Jonathan Ames Gets Banned in Istanbul; Medieval Englishmen in Rome

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    Iletisim printed 2000 copies of the translation and had sold maybe 600 when the ban came down, according to Siegel. Siegel had not determined at the time of this writing whether the publisher and translator face fines or incarceration or both; she was concerned that defending itself against the government's charges could very well bankrupt the publisher.

    Ames notes that his first book, I Pass Like Night, did well in Turkey, despite more graphic sexual content than this one. (Night was published there in a plastic wrapper, while the new one was not.) He thinks it may be that with its discussion of crossdressers and transsexuals?and a cover photo of Cary Grant in the shower?there was an added taint of homoeroticism about this one that may have put the government over the edge.

    Others writers might be glad of the free publicity, but Ames sounds depressed about the affair. (Then again, he often sounds depressed.) While conceding that "generally speaking, it's good for sales to be accused of all sexualities," he sounds completely sincere when he tells me, "I feel bad for this translator. I feel terrible that he and the publisher are troubled for a person they don't know?me?and that their livelihoods should be endangered for this book. I'd rather the book not be published than cause anybody any grief."

    The Extra Man got good reviews here, and has been well received in other foreign editions, including the UK, Holland and France. Iletisim plans to cite the book's international reception in its defense. Siegel was contacting P.E.N. for consultation when we spoke this Monday.

    Roman 'oliday In 1350, Pope Clement VI declared a Year of Jubilee in Rome. Just like this year. It was a turbulent time for the papacy, and for Rome. The popes had not in fact resided in the city since moving the papal curia to Avignon in 1309. For much of the century Avignon flourished while Rome, abandoned by all the business the papal court brought with it, suffered. The pope was constantly having to defend papal power and lands against a host of royal and noble competitors, from the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Naples to powerful Roman families like the Orsini and the Colonnas. The history of the papacy in that era is a storm of death plots, cities besieged, clerics murdered. On top of their secular enemies, popes from 1378 until 1417 had to deal with a schism that produced one pope in Rome and a rival antipope in Avignon, each with his own set of powerful and warring supporters.

    Clement wanted to bring the papacy back to Rome from Avignon, but he met with resistance from the local nobles (and he ultimately failed). At one point he even considered allying the papacy with the populist firebrand Cola di Rienzo (a name still remembered in Rome), who briefly led the popolo in an uprising against both the nobles and the church, establishing the city for a few months as a republican free state. Then, as so often happens, he became a petty tyrant who had to be gotten rid of. The local lords did a lot of damage to the city in forcibly extricating him (Clement later excommunicated him to boot).

    So, when Clement declared 1350 a Jubilee Year, it attracted crowds of pilgrims, just like this year. They found Rome much in ruins, beat-up and dug-up, and completely unprepared to deal with the influx of visitors. Just like this year.

    Only not, of course. If you think the world's a roughed-up place today, a quick refresher course in medieval history might help you put that thought in better perspective.

    Margaret Harvey's The English in Rome 1362-1420: Portrait of an Expatriate Community (Cambridge University Press, 278 pages, $59.95) is an academic text, often dryly recording data from wills and land records. But it treats three topics I like reading about: Rome, medieval history and Englishmen abroad. Her project is to document the founding and development of two hospices in Rome for the care of English pilgrims and residents. One, called S. Thomas (after Becket, who'd become a hugely popular saint in England since his martyrdom two centuries earlier), was begun in 1362. It was located on what is now via Monserrato, near the Piazza Farnese, in the neighborhood called Regola (then Arenula). S. Chrysogonus, founded in 1396, was across the Tiber in Trastevere, not so trendy then.

    In fact, Rome generally was not much like the city we know. In the first place it was much less habited?as few as 17,000 people lived inside the walls in the period Harvey treats. Plagues and civic disturbances were common; food shortages and famine were recurring travails, and there was even a "bullion famine" in Rome, 1395 to 1415, when coins became scarce. Every now and again the soldiers of some rival city or enemy of the pope would blockade, siege and/or loot the place.

    Architecturally the city was far less built-up. A lot of the space was open, a patchwork of small gardens, vineyards and fields, those by the river regularly flooding. Sheep and cattle grazed among such Roman ruins as were not buried. "In the inhabited area the houses were of all types," Harvey writes, "with towers, hovels, reused ancient remains (grypta) and what are described as palaces, cheek by jowl, so there was no 'fashionable quarter', although there were certainly very different social classes in the city."

    Harvey sagely remarks that "Against this background a question arises about the attraction of Rome to anyone who did not have to live there." Her answer is that "A major impetus was probably trade, both that connected with pilgrimage and more generally the hope of establishing a commercial foothold in a foreign centre. Without a resident papacy, late medieval Rome might seem to us a poor and insignificant place, but it was a significant pilgrim centre, its raison d'etre amply illustrated in the Jubilee year of 1350 when there was a huge influx of people, including perhaps 'several hundred from England'. Matteo Villani, the Florentine chronicler, painted a somewhat idealised picture of the Holy Year of 1350 but the large number of pilgrims was excellent for all inhabitants: 'all the Romans became innkeepers' and put up prices."

    In this setting, Germans, Florentines, the English and other "foreign" communities established their hospices. "As an alien group in a foreign land," Harvey explains, "Englishmen, and also their widows, might find themselves in old age without kin to care for them and without anyone to pray for their soul."

