January 16, 1832 – Alabama Passes Laws Restricting Rights of the Native Tribes

When Alabama became a state in 1819, its white residents eagerly anticipated the eventual expulsion of natives in order to have access to their rich agricultural land so they could grow more cotton. Whites argued that Indians were racially inferior and incapable of land management because they viewed land holding very differently from European Americans, and besides, they simply wanted to take their land. State leaders began to insist that Indian nations were not really sovereign; therefore their land was rightfully owned by the states. To encourage Indian emigration, the federal government began offering western territory in exchange for Indian homelands. Most Cherokees refused to emigrate, however, and by the 1820s the Cherokee Nation under its leader John Ross vowed vowed it would not give up one more foot of land.

Cherokee Leader John Ross

Cherokee Leader John Ross

On this day in history, the General Assembly of Alabama enacted provisions prohibiting the Creek and Cherokee from practicing customs or making laws that conflicted with Alabama law. The provision stated, “All laws, usages and customs now used, enjoyed, or practiced, by the Creek and Cherokee nations of Indians, within the limits of this State, contrary to the constitution and laws of this State, be, and the same are hereby abolished.”

This statute was created just three years after another that effectively extended the jurisdiction of Alabama into Creek territory. The Creek Nation had repeatedly and unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government for assistance and protection.

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Creek leaders continued organizing efforts to secure their tribal lands,but the 1832 law also declared it illegal for tribal leaders to “meet in any counsel, assembly, or convention” and create “any law for said tribe, contrary to the laws and constitution of this State.” Punishment for violating this law was imprisonment “in the common jail of the proper county, for not less than two, nor more than four, months.”

The 1832 law also provided that the Cherokee and Creek could only testify in court in suits involving other Cherokee and Creek, effectively ensuring that Creeks defrauded and illegally deprived of their land by white intruders would have no recourse in the Alabama courts.

In 1832, in the decision Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that individual states had no authority in American Indian affairs. President Andrew Jackson reportedly responded, reportedly responded: “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” While there is no proof he actually said this, members of his administration made clear that was their policy. In fact, from 1814 to 1824, Jackson was instrumental in negotiating nine out of eleven treaties which divested the southern tribes of their eastern lands in exchange for lands in the west. Many of those treaties had been made not only by using bribery, but by negotiating with members of tribes not authorized to enter into negotiations. The government of course didn’t care, as long as it got the land.

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully

In 1830, just a year after taking office, Jackson had pushed though Congress legislation called the “Indian Removal Act,” giving the president power to negotiate removal treaties with Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi. States like Alabama tried to make staying more unpalatable, but the tribes resisted removal; by 1838 only 2,000 had migrated; 16,000 remained on their land. The U.S. government sent in 7,000 troops, forcing the Cherokees into stockades at bayonet point. They were not allowed time to gather their belongings, and as they left, whites looted their homes. They were then marched out in what became known as the Trail of Tears, in which 4,000 Cherokee people died of cold, hunger, and disease on their way to the western lands.

By 1837, the Jackson Administration had removed 46,000 Native American people from their land east of the Mississippi, opening 25 million acres of land to white settlement and to slavery.

Map of United States Indian Removal, 1830-1835.

Map of United States Indian Removal, 1830-1835.

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January 12, 1965 – Death of Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry was a celebrated black playwright who was born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 12, 1965 and died in New York City at the age of thirty-four from pancreatic cancer on this day in history. Her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun, was partially inspired by her family’s legal battle against racially segregated housing laws in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago during her childhood.

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In order to meet the needs of growing families in the small black ghetto of Chicago, Lorraine’s father Carl (a prominent real estate broker) purchased large, older houses vacated by white flight and divided them up into small apartments that became known as “kitchenettes.” For his own family, he purchased a house in an area restricted to whites. The Hansberry family was thrust, the playwright said later, into a “hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’” where “howling mobs surrounded” their home. Hansberry was nearly killed when a cement slab was hurled through a window.

