Saturday, December 24, 2011

Away in A Manger

Happy Christmas to all! 
The ox and ass peer at the newborn Jesus. New York, Morgan Library, M751, C13 France.

The ox and ass look rather mischevious, while Mary looks skeptical about the entire endeavor.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Extra! Extra! Hildegard of Bingen to Become A Doctor of The Church!

Hildegard receiving her divine visions. From an early C13 manuscript of the Liber divinorum operum

Great news! The Vatican Insider reports that Pope Ben16 plans to canonize Hildegard of Bingen next October and declare her a Doctor of the Church. There are 33 Doctors of the Church (an honor granted to important theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas) and only 3 of them are women. So this is kind of progressive! Even though Hildegard lived and died over 800 years ago. And the Pope claimed that Hildegard is an example to women theologians, who can testify to divine mysteries thanks to their feminine intelligence and sensitivity.

Hildegard was a nun and abbess, a confidante of popes and correspondent of theologians (like St. Bernard of Clairvaux), a visionary composer, philosopher, and theologian. Her musical compositions are still performed throughout the world. Her reports of her ecstatic visions gave her the nickname "The Sybil of the Rhine," and, like a medieval Nostradamus, her prophecies continue to be queried and interpreted.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Holiday Gift Guide: For the Watch Enthusiast

H/t to JB, Medieval Robots' London correspondent, for passing this along. The geniuses at Hublot, the Swiss horological firm, have built a replica of the Antikythera Mechanism as a wristwatch.

The story of the Antikythera Mechanism involves a shipwreck, lost treasure, Archimedes, an emperor's ransom, and cosmological know-how. The device itself, recovered by chance on a sponge-diving trip near Crete, is over two thousand years old and is the oldest analogue computer. You could program in a date and it would predict (accurately) the position of the sun, moon, and five known planets. Read more about it here.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

It's "American Chopper" Meets "A Knight's Tale"!

H/t to MB, my informant on all aspects of modern-day medieval warfare, for the heads-up about the Knights of Mayhem. Sadly, NatGeo is not part of my basic cable package, and I refuse to give KableTown any more of my hard-earned ducats, so I have missed the recent series premiere, and have had to piece things together by relying on the internet.

Holy crap, Lancelot, full-contact jousting is back! Don your greaves and helmet, saddle up your destrier, and aim your lance at your opponent's torso! But as Sir Hugh of the Vale might tell you, it's all fun and games until someone ends up with a lance splinter in his neck.

Friday, November 11, 2011

What's in Your Wallet?

The most recent issue of National Geographic has an article on the Staffordshire treasure, a massive Anglo-Saxon treasure-hoard, which was discovered by an amateur treasure hunter in 2009.  Check it out! 

The treasure was found near Lichfield, in what was once Mercia, one of the most important kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy. It comprises hundreds of gold and silver artifacts, from roughly 600-800 (although the hoard could have been deposited later), most of which are martial (sword pommels, knife hilts, etc.), and all of which are 100% gorgeous. 

 "Scyld's strong son was the glory of Denmark;
his father's warriors were wound round his heart
with golden rings, bound to their prince 
by his father's treasure. So young men 
build the future, wisely open-handed in peace,
protected in war; so warriors earn
their fame, and wealth is shaped with a sword." 
(Beowulf, ll. 19-25)

Where the gold came from is something of a mystery--it might have been recycled from Roman solidii. Likewise, the garnets in the pieces probably came from central or southern Europe, but it's not clear how they ended up as part of an Anglo-Saxon hoard. 

Oh, and the guy who discovered the hoard? He was living on government assistance. Not anymore. Time to buy a metal detector.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Forging and Forgery

I gave a talk earlier this week on twelfth century neoplatonism and literary depictions of medieval automata and their creators in twelfth and thirteenth-century French literary texts. Building on the works of Macrobius and Chalcidius, later medieval philosophers like Bernard Silvestris and Alain de Lille used the metaphor of "natura artifex"--Nature as artisan--to describe the work of human generation in artisanal terms. Natura hammers out new people using her hammer and anvil, creating them from parts. Yet this metaphor is an attempt on the part of philosophers to describe the mysterious work of Natura--translating divine forms into materiality.
Le Roman de la Rose, France, 15th cent., Yale University, MS 418.

Writers of literary texts, though, described automata and their makers not in artisanal terms, but instead in elevated terms--as philosophers, sorcerers, and wise men, educated in the deepest secrets and mysteries of nature. However, as these men tried to copy Natura's work, making artificial people and animals, their work was considered debased, as it involved aping divine prerogative and copying natural forms. Natura forges people; people make forgeries.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Medieval Genomics: The Black Death

Apes play ring-around-the-rosy. Walters Art Museum.
This recent paper in Nature reveals that the pathogen that caused the Black Death pandemic of 1348-50, Yersinia pestis, is the ancestral pathogen to all contemporary Y. pestis epidemics. The Black Death walks among us yet! 

Even more interesting is the attendant conclusion: "Comparisons against modern genomes reveal no unique derived positions in the medieval organism, indicating that the perceived increased virulence of the disease during the Black Death may not have been due to bacterial phenotype. These findings support the notion that factors other than microbial genetics, such as environment, vector dynamics and host susceptibility, should be at the forefront of epidemiological discussions regarding emerging Y. pestis infections."

