Introductions to the Aeneid – 1. W.F. Jackson Knight

‘The best poem of the best poet’
(John Dryden on Virgil’s Aeneid)

I own three English translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1970 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin classics prose translation by David West

The next three blog posts consist of detailed analyses of the introductions to each of these translations. The third one, about David West’s introduction, also give examples of each of the translators’ work.

1956 introduction by W.F. Jackson Knight

William Francis Jackson Knight (1895 to 1964) was an English classical scholar. After private school and Oxford he served in the First World War where he was badly wounded. You would expect this to give him to give him special insight into the brutal fighting in the Aeneid but it doesn’t. After returning to civilian life he taught Classics at another private school for ten years before securing a place at a university (Exeter) in 1936. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1945 and spent 4 years doing a translation of his beloved Aeneid, which was published by Penguin in 1954.

There’s a very full Wikipedia article about him. In it a contemporary, M.L. Clarke, is quoted as saying of him:

‘Knight had little gift for sustained and coherent argument and exposition, and he could, under the influence of whatever book or article he had just been reading, write what can only be described as nonsense.’

With friends like that… Even more striking, we learn that in later life Knight became consumed by a belief in spiritualism:

‘When he began his Penguin Aeneid translation, T.J. Haarhoff, ‘who had for years claimed spirit-contacts with Vergil himself…now put his powers at Jack’s service’… Vergil visited Haarhoff ‘every Tuesday evening’ and wrote out answers to questions raised by Knight, whom Vergil regularly called ‘Agrippa.’ ‘He still does,’ writes Haarhoff in January 1968… Vergil then began to contact Knight ‘directly at Exeter’ warning him ‘to go slow and be extra careful about the “second half.”‘ Knight gratefully dedicated his [Penguin] translation to Haarhoff. After Knight’s death … Haarhoff [was] assured by a medium that ‘Vergil met him when he went over.’ (Reminiscences of W.M. Calder, 1977)

So some aspects of Jackson Knight’s Penguin translation are influenced by what he thought Virgil told him. In person. This is a more interesting fact than anything in Jackson Knight’s introduction.

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Jackson Knight’s 20-page introduction to his translation of Aeneid is typical of a type of old bufferish, old fashioned, romantic, wishy-washy, gushing, hero worshipping and idea-free literary criticism which surrounded me as a boy in the 1960s. I read it before I read the Wikipedia article and so took JK’s frequent mentions of ‘the beyond’ and ‘eternal truths’ and the ‘deep truth’ and ‘truth to life’ to refer to Christian beliefs. Reading the Wikipedia section about his increasing obsession with spiritualism makes sense of the entire orientation of his introduction which is to make Virgil a great teacher of eternal values etc, and to take a soft-lens, romanticising view, emphasising Virgil’s gentleness and sweetness of spirit and thus completely ignoring the testosterone-fuelled hyper-masculine anger and violence which dominates the actual poem, rather than his rose-tinted version of it.

Here’s a summary of key points:

Jackson Knight calls the Aeneid the ‘gateway between the pagan and the Christian centuries’. ‘Virgil is the poet of the Gate.’

Rome rose from being an obscure town in the middle of Italy to running an empire which stretched all round the Mediterranean, slowly and arduously, over a period of some 500 years of continuous warfare.

As the Republic reached its height it was undermined by unparalleled wealth and bitter rivalries for power. Romans who lived through the increasing political violence of the last 50 years of the Republic (which is generally thought to have ended in 27 BC) looked back at what they took to be the noble virtues of their predecessors, their courage, their nobility, their civic high-mindedness. Educated Romans became increasingly interested in antiquarianism and the study of their city’s roots. By going right back to the very original roots of the city, by moulding a new, vastly powerful version of legends about Prince Aeneas of Troy, Virgil distilled this nostalgia and these feelings for a better, nobler world, into imperishable art – and helped to pass it on to the new Christian culture which began to rise soon after his death (in 19 BC). [This is all wish fulfilment. Obviously Christianity didn’t exist until after Jesus was executed in 33 AD, or until Paul began formulating his theories about it in the 40s, and was just one obscure oriental sect among many until well into the second century AD.]

It was on a journey accompanying Augustus to Greece that Virgil fell ill and died, aged just 51. He wished his literary executors, Varius and Tucca, to destroy the Aeneid but they talked him out of it. [The poem is, in my opinion, visibly unfinished, both in structure and many details, but thank God they succeeded.]

Jackson Knight (JK) rather naively claims that Virgil foresaw that Augustus would bring the Roman world peace and order, and supported him. That said, it may be one can read subtle criticisms of Augustus’ early brutal methods in some of Virgil’s poetry. JK optimistically says the influence of gentle Virgil and his friend, Horace, may have helped reform Augustus in later life. [Naiveté and rosy-tinted optimism are Jackson Knight’s key notes.]

JK thinks the Eclogues are full of charming thoughts and imagery. [It was reading statements like this that for years gave me a completely misleading impression of the Eclogues, which in actual fact contain passage of bitterness and emotional turmoil.]

JK’s description of the Georgics as ‘poetry of the farm’ containing advice to farmers about crops, trees and animals also omits the harsh punitive tone of some of them, the descriptions of total war, of a devastating plague, a denunciation of sexual passion, and the long mini epic which takes up half the fourth Georgic. Nothing at all of ‘the poetry of the farm’ about any of these bits.

