The connection between the three subjects in the title will become apparent. The post was originally meant to be about the last item, but they are all connected in my memory.

I am a librarian, and a member of the American Library Association (ALA). As such, I have attended many of the regular conferences of that organization. ALA has two major conferences each year, the Annual Conference (in the summer), and the Midwinter Conference. The first of these is quite large, drawing about 17,000 people, including academic, public, school, and other librarians as well as vendors of all kinds of products we depend on. This conference can be held in only about a half-dozen cities in the US and Canada because of the need for spaces: not only hotel rooms and large exhibit spaces, but also meeting rooms. It needs to be scheduled about ten years in advance to be sure the accommodations can be met. One of the cities in which we have met often is New Orleans, and we were scheduled to meet there in June of 2006. So you might imagine what happened at the end of August in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

Emails were flying around among the leaders and the committees of ALA. How could New Orleans possibly be ready to host a conference of 17,000 people less than a year after being completely swamped by a major hurricane, which killed almost 2,000 people?[1]  But, how could we possibly move such a huge conference to another city with less than a year’s preparation? After much debate, it was decided that we should bank on New Orleans, not only because it would be difficult to relocate, but because New Orleans would need this conference. As planning continued, there was also a decision to mount teams of volunteers to help with cleanup and restoration. Some of these teams would arrive before the conference and some stay after. They would do demolition in damaged homes, and help to rebuild, putting up new walls and floors, etc. I had recently had major surgery, and so volunteered for less physical activities. In the end, I staffed a book sale at a public library branch that had been damaged, to raise money to fix broken windows and other problems.

It was a moving experience to be there. The city still had huge problems – only half of the convention center was open, while the major hotels were in pretty good shape. But the spirit of the city was amazing! Everywhere were flags and pennants sporting the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of New Orleans, and now the symbol of its rebirth. The people were especially warm and welcoming. If I stopped in a store to buy something, they would ask, “Are you with the librarians? Thank you so much for coming!” We were the first major conference hosted there since Katrina, and, if I remember correctly, we had far higher attendance at the conference than usual – about 19,000! I had been to New Orleans twice before, for this same conference, and this was by far the best experience ever.

And now to the down side of the entry. As I sat in the hotel lobby, waiting for my shuttle to the airport, I was reading the Times-Picayune, and came across this story: Christopher, 25. (from Texas), working as a security guard in a hotel here in New Orleans, got into an argument with Erik, 30, a former Marine, who was visiting someone in the hotel. The subject of the argument was whether the Army (Christopher’s group) or the Marines (Erik’s group) was tougher. They ended up fighting and then Christopher shot Erik with a shotgun.

I wrote in my journal at the time: “There are probably numerous people who have been important influences in the lives of these two men who should be taken to task for this – including the leadership of these two service groups.” Why would these two men, both veterans of our armed forces, end up fighting, and finally harming, each other over such a stupid issue!? At the time, I was reminded of a song by Chris Smither, entitled “Every Mother’s Son”, which addresses this very issue – toxic masculinity – and calls out those who instill it or abet it in their children. I decided at that point to learn the song, and perform it from time to time, because I think others should hear it. I also remembered that Chris Smither grew up in New Orleans, though he now lives elsewhere. Years later, I did sound for a concert by him at Stone Soup, a folk music venue in Rhode Island, and took that opportunity to ask him if that song had been inspired by a particular incident or experience. He said that it was not – just something that came to him.

Given the many incidents of gun violence, and especially mass shootings in this country (and elsewhere), I feel inspired to share that song with others, and I intend to sing it at some future performances. I hope that Chris Smither does not mind if I share it here. So I have made a recording of it, and put it on my Bandcamp site, to which I link below. Anyone can listen to it once or twice there, but beyond that, they must pay for a download. In the unlikely event that someone does download it, I will gladly offer the proceeds to Chris or to a charity of his choosing.

Every Mother’s Son (by Chris Smither), played and sung by WS Monroe

And it’s only fair that I direct you to a version done by the writer himself:

Every Mother’s Son (by Chris Smither), played and sung by Chris Smither.

And here is an article from Sing Out! (the folksong magazine) about the song, and the theme.  Ken Bigger, “Every Mother’s Son,” Sing Out! (January 21, 2013).

[1] “Hurricane Katrina,” in Wikipedia, September 9, 2019.



