Monday, December 31, 2012

The Glass Is Half Full

      At this time of year, people tend to look back at the year that was and include some wishes or hopes for the new year. To me, new year's day is just a day. The year begins at other times in other cultures. It is likeliest a time for some ancestor worship and and/or keeping the bogeyman away.  Whether you spend most of your time glancing back or looking forward depends not a little on your age ( I think the younger ones look forward) and your attitude towards life. Is life getting better or is it getting worse? Is the glass half empty or is it half full? I think, in spite of my age, I am an optimist and I declare the glass to be half full. I don't just read medieval literature; I really enjoy science fiction.
      So what is a medievalist to do on New Years when she prefers to look forward? Well, she should remind everybody where we have been and why she thinks life has gotten better in the long run.

      In my own lifetime, I have lived with the threat of global nuclear war, global pandemic, overpopulation, global water and food shortages, destruction of our environment, global warming, gun violence on an increasingly horrific scale, the global economy with the banking meltdown and race to the bottom for worker's wages and rights, and, if that isn't enough, a possibility of a direct hit by an asteroid. We live in a culture of fear that is fostered by the media. Some of these threats are very real but something or someone will go on even if I drop out of the story.
     People have been predicting the end of the world for a long time. There were messianic figures in Roman Palestine who were predicting the end of the world. A thousand years later, people were looking for the second coming of Jesus to end the world. Two thousand years later, people were convinced the computers would all crash and life as we know it would end. The Black Death must have convinced people the time was near as nearly two thirds of Europe died. The Hundred Years War and the rampant noble brigands who tormented the peasantry, a mini ice age, the viking raids, the fall of Rome to the barbarian hordes, 1066 and the Norman Conquest, and so many other events like World War I and II must have convinced people then that the world had gone mad and the end was at hand. People suffered and died but human life went on.
      Life had gotten better for most people. Women were declared to be 'persons' under the law. We have courts and most of us can seek redress for wrongs through them. True, there still seems to be one set of rules for the wealthy and one for the rest of us but at times the righteous win their cause. Torture is not routine but is socially unacceptable and occasionally even punished. Women can own property in many parts of the world and have access to education. We have cured many diseases. We understand about bacteria and waterborne, as well as air-borne pathogens. Child mortality has declined in most parts of the world (I think). You get the drift. The pendulum seems to be swinging back a little (or alot, it remains to be seen which) as it will do but, over the long run, we have made progress.
      So Happy New Year, gentle reader and stay positive.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The End of Days

The Apocalypse:
It's not what you think

         When people are not talking about Christmas, they have been talking about
the Mayan apocalypse or 'end of days'. Apocalypse does not actually mean some large catastrophic doomsday scenario.
         Apocalypsis is the last book in the Catholic canon, the Biblia Sacra Vulgata. It is a loan word from the Greek since the New Testament was originally written in Koine Greek, the language that was commonly spoken around the Mediterranean in the early centuries of the Common Era. It is the name of book containing the revelations attributed to Saint John the Apostle (if that is indeed his name), during his exile by Domitian on the island of Patmos. It is accurately translated in the King James version of the Bible as Revelations because that is what apocalypse means: revelations or an 'uncovering'.
         Doomsday could be a suitable substitute as a term because it is derived from the Anglo-Saxon 'domes dæg' or 'day of judgement'. The Mayan end of days should really be called Judgement Day because that is the day in which all the guilty will be judged and time will end in the Bible. So......, the Terminator got it right and, this time, he won't be back.
         Finally, the calendar most likely ends on December 21 because that is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and the Mayans were in Mexico. I wonder how short their days can possibly be or how cold but they are definitely in the north. Most pre-Christian cultures had some kind of winter solstice celebration to mourn the death of the sun and to hopefully bring it back. Therefore, the calendar ends on this day because it is 'year's end' for a culture that worshipped a solar deity. There is no mystery but some kind of revelation would be awesome. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Pearl

      What can a Medievalist say about the slaughter of innocents? Years ago, I read a poem called The Pearl, which had been written in 14th century Yorkshire by the same poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In spite of the poet being a contemporary of Chaucer's, his poetry is extremely difficult to read because it is written in the local dialect of English.
      It is a poem about a father whose 2 year old daughter has died and he is consumed by grief over the loss of his child. The pearl is a metaphor for the soul and she is his most precious pearl that he has lost in a garden, i.e. she is lost in the soil or buried. He has a dream where he sees her in heaven living as a bride of Christ and she tells him that she is happy and that he should stop mourning her. He tries to cross to river to be with her and he wakes up. The reunion is denied. The poem is about how excessive grief is a sin and the death of a beloved child is all part of God's plan.
       I think that anyone who has lost a child or knows someone who has lost a child can say that the grieving never really ends. I am glad to see the Church seeks to comfort those who have lost children rather than tell them that their grief is wrong because the child is in a better place.
        Even in a time when people had more children than we do today and child mortality was high, the loss of a child affected people so terribly.
      I feel for the people of Newtown. Life will never be the same. How do you recover from that?
I also feel bad for the people of a little village in Afghanistan who just lost ten little girls aged 7 to 11 as they were out collecting firewood. Will their deaths spark an outcry and a demand to have landmines banned worldwide?

The Peal, edited by Sarah Stanbury, TEAMS book from University of Michigan
available online here.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Feast of St. Nicholas

      Today is the feast of Saint Nicholas and, if you are a purist, you would have set your boots outside your door last night for Saint Nicholas to fill up. Of course, if you were bad, Saint Nicholas' helper Black Peter would fill your boots with coal instead. Back in the days when homes were heated with coal, that does not seem like such a punishment. Peter was black from all the coal he was carrying around rather than being of African or Moorish heritage like he is sometimes depicted.
     I have a book called The Xmas Files by Patrick Harding about the origins of many of our current Christmas customs. The jacket of the book proclaims that Dr. Harding achieved his doctorate by growing grass on coal tips so he is not a medievalist or historian but he must know how to write a scholarly work. This book is not that. There is no bibliography or citation in it which is disappointing because, on page 80, he states that Santa Claus is based in part on Odin in his guise as the Old Man of Winter and that Black Peter was Odin's Dark Helper, who travelled about with him. I would love to know where he got that from because, in my studies of Norse myth and Old Norse, this aspect of Odin never came up. Odin was the leader of the Wild Hunt that went abroad in the winter and he did wear a red cloak trimmed with fur but this 'dark helper' is a mystery to me. Could he be Loki, Odin's usual travelling companion?
     I have added three new links to my blog and they include a link to the Golden Legend, which is where much of the story about Saint Nicholas, who was the bishop of Myra in Anatolia (Turkey), comes from. It includes a link to Eusebius of Caesarea's history of the church, since Nicholas could have been at the Nicean Council. Indeed, as the council took place in 325 a.d. and Nicholas lived 343 a.d., it seems almost impossible that he did not attend since Nicea is also in Turkey but, of the supposedly 1800 bishops who were invited by the Emperor Constantine, only about 300 attended. Eusebius was at the council and was the man who baptized Constantine.
    I have also included a link to the history written by Socrates Scholasticus about the same event. I mention this because there is a tradition that Nicholas lost his shit at the council and gave poor Arius a smack in the face. I do not know where this tradition came from, from what I can see, the usual named source, St. Methodius, the patriarch of Constantinople, only stated that Saint Nicholas kept the city free from heresy. Socrates wrote that two celebrated bishops were at the council, Paphnutius and Spyridon, as well as Hosius most celebrated of the Spaniards. There is no mention of Nicholas or the slap.
     St. Nicholas has evolved into Santa Claus, as most people will know, and is given the name of Kris Kringle in some movies, which is a corruption of Krist Kindle or Christ child. I am not a religious person by any means but, since the merchants have gained control of the political agendas, the original significance of the festival has been completely corrupted to sell you more stuff that you really do not need. I deplore the commercialism of the season. The day to exchange gifts was today, on the feast of Saint Nick, who was the giver of gifts, not Christmas even if you add the lame excuse of the Three Wise Men bringing gifts because they gave their gifts on January 6, the day of the Epiphany (if you go by the current dates set for the birth of Jesus of Nazareth). Back to your chocolate alphabets; rant over for now.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Anglo Saxon Reeve and Chaucer's Pilgrim

     I have been doing a close reading of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with a few friends and we are at the Reeve's description in the General Prologue. This seems like a good time to discuss the term 'reeve' and where it comes from.
    The reeve or 'rife' or 'gerifa' is a royal representative or local official of some sort. As an office, it is a leftover from the Anglo Saxon period. Some chroniclers glossed it as 'praefectus' or prefect. When William the Bastard conquered England in 1066 a.d., he found a very orderly system of administration in place and did not change the system, although he put a few of his own people in the top spots, because it was functioning and he did not want to bother with details. He just wanted the country and its wealth; he was not very concerned about its citizens. So the reeve survived and was not supplanted by an Anglo-Norman term. We know him as a 'sheriff' which is a syncopation of 'shire-reeve'. He had tax-collecting and judicial duties. He also could be a overseer of some estate, the duties were not fixed to the title.
     The 'shire' is a term that is derived from 'schir' which simply means 'share, portion, division'. It is a subsection of a country and is not identical to the term 'hide' or 'hid' (a unit of measure equal to about 120 acres but not necessarily). It probably replaced 'hide'.
     We tend to think of the modern reeve as a type of mayor for smaller communities. Mayor is a term brought over by the Norman Conquest. It is simply an 'anglicization' of a latin term: the comparative of bonus (good) which is maior (better). The superlative is optimus (best). It seems similar to ealdorman, which survives today as alderman or 'old man', 'elder'. Small wonder that term has been changed to councillor in some municipalities. The ealdorman seems to belong to the earlier Anglo-Saxon period in England to have been replaced in some ways by eorls but it seems to me to be similar to the term 'wita' or 'wise man/councillor' since the earls clearly had military duties which the wita may or may not have. The Witangemot was a meeting(gemot) of the wita (wisemen).  Some of the terms seem to be used interchangeably. Unfortunately there is no book written pre-Conquest explaining all these terms and the duties attached to them. We must infer them from what texts exist.
     Chaucer's reeve is the overseer of an estate or manor. As such, part of his duties would be to supervise the Miller and draw part of his salary from the Miller's earnings, so it is not surprising that the Miller and the Reeve get into a big quarrel.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

About a Statue and an Apple

      Alexander tells about the state of things where Virgilius built a notable palace in the city of Rome. In the middle of which stood a certain statue which was named for a goddess of the Romans and who held a golden apple in her hand, whereby all around the palace there was a statue for every region holding a wooden bell in its hand. Indeed whenever some region was moved to plots against the might of Rome, the image for that region was shaking its bell and, at that time, a soldier would go forth from a bronze horse set on the top of the aforementioned palace and would shake a spear and would look over at that region.
Immediately the citizenry of Roman would arm itself so that it could subdue that region.

Virgilius is the poet of the Aeneid, who in the Middle Ages was thought to have been a sorcerer due to his name having been altered from Vergil to Virgil. Virgil was thought to have been derived from virga, a twig, staff or magic wand.
Among the many things the sorcerer Virgil is said to have done is to have built a palace in Rome with magical statues, representing all the provinces of Rome, which would ring its bell if ever its people wanted to rebel against Rome.
The framing of this narrative is a bit odd. The story isn't really about the apple or the statue of the goddess with the apple. The latin is very loose. It is from the Gesta Romanorum. The goddess with the golden apple is likely Venus and the golden apple is likely to be quince. 'Pomus' really means fruit and not specifically an apple. There was a word for apple and that was 'malum'. The statues that would warn Rome if rebellion was brewing was called the Salvacio Romae. Or Salvatio. Sometimes  't's' became 'c's' in the middle ages.
I don't know who Alexander is. Surely he is not Alexander the Great because Virgil lived long after he did but I won't rule him out. Logic did not always factor into these tales.
Addendum: I will go with Alexander Neckam, who seems to get the blame for the Virgil as sorcerer tales.