Archive for the ‘Medieval History’ Category

The Raven – Crow or No?

February 17, 2019

Common Raven (Wikimedia Commons/R. Altenkamp)

 

My title is inspired by Kaeli Swift‘s Twitter quiz ‘Crow or No?’, in which her followers must guess whether the bird in the image is a Crow or not (you should check out her site and Twitter feed linked above if you, like me, love Corvids. In this context she is being quite specific – the bird must have ‘Crow’ as part of its colloquial English name. So the above Raven would be a ‘no’, even though (unlike some birds that she posts) it is part of the genus Corvus, usually equated with ‘Crow’ in everything from modern specialist literature to everyday speech. Most people that know anything about corvids know that the Raven, the largest of the Corvids and of the genus Corvus, is a type of ‘Crow’. I was so sure of this myself that I have corrected people who’ve said ‘that’s not a Crow’ with ‘yes it is – Ravens ARE Crows’. But as I read into historical usage, I came to the conclusion that this isn’t strictly true, or at least, it didn’t used to be. It should really be the other way around; the Crow (and other members of the genus Corvus) are really types of Raven. Let me explain…

This is not just a question of confused popular usage. People that know their Corvids are pretty consistent about it. For example, Boria Sax’s 2012 book ‘City of Ravens’ tell us that;

‘Ravens (corvus corax) are members of the family corvidae, sometimes known collectively as “crows” or “corvids.”’

In his earlier work ‘Crow’ (2003), Sax is even more inclusive;

‘The word ‘Crow’ is occasionally used broadly for all members of this avian family. It is often used more restrictively for members of the genus Corvus, also known as ‘true crows’, which includes ravens, rooks, and jackdaws. Finally, the term may be used, perhaps a bit unscientifically, for those members of the genus Corvus that do not have any other common name.’

This logic is supported by scientists John M. Marzluff & Tony Angell when they tell us in their ‘In the Company of Crows and Ravens’ that;

‘Corvus is Latin for “a crow”.’

All three of these guys are American English writers by the way, but usage is quite consistent on both sides of the pond. The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) report things the same way on their website, classifying Ravens as just one of eight ‘Crow’ species in the British Isles.

And yet, when we look at things from an historical perspective, things were pretty much the other way around. The original Linnaean classification as it existed in 1756 was as follows (Latin then French, I’ve added the English in square brackets]);

Aves

  1. CORVUS.  Rostrum convexum- cultratum maxillis subaequalibus: basi fetis tectum.
  2. Corvus – le Corbeau [Raven]
  3. Cornix frugivora – ___ [Rook]
  4. Cornix cinerea – la Corneille [Crow]
  5. Cornix caerulea – ___ [Roller – no longer classified a Corvid]
  6. Monedula – la Chouca [Jackdaw]
  7. Caryocatactes – le Caffenoix [Nutcracker]
  8. Pica glandaria – le Geay [Jay]
  9. Pica caudata – la Pie [Magpie]
  10. Ciffa nigra cirrata, cauda lutea. Barr. 45. [Not sure what these last two were = some sort of Oriole?]
  11. Ciffa nigra, alis caudaque luteis. Barr. 45. B 2

The above shows that the direct French cognate for ‘Corvus’ was ‘Corbeau’. This is where the English dialect name ‘Corby’ comes from, and Corby (or ‘Corbie’, or ‘Croupy’) almost always meant ‘Raven’. In Romance languages the original Latin clarity is preserved to this day; in French Corbeau is Raven, and Corneille is Crow. In Italian (e.g. this 1848 book); ‘i Corvi’ (the Ravens) were (and remain) Corvus corax and ‘le Cornacchie’ (Corvus corone, Corvus cornix)’ were the Crows. Spanish has the analogues Cuervo and Corneja, all following the Latin Corvus/Corvi. Let’s use Spanish as the example, in which the genus ‘Los Cuervos’ were ‘the Ravens’ and, as late as 1837, were distinct from Corvus corone and Corvus cornix (both identified with ‘La Corneja’ just as both are ‘Crows’ in English). Convergence and confusion of naming happened here too, but the other way around. ‘Cuervo’ (which actually is from the Latin Corvus for ‘Raven’) is now used to mean both ‘Raven’ and ‘Crow’. In fact, the Raven is now known as ‘El Cuervo Grande’ or ‘the large raven’. This despite the fact that the Spanish derivative of Cornix (‘Corneja’) still exists! ‘Cuervo’ still means ‘Raven’ in Spanish today (see here). Logically enough, all of this originates in ancient Roman Latin, as we’ll see. The definitive form of Linnaeus’ system appeared in 1758, giving us the modern form for the Raven of Corvus corax as well as Corvus corone and Corvus cornix for the Carrion and Hooded Crows. In both incarnations of the system the Raven is listed as the first of its genus, as we’d expect from the largest and most impressive species, and the one after which the genus is named!

