Thursday, 29 November 2007

The consolation of philosophy

I have to have a wisdom tooth removed. I don't think my dentist has quite understood that I am an enormous coward, and I don't deal well with pain. I'm not one of those smiles-bravely types. I make everyone around me's life a misery and mope about being melodramatically defeated.

But I am being soothed from this thought by looking at a manuscript in the library. It's a tenth-century book of the sort of stuff intellectuals liked at that period: Book IV (De arte dialectica) of Martianus Capella's De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii; pseudo-Augustine's Categoriae decem, translated from Aristotle; pseudo-Apuleius's Liber peri hermeneias; Boethius's translation of Porphyry's Isagoge in Categorias Aristoteles, plus some more Boethius; Alcuin, De dialectica; and pseudo-Augustine, Dialectica. (I have entitled the whole manuscript "Philosophical works by Martianus Capella, Aristotle, Boethius, and others"; suggestions on whether I should have got the word "dialectic" in there would be welcome.) I have learnt, among other things, that to be a human is to be risibile, because even if you're not laughing right then you might laugh at some point; while to be a horse is to be hinnibile. Horses don't laugh, and people don't whinny. I used to whinny and pretend to be a horse on my way to Brownies causing my mother much embarrassment; I think Boethius wouldn't have approved either.

What's really engaging my attention however is the script. (Though I ought just to be checking the foliation and recording incipits and explicits.) It's Caroline minuscule; but it is absolutely packed with Insular and late Celtic abbreviations: including two ticks above a t for tra; the Insular secundum, autem, enim, and even per; bird-shaped v with o above for uero; and N with a bar through for nam, which is supposed to be specifically Welsh (though I would take that with a pinch of salt, personally). It was certainly in England at the end of the eleventh century or start of the twelfth, when its opening page was rewritten with a nice initial, probably at Canterbury, and it may be identifiable with a manuscript which Leland saw at Malmesbury in the 1530s. But whether it was written in England or on the Continent remains unclear; people have noted the huge number of Insular abbreviations, but I don't think anyone has really looked properly at their overwhelmingly Celtic, especially late Celtic (= post-850ish) character. Although the Irish, for example, hung on to Insular script for a ridiculous length of time (I think it was finally given up in 1952), my theory is that a better understanding of Caroline minuscule in England would depend heavily on sorting out the Celtic dimension, and the idiosyncratic abbreviations would be a way into this. I made a tentative start on saying this for an article for the Cambridge History of the Book in Britain which I wrote in 2003, and I do wish they'd hurry up and print it because while it's in limbo I feel like I can't quite move on. People often look at Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent; but Anglo-Saxon England and the Celtic-speaking world have tended to be studied in very different sorts of university course, Celtic studies versus History/English, and I'm very lucky to have had an education which has pointed out the importance of that other side of things. It's not a good idea to characterise nations, as Thomas Browne pointed out, but one does get the sense with the Irish and other Celtic-speaking peoples in the early to mid-Middle Ages that there was a tendency to an intense intellectual curiosity. Also they had this concept of self-exile from their homeland as a particular way of serving God, like being a hermit but abroad instead of in the wilderness. Even though things Caroline didn't stick back home, I'd bet the movement of Celtic-speaking peoples was a big catalyst for change in England; like the Irish who taught St Dunstan at Glastonbury, and Iorwerth the Welshman at Winchester. Hurray for palaeography! It beats dentistry in the paper, rock, scissors of life.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

A seventeen-year-old is fundamentally unlike a fridge

If a sixth-former were a fridge I would be very good at evaluating its energy rating, number of shelves, size of ice compartment, and whether it has a bottle rack. I can immediately discard a fridge with a B energy rating and nowhere to put things on the back of the door. But sixth-formers are unlike fridges and in even the most statistically-based descriptions of them individual bits of interestingness shine through. Meeting them makes this even more complex. One possibility would be to think of sixth-formers as fridges; this might make me more efficient at ranking them, to the benefit of both institution and myself, and possibly even the sixth-formers. However I feel it would be morally wrong.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Things I have found out

This is quite good: a guide to recycling in Cambridge. It tells you how to get rid of a computer, for example, and who will collect old furniture. I need to get rid of my old desktop.

