Category Archives: Books

Posts about books.

Re-readings

I recently read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Virgil, Aeneid Book VI. This is the book of the Aeneid where Aeneas descends to the underworld in the company of the Sibyl of Cumae. It is probably the most famous book of the whole poem. I have read it before — four times in Latin, as well as three complete readings of the poem in English (once Jackson Knight, twice Fagles) plus C. S. Lewis’ Lost Aeneid. I have also read most of the Aeneid in Latin.

There is a special pleasure that comes of re-reading the Aeneid, whether in the translation of a masterful poet such as Heaney, or in the original masterful poet’s very own words. The discovery of something new, perhaps. Or surprising yourself by being immersed in Virgil’s verse yet again. Like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, you can taste Virgil again for the very first time. The beauty of the poetry will always entrance me. The pathos of Dido. The citadel of dread Proserpina. The catalogue of Romans.

Worth reading. Every time.

I re-read some things for work. I do not know how many times I have read certain of Leo’s letters. I may have surveyed over 240 manuscripts, but that does not mean I have actually read the entirety of them all! I would never have finished my Ph.D. Many things I re-read for work are also pleasure, of course. Academics do not choose disciplines we hate. So I’ve read Augustine’s Confessions three times (Pine Coffin once, Chadwick twice), likewise Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. I’ve read Homer’s Odyssey in its entirety three times (Fagles, Rieu, Shewring) although I have made some good headway in the original Greek. The Iliad I have read three times as well (Verity, Rieu, Lattimore), besides a teenage start on Fagles and a good chunk in Greek. Ovid’s Metamorphoses I’ve read in English twice (Melville both times) and various portions in Latin.

Circling back to Virgil, I have read all the Eclogues twice in Latin, once in English (whoever did the Loeb), and various of them multiple times in Latin.

I continue to re-read beyond work, for the pleasures are similar, even if the goals of reading differ. Right now, I am between The Two Towers and The Return of the King in my fourth reading of The Lord of the Rings; I have read The Hobbit five times. Narnia — who knows? All of them at least twice! I have read Beowulf three times. Many others I think have read only twice, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated ManThe Nibelungenlied, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight.

Then there are short works that resonate. I have inscribed John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God’ in the back of a notebook. Who knows how many re-reads that has had?

And, of course, those I want to re-read. Asimov’s Foundation novels, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451The Way of a Pilgrim.

Re-readings make reading a richer experience, catching what you missed, remembering what you’d forgotten, remembering what you loved, being drawn back into something again. And again.

I know someone who reads books three times. Once to see if they are worth reading. If they are, he reads them again to enjoy them more. And a third time to see what he missed the other times. He has read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov nine times. Well, that was in 2004 or 2005 — so maybe he’s surpassed that by now!

It’s a worthy approach to literature.

Excuse me, I have some Virgil to read.

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Two Fulgentii for the price of one

In my latest post for the Durham Priory Library Recreated project blog, I discuss the insufficiencies of the old Durham Cathedral catalogue and point out the library’s manuscripts with works by Fulgentius. Both of him. Enjoy!

Sorting out your Fulgentii

The Mammoth Book of Pirates

The Mammoth Book Of PiratesThe Mammoth Book Of Pirates by Jon E. Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The real world of pirates, buccaneers, corsairs, was (is) not glamorous or romantic but violent, bloody, and dastardly. And, I think, probably boring much of the time. In this volume, Jon E. Lewis has gathered together a wide array of pirate-related material, including many first-hand accounts and narratives close in time to the events. I was not expecting this — I thought it would be modern retellings, but I am glad for the diversity found here.

Indeed, this book starts with Sir Francis Drake’s own account of his raid on Nombre de Dios. In here you will also find eyewitness accounts of the vile cruelty wrought by Sir Henry Morgan. The lives and criminal exploits of the famous pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy are all included here — Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, Anne Bonney and Mary Read, and Lafitte. There are also stories of maroonings, which are quite interesting, one of which was the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. The volume ends with two appendices. One is the entirety of Byron’s narrative poem The Corsair, the other is from anti-piracy law in Britain, c. 1724.