JK limply defines an epic poem as a long narrative poem full of action which tells us about human life and makes us think about the relation between man and superhuman powers; featuring ‘heroes’ who are above ordinary mortals in skill and strength, while not being divine.

Epic poems consist of two types: oral poems developed by illiterate cultures; and written poems composed in literate cultures, but usually copying the form and conventions of their oral predecessors.

The legend that Aeneas escaped the sack of Troy, sailed the seas to Latium and founded a settlement near modern Rome was ancient. Virgil rewrote it at epic length for his own purposes.

JK points out, pretty obviously, that the entire story is threaded with divine appearances and admonitions with commands, advice and help from various gods. They work through dreams, visions, omens, the worlds of prophets and clairvoyants. Virgil gives the impression of literally believing the human world is subject to the powers of another world. [I wonder whether JK was a Christian. I wonder whether this is why he describes the poem in such positive glowing terms, ignoring the rage and hatred and bitterness and destruction.]

JK is confident that everything in the poem is ‘true to life’, as if that is the measure of an epic poem, when, quite obviously, the opposite is true. From its characters to its diction an epic poem is meant to be a supremely heightened and idealised vision of the lives of gods and heroes.

JK thinks the Aeneid contains many moral messages [as literary critics in the 1950s optimistically believed literature, in general, did.] He thinks the poem displays a Greek moral – avoid excess – and a Roman one – be true (to gods, homeland, family). This is a neat antithesis, but very simplistic.

Thus JK interprets book 4, the love affair with Dido, as describing an unwise relapse by both the protagonists into excessive love, which led them both to abandon their duties to their people and cities, and then led to an excessive counter-reaction when she killed herself at being jilted.

A comparable example of excess occurs at the bitter end of the poem when Aeneas lets his instinct for moderation and forgiveness be overwhelmed by bitterness at Turnus for killing sweet Pallas. This so blinds him with anger that he slaughters his opponent instead of forgiving him.

Following straight on from this observation, JK rather contradicts himself by going on to talk about Virgil’s sweetness and tenderness. He points out, accurately enough, that this quality can sometimes be found in the epic similes which sometimes provide homely human or natural imagery to counterpoint the extreme emotions of fierce battles. He singles out the epic simile which compares Vulcan hammering out the armour for Aeneas to a humble housewife who works all night weaving (8.407 to 415). JK says this is typical of the way Virgil’s deeper meanings ‘softly’ emerge from the text. [It’s a very tendentious example, because many of Virgil’s similes are the opposite of gentle and soft, and depict destructive natural forces, rampaging gods or wild animals.]

As an example of the subtlety and depth Virgil brings to so many aspects of the story, JK compares it with another poem which describes the sack of Troy which was published during his lifetime. In this one, Menelaus comes across Helen hiding from the attacking Greeks and is tempted to kill her – but Venus intervenes to say what a waste that would be since she will still make a perfectly good wife. JK says this is simple and blunt, almost humorously practical and limited.

But in Virgil’s version, it is Aeneas who comes across Helen hiding from the ransack and is momentarily tempted to kill her. By changing the male protagonist of this moment, the scene is transformed and now becomes charged with all kinds of poignancy, Aeneas having all kinds of mixed feelings about the woman responsible for the destruction of everything he holds dear. Then, when Venus intervenes, it is not just as the love goddess as she is in the earlier version, but as Aeneas’s mother, counselling motherly tenderness. She says no humans are to blame for any of this, not Helen nor Paris: it is entirely the gods’ concoction. Thus Venus evokes a complex broil of emotions in Aeneas to turn away anger and bring forgiveness. I thought JK is a Christian because he says this reimagined scene has ‘a moral depth and a certain universality which are almost Christian’ (page 16) and claims that Virgil gets ‘nearer to ultimate truth’ than any poet before him. JK is concerned to make Virgil a sensitive spiritual person, like himself.

JK goes on to generalise about the nature of great poetry. He claims the great poets collect an ‘enormous amount of observations of life’ and then condense it under strong pressure so that when they compose even a few words, they have a great power of suggestion and persuasion. JK claims this is one way in which Virgil developed a style capable of communicating ‘universal truth’.

And it is this which allowed Virgil to condense into a single statement the experience of many generations, in fact of the entire civilisations of the Greeks and the Romans.

JK elaborates this thought by pointing out that Virgil read very widely and remembered everything he read, and so was able to keep in touch with many people, past and present, and ‘be friends with them’. [It feels mean ganging up on a man who was severely injured in the Great War, but this is baby talk.]

Thus JK claims Virgil ‘lived in an ideal world of poetry’. He reorganised the existing ‘poetic thought-world’. Which is why his poetry is so allusive, and works on so many levels.

JK then declines into the kind of hero worship which afflicts so much older Shakespeare criticism. He claims Virgil was sensitive ‘to all points of view’ and all kinds of people, ‘even wicked ones’. Only he could reach the underlying sense of his story. His allusive method helped him tell ‘the truth of art’ not ‘the trivial truth of fact’ [a trite antithesis which, I think, comes from F.R. Leavis].

JK claims Virgil created portraits with a few ‘inspired brush strokes’ rather than detailed realism showing every wrinkle.

Virgil’s wide reading meant that every line and character and plot development contains multiple references to all previous narratives. Thus Virgil’s Aeneas contains bits of the Aeneas who appears in Homer, plus aspects of Homer’s Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, some of Hercules, and also flashes of Augustus.

