Saturday, September 27, 2008

Got Medieval gets medieval

There is an interesting and intermittent blog named Got Medieval that in recent weeks has been specializing in rude marginal illustrations of superhero monkeys and other peculiarities in medieval manuscripts. This by itself, no kidding, has been a contribution to understanding the past. But today the blog transcends mere illustration and amusing commentary. The blogger, whose name is Carl S. Pyrdum (III), uses his blogging podium to great effect, drawing attention to one of the most irritating generalizations about the Middle Ages made by non-specialists. This is what blogs are for, having a place to put thoughts of this sort is why I have mine, though I am not sure I've ever written one this good about the Middle Ages. I want all of my students who have any interest in the farther past to read the whole post, which is called The Myth of Pre-literacy. I don't know if I can manage to convince them, or the rest of you, to go there and read, but have a look at this sample:

Before the printing press, people had books--not as many books, surely, but they had books. And some of them loved books. They loved books the way BoingBoingers love Altoid tins and open source software projects. As hard as it is to believe, books were themselves once a cool, innovative technology, and that "once" happened well before Gutenberg came along.

Medieval book enthusiasts were DIYers. They made their own books. They copied texts they liked, freely editing and recomposing--or hacking, remixing, and cut-and-pasting, to use the right lingo. Take a certain fifteenth-century Englishman who went by the name "Rate," for example. We know him, because he signs his name to a manuscript collection he put together, a book today held by the Bodleian Library that goes by the name MS Ashmole 61. It's what specialists would call "a commonplace book," and as other medieval scholars have pointed out, commonplace books had a lot in common with blogs. Scribes collected together texts they liked and copied them down into books for their personal use. If there was a romance floating around they liked, they would "rip" a copy of it into their commonplace book, alongside other things that caught their interest-- including recipes, sermons, devotional stories, saint's lives, dirty jokes (including fabliaux), registers of their finances, lists of animals that start with the letter A, the birthdays and christening days of their children, songs, and so on, and so on.

... People were simply a lot savvier consumers of texts in the Middle Ages than they're often given credit for. If they saw a miniature they liked in one book, they might go to their local bookshop and ask for a version to be pasted into one of their books. Or they might take their business to one shop over another because, "That scribe they have there does a mean Piers Plowman, and his Chaucer's not bad, either."** At least one manuscript of Wace, the French translator of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, inserts all of Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian romances into the middle of the history's section on King Arthur--which would be kind of like pasting the script of the Untouchables into your 20th Century American History textbook right after the chapter on Al Capone or splicing up Shakespeare in Love to serve as a frame to your copy of Romeo and Juliet.

As I've argued here before, it's absurd to think of the printing press as a sudden world-shattering technology. People were jazzed about the printing press because it allowed them to do on a larger scale things that they already were doing with written texts.

Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.

Oh, BTW. This man seems to be looking for a job. Someone hire him quick and stick him in front of your best students, or maybe your average ones.

Image: Superhero monkey.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

A Hollywood future history

Last year I posted a number of entries about "living in the future" -- how I sometimes felt I had slipped into a science fictional world.

Sometime over the weekend a writer who calls himself IOZ, and who devotes his blog to scathing satire and sacred cow massacres, wrote this, a fine example of the "living in the future" genre, if not necessarily one I would've written myself. It is called Apocalypse Cow.

Living in the future is like totally awesome. One guy running for president is a secretly Muslim mulatto terrorist subversive, the kind of dude who's supposed to be living outside the city walls in the radioactive wasteland that was once the earth. His running mate is a loquacious droid assembled in the basement of a secret Visa/Mastercard facility. His opponent is an insane former soldier who can't conceal his cruel rictus whenever the topic of Death comes up. His opponent's running mate is one of Captain Kirk's girlfriends. I swear to Jesus that the Mayan's were right about this whole 2012 thing. I might have become a Christian if someone had told me the End Times were going to be this fucking hilarious.
It would all be much funnier of course if I were sure we would survive it all.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

A really early start to this year's election

I missed this post at Paleo-Future. Don't make the same mistake.

Image: You explain it to me.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

M 51

Some days I think of the vast amount of new knowledge that humanity has acquired in the last 60 years (even in the humanities) and I say, "In the future, if humanity survives, people will look back and ask, 'What the heck were they doing up till the Second World War?'" Other times I think that view is entirely too stingy in granting credit to pioneers of earlier eras who had brilliant insights or just did a lot of hard, systematic work, efforts in both cases that we still benefit from today.

This picture of Messier Object 51 is a good example of old and new work coming together. The bigger, more spectacular galaxy is known by its number in Charles Messier's catalog of "deep sky objects" which was compiled between the American and French Revolutions. Messier had no way of knowing that M 51 was 31,000,000 million light-years away. He was just interested in bright objects that might be confused with comets, and the catalog was meant to help other skywatchers separate permanent from temporary features of the sky. His catalog is still of use today.

The picture of course is the result of one of the proudest accomplishments of modern technology, the Hubble project. And I guess the fact that we can -- even with backyard telescopes -- see better than Charles Messier (and his assistant Pierre Mechain) but still use his numbers, illustrates that some of the most impressive and constructive examples of human collaboration stretches across the centuries.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Living in the present: Phil Dick's world

The same evening I watched 300, set in a mythic past where people with delusions of godhood really like body piercings, I saw on TV an episode of CSI: New York where the cops had to investigate a murder by tracking his/her avatar down in Second Life. I've occasionally written here about my occasional sense of "living in the future;" watching the episode Down the Rabbit Hole, I had a slightly different feeling, that I was living inside a Philip K. Dick novel. Dick was a prolific science fiction writer who worked mainly in the 1960s and 70s. If you don't know his books, you may have seen films based on his work, especially Blade Runner and Total Recall. I'm very fond of Blade Runner, which I think Dick would have liked, but even it does not give more than a hint of what Dick's universe was like. He was scorned by many dedicated SF readers back then because he tended to focus on the ludicrous or trivially aggravating aspect of the future. A good example is quoted in a recent article on Dick in the New Yorker (brilliantly entitled Blows against the Empire; hijack the starship!):

In “Ubik” (1969)...the first premise is that the ancient human dream of communication with the dead has been achieved at last—but, when you go to speak with them, there is static and missed connections and interference, and then you argue over your bill. At the beginning of the novel, one of the heroes, Runciter, tries to connect with his “passed” wife, Ella:

“Is something the matter, Mr. Runciter?” the von Vogelsang person said, observing him as he floundered about. “Can I assist you?”
“I’ve got some thing coming in over the wire,” Runciter panted, halting.
“Instead of Ella. Damn you guys and your shoddy business practices; this shouldn’t happen, and what does it mean?” . . .
“Did the individual identify himself?”
“Yeah, he called himself Jory.”
Frowning with obvious worry, von Vogelsang said, “That would be Jory Miller. I believe he’s located next to your wife. In the bin.”
“But I can see it’s Ella!”
“After prolonged proximity,” von Vogelsang explained, “there is occasionally a mutual osmosis, a suffusion between the mentalities of half-lifers. Jory Miller’s cephalic activity is particularly good; your wife’s is not. That makes for an unfortunately one-way passage of protophasons. . . . If this condition persists your money will be returned to you.” . . .
Facing the casket, von Vogelsang pressed the audio outlet into his ear and spoke briskly into the microphone. . . . “This is very unfair of you, Jory; Mr. Runciter has come a long way to talk to his wife. Don’t dim her signal, Jory; that’s not nice.”
As the author of this article, Adam Gopnik, implies, this is just too similar to someone today complaining about their telecom problems.

I got a strong Phil Dick flavor from Down the Rabbit Hole. It partly took place in an online social interaction "world," and this had a touch of Dick's fascination with reality lurking behind appearances and semi-human simulacra. Most of the action, it turned out, was the result of a plot to kill a Congressman who met women in Second Life as a way of initiating affairs; Dick could have written that, his books were full of fraught relationships. But what drew the Dick comparison to mind was the little remote device, armed with video cameras, that the cops sent into a silent apartment to show them if there was any danger lurking. If it had only made a cute noise or held conversations with the cops it would have been a perfect Dick touch.

And none of this was at all fantastic; it's just life in the present, as depicted on broadcast TV.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

The new Golden Mountain

Today's Washington Post has an article today called Leaving for the Chinese Dream. The thrust of the article is summed up in this paragraph:

For a growing number of the world's emigrants, China -- not the United States -- is the land where opportunities are endless, individual enterprise is rewarded and tolerance is universal.

And just to drive the point home, the star of the articles is Khaled Rasheed, from Iraq.

