Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Diorama of Samuel Peeps

Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps”), committed diarist and official in the British Royal Navy, was born in London in 1633 and died in London in 1703. Pepys kept a detailed diary for almost a decade, between 1660 and 1669, and recorded the events of his life, large and small, in its pages. Thanks both to his position within the Admiralty and the dramatic events of the decade he chronicled, Pepys’ diary is one of the best sources for the politics of the period as well as both the appearance of plague in London in 1665 and the Great Fire in 1666. Pepys writes in his diary often of his love of music, theater, good food, fine wine, and women, and he has a reputation as a bon vivant and conversational wit.


One of the most well-known incidents in Pepys’ diary is his burial of his wine and cheese and other valuables during the Great Fire of London. 

#1. Tuesday 4 September, 1666

Sir W. Pen and I to Tower-streete, and there met the fire burning three or four doors beyond Mr. Howell’s, whose goods, poor man, his trayes, and dishes, shovells, &c., were flung all along Tower-street in the kennels, and people working therewith from one end to the other; the fire coming on in that narrow streete, on both sides, with infinite fury. Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine into it; and I my Parmazan* cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.

*Pepys’ “Parmazan” was an expensive imported cheese from Italy, and therefore difficult to replace. Parmesan cheeses could weigh as much as 200 lbs. and they increased in value as they aged.


Pepys had a reputation for dalliances with women and girls, some of which are chronicled in his diary. 

#2. Sunday 25 October 1668  

So home and to dinner, and after dinner all the afternoon got my wife and boy to read to me, and at night W. Batelier comes and sups with us; and, after supper, to have my head combed by Deb, which occasioned the greatest sorrow to me that I ever knew in this world, for my wife, coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats; and endeed, I was with my main [hand] in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it, and the girle also.*


*Deb Willet (1650-1678) was employed as a maid and companion for Elisabeth Pepys from 1 October 1667. Work as a ladies’ maid and companion was one of the few forms of paid labor that were considered “respectable” for women to undertake (compared to sex work), yet these women were often coerced into sexual relationships with their employers. Pepys dismissed Deb Willet from her position on 12 November after this incident. “[I did] discharge her and advise her to be gone as soon as she could, and never to see me, or let me see her more while she was in the house, which she took with tears too, but I believe understands me to be her friend, and I am apt to believe by what my wife hath of late told me is a cunning girle, if not a slut.” 
A year before the Great Fire, Pepys chronicled the Plague Year of 1665, part of the last major outbreak in London during the Second Plague Pandemic from the thirteenth century through the seventeenth. During the course of this outbreak roughly 100,000 people in London died, most of them poor.  

#3. Sunday 31 December, 1665

I have raised my estate from 1300 pounds this year to 4400 pounds…It is true we have gone through great melancholy because of the great plague, and I put to great charges by it, by keeping my family long at Woolwich, and myself and another part of my family, my clerks, at my charge at Greenwich, and a mayde at London; but I hope the King will give us some satisfaction for that. But now the plague is abated almost to nothing, and I intending to get to London as fast as I can…I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague time…*

*During this time Pepys was a shareholder in the English Royal African Company, also called the Guinea Company. Originally chartered in 1660 to enter the gold trade on the west coast of Africa, in 1663 the Royal African Company was re-founded with a new charter that specifically mentioned trade in enslaved people from Africa, along with gold and elephant ivory. Between 1663 and 1731, when the company finally stopped kidnapping and selling human beings into slavery, the Royal African Company enslaved and transported approximately 212,000 people to plantations in the Caribbean and North America, and of those people roughly 44,000 died on the Middle Passage. The charter is found here: “America and West Indies: January 1663,” in Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies: Volume 5, 1661-1668, ed. W Noel Sainsbury (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1880), 119-122. British History Online, accessed March 30, 2021,



Monday, June 15, 2020

Care and Repair

I've begun watching The Repair Shop, a British reality tv show (first two seasons are available on Netflix in the US). The premise: People bring in their busted family heirlooms (music boxes, garden gnomes, paintings, clocks, furniture, teddy bears) to the repair shop (hosted at the Weald and Downland Living Museum in Sussex), where skilled artisans repair, restore, or remake them. 
That's it. There's no competition. There's no appraisal of monetary or historic value. The dramatic tension comes from how the artisans confront and solve the problems in front of them, and the owners' responses to their repaired keepsakes. Seeing people moved, often to tears, by having an object--perhaps a tangible link to a beloved ancestor, or a reminder of a particular moment--repaired and returned to them, is one of the best parts of the show.

The show promotes an ethic of repair, which is both affecting and empowering. Seeing chewed up stuffed toys or shattered garden gnomes treated like relics seems like it should be ridiculous or absurd. Instead, seeing experts turn their whole attention to a problem, lavishing their care and taking pains to ensure that a stuffed toy can serve as confidant to another generation, or that a favorite chair can again be used, is moving, because it is a reminder of what it looks like when others take our cares as seriously as we do. Watching the artisans do their work is also a potent reminder of just how much can be repaired, if only we give it our full attention, our imagination, and our time.

The other aspect of the show that makes it a success are the craftspeople. They all seem completely delightful (and I hope they are), and they all have considerable expertise. I have, in my own research, been thinking a lot about how experiential knowledge--what you learn through your senses--is often conceptualized and presented. (If you're interested, there's a group of incredibly talented scholars at Columbia who are exploring this topic via a 16th-century manuscript of recipes and artisanal processes.) Learning by doing, and the kind of knowledge that learning by doing imparts, is not the same as learning via texts or theories. Roger Bacon, the 13th century philosopher, wrote that if you only learned about fire through reading, you'd have no real idea of what it was like to get burned. You have to get burned in order to fully understand it. Bacon also discussed how much natural philosophers (often associated with universities) had to learn from soldiers, farmers, miners, and herbalists. Bacon was still arguing for a strong distinction between elites and non-elites, but he also insisted that learning by doing can confer knowledge that can't be gained any other way. 

In The Repair Shop, the artisans are constantly using their empirical knowledge, and their experience to solve problems and to repair items. When cleaning an antique shoe-stretcher, metalworker Dominic Chinea employs "an old farmer's trick:" an overnight soak in a solution of pure acetone and transmission fluid, a solution (in both senses) that you won't find in a book. They are constantly drawing on their empirical knowledge of how materials behave under different conditions in order to repair them, as when several of the experts worked together to replace an oak signpost and clean up a village sign that is always exposed to the elements. Amanda Middleditch and Julie Tatchell, who repair stuffed animals, can identify when something was produced by looking at the stitching, the fabric, or the stuffing. This isn't the same as expertise via connoisseurship (Antiques Roadshow or American Pickers), it's expertise gained from sustained, sensory experience. 

It's this experience-based expertise that allows the repair shop to be what furniture restorer Will Kirk, "the workshop of dreams." He says it with a slightly ironic intonation, like I know, it's corny. But yet the show keeps me thinking to myself, Where do I want to place my attention? What do I dream of repairing? What can I learn by doing? What can I repair through my actions? At this moment, these seem like some of the most important questions to be asking.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Back to School/ الى المدرسة

This past August, I got a new backpack and a bus pass, and headed back into the classroom, as a student, for the first time in well over a decade. I'm studying Arabic and medieval Arabic manuscripts, and taking classes in history and art history, so that I can read medieval Arabic scientific manuscripts, like this one: 
كتاب سرّ الاسرار
Kitab sirr al-asrar, ca. 1200, Mosul. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania,
LJS 459, fol. 114v.
Being back in class as a student--and a beginner, at that--has been fantastic, with benefits that I had not anticipated. Here's what I've learned so far: 

1) Sitting in a class and focusing for 80 minutes is difficult and exhausting. If you teach, you need to be aware of this. Sitting in class is far more taxing than teaching a class, even though teaching is often an intense activity. Thank god my language teachers are always getting us to move around and talk to each other. 
2) Traditional-age college students are awesome. I love getting to interact with them as my fellow classmates, rather than as their professor. The anxiety and stress they feel about "will it/will I turn out okay?" is real. And it turns out that being in class with a bunch of whip-smart 18-year-olds keeps me on my toes. Which leads me to... 
3) Learning something completely new is unbelievably invigorating. Yes, it's tiring, and sometimes frustrating and a grind, but it is also the best ever. It's exciting and exhilarating to stretch your brain in new ways. 
4) Arabic is an incredibly fun language to study, especially if you like aural or visual patterns, and incredibly rewarding grammatical structure. Persian, next? 

What will you be learning? 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Legends of the Voynich MS

Yale University Library, Beinecke MS 408, fol. 83v. 

The mysterious Beinecke MS 408, also known as the Voynich MS (after the rare book dealer who acquired it from the Jesuit College in Rome in 1912) has been back in the headlines recently. This strange book, written on fine parchment, has been an enduring and alluring mystery for codebreakers and treasure-seekers. Written in an elegant cursive hand, the alphabet and language are unintelligible. The writing accompanies a number of color illustrations of plants and celestial charts that are not found in nature, and numerous drawings of naked women in baths, all drawn with care and artistry. 

A few months ago, one man claimed to have solved the riddle of the Voynich's mystery alphabet, only to be soundly debunked days later. The Voynich has a history of attracting fraudulent claims; an academic named William Newbold claimed in 1921 to have broken the cipher, only to be revealed to have made it all up a few years later. 

Other cryptographers have worked on the Voynich since the 1920s, including some of the most important figures in American cryptography in the twentieth century. William and Elizabeth Friedman, based at Arlington Hall, worked on the Voynich from the 1920s until the 1960s, and eventually concluded that the script was of an attempt to create a universal language. More recently, researchers in Brazil and Canada have claimed to find clues to the text's meaning, using big data methods to uncover Hebrew letters as the basis for the mystery language of the text. But the words still seem like gibberish.

The text may also be a hoax. The earliest provenance of the book remains unknown, but it enters the historical record in the early seventeenth century, as the property of Jacob de Tepenec, pharmacist to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. The material of the book, its parchment and binding materials, date to right around 1430. Books of secrets were expensive, sought-after items by princes, physicians, and wealthy adepts; Rudolf II ultimately paid 600 ducats for the book. Hoaxes and forged texts abounded in the medieval period, from forged charters like the Donation of Constantine to historical texts that have elaborate frame stories of lost books in ancient and forgotten languages.

Why not think of it as a hoax, but as a puzzle? Is it the allure of the idea that a hidden key will unlock this alphabet and its secrets, a la the Rosetta Stone? That is a potent story--with that one discovery, a past civilization became legible to the present in its own words, the distance between them collapsed into a tablet. In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many who became interested in hermeticism, alchemy, and other now-esoteric subjects believed that recreating or rediscovering pre-Adamic language would unlock the secrets of nature, expose hidden sympathies between the microcosm and the macrocosm, and allow one to know God more fully. Or perhaps the impulse to decipher the Voynich MS arises fro the desire to impose meaning on something nonsensical? That can have its own hypnotic effect, too: 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Further Adventures in Medievalism: Squatty Potty Edition

I've explored the reason why it matters that we so often equate the medieval past with squalor and filth. So I was delighted when a friend sent me a link to the ad for Squatty Potty (tm) and its adjunct product, Unicorn Gold (tm).

The fancy clothes and posh accents of the spokesman and the courtly ladies put a little polish on the fact that we're watching an ad about shitting and farting. And the clothes themselves are a mix of ancien regime wigs and panniers for the ladies and mock-Tudor doublet and slashed sleeves for the spokesman, signifying a generalized "pre-modern" period ("Humans have been pooping for over a hundred years"). Even the child in the Unicorn Gold (tm) ad reflects the tendency in European portraiture in the 17th-19th centuries to depict children clothed like small adults. During the late Gothic period, the unicorn often signified rarity, beauty, and purity. The use of "real freaking gold" recalls the importance of potable gold as a panacea in medieval and early modern medicine (for those who could afford it), and the admonition to use Unicorn Gold (tm) "when you pay your taxes to King John" is a neat pun as well as an allusion to the plot of virtually every Robin Hood storyline in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Using medievalism to advertise products related to poop aligns with existing ideas about the grossness of "the Middle Ages." Yet, in a neat inversion of this existing association, the past portrayed in these ads is also more desirable than the present. Hemorrhoids are brought on by the design flaws in modern plumbing; the toilet does not accommodate the human body. And it can be said of the people of Ye Olden Days (at least for the ones who use Unicorn Gold (tm)) that their shit don't stink. Medieval is the new modern.

Friday, June 16, 2017

"Get Out" Got Medieval

 "Get Out," Jordan Peele's racial horror film, uses medievalism as brilliantly as it uses milk and Fruit Loops to inform the audience about character and context. In particular, Jeremy's knight's helmet, which he uses in place of a ski mask to cover his face as he carries out his nefarious pursuits, conveys a great deal about that character, and about the way that white supremacy often relies on medievalism. 

Why a knight's helmet? It could easily come off as goofy or absurd. Mark Twain mined this object for its comic potential in Connecticut Yankee, and more recent cultural offerings, like "Role Models," have poked fun at LARPers and SCA-types. Yet, within the context of a horror film about race in America, it makes perfect sense that Jeremy carries out his misdeeds in medieval cosplay. The knight's helmet can be read as a reference to the Knights of the KKK (founded as a "kinder" KKK in 1975), and it signals the persistent link between white supremacist ideology and medievalism, present since the 19th century. Twain himself laid the blame for this at the feet of Sir Walter Scott, whose early 19th-century historical novels Waverley and Ivanhoe were extremely popular in the American South (and elsewhere). Scott (according to Twain) romanticized life on the grand agricultural estate, sentimentalized aristocracy and rank, and promoted illusion instead of reality. 

"It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them....Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war."

The opening title credits of "Gone with the Wind" make this link between the antebellum South and medievalism plain: "There was a land/of Cavaliers and Cotton fields/Called the Old South.../Here in this pretty world/Gallantry took its last bow./Here was the last ever to/be seen of Knights and their/Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave./Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered./A Civilization gone with the wind..." The Old South becomes the continuation of an (imagined) courtly, western European Middle Ages, both equally consigned to the past. 

Yet racial and ethnic diversity throughout the medieval world were not uncommon. Jeremy's knight's helmet is the perfect prop to signal his adherence to a false narrative of history, a narrative that rests on erasing Black people from history, whether it's the history of the medieval world or of the United States. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Long History of A.I.

"Time is, time was, time is past," quoth the Brazen Head.
I recently had occasion to discuss medieval legends of oracular heads (brazen and other) in the context of the history of artificial intelligence. Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II), according to William of Malmesbury, made an oracular head using astral science that would answer questions "yes" or "no." Gerbert asked the head a question about the circumstances of his death, but misinterpreted the head's answer, and so died anyway. It's possible that William's proximity to Wales accounts for his tale of the oracular head; previous versions of this legend suggested that Gerbert had summoned a demon, using necromancy, to question about his death, and, according to Celtic legends, the decapitated heads of one's vanquished enemy could be used as oracles.

A few centuries later, John Gower transposed elements of this story to Robert Grosseteste, the Franciscan scholar and Bishop of Lincoln. In Gower's version, Grosseteste used astral science to make a brazen head that would foretell the future; unfortunately, Grosseteste slept through the head's pronouncements. At roughly the same time (late fourteenth century), Albert the Great, Dominican scholar and Bishop of Cologne, was credited with having used astral science to make a prophetic statue. In this version, found in a text on Christian morality (Albert exemplifies wisdom), one of Albert's brethren happens upon the statue and destroys it out of fear and ignorance. And just over two hundred years later, Roger Bacon, Franciscan scholar, was immortalized in an Elizabethan play as the "conjuring friar" who used necromancy to summon a demon who forged him a brass head, and which Bacon then animated via celestial magic. Like Grosseteste, his fellow Franciscan--and his intellectual forebear--Bacon, exhausted from his unceasing labors, slept through the head's pronouncement. 

A few common strands emerge from these different stories. In all instances, the man responsible for the head was known--in his lifetime, as well as after--for surpassing wisdom and skill in astral science, and interest in scientific instruments. Furthermore, in all instances, the purpose of the head is either prophecy or a more nebulous "secrets of nature." Additionally, the knowledge that the head provides is "out there"--that the future is already written, that the secrets of nature are not secret to all, but not vouchsafed to human intellect. Finally, and this may be the most salient point, the artificial intelligence is successfully created--the head tells its secrets, but humans are too weak or foolish to understand: we display confirmation bias and cannot correctly interpret what the head tells us (Gerbert), we have weak bodies and need sleep (Grosseteste, Bacon), or others prevent us from realizing our goals due to their own ignorance and fear.