JK says Virgil uses ‘hundreds’ of phrases of Epicurus in the Aeneid but violently disagreed with Epicurus’s fiercely materialistic philosophy and so sometimes uses Epicurus’s phrases to describe the idealist notions of his philosophical enemy, Plato.

He describes the way the golden bough which Aeneas has to find and pluck in order to visit the underworld almost certainly is a quote from a Greek poem published during Virgil’s lifetime, in which the works of Plato are described as a ‘golden bough, sparkling all round with every virtue’. JK says this is indicative of the importance, for Virgil, of moral goodness leading to ‘spiritual discernment’. [Recurrence of JK’s central obsession with morality and spirituality.]

Virgil spent 11 years writing the Aeneid. He intended to devote a further 3 years to revising it, but died before he could do so. He was a perfectionist. Sometimes he wrote only one line a day. JK points out there are many places in the poem which require a final revision and completion, places where ‘a period of time or a distance’ contradicts what he says elsewhere. [I’ve flagged up some of these discrepancies in my summaries.]

There are discrepancies of fact, like how the Trojans managed to transport the vast amount of treasure and household gods and fabrics and so on which are regularly described, in just 20 ships which they knocked together after the sack of Troy. The reason is the imagery and symbolism are more important than any practical consideration. After all [JK banally comments] it’s not as if anyone believes any of this is true!

And the battle scenes sometimes contain irreconcilable details, techniques and weapons. Specifically, sometimes the warriors fight like Homeric heroes, sometimes like Caesar’s legions. This anachronism, says JK, is deliberate. Virgil is like a portrait painter who tries to capture not the face in front of him but all previous stages of the sitter’s life. And so his poem tries to capture all previous phases of warfare, up to and including the present, in so doing reaching down to show ‘what all war is like.’

The reader new to epic poetry may be taken aback by the exaggerations, of the heroes’ size and strength. But JK hastens to assure us these are not ‘childish’, no, no, they are ‘serious and important symbolic means’ ‘for expressing deep and true meanings.’

[By this stage you can see how JK’s fetishising of the concept of the ‘true’, assigning it ‘depth’ and ‘universal’ meaning, are a kind of magnet. Whatever point he sets out to make, his discourse is drawn back to the magnetic pole of what a genius Virgil is, how he expresses ‘deep’ and ‘universal’ truths. How these truths anticipate the ‘universal truth’ of Christianity. How he encapsulates all time, how he understands all types of people. This is, to be blunt, an inadequate mental system or ideology with which to describe such a vast multifaceted work of art. It is sentimental because it keeps relapsing back into the same comforting hymns of praise. Often JK’s introduction reads like a eulogy. It is more compliments than criticism, in any analytical sense.]

JK picks two moments which distinguish the two protagonists: Turnus holds a bowl of water and it boils over into steam. He is too fiery. Aeneas hold a bowl of water and it reflects rays of light off it; as the water settles the rays settle. Turnus is described as emitting flames and sparks when he gets ferocious for battle. He will burn bright and burn out.

JK points to the many descriptions of dawn or nightfall to illustrate how Virgil used the same basic event but cast it in an infinite variety of words, the start or endings of words being chosen for their sound and how they complement similar words nearby.

Virgil employed several types of rhythm, some governed by long and short syllables, some by stress accents, some by vowel sounds. The delicate interplay of these different systems across numerous lines creates ‘the music of Virgil’.

The translator knows more than anyone that Virgil’s art is subtle because it is often difficult to understand exactly what he means. Often his elliptical and allusive statements need to be expanded in prose in order to convey the full richness of implication and the challenge for the translator is knowing when to hold back and not fully explicate the allusions or implications which he is aware of.

JK tells us Virgil is capable of great variety of tone from ‘apocalyptic majesty’ to a ‘still, small voice’ [characteristic of JK to use a Christian phrase]. Virgil’s general tone is of dignity and formality but he sometimes uses colloquialism and, rarely, something like slang.

The aim of JK’s translation is to let the story tell itself in an impersonal English, removing his own personal style as much as anyone can. But oddities are sometimes permitted because Virgil himself is sometimes ‘odd’. In his day, using Latin for literature was still experimental and hadn’t become as smooth as it was to be even a generation later, for Ovid, for example. It is hard to know exactly how some of the unevennesses in his poems were received in his time, and so difficult to know exactly how to translate them in modern English.

Suddenly JK switches tack from a narrow consideration of Latin style to consider the poem’s place in the entire Western tradition. He announces that the Aeneid was the principle and best known secular book in the Western world. Soon after his death, Virgil began to be worshipped as a divinity. He was awarded a place in Christian worship and art as soon as such things came to be arranged. His imagery in the Eclogues – the picture of a shepherd sitting under a tree piping love songs – influenced every European literature.

The compactness of some of Virgil’s sayings led to the Sortes Vergilianae, where people opened a page of Virgil at random and place their finger blindly on the text and then interpreted its secret meaning. Apparently, Charles I did this before the Battle of Naseby.

On the final page JK’s introduction collapses into hero-worshipping cliché and waffle. ‘The power of Virgil’s poem is like a seed in the ground pushing up into the light; and it is still growing‘ – the force of that last clause meant to convey the impression that the author is ‘still growing’ with it, as if he is part of this great triumphal procession. This is high-sounding bilge.

