Posts Tagged ‘France’

The Crushed Little Man

June 19, 2017

Take a look at this pillar.

This pillar with the little man crushed under it can be found in the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse, France. I read about this oddity in this article from Atlasobscura.

The Church of the Jacobins is in the center of the city of Toulouse in southern France. It is a Gothic mass of brick and stone, decorated inside with elaborate trompe l’oeil and soaring pillars. Most famously, it houses the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas. A lot less famously, it has this strange little carving of a man trapped under one of the pillars.

The remains of Thomas Aquinas are entombed in a golden reliquary along the side wall of the nave. Just behind it to the left there is a double-column that sits on a square base. Look down towards the floor and you’ll see, sticking out, a peculiar pair of bony hands and chubby crossed feet, their meaning and origin unknown. Some of the church tour guides don’t even know the crushed little man is there.

The church dates to the early 13th century, founded by the French Dominican order of the Jacobins. It has weathered a complicated history, beginning with the Dominicans being outlawed in France during the Revolution. It then began a journey that included everything from a takeover by Napoleon (who used it as barracks and an armory for the military), a period as a school gymnasium, an exhibition hall, and, during World War I, a safe haven for art treasures from the Paris museums.

The later decades of the 20th century saw enormous efforts to bring back the majesty of the church. After periods of major restoration – including the reveal of medieval paintings that had been whitewashed by Napoleon – it has emerged as an important museum and cultural center for Toulouse. But the little carving remains a mystery, the only one of its kind in the church. Posted, you might say, without comment.

It’s a little hard to find the little man, but look behind the St. Thomas Aquinas golden altar. You’ll see his little squished hands and little squished feet at the bottom of the pillar to the left.

I wonder what the sculptor was thinking. Does the crushed little man have any relation to Thomas Aquinas? Aquinas was one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent theologians who did much to codify Catholic doctrine. His philosophical system, Thomism, is still used by the Catholic Church and even other Christian denominations to some extent. Maybe the little man represents Truth crushing ignorance, or the Devil being crushed by Christ.

Here is a painting of Thomas Aquinas overcoming Averroes, a Spanish Muslim philosopher who helped to reintroduce Aristotle to the West.

Presumably the painter considered Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of Aristotle to be superior to Avarroes’s. Maybe the crushed little man represents the same idea in stone.

Or maybe it was just a joke. Maybe the artisan who was carving out the base of the pillar thought it would be funny to make it look like they stuck the pillar on top of a man. I wonder if anyone noticed or if the artist got into any trouble. I wonder what sort of person he was, or even what his name was. We will never know, but I think I’d like to meet him in whatever afterlife might exist and learn his story.

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Paris

November 15, 2015

Once again the civilized world has been attacked by barbarians, this time in Paris. I suppose that once again we will have the usual reactions, politicians promising action while carefully refraining from mentioning the religious ideology that inspired this attack, vague condemnations of the work of violent extremists while never noting just how high the actual percentage of the followers of the Religion that Must Not Be Named might be considered “extremists”. The left will, in fact already has, placed the blame squarely where it belongs, the racism and Islamophobia of the right. If only the extreme right in Europe and America were not so hateful, those nice Muslims would live in peace. There will also be the usual round of anti-terrorism rallies and candle light vigils, prayers  and Facebook widgets to express support for France and the rest of the silly, sentimental exercises to show how sad we are over this tragedy.

How about we do something different this time? How about we take action to stop these attacks from happening? To start with, would it be too much to expect for the political leaders of Europe, especially Angela Merkel to reconsider the policy of allowing tens of thousands of refugees from Syria into Europe. This may be the compassionate thing to do, but under current circumstances in the Middle East, it may not be the sensible thing to do. It does not take a tactical genius to realize that masses of people streaming into Europe provides an excellent opportunity to smuggle in operatives. There is no easy way to differentiate between refugees and terrorists and no way to guarantee that even Muslim not currently linked to terrorism might not get religion someday with deadly results.

