Guy Fawkes, St. Leonard, and 12 Caesars Walk into a Bar
November 8, 2021
If you're expecting a punchline, sorry to disappoint, but read on to see how this cast of characters figures into the weekend. I'm cheating again with the title this time, as the weekend recap includes a Thursday... details, details. If you stick around to the end, there might be a joke or two in it for you. ;)
Thursday, November 4
I had been looking forward to this Thursday for most of the semester, after booking an early bird ticket in September. Mary Beard, a professor at Cambridge and one of the best-known classicists today, was in St. Andrews for a discussion and book signing of her new release Twelve Caesars. I had enjoyed reading SPQR, her entertaining, concise, and insightful history of Ancient Rome, so I was looking forward to hearing about another of her works. I expected Twelve Caesars to be another book about Roman History, since it shares a title with Suetonius's biographies of the first 12 Roman Emperors. Beard's Twelve Caesars is actually more of an art history book, examining how Roman emperors have been portrayed in art, from fine paintings and sculptures to wallpaper and china.
Tracing the appearance of Roman Emperors through the history of art brings to light an interesting question: If the Caesars are remembered by history as vicious, immoderate, and ineffective leaders (perhaps with the exception of Marcus Aurelius), why would the rich and powerful of Medieval and Early Modern Europe want to put their faces everywhere? In her talk, Beard presented several examples of how the image of Caesar was used as a moral warning or bad example for the viewer. In other examples, such as political cartoons, the image of Caesar is used to comment on the failings of those in power: "fiddling while Rome burns," for instance. Beard's purpose in the book is not to definitively answer the question of why Roman Emperors appear in art history, but to make readers more aware of their presence in art and more informed so as to draw their own conclusions.
Although the book was not what I expected, I was thrilled to hear one of my favorite authors speak in person (and pick up a signed copy of her book). Twelve Caesars is a beautiful book, with color illustrations of the artworks being referenced on almost every page. I will probably make Twelve Caesars my Christmas break read, once classes are finished and I have time to enjoy it and comprehend the information. Thursday night concluded with the weekly Compline service, always a delight.
Friday, November 5
If you hear the words "the fifth of November" and don't start mentally reciting poetry, allow me to educate you on the holiday we celebrated this weekend. In the UK, November 5 is Guy Fawkes night, also known as Bonfire Night. Much like Independence Day in the US, it involves grilling and setting off fireworks; unlike Independence Day, it also involves effigy burning. The holiday commemorates a failed attempt to assassinate King James I and blow up the British Parliament by Guy Fawkes, an English Catholic who sympathized with the Spanish and wanted to install a Catholic king in England. Fawkes, along with co-conspirators Thomas Wintour and Robert Catesby, planned to cram 36 barrels of gunpowder into the basement under the House of Lords and ignite it at the state opening of Parliament on November 5. Tipped off by an anonymous letter, the police discovered Fawkes guarding the gunpowder in Westminster Palace, after which he was tortured and executed. To celebrate this failure to assassinate the king (or the attempt itself, depending on who you ask), folks in the UK light fireworks and host bonfires on November 5, sometimes burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes as part of the celebrations.
There were plenty of Bonfire Night festivities happening in St. Andrews on Friday. My friends and I walked down to East Sands to watch some fireworks and toast some marshmallows at a bonfire hosted by the hillwalking society. Unfortunately, there were no effigy burnings to my knowledge. Bummer.
Saturday, November 6
It had been a while since my last excursion out of town, so some friends and I decided to make a trip to Edinburgh on Saturday. Since all of us had seen the main tourist attractions in Edinburgh, our goal was to find some less well-known "hidden gems" in the city. We set off from Waverly Station for Dean Village, a small neighborhood along the water of Leith that resembles a German storybook village. We arrived after being caught in the rain and, in my case, pelted in the face by leaves, so we only stayed for a short while to take some pictures. The rain stopped soon afterward, as we retraced our steps toward some lunch options in New Town.
We ended up in a bigger-on-the-inside French restaurant with surprisingly affordable lunch specials. I ordered steak frites and some chocolate mousse, which were both delicious. Next, we stopped in St. Mary's Catholic Cathedral, which is incorrectly described as underwhelming on TripAdvisor. I found the sanctuary beautiful, and was intrigued to find some relics of St. Andrew on display in one of the transepts. After St. Mary's we walked toward the Royal Mile to stop in a print shop and some vintage shops. I picked up a print of St. Salvator's Chapel on North Street and a half-price plaid dress with a broken zipper. We then headed back toward St. Andrews, grabbed dinner at Tesco, and I fixed the zipper on the dress before going to bed.
