Fake news and tall stories

From its hilltop vantage point, Cologne Cathedral soars a further 516 feet by means of two spires that are the second tallest in the world.

Climbing the muscle-numbing 533 steps up the South tower, the visitor passes St Peter’s bell, one of the Cathedral’s eight. It weighs 24 tons but it only rings on public holidays such as Christmas and New Year.

Another tall story is to be found inside the Cathedral, which guards the Shrine of the Three Kings, created by the 12th century French goldsmith and enamellist Nicholas of Verdun. The shrine is a reliquary in the shape of a basilica made of bronze and silver, ornamented with architectural details, figurative sculpture, enamels and gemstones. The reliquary is said to hold the remains of the biblical Magi, or Three Wise Men, whose relics were looted by Frederick Barbarossa from the Basilica di Sant’Eustorgio in Milan in 1164.

Seven hundred years later, in 1864, the shrine was opened, disclosing human remains and two coins from the time of Philip I, Archbishop of Cologne. An eyewitness report reads:

“In a special compartment of the shrine now there showed – along with remains of ancient old rotten or moulded bandages, most likely byssus, besides pieces of aromatic resins and similar substances – numerous bones of three persons, which under the guidance of several present experts could be assembled into nearly complete bodies: the one in his early youth, the second in his early manhood, the third was rather aged.”

In his novel Baudolino (2000), Umberto Eco presents the discovery and gifting of the Magi’s relics as a 12th century hoax perpetrated by the book’s title character. Blending medieval fact and fiction, Eco challenges the reader to discern its “fake news” in a sly take on the nature of truth. We learn that the famous letter supposedly written by the legendary (non-existent) Prester John and discovered in 12th century Europe, was fabricated by Baudolino.

Prester John was supposed to be a descendant of one of the Three Magi. In his letter, he wrote that his kingdom stretched from India to the land where the sun rises, and that it was inhabited by fantastic creatures such as seven-horned bulls, birds so large they could lift and kill an armored man, and horned men with three eyes in the back of their heads.

Fake news has been around for as long as there have been gullible people. As astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in an essay titled “The Burden of Skepticism” (1987):

“What is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas… If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you… On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones.”


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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