Can we also at long last admit that we, the civilized world that is, have a problem with Islam. Not violent extremism or radical Islam, but with Islam. It is true that only a small minority of Muslims are actually terrorists and it may even be that only a minority of Muslims support terrorist acts as happened in Paris, though public opinion polls suggest otherwise, but the numbers do not matter. The problem is not individual Muslims who have the same mixture of good and evil as any other population The problem is with Islam. Islam, more than any other religion, justifies violence, particularly against the outsider in its scripture, theology, and doctrines. Yes, Christians, Jews, etc.  commit violence and may even use religion to justify their actions. Yet they will not get the same sort of support from their religious leaders and traditions that a Muslim who commits violence might. A Christian who bombs an abortion clinic and kills people will find himself denounced from every pulpit in the country. Even the most zealous pro-life activist will reject his actions. A Muslim who bombs a nightclub or shoots a theater full of hostages will all too often find himself celebrate as a holy martyr in mosques around the world. The moral equivalency between Islamic terrorism in our time and atrocities committed by Christians, in defiance of Christ’s teachings, in centuries past, which is being ceaselessly offered by progressives ignorant of both history and religion simply is not valid. Islam is a problem in the same way that Nazism or Communism was, a violent ideology deeply hostile to our democratic, liberal values. Yes, there are a great many good Muslims, just as their were a great many good Nazis and Communists, but they are still following an evil belief system.

If this admission is still too politically incorrect to make, then can we at least admit that it is better to be considered an islamophobe than to be dead and that protecting the lives of people living in Europe and America might be more important than protecting the tender sensibilities of those who might want to kill them. Whatever is done, we need to be clear in our minds that we are at war with people who want to destroy us and unless we start taking the threat seriously, a lot more people are going to lose their lives.

 

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Conquest: The English Kingdom of France

July 10, 2015

The Hundred Year’s War is not really an accurate name for the medieval war between England and France. The war actually lasted one hundred sixteen years, from 1337-1453, and was not a continuous war but a series of conflicts, with off and on fighting depending on the belligerence of kings and the course of the plague. The war began when the last son of Philip IV of France died without issue. As the mother of the English King Edward III was Phillip’s daughter, Edward claimed the French throne, as well as his own. The French refused his claim, citing the Salic Law which prohibited royal inheritance by a female descendant of the king and gave the crown to a nephew of Philip IV, Philip VI. Naturally there was war.

After the death of Edward III in 1377, the fighting died down somewhat as both realms were more concerned with internal matters. Henry V renewed the fighting in 1415, taking advantage of  political unrest between branches of the French royal family, particularly the feud between the Armagnac or Orleans faction and the Burgundians. After his decisive victory at Agincourt, Henry V was able to compel the French King Charles VI to disinherit his own son, the Dauphin, later known as Charles VII, and declare Henry his heir. Henry V died in 1522 leaving an infant son Henry VI who became king of France upon the death of Charles VI later that year. Thus France had an English king from 1420 to 1450, at least in theory.

This English kingdom of France is the subject of Juliet Barker‘s Conquest: The English Kingdom of France, which covers the last part of the Hundred Year’s War. It is a fascinating story of a France almost completely defeated rising again to expel the invader, of a disinherited prince with no hope of gaining his throne turning the tide with the help of Joan of Arc, and of an infant king  with a faction ridden council of regents and a land worn out by fighting, growing up into a weak king willing to make peace at any price. It is a story of battles and sieges, of brave knights and treacherous mercenaries and family squabbles that affect the course of nations.

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Juliet Barker makes this story come alive with the skill of a novelist. She brings out the personalities of the principals involved in the war and politics of the two kingdoms and describes the events in a way that excites the interest of the reader. By the time I was halfway through the book, I found the narrative so fascinating that I had trouble putting it down. If you like the Game of Thrones, you’ll surely love this history of a real life game of thrones. The only complaint I have is that the maps really weren’t enough. It might have been nice to include one or two maps showing the course of the various campaigns. Other than that, this was an excellent history of a long ago war.

