Monday, April 11, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Was born 28 years ago.
  • Had a nice dinner at Franny's courtesy of friends.
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 13: Peter Abelard
Abelard was one of the most fascinating personalities in a time that was inclined to suppress or disregard personalities. In intellectual history he remains an example of a mighty intellect; and in popular remembrance, a symbol of the great lover, although like other great lovers, he was more than a bit of a cad. Around the age of twenty he appeared in Paris, defied and confuted the learned doctors, and soon opened a school of his own. His popularity was immense, except among the teachers who found their classrooms deserted. He was nicknamed the Indomitable Rhinoceros. He fell in love with the learned and beautiful Héloïse, niece of a canon of Notre Dame. She bore him a son, who was pedantically christened Astrolabe. The angry canon seized and castrated Abelard, who had then no recourse but to enter a monastery, while Héloïse, at his insistence, became a nun. She wrote him beautiful, passionate letter expressing her love and longing, unquenched by her vows and by her lover's misfortune. (One historian points out that she was enabled to write at length because as abbess she could raid the convent's store of parchment.)

Abelard made important contributions to philosophy, to logic and ethics. His most influential book was Sic et Non (Yes and No or On the one hand and on the other). It is a list of apparent contradictions in the Bible and the Church Fathers, with suggestions for harmonizing the conflicting statements. Abelard also did something for the emancipation of women. As Friedrich Heer has written: "Abelard elevated Mary Magdalen, the patron saint of women sinners, above the militant saints of the feudal Middle Ages, and so initiated a Magdalen cult. . . . Abelard sought out the youth and the women of Europe, calling on them to think boldly and to dare to love with passion. . . . " And finally, his personal influence made the Paris Left Bank, the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, the intellectual center of Paris and the Western world.

Abelard's chief enemy was that mighty battler for the Lord, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard repudiated human reason as a means for the attainment of divine truth. He was an intellectual anti-intellectual. He bade his clergy flee the Babylon of the Paris schools in order to save their souls -- "You will find more in forests than in books. Woods and stones will teach you more than any master." He represented that distrust of science, philosophy, and speculative intelligence that still agitates some earnest believers. Bernard brought Abelard to trial for heresy; but Abelard played his trump by dying before Rome could render a decision.
But Enough About Me

I've decided that this will be my last daily entry. I'm joining the ranks of the sporadic updaters; from now on I'll only open my post editor when I have something to say.

When I started this blog, I was doing routine, mind-numbing work day in and day out, and I sought a sense of fulfillment through thinking and writing. I also had the mental energy to spare.

Fortunately things have changed, and I'm now occupied with substantive, often challenging, assignments. I'd rather not have an obligatory blog post extending my daily to-do list.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this phase of my career in publishing, entertainment, and political advocacy. It almost lasted a month!

Story of my life.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Had a fantastic homemade brunch at my uncle's.
  • I've decided that tracking my work hours on this blog is another foolish consistency I'm better off abandoning. I already document them at work, so data generation isn't an issue, and if I have a particularly interesting workday, I can always just mention it here.
Recommended Links
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 12: Surgery
The peasant suffered from exposure and deforming toil; the artisan's life was confining and sedentary. Some trades had their special afflictions, such as the woolworkers' anthrax and the painters' arsenical or lead poisoning. Physical injuries, no quickly repaired, might well be permanent; a cut might leave a lifelong scar. If a tooth ached, it was often extracted and gone forever. Eye trouble was very common -- ophthalmia, trachoma, tumors, cataracts, blindness. The purblind King John of Bohemia contracted with a doctor to cure his cataract; the doctor failed and was sewn in a sack and cast into the Oder River. One is struck by the number of cripples, stumping or crawling, in medieval genre pictures. Some of the twisted limbs must have been congenital defects or the results of bad midwifery. The legless and handless were often the product of legal mutilation; the sinning hand of a thief might be punished by separating it from the body. Amputation was the usual method of dealing with a compound fracture or with a spreading infection, and it was not unlikely to spread infection further.

