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Thursday, December 16, 2010

New Evidence about Native American ancestry in Iceland

Discovery News had an article about the possibility of their being Native American blood in the Icelandic line from around the year 1000. Their study was genetic. At first when I read it, I thought how are they going to argue that, when it could be introduced at a much later time, but they dealt with this issue. So by the time I was done reading the article I was convinced.

However, on further reflection, I have to admit that they seem to have gone for the most romantic explanation. Yes, Greenland can sometimes be thought to be more Americas than Europe, but wouldn't a more likely explanation be that the mingling happened in Greenland and that Greenland settlers brought it back? Because the Norse were in Greenland a lot longer than they were in North America. And that colony disappeared, but we know that settlers came back from there to Iceland. Hey, even the ones who went to North America were mostly from Greenland, and some of them ended up back in Iceland.

I approve the tendency to reach for the romantic. It is what I would have done. But it seems there is a much more likely scenario than the one that they propose.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Museums and childhood television: "If you grew up to be a bat, what would the neighbours say about that?"

I was at the ROM recently for the TerraCotta Warriors exhibit. Actually, I saw the same exhibit while I was at the British Museum. It compared well, lots of good information, and I think I retained a bit more of it this time, probably due to repetition. But it is nice to see things at 'home.'

For me the ROM does feel a little bit like home. When I worked at Huronia Historical Parks or the Ontario Travel Center in Barrie I used to get free or discounted admission to several of Ontario's attractions, or at least the ones that were part of the reciprocal program. Some people didn't always take advantage but I did. I have never had trouble being a tourist in my own backyard. But it meant that I got to go to the ROM for free for basically six years. And I did take advantage of this. I have seen the armour exhibit a good twenty times, since it is right next to the late medieval art that they have.

But my love for the ROM goes back further. Back to the field trips of grade school, the several times I went with my parents and to one very special television show that I had on tape when I was a kid.

I, like most kids, watched things over and over again. This meant that I saw Homeward Bound, Lady and the Tramp and The Cat from Outer Space more times than my dad would care to remember. But I also watched this tape that we had of Sharon, Lois and Bram where they spent the day at the ROM.

This was my first exposure to the song Good Morning from Singing in the Rain, to My Ship sailed from China, and to many aspects of the ROM. I am not sure that this wasn't my first exposure to this museum, since we taped it when I was really little. If I had been to the ROM before I saw this I don't remember it. But because of the frequency with which I watched it I feel it has actually had a lot to do with my development. I certainly think of it when I hear the song Good Morning, or anytime I see a bat (part 2, around minute 5) and certainly, pretty much without fail, every time I go to the ROM.

I found the episode recently on the internet. So here, without further ado, is a big piece of my childhood.





Monday, November 15, 2010

Medievalist decorations: Bayeux tapestry, Spadina style

There are many ways you can use 'medieval' themes about your house for decoration. It doesn't even necessarily have to be using something that comes directly from, or is influenced directly by something from, the Middle Ages. Medievalist decorations could range from fairies scattered about your house, derivatives of Tolkien-esque decor, to the example that you see below. Both have distinct claims on being influenced by what is medieval and have claims to different kinds of 'medievalism.'

But I have to admit I did a double take as I was walking along Spadina in Toronto. Here was a very noticeable tribute to the Bayeux Tapestry, located not far from the Bloor-Spadina intersection.

If we think about this as a decoration for a house it is very clearly of medieval influence. Of course here, instead of subtle medieval-esque themes we definitely have a very direct tribute to the Bayeux Tapestry. It would be a stand alone item, for someone who is an enthusiast, though if I had to guess I would have to say that I expect that there is probably a lot more 'tributes' inside the house.

I think this is a very interesting and bold statement of the inhabitants interests. I don't think that it is going to go over well with many decorators, or maybe even with a home-owners association. And as much as I like these kinds of tributes, I have to say that I know medievalists who would not like this kind of deliberate advertising of interests either. Embedded in this outdoor display lies the dispute between 'academics' and 'recreationists/re-enactors' and the fine line that does, or doesn't, often make the distinction. Not all scholars will make this kind of distinction, especially not as much anymore, but this kind of display certainly does walk that supposed line.

Even more so since it is obviously the Bayeux Tapestry, and yet it is not any specific part of the Bayeux Tapestry per se, but sort of a mash up, or representation of it.

For instance here is the one side of the picture.

The Latin phrase Harold mare navigavit (Harold sailed the sea) occurs near the beginning of the tapestry, but this is not quite the picture that goes with it. Here is that part of the real tapestry, as provided by the Reading Museum that houses the Bayeux Tapestry.

And the scene where people build boats is from the part of the tapestry where William is getting his men ready to invade England.

The picture on the house on Spadina street has two sides. This is probably one of the reasons they put it outside. On the second side it shows a battle and says Harold rex interfectus est (Harold the king is dead).

Yet this is the image that does with that phrase from the tapestry. The tapestry is much more explicit about how Harold dies.

So in this tribute the words are from the real tapestry, and the images are clearly tapestry style and taken from the examples in the tapestry itself, but yet are not any of the images specifically from that work.

This pushes this work even further out of the realm of the scholarly and into the realm of the enthusiast. But I have to say that this piece of art brightened my walk, and I didn't know it wasn't actually a copy of actual images until I specifically checked it out, so in getting me to make the association with the correct piece of art this work succeeded. And despite its unscholarly nature we must remember that scholars too are enthusiastic, they just don't always show it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Toronto Medieval Latin Exam


Love or hate it, it is a bench mark that not just the Centre for Medieval Studies in Toronto uses, but other North American universities who have 'Medieval Studies' departments. For instance Cornell asks that you pass the MA level Medieval Latin exam to be accepted into their Medieval Studies program.

So I didn't pass this time, but I came up about seven marks short. Here were some of my frustrations. First, it is hard to study vocabulary when the lists encompasses all of the words. When studying for exams in the past you read through the passages you have done in class and study vocabulary you have already seen because that is what you are expected to know. Also, for this year and in previous years there are some straight forward passages but there are also several passages from philosophical treatises. Sometimes those are hard to understand in English. I might argue that if people should be allowed a dictionary into the exams, only because in real life if you were reading a document there is no way that you would not have access to a dictionary. If the candidate knows nothing of the grammar there is no way he will figure it out during the time allotted for the exam. I feel I was well prepared, having studied quite a bit before I went in, but it is hard to remember all the principle parts of a word. But, fair and square, I missed this years test by seven marks so I will take it again in April and hope that I have studied the right vocabulary. And the more you practice the easier it is to internalize all the different parts of verbs.

I was in Newfoundland at the time that I wrote this, working at L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. I took a week off and drove into St. John's for the test. It was my first visit to St. John's. I didnt get too lost around the university, but I will say that it was good that I left myself some extra time for figuring it out. I started the test at 1pm Newfoundland time, so I did start before those who were writing in Toronto. I have to say I felt pretty good coming out of it. I followed the suggestions that I had heard, to think of what is logical if you don't know and to not leave blank spaces. One thing I stupidly forgot to study was numbers, but my logic won out on that point. Despite the fact that I didn't pass, I was pleased with the result, as all the passages did turn into something readable, if not always right.

I understand the point of the test though, since Latin is the language of Western European documents, some places right up into the twentieth century. It is good to be able to just read it, and for all my complaints about the range of vocabulary, vocabulary is part of being able to read Latin at a glance. In the Middle Ages Latin is ubiquitous so best brush up.

