Before Remembering, Learn About the 5th of November

In about a month’s time, people all over social media will spring up and shoot out a similar nursery rhyme:

“Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot…”
(http://www.rhymes.org.uk/remember_remember_the_5th_november.htm)

Now, most people ironically only remember the lines “remember remember the fifth of November”, but few know the actual meaning behind it let alone the next three lines of the archaic English children’s ditty.

The real meaning behind the fifth of November and what we now call “Guy Fawkes Day” began in the year 1604.  Guy Fawkes was a British Catholic who had become jaded about the monarchy’s heavy-handed dealings with the Catholic community in England.   King James and his predecessors had cracked down on Catholicism by killing priests and generally making life difficult for the worshipers (don’t get it wrong though, the Pope did excommunicate Elizabeth and there were a good half dozen or more Catholic plots and conspiracies to kill or kidnap the royal family, so the crackdowns were not without an origin point).  Fawkes and a group of a dozen other Catholic men met in 1604 to formulate their own conspiracy.  Their goal: to kill James and generally wipe out the House of Lords.

Guy Fawkes (his clever pseudo name while abroad was Guido Fawkes, seriously.) was a British man who had fought for the Catholic Spanish during a series of wars in the late part of the 1500s.  When he returned to England, his goal in mind was to reinstate a Catholic monarch to the throne.  Meeting with a group of like minded individuals, he and his group made the plan to stick dozens of barrels of gunpowder under the Parliament building to blow it up and assassinate the King.  Now, what caused the conspiracy to fail was that a set of the conspirators didn’t want to kill any Catholics in the House of Lords, so they sent a private letter to a Catholic nobleman telling him to avoid the building.  The nobleman tipped off King James, who ordered a search of the building and they found Guy Fawkes standing guard with a match and a watch.

With Fawkes’ capture came his torture, and after  a few days of TLC, Fawkes gave up the names of several other conspirators.  When the others were arrested, the whole group was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death:  first to hang, then to be drawn and quartered.  In his final move, Fawkes is thought to have tossed himself off the hanging platform and snapped his own neck on the rope rather than go through the pain of hanging and quartering.  After his death, the government of England made it a national holiday to celebrate the failed attempt to destroy the Parliament building and the Monarchy.  People went parading through the streets setting off fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, though over time that became political leaders who drew public ire (first it was popes, then it was monarchs, then it slowly turned to things like Margret Thatcher).

What’s truly odd about the Guy Fawkes phenomena is that he was a dreaded villain, LITERALLY a terrorist until around 1840 when an author decided to write the story of Guy Fawkes with sympathy for his band of merry sappers as they attempted to murder an entire government in cold blood to instill a Catholic one.  Fawkes slowly gained acceptance as some sort of anti-hero who attempted to fight against the government over the years following.   Then in the 1980s, an American comicbook author created V for Vendetta with Guy Fawkes as the main hero.  The white mask with a sharp goatee and warped smile has rapidly become a symbol of anarchy, revolution, and rebellion over the last 30 years because of the comics and the film.

What I personally hope people take away from this story is this: Guy Fawkes has nothing inherently to do with the political activism we link him to.  The plot was to kill all the Protestants in power and put some Catholics in in their place.  Not to remove a monarchy, but to make sure it was one that followed a specific religious code.  Fawkes was a racist (he was really strangely anti-Scottish), a terrorist, a traitor and for most of history he was considered one of the most repugnant smudges on England’s history (think Benedict Arnold in America).  The fact we can now make him some sort of tormented hero of the masses truly says something about how we think political activism should be done.  There are millions of better figures for activism that don’t require a warped version of history.  If you want a figurehead to protest government action, idolize Gandhi, idolize the man in Tienanmen Square, don’t idolize terror in its most basic form.

