Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Millennium

The millennium – a period of a thousand years in which peace, justice, the fulfillment of mankind’s hopes will be met. This idea has risen, submerged and risen again repeatedly in Western Europe and the countries effected by its cultures. 

Repeatedly the notion has brought on wars, has transformed the entire economic and social structures of countries, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but nearly always at immense cost of human life.

Where does this animating idea come from? It’s associated with Christianity, but where does Jesus outline such a violent thousand- year project? He predicts that no stone of the temple in Jerusalem will remain one upon another within the lifetime of his immediate hearers.

And he was right. Rome battered rebellious Palestine into submission within the lifetime of many of those who saw and spoke to Jesus. His prediction was not a threat but an observation that his fellow Jews were eager to take on a force that was far beyond their capacity to oppose successfully. No millennium there.

But there is in the Lord’s Prayer an invocation of something very like what those who long for the millennium may have in mind: “Thy kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” What better could one ask of life on earth?

Many references to Christian mystical events in the future are derived from the Apostle John's Book of Revelations which is highly symbolic, after the manner of ancient seers. Here is the seedbed of violent apocalypse, the nursery of the struggle for the millennium.

Much of medieval writing stored in the Vatican Library is exegesis of the Bible, and a large percentage of that focuses upon the writings of the Apostle John. Among those who wrote on the subject of the meaning of the Apocalypse was Joachim de Fiore, but his works were condemned by Pope Alexander IV as heretical.  In 2009 the Vatican seemed inclined to reaffirm that condemnation.

 But, unlike most of the writers of biblical interpretation whose work has not, or has, been condemned by the Catholic Church, Joachim’s writings have had a profound effect on mankind’s history from medieval times to today.

Mao’s revolution that transformed China, liberating it from a decrepit dynastic monopoly, drew much from the ideas of Christian missionaries who planted a radical notion of the equality of human beings and the possibility of a future in which the common people ruled.

Where the missionaries in China ceased to appeal, Karl Marx’s analyses of governments and economies took over with its offer of a way of life built upon “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”  No government has claimed to achieve full national communism, but only to be working toward that ultimate goal. 

The experiments so far have been disasters. But China is evolving so rapidly now that what will be accomplished there is unknowable. And one might say that what is being achieved in China now is the result of liberation from the millennial ideal.

Both China and Russia have been engaged in apocalyptic and millennial ventures at immense human cost. Apart from presumably aiming at the "great come 'n' get it day" of millennial promise, how close they are to following in the path Joachim set out in the twelfth century is highly questionable. But lets’ look at a couple more millennial experiments: Nazism and the French Revolution.

It’s precisely because the millennial idea, lying dormant in Western ideology, is so powerful that Hitler was able to tap into it and make belief in the Third Reich such an animating prospect for the German people – a highly educated population steeped in hundreds of years of European culture. Of all the disasters brought on by millennialism, Germany achieved the most ghastly.

The French Revolution: here we have some of the most literal derivations from Joachim carried to bloodshed.
The Jacobins, infamous for the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, acquired their name from their meeting place, the refectory of the Dominican Order on the Rue Jacob in Paris. That refectory had been the center for the teaching of Joachim de Fiore’s radical theology in the 13th century. 

The Revolution, in true millennial form, declared a new calendar, and the Jacobins inaugurated it with an apocalyptic year of fanatical bloodshed – to the point where they too became victims of their violence.

In a reach for something approximating  Joachim’s idea of a glorious millennium, like the Nazis and communists after them, the Jacobins believed they were clearing the way for a the next phase of history – a phase that was inevitable but somehow required their brutal midwifery to bring it into being.

Joachim never suggested that any action was necessary on the part of mankind for the three phases of history to march along to their fulfillment. The movement of history was God’s work. He had already accomplished two transitions, there was no reason to suppose He needed the help of finite, blundering mankind to achieve the third.

What were the three ages Joachim proposed?

The first was the Era of the Father, a period of a thousand years of tribal social order epitomized by Moses.
The second was the Era of the Son, begun at Jesus’s birth and epitomized by him. This was to be the era that saw the rise of the Church and of nations ruled by kings and it was to last until the year 1260. 

Joachim  based his calculation of the date on Revelations: 11: 3: “I will give power unto my two witnesses and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and three score days.” He was writing at the end of the eleven-hundreds and didn’t expect to see this transition himself.

The third, the Era of the Holy Spirit, was to see the disintegration of the Church, kingship and nations. A single world-order gradually was to come into being through the thousand year period which was to being in 1260. Man was not asked to make this happen, God would do it in the predicted time.

Government would be modeled after the custom in monasteries where the abbot was elected by the monks. The voters’ choices would be wise because the Holy Spirit would infuse each soul directly with divine wisdom and guidance. Well, we haven’t reached that enlightenment yet, have we.

But, interestingly, without bloodshed we have moved toward the technical possibility of a single world consciousness – through the evolution of the internet.

