Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Just a few more random Venice thoughts then I'll stop

1. My second thought on entering San Marco, after wow, was to feel sorry for Agia Sofia. It was like that once, as you can tell from the odd bits and pieces that survive there. Once it was the religious centre of an empire that lasted for a thousand years, which is how long all empires are supposed to last for, like in Revelation. Even though some of the mosaics in San Marco were badly damaged, and repaired by people who couldn't escape perspective, at least it's still there, and still a place with a proper function. Whereas Agia Sofia is full of people chatting on mobiles, and has no obvious purpose any more except the chewed-up leavings of history. It seems like there's some sort of conspiracy of mutual forgetting between Istanbul and the west which pilfered it. Wikipedia in English finishes its entry on the bronze horses of San Marco, looted from Constantinople, by saying that Venice has no plans to send back either the originals or copies. But what would Istanbul want with them? They used to say that the tetrachs on the corner of San Marco near the Doges' Palace were Lombardic, until they found the missing foot of one of them still attached to a plinth in Istanbul. There's not really anywhere that celebrates the Roman Empire after Rome; Rome is hardly going to, or Italians in general, and for the peoples actually living there now it's not a happy past. The Greeks might except that it's all so very political for them. Nor was it approved of by an old-style Classical education; Gibbon gets very sniffy about the parade of eunuchs and low-born empresses who ran the show. This is why John Julius Norwich's History of Byzantium is so brilliant. It tells a non-Classical story in that Tacitus-style deadpan forward-moving manner which is also characteristic of Robert Graves's better Roman fiction. I remember when I first read it I kept sneaking out of my cousin's wedding feast in a posh hotel in Scotland to finish volume 3. (Admittedly, wedding feasts aren't really my thing.)

2. One morning I went on a tour of the orologio and then round San Marco and its museum, and then in the afternoon I had booked a ticket for the Galleria dell'Accademia, where there happened to be a show about Late Titian. By the time I was only a few rooms into the Galleria, which has wonderful ceilings by the way, covered in the winged cherubim, I started to have major eye hurt from all the art. I remember going to Italy for the first time when I was about 15 to Florence with a small school group. I shortly began to feel like that if I saw one more consumptive almond-eyed madonna on a gold background some vital connection between my eyes and my brain would be cauterised forever. (This is a tad ironic as consumptive almond-eyed madonnas on gold backgrounds are exactly my favourite sort of art these days.) So at the Accademia I was having to look away from anything I didn't really want to look at so as to preserve my art-brain capacity. Afterwards I decided to take a break and spend the rest of the day shopping for earrings on Murano, and I found that looking at the beautiful lagoon, or even the man-made beauty of the Doges' Palace and other things on the waterfront, didn't hurt at all. So there must be some part of the brain that responds to art, rather than just beauty, and which we tire out when we look at it too much. Scientists must surely have hooked people up to machines and worked out which bit of the brain it is. So couldn't they make a little portable headset? You could plug it in to your temples and walk round art galleries with it on, and it would give you a reading: 73% art, or 20% art, 60% architecture. This would put an end to all that tedious debate. Like in Monty Python where they decide to stop arguing about the existence of God, and a university philosopher and a cardinal just get in the ring and wrestle it out. (Result: God exists by two falls to a submission.)

3. How sinister is this? This country is a little sick.

Monday, 28 April 2008


Holidays in Venice aside, I'm beginning to feel like there is no end to charters. I finish one and up pops another. They have very fleeting moments of charm, like King Edmund giving land:
cuidam fideli meo ministro uocitato nomine Uulfgario, pro eius amabili obedientia eiusque placabili pecunia
"to my faithful thegn called by the name Wulfgar, for his lovable obedience and his pleasing money".