JK notes that some critics, even in Virgil’s day, wrote against him – this could be interesting if JK quoted any of them and explained what Virgil’s critics said against him, but instead JK collapses into inexcusably weak poetic prose, here, as throughout his introduction, preferring his high-sounding references and allusions to any solid ideas or analysis. Yes, there have been critics of his adored hero, but:

disparagement of Virgil’s overwhelming reputation has always sooner or later collapsed like the walls of Jericho.

This is brainless hero worship. JK compounds this descent into humanistic hogwash by saying it is likely that ‘Virgil, the poet of fidelity, still likes mankind’s fidelity to him‘. This is dire sentimentality devoid of meaning or interest.

In the short introduction to his thorough and useful glossary (pages 343 to 361) JK makes the interesting point that the Aeneid contains nearly 900 names, most of them names of human beings or divinities, though many are place names. Typical of JK not to be precise enough to say how many in each category, which might have led onto interesting analysis. Interesting but doesn’t follow through.

Summary

Over-ripe, out-of-date impressionistic tripe, all-too-pleased with the sound of its own references (the walls of Jericho etc), while palming the reader off with hardly any hard ideas and a dogged determination to make Virgil sound like a gentle, high-minded spiritualist instead of the far more complex, contradictory, daunting and unpleasant poet he actually is, Jackson Knight’s introduction is a typical slice of the high-minded tripe which dominated conservative criticism in the 1950s and 60s.


Roman reviews

Living with gods @ the British Museum

There are two major exhibition spaces in the British Museum, the big Sainsbury Gallery at the back of the main court where they hold blockbuster shows like The Vikings or The Celts; and the more intimate semi-circular space up the stairs on the first floor of the central rotunda.

The setting

This latter location is where Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond is currently showing.

The space is divided into ‘rooms’ or sections by translucent white linen curtains, on which the shadows of exhibits and visitors are cast. At floor level hidden lights project shimmering patterns onto the wall. Low-key ambient noises – strange rustlings, breathings, the rattling of unknown instruments – fill the air.

All this sets the scene and creates a mood, because this is an exhibition not of religious beliefs, but of religious objects, designed to tell the story of the relationship between human beings and their gods, or – more abstractly – their sense of the supernatural, through rare and precious religious artefacts from around the world.

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo, 20th century This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy pople from initiation ceremonies for yound men. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo (20th century) This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy people from initiation ceremonies for young men © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Themes

The objects are grouped by ‘theme’, namely:

  • Light, water, fire
  • Sensing other worlds
  • Sacred places and spaces
  • Prayer
  • Festivals
  • The cycle of life
  • Sacrifice
  • Coexistence

There are brief wall labels introducing each theme. Personally, I found these rather weak and obvious but then it’s a tricky task to summarise humanity’s entire history and relationship with, say, Prayer, in just four sentences.

Very often these texts are forced to state pretty empty truisms. One tells us that ‘Water is essential to life, but also brings chaos and death’. OK.

Another that ‘Religions shape the way people perceive the world by engaging all their senses.’ Alright. Fine as far as they go, but not really that illuminating.

Wonder toad China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Wonder toad from China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Individual information

The labels of individual exhibits are more specific and so more interesting. But here again, because artefacts from different cultures, geographical locations, religions and periods are placed next to each other, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get any real sense of context.

It may well be that:

Seeing out the old year in Tibet requires a purifying dance or cham. These lively masked and costumed dances are performed by Buddhist monks to rid the world of evil and bring in compassion.

Or that:

On 31 October every year, Mexicans remember the dead by staying at the graves of loved ones through the night. Theatrical processions symbolise fears and fantasies of the world of the dead. Judas, who denounced Christ to the Roman authorities, is displayed as a devil. Judas figures are also paraded and exploded on Easter Saturday.

But by the time you’re reading the tenth or fifteenth such snippet of information, it’s gotten quite hard to contain or process all this information. The whole world of religious artefacts for all known human religions is, well… a big subject.

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

So the weaknesses of the exhibition are its lack:

  • of intellectual depth – none of the room labels tell you anything you didn’t already know about the importance of light or water in religious belief
  • and of conceptual coherence – just giving each section a ‘theme’ and a few explanatory sentences isn’t, in the end, enough

Best objects

On the plus side, Living with gods is a rich collection of fascinating, evocative and sometimes very beautiful objects from all round the world. Because they’re so varied – from prayer mats to medieval reliquaries, from the tunics which Muslim pilgrims to Mecca wear to Inuit figures made of fur, from a statue of Buddha to a wooden model of a Hindu chariot – there’s something for every taste.

I had two favourite moments. One was the display case of African masks. I love African tribal art, it has a finish, a completeness, and a tremendous pagan primitive power, combined with high skill at metal working, which I find thrilling.

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right)

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right) In the background is a painted model of a Hindu temple vehicle.

The other was a modern piece by Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj, called Dark Water, Burning World, a set of model boats made out of refashioned bicycle mudguards, filled with burnt-out matches, representing the refugee crisis. How simple. How elegant. How poignant. How effective.

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

I don’t quite understand how this latter is a religious artefact. It strikes me as being probably more a work of art than a religious object.

The show as a whole goes heavy on artefacts from the obvious world religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Daoism, Shintoism – as well as the ancient beliefs of the Persians, Assyrians and so on, plus sacred objects produced by non-literate tribal peoples such as the Yupik of Alaska or Siberian tribes. It is nothing if not global and all-encompassing.

