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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.