Thursday, July 29, 2010

Nineteen Years of Winter

I spotted this on Wikipedia and wondered where it came from because my copy of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, which includes various chronicles, but especially the Peterborough manuscript that this comes from, does not have this passage translated in the same way. The missing word is 'winter'.
" To till the ground was to plough the sea: the earth bare no corn, for the land was all laid waste by such deeds; and they said openly, that Christ slept, and his saints. Such things, and more than we can say, suffered we nineteen winters for our sins".
I took this text from The Online Medieval & Classical Library, where they have uploaded older (i.e. 19th century) translations of the work. It would be great to find the original Anglo Saxon so that I could see why my Micheal Swanton translation does not include the phrase "19 winters" and just says "19 years". It is not a big difference. The curiosity for me is due to George R.R. Martin's Fire and Ice series which includes winters that could be this long. 'Winter is Coming' is a slogan from the series. It is loosely based on the civil war that was called War of the Roses but these 19 years, King Stephen's reign, were also marked by civil war since Stephen was a usurper of the throne. Henry I's daughter the Empress Matilda had been named Henry's successor. When Stephen's son Eustace died, Stephen passed over his other sons and made peace with Matilda and so Matilda's son, Henry II was crowned when he died. It is just curious. That is all.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Three Books That You Cannot Do Without

Apart from the obvious good dictionary, I think anyone who writes for school, pleasure or profit should have these three books on their shelf.
The first book that everyone should own is Brewer's Guide to Phrase and Fable. It is a dictionary but not of individual words rather of expressions and places, persons and things in stories. A sample entry would be:
" Brigadoon. A fictional ghostly village in the Scottish Highlands which, in the eponymous whimsical musical comedy (1947) by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, comes to life only for one day every 100 years. A film was made of the musical in 1954, starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. The name is no doubt based on that of the River Doon in Ayrshire; brig means 'bridge'."
or this one,
"Plantagenet. A name commonly given since the mid-17th century to the royal line now more properly called ANGEVIN and to the LANCASTRIAN and YORKIST kings from Henry II to Richard III. these were the descendants of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and Matilda, daughter of Henry I. It may have arisen from Geoffrey of Anjou's habit of wearing a sprig of BROOM (plante genet) in his cap, or from the fact that he planted broom to improve his hunting covers. Henry II was Geoffrey's son....."
Where a word is all capitalized, there is a further entry in the Guide.
A second book that is de rigeur is Pliny the Elder's Natural History. It is rarely published in its entirety. My copy, which is a Penguin publication with John F. Healy translating, has only a selection. It seems clear to me while reading Umberto Eco's Baudolino that he has read Pliny as well since he places manticores in India just as Pliny has. Much of Baudolino's fabulous trip to find Prester John comes from Pliny, among other sources.
Amusingly, at the end of the entry on 'The Legendary Manticore, Basilisk and Werewolf', Pliny wrote "It is astonishing how far Greek gullibility will go. There is no occurrence so fabulously shameless that it lacks a witness."
Pliny died in the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. He was in charge of the fleet at Misenum and crossed the bay when the volcano erupted partly through scientific curiosity and partly to rescue survivors. His nephew and heir wrote about his demise and provides a record of the eruption of Vesuvius viewed at a safer distance. There are so many interesting bits in Pliny; how does one select just one as a sample?
Although it is just one among many, this one has its charms:
"The Magi. The Magi have certain subterfuges: for example, the gods neither obey nor appear to those with freckles. Was this perhaps why they stood in Nero's way? Tiridates the Magus ....refused to travel by sea, for the Magi consider it sinful to spit into the sea or defile its nature by any other human function......Although Tiridates had given Nero a kingdom, he was unable to teach him the art of magic. This should be sufficient proof that magic is execrable, achieves nothing and is pointless.....I met Apion the grammarian, who informed me that the herb cynocephalia, know in Egypt as osiritis, was a source of divination and a protection against all black magic, but that if anyone completely uprooted it , he would immediately die. He added that he had summoned ghosts to inquire from Homer his native land and the name of his parents, but did not dare to reveal the answer he had allegedly been given."
Interesting? I would like to know what everyone had against red-haired and freckled people. Really, I do.
The third book I would like to recommend is not really a book. It is anything by Aristotle. Poetics in particular is useful for English essays. With my pronouncement that "everything tastes better with bacon on it", I would also add "when your essay is too short, quote Aristotle". I have had a couple of professors get a little annoyed about the Aristotle quotes but, as long as it is relevant to the subject, they will not mark you down for it because you are quoting @#%&* Aristotle, fer cryin' out loud. If you are writing a high school paper, the teacher will probably be seriously impressed than you even know who Aristotle is. Although, I have to admit, Aristotle is not as interesting to read as Brewer's Guide or Pliny even if he is a super-philosopher.
So there you have it. My recommendations for any well stocked library.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Dr. Johnson and Scrofula

