Monthly Archives: March 2011

Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon experience

First page of the oldest surviving Beowulf manuscript

Beowulf is an epic poem that is richly Anglo-Saxon–despite its hero being a Dane.  When I read it I am amazed at how clearly the image of the hall of Hrothgar, Heorot, appears in my mind, with its central fire, its tables and warrior thegns and ealdormen drawn by the wealth, success and generosity of their king.  In these strongholds the storyteller was revered for his harp, voice and tales.  Certainly, that is how Beowulf began, as a story told to the community in the halls of kings. When I think about how Beowulf’s images of come to be so clearly formed in my imagination, there are two sources to credit: the first is The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and the second was through the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar, Bede, by way of one of my history professors, Dr. Lawrence Poos (The Catholic University of America). J.R.R. Tolkien, a scholar of early European cultures, especially Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures, made copious reference to Beowulf’s culture and borrowed a great deal in the formation of the complex world of his literary Middle Earth and languages.  The Rohirrim are based upon the Anglo-Saxons, except for the horses–replace horses with ships and it is a closer approximation to the reality.  In fact, Tolkien writes one of the foundational lectures/essays on Beowulf arguing for the first time that the story is just that: a story.  Previous interpretations always assumed or sought to establish an historical event that gave way to the Grendal myth.  (For a modern author’s fictional interpretation of this idea, I recommend Michael Crichton’s Eater’s of the Dead also titled The 13th Warrior–yes, from the movie with Antonio Banderas–which is based in part on the writings of an Arab who encountered the Vikings and in part on a “plausible” event that inspired the epic Beowulf.)

One of the earliest images of Bede

The other inspiration for my imagination is, as mentioned, Bede.  Dr. Poos, in particular, drew attention to an exquisite description of the Anglo-Saxon culture that is captured, almost accidentally, by Bede in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  This work of history is in large part the story of England from Roman times up until his lifetime ending around 732 AD/CE.  Central to this story is the Church in England and the conversion of recently arrived Anglo-Saxon peoples from the continent, as the title would imply–Ecclesiastical History!  Bede writes in Book II, Chapter 13 about the missionary work of the bishop Paulinus with King Edwin:

When the king heard his words, he answered that he was both willing and bound to accept the faith which Paulinus taught.  He said, however,  that he would confer about this with his loyal chief men and his counselors so that, if they agreed with him, they might all be consecrated together in the waters of life.  Paulinus agreed and the king did as he had said.  A meeting of his council was held and each one was asked in turn what he thought of this doctrine hitherto unknown to them and this new worship of God which was being proclaimed.

This is a significant chunk of text for most people who are used to thinking of kings with absolute power.  The thegns and ealdormen chose the king and rewarded him with their service based on his loyalty and generosity to them–they were free to break with him and follow another if he was regarded as unworthy–an element of the culture that is also evident in Beowulf.  After the king’s chief priest claims no faith in their gods because he has followed them with zeal without rewards, one of the “chief men agreed with this advice and with these wise words” he added:

This is how the present life of man on earth, King, appears to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us.  You are sitting feasting with your ealdormen and thegns in winter time; the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of that hall and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging; and a sparrow flies swiftly through the hall.  It enters in at one door and quickly flies out through the other.  For the few moments it is inside the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm, it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm and into it again.  So this life of man appears but for a moment; what follows or indeed what went before, we know not at all.  If this new doctrine brings us more certain information, it seems right that we should accept it.

I am not overly fond of this particular translation (from Latin, not Anglo-Saxon, despite it being Bede’s native tongue), but I am extremely fond of the imagery.  That sparrow, if he flew into the hall during winter’s tempests, would very likely and unknowingly have winged through a performance of Beowulf or one of the other Anglo-Saxon works that were preserved when someone chose to write them down in Anglo-Saxon (also known as Old English), such as “The Battle of Maldon” and other poems.

This is part the Anglo-Saxon text

This brings us back to Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon experience.  The story, especially when bolstered by the imagery of Tolkien and Bede, paints the Anglo-Saxon life in the mind with poetry.  I am partial to the Seamus Heaney bilingual edition (recently a new illustrated edition that is only in translation was published and is wonderfully beautiful).  Heaney is himself a poet and a son of a Gaelic speaking country, as such I am convinced by his artistic translation and liberal use of onomatopoeic Gaelic words–it sounds right!  (Arguably, some other translations, such as Burton Raffel may have other merits that are greater to the integrity of the poem, but I am drawn to Heaney’s because I believe he preserves the integrity of the experience.)  While Tolkien has taught us not to look for history in Beowulf, we may look to its poetry and imagery for the historical experiences of the Anglo-Saxons.  This is poetry’s gift, after all. In class, I teach in a windowless room with two solid doors and two fixed glass transoms above the doors at opposite corners of the room–much like the openings at either end of the mead hall, just below the eaves where the smoke from the fire could escape.  Using the computer and the projector, I played a recording of Heaney reading from his edition in the darkness, while a fire crackled on the screen from a YouTube video. Allow me to recommend the experience!  The BBC recordings are probably available in a few places online, but I used the excerpts from the Norton Anthology webpage.  Below, you can use the same burning fire that I did! Some lines that I find particularly instructive regarding the experiences of Anglo-Saxon life include the following:

The fortunes of war favoured Hrothgar. Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks, young followers, a force that grew to be a mighty army.  So his mind turned hall-building: he handed down orders for men to work on a great mead-hall meant to be a wonder of the world forever; it would be his throne-room and there he would dispense his God-given goods to young and old– but not the common land or people’s lives. Far and wide through the world, I have heard, orders for work to adorn that wallstead were sent to many peoples.  And soon ot stood there, finished and ready, in full view, the hall of halls.  Heorot was the name he had settled on it, whose utterance was law. Nor did he renege, but doled out rings and torques at the table.  The hall towered, its gables wide and high and awaiting a barbarous burning.  That doom abided, but in time it would come: the killer instinct unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant. Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, nursed a hard grievance.  It harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall, the harp being struck and the clear song of a skilled poet telling with mastery of man’s beginnings, how the Almighty had made the earth a gleaming plain girdled with waters; in His splendor He set the sun and the moon to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men, and filled the broad lap of the world with branches and leaves; and quickend life in every other thing that moved.

In this stanza the king’s success and nobility draws men to him and with this he builds the great mead hall, Heorot.  Therein the poets sing to the people.  According to the author, they sing about the genesis of the world–a biblical genesis, not a pagan one–and, this with feasting is what so offends the demon Grendal who attacks Hrothgar and his people.  This is where Beowulf enters the picture–he is the hero from nearby kingdom and is the kin of Hrothgar.  He will defeat the dragon’s lust for Hrothgar’s treasure and the blood of his men.

Anglo-Saxon treasure from the Staffordshire hoard

Recommended Reading

Every edition of Bede or Beowulf will have a helpful introduction.  I would also recommend the Penguin Classics’ publication, The Earliest English Poems, translated by Michael Alexander.  (Literature provides a unique source for a culture and often gives us many hints about the lives of people in general as opposed to great individuals in particular.)

