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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Rune ...ish Art at Western.

There is a piece of art outside the McIntosh Gallery on the University of Western Ontario Campus that catches my eye every time I go by.

I wanted to explain at least to my colleagues why I made them stand outside in the cold while I asked the curator Catherine Shaw about it. She told me that the artist had meant to represent pathways, and ancient peoples, and that, probably, runestones had been part of the inspiration.

So this is the piece outside of the gallery:

That real runestones are the inspiration for this art makes sense. They are most abundant in Sweden, though they can be found elsewhere, and they are typically along the pathways, and at cross roads. They often commemorate someone, though they are not grave markers per se. Many of them have a serpentine pattern in which the runes are written. Here are a couple of examples that are now located in University Park around the University Museum in Uppsala, so that you can see the similarities.

This stone says 'Holmfast had the stone erected in memory of Igulger, his father, and Torbjörn.' It is from the 11th century and was found in 1910 in a corner of present-day Gamla Torget. You can see the serpentine pattern, and the resemblance to the other piece.

This stone is also from the 11th century and says 'Tägn and Gunnar had the stones erected in memory of Väder, their brother.' In Fanbo parish east of Uppsala are three more rune stones erected in memory of members of the same family.

This third stone was also from the 11th century, and is unusual because it commemorates a woman; 'Gillög had the bridge made for her daughter Gillög’s soul, the wife of Ulf. Öpir cut (the runes).'

My information has come from Jack Ammerman's site on the Hartford Seminary Library webpage.

Honourable Mentions

In a move of complete narcissism, I would like to encourage people to read the recently published Becoming Byzantine: Children and Childhood in Byzantium, published by Dumbarton Oaks this year. In particular, there is an essay entitled 'Children in Byzantine Monasteries: Innocent Hearts or Vessels in the Harbor of the Devil?' by Professor Richard Greenfield. It argues, that while children were not supposed to be part of monasteries, for their own benefit but mostly because they are temptations sent by the devil, they were more common than the authorities on the matter would have you believe.

I helped Prof. Greenfield with some of his research in 2005, which is why it is entirely narcissistic of me to mention it. But I had some interesting experiences during my first try as a research assistant.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I read through about six saints' lives, combing them for instances of children. The texts were all translated from the original Greek into either English or French. It took me about a month to a month and a half to get through them on top of my school work.

The less enjoyable bit, as it is for most researchers, is the eternal search for funding. Having been turned down for work study because I didn't have enough debt, I went out looking for ways to increase my debt. Once I did I went back to the work study guy to show him my new found debt, he said that he didn't really mean that kind of debt. I may or may not have broke down in tears in front of him I was so angry. I finally went to the professor and said 'well, I can't get work study, but mostly I really want to do this, so if you'll let me, I'll do it for free.' Nice man that he was, he found a different way to pay me. And even nicer, the publication has my name in a footnote. This is the first time my name has appeared in a proper book. I am rather hoping it won't be the last.

Sitting on my fence post, chewing my bubblegum..

In Grade 12 I was asked to write a paper for my Early Modern History Class. The topic was the French Revolution, and you could choose to write either on how ideology was the cause of the French Revolution, or how the conditions in which the working class/rural peasantry lived caused it. I passed in a paper that said that the two were both equally necessary, and equally dependent on each other as causes of the French Revolution. My teacher wrote on it 'I guess that is an opinion, but it's not really what I asked.'

I am a notorious fence sitter. Turns out a program in public history is just what I needed. Everywhere we turn we are surrounded by equally true, yet usually mutually exclusive truths. That has been my experience during my first foray into Digital History, and my experience throughout the Public History program.

One of the fundamental contradictory truths we must deal with are the two ways of knowing that we must now contend with. The internet has not only revolutionized the way that we are given information, but it has also changed the way that we receive information. How then do we join the tradition of historical interpretation up to this point. We now train ourselves in the traditional ... tradition of history, so that we can be well-versed in the historiography that has come before. But we must also train ourselves in this new way of presenting information, otherwise we run the risk of becoming irrelevant to future generations. We agree that the book is not going anywhere, but we are also convinced that the internet is here to stay. Therefore we must now walk the line between the two, and to be good in both kinds of epistemology we not only have to be versed in both, but the nature of academia and historical scholarship will have to change.

Going back to an earlier blog, the theme of both scarcity and abundance have come up time and time again. It is true that the majority of the things on the internet are ephemeral and transitional in some way; they can be added to all the time, or changed, like on Wikipedia. It is easily changed and it is also easily erased. People still recommend that you should print out something that is important to you, because you could lose it. This is all true, but it is also true that if there is something that you would actually like to erase it is very difficult to eradicate all traces of it. Just take the personal information that was gathered and posted by AOL; though it was eventually taken down it is almost impossible to get rid of. Even now there are still mirror sites linking you to the information. And many things have been saved to the Internet Archive. Not only that, since now everything can be posted to the internet, even if some of the individual things are transitional or temporary, the information that is conveyed by those documents persists and there is now so much good information on so may subject that now historians will have to be extremely specialized, or very broad to do justice to their sources, which was not the case before. That is another interesting case of two equally true yet mutually exclusive truths.

A case of two competing ideologies, both with some validity, is seen in the debate between open source and closed source theories behind the web. For us as modern historians we must both operate in the closed source environment which has already been established, and it is through those already established channels we have to operate to be taken seriously. Yet, we must also be on the forefront of the open source movement, again so that we can be most relevant to the public (possibly more of a concern to public historians than to academic historians) and so that in the future the powers that be will be more motivated to choose open source over closed source options. (Yes I have a bias, and yes it may be a direct result of my digital history class).

Another case of two equally true yet mutually exclusive truths is that collective intelligence is both smarter and more stupid than the individuals who make up that collective. When you make things not only open source, but interactive, like wikipedia, you run into the problem that anyone can contribute to it. But of course, by the same token, anyone can contribute to it, making it so that people can build upon the foundations of everyone else's thought. A lot of interesting work, like with the I Like Bees experiment, has been done on getting the collective intelligence to work. They prove that a lot can be accomplished, but they also seem to involve heavy guidance by a few key intelligent individuals/architects. Therefore both that the collective is smarter and that it is more stupid than the individual is true, but there is no solution to that dichotomy.

It is not just digital history, as I say I come across this as well in my other Public history classes. When the historians dictate to the public which history they should be interested, and how inclusive it should be, and what high brow culture is, this is very clearly elitist. However, to do the 'old, dead, white man's history' is also a problem, though it may be what people are interested in, and can also be considered to be 'elitist.'

Museums are considered to be shying away from their mandate if they spend a lot of money to put on high profile shows, especially ones that are corporate sponsors. Some have even questioned whether or not a corporate museum should be counted as a 'museum,' but museums too must deal with the question of relevance, and by putting on high profile shows and accepting corporate sponsorship they are often better able to serve the audience that they are aiming at, the 'masses' (which is a loaded word in itself) and all aspects of the community. If it appeals to only other historians than it is not that useful. Therefore it is true that museums should stick to their mandate, but it is also true that their mandate is also to serve their community (and their community often wants contradictory things).

For those of you who were not familiar with it (I don't know, maybe it is a song only sung by people in Southern Ontario, and only when they are part of Girl Guides; a part of my history, but anyway) the reference in the title is to a song called Herman the Worm. The premise of the song is that you spend your time sitting pleasantly on your fence post, and wait for your friend Herman the Worm to come and tell you that the reason he is so much larger than the last time you saw him is because he has yet again eaten another member of his family. This continues until finally he comes to you as a very skinny worm. Turns out he exploded. And if you were wondering I write differently in my blog than I would for any other audiences, yes I do. When reflecting on this year so far, I couldn't help but think of fence-sitting, and when I think of fence sitting I always associate it with this song. If Herman were in fact history, which continues to encompass related disciplines and expand the tools that we use as historians, we will have to take an active role in making sure it doesn't blow up on us. And on that very strained metaphor,

Have a Merry Christmas Everyone.

(Some of the links are to particular sites or articles, but most are to the relevant week/readings that caused the discussion that caused me to come to the conclusions I come to)

Data Mining in Snorri's Prose Edda

Written by Snorri Sturluson in the last half of the 13th century, this text, the Poetic Edda, and our collection of Norse poetry comprise the bulk of our knowledge about the 'mythology' of the Old Norse. Snorri wrote his text, not only so that some of the old stories could be preserved, but so that this type of poetry and storytelling would be better understood and also preserved for posterity.

