The Double Life of the Respectable Edinburgh Citizen Deacon Brodie – The Inspiration for Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Deacon Brodie’s double life in Edinburgh arguably inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write his famous spine-tingling novella about the respectable Dr Jekyll who transforms into the deformed Mr Hyde.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, first published in 1886, has had a noticeable impact on our popular culture. The story’s continued popularity is due to its representation of a man with a split personality. Significantly, the phrase Jekyll and Hyde is often employed to refer to a person who is thought to have a dual nature (i.e. a good side and a bad or an evil side).

In the novella the dry London lawyer Mr Utterson investigates the last will of his old friend Dr Henry Jekyll, a reputable gentleman who appears to adhere to the moral virtues of the Victorian society. As it turns out, through a drug, he transforms into the opposite of the respectable doctor – the physically deformed and morally degenerated Mr Edward Hyde.

The inspiration for Stevenson’s Jekyll-and-Hyde story seems to be the criminal life of Deacon William Brodie. But, first of all, Edinburgh, the city where Brodie lived, deserves a closer look.

Scotland’s Capital Edinburgh – A City with a Dual Character

Although Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is set in London, it draws a lot on Edinburgh’s topography. Scotland’s capital was Stevenson’s home city. Like the novella’s protagonist (or antagonist), Edinburgh possesses a dual character. Broadly speaking, the city’s Old Town with the Royal Mile – a succession of medieval streets – in its heart contrasts with (or, more precisely, has differed from) the Georgian New Town, whose characteristics include straight-lined streets and large open spaces.

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The Royal Mile at night

Towards the end of the 19th century, the writer of the play The Melting Pot Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), a London-born Jew, also became aware of the duplicity of Edinburgh’s environment. Judging from his depiction of the sunless courts, some areas of the Athens of the North, one of Edinburgh’s nicknames, gave the impression of constituting a breeding-ground of both crime and evil.

Edinburgh’s dual character fits in with Stevenson’s portrayal of the split personalities of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Appropriately enough, many sources claim that the creation of the novella’s protagonist (or antagonist) was inspired by the double life of Deacon Brodie.

The Real-Life Dr Jekyll – The Criminal Career of Deacon William Brodie

The story of the infamous Deacon brings us to Edinburgh in the second half of the 18th century. During this time Edinburgh was the scene of a series of robberies in which valuable goods and objects disappeared out of several buildings as if by magic. Behind these criminal activities was Deacon Brodie. This man can legitimately qualify as the real-life Dr Jekyll, even though he wasn’t a medical doctor and, needless to mention, didn’t turn into a physically deformed creature like Mr Hyde.

William Brodie (1741-1788) pretended to be a law-abiding citizen. He was a member of Edinburgh’s Town Council and a cabinet-maker. Among his customers were a lot of the richest people in Edinburgh society. Moreover, the respectable Edinburgh citizen Brodie served as the Deacon or head of the Incorporation of Wrights (i.e. skilled woodworkers).

However, his life was also filled with vices such as a gambling habit. In this connection, he had a reputation of cheating by using loaded dice. Besides, Deacon Brodie fathered five children with two mistresses.

Brodie’s extravagant lifestyle or second life eventually required an extra-curricular activity. Consequently, he decided in favour of a criminal career as a daring burglar. By day, the devious Deacon tried to maintain the image of an upright citizen, keeping the dark side of his character hidden from his customers and the public. Then, by night, he became a thief who devised a cunning plan to break into several houses and premises.

Undoubtedly, his profession as a cabinet-maker helped him to be a successful housebreaker. Since he worked in his rich customers‘ houses, Deacon Brodie duplicated their door-keys through wax impressions. Later he even recruited a gang of burglars that consisted of George Smith, a locksmith, John Brown, a thief and Andrew Ainslie, a shoemaker. Nevertheless, their crimes and Brodies’s secret life were ultimately uncovered.

