Saint Patrick’s Purgatory

Forget leprechauns and banshees … here’s your St. Patrick’s Day adventure!

Fortunatus, we are told, had heard in his travels of how two days’ journey from the town, Valdric, in Ireland, was a town, Vernic, where was the entrance to the Purgatory; so thither he went with many servants. He found a great abbey, and behind the altar of the church a door, which led into the dark cave which is called the Purgatory of S. Patrick.  In order to enter it, leave had to be obtained from the abbot; consequently, Leopold, servant to Fortunatus, betook himself to that worthy, and made known to him that a nobleman from Cyprus desired to enter the mysterious cavern. The abbot at once requested Leopold to bring his master to supper with him.  Fortunatus bought a large jar of wine, and sent it as a present to the monastery, and followed at the meal time.

“Venerable sir!” said Fortunatus, “I understand the Purgatory of S. Patrick is here; is it so?” 

The abbot replied, ” It is so indeed. Many hundred years ago, this place, where stand the abbey and the town, was a howling wilderness. Not far off, however, lived a venerable hermit, Patrick by name, who often sought the desert for the purpose of therein exercising his austerities. One day he lighted on this cave, which is of vast extent.  He entered it, and wandering on in the dark, lost his way, so that he could no more find how to return to the light of day.  After long ramblings through the gloomy passages, he fell on his knees, and besought Almighty God, if it were His will, to deliver him from the great peril wherein he lay. Whilst Patrick thus prayed, he was ware of piteous cries issuing from the depths of the cave, just such as would be the wailings of souls in purgatory. The hermit rose from his orison, and by God’s mercy found his way back to the surface, and from that day exercised greater austerities, and after his death he was numbered with the saints.  Pious people, who had heard the story of Patrick’s adventure in the cave, built this cloister on the site.”

Then Fortunatus asked whether all who ventured into the place heard likewise the howls of the tormented souls. The abbot replied, ” Some have affirmed that they have heard a bitter crying and piping therein whilst others have heard and seen nothing.  None, however, has penetrated, as yet, to the furthes limits of the cavern.”

(From Sabine Baring-Gould’s Curious myths of the Middle Ages)

(Yes, this is not the same St. Patrick, but a cool one nonetheless.  And actually you might sneak a banshee or two into the cavern, among the wailing souls of Purgatory.)

Published in: on March 17, 2014 at 2:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Another one bites the dust

If you have followed any blogs over the past few years you have probably noticed sites that die, and perhaps even get deleted by their owners, only to return some time later as bullshit advertisements.  The latest one I happened to notice is the Retronaut blog, which used to have amazing old-timey photographs and articles about historical curiosities.  But if you go to now, you get a typical ‘squatter’ site — in this case with “reviews” of “books” on miracle cures.  I don’t know how long ago this happened, as I have not been as active as a blog reader lately, but WTF!

I bet a good many links on my own blog now point to squatter sites but I have never gone back to fix them, because in some cases I was holding out hope that the blog or site would return, or in others because I have been meaning to see if anything is cached in  I suppose I should work on that, because any ill-gained traffic those sites are getting from me must stop.  If you happen to notice and dead or broken links while you are here, do let me know.

Published in: on March 17, 2014 at 12:02 pm  Comments (3)  
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Tourist traps in the land of Prester John

Prester John, in his letter, was kind enough to point out some of the hottest destinations in his many kingdoms.

