“Marckalada”

An article published in the July issue of Terrae Incognitae, the journal of the Society of the History of Discoveries (of which former Reinhardt faculty member Anne Good is about to become president), has been getting a certain amount of attention. The full text may be read at the publisher’s website. Paolo Chiesa of the University of Milan has discovered, in the (currently unpublished) Cronica universalis of Galvaneus Flamma (1283-c. 1345), a reference to “Marckalada,” which Chiesa interprets as the “Markland” mentioned in several Viking sagas. The relevant passage:

Sailors who frequent the seas of Denmark and Norway say that northwards, beyond Norway, there is Iceland; further ahead there is an island named Grolandia, where the Polar Star remains behind you, toward the south. The governor of this island is a bishop. In this land, there is neither wheat nor wine nor fruit; people live on milk, meat, and fish. They dwell in subterranean houses and do not venture to speak loudly or to make any noise, for fear that wild animals hear and devour them. There live huge white bears, which swim in the sea and bring shipwrecked sailors to the shore…. Further westwards there is another land, named Marckalada, where giants live; in this land, there are buildings with such huge slabs of stone that nobody could build with them, except huge giants. There are also green trees, animals and a great quantity of birds. However, no sailor was ever able to know anything for sure about this land or about its features.

Unfortunately, the Cronica universalis does not also mention Helluland or Vinland, two other New World locations mentioned in the sagas, but the appearance of “Marckalada” does suggest that in fourteenth-century Milan some people knew about other places “beyond Greenland,” likely through information exchanged in the maritime entrepôt of Genoa. 

It is always tempting to believe that this is where Columbus got his ideas about sailing westward to Asia, but keep in mind that there is a difference between information and knowledge. That is, “Marckalada” in this context is no more real than Prester John or the Cynocepaloi. Furthermore, note that Columbus did not sail to Greenland in order to recreate Erik the Red’s journey (indeed, for his first voyage he sailed south to the Canary Islands before turning west). The only thing that can really be said about this piece of information is that, if Columbus actually knew of it, it was only one of many suggesting to him that Asia was just over the horizon. 

Vikings in Newfoundland

Announced today in various places: the Vikings founded L’Anse aux Meadows exactly one thousand years ago. The abstract from Nature, where the discovery was published:

Transatlantic exploration took place centuries before the crossing of Columbus. Physical evidence for early European presence in the Americas can be found in Newfoundland, Canada. However, it has thus far not been possible to determine when this activity took place. Here we provide evidence that the Vikings were present in Newfoundland in AD 1021. We overcome the imprecision of previous age estimates by making use of the cosmic-ray-induced upsurge in atmospheric radiocarbon concentrations in AD 993. Our new date lays down a marker for European cognisance of the Americas, and represents the first known point at which humans encircled the globe. It also provides a definitive tie point for future research into the initial consequences of transatlantic activity, such as the transference of knowledge, and the potential exchange of genetic information, biota and pathologies.

Emphasis added. Read the whole thing

It occurs to me, though, that there’s no indisputable proof that the Vikings ever set foot on the North American mainland. (But if we’re considering geographical North America, we don’t need L’Anse aux Meadows, since Greenland, where the Vikings had settlements for almost 500 years, is part of North America.)

The Other Yorktown

From Gregory Urwin at Journal of the American Revolution (hat tip: Dan Franke), notice of an event that is not what most Americans would like to remember about the Revolutionary War:

On October 19, 1781, Gen. George Washington attained his apex as a soldier. Straddling a spirited charger at the head of a formidable Franco-American army, Washington watched impassively as 6,000 humiliated British, German, and Loyalist soldiers under the command of Lt. Gen. Charles, Second Earl Cornwallis, emerged from their fortifications to lay down their arms in surrender outside Yorktown, Virginia. The following day, Washington voiced the elation filling his heart in a general order congratulating his subordinates “upon the Glorious events of yesterday.” Ordinarily a stickler for discipline, Washington authorized the release of every American soldier under arrest “In order to Diffuse the general Joy through every breast.

Five days later, October 25, the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief issued quite a different order. Thousands of Virginia slaves—“Negroes or Molattoes” as Washington called them—had fled to the British in hopes of escaping a lifetime of bondage. Washington directed that these runaways be rounded up and entrusted to guards at two fortified positions on either side of the York River. There they would be held until arrangements could be made to return them to their enslavers. Thus, with the stroke of a pen, Washington converted his faithful Continentals—the men credited with winning American independence—into an army of slave catchers.

This is not the way that Americans choose to remember Yorktown. When President Ronald Reagan attended the festivities marking the battle’s bicentennial in October 1981, a crowd of 60,000 nodded in approval as he described Washington’s crowning triumph as “a victory for the right of self-determination. It was and is the affirmation that freedom will eventually triumph over tyranny.” For the African Americans who constituted one fifth of the young United States’ population in 1781, however, Yorktown did not mark the culmination of a long and grueling struggle for freedom. Rather, it guaranteed the perpetuation of slavery for eight additional decades.

Read the whole thing. I think that the New York Times‘s 1619 Project goes too far when it claims that the American Revolution was fought to “preserve slavery,” but that certainly was one of its practical effects. That the British offered freedom to slaves for taking their side is a fact that UELAC members glory in;* that Mel Gibson’s movie The Patriot (2000) claimed the precise opposite (as well as attributing to the British war crimes committed by the Nazis in occupied France) was rather offensive. 

* Of course, it does not mean that white Loyalists believed in racial equality, as Nova Scotia’s Black Loyalists would attest.

Medieval Ghosts

From Kathryn Walton at Medievalists.net:

People have always been fascinated by ghosts. Tales of humans returned from the dead have appeared in folklore and literature from around the world for millennia. The medieval period was no different. Tales of actual hauntings were common in medieval folklore. Many people believed in the ability of ghosts to return and haunt individuals, places, or communities. The feature “The Ghosts of Byland Abbey” gives a great example of one haunting piece of folklore from the period.

But ghosts were also common in medieval literature, and ghost beliefs that circulated at the time shaped how they were depicted.

Belief in ghosts was not actually common across the Middle Ages. While the early people who inhabited Britain probably had some belief in ghosts, when Christianity arrived in the country, the new religion made some attempt to stamp out this superstition. Saint Augustine had denied that there could be any relations between the living and the dead; he’d insisted that apparitions of ghosts were demonic illusions. Later Christian thinkers echoed his ideas and attempted to deny that ghosts actually roamed the earth.

According to Jean-Claude Schmitt (whose book Ghosts in the Middle Ages gives a great overview of the history of medieval ghost belief) early Christian thinkers took this approach to prevent the worship of the dead, which was considered an inherently pagan practice. They also wanted to redirect attention towards the importance of the soul in heaven.

Belief in ghosts, however, lived on and was eventually accepted into Christian thinking. Gregory the Great composed a few small stories about dead people who spoke to the living to request their prayers. This idea appealed to later Christian thinkers and eventually ghosts began to appear in medieval ecclesiastical literature. Ghosts were understood then as souls stuck in purgatory who would appear to their relatives and others with warnings and requests for prayers.

This belief soon made its way into the literary world and some really fantastic ghoulish characters began to appear in medieval literature. There are too many to discuss in a single feature, but a few of the most interesting appear in the most famous literary tradition to survive from medieval England and France: the legends of King Arthur.

More at the link

Derek Pearsall, 1931-2021

Sad news:

Professor Derek Pearsall, co-founder with the late Professor Elizabeth Salter of the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York, passed away on Thursday 14 October, aged 90. He was an enormous influence on many of us who flourished under his tutelage and his scholarly reputation helped to establish York’s CMS as an outstanding beacon of teaching and research. May he rest in peace.

According to Wikipedia, Pearsall received an MA from the University of Birmingham in 1952, was Gurney Professor of English Literature at Harvard, and delivered the British Academy’s Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture in 1998. I found his work very enlightening and enjoyed speaking with him at conferences. He will be missed. 

For Columbus Day

In The American Spectator, Armando Simón defends Christopher Columbus, claiming that he was not as bad as his current reputation holds. This does not excuse what Spanish colonialism became, of course, and the idea that “the founder was good, it’s just that the people who came after him messed things up” is a trope (i.e. the founder more than likely shares some of the blame). Still, Simón raises some good points:

There is not one single historical source in existence that substantiates any of the “crimes.” Not one. None!

