Cheer II. Gossip as History
i. History in Gossip
One day in the spring of 1944, the High Commands of the western allies, the generals and admirals and air marshals, meeting with Winston Churchill who provides us with this bit of gossip, were fine-tuning the plans for putting an army of a million men on the shores of Normandy in the largest amphibious operation in history, . They were concerned about how to do this under the optimum weather conditions, and this led Churchill to suddenly ask if any one remembered at what time of year the last previous successful crossing of the English Channel against a defended shore – the one led by Duke William of Normandy (William the Bastard, later known as William the Conqueror) in 1066 – had taken place. Neither the military commanders nor Churchill himself, had the slightest idea of the correct answer, which a quick look at the history books told them was at the end of September, a very late season to be venturing a fleet on the English Channel.
Censorious historians might complain that these professionals should bloody well have known. The time of year affects the ever-changing weather of the English Channel, and the ever-changing weather of the English Channel had played an even more decisive role in history in 1066 that it was to do in l944. If the unseasonal north wind which kept Duke William’s ships bottled up in the mouth of the Seine for precious weeks while they were blowing the army of Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, on his way to open a second front in the north of England, had blown the other way, the Duke would have landed on schedule in the summer time, just when and where King Harold Godwinson of England was waiting for him with a formidable army, and the invaders might well have been wiped out while they were going through the awkward motions of landing on the Sussex shore.. As it was, Harold and his army had to race hundreds of miles northward to meet and crush the Norwegians, and when they raced all those miles back they were depleted and exhausted, and were themselves wiped out after a long and wavering battle. As a result. the English, instead of remaining a square-headed Scandinavian-type people on the edge of the civilized world, were enslaved by King William, who treated them pretty much the way Adolf Hitler treated the Poles and Ukrainians in World War II, and in process of time absorbed enough of French insouciance and espièglerie to create the illogical loose-limbed franglais language and the illogical loose-limbed English politico-economic system which between them have been taking over the world for the last few centuries..
It is easy enough to laugh at these famous men for their ignorance of history, as easy as it to laugh at the television anchorperson who the other day read off her monitor that we were celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War Eleven; or the literary agent who, on reading the first draft of this book told me that I had made a typographical error in writing, “Homo sapiens was,” when every one knows that a word ending in “s” is in the plural, and the plural in English takes a “were.”.
But neither the announcer nor the agent are to blame for the historical fact that the Latin language, a necessity for any literate person in the 16th century, and a useful device for making people with an upper-class education feel superior to other people in the 19 th, has become increasingly irrelevant to anybody’s life in the 21st. When President Bush in 1991 or thereabouts proposed a new world order, he was violently denounced by just the people whose minds are so occupied with blaming the decline of our civilization on our educators’ abandonment of Latin that they have never noticed that every dollar bill printed by the United States Treasury promises a Novus Ordo Seclorum. The generals planning the Normandy invasion, and Churchill himself, who was, at odd moments of his life, a military historian, might well insist that there is a limit to the items of knowledge we have to stuff into our brains, that they had far more vital things on their minds than details of the tactics and strategies of armies armed with battle-axes and cross-bows in the Eleventh century.
The most interesting thing about the question Churchill put in 1944 is not the ignorance of the generals who did not know the answer to his question, it was his own ignorance in asking it. For, as a matter of historical fact, William of Normandy was not the last man before 1944 to lead a successful invasion fleet across the Channel. It was his descendant William Prince of Orange who led a Dutch fleet which landed a Dutch army of some twenty thousand men in Dorsetshire in 1688. It is true that this was a bloodless invasion, partly because a beneficent east wind (a “Protestant wind,” it was called by the winning side, the Protestants) kept the English fleet of the Catholic king James II bottled up in the estuary of the Thames; but even more because John Churchill, Winston’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, was in command of the English army, a job he got according to London gossips because his sister Arabella was no stranger to the bed of King James. as she was later to be no stranger to the bed of his daughter Queen Anne. John Churchill betrayed his master and handed over his whole army to the Dutchman, who shortly afterward became King William III in what all Englishmen have since called the Glorious Revolution which laid the foundation of their liberties...
Winston Churchill had written a life of this ancestor, who became Duke of Marlborough, the most successful general of his age, and one of England’s abiding heroes. The fact that his descendant and all his military leaders could have conveniently forgotten all about that Dutch invasion force should remind us that all our historical judgments are personal, they are based not on a broad overview of the objective situation but on the particular incidents that reinforce our own view of the world. “Particular incidents” are of course the particular domain of Dame Gossip.
History, the dispassionate effort to turn the chaos of the past into a coherent and plausible account of how and why we have got where we are, has never ranked higher in the world’s opinion than it does today. People who used to appeal to the judgment of God to justify their actions when they started a war or a revolution or a change in the tax code now claim that History will vindicate them. When the genuineness of something like the Shroud of Turin or the Donation of Constantine is called into question and unsettles the Church, the Church no longer turns to the Vicar of Christ to settle questions of its date and authenticity, it calls for scientific analysis under the guidance of professional historians. If the world was being created by Yahweh today, we would demand a CNN crew in the Garden to report on the precise timing of the various creations of heavenly bodies and creeping things, and make a census of all genera and species from dinosaurs down to the AIDS virus, and make videotapes of the different versions of events as witnessed by Adam, Eve, the snake, the cherubim, and Moses. .
In its present form, History may well be considered one of the noblest constructs of the human mind..
There is, however, no hiding the awkward fact that disinterested history is not something for which we are genetically endowed, not something that comes naturally. Mankind after all has got on more or less without it for all but the tiniest fraction of its existence. Impressive numbers of us may tune in to the History Channel and can reconstruct in detail the debates of the assembly which drew up the Constitution, or the movements of Stonewall Jackson on his Valley campaign, but we have to admit that a genuine interest in the details of the distant past, except for contemporary political purposes, is as rare as a genuine interest in the details of a distant future. How many people today have the slightest idea of what their ancestors thought about the current events of a mere three hundred years ago? How many, when they hear that the earth is going to disappear when our solar system implodes a mere four billion years from now, will insist on knowing what the temperature will be like and what will happen to their bones in the process?
Even if we force ourselves to have an over-riding interest in history, there is too much of it. The most learned historian can have a firm grasp of only the tiniest percentage of what has happened in a tiny part of the globe. And for the ordinary person, with so many other things on his or her mind, history is almost inevitably a succession of more or less brightly colored figures flashing by, with only minimal connections one with the other, stray pieces of more or less well authenticated gossip.
It has become commonplace to repeat the glib axiom that if you will not learn from history you will be condemned to repeat it. The only trouble with that is that history teaches us that you can learn anything from history you want to. Statesmen and generals have often indeed picked up useful hints from their reading of the records of the past. But fairly reliable gossip tells us that they have picked up useful hints from astrologers and from the Delphic Oracle as well. And those who have made particularly keen studies of the historical past show a record of failures hardly less impressive than their successes.
When I was very young, I was taught that the greatest battle of world history had been fought at Verdun in 1916, when the French under General Pétain turned back the invading Gereman hordes, at enormous cost to both sides. Now that I am very old, I run into few people who ever heard of Verdun, and fewer who care about the details of what happened there. Even in France and Germany, where every village graveyard has fearful lists of young men killed there, you never hear the tales of the taking for Forts Vaux and Douaumont which for so many years kept patriotic hearts pounding with pride and grief. Now Vaux and Douaumont, like the war of which they were apart -- what was then called The Great War -- have sunk away into a grey area of half-memories along with the battles of the Boer War, the Vietnam War, the War of the Spanish Succession, 1066 and all that.
As it happens, I know more about Verdun than most people I know, because I once toured the battlefield and read a number of books on the subject. But outside of the names of the opposing generals (Falkenhayn, Pétain) and the fact that after six months of uninterrupted fighting and more than a million casualties the French and German armies ended up within a few yards of the lines from which they had started, it is all rather vague information. The only sharp memory I have is of a conversation with one of the last survivors of the battle, who told me how he and his comrades used to huddle at the bottom of those huge shell-holes which the outsize shells of World War I used to make, hoping that it was true what they said, that no two shells ever fell in precisely the same place, and they were cold and hungry crouching in the mud, day and night for weeks at a time, and even when the shelling quieted down, which it sometimes did at night, they could not get to sleep because all around the walls of the immense crater in which they lay were pairs and pairs, hundreds and thousands of pairs of baleful round yellow circles which were the eyes of rats, and it made them so furious to think of those rats eagerly waiting for their next meal that they would waste precious hand grenades by throwing them up against the walls just to listen to the screaming and scattering and dying of the rats.
And on a less somber note, I remember another piece of gossip (or oral history, if you prefer) the story of how the French high command, fearing that they were losing the battle for what was regarded as the key to France, decided that the only man who could turn the tide was General Pétain, who was commanding an army somewhere north of Paris. So they sent a telegram to his headquarters directing him to proceed immediately to Verdun. When the telegram arrived, there was no Pétain to receive it, he had profited from a lull in the fighting to slip down to Paris. His aide-de-camp knew exactly what to do. He took a train to Paris, got off at the Gare du Nord and began prowling the corridors of the Hotel Terminus attached to the station. Before every door was footwear neatly lined up waiting to be polished, the delicate shoes of ladies of the evening beside the massive boots of army officers and war profiteers. The aide-de-camp knew his general’s boots well. He burst into the room, handed the general his clothes, and within hours, having taken a train from the Gare de l’Est, the general was taking charge at Verdun, and France was saved from conquest by German hordes for thirty-four years.
These are only gossipy anecdotes, it is true (though they now may be
dignified by them more respectable term, “oral history.”) But, outside of specialists, that is what most of us have to rely on for our knowledge of almost all the great events of the past, even great events we consider particularly important to us. The Revolutionary War, unless you are cramming for an exam on the subject, is apt to be reduced to a vague collection of tableaux and more or less authentic phrases, The shot heard round the world, Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes, Valley Forge, Betsy Ross, Washington crossing the Delaware. Most of us have been taught at some point that General Cornwallis representing the tyrannical king of England George III surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown on Chesapeake Bay in 1781, assuring the survival for the young American republic. Only a few know or care to remember that the reason he had to surrender was that Chesapeake Bay had been occupied by the fleet of Admiral de Grasse representing the tyrannical king of France Louis XVI, And only an infinitesimal few know that -- if the historian Barbara Tuchman is correct -- the only reason de Grasse got there at all was that Admiral Rodney, the only British officer with the gumption to stop him in the West Indies and blow his ships out of the water, came down with an unbearably painful prostatitis which meant that he had to brought back to England for an unbearably painful 18th-century-type operation, and he did not recover till the campaign was over and the United States had taken a rank among the nations of the world.
Similarly every reasonably well-educated Englishman has heard of !066. But when it comes to details, he probably knows more about the operations of the mythical Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest than about those of the historical King Harold at the battle of Hastings. If he thinks of the events of 1066 at all, it is probably only in terms of a handful of colorful anecdotes.
. The curt reply for example, of King Harold of England when he was asked how much territory he would consider ceding to King Harold of Norway: “Seven feet of English ground, or as much more as he may be taller than other men.”
Or the image of the minstrel Taillefer riding up and down ahead of the French cavalry, tossing his sword in the air and catching it as he sang the Song of Roland, the national epic of medieval France.
Both these images are properly suspect to critical historians, they both come from literary works written a good while after 1066, and they are confirmed by no other sources. Mere gossip, say the historians, and they may well be right. However, doesn’t gossip like this tell us a good deal about the people who lived in the eleventh century?
And when we come to most other centuries in the long complicated past of mankind, it would be most welcome to have a single item like these to light up the dreary record... .
Given a putative million years for human habitation on earth, all that can be known about the first 994,000 of them is what can be deduced from a miscellany of broken walls and broken statues and fossilized bones, billions of beads and axes and arrowheads, and what is left of the oyster-shells in the garbage heaps outside campsites of which traces have managed, against all the odds, to survive..
The deductions can be very ingenious, and they allow reconstructions of scenes of daily life among Aurignacian reindeer hunters or megalithic monument-builders as plausible as those which paleontologists create for Jurassic dinosaurs. All well and good, but they have to be based on unverifiable assumptions about the thoughts and feelings of the axe-makers and oyster-eaters.
The more learned you are, the further you can carry those assumptions. Take, for example, Fred Hoyle, the Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, who deduced from careful measurements and mathematical calculations that Stonehenge, the mightiest of the mysterious megalithic monuments which circled the coasts of western Europe four or five thousand years ago, was an astronomical observatory designed by minds on the order of Newton's and Einstein's. It would have been capable, he said, of predicting eclipses of the sun and the moon, and when the eclipses arrived right on schedule, the astronomer-priests who had stage-managed the spectacle would naturally be admired, worshiped, richly rewarded and blindly obeyed by the multitudes. Things must have gone on very well for many centuries, the awed multitudes hauling ever larger stones over ever-larger distances to build ever more complex and imposing temple-observatories. They might have gone on indefinitely, according to Hoyle, if the priests had not failed to pursue their astronomical studies far enough. It never occurred to them that the fixed stars they spent their lives studying might not be permanently fixed and so they failed to calculate the precession of the equinoxes. The inevitable time came when they announced their eclipse, blew their trumpets, gashed their arms, howled their hymns, and while the multitudes waited in awed silence on earth, nothing happened in the heavens. The enraged multitudes thereupon slaughtered the priests and went back to a simpler way of life.
It would take only a few words of conversation recorded at the moment, a few words of gossip, to convince modern scholars that something like this could really have happened the way Hoyle says it happened. Without those words, it is easier for them to dismiss the whole dramatic scene as just one sample of the fashionable contemporary subspecies of gossip called science fiction.
But, as Hoyle himself must have known, no such words could have been recorded at Stonehenge, because those primordial Newtons and Einsteins had never learned either to write or to read.
The invention of writing – currently supposed to have taken place in Mesopotamia and the Nile and Indus Valleys in the 4th millennium BC – made possible history as we know it, a matter of who did what to whom and where and when. But the first historians had nothing to work with except what they heard from word of mouth, which in its origin had to be gossip; fickle and changeable gossip, though over the centuries it might have congealed or ossified into what is euphemistically called Tradition or Folk Memory..
Tradition or Folk Memory may of course be invaluable for telling us what people once thought had happened in the past. Thus Homer, writing about the Trojan War, which if it took place at all had taken place a good five ot so centuries before his time, had learned from previous poets the perfectly accurate fact that kings and chieftains used to ride in armored chariots. But since such chariots were obsolete in the wars of his day, he had his heroes ride out to the battlefield in chariots, like the taxis of the Marne in 1914, and then get down to fight on foot like sensible people.
As for knowing what actually happened in the past, which is what History is supposed to be about, Homer and his like are patently unreliable. There may well have been a King of Mycenae named Agamemnon, as there may have been a king of England named Arthur, or mighty Bedouin chieftains named Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but by the time the stories of their lives had settled down into a permanent accepted form, there had been so many generations of retelling, reinterpretation, forgetfulness, and propagandistic editing that it is quite fruitless to try to work back from the literary form to recreate the original gossip. Perhaps there was once a stalwart Hebrew named Samson but very few people are still ready to maintain that he slew ten thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. (Even Cecil B. DeMille was skeptical of this story, he treated it in his movie as a piece of idle gossip.)
So far as I know, the only one of the traditional epic tales which can be traced back to reputable documents is the Song of Roland, the very song with Taillefer sang for the troops at Hastings in 1066. Roland was a historical person whose name can be found in documents written less than three centuries before William the Bastard’s invasion of England, he was a prominent nobleman at the court of the emperor Charlemagne. He was in command of the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army retreating from Spain through a Pyrenean gorge in the year 778 when it was attacked by wild Basque mountaineers, who rolled down rocks the mountainsides which killed Roland and many of his men.
There must have been many surviving veterans of the Frankish army telling more or less accurate versions of this dramatic event in gossip sessions all over Charlemagne’s domains, and they have must have provided some reliable source material for the court historian Eginhard who wrote the biography of Charlemagne after his death. The biography went on to the library shelves, but the story, like any good story, was kept alive by word of mouth, taking on new colors as it went, especially after the last eye-witnesses of the event at Roncesvalles had died. For nimble-tongued monks living in the monastery which was built near the very spot of Roland’s dolorous end, it was not only a good rousing story but a pious one too, once they had changed the identity of his killers to Saracen paynim, and increased their number till they had him fighting single-handedly against a hundred thousand of them. .And it was good for the monastery too, for pilgrims to the shrine of Campostella in Spain soon got in the habit of stopping there to spend the night and listen to the tale of Roland and leave rich gifts behind.
At least the monks got the names right, and the central fact that Count Roland had been killed in a mountain pass. Most of the historical memory of most people consists of a few such details. The novelist Frank O'Connor tells in his autobiography of meeting with an old man in the west of Ireland whose grandfather knew an old man who could recall the Rising of 1798. The only specific fact the old man had retained was that the commander of the French army which tried unsuccessfully to liberate Ireland was called Osh. That is just the way General Hoche pronounced his name, and though it is hardly a significant contribution to the history of the French Revolutionary wars, it is a reminder that oral traditions transmitted by Dame Gossip need not be automatically dismissed as so much rubbish.
Once writing had been established as a vital part of human society, historians could flatter themselves that they no longer needed to depend entirely on oral authority, they had records, they had the literal facts, sometimes literally carved in stone. This did not mean that the moment of historical truth had arrived. Writing was restricted for several millennia to fairly limited areas, and, until the invention of moveable type in Germany five hundred years ago, it required expensive materials which could only be used by skilled craftsmen in the pay of a very small ruling class of kings, priests, land-owning nobles, rich merchants and high-level bureaucrats.
Such people naturally wanted their names and exploits to be carved with suitable commentary (Look on my works, ye mighty and despair!) in stone or brick to impress or terrify their contemporaries and their successors. Just as naturally they were less interested in telling the truth, which is a fairly recent construct of the human mind, than in self-assertion and self-aggrandizement, an urge for which was built into the very first human DNA cell.
Thus the written material available to pre-Gutenberg historians had to consist almost entirely of official records. Official records have some undeniable advantages, they can generally be dated, and they almost always get the spelling of the names right, but otherwise they are not necessarily an advance over the older oral traditions in the way of accuracy.
For a succinct account of how official records come into being, turn to a splendid piece of gossip told by the greatest of medieval story-tellers, the Icelander Snorri Sturluson, in his 13th century Heimksringla or History of the Kings of Norway. It concerns King Canute the Great, the same Canute who according to monkish gossip once commanded the tide to stand still:
There was a man by name Thorarin
Loftunge, an Icelander by birth, and a great
skald, who had been much with the kings and
other great chiefs. He was now with King
Canute the Great and had composed a flokk.
or short poem without refrain, in his praise.
When the king heard of this, he was very angry
and ordered him to bring the next day a drapa,
or long poem, by the time he went to table; and
if he failed to do so, said the king, “he shall be
hanged for his impudence in composing such a
small poem about King Canute.” Thorarin then
composed a refrain, which he inserted in the poem,
and also augmented it with several strophes or
King Canute rewarded him for the poem
with fifty marks of silver. The poem was called
Thorarin went on, we are told, to write many drapas about Canute the Great, and to judge by the fragments that have survived they were all boastful, one-sided and dull, like any military communique or Fortune-500 annual report today. They read much like the wall inscriptions left by Pharaohs and Great Kings in Egypt and Mesopotamia, which are our principal source for the early history of civilization. The prudent historian will approach them, like any official document from the time of Hammurabi to our own, with cautious skepticism.
Outside of such official documents, what source would the early historians have for their narratives?. They could have gossip, which was all around them, prime and living evidence of what was going on in the world. But they could not write it down, because it did not deal in the appropriately serious manner with the serious deeds of King Hammurabi or King Canute..
Yet it was always there, straining to break loose, and every so often it did break loose, to throw a sudden shaft of vivid light on the drab pages of official history.
Perhaps the earliest, certainly the brightest, of these shafts come in an unexpected place, shining in the middle of the bloodthirsty chauvinist ramblings of the books of Samuel in the Old Testament.
Instead of the timeless hieratic figures in the early books, like God, Noah, Father Abraham, Moses the Law Giver, Samson the Superman, there pop out suddenly passages dealing with what look and sound like real people facing the problems of daily life. Here is King Saul, in 1 Samuel, xx, denouncing the shameless liaison of his son Jonathan and the shepherd boy David and sounding like any modern father who discovers what his kids have been up to. “Thou son of a perverse and shameless woman, do I not know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thy own shame and the shame of thy mother's nakedness?”
By Chapter xi of the Second Book of Samuel, we come to a particularly juicy piece of what any one can recognize as gossip, the hottest gossip to come out of Jerusalem in many a year. It is worth quoting in full, as what is probably the first item of substantial and well-structured gossip ever to pass directly into an official history, as well as being a model of the gossiper’s art:.
And it came to pass in an eventide that David arose from off his bed and walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof of the house he saw a woman washing herself and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.
And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?
And David sent messengers and took her, and she came in unto him, and he lay with her, for she was purified from her uncleanness; and she returned unto her house.
And the woman conceived and told David, and said, I am with child.
And David sent to Joab saying, Send me Uriah the Hittite. And Joab sent Uriah to David. And when Uriah was come unto him, David demanded of him how Joab did, and how the people did, and how the war prospered.
And David said to Uriah, Go down to thy house and wash thy feet. And Uriah departed out of the king's house, and there followed him a mess of meat from the king.
But Uriah slept at the door of the king's house, with all the servants of his lord, and went not down to his house.
And when they told David, saying: Uriah went not down unto his house, David said unto Uriah, Camest thou not from thy journey? why didst thou not go down unto thy house?
And Uriah said unto David, The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord, which are encamped in the open fields: shall I then go unto mine house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As thou livest and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing.
And David said to Uriah, Tarry here today also, and tomorrow I will let thee depart. So Uriah abode that day in Jerusalem and the morrow. And when David called him, he did eat and drink before him and he made him drunk: and at even he went out to lie in his bed with the servants of his lord, but went not down to his house.
And it came to pass in the morning, that David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah.
And he wrote in the letter, saying: Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die. And it came to pass, when Joab observed the city, that he assigned Uriah a place where he knew that valiant men were. And the men of the city went out and fought with Joab, and there fell some of the people of the servants of David, and Uriah the Hittite died also.
Then Joab sent and told David all the things concerning the war; And charged the messenger, saying, When thou hast made an end of telling the matters of the war unto the king,
And if it be so that the king’s wrath rise, and he say unto thee, Wherefore approached ye so nigh the city when ye did fight? but knew ye not that they would shoot from the wall?
Who smote Abimelech the son of Jerubesheth? did not a woman cast a piece of millstone upon him from the wall, that he died in Thebez? why went ye so nigh the wall? then say thou, Thy servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.
So the messenger went and came and showed David all that Joab had sent him for.
And the messenger said unto David, Surely the men prevailed against us, and came out unto us unto the gate, and we were upon them even unto the entering of the gate.
And the shooters shot from off the wall upon thy servants; and some of the king's servants be dead, and thy servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also,
Then David said unto the messenger, Thus shalt thou say unto Joab, Let not this thing displease thee, for the sword devoureth one as well as another; make thy battle more strong against the city, and overthrow it; and encourage thou him.
And when the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she mourned for her husband.
And when the mourning was past, David sent and fetched her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
This fascinating and singularly unedifying episode finds its way into Holy Writ because in the next chapter this son dies, and David, after a perfunctory one-line apology (“I have sinned against the LORD”), fathers another son on Bathsheba, whose birth is celebrated by a victorious attack on Rabbah the city of waters, whose inhabitants King David “put under saws and harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brick-kiln.” This second son will grow up to seize his father’s crown in a coup d’état and become King Solomon.
Solomon is one of those majestic figures who tower far above the world of gossip (it is only we moderns, who have lost all sense of majesty, who titter over his thousand bedmates). He was credited with having built the temple which has been forever after the center around which Jewish ritual revolves, and according to the Gospel of Saint Matthew it was from Solomon that the kingship of Israel descended through twenty-seven generations to Jesus of Nazareth..
Despite all this grandeur, the story of his father’s unseemly behavior remains a rank piece of gossip, the kind of gossip we would all like to be able to produce, masterful in every way, vivid, succinct, devastating, with no intrusive comment but only action, action containing a full weight of psychological insight and moral judgment.
The question will occur to every one who no longer believes that God in Person dictated every single word of the Bible: Is it true? Did everything happen in this neat narrative time-frame, were those the actual words of David and Uriah and Joab and the messenger?
Not in a sense that would satisfy a modern court or a modern historian.. The author certainly did not have a tape recorder, and lacking all other evidence than his text, it is impossible to say whether he was an actual eyewitness, some high court official or priest, or whether he pieced together the story from interviews with guards in the king’s palace and eunuchs in the king’s harem, or simply from remarks overheard in the streets and souks of Jerusalem. He certainly did not get his information from the royal archives, for archivists know better than to write down things like this in this straightforward way. Like all kings from the beginning of royalty, King David had his publicity agents, and their handouts are spread all over the Second Book of Samuel. But not in this chapter.
In the long run there is no point in asking, any more than there is a way of finding out, if the account as written is literally true. It certainly sounds true. Vaguely similar stories have been found in the folklore of Java and of old Mexico, so some suspicious scholars have called the whole thing a myth. But it is hard to see how an identical myth could turn up both in Mexico and in Palestine among peoples who had not been in contact with each other for tens of thousands of years .And unlike most myths, there is nothing supernatural or even improbable in the actions of the various characters in this story. The idea of getting rid of an embarrassing husband by sending him off to battle is a very natural one and must have occurred to rulers fairly regularly since rulers appeared on the scene, no matter on what continent or in what millennium they lived. No one can miss the ring of authenticity in David's words. The sword devoureth one as well as another. It is the very tone of unctuous resignation you hear when your boss tells you that after twenty years of faithful service you are to be down-sized. As Dean Swift so well observed twenty-seven or so hundred years later, “When we are scourged, They kiss the rod, Resigning to the Will of God.”
Five hundred years after Bathsheba, another scandal about a naked woman was making the rounds, this time in Sardis the capital of Lydia in Asia Minor, where it was picked up by the Greek world-traveler and historian Herodotus. This is the way Herodotus tells the story of King Candaules of Lydia:
This Candaules fell in love with his own wife; and because he was in love, he thought he had in her the most beautiful of women. Now, he had a bodyguard named Gyges, the son of Dascylus, who was his chief favorite among them. Candaules used to confide all his most serious concerns to this Gyges, and of course he was forever overpraising the beauty of his wife's body to him. Some time thereafter -- for it was fated that Candaules should end ill -- he spoke to Gyges thus “Gyges, I do not think that you credit me when I tell you about the beauty of my wife; for indeed men's ears are duller agents of belief than their eyes. Contrive, then, that you see her naked.” The other made outcry against him and said, “"Master, what a sick word is this you have spoken, in bidding me look upon my mistress naked! With the laying-aside of her clothes, a woman lays aside the respect that is hers! Many are the fine things discovered by men of old, and among them this one, that each should look upon his own, only. Indeed, I believe that your wife is the most beautiful of women, and I beg of you not to demand of me what is unlawful”.
With these words he would have fought him off, being in dread that some evil should come to himself out of these things, but the other answered him and said:”"Be of good heart, Gyges, and fear neither myself, lest I might suggest this as a trial of you, nor yet my wife, that some hurt might befall you from her. For my part, I will contrive it entirely that she will not know where she has been seen by you. For I will place you in the room where we sleep, behind the open door. After my coming-in, my wife will come to her bed. There is a chair that stands near the entrance. On this she will lay her clothes, one by one, as she takes them off and so will give you full leisure to view her. But when she goes from the chair to the bed and you are behind her, let you heed then that she does not see you go through the door.”
Inasmuch, then, as Gyges was unable to avoid it, he was ready. Candaules, when he judged the hour to retire had come, led Gyges into his bedroom; and afterwards his wife, too, came in at once; and, as she came in and laid her clothes aside, Gyges viewed her. When she went to the bed and Gyges was behind her, he slipped out -- but the woman saw him as he was going through the door. She understood then what had been done by her husband, and though she was so shamed, she raised no outcry nor let on to have understood, having in mind to take punishment on Candaules. For among the Lydians and indeed among the generality of the barbarians, for even a man to be seen naked is an occasion of great shame.
So for that time she showed nothing but held her peace. But when the day dawned, she made ready such of her household servants as she saw were most loyal to her and sent for Gyges. He gave never a thought to her knowing anything of what had happened and came on her summons, since he had been wont before this, also, to come in attendance whenever the queen should call him. As Gyges appeared, the woman said to him: “Gyges, there are two roads before you, and I give you your choice which you will travel. Either you kill Candaules and take me and the kingship of the Lydians, or you must yourself die straightway, as you are, that you may not, in days to come, obey Candaules in everything and look on what you ought not. For either he that contrived this must die or you, who have viewed me naked and done what is not lawful.” For a while Gyges was in amazement at her words, but then he besought her not to bind him to the necessity of such a choice. But he did not persuade her -- only saw that necessity truly lay before him: either to kill his master or himself be killed by others. So he chose his own survival. Then he spoke to her and asked her further: “Since you force me to kill my master, all unwilling, let me hear from you in what way we shall attack him.” She answered and said: “The attack on him shall be made from the self-same place whence he showed me to you naked, and it is when he is sleeping that you shall attack him.”
So they prepared their plot, and, as night came on -- for there was no going back for Gyges, nor any riddance of the matter but that either himself or Candaules must die -- he followed the woman into the bedroom. She gave him a dagger and hid him behind the very door. And after that, as Candaules was taking his rest, Gyges slipped out and killed him, and so it was that he, Gyges, had the wife and the kingship of Lydia. Archilochos of Paros, who lived at the same time, made mention of him in a poem of iambic trimeters.
There is a certain similarity in the stories of David and Candaules. They are both sensational pieces of gossip about very important people, they are both presented with the authority of someone who had either actually seen the events or talked to someone who had, they are both written in a vivid narrative style with an eye for sharp physical and psychological detail. But you cannot help noticing a difference of tone between Herodotus and the author of 2 Samuel. The older account is statelier and more impressive throughout, the sordid details are stated with a kind of rhythmic eloquence. This is not because David was any more noble a person than Candaules, but because story-teller and audience in his day had been brought up in a world where traditional tales were endlessly repeated and their formal patterns naturally carried over into daily speech. Herodotus knew the old myths by heart and could quote the Delphic Oracle on any occasion, but the tone of his own voice is much more modern, his is the down-to-earth straightforward talk of the cosmopolitan marketplace, the honest prose of any gossip you might pick up today in the bar of any Hilton hotel about a movie producer or the king of Saudi Arabia.
And as with such gossip, you have to consider the source. The more you look at Herodotus’s tale, the fishier it gets. It is certainly not based on an eye-witness account -- which of the two surviving participants would have any conceivable interest in spilling these particular beans? -- and the speeches are too pat, they are newspaper prose, not the living language of David and Uriah, But with all its short-comings it marks a giant advance in the art of gossiping, for it jumps out of the narrow tribal world of the past to the cosmopolitan world of the global market which was just beginning to emerge in Herodotus’s day. Here he is, a Greek, and he is telling stories about Lydians, the very Lydians whose attacks on Greek coastal cities in Asia Minor started the great war between East and West which Herodotus and so many of his successors to this day have regarded as the central theme of human history.
Nobody, so far as I know, had done anything like this before. Of any ancient pre-Herodotean historian, it might be said what Evelyn Waugh said of one of his dotty aristocratic characters, that “his researches, though profound, were narrow, being concerned solely with his own genealogy.”
Primitive historians were concerned with nobody except themselves, their own people, their own ancestors. Observe the early books of the Old Testament, in which neither man nor God has anything except an occasional pejorative word to say about any of the scores of peoples alongside whom the Israelites pitched their tents. The Philistines, to take the most glaring example, were a people who lived in Palestine (to which they gave their name) for hundreds of years in intimate contact with the Hebrews, sometimes in peace, sometimes at war, on one occasion even inter-marrying with deplorable results (Samson-Delilah). They are mentioned scores of times, in book after book and in chapter after chapter, yet all you will learn of their way of life is that they were uncircumcised, that they worshiped a fish-god and that they were more skilled in metal-work than their backward Israelite neighbors.
Such disinterest in outsiders is not a racial peculiarity of the authors of the books of Samuel, Judges and First Kings. Jews are often accused of exclusiveness, but I am sure that if a Philistine equivalent o f the Old Testament were to be dug up tomorrow in the Gaza Strip it would be found to contain even less information about the ancient Israelites. To each his own.
Herodotus had none of the techniques worked out by modern historians for finding the kernel of fact, or probable fact, under the covering of forgeries, fancies and misunderstandings which inevitably gather around it in passing from gossip to gossip. He was quite aware of the difficulty, and he frankly confessed that he didn't believe half of the stories he picked up on his extensive travels. He had only his sturdy common sense to guide him. It sometimes allowed him to swallow stories like that of the great sea battle of Salamis, which for a while was being won by the Persian navy but which turned in favor of the good side when “a phantom of a woman appeared and shouted her commands loud enough for all the Greek camp to hear, taunting them with the words, ‘You crazy Greeks, how long will you continue backing water?’" You may consider this a piece of old-fashioned credulity but, in our own century, we have seen an angel save the British Expeditionary Force at Mons in the Belgium in 1914 and the prophet Mohammed stiffening the resistance of Saddam Hussein by appearing at his bedside during the mother of battles in 1990.
Herodotus apparently believed, quite sensibly, that even untrue stories can be valuable to the historian because they show what people were talking and thinking about, what was uppermost in their minds. As an example of a particularly irresponsible piece of gossip, he cites the talk of Phoenician sailors who claimed to have seen the sun to starboard at noon when they were sailing westward. We can only guess what he would have thought if some lunatic had foretold that one day scholars would be treating this gossip as a historical fact of the first magnitude, since it confirms that Hanno the Phoenician in the service of the Pharaoh Necho of the twenty-first Egyptian dynasty, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to circumnavigate Africa twenty-one centuries before Vasco da Gama.
Herodotus, who has been called both the Father of History and the father of Lies, deserves at least to be called the father of the gossiparian history, a discipline unrecognized in our universities but which has done more than anything else to get ordinary unlearned readers interested in the past of all mankind..
Not one of these ordinary readers feels the need to cast more than a glance over the careers of Assur-bani-pal and the three Tiglath-Pilesers, great kings of Assyria, because all that is known of hem comes from the inscriptions put up at their own expense to detail all their mighty and monotonous acts of violence. All literate people for many centuries, on the other hand, have happily shared in the life of imperial Rome because they have read, or heard at second hand, the gossip collected by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus who was a court official in the second century AD. This was a time of general peace and prosperity when, in Melville's words “A gentleman sat on the throne of Rome,” and a spirit of liberal toleration allowed a good deal of irreverent and defamatory material to seep into the formal prose of Latin history, which up till then had been uniquely concerned with grinding out patriotic propaganda.
Suetonius was, in intellect and literary style, notoriously inferior to his contemporary Tacitus, but he had a better eye for the picturesque revelatory detail and the tart gossipy anecdote. When Tacitus comes across the sins of an emperor, he thunders his indignation. Suetonius is too occupied, like any bar-room gossip, in telling a good story to find time for moral judgments. The structure of his Lives of the XII Caesars could hardly be simpler. First he summarizes the official acts of the emperor he is dealing with, his battles, his laws, his diplomacy, his building programs and so on. Then he empties a grab-bag of backstairs tittle-tattle about his personal life. He uses the gossiper's immemorial privilege of mixing public and private affairs indiscriminately, treating matters big and small in much the same tone. What he likes is lively action, human interest, breathing sweating fornicating emperors and not marble statues.
And so we have one unforgettable snapshot after another: the soldiers of Julius Caesar singing a ribald song during their campaigns in Asia Minor about the close relationship between their general and the King of Bithynia ("Was he husband? Was he wife?"); abstemious Augustus boasting that he could fast better than any Jew; dour Tiberius commissioning a painting of Hera Queen of the Gods coming down on Zeus to decorate the wall beside the imperial bed; mad Caligula inviting a crowd of people to see him dedicate a bridge at Pozzuoli and then having them pushed into the water so that he could see and hear them drown; Nero, founder and patron saint of the cult of self-expression which flourishes to this day, barring the gates of the theater so that no one, not even women in childbirth, could walk out on him while he played his lyre on stage and sang his prize-winning songs; the stern disciplinarian Vespasian cashiering a young officer who came into his presence stinking of perfume, with the remark, “I should not have minded so much had it been garlic.”
Solemn critics regard these as bits of superficial froth, a waste of good papyrus that might have been better used for an analysis of the latifundia system of land management or the flight of hard currency to India which was sapping the financial stability of the Roman empire. Less solemn critics might argue that it is rewarding as well as amusing to know facts like these. Perhaps the fact that soldiers under the crushing discipline of the Roman legions could feel free to sing songs like the one about their general’s dealings with the king of Bithynia helps to explain why it was the armies of the Romans and not of Assur-bani-pal which conquered the earth.
Suetonius being a Classic author gave official sanction to what has become a thriving industry, of revealing the dark and dirty underside of the lives of the rich and famous. The all-time champion in this domain was another Roman court official who lived four centuries after Suetonius. This was Procopius, who provides a perhaps unique example of a single pen producing both the official record and the idle chatter. He had a high post in the civil service during the reign of Justinian the Great, and wrote a number of books, of which three have survived. Two of them describe with proper respect the achievements of a wise and beneficent emperor and his equally admirable consort, the empress Theodora. Between these two, he wrote another, generally known as the Secret History which draws a very different picture of the imperial spouses. They were, he says, a pair of bloodthirsty demons. The great Justinian was cruel, crafty, hypocritical, “with no more sense than a donkey.” As for the pious Theodora, founder of homes for reformed prostitutes, she was, according to Procopius’s informants, a circus manager's daughter who grew up to be a dancing-girl parading naked on the stages of Constantinople, an itinerant whore who sold herself to any moneyed male from Illyria to Syria; a vain sadistic hag who delighted in torturing or dismembering any one who might have offended her; a nymphomaniac who loudly regretted that nature had not provided enough orifices in the female body to satisfy her lusts; a crafty bawd who acted as go-between in the adulterous love-affair of her friendly rival Antonina, wife of the great general Belisarius, with the sinister scamp known as the Monk of Ephesus.
Which of the two versions is to be believed? The deeds recorded by Procopius I the court official -- Justinian's victorious wars which doubled the size of the empire, the architectural masterpieces which he built including Santa Sophia greatest of churches, the church councils he summoned which shaped Christian dogma for the succeeding centuries, his codification of the Roman law which still holds sway in part of the world a millennium and a half later -- can all be confirmed from other sources. The monstrous vices of Justinian and Theodora can only be found in the pages of Procopius II the court gossip. Of these Edward Gibbon says in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “A part may be true because probable, and part true because improbable. Procopius must have known the former, and the latter he could scarcely invent.”
This argues a streak of amazing naiveté in the great historian. However, great historians are human too, and it is only human to believe unflattering tales of our superiors in preference to flattering ones. We all have episodes in our past which we would give anything not to see exposed in all their naked frailty to the cruel prying eyes of the world. Why should not other people, especially the big self-assured people who run the world, have similar or even worse secrets in their past? If nothing else, it makes them seem more human, more like us.
Nevertheless, it is hard to see why historians like Gibbon, who share the common disdain of serious folk for Dame Gossip, have lent such an indulgent ear to Procopius II. Here are some of the things which Gibbon says he could not have invented:
:”Some of those who were in the Emperor's company late at night, conversing with him -- men of the highest possible character -- thought that they saw a strange demonic form in his place. One of them declared that he more than once rose suddenly from the imperial throne and walked round and round the room, for he was not in the habit of remaining seated for long. And Justinian's head would momentarily disappear, while the rest of his body seemed to continue making these long circuits. The watcher himself, thinking that something had gone seriously wrong with his eyesight, stood for a long time distressed and quite at a loss. But later the head returned to the body...A second man said that he stood by the Emperor's side as he sat, and saw his face suddenly transformed to a shapeless lump of flesh; neither eyebrows nor eyes were in their normal position, and it showed no other distinguishing features at all; gradually, however, he saw the face return to its usual shape.”
And here is Theodora in action:
“Often she would go to a dinner party with ten young men or more, all at the peak of their physical powers and with fornication as their chief object in life, and would lie with all her fellow-diners in turn the whole night long; when she had reduced them all to a state of exhaustion, she would go to their menials, as many as thirty on occasion, and copulate with every one of them; but not even so could she satisfy her lust.”
“Sooner could one number all the sands than the hosts of men destroyed by this potentate. But making a rough estimate, I suggest that ten thousand times ten thousand times ten thousand lost their lives.”
That is to say, ten trillion. Procopius's apologists (he was, says Robert Graves, a “well-informed judicious writer") like to point out that classical writers had no concern for mundane accuracy and never meant the figures they cite to be taken literally, they simply wrote “ten thousand” because it sounded better than “very many.”. But even allowing that a ten-thousand-fold exaggeration might be forgiven a man in state of high moral indignation, we are still left with a figure greater than the population of the earth in Justinian's time and considerably grater than the number of people killed by Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot in our century with all the resources of modern technology behind them.
The mathematics in the case of Theodora's dinner parties is even more dubious. Given a working night of eight hours, and allowing ten minutes in every hour for eating drinking gossiping and other natural functions, Procopius leaves the Empress less than fifteen minutes to reduce each of forty-odd vigorous young men to a state of helpless exhaustion. To any sober observer this is a feat that calls for more supernatural powers than walking around a room without a head, which might be within the capacities of any skilled parlor magician.
Yet a rationalist like Gibbon never thought of applying rational rules to this case. He disapproved of gossip as much as any one, but like any one, he was ready to uncritically lap up gossip that reinforced his prejudices. He hated despots and religious fanatics, Justinian was both, therefore anything said against him was bound to be true.
Procopius probably had no strong political feelings one way or the other. He wrote this book when Justinian was over sixty years old, a very advanced age for a Roman emperor, and it must have seemed probable that he would be carried off any day by a fever or an assassin's dagger. On that day his successor would be ready to heap rich rewards on the author who could lay all the blame for the empire's woes on the shoulders of dead Justinian. When the emperor stubbornly refused to die -- he lived on past eighty, an absolute record -- there was no political capital to be gained from maligning him, and he appears in Procopius's last book as a benefactor of mankind, with his noble head firmly fixed on his shoulders. And Procopius presumably went on contentedly collecting his salary and his bribes till he was ready to retire. Dame Gossip is an eternal trimmer, and the one thing she will never do is to sacrifice herself for a noble cause.
Chroniclers and historians, like literary people in general, like Dame Gossip herself, dearly love a lord, and so while library shelves are full of romantic or unsavory anecdotes about popes and duchesses, they contain very little material about the common folk of olden days. Very rarely you may get a glimpse of a small businessman like saint Peter going about his business of fishing with his hired servant, or peek inside a peasant’s house as when King Alfred the Great has to hide in one and the housewife orders him to bake her some cakes. The very poor, the wretched of the earth, who until modern times made up all but the totality of mankind, only appear when a kindly upper-class person takes notice of them, as when Saint Martin gives half his cloak to a naked beggar.
Lower-class people might be allowed to show up on the stage of history as irresponsible mobs, but no historian was going to use expensive vellum and ink to take accurate notes of what they were saying among themselves. This was not a matter of mere snobbery. Historians after all write to be read, and what literate reader would want to hear about the vast undifferentiated mass of the poor who spend every day of their lives scratching a pitiful subsistence out of the same narrow fields or driving same old sheep over the same old hills, when there are much more interesting and important people around like Alexander the Great killing tens of thousands and creating empires? The poor by definition were illiterate, but it is certain that they gossiped among themselves, about themselves, and every so often some fragment of it shows up in ancient parchments.
As in this record of an early 16 th century trial in England, unearthed by
Jeremy Goldberg in Women, Work and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy, of one
“unmarried, the daughter of John Ryding of Eton in the diocese of Lincoln, [who] appeared in court and confessed that she conceived a boy child by one Thomas Denys, then chaplain to Master Geoffrey Wren, and gave birth to him at her father’s home in Eton one Sunday last month, and immediately after giving birth killed the child by putting her hand in the baby’s mouth and so suffocated him. After she had killed the child she buried it in a dung heap in her father’s orchard. At the time of the delivery she had no midwife and nobody was ever told as such that she was pregnant, but Alice always denied this saying that something else was wrong with her belly. On the Tuesday after the delivery of the child, however, the women and honest wives of Windsor and Eton took her and inspected her belly and her breasts by which they knew for certain that she had given birth.”
It is easy to reconstruct from the formal 16th-century legal prose the chain of chatter among the honest wives which had surrounded poor Alice for all those months and led her to the hall of judgment,.
But we have few other details on what life was like in Windsor and Eton in those days. So far as I know, there is no complete record of ordinary life in any ancient or medieval town of village, except for one, and that has survived only through a series of historical accidents
, . In the early years of the fourteenth century, the Inquisition had the whole adult population of the village of Montaillou, in the foothills of the Pyrenees in what was then the County of Foix and is now in the department of the Ariège in France, arrested, and kept for years in detention, under interrogation to find out if they were heretics or had any connection with heretics. (Heresy in those days was what treason is for us now, the ultimate, the unforgivable, crime.)
Montaillou was an insignificant boondock with no more than 250 inhabitants painfully scratching a life out of stony soil much as their ancestors had been doing since neolithic times and as their descendants were to go on doing till well into the twentieth century. They shared their filthy houses with their animals. The village had no paved street, no running water, no strategic or economic importance, none of its inhabitants had ever made or would ever make a name in the world. Its contribution to the gross national product of the county of Foix or of France was, and remains to this day, close to zero.
Their interrogator, Jacques Fournier, was, on the other hand, a very important and very serious personage, he was a high ecclesiastical official, Bishop of Pamiers, in charge among other things of the huge police apparatus of the Inquisition, God’s first line of defense against the Devil, who was very active in those regions in the 14th century. Bishop Fournier was a power in the courts of counts and kings and popes. Yet he was perfectly willing to labor for a good part of eight years, and spend no fewer than 370 working days with appalling dedication and efficiency questioning the villagers of Montaillou and getting the truth out of them for the good of their souls and the greater glory of God.
The official record of his enquiries filled three folio volumes, and they have made 14th-century Montaillou probably the most thoroughly known village of the whole human past. Being written down, and written down in the official setting of a courtroom of the Holy Inquisition in the presence of uniformed officials with a torture-chamber close by, means the information they contain can not, technically speaking, be called gossip. But lacking audio tapes of hearthside conversations, they are as close as we will ever come to getting a genuine account of what 14th-century peasant families talked about, fought about, how they lived from day to day. The records are in Latin translation, but the villagers and the bishop spoke the same language, occitan, which all the inhabitants of that part of France spoke until universal military conscription and public education forced them to learn the language of Paris in the 19th century. And the bishop came from the same stock as his unfortunate flock, he had cousins in Montaillou itself and he knew all the ruses and devious turnings of the peasant mentality. He draws the truth out of us like lambs from their mother, said the villagers.
The truth he was after was that all the villagers, actively or passively, were supporters of the Cathar heresy, had been for years. The reason the Inquisition had taken so long to find out about it was that the person responsible for keeping the Inquisition informed was the parish priest of Montaillou, Pierre Clergue, and he was a heretic himself.
The essence of the Cathar faith was that this world is a hopelessly wicked place and that ordinary people may do whatever they like in it, so long as certain devoted ascetic souls known as parfaits or bonshommes hold sin at bay by their holiness. The bishop needed evidence that parfaits had visited the village in secret to spread their horrid message and had been entertained in village households, and he got testimony such as that of Vuissane Testanière, servant girl to Bernard Belot.
Vuissane got curious one night about what was going on in a new room Bernard had added on to his house. She slipped out into the yard, climbed a dung heap and saw her master's brother in deep conversation with two men, one of whom she recognized as the well-known heretic Guillaume Authié. When a passerby asked what she was doing out there, she explained that she was looking for the pad she had mislaid, the pad which every woman in the village wore on her head when she went to fetch water from the well.
From witnesses like Vuissane, Bishop Fournier got all he wanted to know about what the local heretics were up to, and 20th century readers have acquired an extraordinarily detailed insight into the habits and feelings of 14th-century peasants. They can learn how much it cost to buy a sheep, or to hire two professional killers from Catalonia to get rid of an enemy, or what to do for getting rid of unwanted babies. They can follow the dogged amours of Father Clergue, and his numerous concubines, how he would periodically waylay a female parishioner and say, “I love you more than any woman in the world,” and generally that was all he needed to say. When one woman proved recalcitrant and threatened to denounce him, he had his brother the bailiff cut her tongue out.
All the village intrigues are here, the long-lived family feuds over skimpy inheritances and a few square feet of unfertile land. So are all the spicy bits of village gossip. Blanche Marty testifies that she came one day unannounced into the room of the parfait Guillaume Bélibaste who claimed to be living in perfect chastity with a female disciple named Raymonde. She “found them in bed, Guillaume with his knees bent as if he was about to know Raymonde carnally. When Guillaume noticed me, he cried, 'You bastard, you just interrupted an act of the Holy Church.'”
The historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie a few years ago analyzed the volumes of Bishop Fournier's interrogations, which he compared to what Inspector Maigret might have done if he had lived in the 14th century, and he wrote a best-selling book on the subject. Some of his colleagues reproached him for wasting his time with all these trivialities which are no more significant than anything you can pick up in a French village café today. The same reproach was perhaps made of Bishop Fournier, and he did go on after he was through with Montaillou to activities which his world must have considered far more important. Whether or not he deserved Edward Gibbon's characterization of him as “a dull peasant, perplexed with scruples, and immersed in sloth and wine,” he did leave his mark on the official history of his time. He was elected Pope under the name of Benedict XII, he started the construction of the Palace of the Popes at Avignon, and he is said to have added the third crown to the papal tiara. According to the poet Plutarch, his devotion to the bottle inspired the traditional phrase used by serious drinkers in all Christian Europe in the latter days of the Middle Ages, Bibamus papaliter, let’s drink like a pope. All the dirt he laboriously dug up in Montaillou may not seem very impressive to modern historians interested in identifying the main currents of medieval socio-economic life. Still, they would do well to admit that Bishop Fournier was doing an act of the Holy Church when he put all those wretched villagers Montaillou through his inquisitorial wringer. History that leaves out the homely commonplace events he recorded is not only duller than it need be, it tends to falsify the reality of the life of the past which is after all the job of the historian to recreate. If you are only interested in the great tides and sweeps of human events, you tend to get a little impatient with the people who form your subject matter.
Great things were going on in the 14th century, as you can learn in any standard textbook: the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, the Great Schism, the rise of Nominalism in the schools, the birth-pangs of the nation-state, the rise of capitalist production in the textile industry of Flanders. Why did the people of Montaillou never talk about all these great things? Because, like people of all other times and places they found it more natural to devote most of their attention to themselves and the things going on in their immediate vicinity.
Perhaps that is why the world never seems to move quite fast enough or rationally enough for the historians. If they paid more attention to gossip, they might have a better understanding of why things move in the choppy unsatisfactory way they do.
They see the world entering an Iron Age or an Atomic Age with momentous consequences which will echo down the ages, and they expect people to change their habits, think differently and act differently overnight. Dame Gossip knows better, she knows that people will go on talking about their same old petty quotidian concerns, and the historian who listens will be better off.
In the 15tth-century Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India, and everyone knew that this meant there was now a new cheap way of getting pepper to Europe, where it was badly needed to preserve meat in the days before refrigeration, and that this in the long run meant the ruin of Venice, which had become the richest city on the world because of its monopoly of the overland trade routes to the pepper-growing lands of Asia. “Everyone” meant the small minority of the population which carefully followed daily price movements on the market-place, notably the speculators who picked up gossip about Vasco da Gama’s voyage circulating on the Rialto and rushed to get rid of their pepper holdings before the price collapsed. It did not include the people of Venice in general, who were to go on enriching the history and gossip of the world for three hundred years before the full effects of the collapse in the price of pepper worked their way out, and the Queen of the Adriatic sank to becoming a museum. If a historian had been able to record all the conversations of the people of Venice during that time, he probably would have found little talk about the price of pepper, as compared to such less important topics as who was the latest prisoner to pass over the Bridge of Sighs, or tales like that of the monk immortalized by Boccaccio who seduced a lady by appearing to her disguised as the angel Gabriel. It is probably just as well. If they had known they were doomed, Titian and Tintoretto, Vivaldi and Goldoni and Casanova might never have bothered to do what they did, and the world would be that much the worse off. Gossip, conventionally seen as a subversive force which keeps people’s minds off the important events of history can be seen as a great stabilizer of society..
And, with the heightened respect for the lower orders, as people and not as objects of charity, born out of the 18th-century Enlightenment, historians have begun to treat gossip with a certain respect, at least to the extent of collecting the enormous masses of it which have, with the advent of the printing press and cheap paper, become increasingly available.
Naturally, historians are not going to trust it the way they do parchments and cylinder seals and bills of lading. People do gossip about historical subjects even if they rarely use terms like Iron Age or Industrial Revolution, but their standards of accuracy will rarely bear examination. Because they are ordinary people with plenty of ordinary things on their mind, they tend to see historical events the way they would see the drug bust down the street, in simple dramatic frameworks, they have no time for ambiguities and footnotes, they like simplified summaries, simplified phrases, what are known today as sound-bites.
The professionals like nothing better than to spend valuable time proving that these sound-bites have little or no basis in fact.
Picayune scholars are always demonstrating that famous remarks ascribed to historical figures were either made up by somebody else or are only refined and edited versions of what was actually said. They have proved that Richard III did not say, My kingdom for a horse, that Yogi Berra did not say, It's deja vu all over again.
These scholars miss the point. It is as often as not the edited and refined version which provides the historical truth.
On the day in 1515 when King François I of France lost his whole army and was taken prisoner at Pavia, he sat down in the tent of his captor and wrote a letter to his mother to explain what had happened, a long letter rambling through the overgrown thickets of 16th-century prose. By the time the gossips at the court in Fontainebleau had got through reading it and commenting on it among themselves, it had been pared down to a single phrase, All is lost but honor. This is exactly what king François meant to say, and, in a practical sense, did say. It is too much to expect of a man exhausted by a full day of fighting, burning with shame and covered with blood and powder and sweat, whose life has just fallen in ruins around him, that he will turn out a well-crafted literary document on the spur of the moment. François’ manuscript letter remains safe and unread in the archives of the French state. The gossipers’ summary of it, the one phrase, All is lost but honor, has been repeated ever since, in history books and school books, and survives as a concentrated expression of the character of the man and of the whole aristocratic warrior culture he embodied; just as Leo Durocher summed up another more plebeian culture when he said, or did not say, Nice guys finish last.