Monday, 31 July 2017

Witchcraf interview for

I recently answered some questions on witchcraft, the witch cult, night flights and hallucinations, for the website related to 'All About History Magazine'.

This coincides with the publication of my latest book 'Maleficiun: Witchcraft and Witch Hunting in the West', wherein these and other matters are considered in more depth. Out now from Amberley Publishing.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A - Z of the Knights Templar reissued.

My A - Z of the Knights Templar is being reissued by Spellmount in Pocket Gide format, which merits dusting off this blog to mention...

Here it is on Amazon...

I was very pleased to hear that Spellmount were printing a new, pocket edition of my work 'A to Z of the Knights Templar', especially as this enabled me to make a few tweaks and additions during the editing process. Authors, like artists, I suspect, are often glad of a chance to revise their creations with the befit of a little hindsight.
I first conceived of an encyclopaedia or dictionary format work on the Knights Templar to address a need I perceived. Although many books are printed on the Templars and the Crusades, some may contain references and terms that may mystify the general reader. The story of the Templars takes place over two centuries, and covers a substantial geographical area, from Scotland to Spain to Syria (and possibly beyond.) There are a lot of names of place and people - various illustrious Raymonds, Bohemonds and Baldwins that crop up. I thought a reference work would come in handy, to help readers keep track of them all, and to say how they were connected to the Military Order. I wrote 'A to Z of the Knights Templar' concurrently with doing an MA in Crusader Studies, so many of these individuals and themes were fresh in my mind.
Books concerning the Knights Templar broadly fall into two types - speculative, mystical and conspiratorial works of alternative history, one the one hand, and perhaps somewhat forbidding academic works on the other. I hope my 'A to Z' may enable readers of the former to ground themselves in real, established history - concerning the Templars, who they were, what they did, what they believed, and what happened to them - and to probe the origin of various myths. At the same time, the book may serve to clarify things mentioned in the more weighty books on the topic (as well as in original sources) that might pass without explanation. The book can be used in conjunction with other books, or else be dipped into for general browsing.
The entries give facts about kings, queens, popes, preceptors, sultans, barons and brigands, and about many of the individual Templars themselves, whose names, stories and sometimes words have come down to us. As well as alphabetical entries, cross-referenced, including many named individuals, locations, objects, battles, events and themes, the work contains an overview account of the history of the Order, and  select chronology of Templar history.


I have mostly been concentrating on art for the past few years, much of it however reflecting my historical interests.
On the subject of the Templars, I designed some Templar-themed jewellery for Eastgate Resource, which I may not have mentioned hitherto hereabouts....

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Mary Magdalene: biography of a legend ebook

Greetings all. I have been a bit quiet on the historical front but there is some news. I have just published my first e-book, on Kindle. The title is Mary Magdalene: Biography of a Legend. (The myth and veneration of the saint, from Biblical antiquity to the era of the Crusades).

The cover I chose features a detail of a painting by the Russian artist Alexander Ivanov, which I feel suits very nicely.

A review of my draft manuscript commissioned by Boydell and Brewer contained the following:

'In this book, Gordon Napier sets out to “tell the story of the Magdalene’s story,” in a way that transcends “conspiracy theory and mythology.” The author intends to examine and evaluate the historical evidence in order to piece together the history of Mary Magdalene’s image and cult through the “early Middle Ages” and into “the age of the crusades”. Particular strengths of the book are its examination of the saint and her cult in both orthodox and heterodox contexts and in both the Western and the Eastern church – cultural worlds which few scholars are willing or able to address jointly. The author considers that the age of the crusades was a pivotal moment in the cult, bringing an unprecedented degree of contact between different Christian (and non-Christian) traditions and leading to the cult’s promotion by a series of different groups for very different religious and political reasons. 
In a post-Dan-Brown world, in which much nonsense is written about Mary Magdalene in particular and early Christianity in general, and in which it is crucial for history rather than mythology to reach the general public, this book has much to recommend it. For the most part it is engagingly written, in an accessible but not elementary style. It is enlivened by many references to and quotations from primary sources. Its treatment of such large historical developments as the crusades and the history of the mendicant orders is largely accurate, though necessarily superficial. The book’s division into two parts, one chronicling the evolution of different understandings of Mary Magdalene’s place in the Christian story and the other exploring the cult in and beyond the crusading era, is sensible. Its thematic chapters likewise are sensible and create an engaging structure... The conclusion is particularly well-written and engaging, and the epilogue and appendices are useful.'

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Resurrection and Rehabilitation of Richard III.

Have been quite interested by the recent news of the reidiscovery of the body of Richard III, under a car park in Leicester, the site the old Greyfriars convent. The extraordinary circumstances of the discovery, which was the first thing found when the diggers tore up a section of the car park, under a painted letter 'R' was rather reminiscent of medieval accounts of miraculous discoveries of saintly relics- almost too good to be true, yet the evidence stacks up in favour of the identification. This evidence includes genetic, a match was found with a descendant of Richard's sister.