And yet I can also see why some object to the Medieval Latin Exam amongst medievalists. It is clinging to an older model of 'Middle Ages,' in that it is privileging the Latin language over others that are out there at that time. Arguably Islam plays a poignant and remarkable role in the development of the Western World, particularly during the Middle Ages. It makes no sense to keep an Arabic specialist out of the prestigious Centre for Medieval Studies because they don't read Latin. And yet, even the Arabic specialist would agree that some sort of ancient/medieval language is required. The other problem is that the standard is in some ways a bit arbitrary. And having a specialized test is a bit elitist, in that the standard is imposed from an old sort of tradition about the nature of Medieval Studies. (Not that the institution is not slightly elitist. Of course another word for elitist is prestigious, which is why everybody wants to go there. We know having the name of the school on our pieces of paper is worth it because they made us jump through hoops to get there and not everyone did.)

I would not propose taking away the test, just pointing out some of the problems with all. Overall its effect is more positive than negative. The school, despite some of the real problems it has had of late in the area of adaptation (something I have learned from people who go there) maintains its reputation through the maintenance of standards and continues to be a benchmark for Medieval Studies in the rest of North America. It also ensures that future medievalists are prepared to deal directly with original documents as opposed to relying on looking at the documents through the lens of someone else's translation. There are valid objections to the whole process, but I have been convinced of the Latin Exam's utility.

This September's Medieval Latin MA level Exam:

The first passage was from the Memorial Book of Vadstena Abbey, Diarium Vadstense, on the arrival of a mysterious stranger from Rome
This was the easiest passage to translate as it recounted the story of a priest named Robert who arrived at the Pope's behest from Rome on a secret mission.

The second passage was from Smaragdus on penitence.
I started to have trouble since this one was much more philosophical.

The third passage was William of Conches on the ambiguous stature of Boethius's Lady Philosophy.
This one was only easier because I have already read Boethius. In fact in fourth year I joined a Latin reading group where we read parts of that text in Latin.

The final passage was titled: How great, how wonderful is the vision of heaven in peter Abelard's hymn for Saturday Vespers.
They gave us hints to the content of this one in the title. At the same time there were certain parts of this I definitely had trouble with.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Website for Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier

The project, Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier, that I have been a part of this year with the Western Visual Arts Department has a new website. The Exhibits begin to open on September 30th and the Symposium is on the 22nd and 23rd. For more events see the website.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

So speaks the Universe ...


... and as it turns out the universe loves me. As I was doing my usual trawl through the Medievalists.net blog I came across an article about the newly formed Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages. Oh my gosh if this wasn't for me. And heck if I am not going to use this as leverage to get me into a PhD program this year. It seems to suggest that I have taken all the right things, BAH Medieval Studies, MA Norse and Viking Studies, MA Public History, at all the right times, and also that though Public History is a field that has been around for more than twenty years, it is now coming en vogue in many different areas, academic and otherwise. Not only en vogue but this society is also using terms that we used in public history, beyond just the words 'medievalisms', so as to suggest that what I have been studying this year is in the same discourse as what is currently being produced. I can't say that I felt out of place as a medievalist doing a Public History degree, but I was aware that I had an odd background for someone who was contemplating a Public History career. I now have an overwhelming sense of validation. Not only might I have students who want to take classes with me, I might have department heads who see the value in the path that I have taken. Alright, this is a lot to put on the shoulders of one society and one website, but I am very excited nonetheless.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Historic Northern Peninsula - Grenfell Centre


Someone recently told me that the tourism industry has replaced the fishing industry as the main economic staple in the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. I can see this, as there is really only one set of roads to take you to all pertinent locations, but there are a million signs warning you when you get closer to the attraction that you were bound to pass anyway. Of course, by the time you pass by the advertising has convinced you that you want to go in.

I decided, being an avid history nerd, what other tourist, history based attractions I could take in while up in the Northern Peninsula. I came across a fairly unexplored gem. For all history nerds I highly recommend the Grenfell centre. Its interpretation centre was highly informative and well set up. Clearly whoever designed the exhibit was well versed in museum theory, as most of the exhibits they had were text and information, so they tried to intersperse it with models, audio and other things not necessarily used by Grenfell or in the work of the Grenfell mission, but that had cultural relevance nonetheless. The house, part two of the exhibit, was just as interesting, though less well interpreted and hardly mentioned in the early exhibit. The walk up behind the house was also interesting, vigorous and informative, with plaques useful to tourists unfamiliar with the local landscape.

Of course I was the only one in there. On a Saturday. Of an open house. So..., despite the massive funding that clearly went into the establishing of the museum and the exhibits, they should probably invest a bit more in advertising. Like so many museums they have probably hit that catch twenty-two of getting funding once they get visitors and needing funding to get those visitors. Perhaps as well it is just because the subject matter has not been well linked to the other historical based tourist attractions, or because the house itself, despite signage, is hard to find tucked up behind the hospital. Or maybe it is only really interesting to people who are history nerds.

However, between all three parts of the historical interpretation this was not just a museum about the Grenfell mission, but I believe it is the only museum in the area which talks about local history. It is here that I learned about the American airbase, what Partridge berries look like, when roads came to the area, about local crafts, how the fishing operations worked at the turn of the century and what demographics made up the early population of Northern Newfoundland and Labrador. I think the museum would do well to emphasize some of this in their advertising. Maybe then they might get a few more visitors.

P.S. For fellow London Ontario-ers/Public History students, Grenfell has been inducted into the Canadian Medicine Hall of Fame in London, and in the interpretive centre one of the only artefact exhibits contained turn of the century medical equipment, something we got to investigate this year.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Parks Day at L'Anse aux Meadows


July 17th was Parks Day across Canada. In addition this year Parks Canada is celebrating its 125th anniversary, and so this past Parks Day was special for many people who have grown up enjoying our National Parks.

At L'Anse aux Meadows, despite the construction that is still going on in the Visitor Centre, and despite the incessant downpour that occurred yesterday, we were still able to enjoy Parks Day. For visitors we offered our regular tours of the archeological site. Despite the rain and the icy winds many brave souls came out while our interpreters gave them a background on the mounds that they saw in front of them. In fact, yesterday I, who started about a week ago, delivered my first tour of the archeological remains. We deliver tours in both English and French, though our French language tours are largely by request.

L'Anse aux Meadows, along with a newly renovated Visitor Centre, also has a newly groomed interpretive walking trail this year. The trail is 2.2 kms, and takes visitors right along Epaves Bay. At the moment it is also the only means of getting to the archeological site from the main parking lot. Yesterday the site previewed the new tour, From Fog to Bog, that it will be conducting and while no one, because of the wind and the rain, partook of the 11:00 tour there were two hardy souls from Germany that joined Kevin, one of the interpreters, on the 3:00. The new tour is an hour and a half and should prove to be a popular addition once it is added to the site's programming.

A highlight of the day was the Sagas and Shadows encore presentation that was held in the reconstructed longhouse. Michael Sexton, a.k.a Bjorn the Beautiful, enraptured a record 36 attendees with his renditions of several of the Icelandic Sagas. Shadows and Sagas is typically held on Tuesday nights, around 8pm, and usually there is a fee of $22 for the performance, but as it was Parks Day all our events were free. Partridgeberry jam and drink from local manufacturers at the Dark Tickle was provided for the onlookers.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Robin Hood Article

Here is a really interesting article from this month's BBC History Magazine which has a medieval theme. It compares three Robin Hood films for content and accuracy.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Iceland’s Fury: Vikings, Volcanoes and the Canadian Coastline

Here is a finished article with corrections mad based on suggestions from Canada's History's editorial team.


From the fury of the volcano protect us.