Cambridge was founded on seven hills: Castle Hill, Pound Hill, Honey Hill, Market Hill, Peas Hill, St Andrew's Hill, and Senate House Hill. Bath was founded on seven hills too, but the internet won't tell me what they are, and I can only remember Lansdowne Hill, where my Mum grew up. I asked her what they were once but she snorted and said it was Classicising nonsense, or words to that effect anyway. Probably not those words.

Watching items that you're selling on ebay clock up watchers and eventually bids is as compelling as bidding on and watching items you want to buy, only with the money gradient in the right direction. I am scouring my flat for more stuff to put on. I've sold one batch of icons and now I'm on to some more special ones, so I have more capacity to be disappointed.

The excellent Cavy Rescue "Recycle-a-rodent" website allows one to sponsor a rat, which has relieved some of my pent-up rat yearnings. If you prefer your rats heroic, or are particularly fond of minesweeper, you can adopt a HeroRat which is actually out there doing good for humanity in return for squashed banana. Rats are great, and I miss having them about. Statistically there's one around here somewhere, but it hasn't made contact so it's just not the same.

Graham Linehan's blog is quite good. The post about Conservapedia is pretty startling.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Clever Channel 4!

Hurray! According to the Guide, Matthew Collings is back this evening, talking about art. Does he still say gently clever things with a soft intonation? Nobody knows.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Beowulf: the monsters and the critics

Tolkien wrote a famous article by that title, in which he argued that Beowulf should be read as literature, instead of just quarried for old forms by philologists. He had a metaphor about someone who built a tower, and how years later people took it apart to see where the rocks came from and how they had been put together; but from the top of the tower the builder had been able to see the sea. Another famous article on Beowulf, by the great Anglo-Saxonist Kenneth Sisam, starts "Often, far from libraries, I have read Beowulf for pleasure". I went to see the film Beowulf in 3D last night, and something about the way it took massive liberties with the original reminded me just what a brilliant poem it is.

I enjoyed the film too. It was silly and excellent. They came up with a tediously modern explanation for who Grendel was, but really great works can cope with that sort of thing. They skipped lots of brilliant stuff like the fight at Finnsburh, which is a story told as a digression, hinting at a sad fate for Queen Wealtheow and her sons. But any film adaptation of a book has to simplify hugely. And the animation thing, which was supposed to make the people and the monsters look like they were in the same world, worked for me. On the down side the references to religion were tediously naff; Christianity didn't get that far north until centuries later. (The tenth-century king Harald Bluetooth claimed to have made Denmark Christian; his work as a unifier is why the wireless communication specification is named after him.) And I did regret the loss of the dignified pagans portrayed in the poem; they may deprive the neighbours of their mead-benches, but in the poem they're still sensible and trying to do what's right, unlike the sottish Hrothgar in the film.

Anyway I shall dig out one of my glossed editions of Beowulf and reread it. Go Beowulf! Slay that monstah! (Possibly the film was meant as a coded message to Brad Pitt from the friends of Jennifer Aniston.)

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

There are no rats in my home

I'm feeling sad today because I had to have my little rat Yaffle put to sleep. It was definitely time. At least now I don't have to worry about when to make the decision, and it's good that she doesn't have to cope with all the cleaning and redecorating stuff I'm doing; still, Confucius might have said "There is nothing as bitter as the convenient death of a loved one." Someone must have said that at some point.

In a spirit of appeal to the world I offer you this proof that if we all tried harder we could just get along. (Best watched with sound off.)

Monday, 19 November 2007

Found things

I have found various things so far while cleaning:

1) the cap for my USB flash drive. Yay!

2) 60 euro cents and about 80 pence in British.

