Archive for December, 2007

Favourite Such-and-Suches of 2007

December 31, 2007

There is never a bad time to make lists, but the end of the year seems an especially auspicious occasion. I enjoy making lists of favourite this-and-thats of the year, and why shouldn’t I?


I have never been an avid film watcher, and that did not change in 2007. Nevertheless, I did see a handful of films, and some of them deserve praise. The German documentary Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence) was far and away the best thing I saw this year. The filmmaker Philip Gröning spent a year living in the Carthusian abbey of Grande Chartreuse, and captured not just the rhythm and texture of monastic life, but also something of its inner spirit. There is little dialogue, no voice-over commentary, and no sound or music has been added in the studio. The result is austere and contemplative. We simply observe the monks going about their daily business: praying, chopping wood, preparing food, celebrating Mass. The film itself is to unobtrusive, so committed to leaving the viewer alone with the monks, that the experience passes from that of observation to participation. It is an extraordinary achievement.

I was also impressed this year by another German film, The Lives of Others. The story, about a group of artists in East Berlin trying to find a place for their art, and a place for the truth, under totalitarianism, is told quietly and even studiously, and it feels honest. The ending is excellent.

Everything else I saw this year falls far beneath these two, but a few things were not without merit. I enjoyed the animated film Ratatouille: even when the plot became too silly, one could still marvel at the incredible animation. With my family I saw John Cusack in 1408, and we had a wonderful time discussing possible interpretations of the film’s events. It was one of those films for which the remembrance is better than the viewing. I was also pleasantly surprised by Casino Royale: never before had I sat through an entire James Bond film, much less enjoyed it. The opening chase sequence was perhaps the best I have seen in any film.

At year’s end an avalanche of films were released that captured my interest, but I have yet to find time to see any of them. Beowulf has eluded me, mostly on account of the poor reviews it received. I would also like to see Michael Clayton, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Juno, No Country for Old Men, I’m Not There, and Sweeney Todd. For months I have been anticipating P.T. Anderson’s new film There Will be Blood, and perhaps I’ll have the chance to see it soon.


I can think of only three popular music discs that I acquired this year: the Innocence Mission’s We Walked in Song, the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, and Bruce Springsteen’s Magic. Of these, only the first earns my unqualified endorsement. We Walked in Song continues their long search for intimate acoustic beauty, and Karen Peris’ songwriting is as strong as ever. I was delighted to see that the Arcade Fire’s sophomore album met with as much critical praise as it did. I remember attending their shows in Montreal when they were still being held in private homes, and I remember visiting their studio, bearing ice cream, when they were recording their first album, and I remember the apprehension with which they awaited its critical reception. Clearly, everything has gone right for them in the past few years, and I hope it continues. I just wish I myself enjoyed the music more. The opening tracks on Neon Bible sound better to me than anything else they have done, but much of it leaves me scratching my head. Well, I don’t have to like everything, right? As for Springsteen, Magic strikes me as an on again (“Radio Nowhere”, “Terry’s Song”), off again (“Gypsy Biker”, “I’ll Work for Your Love”) effort. Nothing here can touch Tom Joad.

I continued to scale back my classical music purchases this year, in part from a sense of fiscal responsibility, in part from lack of access to a good second-hand shop, and in part because I simply can’t absorb all the music I have. This downscaling has been all for the best, though it has been somewhat countered by my acquisition of one of those devices, and my having purchased a monthly subscription to eMusic. Now I can buy CDs without buying CDs! It is not entirely clear to me that I am reasoning soundly.

For sheer colossal power, I must mention Gunter Wand’s recording of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR (Profil). This is music to haunt your deepest dreams, and it receives an absolutely splendid performance. I also returned repeatedly to Raphael Wallfisch’s recordings of Shostakovich’s complete works for cello, including the two concerti and sonatae (Nimbus). It is tough, invigorating music, and the performances and sound are excellent.

