“Nemo nisi per amicitiam cognoscitur” “No one learns except through friendship” Augustine

If memory serves it was Professor Edward Norman, then of Peterhouse Cambridge who wrote a small monograph on the 19th century Oxford Movement entitled, “The Parting of Friends”. Norman was a good scholar, but what I remember most about his book is its title. In it he captures that wonderful kindness and genuine emotional connection which prevailed among certain Oxford Tractarians even as they went quite separate ways in theology and in life. Newman, Keeble, Pusey and the others were all remarkable men, and they became my friends in history. Today I learned that a true successor to those great Anglican priests and that movement has died. He had lived for almost one hundred years, held most of the great offices his hyphenated profession offered, won as much acclaim as any Priest and Scholar can win, was Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, Vice Chancellor of the University, Master of Selwyn College, and the list goes on and on and on again. However, as impressive as all of that was, I will remember him until the day I die because of his great kindness and friendship. He was my Doctoral Supervisor, and I am so blessed to have walked a little while with him. Our very first meeting in his office in the Master’s Lodge at Selwyn set the stage for my life long admiration, affection and appreciation. We had gone through the regular introductions and inquiries and he then took me to the door. It was one of those rainy October Oxbridge days, and I was walking. Owen insisted that I take both his bike and his ‘brolly’ and so he continued for all the years I  knew him, always kind, gentle, truly humble and beyond solicitous. He lived his Gospel. He was also a very holy priest, a loving father, and a good husband, a witness to us truncated Romans of what might be.

The Reverend Professor Sir Owen Chadwick was my spiritual father, my mentor and my friend. I have missed him, and I now I will miss him more.

The Reverend Professor Owen Chadwick, OM – obituary

Anglican priest and academic whose writing on Christianity was both scholarly and entertaining

The Reverend Professor Owen Chadwick, OM

20 Jul 2015

The Reverend Professor Owen Chadwick, OM, who has died aged 99, was a clergyman-academic of a kind once common in universities but now very rare; the holder successively of Cambridge University’s chairs of both Ecclesiastical and Modern History, he was a leading authority on the history of religion and the churches.

The greater part of his career was devoted to the study of post-Reformation history, particularly the English Church, state and society since the industrial and French revolutions.

His single biggest publication, The Victorian Church – published in two parts in 1966 and 1971 – was a gigantic survey of religious life in Britain in the 19th century, exploring the social and intellectual developments which lay behind the waning power of religion in the Victorian period.

Although it was based on a quite astonishing range of research, The Victorian Church was – typically for Chadwick – essentially a personal interpretation. It showed less interest in dissent than in the establishment, less liking for evangelicals than for the Oxford Movement, and less love for town than for country. If some critics accused him of lack of balance, they were unable to fault his analysis of the politics of established churchmanship.
The Reverend Professor Owen Chadwick, OM

Nor could they fault his prose style. For Chadwick was no dry-as-dust historian; he always preferred to tell a story to explore a situation or illustrate a point. The Victorian Church was enlivened by a wealth of vivid detail: Queen Victoria trying to slip a favourite preacher into a bishopric; a Dorset parishioner complaining that his astronomy-minded rector kept “a horoscope top o’ his house to look at the stares and sich”.

Although he wrote extensively on the relationship between the Christian denominations, Chadwick’s strength lay in his sympathetic understanding of the spiritual and social foundations of the Church of England.

He always wrote most warmly about the country clergy and, as he put it, their “reasonable, quiet, unpretentious, sober faith in God and way of worship”. The history of the English Church, he believed, was made not only by the decisions of the great at Lambeth or Westminster or in debates at Oxford, but by the convictions of obscure country parsons in Lincolnshire.

Chadwick’s particular skill was his ability to evoke the atmosphere of parish life. For example in Victorian Miniature (1961) – considered by some to be his masterpiece – he provided a richly entertaining vignette of life in the Norfolk parish of Ketteringham and the uneasy relationship between the squire, an enlightened despot called Sir John Boileau, and parson, the Rev William Waite Andrew, a sort of Calvinistic Pooter who felt twinges of conscience about gardening.

