History of Me, Part 5: Printing and Protestantism

In this edition of History of Me, we look at how both the printing press and the Protestant Reformation radically changed European society. Sound interesting? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

First, a little context…

Before we dive in, I wanted to give some background, especially for some of the particular Church doctrines and practices that feature in this post. So, here are some useful facts and terms to know:

  • Purgatory: Also known as limbo. Believed (and taught by the Church) to be where souls would go after they died to spend time doing penance for their un-atoned-for sins, until they achieved sufficient holiness and were allowed into heaven.
  • Indulgences: Pieces of paper granting the bearer exemption from a certain amount of time spent doing penance in Purgatory. They could be earned (eg by visiting a holy site) or purchased (eg by making a donation to build a new cathedral), and were a quick and effective way to raise money for the Church.
  • The Pope: Seen as not only the infallible representative of God on earth and leader of the Church, but also as a political figure to which even royalty had to give respect if not outright obedience. Popes often used their religious authority over people’s souls to leverage their way into more secular matters. (Though at this point, European society was Christian at its core, so “secular” is kind of a misnomer. Not that there weren’t atheists or people of other religions, but for the vast majority of Europeans the Church was such an intrinsic part of society and their daily existence that the way we think of separation of Church and State now basically didn’t exist at this time.)
  • Heresy / Heretic: As the head of the Church and infallible representative of God on Earth, the Pope (and, by extension, other church officials insofar as they were supported by the Pope) had the authority to declare certain beliefs “wrong” — heresy. Because of the importance placed on salvation, being declared a heretic was dangerous — you were seen as not only personally damned, but liable to lead others astray, and thus were likely to be sentenced to execution if you refused to recant or repeal your statements.
  • Excommunication: If a person (or group, or city, or a whole country) did something the Pope (and other church authorities) didn’t like, they could declare them to be excommunicated — that is, outside the salvation of the Church. While excommunicated, a person could not attend church, receive communion, receive their last rites, etc, which meant they were basically outside of society.

Okay, I think that’s a good start… now, on to the main event.

The printing revolution

Our first book dives right into the religious tension simmering just below the surface at this time in history. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie follows the invention of the printing press and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible(s) in Mainz, Germany in 1450 through the perspective of Peter Shoeffer, a trained scribe and actual person.

At the start of the book, the city of Mainz is under a blanket excommunication and embargo imposed by the local archbishop as punishment for the city council’s defiance:

There’d be no sacraments until the upstart council had backed down. The archbishop’s word was law: none of his priests would say a mass or take confession, the newly born were unbaptized and the dying were deprived of their last rites, consigned forever to the agony of limbo. (p.15)

Withholding religious rituals from people meant if they died they wouldn’t go to heaven, so the burden of excommunication on the populace was a heavy one. The fact that the archbishop is willing to let common people suffer this way in order to gain a leg up on the city council illustrates that blurred line between religious and political authority that church officials crossed regularly.

The book also does a great job of illustrating the politics specifically surrounding the creation of books and the invention of the printing press. At this time, most books were religious (with the exception of some classical texts used for teaching and philosophy). The writing of religious texts in particular, done mainly in scriptoria (writing rooms) by monks, was seen as a religious act and was highly regulated by the church to ensure uniformity and orthodoxy. In the book, Peter and co initially plan to print a shorter religious book, so they can finish and get paid sooner. But that gets nixed by church officials, so they decide to print Bibles because no one can argue with a Bible!

From there, the book really delved into the craft and mechanics of the printing process, which I found fascinating. I had never thought about ALL the steps needed:

  • Hand-write their own font
  • Hand-create molds to cast each letter
  • Invent a metal alloy that could withstand the impact of being pressed over and over
  • Cast thousands of tiny letters and ensure they were all the exact same height so the page would print evenly
  • Mix ink that would be thin enough to not get tacky but thick enough to not melt all over or get watered down
  • Select appropriate paper and vellum (calf-skin), and ensure they were all the same size
  • Collate and bind all the books by hand

It’s not that surprising, then, that it took five years to print around 150 Latin Bibles, one page (x150) at a time. Each one sold for the equivalent of 3 years’ wages for an average clerk.

…Which you might think is expensive. And it is. But a single Bible copied by hand could take a scribe a whole year to write. So even though 5 years for 150 Bibles sounds super slow, it’s a lot faster than 5 years for 5 Bibles!

The printing press greatly reduced and cost, time, and effort required to create books — but arguably its most immediate impact was felt in its ability to quickly replicate shorter items, such as pamphlets and indulgences, which allowed information to be spread and money to be raised very rapidly. In fact, a big reason for the printing press crew’s secrecy throughout the book (other than the obvious “don’t want anyone to steal my invention”) is because Peter, who feels printing a Bible is a spiritual act, doesn’t want the press to be used to print indulgences — and (spoiler) at the end of the book, that’s exactly what happens.

The Protestant Reformation

Speaking of pamphlets and indulgences, let’s talk about the Protestant Reformation!

The quick story (which I heard often as a kid growing up Lutheran) is that the Church was selling lots of indulgences and doing other unbiblical things, so Martin Luther wrote down 95 theses, or arguments, and nailed them to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. (Since religious folks were often also scholarly folks, this was basically the equivalent of posting a list of arguments in a forum on the internet — and in fact, it was quickly converted into a pamphlet and “went viral” throughout Europe.) Then the Church got mad, excommunicated Luther, and tried to kill him, but lots of people followed what he said and that’s why we have Lutherans (and all you other Protestants, too!) today. The end.

Obviously that’s simplistic. But actually, in some ways this is how the story feels to me, since learning it as a child made it feel almost mythological. So I really enjoyed having an opportunity to revisit this important time in history in its proper context, as a part of the story of my family and my peoples. (Especially since this reading accidentally coincided with the 500th anniversary of the 95 theses!)

