Thursday, December 27, 2012


Living where I do, I sometimes envy people who live places where they are surrounded by history.  Salt Lake City does a good job of preserving the history of what is available, but the fact is that the city was not founded until 1847, so there is not a whole lot to work with.  The oldest surviving buildings are only about 150 years old, which is downright modern from a world history, or a western history perspective.

I remember, two years ago, exploring Segovia with my spouse.  We had spent the afternoon wandering through the Castilian alcazar, walking along medieval city walls, and ogling at Romanesque churches.  That evening, standing under the Roman aqueducts, I watched the locals dar paseos through the town where they lived their lives.  I asked my husband, do you think these people appreciate the history around them?  I mean, I can reach out and touch stones placed on top of each other by people who lived two thousand years ago.  Do the locals see it?  Do they know what they have?

Beneath the Roman aqueducts in Segovia, Spain
I have history-envy.  I need to go back.

In the meantime, I see the objects that go on exhibit at the museums along the Wasatch Front.  Certainly I can (and do) read a lot of books and articles and look at a lot of pictures, but there is something different about being physically present with the actual object.

As an example, last month I saw an exhibition of medieval English alabasters at Brigham Young University's Museum of Art.  Now, I have read enough about medieval religious images to know that during the middle ages depictions of religious events and figures followed a basic iconography, making the stories and people in the art easily recognizable to the viewer.  It was standing in a room full of religious art, however, where I really understood how alike these medieval depictions actually were.  I walked back and forth between two carvings of the beheading of John the Baptist, then between three carvings of Christ rising from the tomb, and then between depictions of the Trinity, checking out the similarities.  When I realized that I could distinguish God the Father from God the Son in all the carvings of the Trinity I was so excited that I turned to the group of people standing next to me and pointed it out, which was probably quite rude as I didn't know them and as they likely didn't care that God the Father was always holding a world orb, but I was so thrilled to have learned this that I had to share it with somebody, and they just happened to be next to me when my learning bubbled over.

Anyway, other people probably daydream about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiking through the Amazon, or lying on beaches in Hawaii.  Me, I wish I could examine the Staffordshire hoard, stand inside the Sistine Chapel, or read the signatures on the engrossed US Declaration of Independence.  History-envy.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

This blog is not yet dead

As mentioned in a previous post, I now have a son in middle school.  The transition has been difficult; he feels crushed under the heavier workload and he cannot quite juggle all the new expectations thrown his way.    My husband and I have been helping him adjust, and all 3 of us finally begin to see improvement.  The consequence, though, is that we have not spent as much time on our other priorities, such as blogging.

Last week began a new quarter, however.  My son is making progress.  He's had an abrupt shift in the way he looks at the world and at himself, and it has been a struggle for him to deal with it, but I think he's going to be stronger for it in the end.

So where does this leave the blog?  Well, I have several drafts in the queue which I hope to publish in the next few weeks as my son continues to master his study habits.  These drafts include notes on articles I read, classes I taught, and museum exhibits I toured.  Meantime, I will end this post with a bit of etymology I picked up while learning about the Anglo-Saxon economic system:

The term for a particular class of peasant working on a manor farm was gebur.  A gebur was a freeman, so he could not be sold to another person.  His services could, however, be transferred with the property worked if that property was sold.  The gebur who lived close-by to an individual was called the individual's near-gebur, in old english neah-gebur, in modern english neighbor.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

School days, school days . . .

The school year is just finishing up in here in the Jordan School District.  The year-round elementary school my children attend will be in session one more week, then people in my family are off to vacations, campouts, and *gasp* junior high.

I volunteered at the elementary school again this year, mostly in the first and sixth grade classrooms.  I always wonder what the kids in the class think about the extra adult in the room.  I remember when I was an elementary school student, that the reading groups were led by an adult (usually female) who came to the classroom expressly for that purpose.  In retrospect, these adults were probably parent volunteers.  As a child, though, I had just a vague idea that these women were extra teachers from somewhere.

Anyway, with school year endings and beginnings on everybody's minds around here, I thought I'd post something about education in the middle ages.

