Papist Wildlife and Providentialist Histories

Several days ago I was distracted from my mid-afternoon, back-porched task of grading college research papers by the presence of a pair of cardinals flitting around our yard. As I watched them doing what cardinals do, I began wondering whence precisely cardinals derived their peculiar name. My instinct was to presume they were named after those individuals in the Roman Catholic Church bearing the title "Cardinal," which individuals, when decked out in full regalia (including bright red cassock and biretta), certainly resemble at least the male gender of the bird in question. Setting research papers aside (with apologies to my students), I decided to conduct some quality (or not), computer-based research regarding the exact origin of the name "cardinal" as applied to the bird.

One early encyclopedia article consulted proved unpromising when it told me that Roman Catholic Cardinals were actually named after the bird, an unlikely claim since Cardinals existed, and were named such, in the Roman Catholic Church long before Old World inhabitants had any knowledge of cardinals, which are native to the western hemisphere. A slightly more credible article from an online wildlife journal supported my own instinctive hypothesis, informing me that New World colonists named cardinals such because the bird's plumage reminded them of those vestments sported by the highest ranking officials of the Roman Church back home.

Of course, cardinals aren't the only animals peculiar to the western hemisphere to derive their name from some rank or file of the Roman Catholic religious elite. Capuchin monkeys in South America were named after the Capuchin Order, an early sixteenth-century reforming off-shoot of the Franciscans. The markings of capuchin monkeys apparently reminded explorers of the religious habit worn by Capuchins, a habit complete with a dark pointy hood (cappuccio), which hood had itself informed the name first given to the religious order. Or so at least I've been telling church history students for several years now in a unit I teach on early modern Roman Catholicism. My recent, mid-afternoon, thoroughly non-quality research into papist branded American wildlife suggested I might need to nuance this narrative somewhat. According to an illustrated French history of mammals originally published in the early nineteenth-century, explorers in the New World named capuchin monkeys such not only or primarily because their markings resembled the religious habit of Capuchin Friars, but because they discovered in these monkeys a natural facial expression that reflected the "ignorance, laziness, and sensuality" that, at least in their judgment, characterized said Friars and members of other religious orders in the Old World. In other words, the ascription of the name "capuchin" to these monkeys was intended to insult not to honor the intended referent in the name.

This naturally left me wondering whether the application of the name "cardinal" to the bird was as innocuous a gesture as it seemed. The same online wildlife journal that supported my hypothesis about the origin of name "cardinal" as applied to the bird informed me that cardinals, when threatened by predators, raise their crests (the pointy bit on top of their heads) in the hope (presumably) of looking slightly more imposing or intimidating. One wonders if the colonists who named cardinals such didn't notice this characteristic of the bird, and find it reminiscent of the behavior of Roman Catholic Cardinals who -- at least historically -- tended to respond to threats to their wealth and power with increasingly greater shows of authority and prestige. Or maybe the name derived from observation that both cardinals and Cardinals were such easy targets, the former by virtue of their bright red color (especially against a backdrop of snow), the latter by virtue of their historically attested immorality (against the backdrop of Scripture's portrait of proper ecclesiastical authority/authorities)?

Clearly more research is needed on this front. For the sake of my students awaiting their final grades, I'll leave that research to someone else.

The presence of cardinals in my yard also reminded me of John Knox's rather intriguing account of a ship named the Cardinal and its peculiar fate in his history of the Scottish Reformation. In Knox's chronological account of events leading up to Scotland's official embrace of Protestantism, he notes that in 1548 a "ship called the Cardinal," the "fairest ship" of the entire French fleet sent to reinforce young Queen Mary's authority in her native land while she was being raised in France, inexplicably sank while anchored near Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth. Given the absence of obvious explanation (say, foul weather) for the ship's sinking, Knox rather freely claims the occurrence as an act of unmediated divine providence intended to communicate that God wished Scotland to be free of Cardinals (and by extension, every other instance of Roman Catholic authority and influence).

Knox's history is full of similarly providentialist interpretations of events. Of course, such a reading of historical events has little purchase among historians today. Knox's history frequently serves as exhibit A for modern historians wishing to detail and discredit "confessionalist" histories of days gone by. His crime, modern historians claim, was one of bringing his theological conviction regarding God's providence to bear upon his analysis of historical events, a move (obviously) informed by his adherence to a particular species of Christianity.

I'm inclined to criticize Knox's history from a slightly different vantage point. God is in fact sovereign over human history. Conviction of such must inform the task of narrating the past like every other human task that Christians find themselves involved in. I'm not sure, in other words, that historians who hold Christian convictions can properly fault Knox for letting his own theological convictions inform his account of how Reformation happened in his native country. My own concern with Knox is not that he let a doctrine of divine providence inform his historical task, but rather than let such a poor doctrine of divine providence inform his historical task. Knox's confident assertion about what God was doing and revealing when the Cardinal sank violates Scripture's own insistence that God and God alone is privy to His own intention and purpose in the vast majority of happenings in human history (Deut. 29.29). To be sure, God has revealed his express intention and purpose in certain historical events (say, the Resurrection). He has not done so in the overwhelming majority of historical events, which truth should prevent historians from claiming knowledge of God's intention and purpose in the bulk of events they seek to describe, and orient them towards those more proximate causes of historical events that properly belong to their purview - proximate causes such as, for instance, holes in the hulls of boats, whether the result of personal forces (devious Protestants) or impersonal forces (jagged rocks).

To put the matter another way, I think confessionalist/providentialist histories can be more effectively critiqued from a confessionalist/providentialist standpoint than they can from some supposed standpoint of (a)theological neutrality or indifference. But I may be forced to rethink my most basic historiographical convictions if, having observed the cardinals at play in my back yard, I find our property destroyed by floods, fire, or some other peculiar providence in the very near future.