IDS 498

This past semester I tried something new, an Interdisciplinary Studies course on Homer, the ancient Greek epic poet whose works act as one of the cornerstones of Western Civilization. But rather than focussing on the great mountain of Homeric scholarship produced ever since the Archaic Age, we simply read one book of the Iliad and the Odyssey before for every class meeting and got together to discuss it. We used Ian Johnston’s translations, which I like and which are also available online. I was very impressed with my students’ insights, and I’m pleased to say that the course got even better as the result of the lockdown: we simply conducted it by email, and writing out one’s thoughts, and responses to those thoughts, concentrates the mind even better than open-ended discussion. For the record, I preserve some of this discussion, none of which is of my composition. Well done! 

Book 6

Starting at line 31, when Athena appears to Nausicaa, she comes as a friend of similar age. I found this funny because the way Athena talks to Nausicaa, she sounds more like a mom criticizing her cleanliness than a friend. She acts like the “mom-friend” to Nausicaa; the friend who always tells her friends what they are doing wrong and “how to get a man.”

I observed a Homeric Simile in lines 127-138 describing how Nausicaa stands out in her group of servants like the goddess Artemis in a group going for a hunt. I found this simile especially interesting since Odysseus says, “If you’re one of the gods who hold the wide heaven, then I think you most resemble Artemis… in your loveliness, / your stature, and your shape” when he first addresses her (189-192). Homer must have made this connection deliberately to either emphasize his simile or to prove the loveliness of Nausicaa—or both.

When Odysseus is first introduced in this book, he covers himself with thick bushes since the waves made him naked (159-160). This reminds me of Adam in the book of Genesis when he feels ashamed of his nudeness after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Odysseus is also introduced with a Homeric Simile in lines 161-169. This simile compares him to a mountain lion to emphasize his stealthy movements. This simile seemed weird since the mountain lion would be hunting prey, and Odysseus is hiding from fear. 

Book 7

I would LOVE to find a study on the society of Phaeacia, and how well Homer’s mythic status for the place correlates to its place in real-world history. Homer sets up this society as an idyllic, heavenly society blessed by a multitude of gods. I find it interesting how godly blessings seem to get passed down from generation to generation – women continually receive blessings from Athena with the loom, and men receive the same with their skill on the sea from Poseidon. (Piggybacking on what Jamie said-maybe Odysseus receiving help and honor from people blessed by Poseidon could be a form of irony in the story? Or maybe a way for Homer to take Poseidon down a peg, if that makes sense?) However, despite receiving blessings from the gods to the point of being the perfect Greek society, they do not hold an important Greek ideal – hospitality. From what we can tell, other Greeks are always ready to receive strangers into their homes and treat them with hospitality and warmness, but the Phaeacians are said to treat strangers with wariness, not being the friendliest people. I feel like that is an important point in the story, thought I am not sure if there is any commentary Homer is trying to make here.

Book 8

I found it interesting that only one Muse loved and gifted Demodocus, but Homer does not state which Muse it is (line 74). It also says that she destroyed his eyes and gave him this gift at the same time, so he traded one kind of sight for another. This feels like a typical theme/occurrence in mythology. I also wonder if this sight helped him identify the “honored guest” since his first unprompted song was about Odysseus and Achilles arguing at Troy (line 90). Alcinous also notices how this and a later song about Troy make his guest weep, but does not ask who he is or why this is his reaction. Instead, Alcinous simply asks Demodocus to change songs. 

After the feast and first song, Alcinous changes the subject by inviting the Phaeacians to compete in games. This reminded me of funeral or festival games. This scene makes it seem like the Greeks took any opportunity to show their strength and practice athletic challenges. They find honor in this competition as expressed in Laodamas’ words: “there’s no greater glory for a man / than what he wins with his own hands and feet” (line 181-182). Euryalus also guilt trips Odysseus into competing in discus by claiming Odysseus is an all show no work kind of person. Odysseus proves him very wrong and spends a lot of time bragging about his competitive prowess. 