My kids and their classmates spent the year learning the 3 R's:  reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic.  Medieval scholars' educations were built around the 7 liberal arts:  Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy.

Grammar.  Specifically, medieval students needed to learn Latin grammar.  Latin was the international language of the middle ages.  Textbooks were written in Latin, lectures spoken in Latin, and dissertations argued in Latin.  For a look at a Modern English translation of a 10th century grammar text, see Aelfric's Colloquy.

Logic.  Grammar was learning to understand.  Logic (or dialectic) was learning how to think.  Popular works of logic studied in the middle ages included Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and various works of Aristotle.

Rhetoric.  Rhetoric was the study of communication.  Scholars learned rhetoric to better use the skills gained while studying Grammar and Logic.  Students read Cicero, Augustine, and Bede.
The Seven Liberal Arts surrounding Philosophy,
 as illustrated in the 11th-cent. manuscript Hortus deliciarum.
Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.
Note the scholars underneath the Arts.

Grammar, logic, and rhetoric made up the trivium.  Many medieval universities awarded their lowest degrees to scholars who had mastered the trivium.  These scholars were then called bachelors.  The rest of the liberal arts constituted the quadrivium.

Arithmetic.  Today when students learn arithmetic they learn addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  In the middle ages arithmetic referred to number theory.  It also encompassed the symbolism of number.  For example, seven symbolized perfection because it was the number of the days of the week and the number of visible planetary bodies.  Three referred to the Godhead.

Geometry.  The works of Euclid were known throughout the middle ages.

Music.  Like arithmetic, music referred to music theory, not to the practical knowledge of learning an instrument or voice.

Astronomy.  Ptolomy's writings on astronomy survived into the middle ages, and medieval astronomers based their understanding of the universe on Ptolomy's models.  Like Ptolomy, medieval thinkers believed that the Earth was the center of the universe.  Like Ptolomy, the medieval astronomer combined astronomy with astrology.

Upon his studying all 7 liberal arts and defending an oral dissertation, the university awarded the student the degree of Master of Arts.  The master could then apply for a teaching licence or continue studying at the university to become a doctor of law, of theology, of medicine, or of philosophy.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

English Benedictine Reform, part I

Alternate title:  Socrates was right, and it's aggravating.

The story goes that Socrates was wise because he understood how little he really knew.  I find something similar--the more I learn the more I discover how little I have yet to learn.

For example, I have lately been learning about the Benedictine Reform movement that took place in Anglo-Saxon England around the tenth century.  I spent two weeks of my spare time, roughly, gathering information, only to feel as if I must find much, much more to really grasp what occurred and what the implications were for Anglo-Saxon church and state.  Briefly, here is what I've managed to glean so far:

Glastonbury Abbey.
Photographed by Tony Grist. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
St. Dunstan, an advocate of Benedictine Reform was abbot here
(though not this particular building, which was constructed later).

First, the Benedictine Reform loosened the ties of the clergy and the clan.  For example, Anglo-Saxon priests frequently married and had families.  The Benedictine Reform eventually ended the practice.

Second, many abbeys had previously been under the jurisdiction of the local aristocracy; the Reform led to more independence.

Third, the effect of the above two points was to strengthen the position of the king and increase royal power.

More information to follow as I continue to figure this out.

Incidentally, Wikipedia (for what it's worth) says "historians continue to debate the extent and significance of this movement"  (See the entry Edward the Peaceful).  This makes me feel a bit better about my inability to wrap my brain around the topic.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

More Anglo-Saxon thoughts, and what I want to learn next

The bad part about having strep throat is, well, strep throat.  The best part about having strep throat is that, while contagious, everybody left me alone so I had lots of time to read.  I finished The Anglo-Saxons edited by James Campbell.  I learned a lot more than can be mentioned in just one blog post, so I'll mention only the things I learned pertaining to Anglo-Saxon England overall.

