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Predicting the Past

Start writing about the past and it’s very soon evident how little you know about it. Witness the namesake for Agincourt’s earliest Catholic church, Saint Ahab.

Choosing a dedicatory saint for Agincourt’s Catholic parish was dicey, since so many saints have become associated with particular ethnicities, etc. Don’t ask whereof he came, just be content that Ahab popped into my head as a compromise. What began as an amusing reference to Moby Dick has grown into some serious sleuthing regarding 3rd and 4th century Christianity, not one of my strong suits in any respect.

First I had to verify that Ahab was not, indeed, some obscure saint who had slipped through the ecclesiatical cracks. Once settled (there was that post-Vatican II environment of “fresh air” when saints were dropping like flies–Christopher among them–as being of “doubtful authenticity”), it remained only to place him in time-space. Croatia seemed appropriately remote and obtuse–a safe choice to imagine pretty much anything without fear of challenge–but then I discovered the Croats hadn’t occupied that nook of Europe until the 7th century, too late for Ahab to have been martyred by the Romans.

It turns out the former Yugoslavia (meaning something like “land of the southern Slavs”) had been a cluster of former Roman provinces, the largest of which was Dalmatia (of the spotted dogs) and that the area now known as Croatia had formerly been home to a feisty bunch called Liburnians by the Romans and something similar by the Greeks. Generally disliked by both of those more highly civilized cultures, the Liburnians resisted pacification (I was beginning to admire them already) while engaging in piracy throughout the first three centuries of the Common Era. What’s not to like here?

So a Liburnian he would be. But Wikipedia has little to say about the Liburnian language, other than its total disappearance, with the exception of a few personal names–none of which sounded like “Ahab.” Dead languages without written evidence offer one significant advantage: you can invent words as potential homonyms for Ahab. The Hebrew word “ahava” (love) was one real and obvious possibility, but I chose also to create “akavya” (a sparrow or other small bird) as a reference to Ahab’s pirating ways and his bird-like ability to evade pursuers. Now all I need is a cunning linguist to upset my day.

Since I haven’t yet published here the first consequences of Ahab’s choice as dedication at Agincourt–trust me for the time being that it had something to do with a ship’s mast deposited at the Schutz farm by a waterspout–the saint’s occupation as pirate made perfect sense. It remained only to write the circumstances of his martyrdom at the hands of the Roman navy during the peak of Diocletian’s persecution. Those of you who may have read the successive versions of his bio (posted during the last couple days) will note the tweeking of dates to heighten an illusion of authenticity: 1) Maxentius became Diocletian; 2) Bishop Eusebius couldn’t have been elevated to that position quite yet; 3) I’m still not certain that a lembus has a mast; and 4) which batch of Crusaders dragged his bones to France remains to be settled. Other than that, Ahab sounds more convincing with each tweek.

My point here was observed last Tuesday during coffee with Mr Johnson: the Agincourt story may be parochial and self-referential, but the establishment of links with an actual past has taken me to places I’d never have visited.

Mies van der Rohe was right: God is in the details.


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