  1. A land without poison, venom, & frogs. “In one region grows no poisonous herd, nor does a querulous frog ever quack in it; no scorpion exists, nor does the serpent glide amongst the grass, not can any poisonous animals exist in it or injure anyone.”
  2. A Paradise of gems, with no evil spirits. “Among the heathen flows, through a certain province, the River Indus. Encircling Paradise, it spreads its arms in manifold windings through the entire province. Here are found the emeralds, sapphires, carbuncles, topazes, chrsolites, onyxes, beryls, sardius, and other costly stones. Here grows the plant Assidos which, when worn by anyone, protects him from the evil spirit, forcing it to state its business and name — consequently the foul spirits keep out of the way there.”
  3. Pepper fields. “In a certain land subject to us all kinds of pepper is gathered and is exchanged for corn and bread, leather and cloth.”
  4. The Fountain of youth and Pebbles of keen sight. “At the foot of Mount Olympus bubbles up a spring which changes its flavor hour by hour, night and day, and the spring is scarcely three days’ journey from Paradise, out of which Adam was driven. If anyone has tasted thrice of the fountain, from that day he will feel no fatigue, but will, as long as he lives, be as a man of thirty years. Here are found the small stones called Nudiosi which, if borne about the body, prevent the sight from waxing feeble and restore it where it is lost. The more the stone is looked at, the keener becomes the sight.”
  5. The sea of sand and tasty fishes.“In our territory is a certain waterless sea consisting of tumbling billows of sand never at rest. None have crossed this sea — it lacks water all together, yet fish of various kinds are cast up upon the beach, very tasty, and the like are nowhere else to be seen.”
  6. The river of rolling stones. (Closed Friday-Monday) “Three days’ journey from this sea are mountains from which rolls down a stony, waterless river which opens into the sandy sea. As soon as the stream reaches the sea, its stones vanish in it and are never seen again. As long as the river is in motion, it cannot be crossed; only four days a week is it possible to traverse it.”
  7. The lands of lost tribes of Israel. “Beyond this stony river there are ten tribes of the Jews. Though they presume they are kings, yet they are subject to us, and are tributaries to our majesty.”
  8. The pool of healing (Closed to non-Christians) “In a certain plain, is a fountain of singular virtue which purges Christians and would-be Christians from all transgressions. The water stands four inches high in a hollow stone shaped like a mussel-shell. Two saintly old men watch by it and ask the comers whether they are Christians or are about to become Christians, then whether they desire healing with all their hearts. If they have answered well, they are bidden to lay aside their clothes and to step into the mussel. If what they said be true, then the water begins to rise and gush over their heads. Thrice does the water thus lift itself, and everyone who has entered the mussel leaves it cured of every complaint.”
  9. An underground stream, filled with gems.“A subterranean rill which can only by chance be reached, for only occasionally the earth gapes, and he who would descend must do it with precipitation, ere the earth closes again. All that is gathered under the ground there is gem and precious stone.”
  10. Zone, a land with fire-salamanders. “These worms can only live in fire, and they build cocoons like silk-worms which are unwound by the ladies of our palace and spun into cloth and dresses which are worn by our Exaltedness. These dresses, in order to be cleaned and washed, are cast into flames.”
  11. The mirror of all-seeing. “Before our palace stands a mirror, the ascent to which consists of five and twenty steps of porphyry and serpentine … This mirror is guarded day and night by three thousand men. We look therein and behold all that is taking place in every province and region subject to our scepter.”
  12. Towers of true-seeing. “Now the columns and bases are of the same kind of precious stone as the steps through which men ascend. On the summit of the highest there is a watch-tower placed by some graceful skill, so that no one in the various kinds of laud subject to us can work any fraud, or treachery, or dissensions against us whatever, nor those among us, without it being clearly seen from that watch-tower, and without its being recognized who they are, or what they do. There are three thousand men of arms ever guarding this watch-tower night and day, lest by chance it be broken or overthrown to the ground.”

The last item is mentioned in a slightly longer but more archaicly phrased text here.

Published in: on March 14, 2014 at 2:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Random encounters in the Land of Prester John

The famous 1165 letter of Prester John to the Pope catalogs some of the creatures of his empire:

“Our land is the home of elephants, dromedaries, camels, crocodiles, meta-collinarum, cametennus, tensevetes, wild asses, white and red lions, white bears, white merules, crickets, griffins, tigers, lamias, hyenas, wild horses, wild oxen, and wild men — men with horns, one-eyed men, men with eyes before and behind, centaurs, fauns, satyrs, pygmies, forty-ell high giants, cyclopses, and similar women. It is the home, too, of the phoenix and of nearly all living animals.   We have some people subject to us who feed on the flesh of men and of prematurely born animals, and who never fear death. When any of these people die, their friends and relations eat him ravenously, for they regard it as a main duty to munch human flesh. Their names are Gog, Magog, Anie, Agit, Azenach, Fommeperi, Befari, Conei-Samante, Agrimandri, Vintefolei, Casbei, and Alanei. These and similar nations were shut in behind lofty mountains by Alexander the Great, towards the north. We lead them at our pleasure against our foes, and neither man nor beast is left undevoured, if our Majesty gives the requisite permission. And when all our foes are eaten, then we return with our hosts home again.”

Some of these creatures are familiar, and some appear nowhere else but this list, possibly attesting to the hoaxer’s bad spelling or imperfect Latin?

