Monday, April 23, 2018

Ibn Battuta and the Empire of Mali in Extra History

Extra History is a series of hisotrical animations (I guess you could call them that) on You Tube.  Currently EH is posting material on the 14th century Empire of Mali (roughly today's West African country of Mali) famous as one of the world's chief sources of gold, and the location of Timbuktu.  EH is following the travelogue of the footloose Islamic scholar Ibn Battuta, who, if you take him at his word, went from his birthplace  in Morocco all the way to China, beating for distance the somewhat later Marco Polo.

When I was still teaching I loved talking  about Ibn Battuta, whose account gives us a good idea of what Islam meant to people outside the Arabic and Persian-speaking areas of the Middle East.  Ibn Battuta had a rather harsh judgement on these relatively new converts.  Not up to snuff, he said. But you can also get an idea of the flexibility of Islam in this period, which allowed it to appeal to people who lived in the Sahara, on the Russian steppes, and the islands of the Intian Ocean, to name just a few.

This EH series is one of the best of the bunch.  See it here.

Image:  A mosque in Timbuktu. By Senani P at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5,

I can't help but point out that Ibn Battuta's Saharan journey took place at exactly the time that the Combat of Thirty v. Thirty.

Friday, April 20, 2018

When does anyone ever apologize like this?

ETA is the Basque separatist organization, which has been fighting for their independence in the Pyrennees region of Spain and France for many years.  They are well known for their terrorist attacks, which included blowing up a Spanish PM and a grocery in Barcelona.

Recently they have announced their disbandment.    As part of this process they have -- get this --
apologized to all the people they have harmed.

From the Guardian, today:
The Basque terrorist group Eta, which killed more than 800 people during its four-decade armed campaign, has apologised for the suffering it caused and asked for the forgiveness of victims and their families as it prepares to dissolve.
In a statement released on Friday morning, the group made a full and unambiguous apology for its actions, accepting that it bore “direct responsibility” for years of bloodshed and misery.
“We know that we caused a lot of pain during that long period of armed struggle, including damage that can never be put right,” it said. “We wish to show our respect for those who were killed or wounded by Eta and those who were affected by the conflict. We are truly sorry.”
The statement also recognised that Eta’s “mistakes or mistaken decisions” had led to the deaths of people who had nothing to do with the conflict, both in the Basque country and beyond.
“We know that, owing to the necessities of all kinds of armed struggle, our actions have hurt people who bore no responsibility whatsoever. We have also caused damage that can’t be undone.
“We apologise to those people and their families. These words won’t make up for what happened nor will they lessen the pain, but we speak to them respectfully and without wanting to provoke further suffering.”
I am not going to argue with anyone who has a cynical view of this declaration.  But who ever says "WE WERE WRONG?" in such a case?


Sunday, April 15, 2018

"Canada was founded over drinks"

So says a fan of Thomas D'Arcy McGee, one of Canada's "Fathers of Confederation" during  a feature on the CBC's Sunday Edition radio program.  McGee, born in Ireland and for a while an immigrant to the USA before moving on to Canada, evolved from violent revolutionary to proponent of peaceful unification.

He was assassinated soon after he -- and others -- had succeeded in founding the Canadian confederation.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media: Appropriating the Middle Ages in the Twenty-First Century, by Andrew B.R. Elliott

Medievalism can mean several different things: historical re-creation inspired by the Middle Ages, drawing on medieval precedents to shape art and literature, using the symbols of the medieval past to justify modern nationalist movements; the academic study of the Middle Ages. Undoubtedly some of you can come up with more types of medievalism. The adoption of medieval ideas and and symbols by extremists in the last little while is something that concerns me as a medievalist (academic) and a medievalist (hobbyist). These people are stealing my good name by associating medievalism with loathsome ideas and actions, which in some cases include murder. The Medieval Review (hosting site being upgraded this week) slipped into my mail box today, and it included this very interesting book review. I know no more about it than what is written below:
Elliott, Andrew B. R. Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media: Appropriating the Middle Ages in the Twenty-First Century. Medievalism. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017. Pp. 223. $39.95. ISBN: 978-1-84384-463-1.