For choral music, there are a few discs that stand out. The Hilliard Ensemble has finally begun to issue a series of live recordings, previously available only by special order, on a label with wide distribution (Coro). Of these, I heard the volume dedicated to Antoine Brumel, and it is magnificent. Nobody sings like the Hilliards, and Brumel must be grinning ear to ear. Late in the year, the Huelgas Ensemble issued a disc called La Quinta Essentia. The disc illustrates the different compositional styles of Italy, the Low Countries, and England by presenting three Renaissance Masses in the regional styles. The Masses are by Palestrina, Lassus, and the super-obscure Thomas Ashewell, respectively. It’s educational, but, much more than that, it is inspired music-making from one of the best choirs in the world.


Faithful readers of this web log will have a reasonably good idea of what I read this year, for I have continued my discipline of writing some thoughts about each book as I complete it. I read a half-dozen of Evelyn Waugh’s novels over the course of the year, including another look at Brideshead Revisited, and it stands out, again, as a favourite. I would also name Kenneth Grahame’s children’s fantasy The Wind in the Willows as one of this year’s central reading delights. Honourable mention to Tolkien’s posthumous The Children of Húrin.

On the non-fiction side, first honours go to John Gerard’s Jesuit thriller Autobiography of an Elizabethan, a completely fascinating historical record of covert missionary work in Tudor England. In a similar vein, I was deeply impressed by The Diary of Anne Frank, especially as I read it in conjunction with a visit to her home in Amsterdam. I think Eamon Duffy’s beautiful study Marking the Hours also deserves special praise. During Lent I reread Augustine’s Confessions, and it was as good as ever.

I read many books this year: about 70, according to my records. This may sound like a considerable total, but those same records indicate that I acquired a whopping 135 volumes, so I am losing the battle. It seems there can never be enough time to read everything that captures one’s interest, and this may be one of life’s hard truths. In any case, given the changes that 2008 will bring to my life, it is likely that I shall never again read quite as much, for quite as long, as I did this year. As such, I hope you will forgive me if I indulge in a bit of nostalgic self-congratulation:

Books - 2007
Most of the books I read this year.


Happy New Year!

Academic genealogies II

December 28, 2007

Several weeks ago I wrote about some aspects of my academic genealogy. I have continued to investigate, and happily I have discovered more details, including whole new genealogical branches. Today I am going to discuss a portion of my new findings.

In this research I have been greatly helped by a few online resources such as

  • SPIRES HepNames : provides links between students and advisors, with a focus on physics, and a special focus on high energy physics (HEP).
  • Mathematics Genealogy Project : provides details about nationality, thesis titles, and student-advisor relationships, with a focus on mathematics.
  • Chemical Genealogy : an especially valuable resource for the quality of its documentation; provides details about the year in which people obtained degrees, as well as what degree they obtained; the focus is obviously on chemistry.
  • NeuroTree : a similar project that focuses on neuroscience, which is interpreted generously to include people with connections to medicine.

Where possible, I have also made use of other resources, most notably Wikipedia.

The last post explored a lineage derived from Otto Mencke (1644-1707) [UPDATE: Diagram]. One of the men in that line was Johannes Peter Müller (1801-1858), who obtained his M.D. from Bonn in 1822. I had identified Müller’s advisor as Karl Asmund Rudolphi (1771-1832), but I have now learned that in fact Müller was, beginning in 1823, when already in possession of his degree, a research assistant of Rudolphi’s. That is fine with me; the relationship is still one of academic mentoring, and we can’t expect the student-advisor relationship to be always and everywhere the same as it is today. This leaves open the question, however, of who mentored Müller during his medical studies at Bonn. I have found a number of sources (such as this one and this one) that identify his advisor at that time as Philip Franz von Walther. This relationship sprouts another branch of my lineage. Let us begin with von Walther himself:

Philip Franz von Walther (1782-1849): Walther earned his M.D. in 1803 from Universität Landshut. He was a physician, a specialist in opthalmology, and wrote textbooks on surgery and physiology. In the course of his physiological studies he described the hardening of arterial valves.