Alongside the various first-hand accounts are many extracts from Charles Ellms and Howard Pyle. Ellms can tend towards tedious detail, unfortunately, combined with moralising. Thus, entire courtroom speeches are included.

One of the writers included here who is as close to firsthand as we get for many of these pirates is Capt. Charles Johnson. Lewis neglects to mention the fact that Johnson is a pseudonym for an as-yet insecurely identified London publisher in the 1700s, and much of what he writes is probably fiction.

Finally, a lot of what goes on in piracy is dull. That is, it is unremarkable. They sail hither and yon. They board vessels. Fighting ensues. People die. Goods are stolen. Repeat. There is a sameness to the narratives herein. No fault of Lewis, mind you. There is really only so many ways to tell the same story with different actors.

In the end, my favourite is still Capt. Kidd.

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Empires: Old, New, Near, and Far, Far Away (May the Fourth Be with You)

I am in the midst of applying for academic jobs for next year. Although it is a tiring task, I have no doubt a job will come. (But the sooner the better!) I have had employment all three years since my Ph.D., after all. One part of the job application process is pitching to prospective departments fresh and exciting courses you could offer — although introductory Roman history courses seem to be the most well-attended in Classics, overall.

Then again, maybe my course on the reception of Classics in science fiction could change that statistic. Now, there are some obvious points of reception to consider when you turn your eye to sci-fi and the Classics — Battlestar Galactica and Virgil’s Aeneid, for example. Or time travel programmes that go to ancient Rome or Greece. Or any time there’s a gladiator fight.

Less obvious would be making them read Dan Simmons’ beautiful, gut-wrenching, space opera Hyperion, a multi-layered reception of classics, of theology, of theoretical physics, and of John Keats.

On the more obvious side are empires.

The most obvious empire, of course, is the evil Galactic Empire of Star Wars, with a dark magician Sith Lord as emperor. Here, empire is evil. In Rogue One, I finally felt the actual evil and oppression of the Empire. In Star Wars, we saw their brutality in the wanton murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. In The Empire Strikes Back, we saw how they used force and economics to manipulate Lando Calrissian to their own ends. In Return of the Jedi they killed Ewoks. The rest of any evil perpetrated by the Empire in the original trilogy was largely confined to battle. Is killing ‘good people’ in battle any more evil when done by an evil Empire or a Rebel Alliance?

Anyway, as I say: Rogue One. I felt that here we finally felt the arbitrariness of their oppressive system and the suffering of ordinary people who weren’t harbouring fugitives from the Sith or buying droids formerly in Rebel possession. Just people. Suffering at the hands of a largely faceless government. Also, I really felt that Darth Vader was a violent, evil threat in that final scene.

Back to Classics: pitted against this Empire is the Rebel Alliance who wish to bring back the Old Republic. The ideals of this republic are modern-Americanised versions of ancient republican ideals, of freedom for local societies and individuals to serve beneath the big government in a mutually self-serving way.

What is interesting here is the fact that both the Roman Republic, as a transnational Mediterranean state, and the Roman Empire as the same, combine elements of republicanism and evil imperialism. They oppress at times. They leave local cities to be essentially self-governing at others (save, of course, the levying of taxes). They might wage a devastating war against your city and almost obliterate it (Republic: Corinth and Carthage, 146 BCE; Empire: Jerusalem 70 CE).

Coruscant is not the only world-city capital of a galactic empire, of course. Before Coruscant in a galaxy far, far away, there was Trantor, here in our Galaxy, the seat of galactic empire in Isaac Asimov’s Empire and Foundation novels. The original Foundation trilogy — FoundationFoundation and Empire, and Second Foundation — won the Hugo for Best Series Ever, FYI. So go and read it.