White and red lions.” Medieval Europeans did sometimes call tigers “red lions,” but having tigers appear as well in the list is a little confusing — then again leopards and other big cats might be called “tigers” too, so really I’d assume any period reference to big cats should be taken generically and not too strictly, just as the Conquistadors might call llamas “camels” or call capybaras “pigs.” (And BTW when I spell checked ‘capybara’ in Google, holy shit there are adorable capybara pictures.)  Where were we?  Right, the list of animals.  As these are worth mentioning in his letter, I’d want both red and white lions to be variants of normal lions.  The obvious path would be to make white lions have a cold/frost theme and the red lions a fire theme, like the big-cat equivalent of winter wolves and hell hounds.

A “merule” has been identified as a blackbird or crow, so the “white merule” might just be a white blackbird, whatever that means.  “Merule” also seems to be used in classifying certain types of mold, specifically dry rot.  So we could crank up the horror-fantasy a little and assume a “white merule” is a blackbird infected with a fungal disease that turns it white.  No doubt the fungus also affects their behavior, and they seek to infect other creatures, especially humans and demihumans.  So there’s one new monster, unless there is some kind of plague-bearing bird already in D&D.

The “meta-collinarum,” “cametennus,” and “tensevetes” have defied scholars, as far as I can tell without resorting to actual research.  I did find this inconclusive discussion which gives the light-hearted suggestions that these terms could refer, respectively, to hill-dwellers, a third kind of camel (assuming “camels” means Bactrian camels, since it follows dromedaries?), and either a “devourer of the young” or a tin rodent.

Three varieties of camels seems excessive.  So instead let’s assume that the hill-dwellers are obviously hill giants, and the “devourers of the young” must be either witches or ogres, let’s say witches since we already have hill giants, and all those cannibal hordes to the north.  I hate to give up on the “tin rodents” though so maybe that’s an ironic term for the D&D “gorgon” — the metallic bull with the petrifying breath.

As long as I’m revising things, “fauns” are actually the same thing as “satyrs” in my book*, so let’s replace them with, say, generic beastmen, and “pygmies” is a little hate-speechy so let’s substitute a more generic “little people” like gnomes.  Later on in the letter we also hear he has salamanders who live in fires and, like silkworms, weave cocoons that can be used to make fire-resistant fabric.  Our d30 encounter chart then reads:

  1. elephants
  2. camels (dromedary or Bactrian, 50-50 chance)
  3. crocodiles
  4. meta-collinarum (hill giants)
  5. cametennus (gorgons)
  6. tensevetes (witches)
  7. wild asses
  8. lions (white or red, 50-50 chance)
  9. white bears (polar bear)
  10. white merules
  11. crickets
  12. griffins
  13. tigers
  14. lamias
  15. hyenas
  16. wild horses
  17. wild oxen
  18. wild men with horns
  19. one-eyed wild men
  20. wild men with eyes before and behind
  21. centaurs
  22. fauns (beastmen)
  23. satyrs
  24. pygmies (gnomes?)
  25. forty-ell (that’s 150 feet!) high giants
  26. cyclopes
  27. phoenix
  28. [nearly any other] animal, use some other chart
  29. cannibal berserkers of the tribes of Gog, Magog, etc.
  30. salamanders

Granted some of these are more nuisance encounters than dangerous, but that’s a feature more than a bug for travel in a strange kingdom.  Would an encounter with “crickets” mean the party is bothered by the unusual sounds of the local crickets (which sound like something very different than the crickets thy know back home, and maybe disrupts a attempt to rest as the watch keeping hearing strange noises in the dark?) or an annoying talking cricket like the one Pinocchio smashed with a mallet.**  The wild oxen is strange — how do they reproduce?  who gelds them in the first place? –  and they and wild asses might cause problems by depleting forage, stampeding, and just getting in the way.

Later the letter mentions that Prester John’s land has no poisonous animals or plants, so there’s some good news for adventurers.

The letter goes on and on, and other medieval writers embellished their travelogues with descriptions of this kingdom, so maybe next time I’ll pull out some special locations for hex-map stocking, like the river of stones and the pool of healing in Prester John’s lands.


*Actually I just looked this up and it turns out that ‘fauns’ were originally the jovial, trickster half-goat forest dwellers and ‘satyrs’ were ugly, woman-chasing woodwoses with the tails and ears of asses, and more wise than fauns which were more on the foolish side.  So really the “fauns” should be read “satyrs” in D&D terms and the “satyrs” would be beastmen, mongrelmen, or something like that.

**Yeah, the original version of this story was pretty dark.  In fact the serialized version that first appeared had Pinocchio die from being hanged by bandits (which he deserved) but outraged fans demanded he be saved and the book version has him survive and get a relatively happy ending with the Fairy with Blue Hair.  (Not that kind of happy ending.)

