May 2010

I much prefer talking over typing of any kind.  Verbal communication seems to have gone the way of the dinosaurs since texting, Facebook, Twitter, AIM, and e-mail has become so prevalent.  Instead of zapping a quick message, like “ur comin 2 teh coffe ship? i cn get u sumthin. wht do u lyk?” (but let’s be realistic; almost no text messages have more than one thought, let alone three) we should go back to the time when each communication was carefully thought out.  A message, like any in the Paston Letters, (see more on Paston and the “Valentine” letter here) had to travel more than a few seconds to reach the intended recipient and went through a chain of scribes, messengers, and relatives before actually getting to that recipient.  Like in Sense and Sensibility, a correspondence with a person of the opposite sex was a big deal, and demonstrated true affection and attachment.

The 'Valentine' Letter, Paston Letters

I’m not saying that we should all go back to a time where a select few could read and write or to a period when girls were scandalous if they dallied with men.  No.  I’m saying that we should mean what we write and focus on knowing the people we speak to.  That’s probably hypocritical coming from a blog, but I’m trying to veer my blogged thoughts into a more constructed, academic frame.  I save pictures, sites, and thoughts I love for later use and try to incorporate my academics into whatever I’m typing about (see Paston Letters, above).  I usually go through at least two drafts before I post something, because I want it to mean something to whomever reads it.  I want it to mean something to me when I look back on my thoughts years from now.

Also, whatever happened to stationary?  I hardly ever get notes in the mail that are written on honest-to-God stationary.  You know, the stuff you buy in boxes with matching paper and envelopes?  My mom keeps the tradition somewhat alive when she sends me a package with a handwritten note on top, but that’s about it.  After my insane 10 day race to the Spring Quarter Finish Line is over, I want to take the amazing stationary I’ve bought and take time to write.  My friends and family mean a great deal to me, and I think that’s why I spend money on quality cards for special occasions.  Plus, as I hope is apparent, I love to write.

You’re probably thinking, “So… what happened to talking?”  Yes, I do like to talk with people, but I know that isn’t always the best way to communicate.  I leu of talking face-to-face or on the telephone, I propose that we write more letters.  Letters are things we can preserve, like photographs, and each one can tell so much about the author and the recipient.  Handwritten letters are precious things, and I want to help make the practice a larger part of my life.

Okay, now to bring in the academic side of things.

Manuscripts were written by those in the church.  The scribes copied things down onto vellum that they thought were worth saving.  It’s a miracle that Beowulf survived, though it is probably due to the fact that he became a Christian warrior in the saga as opposed to an actual Anglo-Saxon warrior.  It’s interesting what ends up in manuscripts.  In my outlaws class, I learned that the tale of Gamelyn survived because it was found with the Canterbury Tales, and so was thought to be Chaucer’s work, a draft of the Yeoman’s Tale, or a source for that tale.  It was put into manuscripts and copied alongside actual Chaucer.

Materials were hard to come by, so an ordinary message was written on a wax tablet, which was encased in wooden coverings to protect the wax and the writing, so that it could be smoothed over to receive a reply.  Again and again and again.  No sentimentality here.  Vellum was expensive, so only the wealthy could commission books.  The material was so special that old manuscripts were used as the covering on the backs of the covers so that virgin vellum could be used for print people wanted to read at the time of production.

We’ve taken letters and writing for granted, and I, for my part, am going to steadily appreciate those things.

My Writing Manifesto:

  • No more abbreviations, unless they are correct and needed.
  • I will continue to use spelling and grammar correctly, and won’t skip either because I’m in a hurry or am “just texting back.”
  • I will reply to long e-mails and other letters with letters, unless the news inside is of an immediate nature.
  • I will use Facebook more as a tool for bits of information and for a long piece of news intended for many people.
  • I will write one letter a week, even if it’s rather short.
  • I will practice my cursive in these letters.

Okay, people.  The mailboxes are waiting…


Starry Night

As I get ready for bed, I always find myself thinking about the stars and the night sky.  The universe is a beautiful thing, and it’s extraordinary to ponder how small we really are in the grand scheme of things.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I love older history so much.  I have studied the height of organized civilization, which is an almost alien way of life to us.  Marriage at 13?  Slaves?  A round trip across the Mediterranean taking 20 years?  No Facebook?!  Yep.  Crazy, I know.

I recently found an animated model of Ptolemy’s universe online.  You can zoom in (the best part is after you’ve zoomed in) and speed up the images.  It’s amazing how accurate it is, for the most part, after all this time.  Yeah, I know Greece isn’t, and never was, the center of the universe, but the orbits of the planets were revolutionary.  Do you remember playing the game in middle school in which different balls were the planets and they were placed however many steps apart to demonstrate their relative sizes and distance from one another?  (It was great!  That and the parachute are the things I remember the best.)  Well, this reminds me of that.

Ptolemy's Astronomy

I kinda sorta knew that Memorial Day was coming up from the sale ads in my email inbox, but I have never paid much attention to the holiday because I’ve always been out of school before.  I actually had to look up the UW calendar to confirm that we don’t have class on Monday.  I didn’t know if it was a school holiday or not.  It was a welcome surprise to see that we do, indeed, have the day off, but the gift of a free day has also put me into a frenzy because next week is the last week of class.  It’s strange how “nice” surprises can somehow turn sour because of circumstances.  I would usually be so relieved to have a day off, but I’m itching to get back to class after this vertigo crapola I’ve been dealing with.

However, on the positive side, I have longer than I thought to work on my research paper.  I’m getting everything sorted out right now, and my desk is an absolute mess.  It’s a constructive mess, though.  I think.  I’ve discovered that as I read, I’m becoming more aware of the best scholars in the field and if I generally like their writing style or not.  That was something I struggled with in classics, probably because I took classes in almost every possible field in that general academic area.  I got to remember the translators I preferred (see my Aeneid post for some comments on that) but didn’t really identify with any particular scholar’s articles or books.  In the Robin Hood area, I’m fond of Ohlgren, Keen, and Knight, even though I sometimes find Keen a little general and Knight a bit pretentious.  However, I can identify sources’ usefulness sometimes based on this.  If I see that an article cites something by one of them or cites the Dobson and Taylor as the source of the Gest, that’s an indicator of something good.

I’ve also been struck by the lack of female scholars in medieval history.  My professor is amazing, and a woman, and one of my favorite articles from class is written by Barbara Hanawalt, but the academics in the last paragraph–the dominant figures in Robin Hood scholarship–are all male.  Granted, academia didn’t have more gender equality until recently, but it’s strange to know that I’ll be going into a field that is predominantly male.  And I have no idea if the UK is as adamant about integrating women into the workforce as the US when it comes to the collegiate level.  I remember the US News and World Report’s statistics on graduate schools, and all of the classics graduate programs were very male-centric.  Hmm.  I guess I’ll have something to look for when I get to Durham.  Hopefully, I won’t be the only girl in my program.  I also have more respect for my classics professors, Mary and Yurie, and my history professor, Charity, after coming to this (belated) realization, and appreciate their hard work even more.

Let’s see…  What else on the academic front?  My next batch of books is on King Edward II, as I’m trying to find good material on the royal court to compare to Robin Hood’s greenwood “court” in the Gest.  I don’t find single monarchs particularly enthralling, so I’m sure it will feel like a slog.  That may be why I decided to take a break and write a post, too.

First, some music to give you an idea of where my head is:

“Merry Men” from Robin Hood

“Ibelin” from Kingdom of Heaven

“The Battle” from Gladiator

There are certain things I like to have nearby when I’m buckling down to research and to write.  Flavored coffee (like the coconut creme I have here now), certain soundtracks playing on iTunes nonstop, and brightly colored pens are great.  I’m usually partial to The Lord of the Rings soundtracks for work, but I’ve made a special playlist for this venture.  It includes Kingdom of Heaven, the new Robin Hood, and Gladiator (I can’t forget my roots!).  Ah, music.  Without it, life wouldn’t be as happy.

iPod Nanos

I don’t know if I mentioned the fact that I love green recently.  Well, I do.  I have no idea if that comes from me starting to focus on medieval history (Lincoln green, the greenwood, etc.) or perhaps from my winters in Minnesota, which are decidedly vacant of green, and boiling summers in Texas and Oklahoma, which have various shades of brown predominating the landscape.  My room is periwinkle, but somehow over the years I’ve collected a green iPod Nano, a green phone cover, a green metal water bottle, and green room and desk accents.

Burghley House Grounds, Lincolnshire

Or maybe I’m morphing into a tree.  Historians and writers would have you believe that stranger things have happened.  Don’t believe me?  Check out John Mandeville; he’s one trippy medieval dude.

I also have this theory that green is the color of evil and death.  Look at the Disney Hercules, The Lord of the Ring trilogy, and the like.  The Underworld is a sickly green color, the Dead Marshes have ghostly green spirits, and the Paths of the Dead have similarly-colored creepy guys.  The Green Knight in Sir Gawain is, well, you know… green.  In the Aeneid, Anchises is in a green field in the Underworld, too, though it’s not as unpleasant as the Greek version.  On the flip side, green is the color of life and safety.  Leaves, the (ahem) greenwood, spring, and “go” signs are all green.  Interesting paradox.  I may smell a paper coming up.

And that reminds me that I should get back to work on my current paper.

A Step Into Green

Good luck to the graduating class of Gustavus, and a special “congratulations” to my friends who are walking tomorrow!

I first read The Enchantress of Florence last year, just before I went to Florence.  It’s a whimsical, imaginative tale about a man who comes to the Mughal capital and tells the emperor a story.  Salman Rushdie is amazing, and I cannot accurately describe how apparent it is that he lovingly chooses each word and weaves them expertly together.

The passage I loved is on page 249, and it was the first page I’ve ever dog-eared in a book.  I can’t stand intentionally breaking the spine of a book or bending all the pages to keep the place.  Ugh.  So annoying.  However, this passage was so beautiful that I had to mark it:

The past was a light that if properly directed could illumine the present more brightly than any contemporary lamp.  Greatness was like the sacred flame of Olympus, handed down from the great to the great.  Alexander modeled himself on Achilles, Caesar followed in Alexander’s footsteps, and so on.  Understanding was another such flame.  Knowledge was never simply born in the human mind; it was always reborn.  The relaying of wisdom from one age to the next, this cycle of rebirths: this was wisdom.  All else was barbarity.

Candle in Lincoln Cathedral

Hopefully, it’s clear why this passage appealed to the classicist and historian sides of me.  It has a grand metaphor and uses examples from classical antiquity to illustrate its point.  Most of us have heard the saying about history being doomed to repeat itself if we don’t understand it.  This is saying that history and the passing of knowledge is true wisdom.  It’s an absolutely beautiful passage.

Brass Lamps, Egypt

Glass Lamps & Candle Holders, Turkey

But is it also book murder?  I hope that this artwork came with a footnote: “No books were harmed in the making of this totally awesome archway decoration.”

Book Archway, Oxford (?)

Obviously, this image is from Epic Win, FTW.

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
-James Nicoll

French + Germanic languages + a sprinkling of Latin = English after 1066, the formula for early Middle English

Did you know that when the History Channel mentions that Robin Hood poached venison in the king’s forest, it’s a leftover from the nobility’s use of French in the EME (Early Middle English) period?  The word went through a process of narrowing.  Instead of just using the term venison to describe the large herbivore which is good to eat, English came to use venison for the meat and deer for the animal.  Others include mutton and sheep, beef and cow, and pork and pig.

So, Mr Nicoll is right.  The English language basically steals whatever sounds interesting from other languages.  Even though we speak a brutal, thieving tongue, our vocabulary is amazingly vast and specialized.

Have I mentioned I love words?

The Canterbury Tales, Ellesmere Manuscript

I stumbled upon this link about a year ago and thought it was amazing then.  I Stumbled Upon it again today, and it still takes my breath away:

Women in Art

I recently found a way to stream my favorite radio station live from Oklahoma City (98.9 KISS FM), and so I was listening to Katy Perry’s “California Girls” while watching this video.  Surprisingly, the mix was quite good!

I love Stumble Upon, but it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t know about it in college.

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