Asimov’s galactic empire, by the time of Foundation, at least, is a Good Thing. Or at least a Thing. Largely neutral as far as being an empire is concerned, but able to bring good things to its citizens. However, it is not far from its own fall. And in the wake of the fall of the empire will come galaxy-wide de-stabilisation. There will be chaos and a fall into ruin and a setting back the clock to an earlier time. Kind of like how we can’t tell if some Welsh archaeology is Stone Age or Post-Roman. Or the inferior quality of some Anglo-Saxon pottery, famously used as an illustration of this fact by Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

The Foundation of the title is the foundation of a new empire, with the goal of lessening the impact of decline and fall, with the goal of keeping chaos at bay and gently directing history towards a beneficial conclusion for all humanity. For Asimov, empire is not necessarily good — he is the son of immigrant Russian Jews, after all. But he is aware enough of nuance to envision an empire as a good.

Asimov, then, is also inspired by the Classics in his empire — by the Fall of Rome more than by the transfer of power from the Senate to the Augustus.

What about the Romulan Star Empire in Star Trek? Obviously, the names of their home planets — Romulus and Remus — are classical. And the terminology of their governmental apparatus is itself Roman, with prefects and all that jazz. But what else is Roman about them?

Perhaps — and this is a spur-of-the-moment speculation — they represent a Gibbon-esque Byzantine Empire. Romulans are famous for speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They are notorious for being untrustworthy. They have secrets buried in their secrets. They are also the same species as Vulcans, but their governments are now divided after all these years.

Just a thought that needs more reflection.

These are only a few ways in which science fiction has represented empires. One of the important questions in reception is how does the cultural moment of the piece you are considering affect its representation and use of the classics. In a post-colonial, post-imperial — indeed, anti-imperial — climate, it is no great surprise that Firefly‘s Alliance is the faceless, exploitative villain. And, in a pre-World War I USA, are we surprised at John Carter’s union of the city-states of Barsoom as what is essentially an empire under Helium in The Warlord of Mars?

I do wonder how Solo in a few weeks will portray the evil Galactic Empire, living in a post-truth, fake news era with Trump as President of the USA and Putin acting like the latest Tsar? How does this political moment affect our reading of ancient Rome and empire’s reception in fiction?

Gratian’s Decretum both fills and creates a need

Tree of consanguinity (13th-c, not a Durham ms; do not know which ms)

This week, I spent some time analysing three of Durham Cathedral Library’s canon law manuscripts, C.II.1, C.I.7, and C.III.1. All of these are from the late twelfth or very early thirteenth century. Sadly, none is yet digitised. They are all manuscripts of Magister Gratian’s so-called Decretum, a canon law collection put together around 1140 in Bologna (original title: Concordia discordantium canonum — Concord of discordant canons). They all include glosses — marginal commentaries keyed to individual words in the main text. C.II.1 and C.I.7 have the same base gloss.

The University of Bologna, where Magister Gratian taught, has a strong claim to being Europe’s first university (as we understand the term), and where the scholastic study of both Roman and canon law was born in the 1100s. With the rise of the university comes the need for textbooks. We all know this today — as an undergraduate, I used Wheelock’s LatinGreek: An Intensive CourseA History of the Roman People, all books designed specifically for teaching, for the classroom (the schola in medieval terms; thus scholasticus, thus ‘scholasticism’).

Gratian’s Decretum is that textbook for most of the rest of the Middle Ages, although as the body of papal legislation ramps up in the 1200s, it becomes necessary to supplement Gratian in the classroom with the new laws. Gratian offers the reader a systematic setting forth of church law. He begins with what many call the ‘Treatise on Laws’, a discussion of what natural and customary law are, what their domains are, what justice is, whether laws can be unjust, and what the sources of authority in law are amongst other concerns.

The Decretum as most people used it from the 1150s on, then systematically treats different sub-areas of canon law. Following the scholastic method, Gratian lays out for the reader different opinions from various authorities (councils, popes, church fathers) and seeks a way through them where they differ, finding the concordia of the book’s title. When the authorities themselves do not naturally create a resolution, Gratian will give his own.

The result is a massive compendium of canon law covering most of what one needs to know in the mid-1100s. It is much larger than, say, the Decretum of Burchard of Worms from the early 1000s (having held manuscripts of both, I can attest to this fact). Nevertheless, Gratian’s Decretum fills the need for a canon law textbook, a need keenly felt, given how quickly it was dispersed and how full its dominance really was. Take note that canon law is the one subject taught at all medieval universities and that some of the cathedral schools, such as that of Lincoln, closed because they did not offer canon law. A textbook such as this had a wide audience and great potential.

It fills a need.

I think also, however, that it creates a need. With a text suited to the methods of the twelfth-century classroom becoming widely available, more people would be able to become more deeply acquainted with the broad range of church legislation that Gratian had compiled. It became the set body of esoteric knowledge needed to become a professional in canon law. With everyone teaching it and learning from it, anyone who wanted to make a case in an ecclesiastical court or through a written plea/appeal or simply who wanted to get a job done in compliance with church law, would have to have either someone versed in canon law at hand or be that person him’erself (usually him, this being the Middle Ages, but not always).

Thus, by its very popularity, Gratian’s Decretum created the need for Gratian’s Decretum. We don’t have four copies in Durham for no reason. No matter how good Ivo’s Decretum or Burchard’s or the Panormia attributed to Ivo was, without the particulars of law as set out in Gratian’s Decretum, one would be at a disadvantage in the brave, new world of burgeoning canon law and the growth of the western church as a legislative institution.

So everyone got a copy.

Men, persons, humans

Thor: A person who is not a human

Since the Old English use of man to mean ‘a human being’ has been largely co-opted at this stage in the history of English to mean ‘a male human being’, many people have rightly sought new, gender-neutral/inclusive nouns to refer to individual human persons.

The most common solution is person/persons (or people). However, this does not work in all cases, since in some domains, human beings are not the only persons potentially under discussion. The realms that come to mind in this regard are theology, mythology, and science fiction and fantasy. In the last dual category of genre fiction, Star Trek calls us earthlings humans (pronounced by Quark the Ferengi as ‘humahns’). Obviously, many non-humans in Star Trek are persons — Odo and Hu, just to mention those who’ve already made an appearance on this blog. But all humanoid species and many non-humanoid species in Trek are persons. Even Q, the space fairy.

I am actually less certain about fantasy, since I do not read a lot of new fantasy. In Tolkien, the human species is populated by Men with a capital ‘M’, reflecting both the archaic nature of the language and its cadence as used by Tolkien as well as Tolkien’s own era.

In mythology, one has a variety of non-human persons. The concern here arises for translators and philologists who want to discuss literature in the Classical tradition. How do you render anthropos and homo? It cannot be person, since by current English usage, gods, demi-gods, centaurs, et al., are also persons.

Similarly in theology. In Christian theology, God is a Trinity of Persons, so it is actually imprecise to use person where a few decades ago one would have used manMankind also runs into similar problems, often solved by humankind, a word I dislike; much better to say humanity, I think. One place where this is a difficulty is Genesis 1, where God speaks of making, in older translations, ‘man in our image’. Andrew Louth circumvented this danger in Introducing Eastern Orthoodox Theology by consistently rendering (from Greek, not Hebrew) anthropos as human kind until he had to bring the discussion to the singular.

Many current English translations of the Bible and ancient Christian literature seem to think person is a perfect synonym for anthropos. Or, in the case of new translations of the Nicene Creed, cut men out altogether, ‘who for us and for our salvation’. Loses some of the theological potency; us what?

One of the books that is consistent in using one solution to the problem is Greta Austin, Shaping Church Law Around the Year 1000: The Decretum of Burchard of Worms. She consistently always refers to human beings using the substantive humans. This works. It is not as common as it should be, although I see it every once in a while. The philological objection is, of course, that human is an adjective, not a noun. But adjectives are frequently nounified when necessary, and this maintains the linguistic precision of the Latin text under discussion as well as the theological context of Burchard.

Perhaps not a breakthrough or deep or illuminating, but it is important for us to keep in mind not only why we may wish to shift our lexicon away from something, but also to consider where we are turning. Precision and accuracy are important, and person is often too imprecise for accuracy in language.

Patristic homilies for a medieval Christmas

My latest post on the Durham Priory Library Recreated project blog looks at Durham Cathedral Library B.II.2, a copy of Paul the Deacon’s homiliary of patristic sermons arranged by feast:

Christmas in the Codices