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 “1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History” by Charles Bracelen Flood

This terrific contribution to Lincolniana manages to convey reverence for Lincoln without falling into the tempting trap of hagiography that so often characterizes books on Lincoln. Furthermore, although it’s a story familiar to many, Flood tells it in a most entertaining way, from a refreshingly objective perspective.

Flood has said in interviews that he believes there are only two years in American history that are absolutely critical, pivotal years: The first was 1776 and the second was 1864. This last full year of Lincoln’s life wrenched the President and the public from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other: for a while it looked like the North had lost the Civil War, as disasters and dead bodies mounted on the battlefields. Then Sherman took Atlanta followed by Savannah, and Sheridan tamed and reclaimed the Shenandoah Valley. Similarly, Lincoln’s prospects for winning a second term went from absolutely zero to overwhelmingly positive. And throughout this entire whip ride, Lincoln was manipulating everything and everybody he could, behind the scenes.

Abraham Lincoln, February, 1864

A little background: the Civil War started just five weeks after Lincoln’s first inauguration on March 4, 1861. By 1864, close to a million Union soldiers faced 700,000 Confederates. Also by that year, some quarter million Union soldiers were already lost from all causes. In addition, more than 100,000 had deserted.

Politics in the North was mainly divided into four camps: the “conservative” Republicans who supported Lincoln’s approach; the “Radicals” who thought Lincoln was too conciliatory toward the South; the “Peace Democrats” who wanted immediate peace negotiations and compromise with the South; and the “War Democrats” who were willing to keep fighting but did not care about the status of the slaves.

1864 was the year of some huge battles, including the Wilderness Campaign and Cold Harbor, in Virginia. The stories Flood tells about these battles are just awe-inspiring, even if you’ve heard them before! In one instance, Lee rode up in front of his troops to spur them on, and it took three men to wrestle him back to safety. Sheridan too, at Cedar Creek, rallied his retreating men when he “soared above the barricade on his massive black horse, landing in an open area. Wheeling [his horse] Rienzi around where his soldiers could see him for a hundred yards in either direction, he bellowed, “‘Men, by God, we’ll whip ‘em yet! We’ll sleep in our old tents tonight!” And they did. In Cold Harbor, one soldier wrote in his diary: “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.” The diary was found on his body. In mid-July, when D.C. was in danger of attack by the Confederates and Grant’s army was far away, some 2,800 wounded solders left their hospital beds to march to Fort Stevens, north of Washington. As Flood reports, “Many limped and most had bandages somewhere on their bodies, but they all carried muskets.”

Philip Sheridan

Lincoln’s desire to get reelected was never far from his mind, and even influenced his war strategy. (It was more than just a “desire” – he felt no one else was capable of being elected who wanted to keep the Union intact.) Benjamin Butler was deemed to be an incompetent general, but Lincoln wanted him kept busy in the field, because it was thought he might head up his own campaign for the presidency. So Butler amassed failure after failure, with yet more lives lost. Grant wanted to get rid of him, but he knew Lincoln wanted him handled with kid gloves. Finally they compromised; Butler was sent off “to await further orders” (which of course never came). (Lincoln first tried to co-opt Butler by sending someone to offer him the vice presidency. Butler laughingly replied that “I would not quit the field to be Vice-President, even with himself as President, unless he will give me…[assurances] that he will die or resign within three months after his inauguration.”)

Benjamin Butler

Salmon Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, was another potential threat to Lincoln’s reelection. Chase, favored by many Radical Republicans, saw the election results of 1860 (in which he also ran) as a hideous mistake, and hid his thirst to be president from no one. Chase was contemptuous of Lincoln. Although Lincoln’s origins were humble, Lincoln the man was nothing of the kind when it came to his sense of intellectual superiority, and he didn’t hesitate to let others know this. Chase burned with resentment over the presumption of such a bumpkin! As for Lincoln, he wasn’t so fond of Chase either, but thought he would do a good job at Treasury. More importantly, however, for Lincoln, with Chase serving in the Cabinet, it would be too awkward for him to come right out and challenge in the 1864 presidential election the man it was his duty to serve.

Salmon Chase

At the Republican convention in June, Flood gives evidence that Lincoln himself desired, and worked for (surreptitiously), the nomination of Andrew Johnson as his vice-presidential candidate. Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, was the only senator from the states that seceded who remained loyal to the Union. Lincoln felt his nomination would have powerful symbolic importance. In one sense his selection would be a concession to the South and evidence of the rewards of staying in the Union. In another, it would be “something of a political offensive into the South to parallel the military advances.” And finally, Lincoln thought that to nominate a Southerner who was a Union loyalist would prove to England and France (in danger of recognizing the Confederacy as a separate country) that America as one country was still viable.

