Saturday, October 24, 2009

New Sensations

(Below, "MS" stands for "manuscript." Not "Microsoft." And "MSS" means "manuscripts.")

Recently for the very first time I read a MS written before the age of printing: a 12th-century MS of Sallust's Cataline Conspiracy and Jugurthian War. Not just looking at a reproduction -- there are many photographs of old MSS on the Internet, and more than a few in the books I've read. Mostly in newer edition of the texts -- and not just looking at a very old book or scroll in a glass case. No, I was allowed to touch this very old book -- very carefully, of course, and every one who examines old MSS such as this is required to wash his or her hands first -- and turn all the pages. The pages were no more than 9 by 6 inches, a large octavio or small quatro, a bit of a surprise. I guess I was used to seeing huge folio volumes in the aforementioned glass cases and in dramatic reenactments of medieval scholarship. I thought perhaps this copy of Sallust might be contained in one of those old backbreakers along with many other texts. But no, the whole book was Sallust. I had also expected the vellum to be much thicker. (It was the first time I had ever touched vellum or parchment.) These pages did not feel thicker than paper. There were 70-some leafs in the volume, and the stack of them was not much thicker than an inch, if that. I don't think the cover was the original one, but that should in no way be confused with an expert opinion. If it's the original cover it's remarkably intact. It's somewhat uneven and lumpy and fashioned from an indeterminate light-colored substance, and along its spine the volume's title is written in a hand resembling that inside.

The handwriting was small, apart from a very ornate and colorful capital o, about an inch in circumference, blue and green and much gold that looked as if it had to be actual gold, beginning Sallust's text. In the margins were many notes in various hands, much too small for me to have been able to read them had I not had a large magnifying glass. Turning the pages, I was reminded that neither the word "bookworm" nor "wormhole" had begun as a figure of speech, that their original meanings were quite literal.

I asked the librarian on duty whether anyone was there who knew a lot about these sorts of MSS. Very soon after starting to examine it I had many questions: Would the condition of this MS be considered good or poor or average compared to that of 12th-century manuscripts generally? Was the amount of marginal notes unusually large? Had this particular MS been used in the making of any editions? The librarian said no, no one expert in that particular field was there at the moment. A little later, however, she very kindly brought to my table a folder of materials, mostly letters, relating to the manuscript; she said I might find some of these items interesting. Oh yes, I did. There was a letter from the 1920's written by the man who owned the MS then, saying that he had received an offer of over $4000 dollars for it, but would rather see it end up in a public collection than in private hands, and was therefore prepared to accept a lower offer from the library. I don't remember the lower figure he suggested, but it was still several thousand dollars. There was a letter from L D Reynolds in Oxford from the 1980's, when he was preparing his edition of Sallust,asking whether the library could send him a microfilm copy of this MS, and a reply from a librarian who didn't flatly refuse the request, but expressed concern that microfilming might damage the MS. I don't know whether anything was eventually worked out so that Reynolds could see the MS or an image of it, but I have a copy of his edition, published in 1991 by Oxford Classical Texts, and I don't recall any mention of it in his preface or notes.

There was one document from the early 20th or late 19th century, describing the MS as 11th-century, and then another disputing this opinion and advancing very strongly the view that it was written in the 12th-century. I know very little about dating MSS. For now I'm accepting more or less on blind faith that scholars know what they're talking about when they assign dates to MSS. However, I have noticed that many of them, from late antiquity to the High Middle Ages -- between the 3rd and 14th centuries, roughly -- are now dated a century or so later than they were a century ago. This MS is typical of those many in that regard. Look at the siglia in editions of ancient Latin texts made before 1920, and then at editions of the same texts made after 1960, I doubt that you'll have to examine many volumes before you see a manuscript dated a century later after 1960 than it was before 1920. I can't recall a single instance of an old manuscript's generally-accepted date being revised as older. [PS, 15 July 2015: Since writing this post I have seen so many examples of manuscripts' dates being revised as older that I can't say any longer that it seems less common to me than dates being revised as more recent. Nota bene, I am still not be confused with an expert.]