Consult, not secondary sources written centuries later by individuals with a political agenda, but primary (i.e., contemporary) sources in the original Spanish: Los Cuatro Viajes del Almirante y su Testamento, and, Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias, both by Bartolomé de las Casas. De las Casas, as every schoolchild in the Caribbean and Spain knows, was The Apostle of the Indians, an indefatigable defender of the Indians who fulminated endlessly against the Spanish crimes on the indigenous people. More importantly, he chronicled the atrocities against the Indians, fearlessly naming the criminals. Not once does he mention Columbus as an evildoer. On the contrary, he documented the exact opposite, that Columbus repeatedly defended the Indians against Spanish depredations.

The third primary source is the biography of the explorer written by his son, Fernando. Should the reader cynically discount his son’s biography as whitewashed because his son somehow saw that 500 years later his father’s statues were going to be vandalized in a new country called the United States and he had to salvage his reputation, think instead that, considering the zeitgeist, Fernando could have easily portrayed his father as a great conqueror of satanic, evil savages who practiced cannibalism (after all, look at all the hagiographies written on Napoleon, who turned Europe into a charnel house). Significantly, Fernando also portrayed the natives in a benevolent light — and this was long before the syrupy “noble savage” mythos that we have been force-fed to this day. He was being faithful to facts.

Lastly, there is the Capitulations, the documents between the Spanish monarchy and the Admiral.

If Columbus had, indeed, committed the countless crimes that some people with their ignorance of history have attributed to him, if he was, indeed the monster that he has been portrayed, on a par with Attila the Hun, Josef Stalin, Genghis Khan, Pol Pot, I for one would be among those condemning him. But the historical facts are clear: the atrocities that have been heaped on him are nowhere to be found, except in the minds of his detractors. They are just not there.

Much more at the link – read the whole thing

Food, Facial Structure, and “F”

From Science (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):

When humans switched to processed foods after the spread of agriculture, they put less wear and tear on their teeth. That changed the growth of their jaws, giving adults the overbites normal in children. Within a few thousand years, those slight overbites made it easy for people in farming cultures to fire off sounds like “f” and “v,” opening a world of new words.

The newly favored consonants, known as labiodentals, helped spur the diversification of languages in Europe and Asia at least 4000 years ago… according to linguist and senior author Balthasar Bickel at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The paper shows “that a cultural shift can change our biology in such a way that it affects our language,” says evolutionary morphologist Noreen Von Cramon-Taubadel of the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York system, who was not part of the study.

Postdocs Damián Blasi and Steven Moran in Bickel’s lab set out to test an idea proposed by the late American linguist Charles Hockett. He noted in 1985 that the languages of hunter-gatherers lacked labiodentals, and conjectured that their diet was partly responsible: Chewing gritty, fibrous foods puts force on the growing jaw bone and wears down molars. In response, the lower jaw grows larger, and the molars erupt farther and drift forward on the protruding lower jaw, so that the upper and lower teeth align. That edge-to-edge bite makes it harder to push the upper jaw forward to touch the lower lip, which is required to pronounce labiodentals. But other linguists rejected the idea, and Blasi says he, Moran, and their colleagues “expected to prove Hockett wrong.”

First, the six researchers used computer modeling to show that with an overbite, producing labiodentals takes 29% less effort than with an edge-to-edge bite. Then, they scrutinized the world’s languages and found that hunter-gatherer languages have only about one-fourth as many labiodentals as languages from farming societies. Finally, they looked at the relationships among languages, and found that labiodentals can spread quickly, so that the sounds could go from being rare to common in the 8000 years since the widespread adoption of agriculture and new food processing methods such as grinding grain into flour.

Bickel suggests that as more adults developed overbites, they accidentally began to use “f” and “v” more. In ancient India and Rome, labiodentals may have been a mark of status, signaling a softer diet and wealth, he says. Those consonants also spread through other language groups; today, they appear in 76% of Indo-European languages.

Linguist Nicholas Evans of Australian National University in Canberra finds the study’s “multimethod approach to the problem” convincing. Ian Maddieson, an emeritus linguist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, isn’t sure researchers tallied the labiodentals correctly but agrees that the study shows external factors like diet can alter the sounds of speech.