The other night, I participated in the Providence Pub Sing, hosted by Armand Aromin and Benedict Gagliardi (The Vox Hunters) in Providence, RI. As Halloween was approaching, there was especial demand for songs of ghosts and other spooky matters, and since I always look for an opportunity to sing, at this time of the year, one of my favorite ballads, “Tam Lin,” I offered that (with the indulgence of the participants, since it does not offer much participation).  I learned this song from the singing of Frankie Armstrong, an extraordinary English singer of traditional songs whom I had the great fortune to hear several times at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the early 1970’s. The version I sing is hers, as is the way I sing it, as she was a great influence on my own singing. At the same time, I’ve been singing this song for decades now, and have not listened to her recording of it for at least 20 years, so I may have introduced some minor changes. With that caveat, here is the version that I’ve been singing, and which I sang the other night:

Tam Lin
(Traditional; Child no. 39)

Lady Margaret, Lady Margaret, a-sewing of her seam,
And she’s all dressed in black,
When a thought come to her head, she’d run into the wood,
And pick flowers to flower her hat, me boys,
And pick flowers to flower her hat.

So she’s hoisted up her petticoats a bit above her knee,
And so nimbly she’s run o’er the plain.
And when she’s come to the merry green wood,
She’s pulled the branches down, me boys,
She’s pulled the branches down.

Then suddenly she spied a fine young man,
Stood underneath a tree,
Saying, “How dare you pull these branches down,
Without the leave of me, Lady,
Without the leave of me?”

She said, “This little wood, it is me very own.
My father gave it me.
And I can pull these branches down,
Without the leave of thee young man,
Without the leave of thee!”

He’s taken her by the lily-white hand,
And by the grass-green sleeve.
And he’s laid her down at the foot of a bush,
And he’s never once asked her leave, no,
And he’s never once asked her leave.

And when it was done, she’s turned herself about,
To ask her true love’s name.
But she’s nothing heard, and nothing saw,
And all the wood grew dim me boys,
And all the wood grew dim.

Now there’s four and twenty maidens, all in the court,
Grown red as any rose.
Excepting fair young Margaret.
As green as glass she goes, she goes,
As green as glass she goes.

Then outen spoke the first serving girl.
She’s lifted her head and smiled.
Saying, “I think me lady’s loved too long,
And now she goes with child, she goes,
And now she goes with child.”

Then outen spoke the second serving girl.
“Oh, and alas,” said she.
“I think I know a herb in the merry green wood,
That’ll twine the babe from thee, Lady,
That’ll twine the babe from thee.

Then Margaret’s taken up her silver comb,
Made haste to comb her hair.
And away she’s run to the merry green wood,
As fast as she could tear, me boys,
As fast as she could tear.

But she hadn’t plucked a herb in that merry green wood,
A herb as any one,
When by her stood young Tam Lin
Saying, “Margaret, leave it alone, alone,
Oh, Margaret, leave it alone.”

“Oh how can you pluck that bitter little herb,
That herb that grows so gray,
To take away that sweet babe’s life,
That we got in our play, me love,
That we got in our play?”

“Oh, tell me the truth, young Tam Lin,” she said
“If an earthly man you be?”
“I’ll tell you no lies, Lady Margaret,” he said.
“I was christened the same as thee, Lady,
I was christened the same as thee.”

“But as I rode out one cold and bitter morn,
From off my horse I fell,
And the Queen of Elfland, she took me
In yon green hill to dwell, to dwell,
In yon green hill to dwell.”

“But tonight it is the Halloween,
When the elfen court must ride.
So if you would your true love win,
By the old mill bridge you must bide, me love,
By the old mill bridge you must bide.”

“And first will come the black horse, and then come by the brown,
And then come by the white.
And you’ll hold it fast, and fear it not,
And it will not you affright, me love,
And it will not you affright.

“And first they will change me, all in your arms,
Into many a beast so wild.
But you’ll hold me fast, and fear me not.
I’m the father of your child, you know,
I’m the father of your child.”

Then Margaret’s taken up her silver comb,
Made haste to comb her hair.
And away she’s run to the old mill bridge,
As fast as she could tear, me boys,
As fast as she could tear!

Then in the dead hour of the night,
She’s heard the harness ring,
And, oh, me boys, it chilled her heart
More than any mortal thing it did,
More than any mortal thing!

And first come by the black horse, and then come by the brown,
And then raced by the white,
And she’s held it fast and feared it not,
And it did not her affright me boys,
It did not her affright!

The thunder roared across the sky,
And the stars they blazed like day!
And the Queen of Elfland gave a thrilling cry,
“Oh young Tam Lin’s away, away,
Oh young Tam Lin’s away!”

And then they have changed him all in her arms,
To a lion that roared so wild!
But she’s held it fast and feared it not,
‘Twas the father of her child, she knew,
‘Twas the father of her child.

And then they have changed him all in her arms,
Into a loathsome snake.
But she’s held it fast, and feared it not.
It was one of God’s own make, she knew,
It was one of God’s own make.

And then they have changed him all in her arms,
To a red hot bar of iron!
But she’s held it fast, and feared it not,
And it did to her no harm, me boys,
And it did to her no harm.

And the last they have changed him, all in her arms,
Was to a naked man,
And she’s flung her mantle over him,
And cried, “Me love, I’ve won, I’ve won!”
And cried, “Me love, I’ve won!”