On Wednesday April 14 2010 the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FYAH-lah-yer-kuhl) glacier began to send up an ash plume that would ground the air traffic in Northwestern Europe for six days. Volcanic ash has fine particles of rock and glass that could circulate in the air for months and do serious damage to jet engines or harm to anyone close enough to breathe it. Airports did not open again until late the following Tuesday or Wednesday, despite the fact that the majority of the ash was expelled within the first two days.
On Wednesday, April the 21st, the Toronto Star reported that 102, 000 flights had been grounded across Europe, the loss to airlines had been in the range of 2 billion dollars, and the loss to industries through the disruption in the supply chain was not yet calculable.
. . .

Canada’s coastline is connected to the Scandinavian countries by an ocean, by currents and by other geographical anomalies. Such currents bring much to our shores from Iceland besides ash clouds and economic fallout. They have also brought people. Scandinavian populations have played a great role in the settlement of the Canadian landscape, particularly in the prairie provinces. But to get there they had to breach the Canadian coastline, and so they have played a role in the history of this area. There is one group, originating in Iceland, who landed on Canada’s shores and who hold a special place in the North American imagination.
The ancient Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland was discovered in 1961 Helge Ingsted and Anne Stine Ingsted, with the use of literary evidence, the work of a handful of previous like-minded amateur and professional archaeologists, and some local help. Archaeological evidence found here helped support the claims that the Vinland Sagas depicted places in North America.
The saga tradition originated in Iceland. One genre of sagas, commonly called the Sagas of Icelanders, or Family Sagas, are about the early inhabitants of Iceland. The Vinland Sagas were written in this tradition. There are two sagas about Vinland, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Eirik the Red. The texts tell the same story, but tell it in very different ways. Both sagas can be tracked to an earlier oral tradition.
While these two versions disagree about a great many things they do agree that sometime around the year 1000 A.D. Leif the Lucky, son of Eirik the Red, set sail for a new land to the west. First he came to Helluland – the land of caves, then to Markland – the land of Forests, and then to Vinland – the land of vines and grapes. He established a settlement on the shores of Vinland and then returned to Greenland. The two sagas disagree about how many of Leif’s relatives made subsequent voyages to Vinland, but they agree that Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Guthrid came to Vinland to explore. Their son Snorri was the first person to be born in the new land. When they returned home Karlsefni and Guthrid became the progenitors of a long-line of noble Icelanders. So the story goes.
The veracity of the sagas has been a subject of debate for at least two hundred years. The sagas contain a lot of geographical details. So many, in fact, that it has been a preferred pastime of scholars and amateurs since the nineteenth century to try to ground the saga in the reality of the North American landscape. In the 1960s we proved that the Norse came to Newfoundland. In the 1970s and 80s Peter Schledermann and his team also proved that the Norse were in the Canadian arctic, as artefacts (though no signs of settlement) have been found around Ellesmere Island. For most people this has been enough proof that we have found the Vinland of the sagas.
For others, like Magnus Magnusson, the connection is not necessarily concrete. At the international conference held at L’Anse aux Meadows in 2000, the thousand year anniversary of Leif’s arrival in Vinland, Magnusson pointed out that “the Vinland that we are celebrating so rapturously this year may not have existed at all in the strictly physical, geographical sense – … it was essentially an intellectual concept, not a place on the map.”
But for many, including long time L’Anse aux Meadows archaeologist Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, the Vinland Sagas cannot but detail a small part of Canada’s early history. At the same conference Wallace, in her paper ‘Vinland and the death of ├×orvaldr’ says “my view is that the archaeological evidence at LAM [L’Anse aux Meadows] combined with recent archaeological, anthropological, and demographic research on eleventh-century and medieval Iceland and Greenland can help to define the actual events behind the sagas.”
The popular image of the Norse, or Vikings, is of brutal plunderers whose legacy upon a landscape is violence. In fact the word Viking has this meaning worked right into it. It is derived from the word vikingr, which translates to pirate or raider. This picture of destruction is not necessarily wrong, but it is not the whole picture. There is a preconceived notion of the ‘fury’ of the Norse, just as when the word ‘volcano’ is mentioned our imaginations provide us with certain images of destruction.
Our understanding of the Norse culture is based on the nineteenth century construction of ‘the Vikings.’ And these nineteenth century scholars based their conclusions on the monastic construction of the Norse cultures. The first documented Viking raid was on Lindisfarne Abbey in England in 793 A.D.. The raid was described in horrific and brutal terms. We have no reason to doubt the brutality of the raids, but it should be kept in mind that the accounts were written by monks. Raiding was common among enemies, but for many (English) monasteries it was somewhat unusual. Monks would remember the Norse attacks because, as pagans, the early Norse would not hesitate to raid a Church. Icelanders did not convert until the year 1000 A.D., around the same time as the Vinland voyages.
The raids may have been often, and they may have been horrific, however the violence and ‘the fury of the northmen’ was built up and exaggerated to the point of exclusion of other aspects of the Norse culture. In fact the prayer, ‘normannorum libera nos domine - from the fury of the northmen deliver us oh lord,’ is a perfect example. Supposedly this is a prayer said by ninth century English monks who were fearful of the continuous raids of the northmen, or Norse. The problem is that the original of this prayer has never been found. Most scholars, including contributors to the official website of Lindisfarne Abbey (the site of the first recorded Viking attack), doubt it ever existed. This prayer is probably a late adaptation of a general prayer said for protection against raids by an enemy – any enemy.



On Monday April 19th, 2010 at St. John, Newfoundland’s airport many passengers were likely praying that their flights wouldn’t be cancelled. Several outgoing flights were cancelled when Transport Canada and Nav Canada reported a 30 percent chance of ash over the St John’s airspace. Air Canada, one of the airlines to cancel flights out of St John’s, stated that flights to and from Gander and Deer Lake, Newfoundland could experience delays or cancellations. Newfoundland was the only province whose flights were shut down because of a direct threat from Iceland’s volcanic ash. The rest of Canada was affected only indirectly. Air Canada reported on that same Monday that they had cancelled all flights to London Heathrow, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt, Munich, Zurich, Geneva, Rome and Tel Aviv until further notice. The airlines were hit financially, and Canadians at home and abroad found themselves stranded.