Qualified physicians and surgeons were scarce and were apt to confine their practice to the rich and noble. Although medicine suffered from its slavish obedience to classical and Arabic authority, the achievements of surgery were remarkable. Trepanning was common because of the prevalence of head wounds and fractured skulls sustained in battles and tourneys. Operating for hernia, cancer, and gallstones was frequent. Surgeons performed cesarean sections, treated hemorrhages with styptics and ligatures, broke and reset badly joined bones, put fractured limbs into plaster casts. Although it is often said that medieval doctors had no idea of antisepsis, they cauterized wounds and dressed them with old wine, strong in alcohol, and with sterile whites of newly broken eggs, and soothed them with balmy dressings. They practiced an at least partial anesthesia, putting patients to sleep by holding to their noses sponges soaked in opiates, mandragora, and the drowsy syrups of the East. Plastic surgery was performed in the fifteenth century; noses, lips, and ears were build up by skin grafts. Trusses were common, and esophagus tubes were used for artificial feedings.

Physicians, who were learned scholars, felt themselves to be a cut above the surgeons, who were manual workers. Since the surgeons were all too few to meet human needs, most of the operations fell into the hands of barber-surgeons. It took the surgeons centuries to break their association with barbering. Even in eighteenth-century Germany an army surgeon had to shave the higher officers.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Had brunch at Melt, home of one of the best burgers I've had.
  • Went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where the trees are starting to leaf and bloom. Took some pictures. Looking forward to going back next weekend, when spring hopefully will have hit its stride.
  • Had dinner from Oshima.
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 11: City Life
In the early centuries the houses had considerable yard and garden space in the rear, enough for maintaining a cow and a few pigs. But as the cities grew within their constricting walls, this open space was much encroached upon. The houses lacked air, light, and confort moderne; but people had little taste for privacy. They lived most of their lives on the streets, noisy indeed by day with pounding hammers, screaming saws, clattering wooden shoes, street cries of vendors of goods and services, and the hand bells of pietists summoning all to pray for the souls of the dead.

But at night reigned a blessed silence, broken only by the watchman rattling is iron-shod staff and crying, "All's well!" Nightwalking was prohibited after curfew, at about nine o'clock, as presumptive of ill-doing. There were, of course, no street lights or illuminated shop fronts.

Men met in taverns; women had their social hour when they fetched water from the public fountains, which, as in Perugia, could be the city's pride. All progressive cities had a municipal water system, but it was advisable not to drink the water straight. City water fed public bathhouses, which included sweat baths.

