Thursday, May 29

liek omg thsi == awsum!!!!1!11!!!!!oneoneYA!

"A given text reduces the infinite or indefinite possibilities of a system to make up a closed universe. Finnegans Wake is certainly open to many interpretations, but it is sure that it will never provide you the demonstration of Fermat's theorem, or the complete bibliography of Woody Allen. This seems trivial, but the radical mistake of irresponsible deconstructionists was to believe that you can do everything you want with a text."
from Umberto Eco's speech From Internet to Gutenberg

Irresponsible deconstructionists!! THAT IS WHAT THEY ARE. As an English major and a victim of many psychoanalytic "critiques" of bad American lit., I say aMEN to that.

Wednesday, May 28

This was me yesterday.

Well, not precisely. It is Mary right before Gabriel came to visit her with News, but it certainly looks like a very sleepy girl catching a few winks over a book that is quite interesting . . . but not interesting enough.

I like the concept of the book of hours; a timekeeping system by way of a connection to eternity. Since the beginning of the year, I have tried to pray in the morning and in the evening. As a result I am less worried, I sleep better, and somehow I have a sense of being a part of something bigger than myself. I suppose I have always felt generally better as a result of keeping a routine, but whether the praying has had an effect on my feelings or my feelings grew out of the natural order of prayer in the morning is a chicken-and-egg situation.
"Benedicamus Domino" / "We bless the Lord"
[Images courtesy of the British Library, Yates Thomson 13, f. 59v]

Monday, May 26

Katerina, the wheel and the book.

was a princess who lived in a large city a very long time ago. Katerina was taught to read when she was young, and she read voraciously for the rest of her life--her favourite books were on philosophy, and her favourite question was “Why?”.

She was curious about the nature of the world and its people, and this got her into a lot of trouble. She soon came to the conclusion that there was a God, and that he loved her very much and had sacrificed much to tell her so and bring her home. Katerina became a Christian. This, too, created a lot of problems for Katerina since Christianity was not popular at the time, and neither were intelligent princesses.

Like most princesses you hear about in stories, she was eventually supposed to get married off to a prince of another country that she didn’t know. In some stories, they say Katerina was very upset because she did not want to get married at all, and some of them say she was willing to be a dutiful princess (it was not her fault she was born that way) and marry the prince with the stipulation that he should be a Christian.

In any case, she did not want to marry the prince they picked out for her: he did not accept her for who she was and went so far as to try and make her promise she would give up the God who loved her. She refused. He brought fifty pagan philosophers to convince her otherwise, but she was able to defeat all their arguments even using their own logic against them. The prince grew very angry, and in his anger he ordered the death of the fifty philosophers. Katerina did her best to stop this, and pleaded with the general in charge of the execution, but to no avail.

The prince asked her again whether she would marry him, and again she said no, although she was very sad and did not want anyone else to die for her sake. The evil prince condemned her to be tortured to death on a spiked wheel, but when they tied her up and brought her to it, the moment she brushed against it the whole thing burst to splinters. The executioner and his henchmen were stuck like pincushions! But the prince would not let Katerina escape, and came after her with a sword and cut off her head. To everyone’s surprise, her body disappeared, and was found at the foot of a mountain thousands of miles away in a tomb already built, with her name upon it.

Because Katerina loved her God so much and wanted the best for her people, she was taken up to heaven as a hero and remained a princess. Some people believe that Katerina looks down from heaven and tries to help other struggling Christians, especially studious women that they might learn the truth, and soldiers that they might have good masters, and people who make wheels that nobody else will ever suffer because of a broken one.
[The images used in this post are courtesy of the British Library, Egerton MS 2781 f. 78v]

Saturday, May 24

Eustace, the oven, and the pies.

Most of the other miniatures and historiated initials in this book of saints are identified on the British Library’s captions with names and scenes of martyrdom. This one is labelled “Historiated initial 'I'(n) at the beginning of the passion of Eustace, with a seated monk eating pies being held in a large bowl by a devil”. The closest I can draw to explaining the connection to Eustace himself is that his emblem is an oven and that he is the patron saint of hunters, but the analogy of the devil giving pies to a monk does not follow through coherently. There is a more plausible explanation.

It could be that the initial is not connected with the story but with its moral: this story begins with the sentence I roughly translate as “In the days of Emperor Trajan [and] the devil was taking power by deception, there was a certain master of soldiers by the name of Placidus”. Placidus was Eustace’s pre-Christian name. I can’t even find the word “demonum” or any form of it in a Latin dictionary, so I am making the assumption of its meaning (a dangerous thing to do, but unfortunately I have no good medieval Latin dictionary at my disposal).