In 1000 A.D. Leif, Karlsefni and their followers were not out raiding. However they did crash upon the Canadian shore with all the fury we have come to associate with the Norse, making our conception of ‘the Viking’ relevant. It has been difficult to evaluate the impact that the Norse had on the landscape because when they came they did not stay. Their arrival did not initiate waves of settlement like the fifteenth century explorers’ arrival, and proving continuity of knowledge about North America from the time of the Norse voyages has been extremely problematic.
It is the indigenous populations who felt the impact of the Norse. The sagas call them Skraelings. In 2008 Canadian archaeologists Max Friesen and Charles Arnold determined that the Skraelings were definitely not the Thule Inuits, as the Thule settlement patterns indicated that they were nowhere near the Newfoundland area in the year 1000 A.D. Nations that are still candidates, assuming that we associate Vinland with Newfoundland, include the ancestors of the Beothuks and the Innu.
The two sagas give very different accounts of the Norse interactions with the Skraelings, though the tales overlap in several places. According to the Saga of Eirik the Red the Skraelings “were short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads. Their eyes were large and their cheeks broad.” There is no such description of them in the Saga of the Greenlanders. This is due in part to the fact that the Eirik is a fuller tale, with more details supplied by the author to complete the story.
In Greenlanders the Norse are always the aggressors. In this saga when the Norse first come upon the Skraelings, they discover nine men who are sleeping. They capture and kill eight of these men. The one lucky Skraeling returns with his compatriots and attacks the Norse in their fortress, killing one and wounding several others. In Eirik there is a similar incident, except it happens at the end of their journey instead of the beginning. In addition, the saga writer tried to give the Norse some moral justification for their actions; “sailing north along the shore, they discovered five Skraelings sleeping in skin sacks near the shore. Beside them they had vessels filled with deer marrow blended with blood. They assumed these men to be outlaws and killed them.”
In the Saga of Eirik the Red their first encounter with the Skraelings is while trading. This scene is repeated in the Saga of the Greenlanders. The Skraelings approach the Norse camp with trade items, so the Norse, partly because of the number of their opponents, agree to trade. In both sagas they refuse to trade weapons with the Skraelings. In Eirik the Skraelings are content to trade their furs for some red cloth that the Norse brought with them. “This went on for some time, until there was little cloth left. They then cut the cloth into smaller pieces, each no wider than a finger’s width, but the Skraelings gave just as much for it or more.” Likewise, in Greenlanders the Skraelings trade their furs for milk products. This saga also seems to think that the Norse got the better end of the deal; “trading with the Skraelings resulted in them bearing off their purchases in their stomachs, leaving their packs and skins with Karlsefni and his companions.”
In both tales, there is an incident while trading that brings the two groups into open conflict. Once again in Greenlanders it is because of an act of aggression on the part of the Norse. While trading one of the Norse killed a Skraeling because the Skraeling had tried to take the weapon from him. The Skraelings run away, but come back in greater numbers to fight with the Norse at the settlement. In Eirik the battle is caused by the Skraelings, who, frightened by the bull at Karlsefni’s camp, return the next day armed to attack the Norse. During the course of this attack the Norse find themselves overpowered and begin to flee to the woods. There is a great incident that occurs at that point, which turns the tide in favour of the Norse. Freydis, the illegitimate daughter of Eirik the Red, had decided to accompany Karlsefni and Guthrid on this voyage. When the Skraelings attack the camp she is slow to retreat, as she is, at this time, pregnant:

She called, ‘Why do you flee such miserable opponents, men like you who look to me to be capable of killing them off like sheep? Had I a weapon I’m sure I would fight better than any of you.’ They paid no attention to what she said. Freydis wanted to go with them, but moved somewhat slowly, as she was with child. 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.

In both stories the Norse triumph over the Skraelings, but at the end of the tale the Norse leave. In Eirik it is obviously because of the threat posed by the Skraelings; “the party then realized that, despite everything the land had to offer there, they would be under constant threat of attack from its prior inhabitants.” Throughout both sagas the supposed ‘fury’ of the northmen is manifested in their actions towards the other - towards the Skraelings. When they came to Canada, just as when they raided the British Isles and the coast of the European continent, the Norse, or Vikings, brought with them a tradition of honour, intrepid spirit and violence. To say that they were not destructive would be to deny much of what has been put down in the saga. Yet, while in Greenlanders the Norse are certainly the victors, and the stronger people, it should be noted that in Eirik the Skraelings seem to give as good as they get.



Just like the magma that began to be visible on April 19, 2010, it is Eyjafjallajokull that brings this history back to the surface.
There are remarkable similarities between the volcano and the Vikings, not the least of which is the perceived level of destruction. Both terms, with reason, conjure up images of an unstoppable destructive force. For the Vikings their impact on Europe was monumental. For the volcano the economic toll could be staggering and there is no way to measure the rising level of passenger frustration across the globe. And yet, both Vikings and the volcano have their destructive powers exaggerated. Eyjafjallajokull is linked ideologically to previous eruptions, so any damage that has been caused by volcanic eruption in the past is conjured up again by this new source. In addition the Toronto Star reported on Wednesday April 21 that some sources were saying that the physical destruction caused by the volcano had been overemphasized, unduly causing the economic and passenger frustrations. With the Vikings too, the threat was real, but not necessarily as deadly as has been imagined. The Norse were as much farmers as they were marauding pirates, and on the shores of Canada they were trying to make a settlement. It was punctuated with violence, but that is not all that the settlement was about.
For Canadians, the impact from these separate Icelandic furies has been similar. In the end the impact was fleeting, with no lasting direct effects, but with an important legacy.
The wrath of the volcano resulted in several thousands of stranded people and several billion dollars worth of damages. However, for Canadians, our airspace has been touched only slightly, and alternative methods for travel are possible, if inconvenient. The damage does not approach that of other natural disasters, or even other famous volcanic eruptions.
The Norse left their mark on the Canadian landscape. They were here, they settled, and they traded and fought with the indigenous populations. But the effects were not lasting and the destruction they wrought does not compare to the destruction, or settlement, that later European explorers would bring.
The comparison between the reach of the volcano and the reach of the Vikings shows us how much geography influences our history. The volcanic ash and the Vikings directly touched the same province because it is at this location that Canada is most accessible to Iceland. The same winds were employed to blow the ash and the ship across the ocean, so we are not surprised that they end up in the same place. And while they - the volcano and the Vikings - may have touched other parts of the Canadian coasts it is in the province of Newfoundland that we feel the effects most profoundly.


Megan Arnott

The Medieval Kingdom of Ozark ...Arkansas


The project was begun by Michel Guyot, a frenchman who had worked to restore castles in France. One year he received a letter from someone who had visited one of his
castles, and who had told them that the Ozark forest, their home, bore a remarkable resemblance to parts of the French countryside, and suggested that it would be a great place for a castle.

Michel Guyot agreed, and after raising 1.5 million in investments the Ozark Medieval Fortress was begun. The land was chosen not only for its resemblance to the French countryside, but because of its proximity to a quarry.

The project will be going on for about 30 years but the site is already open. The construction methods and equipment are also all authentic, save for some updates to satisfy modern safety regulations.

The project has been taken up largely by locals, who hope to be involved with this for quite a few years.

It is interesting that this is taking place in the American Heartland. In many ways 'outside of Europe' may be an ideal way to undertake this project. If you were building it in France there is the question of where would you put it. You couldn't build on ruins and if you build it over top of where a castle used to stand you interfere with future archaeological projects, and you would have to worry about maintaining authenticity, i.e. you would have to build a replica of the castle that was there before. By contrast the one in Arkansas is being built to an ideal, or a standard and can include many different aspects of a medieval French castle, aspects which were prevalent in many castles, but which would necessarily have been built altogether in any one place. If you chose to build a castle in France nowhere near any historical locations you would be asked what part of history that does represent, as it is not representative of anybody. It would also give a false sense of strategic locations and important waterways/passages. In Arkansas you don't have to justify its location, save for finding the resources that are appropriate. In Arkansas it won't confuse the pre-existing medieval landscape, as North America's medieval period left very different physical remains.

That being said, a project is being undertaken in Burgundy, France called Guedelon. Very interesting.

I see many a historical picture being filmed there in the future.

So if you are in the vicinity of Ozark, in Arkansas, check out some medieval castle construction.

Also check out what medievalists.net has to say about the project.


Monday, June 7, 2010

The Great Northern Medieval Fayre?

Don't get me wrong, I had a great time. I know that I say that a lot. But I don't know that anyone else knew what they were getting into. I have been to some Ontario Medieval Fairs before, so I knew almost exactly what to expect from the Great Northern Medieval Fayre.

We arrived at the Fairgrounds just outside of Collingwood at about 1:30 in the afternoon on Friday. We realized as soon as we got there that we were joining the ranks of the school children, particularly Grade 4s whose curriculum includes medieval history.

It had rained all Thursday, so the field was largely muddy. I am sure it was not as bad as it would be on Saturday and Sunday, when it rained the whole time. The problem with the fairgrounds outside of Collingwood is that they don't feel very woodsy, they feel very agricultural. Though the Medieval Fair in Kitchener/Waterloo that is held in September is by and large the same thing, the surrounding woods gives the park more of the fairy tale feel.

