Continuity and Change

“Continuity and Change” is a historical cliché. If you’ve got a collection of essays on a particular topic, the default title for publication is “Continuity and Change [in time and place].” It’s not quite as bad as the classic student thesis for a compare-and-contrast paper (“there are many similarities and differences between [A and B]”), but it is an attempt to encompass every possible perspective on a particular topic, and consequently doesn’t say very much.

But actually examining the whole question of continuity and change is an exceedingly complex exercise. To what extent do things change, and to what extent do they stay the same? To answer this question takes a great deal of research for any particular topic, and even then debates about it often seem to be divided between those who believe the glass is half empty, and those who believe the glass is half full. I think that historians are often biased towards “change” (just as Jack Hexter favored “splitters” over “lumpers”) – “change” being simply more interesting (and justifying the research!) than continuity. Some historians, though, largely associated with France’s Annales School, favor the study of long-term historical structures over events, which they likened to the waves on the top of the ocean.* So “continuity” does have some fans out there.

And, of course, it depends on the topic. Some things change more quickly or obviously than others. For one topic I’m interested in, English nationhood, I favor “continuity.” This is a minority position in the academy. Under the influence of Marxism, nations were seen as bourgeois constructs, and even if academics weren’t Marxist themselves, they tended to see nationalism as a bad thing. Thus, there was an imperative to view them as invented in the nineteenth century, and then projected onto the past. Nations claim to be very old, but are in fact quite recent – or so the theory goes – and if they aren’t inevitable, then alternate political arrangements become more plausible. This view is not entirely wrong, but not entirely correct either, and certainly not for England. Even on the continent, would-be nation builders could not simply invent nations out of nothing – they had to select things that putative “nationals” already believed about themselves.

But for another topic I’m interested in, religion, I favor change – or at least, I am invested in the idea that Christianity was a genuine novelty when it first appeared. This is not quite a minority position in the academy, but at one point it was: under the influence of Frazer, Christianity was seen as paganism warmed over: Christ was a dying god-king (whose death guaranteed a new cycle of fertility), Christian saints were pagan deities, etc. But following Ronald Hutton, I am convinced that:

quite apart from the opinions of its partisans, Christianity was different in kind from pagan religions of the ancient world, offering to everyone a personal relationship with the one true God and the promise of eternal salvation, and actively proselytized by missionaries. Syncretism is a fact of religious history, of course, and it is clear that Christianity did inherit certain practices from the pagan world in which it arose, such as the influence of one or more schools of Hellenistic philosophy or, starting in the fourth century, the use of candles, incense, altars, or clerical vestments in public worship. Such things are exceptional, however, and far more allegedly “pagan” practices arose, over time, within Christianity itself. If Christianity appears, at certain times and places, to have taken on characteristics of other religions, it is usually because Christianity, as a religion, must provide for certain strong and near-universal human desires. The desire for children is one such, and it is only natural that once Christians accepted that saints wielded intercessory power, they should begin to pray to them for children—the continuity here is in human nature, not in religion.

Thus, I was interested to read a BBC News article: Fairy Tale Origins Thousands of Years Old, Researchers Say. Who is right? Tehrani and Da Silva, following Grimm? Or Lindow?

Fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast can be traced back thousands of years, according to researchers at universities in Durham and Lisbon.

Using techniques normally employed by biologists, academics studied links between stories from around the world and found some had prehistoric roots.

They found some tales were older than the earliest literary records, with one dating back to the Bronze Age.

The stories had been thought to date back to the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Durham University anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani, said Jack and the Beanstalk was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split more than 5,000 years ago.

Analysis showed Beauty And The Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old.

And a folk tale called The Smith And The Devil, about a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the Devil in order to gain supernatural abilities, was estimated to go back 6,000 years to the Bronze Age.

A blacksmith strikes a deal with a malevolent supernatural being, such as the Devil, Death or a genie.

The blacksmith exchanges his soul for the power to weld any materials together.

He then uses this power to stick the villain to an immovable object, such as a tree, to renege on his side of the bargain.

This basic plot is stable throughout the Indo-European speaking world, from India to Scandinavia, according to the research.