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Static

Although the exhibition claims to ‘explore the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of individuals and communities around the world and through time’, it doesn’t.

Most religions are expressed by actions and rituals, dances, prayers, blessings, festivals, processions and so on. A moment’s reflection would suggest that the best way to convey this – in fact the only way to really convey these events and activities – would be through a series of films or videos.

Downstairs in the African galleries of the British Museum there are, for example, videos of tribal masks being worn by witch doctors and shamen performing dances, exorcisms and so on, which give a vivid (and terrifying) sense of how the head dresses, masks and implements are meant to be used in religious rituals, how they’re still being used to this day.

There is none of that here. Nothing moves. No words are spoken, in blessing or benediction. It is a gallimaufrey of static artefacts – all interesting, some very beautiful – but all hermetically sealed in their display cases. I found the lack of movement of any kind a little… antiseptic. Dry.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine, 1600–1700 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine (1600–1700) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

BBC radio series

The exhibition was planned to coincide with a series of 30 15-minute radio programmes made by BBC Radio 4 and presented by the former Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor scored a massive hit with his wonderful radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, broadcast in 2010. The 30 programmes in the Living with the gods series were broadcast in the autumn of 2017. Quite probably the best thing to do would have been to listen to the series and then come to look at the objects he mentioned. Or to have downloaded the programmes to a phone or Ipod and listened to them as you studied each object.

You can still listen to them free on the BBC website.

MacGregor is a star because he is so intelligent. Without any tricks or gimmicks he gets straight down to business, describing and explaining each of the objects and confidently placing them in the context of their times and places, within their systems of belief, and in the wider context of the development of the human mind and imagination. Just by listening to him you can feel yourself getting smarter.

I recommend episode 4, Here comes the sun, as one of the most awe-inspiring.

The radio programmes score over the actual exhibition because, at fifteen minutes per theme, there are many more words available in which to contextualise, explain and ponder meanings and implications, than the two or three sentences which is all the space the exhibition labels can provide.

The individual fire-related items are fairly interesting to look at in the exhibition. But MacGregor can weave an entire narrative together which links the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the worship of Ahura-Mazda in Sassanian Persia, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and the Flame of the Nation which burns beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

His words bring to life exhibits which I found remained stubbornly lifeless in this hushed and sterile environment.

Religious belief as tame anthropology, drained of threat

Above all I bridled a little at the touchy-feely, high mindedness of the show, with its tone of hushed reverence and for its equation of all religious into the same category of cute Antiques Roadshow curiosities.

The commentary goes long on human beings’ capacity for ‘symbolising our thoughts in stories and images’, on our capacity for ‘love and sorrow’, on how ‘powerful, mystical ideas govern personal lives as well as defining cultural identities and social bonds’, and so on.

The commentary wistfully wonders whether human beings, rather than being labelled Homo sapiens shouldn’t be recategorised as Homo religiosus. Here as at numerous points in the commentary, I think you are meant to heave a sensitive sigh. It all felt a bit like a creative writing workshop where everyone is respecting everyone else’s sensibilities.

None of this is exactly untrue but I felt it overlooks the way that, insofar as religious beliefs have been intrinsic to specific cultures and societies over the millennia, they have also been inextricably linked with power and conquest.

To put it simply:

  • human history has included a shocking number of religious wars and crusades
  • religious belief and practice in most places have reinforced hierarchies of control and power

Rather than Homo religiosus, an unillusioned knowledge of human history suggests that, if man is anything, he is Homo interfector.

There is ample evidence that religion provides a way for believers to control and manage their fear and anxiety of powers completely beyond their control, the primal events of birth and death, natural disasters, the rotation of the seasons, the vital necessity of animals to hunt and kill and crops to grow and eat.

Central to any psychological study of religion is the way it provides comfort against the terror of death, with its various promises of a happy afterlife; and also the role it plays in defining and policing our sexual drives. Finding answers to the imponderable problems of sex and death have been time-honoured functions of religious belief.

On a social level, religion hasn’t only been a way to control our fears and emotions – it also has a long track record as a means to channel internal emotions into externalised aggression. You can’t have a history of Christianity without taking into account the early internecine violence between sects and heretics, which broke out anew with the 150 years of Religious War following the Reformation; without taking into account its violent conquests of pagan Europe which only ground to a halt in the 13th century or recognising the crusades to the Holy Land, or admitting to the anti-Semitism which is built deep into Christianity’s DNA. For every Saint Francis who wrote songs to the birds there is a man like Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amalric who told his troops to massacre the entire population of Béziers in 1209, claiming that God would sort out the good from the bad. ‘Kill them all. God will know his own.’

The history of Islam  may well be a history of religious sages and philosophers, but it is also a history of military conquest. The Aztecs and the Incas practiced really horrifying human sacrifices. As did the Celts And bloodily so on.

My point is summarised by the great English poet, Geoffrey Hill, who wrote back in 1953:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

(Genesis by Geoffrey Hill)

‘There is no bloodless myth will hold’.

Christianity is represented here by processional crosses and rosary beads and a beautiful golden prayer book. The other religions are represented by similarly well-crafted and beautiful objects.

But my point is that Christianity is based on the story of a man who was tortured to death to please an angry God. Blood drips from his pierced hands and feet. The early theologian Tertullian wrote, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ Shiah Muslims flagellate themselves every Muḥarram (I watched them doing it in the mountains of Pakistan. The hotel owner told me to stay indoors in case one of the inflamed believers attacked me.) As I write some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes by Buddhist populations.

