Monday, November 12, 2012

The priest hole: the pre-modern speakeasy

I went to see 007: Skyfall last night and was thoroughly impressed at its unabashedly traditionalist approach to the espionage genre. Skyfall commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Bond film franchise. This quick entry requires a couple of spoilers, so watch out:

The movie's name comes from Skyfall, the name of the Bond family estate in Scotland which is used for the final shootout. The bad guy is hunting down M, whom Bond sends down a "priest hole" when the going gets too tough for bullets; the implication is that if Bond himself isn't a Catholic, he is at least descended from a family of noble Catholic recusants: people who stubbornly held onto Catholicism after the Reformation. The priest hole isn't strictly a medieval phenomenon, but may be said to have preserved a vestige of medievalism in Reformation England, Scotland, and Ireland. In the reign of Elizabeth I, the Church of England became thoroughly Protestant and measures were placed against the practice of the old religion. Anyone in England caught celebrating or participating in Catholic rites was to lose all his property on the first offense, one year's imprisonment on the second, and life imprisonment on the third. The penalty for either converting to, or helping another convert to Catholicism, was death. Nonetheless, the Catholic faith persisted in certain circles. 

Priest hole in the cupboard of Harvington Hall, Worcestershire
Among the noble families which maintained the old religion, they converted their castles and country houses to easily hide priests, vestments, chalices, and other religious items in the event that a "pursuivant", or priest-hunter, would come to search the house. These "priest holes" had to be especially secure, as searches were known to have lasted as long as two weeks. Priest-hunters would sometimes conscript carpenters or masons to inspect the house for any weaknesses in the walls or woodwork. There are, indeed, cases of priests having died of starvation inside these holes while the pursuivants tore the house apart. 

The most famous designer of priest holes was Saint Nicholas Owen, a Jesuit lay brother. He was most likely a carpenter and spent thirty years building priest holes around England. It's said that Owen engineered the escape of another Jesuit, the priest John Gerard, from the Tower of London in 1597. Owen was eventually tortured to death in 1606 in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, but he never revealed a single priest hole he constructed. Some of his priest holes may remain undiscovered even to this day.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Modern Medievalist goes to Boston

If you've been wondering why your favorite medieval maniac hasn't been posting any gems recently, it's because I've been spending the past few days visiting my girlfriend in the Boston area. This was the first time I've ever been to the city, and in fact, the furthest north I've ever been along the east coast. But fear not: not even romance will stop me from charting the course of the medieval revival wherever it may be found! I sadly didn't have time to eat at the Medieval Manor, but I had many other ballad-worthy adventures. I decided not to post until after America's greatest religious feast/popularity contest had passed; now that it has, we can resume being medievalists!

Salem: Bewitched into Mediocrity 

My trip first brought us to Salem*, whose name is infamous for the witch trials of 1692. I spotted an old Gothic Revival church which had suffered major burning damage during the 1950's or so, and was since converted into the "Salem Witch Museum". The architecture suckered me into going in. After having paid the exorbitant entrance fee, we entered and were subjected to a show with papier-mache mannequins and absurdly cheesy voiceover narration, though it was at least quite educational. If the tour had stopped there, I might have lived with it. The second portion took us to a hallway with more mannequins and voiceovers: the first was of an early medieval midwife, trying to convince me that millions (not hundreds or even thousands, but millions) of her pagan sisters had been executed by the big bad Church during that mythical era known as "the Burning Times™" because they hated and feared women. (Ironically, many of my trad Catholic friends are all about home-births, midwives, and homeopathic medicine.) The last set was a pair of modern-day Wiccans in "ceremonial dress" seemingly cobbled together from the Pyramid Collection, with a spiel about them continuing the much nicer old faith of pre-Christian times while being peaceful, neighborly, and absolutely not meriting a place on a government watchlist.

And before one of you dear readers rushes furiously to the comment box to call me a bigot, I should say here that my dating history consists, by sheer coincidence, pretty much entirely of pagans or ex-pagans. I know the score. I'm simply stressing the fact that this museum hits its customers on the head repeatedly with pseudo-history about the Middle Ages straight out of a Wicca pamphlet. In truth, Wicca doesn't even have anything to do with any of this. Everyone who was hanged or died in prison during the witchmania of 1692 was a Christian, including one minister.

*I later discovered that the witch trials didn't even actually take place in the modern town of Salem. They occurred in a nearby town now called Danvers. They changed their name to that from Salem Village because they were so embarrassed by their association to witchmania.

Statue of Roger Conant, founder of Salem. I have to admit, the sculptor made this Puritan look like a boss.