Let us assume that this MS of Sallust really was written in the 12th century, and most of the marginal notes very soon after the body of text, as the catalog and the documents in the folder assert. That is what I was assuming as I was examining it. And very quickly I became quite overwhelmed at the thought. The 12th century, I said to myself. When Baldwin I through Baldwin IV and others were the Kings of Jerusalem. When William of Tyre, tutor of the leprous Baldwin IV, wrote his history of the Crusades.When Saladin eventually retook Jerusalem for Islam. I neglected to note where the MS had been written. Probably by a monk. Perhaps in Germany or France, or northern Italy. Surely the deeds accomplished beyond the sea, the great battles of Christian against Moslem in the Holy Land, must have been among the great news and excitement of the day. The monk who copied out Sallust's histories of Cataline's conspiracy and of Rome's war against Jugurtha, who began each sentence with a red letter and who painted that lovely ornate capital o at the beginning of Sallust's reports, with blue and green and gold twisting to look like coils of rope inside the o's circle -- was this monk swept up by the excitement about the Crusades? Or was he skeptical, and disturbed by all the bloodshed and fanaticism? (Or was it not a monk who wrote this? Or not a he? Very likely it was either a monk or a nun, it was what a lot of them did and few others at the time did anything of the sort.) If someone felt inwardly distanced from all this Christian fervor -- outwardly expressed distance would have been very reckless -- what could he do but study old grumpy "pagans" such as Sallust? Or perhaps he, or possibly she, was a fervent supporter of the wars in the east, and saw parallels between them and ancient Rome's struggles against the wicked troublemaker Cataline and against the African king Jugurtha?

What would he think of me writing about his MS on this computor, on this website? Was he scientifically inclined, would he be delighted to see such things, quick to grasp how they function, or would he feel nothing but shock and terror, convinced that we were all demons and witches? Will anyone read Steven Runciman 850 years from now? How much will books and means of writing change between now and then? Will Latin finally really be dead? I certainly hope not. No, certainly not. Recently I had an idea for a dystopian movie screenplay, depicting a near future where the study of history will have virtually died out, and no one will be able to read anything written more than a couple of centuries in the past. And where a Quixotic hero puts himself at some risk by inquiring into such things. Perhaps the study of Latin and Greek would actually be banned by the authorities.

It might be fun to write something like that as a satire of certain stupid present tendencies. I don't think we're headed toward such a dystopia. Not all of us, anyway. But then again, I live near the campus of one of the greatest universities in the world, which may make me overly optimistic.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Steven Runciman

James Cochran Stevenson Runciman, that is. 1903-2000, A Cambridge-educated historian who wrote mostly of medieval things, especially topics relating more or less closely to Byzantium, and best-known for his three-volume History of the Crusades,published in the 1950's and still pretty universally accepted as the standard work on the subject. I first came upon the name Runciman in William Gaddis' novel Carpenter's Gothic.If the protagonist McCandles had not so emphatically recommended Runciman to another character, I don't know when or if I ever would've read him. Now Runciman is one of my favorite authors and it's hard to imagine not having read him, not to mention not having read many of the authors Runciman mentions in his bibliographies. I first started reading medieval Latin because of Runciman's praise of Orderic Vitalisand William of Tyre

The most common criticism of Runciman is that he has a pro-Byzantine bias. The more I look into the matter, the more I think that what seems like a pro-Byzantine bias to a Western reader has above all to do with the distance between Runciman's version of events and the huge anti-Byzantine bias which has generally prevailed in the West for about as long as there has been a West -- somewhere between a thousand and fifteen hundred years, I'd say. For about that long it has been repeated like a mantra that Byzantine society was dreary and rigid -- but somehow, at the same time, decadent and luxurious. Which of course is a ridiculous contradiction in terms, it's like Americans calling Mexicans lazy and at the same time accusing them of stealing all their jobs. The simple fact is that the West is very ignorant of what went on the Greek world in the period which Westerners have called Byzantine. Few people in the West have read Greek, and most of those few have read only ancient Greek, and of the very few who read Byzantine Greek, by far the most prominent and influential has been Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,whom Runciman calls "our greatest historian," but who shared the prevailing anti-Greek bias, most of the time.

