Star Spangled Banner

Sadly, there is not a whole heck of a lot of the medieval world left around.  Most of it has been lost to the ravages of time, progress and zealotry.  With regard to the latter, there are those who would maintain religion and its manifold wars have caused the greatest barbarisms in man’s history.  Centuries of religious wars certainly destroyed a lot.  But it is well to remember that the secular revolutions of the early nineteenth century destroyed about as much of our medieval heritage as all the previous religious wars.  The job was then fairly well completed by the devastating effects of the abysmal taste of the late nineteenth century “restorers.”

What remains of the great cathedrals, monasteries, and castles give us the impression of a relentlessly drab society that built for the ages out of relentlessly drab stones.  I suspect that half of our credence in the term “Dark Ages” arises from our visceral reaction to those emotionally and actually frigid, gloomy places that remain.

It’s a pity, really, because in their prime they were nothing like that.  Imagine, for a second, the front facade of some mighty cathedral like Notre Dame or Chartres.  As you stand before the great portal, you are surrounded by sculpture.  The doors are recessed into what seem like layers of stone.  Each layer is decked out with sculptures.  Above the door some edifying scene like the Last Judgement is picked out in high relief.  If you lean back to look up the facade, you will see row on row of full sized figures of apostles and saints.

Ah, but if you had done the same thing when the building was new, what a difference!

Those figures around the doorway would have been painted in brilliant colors.  The cheeks would have been bright and rosy, the garments brilliantly emblazoned.  The backgrounds might have been handsomely gilded.  Not every figure up the great facade would have been painted, but all the near ones would have been.  Even the doors themselves might have glowed with vivid touches of blue or red.

The Dark Ages were a wonderfully gaudy time.

Stepping inside, those drab walls would have been not simply plastered.  Every inch would probably have been covered (if they could afford it) with gorgeous frescoes.  Scenes from the Bible would have taught theology to the illiterate.  Other Biblical figures would have been shown giving blessing to everyday life by acting out the familiar tasks of the harvest, hearth or craft-hall.

Looking up toward the ceiling, where today we might see the austere lines of plain vaulting, back then we might have seen more frescoes.  Some would depict religious scenes (perhaps the Last Judgement again), others would show fanciful curlicues, fleurs-de-lys, or graceful wandering vines.

At the very top we might find another favorite theme.  All the spaces between the vaulting would be filled with a ground of the darkest blue-black.  This ground would be dappled with patterns of gilt stars.  The effect is to look up and see not an architectural wonder built by man, but a representation of God’s starry sky.  It was designed to elevate the soul.

Even today, should you visit Sainte-Chapelle in Paris or the Cathedral of Siena (and probably many others not defaced by later “improvements”), if you look up at the chancel roof you will see a sky spangled with stars.

Medieval castles, which today often survive mostly as tangles of partially collapsed rock walls, were often plastered over, both inside and out (the outside with cement to protect the walls from weather damage).  Many of the inside rooms, particularly the chapels and common rooms, had the walls decorated with bright frescoes.  Like the walls of the cathedrals, these could be of Biblical scenes, the harvest,  the hunt, or simple geometrical or natural patterns.

In defense of our impression of these times as being cold and dark, it must be admitted the castles often were cold and dark.  Their inhabitants complained of the cold and of ailments that sound suspiciously like rheumatism, arthritis and the like.  The personal rooms of the lords and ladies had their walls hung with tapestries or some other type of arras to try to deal with the problem.  Later on, that custom spread to the larger common rooms, causing the use of frescoes to fade from all but the chapels.

Still, frescoes were still to be found in rooms in the older castles and palaces.  In fact, the rooms were often named after this permanent decor.  The ancient Palace of Westminster in England (begun by Edward the Confessor, 1042 – 1066), began with simple decorations indeed.  It had one room was known simply as the White Room, another as the Painted Room, which gives some idea of  their idea of variety in decoration in those early days.

Added to by William the conqueror and just about every king that followed him (in between periodic fires, of course), it became a rabbit warren with sections reflecting the tastes of every era that followed.  It had achieved well over a thousand rooms (nobody knew how many) by the time it finally burned down in 1840. It was rebuilt with a nice Victorian flavor, but the loss of the original smorgasbord seems a  pity from the perspective of architectural history.

