside; it consisted of three notes ever the same, hurried and frenzied; the strings grated, the flute blew; Taanach kept time by striking her hands; Salammbo, with a swaying of her whole body, chanted prayers, and her garments fell one after another around her.

“The heavy tapestry trembled, and the python’s head appeared above the cord that supported it. The serpent descended slowly like a drop of water flowing along a wall, crawled among the scattered stuffs, and then, gluing its tail to the ground, rose perfectly erect; and his eyes, more brilliant than carbuncles, darted upon Salammbo.

“A horror of cold, or perhaps a feeling of shame, at first made her hesitate. But she recalled Schahabarim’s orders and advanced; the python turned downwards, and resting the centre of its body upon the nape of her neck, allowed its head and tail to hang like a broken necklace with both ends trailing to the ground. Salammbo rolled it around her sides, under her arms and between her knees; then taking it by the jaw she brought the little triangular mouth to the edge of her teeth, and half shutting her eyes, threw herself back beneath the rays of the moon. The white light seemed to envelop her in a silver mist, the prints of her humid steps shone upon the flag-stones, stars quivered in the depth of the water; it tightened upon her its black rings that were spotted with scales of gold.

“Salammbo panted beneath the excessive weight, her loins yielded, she felt herself dying, and with the tip of its tail the serpent gently beat her thigh; then the music becoming still it fell off again.”

Yes, Flaubert; Mr. Mot Juste. More like Mot Jeaux, i.e. mojo.

We’re not done yet with naked women and snakes. More anon.

Click on any image to enlarge

How long ago was history?

When I was in grade school, whatever history I was taught seemed as distant as fairy tales, a never-never of such ancientness as to be inconceivable. It was certain that there was an unbridgeable divide between the now I lived in and a history that resided only in books, and pained us with dates and names we were required to memorize. There was no continuity; past and present were as immiscible as diesel fuel and salt water.

These things change as you get older and what is taught as history is what you lived through when you were younger. When I was born, Harry Truman hadn’t yet campaigned for president. For my grandchildren, Truman is a fuzzy black-and-white halftone in their textbook. For me, however, he was my first president. Eisenhower, the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing — these were things I can remember a time that was before.

Now that I’m about to turn 70, a century doesn’t seem like such a long time, or such a meaningful slice of eternity. My grandmother was born in the 19th century and I’m now alive in the 21st. She used to muse occasionally on the fact that she was born before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

It’s really just a flash before you connect with what seemed so alien in that history textbook. Six degrees of separation.

Literally.

From me to my wife takes the first step. Her great-grandmother, Nancy Jane Steele, was alive until my wife was 8 years old. She was 98 when she died, in my wife’s childhood bed. She could remember eating sandwiches made from the cambium layer of tree bark because there was nothing else to eat during the Civil War. She had been married to Civil War veteran Rowan Steele, who had been messenger and courier for Col. Robert E. Lee, Jr., who was the youngest son of the legendary general, Bobby Lee. And that’s only five degrees of separation. Who knew a Yankee boy from New Jersey would be this close to the biggest name in the Confederacy?

We think of a century as being the measurement of a considerable piece of time — it is long enough to tick off entire ages in the history books: The 19th Century was distinct from the 18th Century; the 14th Century was so different from the 10th Century: the revolution between the Romanesque and the Gothic. But a century is really just the space from grandparent to grandchild. Not long at all.

In Ancient Rome, that is exactly how they counted eras. The Latin word we translate as “century” is “saeculum,” but saeculum doesn’t actually mean a hundred years. It is the time from the birth of a grandparent that you outlive to the death of the child who outlives you. They calculated it to be anywhere from 112 to 117 years.

How we can skip across these centuries. Let’s take something from the history books, say, the accession of James II of England in 1685. Unutterably distant, no?

Well, I can trace a person-to-person connection to that year in only nine degrees of separation. And without Kevin Bacon entering the equation at all.

That same year, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in Thuringia, now part of Germany. One of his sons was Johann Christian Bach, also a composer. J.C. Bach was friend and mentor to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who once heard the young Beethoven play the piano. He was impressed. Beethoven had a few paying students to help him afford his daily vin de pays. One of those students was Carl Czerny, who wrote an infernal and deeply hated series of piano finger-exercises that young pianists still suffer through. One of Czerny’s students became probably the greatest piano teacher of all time, Theodor Leschetizky (among his students are Jan Paderewski, Alexander Brailowsky, Ignaz Friedman, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Artur Schnabel, and Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler — all of them among the most famous pianists of the first half of the 20th century). And Mieczyslaw Horszowski — who died in 1993 at the age of 101, playing and recording well into his 90s.

Well, Horszowski had a piano student named Eugene Istomin, who made a series of legendary piano-trio recordings with Isaac Stern and cellist Leonard Rose. And when I was a volunteer photographer for the Eastern Music Festival, in Greensboro, N.C., in the early 1970s, I was tasked with picking Rose up from the airport, cello and all. I was his chauffeur.

There it is, from Bach to me in nine easy steps. So, the 17th Century isn’t all that far away. Another nine and we could be building Chartres. History is not that long ago.

A few years ago, I read the Bible, cover to cover, and my general response was “These people were out in the desert sun too long.”

I mean, you must slice off bits of your private parts, but you must never cut off your sideburns? You cannot wear cotton blends without risking being stoned to death or eternally damned? If you have a flat nose, you cannot go to your house of worship? I mean, either you have to allow the possibility that in 40 years in the wilderness of the Sinai Desert, someone suffered sunstroke, or that perhaps the manna from heaven was actually some sort of psychotropic mushroom.

Or, you can read the so-called prophetic books and ask yourself, is this some sort of occult conspiracy gibberish? It too often reads like word salad. There is some sanity in the gospels, but then you descend back into paranoid craziness with St. Paul.

I can think of no better prophylactic against religion than actually reading the Bible. Those who profess belief too often cherry-pick the parts they like and ouija-board interpret the prophesies and ignore the batshit nutjob stuff that surrounds it all.

So, I hope I have established my bona fides as a non-believer when I say I am against removing the Bible from public schools. That’s right — I believe the Bible should be taught in school from an early age. Not for religious indoctrination, and also not for religious inoculation, but rather to familiarize the upcoming students with the stories from the book.

The Four Evangelists by Jacob Jordaens

When I was teaching art history, many, many years ago, I was surprised that my students knew so little about the subject matter of the paintings we were studying. Renaissance and Baroque paintings are suffused with biblical imagery, and to understand what is going on in many of those paintings, you need to know the cultural context — i.e., you need to know the Bible stories.

But, in a test, when I asked “Who were the four Evangelists,” only two of a class of 22 knew. One of them half-remembered, “John, Paul, George and Ringo.”

It hardly mattered if the students considered themselves Christian, or even merely generally religious. They were by and large, astonishingly ignorant of their cultural patrimony.

Abraham and Isaac. Cain and Abel. Lot’s wife. Jacob and Esau. Potiphar’s wife. Jacob’s ladder. Aaron’s rod. The golden calf. Balaam’s ass. Joshua and Jericho. David and Jonathan.

There are tons of stories that were once the common well of cultural reference for all European and Euro-American peoples, and by extension and the African-American church, for Black Americans, too.

It isn’t just Renaissance paintings, but in everything from Medieval illuminated manuscripts to the poetry of W.H. Auden. It shows up in sculpture, in novels, in dance, in symphonic music and Baroque opera.

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Rubens

Daniel in the lion’s den. Boaz and Ruth. Jonah and the great fish. Paul and the road to Damascus. The massacre of the innocents. The wedding at Cana. The raising of Lazarus. The giving unto Caesar. Doubting Thomas.

The loss of these stories in popular parlance isn’t just a loss of religious faith, but a casting off of hundreds of years of art, literature and mores.

When Herman Melville begins his magnum opus with “Call me Ishmael,” we need to understand who Ishmael was in the Bible if we want to feel the depth of the meaning of such a simple statement. It resonates.