As I was saying, I don't generally agree with the accusation that Runciman was biased in favor of the Greeks, and against the West. Generally. Occasionally he gets carried away, as when he calls the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 the greatest crime in the history of humanity. It was bad, but it was not as bad as what the Europeans have done to the indigenous populations of the western hemisphere, what the Turks did to the Armenians during World War I or what the Germans did to the Jews before and during World War II. In fact, to judge from Runciman's own writings I'm hard-pressed to see how it was substantially worse than what happened when the knights of the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem. It seems clear that Runciman has a special fondness for the culture which was centered in Constantinople between the time when Constantine established the Roman capital there in the fourth century, and when it fell to the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth, and so lets his emotion overrule his judgment when describing how the city was sacked and defiled in 1204. And there's no denying that the Fourth Crusade was a thoroughly despicable and savage affair.

Aside from that, I believe that Runciman -- following directly in the footsteps of his mentor, Professor John Bagnell Bury,1861-1927, who by the way strenuously objected to the term "Byzantine" and always referred to "the later Roman Empire" -- does a great job of correcting some deep errors in the conventional view of history which prevailed in the West before him, and which still prevail, although to a lesser degree, today. Such as the whole notion of the Rennaissance. The "rebirth." The name implies that Classical culture had died, and then waited about a thousand years for Western civilisation to re-discover and give it life again. Well, bullshit. They never stopped reading Plato and Aristotle and Homer et al in the Greek world -- or in the Arab world, either. And the barbarians who had conquered the former Western Roman Empire, and then claimed to have reconstituted it again starting with Charlemagne, had with very few exceptions never learned any Greek, and there was very little conception of the overall dimensions and profundity of the Classical world until the Westerners learned about it through contact with Byzantines and with Moslims, and then claimed that it had been "reborn" through their own efforts. Nothing against Charlemagne personally, he was truly extraordinary, but he was an extraordinary barbarian chieftan, which is not the same as a Roman Emperor. Charlemagne was semi-literate. Most Western rulers for centuries before and after Charlemagne were completely illiterate, as were most of their subjects, in stark contrast to the Roman Emperors, some of whom were also great authors, and the widespread literacy in all social classes which had existed in the part of the Empire which the barbarians conquered and the equally widespread literacy which persisted in the Eastern Empire.

The fall of the Roman Empire didn't occur in 410 when Rome was sacked by Goths, it didn't happen in 476 when the Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus surrendered, the last Western Emperor until the Pope crowned Charlemagne in Rome on Christmas Day in 800. The Empire fell in 1453 in Constantinople, long after the Western "Rennaissance" was under way. The Empire had lived continually up until then and had continually preserved and developed upon Classical culture.

Rennaissance my ass. Just because YOU personally didn't know about something doesn't mean that it had died.

Runciman called the Crusades "the last of the barbarian invasions." Now that's a bold statement, and one which has offended many people who cling to the Romantic image of the Crusaders as dashing good-guy knights on white horses. But Runciman backs up his sweeping statements with copius reference to sources, not only in Latin and Greek, but also in Arabic and Hebrew and Syriac and Armenian and many other languages. Dozens of other languages. I wonder if he himself kept track of the number of languages he could read. (PS, 8. June 2013: I've long wondered whether Runciman was the inspiration for the character Sir Stephen Dodson-Truck in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow,who "speaks 33 languages including English with a strong Oxonian blither to it," although Runciman was a Cambridge man.) I know of no other scholar who has been in a position to examine the various factions of the Crusades in such detail by reading their accounts in their own untranslated words. I don't personally know of another scholar, in any field, who was such a polyglot. My impression is that he really does always try to be scrupulously fair to all sides, to all cultures and peoples and sects and individuals. He seems to me to have a slight pro-Greek bias. I'm not the only one who has said so. But how would I know, I can barely read any Greek. And I can't read any Arabic or Syriac or Armenian or Hebrew or soandandsoforth, so I can't check up on Runciman's accounts of Byzantium's dealings with the other peoples of the Middle East, or of how the Crusaders seemed to others in the Middle East. But as far as I know, no specialist has come forward and claimed that Runciman's expertise in this or that language was not in fact so great, no one has come forward and said: Clearly, thisandthat shows that Runciman misread the text of soandso and strongly suggests that he was not at all fluent in the language.

