Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

One of earliest printed books found in Sandy, Utah

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

The Sandy Museum in Sandy, Utah is a small local museum dedicated to displaying historical artifacts from Sandy’s settlement and founding in the late 19th century onwards. To raise funds, they invited people to bring their antiques to be appraised by professionals for a small donation, like a mini-Antiques Roadshow. Rare book dealer Ken Sanders was one of the volunteer appraisers and since he’s done this kind of thing before, he wasn’t expecting much.

Nuremberg Chronicles, cover in foreground, uncollated leaves in backgroundImagine his surprise when one of the locals (who at this point has chosen to remain anonymous) presented him with a 1493 edition of the Nuremberg Chronicles, an extremely rare book from the early era of European movable type known as “the cradle of printing.” An illustrated world history, the Nuremberg Chronicles was printed 38 years after the first Gutenberg Bibles and its view of history is structured in parallel to the history of man as described in the Bible.

It was published by Anton Koberger, godfather of woodcut master Albrecht Dürer. There are an astonishing 1,809 woodcut illustrations in the Chronicles, most of them created by the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, Nuremberg’s premier artist at that time. Young Albrecht Dürer had been an apprentice in the Wolgemut shop between 1486 and 1489, and since Koberger first commissioned the woodcuts in 1487-88, Dürer could very well have had a hand in some of the original drawings.

As was common for books at that time, some of the images are duplicated. They’d make an illustration of a town, then on one page label it Town X, while on another page label the same drawing as Town Y. There were also some reprints of illustrations made for earlier books and some reused stock engravings.

“Well it’s very important,” Sanders said. “It’s considered to be one of the world’s first illustrated books printed with movable type.”

The book was that era’s equivalent of a history and travel book. But for its day, it was exceptionally lavish in its illustrations. “It has some 1800 woodcut illustrations in it,” Sanders said. “Every page has an illustration, which is highly unusual for a book of that antiquity.”

The owner requested anonymity from Sanders and the museum. He told Sanders he inherited the book from an uncle in Pennsylvania.

“It passed the smell test. Just, ‘yeah, this is real!’” Sanders said. “Outside of a museum or a library, I’d never seen one before. And I’d never got to touch one.”

How a book that was printed the year after Columbus stumbled on the Bahamas found its way to Sandy, Utah is a tantalizing mystery. The owner’s uncle was an estate attorney from Pennsylvania Dutch Country, an area of southeastern Pennsylvania that was settled beginning in the late 17th century by German immigrants (Dutch being an Americanization of Deutsch). It’s certainly plausible that one of those early immigrants might have carried the precious volume with him to the New World.

If it is authentic, its monetary value could reach the $100,000 mark. The binding has long since degraded, however, and the pages are out of order. It will have to be carefully collated and conserved before any sale price determinations are made.

Right now, there’s a tentative deal in place for Ken Sanders to sell the book if it proves authentic and the owner chooses to sell, but he hasn’t made up his mind about what he plans to do. The book needs professional care, that much is clear, and the owner has said that he isn’t interested in converting it into a financial windfall so much as ensuring it is properly tended to and available for public viewing. Let’s hope all the media attention doesn’t result in an offer he can’t refuse that’ll hide this beauty in a private collection.

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Talk like a Flapper (and support local booksellers)!

Monday, April 11th, 2011

This is why patronizing your local used bookstore is so vitally important, because nobody’s digging through piles of weird old mildewy tomes in the Amazon warehouse and squealing with delight when they come across a stack of Flapper magazines (not for old fogies) from the 1920s. Okay, I may be projecting a little there. I don’t know if Jim Lewin of the Bookflaps blog and The York Emporium used bookstore actually squealed when he found the near-mint lifestyle magazines of the fast-car, bathtub-gin, Charleston-dancing party girls of the Jazz Age, but he probably did on the inside at least.

The magazine’s mission is downright feminist:

“What the FLAPPER stands for: short skirts, rolled sox, bobbed hair, powder and rouge, no corsets, one-piece bathing suits, deportation of reformers, non-enforcement of Blue Laws, no censorship of movies, stage or the press, vacations with full pay, no chaperons, attractive clothes, the inalienable right to make dates, good times, [and] honor between both sexes.”

Rock on, sisters! (Please to observe the Flapper cover girl above right making the appropriate “rock on” gesture long before Ronnie James Dio was a twinkle in his father’s eye.)

One of the issues contained a glossary of Flapper slang that is so truly exquisite, I intend to make every effort to memorize it all and speak only in Flapperese from now on.

The July 1922 edition of Flapper contained “A Flapper’s Dictionary.” According to the uncredited author, “A Flapper is one with a jitney body and a limousine mind. The Shifter is a new species who flaunts as his banner, “Something for nothing and then very little.”

“The flapper movement is not a craze, but something that will stay,” the author maintained. “Many of the phrases now employed by members of this order will eventually find a way into common usage and be accepted as good English.”

