Hemingway Letters Update

Back in April 2010, I noted that in the past half century Hemingway biographies have largely ignored the papers he left behind at Finca Vigía, his Cuban home, in 1961, and I reported that in 2009 copies of most of these materials had finally become available at the Kennedy Library in Boston, which houses the extensive Ernest Hemingway Collection.

Consolidation of the papers and growing international cooperation among Hemingway scholars have now resulted in a massive project, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters of Ernest Hemingway, to publish his approximately 6,000 letters, of which about 80% have not yet appeared in print.  The first volume, covering the years 1907–1922, has already been published; a dozen or more volumes are planned.

The Introduction to the edition by Sandra Spanier, the general editor (Vol. 1, pp. xi-xxxiii), has more on the vagaries of the Hemingway archives.  An interview with Spanier is here.

Don’t Climb Every Mountain

Freddie Wilkinson, an alumnus of this History department and experienced high-altitude mountaineer, reports in today’s New York Times on the prospects for the upcoming climbing season at Mount Everest:

Sadly, events on the south (Nepalese) side of Mount Everest this season suggest that while the risks inherent in climbing the mountain have never been greater, a majority of Everest climbers are increasingly estranged from the decision-making process. Two intersecting trends are to blame: the rising number of people attempting the mountain, and the cumulative effects of global warming, which is slowly yet steadily drying out the Himalayas, resulting in rockfalls, avalanches and sérac collapses.

Torture for Tourists

Last month I picked up this flier at an airport hotel in Amsterdam.  As I was leaving early the next morning, I didn’t have the chance to check out the city’s Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments in person, but looking at its web pages and a few other materials online, I wonder what’s going on there.  The Museum claims (from the flier):

In the Middle Ages, Torture was a widely known punishment for almost all crimes committed, ranging from rape to murder, and above all for heresy. (…) Museum of Medieval Torture instruments displays over 100 devices used to torture people during medieval times.  This unique collection, recreated by pictures and drawings, serves as a grim reminder of how poorly humans can treat one another.  As you look at the devices and read about how they were used, you’ll cringe… You’ll leave thankful our society has pasted [sic] the dark ages behind.

And cringe I did.  My students know my response to this sort of nonsense: no, torture was not used as a form of punishment “for almost all forms of crime” in the Middle Ages, and definitely not for heresy.  Medieval executions could certainly be grim, but torture, if applied, served to extract confessions, not to punish.  It was a means of interrogation, to gather proof.  And most importantly: there’s nothing particularly medieval about torture.  Quite the opposite is true.  As is well known, the Roman judicial system laid the basis of modern practice by allowing torture in the questioning of slaves, extending its application by the late Empire to lower-class citizens suspected of certain crimes against the state.  Medieval authorities used it sparingly until the revival of Roman law around 1200-1250.  Its widespread application is a typical feature of the Early Modern state in the 16th and 17th centuries, not the Middle Ages.  And of course its heyday came in the 20th century (though the 21st century is off to a promising start in this respect, too).  As my colleague and one-time co-authorEdward Peters, wrote so eloquently in his authoritative Torture (2nd edition, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996):

Paradoxically, in an age of vast state strength, ability to mobilize resources, and in possession of virtually infinite means of coercion, much of state policy has been based upon the concept of extreme state vulnerability to enemies, external or internal.  This unsettling combination of vast power and infinite vulnerability has made many twentieth-century states, if not neurotic, then at least extremely ambiguous in their approach to such things as human rights and their own willingness (the states would call it ‘necessity’) to employ procedures that they would otherwise ostensibly never dream of.

He added, pointedly:

The best recent evidence indicates that torture is [now] used, formally or informally, in one country out of every three.

Little did he know, back in 1996, that his own country, the USA, would be among the happy 33% that practice torture today.

A “medieval” Iron Maiden in the San Gimignano collection. As Wolfgang Schild has demonstrated in 2000, these devices are not medieval but were invented and first assembled around 1800 from various museum objects for the purpose of commercial exhibition, which is of course the procedure here as well

How fortunate indeed that we have “pasted” all of that behind!  And then there is this: a little googling reveals that the Amsterdam Museum of Medieval Torture is only one local outfit of what looks like a commercial enterprise spanning the European continent with “torture museum franchises” in various cities: there is the Prague Museum of Torture, a Museum of Torture in Krakow, Poland, in Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany, and a Museo della Tortura e di Criminologia Medievale in San Gimignano, Italy (attention folks: “The Museum of Medieval Torture is located right in the heart of the historical center of San Gimignano, near our welcoming and charming Hotel L’ Antico Pozzo, the perfect accommodation for your stay in Tuscany”oh dear Santa Fina, tell me it’s not true).  The San Gimignano museum states that it has “sponsored exhibitions of some of its more interesting pieces across the globe, from Argentina to Tokyo.”  I am sure people in Argentina were bemused to learn from Italians that torture existed in … the Middle Ages.  There are also signs of a local unit in Tallinn, Estonia, though that may have been a temporary exhibit.  I suspect that much of the stuff in these places indeed consists of plates and “replicas” that can be easily packed up and moved elsewhere as soon as the local desire for torture titillation has dried up.  They all have similar websites promising the same “medieval” horrors offered up with the same pious platitudes about human rights abuses in a distant past.  The Amsterdam museum even promises “educational tours” but that webpage is still under construction. As far as I can tell, not a single object in these museums actually dates from the Middle Ages; and there is not a word of instruction on the real practice of torture, past or present, the mechanisms of power it serves, or the arguments invoked to legitimize it.

Oh yes: the Amsterdam Museum offers a children’s discount; bring your little ones, who can enjoy this for only 4 Euros!

Home Sweet Home

Sold at a November 24-27, 2011 auction, by Bubb Kuyper, one of Europe’s most prominent auctioneers of printed and manuscript books:

Photo: Veilinghuis Bubb Kuyper, Haarlem

(from the catalogue:) 55/ 81  [Objects for booklovers]. (Bearded man in his study). Scale model of a private library w. 2 bookcases, comprising 9 shelves w. ±100 imitation miniature books, mixed materials, in a glass bottle (Ş13,5, length 25 cm.)., 20th cent.

Sold for 210 Euro.

H/t: Boekendingen

Who Knewt?

Newt Gingrich (Photo: AP)

Here’s a suggestion for my fellow-historians: if questioned what you actually “do”, your answer should be: “as a historian, I offer people strategic advice over a long period of time.” Next, you should stop by your dean’s office and demand to have your salary upgraded to the new standard.

Pain and Longing: The Hidden Terrors of Helene Nolthenius

Nolthenius in the 1950s

The Dutch medievalist Helene Nolthenius (1920­–2000) has a curious, split reputation.  The division is not between fans and detractors but rather between those who appreciate her for a small set of specialist publications, mostly in medieval music history, and then a much larger audience that loves her for popular non-fiction and fiction, usually set in the distant European past.  She began her career in 1951 with a tremendously successful work on thirteenth-century Italy, Duecento (English translation: Duecento: The Late Middle Ages in Italy, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968; published in Britain as In that Dawn: The Thirteenth Century in Italy, London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1968).  It’s still a lovely introduction to Italian culture on the eve of the renaissance, though it shows its age and, especially in the original Dutch, stylistically bears the mark of Johan Huizinga’s “historical sensation” – concept: it’s all very exciting, even a little breathless.  Imagine Huizinga, having fallen in love with Umbria, sitting down for work in the morning with an espresso and a shot of grappa, and then letting loose (hard to imagine, I know).

