Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Good morning, friends.

Anyone else like books? I like books. They are so easy to get your hands on today, but we Medieval nerds know that this wasn't always the case. Can you imagine having to build (yes, build) a book? Out of some poor, unsuspecting calf, too.
Skin pages, called vellum, last a lot longer than paper, but they also take a long time to prepare [Check out this video if you'd like to know more about the actual construction process of medieval books]. If you were super rich, you could afford the greatest vellum ever: uterine calf skin. Yeah, that's right: stillborn cows. But don't worry, if you'd like to make a nice scroll out of "vellum" nowadays, you can just use a cotton-based substitute. Phew.

If anyone would like join us on Thursday, the Medieval Languages Study Group will be meeting in library study room A107. I'm there for the Latin and Old Norse, but we are also looking at Norman French and ye olde English among others. So come on down!

Take some time out of your busy academic calendar and come to our fantastic pumpkin carving bonanza on October 26th, 4:30pm, CLE D132.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


What’s up Medievalists? Bestiary time!

I have a great prof for my Medieval Europe class this semester: he links us to pictures and interactive websites and asks us to write about them, which is fantastic homework. Anyway, I tell you this because I found a bunch of stuff on one of the websites.

This little cutie pie is a ram. He’s from the late thirteenth, early fourteenth century (“confirmed by thermoluminescence analysis,” which is can only be some kind of glow-in-the-dark magic). I am disappointed to read that he’s a ram because I thought he was a cow. Mainly because his mouth is making a “moo” shape. Apparently he used to have horns, though, so he probably
looked more ram-like before he ended up underground. It’s pretty incredible, I guess, that this piece of pottery survived all this time, still glazed, in part. But I think we should reserve judgement on the species. Mouth shape is a good identifier, yeah.
I wonder what people put in it? What does it look like to you guys?

Rams are sacrificial animals, they're always popping up in religious texts and dying. Is that all there is to it? They die, like Baldr? NO, they also get drilled. I’m going to drop a knowledge bomb here... Pliny the Elder said: “the wildness of rams can be curbed by drilling a hole in the horn near the ear”. Wait. What? I think a lot of behaviours can be cured by drilling a hole in something’s head. Who worked this out? Maybe it was an accident the first time and the ram "fell" on a branch or very sharp rock and insta-lobotomized himself. And some shepherd just happened to be there. Or maybe humpty dumpty was pushed.

The rambunctious nature of rams means that they are associated with toughness and virility. Sheep, on the other hand, are obedient and meek. And stupid. [Apparently not, click here] Interesting gender divide there, with sheep/ram as symbols or behaviour guides. And by interesting I mean it totally fits in with almost everything we've ever read about gender dichotomy in Europe past and present.

Medieval bestiaries are good sources of fun, nerd style. This image is from "Book of the Properties of Things" by Bartholomew. What kind of a title is that? It's the title of a damned encyclopedia, that's what! Thanks to Arabic knowledge and their awesome preservation of ancient texts, Europe was down with science by 1416, when this manuscript was completed.

Zoology! A bunch of animals with four legs. It's a pretty picture and it's dense with symbolism. Animal allegory, if you will. Each animal embodying a moral code or personality type. If you take a gander at it, you'll see a greyhound in the middle, (our friend) the ram, an elephant, a lion ... and a unicorn! To be fair, an elephant was no different than a unicorn as far as Bartholomew was concerned: he'd never seen either of them. And a bunch of travel accounts made sure that it became common knowledge that unicorns were for real. Dude I don't know why there is a mermaid at the bottom, don't even ask. THAT'S FOR ANOTHER POST.