That turned out to be an unfulfilled prophecy, I’m sad to say, although a few of the phrases have indeed become part of our lexicon. Bee’s knees, cat’s pajamas, blaah, dogs (meaning feet), and ducky (describing something good) are all still in common parlance. “A jitney body and a limousine mind” do not appear in the dictionary, but if we take the vehicular metaphors at face value, it’s actually quite racy. A jitney was a small bus that charged only a nickel for passage, while of course a limousine is a big fancy expensive car. I guess that makes a flapper a cheap ride with an expensive wit.

Here are a few choice entries from the dictionary that are in desperate need of revival:

Brush Ape—Anyone from the sticks; a country Jake.
Dingle Dangler—One who insists on telephoning.
Noodle Juice—Tea.
Nosebaggery—Restaurant.
Strike Breaker—A young woman who goes with her friend’s “Steady” while there is a coolness.
Trotzky (sic)—Old lady with a moustache and chin whiskers.
Wurp—Killjoy or drawback.

I found a few scans of articles from Flapper magazine on Old Magazine Articles’s excellent website, but the dictionary is not among them. A highly amusing pro-knee manifesto (pdf) is, however, and yet again, it concludes with what looks to me like quite a raunchy bit of innuendo.

See what I mean? The knees get calloused after the first hundred what, exactly? Also lol @ something new under the sunburn.

If you wish to immerse yourself further in the world of biscuits and sheiks, you simply must check out Carrie, a ’20s comic strip by Wood Cowan that follows the adventures of stylin’ flapper girls and the men they use for their entertainment.

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The Art of Kissing Little Blue Books

Monday, February 14th, 2011

The Art of KissingWhile leafing through an old Nancy Drew book of mine last week, I found a little pamphlet called “The Art of Kissing” by Clement Wood. It was published in 1926 by the Haldeman-Julius Company as part of their Little Blue Blook series. It seems appropriate that I pay this compendium of kissing history and practice my blogging respects on Valentine’s Day.

Table of contents, "The Art of Kissing" by Clement WoodSadly, its original blue cover is long gone, but the content has remained unscathed. The 3½ x 5 inch volume is 55 pages long and includes such awesome chapter headings as The Two Kinds of Kisses (lip and nose, or osculus Europeanus and osculus Asiaticus), Size of Mouth and Kissing Devices. From the Size of Mouth section:

The excessively small mouth is easily kissed, and at times is far less satisfying than a good mouth-filling pair of lips. The medium-sized mouth, in normal cases, gives the greatest pleasure. When the man is confronted with a mouth whose general stretch, if laid on the ground, would apparently reach from Ft. Desbrosses, Alaska, to the corner of Main Street and Zenith Avenue, Skaneateles, New York, the matter is purely one of measuration in applied physics. The safest way is to start at one corner and gradually progress toward the center, covering ground as effectively as possibly in the process. The foolhardy at times make a dive for the very center at the beginning, and may encounter the emotion of having stepped off of a neck-high stretch in the river into a pool of immeasurable depth. If this is definitely the case, the only thing to do is to paddle toward one side or the other, in the hope of reaching firm ground once more.

You can see why it sold 257,500 copies in its day. Clement Wood’s entertaining style and penchant for risque subjects like “Byron and the Women He Loved” and “Modern Sexual Morality” made many of his 57 Little Blue Books among the highest sellers of the series.

Clement WoodHe was famously prolific, cranking out not just these pamphlets but also books of poetry under his own name and ghostwritten novels at a breakneck pace of 80,000 words a month. He also wrote history books, reference works, literary criticism, joke books (including ones dedicated to ethnic stereotype humor that probably make for cringingly bad reading today), biographies and much more. One of the Little Blue Book manuscripts he wrote, The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, remains a big seller still in print today and in fact saved my no-talent ass in more than one poetry class.

Wood lived as varied a life as his bibliography would suggest. He was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1888. At first he followed in his father’s footsteps and went to law school. He seems to have been good at it, as he made assistant editor of the Yale Law Journal and would be made a judge in Birmingham’s Central Recorder’s Court in 1913, just 2 years after getting his law degree. His Socialist leanings didn’t exactly endear him to the Alabama political establishment, however, and he was removed from the bench almost as soon as he got there.

After that, he moved to Greenwich Village, New York, where he got work waiting tables, as a vice commission staffer, and, briefly, as secretary to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair. He was writing a humor column for the Socialist daily The New York Call in 1915 when he met Emanuel Julius. When some years later Emanuel, now married to Marcet Haldeman and in a remarkably progressive move legally renamed to a combination of both their names, Haldeman-Julius, started a publishing company dedicated to producing cheap, educational and entertaining books for the working man’s pocket, he commissioned Wood to do some of the writing.

Emanuel Haldeman-Julius at his typewriter, 1925The endeavor was enormously successful, and Haldeman-Julius became famous. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch dubbed him “the Henry Ford of Literature” (only without the strike-breaking).

