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Whichever Spaniard first coined that proverb really had no idea. I am busy with at least three devils, with the potential for more depending on how you count them. Although Beowulf is an aglæca rather than a feond. Not that either word has a specific meaning which can be pinned to the paper. The term aglæca applies to Grendel as well as Beowulf; does it mean monster, or hero, or something in between? Does it refer to ferocity? Does the application to Beowulf make him monstrous? The application to Grendel make him heroic? Robinson once got irritated at this conversation, stating that the word meant something like ‘troubler, vexer’.1

At this point I want the adjective applied to the poem Beowulf. It is certainly vexing, troubling- and monstrous. Writing a commentary on only a handful of lines I already want to borrow Unferth’s sword and hack away at the sodding thing. I cannot imagine the heart-strength and mind-ferocity that it takes scholars to spend their careers studying this impressive piece of verse.

At some point I lost track of what I was supposed to be talking about. Oh! Why I am behind on blogging. The reason is simple: I am busy. All those devils which trouble me, the chief of whom is not named Beowulf, but ‘procrastination.’ A lot less heroic, that one. So while we wait for me to have some spare time:

Those of you with some northern European language skills may like to try your hands at this runic puzzle over at the Omniglot blog. I have not studied runes enough to be able to tell, offhand, the difference between the Elder and Younger Futharks, let alone transcribe or translate from them. Worse, I suspect that this may well be Tolkein’s Cirth runic system. Anyone want a challenge?

Evan Dahm, creator of the brilliant webcomics Rice Boy and Order of Tales, has commented on his tumblr that he would love to do a comic biography set in our period:

I’d like to do something (though it would probably be more historical fiction than biography) about a monk during the Byzantine Iconoclasm, or about a viking living in the midst of Scandinavia’s conversion to Christianity, or about someone during the Reconquista in Spain. These are all ideas I’ve worked on a bit but don’t have time for! I’m really interested in how individuals cope with these big cultural paradigm shifts, and I’m interested in religion, as a complete outsider to it.

While his work-to-date is psychedelic fantasy rather than historical fiction, I know that Dahm would more than merely do these ideas credit: his take on these would be incredible. A number of medieval themes are discernable in his work; the fall and inheritance of empire, the weakening grasp of ancient, isolationist powers, the problems of religious power.2 The Iconoclasm is a topic I would particularly like to see rendered in comic form; a text-as-images discussing the forbidding of religious imagery during the wounded trashings of an empire being pounded from without? Yes please. Dahm is a dab hand at allowing silent images form scenes (spoiler) in his comic work. He could do amazing things.

I wish I had more time and energy to devote to discussing this. In the meantime, what piece of history would you like to see rendered in comic form?

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I spent the past few hours trawling around linguistic and language blogs, the result of which means that I am all excited about studying my dead languages some more. Given that I have two Beowulf papers to write and a paper on the Völsungasaga to edit, I would say that this is awful convenient. Sort of. In the sense that inspiration is convenient; not in the sense that spending two hours roaming the blogosphere and wasting time is a wise plan.

To start, a year-old post at Living Languages discusses the growth of Modern Irish teaching in the United States. Apparently a New York radio station has a weekly broadcast in learning the language, while a growing number of universities offer courses. Neat. It ought to be noted that the University of Sydney offers a brand-new course in the language in our Celtic Studies Department.


On the subject of language learning, Confessions of a Language Addict raises an interesting question. Discussing conlangs such as Tolkein’s elvishes and the Na’vi language from Avatar, he points out that many language-learning tools are heavy on grammar and vocabulary and light on fun. This is especially problematic for conlangs, which only exist to be learned for fun. (Or because you are a crazy person.) On the other hand, the Na’vi language site features a fun (apparently) little workbook with crossword puzzles and the like.

It made me pause. I have at least begun to learn Latin, Old English, Old Norse, and Old Irish. Of these, Latin had the most available resources for obvious reasons, being commonly taught at university and even in some few Australian high schools. This latter means that Latin crossword puzzles, ridiculous cartoons, and silly adventures are available for translation. The first Latin text I encountered was the simplified version of Plautus’ Aulularia (an hilarious slapstick comedy) in Jones & Sidwell’s Reading Latin. For the other medieval languages, the work was much more serious, focused on translation of progressively more difficult texts.

I actually prefer to learn my languages this way. I enjoy slowly translating, becoming faster as the grammar becomes natural and the more common vocabulary starts to sink into the mossy bog which is my brain. I wonder if it would be difficult to come up with methods that are less… I’m not sure. Less focused, I suppose. Especially for Old Irish, which is extraordinarily difficult.

How do you prefer to learn languages (whether living, dead, or reviving)?


Finally, I offer a poem from the High Plains Drifter:

Hringas þríe       þéodnum Ælfa,
allra ældestum,     ofer eormengrunde.
Hringas seofun     innan sele stænnum
Dwergdryhtnum.     Derc heara hús.
Hringas nigon     néote Moncynn,
hláfordas méra     mégas déaðfæge.
Heolstres Hearra     hring ánne weardað
in dryhtsele dimmum     on dercan þrymmsetle
þér licgað scedwa     in londe Mordores.
Hring án gewalde,     hring án gefinde,
hring án gebringe,     hring án gebinde
þéoda swá þéowas     in þéostrum tógedere
þér licgað scedwa     in londe Mordores.

Some readers may recognise a Modern English form of this poem from Professor Tolkien’s translation of the Red Book of Westmarch. This version was found on the manuscript known as St. John’s College Library, Cambridge, MS. B 971. A MnE translation and commentary on the poem can be found here.

Catullus 13

Cenabis bene, mi Fabulle, apud me
paucis, si tibi di favent, diebus,
si tecum attuleris bonam atque magnam
cenam, non sine candida puella
et vino et sale et omnibus cachinnis.
haec si, inquam, attuleris, venuste noster,
cenabis bene; nam tui Catulli
plenus sacculus est aranearum.
sed contra accipies meros amores
seu quid suavius elegantiusve est:
nam unguentum dabo, quod meae puellae
donarunt Veneres Cupidinesque,
quod tu cum olfacies, deos rogabis,
totum ut te faciant, Fabulle, nasum.

-Gaius Valerius Catullus

An Invitation to Dinner

You will dine well, O my Fabullus, at my home
in a few days, if the gods favour you,
if you bring with you a good and big
dinner- be not without a pretty girl
and wine and all kinds of laughter.

I say if you have brought these things, my charming one,
you will dine well; for the purse of your Catullus
is full of cobwebs.

But in return you will receive pure loves
or something that is sweeter or more excellent:
for I will give perfume, which Venuses and Cupids
did give to my girl,
which when you smell, you will ask the gods,
O Fabullus, to make you all nose.


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Becoming Charlemagne

I am a terrible person, you know. Jeff Sypeck sent me a copy of his book some time in 2008, in return for a donation to the Paralyzed Veterans of America. I was happy to do so, because I am pretty fond of disabled people getting better care, and also because it meant that I received a copy of an excellent book about one of my favourite medieval figures. At the time, I promised that I would review the book. It took me over a year to get around to it, and this is a repost of that review.

Becoming Charlemagne (2006) narrates in vivid detail the events that led a Germanic barbarian king to become Charlemagne, a name now associated with the idea of a greater Europe, the Holy Roman Empire -a term Karl would have never heard- and tainted by Hitlerian pseudo-history. It is not a complete biography of the man, and I think Sypeck did the right thing by focusing on the handful of years surrounding the coronation and constructing an image of the era in as much detail as possible.

The book is split in two parts; the first half details the setting, the empires and peoples of the late 8thC. There is one chapter on each of Aachen, Byzantium, Alcuin,1 Baghdad, and European Jews. The second draws together narrative threads from the first to construct the events which help define the next millenium or so of European history. The first half of Becoming Charlemagne is the most fascinating to me- I have studied Charlemagne before, and the details of his accession to imperator do not intrigue me nearly as much as the Sypeck’s portrayal of the powers of the time. Your mileage may vary.

As a general rule, this is most unusual for me. The kind of history I prefer to read is the dry, dull stuff so derided by generations of bored schoolchildren. I like political history, the careful analysis of sources, and king-names (even if I can never remember them). Then again, I enjoy etymology.2 Sypeck doesn’t write this kind of history, although his love affair with the oft-ambiguous source is clear in his notes and his attention to detail.

