Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Thomas of Lancaster, Traitor to Saint

Thomas of Lancaster was one of the main political players during the troubled reign of Edward II, leader for a time of the baronial opposition to the king's "tyranny." He even signed a treaty with the Scottish Earl Douglas, offering land and money in exchange for Scottish help in overthrowing Edward. But the king defeated him and executed him for treason.

It was the most sordid kind of medieval politics, no principles to speak of on either side except the pursuit of power and a deep personal hatred. But following another rather common medieval trope, Lancaster became a martyr to his followers, with a collection of miracles and two separate sites of pilgrimage (his tomb and the site of his execution). Now an artifact from the cult of this dubious saint has been dug up in London, this votive plaque. These lead alloy plaques were mass produced for sale to pilgrims, but only fragments had been found before:
In slightly garbled French, the panel is read clockwise from the top left: ‘here I am taken prisoner’; ‘I am judged’; ‘I am under threat’ and lastly ‘la mort’ (death). The Virgin Mary and Christ look down from heaven, ready to receive Lancaster’s soul.
The History Blog has more on the cult of Lancaster:
Notwithstanding his lack of a Church-sanctioned halo, Thomas continued to be revered locally at least until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. His relics were believed to hold specific healing properties — his belt helped women in labour, his hat cured migraines — and a hymn called the Lancaster Suffrage was included as part of the daily prayers in the psalters and Books of Hours of wealthy Lancastrians. Here’s the one from Manuscript 13 (ca. 1330) in the Bridewell Library at Southern Methodist University:

Antiphon: Oh Thomas, Earl of Lancaster,
Jewel and flower of knighthood,
Who in the name of God,
For the sake of the state of England,
Offered yourself to be killed.

Versicle: Pray for us, soldier of Christ.

Response: Who never held the poor worthless.

Collect: Almighty everlasting God, you who wished to honor your holy soldier Thomas of Lancaster through the lamentable palm of the martyr for the peace and state of England just as he is lead through the sacrament for God’s own exceeding glory [and] through your holy miracles. Bestow, we pray, that you grant all faithful venerating him a good journey and life eternal. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
Since both Thomas of Lancaster and the cult of his miserable remains figure in my thus far unpublished historical fantasy about this time, perhaps I should put in one of these votives. Or someone could suggest to a noble lady in labor that she send for his belt.

But maybe "Pray for us, soldier of Christ" is the best bit, and I think I know how to fit that in.

Treating the "Superbug" MRSA with an Anglo-Saxon Remedy

What if some of those strange herbal remedies in medieval medical books really work?
Dr Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon expert from the University of Nottingham has enlisted the help of microbiologists from University’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences to recreate a 10th century potion for eye infections from Bald’s Leechbook, an Old English leatherbound volume in the British Library. . . .

Early results on the ‘potion’, tested in vitro at Nottingham and backed up by mouse model tests at a university in the United States, are, in the words of the US collaborator, “astonishing”. The solution has had remarkable effects on Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) which is one of the most antibiotic-resistant bugs costing modern health services billions. . . .

The recipe calls for two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), wine and oxgall (bile from a cow’s stomach). It describes a very specific method of making the topical solution including the use of a brass vessel to brew it in, a straining to purify it and an instruction to leave the mixture for nine days before use.

The scientists at Nottingham made four separate batches of the remedy using fresh ingredients each time, as well as a control treatment using the same quantity of distilled water and brass sheet to mimic the brewing container but without the vegetable compounds.

University microbiologist, Dr Freya Harrison has led the work in the laboratory at Nottingham with Dr Steve Diggle and Research Associate Dr Aled Roberts. She will present the findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for General Microbiology which starts on Monday 30th March 2015 in Birmingham.

