Monday, 21 June 2021

The Controversy of the Lustful Nuns

Wouldn’t it be nice of historians agreed on everything? Sadly, politics, prejudice and (quite often) personalities get in the way. This has been the case since the down of historiography. Queer interpretations are often open to criticism, as illustrated when I’ve written about historical people being outed.

A historical figure to be given a queer identity recently is a little-known saint from a little-known (though not insignificant, with almost 36 million worshippers) Christian church. The saint lived in 17th century Ethiopia but her hagiography (saint biography) wasn’t widely available until it was first translated and published in 1912.

The saint is called Walatta Petros (1592-1642). This is an English transliteration of her name in her native Ge’ez language and means “Daughter of Peter” (St. Peter). She was born into an aristocratic, land-owning family. Her family were courtiers of the Negusa Nagast (or King of Kings, I’ll use the title emperor) of Ethiopia. Walatta Petros was briefly married as a young girl to a man who was killed by the emperor. Shortly after 1607 she was married again to one of the imperial counsellors and they had three children. Sadly, all three children died in infancy, and afterwards Walatta Petros decided to become a nun.

Portrait of Walatta Petros from a manuscript located in one of her monasteries, 1716-21.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in Africa, adhering to the Coptic faith founded in the 3rd century. Over the centuries, as with other beliefs, factions and sects broke away from the main church. The church to which Walatta Petros worshipped is now called the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which was granted separate status from the Coptic Church in the 4th century at about the same time that the Roman Empire became Christian.

Portuguese Jesuit missionaries of the Roman Catholic Church went to Ethiopia in the 15th century to convert the country to Catholicism. The emperor was converted but there was unrest in the country as he attempted to ban and persecute the Coptic and Orthodox churches and Walatta Petros’s husband was sent to fight the “rebels”. Tewahedo priests helped Walatta Petros to leave her husband and join them in their monastery.

Shortly afterwards her husband led an attack on “rebels” in the town surrounding the monastery. Walatta Petros refused to return to her husband to stop the attack. She did, however, return to her home, only to find that her husband supported the murder of the Tewahedo patriarch (archbishop). That was the final straw, and she devoted the rest of her life to her faith from 1617.

Walatta Petros and the Tewahedo clergy protested against their persecution. She was summoned before the emperor twice charged with preaching orthodoxy and treason. Her family persuaded the emperor not to execute her and she was banished for three years.

From 1621 Walatta Petros founded several communities for Tewahedo worshippers who wanted to get away from the Catholic persecution. She became their spiritual leader and abbess. The emperor eventually accepted religious diversity and restored Orthodoxy as the national faith. He then abdicated.

Walatta Patros died at the age of 50 in 1642. She became one of the few female worshippers to be regarded as a saint in the Tewahedo Orthodox Church.

So, where does the controversy over her life come in? It’s all due to what a Tewahedo monk wrote in her hagiography in 1672. Most obviously, there’s a section which recounts a scene from Walatta Petros’s life in which she accidentally encounters a group of nuns having sex. She is very angry at seeing this. This has been a focus for debate ever since the hagiography was first published. Some historians and religious figures have taken the words literally while others have taken them metaphorically.

Medieval hagiographies often had allegorical and metaphorical stories of saints fighting against various temptations, whether in the form of monsters or people. In the case of Walatta Petros and the “lustful nuns” it is accepted that it was a real event in her life. But a more recent debate/controversy puts the lustful nuns into the shadows.

In 2005, an authority on Ethiopian Christian Orthodoxy, Sevir Černecov, in the last article published in his lifetime, became the first to suggest a non-gender-conforming nature to Walatta Petros’s life. This was picked up by several American historians, in particular Dr. Wendy Belcher of Princeton University who gave a series of lectures in 2014 which went further to suggest that Walatts Petros had a romantic, non-sexual relationship with her companion, a fellow nun called Ehata Kristos.

You can imagine the criticism from the Tewahedo and other Orthodox churches. Historians, too, expressed disagreement, as they often do with queer history, as much as any priest. One historian took a particularly critical view of Wendy Belcher’s lectures and her subsequent publication about the Walatta Petros hagiography. Dr. Belcher makes it clear in the lengthy introduction to her book that interpretations of past events and the words used when translating foreign languages, such as the Ge’ez language that the original hagiography is written in, is challenging.

Last year Dr. Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes of Curtin University, Australia, and an authority on Ethiopian history, published an article (at 90 pages long it’s more of a mini thesis) in which he criticised Wendy Belcher and her collaborator Michael Kleiner for not attempting to understand the Ge’ez language, or at least not knowing the language well enough to translate and interpret the original hagiography properly. He also accused them of deliberate racist and sexualisation of Walatta Petros’s life.

