Tuesday 9 July 2024

Video: Dark Ballad of a Warrior on Hurdy-Gurdy

I've found that some medieval instruments can be rather... shrill. So it's with real delight that I discovered the hurdy-gurdy, which when played well - as here - is a true joy to listen to.

This video is by Andrey Vinogradov. He's got a good number of videos on his channel if you like what you hear.

Tuesday 2 July 2024

Book Review: Chronicle of the Czechs by Cosmas of Prague

Translated by: Lisa Wolverton

This is meant to be a history of the Czech people, from its origins (via legend about the land’s native inhabitants, the Lucane) until Cosmas’s death. It’s broken up into 3 ‘books’. The first deals with the “deeds of antiquity”, that is, information Cosmas got from outside sources to tell of events he wasn’t alive for. Book 2 begins with the reign of Duke Bretislav in 1038 and ends with the crowning of Duke Bretislav the Younger in 1092. The last book goes until the death of Cosmas in 1125, and tells more detailed stories of deception as brothers and cousins fight for the Dukedom. It also mentions several notable weather events (eclipses, floods, heavy snows, etc).

It’s an interesting chronicle, especially after reading the introduction and with the explanatory notes. There were times when I thought it was a really interesting piece of history only to learn that the author inserted a story from a Chronicle of earlier times, simply changing the names to fit the current protagonists. That is, a decent amount of the 1st book is made up or recycled stories rather than an attempt to tell legitimate history as we understand the term. There were also sections that got confusing, so if you’re not paying close attention you can get very lost regarding who’s who and what people are fighting over.

The entries vary from being dry and frankly boring to being lively and interesting. It also goes from in depth stories with dialogue and description to a single line saying someone previously unmentioned has died.

For the most part the page notes were very helpful. There were times when I wanted more information from them. They generally gave clarifying information (this is king ‘x’ of country, who lived date to date) or give a citation of what text Cosmas is quoting. Sometimes the text mentioned interesting side information that I wanted to know more about. A few times I looked up people mentioned to learn more about them, like Matilda of Tuscany.

Cosmas’s view of heroic and villainous is often not what I would have expected for a cleric. He praises the goodness of one man who abducts a noblewoman from a convent and marries her. He has a real disregard for the land’s original inhabitants and the Poles, who come up a lot. Sometimes he calls men using deception to gain power wolves among sheep. Other people who do similar things get praised for being clever. There are a few anti-semitic passages.

It’s always interesting to see what people in the middle ages thought worth preserving in terms of history - especially when it comes to nation building. While this won’t be for everyone, it’s great to have such resources translated into English to learn more about the history of the Czech region.

Thursday 27 June 2024

Shout-Out: Foul Days by Genoveva Dimova

The Witcher meets Naomi Novik in this fast-paced fantasy rooted in Slavic folklore, from an assured new voice in genre fiction

As a witch in the walled city of Chernograd, Kosara has plenty of practice taming rusalkas, fighting kikimoras, and brewing lycanthrope repellent. There’s only one monster Kosara can’t defeat: her ex the Zmey, known as the Tsar of Monsters. She’s defied him one too many times, and now he’s hunting her. Betrayed to him by someone close to her, Kosara’s only hope is to trade her shadow—the source of her powers—for illegal passage across the Wall to Belograd, where monsters can’t follow.

Life in Belograd should be sweet, but Kosara soon develops a fast-acting version of the deadly wasting sickness that stalks shadowless witches—and only reclaiming her magic can cure her. To trace her shadow, she’ll have to team up with the suspiciously honorable detective investigating the death of the smuggler who brought her across the Wall.

Even worse than working with the cops is that all the clues point in a single direction: one of the Zmey’s monsters has found a crack in the Wall, and Kosara’s magic is now in the Zmey’s hands.

The clock is ticking, the hunt is on, and Kosara’s priorities should be clear—but is she the hunter or the hunted? And in a city where everyone is out for themselves, who can Kosara trust to assist her in outwitting the man—the Monster—she’s never been able to escape alone?

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Movie Review: Boss Level

Directed by Joe Carnahan
IMDb listing

A washed up former special ops agent must figure out why he keeps reliving the same day over again, pursued by a group of assassins.

