27 January 2012

Pocket Full of Posies: The Black Death in Art

There was not just one "black death," and it was not called the Black Death until the 1830s. Europeans simply knew it as the "pestilence."

It wiped out entire towns, and ended up killing around half the population of Europe. (We used to believe it killed 1/3, but the error of this number has been realized within the last decade.) The effect of such an event (or series of events) dramatically changed medieval society. True, Spanish Influenza actually killed more people; however, the main difference is that a larger portion of the population was affected in the 1340s than in 1918, and people in the 20th century had an idea of what was happening in that they were aware of "germs." In the 14th century, people fought over whether the disease(s) was caused by "bad air," wells poisoned by Jews, God's anger, one of the four horsemen, etc. These poor people must have been terrified to see their family and friends dropping swiftly around them,* with no idea as to why, or if they will be next. 

This sudden impact on population and psyche took its toll on religion, politics, social order and (lesser known) on Art.
The pestilence killed several contemporary artists, particularly in Italy. "...Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Pietro Lorenzetti died in the first out break of 1348. Later plague epidemics took the lives of Andrea del Sarto, Titian, Dosso Dossi, and the greatest Venetian genius of all time, Giorgione." [source] This alone impacted the thriving art world.

Those remaining artists altered their subject matter. Prior to this outbreak, Jesus was commonly depicted as a great King who came to save us. A golden halo usually surrounds his head, as well as the heads of the saints. 

13th century, Serbian Monestary Hilandar, Mt. Athos
After the plague, Jesus transformed into the suffering, dying Christ that we see in many European Churches. He wore a bloody crown of thorns and had a hemorrhaging, pierced side. 
Italian, mid-14th century, Met Museum Collections
The rest of the art world was not spared from the onslaught of Death. It permeated the paintings in the form of tortured people, skeletons, demons, the "danse macabre" [dance of death] and other unpleasant figures.
"Hellmouth," Simon Marmion, 1475    

Etching, ca. 1360

To these mediaeval people, it seemed no one was immune from God's wrath. Poor people died as well as those of noble blood, such as Princess Joan who died en route to marry the future King of Castille.
Royal Library of Belgium

Even the men of God were not spared. This frightened the populace for two reasons: 1) The people saw that God failed to save those supposedly most faithful to God; and 2) The religious folk at the time were also the doctors. If even the doctors couldn't save the people, and prayer failed, what could be done?
Monks with plague, late 14th century illuminated manuscript

Mattias Grunewald, Bridgeman Art Library

The fears of the people shook them to their core, and were reflected in their art (and even personal hygiene - people stopped taking baths for a few centuries, because they felt that bathing opened the pores and allowed in the bad air). For a glance at the Black Death's effect on religion, go here.

Why Are Today's Women Unhappy?

According to a recent study, women today are less happy than they were 40 years ago, and are less happy than men. 
Official Happiness Meter, courtesy of the Carebears.

This study by "economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers... indicates that across race, marriage status, economic bracket, and even country, women's subjective experience of being happy has declined both absolutely and in relation to men."

Putting aside the fact that economists decided this, and not someone who is actually trained in handling human emotion, this is sobering news.  With all our liberation and freedom, how can the happiness levels of women be less than in the 1960s?  

And what do men have to be so happy about?
Fair enough.

Religious folks will tell you that all this liberation has taken women away from our purpose in life, which is to care for the home and hearth while the man is at work.  We should have a couple of babies (more than a couple, if you're Catholic or Baptist), and work hard to raise them.  This is what Nature and God intended.  To deviate from this path is to bring about our own unhappiness.

In a New York Times editorial about this same study, the conclusion was a bit different.

"There's no necessary reason why feminists and cultural conservatives can't join forces -- in the same way that they made common cause during the pornography wars of the 1980s -- behind a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the 'fallen women' of a more patriarchal age."

He suggests that it is in fact the fault of Men that Women are so unhappy.  Think about it - men made out like bandits in this age of sexual liberation!  Want regular, socially acceptable sex?  Don't get married; just get your girlfriend to move in with you.  Bored with your 40 year old wife/mother of your children?  Trade her for two twenty-year-olds.  Knock a girl up?  Don't marry her, and don't worry about the baby's life complicating your own.  After all, the best form of birth control is not using your real name. 

Yet as much fun as it is to blame men for all female ills, I just can't agree in this instance.  Yes, there are men out there who are jerks.  To suggest that all women are less happy today because of a few bums is unfair to men.  This view is also unfair to women, as it implies that our happiness is dependent upon men (when my happiness is obviously dependent upon shoes).

Personally, I believe that our unhappiness is self-imposed. 

For the most part, American women tend to believe that they must do the following in order to be considered a complete and successful woman:

  • I HAVE to get married.
  • I HAVE to have a career.
  • I HAVE to have children.
  • I HAVE to look good while doing it (exercise, eat well, wear the right clothing, keep a nice house).

But it's more than merely what I think about myself.  If any woman is lacking in any of the aforementioned departments, then all the other hens sit in judgment. 

"Sally and her husband haven't had kids yet.  Do you think there's something wrong with her?"

"Omg, Julie has 3 little girls, and all she does is work.  What kind of mother leaves her kids at day care for someone else to raise?"

"Honey, you're almost 35 and you're still not married.  Are you at least seeing anyone? There's this nice man from church that I want you to meet..."

Supposedly, modern females in this country have "choices."  However, I noticed we tend to place limitations and expectations on each other without any help from men.  I can't tell you how many times I've been told how selfish I am because I don't want kids, or how I'll "change my mind in time."  I thought Woman's Rights and the Pill allowed me to have reproductive freedom.  
I guess not. 

What about women who actually want to be housewives? Some women are perfectly happy to care for the home and for their children while their husband works.  "Progressives" will say that those women live under a misogynistic husband, have been socialized to think this is their correct path, and are too weak to stand up for themselves. 

"Choice" to some feminists means "Choice as long as you do what I think you should do."  

Women are judged by other women for having children and keeping the career, for not having a career and staying home, for not having children.... the list goes on.

This is why we're unhappy.  It is our own fault.