In the habit of praying

The Baltimore Sun has an interesting series at the moment on “Hidden Maryland”, various cultural aspects that would normally be overlooked. It has a piece up at the moment on the Carmeltie religious order, which I think is a nice way of showing how certain institutions can stay close to their historical roots while at the same time finding ways to make themselves more relevant to the current day:

For 185 years, the nuns practiced strict seclusion. They wore habits and veils, stayed behind grates when interacting with the public and rarely left the grounds.

Then came the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, which sought to modernize Roman Catholicism.

Baltimore Carmel, like many others, adapted. To some, it was a relief.

“I was fine with the old ways at the time, but the habits were heavy and hot, we looked like penguins, and I still have bald spots from the veils,” says a chuckling Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester, 80, who joined in the 1950s. “I’m glad we left those days behind.”

I have a fondness for monasteries, though it doesn’t have anything to do with Bede. It’s something to do with the quietness and pace of life, which may be a quietness and slow pace that exists only in my head for all I know.


$250,000 in Gold Coins Discovered Off Florida Coast

Oh if only I could make a find like that in my back garden…


You know that incredible feeling when you find $10 in the pocket of an old jacket? Well, this is kind of like that, but also, kind of different. This past weekend, a team of shipwreck explorers discovered 48 gold coins reportedly worth up to $250,000, CNN reports.

Brent Brisben, who owns the shipwreck salvage company 1715 Fleet – Queens Jewels, LLC, led his crew of three on an expedition off the Florida coast to explore a 300-year-old wreck site. And, in the most literal sense, he struck gold. The trove of coins the crew found, called escudos, are part of the treasure left behind after 11 Spanish galleons sank on July 31, 1715, after a hurricane. According to CNN, they’re still in decent condition, with some markings still legible. The oldest dates to 1697, and the youngest dates to 1714.

(MORE: Nevada Recluse Hoarded $7 Million Worth of…

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Ice Age art

A few months ago I was lucky enough to get to the British Museum exhibition on Ice Age art, called “The Arrival of the Modern Mind”. I have to say it was on a par with the larger, much grander and more popular Pompeii exhibit, which was also brilliant.

Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of my own; snaps were banned, which is understandable given the delicate nature of the items and commercial rights of various museums. The main theme of the art exhibition was that the styles and techniques of the earliest human artists were strikingly similar to what we would consider modern art. Picasso, known for his abstract depictions of women, was heavily inspired by a neolithic carving of a woman; he kept two casts of it in his studio. The exhibit curators had also sourced recent paintings that had similar brush stroke and compositional techniques to our early ancestors.

Seeing such tiny and delicate things in front of me through the glass, I was struck not only by their beauty but their fragility and the amount of effort it took to produce them. Some of these pieces were 40,000 years old. One bone carving of a human with a lion’s head was estimated to have taken over 400 hours to create.


When you consider that these people were hunter-gatherers, and so always on the borderline in terms of starvation, that they would commit so much of themselves to producing such art shows that the human creative genius must have always needed an outlet. Whether it was for ritual or decorative purposes, these people had an idea and took whatever time was necessary for that idea to come to fruition. We tend to think of our ancestors as primitive, but they don’t seem to have been too far behind us in many respects.

I’ve noted previously how much people of the here and now and antiquity enjoyed having little objets d’arts scattered about, and our ancient ancestors were no different, with tiny little lion-men as well as water birds.

When you think about how little has made it to us from so long ago, it makes you wonder what will be left of us in 40,000 years apart from plastic bottles.

Name that pet – medieval style

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


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 – 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.

Mapping the past

There’s a great post here collecting maps of some of Earth’s mightiest empires, from the Roman (above, from Wikimedia Commons) to China and the British Empire. I particularly like the animated gifs showing progression and regression over time – see the one for the Ottomans in particular.

Watchers on the wall


In George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, which gave rise to the series Game of Thrones, a vast wall of ice stretches across the North, 700ft high and hundreds of miles long. It staves off attacks by raiders and magical creatures alike. It’s inspired by Hadrian’s Wall, which the Romans built across what is now Scotland in order to stave off attacks by the Irish (Scotii) and Picts.

The wall was garrisoned by up to 10,000 men at a series of forts and towers, a considerable fighting force of ostensibly trained warriors compared to the more undisciplined raiders from the north.

There are actually two walls, the later Antonine at the Firth of Forth and the better-preserved, older, more southerly Hadrian’s, though much of it has been lost to quarrying and local construction. Having had a top height of about 10ft, It’s somewhat more modest than the wall in Westeros.


Gildas, the sixth-century British month, wrote about them, but gets their order of building wrong. The Antonine, he says, was built first, and he speaks despairingly of it. The Romans, after a plea from the helpless colony, had sent a legion which proceeded to smash Scottish/Pictish resistance and drive them back.

The British were told to construct across the island a wall linking the two seas; properly manned, this would scare away the enemy and act as a protection for the people. But it was the work of a leaderless and irrational mob, and made of turf rather than stone; so it did no good. (Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae 15)

In fact both the Antonine and southern wall were built from a combination of stone and turf; much like the Great Wall of China, it was built from whatever was closest to hand. Studies of Gildas sometimes look upon him unkindly for his portrayal of the walls, based on the paucity of his sources. However, this overlooks that he is making a very deliberate point – that the Britons have been habitually lazy (they “chose to relax in laziness and stupor”) and have preferred to look to abroad for aid rather than help themselves. We must bear in mind that Gildas was not writing history as we understand it; rather, he was using the historical section of his tract as a way of shaming the current day into moral and social reform.

The Romans, Gildas writes, having laid the barbarians low for a second time and, after offering advice on self-defence and urging the Britons to repel the invaders themselves in future, “built a wall quite different from the first. This one ran straight from sea to sea, linking towns that happened to have been sited there out of fear of the enemy” (DEB 18.2). The implication is that it was of stone, or at least better quality materials; there is a reference to a series of towers.

Sometimes I wonder what it was like to be a soldier on the wall in the middle of winter, listening to the howls of the wind and wondering if, somewhere out there in the darkness, one of the native tribes was preparing to attack. It’s difficult to imagine the strangeness and fear that would bring, fear of the unknown territory as much as unknown attack. The dark is foreboding enough without having to worry about a spear in the guts or an arrow through the brain. The garrisons might have had troops from abroad, but eventually they were mostly locals.

A force was stationed on the high towers to oppose them [Irish and Picts], but it was too lazy to fight, and too unwieldy to flee; the men were foolish and frightened, and they sat about day and night, rotting in their folly. Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground … I need say no more. Our citizens abandoned the towns and the high wall [and were scattered] (Gildas, DEB 19.2-3)

For fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, this might seem vaguely familiar, with the decaying defences paralleling how the forts along the Wall had fallen into ruin and the defenders, the Night’s Watch, had been whittled down to a fraction of what they had been thousands of years previously.


While Martin is using it for dramatic effect, heralding the danger of a supernatural invasion from the far north, Gildas is again using it for political reasons. For instance, he makes it seem like the walls were built and abandoned in quick succession. The Antonine wall (built c.AD140) was indeed abandoned within 20 years, and briefly restored by Emperor Severus (c.AD200). However, Hadrian’s, built from about AD120 was garrisoned up until the early part of the fifth century, when the Romans withdrew from Britain. Gildas is collapsing history to make a moral point.

This is the kind of thing I meant when I wrote a few days ago about interrogating documents. Gildas has an agenda, so there’s no point just dismissing or accepting what he says on face value – you need to look more closely at the text to see what he really means.

I’m sure he would have considered himself a watcher on the wall, trying desperately to alert his contemporaries of dangers (temporal and spiritual) he saw coming their way, railing against the follies of the modern world and despairing that nobody is acting upon his warnings. I suspect he would have made an interesting blogger. Mad, though.

What is history?

It’s a fair and fundamental question, yet often elusive. When does something become history? Is by virtue of it simply happening, or does it have to be noteworthy in some way? For example, I had French fries and half a beer after work – is that history? And anyway, how far back do you have to go before something becomes history?


The discipline has evolved dramatically throughout the millennia, becoming more rigorous and scientific while striving to remain objective. Herodotus, in his work simply called Histories, is often considered the father of history, but our Greek history lecturer would say he was also considered the father of lies. Much of what Herodotus writes is myth, though there are historical elements and he does attempt to put it in a narrative. Thucydides is much more clinical in his history of the Pelopennesian war, but he is not as colourful. In many ways, the discipline has been caught between those two poles since then – how does one write colourful, engaging history that is still rooted solidly in the facts?

It’s possible, certainly, but is an ongoing tension. What needs to be sacrificed, for instance. Eric Hobsbawm was an excellent historian and wrote well, but his history is Marxist and so has a particular viewpoint (and his legacy has been divisive). That doesn’t make it less legitimate, it’s just another layer that needs to be acknowledged and filtered if needs be. All documents should be interrogated and history books are no different. We do it for primary sources – you wouldn’t take a medieval primary source about something like battle casualties at face value, for instance. Primary sources are the bread and butter of history, but shouldn’t be accepted without analysis.

The subject of my thesis, Bede, is a Christian monk. That doesn’t make him less of a historian per se, but his Christianity is so intense that I need to dissect what is fact and what is analysis, and in my case what are the connections between his history and his scriptural commentaries. I need to understand what was going on in his head when he wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and he didn’t see history as a separate genre from exegesis, because they were all part of his moral reform agenda. Does that mean that the Ecclesiastical History isn’t history? No. It’s just not a modern history book, even if Bede takes great pains to cite his sources. It’s a product of its time, like any history text (albeit a product that sometimes drives me half demented). A surprising number of people forget this when they go to read books from past eras, and sometimes take them at face value or, just as bad, dismiss them out of hand because they are older.

This is something my students struggled with. Actually, one of the biggest struggles my students had was distinguishing between fact and opinion. Objective analysis simply isn’t taught in schools, so when they came to me at the start of their university career most of them struggled. Some went on to do quite well, but it took a lot of work for most of them. I sometimes wonder if Bede and his contemporaries had the same issues while teaching (which I’m sorry to say I haven’t done for a while). This is all just a case of retraining the brain to think slightly differently, but that sort of retraining is constant.

My brain has issues with considering recent events “history”. Obviously, I’m not saying it isn’t. I studied modern history in school and university. I’ve written about it in book reviews and for articles. It’s enjoyable and informative. I’ve lived through a phenomenal transformation in politics, media, and technology. It’s all great. It’s just that in my head modern events are too recent to be historical. The further back you go, my mind tells me, the more “authentic” it is history. That’s a bit crazy, and yet that’s what feels comfortable. And yet I don’t think I’m alone, because people have laughed at me when I’ve referred to “modern history” – and you can understand why, because people associate “modern” with “here and now” and “history” with, well, stuff that happened ages ago.

For instance, the activities of Ancient Egypt, the land of pharaohs and mummys, pyramids and sand, and one of the most enduring cultural legacies. I’ve always loved Egypt and its ancient culture, yet it traditionally falls under archaeology. Does that mean it’s not history? No, it just means we have learned more about the culture from what it left behind than what it wrote. However, the two go hand-in-hand. While history is primarily the study of documents, the material evidence is what brings it to life. This is often most apparent in the field of classical studies, which are as much literary studies as they are cultural or archaeological.

One of my favourite courses in university (and not just because I got to know my now wife in it) was on early Anglo-Saxon and Irish art, such as jewellery and illuminated manuscripts. This was primarily art history, but at the same time it told us a lot about the time period. Lapis lazuli in the illuminations implied trade connections with the Near East, the material on which the words were written told us about what animals the monks kept, the style of writing told us something about trends and education. So when I turn to an art book, or look at a statue, I look at it not just as a piece of sculpture, but almost as a text that tells me what the artist and his or her society thought about the world. Even when you’re this guy:


It makes you wonder what future archaeologists and historians will think when they unearth McDonald’s signs and review fragmentary texts and images concerning Jersey Shore. However, it is increasingly the case that cross-disciplinary studies can bear some of the most interesting fruits. Some of this is down to a trend among funding agencies that inter-disciplinary research is best, perhaps because it represents advances in more than one field with a single research grant – and God knows there aren’t that many grants any more.

However, all researchers should embrace other disciplines if it means advancing their own work, or looking at the same old subject in a new and very different way. Some subjects go together surprisingly well. Liminal Entwinings, for instance, documents research by a geographer on pilgrimages and how they shape people and places. Pilgrimages are traditionally a religious topic, and so by extension normally fall into historical or religious studies, though they also have an enormous social aspect and they in turn have transformed the landscape (Ireland is covered with holy wells and rocks, a legacy of the christianisation of pagan areas as much as it being a traditionally Catholic country).

So as we go on, we see that all sorts of things are history, and that history is part of all sorts of things. And while we may have a fondness for a particular era, we can increasingly learn new methods of analysis and thinking from unrelated and modern fields. And that in itself is history.