3/30/12 - conical hats and yellow badges

In today's excerpt - Europeans of the Middle Ages, just before the dawn of the Renaissance, did not prize, much less encourage, individuality, curiosity, and upward mobility:

"Southern Germany in 1417 was prosperous. The cata­strophic Thirty Years' War that would ravage the countryside and shatter whole cities in the region lay far in the future, as did the horrors of our own time that destroyed much of what had survived from this period. In addition to knights, courtiers, and nobles, other men of substance busily traveled the rutted, hard-packed roads. Ravensburg, near Constance, was involved in the linen trade and had recently begun to produce paper. Ulm, on the left bank of the Danube, was a flourishing center of manu­facture and commerce, as were Heidenheim, Aalen, beautiful Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and still more beautiful Wiirzburg. Burghers, wool brokers, leather and cloth merchants, vintners and brewers, craftsmen and their apprentices, as well as diplo­mats, bankers, and tax collectors, all were familiar sights. ...

"There were less prosperous figures too—journeymen, tin­kers, knife-sharpeners, and others whose trades kept them on the move; pilgrims on their way to shrines where they could worship in the presence of a fragment of a saint's bone or a drop of sacred blood; jugglers, fortune-tellers, hawkers, acro­bats and mimes traveling from village to village; runaways, vagabonds, and petty thieves. And there were the Jews, with the conical hats and the yellow badges that the Christian authorities forced them to wear, so that they could be easily identified as objects of contempt and hatred. ...

"Most people at the time signaled their identi­ties, their place in the hierarchical social system, in visible signs that everyone could read, like the indelible stains on a dyer's hands. ... What mattered was what you belonged to or even whom you belonged to. The little couplet Alexander Pope mockingly wrote in the eighteenth century, to put on one of the queen's little pugs, could have applied in earnest in [this] world:

I am his Highness' dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

"The household, the kinship network, the guild, the corporation—these were the building blocks of personhood. Independence and self-reliance had no cultural purchase; indeed, they could scarcely be conceived, let alone prized. Identity came with a precise, well-understood place in a chain of command and obedience.

"To attempt to break the chain was folly. An impertinent gesture—a refusal to bow or kneel or uncover one's head to the appropriate person—could lead to one's nose being slit or one's neck broken. And what, after all, was the point? It was not as if there were any coherent alternatives, certainly not one articulated by the Church or the court or the town oligarchs. The best course was humbly to accept the identity to which destiny assigned you: the ploughman needed only to know how to plough, the weaver to weave, the monk to pray. It was possible, of course, to be better or worse at any of these things; this society ... acknowledged and, to a considerable degree, rewarded unusual skill. But to prize a person for some ineffable individuality or for many-sidedness or for intense curiosity was virtually unheard of. Indeed, curi­osity was said by the Church to be a mortal sin. To indulge it was to risk an eternity in hell."


Stephen Greenblatt


The Swerve


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2011 by Stephen Greenblatt


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