Friday, August 31, 2012

4 Stages of Gothic—Architecture

[This is Part 2; the other 3 parts address Gothic Culture & History, the Gothic Revival, and Fiction.]

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), artist and famous for his work on the lives of artists, once wrote:
Then arose new architects who after the manner of their barbarous nations erected buildings in that style which we call Gothic.
Gothic Cathedral of Chartres
John Evelyn (1620-1706), a prolific and opinionated English gardener, said of the style:
The ancient Greek and Roman architecture answered all the perfections required in a faultless and accomplished building ... [but Goths] ... introduced in their stead a certain fantastical and licentious manner of building, which we have since call'd Modern (or Gothic rather) congestions of heavy, dark, melancholy, monkish piles, without any just proportion, use or beauty, compar'd with the truly Antient. [A Parallel of the Ancient Architecture with the Modern, 1664]
Because the Goths had conquered Rome, they and their cousins the Vandals (whose name became a noun we still use) were reviled by those who revered Classical Greco-Roman culture and art. Later generations (like Vasari's and Evelyn's) used "Gothic" as pejorative. For modern art historians, however, Gothic architecture is less "barbarous" than the earlier style which we call "Romanesque."

Romanesque Cathedral, Lisbon
Romanesque is sometimes called Norman architecture: William of Normandy left England dotted with massive stone churches and castles that dominated—both architecturally and psychologically—the small neighboring wooden structures of the English people whom he had just conquered. The size of the buildings required a great deal of structural support. Barrel vaulting and semi-circular windows required thick walls and clustered columns to fight gravity as the weight of the arch pushed down and outward.

Gothic architecture was an evolutionary change created by the adoption of a few simple techniques. The pointed arch transferred the weight of the stonework down the sides of the framework, rather than pushing the supports outward. This allowed walls to be thinner. External supports called "flying buttresses" supported the walls and roof further, allowing larger windows. Both features let the architects build upward, making towers and roofs that swept heavenward. The larger windows brought more light inside, which was seen as a way to glorify God's splendor. This is all considered an improvement in sophistication—to those of us not living in the 17th century, that is.

Any historical Goths shown a picture of Gothic architecture would not understand why it was named after their culture. The use of the term "Gothic" gets even more removed from reality, however, a generation after John Evelyn spoke so vehemently against the style.

[to be continued]

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Arian Christianity

In the theological free-for-all of the first few centuries after Jesus of Nazareth, different theories as to the nature of God and the divinity of Jesus abounded. Arianism, first mentioned here, was a version of Christianity begun by Arius of Alexandria (c.250-336)

Arius of Alexandria
Bishop Theophilus of Antioch (d.c.184 CE) was the first (that we know of; who knows how many early writings have been lost?) to present the concept of the Christian God as a Trinity, referring to "God, his Word (Logos) and his Wisdom (Sophia)"; this was in the Apologia ad Autolycum (Apology to Autolycus), a defense of Christianity written to a pagan friend.

Tertullian (c.160-c.225), sometimes called the "father of Latin Christianity" because of the enormous body of writings he left behind, defended the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Ghost in his book Adversus Praxean (Against Praxeas). His purpose was to put down the view of Praxeas that, if Christianity were to be monotheistic, then Jesus and the holy Spirit could not be thought of as separate entities. Jesus must have been God incarnate, not a distinct "son of God" who was his own individual.

But Tertullian and others found multiple references to threes in the Old Testament, and they put these forth as prefigurations of the Trinity as it was revealed in the New Testament. Trinitarian Christology was on its way to becoming official doctrine.

Then Arius stepped forward and pointed to the Gospel of John, which read: “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I." (John 14:28) It was clear to Arius that Jesus was subordinate to God in some way, and the Trinitarian view was wrong. Also, if the Son was begotten, then he had a point of origin, as opposed to the Father who always existed.

Many people got involved in the controversy: Origen, Eusebius, Lucian of Antioch, Alexander of Constantinople, Alexander of Alexandria, Socrates of Constantinople, Epiphanius of Salamis. Everyone who was anyone weighed in on just what the Trinity was. Then Emperor Constantine decided he needed clarification. He had legalized Christianity in 313 through the Edict of Milan, and he wanted to make sure Christianity didn't generate controversy. In 325 he called the first Council of Nicaea to resolve the growing issue of Arianism.

Icon of the Council of Nicaea
For two months, the two sides argued, each finding scriptural support. Supposedly, things got so heated at one point that Nicholas of Myra* slapped Arius' face. Constantine pushed the majority to create a statement; this became the Nicene Creed, which in Latin has the phrase
genitum non factum, consubstantialem Patri (begotten, not made, one in being with the Father)
The Emperor, in order to keep things simple, outlawed Arianism and insisted that all his works be burned. Arius was exiled. His ideas lived on under his name, however, especially among the Goths, until the 7th century. His ideas also lived on in the Emperor's son, Constantius II, who ruled after Constantine and was friendly to Arianism, even being baptized on his death-bed by a Semi-Arian bishop!

*Who would some day be known as St. Nicholas; yes, that St. Nicholas.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

4 Stages of Gothic—History & Culture

[This is Part 1; the other 3 parts address Gothic Architecture, the Gothic Revival, and Fiction.]

From the Middle Ages until 1974, the Kings of Sweden claimed the title Rex Sweorum et Gothorum (King of Swedes and Goths). This was a very old title, connoting not control over the subculture begun in 1980s England, but the rule over a people that have long since been diluted from the European scene.

Current belief is that the various groups that are collectively (and perhaps erroneously) called "Goths" in classical and early medieval texts probably sprang from a single ethnic group that existed in the first millennium BCE. The word from which their name comes is related to the Geats of Beowulf fame, to Götaland and the island Gotland in southern Sweden, and of course lends itself to the tribes that were instrumental in the Fall of Rome: the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. Various sources, for instance the history Getica by the 6th century Roman Jordanes, tells us that Goths left Scandinavia in waves due to overcrowding and settled in various parts of eastern Europe. Eventually, they moved westward, attacking Byzantium and migrating as far as Crete and Cyprus. An attempt in 269CE to invade Italy was defeated by the Roman army, with heavy casualties on both sides. Two centuries later, however, the Goths would succeed in taking Rome.

The Goths were willing to absorb ideas from people they met. Their art was influenced by Greek and Roman styles. In turn, their methods of embedding gems and colored glass into objects made of gold was adopted by others and used for centuries.
Gothic alphabet and number symbols.

One idea they absorbed was Christianity. Bishop Wulfila (c.310-383) was a Greek-Goth Christian who fled with his followers to northern Bulgaria to escape persecution. There he developed the Gothic alphabet so that he could translate the Bible into the Gothic language. Although he managed to convert many Goths to Christianity, it was Arian Christianity. Arianism had been declared heretical, so when Arian Goths met other Christian groups, they were not always welcomed with open arms. In fact, some modern scholars believe Romans felt more threatened by the Arianism of the Goths than by the political changes that would result from conquest. As for Wulfila's alphabet and Bible: we have very few examples of Gothic writing. It is one of the earliest Germanic languages recorded, but it has completely died out and no modern languages are descended from it.

Although the Goths died out, however, their name endured.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Augustine of Hippo

Today is the feast day of Augustine of Hippo (354-28 August 430). He was born into a noble family in Thagaste, in what is now Algeria. We know a great deal about Augustine from St. Possidius, who was his disciple, friend and biographer, and from Augustine's own writing. His life was a journey through an early history of pagan and Christian philosophy—philosophy whose later form he shaped significantly.
A stamp commemorating his origin.