As I read through chapter 3 of A Mighty Fortress, what stood out most to me was how much Luther and the Reformation were not just focused on theology, but also politics, economics, national identity, and social class. There was just SO much going on at this time in Europe and particularly Germany that it’s hard to digest it all at once! I’ve pulled out a few big themes below. (I swear I’ve tried to edit this down twice… sorry!)

Significant challenge to centralized Roman Church

The most obvious (at least to me) dimension of the Reformation is, of course, the religious angle. And it’s significant to note that this was a major, major upheaval for all of Christian society. Recent in everyone’s memory would have been the sacking of Constantinople (1453 – just 60 years earlier, during Gutenberg’s printing efforts) and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia, the greatest eastern church, into a mosque. This left Rome as the sole center of Christendom, and to some it probably felt like the sky was falling to now see papal authority challenged from withinAnd remember — the big concern at this time, with excommunication and indulgences and all, was “Are you going to heaven?” So having suddenly two disagreeing camps would have been shocking and stressful for many.

Culturally speaking, I found it interesting to think about the big-picture cultural shifts in theology and faith practice. Medieval Catholicism emphasized the pilgrimage as a metaphor of life’s journey of judgment, penance, and grace with priests as guides and mediators. Protestantism emphasized the ability of all to access God and focused on each person as “righteous and sinful simultaneously” (AMF p. 85). Protestants also placed more emphasis on secular civic life (eg public schools, state welfare, de-sacramentizing marriage, etc).

Seeds of deep religious division

I knew going into this that much conflict in medieval/modern Europe has been about Protestants and Catholics, so it’s interesting (and sad) to see those seeds planted:

Over the centuries the pervasiveness of Lutheran and Catholic theology in gymnasiums [schools] and universities infused German public education with religious knowledge, which in turn exacerbated confessional divisions. Yet that same knowledge also made the Germans Europe’s most theologically literate people and facilitated both confessions’ cooperation with the state. (p.90, emphasis added)

In my experience, both parts of this quote are still true today: education (religious and otherwise) still has high importance in the German Lutheran church I was raised in, and even still today there is plenty of segregation and division between Catholics and Protestants. (Just go ask a Euro-American grandparent – I guarantee they’ll have a story for you, no matter which side of the tracks they grew up on.)

The rise of cities

Around the same time, the rise of cities and the merchant middle class  meant more desire for self-differentiation and openness to anti-Roman sentiment:

Local grievances against the Roman Church and a desire for communal sovereignty attracted urban populations to Protestant reforms. Viewing themselves as oases of republican government within a desert of autocratic rule, self-governing townspeople believed themselves to be morally superior to the landed nobility and royalty. They had gotten where they were not by birth, fortune, or military force, but by native ingenuity and the skills they acquired through productive work. (p.66-67, emphasis added)

(To me, this quote also explains exactly where the famous “Protestant work ethic” comes from!)

A major political statement

Back in 1356 (so 150 years before the Reformation), then-Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV granted German princes “semiregal rights within their respective lands” (AMF p.65). This led to the establishment of 7 princes (3 of whom were “ecclesiastical princes”, aka bishops!) as the “electors” of the next Holy Roman Emperor — which they did without the involvement of the Pope. This was a big win for regionalism and the beginning of a drift away from Roman influence.

The electors were still around at the time of the Reformation. And in fact, one called Frederick the Elector, a Saxon prince, had a huge collection of relics for which visiting pilgrims could gain “1,902,202 years of absolution for unrepented sins” (p.71). According to Ozment,

Luther hated the great relic collection and the even greater indulgence it promised. He waited to post his famous Ninety-five Theses until Frederick had departed Wittenberg for the 1517 autumn hunt…. When however, the crafty indulgence peddler John Tetzel, on the instructions of the archbishop of Mainz, began selling the famous indulgence for the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s in Rome on the borders of electoral Saxony, Frederick was as offended as Luther — albeit over the political intrusion rather than any religious impropriety. (p.71, emphasis added)

This turned out to be the first of many times Frederick interceded on Luther’s behalf — and it’s impossible to separate the religious and political motivations: “When, in April 1521, Luther, a condemned heretic, was summoned to the Diet of Worms [a church trial at Worms, Germany] to answer for his teachings, the elector of Saxony attended that meeting also, as a guardian angel. … At the conclusion of the Diet, the vast majority of German lands and cities joined electoral Saxony in refusing to sign off on its proceedings…” (p.74).

Not only did Germans refuse to condemn Luther, but before they even knew the verdict they had already brought their political and religious grievances:

The two movements, the new religious and the older political, spoke with one voice at the Diet of Worms in April 1521. There, the German estates, none of which was yet Protestant, presented [Holy Roman] Emperor Charles V with 102 “oppressive burdens and abuses imposed upon, and committed against, the German empire by the Holy See of Rome” — a national laundry list of political, economic ecclesiastical, and spiritual complaints, echoing many of Luther’s. (p. 78-79, emphasis added)

Rise of independent German identity

So far we’ve looked at how the Reformation was religious and political — but it also intermingled with a strong German nationalist impulse.

Ozment notes that “during his formative years, from 1518 to 1528, Luther was as devoted to German nationalism and civic reform as he was to the restoration of biblical Christianity” (p.77). In addition to writing about the abuses of the church, Luther discovered, edited, and published “A German Theology” as proof of “German sovereignty and cultural equality [with Rome]” (p.80). Ozment notes that “this pamphlet was another native root for Germans to cling to and a reminder of a still unhealed, historically wounded German pride” (p.80) — an attempt to raise themselves up from the memory of being the Romans’ “barbarian” neighbors.