Efforts toward municipal hygiene could not prevail against old custom, which ruled that the street before a man's house was part of his domain. (A relic of this custom is the sidewalk café , which in Mediterranean lands may expand halfway across the road.) The medieval streets were unquestionably foul. Butchers slaughtered animals at their shop front and let the blood run into the gutters. Poulterers flung chicken heads and feathers into the streets. Dyers released noisome waters from their vats. City officials in Italy would throw the fishmonger's unsold fish into the street for the poor, to make sure it would not sicken honest purchasers. Pigs ran free as scavengers, and in London "genteel dogs," though not commoners' dogs, were allowed to roam at will. Flies settled down in clouds to their banquets, but few, besides Petrarch, complained. The walker, perhaps with a perfumed handkerchief to his nose, picked his way carefully, dodging the black mud thrown up by the squash of horses' hooves. And there was always a menace from overhead. Louis IX of France, Saint Louis, received the contents of a dumped chamber pot on his royal cloak. He dismounted and ran to the culprit's lair, finding him to be a student who had risen early to study. The king gave him a scholarship. (The king, of course, was a saint.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Worked from 9:45 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. Read more cases and pleadings to familiarize myself with the case I'll be working on.
  • Had dinner from Santa Fe Grill, a good Southwestern/Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood.
Recommended Links
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 10: The Flagellants
Wandering friars were not the only religious enthusiasts seen traveling the highways. Long processions of flagellants were also a common sight. Self-flagellation with a whip, or discipline, to subdue the rebellious flesh was an old practice of monks and anchorites. In the thirteenth century public flagellation became a mania. Whole communities, both men and women, would set off on month-long tours, parading half-naked through the towns, lashing their own and one another's backs. Their private penitence seemed to demand public display and applause. Says the Franciscan Salimbene: "All men, both small and great, noble knights and men of the people, scourged themselves naked in procession through the cities, with the bishops and men of religion at their head. . . . Men confessed their sins so earnestly that the priests had scarce leisure to eat. . . . If any would not scourge himself he was held worse than the Devil, and all pointed their fingers at him as a notorious man and limb of Satan; and what is more, within a short time he would fall into some mishap, either death or grievous sickness." In the following century the terrors of the Black Death inspired a revival of the flagellants' activities. They adopted a uniform, a long white gown and blue cloak, and a faith of their own: flagellation replaced penance; the Eucharist was held unnecessary, as was the mediation of priests between men and God. Such heretical beliefs brought the church's condemnation upon the flagellants.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Worked from 9:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Had a little more training, then started reading background materials on the case I'm going to be working on.
  • From now on I'll only share recommended links when I've come across something really worthwhile that day; no point in pushing filler.
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 9: The Downsides Of Monasticism
Lack of exercise, a starchy diet, and abundance of ale and beer induced corpulence and invited coronaries. To purge noxious humors and also to diminish lust, the monks were bled five or six times a year. This was a happy time. The men spent several days in the infirmary relieved of all duties, sleeping, and eating meat. At this time, one monastic chronicler reports, "the cloister monks are wont to reveal the secrets of their hearts." Many monasteries possessed country retreats or rest hostels, where the religious were allowed to take decorous walks, though they were forbidden to hunt or vault hedges.

The professional disease of the cloistered monk is accidia, a spiritual sluggishness that may turn to black bordeom, to melancholia. In hours set for meditation, and particularly after a heavy noontide meal, the hearty monk is assailed by the devil, the Midday Demon. He questions whether he has done well to renounce the world and its delightful temptations. To fight accidia the monk might seize and opportunity to go on a monastic errand or a pilgrimage, or to spend a term at a university. Some never returned; they became wandering beggars, gyrovagues, and some, like Friar Tuck, joined brigand bands. Within the walls the monks were more likely to burn with petty jealousies: one envious brother at the monastery of St. Gall cut to pieces with his penknife a rival's beautiful manuscript; others, maddened by the devil's wiles, hanged or crucified themselves.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • First day on the new job. Worked from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Just had orientation and training. Going well so far!
  • I've decided to cut back to 2 recommended links a day. I don't do as much online reading as I used to (I'm trying to devote more time to good old books), and there's no point in scraping the barrel. Besides, 14 items a week is still plenty.
2 Recommended Links
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 8: The Monastic Diet
Normally the monks had but one meal a day, though a light supper was permitted in summer, and the English always demanded a breakfast of bread with ale or wine. Dinner in the less austere orders was usually substantial. In England it consisted of bread , cheese and egg dishes, beans, vegetables, cereals, and fish for both fasting and feasting. Oysters were a fast-day staple. They were no luxury; Chaucer speaks of something as being "nat worth an oistre." Poultry was classified as a fast food of aquatic origin since at the Creation "the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind."

Many monasteries failed to adhere to this limited diet, however. The scholar Giraldus Cambrensis, visiting the monks of Canterbury in 1179, was offended by the great amount of food that was served them -- sixteen dishes, tricked out with stimulating sauces and accompanied by beer, ale, claret, new wine, mead, and mulberry wine. He sneered at the monks of St. Swithin's, Winchester, who groveled in the mud before King Henry II because their bishop had suppressed three of their customary thirteen dishes. The king replied that in his court he was content with three, and so should the monks be. The Benedictine Rule forbade the consumption of meat, except by the sick. However, the prohibition was gradually relaxed by various devices. Sometimes half the monastery would report sick and enjoy special meat dinners in the infirmary. Gluttony was the darling vice of the monasteries, and why not, indeed? They came ravening to table after a twenty-four-hour fast.