Belcher and Kleiner both wrote responses to Woldeyes’ attack on them, for that’s how his criticism reads. Their responses are both published on Dr. Belcher’s website here and here and go into more detail about the relationship between Walatta Petros and Ehata Kristos.

The relationship between the two women has never identified as a sexual one by Dr. Belcher, despite claims by Dr. Woldeyes. History is full of non-sexual romantic same-sex partnerships. The most well-known version is the Boston Marriage, a term used to describe female companions who lived together, so-called because there were several such romantic female couples living in and around Boston, USA, in the 19th century. Within historical monastic communities, whether male or female, non-sexual partnerships are known (St. Francis of Assisi, for example). Encounters like Walatta Petros and the “lustful nuns” are relatively rare.

The fact that Walatta Petros fell in love with another woman and remained celibate seems difficult for some in the sex-obsessed world of modern lgbt culture to understand. The lgbt community, people of faith, and critics of religion should stop equating love with sex – the medieval Christian Church did, why can’t they?

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

William and John: Part 2) John in France

Last month I began to tell the story of Sir William Neville and his partner Sir John Clanvowe. I looked at their family background and childhood, and how they were connected through the manorial network of medieval England. Today I want to concentrate on the military career of Sir John Clanvowe. The campaigns in which he served are among the most important of the wars against France in the Hundred Years War.

The Hundred Years War can be said to have been caused n part by the marriage of the gay King Edward II of England to Princess Isabella of France in 1308. Isabella was a daughter of the French king who, although he had sons, had no grandsons to succeed him. This is important because France, unlike England, didn’t allow succession to the throne through the female line. Edward and Isabella’s son, King Edward III, decided that English law made him heir to the French throne though his mother and declared himself King of France. The French chose someone else. Another factor in the war was that the English crown possessed a lot of land in France as part of their feudal inheritance (see the map below). All feudal lords in France had to swear allegiance to the French king as their supreme lord. Edward III wasn’t going to swear to be subservient to any other king, and the French threatened to seize his possessions if he didn’t. That was another reason for the Hundred Years War.

The first of the campaigns in which Sir John Clanvowe served was in 1364 during the Breton War of Succession. When the old Duke of Brittany died there were two rival claimants to succeed him, John de Montfort and Charles de Blois. Both had legitimate claims under medieval law. The kings of England and France gave their support to opposing claimants. King Edward III supported de Montfort (who also happened to be his son-in-law) and the King of France supported de Blois.

The rivalry came to a head in September 1364 at Auray, a town on the Breton coast. John de Montfort was supported by battalions led by Sir John Chandos and Sir Robert Knolles. Both sides had been instructed to take no prisoners. Sir John Clanvowe was fighting in the thick of battle as the English forced the French into an indefensible position. Charles de Blois was killed and the French surrendered. John de Montfort was proclaimed the new Duke of Brittany, but instead of recognising King Edward as his feudal overlord as promised he switched his allegiance to the King of France. It was a surprising and humiliating blow to the English. Sir John Clanvowe then joined the retinue of Sir John Chandos and was present at the latter's unfortunate death.

By 1369 the French were taking over more English territory and Chandos attempted to defend the town of Poitiers. A week after Christmas Chandos and a group of about forty men including, Sir John Clanvowe, caught up with them at Lussac. Dressed in armour with his helmet visor up Chandos led the attack, but he slipped on the icy ground and stumbled head first onto the point of a lance held by a French soldier. The weapon struck him below one eye and entered his skull. Alive, conscious and writhing in agony on the icy ground his compatriots tried to protect him.

A 14th century French chronicler, Jean Froissart, described how the English knights flew into a defensive rage, specifically naming Sir John Chambo. The identity of this knight has puzzled historians, as there is no John Chambo mentioned elsewhere. However, the Chambo coat of arms is recorded in several medieval rolls and is identical to that of the Clanvowe family, which suggests that to me that Sir John Chambo was actually Sir John Clanvowe.

English then decided to launch a major expeditionary force into France. Sir John Clanvowe and his future partner Sir William Neville were to serve alongside each other for the first time in this expedition. They were part of a force that pillaged its way through northern France in August 1370 in what is called a chevauchée. This was a rampage through the countryside in an attempt to terrify the local population. Villages were attacked, fields of crops were burnt, and animals were slaughtered. Soldiers took what they wanted. Terrified villagers fled to the nearest castle or fortification.

The French then made clear their intention to invade English-owned Aquitaine. Edward III decided to launch a massive chevauchée in August 1373 with his son Prince John of Gaunt in command of about 8,000 soldiers. Sir John Clanvowe joined this "Grand Chevauchée", as it is named, which pillaged its way from Calais in a route of over 900 miles to Bordeaux in Aquitaine. A French army shadowed the English and there were a few small skirmishes in the early stages but the French army generally kept its distance.