First, contact with the Continent, particularly France, was much greater than I had realized.  I knew Anglo-Saxon England had contact with Scandinavia through the vikings, and Rome through the Church.  Somehow I'd  missed the large amount of influence England and France had on each other at this time.  Carolingian France influenced English politics, law, art, religion, and commerce.  Toward the time of the Conquest,
England developed strong ties with Normandy.  Queen Emma was a Norman!  How could I have not known this?  The relationship between England and Normandy must have been important to the events leading up to the Norman invasion.  I want to read a biography of Queen Emma, at least a translation of her Encomium, to understand this better.  I also want to learn more about Cnut's reign.  What were the differences between his rule and Duke William's?  Why did the Norman rule stick, while the Danish rule ended in a generation?

Second, the early medieval English economy was quite well developed.  Coins were widely available and in circulation.  I should keep an eye out for more information on Anglo-Saxon coin distribution and its implications on their economy.

Third, the early medieval church in England had a different flavor than the early medieval church in Rome.  While I don't agree with those who hold that the modern Church of England has its roots in Anglo-Saxon Christianity, it does seem to me that the Church in England differed in some ways from the Church in Rome in response to the Anglo-Saxons' Germanic culture. I would like to learn more about the history of early Christianity in England and in Italy to get a better sense of the similarities and differences.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

On neutrality in writing history

All scholars make assumptions in their writing, but good writers will lay out their assumptions at the outset and then will present information in as unbiased a manner as possible.  When I read an account of a historical event, I expect the historian to put aside the historian's own values and look at the event from the point of view of the people who lived it.  I also expect the historian to address more than one side of the event, if possible.

That's why I was disappointed in a podcast I listened to last week on the History Network.  I have had no complaints about the History network before, nor did a quick check on Google bring up any complaints of non-neutrality from other people.  Their podcasts are generally well-researched and well-presented.  The podcast I listened to last week was well presented, too.  But it was not neutral.

Simon IV de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester
Bust by Jean-Jacques Feuchere
Photo by Ray9
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The podcast was entitled The Fires of Languedoc:  The Cathar Crusade.  The guest writer identified the Cathars as a heretic sect of Christianity (they believed in dualism rather than monotheism) and identified the Cathar Crusade (also called the Albigensian Crusade) as a 20-year war in southern France between the Catholic and Cathar armies.  The Northern French army, backed by Paris and Rome and led by Simon de Montfort, fought the Southern French army, backed by the Cathars and led by Raymond VI of Toulouse.  The Cathars, during the crusade, had to choose between renouncing their beliefs and rejoining the Catholic Church, or fighting.  Most chose to fight.  Thousands died.  Following the war was an inquisition and destruction of Cathar writings until the sect was nearly stamped out about 100 years later.

Raymond VI, Count of Toulous
Photo by Guerin Nicolas
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This is all true enough.  The question which follows is why did the Catholic Church label the Cathars to be heretics, and why was it so anxious to suppress the movement?  The podcast painted a picture of the Church that was less than flattering.  It displayed the Church as a fearful, power hungry organization that demanded complete control of medieval Europeans' faith and was willing to wipe out entire communities and cultures in order to maintain that control.  I don't doubt that power and politics influenced the decisions of the Church to call a crusade.  But they weren't the entire story.

The entire podcast was written from the point of view of the Cathars.  The writer pointed out several discrepancies  between Catholic and Cathar doctrine, always from the Cathar perspective.  Where was Rome's rebuttal?  It ought to have been included.  The writer also spent time discussing the Cathars' argument that the Languedoc region was, and ought to remain, independent from Paris.  Where was the French Crown's argument that Languedoc was, and had been, subject to the French King?  Again, this ought to have been included.

Further, historians ought not to make judgments on the events of the past based upon the values of the present. Medieval people did not always think like 21st century people, and it does them an injustice to be treated as if they did.  The podcast condemned the northern French armies for, among other things, not allowing the southern French people the freedom to worship as they pleased.  When governments today fail to offer their citizens freedom of conscience, we condemn them, and I believe rightfully so.  800 years ago, however, western Europeans did not have the idea of freedom of conscience.  Expecting them to behave as if they did have the idea is illogical.  Judging them for it is unfair.

