Monday 29 April 2019

A New Project

One of several projects I’ve been working on this year is starting a YouTube channel devoted to lgbt history. There’s quite a few videos on lgbt history on YouTube already but most of them are about the same things – the same events in the history of gay rights, homophobia, discrimination, personal testimony. There’s very little variety. Although education in these subjects is vital to understand the contemporary lgbt community there is very little about how members of the lgbt community have shaped the world we live in and have made significant contributions to our ways of life. Even the official UK LGBT History Month organisation mentions very few members of the community who have achieved greatness in spite of homophobia. There’s too much about current campaigns and party politics in the interpretation of lgbt history. I’m a historian, leave contemporary politics to activists - activist who distort historical fact to fit their own political beliefs.

In February this year, for UK LGBT History Month, I was interviewed by a student journalist for one of Nottingham’s universities. Throughout the whole hour all she was interested in was what it is like to live as an openly gay man in Nottingham today. She was not remotely interested in any aspect of lgbt history, and the published article didn’t have a single historic fact in it. Even the historic facts I mentioned were ignored.

I hope my blog goes someway to redress this imbalance on the internet and in the media, and this is why I thought of producing my own videos.

The first challenge was finding the time and juggle it around my new re-organised life and new projects. Unlike all those young YouTubers and vloggers out there who seemingly have unlimited amount of free time to produce endless drivel, I have to earn a living.

Next challenge, I needed to find out how easy or difficult it was to produce a short video in a style that I liked. I chose an animated trivia/fact-based list to start off with. There are various animation software packages available and I’m slowly going through them to find the best that works for my requirements in the future.

Until then I’ve produced a short video using something I know more about – Powerpoint. On the few occasions that I was asked to give a talk to my local gay/bi men’s group in Nottingham I produced a Powerpoint presentation which included a lot of animation. That is how I produced my first YouTube video, which you can see below. I hope you like it. It’s just “work in progress” and not as polished as I would like future videos to be. I may include commentary or music on future videos.

As I say in the video description more videos may follow or they may not. It all depends on how quick and easy the various animation packages are to use, and how I can juggle production around my work, home life, research, writing this blog and creating other projects.

I’ll be taking another break throughout May but will be back in June for US Pride Month. Among the subjects will be my annual heraldic alphabet, Game of Gay Thrones II, and a commemoration of 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

Thanks for your continuing support and interest, especially to my followers. See you in June.

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Queer Achievement: The Da Vinci Heraldic Code

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]

We’re roughly halfway between the two most significant dates in the life of Leonardo da Vinci – his birth on 15th April 1452, and his death on 2nd May 1519. Because 2019 is the 500th anniversary of his death it seems an appropriate time to commemorate his life, and to do that I’ve chosen to look at one of his achievements – his probable heraldic achievement – and at the coded references it contains.

I say “probable” because there’s no record of Leonardo da Vinci using a coat of arms for himself, though his father did. Another “probable” reason is because of Leonardo’s illegitimacy. The laws on Italian heraldry in the 15th century were not set in stone as they were in England in the same period because there were many independent states and they had their own rules, if they had any at all.

Leonardo was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero d’Antonio da Vinci (1427-1504), a notary of Florence in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Ser Piero’s great-grandfather was the first member of the family to enter this profession and it became something of a family tradition for succeeding generations to follow suit. Even though Leonardo was illegitimate there’s no reason to believe that under Florentine heraldic law he was not able to use his family’s coat of arms. In English heraldry illegitimate children can’t unless they change the design to show this.

Bearing all this in mind, my interpretation of Leonardo’s arms, based on various pieces of evidence, is shown here.
The simplicity of the design shows its early origin. In the early Medieval period when shields were being developed for use in battle the most desirable property a shield could have was to give protection. It’s no good going into battle with a flimsy shield. Even the best and most solid shield may need extra strengthening. To do this extra bars and shapes of metal or wood were fastened to it. No-one really know when knights began painting both their shields and the strengthening bars, but over time these developed into the stripes and shapes we’ve become familiar with in heraldry.

To confuse matters, the bars on the arms of Sir J. M. Barrie, for instance, don’t represent strengthening bars but the strips from which the shield itself was made. Leonardo’s bars went on top of the shield, Barrie’s bars ARE the shield (i.e. a shield a bars, known as a barry shield). I know, it’s all very confusing.