The English forces trudged on until Christmas. Long before then most of the horses had died, as had many soldiers from disease. Provisions dwindled and the weather worsened. Replacement horses were seized from the terrified French peasants as the English army rampaged through the countryside.

It must have been the most welcome Christmas for both the exhausted army and the people of Aquitaine as the English soldiers arrived in Bordeaux to give them the support they had longed for. The Grand Chevauchée had succeeded in dissuading the French from invading Aquitaine. It also enhanced the reputation of those who took part, giving them hero status amongst the English.

During the following years Sir John Clanvowe joined the retinue of Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford. John may have known de Bohun since childhood through the manorial network. De Bohun was the hereditary Lord High Constable of England, a military position similar in nature to Chief of Defence Staff. This brought de Bohun into the inner circles of the English court, and John Clanvowe may have accompanied him during his official court duties. When de Bohun King Edward III took John on as a King's Knight.

We’ll have a closer look at Sir John’s court career in a few weeks. Next time we’ll have a look at Sir William Neville. After he and Sir John Clanvowe served in the 1370 chevauchée William went on to serve as an admiral. We’ve have a look at his career, and his marriage, at the beginning of July.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Heraldic Alphabet 2021

It’s International Heraldry Day again, and I’m celebrating with more coats of arms in the lgbt community. Today 24 letters of the alphabet are represented. As before, I use names by which each person is most usually known. British peers are listed under their title.

I’ve spent years doing the research to ensure as much as possible that everyone listed is entitled, in reality or theory, to use the arms illustrated.

Bear in mind is that some nations don’t allow women to use shields, only ovals or diamond shapes. For the sake of visual uniformity I’ll only use shields. Let’s start with some definitions.

Difference – a designated object added to an inherited coat of arms to show a person’s place in the order of birth.

Family – arms inherited from the father and/or heiress, primarily used in most nations by the senior bloodline.

Personal – inherited family arms (often with differences), or those granted by an official heraldic authority.

Assumed – arms adopted where no official heraldic authority existed in a person’s lifetime or location, often of an unrelated family of the same name.

Marital – arms of a married couple. Many heraldic authorities recognise same-sex marriages. If both spouses have a coat of arms they place them side by side on one shield. Heraldic heirs places their arms on a little shield on top of their spouse’s.

Arms of Office – arms of an institution of which a person was the nominal head, used only during their term of office. A person may also possess their own arms.

Quarters – multiple coats of arms can be inherited by one person and displayed in the quarters of the shield.

Here is the 2021 Heraldic Alphabet:

A) Count Laszlo Almasy (1895-1951) – Hungarian explorer, aviator and spy. Inherited family arms. Although a younger son, under Hungarian rules Laszlo was entitled to use the family arms un-differenced.

B) Mariana Belcombe (1790-1868) – partner of Anne Lister of Shibden Hall. Marital arms as Mrs. Charles Lawton. His arms are on the left half. The arms on the right are those of Mariana’s original family name, Bulcock.

C) Frances Cobbe (1822-1904) – Irish writer, anti-vivisectionist and suffragette. Inherited arms, confirmed by the Ulster Office of Arms to her father. They quarter the arms of Cobbe (a pun – a cobb is a male swan) with Welborne, whose heir married into the family.

D) Eyre de Lanux (real name Elizabeth Eyre, 1894-1996) – American artist and designer. Inherited arms, those of her direct male-line ancestors, the Eyres of Nottinghamshire.

E) Damien Egan (b.1983) – Mayor of Lewisham 2018. Arms of office, being those granted to the London borough of Lewisham in 1966 by the College of Arms.

F) Gavin Henderson, 2nd Baron Faringdon (1902-1997) – British politician. Inherited personal arms, first matriculated (registered) to his grandfather in 1902 by the Court of Lord Lyon in Scotland.

G) Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) – American photographer. Inherited (perhaps assumed) arms. The arms attributed to her direct ancestor James Gilpin (1622-1682).

H) Lesbia Harford, née Keogh (1891-1927) – Australian poet and social campaigner. Family arms. Lesbia was a direct descendant of a 15th century chief of the Clan McKeogh (illustrated). She descends from a junior line.

I) Stephen Fox-Strangways, 1st Earl of Ilchester (1704-1776) – English politician. Personal inherited arms. The Fox arms (top right) are canting (i.e. they show foxes). The fleur-de-lys is a mark of honour granted to Ilchester’s father by King Charles II. In 1758 Ilchester adopted the Strangways name and arms (top left) on the death of his mother-in-law, whose heir he married.

J) Edward James (1907-1984) – English poet and art patron. Personal inherited arms, granted to his uncle by the College of Arms in 1879. The ostriches represent his uncle’s friendship with the Prince of Wales (ostrich feathers are the Prince’s emblem), and because he explored Africa. The heraldic dolphin is used by many James families.