Reviewed by Richard Utz

Georgia Institute of Technology

While researched, written, and published before most of last year's momentous discussions about the role of race, gender, politics, and ideology in medieval studies and medievalism, Andrew Elliott's study is a timely and relevant contribution to the field. It continues the work begun by Louise D'Arcens and Andrew Lynch (eds., International Medievalism and Popular Culture, 2014), Tommaso Carpegna di Falconieri (Medioevo militante: La politica di oggi alle prese con barbari e crociati, 2011), David M. Marshall (ed., Mass Market Medieval: Essays on the Middle Ages in Popular Culture, 2007), and Bruce Holsinger (Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror, 2007), but deepens their insights with a focus on the roles of contemporary media and communication, specifically online medievalisms. It also offers an original theoretical framework for future investigations.

Aware of the often visceral reactions of medieval historians to the public (mis)use of the Middle Ages by non-academic voices, Elliott is careful to prepare a secure theoretical foundation for his subject matter in the first three chapters. He immediately demarcates medievalisms referring to medieval history from heavily mediated popular political medievalisms. For the latter, the Middle Ages is most often merely a "'surprise player' used throughout political discussion by the modern media in order to become a site of identity, a point of identification or an ideological weapon then reused across other media" (6). According to Elliott, these popular medievalisms tend to originate in a three-step process: First, they need to be expropriated from history, as when medieval objects, concepts, and symbols are invoked in a postmedieval context; second, this expropriation is repeated and retransmitted, allowing the meaning of the object, concept, and symbol to gradually stand for new meanings increasingly unrelated to any historical reality; and third, the object, concept, or symbols is assimilated, translated, and modified so that it is completely "divested [...] of its original meanings and context-dependent significance making it ripe to be grafted onto modern concerns" (6). In chapters 4 and 5 of his study, Elliott details this process for the use of the (medieval) crusades by both George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden:

"In each case, though for very different purposes, the cultural symbolism of the Crusades was excised from its original meaning, transmitted through the mass media in a new form, and ultimately became the subject of a dispute not over their original meaning but over their new significance as an ideological weapon. So when bin Laden calls on his fellow Muslims to resist a Crusader invasion of the Holy Land, he is referring to an established tradition which has, through relentless repetition, assimilated the modern armed incursions into the Middle East with twentieth- and twenty-first-century "crusades." Likewise, it is precisely because the term was already in use that Bush's famous description of the War on Terror as a Crusade had such enormous political and ideological resonance"(6-7).

In chapter 6, Elliott shows a similar process at work for the events and media reception of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011 and justified his actions by stylizing himself as a Knight Templar defending western civilization against its allegedly impending Islamization. Chapters 7 and 8 move on to a discussion of the popular political medievalisms of the right-wing English Defense League (EDL) and the Islamic State (IS), respectively.

The central claim of Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media is that these various social media and other online mass medievalisms have little or nothing to do with the historical Middle Ages, but only and exclusively exist because of contemporary meme culture. In this culture, traditional models of authority and authenticity for communicating about medieval culture are pretty much irrelevant. Instead of the onerous identification of sources, causes, and paths of transmission, which would challenge ambiguity and inaccuracy, the modes of dissemination for medievalist memes in contemporary mass media are excellent examples of Jean Baudrillard's simulacra, presenting world-wide audiences with copies of copies without an original. However, even a Baudrillardian analysis of the vertical relationships between contemporary medievalisms and the Middle Ages will not do justice to the empty signifiers dominating current mass media. What is needed to understand these medievalist memes is an investigation into the horizontal relationships between various contemporary and multiply mediated mass medievalisms.

Elliott clearly has the background in communication and media theory necessary for dealing with these "elastic," "ludic," "pejorative," and "deliberately inappropriate" (all terms used in Elliott's study) mass medievalisms. In Michael Billig's Banal Nationalism (1995), which explores the uses of nationalism as when someone waves the flag not as part of a conscious and specific expression of national identity, but as a vague celebration of patriotic identity, Elliott has found a perfect model for his own study. He investigates "banal medievalisms," which he describes as bricolages of ideological redeployments of medievalist tropes or memes, or "the Middle Ages in the twenty-first century media landscape" as "unconscious sites of unchallenged heritage and, ultimately, unchallenged reference points in our collective imagination" (16). Like Billig's seemingly innocuous "banal nationalisms," Elliott reveals "banal medievalisms" as an "endemic condition made more powerful by the fact that [they] pass unobserved in most cases" (17). Behind these medievalisms' superficially harmless repetitions and unaware remediations, then, he recognizes the potential for the kind of banal evil Hannah Arendt diagnosed in the quotidian absence and failure of thinking, imagination, and self-awareness embodied by Hitler's Adolf Eichmann.

