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Posts Tagged ‘Dark Ages

“When truth and reason cannot be heard, then must presumption rule”*…

Eyvind Earle (American, 1916-2000), “Concept Art” (1958), from Sleeping Beauty (Walt Disney Productions), gouache on board, 9 1/4 × 21 3/4 inches, Hilbert Collection (© Disney Enterprises, Inc., in the Getty Center exhibition discussed below)

Anne Wallentine considers an exhibition that depicts how people have reimagined the medieval period in the centuries since, and how they have revealed their own interests and ideals with each new interpretation…

To explain why I am standing outside the dinner theater juggernaut Medieval Times in the name of journalism, I would have to go back to the beginning: specifically, to 500 CE, the generally agreed upon start of the Middle Ages, which is a contemporary term for a 1,000-year period (500–1500) in world history. This term is now preferred to the “Dark Ages,” which derived from the assumption that the enlightened learning of Greco-Roman antiquity was extinguished with the collapse of the Roman empire. The retroactive valorizing of past eras — reflected in our names for them — is as constant as our passage into new ones. The Getty Center’s latest exhibition, The Fantasy of the Middle Ages, explores this historical habit by depicting how people have reimagined the medieval period in the centuries since, and how they have revealed their own interests and ideals with each new interpretation… 

The fantastical imagery that many of us consider “medieval” today has been invented, at least in part, in the centuries since. While some legends are rooted in the period, like the stories of King Arthur and Camelot, many others were embroidered onto an imagined, “medieval-ish” past through fantasy stories, films, and other forms of popular culture, especially from the 19th century on. Modern medieval tales have become populated with knights, dragons, witches, and fairies — though, as the show explains, only the first two were frequently depicted in the period, and anything magical or mysterious was understood through the lens of religion. The exhibition pairs medieval and later imagery to explore these shifting depictions and the powerful legacy they have left…

Read on: “What Our Fantasies About the European ‘Middle Ages‘ Say About Us,” from @awallintime in @hyperallergic.

* Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century


As we ponder the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1264, in the midst of the War of Saint Sabas (a Crusades-related conflict between Venice/Knights Templar and Genoa/Knights Hospitaller over land in the Kingdom of Jerusalem), that the Genoese tricked the Venetians into sailing east to the Levant, and captured an entire Venetian trade fleet in what’s known as the Battle of Saseno.

Still, the war continued until 1270, when the Peace of Cremona ended the hostilities. In 1288, Genoa finally received their land back.

A 13th-century Venetian galley, woodcut by Quinto Cenni


“I like a bad reputation”*…




There can be few more damning or more useless terms than “the Dark Ages.” They sound fun in an orcs‐and‐elves sort of way and suggest a very low benchmark from which we have since, as a race, raised ourselves up into the light—with the present day using as its soundtrack the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. But the damage the term does is immense. A simple little mental test is just to quickly imagine a European scene from that era. Now: was the sun shining? Of course not. The default way of thinking about the long, complex era that lasted from the final decades of the Roman Empire to somewhere around the Battle of Hastings is to assume it all looked like the cover of a heavy metal album.

One problem is that the older the period the more chances there are for its material production to be destroyed. Across Lotharingia [ed. note: one of three filial kingdoms born of the Carolingian Empire]  there has been century after century of rebuilding (with the re‐use of every available piece of old dressed stone) with most evidence of earlier churches and palaces removed in the process. In practical terms one cannot imagine that the vast, humorless bulk of Cologne Cathedral is merely the latest in a series stretching back to a Roman temple. Many of the great religious buildings of the Rhine have a display table showing somewhat conjectural models of their ancient predecessors, usually starting with a patronizing little wooden block, looking something like a skew‐whiff Wendy-house.

So great is the weight of “the Dark Ages” on our shoulders that it is almost impossible not to think of the makers of this wonky church slithering about on the mud floor cursing the way the roof was leaking and how nobody could design a door that shut properly, resigned to the occasional fiasco when the walls would simply fall in on the gurning, fur‐clad, battle‐axe‐wielding communicants. In practice, these now non‐existent buildings would have been extremely beautiful—drawing on Roman and Byzantine models, and stuffed with all kinds of wonderful stuff from the Roman Empire which now no longer exists…

History flickers in and out of darkness, regardless of the period: “The ‘Dark Ages’ weren’t as dark as we thought.”