“We thought that Bald’s eyesalve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity,” Dr Harrison comments, “because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab – copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues. But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was. We tested it in difficult conditions too; we let our artificial ‘infections’ grow into dense, mature populations called ‘biofilms’, where the individual cells bunch together and make a sticky coating that makes it hard for antibiotics to reach them. But unlike many modern antibiotics, Bald’s eye salve has the power to breach these defences.”
This set me wondering. Over the course of the twentieth century researchers tested a lot of old folk remedies and generally found them to be ineffective against bacterial infection. But what if they were ineffective in the 20th century because bacteria had evolved resistance to them? What if they actually worked pretty well in the 10th century? And what if contemporary superbugs have, in the course of evolving resistance to our chemical attacks, lost the resistance their ancestors evolved to onion juice and comfrey? Understanding how rapidly bacteria can evolve, it seems to me, opens up all sorts of interesting questions in medical history.

Faces from Ancient Cyprus

Among the many amazing collections of the Metropolitan Museum is the largest collection of ancient Cypriot art outside Cyprus.The collection was amassed by general Luigi Palma di Cesnola, a veteran of the Civil War who became the American consul on Cyprus. The collection is so huge that Cesnola must have spent his whole term (1865-1870) combing the island for statues. He removed the collection to London just in advance of a ban on the export of antiquities, then opened negotiations with several major museums about selling what he had amassed.

He eventually sold the collection to the Met, and they were so impressed by the way he arranged it for display that they hired him to be the Secretary of the museum.

You can now download a wonderful book on the Cesnola collection for free from Met Publications, and I have done so. And now a brief tour of some objects from Cesnola's collection. Figurines from the Bronze Age, 1450 to 1200 BCE.

A gold bowl and a jug, 750 to 600 BCE.

Terracotta head, life-sized, c. 600 BCE.

The best part of Cesnola's collection came from the "excavation" of a temple at Golgoi. Cesnola was a looter even by the standards of the time, so we know next to nothing about the temple except that all of these wonderful statues were found there. (Plus the head at the top of the post.) Above, life-sized figure, c. 525-500 BCE.

Herakles, Golgoi, c. 525. BCE.

Head with wreath, Golgoi, c. 550-525 BCE.

Statue, Golgoi, c. 475-450 BCE.

Sarcophagus, c. 475 BCE.

Sarcophagus, c. 450 BCE.

Statue, c. 350 BCE.

And two gold "spirals," too big for finger rings but not big enough to be bracelets, c. 350 BCE.

Stalemate in Tikrit

Times reporter Rod Norland finally made it to the front lines in Tikrit, and what he found there is a lot less positive for the Iraqi government than reports coming out of Baghdad:
After four weeks of the government offensive the Islamic State’s fighters are more numerous and still hold much more territory here than officials had previously allowed, even with heavy American airstrikes added in.

According to Iraqi military officials and fighters on the ground in Tikrit, ISIS still dominates or controls about 20 square miles of the city, everything from the edge of Tikrit University in the north, to the far end of the New Ouja neighborhood in the south, a distance as much as eight miles north to south. That encompasses most of the populous parts of the city, which generally lie west of the Tigris River; all of its main downtown and business districts; the government quarter and the former palace of Saddam Hussein.
There may be more than 2,000 Islamic State fighters in the city, not the 500 reported in Baghdad, and they still maintain communications with their main bases farther north:
Not only does ISIS still dominate the 20-square-mile area between Tikrit University and Ouja, but the Iraqi military still had not succeeded in taking control of Highway 1 north of Tikrit, between Tikrit and Mosul, where ISIS has its major base in Iraq. The militants in Tikrit have been able to keep using that supply line to the north even though they are surrounded within the city, using tunnels to evade government lines and keep access to the road.
Norland noticed that the guns defending Iraqi army headquarters point in every direction, suggesting that the Iraqis fear hit and run attacks from behind as much as the enemies they are besieging.

The "pause" called by the government forces seems to have given the Islamic State time to regroup and solidify its defenses. Add to this the infighting on the Iraqi side -- some of the Shiite militias said they were dropping out of the campaign after the government asked for American air strikes -- and this could have the makings of a disaster. Relying on air strikes and artillery means the city will be pounded to rubble in any case.