The prices for entering the fair was $20 each. As I say, I had a great time. I got my french fries, wandered over to the Merlin the Magician show, where I saw that he was doing the trick with the rope of several different lengths. Since I already knew how this was done I moved on. I went over and spoke to the vendors about what they were selling, and why they liked medieval crafts so much. I saw the vendors from whom I had bought my purse several years previously at the Kitchener medieval Fair, and then went over to watch the joust, which was interesting. My dad then bought a wooden sword, so that he too could join in the ranks of the other fourth grade boys.

But I got the impression that the teachers that had brought their children for the day were disappointed that one of the biggest things to do was shop. They hadn't told all of the children to bring money. By the time that 2:00 had come it is clear that most had tried the archery and putting on the chainmail. From what it looked like it was largely a long recess. I think the teachers weren't thrilled.

The best part of the fair were the jousters. That is something that is missing from the Kitchener Fair, which also has shows, though they are usually scripted by one of the organizers, and are all kinds of cheesy.

The jousting was definitely worth something, though I wasn't sure it was worth twenty dollars. Even while I sat there a family was trying their best to cheer up their mother, who was feeling disappointed and ripped off. They spent most of the joust comparing the price to Medieval Times in Toronto, and the convenience of having that right in your backyard as opposed to having to go all the way down to the city.

I was watching the joust, but I have to admit I was distracted by the kids who were sitting in front of me. They were having their own mini joust, and I cringed every time their swords whacked together. It didn't help that I couldn't really hear the announcer.

In the end you did sort of have the impression that you were paying $20 to shop. I wasn't sure how they were going to attract large enough crowds on Saturday or Sunday with that kind of a deal. At the same time, it wasn't that large a fair, so it would probably fill up nicely without that many people. And you would always have people like me, who were going to come to the Medieval Fair no matter what.

All in all, it wasn't bad for their first time out, though I would have some suggestions for them. If possible I would choose a different venue, one with more trees, because Medieval Fairs are only very cursorily about medieval history or society. They are about the fantasy and romance which draws many of us, even academics at first, to the medieval period. It would be good to play this up more. If at all possible, reduce the price, perhaps by charging the vendors more to be there. The medieval fair that they used to have in southwestern Ontario that was a summer long, every weekend event, charged something like $20 (granted, without inflation) and was such an experience that by necessity all Medieval/Renaissance Fairs are compared to it. These two things are crucial. The adding of more vendors and activities will come, no doubt, as the Medieval Fair matures. But that is less important than giving people the impression that this is something that they want to come back to.

This is the interview conducted at the beginning of the Fair by Medievalists.net.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Mongoliad and the Future of E-books

This is an article by Annalee Newitz that I came across recently. In it they discuss the future of publishing and the power of the e-book to be an entirely different format from the print book.

What was really interesting is the capacity that the book will have to be collaborative, especially when it comes to subjects that people are experts in, particularly things like sword fighting or martial arts. People who are experts on such things often find themselves disappointed by what they read or what they see in films. The author of the article talked about the ability to make the contributions of outsiders canon, so that people who really have something to contribute really can improve the quality of the piece.

What really interests me, and what really wasn't touched on in the article, was the suitability of the medieval period as a subject for these new formats. The project is being let by Neal Stephenson, among others. He is a science fiction author, but the title of this first work is going to be The Mongoliad. It is all going to be set in the Medieval period. At the end of the Annalee Newitz article it says:

Ready to download The Mongoliad and get medieval? Subutai plans to launch before the end of the year. Sign up for updates on the project via their official website.


It makes sense to have this project be an historical one because more people will have an expertise on the subject. And why not the medieval period, due to its inherent romanticism, and the plethora of people who are experts on medieval warfare. It really is a good subject for this project and I think as medievalists we should keep thinking about why.

Be sure to check it out.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Robin Hood Movie Review


As medievalists this year we have been treated to several films that build on a medieval theme, like How to Train your Dragon. Of course when we heard that Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe were teaming up to do a Robin Hood movie we all waited with baited breath. Even the more cynical amongst us admitted we would probably watch it, even if we were determined not to like it.

Having seen it, I will freely admit that I loved it. Most who know me are not surprised by that statement. Even as a Public Historian, I loved it because if there is one thing you can say about the film is that it was committed to conveying a sense of history. The characters were likable, the plot I found to be engaging, and I came away entirely satisfied.

This does not mean that the film was without its problems. In fact most critics have panned it. If we look at it from the point of view of a medievalist there are several things that it does quite well, and there are several things that I am not sure added to the plot.

*spoiler alert*

In terms of inaccuracies, I am sure others picked up on more than I did. The hardest thing I found to digest was the pyre funeral for Walter of Locksley. With Churchmen standing by. Part of the belief in the Middle Ages was that your body would be resurrected along with your soul, so it was not within church practices to burn bodies. This is not to say that it would have been uniform everywhere, or that this couldn't have happened, but it seemed to me to be unlikely, and not to add to the plot which elsewhere was being so careful with details.

The other part that I found myself somewhat incredulous about was Marian joining the charge. Not that I think it would be inaccurate for some women to be involved in the assault on the beach, but I hadn't really understood this to be part of the character they created for Marian, and so it felt a bit forced. I was entirely with them when she picked up a sword to defend her village, but I think a lot of people were taken out of the film by this addition. Again, not because it was necessarily inaccurate but seemed a bit of a stretch based on the rest of the film.

One of my favourite parts of the history that was in the film was the portrayal of King Richard and King John. Here they were truer to the history than to the conventions of the Robin Hood story, and I really liked that. Richard was brutal and John was pretty nasty, though his real fault was not having the same carriage or demeanour as his brother. As well, he was not pure evil, which I liked.

Perhaps the biggest fault of the movie was that the message was not elegantly placed within the plot, but instead the audience was hit over the head with it. Robin is part of the movement that would lead to the signing of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta is certainly a big deal, and I could be corrected, but the Magna Carta at the time was mostly for the nobles who objected to John coming back and trying to take back some of the local power that Richard had lost because of his absenteeism. It was certainly about taxes, but part of that was John was a better administrator on the home front than his brother, and was dealing with the tremendous debt left by Richard. The movement was not really about the rights of the people, at least not all the people, though later politicians would understand it that way. What they were saying in the film seemed to be phrased, not so that it would be historically inaccurate, but so that audiences would recognize the ideals they were espousing as democracy, even though that's not really really what it was. In some ways Robin's espousal of these ideals seems forced, and it means that we lack some of the bravado and cockiness which was an appeal for earlier incarnations of Robin Hood.

But what it does do is place the whole story in a wider historical context, and it really does explain in many ways the momentum of the Magna Carta movement, though they never actually say the words 'Magna Carta.'

This Robin Hood, like Robin Hoods before it, tried to be relevant to today by exploiting elements of the history to show ongoing trends of injustice and resistance. As I say, I loved the film, but in its devotion to its message it lacked a bit of the fun that is to be found in other incarnations. And while Russell Crowe is excellent, his Robin Hood lacks the personality of others, and so he is by no means my favourite Robin.

In some ways, the final scenes of the films, with the camp and the greenwood, you come away with the sense that you would really liked to have seen more of that, that classic Robin Hood aesthetic. Though, in the end that is what we have seen before. It is just that I never tire of it.



Final note: Because I am a fan of Great Big Sea I enjoyed Alan Doyle as Alan-a-Dale. It didn't take me out of the movie too much, and as not that many are big fans like myself, I think it was an excellent choice.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Complexity in Simplicity

I like to work to deadline. I like to be figuring it out right up until the last second. For some this only causes panic and anxiety. Some procrastinate to the point where it becomes so overwhelming they can't even contemplate doing it any more.