* Joan Jett


As we rehabilitate history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1336 that Petrarch— the father of Humanism, and the man whom many credit with launching the Renaissance– climbed Mt. Ventoux…  not because he needed to, but because he wanted to experience it.  His letter recounting the ascent, still widely cited in books and journals devoted to mountaineering, is cited by scholars as a “strikingly modern” attitude of aesthetic gratification in the grandeur of the scenery.

But more importantly, Petrarch climbed with a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions.  He read from it on his trek, and wrote

I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. […] [W]e look about us for what is to be found only within. […] How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation…

James Hillman argues that this rediscovery of the inner world is the real significance of the Ventoux event. The Renaissance begins, Hillman suggests, not with the ascent of Mont Ventoux but with the subsequent descent—the “return […] to the valley of soul.”




Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 26, 2019 at 1:01 am

“It takes just one big natural disaster to… remind us that, here on Earth, we’re still at the mercy of nature”*…



An 72-meter ice core drilled in the Colle Gnifetti Glacier in the Swiss Alps entombs more than 2000 years of fallout from volcanoes, storms, and human pollution. NICOLE SPAULDING/CCI FROM C. P. LOVELUCK ET AL., ANTIQUITY 10.15184, 4, 2018


Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he’s got an answer: “536.” Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. In Europe, “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.

A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.

Historians have long known that the middle of the sixth century was a dark hour in what used to be called the Dark Ages, but the source of the mysterious clouds has long been a puzzle. Now, an ultraprecise analysis of ice from a Swiss glacier by a team led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono has fingered a culprit…

536 chart

Learn what it was that challenged civilizations: “Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’.”

* Neil deGrasse Tyson


As we ruminate on resilience, we might spare a thought for Tetsuya Theodore “Ted” Fujita; he died on this date in 1998.  A meteorologist, he became known as “Mr. Tornado” for his work in understanding those severe storms and his development of (what’s now known as)  the Fujita scale to measure tornado intensity.

Thetsuya_Theodore_Fijuta source



Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

To See What Condition My Condition Was In…

Could Quantum Mechanics be wrong?

The philosophical status of the wavefunction — the entity that determines the probability of different outcomes of measurements on quantum-mechanical particles — would seem to be an unlikely subject for emotional debate. Yet online discussion of a paper claiming to show mathematically that the wavefunction is real has ranged from ardently star-struck to downright vitriolic since the article was first released as a preprint in November 2011.

The paper, thought by some to be one of the most important in quantum foundations in decades, was finally published last week in Nature Physics (M. F. Pusey, J. Barrett & T. Rudolph Nature Phys. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nphys2309; 2012), enabling the authors, who had been concerned about violating the journal’s embargo, to speak about it publicly for the first time. They say that the mathematics leaves no doubt that the wavefunction is not just a statistical tool, but rather, a real, objective state of a quantum system…

The authors have some heavyweights in their corner: their view was once shared by Austrian physicist and quantum-mechanics pioneer Erwin Schrödinger, who proposed in his famous thought experiment that a quantum-mechanical cat could be dead and alive at the same time. But other physicists have favoured an opposing view, one held by Albert Einstein: that the wavefunction reflects the partial knowledge an experimenter has about a system. In this interpretation, the cat is either dead or alive, but the experimenter does not know which. This ‘epistemic’ interpretation, many physicists and philosophers argue, better explains the phenomenon of wavefunction collapse, in which a quantum state is fundamentally changed by measuring it…

Read the full story in Nature.


As we listen for the tell-tale purr, we might spare a thought for Gerbert d’Aurillac (who became Pope Sylvester II); he died on this date in 1003.  Gerbert/Sylvester was never canonized; indeed, in his day, he dogged with rumors that he was a sorcerer in league with the devil… which appear to have been the work of reactionary forces resisting both Sylvester’s attempts to rid the Church of corruption (especially simony, the sale of sacraments and indulgences) and his attempts to popularize mathematics, astronomy and mechanics for lay audiences.  Inspired by translations of Arabic texts, he built clocks, invented the hydraulic organ, crafted astronomical instruments, and renewed interest in the abacus for use in mathematical calculations (in the process of which, he seems to have introduced Arabic numerals [except zero]).  It’s not a stretch to suggest that Gerbert/Sylvester began Europe’s long march out of the Dark Ages.


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