Tag Archives: miscellaneous

Were Medievals “Just Like Us?”

The above is a question I’ve steered away from for a bunch of reasons. Probably the main one is I don’t know how to properly approach it, not really. I’m not that smart. But I’ve decided to finally give it a shot even though I’m not very well qualified to talk about it. I’m not going to offer any sort of detailed evidence, just a description of my thoughts as they are now, and I make no promise that these won’t change at some point in the future.

The reason I’ve finally decided to address this (I’ve had a draft on this sitting around since the Spring of 2010, a few months after I started this blog) is because I’ve recently received quite a few hits from a site and, as is usual when this happens, I decided to see why/how I was mentioned. In some cases, particularly if it comes from another blog, I like to thank the person who provided the link. In this case the site is a discussion board talking about whether a historical Jesus really existed. In the middle of it one of the participants offered this as part of a comment:

Well, I tend to think people are not so different now as they were back then …

I’ve encountered this plenty of times. For myself, 15 (this is getting perilously close to 20) years or so ago when I first started reading on this, I’d often get into a discussion where I’d use what I thought was very logical reasoning for why some one or group may have behaved in a certain way only to be shot down (usually nicely) when someone pointed out that I was making a lot of assumptions that people back then thought and behaved the same as they do now.

So this is the question; Were Medievals pretty much like us? My answer is yes, and no.

First, there do appear to be some truths about Human behavior which largely transcend time and space. Human beings are social creatures, tending toward living in groups. The size of these groups obviously varies but we tend to want to be around others. These social groups almost always have some sort of hierarchical arrangement where certain members, classes or groups are dominant over other members, classes or groups. Related to this, Humans have a propensity to divide people into “us” and “them.” We tend to establish certain criteria by which we can judge the “us-ness” and “them-ness” of people. Now some groups are far more accepting of “thems” than others. But this still seems to be characteristic.

Family is important. This is almost as much as I want to say on the matter however this seems to be indicated for every group which I’ve read about. Keep in mind though that “family” can mean very different things in different cultures. Romans placed great value on adoption into the family. Some families indicate household members, not biological relations but there seems to be some value placed on family/kinship. This reaches the point of calling members of groups which do not involve kinship “brother” or “sister” in order to emphasize the importance of membership.

The range of Human emotions we have today seems to have existed at least as far back as there are written records. Literature of all times speaks of love, fear, anger, etc. And it’s not exactly an emotion but at least among literate Humans, questions about our origin, our place in the world and whether there is an afterlife and what form it may take seem to be pretty common.

So with all that, I can say yes; Medievals were like us. They were Human beings with some of the same characteristics as folks living today. Like us, they were products of their environments.

And Medievals were very different from us. Their personal characteristics, skills, belief systems, relationships and moralities were formed by their interactions with their own unique environments. These environments were profoundly different from those of modern western civilization. I think we can all see that the worlds in which a 6th century Merovingian, an 8th century Syrian Arab, a 9th century Anglo-Saxon, a 12th century Christian (or Muslim) Iberian or a 14th century Icelander lived in were very, very different from ours. These environments formed the basis for their development as individuals and as societal members. What was or was not important to them, how they thought, made decisions, etc., is based on this personal development. With such a difference in environments, is it reasonable to think that the end products of that environment, people, would be the same as we find today? I don’t think so.

A fairly obvious example of this is slavery. To me and the vast majority of others brought up as I was, the concept that one person can own another is reprehensible. For most of the medieval period, this was not the case, and this is even more explicit when we look at classical Rome. To many Romans, slaves were animals with the ability to talk. Any use a master chose to make of his or her slave (except for sexually if you were a married woman) was permitted. Some of these uses were frowned upon and not spoken of, but they were legal. If I hear of something like this going on (and unfortunately reports occasionally surface) today I become angry and repulsed. Most Romans would not have. This is a fairly obvious example and one that’s been mentioned quite often in literature but there are many others that appear in sources and I’m reasonably sure there are a lot of attitudes which can only be inferred. 1

The same concept of development related to the difference in environment holds true today. When I talk to someone from what we would label Western Civilization, my level of understanding of them is fairly high. It’s certainly far from perfect but I can carry on a conversation with someone from France or Germany where we each seem able to make certain assumptions about one another. We have a fairly closely shared heritage.