At dinner a lector read edifying selections from the lives of the saints or from other devotional books, though the monks' attention might be otherwhere. The brothers, forbidden to speak at meals, developed an elaborate sign language. At least a hundred signals have been recorded. Giraldus Cambrensis, at the Canterbury dinner just described, thought he was watching a stage play, with all the gesticulations and whistling that went on. Another scholar reports that when the monks were forbidden to communicate with their hands, they talked with their feet.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Worked from 10:45 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
  • Added category labels to my blog posts, which appear at the bottom of any post that's a member of a category, and also below the Blog Archive on the right. Clicking on a category pulls up all the posts within that category.
3 Recommended Links
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 7: Priests And Churches
Visitations by higher authority were infrequent, and the isolated parish priests could do about as they pleased. Often they contended themselves with saying mass, leading the singing, pronouncing exorcisms and cursings, and announcing news bulletins, lists of strayed sheep, or the penalties imposed by the manor court. . . . The church's appeal to marvels and miracles encouraged the countryfolk's tendency toward superstition. The peasants might treat the sacred host as a charm: one peasant even crumbled it on his cabbages to keep off caterpillars.

People treated their church very familiarly, wandering in and out, talking and joking as if at market, or popping in to seal a solemn bargain. Since the edifice was usually the village's only capacious hall, it was used for town meetings, elections, and court sessions, and even for such useful purposes as the storage of surplus hay. Many young men attended services only to ogle the girls. It was in church that Petrarch fell in love with his Laura.

The churchyard was sometimes the scene of noisy celebrations, such as vintage festivals. These were the descendants of ancient pagan revels, and the ancestors of our socials, bazaars, and Sunday-school picnics. In England church-ales or scot-ales, parties in which every participant paid his scot, or assessment, were held as benefits. The taverns were closed, and booths were set up in the cemetery for the sale of bread and ale. The church-ales were likely to end in unseemly brawls.

In the early Middle Ages the parish priests were generally married men. Church authorities carried on an endless battle to enforce celibacy for two main reasons -- spiritual and practical. The spiritual reason was that the priest, by renouncing normal life and hope of posterity, gave secure evidence of total devotion to the church's unworldly ideal. He became a little more than human. The practical reason was that the celibate priest had no duty other than that of his priesthood. In effect, he married the church and gave all his fatherly love to his charges.


The papacy fought fiercely against clerical marriage. Priests' wives were reduced to the status of concubines, and by the end of the thirteenth century, even clerical concubines were rarely seen in western Europe. Sexual misdemeanors among the clergy were not thereby eliminated, as a mass of evidence shows. Salimbene reported that a hundred times he had heard Italian priests cite as a text from Saint Paul the words: "Si non caste tamen caute (If you can't be good, be careful)."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Worked from 10:00 a.m. to 8:45 p.m.
3 Recommended Links
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 6: The Church Hierarchy
The ecclesiastical hierarchy became a class hierarchy. The bishops and high prelates generally came from the nobility; the parish priests, from the peasantry. Monks and friars were outside the class system, but in the early Middle Ages the abbots tended to be gentlemen, and the rank and file, commoners. The bishops were lords and must still be so addressed in England. They kept the pride of their noble background and their insistence on precedence. When a papal legate visited Westminster Abbey in 1176, the archbishop of Canterbury sat down in the seat of honor at his right. The rival archbishop of York, an old warrior, crowded into the same seat, "thrusting with the more uncomely quarters of his body so that he sat down upon the lap of his own Primate," says a chronicler. York elbowed Canterbury with his sword arm, but "was ignominiously seized by certain bishops, clerics, and laymen, and torn from the Archbishop's lap, and cast upon the floor."

