Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Butterfly and a Princess of Troy

Several years ago, I planted what is supposed to be an annual in the Canadian climate but, if left alone, will grow back year after year. That is: Rue. It is referred to in Shakespeare for its second meaning of 'regret'. It is also effective against basilisks, which is why I planted it. If the basilisks ever attack, I am set.
But now, I have discovered that Rue is also a host plant for the Papilio polyxenes butterfly, aka Eastern Black Swallowtail, Parsley Swallowtail, Parsnip Swallowtail, etc.. I was weeding away and discovered this delightful fellow. I normally find them on my carrots but I did not plant any this year. While looking up the name of the butterfly so that I do not identify it incorrectly, I noticed the species name and wondered what Polyxena has to do with this butterfly.
The 'papilio' element of the name is easy enough, it is Latin for 'butterfly'. Somehow Swallowtails managed to be 'the butterfly'. For species names, there are two elements, usually both latin. The first element tells the genus and the second element gives you the subspecies. Linnaeus was credited with first assigning latin names to all species as common names differ from place to place but he chose names that related to the attributes of the individual flora or fauna. Such as Cyancita Cristata, which is the species name for a Blue Jay and means 'little blue crested', but this system was changed so that species would be grouped together by genus. For example, Quercus alba means 'white oak' or Quercus rubra, which means 'red oak'. All oak trees start with 'quercus' as part of their name.
One of Linnaeus's students was a Danish man named Johan Christian Fabricius and he started to change the system to what it is today. He also named our butterfly in 1775. He was in the habit of travelling to England to study specimens that had been collected here. The first one he saw was likely collected near Lachine, which is near Montreal, possibly by a Dr. Barnston if I am reading the catalogue correctly. Originally he called it Papilio polyxenes but then in 1787, he called it Papilio Asterias, which it is sometimes called, referring it to Drury's collection and saying they were synonymous. He also wrote that it was a close relative of Papilio troilo, which explains the name 'Polyxenes'.
Polyxene means 'many foreigners', as poly means 'many' or 'much', and xene is 'foreigner' (like xenophobia, fear of foreigners) and so clearly has nothing to do with the attributes of the butterfly. Polyxena was a daughter of Priam. You will not find her in Homer's Iliad because it ends with Hector's funeral and she was caught up in the story of Achilles' death. Achilles surprised her and her brother Troilus (the Troilus of Troilus and Criseyde by Chaucer fame and Troilus and Cressida of Shakespeare) at a water fountain, where he killed Troilus and fell in love with her. He demanded her in marriage from her father and she was given to Achilles in exchange for the body of Hector. She was also able to persuade Achilles to reveal to her his one vulnerable spot which she then was able to relate to Paris (aka Alexander) so that he could kill Achilles. This clearly has nothing to do with the North American butterfly but I did notice that Fabricius used a lot of names from the Iliad and other Greek sources for names and since Polyxena and Troilus go together, so do the butterflies. It would have been nicer if he would have named as many of the new Swallowtails after Priam's children since there were so many and it would have made their naming consistent with each other.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Greenlanders, Commentary pt.2

One thing the author did to keep her story in the spirit of the Norse was to have people quote mocking verse at each other as a lead in to a fight. Skaldic verse was a very difficult type of poetry and I hate having to translate it. I have no head for riddles. Smiley eschewed the complicated mechanics of proper skaldic verse and kept a simple 'nyah-nyah-nyah' in English which was kinder to the audience and herself.
At times, characters would tell stories, too. Some of the stories were a retelling of events in recent Greenland history with names to protect the innocent and other stories were like the one Gunnar started on page 243.
It was autumn and his son Kollgrim was feeling restless so he told him a story about a woman named Skadi and Leif the Lucky. In the story, Skadi's father Thorir had stolen some apples from Eric the Red and Eric killed him. When Skadi demanded compensation for the death of her father, she asked for a husband, thinking to marry the handsome Leif, and a bellyful of laughter. If this sounds a little like the story of the giantess who demanded to marry Balder in compensation for the death of her father, Thiazi, you would not be wrong.
I am not sure why Smiley changed the names. Truly the church did not like people telling such stories about the old gods but the church was far from Greenland and the Norse were always proud of their heritage. I wonder if she would have been better off leaving the old stories as they were.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Greenlanders, Commentary pt. 1