K) Anna Kowalska (1903-1969) – Polish writer. Inherited family arms. Anna’s paternal family name, Chrzanowska, belongs of the Korvin heraldic clan, to which Sofia Kovalevskaya also belongs (Heraldic Alphabet 2016), and they use these arms.

L) Amy Lowell (1874-1925) – American poet. Inherited family arms. Amy descends from colonist Percival Lowle (1571-1665). His arms and ancestry were recorded by the College of Arms in 1591.

M) Anastasie Mannerheim (1893-1978) and Sophie Mannerheim (1895-1963) – lesbian daughters of Baron Carl Mannerheim, President of Finland 1944-46. Inherited family arms. The original Mannerhiem arms are on the central shield. The others were added in 1768 when their ancestor was ennobled and represent his military career and family.

N) Sir Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) and Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) – British writers. Marital arms. My 2015 Heraldic Alphabet featured the incorrect arms of this bisexual couple. As heraldic heiress (i.e. no brothers) Vita would display her arms on a little shield on top of her husband’s as shown here.

O) Cian O’Callaghan (b.1979) – Irish politician, Mayor of Fingal County 2012-3 (the first Irish openly gay mayor). Arms of office, being the arms granted to Fingal County in 1994.

P) Stewart Perowne (1901-1989) – English diplomat, archaeologist and designer. Personal arms. Granted to his father by the College of Arms on 8th February 1924. The crescent is a difference mark indicating he was the second son.

Q) QBoy (real name Marcos Brito, b.1978) – British rapper and DJ. Inherited family arms. QBoy’s ancestors have lived on the Canary Islands for centuries. The purple lions are taken from the arms of the kingdom of Castile who conquered the islands in 1402.

R) Miles Radcliffe (1895-1946) – murdered chocolate factory manager in Wellington, New Zealand. Family arms. Miles descends from John Radcliffe (d.1683) of Shaw Hall, Lancashire (his arms are illustrated). The quarters show the arms of Radcliffe, Legh, Arderne and Sandbach.

S) Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954) – US social reformer and literature professor. Assumed family arms. Vida descends from colonist Thomas Scudder of Kent. He may have been related to the Scudders of North Clay, Kent, whose arms (illustrated) were recorded in 1574. The Scudder Family Association of the USA use these arms.

T) Sir William Teeling (1903-1975) – Irish author and politician. Personal inherited arms. The zigzags of the Teeling arms were granted by the Ulster Office of Arms. The crosses and lions are those of the Burkes of Ower, County Galway, whose heir was Sir William’s mother.

U) Thomas Upcher (1906-1985) – owner of Sheringham Hall, England. Personal inherited arms. Granted by the College of Arms to his ancestor Peter Upcher on 18th February 1777. It combines the arms of Peter’s grandmother Sarah Abbot (chevron and pears) with his mother’s, Mary Foxwell (blue chevron and fox heads).

V) Antonio Vasconcelos (1963-1989) – Mozambique-born London banker; one of 51 people at his birthday party killed in the “Marchioness” Thames disaster. Inherited arms as carved on his gravestone. Mozambique follows Portuguese rules whereby individuals can take the name and arms of any ancestor. These arms are of Antonio’s mother, Maria da Gama Lobo Salema (da Gama on the left, Lobo on the right).

W) Jerzy Waldorff (1910-1999) – Polish music critic and broadcaster. Inherited family arms. Jerzy’s paternal family name, Preyss, belongs to the Nabram heraldic clan and they use their arms.

Y) William Yeoward (1957-2019) – British crystal glass designer. Family arms, granted by the College of Arms to his great-uncle, Lewis Yeoward, on 16th April 1914.

That concludes this year’s Heraldic Alphabet. Even though I plan to stop posting regular articles after August I intend to produce another Heraldic Alphabet in 2022.

Friday, 4 June 2021

A Dark Chapter in Dutch History

The Netherlands has acquired a reputation as a pioneer and champion of lgbt rights, but it is also a dark chapter that involves the worst secular persecution of homosexuals in European history prior to the 20th century. The news of the virtual massacre of gay men in the summer of 1730 in the Dutch republic spread across Europe resulting in similar persecutions.

As has often been the case throughout history, any natural or economic disaster is often attributed to divine retribution because of the actions (or even the very existence) of specific sections of the community. Many times in recent decades the lgbt community has been accused of bringing that divine retribution in the form of floods, famine and disease. Just last week an American religious group accused the lgbt community of bringing down the wrath of God who inflicted the covid pandemic on the world because of our continuing existence.