The fact that the bulk of the text is about gods and goddesses is not news, nor does one have to be an expert in Norse literature or the Prose Edda to know that. However, I do think that once a lot of the medieval documents, both manuscripts and the many different textual editions that have appeared over the years, data mining will be a useful tool, not only to those of us who are trying to become experts, but to those who already are. It will be particularly useful when comparing different editions of the same text, as it will be very easy to see how many authors/translators have differently interpreted one section, and what language they have chosen to use in the translation. I did not think to undertake anything so ambitious. I thought I would just see what a newbie could find out about the place of gods and goddesses in the text, and what a very simple kind of analysis might yield.

In this case, I used a text that was available on Project Gutenberg. It was much easier to read the HTML version, though the other versions which show what the actual physical book looked like could be used to look at the placement of words on the pages, and so could be used to take the analysis a step further than anything I had attempted.

I chose to look at one of these texts, not only out of personal interest, but also because taking something that was originally in another language, I felt perhaps the use of certain vocabulary in the text could not only tell you something about the original work, but might also tell you the differences in thought pattern between English translators and translators in other ancient or modern languages. I decided that I would see what I could find out if I looked at the instances of the word 'god' in the Snorri's Prose Edda, as translated in 1897 by Rasmus B. Anderson. In that way I can see what the text is telling me, keeping in mind that there will be an overlay of 19th century scholarship. This can be seen especially in the extracts that have been chosen from the text, they are heavy on the mythology and if things are left out it is more of the instruction about how to write the poetry.

And, despite the rudimentary nature of my data mining I still found out things that were interesting about at least Rasmus's version of this text. I used the Concordance tool on Project TaPor. The first thing I found out is that the there are only 57 instances of the word 'god' in the text, but there are 155 instances of the word 'gods'. This makes sense, as you use the vocabulary to describe them as a whole, and that if they are talked about individually you might use their name. In face most of the instances of just 'god' are in the glossary at the end of the text. Likewise, there are 15 instances of the word 'goddesses,' but there are only 11 instances of the word 'goddess,' and mostly that is in the glossary. It comes as no surprise that there are more instances of the word god than goddess, but it is interesting that goddesses is usually part of the phrase 'the gods and goddesses,' and that they are not always part of the generic 'gods' when Snorri is describing the actions of the whole group. And the fact that they are used mostly at the beginning fits with the nature of the text, as that is more heavy on mythology and less about textual construction.

If I were doing a broad project about mythology this would be incredibly useful, because then I would know where to start reading, and that the first section of the text is the most useful. However, for anyone who knows anything about the text this is not really new, and reading the text straight through would lead you to the same conclusion. What is the best selling point for me is that, once you have read the text and made a conclusion or a thesis, you would not have to re-read the whole thing to pick out all the instances or evidence. Instead you use this tool to lead you to the location of the evidence, and then you mine it out, and use it in your essay.

The picture above is from the Penguin Edition, much newer than the one found on Project Gutenberg.

'What good is it ...

... if no one ever sees it,' is what I asked myself. So for followers of ... well ... me, this is the website that I have been working on ... about me. Took me longer than my colleagues to get it up on my blog, but it made it here eventually.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like shopping

The year is 1913, and Christmas is rolling around once again, and I, an avid reader, am flipping through the Eaton's Catalogue, as I am wont to do, looking at the books section and compiling my wish list. Wishing to be well read in the upcoming year I think I will ask Santa for a book from several of the different categories. Why not, I am worth it.

I have actually been known to do this, though typically it is with the Sears Catalogue in our modern times, not because I actually expected to get anything off that list, but because it was fun. On a slightly related note, here is an interesting website I found archiving old Sears Catalogues.

This time, instead of waiting for Santa to bring me the books that might have interested me in 1913 and 1914 I have decided to take matters into my own hands, and see which I might get for free as digitized copies off of the internet. Take that commercialism of Christmas.

The catalogue itself can be found on the Internet Archive, which proved to be an interesting and reliable source for many of these early books. The first section of books was entitled "A Page of Big Values in Bibles, Prayers and Hymn Books," but since my 1913 family (who inexplicably has access to the internet) already has a great deal of those I didn't investigate too much further. In fact, for interests sake, in this exercise I mostly stuck to titles that I did not already know, and did not think would be ubiquitous, first because those with really popular or general titles will no doubt give you an edition of the text, but it may not be the edition that was offered in the 1913 Eaton's Catalogue. That is not to say that they might not be the same, or that all of what I found were the actual editions as listed in the catalogue, but I did want to try for titles that were unfamiliar to me.

In the section "A Page of Books at Money-Saving Prices" there was a collection of medical books. I was unable to find a copy of Dr. Gunns Family Physician and Home Book of Health, though there are many antique booksellers that do possess a copy. There seem to be both earlier and later editions of this text. Nor was I able to find The Horse's Friend and Veterinary Advisor by Jas. Law, mostly because 'the horse's friend' is too broadly used a term. However, I was able to find Maternity without Suffering by Emma F. Angell Drake. This book was published in 1902, and it is listed in the catalogue for 60 cents.

In the section "The Best Cookbooks: Endorsed by High Authorities," I was not able to find Mrs. Beeton's Cookery Book, mostly because she wrote other books which were apparently on a similar subject and took precedence over this book. I was, however able to find The Whitehouse Cookbook, written in 1887 by F.L. Gillette and Hugo Zieman. This book talks about cooking, toilet and household, recipes, menus etc. and is listed in the catalogue for 75 cents. The full text can be found on Project Gutenberg.

For "Good Books on Manners and Letter Writing" I actually had a lot of trouble finding a text, mostly, as with The Horse's Friend, this seemed to be because the terms for searching were just too broad. Manners and Rules of Good Society could be found on the Internet Archive , but only in incarnations that were published after the date of this catalogue.

In the "Mechanical Books for Home Study" section I searched for the Train Rules Catechism and could not find it, I expect once again because of the very general title. Instead I was able to find Light and Heavy Timber Framing made easy which was published in 1909, and is currently hosted by the Internet Archive. It was written by Frederick Thomas Hodgson, and the catalogue indicated it is one of Hodgson's better works, though they are trying to make a sale. It happens to be going for $1.75.

In the section " A List of Miscellaneous Books and Dictionaries" I was not able to find one of those titles, including Robinson's Book of Conundrums, Hands: How to Read Them, Mystic Dream Book (though I did find a 1937 version of this), Maple Leaf Reciter or Toasts (which was much too broad to be a valid search term).

Instead I found a series of books from the "A Page of Popular Books" section. On Wikipedia they have an excellent list of the Elsie Books, which are mentioned in the Catalogue, and also show you which of the books are freely available online. These books were published between 1867 and 1905. Most of the copies are hosted by Project Gutenberg. Each Elsie book is listed in the catalogue for 17 cents.

I was unable to locate the two titles I did not know from the section "Books for Young People," that is Animal Stories for Little People (again because the search terms were broad) and Wood's Natural History (which was for sale, but I could not find a digitized copy). Most titles in this section I was quite familiar with, so I stayed away from them.

In the "High Class Recent Fiction" section I came across The Money Moon by Jeffrey Farnol from 1911. The Catalogue prices it at 50 cents. I was able to find the text in Google books.

From the "Well Known Novels Very Low Prices" section of the Catalogue I was able to find The Missing Bride by Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth on Project Gutenberg. I was able to find it on Project Gutenberg and it is priced in the Catalogue at 25 cents.

Finally, from the "Big Value in Annuals and Children's Picture Books" section I was not able to find the Roosevelt Bear Books. However, I was able to find a copy of Little Lord Fauntelroy, though it is a modern reproduction of the text. I was able to find it on Google Books. The story was written by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1886. In the catalogue it was 75 cents.

For this experiment my texts were all found on Google Books, the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg. However, the most interesting thing I found out was how effective the search engine of Google is at finding books online. One thing that the search engines were not good at however was getting a title that was similar in any way to everyday phrases, common websites, or was used in many different kinds of books. All my finds had very specific titles, which could only signify themselves and nothing else. Therefore, this is a lesson for future book and internet writing. be specific in your title.