Published in: on March 13, 2014 at 10:06 am  Comments (5)  
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Like lions they fought

I recently finished this book (on a bit of a military history binge I guess) and it was very good.  The title refers to how the Zulus described the British after the 1879 war — and also how the British described the Zulus, it turns out.  In fact both sides appear, from the accounts they left behind, to have had a lot of respect for the other as adversaries.  Granted some of the British were arrogant and racist; some of the Zulu were very arrogant as well.  Atrocities were committed on both sides, though the short length of the war and the comparative humanitarianism of the British mitigated this.  In other colonial wars in Africa, the level of atrocity was much worse, with the Belgians and Germans being the worst offenders.

The “Zulu war” was basically instigated by the British, who did not want any sort of competition for control of South Africa, and issued an ultimatum which was considered impossible for the Zulus to meet as a pretext for the invasion.  The war is notable for the massive defeat of the British at Isandlwana, where the badly deployed British were massacred by the Zulus, and for a number of other battles (sieges, really) where the British defended laagered camps or fortifications against masses of relentless, astonishingly fearless Zulus.  The stand at Rorke’s Drift, which was depicted in the film Zulu, is probably the best known event of the war, but it is pretty uncharacteristic.  More commonly the battles were between large entrenched British forces (with cannon and even Gattling guns) against large Zulu forces (with a lot of rifles but no training in their use, leading to astonishingly bad markmanship of their part).

Edgerton does not shy away from the horrendous gore and brutality of the battles, but also finds sympathetic people on both sides of the conflict.  This book was probably the first to give a really fair-handed account of the Zulu, whom historians had largely treated as either fanatics or “noble savages”.  In fact he dispels some of the myths (that the Zulu had, at this time, a highly disciplined military that drilled constantly; that the Zulu warriors were brainwashed or drugged to fight more fiercely; that their king was a despised despot, etc.) and he tries to understand why the warriors of both sides fought as they did.  This makes for a fascinating look at Zulu society and at the Victorian-era British army.  Edgerton is a meticulous scholar and finds many fascinating first-hand accounts from letters, the press, and interviews conducted in the years after the war.

An epilogue describes some subsequent colonial wars in Africa, and this sharpens some of the contrast between the Zulu war and the others.  The Zulu, after all, managed to survive as a people, and even flourish, while many other African peoples were broken completely.  It is hard not to accept Edgerton’s (somewhat self-serving, as a Brit) suggestion that the restraint shown by the British, and the resilience of the Zulus, made this war different and even somewhat noble … to the extent that the senseless violence of a war, begun without real provocation to serve British greed and power, can be “noble”!

Published in: on March 9, 2014 at 11:12 am  Comments (3)  
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Men of bronze

When I first saw a copy of Men of bronze I was tickled by the blurb on the back cover: “This is the new hoplite book everyone has been waiting for–” it begins.  Yes, everyone!  But the blurb continues: “punchy, stimulating, up-to-date, and full of excitement and contention, like a hoplite scrum.”  And this blurb is actually slyly funnier than you might think, as one of the points of contention that the papers in the book debate is the nature of hoplite warfare, and whether it was really, as many historians have held for the past 100 to 150 years, a gigantic shoving match very much like a rugby scrum.

Men of bronze is actually a collection of papers presented at a conference, and so some are fairly technical.  I have seen several of the authors’ books, as some also write more “popular” works of history, while others are names I have only seen in journals and footnotes (not that I read a lot them, though I had an intense period of interest in that during the late 1990s/early 2000s).  Anyway the battle lines are drawn between the received view — the “hoplite narrative” — which holds that hoplite warfare consisted of tightly organized, tightly packed lines of heavily armed citizen-soldiers who fought in ranks with shields overlapping, and mainly thrusting with spears.  (There is disagreement about whether the spear was held overhand, underhand, or a combination, but otherwise the narrative is pretty much monolithic.)  These masses would clash, supposedly having come at each other at a run or at least a steady march, and literally shove back forth, leaning into their shields, or the ranks in front of them, while stabbing with spears until one side or other gave way and broke, at which time their would be some slaughter, but not necessarily a massacre.  This is the basic framework upon which is built the modern “hoplite narrative”.  The “hoplite narrative” as presented in this book adds some additional details about how political change informed the development of these tactics, and also some ideas about the “rules of engagement” embodied in this form of warfare, all popularized by Victor Davis Hanson (hereafter “VD”) who presented this narrative in a now classic book.  His contribution, I think, is the idea that the Greeks of the seventh to fifth century BCE developed a method of warfare that was uniquely tied to the rise of democracy, and almost a “moral” form of warfare as it imposed rules which limited the carnage of battle to the combatants, with few civilian casualties.  If you are astute, you have probably already noticed how politically charged this sort of claim is, and will not be surprised that VD has a secondary career, apart from Classics, writing cranky political columns everywhere from National Review to the Washington Times.  (Yes, the whole spectrum from arrogant right wing to batshit crazy right wing!)  His columns often use analogies from ancient Greek history to illustrate the rightness of neoconservative policies and the Satanism of anyone to the left of the political center (assuming, as VD appears to, that the center is exactly where it was in the 1950s).  But drawing the wrong lessons from history when discussing modern issues does not mean he also draws incorrect conclusions about ancient history! In fact, back in my academic days, I delivered a paper for a philosophy symposium that took VD’s ideas about hoplite warfare for granted, and having not really followed the academic debates for the last ten or fifteen years, I began reading this book with the assumption that the establishment view of hoplite warfare (the “hoplite narrative”) was basically correct.