This is rather unkind of me because there are times when I really like the book, and in some ways it broke new ground: Nolthenius was interdisciplinary long before anyone knew what the term meant.  But she would have been the first to admit that Duecento did not go very deep and did not aim very high: the goal was to thrill, to please, to find a new audience for a history and a place with which she had fallen in love during her dissertation research on the musical culture of early Franciscan Laude in central Italy. It was the source of an enduring passion that compelled her to retire from her professorship in Utrecht at the age of fifty-six and move to an old farmhouse in Cavriglia, some 20 miles south of Florence, in 1978.  The dream turned out to be less than satisfying, and she went back to Holland in 1981, another illusion richer (or poorer).  The experience characterizes her life, dominated by a longing for a high culture of love and beauty impossible to attain in the modern world and increasingly sought in the past and within—or perhaps with her husband, Willy Wagenaar, a kind and erudite esthete, and with her family.  A strain of deep sadness and pain runs through much of her fiction work, which I always found difficult to reconcile with the mood of eager delight in Duecento.  Even her lighter work, like the mystery novels centered on Lapo Mosca, a medieval monk and sleuth,

A Spanish translation of two Lapo Mosca mysteries, 1996

can be bleak.  She started the series in 1977; a year later Umberto Eco began work on his novel about a medieval monastic detective, The Name of the Rose, which of course became an international bestseller.  (Nolthenius’ Lapo Mosca-mysteries did well in the Netherlands; some were translated into Italian, Spanish and German.)

Above all, there is guilt, and shame.  In her final novel, Voortgeschopt als een steen [“Kicked like a Pebble”, only available in Dutch], published a year before her death, when she was already suffering from Parkinson’s, the central character, Leonidas of Taranto (a real historical figure, aka Leonida di Taranto, author of Greek epigrams, probably active in the third century BC) traces his life of endless vagrancy to the day when, at the age of twenty-five, he leaves his homeland to seek adventure, serving cruel Pyrrhus and many other dubious patrons to whom he sold his pen as a second-rate poet.  ‘An artist is a divided human being: the protective hide of his homeland provides the foundations of his art, but he will always seek the muses on the far side of the horizon” (p. 17, my translation).  Leonidas looks back in shame: he failed himself for not living up to his own high standards of art, but he also failed his father, who had named him after the famed Spartan king and martial hero in the hope of a glorious future; and he has failed his home, Taranto, sacked by Pyrrhus.

Nolthenius thought of herself as a lonely wanderer in a senseless world.  Throughout her life and career as a historian and writer, she harbored an identification with St Francis of Assisi, the subject of her last historical work for a wider audience,

Giovanni Bellini, St Francis in Ecstasy, c. 1480 (New York, Frick Museum)

De man uit het dal van Spoleto: Franciscus tussen zijn tijdgenoten [The Man from Spoleto Valley: St Francis Among his Contemporaries, 1988; translated into Italian and Spanish, but not in English), in which she juxtaposes fragments from historical narratives about political and cultural events written in the days of St Francis, with a meticulous reconstruction of the saint’s life, which produces an odd effect of profound melancholy: it reminded me of Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, in which the painter foregrounds a farmer plowing the land and a shepherd glancing up at the sky as if worried by inclement weather, totally oblivious to the drama in the background of young Icarus plunging to his death.

A new biography by Etty Mulder, Rede en vervoering. Helene Nolthenius 1920–2000 [Reason and Ecstasy: H.N.] (Nijmegen: Vanthilt, 2009) reveals that this brilliant loner kept some long and deep scars in her psyche carefully hidden behind a forbidding persona, unfathomable to her colleagues and intimidating to her students—though they remember her even more for her inability to look them in the eye.  When Helene was four or five, in the mid-1920s,

Nolthenius, age 5 (photo: Mulder, HN)

her father Hugo abandoned his career as a cellist because of stage fright and became a high school teacher of Latin and Greek.  His great learning inspired immense admiration in the young girl, but his pomposity in the classroom also embarrassed her.  He, in turn, cut short her promise as a singer, insisting that her voice “just wasn’t good enough”. Adolescence brought even greater tension with her father.  Helene never forgave him for leaving her mother (and her) for another woman, and broke off all contact with him in the early 1950s.  Mulder identifies “letting go” as a key value in her life.

I am intrigued by her sense of failure, affected no doubt by the troubled relationship with her father but also by traumatizing events during and shortly after the Second World War, which shaped her view of herself and her main subject, Franciscan culture.

