Nancy Roberts (1924-2008) was known during her lifetime (at least, according to her Wikipedia page, which gives no source) as the “First Lady of American Folklore.” Good Lord, I hope not. If there’s anything Roberts wasn’t, it was a great folklorist, or any kind of folklorist, really. Basically, she was a journalist from North Carolina (albeit born in Milwaukee to Southern parents), who started writing articles about local ghost stories. After this caught a good readership, she graduated to books. She was certainly popular (since she’s still in print), but if she was a folklorist, I’m a stripper.
The book covers ghost stories and legends along the coastlines of three states, in order: North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Even I weren’t mainly looking for NC tales, I’d still judge the first section the best. There’s something about the Outer Banks that keeps Roberts (mostly) honest. The one about the lifeguard station is especially creepy and likely the best of the collection.
Roberts’ style is to take a story and then embellish it with imaginary conversations and such. She also makes up characters from whole cloth. This is common among NC storytellers, though they tend to do it the most with legends that may or may not have an historical basis. This wouldn’t be so bad if she weren’t so darned vague about things like dates and places, making everything (including events that really happened) sound as though they occurred somewhere long, long ago and far, far away. This has the tendency to uproot the stories from any realistic dirt and make them seem less scary. On top of that, whenever she is in a sharing mood with facts, she has a tendency to do long-winded “house tours” before she tells any ghost stories, which are then pretty perfunctory. Dull.
Not helping is that she tells some obvious porkies that are easily disproved. For example, Savannah didn’t exist until 1733, so the likelihood that Blackbeard (who died in 1718) frequented a tavern there is pretty low. She also repeats the tired old canard that Blackbeard was bloodthirsty and evil. Yet, historians these days aren’t sure if he ever killed anyone before his last battle, let alone a girlfriend who probably never even existed.
Roberts also has a tendency to romanticize Southern history (she buys the Lost Cause approach hook, line and sinker) and slut-shame any woman who doesn’t follow that rigid code. So, Roberts hints that the probably-apocryphal pirate moll Jenny had it coming for ditching the love a Good Man for the no-good Blackbeard.
Even worse, Roberts invents a poisonous cousin for poor Nell Cropsey, a real-life teenager who was murdered (probably by her boyfriend, Jim Wilcox) in Elizabeth City in 1901. As said cousin testifies at Wilcox’s trial, she has a purely invented internal monologue about how Nell kinda deserved getting her head bashed in and dumped in a canal for teasing Jim and being mean to him while preparing to dump him for the next thing to come along. Roberts even manages to twist it so that the cousin didn’t believe Jim did it, even as her thought process does a great job of giving him a strong motive. Ewwwww.
Overall, I found this collection unsatisfying. If the book’s Amazon and GoodReads reviews are any indication, I’m not alone. While a lot of ghost books are short, some pack more material into those pages than others. Ghosts from the Coast included an awful lot of boring fluff that either had little to do with the legend at hand or made stuff up from whole cloth out of badly researched history. Roberts’ writing style has not dated well. I’m also not too thrilled about the strange fact that despite there being at least two other major male NC writers in the 20th century, she was the only woman writing about the Carolinas legends at the time, with three new women folklorists popping up only after her death in 2008. Hmm.
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As I read through these ghost story collections, not only do I collect the stories and critique how the authors treat them, but I also examine how the authors (or editors and compilers) in question put their books together. It’s tough to find a way to be thorough and rigorous at an academic level, while also staying entertaining and holding on to the reader’s interest.
Well, this nifty little classic collection by the late Ozark Carolina folklorist W.K. McNeil (1940-2005) does a great job of both. In the back, every story is amply documented, from everything McNeil could find about the source and the tale’s background, right down to the folklore type of story. He even includes lists by state for easy reference (Yayyy! My Hero!).
In the main section, McNeil records these stories verbatim as they came down from whatever source he used. And some creepy tales he does find. They are grouped roughly by subject and some are then also grouped with the chapters as variations of the same tale. Because these are oral histories of the campfire tale type, they are all pretty short. This makes it easy to stop and start with ease, putting the book down after finishing one short narrative and then picking it up to read another.
In addition, that shudder-inducing cover (even now, I leave that thing turned down and under a bunch of other books) is augmented by some seriously creepy interior illustrations. It actually took me longer to get through this because it creeped me out too much to read alone than because of all the information I had to take down from the references.
The book is by no means comprehensive, though it works as an introductory overview. McNeil chooses 100 stories from all over the South, from different sources and different periods of time. Though he does try to cover all the major folklore trope and trend bases, he is willing to admit that even that coverage is sketchy, at best (there are, for example, no sea or coastal stories whatsoever). The book is less than two hundred pages long, after all. It’s just too bad he never did another one.
Contrary to what some reviewers claim, many of these stories do not come from the WPA folklore collections. In fact, McNeil is fairly acerbic about the tendency of the WPA compilers to tart up the oral histories they heard and make them sound more “literary” (which generally makes them read like bad Victorian melodrama), rather than record what was actually told, the way it was told.
Also, one of the nice things about the book is that McNeil collected some of the newer (for the time) legends. There’s a fairly large collection of stories from the 1970s, which were only a few years before the book came out in 1985. These include some pretty interesting variants on the Mexican-American legends of “La Llorona” and “The Devil in the Dance Hall” that might otherwise have been lost to time.
The book has unfortunately dated a bit, through a few choices by McNeil that probably seemed logical at the time. McNeil emphatically puts down popular collections of published tales as useless for oral history. While I agree that there’s a fair amount of, shall we say, personal embellishment and bias in these collections (McNeill has no truck with any of that Lost Cause guff), they do influence oral history in their own right. In addition, McNeill effectively ignores the role of electronic media that has increasingly and heavily influenced the evolution and telling of American folklore over the past century, especially since the World Wide Web came out less than a decade after this book. Is that oral history or written? It acts an awful lot like oral history.
Sadly, McNeill never dealt with these issues before his death in 2005. Now I guess he never will. We’ll just have to make do with this book. Don’t read it in the dark, though, kids. Just because it’s academic, doesn’t mean it’s not creepy.
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John William Harden (1903-1985) was one of North Carolina’s well-known folklore storytellers of the 20th century. He originally hailed from Alamance County and was a journalist most of his life. He’s usually remembered for this collection and another book called Tar Heel Ghosts, which will probably be getting a look-in later this month. But back in the day, he was best known for the radio show on WPTF where he first told these stories, Tales of Tar Heelia, in the 1940s. Sadly, none of these broadcasts appears to have survived (or, at least, is yet accessible among his papers), but if you’ve ever watched Tar Heel Traveler on WRAL, it was a similar kind of show.