Venice thoughts, random

1. Pretty isn't really my thing, and I have a very limited tolerance for pretty pretty, plus everyone kept telling me that there is no time of year when the tourist concentration in Venice is not horrendous, so I was a bit apprehensive that going there would be very hard work. I wanted to go because of the romance of Venice's past, but not the eighteenth-century masked carnival bonbonniere type romance; rather the incredible muscular Venice of the middle ages. There was a time when this one city was a world superpower of a sophisticated and somewhat frightening type. (This is brilliantly conveyed in Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolò historical novels. I recommend these strongly, as long as you don't mind getting hooked on a long series; I read them in the space of about a week, getting home from work, reading until I went to bed, and then the same the next day, including lunchtime. The hero spends some time as an unofficial Venetian amabassador to Trebizond, and also at the doomed court of King James of Cyprus which Venice eventually annexes.) Anyway, Venice was not bad at all. I hadn't got that when Napoleon described the Piazza San Marco as the most elegant drawing room in Europe, this implied a certain homeliness. When I was there, except in the middle of the afternoon, it wasn't even badly crowded. In the afternoon it was pretty packed in front of San Marco, but the people who complain about this should try walking from my Cambridge flat to Pret a Manger for a coffee on a Saturday in the summer or before Christmas; there's a similar level of retardation, and in Venice the pay-off is much better. (Pret coffee has really gone downhill.) I found the city likeable in a way strangely at odds with everything I have ever read about it. On the train on the way back I read Jan Morris's Venetian Bestiary, which almost put me off the place again, with its fey tone. Compared to all the "magical, mysterious Venice" literature the city itself seemed oddly unpretentious.

2. An Italian friend gave me two good pieces of advice about visiting Venice: a) get lost, because you will anyway, so just go with it and see what you come across, and b) book everything in advance. You will notice that these two instructions rather contradict each other. You can book San Marco for free, and as long as you arrive there within your ten-minute time slot you can go straight to the head of the long queue. I also booked a really fascinating tour of the orologia, with its complex mechanism driving the unusual fifteenth-century clock. My guide was a very nice student (doing Oriental Studies) with a strong Venetian accent; she seemed to be calling the clockwork "geowhizz". I haven't yet worked out what English word this might have represented.

3. I don't know why people say Americans don't do irony; the ones I meet don't seem to do anything else. Going round the administrative parts of the Doges' Palace on an English, that is to say American, tour, my co-visitors never seemed to stop chuckling drily at the description of a society based on idealistic principles run by a concealed bureaucracy, traduced by its pursuit of its own interests abroad, reluctantly using torture to protect itself from internal threats, encouraging informers, responding to every new crisis by setting up another body with extraordinary powers to act irregularly against a few for the security of many. I suppose one should give the Americans credit for this, but it did get a bit tedious after a while.

4. Particulière is my favourite word to overhear in French.

5. I wish people would do as they are told when they are being tourists, especially with regard to photographs, and especially in churches. If I were in charge of a big church like San Marco these would be my rules.
a. no photos
b. no speaking above a whisper
c. no explications
d. mobile phones off
e. on entering everyone must sit in silence in the nave for ten minutes
f. after that you can walk around looking at things, quietly
g. do as the vergers say! they have electric cattle prods.
More realistically, if I'm genuinely trying to promote a sense of sacred space
g. vergers will escort you out if you break any rule for a second time
I think that people would get something out of being forced to sit still in silence for ten minutes. It might be harsh on those with children though -- maybe I'd have a separate side-chapel for them to sit in, and talking would be allowed there just in a whisper not out loud. The vergers would have to be people without a very judgemental attitude to sin, e.g. probably Franciscans. At their best, Franciscans can give off an air of love even while remonstrating with one for terrible behaviour. (But not in Jerusalem, the only place where I have been shouted at by an angry Franciscan.)

Saturday, 26 April 2008


The previous post, i.e. the one just down the page from here, was a long and rather angry review of an exhibition I saw in Venice. Here, on the other hand, is a dancing dog:

Friday, 25 April 2008

Barbarians in Venice

I rather suspect that to the Venetians we're all barbarians, but actually the title of this post is cos I went to see an exhibition called Roma e i Barbari at the Palazzo Grassi. Here is a picture of it, complete with rather striking sculpture made of tin cans.

It was a very interesting exhibition indeed because containing some really fantastic exhibits. I went round it in about two and a half hours without noticing, which says something because my usual attention span for exhibitions is about the same as for films, and after an hour and a half I start wondering when the end comes.

But as well as the straightforward interest of the story it purported to tell, there was also the sort of meta-interest of the story it couldn't help telling, which was one of a particular sort of attitude to this period in the past. First there's the use of the word barbarians, which really is not a suitable word if you want to be taken seriously. (I'm guessing from the expensive multi-contributor catalogue which weighs a bit more than my Lewis and Short that this wasn't entirely a populist exercise.) The word "barbarian" not only started out as a term of dismissive abuse but is still used that way. (And if you do use it you need to define it in some way; the most obvious given its etymology would be by language, I suppose, and I'm guessing that in order not to be a barbarian you had to know Greek, since plenty of these barbarians spoke Latin. Other unspoken definitions were: the people who attacked some part of the Roman Empire, which was difficult because some of those people were sort of Romans; or, anyone who wasn't ethnically Roman for many generations.)