When John Steinbeck titles his book, East of Eden, do we know what geography he is laying out for us? When William Jennings Bryan exhorts us not be be crucified on a “cross of gold,” do we feel the mythic undertones of his rhetoric? Everything we say has resonance, more and less, with the long line of cultural continuity. We have lived with the Bible, in one form or another (depending on denomination) for nearly 2,000 years, and the Torah, for even longer and the residue from it has colored almost every cultural effusion since the Emperor Constantine decided to change the rules for the Roman Empire.

Of course, it isn’t only the Bible that needs to be taught. All of Greek and Roman mythology is equally part of our cultural inheritance. It should also be taught. How can you read Shakespeare or Milton — or John Updike — without it? I would recommend that everyone by the 8th grade have read Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

What I see is a rising population of those cut off from their past, from their inheritance. They are like untuned strings, with no fiddle or lute to provide resonance. And it is this resonance that is so important. A familiarity with our cultural origins allows meaning to open up when you read, that emotions become complex and connections are made. The world is electrified: A switch has been turned on and a darkened room is lit.

And what do you get without this resonance? I fear you need only look at the White House and its current occupant (and I use the word advisedly: an “occupant,” like an anonymous piece of junk mail rather than a “resident,” which implies roots.) For without resonance, you have simplicity instead of complexity, you have response without consideration of consequence. If someone insults you, heck, punch him in the face — a simple and simple-minded response. And a dangerous imbecility in the face of the complex cross-forces and dangers of the interconnected world.

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Resonance is complexity. It is the plate tectonics under the surface geography.

A great deal of art and literature has something important to say to us, and the best of it resonates within the sounding board of 6,000 years of cultural development, with each layer built on the last and a through-line of meaning. Without it we are intellectually, emotionally and morally naked.

Size matters, at least in the case of Medieval churches vying with each other for bragging rights. The two tallest Gothic cathedrals in France are only a few miles apart, but they tell very different stories.

In the high Middle Ages, towns built churches the way American cities build sports stadiums, striving for the biggest, best and most impressive. They also advertised the best saintly relics, to draw pilgrims and their money to town. Some 70 miles north of Paris is the city of Amiens, which has the cathedral with the highest vaulted ceiling of any completed church and some 30 miles from that is the incomplete Beauvais, with a ceiling even higher, but an unfinished nave, leaving the church truncated and mutilated.

Amiens is a nearly perfect relict of the architecture of those years (and I shorthand the city’s name for the cathedral, otherwise I must write Notre Dame d’Amiens — or more precisely “The cathedral basilica of Our Lady of Amiens” to give it its official name — and almost all of these churches, cathedrals and basilicas are called Notre Dame or “Our Lady,” after the Marian cult that figured so prominently in Roman Catholicism in the area and at that time) It is the largest by volume and the tallest from floor to ceiling (save only the unfinished Beauvais, about which more later) with 13 stories of emptiness above the visitor.

It sits in the center of the town with a small by handsome parvis, or plaza, at its front. Three portals punctuate the western facade, which is covered with statues of saints and biblical figures. The north tower is slightly taller than the south, and because the building sits on a slight incline, there are more steps to climb at the north end of the facade than in the south.

Inside is brightly lit. Like the cathedral at Rouen, most of its stained glass is gone and the clear or frosted glass lets sunlight stream in.

The odd effect of the church’s regularity, its brightness and its isolation from other buildings nearby, Amiens doesn’t seem as big as it is, with ceiling 138 feet above the floor, and encompassing 260,000 cubic yards of air inside — three times the volume of Notre Dame of Paris. It is, however, the perfect model of the Gothic cathedral and the one I would suggest be the first to see, so as to gauge all the other you find in the northern half of the hexagon that is France.