This was the first folklore book I began reading this summer. You could say it set the tone to a large extent for the others. Harden tells stories from the whole Old North State. He does a good job of showing the balance between telling tales for entertainment (“storyteller”) and preserving local history and culture (“folklorist”). Every author has their particular balance.
Harden’s wording may seem a bit odd to today’s reader looking for ghost stories. He calls these “mystery” stories. This means that every time, however strange and eerie the story, he always looks for a “rational” explanation, however convoluted. So, there aren’t any “real” ghost stories in the collection.
It’s largely a collection of odd disappearances (Peter Dromgoole, Major Robert Clark, Reverend Hawkins, Captain Blakeley) and unsolved murders (Nell Cropsey, Polly Williams), which may or may not make your blood run cold, paired up with the odd bit of cryptozoology or sea story (notably, the Carroll A. Deering). Every single time, he finds a way to Scooby-Doo it, even when he’s talking about well-known Carolina oddities like the Devil’s Tramping Ground (often confused with the somewhat lesser-known Devil’s Stomping Ground in South Carolina) or the Devil’s Hoofprints of Bath (there is also a Devil’s footprint in Largo, NC with one matching in SC), or the Brown Mountain Lights. This was a common attitude back in the first half of the 20th century.
Mind you, I’m not arguing for a knee-jerk supernatural explanation, either, but a Rube-Goldbergian chain of circular reasoning is not superior to a simple and honest “It’s a mystery; we just don’t know,” just because all the links in the chain of circular reasoning involve some sort of known natural phenomenon. I think it’s entirely possible that both the Devil’s Tramping Ground and the Hoofprints of Bath have natural causes (ditto the Brown Mountain Lights), but I also think we aren’t going to get anywhere by imposing ill-fitting theories on poorly understood phenomena and calling it a night.
That said, Harden’s hard-headedness can be refreshing. There is, for example, his entry toward the end of the book about a Wilkes County hound dog who tangled with a new and previously unknown mystery creature and, after a terrible fight, was never seen again. As far as I know, this story is unique to the collection. Harden astutely surmises that it was likely a Cougar that was displaced east by a recent forest fire in the mountains. Someone else might have claimed it was Bigfoot (though, after all the Homo floresiensis findings, I’m beginning to soften a tad on the idea of Bigfoot, but only a tad) or a forest demon. But Harden’s theory is both simple and logical. Most importantly, it fits all the facts without strain. This dovetails rather nicely with Hair’s book on Carolina monsters (coming up later this month).
Another thing that hasn’t aged too well is Harden’s love affair with Lost Cause mythology. Fortunately, this only really appears in a story or two (notably, the wreck of the Fanny and Jennie) related to the Civil War and it’s fairly benign. Some other ghost books bang away at it a lot harder.
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Welcome to Halloween in North Carolina. All month long, I’ll be reviewing ghost story and folklore books about the state of North Carolina. The Old North State has a lot of eerie tales, some new, some old, some startling, and some downright frightening.
North Carolina is the only state to have its folklore thoroughly catalogued in a seven-volume series, The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. Brown collected stories from 1912 until his death in 1943, and the series was published in 1951. It’s available online. The state also had its own WPA guide (a research project from the 1930s). In addition, there is Tom Peete Cross’ lengthy article, “Witchcraft in North Carolina” (1919), and Elsie Clews Parsons’ “Tales from Guilford County” (1917), among others, that have preserved a lot of the stories that have since appeared in more popular collections.
But much new folklore has popped up since the 1950s. You’ve got Bigfoot and Goat Farm Road and Piney Grove Church and Stateline (Satan’s) Bridge, etc., etc., etc. We’ll talk about those stories, too.
I’ve been collecting books and articles and websites about North Carolina ghost stories for years, but this will be by no means a comprehensive list. The bibliography of published books alone would be at least three times as many as what I can review this month. But I can give you a pretty good idea of what’s out there. And perhaps, I can give you some creepy new material to read and retell.
My current two projects are a book on tales from the Tri-County (Edgecombe, Wilson and Nash) area in Eastern NC and one on tales about the Devil in North Carolina. But this stuff takes time and money to do. If you’re interested in helping me with this research (or you just want to check out my notes and other such perks), head on over to my Patreon page and join up. You can also help by making a one-time donation on this site or directly through Paypal, or sending me a coffee.
On this day in October 1307 (and yes, it was a Friday), almost every member in France of the military religious order the Knights Templar was arrested in a pre-dawn raid by agents of King Philippe IV, known as “Le Bel” (“The Fair,” mostly because he was blonde). Philippe claimed that the arrests had been motivated on the spur of the moment by distressing allegations that the Templars were devil-worshiping heretics. As the confessions piled up to include weird things like ritual kisses on the buttocks, spitting on the cross, and denying Christ, it appeared he was right.
Of course, all was not as it seemed. In fact, the raid had been carefully planned and the charges written up in detail a month before the arrests by Philippe’s sinister head minister and Keeper of the Keys, Guillaume de Nogaret. Guillaume was already pretty notorious for having beaten up a pope (the Templars’ boss) a few years before and had used the same charges with great success in 1306 against Jews and Lombard bankers, resulting in a mass expulsion of both groups and a general crash of the French economy.
At the same time he was trying the Templars, Nogaret was busy suppressing a harmless group of poor mendicants known as the Beguines and the Beghards, led by a woman whom the King had burned at the stake for heresy. Nogaret was also notorious for suing his poorer neighbors and (reputedly) engaging in a bit of black magic, himself. He was a thorough scoundrel.
All of this skullduggery was intended to gain the perpetually cash-strapped Philippe some money. Philippe was a stern, autocratic, unpopular fanatic, obsessed with power and avid for ready cash to fill the coffers depleted by his sainted grandfather Louis IX’s crusade. Though he was eventually able to force his new, hand-picked pope to suppress the Order in 1312, the landed property eventually went to the Templars’ sister order, the Hospitallers. It also turned out that the Templars themselves were cash poor.
Fate had not yet had the last laugh on Philippe. Months after having the last Grand Master of the Order burned as a relapsed heretic in 1314 (and in the middle of an adultery scandal centered on his daughters-in-law, no less), Philippe died, suddenly and in his prime, as did the Pope. Nogaret had mysteriously died the year before.
Philippe left three strong sons, but by 1328, after three centuries of an unbroken line of male succession in the French royal family, all three had died with no heirs. The royal Capetian line was extinct. Rumors abounded that the parties involved had been cursed by God, root and branch.
Philippe did have one grandson, who claimed the throne through his mother, Philippe’s daughter. Problem was, that grandson was already King of England. The scandalized French nobility decided to give the crown to Philippe’s brothers rather than become subjects of their traditional enemy across the Channel. The King of England objected. This resulted in the Hundred Years War, which devastated the French nobility and nearly destroyed France.