There were good bishops and bad. Many were learned theologians, conscientious in the discharge of their tasks, compassionate, even saintly. Their job was an exacting one, combining spiritual obligations and diocesan administration with political, feudal, and judicial duties. Some were ignorant. A bishop of Durham, consecrated in 1316, was scarcely able to read. When during the consecration ceremony he reached, after many promptings, the word metropolitanus, he game up, gasping, "Let that be taken as read." Some were cynical self-seekers. A thirteenth-century bishop of Parma refused communion on his deathbed, saying he believed nothing of the Christian faith. Asked why he had accepted the bishopric, he replied, "Because of its riches and honors," and so died unabsolved. And some were frank scoundrels, like Bishop Matthew of Toul in France, who defied excommunication for eight years, murdered the ecclesiastic sent to replace him, stole the episcopal equipment and holy chrism, and built a castle from which he plundered his own diocese.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Worked from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
  • Had dinner at Ghenet, an excellent Ethiopian place in my neighborhood.
3 Recommended Links
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 5: Food
Medieval food implied a class distinction. The noble ate meat and white bread and drank wine; the peasant had porridge, turnips, dark bread, and in the north, beer or ale. In Germany there were actually codes of food for the different classes. Such distinctions are lost now that grand lady and proletarian push their carts in line at the supermarket, now that presidents serve weiners to heads of state. Still, pheasants, caviar, and champagne preserve some of the old aristocratic connotation.

Meat and fowl were served in great variety. All sorts of birds were eaten, from starlings to gulls, herons, storks, cormorants, and vultures. Animals were cut up and cooked immediately after killing, or they were salted for preservation. Pork was recommended as most resembling human flesh. Tender fowls and animals were roasted on spits, but most meat was boiled since rangy cattle, hard-running stags, and half-wild chickens were sure to be tough, rebuffing toothless elders. Pretentious party dishes were elaborate hashes in which the taste of a dozen strong spices dominated, especially pepper, mustard, and garlic. (The French crusaders in Constantinople revolted the natives by their garlic breath.)

The meat-and-pastry diet induced skin troubles, digestive disorders, infections from decomposed proteins, scurvy, tooth decay. (The common cure for toothache was extraction; hence the old had only rare, treasured teeth.) The Lenten prohibition of meat was an excellent therapeutic measure. Fish was substituted; castles and monasteries had their own fishponds, in which villeins were forbidden to dip. Every kind of fish was eaten; dogfish, porpoises, seals, and whale were imported from the salt sea.

Most of our vegetables, except potatoes, tomatoes, and Indian corn, were known, but they were scorned as commoners' foods. Lentils and cucumbers were regarded as unwholesome. Our fruits were familiar, though they were smaller, wilder, and perhaps more flavorsome than they are today. Medical opinion counseled against eating them raw. They were often preserved in honey and cooked in pastry. Such desserts were costly because of the shortage of sweetening. But sugar was imported as a luxury from the twelfth century on. People delighted in rosy and violet-colored sugars from Alexandria and appreciated cakes, wafers, cookies, waffles, and jellies.

Much attention was given to the appearance of dishes. An artistic chef liked to serve a peacock fully feathered, with its tail spread. Or a swan with a silvered body and gilt beak, swimming on a green pastry pond. Or a pasty, which, on being cut, released bewildered little birds; upon these nobles' falcons plunged. Or a sculpture of paste, jelly, and sugar, called a subtlety. Or some such novelty as a cockatrice, the head and forequarters of a piglet sewed to the body of a capon or vice versa. A great party given for the pope by two cardinals in 1308 was graced with a pastry castle containing a roasted stag, two edible trees bearing fruits and candies, a fountain spurting five kinds of wine. A new archbishop of Canterbury in 1443 enjoyed a subtlety representing the Trinity with Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas à Becket.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Worked from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
  • Ordered dinner from Oshima, my favorite neighborhood sushi source.
3 Recommended Links
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 4: The Health And Domestic Life Of The Nobility
[Noble] life was precarious and had to be lived fast and hard. To balance the high incidence of infant mortality, women had to marry when barely nubile and bear three times as many children as they do today. The genetic effects of mating of twelve-year-olds can only be guessed at. Polluted water, tainted foods, the rheumatic, pneumonic damp of stone-walled rooms, mistreatment of wounds, epidemics of typhoid, dysentery, smallpox, influenza, and the plague took a heavy toll. The nobles consumed too much meat and alcohol, and in the winter no vitamin C, for lack of which, says Aldous Huxley, they were subject to visions, holy or diabolical.