Her father joined with the NAACP to initiate a legal challenge against the restrictive covenants that kept blacks out of all-white neighborhoods. This struggle led to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940). The Court ruled in favor of Hansberry, although the ruling was made on technical grounds and did not invalidate all racial covenants.

The legal battle left Hansberry’s father embittered, and he died two years after the Supreme Court decision. Hansberry kept him alive however through her play, A Raisin in the Sun, set in the 1950’s on the Southside of Chicago. The Younger family is a poor black family living in one of the “kitchenette” apartments. When Lena, the mother of Walter and Beneatha, receives insurance money from the death of her husband, everyone is arguing over what to do with the money. Lena decides to use a part of the insurance money to buy a new house in a white neighborhood. The repercussions of this decision, resonating throughout the Younger’s microcosmic world as well as the world outside, propel the action for the remainder of the play.

A Raisin in the Sun has become an American classic, enjoying numerous productions since its original presentation in 1959. The Broadway revival in 2004 brought the play to a new generation, and earned two Tony Awards for individual performances.

Sydney Poitier & Claudia McNeill as Walter & Mama Younger

Sydney Poitier & Claudia McNeill as Walter & Mama Younger

Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She became the first black student to live at her dormitory. She worked for the Henry Wallace presidential campaign and participated in the Young Progressive League, becoming president of the organization in 1949 during her last semester. While still in Madison, she was profoundly affected by a university production of Sean O’Casey ‘s Juno and the Paycock. She was moved by O’Casey’s ability to universalize the suffering of the Irish and later wrote: “The melody was one that I had known for a very long while. I was seventeen and I did not think then of writing the melody as I knew it—in a different key; but I believe it entered my consciousness and stayed there.” She would come to sing that song as a Negro spiritual with her first produced play, A Raisin in the Sun.

In 1950 she left Madison and moved to New York City. In Harlem she began working on Freedom, a progressive newspaper founded by Paul Robeson. In 1952 she became associate editor of the newspaper, writing and editing a variety of news stories that expanded her understanding of domestic and world problems. The rich cultural and intellectual environment of Renaissance Harlem also stimulated Hansberry, and she began composing short stories, poetry, and plays.

In 1953 Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a white Jewish literature student and songwriter, whom she had met on a picket line protesting discrimination at New York University. Thereafter, she worked as a waitress and cashier, writing in her spare time. After Nemiroff gained success with his hit song, “Cindy, Oh Cindy,” Hansberry was able to devote herself entirely to writing. The working title of A Raisin in the Sun was originally The Crystal Stair after a line in a poem by Langston Hughes. The new title was from another Langston Hughes poem, which asked: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, / Or does it explode?”

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959 and was an instant success with both critics and audiences. The New York critic Walter Kerr praised Hansberry for conveying “the precise temperature of a race at that time in its history when it cannot retreat and cannot quite find the way to move forward. The mood is forty-nine parts anger and forty-nine parts control, with a very narrow escape hatch for the steam these abrasive contraries build up. Three generations stand poised, and crowded, on a detonating-cap.” (New York Herald Tribune, March 12, 1959). Sidney Poitier played the role of Walter Lee. The film version of 1961, also starring Sidney Poitier, received a special award at the Cannes festival.

Hansberry became a celebrity overnight. The play was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1959, making Lorraine Hansberry the first black playwright, the youngest person, and only the fifth woman to win that award.

Lorraine Hansberry and Robert Nemiroff in the backyard of their home in Croton-on-Hudson

Lorraine Hansberry and Robert Nemiroff in the backyard of their home in Croton-on-Hudson

In 1960 the NBC producer Dore Schary commissioned Hansberry to write the opening segment for a television series commemorating the Civil War. Her subject was to be slavery. The result was The Drinking Gourd, a television play that focused on the effects that slavery had on the families of the slave master and the poor whites as well as the slaves. The play was considered too controversial by NBC television executives and, despite Schary’s objections, was shelved along with the entire project.