The End and Unmasking of the Double Life of the Devious Deacon

The unmasking of the double life of the real-life Dr Jekyll began in 1788, when Deacon Brodie and his accomplices planned to rob the General Excise Office for Scotland, then in Chessels Court on the Canongate (i.e. a street / section of the Royal Mile) on 5 March. Prior to the robbery, Brodie, amongst other things, had visited the office and memorised the building’s layout. 

Despite his plan, the armed robbery was a disastrous failure. In the end, Brodie and his accomplices managed to steal only £16. Subsequently, one of his accomplices betrayed the gang for a reward. While the other gang members were arrested, the devious Deacon successfully escaped to the continent. 

Yet, this was the beginning of his end. Before he was about to flee to America, he was captured and brought back to Edinburgh where he was tried and sentenced to death. On 1 October 1788 he was publicly executed close to St Giles‘ Cathedral and buried in an unmarked grave. 

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The Mercat Cross and St Giles‘ Cathedral 

According to many sources as well as popular myths, he had himself constructed the wooden gallows on which he was hanged. After his death other wild rumours, legends and tales circulated. One of them stated that he attempted to fake his own death by wearing a steel collar to prevent the hangman’s noose from being fatal. He was even said to have been seen alive in Paris afterwards.

Interestingly, the novella’s final chapter ‚Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case‘ ends with the following words:

„Will Hyde die upon the scaffold? or will he find the courage to release himself at the last moment? God knows; I am careless; this is my true hour of death, and what is to follow concerns another than myself. Here, then, as I lay down the pen, and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.“                  

The statement at the end of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde reveals Dr Jekyll’s disappearance and why in a previous chapter Mr Utterson (together with Jekyll’s butler Poole) discovers Mr Hyde’s body in the doctor’s cabinet. Jekyll’s other self, Mr Hyde, commits suicide, killing Dr Jekyll at the same time.

By contrast, Deacon William Brodie didn’t kill himself. Furthermore, the physical transformation of the protagonist / antagonist is, of course, fantastical. Notwithstanding these and other aspects, the devious Deacon is arguably the two-faced model for Stevenson’s main character, who has a divided self. Fittingly, Dr Jekyll realises that „(m)an is not truly one, but truly two“. Accordingly, he just creates the means to finally make the division between his two selves concrete.

With regard to his famous novella, Robert Louis Stevenson might have been also influenced, apart from Deacon Brodie, by other Edinburgh citizens or residents. Possible candidates are the serial killers Burke and Hare as well as Major Thomas Weir, a strict Covenanting soldier who later confessed to be a vicious occultist and to have had an incestuous relationship with his sister. Similar to Brodie, they lived a secret or double life in Edinburgh, a city with a dual character, as pointed out above.

Locations and Objects Associated with Deacon Brodie in Today’s Edinburgh

Today, the devious Deacon is commemorated by a few locations in Edinburgh’s Old Town.  For example, in the vicinity of St Giles‘ Cathedral on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile visitors find the well-known Deacon Brodie’s Tavern. In short distance from this pub, there are Brodie’s Close and the Deacon’s House Cafe. These locations used to contain Brodie’s residence and his workshop. 

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Another significant object is exhibited in the Writers‘ Museum, which can be reached from the Royal Mile through Lady Stair’s Close. This museum dedicates itself to the life and work of three renowned Scottish writers – Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Stevenson. It is noteworthy that in one of the rooms visitors can see a wardrobe that was, in fact, made by the infamous Deacon and was owned by Stevenson.  

Despite his plans, the armed robbery was, in fact, a disastrous failure. In the end, Deacon Brodie’s and his accomplices managed to steal only 

Sources:

Brennan, Matthew C. The Gothic Psyche: Disintegration and Growth in Nineteenth-Century English Literature. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997. 

Daiches, David. Edinburgh. London: Hamilton, 1978.

Daiches, David. „Stevenson and Scotland.“ Stevenson and Victorian Scotland. Ed. Jenni Calder. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981. 11-32. 

Mighall, Robert. Introduction. The Picture of Dorian Gray. By Oscar Wilde. New York (et al.): Pinguin Classics, 2000. ix-xxxiv. 

Royal, Trevor. „The Literary Background to Stevenson’s Edinburgh.“ Stevenson and Victorian Scotland. Ed. Jenni Calder. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981. 48-61. 

Sager, Peter. Schottland. 2nd ed. Berlin: Insel Verlag, 2015.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 (1886). 

Turnball, Michael T.R.B. Curious Edinburgh. 2005. Reprint, Stroud: The History Press, 2010.  

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Dinner for One on New Year’s Eve – A Little Example of the Difference between German and English Humour

The same procedure as every year. When it comes to the broadcast of Dinner for One, this slogan applies to German television on New Year’s Eve. On the last day of the year Dinner for One has been annually screened by German public broadcasters. Many Germans even regard this comedy sketch as the epitome of English humour. Yes, really! I’m not kidding.

Although it is the most repeated British comedy sketch in history, most Britons have never watched it and have been unaware of its popularity in Germany and other countries. A few weeks ago, I remarked on Twitter that I was surprised by this fact since Dinner for One has attained cult status. Later, an Englishman – who I follow on Twitter – responded. According to him, the fact that it is immensely popular in Germany confirms all his prejudices about the German sense of humour – namely that it is unsubtle and contains lots of slapstick.

It hurts me to say it. But he’s partly right, at least as far as German entertainment nowadays is concerned. As the German academic Hans-Dieter Gelfert points out, Britons tend to like bottom-up, disrespectful and dark humour which is also characterized by puns, self-irony and understatement. By contrast, with regard to humour, Germans tend to prefer overstatement, moralization and entertainment without tension. That’s why, we Germans love Dinner for One.

 

Albion’s Seed of Liberty in America – The Basic Personal Rights of Englishmen and Freedom from Arbitrary Power

English concepts of natural rights popularised the idea of personal liberty and freedom from governmental power in U.S. America.

Individual liberty represents one of the defining precepts of Western civilisation. We primarily associate this principle with a concept the Russian-British philosopher Sir Isiah Berlin (1909-1997) calls negative liberty or freedom from coercion. Accordingly, the individual human being should be as free as possible from constraint, outside interferences or coercive state interventions. Berlin’s notion of positive liberty, on the contrary, amounts to freedom to self-realisation / self-determination (i.e. to be in control of oneself or to rule oneself).   

The idea of personal liberty, however, is not equally valued everywhere across the globe today. Various countries or their authorities highly restrict individual freedom in addition to violating basic individual human rights. By contrast, Western countries grant these human rights, even though several governmental agencies and / or organisations there also regulate, for example, economic activities and freedom of speech.

For many people, such regulations pose serious threats to liberty in general. Especially a lot of U.S. Americans regard the concept of (individual) liberty as sacred. This attitude has historical reasons which can be traced back to colonial societies in British America during the 17th and 18th centuries and the U.S.A.’s founding in the latter part of the 18th-century.

In this context, we need to focus on the English / British impact on its (former) North American colonies or, with reference to the title of a book by the historian David Hackett Fisher, on Albion’s seed of liberty in America. We will start with Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) because it gives an overview of the basic personal rights in English law.   

The Englishman’s (Natural) Rights to Life, Liberty and Property

Blackstone (1723-1780) was a seventeenth-century English legal scholar and a practicing lawyer. His Commentaries – which consisted of four books – was among the most well-known works in 18th-century British North America, as one of America’s founding fathers, James Madison (1751-1836), indicated by remarking that the Commentaries was „in every man’s hand“. The first chapter of this work Of the Absolute Rights of Individuals contains notable aspects concerning the rights of Englishmen.   

Alongside other features, Blackstone presented basic individual liberties or the rights of the people of England in three major categories. These are the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty as well as the right of private property. While the right of personal security guarantees protection for a person’s life, physical integrity, health and reputation, the right of personal liberty ensures a person’s freedom of movement and an individual’s freedom from unlawful imprisonment. Furthermore, the right of private property, in principle, allows for the free use and disposition of one’s own property.

Blackstone basically defined what summarizing analyses of his Commentaries called – with the help of his own words – „[t]he absolute rights or civil liberties of Englishmen“. Nevertheless, he did not mention anything unfamiliar to British Americans. As early as the 17thcentury, the liberties of Englishmen had been guaranteed in several charters across the American colonies.   

