Monthly Archives: March 2012

Religion and Noble Families in Late Medieval Society

We are pleased to bring you another post from Shennan Hutton, author of Women and Economic Activities in Late Medieval Ghent, on the Book of Hours of Catherine of Clèves:

About the image: This beautiful example of late medieval manuscript illumination is the front page of the Book of Hours made for Catherine of Clèves, the Duchess of Guelders and Countess of Zutphen.  All of these small territories are now in the nation of The Netherlands, but in the 15th century, when this book of hours was prepared, they were semi-independent principalities under the loose rule of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Shennan’s Insights: I like to use this image in teaching to highlight two themes about late medieval religion and society.  The first theme relates to late medieval religion.  This book was produced around 1440, which is approximately 80 years before Martin Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses and set off the Reformation (1517).  In addition to anti-clericalism and dislike for the abuses of the church, such as indulgences, one of the major precursors of the Reformation was the laicization of spirituality.  This awkward nominalization – laicization – means that lay people (that is, not clergy) were practicing spirituality outside of church activities.  They were making their spiritual lives more personal and private, and integrating spiritual objects and practices into their daily lives.  This front page illustrates the laicization of spirituality.  Catherine owned this book which included prayers for different hours of day, and for different days of the year.  The book made it possible for her to worship in her room, and not only in the chapel of her castle.  She could worship by herself, without the intervention of clergy.  In the illumination, Catherine is “entering” the space surrounding the Virgin and the Child.  It is an intimate setting of worship.

The second theme relates to noble families.  In addition to private devotion, Catherine would have likely prominently displayed this book to noble visitors.  Everyone knew that it had been enormously expensive, which would add to Catherine’s prestige, and that of her husband, Arnold, Duke of Guelders.  On the bottom in the center are Catherine’s coat of arms combined with that of her husband.  In the four corners (and the four corners of the next page) are the coats of arms of her great-grandfathers.  Noble families displayed their honor through expensive clothing and objects, and their “noble blood” by coats of arms.

Shennan Hutton is a Program Coordinator for the California History Social Science Project. She taught world history in high school for 15 years, before entering the graduate program at UC Davis.  She earned a Ph.D. in medieval European history in 2006.  She teaches medieval, European and world history at various colleges and universities, as well as promoting K-16 collaboration at the California History-Social Science Project. You can read more from Shennan at Blueprint for History Education.

Political Cartoons Provide Perspective

Title: “The Mortar of Assimilation,” 1889

"The Mortar of Assimilation," 1889

Description from Roland Marchand: The one unmixable element in the national pot was the Irish. A female U.S. figure, (“Uncle Samantha”?) stirs various stereotypes of different nationalities into the American melting pot, in “The Mortar of Assimilation,” 1889.

Political cartoons can be a powerful classroom tool. At best, they present issues clearly, allowing students to analyze multiple perspectives without the language challenges that they might find in a text-based primary source. The key to success is careful selection and preparation. Since political cartoons capture issues from the time of creation, some can overwhelm with details so it is important to choose those that depict an issue clearly and are relatively free of obscure references. It is equally important to anticipate where students may need additional context or background prior to attempting analysis. Finally, help students understand how political cartoon artists use caricatures, or drawings that exaggerate certain features or stereotypes, to indicate who the cartoon is about.

There are many ways to support student analysis of political cartoons. The Library of Congress for example, has a generic analysis guide available here, and a guide to persuasive techniques here, but a short set of carefully crafted questions can also be a simple and effective way for students to engage in analysis.

“The Mortar of Assimilation” is one of four political cartoons featured in an immigration lesson that asks students to investigate arguments made by Americans opposed to immigration in the late nineteenth century. This lesson, created by  middle school teacher Sara Schnack, is one of the image-centered investigations in the Marchand Archive’s Documentary Source Problems Collection.

For more political cartoons and other images related to immigration, browse the Marchand Image Collection “topic/themes” Immigration, Immigrants and Immigrant Societies and Organization.

Join the conversation! Share your favorite political cartoons and analysis techniques here.

From advertising to middle age

Today’s post comes to us from Patricia Cohen, a reporter for the New York Times and the author of the new book, In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age. She has previously worked at the Washington Post and Rolling Stone magazine.

After finishing Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, I felt that distinct combination of admiration and envy: I wished I had written it. When I did get around to writing my own book, a social and cultural history of middle age titled  In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age, I found his research extraordinarily useful. His insights informed a lot of my own thinking about how advertising helped shape views of what life’s middle years were supposed to look and act like.

This imagined midlife lies at the intersection of self-improvement and mass consumption, two of the most powerful movements of the twentieth century. Faith in the perfectibility of man through his own efforts, combined with the promise of the marketplace’s transformative abilities have created what I call (to crib President Eisenhower’s phrase) the Midlife Industrial Complex.

This amalgam is a complex in both the institutional and emotional sense: a massive industrial network that manufactures and sells products and procedures to combat supposed afflictions associated with middle age; and a mental syndrome that exaggerates angst about waning powers, failure, and uselessness in one’s middle years. Zeroing in on the physical body, the market whips up insecurities, creating a sense of inferiority, then sells the tools that promise to allay those fears.

The origins of the Midlife Industrial Complex date back to the 1920s, when America became a visual culture – what the poet Vachel Lindsay called a “hieroglyphic civilization” – and consumerism attached itself to the growing self-help movement. A perfect example can be found in the Marchand archives. “She looks old enough to be his mother,” two women remark about a friend in a 1928 advertisement for Lysol disinfectant. “And the pity of it is that, in this enlightened age, so often a woman has only herself to blame if she fails to stay young with her husband and with her women friends.”

The poor Lysol-less woman was not fated to a life of neglect and aging: she could have done something about it. In this democratic arena, youthful beauty is not confined to genetic luck or wealthy pampering; it is within everyone’s reach, part of an individual’s inalienable right to pursue happiness. As Helena Rubinstein reputedly said, there are no ugly women, only lazy ones. In the language of self-improvement, middle age doesn’t simply happen to you; it is what you make of it.

What reviewers are saying about In Our Prime:

“A brilliant, wide-ranging book…Cohen’s lively prose and thoughtful insights make this a joy to read.”—Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe

“Very fine…lucid, straightforward and conversational… a thorough—and thoroughly fascinating—cultural history of aging.”—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune

“Her book is a fascinating biography of the idea of middle age, ‘a story we tell about ourselves.’  — Gail Sheehy, The New York Times.