Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Earlier Satanic Mill

What with the elevation of Hildegard of Bingen to the status of a Doctor of the Church, I was looking back to the times when she lived, the twelfth century. And it was a very interesting time. Some of the big names of that time, arranged here by year-of-birth, were Omar Khayyam, Hildegard, Thomas Becket, Frederick Barbarossa, Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Maimonides, Saladin, Genghis Khan, Ibn el Arabi, and Francis of Assisi. In perusing these patterns, I also stumbled upon something striking. It was the “birth date,” so to say, of a precursor of industrialization. The Arsenal of Venice was founded in 1104. It was still around and thriving when Dante wrote his Inferno, and the following quote (from Canto XXI, Sayers translation) ranks it squarely among the satanic mills:

For as at Venice, in the Arsenal
In winter-time, they boil the gummy pitch
To caulk such ships as need an overhaul,

Now that they cannot sail—instead of which
One builds him a new boat, one toils to plug
Seams strained by many a voyage, others stitch

Canvas to patch a tattered jib or lug,
Hammer at the prow, hammer at the stern, or twine
Ropes, or shave oars, refit and make all snug —

So, not by fire, but by the art divine
A thick pitch boiled down there [in hell], spattering the brink
With vicious glue; I saw this, but therein

Nothing; only great bubbles black as ink
Would rise and burst there; or the seething tide
Heave up all over, and settle again, and sink.

The Arsenal was something quite unbelievable for its time. It could assemble a complete sailing ship in the space of a day—from uniformly fabricated components made in other parts of the facility in what amounted to an assembly-line manner. In that time, elsewhere, such ships took months to build. Up to 100 ships were at various stages of completion in the shipyard. The factory occupied more than 100 acres, was surrounded by a thick wall, and employed 1,600 people. It was also used for refurbishing old ships, as Dante indicates. It got its name from also manufacturing munitions. Come to think of it, shipbuilding at such a scale was next accomplished by the U.S.A. during World War II.

I note here that Venice was a Republic then. Its governance took that form in 697—and ended with Napoleon’s conquest of Venice in 1797. On that same date, the Arsenal of Venice also ceased to function. Republics and satanic mills? Do they go together? William Blake’s formulation of that label (in his poem, Jerusalem) dated to a time when London had been shrouded in smoke and pollution as the capital of the nascent Industrial Revolution. As for us, today, we mourn the passing of those mills but under the milder name of manufacturing. There they stand, those mills, abandoned; and the wind blows litter and plastic bags over vacant lots. Such is human fate. Love it and lose it. Wish it, get it, curse it, and mourn the idyllic past—but when it threatens to return, mourn that return in turn.
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As an addendum here, let me note that the average life span of the famous people named above was 67 years; the thinkers lived longer; the warriors passed earlier; the martyr, Becket, died at 52; perhaps the most intense of them all, Francis, only lived to be 45.  The three with the longest lives were Khayyam (83), Hildegard (81), and Ibn el Arabi (75).

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