On my shelves: The Babees Book

However much that title sounds like a board book introducing infants to bath time, numbers, or some such, The Babees Book in question is a collection of late Medieval and early Renaissance texts on manners, mores, courtesy, and edifying whatnot. I am drawn to courtesy manuals for their peculiar and particular representation of ideals. The tone of such manuals varies widely. Some are stridently (sometimes violently) moralizing, others benevolently instructive. Along the way, readers encounter authors driven by everything from cloying paternalism to disinterested superiority. Shifting through the wheat and the chaff of ideal and reality (I leave it to you to assign wheat and chaff as you see fit) makes for some interesting reading.

Aside from the two major texts of The Babees Book–different versions of The Boke of Nurture–editor Frederick J. Furnivall collects a florilegium of instructive little gems. Need to know how to prepare a serve a fest for a bryde? Look no further. Moreover, not only are the elements of the various courses laid out,you also find a sample welcome with which to greet guests.  Latin grace blessings, how-to’s on carving meat, and gems like William Vaughan’s Fifteen Directions to preserve Health (Directive 3. “Euacuate your selfe.”) and “Extracts about Fish” from The noble lyfe & natures of man.

Herein lies treasure trove of information you did not know that you needed until now. But wait–there’s more. There are footnotes.

Now, if you do not share my gleeful delight in footnotes, stay the course a moment longer. Admittedly there are any number of writers who have no idea how to wield a footnote properly. Yet, no reader can justly hold the footnote responsible for such clumsiness. That would be like holding the form of an essay responsible for an undergraduate’s inability to craft an interesting thesis statement. Like holding the concept of fermentation responsible for the pungent, reeking disaster that was my first attempted at fermented beets. Nevermind that. The joy of footnotes lies in their revelation of writers’ idiosyncrasies. Footnotes are the place for scholarly winks, nudges, jabs, and the buried reference to martinis in an otherwise entirely scholarly work on hagiography.

If you are one of the dubious, or worse yet one of those people who considers the bottom of the page the domain of page numbers alone (like an acquaintance of mine who reads neither prefaces nor footnotes), don’t listen to me.[1]  Listen to Mr. Furnivall, editor of The Babees Book.

boring prefaces

Furnivall, in4

I don’t know whether I’m more taken by Furnivall’s honesty about the grunt work of such details, or his wagging his finger at lazy readers who don’t sufficietnly appreciate that grunt work. In any case, what coats and trowsers the precise Mr. Furnivall provides.

In discussing the behavior laid down for Henxman as dictated by the booke of urbanitie (who doesn’t want that book?), he adds an explanatory footnote for Henxman:

“Sir H. Nicholas, in his Glossary to his Privy Purse Expenses of Henry VIII…, says, “No word has been more commented upon than ‘Henchmen’ or Henxman.[2] Without entering into the controversy, it may be sufficient to state, that in the reign of Henry the Eighth  it meant the pages of honour.”[3]

If you’re like me, right now you’re thinking, “Wait! What? There’s an etymological controversy and you’re not going to share? SHARE!!!!” Be comforted, dear reader,[4] Mr. Furnivall is not so parsimonious with his information as is the aforementioned Sir Nicholas. The footnote continues with Furnivall’s own summation:


For those of you worried about the unfortunate thurde son, panic not. A sewer (or seuer/seuere) was the attendant who either performed the job of food taster or who carved for his lord. There was no sewage involved.

Setting aside the delights of henxman with all its variant spellings and the etymological implications thereof (and I do encourage you to check out the entries for hengest-man on the Middle English Compendium), look at Mr. Furnivall’s reference to Mr. Way: “He is a most provokingly careful editor. If ever you hit on a plum in your wanderings through other books you are sure to find it afterwards in one of Mr. Way’s notes when you bethink yourself of turning to the Promptorium.”