 

Citations:

http://www.rhymes.org.uk/remember_remember_the_5th_november.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Fawkes
http://www.history.com/news/guy-fawkes-day-a-brief-history
http://www.britannia.com/history/g-fawkes.html
http://theweek.com/article/index/245685/a-brief-history-of-the-guy-fawkes-mask
http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2011/11/how-did-guy-fawkes-become-a-symbol-of-occupy-wall-street/

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The God of War rides a Peacock

That’s right, Kartikeya, the Hindu God of War, rides a peacock into battle.  The story tells that he went to war once against a demon giant named Surapadman who he defeated handily.  Rather than be killed, Surapadman requested that he become Kartikeya’s mount, and he was split in two.  One half became the peacock (which represents the death of Kartikeya’s ego) and the other half became a rooster that was borne on the standard of Kartikeya’s army.

Believe it or not, the colorful bird that now decorates zoos and wineries across the world has been a deeply religious symbol for thousands of years.  Largely based on the belief that peacock meat would never decay, the Greeks saw peacocks as some sort of mystical vessel of purity.  Because peacocks could eat poisonous plants and were said to devour venomous snakes without issue, people believed them immune to all poison.  The story was so well known that St.Augustine wrote about the merits of peacock flesh in his book, “City of God”.  He tells a story about a slab of peafowl that he was eating that he set aside one day.  Within weeks, nothing had happened to the meat, it did not decay or stink.  By the time a year rolled around, the only thing he could say was that the flesh was drier and more shriveled.  His book also mentioned the ability of the flesh to cure poisons, lauding their “antiseptic properties”.

Before Augustine, the Greeks had a mythology behind peacocks as well.  According to Greek stories, when Hera found out that Zeus was interested in a Nymph woman named Io, she turned the young lady into a cow.  In order to keep Zeus from meddling with the cow Io, Hera sent the 100 eyed giant Argus Panoptes to look after her.  Zeus sent Hermes to take Io back, and Argus was killed in the process (put him to sleep with charms, wacked him in the head with a rock when he was asleep.  First blood of the post-Titan Greeks goes to Hermes).  Hera was said to honor Argus by placing his hundred eyes on the tail of the peacock (Hera’s chariot was driven by peacocks, but they didn’t have fancy tails until Argus’ eyes were placed into them).

In the Middle Ages, peacock was considered a delicacy.  While poor people ate chicken and quail, the royalty needed their fowl to be a little more fancy in order to bespeak their importance.  Royal feasts would have cooked peacock for both a table decoration and a meal.  At the time, peacock was exceptionally difficult to purchase because of the relative rarity of the bird in Europe (they’re native to Persia).  As for why they have the fancy colors; the reasoning is less impressive than dead giants, Godly gifts, or manifestations of purity.  What science believes is that peacocks are the ultimate representation of sexually selected traits.  Peahens began to take a liking to their male counterparts over the years when they had more colorful, large and ostentatious displays.  Over the years, the males with the bigger and brighter tails would succeed in passing genes while the ones with sad dilapidated rudders would dry up out of the gene pool.  The creature that struts about now is the result of hundreds of generations of picky females with particular wants.  Natural Selection at its finest..

Citations!:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peafowl
http://www.traditioninaction.org/religious/f023_Peacock.htm
http://www.theoi.com/Summary/Hera.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kartikeya
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surapadman
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argus_Panoptes

Chivalry: Exact Time of Death

For the last 400 years, people have been making broad claims that Chivalry is dead, that the state of manly/knightly/courtly honor is in disrepair, and that chivalry corresponds directly with honor.  At the baseline, Chivalry is derived from the French word Chevalier, which translates to “a man on horseback”.  When it first began being used, Chivalry referred directly to mounted combatants, i.e. Knights (Because training and equipment to use a warhorse was inordinately expensive history shows that only nobility and the gentry really found themselves fighting on top of the beasts.)  Chivalry rapidly took on a meaning as the “code of knighthood”, gathering from three realms in particular: Martial expertise, Christian faith, and Courtly grace.