Let Them Eat Cake

April 13, 2015

To start with, Marie Antoinette never actually said it. The phrase is actually found in Jean Jacque Rousseau‘s autobiography, Confessions where at one point he claims that “a great princess” upon learning that the peasants had no bread made the famous statement. Rousseau couldn’t have been speaking of Marie Antoinette, however, because his Confessions, although not published until after his death, was completed by 1769 when Marie Antoinette was still a girl living in Vienna. Which great princess, if any, Rousseau was actually referring to is unknown and since Rousseau adhered to the”fake but accurate” school of historiography so beloved by progressives it is possible that he simply made the whole thing up. In any case, the statement was actually out of character for Marie Antoinette. Despite the caricature of the callous, out of touch aristocrat created by the French radicals, Marie Antoinette was aware of the plight of the French poor and gave generously to charity. She was extravagant in her spending and could be somewhat clueless about what political advisers would call today the “optics” of the royal administration.

 

Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the late...

She didn’t say it  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Even if she did say it, Marie Antoinette didn’t really say, “let them eat cake”. That is poor translation of the actual statement in French, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche“. La brioche is not really cake but a kind of  bread made with eggs and butter to give it a light texture and rich flavor. Brioche was more expensive than the plain flour and water bread that the French poor subsisted upon, so perhaps a more exact translation might be, “if they don’t have the plain bread, let them eat the fancy pastries”. Somehow, that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

 

Not cake

Not cake

 

 

 

 

 

The meaning behind the words let them eat brioche may not be quite what it is generally assumed to be. It generally is taken to refer to a ruler or government callously unconcerned about the poor, but the pre-revolutionary French monarchs were greatly concerned about the welfare of the French people over which they ruled. As I said, the French poor depended on cheap bread to survive and the French government tightly regulated the supply of grain and flour to ensure that they had a steady supply of bread. There were strict regulations and inspections to ensure that bakers did not adulterate their bread to save money on flour. The price of the cheapest bread was set by the government to be affordable to the poor. Since bakers might be tempted to produce only a limited supply of the cheapest bread, and concentrate on more expensive and profitable pastries like brioche, French law required that if a baker ran out of the cheap bread, he was obliged to sell his more expensive wares at the set price for cheap bread. So, if Marie Antoinette had said let them eat cake, what she meant was that if there was a shortage of the cheap bread that was the staple of the poor, they should the have more expensive bread made available to them.

 

This system worked well enough in times of plenty, provided that the government set the price of the cheapest bread at a level that ensured that bakers could make a profit. If there was a bad harvest, however, the price of grain and thus of flour would increase. Since the price of bread was set and could not be changed, bakers could find themselves selling bread at a loss. The bakers were supposed to be compensated for their losses when good harvests return,  but they had no way of knowing when that might be. Under the circumstances, they might well decide to not to bother making any bread at all, leading to worse food shortages.

 

Now, a free market advocate might suggest that the French government ought to have ended its price controls on grain and bread and let the free market determine the cost and supply of bread. Over the long term, the equilibrium between supply and demand would ensure a stable supply of bread at a reasonable price. In fact, that was exactly what was happening in the early years of the reign of Louis XVI. Influenced by the writings of the French school of economics known as the Physiocrats, who advocated free trade and free market economics, and by Louis’s  minister Turgot, the French government had been slowly dismantling the system of price controls and strict regulation of bread in the early 1770’s. Unfortunately, this was also a period of bad harvests which drove the price of grain and then bread to a level beyond the reach of many of the poor. Given time, the market would have righted itself but that was small comfort to the poor who found themselves unable to feed their families. Rioting broke out all over France in 1775, leading to what has been called the Flour War, a sort of pre-revolution. At first the rioters attacked grain merchants who they suspected of hoarding grain, but it wasn’t long before they were fighting with Royal officials. Both the traditional view of the King as protector of his subjects and the free market economics endorsed by Turgot were discredited in the chaos and Turgot was obliged to resign. King Louis XVI  restored the price controls on bread and organized relief for the areas most afflicted by hunger. By the summer of 1775 the Flour War was over, but in hindsight this the beginning of the end of the French ancien régime.