If you are interested in Beowulf as literature, you will find many scholarly articles that address it.  I would also recommend, especially to folks interested in Tolkien, that you take a look at a book, Beowulf and the Critics, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Michael D. C. Drout, in the Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies series out of Arizona’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.  This is a review of Tolkien’s concepts regarding the epic and its place in literature.  It is a definite intersection between Tolkien’s imagination and his scholarship, because the medieval literature of the Germanic peoples, such as the Anglo-Saxons, so entertained and delighted him.

If it is Bede who catches your fancy, then I recommend reading more of his works, though they are mostly theology and biblical exegesis.  He does have a fascinating book on time which is both scientific, calculative and theological, The Reckoning of Time.  There are a number of books that have been written about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History if that is more your cup of tea.  Additionally, there are other historians writing close to his day and age, such as Gregory of Tours (see my post on Gregory’s History of the Franks).


Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction, Historian's Journal

Ignoring what we don’t understand–and teaching our kids to do it, too

I recently judged at Maryland History Day competition held on The Community College’s Baltimore County campus (Essex).  The theme was “Diplomacy and Debate: Successes and Failures”, which was a challenging theme for many students.  In fact, we were warned in our judges’ orientation that the subject seemed to be particularly difficult this year.  This warning came down from the National History Day offices.  Of course, this means that there were reports and discussions between either teachers and the History Day officials or parents and students with officials.  The big problem appeared to be the word “diplomacy”, a word with which students struggled.

At the end of judging and asking groups repeatedly what their project had to do with the theme, I have come to one conclusion: none of the groups asked what it meant or looked the word up.  They did not understand that part, so they ignored it.  And, in ignoring the word they didn’t understand, these kids perpetuated their ignorance.

This is my second year judging and I gather that teacher involvement varies widely.  Still, if I were teaching a junior high class and wanted to get my students involved, the whole class would have the assignment of explaining the theme and links would be made to the material we had already covered or current events.  All the students would have to do that regardless of whether or not they chose to enter a project.

We model this irresponsible behavior for our students and our kids all the time.  Something does not make sense so we just ignore it.  Something does not make sense to our students or our kids and we do not insist on their participation in the process of learning and discovery–we let them be lazy.  Even when we are responsible on this level, we do not necessarily share it with our students or kids to show them why being thorough matters.

Obviously, I am painting with a broad brush–and, no that is not fair–but, I don’t think I am out of line by identifying this as symptomatic of our society at large.  Even students with projects that fell squarely within the prescribed theme failed to recognize just how relevant their project was!  It is lazy.  And, it is sad.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

A paper vs. digital rant

Or, why I love (love!) paper

(Book Autopsies series, Brian Dettmer)

I write a blog.  A blog is short for “web log” and represents a unique forum in communication on the web’s agora.  I do not pay to maintain my blog and you do not pay to read it, but this free-of-cost illusion does not come cheaply.  The energy cost is not free.  The cost to the environment is not green.  And, the publication of the blog is not lasting.  It is convenient and contributes to a much higher output, but it is transient and only accessible via technology.

This post is a bit of rant, really, about the impermanence of our information, today, and it considers the paperless myth and the hidden costs to our society.  As a historian, my work depends on archives and libraries; as a teacher, adopting the Iroquois proverb about taking care unto the seventh generation, I want to see that future historians are able to continue to delve into the past, our past.  Speaking of the seventh generation, it really is a myth that the paper industry will destroy the planet’s green by wiping forests from the face of the earth–quite the opposite, in fact.  And, finally, shunning paper creates a real problem and inequity in our society–even cheap technology costs more to purchase and operate than paper!  Furthermore, our youth and society at large lose something when they do not slow down long enough to take the time to read and write with paper.  It effects our brain and our thinking.

Let me say that I am not a Luddite!  I love technology!!  I just don’t want it to replace my hands and my brain completely.  After all, I do write a blog and very much enjoy the blogs of others!  It is the best way for me to get headline news and stay up to date with many of my hobbies, such as sports, but I’d rather sit down and read a newspaper at the coffee shop to get the depth in coverage.  But, even as I revel in technology’s accessibility, I print out most things I am going to read that are longer than a few paragraphs.

Historians and paper.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

Historians need sources!  As a result, they need their paper!  You may well argue that just as methods for producing data evolve, so, too, will the methods of research with digital material.  Certainly, future historians will no doubt include technicians who can perform autopsies on obsolete 3×5 floppies, but nevertheless much will be lost before they have the opportunity.  How many people have sought to take their old Word Perfect files off their IBM 360?  If the files were not printed, they were probably not saved.

As the Paper Because campaign points out, paper just lasts longer!  The Gutenberg Bible still exists today!  Any document that was written out by hand on paper or a paper-like substance, such as velum or papyrus has a shot, because it could be saved.  How else we do we have the writings of Greeks, Romans, Persians, Chinese, Japanese, etc.?

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

Our personal histories are being lost with each successive computer crash–we do not even print out our photographs anymore!  I was first acquainted with this concept when I met a grad student my freshman year of college in the library studies program who, in working with the university archive, remarked that such archives across the country were finding it increasingly difficult to keep records on college life because e-mail had already begun to replace letters.  This was in the fall of 1999.  I no longer have access to my college e-mails or instant messages.  The e-mails were lost  due to a fatal computer hacking of the college’s computer systems.  The only ones I have,  I printed and stored with my letters from my childhood.  This is everyone’s story.  Think of school assignments that are entirely lost (sometimes before they’ve been handed in) because of a computer glitch or crash.  Some of these not only reflect the student’s hard work, they include personal creations that can’t be recovered.  I won’t speak for others, but in my family we kept stories and projects because they were on paper and were stored in our file or brag book.

Humans will produce an exponentially greater amount of data than ever before (think of all those Tweets and text messages), but will save a negligent amount of it in the upcoming years.  It will distort our memory and legacy.

Print is Green.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

You are forgiven for thinking that avoiding paper-use saves trees–it is a very popular theory–but, you are wrong.  It is, in fact, quite the opposite.   The paper industry insures the health of forests.  Without the demand for paper, which is the least wasteful product produced from trees, forest land would be sold off to developers, leveled and become a construction site, confining forest land to preserves.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

As an industry and as a final product, paper also conserves energy.  Reading a book, writing a letter, painting a picture or developing a photograph (on paper) costs little or no energy once the bookstationary, and paper has been manufactured.  Furthermore, these industries are leaders in energy-efficiency and recycling.  So, be green!!  Do something good for the earth!  Use paper products!!  (Below, are sites devoted to this concept with cited information.  In fairness, many of them come from the paper industry, but their arguments and sources make for a compelling argument.)

The costs of abandoning paper.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

There are two main costs I want to consider: 1) the resulting divide between those who can afford technology and those who cannot; and, 2) the stunting affect excessive technology can have on brain development.  Both of these concepts represent a real loss to society in slightly different ways.

By reducing paper–particularly in the case of the government and its sundry departments–we reduce access for the portion of our population that cannot afford smart phones or computers, nor have access to such technology at school or work.  While libraries offer a slight reprieve, they are not equipped or funded to cover the entire demographic.  The internet is a great resource in democratic society, but when the IRS decides that its tax forms are no longer available at the post office, and that one must go online to get said forms, the internet becomes an unintended class weapon.  The paperless revolution takes on a eugenic-like quality where the poor are once again sacrificed in the name of progress in general and green progress in particular regardless of whether it is intended or accidental.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

But, there is more lost.  There is a diminishing return in the development of the young brains.  Sure, we do not experience the same astonishing development that Lynne Truss reported took place in New Zealand.  There, students were permitted to hand in class work and tests in what I like to call text-speak (Eats, Shoots and Leaves).  But, nonetheless, there is evidence to show that students’ brains learn something special when they are forced to do slow reading as opposed to exclusively internet-scanning.  And, again, brains develop more completely when forced to write by hand as opposed to typing everything.  We still, rightly, refer to written works created by the act of writing, whereas we never refer to typed materials or typing–just typos!   (Having said that, my sixth-grader spends useless computer lab hours toodling around on the internet and has yet to rise above chicken-pecking her assignments on the computer!  Surely, if they are going to be on the computers in school anyway, and are assigned large projects that must be typed at least several times a year, then they can take the time to teach them typing!!)

Handwriting has been linked time and again to cognitive development.  This thinking ability, the capability to make connections and to problem-solve, is something I have to guide my students through each semester in community college history classes.  It is frustrating to know that the seventh graders I taught at the all-boys private school were more literate and capable of cognitive thinking then the majority of my students at the college level.  Key practices and training are being missed at earlier levels, stunting development.

Today, students cannot typically process lengthy textual information–even at the collegiate level where they must.  By lengthy, I do not refer in my [collegiate teaching] experience to books or textbook chapters, but long articles.  They seem to struggle to focus on anything even that long.  This is in part symptomatic of little practice, and is exacerbated by confining themselves to reading texts, Tweets and internet pages and posts.

Not only does this inhibit youth development, it retards and diminishes adult brains as well.



(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

So, hail paper!  Hail books!  Hail slow reading!  Hail paper tax forms and ballots!  Hail writing with a Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil!  Hail photographs printed and framed!  Hail watercolor paintings!  Hail the glorious tactile sensation of fondling a book you are about to savor!  Hail postcards!  Hail archives and primary sources!  Hail newspapers with articles longer than two paragraphs!  Hail printed journals!  Hail diaries!  Hail printed sheets of music and a group of people making music together!  Hail printers and book binders!  Hail memory and legacy!  Hail recycling and forests!  Hail the unhackable!  Hail note-taking!  Hail research papers, theses and dissertations printed and bound!  Hail paper!!

Recommend reading on this subject:

(Feel free to print stuff out and read it at your leisure!!)

Preserving history

This is not a new area of concern for libraries and archives.  In 2006, in an article, “Fragile digital data in danger of fading past history’s reach” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 7) reported on the problems encountered by the Library of Congress and the National Archive Records and Administration.  Contact the archive at your alma mater or make inquiries at any collection that maintains primary sources and get the scoop!  Librarians are not shy–they’ll tell you!

Keeping green

Start with these sites:

Paper Because

Print Grows Trees:

Choose Print

Learning better

On slow reading I recommend, “The art of slow reading” and “Slow Reading: An antidote for a fast world?”.

On the link between handwriting and cognitive development I recommend, “How writing by hand makes kids smarter”, “How handwriting trains the brain” and “Writing by hand helps the brain”.



Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

Gregory of Tours and the religious education of the fratricidal Franks

The History of the Franks, by Gregory of Tours

Gregory, Bishop of Tours, born in 539 A.D. (or C.E.) and bishop of Tours from 573-594 A.D. was the son of (Gaulish) Roman Senators and bishops from the Roman region of Gaul.  With Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and thus the Empire’s, and with his shift of the government center to Constantinople in the East, the Church’s officers were transformed from regional shepherds of a smallish cult spread thin throughout the Empire to civic and religious leaders.  As such, they were literate, well-connected throughout the more established regions of the receding Western Empire and essential in guiding recently converted peoples in Christianity.  In addition, they sought to guide the kings of these new peoples in Christian leadership and modeling.

The preexistent cultural norms of the Germanic peoples were, however, often at odds with the Christianity.  For example, how do you tell a people who worships warrior gods of thunder and hammers to follow a god that not only died on a cross, but went like a “lamb led to the slaughter”?  How do you explain that religious heritage includes such ignominious origins as those of the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt?  Finally, how do you tell a violent culture to “love thy neighbor as themselves” and to “turn the other cheek”?

These problems were sticky and persisted throughout medieval history.  When Gregory writes his History of the Franks, the Franks had already converted to Christianity under the Merovingian, Clovis, who had also defeated Visigothic Aryans encroaching from Spain and prevented them from spreading their corrupting heresy on the Roman church in Gaul–making him twice over a hero.  Their conversion was rather incomplete.  Leaving a host of problems for church leaders.  Principle among these was the method of inheritance.  It was traditional to leave everything of a father’s divided equally among his sons.  While this meant that one was not left out simply based on the order of his birth, it also created some nasty problems for the Merovingians at each succession.  The rampant practice of fratricide directly influenced the composition of Gregory’s History of the Franks.  (A problem compounded by multiple wives.)  I am particularly interested in showing this by analyzing Book I of the history in this post.

The entire History as a whole is divided into ten books.  The first book begins with sacred history–biblical events and early Christian history.  In the second, Gregory discusses the coming of the Franks and the life and conversion of Clovis, concluding with his death.  The subsequent books are about the newly Christian Franks up through Gregory’s own day.  It is particularly his selections from the sacred history of the Bible and the Early Church that I want to address.

Gregory opens his opus with the following words:

Proposing as I do to describe the wars waged by kings against hostile peoples, by martyrs against the heathen and by the Churches against the heretics, I wish first of all to explain my own faith, so that whoever reads may not doubt that I am a Catholic.  (Book I, Preface)

He then goes on to apologize for the poor state of his Latin and that of many of his contemporaries.  After a statement of belief, confirming that he is no heretic and is fully competent as a Catholic bishop among the newly converted in a world surrounded by pagans, he explains the literary models who are influencing him:

The chronicles of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea [a contemporary of Constantine’s who wrote about his conversion and is thus a source for Gregory as much as a muse], and of the priest, Jerome, explain clearly how the age of this world is computed, and set out in systematic form the entire sequence of the years.  Orosius, too, who looked very diligently into these matters, made a list of all the years from the beginning of the world until his own day.  Victorius did the same thing, when he was making inquiries about the dating of the Easter festival.  If our Lord is willing to give me His help, I will follow the example of these writers whom I have mentioned and in my turn reckon the entire series of years from the very first creation of man down to our own time.  I will do this more easily if I begin with Adam himself.  (Book I, Preface)

Given the size of the Bible, you’d be forgiven for thinking that, a), this is reinventing the wheel, and, b), a tome the size of which rabbits could burrow into and make a happy home for all their brood.  However, he is not quite as good as his word, in this case.  He does not, in fact, rewrite the Bible.  He is very particular about his selections from sacred history, all of which is done to a purpose.  As we see this method abandoned by later historians who presumably find it redundant to address biblical events, we can see that part of his purpose is for the sake of an uneducated public of newly arrived converts, who have not fully replaced their pagan ways and knowledge with that of Christianity.  But, more than that he is concerned with particular failings among this new people, and his sacred history is tailored to redress these deficiencies.

