The Chained Books of Hereford Cathedral (Hereford, Herefordshire – Great Britain)

The Chained Books of Hereford Cathedral (Hereford, Herefordshire – Great Britain)

This cathedral contains two medieval marvels: a chained library of rare books and one of the earliest maps of the world.

In the Middle Ages, before the availability of the printing press, volumes on law and religion were quite rare and valuable. To protect against theft, the books at Hereford Cathedral were chained to desks, pulpits, and study tables.

The chained library was created in 1611 when a collection of hand-transcribed, hand-bound books was moved into the Lady Chapel. Most of the volumes in the collection are acquisitions dating back to the 1100s, although the oldest book in the collection, the Hereford Gospels, dates to about the year 800.

The medieval world map stored at Hereford Cathedral depicts three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. On the as-yet-unexplored periphery of these lands roam fire-breathing dragons, dog-faced men, people who survive on only the scent of apples, and the Monocoli, a race of mythical beings who take shade under their giant feet when the sun becomes too bright.

The 5 × 4.5-foot map (1.5 × 1.4 m), created around 1300, is part geography, part history, and part religious teaching aid. A lack of confirmed information on Asian and African geography presented no obstacle for the mapmaker, who used hearsay, mythology, and imagination to fill in the gaps—which explains the four-eyed Ethiopians.

Sources: Atlas Obscura

Oberon, King of the Faeries

First mentioned as a King of the Fairies in a 15th century French romance, Oberon also appeared in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream paired with the Fairy Queen Titania.  In contrast other sources say his queen was Mab, and while Shakespeare described Oberon as human sized, in the French story he was the size of a toddler.  This may reflect the shape-shifting powers of the fairies or the use of glamour to alter perceptions, or perhaps merely indicate the same name being used for two different Fairy Kings between cultures.

In Huon of Bordeaux, the first place Oberon appears as a Fairy King, he is described as small and deformed, yet extremely handsome, wearing a jeweled gown that glows. This Oberon carries a bow that never misses and a magical horn that cures all illnesses and acts as a cornucopia. A 16th century literary source described Oberon as tiny and said he could not bear sunlight and fled the light of day. The name Oberon is also strikingly similar to names used for familiar spirits during the Renaissance, including ‘Auberon’ and ‘Oberycom’; in this guise he was invoked as a spirit of luck and to gain power for the person calling him. This could mean that Oberon was a general term for a powerful male fairy that was later applied as a name for Fairy Kings. In that case, if we also view Diana/Titania as a similar generic name applied to a Fairy Queen there is a logic in pairing the two together.

Terence (Terry) David John Pratchett

On this date in 1948, Terence (Terry) David John Pratchett was born in Buckinghamshire, England. He enjoyed reading, especially science fiction, fantasy, myth and ancient history. He has said that from a young age he was skeptical about Christianity and came to the conclusion that there was no god. He has won many awards, including the Carnegie Medal for The Amazing Maurice and Educated Rodents (2001), and was knighted in 2009 for his services to literature. Several of his books have been adapted as movies for television.

Pratchett’s first novel, Carpet People, a children’s fantasy, was published in 1971. Pratchett is best known for his “Discworld” novels, a fantasy series tied together not by characters or plot but by the setting of the Discworld, a flat world sitting on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space. The first book in this series, The Color of Magic, a fantasy adventure starring a hapless wizard parodying many conventions of the genre, was published in 1983, and the thirty-eighth, I Shall Wear Midnight, a coming-of-age story featuring a strong young witch battling prejudice, was published in 2010. The Discworld, like many fantasy worlds, features gods who occasionally interfere directly in events or feature as characters in some way. In 2007, Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, but has continued to write and publish new books, albeit at a slower pace. He has made many public statements in support of the right to die, and talks openly about his Alzheimer’s experience, including his wish to take his own life before his disease is critical. He was knighted in 2009.

Throughout his work, Pratchett questions religion in many different ways, pointing out religious hypocrisy while at the same time illustrating how different the world would be if God, or any gods, were real. The 1992 Discworld novel Small Gods shows the god Om visiting his worshipers, and being deeply dissatisfied with the direction in which his church has gone. Good Omens (1990), co-written with fellow British fantasy author Neil Gaiman, deals with Christian mythology and the book of Revelations. It begins with an angel and a demon conversing outside the Garden of Eden and questioning God’s motives regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It ends with the ten-year-old antichrist, Adam, contemplating the raid of a neighbor’s orchard and thinking, “There never was an apple . . . that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.” Pratchett said, “I read the Old Testament all the way through when I was about 13 and was horrified” (The Daily Mail, U.K., June 21, 2008).