A Raisin in the Sun, however, continued to enjoy widespread popularity. In the wake of its’ extended success, Hansberry became a public figure and popular speaker. She declared “all art is ultimately social” and called upon black writers to be involved in “the intellectual affairs of all men, everywhere.” As the civil rights movement intensified, Hansberry helped to plan fund-raising events to support organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

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Early in April 1963, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Despite the progressive failure of her health during the next two years, she continued her writing projects and political activities. She also completed a photo-essay for a book on the civil rights struggle titled The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964).

In March 1964 she quietly divorced Robert Nemiroff, formalizing the separation that had occurred several years earlier. Only close friends and family had known; their continued collaboration as theater artists and activists had masked Hansberry’s homosexuality. Those outside their close circle only learned of the divorce when Hansberry’s will was read in 1965.

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Throughout 1964 Hansberry’s hospitalizations became more frequent as the cancer spread. In May she left the hospital to deliver a speech to the winners of the United Negro College Fund’s writing contest in which she coined the famous phrase, “young, gifted, and black.” She also managed to complete The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which opened to mixed reviews on October 15, 1964.

Lorraine Hansberry’s battle with cancer ended at University Hospital in New York City. She was just thirty-four years old. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window closed on the night of her death.

TBYGAB

Hansberry left a number of finished and unfinished projects. In her will, she designated Nemiroff as executor of her literary estate. Hansberry’s reputation continued to grow after her death in 1965 as Nemiroff edited, published, and produced her work posthumously. In 1969 he adapted some of her unpublished writings for the stage under the title To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. The longest-running drama of the 1968 – 1969 off-Broadway season, it toured colleges and communities in the United States during 1970 – 1971. A ninety-minute film based on the stage play was first shown in January 1972.

In 1970 Nemiroff produced on Broadway a new work by Hansberry, Les Blancs, a full-length play set in the midst of a violent revolution in an African country. In 1972 Nemiroff published The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry, which included Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, and What Use Are Flowers?, a short play about the consequences of nuclear holocaust. In 1974 A Raisin in the Sun returned to Broadway as Raisin, a musical, produced by Robert Nemiroff. Raisin won a Tony Award as the best musical and ran on Broadway for nearly three years.

In 1987, A Raisin in the Sun, with original material restored, was presented at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and other theaters nationwide. In 1989 this version was presented on national television. The year 2004 saw the first Broadway revival of the play. With the hip-hop star Sean “P. Diddy” Combs in the lead role of Walter Lee, the show attracted a large and diverse audience. For her performance as Lena Younger, Phylicia Rashad won the first Tony for best performance by an actress in a drama ever awarded to an African American woman. Audra McDonald won her fourth Tony for best featured actress for her role as Beneatha.

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Nemiroff died of cancer at age 61 on January 17, 2009.

Hansberry made a significant contribution to American theater, despite the brevity of her theatrical life and the fact that only two of her plays were produced during her lifetime. A Raisin in the Sun was a turning point for black artists in the professional theater. One of the most popular plays ever produced on the American stage, it ran for 538 performances on Broadway, attracting large audiences of white and black fans alike. Her position on the political obligations of black writers continues to be an inspiration to her intellectual heirs.

January 8, 1815 – The British March Against New Orleans

The Battle of New Orleans, begun on this day in history, was the final major battle of the War of 1812. In fact, the war had already officially ended two weeks earlier with the Treaty of Ghent, but the news had not yet reached combatants in New Orleans.

At that time, the British were occupying the Florida Panhandle and attempting a westward expansion through territory in what is now the Gulfport–Biloxi Mississippi metropolitan area. Strategically, the port of New Orleans would have anchored these conquests and given the British control of the Mississippi River, severing vital commercial routes for America. The British began amassing its invasion force in the summer of 1814. The pirate Jean Lafitte warned the Americans of the attack however, and the U.S. government dispatched a frantic message to General Andrew Jackson to proceed immediately to New Orleans and defend the city.