However when I interact with someone from, say, the Sudan or Nigeria (even Mexico or Costa Rica), this changes. They have likely learned English. We can understand each others’ words. In discussing specific issues or trying to solve a problem we get along just fine. However the core values and basic assumptions we carry with us are different, as are the worlds in which our identities were formed. This can create some problems if I’m not careful. I have to continuously think about how we interact, communicate, and relate to each other.

In the end, I don’t know exactly how Medievals thought. But I’m just about certain they thought very differently from me. And to add another layer, it’s very possible that the 95% or more of people who are not represented in the sources – the peasants, slaves and other members of the sub-elite classes – thought differently from those for whom we have a record. Heck, I often have a hard time figuring out what a Hollywood actor or someone who comes from old money is thinking. Why would I expect Joe Peasant to think the same as a king?

This is a conversation I enjoy and one which I think is important. Medievals were just like us. However this also means that they were almost certainly very different. The same holds true for today’s global society. Our commonality creates our diversity, and that’s a wonderful thing.

NOTE: I hope this doesn’t come across as condescending or anything. I suspect these are the kinds of issues covered in an introductory history course in college (probably should be in HS), particularly when teaching how to interpret source material. Likely 90% of the people who read this blog know this better than I but I still run across it when I talk to people. And I still have to remind myself of this when I’m reading. Every now and then I have to tell myself something along the lines of, “Really Curt? Do you actually think this was the reason Gregory hated Chilperic so much?”

1 There’s a fair amount of variability here which I’ll leave alone as I may want to eventually do a post on the differences between Christian and Roman concepts of slavery.


Posted by on September 29, 2013 in Historiography


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Radiation, History, and Human Misery

I need to offer two apologies. First is for not posting more often. Every year around mid-June I seem to get very busy which cuts down on my blogging. For some reason I thought that might not happen this year but it has (definition of insanity here?). At the very least I’ll be quite busy through a conference in Charleston I’m returning from on July 20 and I imagine for at least a few weeks after that. My second apology is that I’m about to put up what may be one of the most pointless posts I’ve ever written. But I want to get something out which I could put together quickly, even though a chunk of it relates to my real job.

I recently received the conference proceedings for the “International Science Symposium on Combating Radionuclide Contamination in Agro-Soil Environment.” Yes, this is the kind of stuff I read for my real job. A friend of mine from USDA who I work with on a national radiological project attended (March 8-10 in Koriyama Japan) and sent the proceedings to me. This is absolutely fascinating stuff (this term will be repeated later). We have the world’s largest outdoor laboratory to assess the agricultural and environmental impacts of a large-scale radiological incident. The amount we’re going to learn from this, lessons we can apply in case of another incident, will be tremendous.

The proceedings, which include discussions of topics such as; the efficacy of recovery techniques such as potassium or phosphate fertilizer applications, feeding Prussian Blue to livestock; which crops are susceptible and resistant to radionuclide soil uptake; lessons learned from Chernobyl and their application to Japan, etc., is riveting. Seriously. And I’m just getting started reading it.

So I’m reading the first presentation and the thought literally crosses my mind, “This is absolutely fascinating.”

Full. Stop.

This is a real tragedy, with a massive Human cost. The death toll will likely approach 20,000. The economic losses will be in the hundreds of billions and won’t be able to be accurately assessed for decades. Displaced families, cultural damage and loss – I suppose I could throw in a hundred terms about what Japan and its citizens have suffered and continue to suffer. And I find it fascinating? I was more than a little appalled at my response.

I can’t help it. As I continue to read, it continues to be fascinating. Intellectually I know there have been massive losses and suffering. I can’t say I’ve never been exposed to this as I’ve assisted with disaster response before though for nothing approaching this scale. However for the most part my interest in the subject matter trumps my recognition of the devastation. And then I started thinking about history.

I find it fascinating too. Never mind that so much of it is about Human suffering. The end of the Roman Empire, the period in which I’m most interested, resulted in (I’m certain, despite some recent books seeking to minimize this) major societal upheaval, loss, death, lack of security, and so on. During the later Roman Empire the mere existence of the institution of slavery meant that for many people their entire lives consisted of a pitiful existence. Among the areas I find most interesting are heresy and its suppression and the Crusades. No suffering there, eh? (sarcasm mode)

But I don’t think of this, much. I know it went on though I can’t quantify it. I don’t give it all that much thought when I’m reading about the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent disaster (though it does encroach a bit more). I’m not a psychologist and can’t begin to explain it but I don’t think I’m alone in being able to read about and study Human events which were absolutely devastating for those involved where my foremost thought isn’t the Human impact but rather how interesting it is. I guess we wouldn’t want a world full of people walking around crying every time a tragic event crossed their minds. Even so, I find this troubling.