Painting by G. Rava, also used as box art for wargaming minis. This looks like a very traditional idea of the hoplites in action, just before coming into contact with enemy.

However, reading these papers (ok, reading some and skimming others that got a little too technical with archaeological data or etymology) has made me think the traditional “hoplite narrative” is a gross and misleading simplification.  The alternative presented in most of the papers seemed too extreme (to wit, that hoplites fought in a loose formation, even skirmishing), but these “revisionists” raised many interesting points that VD — in the final paper which was presumably supposed to be offered as a “rebuttal’ — largely ignores or distorts.  I am not sure if VD did not have access to their papers when preparing his comments, or if he just prefers not to address the arguments on their merits.

It is truly fascinating to read the experts spin the very fragmentary bits of information really have about hoplite warfare (and especially about its rise) into competing narratives.  For one thing, VD and the traditionalists put a lot of stock in the use of the term “othismos” to describe battles.  The word apparently means “pushing” or “shoving,” and if taken literally it sure sounds like the two lines of troops are shoving back and forth.  The only problems with extrapolating from the this term to the actual battlefield practice are: (1) the term is not really used that frequently — I think one critic mentions three uses in the 300 year period, (2) by all accounts, Greek battles were not uniform at all anyway, so one battle account hardly can be applied to many others, and (3) the term might be used more figuratively, as when we say tanks “clashed” in WWII — we don’t mean they literally crashed into each other.  It is perfectly comprehensible as a figurative term, if it means one side “pushes” the other from the battlefield in the sense that they are routed, defeated, etc.  The written accounts of battle in Greek sources are somewhat ambiguous, as they don’t describe things in the detail historians (or wargamers) would like, so this sort of debate will no doubt continue.

Another issue the critics point to is the archaeological evidence.  The physical remains of Greek arms and armor suggest that the traditional claims that the hoplites carried 60-70 pounds of equipment is simply wrong.  Their shields were NOT the solid bronze discs you see in movies like The 300 — they were of very light wood like willow and had a very thin (but still quite strong) plate of bronze on the front and perhaps leather on the back.  Overall, the best estimates seems to be that the shields were in the range of 6 to 8 kg, which is certainly very heavy but many hoplites carried no more than the shield, a helmet, a short sword, and a spear or two.  The full panoply of helm, shield, cuirass and greaves, plus weapons, was probably in the 50 pound range, but that would be the maximum and rather uncommon.  Now if the lighter hoplites carried something like 30 pounds of equipment (many cuirasses were linen or leather rather than bronze, if worn at all), that is still pretty heavy, especially for a smallish man of 120 to 140 pounds as many ancient Greeks would be, but it is a far cry from the crushing weight the traditionalists have assumed.

This detail from the “Chigis vase” is one of the better iconographic “supports” for the traditionalist viewpoint. But if we panned back we’d see it gets less clear that the central image is a “othismos”. Also, as the hoplites all carry two spears, it seems likely that spear-throwing could be part of the battle plan…

The iconographical remains are more important, if only because they are much more common than the scanty remains of arms, but also because they depict the arms in use.  Unfortunately, much like later artists, there is reason to suspect the Greek artists tended to use some anachronisms — putting “modern” 6th century arms on heroes and scenes of greater antiquity.  The traditionalists and critics both seem to take advantage of the anachronisms to filter out some details of the depictions on vases, reliefs, and mosaics, while accepting the other parts that fit their pet theories.  Again, not being an expert myself, I can’t say who is correct here, if either.