Then outen spoke the Queen of Elfenland,
From the bush wherein she stood,
Saying, “I should have torn out your eyes, Tam Lin,
And put in two eyes of wood, of wood,
And put in two eyes of wood!”

            After I had finished, Molly Bledsoe Ellis came over to the table where I was sitting, and asked why I sing that song — or, more specifically why do I sing it that way, as it includes an instance of rape (verse 5), followed by the implication that the victim takes the perpetrator to be her “true love” (verse 6).  I could only respond that I sing it that way because that is the way I learned it. I recognize that the depiction is problematic, but many of the old songs we sing have such problems. I do not condone all of the acts that take place in the songs that I sing. She suggested that lines could be changed to rid the song of the offending acts, and I responded that it is sometimes difficult to do that while still preserving the substance of the song, but I would take a close look at it. The issue provoked a long discussion, and we sang very few songs after that.  But it was a good discussion, with most people feeling that it is a very important issue, but also with some feeling that songs need to be preserved as they’ve come to us, warts and all.

I might also add that while I sing mostly traditional songs, I am not a traditional purist. I do sometimes make small changes to songs, to “improve” them (at least in my mind). I have also made changes that respond to just the issue raised. For example, I sometimes sing the song “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a song about an outlaw who complains that he would rather die than rot in some prison cell. Some versions of the song tell what some of his crimes were, but the one I sing does not. The version I learned, however does have a verse that goes: “Lulu, oh Lulu, open up that door, before I have to open it with my old 44.”  I take these lines to be very typically referring to domestic violence. She fears him, and does not want to let him in, while he threatens to break in, with a gun. I do not sing that verse, and I think the song is just fine without it. I might also note that the late Utah Phillips, a great songwriter, never performed one of his more famous songs, “Rock Salt & Nails”, because it was written in anger in his younger days, and implies violence against women.

So I promised that I would take a serious look at the song to see how some words might be changed to remove the problematic issues while still preserving the substance of the story. At first, I did not think it would be easy. The substance of the song, as I take it, is that Margaret meets Tam Lin while picking flowers in the wood. Tam Lin tells her that she needs his permission to pick the flowers, and she responds that the wood was given to her by her father, so she does not need his permission. With that, Tam Lin responds by raping her, but then promptly disappears when she turns “to ask her true love’s name.”  She then becomes pregnant, and one of her serving maids advises her of an herb that would cause an abortion, and she rushes to the wood again to find it. There, Tam Lin appears again, and tells her not to pick the herb, presenting another problematic line: how can she “take away that sweet babe’s life, that we got in our play?” She then asks who he is, and he tells her that he was a human, but was kidnapped by the elf queen, and made a changeling. But he also tells her that it is Halloween, and the elf court will make an appearance, presenting the opportunity for her to rescue him, if she can seize him when he passes (as a horse), and hold on to him through many trials. This she does, as he is changed from a horse to a lion, a snake, a red hot bar of iron, and finally to a naked man.

Now I have long seen this tale to be a metaphor for giving birth. She has been impregnated by a person she does not know, considers aborting the child, but eventually goes through with the birth — the trials she faces representing her difficult labor, finalized by her holding in her arms a naked man (the child), whom she covers with her mantle and cries “I’ve won!” Tam Lin is both the father and the child. That is simply my interpretation, but I do see some essentials here: she meets Tam Lin, has an argument with him, and then is impregnated by him. It is standard belief these days that rape is not so much a sexual act, as an expression of power and violence, and that follows from the argument, which is why I thought it might be difficult to turn the sex act into one of consent. Nor did I see how one could simply leave out the sex act altogether, as my own interpretation of the song depends on her being pregnant.

So I began by looking at the various versions of the song in Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Boston: Houghton & Mifflin, 1882-1889; reprinted by Dover Publications, 1965). “Tam Lin” is Child no. 39, and he presents 10 versions in volume 1, p. 335-358, with the 10th in the “Additions and Corrections,” p. 507-508. It was interesting to see that versions A and B both lack the offending verses, although their place is taken by a line of asterisks, which as far as I can see are unexplained. My assumption is that these verses were left out in the original publications that Child drew from because of their scandalous nature. Both versions have her become pregnant, but there is no explanation of how. Version C has no pregnancy at all. Version D has the song much as my version goes, with the verses:

He took her by the milk-white hand, And by the grass green sleeve,
And laid her low down on the flowers, At her he asked no leave.

The lady blushed, and sourly frowned, And she did think great shame;
Says, “If you were a gentleman, You will tell me your name.”

He tells her his former name as well as the present name he carries in the “fairy court”, and the verse about the herb follows immediately:

“So do not pluck that flower, lady, That has these pimples gray;
They would destroy the bonny babe That we got in our play.”

Version E has no sex act and no pregnancy. Version F has a thinly implied sex act and a resulting pregnancy.  Version G has the rape, much as in my version and Version D, along with the later verse that mentions the “bonny bairn That we got in our play.” Version H does not have the sex act, but like A and B, has a row of asterisks where the verses might be. Version I has an interesting take:

He’s taen her by the milk-white hand,
Among the leaves sae green,
And what they did I cannot tell,
The green leaves were between.

He’s taen her by the milk-white hand,
Among the roses red,
And what they did I cannot say,
She neer returnd a maid.

So, here there is no implication that the sex act was non-consensual, even though it follows the earlier argument between the two characters. Version J is a mere fragment, and has no relevance.

I did some looking about online to see what I might find, and came upon this fine website, all about the ballad. The site contains analysis of many different versions, and prints those versions, including all of the Child versions, as well as those sung by Frankie Armstrong, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Ewan MacColl, Ann Briggs, Anais Mitchell, and many others. So I will do no further analysis here.

What I will do is to suggest a change that would rid my own version (or Frankie Armstrong’s version) of the offending parts without harming the substance of the story. One might simply substitute the verses from version I, so we have:

She said, “This little wood, it is me very own.
My father gave it me.
And I can pull these branches down,
Without the leave of thee young man,Without the leave of thee!”

He’s taen her by the milk-white hand,
Among the leaves sae green,
And what they did I cannot tell,
The green leaves were between.

He’s taen her by the milk-white hand,
Among the roses red,
And what they did I cannot say,
She neer returnd a maid.

And when it was done,
she’s turned herself about,
To ask her true love’s name.
But she’s nothing heard, and nothing saw,
And all the wood grew dim me boys,
And all the wood grew dim.

But this makes one wonder how they got from the argument over who has power over the wood to having a consensual sexual act.  I would like to have some sort of transition there, and perhaps it can come from the fact that she explains that she owns the wood. That might make him realize who she is, when he had not recognized her until then.

Then you must be Lady Margaret,
If this your forest be,
And I have long been in your thrall.
Would you come and lie with me lady,
Would you come and lie with me?

He’s taken her by the lily-white hand,
And by the grass greensleeve,
And they’ve lain among the flowers bright,
Upon a bed of leaves, me boys,
Upon a bed of leaves.

I am currently in the process of recording some of my favorite songs, and have already recorded Tam Lin, but I will go back into the studio and redo this one, with the new verses. They may change slightly before that happens. Meanwhile, if you do not mind hearing the original version, there is an older recording on this very website, under the Music tab.

I find this an acceptable change to make to the version that I sing, especially given the variation in the other versions I’ve found. It does not solve the problem as it exists in many other songs. The problem is a historical one, and in fact it persists today. In some places, it is still common to force a rapist to marry his victim. It is a problem that stems from seeing women as property, and applying the rule that if you break it you own it. Another song that I have sung, “The Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter,” is about just that. It tells the tale of a young woman out walking who is raped by a passing knight. She follows him to the king’s castle and tells the king what happened. The king responds that, if she can identify the culprit he will mete out the appropriate punishment. If he is married, he will be hanged, if he is single, he must marry her. She does identify him, and “wins” her case by forcing her rapist to marry her. I have not sung this song for a long time, and I don’t see how I could “fix” it. She is already the “victor” in the story, but it is a Pyrrhic victory. These songs come down to us from times that had very different ideas of morality, equality, and many other things. We preserve them for the sake of some of the qualities they have, and in spite of some of the others. On the other hand, I will continue to sing one of my favorites, “The Outlandish Knight,” which is a standard murder ballad turned inside out when the young woman tricks her would-be murderer and kills him instead. I do not condone killing but can approve of it in self-defense. Moreover, the irony is seductive, especially when he asks her to save him from drowning, and she responds:

Lie there, lie there, you false young man!
Lie there instead of me!
It’s six foolish maids have you drowned in here.
Go keep them good company!


Painting: Zazněná (Bemused), by Wilhelm Bernatzik, 1898. (Brno, Moravskie Galerie Brno)

I just posted this on the Brown University Library site.  I think it is worth posting here, as well.   The original is on the “Brown University Library News“.

A Printed Book Once Owned by Bernardo Bembo

AmB 230--271-inscription

Cecil Clough once noted that we can learn much about the life and travels of Bernardo Bembo from the books he owned, especially “because of his tendency … to make biographical jottings in his manuscripts.”[1] In another remark in the same article, he states that “interestingly enough there is no printed book that certainly can be associated with Bernardo’s library.”[2] Now, thanks to Bernardo’s well-known habit, we can say that the second statement is no longer true.

