Early Modern Campaign Life: Through the Eyes of Margriet Van Noort

the siege of the city of alesia melchior feselen
Detail from The Siege of Alesia by Melchior Feselen: painted in 1533, this massive painting, from which this detail and the one below is taken, depicts a battle from antiquity but does so in a thoroughly anachronistic fashion, instead showing in great detail the workings of sixteenth century warfare, including the presence of soldiers’ families as described in the passage below.

The excerpted text below comes from the autobiography of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God, born Margriet Van Noort in 1587. Before her death in 1646 she wrote a range of autobiographical pieces of literature, at the behest of her confessor at the convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Brussels in the Low Countries. This passage describes aspects of her childhood, one spent out on campaign alongside her father, a soldier fighting under the Habsburgs during the Eighty Years’ War. Margaret provides a powerful and moving look into what everyday life was like for the families of the soldiers, families that, as in many other early modern wars, went on campaign as well, sleeping in tents, dodging bullets, and contributing to combat in various ways, including, as Margaret later describes, digging trenches. Margaret’s mother sought to give her children some semblance of normalcy, Margaret notes, even if her children could not avoid being swept up in the chaos and danger of an early modern army on the move, as Margaret’s account of her three days separated from her family suggests.

the-siege-of-the-city-of-alesia-melchior-feselen-2.jpg

Since my father was a soldier, my mother always followed him with all the children; there were seven of us. We went with him in every campaign where we suffered hardships of every kind, as you can imagine, from heat and other trials. We often lacked food, and even when we had money there was often nothing to buy. At times when we had no money, we would that a horse might be shot so that we could have something to eat. One time we ate meat with no bread because we did not have any; we could not even find a loaf to buy. Other times we would eat raw meat because we had no time, fire, or proper conditions for cooking. And we usually slept four or five months of the year in our clothes on the ground with a bit of straw for a soft bed. Our home was a tent, but my mother took pains to keep us all gathered together as if we were in a house. There we recited our devotions, did our handwork, and read religious books, to which I was always greatly devoted. We never missed Mass when it was said. It was in a tent set up in the open countryside and there were thousands of people who attended. The enemy would shoot artillery and the bullets would fall in the middle of all those people. No one was ever hurt.

About the age of nine, I had a desire to stay in a monastery of the Order of Saint Bernard that was near where we were garrisoned. But my father did not want me to because he said that Friesland was sure to revert to heresy, and so I stayed with my parents. My mother saw that I was quite a young lady at eleven years old, and she had me make my First Communion. At twelve, my father had contracted marriage for me with a young man from a good family; but he was a military man and he died in battle, and I was very happy.

We used to go every summer on a campaign that sometimes lasted until Christmas with a lot of snow and cold. I was very fond of walking and since my parents had carts and horses in which to carry us, when I would see other soldiers’ small children crying so and dying of cold, I would ask my mother to allow me to walk so a little girl could ride in my place. Sometimes she would scold me and tell me that I was going to get lost among the crowds and it happened just so. I had walked all day and at nightfall the companies split from each other with each company camping together. I stayed seated by the road where I thought our people would be passing. But only the Walloons came. I began to ask if the Germans were not passing by there also, and they told me no. I was very distressed and started to cry like a girl of thirteen would. And God willed that a good man might pass by, a captain who asked me why I was crying. I told him of my trouble, that I had thought my father would have come by there. And God willed that this good man should console me, and he took me with him and pampered me, and I spent three days with him while he took care of me as if I were his daughter. He was a captain of the Wallons, and he asked me my father’s name. I said he was an ensign with a German regiment and his name was Sebastiaan Van Noort. Finally my mother came searching for me with two other people. On the third day the companies were reunited and my mother and everyone was very happy that I was found. After that, I always stayed with them.

Margaret van Noort. Spiritual Writings of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God (1635-1643). Translated by Susan M. Smith. (Toronto, Ontario: Iter Academic Press, 2015). 66-67.

Reflections on Entering and Leaving the Left, and Other Matters, Part i.

Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin (1855–1888).jpg
This somehow this seemed an appropriate portrait for this essay: here at his desk is the young Russian radical and author Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin (1855–1888), as depicted by his friend Ilia Efimovich Repin. (Met. 1972.145.2)

For some time now I’ve realized that I am effectively politically and ideologically homeless. Having for a time sojourned on the libertarian left, over the last few years I’ve drifted away from the left side of the spectrum, but without really ending up anywhere classifiable. By many metrics I no doubt still appear ‘leftish’—I am critical of both statism and capitalism, embrace political decentralization, the wider distribution of power and wealth, localized control, the importance of unions, co-ops, and other mutualist or even socialist forms of political economy, and so on. While I would not describe myself as an environmentalist, my reasons are similar to those of someone like Paul Kingsnorth (whose trajectory I think I can understand quite well, and which has many similarities with my own), and the importance of the ecological to my politics has increased, in no small part I suspect to having recently become a father. But at the same time I have grown extremely critical, or simply uninterested, in much of the rest of leftist discourse, both in its more ‘classical’ formulations and its contemporary manifestations in the West, most of which I find alternatively infuriating and dull. I have never had any interest in and but little patience for so-called progressive politics, and the recent turn of those politics towards essentialism and shallow identity-mongering has done nothing to raise my appetite. But closer to the lay of the radical politics I once practiced, I can no longer countenance a politics based solely on some form of ‘liberation’ divorced from transcendent values, nor can I intellectually or otherwise justify the ideas of personal autonomy and strict egalitarianism lying behind those ideas of liberation. And I found that a great deal of what I needed to maintain to remain a ‘good’ leftist, even of the libertarian variety, simply did not mesh with any form of reality I could perceive. Nor could I any longer reconcile the full range of my ‘strong’ political commitments with my commitment to Orthodox Christianity and my increasingly ‘thick’ formation within the Church.

But even deeper, I found that I simply could not subordinate my life and the world around me to a political ideology of any sort, that I could not and did not want to bring everything under the aegis of the political: which was exactly what seemingly every political option, left and right, was demanding. So there it is in a nutshell—in what follows, here and in further essays, eventually, I’d like to walk through this process, to scope out my own twists and turns of thinking, of practice, of emotional development and change. As is the case with a lot of personal, autobiographical writing, my foremost goal is really just to explain myself to myself, to make sense of my own life’s trajectory through a selective but, I hope, relatively honest and thoughtful narrative. Of course there are arguments and claims herein, which I imagine an astute reader picking up on and probably contesting. But more fundamentally, I think that this political de-conversion narrative points to a very important reality about what it is to be human: our lives do not unfold neatly and coherently, our thinking and our cultural participation and choices do not necessarily make sense, and where we end up is often quite unpredictable and contingent. Every self is really a sort of bricolage, a multitude of wills at work in one person, as Flannery O’Connor put it. Our lives unfold under the signs of many ‘cultures’ and traces, things gathered in the past rising to the surface unexpectedly and uncalled for. Therein, in fact, lies part of the problem with any political ideology: it tends to smooth things over, to foreclose the stories and pieces and moements that do not ‘fit,’ and to demand that we render our own life narratives accordingly.

So, to begin. I don’t really know precisely at what point I started to think of myself as being on the left of the political spectrum. It was really more of a gradual process, and a gradual realization- both coming and going. In this I imagine that my experience is not too different from that of many others. That said, there have been particular points in my life that have stood out as pivotal moments, both at the time and in later reflection, moments that, not coincidentally, also provide good structure for a narrative. My two most important political epiphanies both came, at different speeds, in the first years of the new millennium: the first, and probably most fundamental, was a result of a summer spent in southwest China, at the tender age of nineteen. That summer was, in retrospect, one of the most important and formative periods in my life, a summer of dawning realizations, vastly opened vistas, joyful, sometimes strange, encounters, and wrenching conclusions about the nature of things. I was hardly a naive or uninformed young person at the time, to be sure, but my knowledge of the world beyond my own corner of it was mostly mediated to me at a remove, and that mediation, as is so often the case, disguised as much as it revealed.

Among the revelations visited upon me during those alternatively blissful and excruciating months in the hills of Yunnan was a clarity about the nature of the state and of capitalism. I had already imbued literature, political positions, and cultural ephemera such as to give me a critical stance towards both, but it was fragmentary and incoherent. I thought of certain sorts of states—authoritarian and totalitarian ones—as ‘bad,’ and if I thought of capitalism at all I worried about its particular uses, and did not think of political economy or economy in general in a very systematic way. I had a sense that capitalism was the result of free markets, within the framework of a state that oversaw some things but mostly left the market to work its magic, or something along those lines.

Continue reading “Reflections on Entering and Leaving the Left, and Other Matters, Part i.”

Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia

John Nelson's Khalwa
The cell-like study and retreat of the early Methodist preacher and holy man John Nelson, whose autobiography is featured below.

In what follows, I have juxtaposed accounts taken from one end of Eurasia (here including North Africa) to the other, each of which dates from the seventeenth or eighteenth century: we begin with an account by an early English Methodist, next hear from a Moroccan sufi shaykh and saint, followed by an Ottoman Syrian self-taught shaykh, finally ending with an Edo-period Japanese Zen master- lives I doubt have ever been placed in such proximity before! Yet they are all united by at least two major common themes in addition to their chronological proximity: one, each is autobiographical, either as part of a stand-alone account, or embedded in some larger biographical project. Two, each has to do with narrating a moment or period of conversion from one way of life to another. We might be tempted to call all of these religious conversions, but I think it’s best to avoid the term ‘religious’ here since while it’s accurate in some ways it does not really quite reflect how these various writers or those around them thought about the world and the nature of the experiences and lives we might label ‘religious.’

There are other shared features that I think are significant and which might point to some of the shared, interconnecting features of early modern life on a global scale. Each of these accounts reveals not just a sense of subjectivity and inwardness, but a surprisingly assertive sense of subjectivity- reflected in, to begin with, the very act of writing and circulating in some fashion an autobiographical account. Related to this subjectivity and self-fashioning is the stress laid on reading and encountering books, often through one’s individual act of reading. This is significant given the emphasis placed in many cultural contexts in medieval Eurasia upon the oral, face-to-face, hand-in-hand transmission of knowledge and religious practice. Yet most of these figures not only were shaped by their own personal readings and encounters with texts, they in turn produced texts for others to encounter in a similar fashion. That is not to say that these authors were ‘individualists,’ and certainly none of them would have embraced the idea of the ‘autonomous’ self. Each in his own way was a part of religious communities, textual genealogies, and shared collectivities of practice and worship and belief.

I encourage you to read these excerpts in sequence and to think about commonalities or differences and the possible reasons for them, as well as what they may or may not say about shared early modern histories beyond my brief comments above. For each excerpt I have given a minimal introductory note, followed by the account and the citation (of the four not originally in English, I have translated one, while the others are translations by other scholars).

1. John Nelson (1707-1770): A stone-mason by trade, John Nelson would become an early convert to the Methodist movement within the English Anglican Church led by John and Charles Wesley. I have selected two sections from his Journal, an autobiographical rendering of his spiritual journey and labors on behalf of the Wesleys’ pietistic movement. In the first, Nelson describes a formative childhood experience, while in the second he narrates the pivotal moment of his adult conversion from a state of emotional insecurity and distance from God to that of being ‘saved.’

When I was between nine and ten years old, I was horribly terrified with the thoughts of death and judgment, whenever I was alone. One Sunday night, as I sat on the ground by the side of my father’s chair, when he was reading the twentieth chapter of the Revelation, the word came with such light and power to my soul, that it made me tremble, as if a dart were shot in my heart. I fell with my face on the floor, and wept till the place was as wet, where I lay, as if water had been poured thereon. As my father proceeded, I thought I saw everything he read about, though my eyes were shut; and the sight was so terrible, I was about to stop my ears, that I might not hear, but I durst not: as soon as I put my fingers in my ears, I pulled them back again. When he came to the eleventh verse, the words made me cringe, and my flesh seemed to creep on my bones while he read… Continue reading “Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia”

St. Paisius Loves Grapes

Paisi Velichkovski
St. Paisius Velichkovsky in an early iconographic depiction.

Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794) was a monk, writer, translator, and spiritual guide who was born in what is now Ukraine, but who spent much of his life traveling through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Moldovian and Wallachian principalities of the Ottoman Empire, encountering many forms of monastic life and gathering spiritual and patristic writings. His spiritual disciples and his writings and translations would prove highly influential in the wider Orthodox world, providing the foundation for the Russian startets tradition made famous in Dostoevsky’s Elder Zosima. Paisius also wrote a fascinating and detailed autobiography of the first half or so of his life, from which the below is excerpted. The image of himself that he presents is of a young man who is pious and driven to deepen his spiritual practice, but also subject to numerous failings, ambiguous moral situations and decisions, and various difficulties and struggles. This particular story illustrates the quite intimate and human self-image that Paisius presents throughout his autobiography.

