Have a drink with: New Haven Puritans
Judge swung his fist down, plunk plunk…
Ask them about: Anything but Quakers.
It’s election season, which means we are faced with ample opportunity to confront our worst tendencies and unresolved problems as a society, along with the inevitable call to harken back to a better, simpler, more moral time in American history.
Just so we’re clear, though, that time was not the 17th century.
Consider The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity, a fascinating collection of thirty-three cases heard before the Puritan courts of the 17th century New Haven Colony and superbly edited by Connecticut superior court judge Jon Blue. We can learn a few things from this book:
- Do not let a few instances of good justice wallpaper over a majority approach that marginalizes citizens and preserves a fear-based status quo.
- Don’t serve sailors booze by the quart.
Have a drink with: The Gideons
Rocky Raccoon checked into his room, only to find…
Ask them about: Getting into your hotel room
Now Rocky Raccoon, he fell back in his room,
Only to find Gideon’s Bible.
Gideon checked out, and he left it, no doubt,
To help with good Rocky’s revival.
– The Beatles
The Bible and the hotel room seem the unlikeliest of bedfellows at first glance; the former is the core of spiritual life for Christian communities, and the latter a place of abject neutrality for secular America. Yet in millions of hotel rooms worldwide, the Bible is as natural an amenity as little bars of soap thanks to the efforts of the Gideons International, a Tennessee-based Christian association. Paul McCartney included the Gideon Bible in his lyrics to “Rocky Raccoon,” the odd story of a jilted lover written on the roof of a building in Rishikesh, India; and Hunter Thompson in his hotel-room musings was known to thank the Gideons for providing him easy access to Revelation imagery.
So how did the Bibles get there? Wisconsin. (Last place you look, right?)
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: Akhenaten
Pharaoh, gender-bender, sun-worshiper, innovator
Ask him about: Starting your own religion in five easy steps
It’s amazing that so much interest persists in the ancient Egyptian ruler Akhenaten, a king about whom precious little is clear: no one knows when he was born or when he died, why he made the sweeping theological and societal changes that caused many scholars to call him the world’s first monotheist, or even who his successors were.
Still, it isn’t hard to see why the story’s a sticky one, and not least because company loves mystery. John Ray, writing in History Today, tossed off just a few of the speculations over which history has loved to ponder Akhenaten: “the ingredients are rich: a tormented visionary, a misunderstood poet, a visual artist of genius whose mission went unheeded, the apostle of domestic virtue, an incestuous child-abuser, a political disaster, an insane bisexual pope or ayatollah suffering from pathological endocrine disorder, a man out of his time.”
If Egyptian rulers were musicians, this guy is Gaga in a meat dress.
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.