Ninety-Five Theses, The Last Judgement, The Spanish Flu, Reuben James, and Halloween

31 October has been a very auspicious day for many things. When Davey patented the miner’s safety lamp on this day in 1815, and Dunlop patented the pneumatic bicycle tire on this day in 1888 those were the beginnings of great things.  So was the completion of the first coast to coast paved highway in America, the Lincoln Highway, in 1913.  And, LBJ ordered the bombing of North Vietnam halted on 31 October 1968, more to help Hubert Humphrey beat Richard Nixon in the upcoming election than to help the Vietnamese.  But that didn’t help his vice-president, and Nixon won anyway.  But many auspicious other things happened on 31 October.

By the beginning of the 16th Century, the European world was divided into two realms: The Church and Everyone Else.  The Church held sway over most civil matters, and everyone else could do whatever it was that they wanted to do that the Church told them they could do.  A large source of revenue for Rome was the sale of indulgences.  These were pieces of paper run out on that new printing press gadget which, blessed by the Holy See,  were intended to reduce a sinner’s punishment after death.  Great if one could afford it, but very few could.  This was an age when most people wouldn’t see more than a handful of copper coins in a lifetime, and the Church was charging sacks of gold for them.  Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins. There were other issues as well, notably the foundation of the merits of saints, that he included in an academic argument called the Ninety-Five Theses that he sent to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz (his earthly boss), on 31 October 1517. This began what is now called the Protestant Reformation, which was the beginning of the end of the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in temporal matters.

Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins.

While the sale of indulgences was lucrative, it enabled the Church to be a great patron of the arts.  Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.  Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, but the work was unfinished until the Last Judgement was finished a quarter century later, on 31 October 1541 on a commission  from Paul III. As High Renaissance art goes the Sistine gets no higher, and for an artist who preferred sculpture the work is all the more remarkable.  The Last Judgement depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the judgement of all of humanity, as was then current Church doctrine. A figurative end of the world, if nothing else.

Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.

But it was much later, on the other side of the world, that leading scholars were calculating the end of humanity   By 31 October 1918, the Great Influenza, the “Spanish Flu,” had killed at least 21,000 people in the United States alone—that month alone, and most in the last half.  Worldwide deaths numbered in the millions.  Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems. There were clinicians who were calculating that, at the rate the disease was killing its victims, humanity would become extinct within four to six months.  The wave receded at the end of November, only to flare again at the end of 1919, and again in 1922.  One in four humans on Earth were affected either directly or indirectly.  Unofficial death tolls today are at about one hundred million. This exceeds the death toll from all causes in WWI, even by the most pessimistic scholars, by a factor of five.

Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems.

And it wasn’t much after that, humanity having survived the flu, that the United States inched closer to war once again. By 1941, the US Navy was performing “neutrality patrols” over half the Atlantic Ocean.  USS Reuben James (DD-245), a Clemson class four-stack destroyer commissioned in 1920 that was a part of Patrol Three out of Iceland, was escorting eastbound convoy HX 156 out of Halifax on the morning of 31 October 1941 when she was struck by a torpedo from U-552 that was meant for an ammunition ship in the convoy. A forward magazine exploded on Reuben James, blowing her bow off.  The rest of the ship managed to survive another five minutes before it sank, claiming all but 44 enlisted men. The issue with Reuben James was less that the United States was not yet at war or the loss of over a hundred men, but that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, arguably providing material assistance to a belligerent in violation not only of international conventions but also of US law.  While the press reported the sinking, President Roosevelt didn’t make much of an issue of it as he might have, given the legal ambiguities of the “Neutrality Patrol.”

The issue with Reuben James was that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, providing assistance to a belligerent in violation  of US law.  

Today also marks the “holiday” of Halloween, that day when people of all ages dress up in costumes and disguises from the sublime to the ridiculous, the crude to the superb, to indulge themselves in merriment, garage-burning (especially in Detroit), candy-begging, and other things that, at any other time, would be viewed as either criminal or just plain nuts. While your intrepid researcher did indulge in the past, it has been some years since he felt compelled to take part personally in the “festivities,” other than to put up some decorations (discontinued some years ago) and hand out candy (discontinued this year).  While OK for many, this correspondent is done with it. While the roots of Halloween are unclear, it is the eve of the All Hallows Day observance in the liturgical year for remembering the dead. Of late the harmless holiday has been associated with paganism, Satan-worship, and other tortured non-connections.  And on some college campuses, costumes must be pre-approved by committees of oh-so-sensitive persons who need to make certain that no one is offended, and no cultures are appropriated, and no one is demeaned–essentially that no one enjoys themselves.  At last report, there were very few costumes (other than perhaps simple sheets that could be construed as KKK garb and thus even they were being nixed) that were being approved.

Leave it to academics to suck the joy out of everything.

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