Reaching back further into time we find the 1555 Pierre Belon illustration that I’ve reproduced above. The caption states;

‘Corax, en Grec, Coruus en Latin, Corbeau en Francoys.’

The caption for the Crow has;

‘Coroni en Grec, Cornix en Latin, Corneiulle, en Francoys.’

Here we have a Tudor vintage classification, the common Latin and French forms from which Linnaeus concocted his more scientific system. Renaissance writers obviously took their cue from the ancient Romans and Greeks. This is where things get a little muddy, because the Romans weren’t always clear on which was which. In an article in the Transactions of the Philological Society (Issue 5, 1854, p.107) entitled ‘On the confusion of meaning between Corvus and Cornix’, Hensleigh Wedgewood agrees broadly that the Romans used ‘Corvus’ for Raven and Cornix for Rook, and ‘The Birds of the Latin Poets’ (p.73) claims;

‘CORVUS. Raven….The name corvus was applied also by Roman writers to both the crow and the rook.’

However, having checked the various sources, the identification of the intended bird seems to have been done on the basis of stereotypical behaviour. Wedgewood sees in the following passage Pliny’s description of the Raven’s famous ‘croak’, which given the use of corvorum seems reasonable;

‘Pessima eorum (corvorum) significatio (in auspiciis), quum glutiunt vocem velut strangulati.’

However, he then references Virgil’s use of ‘cornix’ and claims that a solitary corvid ‘inviting’ rain must be a Raven;

‘Tum cornix plena pluviam vocat improba voce

Et sola in sicca secum spatiatur arena’

Meaning something like ‘the Raven with full voice calls down the rain and walks alone along the sand’. Now, I’m no classical scholar, but what about this sentence necessitates a Raven and not a Crow (Cornix)? Both make noise, both were birds of ill omen, and both could be found on their own. I am not convinced, and I’ve found two other translations,  neither was both, of which are quite happy to take Cornix at face value. Likewise, Wedgewood is convinced that Virgil was talking of Rooks when he wrote;

‘ete pastu decedens agmine magno Corvorum increpuit densis exercitus alis.’

Again, only one aspect of the intended bird is included here; that we are talking about multiple birds. Sure enough, the Raven is often a solitary bird, but they can also operate in groups; I myself have seen them in the wild in numbers. And although Rooks are very rarely on their own, Carrion and other Crows may be seen in large groups, small ones, or on their own. Here’s another of Virgil’s;

‘Tum liquidas corvi presso ter gutture voces aut quater ingeminant, et saepe cubilibus altis nescio qua praeter solitum dulcedine laeti inter se in foliis strepitant; iuvat imbribus actis progeniem parvam dulcisque revisere nidos’

Or…

‘Soft then the voice of rooks from indrawn throat

Thrice, four times, o’er repeated, and full oft

On their high cradles, by some hidden joy

Gladdened beyond their wont, in bustling throngs

Among the leaves they riot; so sweet it is,

When showers are spent, their own loved nests again

And tender brood to visit.’

 

Fowler in ‘A Year With the Birds’ (1914) confidently (complete with a ‘No True Englishman’ logical fallacy) identifies these birds as Rooks, but again, I just don’t see that this contains enough diagnostic information. The passage works just as well if Corvi are Ravens. In fact I don’t see any of these analyses as definitive. Even assuming that these authors are talking about other birds, the confusion is supposedly with the Rook, not the Carrion or Hooded Crow.