The Phaeacians conclude the games with more feasting and songs, and they give expensive gifts to Odysseus before his journey. One song is about Aphrodite and Ares cheating on Hephaestus. This song, of the three, is written in more detail than the other two. It includes detailed storytelling and dialogue among the gods, including Apollo and Hermes discussing how they would like to be the ones trapped with Aphrodite in a total male-ego led conversation (lines 422-431). 

I also found it interesting that Odysseus promises Nausicaa he will pray to her like a god until the end of his days (line 583-585). He is honoring her for saving him, but will his prayers mean anything since she is a living (younger) human and not an immortal deity? Or is he just saying this to be polite and show gratefulness?

He also ass Demodocus to play a song about the Trojan Horse (line 318-326). Is this so he can reminisce and grow sad again, or because he wants to hear of his glory days and have everyone hear about his greatness? Although he has avoided telling them who he is for this long. It’s is odd that the Phaeacians have gone through all this trouble to honor him and have no clue who he is.

Book 9

My first observation about this book is a criticism on Odysseus’ character. In lines 40-51 he describes how painful it was to be trapped with Calypso and kept away from his homeland. He did not mention his wife, his parents he misses, his wife? Nah. Not even mentioned. Neither is his son, he only misses the terrain of Ithaca. 

I also found it interesting that the behavior of his men mimics the behavior of the suitors—they want to drink, slaughter (other people’s) animals, and be merry. They have no concern for returning home. When Odysseus does get them back in the ships, he assures the ritual sacrifices are made before they leave, unlike Menelaus (lines 87-89). However, this sacrifice did not do him any favors; his ships were still attacked by storms at sea. 

In telling his tale, Odysseus spends little time discussing Ismarus or the Lotus-Eaters. He gives small summaries about how he and his men acted in those situations, but most of his summaries and descriptions center on the appearance of the land and oceans they traveled through. I wonder if this is in response to his longing for his homeland.

After these two events are chronicled, Odysseus spends most of his tale focusing on the detail of his encounter with Polyphemus. My guess is he does this because it shows more cunning in Odysseus than the other two encounters, and this portrays him as a stronger hero than simply avoiding a mesmerizing flower. 

Odysseus’ first appeal to Polyphemus is interesting because in it, he describes how:

“…Zeus protects
All suppliants and strangers—as god of guests,
He cares for all respected visitors.” (line 354-356)

This is the first time I’ve heard this quality attributed to Zeus. Usually I would think of Hermes as god protecting travelers, and I guess my brain associated these two things together. Zeus never seems great at caring for his guests either which makes this more interesting. 

Looking onto Odysseus’ craftiness, we notice he gives Polyphemus the name “Nobody” when he introduces himself (line 486). He thought ahead enough to realize that, if Polyphemus asks for help and names his attacker, other Cyclopes will think he is alone. However, he does not remain nameless. When he screams his name as the ship is leaving, this is an act of Hubris because he wants everyone to know his power and cunning (line 664). Hubris is Odysseus’ fatal flaw—all heroes have one. His pride will likely cause him more problems throughout his journey. His flaw makes him more human though, he is not some perfect hero travelling and winning every battle. 

Of course, after revealing his name we learn of a prophecy that conveniently existed before Odysseus met Polyphemus. So Polyphemus belittles Odysseus by claiming he his puny and weak, and he brushes it off by saying he couldn’t protect himself because it was meant to be. So even monsters blame their negative situations on the gods. But at least he can send his dad after Odysseus for the rest of his journey. This is where we learn why Poseidon has been angry at Odysseus for the whole epic. 

Book 10

1. Odysseus is… oddly patient with his crew. I can definitely see his mourning as proportional to his circumstances, but if I were him I definitely would have had a much more violent reaction to their stupidity in getting the crew off-course from Ithaca. I guess you can’t really go on a violent rampage when you’re dependent on a crew to keep your ship moving.

2. The reaction of Aeolus reminds me of that old Jewish belief that someone with lots of misfortune must have done something wrong in the eyes of God to deserve their punishment. I’m writing this with a massive headache so I don’t think I can provide much more commentary on this point.