Many traditional medievalists will consider Elliott's book as external to medieval studies and therefore unrelated to their own work. After all, he is investigating medievalisms that are intentionally extirpated from the past events, texts, and artifacts they study. Moreover, these semantically "flattened" medievalisms are popular and political, two features most academics have learned to treat with disdain or at least caution. However, I would suggest that all medievalists should read his book because they will gain important insights into how their own published work and their teaching will increasingly be perceived by academic as well as non-academic audiences. Even if only to resist the alacrity with which these medievalisms can now spread at an electronic news cycle's notice, it serves medievalists well to comprehend the processes by which certain dominant (and often contradictory) ideas of the Middle Ages come about and are transmitted.

The association between "Middle East" and "Middle Ages" in the early 2000s is a case in point: Elliott documents how politicians, journalists, and others on instant messaging services and social media ceaselessly repeated and repurposed banal tropes and memes of the Middle Ages as regressive, violent, superstitious, primitive, anti-modern, and non-technological, until these tropes and memes ended up in support of political positions completely unrelated to anything we know about medieval culture. Elliott even documents how similar or the same memes of the "dark ages" were employed by the U.S. government as well as by Al Qaeda: If George W. Bush's famous post-9/11 gaffe about calling his "war on terrorism" a "crusade" was the beginning of a wholesale cultural clash between the "modern" west and the "medieval" East, Osama bin Laden employed Bush's neoconservative use of western orientalist/medievalist rhetoric and its elision of Islamism, Islam, and Arabic culture to mask Al Qaeda's own technological sophistication as well as to brand the western interference in the Middle East as a Crusader/Zionist alliance.

Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media would be a valuable contribution to our understanding of the phenomenon of medievalism if only for the wealth of illustrative examples it provides. However, I predict that its real legacy will be in affording a solid theoretical framework within which we can unpack what otherwise might well remain a confusing maze of medievalist mass media references. As Elliott states: "[M]edievalisms are rich with meaning because they are used so often across the mass media that the meaning is made elastic. Thus the (seemingly circuitous) assertion of banal medievalism is that medievalisms have meaning because they surround us, and they surround us because they have meaning" (45). I am grateful to Andrew Elliott for providing us with sound scholarly tools with which to explain the proliferation of banal medievalisms in the last 15 years, and I expect similar guidance about the sociological processes motivating the cultural phenomenon of medievalism from Paul Sturtevant's forthcoming book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism. How long these tools will be efficient may depend on the accelerating pace of new communication technologies and how users and societies negotiate them. And the scholarly monograph, which takes years to write and thus considerably lags behind the speed at which technological change drives communicative practice, may not be the most efficient genre for critically accompanying what the future holds for the study of mass media medievalisms.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Boydell and Brewer's Medieval Herald

Boydell and Brewer's Medieval Herald might be seen as simply a fancy catalogue for this publishing house. But it is very pretty and even more  includes all sorts of supplementary material.

The copy I just received has not one but four different interviews with authors and editors of B and B imprints.

Two of them are of particular interest for me:  The two editors of Frisians and their North Sea Neighbours From the Fifth Century to the Viking Age ( John Hines & Nelleke IJssennagger ) have a lot of interesting things to say about the Frisians of the North Sea coast. They make the very worthwhile point that the Frisians have maintained a ethnic identity for many centuries without the uniform in language or other cultural characteristics. They don't say so but I would guess that the landscape and seascape of the region has always been the most important common element in Frisian life.  Quote from the interview:

Today, Friesland is one of the twelve provinces of the Netherlands, whilst there also is a region of Ostfriesland in Germany. In Friesland, Frisian is still a living language with a speaking population of around 450,000, and people born here consider themselves as Frisian. The regional identity is still quite strong, and is often linked to traditions of historical events and not least the idea of a historical independence of Frisia. The historical Frisia, however, was not the same as Friesland, but covered a much larger area of the present-day Netherlands and in Germany. In different eras, the area either considered to be Frisia or to be populated by Frisians varied; in Roman times we first hear of Frisii living in the northern Dutch coastal area, while in the exceptionally valuable source Lex Frisionum the Frisian area of around AD 800 was defined as between the Zwin on the modern border between Belgium and the Netherlands and the Weser in modern Germany. In between historical reference points such as these the Frisian area variously expanded and contracted, or was not clearly defined, but the idea of a Frisia and of Frisian people continues with remarkable tenacity.