The Annmary Brown Collection at the Brown University Library holds a copy of Augustine’s De civitate dei printed in Venice by Johannes and Wendelin of Speyer in 1470.[3] The colophon to this edition notes that the printers come from Speyer. In the margin next to that colophon, is an inscription noting that two persons were passing by Speyer on the Rhine and decided to sign this book. The inscription reads: “D. Justus et B. Bemb. dum é regione Urbis Spire essemus internavigantes M.ccc.lxxi. xviiii. augusti . librum Signavimus.”[4]

The date was 19 August 1471, the year after this book was printed in Venice. B. Bemb. is an abbreviation often used by Bernardo Bembo, who left Venice on 16 July to be the city’s ambassador to the Court of Burgundy.[5] But who was “D. Justus”, and could the book have belonged to this person rather than Bembo? The second question is more easily answered. There are many more marginal notations in the book, mostly taking the form of indexing. These marginalia were made by at least two hands, and one is identical to that in other books (manuscripts) known to have belonged to Bernardo, as are many of the other marks, such as manicules.[6] Moreover, on fol. 59v are the words of Bembo’s motto: Virtue & Honor.

AmB 230--059v

As for D. Justus, I would suggest two possibilities. The most likely is Giusto de Baliis da Lendinara, to whom Bembo wrote some letters, and who was mentioned in others.[7] Another possibility, but less likely, is Justus of Ghent, a contemporary painter. Justus of Ghent (or Joos van Wassenhoven) painted for the Duke of Montefeltro, having left Ghent for Italy in 1469 or 1470, and known to have been in Urbino between 1472 and 1474 working on his masterpiece, the Communion of the Apostles.[8]

At any rate, the volume merits more study, and is available in the John Hay Library at Brown University. To make an appointment to view the book, email specialcollections@brown.edu.

[1] Cecil H. Clough, “The Library of Bernardo and of Pietro Bembo,” The Book Collector 33 (1984): 302-331. This remark is on p. 312.

[2] Clough, p. 313. Clough mentions, in a footnote, that he had earlier believed four printed books to be attributed to Bernardo’s library, but now rejects them. It should be noted, however, that a book published just a year later attributes two other printed books to Bernardo’s library. See Nella Giannetto, Bernardo Bembo, umanista e politico veneziano (Florence: Olschki, 1985), p. 356-357.

[3] Augustine, De civitate dei (Venice: Johannes and Vindelinus de Spira, 1470), John Hay Library, Annmary Brown 230. ISTC: ia01233000.

[4] This inscription was pointed out to me by my student assistant, Caroline Hughes, while assisting me in recording interesting features of the collection.

[5] Giannetto, Bernardo Bembo, p. 27.

[6] For manicules, including the characteristic manicules of Bembo, see William H. Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), esp. pages 35-36.

[7] Giannetto, Bernardo Bembo, p. 29, 401-402, 408.

[8] Jacques Lavalleye, Juste de Gand: peintre de Frédéric de Montefeltre (Louvain: Bibliothèque de L’Université, 1936), p 40-50. Would Justus of Ghent have travelled back to the Low Countries in 1471? Little is known for certain of his travels, but he would have been known by humanists such as Bernardo, and they could have travelled together.

     I am the moderator (or “list-owner”) of a long standing online discussion list on medieval history (MEDIEV-L).   One prominent participant on that list is Bernard Bachrach, of the University of Minnesota, an authority on the early Middle Ages, particularly the Merovingian and Carolingian periods.   Almost any time that a discussion touches on the theory or philosophy of history, Professor Bachrach is known to advise people to read R. G. Collingwood.   After many years of this, I was finally compelled to do so.   R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943), like Benedetto Croce (who influenced him), was both a historian and a philosopher, and his works on the philosophy of history can be found in a reedition of his The Idea of History, revised edition, with Lectures 1926-1928, edited with an introduction by Jan Van der Dussen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).   The Idea of History was first published posthumously in 1946. Here are some quotations from his writings, and a few of my own observations in response.


Collingwood describes history as “a kind of research or inquiry … [into] res gestae, actions of human beings that have been done in the past.” (p. 9)   But his is no Rankean idea of history. He is not interested in history “as it actually happened”, for even if we could know that, it is not really very interesting. For Collingwood, history is not simply an account of what people did, which is mere chronicle. “For the historian there is no difference between discovering what happened and discovering why it happened.” (p. 177)   “What the historian is looking for is … processes of thought. All history is the history of thought.” (p. 215)


Collingwood takes this to an extreme, as for him, “all history is the re-enactment of past thought in the historian’s own mind.” (p. 215)   The historian is not interested in events in themselves, nor even in their causes but in the thought that lies behind the events. “The cause of the event, for him, means the thought in the mind of the person by whose agency the event came about: and this is not something other than the event, it is the inside of the event itself.” (p. 214-215)   History, for Collingwood, is quite a subjective endeavor. “What particular parts and aspects of the past we now recall by historical thought depends on our present interests and attitudes towards life…” (p. 203)