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At the appropriate season the venerable superior of the hermitage, Father Dometij, assigned me the obedience of tending the hermitage’s vineyard, which was on level ground above the hermitage, at a distance of nearly one verst. He commanded me in no wise to dare eat any grapes until I had eaten at least a small piece of bread ; but provided I ate the bread, he gave me his permission and blessing to eat as many grapes as I wished , before or after the daily meal. He did this for two reasons, firstly because grapes were few in the country where I was born, and I had scarcely ever had the chance to taste them, and secondly, out of indulgence to my weakness, for he realized that I had a great desire to eat grapes and that I could not get my fill of them. Having received his command and blessing, then, after eating a bit of bread, I ate grapes often, both before and after the meal, choosing the one which grew sparsely, that is, not close together, for these were sweeter than the others. My passion for eating grapes came to such a pitch that I wanted no other food. When I went to the meal in the hermitage, I ate very little of anything else, but I ate grapes in abundance and with great relish. Having partaken of almost no other food that whole season until the harvest, I suffered no small illness of body, and my face grew thin as if from some disease. But after the harvest, when I ceased eating grapes and partook of the usual food with the brethren, I began to feel stronger day and night; and in a short time I was restored to my previous state of health.

Paisius Velichkovsky, The Life of Paisij Velyčkovs’kyj, translated by Jeffrey Featherstone (Cambridge, Mass.: Distributed by the Harvard University Press for the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University, 1989), 82-83.

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For further reading: John A. McGuckin, “The Life and Mission of St. Paisius Velichkovsky. 1722-1794: An Early Modern Master of the Orthodox Spiritual Life,” Spiritus 9, no. 2 (2009): 157–73.

An Early Modern Monastic Baking Disaster

Over the course of the eighteenth century Orthodox monasticism and spiritual life would undergo a considerable revival, beginning in various parts of the Ottoman Empire and spread north into the borderlands along the Dniester River, regions contested between the expanding Russian and Austrian Empires and the contracting Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in addition to the maneuverings of local forces such as the Zaporozhian Cossacks and the various nobility of the Ottoman semi-autonomous principalities of Wallachia and Moldova. In time the currents of spiritual revival would make their way into Russia, contributing to the re-formation of the starets tradition in Russian monasticism and spiritual life, known to many readers in the West through Dosteovsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

One of the key figures in this spiritual revival was St. Paisius Velichkovsky (20 December 1722 – 15 November 1794). Born in what is now Ukraine, Paisius made his way as a young man to various monastic settlements in Wallachia, followed by a stay at Mount Athos, then a return north to Moldavia at the invitation of Prince Gregory III, the Ottoman-appointed ruler of the principality. The story below comes from his sojourn at the monastery and hermitage of Trǎisteni in what is now Romania. He later moved to a monastery at the northern edge of Moldavia, in the region of Bucovina, only to see the Austrians invade and annex Bucovina to their expanding empire. Due to the hostility of the Catholic Austrian polity to Orthodoxy, Paisius and many of the brothers retreated to Ottoman lands, settling at the monastery of Neamţ, where Paisius would die in 1794. Before his death, Paisius would devote much of his time to translating the now beloved spiritual classic The Philokalia into Slavonic, allowing its transmission throughout the northern Orthodox world. He also helped to introduce the practice of the Jesus Prayer to the same Slavonic lands, as part of his emphasis on reinvigorating older forms of Orthodox spirituality. In addition to these efforts, he began, though did not complete, an autobiography, which describes his travels and labors. The 17th and 18th centuries of the Ottoman world saw an explosion of travel narratives, autobiographical accounts, and personal chronicles or diaries, of which this account is no doubt an example, as well as being part of a West Eurasian-wide increase in literacy and authorship. As the excerpt below makes clear, Paisius wished to relate the mundane in addition to the sublime, and in so doing, reveals precious details of everyday life- in this case, an attempt at bread baking gone very wrong!

For more on Paisius’ life and historical legacy, see John C. McGuckin, “The Life and Mission of St. Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794): An Early Modern Master of The Orthodox Spiritual Life,” in Spiritus 9.2. (2009).

A detail from the Gospel manuscript of Luke the Cypriot (active 1583-1625), who worked in various places in the Ottoman Empire before settling in Moscow, where this Gospel was completed.
A detail from the Gospel manuscript of Luke the Cypriot (active 1583-1625), who worked in various places in the Ottoman Empire before settling in Moscow, where this Gospel was completed.