The findings also suggest our facility with f-words comes at a cost. As we lost our ancestral edge-to-edge bite, “we got new sounds but maybe it wasn’t so great for us,” Moran says. “Our lower jaws are shorter, we have impacted wisdom teeth, more crowding—and cavities.”

Some Links

• From Edward J. Watts on Yahoo News: “Rome Didn’t Fall When You Think it Did”:

In September of 476 AD, the barbarian commander Odoacer forced the teenaged Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus to resign his office. The Constantinopolitan chronicler Marcellinus Comes would write in the 510s that when “Odoacer, king of the Goths, took control of Rome” the “Western Empire of the Roman people… perished.” But no one thought this at the time. The fall of Rome in 476 is a historical turning point that was invented nearly 50 years later as a pretext for a devastating war. The fact that it has since become recognized as the end of an epoch shows how history can be misused to justify otherwise unpalatable actions in the present—and how that misuse can also distort the lessons future generations take from the past.

More at the link

• From Jan Altaner on Goethe Institute: “On the Trail of Barbarossa”:

In April 1874, the Upper Bavarian church historian and politician Johann Nepomuk Sepp, along with a small group of German scholars and adventurers, embarked on an expedition to the Middle East. They were on a ‘mission for Germany’ to which the Imperial Chancellor Bismarck himself had given his blessing. Their destination was Tyre, which in those days was a sleepy town on the Levant coast. However, the expedition’s focus was not on researching the city’s rich Phoenician or Roman history, but on something much greater: the remains of Emperor Frederick I, known as Barbarossa.

The still-young German Empire had only just put particularism behind it, and thus the plan was to strengthen German national consciousness through shared national myths. One of the most popular of these myths was the legend of Barbarossa, who was said to be sleeping beneath the Kyffhäuser hills, but would one day return and elevate Germany to its old glory. Emperor Wilhelm I regarded himself as standing in the tradition of the Emperor of the Staufer dynasty, styling himself as ‘Barbablanca’, or ‘Whitebeard’. Emperor Barbarossa also happened to be an especially suitable national figurehead because his gravesite was located outside the German Empire. In 1190, during the Third Crusade, he drowned while bathing in a river in Lesser Armenia. The heat made it impossible to transport his body over long distances, so he was boiled and buried in nearby Antioch. His bones, on the other hand, were sewn into a sack, to be buried in Jerusalem, the destination of the Third Crusade. However, the crusaders never made it that far. Historical record is unclear with regard to his final resting place, but later reports claimed that his remains had been buried in the Cathedral of Tyre. This story was the impetus for Johann Nepomuk Sepp’s expedition.

More at the link.

• From Susanne Spröer on Deutsche Welle: “Winnetou: Why so many Germans fell in love with the unrealistic ‘Indian'”

It was Christmas Eve, and I was eight or nine years old. I’d just opened the small gifts under the tree when my father said there was a surprise in the basement. Finally! It must be Winnetou’s Silver Gun, at the top of my wish list. But I didn’t understand why I had to go down to the basement to get the toy weapon.

I had been a Winnetou fan ever since I first heard the audio version of the Wild West stories by Karl May. I would sit at the record player and listen to how the character Karl May, aka Old Shatterhand, came to the Wild West. In the story, he’s a German engineer who wanted to build a train line through Apache country. But then he got to know the Apache tribe and became “blood brothers” with Winnetou, fighting at his side for the rights of Native Americans.

When we played cowboys and Indians as children, I always took the part of Winnetou, who preferred to knock his enemies down rather than kill them, in line with the blood brothers’ code of honor.

My best friend and I would cut our hands at the base of our thumbs to become blood brothers. We loved the Winnetou stories, just like the generations before us.

“Christmas 1962 saw the premiere of ‘Treasure of the Silver Lake,'” recalled Michael Petzel, author of the “Karl May Lexicon” and director of the Karl May archive in Göttingen. “That went over so well with young people in a way that’s hard to imagine today. For three years, before The Beatles and James Bond, the films defined the youth scene in Germany. They were very modern for the time. For us viewers, it was a departure into an unknown world.”

The world of Karl Friedrich May (1842-1912), who dreamed up Winnetou’s Wild West, had little to do with reality. The first Winnetou story was published in 1875, although he’d only read about the United States in books.

Partly autobiographical and told in the first person, May as Old Shatterhand (known as Kara Ben Nemsi in the books set in Asia) dreams up an escape from his own dreary life. Accused of fraud and theft, he’d been fired from his job as a teacher and sent to jail.