Another view of the Chigi vase.

In fact Men of bronze has mainly convinced me that both takes — the traditional “hoplite narrative” and the revisionists who think hoplites skirmished — are partly wrong.   The crazy thing is that even the ancient sources speak of open order and close order formations, with intervals of 6 feet and 3 feet per man, and these were pretty clearly used according to the situation.  So to some extent the debate is pointless — it’s as if the scholars are just so focused on their part of the debate, and their theories, that they are missing the larger picture.  (Revised title: Men of bronze, feet of clay?)  That of course is nothing new in academia, but it is still eye-opening to see these issues brought to light, and a fascinating read.

Published in: on March 4, 2014 at 11:42 am  Comments (4)  
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Not a fan

The always insightful lemur-in-a-business suit over at Ten Bad Habits wrote a particularly good post the other day and it crystalized something for me that I’ve been mulling for some time.

You see I am into a lot of nerdy/geeky things but I find I have startlingly little in common, personality-wise,  with most people of similar interests.  The thing is, I am not really a “fan” of stuff.  I mean, I enjoy Adventure Time and Walking Dead and other touchstones of nerd culture.  But I don’t obsess about them; I don’t think making references to them somehow constitutes wit; I will not be crushed when they go off the air.  (In fact we recently canceled our fancy cable and I don’t miss them.) I like a lot of this stuff but I’m not a fan of it, and I don’t really understand fans, and they get on my nerves.

Here are some disparate things that are leading me to this conclusion:

Case one, the Monty Python fans:  One of the first times I vividly remember being seriously annoyed by my fellow geeks was back in college.  I was introducing a new roommate to some people I knew.  He was from Czechoslovakia (well, it had just become the Czech Republic) and his English wasn’t great and all my friends could do was make (lame) Monty Python references over and over throughout our conversation.  At the time I thought I was just embarrassed by the cluelessness of my friends (who would rather share some pop culture in-jokes than interact meaningfully with this guy who who could barely follow their conversation without their badly mimicked caricature accents of Monty Python skits).  But in hindsight I was less embarrassed by their “rudeness” than by the fact as I watched them mimic stuff they saw on TV I realized that they really were relying on old foreign comedy sketches to supply them with something worth talking about.  Don’t get me wrong, the occasional reference or quote has its place.  But these half dozen college students couldn’t get through a frigging conversation without breaking into repeated and extended recitations of sketches.  I will watch Monty Python almost any time it is on, but I guess I’m just not a fan.  I don’t think shouting “Ni!Ni!” is always inherently funny, and I don’t want a Monty Python screen saver or merchandise.  So I guess I don’t automatically feel a bond with people on the basis of a shared appreciation of a show, movie or book.

Case two, a Facebook group: I ‘joined’ a Facebook group for fans of science fiction in my area.  I get one or two emails notifying me of activity there every week.  Usually it is someone gushing about a new science fiction film or TV show, or an old one now on DVD or Netflix, or a link to some piece of merchandise that slyly references Star Trek, Star Wars, Trek Wars, or Star Star.  I get the sense that the other folks in this group are excited just because the new film is science fiction, regardless of how stupid or derivative the trailer looks.  I have read a fair amount of science fiction, but I don’t read just anything and I have never, ever read single novel about Star Wars or Star Trek; I don’t know much of anything about Orson Scott Card (except that he makes himself sound like a real douchebag in interviews) or George R.R. Martin (except that he keeps writing some kind of soap opera fantasy saga and is unlikely to live long enough to finish it); I don’t assume Japanese animated films are going to be anything special.  (OK, I watched Akira and Vampire Hunter D and few other films 20+ years ago; they were pretty cool).  Sure I love reading fantasy and science fiction, and I probably set a lower bar for genre fiction and films than I do for non-genre stuff, but I can see I’m not a “real” fan because I don’t just get automatically excited to hear a new this or that is coming out.  So I guess I am not a loyalist to a particular genre.

Case three, Joss Wedon (or is it Josh Wedon? Is “Joss” a real name?): I have heard from many people I know that this Wedon character was behind some great TV shows or something and so I should look forward to anything else he touches.  In fact I can think of think of a couple of otherwise intelligent people who think anything he touches automagically turns to gold and shits rainbows.  I don’t get it.  It seems like they just outsourced their entire palate for what is clever, cool, or worthwhile to this one person’s imagination.  Because I’m not all that interested in binge-watching the entire Buffy or Firefly catalog, they have practically nothing to talk to me about.  It’s really weird.  I mean, I do have a few directors and writers I really like, but I can admit that, say, some of Ralph Bakshi’s movies are kind of lame (cough, Cool world) or that some of Poul Anderson’s books are pretty flat (cough, Beyond the beyond, Winter of the world…).  So I guess I don’t properly idolize any genre artists.