3) some information about the International Planned Parenthood Federation, about which I had completely forgotten. I requested it because of something I found out about donkeys. Donkeys are wonderful things, and to stand near one will automatically improve your quality of life. (Unless it bites or kicks you, but that's not that likely.) However, donkey charities are the best supported in the UK, apparently, and those who rescue donkeys have no need to scrape together the cash to do so. I'm glad for the donkeys! But there are other charities doing excellent stuff who are hit by image problems. In particular, contraception, which seems to me like one of the best ideas ever, is such a controversial topic to some people that charities which support it miss out on huge tranches of potential income. The International Planned Parenthood Federation works to educate about contraception and distribute it, and also to reduce the number of unsafe abortions carried out in the world. My aunt is a reproductive health doctor and she says that something like 2 out of every 5 pregnancies in the UK is aborted. I hold no brief for foetuses, and am not at all sure what to think about them, so I'm going to leave that issue to one side; but look at it solely from the point of view of the women involved. That's a vast number of women going through a nasty physical and really horrible emotional experience. (A friend described her abortion to me in horrendous detail once as we went round a Titian exhibition, with all those Flayed Marsayes and Rape of Lucreces -- I hadn't asked but in humanity I pretty much had to let her tell me.) Better contraception, and more of it, I say! In the meantime the IPPF allows one to donate online.

4) A sermon I wrote a long time ago. A couple of times the chaplain suggested I should preach, and I always demurred, rightly I think. But I did once have an idea for a sermon so I wrote it down. It was about the problems with the secular view of self-respect.

5) The service sheet from the funeral of Jeremy Maule, a great scholar and teacher, who died in 1998. It was the first Cambridge funeral I went to, with the choir singing the nunc dimittis around the coffin under Trinity Great Gate. He had had a few weeks' notice of his death and had planned the obsequies himself, with hymns and readings from Donne; they were distinctly uncomfortable, as of someone who did not want to die. This was appropriate. He was only in his early forties. Just to be selfish for a moment, I imagine my life would be different if he had lived, because he was very supportive of my wanting to branch out into early modern stuff.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

The angel in the house

I have a lot of admiration for people who keep houses clean and tidy. It's not one of my virtues. At the moment, as I start piling up things to get rid of, doing anything in my flat is like one of those slidey puzzle games: I have to move large numbers of things in sequence in order to get at any one particular cupboard. The water here is so hard that even Cillit Bang! (hardcore remix here) won't remove the encrusted limescale on my bath and instead I have to scrape it off flake by painstaking flake with nylon pan scrapers from Lakeland.

I looked on the internet for ways to clean grouting, and someone recommended a mixture of bleach and baking soda. This alarmed me, because it sounds like one of those home-made bomb recipes. And if you put the wrong cleaning products together you can produce chlorine gas -- apparently people do die from mixing toilet cleaners, though I think it has to be bleach and something acidic, which baking soda isn't. I know that baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, and wikipedia tells me that's NaHCO3. I would consider myself well-educated if I could predict whether that would be a safe thing to mix with chlorine bleach. But I have no idea, and therefore I am not.

Tomorrow my mother is coming up, and because she had a scientific education she may know the answer. But I'm afraid she'll be so annoyed by the messiness of my flat that she'll be in no mood for speculations. Even my dad was shocked at it when he was last here, and this is a man who developed a proper forest floor ecosystem in his study while writing a book on trees by just dropping herbarium specimens when he was done with them. (Eventually my mother passive-aggressively bought him a new carpet for his birthday.)

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

The Seed of the One who Roars on High

1. Someone who lives near my parents is a professional fireworks display man, and he arranged for the village to get a cheap, late, display composed of all the fireworks which had failed to go off in the displays he'd already done for Guy Fawkes' night. Presumably unexploded fireworks are a perk/hazard of the job. My mother seemed to think this quite reasonable, but wouldn't it be tremendously dangerous? The fireworks factory in the nearest small town exploded a couple of years ago. It was amazingly lucky that no one was killed; the caretaker broke his leg, I think, and lots of people were bruised from being blown off their feet, and that was it. The explosion was more than usually dramatic and could be seen for some miles.

2. I visited Bologna university last summer to see the friend with whom I will be working when I go out there next year. Her department is in a fifteenth-century palazzo, just up the hill from an amazing complex of early medieval churches. She showed me the loos, which are divided not into two but three: men's, ladies', and professors'.