    Before the return of the papacy, the members of S. Thomas were mostly artisans and merchants?tailors, goldsmiths, men involved in the wool trade, and paternostrarii, or beadsellers. "In the Middle Ages to be paternostrarius was a distinct craft. He was the maker and seller of paternosters or prayer beads. The use of beads to count prayers was very old; the most common use in the thirteenth century was to count 'Our Fathers', hence the name, but in the later Middle Ages many combinations of aves and paters might be used in prayer," until the modern rosary was established late in the following century.

    Beads might be made of bone, horn, shell, amber, jet, ivory, crystal and occasionally silver or coral. Obviously, you wanted to sell them to the faithful on their way into church, which is why in London Paternoster Row is right by St. Paul's; in Rome, they had booths on the steps of St. Peter's. "Some individuals probably valued a Roman rosary, perhaps because it would have been specially blessed. John Launce, friend of the English proctor William Swan, went to expense at the beginning of the fifteenth century to ask 'for a pair of beads otherwise called paternoster' (pro uno pari bedis alias dicto paternost[rario])."

    Gregory XI finally managed to move back to Rome in 1376. But then, with his death only two years later, the Rome-Avignon schism broke out. The existence of two complete papal bureaucracies created a job market for another class of Englishmen who begin to turn up in Rome in significant numbers: clerics, lawyers, clerks, scholars, known collectively by the Latin term cortisani (not as suggestive as it sounds?it means courtiers, not courtesans). Some did quite well for themselves, earning bishoprics, buying themselves Roman palaces.

    Traveling to and from Rome in those days was dangerous and not infrequently deadly. Harvey writes of one Englishman in the papal curia who "put himself to sea with other cortisani...near the port of Ostia" and "was captured by pirates and supporters of the duke of Anjou." Along with all the indignities of being a captive, "While he was away his enemies in York... despoiled him, accusing him of non-residence." In 1407, Alice Tudor crossed Italy for Rome with three friends. One fell sick and maybe died in Venice, another died within a week of reaching Rome. That same year, Swan "nearly died in 1407 on his way to Sienna in the wake of the pope. Writing to Launce in London he noted that there had been an outbreak of fluxus sanguinis (?dysentery)" that killed at least one travel companion. "It was common to make one's will before setting out; as White explained in 1397 'because of the long journey and the dangers of the roads and cases of death' it could be a long time before return. Some people simply vanished. The dangers were very real. Colchester described losses from theft or the need to ransom himself or his goods and he did not dare enter the port of Rome in 1379 but disembarked at Ostia. He was just one of a long line of suffering travellers."

    Harvey's researching of wills and other records sometimes yields a little gem of anecdotal color, like the story of Rosa Ubertini Casarola, wife of "John the Englishman," who in 1363 "annulled the gift of a house to him because it was 'forced by the violence of her husband, because of the many wounds her husband continuously gave her and his threats.'" In her will she left her English servant the use of both of her houses. (It was not an easy life for most women.

    They could not sign deeds without their husbands, and any woman traveling alone was both highly suspect and in great danger of being at the very least ripped off.)

    After 1420 Rome, including the papal curia, became an increasingly hostile work environment for non-Italians, and the English community that had gained a foothold in the period Harvey is describing failed to flourish. That the English never established their base in Rome "on the scale of Italians in English centres like Southampton," Harvey concludes, "is as significant as that they tried." It would be some years later, and in different locales, that the English would learn to be good colonizers.

    Afterwords We joked around some last fall when J.R. Taylor took a job as senior editor at, a free site aimed at the young male market with nude photo spreads, advice about sex and reviews of the latest gadgets and games. We figured it for a too-obvious exercise in taking the Gear and Maxim formula online. "Take cash," we advised, when J.R. spoke of stock options. "Don't hold your breath," we scoffed, when he mentioned the inevitable dream of an IPO. Who's laughing now? Playboy Enterprises, Inc. just bought the six-month-old site, making founder-owners Allen and Lauren Blankenship a happy couple. Effectively the entire Rouze staff comes with the bargain. J.R.'s stock options suddenly look a lot sweeter, too.

    For Rouze's faithful boy browsers, there is one big downside: Christie Hefner has announced that in keeping with Playboy's online policy of only showing the good stuff to paid subscribers, the Rouze site will "move from nude to near-nude pictorials." Dag, J.R., do something.

    Pussy Galore: It's the stupidest tic in authors' book jacket bios, and it has got to stop. On the flap of her new Mary McCarthy biography Seeing Mary Plain?under a photo, incidentally, that makes her look like the owner of a Wiccan bookstore or feminist candle shoppe in Connecticut?it says: "Frances Kiernan was a fiction editor for The New Yorker for fifteen years and has also worked as a book editor. She lives in New York City with her husband and cats."

    And cats.

    Now get this, all of you: Shut the fuck up about your cats. No one cares that you have cats. Would you have mentioned it if it were goldfish? I'd take "She lives in New York City with her husband and shingles," or "She lives in New York City with her outdated pretense of merlot expertise and a crushing fear of heights," or "She lives in New York City, an urban environment lousy with failed authors who would strangle a former fiction editor of The New Yorker to death if they knew her address." But who gives a flying fuck that you have cats? Stop it this instant.