Saturday, May 23, 2015

The National Pastime that Might Have Been

Baseball was not, despite certain legends, invented de novo by Abner Doubleday (who never advanced any claim to being involved in its creation). Its rules instead come from a game played in the state of New York in the middle of the 19th century, which in turn derives from the same underdocumented medieval precursor as cricket. (There are in fact high medieval manuscript marginalia showing people swinging what appear to be modern baseball bats at round white balls.)

But the New York game was just what caught on beyond the region of its origin, because of the clout of New York City during the formalization of America's national sport. Other local variants existed at the time, the most prominent being one played in and around Boston. The Massachusetts version of base ball at that time (now usually known as the "Massachusetts game" but commonly called "town ball", "round ball", or "base" by its players), formalized by the Massachusetts Association of Base Ball Players under the name "town ball" in 1858, was different in several ways.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Orfeo's Katabasis into Faerie

As Queen Heurodis slept in the shade of a tree she had a dream in which the King of Faerie appeared to her and announced his intent to steal her away to the Otherworld. The next day she slept beneath it again, this time with a well-armed guard around her, but the fairy king came and stole her away.

So begins the lai of Sir Orfeo, the king who ventured into Faerie to rescue his wife. Told in manuscripts from the 14th century, the story makes use of the British idea of a fairy realm as a substitute for the afterlife (a folkloric conceit likely derived from lightly Christianized retellings of ancient Celtic myths) and a courtly setting in medieval Britain - but, ultimately, the tale of Orfeo and Heurodis is an adaptation of Greek works.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


There's an image that was making the rounds through social media a while back after it appeared on an amusing clickbait list of startling things from medieval manuscripts. It is a depiction, found in an illuminated life of Alexander the Great, that appears to show a woman lying in bed with a dragon, while a crowned man stares at them through a hole in the door.

And that's precisely what it is. To the audience at the time, the story was so well-known they would have recognized, at a glance, that the man is King Philip of Macedon, watching the conception of his son Alexander.

Alexander the Great was one of the most popular figures from the medieval Matter of Rome - the retelling of classical stories, often in a then-contemporary setting. By the third century, a Greek manuscript falsely attributed to Alexander's court historian Calisthenes had appeared which spelled out a somewhat mythologized version of the king's life, and this became the basis for many later accounts. One such version, the Alexandreis (a Latin text from the 12th century) was even directly translated to Icelandic under the title Alexanders saga. The first known epic poem, on the model of the French chansons de geste, in German is the Alexanderlied, also 12th century. The Quranic figure Dul-Qarnayn is also thought to be a mythologized version of Alexander the Great.

As for that image with the dragon? The earlier texts call it a snake, but a legend that appears in many medieval Alexander texts is that King Philip looked on, through a window, while his wife was impregnated by a dragon or serpent.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Manawyddan and the Mouse

And thus passed the seasons of the year until the harvest came. And he went to look at one of his crofts, and behold it was ripe. "I will reap this to-morrow," said he. And that night he went back to Narberth, and on the morrow in the grey dawn he went to reap the croft, and when he came there he found nothing but the bare straw. Every one of the ears of the wheat was cut from off the stalk, and all the ears carried entirely away, and nothing but the straw left. And at this he marvelled greatly.

Then he went to look at another croft, and behold that also was ripe. "Verily," said he, "this will I reap to-morrow. And on the morrow he came with the intent to reap it, and when he came there he found nothing but the bare straw. "Oh, gracious Heaven," he exclaimed, "I know that whosoever has begun my ruin is completing it, and has also destroyed the country with me."
Then he went to look at the third croft, and when he came there, finer wheat had there never been seen, and this also was ripe. "Evil betide me," said he, "if I watch not here to-night. Whoever carried off the other corn will come in like manner to take this. And I will know who it is." So he took his arms, and began to watch the croft. And he told Kicva all that had befallen. "Verily," said she, "what thinkest thou to do?" "I will watch the croft to-night," said he.

And he went to watch the croft. And at midnight, lo, there arose the loudest tumult in the world. And he looked, and behold the mightiest host of mice in the world, which could neither be numbered nor measured. And he knew not what it was until the mice had made their way into the croft, and each of them climbing up the straw and bending it down with its weight, had cut off one of the ears of wheat, and had carried it away, leaving there the stalk, and he saw not a single stalk there that had not a mouse to it. And they all took their way, carrying the ears with them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Lady Charlotte Guest and the remaking of Celtic mythography

The sources known to us today which give the earliest legends known from Wales are the opening four sections of the Mabinogion, the work now often regarded as the canonical compilation of old Welsh myths and legends. These four "branches" tell of heroes who were once worshiped as Gods, and in a straightforward voice reminiscent of the Icelandic Sagas they present the ambitions, triumphs, and betrayals of these characters. But the history of the Mabinogion - and even of the idea that there is such a book - reveals far more than just what tales were told in high medieval Wales.