1500 years ago a 12 year old girl near Basel, Switzerland was buried with hundreds of these beads and trinkets. They wouldn’t have had much value then, the area was formerly Roman and the economy still used lots of old Roman coins as currency as well as their own coinage, items like these were strictly for costume jewelry or sewn into garments. The girl probably just liked them and collected them. Basel is on the Rhine, the Danube was not far off, the Rhône only a bit further, and every summer Switzerland was alive with merchants, traders and tinkers who passed back and forth through the Swiss passes bearing all sorts of thinks to sell and swap. The amber would have come all the way from the eastern Baltic and brought to Basel by some network of rivers and trails. Things travelled far back then when wars and plagues didn’t interfere, which, alas, in those dark ages, happened far too often. But still, we can imagine her spreading these treasures out on a skin and picking out shiny pieces to peer through into the fire and see things we don’t see, ghosts and spirits and the souls of the deceased. Those were different times, and the Neolithic imagination wasn’t yet completely purged from the minds of the peoples who came west from the vast plains and mountains of central Asia to sweep away the Roman Empire. Shadows still played on walls and fires flickered with beings we can’t see all around us.

Roman numerals

It’s taken a millennium for Arabic numbers—actually Indo-Arabic numbers—to replace Roman numerals, which cling to use in the Anglo-American world, but just barely. Roman numerals we still call them, because numbers were numerals a century ago. But numerals became numbers since then, while Roman numerals remained numerals, stuck a century ago, when they still retained some of their long dead glory and were used everywhere, on buildings, in footnotes, on clock faces, in the years movies were released. They get harder for us to read each year, too, harder for us to convert them to Arabic numbers in our head. Thus do the vestiges of ancient civilizations disappear.

It was just the opposite when Arabic numbers began to seep into the west in the late Medieval. They confused people, those who could read and write anyway. (You didn’t need to be literate at all to use the rather extraordinary fingering computation method used in the Middle Ages, though it’s certainly beyond me.) They couldn’t quite get the hang of what seems so perfectly natural to us now. There were bastard forms, like MCCCC92, or M4C92, or 14XC92. Worse yet was the creepily mysterious zero, which made no sense at all to most Medieval Europeans—how can something represent nothing?—thus rendering 1390 as, say, X3C1C. Unlike the introduction of the alphabet, which rendered entire literatures written in cuneiform and hieroglyphics unreadable within a couple generations, the switch to Arabic numbers took many centuries. Incredibly it was well into the 19th century that you could find Roman numerals still in daily use throughout the Anglo-American world, which is why, I suppose you can still see them affixed to old buildings or in chapter headings or the fine print of movie credits from the first half of the twentieth century. People refusing to budge from the style guides they learned in college fifty years before. You can just imagine them outraged at kids using Arabic numbers instead of the Roman numerals that had been good enough for Cicero.

But those people retired and died, and Roman numerals began to disappear from just about everything by our time (including time itself, or clock faces anyway.) Just about. The NFL, if not quite reviving the the two thousand and some year old numbers system (with origins in Etruscan numbers several hundred years earlier), has over the last half century managed to put Roman numerals into the consciousness of a couple hundred million viewers every year. Indeed, were it not for the Super Bowl—the Super Bowl, ferchrissakes, that bastion of classicism—the god damned things might have been gone and forgotten by now, except in musty academic circles or on the occasional monument. But everyone can read Roman numerals now, at least up to two Arabic number figures, which I believe would be at maximum six Roman numbers, XXXIII. This year was what, Super Bowl LV? Or as a confused Medieval football fan might have written it, X5V. Go figure.

Converting Roman into Arabic numbers in 1582.

Citizen Khan

Watched Tartars last night. It’s one of those sword and sandals epics, 1961, with an all-Italian cast and crew and extras. Well, the director was American, or maybe English, and had actually done a classic or two, of which this was not one. I recorded it solely for the leads. Incredibly Italian looking Victor Mature was the Viking chief Giuseppe the Red, though the only thing Viking about him was, well, nothing actually. Surrounded by extras with wigs plucked from the reject pile in a broom factory, he struts around in moccasins and short shorts, giving commands. An’ I told you ya gotta…, gesturing frantically, wassamattayou? Well maybe not wassamattayou.