To add posthumous insult to fatal injury, in his famous Divine Comedy, Dante put Philippe in Hell for his crimes against the Templar Order and even stuck Philip’s ancestor Hugh Capet in Purgatory just for having been his forefather.
Moral of the story: Don’t be a royal creep on Friday the 13th.
William W. Smith (1862-1937) was one of the first African-American architects in the United States and the first in Charlotte, NC. His career demonstrates the difficulties faced by free African American contractors and architects following the Civil War and Recontruction, as well as the difficulties of survival of early African American architecture. Though Smith was born in 1862, all of his known career is encompassed by the Segregation period and is heavily influenced by the cultural impositions made on architecture by segregation laws that forced blacks and whites to live, worship and do business in separate spheres.
He is also a good example of a tradesman who crossed over to designing buildings in addition to building them. Part of what may have helped him further his career as a trade mason and contractor was that he was a local leader of the African American community and a member of Prince Hall Freemasonry as part of the Paul Drayton Lodge # 7. An early branch of Freemasonry founded in Boston by free black Prince Hall in the late 18th century, when white lodges refused to take in African Americans, Prince Hall Freemasonry was well-established in North Carolina by the middle of the 19th century. Smith was apparently a devoted lifelong member. The three major interests that come through in his architecture are church (the Grace African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which he built), education (Livingston College, for which he taught, and also built, repaired and designed several buildings), and the Masonic lodge.
Smith most likely began life as a slave, since he was born during the Civil War in Mecklenburg County. His father, Robert C. Smith, was born in 1831 and died when Smith was around fourteen years old. William married his wife Keziah E. Eggleston (1860-1925), who was from South Carolina, in 1877. He later married a woman named Mary, who eventually survived him. While he had no children of his own, he was survived by a stepson, Arthur Anderson. All evidence indicates he never left Mecklenburg County and most of his known work, particularly after 1910, was in Charlotte.
Little is known about his early life or career. He does not appear to have had the formal education of the first professionally trained African American architect in the U.S., younger contemporary and fellow North Carolinian Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942), who came from Wilmington. Instead, he apprenticed in the trades. Previous architects John Merrick and Henry Beard Delaney came from out of state or had some white ancestry, indicating that architecture had not been accessible as a career to most local African American tradesmen up to that point.
Smith does not appear in records until 1886, when he shows up as one of the founders of the Grace African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (a branch of Methodism that dated to around the beginning of the 19th century) in Charlotte that year, along with his wife Keziah. Though Smith did not design the church (it was designed by Hayden, Wheeler, and Schwend, who normally designed courthouses, along an auditorium plan), his later style is illuminated in the church’s final appearance. He incorporated both Gothic (the crenellated towers) and Classical (columns and pilasters) elements into the final design, working in brick, marble, ironwork, and even oak (for the interior). He was also instrumental in getting it built, agreeing to supply the materials and labor if the congregation raised money for it.
Smith’s support for his congregation extended even further to designing and building a sanctuary for the church in 1902 (the original architects of the church having disbanded a few years before). In the 1890s, he began to appear as a brick mason in the Charlotte City Directory. He did not start to be reported as an architect until the turn of the century. Though he had no formal education, he was not self-taught, nor did he invent the African American tradition of masonry in Charlotte wholesale. He apprenticed with William Houser, a noted local bricklayer in Charlotte’s uptown Second Ward, known as Brooklyn. Brooklyn was a relatively self-contained haven for African Americans in the city as Segregation took hold. It included many African American businesses and was a symbol of African American pride in Charlotte.
While Charlotte rapidly expanded following the Civil War, African Americans like Houser and his protege dominated the masonry field in the industry. Smith even taught bricklaying at African American-founded Livingston College in Salisbury in the early part of the 20th century. Livingston College, which began existence as Zion Wesley Institute in Concord in 1879 (moving to Salisbury in 1882), was the first A.M.E. Zion school in the state and an early example of a college founded and controlled by African Americans. Bishop James W. Hood, Joseph C. Price (who died in 1893), and William Henry Goler (who succeeded him in and retired in 1917) were all early leaders of the college.
A.M.E. Zion’s desire to bring in African American recruits and help support the leadership of the African American community led to a name change in 1885. It was in commemoration of the famous missionary explorer in Africa, Dr. David Livingston, who had died in what is now Zambia in 1873. Livingston was an early, notable example of a European who was sympathetic and respectful toward Africans: a good example of A.M.E. Zion’s goals.
After building the church, Smith became closely involved in A.M.E. Zion’s other great local endeavor, Livingston College. His first project as an architect was probably the restoration of Ballard Hall in 1905 on the Livingston College campus. The next year, he designed Hood Hall. He also designed Goler Hall. Both were named after the college’s early presidents.
Smith also designed several business buildings downtown in Charlotte. He was the architect for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Publishing House (1911), the Afro-American Mutual Insurance Company building (1911), and the now-famous Mecklenburg Investment Company Building (1922). All were in the same general vicinity around South Brevard and 3rd Street (close to the Grace African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church), though only the Mecklenburg Investment Company Building now survives. The other two, like many African American buildings in the U.S., fell victim to the urban planning movement in the 1950s and 1960s, which disproportionately targeted poorer neighborhoods for renovation and destruction of older buildings deemed obsolete. Smith also designed his own family mausoleum, which still stands in Pinewood Cemetery, as well as one for a local family, Jones. This is the only known personal structure of his surviving, though the Mecklenburg Investment Company Building is generally regarded as his master work.
Smith’s style was unique and he went to great lengths to demonstrate the versatility of brick as a building material. Though he used other materials with equal skill, brickwork was his signature. He also taught his style at Livingstone College, to the point that students created the bricks used in the projects he designed and restored there. He was especially fond of geometric (particularly diamond-shaped), multicolored designs that resembled Beaux Arts, or 15th century, yellow-monochrome, Mudejar brickwork in Spain, but his main influences were Gothic and a sort of vernacular-flavored Richardsonian Romanesque. His buildings had a square solidity and simplicity that contrasted with his ornate and colorful brickwork. His church (which was not entirely his own design) also had Gothic Revival and Classical elements, including a large bell tower.
Smith was so well-respected locally that even white-owned newspapers of the area acknowledged his death in 1937. A.M.E. Zion wrote a eulogy for him in its newsletter, as he was a great success for the denomination. Smith was a signal example of the self-reliant African American businessman ideal that both African American leaders and sympathetic white groups like A.M.E. Zion promoted after the Civil War and during the early years of Segregation (1900-1939). Like his contemporary Booker T. Washington, Smith promoted the ideals of African American education and community involvement. He created a variety of still-iconic structures and was one of the small group of African American architects in the United States in the early 20th century. By all surface standards, he was a great success, both in individual terms and for his community.