Andrew Johnson

Most people know that during the War, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. (Habeas corpus, or the Great Writ, is the legal procedure by which prisoners can challenge the legality their detention; it was designed as a protection against the government from holding people indefinitely without showing cause.) But the extent to which his administration had people jailed questionably is not as well known. Not all of the people who landed in prison had engaged in “seditious” behaviors. Sometimes, however, the extra vigilance was justified. The Confederate Secret Service, operating in Canada, came up with a number of plots to destabilize the North. Confederate sympathizers in the North also worked against the government. One notable plan Lincoln discovered in 1864 involved a conspiracy by a secret organization to stage an armed insurrection, taking Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri out of the Union in a second secession. This “Northwestern Confederacy” would then hopefully attract membership by Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Kansas. Then, they would form a partnership with the South.

With all his problems of state, Lincoln had trials on the home front as well. Mary had become more and more unstable since the death of their second son Willie in 1862. She eased her anxiety by having séances conducted in the White House, and by compulsive shopping, once buying 400 pairs of gloves in three months. She also bought several shawls for $650 each and a cashmere for $1,000. Meanwhile Lincoln wore the same ratty, ill-fitting suit every day, and carried out affairs of state in worn carpet slippers. He did not give money to Mary for her shopping; rather, she “appropriated” it from other funds. As an example, in return for splitting half the money with her, she got the Superintendent of the White House grounds to come up with fake receipts for flowers, trees, bushes, and equipment. Soon she expanded her scam into the White House kitchen.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Meanwhile in the South…. In November of 1864, on the day Lincoln was getting reelected, Jefferson Davis was proposing to buy 40,000 slaves from their owners, so they could fight in the army … to help preserve slavery. …

A final note on Lincoln’s last full year: On Christmas Eve, his friend Orville Browning convinced Lincoln to go in on a cotton deal that might have made Lincoln a million dollars. The gray trade in cotton and tobacco had proceeded throughout the war; it was in the interest of both sides to ignore it. Lincoln just had to writes passes for the middlemen to go back and forth to the South unharmed through Union lines. Flood said it was “legal but perhaps an unethical conflict of interest,” and it probably would have been a huge scandal had it gone through. Ironically, when Lee evacuated Richmond three months later, he burned the warehouses that were to provide goods for the deal, so it was never consummated.

Orville Browning

Flood’s Lincoln is not a saint. Rather, he is a real human being who is not only inordinately compassionate and patient, but also a brilliant and savvy manager who compromised his standards when necessary to achieve his goals.

Evaluation: Even if you aren’t a maniacal fan of Lincoln and the Civil War as I am, I can’t imagine not enjoying this book. Flood is as fully readable as Doris Kearns Goodwin, but where Goodwin falls short in objective reporting, Flood excels.

Rating: 4.7/5

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2009

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

December 31, 1977 – Jimmy Carter Praises Iran As An Island of Stability

On this day in history, President Jimmy Carter, visiting the Shah of Iran in Tehran, made a speech to toast the Shah at a state dinner.

President Jimmy Carter and the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, at a state dinner in Iran in 1977.

President Jimmy Carter and the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, at a state dinner in Iran in 1977.

He said in part:

Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.

This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you.”

The “island,” however, was in fact in turmoil. Opposition to the Shah was mounting, with the Shah increasingly relying on his notorious secret police, SAVAK, to crack down on dissent. Protesters began filling the streets, and on January 16, 1979, the Shah fled to Egypt. When the Shah found out he had cancer, he asked Carter for permission to come to the U.S. for treatment. Carter knew it would cause problems, but decided he could not refuse the Shah out of humanitarian considerations, and in October, 1979, he extended a public invitation to the Shah. He later said:

I was told that the Shah was desperately ill, at the point of death . . . I was told that New York was the only medical facility that was capable of possibly saving his life and reminded that the Iranian officials had promised to protect our people in Iran. When all the circumstances were described to me, I agreed.”

On November 4, 1979, an angry mob of young Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage. The hostages were not released for 444 days, until Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. As The History Channel reports:

Iranian hostages

Iranian hostages

The immediate cause of this action was President Jimmy Carter’s decision to allow Iran’s deposed Shah, a pro-Western autocrat who had been expelled from his country some months before, to come to the United States for cancer treatment. However, the hostage-taking was about more than the Shah’s medical care: it was a dramatic way for the student revolutionaries to declare a break with Iran’s past and an end to American interference in its affairs. It was also a way to raise the intra- and international profile of the revolution’s leader, the anti-American cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.”

Portrait Of Ayatollah Khomeini taken in Paris, shortly before the 1979 revolution. Photograph: Denis Cameron/Rex Features

Portrait Of Ayatollah Khomeini taken in Paris, shortly before the 1979 revolution. Photograph: Denis Cameron/Rex Features

December 29, 1911 – Birth of Klaus Fuchs

Klaus Fuchs was a German-born physicist who was convicted as a spy in Britain on March 1, 1950, for passing nuclear research secrets to Russia. He originally had fled to Britain from Nazi Germany, where he participated in the development of the bomb, and later, he went to Los Alamos, New Mexico to join the “Manhattan Project” directed towards developing nuclear power in the U.S.