This desire for a strong and unified German identity also found a linguistic expression — as Luther is also largely responsible for the advent of the modern German language. At this time, different dialects were spoken around Germany, but Luther spoke and wrote “an early form of the pan-German language we know today as High German, evolved from composite East Middle and Low German dialects” (p.88-9). 

A note about Luther…

The Reformation was a HUGE moment in history — I can see where so much of what we now think of as German began with the Reformation. And Luther should get credit for his part in it.

But I think it’s also important to be honest about his shortcomings, because those contributed to what we now think of as German, too. I’ll touch on two of those briefly.

First, Luther betrayed his fellow peasants. In short, the much-downtrodden peasant class took hold of the egalitarian spirit of Luther’s writings and began an uprising. Luther initially supported the movement, “calling the revolt and its anarchy a just divine punishment for their [rulers’] tyranny” (p.76), but when it came to a choice between the new Reformation being embraced by elites or dragged down by peasant rebellion, “Luther the cleric and the miner’s son called for the ‘merciless punishment’ of the peasants” (p.76). Like so many Germans before him, he chose empire over neighbor.

Second, Luther wrote awful things about the Jews. All you need to hear is that he actually wrote a book called On the Jews and Their Lies, and you know it’s going to be bad. In fact, Luther’s later anti-Semitic writings were a major influence for the Nazis. I won’t go into a ton of detail (here’s a link with more if you want) — but I never knew about this as a kid, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that Luther was a person who did some great things and some awful things.

The Reformation and Regular People

Mighty Fortress gave so much amazing background about the Reformation as a movement — but one of the things I most want to learn through this project is what effect all these big-picture movements had on everyday people. So I read Eamon Duffy’s Voices of Morebath, which follows a single rural English village based on the financial account book of its priest, Sir Christopher, over the course of the English Reformation.

(Note: Morebath was Catholic, so obviously it would have been different for Protestant villages. But since at this time rulers could choose the religion of their country/province, I think this is still a valuable examination of how common folk were affected by courtly politics re: religion.)

The English Reformation provides a condensed idea of how the Reformation affected other nations, in part because the very rapid change in Tudor monarchs meant many forced religious changes for the people. During Sir Christopher’s record-keeping:

  • 1521 – Henry VIII writes pamphlet denouncing Luther; declared “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope
  • 1534 – Henry VIII makes self head of Church of England; is excommunicated; dissolves monasteries; forbids Catholicism
  • 1538 – Henry VIII starts to roll back some reforms, but then dies…
  • 1547 – Edward VI, radical Protestant, burned Catholic “heretics”
  • 1553 – Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), radical Catholic, burned Protestant “heretics”
  • 1558 – Elizabeth I, returned the country to Protestantism and burned a few Catholic “heretics” but then kinda settled down

Folks, that is all in just 37 years. Poor English people.

In the financial record of the village of Morebath, Sir Christopher records that each time the rules changed, the church had to purchase a new Bible and a new (approved) prayer book. Remember how expensive books were, even with the printing press? (3 years’ salary for a Bible.) For a small village parish like Morebath, forced liturgical change meant massive financial burden.

Another major impact was the outlawing (and re-allowing) of the veneration of the saints. In Morebath, parishioners took part in “interest groups” named after different saints, such as a group for young men named for St. George or a group of young maidens named for St. Sidwell (a local saint at Morebath). These groups helped people at different stages of life to have an engaged role in church life. Members also worked together to fundraise, and then donated the monies to the church to honor their saint in some way — such as the maidens financing a new coat of paint for St. Sidwell’s statue.

The saints were also deeply personal and entrenched in community life — often a woman would bequeath her rosary (a very intimate and important possession for a medieval woman) to be draped on St. Sidwell after her death, and parishioners would be able to be present with the saints and the objects that connected them with their absent loved ones.

With the outlawing of saints, these groups were dissolved, and the icons and decorations of the saints were no longer permitted in the church. Even in a financial record book, it’s clear that the loss of the saints hit parishioners hard. The residents of Morebath are recorded as keeping and hiding some of their saints and altar cloths. In fact, when a Catholic peasant rebellion rose up, Sir Christopher very sneakily records that the church sent several young men to support the rebels. So this was important enough to risk treason standing up for what they believed in.

In the end Protestantism won out, and Duffy notes that “with the extinguishing of the [saints’ altar] lights and the abandonment of the patronage of the saints… a dimension of warmth and humanity evident in the [financial] accounts [of Morebath] up to that point fades a little.”

Here we see how, as with the original conversion of Europe to Christianity, religious change at this time often came from the top down. Essentially, over the life of this parish priest, “twenty years of pious investment and communal effort” toward beautifying the church out of personal and communal devotion was in an instant “expressly declared unchristian” with the passage of these laws enforcing Protestant practice. It reminded me again how painful forcible conversion is, whether from religion to religion or even from one cultural practice to another. 

At the end of the book, Duffy notes that Sir Christopher, who became a priest as a Catholic, in the end had to shape his priesthood into the mold of Protestantism. He could have refused to change, or left the priesthood, but “the unthinkable alternative to conformity was to leave his vicarage and the people he had baptized, married, and buried for 40 years.” Duffy writes that “his [Sir Christopher’s] religion in the end was the religion of Morebath” — local, place-based, intertwined with those specific families and people. And I found that really beautiful to think about.

Conclusion

As I said, there’s just SO much here to take in. Printing presses accelerating the speed of public discourse. Resistance against Roman authority. Struggle to form a new faith. Coercion and conflict and loss and adaptation.

I feel like as we approach the “modern” era, I’m starting to see some of the themes that emerged early in the project — like “we’re not as cool as Rome” or forcible religious conversion or the disconnect between the powers and the rural folks —  resurface in deeper and more complex ways. 

I almost feel like Germany is starting to have kind of a personality to me, so that’s kind of cool. But also, people have baggage, and I already know where Germany’s particular baggage will get us… but it’s also fascinating to see where the roots of German nationalism began. And how, underneath it all, the Morebaths of the world try to put the pieces together and live life.