In any case, the Greeks seem to have been consistent, using Korone for the Crow, and sometimes the physically similar and seasonal Rook but not the Raven (Korax). I have not taken this line of enquiry any further than the ‘Glossary of Greek Birds’ however (p.11). There has definitely always been some grey area across the species. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have named their corvids based upon how they sounded, with the result that they were somewhat inconsistent with their terminology. This thesis is a good read on that subject, although I remain unconvinced at (again) the claim that Latin speakers used the different names interchangeably. I have checked all of the sources in footnote 65 (p.44) and none actually support this. The ‘Brussels Glossary’ quote of ‘Corvus hrefne oththe corax’ seems to simply be listing three names (Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Greek) for a Raven, presumably in a play on words (literally ‘Raven ravens other raven’). However, William Brunsdon Yapp’s ‘Birds in Medieval Manuscripts’ (London, 1981, p.57) is also sceptical that pre-Linnaean observers knew the difference, saying;

‘…neither Shakespeare nor Tennyson, nor C. S. Lewis nor Victoria Sackville-West could tell rooks from crows, or even apparently knew that there are two species, it seems unlikely that there was any clear distinction in the Middle Ages’.

This shouldn’t surprise us though. How many people today know or can tell the difference? Then, as now, there will have been people more intimately familiar with the birds and who would surely have known the difference, but pre-scientific method, they aren’t writing it down. Regardless of ‘folk taxonomies’ and historical misidentification, there were nonetheless different names and some level of awareness that the names denoted different creatures. Across the span of history it seems clear that Corvus overwhelmingly meant ‘Raven’ rather than ‘Crow’. Moreover, as I show above, by the time of Linnaeus it was very clear which was which. Under that system, Corvus was simultaneously the first name for the species within the genus, the specific scientific name for the Raven itself (as simply Corvus with no additional name), AND remained the common Latin name for the Raven. The modified form of Linnaean classification combined the Latin and Greek to create a hierarchical system. Thus ‘Corvus corax’ literally meant ‘Raven raven’ like ‘Rattus rattus’, and not ‘Crow raven’. Carrion Crow makes sense as ‘Corvus corone’ or ‘Raven crow’ on the same basis. Indeed, the common German term for the Carrion Crow is exactly that; ‘Rabenkrähe’, and it seems clear to me that the dialect ‘Corby-Crow’ (or ‘Croupy-Crow’), meaning Carrion Crow was the English parallel to this (‘Corby’ meaning Raven as above).

So far, so logical. So what changed? Well, as much as Linnaeus’ system caught on, within a few decades naturalists and zoologists were conflating and confusing terms. By 1800 the ‘American Review’ gave the modern scientific name ‘Corvus corax’ with a reversed English translation ‘Raven crow’; i.e. Roman ‘Corvus’ for ‘Crow’ and Greek ‘Corax’ for Raven. In 1805 Jedidiah Morse in America included the corvids under the label ‘The Crow Kind’ (Corvus), although he still listed the Raven first (as Corvus carnivorous). In 1809/10 the English naturalist George Shaw had;

 

CORVUS. CROW.

Corvus Corax.

Black crow about two feet in length, with a blue gloss on the upper parts, and rounded tail.

The Raven. Will. Penn. Lath &c, &c.

Le Corbeau. Briss. Buff &c.

 

In 1849 we find William Dowling’s ‘A popular natural history of quadrupeds and birds’ saying (p.50);

‘Latin word corvus, which signifies a crow’

This was sustained in ‘Insects Abroad: Being a Popular Account of Foreign Insects (etc)’ by John George Wood (1874);

‘The specific name corvus signifies ” a crow,”’

All of which doesn’t really help much. People have been confusing these names for a very long time, and Linnaeus’ attempt to standardise on the traditional and largely consistent Latin and Greek nomenclature really didn’t catch on. For most intents and purposes, in English at least, Corvus now means ‘Crow’ and not Raven and has done for over 200 years; almost as long as we’ve been scientifically studying these birds. I’m certainly not going to persuade any taxonomists, zoologists, ornithologists or other scientists to revert now. The only really useful conclusion here is the reminder that, historically, Corvus meant Raven, not Crow. Because it now means both, it is possibly to be correct either way around. The Raven may, by convention, have become a type of Crow, but the Crow is also a sort of Raven. This actually sort of fits with the biological reality – not only are Carrion Crows very similar to Ravens, but they can actually sometimes interbreed; ‘Raven Crows’ indeed. As to why this reversal happened, my suspicion lies with the quirk that the two words appear to be closely related; ‘Corv…Crow’ in English. In reality there is no etymological connection between the two, which is presumably why the distinction is preserved in other languages as I covered above.

