Saturday, July 23, 2011

Words of Wisdom From Boethius

"Quae vero pestis efficacior ad nocendum quam familiaris inimicus?"(consolatio III.V.41)
In truth, what kind of pestilence is more effective at causing harm than a hostile friend?
Ain't that the truth? A friend knows all your secrets.
S.J. Tester translated this as "and what plague is more able to hurt a man than an enemy who was once a friend?"
I do not know where he gets the 'once' from. I think people can be working to undo you while still wearing the face of friendship. Which is the point I think Boethius wanted to make.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


It seems Henry II was not sweet enough. The records for his royal houses show that his cooks purchased sugar for the kitchens. This is the first recorded use of sugar in England. Sugar made from sugar canes was known around the Mediterranean following 600 A.D. after Arab expansion in the East lead to it being introduced to the territories they were expanding to in the West. One of Alexander the Great's generals, Nearchus, noted the use of sugar in India in 325 B.C..
I associated sugar cane so closely with the West Indies it was a source of amazement to me that the plant was not indigenous to the New World. It is supposed to have originated in the Asian Pacific and was introduced to India, from where it moved westward to Europe. The Romans and Greeks (Seneca and Erathosthenes) mention sugar cane in their writing. Although the plant was known, it is the Arabs who get the blame for the spread of sugar production in Southern Europe and the Crusaders get the blame for its introduction to Northern Europe. Columbus stopped by the Canary Islands(1493), which was known for its plantations, and brought some plants with him to the New World.
He was amazed at how well and quickly the plant established itself in the West Indies. This is always a bad sign for the environment; as an invasive exotic, it pushed out many of the native species. It was bad for humans too and not just for being a source of empty calories and ruining teeth. The trade in sugar was lucrative but production was labor intensive and expensive so the slave trade sprung up.
The main source of sweetener for most of Europe through the Middle Ages was honey.
For more reading, there is Redpath: The History of a Sugar House by Richard Feltoe, which I referred to for this post, but there is also Noel Deerr's History of Sugar, which appears to be 'the' book on the history of sugar. I suspect there is a lot of sad things that make us humans look bad in that history.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Scrofula Pops Up in Another Unlikely Place

I have been reading and rereading the latest in the A Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin. It is not for the faint of heart as there are some truly cringe-worthy moments in the story. One of the most disgusting characters ever to appear in a novel would be the Bastard of the Dreadfort, Ramsay Snow, or as he has become Ramsay Bolton. The Boltons conspired with the hated Freys to massacre the unarmed Stark allies at a wedding, a deed for which almost everyone in the Seven Kingdoms looks down on them for.
Lord Wyman Manderly, who has thus far been dismissed as a craven and a fat fool, has turned out to be tougher than he appears and he is slowly eliminating Freys and Boltons. One of the Bolton men is discovered dead following the collapse of a stable. "The dead man was one of Ramsay's favorites, the squat, scrofulous, ill-favored man-at-arms called Yellow Dick. Whether his **** had actually been yellow was hard to determine, as someone had sliced it off and stuffed it into his mouth so forcefully they had broken three of his teeth. When the cooks found him outside the kitchens, buried up to his neck in a snowdrift, both **** and man were blue from cold."
Don't cry for him, he was a nasty piece of work. One can't help but cheer every time a Frey or Bolton dies. I was just delighted that he had scrofula because it was one of those diseases in the Middle Ages that the rightful king was thought to be able to cure by touching. It was part of how Joan of Arc proved Charles VII was the rightful king. It is seldom heard of anymore thanks to antibiotics but, although not fatal, it was very disfiguring.