I have addressed two forms of bias that can appear in a historical account:  failing to account for multiple points of view, and judging decisions made in the past using values of the present.  A good, unbiased account will do neither.  Then, after presenting the information in a clear, neutral manner, a historian will add their own analysis, thoughts, and opinions.  The readers, likewise, will be able to draw their own conclusions.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bram Stoker's use of folklore in writing Dracula

(NOTE:  In the following post I use the terms myth, folklore, and folktale interchangeably)

Bela Lugosi as Dracula; courtesy wikimedia commons

I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay may be very interesting. (Mem. I must ask the Count all about them.) Jonathan Harker's journal, 3 May

Last week I was distracted from The Anglo-Saxons by a copy of Bram Stoker's Dracula.  I must have liked it; I put all other non-essential tasks on hold until the book was finished.

Wikipedia claims that Stoker spent 7 years studying vampire folklore before writing the novel.  While I have no information to back this up, I am inclined to agree.  The novel has the feel of a tale steeped in centuries-old legend, as opposed to a tale that feels completely made-up (I think some fantasy authors would do well to do a bit less world-building and a bit more world-borrowing).  His research, combined with his writing, produced a novel that felt factual as well as fantastic.  What follows are three examples from Stoker's Dracula mythos and how it fits into what I know of supernatural folklore.

Only at certain times can he have limited freedom. If he be not at the place whither he is bound, he can only change himself at noon or at exact sunrise or sunset. These things we are told, and in this record of ours we have proof by inference. Thus, whereas he can do as he will within his limit, when he have his earth-home, his coffin-home, his hell-home, the place unhallowed, as we saw when he went to the grave of the suicide at Whitby, still at other time he can only change when the time come.  Mina Harker's journal, 30 September

The above quotation from Dracula caught my attention.  I had noticed something similar a few months ago while reading the Breton Lay Sir Orfeo.  In the lay, Queen Heurodis first met her fairy lover and abductor when he and his court passed by her house at noon.  This appears to be a common trait of supernatural being in myth:  supernatural creatures are most likely to be seen traveling through mortal lands at sunrise, at sunset, and at noon.  At all other times, if they are seen by mortals at all they are seen withing the bounds of their own country--for example, fairies caught dancing at midnight atop their fairy-mound.

It is said, too, that he can only pass running water at the slack or the flood of the tide.  Mina Harker's journal, 30 September

Another folklore motif I noticed Stoker used was water-as-boundary.  Commonly in myth the realm of mortals and the realm of Fairie are separated by a body of water:  sometimes a river, sometimes a sea.  Sir Launfal, another Middle English Breton lay, contains an example of this.  At the end of the poem, Sir Launfal lives happily-ever-after with Tyramour, his wife and the daughter of the Fairy King, in the Fairy King's island realm Olyroun.  As a more modern example, Tolkien used this idea successfully in his writings.  Rivendell lies across the Bruinen, and Lothlorien across the Silverlode.  Stoker used water a bit differently.  Instead of the water marking the perimeter between the natural and supernatural worlds, water creates a barrier over which the vampire cannot cross except under special circumstances.  Regardless, the idea of water acting as a boundary is still there.

Beside the bed, as if he had stepped out of the mist, or rather as if the mist had turned into his figure, for it had entirely disappeared, stood a tall, thin man, all in black. . . . For an instant my heart stood still, and I would have screamed out, only that I was paralyzed.   Dr. Seward's diary, 3 October

Finally, I noticed while reading Dracula a use of the supernatural to explain sleep paralysis.  Sleep paralysis occurs when the sleeper is conscious but the body is asleep and therefore unable to move.  As a result, the sleeper is aware of external stimuli but cannot respond to it, which generally leads to a feeling of panic.  I have occasionally experienced this, and can attest to feeling terrified.  Typically, folk belief connects sleep paralysis to an evil supernatural presence.  Old English medical texts contain remedies for banishing the night-mare (maere) that sits on a person's chest, paralyzing them and giving them bad dreams (see here for an example).  Bram Stoker used this, substituting vampires for the night-mare.