Portrait said to be of Jean Lafitte

Portrait said to be of Jean Lafitte

General Andrew Jackson, for all his other sins, was an excellent war tactician. His outnumbered troops managed to decimate the British lines, who were hampered in large part by the swampy terrain. Within an hour after it started, the fight was ended by the surrender of the British on the battlefield. The assault on Jackson’s fortifications was a fiasco, costing the British some 2,000 casualties including three generals and seven colonels. Jackson’s ragtag outfit had fewer than 100 casualties.

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully

Although the battle had no bearing on the outcome of the war, Jackson’s overwhelming victory guaranteed him war hero status, and convinced the Spanish to sell the disputed territory to the U.S.

The Battle of New Orleans was also the last armed engagement between the United States and Britain.

January 6, 1759 – George Washington Marries Martha Dandridge Custis

On this day in history, George Washington married the 26-year-old widow Martha Dandrige Custis. It was less than ten months after their initial meeting and less than eighteen months after the death of her first husband, by whom she had two children. They were married in Martha’s home in New Kent County.

Made of purple silk, these shoes are believed to have been worn by Martha Dandridge Custis during her wedding to George Washington. (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

Made of purple silk, these shoes are believed to have been worn by Martha Dandridge Custis during her wedding to George Washington. (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

The marriage brought George Washington the use of Martha’s immense wealth and made him one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. Martha owned nearly 300 slaves and had more than 17,438 acres of land— worth a fortune in early America (close to some three million dollars in today’s money).

At the time, Martha had, by virtue of a Virginia statute enacted in 1673, certain rights over her estate.

On a widow’s dower rights, the statute in force, enacted by the Virginia Assembly in 1673, read:

An act for establishing the dowers of widdows.

WHEREAS many doubts have arisen concerning the estates of persons dying intestate, and of what parte thereof ought to appertaine to the widdow; for cleareing whereof, Be it enacted by the governour, councell and burgesses of the grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that where persons dye intestate, the widdow shalbe endowed with the third part of the reall estate to bee equally divided as to houseing, ffenced grounds, orchards, woods, and other valuable conveniences, dureing her naturall life, and the third part of the personall estate, if there be but one or two children, but if there be any number of children more, how many soever, in that case the personall estate to be devided amongst the widdow and all the children share and share alike; and in case the husband make a will that he hath in it his power to devise more to his wife then what is above determined, but not lesse.”

[Note that the verb endow meant “to provide with a dower.”]

Because Martha’s first husband died without a will, Martha was granted a dower share – the lifetime use of one-third of the estate’s assets. This share would be held in trust for her children. The slaves working the estate were also subject to a dower-determined distribution. [From 1705 until 1792, Virginia defined slaves as real property. This is because if the slaves did not remain with the land to work it, the value of the land was diminished. See Donn Devine, “The Widow’s Dower Interest,” in Ancestry Magazine, Vol. 12, no. 5, 1 Sep 1994.)] Martha received approximately 85 slaves as part of the dower share of the Custis estate.

Martha Washington as a Young Woman

When Martha remarried, another principle of law came into effect: coverture, which defined the legal status of woman following marriage. Under the doctrine of coverture, the husband and wife became a single unit for property purposes, with the husband having complete control over most of the property of either person. Whatever personal effects a woman brought into marriage, including clothing, furniture, or money, became the property of her husband. (See Dorothy A. Mays, Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World, Calif.: 2004, p. 91.) On the other hand, whatever real estate the wife brought into the marriage could not be sold or mortgaged without the wife’s consent. (Courts tried to ensure that the wife gave over such consent with her own free will.) However, the husband had the use his wife’s land and slaves, and could dispose of the income they produced in any way he wished. Moreover, the wife’s interest in dower real estate was limited to a life estate, not a fee simple interest. But this meant that while Washington could control Martha’s dower wealth, he didn’t actually own it (in fee simple) and could not sell it. Martha’s one-third was “his” property only for the duration of Martha’s life.

George Washington as a Young Man

[As Joseph A. Ranney explains in “Anglicans, Merchants, and Feminists: A Comparative Study of the Evolution of Married Women’s Rights in Virginia, New York, and Wisconsin,” 6 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 493 (2000), in the agricultural state of Virginia, power resided almost exclusively in ownership of land and of the labor needed to work the land. Retention of land holdings was the key to preserving wealth and power. Thus, because planters who had only daughters faced the prospect that at their death the family lands would effectively pass to the daughters’ husbands, Virginia laws were designed to keep landed wealth in the family of the daughter rather than of the husband.]