My point is that religion isn’t all uplifting sentiments and beautiful works of art.

Religion does not show us what we all share in common: that is a pious liberal wish. Much more often it is used to define and police difference, between genders, castes and races.

Religion is just as much about conquest and massacre. And I’m not particularly knocking religion; I’m saying that human beings are as much about massacre and murder as they are about poetry and painting. And that poetry, painting and exhibitions like this which lose sight of the intrinsic violence, the state sponsored pogroms and the religious massacres which are a key part of human history give a misleading – a deceptively gentle and reassuring – view of the world.

Tibetan New Year dance mask Tibet © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Tibetan New Year dance mask © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

I’m one of the few people I know who has read the entire Bible. Certain themes recur but not the kind of highbrow sentiments you might hope for. I was struck by the number of time it is written in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that:

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

There are many very beautiful and very interesting objects in this exhibition but I felt that they were presented in an atmosphere of bloodless, New Age, multicultural spirituality. Put bluntly: there wasn’t enough fear and blood.

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A History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede (732)

Bede’s life

Bede was a monk who spent most of his life in the monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and its companion monastery, Saint Paul’s in what is now modern Jarrow, both situated in the Dark Age Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

He lived from 672-735. The honorific Venerable (as in ‘the Venerable Bede’) apparently derives from the tombstone erected some years after his death.

Bede was fortunate in that his monastery was run by the enlightened abbot, Benedict Biscop, and his successor, Ceolfrith, who both encouraged his historical studies.

It also contained probably the most extensive library in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Thus encouraged by kind sponsors and in a uniquely well-provisioned environment, Bede began to write, and went on to compose some 40 works, including commentaries on numerous books of the Bible, a life of St Cuthbert, lives of famous Saxon abbots, and so on. (He usefully provides us with a list of his works.)

But Bede is best-known for his masterpiece, regularly described as the first and greatest work of English history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). I have the old 1955 Penguin translation by Leo Sherley-Price, who translates the title as A History of the English Church and People.

Bede is called the Father of English History for several reasons:

  • He checked his sources, requesting documents and information from libraries in all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, correlating documents against each other, enquiring of eye-witnesses or descendants of eye-witnesses wherever possible. He clearly lays out his methodology in the introductory letter, and thus established a tradition of scrupulously checking the facts.
  • He describes in wonderful detail a period – from the Roman departure 410 until his own day, the 720s – for which we have pitifully little alternative material. Without his history there would be a big hole in our knowledge of the period and, since this was when our country was founded, he is an invaluable source for the earliest years of our nation.
  • Bede’s whole conception of History is wonderfully rounded. At a time when his contemporaries were struggling to produce the blunt line-for-each-year Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede set the events he reports in the contexts of Papal, European and wider British history, going backwards and forwards in time to situate events within broader historical themes as well, of course, as setting everything he describes within the overarching framework of God’s great redemptive plan for Man.

Structure of the Ecclesiastical History

The work is divided into five books, each of which covers a certain period. But the more important division is of each book into 30 or so one- or two-page chapters. These focus on one incident or theme (the miracles of so and so, the death of one bishop, the succession of another, and so on) and were obviously designed to provide good, practical meditations for his (entirely religious) audience to hear read out loud and ponder.

Leo Sherley-Price

Sherley-Price’s prose translation is crisp and brisk, presumably a faithful translation of Bede’s practical style. But the most striking thing about this translation is Sherley-Price’s attitude: he is himself a devout Christian and his beliefs come out in the introduction and (brief) notes, in a way a modern writer would not permit themselves. Thus his note on Pelagianism:

Pelagianism, ‘the British heresy’, denied the reality of original sin, and affirmed that man could attain perfection by his own efforts, unaided by the grace of God. This misconception is still strong today! [emphasis added]

In the introduction he gives a stout defence of miracles and the presence of the miraculous in the History:

Even when ruthless pruning has greatly reduced the number [of plausible miracles in the text], there remains an indissoluble core that cannot be explained by any known natural means, and attributable solely to the supernatural power of God displayed in and through His saints. And this is as it should be. For a true miracle (and who may doubt that such occur?) is not due to the supersession or inversion of the natural laws of the universe ordained by the Creator, but to the operation of cosmic laws as yet unrealised by man, activated by non-material forces whose potency is amply demonstrated in the Gospels. (Introduction, page 30, italics added)

These are confidently Christian words from a pre-1960s era which, in its own way, seems as remote to us today as Bede’s 8th century.

But the most telling sign of their datedness is, I think, not his Catholic faith as such – there’s no shortage of relic-kissing Catholics in 2013 – it is that Sherley-Price tries to make a rational, scientific distinction between improbable or forged miracles, and those which are undoubtedly the real thing. He thinks it is worthwhile to make this distinction and, in so doing, sounds like a member of the Brains Trust, like a reputable academic wearing a tweed jacket and puffing a pipe, debating atheism and belief with Bertrand Russell;he sounds like C.S. Lewis in his apologetic works, naively confident that you can reason someone into belief.

Our understanding of texts and discourses has leapt forward massively in the past 60 years.

The miraculous in Bede

In my opinion, Sherley-Price is missing the point by his nitpicking. The miraculous is the element in which Bede lives and breathes. God is all around him and his angels regularly appear to the people he is describing, to people he actually knows, with important messages and predictions.