Gregory is not writing exegesis–that is, he is not writing biblical commentary–instead, he is focusing on past events.  In other words, he is writing history, and that history begins with God making the heaven and the earth in “His own Christ, that is in His own Son, who is the origin of all things.”  (Book I, 1)  He goes on to explain the creation of the first man and his fall, what is known in Christianity simply as the Fall:

When the basic elements of the whole earth had been created, He took a lump of malleable clay and shape man in the form of His own image and breathed into his face the breath of life, so that he was turned into a living soul.  While he was asleep a rib was taken from him and the woman Eve was created.  There is no doubt at all that, before he committed sin, this first man Adam was similar to our Lord and Saviour.  Christ in His Passion fainted and, when He produced water and blood from His side, He procured for Himself a Church which was pure and immaculate, redeemed by His blood and cleansed by the water, having no blemish, and no wrinkle, that is to say washed clear by the water and stretched on the Cross to remove any wrinkle.  (Book I, 1)

Note, here, how Gregory explains that it is through man’s choice that the created man, made in Christ’s image, was “driven out into the travails of the world.”  It is through Adam’s sin that we are all tainted.  He explains the inherent need to be saved to the Franks, who would otherwise only consider a god’s intervention when caught up in a travail or two.  Gregory also introduces the sacrifice of Christ as it relates to Adam.  So, he explains that in mankind’s genesis, comes mankind’s need for salvation, and this salvation comes in the form of Christ sacrificed on the altar of the cross.  Furthermore, the Church’s genesis issues from this sacrifice, indeed from the body of Christ as it lays stretched upon the cross.  This is borderline exegetical, but it is also, arguably more so, historically instructive.  The event of Adam’s fall from grace is the mirror image of the latter event of Christ’s sacrifice to undo Adam’s sin.  It was inconceivable to the Early Christian, Late Antique and Medieval church that anything in the Old Testament could be understood without the knowledge of the Gospel’s salvific message.  (Book I, 1)

The next biblical episode that he recounts is the story of Cain and Abel who are not named, but referred to as the sons of Adam and his companion.  In this he explains the description of an event that is a central theme of the work for the sake of his contemporary world:

When God graciously accepted the sacrifice offered by one of these, the other was inflamed with jealousy and he swelled up with anger.  He was the first man to shed his brother’s blood and to murder a member of his own family, for he seized hold of his brother and overcame him and slew him.  (Book I, 2)

There is no mention of the quality of Abel versus the meanness of Cain.  The sole purpose of the story is to describe Cain’s craven fratricide, caused by envy and wrath.  Cain’s sins begin with his motives for slaying his brother which is the great misdeed.

The following chapter is a clipped version of the events surrounding Enoch the Just (so clipped in fact they scarcely make sense in Gregory’s retelling) but it does open by saying: “From that moment [Cain’s crime] onwards the entire human race never ceased to commit one execrable crime after another, except Enoch the Just…” (Book I, 3)  Chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7, describe Noah and the ark and the story of his sons following the flood: Japheph, Ham and Shem.   Chus, Ham’s son, establishes idolatry and goes to Persia where he becomes Zoroaster and teaches his followers to worship fire before being consumed by it himself and worshiped as a god.  Chapter six goes on to describe the city of Babel and its pride, describing it as “Babylon, built by the giant Hebron, who was the son of Chus.”  (Book I, 6)  It is chapter seven that we learn about Shem’s line and its progression to Abraham.  Instead of talking about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, Gregory talks about Christ having revealed to Abraham that the day of salvation would come when Christ would “suffer for us in place of a sacrifice”:

Sulpicius Severus tells us in his chronicle that this sacrifice of Abraham’s was offered on Mount Calvary, where our Lord was crucfied, and to this day this is generally accepted in the city of Jerusalem.  On this hillside stood the Holy Cross, to which our Redeemer was nailed and from which flowed His blessed blood.  (Book I, 7)

Chapter eight mentions Issac, Esau and Job.  Chapter nine introduces Jacob and tells the story of his sons.  Here, again, in the story of Joseph and his dreams we get a story of brothers sinning against their brother.  Joseph’s dream, “filled them with burning jealousy, and they sold him for thirty pieces of silver to some Ishmaelites who were on their way to Egypt.  Later there came a famine and the brothers went to Egypt in their turn.”  (Book I, 9)  That chapter concludes with the Hebrew captivity in Egypt.  This is significant for its humiliating status.  The new converts were not inclined towards humility, even towards the Church, and the supposition is that this contributed towards their ruthlessness with each other, especially among brothers following a king’s death.  They would be impressed with the mighty power of God against the Egyptians, described in chapter ten.  Interestingly, Gregory describes the passing through the Red Sea as a largely metaphoric description for baptism and not as a particular miracle in which God opened a path for the Moses and the Hebrews through the water.

While in chapter eleven Gregory explains that the Israelites dwelt in the desert for forty years, he does not mention the Hebrews’ struggles with obedience.  Rather, an understanding of Late Antique monastic devotion seems to better reflect his vision of this period:

For forty years after this the Israelites dwelt in the desert and familiarized themselves with their laws, and lived on the food of the angels.  Once they had assimilated the Law, they crossed the Jordan with Joshua and were given permission to enter the Promised Land.  (Book I, 11)

In the deserts of Egypt, early Christian holy men (known as the Desert Fathers) had withdrawn for a strict ascetic life based on advanced meditative prayer.  This is the early root of monasticism formed the basis and the goal for early western monastic traditions that were contemporary with Gregory.  I think his description seems to have more in common with this idea.  It avoids the ungrateful disposition of the freed Hebrews and their attempt at idolatry, failings that come up again in the Old Testament and which Gregory references.  (I must point out that Gregory was a bishop not a monk and this interpretation of the above chapter may not stand up to deeper scrutiny.)

In chapter twelve, Gregory expounds on the importance of obedience to God by saying that “they ceased to observe God’s commandments and were often forced to submit to the domination of foreign peoples,” following the death of Jacob–a really threatening consequence to a people such as the Franks.  David, meanwhile, gets little mention other than that he is the descendant of Abraham and the father of Soloman.  Soloman is praised for his decision to ask for wisdom instead of kingdoms and riches–another knock on embattled Franks!–and also praised for building the Temple and expending such wealth on it–also, a nudge to his contemporaries who would occasionally not only fail to endow new churches but would in the civil wars at times strip churches of any wealth for their own use.

