escutcheon

Earliest View of London

Below are the earliest extant depictions of London. They are from the front matter of Matthew Paris’ Historia Anglorum and Chronica Majora written between 1250 and 1259. In both cases they are parts of strip maps showing pilgrimage routes from London to Rome and on to Jerusalem.

London from Historia Anglorum, MS 14 C VI, f.2r

While the view is obviously very figurative, it nevertheless contains several interesting details that make it more than a simple iconographic representation.

The text is Anglo-Norman and reads: La cite de lundres ki est chef de engleterre. Brutus ki premere enhabita ngleterre la funda e lapela troie la nuvele, “The city of London is the principle city of England. Brutus who was the first inhabitant of England, founded and named New Troy.” The idea that London was founded by the Trojan Brutus is a legend first mentioned in the 9th-century but made most famous by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae.

The city is shown to be walled with six named gates: Ludgate, Neugate (Newgate), Crupelgate (Cripplegate), Bissopesgate (Bishopsgate), Bilingesgate (Billingsgate) and Alegate (Aldgate.) It is situated along the banks of the Thames (le grat riue de tamise.)

Saint Paul’s Cathedral (la iglise sie pol) dominates the city. Other details (from left to right) include: la tur, the Tower; la punt, the bridge; trnite, i.e., la trinite, for Holy Trinity at Aldgate; across the river is shown lambeth, Lambeth; seit mara, Saint Martin’s la Grande; and finally Westm, Westminster.

London from Chronica Majora, MS 26, f.i R

The view from the Chronica Majora may be the older of the two images shown. It is somewhat more fanciful, showing the city wall as circular and extending beyond the south bank of the Thames, which of course it never did. It also only shows three, single-arched gates. The view from the Historia Anglorum shows six, although four are show in the walls, while two are squeezed in along the margin almost as a correction. They are also depicted correctly as double-arched.

The main text contains the additional sentence, Sis portes i a es murs e la seit, “Six gates are in the walls along with a seventh.” Suzanne Lewis, in her book, The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica Majora, indicates that this reference to a seventh gate may either be a postern gate north of the Tower, or a barbican built outside of the Aldgate.

The Chronica view additionally includes a reference to Birmundsee, Bermondsay, outside the wall, and Suuerc, Southwark, on the south bank, but omits the Historia’s explicit reference of Westminster.

» Posted: Friday, October 18, 2013 | Permanent Link
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Collective Guilt  

W. G. Sebald, on a physical manifestation of collective guilt:

“And indeed, to this day one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness, dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in a macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere. At all events, I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year.”

“At the far end of the room, in the dim light that entered by the Belgian bulls’-eye panes, sat a hunchbacked pensioner. She was wearing a woollen cap, a winter coat made of thick burled material, and fingerless gloves. The waitress brought her a plate with a huge piece of meat. The old woman stared at it for a while, then produce from her handbag a small, sharp knife with a wooden handle and began to cut it up. She would have been born, it occurs to me now, at about the time that the Congo railway was completed.”

The Rings of Saturn, pp. 123, 127.

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Annular Eclipse on Mars by Phobos

This is a short video I put together of an annular eclipse of the Sun by Phobos as captured by the Curiosity rover on Mars; August 17, 2013.

The total elapsed time of the eclipse was about 30 seconds. This was sped up a bit (I put a shorter delay between images) to make things look a bit smoother. For some reason about 2 seconds of imagery was missing from the NASA site, so I had to fill in a few frames making things look a bit jagged at the end. I’m sure NASA will be able to put something nicer together than what I was able to do with some simple tools (e.g., GIMP.) The raw imagery is here.

» Posted: Monday, September 2, 2013 | Permanent Link
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Gothica Bononiensia

Professors Rosa Bianca Finazzi and Paola Tornaghi of The Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan have published1 a magnificent analysis of a recently discovered 6th-century palimpsest of two folio pages containing previously unseen passages from the Gothic Bible.

The newly attested Gothic word “atdragan” from Isiah 14:14-15

In the previous image I have highlighted the newly found word “atdragan” from Isaiah 14:14-15.

The fragment was originally of interest due to it being a very early witness to St. Augustine’s “City of God”, an initial analysis and interpretation of which was published by Armando Antoelli, who provided the original dating. During a subsequent paleographic analysis by the scholars Maddalena Modesti and Annafelicia Zuffrano, it was discovered that the Latin fragment was actually a palimpsest with a scriptio inferior in the Gothic language.

