On the Virtues of: babbling

All babies come to that developmental stage wherein they begin popping, gurgling, and shushing to themselves as they explore the joys of vocalising. Eventually they find their way to words and often to their particular words of choice (‘no’ being favorite for obvious reasons). Sometimes children love particular words not for their meaning or anything to do with communication whatsoever, but simply for the wonderful feel of the word when spoken. I remember as a child loving words with ‘er’ sounds in them like ‘worm’ and ‘burp’, the latter much to my oh-so-proper mother’s consternation.

Words in which sense and sound coalesce are, to my thinking, particularly satisfying. I’m not referring here to onomatopoeia but something more substantive as in words like ‘exasperation’, ‘blandish’, ‘eluctation’, ‘glorious’, ‘plight’,’treacherous’, and even the humble ‘worm’ that I so adored as a child. Indeed, some of the very words used to phonetically identify sounds do themselves aurally convey their meaning. ‘Plosive’, ‘fricative’, and ‘sibilant’ with their respective puffing, friction, and hissing all sound like what they denote.

A saint whose patience has been much tried. (Lose the facial hair and it’s a pretty fine representation of my mother when I was small.) St Denis, Il de France. 2016

The word ‘exasperation‘ (from the Latin ex-asperō, to make quite rough) provides a perfect example of this mingling of sound and sense for the whole word is one continuous in- and exhalation of long-suffering. Where that first blot of syllable smacks one in the face, that second vowel feels like the in-drawn breath as if one is slowly, deliberately counting to ten. This, when followed by that sibilant /s/, is the very sound of someone at their wit’s end, the monosyllabic equivalent of “God give me patience!” The [ex]plosive /p/ that follows indicates that no divine gift of endurance has been forthcoming and it’s all going pear-shaped. The /ʃ/ with which the final sigh of a syllable begins expels the breath in one last plea for the grace to suffer fools before one clenches one’s teeth on the word’s end. It’s over. You know it, and in a very few seconds, those fools by whom you are beset will find out how very, very over it is.

Forget flash fiction. Words like ‘exasperation’ are little dramas all by themselves. They just need to be given life and breath.

So now, rather than repeating words like ‘worm’ and ‘burp’ to myself ad infinitum for the pleasure of how they feel and sound, I suppose I treat words more like wine, savoring them for how they play upon the senses, for their colour, sound, and even scent. For the sake of savoring, I share one of my favorite Michael Drayton sonnets to be read aloud (since poetry is always best so). The bolded words are those in which sound and sense coalesce evocatively for me. While I know that others may find other words more or less evocative, I cannot imagine any reader not being intoxicated by the final six lines.

Truce, gentle love, a parly now I crave,
Me thinkes ’tis long since first these warres begun,
Nor thou, nor I, the better yet can have:
Bad is the match, where neither partie wonne.
I offer free conditions of faire peace,
My heart for hostage that it shall remaine,
Discharge our forces, here let malice cease,
So for my pledge thou give me pledge againe.
Or if no thing but death will serve thy turne,
Still thirsting for subversion of my state;
Doe what thou canst, raze, massacre, and burne;
Let the world see the utmost of thy hate:
I send defiance, since if overthrowne,
Though vanquishing, the conquest is mine owne.

N.B. For any who might say this is no more than phonesthetics (sound symbolism), I would say no. I’m not claiming any instrinsic meaning to any of the consonant clusters much less the phonemes above. Rather, I’m attending to the breath and movement of the word as a whole word. Of course, I willingly confess I don’t really understand the whole phonesthematic business. So, if there’s someone out there deeply devoted to that theory, I would be happy to hear more, but let’s agree to make delight and revelry rather than prim pedantry the point.

Drayton, Michael. “Sonnet 33 (63)”, Poems of Michael Drayton vol. 1, ed. John Buxton. Harvard UP, 1953, 18.

Sic transit gloria mundi

I strongly suspect that most people who read this blog also subscribe to the OED’s word of the day as I have done for some years. Many times, the OED’s word of the day is ‘archaic,’  having been sadly ejected from common parlance by the barbarities of linguistic change.  Such ejections are the reason why we weed our gardens when we’d all really rather go out and aberuncate the hell out of that doggone Canada thistle that has somehow managed to resurrect itself for the third summer in a row!

Other times, rather than ‘rare and archaic,‘  the word of the day has the more valedictory categorization of ‘obsolete‘. I define obsolete as ‘given short-shrift and utterly deserving of revitalisation’. Doubtless, I do so partly out of self-defense because these are not infrequently words I still use. (I do not even try to keep up with the cultural memos on such things.)

What he said. St. DenisSome times, the OED selects words that I’ve never seen before and never, ever, ever want to forget. Here, for example, is one of my favorites from some time back:

† morigerous, adj. Obedient, compliant, submissive. Also figurative.
Origin: A borrowing from Latin, combined with an English element. Etymons: Latin mōrigerus, -ous suffix.
Etymology: <  classical Latin mōrigerus compliant, obliging ( <  mōr-, mōs custom (see moral adj.) + -gerus (see -gerous comb. form), after mōrem gerere to humour or comply with the wishes of a person) + -ous suffix. Compare earlier morigerate adj.

If ever a word deserved a linguistic defribillator! Here are a few examples, for the work of resusciation:

“Good heavens, Julia! Why can’t you be morigerous like your sister?”

“Years of eye-rolling and impatient sighs on the part of his spouse led Mr. Henry to stifle a lightening quick wit and tendency to pun. Humiliated into a morigerous state that better suited her tastes and inclinations, Mr. Henry was the lesser for the change, as indeed was the world about him.”