Reader, are you bethinking what I’m bethinking? Why do we no longer write in this manner? Who doesn’t want to go wandering through the Promptorium, hoping to hit upon a plum? Still, the lure of the Promptorium with its promised plums is ultimately not the point. In wandering through Furnivall’s comprehensively entitled The Babees Book: Aristotle’s A B C, Urbanitas, Stans Puer ad Mensam, The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke, The Bokes of Nurture of Hugh Rhodes and John Russell, Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of Kervynge, The Booke of Demeanor, The Boke of Curtasye, Seager’s Schoole of Vertue, &c. &c., with some French & Latin Poems on like Subjects and some Forewords on Education in Early England, I have made a discovery: it is possible to fall in love with a man for his footnotes alone. Forget Jonathan Frantzen and his 10 tips for writers.[5]  Furnivall is the man to emulate. Any writer who combines devil-may care irony with detailed scholarship is worth his weight in EETS volumes;[6]

a few notes to fill the page

Furnivall, 113

especially when one of those filler notes, rather randomly takes up the history of toothpicks, as follows:


Furnivall, 114

Texts with trowsers on, plums, Promptoriums, and Toothpicks. Frederick J. Furnivall, I love you.

[1] If the preface in question is as whoppingly self-indulgent preface as Gayatri Spivak’s preface to Grammatology, a preface which feels nearly as long as Derrida’s book, I’m not going to throw stones at you for not reading it.

[2] Did you know that? I did not know that. Clearly, I’m having all the wrong water-cooler conversations!

[3] Furnivall, Frederick, ed., The Babees Book: Aristotle’s A B C, Urbanitas, Stans Puer ad Mensam, The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke, The Bokes of Nurture of Hugh Rhodes and John Russell, Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of Kervynge, The Booke of Demeanor, The Boke of Curtasye, Seager’s Schoole of Vertue, &c. &c., with some French & Latin Poems on like Subjects and some Forewords on Education in Early England. [And yes, that is the complete title.] Greenwood Press, New York, 1969, iin2.

[4] Sorry, too much Jane Eyre. Just bear with me.

[5] No really, forget them. If this controversy means nothing to you, and you want to know, go here.

[6] EETS=Early English Text Society for those of you who don’t hoard up your pennies for these things.

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.


In Praise of Groveling Wits

I’ve always taken umbrage at John Dryden for slandering puns as the ‘lowest and most groveling form of wit’. I was raised in a punning family. My father was an inveterate and unrepentant punster until life beat the humor out of him. He was the Speedy Gonzalez of puns, and I loved that about him. He wielded puns like a musketeer wields a rapier. Agile, quick, and deadly. My sisters and I would be left holding our wounds, groaning in pain around the picnic-cum-kitchen table while he’d chuckle gently. Every punster knows joy that comes from the infliction of deep, deep agony in one’s verbal victim. My father is still alive, but it’s been decades since I’ve heard a good/bad pun out of him. It was this transformation from impish punster to resigned parrot that, to me, served as the most painful indicator of his diminution. So, to our friend Dryden, I say, “Low? Low?!” I don’t even comprehend the connection of that word to wordplay. Pun. Pun loudly. Pun proudly, and let the gibes fall where they may.

Perhaps that is not entirely true. About puns being lowly, I mean. I did just have to apologize this evening to my flatmate this evening for referring to some game show disaster as a “vowel movement.” Around my friend’s agonized objections–“So bad! So bad!”–I heard the telltale thumping of my mother flipping in her grave. Over the years, my mum’s gotten a lot of exercise in there. A lot.

another boring hunt scene

Another boring hunt scene (BL Gorleston 210b – because I am totally obsessed with this manuscript)

It’s hardly surprising as I had her flipping in her grave before she died. I’d do something sub-standard that usually involved burping, and then she and I would do our little dance. By way of explanation, a super-nervous stomach meant I was basically a human eructor set as a child, and gas, so far as my mother was concerned, belonged ever and only in cars. Any hooo…. I’d belch, count to two, and like clockwork…

“Liesl Ruth! I despair of ever turning you into a young lady.”

To which ever-popular refrain, I would protest, “Oh Mom! I’m not that bad!”

Thereafter followed a sigh to wallop all sighs ever sighed. Desdemona breathing her last had nothing on my mother. Elinor exasperated by Marianne’s declaration of poetic love could not rival her. Little Amy Dorrit, lamenting for her foolish relatives, could only pale by comparison. My mother’s sigh was a masterpiece of controlled exhalation, discrete rather than maudlin, but replete with emotion. It suggested depths of emotion that even she would not admit to. The air echoed with a dozen different, unspoken failures. You could have built bridges with her sighs. Sometimes I did things just to get her to sigh that sigh. It was magnificent.

Maybe she was right. Maybe I was that bad.

