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, as many other medieval historians have pointed out, the ideology of white supremacy did not exist in the Middle Ages, because (in part) the idea of a "white" race did not exist. Moreover, racial and ethnic diversity throughout the medieval world was 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. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Mirror of History

"Medieval is the new modern" is the tagline of this blog. I came up with it five years ago as a shorthand to signify both that many of the hallmarks of "modernity" have a long history stretching back to the medieval period, and to highlight the persistent medievalism in contemporary culture. 

Walters MS W. 34, fol. 15v.
Of course, "modernity"--just like "the West"--is an ideological construct, and it relies on "medieval" as the pre- or anti-modern category that defines its opposite. "Medieval" is the term that describes the primitive, ignorant, barbaric era that preceded the "Renaissance," the period of rebirth that banished slavish devotion to authority with inquiry and pursuit of intellectual novelty. This established, comforting narrative goes all the way back to (where else?) the medieval period, with Petrarch's lament that he lived in a "dark age." The medieval period undergirds the the narrative of progress; the period is the naive, uncivilized era that "the West" escaped or matured out of with the Renaissance (the individual), the Scientific Revolution (rationality over religion), the Enlightenment (liberalism and secularism), and the Industrial Revolution (wealth of some nations). The medieval period--a vast span of time over the globe replaced by a false, unitary time and place--reminds the philosophers, politicians, and scholars of "the West" of how far we've all come, and becomes a shorthand for what separates us from people living in other places, rather than those living in another time.

But in light of recent events, the Middle Ages are more important than ever. They offer an example of what cataclysmic demographic, political, religious, cultural, and economic change look like. Both halves of the Roman Empire provide object lessons in the perils posed to stability when the ruling elite becomes corrupt and sclerotic, and when abrupt demographic change occurs. By studying the medieval period we can see what happens--on a large scale--during a period of sustained climate change. The Middle Ages offer a mirror of what it looks like to live outside of the paradigm of progress. Medieval is the new modern.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Robots: Will Either Kill Us or Help Us to Death

Greetings, humans. Lots of medieval/robot news to share.

While the NYT reports that the Pentagon is confronting the reality of autonomous killing devices, a new center dedicated to ethical, computational, engineering, and social dimensions of human and machine intelligence just launched at Cambridge University. Meanwhile, San Jose airport has just installed new employees--robot "greeters" to help bewildered passengers. But why do they look female? Laurie Penny explains it all. Finally, fans of the original "Westworld" who had hoped that the new tv show would include Medieval World can continue to keep hope alive...