Walther, like Müller before him, also seems to have studied under more than one person. I have found, in fact, that he also had two advisors: Johann Frank and Georg Beer. Today I shall discuss the line involving Johann Frank, leaving the other for a later post.

Johann Peter Frank (1745-1821): Frank obtained M.D. in 1766 from Heidelberg. Not much is known about him, but he is regarded as an early pioneer in the science of public health. He studied under Georg Gattenhof.

Georg Matthias Gattenhof (1722-1788): Gattenhof is another fairly obscure figure. He completed his M.D. in 1748 at Würzburg, after which he went to the university in Heidelberg, where he was professor of anatomy, physiology, and botany. He wrote a book describing the flora of Heidelberg. He was a student of Albrecht von Haller.

Victor Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777): Haller is one of the major figures in this genealogical branch. He was Swiss by birth, and showed early signs of having scholarly gifts: as a child he compiled Hebrew and Greek vocabularies, wrote Latin verse, and tried his hand at translating Virgil. His turn toward medicine was accompanied by an interest in anatomy, physiology, and botany. He was an accomplished anatomist, and many anatomical features are named for him. He wrote a popular physiology textbook, and compiled multi-volume surveys of physiological knowledge. In botany, he was a main opponent of the system of nomenclature proposed by Carl Linneaus, though I have been unable to discover the arguments he offered against it. Though his career in medicine was distinguished, he did not forsake his early passion for languages and humanistic learning. He wrote a long hexametric poem entitled “Die Alpen” that extolled the virtues of the natural world, and made him an important poetic voice in German literature of the early eighteenth century. Late in life he turned to fiction, writing three philosophical romances on the principles of government, as well as religious works against the French Enlightenment thinkers. This year the 300th anniversary of his birth is being marked by the Swiss government, with exhibitions, a conference, and even a play!

In his youth, Haller was an ambitious student, and he travelled through much of Western Europe to find good teachers. The various resources I have consulted indicate that he studied under at least seven different men: Hermann Boerhaave and Bernhard Albinus in Leiden, Johann Duvernoy and Elias Camerarius in Tübingen, Henri François le Dran and Jacob Winslow in Paris, and Johannes Bernoulli in Basel. The main relationship is with Boerhaave, under whom Haller obtained his M.D. in 1727 (Thesis: Dissertatio inauguralis sistens experimenta et dubia circa ductum salivalem novum Coschwizianum), but I have no particular reason to discount the others. For instance, he may have studied under Boerhaave to learn medicine, but he studied under Bernoulli to learn mathematics. In the absence of a good reason to do otherwise, I hope to follow up each of the branches created by these relationships. Today, however, I shall limit myself to just those rooted at Tübingen. The branch to Elias Camerarius Jr. is quite short:

Elias Rudolph Camerarius, Jr. (1673-1734): The younger Camerarius was a physician and professor of medicine at the University of Tübingen. Apparently he had an abiding interest in mysticism and medical esoterica, and was especially opposed to efforts to explain physiological behaviour mechanically. This places him outside the main line of historical development of the subject, but it does add a welcome splash of colour to my family tree. He obtained his M.D. in 1691, studying under his father.

Elias Rudolph Camerarius, Sr. (1641-1695): The elder Camerarius was professor of medicine at Tübingen, obtaining his M.D. in 1663 from the same institution. He is remembered for his studies of skull fractures, heart palpitations, and the medicinal use of plants. Regrettably, I have been unable to learn who mentored Camerarius, so this branch comes to an end.

The second person under whom Haller studied at Tübingen was Johann Duvernoy:

Johann Georg Duvernoy (1691-1759): Duvernoy was a German anatomist and botanist. In his anatomical studies he described rare animals such as the lion, leopard, and elephant, and he demonstrated that bones from a mammoth belonged to a creature distinct from the modern elephant. As a botanist, he described the native flora of Tübingen. Sources differ on the details of his education: in 1708 he studied for a time in Paris under Joseph Pitton de Tournefort; some sources claim that he received an M.D. in 1710 from Basel, others that he obtained the same degree in 1716 from Tübingen. In neither of the latter cases have I been able to discover reliable information about his advisors. As such, I shall pursue the one connection that does seem secure: to Tournefort.

