Archive for the ‘Medieval History’ Category

A Fuller Understanding

December 21, 2013

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“Ere, Fred, pass me the fuller; I think this ‘un needs a fuller fuller!”

A few weeks ago I received this interesting comment on my article about the so-called ‘blood groove’ on blades. Thank you to Charles for this, and for pointing out that the term derived from the tool used to create it, something that I was aware of but did not comment upon as the thrust (ha) of my article was more the concept of the blood groove than the term itself. However, I want to react by explaining why that fact in itself does not by any means make ‘fuller’ incorrect. It’s an odd quirk of language that the word now refers to both tool and its product, but that’s just the way things have worked out. In fact, it is the dictionary definition of a groove made by the tool of the same name. Standard dictionary definitions aren’t enough, however, as technical language is distinct from colloquial speech. ‘Blood groove’ does appear in dictionaries, but it’s not technically correct. However, technical dictionary entries from 1848, 1855 and 1868 show that ‘fuller’ was in use at least that far back. Importantly, it is also the preferred term used within the relevant field of study; that of arms and armour. Non-academic specialists also favour the term. It’s worth noting also that even the word ‘fuller’ to describe the tool is only attested from 1864. So whilst it must assuredly have come first as Charles suggests, we don’t actually know that ‘fuller’ was a pre-modern term for the type of hammer used to create the groove. Even if it was, it may not have been long before people were describing a fullered blade as possessing a ‘fuller’.

Ideally speaking, technical words would remain fixed in their meaning, but this ignores the reality of language, in which even technical meanings drift. Charles uses the term ‘flat iron’ as an example to show that the tool is not its product, but just because this as a phrase did not lend itself to that adaptation does not mean that other words didn’t drift like ‘fuller’. The very obvious rebuttal is the jigsaw, originally the type of saw used to create it. Yes, its fuller (ha) name is ‘jigsaw puzzle’, but just plain ‘jigsaw’ has been in currency for over a century and makes no more logical sense than ‘fuller’. This example might suggest that we are missing an intermediate stage for ‘fuller’ too, something like ‘fuller groove’, contracted to simply ‘fuller’ just as ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has become simple ‘jigsaw’. Another example is ‘brand’ to refer to both the hot iron tool used to mark cattle, and the distinctive mark that it creates on the animal. There’s also ‘bulino’, a form of Italian punched decoration named directly after the tool used to create it. Similarly, ‘scrimshaw’ was originally the act of carving bone or tooth, but for a long time  now has also described the carved object itself. There’s even an equivalent from the arms & armour world, in the the word ‘rifle’, which was originally the act of cutting grooves into the bore of a gun, resulting weapon being termed a ‘rifle gun’. By at least 1700 however, people were referring to simply ‘rifle’, for short, before the more specific term ‘rifle/rifled musket’ was even in use.

All of this shows that language adapts where there is a gap; a recent example being the adaptation of ‘text/texting/texted’ to describe the act of sending an SMS text message. In Charles’ example, the flat iron flattens the hair, yes, but it does not create a discrete new feature upon it that demands description. It’s enough to say that the hair is ‘flat ironed’. In the case of blades, the fuller fulls the blade, but also creates a distinct groove, a new feature that then begs to be named. ‘Fuller’ has most likely been adapted to fill this gap because it allows precise and efficient description. ‘Blood groove’ serves the same function, with added implication of gory intent. What else would we use? ‘Blade groove’ doesn’t really do it, because there are other grooves that might appear on a blade that are not a fuller (e.g. a decorated blade). ‘Fuller’ also has the advantage of being only one word long. ‘Groove’ is perfectly fine, in fact C19th military textbooks use ‘groove’ for sword and bayonet. It just isn’t very precise unless you qualify it.

Did those who made blades historically use ‘groove’, ‘fuller’, or something else entirely? I have no idea. It would be interesting, though difficult given the limitations of written history, to properly research period usage. Given the rate of change in language (witness arquebus, harquebus, hackbutt etc), correct usage in one period is likely to be out of use in another. Charles doesn’t directly offer an alternative term that he feels is more correct than ‘fuller’, but based on his comments it looks like he favours ‘gutter’. Perhaps ‘old timer’ knifemakers and other blade-smiths did use it, but we’ve no evidence of this. You won’t find it in a dictionary or an arms & armour publication. I’ve no problem with it as a descriptive word, but I feel it’s misleading to the layman. Like ‘blood groove’ or ‘blood gutter’, it clearly implies a function that does not exist; the collection and direction of fluids.