Leonardo’s family shield clearly originates from these early days when an ancestor put three strengthening bars on his shield and painted it red and gold. The earliest reference to Leonardo’s arms comes much later in 1614 in a document which describes the tomb of his father. Ser Piero was buried in a Florentine monastery now known as Badia Fiorentina in 1504 but its construction began much earlier. His first wife was buried there in 1474. Nineteen more members of the family were buried there right up until 1614. Leonardo himself was not buried there. Sadly, the tomb is now lost.

In 1614 a tomb register of the monastery was made in which the da Vinci tomb was described. It mentions the coat of arms. However, in 1664 the tomb is mentioned again by a Benedictine monk and makes no mention of a coat of arms. It may have been damaged or removed.

Moving onto the crest we see another possible indication of the early origin of Leonardo’s family achievement. The early crests on helmets were often decorative rather than symbolic. A lot of these early crests consisted of ostrich feathers. One famous example which still survives are the three feathers that are the emblem of the Prince of Wales. When there is a fan of feathers it is called a panache. Yes, someone who is described as having great panache is being compared to a medieval fan of ostrich feathers.

The funny-looking hat from which the feathers sprout posed a problem in identification. I’m not sure what type of hat it is (it looks more like the top of a tent to me), but it also illustrates another development found in early heraldry, that of holding the fabric which flows behind the helmet in place. This fabric, called mantling, was probably first used to prevent the helmet from overheating in bright daylight and boiling the wearer’s head. In later years a twisted wreath of fabric was used to keep the mantling in place, as you can see in some of my earlier heraldic articles.

The only full representation of Leonardo da Vinci’s heraldic achievement appears on the wall of his probable birthplace which is now a museum (pictured below).
I’ve no information regarding the significance of the seated lion wearing the helmet but I can make an educated guess. Some people have called this animal a dog, but it is clearly a lion. It has a lion’s mane and a lion’s tail. Its presence is an example of the many puns that appear in heraldry. Puns were an easy way for medieval people who couldn’t read or write to recognise or deduce the owner of a coat of arms. You can see this is some of my previous heraldry articles such as the roses of Eleanor Roosevelt, the hammers of Dag Hammarskjold, and the barry shield of Sir J. M. Barrie. The lion is obviously meant to represent Leonardo’s name – Leo the lion.

The style of carving suggests a 17th century date so it isn’t contemporary to Leonardo himself. I came across a blog recently which suggested it was carved to attract the many aristocratic travellers on their fashionable Grand Tours of the 17th century to the site. His seems very plausible.

Finally, the da Vinci arms has found its way into the municipal arms of the town of Vinci itself (below). On 9th June 1860 the town was granted a coat of arms which depicts Leonardo’s family arms in the bottom half.

Friday 19 April 2019

Urban Spacemen?

After the depressingly dark heritage of the swastika last week we need something more uplifting to read. So, how about an openly gay archaeologist who uncovered Europe’s oldest urban settlement, a site so old and relatively more advanced than anything else in that period that some people think it was built by aliens! Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Hardly.

The archaeological site of Lepenski Vir was discovered in August 1960 in what is now Serbia, which was part of Yugoslavia. Very little excavation was undertaken, probably because the Communist government of Yugoslavia had very little interest in financing it. It was only when they decided to build a hydroelectric power station and dam that would flood the area that archaeologists began to push for funding for a proper excavation before it was lost forever.

After a survey of the site and initial investigations were carried out it was discovered that it seemed to be a sizeable settlement which could date back about 5,500 years. The subsequent report that was submitted to the Belgrade Institute for Archaeology in 1961 intrigued one of the academics there. His name was Dr. Dragolav Srejović (1931-1996).

Dragoslav was born in the city of Kragujevac though he had little love for the place. He sought escape from his miserable childhood by immersing himself in art, theatre, a love of Church ceremonial and Greek mythology.

After leaving school he developed tuberculosis and spent over a year in hospital. During this period he recognised his homosexual feelings. He fell in love with one of his friends, the only friend who visited him in hospital. Dragoslav’s illness prevented him from having any sort of physical relationship and it ended when his boyfriend decide to enter the homophobic League of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia.

After his recovery from tuberculosis Dragoslav went to study archaeology in Belgrade. He became an assistant in the Department of Archaeology at the Faculty of Philosophy. In 1964 he earned his doctorate with a thesis on Stone Age anthropomorphic sculptures in Yugoslavia. By the time the report on Lepenski Vir arrived at the Institute of Archaeology Dragoslav was an assistant professor.

