George Dovel was one of the writers I met at the Historical Novel Society conference last June. He’s the author of The Geometry of Vengeance, a novel that according to E.M. Powell “brings the violence and superstitions of the medieval world vividly to life.” Welcome, George.
The People of Our Past
Tucked in among the weighty proclamations issued by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 is the delightful gem of Canon 16, which in part prohibits clerics from attending “the performances of mimics and buffoons” or wearing “curiously sewed together gloves.”
If they could be transported to the 21st century, the Council attendees would surely be appalled to see that the performances of mimics and buffoons are nearly the sum total of our contemporary culture, but what a relief it would be to note that the great danger of curiously sewed together gloves has passed.
After having a nice chuckle about Canon 16, though, anyone with a mind for digging into history is compelled to ask a couple of questions. First, how had this society developed in such a way that these matters were important enough to command attention from one of the most significant conferences in European history? Second, how has our society grown so far apart from theirs that these once-important matters now seem trivial?
And this was a problem?
Moving most of a millennium even further back in time, as the first major gathering of church leaders after the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, the Council of Nicaea in 325 had its own catalog of important matters to resolve, starting with the so-called Arian heresy and its assertion that Christ was not divine. Two or three hundred bishops attended, as did Constantine himself.
And yet, in what might well have been the most important international meeting in the world up to that point, and a meeting that shaped the long-term trajectories of countries and cultures all over the world (imagine how different the world would be if institutionalized Christianity had not survived this fledgling stage), the emperor and this assembly of prelates were compelled to address the problem of priests who had transformed themselves into eunuchs.
In fact, it’s the very first of the 20 canons issued at Nicaea. Canon 1 makes allowances for men who had the operation for medical reasons or who were victims of barbarian savagery, but it states that priests who had emasculated themselves should leave the priesthood, and that in the future, no man who had done so would be allowed into the priesthood.
Buffoonery and curious gloves are one thing, but voluntarily unburdening oneself of body parts is on an entirely different plane of un-understandability.
Again, the two questions. First, what would a society have been like in which instances of men self-administering such a transformation must have been common enough that an international meeting of bishops, presided over by the Roman emperor, was compelled to address the problem? Second, how did we grow so far away from this society that such a phenomenon is almost impossible to imagine?
It’s tempting to dismiss these odd and old ideas as just that, the inexplicable behavior of benighted people left far back in the dust behind our ever-advancing selves. But to dismiss these ideas as irrelevant is both an error and the waste of a wonderful opportunity.
They are in us; we are of them
The auto-eunuchs of 325 and the curiously gloved buffoon watchers of 1215 may belong to lost and distant cultures, but they are not members of another species or visitors from another planet. They are us, or at least earlier incarnations of us.
There are no step-function discontinuities in human history. The world didn’t jump from 325 to 1215 to today. It lunged and lurched, one year, one day, one connected human moment after another. The path might have been tortuous, regressive, and downright insane at times, but it has been continuous.
Not only has the path from then to now been continuous, but the way we define ourselves is largely in reaction to the generations that came before us. We may have rejected many of their beliefs and behaviors, but we reject in opposition to them and in so doing are defined in large measure by them. We are not painting on a blank canvas. As Booker winner Barry Unsworth put it, the past “belongs to us because it made us what we are.”
The better we can understand them (although we never will completely understand them, of course), the better we can understand ourselves and the behaviors we exhibit that will have future generations looking back at us with derision and disgust.
Exploring the past through the lens of historical fiction
The wonderful opportunity these old and odd ideas present is the glorious pleasure of discovery, that addictive feeling of uncovering the who, what, when, and how—and every once in a while getting a glimpse of the why.
What was it like trying to build a supranational religious organization at a time when even rudimentary education was far from universal and many clerical candidates surely did find the tavern and town square more appealing than sacred texts and liturgical practice?
And regarding eunuchs who aspired to the priesthood, how widespread was the barbarian savagery mentioned in the canon from Nicaea? Were some of these men freed slaves who hoped for nothing more than to devote the rest of their lives to God? Or were eunuch priests in goddess cults converting to Christianity in large enough numbers to cause concern for the new church? The number of questions this canon alone raises could occupy (or distract!) a curious mind for days.
The opportunity to bring old truths and questions and curiosities to life through the alchemy of storytelling is surely one of the reasons historical fiction is endlessly compelling for so many writers and readers.
The quoted passages from the Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council are from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp; the quotation from Barry Unsworth is from a speech given at the Key West Literary Seminar.
Many thanks for this illuminating post, George. Exploring the past through the lens of historical fiction is why so many readers love the genre.
The Geometry of Vengeance by George Dovel ~~ Vital Moysett has spent half his life burying the tragic mistakes and deadly secrets of his youth, but in an instant he learns that even being the most celebrated cathedral architect in 13th-century France and a favorite of Louis IX is not enough to protect him from his enemies’ rage.
When his latest design suffers an inexplicable collapse, the terrified locals believe the devil himself pulled the daring vaults down. But Vital sees evil of a very human kind—and the threat of even greater destruction to come.
His frantic search to identify the next target turns into a maddening series of philosophical riddles and strangely personal attacks motivated by knowledge of his childhood that no one still alive could possibly have. With the help of his unusual wife and the famed encylopedist Vincent of Beauvais, he follows his tormentors to the glorious cathedral at Chartres, knowing he is stepping right into their trap.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.