Vampires in Dracula have other attributes that I will have to keep an eye out for as I read folklore.  They can shapeshift into wolves or bats and summon rats and wolves at will.  They cannot cross a threshold without an invitation, and they do not cast a shadow or have a reflection.  They are harmed by the crucifix, communion wafers, bullets sanctified by a priest, and garlic.

They do not, however, sparkle in the sunlight.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Political stability vs. representation

My oldest son is writing an autobiography for a school English assignment.  One of the requirements is to include a brief family history, so a couple of weeks ago he and my husband spent an evening discussing my son's paternal ancestry.  My son then turned to me. 

"Where's your family from, Mom?"


It was not the answer he wanted.

Later, my son was looking through my familysearch web page and announced, "Somebody has researched the Harper line all the way back to Adam!"  I said, "Somebody's wrong."  Again, not the answer he wanted.

I think it's typical for people to want their family history to contain famous people and exotic places.  Medieval kings' genealogies commonly trace the royal family to Troy or Jerusalem.  Often these genealogies listed legendary heroes or gods among the ancestors. 

James Campbell wrote that royal genealogies began appearing in England during the 8th century (see The Anglo-Saxons, p. 116).  He argued that the dynastic politics of this time period required kings to prove royal descent.  In short, during the 8th century, Anglo-Saxon nobility invented the idea of inherited rule to reduce the frequent fighting between the countries' dynastic factions.

What I found fascinating about this development was the idea that a stable monarchy could be more desirable than an unstable republic.  Granted, even at its most democratic, the Anglo-Saxon "constitutional kingship" was only remotely similar to modern representative nation-states.  But citizens today frequently assume that greater representation in government is always desirable.  People who lived during the Middle Ages may not have had this assumption. 

Questioning the "greater representation is better government" assumption lead to questioning some of my other assumptions about political philosophy and international relations.  I do not want to discuss this too much here, as I want this blog to focus on historical, not present-day political systems.  However, I will point out that the current ideas about what is best for many countries may change if the assumptions about what makes better government also changed.  What if a country in the Middle East set up a constitution that valued a stable theocracy over a potentially unstable democracy?  What if a former Soviet republic set up a system of government that was totalitarian but had little chance of overthrow?  James Campbell has given me something to think about.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I need to buy more books

I read a lot about early medieval history.  I read articles from academic journals I find on; I read primary sources (often in translation); and I follow my favorite medievalist blogs.  I haven't read a lot of textbooks, as my budget and my bookshelf space are limited.  Recently, however, I found a copy of The Anglo-Saxons edited by James Campbell at my local library.  I have started reading it and I wish I had picked it up sooner.

The book is generally described as an introductory survey to the Anglo-Saxons, and, honestly, I think the word "introductory" turned me off.  Though not a professional historian, I have studied early English history for about 5 years, making a point to read articles and lectures published by academics.  I assumed that an "introductory" textbook would contain information I already knew.

I was somewhat right.  Quite a bit of the book has been a review of things I knew.  On the other hand, I'm embarrassed to admit how much of this basic information I didn't know. 

I found this book particularly helpful in two main ways.  First, Campbell and his co-authors were familiar with much more detail about this time period than I am.  For example, p.22 mentioned Byzantine historian Procopius' confusion as to the location of Britain, leading historians to understand there must have been two different routes of exporting information out of the island depending on whether the source of the information was Saxon or Celtic.  Second, as a survey of Anglo-Saxon history, the book brought out broad trends and patterns that I would never have noticed by reading a narrowly-focused article or lecture.  For example, I understood the ecclesiastical and political influences on Whitby after I read that section of the book, whereas before I had only sensed that there was more going on at Whitby than arguing over the date of Easter.

I've learned my lesson.  I'm going to begin paying more attention to books, especially textbooks.  I'm not going to dismiss resources simply because they are secondary, or labelled introductory.  I have always liked to think that the most important things I obtained while studying for my university degrees was learning how to learn; what I just learned from Campbell was that even introductory surveys can teach me something.