Beginnings of Written Genealogy

Accounts of ancestors’ deeds naturally struck home in men who lived where they had lived; who were their descendants or their descendants’ companions, and believed that when they rode, talked, prayed, or made love, their first duty was to follow the example of the valiant forebears who had once gathered together for pleasure and glory in the same surroundings. More than any other kind of narrative, family history kept alive in the lord’s entourage the desire not to degenerate, not to let those ancient virtues, borne in the blood of old and young alike, lapse.

In the second half of the twelfth century, when chivalric culture ceased to be entirely oral and practical [as distinct from literary, abstract, intellectual], ancestral history, like the chansons and the stories, was consigned to writing. The task of setting it down was always given to a technician, a churchman who was either a member of the family concerned or attached to it as a domestic chaplain or a canon of one of the collegiate churches that adjoined every chateau of any importance in northern France. This specialist was expected to put the remembered past into a grandiose and monumental form, which is why all the texts of this kind that have survived from up to the beginning of the thirteenth century are in Latin, the language of learning and of solemn ceremonies, such as funerals, and very pompous in stye, adorned with all the devices of rhetoric.

In the course of transcription, memory was not only made more definite and more ornate; it was also given added scope and depth. The writer based his text’s structure on the genealogical trees drawn up for use as evidence in ecclesiastical courts when someone wanted to dissolve a marriage on the grounds of consanguinity, and this initial framework meant that the narrative had to follow a similar pattern. In every generation we see the main thrust of the story carried forward through some lawful and prolific marriage pact: X begets Y upon Z, his wife. But the author could go back beyond the personal memories revived in the context of divorce procedures; he was able to supplement what he had seen and heard himself or learned from older men with what he read in old books and archives. Following much the same method as I am now using, he would go through ancient records in search of traces otherwise lost, and then seek to please his kinsmen and masters by working back to the origins of the family and its founding ancestor.

To play his part fully he had to remodel memory, which he was all the more at liberty to do because it was so vague. In the case of the most distant forebears, who could be traced only through a tomb, an epitaph, or a mention in some cartulary, he was quite free to attribute to them the sort of behavior his own contemporaries regarded as exemplary; to project onto these dim ghosts all the marvelous qualities prized by family ideology. This ideology also left its mark on accounts of more clearly remembered family members, for the patron who had commissioned the history wanted his father and grandfather to receive special treatment — as well as to see himself represented in a flattering light.

So compositions concerned with genealogy constitute our most useful source, not for what they tell us about what had happened in the past but for what they tell us about what was then the present, and the self-image of the great families of the period.

— Georges Duby, The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest: The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France, translated by Barbara Bray, pp. 228-229.

Autumn Crocus

On 29 October this year I planted 10 “fall white crocus” bulbs (Crocus zonatus Albus) next to the front walk. The bulbs already had shoots, but I was planting them a bit late and thought we wouldn’t see anything above ground until next autumn. I was mistaken.

One week after I planted the bulbs I was surprised to see a charming white flower poking through the fallen leaves.

Fall white crocus

Fall white crocus

Since then the rest of the bulbs have also pushed through into the sunlight. Today there are five fresh flowers visible while the white petals of those that have finished blooming are wilting onto the ground.

More crocuses

More crocuses

I think these are going to make a wonderful autumn display for years to come. Maybe we should get some more.

Natural History — The Beaver

From a Twelfth-Century description of the land of the Rūs:

The beaver is a wonderful animal. It lives in the great rivers and builds houses on land, at the edge of the water. It makes a kind of high platform for itself and to the right another, less high, for its wife and to the left another, for its children. Below, there is a place for its slaves. The house has a door which gives on to the river and another, higher up, on to the land. Sometimes, it eats the wood known as khalanj; at other times it eats fish. Some beavers are jealous of others, and make them prisoners.

Those who trade in those lands and through the country of Bulghār have no trouble in distinguishing the fur of slave beavers from those of the masters. This is because the slave beaver cuts the wood of the khalanj and other trees with its teeth, and as it gnaws them, they rub its sides and its hair falls off right and left. Hence they say, ‘This pelt is from the servant of the beaver.’ The fur of the beaver who owns slaves, on the other hand, is perfect.

— Abū Hāmid al-Andalusī al-Gharnātī, The Travels of Abū Hāmid al-Andalusī al-Gharnātī, 1130-1155, translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone

The Sun’s Purpose?

“Monsieur,” I answered, “most men judge only by their senses and let themselves be persuaded by what they see. Just as the man whose boat sails from shore to shore thinks he is stationary and that the shore moves, men turn with the earth under the sky and have believed that the sky was turning above them. On top of that, insufferable vanity has convinced humans that nature has been made only for them, as though the sun, a huge body four hundred and thirty-four times as large as the earth, had been lit only to ripen our crab apples and cabbages.

“I am not one to give in to the insolence of those brutes. I think the planets are worlds revolving around the sun and that the fixed stars are also suns that have planets revolving around them. We can’t see those worlds from here because they are so small and because the light they reflect cannot reach us. How can one honestly think that such spacious globes are only large, deserted fields? And that our world was made to lord it over all of them just because a dozen or so vain wretches like us happen to be crawling around on it? Do people really think that because the sun gives us light every day and year, it was made only to keep us from bumping into walls? No, no, this visible God gives light to man by accident, as a king’s torch accidentally shines upon a working man or burglar passing in the street.”

— Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, The Other World, or, The States and Empires of the Moon (1657)