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708): Tournefort was a French botanist. He is remembered for having introduced the concept of genus into the classification of plants, preparing the way for the later work of Linnaeus. He visited the Middle East and wrote a popular account of his travels. Tournefort was killed when he was run down by a carriage in the cinquième arrondissement of Paris, on a street now named for him. It is not clear from my sources whether Tournefort ever held an advanced degree, but he is said to have studied in the early 1680s, at Montpellier, under Pierre Magnol.

Pierre Magnol (1638-1715): Magnol was a French botanist who studied and lived in Montpellier. It was he who introduced the concept of family into plant classification. He studied coral, and was the first to identify it as a living thing. He classified it as a plant, however, rather than an animal, an error for which I think he can be forgiven. The genus Magnolia is named for him (as is, by transitive relation, one of the best films of the past decade). Magnol obtained his M.D. in 1659 under Pierre Laugier.

Pierre Laugier: Unfortunately, I have not been able to discover much of Laugier, not even the dates of his birth and death. He acquired an M.D. in 1603 from Montpellier, where he studied with Richer de Belleval.

Pierre Richer de Belleval (1564-1632): Belleval was a botanist. He obtained his M.D. from Avignon in 1587, but worked in Montpellier, where, under royal patronage, he established a famous botanical garden for the growth of medicinal plants. He was one of the first to teach botany as a subject distinct from medicine, and made a careful study of the flora of the Languedoc region of France. Some sources list him as having studied under Guillaume Rondelet (1507-1566) at Montpellier, but a comparison of their dates makes this highly dubious. Another source states that he received a second M.D. from Montpellier in 1595, but I have been unable to discover any further details. It seems, therefore, that this trail has run cold.


I am delighted to have been able to trace this branch of my lineage back nearly a century further than the previous branch. Whereas the other branch was thoroughly German at its roots, this branch is French in origin. My exploration is incomplete, with numerous branches, off both Haller and Walther, yet to be pursued. These I shall consider at a later time.

UPDATE: Here is a diagram showing the lineage discussed thus far in this series.

Merry Christmas from All Manner of Thing

December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

I wish all those who favour this site with a visit a very merry, blessed Christmastide. Don’t forget that this is but the first day of a twelve-day festival.

Laudate! Puer natus est nobis!
Cantate Domino canticum novum!

Since Christmas is not complete without music, here is a brief, bouyant Shaker hymn from nineteenth-century Kentucky. The idea to sing it in canon came from Paul Hillier, who leads the Pro Arte Singers:

Rush and racket

December 22, 2007

Xmas and Christmas

A Lost Chapter from Herodotus
— C.S. Lewis —

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and the north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, and though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from other barbarians who occupy the north-western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas, and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival, guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the market-place is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest and the most miserable of citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk in the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think that some great calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas , which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, It is not lawful, O Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left. And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, It is, O Stranger, a racket, using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For the first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

While we all sup sorrow with the poor

December 20, 2007

Hard Times (1854)
Charles Dickens (Duckworth, 2005)
276 p. First reading.

Though I’ve yet to test it by experience, I have a hunch that parenthood rescues one from certain philosophical falsehoods and spiritual perils. It is, I imagine, a great clarifier. For while it is one thing to toy, indulgently, with thoughts that harm the soul, it is quite another to teach them. I may, for instance, be tempted to regard my conscience with suspicion, lured by the promise of whatever is supposed to lie beyond good and evil, but if I bear responsibility for guiding a child down that same path, or not, the temptation vanishes. Teaching teaches the teacher.