Peacefield: a Presidential estate

The next day, we traveled to the home of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, second and sixth Presidents of these States United. Adams named his property "Peacefield" in memory of his role in negotiating the 1783 Treaty of Paris, ending the American Revolutionary War. The firmly Enlightened character of the Founding Fathers and the classical style of the house will make my visit here seem like a strange departure from medievalist interests, but the most remarkable building on the grounds is actually Gothic: the Stone Library. When Quincy died, he willed that a library be built to house his massive collection of 14,000 books in 12 or so languages. It was to be fashioned of stone and stand apart from the house, so it would be less susceptible to the danger of fire. When I visited, I saw obscure tomes in Greek and Hebrew, and shelves that were two books deep. Quincy (having been an ambassador to Russia, Prussia, and the Netherlands) spoke many languages. He even supposedly studied a dialect of Polynesian, not because he was required to do so for any diplomatic mission, but merely because he felt like it.

From the NPS: "There are more than twelve languages represented and includes a range of subjects from astronomy, literature, horticulture, natural history and theatre, including many significant and unique books such as: John Adams’ copy of George Washington’s Farewell Address, the Bible inscribed with a note of gratitude from the Mendi people to John Quincy; and a Bible Concordance dating to 1521."

The portrait we stood before while hearing that story.
When I was in the Adam house proper, the tour guide gave an amusing anecdote about Quincy's wife, Louisa Johnson, as we stood before her portrait. It started in December 1814, when the couple and their son lived in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Quincy was away in Paris, and sent word to his family that he was going to be transferred to another diplomatic post. This required Louisa to pack up all their belongings and travel all the way from Russia to France in the middle of winter, following the trail left by Napoleon after his failed invasion. Bodies still littered the battlefields, and the Adams were forced to cross icy water on a sledded carriage and lodge in the most dubious places. When they reached the border of France itself, most of Louisa's servants fled for fear of being drafted into the army. Napoleonic troops stopped her carriage, which was clearly of Russian make, and were about to arrest or execute Louisa as an invader. She circumvented this by starting a rumor that she was Napoleon's sister in disguise, and gave weight to this by the fact that she could speak French perfectly. The soldiers, not willing to risk the chance that she really was the Emperor's sister incognito, let her make her way into Paris without any further harassment.

When she arrived, Quincy said the equivalent of, "what took you so long?" Louisa related the whole story, which Quincy then transmitted in a letter to his mother, the former First Lady Abigail. Abigail had always given her daughter-in-law a hard time for being a foreigner; as an Englishwoman, Louisa was the only First Lady ever born outside of the US. But after reading of her harrowing adventure through Europe, she gained respect and the two ladies got along ever since.

The Old House at Peacefield.
Massive leaves along the side of the house.
 The theme from the John Adams miniseries by HBO was playing in my head constantly through this portion of the trip. So, so good.

Holy Cross Cathedral

The Archbishop of Boston's seat is downtown at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, which coincidentally is also home to one of the city's traditional Latin Mass communities. I don't think I've missed attending a Requiem Mass on All Souls Day in my entire history as a Catholic, and this year was not going to be an exception. It was already nightfall, and trying to find parking was a nightmare. I wandered through several tightly-packed residential streets lined with townhouses and apartments with shops below, reminiscent of major European capitals. I was so keen on attending this Requiem Mass that I risked leaving the rental car in a resident-only spot, and rushed inside. The Mass was celebrated in the lower church; effectively a well-furnished basement. At first I was worried that this was to be yet another Latin Mass community that was forced underground (literally), doomed to have nothing but low Masses in aeternum. But no, I was pleasantly surprised to see a full-sized men's Gregorian schola beginning the proper Introit as the priest and his servers approached the altar.

This photo was from All Saints (which I did not attend), but it gives you an idea of what the sanctuary looks like. Note the fantastic wooden screen, though the style of the rails seem out of place.
The Mass was sparsely attended, which is not a surprise given that it's not a holy day of obligation. What was surprising is that most of those who did show up looked to be in their 20's or early 30's. I later deduced that they were probably part Juventutem's Boston chapter, but it was nonetheless the first time I had attended a Latin Mass that wasn't predominantly either old folks or families with squalling kids in a very long time (not that that's bad; I'm just saying). Further, despite the few warm bodies filling the pews, the schola, called Schola Amicorum, sang all of the Proper chants of the Requiem Mass in full. The celebrating priest also gave an inspiring homily about the need to offer Mass and prayer for the dead which had me thinking about it long after the liturgy was over. The congregation seemed pretty timid about singing the Ordinary of the Mass, but the music for the Kyrie, Sanctus, etc. were printed and distributed to everyone, so I went ahead and sung them as loudly as I would if I were in the schola at home. Soon enough, a lot of people were singing more loudly, too. After the Mass, I approached a couple of the schola chanters randomly, asked about the community, and finally asked if I could sing with them the following Sunday. To sing with a random schola on an out-of-town trip has been on my "bucket list" for a while, and they enthusiastically welcomed me aboard even though I was a complete stranger.