Don’t say you weren’t warned; I told you this post was pointless.


Posted by on June 23, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Maybe This is Why There Were Pirates

I don’t want to make fun of anyone because if you want to dress as a pirate, why shouldn’t you? There have always been a few folks dressed in an interesting manner at Kalamazoo and while I can’t recall ever giving it much thought I’ve pretty much figured they were doing so because what they were wearing added something to a paper or presentation they were giving. Heck, I happen to wear a giant belt buckle much of the time as a holdover from my days in rodeo and as a horse trainer, though my wearing it all the time at this year’s Congress was more a factor of my leaving in a hurry and forgetting to throw something less obtrusive in my bag.

However maybe there’s another explanation. Check out this article from a Detroit CBS affiliate titled Hobbit Alert: Michigan College Hosts Medieval Fair. I saw that and about spit up water all over my keyboard.

I was happy to see that they also referenced Game of Thrones.

There’s no real harm in this if it gets more people there, unless folks didn’t get what they were expecting. But I’d say the article fails to capture the flavor of Congress.


Posted by on May 22, 2012 in Conferences, Humor and Games


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Kalamazoo 2012 – Day One; The Arrival, Accommodations and Other Miscellany

Folks will be getting sick of me posting about Kalamazoo, if they aren’t already, and this one will have almost no educational content. However I want to get this out while it’s fresh on my mind, particularly since there were some significant changes which I think reflect favorably Lisa Carnell and the Congress organizers. Lisa is flat-out awesome. I’m annually impressed with what she puts together. In some ways this post follows the format of Jonathan Jarrett’s recollection of his first Kalamazoo experience.

I had some trouble getting away from home, which led to minor troubles once I arrived. Literally half an hour before I’d planned to depart I received a call about a major snafu regarding a program I’m hosting this week. I won’t go into details but basically the site where I was bringing a hundred or so attendees, several pieces of equipment and several speakers to was no longer available. The host site had a very good reason for this and there’s no blame here but I had to find an alternate site and notify speakers and attendees. This helped me to forget several items, among those being my Kalamazoo Program Book, which is essential. I realized this was absent literally on arrival. There’s a simple fix – buy a new one – but I also had to go through it and re-mark which sessions I was planning to attend. And somehow I managed to forget deodorant. This may not have mattered much to me but I’m fairly certain it would have to those around me. Luckily I have wheels so at about 10:00 I found a grocery store open (the first I came to had already closed which began to concern me) and took care of that issue. I also had thought I might pop by a winery to help ADM a bit with the Blogger Meetup but this didn’t happen either. In essence, I had a bit more stress on leaving, left later than I’d wanted to, brought work with me, contrary to my plans, and was without a few items, though I did remember my soap dish.

Shortly after getting to my room and on discovering that I could not give myself a deodorant “booster shot” (do people really want to read this? how mundane some aspects of us as a species are) I decided my attitude needed some help and I went down to the wine hour sponsored by Witan Publishing and Scott Nokes. There I had my first of several Cullen Chandler encounters and I enjoyed briefly chatting with him. I had initially thought I’d run into town Thursday morning but instead I ran up to my room and did an inventory; toothbrush-check, razor-check, shampoo-check, etc. On finding that deodorant was indeed the only personal hygiene item I was lacking, I made my town run (don’t worry, I’d had just one of those little plastic cups of wine so I think I was safe). On returning I filled in my shiny new program book with sessions to attend the following day and made my bed, thus ending day one. Now on to some accommodations/amenities details.

The food has improved. The dining hall meals were as I remembered them, however the snack bar in Schneider was open through the week where in the past it was only open Thursday. This is a major improvement. The food there isn’t exactly good – you grab a sandwich which has been pre-made and sealed in plastic – however it is a way of consuming calories without having to run off if you happen to have your last morning and first afternoon session in Schneider, as I did on Saturday. Bernhard has a complete food court with multiple options (long lines but you have two hours for lunch).

The provided soap was brand-name. I always bring my own soap as I have literally dozens of little bars of the stuff at home from hotel stays and might as well use it up – same for shampoo(I actually like the stuff Sheraton provides, maybe I’m weird) – but I was impressed by this anyway. My bed/mattress was the best I’ve ever had there. They had bolted plywood to the bedframe to eliminate the pesky sagging issue and I actually had a real mattress, not one of those thin foam things. I also had two beds which always helps as a location to put books.

