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Archive for the ‘Middle Ages’ Category

from Wikimedia Commons

As usual on Trinity Sunday, we sang “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” at Holy Trinity Oxford today. It’s a terrific hymn, both in words and music.

According to Wikipedia, although the Old Irish poem is traditionally ascribed to Patrick of Ireland (4th century), it probably dates from the 8th century. The English translation by Cecil Frances Alexander powerfully captures the incantatory power of Celtic nature poetry:

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.

And the equally great music is by Charles Villiers Stanford, with Ralph Vaughan Willams contributing one stanza.

Old Irish is a quirky language, no doubt about it. I had the privilege of studying it under the great Murray Fowler at Wisconsin. It’s the only language I know where the word for 7 literally means “large 6.”

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Our English words for common terms often set us apart from speakers of  European languages, especially the Romance languages of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and others descending from Latin. In English only one name for a day of the week (Saturday) comes to us from Latin. The others are from the ordinary English words sun and moon, or from figures in pagan Germanic mythology such as Tiw, Woden, Thor, and Freya/Frigga (spellings vary).

Most Greek and Latin church traditions name Easter from the Hebrew Pesach (Passover). But once again, English turns to pagan roots and uses the name Eostre. This is possibly a female fertility figure associated with spring rebirth, but there’s not a lot of hard evidence left to be able to draw definitive conclusions.

That doesn’t stop the neo-pagans and New Agers from coming up with all sorts of speculation, of course. They share with some extreme fundamentalists the notion that this makes the English term Easter somehow “really” pagan.

Nonsense. The early (7th century) missionaries from Rome who came to Britain to convert the heathen Angles and Saxons simply made over existing traditions to Christian concepts — baptizing the names, as it were, or causing them to be born again. An English speaker using the word Easter is not any more or less pagan than a French speaker using the term Pacques. Pagan is as pagan does.

The illustration (from Wikimedia Commons) is by Johannes Gehrts and reflects a late 19th-century German Romantic view of Eostre. With a few Italianate putti flitting around and a tidy-looking purple martin house.

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Maimonides teaching

Don’t you just love that? As Dave Barry would say, Rambam would be an excellent name for a rock band, and I think Guide for the Perplexed would be a great album title, too. But they’re neither.

Rambam comes from the initial Hebrew letters of ‘Rabbi Moses ben Maimon.’ Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), as he is better known, was one of the leading Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages. His 1168 commentary on the Mishnah, the Siraj (‘Luminary’) was “a notable contribution to exegesis and scholarship,” says the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

His Guide for the Perplexed (‘Dux Neutrorum sive Dubiorum’) appeared in 1190. It deals with the existence of God, the creation of the world, the problem of evil and more. It exercised a profound influence on later Jewish and Christian thinkers (St. Thomas Aquinas, for one).

But not, so far as I can tell, on rock bands.

Note: This post is #151 since I started blogging in 2009. I wasn’t sure I’d get that far. I’ve been experimenting with a new blog, wordsmatter (aka clevecallison.com), and put a short post on this topic there. I’m planning to have that blog be more  devoted to questions of writing and language usage, and keep the personal-interest posts (such as this one) here.

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From T.H. White’s The Once and Future King: The young Wart, of mysterious parentage, confronts the fact that his foster brother Kay will become a knight and (so he believes) he, Wart, will never be one:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn — pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo-criticism and geography and history and economics — why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

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pictured, left to right: Messor barbarus; physicist Murray Gell-Mann

This post’s title comes from one of the great imaginative romances of the 20th century – and from quantum mechanics. As you might suspect, there’s a connection.

T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is a brilliant re-creation of King Arthur (with the Round Table, Lancelot, Guinevere and all the rest). It’s the direct basis of at least two other works: the musical Camelot and Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. Re-reading it this month I was also struck by how much the relationship between Merlyn the magician and the boy Arthur (aka the Wart) resembles that between Dumbledore and Harry Potter. I later learned that J.K. Rowling has described the Wart as “Harry’s spiritual ancestor.”

The Sword in the Stone is the first of four sections of the novel, and the only one about Arthur as a boy. Merlyn’s tutorship includes changing the Wart into, among other things, a fish in the moat, a falcon in the mews, and an ant in a glass case. White’s ant world is the ultimate totalitarian society (its appearance in 1939 is hardly coincidental). The Messor barbarus ants know only two concepts: Done and Not-Done. They obey all orders sent wirelessly to their antennae. They never ask questions. Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory is the slogan carved above each tunnel in their nest.

It’s also Gell-Mann’s Totalitarian Principle, coined by physicist Murray Gell-Mann as a basic law of quantum mechanics. Any interaction between sub-atomic particles not expressly prohibited by some natural law must be assumed to be probable (the soft version) or must be inevitable (the hard version). Astronomers now have indirect though pretty good photographic evidence that black holes are real; but long before that, their existence was considered almost certain because (a) the laws of physics said that they could exist, and (b) no known law prevents them from existing.

Gell-Mann had a flair for such things. He also coined the term quark, the never-seen subatomic building block of observable particles, from a passage in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (‘Three quarks for Muster Mark!’). A physicist after my own heart.

The Once and Future King is one of the great, great books of the 20th century. I’m certain that the Disney cartoon is a two-edged sword (ha!) in that most people wrongly assume the novel is aimed only at children.

They’re wrong. Read it. It will break your heart.

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422px-LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMattOn June 8, 793, Vikings raided the remote abbey of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in the first Viking incursion into England. Alfred and other Anglo-Saxon kings of England were able to battle the invaders with some success, but for almost the next 300 years England, especially the North, was locked in a cycle of invasion, warfare and settlement. The Vikings’ Old Norse was a cousin of Anglo-Saxon and some elements of modern English come from it — for example the personal pronouns they, them, etc., and skirt (a cognate of shirt, from Old English).

The beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospel is among the treasures of medieval art. Shown here is the title page from the Gospel of Matthew. Look carefully and you can make out stylized letters reading:

liber generationis Iesu Christi filii David filii Abraham…

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham…

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Fan vaulting in Bath Abbey

Fan vaulting in Bath Abbey

Here’s a shot of the delicate fan vaulting in Bath Abbey. This is from our trip in 2002. Unfortunately we took way too much time at the Tourism bureau trying to arrange a B&B for that night.

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