At any rate, some of its rooms from the medieval period had the plaster and bright fresco look of the period.  One, used as a meeting room by the king’s councilors, was to become notorious.  It was decorated with that same fine old medieval theme.  Known for its star-spangled ceiling, it was called the Star Chamber.  Under the Tudors, it housed a special court to deal with cases of public disorder, riot, and other cases judged beyond the means of the common courts.

Being beyond the common courts, they decided it was also beyond the Common Law.  Hence they dispensed with the annoyance of jury trials.  It was empowered to use torture and frequently did.  It had the power to impose any sentence below that of death.

Of course, that sort of arrangement offered a natural temptation to despotism and under the Stuarts that is just what it became.  In fact, it became the king’s favorite tool to suppress dissent and mutilation became one of its favorite sentences.  It also became one of the primary irritants leading to the English Civil War (and the loss of Charles I’s head).  It was abolished by the Long Parliament in 1641.

So the court is long gone and so is the building that named it.  What remains is a favorite political epithet.  Today, whenever the minority feels itself unfairly handled by the majority, someone is sure to begin muttering about “Star Chamber Justice.”

By the time 1813 rolled around, we had incorporated that fine old starry theme into our flag.  There being a war on, George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry, was moved to order a new flag that was to become the real “Star-Spangled Banner.”  And he wanted it big.  Before it became a national monument, people used to cut pieces off the original as souvenirs, so about eight feet (plus some miscellaneous chunks) are missing and it is still big.  Originally it was 30 x 42 feet.  Apparently  Armistead wanted his fort to be visible from quite a distance.

There are a number of wonderful ironies about this flag.  There being no American substitute, it was made of good English bunting despite our being at war with them.  The lady who made it, Mary Pickersgill, borrowed space at Claggett’s Brewery to lay the thing out, a fact which no doubt bothered the teetotalers.  There being no rules established about such things, Mrs. Pickersgill put the fifteen stars on with the first row having the stars pointing to the right, the second row with them pointing to the left, etc., which make them look as if their stay at Claggett’s had left them a bit drunken.

The richest irony lies in the legislative realm.  The flag looks wrong.  In a brilliant attack of bureaucratic muddle-headedness, Congress had originally specified that with each additional state added to the union we would add one star and one stripe to our flag.  Hence the Banner has fifteen stars and fifteen stripes.  Apparently realizing their error (I leave it to you to imagine our flag with fifty stripes), Congress recanted for the 1818, twenty star flag, which returned to thirteen stripes.

Actually, liquor plays several parts in the Banner story.  First, it was laid out in a brewery.  Second, a Maryland doctor, William Beanes, was so offended by two drunken British stragglers (on their way back from burning Washington, D.C.) that he arrested them.  This led to him being arrested by the British and taken aboard one of their ships.  This led, in turn, to a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key going out to the British ships in an effort to get Dr. Beanes freed.  He succeeded, but the British were busy trying to take Baltimore (via Fort McHenry) so they insisted Key stay with them until the battle was over.  That led (finally) to Key watching the nighttime bombardment of Fort McHenry and being so inspired by the sight of the banner in the morning light that he wrote a poem he called “The Defense of Fort M’Henry.”

All because of a couple of British drunks.

And finally comes what I beg to consider one of the most improbable aspects of the whole episode.  The newspapers that published Key’s poem suggested it be sung to a popular song called To Anacreon in Heaven.

Now, it does not bother me that there was a song to an obscure Grecian poet who wrote verses about wine and song.  Nor does it bother me that he had a short-lived period of fame as a sort of patron of drinking societies.  It does not even bother me that one “John Smith” (improbable though that is) was commissioned to write a melody for a poem called To Anacreon in Heaven.


What bothers me is that anyone in his right mind would come up with a song with the un-singable range of that song specifically to be sung by a bunch of drunks.  There are darned few people who can reliably hit those notes cold sober.  Somehow the idea of someone (presumably musical) planning to listen to the tortured notes that would issue from a bunch of drunks trying and failing to hit them beggars the imagination.

But then, maybe they felt differently about music back then.  Is it any more improbable that that unsingable British tune would catch on to the point that American newspapers could assume that all their readers knew it and could fit Key’s words to it?  Is it any more improbable that once having heard the painful sounds issuing from patriotic throats essaying this very bad combination that they would have done it again?  And again?

And, finally, is it any more improbable that having once been cursed by some brain fever-driven delusion that this whole experience was good, patriotic, and pleasing to the ear, that this delusion would last for over a hundred years until this musical nightmare was declared our national anthem?

To me, it is yet another sad demonstration of how human history often affronts common sense.

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