But Smith’s successes obscured his precarious and isolated situation as a prominent African American architect during the Segregation period. The works he did were all on African American-related projects. Except for the business buildings, they were all related to his church and denomination. The college was African American. The business buildings themselves were for African American businesses.
Though he is famous in Charlotte and also had a significant influence on the A.M.E. Zion denomination, Smith does not appear in most architectural biographies or those of famous North Carolinians. He does not even appear in most African American biographical dictionaries, perhaps because they tend to have a strong focus on entertainment and sports. Outside of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, he is almost unknown, while contemporary architects who contributed far less have more fame. It is difficult to perceive this as not related directly to Segregation.
Smith’s entire community operated in the same relative obscurity. The Mecklenburg Investment Company Building was commissioned by several African American businesses in the first place because no whites would let them rent their buildings. The African American business community desperately needed office space, so these businesses pooled their money and commissioned the only African American architect in the area to build one for them. A demonstration of how cramped for space was that community in Charlotte, despite their industry and rapid expansion, was that these buildings housed several businesses and different concerns at once.
One building also housed a Prince Hall lodge in addition to African American businesses. As Smith’s religious devotion came out in his work at his church and Livingston College, his devotion to Freemasonry came out in his work on these office buildings. Smith and his community’s world was constrained, a safe space that was nonetheless small, with the church and the office buildings built close to each other. Their proximity also reflects the deep devotion to religion that permeated even secular concerns in turn-of-the-century African American North Carolina.
This constraint was probably not all voluntary. Smith was limited to work in his own community and could not take commissions from white clients. The more visible and lucrative contracts of the white community were not open to him as an architect (though he might work on them as a bricklayer).
In light of how Smith’s surviving work, even that which he did not design, was so focused on the African American community, it is also possible that he chose to concentrate on building for his own community to the exclusion of personal financial advancement through doing construction jobs for the white community. Smith’s powerful and colorful buildings reflect a great deal of pride in his own considerable skill in masonry and ability to parlay that skill into designing entire buildings. His choice of projects also shows a great deal of pride in his community. But their light was largely kept under the bushel of Segregation.
Catherine W. Bishir. North Carolina Architecture. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill: 1990.
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern. A Guide to the Historical Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill: 2003.
Jeffrey B. Leak. “Memories of Brooklyn: A black man’s search for the ‘warmth of other suns’ leads him back to his Southern roots,” Charlotte Magazine (August 27, 2014).
Today is the 709th anniversary of the arrest of the Knights Templar in France in a pre-dawn raid. Let’s explore one of the artifacts and legends that have been connected to them after that date.
I’ve long been fascinated by the story of the Shroud of Turin. I’m a medievalist and most medievalists find the period of the Black Death (starting with the latter half of the 14th century) compelling in a ghoulish sort of way. It was a huge world-wide demographic change, the best-recorded example of one of Nature’s rare attempts to wipe us humans completely out.
It’s therefore equally intriguing that in the middle of this huge societal eruption, one of the most unique, strange and controversial relics of the Middle Ages appears — a piece of linen almost fifteen feet long and over three feet wide with an image of a naked dead man superimposed on it, front and back. In other words, a shroud. Since the late 14th century, this shroud has been linked to Jesus Christ.
It’s interesting to note that the first confirmed record of the Shroud is a report to the Pope in 1390 stating that it was a fake relic and the creator of it had confessed. Since then, the provenance (also known as “chain of custody”) of the Shroud has been remarkably solid. “Provenance” is the documentary history of where an object has been and what’s happened to it. For example, we know that the Shroud was in the middle of a church fire in 1532 that burned so hot it melted holes in the silver reliquary, singing holes right through the folded-up Shroud in a line down each side. Subsequently, a small and dedicated group of nuns patched these holes with new cloth.
The trail grows a lot more iffy prior to 1390. We have some documentation of it in either 1353 or 1357 related to the display of the Shroud by the widow of Geoffroi de Charny, a French knight who died at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. Geoffroi has been more tentatively linked to a possible uncle, Geoffroi de Charney, the last Grand Marshal of the Order of the Knights Templar, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1314. Even more tentatively, some have speculated that the Shroud fell into Templar hands after it was pillaged from a famous Byzantine collection of crucifixion relics during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. This theory was put forth by popular Templar historian Ian Wilson in The Turin Shroud in 1978. Academic Templar historian Malcolm Barber thoroughly examined these claims in a 1982 article, “The Templars and the Turin Shroud,” and came up with a verdict of inconclusive.
The Byzantine relic, known as the Mandylion (or the Image of Edessa) was a cloth upon which Christ’s face had miraculously appeared. It was part of a collection of crucifixion relics such as wood and nails from the Holy Cross. The record trail for it goes back to the sixth century and a tradition goes back to the early fourth century. After that, even the spottiest provenance goes cold.
The Mandylion is also related to an acheiropoieta (icons or other holy images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary not made by human hands) tradition in which a pious woman known as St Veronica wiped the face of Jesus while he was carrying the cross to Golgotha. His image was then impressed on the cloth by miraculous means. Images related to this tradition began to appear in the 14th century. The Shroud is unique in that it is a full-body acheiropoieton image rather than just a head and appears to reflect older traditions such as that in the late-12th century Pray Codex from Hungary.
The main problem with the Shroud of Turin is that even though it has excellent provenance back to the Middle Ages, its origin point (known as its “provenience”) remains unknown. All we know is when it was first displayed and even that’s in the murk before 1390. The Pray Codex and the St Veronica tradition give us some hints, but again, don’t really date it. And that’s important because if it does date to the early 1350s (or earlier), the story of the forger’s confession starts to fall apart. It’s unlikely that person had survived to 1390.
And that brings us to the iffy science. Numerous tests have been done on the Shroud, giving it a date ranging all the way back to two thousand years ago. The most famous one, of course, is the carbon dating of sampling from 1988 that dated the Shroud to between 1260 and 1390. Much ink has been spilled and shouting done over the test. Its proponents (who were basically debunkers and people anxious to promote carbon dating, which was then still rather a young science) insisted it was the best possible way to date the Shroud and everyone else doing other tests was biased. Its critics complained that the science was faulty, the sample too small, the Shroud was contaminated by extra carbon (remember that fire?), the sample had been taken from a smaller patch, and so on.
The basic science, all things considered, was pretty solid, but the other criticisms have validity. It was only one test done 28 years ago. Carbon dating has moved on and that one test did not account for things like the fact the Shroud has been handled a great deal over the past six hundred years, and that yes, there have been patches, as well as that it has been subjected to a major fire. And there is one other major issue.
Now, I want to say that while I lean toward the romance of the Shroud really going back to ancient times, I don’t think it can ever be anything but a matter of faith whether it was the shroud of Jesus Christ. Even if we could date it to the first century CE, let alone from Palestine, there’s no real way to prove that it was wrapped around the Son of God.