I’m still processing. But I’m really grateful for this journey.

Tune in next time for a dive into the Thirty Years War and the ins and outs of daily life in a typical German village.

Oh, and, bonus — enjoy Daniel’s cut-to-the-chase summary of my post. 🙂

SO… YOU’RE SAYING THAT LUTHER WANTED LIBERTY BOTH THEOLOGICALLY AND POLITICALLY FROM ROME, AND HE WAS PRETTY MUCH AMAZING AT LEADING THEOLOGICAL AND POLITICAL MOVEMENTS TO ACCOMPLISH JUST THAT, BUT NOT WITHOUT ACCIDENTALLY SCREWING THE POOR AND KINDLING THE 3RD REICH. OH… AND… PRINTING PRESSES.

 

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History of Me, Part 3: Beliefs and Betrayal

In this episode of History of Me, a look at how Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. (Hint: It’s super complicated.) Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

The Barbarian Conversion

Two looooong books this time. The first was non-fiction: The Barbarian Conversion by Richard Fletcher. If you are interested in an in-depth look into this topic, I recommend reading this because there is LOADS of detail. Here are some of the big ideas that stuck out to me:

  • When Constantine converted, Christianity became the religion of Roman favor. As Fletcher takes pains to clarify, “Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, though this is often said of him. What he did was to make the Christian church the most-favored recipient of the near-limitless resources of imperial favor.” This caused a conflation of “Christianness” with “Romanness” in the eyes of many in the empire, and set the stage for…
  • When Rome collapsed, Christianity stepped into the void as a kind of Roman surrogate. Because Christianity had become entangled with Romanness,  bishops and dioceses were set up in the same regional manner as Roman governmental officials and provinces. Thus, when the empire collapsed, it was an easy step for the religious structure to take over and grow on the “trellis” of what had been the imperial apparatus.
  • From there, conversion usually proceeded from the top. Once Christianity took hold among Roman elites, leaders of other cultural groups began to opt in. Since bishops were also often seats of power, church officials often came from noble families and were thus well-placed to convert their relatives and former peers. Thus, “Christianity became an inseparable component of the aristocratic identity” (Fletcher p. 192). Conversion also happened first at the city centers, and took much longer to spread to rural areas. (As Fletcher puts it, “fuzziness is an essential and important part of the process of barbarian conversion” [p.132].)
  • Early Christianity was not monolithic, but became so over time. Despite how clear theological matters may seem today, early Christianity was rife with disagreements that were later labeled as “heresies” by the winners. For example, check out Arianism or Donatism. This is interesting because  by the time “Christian” missionaries arrived some places, some people had already embraced “heretical” strains of Christianity — which was cause not for celebration, but for re-conversion! I can see this laying the groundwork for later intra-religious conflict…

This gives you the basic big-picture outline of how Christianity was spread. Constantine, to bishops, to nobles, to their vassals and (eventually) to rural country folk.

However, another huge piece that first occurred in Europe was forcible conversion, and for this we turn to Charlemagne. By the 700s AD, the Frankish kingdom in northwest Germany / northeast France was established and Christian, and ruled by the Carolingians. (I’ll read more about this kingdom / time period next time, but for this post we’re jumping a little ahead.) Charlemagne’s predecessor launched a campaign against their Saxon neighbors to the east, but it wasn’t just about a land grab:

By the end of the campaign, the Saxons were cowed and ‘sought peace and the sacraments.’ The stage was set for the bloody Saxon wars and forcible conversions of the reign of Charlemagne. (p.210) … [In 30 years] not much headway had been made with the conversion of the Saxons. Were these stubborn people never going to submit? In the [end] they did. The harsher measures… bore fruit, in the short term. In 782 [Charlemagne] massacred 4,500 prisoners. More fortunate ones were enslaved or deported. In 784 he led his army to the banks of the River Elbe: no Frankish ruler had ever before campaigned and laid waste as far to the east as this. In 785 [the eastern ruler] submitted and was baptized. (p. 215) … The Saxon Capitulary [when they finally surrendered] stands as a blueprint for the comprehensive and ruthless Christianization of a conquered society. (p.216, emphasis added)

So basically, Charlemagne and the Franks were the first to forcibly require conversion to Christianity of their defeated foes, on pain of death. Not only that, but like many who experience trauma the Saxons then turned around and when they had the power they reenacted that trauma on others: the Saxons conquered and forcibly converted the Slavic Wends (aka future Slovakians) and Pomerania, a late pagan holdout (where my dad’s German side is from), was subjugated by Poland in 1120.

I’m guessing you can see some parallels to some other colonial forcible conversion and assimilation; I could. Here’s what Fletcher has to say about it:

Christianization in these lands of the northern Slavs meant ‘Germanization’: a colonial church, a church of the German ascendancy, was imposed upon them. Cherished patterns of cultural identity were broken up: immemorial ways of doing things… Little that was positive was proffered in exchange. No native Wendish clergy was encouraged; no Christian literature in Old Pomeranian was developed. The converts were cowed and resentful. (p.450, emphasis added)

Basically Charlemagne took the imperialist impulses that had been first propagated by the Romans, mixed in the Christianity that had become the new elite religion, and began a chain reaction of violent colonial conversion that has continued for centuries. As Fletcher notes, “The spiritual conquest of [eastern Europe] points ahead to that of Mexico and Peru” (p.491).

So when we white folks look at the trauma that Europeans have done to others in the name of God, we can also look at ourselves and know, we were “better” at colonialism and violence by the time we got to other continents, but we practiced on our neighbors first. To me, this is significant not as a way to equalize everyone’s trauma and make it all go away, but as a way to understand that long ago, some of my ancestors chose to prioritize power over neighbor, at the cost of their humanity and many people’s lives. And that choice kept being remade and remade. And it’s still being remade today.