 

Let them eat cake, then, is not really so much the rallying cry of an uncaring and callous elite as it is for a regime that enacts well-intentioned reforms to help everyone but because the unintended consequences of such reforms are not carefully considered they end up causing more harm than good. This is a lesson many contemporary Louis XVIs and Marie Antoinettes  would do well to learn.

 

 

 

Christian Revival in France

February 22, 2015

It is a commonly held viewpoint in our times that history moves in only one direction, from the benighted past to the enlightened present. This viewpoint is justified in the fields of science and technology. We obviously have much greater knowledge of the natural world and far better tools and machines than our ancestors could have dreamed of. This progressive view of history is less justified in politics and culture. In those fields it is less clear what really constitutes progress and whether history is really moving in a straight line toward some end. What I am trying to get at is that our ideas about what is right and wrong, or true and untrue, or desirable and undesirable are not necessarily superior to the ideas of our ancestors nor is it certain that we are forever moving in a certain direction toward the truth or the good, etc.

I mentioned, in passing, in a recent post that the idea of our time being uniquely liberated in its sexual mores while all past ages were repressed and puritanical is not really true. These sorts of cultural movements seem to go in cycled. A similar idea is held about the status of religion in society. It is often believed that religion is a relic of past ages in which people were ignorant and superstitious. In our more enlightened times, in which we have solved many of the mysteries of the universe, religion is no longer needed. As people become more educated, the influence of religion must fade. Europe is held as an example of this phenomena. The continent has become steadily more secular over the last two centuries and surely before long the people of Europe will be entirely free of religion. The fact that the United States is just as advanced as Europe in science and technology but has remained consistently more religious than Europe may seem to disprove the rule that societies become more secular as they advance, but the US is, in some ways,culturally backward compared to Europe, especially in the Red States. After all, those ignorant Americans still don’t have nationalized medicine or strict gun control. In twenty years, the US will be just as secular as Europe. After all, that is the way history is moving. So goes the argument.

But, perhaps not. Religious observance too tends to run in cycles. Periods of great fervor,even fanaticism in religion alternate with periods of laxity and skepticism. Atheism is by no means a new phenomena. There were atheists in ancient Greece and Rome, and curiously enough, they used the very same arguments against religion that the so-called New Atheists use. The current period of secularism in Europe may be followed by a religious period and there is no reason to believe that the US must inevitably follow in Europe’s footsteps.

Consider this article from The Week, about a possible religious revival in France.

On a recent Sunday, my family and I only showed up 10 minutes early for Mass. That meant we had to sit in fold-out chairs in the spillover room, where the Mass is relayed on a large TV screen. During the service, my toddler had to go to the bathroom. To get there, we had to step over a dozen people sitting in hallways and corners. This is business as usual for my church in Paris, France.

I point this out because one of the most familiar tropes in social commentary today is the loss of Christian faith in Europe in general, and France in particular. The Wall Street Journal recently fretted about the sale of “Europe’s empty churches.”

Could it be, instead, that France is in the early stages of a Christian revival?

Yes, churches in the French countryside are desperately empty. There are no young people there. But then, there are no young people in the French countryside, period. France is a modern country with an advanced economy, and that means its countryside has emptied, and that means that churches built in an era when the country’s sociological makeup was quite different go empty. In the cities — which is where people are, and where cultural trends gain escape velocity — the story is quite different.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. My wife and I now live in an upper-crust neighborhood with all the churches full of upwardly-mobile professionals. When we were penniless grad students, we lived in a working class neighborhood and on Sunday our church was packed with immigrant families and hipster gentrifiers.