Much of the scholarship of history Collingwood rejects as what “Croce calls philological history. As thus misconceived, history consists in accepting and preserving testimony, and the writing of history consists in transcribing, translating, and compiling. Such work is useful, but it is not history; there is no criticism, no interpretation, no reliving of past experience in one’s own mind!” (p. 204)   Surely these actions that Collingwood describes as transcribing, translating, and compiling are more than useful – they are essential to the work of history, but I would agree that they are not the object of history. I would agree with Collingwood that we are trying not simply to know what happened in the past. History is more than a list of facts and events. We want to understand what happened, and for Collingwood that means getting inside the head of the actors. “Unlike the natural scientist, the historian is not concerned with events as such at all. he is only concerned with those events which are the outward expression of thoughts…” (p. 217)


It is interesting to see how Collingwood treats historical sources. In his Lectures, he makes a statement with which almost any historian would agree: “We depend in history, on sources, we do not depend on authorities: that is, we are not at the mercy of our informants’ knowledge and veracity.” (p. 392) But in The Idea, he goes much farther: “… far from relying on an authority other than himself, to whose statements his thought must conform, the historian is his own authority and his thought autonomous, self-authorizing, possessed of a criterion to which his so-called authorities must conform and by reference to which they are criticized.” (p. 236)   Now, I would certainly agree with him on the rethinking of authorities as sources, and on the need to be critical in our use of them. But it seems to me to go a little too far to say that the historian’s own mind must be the authority. Rather, we need to compare the sources against each other, and against our own critical thought, bringing to bear any other knowledge that we might have. Yet I would agree with his final result of his reasoning, which is that “ … every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historian, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise those questions themselves.” (p. 248)   The mere compilation of “authorities” he describes as “scissors and paste history”, and credits Vico with putting forward the notion that “the important question about any statement contained in a source is not whether is is true or false, but what it means.” (p. 260)


Collingwood’s notion of what history is has implications for the proper subject of history. The subject of history is “that which can be re-enacted in the historian’s mind.” (p. 302) It is not nature, not experience, not “even thought itself”.   Biography is not history, nor is autobiography. This might seem somewhat inconsistent with his philosophy, as he says “the record of immediate experience with its flow of sensation and feelings faithfully preserved in a diary or recalled in a memoir, is not history.” (p. 304)   He does not fully explain why not (perhaps because it is too subjective), but it would certainly seem to be an aid to getting into the thought of an actor. He is also somewhat inconsistent in saying that “even thought itself, in its immediacy as the unique act of thought with its unique context in the life of an individual thinker, is not the object of historical knowledge.” (p. 303) But later he writes: “Historical knowledge, then, has for its proper object thought: not things thought about, but the act of thought itself.” (p. 305)   He also concludes: “This amounts to asking whether there can be a history of memory or perception. And it is clear that there cannot.” (p. 305)   This would come as a surprise to many historians today who work on those very topics.


What does Collingwood have to say about some common issues in historical thought? Progress: “The idea of history as a progress from primitive times to the present day was, to those who believed in it, a simple consequence that their historical outlook was limited to the recent past.” (p. 328).   Human nature: “It is the task of the historian to discover what principles guided the persons whose action he is studying, and not to assume that these have always been the same.” (p. 475) (Compare to the idea of Ortega y Gasset, mentioned in my earlier post.) Judgment and history: Here again, he is inconsistent. In one place, he writes: “True history must be absolutely passionless, absolutely devoid of all judgments of value of whatever kind.” (p. 402) His rationale for this is that those events are past and gone and to pass judgment on them is futile. We cannot change them by judging them. Yet, elsewhere he writes: “All history is tendentious, and if it were not tendentious nobody would write it. At least nobody except bloodless pedants, who mistake the materials of history for history itself, and think they are historians when they are only scholars.” (p. 398)


Now it may not be fair to expect Collingwood to be completely consistent in his philosophy of history, since all of these writings were compiled over a period of time, and only published after his death. He did not have the opportunity to reconcile them.   Overall, I find these writings to be a very thoughtful encounter with the idea of historical knowledge, and well worth reading and thinking about for those of us who do historical research, and even for those who just like to read history. In the end, I think his greatest idea is that the object of history is not simply to discover what happened, but also why it happened, by getting into the thoughts of the actors. That is the true goal. And it is really for one purpose: to help us to understand the present. “The purpose of history is to enable us to know (and therefore to act relatively to) the present.” (p. 406)   For this reason, present concerns must drive our study of history. “All history is contemporary history.” (p. 202)

Yet, probably the most interesting idea he puts forth is that the historian must “reenact” history in his own mind. That is what brings true understanding.   This is an idea that merits more discussion.   My thanks to Professor Bachrach for inspiring me to read this.


Read this in December of 2013.   A short work, translation of De Commodis litterarum atque incommodis.  More accurate translation would be On the usefulness and uselessness of scholarship.