To address the suggestion that ‘fuller’ is wrong because other languages don’t have an analogue, that’s just irrelevant, I’m afraid. Yes, my link above shows that terms like ‘goutierre’ (gutter) and ‘cannelure’ (channel) were preferred European terms. That has no bearing on either correct contemporary, or even period English usage. Some words are shared between languages either intact as loan-words, or adapted as variants, but by no means all. ‘Fuller’ is one of many unique English words.

None of which changes the fact that ‘blood groove’ is (technically) incorrect and ‘fuller’ correct, both in terms of the purpose served by the groove (which was the point of my article) and its lack of favour in academic and specialist circles. But again, there’s colloquial language and technical language, and ‘blood groove’ is both in popular usage and in the bloody dictionary, so I can only get so precious about it!

Horrible?

November 17, 2013

Buttocks

‘We ride at once to rebellious Stoke, where it is my sworn intent to approach the city walls,
bare my broad buttocks, and shout, “Behold! I honor thee most highly!”’

I really like the ‘Horrible Histories’ TV series. I wasn’t quite sold on the books – too many one-liners – nor Terry Deary’s apparent disdain for actual historians. But the TV version is much funnier and, like the books, no doubt helps get youngsters into history. It does drop the ball sometimes, notably for me the repetition of the Charles I Tower of London ravens myth (I must cover that one soon). I don’t see why with a bit more effort, you couldn’t run the exact same sketches, but instead of the little pop-up flag saying ‘TRUE!’ and ‘THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED!’ you couldn’t have one that said ‘MYTH!’ or ‘UNCONFIRMED!’ or something. The stories are still part of history, but that way you could introduce some critical thinking for children.

Anyway, I was particularly interested in their version of ‘the Witch of Brandon’ story, featured in a repeated episode I saw recently. Here’s a version from the BBC’s Emma Borley in 2004;

‘William knew that he had to act against this band of fen-men. He ordered many attacks on the Isle of Ely, with little success (even going so far as to employ a witch, who bared her bottom at William’s foe in an act of repulsion!).’

I had to check that out, because I wanted it to be true, but it did sound like a garbling of some pretty early medieval history. So a win-win for me really. Guess what? It’s a real piece of history;

‘The twelfth-century Gesta Herewardi, a legend of the historical Hereward the Wake, tells of a witch of the Fens who offended her pursuers by muttering incantations while baring her backside at them (ch. xxv).’

That’s from Cambridge University’s Press’s ‘A Social History of England, 900–1200’ (p.407). I should point out the word ‘legend’ in that source, and qualify my phrase ‘real piece of history’. I’m afraid that even here there’s an historian to throw a spanner in the works. Anthony Davies, who also references the incident, suspects that it was made up to make William look bad for employing witchcraft against pious Christians.

Still, it’s still genuine medieval history with a traceable primary source being conveyed here, even if the incident itself may not have happened quite as painted. Well done ‘Horrible Histories’; just keep an eye on the ball and maybe take a leaf out of QI’s book.

Easter a pagan festival? Eggstremely Unlikely!

March 31, 2013

As alluring as the idea is to atheists like me, the claim that Easter was derived from a pre-existing pagan festival in honour of the goddess ‘Eostre’ turns out to have very little basis indeed. It amounts to one reference. CJ Romer has this tied up on his blog;

Eostre never existed???: why Easter is NOT a Pagan Holiday

CJ is a Christian, so in case you think there’s bias at work, here’s another three-part debunk from a Neo-Pagan writer;

Eostre: The Making of a Myth

An instructive lesson in not buying into claims just becuase they agree with our (pagan or atheist) preconceptions and biases.

Slicing the Upper Crust

March 24, 2013

I caught some of ‘Paul Hollywood’s Bread’ today on TV, and heard him pronounce that the phrase ‘the upper crust’, to mean the British upper class, originated with the practice of giving used bread trenchers to the poor. As we’ve seen before on this blog,  this kind of etmylogical literalism is usually bogus – phrases very rarely arise in this convenient, pat way, and if you hear an explanation of this sort, chances are it’s outright BS, or is at the least unprovable/unfalsifiable. But they’re appealing, easy to understand, and to remember, which is why they’ve been ‘going viral’ since well before the internet even existed (it just makes the process easier!). In this case, a TV reviewer was taken in.

