Have a drink with: La Befana
Auguri. Va bene.
Ask her about: Getting stuff done.
In Catholicism, January 6 is the feast of the Epiphany: the last of the twelve days of Christmas and the day on which the three visiting kings are said to arrive to meet the baby Jesus.
And in Italian legend, it’s when La Befana comes to visit. And trust me, your holiday life needs La Befana. Because say what you will about Christmas, but it’s a predictable holiday. Man in red suit; bizarre Bing-Bowie version of Little Drummer Boy; cookies for the man, carrots for the reindeer; cars winning the Giant Bow Invitational; gifts for everyone whether you’ve been naughty or nice.
La Befana to the rescue: because if the Christmas season needs anything, it’s a cranky, elderly Italian lady with a heart of gold, a sack full of cheese, and an advance wine order for a nice red.
Have a drink with: The Gordon Rioters
Angry Protestant mob, muse to Charles Dickens
Ask them about: Looting, pillaging, using the word “popery” without laughing. (Try it: popery popery popery.)
“If they touch my work that’s a part of so many laws, what becomes of the laws in general, what becomes of the religion, what becomes of the country!”
You wouldn’t be wrong to wonder if this quote came out of Indiana in recent weeks, or perhaps Arkansas, in the face of debate over whether founding concepts of religious liberty could in fact literally be discussed over pizza. But in fact the quote is from Charles Dickens’ neglected novel Barnaby Rudge, in which a panicky hangman frets over religious freedom laws in 18th century England.
Dickens took his story from the events of June 1780, in which Protestants gathered with Lord George Gordon to march on Parliament and there present a petition for the repeal of Catholic relief legislation. The crowds grew and surged as they moved, and a week of “No Popery” violence broke out in London, requiring some 12,000 troops to restore peace.
Have a drink with: Queen Isabella of Spain
Queen, ass-kicker, Rules girl, working mom
Ask her about: kicking everyone out of Spain
A few year-end lists recommended Kristin Downey’s biography of Queen Isabella, so lately I’ve been knee-deep in early modern Spain and a lot of questions about the famous lady.
What is image-making and what is truth? Was Isabella the complete idealized ruler? Was she calculating, maniacal? Was she or Ferdinand more responsible for ills like the Inquisition or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain? What aspects did her piety carry?
All of this brings me back to one of history’s most prevalent and maddening problems: unless you were there (and in most cases you weren’t), you can’t know exactly how things went. And even if you were, your reaction is yours alone – and trying to get into the head of any person other than yourself is foggy work. It’s the police lineup problem, or like being in a family where everyone has a slightly different story of how that fight at Christmas dinner went down, and everyone except that one cousin thinks Uncle Steve’s a jerk.
Said more nobly by John Gaddis: “but the past, in another sense, is something we can never have. For by the time we’ve become aware of what had happened it’s already inaccessible to us: we cannot relive, retrieve, or rerun it as we might some laboratory experiment or computer simulation. We can only represent it…We can perceive shapes through the fog and mist, we can speculate as to their significance, and sometimes we can even agree among ourselves as to what these are.”
Put another way, how do we solve a problem like Isabella?
Have a drink with: St. Teresa of Avila
Reformer, mystic, dreamer, smart lady.
Ask her about: that time she told the devil to piss off.
I grew up thinking saints were terribly stodgy, righteous people who had somehow gotten themselves onto life’s “Do Not Call” list for doubt and temptation. It wasn’t until later in life, when I learned that hagiography is basically a template for fictionalizing the lives of remarkable yet messy people, that I realized many of them would probably have made excellent drinking buddies.
My personal favorite is Saint Teresa of Avila, the first woman doctor of the Catholic Church and a stone-cold sixteenth-century bad-ass. I own a St. Teresa coloring book. You can’t but be awesome if someone made a coloring book about you.
Teresa grew up in sixteenth-century Spain, smack in the middle of what we’d now call the early modern period in Europe and the Spanish (Counter-) Reformation. This is to say: Lots Going On. Europe had suddenly gone pro in hair-splitting points of church doctrine; academic humanism was on the way up; there was explosive growth in art, writing and theater; hybridization and tension thanks to Jewish and north African cultural influences in Spain; and also there’s the disturbing effect of inbreeding on the Hapsburg family jaw. Plus, iconoclasm and poop jokes.