In spite of what seems to me and to others to have been a pro-Greek bias, the one historical figure for whom Runciman seems to have the most admiration and respect, at least within the confines of his three-volume History of the Crusades, is Saladin, the Moslim leader who in 1187 took Jerusalem from the Crusaders.

I should probably say something about the word "barbarian." When I use that word I mean no more or less than the tribal peoples, mostly Germanic, who conquered and ruled Western Europe after the Romans. I do not mean the word to imply anything, one way or another, about the degree of civilization of these people, or their manners, their cruelty or lack of it or anything else. If the term is not PC, well, good!

The word "barbarian" comes from the ancient Greek, and it originally referred to anyone who spoke a language other than Greek, because, to some ancient Greek person, the foreign language sounded like "ba-ba-ba," which strongly suggests to me that the Greek was not listening to it very closely. The ancient Greeks were sometimes a bit on the xenophobic side, in strong contrast to the Romans and the later, Byzantine Greeks.

So by all means, if you haven't already, I would urge you to read something by Runciman. I'd recommend starting either with the first volume of the history of the Crusades (first published in 1951), or with The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (1965).Either of those serves as a good introduction to Runciman's other works, which tend to be more specialized.

In his first book, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and his Reign: A Study of Tenth-Century Byzantium,although it's an excellent book and well worth reading, Runciman, in his mid-20's, hasn't yet reached his fully mature writing style. (I haven't yet been able to find some other of Runciamn's earlier books, but by 1947 at the latest, when Runciman published The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy,that outstanding writing style is there in all its glory.)

Runciman's history of the Crusades comes in three volumes, entitled A History of the Crusades, Vol. I: The First Crusade and the Foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Vol. II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East, 1100-1187, and Vol III: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades. The first volume has also appeared in an abridgement by the author, entitled simply The First Crusade.This abridgement, aimed "at a wider audience," as they say, has no footnotes or bibliography, and ends with the Crusaders taking Jerusalem in 1099, leaving out the two final chapters of the unabridged version. The material in the remaining chapters has also been condensed slightly.

The unabridged 3-volume history of the Crusades has appeared in many different editions. If you live in a large city and don't object to buying used books -- I know at least one person who refuses to buy used books or touch library books -- then if you shop around you might find a variety of editions available, available either as 3-volume sets or as separate volumes.

In addition to the paperback edition of the abridged account of the first Crusade, there is also at least one hardcover edition of the same text, but with many many brilliant illustrations, many in color.I have a copy of this one, just because of the pictures.

I personally can't really understand how anyone could prefer a book, any book, which has been abridged, and the thought of removing a book's footnotes and bibliography almost hurts me physically, but Runciman was really smart, and he abridged his account of the first Crusade personally, so what do I know? I have a feeling that perhaps my rants on especially arcane subjects should be abridged, and I hope, assuming you've read all the way to the end of this post, that I've given you some helpful information and not just made you sleepy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Cambridge Medieval History (1st. ed.)

I've started to read the Cambridge Medieval History, the first edition, 8 volumes published between 1911 and 1936, and it's really good stuff, no doubt, but still, the pro-Christian bias in the first chapter, and what appears to be a similar bias I've seen in other parts of the work as I browse around, hunt and peck, pick through the indexes, has surprised me. The supervisor of the project, until his death in 1927, was J B Bury, who was a major force in moving western European historical attitudes generally in a more multicultural direction, in removing western Europe's head from its butt so that it was able to see the rest of the world more clearly.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about, from vol 1, chapter 1, pp. 21-2, by H M Gwatkin, MA, Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Cambridge, as he (She? Those British scholars with their so very frequent abbreviation of their first and middle names. A quick and dirty Internet search seems to indicate that, unfortunately, there were no female professors at Cambridge until well after 1911. There are some Misses and Mrs. among the authors of these 8 volumes, however.) sums up the character and achievements of Constantine the Great, who did not quite, as is sometimes asserted, make Rome an officially Christian empire -- Theodosius I did that in AD 380 -- but who probably did more than any other one individual to push the Empire in that direction:

No doubt his Christianity is of itself an offence to Zosimus and Julian, so that we may discount their charges of sloth and luxury: but upon the whole, the judgment of Eutropius would seem impartial, that Constantine was a match for the best emperors in the early part of his reign, and at its end no more than average.