The newly married couple lived in a crowded turmoil that would offend a present-day recipient of relief. Few nobles possessed more than two or three rooms, and these swarmed with family and retainers. Even the English king was known to hold royal court in his bedroom, with his queen sitting on the bed for lack of other retreat. All ate together in the hall. Waifs lived under the stairs, and at dinner stood in "beggars' row," disputing their pittance with the dogs. Children slept with their parents or with the servants on the floor of the hall. Privacy is one of the greatest of modern inventions.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Did my jury duty from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The waiting room was surprisingly spacious and comfortable, and it's where I spent the entirety of my time; I didn't even get called for voir dire. Fortunately, due to New York's recent efforts to increase the size of the jury pool, I won't have to do jury duty again for at least another eight years.
  • Took an unintentional, but not unwelcome, nap from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
3 Recommended Links
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 3: The Horrible Fourth Crusade
In 1198 the great Innocent III acceded to the papacy and promoted another expedition, the lamentable fourth crusade. Its agent made a contract with the Venetians for the transport to the Holy Land of about 30,000 men and 4,500 horses. However, by embarkation day the expeditionaries had raised only about half the passage money. The Venetians, always businessmen, offered the crusaders an arrangement: if they would capture for Venice the rival commercial city of Zara in Dalmatia, which the Venetians described as a nest of pirates, they would be transported at a cheaper rate. Zara was efficiently taken, to the horror of Pope Innocent, for Zara was a Catholic city, and its Hungarian overlord was a vassal of the Apostolic See. Now that the precedent of a crusade against Christians was set, the leaders, at Venetian urging, espoused the cause of a deposed, imprisoned, blinded Byzantine emperor, Isaac Angelus. By restoring him to the throne they would right a great wrong, return the East to communion with the Roman church, and receive from their Byzantine protégé men and money for a later conquest of Egypt. The pope was persuaded to look on the project with favor, and the ships of the fourth crusade set sail for Constantinople.

The noble city was taken by storm on April 12, 1204. The three-day spree that followed is memorable in the history of looting. The French and Flemish crusaders, drunk with powerful Greek wines, destroyed more than they carried off. They did no spare monasteries, churches, libraries. In Santa Sophia they drank from the altar vessels while a prostitute sat on the patriarch's throne and sang ribald French soldiers' songs. The emperor, widely regarded as a wicked usurper, was taken to the top of a high marble column and pushed off, "because it was fitting that such a signal act of justice should be seen by everyone."

Then the real booty, the Eastern Empire, was divided. Venice somehow received all the best morsels: certain islands of the Aegean and seaports on the Greek and Asian mainlands. The Franks became dukes and princes of wide lands in Greece and in Macedonia, where one still sees the massive stumps of their castles. The papal legate accompanying the troops absolved all who had taken the cross from continuing on to the Holy Land to fulfill their vows. The fourth crusade brought no succor to Christian Palestine. On the contrary, a good many knights left the Holy Land for Constantinople, to share in the distribution of land and honors.

"There was never a greater crime against humanity than the fourth crusade," says Stephen Runciman. It destroyed the treasures of the past and broke down the most advanced culture of Europe. Far from uniting Eastern and Western Christendom, it implanted in the Greeks a hostility toward the West that has never entirely disappeared, and it weakened the Byzantine defenses against the rising power of the Ottoman Turks, to whom they eventually succumbed.