Since the book was owned first by a Benedictine abbey, it could be that for the edification of the monks, this picture was added that they might remember it when they came upon the moral of the story (as told in the Golden Legend):

“And on the morn Eustace went to hunt as he did tofore, and when he came nigh to the place he departed his knights as for to find venison. And anon he saw in the place the form of the first vision, and anon he fell to the ground tofore the figure, and said: Lord, I pray thee to show to me that which thou hast promised to me thy servant, to whom our Lord said: Eustace, thou that art blessed, which hast taken the washing of grace, for now thou hast surmounted the devil, which had deceived thee, and trodden him under foot, now thy faith shall appear. The devil now, because thou hast forsaken him, is armed cruelly against thee, and it behoveth thee to suffer many things and pains. For to have the crown of victory thou must suffer much, because to humble thee from the high vanity of the world, and shalt afterward be enhanced in spiritual riches, thou therefore fail not, ne look not unto thy first glory. For thee behoveth that by temptations thou be another Job, and when thou shalt so be humbled, I shall come to thee, and shall restore thee unto thy first joy. Say to me now whether thou wilt now suffer and take temptations, or in the end of thy life? And Eustace said to him: Lord, if it so behoveth. command that temptation to come now, but I beseech thee to grant to me the virtue of patience. To whom our Lord said: Be thou constant, for my grace shall keep your souls.”

Applying this moral to the life of a monk is fairly simple; their vows were of poverty, obedience, chastity and stability. Of course, since they had chosen to follow Christ the devil was “armed cruelly against [them]” by temptation to break these vows by a number of ways. Gluttony was also one of the Seven Deadly Sins, so the devil with a pie is a fairly simple admonition to endure through religious fasts to gain “spiritual riches”. I would note that I’m not sure if Eustace, even with his ovens and temptations, was ever exhorted for endurance during a fast--he was also the helper to avoid family discord, but I can’t find evidence for a direct relation to a fast.

Unfortunately, I’m not privy to the entire MS or transcription, or I’d compare the vocabulary between the “deception” in the first sentence and the passage in which God speaks to Eustace about “the devil which had deceived [him]”, and the rest of the moral tale in this particular MS, since it isn’t corresponding to the Golden Legend version and might have another passage entirely!

Image from Arundel MS 91, f.190 provided courtesy of the British Library.

Tuesday, May 20

A monk snaffling pies.

I love the British Library and its willingness to allow crazy enthusiasts to use their image databases. One day I will brush up my Latin and REALLY become dangerous to the general public.

This is my favourite image that I've discovered today: a monk snaffling pies and the bowl held by a demon. The pies are traditionally shaped, though for some reason I can't yet get mine to stay in that shape without the scroll-bits on the edge at a massive proportion to the rest of the pie. Delicacy takes time, I am told.

I also find it amusing that the monk is portrayed in green, which is more expensive that a dark, brackish colour, and that for the life of me I can't figure out a logical exemplar for his stool except the human imagination and willing suspension of disbelief. This MS is one of the stories of saints' lives and it is from the first quarter of the 12th c., according to the BL. [Arundel 91, f. 190]

Monday, May 19

Seynt Katheryne

During the olden days of yore, when I was writing my graduate thesis, I studied quite a bit about medieval maidenhood. I can tell you why marriages were not made in infancy and that many medieval women could read, and had businesses of their own. It is something that one of the most popular saints in England during the Middle Ages was martyred because she proved her Christian beliefs against 50 pagan philosophers, on account of her great knowledge and clever use of logic. Being intelligent is what got her into trouble in the first place.

She is usually pictured with a book and a wheel (the instrument intended to kill her but which ended up breaking to splinters; they had to cut off her head in the end), like she is in the illustration below. Her name is Katherine, and she is the one on the far left. Another of the most popular saints is to the right: Margaret. Margaret was eaten by a dragon, and apparently the dragon (which here looks like a bad-tempered cat) choked on the crucifix she wore, and it split the dragon in two. The woman in the middle is Mary Magdalene, with the phial of oil she used to bathe Christ’s feet.

The golden background represents eternity (van Gogh thought it meant love, which I suppose it is easily mistaken for) and you can see the heavenly city of Jerusalem along the borders. The miniature dragon and tiny wheel are simply to show that the past suffering of the saints are instrumental but incomparable to the glory that meets them in heaven.

Anyway, it is Katheryne's vita that I am going to read next, as soon as I finish Chaucer, who can't seem to keep his mind out of the gutter at this point in the Tales. I'd love to visit her monastery, as well--I'm beginning to enjoy the idea of a pilgrimage despite Chaucer's best efforts to ruin it.

[Egerton 1066 f. 10v, courtesy of the British Library]