3. Before reading this book, I was under the impression that Odysseus was a massive playboy that slept with a bunch of women outside of marriage but held up a double standard and got mad at his wife for possibly being unfaithful (though she did remain faithful in her marriage bed). However, so far in this book, the nature of Odysseus’s sexual relationship with women is much more DARK than I expected. Thus far, Odysseus has been held at the mercy of powerful women, who keep him captive on their islands, far from civilization. The only way he’s been able to be safe in these situations has been to perform sexually for these women. In the case of Circe, of course, he has the power to attack her, but Hermes explicitly tells him that the only way to save his crew is to sleep with Circe so she’ll turn them back. That does NOT sound consensual to me, at all. Of course we got told that he eventually has sex with these women voluntarily, as was the case with Calypso, but from a psychological standpoint this does not make his situation better, as plenty of victims of abuse end up believing they are volunteering and complacent in their abuse due to Stockholm Syndrome. The implication of this interpretation is troubling to me, so if I get this wrong I will not be offended! These are just my first impressions upon reading this passage.

4. Did Circe explain why Odysseus had to travel to the Underworld to talk to the prophet? Or is this just a random task she’s making him complete?

Lorenzo Valla

Lorenzo Valla published his Treatise on the Donation of Constantine in 1440, which was an important event in humanist scholarship. I had been under the impression that it was largely philological – that is, that Valla demonstrated that it had been written in the Latin of the eighth century rather than the fourth, as it claims for itself, thereby proving that it was a fabrication. Upon reading it closely and in its entirely (I am ashamed to admit) for the first time just now I discover that its criticism is much more wide-ranging. There is some formal linguistic analysis, but not in really terms of chronology – Valla simply condemns the author for committing certain errors unworthy of any secretary of Constantine’s. Condemnation of anachronism is largely on account of the document’s referents: the Romans did not have “satraps,” the patriarchate of Constantinople had not yet been established, etc. But in a large part Valla focusses on the big questions: is this event likely to have happened? And if it did, why do no contemporary documents corroborate it? All this is strung together with anti-papal vituperation worthy of Luther at his most manic.

Near the end of the treatise, Valla also condemns the Life of Saint Sylvester (the pope to whom Constantine supposedly bequeathed the western empire) for including implausible details like the pope’s defeat of a dragon that had threatened Rome – and proceeds to condemn all other saints Lives that indulge in this sort of thing. He does not condemn saints as such; as he says: 

I defend and uphold them, but I do not allow them to be confused with ridiculous legends. Nor can I be persuaded that these writers were other than either infidels, who did this to deride the Christians in case these bits of fiction handed out by crafty men to the ignorant should be accepted as true.

This is very interesting, and one can certainly see where Protestantism came from, but then there is this passage:

I remember asking some one, when I was a youth, who wrote the book of Job; and when he answered, “Job himself,” I rejoined, “How then would he mention his own death?” And this can be said of many other books, discussion of which is not appropriate here. 

Whoa… so here is a humanist, if ever so briefly, turning his critical faculties on the Bible itself. Did anyone else do this? Did any humanist take the Bible to task for such unanswered questions as:

• Whom did Cain marry?
• How many animals did Noah take with him onto the ark? (One passage claims seven of each clean animal, and only two of each unclean animal)
• Just how long were the Hebrews in Egypt? (Exodus gives three different figures)
• If the Torah was written by Moses, how come it describes Moses’ death? 

And so on. 

I would be keen to know if any Renaissance scholar explored such questions, or whether this was more of an Enlightened activity. As I prep for HIS 306 this fall, I will be keeping my eye out for any more examples.

Samuel Pepys and the Plague

From the Conversation, “Diary of Samuel Pepys shows how life under the bubonic plague mirrored today’s pandemic” (hat tip: William Campbell):

In early April, writer Jen Miller urged New York Times readers to start a coronavirus diary.

“Who knows,” she wrote, “maybe one day your diary will provide a valuable window into this period.”