Is that what fandom is?  Idolizing pulp/genre artists? Uncritical loyalty to a genre? A sense of belonging based on this shared fanaticism?  Well then I’m not a fan.

And yet — I do enjoy “genre” entertainment.  I do have favorite authors and directors whose work I’ll seek out.  So maybe I’m a fan of the genres, just not of fandom?

Published in: on March 2, 2014 at 9:35 pm  Comments (10)  
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Riddles in history


C.H.Gordon was a professional philologist, and worked as a cryptographer during WWII.  “Riddles in history” exemplifies the old saw about “all problems looking like nails to a man with a hammer.”

Gordon begins with a very interesting account of several important inscriptions that were initially rejected as fakes by Victorian era experts, but later verified by other evidence, mostly the discovery of other texts that show that the perceived errors in the supposed forgeries were not errors at all.  For example, a text might appear to have grammatical errors which are later discovered to be repeated in other authentic texts and not errors but regional variations or dialect.  He then explains that several inscriptions which have been rejected as dubious or even forgeries can be verified by later discoveries too — in this case by the uncovering of crypts and ciphers encoded in the texts themselves.

I was initially very interested to see what he came up with, but as I read on I realized he was attempting to “rehabilitate” some very widely rejected inscriptions and texts: in this case the Kensington Runestone, The Spirit Pond runestones, the “lost” Paraiba text, and the Vinland Map.  Gordon finds hidden codes that make sense of the inscriptions, because, he reasons, a forger would never think to encode secret messages in them, especially not messages that make sense only in light of more recent archeology.  Unfortunately it becomes evident very quickly that Gordon is doing extreme logical and philological gymnastics to make the codes “work”, and to find them at all.

For example, he examines the block of text in the upper left hand corner of the Vinland map and notices that if you count the words in each of the seven lines, you can then mark the letter that many characters from either end of the line to derive two “hidden” jumbles of letters, which are anagrams for a name that appears in the text, and a Latin phrase.  The phrase could be interpreted as an expression of faith, and this fits with the much more ancient practice of embedding such phrases in other inscriptions… “could, might, can, probably” are his favorite words, it seems. By the time I got to his “conclusions,” I realized he was almost, but not quite, in full Von Däniken mode.  Lookee here, this Aztec relief sort of looks like he’s wearing a phylactery, and the Paraiba text is Phoenician (with a hidden Jewish message) … so … Jews in Central America! This other Aztec figure has a beard!  European contact!  And that hat looks like a boat, and there is a bird in the picture, just like the story of Noah’s Ark!  He reaches and reaches further, getting further out into crankdom as he goes.

As an example of a serious, and well-meaning effort to support the idea that pre-Columbian contacts between the old and new world were more common that supposed, it’s a curious read.  There are some interesting maps, figures, and nice full-color plates of models of various ancient ships.  The bits on cryptography are interesting and explained so that a layman can understand them.  But the problem, I think, is that Gordon is so convinced that these inscriptions are authentic, that he goes looking for evidence until he creates it himself.  The human mind is excellent at finding patterns, as we know; even patterns that don’t actually exist.

Now just because Gordon is almost certainly wrong does not mean you can’t get something out of this for RPGs.  He gives some neat examples of acrostic and telestic cryptography that you might place in inscriptions in your dungeons, and the idea of pre-Columbian contact between the old and new worlds is a very common fantasy trope.

Published in: on February 25, 2014 at 8:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Brut

The oldest book I’ve ever cataloged is this:

brut1Here it is, laying in a protective box.    It had languished for some time in the “backlog” of items that never had electronic records created when my library moved from a card catalog to a computer catalog.  This was a very fairly common issue (and still is, really) because libraries rely on cooperative bibliographic databases for the vast majority of their catalog records.  But most libraries have a lot of rare, or even unique, items — like this one — that need original cataloging.  (Of course every new publication needs an original record too; it’s just that once it’s made, libraries can all share it!)