That same sense of responsibility must burden those parents who, too late, discover that they tutored their children in a philosophy that dried up and killed their inner lives. Dickens puts his finger directly on that open sore in Hard Times. Mr. Gradgrind has instructed his children to sacrifice everything to Facts, and to resist the alluring attractions of fancy and feeling. He is one of those who pride themselves on being level-headed, clear-sighted, and “eminently practical”. Yet all the while the world, with its delights and seductive dangers, swirls around him and his children. When it finally does break in, they are overcome by its power.

In this novel I was very struck by the focus Dickens brings to the inner lives of his characters, and the sensitivity with which he unfolds them. The story is deeply rooted in the intricacies of personal actions and relationships. Occasionally an event of sudden clarity takes place, like a bank robbery, but even then its consequences are worked out in terms of the fears, desires, and dreams of the people affected. In this way, too, Dickens is reaffirming the value, in all its richness, of the inner life.

As always, the variety of Dickens’ characters is wonderful. Since I tend to forget the characters, permit me here to say a word or two about those central to the story. Mr. Gradgrind is, as I have already said, a father trapped by his own sad simplifications. His son Tom and daughter Louisa are the primary victims of his illiberal education. (A careful reader will notice that there are also several younger Gradgrind children, two bearing the ludicrous, but telling, names of Adam Smith and Malthus.) Mr. Bounderby is Coketown’s factory owner, a pompous blowhard who gets his comeuppance in the end. The villainous James Harthouse enters the story long enough to wreak havoc on Tom and Louisa. And of courthe there ith Mr. Thleary, who runth a thircuth and thpeakth, for thome thuthpithiouthly long thecthionth, in hith own thpethial wayth, the thame being fruthtrating to thee for thententhe after thententhe.

But the characters who really captured my heart were those poor who suffered most:  Cecilia Jupe, who retains her faith and hope in the face of the worst that life brings her; or Racheal, who leads an unassuming life of patience and thoughtfulness; and Stephen Blackpool, an honest man, the best man in the story, who suffers more than anyone. Perhaps more than any other book I know, Hard Times illuminates those paradoxical promises: “Blessed are the poor” and “Blessed are those who weep”, for they shall be comforted.

Back to the beginning

December 18, 2007

A colleague who went through the physics graduate program at the University of Toronto several decades before I did surprised me last week by presenting me with a fascinating bit of the physics department’s history. The department was originally founded in 1887, and the graduate program was established a decade later. Where the department was located at that time, I don’t know, but in 1967 it moved into a new building: the McLennan Physical Laboratories at 60 St. George St. It was, and is, an awful building — why everyone should have been so enamored of Soviet architecture, I’ll never know — but it was new and spacious and marked a period of major growth in the department’s stature.

The historical artifact that my colleague dug up is a brochure outlining the opening ceremonies and the inaugural lectures for the new building:

MacLennan brochure - front

The inner pages of the brochure outline the series of lectures that were scheduled to celebrate the grand opening. They are worth looking at:

MacLennan brochure - interior

(click to enlarge)

The festivities commenced with an address by Gerhard Herzberg, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry (1971), and at that time a director at the National Research Council. He spoke on “The problem of the diffuse interstellar lines”; I’m not sure what problem he was referring to. Anyone?

Next was Charles H. Townes, who had won the Nobel Prize in physics just a few years earlier (1964) for his role in the invention of the maser and, later, the laser. His address was a propos: “What an intense laser beam does to matter and vice versa”.

The second day of celebration saw four lectures. The first was delivered by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, he of the Chandrasekhar limit, the derivation of which I remember as one of the most elegant and illuminating in the physics literature, a beautiful combination of quantum mechanics and astrophysics. He would later (in 1983) be awarded the Nobel Prize for physics.

The French physicist Alfred Kastler was next, speaking on optical pumping, the technique for which he is best known, and for which he received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1966. Do I detect a pattern here?

After lunch was Mark Kac, a Polish mathematician who emigrated to the United States. Unfortunately, he never won a Nobel Prize. Neither is he the Kac of Kac-Moody algebras, as I had suspected. To his credit, he does have an Erdős number of one.

