Tuesday 26 September 2023

History Book Review: Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews and Christians by Naomi Janowitz

The book focuses on how magic was viewed in the first Christian centuries. It has 6 chapters in addition to an introduction and conclusion. They are: 1) Greco-Roman, Christian and Jewish concepts of “magic”, w) Daimons and angels and the world of exorcism, 3) Ancient rites for gaining livers, 4) Using natural forces for divine goals: Maria the Jewess and early alchemy, 5) Divine power, human hands: becoming gods in the first century, 6) “Even the decent women practice witchcraft”: magic and gender in late antiquity.

It’s a relatively short book that gives a good introduction to the topic. The author emphasizes several times how modern definitions of the word ‘magic’ don’t match those of the past, and that we therefore have to be careful both with how we approach the topic and - if reading works in translation - how the translators may have taken innocuous words and forced a negative view on them (for example some Greek words in themselves have no magical connotations, but some translators have added the word ‘magic’ to them). Similarly, sometimes later writers objected to earlier forms of practicing their own religion, as with some people who edited the Hebrew Bible, and wrote in condemnations of what had been normal Jewish religious practices.

There are some interesting ideas here. The religious rituals of those who practiced differently were often termed magic. This could have political and therefore propagandistic purposes. The term magic comes from the Persian word ‘magos’, meaning priest. The Persians were the military enemies of the Greeks. Magic was considered bad because it worked, and worked via evil spirits rather than through the correct ‘god’ (that is, the deity the author of each specific source text followed). Thus, Romans and Greeks called Moses and Jesus “magicians” [this isn’t in the book but there are some fabulous Christian sarcophagi in the archaeological museum in Arles that show Jesus performing miracles using a magic wand, so it seems early Christians weren’t as horrified by that idea as modern Christians would be].

The book covers a decent range of topics including alchemy and deification of humans. It was interesting seeing some of the rationale behind the belief that Roman Emperors became gods after death and how some religious practitioners of other faiths tried to ascend and become like gods themselves.

The author does a good job of exploring the subject of each chapter from the Greco-Roman, Jewish and Christian viewpoints. Sometimes spending more time on one group than the others, but showing how complex the notions of magic and religion were in the ancient world.

There are no photos in the book which seems a shame.

If you’re interested in ancient religions and magic, this is a quick but useful jumping off point for more in depth studies.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

Video: The Warp Zone's A.I. Written sketch

The Warp Zone have done a great sketch, partially written by A.I. (Chat GPT) that really gets to the heart of our fears about artificial intelligence.

Tuesday 12 September 2023

Shout-Out: How to Be Remembered by Michael Thompson

A man who can never be remembered.

A journey he'll never forget.

On an ordinary night in an ordinary year, Tommy Llewellyn's doting parents wake in a home without toys and diapers, without photos of their baby scattered about, and without any idea that the small child asleep in his crib is theirs.

That's because Tommy is a boy destined to never be remembered.

On the same day every year, everyone around him forgets he exists, and he grows up enduring his own universal Reset. That is until something extraordinary happens: Tommy Llewellyn falls in love.

Determined to finally carve out a life for himself and land the girl of his dreams, Tommy sets out on a mission to finally trick the Reset and be remembered. But legacies aren't so easily won, and Tommy must figure out what's more important—the things we leave behind or the people we bring along with us.

Tuesday 5 September 2023

Medieval History Research Websites

My apologies for the lack of posts recently. I’ve been neck deep in putting together my next research trip and it’s taking all of my time. I’ve been reading (or skimming depending on time & interest) a bunch of history books. I’ve also been combing through all sorts of websites to find detailed information about the tourist sites I’ll be visiting.

Towards that end, it strikes me that some of the sites I’ve found might be of interest to others researching the middle ages or art history.

So, here are some of the sites I’ve used for putting together the information pages I make for my trips.

General information / Sites of a Singular Interest:

Internet Medieval Sourcebook by Fordham University
This site has a lot of internet based translations for primary sources. There's a remarkable amount of information here on a vast array of topics.

A free account gets you access too 100 free academic articles a month. I’ve found some really interesting articles on specific churches/chapels/architectural features (like Romanesque facades for specific churches). I've found that historical/religious sites are a lot more interesting when you have a deeper understanding of what you’re seeing.

The Dance of Death
I find dance of death murals fascinating, so this website was an interesting find. It has information and photographs of major dance of death murals in Europe.

National Geographic: Trajan’s Column
The site allows for an interactive, scrolling, examination of Trajan’s Column, a pillar that details the victory of the Romans over the Dacians (from the area now known as Romania).

Art History in France

The Rose Window
The amount of stained glass photos on this site is incredible. It’s got a lot of French and English churches, then a scattering of other European sites. The site provides location charts to locate the stained glass (not my favourite style, to be honest, I’d have preferred they use actual floor plans. I sometimes had trouble figuring out where a particular window was supposed to be, once compared with the floor plan). It generally has photos of full windows, and individual panes. Not all the churches have the full spectrum (it depends on whether the website owner’s been there & able to do the detailed photos). It’s still an incredible resource. They also explain what stories the glass represents, when it was made, what order to read the glass in (usually bottom to top but there are some exceptions), and whether the glass has been moved from a prior location.

This site has a lot of good, detailed information on French churches. It goes over some history, major works of art, architectural features, etc.

This was a nice starting page for researching French churches. It has floor plans, west facade images, and dimensions for a decent number of buildings.


The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies
One thing my university experience lacked, was practical experience in medieval liturgy. A lot of things became clear when I attended Mass for the first time (even though it wasn’t how mass was celebrated in the middle ages). Coming from a Protestant background, Catholic liturgy has been hard for me to figure out. Sites like this one have helped a lot with that.

Christian Iconography
This “guide to Christian iconography: images, symbols, and texts” is quite useful when trying to learn who various saints are and what their artistic attributes are. The imagery in specific churches is more understandable when you know the saint whose life is depicted and what the stories surrounding them are.

The Churches of Rome Wiki
The site has an astonishing amount of detailed information about churches in the city. Not just medieval ones. The opening hour info at the bottom is dated (several of the pages I used were last updated in 2017), so definitely get more current information if you want to visit. You can even look the churches up chronologically.