3. Anglo-Saxon charters are sometimes great. When King Athelstan decided to give Wootton Bassett to the church of Malmesbury he started like this:
The insolent fortune of this deceiving age, not worthy of love because of the milky whiteness of unfading lilies but hateful because of the bitterness steeped in gall of corruption that is to be lamented, bitingly tears to pieces the sons of stinking flesh in the vale of tears by raving wildly with its poisonous jaws, which, although it may be attractive to the unfortunate by its pleasing manner, yet shamelessly is it declining downwards to the depths of Acherontic Cocytus [i.e., Hell], unless the Seed of the One Who Roars on High [i.e., Jesus, the Son of God] should assist. And so, because that ruined thing [i.e., fortune] is going mortally into decay through its failing, one must hasten with the utmost effort to the pleasant fields of indescribable happiness, where the angelic tongues of hymn-singing jubilation and the scents of verdant roses flowing with honey of incalculable sweetness are captured by the good and blessed nostrils and the sweetnesses of musical instruments heard by the ears.
In case you care, here is the Latin:
Fortuna fallentis seculi procax, non lacteo inmarcessibilium liliorum candore amabilis, sed fellita eiulande corruptionis amaritudine odibilis, fetentis filios ualle in lacrimarum carnis rictibus debachando uenenosis mordaciter dilaceret. Que quamuis arridendo sit infelicibus attractabilis Acherontici tamen ad yma Cociti ni satus alti subueniat boantis, impudenter est decursibus, et ideo ipsa ruinosa deficiendo tanaliter dilabitur, summopere festinandum est ad amena indicibilis leticie arua, ubi angelica ymnidice iubilationis organa mellifluaque uernantium rosarum odoramina a bonis beatisque naribus inestimabiliter dulcia capiuntur, sineque calce auribus cliuipparum suauia audiuntur.
Go King Athelstan! One of England's greatest kings. One of his others has a great anathema clause which sentences the infringer to being beaten about the head by devils with frying pans.

Monday, 12 November 2007

What's Italian for yay?

I'm going to Bologna for six months! I've got an Early Career Research Fellowship thing at the University there. This is good. I will miss 4OD and the Literary Review (maybe I can get the latter sent out to me) but everything else is a plus. There are some gorgeous old churches there and they really know what to do with a dead pig.

I only have a couple of months to empty and redecorate my flat though, which will be challenging in terms of possessions. I think most of my poetry books will have to go to Oxfam, and most of my collection of icons will have to go on ebay. My parents have offered me some space in their garage, but academic books need to be somewhere less mousy. I had a preliminary attempt at clearing out a bit at the weekend, filling eight bin bags with totally useless items. The record for expiry date so far is October 1998, on some cough medicine. But it does sort of validate my slobby lifestyle, because instead of regularly clearing up over the past ten years, now I can do it all in one go. I remember this about moving; it's much easier to throw things out when the alternative is physically carrying them somewhere.

Friday, 9 November 2007


I had this dream the other night that a race of super-intelligent and compassionate aliens shaped like large green slugs grew so worried about Britney Spears' mental state that they sent an ambassador to earth to befriend her and help her get back on the rails. It all worked really well and she got her children back and became a UN ambassador or something. But even without extra-terrestrial intervention, and with neither hair nor pants, Britney seems unable to mess up the music. Her new album, Blackout, is great, although she didn't chose any of the mentalist titles she had offered for fans to vote on on her website. Toy Soldier is probably the next single. (It's not, alas, a cover of the Martika hit which was the first seven inch I ever bought.) But there are loads of excellent songs on it. I like them more when they're rap-like rather than too R'n'B, but they're very good, and I'm not usually that keen on R'n'B. Poor old Britney; I do hope she sorts her life out.

Most of us rein it in

I've just discovered It's very funny if a tad depressing... I particularly like this note.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

This and that

1. My current new toy is a graphics tablet. It's good for my RSI, and the handwriting recognition is impressive; it can cope with my terrible cursive scrawl, and seems to recognise names used elsewhere. I'm not the neatest writer, unless I'm really trying. It occurred to me that this could be a solution to the problem of the handwriting of students who type all their work, possibly including their lecture notes, but still have to write exams long-hand. If they used a graphics tablet instead of typing then when they got into the exam room they would at least have had plenty of practice at writing to a certain standard.

2. I was fed up with Calvin Harris but he made quite a good video for that sofa advert song.

3. The photocopier in my faculty can now e-mail things to you as pdfs instead of spewing them out on paper. This is a fantastic thing. I tried it out with a lovely letter I had just got from the Politest Man in the World, and now I don't have to worry about losing it. I have visions of spending all my weekends there for the next year or so, copying the articles which take up 67 inches on my shelves, not including a couple of years of unfiled stuff.