Mists of Avalon

It was interesting to re-read this book. (Also, fair warning, I will discuss major spoilers for this book as well as mentions of abuse, so proceed with caution.)

The first time I read it, I mostly noticed the subtextual and at times very overt theological conflict, because those concepts were really new to me. And those pieces are still there — I noticed lots of themes and plot points that reaffirmed the history I read in Barbarian Conversion including some nobles that were Romanized, the slow “fuzzy” permeation of Christianity into the elite, the even slower trickle-down of Christianity to the peasants, and the gradual radicalization of the Christian missionaries. All line up with what Fletcher describes based on the historical evidence we have.

HOWEVER. That was not what stood out most to me on this read-through. What was painfully, in-your-face obvious to me in this book was the incredible amount of relational brokenness, pain, and loss.

Part of this comes from the structure of the story — it’s a retelling of King Arthur, which requires infidelity, incest, and mass death just to fulfill its core plot points.

Another big part is due to the fact that this go-round, I read as one aware of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s history of abuse, as told by her daughter. (There were parts of the book that, knowing this information, read wayyyy too creepily. NOT okay.)

Those things aside (and I recognize that for some, those things are too big to put aside, but I’m going to discuss the book anyway) — to me, this book is about the story of patriarchal/imperial Christianity and how matriarchal beliefs struggled to survive. It’s a really complex story with a lot of characters, but I’ll pull out a few points:

  • Women vs. the patriarchy. From page one, this is a book primarily about women, and our protagonist, Morgaine, introduces herself as “sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen.” Throughout the book we see how the constricting roles allowed to women by patriarchal Romanized Christianity harm all the women. We see this in how many of the Romanized/Christianized men treat women, and especially how men’s treatment of women finds a focused voice in the internalized oppression evident in King Arthur’s shrinking bride, Gwenhwyfar, who is constantly saying things like “It is unseemly for a woman to raise her voice before the Lord…” (p.288).
  • Women can be part of the patriarchy, too. Although the main theme of this book is about patriarchal/Western/Christian oppression, a lot of the pain in this story also comes from the damage that women in this book inflict on each other in a quest for Avalon to survive. For example, Morgaine’s aunt, who is the high priestess, basically tricks Morgaine into sleeping with her little brother (Arthur), and Morgaine feels so betrayed that she flees Avalon and almost never returns. So painful. Although I understood that the priestess (and eventually Morgaine as well) use people horribly to try to secure the survival of Avalon, that noble goal doesn’t make me feel any better when it ends with everyone Morgaine loves dead and her alone among the ruins of Avalon. They weren’t the cause — they were pushed out by patriarchal Christianity — but I found myself wishing they could at least have loved each other and enjoyed what time they had rather than betraying each other and dehumanizing each other in the face of violence.
  • Earth/Goddess vs. imperial Christianity. In this book, we can see played out in the Arthurian legend the elements of conversion. At first both the druids and the first Christian missionaries to Britain coexist, but as the priests become more closed, rigid, and exacting and begin to call the Goddess rites satanic and evil, the priestesses of Avalon have to fight to keep their way of life alive. The priests demand orthodoxy, and the people are forced to give up the stories and rituals of their land to what (especially for women) is a restrictive, negative system of harsh rules that literally teaches them they are the gateway of sin. (It’s said by a character in the book, but it’s a real teaching of the church at that time.) Even though the priestesses of Avalon have their own issues, it’s sad to watch as the juggernaut of Roman Christianity squelches the old ways and comes down hard on women.

Interestingly, though, the book ends on a somewhat hopeful note amidst all the death and destruction. Despite the demise of Avalon and the cult of the Goddess as Morgaine knows it, she finds a similar group of young women venerating the Virgin Mary and Saint Brigid at a convent on the island of Avalon.

But Brigid is not a Christian saint, she thought, even if [the priest] thinks so. That is the Goddess as she is worshiped in Ireland. And I know it, and even if they think otherwise, these women know the power of the Immortal. Exile her as they may, she will prevail. The Goddess will never withdraw herself from mankind. (p.875)

For Morgaine, the fact that the Goddess has found her way into the canon of Christianity means she will live on in some form. For me, I’m not sure I find this ending satisfactory. It took a lot of pain, loss, death, and betrayal to get there. But I do appreciate the idea that the deep spiritual ideas of the land and our ancestors stay with us in some form, in our bodies even, even if they take different forms.

Conclusion

To me, this reading section — like the last section — really helps me to understand how far back some of the toxic strands of empire go. As I said above, some of my ancestors have been choosing power over people for a looooong time. And I understand that some of those times may have felt like survival choices — just like the priestesses of Avalon did horrible things to try to survive — but just because something helps you survive doesn’t mean it’s good for you in the long run.

I’m reminded of the book The Body Keeps the Score (which I HIGHLY recommend), which talks about the impact of trauma in our lives and over generations. When we experience trauma, our brains enact coping mechanisms to help us survive — but we can get stuck with those mechanisms “on” and that’s when we start to have PTSD.

We’re all walking around traumatized to varying degrees, and grasping onto what power we have in order to try to ensure our survival. The sad part of this trend is that people in power (in our country, mainly white people) keep choosing to maintain and consolidate their power. The hopeful part is, that if all this structural inequality and pain is the result of my ancestors choosing power over people, then perhaps if I make a different choice I can begin to unravel what they wove over centuries.

May it be so!

Tune in next time as we jump forward into the early Middle Ages with Ch. 2 of Mighty Fortress and several books by Nobel-winning author Sigrid Undset!

‘Prairie’: How the West Was Won (with Trees)

This week, on Imperial Geography… Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage. And I finally get to the bottom of my question about trees! Let’s dive in!