Funding for a proper excavation of Lepinski Vir was obtained and Dragoslav and his team began work there on 6th August 1965. It was believed that the site dated back to the Starčevo Culture which flourished in Serbia along the River Danube from about 5,500 BC for a thousand years at the end of the Mesolithic Age.

After two years Dragoslav came down to a layer which proved to be truly ancient and threw back the age of the site another thousand years. Sculptures were found which could be dated even earlier than the Starčevo Culture. These were the oldest sculptures known in Europe.

What was even more astonishing was the number of dwellings that were discovered. In total 136 buildings were identified during the whole five years of the excavation. Even assuming that only half of them were inhabited, each by a family of two parents and one child, the settlement at Lepenski Vir would have had a larger population than any other known settlement from the same period in Europe.

What makes Lepenski Vir even more historically significant is that most of the dwellings were arranged so that their entrances all faced a central open area. This meant they were planned. It was not the sporadic spread of dwellings that is found in the early settlements of the Mesolithic Age but were deliberately arranged. This makes Lepenski Vir the first known incident of “urban planning” in Europe.

Also on the site was a necropolis where the community placed their dead. The bones of the dead provided enough DNA to be analysed in more recent years. It was found that these first “town-dwellers” had mixed European and Asia Minor ancestry. This has led to the theory that migrants from the first agricultural communities in Asia Minor travelled along the Danube and interbred with the local Europeans. This could be the reason why Lepenski Vir became the first “town”. The Europeans had previously been hunter-gatherers with no real settled location. The migrants from Asia Minor introduced permanent settlements.

There’s a marvellous article giving a more detailed explanation of the significance of this site on the “Discover” magazine website here.

Once the excavations were completed in 1970 the whole site was flooded by the construction of the hydroelectric power station and dam. Dragoslav Srejovič had discovered enough at Lepenski Vir for the whole site to be considered of global importance and, just like Abu Simbel in Egypt, the whole site was moved to higher ground as a means of preservation.

That’s where Lepenski Vir is situated today and you can visit it for yourself. Even though it’s not on its original location it still remains an impressive site with remains of buildings and remarkable little statues.

Dragoslav Srejovič received several honours and awards for his work at Lepenski Vir. He followed this up with further archaeological projects, the most important of which was the excavation of a half-forgotten imperial Roman palace and spa at Gamzigrad not far south of Lepenski Vir. The site had been excavated before but was virtually ignored after the 1950s once the Communists took over the country. Dragolsav brought Gamzigrad back into the archaeological world with new excavations and research. He is credited with being the person responsible for Gamzigrad gaining UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007. Lepenski Vir has yet to receive this status, partly due to it not being on its original site.
Dr. Dragoslav Srejovič at Lepenski Vir sitting beside one of the many sculptures found on the site.
Dragoslav was often annoyed at the way some people interpreted his discoveries at Lepenski Vir. Which is where the aliens come in.

Because the technology, sculptural style and social organisation of Lepenski Vir was so far advanced compared to the rest of Europe some people began to claim that it could only have been made possible by the arrival of aliens to the site (despite there being equally advanced settlements in Asia).

These people found it hard to accept that humans could be so advanced that far back in time without alien intervention. They even named their fake alien race the Lepensians. Several prominent ufologists and alien visitation specialists such as Eric von Daniken supported the various claims. As recently as 2007 ufologists were reporting a triangular formation of “lights in the sky” moving towards Lepenski Vir.

Even though the alien visitation idea is, to me, a load of crap, I have to admit that its adds an extra layer of fascination to the whole site. However, as a historian I hope that Lepenski Vir will never turn into a place of pilgrimage for ufologists and alien hunters. I’m sure Dragolav Srejovič would have thought so as well.

Sunday 14 April 2019

Our Darkest Legacy

(I have friends and relatives in New Zealand. Along with the rest of the civilised world I was shocked by the terror attack in Christchurch last month by a self-declared white supremacist. I had written today’s article several weeks before the attack. I considered removing it from my blog schedule, but decided to keep it because we are living in a world where such attacks are frequently reported and there never be a time when it would be considered appropriate.)

Today I want to look at one of the most far-reaching influences that an openly gay man ever created. It’s one that came to dominate the 20th century more than anything else and is still seen today. But it’s an influence and a legacy that the lgbt community cannot be proud of. It’s the use of the swastika as a symbol of racial supremacy.