This is an enjoyable action movie. Don’t think about the plot too hard, just watch the bullets fly.

The special effects are very well done and the acting good. There are some great stunts. There are even a few laughs (especially with Guan Yin, the swordswoman).

Personally, I enjoy ‘repeat day’ stories. It’s still nice to see new twists on the old formula, and this movie has a few.

If you’re looking for a fun time waster, give this a try.


Tuesday 11 June 2024

Book Review: Eloquent Bodies: Movement, Expression, and the Human Figure in Gothic Sculpture by Jacqueline Jung

The book has 6 chapters in addition to its introduction and conclusion:
1 Encountering the Gothic Sculpture: Mimesis, Kinetics, Haptic Engagement
2 Moving Bodies, Dynamic Perception: The Slowscapes of the Strasbourg South Transept Portal
3 Movement, Media & the Quest for Salvation: A Pillar for Thinking in the Strasbourg South Transept
4 From Motion to Emotion: Encounters with the Wise and Foolish Virgins
5 The Donor Figures of Naumburg Cathedral, Part I: Presence
6 The Donor Figures of Naumburg Cathedral, Part II: Meaning

This is a very focused discussion on sculpture in the round, specifically as used in the cathedrals in Strasbourg and Naumburg. The author does branch out to show other examples demonstrating the historical progression of the Wise & Foolish Virgin sculptures in the former Holy Roman Empire’s lands.

It’s wonderful to see a book that emphasizes the dimensionality of sculpture. Books on gothic sculpture often only show a single image from a single viewpoint (in fact, you’ll often see basically the same image/viewpoint of a particular sculpture in all books). The author’s done an excellent job of photographing the examples in the round, from various angles, showing how standing in different spots to view the sculpture changes what you see and sometimes even the meaning of the piece (the South transept tympanum at Strasbourg are a great example of this, with characters coming in and out of view as you move to the opposite sides).

The author is meticulous in her descriptions of the sculptures: their facial expressions, hand gestures, clothing. I was impressed with the level of detail. For example, Uta of Ballenstedt’s statue in Naumburg is wearing a crown with a hinge, indicating that it was meant to fold.

Chapter 6 didn’t interest me as much as the others. It’s an imagined Sic et Non wherein she tries to guess why the medieval planners of the cathedral chose to place the donor’s statues in the west choir. While it’s an interesting exercise, ultimately unless they’ve written their motivations down, it’s simply guesswork.

If you’re interested in medieval gothic sculpture or visiting one of the cathedrals discussed, it’s a great read. I took a ton of notes for my trip.

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Video: Every Major Crusader Order Explained in under 14 minutes

Found this interesting video by the Based Plato talking about the medieval Crusader Orders. The video mentions a few I'd never heard of.

Tuesday 28 May 2024

Book Review: Handbook for William by Douda

Translated by: Carol Neel

This is a translation of a booklet of instruction written in the late 840s by an ill noblewoman for her older son, William. It was a difficult time for her. William was a hostage against her husband’s good behaviour. Her husband had taken their infant son to an unknown location, leaving her to run their lands alone. There’s a measure of sadness in the prologue, as it’s clear Dhouda believes she will die without seeing her sons again.

The text is designed to teach her son(s) the things she would not be able to (either due to her death and/or their separation). It gives advice for how to navigate the world as a man of rank as well as advice on spiritual and moral behaviour.

The section on mathematics was interesting as it’s less about calculations and more on the spiritual meaning behind numbers.

There’s some repetition in what’s being said and the book can be boring at time. Still, it’s interesting to know what a woman believed her son needed to know to be a success and how she thought men of her station should behave.

Medieval writers often quote Bible verses and other texts without giving the source or any context. So, for example in book 4, section 7, Douda councils her son to be calm like the man “who rules almost six hundred thousand people and who we read was never disrupted by anger”. He’s named, Moses, a few paragraphs later, but it seems clear that Douda expected her son to know the reference and the man it refers to. I’ve often wondered the extent to which Biblical stories were known by non clergy. Now this was written at a time of enhanced education and by an aristrocratic wealthy woman who clearly had a decent education, so maybe the expectations are understandably high here.

If you’re interested in medieval thought, behaviour, or education, this is a worthwhile read.