Frisians in the Early Middle Ages were not necessarily the same people as the apparently Celtic-speaking Frisii of the Roman Period, because of a habitation hiatus (or massive demographic decline) and re-colonization by people from around the North Sea. In general, it can be said that the medieval Frisians are considered as a maritime-focussed Germanic people, who made a name and fame for themselves before and during the Viking Period through seafaring and trade. They were in close connection with their North Sea neighbours, as both written sources and material culture testify, and as is explored in detail in this book.

Laura Chuhan Campbell's The Medieval Merlin Tradition in France and Italy: Prophecy, Paradox, and Translatio is about the Merlin tradition in medieval literature. My interest is the fact that one of the commanders in the Combat of the 30 believed strongly that the prophecies of Merlin guaranteed victory for  his side in that famous deed of arms.

Image:  From the Medieval Herald.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

El Minesterio del Tiempo and the Frankenstein Chronicles -- treats for history fans

Recently I have run across on Netflix two series which I found particularly satisfying because they were clearly created by people who like history as much as I do, and who have taken care to do it right.

One of them is the Frankenstein Chronicles, which might qualify as a good historical movie simply because it stars Sean Bean, but which has so much more.  The story depicts what might have happened in intellectual circles in London after the publication of the novel Frankenstein.  The movie shows as talented scientists being inspired by the book to attempt not just to understand the nature of life and death, but to find the the secret of immortality.

Of course, this doesn't work out very well for them.

What I liked best about the Frankenstein Chronicles was the convincing and detailed depiction of this pre-Victorian era.  Lots of real people show up to add depth to the story:  Mary Shelley, Sir Robert Peel (creating the "bobbies," the London police force), King William IV, William Blake (on his death bed) and several more.  I can't swear to the absolute accuracy of any of these individual portraits, but the nuanced portrayal of the environment as a whole is very pleasing to this retired history professor.  It reminds me of the care put into those prize historical movies of the early 70s, the Three Musketeers and the Four Musketeers.

Also on Facebook is a Spanish series, El Minesterio del Tiempo. The Ministry of Time is a branch of the Spanish government devoted to preventing unauthorized time travelers from changing essential elelments of the past -- specifically the Spanish past.  I have screened only about a quarter of the series, but most of it so far shows the ministry agents most concerned that famous artists and writers are able to produce the works that they contributed to Spanish culture.

There are other entertaining features of the story.  You probably wouldn't think of Spain as the most likely country to have a monopoly on time travel technology.   If so, know that the characters agree with you!  Anyway, the Spanish time travel technique is not obviously technology.  It was invented by a 15th century rabbi, and ever since his time, the Ministry has been secretly using doors that go from one time and place to another.  If there is an explanation for this. or for the creation of the Ministry itself, it is not clear to me.

But perhaps the best part of the series is the way the characters deal with a power that potentially makes them omnipotent.  All the agents have been plucked out of the normal time stream, sometimes after some family tragedy.  The agents can go back to their original environment any time they want, but they risk damaging their (our) timeline and their own mental health if thety do so.

El Ministerio del Tiempo is getting better as it goes along.  The actors are great.  Are they top-ranked stars in Spain?

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Welsh (or the English)

From the Guardian, an essay on anti-Welsh bigotry by

There are myriad examples of such ignorance [in the English press] But the one that stands out to me was the widespread snooty dismissal by English journalists as made up of an anecdote about a woman in a hijab confounding a bigot by speaking Welsh on a train. None of them, clearly, had ever been to Cardiff.

Don’t get me wrong – these subtle examples don’t send Welsh people running home to their mams in tears; we are a tough people. But they do betray an attitude that, at its most extreme, amounts to xenophobia, pure and simple. And often on the part of liberal English people who would be horrified to be called racist.

Anyone with a cursory familiarity with the history of Welsh oppression will know why. It smacks of a residual colonialist insecurity at sharing an island with a minority whose language you cannot understand. But while hundreds of years ago that will have seemed threatening to the English imperialist world order, now such defensiveness just makes you look pathetic. So what if a small number of people speak Welsh? What’s it to you? Why do you care so much? Is a part of you ashamed to be monoglot, aware that to the rest of the world, it looks a bit, well, low-achieving?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ghosts and Zombies by Phil Paine

Ghosts and Zombies -- another perceptive piece on the political illness of our times.  Phil is a sometime collaborator of mine.  He has been looking at the challenges, the successes and the failures of democracy for longer thant the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

A great leap forward in our knowledge of Jupiter

The Guardian reports on the new information about the planet Jupiter gained by the Juno spacecraft.  We're learning much more about  its structure.  The big news is that if there is a solid center, it's way way deep.  Mostly Jupiter seems to be a congregation of big, deep, fast hydrogen and helium storms.