The swastika has been around for thousands of years. It’s well known that it was symbol of good fortune in ancient India. As a simple geometric design it appears in other ancient civilisations, from the Greeks to the Aztecs. It is truly sad that it became as symbol of hate and fear.

To trace the origin of the Nazi’s use of the swastika we have to go back to a neo-pagan occult group that formed in Munich in the 1890s. It was a small group, numbering only five central figures, mostly gay men, who were writers and philosophers. The two main figures were Alfred Schuler (1865-1923) and Ludwig Klages (1872-1956). The one who is of most significance to the swastika is Schuler.

Alfred Schuler was born in Mainz. He moved to Munich and began studying archaeology at the university. He was fascinated by ancient civilisations and the artefacts they left behind. However, this fascination came into conflict with his studies. Schuler believed that archaeologists were desecrating ancient religious sites, and by putting artefacts in museums they were declaring their superiority and control over the past.

It was also his admiration for ancient civilisations, Rome in particular, that led Schuler to develop another belief, that the modern world was a corrupting influence on the development of humanity, and that the Christian Church was ultimately responsible. This opinion pushed his spiritual beliefs into the occult (ironically, a Christian construct) and neo-paganism.

In 1893 Schuler met Ludwig Klages and between them they formulated a set of beliefs that developed into the formal association called the Cosmic Circle. One of the core beliefs of the group was that of an ancient global matriarchal culture. The Cosmic Circle believed that Christianity purposefully destroyed the matriarchal societies of the past and was leading the world to disaster. A second irony is that their own beliefs and symbols that gave rise to a regime that did just that.

Throughout all his adult life Schuler imbued his perception of ancient Rome with the Greek Eros. Just as Sigmund Freud imbued his psychoanalysis with sex, so did Schuler with the Cosmic Circle, except that Schuler’s sex was homosexual and open.

Part of the Cosmic Circle’s elements of “worship” was for members to re-enact life and events from Roman and classical history, dressing up in period costumes and holding mock rituals and erotic dances. Schuler himself often dressed as the Earth Mother Goddess with wig, dark robes and heavy make-up. He was much more serious about these ceremonies, more so than the other members. For instance, he firmly believed that an exotic dance performed by young, nubile men could cure Friedrich Nietzsche, the pioneering philosopher of gay rights, of the madness he had developed.

On another occasion Schuler planned to bring down all governments by having one of his colleagues stand naked in Munich market place chanting to the ancient gods. The colleague declined to take part.

It was at about this time, 1904, that the Cosmic Circle began to deteriorate. Schuler had been expressing anti-Semitic opinions for many years. Some members of the Cosmic Circle were Jews or had Jewish ancestry and Schuler began a “witch-hunt” against Jews in “his” organisation. He demanded that they renounce their faith and heritage or leave the Cosmic Circle. Following the collapse of the Cosmic Circle in 1904 its members split into Schuler and his Aryan anti-Semitic supporters and their opponents.

Schuler had travelled to Asia some years earlier and had seen the swastika symbol in India and Tibet. Its symbolism seemed to appeal to his own Cosmic Circle ideas of supernatural life and power. He was not alone in adopting the swastika. Across Europe it began to appear in logos from everything from sports clubs to occult groups. It was a popular symbol of life, energy and harmony. To Schuler the swastika was also a symbol of his homosexual, orgiastic, anti-Semitic propaganda, and through his influence it began to be adopted by supremacist groups.

In 1907 in Austria a white supremacist group called the Order of the New Templars adopted the swastika and its anti-Semitic symbolism as their emblem. This seems to have been the first time the swastika can definitely be claimed as a specifically anti-Semite emblem. Between 1917 and 1925 the Thule Society, a German Aryan supremacist group, used a circular swastika as their emblem.

By this time Alfred Schuler was conducting lecturers on his beliefs. He still had some supporters, including the prominent Munich salon host Princess Elsa Bruckman. It was at one event at Bruckman’s salon in 1920 that Schuler and Adolf Hitler were both present.

Hitler was clearly influenced by Schuler’s swastika symbolism. In his book “Mein Kampf” in 1923 Hitler described how the new Nazi Party looked for a suitable symbol and flag. He was familiar with the swastika through his connections to both Schuler and members of the Thule Society. Independently of each other, Hitler and Dr. Friedrich Krohn, an active Thule member, came up with flags with a central swastika. Hitler adapted them into the flag that became the emblem of hate that dominated the 20th century.