But it would be good to know a fairly solid origin point so we could get that provenience and establish some other things about the Shroud’s origins, especially the alleged Templar connection. I mean, we’re still trying to figure out how it was made (assuming you don’t buy the acheiropoieton theory). Was an actual bleeding dead body involved (and how chilling is that idea, especially if it was created in 1353, during the first wave of the Black Death)? Was it a standard shroud or was someone killed to make it? Or was it very cleverly painted, which would make it an amazing masterpiece of medieval art?
Also, what about the story of the Widow de Charny? While early medieval women had a pretty strong influence on Church cultic practice, this was largely frowned upon by the 14th century. A secular woman, especially an unmarried/widowed one, creating a cult center involving a major relic (or icon, as the Church officially terms the Shroud), especially during the initial period of the Black Death, was highly unusual.
The carbon dating doesn’t answer any of these questions. In fact, despite their claims of having no bias, the proponents of the carbon dating test knew perfectly well that any dating post-1390 would have no legitimacy in light of the very strong documentary provenance from that point, and even the more-iffy dating to the middle of the 14th century. It’s not just the issues with the possibility of contamination from other sources. These could be resolved (albeit the Church is not thrilled by the idea of allowing testers to rip up the Shroud, especially in order to debunk it as an ancient relic) by more testing. The problem is that the century the 1988 test gave is precisely the century that requires the most clarification in the Shroud’s history. If testing makes it older than the 14th century, and especially the 13th century, that gives some solidity to the proposed chain of evidence involving the Charnys and the Templars. But by just saying it’s somewhere in the 14th or late 13th century, the carbon dating test gave us absolutely no new information. Thanks to the provenance, we already knew that.
Unfortunately, those engaged in the carbon dating project didn’t care. They wanted to “prove” that the Shroud was no older than its documentary provenance. They wanted to debunk, to shut down the debate. They most certainly had a bias there. The problem was that they didn’t prove anything (the dating range went back 130 years before the confirmed documentary trail) and they didn’t help with confirming any of the previous stories. And they certainly didn’t shut down the debate. Even if the carbon dating was accurate, it wasn’t accurate enough.
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Even a cursory delve into the Middle Ages brings up queenly badassery along the lines of a Daenerys Stormborn and Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones, but some of these tough medieval queens are less well-known than others. Urraca (c.1079-1226), first ruling queen of Castile, León, Galicia, and Portugal in Spain, is one of them.
Urraca’s reign of badassery didn’t start out in roaring form. Her father Alfonso, seeking more northern alliances than his ancestors, married her off to a French adventurer named Raymond de Bourgogne (c.1065-1107) when she was about eight. By age fourteen (when she had her first miscarriage), the marriage had been consummated. Her husband was either nine or fourteen years older than she. Urraca then found herself engaged in a grueling series of pregnancies that resulted in her standing at her husband’s bier in 1107, not yet 30, with a daughter Sancha and a son Alfonso.
Daddy Dearest betrothed her to his main rival Alfonso el Batallador (the Battler), King of Aragon, a year later. Yes, Spain had a lot of Alfonsos in power during the Middle Ages.
Her father’s decision was prompted by the death of his illegitimate son (by a Muslim noblewoman) and designated heir, Sancho, in 1108, and by the demands of at least some of his nobles. As with the first marriage of Urraca’s younger and more famous contemporary Eleanor of Aquitaine, Urraca’s father and his nobles apparently felt his daughter couldn’t handle the job as a reigning queen, despite her already edging into the medieval version of early middle age and having a legitimate and healthy heir in her own son, who was a toddler. And as with Eleanor’s marriage, Daddy Dearest’s attempt to bolster his daughter’s position via bringing a man in to do the job just created extra problems for the realm and the female ruler who was quite capable of running it on her own.
It’s a first sign of greatness in a woman who, to that point, had been little more than a broodmare that Urraca decided to go ahead with the marriage, even after her father died suddenly in 1109. She did this, despite voicing repeated misgivings to her father, because she apparently agreed that the marriage was a political necessity to keep her older and ambitiously scheming, illegitimate half-sister Teresa and Teresa’s husband Henry, left in charge of Portugal, from seeking independence. Unfortunately, her misgivings turned out to be right and Urraca’s life soon began to resemble a particularly juicy medieval telenovela.
Though he looked great on paper – and great on the battlefield – El Batallador (c.1073-1134) was severely lacking as a husband. He reportedly disliked women and greatly preferred the company of men. Though he was six years older than Urraca, it was his first (and only) marriage. He had no mistresses and later Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir (1166-1234) remarked that he didn’t even sleep with female war captives (a very common practice of the time). No mention is made of his dallying with any young boys either, so there’s that, but whether he was gay, asexual or sterile, he had no known children of any kind.
It’s often stated how important bearing children was to a queen’s security and power base, but having an heir was equally important to a king. Establishing your dynasty was a crucial part of cementing your reign. My friend Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who has a strong interest in the history of Tudor England, has often remarked that Henry VIII’s queens were no passive victims. They had their own power bases, hence why noble families vied to profer the next woman in line and so many of these candidates were strong and smart (with the young and unready Catherine Howard a disastrously instructive exception). How much more so a queen ruling suo jure, by blood not marriage, like Urraca, who also not only had a son but a daughter who could rule after her. Indeed, as Urraca’s son ruled over the State part of his mother’s realm, her daughter Sancha came to rule over the Church portion as a very powerful, unmarried infanta. Even her illegitimate children married well.
During a monarch’s lifetime, even minor (underage) heirs, like Urraca’s son, Alfonso Raimundez, had power bases formed around them, full of court intrigue, long before they came of age. For example, Eleanor’s restless sons all rebelled against their father, Henry II of England, at some point. Eleanor herself was imprisoned for years because she fomented the revolt against their father as part of her ongoing conflict over Henry’s tyrannical attempts to coopt her realm of Aquitaine into his own. She ended up choosing her own heir, Richard, who also eventually became Henry’s heir due to a process of attrition over the years. She also ended up outliving Henry.
In Alfonso Raimundez’s case, the main court intriguer was the oily Bishop Diego Gelmirez of Santiago de Compostela, who eventually grew so wealthy and ambitious that the Pope himself slapped him down in 1124. Whoever controlled the child heir controlled the current monarch, though Urraca would soon close this loophole quite firmly. Urraca’s heir and her second husband’s lack of one showed her strength versus his weakness.