“There is a rumor going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is s evidence that they exist.”
~ Sir Terry Pratchett, The Daily Mail (U.K.), June 21, 2008

Mary Wollstonecraft Birthday

On this date in 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London, the second of seven children. The industrious young woman worked as a companion, governess and then opened her own school. Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, was published in 1786, followed by a novel, a children’s book (re-issued with illustrations by William Blake), a translation, and The Female Reader. When Edmund Burke read her review of a sermon by dissenting minister Richard Price, he wrote a famous attack on the American and French Revolutions. Mary was the first to rebut his polemic. A Vindication of the Rights of Men was published five weeks later, rejecting all arguments from authority or precedent. Her seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792. The first influential book calling for the equality of the sexes, it urged that women be educated and treated as “rational creatures.” Wollstonecraft championed dress reform, breast-feeding, early education and a national system of coeducational primary schools. She warned of those who practice “on the credulity of women.”

She gave birth to a daughter in an unhappy liaison with Gilbert Imlay, then married atheist William Godwin in 1797. Following an uneventful pregnancy, 38-year-old Mary gave birth to a second daughter, Mary. The new mother died of a childbirth infection after ten intense days of suffering. Her daughter Mary ran off as a teenager with poet Percy Shelley, and wrote Frankenstein at age 19. Wollstonecraft was an ardent rationalist and Deist who adopted an agnostic point of view toward the end of her life. D. 1797.

“. . . the being cannot be termed rational or virtuous who obeys any authority but that of reason.”
~ Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

Fairy Queen Titania

Titania is a Fairy Queen who appears as an important character in Shakespeare’s play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ written in the mid 1590’s. In the play she is the wife of the Fairy King Oberon and the two are fighting over a changeling child; because of the fight Titania is refusing her husband’s company and so he sets one of his servants out to make her fall in love with a foolish mortal as a punishment. Titania’s name connects to that of the goddess Diana, suggesting that Titania was meant to be an epithet for the well-known goddess. Diana is often associated by early modern writers with both fairies and witches so there is a certain logic to this idea. Titania’s name is not widely seen elsewhere in literature although it does appear in one magical text found in the British Museum.

Titania appears in a handful of works after Shakespeare, usually paired with Oberon or as a minor character; examples include a reference to her in Faust I and in an opera titled ‘Oberon, or the Elf King’s Oath’. Shakespeare’s Titania did not find widespread popularity in modern culture although she does either appear, or is referenced, in some video games and literature. Perhaps her most high profile modern appearance would be as the Summer Court Queen in the Dresden Files books, although she does also appear as the Queen of the Black Court in Dana Marie Bell’s ‘Grey Court’ series.

Antigone’s Fate

Antigone and Oedipus

In Greek mythology, Antigone was the daughter of Oedipus by his own mother, Jocasta, and the sister of Eteocles, Polyneices, and Ismene. When her father went into exile she accompanied the blind man as his guide.

Two versions exist of Antigone’s fate after she defied King Creon. In the first, the subject of the tragedy Antigone by Sophocles, Creon ordered that she be immured as a punishment, but rather than face burial while alive she hanged herself; Haemon, the son of Creon to whom she was betrothed, committed suicide alongside her. In the second version, Creon turned Antigone over to Haemon for punishment, but he smuggled her away, and she later bore him a son. When Creon refused to forgive them, Haemon killed both himself and Antigone.  

William Shakespeare on Religion

On this date in 1564, William Shakespeare was born in England. He died in 1616. The “master” playwright was eulogized by 19th century agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. In one of his famous lectures, Ingersoll said that when he read Shakespeare, “I beheld a new heaven and a new earth.” (The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Interviews, Vol. IV, p. 39.) “All well-educated ministers know that the Bible suffers by a comparison with Shakespeare.” (Vol. VIII, p. 297) “If Shakespeare could be as widely circulated as the Bible . . . nothing would so raise the intellectual standard of mankind. Think of the different influence on men between reading Deuteronomy and ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ . . . The church teaches obedience. The man who reads Shakespeare has his intellectual horizon enlarged.”

No one knows Shakespeare’s personal religious views, although he certainly was not orthodox, and put many different types of sentiments into the mouths of his characters. His philosophy seems most succinctly described in the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech from “As You Like It,” which begins: “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players:/ They have their exits and their entrances;. . .” ending with “mere oblivion./ Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Below are several of Shakespeare’s most famous irreverencies. D. 1616.