Bede’s world is full of miraculous recoveries, holy rescues and blessed cures because God’s angels and saints are continually battling demons and spirits, the forces of the Old Enemy, who are at work everywhere and in everyone.

The miracles in Bede aren’t incidental; they are symptomatic of a world utterly drenched in the presence of God’s powers. To try and unpick the more likely from the less likely ones is to misread the coherence of the imaginative world, the worldview, the psychology, the culture which Bede inhabits. It is to apply absurdly flat and literalistic criteria to a world of wonders.

It is like undertaking a scientific assessment of which bits of magic in Harry Potter might actually be feasible. You are missing the point; the point is to abandon yourself entirely to the endless wonder and richness and unceasing miraculousness of Bede’s world, a world in which God always helps his saints and always punishes his sinners.

Some miracles

  • Book I, chapter 7 St Alban, sentenced to execution by the Roman authorities, can’t cross the packed bridge into Verulamium, so the river blocking his way dries up just as the Red Sea did. As the executioner decapitates Alban, his own eyes pop out.
  • I, 17 as Germanus sails to Britain, devils raise a storm and the ships are in peril of foundering so Germanus prays and sprinkles holy water on the waves, which puts the demons to flight and the storm passes.
  • I, 18 Using relics he’s brought from Rome, Germanus cures the blindness of a tribune’s young daughter.
  • I, 19 A fire threatens the house where Germanus is staying but he calls on the Lord and the flames turn back. Demons throw Germanus off his horse and he breaks his leg. In a vision an angel raises him and lo! his leg is healed.
  • I, 20 Picts and Saxons invade but bishops Germanus and Lupus organise the Britons into a defensive force. They call on the Lord and leap out of hiding shouting so effectively that the Saxons and Picts all run away, many of them drowning in the river.
  • I, 21 Germanus heals the crippled son of the chieftain Elaphius.
  • I, 33 The priest Peter is drowned off the coast of Gaul and buried by the locals in a common grave but God makes a bright light shine over the grave every night until the locals realise he is a holy man and bury him properly in a church in Boulogne.

The power of Christianity

The miracles are just the most striking way in which, for Bede and for all the early missionaries, bishops and believers he describes, Christianity works. It is better than paganism because its believers wield the real power which drives the universe, not the foolish, deluded voodoo of illiterate peasants who believe in amulets and spells and worship stones and trees.

For many profaned the Faith that they professed by a wicked life, and at a time of plague some had even abandoned the Christian sacraments and had recourse to the delusive remedies of idolatry, as though they could expect to halt a plague ordained of God by spells, amulets, and other devilish secret arts. (IV, 28)

Christianity is the Real Thing, it is the real magic that pagans only pretend to harness.

Believers in it win victories and become kings or emperors (as Constantine famously won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge after invoking Christ’s name), they heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons and do battle with devils and quench fires and bring down rain and make the crops grow. It is all the supernatural things paganism falsely claims to be – except it actually is.

Crediting witnesses, believing in miracles

Bede goes out of his way to tell us that he has many of these stories from people who knew the saints in question, that he personally has listened to their stories of angelic visitors and wrestling with devils and curing the sick and of coffins which magically resize themselves to fit the bodies of deceased saints.

An old brother of our monastery, who is still living, testifies that he once knew a truthful and devout man who had met Fursey in the province of the East Angles, and heard of these visions from his own mouth (Book III, chapter 19)

I have thought it fitting to preserve the memory of one of these stories, often told me by the very reverend Bishop Acca, who said that it was vouched for by some very reliable brethren of the monastery. (IV, 14)

Among those who told me this story were some who had actually heard it from the mouth of the man to whom these things happened, so that I have no hesitation  about including it in t his history of the church as it was related. (IV, 23)

My informant in all these events was my fellow-priest, Edgils, who was living in the monastery at the time. (IV, 25)

Even if we disbelieve every story, we are impressed by Bede’s conception of the historian as one who seeks out eye witnesses, who listens, who writes it down.

Anyway, even our sceptical age is alive with urban myths, and still suffers from the profound irrationality and credulousness of human beings. There are still people who under stress clutch any straw, who pray and promise God they’ll believe in him, who believe it was their prayers that saved the plunging plane or their sick relative or clinched the extra-time winner.

But we also know about the Somme, the Holocaust, about 9/11, we know that vast massacres occur and no-one is saved and God is nowhere to be seen.

Personally, I apply David Hume’s Calculus of Probability to all accounts of miracles. Is it more likely that the vast and universal laws of Nature were suspended, often for childish and petty ends? Or that the people who claim to have experienced a miracle, simply have a need to appear important, or are propagandising for their faith, or are naive and credulous?

It will always be the latter. An entirely rational assessment will always militate against miracles. But where, then, is the point or pleasure in reading Bede or indeed any other Christian literature?

For me such Christian literature can still be immensely rewarding, you just have to suspend disbelief. You just have to make the effort to cast yourself back into that mental world. Indeed, that is precisely the point of reading old literature: to expand your mind.

