Every year, three thousand people gather in Kalamazoo for the sake of the years 400 to 1400 (approximately) of the Common Era. The International Congress on Medieval Studies, held annually at Western Michigan University, is the largest gathering of medievalists on earth. They come from all over the world to participate in panels like “Attack and Counterattack: The Embattled Frontiers of Medieval Iberia,” “Waste Studies: Excrement in the Middle Ages,” “Historical, Ethnical and Religious Roots of the Thraco-Geto-Dacians and Their Successors: Romanians and Vlaho-Romanians” and “J. K. Rowling’s Medievalism (I & II).” They are literary critics, historians, experts in numismatics and linguistic datasets, and nuns. There are over five hundred sessions: meetings and drinks parties and bookstalls; groups of monks dressed in black; bespectacled, serious, young men; elderly ladies in capped sleeves. Here is a ragtag bunch of human beings all on the same pilgrimage, playing a part in a story that they can’t read, because they’re in it.
In 1953, the historian Daniel Boorstin testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Boorstin had been a Communist Party member in the late Thirties, and he proved to be an unusually cooperative witness, providing a full account of his own and others’ activities in the Party. Asked how he was working to combat communism today, he replied that his opposition took two forms: the first was his active involvement in religious organizations, the second his attempt to “discover and explain to students, in my teaching and in my writing, the unique virtues of American democracy.” He wanted to use history to show how Americans had avoided extreme ideologies like communism in the past—and how they might continue to avoid them in the future.
Two years earlier, while on a teaching fellowship in Rome, Boorstin had been struck by a profound difference between European and American politics. Europeans tended to have deep and irreconcilable conflicts over the ends of society, he observed, while Americans had an unspoken agreement about what society ought to look like and differed only on the practical means—how much taxation, how much regulation—by which that shared objective could be attained. The root cause of this distinction, Boorstin wrote in The Genius of American Politics (1953), was that Europeans tended to be susceptible to the “romantic illusion” that society could be remade following the blueprint of abstract political principles. Geography and history had saved Americans from that kind of idolatry, which led straight to tyrannies like “Nazism, fascism and communism.”
A philosopher once assured me, many years ago, that he had converted his cat to veganism. Believing he was joking, I asked how he had achieved this feat. Had he supplied the cat with mouse-flavoured vegan food? Had he presented his cat with other cats, already practising veganism, as feline role models? Or had he argued with the cat and convinced it that eating meat is wrong? My interlocutor wasn’t amused, and I realised that he really believed the cat had opted for a meat-free diet. So I ended our exchange with a simple question: did the cat go out? It did, he told me. That solved the mystery. Plainly, the cat was supplementing its diet by covert hunting. If it ever brought home any of the carcasses – a practice to which ethically undeveloped cats are sadly prone – the virtuous philosopher had managed not to notice them.
It is not hard to imagine how the cat on the receiving end of this experiment in moral education must have viewed its human teacher. Perplexity at the absurdity of his behaviour would soon have been followed by contemptuous indifference. Seldom doing anything unless it serves a definite purpose or gives immediate satisfaction, cats are arch-realists. Faced with human folly, they simply go their own way.
The independence of cats is one of the features most admired by those of us who love them. Given their evolutionary history as solitary hunters, it is easily explained. Seeking their prey alone, cats – with the exception of lions and sometimes cheetahs – have not developed patterns of collective action and hierarchy of the kind found in dogs and other pack animals. “Herding cats” is a metaphor based on fact: cats don’t live in herds. As they are highly territorial and notoriously picky in their eating habits, they make an unlikely candidate for domestication. And yet, more than almost any other species, cats have learned to live on intimate terms with human beings. How has this come about?
“Severe, Jerusalem-generated mental problems.” Such, as characterized by the British Journal of Psychiatry, is the pathological derangement known as Jerusalem Syndrome. The madness is generally attributed to the city’s intoxicating spiritual powers, recognized over the centuries to inspire wild prophecies, orotund pronouncements, and utopian fantasies sometimes accompanied by predictions of imminent apocalypse.
If you happened to visit New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in recent months, you might have detected a particular, very contemporary version of the syndrome lurking in the background of Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, a sumptuous and ecstatically received exhibition that closed on January 8 after a three-month run. Or maybe not, if the contagion has spread as widely as now seems—since most visitors, and for that matter most reviewers and critics, were thoroughly seduced by the ravishingly beautiful items on display. These included illuminated manuscripts in exotic calligraphy like the ancient Hebrew script of the Samaritans; caches of gold and jewelry that until recently had been hidden in jars or lay sunk off the Caesarea coast; gilt pages of Qurans; handwritten letters by the medieval Jewish luminaries Moses Maimonides and Judah Halevi; intricately carved capitals from the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth; and much more.
In the long history of misinformation, the current outbreak of fake news has already secured a special place, with the president’s personal adviser, Kellyanne Conway, going so far as to invent a Kentucky massacre in order to defend a ban on travelers from seven Muslim countries. But the concoction of alternative facts is hardly rare, and the equivalent of today’s poisonous, bite-size texts and tweets can be found in most periods of history, going back to the ancients.
Procopius, the Byzantine historian of the sixth century AD churned out dubious information, known as Anecdota, which he kept secret until his death, in order to smear the reputation of the Emperor Justinian after lionizing the emperor in his official histories. Pietro Aretino tried to manipulate the pontifical election of 1522 by writing wicked sonnets about all the candidates (except the favorite of his Medici patrons) and pasting them for the public to admire on the bust of a figure known as Pasquino near the Piazza Navona in Rome. The “pasquinade” then developed into a common genre of diffusing nasty news, most of it fake, about public figures.
Although pasquinades never disappeared, they were succeeded in the seventeenth century by a more popular genre, the “canard,” a version of fake news that was hawked in the streets of Paris for the next two hundred years. Canards were printed broadsides, sometimes set off with an engraving designed to appeal to the credulous. A best-seller from the 1780s announced the capture of a monster in Chile that was supposedly being shipped to Spain. It had the head of a Fury, wings like a bat, a gigantic body covered in scales, and a dragon-like tail. During the French Revolution, the engravers inserted the face of Marie-Antoinette on the old copper plates, and the canard took on new life, this time as intentionally fake political propaganda. Although its impact cannot be measured, it certainly contributed to the pathological hatred of the queen, which led to her execution on October 16, 1793.