If nothing else the evolution of the swastika from a symbol of life and harmony into one of hate and fear tells us a lot about the power one ideology can have over the use of just one symbol. The fact that an openly gay, neo-pagan, occultist inspired this change the darkest legacy that any member of the lgbt community can leave.

The final irony is that the evil Nazi regime that stamped its swastika all over Europe also stamped homosexuals with a pink triangle, and it is the pink triangle that was claimed by survivors of the Holocaust and the pioneering lgbt rights activists in the 1970s and transformed from a symbol of oppression and discrimination into one of pride and defiance against hate.

Tuesday 9 April 2019

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

Here’s one of the more unusual lgbt heritage sites that there is in London. Basically, the history of the site goes something like this – King James I, that old queen who came up with the name of Great Britain, set up a mulberry garden in St. James’s Park in 1609 which, fifty years later, had become the site of a brothel before becoming part of the Buckingham Palace gardens.

I don’t visit London very often, but the history of this site got me so intrigued that I wanted to find out more. The first thing I wanted to know is why King James wanted to set up a mulberry garden. It all boils down to money.

At the beginning of the 17th century silk production in Europe was centred in France and Italy. The French were especially skilled in silk production and within a century many religious refugees from France, the Huguenots, many of them silk weavers, were arriving in London to create the lucrative silk industry that King James had dreamt of.

King James had big plans for silk. He set up several mulberry gardens on various royal properties and encouraged his Lords Lieutenant in the counties of England to buy mulberry saplings from him to create their own. Unfortunately, he or his advisors chose the wrong type of mulberry bush.
The silkworms of China, France and Italy fed on the leaves of the white mulberry. King James chose the black mulberry for his project. All the experts on silk production at the time knew that silkworms which fed on black mulberry produced a coarse, brittle silk. The probable reason why King James went for black over the white was because of the British climate. White mulberry grows better in warmer climes.

This may also be the reason James shipped thousands of white mulberry bushes over to the New England colonies in America, because the climate was warmer than Britain’s. Again, the silk industry in America wasn’t a success, this time because the silkworms preferred the native American red mulberry. It looks like King James’s silk project was doomed to fail on all grounds.

The mulberry garden which King James set up and which concerns us today was a 4-acre garden set up in what was a large piece of wasteland to the west of St. James’s Palace, the then official residence of the monarch, just down the Mall from Buckingham Palace.

Various 17th century maps show this garden, though its exact location and size varies from one map to another. During the period of the Protectorate, the years of the disastrous British republic under Oliver Cromwell in the 1640s, the whole area was used as military barracks. The government weren’t interested in silk production and neglected the mulberry garden in its northern corner. This is when it was reported by Clement Walker that the garden had become a place of “new-erected sodoms and spintries”.

“Spintry” is one of those quaint old words that could easily have cropped up on an old BBC quiz show about obscure words called “Call My Bluff”. The word is of Greek origin, via Latin, and is supposedly derived from the word for a bracelet. The allusion being that your hand goes through the bracelet. I’ll leave you to guess how it came to be used for sexual activity. From the very beginning of its entry into the English language “spintry” was used to describe male prostitution and homosexual activity.

A house was built on land between the garden and St. James’s Palace, and this is the site of the present Buckingham Palace. Several families owned the various houses that occupied the site before the current one but they didn’t own the mulberry garden.

By the 1650s the mulberry garden had been leased to a new owner who turned it into a pleasure garden. Gone were the male prostitutes and in came the 17th century high-flying jet set and “It” crowd who turned it into a fashionable place to be seen.

All this attention made neighbouring St. James’s Park another fashionable place to be seen. It was at this time, 1677, that the mulberry garden became part of the property of the house where Buckingham Palace now stands.

Today you can walk past the old mulberry garden where the male prostitutes used to operate. If you walk from Hyde Park Corner to the Palace the site of the garden is on the other side of the Buckingham Palace wall as you walk down Constitution Hill.

Next time I visit London I’ll make a special effort to pay my own respect to James I’s failed silk industry and follow the example of the 17th century Poet Laureate John Dryden who, on his frequent visits when it was a pleasure garden, nibble on a mulberry tart. Perhaps also I’ll give a thought to those nameless men who sold their services to others in the “spintry”.