According to Augustine's biographical Confessions, while his mother (later, St. Monica) tried to raise him in the Christian faith, his father was an idolater who recognized his son's intelligence and spared no expense to make him a scholar. He praises the providence that helped him to be educated, despite his father's materialistic aims for him.

Before he was baptized a Christian, he dabbled in many other beliefs, such as the neo-Platonism of Plotinus. Before that he was influenced by Manichaeism, a major rival to Christianity for centuries and very popular among soldiers. Discussing the beliefs of Manichees is too complex to do here, but one thing that Augustine objected to when he switched to Christianity: the Manichaeistic view that knowledge was the key to salvation. He realized that knowledge alone did not lead him to fulfillment as a Christian.

His writings ranged over a wide area: he was anti-abortion, but agreed that the loss of an "unformed" fetus mentioned in Exodus 21:22-23 did not qualify as an abortion, since there was no evidence that a soul had entered the fetus yet.* He rejected astrology. He felt that the seven-week Creation in Genesis was not to be taken literally; God created all things at once. He believed in "just wars" instead of total Christian pacifism. He explained Original Sin not as carnal knowledge (which was a Manichaeistic view) but as either sheer foolishness followed by pride and disobedience to God, or as pride first because of their failure to accept God's hierarchy of things in the world. Although some Christian scholars rejected Jewish texts, Augustine pointed out that they were chosen by God as a special people, and should be allowed to co-exist with Christians; the Jews would ultimately be converted.

His numerous letters and sermons formed the basis for the growing religion. Much of his thought has remained the foundation of Christian theology through the present day.

*Note that these verses have been scrutinized carefully in recent times, and in some cases altered in translation to read differently.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Patent Law

With the world of technology enjoying heated debate over the Apple vs. Samsung patent ruling, I thought it would be interesting to look at the history of patents.
A 1381 letter patent for transfer of property, with king's seal.

According to American classical scholar Charles Anthon (1797-1867), the first known patent was granted in 500BCE in Sybaris in southern Italy. He tells us:
encouragement was held out to all who should discover any new refinement in luxury, the profits arising from which were secured to the inventor by patent for the space of a year. [Classical Dictionary, 1841]
In medieval Europe, the phrase "letter(s) patent" came into use to distinguish the decree from a "charter." The charter generally declared a law or right that was granted to a family or institution in perpetuity. The letter(s) patent declared a right to an individual and was of a finite duration. The letter patent was sent open, so that all could see it and be aware of the legal action it portended; this was distinct from "letters close," a private letter sent from a royal personage or from the chancery.

Letters patent were very specific, and the king was willing to grant them because he usually saw benefit from them. So, in 1331, Edward III grants a patent to John Kempe, a Flemish weaver, as an inducement for skilled foreign labor to settle in England and instruct the English in advanced textile-related techniques. This, of course, would greatly benefit the economy of England in the future. Note that this was not a patent (in the current sense) for protection on an invention; it was a letter of "protection" to allow a foreign worker to ply his trade without threat from rival local workers.

The idea of a "patent" in the modern sense—the right to use your own invention in public without fear that someone would copy it and benefit from it—comes a little later. In 1421, Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) received a three-year patent granting him exclusivity on his invention: a barge with a hoisting device to transport slabs of marble. A generation later, in 1449, Henry VI of England granted what is considered the first true English patent to John of Utynam for his method of making colored glass. John, a Flanders native like Kempe, got 20 years of exclusive benefit for his methods; his first commission was to make windows for Eton College.

In 1474, Venice declared that any new inventions must be presented to the public so that the inventor could be granted the right to prevent their theft by others. This is considered the beginning of the modern approach to patents.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Tun

Current robes, Mayor of London.
Henry le Waleis (?-c.1302) was a prominent citizen of London who served as alderman in two different wards, was elected sheriff in 1270, and became mayor in 1273. Law enforcement seems to have been a serious consideration of his during his time in public office: in 1270 as sheriff he erected a new pillory for bakers who tried to cheat customers by selling underweight loaves of bread.

Waleis had several butcher and fishmonger stalls removed to make a better passageway for the king when he traveled in and out of London. These merchants were upset, and challenged the change with the former mayor, Walter Hervey, on their side. But when Hervey had strong words with Waleis, Waleis had Hervey arrested and imprisoned; he was tried and demoted from his position as alderman. To be fair, Waleis did have new buildings constructed in 1282 in a different part of London for the butchers and fishmongers.

In 1283, in the Cornhill area of London, he built a prison for the temporary incarceration of "night-walkers." Night-walkers were people found wandering the city after curfew. Night-watchmen would patrol the city, checking to make sure you had legitimate reasons for being outside at night. A servant who carried a message from his employer giving a reason for travel, and who carried a light (to prove he was not hiding his actions), would be allowed to go on his way. Someone with no light could be deemed "suspicious." Transgressors were held for the night and turned over to the mayor and aldermen in the morning. It was called "The Tun" because it resembled a tun or cask used for wine, stood on end and crenelated at the top..

Strangers and suspicious characters were an important issue for the mayor. Waleis made sure that the city gates had sergeants who were "fluent of speech" in order to question strangers to the city. He also arranged that parish churches would coordinate so that their bells rang curfew at the same time, whereupon gates and taverns were all to close.

An Ordinance of the city directed that bakers and millers found cheating their customers would be drawn (dragged) to the Tun. Waleis provided a wooden hurdle to which the malefactor would be strapped and then drawn through the streets for a touch of public humiliation before his incarceration. Also, if a priest were found with a woman, he would be drawn to the Tun with minstrels playing in order to draw even more attention to his misbehavior. (This practice was eventually eliminated. The Church convinced the King that the laity should not authority over the clergy.)

Friday, August 24, 2012

It's the Economy, Stupid!

Even fans of the Middle Ages probably would never think to pair the phrase "economic theory" with the adjective "medieval." It would be a mistake, however, to assume that medieval thinkers were not aware of the needs and changes of the local economy. The 14th century alone saw some radical economic events, like the collapse of some Italian banking institutions. Whether this can truly be ascribed, wholly or in part, to Edward III, it is true that his administration spent larger sums of money than was prudent. The Black Death also had an effect on economy.

Merchants fueled a thriving middle class.
During the economic shifts of the 14th century, an anonymous poet wrote an alliterative poem addressing the topic of those who spend lavishly and those who are more frugal and prefer to make and save money. The poem probably would have been lost if not for the efforts of Robert Thornton, who in the 15th century made a hobby of collecting manuscripts. His copy of the poem—the only version we have—may have textual errors due to hasty copying. Still, it offers us an interesting look at that society.

The poem is called Wynnere and Wastoure, and refers to Winners (who earn money) and Wasters (who are extravagant with money). The narrator, while walking on a sunny day, falls asleep by a stream and has a dream-vision. (This is a common way to begin an allegory.) In the dream, Winner and Waster each lead an army. Just before their battle begins, a messenger arrives who summons them before the king, who will listen to their argument and resolve their issues definitively.

This he fails to do. After listening to the arguments of the two, the king gives an ambiguous judgment, condemning each as unbalanced practices but endorsing both as necessary actions in society—although the king does point out that Winner will never be able to keep up with Waster. Thornton's manuscript breaks off at line 503, so any conclusion after his judgment is lost to us.