During a different pandemic, one 17th-century British naval administrator named Samuel Pepys did just that. He fastidiously kept a diary from 1660 to 1669 – a period of time that included a severe outbreak of the bubonic plague in London. Epidemics have always haunted humans, but rarely do we get such a detailed glimpse into one person’s life during a crisis from so long ago.

There were no Zoom meetings, drive-through testing or ventilators in 17th-century London. But Pepys’ diary reveals that there were some striking resemblances in how people responded to the pandemic.

For Pepys and the inhabitants of London, there was no way of knowing whether an outbreak of the plague that occurred in the parish of St. Giles, a poor area outside the city walls, in late 1664 and early 1665 would become an epidemic.

The plague first entered Pepys’ consciousness enough to warrant a diary entry on April 30, 1665: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City,” he wrote, “it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.”

Pepys continued to live his life normally until the beginning of June, when, for the first time, he saw houses “shut up” – the term his contemporaries used for quarantine – with his own eyes, “marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there.” After this, Pepys became increasingly troubled by the outbreak.

He soon observed corpses being taken to their burial in the streets, and a number of his acquaintances died, including his own physician.

By mid-August, he had drawn up his will, writing, “that I shall be in much better state of soul, I hope, if it should please the Lord to call me away this sickly time.” Later that month, he wrote of deserted streets; the pedestrians he encountered were “walking like people that had taken leave of the world.”

Read the whole thing

Defoe’s Plague Year

Heather Mallick in the Toronto Star (hat tip: Ron Good):

Defoe’s 1722 followup [to Robinson Crusoe] was A Journal of the Plague Year, an autofiction look-back to the plague that had struck England and elsewhere 50 years before. From our standpoint, it’s remarkable how Londoners in 1665 behaved very much as we are behaving now. It takes more than 355 years for people to change habits.

Reading A Journal this week, I was struck by the parallels between Defoe’s plague notes as he walked about the city and our own tales of the coronavirus lockdown.

Daniel Defoe adds up the daily numbers. “There died near 400 of the plague in the two parishes of St. Martin and St. Giles-in-the-Fields only, three died in the parish of Aldgate but four, in the parish of Whitechapel three.”

Defoe sees mad Twitter-like theories abound. “Some endeavours were used to suppress the printing of such books as terrified the people but the Government being unwilling to exasperate the people, who were, as I may say, all out of their wits already.”

Defoe frets over job losses, excoriates Big Landlord. “Maidservants especially, and menservants [asked] ‘Oh sir I for the Lord’s sake, what will become of me? Will my mistress keep me, or will she turn me off? Will she stay here, or will she go into the country … or leave me here to be starved and undone?’”

Defoe meets some bros. “There was a dreadful set of fellows that used their [tavern], and who, in the middle of all this horror, met there every night … so when the dead-cart came, they would make their impudent mocks and jeers at them, especially if they heard the poor people call upon God to have mercy upon them.”

Defoe encounters thoughtless Vancouver-type people. “They were not quite sick, had yet the distemper upon them, and who, by having an uninterrupted liberty to go about … gave the distemper to others, and spread the infection in a dreadful manner.”

More at the link

Clay Anderson

Adjunct professor of history Clay Anderson has published his first book, a novel entitled The Palms.

From Amazon:

Sixty-eight-year-old Ronnie Wells has recently been paroled for a murder he committed thirty-six years before. He lives in a run-down trailer park outside Pensacola, Florida, and busies himself by maintaining his trailer—it’s the nicest in the park—and never being late for work. Daily life for Ronnie changes when he befriends Mary, the seven-year-old girl who lives next door with her mother, Clara, a drug-addicted prostitute. The Palms weaves the stories and points-of-view of Ronnie, Clara, and Mary as they form a blended family and try to build a new existence. In Mary, Ronnie finds the daughter he never got to raise. 

Congratulations, Clay!

Claudius Meets Pollio and Livy

Currently rereading Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934), in the wake of teaching HIS 302 this past semester. I was taken with this section from Chapter 9, in which a young Claudius meets the historians Livy and Pollio and discusses competing theories of history writing.