I hope that I don't make myself into one of their number.

But as I reach the end of the year, and most projects are finished, save for some loose ends, I have somehow made things that are perhaps simple a little complicated. Not to the point of un-doable, but to the point that if most people had left it to this point they would be panicking.

For instance, as there has been no deadline for Interactive Exhibit Design I am still working on the electronic portion and the write-up. I have outlined on my website all the aspects of the project I intend to write about, but it is alarmingly blank at the moment.

And since I am still working on this I will have to make sure that I make at least one more trip to London this summer to return all of the electronics (and book) that I am still working with.

I will finish, or get as far as I can before I get stuck, since I think this may be one of the more useful things in my portfolio whichever direction my future career takes, and because I would really love to see this work.

For my internship I am working with the Simcoe County Museum this year. This may be not all I am doing, but I will keep people posted about this (maybe something with the R.O.M - not internship-y really, or with L'Anse aux Meadows) but I have been waiting to solidify this internship for several months. I have come to the conclusion that the Simcoe County Museum has never had an intern before, at least not under the current administration, and so they just did not have the ability to confirm this. It is feeling a little more solid now, though I do get the impression that I am forging new territory.

In addition, adding a little more complexity, I went over today to make appointments to talk to people at the museum and it looks like they would like to do some oral histories. That is really exciting, but a lot of work. When I told my dad that oral histories were going to involve a lot of paperwork that made him laugh.

So, a few things I am working on at the last possible minute. Some of this is by design, like completing my IED write-up while I work on the project, and some is by accident as there was no way to speed up my work at the Simcoe County Museum. While it seems to all be very complex, I am happy to report that things seem to be sorting themselves out in a rather simple sort of way.

P.S. Thanks to Devon for pointing out that IED also means Improvised Explosive Device, I had completely forgotten that acronym ... I mean, yay news!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Public History Everywhere

Last night I was indulging in a little bit of SNL.

Do you know how once you learn a name, or a trend, you start seeing it everywhere. I have determined that I got to that point with my Public History classes, and I couldn't help but notice the relevance that SNL episode had to my classes.

The first, most obvious thing was during Weekend Update Seth Meyers talked about the Cockroach Hall of Fame and Museum in Plano Texas: "A man in Texas has opened the cockroach hall of fame museum that features collections of the dead bugs in tutus and sunglasses, though just because you call it a museum inside your head doesn't mean you're not just a crazy son of a bitch with a gluegun."

I couldn't help but go back in my head to our discussions in class about what constitutes a museum. I actually came to the conclusion that yes, I would consider this a museum in my mind. Here is some of the information about that museum:



The second reference was to something that I came across in interactive exhibit design, about interactive physical computing. We looked at the 40 top arduino projects on the web, and the top one was this interactive laser harp. The musical guest, Kesha, actually used this harp in her first number. I probably felt cooler than I should have at that. Check out the video. The harp is used at the 3 minute mark.



Here is the video of the original laser harp:



It's official. I will now look for Public History in everything.

For all the people in my mapping medievalism seminar ...

... the BBC and the British Library have been taking a look at the history of maps. Incredibly relevant to our undertaking, particularly to Trista's paper.

For those who are not in that seminar, it is still interesting, and relevant to the work I have been undertaking with this seminar.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Further equally true, yet mutually exclusive truths

This week in Public History we looked at the issue of Repatriation in Canada and the United States. I am very much pro repatriation. The whole concept of a museum, and the preservation of historical material culture as it supposedly was in the time period, is, of course, a construct, and not the only way to celebrate heritage and culture.

Last week our speaker was James Cullingham, a documentary filmmaker who specializes in issues of social justice. The subjects he has covered in his films include Native rights in Manitoba as compared to the rights allotted to Blacks during Apartheid in South Africa, as well as how Jews and Palestinians interpret the conflict in their education systems. In class he said something along the lines of he believes that cultures should absolutely represent the culture of others, and to set up boundaries in art is ludicrous. And I wholeheartedly agree with this.

But of course, that is part of the problem that led to the need for repatriation, one culture imposing their epistemology upon that of another, and deciding how culture is to be represented.

However, James Cullingham, and the speaker that we had this week after our discussion about Repatriation, Neal Ferris, are both people who use tools that are arguably from the White Middle Class epistemology, namely documentary film and archaeology, in a culturally sensitive way. Neal Ferris holds the Lawson Chair of Archaeology, and is cross appointed to the Museum of Ontario Archaeology and the University of Western Ontario.

In an earlier post I was talking about how Public History is full of irresolvable equally true, and mutually exclusive truths. This is another one of those.

I fully support the rights of nations and cultures to define themselves, and that certainly means control over how their culture gets disseminated. This is particularly true for those cultures who have not always had that right, though really it should be true for all cultures. But the trouble is, if a culture has ultimate control over their own cultural legacies then that means that each country or nation will only be allowed to investigate cultural artefacts specific to their own history. Which in part means that there will be nothing left in the British Museum, and also will mean that somewhat arbitrary definitions based on modern culture will have to be made on the past. To whom would the history of the Norse landings in Canada belong? Canadians, though the Vikings probably did not respect the Canadian border when they were sailing about? Natives, whose ancestors may have had contact with those people, and are the only peoples who now live in those traditional locations? Scandinavians exclusively? Anyone whose country may have had contact with the Medieval Norse culture? My inclination is that it is now so old that perhaps it doesn't matter, but that is not a valid argument when discussing the heritage of several cultures, and so it becomes dangerous to apply that haphazardly to the ones that are not as linked to current politics.

An extreme, one that practically is unlikely to come to fruition, but should be considered nonetheless, is the danger of cultural segregation. Another extreme would be where people are expected to have cultural sensitivity without having any exterior cultural understanding, as a true knowledge of a culture is limited to the confines of that culture.

This issue is also related to what was said in earlier classes about the accuracy of living history. Who gets to play a settler, if the ethnicity of the modern employee does not match the ethnicity of the original historical persona. This is very much related to who gets to decide how the culture is represented. And it is interesting, because while I fall on the side of repatriation I think, with some cultural sensitivity attached to the interpretation, that living history should make an effort to be accurate in their portrayals, but that ultimately the employees should be more representative of the modern culture that they are serving, rather than the historical culture they are representing.

And I guess that is what guides my views on repatriation, that I think history should serve our current communities rather than the other way around. Still, that does not mean that it should be manipulated any way one wants. And representation of a culture through art is not the same as the preservation of heritage through material culture, though they are very closely linked. And so, it is another issue that is unresolvable, but is made better by an awareness of the inherent problems. Who ultimately gets to represent a culture, and are the representations from outside of that culture invalid, or do they also bring something to the discussion?

(Wholly overuse of the word culture Batman).

Monday, March 29, 2010

How to Train your Historically Minded Movie Goer

Don't you hate going to the movies with those people who pick at the movie until it is dead? There are the people who read the book and then saw the movie, and then complain about how much the movie is unlike the book, even if it was a really good movie. Then, of course, there is taking an historian to any movie. It is there mission to find the flaws in the history, and even if the story is really good and really moving dismiss the whole thing as a-historical.

I am one of these people. Well, not really. Actually sometimes I am alarmed as an historian how many historical inaccuracies I miss. But I think it sort of depends how you approach your criticisms. If you are out to be disappointed, you might be. If you are willing to dismiss the whole because of some details, then the movie probably wasn't going to appeal to you anyway. But sometimes its fun. It's like the people who sit down to their favourite films to find all the continuity errors. It's fun to know things. For many historians, it can be fun to find the historical flaws. My colleague Catherine Caughell has recently put up several blog posts about historical fiction novels. I take much the same approach to historically minded films; they were always some of my favourites, and by getting me interested, they prompted me to learn more. I grew up on Westerns, period pieces, and war movies, and always watched any version of Robin Hood I could get my hands on.