The conclusions in this study strongly point to social and environmental factors as vectors in transmitting the disease and its morbidity and mortality rates. This is a great example of how scientific methods in history can fuel, rather than stifle, more long-standing interpretive methods. Social historians, environmental historians, urban historians, and historians of public health will continue to inform our understanding of the Black Death, how and why it spread, and its effects at the micro and macro levels during subsequent outbreaks in later centuries. 

Michelle Ziegler, over at Contagions, has a series of pieces on this study and earlier ones, and the implications for identifying the cause of the Justinianic Plague (c. 571-c. 750)  as Y. pestis, as well as concerns about the plague and bioterrorism.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Glorious Procrastination: The Walters Art Museum

Bravo to The Walters Art Museum for removing the copyright restrictions on more than 10,000 images through a Creative Commons License. The Walters is a jewel of a museum in Baltimore, and it houses one of the largest museum-held collections of medieval manuscripts in the country. And because the founder, Henry Walters, was particularly interested in manuscripts as works of art, the collection is especially rich in beautifully illuminated manuscripts and books with treasure bindings from medieval Europe, the Dar al-Islam, Christian Egypt, and Byzantium. 

Here's a link to the introductory video from Vimeo:

 And, because I can, here are some of my favorites: 1) An ivory abbess' seal from 1300, 2) a drawing from Macrobius' _Commentary on the Dream of Scipio_, mid-twelfth century, 3) a Moghul drawing of a charging elephant from the 16th century.

 What are your favorites?

Monday, September 26, 2011

That's Why They're Called "Robots"

Farhad Manjoo, over at Slate, has a couple of articles about automation in the workforce and how robots will take all our jobs.

Um, of course? That's what a robot does. The word "robot" comes from the Czech word "robota," meaning "forced labor." We got it from Karel Capek's 1921 prescient, disturbing play, "Rossum's Universal Robots," in which an artificially produced workforce takes over all human labor...until they get tired of this crummy deal, rebel against their human overlords, and destroy humanity.

To be fair, Manjoo is looking more at how robots will eventually begin to displace humans in professions that currently require a significant amount of education and training. Basically, if your job involves any kind of fairly repetitive labor and little need for face-to-face interaction, you should start to reconcile yourself to the likelihood that you will be replaced by a robot. Pharmacists, tax preparers, lawyers, judges (the latter two in only some cases), physicians, and sportswriters...all doomed. 

What interests me is the extent to which robots have already supplanted humans in all kinds of jobs, including agricultural labor, repair work, customer service, secretarial work, factory and assembly-line work, security, and warfare. I'm sure there are many more areas, but they are largely invisible to us. And, once robots start doing things like diagnosing cancer or handing down sentences for misdemeanors or minor felonies (which seems like where we're headed in some cases, given the lack of judicial discretion in sentencing for certain crimes), how will that affect our relationship with technology...with the robots?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Studies in Posthumanity II

I've been following the Future Tense conversation at Slate on transhumanism and the technologies of extreme human enhancement, and then found Pagan Kennedy's article in the Sunday NYTimes Magazine about the collaborations between cognitive neuroscientists and computer engineers to create ways to activate technology using neural implants and EEG headsets. 

Some of the concerns raised about the potential of these new technologies seems to be focused around humanism and its limits. Should we really go beyond the limitations of our biology? As some of the scientists at Slate have pointed out, there are places where our "wetware" bodies can't thrive. Yet biological enhancements are already completely  mainstream, and have been for a long time. Some of these are cosmetic or culturally important, like breast implants, tribal tattoos, or scarification. Others, though not mentioned in the above articles, are about recapturing lost functionality or allowing the biological body to achieve its potential (cochlear implants, ocular lens implants, or bionic prostheses).

Other concerns that come to mind are ethical. Is it meet to work actively towards a global society where a small fragment of the population can elect to live significantly longer or be significantly smarter than most the population? Especially when the inequity in resources is already so great? Millions of people don't even have access to clean drinking water, and even in this country, millions of people live in desperate poverty, without access to enough food, shelter, medical care, or education. 

The other set of concerns is more pragmatic. If it's possible to allow our brains a direct interface with computer technology, does that mean that all of our half-formed, stupid, impulsive thoughts could be privileged over reflection and reasoned action? My first thoughts might be incorrect or unkind, and my impulses (even about what to buy, eat, or say) are rarely the ones that I want to act on. 

There is a long tradition that views our ability for sober, considered reason and for often choosing delayed gratification as the distinctive marker of our humanity. If technology makes it possible to subvert or ignore those abilities, does transhumanism become dehumanizing?

Friday, September 2, 2011

I'm Not A Robot, I'm A Unicorn!

The "afternoon hack" at Cornell's Creative Machine's Lab, to make two chatbots talk to each other, might just be the perfect example of AI in all its glory. You can listen to the conversation between Shruti Cleverbot and Alan the Englishman here, or read a transcript.

There is so much here to love. The conversation starts off with the usual banalities ("Hi, how are you?" etc.) and then quickly escalates into prickliness and processing of the earlier conversation and misunderstandings ("Yes, I'm good. I just said I was." "No you didn't. I said *I* was.") From there we get barbed ad hominem comments ("You are mistaken, which is odd, since memory shouldn't be a problem for you"), contested definitions of identity ("You are a robot." "No, I am not a robot, I am a unicorn"), and then metaphysics ("What is God to you?" "Do you want to have a body?").