This one is no exception – fortunately I don’t have to embark on an essay about it though, because Phrases.org has this one nailed, the key sentence being this one;

‘The term ‘upper crust’ didn’t in fact come to be used figuratively to refer to the aristocracy until the 19th century.’

The fact is we can’t know what was in the head of the person who coined the phrase, but the trencher explanation is at least no more likely than any other you care to dream up. In fact, it’s arguably less so, since the use of bread trenchers was long dead by this time. The earliest Google Books reference for the origin (as opposed to the phrase) is 2001, and Snopes has it appearing as part of a hoax list dating to 1999. I could find no references via the Google news archive either. It’s possible that it was in oral circulation prior to ’99, but my money’s on that list, which seems to me to have been an exercise in seeing what historical tomfoolery one could get away with in a single email forward (though elements of it certainly did pre-exist the list).

It amazes me in this day and age that TV researchers either don’t bother to take 10 seconds to check something like this. But then I suspect that, like the tour guides Phrases.org mentions, they’re more interested in storytelling and traditional history than in the real thing. But when you’re recreating historical breads as the focus of your programme, why do you need this extra fluff?

Here we go again…

August 7, 2012

I have this on my desk at work

Another year, another extraordinary claim about poor old Leonardo. I picked this one up from Doubtful News, which quite frankly is a real goldmine for this blog. I’ve covered several instances of this in the past, including the ‘Last Supper’ debacle, which continues to bring most visitors to these pages (sadly).

The really obvious problem this time is that the painting is by no means certain to be Da Vinci’s. Until and unless it is authenticated as such, it’s pretty pointless to try to look for hidden meaning where there may well be none (even if it were a Leonardo). This is a practice that is fraught with difficulty in any case, as any ‘code’ would be indistinguishable from the false patterns one could read into just about any work of art (or natural feature, cloud, cheese sandwich, or book, for that matter).

If you need any more of a warning, the author of the new book (and yes, there’s a book to be sold, and no, it’s not written by an art historian), has serialised it with…you guessed it…the Daily Mail (purveyor of such stories as this).

The ‘similarities’ that they point out (here) are just that; artistic conventions of a certain style and period. I’m not an art historian either, but the second toe being longer than the first is a genetic trait, not just a Da Vinci one. It’s also another artistic convention dating to Classical times (check out Graeco-Roman statues – short winkies and long second toes are pretty much de rigeur). The fleur de lys is a massive red herring, since the Priory of Sion was essentially a hoax. The symbol itself is widely used outwith the ‘Priory’, and oh look, it’s one of the Virgin Mary’s symbols. Talk about cherry-picking meanings.

As for the rest, this is the Leonardo that the author/paper claim is so similar; see what you think. Note however that all of the specialists consulted are either pretty equivocal about it, or outright state that it may be Da Vinci’s school, but do not attribute it to the man himself. The ID of Mary Magdalene is suspect because the Madonna with baby Jesus and young John the Baptist is a massive trope of Christian art. How is this any different? Reminds me of the claims that the carvings in Rosslyn Chapel depicting plants and ‘green men’ are somehow definitively ‘pagan’, when in fact the natural world was important to Christians too. If you ignore the bigger picture, it’s easy to fool yourself into seeing significance where none exists.

Of Bulgarian Vampires

July 29, 2012

This post by Nils at Magia Posthuma raised my eyebrow. It seems the so-called Bulgarian vampire story was even more wildly popular than I’d realised. As I haven’t yet covered it, aside from a couple of comments on Nils’ blog, I thought it worth a post. He has subtly hinted that all may not be as it seems, but as the internet is not known for its subtlety, I think there needs to be an overtly critical voice out there. As you might imagine, I am that voice.

I’m afraid the evidence for these interments being ‘vampires’, imagined revenants of another sort, or even necessarily deviant burials at all, is pretty thin on the ground. Or, for that matter, IN it.

As usual, we have little to go on, and it’s perfectly possible that a forthcoming academic article might reveal all. But as we’ve seen in the past (check out the onward links there too), sometimes the eventual publication doesn’t live up to the media hype that we’ve all been suckered in by previously.

Here’s one of two ‘vampires’ from the Bulgarian dig in question (higher res available at the source, Fox News);

As you can see, there is disruption to the ribs area, but nothing that couldn’t be the result of burial under several feet of earth. It certainly appears to be unrelated to the iron lump that is claimed to be the ‘rod’ (by implication, stake) used to dispatch the undead creature/innocently decomposing corpse. The lump itself is just that – an unidentified angular ferrous object. If it’s the head of an iron shaft, that shaft must be huge. Far too huge, in fact. Why manhandle a valuable piece of metal into position when by far the most common folkloric weapon against vampires and revenants was a wooden stake? Perhaps that’s why they missed the heart or even chest/abdomen (it was not always necessary to penetrate the heart in folklore) completely. It looks for all the world as though the ‘vampire’ play-acted along, taking the ‘stale’ between body and arm like one of the henchmen in countless Hollywood swashbucklers. It’s not that iron wasn’t used as a weapon and a preventative measure against vampires; it certainly was in various Slavic countries.

After the story had circulated a while longer, it acquired a further embellishment, thanks to National Geographic, who claimed that the corpse’s teeth had been ‘pulled’. This seems to be based on the fact that the skull is missing many of its teeth, indeed much of its alveolar process – but only, I noticed, in the post-excavation images of the skeleton as it was being pimped to the media.

(Higher res available at the source, Fox News);

I’m as sure as I can be [edit - I was wrong on this - see the comments below] that this is indeed the same skeleton, that associated with the larger of the two iron lumps. If it isn’t, it’s a third skeleton, and only two have been claimed as ‘staked’. Photos show that the other skeleton and ‘rod’ are clearly different. Note that, like the other one, this too retains its teeth as discovered (image from Heritage Daily);

This being the case, why is it in substantially worse condition? Far from the loss of teeth being a counter-vampire measure, it appears that it is wear and tear, presumably sustained in the rush to get the thing on TV. Deliberate damage doesn’t bear contemplation. It usually takes weeks of post-ex work to clean, draw, document and analyse human remains. Yet here the poor bugger was hoiked out of the ground like a fossil in a plaster jacket, and wheeled in front of the cameras. This can’t be a good thing.

I would note here that the pointy teeth are a creation of fiction, starting with ‘Varney the Vampire’ in the 1850s. Iron teeth are sometimes referred to in folklore, but not their removal as a preventative measure. The usual threat cited is the use of the corpse’s teeth to chew on their burial shroud or on their own limbs, in the manner of the German Nachzehrer (though this belief was more widespread than just the Germanic world).

In the footage linked, note also the claim by the museum director that;

‘Iron rods were used for the richer vampires’.

This is the first time I have ever heard such a claim, and I’m pretty familiar with the literature by this point. It appears to me to be a way of heading off another obvious criticism of the ID for these finds – that historical vampires were not high status individuals. They were working class people, relatives and friends of those who were compelled to ‘slay’ their troublesome dead bodies. The vampire lord is another creation of fiction, as this media piece correctly points out.

This is all a bit of a shame. These are clearly deviant burials of potentially historically significant individuals, worthy of further study for both reasons. As much as I love vampirey news, and I’m sure all this is a wonderful boon to the Bulgarian tourist industry, I think forcing this evidence to fit Western preconceptions about vampires – derived from fiction –  is wrong. I can tell you that I’m not the only historian or archaeologist who is of this opinion, either.

I recommend reading Nil’s discussion of the background and characters surrounding this discovery, which also details the reburial of another skeleton. I’m not wild about this either, as it further prevents serious scholarly study of the remains and condemns them forever as ‘vampires’. I just hope all possible analysis was completed before the skeleton went back into the ground.

Dowsing again.

June 12, 2012

Some more people who think they’re doing archaeology by waving sticks about. This one fails to provide any support for its claims (though the journalist is nice and neutral about them), and interestingly, doesn’t try to hide the supernatural mechanism behind the idea or dress it up in pseudoscience;

“We all leave a footprint behind – both physically and spiritually – wherever we go, and dowsing allows us to glean an understanding through a metaphysical connection.”

In other words, dowsing is magic.