Chadwick’s use of telling detail was always strongly characteristic of his writing. In A History of the Popes 1830-1914 (published in 1998 when Chadwick was 82) his account of what was “in some ways the worst time for the Church in the modern epoch” was enlivened by vivid cameos: of Pius IX in flight from Rome, stealing down a back staircase in an ordinary cassock, dark glasses and a brown woollen muffler. It contained a wealth of amusing one liners such as “the Holy Office was hard-boiled about women who went into ecstasies” and pithy and evocative character sketches: of Bishop Ketteler, who “studied law at the university where he lost the tip of his nose in a duel. He showed no signs of being an ordinand”; or of Cavour, a man “complacent about his virtues”.

Chadwick liked to quote St Augustine’s saying “Nemo nisi per amicitiam cognoscitur” (no one learns except by friendship). His writings were always strikingly free of hostile judgments. The worst he would ever say of a fellow scholar was that he was “doctrinaire”. His most damning put-down was his comment on the medievalist Coulton’s Art and the Reformation: “Despite its title this is about medieval art and architecture, and is probably Coulton’s best book.”

William Owen Chadwick was born on May 20 1916, the son of a barrister. His younger brother Henry was to become Regius Professor of Divinity and Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, then Regius Professor of Divinity and Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Owen Chadwick went to Tonbridge, where he was school captain as well as captain of rugby, and then up to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he read Classics. By his own account he went up to Cambridge to play rugby rather than to study; and as an undergraduate, Chadwick, nicknamed “Binks”, was better known for his boisterous energy on the playing field than for his academic interests. He played rugby for Cambridge against Oxford three years running and in 1938 captained the team to victory at Twickenham. On one occasion he was rusticated for his part in damaging a railway carriage.

But in 1938 other more serious occupations began to join rugby football. It was in that year – the year of Munich – that he came under the influence of Martin Charlesworth, a history fellow of St John’s and a powerful influence in Cambridge Christian circles. It was also in 1938 that the distinguished German pastor Martin Niemöller was sent to Sachsenhausen.

“In that moment,” Chadwick later recalled, “Niemöller looked from England like the European conscience standing on moral principle against tyranny; the freest man in Germany despite his confinement.”

Deeply affected by these events, Chadwick decided that his future lay in the Church and after gaining a First in his Part II exams in 1938, he stayed on for a fourth year to study Theology.

In 1939, after graduating from St John’s – again with a First – Chadwick studied for Holy Orders at Cuddesdon Theological College, Oxford, being ordained deacon in 1940 and priest in 1941. Cuddesdon cemented the bond between Chadwick and the Tractarian tradition which inspired some of his finest work as a historian.

From Cuddesdon he went as curate for two years to St John’s, Huddersfield, then, until the end of the war, served as chaplain at Wellington College, the public school. During the war he also played rugby for Blackheath and was part of a wartime England team which played New Zealand. In 1947 he returned to Cambridge, where he became fellow then Dean of Trinity Hall.

In 1956, Chadwick was installed as Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. Selwyn had been founded in 1882 as a public hostel for hard-up Anglicans, and at the time Chadwick became Master it had not yet become a full part of the university.

Chadwick was Master of Selwyn for 27 years, during which time the college acquired full status as a university college, undertook an extensive building programme, increased its complement of students (women were admitted in 1976) and more than doubled the numbers of postgraduates and fellows.

In 1958, Chadwick became the university’s Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History, and in 1968 Regius Professor of Modern History, succeeding Herbert Butterfield. During the 1960s and 1970s, Chadwick was frequently mentioned as a potential candidate for the see of Canterbury and was said to have rejected at least two bishoprics. Nevertheless, he made a contribution to the Church in other ways.

Owen Chadwick by Walter Bird, 1959 (NPG)

A lifelong friend, and the biographer, of Dr Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Chadwick was twice appointed by Ramsey to serve as his representative at joint doctrinal discussions with the Orthodox churches.