Finally, the prairie!

prairie - a natural historyThis is the fifth book in my project, so I’m thrilled to finally get to actually read about the prairie, since that’s where I live! This book was primarily a book about nature and wildlife — like a naturalist’s guidebook to the prairies — so I learned a lot of “Discovery Channel” facts about the prairie. Here are some of my favorites:

  • I knew that much of the Midwest region is/used to be prairie, but it was fascinating to see that quantified a bit: “Globally, grasslands are the largest of the four terrestrial biomes… more than tundra, desert, or woodlands. (At least, …if natural conditions were allowed to prevail.)” (p.117-8). (More on that in a minute.)
  • Here, in southern Minnesota, we live in the “prairie-and-oak transition area” — basically the place where there hasn’t been enough water for a full forest to grow, but there are a few oak trees growing scattered throughout the prairie grasses.
  • The largest organism in the world is a tree: “The largest known aspen clone — and the largest organism currently alive — is a stand of 47,000 male stems in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah” (p.194).
  • Dirt is wayyyy cool and full of little critters: “Recent estimates suggest that the total weight, or biomass, of the invisible organisms that live in prairie soils is greater than the  mass of all the visible, above ground animals put together. … Together with the plant roots around which they live, these little creatures are the powerhouse of the prairie, responsible for anywhere between 60 and 90% of all the biological activity in the Great Plains grasslands. … A single teaspoon of dirt typically holds around 5 billion [critters]” (p.22-23).
  • Prairies have incredible biodiversity: “In the entire world, only about 70 species of plans are commonly grown as crops; by comparison, there are 5,000 wild plants in the Great Plains alone” (p.232).

Basically, even though prairies and grasslands aren’t as flashy as, say, rainforests or the arctic, they’re pretty awesome! There’s a lot going on inside those waving fields of tall grass. Unfortunately, about those waving fields…

The Decimation of the Prairie

Actually, decimation is factually inaccurate. Decimation would mean the death of one-tenth of the prairie when in fact, the reverse is true:

Taken as a whole, the Great Plains grasslands now rank as one of the most extensively altered ecosystems on Earth. … In the mixed grasslands, …the percentage of land under cultivation rises from 15% (in districts with scant precipitation) to over 99% (where conditions are most conducive to crop production). And in the tall grasslands, with their relatively generous climate and deep, black earth, as much as 99.9% of the native grasses have been plowed under to make way for agriculture. (p.28, emphasis added)

Yes, you read that right: 99.9% destruction in some places. So, to refer back to our study of the impact of colonization on Native peoples, where a 90-95% death rate is the baseline assumption, this is pretty similar.

There are really two sides to this story of prairie destruction: trees and farms.

So what about the trees?

You may recall from my initial post in this series that what initially started me on this line of questioning was a weird passage about government-supported forestation in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years:

“These government experts have got it all planned,” he  explained to Laura. “They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be, and you can’t get that land except on tree claims. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East.” (THGY, p.170-1)

I theorized that this was an intentional part of the colonization process and not just a useful toolkit (of wood) for farmers. And turns out, I was right.

To arriving European settlers who grew up in generally wooded Europe, a “lack of trees on the prairies was widely seen as a mark of deficiency: no lumber, no fuel, no rain. No nothing” (p.218). This is a direct ecological parallel to the terra nullius, plant-your-flag-and-it’s-yours ideology espoused by European invaders following the Doctrine of Discovery, as explained here by Mark Charles (Navajo):

It was the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed European Nations to colonize Africa and enslave the African people. It was also the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus to get lost at sea, land in a “New World” inhabited by millions, and claim to have “discovered” it. Because his doctrine informed him that we, the indigenous peoples, were less than human, and therefore the land was empty. (emphasis added)

No “civilization”, no European recognition of the rights or humanity of the inhabitants: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to paint on. No trees, no European recognition of the existing ecosystems: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to plant trees on.

Charles Bessey, a Nebraska naturalist, theorized in the late 1800s that the “Great Plains grasslands represented the ruins of a prehistoric forest that had been brought low by bison and grass fires. If only the trees could be restored, he thought, the climate would improve — precipitation would increase — and life on the plains would be easy” (p.218, emphasis added). Toward this goal, Bessey made it his mission to personally plant trees all over the prairies. There is even a section of the Nebraska State Forest named after him. (Ironically, it cannot survive on the prairie and needs human replanting in order to sustain its numbers.)

Listening to Bessey’s beliefs about the supremacy of trees and the need to restore the “fallen” prairies to their glorious wooded state, it is not difficult to see the parallels with the cultural imperialism espoused by European settlers through their focus on Manifest Destiny and militant Christianization of “heathens”. Rather than the “pagan heathens” needing to be converted and “elevated” to a “higher level of civilization” (aka European whiteness) here we see the “empty” grasslands needing to be seeded and “elevated” (literally!) to the “higher levels of vegetation” (aka European woodlands).  In fact, the Prairie book even notes this disturbing comment:

Ever since the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska [note: Bessey’s home state] in 1872, the people [sic*] of the Great Plains have eagerly bent to the task of cultivating what one prairie arbori-enthusiast referred to as “missionaries of culture and refinement.” By which he meant woody plants. (p.218-9, emphasis added)

Holy crap — THE TREES ARE THE BAD GUYS. European settlers (and their descendants, in this case!) and even the US Government used trees as physical, living, growing emblems — even agents — of land theft and domination. I always thought of trees as friendly, but if you look at this from another direction (e.g. facing east) trees could also be seen as harbingers and then grave markers of cultural genocide. Especially for Plains peoples, whose carefully-managed hunting grounds were literally infested and perforated with trees.

This seriously just blows my mind.