It was only recently that I was struck by the fact that, imperceptibly, the majority of my college and grad school friends who were Christmas-and-Easter-Catholics when we met now report going to Church every Sunday and praying regularly. On social media, they used to post about parties; now they’re equally likely to post prayers for persecuted Middle East Christians or calls to help the homeless over the holidays.

My friends live all over town; some of them are young singles who move around a lot; all of them report looking for those mythical “empty churches” we hear so much about — and failing to find them. In fact, it’s closer to the other way around: If you don’t show up early, you might have to sit on the floor — and people are happy to do it.

The massive rallies in France, underwritten by the Catholic Church, against the recent same-sex marriage bill stunned the world: Isn’t France the poster child for sexually-easygoing secularism? Perhaps more than a million people took to the streets, and disproportionately young ones, too. (Compare Britain’s “whatever” response to its own same-sex marriage act, passed around the same time.) But they forgot that a century of militant secularism didn’t kill the Old Faith — it merely drove it underground. And perhaps by privatizing faith, the secularists unwittingly strengthened it; after all, the catacombs have always been good to Christianity.

There is more.

I hope that this is really the case, that there is a revival of Christianity in France and ultimately Europe, with the difference that there will be no more state sponsored churches. The melding of church and state that took place in the late Roman Empire and afterwards has been very bad for Christianity. Most of the bad behavior attributed to Christianity, which has served to discredit the church in the eyes of many, has been the result of an institution backed by the state, and employing coercion. Whatever form a possible revival of Christianity in Europe might take, it would certainly be better than the alternatives. I believe that secularism is a dead end. Man does not live by bread alone. He needs something higher to believe in. If people do not have religion, they will find something else, or they will cease to live. As it is, Europe is dying.

The are many who believe that the future of Europe is in Islam. They project a future in which thanks to a higher birthrate and conversions, the Muslim population of Europe will come to be a majority and impose their culture and values on Europe. I am not so certain of this, myself. It is unwise to take current demographic trends and project them in a straight line into the indefinite future. People do react to events and it may be that the Europeans will wake up to the threat to Islamization. Whatever happens, the influence of Islam is not a good one, and the less such influence Islam has on Europe and the world, the better. Secularism cannot really counter Islam. You can’t fight something with nothing. If the Europeans do not want to descend in the poverty and barbarism of the Islamic world, they will have to find a competing ideology, and what better than their Christian heritage.

 

A History of France

November 3, 2014

A History of France from the Earliest Times to the Treaty of Versailles was originally written for servicemen being deployed to France to fight in World War I who might want to know something of the history of the country. The war ended before the project was completed, so William Sterns Davis took the opportunity to update and expand the book and make it available to the members of the general public to introduce them to the history of the country we had fought alongside. I think this book serves as an admirable introduction to the history of France from the Roman conquest of Gaul down through the medieval period, the Revolution, Napoleon, and the just concluded World War I. Davis does tend to spend more time on the (to him) recent history of France in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the expense of earlier centuries, but I ought not to complain. There is still plenty of material on earlier periods and I do not get the impression, as I often do of history books that the author is trying to hurry through the early history of his subject.

This book was written in 1919, well before the age of political correctness and post-modern moral relativism and the tone of Davis’s writing shows it. He does not hesitate to call groups of people barbarians or make moral judgments on the personal lives of kings. I personally find this sort of honesty refreshing, though it can be somewhat jarring, especially in the last two chapters. While discussing France’s recovery from the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War, Davis expounds on France’s acquisition of a colonial empire in Africa and Indochina stressing the great improvements French administration made in the lives of the people of the colonies. That may be, but no one asked of the natives of the colonies wished to be ruled by France.