Finazzi and Tornaghi have given the Gothic text the name, Gothica Bononiensia, from where the fragment was found: the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna. A complete transcription of the Gothic text and images from the article can be found here.

From a linguistic perspective, one of the more exciting aspects of the find is the discovery of previously unattested words. Forms of words that had only been reconstructed by linguists were found:

(Finazzi and Tornaghi state that these forms will no longer need to carry asterisks in the Gothic dictionaries.)

… as well as words that have never been attested before:

Enhanced photograph of f. 1v, 20-25; Gothic text in lighter gray

The fragment contains a series of biblical passages that jump between the Old and New Testaments. The authors speculate that the different passage perhaps form the framework for a homily that could be referenced by a priest. Since some of passages are also found in the Wulfia bible, further study is needed to understand if the Gothic passages could have been translations based on different Greek or Latin sources than Wulfia’s.

1 Gothica Bononiensia: Analisi linguistica e filologica di un nuovo documento, Aevum, 87 (2013), fasc. 1, pp. 113-155), ISSN 0001-9593

» Posted: Monday, July 22, 2013 | Comments (5) | Permanent Link
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Weather Station Kurt

Weather Station “Kurt”, officially WFL-26 (Wetter-Funkgerät Land-26) was an automated weather station installed in Northern Laborador on October 22, 1943, by a team from the German submarine U-537. It was the only German armed military operation on mainland North American during World War II.

Northern tip of Labrador. Location of WFL-26

At the outset of World War II, Germany could no longer receive important weather information from the Arctic from international weather services, and so began a program of installing manned and automatic stations across the region. These were important for planning air missions over the Soviet Union and northern Europe.

U-537 anchored in Martin Bay, Hutton Peninsula, Northern Labrador

In order to disguise the purpose of the station should it ever have been come across, the crew scattered packs of American cigarettes and labeled the equipment for the (non-existent) “Canadian Weather Service.” They apparently needn’t have worried as the station was completely forgotten about. Its existence was not rediscovered until a historian for Siemens Corporation, who had built the equipment, found it in the company archives. An expedition to the site was then undertaken in 1981.

Location of WFL-26

For a full description of the mission to install this station, see “U-Boats Against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Waters”, by Michael L. Hadley, pp. 163-167.

» Posted: Sunday, March 24, 2013 | Comments (1) | Permanent Link
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The Phallus Tree of fr. 25526

The Bibliothèque nationale de France houses a particularly strange manuscript of Guillaume de Lorris’ and Juen de Meun’s Roman de la Rose: BNF fr. 25526. It is famous for its extensive bas-de-page images, several of which are of an explicitly erotic nature. One image in particular often serves as an exemplar of strange medieval marginalia - that found on page 106v, of a nun gathering the fruit of a phallus tree:

Nun at Phallus Tree. BNF fr. 25526, 106r

This single image is part of a series on pages 106r and 106v showing a nun and a friar engaged in erotic play. These same figures appear again on pages 111r and 111v.

Interestingly in her book, “Roman de la Rose and its Medieval Readers”, Dr. Sylvia Huot of Pembroke College, Cambridge points out that all of these images are part of a single bifolium; that is, a single double page that is folded in half and sewn into a quire. From the perspective of the illustrator working on the bifolium, all eight individual images form one extended series:

111v : 106r

106v : 111r

Because the bifolium if folded in half, the images on the top right (i.e., 111v, Copulation; Mule with phalluses) becomes the final scene in the series:

  • 106r: Nun leads monk, Monk scales tower
  • 106v: Nun at phallus tree; Nun and monk embrace
  • 111r: Monk kneels; Couple undresses
  • 111v: Copulation; Mule with phalluses

This manuscript was produced by the professional husband and wife team of Richard and Jean de Montbaston working out of their shop on the Rue Neuve Notre Dame in Paris.

Highlight of 14th century Paris. Rue Nueve Notre Dame, center left

In their book, “Manuscripts and their makers: commercial book producers in medieval Paris, 1200-1500”, Richard and Mary Rouse, show that the wife, Jean de Montbaston, was responsible for virtually all the illustrations in fr. 25526 and that interestingly, she was most likely illiterate(!). Book makers such as the Montbastons worked as speedily as possible and devoted little if any time for literary interpretations. Often in fact, their cursory view could result in illustrations that completely misrepresent the text.

Advertisement for Richard de Montbaston. BNF fr. 241

As specific and unambiguous as the tale appears to be, unfortunately, there is no known story which explicitly describes a friar and a nun as depicted in the bas-de-page images. The Rouse’s remark that the best that could be said is that they reflect some “bawdy tale” that Jean had perhaps heard during the course of her work.

That actual layout of the story is even in question. Many of the illustrations in the book are temporally out of order. For example, in the interleaving stories of the Passions of Christ and St. Margaret, Montbaston seems to be aware that the left side of the bifolium will come after the right side when folded and so puts the left side image:

  • Descent from the Cross : Crucifixion
  • Burial : Resurrection

Here the illustrator understands that the Descent from the Cross occurs after the Crucifixion, and so puts that image to the right, thus when folded, Descent (53v) comes after Crucifixion (52r) . But then, oddly, she puts the Burial and Resurrection on the other side of that bifolium. This results in a confusing series of illustrations:

  • 52r: Crucifixion
  • 52v: Burial
  • 53r: Resurrection
  • 53v: Descent from the Cross

Passion of Christ bas-de-page images from 52r, 52v, 53r and 53v

All of the aspects of the Passion stories follow this same disjointed pattern.

Does the erotic nun and friar tale follow this same pattern? If so, the story would flow in a way that makes even less sense:

  • 106r: Nun leads monk, Monk scales tower
  • 111v: Copulation; Mule with phalluses
  • 106v: Nun at phallus tree; Nun and monk embrace
  • 111r: Monk kneels; Couple undresses

Given what is known about Jean de Montbaston’s literacy and the speed with which she worked, the best I think can be said is that she managed to get the ordering “correct” this time. Still, what ultimately is the source of these strange images? Unfortunately, the answer is probably unknowable.

Images have phallus trees have appeared in other contexts, e.g., The Massa Marittima Mural, but any attempt to find meaning of them seems to result in series of circular references to the few examples that are known.

» Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2013 | Comments (1) | Permanent Link
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Massachusetts, 1810

A map showing the population distribution of Massachusetts based on the 1810 Federal census. It shows how remarkably and evenly distributed people were across the entire breadth of the state prior to industrialization.

Mass Population 1810

Massachusetts Population Distribution, 1810

The US Census of 1810 counted 421,040 inhabitants, with 79% of them dispersed in rural areas or in villages of under 2,500 people. Counties with the largest populations were Essex (71,888), Worcester (64,910), and Middlesex (52,789). The four western counties had a quarter of the population of the state (112,182), the greatest proportion that region ever achieved. The largest citIes were Boston—33,250 (4th in US), Salem—12,613 (7th in US), Newburyport—7,634 (12th in US), and Nantucket—6,807 (14th in US). In 1810, one in 15 Americans lived in Massachusetts.

Wilkie, Richard W. and Tager, Jack. “Historical Atlas of Massachusetts”. University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

» Posted: Saturday, February 2, 2013 | Comments (1) | Permanent Link
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More on “Twitter”

Notker Labeo (c950 - 1022) used the Old High German cognate of “twitter” for the Latin “susurrare” in exactly the same place as Chaucer in this own translation of Boethius in the early 11th century.

This is from page 118 of the manuscript. The Latin appears first followed by the translated OHG. Where Chaucer translated “susurrat” as “twitreþ”, Notker used its cognate “zwizeron”.

Notker's Boethius p. 118

Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 825: Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae

The original and translated sentences are then,

Boethius: “Sylvas dulci voce susurrat.”

Notker: “in uuálde uuíle er zuízerôn.”

Chaucer: “Twitriþ desiryinge þe wood wiþ her swete voys.”

“zwizeron”, pronounced “tswitseron” shares the same West Germanic antecedent as “twitter”. In fact, before the 2nd phase of the Germanic Consonant Shift (t→ts), it would have been pronounced “twiteron”. Old English did not participate in the Shift and so kept the hard “t”.

Chaucer undoubtedly did not coin the word “twitter” as it must have existed in Old English; it is pure happenstance that it was not attested in any other surviving document. The English “twitter” is in fact closer to the original West Germanic version of the word.

» Posted: Monday, November 5, 2012 | Permanent Link