4. I would advise you not to read Ken Follett's Pillars of the World. It made me very nostalgic at first because, when I was a daunted twelve-year-old at my grandparents' house surrounded by loud extrovert relatives I would rifle the shelves and end up reading exactly this sort of well-constructed, engaging trash. I read it to the end to find out what happened, but it made me feel a bit car-sick. Also, it has that rather dirty sexuality which is big in those sorts of books -- lots of rapes. All in all, it's on a par with Jeffrey Archer, and should be avoided.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Historical loonies

I've just finished a fantastic book about millenarianism, The Pursuit of the Millenium by Norman Cohn. There were some excellent mad sects in the High Middle Ages who tried, in various creative ways, to usher in the kingdom of a thousand years which would precede the end of the world. I particularly liked one young man called Eon, Eudes in French, who claimed that the "eundem" in "per eundem Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum" referred to him, and that therefore all Latin prayers ended "through Eon Jesus Christ our Lord". Later he decided that he was also the "eum" in "per eum qui venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos et seculum per ignem", and that Eon was the one who would come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire. He died in the custody of the archbishop of Rouen, but not before gathering many disciples, several of whom ended at the stake, and generally causing chaos.

The topos of the ruler who didn't really die but is actually living as a wandering hermit and will come again is a familiar one; there were legends that Harold II survived Hastings, for example, and the idea that Edward II wasn't killed with that memorably gruesome poker but survived for decades as a wandering holy man is still current today. I was pleased to learn that not only were there several convincing imposters who claimed to be Frederick II, the stupor mundi, but that one of them, who mustered surprising international support but eventually betrayed himself and was burnt at the stake, even had his own imposter who claimed to be him raised from dead after three days -- a sort of pseudo-pseudo-Frederick. They killed that one too.

But the anabaptists rule when it comes to eschatalogical lunacy. The story of the kingdom of M√ľnster is a sort of nightmare of odd but not completely unreasonable ideas slipping away into outright insane terror. Through a series of mad lurches they ended up ruled by a king called Jan Bockelszoon, whose first act as leader Cohn describes thus:
"Early in May he ran naked through the town in a frenzy and then fell into a silent ecstasy which lasted three days".
He instituted polygamy, from Old Testament examples, and made it illegal for women of marriageable age not to be married to another anabaptist. (Bockelszoon had fifteen wives at one point.) Women were executed for refusing to comply with this, and also for arguing with their new co-wives. He renamed the days of the week, and became a sort of Caligula, demanding strange shows of loyalty from his subjects, who were starving from a complete siege of the city by the ejected bishop. Eventually someone managed to let the bishop's army in, and a massacre followed. Bockelszoon and two others were tortured to death with red hot pincers, and their bodies hung in cages from a church tower in the city centre. The cages are still there, apparently, but the bodies were taken down after about fifty years. The whole episode was included by Luther Blisset in his book Q, which is quite readable; the author(s) claimed to have taken the name of Luther Blisset, a 70s footballer, as a pseudonym to conceal their identity as four Italian professors of semiotics, though the image of four Italian professors of semiotics choosing to get together to co-write an English novel about the North European reformation strikes me as the less likely of the two options. Still it's on Wikipedia so it's either true or someone's been reading too much Borges.


I've noticed this wierd thing when I get bad colds: at first, as my symptoms are just developing, I feel a bit ill and really miserable; then, when I'm fully unwell I feel physically much worse but get this sudden flush of feeling actually rather cheerful. Yesterday my cold was just starting and I was really very down; today I'm much more obviously unwell and I'm in an unusually good mood. Previously I've always assumed the grumpiness is because of how annoying it is to know you're coming down with something, and I've attributed the cheerfulness to the effect of people being nice to you once it's obvious you're ill, but I wonder whether there's more to it than that. Though it seems odd that a disease should make you happy. I suppose recreational drugs are mild poisons, so maybe it's like that.

Thursday, 1 November 2007


From the BBC's website:
"London's police force broke health and safety laws over the shooting dead of Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes."