Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Under the skin

There's rather tough review of Simon Swain's Seeing the Face, Seeing the Soul:
Polemon’s “Physiognomy” from classical antiquity to medieval Islam in this week's TLS. I'm very much looking forward to reading this - and I'm keen to see whether I agree with M. F. Burnyeat's comments.

My own contact with theories of physiognomy is fairly limited. Like everyone else who decided to look at science and natural philosophy in Chaucer while an undergraduate, Walter Clyde Curry's Chaucer and the Medieval Sciences (now quite dated but an important book nonetheless I think) was the first book that jumped out at me from the library shelf (actually it was the second, but I decided, wisely, that Lynn Thorndike's multi-volume A History of Magic and Experimental Science would take rather more than an afternoon's work; it's an overwhelming study that still defeats my mental stamina). Curry's book focuses on the physical descriptions of characters in the General Prologue, and the physiognomical implications of each. It is really a very entertaining read - and it's hard not to start to see physiognomical description everywhere once you become interested in it. I dread to think what my out-of-shape body says about me... perhaps a trip to the gym will give me better character.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Against War: Some Counsel from The Tale of Melibee

(Erm... my third post today. You'd know I'm in the middle of writing a chapter and am hungry for distraction!)

I'm rereading Chaucer's Tale of Melibee at the moment, and came across a little gem I had forgotten. The last time I read it I was paying very close attention to what Prudence, Melibee's wife, had to say. This time another piece of counsel stood out for me, that of "oon of thise olde wise" who advises that there are many who call for war, and know nothing of what it really entails:

"Lordynges," quod he, "ther is ful many a man that crieth 'Werre, werre! that woot ful litel what werre amounteth. Werre at his bigynyng hath so greet an entryng and so large that every wight may entre whan hym liketh and lightly fynde werre; but certes what ende that shal thereof bifalle, it is nat light to knowe. For soothly, whan that werre is ones bigonne, ther is ful many a child unborn of his mooder that shal sterve yong by cause of thilke werre, or elles lyve in sorwe and dye in wrecchednesse..."

This is a passage full of wisdom to my mind. How many children unborn today will suffer because of the wars we are fighting at this moment? It is a disturbing reminder that there are consequences to our actions.

This is by no means the only view on war in The Tale of Melibee, but to my mind it is the most sensible. The untold consequences of war are as big a concern today as they were in the Middle Ages. Let's hope our leaders listen to the right advice.

Nuala O'Faolain

I was going to post a quick note on Nuala O'Faolain's passing - instead I think I'll direct you to this post by Miglior Acque. It says everything I would have wanted to say.

Dan Chiasson

It's not often I get really excited about a poem - I love poems that feel familiar at first, and then turn to strangeness. I want them to coax me away from my comfort zone. This poem, Where's the Moon, There's the Moon (A Story for Children) by Dan Chiasson is one such piece. It's long enough (from previous posts you might notice I normally like poetry to be bite-sized), but I think it needs it.

I'll need to read this poem again and again. It's full of half familiar images - images that seem to come from other poems, images that might be half-remembered too. The opening stanza is almost Dantean, by the third I was thinking of Kavanagh's A Christmas Childhood. So what's the poem about? Memory, perhaps, or bits of memory; who knows...

Sometimes it could almost be a response to other poems, to other genres even. These lines sound to me like the other half of an aubade, the half we never hear, in which the forces of nature that force lovers up from their beds finally reply to whichever lover-poet is cursing them that morning:

but I am proud of him as was his master-keeper proud
of him, this noble, endless line of moonkeepers
who hang the light that lights the moon and take it down
every morning, meaning that it is morning, get up,
that’s not a pie plate over there in the east,
sleepyheads, lovers climb down off of your beloveds;
But I've only read this poem twice; so I'm off to read it again, and see what else I can find. I think I'll be keeping an eye on Dan Chiasson.

Monday, 12 May 2008

More Science and Art!

Well, just a day or two since I last posted on this topic, and now the Guardian throws more science / art interdisciplinarity at us. This post on science in poetry is certainly a very welcome discussion, and its nice to see the cosmological focus of Dante (and indeed many other medieval poets) getting a mention.

I'm a little puzzled by many of the poems which are actually posted, however, and have to say I was most intrigued by the genome illustration (or representation I suppose) at the top of the page. It reminds me of the long rolls that fed some old self-playing pianos - the music of life?

Friday, 9 May 2008

I can't get no.... light refraction...

As a 'science and the arts' type person (sort of, for the moment I'm going to allow myself to include medieval science/ natural philosophy into the argument) I feel obliged to direct you to this post on the Guardian website. Readers discuss their favourite science songs. Any medieval songs about science out there?...

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Doctors in The Tudors

I recently started watching The Tudors. It is a show I find thoroughly entertaining. I don't expect my entertainment to be historically accurate (too often fiction is made dull by being a slave to the authentic) and I like glossy American dramas. It's like watching an early modern Dallas.

I've just watched episode four (season one). It contains a scene in which Henry needs to be bled following a seizure. Yet again, like so many other renderings, the premodern doctors are shown in the background mumbling to one another nervously. They grovellingly enquire whether the king gives his permission to be bled. A bowl is placed under his arm, a strap is tied around his upper arm, and he is bled using a surprisingly clean looking knife.

It's led me to wonder where this image of early modern doctors came from. It's certainly a familiar one from literature; think of Moliere's Le Malade Imaginaire. I'm sure there are many more examples. What strikes me as interesting is the nervousness of the doctor as seen in these imaginings. They are often self-serving, inexpert showmen.

Does this reflect reality I wonder? Moliere can write about doctors as he does because he has no faith in their expertise. Modern imaginings of early modern and medieval doctors will share a disbelief in their Galenic medicine. But surely in eras when such medicine was trusted, or at least was the only option (leaving 'folk remedies' aside for a moment), it's doctors may have, in fact, had a more self assured manner? A project for a time-traveller perhaps; bedside manners throughout the ages...

Tuesday, 6 May 2008


I've got a post on allegory on the way. But first, I was very amused by this comic strip. Hopefully I'll get on to the allegory tomorrow.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Misogynistic Lyrics

Apologies for the slight obsession with posting lyrics of late. It's simply that I have a couple of books of lyrics in my bag at the moment and it's been years since I've looked at them properly. They seem like perfect material for a blog-post; short, sweet and usually focussed enough for a brief but not over-complex discussion. Here's today's lyric (again from Luria and Hoffman):

A yong wyf and an harvest-gos,
Moche gagil with bothe;
A man that hath them in his clos,
Reste schal he wrothe.

I must (with shame) admit a certain affection for lyrics of the misogynistic variety. Lyrics against women, like the above, seem very human (or very male?). They communicate a very domestic sort of sexism. I wrote a little once on the use of Latin in bi-lingual texts to exclude women (lyrics of the Cuius contrarium verum est variety), and again found myself much more amused than perhaps I should have been.

So why do I find myself enjoying these poems so much? Am I a closet sexist? I think perhaps these lyrics contain something more than what we now call sexism. They sound like private complaints, like the basic humour of the changing room. In these lyrics you hear men speaking to one another, and of course complaining about women. Men's complaints about women have not disappeared - but a major source of modern comedy tends to be women's complaints against men (think of What Women Want). There are plenty of complaints against men in medieval literature, but I am yet to find one which is funny. Perhaps the reason is this; humour stems from experience, indeed from shared experience, and medieval complaints against men are rarely written by men, but rather are the imagined female complaints of male writers.

So my hunt begins, are there any funny medieval complaints against men? Have I over-looked anything obvious (apart from the Wife of Bath)?

Friday, 2 May 2008

Lyric for the day that's in it

It's a beautiful sunny day, and I feel I need to post a lyric to match it. Spring brings happiness and love, and this short (fourteenth century?) lyric says a lot about the way we all feel in the summertime when the weather is fine. It's nice to know the good weather has always put people in a loving mood! This is another lyric from Luria and Hoffman:

Of everykune tree,
Of everykune tree,
The hawethorn blowet swotes
Of everykune tree.

My lemmon she shall be,
My lemmon she shall be,
the fairest of erthkinne,
My lemmon she shall be.