Merlin Prophecy Figures in History Inaugural Lecture
In his inaugural lecture, Jason Nice, who teaches British history, will use a 16th-century struggle between English and Welsh Catholics in Rome to explain larger changes taking place in Europe and Britain at the time. Nice will deliver “The Prophecy of Merlin on the Via di Monserato: Memory, Nostalgia and Britishness in 16th-Century Rome,” on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 7:30 pm, in PAC 134.
Nice, who received his PhD from the University of York (England) in 2004, is beginning his third year at CSU, Chico. He recently published Sacred History and National Identity: Comparisons between Early Modern Wales and Brittany (Pickering and Chatto, 2009).
The lecture, based on a chapter from his book, is a study in how national identities were formed in the 16th century, using the competition of different nationalities in Rome as a case study. While Elizabethan Protestants sought to create a new national identity in Britain, Catholic exiles to the continent forged their own sense of Britishness in the cities of 16th-century Europe, especially Rome.
However, the British identity of the Catholic exiles was hotly contested between the various subgroups that made up Britain. For instance, the English and Welsh in Rome competed over patronage and resources, and had different ideas about the identity of both Britain and the Church.
Some of the exiles who migrated to Rome sought to become priests, and a group of influential Welshmen in Rome established a college for British students. Over time, the English students began to feel resentful of being ruled by Welshmen with whom they believed they didn’t have much in common, besides a shared border back home.
There were strong political and theological differences between the Welsh and English students, said Nice. The English tended more toward militancy and wanted to lead a mission to restore Catholicism in England. The Welsh, however, were more willing to let history take its course, and find employment on the continent. In short, the English students gradually won the support of key cardinals and the pope, since goals of the English students meshed with those of the Tridentine Church.
At the heart of the lecture, Nice will explain how the English and Welsh sought to manipulate the identity of the college in their quest to win control. The Welsh, relying largely upon ancient myths, sought to fashion a “British” college that would be more inclusive of groups like the Welsh. The English, also resorting to ancient myths, strove to identify the college as particularly “English.”
The climax of this battle took place when the bones of an early medieval king were discovered during the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica, sometime between 1578 and 1580. Throughout Rome, during this excavation of the catacombs, groups sought to find among the rediscovered bones a spiritual and political patron, which could help advance their current interests. Thus, the Welsh students quickly identified the bones as those of Cadwaladr, the last of the British kings before the ascendancy of the Anglo-Saxons, since such an identification would fit within an ancient prophecy of Merlin, much-treasured by the Welsh.
This prophecy foretold that the Welsh would eventually reclaim their island from the English invaders when (among other things) the bones of their saints were recovered from Rome. The English students, recognizing that the “discovery” of the remains of the seventh-century Cadwaladr could provide an edge to the Welsh, put forward their own identification of the bones as those of Caedwalla of Wessex, an Anglo-Saxon king who also reportedly died in Rome during the seventh century. These disputes, Nice said, illustrate larger problems of a world on the cusp of modernity, relating to religion, national identity, and the study of history.
The inaugural lecture introduces a relatively new member of the Department of History to colleagues and the campus. The lecture is open to the campus and community.
—Kathleen McPartland with Jason Nice