There are a whole series of such cathedrals and basilicas in northern France, usually not more than 50 miles between each, and in 2006, my wife and I took a trip through the area, visiting 11 of these monuments. From Paris, we took the train to Rouen, where we rented a car and drove to Amiens and Beauvais. Then to Noyon, Laon, Reims, Vezelay, Chartres and back to Paris and Sainte-Chapelle, ending at the earliest Gothic architecture at St. Denis.

Of all of them, Amiens is perhaps the most classical, the ur-cathedral, and certainly the most unified, having been built rather quickly, by Medieval standards, from 1220 to 1260, with additions made in following centuries. Where some other churches are still rather grimy from the exhaust of the Industrial Revolution, Amiens has been cleaned up and is bright and presentable.

If anything is true of these prodigies of architecture, it is that there is no such thing as a Gothic cathedral — at least no such thing as a “pure” Gothic cathedral. Each has been built over decades, even centuries, and each has add-ons in different styles, rebuilds made more “modern,” and restorations by well-meaning finaglers such as the 19th-century Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who replaced damaged statuary, added grotesques and redesigned finials and gargoyles according to his Victorian sense of what Gothic style should be.

Viollet-le-Duc was put in charge of restoring Amiens in the late 19th century, and he added a whole new line of statues at the top of the west facade, called the “Galerie des Sonneurs,” or “Gallery of Bell Ringers,” a passageway arcade between the two towers. He redid a good deal of the statuary and had the cathedral floor redone to smooth out the cobbling of centuries of foot traffic. Modern standards for restoration were not part of his procedure. “To restore an edifice”, he observed in his Dictionnaire raisonné, “is not to maintain it, repair or rebuild it, but to re-establish it in a complete state that may never have existed at a particular moment.” In other words, as he might imagine it

But such rejiggering is hardly unusual for these cathedrals.

Amiens was originally built in what is called “high Gothic” style, but all kinds of stylistic incongruities have been patched on. Although the building was essentially complete by 1280, in the 16th century, the mayor of  the city of Amiens decided it should have a spiffy new rose window in the then-current “flamboyant” style, highly sinuous and curvy, so the front window of Amiens doesn’t match the rest of the facade.

Not that one can complain. Inside, there are altars added in the Renaissance and the Baroque eras, so completely out of sympathy with the more rigorous taste of the Gothic. In some cathedrals, there are even Modernist stained glass windows.

It is the genius of the Gothic style that it can absorb almost anything and still seem perfectly harmonious. Some historical styles that strive for unity require any additions to be matched stylistically or the new parts seem like carbuncles grown where they are least desired. (Can  you imagine an addition to London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral designed by, say, Louis Kahn?) But Gothic is an accepting style. There is not much you can do to it and not have it welcomed into the family.

The 19th century gave us a pervasive sense of the Middle Ages. Whether it was Victor Hugo in his hunchback novel, or Sir Walter Scott in his Waverly novels, Alfred Tennyson in his Idylls of the King, or Mark Twain (who tried to take the whole thing down a peg or two) in his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, there are knights in shining armor, kings and their courtiers, castles and cathedrals. Those artists and authors gave us an era of dour religion and grey stone monuments. And when we look at the front of Amiens, with its ranks of saints standing like an army between the portals, we tend to have a purist vision of the stern asceticism of that era. Yet, we now know, from recent restoration work, that those grey statues guarding the church were originally brightly colored with paint. Traces of that paint is found in the stone, and in recent years, a fancy computer program has managed to create a light show that projects the original colors back onto the neutral stone. We can see what the front of the cathedral was meant to look like. It comes as a shock. One is reminded of certain Arab sheikhs painting the statues in their gaudy Los Angeles mansions.

 

There are ranks of small bas reliefs at eye-height along the front of the cathedral that depict the zodiac signs, the works of the seasons, and the stories of local saints. They are now monochrome, but inside, you can find similar quatrefoil reliefs that are still painted.

The past as we imagine it is always a shaky construct. History is always being revised, and those scholars who do the work are initially derided as “revisionist,” when, of course, that is their job. To quote the revered Firesign Theatre, “Everything you know is wrong.”

Click any image to enlarge

 

Beauvais

Some 35 miles from Amiens, the cathedral at Beauvais is a testament to overreach. One cannot avoid thinking of the Tower of Babel, where cultural hubris outstrips engineering acumen and it all comes tumbling down.

The central metaphor of all these Gothic cathedrals is altitude, the sense inside them, that they reach to the heavens — or rather, to heaven. Their naves and choirs get taller and taller as the years move along, and when you are inside, it is nearly impossible not to be drawn upward, craning your neck into the vast space above your head. The light in a Gothic church also comes from above, reinforcing the metaphor: Above your head is divine.

This spiritual metaphor exists alongside the more earthly desire of city fathers to brag that they have the biggest and best, and so, a kind of competition existed in the 13th and 14th centuries to see who could build the most vertiginous vaulting. The winner of this inter-city battle was Beauvais, although its victory was Pyrrhic.

In AD 1225, the city authorities decided to replace an older church with one in the new Gothic style. The ambitions of the church and the local barons coincided in a plan to make this church the tallest and best in the world. The barons were in in  struggle with the French throne of Louis VIII and wished to assert their supremacy with the building, and the bishop wanted to assert his own primacy in this grand construction.

They finished the choir of the new church in 1272, with a ceiling vault that was 157 feet above the floor. An empty space the size of a 15 story building.

A Gothic church is usually built with a floorplan in the shape of a cross. The top part is called the choir, at the east end nearest the sunrise, the cross pieces are called the transept and the long side of the cross is the nave. Such churches were usually constructed with the choir made first, because that is where the Mass is celebrated and where the altar is located. (Amiens was unusual, in that the nave was built first and the whole constructed from west to east). So, in Beauvais, the choir was up and church services begun before the whole was finished.’’

It makers were proud, certainly, not only of the tallest church, but the finest, slenderest flying buttresses supporting the roof. But 12 years after it was finished, the roof collapsed. It seems to modern engineering studies, that a gale wind off the English Channel caused sympathetic vibrations in the structure and it shook apart. They rebuilt.

But the collapse, which caused concern about the engineering, and trouble fund raising to complete the whole left the church with only the choir and transept. At some point, it was decided that instead of using the money they had to finish the nave, they would use it to top the whole with a giant spire, which was finished in 1569 and left the church — at 502 feet high — the tallest building in the world at the time.

“We will construct a spire so high that once finished those who see it will think that we were crazy.”

Perhaps they were. Unfortunately, on April 30, 1573, it, too, came crashing down, along with three levels of the bell tower.

As described by author Elise Whitlock Rose, “On the eve of Ascension Day, 1573, a few small stones began to fall from its heights. The next morning, a mason, who had been sent to test it, cried out in alarm; the bearers of the reliquaries, about to join the Procession of the people and the clergy who were waiting outside, fled; — there was a violent cracking, — and in an instant, the vault crashed amidst a storm of dust and wind. Then, before the eyes of the terrified worshippers, the triple stories of the lantern sank, the needle fell, and a shower of stones rained into the church and on the roofs.”

The choir was rebuilt once more, but without the spire. But the nave (except for one bay) was never completed, leaving Beauvais as the trunk of a cathedral, a mutilated fragment.

The shakiness of its construction continues to threaten the building even today. The inside, meant to be an awe inspiring sublime holy space, is filled with trusses and braces, attempting to keep the whole from final catastrophe.

“I can remember Beauvais, because it didn’t have figurative sculpture on the outside and it didn’t have a nave” wrote Carole in our journal, “and inside I was frightened because so much of it was supported by wooden beams and screws. I wondered if it could fall.”

The lack of nave makes another point about the architecture: Despite Beauvais having the highest vaulting, its spiritual effect is diminished by the lack of nave. When you first enter Notre Dame de Paris, or Amiens, through the west portal, the view down the long stretch of nave gives you perspective on the height, making it all the more effective. You can see the height because of the length. At Beauvais, despite the height, there is something of a claustrophobic feel to it, squeezed into the heights instead of expanding to them.

Next: Noyons and Reims