Welcome to the 92nd edition of Carnivalesque!
A New Year brings a new look to Carnivalesque: from now on carnival editions will cover everything from ancient history to early modernity. This change was brought about by practical considerations; we simply couldn’t recruit enough hosts to keep running six ancient/medieval editions a year. But, as it turns out, this edition contains plenty of rather more interesting reasons to abandon our old dividing line between medieval and early modern.
So it seems appropriate to kick off with the medievalist JJ Cohen’s provocative discussion of the use of “early modern” at In The Middle.
Medievalists learned long ago that when you carve your scholarly habitation out of time’s wilderness of flux and declare this secure home exclusively yours, you may as well have retreated to the monastery… Because they work in the “Middle Ages” (a plural and imprecise designation for the times left behind so that our Now could arrive), medievalists are not responsible for explaining modernity… What if the medieval were not middle to anything?
Steve Mentz agreed with much of Cohen’s argument in Messy Transitions, but noted
I don’t want history without transitions. I like plurality, multiplicity, radical difference, but I also want narratives of change, transformation, discontinuity… But how to have both at once?
We’ll be returning to this topic before we’re done…
Where the Old meets the New
Erik Kwakkel at medievalfragments reflected on his first year on Twitter
The ten medieval doodles showed me a way to combine three important things: what I love as a researcher (medieval books); the means to reach a broad audience (images); and something that is dear to me personally, which is to bring a light touch, humor if appropriate, to all things I do.
The bloggers at Enﬁlade are Trying to Think Seriously about using Pinterest to study art and architectural history
If art historians are well placed to say what’s wrong with most of what happens on Pinterest, it seems to me we might also start contributing models for making a tool like this work better… How and to what extent might Pinterest be used in the production of knowledge, particularly in terms of collecting information (visual and textual information) and presenting that information together?
The blog Burnable Books has begun a series of guest-authored posts on Medieval Studies in the Age of Big Data (I have some current professional reasons to be interested in this topic). First, Martin Foys on learning To Stop Worrying and Love Big Data.
technologies of information and the ecological dynamic we have with it are not alien, but organic, and derived from our own informational needs. Historically, they are of our own making, and continue to be so. In medieval studies and elsewhere, big data will be as good or as bad as we allow.
Timothy Stinson follows up with An Unrevolutionary Revolution: The Other 99%
Yes, we can and should ask new questions and invent new forms for disseminating our research… But if we really want to do big data, and if we really want to see the full potential of these tools, we need the other 99% of manuscripts digitized.
Although we always need to bear in mind the particular practical problems of digitising very old texts, as detailed here by The British Library Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Blog.
Manuscript, Print, Image: the Material meets the Cultural
At medievalfragments, Irene O’Daly compared a famous fictional library with the real medieval thing in Library or Labyrinth?
The monastery depicted in The Name of the Rose has no historical parallel. The library building, modeled by Eco on the thirteenth-century Castel Monte in Apulia, Italy, accordingly, does not reflect any medieval library that we have knowledge of… On a more profound level, Eco’s depiction of the library as a labyrinth symbolises an important aspect of the medieval quest for knowledge.
Niki Gamm at Hürriyet Daily News explored the development of books and libraries in the ancient and medieval Middle East.
Erin Blake wrote at The Collation on scientific research dispelling the myth that copper plates wore out because of intense pressure from the rolling press, which is less well known among historians than it ought to be, and called for more communication between scholars who are working on the same subjects but divided by the split between humanities and sciences.
Also at The Collation, Heather Wolfe looks at 17th-century letters locked with silk embroidery floss, an unusual and personal technique that would have carried meaning for recipients even before they opened the letters.
Mark Hailwood at The Many-Headed Monster, in a series on representations of workers, discusses images of miners:
On the one hand, mining is often closely associated with modernity… But if the development of mining in early modern England was a precursor to modernity, miners themselves were more likely to be labelled as ‘backward’, even by many of their contemporaries, and a number of their beliefs certainly do not look modern to our eyes.
The Manchester Museum’s blog for its Egyptian collections looks at royal portraits in ancient Egypt.
Pharaonic scenes are functional rather than purely aesthetic. Many focus on the king: he is recognisable by his scale, insignia, and position in a scene. Viewers are left in no doubt about who he is. Royal family members are identifiable for the same reasons. But was any attempt made to make these individuals look like themselves?
Passages and Intercourses: Food, Sex, Death
In Life and Afterlife: Dealing with the dead in the Viking age J Hellden at Academia considers “the fundamental role that narrative, storytelling and dramatisation played in the mindset of the Viking Age (8th-11th centuries), occupying a crucial place not only in the cycles of life but particularly in the ritual responses to dying and the dead”.
At Early Modern John, John Gallagher discussed the tradition of baking spiced ‘soul cakes’ for All Souls’ Day, and had a go at baking some for himself.
Elizabethan contrarian and polemicist Philip Stubbs took aim at the old traditions, attacking ‘Friers, Nunns, and Ankresses’… not just for their Latin prayers and rosary beads, or for their impressive church vestments, but also for the way in which they would ‘give soule-cakes (for so they shame not to cal them) or rather foole-cakes agaynst all soules daie, for the redemption of all christen soules, as they blasphemously speak’.
And if you don’t fancy soul-cakes, what about Chocolate in Seventeenth-Century England, from the Recipes Project?
Recently, a news story broke that some cheap beefburgers on sale in British supermarkets had been found to contain horse DNA (also causing an outbreak of magnificently bad jokes on Twitter). The Old Foodie reminds us that worries about adulterated food have been around for a long time, with a set of 14th-century Rules for Pie-bakers, introduced (apparently) because “the Pastelers of the City of London have heretofore baked in pasties rabbits, geese, and garbage, not befitting, and sometimes stinking, in deceit of the people”.
For those of you who ate and drank too much over the Christmas holidays, the Ancient Worlds blog has a look at Overindulgence at Saturnalia in Ancient Rome.
OK: if there’s one thing I love even more than blogging about sex and blogging about food, it’s blogging about sex and food. Jonathan Jarrett at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe brings us a case that is More cheese than adultery.
Nonetheless, she was not actually required to compensate for the adultery, which was presumably not considered worth punishing; it would have been hard to argue, perhaps, that it had cost Hermenegildo anything except a few hours of his slave’s labour (ahem) but for the, well, inconspicuous consumption of four head of cattle and sixty cheeses. I mean, how long was this going on?
Jill Burke asks: Did renaissance women remove their body hair? It seems the answer is: yes.
there is indeed advice on how to remove hair from every part of the body in all of these books I have consulted. The renewed interest in facial cosmetics was, then, matched by an explosion in treatments for body hair removal. The Renaissance could, indeed be called a golden age of depilation.
Alexandra Sofroniew at The Iris explores ancient curse tablets
The tablet could be rolled around magic herbs, or even animal or human hair (from the intended victim!) for extra potency. Or the folded lead could be pierced with nails (to pin down the target, giving the Latin name defixio). The curse tablet was then thrown into a sacred pit at a sanctuary, a watery chasm at a spring or pool, or a newly dug grave (preferably of someone who had just died young or violently), ensuring its delivery to the Gods of the Underworld who would carry out the punishment.
Executed Today discusses “the Sow of Falaise”, a sow hanged in Falaise in 1386 for causing the death of a 3 month old baby.
an impressive legend has grown up around the “Sow of Falaise”. It’s been alleged by subsequent interlocuters that the condemned sow was dressed up as a person for execution, that other pigs were made to attend in order to take warning by their swinish sister’s fate, and even that the incident became so famous as to merit depiction in a church fresco.
Also on animal deaths, Gavin Robinson has been investigating Horse Casualties in the English Civil War; the sources suggests that there were not as many fatalities in battle as we might tend to think.
The Interswerve (or, Battering Greenblatt)
And so… back to where we started: periodizations and transitions. The MLA’s decision to award a major prize to Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How The World Became Modern – a book “filled with factual inaccuracies and founded upon a view of history not shared by serious scholars of the periods Greenblatt studies” – attracted considerable criticism, but also generated some important discussion and reflection.
JJ Cohen was eloquent as always:
When Greenblatt was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the book I thought: OK, it’s a general audience, and maybe any attention on the past is good attention. But now that the MLA has given a work so devoid of nuance in its account of a long span of human history — a book that in its relentless reductiveness and lack of complexity (or even humane impulses towards those who find themselves locked in 1000 years of unremitting and untextured darkness) offers a negative example of how to form an ethical relation to history — well, I just wonder about what the prize really means. Is it OK to compose caricatured history that reaffirms common prejudice and conveys factual errors rather than work that might make the past more unstable, variegated, intricate, alive?
Medieval Meets World argued that “Few eras in history suffer as badly from this obsession with naming as do the Middle Ages, betwixt and between, neither old nor new, never full here or fully there. And yet, despite attempts to relegate them to the infinitely liminal, the Middle Ages remain an object of fascination and inquiry.”
Steve Mentz emphasised that Modernity is not History
The heart of this swervin’ exchange lays bare the conflict between two things: an objectively false feel-good story of “how the world became modern,” and a better-informed sense of what went on before Poggio found that copy of De rerum natura… I wonder what happens if we disentangle these threads? What if we rethink “modernity” as something other than a historical phenomenon? … Whatever heroic story of “the modern” you want to tell — bold explorers, brilliant textual scholars, brave Lutherans, lethal viruses, high-caloric American food crops feeding China or Ireland — will exclude and misrepresent aspects of the historical record. That’s a reason to tell more complex and less triumphant stories.
Greenblatt shows a total disregard for textual production, transmission and reception in the period between the Fall of Rome and the finding of classical nuggets in the monastic libraries of the late Medieval period. He forgets that the real Middle Ages provided the world with universities and the full flourishing of scholasticism; with the twelfth-century Renaissance, which like its later iteration, re-discovered classical texts protected by the cultural bastions of organised religion.
Leila K. Norako suggested that Greenblatt’s book “seems to have far more to to say about very contemporary anxieties over the state of education than it does about the Middle Ages”.
Rick Godden of Modern Medieval criticised “the privileging of one time period over another, the creation of an abject other out of a segment of the past”. But, he thought,
there is a sense, for me at least, that although the older dogmas of heroic conceptions of periodization will never fully die out in various conversations, books like The Swerve are already seeming like the last gasp of a dying species.
Well… maybe. But we can at least celebrate the end of division and separation here at Carnivalesque. Here’s to the future!