Now, there are of course the days when OED’s word is not so much obsolete as underused. This was the case with one of my all-time favorite words of the day which also happens to come from one of my favorite Dickens’ novels (not my absolute favorite–that would be Little Dorrit, but Our Mutual Friend is way up there). Those in the academic world will instantly recognize this word’s applicability both to a particular species of undergraduate and certain faculty colleagues.

Podsnappery, n. The characteristic behaviour or attitudes of Dickens’s Mr Podsnap; insular complacency and blinkered self-satisfaction. Etymology: < the name of John Podsnap (see Podsnap n.) + -ery suffix.

For examples, one cannot do better than to quote John Podsnap’s creator:

1864   C. Dickens Our Mutual Friend (1865) I. i. xi. 98   “These may be said to have been the articles of a faith and school which the present chapter takes the liberty of calling, after its representative man, Podsnappery.”

To this, I add:

“Marguerite’s fork hung suspended in mid-air. Only a life-time of good manners kept her jaw from dropping. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d encountered such podsnappery. Not on a first date, at any rate. She might have remained in that stupor well beyond the bounds of good manners had not the cauliflower on her fork decided it could endure no more suspense. It jumped.”

Vivat lætitia verborum.

NB Aberuncate has not–to the best of my knowledge–ever been a word of the day for the OED, but I couldn’t resist using it as it is one of those highly satisfying words that–like its synonym extirpate–does most ably “suit the action to the word, the word to the action”.

On the Virtues of Books of Hours


Book of Hours, 14th century, © CNRS-IRHT, Bibliothèque de Rennes Métropole, MS 1511 ff.186v-181v (52)

Time–with its mysterious elasticity–has always been a source of fascination to me. It runs through one’s fingers like water one day only to plod along with the all vim of a dead wristwatch the next. As a little girl, when I wanted to wear myself out at night and fetch unwilling sleep, I would lay in bed trying to imagine what time meant to stars and worlds which had come into being all those eons ago. Was everything felt as “now” to them, or did they feel the weight of millenia moving over and about them as they stretched themselves in space? Did they feel the drift of their sister stars away as the years marched on, or was the movement so slow they did not notice until one day such vast expanses lay between them that by the time the messages of light arrived, they would be long dead?

One. Yes, I  was a strange child. Two. Bad natural science and even worse physics.  Be warned, parents: this is is what comes of feeding a steady diet of PBS science and nature programs to children with an inveterate habit of anthropomorphizing.

Confronted by the vagaries of time–constructed reality on the one hand and existential steam engine on the other–we humans attempt to order, organize, and schedule as we can in order to shore up our sense of control over the manifestly uncontrollable. At least, we do so until we come to such days as we live in now. It’s not that some of us aren’t as busy–or even busier–than we’ve ever been, but something beyond the mere uncertainty of the future feels different right now, as if time were oceanic and we are drifting–not adrift, but drifting–on the surface of something we cannot understand much less control.

This would be a good time to pull out your Book of Hours if you’re fortunate enough to have one of these beautiful and practical little medieval manuals filled with prayers for private devotions. The early 15th-century Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry (Cloisters) seen below is one of the celebrated with its delicate spectacular ivy trailing over nearly every page and its celestial blues.

The Hours included in this manuscript as well as those of more humble specimen were a modified form of the liturgy of the Divine Hours itself a modification of the ordering of the Day with prayer as established by St. Benedict in the sixth century.  Some of the most beautiful codices produced in the Middle Ages were Books of Hours, a testament to the value placed upon their importance by those who commissioned them. The sheer number of them that remain from thirteenth-sixteenth centuries testifies to their practical importance in ordering the day with petitions, invocations of divine and saintly power, praise, and blessing.

Rather than go on at length about either the utility or glory of Books of Hours–and there is much that has been written  I offer up the the modern poet Elizabeth Jennings’ “Notes for a Book of Hours” from Song for a Birth or a Death (1961). As Jennings was a keen observer of art, it would have been interesting to see what kind of art she would have imagined filling her book of hours. In the absence of such instructions, I use one of my favorites, the Coëvity Hours the praises of which I have sung before. Jennings’ poems are, I think, the perfect modern expression of the human desire to express in art and song the troubling wonder and perplexed longing (however joyous) which rises when mystery beckons.

St Michael CBL w 082 9v

St Michael (looking rather more cuddly than martial). Coëtivy Hours, CBL W 082 f.9v (49)

Notes for a Book of Hours


Kneeling to pray and resting on the words
I feel a stillness that I have not made.
Shadows take root, the following light is laid
Smoothly on stone and skin. I lean toward.
Some meaning that’s delayed.

It is as if the mind had nervous fingers,
Could touch and apprehend yet not possess.
The light is buried where the darkness lingers
And something grateful in me wants to bless
Simply from happiness.

The world dreams through me in this sudden Spring.
My senses itch although the stillness stays.
God is too large a word for me to sing,
touch upon my spirit strums and plays:
What images will bring

This moment down to words that I can use
When not so rapt? The hours, the hours increase.
All is a movement, shadows now confuse,
Darkening the soft wings of the doves of peace,
And can I tame or choose?


I have to start the whole thing from the source,
Go back behind the noisy tower of tongues,
Press on my words new meanings, make my songs
Like breath from uncontaminated lungs
Or water from a new-found water-course.

Not to convince you, that is not my aim,
Simply to speak and to be gladly heard.
I have the oils, the waters, but the name
Eludes me still. Within a single word
I want the christening, the flowering flame.