Though occasionally skeptical of his methods, the mainstream media eventually took note of Haldeman-Julius’s successes. The New Republic wrote that “the volume of his sales [is] so fantastic as to make his business almost a barometer of plebian taste”; a New Yorker profile observed that Haldeman-Julius must feel “the crusader’s pride” when, riding the subway on a visit to New York, “he sees a workman settle back on his strap and reach automatically to the pocket where he keeps his Little Blue Book.” Perhaps the most effusive praise came in a 1924 McClure’s article, which claimed that Little Blue Books were “spreading like beneficent locusts over the country,” and suggested that they would “help break down America’s cultural isolation.” “The best peace propaganda in the world is to make the culture of the whole world known to the whole world,” the article enthused, calling Haldeman-Julius “a creative genius who was blazing a more glorious path of service on principles akin to those of Ford.”

By the time Emanuel Haldeman-Julius died in 1951 — less than a year after Clement Wood died of a stroke — there were 2,300 Little Blue Book titles, 1,800 still in print. Haldeman’s son Henry continued his father’s work until 1978 when the Little Blue Book publishing plant in Girard, Kansas tragically burned down.

Now the books are collector’s items, and although my coverless, yellowed pamphlet is probably barely worth more than the 5 cents it originally cost, it’s a pearl of great price to me because it’s a) awesome, and b) the book my mom read with a flashlight under the covers when she was just a little girl dreaming about her first kiss.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m a history nerd. Happy Valentine’s Day, lovahs. :love:

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Witchfinder General trial journal to be digitized

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Matthew Hopkins the Witch Finder General, from a self-published broadside, ca. 1650During the English Civil War, Matthew Hopkins and his colleague John Stearne traveled the Puritan counties of east England looking for witches. Hopkins styled himself the Witchfinder General and claimed to have been appointed by Parliament to root out witchcraft. Hopkins and Stearne cut a swathe through the women of Essex and surrounding counties between 1645 and 1647, inspecting them very carefully for moles and skin tags, aka devil’s marks from which familiars, imps and demons suckled witches’ blood like babies at the teat. They even had a staff of women “prickers” whose job was to stab, jab and probe suspected witches naked and shaved bodies for hidden marks.

During those 2 years, Hopkins and Stearne were directly responsible for the hanging of 112 people for practicing witchcraft. That’s more than were killed in the previous century, and approximately 40% of the total number of witches killed during all persecutions in Britain between the early 15th and late 18th centuries. After their strenuous efforts, both Hopkins and Stearne retired in 1647 and wrote how-to books on finding witches and beating the Devil (for a modest fee, of course).

Hopkins’ The Discovery of Witches was highly influential in the New England colonies. Executions for witchcraft began in Massachusetts the year after the book was published and that first witch-hunt would last until 15 years until 1663. The Salem Witch Trials would pick Hopkins’ baton 30 years later between 1692 and 1693.

Nehemiah Wallington's journal of a witch trialPuritan diarist and professional turner Nehemiah Wallington witnessed Hopkins’ trial of 33 young women in Chelmsford in July of 1645. He described what he saw and heard in great detail in his journals. So great a detail, in fact, that the story he told would become the 1968 Vincent Price cult classic The Witchfinder General.

In the journal Hopkins – who died of tuberculosis in August 1647 – was referred to as the ”Gentle man” and Wallington wrote of how Rebecca confessed after seeing flames disappear when she became separated from her mother.

In the passage he wrote: ”Shortly after when she was going to bed the Devil appeared unto her again in the shape of a handsome young man, saying that he came to marry her.

”Asked by the Judge whether she ever had carnal copulation with the Devil she confessed she had. She was very desirous to confess all she knew, which accordingly she did where upon the rest were apprehended and sent unto the Geole [jail].

”She further affirmed that when she was going to the Grand Inquest she said she would confess nothing if they pulled her to pieces with pincers.

”Asked the reason by the Gentle man she said she found herself in such extremity of torture and amazement, that she would not endure it again for the world.

”When she looked upon the ground she saw herself encompassed in flames of fire and as soon as she was separated from her mother the tortures and the flames began to cease whereupon she then confessed all she knew.

”As soon as her confession was fully ended she found her contience so satisfied and disburdened of all tortures she thought herself the happiest creature in the world.”

The confession saved Rebecca’s life even as it doomed her mother and the other suspects. With no defense attorneys on their side and the whole trial generally being a chaotic sham, Rebecca was the only woman to be acquitted. The rest were all condemned, 19 of them hanged, 9 others reprieved.

The sole manuscript of Wallington’s account is kept at the historic estate of Tatton Park, but it’s in such delicate condition that it’s rarely seen in public. Thanks to the fancy imagine equipment and experts at the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library, however, the journal is being digitized and will become part of an online exhibit.

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Iconic “Charlotte’s Web” cover art sells for $155K

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

'Charlotte's Web' original cover drawing by Garth Williams, 1952The original graphite-and-ink drawing of Charlotte holding Wilbur while they look up at Charlotte’s web made by Garth Williams in 1952 sold at auction yesterday for $155,350. Heritage Auctions’ pre-sale estimate was $20,000 to $30,000. The final sale price is a record for any of Williams’ art. Included in the lot was an ink drawing of a web and 2 watercolors of the cover design.

