Tuesday 31 May 2022

Books Received in May 2022

 Many Thanks to Pen & Sword for sending me review copy of the following:

A History of Herbalism: Cure, Cook and Conjure by Emma Kay - This is a great book with a lot of interesting tidbits of knowledge. The book covers a range of topics regarding herbs. My review will be posted on June 30th, when it releases in the UK. I've seen release dates in Canada for August 30th (Amazon) and September 13th (Indigo). Given supply chain issues, I'm not sure which date is correct.

Food historian Emma Kay tells the story of our centuries-old relationship with herbs. From herbalists of old to contemporary cooking, this book reveals the magical and medicinal properties of your favourite plants in colourful, compelling detail.

At one time, every village in Britain had a herbalist. A History of Herbalism investigates the lives of women and men who used herbs to administer treatment and knew the benefit of each. Meet Dr Richard Shephard of Preston, who cultivated angelica on his estate in the eighteenth century for the sick and injured; or Nicholas Culpeper, a botanist who catalogued the pharmaceutical benefits of herbs for early literary society.

But herbs were not only medicinal. Countless cultures and beliefs as far back as prehistoric times incorporated herbs into their practices: paganism, witchcraft, religion and even astrology. Take a walk through a medieval ‘physick’ garden, or Early Britain, and learn the ancient rituals to fend off evil powers, protect or bewitch or even attract a lover.

The wake of modern medicine saw a shift away from herbal treatments, with rituals and spells shrouded with superstition as the years wore on. The author reveals how herbs became more culinary rather than medicinal including accounts of recent trends for herbal remedies as lockdown and the pandemic leads us to focus more on our health and wellbeing.

Monday 30 May 2022

Medieval Trip / Site Information Pages

In 2015 I went to Paris. Before leaving for my trip I did detailed information pages for the cathedrals I planned to visit. These had floor plans, diagrams of the west facades with labelled sculptures, interesting features to see inside, and short historical sketches.

My idea was to better know the site and the sculpture, stained glass, and frescos at each site to look for. I hate coming back from a trip and realizing I missed seeing something important.

Over the years I’ve gotten better with the technology (I do these in Inkscape) and started doing new pages for a trip planned in 2020. That trip’s been postponed, which means I’ve had more time than expected to make these information sheets. And the longer it’s been postponed, the more sites I’ve learned about and want to visit, and the more sites I've done.

I now have about 60 sites/cities completed with more in the works (though I've not been making as many so far this year). The earlier ones are for specific buildings only, generally 1 side for the inside, and 1 side for the outside. More recently I’ve started adding detailed notes for less important (to me) sites and information to help with the trip I’ve planned (so, with added maps, floor plans of museums, city history, city crests/flags etc).

Also, there are some blanks and question marks where I’d planned to fill in information after visiting the sites. Items where there are no good images or complete information online and I’d hoped to learn who the figures are when I visited in person. For example, the dome of the Padova baptistry has scenes of Genesis. I don’t know where the scenes are exactly because I haven’t been able to find detailed enough photos. I hoped to take my own. In the meantime, that section of my diagram simply has ‘Genesis stories’ and ’fill in’. So I’d need to make it clear where information is missing and have version number so people know if a page has been updated. In fact, I would love it if someone had good photos of those areas or knew the placements could share that with me.

I made these for myself, but as someone who has spent hours pouring over photos online to see what sculpture is in this corner and what painting is on that wall, I understand the pages I’ve done have usefulness outside of myself. I would love to share these with a wider audience and introduce people to the sources I’ve used (there are some incredible resources online) and hopefully save you the time & effort I’ve spent. ‘Why reinvent the wheel?’ as my father used to say.

I’m ok with sharing the pages as they currently are with a small audience, but if I share them with a wider audience there are changes I would have to make. For one, I’ve used copyrighted images that I would have to remove. Second, I’d want to look over the notes, make sure there are no spelling errors or contractions that others might not be able to parse. I would also make sure that all my sources are listed.

I tried posting the pdfs to my blog in the past but blogger won’t allow the format. I just discovered that google docs does. I’m willing to post my pages to google docs and make them freely available. (If someone knows a better free site, I'm all ears.) I could post 1/week or so until they’re all up. I have a few questions for those interested first though. For people who haven’t seen the pages, I’m including my pages for Padova/Padua below so you can give feedback.

Since I would have to edit these for 'publication' anyway…

1) Would you prefer one monument per page? For example, I have St Anthony’s Church on the same page as the Padova Bapitstry. It’s kind of confusing with small font. Some pages have even more monuments. I could separate the monuments and do 1 or 2 per page.

2) Do you like the maps? My thought was to use the pages in situ. But if I take the maps out there would be more room for information at a larger font.

3) Any other suggestions?

I’m sure I’m forgetting to mention something here so this may get updated.
ETA -> After some consideration I've decided that google docs is a bad choice as it requires people to have a link in order to find the pages, and there's a limit to how much I can upload before I need to start deleting pages. So I've decided to post the pages to Archive.org. I'll post more when the first page is up this Friday.

Thursday 26 May 2022

Shout-Out: The Middling Affliction by Alex Shvartsman

The Dresden Files meets American Gods in New York City.

What would you do if you lost everything that mattered to you, as well as all means to protect yourself and others, but still had to save the day? Conrad Brent is about to find out.

Conrad Brent protects the people of Brooklyn from monsters and magical threats. The snarky, wisecracking guardian also has a dangerous secret: he’s one in a million – literally.

Magical ability comes to about one in every 30,000 and can manifest at any age. Conrad is rarer than this, however. He’s a middling, one of the half-gifted and totally despised. Most of the gifted community feels that middlings should be instantly killed. The few who don’t flat out hate them still aren’t excited to be around middlings. Meaning Conrad can’t tell anyone, not even his best friends, what he really is.

Conrad hides in plain sight by being a part of the volunteer Watch, those magically gifted who protect their cities from dangerous, arcane threats. And, to pay the bills, Conrad moonlights as a private detective and monster hunter for the gifted community. Which helps him keep up his personal fiction – that he’s a magical version of Batman. Conrad does both jobs thanks to charms, artifacts, and his wits, along with copious amounts of coffee. But little does he know that events are about to change his life…forever.

When Conrad discovers the Traveling Fair auction house has another middling who’s just manifested her so-called powers on the auction block, he’s determined to save her, regardless of risk. But what he finds out while doing so is even worse – the winning bidder works for a company that’s just created the most dangerous chemical weapon to ever hit the magical community.

Before Conrad can convince anyone at the Watch of the danger, he’s exposed for what he really is. Now, stripped of rank, magical objects, friends and allies, Conrad has to try to save the world with only his wits. Thankfully though, no one’s taken away his coffee.

Out May 31st.

Tuesday 24 May 2022

Video: Horror Musical Instrument - The Apprehension Engine

A friend pointed me to this interesting video about a machine built by Tony Duggan-Smith for the Indy Film & Music youtube channel, to make horror movie sounds. It's incredible the variety of sounds the machine can make.

Tuesday 17 May 2022

The Christian Topography of Cosmas - 2 reviews

I first learned about Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th century monk who developed a unique Christian centered theory of the shape of the world (that it’s flat and rectangular with a rounded ceiling above which is found heaven), a few years ago when I was researching Ethiopia. One of Cosmas’s chapters deals with an inscription on a stone throne found in Adulis, the main port city of the Axumite Empire (centered around what is now the Ethiopian province of Tigray & Eritrea). Ethiopia is mentioned several other times in the text. I was also surprised to discover that book 11 focuses on India, with descriptions of some animals found there, including the unicorn! I’ve finally had time to read the book as well as a commentary volume about it.

The Christian Topography of Cosmas, an Egyptian Monk by Cosmas Indicopleustes
Translated and edited by J. W. McCrindle
multiple public domain copies of the book are available at Archive.org

The Christian Toopography of Cosmas started off as a treatise in 5 books, explaining how the Christian view of the world should line up with Biblical scripture, and that the world is therefore not spherical as the Greeks teach, but is in fact rectangular at the base with a rounded vaulted heaven. The heavens are split into 2 by the firmament, above which were the waters that caused the flood, and where Christians will dwell after the resurrection. As time passed and criticisms arose against Cosmas’ arguments, he added subsequent books until there were 12 in all, though not all the manuscript copies that survive from the middle ages contain all 12.

Top image: the world as seen from above with Paradise to the East, and an ocean circumnavigating the land. Below left: a side view of the Earth with the vault of heaven above. Below right: showing how the sun is blocked by the massive mountain, explaining day and night cycles. 

It’s a fascinating book with a fair number of illustrations: some decorative, showing the different prophets etc, and some schematic, helping to explain the cosmography being described.

McCrindle’s translation is very readable, and clear. He includes copious explanatory notes, which help the reader better understand what Cosmas is teaching. In the appendix are a series of line drawings representing many of the illustrations from the manuscripts (three are depicted above).

