A Bouquet of Dragons

This post is for a young reader who shares my deep and abiding affection for the malicious and maladroit creature known as the dragon. There will be a forthcoming installment of Field Notes with a dragon. Since, however, that’s a few drawings down the line, I thought I’d offer up florilegium draconum, or…er… bouquet of dragons, from medieval manuscripts to hold over all those who want more dragons.

The medieval bestiary seems the most sensible place to begin, and one of my favorites is the Aberdeen Bestiary which is as good as Thanksgiving for the eyes. In the nature of bestiaries, the Aberdeen provides practical (in a manner of speaking) insight into the species.

aberdeen 65 v dragon eating elephant

Aberdeen University Library, MS 24 f. 65v, c. 1200

Thus, we learn not only that dragons are the largest of both serpents and animals upon earth, but also that their emergence from the caves makes the ether tremble. If you ever wondered where dragons come from, they apparently originated in Ethiopia and India. Regrettably, the  bestiary does not say whether there is a distinction–as with elephants–between the Indian and the African species. Instead, the text provides instructive details like which end to be more afraid of, and perhaps that is more important than which branch of the family has the bigger ears. Fun fact for your next dragoning venture (like birding only far, far more perilous): a dragon’s strength lies in its tail not its teeth. (That seems rather contradicted by those fangs in the illumination but never mind.) Apparently, the strangling strength of those tails makes them fearsome threats to even great creatures like elephants. As with any good bestiary, the point is not natural history but spiritual illumination and so the text continues with an explication of how the devil is like the dragon. To be edified, go to the Aberdeen MS.

That connection between dragons and evil plays out in hagiography (writings on the lives of the saints) as well as in bestiaries. For example, dragon (demon) plays an important role in demonstrating St. Margaret’s authority and sanctity. In short, when our gal Margaret refuses to dally, marry, or have anything in any way tawdry to do with the pagan Olibrius, she is tortured not only by oily Olibrius, but also the devil.

In what can only be utter frustration at Margaret’s seeming immunity to temptation and torment alike, a demon appears in the form of a dragon and swallows her whole, thinking that’ll settle her hash. Unfortunately for the dragon, Margaret turns out to be as indigestible as she is invulnerable.  Lunch gets the better of the dragon-coming and going as we see here. (Of course, anyone could have told him that dress is way, way too much roughage.)

Returning to the earlier theme of natural history, we find this fellow in the Liber acerbe etatis from the second half of the 14th century. Personally, I do not believe that heresy was what got Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Pluteo 40.52, f. 46rFrancesco Stabili, the composer of the Liber’s “encyclopedic [vernacular] poem dealing with the natural sciences, physics and religious philosophy” burnt at the stake (Imaginary Creatures, p 32). My money is on the dragon portrayed here hunting him down and crisping him for writing a poem that inspired such a spectacularly unflattering and spotty portrait.

Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Pluteo 89 superiore 43, f. 43r

Just to show how cosmically important dragons are, the next example comes from a manuscript that deals with astronomy. If you’re wondering what about those things that look like shuriken are all over the hindquarters of this dandy with a chin-beard are, wonder no more. They are not ninja weapons but stars. This particular section of the manuscript treats the constellation Cetus. While we today know this constellation as “the Whale,” it was better known to as a sea monster to the Greeks. Ergo, a starry-bummed dragon.

gorleson d is for dragon

If ever a dragon was cute as a button…. BL, Add MS 49622,  Gorleston Psalter 133v

While bestiaries, natural histories, and astronomical miscellanies are all excellent places for finding representations dragons, some of the most delightful dragons–in my opinion–are the wholly decorative dragons one trips over in margins and lettering.

Admittedly, in real life, the only ones who think that dragons are decorative are dragons themselves, vain creatures that they are. Moreover the thought of tripping over an unexpected dragon should make anyone with any instinct for self-preservation watch their footing. In manuscripts, however, anything goes. So, a few dragons from medieval marginalia.

Another Gorleston Psalter beauty, which is worth going to the British Library site for in full, takes up the ubiquitous knight-dragon motif below. As with saints, knights generally get the better of dragons (as opposed to snails who tend to beat knights hollow. Go figure.)


Here, in an image which must deeply wound dragonly pride, the artist has reduced dragons to mere architectural filler. The upside for the beasts is that they can nod off, make lunch dates, or whatever while Merlin (on the left) drones on about the world’s longest prophecy to Vortigern.

No one will ever know.

Speaking of lunches, in this lovely marginalia from the late thirteenth-century Alphonso Psalter below, it’s hard to tell whether these two are sharing a salt lick or facing off. Whatever they are doing, I have to say this is one of the hodgepodgier dragons I’ve seen with his bird-like wings, ivy-leaf claws, stripes, and spots. It’s really no wonder it doesn’t know whether to kiss the stag or attack it. It’s probably having an identity crisis.

Some other post, I’ll devote attention to dragons in other manuscript traditions.

For now, I’ll just  pop in this crick-necked cutie. The late fifteenth-century manuscript from Northern Italy contains a collection of Minhagim (“religious customs”).  The illustrator has included this little fellow to spice up a passage treating with the seventh day of the Sukkot festival, Hoshanah Rabba.

We’ll wrap up in good, oxymoronic style with a selection of initials, specifically with a variety of zoomorphic capitals rather than inhabited capitals like the “D” with St. Margaret above.

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Sources and Resources: Continue reading

R is for Regrettable

Field Notes, Installment III

“Oooh!” exclaimed the creature excitedly. “If it’s odd bits of the animal kingdom you’re interested in, then your best bet is to find the Master of the Menagerie.”

“The what?” asked the girl, edging a bit further away as the creature opened a second can of kippers.

The oh-so-delicate Toggler

“The Master of the Menagerie,” returned the creature. For a moment, it munched blissfully away on a kipper–bones and all. “He’s an odd one by all reports. They say his collection is the last word in collection, so if you’re the last of your kind, it is best to avoid him. I’m safe, I am. We togglers are yoooo-bik-kweee-tuss in these parts.”

Another kipper followed its predecessor.

“Ah!! I thee that thurpritheth you!”

“It’s only that you are the first of your kind that I’ve seen. In fact, I took you for a dachshund of sorts at first,” she offered. To herself, she added, “the very, very, very fat sort.”

A large blatting noise filled the air and the girl had to fight the desire to shield her nose. The toggler blinked confusedly and looked about it. Then, with a shrug, it dug a fork into the jar of sauerkraut beside it to eat lustily for a moment.

“We togglers are prolific breeders. There were seven in my litter and my parents have had four litters, all about that size. You wouldn’t know it to look at us, but we’re delicate creatures. Have to eat a great deal to keep up our strength.” The round little beast gave its belly rolls an affectionate pat. “Most togglers prefer to sustain themselves in their dens. Me, I like picnic. Always be prepared to enjoy a good view to the full. That’s my motto.”

Here the toggler waved an unopened can of kippers at the girl. “Happy to share!”

Before she could answer, another heraldic toot trumpeted through the air. Once more, the creature looked suspiciously about it for the culprit.

“Nothing for me. Thank you! Most kind!” returned the girl as she feigned blowing her nose. “You were saying about this Master of the Menagerie—”

The creature shrugged, a move that regrettably brought forth further eructation, saying, “That’s all I know really. No! Wait a minute. They say when you hear the bells you’ll know you’re nearly there.”

“The bells? What kind of bells?”

“B e l l s. The bells kind of bells, I expect. The kind that go ding.”

The opening of the third can of kippers defeated the girl and she fled. After rounding a bend a bit down the dusty road, the girl pulled out her field notes and quickly sketched a picture of the creature. She was pretty certain the creature was fatter than she’d depicted, but it already looked preposterous. With a sigh, the girl jotted a few notes about the Master of the Menagerie, concluding:

The toggler seemed oddly surprised by its own flatulence, which was indeed  remarkable both for its volume and rapidity. The flatulence, that is. Frankly, I can’t imagine how it could be surprised. What else is one to expect if one consumes of a steady diet of sauerkraut and kippers?

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 a period’s 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 sufficiently 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.

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.



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.