In chapter fourteen, Gregory again is pointing out the disastrous nature of idolatry when after the death of Solomon the tribes are split into the kingdoms of doomed and idolatrous Judah and (slightly more) faithful Israel–this is a useful warning against relapse for a people that still held many of their pagan beliefs.  This comes to a head in chapter fifteen when the Lord finally loses patience with his people and “stirred up Nebuchadnezzar, who led them captive to Babylon”.  This experience, Gregory reveals is a metaphor for the enslavement of the soul in sin, and whereas it is Zerubbabel who restores the Temple and the the Hebrews to the city of Jerusalem, it is Christ who restores the sinner to God.  From the captivity and the complaints which followed the restoration of the Temple, Gregory proceeds to the Gospel.  I find it significant that Gregory leaves out any of the military exploits of the Hebrews from the Old Testament.  Clearly, it is defeat resulting from disobedience that he wishes to convey to the new peoples as opposed to any incentive to go into battle.

Over the next two chapters, Gregory explains briefly the extra-biblical history to show that he had “information [not] only about the Hebrew race,” and explains what other kingdoms were contemporary with the Israelites, up through Julius Caesar which sets up Augustus’s reign.  Chapters nineteen through twenty-four are devoted to key elements of the Gospel.  What follows are the stories of the New Testament, including the Acts of the Apostles and to a lesser extent the events as they are related in the epistles (letters of the New Testament), and then the persecutions under the Roman emperors.  Some of this comes from the traditions of the Church as written by the Church Fathers, such as Jerome, who wrote commentaries and histories.  The sufferings of prominent martyrs are recounted and their love of God eulogized.  Until chapter thirty-six, the stories are about the struggle of the Early Church, but then the story and history changes with the conversion of Constantine and the Roman Empire.  Constantine is confined to the thirty-sixth chapter and Gregory’s treatment of the emperor is remarkably sparse and selective:

Constantine was the thirty-fourth to hold the Roman Empire and he reigned happily for thirty years…  In the twentieth year of his reign Constantine killed his son Crispus with poison and his wife Fausta in a hot bath, because they had planned to remove him from his throne by treason.  During Constantine’s life-time the revered wood of our Lord’s Cross was discovered, thanks to the zeal of the Emperor’s mother Helena.  (Book I, 36)

Constantine’s motives for killing Crispus and Fausta are unknown to history, but Gregory considers it justifiable that he executed them on the grounds of treason.  He does not avoid the fact, nor does he condemn it.  From that point he shifts quickly to Helena’s discovery of the True Cross.  Gregory leaves out the controversies of his reign, his meddling in Church doctrine and his pursuit (persecution) of the heretics in his Empire.  Gregory’s sparse treatment of Constantine is in contrast to the eastern traditions (in which he is a saint for his conversion) and among some in the Roman tradition.  His praise for Clovis is above that of Constantine even though he goes into greater detail about Clovis’s failings.

From this point onward the stories of the Early Christian and Late Antique holy men and women dominate with fewer stories from the Roman government–now largely relocated to the East and Constantinople–and in particular bishops become a focal point.  Book I concludes with Martin of Tours.  He does not go into Martin’s story, but Martin was soldier in the Roman army who leaves its martial service to serve God–a well-known story in Gregory’s day.

The entirety of Book I precedes the coming of the Franks and sets the tone and lessons for this new people.  Gregory is driving home the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice for man’s sin and also trying to set a Christian standard for Merovingian kings and princes in his contemporary world.  Dominating so much of the following books is this catalogue of violence, especially done in the wake of a king’s death among brothers–a practice that will continue through the Carolingian era.  The conversion of Europe takes centuries, both because of new peoples coming to settle and because religious traditions die hard.  In particular, the problem of violence plagues the Church and its converted flocks.  Gregory is at an early stage in this trajectory, although he believed he must be at the end of it and felt sure that the world was surely coming rapidly to its conclusion.

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A little thing I like to call “Historian’s Jeopardy”

Welcome to Historian's Jeopardy!!!

It isn’t the most popular thing I do, but especially in my 101 class I assign a little thing I like to call “Historian’s Jeopardy”!  These give my students fits!  But, they’re good fits.  They’re growing pain-like fits.  I know its frustrating and I do it anyway, not because I am sadist, but because I want them to start thinking like historians–and historical thinking is not an obvious or natural state of thinking, it requires training.  Historians have many years of this training which refines their thinking, so it takes some doing.

This is how it works: I give them an informational tid-bit that one would find in the course of reading primary and secondary sources.  Then, I give them spaces to write questions.  Ideally, they give me two questions of one type–closer to your Jeopardy concept; and, one question that functions as a follow-up.  For example (considering the first type of questions, first):

A:Ausonius, a distinguished poet from Bordeux (in France), writes in high praise of the garum made in the Roman city of Barcino.

Q1: Were ancient cities in the Roman Empire connected by trade routes and trading amongst each other?

Q2: What products were produced and exported by the port city, Barcino?

A:Cities established in Europe by the Romans routinely have theaters, though not as many have stadiums or other arenas.

Q1: What activities did the Romans enjoy in their leisure time?

Q2: How “Roman” were the Empire’s cities in Europe?

A:Livy and Vergil both publish works (one a history the other an epic) about the origins of Rome which are centered around the exploits of a Trojan name Aeneas, who was respected by his Greek enemies for his loyalty to Troy, and his belief that Helen should be returned.  Aeneas will found the culture that eventually produces Romulus and Remus.

Q1: To what degree are the Romans influenced by Greek culture?

Q2: How did Romans understand their own origins, and how noble were they believed to be?

Roman theater and Odeon in Lyon, France.

In prior classes, we spent a significant part of our week on Greece talking about what Greek culture offered to the world (i.e. Hellenism).  Just as Hellenism spread through Alexander’s conquests, so, too, did it and Roman values spread through Roman conquests of Europe.  Roman ruins in Europe, which in turn come from the Greeks, are the foundations of Western Civilization.  This has been emphasized in our classes.  Most of the problems from the exercise are targeted to those concepts.  These are not the only acceptable answers, but they are better answers.

Historians have a vast body of knowledge to complement they’re musings on sources, so it was important to target the information for those areas with which the students were already familiar to give them a fighting chance.  It is still really hard, though, and I try to facilitate success by directing them to the actual evidence provided in the answers.  For example, with the answer above, I directed them to the fact that this answer was giving them specific geography to try to trigger them to use and recognize the value of each piece of information.  As an answer, it clearly relates to a question regarding the places, distances and movement through the Empire.  It also makes specific mention of a product manufactured in a particular city which answers some economic questions.

The next step is the follow-up question.  Once I have realized the value of a piece of information, I need to take advantage of that information.  So, in the first instance above, one is considering the economic movement through the empire.  How far is Barcino (modern day Barcelona) garum travelling?  How much money is Barcino making off this, what else is getting shipped out of its Mediterranean port?  This is how a historian thinks: there are mental chain reactions that stimulate research projects and professional inquiries.  It is a healthy stimulation that benefits the layman as much as the professional historian, not just with history but with current events and news stories, or even simple curiosity and expanded cultural literacy.