In 1964 he served on a commission to work out a scheme for synodical government, and from 1966 to 1970 he was chairman of the Archbishops’ Commission on Church and State which recommended that Parliamant should devolve its powers in Church matters to a new synod, which would become the sole authority on the life and doctrine of the Church. More controversially, the report recommended scrapping the bar on clergymen standing for election as MPs and suggested that leaders of other churches should sit in the House of Lords.

Chadwick served as Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University from 1969 to 1971, years when the tide of radical student and faculty activism was at its height. He coordinated the University’s response to the 1970 Garden House Riots which took place when a group of Left-wing students demonstrating against the Greek military junta damaged the Garden House Hotel during a “Greek Week” dinner organised by the Greek tourist board.

Chadwick had to repair relations between town and gown, and also respond to students and Left-wing dons who were incensed by the role of university proctors in helping the police to identify the rioters. He supported the role of the proctors in the affair, but in subsequent discussions with student representatives on a new disciplinary code, agreed that proctors would no longer attend political demonstrations outside the university.

He continued to be a keen supporter of the university rugby team and from 1973 served as President of the Rugby Football Club. His after-dinner songs remained popular features of the club’s social events.

Chadwick held a number of academic positions outside Cambridge. In 1975-76 he was Hensley Henson Lecturer in Theology at Oxford University, and in 1980-81 he was Ford Lecturer in English History at Oxford.

From 1978 to 1994 he served as trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. He was President of the British Academy from 1981 to 1985 and, after retiring as Regius Professor and Master of Selwyn in 1983, was Chancellor of the University of East Anglia from 1985 to 1994.

His many other notable publications include The Secularisation of the European Mind in the 19th Century (1975), a monumental exploration of the decline of the Church’s hold on European thinking and society, and a biography of Hensley Henson (1983).

In his later years he spent much time at Cley-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, of which he was priest in charge.

Chadwick was appointed KBE in 1982 and became a member of the Order of Merit in 1983. He claimed only to have used the prefix “Sir” on two occasions, once in order to be as rude as possible when replying to a correspondent and once because one of his American students thought she might obtain more money from an American grant-giving body if she could refer to him as “Sir”.

He married, in 1949, Ruth Hallward, who died earlier this year. Their two sons and two daughters survive him.

The Rev Professor Owen Chadwick, OM, born May 20 1916, died July 17 2015

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Long ago, back in those Middle Ages that encompassed the early 1970’s, four young Jesuits taught the Ethics of Experimental Medicine in a large Nursing School in Toronto.  It was a wonderfully open minded era, and medicine was blazing new trails in all sorts of areas, including  redefining what it meant to be alive,  organ transplantation, cloning and much else.  We would usually all travel together, and would argue and debate the  latest medical ethical literature endlessly and from all perspectives.  Not one of these four came out of narrow authoritarianism and  three of them were brilliant minds under any standard.   Looking back now, in all my years and in all my many Universities around the world, I never ever encountered  more intellectually opened minded, curious and brilliant  colleagues.    Of the four of us, one  went to Yale and did amazing work, the second, took over the top job  in the Canadian Jesuits, the third went to Medical School and then also did a doctorate, and the fourth, me, went off to Cambridge for doctorate studies  and thence to Law School.   This week I attended a Memorial Mass for the third . All are now dead save for me, and given that I am still in my sixties, none of us are or were really old. I write today because I am sad, I miss all of them.  What a gift it was to know them, to work with them, and to be their Brother.