The body was found to have curvature of the spine, so the king was a hunchback after all. It seems fans of Richard III have egg on their faces in that regard, as they have long insisted that Richard was not a hunchback, and that this image was part of hostile Tudor propaganda. One suspects that the group, whose instinct has been to stick up for the underdog, has led to them somewhat idolising Richard, and assuming that he has been over-vilified and caricatured.

I am not so keen on the Wars of the Roses, which seem internecine and regrettable. However the wounds evidenced by the skeleton seem to confirm the impression that the king died bravely in battle. As one of the last real warrior kings, and one who gained battles in vain despite a physical handicap, he deserves a certain new respect. In this regard he may also be compared to Baldwin IV of Jerusalem. (This example also goes to show the presumptuousness of assuming that a medieval king had to be entirely able-bodied in order to be effective on the battlefield.) I hope Richard's reburial is with suitable pomp.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Crusades, BBC series

I have enjoyed watching the first two of three episodes of the new BBC series The Crusades. The presentor is Dr Thomas Asbridge, under whom I studied in the past. Clearly he is having to simplify the narrative for the sake of airtime and to appeal to a general audience, but he's doing a good job of telling the story, nonetheless, and covering the key issues.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Royston Cave under threat

I was alarmed to read about here about the deteriorating state of Royston Cave, even if it's link to the Templars may be more debatable that many sources make out. (I personally think the case for a Templar connection is quite strong, even if it was just a temporary place of incarceration for Templar prisoners being transported to trial.)

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Iconoclasm: The Religious Problem with Figurative Art

The religious ban on figurative art starts with the Aten cult in Ancient Egypt. The old gods were swept away by the Pharaoh Akhenaten's radical decree. A monotheistic cult was introduced, the deity of which could only be symbolized by the sun disk- sometimes with radiating rays terminating with human hands. Images of other gods were destroyed during this period, one of the earliest known examples of iconoclasm. The cult of Aten was soon repudiated, and for a long time was totally forgotten. The pagan gods of Egypt would ultimately have their images effaced by iconoclastic followers of another monotheistic deity, the God of Abraham. This same God was supposed to have blighted Egypt with plagues in order to secure the release of his Chosen People, at the time of Moses. In the course of the Exodus from Egypt to the promise land, God delivered instructions to Moses, face to face, we are told, making it clear, among other things, that he did not wish to be given a face.

The Old Testament records two quite different versions of the Ten Commandments or Decalogue, the first found at Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, and the second at Exodus 34, 11-27. Both versions, however, prioritize a ban on idols and graven images. The Deuteronomy version insists that the chosen people are forbidden to make 'any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth.' This was intended primarily as a stricture against idolatry (it goes on to forbid bowing down to these images) but it could be taken as forbidding any kind of figurative art in any context. Other parts of the Torah require the chosen people to impose their laws on their servants and travellers in their midst, and threaten death by stoning to those who break the commandments.

The Old Testament refers to there being cherubim figures on the Ark (wherein the ten commandments were kept). It also refers to Moses elevating a bronze serpent as a precaution against snake bites (Numbers 21:7-9) and later mentions bull figures in the Temple of Solomon. These incongruities aside, however, ancient Judaism seems to have retained a horror of idolatry and to have identified figurative art closely with this perceived sin. The Jewish King Hezekiah, indeed, inaugurated Iconoclasm within his domain and is credited with destroying the brazen serpent.

The New Testament does not repeat the ban on images. (According to Jesus, the only commandments were to love God and to love one's neighbour). The old attitude against images seems to have been passed to early Christianity, however. Dogmatic opposition to idolatry and refusal to partake in state-sponsored cults is a recurring theme in the early Christian story, and for centuries there is an absence of representative Christian art. (Jesus was originally represented by the Chi-Rho monogram- XP- or by the abstracted fish symbol). St Paul's attack on the cult of Artemis at Ephesus is recorded in the New Testament. There, makers of figures of the goddess, whose trade depended on pilgrims to the goddess's shrine, stood to lose out if Paul's condemnation of the practice gained headway, and rioted against the new preaching. A desire for images of the divine eventually overcame strict observance of scripture. In time it would become quite usual for Christian pilgrims to buy souvenir figures of the Christian saints and martyrs they came to revere at various shrines. Churches would be filled with images and carvings of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other saints, even of God the Father, represented as an old man with a white beard, either as part of the Holy Trinity or in the context of the creation. Saints were sometime portrayed in the act of destroying pagan idols (and with not a hint of irony).

