Friday, August 5, 2011

Back in the days when people wrote letters

In my May article entitled Voices from Vienna [display], I evoked my exchange of letters with the great Viennese art historian Ernst Gombrich. Then, in my June article entitled Symbolic arrows [display], I started to evoke the motivations behind my preoccupations with symbolic arrows.

Three decades ago, when I was eagerly pursuing this arrow subject, I tried to analyze every specimen I encountered. For Americans, the most famous bundle of symbolic arrows (exactly 13) is clenched in the left talon of a bald eagle, on the Great Seal.

That bundle of arrows symbolizes US military strength, whereas the olive branch in the eagle's right talon symbolizes cherished peace. I was intrigued by another illustrious blazon based upon a bundle of arrows.

These are the arms of the Rothschild family: the world's greatest and wealthiest dynasty of international bankers. Well, back in those days before personal computers and the Internet, I was curious to learn why the Rothschilds might have incorporated arrows in their coat of arms. So, I simply sent off a letter to the family in Paris.

I received a prompt and friendly reply from the chief himself: Baron Guy de Rothschild. At that time, he was the 72-year-old patriarch of a distinguished French family and the discouraged head of a great bank that had been nationalized by the socialist government of François Mitterrand. I've often wondered, since then, why Guy de Rothschild took time off from his tribulations to explain to a naive Australian why there were arrows in the family's coat of arms. My personal explanation might sound simplistic and corny, but I'll give it all the same. Guy de Rothschild sent me that personal letter [see below, click to enlarge] because... he was a gentleman.

This is a photo of the old man not long before his death, four years ago:

In his letter, he evoked the idea that the arrows represented the five sons of the patriarch Mayer Amschel Rothschild [1744-1812].

Today, this association between the bundle of five arrows and the sons is indicated explicitly in various web articles about Rothschild history. The prestigious US magazine Forbes considered Mayer Amschel Rothschild —who grew up in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt—a "founding father of international finance", and ranked him 7th in their list of "the twenty most influential businessmen of all time". The Rothschild patriarch probably discovered his metaphorical sense of arrows, evoking down-to-earth advantages of sons, in Psalm 127:
Sons are a gift from the Lord
and children a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the sons of one's youth.
Happy is he
who has his quiver full of them;
someone like that will not have to back down
when confronted by an enemy in court.

The following chart mentions individuals in the English and French branches of the family:

[Click to enlarge slightly]

The 48-year-old man whose name appears in the lower right-hand corner, Benjamin de Rothschild, is said to be the richest of the living Rothschilds.

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