Chivalry followed a long list of traits and practices:
1. The knight must be able bodied and fit (Nobody wants a fat asthmatic knight in a fight)
2. He must be of good lineage (Nobility or bust)
3. He must have wealth to support his rank (if you can’t pay for party clothes, you aren’t in the party)
4. He has to be wise (basically just enough that his lord or his servant could come up to him and ask, “is this a good idea?”)
5. Generosity was required (another part of having the wealth.  If you can’t lavishly host anybody who shows up at your place, you aren’t honorable.)
6. He must be loyal (nothing worse than a vassal who comes unglued from his oath)
7. Knights should be Courageous (First to charge, first to fall, but also the bravest)
8. A knight should be honorable (See all traits above)

This entire time, a knight must remain true to his “ethical duties”:
1. to defend the Christian Faith (if you weren’t Christian, you literally were outside Christianity, why the Crusades were considered honorable, also why it wasn’t wrong for a knight to beat on a Jewish person.  They were considered infidels and outside the true meaning of being generous, kind and honorable)
2. to defend his lord (Second job: protect the guy who pays you)
3. to protect the weak (Women, children, largely the reason why knights would avoid combat with women.  They considered them objects to protect, not to injure)
4. to exercise by hunting and jousting (the medieval version of “gym, tan, laundry”)
5. to judge/supervise people (the servants of your house were your deal, if they got crazy, it reflected poorly upon you)
6. to catch criminals (knights were the police of the era.  Makes sense that this would be a duty)

 

Basically, the code of Chivalry was the European equivalent to the Bushido code in Japan.  It was a way to separate the good actions of a peasant from the good actions of a nobleman.  When society was defined in the 1200s, it was broken into three classes:  Those who pray for us (priests), those who fight for us (Knights and nobles), and those who work for us (the grunts).  Peasants fought for their lord.  No combat was solely fought by knights, they were the military leaders who directed a small group of their servants.  When the worth of a knight’s class was defined by “being those who fight”, there has to be some trait or code that makes the nobility worth more than the group of dirty riffraff that fight with the knights.  The chivalric codes were the way the early nobility was able to differentiate noble blood from common blood.  It put to paper the idea that there was more worth to the life and soul of a nobleman than of a peasant.

In the modern era however, we see chivalry differently.  In the giant list of traits and duties, it covers the martial aspect of knighthood and the faith part, but the best of knights also had the courtly aspect as well.  For whatever reason, the common meaning of “chivalry” now refers only to the courtly part.  What courtly chivalry amounted to was: to please the ladies of the court in a non-adulterous and often non-sexual way.  When a lady had an elderly husband, a young knight would ask her favor and fly her colors at tournaments.  Knights would give attention to the ladies of the court at gatherings simply to give them attention.  A knight’s courtliness was not defined by his actions towards a single lady, but his actions to all women (nobility only, let’s not get that wire crossed).  Strangely enough, the stories of Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Isolde are stories about knights who betray their lord, sleep with his wife or otherwise take her away from him.  Lancelot and Tristan are, by definition, the arch-nemesis of Chivalry and yet we see them as some sort of romantic “tale of chivalry and lost love”.

As a final word about chivalry: People today have some odd expectation that chivalry is a trait that all men should have.  In reality, only a teeny tiny part of the real population ever actually practiced it.  The nobility during the middle ages was a very spartan class.  At most, you would expect to see maybe 2% of the population who were actually knights.  So when people see men not holding open doors or not calling after a date, it doesn’t mean chivalry is dead.  Chivalry is not dead, it’s just very very specialized and exceptionally rare, exactly like it has been for all time.