Finally, an address by Robert Dicke, known to me through Brans-Dicke theory, an extension of General Relativity that adds a scalar field to the usual gravitational field equations. It’s an interesting theory that is still taught today, though I don’t think many people believe it is correct.

And with that, the opening ceremonies of the McLennan Labs came to a close. An auspicious beginning!

Gaudete Sunday Advent carol

December 16, 2007

This week we’ve more collegiate choral music from King’s College, Cambridge. Gaudete Sunday calls for an infusion of gentle rejoicing, and what better means than the beloved macaronic hymn In dulci jubilo, in an arrangement by I-know-not-whom?

In dulci jubilo
Let us our homage shew;
Our heart’s joy reclineth
In praesepio
And like a bright star shineth,
Matris in gremio.
Alpha es et O,
Alpha es et O.

O Jesu parvule!
I yearn for thee alway!
Listen to my ditty,
O puer optime!
Have pity on me, pity,
O Princeps gloriae!
Trahe me post te!
Trahe me post te!

O Patris caritas,
O Nati lenitas!
Deeply were we stained
Per nostra crimina;
But thou hast for us gained
Coelorum gaudia.
O that we were there!
O that we were there!

Ubi sunt gaudia,
If that they be not there?
There are angels singing
Nova cantica,
There the bells are ringing
In Regis curia:
O that we were there!
O that we were there!

(English trans.: R. Pearsall)

Ad majorem Dei gloriam

December 15, 2007

The Autobiography of an Elizabethan (1609)
John Gerard, S.J. (Longmans, 1951; trans. P. Caraman)
311 p. First reading.

Imagine: you are forced to travel in disguise, using an alias with anyone not a close friend.; to communicate safely by post you use invisible ink between the lines of a benign greeting; anyone who helps you puts themselves at risk; you must be ready to pull up stakes and move at a moment’s notice if the authorities discover your location; when your lodgings are raided, you slip quickly into a secret hiding place, sometimes to stay, cramped and hungry, for four or five days until the searchers exhaust themselves. Are you a spy? Not in this case. You’re a priest in Elizabethan England.

John Gerard was a Jesuit priest who, for eighteen years (1588-1606), ran a very successful, but very dangerous, mission to English Catholics. Unlike many of his confrères, he escaped the country with his life, and, under orders from his Superiors, wrote this fascinating first-person account of his missionary work. It’s a gripping cloak-and-dagger story, full of intrigue and narrow escapes. But he never lets us forget that the stakes were high: too incautious and the result could be death, too cautious and souls would be lost.

Gerard landed quietly on the Norfolk coast late in 1588, together with another priest. They were English by birth, had gone to the continent for training, and now returned to take up the mission of sustaining the Catholic faithful under state persecution, and of winning converts back to the faith if it were possible. At the time of their landing, the Jesuit mission in England was scarcely begun: only four other Jesuits were then active in the country. Gerard took to the challenge manfully. He was a man of great courage, faith, and intelligence, all of which were needed to keep himself safe and his mission fruitful.

The times were difficult for English Catholics. The government had instituted serious fines against recusants who refused to attend the services of the Church of England, which made faithfulness to the old religion difficult or impossible for all but the most wealthy. Attendance at a Catholic service was a more serious offence, and to harbour priests was a capital crime. For their part, priests faced imprisonment and, often, execution if they were captured, and even when they eluded capture, everyone who assisted them placed themselves in grave danger. It was a time for subtlety and heroism.

The modus operandi adopted by the Jesuits was to focus first on the conversion and spiritual care of the wealthiest Catholic families. The large country homes owned by these families were ideal staging points for ministry within the neighbouring countryside. When they did travel, it was in disguise; Gerard often passed as a nobleman out falconing or hunting. To be successful, this model required that the entire family, servants included, be faithful and discreet Catholics, for the authorities stood ready to reward those who would deliver a priest into their hands. Betrayals did, unfortunately, take place. Domestic tensions often ran very high, for it was not uncommon for a husband and wife to have different religious commitments. (It was most common for the wife to be Catholic and the husband Protestant, for Protestantism was near obligatory for anyone wanting to get on in society, especially among the wealthy.)