Here come the Tartars, aka the Mongols, who look just like the Vikings, oddly enough, but for the black wigs. Their citizen Khan is Orson Welles, yes that Orson Welles, squeezed so tight into Mongol armor he looks set to explode. He had make-up do him up so he does look creepily like, if not Genghis himself, then his son and successor Ogodei, who fat and merry and alcoholic as he was, conquered more of the world and killed more people than the Black Plague. You’ve never heard of him, though, because he died just as the Mongol armies were to about to reduce Western civilization to smoking ruins and pyramids of skulls, the way he’d left the Middle East, from which it never recovered. But the invasion was postponed until a new khan was chosen and by then the Mongols were more interested in China than Europe. Talk about luck.

Anyway, Orson Welles had himself made up to look remarkably like the portraits of Ogodei, and rendered his silly assed lines with terrifying enunciation and sneers of cold command and you realized that Orson Welles simply couldn’t act bad, no matter how lousy the movie. And this movie was lousy. Victor Mature throws himself into it too, and if all the rest of the cast had drowned in a tragic boating accident on whatever Yugoslavian river the Viking ships were floating on, it would have been a fun flick, just Orson and Victor Mature. Alas, two actors do not a historical epic make, and certainly not a sword and sandals action flick, so we get to see some feeble battle scenes and goofball catapult hi jinx, and unseen frantic steppe lust as well as an ugly off screen rape. Khans will be khans. The actresses all have those oddly blank and vaguely emotive expressions you see in European films back then and are impossible for an American to tell if it’s some sort of Bergmanesque understatement or just lousy acting. My guess is lousy acting. If only Europeans would smile. Sophia Loren smiled. Marcelo Mastroianni never smiled. Neither are in this movie however. But if Victor Mature could be a Viking, Sophia Loren would make a terrific Viking Queen. Marriage Norwegian Style.

I had completely lost track of the plot, if there was one, about a third of the way in, a manly Viking display by Victor Mature faded and suddenly we’re in Orson Khan’s stately pleasure dome watching one heck of a dance, hints of Bob Fosse, people leaping about swishing scary swords and culminating in a man and woman rolling across the floor in choreographed coital ecstasy. The dance ends in more leaping and sword swishing and the dancers freeze. Orson Khan glowers, his thoughts a menacing mystery. Rosebud indeed.

Then I switched it off.

(Originally posted on in 2019)

The Lion in Winter

[Just found this, a pretty rough first draft from a while back, but I’ll post it as is.]

A Lion In Winter would be a lot less Lion In Winter without all that beautiful English, which in all likelihood none of the characters personally could actually speak much of, if any. Rather all the soliloquies would have been intoned in a variety of the French languages at the time. Peter O’Toole’s Henry II in Norman (which was the language of the English royal court till Henry IV was raised speaking English a couple centuries later). Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine spoke Poitevin, and Anthony Hopkins’ Richard I in Occitan. I’ve no idea what form of French Geoffrey connived and young John sniveled in. Philip II, I assume, was speaking what eventually became standard French though doubtless he could make himself understood in a variety of the regional Frenches of the north, though perhaps Richard I’s Occitan would have been a stretch. I’m not sure what language mistress Alais did her sulking in, she was raised everywhere by everybody. Any of the above, I suppose, and as she’d been spent some of her childhood in England she probably picked up some English from the household help. In what tongue the various characters would have sniped, raged, conspired and hit on each other is anybody’s guess. Various of the Frenches, mostly, though Henry II and Eleanor both were fully conversant and literate in the Medieval Latin of the time (which is considerably closer to the Latin of the Catholic mass than the Latin of Caesar’s Commentaries), which would have been useful in front of the children. Qui auditunt quod stupri nocte?

Despite the characters enunciating some of the most glorious English you will ever hear on film—“he came down from the north with a mind like Ariistotle and a form like mortal sin; we shattered the Commandments on the spot”—it’s unlikely that any of the characters could utter more than a smattering of English. Enough on some rare trip across the Channel to order some peasants this way or that, or curse like in Beowulf, or say something filthy to a maid in the market. Otherwise the only character in the whole of the film that could actually be fluent in English would have been William Marshall, who spends the movie scurrying about obeying Peter O’Toole or arresting people. He’s the character you forget. O’Toole’s Henry II, though, is unforgettable. “I hope we never die!” he bellows at the close as only Peter O’Toole can bellow. “Do you think there’s a chance of it?” Alas, there wasn’t, he was gone soon enough, as was Eleanor. Indeed as was every man of royal blood in the story, beginning with Geoffrey, trampled to death at a jousting tournament. It’s William Marshall who came close to never dying, by medieval standards anyway, outliving Henry and his wife and sons by decades. He died in his bed at 72 and was buried with honor in London, the mass said in Latin, the eulogies in French, the throng of onlookers murmuring in English.