Similar ideas had also been stated by the famous English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) in his Two Treatises of Government (1689):

„Man being born…with a title to perfect freedom…hath by nature a power…to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men…“

We usually sum up Locke’s natural rights in the often-quoted slogan life, liberty and property.

Appropriately enough, Locke’s Two Treatises provided philosophical inspirations for the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). Although the famous document’s principal author, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), altered the phrase „life, liberty, and property“ to „life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness“, the changed phrase did not exclude the idea of the security of private property since property was synonymous with liberty for many 18th-century Britons and Americans. 

A Source of Liberty – The Vital Importance of the Security of Property  

Liberty required the security of property to exist, while, at the same time, liberty was a necessity for personal property to be secure. Consequently, the survival and enjoyment of liberty depended on the security of property.

Besides the mutual interdependence of liberty and the security of property, what is noteworthy is that in 18th-century English political thought liberty was interconnected with security in general. Of course, the protection of property was vitally important.

But the concept of security also included the protection of the person. Locke, for instance, in his Two Treatises saw the state’s primary purpose as protecting persons, their property and property rights. Interestingly enough, his use of the term property not only encompasses material possessions, estate and land but also an individual person and his/her labour.      

Like today, private property and / or material goods in the 18th-century constituted a means of survival as well as a standard of well-being. However, it was more viewed as a source of liberty, rather than a kind of capital resource for economic development. We can infer from this that the concept of property then carried a certain immaterial value or ideal and was, thus, not only restricted to the physical or material.

For numerous 18th-century Britons and Americans, property as a source of liberty opened the door to independence from arbitrary power. Such a power was not necessarily abuse of authority. Instead, it epitomized power without restraint and could appear in any form of government – whether democratic, parliamentarian, republican, monarchical or oligarchical.   

Freedom from Arbitrary Government

With respect to the prevailing idea of liberty in 18th-century Anglo-American thought, liberty epitomized a defense against arbitrary governmental power, which was conceived of as liberty’s antithesis. Because the 18th-century notion of liberty entailed freedom from arbitrary government, from today’s perspective, it tends to correspond to Berlin’s concept of negative liberty. Likewise, from today’s viewpoint, Locke’s rights are, first and foremost, negative.

Sources:

Ackermann, Ulrike: “Freiheitsliebe – Einleitung.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ibid. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007.7-25.

Audi,  Robert. Ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nded. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (CUP), 1999.

Berlin, Isaiah: “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Four Essays On Liberty. Ed. Ibid.  Oxford: Oxford University Press (OUP), 1969.

Blackburn, Simon. Ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nded. Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. (1765-1769; see link).

Cannon, John. Ed. Dictionary of British History. Rev. ed. Oxford: OUP, 2009.

Dahrendorf, Ralf: “Freiheit – eine Definition.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ibid. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 26-39.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: OUP, 1989.

Hannan, Daniel. How We Invented Freedom& Why It Matters. London: Head of Zeus, 2013.  

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. (Written during the 1670s; see link).

Loughlin, Martin. The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2013.

McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum:The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

McDonald, Forrest: “The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers.” RequiemVariations on Eighteenth-Century Themes. Eds. Ibid., and Ellen S. McDonald. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988. 1-22. 

Reid, John Phillip. The Concept of Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Rüb, Matthias: “Freedom Isn’t Free. Amerikas quicklebendiger Gründungsmythos: Freiheit.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ibid. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 287-302.

Vincent, Nicholas. Magna CartaA Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2012. 

 

 

 

 

Die wirtschaftliche Sinnlosigkeit von Krieg und Zerstörung

Henry Hazlitt erläutert mit Hilfe von Bastiats ‚zerbrochenem Schaufenster‘, warum Krieg und Zerstörung der Wirtschaft schaden und ökonomisch sinnlos sind.

Häufig liest und hört man von wirtschaftlichen Aufschwungsphasen in sowie nach Zeiten eines Krieges. Dabei werden beispielsweise massive Aufrüstungsanstrengungen oder Wiederaufbauarbeiten als Gründe genannt. Solche Aussagen erwecken den Eindruck, dass Krieg und Zerstörung, bei allen sonstigen ethischen Bedenken dagegen, nicht unbedingt negativ – ja sogar nützlich – sein können.

Diesen Vorstellungen erteilt der Wirtschaftsjournalist Henry Hazlitt in seinem Buch Economics in One Lesson eine klare Absage. Um seinen Überlegungen eine Basis zu geben, wird von Hazlitt die Geschichte des zerbrochenen Schaufensters von Frederic Bastiat herangezogen. 

Das zerbrochene Schaufenster: Ein Lehrstück 

In einer friedlichen Kleinstadt besitzt Bäcker Müller einen Laden. Die Arbeit ist mühsam, aber einigermaßen rentabel. Eines Tages wird plötzlich das Schaufenster seines Ladens von einem kleinen Jungen, der nach seiner Tat schnell verschwindet, eingeworfen.

Wenig später bemerken einige Bewohner das zerbrochene Schaufenster, sammeln sich um den Laden und diskutieren. Die Diskussion dreht sich nach wenigen Minuten um die möglichen Folgen. Hierbei sind viele Bewohner von dem wirtschaftlichen Nutzen dieses Aktes der Zerstörung insgesamt überzeugt, da der Glaser nun mehr Arbeit hat und daran verdient. So ähnlich beginnt eine der Schriften des französischen Ökonom Frederic Bastiat, der das zerbrochene Schaufenster als Aufhänger für ein Lehrstück verwendet. 

Der angebliche wirtschaftliche Nutzen des zerbrochenen Schaufensters ist laut Bastiat ein Trugschluss. Tatsächlich entspricht ein Teil der Behauptung der oben erwähnten Bewohner der Wahrheit, denn der Glaser bekommt nach diesem Vorfall wirklich mehr Arbeit und dafür einen entsprechenden Lohn. Jedoch wird hier nur berücksichtigt, was zu sehen ist. Was man nicht sieht sind zum Beispiel die ökonomischen Auswirkungen des zerbrochenen Schaufensters für den Geschädigten, den Bäcker.

Der Einfachheit halber soll in diesem Zusammenhang angenommen werden, dass das Schaufenster nicht versichert ist und der Bäcker sich von seinen erarbeiteten Ersparnissen einen schönen Anzug im Geschäft eines Schneiders kaufen wollte. Anstatt sein Vorhaben umzusetzen, gibt er aber dieses Geld jetzt dafür aus, um das Fenster zu ersetzen; mit anderen Worten das, was er vor dem Ereignis schon längst hatte. Nun ist das Geld für den Schneider wohl nicht mehr vorhanden. Dieser kann jetzt selbstverständlich nicht mehr davon profitieren. 

Das Lehrstück in einem anderen Kontext: Kein Vorteil durch Krieg

Das Lehrstück Bastiats wird von Henry Hazlitt auf einen sehr viel größeren sowie auch ganz anderen Kontext übertragen, nämlich auf die Kriegs- und insbesondere Nachkriegszeit. Während diesen Phasen sind beispielsweise viele Aufrüstungsanstrengungen, Wiederaufbaumaßnahmen von zerstörten Gebäuden und die Ausführungen von zuvor nicht wahrgenommenen Aufträgen zu verzeichnen. Außerdem steigen scheinbar die Löhne und die Gesamtnachfrage.

Das alles lässt eine Vielzahl von Menschen an ein Aufblühen der Wirtschaft in Kriegs- und Nachkriegszeiten glauben, obwohl sie in der Mehrzahl Krieg generell ablehnen. Wer allerdings eine solche Sicht auf die Dinge hat, ist nach Meinung von Henry Hazlitt dem gleichen Fehlschluss wie die Bewohner in Bastiats Schrift erlegen. 

