Tuesday, August 1, 2017


Where I came from, September was always the start of school and hence the beginning of the annual cycle that tends to follow the sequence of the academic year.  When I was growing up, we went to school until the end of June. So July and August were the "summer vacation” months. In much of Europe, of course, August remains the primary "vacation" month. Here in Tennessee, however, where school ends in May and resumes in early August, June and July are the “vacation” months, and August 1 signals getting back to normal (or whatever passes for normal nowadays).

Unintentionally, of course, this recalls an older northern European tradition, which treated August 1 as the start of the autumn season.

The old English “Lammas Day” (Gaelic “Lughnasa”) on August 1 was a harvest festival (to mark the annual autumn wheat harvest. In its Christianized version, it became the occasion to bless a loaf made from the newly harvested wheat. 

(For more about Lammas Day, see "A Clerk of Oxford," http://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2017/08/a-little-history-of-lammas.html)

In the Christian calendar, “Lammas Day” traditionally coincided with the feast of Saint Peter’s Chains, commemorating the apostle’s miraculous deliverance from prison, recounted in Acts 12. It provides the occasion for one of Elis Peters’ wonderful Brother Cadfael mysteries, Saint Peter’s Fair. (The feast of Saint Peter’s Chains was regrettably dropped from the calendar in 1961 to no obvious advantage or benefit.)

It remains the titular feast of one of my favorite Roman churches, S. Pietro in Vincoli, a 5th century basilica, with a 15th-century façade, also known as Basilica Eudoxiana, because founded by Empress Eudoxia to house the two chains with which Peter was imprisoned. In addition to Saint Peter’s chains (visible for veneration under the main altar), the Basilica is perhaps most famous for Michelangelo’s Moses. It also houses the tomb of the famous 15th-century theologian, canonist, and Cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), author of De Docta Ignorantia (“Of Learned Ignorance”), whom I first encountered some 45 years ago in medieval political theory in graduate school!

That beautiful basilica also contains the purported relics of the Holy Maccabees, seven brothers and their mother martyred in 2 Maccabees 7. The veneration of their relics probably accounted for their commemoration in the Mass of of Saint Peter's Chains. (That commemoration was finally swept away in 1969, likewise to no obvious advantage or benefit.) The Maccabean martyrs were caught up in an epic conflict between fidelity to Jewish Law and Hellenist assimilationism, which extended even to the desecration of the Temple. The Maccabean reconsecration of the Temple is celebrated in winter at Chanukah. But today's recollection of the Maccabees coincides (completely coincidentally) with the Jewish fast of the 9th of Av - commemorating and mourning the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Temples. In union with our Jewish brothers and sisters, today is a good day to reflect upon the importance of sacred places for living out a religious identity.

Meanwhile back to Rome where places are very literally layered with history, to reach S. Pietro in Vincoli from Via Cavour, one climbs a stone stairway, Via S. Francesco di Paola, less edifyingly known as Salita dei Borgia, because it passes under an archway which was part of the house of Vannozza Cattanei, mistress of  Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI, and mother of his famous children, Giovanni, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Gioffre Borgia. Giovanni Borgia, Duke of Gandia (known by his Spanish name, Juan, in the 2011-2012 Showtime TV series, The Borgias), was murdered there in 1497, quite possibly by one of his brothers.

To add even more charm to the place, that stairway is also the site of the ancient Vicus Sceleratus, so named because it was where the wicked Tullia (c. 535 B.C.) drove her chariot over the corpse of her father Servius Tullius (the 6th of Rome’s 7 kings) whom her husband, Tarquinius Superbus, had just overthrown!

(Photo: Auugst from the justly famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th-century prayer book, which is generally considered perhaps the best surviving example of medieval French Gothic manuscript illumination)

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