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Subject: ‘Sinners’

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Savonarola – the Dominican friar who suffered an ordeal by fire

Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, Sinners on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about Savonarola first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Savonarola at the stake,  picture, image, illustration
Savonarola, about to be burned in 1498 by Tancredi Scarpelli

The crowd of several thousands hurrying towards the Piazza della Signoria in Florence were buzzing with excitement. They had been waiting for weeks for this spectacle and they jostled and shoved to be there first, to get the best vantage points.

For in the Piazza della Signoria that day two priests had volunteered to burn themselves alive in an ordeal by fire.

In the piazza workmen had built two banks of inflammable material, 40 yards in length with a narrow space between them, in front of the palace of the ruler of the city state. Five hundred soldiers formed a wide circle to keep back the jostling crowd. Thus was the scene set for one of history’s most curious “trials.”

At the appointed hour the two priests – one a Dominican, the other a Franciscan – flanked by their supporters, came out into the open guarded circle. The crowd hushed expectantly as they took their places before the two great unlit pyres.

The ordeal by fire was to be the climax of the amazing career of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar whose preaching had shaken the complaisant people of Florence to their roots. That day, the Florentines hoped, God would judge by fire whether Savonarola was a saint, which was how half of them saw him, or a fool, the view of the other half.

Ever since the puritanical priest had arrived in their city, no one had been spared from the lash of his tongue. “Florentines!” thundered Savonarola from his pulpit in St. Mark’s. “You have lapsed into paganism and you will surely perish for it in the fires of hell, unless you repent at once!”

Then he had switched his attack to the city’s feared ruler, the all-powerful Lorenzo de’Medici, until Lorenzo’s smile tightened on his lips and his hand began to shake with anger. Next the Pope himself was denounced, until the Holy Father’s patience broke into vengeful wrath and he ordered the noisy Dominican friar to be excommunicated.

On one thing all the bemused Florentines were agreed: there had been nothing like Father Savonarola since the Old Testament.

The wisest of them had plenty of sympathy for the Dominican friar’s viewpoint. Sixteenth century Florence might be the centre of that brilliant explosion of art and culture that was later defined as the Renaissance, but in spiritual matters it had gone sadly adrift and its morality could rightly be described as depraved.

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Charity Covereth a Multitude of Sins

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Philanthropy, Sinners on Thursday, 10 October 2013

Charity and sin, picture, image, illustration
Charity Covereth a Multitude of Sins by Thomas Rowlandson

Charitable deeds have long been subject to the cynicism of social commentators whose view of humanity is a good deal less than charitable. The difference between altruism and conscience-salving is very great, and the most common motive for giving among the middle classes was that a good deed would cancel out a bad one, at least in the eyes of the Almighty. The British taste for exposing such hypocrisy has been shared by many fine artists and cartoonists, but Thomas Rowlandson is pre-eminent among them as the master of the caricature, drawing cruel depictions of man’s moral frailties. In this picture the young naval officer throws a coin in the one-legged beggar’s hat before entering a house of ill repute in Cleveland Row, north of London’s Oxford Street, where prostitution and ‘Man traps’ were rife.

Many more pictures relating to charity can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Acknowledging fault and making amends used to require sack-cloth and ashes

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Tuesday, 3 September 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 392 published on 19 July 1969.

Mordecai, picture, image, illustration
Mordecai wearing sack-cloth with ashes cries out bitterly among his threatened people, the Jews

We aren’t happy when we have made a mistake, and if we dislike admitting it to ourselves, we dislike admitting it to others even more.

Sometimes, however, we may be able to make things easier by a phrase which may bring a faint smile to the face of the person we have to confess to. “I really am sorry,” we may say. “It was a stupid thing to do. Here I am in sack-cloth and ashes.”

This is an odd thing to say, and it would be an even odder sight if it were literally true! What we mean, of course, is that we are pretending to have dressed ourselves in the clothing which represented a penitent person in Biblical times.

There are several references to this custom in the Bible. Sometimes sackcloth was used to mark a great misfortune, as when a decree was issued by a certain Persian King ordering a great persecution of the Jews. One of their leaders, Mordecai, “rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and bitter cry.” (Esther, Chapter 4 verse 1).

But the custom was usually a way of expressing deep sorrow for something that had displeased God. When Jonah preached to the people in the wicked city of Nineveh, we are told that the people there “put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them,” and that even the King removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes (Jonah, Chapter 3, verses 5 and 6).