Further complications ensued for the Washingtons. Martha’s dower slaves intermarried with George’s slaves. Because legal status was traced through the female, all children of dower mothers became dower slaves, but children of dower fathers did not. George did not have the strength to do away with slavery in his own household while he was alive, but he did have a sense of its injustice, and refused to break up families when selling slaves. Thus, he could not (would not) sell any mixed dower families. In his will, he designated that all of his slaves be freed upon his wife’s death, but he had no power to dispose of any of the many dower slaves.

Thus, it is perhaps too glib to assert that Washington gained a fortune by marrying Martha Custis; the reality is more complicated. He did indeed get the use of her dower land and its fruits while she was alive. Martha furthermore was now totally dependent on George because of coverture. She had one major protection by law: the doctrine of necessities, whereby “a married woman had the right to be maintained in a manner commensurate with her husband’s social status.” (Marylynn Salmon, The Legal Status of Women, 1776-1830.) But this could be redefined as “bare necessities” if the husband squandered her assets. Divorce was also not readily available as an option; especially in the South, divorce laws were quite conservative, “probably related to slavery: it was difficult for lawmakers to grant women absolute divorces because of their husbands’ adulterous relationships with slaves.” (ibid)

As far as we know, Martha had none of those problems, although like other of the Founding Fathers, George did spend overmuch, and ran up considerable debt. But Martha had her property, come hell or high water.

Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art "The Washington Family" by Edward Savage, painted between 1789 and 1796, shows (from left to right): George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Nelly Custis, Martha Washington, and an enslaved servant (probably William Lee or Christopher Sheels).

Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art “The Washington Family” by Edward Savage, painted between 1789 and 1796, shows (from left to right): George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Nelly Custis, Martha Washington, and an enslaved servant (probably William Lee or Christopher Sheels).

Review of “Russia: A Short History (New Edition)” by Abraham Ascher

Abraham Ascher, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, has covered the whole sweep of Russian history in only 252 pages, from the rise of Kiev in the 9th century to the early 21st century. In painting with such a broad brush, he must omit a lot of detail, but for the general reader, this book is an excellent introduction to Russia’s past.

It is difficult to summarize a book that is itself a summary, so I will just point out a few of Ascher’s observations that I found enlightening. Because of its enormous size (nearly three times that of the United States), Russia sits astride both Europe and Asia. One organizing principle of Ascher’s book is how this geography causes Russia’s personality (if a state can be said to have one) to be split between East and West.

The Mongol invasions of the 13th century cut Russia off from significant influence from the West for hundreds of years. As such, “Russia remained largely unaffected by the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth, and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth, all movements that promoted individualism and rationalism.” Ivan IV (the “Terrible”), who ruled in the mid-16th century, was essentially an Oriental Potentate. Only with the accession of Peter the Great in the late 17th century did Russia begin to look to the West for inspiration.

Peter the Great

Since the book was first published in 2002, the author has little to say about the regime of Vladimir Putin. The book concludes with a discussion of Boris Yeltsin’s reign and with the proposition that the “central concern of Russian political leaders and intellectuals…is [whether Russia is a] part of the West or does it belong culturally to the East?” It may have seemed that the fall of communism in 1991 represented a movement toward the West, but Ascher observes, “Putin has steadily moved Russia back to the Byzantine tradition,” which he characterizes as one marked by “irrationality, mystery, and contempt for society.” Ascher also refers to Putin’s “vulgarity and his disdain for the democratic process.” Regardless of whether those observations have any grounding in truth, it is clear Ascher is contemptuous of Putin, and unlikely to give him credit for any advances the country has made under his leadership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Ascher closes with the observation:

It will be some time—perhaps decades—before we know whether the Western traditions of freedom of the individual and private property, which animated the revolution 1991, have struck deep roots in Russia, providing the country with the preconditions for a stable democracy and flourishing economy.”