Coevity Hours, VBL W 082 f 141r

Portrait of Prigent VII de Coëtivy in prayer as the Archangel Michael and other angels battle demons. Coëtivy Hours, CBL W 982 f.141r (p47)

Men had it once who carved far out of sight
Demons and angels, all anonymous;
Skill was another name for pure delight.
My angels must convince, be obvious.
I must create the substance and the light.

The cosmic vision fades. Within my mind
The images are laid, books on a shelf
Dusty and old. I only need to find
Some way to show the struggle in myself —
The demons watchful but the angels blind.


In the cool cloisters and the choirs I hear
The open-handed words, the pleading psalms.
The chant is sober and it soothes and calms
Though what the words depict is full of fear;
I gather all the shadows my arms.

I cannot sing but only hear and trace
The meaning underneath the echoes, wait
For the resumption of a scattered state.
Such concentration screwed into my face —
Can it reflect an inner mood of grace?

What do they think who kneel within these stalls,
Young, old, white, black? The world outside still gropes
Not for a paradise but for its hopes
Come true in time. The chanting sinks and falls —
The great bell silent, none to pull the ropes.


            The sound is ordered, cool.
I heard somebody say
Once that the liturgy is diffused
Theology. I think they meant the way
The music and the words are used,
Austere yet beautiful.

             A world of dogma can
Within these hours be pressed.
Both day and night are counted by
The times of exhortation and of rest.
The psalms can both rejoice and sigh,
Serve every need of man.

              I need to make my own
Great book of hours, record
Matins and lauds, prime, terce and vespers,
With no authority but my own word.
The psalms are loud with truth; in whispers
I mark my hours alone.


For a brief introduction to Medieval prayer books generally see Eleanor Jackson’s article for the wonderful British Library’s blog.

Images from the Coëtivy Hours and Bibliothèque de Rennes Métropole, MS 1511 are from Miniature Masterpiece: The Coëtivy Hours. Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. Impress Printing Works, 2018.

Elizabeth Jennings, “Notes for a Book of Hours,” The Collected Poems, Carcanet Press, 2012, pp.93-95.

On the Virtues of: Blind Poets

Homer. John Milton. Jon Awdelay.

Assuredly, the early fifteenth-century blind chaplain Awdelay (or Audelay as his name is more commonly spelled today) is neither the household name that Homer is nor the astounding poet that Milton was, but he is seasonal. Moreover, he was seasonally thorough, writing a sequence of twenty-five carols for the season of the Nativity. God bless him. Even though his works appear in only one manuscript, Bodleian MS. Douce 32, this is one time, there is no question about authorship because Awdelay was not reticent about asserting his authorship whether in thanksgiving that his book was done (complete with his own little ‘Calloo Callay!’) or in his imprecations against anyone who would cut a leaf from his book.

No mon this book he take away,
Ny kutt owte noo leef, Y say forwhy,
For hit ys sacrelege, sirus, Y yow say!
Beth acursed in the dede truly!
Yef ye wil have any copi,
Askus leeve and ye shul have,
To pray for hym specialy
That hyt made your soules to save,
Jon the Blynde Awdelay. 1

As curses go, it’s hopelessly mild. One suspects the dear man’s heart was not truly in it. I prefer my imprecations with a soupçon of brimstone, endangerment of limbs at best, the blasting of any hope of posterity at worst. Still, if Awdelay’s curse here against potential vandals of his book lacks all menace and malice, it is doubtless better so. After all, the man was offering up devotional poetry to guide the contemplative reader heavenward. To condemn a reader (even a leaf-thief) to hell would be entirely counterproductive.

I stumbled across Awdelay earlier this month when I was looking for Middle English devotional materials related to Childermass (the celebration of the Holy Innocents on December 28th). Selections from his carol sequence are simply too lovely not to share. The following is his third carol, De septem opera misericordie or seven works of mercy, and it is a most appropriate for a time of year which should not be about consumption, but rather the incarnating of mercy, hope, and blessing in one’s daily life. His opening promise, “Wele is him and wele schal be,” reminds me a little of Julian of Norwich’s assurance, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

So, take a minute. Turn off the endless playlists of music and the running internal commentary of all the things you have yet to do. Take a leaf from Jon Awdelay’s book-proverbially speaking, that is.  (For those who are unfamiliar with Middle English, one of the tricks is to read aloud. Your ear will likely catch what your eye does not.)

De septem opera misericordie

Wele is him and wele schal be,
         That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

Fede the hungeré; the thirsté gif drenke;
Clothe the nakid, as Y youe say;
Vesid the pore in presun lyyng;
Beré the ded, now I thee pray —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

Herber the pore that goth be the way;
Teche the unwyse of thi conyng;
Do these dedis nyght and day,
Thi soule to heven hit wil thee bryng —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

And ever have peté on the pore,
And part with him that God thee send;
Thou hast no nother tresoure,
Agayns the Day of Jugement —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

The pore schul be mad domusmen
Opon the ryche at Domysday;
Let se houe thai con onsware then,
Fore al here reverens, here ryal aray —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

In hongyr, in thurst, in myschif — wellay! —
After here almus ay waytyng:
“Thay wold noght us vesete nyght ne day.”
Thus wil thai playn ham to Heven Kyng —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé. 2

1. ed. Susanna Greer Fein, Poems and Carols (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 302). Kalamazoo, MI, Medieval Institute Publications, 2009.

2. ibid. If you need a little help with translation, visit the TEAMS site with the full carols.