The new findings, based on extremely sensitive gravitational measurements, also begin to paint a picture of the internal structure of the planet.

On an imagined journey from the outside to the centre, one would first encounter a cloud layer of 99% hydrogen and helium, with traces of methane and ammonia. The density at the surface is about 10 times less than that of air, but the gas becomes denser and denser towards the centre of the planet. At about 10% towards the centre, the gas becomes so dense that hydrogen becomes ionised, turning into a metallic hydrogen gas approaching the density of water. About 20% towards the centre, helium condenses into rain. And in the deep interior, where pressures are about 10 million times higher than at the Earth’s surface, scientists think the gas exists as a dense soup speckled with rocks of heavy metal.
“There may be a small hard [solid] core very, very deep, but we’re thinking it’s just dense gas enriched in heavy elements … it’s not a solid that you can imagine,” said Kaspi. “The normal concept of gas, liquid and solid don’t really hold at these pressures.”
Image:  Storms at the South Pole.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

SCA amateur medievalist art from forty years ago

Nearly forty years ago, when artistic and craft information was much harder to find than today, serious-minded members of the Sociey for Creative Anachronism sometimes produced amazing works of art modeled after medieval exemplars.

This is one of them.

It is not a reproduction of a medieval document, but it does commemorate an event in the SCA by using artistic and calligraphic models.

Today more people are capable of doing comparable work.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A poem I found in my blog

by: James Elroy Flecker
     I WHO am dead a thousand years,
    And wrote this sweet archaic song,
    Send you my words for messengers
    The way I shall not pass along.
    I care not if you bridge the seas,
    Or ride secure the cruel sky,
    Or build consummate palaces
    Of metal or of masonry.
    But have you wine and music still,
    And statues and a bright-eyed love,
    And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
    And prayers to them who sit above?
    How shall we conquer? Like a wind
    That falls at eve our fancies blow,
    And old Mæonides the blind
    Said it three thousand years ago.
    O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
    Student of our sweet English tongue,
    Read out my words at night, alone:
    I was a poet, I was young.
    Since I can never see your face,
    And never shake you by the hand,
    I send my soul through time and space
    To greet you. You will understand.

'To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence' is reprinted from An Anthology of Modern Verse. Ed. A. Methuen. London: Methuen & Co., 1921.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Love that science fiction

Yesterday I finished for perhaps the third time the StarTrek series "Deep Space Nine."  Most of you probably know something about the show in which the "Federation" (a mostly peaceful Earth-centered alliance) commits itself to protecting a strategic space station owned by Bajor, a planet which just recently has thrown off the domination of the arrogant, militaristic Cardassians.  Under the leadership of Benjamin Sisko, the station commander, the Federation hopes to promote peace, no easy task.

Sisko has one characteristic that may help him succeed, though it also complicates his life.  The Bajorans have come to believe that he is "the Emissary of the Prophets," the Prophets being aliens who live in a timeless space within the wormhole that makes transport around the galaxy very much faster.  So Sisko has to move very  carefully between his status as ordinary mortal and his status as (perceived) divine protector of Bajor.  Thing is, he really is the Emissary.

Gene Rodenberry, inventor of Star Trek, saw his original series as the story of a Wagon Train in space, where the crew ran into a new civilization just about every week.  In Deep Space Nine, this conceit works better than it did in the original series.  DS9 is like a small city in which many species live and interact.  The writers of DS9 have the raw material for lots of different stories:  numerous characters with interesting problems which are intelligently treated (most of the time).

Some very interesting themes (and a few dumb ones) get visited and revisited during in the series.  One that very much impressed me was the arc in which former enemies of the Bajoran-Cardassian war sometimes have to cooperate with the war criminals on the other side.  Even some of the Bajoran good guys can easily be seen as terrorists and the series does not duck this problem.  There is a hard-hitting episode where one former Bajoran guerrila finds out that her mother was a comfort woman for the occupiers.  Was she a collaborator?

This is a TV series, so if you are expecting good science fiction, you will sometimes be severely disappointed.  But not as often as you might think. 

The death of Ursula LeGuin last year inspired me to read some of her works.  I knew how good "The Dispossessed" and some of the other, early books were, but there are more that I hadn't read at all.  I got a treat when I discovered "Changing Planes" which tells the reader that the timelessness you experience in airport waiting lounges enables you to slip sideways into parallel dimensions.  