There were two major internal reactions against religious art in Christian history leading to widespread destruction. The first occurred in the Eastern Christian empire of Byzantium. The use of painted icons had become an important part or religious devotion in Eastern Orthodoxy (only three-dimensional forms were shunned). The practice of icon veneration came to be condemned in the aftermath of Islamic military victories over the Christian empire. The loss of Egypt, Syria and the Holy Land prompted much soul-searching in the Byzantine Empire, which was reduced to the Balkans and parts of what-is-now Turkey. It was observed that God seemed to favour the Muslims, whose faith made religious images taboo. Emperor Leo III forbade religious pictures in AD726, ushering in the age of Byzantine iconoclasm. There were various other theological arguments relating to to the merits or otherwise of representing Jesus. Feelings ran high on either sides of the divide. Violence was done both to those who destroyed icons and who persisted in creating them. The use and honouring of icons was justified and the practice was reaffirmed in AD 787 at the second council of Nicaea. Since then figurative art has retained a prominent place in Eastern Orthodoxy. Much of it, however, was destroyed or obliterated after the Muslim Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, when many Byzantine churches were converted into mosques.

In Western Christendom, meanwhile, religious art was consistently upheld and promoted by the Roman Church. Paintings, statues, stained glass windows and decorative reliquaries proliferated. Pope Gregory the Great justified religious images as 'books for the illiterate', but it wasn't long before these images became more than instructive material, turning into objects of devotion in their own right. The practice was criticised throughout the middle ages, for example by heretical groups such as the Cathars and Lollards, but there wasn't widespread destruction of religious artworks until the Protestant Reformation.

Religious art also became a source of contention during the Crusades. The crusaders (sometimes with Byzantine co-operation) produced much sacred imagery. Jewish visitors to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron considered these pictures profane intrusions. Saladin, on re-conquest of Jerusalem, took a similar view, and made a point of purging the Christian imagery that had been introduced to the mosques on Temple Mount, when he restored them to Islam. Crosses were torn down and statues smashed. The Christian cause made headway in the Iberian Peninsula as it waned in the East. As former Churches were stripped bare and turned into Mosques in Palestine, Greece and Cyprus, former Mosques in southern Spain were filled with sanguinary crucifixes and richly becrowned Madonnas.

The iconoclastic process began in England with the break from Rome under Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries. Here Catholicism became a persecuted and hunted faith. Monuments such as the shrine of St Thomas Becket were smashed. Protestantism was more vigorously enforced during the reign of Edward VI, when many churches were stripped of images by Royal decree. There was a brief reversal of the situation under Mary I, which came to a halt with the accession of Elizabeth I. The royal arms was to take pride of place in churches where once carved crucifixes on rood screens and medieval doom murals had presided. Religious art made another brief come-back with the reforms under Charles I and Archbishop Laud, but was stamped out again under Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. Zealous Parliamentarian commissions toured the counties obliterating any remaining Catholic images in the parish churches.

The Church of England took a softer line on the matter from the Restoration period, and statues of saints made a prominent comeback on the Wren's St Paul's Cathedral, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1666. 'Low Church' Anglicans and dissenting protestants continued to take a dim view of religious imagery. The 'High Church' Oxford Movement, the Catholic emancipation and the Gothic revival of the 19th century, however, saw the production of much new figurative religious art.

In Europe, there was widespread iconoclasm in the Protestant North, where monasteries, saintly cults and pilgrimages were likewise suppressed. The Catholic counter-reformation, however, affirmed the place of sacred art and the veneration of the saints. The Council of Trent affirmed the validity of images. Being mere representations of holy individuals, the devotion being paid to the image was actually being paid to the saint in question. The Council, however, ruled that no fripperies or impious details should be included in paintings, nor should there be 'beauty exciting to lust'. A little later the Italian artist Paolo Veronese had a run in with the Inquisition when his painting of the Last Supper failed to conform to the sober requirements. Spanish conquests in the New World, meanwhile, brought those lands into the Catholic fold. The bloodthirsty gods of the Aztecs, Maya and Incas were done away with, their statues destroyed and Catholic churches raised over their pyramid temples, sharing the fate of the pagan Gods of Egypt, Greece and Rome.

There is also a secular tradition of attacking religious art, especially in places where the religion in question came to be politically associated with a reactionary regime overthrown in a violent revolution. Examples of this are found in the history of France, Russia, Spain and China, although in most case the roots of religion held firm. In Western Europe a primarily secular mindset prevails, coupled with an appreciation of religious art, still culturally relevant and cherished although very often divorced from its original devotional context.

In all three Abrahamic traditions there has been a tension concerning the legitimacy of the use of figurative religious art. In some cases an avoidance of the representational has led to the development of beautiful and abstract forms of decoration, such as the intricate designs and ornate calligraphy adorning many Islamic manuscripts. The intolerance of idolatry encouraged by scripture, however, has often led the religious to acts of vandalism, presuming the right not only to destroy their own heritage but that of other cultures. Islam began with iconoclasm, the purging of the Ka'ba in Mecca of all but the black stone. Religious iconoclasm has most recently been associated with Taliban hard-liners in Afghanistan, who destroyed the giant rock carvings of Buddha that had stood for 1800 years in Bamiyan. This was part of a general purge of pre-Islamic artefacts. It is hard to grasp the mentality of people who would take torches or sledgehammers or explosives to unique and beautiful works of art. Over the centuries Jews, Christians and Muslims have done this very thing believing it to be the will of God. The same God, that is to say, as the art was often created to honour in the first place.