Who would have bet a nickel on this eventuality back in the days of the White Boned Demon and the Gang of Four?

Elsewhere on the news web I saw an article on musicians, dancers, and other artists from overseas just giving up on US tours because the visa system is just too burdensome. I hope to remember where I saw it! Ah, found it.

Important, important articles.

Image: A modern painting by Mian Situ, The Golden Mountain-Arriving San Francisco, 1865

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

The difference between barbarism and civilization

For years now I have been taking part in a large medieval re-creation event in August. The event itself features mock medieval combat, archery, singing, dancing and partying, some of it not particularly medieval in inspiration. Most people who take part camp for a week or two at the site, and I have often found that situation inspires interesting thoughts. Living essentially outdoors for two weeks, with little communication with the outside world (though it is available if you need or like) is a fascinating and perspective-restoring exercise. Me, I'm basically illiterate for the whole period.

Since I and my friends camp together every year, we've acquired portable versions of what we consider necessities: a back-up water filter, a hot water heater scavenged from an old RV, a camp shower, and a kitchen sink with hot and cold taps. These are set up and taken down every summer.

Note that my necessities all come down to safe, easily available water? The year we got the shower setup my campmates were delirious with joy. I sure appreciated it, too, but the kitchen sink and taps meant more to me. The first time I turned on a kitchen tap and got good water I knew, instantly, that this was the difference between barbarism and civilization. Nice to have a shower. Far more important to be able to clean one's hands any time, and to be sure that kitchen utensils and dishes were always clean.

That moment of insight was a decade or so ago, and its rightness has become clearer to me as time has passed. Clean water available to everyone in a community is civilization; it means the community has certain technical capabilities, and is devoting its resources to the common good in a basic way. Furthermore, the predators and parasites who in so many places and times have prevented that allocation of resources are not in control.

We human beings of planet Earth have the capability to be civilized now. There can be no doubt that we are smart enough and rich enough. But we have yet to attain civilization.

a locked water tap in Kenya, from an Oxfam UK site.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The sounds of modern times -- transport

To write a blog on "early history" I have to think a lot about "modern times," as one defines the other.

I've spent time in three different places over the last month, and I noticed as I fell asleep that the night soundscape was dominated by the sound of modern transportation.

It's pretty quiet at my country home on the edge of Northern Ontario, and there are animal sounds like dogs barking and occasionally wolves howling. The most regular sounds are those of the CP/CN railway that ties the country together and which created its modern economy. Of course cars go by, too, but their occasional noise is not as impressive or as characteristic as the train horns.

I spent a couple of weeks in a medium-sized southern Ontario city and falling asleep there I heard lots of cars, but, much more exciting, the sound of ocean-going freighters passing. The engines of those ships are very quiet from a distance but the horns are musical and loud.

I spent two more weeks at a campground in a rural part of the United States, with about 10,000 others (details later). During the days, human sounds -- music, talking -- dominated but as people slowly went to sleep the huge river-like noise of a nearby interstate and its constant truck traffic emerged to fill the night. You wondered why you had heard it more loudly earlier. Loud as it was, it was just part of the background of modern life, unremarkable until everything else was subtracted.

Image: The ship American Fortitude, which I saw earlier this year.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Buddhist role-playing game?

What would it be like? A friend sent me this link.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Walt Whitman, Years of the Modern

How does this vision from 1865 seem to you today?

YEARS of the modern! years of the unperform’d!
Your horizon rises—I see it parting away for more august dramas;
I see not America only—I see not only Liberty’s nation, but other nations preparing;
I see tremendous entrances and exits—I see new combinations—I see the solidarity of races;
I see that force advancing with irresistible power on the world’s stage;
(Have the old forces, the old wars, played their parts? are the acts suitable to them closed?)
I see Freedom, completely arm’d, and victorious, and very haughty, with Law on one side, and Peace on the other,
A stupendous Trio, all issuing forth against the idea of caste;
—What historic denouements are these we so rapidly approach?
I see men marching and countermarching by swift millions;
I see the frontiers and boundaries of the old aristocracies broken;
I see the landmarks of European kings removed;
I see this day the People beginning their landmarks, (all others give way;)
—Never were such sharp questions ask’d as this day;
Never was average man, his soul, more energetic, more like a God;
Lo! how he urges and urges, leaving the masses no rest;
His daring foot is on land and sea everywhere—he colonizes the Pacific, the archipelagoes;
With the steam-ship, the electric telegraph, the newspaper, the wholesale engines of war,
With these, and the world-spreading factories, he interlinks all geography, all lands;
—What whispers are these, O lands, running ahead of you, passing under the seas?
Are all nations communing? is there going to be but one heart to the globe?
Is humanity forming, en-masse?—for lo! tyrants tremble, crowns grow dim;
The earth, restive, confronts a new era, perhaps a general divine war;
No one knows what will happen next—such portents fill the days and nights;
Years prophetical! the space ahead as I walk, as I vainly try to pierce it, is full of phantoms;
Unborn deeds, things soon to be, project their shapes around me;
This incredible rush and heat—this strange extatic fever of dreams, O years!
Your dreams, O year, how they penetrate through me! (I know not whether I sleep or wake!)
The perform’d America and Europe grow dim, retiring in shadow behind me,
The unperform’d, more gigantic than ever, advance, advance upon me.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Modern conceits, man from Mars, baby in the well