***

Livy said: “The trouble with Pollio is that when he writes history he feels obliged to suppress all his finer, more poetical feelings, and make his characters behave with conscientious dullness, and when he puts a speech into their mouths he denies them the least oratorical ability.”

Pollio said: “Yes, Poetry is Poetry, and Oratory is Oratory, and History is History, and you can’t mix them.”

“Can’t I? Indeed I can,” said Livy. “Do you mean to say that I mustn’t write a history with an epic theme because that’s a prerogative of poetry or put worthy eve-of-battle speeches in the mouths of my generals because to compose such speeches is the prerogative of oratory?”

“That is precisely what I do mean. History is a true record of what happened, how people lived and died, what they did and said ; an epic theme merely distorts the record. As for your general’s speeches they are admirable as oratory but damnably unhistorical: not only is there no particle of evidence for any one of them, but they are inappropriate. I have heard more eve-of-battle speeches than most men and though the generals that made them, Caesar and Antony especially, were remarkably fine platform orators, they were all too good soldiers to try any platform business on the troops. They spoke to them in a conversational way, they did not orate. What sort of speech did Caesar make before the Battle of Pharsalia? Did he beg us to remember our wives and children and the sacred temples of Rome and the glories of our past campaigns? By God, he didn’t!…”

Livy said: ‘Pollio, my dear fellow, we were not discussing Caesar’s morals, but the proper way to write history.”

Pollio said: “Yes, that’s right. Our intelligent young friend [Claudius] was criticizing your method, under the respectful disguise of praising your readability. Boy, have you any further charges to bring against the noble Livy?”

I said: “Please, sir, don’t make me blush. I admire Livy’s work greatly.”

“The truth, boy! Have you ever caught him out in any historical inaccuracies? You seem to be a fellow who reads a good deal.”

“I would rather not venture…”

“Out with it. There must be something.”

So I said: “There is one thing that puzzles me, I confess. That is the story of Lars Porsena. According to Livy, Porsena failed to capture Rome, being first prevented by the heroic behaviour of Horatius at the bridge and then dismayed by the astounding daring of Scaevola; Livy relates that Scaevola, captured after an attempt at assassinating Porsena, thrust his hand into the flame on the altar and swore that three hundred Romans like himself had bound themselves by an oath to take Porsena’s life. And so Lars Porsena made peace. But I have seen the labyrinth tomb of Lars Porsena at Clusium and there is a frieze on it of Romans emerging from the City gate and being led under a yoke. There’s an Etruscan priest with a pair of shears cutting off the beards of the Fathers. And even Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who was very favourably disposed towards us, states that the Senate voted Porsena an ivory throne, a sceptre, a golden crown and a triumphal robe; which can only mean that they paid him sovereign honours. So perhaps Lars Porsena did capture Rome, in spite of Horatius and Scaevola. And Aruns the priest at Capua (he’s supposed to be the last man who can read Etruscan inscriptions) told me last summer that according to Etruscan records the man who expelled the Tarquins from Rome was not Brutus but Porsena, and that Brutus and Collatinus, the first two Consuls at Rome, were merely the City Stewards appointed to collect his taxes.”

Livy grew quite angry. “I am surprised at you, Claudius. Have you no reverence for Roman tradition that you should believe the lies told by our ancient enemies to diminish our greatness.”

“I only asked,” I said humbly, “what really happened then.”

“Come on, Livy,” said Pollio. “Answer the young student. What really happened?”

Livy said: “Another time. Let’s keep to the matter in hand now, which is a general discussion of the proper way to write history. Claudius, my friend, you have ambitions that way. Which of us two old worthies will you choose as a model?”

I looked from one face to the other. At last I said, “I think I would choose Pollio. As I’m sure that I can never hope to attain Livy’s inspired literary elegance, I shall do my best to imitate Pollio’s accuracy and diligence.”