Thanks to Winnetou, May, the son of a poor weaver (10 of his 13 siblings died shortly after birth) became Germany’s most successful youth author.

More at the link. My undergraduate advisor Walter Simons also wrote a blog post about Karl May’s influence in Germany. 

The Battle of Lepanto

Adjunct instructor Tim Furnish remembers the Battle of Lepanto, fought 450 years ago:

On this date, 450 years ago, the combined naval forces of Europe’s Catholic states, the “Holy League,” saved Western civilization. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled not just the Middle East but large chunks of eastern Europe, wanted more territory and to extinguish the annoying Christian opposition from central and western Europe. To do so, Sultan Selim II sent a huge naval force to conquer Rome and capture or kill the Pope. Nearly 300 Ottoman warships headed west, from Turkish-ruled Greece.

The Ottomans had been on the offensive for two centuries. But it had mostly been by land. Since taking Constantinople, and finally wiping out the Byzantine Empire, in 1453. Serbia. Hungary. Crete. All fell before the Islamic Empire and its feared janissaries. Although the threat of Islam in the west had been quelled by the Reconquista, it seemed that Muhammad’s followers might well win coming from the opposite compass point.

The Ottomans were never quite the equal of the Europeans as mariners, but they had fashioned a formidable navy to go along with their powerful infantry and cavalry.

Europe was wracked at this time by the Reformation, which no doubt contributed to the Ottoman sense that they could win over a religiously-divided Europe.

Despite that handicap, the main Catholic powers — Spain and Venice, as well as the Papal states and others — negotiated a response to this latest Ottoman thrust. They parried with a huge naval force of their own, of 200 ships. Both sides used types of galleys. These were ships with both sails and oars — very much like those employed in Roman and Greek times. However, the Catholic and Muslim navies had two major differences. The latter used slaves as oarsmen, not free men. And the former had developed a larger type of galley, a galleass. While these comprised only a few of the Western naval force, they were instrumental in victory. As converted merchant ships, they carried 28 naval artillery guns each. This firepower would prove devastating to the Ottomans’ numerous, but smaller, ships.

Both sides also had infantry on their ships. But whereas the Turks were armed with bows, the Spanish soldiers in particular had arquebuses. These were slower to fire, as gunpowder weapons. But they had much greater penetrating power….

When the battle ended, the Ottomans had lost over 100 ships, and tens of thousands of men. The Holy League suffered only 17 ships sunk, and less than half the Turkish casualties. One doesn’t have to be Catholic to see an element of divine intervention in the Battle of Lepanto. Although prayer always seems to work better when coupled with superior weapons, tactics, and leadership. It’s a pity that this crucial battle is so little-taught today. The Ottomans were not done attacking Europe on land — they would besiege Vienna twice in the 17th century — but their myth of invulnerability was long gone after Lepanto.

More at the link

Pushin’ Back the Date

From NBC News (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):

David Bustos heard about the “ghost tracks” when he first went to White Sands National Park in New Mexico to work as a wildlife scientist in 2005. When the ground was wet enough at certain times of the year, the ghostly footprints would appear on the otherwise blank earth, only to disappear again when it dried out.

It wasn’t until over 10 years later, in 2016, that scientists confirmed that the ghost tracks had been made by real people — and it’s only now that some of the ancient footprints at White Sands have been dated as the earliest in North America.

“We’d been suspicious of the age for a while, and so now we finally have that it’s really exciting,” Bustos said. “One of the neat things is that you can see mammoth prints in the layers a meter or so above the human footprints, so that just helps to confirm the whole story.”

The footprints at White Sands were dated by examining the seeds of an aquatic plant that once thrived along the shores of the dried-up lake, Ruppia cirrhosa, commonly known as ditchgrass. According to research published Thursday in the journal Science and co-authored by Bustos, the ancient ditchgrass seeds were found in layers of hard earth both above and below the many human footprints at the site, and they were radiocarbon-dated to determine their age.

The tracks at one location have been revealed as both the earliest known footprints and the oldest firm evidence of humans anywhere in the Americas, showing that people lived there 21,000 to 23,000 years ago — several thousand years earlier than scientists once believed.

More at the link