The chapter on World War I reads like allied propaganda with France defending civilization against the Teutons bent on conquering the world. The Germans are clearly the bad guys throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Treaty of Versailles is represented as just and reasonable with the reparations necessary to repair the damage the Germans did to the French territory they occupied. Perhaps, but I wonder if Davis lived to see the troubles the more onerous provisions of that treaty caused to Europe and France.
In general, the book is strongly pro-France and the author seems to have a real affection for the French people. Anyone who wants a good general overview of French history will find what he is looking for here.

Wealthy French Flee France

July 19, 2012

Who could have seen that happening? People don’t want to pay higher taxes if they don’t have to. Amazing. I read about this flight of the wealthy in The Telegraph.

The latest estate agency figures have shown large numbers of France’s most well-heeled families selling up and moving to neighbouring countries.

Many are fleeing a proposed new higher tax rateof 75 per cent on all earnings over one million euros. (£780,000)

The previous top tax bracket of 41 per cent on earnings over 72,000 euros is also set to increase to 45 per cent.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is delighted by this exodus.

Prime minister David Cameron angered the French last month when he said he would “roll out the red carpet” to wealthy French citizens and firms who wanted move out and pay their taxes in Britain. He told the B20 business summit in Mexico in June: “I think it’s wrong to have a completely uncompetitive top rate of tax.

“If the French go ahead with a 75 per cent top rate of tax we will roll out the red carpet and welcome more French businesses to Britain and they can pay tax in Britain and pay for our health service and schools and everything else.”

At this point, I would like to go back a little in history. Andrew Mellon was the Secretary of the Treasury back in the 1920’s. He served under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. When he first became Secretary, in 1921, the highest tax rate was 73%. He proposed dropping the rate to 25%. America was in the middle of a bad depression then and many people were afraid that such tax cuts for the wealthy would lead to a loss in revenue for the government. Mellon responded that it was better to have a low tax rate that people actually pay than a high tax rate that people evade. It turned out that he was right.

I hope that Barack Obama is paying attention to these lessons. I have a feeling that he cares more about punishing the evil millionaires and billionaires than in maximizing revenue to the government.

100% Tax Rate

March 29, 2012

I’ve been paying attention to American politics but they are having an election over in France too. French President Nicholas Sarkozy is facing a tough fight for reelection against Socialist Francois Hollande. Rising in the polls in the more radical leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has some interesting ideas.I should let The Guardian explain.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the hard left, anti-capitalist firebrand who is rising in the presidential election polls, is all over the French papers – billed as the great surprise, main event and key revelation of the campaign.

With crowds spilling into the street at his packed rally in Lille this week, and tens of thousands recently flocking to the Bastille to hear him call for a “civic insurrection”, Mélenchon has been credited with 14% in the polls by BVA.

His numbers have catapulted him into the realms of becoming a possible “third man” in the first round vote on 22 April.

His ideas include capping maximum fat cat salaries at €360,000 (£300,000), after which income tax would be set at 100%.

I almost wish he would win. It would be very interesting to see what happens to the French economy if he did manage to set the highest income tax rate at 100% and I think it would be a lesson for anyone else who thinks high taxes are a good idea. I don’t imagine even the French are foolish enough to support that.

 

Lightning Over Paris

September 3, 2011

This is a really cool picture.

 

 

“I quickly grabbed my camera and put it on a tripod by the window,” said the 31-year-old photographer who caught the moment the Eiffel Tower appeared to be struck by lightning. The photo, taken from his apartment window last year, surfaced this week and won the Office du Tourisme de Paris competition. It will be part of an upcoming show in France. (Photo: Caters News)

 

They don’t give the name of the photographer in the article, though.

D-Day

June 6, 2011

Today is the 67th anniversary of D-Day, when thousands of allied troops landed on the coast of Normandy. This, along with the Battle of Stalingrad, turned the tide of the European theater of World War II and was the beginning of the end for one of the most evil regimes in history.


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