The short work, written sometime between 1428 and 1430 and dedicated to Alberti’s elder brother, Carlo, is a long diatribe complaining about the poor regard that society has for scholars.  Scholars, he says, should be the most revered people, but instead they are disdained.  Their work is considered useless, it does not pay, and it leads in the long run to penury and illness.  One must wonder what Carlo, who took over the family’s business thought of all this.
Overall, I find his arguments rather tedious, especially with all their classism and sexism, but there are a couple of passages that stand out for their resonance even today:
“Yet, at present the crowd is more pleased with malice than with righteousness, with deception, frivolity, and insolence than with humane and modest conduct, and it is the crowd without whose approval the man of learning can never escape poverty.  The crowd, unable itself to beat the cunning bent on conquest and pillage with which their masters enter into lawsuits, when they see schemer colliding with schemer, glorify the one who wins by more successful scheming.  This, if an unscrupulous learned legalist takes up an unjust case, they will call him a great master, the best of men, and a great friend.  They have come to think deception a virtue, they admire the art of creating a mask and a false image as a remarkable mobilization of knowledge, and they believe that malice and wickedness and deliberate misinformation are derived from recondite knowledge.  When a man is good and just and holy, when he argues cases for the merit they have in terms of justice and equity, when he stands for law and truth, not employing deceit and audacious lies, not shifting his allegiance at will, not hoping to win for the sake of money, but fighting for the sake of honor, they call him useless, ignorant, and a loser of cases.”  (p. 36)
“But let us return to our populace, who have always given the highest honors to gold and wealth.  Indeed, it is no mystery why the crowd is moved, not so much by virtue as by outward splendor.  For the ignorant are attracted by the things they can see with their eyes while those things that can and ought to enlighten them do not move them.  So the ignorant desire the riches they can see and disregard the wisdom they do not have, follow after property and despise virtue.”  (p. 47)
Leon Battista Alberti, The Use and Abuse of Books (De commodis litterarum atque incommodis), translation and introduction by Renee Neu Watkins (Project Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1999).    @RPB: PA8450.A5U84x 1999
Have things changed very much?
A couple of years ago I finally read Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism, and although I agreed with much of it, I disagreed with his use of the term itself.  I have described myself as a radical historicist, because I believe that all knowledge is based on history.  In this I agree very much with Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his History as a System, in which he says that the social sciences are dedicated to discovering the nature of man, but they are mistaken because man has no nature, he has history.   The key, for me, is that human beings have free will, and are able to make decisions that may be unintuitive.  So I agree with Popper that history cannot be used to make predictions about the future.  But all that we know about people is based on history, and it is what we have to go on.
Popper, however, uses the term historicism to mean the opposite:  historicists, for him, believe in formulating laws of history, and using them to predict future behavior.   What he means by historicism is really Marxian historical materialism, to which he is very much opposed.
I was pleased to read in Peter Skagestad’s Making Sense of History: the Philosophies of Popper and Collingwood (Oslo, 1975), that Popper uses the term historicism in his own way, and not in its conventional meaning.  So I am not alone in objecting to this usage.  In fact, Popper has little to say about the writing of history itself — he really is addressing the social sciences, particularly sociology and economics.  He has only a brief aside about the craft of history.  So, I remain a historcist, but not Popper’s type of historicist.
(I should note that I greatly admire Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, and would highly recommend it.)
More recently, I have read Collingwood’s The Idea of History, to see where he stands.  I had long wanted to read this, and will post some thoughts on it soon.

The following are my revisions to the received account of Pope Formosus and the Cadaver Synod, much of which is recounted in this article in Wikipedia, and summarized in the previous post.  Since this information is not yet published, the article will need to wait for revision.

I will generally ignore minor errors of fact, like that Formosus was born in Ostia, for which I know of no evidence (there is no evidence as to where he was born). The Wikipedia article says that he fled Rome in 872 and was condemned that same year. Yet, it also says that he persuaded Charles the Bald to be crowned emperor in 875. In fact, he was sent by Pope John VIII to West Francia to ask Charles the Bald to become emperor, and Charles came to Rome and was crowned by John VIII at Christmas 875. It was only after that, in 876, that Formosus and a group of associates fled Rome under mysterious circumstances. They were ordered to return, and when they did not, they were excommunicated.   The group had fled to the protection of the Duke of Spoleto, who was an adversary of Pope John VIII, and Formosus later went to West Francia, the kingdom of the Emperor Charles the Bald. John VIII issued letters claiming that Formosus and the others were traitors, expecially against the Emperor, but the fact that Formosus fled to Charles’ kingdom would make that claim appear specious. The claim that Formosus also had been a rival to the papal see in 872 was also in these letters, but there is no other evidence for this (although most historians have generally accepted the claim).

In 878, John VIII, still having problems with the Duke of Spoleto, travelled to West Francia in search of aid. While there, he held a council at Troyes, after which he met with Formosus and agreed to restore him to lay communion if he swore an oath never to return to Rome and never to seek to regain his bishopric. On the death of John VIII in 882 (he was the first pope to be assassinated), his successor, Marinus, absolved him of that oath and invited him to take up the see of Porto again.