The exhibition starts with a good deal of background on the Romans. A fleeting reference is made to how they took over the torch of civilisation from the Greeks -- the impression is given that the Greeks, a bit tired of holding it after all that time, were really quite glad to hand it over. Then highly disciplined Roman armies march out achieving efficient conquests and civilising various peoples by introducing them to enlightened values. Everything is going rather well; Tacitus's "create a wilderness and call it peace" doesn't get a look in here. And then the people to whom the civilisation hasn't really stuck start attacking the empire, and oh, the humanity! Cue lots of nineteenth-century pictures of barbarians, who haven't invented clothes, pulling down beautiful statues and setting fire to things. I like a bit of antiquarianism in an exhibition, but you can't just give us nineteenth-century romanticised paintings as if they were fair reconstructions.

Once the barbarians are definitely on top the exhibition settles down a bit into a huge variety of barbarian artefacts, which are extremely interesting in their own right. I saw some excellent things, while at the same time getting thoroughly confused about which people were which. The fact that this sort of thing is on the periphery of my academic knowledge probably cuts both ways: on the one hand it means I may have been more interested in sorting it out than most visitors, but on the other it should have made it easier for me to do so. And if it is true that most people visiting don't care about the difference between the Huns and the Vandals, I think an exhibition like this ought to at least give them the opportunity to make that distinction. In the middle of a room full of fifth-century Lombardic grave goods I suddenly came across a bilingual glossary in several columns. Goodness, I thought, an early Lombardic glossary that looks just like Corpus 144! But it turned out to be the Épinal half of the Erfurt-Épinal Glossary, which is famous for looking just like Corpus 144. What an eighth-century English manuscript was doing there was not explained. (I'm not sure the Anglo-Saxons should have been included at all since they had very little do with the Romans, whose last legion supposedly left Britain before the Anglo-Saxons arrived. Even more so the Scandinavians.) I also came across very unexpectedly the Book of Mulling, which seemed pretty surreal to me -- I went to Venice and saw the Book of Mulling -- but the cultural assumptions that put it there took my breath away. It seems like a collusion in the casual anti-Irish racism of past years in Britain. I don't think it's acceptable for anyone dealing with this period not to know that the Irish had a complex and sophisticated civilisation, and after the decline of Rome were about the most learned people in Western Europe. They had never been subject to the Roman Empire, and they did not attack it in its decline, and they had a written culture that happily included Latin and some Greek, and Hebrew if they could get their hands on it. So where do you get off calling them barbarians? How can you just lump them in with the various peoples who sacked Rome? It's intellectual sloppiness, if it's not something worse.

I began to fear it was something worse when I came across a Byzantine enamelled book cover or reliquary panel, I forget which, labelled simply as eleventh-century Eastern work now in the collection of San Marco, Venice. From that description you have to do some very close reading between the lines to realise that this is loot from the Fourth Crusade. The Fourth Crusade was a pretty low episode even by Crusade standards. When the massing European armies got to Venice they didn't have enough money to take ship for the east, so the doge Enrico Dandolo suggested that the army could earn its passage with a bit fighting for Venice first, recapturing a lost Adriatic port. It ended up with a successful attack on Christian Constantinople, led by the blind 80-something doge who was the first to leap off the boats and charge against the defences. Venice got to claim from then on that it was the conqueror of a quarter and half a quarter of the Roman Empire, which was its official share of the spoils; it sent back home endless treasures, including the famous bronze horses of San Marco; Latin rulers deeply unsympathetic to their subjects held the imperial throne of Byzantium for over a hundred and fifty years; the split between the Western and Eastern churches received a further blow from which it may never recover in this world (some first tentative starts at apologies were exchanged about five years ago); and the last bulwark of Christianity in the east was fatally weakened against 1453. To put a piece of this loot in the exhibition as an example of barbarian art is a pretty amazing fudging of history. Surely by any possible definition the barbarians here were the Venetians, sacking the last surviving part of the Roman Empire. It's only the exhibit's later provenance, not its actual form, that could possibly make it relevant here. It would be hard to acquit the organisers of this exhibition of a belief that civilisation is what happens in Italy. Today is a national holiday in Italy to celebrate liberation from fascism. I don't think it would be very original of me to suggest that bad history played some facilitating role in the circumstances leading up to world war two. (But it's maybe a bit melodramatic of me to draw this link here.)

