Vegetation

A couple of interesting BBC links:

1. Alastair Sooke investigates the so-called “Green Man”:

A mask-like face engulfed in undergrowth, leaves sprouting eerily from his wretched mouth. Sometimes beautiful, often sinister, this mysterious figure – so common in medieval sculpture – is known as ‘the Green Man’.

In his heyday, the Green Man could be found glaring in churches across Europe. Since then, he has permeated folklore, popular culture and literature.

But who is he? And where did he come from? Is he a positive symbol of springtime renewal? Or an image of dereliction and decay – a dark reminder of man’s mortality?

Find out more at the link. The video references a 1978 book on the topic by Kathleen Basford, which is still in print.

2. News from Somerset:

Bath’s Sydney Gardens to be restored

Georgian pleasure gardens which were loved by Jane Austen are among six parks to have been awarded a total of £13.8m in lottery cash.

Sydney Gardens in Bath, which have fallen into decline, have been given £2.74m to help with restoration.

The novelist lived near the park when she moved to the city in 1801.

Other parks to get cash include South Cliff Gardens in Scarborough, Castle Park in Bishop’s Stortford and Ellington Park in Ramsgate.

Fairhaven Lake and Gardens on the Fylde coast and Stevens Park in Quarry Bank, Dudley, have also received Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) money.

The Grade II registered Sydney Gardens were designed in the late 18th Century, and became Austen’s local park when she moved to the city.

More at the link.

Goths

A laff from Facebook:

I’ve always found the evolution of the word “Gothic” to be most interesting. It originally meant what the second paragraph in the graphic refers to: an eastern Germanic language spoken by a large group of people who invaded the Western Roman Empire in the fourth century, eventually carving out kingdoms for themselves in Spain and Italy (like the names of most languages, it came to describe the people who spoke it, thus the Gothic people or simply “Goths”). Renaissance humanists resurrected the name to describe the style of ecclesiastical architecture prevalent in the thirteenth century, characterized by pointed arches, flying buttresses, and rose windows. To them, of course, such architecture was just awful, given that the Romans would never have built buildings that looked like that, most importantly because such buildings lacked all sense of proportion. Even though they were quite sophisticated in their way, and quite beyond the capabilities of the actual Goths to build, the humanists denigrated them as “gothic,” a name that has stuck.

The name got a third life in the eighteenth century when it was used as an adjective to describe literature that “combines fiction and horror, death, and at times romance.” Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Ortranto (1764), originated the genre, which perhaps derived its name from Walpole’s revival of gothic architecture at Strawberry Hill, a house he had built for himself. From this Romantic, melancholic association, “gothic” then came to designate the subculture it’s identified with today, which:

began in England during the early 1980s, where it developed from the audience of gothic rock, an offshoot of the post-punk genre. The name, goth subculture, derived directly from the music genre. Seminal post-punk and gothic rock artists that helped develop and shape the subculture include Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Joy Division, and Bauhaus. The goth subculture has survived much longer than others of the same era, and has continued to diversify and spread throughout the world…

Gothic fashion is marked by conspicuously dark, antiquated and homogeneous features. It is stereotyped as eerie, mysterious, complex and exotic. A dark, sometimes morbid fashion and style of dress, typical gothic fashion includes a pale complexion with colored black hair and black period-styled clothing. Both male and female goths can wear dark eyeliner and dark fingernail polish, most especially black. Styles are often borrowed from punk fashion and − more currently − from the Victorian and Elizabethan periods. It also frequently expresses pagan, occult or other religious imagery. Gothic fashion and styling may also feature silver jewelry and piercings.

Goths!

Lady Godiva

Was pleased to receive a Christmas treat from a college friend of mine: a box of Godiva chocolates. The company’s well-known logo features Lady Godiva riding naked on a horse.

Wikipedia.

