Mapping the Medieval World

Written by: Tristan Craig.

Engraved on a clay tablet and labelled with cuneiform script, the sixth century BCE Babylonian Imago Mundi or ‘image of the world’ is one of the oldest examples of cartography known to exist. Its depiction of the Mesopotamian Empire, with land and ocean masses carefully rendered on its surface, illustrates both the interest in geographical enquiry and limitations of global exploration for this ancient civilisation. This small tablet, having suffered a great amount of damage in the last three millennia, also exemplifies the complexities of attempting to understand an archaic worldview. By the Middle Ages, cartographic practices showed increasing scope and refinement due to expansions in world trade, however there remained a large disparity between maps which attempted to depict an accurate world view and those which served a predominantly ecclesiastical purpose. 

Image result for imago mundi"
Imago Mundi

Whilst the modern geographic map attempts to render topographical features in a manner as accurate as possible, cartography in the Middle Ages was less concerned with depicting physical space as it was abstract beliefs. As Christianity gained traction in the West, so too did ways of glorifying the omnipresence of God, with mappae mundi (‘world maps’) created to centralise the church on a global plane. The T-O format of map production – so called because of the T shaped bodies of water intersecting the landmasses of a disc shaped earth – was popular in the medieval period. In a tradition which originated toward the end of the Roman Empire, these depict a tripartite Earth with the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa divided accordingly. Little was known of the antipodean landscape, presumed habitable only by beasts and monstrous creatures. The only completely surviving example of this medieval mapping tradition is the late thirteenth-century Hereford Map, named after the cathedral in which it is interred. With Jerusalem placed prominently in the centre and the biblical land of Paradise in the northernmost reaches, the emphasis in this mappa mundi is on the placement of Christianity in the medieval world. Whilst the inclusion of landmarks and terrain suggests at least some knowledge of global geography, its primary function as tool for teaching Christian doctrine is evidenced by its centring of the faith.

Image result for hereford map"
Hereford Map

Despite their commonality, the tripartite map was not the sole format used in the Middle Ages, however; beyond the realm of Christianity, cartographic practice on occasion showed a far greater attention to geographical precision. Bearing a closer resemblance to the modern atlas, Moroccan cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi created a series of illustrations under the patronage of King Roger II of Sicily which, when combined, formed an entire world view. The resulting world map and accompanying text was entitled the Nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq or Tabula Rogeriana (‘Map of Roger’) and, despite being created over a century prior to the Hereford Map, is remarkable in its accuracy. Drawing upon his own journey from North Africa to the Mediterranean, evidence shows that al-Idrisi was well versed in creating portolan charts – maps depicting sailing directions and naval trade routes – and his seafaring knowledge is clearly represented in the Tabula Rogeriana. Each important town or city is indicated by a brown circle, the majority of which are located along the Arabian Peninsula and southern Europe in correlation with al-Idrisi’s own travels. 

Particularly striking is the south-up presentation of the map which was common in early Islamic cartography, before what is now considered ‘north’ became the accepted standard. The dichotomy between north and south, and their representation in early maps, is indicative of the role the map played in representing religious and political power struggles. Similarly, the prominence of the Italian peninsula in the Tabula Rogeriana, with its multitude of coastal trading hubs, may have been included to appease the commissioner of the work: the King of Sicily. To that end, the map also serves to tell us a great deal about the relationship between al-Idrisi and Roger II, a Muslim Arab scholar and a Christian monarch, in actualising this geographical work. Muhammad al-Idrisi himself hailed from Moroccan nobility with his aristocratic lineage having the potential to benefit the expansive aspirations of the Sicilian king. Incidentally, the map includes little about inland territories, further suggesting its purpose as a type of portolan chart. That it was created over a period of fifteen years, with frequent discussion held over its accuracy, denotes the attention to detail paid by al-Idrisi – in sharp contrast to the far more symbolic Hereford Map.

Tabula Rogeriana

Developing a nuanced understanding of the work rests largely on interpretation of the extant copies, however al-Idrisi’s map falls foul of a problem commonly facing medievalists. Unfortunately, as with the majority of manuscripts from the High Middle Ages, the original book containing al-Idrisi’s maps and an engraved silver disc commissioned by Roger II have since been lost. Two extant manuscript copies of the Tabula Rogeriana are currently housed in the Bodleian Library, one of which dates from 1553 CE and contains his complete work. More recently, a 1929 facsimile was created by Konrad Miller to depict how al-Idrisi’s original illustrations would have looked when combined to create an entire world view as intended. Even when objects – such as the sixth century BCE Imago Mundi – have survived millennia, their condition can present a plethora of problems, from analysing the map to ensuring its subsequent preservation. The intricate mappae mundi of the High Medieval Period existed as unique works of art. Fortunately, the existence of manuscript copies of al-Idrisi’s map allow the modern historian to view it how it would have appeared in lieu of the original.

As navigational tools, medieval maps are largely limited in their accuracy. Although global knowledge expanded as trade routes increased throughout the period, the influence of both ecclesiastical and secular politics infiltrated the development of map making. From the power of religious veneration to the prominence of mercantile activity in particular territories, maps tell us as much about the personal beliefs of the individual creating them as they do geographical information. Perhaps the most striking revelation of Muhammad al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana is not just in his accurate depicting of physical space but in the extent of global travel and cultural exchange in the twelfth century. It is vital that the modern historian observe the medieval map not just as an artefact judged on what it renders but as a product of an individual and the society in which they lived.


Ahmad, S. Maqbul. “Cartography of al-Sharīf al-Idrīsī,” in The History of Cartography Vol. 2 Book 1: Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies, ed. J.B. Harley and David Woodward (Chicago, 1992).

Black, Jeremy. Maps and Politics (London, 2000).

Edson, Evelyn. The World Map, 1300-1492: The Persistence of Tradition and Transformation (Baltimore, 2011).

Hartnell, Jack. Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages (London, 2018).

Vernet-Ginés, J. “The Maghreb Chart in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana,” Imago Mundi 16 (1962): 1-16.

Maroon State: Slave community and resistance in Palmares, Brazil

Written by: Jack Bennett.

The emergence of Palmares, a quilombo – or community of self-liberated slaves – as a political and social reality in the Brazilian heartland between 1605 and 1695, posed a threat to the colonial order in the region through overt, subversive resistance. This alternative African state faced numerous military campaigns against it and remained unrecognised by Portuguese and Dutch colonial authorities throughout the seventeenth century. This was due to the colonial perspective that Palmares posed a corrupting threat to order and stability, with multiple alliances forming between the Crowns of Portugal, the Netherlands, and slave traders in an attempt to suppress and destroy the community. The quilombo was led by Ganga Zumba, and oversaw the emergence of a proto-metropole which had a sophisticated legal and bureaucratic structure and a population of some ten thousand formerly enslaved people. This removal of colonial bondage allowed for an element of autonomous freedom, in an Atlantic World of colonial domination, control, and slave trading. 

Crucially, what the emergence of Palmares reveals is the importance of Afro-Brazilian solidarity and resistance in identity formation, fights for independence and liberty, and the development of an anti-racist and anti-colonial dogma. With fifteen thousand slaves arriving in Brazil from Angola between 1620 and 1623, Thornton (1998) argues that African culture and kinship was not a fixed system, but one of multiple possibilities, continuing, accommodating and adapting to rapid change under colonial rule in Latin America. This was achieved through the transferal of a variety of African social and political forms across the Atlantic, that allowed for the assimilation of different African ethnicities and groups into socio-economic communities of predominantly former enslaved Africans that would endure under colonial pressures for almost a century. Moreover, Mintz and Price (1992) argue that when this heterogeneous population became a homogenous enslaved African population, differences in status overlapped with differences in culture, bridged by the shared condition of enslavement, facilitating the creation of new institutions; a culture defined by constant internal and external dynamism. This highlights the importance of change rather than simple, passive or static processes of cultural retention between Africa and the Americas. 

These rustic black republics reveal the dream of a social order founded on fraternal equality, and for this reason are incorporated into the revolutionary tradition of the Brazilian people. Parallels can be illustrated between defensive and insular African communities resisting the actions of slave traders, and formerly enslaved quilombo communities resisting colonial power in Brazil. For instance, infra-structurally, Palmares utilised the pitfalls and caltrops found in Buraco de Tatu as people from Angola used palisades. During the seventeenth century, the territory the Portuguese called Angola was disrupted by factors that included: the pressure of the Portuguese slave trade and occupation of the coast; the collapse of states such as the Kingdom of the Kongo to the north; and invasions, principally from the northeast. The people of central Angola responded by coalescing under the name Imbangala. Interestingly, the nascent Imbangala states gathered together diverse groups of people in a community without lineage. Since these communities existed in conditions of military conflict and political upheaval, they found in the institution of the Kilombo a unifying structure suitable for a people under constant military alert – these entrenched Angolan wars fed the Brazilian slave trade. This determined a distinctly African polity in Brazil, defined by confederation, tributary relations, and cross-lineage relations. The flexibility of the institution of the Kilombo as a mechanism for integrating a community without institutionalised lineage engaged in warfare and self-defence, as was Palmares, explains why some adaptation of the Imbangala institution would thrive in Brazil, even if only a minority of Palmares’s inhabitants were actually of Imbangala origin.

Military threats, challenges, and incursions shaped the very existence of Palmares during this period. Following a large influx of enslaved people during the 1630s as a consequence of the Dutch invasion of north-eastern Brazil, campaigns were led by slave traders and royally commissioned mercenaries to quash the proto-state of formerly enslaved people. Under this Dutch dominion and even after the Portuguese reconquest of Pernambuco by 1654, Palmares experienced a series of unsuccessful incursions and colonial attempts at dissolution. From the first large scale expeditionary force led by Captain Joao Blaer, in 1645, to over twenty assaults against Palmares between 1654 and 1678. All of which proved unsuccessful due to the vitality and defensive capabilities of the community of formerly enslaved people. The final campaigns against Palmares, however, including those of Domingos Jorge Velho, 1692 to 1694, brought about the destruction of Palmares. In the internecine peace, Palmarinos traded with their Portuguese neighbours, exchanging foodstuffs and crafts for arms, munitions, and salt. The trade with Palmares was such that many colonials opposed war with the Palmarinos, and in the 1670s there was widespread opinion that establishing peace was the best way to achieve stability in the colony. The threat posed to the stability of plantation slave labour resulted in Carrilho’s campaign of 1676-1677 and great devastation. In 1678, Ganga Zumba, tired of war, accepted the peace terms from the Governor of Pernambuco, which affirmed his sovereignty over his people on the condition that he return any fugitive slaves and move his people from Palmares to the Cucai Valley. Then in 1680, the military leader of Palmare, Zumbi, led a coup and proceeded to rule the quilombo with dictatorial authority until the destruction of Palmares in 1694. This perpetual state of instability and warfare defined the lifestyles of formerly enslaved people and the formation of Palmares as a persistent source of resistance in the Atlantic sphere of imperial dominance, an early indicator of future upheavals to come. 