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Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins  have and had  wonderfully enquiring minds.  Salman Rushdie’s is a perceptive critic of contemporary culture, and Bill Maher delights me every Friday night with his  irreverence.  But when it comes to matters of faith and belief, when they confront the age old phenomenon that we call religion, they  collectively get lost  in not so thinly disguised rage..   Each of them is brilliant is his own way, and have won deserved acclaim, but like all of us mortals, they have significant blind spots.  Emotion shines bright when they encounter someone of faith, at times it erupts in outrage, and they are very genuinely perplexed that in our century anyone would take any of that rubbish seriously.  They are eager to point out the regular litany of scriptural  inconsistencies, love to philosophize  about the snake in the garden, virgins who give birth, and sooner later we get to the  Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the self identified Muslim martyrs, sacrificing their  lives for those one hundred virgins, and more recently they want to let us know that they are uptodate on who is diddling whom amongst the various clergy, what is being covered up and of course they have read “God’s Banker’ .  Wherever one happens to stand along that wide spectrum that goes from atheism through agnosticism to the multiple variants of theistic belief, few will deny that the  reactions of the illuminati tend to be exceptionally emotionally charged.  Hold on a minute, let’s take a deep breath.

Many of us were once told that to be polite we should avoid talking about religion and politics.  It still is good advice to stay away form subjects which people have such strong opinions on, and in which  everyone believes themselves to be experts.  Nevertheless it is time for some of us to speak up just a little about confusion.  Religion can be co-opted by politics, but politics is not religion.  The fountain head of contemporary terrorism is not Islam, and neither is Islam inherently violent, quite the reverse. There is not now and there never has been a Jewish conspiracy, and neither Geneva, Canterbury nor the Vatican do justice to the simple message of Jesus of Nazareth, and as much as they have tried, and neither do they monopolize him.

I believe in God, a transcendent other who made a covenant with Israel and who revealed much about himself and who we are to be in Jesus the Christ.  I believe in prayer and I believe that I am called to be in relationship with that divine other.  I also believe that I am called to live that faith out in community. I am not a nut, and I not willfully deceived. I understand mythology and I have found truth in it.  I do not live for a pie in the sky heaven or fear a burning hell, but I believe we are on a pilgrimage of grace that will not end when we pass on.  My faith is not physics, it is a life structure that gives meaning to who I am and what I am called to be.

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My good friend Michael B  retired and relocated to Hungary almost a year ago. He does not speak the language, although his partner does, and so I worry about how, at the age of 70 plus, this most Anglo of all  Anglo’s is adapting to life in Central Europe .  He assures me regularly that he is fine, and to stop being afraid, and so I try.     Of course he is right, I should stop being afraid;  and on somber reflection, I  sometimes marvel at the role  ‘fear’  has played throughout my whole life.

One of my earliest memories  as an only child is waking up and finding myself alone in our house.  I knew that my Mother had been taken to hospital in an ambulance, and I guess my Dad had accompanied her. I also know now that I was not alone for long, but only for such time as it takes a neighbor to cross a street. Nevertheless that  fear of abandonment has remained with me and has  become  “a feeling touchstone” for my entire life.  I also marvel at the fact that what one fears the most, one can sometimes provoke.  I fear abandonment so much that I am regularly sub-consciously preparing for it, and at times by my  defensive behavior,  precipitating it. No I am not alone or abandoned. I am richly blessed in that I am surrounded by the love of a wonderful family, but I have as yet to come close to understanding why that fear of abandonment is still so strong.  I do take comfort in that often repeated refrain form the God of the  Old Testament: “I am with you.”.

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I  write on   as part of an “internal consciousness examination.”  There are times when I honestly forget that someone might read my ramblings.  Yesterday I was deluged because of my comments about “golf, Florida houses and grandchildren”    Just write me off as an ‘odd duck’, and remember, I am in a never ending identity struggle.    I would most certainly welcome grandchildren and adore them, but I make no apologies on the other fronts.   I respect your right to choose and only ask that you respect mine too. Sport and vacation houses were  not front and center in my mind when I reflected as I did.

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Passionate, decisive, intelligent, emotive, tolerably narcissistic and arrogant, risk embracing, engaged, driven, a change agent, jesuitical, dismissive, sensitive and insensitive with alarming blind spots,  all describe  my own sense of an imperfect self.   Like the Energizer Bunny, I also seem to keep going and going and going.  Am I afraid to stop or even slow down? Perhaps yes.  Alas, now, more than any other time in an already full and blessed life,  I feel caught in a limbo of unknowing about what to be and do  next. Lost and floundering too?, yes, perhaps more than  just a little.