Knowing that the Ptolemaic theory that the earth was the centre of the universe, surrounded by concentric rings of the sun, moon, planets, and stars, was wrong, it was interesting seeing Cosmas’ scientifically accurate criticisms against it. And as someone who once believed the Bible uncritically, I can understand his desire to make the connection that the tabernacle commanded by God was meant as a template for the creation - following the medieval belief that as things are above, or in the spiritual realm, so they are patterned below, on earth.

It was fascinating getting into the head of someone from the 6th century, seeing how they interpreted scripture and viewed the world. Even if their view was wrong. I also loved learning that the shape of churches, with vaulted ceilings (barrel vaults originally), and rounded apses, was meant to pattern this idea of the heavens over earth. I’d seen it in person in cathedrals and churches, but never heard the reasoning behind it (Kominko’s book referenced some articles I want to look up that expands of the background of this idea).

The World of Kosmas
 by Maja Kominko.

The World of Kosmas focuses primarily on the illustrations in the manuscripts, where they were originally placed in the text, and exterior works that might have influenced their design. There’s a chapter on Kosmas’ background before going into each chapter where miniatures are found (books 2, 4, 5, and then a summary of 6-9). The book has a lot of supplementary illustrations and a full set of miniatures from the three manuscripts of the Christian Topography the author is referencing, at the back. The book does not mention books 10 to 12 of the manuscript.

I found Kominko’s book of great value in giving some wider explanations for each section, putting the treatise in its cultural context, where a discussion of what various groups believed was helpful. She also explained what Cosmos got wrong for those whose astronomy and math skills might not be up to the task of parsing Kosmas’ proofs.

If you don’t have the time or desire to read the full treatise, Kominko summarizes each book for you (and each section of book 5). She thus provides an excellent overview of the book in addition to her commentary on the illustrations.

If you’re interested in astronomy, learning how some medieval Christians saw the world, medieval thoughts about the Bible, astronomy, etc. then Cosmas/Kosmas is an interesting author to read.

Tuesday 10 May 2022

Fantasy Music by Ravnskjold

Looking for some great fantasy inspired music for a D&D campaign or simply to listen to? I stumbled across a cool youtube site a few days ago. Ian Ravnskjold puts out copyright-safe music he has written and performed that you can listen to on youtube or purchase rights to use on your own project via his Patreon page. 

He's got harp music, Viking, Celtic, pirate, stuff for if you're in a library, tavern, a hidden fairy village, etc. There are some videos that are single songs, and other with several hours of really pretty music.


Tuesday 3 May 2022

Movie Review: The Batman

Directed by Matt Reeves, 2022
IMDB listing

Pros: clever plot, interesting characters, Batman is a detective, good special effects and cinematography

Cons: Cat Woman’s knit mask wasn’t the best costume design choice, some overly heavy gothic architecture

As the Gotham PD celebrate their biggest bust, taking down a drug kingpin, a series of murders by ‘the Riddler’ forces Batman to investigate corruption in the city.

I’ll admit, when I heard they were making another Batman film, I thought ‘why?’. It feels like Batman’s been done to death at this point. Similarly the casting seemed bizarre, though I hadn’t seen the actors in much. But let me tell you, this is an incredible film. This feels very much like an old comic book Batman, when he was a detective, rather than a superhero.

This is a believable, gritty, corrupt Gotham where Batman has been operating for 2 years. He has no extreme equipment beyond a souped up car. It was awesome seeing him solve puzzles and try to figure out what’s going on.

The Riddler has always been one of my favourite Batman villains, and he’s portrayed brilliantly here. The plot is clever and the puzzles complex. I loved that all of the characters had real motivations and their own goals for their actions. That includes the Penguin and Cat Woman. I’ve always thought that superhero films do themselves a disservice by trying to shoehorn in too many bad guys. It works here because there are no long backstory sequences. The characters are just living their lives in the city.

Robert Pattinson is an excellent Batman. He’s clearly been through trauma. I appreciated the personal growth he goes through during the film and the revelation about being The Batman he makes at the end.

There are some great action sequences and some amazing cinematography.

While I can understand why they used it (it’s something a real person could easily get a hold of) Cat Woman’s knit hat/mask combo looked odd with her leather catsuit. I also wasn’t a fan of the rather over the top gothic flourishes in Bruce’s house/apartment? (Wayne manor? it kind of looked like he lived in the office tower so I wasn’t quite sure where this was). The architectural details made doorways weirdly narrow and looked so impractical and out of place.

The film ends with a message of hope that’s been missing from other recent DC movies. Yes, there are still problems, but they can be fixed if people work for the common good.

I didn’t think it was possible for me to like a Batman film more than The Dark Knight, but this has done it. It’s excellent, go see it.