Some more miracles

  • Book IV, chapter 28 Cuthbert makes spring water appear on a barren hillside and crops to grow out of season.
  • IV 29 Cuthbert prophetically foretells his own death.
  • IV 30 Eleven years after his death Cuthbert’s body is found to be uncorrupted, soft and sweet.
  • IV 31 Brother Baduthegn suffers a paralytic stroke but drags himself to Cuthbert’s tomb where he dreams a great hand touches his wound and he awakens healed.
  • IV 32 Hairs from Cuthbert’s corpse cure the tumour on a brother’s eye.
  • V 1 The hermit Ethelwold calms a storm threatening to drown some monks.
  • V 2 Bishop John cures a dumb, scrofulous servant.
  • V 3 Bishop John cures Coenburg, a sick serving girl.
  • V 4 Bishop John cures the thane Puch’s wife.
  • V 5 Bishop John cures thane Addi’s servant.
  • V6 Bishop John cures a brother who foolishly races a horse, falls off and cracks his skull.
  • V 8 Archbishop Theodore foresees his own death in a vision.
  • V 9 Holy Egbert plans to evangelise the Germans but is prevented by God who sends visions and a storm.
  • V 10 Two missionaries to the Old Saxons are murdered by pagans but their bodies are washed upstream and a light shines over them every night till their companions find them and give them decent burial.

And so it goes on… To try to weight up the ‘valid’ miracles from the ‘invalid’ may be an interesting academic exercise but is pointless. Take out the miracles and there’d be nothing left. The entire story of the growth of the English church is, for Bede, miraculous and made up of miracle piled upon miracle.

Therefore, we should embrace the supernatural elements of Bede’s history unquestioningly, both as a vital component of his worldview, without which his whole history is pointless; and also because of the sheer pleasure it gives. How wonderful to live in this world of angels and demons! Surrender to its visions and what a wonderful, informative, imaginative, delightful book this is!

But what did the pagans believe?

Notoriously,and tragically, Bede (like all the Christian writers of the Dark Ages) tells us almost nothing about what his heathen and pagan opponents believed.

Worshiping trees, stones and rivers, wearing amulets and slaughtering horses seem to be part of pagan belief but we only glimpse these as throwaway asides. There are only a few exceptions, a few places where Bede paints a ‘conversion scene’ and allows us to see what the pagan worldview actually consisted of.

The most famous is in Book II, chapter 13, where King Edwin of Northumbria has already converted to Christianity but needs to take his nobles with him. He convenes a council (AD 627). They are sitting in the king’s large hall, illuminated by a huge fireplace and maybe other torches, but with glassless windows. And one of the king’s thanes uses their setting for a famously beautiful metaphor of human life.

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement and went on to say: ‘Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.’

Yes, but what were they converting from? Bede doesn’t sully his book by telling us. Probably the mere act of writing down pagan beliefs would in some sense validate them. It might even conjure them up. Best left unmentioned, undescribed.

The conversion of King Sigbert of the East Saxons

There is another exchange, less poetic but, I think, more revealing in Book III, chapter 22:

About this time also, the East Saxons, who had once rejected the Faith and driven out Bishop Mellitus, again accepted it under the influence of King Oswy. For Sigbert their king, successor to Sigbert the Small, was a friend of Oswy and often used to visit him in the province of the Northumbrians. Oswy used to reason with him how gods made by man’s handwork could not be gods, and how a god could not be made from a log or block of stone, the rest of which might be burned or made into articles of everyday use or possibly thrown away as rubbish to be trampled underfoot and reduced to dust. He showed him how God is rather to be understood as a being of boundless majesty, invisible to human eyes, almighty, everlasting, Creator of heaven and earth and of the human race. He told him that he rules and will judge the world in justice, abiding in eternity, not in base and perishable metal; and that it should be rightly understood that all who know and do the will of their creator will receive an eternal reward from him. King Oswy advanced these and other arguments during friendly and brotherly talks with Sigbert, who, encouraged by the agreement of his friends, was at length convinced. So he talked it over with his advisers, and with one accord they accepted the Faith and were baptised with him by Bishop Finan in the king’s village of At-Wall, so named because it stands close to the wall which the Romans once built to protect Britain, about twelve miles from the eastern coast.

In the context of the Dark Ages this is gold dust. How fabulous to be told so much detail about these obscure kings, Oswy and Sigbert, about social intercourse between the kings of these early English kingdoms, about the relationship between a king and his advisers, about the geography of the region.

Christianity trumps paganism

But the core of the passage is the absolute crux of Bede’s History – the sheer majesty and breathtaking sweep, the intellectual, moral and imaginative scale and thoroughness and universality of Catholic Christianity compared with the thin, local, petty, shallow gods and practices of paganism.

For me this one chapter shows how Christianity was a VAST improvement on the limited, dark, unintellectual world of the pagan gods.

Miracles and all, if you compare the intellectual coherence of Bede’s position with the worldview of the pagan Poetic Edda, Christianity wins hands-down for its scope and thoroughness.

Thor throwing his hammer at giants is for children, the Last Battle between gods and giants is a fable for fatalistic warrior-kings.

Neither can stand comparison with the wonder and coherence of the Christian notion of one, all-powerful, all-loving Creator, with his flocks of angels ready to help the mightiest king or the lowliest serf to lead a more holy, just and – ultimately – satisfying life.

One by one, the kings of Dark Age Britain who Bede describes, realised this mighty truth and bowed to the inevitable.

Little was Bede to know that just 60 years after his death in 732, furious straw-haired pagans were to appear from across the sea and do their damnedest to destroy everything he and his brothers had built up. But that is another story…

"The Venerable Bede Translates John" by James Doyle Penrose (Wikimedia Commons)

The Venerable Bede Translates John by James Doyle Penrose (source: Wikimedia Commons)


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