 

Citations:
http://www.usna.edu/Users/history/abels/hh315/Chivalry.htm
http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-chivalry.htm
http://www.orderofthegrail.org/content/what-is-chivalry
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chivalry

Now see, this is exactly the kind of thing I have a beef with:
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/romance-of-tristan-and-iseult-m-joseph-bedier/1100380966?ean=9780679750161

America’s First Founding: The Articles of Confederation

In America, the story about the country’s birth is almost a legendary tale.  General George Washington led his men through a harsh winter and rallied troops to make surprise strikes on the Hessians employed by England, Jefferson laying down the law in terms of egality and representation, Patrick Henry slapping a table and shouting “Give me Liberty or give me Death!”.  The men who created the nation have been solidly dropped into the halls of national pride and fame as the Founding Fathers.  In media, politics, pop culture, even in songs, there is reference to these “Founding Fathers” and nearly always it is in reference to their genius, but very few people really know who they were or what they did.  There’s a deep veil of mystery around their stories for some reason and few Americans even know the history of their own country’s formation.

The Founding Father idea is actually quite vague.  Were they the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, forcing King George to understand that we held truths to be self evident?  Were they the men who signed the Constitution of the United States, the flagship document of the new nation?  Were the Founding Fathers only those who served in both conventions? (Basically just Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.  And even though he wrote it, Jefferson didn’t sign the thing)  Were the Founding Fathers simply the people who were involved in politics of America during the formation of it, or were they just the famous and eloquent ones from the day?  While it seems like a pointless thought experiment at times, the raw amount of times the Framers are cited to back up argumentation or political weedeling is astounding.  Presidential speeches are flushed with commentary about intentions of the Founding Fathers, political hopefuls break out the Fathers whenever possible, newspapers and books cite the Founding Fathers constantly.  More important than citing the elusive gathering of sophists and rebels would be simply defining who they are.

A surprisingly small number of people know that the United States’ Declaration of Independence, signed 1776 in Philidelphia, predates the Constitution, signed in 1787, by a full 11 years.  There was an entire half generation of American history where there was no Constitution, instead there was a weaker powerstructure and a decentralized state courtesy of the Articles of Confederation.  The Articles of Confederation were a set of rules and guidelines intended to hold together the young nation while not centralizing the power and removing the individual rights of the assorted states that made up the United States of America.  Given that they had just finished a costly war breaking free from the larger British Empire, the original American Founders decided that they would rather not have a central power base (kind of like a king) because that would give rise to the taxes, military and general tyranny that England had exhibited.  The result of the fears of Empire and Tyranny were the Articles of Confederation, which barely strung the states together, holding the union intact with what amounted to a wing and a prayer.

Before too long, as the Articles of Confederation limped their way along, there arose an issue that the individual states were unable to deal with: Shay’s Rebellion.  The rebellion, essentially a gathering of angry farmers and war veterans unhappy about foreclosures and the economy after the Revolutionary War.  It was put down by mercenaries purchased by the governor of Massachusetts, but served to show off to the entire nation just how weak the union was under the Articles.  The result of the rebellion and several other revolts around the nation was a Constitutional Convention where the issue of a centralizing power and a chief executive would be addressed.  Within this convention, the argument about House and Senate were resolved, plans were set forth, deals were made, and a few choice concessions to the South allowed the Constitution to be passed through. (This essentially set the stage for the Civil War, some 75 years later)

When George Washington was made president, it wasn’t as though the nation had just been founded and he was marching into the unknown of statebuilding.  He took office in 1787, 11 years after he hung up his military jacket, with the knowledge that he had to form a strong central core the the nation to prevent domestic issues from eating it from within.  What this tells us is that America was not perfect out of the gates.  America’s Constitution was the result of a failed experiment with the Articles of Confederation, built with a backup system to amend it should things go wrong.  To bring it back to the original statement, people today neglect to learn about the Founding Fathers, in fact we are somewhat uncertain of who they are.  If ever you see a comment or a quotation in the future that mentions the thoughts of the Founding Fathers, ask yourself which ones they are talking about.

 

 

Citations:

http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_signers_of_the_United_States_Constitution
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articles_of_Confederation
http://americanhistory.about.com/od/revolutionarywar/tp/foundingfathers.htm
http://www.history.com/topics/articles-of-confederation
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington
http://www.ushistory.org/us/15a.asp