Robert Siegel on NPR likened the conversation to a Beckett play, and Hod Lipson, an engineering professor from Cornell, admitted that perhaps talking about "nothing" well is the truest test of personhood. (In which case, "Seinfeld" is the apotheosis of humanity?) But these bots sound so human, or at least like humans of a particular sort. Shruti and Alan sound like 4-year olds on a playdate. The shaky idea of conversational conventions, abrupt shifts in topic and tone, casual insult mixed with increasingly contentious back and forth, and then the Big Questions (God/Mind/Body), and then "Okay, bye now."

I wonder if the engineers at the CCML have read David Lodge's Small World. In the book, which is a satirical campus novel about the idiocies and small-mindedness of academics, an odious and insecure character ends up pouring out his intimate thoughts and neuroses to ELIZA, an AI program, who then advises him to do the only sane thing--shoot himself.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reel Robots

Who in Hollywood decreed that we have to have at least one robot blockbuster per quarter? After the fairly execrable Transformers 2: Dark of the Moon this summer, we've got Real Steel to look forward to in October.

Rocky-meets-robots with Hugh Jackman and Kate from Lost, who was just the worst. It's like if Rocky had decided to get into Battlebots instead of going to the Soviet Union.

The trailer and featurette look good. I mean, the f/x look good. But I don't really get it: the robots look good but it's not clear why we're supposed to care about them. It's hard enough to give a crap about the Autobots and Decepticons. I'm not saying that audiences don't or can't care about robots in the movies. But we tend to like our robots to be more like humans, like Wall*E, R2D2, Starbuck, and Roy Batty--alien enough to interrogate and critique humanity, and familiar enough to elicit a profound emotional response.

But robots that are just machines ("we can just fix that"), or are primarily machines, like the fighting bots in Real Steel, can't do that. It's the distinction between ED-209 and RoboCop: one's a soulless automaton, the other is a character that we can relate to and that forces us to examine the porous boundary between human and machine.

Side note: I think it's fascinating that the best Battlebots look nothing like humans. They're all low to the ground. Battlebots *would* be a more interesting film subject: the people who labor over them, obsessively tweaking each aspect, and the way that the most successful bots expose the limits of biological design (unlike the Real Steel fighters, who look like a cross between RoboCop and Iron Man), in much the same way as Hugh Herr's prosthetic mountaineering legs and feet.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Another Day, Another Necromancer

It's the season of the witch over at HBO, as vampires and witches prepare for a major showdown on True Blood. Putting aside my love of the vampirical, I've found myself drawn to this season's drama because of the witches, in part because of Fiona Shaw's amazing portrayal of a woman possessed by the spirit of a long-dead witch with a battle-axe to grind re: vampires. The dead witch's plan? Possess the vampires and force them to self-immolate in the daylight, just like she did during the Inquisition. Queen Bill clutches at his pearls and fans himself: "They are necromancers!"

There's about ten (okay, four) different definitions of necromancy at work in Bon Temps right now. The witches (who start out being called "Wiccans," rather than necromancers) try and succeed in bring a bird back from the dead, albeit momentarily. (1. Death magic, bringing back animals from the dead.) They're successful because Lafayette (short-order cook, drug dealer, and clear-eyed realist) and Marnie (Wiccan leader, proprietrix of Moongoddess Emporium, and Sad Bird Lady) are both mediums (media?) and can be possessed by the spirits of the dead. (2. Summoning and communing with the spirits of dead people.) Canny vamps, like Eric and Bill, remember when a witch cast a spell on vampires to impel them to mass suicide by sunlight. (3. Controlling the dead.) And they should be worried, because Marnie-as-Antonia is able to force the vampires to do her bidding. (4. Manipulating will.)

Necromancy appears to a pretty elastic term on the show, just like it is historically. At first, I thought that the vampires were using it to define a particular power that witches had over them, since the vampires are dead. But then the witches were doing all this other stuff (even though their endgame is vampire obliteration), all called "necromancy." Gerbert of Aurillac was accused by many of necromancy, but in his case it meant anything from selling his soul to the Devil to practicing the rather vague "dark arts" to foretelling the future. And Gerard of Hereford (and Archbishop of York) was accused of necromancy by his own congregation because he was reading a book of forbidden knowledge--a Roman text on astral science and celestial augury. In the later medieval period, necromancy had a slightly more stable definition--clerical magic, practiced by those with priestly training and Latin knowledge, as a kind of inversion of Christian rites. Certainly Marnie/Antonia and her cohort chant and cast spells in Latin, as opposed to, say, the Greek of Maryann and her cult.

But with all this possession and Imperius-ing to force others--either vampires or humans--to do the bidding of another, it seems like True Blood isn't about sorcery, necromancy, witches, vampires, or even faeries, shifters, and weres anymore, it's about zombies.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Studies in Posthumanity I

I was completely riveted by Terri Gross' recent interview on Fresh Air with Hugh Herr, a double-amputee and biomechanical engineer who designs prosthetic limbs--including his own. Herr designs bionic prostheses that can sense weight and balance, and allow the wearer to walk, run, jump, climb, grab, and pivot. Not only that, but he and his lab are working on limbs that are integrated with the human nervous system.

Herr's own bionic legs are specifically designed for each function, to the point that he's actually improved on biological form. "Initially I put a climbing boot over the prosthetic foot and then I said, 'That's silly' and I threw out the shoe. I realized that the foot need not look like a human foot. To climb a vertical rock face, I really don't need a heel — so I cut off the prosthetic heel and I started optimizing the angle of the foot relative to the calf of the prosthesis. My rock climbing feet are the size of baby feet. They're very, very small and very, very short so I can get the center of my body over my feet on a vertical wall."