In that paragraph, Ascher also reveals his biases toward a Western concept of what constitutes a good society. While Americans may presume that all countries around the world would love to have a capitalist democracy if only they could, the fact is that populations abroad, particularly in countries that prize community over individualism, have repeatedly rejected this assumption.

Vladimir Putin enjoys an enormous popularity in Russia. The people, especially in the big cities, have embraced capitalism with enthusiasm, but they may not represent the entire country. The next several years will be very interesting.

Evaluation: This overview of Russian history is useful, but read it with caution: it has a strong Western bias, which colors the author’s analysis.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Oneworld Publications, revised edition, 2009

Review of “Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics shaped the History of Medieval Europe” by Charles Freeman

The rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire marked the end of state-sponsored polytheism, but the practice of honoring saints, in particular through the veneration of their relics, still amounted to a sort of polytheism. Charles Freeman writes that unless one gets within the mentality of medieval Christians, who believed in a variety of spiritual forces emanating from long dead saints’ body parts or clothing, “medieval religion does not make much sense.” This is not to say it makes much sense to post scientific revolution thinkers in any event.

Relics were immensely important to medieval life, but their role has been largely underestimated or even ignored by modern scholars. However, documents surviving from earlier than the 17th century are replete with accounts of miracles and the saints who allegedly performed them. Moreover, many cults continue from those days and some “sacred” objects are still venerated.

Freeman traces the perceived importance of relics to the writings of Augustine of Hippo (also known as “Saint Augustine”). Augustine himself did not write much about relics, but his theology was extremely pessimistic, positing that the vast majority of humans will suffer for eternity. Somewhat surprisingly, his texts became almost as authoritative as holy scripture, and for centuries later Catholic Church leaders followed him in reveling in the vileness of human nature. Freeman writes that Augustine’s “God was a much less rational and less stable deity than that conceived by the philosophers.” This God was, however, amenable to pressure from the likes of the Virgin Mary or the saints.

[Augustine was quite down on the subject of women: lust was filth, erections were sinful, and women were the cause of it all, given their putative weaker brains and lack of self-control. But fortunately for Mariologists, Augustine believed that the mother of Jesus “conceived as virgin, gave birth as virgin and stayed virgin forever.” This redeemed her in his eyes and exempted her from his blanket condemnation of other females.]

Saint Augustine of Hippo

Mary, and of course her son, were thought to be able to intercede with an otherwise vengeful God. But saints were usually the go-to intercessors of choice however, since they were “local” – somewhat like appealing to the government representative of one’s political district. The devout routinely erected shrines to holy men and women, often including an article of their clothing or a body part. Moreover, the relics were perceived to be effective, frequently being the “cause” of some miracle. Writing objectively about such matters is tricky for modern authors. Freeman observes:

. . . we are entering a world where there are thousands of accounts of undecayed bodies, resurrections of the dead, healings and the opportune deaths of those who have offended the dead saint or the monastery or church that he or she was protecting.”

Freeman does not express his disbelief in the stories that he passes on — he doesn’t have to. The modern reader just takes it all in with a grain (or in some cases a mountain) of salt.

Some churchmen in the late Middle Ages were skeptical of the efficacy of many of the relics, but the relics were such a good source of revenue that the clerics continued to encourage their veneration. To describe the 1300 years from Augustine to the Scientific Revolution as a time of credulity is a gross understatement. And whether the kings, princes, bishops, and abbots who promulgated relic veneration were delusional or charlatans did not matter. They found a laity predisposed to believe preposterous stories — anything to avoid the fires of hell or purgatory.

The foot reliquary of St James (To minimize theft, relics were stored and displayed in special containers called reliquaries.)

The financial incentives to manufacture false relics were just too much to resist. As a result, Europe was deluged with items purporting to be connected with Jesus, the apostles, or later saints. Even the Muslims in the Holy Land got in on the relic business after the First Crusade, claiming to have found traces of Jesus’s blood and the head of Adam, inter alia.