Beauty and Blood

IMG_0211The other day as we were strolling through the magnificent passages of the medieval Nasrid palace of the Alhambra, one of my sisters said that if felt like time traveling to walk through the passages. It was like being thrown into the stories we had read as children. I understood what she meant. When strolling through a medina in Meknes several years ago, I stood and watched upon a storyteller weave his magic around the gathered crowd. Between the sounds, smells, responses of the crowd, the whole brought to life the opening of one of my favorite childhood stories, Eleanor Hoffman’s Mischief in Fez. It was a pleasant sort of illusion–equal parts personal nostalgia and fairy tale.

Yet, “time traveling” as my sister called it is not all pretty imagination. Both my sisters walked in and out of the Hall of the Ambassadors in the Alhambra rather quickly. For all its spectacular interlace carving, its bands of complex geometric patterns balanced out by leaf-like carvings winding throughout the inscriptions, the chamber conjured for my sisters an all too palpable sense that this was a place where death had been passed down many a time. I cannot say those were the echoes in my ears. For my part, I stood staring into the carved wooden ceiling feeling the grandeur and wonder the chamber had so clearly been constructed to impose upon entrants. Our different reactions were, of course, two sides of the very same coin.

I walked through the chambers thinking, “What poor cousins our northern fortifications must have seemed to those who made or dwelt in structures like this.” It made me wish that I had brought Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North just to get the perspective of Arab traveler to reverse the gaze. (Yes, Ibn Fadlan lived in the 10th century and the Alhambra was begun in the 13th. Yes, he was from Baghdad, rather than Moorish Spain, but it would still be an salutary destabilization of my 21st-century North American lens.) Then, I paused. One has only to consider that the Alhambra relied upon humans for its defense rather than structure as did other Muslim fortifications in Spain. That fact sheds light on the comparative value placed on human life in such a place. Civilized beyond the dreams of the North? Perhaps, but perhaps not without cost. Another configuration, but hardly perfect. Hardly ideal.

IMG_0161If it’s true that the ceiling in that Hall was made to symbolize the seven heavens, then the placement of the throne in this room makes child’s play of the whole “divine right of kings.” For this reason, I suppose the echoes of death and power were perhaps more true than the echoes of poetry in the gardens. The past of fortresses and fortifications is more truly grounded in blood and bone than anything else. If you want a sobering read of the history of the Alhambra, keep going with the aforementioned history by Irwin. It washes away some of that sepia patina of fairy tale pretty quickly.

“The Alhambra seems a place of enchantment. Tourism as made it a place of pleasure and instruction. It is easy for those who walk around it today to fantasise about the gilded and cultured existence of the Moors who once inhabited this palace complex — perfumes, prayer, and women — a foretaste of paradise….Though this must have been true in some respects, in others, Granada in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was a special kind of hell and some of the darkest chambers of that hell were to be found at the Alhambra. the place is a monument to murder, slavery, poverty and fear.”1

Irwin goes on to talk about how the fact that the slavery that had been eliminated from much of Western Europe was alive and well in Spain and you can even find verses inscribed on the walls of the Alhambra that celebrate the power of slavery: “You imposed chains on the captives and dawn found them at your door building your palaces as your servants.” Real history is always a good antidote to our unmoored (pun definitely not intended) reimaginings of the past. While I am not yet finished with Irwin’s book, so far its sharp reassessment of a place whose very name has mythic resonance is a salutary one.  What we humans create is–as are we–both beautiful and terrible.

  1. Robert Irwin, The Alhambra. Harvard UP, Wonders of the World Imprint, 2011, p. 69.

On the Virtues of: Strolling with Lexicographers

Wherever I go, I tend to pick up books on words, histories of slang, desperate attempts to stave off words going the way of all flesh, and that sort of thing. I’m a sucker for a book that lifts the curtain on language in a fresh way, introduces me to new (old) words, or breathes life into the forgotten. If a book makes me snort with laughter or tear up in surprise, all the better.

A few years ago in the Ulster Museum, I found Diarmaid Ó Muirthe’s Words We Don’t Use (Much Anymore), which book roams widely and wildly throughout the British Isles in its efforts to collect and salvage words that are falling from common usage. I often find myself wishing that Ó Muirthe had dug a little deeper into the lexical history of entrance of words into use and their evolution over the centuries. That, however, is not his objective, and what he does provide is evocative.

Take gilfer, for example, a word that Ó Muirthe traces back to Norse with evidence of  usage from Lancashire, East Anglia to the south-east of Ireland. Given where it’s been used together with its Norse origins, I suppose–although Ó Muirthe does not say so–that it came into the Isles following the Viking conquests and settlements. From its original meaning in Norse in which “gylfra means, according to the great Icelandic scholar Vigfusson, an ogre, a she-wolf,” the word shifts to denote a foul-mouthed woman who tears apart not limbs but reputations. So, from she-wolf to gossip of the worst sort. While slander is, alas and alack, far from obsolete, this highly satisfying word us. Shame we can’t reverse that.

This summer while at the lovely Chester Beatty Library, I picked up  Other Wordly: Words Both Strange and Lovely From Around The World. This little treasure is best described as a florilegium of semantically unique words.  From a wide variety of languages, Yee-Lum Mak collected words that have a meaning which simply cannot be captured in translation by any single word. Here, are a few of my favorites:

IMG_2395Rađljóst – an Icelandic noun meaning “enough light to find your way by” (25). I’m willing to bet that after simply reading the word, each of our imaginations conjures woods where we’d like to be at twilight, watching the shadows take on strange hues of violet and blue as night rises, and as the light dwindles to a mere ghost leading us through the trees.

Tsundoku – a Japanese noun for “buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands” (13).  Eh hemm. Guilty as charged.

Uitwaaien – a Dutch verb meaning “to take a break and walk away from the demands of life to clear one’s head” (28). Who doesn’t need to uitwaaien more? No one? That’s what I thought. Go ye and uitwaaien.




Hiræth – a Welsh noun for “a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past” (31). Sorry. Just give me a moment. I just need to get myself a tissue… The doggone Welsh.

The only problem with such delightful books is that one wants to use the words, introduce or reintroduce them into common parlance, and I already have enough trouble with people looking at me askance as if I had a second head à la manière de Zaphod Beebelbrox.

So, I’m going to start humbly (in a manner distinctly not Zaphod Beebelbrox.) Here’s my reintroduction for the day complete with suggestions for usage.

Greenboarded – collected by Jeffrey Kacirk in The Word Museum, from C. Cough Robinson’s A Dialect of Leeds, London, 1862. “To be greenboarded is when a servant is [brought ] into the drawing-room, or elsewhere, before the master or mistress, to account for any misdoings.” greenboarded

Helpful examples:

“Right then! Any and all of you with ‘ATTRIBUTION??‘ written atop your papers, you will come see me during my office hours this week. Prepare to be greenboarded for plagiarism.”

“Uh oh. Anybody know why I’ve been summoned to the Provost’s Office for a greenboarding?”

We all have words we know and love, whether they tickle our fancy or capture something no other word does. Just because other people don’t use them, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. Those of you with suggestions for words to be brought back, words in need of love and affection, or just plain old favorites, share!


Kacirck, Jeffrey, The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000, p. 85.

Mak, Yee-Lum. Other Wordly: Words Both Strange and Lovely From Around The World, illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2016.

Ó Muirthe, Diarmaid. Words We Don’t Use (Much Anymore), Gill and MacMillan, Dublin, 2012, p. 128.


Rome and Ancient Lactose Intolerance

Prefatory Apology: To my friend who works in cartography. You know who you are. You know, moreover, who I am and that there is no help for me. Mea culpa for what follows.[1]

Well, after the last two or three deeply earnest posts, I have wholly exhausted my shallow reserves of solemnity, and will now return to my modus operandi of chronic irreverence, quotidian frivolity, and ubiquitous piffle. I think I want that last on my tombstone:  L.R. Smith, purveyor of ubiquitous piffle.

It’s not even 7 a.m. and that’s the epitaph done. Methinks I’m in for a ripsnortingly productive day.

Speaking of ripsnorters, one of the maps that I never got around to discussing was an absolute monster of a map.  Although itself made in the Renaissance, the Peutinger was based upon a much earlier map which had served as a model for medieval mappæ mundi, or maps of the world. And what a world the Peutinger Map represents. It is essentially a road map of ancient Rome from the house of Pretorium Agrippinae in the upper left across eleven glued folia to”PIRATE” in the lower right of the last folio. It is both delightful in its beauty and impressive in its scope and implication.

If you go to the viewer here, you can scan through and get a sense of what a monster of a map it is. Excerpts like Figure 1, which shows the Mesopotamian Valley with its winding rivers and scattered cities, simply cannot do it justice.

Peutinger's Beautiful Mesopotamian Valley

Figure 1. excerpt Peutinger Map. Hosted by Ancient World Mapping Center at UNC, Chapel Hill.

Thematic maps like the Peutinger with its road and cities contain hundreds of stories that are lost upon us unless we either know or take the time to hunt down the correct volume of Loeb and do due diligence matching up history with cartography. I’m going to save you the trip to the library with a gem, or perhaps cheese-curd, of forgotten history.

If one scrolls over the map toward the coast of North Africa, one finds Numidia (approximately where modern Algeria is today). This was the site of De Bello Iugurthino (The Jugurthine War) which took place between 111–105 BC when Jugurtha of Numidia took on Rome. We know of the story from Sallust (or Gaius Sallustius Crispus, born about 86 BC) who his version of the events sometime after 41 BC.


Figure 2. Numidia

For those who don’t know, the Jugurthine War (Yogurt War) was the great dairy war of the Roman Empire. This was a trade war to caste the current U.S. president’s trade wars with various international economies (or personalities) into deepest shade. Really great. Tremendous even. Think back to the 2015-16 battles over milk pricing and quotas in the EU–because who among us didn’t follow that exercise bureaucratic folly with bated breath–then just let everything go really, really sour.

On the one side, there were the Romans who were promoting their new technology of bacteria and fermentation (Team Yogurt). On the other side, there were the Numidians who wanted to preserve their well-refined traditions of souring and coagulation (Team Curd) without some big bureaucratic power dictating processes or products. Since the Numidians were dealing with the Roman Empire which employed the most cutting-edge methods for international arbitration, the results were predictably messy. Essentially, the only folks that came out of this well were the early adopters of lactose intolerance who played Switzerland and stayed out of the whole mess.

Alright, this is a complete and utter fabrication. I feel the need to confess what is probably blindingly obvious because I once unwittingly misled a very earnest Harvard graduate student with a yarn about the private papers of the famous Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye. Poor lamb. (The graduate student, that is. Delehaye could hold his own.) Perhaps I should have started by introducing myself as L.R. Smith,  purveyor of ubiquitous piffle.

A word to the curious or earnest:

If you really want to follow up and read the story, you can find it in Loeb vol. 116. With the exception of the Classicists among you, I don’t think you’ll find Sallust’s history isn’t nearly as interesting as mine.

To read more about the Peutinger:

  • Richard J. A. Talbert’s Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered , Cambridge UP, 2010.
  • Simon Hornblower, Anthony Spawforth, Esther Eidinow, Eds. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, 2nd Ed. Oxford UP, 2014 See pp. 490-491.


On the Virtues: Maps, Maps, and More Maps. Pt. 2

Honestly, I don’t know where early cartographers got the gumption to put quill to parchment. I’m constantly tweaking the map for the country in my books. For example, caves play a large part in the second book, and that raises all sorts of geological and geographical questions:

  • Have I set the caves at too high an altitude for the average temperature needed inside?
  • Is a karst landscape even possible in this part of Europe?
  • Will anybody get as worked up about the possible inaccuracy of saltpetre mines in this region?

I sit down with great determination only to have ink dry repeatedly on my nib whilst I dither. (Don’t even get me started on trebuchets and the concomitant questions related to physics.)

Without a doubt, medieval cartographers were made of sterner stuff than yours truly. I mean, one has to be made of stern stuff to be able to commit oneself to a creating a map of the world that is 5’2” x 4’4”. Those are the measurements of the magnificent, thirteenth-century Hereford Mappa Mundi (Fig. 1). The Hereford MM’s grand scale reflects the grandeur of the scale of the places and events depicted. Whatever the Hereford’s makers were made of, I want to be reconstituted with that.

A first glance at the circular shape of the map might mislead the viewer into thinking that its makers laid out the geography in question geographically, A second glance simultaneously corrects that illusion and confounds the reader.

Hereford Digital Mappa

Fig. 1 Hereford Mappa Mundi, 13th cent. https://www.themappamundi.co.uk/index.php (Fig. 2).

The confusion arises in part because, little as it might seem, mappæ mundi like the Hereford are in many ways variations of the T-O maps from the last post (e.g. Fig 2). While the Hereford MM proceeds through multiple layers of geography, those layers are arranged in the same overall scheme as a simple T-O: various layers of Asia are supported by various layers op Europe  on the left and Africa on the right.

If the simple T-O maps sought to orient the reader to the world at large with respect to important biblical history, mappæ mundi like the Hereford take that objective to the next level. The image of Christ in Majesty at the top of the Hereford MM makes explicit what the eastern orientation of T-O maps imply: that all the world and its unfolding history is moving toward one, great end under Christ. Think of it as teleological cartography. So, when the mapmakers included their little city of Hereford alongside important sites from Constantinople to Compostela this signified to medieval Herefordian that she or he was every bit a part of that same glorious, messy, and holy world history as folks from the Garden of Eden and the Exodus (which also make an appearance on the map).

In keeping with the role of mappæ mundi to evocatively map history as well as geography, the Hereford MM includes figures from mythology (e.g. Jason of the golden fleece) and history (Alexander the Great) alike. Marvelous beasts and monstrous races are scattered across the whole, indicating the wonders to be found throughout the wide world. The view can see a charming elephant, or cross-eyes monoceros (unicorn) or even a rather doggy-looking camel (Figs. 3-5).

Delightful as the various beasts are, I have to confess that I chiefly delight in the Hereford’s monsters. The map contains many of the same wonders treated in “popular” Latin and Old English texts, such as Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle, the Liber Monstrorum De Diversis Generibus (A book of monsters of various kinds), and the Wonders of the East. The Old English translation of Wonders found in the Beowulf manuscript contains a description of the mythical Cynocephali or dog-headed men.

Eac swylce þær beoð cende Healfhundingas ða syndon hatene Conopoenas. Hi habbað horses manan 7 eoferes tucxas 7 hunda heafda 7 heora oruð byð swylce fires lig. Þas land beoð neah ðam burgum þe beoð eallum woruldwelum gefylled, þæt is on þa suð healfe Ægiptna landes.

“Also there are born there half-dogs who are called Conopenæ. They have horses’ manes and boar’s tusks and dogs’ heads and their breath is like a fiery flame. Those lands are near the cities which are filled with all the worldly wealth: that is, in the south of Egypt.” [1]

Wondering what dog-headed men look like? Wondering where to find cities filled with worldly treasure? Wonder no more (Fig. 6). Alright, these “men” aren’t breathing fire, and there are no tusks to be found, but there’s no debating the dogginess of those heads.


Fig. 6.  Cynocephali

Yes, yes, the Hereford has them nearer Norway than Egypt but then, Norway seems to have gotten itself into the wrong place on the map anyway.  It’s all a bit of a muddle, but it’s a charming muddle.

Among the other unique people making appearances both on the Hereford and in the Wonders of the East are the Blemmyes  (Fig. 7).


Fig. 7. Blemmyes.

If Wonders of the East is to be trusted, these Blemmyes (unnamed in the text) are apparently perfectly square as well as headless:

Đonne is oðer ealand suð fram Brixonte on þam beoð men akende butan heafdum, þa habbaþ on heora breostum eagan 7 muð. Hi syndan eahta fota lange 7 eahta fota brade.

“Then there is another island, south of the Brixontes, on which there are born men without heads who have eyes and mouth in their chest. They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide.” [2]

Given that description, one rather expects something approximating a medieval SpongeBob SquarePants, but the makers of the Hereford spared us that image. (There are times when departing from the text really is a good thing.)

To a modern mind with preconceptions of either “Dark Age” ignorance or suspicions of religious homogeneity, I suppose, the juxtaposition of the mythical and monstrous beside the known or sacred might seem a bit jarring. It might even seem to confirm ignorance.  For my part, the fact that such juxtapositions were not odd to medievals is one of the reasons I am so fond of the cultural productions from this time. If a little marvel creeps in from the margins, it’s not the end of the world because the world is still being figured out and everything finds its place.


For a far less frivolous treatment of the Hereford, its contents, and sources, go to Cartographic Images, http://cartographic-images.net/Cartographic_Images/226_The_Hereford_Mappamundi.html

[1] The Wonders of the East, in Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript, ed. & trans. Andy Orchard. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1995, pp. 188-189.

[2] ibid., 192-193.



On the Virtues of Maps, Maps, and More Maps. Pt. 1

I am not, I know, the only person to have vexed relationship with her GPS. Being sent to major highways for the “fastest route” when a local byway really would be more efficient is a ubiquitous GPS violation. Recently, however, my mobile’s GPS has started pranking me, sending me off unnecessary exits, and even changing the destination. Imagine Hansel and Gretel’s bag o’ crumbs starts laughing at them, “MWAH HAH HAH!” and snaking towards the wicked witch’s house. That’s my GPS.

Last week, on one of the few and excruciating occasions when I had to drive into Boston, a traffic snafu sent me digging around with one hand for the mobile, trying to get in the damn password, and speak in my destination, all the while dutifully swearing at and being sworn at by other drivers.[1] Within a few miles of hitting “GO,” my voice joined the choir of anguished souls screaming into the ether.

“Wait! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! Not Rutherford Circle! Holy Saint Æthelthryth, how did I get here? How do I get out? Stupid GPS! I’m gonna diiiiiieeeeee!”

I leave the expletives to my readers’ rich and fertile imaginations.

Thus, I expect that it has always been, in sæcula sæculorum. Just as we curse the GPS on our mobiles, countless navigators over countless ages have undoubtedly cursed out cartographers or compass-makers.[2] Imagine the poor Viking who’d made holiday plans for Turks and Caicos only to find himself staring at the rocky coast of Newfoundland. [Please, read the following in a voice that is equal parts Yosemite Sam and the Swedish Chef.]

“If I ever get my hands on Cnut Redthumb, I’m gonna rip that laggard limb from limb! I knew I should have bought the map off of Harald Bluetooth.”

Of course, it goes without saying that anyone dumb enough to buy a map from Cnut Redthumb only has himself to blame: everyone who was anyone in medieval seafaring knew better than to trust Redthumb’s maps. [3]

When it comes to medieval maps, it is not so much a matter of all maps not being created equal, so much as maps being created for different purposes, which is not so different from maps today. I, for example, love caves and the maps thereof, like the map of Wind Cave National Park (Fig. 1) which adorns the wall by my desk. However usefully and beautifully it displays the multiple and intersecting layers of the cave system, were one to attempt navigating the surrounding upper world with it, one would roundly deserve to be trampled by any of the massive bison which inhabit that park. I am a firm believer in stupidity being its own reward.

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Many of the maps that populated the cartographic landscape of the middle ages require the adjustment of expectation. Where we have topographic maps and the like to help us better understand our physical geography, medievals had schematic alternatives like T-O maps which laid out their religious geography (see Fig. 2). When readers encountered maps where the waters of the Mediterranean, Nile, and Tanis formed a ‘T’ separating other parts of the known world like Africa, Asia, and Europe, they knew where they stood, so to speak. (It may help to notice in reading this map that East is uppermost.)

TO St Gall

Figure 2. St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 236, p. 89 – Isidorus, Etymologiarum liber XI- XX. 92nd century

So, readers of Isidore’s Etymologiæ who came upon this map of the lands of Noah’s sons after the flood would never have dreamt of navigating physically with such a map. That wasn’t its point. Like all good T-O’s it provided readers with a rough schema of how the world they knew of related to the world of scripture and the history therein.

Where T-O maps are pretty sparse, other medieval maps present the world, or sections of it, in far more detail. Fig. 3 is by one of my favorite medieval English artists, the thirteenth-century Benedictine monk, Matthew Paris. I will sing Paris’ praises in another post. They deserve to be sung. For now, consider his map.

Matthew Paris Map

Figure 3. Matthew Paris’ Map of the British Isles. Cotton MS Claudius D. vi. f. 12 v. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_claudius_d_vi!1_f012r

With its strongly delineated rivers and abundant cities, Paris’ map shows England as a beehive of development. Sure, you couldn’t find your way from A to B with it, but this map tells you that the journey would be worth it because there’s a lot to see at both points. Looking at this map, the rivers seem to pulse like veins through the heart of England, which, I suppose, is both truth and fancy. And I defy anyone not to be smitten by the way that Cornwall (or Cornubia in Latin) is trying to make a break for it across the Celtic Sea.

A contrasting English map (though not a map of England) shows just how different maps can. The Cotton Map (Fig. 4), was drawn in the eleventh century, some two hundred years before Paris drew up his. Like its more schematic T-O cousins, the Cotton map is oriented with the East on the top. The maker of the Cotton map provides more detail about what is important in the different parts of the world. If it’s not as generally accurate as Paris’ map, we can say that everything stays respectably within the borders. (If you’re looking for the British Isles, they’re in the bottom left.)

Throughout the Middle Ages, there are a variety of world maps such as the Cotton Map. On them, we find the traces of the delight medievals took in parts far-flung, in wild stories, and in the mythic histories of the wider world.

I’ll come back to those wild and wider stories in the next post with the mother of all mappæ mundi (maps of the world): the Hereford Cathedral Mappa Mundi. Where Cotton map’s is home to one solitary lion in the East, the Hereford is chock full of beasts natural and un-.

[1] In Boston, swearing is cosmologically as well as existentially necessary. If a Bostonian drives without swearing, it actually messes with the space-time continuum.

[2] We’ll completely leave out word-of-mouth directions like “Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.” I mean, what the dickens kind of directions are those? Forget the fact that “right” is relative based upon which way one faces. Forget, moreover, the fact that the stars dance around, so that second star to the right is going to be different in December than it is in July. Morning?! Are we talking break of day? Full dawn or perhaps full-on morning? This is the kind of directional negligence lawsuits are made of.

[3] This is a gross lie. I leave it to my readers whether the gross lie is a) the slander of Cnut; b) the existence of Cnut; c) the idea that any self-respecting Viking would content himself with talk of laggards and limb ripping; or d) all of the above.

A wider-ranging and decidedly less idiosyncratic take on medieval maps can be found on the British Library’s Maps and Views blog.

On the Virtues of: Dictionaries

My introduction to dictionaries was early and paradoxical. They were simultaneously sources of frustration and illumination, roadblock and delight in one.

“Mommy! How do you spell [ɪntræktəbəl]?”

“Look it up in the dictionary, dear.”

This was the inevitable (and to my mind idiotic) answer to my frequent badgering about how to spell things I’d overheard.

“Mommy! How do you spell [prɛkoʊʃʌs]?You did not just say that. St. Denis

“Look it up in the dictionary, dear.”

“Mommy! How do you spell [ɪnkorɪd͡ʒɪbəl]?

“Look it up in the dictionary, dear.”

“Mom! Why is the vowel in /bɝp/ different from the one in /wɝm/ when they sound the same?”

[Readers are encouraged to insert their own heartfelt sigh of despair, for my mother, alas, did not share my delight in words like ‘burp’ and ‘worm’. Her sigh of despair was the soundtrack of my young life.]

I was equally despairing. After all, How the dickens was a gal supposed to look up a word she couldn’t spell? Grumbling, I’d start thumbing through our massive Webster’s. I would inevitably get distracted from the original word by something that seemed even better. I made the acquaintance of ‘inexorable’ that way and took great satisfaction in that discovery. Few things are as gratifying as finding just the right word, and ‘inexorable’ was the perfect word to describe my mother’s standards for her daughters (not that I said so out loud).

In the years since, I’ve collected and been given various dictionaries. In graduate school, my friend Charlotte blessed me with the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and it remains an enduring delight. The definitions are as trenchant as the words are diverting. Take, for example. buss beggar which means a superannuated fumbler, whom none but beggars will suffer to kiss them. Frankly, I’m more likely to use “superannuated fumbler,” but that’s just me.  

Some years after those early perambulations through Webster, I made the acquaintance of a dictionary that would change everything for me. Clark Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary seemed like a humble enough book when I purchased it for an introductory course in Old English Language and Literature. I had no idea. I’d gone into grad school with the intention of doing Middle English literature, but that class in Old English changed everything. Here was English without any of that silly French influence! Here was English unadulterated by that ridiculous phenomenon called the Great Vowel Shift! Here was the perfect language for blissful maceration. [Read that sentence carefully, please, and then think Latin to macerate.]

Clark Hall in hand, I’d sit down to translate a passage of poetry and get lost jotting comments in the marginalia. Some words just tickled my fancy. What is there not to love about a word like offrungspic or “sacrificial bacon”? It makes you hungry and makes you laugh at one and the same time. Huzzah. Who among us hasn’t needed a word for “decoy reindeer” (staelhran)? And now, you have it. Then, there’s feaxfang, I believe it says a lot about a culture if it needs a noun for “seizing or dragging by the hair.”

The inside back cover of my Clark Hall soon became a mass of scribbles as I made notes of the words that were especially evocative. [It may help to know for what follows that: æ is the letter ‘ash’ and, conveniently, the vowel sound is that of ‘ash’ or /æʃ/; þ and ð are respectively the letters ‘thorn’ and ‘eth,’ and represent the ‘th’ sound both unvoiced /θ/ as in ‘smooth’ or voiced /ð/ as in ‘this’.] Here’s a sampling from the inside of that original cover:

gnyrnwracu – revenge, enmity

searocræft – treachery, art, engine, instrument of torture

wiþersaca – adversary, enemy

dierne – hidden, secret, remote (but also deceitful)

wyrmsele – hall of serpents (hell)

scinna – spectre, illusion, evil spirit,

hræwic – place of corpses

snædingsceap – sheep for slaughter

beorcholt– birch wood

twigærede  – cloven

ongalend – enchanter

Some words were discovered in getting lost in Clark Hall, others in context. Either way the words themselves began to weave bits of a history about me. The final consonantal slap of hræwic following that initial breathy expiration spread a battle-field before my eyes. Gnyrnwracu and twigærede became the warp and woof of a story of patient duplicity and vengeance.  Since, I’d never thought of writing novels (poetry was more my thing), the scribbling continued, and the images roiled, but I had not thought of going anywhere with it.

Then, one night after too many pots of Earl Grey and far, far too much Latin (probably papal bulls – I remember those being particularly excruciating), I lay sprawled upon the aforementioned Charlotte’s bed (beneficent giver of the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue). When her fiancé came in to say good night, Charlotte (who has a rather imperial bearing) said, “Tell Liesl a bedtime story.”  Now, good friends are a blessing, but good friends who can tell whopping good stories are a treasure. That night Richard made up a fantastic story about a “dragon whose tongue was so wide that trucks could drive both ways on it.”

While the dragon of my histories is a smaller dragon than the one of Richard’s tale, the beast was inspired by his creation, and terribly inconvenient it has been! I’ve never been interested in writing fantastical stories. My stories were to be alternate history, not fantasy. So, it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to my characters when a dragon began to wrap its claws around their fortunes. Well, I blame Richard. He opened that can of wyrms although I suppose, if I’m to be honest, I’m the one who made the creature a wyrmsele.