Valentine’s day – a day for young lovers, elderly romantics and empowered singletons. For several centuries it has been the designated date for organised displays of love and intimacy. But whence does it come and who’s this fella by the name of Valentine we celebrate?
Conventional belief is that February 14th marks the death of St. Valentine; the Christian patron for love. Although St. Valentine (or Valentines) are documented to have lived and died on February 14th, the profile of a love-crazy saint lacks historical backing. Sources such as the ‘Acta Sanctorum’ list Valentines that do not correspond with the idea of an enchanting swain.
In fact, the plausible histories we do have lack any seductive thread of romance. In antiquity, during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus (269-270 A.D.), we have documented a Valentinus who helped bring salvation to many pagans of ancient Rome. A pagan named Asterius came to Valentinus and wished for his blind foster daughter to recover her sight. Calling upon the healing powers of Jesus Christ, Valentinus was able to give Asterius’s daughter sight and the family duly converted to Christianity. When Emperor Claudius found out, Valentinus, Asterius and his family were all executed.
So if St. Valentinus doesn’t get us anywhere with understanding why February 14th is all about love, maybe the origins of the festival will reveal more?
Similar to Christmas and Easter, it has been argued that Valentine’s day is a replacement for an earlier pagan festival which went by the name of Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a carnival that took place in the streets of ancient Rome where young men would run through the city dressed in a thong made out of newly killed goats. Lupercalia was believed to bring healthy babies to expecting mothers.
But this still doesn’t get us much closer – we need to look at medieval England – specifically at Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of ‘The Canterbury Tales’. Chaucer made the association between February as bird mating system, with sending loved ones romantic letters and poetry. It caught on and soon all of European nobility started doing it. From there, Shakespeare got involved and St. Valentine’s day as we know it became established.
Happy Valentine’s day!
There’s not a student who hasn’t studied him and we all owe him major props for his contribution to both theatre and the English language itself, but what we don’t often think about is how the words of William Shakespeare were pronounced. Contrary to assumed belief that Shakespeare was to be pronounced in the haughtiest of accents an actor could muster, the original pronunciation is something a lot more akin to regional English varieties – especially ‘West Country’ accents.
The globe started doing original productions of Shakespeare in 1994 with original instruments ,costumes and sets but remained hesitant to also work with the original pronunciation (known as OP). Finally in 2004, a performance of Romeo & Juliet in OP was done to grand acclaim and a large turnout.
In this incredibly engaging video interview with David Crystal – a leading Linguist – and his son Ben Crystal, the pair discuss the secrets that reveal themselves when Shakespearean verse is performed in its original accent. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the English language (now referred to as Early Modern English) was going through a rapid period of change.
For example, in earlier Shakespearean plays, the word ‘musician’ was pronounced /muːzɪsjæn/ (moo-zih-see-an) and then transformed to /muːzɪʃjæn/ ‘moo-zih-shee-an) and then finally arriving at the recognisable /muːzɪʃjæn ‘moo-zih-shan).
Hidden puns and rhymes that remain undetected in a Modern English accent emerge once you perform them in OP. For example, in Sonnet 116 ‘Let Me Not To The Marriage of True Minds’, there’s a couplet lov’d/prov’d that in Modern English are pronounced ‘loved’ and ‘proved’, with the vowel sounds having diverged from each other, which in OP are both pronounced with the vowel /ʌ/ meaning that ‘proved’ sounded like ‘loved’.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
But if there was no way of recording all those centuries ago, how can we be certain in our estimates of original pronunciation? David Crystal lays out 3 sources of evidence;
Check out the full video by the Open University here!
This topic is a great stepping stone into the enthralling world of language change and it’s something that would look great on a Linguistics or English Literature personal statement!
In a town where every man was armed with sword or dagger, you would be reasonable to assume that urban crime in Medieval London was rife. Whether you were stealthily attacked in the shadows of a back alley or were drowned in the name of one less mouth to feed, 14th century London was a violent and dangerous place to be. The information comes from the Coroners’ Scrolls of which several have survived from this period in history. A coroner was someone who recorded all cases of premature, unnatural and sudden death and it’s because of their documentation that we can get an insight into this scarily intriguing part of London’s past.
For history buffs with a dark curiosity, the University of Cambridge has created an interactive map of crime in London, pinpointing where crimes took place with all sorts of gory details about their happenings. All in all, you can find out about the stories of 142 homicides that took place in the first half of the 14th century in London. The map can be filtered for gender of the victims, location and even weapon of use (spoiler: swords and daggers are the preferred modus operandi!). Did you know that wounds to the throat, neck and head were the most frequently targeted area making up 42% of all reported murder cases. Surprising or not, men make up 92% of the perpetrators but the stories of the 8% of women perpetrators are just as intriguing. For example, one woman killed a young boy for stealing some wool!
You can find the map here. Happy exploring – but watch your back!
Fasting has a long history and is central to many of the world’s religions: Yom Kippur is a fast day in Judaism, Ramadan is a fast month in Islam, and Lent is a 40-day fast in Christianity for Roman Catholics.
Uses of fasting can similarly be traced as far back as our primitive cultures, with examples as far ranging as: coming-of-age rites, appeasing violent deities, rituals to avoid catastrophes, and as a preparation tool for war. Fasting has even been used as a form of political protest, with the Suffragettes, the Irish Republicans and Gandhi all using hunger strikes to convey their message.
Described by Paracelsus as the ‘physican within’, the health benefits of fasting, as well as the spiritual benefits, have also be long extolled. The ‘nature cure’ became popular in the 1920s with fasting being used to treat everything from heart disease to headaches. In recent years, the rise of the 5:2 diet (where only 500 of calories are consumed on two days a week) and the 16:8 (where eating is restricted to an 8-hour window) have refreshed the concept of fasting in the public’s eye.
Students applying for History could investigate further into past beliefs around fasting and how charlatans have used extreme restrictive diets as a con in the past. Those applying for Theology might like to investigate other examples of abstinence in religion.
A recent article by ‘Quartz’ online has stated that ‘Archaeologists have found the tomb of China’s Shakespeare.’
Archaeologists in the south eastern region of China have released a statement that they have been able to identify the tomb of a man called Tang Xianzu. He was a renowned late 16th Century playwright who is often dubbed the country’s Shakespeare. Student’s wanting to apply for HSPS and Archaeology and Anthropology can explore concepts such as cultural imperialism and the arguments surrounding imposing western figures on other cultures. Does comparing Tang Xianzu to Shakespeare detract from his own relevance within Chinese culture?
Students wanting to apply for Archaeology or Oriental Studies may then want to look into the discovery of his remains as a prompt to explore the context behind many of his plays. Tang Xianzu was known for his defiance of nobles in the Ming Dynasty. His plays explored controversial themes like the triumph of humanity over hierarchy and authority.
The remains of Tang’s tomb are filled with stories, and other parts of China’s history even after Tang’s death. The tomb suffered devastating destruction in the Cultural Revolution, a decade long political movement that began in 1966. This period plunged the country into a chaotic turmoil which saw various historic sited ransacked and destroyed. Students that are applying for History may use the discovery of Tang’s tomb as a reminder that the discovery of such objects are useful to build a more intricate and concrete picture of the past and highlight the linear path of history.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is considered by many to have only gained due recognition in recent times, with new research showing that it has increased within the British army amongst veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But suggestions of the condition can be seen throughout the history of human warfare and its aftermath. Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam has turned the mythological war hero into an ancient example of PTSD and this has led to further readings of other figures in antiquity.
Epizelus was an Athenian solider who fought in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. In Herodotus’ Histories he is recorded as having what we would now diagnose as hysterical blindness or a conversion disorder. Herodotus refers to the events of battle as leading to his blindness and evidence that supports our contemporary reading, of these symptoms as those of PTSD, can be seen later in the European Middle Ages.
The soldiers of William the Conqueror are recorded as nearly rebelling against their leader because they felt he had gone too far in the Harrying of the North, a brutal conquest that followed the Battle of Hastings. Later, 15th-century French soldiers were in fact celebrated for going ‘berserk’ due to the traumas of war whilst non-combatants were mocked.
But this viewing of historical trauma amongst soldiers through the filter of PTSD must not neglect the cultural norms of their societies and the attitudes towards combat. Killing rivals was culturally just and was certainly not observed with the pacifist sentiments of today. The rise of PTSD in our society can be in part be attributed to soldiers not receiving the validation and unquestioned approval of the majority of society.
Applicants for Classics and History can consider the way in which we interpret sources within our modern ideological psyche. Psychology applicants can try to apply this historical evidential support to other modern psychological developments.
How should art institutions, and society in general, respond to the art of figures whose creators or subjects are now seen as in some sense morally reprehensible? This was the question faced by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco when they unveiled their exhibition Casanova: The Seduction of Europe earlier this year. In an unpredicted coincidence, the exhibition opened its doors just four months after #MeToo first appeared online, and hence amidst a flurry of discussion about sexual assault and harassment.
Giacomo Casanova, the notorious figure behind the exhibition, was an adventurer, writer, and womanizer from 18th-century Venice. Although he has often been characterised as a dashing and charismatic romantic figure, some of his behaviour constituted sexual assault and rape. Hence, inadvertently, the exhibition provided an opportunity to discuss art and morality. How, if at all, should we present such exhibitions? Since Casanova himself is not the creator of the works of art displayed, is it misguided and unnecessary to make him the focus? Are we in danger of romanticising misogyny? Curator Melissa Buron comments, “Casanova is a complicated figure—there were things he did in his lifetime that were scandalous, certainly illegal in our current climate, but I don’t think it does anyone a service to whitewash or rewrite history, especially as a museum.”
The museum decided to try to incorporate these darker elements into the exhibition instead of shying away from them by inviting academics to give talks to provide historical context to the exhibition. Art critic Monica Westin, although suspicious that this approach might constitute museums “trying to have their cake and eat it too”, agrees that troubling historical events and figures such as Casanova cannot simply be ignored or excised from history; “they bookmark an entire set of histories and understandings about the world that we have inherited and must deal with.” On the other hand, such discussions about “rewriting history” raise questions about the nature of what we call “history”. To argue that de-centring certain figures or voices constitutes rewriting or whitewashing history assumes that history as we know it is a seamless and unified truth, rather than one particular narrative we have pieced together. The past, and indeed the present, can of course be seen from multiple perspectives. Julia Bryan-Wilson, for example, a professor of modern and contemporary art, argues that museums should be making an effort to present a variety of diverse voices.
Applicants for History of Art should think about the question of morality in art. Do we have a duty to de-centre art, music, or films by figures of the past or the present who we deem to be morally reprehensible? Can art ever be separate from society and transcendent of morality? Students wishing to study History should think particularly about the nature of history itself. Is history objective? What does it mean to “rewrite history”?