A famous instance of a King wearing sackcloth as a mark of his own repentance is that of the wicked King Ahab. With the help of his evil wife, Jezebel, Ahab had arranged for an innocent man named Naboth to be stoned to death on a false charge. This had been contrived so that the King could seize a little vineyard which Naboth had owned, next door to the palace grounds. Ahab badly wanted this vineyard for himself, to turn into a herb garden.

The prophet Elijah learned of the cruel plot by which Naboth had been got out of the way, and, confronting the King boldly, warned him that a terrible fate would overtake not only Ahab and Jezebel but their whole household, in punishment for their crime. Frightened by the prophet’s words, Ahab “rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth,” and went about dejectedly (1 Kings 21, verse 27).

In their writings, the prophets often advised their hearers to “gird themselves with sackcloth” as a mark of sorrow for their sins. And Jesus himself used the words. Rebuking the people of certain villages, he said, “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

In view of the widespread use of this phrase, it is not surprising that it has passed into our everyday speech as an expression of regret and a desire to make amends.

“Pride goes before a fall” is a Biblical proverb for the rich and powerful

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Wednesday, 28 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 386 published on 7 June 1969.

Pharisee and publican, picture, image, illustration
The Pharisee is proud and boastful in prayer while the Publican, or tax collector, is humble and self-deprecating

Perhaps there is a story in the morning paper about someone who has boasted of some success. This boasting has led to enquiries which show that the person in question has achieved that by dishonest means. He is convicted and sent to prison, and on reading his story we may remark, “Pride goes before a fall.”

However apt the words may seem for such a situation, they are not an actual quotation. Look up the Book of Proverbs in the Bible (chapter 16, verse 18) and you will find these words:

“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

You may say that the meaning is just the same, and you will be right. The way of emphasising anything in the Hebrew language, in which these proverbs were originally written, was to say it twice, the second sentence repeating the sense of the first in a slightly different way. This gave stronger force to the original sentence, even though it did not say anything new, and was one of the ways in which Hebrew poetry was composed. You will find many examples in the Bible, notably in the Psalms, such as the opening verse of Psalm 19:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.” The same pattern of repetition is found in the Book of Proverbs from which this saying is taken, but which for convenience has been shortened by popular English usage to “Pride goes before a fall.”

In the Middle Ages, Pride was listed as the first of the “seven deadly sins” and it has always been looked on as the worst of human failings.

One of the most famous stories told by Jesus was about a man whose pride blinded him to his own shortcomings.

According to this story, two men went into the temple one day to pray. One was wealthy, influential and educated; the other was a tax-gatherer, which in those days was a despised occupation, followed only by the least reputable members of the community.

The wealthy man, who was very pleased with himself, began his prayers by saying how generous he was, and how carefully he was keeping all the rules and regulations of his religion. He even thanked God for having made him so different from other people, and especially for making him different from men like the tax-gatherer.

The tax-gatherer prayed quite differently. Feeling very humble in the house of God, he stood there with his head bowed, and simply said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus said that, of the two men, it was the tax-gatherer’s prayer which pleased God, thus bearing out the truth of the old proverb about pride and a haughty spirit.

St Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ is as metaphorical as his shipwreck

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Tuesday, 27 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 383 published on 17 May 1969.

St Paul is shipwrecked, picture, image, illustration
St Paul and the Roman centurion, Julius, after their ship is famously wrecked, by Clive Uptton

Occasionally, you may hear someone refer to another person as “a thorn in the flesh.” There is no doubt as to what the speaker means by this unusual expression, for the comparison between an irritating person and a sharp thorn or splinter is an obvious one. But few of the people who use this saying realise how old it is, and that behind it there lies something of a mystery.

The phrase comes from the Bible, and you will find it in St. Paul’s second Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 7, which reads: “. . . there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.”

Whatever St. Paul meant by the words, he did not mean that he had a splinter in his finger or anything like that. He used the words as a means of illustrating the continual pain and irritation which he suffered as a result of some distressing complaint.

In his writings, St. Paul mentions the suffering which this complaint caused him, but he gives no clue as to the nature of it. Perhaps his readers already knew. Or perhaps St. Paul did not want to remind himself of the details of his handicap or infirmity, which seems to have been as embarrassing and humiliating to him as it was undoubtedly painful.

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Animal cruelty in Biblical times gave us the first scapegoat

Posted in Animals, Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Wednesday, 21 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 378 published on 12 April 1969.

Aaron and the Scapegoat, picture, image, illustration
The goat was driven out into the wilderness to perish from hunger and thirs

To be made a “Scapegoat” is both unpleasant and unfair. It can sometimes happen when people are involved in making a disturbance. Driven to desperation, the authorities may pick on one person who is then punished very severely for what others have also been doing. We say that the one so punished has been made “the scapegoat” for all the rest.

The word itself, a very old one, is really short for “escape goat,” but the idea it expresses is much older than the English language, into which it came when a Hebrew word from the Old Testament was first translated in this way.

The story of “the scapegoat” is found in the third Book of the Bible, Leviticus, which means “the Law of the Levites.” The Levites were a tribe especially appointed to carry out certain religious duties for the ancient Hebrews.

In Chapter 6 of this Book we read that Aaron, the brother of Moses, devised a ceremony by which he could, in the name of God Himself, show to the Hebrew tribes that they had been set free from all their sins. After offering various prayers and sacrifices which were intended to lift the burden of their sins from all the Hebrew tribes, Aaron laid his hands solemnly upon the head of a goat which had been chosen for this purpose. The idea behind this was that all the Hebrews’ wickedness and guilt was thus transferred to the goat. The goat was then driven out into the wilderness, to perish alone there from hunger and thirst.

To us, this seems a very cruel thing to do to a harmless animal, but the Hebrews believed that the sufferings of the unfortunate “scapegoat” were fully justified by the fact that it carried all their sins away, and “lost” them in the wilderness.

When we use the word “scapegoat” for someone who is made to take the blame, we are recalling a nation’s need to get rid of its sense of failure before God, and the strange way devised for doing this nearly thirty centuries ago.

The Penny Hedge festival in Whitby takes place on Ascension Eve

Posted in Anniversary, Customs, Religion, Sinners on Thursday, 18 July 2013

This edited article about English festivals originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 340 published on 20 July 1968.

Whitby Abbey, picture, image, illustration
The sands beneath Whitby Abbey by A F Lydon

The three noble huntsmen had not had a very good day. But now, at last, their hounds had flushed out a wild boar on Eskdaleside, near Whitby.

The wounded animal, hotly pursued by the hounds, fled through the open door of Eskdaleside chapel, where a monk from Whitby Abbey was at his devotions. The kindly cleric, taking pity on the wounded creature, closed the chapel door to keep out the hunters. They, in their anger at being denied their prize, set upon the monk with their boar-staves and mortally wounded him.

The monk, on the point of death, sent for the Abbot of Whitby, who wanted to make the noblemen pay for their crime with their lives. The monk, however, forgave them, and promised that they would be spared provided they promised to observe a penance “for the safeguard of their souls”. As long as the penance was observed, the noblemen and their successors could continue to hold their lands. Refusal to observe it would mean forfeiting them.

The penance required the offenders, at sunrise on every Ascension Eve, to go to a local wood, where they would be met by an officer of the Abbot of Whitby (he would blow his horn so that he could be easily found). The officer would give each man a certain number of stakes, which had to be cut with “a knife of a penny price.” The noblemen had to carry these stakes, plus other wood, on their backs to the town of Whitby, and be there by 9 a.m.

They then had to build a stout fence of stakes and interlaced boughs on the beach. Each stake had to be exactly one yard from its neighbours, and each fence so constructed as to be capable of withstanding three tides “without removing by the force of the water”. They had to be erected in “several places”, and as they were building them, the noblemen were required to remember their cruel deed, offer repentance and resolve to do “good works” in future. Just to make sure they observed the penance, the officer of Eskdaleside attended the noblemen during their duties and at intervals blew his horn, proclaimed their crime and cried out, “Out on ye! Out on ye!”

This unusual ceremony is still observed today much as it was in the year 1159, except that the details of the crime are no longer announced, and the participants own the land which formerly belonged to the Abbot of Whitby.

The ancient horn is blown by the Bailiff to the Lady of the Manor, and his voice can be heard echoing across Whitby sands as he cries out the ancient chastisement: “Out on ye! Out on ye!”

The popular term ‘penny hedge’ is really a corruption of ‘penance hedge’.

An imaginative religious zealot wrote ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Religion, Sinners on Saturday, 16 February 2013

This edited article about John Bunyan originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 136 published on 22 August 1964.

Christian slays Apollyon, picture, image, illustration

Bunyan’s hero Christian slays the dragon Apollyon by John Millar Watt

A bright-eyed young man in a long cloth smock was often to be seen walking with head bent low along the lanes between Bedford and the nearby village of Elstow in the England ruled by Oliver Cromwell.

His head was usually bent because the mind of John Bunyan – that was his name – was in a state of torment and disorder. For Bunyan, who had fought on Cromwell’s side during the Civil War, had become a religious zealot.