The Godiva episode is one of the more popular medieval legends, even outside of England, where it is alleged to have taken place (the company was founded in Belgium in 1926). The idea is that Leofric, earl of Mercia (d. 1057), oppressed his subjects with heavy taxation. His wife Godgifu (Godiva) repeatedly besought Leofric to change his mind, to no avail. Finally, an exasperated Leofric said that he would grant relief, if Godgifu  rode naked through the streets of Coventry. His request was seemingly impossible by the standards of aristocratic feminine behavior, but Godgifu took him up on it and rode through the town clothed in nothing but her long hair (although she ordered everyone to stay indoors first; only a certain “Peeping Tom” violated the edict).

Leofric and Godgifu were real people. Godgifu died between 1066 and 1086, i.e. some time after the Norman Conquest; unlike most Anglo-Saxons, she retained her lands and position in the face of the regime change. The legend of her naked ride started to be told in the thirteenth century, so this is an interesting example of medieval medievalism. A good book on the phenomenon is Daniel Donahue, Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend (2002), which details the erotic, aristocratic, and decadent strands of the legend that made it so appealing as the name of maker of fine chocolates.

Rowan Williams on King Arthur

The former Archbishop of Canterbury writes in the New Statesman (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Our once and future king

No indisputable evidence exists for a “real” King Arthur, but, fictional or not, Britain has always needed him.

BY ROWAN WILLIAMS

Does anyone now read the historical novels of Henry Treece? A minor poet associated with the postwar “New Apocalyptic” group, he produced in the 1950s and 1960s a steady stream of fiction for the adult and young adult market, set mostly in early Britain and in the Viking age. The books are characterised by vivid, simple and sometimes repetitive plotting, ample bloodshed, a well-judged mixture of the cynical and the romantic, and plenty of gloomy Celtic and Nordic atmospherics. Several of the novels feature an “historical” King Arthur – a sixth-century warlord, co-ordinating resistance to the invading Saxons. Treece portrays with some skill the ways in which such a figure might have manipulated vague memories of Roman power and cultural identity to shore up his dominance in a chaotic post-Roman Britain.

The picture Treece outlines (a picture that can be found in rather less highly coloured narratives by writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Meriol Trevor) is in fact not too far away from what a substantial number of professional historians of the mid-20th century had come to take for granted. The withdrawal of Roman military presence from Britain in the first quarter of the fifth century must have left the native population at the mercy of rapidly increasing swarms of settlers from north-western Europe, who pushed across lowland Britain, sacking Roman settlements and killing a substantial proportion of the population. Archaeology seemed to support this picture: Roman towns had been ruined and abandoned, British hill settlements were reoccupied and refortified. There appeared to be a bit of a hiatus in “Saxon” settlement in the first half of the sixth century, however, and some historians saw this as the result of a concerted campaign of British resistance.

There was an obvious gap for an “Arthurian” figure to fill, a military leader with nationwide authority, leaving a legacy in popular memory strong enough ultimately to generate the familiar legends of a great British hero and king. We are on our way to the Round Table and the Holy Grail and all the other riches of the “Matter of Britain”, as the medieval authors called the jungle of legendary traditions that grew around the name of Arthur.

More at the link.

It’s interesting how some figures who resisted invasion are later appropriated by the invaders themselves. King Arthur is one such; if he ever existed, he would have been a Romanized Briton defending an (unwillingly) independent Britannia from Anglian and Saxon invasion. The Britons lost, of course, and were pushed into Wales and Cornwall, where they consoled themselves that some day Arthur would return and vindicate their claim to their ancestral homeland. Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1095-c. 1155), a man of Welsh background who entered the church and who ended up at Oxford, wrote the History of the Kings of Britain, which included a long chapter on Arthur. From that point on, Arthur ceased to be a Welsh figure and became an English one, since he defended the island from invaders.

“Lazy, Arrogant Cowards”

From the Telegraph (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Lazy, arrogant cowards: how English saw French in 12th century

A twelfth-century poem newly translated into English casts fresh light on the origin of today’s Francophobic stereotypes.

Although it is meant to be an ‘entente cordiale’, the relationship between the English and the French has been anything but neighbourly.

When the two nations have not been clashing on the battlefield or the sporting pitch they have been trading insults from ‘frogs’ to ‘rosbifs’.

Now the translation of the poem has shown just how deep-rooted in history the rivalry and name-calling really is.

Written between 1180 and 1194, a century after the Norman Conquest united England and Normandy against a common enemy in France, the 396-line poem was part of a propaganda war between London and Paris.

Poet Andrew de Coutances, an Anglo-Norman cleric, describes the French as godless, arrogant and lazy dogs. Even more stingingly, he accuses French people of being cowardly, and calls them heretics and rapists.

It has taken David Crouch, a professor of medieval history at Hull University, months to complete the translation of what is one of the earliest examples of anti-French diatribe.

The poem was written at a time when Philip II of France was launching repeated attacks on Normandy, taking advantage of in-fighting within the English royal family.

Prof Crouch says that the poem is of great interest to historians because of its “racial rhetoric”, which was deployed by Anglo-Norman intellectuals in support of their kings’ bitter political and military struggle.

Extracts from the poem may be read at the link. I have enjoyed hearing Prof. Crouch present at Kalamazoo. It’s interesting how this is an example of the antiquity of ethnic animus; it’s not as if it was invented yesterday and then projected onto the past.

World History

From my friend John Terauds, an interesting article on History Today:

Today, it is taken for granted that ‘World History’ exists. Muslims, Jews and Chinese each have their own calendars and celebrate their own New Year’s Day. But for most practical matters, including government, commerce and science, the world employs a single common calendar. Thanks to this, it is possible to readily translate dates from the Chinese calendar, or from the Roman, Greek or Mayan, into the same chronological system that underlies the histories of, say, Vietnam or Australia.

This single global calendar enables us to place events everywhere on a single timeline. Without it, temporal comparisons across cultures and traditions would be impossible. It is no exaggeration to say that this common understanding of time and our common calendar system are the keys to world history.

It was not always the case. Most countries, cultures or religious groups have lived according to their own calendars. Each designated its own starting point for historical time, be it the Creation, Adam and Eve or some later event, such as the biblical Flood. Even when they acknowledged a common point in time, as did both Greeks and Persians with the birth of Alexander the Great, they differed about when that event took place.

More at the link, including the detail that it was the Persian scholar Abu Rayhan Muhammad al-Biruni (973-1039) who first attempted a universal scheme to harmonize all extant dating systems.

Outlaw King

My friend Kevin Harty reviews David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King (2018) for Medievally Speaking. The king in question is Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), who ruled Scotland from 1306. Excerpt:

The medieval historical epic has been a cinematic staple for more than a century.  The reasons are obvious—such films present larger than life characters whose stories are the stuff of legend.  But the golden age of the medieval historical epic has long past. In Outlaw King, except for two very brief scenes, a wedding and a funeral, in which the costume and wardrobe department seems to have decided to blow the budget, gone is the pageantry, the epic sweep, the panoramic long shot—think how Charlton Heston as the eponymous hero in Anthony Mann’s 1961 El Cid goes riding off into the sunset in the film’s final, awe-inspiring scene, and compare that scene and ride with the domesticity more than evident in Robert’s final rush on horseback to embrace his wife, who has been uncaged and returned to him as part of a prisoner exchange. Robert is not here riding off into history and legend. He is simply going home to his wife and daughter. Outlaw King goes for the close-up—the personal rather than the epic. Instead of pageantry, we get gore. Instead of history, we get a gritty costume piece. The lulls in action are brief, and few, quickly giving way to more violence and gore. The camera wants us to see Robert’s scarred and bloody face, and Edward’s puking crawl through the mud as he feebly tries to reunite with troops who have abandoned him.

Read the whole thing.