Alfonso Batallador also seemed to lack any tact whatsoever. What he gained on the battlefield he quickly lost to his soon-to-be-ex-wife because she was every bit as skilled a diplomat as he was a warrior. In the short term, the marriage itself had the opposite effect intended, since Alfonso Batallador made his intentions to dominate Urraca’s realm of Castile, León and Galicia in favor of his home kingdom of Aragon very clear. That just gave Teresa and her husband the excuse to break away for real.
Later historians have lamented the “chance” lost during Urraca’s reign to unite Spain under one realm, but those historians lived four or five centuries later, in a period after Spanish kings had brutally united the various kingdoms through force and considerable bloodshed. Urraca and Alfonso lived during a time when the united Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus had just broken up into numerous — though still-powerful — taifa kingdoms, and the previously tiny Christian kingdoms were rapidly expanding by picking them off. Urraca’s own grandfather had followed the Carolingian custom of dividing his kingdom among his children. It was only the death of her uncle, the elder son, that had given her father the chance to put the recently conquered Christian realms of her grandfather under one heir. So, it seems likely that uniting into a new Christian version of Al-Andalus was actually the last thing Urraca’s subjects had in mind, especially if they weren’t the ones in charge of it.
Alfonso Batallador may have been the only one shocked when the marriage broke down in 1110. Even so, Urraca next did some very surprising things for a medieval queen. For one, when she sought a divorce (technically, an annulment based on consanguinity) from the Pope, she did so partly based on the accusation that her new husband was beating her. At this time, it was perfectly acceptable for husbands to beat their wives and even ruling queens were expected to obey their husbands as their lords. Urraca’s accusation was startling in the assumption that her husband had no right to beat her, to the point that this was grounds for divorce. What was even more startling was that she was able to persuade the Pope to give her the divorce that same year. Popes were pretty accommodating about royal annulments in the 11th and early 12th centuries, but even so, that may have been a speed record.
And then, on top of that, she took a lover, Gómez González. While still legally married to Alfonso. And had a son with him.
Alfonso remained in denial for four more years, deciding in the meantime to take back “his” kingdom by force. There were several things in his favor. He was arguably the greatest Christian warrior of his generation and easily beat Urraca’s forces on the battlefield, even once putting her under siege at Astorga, León in 1112. Meanwhile, her lover was killed in the Battle of Candespina against her husband and her brother-in-law in 1111 (she promptly took another, his cousin Pedro González de Lara, and had at least two children out of wedlock with him). The Leonese nobility also was split into four factions. One was with the Queen. One was with her son, but sought to usurp her as his regent. One was with the King of Aragon. And one was helping Teresa and her husband break off to become the first Countess and Count of Portugal.
Urraca was able to fend off her older half-sister (who began to style herself Queen after being widowed in 1112), then defeated and forced her to re-swear fealty in 1121, temporarily reuniting all of their patrimony until after her death. Also, when the opportunity presented itself after Bishop Gelmírez fled the Battle of Viadangos in 1111 with young Alfonso Raimundez, seeking refuge with the boy’s mother, Urraca got full custody over her son. She retained control over young Alfonso (who was 20 before he became King) until her death, even staving off any possible rebellions such as the one Teresa’s son later employed to depose his mother in 1128. Meanwhile, she gained back in diplomacy what her ex had won in battle. Eventually, in 1114, Alfonso Batallador was forced to concede defeat and withdraw. Urraca spent the rest of her reign consolidating her kingdom against all comers Christian and Muslim, in preparation for turning it over to her son, before she died suddenly, probably in childbirth, at the age of 45.
The contemporary chronicle Historia Compostelana acknowledges Urraca’s intelligence and prudence, while sourly criticizing her as a “Jezebel” for her lovers and taking potshots at her fitness to rule solely due to her gender. Early Modern writers like Jerónimo Zurita y Castro (1512-1580) and Enrique Flórez (1701-1773) were more vicious, referring to her as Urraca the Reckless (la Temeraria) and writing lurid scenes (which may never have occurred) in which she was attacked and half-stripped during a negotiation-gone-wrong and a peasant revolt. It’s more likely that the peasants, for the most part, quite liked her, since she brought them peace and independence from Aragon. In addition, she had a greater reputation for showing mercy than her ex-husband, stemming from an incident early in their marriage when Alfonso Batallador executed some rebels Urraca wished to pardon.
In light of her many pregnancies and political use of sexual liaisons, there seems little doubt Urraca liked sex quite a bit. It also seems that she saw no reason not to use sex and sexual alliances as a weapon, just like her father, seeing as how Daddy Dearest was married five times and had at least two mistresses. She appears to have simply taken the same prerogatives that any king of her time would have done.
What’s interesting (and an indication of how powerful and skillful a ruler she truly must have been) is that she was able to do this, just like a king, to strengthen her rule, rather than be forced to live in celibate widowhood to avoid harming her and her son’s power base. For example, her two known lovers were both unsuccessful suitors for her hand before her father betrothed her to Alfonso Batallador. In addition, they were rivals against him along the border with Aragon, so she was able to exploit their natural animosity toward her second husband in her favor. It’s not just that Urraca didn’t care what a few cranky old monks and priests said about her. It’s that she was able to turn that scarlet reputation into a political advantage and make strong allies out of it. Having children with these men only cemented those alliances further.
It’s also interesting that the attraction she held for men probably had nothing to do with her looks and everything to do with her being Queen. We have no surviving description of her appearance and when she was married off the first time, she was very young. The one near-contemporary (a century later) portrait of her from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela very interestingly portrays her with medium-brown skin (or even slate gray in another photograph). Urraca’s father and son are also portrayed in the same illuminated document as dark-skinned. This supports the idea that her father’s marrying her to Raymond counteracted centuries of marrying locally (and his liaison with a Muslim princess that resulted in a male heir), which could well have also meant marrying into Andalusian nobility.
Still, it is a surprise in medieval iconography, where female nobility to the north in this period were portrayed as very pale (even Teresa gets this treatment in a surviving illumination). Younger contemporary Eleanor is also portrayed in effigy on her tomb as having medium-brown skin, as well as being tall and wide-hipped. Possibly, this was an artistic convention of the time applied to women from Southwestern Europe, even though noblewomen in general were not expected to go out in the sun and pale skin was prized in other parts of the region.
It’s one more way in which Urraca stands out as nothing like the traditional 19th century image of the dippy, passive Gibson-haired girl who just can’t rule without a strong knight by her side. Urraca didn’t need any man to dominate her and she spent most of the latter half of her life ensuring that no man ever would again.
Pallares Méndez, María del Carmen and Portela, Ermelindo. La Reina Urraca. Nerea, 2006.
[Check out more details about the above photo of Pee Dee Rosenwald School, c.1935, here.]
