Sunday, September 13, 2020

Hearts don't break

I haven't been blogging much.  I've got things to say, but none of them very profound or unique.  There are so many people talking about important issues that I don't feel a strong  need to contribute to these conversations.  But...

I am reading some of my old paperback fiction, most of it from the 70s or earlier.  These books are often pretty obscure but good nevertheless.  Example:  Fletcher Pratt's The Well of the Unicorn.  It's a heroic fantasy about a young peasant who becomes a viceroy because of his charisma.

Pratt wrote a number of fantasies  in the 40s and 50s.  They were written out of Pratt's wide knowledge of history and in the case of the Well of the Unicorn early English (16th -18th centuries).  Pratt's vocabulary is remarkably accurate even entertaining.

This book was published in 1948 and got favorable reviews in a number of periodicals, including the New York Times.  By the time it was reprinted in 1973, it was not so unique. But I found it very interesting. I hadn't read the book in 25 years (at a guess) but phrases and usages seemed familiar.  Was it Pratt being memorable, or Pratt inspired by Shakespeare, or Dafoe or any member of the Long Parliament?

Title:  A  character's respomse to the notion of breaking hearts

Friday, August 21, 2020

Another fine book from Getty: Elizabeth Morrison's Book of Beasts


2 of 2,755

Morrison, Elizabeth, ed. Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2019. Pp. xiv, 340. $60.00. ISBN: 978-1-606-06590-7.

   Review by Scott G. Bruce

        Fordham University

This sumptuous catalogue is an awe-inspiring testament to an unprecedented exhibition of medieval bestiaries hosted by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles from May 14 to August 18, 2019. Based on late antique models and reaching a height of popularity in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, medieval bestiaries were collections of pithy stories about the nature of animals (and often plants and stones as well) that explained their symbolic meaning in a medieval Christian worldview. Some of these animals were common, like dogs and horses; others were exotic, like elephants and panthers, while others still were mythological, like unicorns and dragons. 

Medieval bestiaries varied in content, containing anywhere between fifty and one hundred anecdotes, but they all served the same purpose: to educate and entertain medieval readers with stories about manifestations of Christian truth in God's creation. The Getty Museum exhibition was an unprecedented event that brought together dozens of manuscripts representing more than a third of the illustrated medieval bestiaries in existence [me: !], as well as premodern art objects depicting animals in a variety of media.

The exhibition catalogue under review, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, braids together many short essays and over one hundred descriptions of manuscripts and other medieval artifacts. Part One ("Introducing the Bestiary") opens the catalogue with a useful introduction to the history of medieval bestiaries by Elizabeth Morrison, followed by samples of their most enduring stories about the lion, the tiger, the unicorn, the griffin, the elephant, the beaver, the bonnacon, the ape, the fox, the eagle, the pelican, the siren, the dragon, the hydra, and the whale, each accompanied by a full-color illustration. This tantalizing preview beckons the reader to the visual and intellectual riches that follow. Part Two ("Exploring the Bestiary") comprises seven essays. Sarah Kay offers a survey of the textual history of the bestiary tradition from the Physiologus, a late antique collection of Greek moralized animal lore, to the Latin books of beasts that it inspired in the Carolingian period, to the longer, more elaborate bestiaries of the later Middle Ages. Xenia Muratova celebrates the diverse ways that medieval illuminators interpreted the text of Latin bestiaries, noting that "an impressive highly individual approach to the pictorial interpretation of identical models testifies to the creative independence of the artists, the variety of their artistic temperaments, and the richness and diversity of their stylistic methods and schools" (40). Elizabeth Morrison draws attention to the challenges presented by bestiaries for the planners of medieval manuscripts, in particular how they negotiated the amount of space necessary for a work of variable length and its accompanying illuminations, especially when they used different exemplars for the text and the images. Ilya Dines examines the presence of five thirteenth-century bestiaries in multi-text manuscripts to see if the texts copied alongside them inflect their purpose for medieval readers. Since these bestiaries generally appeared in the company of other didactic texts, she concludes that they supported "the same didactic and theological function as the rest of the texts and miscellanies themselves" (71). Susan Crane offers a case study of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodleian Ms. 764, a mid-thirteenth-century bestiary lush with illumination, to show how some medieval artists diverged from received pictorial traditions when illustrating these texts. In this case, she argues that the illuminations of cats and hawks in this particular manuscript suggest that "the Bodleian artist turned away from Christian moralizations to favor the fascinations of the living world" (81). Closing out this part of the book, Emma Campbell examines translations of the Latin bestiary into vernacular languages with an emphasis on medieval French, while Larisa Grollemond charts the interest of secular readers in vernacular translations of this text in the thirteenth century, particularly in a courtly context.

Part Three ("Beyond the Bestiary") features several essays that explore how, in the words of Meredith Cohen, the animal lore of medieval bestiaries "migrated from the book to all other forms of representational art, both secular and sacred" (177). Its widespread influence is evident in textual and pictorial cross-pollination with encyclopedias of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Emily Steiner), with world maps known as mappae mundi made in the decades around 1300 (Debra Higgs Strickland), and with early modern cartography, like the illustrated nautical chart rendered by Mateo Prunes in the sixteenth century (Chet van Duzer). This section of the book also features a short, but thoughtful, essay by Rebecca Hill on beast lore in the Islamic tradition (260-261) in a collection otherwise dominated by western European source materials. An epilogue by Larisa Grollemond explores the legacy of medieval bestiary images on modern and contemporary artists in the twentieth century.

This exquisite catalogue is sure to interest premodern scholars across a wide range of disciplines. Over the past decade, the so-called "animal turn" in medieval literary studies has stepped in time with renewed interest in environmental history among medieval historians. As a result, animals have become a common topic of interdisciplinary inquiry into the medieval past. While this catalogue has immense value as a storehouse of information about and interpretation of the medieval bestiary tradition and the scholarship it has inspired, it also has the potential to play an important role in outreach to non-specialists. Bestiaries are among the most intriguing and accessible medieval sources. As Elizabeth Morrison reminds us, many of our colloquial expressions about animals--"King of Beasts, crying crocodile tears, licking someone into shape, wily as a fox, and perhaps even monkey on my back" (10)--find their origin in the medieval bestiary tradition. With its stunning illustrations and attractive design, this volume is an excellent resource for specialists, but it is also a provocative introduction to this aspects of medieval European culture for discerning readers interested in the premodern past. ​

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

An exciting view of human social evolution. No need to be stuck in the era of Rousseau and the Scottish Enlightenment

 Two Davids (David Graeber and David Wengrow) want to rewrite human history.
The first bombshell on our list concerns the origins and spread of agriculture. There is no longer any support for the view that it marked a major transition in human societies. In those parts of the world where animals and plants were first domesticated, there actually was no discernible ‘switch’ from Palaeolithic Forager to Neolithic Farmer. The ‘transition’ from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production typically took something in the order of three thousand years. While agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after its inception. In the time between, people in areas as far removed as Amazonia and the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East were trying farming on for size, ‘play farming’ if you like, switching annually between modes of production, much as they switched their social structures back and forth. Moreover, the ‘spread of farming’ to secondary areas, such as Europe – so often described in triumphalist terms, as the start of an inevitable decline in hunting and gathering – turns out to have been a highly tenuous process, which sometimes failed, leading to demographic collapse for the farmers, not the foragers.

Clearly, it no longer makes any sense to use phrases like ‘the agricultural revolution’ when dealing with processes of such inordinate length and complexity. Since there was no Eden-like state, from which the first farmers could take their first steps on the road to inequality, it makes even less sense to talk about agriculture as marking the origins of rank or private property. If anything, it is among those populations – the ‘Mesolithic’ peoples – who refused farming through the warming centuries of the early Holocene, that we find stratification becoming more entrenched; at least, if opulent burial, predatory warfare, and monumental buildings are anything to go by. In at least some cases, like the Middle East, the first farmers seem to have consciously developed alternative forms of community, to go along with their more labour-intensive way of life. These Neolithic societies look strikingly egalitarian when compared to their hunter-gatherer neighbours, with a dramatic increase in the economic and social importance of women, clearly reflected in their art and ritual life (contrast here the female figurines of Jericho or Çatalhöyük with the hyper-masculine sculpture of Göbekli Tepe).

Another bombshell: ‘civilization’ does not come as a package. The world’s first cities did not just emerge in a handful of locations, together with systems of centralised government and bureaucratic control. In China, for instance, we are now aware that by 2500 BC, settlements of 300 hectares or more existed on the lower reaches of the Yellow River, over a thousand years before the foundation of the earliest (Shang) royal dynasty. On the other side of the Pacific, and at around the same time, ceremonial centres of striking magnitude have been discovered in the valley of Peru’s Río Supe, notably at the site of Caral: enigmatic remains of sunken plazas and monumental platforms, four millennia older than the Inca Empire. Such recent discoveries indicate how little is yet truly known about the distribution and origin of the first cities, and just how much older these cities may be than the systems of authoritarian government and literate administration that were once assumed necessary for their foundation. And in the more established heartlands of urbanisation – Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, the Basin of Mexico – there is mounting evidence that the first cities were organised on self-consciously egalitarian lines, municipal councils retaining significant autonomy from central government. In the first two cases, cities with sophisticated civic infrastructures flourished for over half a millennium with no trace of royal burials or monuments, no standing armies or other means of large-scale coercion, nor any hint of direct bureaucratic control over most citizen’s lives.

Jared Diamond notwithstanding, there is absolutely no evidence that top-down structures of rule are the necessary consequence of large-scale organization. Walter Scheidel notwithstanding, it is simply not true that ruling classes, once established, cannot be gotten rid of except by general catastrophe. To take just one well-documented example: around 200 AD, the city of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, with a population of 120,000 (one of the largest in the world at the time), appears to have undergone a profound transformation, turning its back on pyramid-temples and human sacrifice, and reconstructing itself as a vast collection of comfortable villas, all almost exactly the same size. It remained so for perhaps 400 years. Even in Cortés’ day, Central Mexico was still home to cities like Tlaxcala, run by an elected council whose members were periodically whipped by their constituents to remind them who was ultimately in charge.

The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.


Monday, July 20, 2020

Judicial duels, military law and Fiore

Ariella Elema, a leading scholar on dueling, says on Facebook:
Thanks for yesterday’s discussion on judicial duels, everyone. It helped shake loose some thoughts. I now think it’s safer to say that by 1350 the judicial duel was dead in every Italian system of law except military law (see below). Now I have to decide if there’s any distinction between a duel and a judicial duel in Italy between 1347ish and the early sixteenth century.

In Italy circa 1350, multiple systems of law operated in parallel. Church courts oversaw ecclesiastical matters according to canon law and the courts of cities-whether run by a commune or a magnate—ran on a mix of unwritten customary tradition, old Lombard laws, imperial edicts and local statutes. The law schools of universities studied mostly Roman law and their graduates sometimes inserted it into rulings in the secular courts when other precedents were lacking. There were also a multitude of private arbitration services, using more or less the same law as the secular courts. At this point, trial by combat was dead in all of these systems of law.

The one system where it wasn’t dead yet was military law, the law of how soldiers and armies conducted themselves. There isn’t a lot of scholarship on this branch of law but Maurice Keen has written a bit and Steve Muhlberger has looked at some French examples. The problem with military law was that in Italy it was entirely customary law. There were no statutes, just remembered precedents. In Italy, the judges were not the professional jurists who had taken over in other Italian courts, they were military commanders. (Sometimes they could be one of those noble magnates wearing his commander-in-chief hat.) Unlike most other Italian courts, there was not even a sporadic attempt at recordkeeping, just the observations of the occasional chronicler when a case came to his attention.

Military law was also based only loosely in geography. The military law practiced in Italy had more in common with the French law of arms that would later be described by Honorat Bovet, Christine de Pizan and Geoffroi de Charny than with the laws of any Italian city.

The system of military law made Giovanni da Legnano uneasy. He was an academic trained in the Roman law tradition, which required written texts. So he tried to retcon it into some of the existing statute law. But this leads him to conclude that duels are illegal under canon and Roman law, and only allowed under Lombard law in certain circumstances that don’t actually coincide with the reasons that duels were happening in real life by his time. (The real life reasons seem to have included such cases as “because we felt like it” and “dude was a mouthy jackass,” neither of which were actionable by combat under Lombard law.) He also insists that duels are fought with clubs, which they weren’t anymore by his time. We don’t get a proper treatise on military duels as they were actually practiced until Paride del Pozzo, and after him it’s not long before they escape anything resembling a legal system.

If you know someone who wants a thesis, the military law of duelling as it was actually practiced between 1300 to 1550 is a rabbit hole I should probably try not to fall too far down myself.
Thanks for this, Ariella!

Happy Lunar Landing Day...

...and on to Mars!

Friday, July 10, 2020

I don't quite know what to say about this Hagia Sofia story

The CBC reports that a Turkish court has ruled that Hagia Sophia no longer will have the character of a museum, but will be available for Islamic worship -- in other words, as a mosque.

Hagia Sophia,  the most important church in the later Roman Empire, was built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century.  It was perhaps the biggest church or religious building for 1000 years.  It is very impressive today.

Hagia Sophia, like the city it stands in,  has been a symbol of the Eastern empire for a long time.  From the 6th century until 1453, it was the capital of the Greek-speaking church.  The  Turkish conquest led to the conversion of the church into a  mosque.  

It stayed that way for about 900 years, when another political and religious revolution altered Hagia Sophia.  Ataturk, the first president of the secular republic of Turkey, a man dismissive of religion, had Hagia Sophia designated as a museum, a monument that in theory was equally appropriate to all religions.

So  what does the current move mean?  President Erdogan has been reversing Ataturk's religious policies for about 20 years.  He agrees with the pious forces who see Turkey as a Muslim state -- and Turkey is indeed a majority Muslim country.  But there are many  Turkish citizens who aren't Muslim, or particularly religious.  How will these people react?  And what will religious forces do to exploit their ownership of the capital Eastern empire?

