Name that pet – medieval style

Updated at 9.40 on Jul 15, 2013 as image did not post correctly

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This is Pepper, one of our two cats. Naming her was a small challenge, because it took a while for my wife and I to agree.

I wonder what we would have come up with had I seen this post at Medievalists.net – medieval pet names. Having trouble naming your dog? Well, there wasn’t quite an app for that, but there was a book.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale has a line where they name three dogs: Colle, Talbot and Gerland. Meanwhile, in the early fifteenth-century, Edward, Duke of York, wrote The Master of Game, which explains how dogs are to be used in hunting and taken care of. He also included a list of 1100 names that he thought would be appropriate for hunting dogs. They include Troy, Nosewise, Amiable, Nameles, Clenche, Bragge, Ringwood and Holdfast.

I like that Nameles was a suitable name for a dog. It’s a bit quirky, like Odysseus telling the cyclops his name is “No one”  (though hopefully the dog’s naming wasn’t a question of life or death).

Years ago I read the poem Pangur Bán, a medieval Irish poem about a cat written in a manuscript alongside Latin hymns and Greek grammar. You can see the poem here; it’s in the bottom half of the right-hand page. I could have sworn I was taught that it meant “white panther” but it actually means something along the lines of “fuller white” (I still like my translation better). Either way, it’s a lovely tribute to a cat who is obviously a good companion of the writer; anybody who has had a cat knows they can provide great companionship, especially if you’re in a solitary pursuit like writing. The poem is referenced in the article linked to above, but there’s a full translation here.

Messe agus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria shaindán:
bíth a menmasam fri seilgg,
mu menma céin im shaincheirdd

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

History: Under construction

I have neglected this blog terribly. It’s not by design, more that life has got in the way. I’m still researching my PhD on Bede and eschatology, but a full-time job and other responsibilities mean I haven’t blogged at all.

I’ve been bitten by the bug again, though, and hope it will make me a more productive writer overall. So it’s fitting that I resume building up my blog with a note about somebody who is literally building history.

Bert Geuten has broken ground on a ninth-century monastic settlement in his native Germany. Yes, a ninth-century one. And it won’t be built in double-quick time, either; it’s envisaged as a 40-year project that will only use the tools available in the time. Geuten is dreaming big – not only will it be a village, but if all goes to plan it will have a 2,000-seater cathedral too.

His team is clearing a site and trying to do things in roughly the same order that the monks would have done. He told The Local:

In the ninth century the monks would have built a small church first – they didn’t want to wait until the cathedral was ready to be able to pray. So we’re doing the same.

The plan is for it to be a tourist attraction, which will allow people to see the site come together and learn about how medieval craftsmen went about their business. One of the things I like is that they will only be serving food that would have been eaten at the time.

I hope this works out. There was a similar project in the US, Ozark fortress, has run into serious financial issues and so has not opened, though its supporters continue to seek new funding on the official website. One wonders what sort of finances would be required to build the likes of House Stark’s seat, Winterfell, for real rather than just the CGI below.

Winterfell

A more successful experiment is that in Guédelon, France, where a 13th-century castle has been under construction for about 15 years.

Château_de_Guédelon_(juillet_2009)

Guédelon, pictured above in 2009, attracts about 300,000 people a year, which is nothing to be sniffed at.

I’ve always been fascinated by living history buffs and experimental archaeology. For people in those fields, it’s not enough just to learn about history, they want to experience what it was like for themselves, or at least as close as one can get in the 21st century.

The whole idea of building medieval structures also catches my imagination. I’ve been to sites like Carcassonne and Urbino, where the modern mingles with the medieval, and I’ve always been struck not just by the style of architecture but how it has endured and been adapted over the centuries.

I’m not sure where my love of architecture comes from. I’ve always liked the combination of form and function. Part of me wonders if it’s a consequence of, or an attempt to foster the memory of, my father’s father, who was an architect but who died before I was born.

There’s also the sense of imposing on the landscape, of effectively becoming the landscape once the structure has been there for a particular length of time. There are certainly any number of medieval sites scattered across Ireland, some like Ross Castle in Co Kerry or the Rock of Cashel in Co Tipperary as established tourist attractions, others less so. The blog Time Travel Ireland profiles many of those sites off the beaten track and is well worth having a poke through.

I must do more on historical sites and the various books I have about them. History actually is all around us. In some places you have to look a little bit harder than others, but what you might find can be very rewarding.

Using the past

We all use the past for our own purposes. Some of these are quite innocent, some are not. I’m sure we can all thing of examples for both cases. As you might expect, it has gone on since the invention of writing. Skirmishes became major victories, minor rulers become emperors, and so on and so forth. I’m watching V For Vendetta as I write this, in which a man in a dystopian future uses ideas about the past to inform the present and future. Although there are no Guy Fawkes or revolutionary figures on show here.

Bede: “Should history tell of good men and their estate…”

Some medieval writers were very clear about why they were using the past. Bede, the subject of my PhD, wrote that “should history tell of good men and their estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful or perverse”. Bede’s interpretation is always religious, and for him, learning from “good men and their estate” would inspire people to live good, Christian lives. But by establishing this in the preface, he establishes the precise meaning that he wants the audience to derive from the work. It’s only one facet of the text, but it’s a very important one.

Bede, of course, was not an innovator in this. The Classical world had paideia, and education by good example was an important part of this; consider the qualities extolled in The Odyssey or The Aeneid (although neither are actual histories, they were intended and were understood to be such).

People’s use of the past is often determined by what they need for the present. In Bede’s case, it was to encourage moral and religious reform amid what he believed to be a deep spiritual crisis. By using examples from Anglo-Saxon and continental history, his Ecclesiastical History became a “gallery of good examples”, to quote the oft-repeated phrase of James Campbell. I, like most people working in the field, would hesitate to say that Bede invented aspects of an individual’s character, and he probably did not. However, that is not to say that Bede did not emphasise certain elements in order to inspire the most reform. There are enough facets of King Edwin’s character, for example, that work against him being an ideal Christian ruler when Bede could simply have written them out and made him the Constantine-style ruler that King Oswald is in the EH. Edwin, for example, promises to convert several times but always finds an excuse not to become Christian. Oswald is Christian from the beginning of his reign.

Edwin: Good but not as good as he could have been 

Oswald, for example, becomes more than just a great king in Northumbrian history, he becomes a Northumbrian Constantine who restores and renews Christianity in the kingdom and, in Bede’s account, makes sure the religion becomes so embedded in the realm that it does not flitter away, as it had when Edwin was killed. I wrote a whole MA thesis on this, so I won’t repeat it here. But suffice it to say that Bede thus presents a progression in his people’s history, where they become more solidly Christian and so greater culturally and politically. By implication, these good examples become symbols of what they can achieve and what they stand to lose should they stray too far from the path, as he believes they are. Bede sought to use the past to make the present and future better.

Oswald: Shinier than this picture suggests

Gildas, the British writer of the sixth-century, wrote history for the very same reason, although he was also writing against the backdrop of Saxon invasions and the threat of imminent conquest, which he understood to be divine judgement. He, in turn, used the Bible as a model for his history: prophetic history. Gildas, by identifying current events with ancient patterns, stitched his people into universal history and, in doing so, sought to expose corruption and “sting” the present so that society could be healed.

The Bible was, for Gildas, a “mirror” for his own times. It was a key for medieval writers to unlock not only the past but their own times. By studious analysis of the narratives and themes, they saw patterns in history that they believed were being replicated in their own days. Bede too looked into the Bible and saw it as a reflection of the present. When commenting on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Bablyon (in the book of Kings), he says that the “allegory of so lamentable a history fits so well with the negligence of our own time”, but with Jerusalem standing for the Church and Bablyon for “the city of the devil”. Much of what I’m doing is recreating this sort of early-medieval mindset, because by studying the historian I can more effectively study the history.

The study of the Bible and commentary on the texts, exegesis, informed a good deal of medieval history writing. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is, as Benedicta Ward noted, as much theology as it is history. I’m not much of a theologian, but I have always been a decent literary critic and analyst, so those skills are very much coming to bear on the structure and development of Bede’s writing. It is a very different intellectual world from the one we inhabit, and as such it becomes all the more of a puzzle.

I suppose a fair question to ask at this point is, ‘How do I use history?’ I am no prophet or theologian. For me, history is a way to explore the past, both at a cultural and intellectual level. I can pick up a book and chip a way into a world now lost to us. It’s probably why I favour ancient and medieval history; the modern is just too familiar. While I have learned much from my study of history, I seek to learn and teach rather than mould wider society. I don’t have the specific drive of a Bede or a Gildas, or perhaps I do but with a different focus.

Having scribbled thus I feel there is a lot more to be said on the subject. I will return to it now and again, methinks. But for now, I shall let history tell its own stories.

Crucifixion corpus

While on the subject of digital databases, a project at my own university this week launched a collection of images and information concerning representations of the Crucifixion in Ireland between AD800 and 1200. The site, COIRP, is in its infancy but the team aim to update the images and categories in the near future. This should prove to be a great resource for art and cultural historians of the early medieval period.

The project, Christ on the Cross, has been studying how Irish art and literature represented and dealt with Christ’s crucifixion, both in an aesthetic and liturgical sense. The database takes its name from the Irish word for “body”. At the launch, Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh, one of the investigators, said it was a play on corpus, the Latin for “body” but which is also shorthand for the figure of Christ on the cross as well as a body of work. Initially, they had tried to avoid puns related to corpus, but it was too suitable to ignore. They then managed to make it an acronym of sorts: Corpus Of Irish Representations of the Passion.

I was at a conference organised by CotC last year, Croch Saithair: Envisioning Christ on the Cross in the Early Medieval West, that was fascinating and intense. I look forward to seeing what else will come from the project.

History podcasts

Britain’s National Archives offers podcasts on pretty much all eras of history, up to the 20th century. The talks look to be presented by people with good reputations and knowledge in their particular field, so if you ever fancy a history lesson running in the background while typing up a report or surfing the web, I’d recommend giving it a go.

Medievalists.net has linked to all the medieval podcasts, which have covered the likes of the Magna Carta, medieval crime, and warfare.

Medieval beasts

Got Medieval has the market sewn up when it comes to manuscript marginalia and all the beasts and creatures that lurk therein. But another good resources is Medieval Bestiary, which has an alphabetical lists of the animals that occur in medieval texts and their attributes in the medieval mind. Many bestiaries survive from the middle ages: they normally consisted of lists and illustrations of animals (both real and mythological) along with any related moral lessons. For example, the donkey was slow and resisted commands, while when it comes to apes “the female ape always gives birth to twins, one of which she loves and the other she hates”.

The site also does a good job of showing what ancient sources bestiaries drew on, which shows a certain intellectual continuity between the Classical world and the medieval. There are plenty of examples of the associated manuscript illustrations too, which are nice in themselves.

Faith convictions

I was asked a perplexing question recently. I had just spoken at a postgraduate seminar in Trinity College Dublin, delivering a paper called ‘”The allegory of so lamentable history”: The Old Testament influence on Bede’s understanding of apocalypse’ (see last abstract here for a similar, earlier paper). In it, I basically argued that Bede, an Anglo-Saxon historian in the eighth century, used the Bible to understand how the end would come for his people, and particularly that he used the book of Amos as a model for criticising corrupt elites.

Many medieval writers used the Bible in some sense to comment on or understand their own day, but some, likeGildas and to an extent Bede, saw in it actual prophecies of what was to come in their people’s history. All of which is pretty heavy going, I admit, but that is the world I am trying to decipher and analyse for my doctorate. The paper went well and there were good questions (and people had paid attention to our papers, which is a bonus). At the end the chairperson, a theology graduate, asked about the difference between theology and ideology in Bede’s work. In all honesty, I said that Bede would not necessarily have drawn a distinction: as far as he was concerned, a perfectly Christian kingdom was the ideal that the Anglo-Saxons should aspire to, and his work was partially designed to encourage the development of such a kingdom.

The chairperson felt that the use of the Bible to advocate national agendas was a travesty, a view I can fully understand although it does not apply to early medieval writing. As far as Bede was concerned, what he was doing was using the Bible to show how the English were part of a united Christianity: if the Bible and its messages could be shown to apply to the English, then that meant they were definitively part of the wider Christian world and were as important a part of it as somewhere like Rome. I appreciate that this is difficult to get across; I have spent more than a year working on this so it seems second nature to me. However, the chairperson came from a theological perspective, and a modern one at that, so it seemed like a travesty to use the Bible in this way. As I said, I understood where he was coming from.

After the meeting had broken up, he asked my colleague and I about our faith convictions. I wasn’t enormously pleased about this, as I believe such things are personal and you shouldn’t be put on the spot about them, although I know he did not mean anything by it really. But I had to think quickly to try and sum up some ambivalent and unarticulated thoughts that have bubbled away in my brain. It reminded me of the immigration forms for Abu Dhabi, which ask you to specify religion and sect: these signifiers of identity can mean a great deal while also meaning one must step outside old familiar zones. I gave a probably wholly unsatisfying answer referring to nominality, acceptance, etc, summed up with “I’m neutral but friendly”.

In history, we always strive for (or at least are supposed to strive for) objectivity, removing ourselves from the subject and analysing it critically. Naturally, this can only ever be an aspiration: everybody has some interpretation or reading of the text that is affected by their experience to date. And there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, although it should be recognised at least.

I tend to approach things from a literary criticism point of view, although that is usually over-ruled by historical analysis. I think what the chairperson was really wondering was if our faith convictions had determined or influenced our papers, or our interpretation of how the writers used their sources (my colleague gave a paper on early modern uses of the Bible in apocalyptic scenarios). It did not: we merely examined how medieval historians had used the Bible as a source. But his question did make me think, and I am not sure I could ever give a proper answer.

[Cross-posted at Tiny Planet]

Speaking out

The next few weeks are going to be hectic. I’m giving a 40-minute research seminar at UCC on February 24, I’m due to speak at the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies postgraduate conference in early March (abstracts here). I’m also preparing an article for the online journal Marginalia, although it all depends on whether the article proposal is accepted, which I won’t know for a few days at least. I may also be in York for a day, depending on finances.