Such appears to have been the case in the Netherlands in the early 18th century. For a generation there had been disease that had suddenly attacked the country’s cattle herds, and parasitic worms that were breeding in the water dikes. A generation earlier there have been freak weather, and even an earthquake that destroyed much of Utrecht’s main church, the Domkerk. In general also, there was a feeling that society was becoming too immoral, lazy and weak-willed. People were looking for someone to blame for the disasters and deterioration in society and soon the gay community became their target. This became a nationwide persecution.

Where the Dutch persecution of gay men began.
An engraving of a painting by Herman Saftleven the Younger (1609-1685)
showing the ruins of Domkerk nave (Utrecht Archives).

The damaged Domkerk became a meeting place for gay men. In January 1730 the sacristan, the person who looked after what was left of the building, discovered two men having sex in the church tower. He recognised one of them as Zacharias Wilsma, and the sacristan had him arrested. Wilsma, a 23-year-old ex-soldier from Leiden, was interrogated. He revealed the existence of a network of gay men across the Netherlands, especially in Amsterdam. He probably hoped that his confession and co-operation would save him from punishment. It appears that this may have been the case because there’s no record of his execution in the ensuing “purge” of Dutch homosexuals.

Wilsma also revealed details of his own sexual activities prior to moving to Utrecht. As the foreman on the country estate of a wealthy burgomaster near Leiden he often had sex with other men in his master’s carriages.

Wilsma named four men in Amsterdam as sodomites, as homosexuals were termed in those days, and they were tracked down and arrested. Wilsma testified against them at their trials and all four were executed in June 1730. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Under interrogation the men revealed the names of forty others. The revelation that there was a thriving secret gay community in Amsterdam threw the city and the nation into a panic.

In July 1730 the Netherlands government issued an edict that went out to every city, town and village. It warned against the dangers and evils of sodomy (sodomy was considered to be an infectious disease at the time). The edict reminded people of the death penalty.

By this time word had spread among the gay community, or rather the loose network of gay men, to be more accurate. Although many men were arrested, convicted and executed, some managed to escape, at least for a short time.

One of the most prominent men hoping to avoid capture was Baron Frederick van Reede van Renswoude (1659-1738), a diplomat and magistrate renowned internationally as a peace-keeper. The London Journal described him as “the First Noble of the Province of Utrecht”. It is thought that he fled to Venice. Several men who were executed for sodomy referred to him as “the Greatest of All Buggers”. He was stripped of his legal and municipal offices, but he thought it safe for him to return a few weeks later. That seems to have been the only punishment he received.

The most notorious crack-down on gay sex networks occurred in Faan, a tiny village near Groningen. There the local magistrate arrested 24 men in the village for sodomy. He found all of them guilty and they were all hanged.

News of the arrests and executions spread across Europe. Unlike today there was no condemnation from the general public of the homophobic purge. It would be wrong to assume that the public had been scared into believing the Church propaganda against sodomy. The historical evidence says otherwise. The public believed sodomy was a moral evil just as much as the majority of Christian Churches did.

One British newspaper summed up the general view of the public perfectly. The London Journal of 6th June 1730 reported “… It is about a Fortnight since the court of Holland have had under Prosecution Seven young persons for the detestable Sin of Sodomy, formerly unknown in these Parts, and confined to the South Side of the Alps: Several have been seized upon the Score at Leyden, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Campen, and in short in almost all the Province…” The report indicates the view in northern Europe that sodomy was only practiced in Italy, in particular Florence. In fact, the Germans had a slang word for a sodomite – “florenzer” (we’ll encounter some actual “florenzers” next month). Additionally, the persecution of gay men in Utrecht itself gave rise to a slang name for a gay man – “utrechtenaar”.

As news of the persecutions and executions spread across Europe people began to view recent visitors from the Netherlands with suspicion. Some of these visitors were indeed escaping homosexuals but many were not.

Arrests, interrogations, trials and executions went of sporadically for decades, but none were as intense as the 1730 Dutch persecutions. What makes the whole affair so horrifying to our modern ears is the manner of the executions. The law permitted judges to choose the methods of execution. As well as hanging, some men were burnt alive, some were strangled and crushed, some had their corpses burnt and their ashes thrown in to the sea, In fact, the remains of quite a lot of these men ended up being thrown into the sea. It is estimated that there were about 300 men were convicted of sodomy in the summer of 1730.

History shows just how much nations and public opinion can change over time. This change in the Netherlands has been recognised. In 1999 the authorities in Utrecht placed a memorial stone, called the Sodomonument, in the street outside the Domkerk tower, the only surviving part of the church, to commemorate the lives of the persecuted men.

Saturday, 29 May 2021

Homohoax: Politics, Pizza and Ping-Pong

(Homohoax: A hoax, prank, scam, confidence trick, deception or fraud committed by, targeted at, attributed to or significantly involving members of the lgbt community.)