Image:  An interior shot of Hagia Sophia

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

A surprise development

Two days ago I finished the first draft of the 13th century poem, Le Tournoi de Chauvency. As you can probably tell from the title, Le Tournoi is an account of a tournament. It's quite an entertaining piece, and one of the few detailed descriptions of a medieval tournament. But it has a few problems. There has been only a translation from Old French into modern French, by Dominique Henriot-Walzer, and so it is inaccessible to most readers.

A good few years back I decided to do something about this, in so far as I could. My knowledge of Old French is weak, and so a translation from OF to modern French wasn't practical. But I thought that a translation of Henrit-Walzer's French version into English might produce something that would allow Anglophones, at least, to enjoy Le Tournoi. This would be no great work of scholarship, but it would allow jousting fans of all sorts to get a taste of the High Medieval tournament, and meet the participants, the audience, and the organizers.

(Note: this is one of the great periods of jousting, though the question “Will a jouster read?” has yet to receive a definitive answer.)

Two days ago I shared my pleasure at getting close to this goal with my many correspondents. The next day, I found an announcement from Boydell and Brewer that they were publishing (Nov 2020) an English translation of not only Le Tournoi but another tournament account, The Romance of Le Hem.

What to do? Clearly the B&B book is going to be superior to my translation in a number of ways:
  • We can only hope that Nigel Bryant's French is better than mine :-)
  • His book will contain two texts rather than one
  • It will contain a scholarly apparatus
I think, however, that I will go ahead with my translation because I am willing to publish it very cheaply.

Real scholars will use the Bryant translation (at least I hope so), but  people who might be interested in the text but won't spend $65 on it will have this alternative.

Chivalry, the treatment of non-combatants and women

 I have had trouble with the formatting of this post.  Here's another attempt.

The eminent military historian John Gillingham wrote an article "Surrender in Medieval Europe: An Indirect Approach," which appeared in the book How Fighting Ends: A History of Surrendered. H. Afflerbach and H. Strachan (Oxford U. P. 2012).  I found it  It's one of several articles on surrender, the origin of non-combatant status, and chivalry by Gillingham.  He has a lot of provocative things to say about the development of war.

Here are some excerpts of Gillingham's arguments:
 My subject ... is the narrower one of warfare in the field during the first seven hundred years of the ‘Middle Ages’, roughly from the fifth to the twelfth century. Some of the most fundamental developments in the history of war in this part of the world took place towards the end of these seven centuries: the discontinuance of the ancient practice of enslaving prisoners, the emergence of an effective notion of non-combatant status and the growth of the practice of ransom - all developments relevant to the still unwritten history of surrender....
I shall distinguish two main phases characterised by two very different cultures of war...
Phase  One. In this phase warfare typically involved the killing of men in battle, and after battle the enslavement of the defeated, especially their women and children. Later lawyers called this bellum Romanum, but contemporaries were probably more familiar with it as the Old Testament model of war.  As is well known, this appears to be the conduct of was characteristic of Homeric Greece and of many early societies.  In Phase One, surrender appears to have been shameful and very rare. 
Phase Two. In this phase of warfare, the ‘common’ soldier was in greater danger than the powerful; the rich had a better chance of being spared and held to ransom. For the first time in history, non-combatant immunity existed in the sense that although enemy soldiers might intend to ruin civilians economically by destroying or taking their wealth, they no longer went out of their way to kill or enslave them,
The shift from Phase one to Phase two marked one of the most important developments in the history of war. It occurred at different times in different regions. Hence Gerald de Barri’s explicit statement (made c. 1190) that in his day in French-style warfare the custom is to take prisoners and ransom them, but in Welsh and Irish warfare to massacre and cut off heads.
If  Phase One is the Old Testament, Phase Two represents the Age of Chivalry, including its much mocked care for damsels in distress. In Phase Two women might be raped or seized and threatened in order to extort money from their husbands or fathers, but on the whole that sort of conduct was regarded as reprehensible by those men who wrote about war or who held high military command. In Phase One, by contrast, the capture and enslavement of women and children was ‘not the occasional excess of the lawless…..not a cause for shame but, if successful, a source of pride.’
 Few medieval authors noticed the shift, but one who at least referred to it was Honoré Bouvet. In L’arbre des batailles he expressed his conviction that wars in hisday were carried on with greater restraint than in the past: ‘nowadays we haveabandoned the ancient rules of making slaves of prisoners and of putting them todeath after they have fallen into our hands’. Instead ‘by written law, good custom andusage, among Christians great and small, there exists the custom of commonly taking ransom from one another.
So, did chivalry mean more to warriors of the Central and Late Middle Ages than historians have been willing to grant?

No comments:

Post a comment