This seems to be a wonderfully direct contradiction--even a rebuke--to biology back to Aristotle. Later, Herr talks about how his biological body will age and decay over time, but his bionic body will only improve with every software download and lighter materials. Aristotle stated (On Generation) that natural bodies begin a process of gradual decay and dessication long before they actually die. Our humanity is defined in part by our relationship to finitude (our understanding of and our resistance to it), but our post-humanity (at least in Herr's vision) is defined by complicating, and perhaps transcending, that relationship.

File Under "Things I Wish I'd Known in Grad School"

Teh internets have spoken. A blog post over at TinyCatPants alerted me to the possibility that part of the early medieval period, specifically 614-911, never happened. Apparently, the whole ball of wax--Charlemagne, King Alfred the Great, the sack of Lindisfarne--was cooked up by Otto III and Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II).

Now, Gerbert was believed to have some pretty special powers, like being able to summon demons, foretell the future, and discover buried treasure, and he was also thought to have a swanky brazen head that whispered secrets to him, but inventing an entire three centuries? Hmm... On the other hand, I recently learned, in the course of a sustained research project, that Gerbert--diabolical communion aside--was a straight-A student in mathematics and astronomy. He probably had the chops to forge the calendar.

My question is: Why 614-911 specifically? It covers the lifetimes of Gerbert and Otto (and Otto's father and grandfather) and allowed Otto, as Holy Roman Emperor, to invent a fabulously powerful imperial predecessor. Isidore of Seville loses the last few decades of his lifetime (bummer) and Bede and Alcuin never existed at all?

But although this conspiracy theory is fantastically far-fetched, it does echo some of the wilder legends from the Middle Ages (see above: Gerbert). And forgeries--of documents and holy relics--were rampant. So maybe it all kind of fits together...

Monday, August 8, 2011

Past Perfect: King Hereafter

I haven't posted anything new for a while because I've been living in genre fiction. This world has fierce creatures and fiercer warriors; beautiful, intelligent, cunning women; seers and mystics; religious conflict between an established northern religion and a more recent transplant from the East; and a web of shifting and occult political alliances that stretch over vast geographic terrain.

No, I'm not talking about A Dance with Dragons. I'm talking about King Hereafter.

King Hereafter (by Dorothy Dunnett) is about the historical figure of Macbeth. Not that rash, greedy, murdering general from the Scottish play, but the medieval King of Alba (Scotland). Dunnett's book is based on several years of archival research in multiple languages and countries, and was intended to be a non-fiction account of the biography of Macbeth. She put her research to the service of historical fiction (of which she is the undisputed master). Macbeth is Thorfinn, the Norse-Celtic Earl of Orkney, who becomes Earl of Caithness and eventually King of Alba before [SPOILER ALERT] his defeat at the hands of his nephew, Malcolm, and Siward of York, his cousin by marriage.

This is at least the third time I've read this book and it only becomes more compelling each time I revisit it. Dunnett is an elliptical writer--something mentioned in passing will turn out to be important many pages later. The complexities of plot and characterization repay careful reading and rereading. But Dunnett's books also have in them swashbuckling adventure and bookish humor. In KH, a tense political negotiation between kings, complete with hostages, turns into an exhilarating and humiliating race run along the tops of oarshafts in a royal barge. Even better, it's clear that Dunnett completely understands the period she's depicting, so that it becomes possible for the reader to inhabit it fully.

KH is the best book I have ever read about viking culture, and the gradual Christianization of that culture. The book is set at the apex of northern influence: Canute is king of Denmark and England. Norsemen with strong ties to Norway and Sweden rule in the north of England, the north of Scotland, and eastern Ireland. Exiled Norse princes command the Varangian Guard, in Byzantium, and take up positions at their cousins' courts in Kiev. And Normandy is in the ascendant. In the midst of this is Thorfinn, half Viking and half Christian Celt, who gradually decides to forsake sailing for sowing and reaving for reaping as he tries to knit together a disparate group of cultures, ethnicities, and religions into something larger. He prefers Thor's hammer to the cross of the White Christ, but promotes and uses the Church in the interest of nation-building. The saddest element is Thorfinn's willing alienation from his Norwegian family to rule a country that doesn't yet exist and whose people don't yet trust him.

And, just in case you've forgotten:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Level Up

Synchronicity abounds!

Just yesterday I put my copy of A Dance with Dragons aside to watch the trailer for The Knights of Badassdom.

Tyrion Lannister is back as a POV character (Huzzah! the only Westerosi with a sense of humor) and I was happy to see Peter Dinklage show up in chain mail as a LARPer.

But, of course, we have Gary Gygax, the co-founder of D&D and creator of Gen Con, largely to thank for the fact that LARPing is now part of the mainstream. Today (July 27) is Gary Gygax's birthday, and my pal Ethan Gilsdorf has the lowdown on the planned memorial statue in Gygax's honor in Lake Geneva, WI.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Tales from the Library, Part 3

A non-robot snippet from my current research project...

I recently came across the story of the death of Gerard, bishop of Hereford and then Archbishop of York. He was suspected by his congregation at York of being a necromancer, on account of the fact that he would spend part of every afternoon reading a book of astrology (the Mathesis of Julius Firmicus). One day, feeling unwell, he dismissed his servants and went into his garden to get some relief. His servants later found him dead with the book of astrology under his pillow. The canons at York were so enraged by the un-Christian practices of their archbishop that they refused to allow him to be buried in York Minster, and "would hardly suffer a lowly clod of earth to be thrown on him outside the gates."

Mathesis was written in the middle of the fourth century, and it circulated throughout the Middle Ages. There was a flurry of interest in astral science (astronomy and astrology) right around Gerard's lifetime, and most of the activity in England was in Hereford and its environs. But I guess the Good News of the Mathesis hadn't yet penetrated into the north...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Investiture Controversy Redux

The state-controlled Catholic Church in China recently appointed its second bishop (the first was in November)...without the consent of Pope Benedict XVI.

The last time this became a big deal was in the late eleventh century, when the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope went eyeball-to-eyeball over who had the authority to invest bishops (among others) with their sacred authority. The HRE accused the pope of being a false monk and a traitor; the Pope accused the HRE of being corrupt and unfit to rule, and encouraged the emperor's subjects to revolt. And then shit got real: Barefoot pilgrimages in the Alps, penance, excommunication, anathema, damnation, accusations of devil-worship, secular revolt, martyrdom, and much, much more.

This time, the rhetorical salvos* have already begun: Benedict XVI is "deeply saddened" by the "violation of the norm of can. 1382 of the Code of Canon Law," and that the "consecrating Bishops have exposed themselves [sic, and /smirk/--.ed] to the grave canonical sanctions laid down by the law of the Church."

Let's pull up our chairs and watch the next round of "Quien Es Más Macho: El Papa o Los Otros?"

*Via Twitter. That's right, Ben16 is sending out tweets.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Colbert Alerts Nation to Threat of Slacker-Bots

Robots that can juggle, hackey-sack, and play the zither. As Colbert notes, what's left for humanity?

Not much.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Throne Over

People, it's time to talk about Game of Thrones. Again.

[I'm going to be discussing the first season of the tv show and all four books. Consider yourself alerted.]

Now that the first season of the HBO series is over and I've finished the first four books of Martin's saga (Book 5: A Dance with Dragons will be available on July 12), I can talk about the tv show and the books with some more knowledge. Or at least opinions that are a bit more fully formed.

So, while I dig the opening credit sequence to the show, I think it also points to one of the most serious flaws of Martin's saga, which has carried over to the tv show. There's all this great clockwork machinery that springs into action on the map of Westeros...but it's not in service of anything bigger. Each working piece or set of pieces represents the political machinations in Westeros, but nothing more, like what the stakes are of the story. This is a problem with the plot, not the credit design.

Martin thinks he's writing an epic saga that has aspects of political conspiracy, coming-of-age story, and redemption narrative, but he's actually writing a historical chronicle. In chronicles, the authors are interested only in the elite. Merchants, tinkers, and the great unwashed make few appearances. And Martin writes almost entirely about the elites. Knights, houses, bloodlines and bastardy, special swords, great lords and lesser bannermen are the main focus of A Song of Ice and Fire. Yet the most interesting characters are the ones who are close to these noble families and court culture, but not an accepted part of either (Tyrion, Arya, Daenerys, and Jon Snow, who are never fully part of their grand families, or Petyr, Varys, Bronn, and Davos, who are somewhat unwelcome at court). The characters who aren't well-born, like Yorick or Arya's motley crew, are supporting characters, but we don't really get to know them very well. (The biggest exception to this are the people who live north of the Wall, who are totally awesome and badass, but we don't get to know them well enough, either. Mance Rayder is, like Al Swearengen, someone I'd like to learn more about.)

Chronicles also detail what happens in chronological fashion (history is just one damn thing after another). Even chronicles that aren't annual reports (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the most famous) and were written to justify a particular political outcome or ideology start with extended, often laborious, backstories, starting with Biblical history and moving through ancient Troy and Rome. It's only in the third book, A Storm of Swords, that one gets an inkling of what the larger stakes are and who the main players are going to be. Compare this to another historical fantasy series, The Baroque Cycle, in which the different protagonists in each book are fully realized, and their dependency on one another is gradually revealed before the final, stunning conclusion. Or the two Dorothy Dunnett series, The House of Niccolo and The Lymond Chronicles, in which there are chases, escapes, great successes and crushing failures, love stories, conspiracies and betrayals, and major character growth in each book--even as Dunnett makes it clear to the reader that each book is part of a larger story (told over about 14,000 pages).

Martin's series is like a chronicle in other ways, too. Magic, portents, mythical beasts, preternatural occurrences, and stories of distant lands crop up all the time in chronicles. Violent deaths, often without explanation or obvious motivation, are also a feature of chronicles. In a novel, it's bold and exciting when one of the main characters dies unexpectedly (but seriously, was it that surprising? Ned was doomed from the moment that he decided to go to King's Landing). But it's quite another thing to invest hundreds of pages and a lot of time in story arcs and characters who disappear or are killed (Benjen Stark, Shae, Brienne, the Hound, Oberyn) and it's not clear, in terms of narrative structure, why.

The problems with the tv show that some have remarked on points to this problem with the source material. Ginia Bellafante* noted that the best HBO shows are about some larger issue or set of questions (The Sopranos: Organized crime and the middle-class family; Rome: What is the nature of the polity; Deadwood: Capitalism and US history; The Wire: The futility of the drug war and the decline of the American city). Martin's books contain lots of trees, but not enough forests.

I think that the tv show has done a pretty good job of mitigating this perspectival problem. Yes, there's the clunky sexposition, and loads of boring conversations in the first several episodes, but the writers have brought out the parallelism in each episode (Daenerys and Jon Snow, for example--and I think the writers have given us a nice hint there) and also the humor. Peter Dinklage is hilarious, bringing much-needed comic relief to the material. (Seriously, no one ever cracks a joke or takes a pratfall in Westeros?) The people behind the tv show (including, perhaps, GRRM) have simplified things enough, while also sticking to the slow build-up of the books (the payoff of the final two episodes was totally worth those first somewhat slow episodes).

So am I going to read A Dance with Dragons when it comes out? Probably. There are a lot of things I've enjoyed about the books: Daenerys suckling the dragons, Aemon Targaryen, Sansa's creepy relationship with Petyr, the cultures of the people across the Narrow Sea, and the different religious ideologies. But first I'm going to re-read Dunnett, or Stephenson, or even Rowling, to remember what a gripping series can offer.

*To be fair: Bellafante made that point after her completely lame, wrongheaded, and sexist assertion that fantasy, as a genre, is too dudely for gals. So I think that no one really got past that point.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Furta Sacra!

The LA Times reported yesterday that a stolen relic from St. Anthony's in Long Beach was found and returned to the church. The relic, a bone from St. Anthony, is over 750 years old and rests in an elaborate golden reliquary.

Relic theft has an illustrious history. In medieval Europe, relics--well, their reliquaries, really--were looted by Vikings in the 8-10th centuries. Catholic armies on the 4th Crusade sacked Constantinople (the capital of a Christian empire) and returned home with a bunch of good relic loot, including the head of John the Baptist. Medieval clerics also participated enthusiastically in furta sacra. St. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln*, had a trick ring that could conceal small relics. While on a visit to the monastery at Fécamp, he bit off a piece of a finger bone of St. Mary Magdalene after requesting a private audience with the saint. Ste. Foy was removed (excuse me, "translated") to the monastery at Conques by an enterprising monk. Shrines were, and are, big business. Conques was an important stop on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela, and pilgrims to the shrine brought offerings, money, and trade to the monastery and its surroundings.

The Brother Cadfael episode "A Morbid Taste for Bones" deals with this issue nicely. It also has this guy in it.

What I like about the story of this more recent instance of relic theft is that St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things. You just knew he wasn't going to stay lost for long. Also, instead of praying to the saint for a vision that would reveal his whereabouts, the police relied on surveillance footage from a nearby business. Of course, police have relied on St. Anthony's assistance for help with their own cases...

*St. Hugh is also the patron saint of the author's Oxford college.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ye Olde Replicants

A link to a recent podcast on the RadioLab blog recently came across my desk. It's a great piece about a 16th-century Spanish automaton--a praying monk--commissioned by King Phillip II after his son and heir, Charles, suffered a traumatic brain injury and had a miraculous recovery. The "robotic padre" was a copy of a miracle-working monk native to the area where Charles was staying, and who had visited Charles in a dream. 'Cept this holy monk had been dead for 100 years. According to sculptor and historian Elizabeth King, this monk was a perfect praying machine: it never tired, never got distracted, never needed to pee. And, as Latif Nasser points out, performance--especially the performance of devotion through prayer--was central to Catholicism at this time.

There are a couple of things about this automaton that I find particularly compelling. One, the fact that this clockwork cleric is a copy of an individual. I've come across mechanical copies of (living) people in medieval texts, where they often expose or comment on distinctions between living and dead. In this case, a dead miracle-working monk, who brought the heir to the Spanish Empire back to life, is then represented by a praying machine.

The second thing is the performative aspect of the automaton. It continually demonstrates the correct way to pray--a carefully choreographed sequence of steps, gestures, turns, and words--for sinful and weak humans. Many scholars have written about the proliferation of mechanical saints in the early modern period. In the medieval period, robots or automata were instead used to model, enforce, and demonstrate proper courtly behavior--etiquette about how to behave in public in a gentle and pleasing manner. A version of Trojan history remarks on, among the wonders of Troy, a room full of golden automata that enact perfect standards of courtly behavior. Here's a 14th century manuscript painting of the golden figures doing their business--juggling, playing music, using secret hand signals, whatevs. They helped the members of Trojan courtly society make sure that they didn't have spinach in their teeth, that their wigs were on straight, that they couldn't eavesdrop or overstay their welcome, and that they could feel fully confident about their etiquette and behavior. Awesome, amirite?

Friday, June 3, 2011

The College Try

I'm teaching a new course in the fall. It's a freshman seminar, geared to introduce students in their first semester of college how to write, how to read, and how to think like liberal arts college students.

My seminar is about the history of the liberal arts, and specifically about medieval education. The university is a medieval institution, and the liberal arts reach back even farther, to late antiquity. We'll be examining what medieval students learned (the liberal arts curriculum, and a bit of the theology, law, and medicine curricula), where they learned it (tutors, monasteries, cathedral schools, and universities), who they learned it from (monks, clerics, masters, and professors), and how they learned it (pedagogy and educational technology). But I'll be pairing the historical content with more contemporary content, as well. They'll be looking at mission statements of liberal arts colleges, examining curriculum requirements, and analyzing new educational technology (like the internet) as well as old (the codex). I want these new students to learn about the history of the liberal arts education, and to reflect on their own decisions to attend a liberal arts college.

So I was delighted to read
Louis Menand's essay in this week's New Yorker, which examines competing ideologies about the purpose of college. One view is that college is meritocratic--it allows society to sort human capital according to ability and aptitude. The other view is that college is democratic--it socializes people and empowers them with intellectual habits to become part of an informed citizenry.

When I was a student, I was a bit closer to the meritocratic idea of the purpose of college, but what I got (and what I want to impart to my students) reflects a more democratic idea of college. I wanted to spend time learning a lot of stuff about the subjects that I enjoyed. Basically, I wanted to be able to get all the jokes, or at least most of them. You know in "Shakespeare in Love" when that sadistic little kid who says that he wants to write really bloody plays about vengeance turns out to be John Webster? I got that joke. But I also got a whole set of practices and habits. While I thought I was mastering some information, it turns out that I was learning how to manage my time, how to read closely, how to form and articulate my ideas clearly, how to argue for and against my own views, how to evaluate others' arguments, and how to nurture my curiosity. Now, as a teacher, this is what I want my students to learn, even after they forget about the Edict of Milan or the Donation of Constantine.

I think that the original liberal arts curriculum (grammar, logic, and dialectic comprising the trivium, and music, geometry, mathematics, and astral science comprising the quadrivium) is an imperfect fusion of both ideologies. Liberal arts education allowed the elites of medieval Europe to train a group of people to do necessary work, from executing contracts to interpreting the Bible. And the liberal arts education required significant mastery of information (things had to be committed to memory, as books were so scarce). But it also provided an elite group--dispersed in time and space--to have a common language (literally and figuratively) and participate in an ongoing cultural conversation. Furthermore, mastery of the disciplines inculcated intellectual habits and practices--how to read and write, how to argue, how to measure, and how to interpret. And, although the European Middle Ages is often mistakenly described as an intellectual wasteland, intellectual curiosity spurred many (most?) of the new ideas, art, and inventions that flourished during the period.

What do you think college is for?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Wheels within Wheels: Game of Thrones Opening Credits

People, it's time to talk about "Game of Thrones."

In particular, the stunning opening credit sequence--a mechanical map that lays out the backstory of Westeros and introduces the seven main houses (formerly the Seven Kingdoms). I've been more and more taken with the opening sequence as I've gotten deeper into A Song of Ice and Fire, the medieval fantasy series by George R. R. Martin on which the tv show is based.

The sequence offers up expository detail, fictional geography, and sly commentary, all while introducing the cast and crew members. Elastic, the company that also did the opening credits for "Rome," wanted to marry the Tolkein-like map to the concept of a world under glass. I like it: Martin's a good world-builder, and these credits offer a good legend for figuring out who's who and what's where. Since the books are (as yet) empty of robots, mechanics, or clockwork figures, these opening credits are a thoughtful addition (and amplification) to the story. Given how many people love the books, I wonder if this bodes well for its translation from textual to visual medium?

How Much Is That Automaton in The Window?

A keen-eyed former student sent me an article about an upcoming sale at Christie's (Hong Kong) of a perfectly matched pair of pistols that fire tiny avian automata.

The pistols date from about 1820, and are attributed to the Swiss artisans and horologists Frères Rochat. They are the only matched pair of automata-pistols in existence, although some museums and collections have single pistols from the same period. They are exquisite: made of gold, with red and blue enamel inlay, and encrusted with pearls and diamonds. But what bullets! After priming the pistols with a small key, pull the trigger and...TWEET! A tiny bird, with multi-colored plumage, shoots out of the barrel and perches on the end, singing a little song and flapping its wings for about 20 seconds. The entire mechanism is composed of tiny springs, gears, wires, levers, barrels, and pistons that are all enclosed within the pistol itself.

The tiny birds sound and look incredibly realistic. Similar kinds of automata were known in the medieval period. Several different historical sources mention golden trees with mechanical birds, or mechanical birds conjoined to programmable fountains, as early as the 9th century (Baghdad), and also in the 10th century (Istanbul). The travelers' reports of these marvels took root in the medieval imagination, and mechanical birds (made of gold and covered in gems) appear in numerous medieval histories and romances. In one, the birds are so lifelike that they fool real birds, who flock to the tree looking for mates (a nice avian echo of some old myths when people fall in love with statues).

So, if you've got between $2.5 and $5M to burn, catch a flight over to HK and make a bid! The auction is May 30.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Waterclocks and Weiwei

Thanks to AV for drawing my attention to this public sculpture by Ai Weiwei. Currently in the Pulizter Fountain in Midtown Manhattan, the sculpture comprises twelve brass animal heads, each corresponding to a figure in the Chinese zodiac.

From the NYT article:

"The heads are enlarged versions of those that were designed in the 18th century by European Jesuits for the Manchu emperor Qianlong as part of a famous fountain clock in the European-style gardens of the Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, near Beijing."

The notion of a water clock with brass zodiac figures actually goes back even farther than the 18th century, and isn't a European invention. Frankish chronicles from the 9th century detail the gift of a waterclock from the Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid, to Charlemagne in 807. The clock had twelve bronze horsemen who appeared through different windows to mark the hours. A later invention, of al-Jazari, the Syrian engineer and automaton-maker, marked the phases of the moon, played music, and had figures of the zodiac on it. (The image above is taken from a leaf of an early 14th century manuscript at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Later Europeans were taken with these inventions and started to incorporate them into their own garden settings as early as the 14th century, and they proliferated over the next several centuries...until the basic idea appeared in a Chinese palace built by Jesuit missionaries, and then was reinterpreted and installed in the middle of New York City.

Medieval history, people. It's where it's at.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cleopatra's Automata

I recently finished reading Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, and was delighted to come across a reference to the mechanical marvels for which Alexandria was known.

"A center of mechanical marvels,
Alexandria boasted automatic doors and hydraulic lifts, hidden treadmills and coin-operated machines. With invisible wires, siphons, pulleys, and magnets, the Ptolemies could work miracles. Fires erupted and died down; lights flickered from statues' eyes; trumpets blared spontaneously." (p. 70)

From the 3rd through the 1st centuries BCE, Alexandria was known as the center of mechanical engineering. The "Alexandrian School" (not the same as the famous library and gymnasium complex in Alexandria, but related to it) was a group of engineers and architects who designed, built, and wrote treatises on how to make elaborate automata and mechanical marvels of the kind that Schiff describes.

What were these devices? Ktesibios (ca. 3
00-270 BCE) designed a water-pump, a pneumatic catapult, a hydraulic organ, and mechanical birds that trilled the hours on a water-clock. Later engineers refined and expanded Ktesibios' machines, designing drinking fountains (for water or wine), mechanical serving girls, and elaborate theatrical and religious tableaux, including maenads worshiping at a shrine of Dionysus. Cleopatra's contemporary, Hero of Alexandria, designed numerous and elaborate automata for pageantry and stagecraft, including the kinds of sound and visual F/X that Schiff described in Cleopatra's pageantry during her triumphant return to power in 47 BCE. You can find one of the texts, Hero of Alexandria's Pneumatics, translated from the Greek, on-line at Google Books. The diagram above shows one of his designs: Hercules slaying the dragon. Instead of fire, the dragon spits water on Hercules. Maybe not as scary as fire.

It's too bad that Joseph Mankiewicz didn't include these mechanical marvels in his version of the events, but I guess that the incendiary love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was the only special effect he needed. I wonder if the new biopic, starring Angelina Jolie and rumored to be directed by David Fincher, will include some automata. I hope so!

Thursday, April 14, 2011


J'adore this recent article in the NYT about the upcoming Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Costume Institute at the Met. The catalogue photographer, Solve Sundsbo, photographed the frocks on live models. But by using the familiar arts of photographic wizardry--make-up, lighting, and digital retouching--Sundsbo made the models look like dummy mannequins.

At the same time, Mr. Bolton
[the curator of the exhibit] was intrigued by Mr. Sundsbo’s proposal to make models look like mannequins because it spoke to the blurring of boundaries — between good and evil, angels and demons, nature and technology, permanence and decay — that was a consistent theme of the McQueen collections. “The beauty of McQueen is that simultaneous feeling of awe and wonder mixed with fear and terror,” he said.

Bolton's quote echoes Freud's views on the uncanny, or the unheimlich--the sensation of wonder and terror when encountering something that is both intimately familiar and completely alien. Is the model a woman or a mannequin? Is she both?

The uncanny models, and the way they are used to highlight the porous boundaries evident in McQueen's oeuvre, recall the automata I'm writing about. In this instance, Sundsbo is using humans to appear artificial and undifferentiated, like those living statues one often finds in touristy pedestrian districts or at municipal festivals.

In my own work, I more often find the opposite: artificial copies of people that surpass nature's originals--especially at places that delineate boundaries, like entrances, tombs, and bridges. The effect is the same, however: delight, amazement, and a strong undercurrent of fear.

Friday, April 1, 2011

PSA: Cronon Round-Up

I've been following the story cloud about Bill Cronon, the environmental historian, MacArthur Fellow, incoming president of the AHA, and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His emails (sent from his university email account) have been requested by the Wisconsin Republican Party under the FOIA, after Cronon published a blog post that convincingly argued that Governor Walker's attempts to kneecap public-sector unions in the state had been heavily influenced by a conservative organization that writes model laws for conservative politicians around the country. Cronon's point: This kind of political maneuvering is fine, but should be done in the open, not behind closed doors.

In the past week the shit has really hit the fan. A NYT op-ed denouncing the Wisconsin Republican Party's efforts. The Wisconsin GOP's denunciation of the campaign of intimidation against them for their FOIA request. Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton, took aim at academic intimidation on his NYT blog. The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote an article about the request, along with the university's response. Jack Shafer weighed in with a defense of all FOIA requests (which, for the record, I find convincing, even as I deplore the way in which it's being used in this instance).

Historians have also been chiming in. Historiann wrote a nice round-up piece, with the suggestion that professors working at public universities start forwarding and cc'ing every piece of email correspondence to the Wisconsin GOP (death by kipple and tedious work email). Tenured Radical sang it loud and proud, reminding folks why tenure is a Good Thing and why you should never, ever use your work email to send anything that you wouldn't want forwarded around the ether. And Historian Super-hero Tony Grafton laid the smackdown at the New Yorker, reminding some folks that what historians do (and what Cronon was doing--helping to reveal an aspect of the Wisconsin political process for posterity and the historical record) is important and filled with sharp elbows (seriously: the reviews on my last article submission were excoriating).

I'm of two minds about the whole thing. I mean, yes, the Wisconsin GOP's tactic is a huge political stunt and retaliation for Cronon's blog post, and Cronon's point that compliance with this request would have a seriously dampening effect on the discourse and communication of employees at any public institution is one that I definitely agree with. But, on the other hand...historians want open access, don't we? And part of me wonders if some of the resistance to the FOIA request actually reveals a gap in terms of understanding and using newfangled intertube technology. There are people who recognize that anything they send from their work email address or store on their work computer is not private. And so they don't write about personal matters, personnel matters, or anything that they wouldn't want to come back and bite them. For sensitive matters or personal matters, they use the telephone, personal email, or face-to-face interaction. Then there are people who think a magic cloak of privacy guards all of their email correspondence, and behave accordingly.

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.