The disaster for Iraq's beleaguered people goes on and on.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Department of Self-Defeating Symbolism

This photograph was captioned
Fireworks go off at the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House to signal the start of the Earth Hour environmental campaign.
Earth Hour, of course, was an event in which people were supposed to turn off their lights for an hour to
raise awareness of the need for sustainable energy use, and this year also to demand action to halt planet-harming climate change.

Lidar Map of El Pilar

Maya city on the border of Belize and Guatemala. You can see from this map what a wonderful tool Lidar is.

Pity the Poor Cat Ladies

I had thought that John Bolton's plan for bombing Iran in perpetuity was going to win this month's Most Appalling Op-Ed hands down, but in my mind it has been ousted by a new entrant: Julia Baird's Stand Up for Your Cats.

Of all the whining, self-pitying, self-justifying crap -- well, let me just quote:
The longstanding, irrational bias against cats stems from archaic views about women. . . . We seem unable to contemplate the thought of a woman enjoying the sweet company of a cat, without assuming it is a hallmark of a sad single existence. The words woman and cat don’t conjure up thoughts of a glamorous fast life, but pajamas, Chinese takeout, bowls of Ben & Jerry’s, couches and DVDs.

A man and his dog, on the other hand, are icons of independence, freedom and adventure. . . .

Cat men and women, we have the numbers. There are now roughly 95.6 million cats in America, compared to 83.3 million dogs.

We also have science on our side. Studies have shown that cat owners are less likely than those who have never owned a cat to die of cardiovascular disease. Researchers from Miami University and Saint Louis University found “pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extroverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.” Less lonely, happier, fitter. Pets don’t indicate mental illness; they seem to aid in recovery from it.
OH MY GOD WE ARE SO OPPRESSED BY STEREOTYPES OF CAT LADIES!!! This is an outrage! We need marches in the street! Call the ACLU! Call the Justice Department! Write the President!

Can I just say that knowing a woman owns a cat does not make me think anything special about her at all. (Or two, or three. Owning twenty cats, yes -- but have you even met anyone who owned twenty cats and was not crazy? That isn't stereotyping, it's simple self-preservation.) I know that I am not supposed to be able to think this, because "we" -- whoever we are -- cannot do this. No, "we" cannot imagine a woman with a cat without thinking she is sad and lonely.

I protest. Most of the women I know, single or married, own cats, so I don't know where I would have gotten the idea that cat owners are all miserable spinsters. But what does make me think that a woman is lonely and desperate and crazy is writing this sort of self-pitying screed for a major publication, exposing her insecurity for the whole world to see. Why do so many people need to attribute hostile thoughts to some vague mass of people out there -- often denoted as "society," as in, "society says" --  and then proclaim that this wholly imaginary belief held by wholly imaginary people is false? False I tell you! Malicious slander! How could you say that about me?

I didn't, and neither did anyone else. You made it up. The problem here isn't "we", it is "you," and you should get over it.

Julia Baird's ridiculous essay on cat lady oppression is not important -- it is silly, and will be forgotten tomorrow. But this tendency of attributing our self criticism to the whole of humanity -- "people say" -- is important and dangerous. I suppose many single women with cats have at some point been teased about being crazy cat ladies. So? Lots of people are jerks, and they either enjoy probing for weaknesses with teasing remarks or just find themselves very amusing. They no more stand for all of humanity than you do. That somebody, once or twice, said something mean to you does not mean that the whole world secretly harbors this deep prejudice against you and your kind, against which you must fight. And even if they did, why do you care? I've been called a pedant, a bore, and an obnoxious know-it-all since I was about six years old, and it hasn't changed me one bit.

Stop inventing imaginary enemies. And if you have real ones, ignore them and get on with living your life the way you want to.

Marriage, Straight and Gay

Andrew Cherlin detects a "truce" in the culture war over the family, with conservatives admitting that economic changes have been bad for working families and liberals accepting that marriage is important. Part of the reason for the liberal shift, says Cherlin, is the movement for gay marriage:
Liberals now seem to acknowledge the downsides of the retreat from marriage. A report on strengthening families that was released in January by the liberal Center for American Progress recommended not only economic assistance but also social support, such as couples’ counseling services and visits by specially trained nurses and other professionals to the parents of young children.