Gerard’s ministry consisted first in serving the existing Catholic population in his area. He celebrated Mass, heard confessions, and frequently offered the Spiritual Exercises to those who requested them. He also sought to sound out and engage those he discerned were open to the Catholic faith, and he succeeded in bringing a great many people back to the faith. This, you can imagine, was careful work, for he could not reveal himself as a priest until he was quite sure the other could be trusted. He was relentless in his missionary work, and his ministry was incredibly fruitful. Even when imprisoned he continued, like St. Paul, to preach and convert those around him. At least 35 priestly vocations were encouraged under his leadership, not to mention a number of monastic vocations. These young people who accepted the call to religious life were forced to leave the country, of course, but many returned later to carry on the mission.

On several occasions Gerard was surprised by priest-hunting search parties. These Catholic manor houses had been cleverly equipped with a number of priest-holes, secret hiding places built expressly for this purpose. (Most of the priest-holes in England, and there are many, were designed and built by St. Nicholas Owen, a Jesuit lay brother who was eventually martyred for his role in protecting priests.) He was quickly spirited away into the nearest one, together with his vestments, papers, and anything that might betray the presence of a priest. These spaces had been so cleverly built that even large search parties consciously searching for the hiding places, often for a week or more, failed to discover them.

Gerard was obliged from time to time to travel to London, which was always the most dangerous place for priests. Nevertheless, the Jesuits had their headquarters there (in a secret location that moved around), and Gerard himself usually had a house rented for lodging, ministry, and for the use of other priests visiting the city. It was into one of these houses, in Holborn, on 23 April 1594 (Shakespeare’s birthday, I note in an irrelevant aside), that a search party burst, and Gerard had no time to escape. He and Nicholas Owen were both captured and imprisoned. He was moved around: first the Counter in the Poultry prison (I love the English for their endearing names), then to the Clink on the south bank, and then, after three years of imprisonment, to the Tower of London in April 1597.

In the Tower he was tortured, twice, in the manacles. His torturers wanted to discover who had assisted him, how the Jesuits operated in the country, and so forth. He revealed nothing, and writes that he was ready to give his life rather than betray his friends and his cause. Though his torture lasted only six or eight hours in toto, it took nearly six months for him to recover sensation and function in his hands.

Who knows how long the authorities intended to keep him in the Tower? Gerard cut them short, for he devised and carried out a brilliant escape. This is perhaps the best part of the story for sheer adventurousness. He befriended, bribed, and earned the confidence of his gaoler, convincing him to permit Gerard to visit John Arden, a fellow Catholic imprisoned nearby in the Cradle Tower, which borders the moat on the Thames side of the Tower of London. Using letters written in invisible ink (in orange juice, specifically), he arranged with two friends on the outside to aid in the escape. On the night of 4 October 1597, Gerard and Arden sprung the lock on their cell and ascended to the top of the Cradle Tower. Gerard’s friends arrived by boat. Gerard tossed them a ball of twine, to which they tied a heavy rope, which was then drawn up to the tower’s roof. Securing it, they slowly crawled down the rope, over the moat, to the banks of the Thames, and were spirited away. It was a marvellously daring stunt. To my knowledge — and I did do some looking — this is the only successful recorded escape from the Tower.

Having escaped the authorities, Gerard once again disappeared, and continued his ministry, very successfully, for another eight years. All was going well, considering the circumstances at least, until November 1605 when the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. If the plot to detonate a bomb in Parliament failed, the plot was certainly a bomb dropped into the heart of the Catholic Church in England. It was a disaster. Gerard insists, convincingly, that he himself knew nothing of the plot until news of its discovery was broadcast. (One of the peripheral conspirators, Sir Everard Digby, had been converted by Gerard.) The Jesuit Superior of England, Henry Garnet, did learn of the plot through one of his priests some time before it was attempted. Since the knowledge was protected by the seal of the confessional, they did what they could: the priest was instructed to try to dissuade his penitent from persisting with the plan, and Garnet himself petitioned the Pope to issue a condemnation of violence to the English church, hoping it would stop the conspiracy from proceeding. The condemnation did not come, at least not in time, and the result was turmoil and tears for all English Catholics, far beyond the circle of conspirators. Many arrests were made, and many were executed. Gerard was able to escape. He lay low for several months and then departed the country, stealthily, on 3 May 1606. To my knowledge he never returned to England, but continued to serve his Order until 1637, when he died in Rome.