The book is written as a travelogue, where the unnamed narrator acts as an amateur anthropologist, giving a brief summary of the peculiar customs of each planet.  It's both serious and lighthearted, and best of all IT READS LIKE IT WAS WRITTEN BY JACK VANCE, my favorite sf writer.  I never dreamed that I'd read a new Jack Vance sf book, ever.

Image:  A Bajoran terrorist.

Friday, February 02, 2018

More Irish saving of civilization

I  bet I have a lot of friends and readers who are interested in early Ireland who find the subject difficult to understand.

That's because it is a difficult subject.  A poorly documented region in a poorly documented region, but also fascinating in that Ireland, never a Roman province, was transformed into a notable part of the new Christian culture of the early Middle Ages.  It is undoubtedly more difficult because most modern students and readers can't be expected to have much sympathy for a culture that speaks to us mainly in the voices of monks and missionaries.  Most Irish people were neither, but that new minority movement was very influential then and is the most knowable part of early medieval Ireland today.  Put on top of that the energetic role remote Ireland played in international (ecclesiastical) affairs and you have a subject that might be really fascinating if you can get a good start.

I don't know what the best way might be to make that start, but  Jamie Kreiner of the University of Georgia recommends the recent translation of Irish saints' lives in the Liverpool series.  This review, which I have taken from The Medieval Review is not meant for beginners but it may give you an idea of the fascination to be found in the stories of Irish saints, especially those who left Ireland and founded monastic communities elsewhere.  The real action in this early era was in the monasteries and networks of monasteries that were popping up all over Europe.  If you get just a little feeling for this from Kreiner's review, you are ahead of the game.

O'Hara, Alexander, and Ian Wood, trans. Jonas of Bobbio: Life of Columbanus, Life of John of Réomé, and Life of Vedast. Liverpool Translated Texts for Historians, 64. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017. Pp. xiv, 348. £85.00 (hbk), £24.95 (pbk). ISBN: 978-1-78138-176-2 (hbk), ISBN: 978-1-78138-177-9 (pbk).
   Reviewed by Jamie Kreiner        University of Georgia (Institute for Advanced Study)

If you've ever used any of the Liverpool Translated Texts for Historians (and for those of us who teach early medieval history, it is hard to imagine a course within them), you have Jonas of Bobbio to thank for it. Ian Wood and Alexander O'Hara tell us that the lack of a complete English translation of Jonas's monumental Life of Columbanus and His Disciples--arguably one of the most important hagiographical texts from early medieval Europe--gave John Davies the idea to start the TTH in the first place, which he co-founded with Margaret Gibson in the 1980s. But it was not Jonas of Bobbio but rather Gregory of Tours who inaugurated the series, with Edward James's translation of his Life of the Fathers. Only now in 2017, sixty-four volumes into the series and fourteen hundred years after Columbanus's death, do we finally have the first full English translation of his Life, along with Jonas's other hagiographical works. But they were worth the wait.
Traditionally Columbanus was viewed as a tenacious Irish emigré who rescued Christianity on the continent from a state of decay in the early seventh century, by founding monasteries in Gaul and northern Italy with a distinctly Irish culture that could be characterized as "Columbanian." That's a testimony to Jonas's forceful portraiture, because it's more or less what his narrative conveyed, and if a translation of his hagiography had come out in the 1980s, its introduction might have imparted a similar wisdom--though Ian Wood had already begun to suspect by that point that Gallic Christianity was more than Jonas had made of it. [1]
But in 2017 things look very different. O'Hara and Wood point out that not only was Gallic Christianity a thriving, dynamic culture well before Columbanus showed up (which is evident in, among other places, its hagiography, its episcopal councils, and its monastic foundations and Rules). It was also already an international culture. There were British and Irish monastic settlements, for instance, that predated Columbanus's arrival. Columbanus's own self-imposed exile may have been even inspired by his personal icon Gildas, the British monk who wrote De excidio Britanniae and who probably immigrated to western Gaul and established a monastery on the mouth of the Loire..
The monasteries that Columbanus founded drew upon the variegated Christian culture that surrounded them, rather than isolating themselves from it, with the result that their monastic models were cultural hybrids rather than exclusively Irish. As Columbanus had done, his acolytes developed partnerships with local landowners, elites with connections to the court, royal officials, and rulers--all of which the translators' notes, along with an appendix of three translated charters, make especially clear. [2] Like Columbanus they also took positions on some of the theological controversies that had arisen among the Christianities of the eastern Mediterranean.
And it didn't take long after Columbanus's death for it to become clear that the monks and nuns who had been inspired by his example had developed very different ideas about what a properly "Columbanian" monasticism should look like. Each institution had its own persona, and even within a single monastery, the disagreements could be brutal. Jonas dedicated the second half of the Life of Columbanus to making sure his readers knew who among the saint's followers were getting it right; and although he was very rarely subtle on this point (unless reveling in the tragic deaths of one's opponents can ever be subtle), it is only recently that historians have begun to see how complex "Columbanian" culture was.
The translators also give us a brief but welcome introduction to Jonas himself: archivist of Bobbio, very likely the abbot of Marchiennes in northern Gaul, and also very likely the author of the Regula cuiusdam patris ad virgines (an identification we owe to the work of Albrecht Diem, which is outlined here in a few appendices). In his role as hagiographer, Jonas is passionate and smart, as many hagiographers in this period were; but what's rarer is the chance to see, over the course of multiple works, how the ideas of an early medieval intellectual morphed over time, in this case through the 640s and 50s. For as O'Hara and Wood point out, Jonas was also a person who changed his mind.
O'Hara and Wood base their translation on Bruno Krusch's 1905 edition in the MGH SRG, but given the difficulties of some its readings they also consult a manuscript that Krusch didn't know about (Metz, Grand Séminaire 1) in addition to making other reasonable adjustments. The English is clear and smooth without obfuscating some of Jonas's stylistic choices, like his vacillation between the historical present and the past, or his love of unusual words ("nitpicking and frivolous blather" for conperendinanti migrologa et fribola garrulanti [198]). Although Merovingian Latin abounds in participial phrases, the translation mercifully favors finite verb constructions when the alternative is bound to be ponderous: so, for example, we read that someone "spat on" a letter and threw it down, instead of throwing down a letter "having been smeared with saliva" (254)
Occasionally the English irons out some of Jonas's more metaphorical concepts, which blunts their sense maybe more than is necessary. Lubrice impulsationis is rendered as an "unreliable impulse" rather than a "slippery" one (261), for example, which makes the psychological theories that are at play here (both Jonas's and Cassian's alike) harder to see. Or the parents of Gibitrudis are said to think of her as their only "offspring" (206), which is more mechanical than the Latin pignora, a word that Merovingian writers liked to use for "relics," "children," and "financial pledges," often simultaneously. The choice to render the unfree dependents mentioned in Burgundofara's will (Appendix 6) as "serfs" with no further commentary is especially surprising, given the range of servile statuses that were masked by seemingly straightforward labels, a subject to which Alice Rio has drawn attention in her work. [3]
These minor criticisms only speak to the richness of the material that O'Hara and Wood have done us a great service in making more accessible. If you're a historian of the Merovingian period the value of this translation will already be obvious to you, but Jonas's vitae will be useful beyond specialist courses.  For courses about Christianity, these texts engage some of the major debates of the seventh century: the relationship between political power and sacred space, the simultaneously conflicting and complementary bonds of family and monastery, the cultivation of Christian forms of cognition and behavior, monastic liturgical and regulatory structures, the plausibility of the miraculous, and the control that Christians had over their souls' fates in the afterlife.
Courses on gender could scrutinize how the Life of Columbanus toggles between its protagonistic vir Dei--an epithet that Jonas bestowed on a select few men besides Columbanus--and Jonas's beloved monastery of Faremoutiers, whose nuns seem to have been experts in the art of dying well (though many manuscripts omitted this chunk of the narrative entirely).
All three texts would also suit a course on travel and travelogues. Although Columbanus wins for the most miles traveled, and Jonas peppers his vita with place-specific notes about local bears, buffalo, beer, and butter, journeys drive the narrative arcs and character developments of John's and Vedast's stories, too. As a trio the vitae would provide a nice counterpoint to the more fantastical and long-distance adventures that we are familiar with from the Voyage of Saint Brendan, the Alexander legends, and monstrous cosmographies.
So Jonas, no stranger to royal treatment, has received it again with this translation and commentary, and he'd be thrilled to know that it will bring him many more readers--even though they are increasingly learning to put him in his place.
1. E.g. Ian Wood, "A Prelude to Columbanus: The Monastic Achievement in the Burgundian Territories," in Columbanus and Merovingian Monasticism, ed. Howard B. Clarke and Mary Brennan (Oxford: BAR, 1981), 3-32.
2. These charters are the Lombard king Agilulf's donation to Bobbio, Pope Honorius's exemption privilege to Bobbio, and the will of Burgundofara naming Faremoutiers as her heir.
3. E.g., Alice Rio, Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish Formulae, c. 500-1000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), and postdating O'Hara and Wood's translation, Alice Rio, Slavery after Rome, 500-1000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Monday, January 29, 2018


A recent article in the Public Medievalist makes me feel that someone just walked over my grave.