The growth of legal same-sex marriage has made it possible for liberals to endorse the importance of marriage without feeling that they have abandoned their commitment to equality. . . . Far from undermining heterosexual marriage, as its opponents warned, same-sex marriage has broadened support for marriage beyond its conservative base.
It's a bit bizarre to say that in America marriage ever had only a limited base of "support"  -- all the hippies I know eventually got married. But I think it is true that American progressives are now more full-throated in support of marriage than they were 25 years ago. I suspect, as Cherlin says, that this is  partly because of gay marriage; these days you can be pro-marriage and against the Southern Baptists at the same time. But I think it is also partly because of the rise of a new model of marriage in the middle class, more symmetrical than older models and therefore less troublesome to the left, and partly because marriage is now a choice rather than something people are forced into by social or economic pressure.

Bird Singing Contest in Thailand

Photo by Madaree Tohlala, AFP.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Jineta Sword from Islamic Spain, 15th c

Length, 96 cm (38 inches). According to the Met, jineta is a word used at the time for these very elaborate swords whose exact meaning is unknown.

Hilt is gilt silver and enamel.

Scabbard is wood, leather, silver gilt and enamel. From Al Andalus, the Art of Islamic Spain, one of the free books you can download from the Met's web site.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

In the World of the Strange

I give you Kim Kierkegaardashian, a mash-up of Kim Kardashian tweets with quotes from Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard:

Romance is Dead

So first there was Malificent, in which true love turned out to be a mother's for her daughter, and I finally just saw Frozen, in which true love turned out to be between sisters, and now I'm wondering, is this just two Disney movies or is there something important happening in the culture?

The Generalist

I am not a donkey, and I do not have a "field."

--Max Weber

The Lonely Sail

The lonely sail in the distance
Vanished at last beyond the blue sky
And I could see only the river
Flowing along the border of heaven.

--Li Po

Burning the Ulster Memorial

The Londonderry/Derry memorial to the victims of the troubles, which I wrote about here, was burned as planned on March 21:
By the end of last week more than 60,000 people in this city of 108,000 had come to the temple and left their messages. “For a united Derry,” pleaded one. “For the sake of our children,” read another. There were grainy photographs, a ponytail of human hair, a knitted baby hat and at least two vessels with ashes of loved ones. A postcard quoting the poet Seamus Heaney, raised nearby, wished for life “on the far side of revenge.”

Friday, March 27, 2015

Van Gogh: The Drawings

The Met has put more than 400 out of print publications on their web site for free download -- which really sort of blows me away. Just last night I downloaded about $500 worth of glossy art books. And promptly got rid of half of them since the quality of the scans is not consistent. But the best ones are amazing. Among these is Van Gogh: the Drawings, the catalog of a 2005 show.

Two different styles are represented. These earlier, more conventional drawings. And then more impressionistic drawings that resemble his mature paintings. I love them both.

Net Domestic Migration, 2013-2014

The latest from the Census Bureau, tracking changes over the past two years. It's a big file so you can click on it for a closer look.

Some trends continue: people are moving to urban and suburban areas in the south and west and leaving rural areas except the ones with lots of fracking. (Five of the fifteen fastest growing counties, by percentage, are in North Dakota.) The northeast is losing people, except along the coastal strip from Cape Cod to Mt. Desert Isle in Maine. Some ares that show up as net losers on this graph are actually gaining people (e.g., Los Angeles County) because they are attracting so many foreign immigrants; but people born in Los Angeles and Queens are leaving at a steady pace.

Where people are moving is not determined very much by salaries: the two states with the highest household incomes, Connecticut and Maryland, are losing people to poorer states like Texas and South Carolina. Housing costs and warm weather trump income.

I am struck by two belts of red: the drier parts of the great plains, and the old black belt stretching from the Mississippi Delta to the Carolina coast. Those areas have been losing people for decades, but the outflows continue.