So, as a student of the Medieval Norse and Public History I turn now to the recent Dreamworks picture How to Train your Dragon, not because I expected it to be historical, nor because I would have wanted it to be, but because it is interesting to think about the reasons the filmmakers chose to utilize certain aspects of the history. Don't worry, I know it has dragons in it, I know it is fantasy for children. Still ...

Also, slight spoiler alert for people who read on.

It is easy to see why all the Vikings in the village wear horned hats. That is the clearest identifier of Viking. I mean, even Hagar the Horrible wears a horned hat. In the film Hiccup's father gives him a horned helmet, which essentially means he has achieved 'Vikingness.' The trouble is, despite its clear identification with Vikings, there is no evidence that 'Vikings' ever wore anything like it. That being said, we would no doubt be disappointed if the Vikings did not have horned helmets. The filmmakers chose that symbol because it conveys a lot of information about who we imagine these people are, tapping into a popular conception we already have, without the film having to explain it.

The use of runes was a nice touch. And because the characters were speaking English you could actually sort of see the characters making the correct English sounds. Look at 'Night Fury' especially when it is written down. The thing about runes though is that they are characters that have a lot of straight lines for the specific reason that that makes them easier to carve. There is not much evidence of writing in books the way we understand it. There are a few codexes written in runes, though the concept of writing in this way really comes after the introduction of Christianity, not during the time of Thor or Odin, which it is suggested is the time of this movie. The sagas are written down using Latin letters, and not until Christianity has been established in Scandinavia for a century or two. But you can see why the filmmakers chose to do it this way. The idea of a secret and personal knowledge that Hiccup discovers for himself would be conveyed through a book. We understand the nature of a manual, or textbook, and that is easy to relate to, especially for children who are supposed to learn things this way. It is understandable that the students who are trying to learn about dragons would learn in this way. The use of runes makes the book other, and kind of exciting, communicating again that idea of 'Vikingness.'

The whole movie is peppered with some Scandinavian-isms. When Hiccup brings his dragon some fish he mentions that amongst them there is some Icelandic cod. Why not, as they way that they speak is modern, so their frame of reference for fish names may as well be modern. Stoick, Hiccups father, routinely uses THor and Odin as an expletive, just like one would say oh God. This certainly adds to the character, though the film shies away from any statement about religion, as you would expect of a children's film. The village itself is composed of a combination of individual houses, and great halls, representing many Scandinavian villages and none at the same time. But a house is understandable to a modern audience, a place to come home after school. And a great hall can be rather magnificent looking, and might as well be used as a gathering place, so even if it is not a place that after spending the day they fold up the tables and chairs at night and sleep, it is an important part of this larger concept of village.

But of course, there are dragons ... and an arena, and a great number of other monsters. So don't worry, I don't take myself overly seriously. But what we do have here is a selective use of poplar conceptions of an historical period that have been used strategically to create a foreign yet familiar aesthetic in which this fantastic story can take place. I feel that the filmmakers have done this well. It also really helps that it is a really good story with very interesting characters and a very visually pleasing movie.

All in all, I really liked it. And of course, any excuse I can get to 'geek out' and annoy people with my knowledge in a movie theatre, all the better.

And of course, the movie is based on a book.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I'm not very good at math ... that's why I like history


My colleague Jordan Goldstein wrote a blog post earlier this year about how Canadians often define themselves in terms of how they are different from their American colleagues. How groups view themselves is a common theme in Public History, because if historians want to know what kind of image of history we can present to the public, and what kind of images the public will except, we should understand first how a culture sees itself. There are the positive identifiers, the thing that a group is and does, but there are also the negative identifiers, what the group is not or doesn't do that others might. In the case of Canadians, that seems to be Americans more so than any other group that we have decided we are not (mostly because the case is not always that obvious).

My colleague Braden Murray made the observation much earlier in the year that many of the conversations had by Grad students in the History department eventually turn into a discussion of Canadian identity. Partly that is because most of us are Canadian historians, and even more so because we all come from different areas of both Canada and the United States. This was especially true at the beginning when we were first meeting each other, and when we were first trying to explain how we were a cohesive group to our American colleague (sorry Sara). But maybe that is one of the positive identifiers of the group known as History grad students, a desire to define our shared cultural heritage.

What also makes us a group, however, is our negative identifiers. Mostly, I find that for Grad students in history, and probably in many other Arts programs as well, the group that we define ourselves against is Math. It is a suitable excuse, when you get a simple math problem wrong, to say that I am a history major. Marking especially is always described in relation to the math department. The argument is that in Math you can get 100% because it is either right or wrong, but in History it is more subjective. You can't get 100%, but the likelihood of getting less than 60% is also greatly minimized. It seems everything that we are is best understood in relationship to Math. In many ways this is a fallacy, particularly for the economic historians, but it is an easy means of self-identification. I my personal experience I wasn't bad at math, but it was the only class that made me physically squirm in my chair. And my path through University has been chosen in a way where I can take the least amount of math possible ... since I am, after all, a history major.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Thrilling, yet disturbing, discoveries in the library.

If you have seen other entries from my blog, you will have seen this image before:



I am using it in my paper that I am writing for the Mapping Medievalism Seminar in the Visual Arts Department. Also, because it represents early American scholarship on the topic of the Norse in America, I thought it should be included in the exhibit that the seminar is putting on in September.

It is a lecture that was given in the late 1830s, almost corresponding with the World Fair in Chicago. It was written and delivered by Asahel Davies. This version is actually the 16th edition, and was published in 1846.

When looking through the libraries catalogue I came upon this title, though I didn't actually see the date. I thought it would be perfect. When I came to realize that it was actually a copy from the first half of the nineteenth century, and that I was going to be allowed to take it out of the library, I was surprised, excited, and a little disturbed.

When I brought it up to circulation the librarian gave me a sideways glance. I don't think anyone has checked this out in at least ten years, and he was clearly not quite certain it should go out. He couldn't really say no. I said to him 'I can't believe I can take this.' He said 'yeah ...' in a trail-y sort of a way, and furrowed his brow.

Don't worry, I took very good care of it. At least I tried to, I very carefully took a picture of the front of the pamphlet, which may have crossed the line librarian-wise, but I think that was okay.

Of course, amongst people who have worked with artifacts, or who are budding librarians, historians or archivists, I have got a very consistent reaction of 'they let you take that out of the library,' to which I usually respond, 'I know, right!' It is now in the hands of Prof. Brush of the Visual Arts department. The thing was, I didn't want to actually return it because I wanted it for our exhibit. I was pretty sure that once it gets back into the hands of librarians it may become locked into the vaults of the archives; accessible, but not available to take home, or handled without the proper supervision. Not at all convenient for my purposes.

In the end, this is the paradox that most librarians, museum experts, and historians find themselves in: we want the artifacts to be properly cared for, and protected ... but not until we have had a go at them.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

My First Attempts at Label Writing

For the Seminar 'Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier' I have been looking at several texts which I think should be included in the Exhibit at the end of the Seminar. I have included here the images I took of the four texts I chose, and the four labels that I wrote. As you may have been able to deduce from my short writing for the public piece I am not very good at condensing my ideas. I found the label writing to be particularly hard. Here is the first draft of these four labels, I welcome any feedback.



Asahel Davis

Antiquities of America, The First Inhabitants of Central America, and the Discovery of New England, By the Northmen, Five Hundred Years Before Columbus, with Important Additions, 1846

And is it not a laudable curiosity that leads one to ascertain what white men first trod regions in which the modest wild flower wasted its sweetness on the desert air?