One final point: When priests or their friends faced interrogation, they could not simply reveal the information the authorities sought, for to do so would imperil all those whom they named, and destroy the Catholic mission itself. Sometimes prisoners were simply asked to admit that they were Catholics, which in itself could be a dangerous admission. And yet, at the same time, it was not permissible to lie, nor to deny Christ. The Jesuits, therefore, devised a technique, frequently employed by Gerard, for answering questions. For the most part, they simply refused to answer questions put to them, or, more controversially, they gave equivocal responses. Their rationale seems to have been two-fold. First, the burden of proof lies with the authorities, who must prove their case without the assistance of the prisoner. In modern law, the court can compel a witness to answer, but that principle may have stood then too. In the end, no one can really compel an answer — not even with torture. The second arm of the rationale was this: since to give answers which would endanger others “offends against both justice and charity” (the formula used by Gerard), there could be no obligation to answer. In this he seems to be appealing to a law higher than the English law, which judges the English laws themselves to be unjust. It was a long-standing principle of Catholic political philosophy that there can be no obligation to obey unjust laws. I find this issue quite interesting, for in one sense it seems an abstraction of moral philosophy, yet in those circumstances it had very tangible, and even grisly, consequences. I believe that their defence of equivocation has given us the adjective “Jesuitical”. I wonder if the word has cognates in other languages.

I loved this book. It’s a great story, well told. It is certainly among the most absorbing historical documents I have read, having all the hallmarks of a great suspense story, and yet the colour of truth. He was a real man, and those he served were real, and their suffering was real as well. Highly recommended, if you can find it (which is criminally difficult to do).


Since my grasp of English geography is quite weak, I relied on maps to orient myself as I read. I created this map showing a number of the sites where Gerard visited or lived. It doesn’t show everything, but it does show whatever I was able to identify from the text.

Feast of St. John of the Cross

December 14, 2007

One Darkest Night

One darkest night I went,
aflame with love’s devouring eager burning–
O fortunate event!–
no witnesses discerning,
the house now still from which my steps were turning.

Hidden by darkness, bent
on flight, disguised, down secret steps sojourning–
O fortunate event!–
Hidden by dark, and yearning,
the house now still from which my steps were turning;

In that most blissful night,
in secrecy, since none had seen my going,
nor did I pause for sight,
nor had I light, for showing
the route, but that which in my heart was glowing.

This only did the guiding,
surer than the blaze when noonday shone,
to where he was abiding–
who was to me well known–
where we would be together and alone.

O night that led me true,
O night more fair than morning’s earliest shining,
O night that wrought from two–
lover, beloved entwining–
beloved and lover one in their combining!
On my new-flowered breast,
to him alone and wholly sanctified,
he leaned and lay at rest;
his pleasure was my guide,
and cedars to the wind their scent supplied.

Down from the tower, breezes
came, while soft fingers winnowed through his hair;
a touch that wounds and pleases
caressed my throat with air,
leaving every sense suspended there.

I stayed, all else forgetting,
inclined toward the beloved, face to face;
all motion halted, letting
care vanish with no trace,
forgotten in the lilies of that place.

— St. John of the Cross
(Translated by Rhina P. Espaillat)

Transcendental mudslinging

December 13, 2007

In light of my recent ruminations on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, I can’t resist posting this farcical “attack ad”. Finally we have an answer to the question of what happens when major league philosophical disputes collide with democratic politics. Gentlemen, please! Can’t we celebrate our diversity?

(Hat-tip: FT blog)