Or in other words: "When pagans disagree with me they're biased slanderers, when they agree with me they're good chaps with sound impartial judgment."

And generally speaking, Gwatkin repeats several times the Christian mantra that the political crisis inherited by Constantine was reflective of a great moral crisis, which was of course solved by the Christianisation of the Empire. Somehow, the people who advance this thesis seem to have no trouble reconciling it with the fact that a more and more completely Christian western Empire disintegrated into pretty complete chaos in the 5th century, and that by the time the western Empire was pretty completely gone, so was any religion other than Christianity which dared to raise its head in public, other than Judaism, which was not better off under the reign of the Prince of Peace than it had been before. (Not to mention the open skepticism of any and all religion, which was also tolerated by Rome before the Christian crackdown.)

But then, it seems to me, sincere Christianity has never been able to exist without pronounced cognitive dissonance. And the study of medieval history in the West in the early 20th century seems to have often been to some synonymous with the propagation of Christian theology: and several of the authors of this History are indeed Reverends. And while this or that pastor or priest of 21st-century England or 18th-century France or 15th-century Italy may be entirely free of any noticeably Christian traits, early-20th-century Cambridge seems to have been much different.

Still, I'm excited about reading the 8-volume history, and impressed by Prof Gwatkin's first chapter despite my reservations -- nobody's perfect, in my opinion -- and I may report here again as I read further. I read Gwatkin's chapter from beginning to end, and it's possible, who knows, that I may eventually read all 8 volumes that way. (I tend not always to read historical works straight through from beginning to end, especially if they happen to be somewhat encyclopaediadic as in this case, but to do a look of looking up and following threads and hunting around and discovering new topics as I investigate the topics I was originally investigating; in short, I have my own way of doing things. I don't claim it's the best way. But I yam what I yam. I spend a lot of time looking over bibliographies, and the bibliographies here, one for each volume and again for each chapter, are long and splendid. For example, I noticed here, not for the first time in a bibliography, a mention of the Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, a collection of source material from medieval Italy, begun in the early 18th century by one L A Muratori, and just a couple of days ago while wondering around in the local university library I happened upon the volumes themselves for the first time anywhere, big folios, mostly very old volumes with crumbling orange covers, magnificent stuff. If the mention of such things does not excite you, you may not be an historian in my sense of the term, or I may not be one in yours.)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Some Statistics Concerning the Presidents of the United States.

Presidential religions: 43 Protestants, 1 Catholic, no Jews, Moslims, Wiccas, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, adherents of other religions or (forthright) atheists.

Gender designations: all 44 so far have claimed to be male, and that's fine if that's how they've wanted to be seen, although in the case of the smooth-faced, wide-hipped, bosomy and childless father of our country, George Washington, I really have to wonder whether the gender could not have been regarded as somewhat ambiguous.

First names: 6 Jameses, 4 Johns, 4 Williams, 3 Georges, 2 Andrews, 2 Franklins, and 1 each for Thomas, Martin, Zachary, Millard, Abraham, Ulysses, Rutherford, Chester, Grover, Benjamin, Theodore, Woodrow, Warren, Calvin, Herbert, Harry, Dwight, Lyndon, Richard, Gerald, Ronald and Barack.

I'm not entirely certain, but I believe that the surnames of 29 of the Presidents have been English. Van Buren and the Roosevelts had Dutch surnames; Harding and Eisenhower are German names, and I think that Polk, Taft, and Hoover may be too, or maybe Dutch or Scandanavian; Buchanan is Scotch, McKinley is either Scotch or Irish, Lincoln and Kennedy are Irish names and I believe Ford may be too; and I don't know whether Obama comes from Arabic, or Swahili, or from some other language.

There are no Spanish surnames among this group. No Italian, or French, or Portugese, possibly no Scandanavian surnames, no Slavic surnames, no Chinese or Japanese or Korean surnames, no Indian surnames, neither of the Native American nor of the subcontinental kind.

Overall, that's a pretty WASPy boys' club, not at all reflective of the cultural diversity of the US. If that was the membership list of a country club the club would be wide open to litigation for breaking anti-discrimination laws, notwithstanding the great breakthrough of the most recent membership.