Teilhard de Chardin foresaw the process of divine motion in history as bringing on the noosphere – a development of world-wide knowledge infused in mankind -- and he foresaw it as a result of technology. Can one ask for a better definition of the internet?

One might say Joachim just possibly wasn’t wrong -- the fit of his view to the developments for mankind in the last thousand years may show self-fulfilling prophecy, or may not.

But if Joachim was right, and we do have a great age of a unified world at peace to look forward to, it’s not going to be achieved by class warfare and annihilations to clear the way for a way of life to be imposed upon everybody by an oligarchy or a dictator.

It will come as the past transitions have come: through a slow evolution that takes a millennium to be accomplished.

From this vantage point in the twenty-first century it looks like it may be achieved through inspiration. Through invention. And who’s to say the myriad ideas, conceived in numerous heads, that have been transforming the world we live in are not the whisperings of the Holy Spirit?
See:  Joachim de Fiore Expositio in Apocalypsim

And do have a look at Norman Cohen’s The Pursuit of the Millennium Millenarians/dp/0195004566/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1340238444&sr=1-1-spell&keywords=Norman+Cohne+The+Pursuit+of+the+Millennium

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Trolls, Harpies and Civilized Discussion

From the time two years ago when the first book of my four volume historical novel Montfort was published, it and I have been the target of a little group of on-line attackers.

How did this happen? The initial and ongoing target is not actually my books, the attackers for the most part haven’t read them. It’s the blurb for the first book. 

The blurb actually came into being in 2005, long before the books were in print. I had my doubts about using it since it wasn’t intended for book promotion, but my academic advisers loved it. 

When the blurb, and by implication the book, was attacked by this little group of trolls I asked Amazon to change the blurb. Their response, in red print, was “93% of the people who see this page buy the book.” They would only slightly amend the most targeted statement to a question. Here’s how the blurb came into being.

I had been working on Montfort since 1977, but I also wrote plays and screenplays. After seeing “The Lord of the Rings” it occurred to me that Viggo Mortensen might be a good choice to play Simon de Montfort, so I wrote to my Hollywood lawyer/agent. It had been a while since I'd written to him and my letter came back – he had moved. 

Letter in hand, I was grumbling. Our house guest, an acterss and film producer, asked what the problem was. I told her, and she immediately exclaimed, “Viggo! I know Viggo. I have a friend who wants to produce an epic trilogy with him. Would there be a part for Johnny Depp?”

My friend, be it understood, really does know nearly everybody in Hollywood. All she asked of me was that I sum up my book of 1650 manuscript pages in five or six compelling sentences. I managed to do that.

He was deeply religious and the greatest knight of his time, 
but he married a nun who was the King of England’s sister. 
Was he the Queen’s lover and father of the heir to the throne? 
King Henry III wanted him dead at any cost. 
He conquered England and founded parliament.
For 700 years it was a hanging crime to speak his name: 
Simon de Montfort.

While that summation differs from the works of most other authors, it was, in brief, the conclusions thirty years of deep research, much of it in 13th century documents, indicated.  

We got a return email from my friend's friend asking for the scripts – three of them. I said “Who is this friend of yours for whom I’d be doing all this work?” “Oh,” she replied, and named the CEO of a major Hollywood studio.

I spent the next three years writing those three scripts – and a fourth, a single script of the whole span of the story. For, by the time I had finished the three, the CEO had left his company and was starting up his own company, with my scripts in hand.

When I decided at last that I really must stop this endless research and readjustment of my manuscript, and get Montfort into print, I consulted my academic advisers, professors of medieval history. They urged that I use the blurb. They felt strongly that the blurb was just the thing to reach beyond academia to new readership. No doubt it has.

But very soon it picked up a troll review on Amazon – someone who made a point of not having read the book but ranted over the blurb because it differed regarding Edward I’s birth from conventional modern histories and a popular novel written some years earlier.(The troll review has since been toned down.) 

Professors who specialize in the period think my views regarding Edward intriguing. I’ve never claimed that I’ve discovered an irrefutable truth.

Shortly after the troll item appeared  on Amazon I found that a search of my name turned up a lengthy attack on my book and on me in an Historical Novel Society chat thread. Here was an astonishing exercise of several established novelists behaving like bullies attacking the "new girl on the playground."

None of them had read my book, but they accused me of commercial lewdness. One of these attackers said that (I apparently) had Queen Eleanor so devoted to sex that when she wasn’t in bed with someone she was masturbating(sic!) 

There is a Queen Eleanor in my book, but this remark was so remote from anything I’ve written that it left me entirely astounded. Later in the chat it appeared that I was, perhaps deliberately, being confused with another author, one who wrote of Eleanor of Aquitaine (which I do not) and whose work these trolls evidently didn't like.

The Historical Novel Society’s own review is strong in its praise of Montfort: 

When reading through the ample “historical context” notes that follow each volume of Katherine Ashe’s utterly remarkable tetralogy of novels based on the life of 13th-century warrior-statesman Simon de Montfort, one thing becomes obvious: she could easily have produced the most authoritative English-language biography of her subject ever written.