Eine Zerstörung von Häusern sowie Eigentum und ein Ausfall der Produktion von bestimmten Gütern während des Krieges erhöhen zwar die Anstrengungen diese in der Nachkriegszeit zu ersetzen bzw. herzustellen. Dennoch wird Hazlitt zufolge in dieser Situation nur die Richtung der Anstrengungen innerhalb der Wirtschaft verändert. Die für die genannten Tätigkeiten benötigten Arbeitskräfte und Produktionskapazitäten stehen demnach anderen Bereichen in der Wirtschaft, welche auf sie z. T. auch dringend angewiesen sind, nicht zur Verfügung.

Aus diesem Grund hat die Verschiebung des wirtschaftlichen Gleichgewichts für die anderen Zweige oder Unternehmen höchstwahrscheinlich negative Konsequenzen. Darüber hinaus ist nach Hazlitt der Begriff Nachfragein Kriegs- wie Nachkriegszeiten irreführend. Nachfrage impliziert nämlich Kaufkraft, die in solchen Phasen grundsätzlich abnimmt, weil Kriege logischerweise je mehr sie zerstören, mehr Armut bringen. Lieber spricht Hazlitt von (Nachkriegs-)Bedarf.   

Weitere Trugschlüsse in Bezug auf Kriegsphasen hängen aus Hazlitts Sicht mit dem Thema Geld zusammen. Fatalerweise sind viele Menschen in Kriegszeiten der Meinung, dass ihre Einkommen steigen. In Wirklichkeit ist die angebliche Einkommenssteigerung jedoch nur die Folge einer Kriegsinflation.

Bei einer Inflation erhöht sich die Geldmenge, wobei der Wert des Geldes allgemein abnimmt und sich die Preise erhöhen. Die Menschen entwickeln daher die Vorstellung – bezogen auf ihr Geld – mehr zu besitzen, wenngleich sie, wie Hazlitt ausführt, im Hinblick auf Waren ärmer sind oder weniger kaufen können. 

Die Lektion zusammengefasst 

Die Menschen mit dem Glauben an eine gewisse Nützlichkeit von Krieg und Zerstörung sind im Großen und Ganzen vergleichbar mit den Bewohnern in der Geschichte über das zerbrochene Schaufenster. Auch die Bewohner achten nicht auf die langfristigen Konsequenzen und vergessen weitere betroffene Gruppen in ihre Analyse einzuschließen. Insgesamt ist jede Art von Zerstörung, sei es durch Krieg oder andere Ursachen, auf lange Sicht schädlich für eine entwickelte Wirtschaft.

Eine Ausnahme besteht vielleicht in der Situation, wenn zum Beispiel durch einen Krieg ausschließlich unproduktive, ineffiziente oder völlig abgeschriebene Anlagen zerstört und durch neuere ersetzt würden. Das trifft aber normalerweise nie zu.

Quellen:

Bastiat, Frederic: Selected Essays on Political Economy. New York: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc. 1964. Aus dem Französischem von Seymour Cain. 

Hazlitt, Henry: Economics in One Lesson. New York: Harper & Brothers 1946.                     

 

 

 

 

The Origin of the Mythical Loch Ness Monster Nessie in the Hagiography of St Columba

The Scottish lake Loch Ness is probably best known for its legendary water-beast Nessie. Interestingly, the alleged first sighting of this supposed monster dates back to the early Middle Ages. It is recorded in Saint Adomnán’s biography of the 6th-century Christian missionary and abbot Saint Columba.  

Loch Ness, the second largest Scottish loch or lake, draws many visitors from all over the world. This deep, freshwater loch in the Scottish Highlands is situated southwest of the city of Inverness. It extends approximately 37 kilometers or 23 miles, forming a part of  a large valley – the Great Glen. In general, you can see a rugged and, at the same time, beautiful lake landscape.

While exploring this area, visitors may also come across the picturesque ruins of Urquhart Castle on a promontory which is on three sides surrounded by Loch Ness’s water. Alongside providing a superb view of the loch and its surrounding landscape beyond, the castle ruins convey a tranquil and even idyllic atmosphere, although on the promontory it can by very windy.

But the idyllic scene today conceals a violent history. During the 500s AD the site had probably been a fort and was likely occupied by the Picts, a Celtic tribal federation of peoples, before a castle was erected there in the 13th century. Because of its strategic position Urquhart Castle witnessed several sieges.

After the Jacobite Rising of 1689-1690 troops that supported the new King William of Orange marched out of the castle in 1692, blowing up some of its buildings. Subsequently, its other parts fell into decay.

Urquhart means ‚by the wood or thicket‘. A written reference to a place that was called  Airchartdan and that modern scholars equate with Urquhart first appeared in Saint Adomnán’s hagiography or biography of the life of the 6th-century Irish churchman, Christian missionary and abbot Saint Columba (c.521-597). Notably, St Adomnán (c.624-704) was a kinsman of St Columba, a canon jurist and, like his relative, a saintly abbot.

St Adomnán completed his important work with the title Vita Sancti Columbae (Eng. Life of Saint Columba) roughly 100 years after St Columba’s death. While telling various events of St Columba’s life, he presents him as a model of a pious Catholic monk, a hard negotiator with kings, a successful missionary, a charismatic hero with prophetic skills and a miracle worker.

In one chapter St Columba miraculously saves one of his companions from a water-beast in or around Loch Ness. This alleged event is particularly striking because it is arguably the origin or original source of the legendary monster Nessie with which Loch Ness is probably most associated in today’s popular culture. Besides the supposed encounter with the water-beast of legend, St Columba is connected with other significant issues in Scottish history.

‚A Pilgrimage for the Love of Christ‘ – St Columba’s Influence in Scotland

Around 521 Col(u)m Cille – which translates as ‚dove of the church‘ – or Columba was born into a powerful Irish family. Notwithstanding his family background, he didn’t aim for secular power. Instead, he early on seems to be predestined for a life in the church. Yet, after some troublesome time for him, he left Ireland to go on ‚a pilgrimage for the love of Christ‘ in Scotland.

There Columba founded a number of monasteries. Among them was the famous Iona Abbey. (Note that the small island Iona is part of the Inner Hebrides on the western cost of mainland Scotland.) Established by Columba in 563, Iona not only became a centre of Celtic Christianity but also highly contributed to the spread of the Christian faith among the Picts and Anglo-Saxon peoples in areas of present-day Scotland and England since the abbey sent out missionaries.

As for Columba, the saintly churchman served as Iona’s first abbot. Remarkably, his 9th successor as abbot of Iona was his relative and hagiographer St Adomnán.

Even though Columba – who died on 9 June 597 – is one of the patron saints and the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, he has also been revered in Scotland throughout the centuries. His monastic community on the island Iona actively fostered his cult as a saint after his lifetime. Poetry and other texts were written to praise him and to emphasize his holiness. A case in point is, of course, St Adomnán’s aforementioned hagiography Vita Sancti Columbae.

Legends about St Columba state – among many other issues – that in times of need kings turned to the saint and that he, for example, appeared to the 7th-century saintly King of Northumbria (i.e. parts of today’s northern England and south-east Scotland) Oswald before the Battle of Heavenfield in 634. Later on the famous King Kenneth I or Kenneth MacAlpin (810-858) had his relics moved to the Scottish town Dunkeld.

Needless to say, in Scotland during the High Middle Ages other saints rose in importance. However, St Columba remained a significant Scottish saint. For instance, his alleged relics, the Breccbennach, were carried by the Scottish army at the historic Battle of Bannockburn where the Scottish defeated the English on 24 June 1314.

In recent decades, St Columba has still exerted influence in Scotland by representing a kind of ecumenical saintly figure. That means, both Scottish Catholics and Scottish Protestants respect him as an ‚apostle of Scotland‘. Moreover, as mentioned above, one story about him seemingly gave rise to a popular Scottish myth – Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster.

St Columba at the Loch Ness – His Encounter with Nessie

According to St Adomnán’s Vita Sancti Columbae and the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Eng. the Ecclesiastical History of the English People) by the renowned English Benedictine monk and scholar St Bede the Venerable, during the second half of the 6th century St Columba visited the Pictish king Bridei or Brude at his court supposedly near the modern city of Inverness. Hence, on his long journey he must have travelled through the Great Glen.

St Adomnán tells us that St Columba came round to a Pictish residence called AirchartdanHere he baptized Emchath, a dying Pict, and his whole household. Whether Emchath’s residence Airchartdan – which is equated with Urquhart – was on the site where now visitors find the remnants of the once-mighty Urquhart Castle, cannot be confirmed with absolute certainty.

At Urquhart Castle and at Loch Ness in general, sensation-seeking tourists nowadays not only want to view the ruins and the impressive Scottish loch but also attempt to catch a glimpse of the legendary Loch Ness Monster Nessie. Since roughly the 1930s – when several alleged sightings of the monster were reported and the fake surgeon’s photograph was produced –  Nessie has developed into a cultural phenomenon or myth. For Loch Ness the monster basically constitutes a marketing tool.

Broadly speaking, tales of mythical beasts in Highland lochs have long existed. Nevertheless, the first supposed sighting of such a water-beast in or around Loch Ness was recorded by St Adomnán in his hagiography Vita Sancti Columbae, in which the 28th chapter (How an aquatic monster was driven off by virtue of the blessed man’s prayer) of Book II. On His Miraculous Powers reads as follows:

ON another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat. The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble that was moored at the farther bank. And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream. Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, ‘Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.’ Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.

All in all, this chapter apparently laid the foundation stone for the myth of Nessie.

It is impossible to corroborate whether the story is true or not. At any rate, a large creature, its mate and / or its offspring are extremely unlikely to have survived multiple generations from approximately the 6th century down to our own age. Despite previous unsuccessful attempts to find (traces of) the Loch Ness Monster – including extensive sonar searches – some people still aim to prove its existence. This modern form of monster-hunting is the pseudoscience of cryptozoology.

Perhaps St Columba succeeded in ridding us from Nessie once and for all. Otherwise, if you really discover a threatening water-beast one day in the Loch Ness, you know what to do. Make the sign of the cross and say the following magic words: thou shalt go no further, nor touch me (or – if there is a group – us); go back with all speed. 😉

Sources:

Cannon, John. Ed. A Dictionary of British History. Rev ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press (OUP), 2009 (2001). 

Lynch, Michael. Ed. The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford: OUP, 2001.

Maier, Bernhard. Geschichte Schottlands. Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck, 2015. 

Ross, David. Scotland: History of a Nation. New ed. Broxburn: Lomond Books Ltd, 2017 (1998).

Urquhart Castle: Official Souvenir Guide. Edinburgh: Historic Scotland, 2012.

All photos were taken – and modified – by me (Nils Zumbansen).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did Medieval Scholars Really Debate about How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?

Angels were, in fact, the subject of long and thoughtful discussions among scholars and / or theologians during the Middle Ages. Medieval scholars or Scholastics generally regarded angels as living spirits that were / are not enclosed in flesh.

Such debates, amongst other issues, revolved around the precise nature of the angelic body. For example, medieval theologians and / or scholars discussed the nature of this body in connection to physical space. Here we may point to a question by the famous philosopher-theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274). In his Summa Theologiae he asked of „whether several angels can be in the same place?“

But medieval Scholastics and / or theologians almost certainly never debated about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This claim apparently emerged among anti-Scholastic thinkers during the early modern period because they tried to caricature and ridicule Scholastic thought.

The first to claim that medieval scholars had really discussed this was arguably the 17th-century English philosopher Henry More (1614-1687), who was part of the Cambridge Platonist school. More aimed to demonstrate the absurdities of high Scholasticism by referring to the „ridiculous fancies of the Schools“. Furthermore, he mentions Scholastic discussions regarding angels as well as the question „how many of them booted and spurred may dance on a needle’s point at once(?)“.

Eventually, this claim was spread by a later edition of the popular work Curiosities of Literature. It was compiled by Isaac Disraeli (1766-1848), the father of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

Source:

Bartlett, Robert. The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages. Cambridge (et al.): CUP, 2008.