Unlike my father, my mother did not pun, but neither did she roll her eyes or sneer at my father or diminish him for his sense of humor. For that, I am unspeakably grateful. I like having that memory of grace between them. I say grace, because there are a lot of people out there of the Dryden ilk who treat punsters like hardened sinners.  Après pun, their faces become as immobilized as an eighteenth-century death masks, and you know—you just know–they’re consigning you to some wholly inappropriate ring of purgatory for molesting their ears.  Why inappropriate, you ask? Because Dante did not create a ring for what other people consider bad wordplay. Not in the Purgatorio, not in the Inferno. Okay, he doesn’t celebrate us in Paradiso either, but that’s fair. So, take that, Dryden. Low, my sweet Aunt Fanny. No pun merits shaming. No, not even if you refer in awe to the giant baked potato on your plate as a potentator. No! Wipe that look off your face, reader. Not even then.

So, the rules of engagement for those who do not revel in “low” wordplay: Sneering? Not acceptable. Do not stretch and elongate your nostrils like some bactrian afraid of infection. Wit is not contagious. The more’s the pity.  Eye-rolling? Acceptable, so long as there’s a twinkle in that eye. Groaning? Perfectly acceptable. In fact, please groan. Loudly. We know that deep down beneath that groan is deep and abiding admiration and no small amount of jealousy that you didn’t get there first.

Of Swanmaidens and Smiths

I don’t usually post excerpts of the books on which I’m working, but this is self-contained “bit” which revolves around the telling of an Old English/Old Norse tale. The story of Weland which follows arises when Prince Sebastian (the blighter whose proclivity for Shakespeare upset the chronology of these books) discovers a gap in the knowledge of his page Lewis. For the telling, the prince has sought out the court scop (bard), an old man named Deornlaf. Lewis, for the record, is referred to as ‘Lion’ by most of the castle.

If you know the tale of Weland, I have taken liberties. You are forewarned.

Below is an image of an eighth-century piece known commonly as the Franks Casket. The left side of the front panel shown here includes various elements of the story told below. Look for the swans on the right (of the left panel) and the thin, prone body under foot to the bottom left.


British Museum, Franks Casket, front panel Right side: presentation of Magi Left side: composite scene of events from Weland’s tale.

Winding down a stone stair to the apothecary’s, Sebastian wondered why Deornlaf, who was an old man with bones as gnarled and twisted as a wind-tortured ash, would choose to ensconce himself in the castle depths rather than in one of the upper halls before a roaring fire. The answer became apparent the moment Lewis opened the heavy door to the apothecary’s sanctum and melting warmth poured from the room. True, the scent that accompanied the warmth reminded the prince of bad eggs, but noses are more adaptable than old bones.

“Not you!” shouted a fierce voice. “I’m not done yet, and how many times do I have to tell yo– Oh! Your Highness Oh! Ah. Er–” Chagrin transformed the apothecary’s countenance. He hurried forward to bow before the prince. “I had no idea that—”

“We’re not here for anything from you,” said Lewis, with a warning glance. “In fact, we don’t want you at all.”

“Lewis, don’t be rude! Læc, we are indeed not here to bother you but Deornlaf. Lewis thought that perhaps–. Ah, thank you.” Sebastian hurried over to press the shoulder of the white-haired man bundled before a roaring fire. “No, my friend! Do not rise. If you bear me any love, stay as you are.”

“Your Highness! I did not hear you. My ears are not what I’d like, but then, so much of me is not as I’d like,” lamented the old man with a papery laugh. “Ah! The ubiquitous Lion, pacing abroad rather than hunting in the shadows today?”

A vicious sneeze saved the child from having to respond. When the sneeze was followed by another, and then another, the apothecary started grousing under his breath about small children and the perils of contagion. Whether for the apothecary’s comment or the child’s inauspicious sneezing, Sebastian shot Lewis a wary glance.

“Deornlaf, could I trouble you for the tale of Weland. It appears that my page—my apologies, Læc, if you have had him underfoot—has never heard it.”

Deornlaf reached out a hand to sift the small page’s fine blonde hair between his bent and crooked fingers. “Never heard it and you with hair pale as the flax the swan maidens spun? Well, we can’t have that. Sit you down. Warm yourselves on this miserable day.”

“I must go, Deornlaf,” apologized Sebastian. “Lord Cotton has been expecting me for the last hour or so, and I must fulfill his disappointment no longer. Rectify my page’s lamentable ignorance and I shall be indebted to you.”

The prince’s parting command to Lewis that he be good drew a scornful snort from the shadowed regions where the apothecary was shuffling about. Deornlaf shifted his eyes to the fire and began.

“Weland was the third of his father’s sons, the cleverest of hand and the craftiest of mind. When he took the hammer in hand, or when he blew the bellows, Weland had no equal; and for his skill, a swan maiden named Ealhwise loved him for a time,[1] and Weland wrought his swan maiden a ring of deepest red-gold and set it on her arm. ”

Sebastian shut the door behind him and set his course for the library. It never crossed his mind, as it would never have crossed any Dyrnan’s mind, that the story of Weland might not be for young ears. Besides, tales of great deeds, even of great revenge, have a particular charm when the elements are raging and one is safe before a crackling fire.

“One morning Weland rose to find Ealhwise flown. Many a day he sat forlorn. Her ring rested in his hands as he grieved for nights with her white arms wrapped round his neck. Thus was Weland when the false King Niðhad set his men upon him. To capture the smith was no small task and the smith’s hammer struck down many before they hamstrung him, cutting the sinews of his knees that he might be the captive of his craft.  Niðhad imprisoned the smith on an island and there the king would come to demand wonders. Weland’s own great sword hung at the false king’s side, for Niðhad took all the smith’s treasures as his own. The most beautiful of rings, the arm-ring of Ealhwise which the king himself had wrested from the smith’s hands, was given to Niðhad’s only daughter Beaduhild; and thus the king himself bound his daughter to the smith.

For months, Weland labored, spinning treasures at his anvil, as his swan maiden had once spun flax. With his tongue he spun curses for the man who had lamed and held him prisoner, so that the smith’s heart became dark as the soot that stained his roof. The work of Weland’s hands had never been more beautiful nor the thoughts of his heart darker, than when Niðhad’s daughter stole to the island where her father held Weland captive. She wanted to see the smith her father held so dear, and so, she broke the ring that she might seek him out with reason. Beaduhild held out the pieces of the ring to him while, from behind the veil of tears in her eyes, she watched to see how the smith would take up what he had made, how he would receive her, and if her beauty would draw his eyes from his treasure. When Weland’s eyes lit upon Beaduhild, he smiled at last for she was very fair and her father loved her. Cut sinews and crutches made no difference to the smith’s skill with hammer or words. So, he wooed the girl, and Beaduhild mistook the brightness of his eyes for pleasure in her charms, the tremble in his voice for wonder at her love.

Continue reading

Strange Eulogies

Like most of us, I remember exactly where I was and I what I was doing on this day seventeen years ago. I was lecturing on Beowulf. Whether I was just introducing the poem or whether we had actually begun Grendel’s attack upon Heorot, I do not remember. What I do remember (to my shame) is giving the unknown student who interrupted my class a you’re-a-very-daring-person look before he informed me the university was closing because of attacks on New York City and that, as our building was located right behind the Massachusetts State House, we were to evacuate immediately.

Beyond a rather stunned injunction for everyone to be safe and leave campus immediately as directed, I do not remember a word I said to the class. The silence with which they vanished in a matter of seconds was memorable even if my words were not. Rather than fight the crowds on the abysmal Green Line, I wound my way down the oddly empty side streets of Beacon Hill to the Church of the Advent to give the madness of the subways an hour or two before going home. Where other people may have a memory of crowds and chaos, I have a memory of being alone and feeling oddly solitary on the city streets. There may have been people. There must have been people, but I remember feeling as if the city had been deserted.

advent angel

Angel over the choir, Church of the Advent, Boston

For the next hour or so, I sat quietly mulling in the quiet of Church of the Advent. After asking the heavens what the world was coming to (and receiving no definitive answer), I alternated between reading Psalms from the bible in the pew in front of me and Beowulf I had with me in my satchel. Aside from the fact that there’s nothing like translation for clearing one’s head, life seemed a strange echo of art at that moment.

Item 1: A hall ruled by Hrothgar, king of the Danes; a hall in which the great men of their world boast and make plans; a hall in which these great men decide amongst themselves how their world shall go because they have the power to bend it to their wills and make it so.

Þa wæs Hroðgare      heresped gyfen,
wiges weorðmynd,      þæt him his winemagas
georne hyrdon,      oðð þæt seo geogoð geweox,
magodriht micel.      Him on mod bearn
þæt healreced      hatan wolde,
medoærn micel,      men gewyrcean
þonne yldo bearn      æfre gefrunon,
ond þær on innan      eall gedælan
geongum ond ealdum,      swylc him god sealde,
buton folcscare      ond feorum gumena.
Ða ic wide gefrægn      weorc gebannan
manigre mægþe      geond þisne middangeard,
folcstede frætwan…
healærna mæst;      scop him Heort naman
se þe his wordes geweald      wide hæfde.
He beot ne aleh,      beagas dælde,
sinc æt symle.      Sele hlifade,
heah ond horngeap. (ll. 64-82a)

Thereafter was fortune in war vouchsafed to Hrothgar, and glory in battle, that the vassals of his kindred hearkened willingly unto him and the numbers of his young warriors grew to a mighty company of men. Then it came into his heart that he would command men to fashion a hall and a mansion, a mightier house for their mead-drinking than the children of men had ever known, and there-within would he apportion all things to young and old such as God had granted him, save the people’s land and the lives of men.

Then have I heard that far and wide to many a kindred on this middle-earth was that work proclaimed, the adorning of that dwelling of men… the greatest of houses and halls. For it he devised the name Heorot, even he whose word far and wide was law. His vow he belied not, the rings he dealt and treasure at the feast. The hall towered high with horned gables wide…. (from J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. Mariner Books; Reprint edition. 2015, p. 14)

Item 2: An outsider, a monster, uncivilized by the standards of these men, a son of Cain and thus cursed with all his kin; a creature to whom the sounds of rejoicing in the hall were torment.

Ða se ellengæst       earfoðlice
þrage geþolode,       se þe in þystrum bad,
þæt he dogora gehwam       dream gehyrde
hludne in healle;       þær wæs hearpan sweg,
swutol sang scopes.       Sægde se þe cuþe
frumsceaft fira       feorran reccan,
cwæð þæt se ælmihtiga       eorðan worhte,
wlitebeorhtne wang,       swa wæter bebugeð,
gesette sigehreþig       sunnan ond monan
leoman to leohte       landbuendum
ond gefrætwade       foldan sceatas
leomum ond leafum,       lif eac gesceop
cynna gehwylcum       þara ðe cwice hwyrfaþ. (ll. 86-98)

Then the fierce spirit that abode in darkness grievously endured a time of torment, in that day after day he heard the din of revelry echoing in the hall. There was the sound of harp and clear singing of the minstrel; there spake he that had knowledge to unfold from far-off days the beginning of men, telling how the Almighty wrought the earth, a vale of bright loveliness that the waters encircle; how triumphant He set the radiance of the sun and moon as light for the dwellers in the lands, and adorned the regions of the world with boughs and with leaves, life too he devised for every kind that moves and lives. (ibid, pp 15-16.)

There is, of course, much debate over Grendel’s malice and motivations.  Any number of readings turn the poem inside and out and on its head, and yet, while I resist as anachronistic and inauthentic readings that romanticize or excuse Grendel, the poem’s representation of the attack on Heorot requires that the dynamics of power and “civilization” be included in the analysis of this deep enmity.  Did Grendel chose the path of mearcstapa (l. 103. haunter of the marches/waste borderlands), or did rejection by men condemn him to occupy this precarious edge along society’s boundaries? How much (if any) responsibility do the men of Heorot bear for the ire of the creature that comes against them with a malice so determined that it seems to have been refined in fire?

I will not belabor the analogies, such as they are, to the modern context of the U.S. as a superpower. I will add only the confession that when we returned to class the next week, these were connections that I did not, for better or for worse, have the stomach or courage to make directly. The immediate aftermath of such a tragedy did not seem the place to do so. Now, the remembrance of those next classes is for me filled with a lingering sense of my own moral cowardice, as if I failed both the poem and my class.





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.


The Demons of Indigestion

Two summers ago when I came across this little fellow on Chartres Cathedral I wondered if the stone carver hadn’t had one of those headless wonders called Blemmyes in mind when he carved this demon who is merrily providing a demonstration in infernal torture to the cathedral’s visitors.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. It may be nothing more than a case of the mason’s lunch not sitting well, or perhaps a colleague’s flatulence taking on a life of its own in the mason’s imagination.

Inspiration. It’s a mysterious thing.