Though born in Virginia, plain, unassuming workhorse Annie Wealthy Holland (1871-1934) was one of the most influential African American educators, woman or man, in the early 20th century in North Carolina. Though greatly dedicated to the cause of African American education, she never earned a diploma. And though she wielded considerable power across the state as the demonstration agent for the Jeanes Fund and founder of the Negro Parent-Teacher Association (the first of its kind), equivalent to being a supervisor over all African American schools in North Carolina, she never had a formal administrative position. Annie Wealthy Holland’s career, first profiled a mere five years after her death in Five North Carolina Negro Educators, reflected the contradictions for women and for African Americans in Reconstruction and Segregation era North Carolina.
Holland was born in 1871 in Isle of Wight County in Virginia. Her parents, John Daughtry and Margaret Hill, had married in 1869, but divorced soon after she was born. This resulted in an early setback for Holland in her road to education. Even though her grandfather and grandmother had strong ties to the nearby plantation, her mother moved her young daughter to Southhampton County after remarrying. There, Annie spent her early years with few prospects, raising her six younger siblings while struggling to study.
Holland’s paternal family regarded the white owners of the nearby plantation so highly that they had named her after the mistress, Annie Wealthy. The Wealthys had also freed her grandfather, Friday Daughtry, in 1867 and given him some property of land and livestock to get started. He was able to increase this to the point where he invited his eldest granddaughter to return and pursue her studies while living with him. There, Holland learned about the ways and hardships of farming peanuts and sweet potatoes, a lifelong lesson. She also noticed that educational opportunities were increasing for African Americans, who were beginning to replace the previous white teachers in the field, and quickly took it to heart as her vocation.
After Holland graduated from the Isle of Wight County School at age 16, her grandfather sent her to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in Hampton, Virginia. Founded in 1861 to educate African American refugees from the War as future leaders of their communities, the Institute focused on teaching practical skills like trades. Unfortunately, Holland’s education was interrupted when her grandfather died after her first year. After moving to New York and working as a nurse and nanny for a family there, she was able to earn enough money to enroll for a second year, but illness due to malaria prevented her from completing her diploma (a lifelong regret she expressed decades later in surviving letters). She was, however, later able to earn a teaching certificate from Virginia Normal Industrial Institute.
At the age of 18, around the time of her grandfather’s death, she married a Hampton graduate named Willis Holland. They moved to Franklin, Virginia where, eight years later, they were serving as principal and assistant principal of a nearby school. Holland quickly learned (perhaps aided by her own early experiences of balancing study with child care) that the ability of their students to study and even attend school could be greatly and adversely affected by lack of basic resources. For example, she took it upon herself to conduct clothing drives for students who were too poor to have adequate winter clothing. African American public schools at this time suffered from a lack of educational resources, such as textbooks, in comparison to white schools. This made keeping the school open a constant challenge. Aside from a brief stint working on her own with a rural school, Holland continued to run the Franklin area school with her husband until 1911.
In October of that year, Holland made the decision to join the Jeanes Fund. The million-dollar Anna T. Jeanes Fund had been created by, and named after, Quaker philanthropist Anna Jeanes in 1907 to help expand public education for African Americans. It was unique among such foundations for allowing African Americans on the board of trustees.
The job was a formidable undertaking. As of 1914, the Fund did not even have one teacher for every one of their 119-county coverage in Virginia and North Carolina. The position involved a great deal of extension work, not only teaching of students but also community outreach and interaction. Nevertheless, Holland was so good at this that in 1915, she was asked to become the State Home Demonstration Agent in North Carolina. This gave her de facto authority over all African American elementary schools in the state. She held the position for 13 years.
In her new role, Holland had a comprehensive variety of roles and duties. She had to train and organize teachers, create reading circles and homemakers’ clubs, run meetings, and give church speeches. Her purview included 19 county schools, 10 city schools, and 3 “normal” (teaching college) schools. She might visit as many as twenty counties in a given month and oversaw forty-five county supervisors. She was the epitome of leading through service.
At the end of this period, Holland founded the first Negro Parent-Teacher State Association, called the North Carolina Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, at Shaw University (an African American college founded as Raleigh Institute in 1865) in 1928. Shaw was a prestigious college, the first in the U.S. to have a four-year medical degree and the first African American college to accept women. This meeting of some fifteen thousand people and seven hundred and seventy organizations was the culmination of a long and hard, but fruitful career.
Holland died six years later in Louisburg, NC and was buried in Franklin. While her life and career had begun in Virginia, in the end, her heart belonged to North Carolina. In commemoration, a tree was planted in her honor at Shaw University in 1939, five years after her death at the age of 63.
Much of Holland’s success stemmed from her remarkable knack for diplomacy and her self-effacing approach. She was an excellent mediator, gifted at persuading teachers and parents, blacks and whites, to get along and work together. She believed that African Americans should stand up for themselves, albeit not in ways that would deliberately alienate whites.
She also had to deal with the reality that she was working in a period where women had to take a secondary role to men, regardless of their race. There was never a question, for example, when she ran a school with her husband, whether he would be the principal and she would be his assistant. The few women who were able to have a career outside of the home also had to work very hard to maintain their position — and as Holland herself discovered, that work often involved teaching other women how to be better homemakers.
Her low-key approach also allowed her to navigate potentially dangerous political shoals and expand education – especially rural, public education — in the state for African Americans considerably during the early Segregation period. Unlike some other African American leaders of the time, Holland lacked the option in her later career of working exclusively in that community. She had to deal with a white community that perceived itself as superior to her and did not necessarily approve of giving up resources for African American education, and she had to do so with both firmness and tact. Teaching impoverished children might have been the easiest part of her job. Possibly, her early experience with sympathetic whites such as her namesake was what led to her even-handed skill in dealing with both communities and establishing unusual legal ties across the great divide of Segregation.
Annie Wealthy Holland was not a glamorous woman by any stretch. Nor was she an obvious candidate for a forceful or transformational leader. But the drip of water over many years can erode stone better than a tsunami. Holland is an excellent example of one of many such leaders during the Segregation period who transformed North Carolina in numerous, pervasive and positive ways.
“The Educators,” The Women Who Ran the Schools: The Jeanes Teachers and Durham County’s Rural Black Schools.
Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that many dystopias are really utopias but from the viewpoint of a narrator who hates them. If you look at Brave New World (1932), for example, most of the people in that story are actually happy with their situation. Never mind that they’ve been both natured and nurtured that way, or that they are in a permanent state of shallow indulgence in seeking the next new pleasure. They like it. They aren’t suffering as the characters are in, say, We (1921) or Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
Sure, you’d hate the World State if you were deeper than a puddle or an outsider, but it’s questionable whether John Savage (or any of the other Alphas) is all that deep. This becomes especially true as our society’s tolerance wanes for whiny man-children who feel entitled to a girlfriend who understaaaaannnds them, or for Huxley’s reflexive assumption that all women can only be, at best, Betas. Gee, thanks, Al.