What Sypeck writes is more narrative, more flavoured with real people, real consequences, real emotions. He describes the medieval world in taste and scent as much as in political movement. One can imagine the riotous marketplaces of Baghdad, the mud-splattered contempt of Greek emissaries to the pathetic German capital of Aachen, the exhaustion of Isaac as he leads the elephant Abul Abaz across the entire world.3 The court of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid is described in terms which make me wish a West Wing-style television drama would be set therein:

When duty called [Harun] rode into battle or made the pilgrimage to Mecca; otherwise, he quietly enjoyed his world of earthly delights. He delighted in the company of his pious and wealthy cousin Zubayda, who was also his favourite wife and the mother of his heir apparent. His friends all came to him, among them the physician Jubrail bin Bakhtishu, who dined with him nightly, and Ibn Abi Maryam al-Madani, a storyteller and legal expert who lazed around the palace and haunted the harem.

These kind of details brings a level of detail to the political and social changes rippling across Europe a clarity and a narrative power exactly as required in popular history. Sypeck does an excellent job.

He is careful not to get carried away and ascribe as historical fact things which his imagination has conjured, but sometimes these things are some potent images. The events leading to King Karl becoming Karolus serenissimus Augustus are exciting and bloody, and would make for wealth-making film. After the famous botched blinding attack on Pope Leo, the pontiff escapes over a wall, perhaps lowered by his chamberlain. Sypeck speculates about details which medieval chroniclers would never give us:4

Albinus the chamberlain sneaking along a cloister in the dark or bribing a guard to look the other way; the pope, accustomed to fine robes and flattery, being lowered over the wall like a latrine bucket; and the furious Paschalius and Campulus [the conspirators] berating their flunkies at daybreak while wondering, with growing desperation, what in God’s name they were going to do next.

Screw the latest cartoon series from the 80s, Hollywood. Write me a movie about that.

[An aside: I have long bemoaned the loss of the Frankish epics and grammars to history, despite Charlemagne’s attempt to preserve them. Yet who could not grin at Sypeck’s note that “the monks who collected the old pagan songs probably had to extract them from weird old coots”?]

If I must, as I always do, bring up a note of discord in Becoming Charlemagne, it is this: there is so little about the women. Women are near-invisible in much medieval history, and Sypeck is hardly to be blamed for that. Indeed, if only because of Empress Irene of Byzantium, he includes more than some writers of medieval history do. Yet aside from noting that Karl loved his daughters, and turned a blind eye to their affairs, there is little about the women in this world. Is this caused by lack of evidence? Probably.

Yet when speaking of Irene, the impressively fierce empress who blinded her own son to ensure her rise to power, Sypeck falls back on stereotypically gendered language. This is irksome. She is described as ‘brooding’ over her fragile reign with ‘motherly zeal’. Seriously? Motherly zeal? This woman had her own son blinded. ‘Motherly’, whatever that means, is the absolute last word I would use to describe her. When describing the moment of her son’s butchering, he wonders if she prayed for a moment for Heaven to help for the way she is.

I find it difficult to believe that he would write such words into the mouth of any fierce, male usurper. Why write them into the mouth of a fierce, female usurper? Irene is one of the powerful women of the whole period, and she would surely not brook such disrespect.

On the subjects of Becoming Charlemagne, on the rise of Karl to become Charlemagne, on the intricate and fragile international state of Aachen-Rome-Constantinople-Baghdad, and on the eventual collapse of the empire, Sypeck writes with careful attention to detail and -to mix metaphors- paints an intricate picture of medieval Europe as the western half of the continent changes into something new.

I recommend Becoming Charlemagne as an good, solid starting point. It is a good book to start reading about Charlemagne, and his time, and the middle years of the early middle ages. It is a good book to get some personal details about peoples and lands. High schoolers and undergraduates in history who don’t know very much will alike find it a good place to start on the ninth century- as will anyone who gets their learnin’ about the middle ages from the movies.

Jeff Sypeck blogs about matters medieval, gargoyles grotesque, and applied paleobromatology over at Quid Plura?, one of the more consistently interesting blogs in the medieval blagocube.

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I am a little busy today, so how about some unfiltered internet? Straight from my browser to your eyes.

May 2010
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