When everyone had gone off to the forest, then, to do the aforementioned work, the superior called one of the brethren who was the most experienced of all in the baking of bread and ordered him to show me the procedure for baking bread; and he ordered me to bake the bread, that it might be ready for the meal. This brother showed me in detail the procedure: pouring water into the cauldron, he showed me the pans of flour and the jug of kvass. He told me, ‘After you have heated the water, pour it into the flour in the pans and begin to knead it; then pout all the kvass from the jug into the dough and knead it all together.’

Having said this, he went off to the brethren in the forest. But wretch that I was, after his departure I heated the water and poured in the flour, completely forgetting to add the kvass. When I began to knead it, there was too little water, and too much flour. Having no experience, I did not know that it was possible to heat more water and add it, but thinking that once the brother had measured out so much water and flour it was in no wise possible to add or take away from it, I labored with great toil to knead all the flour; and the dough became so hard that it was impossible to put my fingers in it. At a loss for what to do with all the remaining flour, I cut the dough in pieces with a knife and placed it on the table. Sprinkling flour upon it, I beat it with a piece of wood and thus scarcely managed to knead in all of the flour; and placing all the dough in the pans with the greatest of difficulty, I scarcely managed to set them on the oven, so that the dough might rise more quickly in the warmth.

I waited for quite a while, and then I lit the oven so that it might be ready, but after I had burnt a great quantity of wood, the dough had still not risen. I was grieved by this, not knowing why it would not rise, but remained hard and immovable like a rock. In the afternoon one of the brethren came from the forest, not the one who had shown me how to bake the bread, but another, sent by the superior to learn whether the bread was ready or not. He asked me, ‘Why is the bread still not ready?’ Answering him with a sigh, I told him that it still had not risen. He and I then took the pans off the oven and, feeling it with his hand, found that it had been kneaded as hard as rock. Learning the reason for this, he smiled and said,’ You ignoramus! When you saw that there was too little water you ought to have added more without hesitation, or else taken away some of the flour, and thus you wold have kneaded the dough as one needs do.’ Then he asked me, ‘Did you add kvass to this dough?’ What fear and shame came upon me when I heard this! I scarcely managed to answer that I had forgotten to add the kvass. But seeing that I was terrified, and being a sensible man, he began to console me with spiritual words: ‘Do not grieve over this,’ he said, ‘for it was not from contempt, but from your inexperience in this work that you have erred.’ He heated some water and pour it upon the dough, and he and I began to knead it, adding the kvass. With great difficulty we scarcely managed to knead it somewhat, though it was impossible to knead it thoroughly on account of its great hardness.

Then, having given me instructions what to to do, he went back to the forest. I waited a rather long time, and when I thought the dough had risen somewhat, I made it into loaves and placed them on the table. After sufficient time I built up the fire in the oven, and it grew so hot that it emitted sparks. I swept these up carefully and, allowing the oven to cool a little, though not as much as was necessary, I put the bread into it, thinking that it would bake well. But because of the oven’s great heat it turned black forthwith and began to burn, and it was burnt nearly two fingerbreadths from the top and bottom. At a loss for what to do, I fell into great despair, firstly because through my ignorance I had made such a mess of things in the bakery of the holy hermitage, and secondly because the holy fathers would not find anything to eat when they came back from the forest. Taking the bread, then, completely burnt, from the oven, I awaited with fear the arrival of the brethren. And when they returned from the forest and saw what I, wretch that I was, had done in my ignorance, what great fear and shame came upon me! Not knowing what to do, I fell down at their holy feet with tears and asked forgiveness. The father superior and all the brethren, imitating Christ’s mercy, forgave me. Cutting one of the loaves, they saw that it was in no wise fit to be eaten; and they boiled corn mush (mǎmǎligǎ) and made a meal of this. No more did they bid me to bake the bread. But once having endured this, I thereafter watched diligently how the bread was baked and, with God’s assistance, I learned to do this. I describe here how I suffered because of my inexperience in this matter for the sake of the brethren who come now to our community, that they may not be frightened because of their inexperience in this or a similar obedience. For through God’s help and their own fervor they will be able to gain experience in the obediences assigned them.

Paisius Velichkovsky, The Life of Paisij Velyčkos’kjy, trans. by J.M.E. Featherstone (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1989), 70-72.