If you were in the US during the 20216 Presidential Election campaigns you’ll probably remember Pizzagate. What you may have forgotten, or were not made aware of, is that a gay-owned business was caught up in its epicentre. You might have thought that it was all over with, but you’d be wrong. Like the anchovies on a pizza Pizzagate keeps returning.

Let’s start at the beginning. The 2016 Presidential Election was between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

In October 2016 Wikileaks began publishing the hacked emails of John Podesta, Chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and former White House Chief of Staff. Some people, mainly far-right activists, read them and claimed they contained code words for paedophilia and child abuse. Their claims were later posted on fake new websites and spread by Trump supporters and this created the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory.

But what has it got to do with pizzas? Someone on the social media forum 4chan spotted references in the emails to going out for a pizza, and for some unexplained reason claimed the word “cheese pizza” was code for “child pornography” (c.p.). Several Wikileaks emails mentioned a gay man called James Alefantis, the owner of a Washington DC pizza restaurant and bar called Comet Ping Pong (hence “Pizzagate”). James knew John Podesta’s brother Tony, who had eaten at the restaurant.

From this the 4chan user claimed that the restaurant was the location of a child pornography ring that included senior figures in the Democratic Party associated with Clinton’s presidential campaign. James Alefantis was also the ex-boyfriend of David Brock, a journalist and social commentator and a prominent Hillary Clinton supporter in the media, dragging Clinton even further into the alleged child trafficking ring.

A Reddit user posted a document alleging proof of child sex abuse, inferring that everyone associated with Comet Ping Pong - staff, customers and guest performers - were involved in sex with minors and that performers generated “cultish imagery of disembodiment, blood, beheadings, sex”. It’s no surprise that any mention of sex is guaranteed to get people’s attention and the story was soon picked up by the mainstream media and alt-right activists.

As Pizzagate got bigger so did the lies. It even got to a stage where people pointed to a t-shirt James Alefantis was seen wearing that read “I (heart) l’Enfant”. Twisting James’s name to Jim Alefantis, then to the similar sounding phrase “Je t’aime l’enfants” (“I like children” in French) and finally to “I (heart) l’Enfant” the Pizzagate theorists claimed it was Alefantis’s coded admission to his paedophile activities. In fact, “I (heart) l’Enfant” referred to a bar in Washington named after the city’s 18th century planner, Pierre l’Enfant.

Some of those who fell for the fake news posted photographs from James Alefantis’s social media accounts as further proof of his involvement. In some cases, images were taken from unrelated sources. Alefantis and his staff were harassed and threatened on social media, and Alefantis received death threats. Several bands who had performed at the pizzeria also faced harassment. Other businesses close to Comet Ping Pong received death threats and harassment.

Pizzagate began to get out of control when in December 2016 Edgar Welch from North Carolina went to Comet Ping Pong and fired a rifle three times at the building. He had read about a secret bunker under the restaurant that was used to imprison children and subject them to sexual abuse. Welch wanted to be seen as a national hero - a rescuer of children. He surrendered without further incident after police surrounded the restaurant and he was arrested. It was soon proven that there was no bunker and that photos of it that appeared on the internet were of another unrelated property. Welch pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison. He was released on 28th May 2010.

The conspiracy theory was soon debunked by fact-checking websites and news organizations. Much of the evidence cited by the conspiracy theorists were taken from entirely different sources and manipulated to fit their theory. On 8th December 2016, Hillary Clinton herself responded to the Pizzagate theory, and about the dangers of fake news.

Despite being debunked, Pizzagate continued to spread on social media. On 25th January 2019, more than two years after Pizzagate began, Comet Ping Pong suffered an arson attack. Employees quickly extinguished the blaze and nobody was injured.

In 2020 Pizzagate was used by the far-right QAnon group who widened the conspiracy to include international figures and an international sex-trafficking ring involving celebrities like Ellen Degeneres, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates. Weirdly, this revival of the theory became popular on the youth-orientated social media TikTok.

Pizzagate theorists then dragged singer Justin Beiber into the conspiracy. At one point in a live Instagram video he adjusted the black beanie hat he was wearing, apparently unaware that someone had earlier posted a comment asking Justin to do just that if he was a child victim of Pizzagate. There’s no indication that Bieber even read this comment among the thousands of others being posted every minute. Eventually, Justin had to make an announcement that he had no connection to the Pizzagate theory or child trafficking.

Will Pizzagate ever leave us? Perhaps not. As long as there are manipulative people with sad little lives based only with delusions of their own self-importance in the world, and as long as there are people gullible enough to believe them, there’ll always be fake news and conspiracy theories. Creating a conspiracy theory is easy. I could start a few myself involving Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion’s choice of neo-Nazi symbolism, or the Black Lives Matter leaders appropriating donations to pay for their own luxury millionaire lifestyles. Hang on, those are actually true…. aren’t they?