Shrine of St. Andrew in St. Mary's Cathedral
Sunday, November 8
On Sunday morning, I went to church as usual, where the gospel for the day was the lesson of the widow's mite in Mark 12. The preacher was careful to emphasize that, while this passage is frequently cited in sermons about stewardship (i.e. "The widow gives all she has to live on, so maybe you could step it up when we pass the offering plate"), the lesson is not about our financial habits as Christians. Rather, it is about the economy of God and our response to His love. God does not work in fractions; He does not give more or less or some of Himself to us, but all of Himself through the incarnation, the Word and Sacraments, and the work of the Holy Spirit. The widow is an example of how we ought to respond to this gift. She gives up her whole life, or livelihood, more than merely "what she had to live on." The value of the money and its use in the temple treasury are not important; after all, Jesus goes on to prophesy in the next chapter that the temple will soon be destroyed. The copper coins per se do not matter to God, who does not depend on our worship in any temple. We have nothing in ourselves to give God, until we are united to Christ. This union is what allows us to give all of our nothing to God, who accepts us as beloved children worth more than any material offering.
Saturday was the feast day of St. Leonard, so the St. Leonard's Chapel Choir led a commemoration service on Sunday afternoon. We were short on altos, so I volunteered to switch parts for the service, which was a fun challenge. In addition to the hymns, we sang a beautiful arrangement of Ubi Caritas and Mendelssohn's "Above all Praise and Majesty".
One of the honorary chaplains, who is also a graduate of St. Leonard's College, preached a sermon on "academic greatness." He began by taking us back to the medieval university, where there was a common consensus that all academic pursuits ought to be directed toward the knowledge and love of God. This Christian ratio was replaced during the Enlightenment with the Kantian scientific method; it was not exactly Christian, but it united scholars under a common concern and a common understanding. Later still, after the rise of individualism, academia was re-envisioned as a "marketplace of ideas." Too often, this marketplace is literal as well as figurative, as scholars compete for funding and awards and pursue lines of inquiry for their financial return rather than out of genuine wonder and curiosity. At this point, I was getting worried that the speaker would leave us here, without critiquing the current state of affairs or proposing some solution to mediate the marketplace's grip on the university.
I was not left hanging for long, as the speaker transitioned to telling us about a beloved professor, one of his doctoral advisers who sadly passed away before he completed his PhD. He described the affection and respect he had for this professor, then recalled how he foolishly revised some writing he had sent to him early in his studies. The speaker looked back on this early work with embarrassment, wondering how he could have submitted such badly argued and poorly composed material to such a great teacher. Recollecting his early years in the program made the speaker realize how much patience and charity his professor had given to him, which he described as "academic gratuity," or more strongly, academic grace. Academic greatness in an economized university, he concluded, is found in those who extend this grace to others, without expecting compensation in return. They practice a saying of Thomas Aquinas: "Better to illumine than merely to shine, to deliver contemplated truths than merely to contemplate."
During the sermon, I found myself thinking of my own teachers and professors, especially those at Redeemer Classical Academy and in the Templeton Honors College. Without their grace, I would not be studying here now, nor would I be a better student or person. I am still a long way off, but I hope one day to become worthy of the grace they have shown me.
After the service, I booked it across town to Scottish Country Dancing. We had another fun lesson reviewing some dances from the beginning of the semester and learning how to polka around the room. I only tripped over my own feet once and managed not to land on the floor! A trip to Janettas after that rounded out another wonderful weekend in St. Andrews.
Congratulations if you've made it this far. Here are some corny Roman jokes as your reward:
A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers and says, "I'll have 5 beers please!"
A Roman walks into a bar and says, "I'll have a martinus, but leave out the olive." The bartender says, "Don't you mean a martini?" and the Roman replies, "If I wanted more than one, I would have said so."
How did the Roman Empire get split in half? With a pair of Caesars.
Finally, a joke less directly related to Latin/the Romans:
A horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says, "Hey! We don't serve horses here. You're a horse, so get out." The horse looks surprised and says, "Really? I'm a horse? I don't think I am." As soon as the words leave the horse's mouth, he vanishes into thin air. A trained philosopher will understand that the horse has ceased to exist because of Descartes' famous statement cogito, ergo sum: "I think, therefore I am." I probably should have told you that at the beginning of the joke, but that would be putting Descartes before the horse.