The study said this tale could be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European society when metallurgy likely existed and there was archaeological and genetic evidence of massive territorial expansions by nomadic tribes from the Pontic steppe (the northern shores of the Black Sea) between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago.

However, John Lindow, a folklorist at the University of California, Berkeley, casts doubt on the theory in Science News, saying the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary for working with metal was limited and the word “smith” might not have existed.

If true, that would mean the version of “The Smith and the Devil” used in the study may not be that old, he said.

Dr Tehrani, who worked with folklorist Sara Graca Da Silva, from the New University of Lisbon, said: “We find it pretty remarkable these stories have survived without being written.

“They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed. They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.”

In the 19th Century, authors the Brothers Grimm believed many of the fairy tales they popularised, including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White, were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family.

Later thinkers challenged that view, saying some stories were much younger and had been passed into oral tradition, having first been written down by writers from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Dr Jamie Tehrani said: “We can come firmly down on the side of Wilhelm Grimm.

“Some of these stories go back much further than the earliest literary record and indeed further back than Classical mythology – some versions of these stories appear in Latin and Greek texts – but our findings suggest they are much older than that.”

The study, which was published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, employed phylogenetic methods to investigate the relationships between population histories and cultural phenomena, such as languages, marriage practices, political institutions, material culture and music.

It also used a “tree” of Indo-European languages to trace the descent of shared tales to see how far they could be demonstrated to go back in time.

Dr Tehrani explained: “We used a toolkit that we borrowed from evolutionary biology called phylogenetic comparative methods. This enables you to reconstruct the past in the absence of physical evidence.

“We’ve excavated information about our story-telling history, using information that’s been preserved through the mechanism of inheritance, so in that sense they embody their own history.

This looks promising. Rather than take (often superficial) similarities and offer these as conclusive proof of transmission, as Frazer did, the researchers seem to have offered further linguistic and genetic evidence as they reconstruct the past.

The debate continues…

* The French expression was longue durée (vs. histoire evenementielle). I was amused to discover the package below for sale in the local Publix. The Annales School lives!



From the National Post:

The strange tale of the man who was shot point-blank for mispronouncing ‘Newfoundland’ — in the Old West

Tristin Hopper | January 14, 2016 6:41 PM ET

Mill workers in the frontier town of Larkspur, Colo., saw two men enter a cabin in search of a dictionary. Seconds later, they heard a gunshot.

The Webster’s had not even been thumbed through when mill worker William Atcheson, 23, threw a punch. Teamster John P. Davis recovered and, “true to his Texan breeding and education,” drew a revolver and fired point-blank into his assailant’s abdomen.

The year was 1876 and Davis and Atcheson had just drawn first blood in a dispute that has divided Newfoundlanders ever since.

“One wanted to put the accent on ‘found,’ and the other on ‘land,’ ” said the Rocky Mountain News, which reported on the unusual brawl in its March 29, 1876 edition.

While the modern “noo-fn-land” is the undisputed leader in the battle over the correct pronunciation of the word Newfoundland, it arose out of a pitched struggle of rival inflections.

“It’s a generational thing, but just exactly what the dividing line is I don’t know, but if you’re born after 1970, chances are you primarily put the stress on the first syllable,” says Philip Hiscock, a folklorist at Memorial University and an expert on the Newfoundland dialect.

“And if you’re born before 1950, your primary pronunciation would be to stress the last syllable.”

The 1939 guidelines for the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland read “all three syllables are to be given equal value, but a slight stressing of the final syllable will be permissible.” In essence, early 20th century Newfoundlanders would have received their news from broadcasters who favoured the British “new found land.”

But while pockets of “new-found-land” speakers persisted into the late 20th century, by the Great Depression young Newfoundlanders already considered it outdated and wrong.

It was Joey Smallwood, the province’s influential first premier, who successfully championed “nyoo-fn-land,” antecedent to the version we know today, said Hiscock.

More at the link.

Roman Names

Roman male names are usually composed of three elements, as in “Gaius Julius Caesar.” In this case, Gaius (the praenomen) was his personal name, Julius (the nomen) the name of his gens (clan, or extended family), and Caesar (the cognomen) was a nickname, to distinguish him from all the other Gaii of the Julian clan. Originally cognomina were unique to the individual, but they quickly became hereditary, designating a particular family within the gens. I tell my students that a rough equivalent would be someone named “John MacTavish of Kintyre” – a John, member of clan MacTavish, residing in Kintyre (as opposed to any MacTavishes living in Arran, Islay, or Mull). The hereditary nature of the cognomen perhaps gave rise to a fourth element, the agnomen, a name that also designated a particular individual, as in Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (although agnomina could also become hereditary, or be reused, particularly when they designated victory titles like Africanus, Germanicus, or Britannicus).

Some people never took cognomina, such as Titus Livius (Livy) or Gaius Marius (Marius).

It seems that most Romans are known in English by English versions of their nomina:

Publius Virgilius Maro – Virgil
Publius Ovidius Naso – Ovid
Gauis Suetonius Tranquillus – Suetonius
Tiberius Claudius Caesar – Claudius
Quintus Horatius Flaccus – Horace

However, some names are derived from cognomina, e.g. (and see below):

Publius Cornelius Tacitus – Tacitus
Marcus Porcuis Cato – Cato (the Elder)
Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix – Sulla
Marcus Junius Brutus – Brutus
Gaius Julius Caesar – Caesar

At least one is derived from a praenomen:

Tiberius Julius Caesar – Tiberius

And another from an agnomen:

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus – Augustus

What got me thinking about this whole issue was the number of Romans known in English by -ian names, such as:

Octavian, Vespasian, Domitian, Hadrian, Gordian, Valerian, Julian, Diocletian, Jovian, or Justinian

These of course are shortened from -ianus; Octavian was known as Octavianus in Latin. All of these, apparently, were cognomina. From an article on “Roman Naming Conventions”:

Some males had a cognomen that ends in –anus, which was adapted from and commemorated a nomen, sometimes their maternal family or—if they were adopted—their original paternal family. For instance, Vespasian’s nomen (Flavius) came from his father’s nomen. His cognomen (Vespasianus), on the other hand, was derived from his mother’s nomen, Vespasia. Others had cognomina that were derived not from the nomen, but the cognomen of their mothers’ families. For instance, Caracalla’s maternal grandfather was Julius Bassianus, but Caracalla’s cognomen was not Julianus, but rather Bassianus as well.

And Octavian only became Octavian when he was adopted posthumously by Julius Caesar. Born Gaius Octavius Thurinus, he became Gaius Julius Caesar in 44 BC, but known as Octavianus in honor of his birth nomen, and to distinguish him from his adoptive father.

Irish Sports

Members of HIS 323 heard an interesting presentation this week on Irish sports. As you may be aware, the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884 as part of what has been termed the Gaelic Revival – the renewed interest in the Irish language and related aspects of indigenous Irish culture. The GAA’s task was to codify and promote the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football; it also governs camogie, handball, and rounders. Of these sports, hurling has the longest pedigree: it is played by Cú Chulainn in the Ulster Cycle, and was banned in 1367 by the Statutes of Kilkenny. One thing that did not come up: the distinctive Irish style of horseback riding, also mentioned in the Statues of Kilkenny and in Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland (twelfth century). Horse racing is very popular in Ireland, but it seems that the GAA was uninterested in reviving the Irish riding style; Irish horses and jockeys compete in Britain and on the continent in the same manner as that of their opponents.

The Gaelic Revival was an expression of a quite insular nationalism. Both the language and the sports were Our Thing, practiced in Ireland and maybe among the Irish diaspora, and nowhere else. That’s fine, but surely there are times when you want to compete on equal terms with other countries, thereby publicizing yourself, gaining the respect of others and even demonstrating your superiority? The GAA, however, had strict rules against its members playing cricket or soccer, the effete, non-contact sports of the enemy, rules which were only repealed in 1971! This seems counterproductive – what you want to do is be competitive in a sport that other people also play, like Brazil in soccer, New Zealand in rugby, Canada in hockey – or Ireland in horse racing!

To this end the GAA should try proselytizing its sports more (or should have tried – it’s probably too late now). They certainly look like fun.


A reference this week to the war against Spartacus reminded me that a lot of English words have descended from Latin ones, but their meanings are not the same. Consider virtus, from which we get “virtue,” but which in Latin means something like valor, manliness, or courage (a meaning closer to our “virile”). And yet, sometimes words in English are used close to their Latin meanings, and you have to stop and think which meaning the author intends. We generally find this within the Roman Catholic church, or among Classical historians. Off the top of my head:

Servile War (from servus = slave): a war against the slaves

Social War (from socii = allies): a war against Rome’s allies

translation of a saint’s relics (from trans = across and fero, ferre, tuli, latum = bear, carry): the moving of a saint’s relics from one place to a more honorable place.

doctor of the church (from doctus = learned): a learned theologian

perfidious Jews (from per = through and fides = faith): faithless Jews (not evil Jews, although it might still not be a good idea to say that)

feast of St. George (from festum = celebration): a day to celebrate St. George, not necessarily by consuming large amounts of food. This usage is preserved in the French fête, and in the German Fest.

invention of the Holy Cross (from in + venio = to come upon): the finding of the Holy Cross.

Christian apologists (from apologia, a defense of one’s opinions or position): defenders of Christianity.

Also, I can’t help but think that if you’ve got a Latin motto, it should make grammatical sense on its own, and not be a quote from something longer, such that the words displayed don’t make grammatical sense. For instance, the motto of the Université de Sherbrooke is Veritatem in charitate, which is given as “truth in charity.”

But this leaves you thinking, why is the first noun in the accusative? Why not Veritas in charitate, which would indeed be “the truth in charity,” or Veritatem in charitate loqui which is “To speak the truth in charity”? I see that Vertitatem in charitate colamus (“we cultivate the truth in charity”) is an actual quotation from Francis Bacon, and would make an excellent motto.

Some students of mine gave a presentation on the medieval university, including the University of Pisa, whose motto is In supremae dignitatis. They said this meant “in supreme dignity” but in does not take the genitive, the case of both supremae and dignitatis.

Why not In suprema dignitate, then? Turns out it’s the title of the papal bull establishing the university. As you may know papal bulls are known by their first words (e.g., Humanae vitae, Incarnationis mysterium, or Laudabiliter), and again an essential word has been lopped off. Apparently the full title is In supremae dignitatis specula, or “In the mirrors of supreme dignity.” The pope reused the words in the fifteenth century as In supremae dignitatis culmine (“in the height of supreme dignity”). Either of these would work better than merely the first three words, IMHO.

The F-word

No, not “feudalism”! From The Week:

British historian uncovers the oldest written use of the f-word 

Turns out, people were dropping the f-bomb way back in 1310. When British Historian Paul Booth of Keele University was flipping through a court document from the city of Chester, he made an entirely unexpected discovery: An outlaw listed by the name of “Roger Fuckebythenavele.” Believed to be a nickname, this marks the oldest written use of the f-word in the English language.

Previously, its earliest written use was thought to have been in the 1500s. Booth’s discovery, however, moves that date up over 200 years, “shift[ing] back the rough historical consensus on the when the word widely entered the vernacular as a vulgar, pejorative term,” The Washington Post reports.

The word appears three different times in the 1310 document, suggesting that “Fuckebythenavale” was a nickname and not simply a one-time joke. “I suggest it could either mean an actual attempt at copulation by an inexperienced youth, later reported by a rejected girlfriend,” Booth said of the term’s likely meaning, “or an equivalent of the word ‘dimwit,’ i.e. a man who might think that was the correct way to go about it.”

Wiktionary gives a number of pre-English cognates but has been modified to take this discovery into account, which is billed as “the earliest verifiable use of the word in an unambiguously sexual context in any stage of English.”


History 323 enjoyed hearing an interesting presentation today on the Irish language. Two features of this language are worthy of note:

1. It’s one of those languages that, historically, required its own font. Here is an example of Gaelic type:

Via Wikipedia, article on “Gaelic type”: specimen of “Duibhlinn” font.

Here are some examples of Gaelic type in action:

Via Wikipedia, seal of the Irish Free State (“Saorstát Éireann”)

Via Wikipedia, the first Irish definitive postage stamp (1922), worth two pence and illustrating an irredentist claim to the North.

Via Wikipedia, an Irish shilling coin, in use from 1928 to 1968, when the currency was decimalized. 

