Friday, 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas

Vaulting and I are back in New England Micropolis for Christmas for a few days before heading up into the white wild yonder (Canuckland) to see my associated people. Might post in the next few days about an article I read in the journal Science. Might not. I'm not making any promises. :D

Have a great Christmas if you celebrate it, and if not, enjoy the time off while you can!

Merry merry!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Today in WTF? Liam Neeson and the Moronic Right edition

So, Liam Neeson is doing the voice-over work for the part of Aslan in the latest Narnia movie. Aslan is the big-ol' Christ-figure lion in the subtle-as-a-brick-through-a-window Christian allegory put together by C. S. Lewis. So the other day, Neeson says this:

"Aslan symbolises a Christ-like figure but he also symbolises for me Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries... That’s who Aslan stands for as well as a mentor figure for kids – that’s what he means for me."(1)

I added in the bold for a reason.

Today in WTF? We have, in response, this batsh!t-insane article from Ken Blackwell at the HuffPo, in which he calls Neeson's comments a "craven effort" to use "his social, cultural, or political position to smooth the path of sharia, the law they have in Saudi Arabia."(2)

Blackwell writes "This is the reason that Hollywood so often is linked to the Looney Left!"


Really, mister? This is the reason? One man's personal statement about what a two-dimensional character from a poorly-written set of books turned CGI-heavy movies means to him. That's why Hollywood is the "looney left".

Well, I'm glad we got that cleared up.

Let's just not talk about what things like this say about the right, then, shall we?


1. quoted from here.

2. go look, I'll wait here.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The (Honorary) Professor Badass Award, vol. 1

It's time for something new. So as a decent excuse for posting this de-motivational poster I swiped form the internets ( as often as possible, I will henceforth be honouring random individuals with the temporary moniker "Professor Badass."

This week, it goes to Charlie Brooker, over at the guardian, for a Swiftian, eat-Irish-babies-type article about how hard all of this "edumacation" stuff is, and how really, completely unnecessary it all is:

Instead, let's focus on giving young people the skills society will be crying out for in the years or months to come. Practical vocations such as water-cannon operator, wasteland scavenger, penguin coffin logger, Thunderdome umpire, dissident strangler, henchperson and pie ingredient.

You sir, for the week of December 20 to December 26, 2010, are the honorary Professor Badass.

And a very merry Christmas to you too, sir.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

A World Lit Only By Misconceptions: On Time

Yes, now that I've finished and handed in two completely non-medieval term papers, it's about time for a little more debunking and public mockery of everyone's favourite book: William Manchester's "A World Lit Only By Fire". In this episode: why the statement that in the "medieval mind" there was "no awareness of time" is, for want of a less polite term, utter poppycock.

"In the medieval mind there was also no awareness of time, which is even more difficult to grasp... Life then revolved around the passing of the seasons and such cyclical events as religious holidays, harvest time, and local fetes. In all Christendom there was no such thing as a watch, a clock, or, apart from a copy of the Easter tables in the nearest church or monastery, anything resembling a calendar. Generations succeeded one another in a meaningless, timeless blur. In the whole of Europe, which was the world as they knew it, very little happened..." [emphasis mine](Manchester 22-23).

Some of these claims don't even merit discussion. That very little happened in medieval Europe is, well, it's the dumbest damn thing I've heard this week. But there is something to be said about time.

No doubt Manchester got this hyperbolic drivel by lightly skimming some of the last century's worth of writing on the subject of time and perception in the Middle Ages. There is a kernel of truth behind what he writes: the mechanical clock,* in the form of the communal, "town clock", didn't become widespread until the early 1400s. We have evidence that almost a century earlier than that, however, in Italy, there was some kind of a 24-hour mechanical clock, though it mightn't have worked so well. By the time of the early Protestant Reformation in England people had been talking about "such-and-such hour of the day" in the sense we would for some time. People started counting minutes later, during Pepys' time (or thereabouts). Huygens' invention of the pendulum clock pretty much brings us up to now.

There is also a very prominent theory, as seen in Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities" and based on Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History," that a major sea-change took place in the understanding of time in the west between the medieval and the modern periods. The idea is pretty complicated, but basically has to do with the suggestion that in the modern conception of time, we pass along a timeline, with space on the line between the dots that represent events. So the idea of "empty" time with events "in" it (and more importantly, with space between the events) is the current one. The "medieval" time is what Benjamin calls "messianic" time, and that's where things get really theoretical and beyond the realm of a blog post. Suffice it to say, it's not the way we think of time, and it's a lot more metaphysical. It has to do with prefiguration (think Isaac & Christ) and a simultaneity that exists through the perception of the divine. Just, bear with me on this.

The point is, that yes: in the Middle Ages, time was understood differently than it is today. But that's a bit of a no-brainer, isn't it? It doesn't mean that they had "no conception of time," or that, more than that, all life was "a meaningless, timeless blur."

"No mechanical clocks" does not equate with "timeless existential dread," Mr. Manchester.

Before the mechanical clock there was the sundial. There was the water clock. The sand clock. The canonical hours were rung on bells in England from somewhere in the middle of the 600s.** There were medieval astrolabes which could (guess what) be used to tell time.

The word "hour" doesn't enter the English language until the 1200s, sure. But other words for time-keeping do: "morn," "even," and "day" have been in the language since before we have written evidence to prove it. "Noon" might not have come to mean the middle of the day until the 1200s, but "on midne dæg" is written in the Blickling Homilies, followed shortly by the compound "middandæg". Certainly the periods of time people were concerned with were larger than the hour and the minute, but this doesn't reduce the diurnal and seasonal foci of their timescales to "meaningless".

The people of the Middle Ages didn't view time the way we do today. But they did perceive it. To impress upon that a value judgement is nothing short of social darwinism. More than that, doing so "writes off" another, different perspective. If you can't stomach a perspective that's different from your own, Mr. Manchester, might I suggest you get the hell out of the study of history.

That is all :)

For further reading on time in the middle ages, please consult the following:

Cipolla, Carlo. Clocks and Culture 1300-1700. 1967. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. Print.

Dohrn-van Rossum, Gerhard. History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders. Trans. Thomas Dunlap. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

Le Goff, Jacques. Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Print.

Sherman, Stuart. Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries and English Diurnal Form 1660-1785. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

*from a very very old root, as evidenced by its similar appearance in both old Gaelic forms as well as old Germanic ones, meaning something like "bell"
**well, Bede says they imported a bell around then, anyhoo.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Lost Books

This post is a shameless recommendation of a book of poetry by a good friend of both Vaulting and myself. It's shameless because I can fully endorse the buying of this book for yourself, your friends, and pretty much anyone you know that likes good poetry. I'm also posting because I want fans of poetry to know that it's up for the People's Book Prize, a voter-based book award. It's usually won by novels, because they're generally more popular than poetry in this day and age, but I thought I might try to mobilize the vote a little. She is also a medievalist, if that will encourage you :) Chances are good, if you went to Kalamazoo last year, that you even heard her speak.

So here's a sample, from Adrienne J. Odasso's "Lost Books"


He said there were eyes in the trees, and roses
in the bush, which might sting if I touched
their leaves. Upon the stone wall, which we didn't
build, branches overladen curl
to the sky—
persimmon, pomegranate, nettle.

I'll fight for the words, for the names,
which are mine, and I'll touch the rose-leaves
if I please. In my veins is the picture already,
the chance of paint, the scraped hide: the eyes
in the trees become eyes in the vines

of the dance, of the blooming
and the sting of remembrance;

I am the woman asleep
in the branches.

Go Here to register and vote.

Go Here to buy Lost Books from

Thursday, 2 December 2010

This is what happens...

...when you have too many un- and underemployed PhDs.

the hits of the ancient world:

all set to the tunes of the 1980s, 90s, and beyond.


click if you dare.

(thanks JJ Cohen)

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A Novel Gift

Well I think this is very cool. "Readergirlz and First Book are partnering to give away more than 125,000 brand-new books to low-income teen readers." They're looking for schools, community groups, pretty much anybody that works with their target demographic, so that they can give them free books. Just thought I'd spread the word.