Farms, farms everywhere…

As I continued to read about the sheer destruction of prairies, I hit this page and just felt sad:

prairie destruction stats from Prairie: A Natural History

That’s a lot of former prairie land, mainly plowed under to create more farmland — 99.6% in my state of Minnesota, 82.6% in my former state of Kansas, and 99.9% in Iowa, where my mom’s family is from. Reading this chart, I felt really sad — so I shared it on Facebook. I got pretty quick push back from one of my good friends from when we lived in Kansas, who is a farmer: “May I ask why it is so sad? There is an ever increasing number of people to feed in this world and having cropland is how that is accomplished.”

He makes a good point** — there is nothing inherently bad about farming. In fact, there are lots of amazing things about farms and farming and farmers! Here’s how I clarified: “It’s sad because prairies and their critters are beautiful and unique, and in most places have been nearly wiped out. I like food, but I like the parts of God’s creation that I can’t eat, too. Said another way, farming is a beautiful thing. But it’s not the only thing.

Farmer Friend and I went on to have a very interesting discussion about his farm, where he uses a no-till method to maximize moisture retention and minimize soil erosion — in other words, he is trying to find the best combination of high yield and good-for-the-soil farming methods. And there are many farmers that do this! The problem isn’t farming, or land development, or people affecting the ecosystems they live in — it’s the excess of this. The supremacy of this. It’s the hubris of taking land from other people and other creatures carelessly. And that carelessness — reflected in both private actions and public policy — has led to a lot of destruction.

Conclusion: “Not dead yet…”

The book tried really hard to strike a hopeful note at the end — and there are some things to be happy about. People are more aware of ecosystem destruction, plants and animals are finding ways to adapt and survive even in the little borders of prairie between fields and freeways, and farmers are learning ways to be kinder to the land. But I couldn’t help but read the book’s conclusion and hear “It’s not dead yet… It’s getting better…”

I’ll say this — I disagree a little bit with traditional conservationism, which seems to think that preserving every subspecies is paramount, even to the point of preventing two divergent bird species (east and west coast) from meeting and mating and recombining into the one species they once were before they diverged (p.I-can’t-find-it). We as humans are going to affect things — and that’s okay. We’re a part of all the natural systems in the world. We take up space just like any other creature, and we will leave our footprints on this earth.

BUT.

We can choose how we relate to the rest of nature. We can choose what kind of an effect we have. We can choose to prioritize domination or we can choose to prioritize sustainability and ecosystemic balance.

Tune in next time for thoughts on Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning.

————

*In this case, the general noun “people” seems to actually be referring to the non-Native inhabitants of Nebraska. I doubt most Native people would “eagerly” support the cultivation of “missionaries of culture and refinement” in their lands.

**I do, however, disagree with any implication that we need more farms because we don’t have enough food — studies show that we currently produce sufficient food to feed the people on the planet. In other words, poverty — inequality in the distribution of said food — is what leaves millions hungry, not “not enough farms.”

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 3, Cardinal Directions

In the third week of Little House/Wounded Knee, the entire continent is in uproar as two totally separate wars go on in two totally different parts of the land. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Civil War — Emancipation & Gettysburg

This week I read a lot of history.

In fall of 1862, the Civil War had already been going on for over a year. In September, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that “on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”. Most folks (including myself) think of the Emancipation Proclamation and immediately think, “Oh, that’s when President Lincoln freed all the slaves!” But in rereading the actual text I was struck by a few things I didn’t remember from history class.

  • The Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery or free all slaves. You’ll note in the above-quoted snippet that only people held as slaves in states “in rebellion against the United States” are declared free. In fact, later in the Proclamation Lincoln specifically states that in parts of the U.S. that are not rebelling, that these “excepted parts are for the present left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”
  • It ends with an “Uncle Abe wants YOU for the U.S. Army!” I remember learning that part of President Lincoln’s motivation to issue this Proclamation was to try to gain support, military and otherwise, from freed slaves, but as a content writer I was a little surprised with the straightforwardness of the call to action at the end.
  • Slaves magically change from property to “persons”! Maybe there are lots of historical examples of whites referring to slaves as “persons”, but for some reason that language of personhood just struck me here. Perhaps I just feel the elephant in the room of there being no mention of slavery having been morally wrong. It’s “fixed” sort of, but there’s no hint of repentance, reconciliation, or closure.

Those things said, definitely still a historically important document, paving the way for the full abolition of slavery vis-a-vis the 13th Amendment and turning the tide of the Civil War.

The following July, the Union soldiers won the Battle of Gettysburg, but there was great loss of life on both sides. Later that autumn, in November of 1863, President Lincoln gave one of the most famous (and shortest) American speeches ever at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is simply an impressive work of oratory — especially when you consider that it’s less than 300 words! — but I couldn’t help hearing those words with different ears this time. For example, I couldn’t read “our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation” without thinking about the nations those fathers steamrollered and deceived in order to establish their new nation. Everything sounds different when you try to read “facing east”.

My main sense, though, was how surreal it felt to read all this about the Civil War and have no sense at all that thousands of Indians were also fighting a war to preserve their nations. It’s almost like there were two totally separate parallel wars going on at this time — the Civil War between the Union/North and the Confederacy/South and the War for Survival between the Indians/West and the settlers/East. 

As the war between the Bluecoats and the Graycoats increasingly consumed national attention, federal distraction set the stage for the spark that would ignite the tinderbox of decades of frustration between the Eastern Dakota and Euro-settlers.

“Little Crow’s War”

In Chapter 3 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, we make the acquaintance of Little Crow (Ta-oya-te-duta) and the Santee Dakota. Just to clarify for all us non-native folks, there are multiple tribes that fall under the umbrella of “Sioux”, the main three being the Dakota (east), the Nakota (central) and the Lakota (west). All of these three larger tribes also have sub-groups (e.g. the Mdewakanton Dakota). The Santee Dakota are the easterly, forest-dwelling members of the Sioux relations. (Or they were before they were relocated. But I get ahead of myself.)