This is the sixteenth edition of this lecture to be printed, showing the work’s immense popularity. The first printings were in 1838-39. At the time that this lecture was circulating the tales of the Norse voyages were only starting to be brought to the attention of the scholarly community in America.

Davis relies on the work of The Royal Society of Antiquarians, who produced the Antiquitates Americanae in Danish in 1837. That was the first time the Vinland sagas, the sagas about Norse landings in Greenland and North America, had been translated and printed for the public. Davis argues, based on the content of the sagas, that the history of the Norsemen in this continent should be made a part of the larger scholarly understanding of the Antiquities of America.

Megan Arnott MA Public History 2010

Collection of the D.B. Weldon Library
The University of Western Ontario



Farley Mowat

Westviking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America, 1965

Farley Mowat is among the great literary nation builders of Canada. His focus is the Canadian North, and the relationship of Canadians to the land, and with each other within the context of the land. His use of the medieval European connection in reconstructing the Canadian North is given weight because of the clout Mowat has as a Canadian author.

The Norse voyages to Canada is a theme that is repeated in many of his works, including The Curse of the Viking Grave (1966), ‘The Iron Men’ in The Snow Walker (1975), and in The Farfarers: Before the Norse (1998). The latter and this work are both scholarly texts that discuss European arrival in Canada in the context of evidence and anthropology.

There is a conflict that occurs when Mowat tries to reconstruct the Norse landings in the context of Canadian history. The existence of an ancient, almost mythical European presence helps to naturalize the existence of Europeans in Canada. However, the Norse were not themselves native to the land, so their arrival can be seen as part of the trend of later European imperialism. This is a conflict that is not resolved.

Megan Arnott MA Public History 2010

Collection of the D.B. Weldon Library
The University of Western Ontario



Marie A. Brown Shipley

The Icelandic Discoverers of America or Honor to Whom Honor is Due, 1887

In the nineteenth century, and before the discovery of the Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, there were many texts written defending the idea that the Norse were here before Christopher Columbus. Some were very scholarly examinations of the sagas and the science of sailing. Some were also emotional pleas to include the Norsemen in the national myth. This is strictly the latter.

Marie Shipley’s work relies heavily on the scholarship of others to establish the truth of the sagas. Most of the text is allotted to how the Catholic Church and Spain are the root of all evil in modern American life, and how if we accept Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of America we are accepting the overlordship and tyranny of the Catholic Church through Spain.

On the front cover, the quote from Bayard Taylor,
From shores where Thorfinn set thy banner/ Their latest children seek thee now,
accompanied by an image of a banner with an eagle on it, is supposed to both show how Americans are directly the inheritors of the Norse and provoke them to restore the Norse to their place of glory. This will in turn restore glory and freedom to the American people.

Megan Arnott MA Public History 2010

Collection of the D.B. Weldon Library
The University of Western Ontario



Robert McGhee


Canada Rediscovered, 1991


Robert McGhee plays on the word ‘discovery,’ because the Europeans, of course, did not ‘discover’ Canada. This is why Canada is ‘rediscovered.’

McGhee places the arrival of different waves of migration to North America into a global context of settlement. He also discusses our own perceptions of Canada’s ‘discovery.’ It is significant that this work was published in 1991, one year before the five hundredth anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of Christopher Columbus.

The helmet, though not an artefact found on Canadian soil, was chosen for the cover because it represents the Old Norse culture. The Norse are the first Europeans archaeologists can prove were here, completing McGhee’s circle of the globe by man. The Norsemen challenge the position of Columbus in the public’s imagination as the first European to arrive in North America. Therefore, in the year when the public expects to see Columbus, the Norsemen have been represented on purpose to make audiences re-evaluate their perception of the ‘discovery’ of Canada.

Megan Arnott MA Public History 2010

Collection of the D.B. Weldon Library
The University of Western Ontario

The Vinland Loop

I am stuck in something I like to call the Vinland Loop.

I have noticed in our history program that many people's particular historical interests have emerged. I think I can safely give myself the nickname of Viking Girl. It does seem a little ingenuous to give yourself your own nickname, but I am going to go for it.

Vinland is a fascinating topic. Sagas and literature give you just enough to tantalize you with the prospect of locating it in North America, but stop short of allowing you to ever prove that you have found the location. Not only that, Vikings and the Norse are a very exciting, somewhat romantic topic.

It gives us so many things to talk about, discuss and debate, that so much has been written about it. It continues to pose academic problems, not least of which is when we realize we are clearly so interested in who were the first Europeans to arrive here, and what that means for us as a people.

As I have said before, Vinland and the Viking presence in, well, Canada really, is one of the reasons I decided to specialize in Vikings; they covered so much that I was interested in, including Medieval History and Canadian History.

But I find myself in a Vinland loop. I am interested in Vikings in part because of Vinland (the decision to study certain aspects of history is usually some sort of personal connection) so I write about it or do projects about it. It is easy to see how so much nationalistic and romantic literature is written about it. And then when I try to think about what I know that will be relevant for Canadians, I am drawn back to Vinland. While I study generally, as a subject, Vikings, I keep writing about Vinland and doing projects about Vinland because it is what will be interesting to the public I am hoping to represent. They too are most likely to be drawn in by showing them their personal connection.

It's not a problem really. The very obvious solution would be, don't. I certainly don't find it to be a problem. But it does appear that I am working very hard to pigeon hole myself into one particular subject, though I do have wide interests.

So in summary, look out for more about Vinland from me in the future. I am sure it is forthcoming.

IED: Updates

Many things have evolved about the project that I am working on for Interactive Exhibit Design. I am still on the map idea, and because I am caught in 'the Vinland loop' (more on that later) I am still looking at mapping perceived Medieval Norse landings in what we now consider to be North America.

However, the project has morphed into two separate projects. The first is still the website, where my intention is to be ever-adding, so as to be as comprehensive as possible. I have actually progressed to the main page, and have a model that I am now adding the information to in HTML. To make it more professional I may have to look more at Java and XML, though I have to admit to being most comfortable in HTML.

The second part of my project has stemmed from the first. I wanted a group to be able to interact with my design. To do this, I at first thought I would just provide a touch platform for the website. This is still possible, as I am still working on the website. However, I am beginning to design a separate project, which will use a combination of Processing and an Arduino, which will also be a map of North America, and the Northern Atlantic Regions.

At first I was wondering if there was anyway that I could design a surface, where moving an item across that surface would result in a cursor moving in a corresponding way across the computer screen. Unlike a mouse, the top left corner of the board would also be the top left corner of the screen. The idea would be that I could have a physical map, and as you moved an object (I was imagining a Viking Ship) across the map it would also move across the map online. While this is in many ways theoretically possible, I have abandoned it because it is certainly outside of my capabilities.

My next idea was to build a mouse in the shape of a Viking Ship, and then use that to interact with the website. Again, while it is possible, and has not been entirely abandoned as a possibility, this in many ways is not challenging enough, because the most likely methodology would involve my buying wireless mouse parts and then superimposing artistic elements on the top to make it look like a Viking Ship. There are more complex ways to do this, of course, and I may yet look into this.

Where I have settled is to create a project which will convey rather simple information. On the computer I will design a program which can show you some basic locations on a map related to Norse landings in North America. Then I will create a map out of something like foam board, and possibly using the large size sign printer. In that map I will embed a series of switches in certain locations, so that when you press the switch, or in some way complete the circuit, the program will show you information about the place which you have just located.

This will be separate from the website that I am working on, because the website can have a lot more information about not only significant sites, but also about the sites that historians have interpreted as having significance for one reason or another. I hope, by Apr. 7th, to have something substantial to show in both these projects.