It's a shame because it was a real opportunity missed. Something that fascinates me, and which I do believe could be made more widely interesting, is how Christian peoples dealt with their non-Christian past, especially when that past was in itself pretty impressive. I suppose an analogy might be how we feel about the attractive older parts of cities like Bristol, knowing they were built on slave-trade money. The Anglo-Saxons referred to the Roman ruins that they found in England as enta geweorc, the work of giants. They knew perfectly well who the Romans were; it was a figure of speech, expressing mingled admiration and reservation. Giants in Anglo-Saxon literature were linked to the Nephilim, the offspring of liaisons between angels and humans, against whom the Flood was directed. In Beowulf, Grendel is related to these monstrous people, the implication being that some waterborne examples had survived far up in the cold north. One interpretation of Beowulf, the one that makes it for me a great work of literature, is that it's largely about what a Christian people feel about a heroic yet futile past. Rome itself is a bit disappointing to me in terms of medieval remains, because the medieval museum, the Crypto Balbi, gives no sense of how people felt to be living in the middle of the huge remains of a disappeared empire. I read a biography of Dante recently which gave his fascinatingly terrible take on the whole thing. According to Dante's understanding, when the crowd in Jerusalem demanded the release of Barabbas not Jesus, and cried out that the responsibility for crucifying Jesus would be on their heads and the heads of their children [Matt. 27:24-5], this related only to the Jews, not any other people. However, Pilate was acting as a representative of the Roman Empire. Dante's logic ran that for Jesus to die significantly he had to be condemned by a real authority; therefore the fact that he was sent to his death by Pilate was actually God giving a big rubber stamp to the whole Roman enterprise; God was saying here is the true empire with true legal authority on earth. So the crucifixion for Dante sent the Jews swerving to the bottom of the pile of peoples, while a very similar participation in the same events made the Romans top dogs, God's chosen rulers regardless of their religion. (Now I don't understand the whole Guelph/Ghibelline thing, and I wish someone, preferably John Julius Norwich, would write an elegant book about it, but I think Dante was probably influenced by turning from the Guelph (roughly papal) to the Ghibelline (approximately imperial) side of things after his long exile from his beloved Florence.) Anyway I think this is very interesting because he has managed to do away completely with the more endearing ambiguity that the Anglo-Saxons felt about their own past, and has elegantly positioned himself on the side of historical righteousness.

The Venetian exhibition took the simplistic line that the barbarians were impressed by Roman culture and aped it. (The implication in the display of many of the exhibits was that when beautiful things were produced this was largely due to Roman influence.) At this point the organisers started to need to define "Roman" as well; we no longer seem to be concerned with the Roman empire, which has gone East (and, it's implied, is now therefore itself a bit barbaric), but instead with the Christian orbit of Rome where the pope still stuck it out. One exhibit I found particularly interesting was one half of a ninth-century consular diptych showing a crucifixion. Underneath the foot of the cross the she-wolf suckles Romulus and Remus. This was presented as an example of the way that the barbarians happily referred with admiration to Roman legends. Now I'm not an art historian; but I struggle very hard to think of an example of something put under the foot of the cross which is meant to be seen in a positive light. Mary Magdalene clings to the cross, weeping; but underneath the cross is the skull of Adam, symbol of sin leading to death, or perhaps the devil in the form of a snake (Corpus has a nice example of this). Please correct me in the comments if I'm missing something (if anyone's actually reading this far...) but doesn't this position seem pretty condemnatory of what is after all a story of abandonment and fratricide? If you've read Augustine's City of God you know that the first eight or so books out of twenty are devoted to reasons why we shouldn't worship Romulus. (As I recall it gets interesting at about book 12.) An opportunity was missed here to look at what people thought about an impressive yet flawed past.