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Hairy Bikers? Hairy BS, more like.

April 18, 2016

I’ve just watched the ‘Hairy Bikers’ new TV series on British pubs, and to my surprise, made it nearly all the way through the episode without any really obvious nonsense. Then, in the last couple of minutes, they mentioned the practice of ‘Ale Conners’ sitting in beer in leather breeches to test how sticky (and therefore sugary) it was.

It took me all of twenty seconds on Google to find something debunking this obvious load of old trousers!

Tomb of Dracula?

June 14, 2014

is-dracula-story-real-vampires-daughter-and-tomb-found-in-naples-stone

Well, no, it isn’t.

UPDATE 2 – This article received a lot of online media attention, but somehow I didn’t receive a pingback from Discovery News. Their coverage can be found here.

UPDATE 1 – Not long after I posted this, another sceptic weighed in and managed to spot that the tomb in question is indeed well-known – unsurprisingly given the context, it’s one of the Ferrillo family, Matteo Ferrillo, Count of Muro. There’s absolutely no doubt about it, and anyone from the church in question, or any Italian medieval scholar, could have told the ‘researchers’ this. Unbelievable nonsense that once again, the press fail to fact-check in any way.

 

It’s been a while, but this one’s brought me out of First World War-related work to comment. The Daily Mail (sigh) is reporting that the grave of Vlad III – the historical Dracula – may have been found. There’s little to go on, though a full view of the tomb in question can be seen here. The tomb was noted by a university student, but the connection is being made by one Raffaello Glinni. He’s the claimant here, and you’ve not heard the last of him…

There are basic errors with the piece – Vlad was not a ‘Count’ like his fictional namesake, he was a voivode (prince). The ‘Carpathians’ were not a Transylvanian family as the 4th image in the Mail gallery implies, they are a mountain range! I can’t wait to see the reality TV show ‘Keeping Up With the Carpathians’. Dracula did not ‘disappear’ in battle, but was likely decapitated and buried at Snagov monastery (though there is some question over this). But these are incidental. The claim itself is built on a premise that is by no means certain, namely that Vlad III had a daughter who supposedly decamped to Italy as a child, at some point ransomed Vlad (by all accounts quite dead by this point) back, and had him buried in a church in Naples. This in itself is an extraordinary claim, as it’s far from clear that Vlad even had a daughter – see this tree of the House of Basarab, of which the Draculesti were a subset. No Maria, no daughter. The historical status quo is that Vlad had only sons.

This site repeats the claim and expands upon it, suggesting that the mysterious daughter was adopted by the widow of Vlad’s contemporary and fellow resistor of Ottoman rule, George Skanderbeg, and given refuge at the court of King Ferdinand I of Naples, where she changed her name to sort-of-but-not-quite conceal her heritage. ‘Maria Balsa’ supposedly means ‘Daughter of the Dragon’ in ‘Old Romanian’. As far as I can tell, whilst balaur is Romanian for ‘dragon’, ‘Bal’ certainly isn’t. Why this supposed daughter would need to conceal her identity, and if she did, why she’d choose a Romanian-derived name, are anyone’s guesses. It’s claimed that both men were members of the Order of the Dragon, but I can’t confirm that either, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true. Elsewhere Alfonso D’Aragona is instead claimed as Maria Balsa’s Dragon Order benefactor. He really was part of the Order, but so what? Lots of European nobility joined the order – it’s a bit like the Freemasonry trope of later on; just because a politician was a Freemason doesn’t mean he’s neck-deep in whatever paranoid historical conspiracy one might dream up.

The Maria Balsa story is several years old, dating to 2012. It was featured in season 6, episode 9 of Italian TV series ‘Mistero’ in 2012, entitled ‘La Figlia Segreta di Dracula’ i.e. ‘The Secret Daughter of Dracula’. From what I’ve seen of the series online, it’s very much ‘Ancient Aliens’ territory; ghosts, alien abduction, and so on. The original claim relates not to the church mentioned in the Mail article (Santa Maria La Nova), but to a different structure; Acerenza cathedral. Guess who made it, and also appears in the ‘documentary’? Yep, Raffaello Glinni. At the time, he claimed that Vlad was buried under the cathedral; clearly he’s revised his hypothesis since then. There’s another madcap suggestion regarding Acerenza, which is that a statue of a monster biting the neck of a woman is also relevant, and supposedly relates to the story of Lilith and the pop-culture suggestions that she might be a progenitor of vampires. The historical Vlad III has absolutely no connection to vampires, folkloric or fictional, beyond the limited connection made by Bram Stoker, so this is a total red herring. The statue itself doesn’t even appear to be that of a dragon, but rather a lion. Glinni also claims that a carved head in Acerenza cathedral with a beard and pointy teeth must also be Vlad, despite no resemblance and the fact that pointy teeth are a feature of the 19th century literary vampire. Bram Stoker took only Dracula’s name and status as a medieval antagonist of the Turks from real history. We would not expect an historical depiction of Vlad III to have vampire teeth!

head

Note also the entirely co-incidental saint with serpent/dragon – nothing to do with Dracula or the Dragon Order

Billed as a ‘medieval history scholar’ in the new article, Glinni is actually a lawyer by profession. His name took me to his site, which is sparse but getting there in terms of BS History Bingo. Knights Templar? Check. Freemasonry? Check. Da Vinci? You bet. Gibberings about non-specific magical vortices? Not looking too good. In fact it’s looking like the use of ‘secret history’ to support speculative archaeology. There is an historical document from 1531 indirectly referenced here, which is apparently cited in a 1958 book by D’Elia and Gelao. There’s even a page reference of p.289/290. The only D’Elia/Gelao book I can find is this from 1999, where Maria Balsa is indeed referenced. There’s no doubt that an historical figure of that name existed (wife of Giacomo Alfonso Ferrillo, Count of Muro and Acerenza), and she was apparently Slavic. But if this 1531 chronicle that supports not just this claim but the new tomb suggestion exists, I can find no reference to it. If any Italian speakers can unearth it, please comment below.

So the underpinnings of this story are pretty questionable. What of the new evidence? Do we have anything else to go on? Well, like the Acerenza carving, the effigy on the Santa Maria La Nova tomb also looks absolutely nothing like the surviving depictions of Vlad;

effigy

Which leaves…what? Well, supposedly, the big revelation is in the carved stone dragon on this tomb:

‘Medieval history scholar Raffaello Glinni said the 16th century tomb is covered in images and symbols of the House of the Transylvanian “Carpathians,” and not the tomb of an Italian nobleman. “When you look at the bas-relief sculptures, the symbolism is obvious. The dragon means Dracula and the two opposing sphinxes represent the city of Thebes, also known as Tepes. In these symbols, the very name of the count Dracula Tepes is written,” Glinni told reporters.’

A dragon was certainly the main element in the badge of the Order of the Dragon to which Vlad III’s father belonged. We don’t actually know what Vlad III’s personal coat of arms was, but he may have used the same emblem. But this was a dragon curled around on itself with its own tail wrapped around its neck. The badge varied, but none of the extant Order dragon depictions resemble this Italian carving. The Thebes/Tepes connection seems to be entirely spurious; I can find nothing on it. The sphinxes are simply artistic convention in European art. Thebes itself is a Greek placename, Tepes a Turkish Romanian (thanks Michael!) word for ‘impaler’. Where’s the connection? And why would anyone bother to ‘encode’ a vague reference to a member of the Dracul family. Either they wanted people to know he was buried there, in which case make it clear, or they wanted him forgotten, in which case don’t slap a dragon on his tomb. For that matter, it would be pretty tricky to build a huge monumental tomb, complete with effigy, for someone you’re keeping anonymous. But if Vlad’s daughter was amongst friends in Naples, with the Dragon Order connection, why would they use a generic dragon and not their proper symbol? Is the tomb even anonymous? I find it hard to believe that a splendid monumental tomb like that isn’t recorded as being that of a known Italian noble.

I’m afraid the whole thing is ‘Da Vinci Code’ level conspiracy, not real history. No-one would be more excited than me to discover that Vlad’s final resting place had been discovered, but this ‘news’ is a long way from that. Glinni and co have requested permission to open the tomb, which is something we’ve seen in other outlandish claims about the dead. It’s rare that permission is ever granted, which means the claimants get to a) keep making their claims and b) blame the authorities for suppressing secret knowledge. It’s win-win for this kind of nonsense.

A Fuller Understanding

December 21, 2013

Image

“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.