“In religion, what damned error but some sober brow will bless it, and approve it with a text, . . .?”
~ “The Merchant of Venice,” Act III, Sc. II

Peter Watson

On this date in 1943, author Peter Watson was born in Birmingham, England. An intellectual historian and investigative journalist, he was educated at the universities of Durham, London and Rome, later living in the United States. He has written for The Observer, The New York Times, Punch and The Spectator, and is the author of fiction, as well as many books on art history, biography, psychology, and true crime. His books include: The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (2006, with Cecilia Todeschini), Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (2005), Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century (2001) (also published as A Terrible Beauty), Sotheby’s: The Inside Story (1998), Landscape of Lies (1989) and The Caravaggio Conspiracy (1984). In Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, Watson seeks a new way to tell the history of the world from prehistory to modern day, asserting that human knowledge is divided into two realms: inward (philosophy and religion) and outward (observation and science). His stance supports the latter. Twins: An Uncanny Relationship? (1982), explores behavior patterns shared by identical twins, “to offer a rational alternative to mumbo jumbo for explaining many of the coincidences reported in twin studies, ” according to a Los Angeles Times review. “A few saints and a little charity don’t make up for all the harm religion has done over the ages,” he has said (CBC News, May 5, 2007).

When asked about the good that religion has done in the world in an interview by The New York Times Magazine (December 11, 2005), Watson replied: “I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it.” He went on to say, “I do not believe in the inner world. I think that the inner world comes from the exploration of the outer world–reading, traveling, talking. I do not believe that meditation or cogitation leads to wisdom or peace or the truth.” Since 1998, Watson has been a research associate at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, at the University of Cambridge. He lives in London, England.

“Religion has kept civilization back for hundreds of years, and the biggest mistake in the history of civilization, is ethical monotheism, the concept of the one God. Let’s get rid of it and be rational.”
~ Peter Watson interview, CBC News (May 5, 2007)

Clémence-Auguste Royer

On this date in 1830, Clémence-Auguste Royer was born in Nantes, France. Her parents were Catholic royalists, and Royer’s early education took place in a convent school. Royer became a republican following the Revolution of 1848, and began to question other common views at that time. Royer obtained a teaching certificate and taught at girls schools in Wales, where she mastered English, and in France. She read widely on science in these school libraries. In 1855, as a result of her inquiries, she rejected Catholicism thoroughly, and devoted herself to science. She began to offer lectures on science and logic for women in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1858. Royer translated Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species into French in 1863. She famously wrote a preface to the work which used Darwin’s mechanism for evolution as part of an anti-religious argument which Darwin himself did not make — by this time, the book was in its third English edition and contained several strong references to a creator. Royer had been an evolutionist before reading Darwin, having been strongly influenced by the writings of Jean Baptiste LaMarck. French scientists, especially atheists and anthropologists, were strongly influenced by evolution and natural selection as framed by Royer, who also discussed the implications of evolutionary theory for human beings and society in her introduction (it would be almost ten years before Darwin himself grappled with these issues in The Descent of Man). Royer continued as Darwin’s official French translator until the third French edition of Origin was published in 1870.

Royer, despite not being a research scientist, remained a popular interpreter of science as well as a philosopher of science throughout her life. As a woman, she was denied access to many learned societies, as well as university teaching positions. It has been argued by Jennifer Michael Hecht, among others, that Royer opened doors to women within the freethinking movement. Royer was a feminist who argued passionately for the rights of women, married and unmarried, to child custody, property, education and equality with men. In 1866, she had a son by her lover and life partner, Pascal Duprat, a married man, which sharpened her concern about the major legal obstacles then present to unwed mothers and their children. She published many books and articles throughout her life, and considered the pinnacle to be 1900’s Natura rerum, her theory of nature. In 1900, Royer was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her contributions as “a woman of letters and a scientific writer.” D. 1902

“Yes, I believe in revelation, but a permanent revelation of man to himself and by himself, a rational revelation that is nothing but the result of the progress of science and of the contemporary conscience, a revelation that is always only partial and relative and that is effectuated by the acquisition of new truths and even more by the elimination of ancient errors. We must also attest that the progress of truth gives us as much to forget as to learn, and we learn to negate and to doubt as often as to affirm.”
~ Clémence Royer, preface to Charles Darwin, L’origine des espèces, in Jennifer Michael Hecht, The End of the Soul