In one instance, I specifically referenced a primary source and in others specifically referenced primary sources that they had already read:

A:Polybius writes: But since the position of affairs has brought us to inquire into the genius of Hannibal, the occasion seems to demand that I explain the peculiarities of his character which have been especially controversial. Some regard him as having been extraordinarily cruel, some exceedingly grasping of money. But to speak the truth of him, or of any person engaged in public affairs, is not easy. . . And there are many proofs of this to be found in past history if any one pays attention. . .  Again, was not Cleomenes of Sparta a most excellent king, a most cruel tyrant, and then again as a private individual most obliging and benevolent? And yet it is not reasonable to suppose the most opposite dispositions to exist in the same person. They are compelled to change with the changes of circumstances: and so some rulers often display to the world a disposition as opposite as possible to their true nature. Therefore, the natures of men not only are not brought out by such things, but on the contrary are rather obscured. The same effect is produced also not only in commanders, despots, and kings, but in states also, by the suggestions of friends. For instance, you will find the Athenians responsible for very few tyrannical acts, and of many kindly and noble ones, while Aristeides and Pericles were at the head of the state: but quite the reverse when Cleon and Chares were so. And when the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) were supreme in Greece, all the measures taken by King Cleombrotus were conceived in the interests of their allies, but those by Agesilaus not so. The characters of states therefore vary with the variations of their leaders. King Philip again, when Taurion and Demetrius were acting with him, was most impious in his conduct, but when Aratus or Chrysogonus, most humane.

Q1: How did the Romans regard Hannibal of Carthage?

Q2: How did Romans regard political leaders?

Follow-up: What did the Romans admire in military leaders?

A:Roman authors frequently portray Alexander as a rather cruel tyrant.  (Hint: How is Xerxes described by the Greek authors?)

Q1: How did Romans regard individual leaders with military power?

Q2: Where were Romans critical of their Greek muses?

Follow-up: How much value did Romans put in their Senate and Republic?

Alexander the Great portrayed in a Pompeii mosaic

There are actually more possible answers for these two than the first three examples, but these are some of the directions to take.  Remember that we spent the last two weeks identifying the foundational features of classical Greece and Rome for Western Civilization including a look at city profiles that I prepared for them.

Ephesus #1 – Hittite and Persian city with heavy Greek influence remade by Alexander’s conquest into a Hellenistic city.


Ephesus #2 – Roman era, the roads are remade to Roman standards, porticoes are covered, library and brothel added.

Pompeii – Organized city with forum (Roman version of the Greek agora), gymnasium, theater and odeon.

Barcino #1 – (Modern-day Barcelona) Excavated portions of the modern city reveal commercial area that is producing Roman products.


Ephesus #3 – Evidence of the emergence of a Jewish-cult, Christianity, showcasing the theater referenced in the Acts of the Apostle and Paul’s conflict with the silver smiths of the Artemis cult and the monuments of the Virgin Mary, her house and the first church dedicated to her according to tradition.

Ephesus #4 – In the New Rome era (Byzantine), the Roman city is remade in the mold of Christian Roman city, following Constantine’s conversion.


(The following handout comes out next week–basically the rest of the semester is spent looking back at Rome and by extension Greece, finishing (not beginning with) the Italian Renaissance–very overrated!)

Barcino #2 – The city transforms into an Aryan Christian diocesan center, reflecting both the interfering influence of Constantine on his adoptive religion and the transformation of the Roman world in its conversion, showcasing the excavation of the Aryan cathedral and bishop’s residence.

So, students are armed with certain knowledge that I want them to access with this drill in a specific way–one that reflects historically thinking!

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Ultimately Successful: a Jesse Owens Fake Wall

Jesse Owens (James Cleveland Owens) Fake Facebook Profile -

After the challenges experienced with the librarian in our library class, we were able to regroup and recoup our losses.  Following the in-class debacle, I sent out e-mail with instructions, including the following:

  1. Find 5 facts: birthplace, education, people in his life (family, friends, coaches, mentors, opponents, etc.)
  2. Find a photo (either find one online and e-mail it to me or take a photo with your smart phone ans send it to me)
  3. Find 3 primary sources–from those sources find a) America’s impression of Germany in 1936, b) America’s impression of Jesse Owens, c) Germans impression of Jesse Owens, d) Marylanders impressions of Jesse Owens

Out of this we have a great a product in the form of a Jesse Owens wall at that didn’t have as much student collaboration as I would have liked, but is a nice finished piece that they helped build more indirectly.  The wall posts focus narrowly on the American track teams’ experience in the 1936 Berlin Olympics–commonly referred to as Hitler’s Olympics, with good reason.

Students dug up sources that provided the profile information and some of the pictures.  The wall posts were built up mostly from primary sources, in the end only three of these references was found by the students.  Most of the wall posts came from a series of interviews that were done in 1986 as part of the LA84 Foundation’s legacy project which interviewed past Olympians, including those who participated in Berlin in 1936.

It was a successful learning process.  The students will come out of this with a clearer sense of what constitutes a primary source versus a secondary source.  They will also have learned the possibilities and limits of internet searching for research material.

I learned some more about as well.  It is pretty stubborn about pictures.  A lot of the offered features didn’t work very well.  If the site has a preference for a media type it does not specify such a one anywhere!

What we missed out on as a class was asking the students to assume those roles of the various sources.  That creativity of trying to think from the perspective of someone who is foreign to you by means of time and geography, is an essential skill for thinking historically.  It also working through the challenge of recognizing what is justifiably familiar versus what shows up as a “false-friend” and leads your analysis astray.  That opportunity was missed because we did not end up working on the wall together in class.

I do want to thank Glenn Wiebe!  His Tip-of-the-Week post put me onto this opportunity.


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Railroaded by the librarian — teaching in collaboration (or not)

Teaching in collaboration is a wonderful tool, but it is often challenging!  I have had the pleasure in my sports history class to invite experts to come in and speak to my class: Dr. Stephanie Molholt guest lectured on the native American origins of lacrosse and John Gartrell, MA, lectured on sports in the Jim Crow era.  They both brought expertise with them that enhanced the class lectures and provided greater experience than I could.  In each instance, I asked them to place some emphasis on sources for their material because the students are going to be doing their own research projects in the upcoming months.  Otherwise, I placed few restrictions on them, not wanting to interfere with their natural teaching and lecture styles.  Any exercises they introduced were of their own design and device.

This differs from my approach with the librarian, when we went to a fairly routine library-provided “course” on using the library facilities for research.  When I scheduled the meeting,  I was told I could introduce an exercise into the proceedings–since this would be taking up a class period, this was something I was particularly interested in doing to preserve the course topics.

What I am going to do, from here, is describe how my day went and then talk about ideas in classroom collaboration a bit further, including my own growing pains, the advantages and disadvantages.