But my main revisions of the accepted story involve the lead-up to the Cadaver Synod. Formosus became Pope on the death of Stephen V, in 891.   At the time, Wido II, Duke of Spoleto, was now Emperor, having been crowned by Pope Stephen V. Wido asked that his son, Lambert, be crowned co-emperor, which Formosus did. Wido subsequently died and Lambert was crowned Emperor by Formosus.   The assumption has long been that neither Stephen V nor Formosus really wanted the Spoletans to gain the imperial title, but would rather have crowned a Carolingian (descendents of Charlemagne). This is based on entries in a German chronicle, the Annals of Fulda, which claim that both Stephen and Formosus sent secret envoys to Arnulf of Carinthia inviting him to invade Italy and become emperor. I believe that is is also based on some faulty reasoning that no one could conceive of a non-Carolingian emperor, and that the papacy was always in an adversarial relationship with the Spoletans. But, while John VIII (and perhaps other popes) was an adversary of the Spoletans, this was not true of Formosus, as we have already seen, above.

I believe that neither Formosus nor Stephen V invited Arnulf to invade, but the Annals of Fulda, being a source close to Arnulf gave that as an excuse for his invasion, which was really an usurpation of the imperial crown. Arnulf had only recently succeeded to the German kingship, and having consolidated his power there, now felt strong enough to seize the imperial title as well. He invaded Italy and forced Formosus to crown him emperor. Formosus died just over a month later, probably having been tortured and held in captivity. Arnulf, meanwhile, had left Rome in the hands of a governor (Farold) and had gone off to fight Lambert and secure his imperial title. Unfortunately for him, he was stricken by some sort of paralysis, and had to retreat to Bavaria, where he later died. Thus Lambert retained his imperial crown.

In Rome, Formosus was succeeded by Bonface VI, and old man who died only two weeks later. The next pope was Stephen VI, who had been ordained Bishop of Anagni by Pope Formosus. It was Stephen VI who convened the Cadaver Synod, in which the body of Formosus was removed from its tomb and placed on trial. We do not know for certain what the charges were because the acts of this council were ordered to be burned by the Synod of Ravenna in 898, which overturned them and restored Formosus to his place on the papal lists. However, it has always been assumed, and is most likely, that Formosus was accused of having violated his oath to John VIII by returning to Rome and taking up the see of Porto, and also having violated canon law by allowing himself to be translated from the see of Porto to that of Rome. (At the time, is was against canon law for a bishop to move from one see to another – a restriction that was often waived.)   Formosus was found guilty, and his papacy was invalidated as were the ordinations he made while pope. Two fingers were cut off of his right hand (the fingers he would have used to annoint), and he was buried in a pauper’s cemetery, from which he was immediately dug up again and thrown into the Tiber River (with weights to hold the body down).

It has long been claimed that Pope Stephen VI was the “creature” of Lambert and his mother Ageltrude, and the trial was their revenge for his having abandoned Lambert in favor of Arnulf. It used to be assumed that they were even present at the synod. An Italian historian long ago showed that is probably not true. As I have tried to show, Formosus did not invite Arnulf to invade, and our major source for the synod, the acts of the 898 Synod of Ravenna, would indicate that Arnulf was not a valid emperor because he had seized the imperial title by force. Moreover, Stephen VI became pope while Arnulf’s governor, Farold, was still in control of Rome, so he was the “creature” of Arnulf, not of Lambert and Ageltrude. (His first extant letter is dated in the reign of the Emperor Arnulf.)   It is also often claimed that Stephen VI, having been ordained Bishop of Anagni by Formosus, annulled his papacy and his ordinations in order to absolve himself of the very same crime of translation from one see to another. But, since this restriction was often waived, such twisted reasoning was hardly necessary.

Formosus had a long and controversial career in the Church, and had made many friends and also many enemies. There were very powerful factions in Rome at the time, and their origins and their memberships are obscure, and would be a good subject for research. Stephen VI and the small group of other clerics who put Formosus on trial found some valid accusations against him, but none of the crimes would necessitate placing the actual body of the accused on trial. The only really good explanation is that some other people considered Formosus to be a very holy man, and even perhaps a martyr, having been killed as a result of Arnulf’s forcible capture of the imperial title. The enemies of Formosus could not bear the idea of their arch-enemy being regarded as a saint!   The whole point of putting his body on trial was to desecrate it and to destroy his tomb, thus putting an end to the growing cult!   In this they succeeded, despite that fact that the acts of the Cadaver Synod were overturned and burned. The body of Formosus was found and reburied in St-Peter’s, but he has never been considered a saint in the Roman Church.

My arguments depend on much more detail that was provided in the papers listed, and will be documented in my dissertation which I will certainly publish in some form later.   I hope to have finished this dissertation by the end of 2014.    A list of my own papers on this topic are in the previous post.