Her formative teens and early twenties involved numerous crises and transitions for herself and for loved ones.  She idealized her aunt Frida, a history teacher in Indonesia; after Frida’s suicide in 1927, Mulder testifies, she “put on [Frida’s] clothes and read her books”, including Johannes Jørgensen’s biography of Saint Francis of Assisi (orig. publ. 1907), setting into motion a lifelong fascination with Francis and her conversion to Catholicism, formally completed when she turns 21—truly an act of rebellion against her pantheist/atheist father; Mulder publishes Nolthenius handwritten Apologia for her faith, found among her papers after her death—complete with her father’s critical notes in the margin!

At that point, Holland is laboring under five years of Nazi occupation, of course, and they bring tragedy.  In 1943, the Nolthenius family decide to shelter her Jewish friend Hanna de Beer in their home.  They manage to hide Hanna safely for months, then move her to a friend’s house when the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) closes in.

Hanna (“Hans”) Hammelburg-de Beer in 1947 (Photo: Mulder, HN)

Finally, in January 1944, the SD arrests Nolthenius; under pressure, she divulges Hanna’s new hideaway.  Hanna and her parents are rounded up. Nolthenius is further interrogated but her father’s astonishing courage saves her: he convinces the German authorities that he is the ringleader of the underground circuit and that his daughter is innocent.  Dachau is his fate (he survives, weakened).  Hanna and her parents are transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the elderly de Beers are immediately killed.  Hanna, a medical student, survives by claiming to be a doctor.  Nolthenius is freed.

Meanwhile a young Jewish man, Samuel Vecht, also in hiding, has fallen in love with Nolthenius, now 24 years old, smart, talented, beautiful, with a dominant personality. She acts as a mentor to Samuel, five years her junior,

Nolthenius (sitting, left) and Samuel Vecht (sitting, right), with Gerard and Willemien Brom (standing), 1946 (Photo: Mulder, HN)

tutoring him in Greek and Latin, while introducing him to the study of St Francis (I wonder if Jørgensen’s own, important mentorship of a Jewish friend was not without influence here).  With no news about his family deported to the camps, and utterly besotted by Nolthenius, Samuel even converts to Catholicism. In the end, Nolthenius marries another man, Willy Wagenaar; Samuel declares an intention to enter the Franciscan order, then commits suicide.  His father, the Vecht family’s sole survivor of the camps, spits Nolthenius in the face upon meeting her.  For the rest of her life, Nolthenius never talked about Samuel.

What did she try to find in St Francis and medieval culture?  Not confirmation of her faith: she abandoned Catholicism shortly after 1950 and never again ascribed to any religious belief system.  Nor did she idealize Francis as a social activist: although she had become a member of the Dutch communist party in her late teens (for her, communism was the logical consequence of true Christian faith!), she cancelled her membership because of the 1939 Stalin-Hitler pact in yet another instance of “letting go,” and refrained from all political activity after that. Mulder suggests she admired Francis and his world for doing exactly that which she no longer could do: to give oneself for an ideal, to commit with passion.

Parkinson’s clouded her latter years; she became forgetful, confused.  Wagenaar relates to Mulder that shortly before her death, fifty-five years after the war, she would wake up at night convinced that she was living in an extermination camp.  In the end, she herself had become “Jewish.”

Etty Mulder, Rede en vervoering: Helene Nolthenius 1920–2000 (Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2009). 319 pages.  ISBN 9789460040214.

Saved

Spain may have lost a historical treasure but made an important new discovery.  You can learn more about this marvelous technological breakthrough here (in Spanish):

A video with French subtitles is making the new technology more widely available here. The intellectual origins of the invention may be traced to this 2001 Norwegian TV-show.

Actually, I believe the idea is really old.  Regrettably, it could not prevent this.

Furtum Sacrum

The Codex Calixtinus, the twelfth-century manuscript containing the oldest version of the so-called “Pilgrim’s Guide to St James,” has “disappeared” from a safe in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.   Staff discovered its absence late on Tuesday but it is not clear when exactly the manuscript was stolen, if theft there is.  There were no signs of forced entry, and only two people, in addition to the dean of the cathedral, have access to the manuscript.  El País, which offers the most extensive coverage of the mystery that I have seen, notes that its value is “incalculable.”  Like many medieval manuscripts around the world, the Codex Calixtinus is not insured.