Internal evidence in the poem suggests a date of composition prior to 1370: it mentions a Chief Justice, William Shareshull, who died in 1370. That would place the composition in the reign of Edward III, and it is generally accepted by scholars that the king of the poem is meant to represent Edward, who himself would have had constant dealing with "wasting" because of his expenses on wars and living well, and with the "winners" of a growing and increasingly wealthy middle class.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

That's "Positively Medieval!"

It is not uncommon for the term "medieval" to be used negatively, to connote an action or opinion that is primitive or uncivilized, or that displays outright savagery. There is, of course, much discussion among medievalists who feel this does a disservice to a time that, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, was "not a matter of having no manners, as having different manners."*

There is a recent story in the U.S. political realm, however, whose medieval roots are difficult to ignore. It's time, therefore, to take a brief look at some early law books at the beginning of Western Civilization to see if we can explain some of the modern attitudes that some of us would call "positively medieval."

Fleta was published not earlier than 1290, and probably shortly after. It is a 557-page Latin book of English laws found in the Cotton Library. It seems to be largely a re-write of the De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliæ (On the Laws and Customs of England) of Henry Bracton (c.1210-1268). Fleta contains some early laws that support ideas that are still with us. For instance, in one place, it says:
Those who have dealings with Jews or Jewesses, those who commit bestiality, and sodomists, are to be buried alive after legal proof that they were taken in the act, and public conviction.**
It should be noted that the penalty of burial alive is not known to have been carried out at any time. Fleta also contains the following clause while discussing rape, which has become a very popular topic this week:
If, however, the woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, it abates, for without a woman's consent she could not conceive.
The claim is that if a woman conceives during intercourse, she cannot claim rape. The belief was that part of the mechanism for conception of a child was the love between the husband and wife, and their enjoyment of the act. If the pleasure were missing, conception could not occur.

I mention Fleta because it is being quoted this week in public forums. In fact, more than one compendium of laws existed early on. One of them, called Britton, was contemporaneous with Fleta. Britton was written in French, was very similar to Fleta (having drawn from the same sources), was more organized and codified, and was probably turned to more over time because French was a more accessible language to a majority than Latin. Like the U.S. Constitution, which denied equality to women and blacks, these works are interesting historical documents that deserve to be discussed but need to be amended if we expect to actually apply them to the modern world.

*From That Hideous Strength, when describing the eating methods of the recently-revived 6th century Merlin.
**The 1290 date can be surmised because that is the year Jews were declared "outlaw" in England, and given the choice of Expulsion or conversion and a kind of "house arrest" in the London "Converts' Inn." Prior to this, "dealings with Jews" would have been typical.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Nowadays, when the word "traitor" is used casually to refer to someone who has decided he likes "Hunger Games" better than "Harry Potter," and when Freedom of Speech tolerates numerous calumnies against political leaders, it is difficult to imagine the enormity of the charge of treason centuries ago. "Traitor" comes into English from the French traitour, which in turn is from Latin traditor, "one who hands over." It is directly connected in the medieval mind with Judas Iscariot turning over Jesus to the authorities.

If medieval kings were duly anointed and therefore had God behind them, betraying a king was akin to blasphemy. Only the harshest of punishments was suitable for treason: to be hanged, drawn and quartered; however, a woman was burnt at the stake (the quartering of her body would result in people seeing naked lady parts, and that was unacceptable in a civilized society), and nobles convicted of treason had the more genteel conclusion of beheading.

Edward III
The difficulty with treason was the flexibility of the charge. During the time of Edward III (1312-1377), the courts sometimes declared as treason crimes that others would consider mere felonies, or acts that infringed on the king's power. By this loose definition, gathering firewood in the king's hunting grounds could be prosecuted as treason. The Treason Act of 1351 clarified the position of the Crown and Parliament, splitting offenses into high and petty treason. Petty treason was the killing of your (non-king) superior, and was abolished in 1828.

High treason could be achieved by numerous actions:
  • Killing (or planning to kill) the King, his wife, or his heir
  • Violating the King's wife, the King's unmarried eldest daughter, the wife of the King's heir
  • Warring against the King
  • Providing aid and comfort to the King's enemies
  • Counterfeiting the Great Seal or Privy Seal
  • Counterfeiting English currency
  • Killing an acting Chancellor, Treasurer, or a King's Justice
The Act took no chances, however, that new forms of treason would be thought of, and allowed for them in the future:
And because that many other like Cases of Treason may happen in Time to come, which a Man cannot think nor declare at this present Time; it is accorded, That if any other Case, supposed Treason, which is not above specified, doth happen before any Justices, the Justices shall tarry without any going to Judgement of the Treason till the Cause be shewed and declared before the King and his Parliament, whether it ought to be judged Treason or other Felony.
Changes have been made over the centuries. For instance, although the Treason Act of 1351 still holds in Scotland (because Parliament has not given Scotland the power to change it), it is no longer treason in England (as of 1861) to copy the Great Seal. Also, counterfeiting was reduced to a felony in 1832.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ultimate Torture

We have so often heard the phrase "hanged, drawn and quartered" that we probably don't think about the details--or perhaps we simply ignore the details because our imaginations can supply them quite readily. The truth is, however, that the phrase became standard despite the fact that it could mean different things.

From the Chronica majora of Matthew Paris.
"Hanged" is pretty self-explanatory, "quartering" we can picture, but it's the "drawn" that presents confusion, since in the case of execution it can mean two things. On the one hand, it can refer to being dragged to the place of execution, either by being tied directly to a horse, or by being tied to a board that is dragged by a horse (the second method was developed so that the victim had a chance to be still alive and capable of further suffering). Matthew Paris illustrates an example of the first method in his Chronicle when he relates the story of a would-be assassin of Henry III. This story, in fact, is the earliest example we have of the multi-phase style of execution that evolved into "HDaQ." There was a second meaning of "draw" that applied to this punishment, however, for which I (thankfully) do not have an illustration: to draw out the intestines/organs of a person. We have several written accounts of this taking place, however.

Was there a distinction between HDaQ and DHaQ? That is, if the sentence was "hanged, drawn and quartered" did it always mean the convicted was disemboweled between the hanging and the quartering? Scholars disagree on this, and there is a case to be made that having "drawn" in the second position in the phrase could mean the convict was dragged, not disemboweled; it was merely mentioned second (although it might have taken place first, to get the convicted to the gallows) because it was not as significant as the hanging itself.

Whatever the case, the hanging was the trickiest part, because the goal was to strangle the victim just enough, but not kill him outright: you wanted him alive so he could suffer during the next step(s). The plan didn't always work: one victim was so hated that members of the crowd pulled down on his legs while he was hanging and hastened his death, and Guy Fawkes of Gunpowder Plot fame threw himself from the gallows platform, breaking his neck and cheating the Crown of its chance to punish him further.

Still, even if you survived the hanging and drawing—whichever definition was used—you usually weren't conscious (much less living) once the quartering started. So was the quartering essential to the process? Sure, because quartering wasn't part of the sentence for its value as torture. Quartering was important so that different body parts could be sent to different parts of the kingdom to be put on display as a warning to others who might be contemplating treason. The head, of course, was often prominently displayed on London Bridge, the major southern entrance into London, so that visitors and citizens could see it. I wonder if the mob of the Peasants Revolt saw any heads as they marched on London?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Geometry in Nature

The Fibonacci series, mentioned here, has been found to correlate to patterns found in nature. There is no evidence that Fibonacci himself ever made the connection between his arithmetical progression and the world around him, but the link between math and nature was recognized in other ways in the Middle Ages.