Walking along the lanes he would say to himself: “If I have not faith I am lost; if I have faith I can work miracles.” To try to prove the point he would cry to the puddles: “Be ye dry!” and stake his eternal hopes on them drying up.

Then he would gloomily fall to wondering why the puddles always stayed so full and wet.

Dreams troubled Bunyan, too – dreams that his life was not pious enough, that his sins were such that he would never go to Heaven. In his dreams fiends tried to fly away with him, and these dark thoughts often filled his waking hours with fits of remorse and despair.

Bunyan’s religious zeal was undoubtedly heightened by the fact that the years of his boyhood were those in which the Puritan spirit was at its highest peak all over England, and nowhere had that spirit more influence than in Bedfordshire, the county where, in 1628, he was born.

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William Brodie lived a double life which inspired Jekyll and Hyde

Posted in English Literature, Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Scotland, Sinners on Wednesday, 13 February 2013

This edited article about William Brodie originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 132 published on 25 July 1964.

William Brodie's gang, picture, image, illustration

William Brodie was a local Edinburgh councillor byday and thief in disguise by night

The young ladies in the drawing-room could not stop talking about the handsome and prosperous bachelor who was coming to tea.

“What a wonderful husband he would make,” they said to each other. “He’s bound to marry soon. I wonder which one of us it will be?”

“Quiet!” said the girl keeping lookout at the window. “He’s knocking at the front door now. He’s dressed all in white – just like a saint.”

And saintly was just how William Brodie appeared to the wealthy merchants he mixed with in Edinburgh society. A bachelor of temperate habits, a city councillor, a skilful cabinet-maker and carpenter, he seemed faultless. The only thing held against him was his shyness and modesty that made him a difficult person to really know.

“He’s certainly polite and charming,” the girls of Edinburgh would say to their mothers. “But he seems a little too perfect. It is as if he is trying to hide something from us.”

They little guessed then that William Brodie was hiding plenty from them. Just what it was emerged in 1788 when Brodie – then forty-eight and still unmarried – was tried and executed at Tolbooth Prison as the leader of a gang of vicious underworld burglars who had long terrorized the city.

After Brodie’s death, stories of his infamy became legend in Edinburgh. Seventy years later, eight-year-old Robert Louis Stevenson listened spellbound to the tales of Brodie’s fantastic exploits. So fascinated was young Robert that he begged his nanny to take him to the Old Town, where he could see for himself the inns and alleys where the carpenter had led his dangerous double life.

At fourteen, Stevenson wrote a crude play about Brodie. He revised it when he was twenty-five and had it staged, with little success, in London and New York. But it was not until he was thirty-six that Stevenson used Brodie as the model for his famous story of the good and evil residing in one man, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

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C18 London’s master criminal, Jonathan Wild

Posted in English Literature, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Law, London, Sinners on Wednesday, 16 January 2013

This edited article about Jonathan Wild originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 105 published on 18 January 1964.

Jonathan Wild, picture, image, illustration

A step on the stair, a knock at the door – and Wild springs up, ready for the watchman or a dissatisfied customer, by C L Doughty

The eighteenth-century writer Henry Fielding, who is enjoying a posthumous revival through the recent filming of his 200-year-old novel Tom Jones, once said: “A man may be great without being good, or good without being great.”

Then, to emphasize “the greatness which is totally devoid of goodness” Fielding set down a satirical account of the life of a man named Jonathan Wild, who lived 70 years before him.

For sheer and absolute villainy it is doubtful whether any criminal in history excelled Jonathan Wild. He never killed a man, yet he was responsible for the deaths of between 50 and 100 men. He never concerned himself directly with robbery – yet he blackmailed, cheated, received stolen goods, and played confidence tricks. For Wild was the “brains” of his criminal army – the organizer, director and dictator.

Jonathan Wild was born in 1682. In his lifetime he was to prove almost as great a plague on his country as the famous one that raged in London previous to his birth.

Fielding says of him that he was descended from a long line of great men. Whoever they were, Wild certainly inherited intelligence from somewhere. At school he showed all the promise that was to mark his career; if an orchard was to be robbed Wild was the boy who was consulted.

Wild, however, would take no part in the robbery; he would plan it, certainly, he would be the treasurer of the spoils and he would direct the share-out. And if any boy complained about his share Wild would make sure that the malcontent was the first to receive six of the best from the headmaster for his part in the affair.

Wild came to London from Essex when he was seventeen, and in less time than it takes to tell he was in prison.

There he learned fast, about the way the law was administered in seventeenth-century London and about the poor means of its enforcement. It seemed to him, on his release, that all sorts of methods were open for a clever criminal to make a fortune.

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