Early Modern Times – dwarves & giants

Early Modern Times - dwarves & giants

Dear readers,

Given such social movements as #metoo, #neveragain, and #idlenomore (and perhaps in future, the promotion of games of ‘it’ when smoking cannibis, as in #hashtag?), not to mention the sixties counter-culture (which was very furniture-minded), one might have the impression that radical social protest is of relatively recent provenance. This would be incorrect, of course, as social activism goes back at least to antiquity (e.g., the amazing Gracchi, how sweet the sound). One ‘overlooked’ early modern radical has been recently highlighted: the ‘Quaker dwarf’ Benjamin Lay (1682-1759 & whose lower half is pictured above in a 1790 painting by William Williams), the subject of a biography by the Marxist pirate historian Marcus Rediker (not that he’s a Marxist pirate, mind you). This recent article describes the British-born American Quaker and friend of Benjamin Franklin as ‘a militant vegetarian, a feminist, an abolitionist and opposed to the death penalty’, as well as being about 4 ft. tall. Besides his favourite diet of ‘turnips boiled, and afterwards roasted’ with water, his outspoken polemics at Quaker gatherings, and his refusal to wear sheep’s wool out of concern for animal exploitation (he used flax to make his own clothes, but got lots of ‘flax’ for doing so), Lay is famous for bringing ‘a hollowed-out book inside of which was a tied-off animal bladder containing red berry juice’ to a meeting of the Philadelphia Quakers, many of whom owned slaves. He uttered the words, ‘Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures’ before puncturing the book with his sword and showering the ersatz blood over the slave-owners. The Quakers would follow Lay’s lead in opposing slavery from around the time Lay died. Those Philadelphia slave-keepers must surely have ‘quaked’ in their boots as they realised that such books are truly black and white but ‘red’ all over (as well as sunburned zebras, of course).

Two centuries before Benjamin Lay made waves (of red), the theological and intellectual giants Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther would shape the direction of early modern religion and culture. Michael Massing argues in an upcoming book and this Feb. 20 piece in the New York Review of Books that Erasmus, the Rotterdam humanist who wrote urgent pleas in Latin to educated audiences to uphold religious peace, toleration, and universal concord, was an early forerunner to liberal elitists today; while Luther, whose angry denunciations of the Catholic Church were written in the vernacular German and sparked widespread revolution, can be seen in his zealous piety, rage, and defence of the power of German princes against both the Church and peasant mobs as the archetype of the xenophobic nationalists who pervade the public sphere around the world today. While Massing surely overstates the comparison of Erasmus and Luther with contemporary liberals and populists, especially in his sweeping statement that ‘Luther’s brand of Bible-based ardor founded on pure faith would exercise a profound influence on Western culture, not least in America’, one wonders if Erasmus would thus characterise modern Lutherans as ‘Bible-Trumpers’, while Luther would criticise today’s Erasmians for being too Dutchy-feely.

Incidentally, for more Lutheran-related humour, you are obliged in conscience and by the order of the prince to read the first ever issue of the EMSP newsletter here!

In our classes this week: In EMSP 2000, Laura Penny will discuss The Metaphysics of Morals, in which Immanuel Kant infamously defined marriage as ‘the union of two people of different sexes with a view to the mutual possession of each other’s sexual attributes for the duration of their lives’, which explains Kant’s permanent relationship status on Facebook as ‘Autonomous (married to my Critical Philosophy because no-one will share my sexual attributes)’.

Kathryn Morris will, in EMSP 3000, survey landscapes in early modern thinkers like Edmund Burke, who wrote on aesthetics and underwater citrus fruits in his treatise on the beautiful and ‘sub-lime’. The fruity theme is continued in her course on ‘The Body in Early Modern Europe’, which considers the humoral condition in which Scottish sheepdogs develop ravenous appetites for gourds, ‘melon-collie’. Students in her Witchcraft class turn to the institutional treatments of witchcraft in an early modern hotel which housed special dungarees covering neck to ankle, ‘Jean Bod-Inn’.

In her course on ‘The Renaissance Print and Cross-Cultural Exchange’, Jannette Vusich examines light-and-shade drawings and paintings of the early modern oar-powered coastguard specialising in saving microgreens from drowning, ‘chia-rescue-row’; while students in EMSP 3620 will consider both a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and the overrated, annoying lead actor in James Cameron’s Titanic in her class on ‘Leonardo in Popular Culture’.

My students in EMSP 4000 will discuss the late eighteenth-century Afro-British critique of slavery by Stephen King’s rabid dog who spoke Latin but only lived for one year, ‘Cujo-anno’; while those in my piracy course will learn about the knighted German female chicken buccaneer in the seventeenth century who went to sleep everyday at noon, ‘Sir Hen-ry Morgen’.

On Wednesday, Dawn Brandes will give an evening public lecture in the Automatons lecture series on ‘Imagined Puppet Life’, not to be confused with Kermit the Frog’s swamp gas-induced hallucinations about Miss Piggy becoming his spouse, ‘imagined Muppet wife.’

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Studies Program

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