Humorism

In the Middle Ages, the study of medicine consisted largely of mastering the theories of Galen, a Greek physician active in the second century AD. Among his insights, he imagined that, just as the physical world was made up of the four elements fire, water, earth, and air, so also were humans were made up of four humors: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Each person had a unique combination of humors, which determined his personality; I like to point out that the adjectives sanguine,* melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic derive from Galen’s theory of humorism (not that any of my students has ever heard of these words, alas). Illness was caused by your humors getting out of balance: unfortunately, a naturally melancholic person who had acquired an excess of blood did not get temporarily happy, he just got sick, and it was the doctor’s job to determine the person’s unique blend of humors, and to try to bring them back in proper balance. One way to do this was to prescribe a substance with the opposite qualities of the excess humor. Humors were either hot or cold, and either wet or dry, as illustrated by this table:

HOT COLD
DRY Yellow Bile Black Bile
WET Blood Phlegm

So if you had a disease that caused an excess of phlegm (cold and wet), you took something like pepper (hot and dry) to counter it. In the opposite direction, oil of earthworms was cold and wet, and so was useful against anything producing an excess of yellow bile, which was hot and dry. And so on.

Another way to counter an excess humor was to employ some way of removing it from your body. Getting bled by leeches (or simply by being cut by a barber) was a common way to get shed superfluous blood, while purgatives (either emetics or laxatives) took care of the others.

I suppose there may have been a placebo effect with such treatments but it’s easy to see how visiting a doctor in the Middle Ages was useless at best, and positively harmful at worst.

I don’t wish to condescend to the Middle Ages too much; I am a medievalist, after all, and part of my job is to rehabilitate them from the popular notion that it was a dark, ignorant, superstitious, and backward time. Some of their theories are models of subtlety, and they make complete internal sense. The main problem is that the theories were treated as ends in themselves – and did not actually have any relation to reality. Or rather, they “worked” enough that they just kept on going.** Only with the Scientific Revolution, which featured such things as the accurate collection of data and experimentation to test one’s hypotheses, were Galen’s (and Ptolemy’s, and Aristotle’s) theories seriously challenged. And even then humorism was not completely demolished until the nineteenth century.

But there’s nothing particularly medieval about devotion to elaborate and plausible-sounding theories that aren’t really true (e.g. Marxism, Freudianism, etc.).

* I recently read an interesting use of “sanguine” on Mitch Berg’s Shot in the Dark blog, about the Korean War defector No Kum-Sok:

Parts of the story were less sanguine; while his father was already dead and his mother had fled to the south before the war, No’s uncle and all members of his family apparently disappeared. And No’s commander and five other pilots were executed.

But this use of “sanguine” is somewhat ironic. “Sanguine” generally refers to something happy or jovial. But the disappearance of No’s family and the executions of his comrades were also “bloody” in the other, more usual sense. I would have picked a different word here.

** Theodore Dalrymple once wrote that:

The Galenical theory was an article of uncritical faith for university-trained physicians. Training consisted of indoctrination, memorization, and regurgitation. No deviation was permissible, and even refinement or elaboration was hazardous. Outright challenge was professionally dangerous. The theory therefore took many centuries to overthrow; mastery of it, and the treatments it entailed, distinguished real physicians from mere empiricks and quacks.

Viking Tar

From Smithsonian.com:

Was the Vikings’ Secret to Success Industrial-Scale Tar Production?

Evidence suggests that the ability to mass-produce tar bolstered their trade repertoire and allowed them to waterproof and seal their iconic longships

The Vikings are often viewed as brutish, destructive village-pillagers, but their knack for innovation is perhaps overlooked. Viking-age Scandinavia was kind of the Silicon Valley of shipbuilding in the early medieval period. Their iconic longboat designs, advanced navigational skills, and perhaps even legendary sunstones gave them the ability to raid, trade and establish settlements as far away as Russia, Italy and North Africa. A new study adds another bit of technology to the list of things that gave Vikings a leg up on their adversaries: they may have been capable of making industrial scale quantities of tar, according to a new paper published in the journal Antiquity.