John Calvin, the influential French theologian during the Protestant Reformation who helped found the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism, also noted the plethora of false relics, excoriating the duplicitous practice in a famous treatise published in 1543 chronicling multiple sightings of a “unique” putative relic in several different places throughout Europe. He wrote that he saw so many pieces of the True Cross they would fill the hold of a cargo ship. Regarding all the pieces of the Crown of Thorns, Calvin suggests that the thorns must have sprouted…. And of the Virgin’s milk, he wryly observed: “Had the Virgin been a wet-nurse her whole life, or a dairy, she could not have produced more than is shown as hers.”

On the other hand, much good came of efforts to house this abundance of relics. For example, King Louis IX of France took out a loan to acquire a great many finds (including the proliferating Crown of Thorns), and then constructed the magnificent Sainte Chapelle in Paris to hold them. Other towns and cathedrals also owed their development or enrichment to the profits from pilgrims coming to see the relics.

Sainte Chapelle, located in the center of Paris – interior shot.

In sum, the community of the supernatural formed a very real part of the medieval world. For centuries, there was no questioning of the power of relics. Freeman was perhaps most struck by the intensity of worship at the shrines that were said to house the relics. In spite of the fact that man, being subject to original sin, was unworthy of salvation, it was hoped that God just might be inveigled into relenting. God, Freeman explains:

…was not an abstract, rational being. God and rational behavior do not go hand in hand in the Middle Ages — what could be more irrational than to forgive some sinners but not others on a purely arbitrary basis or let them off years of purgatory on the purchase of an indulgence — yet his irrationality meant that he might be cajoled by the intercession of the saints.”

Evaluation: This is a fascinating examination of the role of relics in early Christianity, augmented by a provocative analysis of the influence of early theologians such as Augustine. Freeman’s prose is accessible and lucid. Rather than giving us a dense treatise as some other authors might have done, he provides an entertaining and enlightening glimpse into medieval times in Europe.

Moreover, Freeman writes about fantastic events and quixotic beliefs with only the barest hint of skepticism, and is all the more effective for doing so. The history he relates reminds us of the importance of rational thought as an antidote to superstition. Or perhaps, the shelf life of all those relics just happened to expire at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution.

Maps and illustrations are included.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Yale University Press, 2011

December 20, 1803 – Louisiana Territory Officially Transferred to the U.S.

In one of the largest land transactions in history, France officially transfered the Louisiana Territory to the United States on December 20, 1803. Factors such as control of the port of Louisiana and free navigation of the Mississippi River spurred President Jefferson to broker the purchase. The U.S. gained 828,000 square miles in the $15 million purchase (about four cents an acre), doubling the size of the nation.

The Louisiana Purchase encompassed portions of 15 current U.S. states and 2 Canadian Provinces. The land included in the purchase comprises around 23% of the territory of the United States today.

Napoleon needed money to support his European military ventures. He couldn’t afford to send sufficient troops to defend the territory, and besides, he had already lost an inordinate amount of soldiers to yellow fever while trying to suppress the Haitian rebellion. Napoleon thought he was getting the better end of the deal by selling off the mosquito-infested lands of the Louisiana Territory.

Jefferson was jubilant. At one stroke the United States would double its size, an enormous tract of land would be open to settlement, and the free navigation of the Mississippi would be assured. Although the Constitution did not specifically empower the federal government to acquire new territory by treaty, Jefferson concluded that the practical benefits to the nation far outweighed the possible violation of the Constitution. The Senate concurred with this decision and voted ratification on Oct. 20, 1803. The Spanish, who had never given up physical possession of Louisiana to the French, did so in a ceremony at New Orleans on Nov. 30, 1803. In a second ceremony, on Dec. 20, 1803, the French turned Louisiana over to the United States.

A few weeks after the purchase, President Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of western expansion, had Congress appropriate $2,500 for an expedition to see just what it was the United States had just purchased. Jefferson selected Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead the expedition, and Lewis selected William Clark as his partner.