Since it is a novel and fictitious, who knows what people talked about especially in a remote area like medieval Greenland. If there is one theme that runs through the novel, I would say it is the terrible things people do to each other when they are ignorant. There do not appear to have been any schools in Greenland.
One way the author has shown the lack of education in the Greenlanders is the discussion they have over the efficacy of the relic of Saint Olaf in the cathedral at Garðar. All they have is the last finger joint of the least finger on the hand of a saint, who is not as revered as St. Nicholas. The cathedral could not compare to the cathedrals of Europe being rather small and surrounded with turf for warmth but it was built of stone and the ruins can be seen today at Igaliku. (as Gardar is known today) Bishop Alf, who is a character in the novel, was the last bishop of Greenland.
One character, Einar, declares that St. Olaf was good for curing scrofula and other skin ills while others say he was good for curing madness. Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time would know that I find mentions of scrofula highly amusing. It was the French and English kings who were said to be able to cure scrofula by touch, a power which they received from St. Marcoul at whose shrine people were said to be cured.
There is an excellent article on the history of the disease in The English Historical Review, published by the Oxford University Press called "The King's Evil" by Frank Barlow. In it, he writes that Marcoul could have been chosen because his name, broken down to mar cou, could be understood as 'bad neck'.
The church at Garðar was called St. Nicholas but, if it ever carried any saint's relics, I have not been able to find out. It should have had relics because any cathedral must carry them. As Garðar was the seat of the bishop of Greenland, St. Olaf would be a good choice in spite of the name, since his relics might be readily available to the archbishop. The name St. Nicholas was chosen because he was the patron saint of sailors This is an ironic choice because once Greenland became part of the kingdom of Norway only the king's ships could trade there. As the king only very rarely sent ships to Greenland, this contributed to their isolation and the degradation of the country as well as eliminating any new migrations to the land. The private ships that traded there had to out of necessity, having been blown off course trying to reach Iceland.
Anyway, in my long and rambling way, I wanted to point out this mention of scrofula and to wonder why nobody ever gets it any more. Not that I want anyone to have it.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Greenlanders, A Review

This book was given to me by a friend who, knowing I was studying Old Norse and reading the Icelandic sagas, thought I might enjoy it.
Jane Smiley is known more for her novels than her academic work, although she has a PhD. It is clear that she knows her way around an Icelandic saga or two because this novel has the right feel to it and there is attention to the little details that make a story feel 'true'.
Greenland was settled by disgruntled Icelanders lead by Eric the Red. This novel portrays their descendants after the medieval warming spell has come to an end. The winters are harsher and, with every passing year, it becomes harder to keep body and soul together. The original Greenlanders disappeared; the people of European descent who live there now are the result of the Danish king's re-assertion of his claim to the territory in the 18th century. It is not known what happened to the colonies. Several theories are that they were wiped out by disease, lack of access to grains and vegetables and the resulting malnutrition left them vulnerable to malnutrition, raids by hostile Inuit wiped them out, raids by English pirates wiped them out, or that they gradually intermarried with the Inuit and were absorbed by them. Smiley includes a little of all the theories in her tale about the waning days of the Greenland colonies, circa 1400 a.d..
At first, there were so many characters and the story changed its focus to include so many different families and homesteads, I was not sure if anyone was the main character but, closer to the end, it becomes clear that the fading fortunes of the Greenlanders are told through the life of Gunnar Asgeirson. Asgeir, his father, feels adventurous enough to get on a ship to Iceland, while there still was trade with that country, and returned two years later with Helga Ingvadottir as his wife. An old woman in the neighborhood of his homestead, who has the reputation of being a witch, is slighted when she comes to Asgeir's farm and asks for some of his milk. Helga denied her the milk, needing it for herself as she was pregnant with Gunnar. From this little incident and the subsequent bad luck which began to dog Asgeir and his family, it is thought that the old woman had cursed the son and his entire family. Asgeir killed her, hoping to bring an end to the curse but it is only the beginning of cycles of revenge, jealousy and blood feuds that eventually embroil the entire colony and nearly destroy them all.
I shall comment in subsequent posts about various points of interest in the story but, since this is a review, I shall only say that I enjoyed the story. Some might find it too slow going for their liking. It does take a while to warm to its subject and uneducated palates might fail to appreciate the how true to the sagas the story is and how true to the temperaments of its Norse subjects. I found nothing jarring in it and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Greenland history and culture in the late Middle Ages but does not want to read a history book or peer reviewed article.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Honey Moon