“A joke is a joke, Pollio, and I can take it in good part. But there’s also a serious matter in
question and that is, the proper writing of history. It may be that I have made mistakes. What historian is free from them? I have not, at least, told deliberate falsehoods: you’ll not accuse
me of that. Any legendary episode from early historical writings which bears on my theme of the ancient greatness of Rome I gladly incorporate in the story: though it may not be true in
factual detail, it is true in spirit. If I come across two versions of the same episode I choose the one nearest my theme, and you won’t find me grubbing around Etruscan cemeteries in
search of any third account which may flatly contradict both — what good would that do?”

“It would serve the cause of the truth,” said Pollio gently. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

“And if by serving the cause of truth we admit our revered ancestors to have been cowards, liars and traitors? What then?”

I’ll leave this boy to answer the question. He’s just starting in life. Come on, boy, answer it!”

I said at random: “Livy begins his history by lamenting modern wickedness and promising to trace the gradual decline of ancient virtue as conquests made Rome wealthy. He says that he
will most enjoy writing the early chapters because he will be able, in doing so, to close his eyes to the wickedness of modern times. But in closing his eyes to modern wickedness hasn’t he sometimes closed his eyes to ancient wickedness as well?”

“Well?” asked Livy, narrowing his eyes.

“Well,” I fumbled. “Perhaps there isn’t so much difference really between their wickedness and ours. It may be just a matter of scope and opportunity.

“I hadn’t considered the matter before, that there are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth. The first is Livy’s way and the other is yours: and perhaps they are not irreconcilable.”

***

This is always the issue, isn’t it? Of course, I stand with Claudius and Pollio here – call me a naive positivist, but I still believe there is such a thing as the truth, and we can get close to it if we really try. If you want to write a novel (say, like I, Claudius) then you should clearly label it as such. The trouble is that truth-seeking history really takes effort, as Livy notes, and if taken to extremes leads to tedious books like The Lion, the Lily, and the Leopard. There is nothing wrong with making a historical argument, or retelling a historical narrative, in a clear, compelling way. Just make sure that you don’t go too far in making things up, especially in the service of your fatuous politics (a shockingly common occurrence, I regret to admit).

Erased Females

A couple of recent news stories suggest that certain individual women in history had their achievements stolen by men.

1. Elizabeth Winkler in The Atlantic:

Doubts about whether William Shakespeare (who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and died in 1616) really wrote the works attributed to him are almost as old as the writing itself. Alternative contenders—Francis Bacon; Christopher Marlowe; and Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, prominent among them—continue to have champions, whose fervor can sometimes border on fanaticism. In response, orthodox Shakespeare scholars have settled into dogmatism of their own. Even to dabble in authorship questions is considered a sign of bad faith, a blinkered failure to countenance genius in a glover’s son. The time had come, I felt, to tug at the blinkers of both camps and reconsider the authorship debate: Had anyone ever proposed that the creator of those extraordinary women might be a woman? Each of the male possibilities requires an elaborate theory to explain his use of another’s name. None of the candidates has succeeded in dethroning the man from Stratford. Yet a simple reason would explain a playwright’s need for a pseudonym in Elizabethan England: being female….

The prevailing view… has been that no women in Renaissance England wrote for the theater, because that was against the rules. Religious verse and translation were deemed suitable female literary pursuits; “closet dramas,” meant only for private reading, were acceptable. The stage was off-limits. Yet scholars have lately established that women were involved in the business of acting companies as patrons, shareholders, suppliers of costumes, and gatherers of entrance fees. What’s more, 80 percent of the plays printed in the 1580s were written anonymously, and that number didn’t fall below 50 percent until the early 1600s. At least one eminent Shakespeare scholar, Phyllis Rackin, of the University of Pennsylvania, challenges the blanket assumption that the commercial drama pouring forth in the period bore no trace of a female hand. So did Virginia Woolf, even as she sighed over the obstacles that would have confronted a female Shakespeare: “Undoubtedly, I thought, looking at the shelf where there are no plays by women, her work would have gone unsigned.”

Emilia Bassano [was] born in London in 1569 to a family of Venetian immigrants—musicians and instrument-makers who were likely Jewish—she was one of the first women in England to publish a volume of poetry (suitably religious yet startlingly feminist, arguing for women’s “Libertie” and against male oppression). Her existence was unearthed in 1973 by the Oxford historian A. L. Rowse, who speculated that she was Shakespeare’s mistress, the “dark lady” described in the sonnets. In Emilia, the playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm goes a step further: Her Shakespeare is a plagiarist who uses Bassano’s words for Emilia’s famous defense of women in Othello.

Could Bassano have contributed even more widely and directly? The idea felt like a feminist fantasy about the past—but then, stories about women’s lost and obscured achievements so often have a dreamlike quality, unveiling a history different from the one we’ve learned. Was I getting carried away, reinventing Shakespeare in the image of our age? Or was I seeing past gendered assumptions to the woman who—like Shakespeare’s heroines—had fashioned herself a clever disguise? Perhaps the time was finally ripe for us to see her.

More at the link.

2. From the Herald Sun (Melbourne):

Was King Tut a fraud? New evidence points to a female pharaoh who ruled before him

Why do so many of Pharoah Tutankhamun’s famous golden statues have breasts? Turns out, it’s not him. It’s his sisters. They ruled Egypt before him — and achieved everything the boy king is credited with. But they were written out of history — until now.

That’s one new theory that is beginning to emerge from fresh forensic analysis of the rich relics found bundled in the famous tomb found by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.

Modern Egyptologists are revisiting the clues, reshaping the fragmentary puzzle of what exactly happened during one of history’s most tumultuous times….

[After Akhenaten’s death,] Princess Neferneferuaten took the throne, the professor says, with the teenage Meritaten adopting the ritual role of chief royal consort.

“It looks like after one year, Meritaten had herself crowned as pharaoh, as well,” she says.

It wasn’t without precedent. Or controversy.

Egypt had had female pharaohs before — Hatshepsut and Sobekneferu.

And Akhenaten had already done something radical: Among his revolutionary acts was to make his favourite queen, Nefertiti, a full equal in rank and status. Essentially, a co-pharaoh.

Their looted statues — one wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, the other of Lower Egypt — were later bundled among Tutankhamun’s possessions.

The bejewelled plate of the goddess Nut also found among Tut’s treasures indicates it was these child queens that had set about restoring the old religions and moving the capital back to Thebes. Not Tutankhamun, as is widely reported.

But the priests who cemented King Tut’s rule hated Akhenaten with a vengeance for having stripped away their gods, their wealth and their power. And they wold have been scandalised by any following co-female rule, Professor Angenot says.

More at the link. I am not endorsing either of these, but I’m not discounting them entirely; sometimes women really have been written out of history because men wanted it that way. However, it is always tempting to go too far in the opposite direction for similarly political reasons. Whom to believe? (Although I confess to being a Stratfordian myself; I found James Shapiro’s Contested Will to be convincing.)

Medieval Dragons

Cait Stevenson on Medievalists.net:

Seven Things You Didn’t Know About Medieval Dragons

1. Medieval people understood what a “dragon” was.

I say dragon, and you visualize a giant fire breathing, flying lizard with legs, maybe claws, maybe a voice. I know, and you know. Dragons are that iconic a cultural image. The same was true of the Middle Ages. As Paul Acker showed, Norse sagas spend basically no time describing the physical characteristics of their dragon foes—despite the physical form of the dragon being crucial to the hero’s contest against it and the audience’s ability to follow the battle.

2. Or rather, medieval people understood what dragons, plural, were. 

In the thirteenth-century Norse poem Fáfnismál, Sigurd digs himself a pit where he knows the greedy dwarf-turned-dragon Fáfnir will slither. Our hero stabs upwards into the dragon’s belly. This feat makes no sense to an audience expecting a monster who lumbers on legs or takes to the skies. Just like we “know” what a dragon is from general cultural awareness, medieval people knew.