Since the HNS chat attacks in 2010, I’ve had complaints from readers who claim they’ve been brutalized on Amazon chat sites for writing enthusiastically about my work. These attacks have been by some of  the same established authors who attacked me before, with the addition of a few new recruits.

The most recent manifestation of this bullying occurred over four days this past week on my Facebook site, with one of the old, implacable bullies and four new converts. 

Only one of the five appeared to have read my work. The crux of his complaint seemed to be that I write so persuasively I have a responsibility to be accurate. He then brought forth selections from 13th century writers and later historians that differ from my views. 

The surviving records from the time of Simon de Montfort are filled with differing and contentious views. It’s been my business for over 30 years to sort through them, taking into consideration the politics and purposes of each writer.

The aim of my books has been to use the novel form to take a fresh look at what these 13th century sources may mean. I state clearly in each Author’s Preface that the following pages are speculation, and I provide 181 pages of  bibliography and Historical Context (footnotes) in the 1585 pages of the four volumes of Montfort, citing my sources, with page numbers, and explaining the reasons for my interpretations. 

The absurd theme of my hecklers is that I don't support what I've written -- no one else supports their historical novels as I do. My aim, as I've often stated, is to use the novel form to offer speculations where what remains of an historical record is vague, implausible, contradictory. And where other authors have freely glossed over these problems with their own fictions or interpretations.

I welcome discussion. My speculations are indeed controversial. I ask no one to "believe" what I write. Belief isn't the domain of any novel. And Montfort was very deliberately written as a novel. What I ask is: does this line of thinking make sense of the surviving material.

The Web offers tremendous opportunity for a community of  free exchange of ideas. How do we change this rude and hostile blighting of a great intellectual asset?

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sex and the Historical Novel

Sir Walter Scott some consider the first author of historical novels. It depends upon your definition – Gilgamesh might be considered the first historical novel to have survived to the 21st century, and if that’s one’s point of view, then the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Satyricon, the Arthurian Tales of Wace and Layamon – myriad surviving early works are “historical novels.”

But if Scott is the first we must allow that the historical romance was there at the beginning, The Bride of Lammermore setting the tone for stories of tragic girls unhappily wed. There is no sex in The Bride of Lammermore. Nor are the details of the lady’s gruesome murder of her bridegroom at the marriage bed described for the gloating reader.

At what point does meticulously described sex become the basic fare of the historical novel? Dorothy Dunnett in her Lymond series has, in the course of six volumes, two fairly graphic descriptions of sex, though the language is poetic even in this sparse offering. 

But at any time the curious library browser could find novels with grayed page edges where readers had dulled the paper, choosing just the sexy parts and marking them with extra wear.

Master and Johnson published their quasi-scientific study of sexual responses in the 1950’s and there followed, trailing in the wake of popularized Freudianism, a then-scandalous literature – largely published in France and brought in translation to America: Andre Gide’s The Immoralist titillated the literati; Jean Genet shocked the public with his heated novels of homosexuality.

In the United States we had Norman Mailer. Until Mailer, the books Americans wrote that were considered terribly racy were published in Paris, in English, by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press.

Girodias moved his business to New York by 1968, and the contest was on to see which press could still achieve some shock. But this was the wild and woolly sixties. Matters got pretty competitive between New Directions and Olympia, with Playboy Press joining in and paying more in advances than anybody else could.

Olympia was closed down after publishing a satire about Henry Kissinger (with a photo of Kissinger at the presidential podium on the cover), though some say it was their attack on L. Ron Hubbard that brought the folk of Scientology upon them with a vengeance. Truly what put them all, New Directions and Playboy included, out of business was the big trade publishers saw profit in explicit sex and by the 1980s they were requiring their authors to fill their books with ever more graphic sex.

The historical novel editors were not at all the first to insist upon more, lengthier and more biologically explicit sex scenes. But now some authors feel compelled to insert a sex scene or a scene of violence, or better yet a scene combining both, every twenty pages or so in a large historical novel. These are books published by major publishers and backed with promotional funding. So it is hardly a wonder that these books succeed in totting up substantial sales numbers – confirming their editors in the rightness of their formula.

I will no doubt be yelled at for saying this but, in my view these books are actually providing a variety of masturbation. Such a literature is not new, there have been pillow books for centuries, even millennia, but what is new is their open dominance of the publishing market. 

Yes, sex sells, but such a marketing concentration upon it points to a profound lack of faith in the variety of interests among readers. As so much of American television has dumbed down since its inception, following producers’ ever lower estimation of their viewers, so cynicism regarding the reading public has lowered the quality of literature in the mass of publications. Yes some fine books are published, but most are shaped to the market – and the market will be what the promotional machines make of it.

Is it possible for publishers to regain faith in the reading public? Small publishers are gallantly exploring that issue with some fine historical novels and other works of fiction. M.M. Bennetts, Judith Rock, Linda Collison are superb writers – and their publishers are fighting the good fight for new historical novels of high merit.

book website:
personal website:

Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series