I have just finished reading Ramsay MacMullen's Voting about God in Early Church Councils and I haven't entirely made up my mind about it. I will say that I'm grateful to the book vendor at Kalamazoo who had it on display!

MacMullen's books are not your usual academic tome. Voting like others of his works is based on vast scholarship, but the presentation of his ideas has been boiled down to a mere 118 pages (notes not included). This is thanks to a concise, allusive prose that occasionally takes some work to figure out. But there is no bafflegab or shilly-shallying here. Did MacMullen ever study the Roman historian Tacitus? This is an opinionated work and MacMullen has no time -- being nearly 80 -- to appease unsympathetic critics.

MacMullen appears a classicist through and through but there are some touches that really mae the book seem alive and dust-free.

First let's look at the opening lines:
Before getting very far into a subject so familiar as the formation of Christian creeds, it may help to think of it for a moment in a detached way. If the distance between it and ourselves can be brought out--if we can try to see the scene and its actors afresh and in all their strangeness -- we may bring a more curious eye to our observation, we may really look, taking nothing for granted.

Suppose for a moment that a visitor from Mars asked about the setting for this essay--and no one more detached can be imagined--might he not need to be told the most obvious things?
Well, no classicist or church historian that I'm aware of has begun an essay like that! The funny thing, though, I've been using the conceit of a visiting or observing Martian for decades for similar purposes, imitating the one person I know who's been doing it longer, my friend and sometime collaborator Phil Paine. He uses it a little differently, to force himself and his listener to take the Yakuts and the Patagonians and the Mordovians to be roughly as worthy of attention as the Swiss, the Swedes and the Californians if you are generalizing about humanity as a whole. Recently I've breezed past blog entries where the visiting Martian has made a brief appearance lending perspective, and I have to wonder, is this becoming more common? If so, if people take the exercise in perspective seriously, good!

Another passage of MacMullen's leaves me with mixed feelings. Talking about the widespread interest in doctrinal disputes during the later Roman empire, he says (p.35-36):
Our sense of how absolutely wonderful we ourselves are in our modern world may lead us to discount the capacity of the capacity of the ancient: for example, the capacity to disseminate ideas so as to engage popular interest...Their understanding of such major realities...beyond their own back-door, or realities that counted -- was not like the modern sort confined to meretricious photo ops, celebrities, or babies stuck in wells. Hence my supposing more consequential communication in this period of the empire than generally in our own world today.
Oh, Tacitus redivivus, you burst the balloon of our self-regard!

But when I get beyond my admiration for this passage, I wonder about it. I understand MacMullen's disgust for what passes for "media coverage;" in an era where the US constitution is being gutted and the treasury plundered (with inevitable consequences for the non-American world), the coverage all too often goes to (in a current phrase) Missing White Women. But is the comparison valid? Maybe Dr. MacMullen should look past cable news to the places where people who are interested in consequential matters meet and discuss more easily than ever before.

Also, I find this passage a bit odd in that I think Dr. MacMullen's personal opinion of church controversies is not really all that high. But more on the content of the book later.

Finally, the remark about the baby in the well made me wonder, what about that baby in the well? My younger readers may never have heard of that baby (Midland, Texas, 1987) but she was real and she was rescued, and if this website is accurate, she's a healthy adult today.

Image: Marvin the Martian, one of those hostile, all-too-engaged-in-Earthly-affairs Martians.

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