I spent the day yesterday comparing the latin text of Pliny's Natural History and an English text to see what is being translated as 'scrofula'. In every case, scrofula came from a form of 'struma' however, doing another word search, I found there were 67 instances of 'struma' in the text but only 19 were translated as scrofula. Now that could also be because the English word search doesn't give you the adjective when you are searching for the noun, but I am too lazy to look for every one of the 67 occurrences of the word. You will have to forgive me.
There is an interesting entry in the Cambridge History of Human Diseases on scrofula but there is no electronic version, that I can access remotely, so any discussion of that text will have to wait until I can get to a university library and have a look.
For the time being then, I will leave the discussion of scrofula with a comment on the fact that Samuel Johnson, he who wrote the dictionary, had scrofula as a child. At the age of two, he was taken to see Queen Anne who was the last English monarch to attempt the healing touch. It was abandoned shortly after as being too Catholic a practice. Queen Anne did give him a gold coin which he wore around his neck until he died in his old age.
It is assumed that he got scrofula from drinking infected cows' milk since that is how people commonly got it. It is something that people who think that 'raw milk' is superior to pasteurized milk want to consider. The gold coin that Queen Anne gave to Dr. Johnson has been preserved and is on display at the British Museum and you can see it online here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

There Is Always a Reason

I was curious as to why Mr. Harris chose scrofula as Vatinius' disfiguring ailment. Short of writing him a letter, and assuming he would reply, know why he chose that, or has notes that would help him figure out why, I must do my own detective work and make the best guess available.
I used the Perseus site to peruse texts that refer to Vatinius but most of the ones that interested me were not readily available in Latin on that site. Cicero made a very long speech in the Senate called In Vatinium against Vatinius where he makes reference to Vatinius being denied augership. He also refers to the disfigurement in his letters to Atticus and in one to Brutus. What word did he use in In Vatinium? "Ista quae sunt inflata" or those disgusting things which are swollen. The English translation at Perseus rendered 'ista' which is a pronoun into the word 'wen'.
Catullus came to my aid, good ole Catullus. He wrote a poem, now called 52 but at the time was called In Novium, in which there is a line calling Nonius 'a giant boil sitting on the curule chair'(my translation) and accusing Vatinius of perjury. Who is Nonius and what exactly is a struma anyway? So I looked in my pocket dictionary The New College Latin and English Dictionary. It also includes Late Latin and Neo Latin so it has been useful for some Medieval texts. In this dictionary, struma means 'tumor, swollen gland'; however just after this entry is strumosus which means scrofulous.
Not content with this, I got out the granddaddy of Latin dictionaries, the Oxford Latin Dictionary, because it has only classical Latin and some etymology plus where words occur in Latin texts. I love a good dictionary. I should have gone to this one first as nearly all the entries where struma occurs also contain the name Vatinius. There is nothing like being famous for all time for a giant boil on your neck.
The OLD defines struma as 'a swelling of the lymphatic glands'. Strumosis is 'afflicted with glandular swellings'. This requires now a look at the Oxford English Dictionary and, indeed, scrofulous comes from a Medieval Latin word 'scrofula' which means an enlarged lymph gland. Maybe struma is scrofula but there is more reason that one for enlarged lymph nodes. Scrofula is derived from scrofa, which the OED states is latin for 'breeding sow which were deemed subject to this disease'. Struma was equated with goiter, bronchocele or scrofula at the earliest in 1400 in Lefranc's Cicurgie. So whatever dictionary, if he was conducting his research in the original latin texts, he used may have been like my pocket dictionary - spoiled with Medieval Latin terms - or whatever translation he used of those texts had been spoiled with Medieval Latin terms.
The OLD lists In Vatinium 39 "si...strumae ab ore improbo demigrarunt et aliis iam se locis conlocarunt"(if those tumors migrate from your shameless face and now lodge themselves in other places), Letters to Atticus 2.9.2 "licet....Vatini strumam sacerdoti vestiant" (it is permitted that priests adorn the glandular swellings of Vatinius) and Celsus V.29.2"struma est tumor, in quo subter concreta quaedam ex pure et sanguine quasi glandulae oriuntur...nascuntur maxime in cervice, sed etiam in alis et inguinibus" ( A struma is a tumor, in which arises under certain curdling from pus and blood just like of a small gland.... it is borne mostly in the neck but also in other private parts.) Most English translations of these texts call struma 'scrofula'. Pliny's Natural History is full of references to scrofula including how to cure it with weasel's blood. So Harris is not wrong to say that Vatinius had scrofula but I wonder if later translators had been duly diligent in naming the disease or just followed what previous translators had done.

Monday, July 19, 2010

More of that Scrofula

I am sure it was a terrible disease and I should not be so amused at references to it in novels but I cannot help myself. In Robert Harris' novel Lustrum, the tribune Publius Vatinius was called the ugliest man in Rome. "He had contracted scrofula as a boy, and his face and neck were covered in pendulous purplish-blue lumps." (pg 360) After looking at Cicero's correspondance to Atticus about Vatinius, I have to say that Harris chose scrofula as his disfigurement because Vatinius had some mark and malformed legs that prevented him from being chosen as an auger but scrofula is not mentioned by anyone. Not Tacitus, or Pliny, Caesar, Livy, Plutarch, Dio Cassus or anyone else who mentions Vatinius' name. However, while looking, I had a nice long look at the Perseus site which,
"The Perseus Project at Tufts University is the foremost Digital Library for the classical world, if not for the Humanities in general. In its collection of Greek and Roman materials, readers will find many of the canonical texts read today. The Greek collection approaches 8 million words and the Latin collection currently has 5.5 million. In addition, many English language dictionaries, other reference works, translations, and commentaries are included, so that anyone with an internet connection has access to the equivalent of a respectable College Classics library. The Perseus site is further enriched by intricate linking mechanisms among texts (resulting in more than 30 million links)."

It is a very good site for looking up references.

Friday, July 16, 2010


When Richard I was returning to England from the Crusades, he was delayed en route, having been captured by Duke Leopold and held prisoner for a couple of years by Holy Roman Emperor for ransom. Just yesterday, I spotted the name of one of the castles where he was held - Trifels in Germany. I have been there. He spent three weeks at Trifels in 1193. At the age of six, I was dangled over the cliffs, that the castle is perched on, by my uncle who thought it would be amusing to make my mother scream. Trifels is German for 'three cliffs'.
I do not remember much about the castle beyond that since I snuck off to the pub with my father and missed the tour of the tower. Of course at six, I would not have known or cared who Richard I was but, if someone would have mentioned Robin Hood, I might have gotten excited. Anyhow, here is a photo of the area I was dangled over. It is the farthest part with the chain link fence and I have to wonder if anyone ever dangled Richard I over that edge. I am sure he would have found it exhilarating. I was fortunate to have the presence of mind not to struggle in my uncle's arms or I might not have been here to write this blog for you.
Some worthwhile links: more photos and some info.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Have Ideas

I really do have some ideas for blog entries. Maybe it is summer time or maybe I am just a slob, but I just don't feel like writing one at the moment. I'll be back.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Scrofula Rears Its Ugly Head

I was reading Susan Townsend's novel Queen Camilla last night. I have been a big fan of her Adrian Mole novels. As usual, her novel is full of silliness and humor and on page 58 she has Lawrence Krill pen the following letter to Prince Charles:
I beg your indulgence, my liege, to have recognizance of my advice to thee. I have it in my gift to grant to you possession of a most wondrous particular: The Lost Crown of England. May my vitals be torn from my living belly if this be not true.
Write to me, do not tarry, my liege. All I ask as a reward is that you touch my scrofulous and most foul body to cure me of the King's Evil. 'Tis this unholy affliction that doth condemn me to endure such cruel incarceration in this most cursed place: The Asylum of Rampton.
May the Almighty anoint thee with blessings.
I am, sire, but a humble and unworthy petitioner,
Lawrence Krill"

The spirit of the Middle Ages lives on.