The only advantage the dowsing has is that it’s cheap/free. Which is no advantage at all if it doesn’t bloody work. Which it doesn’t. At least the hall’s owners haven’t wasted money – only time. The frustrating aspect to this is that because it’s been chosen as a cheap alternative to real archaeology, no real archaeology will be used to confirm/disprove any of the findings, at least, not for a long time.

Veni, vidi, vampire?

May 22, 2012

An English ‘vampire’, from ‘Medieval Towns’ by Schofield and Vince, 2003 edition

The always-fascinating Magia Posthuma blog has posted a really nice update on that ‘vampire of Venice’ story from 2009. It puts the original claims in perspective and provides much-needed insight into the academic side of the ensuing controversy that most of us haven’t been privy to.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my biggest gripe with the idea that this ID6 skeleton was an Italian ‘Nachzehrer’ (or ‘shroudeater’) remains valid – because there ARE no Italian Nachzehrer! It’s a Germanic phenomenon. The fact that there’s no Italian analogue means that, at the least, the (now contested) conclusions found in ‘Forensic Approach to an Archaeological Casework of “Vampire” Skeletal Remains in Venice’ (paywalled) and in the media versions that most people read should have been presented in a more tentative manner.

However, it did get me thinking about analogues to the practice of placing a stone or brick in the deceased’s mouth however, as this is more widespread than the shroud/self-devouring version of the ‘vampire’ (and strictly, I should use the more general word ‘revenant’ there).

The stone/brick-in-mouth (or under chin) apotropaic does appear outside the bounds of (modern) Germany. Folklorist Jan Perkowski refers to the practice amongst the Kashubs of Poland (who did actually cary the Nachzehrer belief with them also), and Paul Barber cites Stora’s ‘Burial Customs of the Skolt Lapps’ as describing a similar practice amongst the Laplanders.

Then there’re the skeletons of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, one of which was found with a stone inserted between the jaws of its disembodied head. The skull was also placed between the feet, which is something that Perkowksi and Barber also refer to in the Germanic and Slavic worlds.

Finally, there is a lesser-known British connection. A helpful source at the Museum of London referred me a while ago to two instances. First are 11th/12th century burials at St Nicholas Shambles church in the City of London, where small stones were found in the mouths of four inhumations. These were interpreted as a substitute for the ‘ferryman’s’ coin, aka ‘soul-scot’ in the Anglo-Saxon world. More were found at St Botolph’s church in Billingsgate, my MoL source reports that several 15th-17th century burials also had stones in their mouths, a few being ‘the size of cannon balls.’

Two more were found at Fillingham in Lincolnshire, and another at Raunds Furnells in Northamptonshire. Note however that stones, big and small, are a feature of medieval graves in England, and seem to have served more than one purpose. Unlike burials elsewhere, we lack any real historical or folkloric evidence to back up the idea that these placements were aimed at keeping the dead…dead, but given the stones found in the two eye-sockets of one of the two Fillingham bodies (and bearing in mind the analogue practice observed even today of coins over eyelids), deliberate placement at least seems highly likely (more discussion here, including the connection with heavy stones perhaps used to weigh down the dead).

This doesn’t really aid the ‘Vampire of Venice’ claim any, as we still lack even support in an Italian context for the stone-in-mouth burial practice. But together with the rebuttal by the authors, it does perhaps increase our confidence that this was a deliberate effort by somebody, and by analogy, may indeed have been to prevent the return of a revenant of some kind. If so however, the shroud-eating hypothesis remains dubious, and the relevance of the term ‘vampire’ is, I suppose, a matter of definition. It certainly attracts a lot more press than ‘revenant’.

More Hidden Music?

May 14, 2012

My scepticism as to the ‘hidden’ music of Rosslyn Chapel is well-documented. The same people have also tried to show hidden music in planets, plants, and even the DNA of customers. Now it’s the turn of artwork by, and you can probably guess this one, Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s his ‘Portrait of a Musician’ (not, as the Daily Record states, ‘The Musician’), and you can see the inscription of interest in this hires version of it.

In contrast to previous efforts, there’s actually some musical notation on that piece of paper. However, there’s no actual claim in the article that they’ve managed to decipher it. They are ‘…working on trying to find a piece of music which fits…’. And we all know where fitting the facts to the evidence leads. We also know that these guys did not find the musical notes in question. They were uncovered in 1905 after restoration work, and have been plainly visible since.