Overall I was impressed with how many I could actually find, and in such a breadth of categories. So, Santa, looks like I am going to have to make you a new list, maybe with toys or from the extensive underwear collection in the catalogue, because so far Google has been doing your work for you.

Canadian Conceptions of the Viking/Native Conflict: Imposing Canada on the Narrative

This paper was presented at the Trent-Carleton Graduate Student Conference in Canadian Studies, (Dis)Arming Canada: Protest, Conflict and (Un)Steady States, at Trent University in Peterborough Ontario on November 14, 2009. I chose to focus on the conflict between the Vikings and the Skraelings (natives) in the texts, and what tools historians have used to interpret this conflict. The issue of the historical content in the Vinland Sagas is one of the most discussed historiographical issues amongst North American scholars of the Viking Age. Many of these ideas will be further flushed out and expanded upon next semester for "Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier", the UWO Visual Arts Graduate seminar with Prof. Kathy Brush.

. . .

The two texts, Grœnlendinga saga or The Saga of the Greenlanders, and Eiriks saga rauða, or Eirik the Red’s Saga are among the Sagas of Icelanders, a collection of texts about the history of the Icelanders. <1> They are meant as legendary histories for the early settlers of Iceland. They are preserved in written form around the last half of the thirteenth century. These two texts are known as the Vinland Sagas because they detail the history of Eirik the Red and his family, who discover and name the lands known as Helluland, Markland, and Vinland among others around the year 1000 C.E. These events occurred at least 250 years before the sagas were written. There is evidence that suggests they were based in traditional oral histories. It is unlikely I will have to tell a room of Canadian historians et al. about some of the difficulties, despite the necessity, of using oral stories as history. However, the result of this tradition is a tale of several Viking expeditions that land in what we like to identify now as Canada. In the texts, when they arrive in Vinland they trade with, and ultimately come into conflict with the indigenous population. This is in fact the first conflict of which there is a written record that we can claim as a Canadian conflict. But historians have traditionally had difficulty with this source, because so many aspects of the documents call into question the truth of the tale. However, many who have believed these to be historical events have defended the texts passionately. One of the best tools to prove that these sagas are historical documents has been to take things that we know about Canada, or more broadly North America, and make that fit the text to show how it could have actually happened. This includes, most typically, imposing our geography on the geography described in the text. It also includes comparing the encounters, or conflicts, between the Skraelings (the Old Norse word for the indigenous people) and the Vikings with other encounters or conflicts recorded by the early 16th and 17th century European explorers. Unlike most of the conflicts that will be discussed here today, the actual conflict that occurred had little to no impact on the way that Canada or its people developed as a nation. Instead it is our conceptions of early Canadian conflicts, and of the geography of Canada which influences our understanding of this conflict.

Eirik the Red’s Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders both tell us the story of the Vinland expeditions. Both tales involve many of the same characters, and they are about the same events, the same expeditions to Vinland, but there are some radical differences in the narrative, including different events and discrepancies in the number of trips made. The Saga of the Greenlanders is shorter, but it breaks the voyages into four distinct trips, while Eirik the Red’s Saga is longer and is more stylized, combining the same four voyages into two. <2> There is a lot that has been written about why this might be, and how that affects the history as it is represented in the text. However, for the purposes of this paper we are going to focus specifically on how each of them represents the interactions between the Skraelings and the Vikings, though much more could be said about the voyages at large as well as the historiography. <3>

Because it is less stylized, and includes fewer of the fantastic elements much, though not all, of the recent scholarship has seen The Saga of the Greenlanders as being more ‘historical.’ <4> In this particular text the first encounter with the Skraelings is during the second voyage which landed in Vinland. It is headed by Thorvald Eiriksson, Leif’s brother. To the west of Leif’s camp, which was established during the previous voyage, “they did find a wooden grain cover, but discovered no other work by human hands.” <5> Then they head east of Leif’s camp
[Thorvald] then spoke: ‘This is an attractive spot, and here I would like to build my farm.’ As they headed back to the ship they saw three hillocks on the beach inland from the cape. Upon coming closer they saw they were three hide-covered boats, with three men under each of them. They divided their forces and managed to capture all of them except one, who escaped with his boat. They killed the other eight and went back to the cape.
They then see that there are more settlements further up in that particular fjord. A voice warns Thorvald and his companions of an impending attack, so they prepare themselves. In the ensuing battle Thorvald is the only killed. The other members of the expedition go home. <7> Then Thorfinn Karlsefni, who is connected to the family by his marriage to Guðrid, who is under the protection of Eirik, makes the fourth voyage to Vinland. They too ran into the Skraelings;
after the first winter passed and summer came, they became aware of the Skraelings. A large group of men came out of the woods close to where the cattle were pastured. The bull began bellowing and snorting very loudly. This frightened the Skraelings, who ran off with their burdens, which included fur pelts and sable and all kinds of skins. … Neither group understood the language of the other. The natives then set down their packs and opened them, offering their goods, preferably in exchange for weapons, but Karlsefni forbade the men to trade weapons. He sought a solution by having the women bring milk products. Once they saw those products the Skraelings wished to purchase them and nothing else. The trading with the Skraelings resulted in them bearing off their purchases in their stomachs, leaving their packs and skins with Karlsefni and his companions. This done, they departed.
The second winter the Skraelings visit again but in greater numbers. During this time Guðrid is visited by a supernatural mimic, with pale skin and large eyes. When Guðrid is distracted by a noise the mimic disappears with a crack. “At that moment one of the Skraelings had been killed by one of Karlsefni’s servants for trying to take weapons from them, and they quickly ran off, leaving their clothes and trade goods lying behind. No one but Gudrid had seen the woman.” <9> They then make plans to ward off a Skraeling attack, using their bull as a scare tactic. During the course of the battle, one of the Skraelings picks up an axe, and uses it on one of his compatriots, killing him. The leader of the Skraelings takes it and throws it into the sea. It is then that the natives flee. After that winter the Vikings decide to go home.
Many of the episodes in Eirik the Red’s Saga are similar, however, the four expeditions are conflated into two, and it is Leif who merely investigates and Karlsefni that does all the exploring and naming of the new lands. When Karlsefni is at Hop, one of the bases they establish in Vinland, “early one morning they noticed nine hide covered boats, and the people in them waved wooden poles that made a swishing sound as they turned them around sunwise.” <10> They discuss what this means and decide that it means peace. The Vikings row to shore. The Skraelings “were short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads. Their eyes were large and their cheeks broad.” <11> The next day they go back and there are many Skraelings waiting for them. There is a trading scenario nearly identical to that in The Saga of the Greenlanders, except that they trade increasingly small amounts of red cloth instead of milk. In this text also they forbid the trading of weapons with the Skraelings. Karlsefni’s bull then frightens the Skraelings away. The next day the natives come back, their paddles waving counter sunwise. This is a prelude to the battle, similar to the one in the Saga of the Greenlanders between Karlsefni’s men and the Skraelings. The Skraelings are much more menacing in Eirik the Red’s Saga; they “saw the Skraelings lift up on poles a large round object, about the size of a sheep’s gut and black in colour, which came flying up on the land and made a threatening noise when it landed. It struck great fear into Karlsefni and his men.” <12> An interesting part of this battle is the character of Freydis, who had her own voyage in the Saga of the Greenlanders. She follows the fleeing Vikings, but is slower since she is pregnant.
She followed them into the forest, but the Skraelings reached her. She came across a slain man, Thorbrand Snorrason, who had been struck in the head by a slab of stone. His sword lay beside him, and this she snatched up and prepared to defend herself with it as the Skraelings approached her. Freeing one of her breasts from her shift, she smacked the sword with it. This frightened the Skraelings, who turned and ran back to their boats and rowed away.
Many of the Skraelings were slain, though only two of Karlsefni’s men perished. The text says the multitude of Skraelings had been an illusion. There is then a similar episode to the axe episode in the previous text, however the Skraelings take turns trying to axe on wood, and instead they throw it away when one of them tries it on stone and the axe breaks. In this saga the text points out how the Vikings would always be under attack from this party, and it is for this reason that they decide to depart for home. There are a few interesting interludes on the way home however, including stopping to kill five Skraelings whom they find sleeping, because they guessed that they were outlaws. They also, as they sail along the shore, come across a one legged man, who darts down to the ship and kills one of the Vikings. Then “they soon left to head northwards where they thought they sighted the Land of the One-legged, but did not want to put their lives in further danger,” so decide not to land. <14> The very last interaction between the Skraelings and the Vikings, in Markland, one of the lands named by Karlsefni, they come across five Skraelings, and manage to kidnap two boys. The Skraelings are able to tell them a bit about the region, including the presence of a pale faced people who lived across from their own land. The two boys are brought to Greenland, and spend the winter with Eirik the Red. <15>