Anyway this is a book that was made in the 15th century, to judge by the handwriting.  It has 99 numbered leaves, plus a few leaves pasted into the front and back later with scribbled notes.

brut2The whole thing was, of course, copied by hand by some scribe, and because he had some extra space, he copied more than one work into it.   There is a short geographical introduction which identifies some of the places mentioned in the main work.  This is the first page of it:

brut3Then the main work begins — a history or chronicle of England, called the “Brut” because the first English king mentioned is a Brutus.

brut4“Here folowith the Chronicle of England [something something]“

The text is mostly unadorned, apart from some red & blue initials

brut6and some marginal notes.

brut7The bookdealer’s description says the book is all in one hand but I would disagree.  Then again I’m no expert.

In addition to the “Brut” chronicle, there is a longish romantic poem called “The destruction of Jerusalem,” and also a popular poem (sometimes attributed to Walter Mapp) called “Cur mundus militat,” which tells of the vanity of the world.  The first line is “Why is the world loved Þat is false and vayne…

brut8Maybe you can almost make that out above.

brut9The red bar on this page is actually just the laser from the bar-code scanner at my desk.  If you’re worried about the fact that I handled this book bare-handed, I should mention that I did wash my hands thoroughly, and gloves are not always worn when handling old materials because the latex and synthetic fibers maybe be more damaging than traces of skin oils.  (Notice too that a book like this was handled by many, many people for decades or even centuries, as it is written in English which means it was meant to be popularly enjoyed; probably read aloud by literate members of the household that owned it.)

Someone else at my library blogged about this book already.  The Brut is interesting as it mixes legend with real history.  King Arthur is among the kings listed.  The first compilation was sometime in the early fifteenth century and stopped around 1415; later authors added “expansions” to keep it up-to-date.  There is a book on the development of the work here.  I don’t know which version we have; I suppose a more thorough investigation could identify it and narrow down the date. I had a devil of a time finding a modern text version of the chronicle, but did find this.  This version is over 600 pages, and includes a lot of “extras” from various versions of the text as well as associated poems and romances.  I’ll keep an eye out for a modern English version.

Published in: on February 23, 2014 at 8:26 am  Comments (3)  
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I stumbled across the term “hacksilver” on the History Blog the other day and decided to look into it, as I often do when I encounter unfamiliar words.  It refers to silver items cut or bent into convenient sizes for use as currency, and it was apparently a common practice, especially among the Vikings, to use looted items of gold or silver this way.

File:Hack silver.jpg

Image from

I will absolutely have to remember to implement this in D&D.  For one  it makes more sense that vast piles of valuable metals are not minted coins at all.

I can see a tribe of goblins or kobolds accumulating a pile of coins a few at a time by stealing them from travelers and trading stolen livestock to orcs or whatever, and humanoids and humans would probably be very likely to make hacksilver out of their loot.  Demihumans, who appreciate the aesthetics of crafted items, would not though.

And surely a dragon just carries off all the gold implements in a temple or palace before razing it, and keeps it intact; other monsters might collect shiny stuff from the ruins they haunt, including some coins but not a lot of those get left behind when a civilization falls (looting, hoarding, etc.).

 Convenient coinage might appear in dungeons because the malevolent force that inhabits the underworld knows coins attract explorers to their doom, though, or because the dungeon inhabitants are actively minting coinage for their agents above-ground to use to bribe and buy from the civilized.

But most humanoids, bandits, raiders, and so on will have converted gold and silver items into hacksilver, either for dividing plunder or because they have no ability or interest in minting.  You could just have a percentage die roll determine how much of the loot PCs find is in coinage (& hacksilver), and how much  is in ingots and larger items for most monsters, but assume monsters with really vast hoards are probably collecting large items rather than coins (and certainly not bothering to make hacksilver).

File:Cuerdale hoard viking silver british museum.JPG

And another wikipedia image

I think this probably inverts the normal relationship between portability and treasures in D&D — usually, you think of items as being more ‘portable’ because a single finely-crafted item might be worth more than its weight in metal.  So really the trade off should probably be that if you haul a golden platter, three feet across and worth 1000 gold pieces, back to town, no-one can afford to buy it from you, but if you hack it into gold pieces, you get 2/3 or 1/2 the value in hacksilver (well, hackgold) that can be readily spent.  I kind of like the idea of an adventurer breaking an arm off of a silver candelabra to pay for his room and board, or pulling gold links off a chain necklace to by more oil and rope.  Also, you might allow coins and hacksilver to be more portable (like 100 to a pound of encumbrance rather than 10), but the tradeoff again is that you would take extra time to hack the items up, or else need to make extra trips or be badly overburdened to bring all those plates, candlesticks, and so on out of the dungeon!

Published in: on February 21, 2014 at 9:00 am  Comments (14)  
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