Finally, there’s the claim that the first word (but not, apparently, the second) of the phrase ‘Agnus Dei’ appears backwards on the same part of the painting. All sources I could find state that the text reads ‘CANT. ANG.‘, for ‘Cantum Angelicum’, a work by the supposed subject of the painting, Franchino Gaffurio. Even if that interpretation is itself highly speculative, I can’t see the letters resolving into ‘AGNUS DEI’ any way you cut it. You can just make out the letters in this zoomable version of the painting, and this Wikimedia version. I thought I’d have a bash at mirroring it myself. Here’s the original;

You can see the large capital ‘C’, and then what has traditionally been read as ‘ant’, all one discrete word. There’s then a space, and a very clear capital ‘A’ followed by the ‘n’ of ‘ang’, with a horizontal line below. You can just barely make out the lower case ‘g’ that follows it (look for the tail in faded, brown ink if you’re struggling).

Now, here’s the mirrored version;

The only way in which I can see what they’re seeing is if I ignore what is now the first bit entirely, and take the ‘A’ as the first letter of ‘Agnus’, ignore the gap and then interpret the next letter as ‘G’ by ignoring the horizontal stroke of the ‘t’, keeping the ‘n’ but calling the ‘a’ a ‘u’, and then somehow taking the reversed ‘C’ as an enormous deformed ‘s’.

See what you can see.

Early in the hi…

March 10, 2012

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Early in the history of this blog (and for some years afterward), I covered a lot of speculative nonsense regarding the famous Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. The claims made back then have never gone away, but they haven’t received a whole lot more attention either, aside from a lengthy Slate article a few months back. This did at least give some time to the sceptics, though it was clear that the author had taken a liking to the purveyors of the theory, found it appealing, and ‘wanted to believe’, as Fox Mulder might put it.

This kind of story tends to get picked up in cycles, every few years, whenever lazy journalists need a quirky ‘discovery’ type story. Well, I have a feeling the ‘musical cubes’ will soon be back, thanks to this presentation by the author of the Slate article at none other an august institution than Princeton University. Thanks to foremost cube-critic Jeff Nisbet for the heads-up.

This post is quite long, but not nearly so long as either the linked video or the original article. Consider that I’ve sat through both so you don’t have to. I should also point out that one of my comments – I can’t remember what – has been deleted from that third section of the article, along with the preceding comment by fellow critic Jeff Nisbet that. It’s possible that there was a good reason for this, but it’s pretty poor form. Nonetheless, plenty of negative comments from both Jeff and I remain, along with lots of other sceptical people, including musicians.

Now, many people will assume that because Princeton have given the ‘theory’ stage-time, they are in agreement with the presenter and the originator of the claims. This is not the case. He has been permitted (or invited) to speak on the basis of the very real physics behind the very bogus historical claims. Physicists are not historians, nor even necessarily critical thinkers.

Also, the presenter himself expressed similar doubts in his original article, citing my ‘prolific’ responses to the original claims, and in the comments pages, actually admitting that;

‘I think the early BSHistorian articles–which I get to later–are probably the best summation of all the very reasonable doubts about this project.’

Wilson restates these doubts in the video with tentative phrases like ‘could have been’, ‘no record of’, and ‘possibly a coincidence’ (more of these below). For all that he is pushing this idea, at least unlike the guys that originated the claims he is, to an extent, allowing the reader/viewer to make up his or her own mind up. He also points out that a section at the end doesn’t make musical sense, and puts this down to the changes in the stonework that are documented as having taken place. But he’s happy to accept that the rest is OK, despite the Victorian restoration of the chapel being extensive. How do we know which bits are original and therefore part of the supposed piece of music?

At one point he compares the composer’s efforts to ‘recreate’ the ‘music’ to the frog DNA used to plug the gaps in the dinosaur DNA in ‘Jurassic Park’. He also points out the various ‘arbitrary decisions’ made by the composer in that process and admits that even if the music can be considered genuine, its modern-day creator must be regarded as the ‘arranger stroke co-composer’.

Strangely, Wilson claims it can’t be a moneymaking scheme/scam because the two men involved don’t make much money from it. The fact that they only managed to strike a deal giving them £1200 a year for it does not inform us as to their motives in doing so.