The similarities in the text are actually more striking than the differences between the two, and have more to do with the oral traditions of the texts. <16> It has been suggested that it could be two competing oral traditions stemming from the same source, or one could be based off the other but trying to accomplish a different aim. <17>

Some problems with using this text as an historical document are obvious. The history is compromised by the distance between the events and the writing down of the story. The texts themselves seem also to have a moral goal in mind, for instance the Saga of the Greenlanders, it has been argued, is a Christian exemplum for the descendants of Guðrid and Karlsefni. <18> This compromises the history in the text, because the events are slanted towards the moral goal. But there are more obvious problems, like the fantastic elements in the tales. In The Saga of the Greenlanders, Guðrid’s supernatural other is not real. Likewise in Eirik the Red’s saga the encounter with the uniped detracts from the other interactions portrayed in the text. In addition, when Freydis bears her breast to the attackers, this is clearly contrived. At the same time, they are less literary than other well known Sagas of Icelanders, like Njal’s Saga or Egil’s Saga, and so by comparison they seem more ‘historical.’ Because of this people have often tried to overcome the historical flaws in the Vinland sagas and to ground them in the Canadian, or more broadly the North American, historical tradition as well as the Medieval European historical tradition.

There are two major periods to the historiography of Vikings in North America. Really they have been as influenced by general trends in historical thought as any other subject, but there is a divide between pre and post discovery of the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows by Helge and Anne Ingsted. Before that there were a lot of false Viking discoveries in North America, but that is largely the only one that has been academically accepted as a true discovery. Therefore the scholarship is divided between that with and that without concrete proof, or the very early scholarship. Now we have a point of reference in the saga for the history that it purports to represent. However, the ways in which we use the evidence to prove that there were interactions with our native populations has not changed all that much since the discovery.

In fact it further complicates our interpretation of the historical grounding of these particular conflicts. As Birgitta Wallace points out, at L’Anse aux Meadows there is no evidence of there ever having been domesticated animals, which is a large part of this element of the story, particularly in The Saga of Greenlanders, where they trade milk with the natives. <19>

There are several ways in which our conception of Canada, or North America is used to interpret this as an Early European/Native conflict. Before L’Anse aux Meadows was discovered historians used the presence of indigenous populations in Canada and North America to point out that the tale is likely true. There was definitely someone here, so if you accept that the sagas are describing landings in North America the Skraelings are not an invention of some saga writer. The geography described in the Vinland Sagas is extensive, therefore it has been the most discussed point of historicity as people try to identify the places described with actual locations. Likewise for these conflicts historians use the surrounding description to try and identify the locations in which these conflicts took place. They then try and extrapolate what the actual nation, or which nation’s ancestors, the Skraelings might be. Even with the point of reference in Newfoundland there is a lot of debate about locations, so it is hard to define the people as well. The word Skraeling was used indiscriminately for different Native nations; it is mentioned in at least one other text, where it refers to the Inuit. <20> In this case, Richard Perkins argues that the Vikings may have not gotten further south than Labrador, which means that the nation they may have come into contact with would have been the Beothuk; but if the Vikings got as far south as the Gulf of Saint Lawrence then they may have run into the Mi'kmaq. <21>

Points in the story which seem similar to texts of early exploration are also used to justify the historicity of having met the native population here. The early accounts of Beothuk said they had a predilection for red cloth. Also, the story of the two boys who were kidnapped, parallels accounts like that of Jacques Cartier, who after his second voyage returned to France with Native captives. <22> It is also noteworthy that the people inferred in this way have no domesticated animals like the ones that the Vikings are said to have brought which scared the indigenous populations. In addition, their fascination with the axes is similar to later accounts of Native fascination with metal objects and European weaponry. This sort of reasoning is used before and after the discovery at L’Anse aux Meadows.

It is interesting because the location of Vinland in the scholarship often depends on the nationality of the scholar, determining whether it falls in modern Canadian borders or dips down behind the American border. I said before that the conflict had no direct impact on the future development of Canada. This was not entirely true when you think of the impact the landing made on the debate about the meaning and breadth of our own history, and its impact on our sense of self. It is easy for the pursuit of the history of this conflict to be driven by our impulse for nation building through the identification and exoneration of heroes, especially in the early historiography. For instance, from 1890, Marie Shipley tries to define the importance of the Norse accomplishments; “following out this conclusion, if it is indeed a matter of no importance whether the Norseman discovered America or not, it becomes equally unimportant whether Columbus discovered America or not, and the discovery of the western continent ceases to be one of the greatest of events.” <23> It may be that we use these interpretive tools too loosely as we try very hard to ground the saga, and the story of these early Skraeling/Viking interactions, in the Canadian historical tradition. Richard Perkins says “the fact that the perceived importance of Norse landings in America for the history of the continent has been enormously exaggerated, and the fact that it was argued that the Norseman (rather than, say, Christopher Columbus) discovered America, have led to unseemly dispute fuelled more by nineteenth- and twentieth-century-style nationalism than by scholarly debate based on any mature, long-term view.” <24> He does point out, however, that without this drive and notion of personal history not as much of the scholarship and varying debate and opinions would be left for us. <25> Historians would not want to discount the evidence of the sagas, especially in light of the archaeology at L’Anse aux Meadows and any other true archaeological finds in North America. Therefore, the closest we will come to understanding this conflict is by using these tools, this conception of other aspects of Canada including our history and our geography, which will if nothing else, tell us in what ways the tale could be true.


<1> Because of the intended audience for this paper I have chosen to use the anglicized versions of the names and titles in the sagas.
<2>Erik Wahlgren. ‘Fact and Fancy in the Vinland Sagas.’ Old Norse Literature and Mythology. ed. by Edgar C. Polomé. Texas: University of Texas Press (1969), p. 28. These are the four voyages that actually land in Vinland. There are more voyages that never make it to those shores.
<3>In this paper I use the Vinland Sagas edited by Halldór Hermannson, and the translation of Keneva Kunz. However, because translating Skraeling as Native is in itself an interpretation, I changed all the mention of ‘natives’ in the text back to Skraeling, so that there is a further distinction between the literary people and the actual nations that lived in Canada at that time.
<4>Wahlgren, p. 28.
<5>Keneva Kunz ‘The Vinland Sagas: The Saga of the Greenlanders; Eirik the Red’s Saga’, in The Sagas of Icelanders Toronto: Penguin Books (2001), p. 642. “fundu þeir kornhjálm af tré. Eigi fundu þeir fleiri mannaverk” Halldór Hermannson ed.. The Vinland Sagas. Islandica Vol. 30 New York: Cornell University Press (1944), p. 53.
<6>Kunz, p. 642. “hann mælti þá: ‘Hér er fagrt, ok hér vilda ek bœ minn reisa.’ Ganga síðan til skips ok sjá á sandinum inn frá hǫfðanum þrjár hæðir ok fóru til þangat ok sjá þar húðkeipa þrjá ok þrjá menn undir hverjum. Þá skiptu þeir liði sínu ok hǫfðu hendr á þeim ǫllum, nema einn komsk í braut með keip sinn. Þeir drepa hina átta ok ganga síðan aptr á hǫfðann” Hermannson, p. 53.
<7>Kunz, p. 643.
<8>Kunz, p. 647. “Eptir þann vetr inn fyrsta kom sumar. Þá urðu þeir varir við Skrælinga, ok fór þar ór skógi fram mikill flokkr manna. Þar var nær nautfé þeira, en graðungr tók t belja ok gjalla ákafliga hátt; en þat hræddusk Skrælingar ok lǫgðu undan með byrðar sínar, en þat var grávara ok safali ok alls konar skinnavara … Hvárigir skilðu annars mál. Þá tóku Skrælingar ofan bagga sína ok leystu ok buðu þeim ok vildu vápn helzt fyrir; en Karlsefni bannaði þeim at selja vápnin. Ok nú leitar hann ráðs með þeim hætti, at hann bað konur bera út búnyt at þeim; ok þegar er þeir sá búnyt, þá vildu þeir kaupa þat en ekki annat. Nú var sú kaupfǫr Skrælinga, at þeir báru sinn varning í brott í mǫgum sínum, en Karlsefni ok fǫrunautar hans hǫfðu eptir bagga þeira ok skinnavǫru. Fóru þeir við svá búit í burt.” Hermansson, p. 57.
<9>Kunz, p. 647. “ok í því var ok veginn einn Skrælinga af einum húskarli Karlsefnis, því at hann hafði vilijað taka vápn þeira. Ok fóru nú í brott sem tiðast, en klæði þeira lágu þar eptir ok varningr. Engi maðr hafði konu þessa sét utan Guðriðr ein” Hermansson, p. 57.
<10>Kunz, p. 669. “Ok einn morgin snemma, er þeir lituðusk um, sá þeir mikinn fjǫlða húðkeipa, ok var veift trjám á skipunum, ok lét því líkast sem í hálmþúst, ok var veift sólarsinnis” Hermnasson, p. 24.
<11>Kunz, p. 670. “váru svartir menn ok illilegrir ok hǫfðu illt hár á hǫfði. Þeir váru mjǫk eygðir ok breiðir í kinnum” Hermansson, pg. 25.
<12>Kunz, p. 670. “[Þat sá þeir Karlsefni,] at Skrælingar fœrðu upp á stǫng knǫtt stundar mikinn því nær til at jafna sem sauðarvǫmb ok helzt blán at lit ok fleygðu af stǫnginni upp á landit yfir lið þeira Karlsefnis ok lét illilega viðr þar sem niðr kom. Við þetta sló ótta miklum á Karlsefni ok allt lið hans” Hermansson, p. 26.
<13>Kunz, p. 671. “gekk hon þó eptir þeim í skóginn. En Skrælngar sœkja at henni. Hon fann fyrir sér mann dauðan; þar var Þorbradr Snorrason, ok stóð hellustein í hǫfði honum. Sverðit lá bert í hjá honum. Tók hon þat upp ok býsk at verja sik. Þá koma Skrælingar at henni. Hon dró þá út brjóstit undan klæðunum ok slettir á beru sverðinu. Við þetta óttask Skrælingar ok hlupu undan áskip ok reru í brott” Hermansson, p. 26.
<14>Kunz, p. 672. “þeir fóru þá í brott ok norðr aptre ok þóttusk sjá Einfœtinaland. Vildu þeir þá eigi hætta liði sínu lengr” Hermansson, p. 28.
<15>Kunz, p. 673.
<16>Kunz, p. 631.
<17>Wahlgren, p. 28.
<18>Geraldine Barnes. Viking America: The First Millenium. Cambridge: D.S Brewer (2001), p. 32.
<19>Birgitta Linderoth Wallace. ‘L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland: An abandoned Experiment’. Contact, Continuity, and Collapse; The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic. ed. by James H. Barrett, Studies in the Early Middle Ages; Centre for Medieval Studies University of York, V. Belgium: Brepols Publishers (2003), p. 222.
<19>Richard Perkins. ‘Medieval Norse visits to America: millennial stocktaking’. Saga Book: Viking society for Northern Research, 28 (2004), p. 60. The other text is by Ari Thorgilsson, and it describes the discovery of Skraeling artifacts in Greenland. Perkins suggests they are the Dorset Inuit.
<20>Perkins, p. 60.
<21>Perkins, p. 61.
<22>Perkins, pp. 60-61.
<23>Marie Shipley. The Icelandic Discoverers of America or Honor to Whom Honor is Due. New York: John B. Alden (1890), p. 2.
<24>Perkins, p. 30.
<25>Perkins, pp. 29-66.


Baitsholts, Kenneth. ‘Humour, Irony, and Insight: the first European accounts of Native North Americans’. Vinland Revisited: The Norse at the Turn of the First Millenium: Selected Papers from the Viking Millenium International Symposium, 15-24 September 2000, Newfoundland and Labrador. ed. by Shannon Lewis-Simpson. St John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, Inc. (2000), pp. 365-376

Barnes, Geraldine. Viking America: The First Millenium. Cambridge: D.S Brewer(2001)

Hermannson, Halldór ed.. The Vinland Sagas. Islandica Vol. 30. New York: Cornell University Press (1944)

Kunz, Keneva. ‘The Vinland Sagas: The Saga of the Greenlanders; Eirik the Red’s Saga’. Örnólfur Thorsson ed.The Sagas of Icelanders. Toronto: Penguin Books (2001), pp. 626-674

Larsson, Mats G.. ‘The Vinland sagas and the actual characteristics of Eastern Canada: some comparisons with special attention to the accounts of the later explorers’. Vinland Revisited: The Norse at the Turn of the First Millenium: Selected Papers from the Viking Millenium International Symposium, 15-24 September 2000, Newfoundland and Labrador. ed. by Shannon Lewis-Simpson. St John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, Inc. (2000), pp. 391-398

Perkins, Richard. ‘Medieval Norse visits to America: millennial stocktaking’. Saga Book: Viking society for Northern Research, 28 (2004) 29-69

Rowe, Elizabeth Ashman. The development of Flateyjarbók : Iceland and the Norwegian dynastic crisis of 1389. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark (2005)

Shipley, Marie. The Icelandic Discoverers of America or Honor to Whom Honor is Due. New York: John B. Alden (1890)

Wahlgren, Erik. ‘Fact and Fancy in the Vinland Sagas’. Old Norse Literature and Mythology. ed. by Edgar C. Polomé. Texas: University of Texas Press (1969), pp. 19-80

Wallace, Birgitta Linderoth. ‘L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland: An abandoned Experiment’. Contact, Continuity, and Collapse; The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic. ed. by James H. Barrett, Studies in the Early Middle Ages; Centre for Medieval Studies University of York, V. Belgium: Brepols Publishers (2003), pp. 207-238

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Robin Hood: A man of many media .... and a merry one at that

The figure of Robin Hood has been adapted to so many different medias it makes sense that his presence on the internet is as ubiquitous as in any other format. Something about this 'historical' outlaw has captured the imagination of so many individuals, including myself, as is evident from the unhindered glee apparent on my face in the above picture. The passion that he invokes really comes through in some of the websites dedicated to Robin Hood Studies; very few will present an objective enumeration of the facts. Most gush, but consequently have a great deal of information to offer. I am going to try not to gush, but I would be lying if I claimed that I had no emotional connection to this particular topic.

This is meant as an introduction to Robin Hood Studies on the web, therefore the information provided will be rudimentary, but with many options on how one can find out more.

The Historical Robin Hood

More trouble to track down than the Merry Men's secret hideout, such a figure probably did not exist. There are however, many theories to the contrary. Outlaws, however, were very prevalent. In fact England in particular prided itself on its outlawry. Terry Jones has a series on the BBC, and consequently a book, that talks about different medieval stereotypes. One of these stereotypes is that of the outlaw. This is an excellent series, and an excellent book. According to Terry Jones the outlaw was a popular figure in England partly because it was a great deal more appealing than standing trial in many cases, and also because the unique style of justice imposed by Henry II meant that there may have been too many laws. Here the contact between ruling Normans and conquered Anglo-Saxons does come into play, though it should be taken with a grain of salt. The story that is passed down to us moderns incorporates the romancing of an ancient past, and the overly heroic struggle of an oppressed people.
The stories of Robin Hood as we know it all involve the triumphant return of the good King Richard, who takes the throne back from the evil Prince John. This plays on the history of the time, but it is romanticized, like the Norman/Anglo-Saxon conflict. It should be noted that King Richard spent almost all of his rule on crusade, using taxes to finance his campaigns and spending almost nothing on rule or public works. John, on the other hand, tried to re-centralize the kingdom, taking back some of the power from the lords who had been allowed to rule at their leisure while Richard was away. I would not call one evil or one good, but the history states that Prince John, who eventually became King John though the Robin Hood tale always ends before that happens, was more involved in local politics than King Richard ever was. There is a book by Frank McLynn called Richard and John: Kings at War. A good portion of this is on Google Books. However, it should be noted that the earliest references to Robin Hood put him closer to the end of the 13th century, where as Richard and John ruled at the end of the 12th. Here is a link to the British Library's copy of the Magna Carta, the document, and 'accomplishment' that King John is most known for.

The Tales of Robin Hood

So Robin Hood know doubt grew from an amalgamation of stories that could be attributed to several medieval outlaws. Eventually the story would be influenced in turn by each generation that it passes through, creating the legend that we are more familiar with.
There are several good websites containing some of the original Robin Hood tales, including; and
It should be noted that many places claim Robin Hood, because early traditions put Robin Hood as often in the Barnsdale Forest as they do in Sherwood Forest. There are claims in Nottinghamshire and many in Yorkshire. Wikipedia has an excellent summary of where early references can be found.
The earliest references call Robin Hood a Yeoman, and more particularly he appears to be one of the King's foresters who perhaps did take his share from the King's Foresters. At this point the forest just means land that has been set aside for the King's hunts, a situation that developed with the arrival of the Normans. It is not until romantic ideals of chivalry take hold that we see Robin Hood becoming a noble, the Earl of Huntingdon. It is closer to this time that the stories begin to incorporate references to Maid Marian and Friar Tuck. It eventually became tradition that on May Day you would have a Robin Hood and a Maid Marian preside over the frivolities.
On the Index of Sacred Texts website there is a collection of 15th century Robin Hood ballads, starting with The Geste of Robyn Hode.
As was stated above, he is adapted for every generation, and represents what it is he needs to represent for each. He continues to show up in Literature; for instance is a character in Sir Walter Scott's novels, including Ivanhoe. The link here takes you to an edition of Scott's book. Books continue to be written that have Robin Hood as the main character, such as Robin Hood, by Antonia Fraser, which is the one I grew up with.

Film and Television

And so we adapt to him too, picking up where our literary predecessors left off. He first appears on screen in Robin Hood and his Merry Men, directed by Percy Stowe, in a silent film in 1908 (there is not much on the internet about this film yet). In film he goes on to have many incarnations, some of the most notable including Errol Flynn's role in The Adventures of Robin Hood, the Fox in Disney's Robin Hood (they have a live action version, The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men from the fifties as well which is thoroughly entertaining, but not of as much note), Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves, Carey Elwes in Robin Hood:Men in Tights, and most recently Russell Crowe is set to play the part in the upcoming film directed by Ridley Scott.

In the upcoming film Robin will once again be re-interpreted based on our expectations. When I attended the International Congress on Medieval Studies at the University of Western Michigan this past summer I attended a panel on the upcoming film. Originally the title was going to be Nottingham, and it was going to make the Sherriff the good guy and Robin Hood the evil outlaw. However, this was scrapped because it put too much emphasis on authority, and it was felt to be inappropriate given that is was a representation coming out of the United States.

This is a clip someone has taken of them filming the new movie off the coast of Wales. It truly speaks of Ridley Scott's style. I thought that the addition of the 'Living Daylights' theme song was a nice touch.

The most recent television incarnation has been the BBC's Robin Hood. They are currently on their third, and I believe final series. That Robin Hood they reinterpreted for the modern age. First of all, they look cool, and have rather obviously modern hairstyles. But more importantly added to Robin's gang was Jack, the Muslim woman, and much of the focus was on whether or not Robin thought the crusades were really the right thing.
But there have been others. My father used to always tell me about watching The Adventures of Robin Hood on tv, and how right in the middle of the show they would cut away to an arrow flying through the air. It would hit a tree, and an announcer would say 'brought to you by Johnson's and Johnson's baby powder.' For some reason my father thought this was hysterical. It kind of is. This one says Wildroot Cream Oil, which is less funny I think. This was the series from the fifties.
There have been quite a few incarnations, mostly in England. In the eighties in Robin of Sherwood they had a Robin Hood who was more mystical, having been given a sacred charge by religious forces that predated Christianity.
And of course, my personal favourite, Rocket Robin Hood.

Wikipedia has a good list of Robin Hood, as he appears in film and television. It is quite a long list, as he still seems to be able to capture our imaginations in a rather singular way.

Robin Hood Studies

But as he is ubiquitous he is more than easily the subject of whole units of study. In fact what prompted this study was this blog post on, about the conference that happened two weeks ago at the University of Rochester. At the University of Rochester is Professor Thomas Hahn, the scholar who founded the International Association for Robin Hood Studies in 1997, and on the Rochester Website there are excellent resources, including a digital archive, and a link to other Robin Hood resources on the web.
In addition, the University of Nottingham offers a one year MA in Robin Hood Studies. You could, therefore, be fully trained as a follower of Robin Hood, a Merry man if you will.

Other sources for Robin Hood

As you can see when you look at the list of Robin Hood references in movie and television that is on Wikipedia, they have a separate list for places where Robin Hood is mentioned in another show. Likewise, because he is everywhere, there are many ways to study Robin Hood by looking at things where Robin Hood is not the focus, just a part of the interpretation. For instance, in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire there are many places that trade off of the Nottingham legend, though there main focus is something else. Sherwood forest, for instance, has many different parks and preservation projects, but draws on the local legend for support. If you go looking he is everywhere.

I will leave you with this., the least scholarly of my observations about the use of Robin Hood in modern culture. This one is fairly removed from Robin Hood. This is the song written by Roger Miller for Disney's animated Robin Hood. During the opening credits, listen to the Rooster's song.

This is the hamster dance song. Now imagine the first song sped up, and add some dance beats behind it.It is the same song!

See, if you look for Robin Hood, you are sure to find him.

Tags; Robin Hood, Medieval Ballads, Outlaws, English Literature, English History, University of Rochester

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Scholasticism, Cynicism and the Optimist: I like Christmas!

Everybody relax, I know it is not that time yet. But I did feel the time has come, and I have a confession to make. This is very hard for me to say. I like Christmas. Yes, yes I do. I love the lights, and the food and the baking and the shopping and the wrapping and the festival spirit around it. I particularly love the Rankin and Bass clay-mation specials that come on every year.

But I am not (very) naive, or stupid. I am aware that the holidays are a hard time for most, because it is a lot of pressure put on people, and they feel their losses more keenly, or they are disgusted by the commercialism, or they simply hate the politics of gift giving. Not only that, the great hullabaloo made over Christmas often seems threatening to those who don't celebrate it.

So I feel guilty about loving it. And I do, I love the whole season. Apparently I was supposed to grow out of it. Apparently I shouldn't want to send my friends christmas cards, first because it is hokey, and second because it will only make those receiving them feel more undue pressure.

I would call myself a silver-lining person. I am always happy with a plan b, and I can always see the good, or joy in the things I am doing. This is very annoying to some of my more cynical friends.

I am so silver-lining that I see the absolute need for a cynical approach. The need for direct criticism is important for pointing out injustices, for fighting to make things better, and for questioning the intentions of authority. And the cynical approach is the norm in academia, as it should be, because you question motivations in texts and analyze biases. This is all very important.

However, today in museology we talked about Blockbuster exhibits. Throughout the class we talked about the compromises a museum has to make to put on a Blockbuster and the oftentimes minimal reward that the museum gets out of it. I wanted so badly to defend the Blockbuster but found myself mostly without a proper argument. Some of the critics of the Blockbuster exhibit said one of the problems was that it conveyed an improper sense of history and culture, and that it appealed to the lowest common denominator (which is a whole other set of issues). I also have to admit that some of my favourite exhibitions have been about movie artifacts, because I am a movie buff. I remember going to the Lord of the Rings Exhibition in Toronto and going through twice with my friend because there were not that many people there that day.

And I think this is some of the problem that I find in the scholastic community. As a proper discerning, intelligent adult and historian I am not supposed to like the Blockbuster; nor am I supposed to like big budget hollywood films, cheesy pop music, anything made by Disney, historical films that are blatantly flawed, any movie that was based on a book, gangster rap, Dan Brown, Harry Potter, any type of consumerism, or really anything that has become popular. The problem is I like all these things.

Perhaps because of who I associate with and my connection to universities I often feel I am drowning in cynicism. However they keep making these things that I like (though it helps when you like most things). Somehow my likes and dislikes are connected in part to the popular zeitgeist; all new products are directed at me as the typical consumer.

I am not trying to say that people should like all those things, or that counter culture is a bad thing. The problem instead that I have is trying to define for myself some intellectual space; being okay with herd mentality, and trying to tease out the good that people derive from these popular movements, as opposed to just seeing the pitfalls and the bad. What need is it in them, and in me, that these popular trends satisfy? How can I be intelligent and like these things. Can my like for them be more than just my guilty pleasures? Why can't I have fun at, and maybe even look forward to, Christmas?

(Photo Above, my sister and I enjoying Christmas last year)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Short Blog

Despite the best of intentions, and all that I have read about an ever diminishing public attention span, and my own predilection for reading shorter blogs, I have a very hard time writing a short blog in which I say anything meaningful.
Case and point.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Marvel Comics and their Responsibility to History

I am not well-versed in the Marvel Comic Universe. I am not un-versed per se, but I do not follow the story arcs, nor do I actually read the comics. Well, many of the comics; I get frustrated when they don't give me a conclusion so I don't start. But my father and I do bond over superheroes, as there is nothing I like better than a good superhero movie.

I, for what may be obvious reasons (see my profile), have a particular interest in Thor. At the moment they are trying to make a movie for nearly every Marvel hero. Even I know that they have to make a Thor movie before they can make the Avengers movie, because you can't have the Avengers without Thor.

What I find particularly interesting is that the movie has absolutely no obligation to the original Norse legends. Nope, instead it has obligations to the ever evolving comic strip and character as it was created by Stan Lee. I found this quote on Wikipedia: "[H]ow do you make someone stronger than the strongest person? It finally came to me: Don't make him human — make him a god. I decided readers were already pretty familiar with the Greek and Roman gods. It might be fun to delve into the old Norse legends.... Besides, I pictured Norse gods looking like Vikings of old, with the flowing beards, horned helmets, and battle clubs." [1] The television shows Hercules and Xena Warrior Princess almost had more obligations to the original history/literature because they were (very) loosely based on an original source. This is based on an even looser intermediary.

Nor would I really want the producers to get bogged down in the original mythology. None of the other Marvel heroes have this particular problem (that I can think of), and you are more likely to make historians and literary theorists upset if you try for original Thor and miss. Hard core comic book fans are going to be a tough enough audience to appease.

But a couple of interesting things about the original Stan Lee Thor (I don't know about his later incarnations); he does look a bit like a star in a Wagnerian opera, so kudos there, but that is really far from anything actually Old Norse. They do hit on some key points, like Heimdal, Odin, the Bifrost bridge and certainly Loki, but beyond that it is entirely the imagination of the prolific and thoroughly entertaining forces of Marvel.

However, some points about original Thor which make us all too willing to accept any of his incarnations in popular culture, save for a few places, like the portrait painted in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, the image of Thor is fluid and seems to have been different depending on the region. For instance, some areas seem to have had Thor as the primary deity, and others Odin, but our sources for this are flimsy. And because our sources are flimsy no historian/literary theorist would attempt a definitive Thor.

But because I am also engaged lately in trying to understand how the public perceives our history, most of me knows that the general populace is entirely aware that The Mighty Thor is another Stan Lee creation, loosely based on an Ancient Myth. The other part of me knows that for a great portion of that populace this will be their only exposure to that particular myth.

So I don't really know if the Marvel franchise should consider reviewing its responsibility to history as they make this movie; I've sort of landed on no, as it is not necessarily better for the myth, and because in the end it is faithfulness to the comic that counts. But that will have consequences.

And, since I do read a wee bit, what prompted this was I came across this comic. It is in the Marvel Comics Essential Thor, Vol. 1. When I came across it, trying to think about this instance in regards to the movie that they are making, and in reference to the original Norse history and mythology, was making my head hurt. Needless to say it is slightly veiled in irony.
Sorry for the poor quality, and the need for excessive zooming.

[1]Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee (Fireside, 2002; ISBN 0-684-87305-2), by Lee and George Mair}

Friday, October 9, 2009

My Very Best Museum Story: The Tale of Five-Sided Bastion Man

I worked for Huronia Historical Parks for four summers. The first two were during High School, and I worked at Discovery Harbour, a post 1812 British Naval Base. The second two years were during my first years of University and I worked at Saint Marie among the Hurons, which is a re-creation of the Jesuit Missionary Camp that was there from 1639-1649. Both topics tend to evoke emotion in a lot of people. At Discovery Harbour I once had a visitor who had been in the navy his whole life, and who claimed that his family had been in the navy at least since the time of Lord Nelson. At Saint Marie among the Hurons you get some even more interesting visitors, especially with the religious overtones of the site. During my two years there I developed quite a repertoire of stories. The people who had been working there for twenty years had even better ones, enough to fill a really interesting books. However, while I was there we had one visitor, whose story tops any that I had ever heard. When the story broke information came from a variety of sources, and the resulting tale comes from a collaboration of eye witness accounts and examination by several employees of the physical evidence left behind. This is the legend of five-sided bastion man.

At the end of every day at Saint Marie Among the Hurons each section of the site is closed down one at a time. First you close down the North courtyard, making sure all the visitors are out of the buildings and that all fires, particularly that in the cookhouse and blacksmith shop (different story) are put out. You close all the windows and doors and all the interpreters move into the South Courtyard where the process is repeated. Then you move through the Church and shut that down, and finally through to the Longhouse, where the employees in that area are usually chasing out a few scragglers. Everyone moves to the exit, but at least one person has to run down to the end of the site to the non-Christian longhouse and five-sided bastion, a place that doesn't ever have interpreters, just to make sure there are no visitors there.

The five-sided bastion is mirrored at the North End with another bastion, acknowledging that while the site was a mission, it was also a bit of a fortress, as the French had found themselves players in the war between the Hurons and the Iroquois. In the five-sided bastion there is really not much, mostly because it is not interpreted and is frankly less interesting than most of the other buildings. The bastions look out over the wooden palisade, and you can climb the stairs to the North Bastion, but the five sided bastion's stairs are blocked off with a piece of wood, again, mostly because the interpreters are not usually stationed in or near this building. The piece of wood clearly says, you are not supposed to go up here, but for someone who is determined to do so it won't really do that much to stop them. As we found out.

On the particular night in question the person who went to check the five-sided bastion, when they found out what had happened, swore that they could hear noises coming from upstairs. They say that they actually thought about checking, but then decided that that would be ridiculous. They are actually really glad now that they didn't.

The next morning when we all came in we could tell that something was definitely happening. The Team Leaders and more experienced members of staff had been called in fairly early, and had been all over the site all morning. We were all fairly confused, and certainly curious, but when we went out on to the site most of us went to go see the evidence that hadn't been cleared away yet, and by lunchtime we had all heard the story.

A man, we are not exactly sure how he got in, had been living on top of the five-sided bastion for at least two days. When the staff members went to investigate they commented that that was one of the creepier experiences of their life. Five-sided bastion man had made a clear bed, which he had been sleeping in, but all around the top of the bastion were tiny birch bark crosses, and there were also several bible pages laid out. On the night in question he decided to leave his makeshift home and venture out through the site. One of the first things he must have done was venture into the longhouse, where we keep some axes behind some of the reproduction artefacts. He then proceeded to cut his way into the Church, and this is a real church, containing the grave site of St. Jean de Brebeuf, visited by the pope. But it is made entirely of wood, and is designed to be something half way between a European style building and a longhouse. There he pulled out the first aid kit, as we were told later it was pretty evident that he had walked from his home in Toronto to Midland. Then he relit the fire in the church (which meant it was a close call that the whole thing didn't burn down) and seems to have torn pages from the bibles that were there and thrown them in the fire. We later deduced that the passages were concerning the Apocalypse.

From there he made his way into the South Courtyard, where he broke into one of the buildings to get a better axe and chopped some wood for us. From there he took the axe to the main visitor centre and tried to hack his way into one of the theatres. That door had to be replaced. This is about the time that the security guard was alerted. He promptly phoned he police. I can't quite remember whether or not he ever actually made it into the building, but from there we went out the front, to the walking path that leads to the historic site (or away from it), which was where he was picked up by police.

And that is my all time best museum story.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Infinite Archive: Making me infinitely further behind

I am worried; not because I think that books are going to go by the wayside, not because I think that the internet is taking away our personal connections with the materials we study, and not because I think that the profession of historian is in peril. I am worried, quite frankly, that I am not going to cut it in the age of abundance. In last week's Digital History class I brought up that I was worried that the way I conduct research will no longer be sufficient for publication. That fear has gone nowhere. It is one thing to have longtime professors refute you because they have read that one crucial article you haven't, it is another to be subjected to wide scrutiny because everyone on the internet has read something that you haven't; that is just embarrassing.

How, in this 'Age of Abundance' does one possibly keep up with the scholarship. Not only are there a great number of websites being created all the time, but John Batelle points out that we are leaving unintentional traces on the internet which are additional sources of information. It is even too much with just the tenured professors having the ability to be instantly published. You usually have that buffer zone between presentation and print so that you as the researcher can catch up on the appropriate material. With even just the traditional historians publishing instantaneously I am just worried about keeping up to date.

And there is clearly an abundance of new historical sources being added to the internet continuously. Roy Rozensweig and Daniel J. Cohen recorded 32,959 history sites listed by Yahoo in their work Digital History: A Guide to Gathering Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web in 2005. In a separate article in 2003 Rosenzweig noted that "by February 2002, the Internet Archive (IA) had gathered a monumental collection of more than 100 terabytes of web data." However, it may be argued that the research that is proliferating on the internet may make it harder to keep up with the new opinions and scholarly discussions, but it may make the investigation of primary sources vastly easier. There is certainly more access to local archives from non-local locales. There is also less time searching through archival material for relevant references because the texts are more searchable. However, there is also no excuse for missing a reference anymore. Nor is it expected that the age of the archive is over, but that now we have the reference that allows us to perhaps approach archival work more effectively. And this does placate me somewhat.

And yet, that 100 terrabytes of information from 2002 refers to primary source material. While I don't have to go to the places I would otherwise have had to truck to, the internet, with its capacity to hold vast quantities of information, does present us with an overwhelming amount even of primary source material. For class, we read about one individual, Gordon Bell, who has made it his mission to digitize everything that he possibly can, creating an abundance also of primary source material. Now imagine you were going to do a thesis about Gordon Bell. How do we even start to approach that information.

But this is what is expected now of the historian. And despite the internet, historians will continue to publish books and print journal articles, at least for the foreseeable future. However, the internet is already a powerful tool containing access to all kinds of information. Professor Turkel aptly pointed out in our first Digital History class, if historians are not part of the process of making history accessible through the internet then it will be done by someone else and we will have no say.

Because there is this material on the web, and it is being consumed en masse, we have an obligation to be a presence on the internet if we too are to remain relevant. This will probably not help in my struggle to keep up to date. What we have less control over now are the sources that are available for public consumption. Without the lag time between thought and publication we now have no control over what is published, and less control than we did have over what people see as history. Some suggest that this 'democratization' of history is dangerous because if anyone can freely contribute to our global and national sense of 'history' then will it be scholarly, and will it try and consider its own biases, and how caught up in the romantic notion of heritage will it be. But how devoid is scholarly research of those elements. Perhaps it is good also to take the history making out of the hands of the elites, so to say, if they ever really had it.

About this I am not worried. No doubt the role of the historian is going to change as we compete with Bob's history website, but our value as researchers is unlikely to be forgotten, as long as we participate in the same medium as Bob does. Nor is it wrong that Bob should have a site reflecting his own interests, especially as he is not really threatening our job as historians. But as we are obliged to be present in the online community, if Bob's site should gain popularity we should be online to note that, and it should also be our duty to deliver the occasional evaluation of Bob's facts and fact finding techniques.

One of the solutions we posited in class to this overwhelming abundance was the increasing specialization of the historian, so that they might concentrate on a narrow strip of the available information and scholarship. However, the more likely solution is that I, along with the majority of my colleagues are going to have to change the way that we write history and think about history because we have more than just ourselves to compete with now. We will probably still write our history, one that rivals Bob's, but allow ourselves to build on our own research as we find out more, as opposed to waiting until we find out all before we write. I am not sure why I thought I was going to find out it all anyway, that seems like a rather lofty goal, but I was certainly going to try. Now I think I am going to try something else.

Toronto as Museum: Nuit Blanche

This weekend I had the pleasure of going to Nuit Blanche in Toronto. It was surprisingly warm and very comfortable to walk around all night. The cooperation of Mother Nature seemed a bit serendipitous as it had been raining all day. At about 1pm there had been a thunderstorm.

Most of the exhibits were outside. The most spectacular was the one at City Hall, where a four letter word, accompanied by loud sounds, lit up Queen St.

In my Public History courses we have talked a great deal about what constitutes a museum. Museums in Motion by Edward Porter Alexander and Mary Alexander talk in their introduction about the different criteria for a museum. They discuss the recent inclusion of institutions like Science Centres and Botanical Gardens into the category of 'museum.' Elaine Heumann Gurian in her article 'What is the Object of this Exercise? A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums' points out that collections may not be the be-all-and-end-all of museums, that a museum is "a place that stores memories and presents and organizes meaning in some sensory form" (Reinventing the Museum, ed. Gail Anderson, p. 270). I would not, though perhaps the case could be made, go so far as to say that the city of Toronto is a museum, even though it tells the cultural stories of its inhabitants in many ways. That would be widening the definition so far as to make it meaningless. I think, however, the case could be made that on the night of Nuit Blanche the city tries to remake itself into an Art Gallery, and in many ways takes on the responsibilities of a typical museum, as well as some of the worth of one.

The city had to accommodate traffic flow. The nice weather made this an important part of the event for organizers as the streets and exhibits were crowded, especially before 2am. Some of the exhibits were harder to find, so they had volunteers stationed at key places where one would get lost, like the exit from the streetcar that took you from Union Station to Liberty Village. They also had to think of parking, all-night transportation, and all night facilities as well as other logistical aspects which would affect the comfort of the patrons. In addition, they tried to put the art exhibits in culturally meaningful areas, without spreading out the viewing regions too much. Accessibility was key but the art was a part of the city, and so the exhibit designers had to keep in mind their space and surroundings when planning their art exhibit. The city thus became part of the exhibit, just as the museum's space shapes the museum's displays.

The city's typical art and history institutions represented themselves well in this testament to Toronto art, though I didn't get a chance to see all of them. I did, however, visit the exhibit in Campbell House (there they had an exhibit of art by Joanna Strong, who paints pictures of rubber bands, but they were also doing some limited historical interpretation. While they could they had some of the rooms open, which they lit with candles. After that they still had the exhibits in the hallways available for viewing, which detailed some of Toronto/York's early social and political history; and they were serving mulled cider) as well as an exhibit in the AGO (which was an exhibit of Edward Steichen photographs which the institution was hosting anyway, they simply left it open for viewing during the evening). While these institutions are usually focal points in Toronto's vaguely defined culture scene, their exhibits were made more tangible parts of a more defined cultural whole. This can be seen by their inclusion in the program along with individual installations in places like Liberty Village and Exhibition Place.

Like a museum, the one night event definitely held to a theme, that of modern art; that may attract many and put many off, but it was a clear commitment to a strategy. There were many things I liked when I visited, and many things that, had they not been part of the event would not have caught my interest. However, by presenting them together the organizers took the opportunity to educate me and other patrons on the particular topic of art, especially art in Toronto. The organizers of Nuit Blanche have to deal with many of the same issues of representation, relevancy, and patron visitor comfort as museum employees, only they are working on a larger scale, though they only have to do it for one night.

I found it helpful to make this comparison because it gave me a new appreciation for the event. We wouldn't really call the city a museum because the coherent whole represented by Nuit Blanche is not a static thing, and exists only one day a year; but for that one day it operates very similarly to a museum. I very much enjoyed myself, but in some respects I felt bad. My favourite exhibit was definitely the Edward Steichen photographs and that was by no means unique to the event. But I guess my tastes run more towards the traditional exhibits than they do to modern art.