Monday, 24 October 2016

St Crispin's Eve, 24th October 1415

Key moments in Shakespeare's plays include the eve of battle scenes in Richard III and in Henry V.  Before Agincourt, Henry walks around the camp incognito, in a borrowed cloak, testing the mettle of his men and himself: 

"Henry: Good morrow, old Sir Thomas Erpingham:
A good soft pillow for that good white head
Were better than a churlish turf of France.

Erpingham: Not so, my liege: this lodging likes me better,
Since I may say, 'Now lie I like a king'.

Henry: Lend me thy cloak, Sir Thomas." Act IV, sc.1.

Embroidered chasuble, English, early 1400s    © V& A Museum

When Henry borrows the cloak from Sir Thomas Erpingham, his senior commander who drew up the English line at Agincourt,  I am reminded of this medieval priest's chasuble, bearing the shields of Sir Thomas under the arms of the embroidered cross (the orphrey).

 It was made from the most luxurious fabric available, woven silk from Italy, here unusually portraying exotic camels with panniers of flowers,  and made suitable for religious use by applying a panel of English silk and gold thread embroidery, (opus anglicanum *).  This is the rear view of the chasuble, which would be seen when the priest celebrated mass.  Sometimes chasubles were cut down from a much larger cloak, or cope, deriving their name from the Roman soldier's enveloping cloak - or casula, little house.
I like to think it was so in this instance, linking cloaks for kings, soldiers and priests.

*see the current exhibition at the V&A Museum.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Scorpio: death and danger

October sees the meteor showers from the constellation of Orion, the Greek hunter of myth who was said to have been killed by Scorpio, the scorpion, this month's Zodiac sign.

Carved Scorpion sign,  on the Royal Portal voussoirs, Chartres Cathedral

The medieval figures show the signs of the Zodiac, interspersed with the traditional Labours of the Months: a Book of Hours for the populace, as well as the super-rich, representing the heavenly and earthly cycles of the year.

To cross the Scorpion was always dangerous.  The Egyptian goddess Serket with her scorpion headdress, protects the dead, as in Tutankhamens' tomb figures and inscriptions, while in his epic poem Metamorphoses, the Roman writer Ovid vividly recounts how Phaeton met his fate, recklessly driving his father the sun god's chariot across the heavens.

 Bk 2. The Fall of Phaethon:
"To add to his fear, he now perceived the monstrous beasts of huge size which lay scattered over the spangled face of heaven.  There is a certain place where the Scorpion stretches out his pincers in two hollow arcs, and with his tail and curving claws outspread on either side sprawls over two signs of the Zodiac.  When the boy saw him, exuding his baneful poison and menacing him with his curved sting, he was so completely unnerved and numb with fear that he dropped the reins.  They fell from his hands and lay loose on the horses' backs.  At once, the team galloped away out of their course.  With none to restrain them, they sped through regions of air unknown, and rushed wherever their headlong career carried them, quite beyond control. They dashed against the stars set in highest heaven, and hurled the car along where there was no pathway, now soaring up to the heights of the sky, now hurtling down its steep incline, to be borne along close to the earth,  The moon was amazed to see her brother's horses lower than her own, and smoke rose from the scorched clouds." © translation M.M.Innes

Detail from Horoscope from Book of Birth of Iskander
Wellcome  Library Images

Monday, 10 October 2016

Lexicographers and Library Treasures

"REFERENCE, s. (from refer.)
Relation; respect; view toward, allusion to. Raleigh."  Samuel Johnson, Dictionary

King George III's Library at the British Library, London  © British Library

For many of the books I pull from the shelf for reference --  like Shakespeare, Evelyn, Johnson, Dickens, Pevsner --  I have a clear image of the author,  but several I rely on equally are just names, like Roget, Kennedy, and Brewer, so this blog celebrates these indispensable nineteenth century scholars.

"The man is not wholly evil, he has a Thesaurus in his cabin."  J.M. Barrie on Captain Hook

Peter Mark Roget, physician, writer and scholar, was born in Soho in January 1779, graduating from Edinburgh in 1798.  He travelled on the continent and worked as tutor and physician in many places, finally settling in London as a professor of physiology, where he was an active member of the Royal Society and many other scientific institutions.  
Very much a child of the Enlightenment, in 1825 he contributed to the very early development of moving pictures with his observations on the retina's retained images,  and his work on natural selection in Animal and Vegetable Physiology,  published in 1833-4, was a forerunner to Darwin.

His early life was very unsettled; several close relatives died young or suffered mental problems, and he found list-making kept away depression.  As early as 1805 he was cataloguing words and phrases, and in his retirement he worked on his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, published in 1852 and never since out of print.  What writer, reader, or crossword devotee does not possess a well-thumbed copy on their bookshelf?

Strahov Monastery Library, Prague
The Theosophical Hall contains a vast collection of Bibles

Benjamin Hall Kennedy  Born in 1807, Benjamin H. Kennedy was a contemporary of Darwin at school.   An outstanding classical scholar at St. John's College, Cambridge, he took holy orders in 1824, and was a well-regarded headmaster at Shrewsbury School from 1836-1866.  His retirement also saw the first publication of his Latin Primer for Schools. Kennedy was a keen supporter of education for women and campaigned for the women students of Girton and Newnham to have full access to the University lectures and examinations.   It is not surprising then, that in 1888 he relied on his two daughters'  help for the revised edition of the Primer;  with its new rhyming mnemonics to guide even the dullest scholar, it became an indispensable success. To this day I can quote the 5 line verse for spotting the ablative absolute, without (until I looked it up) remembering what was an ablative absolute. (and see

The Teleki-Bolyai Library, Targu-Mures, Romania
In this eighteenth century public library founded by Count Samuel Teleki, chancellor of Transylvania,  in 1802, you can see works by Galileo, Descartes, Locke and Newton, as well as books they will have studied.

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer  Born in Norwich in 1810, Brewer graduated in law from Trinity Hall, Cambridge; he then taught at his father's school and wrote textbooks on education, literature and science.  He travelled and lived in Paris for six years the 1850s, where he married, and then concentrated on his writing.
He began his "treasury of literary bric-a-brac", The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in the 1860s, publishing it in 1870, and revising it in 1894.  It runs from A: "modified from the Hebrew aleph = an ox",  to Z: " Zulfagar, Ali's sword" .  As he explained, "I have always read with a slip of paper and a pencil at my side, to jot down whatever I think may be useful to me, and these jottings I keep sorted in different lockers."  His methodical labour and lively mind created a beguiling treasury for us, as well as a lasting work of reference.

The New York Public Library Reading Room
As well as its inspiring architecture and collections, it has a wonderful collection of authors' manuscripts, including A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh".

Saturday, 1 October 2016

October: autumn's changes

October: Twelve Months of Flowers  Jacob van Huysum, early 18th century
©  Fitzwilliam Museum

"I mow the lawn for what I hope will be the last time this autumn; though in some years another cut is required in November, or even December.  Instead of  the grass-moths of spring and summer, long-legged craneflies leap from beneath the mower's blades, bouncing away in search of an uncut patch of sward where they can hide from predators.

Despite the warmth, signs of autumn are more and more visible; not least in the absence of those pink and purple flowers that lined the rhynes and hedgerows during the past few months.  Purple loosestrife, which only a few weeks ago was still flowering in any damp corner, has gone to seed, while only a few sad, drooping fronds of willow-herb remain.  Clouds of midges still hang in the air in more sheltered areas; but within a week or so I shall hear the high-pitched call of returning redwings in the night sky; and soon afterwards feel the crunch of early-morning frosts beneath my boots."

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss