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Death in the Garden September 13, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

It is a gentle summer evening in York in 1108. Archbishop Gerard nods his head at a couple of monks, smiles beatifically at the veiled wife of a local well-to-do and then passes into the cathedral rose garden. Here, however, his expression changes. He now has the face of a man who knows what he is about: the animal cunning that at some level we all preserve. He looks left, he looks right, and then, satisfied that no one is about, he removes from his sleeve THE BOOK. He is an old man and his fingers are shaking: if he should be caught, if someone should find out… But no! He is the archbishop. None would dare question him. And even if one of the servants should enter the walled retreat they would assume that he was reading the Fathers or the Word.

He opens the book and his finger begins to move urgently over the page, picking out the Latin, reading the syllables aloud to make better sense of the confused syntax: understanding, knowledge, enlightenment…  The mysteries slide away: the stars shine. And what is more none of the poor fools will ever suspect! The holiest man north of the Humber is reading the most pagan, unchristian work to have survived the fall of Rome. The pleasure of learning and deceit is a heady one. He smiles his secret smile. Then bang. The Archbishop hears a fuzzy sound in his left ear and his left arm starts to ache. He stands up, the book falls and he keels over.

In 1196 Archbishop Gerard was found dead by his staff and next to him was discovered Firmicus’ Astrology, the most important opus on the zodiac in Latin, which is, as we shall see, not saying much. It is difficult to communicate the horror and the scandal today. After all, if the present American president were to die tomorrow in the bath and a soggy copy of Hayek or Friedman were found floating besides him there would be mild surprise, a couple of digs in the gossip columns, but that would be about it.  To put this scandal in modern terms Beachcombing would have to conjure up the head of a business empire that has a heart attack in his office and is found to be wearing his wife’s frilly underwear when they undress him at the morgue.

In the case of our putative Donald Trump there is a chance that the press will never know and no one but the tittering morticians will gossip over his private life. But poor, poor Gerard. Beach’s heart goes out to him. An almighty scandal was raised over the holy man’s head. He was refused burial in the cathedral – this is the archbishop remember – and salacious rumours were told of his unholy life in William of Malmesbury: likely the result of his one transgression in reading.

And the joke is that Julius Firmicus was not worth the calf skin it was written on. In the prologue, this antique cucumber boasts false modesty, noting that he is not up to the job he is about to undertake. Unfortunately this happened to be true. Firmicus who communicated astrology to the medieval Latin west couldn’t tell his Cancer from Scorpio and was rather inclined to copy from other authors he did not understand. Indeed, arguably the only worthwhile sentence in his volume is the information that Julius Caesar had translated some astrological texts. Can this be true? Another post, another day.

Still, even if Julius was a Gemini, it is hardly worth the end of your reputation for that simple tidbit of classical gossip. Pity poor Gerard then. But enjoy the picture of his canons standing over their dead master and their all too medieval outrage. Oh to have been there…

Beachcombing has neglected astrology in history: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com