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Star-Gayzing: Orion's Gender Switch

Its nearly ten years since I wrote my first “Star Gayzing” article lgbt connections in the constellations and I’ve only mentioned in passing what is, perhaps, the most famous constellation of them all, Orion. Lgbt connections in Orion come from its association with the ancient Sumerian myth about the origin of the seasons which I wrote about last year in “Springing Out of Winter”.

Over the centuries and across continents constellations change, not only in their orientation in the sky but also in the interpretation of the patterns they form. Most of the current interpretations derive from the ancient Babylonians and other cultures that originated in the same region of Iraq, and Orion is no exception.

An ancient star catalogue compiled by the Babylonians over 3,000 years ago saw Orion as “The True Shepherd of Anu” and was a representation of the Sumerian deity Ninshubur. Anu is the main god of the sky in the myths of all of the ancient civilisations that flourished in the region.

Ninshubur is one of the characters who featured in that myth about the seasons in “Springing Our of Winter”. She was the senior attendant to the goddess Inanna. She was also the messenger of the gods, a bit like the Greek Hermes or Roman Mercury. In the myth Inanna decides to visit her recently widowed sister, the Queen of the Underworld. Travelling to the Underworld was dangerous and Inanna asked her servant Ninshubur to ask the gods to rescue her if hadn’t returned in three days.

Three days later, with no sign of Inanna, Ninshubur goes to the gods. Only Enki responds and he creates two intersex beings who help to return Inanna to the surface.

So, we have the modern constellation Orion, representing a male hunter from Greek mythology, that had previously represented the female Sumerian deity Ninshubur. But that’s not the gender switch mentioned in this article’s title.

For hundreds of years Ninshubur was regarded as being female. Her official job title was “sukkal”, which was a kind of vizier. It is generally accepted that a sukkal is of the same gender as the deity she, or he, serves. As the sukkal of the goddess Inanna Ninshubur is female. However, during the 20th century BC a change began to take place.

The rise of the Akkadian civilisation that conquered the Sumerian empire led to the spread of Akkadian deities and their worship. Just as Ninshubur had also served as the messenger of the gods the Akkadian’s had Papsukkal, a male deity whose name obviously indicates his role as a sukkal. For several centuries these two messenger deities were regarded as being quite distinct from each other.

Somehow, during the Middle Babylonian era (c.1595 BC-c.1155 BC) Ninshubur and Papsukkal merged into one. This happens a lot in mythology and is termed syncretisation. It happens in more modern times as well. It’s a bit like the way Santa Claus and Father Christmas have, regrettably, become interchangeable names for the same character, even though they have very different characters with different origins and evolution. The gradual merging of Ninshubur and Papsukkal led to the former changing her gender altogether in an unconscious transgenderization (is that a word, or have I just made it up?).

Those Babylonian star catalogues I mentioned earlier depict Ninshubur/Papsukkal as a male figure in the same location as our modern Orion and they gave it the name “The True Shepherd of Anu”. By the time these catalogues were compiled the Akkadian civilisation had been conquered by the Babylonians who had never known of a female Ninshubur. To confuse matters even further the Sumerians had previously called the constellation Sipazianna, and the Akkadians had called it Sitaddalu.

If the gender switch isn’t queer enough there’s more queer associations with another representation of Ninshubur/Papsukkal. In some depictions of the night sky the deity is shown as a rooster. This bird is closely associated with Papsukkal in particular. In instances in which he isn’t represented by a rooster he is shown with a rooster following him. Back in January 2018 I wrote about instances of gender switchesin roosters and chickens. I’m not claiming that the ancient Babylonians ever associated roosters with the gender switch of Ninshubur/Papsukkal, or that they ever encountered gender switching roosters at all in their time, but knowing that this can happen gives and extra queer angle to the constellation.

Below are two diagrams. First is our modern Orion constellation. Below that is my interpretation of how the Babylonians depicted The True Shepherd of Anu. To the right of him is a representation of the constellation Taurus. Above him is the Babylonian representation of our modern constellation Gemini. Below him is his rooster, which is in the area of the modern constellation Lepus.

Tuesday, 18 May 2021

William and John: Part 1) Childhood

The gatehouse of Nottingham Castle

Today is International Museum Day, and next month Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery will reopen after two years of redevelopment. I worked at Nottingham Castle for seven years as a tour guide and gallery attendant and the owners of the castle, the city council, never showed any understanding of heritage. They even banned Robin Hood for a few years because he “set a bad example”! So I have little hope that the castle will be “improved” in any way. From what they’ve already shown us I expect and that everything is dumbed down to their level of intelligence.