Here's the map showing total population change, including domestic movement, immigration, and births and deaths.

US Policy in the Middle East

As the Obama administration tries to
1) drive the Islamic State out of Iraq, with Iranian help;
2) keep Iran from building a bomb;
3) end the Syrian civil war without either the Assad regime or the Islamic State ending up on top;
4) preserve Israel's security without writing off the Palestinians;
5) limit the export of terrorism to the west;
6) support the democratic aspirations of the urban middle class in Egypt, Tunisia,and other places; and now
7) help the Saudis defeat an Iranian-backed rebel group in Yemen and put what we regard as the legitimate government back in charge
a lot of people are asking whether this makes sense.
Making sense of the Obama administration’s patchwork of policies “is a puzzle,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and former senior State Department official.
Personally I fail to see the point of several recent American actions, such as supporting the military coup against Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, or continuing to insist that there are “moderate elements” in Syria who could somehow prevail against both the government and the Sunni radicals. But I am very skeptical that the U.S. could have some strong, coherent, sensible policy that would either make sense or help people in the region. For a look at a different kind of thinking, take a glance at the Op-ed by John Bolton the Times ran the other day, arguing that the US should bomb Iran now and bomb it again every three or four years in perpetuity. “The logic is straightforward,” he says, that Iran cannot be trusted, that unless stopped it will get a bomb, and that a nuclear Iran would be some kind of disaster for the Middle East. (The actual disaster for the Middle East has been John Bolton and his ilk, with their mad attempt to square all of these circles by invading Iraq, but that's water under the bridge by now.)

For decades our Middle East policy was built around supporting autocratic thugs who kept the oil flowing and insured “stability.” But then the Shah of Iran was overthrown, Lebanon erupted into civil war, the Palestinians launched the intifada, and in more and more other places the people were increasingly frustrated by corruption, economic stagnation, and authoritarian police states. After 9-11, Bush and his people decided that something dramatic had to be done to revolutionize the region, hence our invasion of Iraq.

But the descent of Iraq into civil war, followed by the failure of Egypt's experiment with democracy, means we are now pretty much back where we started in 2001. Outside Tunisia, Arab democracy has been fatally weakened by lack of elite support, sectarian rivalries, and a deep, deep division within Arab society over the proper role of Islam and the proper attitude toward western-style modernity. The whole point of Bush's policy was to create successful states that would control terrorism at its source, but instead we have created chaos that allows terrorists to thrive.

I am not awed by Obama's handling of any of this. But at least he has never thought that the U.S. could solve all these problems by some bold, vigorous strategy pursued to the end. I do not believe it is in the power of Americans to solve any of these problems, certainly not by bombing cities to ruins and jailing the whole male population of recalcitrant communities. And I certainly do not believe that having a logical, coherent strategy is the be-all or end-all of foreign policy.

Sometimes the best we can do is respond to events as they come up, and stop reaching for grand solutions.

Sibyl and the Prophet

Terracotta bookends by Antonio Schiassi, 1768. From the Huntingdon Library's Tumblr.


Joshua Gibbs imagines the world as it looked to Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome:
Your numbers are dwindling. Your side is losing. Your way of life is passing from this Earth. In bygone eras, your people transmitted your ideals from one generation to the next with ease. Now, you plant a teaching in the heart of your children, and all the world conspires to strip it out before it can take root. The gravity of this world now inclines away from you. When you set the things you love on the ground, they roll away from you like marbles in an uneven house. When you become tired in the evening and your eyelids lower, contrary forces rise to undo all you have accomplished in the day. Your constant worry is how to conserve the good things your people struggled for centuries to obtain, how to keep the gold that flowed toward your kind (mankind, really) in those sane years when your star was on the ascent. Now, that star has begun a scythe-like sweep toward the horizon and you fear that, when it passes from the heavens, it may pass forever. The conundrum is how to spend these years— these years when there is but a little light left, a little beauty, a few statues which remain unsmashed, a few drops of perfume to drive the stench of death and vulgarity away. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Civil War in Yemen

Yesterday the Saudi air force bombed Yemen, destroying (they said) they Yemeni air force. The Yemeni air  force had gone over to the side of the Houthis, the mainly Shiite militias that recently overran the capital and declared themselves the government. The land they dominate is shown in green above. The Saudis are supporting a different set of militias, the Hadis, whose lands are shown in pink. Each side is led by a recent President of the country.

I was struck by how much the map of the current war looks like the old map of North and South Yemen. That division goes back at least to a 1905 agreement between the British and the Ottomans diving Yemen into rival spheres of influence. The two Yemens merged in 1990; the main force behind the unification was a sense that the old division had been imposed by colonial powers on a single people. But actually the Yemenis have never been united; neither the British nor the Ottomans had much control over the sheikhs who dominated remote parts of the country.

I can't seem to find out how this corresponds to religious divisions. The articles I have read about Yemen's history before the 1960s all discuss the division in terms of various tribes and sheikhs and say nothing about Sunnis vs. Shiites. Which is interesting in itself.

But, anyway, things don't look good for Yemen. If the Saudis and Iran step up their support for their allies in the country we could see another major civil war dragging on for years, providing yet more opportunities for al Qaeda and the Islamic State to seize territory or just foment their plans with impunity.

Crossbow Out of the Ground

The crossbow from the burial pit of the terra cotta army I wrote about last week, out of the ground and cleaned up.

Cave Tombs of Talayotic Minorca

The Talayotic culture of Bronze Age Minorca left a fascinating legacy in megalithic architecture, including tombs. But after about 1000 BCE they left off building stone tombs and began to bury their dead in natural caves. Some of these caves were only rediscovered in recent years, and their archaeology has been spectacular. These hard-to-reach caves held corpses so well preserved that their hair styles can be determined, and many artifacts of wood, leather and fiber survived in the dry cave environments. These remains allow us to reconstruct the burial rituals in some detail. Among the most famous objects from these burials are a group of wooden idols from la Cova des Mussol, a sea cave in a cliff face. Two are of horned humans, inviting comparison with the famous horned gods of Celtic myth.

Here is another from the same cave.

The bodies were wrapped in shrouds of cloth or leather. Plants of various kinds were much used in these rituals:
some of the corpses had bunches of plants, flowers or fruits (figs, blackberries) between the arms that were placed on bedding plants, such as cereals, wild olive, rosemary, margarita, celandine, and asphodel. 
Ritual deposit in la Cova des Carritx. The round copper thing in the center is a cap placed over the open end of a cattle horn; several of these were found, and the horns all proved to contain human hair. One theory is that the hair was shorn in initiation rituals. Getting into some these caves was a challenge even for people with modern climbing equipment, so they made good places for impressive rituals.

The hair of some corpses was elaborately prepared: dyed red, plaited with flowers, infused with fragrant resins, sometimes steeped in mud and then (presumably) sculpted into complex shapes. above, part of the waist-length braid on one woman from the Cova de Pas.

Since hair was so important, of course combs have also been found. This is the most famous, a bat-shaped boxwood comb from the Cova des Carritx.

Boxwood bowl and spatula, perhaps also used in the preparation of corpses.

Bronze mirror from Cova del Mussol, c. 800 BCE.

Hundreds of bodies have been found in the caves, and study of the human remains has hardly begun. As well preserved as they are, though ought to yield a ton of data about the people of the island.

Sometimes when I think about the immensity of the time that has passed since the Bronze Age, I am awed by how much we are able to learn about people who lived so long ago. We are not limited to knowledge of the people around us and the fragile memories passed down through generations; nor to what is written in the few books in some monastic library. Our knowledge of the human past encompasses thousands of distinct societies and stretches back to the origin of our species and beyond. I, at least, find this to be one of the greatest marvels of our marvelous age.

UPDATE: Analysis of hair from these caves has produced evidence of atropine, scopalamine, and ephedrine, drugs that induce from delirium and likely came from plants of the nightshade family. That adds another element to the picture of strange rituals carried out in these caves.