How many reincarnations are left  to someone approaching his seventh decade?  How does one best make use of  the time remaining?  Should one flee to monastic solitude in the service of others, or continue  to egage in an active life so also motivated?  The idea of lounging around in a Florida or California house, playing golf, and celebrating  grandchildren  does not appeal to me at all.  I do not judge others who choose those values, it is just not my idea of happiness.   I do love to study, and  once again I have returned to my lifelong fascination with the origins and  development of religious belief systems.  Little of the mythology which so formed  my youth remains, but neither have I mutated into a syncretistic agnosticism.  I now need to delve more deeply.

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Here is a delightful piece sent courtesy of Ellen and Mike Hodnett

Christmas characters

The rule of three

What those magical, royal wanderers through the desert really signify

Dec 20th 2014 | From the print edition

OF ALL the actors in the Nativity story, the three wise men are by far the most fun. To a scene that would otherwise verge on the gloomy—a hazardous birth, a stroppy landlord, a derelict stable, uncouth shepherds—they add glitter and mystery. Small wonder that most primary-school thespians, offered the choice between the saintly principals and the glamorous visitors, plump for the velvet robes, the gold-foil headgear and the tissue-boxes stuck with jewels.

T.S. Eliot, filled with the anomie of his age, did his best to drab the wise men down:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp…
…the night fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.

It didn’t work, however. These surprising visitors to the stable always look splendid, and remarkably fresh for the journey. Longfellow’s kings are perhaps best of all:

Their robes were of crimson silk with rows
Of bells and pomegranates and furbelows,
Their turbans like blossoming almond-trees.

Glum or extravagant, were these figures magi (specifically Persian scholars from the Zoroastrian tradition, tasked with keeping the holy fire of Ormuzd and skilled in astronomy, medicine, magic and astrology), or kings from Tarsus, Saba, Sheba and points east, as Psalm 72 had predicted? Matthew, the only Gospel source, used the Greek word magoi, which signified wise men in general, and had them announce that they had seen the star at its rising. This tilts the balance towards astronomers, which was what the early church imagined them to be.

If these travellers were magi, the most circumstantial source—the Book of Seth, attributed to St John Chrysostom in the fourth century—said there were 12 of them, and that they had been watching for a star on the mythical mountain of Vauls, vaguely in Persia, for generation after generation, ever since Adam in old age had taken refuge there. With him he already had the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, actually pinched from Eden. It was because the gifts were three (symbolising respectively king, God and mortal, since resinous myrrh was used to anoint the body after death) that the travellers, too, were reduced to a trio of seekers cleverly navigating their way across the desert.

This version finds favour with modern researchers, who have spilt much ink unravelling the parallels between Zoroastrianism and Christianity (basically, Good and Evil Principles) and pinning down the exact spot in “the east” the magi came from, most probably the border between Iran and Afghanistan, possibly India, via the Silk Road. It is still impossible to know, though, exactly what sort of scholars they were; and much easier to dismiss them, as Rowan Williams did when Archbishop of Canterbury, as simply mythical, together with the ox and the ass.

It is just as hard to say which heavenly phenomenon the wise men were meant to have seen. It was possibly a supernova; possibly a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces in 7BC; and possibly a comet, since the star’s beams were often said to stream and wave like a bird flying. In the Hellenic-Roman world comets presaged deaths or disasters, not births. Nonetheless the magi had been instructed, according to the Book of Seth, that one particular bright star would announce the coming of a child; and Matthew’smagoi knew it was a king’s star. One modern writer on magi, Martin Gilbert, spins the theory that the wise men themselves represent three stars in conjunction, this time Saturn, Jupiter and Mercury, and that they have swum into Matthew, chapter 2, for purely astrological reasons.

Their first words, “Where is the child that is born King of the Jews?” came out of mist, confusion and panic

The magi edition of the story did not, however, get much traction in the Middle Ages. Nor has it done on Christmas cards since. A sixth-century mosaic at Ravenna (see picture) is almost the last time they appear as scholars, looking suitably impecunious, and in the tight trousers and floppy Phrygian caps worn by Persians. “People think they were magi,” wrote John of Hildesheim, whose “Historia Trium Regum” of the mid-14th century was taken then as the last word on the matter, “because the star was so bright, and they did the journey so fast [in 13 days from the Nativity, to arrive on January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany]. But this is a mistake.” The reason they travelled so swiftly, he added, was partly divine assistance and partly because they were on dromedaries, “which can really go”.

In truth, the magi theory languished for simple reasons. Medieval folk knew what kings were; magi they were unsure of, except that they were pagan, followed the teachings of Balaam, and dealt in demons. It was not good to introduce devilry into the Christmas scene, even if the Christ-child could defeat it with one wave of his tiny hand. Magi were linked to Persia, of which well-read Europeans perhaps knew a bit; oriental kings opened up a much more fantastical geography, stretching mistily via several different Indias to the shores of the Great Ocean, where mapmakers scattered rivers and mountains more or less as they liked, with an occasional camel or dragon and sultans, wearing turbans, forlornly perched in tents. The farther east you went, in this continent where all exotic place-names blended together, the more venomous and strange the beasts got, the thicker the trees and the vaster the deserts. That men should venture from such places, at the end of the earth, to find the Christ-child, was much more interesting than a short hop from the Middle East. And it was more interesting (as moderns also tend to think) if the wise men were not too wise but, like kings, often floundering and beset.

For so it seemed they were. To begin with, said John of Hildesheim, they were not magnificent figures of men but small, feeble and scrawny. Yes, he admitted, that was surprising; but so men became as you went farther east. (Conversely, the sheep got bigger, with enormous tails.) The kings also set out singly, since they ruled over lands that were far apart, and came together only when they reached Jerusalem.

Conveniently, a lamp-like star guided each of them; but had it not hung before their noses as close as a fish on a line (for kings, not being astronomers, could not read the sky and needed leading), they would never have made it. An Armenian source said they were also led by an angel; in the late 19th century, Edward Burne-Jones put the star in a walking angel’s hands. As the kings arrived in Jerusalem the star or stars disappeared, and a thick fog descended. Their first words in Matthew, “Where is the child that is born King of the Jews?” came out of mist, confusion and panic.

The angel’s warning at Autun

They were taken in, too, by King Herod, who invited them to dine: traditionally on a roasted cock which, in honour of the true king in the stable, rose up and crowed. Herod co-opted them to spy on the child and report back, and they were happy to oblige. Luckily, an angel intervened and warned them not to. They were then told to return “by another way”; starless this time, with no God-assisted steering, they took two laborious years over it, seeking directions from everyone en route. (“And so you see”, wrote John of Hildesheim smugly, “the difference between divine and human operations”.)

Small wonder, perhaps, that though the kings became patron saints of trouble-on-the-road from the 12th century they were not all that popular, because they were not that lucky. Their feast-day, July 23rd, seems to have been usurped in modern calendars by St Apollinaris, who cures gout and the French pox. It was St Christopher who actually kept travellers safe, and it is his image that still swings beside the rear-view-mirror rosaries and fluffy dice; whereas the kings come into play when the tyre is already flat, the speed cop already spotted, or the fine-notice glued to the windscreen by several days of rain.

Myrrh on your clothes

Their names and kingdoms were fairly obscure. For the sake of a good story, though, they had to have both. So they were called Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar (or Caspar), names that never really caught on, except in northern Europe in the high Middle Ages and in posher parts of west London in the late 20th century (“Melchior, give me that phone at once”). They were kings, respectively, of Arabia and Nubia, Godolia, and Tarsus, and hence their gifts: for gold lay so thick in Arabia’s red earth that you kicked it up as you walked, incense dripped from the trees of Godolia, and you could not wander in parts of Tarsus without myrrh, “moist as wax”, clinging to your clothes.

In fact, being kings, they brought a good deal more. Magi might well have only one small, portable gift each; but Matthew’s wise men had treasure chests. In the Spanish-speaking world, by long tradition, they are the Father Christmas figures, the bringers of unlimited money and sweets. In fact, said John of Hildesheim, the kings carried with them all the ornaments that Alexander the Great had left behind in Asia, and all the wealth that had been liberated from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The high-crowned travellers of modern Christmas cards plod across the dunes unburdened and unescorted; but medieval people knew that when kings travelled, ever on the move between their palaces as sport, work or blocked drains dictated, they took their chattels, treasure, beds, dogs and all their servants with them. Some painters hinted at this enormous retinue, hustling and holding back horses at the edges of the scene; some donors had themselves put in it, as grooms or falcon-trainers. There were so many hangers-on, said John of Hildesheim, that they could not get lodgings in Jerusalem and had to camp outside, looking like a besieging army.

Flustered as the kings were, the great treasure seemed to get forgotten (except for a small golden apple that was once Alexander’s, offered by Melchior, which immediately fell to ash because it symbolised, unhappily, Eve’s apple in Eden). Some cartoons have pointed out that these gifts were hardly suitable for a baby, or even for his mother (“Three wise men, and no one brought chocolate?” Mary fumes in one). In the 13th-century “Book of Marco Polo” the Christ-child gave them a present in return: a box which, eagerly opened on the way home, was found to contain a stone. Disgusted, the kings threw it down a well, whereupon it burst into flames; they somehow fished it out, took it home and worshipped it.

Balthazar’s gift

The nature of the gifts, though, was less important than the fact that the kings represented the whole Gentile world coming to pay homage. Traditionally one of them, usually Balthazar, was swarthy, darkening over the centuries until Hieronymous Bosch makes him black as coal, his skin contrasted with robes of gleaming white damask. By then he was assumed to be a king of Ethiopia; the darker he got, the farther south he drifted. He was usually calm, silent and in the background, as if no painter of the medieval or early modern age could imagine a negro who was not a servant. The kings were also all the ages of man, respectively 20, 40 and 60. The oldest, with long snowy hair and beard, struggling to kneel to give his present first, was usually taken to be Melchior; Gaspar was the young blade, rosy-cheeked and beardless and, just occasionally, oriental.

Together, then, the kings added up to Everyman; and as such they became a triune symbol of human striving, hope and folly. Over the featureless desert, over the centuries, they have taken on the characters of politicians, bankers, sunglass-sporting sheikhs, officers of OPEC and rock stars. They have carried election pledges, Turkish delight, overdue library books and barrels of oil. At times of austerity the gifts have become aluminium, potpourri and baby oil. The light they see in the sky, big as the sun, has become a digital stock-price display (for gold, frankincense and myrrh), the neon sign of the Ramada Bethlehem (five stars) and, of course, a UFO. And they have got lost, continually; despite the star, they often get their maps out, scratching at their crowned heads and longing, now, for satnav. The angel’s warning to return by a different way was interpreted early on, by some commentators, as a version of the saying of Heraclitus that you could never step into the same river twice in the endless flux of life.

To sea in a bowl

It is therefore easy to see the kings as an example—perhaps the prototype—of the three hapless travellers, who crop up everywhere once you start to look:

Three wise men of Gotham
Went to sea in a bowl;
If the bowl had been stronger,
My tale had been longer.

This is Gotham in Nottinghamshire, not New York; but it could be either. Wynken, Blynken and Nod sail out in a wooden shoe, evidently unseaworthy, to catch the herring-fish stars and to fall asleep. The three jovial Welshmen go off hunting on St David’s day, they know not for what:

An’ one said, “Mind yo’r e’en, an’ keep yo’r noses reet i’ th’ wind,
An’ then, by scent or seet, we’ll leet o’ summat to our mind.”

Heirs to greatness

Jerome K. Jerome’s three men in a boat row off down the Thames in the 1880s because they are feeling seedy, and in need of a change—only to find that none of them can steer, or navigate a lock, or simply open a tin of pineapple, without great ado and even physical injury.

There was also, in the Middle Ages, another wandering-kings story in which the three monarchs, out hunting frivolously, came upon their own bodies in three graves, respectively just-dead, decayed and reduced to bones. A favourite imago mortiswas to show the kings, splendidly clad and with hawks still on their wrists, holding their noses as they gazed in horror. The original three kings, it could be argued, contemplated their own deaths in the offering of myrrh; and also confronted them, as all humans do, by setting out at all. For all beginnings are a type of birth, all lives are journeys part mapped, part unknown, and all journeys end, at least in the world of the here and now.

Brothers, stooges, wise guys

The kings were so neatly arranged, by races and ages, that some chroniclers maintained they were brothers, not strangers. The possibility was emphasised by putting them all in the same bed, straight as pins and with their crowns on, as they appear in stone reliefs at Autun, in Burgundy, and in the Louvre.

Certainly, whatever they had been before, they were forged in comradeship afterwards. Having journeyed back together, they preached Christ together, were baptised together (by St Thomas the Apostle, somewhere in India, where he found them all living in virtuous decrepitude), were buried together, and were gathered up afterwards by St Helena, mother of Constantine, to end as a cosy fraternity of bones in a magnificent gold reliquary that still stands behind the high altar in the great cathedral at Cologne. Before they died they had built a wood and stone chapel on the mountain of Vauls, the summit topped with a golden star that turned in the wind.

That scene of the kings in bed, however, suggests an even richer legacy. For, no matter how close, there are three distinct characters here. At Autun, while they sleep, the angel shows them, or tries to show them, the star. With one finger he touches the hand of Balthazar, who has woken up but is looking the wrong way. Melchior, the dotard, is sound off. Between them—the natural place to confine a spry young troublemaker—Gaspar has opened one eye suspiciously. Here we have the beginnings of the chemistry, and comedy, of three: of first, next, last; wise, wiser, wisest; old, middle-aged, young; good, better, best. In a stained-glass window at Canterbury Melchior is pleading, Balthazar expostulating and young Gaspar, gazing at the star, just sensibly trying to establish where they are.

This is the classic rule of three. One man, often the oldest or ostensibly the wisest, declares or does something, setting up the joke or establishing the pattern; the second queries, challenges or contradicts him, while also taking the theme on; and the third, typically the youngest (littlest, poorest, last), disrupts the pattern and trumps them all. The first two may also gang up on the third, making him seem all the more hapless and all the more the outsider, until, like Harpo Marx deliriously playing through the gibes of Groucho and Chico, the third takes sweet, mad revenge. The ruse crops up in the Three Stooges, in all jokes involving an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman, and almost every fairy tale of three sons or daughters ever written. In those it is always the third who wins love, finds the treasure or saves the day, while the siblings trail home disappointed.

In jokes among the three, or in jokes set up in three, whoever says the third line blows a metaphorical raspberry and gallops away:

How do you make a Venetian blind?
I don’t know; how do you make a Venetian blind?
Stick him in the eye with a hat-pin.

Bathos is most neatly done in lists of three, and the kings have a little list capable of infinite permutations: gold, frankincense, digestive biscuits; gold, diamonds and the deed to a condo in Florida.

It is largely because they can be used this way—and are wandering haplessly, and on lurching camels, to boot—that the kings have enjoyed such long popularity, lasting seamlessly into a secular age. No one has fun with the shepherds, although in medieval mystery plays their rough humour was often endearing. They were not characters; and, most important, they were not indubitably three.

For those who feel deprived of the mystical significance of the kings, however, there is a more profound dimension to the rule of three to ponder. For three encompasses everything: past, present, future; here, there, everywhere; earth, sea and air; positive, negative, neutral; this, that and the other. Through these trinities the kings, who might be any Tom, Dick or Harry, wander in search of answers (yes, no, maybe) to mysteries even older than that of Father, Son and Holy Ghost: the birth of light, the dawn of life and the primacy of love.

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