My links to Nottingham Castle merge with its lgbt heritage through Sir William Neville (c.1341-1391) who was appointed Constable of Nottingham Castle in 1381. I descend from his brother.

Sir William Neville and his partner, Sir John Clanvowe, has been mentioned on this blog several times over the years. To mark the 640th anniversary of Sir William’s appointment and the castle’s reopening I’d like to fill in some of the gaps in their story. Let’s start at the beginning and look at their childhood.

Sir William Neville was born in or around 1341 at Raby Castle, County Durham, into one of the most powerful, and ancient families in northern England. William was the fifth and youngest son of Sir Ralph Neville, 2nd Baron Neville of Raby (c.1291-1367), and his wife Alice (c.1300-1374).

The 2nd Baron, or Lord, Neville was an important courtier during the first years of the reign of King Edward III (the king who made St. George the patron saint of England). Several of Sir William's brothers also went on to become influential, and several of his six sisters married influential lords. William’s eldest brother John Neville (my ancestor), inherited the family title and was a soldier and ambassador. The next brother Alexander became Archbishop of York. William himself became a favoured courtier of King Richard II and received high appointments.

Sir William’s mother, Alice, was the widow of Lord Greystoke and a niece of the Mortimer family who had feudal links to Sir John Clanvowe’s family. Alice had a young son by Lord Greystoke who become 2nd Baron Greystoke when she became widowed in 1323, and he became stepson and ward to Lord Neville.

Our William Neville, being the youngest son of a large family, had little chance of inheriting much from his father's estates so Lord Neville, an ambitious man, came up with a plan.

By the 1340s it looked as if his ward Lord Greystoke, although married and in his 20s, would remain childless. Lord Neville seized the opportunity to ensure that the Greystoke estates would be inherited by one of his children. He entered into an agreement with Lord Greystoke whereby all of the Greystoke estates would be inherited by one of the younger Neville sons if Lord Greystoke died without children. William Neville was about 3 years old at the time and it’s likely that he was being considered as the Greystoke heir. Whichever of the sons inherited the Greystoke lands would be required to adopt the Greystoke name and coat of arms in place of Neville. This was common practice in a lot of aristocratic families. As it happened, Lord Greystoke eventually fathered a healthy son and heir in 1352, and Lord Neville's hopes of providing lands for his younger sons were dashed, and it looked as if young William Neville would be left penniless and landless.

That’s Sir William Neville’s family background. Now let’s look at Sir John Clanvowe’s.

There’s a great deal of uncertainty in establishing Sir John's parentage. His father may have been another John Clanvowe, a Knight of the Shire, a wealthy landowner elected by other landowners to represent Herefordshire in the English parliament of 1347-8.

I believe the family takes its names from Llanveau (or Llanedw), a hamlet near the Welsh coast just four miles east of Cardiff. To me the way the name Clanvowe is spelt obviously derives from the English pronunciation of Llanveau (the Welsh pronunciation of the double “L” sounds very much like “CL”). The first person to have used this English spelling seems to have been Sir Philip Clanvowe. I believe he was our Sir John's grandfather.

The Clanvowes had manorial ties with the most important family of the Welsh borders, the Mortimers. For several generations the Clanvowes had been hereditary bailiffs, the manorial estate managers, of the Mortimer's manor at Gladestry over the border in England, 22 miles from Hereford. Through this strong link to the manor I believe our Sir John Clanvowe may have been born in Gladestry in around 1341, making him the same age as William Neville.

It is not improbable that Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe met when they were children. William's mother was the niece of the Mortimers, and the Clanvowes were bailiffs in one of their manors. During the 1340s and 1350s there would have been several gatherings and celebrations where the Mortimers, the Nevilles, and the Clanvowes would have been able to meet. It is known that tournaments were often held at Hereford Castle and they would be the ideal place for lords and their families to network and form alliances.

During their childhood William Neville and John Clanvowe were exposed to the Black Death, the biggest pandemic which ravaged Europe in the late 1340s. It is shown from medieval records that wealthy families had a better chance of survival than those from poorer backgrounds. But it appears that young William and John were also fortunate to survive because to their age. Analysis by Professor J. C. Russell in 1948 of a sample group of death records show that the young were actually the most likely to survive the plague. This has an echo in our present covid pandemic. Russell calculated that the highest mortality rate, unsurprisingly, was 46% among those over 56 years old. Children between the ages of 6 and 10, which included both John Clanvowe and William Neville, had the best chance of survival. The mortality rate for their age group was just 7%, the lowest of them all. The mortality rate for the 10 to 56 year old age group was 28%.

So, having survived childhood, next month I’ll look at the adult career of Sir John Clanvowe as he became a soldier and fought in the Hundred Years War. The month after that I’ll look at Sir William Neville’s career at the court of the English king.