Thursday, September 21, 2006

White Elephants. Free Box. Packrats.

I expect most people in the course of writing a large project accumulate a lot of material that they ultimately won't be able to use in it or anywhere else. I certainly have. Consider this post a version of those blogposts that invite posters to submit lists of whatever comes to mind: Bérubé's ABF (arbitrary but fun Fridays), the Friday random ten lists, memes & memes & memes.

What clutter do you have about you that you regret never being able to use? Share your tidbits.

I'll start. Like any lawcode, whose power of course is at its greatest when most arbitrary, medieval lawcodes are full of what looks like stuff and nonsense:
* The Diplomatarium Islandicum, as Anna Irene Riisøy points out, forbids people from eating with trolls. A convivium with trolls (a face slick with goatfat is a dead giveaway) will cost you 40 marks (payable to king or bishop). You'd be better off in Nobu.
* The Norwegian Frostathinglaw forbids humans to scootch under cows to suck on their udders.
* The Gulathing law forbids people from telling impossible tales about one another: its examples include accusations of werewolfery or periodic gender switching.
* Bartholomew of Exeter lends his support to those who forbid foolish talk (balationes: bleating?!) and cross-dressing before church doors.
* Scab-eating is almost universally condemned.

Alternately, you might want to comment on this odd sentence in a NYTimes article on the recently discovered skeleton of an Australopithecus toddler: "An analysis of the skeleton revealed evidence of a species in transition." Am I wrong to suspect the thoughtcrime of preDarwinian teleology?


Jeffrey Cohen said...

When I wrote Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity, I accidentally wrote two books. And I also wrote that first book in a crazy and a non-crazy version (excerpts from which have littered this blog). That counts as having some very large white elephants.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

But, more in the spirit of Karl's spirited offering, I offer the following:

Tredington - St. John the Baptist
5 mls NW of Cheltenham
The church has a timber-framed tower & spire. In the porch floor are the fossil remains of a marine reptile similar to an Ichthyosaurus. There is a fine Norman chancel arch and Elizabethan plaster ceiling. Outside is a 14th century churchyard cross.
Tel. 01242 680307 Open all year, daily.

(It was the medieval reuse of a fossil fish that interested me initially)

Karl Steel said...

Oh, that's excellent! I never have much of a reason to say 'that's the spirit!' But now I do, by jove.

Some other material about that I love:

Evagrius the Scholastic, Ecclesiastical History,: “There are men and women who were almost naked when they began their life in the desert and who are disdainful of the seasons, of the bitter cold and the sweltering heat alike. They despise the kind of food eaten by other humans and are content to graze like cattle. They have even much of the outer appearance of animals, for as soon as they see a man, they run away and, if they are pursued they make off with incredible speed and hide in inaccessible places” (qtd Jacques Lacarrières. Men Possessed by God: The Story of the Desert Monks of Ancient Christendom, 156-7).


Akin, sort of, to JJC's thrilling tidbit, I remember a mural in Norwich Cathedral of what I'm almost sure is Herbert de Losinga receiving a bribe. I've no use for it, but this being a white elephant, perhaps someone else could find my fact, if it's true, a happy home?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Herbert de Losinga, founder of the city's cathedral, purchased his bishopric from William Rufus. I believe that at the same time he purchased an abbacy for his dear old dad. William of Malmesbury quotes a contemporary poem about Herbert that ended "O the injustice of it! Bishop and abbot are made by money!" (History of the English Kings 4.338). Herbert made a big deal of being ashamed of the transaction, and his very public repentance became part of his myth.

I'll rummage for more elephants later today. What a great idea this is. Anyone else?

Karl Steel said...

Ah! So, does the mural (you've seen it?) depict Herbert paying William Rufus?

Herbert gets to have his public penance along with the power to differentiate himself from people not able to commemorate their guilt permanently. No one else could have left their regret on the wall of a cathedral they, with the utmost regret, kept improving: a nice combination of the Pharisee and tax collector from Luke 18:9-14.


Another favorite bit: the description of jousting sports from William FitzStephan's description of 12th-century London. At Easter, the young people would joust in the Thames:

"For a shield being strongly bound to a stout pole in mid stream, a small vessel, swiftly driven on by many an oar and by the river's flow, carries a youth standing at the prow, who is to strike the shield with his lance. If he break the lance by striking the shield and keep his feet unshaken, he has achieved his purpose and fulfilled his desire"

When rivers freeze, the youths would joust on ice skates.