Wireless Internet access is now available in most of the dorm rooms. There were only a couple of dorms without and happily mine received it. I have a feeling as I read other reports that this will be HUGE. Of course there was the inevitable letdown when I returned home to 3G access through my aircard but it’s not Kalamazoo’s fault that I live in Siberia/rural Central Indiana. The same held true for the exhibit area. Most used digital credit card readers. I only had a couple of mechanical card swipes.

Now a word of caution. Among the items I forgot was my leg weights. Since my hip replacement I have some exercises I do and even 5 months post-op, doing these absolutely makes a difference. If I ever forget them again for four days and have wheels I’m finding a sporting goods store; for some reason I didn’t think of this until I was driving home. I walked to sessions Thursday and realized this was about all I wanted to put the hip through once I’d come back from Bernhard to a late afternoon Valley Session. However I didn’t want to drive for some reason. I soon found that the shuttle service is fine to get to things first thing in the morning, and fine for the two-hour lunch break, but on Friday I tried to use it to get from Bernhard to Schneider in the half hour between the two afternoon sessions (my hip was speaking to me rather loudly at the time) and ended up walking in late to that session (where the speaker I really wanted to hear was not in attendance, more on absent speakers later). I hate walking in late. It’s rude and disrespectful and shows a lack of concern for the others in the room. Sometimes this is unavoidable. For instance, a speaker may end up talking to several folks following their session and just not be able to make it. I had no such excuse though the young lady whose talk I walked in on accepted my apology graciously. In any case, that was the last time I used the shuttle for the half hour between sessions. This is likely more my fault than theirs and I don’t want to come across as blaming anyone for it but offer this for future reference as to what the shuttle can and can’t do. I ended up making at least one “half trip” (usually back to Valley) each day. It was OK and there was never any risk of any injury/harm, it was just uncomfortable, particularly when I had to set a decent pace.

So the accommodations were improved (my camping with walls reference may no longer be applicable), as were the meal options. The wine and free coffee service continue to be good; I only availed myself of the coffee Saturday morning following my ill-advised pizza and beer dinner when I had no interest in breakfast.

I’ll follow with posts on sessions and what I did Thurs-Sun in the coming weeks. If I recall anything to add regarding facilities/accommodations/amenities I’ll insert those but I think this is most of it. Lisa Carnell and the Conference Committee deserve a lot of credit for continuing to work to improve Congress. I was pleasantly surprised by a number of things.


Posted by on May 14, 2012 in Conferences


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Semi-Random Thoughts: Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine and Books

Now that I’m removing pain-killers from my diet I find myself wanting to post more (this may end tomorrow when I find out how much I have waiting for me at work) but I’m still having some issues sitting for long periods which is having an impact on my finishing more technical stuff such as my Cameron review. This may actually be a good thing in the long run as I’ve been scribbling notes on a pad while reclining but it’s not doing much for getting the post out. When I’m doing serious work, I perform at my best sitting upright, balanced, focused on my computer, keyboard and whatever references I’ve surrounded myself with. I don’t consider a post such as my recent one on Ambrose to be completely non-formal but it was based on, mostly, one reference and composed more of my impressions than a load of facts. For much of it I was leaning back with my keyboard on my lap. So today I’m going to throw out a few things that I’m looking into and hope I don’t bore everyone to death.

As I began looking into my Christianity reading project I decided to begin by reading a bit more on Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine, then work backwards. I’m now thinking this is the wrong approach. The primary impacts of these three are on what came after rather than their output reflecting what came before. My very rough idea of these impacts could be summed up as; Augustine impacting future doctrine; Ambrose impacting Church organization and the role of the bishop and; Jerome impacting asceticism. I am certain that the previous sentence is an extreme oversimplification however I also think there’s some truth at its core. In many ways Jerome may be the most interesting as he was something of a contemporary fringe figure who gained importance as time went on. I’m afraid that once I start reading him I’ll find myself following up with all the stuff I have on asceticism, monasticism, desert fathers, etc. This is fine but it’s not the “start at the beginning of the 5th century and work backwards” method I originally had planned.

I’ve read a bit on each of these and have more on my shelves. The question I’m asking myself at the moment is how much of their source material; their writings, letters, sermons, etc., should I read? For Jerome and Ambrose this may not be that big of a deal. There’s a good amount of source material out there but not so much that I can’t go through a fairly high percentage of it. Augustine is another issue. I’ve read his Confessions and City of God. The first seven volumes of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series consists of his material. This is several thousand pages. How much of this do I need to read? (I don’t expect an answer here) I imagine that On Christian Doctrine, his various works on will and grace, and his stuff against the Donatists will be on my list. What about On the Soul, On Patience, On Virginity, etc.? I’ll figure it out. Hopefully I won’t figure wrongly.

Kudos to my friends who are getting smarter (see footnote 1 for details). This year several of my gifts have been cards for booksellers. Yesterday I used a couple of them to order some Symmachus and Libanius. I have two more which I’m going to hold off on using for a bit but at this moment I’m looking at Macrobius’ Saturnalia and Emperor Julian. I have to come up with some pretty distinct thank-you’s so they remember this for next year. Or maybe I just need to schedule major surgery every year around Christmas.


Posted by on January 8, 2012 in Blogology, Books, Religion


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How Much do You Know About Vikings?

David Beard posted a link to a Viking quiz on his Archaeology in Europe Blog. It’s pretty tough. I’m too embarrassed to say exactly how I did but let’s just say I didn’t pass. In my defense, I took it closed book. I have quite a few books on Medieval Scandinavia and the Vikings which I intend to read when I start on the Carolingians (likely several months from now). Hopefully once I do that I’ll score a bit better.

Here’s the link to the quiz


Posted by on December 9, 2011 in Humor and Games


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A Post About Books, Inspired by Guilt

I really have nothing medieval to say but I’m feeling very bad about not having posted anything historical in about a month.

There is a reason for this. Work’s been busy and this coming week is the penultimate one for this group I’ve been working with for the past year. It’s also the last week, but penultimate is such a cool word. Purdue also has this fun little tradition where every September 15 we’re required to report on everything we’ve done for the entire year. Of course one could keep track and input information over the previous 51 weeks but who’d want to give up the panicked adrenaline rush?

But all of this is not why I haven’t posted. The real reason is I’ve done very little Medieval reading. And while work’s been busy, there’s still been some time available. I’ve just been doing other things, which I’ll explain with a true story.

A couple of weeks ago I received an offer from an academic book publisher offering a substantial discount on some books. Those of you who know me or who have been following this blog will be unsurprised to discover that I took advantage of this opportunity. I ordered five books, saving a chunk of change (once you set aside the fact that I could have spent no money and still had plenty on hand to read), and in doing so saved over a hundred bucks on another book I found almost by accident (not the book, the offer).

This all happened while I was in the office busily entering data onto Purdue’s website. I looked through the book sale, found five I didn’t have, ordered them, and went on my way.

A day later, back home, I went to enter the books into my spreadsheet and, well, if anyone is interested in a copy of either Origen and the History of Justification: The Legacy of Origen’s Commentary on the Romans by Thomas P. Scheck or Christianity’s Quiet Success: The Eusebius Gallicanus Sermon Collection and the Power of the Church in Late Antique Gaul by Lisa Kaaren Bailey, e-mail me and we can work something out. Haven’t read either of ’em yet or this little problem wouldn’t have happened.

Now, being out $70 for buying books I already have isn’t going to cause me to miss any meals. At the same time, while I like the publishing industry, I’m not keen on making this a habit. It’s one thing to see something in a used bookstore for five bucks, wonder whether I already have it and decide to buy it. That’s only five dollars, not fifty. So I’ve spent the bulk of my spare time the last couple of weeks re-cataloging my entire collection, books in my possession as well as my wishlist, to prevent a recurrence.

While I was at it, I decided this would be the time to figure out just what sources I already have. I have a ton of these on my wishlist but haven’t cataloged (this spelling of “cataloged” just looks wrong but my dictionary likes it), for example, all of the individual sources contained in the 14 volumes of my Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series collection. No point in buying Saint Augustine: The Teacher, the Free Choice of the Will, Grace and Free Will, Russell, trans., from the Fathers of the Church series when I already have it in another form – I haven’t reached the point where I feel the need to have a specific edition of a source.

This is taking some time. I was pretty sure it would which was why I was waiting for a blizzard or something before I set to it. I think it’s gone beyond being a task or a chore and is a full-blown project. I’m at about the halfway point which means that it may be another week or two before I get back to posting substance. The plus side, from a blogging perspective, is that I have the outlines for several posts I’d like to put up. In any case, I apologize for not posting much lately and even more for the boring post – hopefully you’re reading this just before going to bed.


Posted by on September 19, 2011 in Books


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