The exhibits on display were very interesting in themselves, but as an exhibition, given that an exhibition is supposed to bring exhibits into relation with each other in a thought-provoking way, I found this a failure with sinister overtones. The exhibition catalogue (at the front the list of names thanked is split into "Ladies", "Gentlemen", "Cardinals" and "Bishops") gives an interesting light on the exhibition's genesis. Apparently the Venetians, planning an exhibition on Rome and the Barbarians, discovered that Bonn was planning one on the peoples of the Migration era, a far far more sensible idea. It's an interesting question why suddenly everyone starts migrating at that date. Realising that they would need to borrow many of the same exhibits they joined forces, and the exhibition moves to Bonn when it has finished in Venice. I'm quite tempted to see if I can go to it. I bet the Germans do it better; there's a country that takes seriously the moral difficulties of the past. I still don't quite understand the Italian attitude to the second world war era; today's liberation from fascism day is just one big party, celebrating that the fascists have all gone in a way that seems slightly glib to me. Of course it's easy for us British to feel excessively pleased with ourselves about world war two, but then we do have post-colonial guilt, and as a nation we're all the better for it.

Also I do sort of have to acknowledge here that maybe the anger that this exhibition made me feel was a bit due to personal involvement; some of the people lumped under the one word "barbarians" are the people I study, and it saddens me to see them dismissed like this, as if they were nothing more than attackers and imitators of Rome when in fact their relationship to the Romans was both more distant and more complex.

PS I wish Italian museums would catch on to the potential of museum shops. I'm a complete sucker for earrings based on exhibits and there were some fantastic earrings on display. If I were rich I would design jewellery based on those garnet and gold designs that we barbarians were so fond of a millenium or so ago, especially the eagle-shaped ones, and have them made up by craftspeople.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Modern art

I'm afraid I've got really old-fogeyish about Modern Art, so it was good for me that my friend Fiona came to Bologna this weekend and made me go to MAMBo, the Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna. My problem with modern art is twofold:
1) so much of it seems like banal things that people did then deconstructed later, like the nude bloke dancing in slow motion in the Tate, which the artist said she basically did for a laugh (though now it's on the front cover of a Will Self book I suppose it must be art). Plus a lot of it seems to be about expression of the artist's huge hollow ego, like acting.
2) I have envy. There's plenty of daft but resonant things I'd like to do but I don't think I'd get away with them. It annoys me that the modern artists get to be the Holy Fools of our time. (That's not meant in as harsh a way as it sounds, I'm a big fan of the Holy Fools, like St Simeon).
But MAMBo was interesting and worth going to. The current exhibition is by a man who badly needs a good slapping. (Sadly there wasn't a visitor's book.) It was mostly nude photos of the artist as various gods, goddesses, or legendary figures, here having sex with a swan, now painted blue and with extra arms, etc. In the eastern-based ones he was accompanied by a small naked boy, the big freak. But the permanent collection was very good, with some interesting stuff. At the end there was a wall covered in very very simple works, each on a separate small piece of paper, numbered and signed, and you were supposed to interact with the art by choosing one and taking it away. Mine says that if I ever accept money for it the artist's signature will be invalidated and the work will become false. Given that all those arguments about what is art are usually supposed to be settled by "whatever you think is art is art" it's interesting, and perhaps a bit rich, to have artists imposing conditions under which we're not allowed to think of their work as art. It's bound to have been done and I just don't know it in my ignorance, but if I were an artist I would make art labelled as not art on a Tuesday, or if it's ever been touched by a man with a beard, or not art for anyone who has seen a corpse. The piece Fiona chose just says that selling it is forbidden, which is a good deal less interesting.

Anyway I wanted to post about that to clear the way for my next post, which will be on the theme of Venice: surprisingly undisappointing.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Write it down somewhere safe

Dear Scholarly World
Here is a citation for your footnotes.
Grundy, G. B., 'The Saxon Land Charters of Wiltshire I', Archaeological Journal 2nd series 26 (1919), 143–301, at p. 191 n. 1.
The note reads simply "1. I have mislaid the reference."

I wonder how many times I can get away with citing it in my Wilton charters book?

Wednesday, 16 April 2008


Bother it, I have to go to Kalamazoo again.

Here are some happier pieces of news:
1. Search for Oliver Rackham on this page and find him cited as an influence between Nick Drake and Bob Dylan.

2. My parents have bought another field. My mother told me she was about to phone their Bible study group leader and cancel going that evening on the grounds that they had bought a new field and needed to inspect it. This is a Biblical joke.

3. I forgot to say, the Herbarium at Bologna has a specimen of tomato in it, the first recorded occurrence of a tomato on Italian soil.

4. I know I'm long overdue posting about the product names here which sound wierd to English-speakers. Only I've forgotten most of them, except "Hello Spank!", a brightly-coloured cartoon DVD for children in my local supermarket; if you took away the exclamation mark and changed the cover to a grey-scale sad child on a white background it could be an English or American misery memoir. But the other day I saw this cat food: Randy Cat. I love the lascivious lip-licking image. Watch out! That is one randy cat!

Tuesday, 15 April 2008


Because I do not think that the modern division between science and the arts has in itself much meaning for him, I feel glad when my own research encounters the work of Oliver Rackham. Last week this happened on two separate occasions: someone gave me a reference to some work he's done on one of my Old English boundary clauses; and I discovered at the BL that he has produced a parallel edition and translation of the Latin Life of St Fursey. I was reminded about it on Monday when I visited Bologna's herbarium with my parents, who were here for the weekend. Ulisse Aldrovandi started Bologna's herbarium and botanical gardens in the sixteenth century, making them some of the oldest in the world. My father wanted to see a specimen of Juniper indica Bertol, collected in the early nineteenth century by two Englishmen, and sent to Bologna where it was published as a new species by someone whose name I forget. Apparently this particular Juniper has a complicated taxonomic history. In the field it is easily distinguishable as two different plants: one forms a large tree growing at about 10 000 feet of altitude and a bit higher; the other is shrubby, not exceeding about four metres in height, but growing at altitudes of up to 15 000 feet or higher. DNA analysis has confirmed what the field botanists had long suggested, that they are different species. But since their leaves, branches, berries etc are exactly the same they look the same in herbaria and the taxonomy has become entangled. My father wanted to see not only the specimen but all the information they had on where it was collected. Botany depends on careful classification and clear international nomenclature, and as such a botanist has to be a competent historian, able to disentangle previous naming schemes to work out what people were talking about when.

My father and the curator of the herbarium, a very helpful woman about my age, talked about the difficulties of keeping records about what you're collecting while you're actually there in the wild collecting it. She said that when their students first start to make their own herbaria they tell them not to collect more than five things in the first day. Apparently all the students have to make a herbarium as part of their degree, and when I said I thought that was excellent she seemed surprised at the idea that one could teach differently. She was saying how she needed to go out collecting every spring to keep her eye in, and even her professor, a venerable scholar, had to refresh his identification skills in the field every year to keep on top of things. It made me happy because I have long been aware that in the UK botany, which both my parents studied at university, is not a fashionable discipline. It has been superceded by plant science. People do brilliant stuff in this field, but I do think sometimes that maybe there is a tendency for them to be a little too dismissive of botany and taxonomy. I don't really know enough about it to speak with any authority, but I get the impression that Oliver Rackham's type of scholarship, a type of botany broadened out into both ecology and landscape history, is not currently taught. I don't think there are students in Cambridge assembling their herbaria and carefully cultivating the habit of accurate field labelling of specimens. Will there be in the future professors who like to climb into tree houses to scrutinise caterpillar damage in the broad-leaf canopy? Will there be professors of plant science for whom medieval latin is a necessary research tool, who think it important to extend their knowledge of plant and tree behaviour into the past? More likely historians will be historians, and scientists will be scientists, and that will be that.

It's not only a matter of a loss of scholarship and a diminution in the sum of human knowledge. It also has serious repercussions for other areas of work. Take the recent discoveries about the efficacy of some yew extract in treating ovarian cancer. If you isolate the useful compound or molecule, but then discover that only some species of taxus have it, then the taxonomy becomes very important. (I understand this has been happening with some medical developments, although I'm not sure if medicinal use of taxus is among them.)

In the meantime the visit to the herbarium made me think of two different things relevant to medieval manuscript work. It reminded me that I made my own basic attempt at a medieval script herbarium or book of specimens, specifically for tenth-century square minuscule, when I was doing Part I. I wonder whether it could be a useful teaching exercise; you could send the kids out and ask them to come back with some specimens (photocopies, unless they're very cunning) of script neatly labelled and taxonomised. After all palaeography, like botany, is supposed to allow you to identify wild specimens; you ought to be able to give me a piece of script you'd just found in an old binding and I ought to be able to tell you what it is, just as my father can tell me what tree a random leaf came from.