Karl Steel said...

Oh, and the fossils. Now there's something that seems to be understudied and unconsidered, a subject that certainly invites the kinds of poetic meditations on time that, for instance, Eileen Joy likes....

A quick search of the International Medieval Bibliography (first 'dinosaur,' then 'fossil') gets me only this:

NOTTON, David, "An Anglo-Saxon inscribed fossil echinoid from Exeter Street, London? An alternative explanation." Medieval Archaeology 46 (2002): 107-110.

Reply to G. BROWN et al., "A Middle Anglo-Saxon runic inscription from the National Portrait Gallery and an inscribed fossilised echinoid from Exeter Street, London," Medieval Archaeology 45(2001):203-210, arguing that the "inscription" is of natural origin.

The only bit on fossils I can remember off hand is the reference to the bones of the giants still in the earth at the end of the Cotton Cleopatra Des Granz Geanz (perhaps in the other versions, too, although I'd have to ask JKW for the Welsh.) Anyone else?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Saint Augustine was a collector of fossils. From an email by Adrienne Mayor, author of a journal article on the subject, archived at

Yes! St Augustine (AD 354-430) was a fossil collector. He lived in Carthage (now Tunisia, North Africa) in the twilight of the pagan Roman Empire, the dawn of the Christian Byzantine era. In the "City of God" 15.9, Augustine discussed the existence of giants and giant creatures in the distant past. To confirm the historical reality of giant beings in the deep passt, he cited classical Greek and Roman authors and the long history of discoveries of giant bones around the Mediterranean since the time of Homer (8th century BC). He noted that Roman farmers in Italy often plowed up giant skeletons and he cited Pliny the Elder (1st century AD) on the widespread notion that the aging Earth produces ever-punier, smaller, and weaker life-forms.

Augustine wrote: "Some people refuse to believe that [in previous ages] men were of much larger size than they are now...but skeptics are generally persuaded by the evidence in the ground." He described the "frequent discovery of incredibly large bones revealed by the ravages of time, the violent action of streams, and other events...tangible proof" that ancient life-forms were enormous, and that "some of those [giant creatures of the past] even towered far above the rest."

He had collected such giant remains on the beach at Utica, on the Gulf of Tunis: He wrote, "I myself--not alone but with several other people--found a human molar so immense that we estimated that it was 100 times the dimension of our own teeth. I believe that molar belonged to some giant." Augustine went on to point out that bones and teeth of past creatures are very long-lasting, which allows rational people of much later ages the opportunity to visualize the giant beings from eons ago.

The area around ancient Utica (now 7 miles inland due to silting) contains abundant Pliocene large mammal fossils. Since the large tooth was taken as that of a giant human, it probably belonged to a mastodon (some scholars suggest it was a giant Hippopotamus amphibius molar).

Ironically, Augustine's own bones were kept on display in Italy, after his death during the Vandal invasion of North Africa.

For a full description of Augustine's fossil discovery and interpretation, see pp 154-56, 261-62 of Adrienne Mayor, "The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times" (Princeton 2000).

From my research on giants, I remember that Tertullian and Pliny make similar statements on the largeness of the animals and peoples of the past, perhaps also based on dinosaur and other fossils. Ralph of Coggeshall wrote of bones discovered in collapsed riverbank, bones he attributed to a forty foot tall giant of yesteryear.

Karl Steel said...

Oh that's fantastic! Nonhuman bones drafted into evidence for the vigor of our ancestors. Our ancestors! Marvellous interpenetration of the human and animal there, of course purely accidental, but no doubt on purpose too: they wouldn't have wanted to believe any creature that big would have been nonhuman. To preserve human worldly power, they give their bodies over to prehistoric animals, and what happens to the human then?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Love how you put that, Karl.

I suppose the problem is that no vocabulary existed for thinking about truly deep time -- thousands of years back, yes, but not millions, and certainly not tens of millions. It's intriguing, though, that not much notice is paid in such passages to the fact that the remains had petrified. They're treated as if they are still made of calcium, and simply called bones.