Yesterday I heroically strutted abroad with a badge on my jerkin:
Cry God for Harry, England and St George!
Red text on white. You can buy them for a few bob at the RSC.
After all, the coincidence of a quadricentenary and the annual non-saint’s day will come around just the once in my lifetime.
In my strutting I had (as one does) to visit the local Oxfam book-shop: an eclectic lot, these York literati, so a prime place for Autolycan snapping-up of others’ unconsidered trifles.
And, lo! it was so. Here’s Peter Stanford’s The Legend of Pope Joan. Only when home did I realise it was a duplicate, a re-title for the American market of The She-Pope, already on my shelf, a gap between the weightier Peter Heather and John Julius Norwich.
The co-incidence of these events prompted an extended (and inconsequential) musing. Hence this post.
Curiously, leave aside Much Ado About Nothing (where she is a character), the word “hero” is not much in evidence in Shakespeare. If challenged, about the only reference I could offer would be Hamlet:
Hamlet: A dream itself is but a shadow.
Rosencrantz: Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow.
Hamlet: Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars’ shadows. Shall we to the court? for, by my fay, I cannot reason.
[Act II, scene ii]
Hold about! On second thoughts there’s Parolles in All’s Well:
Noble heroes, my sword and yours are kin.
[Act II, scene i]
The nature of a “hero”:
Well, they come cheaper now than they used to.
The “epic hero” had to fulfil a set of criteria. When I had to stand before a chalk-board and vamp them, it would go something like this (assuming one were still allowed to get away with such arrant sexism):
- a noble birth;
- overlooked in childhood, although even then he might be capable of a marvellous deed;
- he has to go wandering, on a mission;
- he is scorned by his lady-love, but eventually wins her over;
- he becomes recognised as a great warrior, usually by an act of conspicuous individual opposition to overwhelming (but overwhelmed) odds;
- he has a magical weapon, or a supernatural power;
- he also has some congenital defect or weakness;
- despite his achievements, he remains humble, “one of us”;
- he saves his people;
- he dies in the moment of his greatest triumph.
Not every tragic hero has to show every characteristic, but the template applies from Beowulf to Superman (and even to “real” people, such as Nelson or Churchill). Doubtless, as a homework, Year Ten would then be told to write a short homework essay explaining which of those (or other) points makes their chosen subject “heroic”. Alternatively, try to construct a similar check-list for the ideal female hero (with optional reflections on what that says about in-built cultural prejudices).
Filling the gaps
The problem comes when we cannot be satisfied with our hero, when we feel the need to generate fillers for the gaps in the story. Back to Bill:
Enter Rumour, painted full of tongues
Rumour: Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.
Henry IV, Part 2: Act I, scene i, Prologue
If you believe that process has gone away with the arrival of wholesale literacy and 24/7/365 rolling “news”, wake up and hear the gossip. So we have everything from “local tradition says” to the “infancy gospels” of Jesus’s childhood, which seem to have become current as early as the fifth century, and persisted well into early medieval times, and even to EU banana myths. Then, as now, when the “authorities” (i.e., the Church in the earlier case) control the information, Rumour, painted full of tongues, will fill the void. As John Julius (a good Roman Catholic lad, comprehensively dismissing the Pope Joan story — see pages 60-67) ambivalently observes:
Rome, sacked by the Saracens in 846, was still going through her Dark Ages. All was confusion, records were few and untrustworthy, and the notion of a woman Pope was, perhaps, just conceivable …
Nevertheless, that story had by then been firmly established in the popular mind; and there for centuries it remained.
Which brings me back to Stanford and Pope Joan. For Stanford makes play of an apparent gap in papal succession, mid-9th century, between Leo IV and Benedict III. And where there are gaps, Rumour, painted full of tongues, likes to insert some Polyfilla. Even if Joan didn’t exist, she might need to be invented on that ground alone.
Huh? Well, if you’d done your Greek under Dr Reynolds at the High School, you’d know that means “a once-reading”, a word that crops up just the once, so therefore we have to reach for its precise interpretation. Such a word, in Shakespeare is Europe: which, to my momentary confusion appears … ahem! … twice. In Henry IV, Part 1, there is Falstaff’s laboured (running) joke about Bardolph’s nose:
Thou hast saved me a thousand marks in links and torches, walking with thee in the night betwixt tavern and tavern: but the sack that thou hast drunk me would have bought me lights as good cheap at the dearest chandler’s in Europe.
[Act III, scene iii]
Why a European chandler might be more costly then a local one, let’s leave to the Kippers.
The one I wanted to exploit there is Bedford making his promises at the start of Henry VI, Part 1:
Farewell, my masters; to my task will I;
Bonfires in France forthwith I am to make,
To keep our great Saint George’s feast withal:
Ten thousand soldiers with me I will take,
Whose bloody deeds shall make all Europe quake.
[Act I, scene i]
My question is: what was the Elizabethan concept of “Europe”? What did the term mean to Shakespeare, with his notorious geographical illiteracy?
Ours is the 28 states of the European Union — though a glance at the stylised map on €-note suggest even that is wider than we at first grasp — there’s that strange little hieroglyphic at the bottom, beside 𝜠𝜰𝜬𝜴, reminding us of the DOM-TOM. For most of my life, “Europe” was Western Europe. and ended violently at the Iron Curtain. Geographical Europe, in the Atlas, extends to the Urals — yet I struggle to find Russia “European”. I’ve taken the ferry across the Bosphorus from Istanbul, stood on two continents within an hour — and not appreciated any great difference. If my — our — concept of “Europe” is so vague, what would it be 400 or 1200 years ago? What is it for those unfortunate refugees from Syria, and elsewhere, leaving all (including, for many, life itself) to find “Europe” — which is at best going to be a dingy suburb of Mannheim, Mons or Manchester.
So, for the last time, back to Pope Joan. She is, according to version, English or German, particularly from Mainz. Stanford goes to lengths to make a road for Joan from the convent at Wimborne in Dorset, via the shadowy St Lioba, to Fula, on to Athens, and back to Rome. Joan, then, ticks at least some of those boxes for the popular/epic hero.
She may be Hamlet’s dream… but a shadow, but we need her to fill in the gaps of our “knowledge”.