The other thing was a good deal more obvious... As flyleaves in his herbarium volumes Ulisse Aldrovandi had used pages from old manuscripts. Some are illuminated. They look like thirteenth- or fourteenth-century law books to me (though check out my careful use of subjunctives in the last sentence of the last paragraph). I have no idea if the scholars of Bolognese law script and illumination know about them, but they are all digitised with the rest of the herbarium here:
Go to volume 6, copertina, for a good example if this sort of thing interests you. (I'm talking to you, Mr Kidd, if you've made it this far down the post.) A study of what Aldrovandi was discarding when he made these volumes would be very interesting. And long live scholarship unconfined by genre.

Friday, 11 April 2008

There there

Let's not forget that there are good things in the world! I'm glad this site exists:
and here are some thoughts about dictators:
And if we really tried, we could all just get along:

Thursday, 10 April 2008

It's a metaphor

Do you remember the days when Britney ruled the world? When she was the confident, successful young woman who seemed to have coped remarkably well with child stardom? When she continually pulled out of the bag not only the top rank pop songs like Toxic but the edgier interesting album tracks like Do Something? And then the two divorces, the left-field parenting, all those no-knickers-getting-out-of-a-cab pictures, the crazy statements, the impulsive flights from rehab – suddenly she was clearly going down a bad road, and that’s continued, and will she ever be able to pull herself round? She may still be producing good music, but if the headlines tomorrow said “Britney dead of overdose” how much surprise would there be in your sadness? And there’s absolutely nothing we can do to change the direction, like a lorry skidding towards the pavement. That’s how I feel about the BL, which has produced some of the best manuscript scholars of the modern period – Frederic Madden, Francis Douce, Frederic Warner, E. M. Thompson, Julian Brown, Francis Wormald, Robin Flower, J. P. Gilson, E. A. Bond, H. C. Coxe, Derek Turner, G. Davis, E. G. Millar, Michelle Brown, Janet Backhouse, and probably others who escape me. I don’t know if any university (including Oxford and Cambridge) could produce a more impressive list of names in this field, but yet the idea of knowledgeable curatorship seems to be not in the least valued there. A friend at the BL told me how surprised the managers are if they discover that the person who knows most about some particular thing is already at the library, rather than being approachable as an external consultant.

Change and decay at the BL

I returned very late last night from a quick trip to the UK which was terrible in almost all respects. I had been invited to a book launch which I wanted to go to, and I thought why not combine that with a necessary trip to the BL to mop up some things which I didn't manage to track down on my quick trip to CUL recently. My aggravations fell into several categories:
a) Forlì airport! terrible buses, no taxis, awful lack of pavements, bus driver not prepared to stop at requested stop, etc etc. Nasty large half-dead beetle in the loos, possibly cockroach.
b) The British Library! All lockers in use; had to queue for ages for cloakroom only to be told that I had the wrong sort of bag for the cloakroom; spent further ages in locker room pouncing embarrassingly on anyone who looked like they were leaving. BL refused to renew my reader's pass with only a passport and a letter of recommendation. Had to get parents to send a registered letter packed with various utility bills to the house of the friend I was staying at. Place rammed with students engaging in social discourse.
c) The British Library again! The next day I managed to get in to the reading rooms, which took ages because the pass issuing place was full of students who are now automatically allowed a reader's pass. Humanities 1 had become full by a quarter to eleven, and the people at the door would only allow me in when I promised I was just consulting open access stuff not hoping to sit and work. There was a higher proportion of undergraduates there than I am used to encountering in the UL. Tons of desks had been left as marked territory while the reader was actually elsewhere, as is the wont of students, and the staff had their hands full telling people off for using highlighters and biros let alone doing anything to do with actual books. (Only pencils are allowed anywhere in the BL now.) Other students sat at their desks texting or conducting low conversations with friends. This is all very well, if still annoying, in a university library, but the BL is not a Higher Education establishment. The manuscripts room was in a terrible state. Ordered things took forever to come because of the pressures of the extra use. I got very little done of what I needed and managed no more than twenty minutes with my manuscript. The staff were frazzled and a tad bad-tempered, if still essentially helpful. At my group of 8 desks there were three students -- in the manuscripts reading room! And when I was issued with my MS, a Special which should only be viewed at certain desks, I couldn't be put at one of those desks because they were all full. (Users in this reserved area included a boy using a biro! I told the staff on him. Really, using a biro at the Special and Illuminated manuscripts desks!) I actually wrote a complaining e-mail to the BL; I don't usually complain about things because it takes up valuable time which I could otherwise spend getting over them, but I felt that the threat to manuscript conservation practices and to the staff's well-being demanded some sort of response.
d) Yet again the British Library! I had a very nice coffee with a friend who works there. Although he generally has a good attitude of laughing at rather than getting wound up by the BL's problems, even he was pretty despairing. There is no longer a curator on duty in the manuscripts reading room! It would be an exaggeration to say that this is the beginning of the end of civilisation, but how much of an exaggeration? I'm not going to blog about it because I find it genuinely alarming and upsetting. Please just believe me that this is a threat to manuscript scholarship.
e) Ryanair again! Terrible much-delayed flight back to god-forsaken Forlì surrounded by Italian schoolkids and, what is worse, their screeching teacher, who sat in the seat next to me alternately yelling at her students to stop doing things and trying to start up school-related chants.