Tar was probably essential to the Vikings’ lifestyle since each longship would have required about 130 gallons of tar to coat all of its wooden elements, the study suggests. Tar was also needed to coat the ships’ wool sails, and the boats would need to be regularly re-tarred between voyages as well. Multiply all that to fit the needs of a fleet and we’re talking about a lot of tar here.

However, little was previously hypothesized about how they would have been able to produce the sticky substance en masse. The new study, authored by Andreas Hennius, an archaeologist from Uppsala University in Sweden, proposes a possible outline of how small scale tar production in the early centuries of the first millennium gave rise to potentially industrial use of tar by Vikings.

“I suggest that tar production in eastern Sweden developed from a small-scale household activity in the Roman Iron Age to large-scale production that relocated to the forested outlands during the Vendel/Viking Period,” Hennius writes in the paper. “This change, I propose, resulted from the increasing demand for tar driven by an evolving maritime culture.”

Read the whole thing. It’s interesting how many historians don’t tend to consider technology like this; thank goodness there are people who are willing to.

Sacraments

I thought of something today while lecturing. Over the course of the Middle Ages, the church tended to downplay the importance of relics, and to play up the importance of the sacraments. I suppose the obvious fraud involved in the relic trade might have been embarrassing, but the main reason for the shift is because sacraments were performative, and required a priest to deliver them. Thus, they were easier to control than relics. You could cut someone off from the sacraments in a way that you could not prevent him from acquiring relics, or gifting (or selling) them to someone else.

It reminded me of the current movement to digitize everything and to deliver it wirelessly. If I buy a codex, the publisher and the author get their cut. But the book, as an object, is mine forever – or until I sell it on to someone else, at which point originators don’t get a cut at all. CDs and DVDs are dead media – songs and movies now exist mostly in cyberspace, and you have to pay to download them – and you can’t sell them on, and they can disappear from your “library” if you’ve watched or listened to them too many times, or you somehow violate the terms of service. My hunch is that the secondary market for content has always been highly annoying to its creators, and they will do anything they can to delegitimize it. Having everything electronic, and under their control, must be a godsend to them.

Mass was probably the most important sacrament, since it represented spiritual sustenance. The medieval Catholic understanding of this was that “this is my body” meant exactly that: that when a priest uttered these words in a liturgical context, the bread transubstantiated into the actual flesh of Jesus, and the wine into his actual blood. Even though these elements retained the forms of bread and wine, their essences had been fundamentally altered, and to consume them meant that you were physically united with your lord and savior. It also meant that wine was optional: if you were to tear off a hunk of your flesh, it would have some blood in it. Thus does the consecrated bread “count” in a way that the wine doesn’t (although I’m sure there was also a practical, cost-saving impulse behind this custom).

Since consuming bread and wine “in memory of me” had been instituted by Jesus himself, Protestants are not free to disregard it, as they did monasticism and extreme unction. However, what it actually meant was a topic of great debate during the Reformation. Generally, the more Protestant you were, the less frequently you took it, and the less miraculous it was. This has led to a great variety of Christian customs, which I have jotted down. When you go to consume bread and wine as part of a church service:

What will you call it (Mass, Eucharist, Communion, Lord’s Supper, etc.)?
What is the nature of the bread and the wine once consecrated?
Will your altar be made of stone or wood? Will you even have one?
Will you take it standing, kneeling, or sitting?
Will you take it at the altar, or in your pew?
How often will it be served (weekly, biweekly, quarterly, etc.)?
Will you take bread alone, or both bread and wine?
How old will you need to be before you can take it, and will you have to pass through some other rite (e.g. confirmation) before you can?
Will your bread be leavened or unleavened?
Will wine be served, or grape juice?
Will the wine/grape juice be served in a chalice, or in little cups? Will you allow these things?
If you serve wine in a chalice, will you allow intinction (dipping the bread in the wine)?
Is it an expression of sectarianism, i.e. do you have to be a formal member of the denomination in question, before you can take it?

Some of these are arbitrary, but others are of great significance indeed.