2. It’s also a language into which proper nouns are translatable. Every place-name in the island of Ireland has an English and an Irish version, thus:

Cork  –  Corcaigh
Donegal  –  Dún na nGall
Limerick  –  Luimneach

Although the Irish language is a very potent symbol of Irish nationalism, enjoying a status as the national and first official language of Ireland, the Irish government has not yet denigrated the English versions of their place-names, insisting, for instance, that everyone everywhere refer to the country as Éire (cf. “Côte d’Ivoire”), to Dublin as Baile Átha Cliath, or to the River Liffey as An Life (although they did rename Queen’s County as Laois, King’s County as Offaly, and Queenstown as Cobh, for solidly republican reasons).

This dynamic also applies to personal names. Here are the last four presidents of the Republic of Ireland, with their names as they are known in English on the left, and their Irish names on the right, according to Wikipedia:

Patrick John Hillery – Pádraig J. Ó hIrghile
Mary Patricia McAleese – Máire Pádraigín Mhic Giolla Íosa
Mary Therese Winifred Robinson – Máire Bean Mhic Róibín
Michael Daniel Higgins – Mícheál D. Ó hUiginn

There are some people, though, who do insist on going by their Irish names in English. For instance, Wikipedia gives no English equivalents to Donncha Ó Dúlaing (a veteran Irish broadcaster) or Ruairí Brugha (IRA volunteer and Fianna Fáil politician). “Dennis Dooley” and “Rory Burgess” would be likely equivalents, although it would be impolite to use these without permission. (That would be like calling Canadian PM Jean Chrétien “John Christian” or hockey player Guy Lafleur “Guy Flower.”)


Not every Irish person is in thrall to the language. See this column by contrarian journalist Kevin Myers (excerpts):


The cupla focal and pious drivel that keeps Irish artificially alive 

I’ve said many times that the entire project to restore the Irish languages is an immoral waste of time and money…

RTE got Brenda Power of The Sunday Times to play devil’s advocate, against two supporters of The Language. She began by declaring that she was happy to have Irish as the first national tongue, which is rather like a state prosecutor telling the jury that the accused is not guilty. The discussion duly descended into a grisly phantasmagoria of simpering and denial. That such a farrago – all sweet smiles of submission before the Totem of The Language, like young chimps making a communal rictus of obeisance at a dominant alpha male – could even masquerade as a “debate”, says it all.

The Language is one of the foundation-myths of 20th century Irish nationalism. To keep this submarine airborne requires quite heroic levels of self-deceit, factual falsification, sentimentality, coercion, and much venom. In 1922, virtually the first act of the Free State government was to close all primary schools for three months. Of the 6,000 primary teachers in Ireland; only 1,000 spoke Irish. The rest were ordered to attend a series of two-week courses run by “specialists”, and during this succession of magical fortnights, they were all taught “Irish”. So there you have it. The complete mastery of a language, which is the greatest intellectual achievement of anyone’s life, and which normally takes 14 years, could suddenly be managed in 1/365th of that time.

And just as religion is often guarded with anger and unreason and accusations of heresy, the cult of The Language is similarly protected. Indeed, the utterly degrading “cupla focal” are merely a secular form of the pious ejaculations that once littered people’s conversations, and which were intended to offer windows to an interior landscape of boundless piety. Furthermore, a spoken language that consists of carefully-composed, slang-free sentences, rather like the responses in a Mass, is not a living entity, but a corpse being kissed at the wake.

Any pro-discussion on The Language usually depends on a simultaneous maintenance of two mutually-exclusive, passionately-held ideas, which is not uncommon in this land of carnivorous vegans and god-fearing atheists. Thus, some 1.4 million people reported in the last census that A) They speak Irish and B) They never do. Thus, Minister Denny McGinley could declare on ‘Prime Time’ that A) the “the people love the Irish language” and B) “our problem is to get people to speak it”. Not so much the love that dare not speak its name, but does not speak at all. He carolled happily about The 20-Year Plan, which would produce 250,000 Irish speakers. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a quarter of a million language-Stakhanovites marching into the 2033 sunset, Gaelic spanners in hand, chanting Erse verse.