'Charlotte's Web' watercolor of cover design, Garth Williams, 1952E.B. White’s book Charlotte’s Web was published in 1952 with Garth Williams’ soon to be iconic cover image. The book has been translated into 35 languages and was listed by Publishers Weekly in 2000 as the best-selling children’s paperback of all time. Williams’ drawing has remained the cover art throughout the entire 58 years of its publication run. Its endurance makes it the most-printed cover illustration of any book by an American author.

The tenderly rendered cover art is a sublime thing. The fine-lined 11×14 image features farmgirl Fern Arable clutching Wilbur the saved-from-slaughter pig, as the literate arachnid Charlotte spins her magic above the livestock. On the original can also be seen handwritten production marks.

Fiona, the eldest of Williams’s five daughters, was said to be his model for Fern Arable.

This was the first time the Williams’s family had put the art up for sale; Williams died in 1996

When Williams first starting doing illustrations in the 1940s, he would send the original drawings to the publisher, they would get used and then sent back. He kept his returned art during his lifetime. After his death, the family carefully preserved his oeuvre, securing it in a bank vault.

Yesterday they put 42 original Garth Williams illustrations for Charlotte’s Web on the auction block. The illustration of Wilbur looking triumphant under the web where Charlotte has written “TERRIFIC” sold for $95,600. My personal favorite since I was a girl because of how irresistibly adorably sweet Wilbur looks, the one where Fern is bottle-feeding Wilbur as a piglet, sold for $19,120. The final combined total for all of Williams’ 42 pieces was $780,245.

Fern feeding Wilbur by Garth Williams "Terrific' illustration from 'Charlotte's Web' by Garth Williams

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Q & A with author J.C. McKeown

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

This is the full author Q & A that I quoted just a teeny portion of in my review of A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities by J.C. McKeown. I emailed him the questions and he kindly emailed me back his answers.

* * *

Q: I’d like to know more about your factoid collection process. Had you taken any notes as Aulus Gellis had (Preface, pg. VIII), by jotting down oddities as you casually encountered them in your personal and professional reading, or did you review the sources explicitly to collect items that would serve as incentives for your Classical Latin exercises? Maybe some of both? Did you go through the sources all over again when you decided to make a book of it?

A: I have a tendency to enjoy and remember trivial facts and stories like these. The majority were gathered during my reading over the years. I like to read Latin and Greek for a couple of hours every day, regardless of what else I am doing, and my texts have a lot of passages underlined or commented on in the margins, so it was easy to pick them out.

I wasn’t originally setting out to write a book. I started using quirky facts in class to keep students interested in learning Latin and then, when I spun the Web site to accompany my textbook, Classical Latin, I incorporated interesting stories to appear randomly at the bottom of each page as an incentive for students to continue with the online exercises. It started with about 90 items and grew from there.

For a lot of the stuff that appears in the book it would be hard to go looking for it specifically. For example, nobody would really set out to inquire how many testicles the dictator Sulla had or, if they did want to know, the problem would be where to look, but the answer comes out of the blue right at the end of Justinian’s Digest – the cornerstone of so much modern Western law.

Q: Aelian describes the Byzantines as living in taverns and renting their homes to strangers. (Foreigners, pg. 110) Leeds University’s Clare Kelly Blazeby recently advanced a theory that mainland Greeks 500 – 700 years before Aelian was writing used their homes as taverns and brothels. Could there be a kernel of truth rooted in a Greek practice that spread to the eastern Hellenic world over time? Do you ever follow up on something you’ve encountered in the literature, even something fairly outlandish to our sensibilities, to see if there might be a historical basis for it?

A: This is a good example of my really not know what someone else could
make of it. It only made it into the book because it was curious. For what it’s worth, although Aelian wrote in Greek and obviously had access to a lot of very interesting sources now lost to us, he probably lived his whole life in Italy so maybe he is not the best authority for this sort of thing, but again I am not making a judgement on my source, just quoting it.

Q: I found myself following up on many individual curiosities. Additional research, pursuing a tangent, is so easy to do in the Internet era. In fact, it took me much longer to read your book than the number of pages and easy pace would suggest just because I kept running after factoids. Did you include hyperlinks to additional reading and original sources in the Classical Latin online exercises?

A: There are no hyperlinks in the text of Classical Latin itself. Many of the sources are not, I suspect, available online. I really regret not having easy and full online access to e.g. the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, because it is so useful in lots of ways. On my Web site, www.jcmckeown.com, I did include links to interesting web sites under the tab Mundus Araneosus (a world full of webs).

Q: It seems to me A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities is a book that could become the pivot of a huge network of information if you had an online version. A companion DVD with links to online editions of the sources, for instance, or even a full digital version of the book where every reference, footnote and bibliographical credit is an active link. Can you envision putting together something like that even for a book that is also traditionally published? Would it increase your workload past the point of it being worthwhile?

A: I dare say this would all be possible, but I’m not the world’s greatest computer user and the idea of me being a spider at the center of a huge Web is improbable. In any case, my wife cannot abide spiders.

Q: Marcus Aurelius’ description (Medicine, pg. 70) of the public baths upended my long-held assumption that they were indicative of general hygiene. I never considered how dirty, stagnant, greasy and petri-dish-like these unchlorinated pools full of oiled down people must have been. Meanwhile, Pliny described the barbarian Gauls and Germans using soap. (Foreigners, pg. 104) Do you think we still carry biases about who is or isn’t “civilized” from the classical texts, even without consciously realizing it?

A: Good point. As an Irishman whose country the Romans did not consider worth conquering because the people would not even make good slaves, I’m glad to see there is an upsurge in interest in Celtic art, which really is powerful and beautiful in its utterly unclassical way. Rome must have been dreadful when, for example, three hundred oxen were sacrificed at one time. It’s appalling to think of the blood, esp. if they performed these rituals at the height of summer.

Q: There’s an exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia right now called “Ancient Rome & America” about the powerful influence Roman mythology, politics, ideals, art and literature exerted on the nascent United States. The Founding Fathers and early leaders would have all been far more familiar with the classical authors than most of us are today. They would have been more like you, in fact, in that respect. Do you encounter the legacy of Rome everywhere you go, or do the vast differences between the Roman mindset and ours stand out more than the commonalities?

A: My wife says that I generally go around in a fog with little or no interest in anything outside our personal life that has happened since about A.D. 300. There is an implication in this question that I am looking for or finding lessons to be drawn from the past for the present and I’m flattered if you would think I have such a high purpose. I really don’t. Every reader will have to make up their own mind about the implications of each item in the book, if indeed there are any.

Q: I’m curious to know more about the early imperial plague pit found in 1876 that still reeked after almost 2,000 years. (Medicine, pg. 75) Bill Thayer’s excellent website pointed me to Rodolfo Lanciani’s 1888 book for an account of the find. Lanciani said the human remains turned to dust as soon as the pit was opened, but that the whole Servilian Agger area smelled revolting once dug up several years later, not the pit itself. What was your source?

A: If this were an academic book, I would have quoted my source. I’m pretty sure this item was a late candidate for entry into the book and I jotted it down casually. I’m sorry that I cannot tell you where I found it. I do remember talking to an archeologist colleague of mine to confirm the accuracy of what I was saying.

Q: What exactly did the primitive liposuction procedure performed on Caesianus’ son entail? (Medicine, pg. 68)

A: Pliny says that fat is not sensate, because it has neither veins nor arteries, and that this is why mice can nibble at living pigs. Then he goes straight on to say merely that “fat was withdrawn [literally “detracted”] from Apronius, and his body was relieved of the weight that made it impossible for him to move”.

Q: Is that one anecdote from Suetonius about Claudius’ slip of the tongue in front of the fighters in the Fucine sea battle (Spectacles, pg. 145) really the only source for the widespread belief that gladiators hailed the emperor with “we who are about to die salute you”?

A: I believe it is.

Q: You include reactions to antiquity from post-Fall Rome and Italy along with your ancient source material. Do you have a general interest in Italian history and culture, and if so, which came first: a passion for the literature or a passion for the place?

A: When I was student I spent all my summers in Greece and was a late bloomer in appreciating Italy. You may be thinking particularly of the “Wedding Cake” [ie, the Victor Emmanuel Monument], that utterly spoils the Capitol. I think I said that just because I find it an appalling and quite inappropriate building. I’m mostly just interested in things that happened 2,000 years ago but I felt I could vent on this one since every modern day Roman seems to agree.

Q: Was the excellent pasquinade “quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini” (Buildings, pg. 180) actually posted on the Pasquino or on one of the other talking statues, or just published and passed around?

A: I don’t know. I used the word pasquinade as a general term for I was mostly just interested in the clever expression itself.

Q: Is there a greater name in the history of the world than Fabius Ululutremulus? (Pompeii and Herculaneum , pg. 182)

A: If you come across it, please let me know.

Q: I was delighted to see a whole chapter on toilets, in large part because I found A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities to be an ideal example of bathroom reading material: short, digestible items that you can read quickly or linger over at length and then easily pick up where you left off. We have to do something to keep us occupied in there, after all, now that convivial socializing during excretory functions is no longer in vogue. Do you find that disconcerting or complimentary? (I very much hope it’s the latter.)

A: One of my friends has told me that he is reading it “in the little room”. As long as people read it and enjoy it, it really doesn’t matter where they read it.

Q: You describe Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things as one of the greatest poems ever written in Latin. (Toilets, pg. 187) What other ancient authors and works would you rank as superlatives in their own genres?

A: Personal bias comes into this, though few would question Vergil and Ovid’s right to rank very high, and also Tacitus and Juvenal. I find it easier to demote people from the high pedestal they seem to be on these days. Martial’s Epigrams, for example, strike me as tedious and small-minded, and not particularly artistic. I keep meaning to read right through Demosthenes, but I simply don’t find his language very interesting – I know this is a defect in me, for he had such a reputation in antiquity. I think I would love Sappho’s poetry, if only it weren’t so depressingly fragmented.

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“A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities” by J.C. McKeown

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

McKeown cover imageOxford University Press sent me some books to review (no money changed hands or influence was brought to bear, trust) and the first one I dived into was A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire by J.C. McKeown. Much like actual cabinets of curiosities, the book collects all kinds of notable tidbits from ancient Roman authors. Some are precious gems, some colorful corals and some just sort of weird-looking rocks.

McKeown, a classics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, makes it clear in the preface that he’s not making any historical or factual assessments. He’s just sharing the wealth that he’s encountered in his perusals, which is for the best, because to paraphrase Obelix, those Romans were crazy. As McKeown so felicitously puts it:

As it happens, I personally find it hard to believe that a six-inch fish could have held back Mark Anthony’s flagship during the Battle of Actium, or that Milan was founded because a woolly pig was seen on the future site of the city, or that the phoenix appears every five hundred years, or that touching the nostrils of a she-mule with one’s lips will stop sneezing and hiccups, or that fish sauce is an effective cure for crocodile bites, or that any Roman emperor was eight foot, six inches tall. I strongly suspect that goats do not breathe through their ears, and there are no islands in the Baltic Sea inhabited by people whose ears are so enormous that they cover their bodies with them and do not need clothes. I do not myself wear a mouse’s muzzle and ear tips as an amulet to ward off fever, nor do I know precisely how one might attach earrings to an eel. (Preface, pg. VII)

The chapters on medicine and religion are particularly replete with this kind of off-the-wall quasi-fact, and yes, they are all awesome, but even the entirely believable observations can be mind-blowing.

For example, Roman encyclopedist Celsus in his volume On Medicine counseled people with wounds to avoid the public baths because “bathing makes [the wound] moist and dirty, and that often leads to infection. (Celsus On Medicine 5.28)” Marcus Aurelius went even further in his Meditations where he called bathing “olive oil, sweat, filth, greasy water, everything that is disgusting (Meditations 8.24).”

I had always assumed that the Roman penchant for copious bathing was indicative of general hygiene, but those eye-witness comments made me realize that the baths couldn’t help but have been pools of nastiness. Most of them weren’t spring-fed but filled and emptied like any other pool, only there was no chlorine, no filter and not even any soap. Can you imagine the sheer quantities of dirt, oil left over from the scraping that stood in stead of washing, human excretions and secretions of every variety that must have been floating in those baths?

That wasn’t the only tidbit that sent me on a voyage of discovery. In fact, this book is ideal for the history nerd/research monkey who loves following up on a good clue. I spent two whole weekends link hopping and Googling to find out more about an anecdote in the book. For anyone like me, A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities is just the beginning, the nucleus of a do-it-yourself network that you, the Internet, and your library can create. It gave me visions of where digital books could go over the next few years: every source linked to, every footnote connected to further information.

I had an opportunity to ask the author some questions about the book and his process. McKeown can’t exactly picture himself as the “spider at the center of a huge Web” of networked links. He went about collecting these facts in a more traditional manner, and some sources may not even be available online. (Also his wife is apparently arachnophobic.)

I have a tendency to enjoy and remember trivial facts and stories like these. The majority were gathered during my reading over the years. I like to read Latin and Greek for a couple of hours every day, regardless of what else I am doing, and my texts have a lot of passages underlined or commented on in the margins, so it was easy to pick them out.

I wasn’t originally setting out to write a book. I started using quirky facts in class to keep students interested in learning Latin and then, when I spun the Web site to accompany my textbook, Classical Latin, I incorporated interesting stories to appear randomly at the bottom of each page as an incentive for students to continue with the online exercises. It started with about 90 items and grew from there.

For a lot of the stuff that appears in the book it would be hard to go looking for it specifically. For example, nobody would really set out to inquire how many testicles the dictator Sulla had or, if they did want to know, the problem would be where to look, but the answer comes out of the blue right at the end of Justinian’s Digest – the cornerstone of so much modern Western law.

Yes, I would enjoy feasting on this man’s tasty, tasty brains.

There is a downside to his approach, however. When he introduces a contemporary reaction to a classical anecdote, the facts can be hazy. It doesn’t happen often — the vast majority of the book cites Roman and Greek literature — but I did encounter two questionable claims. One is that our phrase “parting shot” comes from “Parthian shot”, after the famed archers of the Parthian cavalry who were so skilled that they could fire their bows over their shoulders as they rode away from the battle field. It seems, however, that the literal “parting shot” expression appears in English texts earlier than the Parthian version.

The second iffy claim was one that sent me on the most wonderful romp through archaeology in post-Unification Rome. While discussing plagues and the burial of the dead, McKeown says:

A pit one hundred and sixty feet long, one hundred feet wide, and thirty feet deep, containing an estimated twenty-four thousand corpses from the early imperial period, was discovered outside Rome in 1876; when it was opened, the stench was still intolerable. (Medicine, pg. 75)

You can see why I had to follow up on that kind of juicy tidbit. After some Googling and a trip to one of my favorite sites, LacusCurtius, I found a book called Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries written in 1888, just 18 years after Rome joined a unified Italy, by Rodolfo Lanciani, the first official archaeologist of the new Italian capital. On pages 66 and 67 of chapter 3, he discusses finding that very pit on the Esquiline hill in 1876.

He found plenty of ooze and stench in his excavations of the area, but the actual 1876 pit wasn’t the locus of it. The bones turned to dust as soon they were exposed to air. It was in 1884 at a nearby spot that he and his diggers encountered the remains of a garbage dump (plenty of bodies, human and animal in that one too) which was so rank he had to give his team regular breaks so they could go off somewhere and breathe.

I asked McKeown if Lanciari was his source, and he said that it was a late entry into the book that he had jotted down casually. He couldn’t exactly recall the source but he did remember talking to an archeologist colleague to confirm the anecdote’s accuracy.

Obviously it’s no huge deal, but it’s a grain of salt to keep with you when you read the small portion of the book that isn’t a direct quote of an ancient source.

Final verdict: this book is awesome. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the ancient mind, life, culture, society. It’s a boon for anyone with a yen for chasing after historical details, and as I proudly told the author, it’s an outstanding bathroom book. It’s easily digestible, easy to follow, and easy to pick up where you left off. Throw out your cheesy magazines and leave this on the tank. Your guests are sure to thank you, not to mention bring up far more interesting lines of conversation at the dinner table than they would have if they’d just put down last year’s fall shoe issue of Cosmo.

After all, we don’t have community toilets that we all sit on together to socialize during excretory functions. Vacerra, that friend of Martial‘s who spent all day in the community latrine hoping to scrounge a dinner invitation from one of his fellow crappers (Toilets, pg. 190), would have to find a new way to freeload.

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JFK condolence letters published

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Two pages from "Letters to Jackie: Condolences From A Grieving Nation" Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation by historian Ellen Fitzpatrick is a collection of condolence letters Mrs. Kennedy received in the wake of her husband’s assassination.

The outpouring of grief was so enormous — the White House got 800,000 condolences in the first seven weeks alone — that most of the letters were destroyed. Two hundred thousand pages made it to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston where Fitzpatrick found them.

Fitzpatrick was at the Kennedy library researching a different book when she asked to see some of the condolence letters in hopes of getting a sense of how Kennedy was perceived by Americans in his own time. As soon as she started reading, she was hooked.

“It was like the roof came off the building, the walls dropped away, the floor came out from under me. I was absolutely floored by what I’d begun to read,” she said Friday. “I have been teaching American history for 30 years, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a collection as powerful and that represented so many ordinary people speaking from the heart about their views about American society, and politics, and the president.”

And she had to get permission from every one of the letter writers to include them in the book. This is probably why nobody’s ever done it before and the letters have remain unpublished all these years. After narrowing her list of thousands of favorites down to 240, she was able to track down 220 of the writers. Out them, only 5 declined to be included.

The excerpts in the article are so moving I wept like babby, but the part that struck me the most was Fitzgerald pointing out that we’ve seen so many piles of books about JFK, the assassination, the administration, from movers and shakers, from conspiracy theorists, from historians and from journalists, but this is the first work to collate perspectives from everyday Americans, and they’re just wrenching.

Writing two days [after the assassination], eighth-grader Mary South described learning that the president had been shot just as she sat down to play the church organ at her Catholic school in Santa Clara, Calif.

“I tried to tell myself he would be all right but somehow I knew he wouldn’t. … the tears wouldn’t stop. The slightly damp keys were hard to play but I offered it up that the President might live,” she wrote.

In return for her letter, she received a small card printed with the words “Mrs. Kennedy is deeply appreciative of your sympathy and grateful for your thoughtfulness.”

“Getting that back felt like: She saw this. Jackie saw this,” South, whose married name is Mary Certa, said in an interview Thursday. “I felt good that I had done something. I just wanted her to know how upset we were and how helpless we felt.”

When one of Fitzpatrick’s researchers called and read her letter, “I started to cry all over again,” said Certa, 60, of Campbell, Calif. “It was like I was right back there in 1963.”

I think this approach brings the sheer emotion of the tragedy to the fore like nothing has after all these decades of Camelot and grassy knolls.

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GA Museum publishes all medieval Italian art in North America

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Corpus of Early Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections: The SouthThe Georgia Museum of Art has published the first part of a massive compendium of all the Italian paintings made between 1250 and 1500 on canvas and wood found in North American collections.

Part one is titled Corpus of Early Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections: The South. Author Perri Lee Williams of Miami University covers 400 paintings from public collections in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Puerto Rico. It’s a whopping 801 pages long and divided into 3 volumes.

From the press release (pdf file):

The “Corpus” compiles paintings by such illustrious artists as Giovanni Bellini, Duccio di Buoninsegna, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna and Giotto as well as works by lesser-known names. Up-to-date scholarship, including provenance, iconography and bibliography, appears opposite each illustration in an easily accessible format. This resource is particularly valuable to scholars, educators and curators of early Italian art who are unable to travel between institutions.

Professor Bruce Cole of Indiana University and the late Professor Andrew Ladis of the University of Georgia initiated this project in 1993. At that time, only two publications might have rivaled a project as ambitious as this new fully illustrated “Corpus”: Richard Offner’s multi-volume “A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting” (College of Fine Arts, New York University, 1930) and Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri’s single-volume “Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Collections” (Harvard University Press, 1972). However, both of these publications are now out of date and limited in scope. The new publication covers works by artists from all regions in Italy and is likely to become a seminal compendium of early Italian art.

It costs $200 which sounds like a lot, I know, but if I had it to spend I totally would because this is an enormous, even unprecedented, work of scholarship and worth every penny. Museums and libraries are eligible for a discount, so if you represent such an institution call (706) 542-0450.

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Medieval penitential sex flowchart

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Canons of Theodore, Corpus 190, pg. 404Penitentials were handbooks listing many sins a confessor could be expected to encounter during private confession and the appropriate penances he should assign for each act (or the appropriate moneys the penitent should pay to commute a penance).

They were first compiled by Irish monks in the 6th century when the practice of private confession began to supersede the public confessions of sins and imposition of penances of early Christianity and spread to the continent, continuing to be published through the 12th century even though they were officially condemned by the Catholic Church during the Council of Paris in 829.

The penances tended to be things like fasts, repetitions of psalms on your knees or standing, giving alms, and the sins were everything from fornication to murder. But it’s the fornication that took up the lion’s share of these handbooks, and every conceivable act was detailed along with the (heavy) price it exacted in penance.

Here’s an example from Corpus Christi College’s Corpus 190 of the Canons of Theodore:

Whoever fornicates with an effeminate male or with another man or with an animal must fast for 10 years.
Elsewhere it says that whoever fornicates with an animal must fast 15 years and sodomites must fast for 7 years.
If the effeminate male (bædling) fornicates with another effeminate male (bædling), (he is to) do penance for 10 years.
Whoever does this unintentionally (unwærlice) once must fast for 4 years; if it is habitual, as Basil says, for 15 years if he is not in orders and also one year (less?) so as a woman does. If it is a boy, for the first time, 2 years; if he does it again, 4 years.
If he is a boy, for the first time, 2 years; if he does it again, 4 years.
If he fornicates interfemorally (between the limbs), he must fast for 1 year or the 3 40-day periods.
If he defiles himself (masturbates), he is to abstain from meat for four days.
He who desires to fornicate (with) himself (i.e., to masturbate) and is not able to do so, he must fast for 40 days or 20 days.
If he is a boy and does it often, either he is to fast 20 days or one is to whip him.
If a woman fornicates [with another woman?] she must do penance for 3 years.
If she touches herself in the same way, i.e., in emulation of fornication, she must repent for 1 year.
One penance applies to a widow and a virgin; more (penance) is earned by her who has a husband if she fornicates.
Whoever ejaculates seed into the mouth, that is the worst evil. From someone it was judged that they repent this up to the end of their lives.

And it goes on and on like that. Marriage is no cure either, because there are endless strictures against marital sex as well. If it’s not procreative, it’s fornication. If it’s done on a holy day, it’s fornication. You see above what happens if it’s oral: you get a life sentence of penance.

The penitential writers saw marital sex as a concession, not as a right or even a gift from God. The pleasure it brought was inherently sinful, a gateway to lust, so sex within marriage should be carefully contained and scheduled to ensure the most possible procreation and the least possible pleasure. Married couples had to abstain regularly or the very state of their marriage would degenerate into an illegitimate and sinful union. Even the children born of sex during a period where the couple should have abstained — mainly based on the Church’s liturgical calendar and on the wife’s reproductive cycle — were to be considered bastards.

Which brings us to the inspiration of today’s little historical sermon. Many years ago in college I read a fascinating book called Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe by University of Kansas history professor emeritus James A. Brundage. It’s a remarkable analysis of Medieval authorities’ legal proscriptions about sex, starting with ancient Roman and Greek law codes, then moving on to Medieval strictures as seen in the penitentials, canon law, Germanic legal statutes, and ever so much more.

I regularly think of the chapter on the penitentials in particular, mainly because of one truly awesome flowchart. Unfortunately my copy of the book is squirreled away in my parents’ attic along with many of its college tome brethren, so yesterday when it popped into my head that I really need to blog about this greatest of historical graphs, I thought “Hey! There’s an interweb now! I bet I can find it online.” And so by Thor’s hammer I did.

It seems the chart has made a strong impression on many other people as well, and since Brundage’s book is standard in Medieval history and in history of sexuality studies, I am far from alone in wishing to pay it homage.

What it is is a flowchart Brundage compiled from many penitentials which helps the pious man figure out if he can have lawful intercourse. (Click for the large version.)

Penitential sex flowchart

Genius, is it not? I bet you’ll find yourself thinking “STOP! SIN!” at random/randy times now too. :giggle:

That’s not to say that Medieval folks actually lived according to the flowchart rules, of course. There’s always a huge gap between proscription and reality. People did it then like we do it now: whenever they could. But it is a fascinating glimpse into the both prurient and ascetic world of Medieval confessor literature, and what kind of standards Medieval people might have measured themselves against.

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