The author, Paul Sturtevant, has done us a service by giving a name -- "Schrödinger’s medievalism” -- to ambiguous phenomena that may or may not  be the product of racism.

While at the beach in Ocean City, Maryland he spotted an unfamiliar pseudo-Scandinavian flag, which he soon discovered was the "Vinland" flag, Vinland being the shortlived Viking settlement  in Newfoundland ( A.D.1000), and the flag a product of the goth metal scene.  The inventer of the flag was not an obvious racist  But the flag has come to mean more than its perhaps lighthearted origins, at least to some:

I was suddenly confronted with two equally likely possibilities:
  1. on the one hand, the Vinnland flag waving at me could be yet-another appropriation of the medieval (or in this case, a medievalism) by white-supremacists in order to push their hateful agenda;
  2. on the other hand stood the possibility that someone in the shop was not a neo-Nazi at all but simply a fan of Type O Negative Was it a racist dog whistle? Or was it simply a band flag?
Following the ADL’s advice of judging carefully in its context didn’t help either; the shop was an innocent-seeming place, full of flags and toys and kites and no obvious signs of white supremacy. On the other hand, one of the flags they flew outside was the “Thin Blue Line” flag. This flag was originally created to honor the sacrifices of police officers, but, you guessed it, the flag has subsequently been appropriated by those advocating that “Blue Lives Matter” in opposition of the Black Lives Matter movement.
So was this flag a white supremacist appropriation of the Middle Ages? I don’t know. And without more information about the person who chose and raised that flag, I can’t know.
That’s why I call it a Schrödinger’s Medievalism.

Sturtevant explains in more detail:

In the famous “Schrödinger’s cat” thought experiment, Erwin Schrödinger said(entirely theoretically)that because of quantum mechanics, if you put a cat in sealed box with a flask of poison and a radioactive trigger, you cannot tell what state the cat is in—whether it is alive or dead—without opening the box. So, without more information, the cat can, weirdly, be considered both alive and dead at the same time. 
  So, that Vinnland flag was a “Schrödinger’s medievalism.”  
To my mind, a Schrödinger’s medievalism is a piece of medieval culture found in the wild that you know has been appropriated as a symbol by right-wing nationalists or racists. But, that piece of culture also has a broader, potentially benign, meaning. You can’t tell which is it until you get more information—and sometimes doing so is impossible. So, sometimes you are left in the uncomfortable position of having to treat it as both benign and hostile at the same time. 


Sturtevant  gives an example of the toxic potential of this phenomenon, when he takes us back to Maryland:

Another example: I attended the Maryland Renaissance Festival this year, and in the crowd I noted a small group of four young people. They were all cosplaying, and all wearing replica amulets of Thor’s hammer...
For some white-nationalists, Thor is an icon of white Aryan warrior masculinity. But Marvel’s Thor comic books and films have been reimagining the Norse mythological tradition in a way that is more inclusive than ever. And notably, three of the four cosplayers I saw were people of color. For them, it seemed that Viking religion was simply cool, and the amulets were part of a fun costume.
White supremacists try to appropriate these sort of symbols precisely for this reason: it’s easy for them to hide in plain sight, allowing them to slip under our radar. And even more insidiously, when it comes to light that these are sometimes used as symbols of hate, it can make white supremacists’ numbers seem greater than they really are.

The reference  to the cosplayers hits close to home for me, even though I'm not young, noticeably racist, or a person of color.  By today's definition I can be seen as a cosplayer, since I have been dressing up and re-enacting the Middle Ages for nearly 50 years.  Now I and my non-racist fellow members of the SCA, generally seen as harmless eccentrics, are in severe danger of being reclassified as harmful eccentrics.  Take a look at some of the alt-right demonstrators last summer and you will see a fair number of them are wearing leather armor and round shields and various ambiguous symbols.  How many non-SCA people will be able to distinguish these characters from the SCA.

As Sturtevant says:

Why we can't have nice things.
There's more to the article.  Read it.