Thursday, March 31, 2011

Let's Hug It Out, Bitch

The Book Bench column at The New Yorker alerted me to International Hug a Medievalist Day.

Today's benchwarmer also alerted me to the fact that medievalists are the best kind of historian (yes!), often have a dorky sense of humor (yes!), like to drink a lot, especially wine and ale (yes! no!), and like to throw medieval-themed parties, complete with mincemeat pies and strange "multi-animal mishmashes" (no.).

But still, I feel hugged.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday YouTube Gems: The Vikings/Depeche Mode

Historical events have intervened, making it difficult to keep up the blog posts for the past few weeks. But here's another goody from the folks over at historyteachers:

Vikings are totally badass.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday YouTube Gems: The Crusades/Billy Idol

This just in from one of our far-flung correspondents.

I was originally slated to teach a course on the Crusades next autumn, but I will instead be teaching a freshman seminar on the history of the liberal arts and medieval intellectual culture. This fabulous video (which references primogeniture and "Deus lo veult!") really, really makes me sad that I'm not teaching the Crusades next year.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I Think, Therefore I Am An Automaton

Robotics scientists are engineering machines that are self-aware. While there are some limits to the scope of these attempts so far, it all seems pretty amazing. A recent article in Scientific American (thanks to SMT and ASV for sending me the link) describes the some of the different ways that researchers are getting machines to learn from their own behavior, adapt to their surroundings, and change the way they interpret data. The experiments in metacognition and theory of mind are particularly arresting, as they draw together robots and AI in a way that humans in the western intellectual tradition have often found stimulating and terrifying. I've written before about medieval artificial intelligents (pun intended), but there are more well-known examples from more contemporary culture. Self-aware automata (or networked AI) is usually either presented as sinister (Skynet, which rightfully views humanity as a threat to its existence and tries to annihilate it) or tragic (Helen, the conscious computer in Galatea 2.2, who annihilates her "self" by disconnecting from the network). But my favorite self-aware machine is the Banana Jr. 6000, Oliver Wendell Jones' computer from Bloom County.

Still, I can't help but wonder if, some years from how, historians will point to this moment to mark the beginning of the arrival of our machine overlords.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tales from the Library, Part 2

In the underground treasure palace

I went to the Morgan Library & Museum to examine M. 751, particularly a passage on the wicked pope Sylvester II, more often known by his given name, Gerbert of Aurillac. He was a monk, a scholar, a teacher, an inventor, tutor and counselor to kings and emperors, a bishop, and finally a pope. One of his students credited him with introducing knowledge in astral science, geometry, and mathematics that was unknown in Christian Europe at the time. He lived during the second half of the tenth century, and was pope during the turn of the first millennium.

After he died, legends about him began to appear, and were circulated, with various embellishments, for at least the next four centuries.
The legends surrounding Gerbert are awesome, depicting him as a medieval Faust who sold his soul to the Devil for the sake of wisdom. M. 751 has a great version of this legend: Gerbert studied in Spain with a philosopher who taught him astronomy, divination, and astrology. There was one book, however, that Gerbert was never allowed to see. So he seduced his teacher's daughter, and with her collusion, got his teacher drunk one night and stole the forbidden book from under his pillow while he slept. To protect himself from his teacher's wrath, Gerbert used the knowledge in the book to summon the Devil, and promised him his soul in exchange for safety from his teacher, power, and forbidden knowledge.

After his pact with the Devil he had a meteoric rise. He tutored the Capetian king Robert the Pious, and the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II. While in Rome on one occasion, he noted a statue in a field outside of Rome. The statue pointed with one hand, and on its head was engraved "Strike Here." Instead of hitting the statue on the head, as other treasure-hunters had done, Gerbert noted where the shadow of the outstretched finger fell at noon. After dark, he came back with a servant and used his necromantic arts from the Devil to gain access to an underground passage. He discovered a subterranean golden palace, with a golden king and queen, golden knights, servants, and courtiers, playing dice and feasting. His servant tried to steal a knife from the banquet table, but a golden archer shot an arrow into the lamp that illuminated the palace. At once all of the figures jumped up and shouted, and Gerbert and his servant narrowly escaped. You can see this moment in the image above. The king and queen raise their hands in alarm as the archer aims his bow and arrow.

I love my job.

Droppin' Science

Photo by Daniel Schwen

A friend pointed me to this recent article in Scientific American about the emerging use of DNA testing on medieval manuscripts. Because medieval manuscripts were generally written on parchment (usually from cows, but sometimes sheep or goats), it's possible to get DNA from the manuscripts and determine if folios are from the same animal or related animals. Given that so much of the work of dating manuscripts is interpretive--examining the text, the handwriting, the abbreviations used--it would be exciting to see what we could find out from using a different set of methods. If we know that a manuscript was written at a particular place (if, for example, the scribe identified himself or his location) but DNA testing on the parchment revealed that the skins came from animals more common to places distant from the scribe, we might be able to learn more about trade routes.

This kind of scientistic approach has yielded wonderful insights in other areas of medieval history. For example, garnets used in Merovingian jewelry (6th-8th centuries) came from the Czech Republic, but also as far away as Scandinavia or the Indian sub-continent. This recent book, which arose from a conference at Harvard, outlines some of the ways that science can inform medieval history, with often exciting results.