Monday, July 11, 2011

In The Interests of Fairness

Boethius does not give Fortuna a voice to defend herself but he does have Lady Philosophy give the other side of the coin: that is that people are unhappy with Fortuna because they are insatiable and never have enough stuff.
" Fugare credo indigentiam copia quaeritis"(II.V.64)
"I think you seek to escape need with abundance"
"Sic rerum versa condicio est ut divinum merito rationis animal non aliter sibi splendere nisi inanimatae supellectis possessione videatur?"(II.V.72-74)
"Is the condition of things thus turned upside down that an animal, divine by merit of reason, should seem otherwise not to be glorious to himself unless in the possessing of inanimate equipment?"
People have been materialistic ever since there has been private possessions, she is saying. She cannot be blamed for that.
"Quid igitur o mortales extra petitis intra vos positam felicitatam?..."(II.IV.72) "Igitur si tui compos fueris, possidebis quod nec tu amittere unquam velis nec fortuna possit auferre."(II.IV.76-77)
"Therefore why, o mortals, do you seek happiness beyond what is placed inside yourselves?....Accordingly, if you have control of yourself, you will own that which neither should you want ever to set aside nor would Fortuna be able to take from you."
Basically, all we really own is ourselves and nothing can take that from us. I think Orwell tried to prove in 1984, with torture, even that can be taken from us. Thoreau was never tortured when he was put in jail for failure to pay taxes (too many powerful friends) but he wrote a similar piece about the experience of prison.
"I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up....they thought my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall....I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations....As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body."(On Civil Disobedience*, pg. 96-97)
Thoreau was guilty only of not paying a tax that he had refused to pay since it was going to support a war with Mexico that he did not agree with. Boethius was accused of treason, a capital offense. It is easier to be brave when you know you are not going to die and Thoreau only spent one night in jail because friends paid the tax for him so he could be freed.
However, thinking men have been urging us for millennia to be satisfied with enough. Fine clothes do not make for a fine soul. Happiness only comes from within not having a fancy car or the envy of others. It is falling on deaf ears.

*(Walden and Other Writings, Bantam Classsics)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Poem by Boethius

It's time to get out of the garden now that the typically really hot and humid Ontario summer is underway. So ..... latin verse. This one is by Boethius from Consolatio Philosophiae (Loeb Edition), Book II, Verse I.

Haec cum superba verterit vices dextra
Et aestuantis more fertur Euripi,
Dudum tremendos saeva proterit reges
Humilemque victi sublevat fallax vultum
Non illa miseros audit aut curat fletus
Ultroque gemitus dura quos fecit ridet.
Sic illa ludit, sic suas probat vires
Magnumque suis demonstrat ostentum, si quis
Visatur una stratus ac felix hora.

It does not rhyme. Latin poetry gets its rhythm from long and short stresses which would not be doable in a non-inflected language since word order would then matter. Just because an adjective is next to a noun does not mean the adjective describes that noun. This meter is said (on the Perseus site) to be in 'scazons' or 'limping iambic triameter'. I will take their word for it. I could not make the long and short fit. It matters because in a word like 'una', for example, because, if the 'a' is long, it is in the ablative form. If the 'a' is short, then it is in the nominative form. 'Vices dextra' was odd because does not mean 'wheel of fortune but has been translated that way. Checking the Oxford Latin Dictionary, vicis can mean 'a rotation' and dextra can mean 'right' not in the sense of direction but as 'fortune' however dextra is not in the genitive. It is awkward. If I was translating this without a dictionary or notes, I would be lost as to what Boethius is saying.
Euripus is a narrow strait between Euboea and Boeotia which has strong tidal currents. It is used here as poetic for 'tide'. Of course if you don't know what Euripus is, you would be lost. I hate Latin poetry. I don't like the translation in the Loeb edition. The one at Perseus is better but mine is best. And here it is.

With arrogance, this one will have turned the wheel of fortune
And it is foolishly carried away with the force of a tidal surge.
Just now the cruel one tramples down formidable kings
And the false one raises up the humble face of the conquered.
That one does not hear the wretched or care about the weeping ones,
And furthermore the harsh one laughs at those she has made groan.
Thus she will play.
In this way she tests her own strength
And she shows a great wonder to her own,
If someone is seen within the same hour
Lucky and laid low.

The voice is Lady Philosophy condemning Fortuna.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


These are some of my favorite poems. Top of the list is "Excelsior" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Close second is "The City of the End of Things" by Archibald Lampman. (much too long to post here but absolutely fabulous, hence the link.) And interestingly, I love this poem "Fatima" which seems so different than anything Alfred, Lord Tennyson ever wrote. "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer. I think W.B Yeats should be here just because of "When You Are Old".
But today I have Robert Frost on my mind:

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

And since they are so very short, I am going to include First Fig and Second Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

First Fig
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-
It gives a lovely light!

Second Fig
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand;
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

Why do I not include some medieval poem to this list? Because most of the best ones involve swords and monsters and war and I am not in a martial mood today.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Eight More Days to Go

My long list of readers have probably wondered where I have been. Reading. I have been rereading George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series. The fifth book called A Dance With Dragons will be released to very impatient waiting public. The fourth book came out six years ago so it was a long wait. Excluding the appendices, the shortest book was A Game of Thrones with 807 pages and the longest was A Storm of Swords with 1128 pages. I have been trying to whip through approximately 400o pages of writing in about a week. I could have tried to read it a bit slower but, once I got 'into' the story, I could not stop reading. I am now ready for book five.
I dog-earred a few pages to make some comments about because the author drew inspiration from the Middle Ages and the War of the Roses. (Lannisters vs Starks, Lancaster vs York, Robert Baratheon being a sort of Henry Tudor)
Sparrows - Why not robins? Or starlings? Swallows? I think Martin chose sparrow as the name for the adherents of a religious revival that was sweeping Westeros because of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (II.13) where Edwin, the king of Northumberland has decided to accept the new faith but has called a council of his men to discuss this. One of his counsellors compares the life of man to the swift flight of a sparrow through the banqueting hall on a winter's day.
Blue roses - There is no such thing. I have some pale lavender roses in my garden. They are about as close as one can get to blue roses without food colouring or genetic engineering. from Wikipedia "In some cultures, blue roses traditionally signify a mystery, or attaining the impossible, or never ending quest for the impossible" Perhaps Martin was using the Victorian language of flowers or maybe he borrowed it from Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie where Laura's high school crush, Jim O'Connor, called her 'Blue Roses' because he misheard her when she told him that she had pleurosis. Jim actually liked Laura but he was already engaged to another just like Rhaegar was already married to Elia but loved Lyanna.
Bael the Bard - he is a wilding that fathered a son on a Stark woman. Later he when he is leading his army south thirty years after, he meets his son at the ford and his son, not knowing Bael is his father, kills him. This story reminds me of the Hildebrandslied in which Hildebrand, who has been away for thirty years fighting in Theodoric the Great's wars, returns home and is confronted by his son Hadubrand who believes his father is dead. They fight and Hildebrand kills his own son, knowing it is his son because the Heroic Code allows him no other honourable course of action.
Baelor the Blessed - Edward the Confessor. He too refused to consummate his marriage, devoting himself to his faith. He was called a 'good king' but he was a terrible king. He should have closed his eyes and done his duty and produced an heir. His selfishness lead to a dispute over succession and the massive slaughter that has been called the Norman Conquest.
The incident with Hodor throwing a rock down the well at the Nightfort - so Tolkien. Martin has admitted to being a fan. The passage is like Pippin tossing a pebble down the well at Moria but instead of hearing drums and calling orcs, Hodor only called Samwell Tarley out of the well which was a secret passageway. The name Samwell reminds me of Samwise. There were several parts that were clearly influenced by Lord of the Rings and I don't mind. Once upon a time that was how writers wrote - taking bits from other authors. Shakespeare stole entire passages from Plautus, Ovid or Montaigne and no one calls him a hack for that. It was a compliment then, not a reason to call in the copyright lawyers. Of course, they are a product of our enlightened modern times.
The Titan of Bravos - the Colossus of Rhodes.
The Three Leaves in the Prince's Pass, pierced by Dornish spears, Alester sounding his warhorn with his last breath - Song of Roland. Count Roland blew his horn, Oliphaunt to call back Charlemagne to the pass. He was killed by Arabs or Basques at Roncesvalles.
Knowing where Martin draws inspiration from does not help to figure out where he is going with the series. Good guys die routinely in his novels as they do in real life. Sometimes the bad guys win. No character is immune from being killed off. Clearly though, Daenerys is the 'Prince That was Promised' and the dragons are going to fry the Others.