Los Alamos I.D. Badge

Los Alamos I.D. Badge

The irony is that Fuchs was virtually ignored while he was at Los Alamos because the FBI was so focused on watching the bomb project’s director, Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was known to have had leftist leanings in his youth, but Fuchs had actually been a member of the (German) Communist Party, the only political group actively resisting Hitler. His family members had been imprisioned, killed, or driven insane by the Nazis.

Before arriving in the U.S., Fuchs had worked on a highly classified project in Britain and by 1942 was passing information to the Soviets about the British bomb program. No one knew, however, and he was brought, along with other talented British scientists, to Los Alamos. His behavior there gave no one cause for suspicion. He was quiet, worked hard, and loaned his car to physicist Richard Feynman to go home on weekends to see his dying wife. No one paid much attention to him.

Richard Feynman visiting his dying wife Arline at the Albuquerque sanatorium

By autumn of 1944, however, the Soviets were receiving the first of many intelligence reports directly from Los Alamos. Finally, in 1949, the FBI managed to decrypt Soviet cable traffic indicating that a Soviet spy had been operating out of Los Alamos and that the most likely suspect was Klaus Fuchs. He confessed early in 1950. In a statement he made then, he said:

At this time I had complete confidence in Russian policy and I believed that the Western Allies deliberately allowed Russia and Germany to fight each other to the death. I had, therefore, no hesitation in giving all the information I had …”

Nonetheless, much of the anger over this episode was directed toward Oppenheimer, since the spying had occurred “on his watch.”

As for Oppenheimer himself, he was stunned by the news, agreeing with his former secretary that “Fuchs had always seemed like such a quiet, lonely, even pathetic character as Los Alamos.” He also did not think Fuchs knew enough to do major damage. Oppenheimer’s days with security clearance were numbered, however. (For an excellent account of “The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” see American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.)

J. Robert Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Most scholars have agreed with Oppenheimer and with the assessment made by Hans Bethe in 1952, which concluded that by the time Fuchs left the thermonuclear program — the summer of 1946 — there was too little known about the mechanism of the hydrogen bomb for his information to be of any necessary use to the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, the apprehension of Dr. Fuchs put investigators on a trail that led eventually to the conviction, at a trial in New York, of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. They were electrocuted in 1953 at Sing Sing prison.

After Fuchs was convicted in Britain, he was imprisoned for nine years of a 14-year sentence, and released in 1959. He emigrated to Dresden, then part of East Germany. According to Thomas Reed and Danny Stillman, authors of a book on the atomic bomb, The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation, Fuchs went on to share atomic secrets with China. Upon gaining his freedom, he apparently gave the mastermind of Mao’s weapons program a detailed tutorial on the Nagasaki bomb. A half-decade later, China detonated its first bomb.

Fuchs married a friend from his years as a student communist when he was released from prison. He continued his scientific career and achieved considerable prominence. He was elected to the German Academy of Sciences, and he received the Fatherland’s Order of Merit and the Order of Karl Marx. He retired in 1979 and died in 1988.

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

Review of “Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914” by John Hendrix

I think this fictionalized account of the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 does an excellent job of summarizing for kids not only the background of World War I but some of the moral and philosophical issues of war.

Charlie is a young British soldier who writes home to his mom to tell her about the impromptu truce and Christmas celebration that day between British and German soldiers. On that day, the soldiers entrenched along the French-Belgian border met in the center of “No Man’s Land” between the two armies. They each buried their dead, and then found themselves wishing each other Merry Christmas. Before long, they were exchanging food and gifts.

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They even started playing a game of football with an empty biscuit tin as the ball. [An actual match was played between the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment of Germany and Scottish troops, with the Germans winning the match 3 to 2.]


At the end of the day the Major appeared and was furious at the men, ordering them to be ready to fire on the German trenches when he returned. Charlie writes his mother:

“…I suspect our side will spend the rest of the night aiming high above their trench, shooting at the stars.”

The book concludes with an Author’s Note, glossary, bibliography, and even an index, highly unusual in a picture book.


The author, who is also the illustrator (and one with many, many awards), has create a hybrid of children’s book and graphic novel, which will appeal to the older group of children to whom this book is directed (the recommended age group is 8–12) as well as to adults. The epistolary style also contributes to the graphic-novel feel. The text mixes hand-lettering with standard text blocks, and the palette switches from luminous nighttime scenes done in blues, aquas and teals to more trench-and mud-appropriate colors for the daytime scenes.

Evaluation: This is an excellent book that will show kids the “human” side of war, and help raise up many discussion questions about war generally.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Abrams, 2014

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