But on the plus side I had a wonderful evening between b) and c). First I went to this book launch, which was the best sort of civilised affair. It was in the Great Hall at Lambeth Palace Library. The archbish. was there -- go archbish.! -- as well as lots of nice friendly people whom I was glad to catch up with. There were manuscripts on display, and the author, who is one of the scholars for whom I have the most respect, gave a good and funny speech. I bumped into the head of BL publications, whom I know from when I worked in the BL MSS dept, and he thanked me for having given a positive review to a book they'd recently done. This disconcerted me quite a lot, because I always think of reviews as existing in a sort of vacuum unrelated to people. I have a policy of not agreeing to review anything for which I don't have more positive to say than negative, but I also feel like you have to say something negative in a review, given that nothing and no one is perfect but God. I was racking my brains to remember what negative thing I had come up with about that excellent book when luckily the publisher mentioned it himself. I turned the subject to whether he thought they could do similar books on related subjects; I suggested one on Caroline minuscule (not just English) and he looked all thoughtful and said someone else had suggested that too. Which is excellent because that is a book I would like, maybe need, to read.

Then I skillfully cut out of the herd an old undergraduate friend and got him to join some of us back at the friend's house where I was staying, and four of us had a curry together with good conversation and an unexpected starter of foie gras served Mexican-style on toasted tortilla wraps.

At the BL I also bumped into an old friend who gave me news of at least one positive BL happening. He's managed to set up a prize for poetry pamphlets, specifically to encourage small presses and starting-out poets who publish in unpretentious little pamphlets rather than shiny slim volumes with Bloodaxe. (Nothing wrong with Bloodaxe, btw.) That seems cool to me. Though he did say that you have to couch everything in the right terms there now; telling the people from the fourth floor (the fourth floor is where the managers live) that you want to talk to poets gets a bad reaction, so you have to say that you want to engage with the creative industries. The idea of poetry as a creative industry seems quite funny to me, given how very financially poor it is. Alas British Library! I feel like Jesus quoting Psalms about enfolding her under his wings like a hen with chicks when he arrived at Jerusalem, not that I have any delusions of grandeur or anything. It's painful to see this great institution going astray. Is knowledge and scholarship supposed to be confined to universities now? Among other things, that will be very bad for academia's already unhealthy ego.

So, in brief: a trip ruined by books and libraries and redeemed by social encounters. Which really doesn't sound like me.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Eurovision thoughts

This ought to be the English entry:

The stage show could have Alison Goldfrapp singing and Will playing the laptop while a man in white went round and round the stage in leaps. Then at the end lots more white-clad men, kids bunny-hopping on bikes, border collies etc could join him, all leaping! It would be the best thing since the E. L. Wisty Festival of the Arts, and a good deal more wholesome, because involving fewer nude ladies in tanks.

And here is a very good song with an odd name by the same French bloke as in my last post. Seriously, how French is this? Very French, that's how.

Here's his myspace page, where you can hear a proper full-length version, which does it more justice than the three-minute video version. Regard the appalling album artwork. And here's a very good remix, with a fan-made video which does at least involve some sportswear.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Eurovision Song Contest good stuff

I was going to post about how crap eBooks are, and I might still write about that later, but then I saw France's entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, which is as it ought to be done, happy and catchy. Hurray!