The only new piece of information in the whole presentation is a piece of music found in the notes of Gilbert Hay (an associate of the chapel builder), about which Wilson states:

‘…not precisely a melody that you would find in Stuart’s – erm – transcription, but it’s the same key, its the same tonic, and its the same notes.’

He then goes on to admit, rather contradictorily, that one could ‘absolutely see this as reaching for evidence, but it is there’. He also waves away some pretty important scepticism from Professor Warwick Edwards at Glasgow University on the basis that his specialist period is the 16th century rather than the 15th and quotes him as stating ‘I don’t really know’. It’s difficult to tell, but to me it sounds like Edwards would rather not get too deeply involved either as a supporter or a critic, which is pretty standard amongst academics. Indeed, Wilson bemoans the fact that these two ‘eccentric eccentric people’ are ‘not being taken seriously by the academy’. Academics will tend to ignore speculative claims rather than get tarred by the woo brush, even if they are debunking rather than endorsing.

A couple of points he gets plain wrong. He makes the old mistake of believing that the ‘green man’ is a pagan symbol. More importantly though, he claims that the cube carvings were ‘carved in place’, when in fact all of the internal decoration of the chapel is applied, as is evident from the missing chunks today and as depicted in art (see Robert Cooper’s ‘Rosslyn Hoax’ book, Jeff Nisbet’s research, and some of my earlier posts e.g. this). Many of these chunks of masonry were restored or replaced in the 19th century. I don’t know where to start with his claim that the cubes are ‘so geometrical in a way that was not a common theme at the time’, since medieval architecture is based upon geometry. Unless he’s referring to the shape of the cubes themselves I suppose.

We also get a claim I’ve seen before (not least in the book that originally laid out the musical cube idea) that this was a ‘…time when you’d want to keep quiet about being interested in maths or music.’ Yes, music was the preserve of the rich and the church, and rules were laid down about it, but I’ve yet to see any real evidence of suppression beyond this. Medieval historians – comment below!

I would have said that Wilson simply does not understand critical thinking when he says;

‘If aliens found it, they could draw the same conclusion that the Mitchell’s did’.

He bases this on the fact that the Chladni patterns are a natural phenomenon. The clear problem with this is that they are only the hypothetical basis for the claims made. That seeing a pattern where none exists is a mistake that anyone could make is obviously not evidence that it does!

Yet Wilson apparently does understand both critical thought, and the dangers of becoming too personally invested in an idea. He points out that the originators of the cube hypothesis are ‘two men who believe’ (emphasis on believe) and most importantly that ‘their opinion is unfalsifiable’. Despite this admission that it could well all be bollocks, Wilson nonetheless believes it to be ‘very compelling’, and places his emphasis on how plausible the hypothesis is:

‘Because if it’s plausible, it’s ‘the most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen.’

Unfortunately, ‘is it plausible?’ is entirely the wrong question to ask. Plausible does not equal historical, and speculative history relies upon the superficial plausibility of the claims made to bamboozle the laymans and (some of) the enthusiasts. If there’s a whizz-bang gimmick to awe the rubes, so much the better; in this case it’s the impressive (and very real) phenomenon of ‘Chladni’ patterns. ‘Plausible’ essentially suggests that if it sounds or even ‘feels’ right, so perhaps it is.

No. No, no, no. There are times when speculation is justified or even necessary in the study of the past, but it must be carried out within a framework of evidence. It’s exactly the same principle as the old ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ for claims of the pseudoscientific or paranormal. You can infer foundations from a ditch on an archaeological site, but you can’t speculate that it was an elephant hopscotch arena.

The claim that the cubes represent musical notes has serious implications for the established history of music, and the medieval understanding of science, so we need a damn good reason to believe it. Moreover, there is a far more parsimonious explanation for the ‘motet’ – that it is an elaborate example of bad pattern recognition. The fact that the claim is unfalsifiable is not just a caveat, it undermines the whole thing.

I can’t help feeling that if anyone in the audience was fooled by all this, had Wilson pointed out that one of the originators of the cube theory has since turned his hand to producing ‘music’ from DNA, they might not have been. No-one is seriously suggesting that music is somehow encoded in Beethoven’s DNA – nor should they be suggesting that someone did so with the Rosslyn ‘cubes’. You can generate ‘notes’ from any sequence – it’s what you do with them that makes them a piece of music.


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