It would be two centuries before an English king could bellow at his wife and sons in the same language as Chaucer, another couple centuries till an English speaker could rage like Lawrence Olivier’s Richard II raged three centuries after that, and it’d be deep into the twentieth century before they could bellow like they bellowed in A Lion In Winter, a high medieval Francophone drama spoken in twentieth century English.

(Previously posted on



A buddy posted he just landed in Avignon, France. I commented:

Say hey to the Anti-Pope for me. Well, they don’t have anti-popes anymore. So say hey to the Anti-Pope impersonator. I read a book about Avignon in the days of the Anti-Popes, come to think of it. Swinging place. Wild. Like Hollywood in the twenties. When they call it the High Medieval period, they weren’t kidding.

Then it occurred to me I’d just done a stand up routine on 14th century papal schisms. Which would not go over in the Catskills. I’ll stick to jazz criticism. Not that the audience for that is much bigger. To think I could have been a doctor. No wait…my mom was Irish. She said be a writer.

(And yes, medieval scholars, I know it is antipope (antipapa). But antipope is too much like poloponies. So we’ll stick with the hyphen.)

Clement VII, or what was left of him after blasphemous French Revolutionaries got ahold of him. He eventually took up extortion and simony--selling parishes and bishoprics to the highest bidder--to maintain his anti-papal lifestyle. You do what you gotta do.

Clement VII, or what was left of him after blasphemous French Revolutionaries got ahold of him. He eventually took up extortion and simony–selling parishes and bishoprics to the highest bidder–to maintain his anti-papal lifestyle. Ya do what ya gotta do.



(Another essay I found in the drafts folder.)

Just saw another of those blog essays making the social media rounds that asserts that Christianity grew into a world religion because it killed its way to the top. It describes inquisitions and crusades and other bloody events. There’s no denying those. But the problem is that the author has the timeline wrong. Christianity spread without many inquisitions at all. Those came later when western civilization came close to being an afterthought in the medieval era (hammered as it was then by Islam, the Mongols, the Black Plague, poverty, endless warfare, backwardness, and low population growth). One of the reasons that Christianity spread like it did in Roman times was because the Middle East and Mediterranean world had already been leaning towards monotheism or ditheism anyway.  (Ditheism here means good vs. evil, basically, a god of good and a god of evil, and Christianity with its God vs. Satan shows just how closely related “monotheistic” and “ditheistic’ religions actually are.) The Good vs. Evil god (or two gods) was pretty much a Persian invention, and when Persia ruled the western world for several centuries their one god idea took root (including influencing early Judaism).  All the later western monotheisms came from it. Alexander the Great diffused it even more so by mixing Greek and Persian civilizations, giving Persian religious ideas access to areas throughout the Mediterranean world (and even into India) where they were unknown before. And then when Rome took over most of the Mediterranean, western Europe and Middle East, its own pre-Constantine religious tolerance protected monotheistic (and ditheistic) as well as polytheistic religions. In fact, monotheism/ditheism was particularly popular within the Roman military, and where there were legions, there was variations of both, especially the Persian form known as Mithraism (related to Zoroastrianism).  Christianity’s primary competition in ancient Rome was Mithraism…which was Persian religion. Other competitors included Manichaeism, Gnostic religions like Bogomilism and Mandeism (which still exists), even Judaism. To this day there are tiny remnants of other ancient religions in Iran and Iraq (including Zoroastrianism, the original Persian imperial religion, and Yazidism, a syncretic blend of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian monotheism with ancient Mesopotamian polytheist traditions and Sufism and currently under threat by ISIS), all of them monotheistic or ditheistic but neither Christian nor Moslem. Each is a fragment of the incredibly rich patchwork of religions in the ancient Middle East, any of which could have been big as Christianity or Islam had history run a different course. Christianity just won out by luck. The inevitability we see in its rise to dominance now is merely the innate tendency to see the course of history as inevitable. But it never is.

Christianity also spread the way Mormonism is doing so now–it provided a welfare state within a state that Rome did not supply. It took care of its own. It also developed a solid literary tradition, more so than most of its competitors (though Manichaeism matched it in output there.) And maybe most importantly, it patterned it structure on the Roman political system itself (a Catholic mass is like a Roman imperial time capsule) so that as Roman power weakened the Church was able to take its place in an almost identical form. Clever. Indeed, one of the reasons the pagan Roman government began to crack down on Christianity was because of its alternative power structure…a state within a state is always a threat. When Rome turned officially Christian, the state church began appropriating pagan sites, facilities and rites. It was easy to do because Christianity in Roman times was already a Roman political structure. As the pagan power structure disappeared the Christian power structure replaced it seamlessly…very little change in daily life happened. Taxes were collected the same, rituals performed in the same places, attire was even the same. Christians didn’t take over by force but by assimilation. The Roman empire (a republic ruling an empire at the time) that fought Hannibal in the third century BC was the same country that fell when the Turks finally took Constantinople in 1453. The Byzantine Empire certainly saw itself as Roman, up till the very end. That’s because the split between pagans and Christians that we see now as a great dividing line was not so visible to the Romans themselves. To them it was the same place with a new religion…but still, the same place.

As for the crusades…remember that those were very bloody (and mostly very unsuccessful) attempts to reclaim lands and peoples lost to Christianity. The Moslem conquest took most of the Christian world away. All that remained were the underpopulated areas of Europe–and even some of that was lost. People don’t realize that Christianity was, until the 8th century, overwhelmingly an Asian religion. Europe represented perhaps a third of it. Then Islam spread like wildfire, in large part because it was spread by conquest and the conquered were generally given the choice of convert or die. Or at least convert or pay a nasty infidel tax. So people converted, and Christianity virtually disappeared east and south of the Mediterranean. Not entirely, and there remained large and influential minorities (such as the Copts in Egypt and Greeks in Asian Minor), and Armenia and Georgia remained Christian (as did Ethiopia) but what Islam gained in its first couple centuries at Christianity’s expense they still mostly hold today. Only Iberia, southern France, southern Italy, and Sicily were lost again to Islam. (A later expansion of Islam into the Balkan peninsula, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, under the Ottoman Turks, was almost completely reversed. Apparently the conversions didn’t have the same vigor as those made when Islam was new. Still, the Bosnian massacres in the 1990’s were a glimpse of how competing monotheisms had once routinely spread the Word.)

You will be hard pressed to find a major religion that has not been murderous, even genocidal, in its history. That even includes Buddhism, believe it or not. (Tibet in particular was a land of Buddhist warriors who raided Chinese domains mercilessly for centuries). And though I’m an atheist, always have been, it’s important to remember that atheism killed more people in sheer numbers than any religion ever did. The numbers of people killed by communist regimes in the 20th century is astonishing. Atheist revolutions–going back to Revolutionary France, have nearly always involved large scale state-ordered massacres, killings, genocide, repression, state controlled famine and murder. It’s a ghastly record. It’s hard to find anything in history more murderous than the fanatically atheist Khmer Rouge. But then communist regimes have an advantage of technology that earlier conquerors would have given their eternal souls for. It became vastly easier to kill enormous numbers of people in the twentieth century. Give medieval crusaders or Mohammed’s legions automatic weapons and they would have piled up the dead just as impressively as anything Mao or Stalin ever did. Indeed, you can think of Himmler’s demented SS quasi-pagan religion (we’ll never know what that would have developed into) as something right out of Roman times armed with state of the art 20th century weaponry and logistics. There was nothing new about the Holocaust–there had been ethnic cleansing for thousands of years–except that it was carried out with all the organizational skill that modern civilization offered. The Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century, where the French crown and the Church annihilated the dualist Cathars in a particularly brutal genocide could have been done in a fraction of the time by the Nazis.

The problem isn’t Christianity, or religion, or lack of religion, the problem is Homo sapiens. We find it very easy to kill when situations become unstable. Chimpanzees (but not bonobos) are the same. It’s not god or no god. It’s just that some of the great apes are prone to extreme violence. And Homo sapiens are one of those great apes. But we are killing each other at a much slower rate anymore–homicide is far less frequent than it was in Roman times, and is far less frequent than it was in the early 20th century, when people slaughtered each other at an astonishing rate. But it’s hard to tell if we are becoming less homicidal, or if our impulses are just in a lull, waiting.

Drawn and quartered

(July, 2013)

News item:

Soccer fanaticism in Brazil reached dangerously high levels when a mob attacked and murdered a referee following an argument with a player. Their argument turned into a fist fight and the referee fatally stabbed the player with a knife he had been carrying throughout the match. The spectators then rushed onto the field and proceeded to tie up, beat, and stone the referee to death, after which they quartered his body and put the severed head on a stake and stuck it in the middle of the field.

A suspect has been arrested. 

Medieval English kings didn’t mess around. You messed with them, they made a mess out of you. High treason wasn’t something let off lightly. The drawing and quartering began with the guilty part trussed up, tied to a board and dragged by a horse through the streets to the place of execution. Sometimes a priest followed, chastising, or a crowd would join in with stones and whips. Once at the gallows the traitor would be hanged till not quite dead, then revived. His genitalia would be lopped off and the entrails removed slowly through an incision in the gut, after which they were burned so he could watch. Then the victim was beheaded, and his heart cut out and also burned. The quartering was an anticlimactic chopping the headless corpse into four pieces, The pieces and the head were then parboiled, put on stakes and displayed in various places around the city as proof that treason does not pay. That would have been the birds’ favorite part. The people were most fond of the disemboweling, apparently, as that is when the victim would howl most vividly.

This didn’t happen often. High treason was a relative rarity, and even when it did, the guilty were often spared the supreme penalty. Simple beheadings were a sign of royal favor. The king liked you, even if you tried to kill him. You had to be some kind of real bastard to be drawn and quartered.

Even then, however, the full sentence could not always be carried out. As often as not, the crowd was cheated when the victim died before decapitation. I think Guy Fawkes managed to leap from the gallows and break his neck. Some one else managed to spit in the Royal Disemboweler’s face who then decapitated him in a fit of piqué. You can imagine the crowd’s disappointment.

Drawing and quartering was not purely part of the English legal tradition. In fact, I imagine a survey of legal systems all over the world would find examples, both judicial and extra-judicial. I know that as far back as twenty-three centuries ago the Chinese meted it out to especially deserving characters. Being practical, the Chinese would dispense with the preliminaries and go straight to the quartering. The limbs were each attached to a chariot or ox cart. I imagine the latter was slower. This is how my hero, Lao Ai, met his end. He was sundered into four parts in one messy moment, and then his grandparents, parents, uncles (and their spouses), siblings (and their spouses), grandchildren and children were all executed by some means or another. Zu zhu, they called it, “family execution”. We know of it as the nine familial exterminations, or execution to the ninth degree. Basically the idea being to annihilate the guilty party’s entire extended family. The fact that his blood aunts were excused is a fluke of Chinese patrilineal kinship. When a woman married she becomes a member of her husband’s family. Which came in handy when a no good nephew managed to get himself convicted of high treason.

Had the ancient Chinese been hip to mitochondrial DNA the aunts would never have been passed up. No matter how thorough your zu zhu, wiping out scores of people for the behavior of one rotten apple, some of that apple’s genes were carried on through those aunts. The family survived, genetically anyway, and the joke was on the emperor. Perhaps some of Lao Ai’s characteristics are hanging about even today.

Actually the simple dismemberment by quarters was refined by one legendary reformer in the third century B.C. He codified into law a five pointed judicial dismemberment that had a horse (or ox) for each limb, plus one for the head. It was so effective it was used on him when  he ran afoul of the bureaucracy and the emperor had him executed. His family was done away with as well, out to the ninth degree. If his mother had any sisters, though, some genes slipped by unnoticed. Who knows what they developed into later. Maybe another troublemaker. We can only hope.

In medieval England, however, there was no such extended familycide coded into law. It might have happened on occasion, but to ninth degree? Unlikely. I can’t see how it would have been managed. Unlike China, where the offspring tended to stay near the family village, in England primogeniture meant that the younger sons had to go far afield to make their fortune. Some might try looting some foreign land, but most would marry daughters who could cough up a hefty dowry. A crazy quilt of family relationships resulted, the nobility all related to each other somehow. Try executing someone to the ninth degree and you could have half of Europe wanting revenge. Best to just draw and quarter the traitor and leave the extended family out of it.

But then our poor Brazilian referee wasn’t somebody, he was just another nobody. Just some kid with a knife refereeing a futbol game. He orders some guy off the field for some egregious foul, the guy says he ain’t going. An argument ensues, then a tussle, out comes the knife, down goes the player. The knife victim’s family and friends pour onto the field, grab the referee, and apparently tie him to a stake, stone him to death, machete and chop off his limbs, then his head, which they mount on the stake as a triumph, I imagine, and a warning to others with knives and perhaps to referees in general. Barbaric but effective. On the other hand, they forfeited the game. Xangô can be cruel, but just.