There is a unique manuscript called "The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt." We know nothing about Villard except what can be gleaned from the internal evidence of this manuscript, which seems to be a notebook of his travels and interests. MS Fr 19093 now is in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris; it has been extensively copied and studied since it became widely known in 1849.

From the language and the 250 drawings found in his 33-page manuscript, we assume he was an architect from Picardy in northern France (there is a village called Honnecourt-sur-l'Escault in Picardy), traveling in the early-to-mid 1200s. Although architectural features make up the majority of his sketches (and presumably his interest) by far, there is no documentary evidence that he ever was connected with the design or construction of a building; nor did he sign his name with a title such as "master," to which he would have been entitled had he trained as an architect.

Still, he seems particularly introduced in buildings, drawing detailed façades of Laon and Reims Cathedral, a clocktower, the geometry of buildings; but he also depicts animals and insects, sculptures and mechanical devices such as a trebuchet, a machine for lifting heavy objects, a self-operating saw, a crossbow that never misses, and a perpetual motion machine. Alas, he draws them without explaining how to make them work.

Some of his notes, such as the one attached to the Lion shown above, are suspect. It is a very good drawing, but the caption tells us "Here is a lion seen from the front. Please remember that he was drawn from life." It seems unlikely that he saw a lion himself. The porcupine on the same page has the note "a little beast that shoots its quills when aroused," which tells us that he was getting his information from traditional bestiaries, not from real-life observation. On the lion's face you can still see the faint symmetrical guidelines he drew to start the artistic process.

Sketching guidelines was not an unusual start for medieval artists. Villard, however, offers us several examples of the correlation between geometry and representations of organic figures. Shown to the right is Page XXXVI of his manuscript, in which he shows how geometry fits into faces and figures.

His note in the bottom of the page depicted here says "Here begins the method of representation as taught by the art of geometry, to facilitate work. Elsewhere you will find the method of masonry."

A brief video showing some of his pages is here:

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Medieval Bluetooth

The symbol shown here is used for the modern wireless communications protocol called "Bluetooth," created by the telcommunications company Ericsson. If you are at all familiar with the Runic system, it might look familiar in a different way because of its straight lines and angles. That is because it is a combination of the Runes Hagall ("h") and Bjarkan ("b"). And the reason for using the letters B and H is because they are the initials of the 10th century King of Denmark and Norway, Harald Bluetooth.

Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson (c.935-986) was the son of the first historically recognized King of Denmark. Harald created the largest of the Jelling Stones (his father had set up the first). These commemorative stones carry inscriptions that include the earliest reference to Denmark as a nation. He also conducted important building projects, including a half-dozen massive stone ring forts and the oldest known bridge in southern Scandinavia, the half-mile long stone Ravninge Bridge (no longer extant).

He seemed to prefer negotiating over fighting, and managed to join and keep Danish tribes together, and briefly ruled Norway (okay, that was by force, after their king was assassinated). Perhaps it was his less-aggressive nature that made him amenable to Christianity, although the stories of his conversion are varied. One says he converted on a dare, when a monk named Poppa "proved" the power of God by carrying a heavy brand from the fire without being harmed. One story says he was converted against his will when he had been defeated by Otto I (founder of the Holy Roman Empire). Another account (written centuries after Harald's death) says it was Otto II who forced him to convert. Whatever the case, Harald converted in the 960s, and took it seriously: he transferred his father's body from a pagan-style grave in an ancient mound to a church.

This commemorates Harald's conversion.
But how did this all turn into a modern wireless protocol being named after Harald's nickname? And where did the nickname come from? The commonly repeated legend is that Harald loved and ate blueberries so much that his teeth were stained blue. A different (and not as attractive) story is that at least one of his teeth was diseased and took on a dark tinge, looking "blue" to some. This ties into one of the many legends of his Christian conversion: that he suffered from toothache and converted because Christian prayer was the only thing that took the pain away.

Whatever! What we can document is that one of the developers of the Bluetooth technology was reading a historical novel about Harald on the side. He felt that his protocol would unite different devices in a way analogous to Harald uniting different tribes in Denmark, instead of having them conflict with each other. He proposed calling the protocol Blåtand, Harald's nickname in Scandinavian. Although early Ericsson documents use this name, it formally became the English word "Bluetooth™"; I have read that folk in Scandinavian countries frequently use Blåtand instead of the official English name.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Frederick II

Frederick II of Sicily (1194-1250) has crossed the path of this blog more than once, but has not yet been featured.

He declared the Edict of Salerno, separating physicians and pharmacists.
Frederick was interested in math and science, and was friendly to and supportive of Fibonacci.
He promised to go on the Fifth Crusade, mentioned here, but never participated; he was blamed for its failures by Christians all over Europe as well as Pope Honorius III (who had been Frederick's tutor while young).

From the time he was declared Holy Roman Emperor in 1220 until his death 30 years later, he was a tremendous influence on science and culture, but a difficulty for popes and religion—odd, considering he willingly took the title Holy Roman Emperor. Although Pope Innocent III was his guardian growing up, Frederick often said blasphemous things, supposedly mocking Moses and Jesus and Mohammed for being frauds. His public attitude toward religion was unusual for his era and position, and Dante's Inferno places him in the circle of hell reserved for heretics.

He was, however, also possessed of a rationalism that was unusual for his era. He hired Arabs/Muslims as soldiers and personal guards; he hired Jewish scholars to be at his court. He pointed out the unfairness of trials by ordeal, because the stronger man would always win regardless of guilt or innocence. He hired the mathematician and scholar Michael Scot (of whom Honorius III thought very highly) to, among other things, make new translations of Aristotle and Arabian works into Latin. Michael Scot's translation of Aristotle was done with the help of Hermannus Alemannus ("Herman the German").

He had three wives and several mistresses. His third wife was Isabella of England, the daughter of King John Lackland. It was a political marriage, taken on because marrying an English princess would make his political opponents lose support from England. Once Isabella arrived in Sicily, she was sent to live in seclusion in Padua with only two of her English retainers.

Although Frederick had a profound and positive impact on laws and science, his personal manner made him many enemies and detractors. The Hohenstaufen lineage, which had included Frederick Barbarossa, lost power after Frederick II's death.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Abacus

After mentioning Fibonacci's work, the Liber Abacus, it occurred to me that the place of the abacus in history deserved a little attention.

The Salamis Tablet, 300 BCE
Like the etymology for book, the word "abacus" does not start out to "mean" a frame with wires and beads. The word "abacus" first enters print in the English language in 1387. The Latin word from which it is lifted refers to a sandboard, a counting board covered in sand that allows you to draw with your finger. Latin took the word from the Greek abax, abakos, a board covered with sand for the purpose of drawing figures and calculating. At some point, the sand was replaced with counters of wood or stone that were moved from column to column for calculations, and the board itself was designed to facilitate calculations

In 1846, on the island of Salamis, a white marble counting board was discovered. The Salamis Tablet has been studied extensively, and one scholar has made a video of its proper use.

But when did abacus come to refer to the wooden frame with beads on wires? A reconstruction of a 1st century Roman abacus shows a board with grooves to keep the round beads in line. Visually, it resembles the abacus with which we are familiar. Gerbert of Aurillac (c.946-1003), one of the most influential scientific minds of his era, pushed the use of the abacus as a method of calculating much more swiftly than when using Roman numerals. He was able to promote its use even more when he became Pope Sylvester II.

The abacus in the form we think of it seems to come from China in the 2nd century BCE. Called a suanpán ("counting tray"), it was built with rods that held beads, 2 on an upper deck and 5 on a lower. Now called the "2/5 abacus," the two decks allowed the user to use larger numbers without adding 1+1+1+1, etc. Other versions had different numbers of rods, and different numbers of beads on them.

Abacus showing 87,654,321
Visually, it is very much like the Roman abacus mentioned above. Commerce between Rome and China was not unknown, but a direct influence cannot be proven. Still, the wooden-framed Chinese suanpán was so much like the Roman abacus that it was natural that the West would use the same name for the new device. In fact, no one type of the many objects used for calculating universally replaced the others. Counting boards of clay or wax were used well past the Middle Ages. In fact, until just after 2000, some accounting schools in China required proficiency in using the bead abacus.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


While the foundation of the Tower of Pisa was being being laid, a man was born nearby who developed math skills that might have helped the ill-fated architectural wonder.
Leonardo Pisano ("of Pisa") (c.1175-c.1250) was the son of Guglielmo Bonacci. Although known as "Leonardo Pisano" during his lietime, he signed his name "Bonacci" on his writings; an 1838 writer referred to him as "Fibonacci"—short for filius Bonacci ("son of Bonacci")—and the name stuck with his modern fans.

His father was a customs officer in Algeria, and between living there and traveling around the coast of the Mediterranean, Leonardo grew up exposed to education outside of the Greco-Roman/Western European tradition. He recognized the advantages of the Hindu-Arabic system of numbers over using Roman numerals, and worked to popularize it in Europe, starting with his 1202 work Liber Abaci ("Book of the Abacus" or "Book of Calculating"). In it, he presented to Europe the decimal system by which we all learn the four basic mathematical functions in school.
Calculating with the four functions in a decimal system.

The decimal system, with its "places" for ones and tens and hundreds, etc.,  was much "neater" than the system of Roman numerals and included a digit for "zero." Roman numerals had no "zero," and the words null or nihil were used to express a lack of something. The Roman tradition had great difficulty with the concept of "nothing" in math, because it seemed inappropriate to have a "something" that would indicate a "nothing."

If people have heard of Fibonacci in the present day, it is usually because of a particular sequence of numbers associated with him. In Chapter 12 of the Liber Abaci, he presents a math problem: how many rabbits are created in one year starting with one pair? After describing the progression in words, he shows the number progression as 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377. Examples of this series existed prior to Fibonnaci, and it is likely that he was simply repeating something he had learned, but 19th century mathematician Edouard Lucas called this sequence the Fibonacci numbers. They have been found to relate to many phenomena found in nature. (A thorough discussion is impossible here, but look.)

A webpage with some simple representations of the Fibonacci sequence is here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The First Female Professor of Medicine

The medical school in Salerno had on its staff the first well-known female physician and professor of medicine. Sadly, we know nothing of her personal life, not even her dates: her existence at Salerno in the 11th or 12th centuries is inferred from the handful of texts she wrote or contributed to. Fortunately, her texts were considered important enough that they were preserved and copied, translated and distributed throughout Europe.

Her name was Trotula (listen here for pronunciation), and we find it on several texts. The best-known is the three works collectively known as La Trotula.
  • Conditions of Women—based on the Latin translation of an Arabic work, with additions of several Latin-based passages that had been around for awhile.
  • Treatments for Women—"a disorganized collection of empirical cures with only a thin theoretical overlay."*
  • Women's Cosmetics—a head-to-toe listing of ways to beautify all aspects of a woman's appearance, with no medicinal applications.
Although there are conditions that make no sense to modern medicine (such as a "wandering womb"), there are also techniques that we would consider very sound, such as using opium on the patient during childbirth (defying church tradition that women should suffer; see Genesis 3:16), and using silk thread to repair tears that occur in childbirth.

Some scholars have attributed these works to a man, perhaps through simple chauvinism, but also because it is believed that the frank addressing of gynecological topics would be too indelicate for a female author of the era. The author of La Trotula, however, self-identifies in the texts as a woman, and the analysis of history is always turning up surprises that challenge modern notions of medieval sensibilities. Also, in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the book of wicked wives read by the Wife's husband Jankyn includes the name "Trotula." However little we may know of her now, it seems she developed a reputation that preserved her name for at least a couple centuries after her prime.

*Quotation from The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine, by Monica Green.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Edict of Salerno

Salerno, located on the lower "shin" of Italy's southwest coast, has been occupied continuously since pre-historic times, frequently changing hands due to the many wars in the peninsula. Despite the changing political landscape, however, at least one feature of Salerno rose to a prominence that it held for several centuries, through several political shifts.

We don't know precisely when the Schola Medica Salernitana (Medical School of Salerno) was founded, but at some point, the dispensary of a 9th century monastery became a focal point for medical study and earned the title of the first medical school in history. Because of the fame of the school, Salerno became known as the "Town of Hippocrates."

The School today.
One of its unique qualities for the time was that it not only was well-versed in the Greco-Roman traditions of Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides and others. Its proximity to North Africa and Sicily gave it access to Arabic learning (Sicily was under Arab control from 956 until 1072). In fact, it was the arrival in 1077 of the Tunisian Muslim merchant-turned-monk Constantinus Africanus that started a Golden Age at the school. He compiled the Liber Pantegni (Book of All Arts).  It was (as is typical for the time) largely a collection of the work of others, but it drew together Greek and Arabic medical knowledge in what is called the earliest surviving Western medical treatise [source].

Salerno produced other medical texts as well. A 12th century pair named Johannes and Matthaeus Plantearius wrote the Liber de Simplici Medicina (Book of Simple Medicine). Several books on gynecology and cosmetics were created by the most famous woman doctor of the time.

Salerno thrived, even after Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II declared the Edict of Salerno. The Modern Age would approve of the Edict: it created a legal separation between physicians and apothecaries. Physicians could no longer prescribe medicines that they themselves prepared and sold. The Edict also fixed prices to prevent overcharging the sick. Over time, this Edict was copied throughout Europe, and we have reason to be glad that similar regulations exist today.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Two Kings Henry

Henry, the young king.
For a time, the Capetian Dynasty in France had the habit of naming and actually crowning the king's heir in the old king's lifetime. King Stephen and King Henry II of England adopted this policy. In June 1170, King Henry II crowned his 15-year-old son Henry. Watching the ceremony would have been the 13-year-old Richard (later King and Lionheart), 12-year-old Geoffrey, and 3-year-old John (later "Bad King John").

"Young King Henry" (1155-1183) was considered handsome, charming, and popular; however, he showed no apparent skill or interest in politics, military skill, or even ordinary intelligence. For these reasons, it is probably good that his father never entrusted him with any authority. In fact, Henry II seems to have used his son as a political tool.
  • Henry was betrothed to Margaret, daughter of Louis VII of France, on the condition that her dowry would be the Vexin, the border region between the England-held Normandy and France itself. (A nice expansion of England's property on the continent.)
  • Because Pope Alexander III needed help dealing with Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor, he acquiesced to Henry's request to allow the children to be married in 1160, giving England the Vexin. (There was no ceremony until 1172.)
  • Henry had the royal wedding officiated by the Archbishop of York instead of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as was customary. This was likely an attempt to put the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett, in his place. (He would be dead six months later.)
The benefit of naming your heir early was to avoid disputes at the senior king's death over the succession. In this case, however, since young Henry would inherit vast lands with the throne, he was given a house and staff and large income—and even one of the most respected men of the age, William Marshal, as a tutor in arms—but not provinces and territories like his younger brothers. Consequently, his brothers had more power than he. This would have rankled the young king while his father lived on...and on.*

In 1173, Henry the young king led a rebellion with his brothers, his mother,  the kings of France and Scotland, the Count of Flanders, et alia, against his father (this really was the most turbulent family in the Middle Ages). The same qualities and actions that brought Henry II rivals and enemies, however, also brought him great wealth, and he was able to hire sufficient mercenary forces to put down what was later called the Great Rebellion. (It was the English opposition to all the foreign mercenaries on England's soil that prompted Henry to create the Assize of Arms.)

Young Henry rebelled again in 1183 against his father and his brother, Richard, over Richard's iron-fisted rule of the Duchy of Aquitaine. Henry had the help of his brother Geoffrey and Aquitaine locals who were willing to throw off Richard's rule, but the sudden death of the young king on June 11, 1183, ended the attempt. He was a little over 28 years old. King Philip of France, the brother of Margaret, lost little time in asking for the return of her dowry, the Vexin.** Instead of the land, France accepted an annual payment from Henry II.

Because he never ruled, he is not counted in the list of Kings of England. He is neglected by history in favor of his younger brothers, but he is not without fans: a recent website is devoted to him.

*Queen Elizabeth should be glad that the House of Windsor does not appear to have any of the Plantagenet temper.
**The 1967 movie The Lion in Winter is a highly fictionalized—and highly entertaining—account of this meeting.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Roger of Hoveden

One of the men who went on the Third Crusade (talked about here and here), wrote accounts of some of the events of that adventure, notably The Fall of Jerusalem, 1187 and Laws of Richard I (Coeur de Lion) Concerning Crusaders Who Were to Go by Sea. He didn't witness the Fall of Jerusalem himself, however, having gone over with Richard I in August 1190 and returning to Europe in August 1191 with Phillip II of France.

Roger of Hoveden (d.1201?) was unknown to history until 1174, when Henry II sent him on a secret mission to the lords of Galloway in southwest Scotland. His name suggests he was born in what is now called Howden, in Yorkshire. His death date is inferred from the fact that one of his historical works, called the Chronica, breaks off suddenly at 1201.

The Chronica (Chronicles) is an attempt (like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) to create a comprehensive history of England. For the parts of English history preceding his own life, he mostly just copies earlier works. From 732-1170, he uses other works. From 1170-1192, he copies his own earlier work, the Gesta Henrici II et Gesta Regis Ricardi (Works of Henry II and Works of King Richard).* The Gesta is the best evidence that Hoveden must have been well-connected at Henry's court: he shows detailed knowledge of political events, and is more sympathetic to Henry's side in the ongoing disputes between Henry and his sons and others. From 1192 until its abrupt end in 1201, the Chronica (along with the Gesta) is a valuable tool for understanding some of the changes in England's constitutional development.

Here is an excerpt from the Chronica for 1183, with what might seem an interesting puzzle:

In the year of grace 1183, being the twenty-ninth year of the reign of king Henry, son of the empress Matilda, the said king of England was at Caen, in Normandy, on the day of the Nativity of our Lord; the king also, and Richard and Geoffrey, ... . After the Nativity of our Lord, the king ordered the king, his son, to receive homage from Richard, earl of Poitou, and from Geoffrey, earl of Brittany, his brothers; on which, in obedience to his father, he received the homage of his brother Geoffrey, and was willing to receive it from his brother Richard, but Richard refused to do homage to him; and afterwards, when Richard offered to do homage to him, the king, the son, refused to receive it. Richard, feeling greatly indignant at this, withdrew from the court of the king, his father, and going to Poitou, his own territory, built there some new castles and fortified the old ones.
Does it seem to you that there are two kings mentioned here? There are. Tomorrow we'll look at when England had two Kings Henry at the same time.

*This work was originally attributed to Abbot Benedict of Peterborough, because his name appeared on a copy in Benedict's library. Benedict's library-building habits are well-known, however, and evidence exists that he had a copy of the Gesta made from its original source.

Friday, August 10, 2012

From Scroll to Book

DailyMedieval has mentioned books several times, and it occurs to me that people might be asking themselves "When he says book does he mean scroll? When did the switch to binding flat pages take place?"

Surprisingly early, as it happens. The earliest examples of bookbinding are from India before the Common Era, where a sutra (from the word for "a rope or thread that holds things together") was made from palm leaves, written on, then sewn together along one edge; enclosed in wooden boards, the excess thread was wound around the boards to keep all together. Buddhist monks carried this technique through Persia, Afghanistan, Iran, until it reached China in the 1st century BCE.

This method spread slowly, but by the 4th century CE bound books and scrolls were being produced in equal numbers (based on surviving texts). Using wooden boards to contain information was not a new idea. Wax tablets in a wooden frame existed from Roman times right through the Middle Ages (as mentioned here). The word "book," however, was not being used the way we use it today. Isidore of Seville (c.560-636), the famous early etymologist, said:
A codex is composed of many books; a book is of one scroll. It is called codex by way of metaphor from the trunks (codex) of trees or vines, as if it were a wooden stock, because it contains in itself a multitude of books, as it were of branches.
As for the word "book" itself, which eventually replaced the word "codex," its likeliest origin is in the word for beech. This has led scholars to assume that some of the earliest collections of writing (that weren't on scrolls) were written on beech wood.

The important point is that the development of the codex method of holding data increased the longevity of "books" over scrolls, which did not have hard covers and which experienced wear every time they were unrolled and re-rolled. "Books" could now be made larger, as well, without falling apart; meaning, for example, an entire Bible could be contained in one printed object.

Were there differing opinions on the usefulness or appropriateness of the different styles of "book"? Perhaps there were, although any difficulties in adapting to the new style probably did not go like this.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Groma

[We had so much fun with the Jacob's Staff (well, I did), that I hope you don't mind talking so soon about another tool for more measurement.]

Roman roads, the grid system for Roman camps, sections of Hadrian's Wall—how did they get their lines so straight? They used a groma. The groma had several parts:

  • The Upright: a long pole with a metal point on the bottom for driving it into the ground.
  • The Rostro: an arm that extended horizontally from the top, then angled upward, designed to swivel where it attached to the Upright.
  • The Groma: a cross of four equal-length arms, with its center at the top-point of the Rostro. From the end of each arm, an equal length plumb line descended.
  • The Marker Peg: a plumb line that descended from the center of the Groma's cross-piece all the way to the ground.
The Upright would be stationed so that the Marker Peg fell to what you wished to be the center of your surveying. From there, you could swivel the Rostro so that each arm extended to the cardinal points of the compass. Once the four plumb lines ceased swaying, you could send your assistant toward the horizon (standard distance was 125 paces). By getting behind the groma and sighting so that two opposite plumb lines were aligned, you could, with a wave of your hand, guide your pole-carrying assistant laterally until his vertical pole aligned with the plumb lines. You now had a straight line of hundreds of feet between two points, exactly along the direction you wanted.

Who used the groma? Land surveyors, or as they were called in Latin, Agrimensores (from ager, "field" and mensura, "measure). Which brings me to the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum ("The Work of Roman Surveyors"), considered the earliest scientific or technical manuscript that exists, from a time (the 5th-6th centuries) when most documents were about religion or literature (or politics). The page seen here is from the section on laying out a house as opposed to a settlement. One picture is of the house, and one is of the property lines around it.

A 1554 edition of the Corpus added illustrations to the text with grid-lines to show the accuracy of the process. A few examples of its pages and illustrations can be seen here. And if you are interested in robots, you might get a chuckle from this after today's post.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has been mentioned here. King Alfred the Great (849-899) originally ordered its creation around 890 for a record of important events since the birth of Christ; it was maintained by anonymous scribes until the end of the reign of King Stephen in 1154. The original language is Anglo-Saxon, also known as Old English, a language all but unrecognizable to speakers of Modern English. By the 12th century, the vocabulary of entries was shifting to early Middle English. No single original manuscript exists. Of the nine fragments known, seven were found in the Cotton Library (see the above link), although the best version is in the Parker Chronicle at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The fragments have differences; some are surely scribal errors, some are definitely attempts by the copyist to "correct" or "amend" what they were copying with their own knowledge/beliefs.

It is, of course, historically highly inaccurate. The scribes were working with the best knowledge they had at the time, and motives ascribed to important political figures are suspect. Here is the opening, (collated from different manuscripts):
The island Britain is 800 miles long, and 200 miles broad. And there are in the island five nations; English, Welsh (or British), Scottish, Pictish, and Latin. The first inhabitants were the Britons, who came from Armenia, and first peopled Britain southward. Then happened it, that the Picts came south from Scythia, with long ships, not many; and, landing first in the northern part of Ireland, they told the Scots that they must dwell there. But they would not give them leave; for the Scots told them that they could not all dwell there together; "But," said the Scots, "we can nevertheless give you advice. We know another island here to the east. There you may dwell, if you will; and whosoever withstands you, we will assist you, that you may gain it." Then went the Picts and entered this land northward. Southward the Britons possessed it, as we before said. And the Picts obtained wives of the Scots, on condition that they chose their kings always on the female side; which they have continued to do, so long since. And it happened, in the run of years, that some party of Scots went from Ireland into Britain, and acquired some portion of this land. Their leader was called Reoda, from whom they are named Dalreodi.
For all its flaws, its nearly 100,000 words are, in many cases, the only human viewpoint we have on certain centuries. Also, its status in literature is assured as "the first continuous history written by Europeans in their own language."

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Assize of Arms

In the early Middle Ages, Britain was a collection of territories, each with its own leader(s), which formed a loose confederacy at times of national trouble. When William of Normandy conquered in 1066, he put the whole land under one rule, maintained by his lieutenants and supporters in positions of authority over chunks of real estate. This was the start of the feudal system.

While the king might keep troops near him, there was for a long time no standing army that could be applied immediately to a military conflict. In the 11th and 12th centuries, countries in Western Europe still relied on raising armies by calling for volunteers and paying men to fight. Often these men came from other lands. After Henry II had to put down a 1373-4 rebellion by bringing in Brabançon soldiers, and seeing the distrust of his English subjects for their presence—not to mention their dislike of the extra taxes required to pay for the king's mercenaries—he created the Assize of Arms in 1181.

The purpose of the Assize was to make certain there would be sufficient local military support for a campaign. It outlined the responsibilities of his subjects to have the proper arms and armor and to bring them when called upon. Some of its 12 provisions were:
1. Each knight must have a hauberk (armor covering at least neck and shoulders), helmet, shield and lance.
2. Each freeman (worth at least 16 marks) must have hauberk, helmet, shield and lance. Each freeman of 10 marks worth must have a light hauberk, iron cap and lance.
4. Every man must swear an oath that they will have these arms and carry them for King Henry.
5. If you die, your arms go to your son; if he is too young, his guardian must use them or find a suitable person until the son comes of age.
7. No Jew should have arms, but should sell them to someone who can use them in the king's service.
8. No one may sell, trade, or carry away these arms so that they leave England.
10. If any man does not have arms in accordance with this order, the king shall take not only his goods and land, but also his life and limbs.
The Assize enabled Henry II and his successors to save themselves the cost of maintaining a standing army. Moreover, an army could be called up and assembled within a matter of days with requiring extraordinary taxation. It was very useful for King Henry two years later, when he had to go to war against a rebellion by his son and heir, King Henry.

But that's a story for another day.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Before Marco, There was William

Everyone's heard of Marco Polo (1254-1324) and his travels with his Venetian uncles to the Far East. He was not alone, however, in leaving Europe on long journeys to strange lands.

The most detailed early account of life in Asia was written by a Flemish Franciscan monk named William Rubruck (Willem van Ruysbroeck, c.1210-1270). While on crusade with King Louis IX of France, in Palestine he met a Dominican sent by the pope to enlist the Mongols' aid against the Muslims. Rubruck decided he would try to convert the Mongols to Christianity.
Rubruck's Travels

He set out in 1253 on a round-trip journey that took him three years, traveling as far as the Mongol capital of Karakoram; he was the first European ever to visit it—that is, who also returned to write about it. His personal mission gave him the opportunity to write about what he saw and the ethnicities and religions and customs he observed.

It is interesting that, as he traveled, he often found other Europeans who recognized his Order because of his clothing. He was also questioned frequently about his "version" of Christianity. He met several Christians and Christian priests who were Nestorians. Nestorius (386-451) was a patriarch of Constantinople who claimed Jesus had two distinct natures: a human nature and a completely divine nature, referred to as Logos. These two natures, or essences, are connected but unmingled. When Nestorianism was condemned in 431 at the Council of Ephesus, the Assyrian Church refused to change their support for it. Rubruck had his work cut out for him: preaching Christianity, and preaching against the local Christianity.

There's more to say about Rubruck, but I'll leave off for today with a simple thought: if he had become more famous than the other guy, would there be a game now where people called out "William!" "Rubruck!"

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Richard II's Feast

In 1390, King Richard II of England had his master chefs assemble a book of all their best recipes. This Forme of Cury (Forms of Cooking) was interesting enough that an edition was presented to Queen Elizabeth I. In 1975, Lorna J. Sass took the edition printed for the Early English Text Society* recipes and not only translated the recipes into Modern English (to the best of her understanding, given the imprecision of the directions), but also tested the recipes to determine proportions of ingredients that would result in dishes acceptable to the modern palate.

You can read it yourself one photographed manuscript page at a time here. The illustration on this page is for "Conynges (conies=rabbits) in clere broth." You can see the title clearly.

On September 23, 1387, Richard held a feast, the details of which are given. The pomp and ceremony started at 10:30, followed by:
  • Venison with furmenty (a sauce of boiled wheat)
  • A potage called Viaundbruse (a broth with choice meats)
  • Heads of Boars
  • Great haunches of roasted meat
  • Roasted swans
  • Roasted pigs
  • Custard with dried fruit, parsley and bone marrow in a crust
  • A subtlety (a decorative piece of food)
...and that was the first course. Eleven more dishes followed—mostly meats—and then a subtlety. Then a third course of ten more dishes, and a subtlety. When this was all done, the sun was beginning to fade. Wafers and spiced wine were served, and spiced confections placed on the tables.

That was a feast!

*The EETS was founded in 1864 by F.J.Furnivall with the stated goal of putting into print all historical manuscripts available in English. It is through the EETS that many manuscripts from the Cotton Library became available to scholars and the public.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

More than a Musician

We so often study famous people in isolation, forgetting that their lives and successes probably overlapped other well-known people. Imagine the possibilities when people of vision and ingenuity met with and influence each other?

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) is not a well-known name today, but in his lifetime he was acknowledged as the greatest musician of the age, and his own works and his connections with others are worth knowing. In his lifetime, he was a diplomat, a soldier, a poet, a composer and music theorist. Like most university-educated men of the Middle Ages, de Vitry was in Holy Orders and held several clerical positions, finally being appointed Bishop of Meaux by Pope Clement VI.

Some of the motets he composed have survived. His chief contribution to music, however, was in the evolving system of notation. In Ars nova notandi (Art of the new notation), de Vitry improved on Franconian musical notation that had been set out in Franco of Cologne's Ars Cantus Mensurabilis (The Art of Measurement of Songs); de Vitry recognized the existence and importance of duple and triple meter. For connoisseurs of music:
In the treatise Vitry recognizes the existence of five note values (duplex longa, longa, brevis, semibrevis, and minima), codifies a system of binary as well as ternary mensuration at four levels (maximodus, modus, tempus, prolatio), and introduces four time signatures. He also discusses the use of red notes to signal both changes of mensural meaning and deviations from an original cantus firmus. (source)
And of course he knew other accomplished figures of his age, such as Petrarch, Nicholas Oresme, and Gersonides. In fact, de Vitry's musical approach to mathematics (the two subjects were closely linked in medieval education) prompted him to request of Gersonides a work to prove a theory. This 1342 work, De harmonicis numeris (On the harmony of numbers), maintained that, "except for the pairs 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, and 8-9, it is impossible for two numbers that follow each other to be composed of the factors 2 and 3." (source) The result is known today as the Theorem of Gersonides.

Friday, August 3, 2012

How far are the stars?

Rabbi Levi ben Gerson, also known as Gersonides, lived from 1288-c.1344. He was from a family of scholars: his father, Gerson ben Solomon of Arles, was the author of the Sha'ar ha-Shamayim, an encyclopedia of natural science, astronomy, and metaphysics.* Levi is credited with first mentioning, and possibility inventing, Jacob's Staff. (He references Genesis 32:10 when he describes the device; this is likely the origin of the name.)

At a time when religion, philosophy, astronomy, astrology and science were overlapping (and in some cases, interchangeable), Gersonides' greatest work, which was philosophical, contained his greatest contribution to astronomy. He put twelve years (1317-28) of effort into the Milhamot Adonai ("Wars of the Lord"), whose six books dealt with 1) the soul, 2) prophecy, 3) & 4) god's knowledge of facts and providence, 5) astronomy/astrology, and 6) creation and miracles. Gersonides firmly accepted astrology and the celestial hierarchy of powers inherited from neo-Platonists and pseudo-Dionysius (far too complex to go into here), but he also brought mathematics and observation to his work with extraordinary results for the time.

Postage stamp honoring Gersonides.
Gersonides rejected the Ptolemaic system of epicycles to explain the erratic motion of planets affixed to their crystal spheres surrounding the Earth. According to Ptolemy, epicycles explained the changing size of planets; he said, however, that Mars varies by a factor of six; Gersonides' observations told him that Mars's apparent size varies only two-fold. Gersonides used the Jacob Staff and a camera obscura (pinhole camera) to make careful observations over several years. For Gersonides, 48 crystalline spheres were needed to explain the apparent motion of various heavenly bodies. This expansion of the "physics" of the Ptolemaic model was nothing, however, compared to the actual physical expansion he proposed.

Careful observation with the Jacob Staff, the camera obscura, and math made Gersonides declare heavenly objects to be much farther away than previously calculated. Ptolemy claimed the distance to Venus was 1079 Earth radii; Gersonides estimated it to be 8,971,112 Earth radii away. Ptolemy said the fixed stars were 20,000 Earth radii away; Gersonides estimated them to be at a distance 10 billion times greater.

Pope Clement VI had the "Wars of the Lord" translated into Latin in 1344, making it available to the west. Its impact was minimal, however; we know of a few scholars who were influenced by it, and Kepler asked a friend to send him a copy in the 17th century. But it took Copernicus two centuries later to "confirm" to Western civilization's satisfaction that Gersonides was on the right track.

*As I have mentioned about medieval encyclopediæ before, they were often compilations of previous works; this one drew from Claudius Ptolemy's Almagest and the Morah Nebukim, or "Guide for the Perplexed" of Maimonides. A 1547 edition of ben Solomon's work can be had from Kestenbaum & Company.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Muslim-Christian Relations, Part 2 (of 2)

[Part 1 is here.]

After Richard and Saladin each slaughtered their prisoners, Richard marched to Jaffa, which he hoped to make a base from which he could take Jerusalem. Saladin attacked, but Richard prevailed with his main troops in the front and the Knights Templar forces on the left and the Knights Hospitaller on the right. Saladin was surrounded on three sides. Richard took Jaffa in September 1191, and Saladin was willing to talk truce.

Richard and Saladin showed great mutual respect for each other's military prowess. A temporary halt to hostilities was declared so they could come to terms.  At one point, when Richard became ill, Saladin sent him fruit that was chilled with snow brought from the mountains, and offered his personal physician. Also, Saladin sent two horses as replacements for Richard's.

An attempt was made to join East and West by the marriage of Richard's sister, Joan (1165-1199), to Saladin's brother, Al-Adil (1145-1218), who was currently administrator of Egypt. Joan had been married to King William II of Sicily, but he had died in 1189; later she would become Countess of Toulouse by her marriage to Raymond VI. The plan was for Jerusalem to be their wedding gift, and would therefore pass into the hands of a dynasty that joined Western Europe (or, at least, England!) to the Muslim world. Negotiations fell through, however.

The two commanders did agree on a three-year truce. In summer 1192, the Treaty of Ramla determined that Jerusalem would remain under Muslim control, but Christians would be allowed safe passage. Also, the Crusaders would give up lands they had invaded except for a narrow coastal strip that extended from Tyre to Jaffa. Neither leader was wholly pleased, but each had reason to wish a swift end to the conflict. Richard had troubles at home due to his brother John. Saladin was losing control of his army because of his failure to re-take Acre or to route Richard's forces in their many engagements.

Saladin died of yellow fever in 1193. While his heirs fought over the succession, Western Europe was told tales of Saladin's military prowess and chivalrous actions toward the invaders. There is an anecdote that, in April 1191, a Frankish woman on pilgrimage had her baby stolen and sold into slavery. According to Saladin's biographer, Saladin bought the baby back with his own money and returned it to the mother, then ordered a horse to take her back to her camp. Poems were written in praise of him. Richard declared him the greatest leader in the Islamic world.

And the punchline? All the negotiations and gifts between Richard and Saladin were made by proxies. The two men who so praised and respected each other never met face-to-face.