This was from Good Friday, with what I presume is some of the schola members chanting the parts of the Passion according to Saint John.
The following Sunday, I met up with them before Mass to practice the Proper chants for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. We practiced in the crypt, which contained the remains of several bishops and archbishops of Boston. I'm sure such a sight would have felt eerie and occultic to a hardcore Protestant. At Mass, we sang the full Propers including verses for the Communion antiphon, as well as two hymns from Vespers. What was especially awesome was that the noon Angelus was also chanted. The priest who celebrated this particular Mass was new to the old rite, and there were some liturgical... anomalies (like chanting the Last Gospel), but the day was still quite uplifting. The schola invited me to sing with them again whenever I might be in Boston again, and I intend to do so. They truly had an embarrassment of riches, musically speaking. Not counting myself, there were, I think, 8 chanters and, taking a wild guess, maybe 60 people in the pews. That's a far higher ratio of chanters to congregation than any other Latin Mass community I know of.

The only sour point of the day was that afterward, my girlfriend told me that some old lady approached her in her pew before Mass to tell her she was dressed "immodestly" and needed to put her jacket on. You can already picture the old bat, I'm sure, with multiple rosaries hanging all over her person. I was probably already in cassock and surplice not more than a few feet away. If I had known about that, I would've probably made a scene. I'll never fully understand why women at church are so damn nosy. The older they are, the more license they take in butting into one's business.

A word on the cathedral's architecture: I hadn't actually seen the upper church until after Sunday's Mass. I took an elevator from the basement, which opened up somewhere in the north transept. I have to say that the upper church of Holy Cross is perhaps the most epic Catholic church interior I've ever seen in America, and I don't say that overused e-word lightly. The National Basilica in DC is an oppressive pile of Tetris blocks by comparison. The Little Flower Basilica in San Antonio is an oversized wedding cake with gold frosting and lumps of whipped cream sculptures all over. Saint Mary Cathedral in Austin may be Gothic, but is a mere country parish when compared to the scale of Holy Cross. I was pleased to read that its architect, Patrick Keely, was a determined Gothicist: he built something like 16 cathedrals and 600 parish churches over the course of his career, making him probably the busiest architect in 19th century America. His father was even a student of Augustus Welby Pugin's.

The current layout is currently spoiled by an abundance of carpeting and a mess of unnecessary chairs about the chancel. I need not say anything about the altars, of course.

The Cathedral in 1966 for a Catholic Youth Organization event. I'm going to assume all those shakos mean there were a lot of marching band members in attendance back then.

Some details of the exterior.

Three cardinals' galeros (galeri?) hanging over the high altar. According to tradition, when these hats finally fall apart, the cardinal's soul is released from purgatory.

A foray into downtown Boston

My girlfriend and I dined at Goody Glover's Irish Pub in the North End, the oldest residential area of the city. The pub was named after Ann "Goody" Glover, who in 1688 was the last woman to be hanged as a witch in Boston. It's too bad she's so unknown, as her story is quite interesting. Glover was born in Ireland as a Catholic, then sold to slavery in Barbados by Oliver Cromwell. Her husband was killed there for refusing to renounce Catholicism. At some point, Glover came to Boston and served as a housekeeper to John Goodwin. His children fell ill, and the Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, blamed it on witchcraft. He called her "a scandalous old Irishwoman, very poor, a Roman Catholick and obstinate in idolatry". She was hanged, and is known as the first Catholic martyr in Boston. Needless to say, her death didn't cure the Goodwin children of their malady.

She looks wistfully, opposite me at the pub.
After that, we had gelato in the Italian district. On the way back to the car, we saw the ritziest laundromat ever, where you can have your laundry done and folded for you for cheaper than some public, self-service laundromats elsewhere.

The USS Constitution: Old Ironsides

My girlfriend had to go back to school, but before I returned to the airport for home, I made one last tourist stop to see the famous USS Constitution. Constructed in 1794 under President Washington's administration, the Constitution is the world's oldest naval vessel still afloat. It's still considered an active warship of the U.S. Navy with a crew of 60. On ceremonial occasions, they wear uniforms according to the regulations of 1813, when during the War of 1812, the Constitution was immortalized for having defeated five of the "invincible" British Navy's warships.

Yes, it still sails under its own power!
In truth, I didn't get to board the ship itself as it was closed to visitors for the winter season. But I did get to stand at the dock outside it and explore the nearby Constitution Museum. Most of the exhibits told me things I already knew. One thing I did not know was that in 1849, when the Constitution was docked in Gaeta, Pope Pius IX toured it for three hours along with King Frederick II of the Two Sicilies. The event was legally the first time a pope had ever set foot on American territory.

Commander Matthew J. Bonner, 72nd commanding officer of the USS Constitution.

And finally, an image of yours truly taking in the sights at Salem.

And I thought fall was only invented by Yankees to imagine some variety in their seasons.