Fáfnir is, for all intents and purposes, a giant snake. He spews clouds and rivers of venom like a giant snake. A frequent attribute of dragons in medieval bestiaries (descriptions of animals and their characteristics meant as moral lessons for people) recounts their ability to kill animals as large as elephants via constriction and suffocation… you know, like a giant snake. But nobody blinks when Chretien de Troyes’ great dragon in Yvain is “so full of evil that fire leapt from its mouth,” or when the Norse adaptation of Chretien’s Arthuriana lets its dragon dispense with the cooking and get right to the eating. Sometimes dragons are specified as flugdrekar – flying dragons – and sometimes simple drekar and ormar (“worms”) are described as taking to flight. What medieval people understood by “dragon” was a much wider range than the color-coding schemes of modern fantasy. Which brings us to the most excellent variety of medieval dragon:

3. Before they acquired the ability to fly, medieval dragons dropped out of trees onto people’s heads.

As Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, an important source for medieval encyclopedic and bestiary writing, has it:

The iaculus throws itself from the branches of trees; dragons are dangerous not only to the feet but also fly like a missile from a catapult.

Isidore of Seville in the early seventh century clarified that the iaculusindeed takes its name from the javelin, and the Norse Rómverja sagadraws out this point in excruciating detail:

struck under the cheek that man who was called Paulus and the serpent flew straight into his head and out of his cheek

Read the rest at the link.

Maken Engelond Gret Ayeyn

The great Paul Strohm in Lapham’s Quarterly (hat tip: Arts and Letters Daily) discusses late-fourteenth and early-fifteenth century English trade, in particular the perennial conflict between the ideas of free trade and protectionism. A sample:

Giano’s killing was one episode in the larger story of international trade and its accompanying rivalries in the later European Middle Ages. The so-called Dark Ages were never as dark as their name would imply; hucksters, peddlers, chapmen, and other minor players had always plied Europe’s roads and dealt their goods. But it was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that high-volume international trading seriously resumed, with trade in wool one of its major drivers. In those centuries, the Port of London alone handled almost a thousand arriving and departing trading vessels a year, and numerous other English ports (including the newly active ports of Dover and Southampton) were claiming a role. Half this activity was devoted to wool, and it generated immense wealth for the realm, conferring fortunes on a small and monopolistic group of men. These successful profiteers were not the sheepherders and shearers of the provinces, nor the merchant sailors who braved the seas, but the entrepreneurial middlemen who collected revenues on exported wool. A close-knit group of at most several hundred men, they formed allegiances and confederations throughout the mercantile establishment that dominated the leading guilds and ran the city of London.

Read the whole thing, which concludes that the author of the protectionist Libel of English Policy (1438) may be considered a Brexiteer avant la lettre, “laying early foundations for varieties of economic nationalism now returning to contemporary vogue.”

Arthurianism in Early Plantagenet England

My friend Chris Berard is interviewed for Boydell’s Medieval Herald about his new book:

What would you most like readers to take from your book? 

I want my readers to see that the legend of King Arthur, as written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, encapsulates the ‘medieval cultural synthesis’ of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Celtic-Teutonic traditions. I describe Arthur in my book as a composite figure, a “best of” kings compilation. In Arthur one finds dimensions of King David, Alexander the Great, King Æthelstan, King Canute, Charlemagne, and the early Norman kings of England. Geoffrey’s Arthur can be understood as a patriotic resistance fighter and as a champion of established institutional authority. Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain was to the post-Conquest kings of England what Virgil’s Aeneid was to Caesar Augustus. In the History of the Kings of Britain, we find a divinely-ordained, manifest destiny of imperial attainment; recurrent patterns of history that provide an intoxicating blend of mystery and meaning to the past, present and future; instruction on good kingship and good vassalage; and hope for an idyllic future, which can be described as a more perfect version of an already idealized past. The breadth of sources and traditions that Geoffrey drew upon when constructing Arthur combined with his tailoring of the figure to appeal to the particular imperial ambitions of England’s monarchs was the key to Arthur’s enduring appeal. Arthur is a king for all seasons. I seek to situate the medieval Arthurian tradition within the broader context and patterns of Western Civilization, and my hope is that my work will contribute to the recognition of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain as an integral part of the western canon.

More at the link.