I was watching a television show called "Museum Secrets" that showed some of the permanent collection from the Neues Museum in Berlin. My interest was piqued by the 'Berlin Gold Hat' pictured here, courtesy of Wiki Commons. The commentator stated that the hat was a solar/lunar calendar and was used in honey production to know when the solstice in June was near. It was stated that bees were affected by the full moon in June, this was when the hive would have maximum honey and this is why marriages are followed by the 'honey-moon' - maximum sweetness.
This put several questions in my mind which are challenging to resolve in a few hours of casual research.
Is the June full moon actually called the 'honey moon'? In some cultures, yes.
The solstice celebration is also the feast of St. John the Baptist. In spite of what some websites say, he is not the patron saint of bees. St. Ambrose is because of a story in the Legenda Aurea about a swarm of bees and that he also compared the church to a hive of bees.
When did people start having honeymoon trips? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of 'honeymoon' as the post marriage bliss was in 1546 in J. Heywood's book on proverbs in the English tongue and refers to the moon that is full but it doomed to wane like people's affections. The honeymoon did not come into style until the late 18th or early 19th century. Wikipedia is my source for saying that, as the British moved into India, the Indian custom of a post-marriage bridal tour became the fashion. There are no references to a honeymoon tour before 1821 in the OED.
The word 'honey' comes from the Germanic languages and is hunig or hunæg in Old English. There is no honey-month or honey-moon in the Anglo Saxon dictionaries. June was called Liða by the Venerable Bede.
From Bulletin 489, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "It is possible that the custom of killing the bees and taking the honey in the full moon in June may result in a smaller amount being secured that if the killing were left until gathering had ceased in the fall."
When did it become the custom to have marriages in June? I am not sure. It is likely a modern invention because people got married any old time although, in the Middle Ages, high feasts seemed like a favorite time. As well, many people did not actually get formally married by a priest because many of the small villages lacked priests.
So you see, it is complicated. And so, I shall leave this with a quote from Brewer's Guide to Phrase and Fable: "a holiday spent together by a newly married couple. The word was originally used for the first month of marriage, although 'moon' does not mean the 'month' here, as sometimes supposed. The reference is to the moon as sweetness and is ironic, for no sooner is it full than it begins to wane." Indeed.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Farewell to Ray Bradbury

I like Science Fiction. Among all my medieval authors, I keep many books from authors like Kurt Vonnegut, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury among others. Yesterday Ray Bradbury died at the ripe old age of 91. I will not weep because I think 91 is a good age in which to die, especially if he had good quality of life. The obituaries call him the author of Fahrenheit 451 but he also wrote The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes as well as several excellent books of short stories. Two of my favorite stories are "A Medicine for Melancholy" and "The Wind".
Around 1970, when I was a child, my father was taking us for a cross country trip and we stopped to camp overnight near Dryden Ontario. It is so far from everything and is in the heart of blackfly country. I know it was near Dryden because earlier that day I had stepped on a broken beer bottle that some one had tossed into a lake and I shredded my foot on it. The nearest hospital was an hour away in Dryden. That night, I was laying awake well past the time I should be sleeping and my parents were listening to the CBC which was probably all you could get out there for radio. Back in those days, they still put on radio plays and they were listening to this spooky story about a man who was being pursued by the wind, which was intelligent and trying to kill him. Imagine being a kid, listening to this story alone in the dark, in the northern Canadian wilderness. I had chills up and down my spine. Then my parents went to bed and shut the radio off before the play was over and I could not even protest because I was supposed to be sleeping. Then, years later, I discovered Bradbury's writing and was reading all his works, book by book, when I found the short story "The Wind" in The October Country. It was my radio play and at last I was able to find out how it ended.
Thank you Ray Bradbury for an awesome memory and rest in peace. You earned it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Wolf Hall, a Review

Here I am, late to the party, writing a review for a book when the sequel is already out. The subject matter is a popular one, especially following The Tudors series on television.
When any author writes a historical novel, the first question that must arise in any readers mind is how true to the events is it?I do not claim to be a Tudor scholar and know all the facts but it seems clear the author, Hilary Mantel, has chosen what to emphasize and what to downplay and thereby induce the reader to a certain point of view.
She appears to have stuck to the facts as well as we can know them. Of course the day to day lives of the participants has not been recorded and conversations must be surmised but I think she did a great job of bringing the characters to life and in keeping with the age that they lived. Mantel has chosen to portray Thomas More as a cold blooded villain and Cromwell a pragmatic humanist. While she has portrayed Anne as a sincere driving force behind the reform of the Church, she has also portrayed her as shrewish and conniving.
I feel a certain amount of pity for Anne. Her first engagement to Henry Percy was broken off by the married king who had designs on her for himself. She had already seen what being the king's mistress was like by witnessing what her sister, Mary, went through. Anne was already about 24 or 25 when the king had noticed her. It took seven years for the divorce from Henry's first wife to go forward. In the meantime Katherine was undiminished in her popularity, Anne was hated and there was threats against her life. By the time Henry married her, Anne was 32 or 33 and past her child bearing prime. How difficult must those years have been? As well as taking the place of a beloved monarch, she was a party to the break with the Church of Rome. After her fall, who would speak of her kindly? No one until her daughter became queen.
Was she as abrasive as she was made out to be? No doubt to some she was, she lived in rather trying circumstances. Was Cromwell the consummate civil servant dedicated to the process of reform? We know he became very wealthy under that reform. Not all the wealth of the monasteries made it into Henry's coffers. Was More the cold hearted Grand Inquisitor he was made out to be? In his lifetime, he denied torturing heretics and he is said to have educated all of the women in his household.
Cromwell is seen reading Cicero, with whom he shares a few characteristics. After all, they were both lawyers, 'new' men to the aristocracy, activists in their pursuit of the corrupt established order. Unlike Cicero, Cromwell was not afraid to take up the sword but, like Cicero, he will end with his head lopped of for running afoul of the powers that be. More reminds me of Cato the Younger for his ascetic sensibilities and his fearlessness in the face of death. Henry VIII could be likened to Theodoric the Great. He began as a great leader but devolved into paranoia and capriciousness, viewed as a heretic and responsible for the execution of a pope as well as a great man of letters Boethius. Theodoric, as well as Henry, had concubines, and left a daughter behind to rule which created instability in his realm. The War of the Roses having occurred so recently, was still firmly in everyone's memory and Henry was sincerely concerned with having the succession cinched with a son so as to not plunge the country into that sort of nightmare again.
After reading an interview with the author, I still find the choice of the title odd. After all, the novel begins with a chance meeting between the young More and Cromwell and ends with Cromwell orchestrating More's execution. In between that, is Henry's efforts to receive official sanction from Rome to marry Anne. The main thing preventing the annulling of the marriage to Katherine of Aragon was that her nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor and was holding the Pope hostage. This was one of the main arguments against bowing to the authority of Rome is that it was often loyal to a hostile prince.
That being said, following the break with Rome, the king and his archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, were excommunicated and by this act the king's palace effectively becomes a hall of 'wolves'. Wolf was another name for 'outlaw'. On page 531, when Cromwell became Master Secretary, he remembered Norfolk's words to Wolsey, during the cardinal's fall from grace, and he thought to himself 'homo homini lupus', which she translated as 'man is wolf to man'. Certainly people are preying upon other people throughout the novel.
The Wolf Hall of the title is not Cromwell's home, nor is it More's. It is not even a residence of Anne Boleyn but the home of the Seymours and does not ever even come into the tale except briefly as a rumour of some sort of scandal which had taken place there. Jane Seymour, Henry's third wife, flits in and out of the story as she was a lady in waiting to Queen Katherine and then Queen Anne. Mantel has Cromwell toy with the idea of making Jane his own wife, an astonishing suggestion for which I cannot truly say if she had any historical evidence. However this is a novel not a history.
In the interview with Peter Mares, she said that she ended the story with More's execution but Henry is planning his summer excursions and that he will end up at Wolf Hall. This does not take place in the story. In which case, perhaps the sequel should be called Wolf Hall but instead she resorted to the rather dubious title of 'Bring Up the Bodies' for it. Someone should assist her with the next title.

Monday, June 4, 2012


I have been reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and, as usual, my attention gets grabbed by something probably nobody else bothered with: the name of Henry VIII's one officially recognized bastard, Henry Fitzroy, aka the Duke of Richmond. It brings to mind special names for noble bastards in the Game of Thrones series because Fitzroy means 'son of the king'. Fitz as a prefix came over with the Normans and is French, the modern French cognate would be 'fils' and 'roy' is one way to spell 'roi' or 'king'.
The Celtic languages used 'Mac' for 'son of'. The system falls apart for Macbeth who was the son of Findláech mac Ruaidrí. Mac Bethad was called that as Gaelic for 'son of life' and Mac Findláech follows it as his full name.
Daughters rarely ever get mentioned in chronicles but the Norse gave their daughters the last name of 'daughter of'. The Romans did not even give their girls their own name; they simply gave a girl the father's gens or clan name feminized. Therefore Gaius Julius Caesar's daughter was called Julia and, if he had two daughters, they would both be Julia but one would be Julia Prima (Julia the First) and Julia Secunda (Julia the Second). Then, with all the women in one family sharing one name, there would be confusion so sometimes the elder would be Julia Maior (Julia the Elder) and Julia Minor (Julia the Younger).
Men in a family often shared a name too, witness the number of Tancreds in Bohemond's family. Bohemond was one of the lucky few who got his own name (a nickname because of his size) which makes him stand out in the histories.
Anyway, Wolf Hall is not about Fitzroy. It is about Thomas Cromwell, whose nephew, Richard, was the great grandfather of the dreaded Puritan reformer Oliver Cromwell. (Richard is in the story, which is why I thought of Oliver at all.) Wolf Hall was the home of the Seymours not the Cromwells or even the Boleyns, with whom the story seems chiefly concerned. When I reach the end, I will hopefully understand why the author gave the book this particular name.