Ultimately, the Central African solution of the Kilombo was a remodelled and transplanted socio-political construct, created through the forced transportation of enslaved Africans during the seventeenth century, and re-imposed within the Brazilian colonial order, in order to serve maroon communities. The Palmares of Brazil developed into a Creole society. Critically, this process of hybridisation facilitated the emergence of communities and new identities in colonial Latin America, which remained intrinsically connected to the enslavement of Africans and their forced transportation within the Atlantic triangulation of human and product commodification. Through the process, comrades (or malungos) from diverse ethnic backgrounds were united in the common cause of self-determination and independence from brutal repression and labour. Fundamentally, this was not achieved on the basis of lineage, but for the purposes of commodity production, raiding, and self-defence. Therefore, the persistence and adaptation of African cultural elements such as the Kilombo to the Brazilian context, in fact, demonstrates the continuity of African and African Diasporic cultures in the process of New World transculturation and the development of resistance and revolution. 


Image source: “Zumbi dos Palmares: An African warrior in Brazil – The legend of the nation’s greatest black leader continues to be a topic of debate and in spiration.” Black Women of Brazil. August 18, 2014. Accessed April 10, 2017.

Anderson, R. “The Quilombo of Palmares: A New Overview of a Maroon State in Seventeenth-Century Brazil,” Journal of Latin American Studies 3 (1996): 545-566.

Anonymous, “The War against Palmares,” in The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics, eds. John J. Crocitti and Robert M. Levine (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).  

Kent, R. “Palmares: An African State in Brazil,” The Journal of African History, 2 (1965): 161-175.

Mintz, Sidney and Price, Richard, The Birth of African American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).

Thornton, John, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Conflict, Chaos and the Florentine Inferno

Written by: Joshua Al-Najar.

On a preliminary reading, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno seems entirely unconcerned with political realities. Its setting is a fantastical reimagining of hell, imbued with mythological creatures and terrifying landscapes: an illusory space for Dante to contend with sin’s dramatic consequences. However, behind this veneer is a deeply incisive reflection on reality, as Dante seamlessly blends his own political convictions with the Inferno’s plot. What emerges, is Dante’s intense distaste for factionalism and disdain for corruptive authorities. These views did not arise in a vacuum but were strongly shaped by Dante’s own political career and eventual banishment from his native Florence. 

Much of the political subtext is centred around the Florentine Republic, which forms a model of the consequences which unbridled political infighting can bring. Dante relied on his own experience in the political institutions of Florence, having held numerous offices there prior to writing the Divine Comedy. The first explicit reference is provided by Ciacco, a Florentine, in Canto IV. Ciacco’s name is derived from the Tuscan for ‘pig’ and fits accordingly with his punishment in the circle reserved for gluttons – a thinly veiled critique at the city’s corruptive, gluttonous nature. In alluding to Florence’s gluttony, Dante sought to criticise the highly mercantile, money-driven mentality which he had characterised Florentine politics. 

Though Dante had been involved in these political institutions, his disapproval of the city’s character is an ongoing thread throughout the Inferno. Dante’s journey through the Divine Commedia elevates his intellectual and spiritual standing, though this is notably whilst he is absent from Florence. For him, the civil strife and decayed moral standards of the city prevented the development of his character – as such, separation from such a place allowed him to make this process “his own”. Achieving intellectual truth was a key in attaining spiritual salvation, and Dante had achieved this truth away from Florence and its chaos.

Ciacco later compounds this vision of Florence by claiming ‘pride, envy and avarice are the three sparks that inflamed the hearts of Florentines’ (Inf. IV, 12-14). From the offset, he conjures an image of a city that is inherently bound to jealousy and infighting, referring to it as ‘your city, which is so full of envy’ (Inf. IV, 45-46). By constructing this version of Florence, Dante uses his encounter with Ciacco as a means to criticise the series of civil conflicts which ravaged the city in the preceding century. He unambiguously concentrates on two periods in particular: the drawn-out struggle between the Ghibelline and Guelf sects of the 13th century, and the inter-partisan conflict. Dante pushes Ciacco, by asking whether some of the famous Ghibelline and Guelf leaders from the city’s history were damned, or not:

Tegghaio, Farinata – men of rank – Mosca, Arrigo, Rusticucci, too,

 and others with their minds on noble deeds,

tell me, so I may know them, where are they?

For I am gripped by the great desire, to tell, 

if heaven holds them sweet – or poisonous hell. (Inf. VI, 79-84).

In asking such a question, Dante radically challenges Florence’s collective memory of these individuals. He prompts a revaluation of Florence’s past heroes; for much of the city’s populace, the dramatic departure of the Ghibellines in 1471 was highly formative for Florence’s identity. To many, it represented the triumph over tyranny, and its leaders were reimagined as liberators. Ciacco defies this conclusion with his response:

These dwell among the blackest souls, loaded down deep by sins of differing types. If you sink far enough, you’ll see them all. (Inf. VI, 85-87).

Here, the Inferno depicts the Ghibelline and Guelf figures as eternally damned. For Dante, their damnation had been earned by the violence and political instability that these forces had unleashed upon Florence throughout the 13th century. Their heroic status had gone unchallenged by the body politic, as the turmoil had been legitimised by a mask of patriotic fervour. Yet Dante confronts this position, and in doing so, undoes generations of societal education.

Dante’s recurrent critique of factionalism is deeply informed by his exile from Florence. Ciacco prophesises the resurgence of civil disorder of 1300-2, in which the violence between the warring black and white Guelfs reached a bloody pinnacle: the return of the banished black Guelfs with papal assistance, and mass expatriation of white Guelfs. Florence’s political institutions had been deeply fractured, and Dante became a direct victim of the sheer instability this system incurred. He was exiled in 1302, alongside numerous other politically active Florentines. The Inferno – having been begun shortly after this – is wrought with contempt for the instability that Dante saw as inherent to such a politically divided city. Dante’s decision to place the Guelf and Ghibelline leaders in hell is a clear statement that, despite any quasi-heroic status, the civil discord that these individuals had spread had negatively impacted Florence’s citizenry, such as him.

Further into the Inferno’s narrative, Dante relates disapproval of the elite classes to his native Florence. In Canto X, Dante encounters Farinata Degli Ulberti, an aristocratic Florentine who had championed the Ghibelline cause in the mid-thirteenth century. Initially Farinata’s portrayal could be considered relatively positive. Upon recognising Dante as a fellow Tuscan, Farinata engages in sombre reflection of Florence’s violence:

You must be a native of that noble fatherland,
to which I perhaps did too much harm. (Inf. X, 12-13).

Farinata’s ruminations are profound. His reference to a ‘noble fatherland’ demonstrates his patriotism and enduring loyalty to the nobil patria. He remorsefully re-examines his own role in the Ghibelline conflicts by pondering whether the violence unleashed at Montaperti had been detrimental. For a moment, Dante allows the damned Farinata a measure of solemn nobility; his careful, considered reproach of his own actions is a momentary pause in Dante’s criticism. However, it is short-lived. 

Moments later, the situation is reversed, as Farinata becomes a mouthpiece for aristocratic factionalism. He begins by asking Dante about his heritage, and upon discovering the poet’s Guelf ancestry his entire demeanour shifts: 

As soon as I was at the foot of his tomb
somewhat he eyed me, and, as if disdainful,
then asked of me, “Who were thine ancestors?”

I, who desirous of obeying was,
concealed it not, but all revealed to him;
whereat he raised his brows a little upward.

Then he said: “fiercely adverse have they been
to me, and to my fathers, and to my party;
so that two several times I scattered them. (Inf. X, 40-49).

At Dante’s revelation, the cordial relations between the two are at an end. Suddenly, Farinata appears factional and divisive: gone are his saddened affections for the city of Florence. He represents the crux of the aristocratic folly for Dante; he is used to expose the fatal blindness of the Florentine elite in its excessive devotion to party and family at the expense of broader loyalties to the city and patria. 

Upon discovering Dante’s allegiances, Farinata is cutting and self-congratulatory – he boasts of his own military success during the Ghibelline and Guelf conflict, alluding to battles in 1248 and 1260. Suddenly, those events, that had caused Farinata remorse, now bloat his pride. Dante chastises this violence, lamenting its ‘staining of the flowing Arbia red’ (Inf. X, 85-6).

Dante informs Farinata that his family were exiled from Florence following his death, in an effort to wound the general – as part of his punishment, Farinata is unable to see the present, in what is perhaps a jibe at the aristocracy’s blindness to their actions. Farinata begins to ponder whether eternal damnation is a lesser punishment compared to witnessing his family’s exile from their homeland. Yet again, we see the questionable judgement of the Florentine aristocracy emerge as Farinata places his family’s status within Florence above all other considerations. That he considers ‘this bed of pain’ (Inf. X, 77-8) to be of lesser torment than mere political exclusion is emblematic of the irrationality of the upper classes. He questions the legitimacy of the city’s popular government, and the validity of its decision to banish his family – a clear display of the elite’ disdain for popular movements. 

However, Farinata also enacts a measure of revenge against Dante, by informing him of his eventual exile:

And yet no more than fifty times that face,
(the moon’s, who is our sovereign here) will shine
till you shall learn how heavy that art weighs (Inf. X, 79-81).

In a reciprocal act of animosity, Farinata reveals that soon Dante will experience the ‘art’ of exile. By displaying this series of insults and verbal injuries, Dante replicates the series of conflicts between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines in the 13th century. The pettiness and the futility of the discourse mirrors what Dante saw as the pointlessness of such conflict. 

To him, the civil disorder that had been so inherent to Florentine politics had stifled social progress and hastened moral decay. This conclusion had been greatly informed by his own victimhood at the hands of a deeply factionalised city – something which earned the city’s immortalisation in the depths of Dante’s imagined hellscape. 


Bernstein, A.E. ‘Heaven, Hell and Purgatory: 1100-1500’, in M. Rubin, Barański, Zygmunt G., and Simon Gilson. The Cambridge Companion to Dante’s Commedia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Honess, Claire E. From Florence to the Heavenly City: The Poetry of Citizenship in Dante. Italian Perspectives; 13. (London 2006).

Lansing, R.  The Dante encyclopedia, (London, 2010).

Murphy, Robert. “DANTE AND POLITICS.” History Today 20, no. 7 (1970): 481.

Najemy, John. ‘Dante and Florence’ in Jacoff Rachael (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Cambridge (2007) p236-256.

Woodhouse, John. ‘Dante and Governance’ London (2011).


Dionysos the Weird: Reading Bacchae through the lens of Lovecraftian horror

Written by: Justin Biggi.

Euripides’ Bacchae features some of the stranger imagery the playwright employed throughout his works. Focusing on Dionysos’ return to his homeland of Thebes, the play sees Dionysos’ cousin, Pentheus, meet a grisly end at the hands of, amongst others, his own mother, driven mad with other women by Dionysos himself. Pentheus’ grisly death becomes a reminder for the audience of what happens when one attempts to go against a god’s will – especially given the fact that this is blatant punishment for Pentheus’ actions of outlawing the cult of Dionysos. 

Much can be said about how this play approaches subjects such as ritual madness, hubris and gender roles (Pentheus is disguised as a woman by Dionysos, as he tries to secretly spy on his mother and her companions). Dionysos has long been interpreted as a god who blurs boundaries. He is first and foremost a god of wine, and therefore of drunkenness: this implies a lack of control ancient society (as well as our modern one) may not have been all that comfortable with facing on a day-to-day basis.  He is a god of excess, characterized by an entourage of priestesses, the Bakkhai or Maenads, and, in iconography, also accompanied by male, sexually-charged satyrs. He is also a god of magic and of rituals that were not open to the public or at least, not open to the predominant male citizen class: similarly to Orpheus, it has been argued that his cults attracted mostly women and slaves. 

The text of the Bacchae is not spared such perceived strangeness or liminality. While there are a number of single, isolated instances where something strange or unnatural happens (such as Dionysos tearing down the walls of the Theban palace, or Pentheus thinking the god has the head of a bull), there are two cases where we have a longer, in-depth description of strange, even terrifying, acts. In two instances of so-called “messenger speeches,” where characters come on-stage to relate events that have happened elsewhere but are nonetheless central to the plot, the audience is privy to two acts of intense violence which are meant to not only cause discomfort in the audience, but also, through the nature of the acts themselves, push the boundaries of what is or isn’t natural. In the first messenger speech, we find a graphic description of the Theban women, driven to Bacchic frenzy by Dionysos, tear apart a herd of cows with their bare hands. In the second messenger speech, the messenger describes Pentheus’ journey to spy on the Bacchae and his discovery which leads, on Dionysos’ urging, to his death by dismemberment, in particular at the hands of his mother.  

Much of what happens in these two episodes can be described as “uncanny.” The term is generally applied to Lovecraftian fiction or “weird” horror, and implies the intentional subversion of the “laws of nature” in favor of unsettling, often scary imagery. Bennett and Royle define the uncanny as follows: “the thoughts and feelings that may arise on those occasions when the homely becomes the unhomely, when the familiar becomes uncomfortably strange” (40.) This definition echoes the one put forward by H. P. Lovecraft: “[t]he weird tale has … [a] certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces …. a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature” (28.)

As explained above, Dionysos is a god often happy with pushing boundaries. It is no different in the Bacchae. In the first messenger speech, a cattle hearder, after narrowly escaping the Bacchae’s frenzy, rushes to Thebes to tell Pentheus what he has seen: the women, through the power of the god, were able to have milk, honey and wine spring from the ground (lines 869 – 877.) While this is certainly strange, it does not appear uncomfortable to the narrator, the herdsman and, in fact, he urges the disbelieving Pentheus to accept Dionysos as a god, which he is adamantly refusing to do throughout the play. Things become unsettling, uncomfortable, when the men try to grab Agave, Pentheus’ mother, to bring her back to court. Following this, the women turn to violence. 

The herdsman proceeds to give a vivid description of the women tearing cattle apart with their hands. Euripides does not spare the audience the gory details: “You should have seen one ripping a fat, young, lowing calf apart— others tearing cows in pieces with their hands” (909 – 910) while, once the carnage has been completed, “[y]ou could have seen ribs and cloven hooves tossed everywhere—some hung up in branches dripping blood and gore” (911 – 913.)

Through the graphic depiction of violence, the strangeness of the episode becomes uncomfortable. As I’ve discussed in my piece on Seneca’s use of violence, the violent act is uncomfortable precisely because it is dehumanising. A living, animated creature, human or animal, becomes simple meat: this is made even worse when the body is literally torn apart. In Ancient Greek, ritual dismemberment had a name: sparagmos. The sparagmos in the first messenger speech foreshadows a second, more terrifying one in the second messenger speech.

Towards the end of the play, Dionysos manages to successfully lure Pentheus up the mountain, under the pretense that there he will be able to witness the Bacchae’s ritual directly. It is, of course, a trap, and Pentheus is soon attacked by the women he was hoping to spy on. Urged by the god, the women tear Pentheus apart, and his mother, Agave, rips his head form his shoulders believing him to be a mountain lion. Similarly to the episode described above, the violence is preceded by a strange, but not necessarily unsettling, episode: Dionysos “[makes a] tree bend down,              forcing the mountain pine to earth by hand, something no mortal man could ever do” (1330 – 1332.) It is to help Pentheus gain better access to the women. After this, Dionysos disappears, and only his voice can be heard, urging the women to violence. Once more, Euripides does not shy away from the gorier details: “[s]he seized his left arm, below the elbow, pushed her foot against the poor man’s ribs, then tore his shoulder out … ripping off chunks of Pentheus’s flesh” (1391 – 1406.)

In both instances, the direct actions of a god, by definition inhuman, are the catalyst for the dreadful events to take place. In the first messenger speech, the women are “in Bacchic ecstasy” (897) and, the second time, it is Dionysus himself who urges them to violence (1345 – 1349.) As Lovecraft defined it, the weird is dreadful due to “outer, unknown forces” manifesting in a way which is percieved by the protagonist as menacing (28.) Throughout the play, one of the underlying threads is whether or not Dionysos is recognised by the other characters as being a god. Those who recognise his divine nature, like Tiresias, the herdsman or the second messenger, one of Pentheus’ attendants, are spared his wrath. Characters like Pentheus, however, or his mother, Agave (who is turned to Bacchic frenzy as a way to punish her for rejecting Dionysos’ mother, her sister) are forced to participate in dreadful, terrifying events as a way for them to fully recognise Dionysos’ divine nature. 

Certainly it is anachronistic to argue that the Bacchae is a piece of Lovecraftian horror literature, but by reading the play through the lens of the genre, we are able to add a further layer of complexity to the text: by reading the play as cosmic horror, we are able to see patterns, specifically in the two messenger speeches, which would have been lost otherwise. Thanks to this, the interpretation of Dionysus, both the character and the god, is made more complete. As Lovecraftian horror dabbles in the unspeakable and the terrible, so does Dionysus’ character in the play: by reading them as such, we can see the ways in which similar tropes have been used throughout the centuries, echoing each other and playing off of each other. 


Euripides, Bacchae, translated by Ian Johnson, (Vancouver: Vancouver Island University Press, 2003). 

Jameson, M., “The Asexuality of Dionysus” in The Masks of Dionysus, eds. Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A. Pharaone, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993).

Lovecraft, H. P., Supernatural Horror in Literature and Other Essays, (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1973).

Otto, W. F., Dionysus:, myth and cult, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965).

Royle, N. and Bennett, A., An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, (New York: Routledge, 2016).


Railways, Race, and Lions – The Tale of the Tsavo Man-Eaters

Written by: Lewis Twiby.

The Uganda Railway appeared to be one of the best examples of imperial negligence by the British Empire. Quickly called the ‘Lunatic Express’ by contemporaries for its high cost to build (over £5.5million), and its apparent leading to ‘nowhere’. British imperialists claimed that the railway was required to secure the East African Protectorate, now modern Kenya, as it would prevent other European empires from moving into the area and constructing dam projects which would impact Britain’s access to Egypt and consequently India. So, from Mombasa on the coast to the Kingdom of Buganda along the shores of Lake Victoria, a railway stretching 700 miles began construction in 1896. Despite successive disasters it was finally completed in 1901, but the cost of running it meant it was mostly abandoned by 1929. However, one of the big disasters to strike the railway was at the Tsavo River where two lions killed around thirty workers. From March to December 1898 the infamous ‘Tsavo man-eaters’ preyed on the workers, and the story of them has inspired countless narratives and movies – most famously the movie The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas. The story of the man-eaters offers an insight into labour and colonialism in East Africa.

     The construction of the railway offers three different accounts, largely depending on race. The first, is the African viewpoint. The railway cut through the land of various ethnic groups including the Kikuyu, Maasai, Kamba, and Luo. Kenya would later be known as the ‘White Man’s Country’ thanks to its white settler population, and their settlement in the Rift Valley was first opened up by the railway. Key imperialist Frederick Lugard recorded the fertility of the soil, ‘with excellent and luxurious pasture throughout the year’ in 1893, which offered prime farming land for a settler population. During the construction of the railway the local communities were forcibly evicted from their land, which later allowed farmers to claim these ‘empty’ lands. The forcible arrival of British industrialism created a new economic system for Africans to become part of. Some communities became labourers to help build the railway for the British, however, as they were few in number, the Ugandan Railway Company had to rely on alternate sources of labour. This brings us the second account, that of South Asians.

     Even though Britain abolished slavery in its empire in 1833 this did not end slavery. Instead, it was recast as a new system called ‘indentured servitude’. Indians were hired on contracts, in the case of East Africa these lasted five years, where they worked for the time allotted on the contract, and at the end they would get paid. However, this was an excuse to utilise slave labour – employees could not leave the contract, corporal punishment was allowed, and many people were worked to death. Indians, primarily from poorer regions, were put onto these contracts, and were sent to work in Britain’s far-flung empire. An Indian diaspora was formed across the world ranging from the Caribbean, to Fiji, to South Africa, and to Mauritius. Colonial administrators became frustrated at Africans resisting work, and, although Indians would also resist the backbreaking work, they were used, as they lacked the ties to local communities. Over 19,000 people from the Punjab, Sind, and North Western Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh) were sent to work on the railway – Hugh Tinker estimates that 7 per cent of them died and a fifth were declared ‘invalid’ upon returning. Ironically, British abolitionists had championed the railway as being a way, in the words of The Anti-Slavery Reporter, to engage in the ‘suppression…of the slave trade,’ despite actively engaging in slavery.

     Finally, we have the view of the colonisers. Alongside the desire to secure Britain’s imperial holdings the paternalistic view towards the colonised was very much in evidence. As already mentioned, abolitionists viewed British expansion into the region as a way to stop ‘petty tribes’ from exploiting their ‘weaker neighbours’. The ‘White Man’s Burden’ was regularly used to justify colonial expansion – colonised peoples had to be ‘civilised’ by the guiding hands of Europeans. However, there is a stark hypocrisy in this narrative – colonisation regularly entrenched ‘regressive’ traditions which colonisers argued they were combatting. The Anti-Slavery Reporter is a prime example of this. While stating that the Uganda Railway could be used to end slavery in East Africa and admitting that indentured servitude could lead to ‘very grave evils’, they argued that it ‘affords an inducement to the men to do their best’. Kenya soon became a colony where white Europeans could lead a life of aristocratic pleasure at the expense of the non-white population. In particular, big game hunting became a popular pastime and famous hunters, including Theodore Roosevelt, visited to hunt animals. John Henry Patterson, hired to oversee the construction of the railway at Tsavo, was an avid hunter, and his account of the man-eaters shows this. He gives paternalistic descriptions of Africans on one page, and on the next boasts how he ‘was especially anxious to bag a hippopotamus.’ This brings us to the man-eaters.

     Two male lions would hunt workers along the Tsavo River, and Patterson’s account would greatly mythologise them. Originally, he claimed that ‘they had devoured between them no less than twenty-eight Indian coolies, in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives’, but later he would claim that they killed over a hundred people. The man-eaters became part of Kenya’s legend – it was the land where lions ate men so skilled hunters could prove their worth. Research by zoologists have shown that the lions started eating humans due to one of them having a damaged tooth preventing them from hunting their traditional prey – Patterson later said that one of his bullets caused this damage. Patterson’s credibility as the fearless, white hunter would become dented if the infamous ‘man-eaters’ only ate humans as they were injured. Exploitation is also a key reason why they started eating humans. Slave trading in the region regularly left corpses due to brutal conditions, and their regular prey started to dwindle. Railway construction bisected habitats cutting the lions off of their traditional prey, and a ‘rinderpest’ outbreak wiped out local populations of buffalo, warthogs, and antelope. This outbreak happened as cattle from India was imported to Africa believing it could help ‘acclimatise’ the South Asian labourers, but it had a consequence of spreading disease to the local wildlife. Humans became an optional food source due to this.

     Race and labour practices were a key reason why the lions managed to kill as many people as they did. The Uganda Railway Company wanted to maximise profits regardless of the human cost, and, buoyed by the idea that it was protecting the empire and preventing slavery, labour protection was ignored. The Indian government had been trying since 1890 to protect labourers abroad, but underhand negotiation allowed over 1,300 people to leave Karachi before anyone in India could check if they were even healthy enough to work. Africans and Indians were forced to work long hours with the promise of pay in the future, and in the heat of East Africa this raised mortality rates. Samuel Ruchmen has emphasised that papers reported tales of clashes with ‘African tribes’ and the lions, but ignored the thousands to die from hard labour and disease. Doctor John Brock in 1899 tried to convince the company to introduce vegetables to food rations due to the outbreak of scurvy, but his report was rebuffed as it would cost too much. Most workers also had to sleep in tents, something which is very flimsy when in contact with the claws of a lion. Meanwhile, overseers and managers had the luxury of medical aid, food, shade, and the protection of actual buildings or guards – it is no coincidence that these figures were white Europeans. Lion attacks soon fell along racial lines.

     Patterson arrived along with the workers in March 1898 at the Tsavo River, and already the impoverished and overworked Africans and Indians would have poor working conditions. As to what decimated workers in Panama and Suez constructing their canals, yellow fever and malaria struck down many people. The tsetse fly also spread sleeping sickness, something made worse as rinderpest had killed off most of the fly’s regular hosts. During the night the lions would sneak into camps and drag people from their tents – as the months went on the lions grew braver and both would venture into camp to claim a victim each. Desperate, workers lit campfires to scare off the lions and constructed fences made of thorn bushes to hope it could deter the lions – both failed. These attempts to scare off the lions made disease worse – fires attracted malaria-carrying mosquitoes and tsetse flies made their home in thorn bushes. The racial hierarchy of work meant that only non-white individuals were killed – safe in fortified areas Europeans escaped the lions. The district officer was nearly killed, but that was more due to the fact that he almost ran into one of the lions at the train station, rather than the lion stalking him. The attitudes to this also differed based on race.

     As argued by Harriet Ritvo, hunting lions became a metaphor for the domination of Africa – hunting the ‘King of the Jungle’ showed mastery over the land, and therefore the people. Patterson chastised the ‘coolies’ for being fearful of the wildlife as ‘they were sure it was a lion’ – in this context actually a valid fear. However, as Patterson did not face being eaten, valid fears were seen as evidence of Indians being ‘never remarkable for bravery’. In a callous remark he even mocked the attempts they made to avoid lions at night, including trying to erect tents on water-tanks, trees, and roofs. In the end, it was the workers who forced Patterson to properly act. Small-scale strikes regularly occurred on the railway – one in 1900 was reported by The Times of India over poor work conditions and a lack of access to medicine. Conspicuously absent from Patterson’s account labourers brought work to a standstill until the lions were dealt with by the end of 1898 – keen to keep his image intact he claimed that they gave him a bowl engraved with ‘Hindustani’ words to show their thanks. 

     Two lions driven to hunting humans became legends in Kenya’s history. The promotion of the colony in later years as one for the ‘white man’ turned them into a daring tale of man conquering nature. However, this narrative obscures the multifaceted nature of colonialism. A railway built for imperial prestige changed the landscape, brought a weakened and enslaved population to East Africa, and created animal attacks which fell along racial lines. It also shows another aspect overlooked. African and Indian labourers suffered thanks to the lion attacks, but they also were the ones who put pressure on Patterson to make a concerted effort to hunt down the lions. These workers managed to halt imperial expansion – a rare thing overlooked in the history of the British Empire.


‘The Uganda Railway’, The Anti-Slavery Reporter, 19:3, (1899), 137-139

‘The Uganda Railway’, The Times of India, (23/01/1899), 4

‘Uganda Railway Coolies: Some Alleged Grievances, “The Uganda Railway Strike”’, The Times of India, (20/09/1900), 6

Hill, M.F., Permanent Way: The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway, (Nairobi: 1949)

Meredith, M., The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavour, (London: 2014)

Patterson, J.H., The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, and other East African Adventures, (London: 1907)

Ruchman, S., ‘Colonial Construction: Labor Practices and Precedents Along the Uganda Railway, 1893-1903’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 50:2, (2017), 251-273

Tamasula, G.A., ‘The Lions of Tsavo: Man-Made Man-Eaters’, Western Humanities Review, 68:1, (2014), 195-200

Tinker, T., A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830-1920, (Oxford: 1974)

‘Out of the Barbershop and into the Future’: Modern Medicine of New York City in 1900

Written by: Jack Bennett.

Having recently watched the period medical drama The Knick, from Academy Award winning director Steven Soderbergh, set during the Gilded Age of American history, the series encompasses the medical advancements, contemporary racial tensions found in both medical treatment and wider society, and the tumultuous political climate of America. Providing a window through which the harsh reality of illness and incurability on the wards of The Knick is revealed, mirroring the trichotomous nature of corruption, consumption and capitalism in the tension ridden socio-political environment of New York City and the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. This article will explore the historical depiction of medicine and the socio-political landscape of the USA in 1900 through a synthesis of historical criticism. 

Set within a fictionalised Knickerbocker Hospital in Lower Manhattan in 1900, Dr John Thackery (Clive Owen), the main protagonist of the show, becomes a tragic hero, plagued by his own cocaine addiction and amidst the noble pursuit of developing medical practices to save lives across society is loosely inspired by the drug-addict, medical pioneer Dr William Stewart Halstead. While, Dr Algernon Edwards (André Holland) is another fictional character who is possibly an amalgam of two notable doctors – Daniel Hale Williams and Louis T. Wright. Williams set up Chicago’s first non-segregated hospital and was the first African American to be admitted to the American College of Surgeons. Wright, a Harvard graduate, was the first African American doctor to work as a surgeon in a non-segregated hospital, at Harlem Hospital in New York City. Critically, the show conveys the sense of immediacy and rapidity of medical development at this time. For example, between 1880 and 1890, approximately 100 new types of operations were conceived, made possible by progress in anaesthetics and antisepsis, discovered in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, through the shows creation of 1900 Manhattan, combining the narratives of corrupt political officials, criminals, academics, and exploited immigrants, women and African Americans, The Knick assumes greater intentions through the creation of a rich tapestry of cultural characters, placing agency in the individuals and communities ordinarily subjugated during this period. 

The dimly lit interiors provide the backdrop to the domestic tensions and relations which reflect the wider developments within New York at the dawn of a new century. Foremost amongst these central themes is the shows depiction of racial injustices and relations at the nadir of racial policies in America at this time. Like its television counterpart, the Knickerbocker hospital had a policy of refusing to treat African Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century. revealing both implicit and explicit forms of discrimination, along with the dichotomy between the boundaries and limitations to African American social mobility as well as increasing degrees of interracial communication, collaboration and acceptance throughout society. Moreover, the position of multivariate immigrant populations in the United States during this period is expertly handled by Soderbergh throughout the two seasons of the show. Major shifts in the sources of immigration during the 1890s occurred, with 3.5 million newcomers entered the USA during this decade despite the onset of economic depression from 1892. Over 50% of which were from new immigration sources in Southern and Eastern Europe, such as Catholics from Italy and Jewish populations from Poland, residing alongside nativist communities with Irish, German and British decent. This produced an inherently global nation and melting pot of culture, along with resulting conflicts. With this influx, The Knick illuminates the reality of fin de siècle New York, as one in which immigrants come believing the promises but far too many do not survive the realities long. Constructing this reality was a political machine system beset by corruption and challenges for authority between established sources of wealth and power and the emergence of a Progressive era, with greater Democratic Political support and an increase in the pace of social development. For example, The Knick constructs a range of female characters, such as the hospital’s reform-minded patron, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), illustrating the increasing socio-political mobility of women at the turn of the century, assuming roles as medical practitioners, nurses and socio-political reformers within New York City. 

Medical historians, however, such as Howard Markel and Peter Kernahan have raised the issue of historical inaccuracies in The Knick. Markel, for instance, argues that the series conflated the medical historical developments which took place from the 1870s and into the early decades of the twentieth century, akin to ‘conflating the Middle Ages to colonial America to the Civil War’. While Kernahan determined a multitude of historical inaccuracies, in particular, the trade of cadavers for medical experimentation within the hospital, which would have unlikely taken place in New York in 1900. Anatomy Acts were passed in the mid-eighteenth century, preventing the practice of grave robbing for dissection. Despite these historical flaws, The Knick achieves an intricately written narrative of historical change through Soderberg’s uniquely active and engaging cinematographic form.

Nevertheless, The Knick reveals the perils of progress, straddling both medical modernity and static tradition. Whilst also depicting the vices and iniquities of early twentieth century society, it demonstrates a sense of unforgiving anti-romanticism. It creates a graphic, vividly detailed depiction of a shocking house of horror in the pursuit of modern ascendancy, despite the obvious side effects and creation of inequalities along this journey. Particularly, the elevation within the period drama of the surgeons as almost deified figures, balancing innocent with the suspenseful and graphically portrayed progressive and experimental medical procedures. But these individuals must experience their peripeteia, whether through hubris or dualism, pursuing the unsustainable double lives and moral compromises. This relates to Charles Rosenberg’s 1971 call for a “new emphasis” in the history of medicine, moving beyond the focus on the intellectual life of physicians to their activities as healers and as members of a profession. Medical historians, Rosenberg attested, were required to place medicine in its socio-cultural context and to explore the ways in which socio-economic factors might have influenced medical developments. This brought into the historical framework the increased authoritative roles of both African Americans and women at the time of widespread disenfranchisement, segregation and the propagation of second-class citizenship across the United States. By delving into an often-overlooked period of history, the medical drama experiences a fresh revitalisation. Arguably, however, the show is instilled with a historically revisionist approach and agenda, by exploring a field shaped and dominated by white men, adding contributions by African-Americans and women.

The Knick, by blending both seemingly gothic elements and unflinching medical realism, attempts to achieve dramatic historical accuracy, but is best appreciated and viewed as a pastiche of fact and fiction. Therefore, it allows for the reality of progressiveness and the sense of a new age dawning to be explored through the character developments of intriguing and complicated individuals and communities. Revealing the direct and intimate interplay between medical science and its social environment, becoming co-dependent of one another consequently during this transformative period. What The Knick fundamentally captures in its exquisite visual form, aesthetic and historical context is the fraught, unequal and transformative birth of modern medicine in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. 


Image Source: 

Stanley B. Burns, MD/Burns Archive, found in ‘The Cocaine, the Blood, the Body Count’, The New York Times, August 1, 2014, Accessed on 11 January 2020. 

The Knick (Series 1 and 2). Directed by Steven Soderbergh. 2014–15. HBO Cinemax

Adams, Peter. ‘Modern Medicine Had to Start Somewhere’. Health and History 18, no. 1 (2016): 174-79.

Deng, Boer. ‘How Accurate Is The Knick’s Take on Medical History?’, Slate, August 08, 2014, Accessed on 11 January 2020. 

James, Nick. ‘Further notes on The Knick’, Sight and Sound Magazine, 29 January 2015, Accessed on 14 January 2020

Kernahan, Peter J. ‘“A Condition of Development”: Muckrakers, Surgeons, and Hospitals, 1890−1920’, Journal of the American College of Surgeons, 206, 2, (2008): 376 – 384

Labuza, Peter. ‘Shock treatment: The Knick’, Sight and Sound Magazine, 29 January 2015, Accessed on 14 January 2020

Schuessler, Jennifer. ‘The Cocaine, the Blood, the Body Count’, The New York Times, August 1, 2014 Accessed on 11 January 2020.
Stanley, Alessandra. ‘No Leeches, No Rusty Saw, But Hell Nonetheless’, The New York Times, August 7, 2014, Accessed on 11 January 2020.

A Letter To My Students

Written by: Dr Jake Blanc.

A letter to my students:

I do not want to be on strike. None of your lecturers do. We would rather be inside our classrooms giving a lecture, or in a seminar room discussing a reading, or holding office hours to talk through an essay assignment. And given that the outside temperatures have been hovering in the low single digits, coming out to the picket line every morning is far from an easy or cheerful decision.

But we cannot come back in, at least not yet. And please believe me here when I give the reason for why we have to stay outside a little longer. We are on strike for you, our students.

You probably hear that a lot around universities these days. Touch-screen panels in every classroom: for the students! A new survey every week: for the students! Two-for-one Dominos pizza: for the students!

But when I say that me and my colleagues are on strike for you—for the students—it reflects something much more important. Choosing to leave our classrooms, to forego our salary, and to hold up signs on a frozen sidewalk in your name, that is a deeply sincere statement.

Nobody goes into academia for fame or fortune. Unless you study celebrity culture or business history, you are unlikely to experience either or those two words in your daily academic life. Instead, the overwhelming majority of our time is spent thinking about, planning, and delivering pedagogy and mentorship to our students. And I would say that for almost every academic I know, that is precisely why we love our jobs.

But over the past many years (and decades!) universities have changed in ways that make it increasingly difficult, if not outright impossible, for us to give you the education you deserve. You likely have heard that our current strike has four core demands, relating to issues of casualisation, fair pay, equity, and pensions. Like any job that aims to be both part and a model of an inclusive society, ours relies on the foundation of steady employment, adequate compensation, equality amongst all employees, and the security of a dignified livelihood once we stop working. And each of the four relate to vital threads of what allows us to have the personal, financial, and mental wellbeing to come to work every day to help create the type of learning environment in which all members of a university community can thrive.

I won’t go into detail here on the four demands. That information is available elsewhere and, moreover, as a relative newcomer to the UK, I do not want to presume the cultural and institutional knowledge to properly talk through each item. (Though let’s not kid ourselves, our struggle here in Britain is part of the same struggle I would have faced if I had stayed in the U.S. or gone to teach anywhere else in the world).

Instead, I want to reiterate that I see you, that we see you. All of us, your lecturers, your tutors, your supervisors, your support staff, everyone. We all see you. We know that our decision to strike makes you stressed and worried. We know that our choice to keep you from your usual class routine makes you nervous about essays and exams. I’m sure it might even feel like we’re doing this in spite of you—or even worse, against you. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We’re doing this because we are frustrated, and tired, and overworked, and to be honest, pissed off. We are angry that the university has let our conditions, and our workloads, and our hiring practices degrade to such a point that we have to abandon our classrooms just to have our demands be taken seriously. A strike is not a strategy to be used lightly, it is a last-resort, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type of option. And we are currently in that sort of moment.

Personally, I am three years into what I can hope will be a long career. I’d love nothing more than to devote my professional life to working with several generations of students, where my history courses can serve as a platform for students to make sense of the past, to learn to think critically, to write well, and to engage one another with empathy. If I’m lucky enough, many of you might even follow suit and become my colleagues one day, and then you’ll get to share in the joys of what, when supported properly, is the best job in the world.

But those hopes are contingent on something changing. And for us, that something can only come about by going on strike. We’ve exhausted all other options. Believe me, we don’t want to strike. But we care too much about doing our job well, and we care too much about you and your future, to not see this through.

So thank you for your support. And if not your support, then hopefully at least your trust that when we say we’re doing this for our students, we mean it.

Dr Jake Blanc

Lecturer in Latin American History

The Ideological Barriers faced by Renaissance Women Humanists

Written by: Joshua Al-Najar.

On a preliminary reading, humanism appears to be wrought with misogynistic tendencies, providing little space for women’s engagement. Joan Kelly-Gadol points to male humanists such as Juan Luis Vives, whose misogynistic writings were informed by Aristotelian biology and the hyper-masculine nature of classical humanism. Women’s apparent biological, religious and historical inferiority inferred that ‘few see her, and none at all hear her.’ Thus, Kelly-Gadol ponders whether the presence of such exclusionary thought renders the term ‘renaissance’ incompatible with the female experience.

Despite these castigations, women humanists contributed considerably to the Querelle des Femmes, an academic movement which sought to define women’s abilities, capacities and function within society. Though scholars such as Kelly have imagined the renaissance as a masculine endeavour, W. Caffero refers to the Querelle as the ‘aspect of women’s experience that fits most comfortably under the “Renaissance” label’. In entering the debate, women utilised the same general humanist framework that their male counterparts had developed, by using themes such as antiquity, religion and value of education. For some, this successfully defended and enhanced women’s status, though contradictions could arise from using a male-oriented paradigm. 

The Querelle is thought to have emerged in earnest with the formative works of Christine de Pizan (1364-c.1430), a Venetian author who lived in France. De Pizan began writing in response to the deeply misogynistic academic climate of her contemporaries, that advocated women’s inferiority. She wrote:

Judging from the treatises of all the philosophers and poets and from all orators […] it seems that they speak from one and the same mouth […] that the behaviour of women is inclined to and full of every vice.

De Pizan contended with the prevailing view of women in her work, Le Livre de la cité des dames (c. 1405). Here, she was given the intellectual space to promote women’s learning and qualities; she creates three allegorical, female figures representing reason, rectitude and justice. They command the creation of a separate city for women, drawing inspiration from the mythological Amazon warriors. Furthermore, she launches into an attack on the sexist views of ancient philosophers, whose writings legitimised her sexist contemporaries. De Pizan’s use of myth and criticism of ancient scholars demonstrated her classical learning, and serves as a rebuff to the idea that women’s education was for the purpose of promoting the chaste, Christian ideal. Her work built upon earlier pieces, such as Boccaccio’s De Mulierbus Claris (1362), but their approaches are distinct: where men, such as Boccaccio, praised women who had overcome their feminine traits, Pizan lauded women on their own terms. In addition, many of the male humanists who highlighted the virtuous nature of some women, did so under the patronage of wealthy, powerful women – Boccacio dedicated his work to Andrea Acciaioli, Countess of Altavilla.

Reference to classical antiquity was a common aspect of male humanism, but it could be deployed to aggrandise women’s status too. This is apparent in the letters of Laura Cereta (1469-1499), of which some eighty are known. In one such example, Cereta addresses ‘Bibolo’ – a play on words, linking men to drunkenness – and uses classical examples of women’s achievement to present the worthiness of their education. She writes of Zenobia’s mastery of Greek; Subbu’s triumph over Solomon; etc. Cereta’s skilled deployment of these classical examples reinforce her own learnedness and justifies her belief education was crucial for ‘all human beings equally.’ She re-works antiquity’s legacy – which had so often been the source of renaissance scholars’ misogyny – into something which can extol the mental capabilities of women. Cereta wrote at a time when women were institutionally barred from higher learning, and even from certain administrative buildings, such as the Florentine Podesta. She writes of herself as a ‘Medusa, who will not be blinded by a few drops of olive oil.’ Therefore, her letters serve as a powerful reminder that women’s intellectual output will weather male anxiety.

At times, women humanists engaged in open critique of such anxieties. The Venetian Lucrezia Marinella’s The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men (1601) arose in direct response to the deeply misogynistic Dei Donneschi Diffeti (1599) from Guiseppe Passi. Passi’s work derived much of its basis from the Aristotelian concept of the ‘imperfect female’ and the inferiority of Eve to Adam. Marinella lambasts her opponent’s views, dividing her work into two parts: the first extolls the virtues of women, whilst the second lambasts the defaults of men. She cleverly warps many of Passi’s arguments to her own advantage. In one example, she reverses Passi’s critique of women’s beauty and vanity, by utilising neo-Platonic theory to explain ‘what is beautiful outwardly is beautiful inwardly.’ In another, she rejects Aristotle’s theory of female imperfection, by claiming that women are perfect realisations of God’s creation. By arguing in such a manner, Marinella is able to use traditionally masculine arguments to advance women’s case. She not only advocates equality, but asserts women superiority to men, by boldly claiming:

If women […] wake themselves from the long sleep that oppresses them, how meek and humble will those proud men become.

However, in later life, Marinella would come to contradict her earlier ferocity. In the Essirtazioni alle donne e agli altri (1622), Bronzino recorded that Marinella’s religious devotion had strengthened with her age, and that she had renounced much of her earlier writings. Instead, she considered a life of piety and domestic dedication as the pinnacle of womanhood.

Integrating religion could be an issue for women humanists who sought to strengthen their standing in society. The ideal Christian woman was thought to be moral, chaste and somewhat submissive to her husband – her inferior place having been earned by Eve’s folly. In Of the Equal or Unequal Sins of Adam and Eve (1451-3), Isotta Nogarola sparks a literary debate with Ludovico Foscarini, where she attempts to justify Eve’s fault. Somewhat ironically Nogarola defends Eve – and thus, womankind – by conforming to societal understanding of women’s inferiority. She argues that Eve’s apparent weakness was the cause of her error, as oppose to a pride-based motivation, which could be considered guiltier. She also reinforces the imperfection of women by claiming that Adam, as the fully realised man, should have exerted greater control over Eve’s deficiencies. Though Nogarola presents great skill in her argument, her loss is inevitable due to the fact she argues within parameters which consider Eve (and all women) as untrustworthy and weak. Nograola herself was a devout Christian, and was reportedly celibate until her death in 1466. Her compliance with the prevailing, Christian attitude to women somewhat hinders her argument. 

Historiographically, there is some debate. The aforementioned women humanists clearly provide something of an obstacle for theory put forward by Kelly-Gadol. Women’s efforts at defending and enhancing their status display clear engagement with general ‘renaissance’ themes. However, she clearly identifies the adverse effect that some aspects of humanism had on women’s standing. This sentiment has, at times, gone unconsidered by scholars such as Jacob Burckhardt. Burckhardt (1860), mistakenly supported the idea the so-called ‘renaissance individualism had led to “both sexes existing on an equal footing”’.

The reality appears to be somewhere in-between. When defending or enhancing their status, women humanists utilised many of the same arguments as their male counterparts: religion, antiquity and the virtuous nature of education. However, at times, the usage of a male-oriented structure forced contradictions of their argument.


Caferro, William., and Wiley InterScience. Contesting the Renaissance. Contesting the past. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 

Laura Cereta, Two ‘Familiar’ Letters, in K. Gouwens (ed.), The Italian Renaissance: The Essential Sources (2004).

Crum, Roger J., and John T. Paoletti. Renaissance Florence: A Social History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Kelly, J. “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” in Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (eds.) Becoming Visible. Women in European History (1977) Boston 137-165.

Panizza, L. “Introduction to the Translation” in Lucrezia Marinella, The Nobility and Excellence of Women, 1-34.

Elissa B. Weaver “Gender” Chapter 11 of A Companion to the Worlds of the Renaissance, edited by Guido Ruggiero, 2007, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 

Image Source:

Total Military Politics: The Rise of Japanese Fascism

Written by: Jack Bennett.

The execution of Kita Ikki, the so-called ‘Father of Japanese Fascism,’ in 1937, whose ‘Outline Plan for the Revolution of Japan’ (1919) emphasised principles of nationalistic socialism, reveals the violent descent of Japan into a totalised political and economic system of control from 1925 through to 1945. 

Rising ultranationalism, militarism, and state capitalism under the early reign of the Showa Emperor Hirohito, defined Japanese politics and society as ‘statist’ from the 1920s through to the 1940s. The reverberations of global events and shifting economic and political dynamics during the 1920s and 1930s directly influenced the domestic character of Japan. 1920s Japan was a decade of transition and contradiction, with limited democracy and freedom. Despite the General Election Law in 1925 introducing universal suffrage for all men, in the same year the Peace Preservation Law simultaneously introduced strict parameters on political speech and behaviour, enforced by the Special Higher Police, who rooted out communists and later anti-war elements throughout Japan. 

Following the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the onset of the global depression, Japan slumped into the Showa Depression period from 1930-32, with WPI (Wholesale Price Index) falling by 30 per cent, agricultural prices by 40 per cent, and textile prices by nearly 50 per cent. From 1931, rural impoverishment became manifestly severe and widespread, exploitative regimes of landlordism throughout Japan resulted in the 1934 Tohoku famine. The response to which was a rural radicalisation in pursuit of economic justice, with popular criticism of government and industry. This economic and social dissolution produced an upsurge in military and right-wing political power through the public disillusionment towards traditional political governments. Consequently, developing into a period known as the ‘Politics of Assassination.’ Most notably, the May 15 Incident of 1932, in which young naval officers assassinated Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi, as well as the later February 26 Incident in 1936 saw a failed coup by the Japanese Imperial Army towards the government of Prime Minister Keisuke Okada. In the aftermath of these events, military influence over the civilian government grew significantly. This allowed for the transition away from economic liberalism and towards greater state economic control and management. These increasingly fascist modes of organisation and thought during the 1930s, emphasised the virtues of cooperation, and the suppression of individual needs or wants to further the goals of the collective, in particular, economic development and industrialisation within all areas of Japanese society. 

Consequently, greater totalitarian, militarist, and aggressive foreign expansionist ideals were espoused by the imperial politico-military leadership of Japan. From the 1920s onwards, the Japanese were becoming increasingly entrenched on mainland Asia, through the control of former Russian railroads in Manchuria and Outer Mongolia. This was economically vital and underpinned Japan’s strategic influence in northern China. Through a constant Japanese military presence in Chinese lands and a weapons trade with local warlords, the Japanese functioned as an imperial power in the region. However, the Chinese nationalist threat continued to expand during this period, weakening Japan’s influence over the Manchurian warlords. This resulted in the Jinan Incident of 1928, between the Northern Expedition and the Imperial Japanese Army, underscoring Chiang Kai Shek’s proclamation of Japan as the main threat to China at this time. Therefore, within the political-military dual government of Japan there developed vehement criticism of the ‘Shidehara Diplomacy’ for being too soft on China amidst an expanding sphere of Japanese imperial assimilation. 

The culmination of these rising military tensions was the 1931 Manchurian Incident and the formation of the Japanese-controlled satellite state of Manchukuo. It was motivated by total war economics and forward national defence of the Japanese archipelago. In response, the Chinese military attempted to utilise international law, upheld by the League of Nations, contributing to the Lytton Committee investigation of 1932, which concluded Japan’s invasion was unjustified. In response, Japan left the League of Nations, effectively became a ‘rogue state,’ in opposition to Anglo-American interests.  This proved a major turning point in the progression of Japan into a fully-fledged fascist state. With the ramping-up of military engagements in China in the same year and with an unsuccessful invasion of Shanghai, forcing the Tanggu Ceasefire the following year. Then, in 1936, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, providing an early link with Nazi Germany and the fulfilment of globally connected fascist ideological frameworks. 

Mirroring these increasingly aggressive and totalitarian expansionist foreign policy objectives, through the Second Sino-Japanese war of 1937-41, a fascist economic model was introduced in Japan with total military mobilisation under the National Mobilisation Law of 1938, allowing for control of the zaibatsu to fuel the ever-growing war machine of Japan. This included extreme direct investment in the new state of Manchukuo, with the construction of new cities, mines, and railroads. Interestingly, these autocratic socio-economic modes of development were both imported and exported between Japan and mainland Asia during this period. Alongside, the development of both a Central Price Committee and Central Planning Board directed national and private enterprise energies towards the enemy. Then, in September 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Italy, simultaneously establishing closer connections with Germany, in order to separate them from assisting China, preventing Soviet expansion Eastwards, and dissuading the United States from entering the war. 

Under Prime Minister Kanoe Fumimaro, between June 1937 and January 1939 and again from July 1940 to October 1941, there was an increased focus on the mollification of military men, alongside the expansion of Japanese influence across Asia and preparation for the future race war. This is elucidated through the creation, in August 1940, of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere by Japan, emphasising Japan’s imperial unification and pursuit of Pan-Asianism. While, political totalitarian control was extended into the depths of Japanese society. Crucially, Japan became a single-party state following the dissolution of political parties and the creation of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (IRAA). Numerous state-controlled social organisations were created, including: the Neighbourhood Association, to police people’s behaviour on a local community level; the Great Japanese Women’s Association, which cooperated with the IRAA to provide grass-roots, family-oriented management; as well as the Youth Association, controlling education and military development. Between December 1937 and February 1938, the Imperial Japanese government violently suppressed subversive members of society, in what became known as the Popular Front Incident. Additionally, in July 1940, the politician Saito Takao was evicted from the Diet due to this criticism of the Japanese war effort. Thus, through authoritarian methods of manipulation, violence and control, the Japanese state became increasingly invasive throughout the late 1930s and increasingly more-so during World War II. 

It is intriguing to compare the fascism of Japan with that of its Nazi German and Italian counterparts during this period. Distinctly, Japan did not experience a mass movement or cult of the supreme leader, but instead a heavy stress on agrarianism and a central role for military officers in national control. Further to this, a high degree of consistency, through the political culture, was tacitly assumed. However, despite the extremely homogeneous nature of Japanese society, there were wide variations in values and behaviour, founded in geographical or class differences. Ultimately, from initially balancing limited democratic values with elements of control and regulation in the 1920s, to external expansion throughout the 1930s, and the protracted war across the Asia-Pacifc region until 1945, Japan progressively developed ever-greater fascist modes of social, economic, and military state-controlled, authoritarianism throughout this period. 


Berger, Gordon M, “Politics and Mobilization in Japan, 1931–1945,” in The Cambridge History of Japan, ed. Peter Duus (Cambridge, 1989).

Duus, Peter; Okimoti, Daniel I., “Fascism and the History of Pre-War Japan: The Failure of a Concept,” The Journal of Asian Studies, 1 (1979): 65-76.

McCormack, Gavan. “1930s JAPAN: Fascist?” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, 5/6 (1980): 125-43.

Tansman, Alan, The Culture of Japanese Fascism, (Durham, 2009). 

Yoshimi, Yoshiaki, Grassroots Fascism: The War Experience of the Japanese People, (New York, 2015).

 Image source:

The Arnolfini Portrait and the Limits of Interpretation

Written by: Tristan Craig.

Hung in the fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting room of the National Gallery, Jan van Eyck’s 1434 Arnolfini Portrait has been a source of intrigue, mystery and vastly differing readings since its purchase by the gallery in 1842. Measuring just under one metre in height, this oil panel – commonly understood to be a member of the prominent Italian Arnolfini family and his wife – is replete with detail. Such a wealth of imagery has invited a great deal of scholarly debate concerning how to interpret the artwork however, when even the identity of the painting’s subjects cannot be confirmed with absolute certainty, uncovering the true intention of van Eyck’s masterpiece is no small task.

A pivotal work in the study of the painting is a 1934 thesis published in the Burlington Magazine by art historian Erwin Panofsky. An expert in analysing iconography and symbolism in art of the Northern Renaissance, the impetus for Panofsky’s reading was an earlier theory presented by Louis Dimier who believed the couple to be Jan van Eyck and his wife. Panofsky disagreed with this interpretation of ‘Johannes de Eyck fuit hic’ (an inscription on the wall behind the couple which translates as ‘Jan van Eyck was here’), believing it to signify that the artist was present as a witness rather than a bridegroom. However, in the inventories of Margaret of Austria in what Panofsky termed the “orthodox theory”, the male figure in the panel was declared as one ‘Arnoult fin’; adopting this stance, Panofsky asserted that the couple must therefore be Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, Jeanne de Cename. He then argued, with convincing reasoning, that it not only represented a nuptial scene but served as a pictorial wedding contract, citing that the clandestine nature of the wedding would necessitate such a unique testimony from van Eyck.

Several counter arguments were presented to Panofsky’s theory in subsequent years. In 1994, art historian Edwin Hall published The Arnolfini Betrothal in which he argued that the painting was not a wedding scene, but rather commemorated an engagement. However, both theories rested on the supposition that the gentleman in the painting was the same man. Unchallenged for decades, later findings would expose a tremendous flaw in this assumption, shattering the foundations upon which both theories rested. Whilst Panofsky refers in his text simply to a ‘Giovanni Arnolfini,’ the name was shared by two members of the family, both of whom lived in Bruges when van Eyck was active: Giovanni de Arrigo Arnolfini – who was married to Jeanne de Cename and who Panofsky believes are the couple depicted – and his cousin, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. The discovery of another inventory would be his undoing; ducal accounts confirmed that the former Arnolfini cousin and Jeanne were not wed until 1447, 13 years after the ‘matrimonial’ artwork was completed. If it was Giovanni de Arrigo Arnolfini, it could not be a nuptial scene. Lorne Campbell, former Beaumont Senior Research Curator at the National Gallery and responsible for the gallery’s catalogue of Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, claimed that the couple were di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, Costanza Trenta. But again, a critical problem arose with this attribution – Constanza Trenta died in 1433. It could be that, as Lorne Campbell suggests, di Nicolao was wed for a second time very soon after the death of this first wife, but no evidence has been uncovered to support this notion.

However, whilst the majority of scholarship supports the concept that the painting depicts a conjugal scene – which throws into serious question the identity of the couple – it may convey a dramatically different tale. The majority of Panofsky’s argument centres on his interpretation of the many objects interspersed throughout the scene, such as the solitary candle burning in a chandelier directly above the male Arnolfini’s head. For Panofsky, it can have only one meaning; not serving any practical purposes of illumination, he states emphatically that it relates to the matrimonial oath. But in fifteenth-century artistic convention, the burning candle served other purposes of a much more sombre ilk. Presenting her own findings in 2003, art historian, Margaret Koster introduces the burning candle as a symbol of life, but that the extinguished candle over Constanza’s head may in actuality signify her death. The symbolic counter-arguments do not end there: the small dog at the feet of the couple, which for Panofsky represents marital fidelity, was also a common trope in female tomb effigies as they were believed to accompany them into the afterlife. Incidentally, Panofsky notes the similarities in the stance of the couple to Roman sarcophagi but cites this reference as little more than a possible ‘influence.’ The mirror hung on the wall above van Eyck’s signature too has prompted speculation; whilst Panofsky does not probe its inclusion beyond reflecting the couple, Koster states that it’s a device often used in vanitas paintings. Like the memento mori, such compositions denote the fragility of life and inevitability of death. In such paintings, mirrors represent both vanity and truth, and its inclusion in a convex form within the Arnolfini Portrait may signify a distorted perception of the world; the reality of the married couple portrayed in actuality being a melancholic figment of imagination.

It also ought to be stated that what Panofsky considers deliberate or ‘disguised symbolism’ purposely included by Jan van Eyck may in fact be incidental. He goes into great deal in elaborating the purpose of the small dog at the feet of the Arnolfini’s as a representation of faith; whilst it may have a more sorrowful purpose, it may also simply be a beloved lapdog, another common feature in artwork of the period. Indeed, the marital vow that Panofsky attests the couple are taking based on their hand gestures (note that the examples he uses show the joining of the couples right hands; in the Arnolfini Portrait, his left hand takes her right which in itself has prompted problematic interpretation) could signify a plethora of oaths. With the crux of his argument resting on an understanding that has since proven false, Panofsky’s translation of what he considers to be deliberate symbols quickly begins to unravel.

With such conflicting scholarship, it seems the true ‘meaning’ of the Arnolfini portrait may never be indubitably uncovered. What Edwin Panofsky and the scholars that both proceeded and followed him show is how interpretation is severely limited by how much it can be substantiated. Despite plausible theories and cogent argumentation, Panofsky’s thesis unfortunately fell foul to the passing of time and subsequent findings. That is not to say that his thesis ought to be completely disregarded, rather his understanding of iconography and Netherlandish painting provide an interesting insight into a masterpiece. The mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait, however, continues.


Hall, Edwin, The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck’s Double Portrait, (London, 1994).

Hicks, Carola, The Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait, (London, 2012).

Janson, Anthony F., “The Convex Mirror as Vanitas Symbol,” Source: Notes in the History of Art, 2/3 (1985): 51-54.

Koster, Margaret L., “The Arnolfini Double Portrait: A Simple Solution,” Apollo, 499 (2003): 3-14.Panofsky, Erwin, “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 372 (1934): 117-127.

Image: The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434. Photograph: Thames & Hudson

Homosexuality in Renaissance Florence: The Ambiguities of Neoplatonic Thought

Written by: Jamie Gemmell

Renaissance Italy is popularly portrayed as a realm of carnal debauchery. One only needs to watch Tom Fontana’s Borgia (2011-2014) to understand common conceptions of Renaissance Italy as a realm of brutal acts, orgies, and affairs. Yet, is there any truth to these depictions? On the subject of sexual activity, Michael Rocke has argued that fifteenth century Florence was awash with sodomy. He suggests that two thirds of men were officially implicated by the age of forty. In the final four decades of the fifteenth century, 17,000 Florentine men had been accused of sodomy by the Office of the Night (an institution founded to investigate homosexual relations). These statistics seem to substantiate our popular conception of the Renaissance. However, sheer statistics undermine the complex dynamics of homosexual relations in fifteenth-century Florence. 

This was not only a story of licentiousness. Men grappled with their “carnal” desires and scrutinised them through the intellectual tools available to them. One of these tools was Neoplatonism, the revival and re-interpretation of Plato and the Neoplatonic texts, most associated with Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and his informal Florentine Academy. Understandings of Ancient Greek thought provided a framework for Florentine men to engage with homosexual relations, creating a discourse that could both justify and condemn their actions. 

Broadly, the Neoplatonists of the fifteenth century sought to integrate Christian theology with Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy. The dominant figure behind this was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) who translated and provided commentaries on thirty-six of Plato’s dialogues. Ficino reinterpreted the Neoplatonists’ metaphysical system. He accepted the hierarchy of the system, dividing the universe into various stages leading to a higher unity. However, instead of equating total unity with the Neoplatonic “One,” he equated it with God. Through contemplation and spiritual love, the soul could ascend through this hierarchy and achieve unity with God.

For the Renaissance Neoplatonists, spiritual love was a route to ascend to God: a Christian reinterpretation of Plato’s Diotima’s ladder. Beginning with an appreciation for the “Vulgar Venus” (the beauty of the sensual world) one could use contemplation to ascend to an appreciation for the “Heavenly Venus” (the beauty of the intelligible world) and, eventually, ascend to unity with God. Fundamental to this was the idea that “the form of the body” could be used to reach the “higher beauty of the Soul,” allowing for an affection towards the physical that was consistent with Christian theology.

In the context of Florentine male homosexual culture, the Neoplatonic concept of love provided a route to explain and justify sodomy. Male homosexuality in Florence was widespread, and relatively accepted as long as it followed existing relations of power, despite Church doctrine denouncing the practice. This meant the most common form of male homosexual relations was pederasty, an “active” older male and a “passive” adolescent. Inverting this situation was viewed as a threat to the existing social system, hence Salvi Panuzzi, a prolific sodomite, was only sentenced to death once he had admitted to being sodomised. The Neoplatonist concept of love provided a route to understanding pederasty by arguing “heavenly love” was “more properly directed…towards men.” As the male intellect was deemed superior to the female, it was deemed close male bonds provided a better route to unity with God through love.

Whilst the Neoplatonic idea of love could justify male homosexuality, it could condemn it too. Following the work of the “Florentine Academy,” an informal circle surrounding Marsilio Ficino, there was a shift away from the broad conception of love as a spiritual bond between males. Baldesar Castgilione’s The Courtier explicitly connected heterosexuality and Neoplatonic love, claiming “a kiss,” between man and woman, represented “a union of souls.” This demonstrated a distancing from the view that a bond between males was the best way to ascend to God. Elsewhere in the work Castiglione criticised Socrates for “loving more the beauty… in boys…” emphasising a shift towards heterosexuality. This shift demonstrates Neoplatonic ideas on love could be used to condemn, as well as explain, the culture surrounding male homosexual culture.

The ambiguity of the relationship between Neoplatonic love and male homosexual culture is fully revealed through the work of Michelangelo. Michelangelo was likely a homosexual and showed deep affection towards Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a young Italian nobleman. Michelangelo’s complex relationship with Cavalieri, and homosexuality more broadly, is suggested in his Ganymede and Tityos, a pair of images which make explicit use of Neoplatonist thought. In the former, Ganymede, the mythical Trojan boy, said to be the beloved of Zeus, is depicted ascending to heaven, carried by an eagle, referring to the way a spiritual bond between men could lead to greater unity with God. In the latter, Tityos is attacked by an eagle, portraying the risk of descending into carnal desires. In these pieces, Michelangelo used Neoplatonic love to both justify and condemn male homosexual behaviour. Neoplatonic thought therefore served as a paradigm through which men could understand their homosexual desires.  

The Neoplatonic concept of love had an ambiguous relationship with the culture surrounding male homosexuality in Florence. The revival of Plato’s dialogues and their integration with Christian theology could function as a method to justify homosexuality. The emphasis on spiritual love provided an avenue for men to understand and explain their sexual relations with other men in a world where such practices were condemned as sinful. Yet it could criticise such practices too through a renewed emphasis on heterosexuality and the spiritual connection between man and woman. This inherent ambiguity is portrayed in the work of Michelangelo who struggled to cohere his homosexuality with Christian devotion. Neoplatonism provided a lens through which he could express the internal conflict between acceptance and condemnation. Ultimately, the relationship between Neoplatonic love and male homosexual culture in Renaissance Florence cannot be used to reduce the Renaissance to a descent into debauched pleasure. Instead, the reality was far more complex and dynamic.    

Thumbnail of Punishment of Tityos
Thumbnail of Rape of Ganymede


Primary Sources

Buonarroti, Michelangelo, “Punishment of Tityos,” Windsor Castle Royal Library.;prevRouteTS=1549299233826  

Buonarroti, Michelangelo, “Rape of Ganymede,” Fogg Art Museum.;prevRouteTS=1549299436258 

Castiglione, Baldesar, The Courtier, Trans. George Bull (London, 1967).

Cattani da Diacceto, Franceso, “Panegyric on Love,” Trans. Luc Deitz, in Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts, ed. Jill Kraye (Cambridge, 1997). 

Ficino, Marsilio. “A Friendship is Lasting which is Forged by God,” in The Letters of Marsilio Ficino (London: 1975).

Ficino, Marsilio, “Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love,” in The Civilisation of the Italian Renaissance: A Sourcebook, ed. Kenneth Bartlett (Lexington, 1992)  

Secondary Sources

Adamson, Peter, Hobbs, Angie, and Sheppard, Anne. “In Our Time: Neoplatonism.” Interview by Melvyn Bragg, BBC Radio 4, April 19, 2012. Audio, 41:57.

Bullough, Vern, Sexual Variance in Society and History (New York, 1976).

Dall’Orto, Giovanni, “‘Socratic Love’ as a Disguise for Same-Sex Love in the Italian Renaissance,” Journal of Homosexuality 1 (1989), 33-66.

Field, Arthur, “The Platonic Academy in Florence,” in Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, his Philosophy, his Legacy, eds. Michael Allen; Martin Davies; Valery Rees (Leiden, 2002).

Hankins, James, Plato in the Italian Renaissance (Leiden, 1991).

Kraye, Jill, “The Transformation of Platonic Love in the Italian Renaissance,” in The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader, ed. Keith Whitlock (New Haven, 2000).

Kristeller, Paul, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters III (Roma, 1956).

Kristeller, Paul, Renaissance Thought II: Papers on Humanism and the Arts (New York, 1961).

Panofsky, Erwin, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, (New York, 1939).

Rocke, Michael, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (New York, 1996).

Rocke, Michael, “Gender and Sexual Culture in Renaissance Italy,” in Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy, eds. Judith Brown; Robert Davis (London, 1998).

Saslow, James, Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society (London, 1986).Wildberg, Christian. “Neoplatonism.” Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy, January 11, 2016.


Impending Collapse: Holy War and the Fall of Jerusalem in 1187

Written by: Jack Bennett.

October 2, 1187. On the anniversary of Muhammad’s ‘Night Journey’ from Jerusalem to Heaven, Saladin made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Following victory at the Battle of Hattin in July, Muslim forces had swept throughout the Crusader States, systematically recapturing Latin Christian settlements, and dismantling the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. This piece aims to examine the political and military factors behind the Kingdom’s disintegration. 

Decades of corrosive internal political factionalism, and increasing detachment from Western European support had created instability and deepening turmoil within the Kingdom of Jerusalem by 1187. Despite previous signs of revived strength, and even expansion, between 1154 and 1163 – such as King Baldwin III capturing the port of Ascalon in 1153 and the capture of Harim in 1158, by the 1170s and into the 1180s these positive developments had been truly undermined by Latin Christian divisions. This was seriously damaging to the geographic safety and position of these proto-colonial territories, which were founded upon the interaction between religious zeal, and the pursuit of political and material acquisition. The roots of this divisionism amongst the Latin Christian monarchy and nobility of the Crusader States, can be traced to the dispute between King Baldwin III and the Queen mother, Melisende, which physically divided the Kingdom of Jerusalem into north and south territories between 1150 and 1152 –  undermining the political stability of the Crusader States. By 1187, these entrenched divisions had corrupted the core monarchical and noble political frameworks underpinning security and survival on the Levantine coast. 

During the reign of King Baldwin IV between 1174 and 1185, and in the aftermath of his death, the Crusader States became increasingly vulnerable. Critically, Western Europeans regarded the Latin Christian states in the Near East as autonomous, as a result of the evolution of hybridised-cultures since the First Crusade, thus distancing them from monarchical power in the West. In 1184, Patriarch Heraclius was sent to Europe in order to initiate another crusade. However, both Henry II of England and Louis VII of France were unwilling to partake due to their own internal political rivalries. Therefore, without the required strong Western European political and military support required in the previous decades of establishment and consolidation to sustain the Crusader states on the Levantine coast, they became vulnerable to the increasing Muslim military threat. Following the death of Baldwin IV in 1185, a power vacuum was created, with two competing factions emerging between Guy of Lusignan, married to Sybilla of Jerusalem, and Raymond III of Tripoli – former regent to Baldwin IV. This reached its climax in 1186 when Humphrey IV of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem were positioned as competitors to the throne. Within  the same year,  the degree of disunity in the Crusader States is further highlighted by Raymond’s forging of a truce with Saladin, betraying the Latin Christians of Outremer by granting his access to Tiberias and hence the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem. 

Importantly, individual poliking by the Franks within the Crusader States had undermined their integrity and strength prior to 1187. For instance, Baldwin of Ibelin exiled himself to the Principality of Antioch in 1186, due to the power exerted by Guy and Sybilla as monarchs within the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Additionally, the conspiracy and attempted to siege of Jerusalem in 1180 – led by Bohemond III of Antioch and Raymond III of Tripoli, reveals the fundamental disunity across the Crusader States that prevented cohesive, coordinated military combat of the increasingly effective sources of Islamic power in the Near East under successive rulers. Military weakness contributed to an increasing reliance on the Military Orders to uphold the integrity of the Crusader States as the twelfth-century progressed, as illustrated by the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s defeat in 1187 at the Battle of Cresson, at which Hospitaller and Templar forces were completely annihilated by Saladin’s forces, providing a prelude of the calamitous defeat at the battle of Hattin later that same year. This political factionalism further jeopardised the legitimacy of the monarchy on the journey to Jerusalem’s capture in 1187. King Amalric I changed the political and military objectives of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, with his desire to expand into Egypt during the 1160s. This resulted in the Frankish expedition of 1164 – which was beaten at Bilbeis, and another in 1167, ending in a truce with the Egyptian Fatimids. Critically, this compromised the security of the northern Crusader States of Antioch and Tripoli in the face of ever-present Muslim incursions and expansion under the leadership of Nur ad-Din. 

To perceive the Franks of the Near East as completely enfeebled, however, would be a true oversight. In 1177, the Franks triumphed at the Battle of Montgisard, a victory that was widely reported in western Europe, doing little to convince people of the Latin Christian’s desire for help. The construction in 1178-79 of the castle of Jacob’s Ford was a strategic act of forward aggression which forced Saladin into an act of destructive protectionism of Damascus. The Franks also succeeded in maintaining naval preeminence in the eastern Mediterranean through the protection of Beirut from Saladin’s seaborne attack in 1182. Yet, these glimmers of hope were compromised during the 1180s with Saladin’s achievement of hegemonic power in the Near East. 

The contrast between leaders of the Muslim and Frankish worlds in the Near East in the decades preceeding the events of 1187 could have not been greater. As the Crusader States descended into infighting, division and weakness; Saladin secured his position in Egypt, expanded his politico-military influence and unified Muslim populations through the encouragement of jihad across the Near East. This political and religious evolution held deeper roots, truly beginning in the 1130s under the leadership of Zengi, who brought together the Muslim military strongholds of Aleppo and Damascus by 1138. Crucially, the capture of Edessa in 1144 by Zengi proved a pivotal turning point in the survival and eventual decline of the remaining Crusader States, through the removal of a strategic defensive buffer, providing Zengi with a decisive foothold in Frankish territory from which to further threaten the Crusader States. 

Conquest and expansion continued under the leadership of Nur ad-Din from 1146. By establishing authority in Mosul and Aleppo in 1149, Nur ad-Din invaded the Principality of Antioch, besieging the town of Afamiya and eventually gaining a significant hold over the Crusader State after the Battle of Inab in the same year. Crucially, in 1153 Nur ad-Din achieved preeminent authority in the Near East through the control of the ‘Muslim Holy Trinity’ of cities: Aleppo, Mosul and Damascus – ensuring political and military stability and the continuous expansion of hegemony. However,  in the years 1154-63, Nur ad-Din might have experienced a spiritual awakening and laid the foundations for jihad, but he chose not to commit his forces to a Holy War against the Crusader states. Thus by 1163, Nur ad-Din was in a position to pursue expansion into Egypt, simultaneous to the dissolution of Fatimid power in the region, effectively surrounding the Crusader States and undermining their position further. 

Following Nur ad-Din’s death in 1174, Saladin established his control over the Near East, assuming control of Damascus, through patient diplomacy and propaganda rather than through force. Since 1169, Saladin had established his authority in Egypt and by the end of 1174, several of warlords across the Near East now supported him in the continued expansion of his Ayyubid Empire, as he took control of Homs, Hama and Baalbek with little bloodshed. The conquest of Aleppo proved more difficult, and it was not until 1183 that Saladin finally brought the city under his control. Like Nur ad-Din, Saladin had spent the first ten years of his rule mostly fighting other Muslims- perhaps this was a necessary precondition to waging Holy War on the Franks and prizing Jerusalem from their grasp. Crucially, from 1186, his spirituality began to deepen and he dedicated himself to the cause of jihad and the ultimate recovery of Jerusalem.

Throughout the course of the twelfth century, the increasingly strained relations between the Crusader States and neighbouring Byzantine Empire fundamentally undermined the potential for Latin Christians to respond to the amassing tide of Muslim dominance and politico-military unity. Under Emperor John II Comnenus, Raymond of Antioch, Joscelin II of Edessa and Raymond II of Tripoli were forced to accept overlordship from 1142. This political maneuver only served to reduce the autonomy of the Crusader States, individually and as a collective. Therefore, without a positive alliance with the Byzantines, the threats to the Kingdom of Jerusalem could not be effectively dealt with. Furthermore, John’s alliance with the German Emperor Lothair III against Roger of Sicily caused further factionalism within the Crusader States during this period, due to a previous allegiance with European nobles. Further diminishing of the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s authority and power in Outremer and over fellow Crusader States occurred during the reign of Emperor Manuel I. His alliance with Nur ad-Din in 1159, and eventual capture of Reynald of Chatillon in 1160, corroded relations with Latin Christians and the King of Jerusalem, weakening their strategic position in Outremer by compromising the potential for military cooperation and support in the face of expanding Muslim aggression. 

Pivotally, in 1176 the Byzantines were defeated at the Battle of Myriokephalon, preventing a substantial and powerful countering of Saladin’s growing expansionism in the Near East. The most clear demonstration of debilitated Byzantine-Latin Christian relations is illustrated by the reign of Emperor Andronikos I from 1183-85, and the explicit, violent enactment of anti-Frankish sentiment in Constantinople which lead to thousands of Latin Christians being massacred. These strains culminated in 1187 under Emperor Isaac II Angelos, with Slavic and Bulgar rebellions averting Byzantine military power and resources from supporting the Crusader States in their hour of need at the fatal Battle of Hattin. The Kingdom of Jersusalem suffered diplomatically and militarily as a consequence of disintegrating ties with the Byzantine Empire, due to the growing inability to stem the tide of Muslim expansion in the Near East. 

The fall of Jerusalem in 1187 highlights the debilitating nature of increasing internal Latin Christian politico-military factionalism throughout the twelfth-century, which consequently compounded the threat of Muslim unification through jihad and military expansionism to the position of the Crusader States on the Levantine coast. The fallout from Jerusalem’s capture had polarising ramifications in European Christendom and the Muslim world of the Near East, triggering both the Third Crusade of 1189-9 and further religiously zealous military expeditions, under a succession of Western Christian kings and nobles, as well as assisting the pericipitous decline in Saladin’s authority across the Ayyubid Empire in the aftermath of victory. Jerusalem, therefore, maintained its politico-religious power beyond 1187. 


Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land, Simon and Schuster, 2012.
Cobb, Paul M. The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Phillips, Jonathan. The Crusades, 1095-1204 (Seminar Studies). Abingdon: Routledge, 2014. 
Phillips, Jonathan. Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades. New York: Vintage, 2010. 

Riley-Smith, J. S. C. “Peace Never Established: The Case of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 28 (1978): 87-102

Tyreman, Christopher. God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. London: Penguin, 2007. 

Image Source: illustrated view of the Dome of the Rock from the cover of Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography, (London: Phoenix, 2012)