This particular chapter and story really hits home with me, because these are the people whose land I’m sitting on right now, as I write this. The state of Minnesota was created from land “acquired” by deceptive Euro-American traders whose false treaties tricked the Santee into signing away 90% of their ancestral land to whites. I’ll sum up the whirlwind of events that followed, because I want to have time to unpack it all.

  • In the 10 years before the Civil War, Little Crow (a Mdewakanton Dakota chief) was tricked into signing treaties that allowed whites to take land and confine the Santee to smaller and smaller reservations, living on a paltry monetary allowance from the U.S. government.
  • In 1862, because of funds being occupied fighting the Civil War, the Santees’ payment from the government was delayed, leaving them starving and angry. A couple rash young men got in an argument about who was too coward to kill a white man and ended up shooting five white settlers.
  • When they told their chief and Little Crow, it was decided that the tribes should band together to pre-empt the settlers’ revenge attack. Little Crow gave a masterful speech about the feeling of inevitability surrounding this conflict: “…Braves, you are little children — you are fools. You will die like rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon of January. Ta-oya-te-duta is not a coward; he will die with you.”
  • While initially successful at taking several hundred white and mixed-race prisoners, the group of Dakota warriors was unable to fully defeat either the settlers at New Ulm or the soldiers at Fort Ridgely.
  • When Little Crow refused to surrender his warriors or the prisoners, another of the chiefs in the group sent a secret message to the white commander saying that he and his followers would surrender themselves and the prisoners.
  • At this point, the Santee Dakota split: Little Crow and his followers fled west to join up with the prairie Dakota, while the rest surrendered themselves and their prisoners into the hands of Commander Henry Sibley, who assured them that they would be treated as friends. He immediately sent all of them to a camp where they were prisoners.
  • 330 Santee men were “tried” in a kangaroo court. 303 were sentenced to hang. With a goal “to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other,” President Lincoln insisted the cases be examined by lawyers and approved 39, then 38 of the executions. On the day after Christmas, 1862, these 38 Dakota were hanged in Mankato, MN. It is the largest mass execution in American history to this day.
  • The remaining Dakota were then transported to a tiny, barren reservation at Crow Creek where over 300 of the 1,300 brought there didn’t survive the winter.

Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past

spirit car - diane wilsonI made a slight addition to my reading plans and read chapters 1-4 of Spirit Car, in which Diane Wilson imagines a fictional (but historically based) scene of the events of the Dakota War based on the life of her great-great-grandmother, who was married to a French-Canadian man and was able to hide with him and their children inside Fort Ridgely. (A big thanks to Pastor Jim Bear Jacobs for this great addition to my list!) I won’t retell the whole sequence of events. What really got me about this book is how caught between two worlds Rosalie (the great-great-grandmother) and the other mixed-race folks were. She laments that her eldest son, who enlisted in the army to fight “the Graycoats” but is called back to quell the fighting between the Santee and whites, will have to choose which family members to shoot at, his French-Canadian and mixed-race relatives or his Dakota ones. These multicultural families really got caught in the middle of things. It’s an interesting perspective to add.

The most powerful point in this reading for me, though, was this passage that occurs right after the remaining Santee were marched to the camp at Fort Snelling:

They [the Dakotas] were told to surrender their medicine bundles and sacred objects, all of which were burned in a large fire. Missionaries… immediately began the work of converting the vulnerable prisoners to Christianity. (p.42)

When I read this, my stomach sank. I feel so gross seeing my faith used as an excuse to strip an already beaten-down people of their last remaining ties to their culture. The simple brute force of single-minded destruction in this story is mind-boggling. Not only did the settlers cheat the Santee out of their land, not only did they imprison and hang their men, not only did they treat them as less than human for decades, but then on top of that they took what few sacred objects the Santees had left to cling to and threw them into the fire. And then, with no time for grief or processing, picked up with the imperialist push of white Christianity.

So much for the “friendly reception” promised to those who surrendered peacefully.

Spirit Car also notes that missionaries were able to baptize most of the 38 who were hanged. As a Christian, I’m used to baptism being cause for celebration, so my younger self would have been totally thrilled at this fact. But now that I’ve read the whole story, and seen so much questionable power usage and advantage-taking going on here, I feel totally conflicted. I want to feel happy that baptism happened… but I don’t. Do you?

The single-mindedness with which the Minnesota government pursued the destruction of the Dakota is horrifically thorough.  Then-Governor Ramsay of Minnesota publicly stated that all the Santee Dakota needed to be “exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of our state”. Then he declared a $200 bounty for Dakota scalps. A few years later, Little Crow was shot dead while picking berries with his son. His skull and scalp were collected and displayed in a museum. Even the Dakota who fled were reachable targets for vengeful settlers.

Dakota land mapThe Santee Dakota: Where Are They Now?

Today the Santee Dakota reservation is located in Knox County, Nebraska, where it was moved in 1863. The passage of the Homestead Act, which provided land to non-Indian settlers for $1.25 per acre, caused the reservation land to be cut by half. You can see on the map at right the difference between the original ancestral land of all the Sioux (in green) and the land they occupy today in the form of reservations (in orange).  The total tribal enrollment of the Santee Dakota today is around 2,600, about 900 of whom live on the Nebraska reservation. You can learn more about the Santee Dakota here.

To learn more about the executions in Mankato, watch the excellent documentary Dakota 38. You can watch/download it for free here.

Conclusion

So basically… during the Civil War there were TWO separate and parallel wars. With the story of the Dakota, you can really see encapsulated the single-minded, no-mercy destruction with which many settlers pursued the Indians. Also, we get another perspective from the mixed-race white/Indians, who were caught between worlds as their two sides faced off.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 4 & 5 and I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly.