Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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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Louisa May Alcott smoked hash

Monday, December 28th, 2009

There’s a documentary premiering on PBS tonight at 9:00 about Louisa May Alcott. In conjunction with a new biography about the author, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women reveals just how varied and rich a life she led.

Her father was involved in the utopian and transcendalist movements and was an experimental educator, so little Louisa got quite the diverse education. Henry David Thoreau taught her botany. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne taught her literature.

It was no paradise, though. Her father found her strong-willed nature and dark hair (seriously) a vexing sign of demonic tendencies, and he was no bread-winner, so Louisa had to work hard virtually her whole life to support her family.

Louisa Alcott’s life was no children’s book: she worked as a servant, a seamstress, and a Civil War nurse before becoming a millionaire celebrity writing “moral pap for the young,” as she called it. Under pen names and anonymously, she also wrote stories with enough drugs, sex and crime to prove the author was no “little” woman. When she died, Alcott took her secret identity as a pulp fiction writer with her, and kept it for nearly a half-century.

That secret identity was A. M. Barnard. Two of her Barnard works are available for free from the Gutenberg Project: Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power, and The Abbot’s Ghost or, Maurice Treherne’s Temptation, A Christmas Story.

The third, A Long Fatal Love Chase, was rejected by her publisher for being too scandalous (the central plot element is a woman who finds herself in a bigamist marriage with an abuser). In dire need of money to support her family, Alcott ruthlessly edited it in hopes of getting it in publishable condition, but the key bigamy plot point was too large to be overcome.

It remained unpublished until 1995, when a fervent Alcott collector bought the manuscript and edited it back to its original juicy condition. Stephen King reviewed it for the New York Times and he loved it.

Here’s a nifty preview of the documentary airing tonight on PBS. It takes a novel, playful approach to its subject and looks like a lot of fun.

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1,000 letters and postcards by Joan Miró to be published

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Joan Miró, "Le Coq"The Joan Miró Foundation is publishing the for the first time over 1,000 letters and postcards written by artist Joan Miró to a wide variety of correspondents over the course of his life.

Joan Miró was a Surrealist painter and sculptor who garned huge fame in his lifetime. He rejected the Surrealist label which he saw as another imprint of bourgeois hierarchy. His correspondence is bound to be packed with great insights and pithy phrasing. He once famously declared himself dedicated to the “assassination of painting” and said about Picasso and Cubists that he wanted to “break their guitar.”

These letters enable us to follow the course of Miró’s life from his early years as an artist, his departure for Paris, the strategies of the 1920s, the splendour of the 1930s, the cultural wilderness of the Franco years, and the desire to start again with renewed energy after the end of the Second World War. They show the private side of the artist, a man dedicated body and soul to his art, with deeply rooted ethical, aesthetic and political convictions. They are essential reading for any study of his life and work.

We have Miró himself to thank for this. He was careful to preserve his sketches, drawings, notes, studies, anything at all pertaining to his art. He also kept every letter he received, and at some point realized he should keep copies of what he sent as well.

He donated his remarkable archives to the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona, and a team of researchers has now edited the correspondence collection for publication.

Joan Miro's correspondence

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Original “A Christmas Carol” manuscript on display

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Dickens' orginal manuscript of "A Christmas Carol", 1843Titled “A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” and prominently autographed by the author on the title page, the original manuscript penned by Charles Dickens will be on display at the the Morgan Library and Museum from November 20th to January 10th.

The manuscript reveals the author’s method of composition: the pace of writing and revision, apparently contiguous, is rapid and boldly confident. Revisions are inserted for vividness and immediacy of effect.

Deleted text is struck out with a cursive and continuous looping movement of the pen, and replaced with more active verbs and fewer words to achieve greater concision. Dickens’s manuscript shows vividly his efforts to create the highest-quality literary work in the shortest possible time.

After Dickens got it back from his publishers in 1843, he had it elegantly bound in red leather and gilt tooled for his childhood friend and sometime lawyer, Thomas Mitton.

Mitton sold it to a bookseller in 1875, 5 years after Dickens’ death, for £50. It passed through various owners after that, ending up in Pierpont Morgan’s hot little hands in the 1890′s. The Morgan doesn’t say how much he paid for it, but the brokers who sold it to him are thought to have purchased it for £1000, which is a remarkable leap in market value over just 15 years. Goes to show how immensely popular the story was right away. Instant classic, as they say.

The manuscript will play a featured role in the Morgan’s Winter Family Day Celebration on December 6th. Educational theater group The Grand Falloons will lead visitors through the exhibit as characters from the story. They’ll also perform an original play where Scrooge confronts not just a myriad ghost, goblins and ghoulies, but also Dickens himself.

Edit: Browse a high resolution scan of the manuscript itself, complete with Dickens’ many crossings-out and revisions. Post the most intriguing revision in the blog comments and get invited to tea at the Morgan. :boogie:

Many thanks to Carolina Valencia for the tip. :hattip:

Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", title page, First edition, 1843

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