Leading up to the class, I had some difficulty in getting in contact with my assigned librarian.  When I chatted with him two days before the class was scheduled, he was leaving campus and we talked as he walked to the car.  He had made no other attempt to contact me before that point, but that afternoon said we could talk before the class on Thursday.  (In retrospect, respecting his need to get to an appointment I probably should have requested his e-mail and sent him exactly what I hoped to achieve, but I did not so we left it until the day-of.)  On Thursday, he was working on another project and it was a little difficult to get a word in edgewise when we finally met and actually spent a fairly limited amount of time in our collaborative preparation.

What I wanted to do that day was cover the library resources, databases and smart online searches to compile first the basic facts about Jesse Owens and his participation in the 1936 Olympics–which was the topic for the day, but focusing on Owens, in particular, would be more useful for their own projects.  The second half would be to use primary sources available online to make some interpretations and take it a step beyond just establishing facts.  The final product was to create a Jesse Owens profile at  In other words, I wanted the students to have an exercise that would allow them to actually practice using the resources.  None of this happened.  The students did not get on to the computers at all.  They did not do anything!  My librarian took over.

After opening introductions, my librarian opened up by challenging the students to clarify their understanding of the upcoming project to the extent that they understood it up to this point (I have not handed out the official assignment, yet, but we have talked about it–some of them may have even read the syllabus), and after fielding some answers explained that this was a multi-disciplinary project (which is largely true).  Then he launched into a discourse on themes he found particularly important from the general subject of the course.  I did not mind at first, because he had some legitimate points to make, but he carried on the subject for almost the first half of the class.  Also, I think he was a bit off-putting when he singled out students by race and asked them how they thought they might have been treated in Alabama a few decades ago (where he had previously worked).

Finally, we started to move in the direction of library sciences, but quickly were bogged down in plagiarism.  This is a very important subject and he made some very useful points but a half hour’s worth quickly becomes more proselytizing and less instruction.  We did, however, cover some useful points regarding sources, both primary and secondary, and how perspectives of an event change over time, even from direct witnesses.  Using the projector, he also covered some useful tools and rules of thumb in quality versus quantity internet searches.  For example, he explained how to use and Advanced Search on Google and direct it towards .edu sites for more reliable content, but also explained that the responses are based not on quality of the site, or even on closest match, rather simply on popularity of the site, i.e. number of hits.

With a short time left in class, we finally actually looked at what the CCBC library databases afford, including the newspaper database and educational sites run by Gale and Ebseco to which the school subscribes.  What we did not cover particularly well were the book sources available in the library–most of which are merely reference books, but many of which provide quick reference material of facts, such as DOB, individual’s educational institutions, careers, etc., plus provided stimulus for students trying to find a topic for their final project.  (I went back after the class and took pictures with my Android of the library entrance with directions to the relevant shelves and then photos of the actual books and series so they could see the various resources that were immediately available.)

I was trying to squeeze in information about the other area libraries that they could use and would have access to when I was abruptly informed by my librarian that we were done.  (Me: (mid-sentence)– Librarian: “We’re done.”  Me: “Yes, we’re at the end–” Librarian: “No.  We’re done.”  And, then he pretty much turned and walked out of the classroom.)  I managed to get in that the students had access to anything available in our neighboring institution, UMBC–a five minute drive from our campus.  But, was cut off while explaining that the best Maryland resources are in Baltimore’s public library, the Enoch Pratt, and that Johns Hopkins University’s collection is open to the public, even as he interjected with affirmations regarding this information–all information of which I had learned from him before class.

In the end, the class got the Jesse Owens assignment as homework and a bunch of handouts.  I sent some follow-up e-mails, but they are going to be hard-pressed to complete the assignment, although the attempt should expose them to some useful resources.  Still, it would have been much more fruitful if we had worked together.

When I worked for the Close Up Foundation, most of our teaching was done collaboratively, both with our colleagues and our students–it was a huge driving force behind our methodology.  Collaborative learning is a particular approach that is very active.  It implies active learning, lots of doing, lots of thinking about how you are learning as you go.  Collaborative teaching combines the knowledge and experience of different people with widely varying backgrounds in both education and profession.  It implies preparation and planning towards a commonly understood goal.  Neither or these forms of educational collaboration were achieved that day in the Y building on CCBC’s Catonsville campus.

In general, I am wildly excited about collaboration in the teaching arts.  Whether this is simply teaming up and using each other for brainstorming and exchanging ideas or in more involved co-teaching assignments, especially introducing multi-disciplinarian approaches to history or humanities, I think opportunities exist to transform instruction into an interactive and successful experience for students, that explodes with innovation.  Now, this is obviously idealistic as people actually often have control or ego issues (problems I have encountered in other people and which other people encountered in me–especially in my initial attempts at this sort of thing), or other clashes along ideological or pedagogical lines and, of course, personalities.  Still, if both parties are committed to the students and willing to compromise than most differences and clashes can be overcome.

The longer I worked in the heavily collaborative climate at Close Up, the more I realized I had to adapt.  I was annoying, headstrong, resistant to some forms of help or input, bossy and struggled at the basic courtesy that accompanied collaboration.  (For example, I had to train myself to write ideas or questions that popped into my head down on a piece of paper in front of me and wait to see if they were really all that germane to the conversation before blurting it out.  This also helped me focus on listening more instead of waiting to speak.)  Part of my faults were rooted both in my genuine passion and excitement for the subject matter and for the pedagogy, but the other half was equal parts arrogance/ego and insecurity–neither of which really have any place in collaborative work.

I also think collaborative work is an important part of teaching and modeling for students–they are going to have to do it at some point in their lives and they need to learn to balance both what they can contribute with what they can get out of each other.  As educators, we so often hear the following with collaborative projects: 1) he didn’t do anything; 2) he took over everything; and 3) I didn’t understand.  Excuses are common from students, but no more consistently in group work, especially if they have to work together outside the classroom.  Refining this skill is so important that many schools (especially colleges) require professors to include them in the curriculum.  But, it is hard to get students to all put the same effort into the pot–maybe its unreasonable, even unnecessary for the “same effort”, still it requires something resembling an equitable division of labor, if not input specifically.

Even teaching a sports history class getting everyone on the same page is a challenge–and, these students fully understand the concept of team, though maybe not as it applies to intellectual endeavors.  I have tried various means to create templates and systems to at the very least encourage true collaboration and not tyranny or slacking.  For example, I have tried to establish group contracts that clarify the division of labor from the outset of the project, but nothing has been as successful as I hoped.

Additionally, we as historians come from a collaborative field and as much as we want our students to learn the methodology and approach within the field, we want them to learn about the functionality of the field.  This includes everything from conferences to peer-review and symposium to colloquium.  Students should engage in that activity!  In doing so, they refine their speaking, writing, reading and researching skills.

