Cancel culture, the practice of denying somebody a platform for their views or boycotting their work, is seen as a modern phenomenon, the product of the social-media age, but archaeologists and historians might disagree. The word ‘boycott’ is itself an indication that the practice is not new. Meaning to ostracise somebody as a protest against their values for moral, social, political, or environmental reasons, the term was first used in the 1880s and refers to Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832-1897). He suffered the wrath of the community in County Mayo in the north-west of Ireland as part of a campaign against the exploitation of tenants by landlords organised by the Irish National Land League. Pubs refused to serve him, shops to supply goods, farm labourers to obey his instructions.
Older still is the practice of sending somebody to Coventry. Why Coventry, a prosperous cathedral town in the English Midlands that, until it was flattened during bombing raids in 1940 to 1941, was a maze of narrow streets lined with flamboyant medieval timber-framed buildings and fine churches? Popular culture links it to ‘Peeping Tom’, a Coventry tailor who was ostracised by the community because he alone of all Coventry’s citizens spied on Lady Godiva when she rode naked through the city’s streets in protest against the oppressive taxes levied on tenants by her own husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia (d. 1057).
The problem with this attribution is that the earliest recorded use of the phrase dates from 1647, so it is much more likely to have a Civil War origin – perhaps, suggests one commentator, it was a form of discipline exercised by Cromwell’s New Model Army to punish anti-social behaviour, but the choice of Coventry remains a mystery.
Damnatio and iconoclasm
And then there is the ancient Roman practice of damnatio memoriae (‘condemnation of memory’), about which this magazine has reported on several occasions, used as a sanction against emperors (such as Nero) who were deemed to have brought dishonour on Rome and its institutions: their statues were defaced or recycled, and their names expunged from the records.
Archaeological evidence too exists for attempts by early Christians to ‘cancel’ pagan practices by desecrating temples, such as the one dedicated to Sulis Minerva that stood over the sacred springs in the city of Bath. No doubt those early Christians would say that this was relatively mild revenge for the sufferings of martyrs, persecuted by Roman emperors (the name of Nero again springs to mind) in an attempt to destroy the new religion and its adherents. Less can be said in favour of the iconoclasm of the Reformation in Europe, and its successful destruction of artefacts deemed to be ‘papist’: all carved and painted images – even of the Crucifixion – all relics and all symbols of ‘ritualistic’ practice, such as vestments, processional banners, altars, rood screens, musical instruments, or chantries.
In 13th-century Florence, cancel culture took the form of excluding citizens from their birthright, shutting them out of the city walls, and condemning them to exile – a punishment meted out to Dante Alighieri when his political enemies controlled the city. Two centuries later, the hard-line Dominican prior Savonarola organised house-by-house collections of paintings, mirrors, gaudy clothing, jewellery, and erotica, which were burned on great ‘bonfires of vanity’ in the city’s main square. Even the artist Botticelli got caught up in this, when he condemned his own early work for depicting pagan deities and vowed only to paint religious subjects in the latter part of his life.
Many more examples could be cited, but one observation is relevant to all. The attempts to erase somebody’s life and work or take down a statue or monument often has the opposite effect: of giving publicity to something that might otherwise have been forgotten. How many people, for example, have walked past the façade of the Stadtkirche in Wittenberg without noticing a 13th-century carving known as the Judensau (‘Jews’ sow’). This depicts a rabbi lifting the hind leg of a pig to inspect its rear end, while others are feeding on the sow’s teats.
The carving belongs to a medieval tradition implying that Jews follow a false faith and are sustained by an unclean animal, a theme associated with Luther himself, who preached many an anti-Semitic sermon in this same church. Recently a court in Germany considered a petition asking for the removal of the carving, which the pastor of the Stadtkirche described as a ‘repulsive and tasteless’ attack on Jews that ‘fills me with shame and pain’.
Judges sitting in the state’s superior court in Naumburg, Saxony-Anhalt, decided that the carving was sufficiently ‘embedded’ in a wider memorial context because a monument had been erected in 1988 remembering the millions of Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The judges said, ‘anyone looking at the relief cannot fail to see the memorial and the information sign the parish put up in 1988 placing it in the proper context’. The decision has divided the Jewish community, some of whom see the carving as defamatory, but the German Jewish historian Michael Wolffsohn argues that to remove the relief is to whitewash history and make it easier for people to forget past injustice.
The case of the ‘Nazi’ terrier
Nobody has yet suggested destroying the gravestone that is sometimes claimed as the ‘only memorial to a Nazi’ on British soil. It stands close to the site of the former German Embassy, at 9 Carlton House Terrace, off London’s Pall Mall. Except that it commemorates a dog called Giro – hence only a Nazi by association with his former owner, Leopold von Hoesch, who served as the German ambassador in the 1930s.
It is doubtful whether Hoesch himself deserves to be labelled a Nazi: though his coffin was draped in a swastika flag when he died in 1936, he was less than enthusiastic about the rise of Hitler, and ‘was completely out of sympathy with most of the principles of National Socialism’, according to one obituary. Another said he was ‘immune to the contagion of violent, swashbuckling nationalism’. Poor Giro the terrier died two years before his master, having chewed through a live electricity cable in the embassy garden. Giro was buried close to the spot where he died, and his tombstone, protected by railings, hails him as Ein treuer Begleiter (‘A true companion’).
And it is not just memorials that are attracting scrutiny: in the Netherlands, the Dutch royal family’s Golden Coach, used for state occasions, such as the annual opening of parliament in the Hague, is likely to be ‘retired’ from active use because of the ‘racist, colonialist imagery’ painted on the side panels. The richly carved and gilded coach was funded by public donations and given to Queen Wilhelmina to mark her 1898 coronation by the loyal citizens of Amsterdam. Nicolaas van der Waay was commissioned to paint the side panels with a scene called ‘Homage of the Colonies’, depicting people from the Dutch colonies offering gifts to a woman seated on a throne, representing the Netherlands.
Thanks in part to colonial expansion and involvement in the slave trade, the Dutch Republic became a wealthy world power from the 17th century, but the Amsterdam Museum has said that it favours removing references to this period that refer to it as the ‘Dutch Golden Age’. This, said one curator, has ‘positive associations of prosperity, peace, opulence, and innocence that do not accurately describe the historical reality’.
The Netherlands is no stranger to the practice of iconoclasm: the plain white interiors of the nation’s churches owe their appearance to the Beeldenstorm, the theologically inspired ‘storm’ of image destruction that occurred in the 1560s. But there is surely going to be a very large task ahead if the ‘Golden Age’ is to be suppressed, given that the houses of the city’s canal circle date from this era – not to mention the Royal Palace on Dam Square, which is carved with scenes not very different from those on the Golden Coach, showing people from the four corners of the earth offering gifts to Amsterdam, personified as a female wearing an imperial crown. Although she is shown offering peace and prosperity in return, it is quite clear who rules and who is ruled.