This is important to keep in mind when reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian Herland trilogy. It comprises Moving the Mountain, the narratively unrelated Herland, and Herland‘s direct sequel With Her in Ourland.
Moving the Mountain is not set in the same world as Herland. It’s really Gilman’s version of Looking Backward from 1888 (her male narrator even mentions this early on) and is her vision of the mid-20th century circa 1950. Some stuff she gets so right that it almost elicits a shrug from the reader (Well, yes, of course regulated, cleaner food and water happened, and that was an improvement, but it hardly resulted in a utopian world). Other stuff (no more war in 1950? The Temperance movement was a success? Yeah, sure) she gets pretty wrong.
The male narrator, John Robertson, goes off to Tibet, gets bonked on the head, lives there in a state of amnesia for 30 years (which Gilman dismisses as of no account with an off-hand contempt for Tibetan culture), accidentally meets his sister Ellen, gets his memory back of his previous life while losing all memory of what he did in Tibet, and returns home, only to find that the wimminfolk have changed into emotional aliens and basically taken over society.
No, I’m not kidding. That’s really the plot.
In Herland, in what sounds eerily like a precursor to Lost Horizon (1933) or even At the Mountains of Madness (1931), three male explorers travel up a river and past some kind of old lava flow to discover a country full of millions of women and no men. After the natural disaster of a volcanic eruption, these women somehow evolved two thousand years ago into giving birth parthenogenetically. To their chagrin, the male explorers are quickly captured and “educated” like children in the new culture, with varying success. Part of this education includes falling in love with three of their captors and getting married, which is written as natural, straight male aggression and sex drive, but comes off a little bit like Stockholm Syndrome.
In With Her in Ourland, two of the men go back home with one of the men’s Herlander wives, who is acting as a scout for her people to see if it’s worth opening up communications with the rest of the world. Her husband tries to explain to her how civilized his world really is and then they land right in the middle of WWI. Awkward.
Personally, I liked Herland better than Moving the Mountain, albeit in a lukewarm way. There’s actual conflict and it is written better as a story. While Herland and With Her in Ourland have a lot of the usual extended and wordy exposition about the culture that you find in utopian novels, Moving the Mountain is almost nothing but, save for the beginning and end of the story. Herland has more of a plot than Moving the Mountain and more of a story arc and structure.
The three men in Herland represent a continuum of manhood from Jeff the romantic lover of All Things Woman, through the milquetoast narrator Van, to Terry the creepy date rapist (Van even admits at one point that he and Terry’s other friends never let any of their female relatives be alone with him back in school. Nice). Needless to say, Terry doesn’t take being deprogrammed out of super-macho douchebaggery too well and things end rather badly for him.
(There is an unintentional irony in that in all three books, the POV is male, and the female characters are idealized and one-dimensional. Not only do the women of Herland dress alike, they also act alike for the most part (save for some distancing exposition about off-stage bad behavior here and there) and are blandly amiable. She even has her Herlander heroine bear a male child at the end of With Her in Ourland, signaling a sea change that probably wouldn’t bode well for the Herlanders in real life. Though Gilman writes the men in the story as overgrown children, it cuts into the feminist message just a tad to write her women entirely through the Male Gaze. It also cut down on my enjoyment of the stories.)
The Herland novels also don’t have quite as much “Good Lord, did she just say that?” stuff in them as Moving the Mountain. For example, the future society in Moving the Mountain advocates eugenics on the level of euthanasia for physical handicaps, long-term mental illness, and hardened criminals, but also women who like sex too much or alcoholics/drug addicts who flunk rehab after one try. And yet, when the men mention to the women of Herland that women in their own culture have abortions, the Herland women are utterly horrified. Hmm. Okay.
In all three books, Gilman also shows a general dislike of sex except for procreation and the women of Herland are obsessed with the ideal of motherhood, which also derails any discussion of why women who have spent two thousand years without men would be attracted to them, let alone what those women are getting up to together in the bedroom without any men around (for that, check out Joanna Russ’ unnerving and often wickedly funny “When It Changed” (1972)).
The women talk incessantly about how regretful they are that they can only have one child, due to having to keep the population down to accommodate their environment. They’d happily have the full five kids their unique biology allows them, so having just one kid is awfully hard. Even with Gilman’s enthusiastic endorsement of “It takes a village of women to raise a child” forms of child rearing, that she considered this idea remotely feminist, even in 1915, gets a Spock eyebrow from me. I mean, what if a Herlander doesn’t want to have kids? Does that make her some kind of freak?
Also, they are all white – and by white, I mean Northwestern European. Gilman doesn’t beat away at this fact repeatedly, but she does make it very clear. Women of Color are absent from her two utopias for a reason (in fact, the only Man of Color we meet is near the end of Moving the Mountain and he’s a walking submissive stereotype). Even if she doesn’t rodomontade too much about that reason, her ideas of the genetic superiority of some women over others (who shouldn’t be allowed to breed) make the unpleasant extrapolation pretty easy.
Gilman also shows a distinct antipathy toward the messiness and chaos of nature in both books. In Moving the Mountain, most wildlife except for some birds (Gilman had a thing for song birds), vermin like rats, cats and dogs, and even cattle, have been eliminated. Herland has no dogs and no non-productive trees, just one big orchard. Cattle have been phased out. And cats have been bred to become complacent, never go into heat, and never hunt birds. Ha.
The trilogy hasn’t aged well post-WWII. The Nazis did an excellent job of killing the Eugenics Movement, while Prohibition did a number on the Temperance Movement. Moving the Mountain, in particular, puts forth some ideas that must have appeared entirely sensible to Gilman at the time, but didn’t play out well at all in the reality of the Nazi Fatherland.
What’s especially odd is how these books (which detail what Gilman saw as perfect societies) contrast with some of her other work, particularly the horror classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). That story is told from the point of view of a woman suffering from postpartum depression and subjected to a chilling social isolation treatment by her dim-witted physician of a husband. Motherhood is not idealized in this story and the women on either side of the wallpaper in their violent and psychotic rebellion would not be allowed at all in either of the utopias of the Herland trilogy.
Gilman was perfectly capable of writing unruly women, as “The Yellow Wallpaper” amply demonstrates, so it’s a bit of a shock to see how placid and bovine the women of Herland frequently appear. Even the women in Moving the Mountain are spikier and fiercer than that. I suppose this is a classic example of why utopias are almost always so creepy. What seems normal and desirable to one person can have an unintended dark subtext for others. While I don’t think everything fictional should be grim or sturm und drang, I wonder if an attraction of horror (and of dystopias) is that intentionally and consciously grappling with our dark sides can evoke a certain honesty not present in utopian fiction.
Blog for scifi writer and medieval historian Paula R. Stiles