Obviously, I should have been more proactive from the beginning when planning this class, maybe even raised the possibility earlier in the process that I was not paired up with the right person for my goals.  I should have e-mailed a week out and started the ball rolling myself instead of waiting for him.  All of which is very clear and easy to identify, now, but that doesn’t help my students.  We’ll talk on Tuesday about where they are on the assignment that is due Thursday.  I will provide directions if they have had little success so far on their own and hopefully the tools they have been exposed to are now more familiar and stacked helpfully in their toolboxes in preparation for the final project.


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Pictures for People Text: Visual Multiples and their Role as Supporting Tools for the Democratic Process

Pictures for People Text, is a lecture from Yale’s (2001) Tercentennial celebration lecture series.  (Click on the title in the previous sentence to follow the link to the actual lecture.)  The lecture, from the series entitlted Democratic Vistas, the Devane Lecture Series – One Enduring Idea, Fifteen Revealing Perspectives, is as much about images as communication and symbol as it is about democracy.

It is part of a larger celebration at Yale:

About the Tercentennial

In 1701, the collegiate institution that would soon become Yale was founded. To celebrate the 300th anniversary of this event, President Levin convened a group including faculty, students, administrators and Fellows of the Corporation to develop guiding principles for the programs of the Tercentennial Year. Every school, museum and academic center has responded by creating special exhibitions, publications or symposia.

The official opening of the anniversary was Saturday, October 21, 2000 when Yale opened its doors to the public. Thousands enjoyed this daylong celebration which included tours, exhibits, hands-on demonstrations and special events for children and families. Click here for a photo tour. View two 60-second film clips of the day’s highlights click here.

The events continued with the Alumni Leadership Convocation April 19-22, 2001. The weekend allowed alumni leaders to “Go to Yale” again and choose from an array of lectures, panels and workshops. Over 1,400 attendees chose among 50 different sessions, which included topics as diverse as modern business ethics, cartooning, Yale’s rowing history, sexual harrassment law, as well as a tutorial on how to conduct the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Former President George H.W. Bush ’48 took part in the weekend speaking on “Yale and Public Service.” Click hereto view his speech as well other lectures given over the weekend.

There have been many other events commemorating Yale’s Tercentennial over the course of the year. Democratic Vistas: The William C. DeVane Lecture Series began in January and continued on a weekly basis through May, seeking to explore the current condition and the future prospects of democracy with its audience of students and New Haven residents. This September, the DeVane Series continues as “Ideals Without Ideologies: Yale’s Contribution to Modern Architecture.” Other lecture series included “In the Company of Scholars” given by alumni of Yale’s graduate schools, the Tetelman Lectures, which have brought distinguished scientists and engineers to campus, as well as events sponsored by the Women Faculty Forum…

This yearlong anniversary culminated the weekend of October 5-7. On the afternoon of October 5th, members of the Yale community, returning alumni, and representatives from sister institutions processed to Yale’s Cross Campus for a convocation commemorating the University’s founding. Events took place at the Yale Bowl on the afternoon and evening of Friday October 5. A two-day symposium titled “Democratic Vistas, Global Perspectives,” which included some lectures from last semester’s DeVane course also took place over the weekend. The weekend drew to a close with Yale’s first ever Sunday football game against Dartmouth University.

While this provides context for the lecture series, this particular lecture stands nicely on its own!  Read and look at all the images provided!

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Some thoughts about “Firsts” in history

It is now commonly understood that the Vikings beat Christopher Columbus to the Western Hemisphere.  In polite conversation, I respond to this sort of thing with an, “Oh, interesting!”  But, inside, I’m really thinking, “Well, whoop-tee-do!!”  (That is not how I typically react to Viking-stuff, by the way!)  The importance of their journey sagas is not being trivialized here, but the arrival in America was largely irrelevant!  Did it impact the Viking culture?  Did it impact the indigenous cultures?  No, not really.  At least, nothing has been proven thus far (barring scholarship with which I am unfamiliar, of course).  Columbus intiated massive impact on his own culture and those that would be exposed to his own as a result of his “discovery“.  But, there is some element in history that prizes the “First“!  I find it a bit tiresome, in truth.  A “First” must meet more criteria than mere chronology to truly be as relevant as some would make it.

When some scholars holler at those who study the various facets of Western civilization about the West appropriating the credit for “Firsts” that belong in the East or the indiginous New World, my reaction is typically to shrug.  Other than to ackowledge that a culture was more advanced or sophisticated at a given time among the ebbs and flows of history, how much does it really matter?  The only way to answer that question is to first answer a follow up: to what degree were these cultures in contact?  China’s “First” discovery of gun powder seems more relevant than its “First” development of paper precisely because gun powder moves eventually to the West through long contact with cultures in between and must be adopted for Europe’s defense against the Ottoman Turks (in the east).  Paper might be a superior product in the end, but the West always made do and found solutions to keep texts and records.

I am prepared to acknowledge that during the Italian Renaissance some grand new things were taking place, but on the whole much is overstated.  Many fewer things were really new or the “First” since the Romans–and still fewer with the abruptness implied by the Italians and their historians.  Medievalists can point not just to individual scholars, but multiple movements during the supposed “Dark Ages” when Europe reflected back on Rome’s greatness and accomplishments with an eye to emulate and admire.  When the Carolingians did it, they effectively preserved most of the texts that have survived today from the Roman era.  When the scholars in the 12th Century Renaissance did it, they laid much of the intellectual and cultural ground work from which the Italian Reniassance naturally evolved.

This leads to another confusing element of “Firsts“–what counts as the actual “First“.  Take manned flight, for instance, you have to be very specific about the category to which you are referring in order to identify the “First.”  The Wright brothers are not the “First” to introduce manned flight, for example, as air balloons, blimps and gliders had already been successfully developed.  It is similar when we talk about eras transitioning, as we often do so with an eye for what is new and different from one era to the next, but periodization remains, to a certain extent, a conceit employed by historians to wrest the vast collection of history into something manageable and classifiable.  These periods we use are misleading because change is such a gradual process when one looks at the expanse of life and society.  Consider the process of desegregation in America following the end of the Jim Crow era: it is hard to determine when segregation truly ends, even legally, given all the nuances, and integration is achieved–compelling arguments can be made to suggest we may have desegregated without having fully integrated still to this day.  And, furthermore, how are these evolutions experienced by the someone according to gender or class, region or population concentration?

I do not mean to argue that “Firsts” are entirely irrelevant–they are not.  But, how we value them is sometimes misleading.  Mere chronology as a distinction is rarely a very interesting one.  Show me impact, show me change as the result of this first event/innovation.  It cannot be significant if it happens or is discovered only to be forgotten when the inventor/thinker/innovator passes away.  Yes, some knowledge of the Greeks and the Romans was lost for a time, but much of that lost knowledge was significant for long periods and in the end quite a bit was reintroduced from classical texts.  It is therefore relevant.  The Mayan knowledge of zero and calculating time was used during the Mayan epoch–some of that knowledge was lost when they dwindled, but not all.  Regardless, it is significant because it was lasting, it was passed on to later generations, which is the most we can say about any of our knowledge or innovations since nothing is eternal.

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