Notre Dame Fire

When the news broke yesterday about the fire at Notre Dame du Paris, I was eating lunch with students and a dear friend. As it became just how bad the fire was going to be, I confess started sobbing. All I could think about was the generations of people across centuries who gave their time and labor and love to Notre Dame (and to all medieval cathedrals) and how they hoped so deeply and fervently that their small contribution would add up to something immortal.


As I woke up today, news and pictures were trickling in of the church, still standing. I am amazed anew at the genius, skill, and strength of medieval builders, whose talents and imaginations soared. At the craftsmanship of these hand-made buildings, the forethought of the builders who prepared for partial collapses and who built in redundant protections of buttresses, walls, and vaults, and who hoped for eternity but reckoned with collapse.

I mourn the contemporary destruction of living churches in the US south, shootings inside mosques and synagogues, and the deliberate murder of memory that takes place in war zones around the world, including the funerary shrines in Timbuktu and the Buddhas of Bamiyan. I mourned the destruction of loss of the Brazilian National Museum, and the Mostar bridge. (Hell, I'm a historian, I'm still grieving the burning of Persepolis by Alexander the not so Great). The destruction of the Great Mosque of Damacus put a hole in the fabric of art and religious history. All of these are tragedies, and all are catastrophic absences to the world and to their communities. Each loss is cumulative--we can and should care about all of them.

But I've never cried for a building before yesterday.

It is miraculous and wonderful that only one person was injured in this event, and that so much of the fabric stands. (Indeed, the medieval people I study would already be gathering witness accounts to write up the story to add it to Marian miracle cycles.) Notre Dame isn't even on my top-ten list of cathedrals. But what I mourn is similar to what is lost when libraries, museums, or art galleries burn, flood, are bombed--the loss of not just a single space or a set of contemporary lives, but the loss of the collective projects and stories of all of the unnamed, unremarked, unremembered people who literally built this with the work of their bodies. Medieval cathedrals were and are ideas in stone, stories carried over time, edited and retold and retooled.

They were books--science, art, faith, music, legend, folklore---all are part of the walls and towers and floors and windows and ceilings of these buildings. They tell stories that are revised every time a new renovation happens. They keep reflecting reframing and remembering changing worlds. (There's an angel with a cellphone in stone at Sin Jan Cathedral in Den Bosch, and piece of the moon rock in a stained glass window at the National Cathedral in DC).

They are representations of elite culture, yes, but they are also the embodiment and articulation of the stories and faces and worlds of thousands of others.....the masons and glaziers and carpenters and cartwrights and cleaners and cooks that collectively created these monuments, and the families they supported and who they often left for years at a time to follow the work of their trades. They are also the works of the butchers who worked to pay for a window, the women who sewed the tapestries and altar cloths, the sculptors (then and now) who put their loved ones' faces in stone in an effort to have their work and their loves in their life live after them.....that's why cathedrals matter.

Not because they are famous, or because a single famous person is connected to them, or because they draw tourists, or even because many of them are still sacral sites--but because they mattered so deeply to the people who built them, rebuilt them, renovated them, painted them, put art in them again and again and again and constantly renew and remember their meaning. And for Notre Dame, that process will continue. As it has and will over centuries in cathedrals throughout Europe and in special places of power around the world.

Some striking photos have emerged of the brave firefighters of Paris standing in the still surviving cathedral. The rescuers of cathedrals and castles are often commemorated in some way in the buildings. Paratroopers appear in church art in Normandy, the firefighters who saved Windsor castle and its art are in the new chapel’s stained glass, and many cathedrals that lost their glass in wars have commissioned artists to renew the glass art in ways that tell the stories of loss and recovery.


Time will tell how we choose to tell this part of the building’s biography, but I have no doubt that in some way these firefighters will become part of not just the story, but the building itself.

Who was James Weber?

The first question that these letters posed was, clearly, who was my mystery student?

All of these letters are addressed to his father (John A. Weber) and mother, who lived in Caledonia, Ohio.


They are all signed, most with James Weber and his middle initials. So far, so good. BUT what were those middle initials?  His hand, often rushed and cramped at the end of a letter, varied and left this up in the air. Here are some examples, from the first several letters:


I wound up deciphering and verifying the initials in two ways--one taking advantage of high-tech skills, the other drawing on my background in paleography.

For the first, my boyfriend Mike took to the web, and found a google books scan of early Ohio Wesleyan alumni directories, and in particular the officiously named Quinquennial Catalogue of the Ohio Wesleyan University, 1842-1886, available here.  

Because scanning and word recognition (OCR, as he has taught me) is so good now, these are searchable, so I keyed in “Weber” and lo and behold, there is an entry for a “James Knox Polk Weber.”  So, James K. P. Weber it is! Now, back to the letters:

In a letter from October 30, 1868, James signs his name


He also explains to his parents that he had received a written excuse for a recent absence (more on that later) from the President of the University:


Confirmation of his P!  (This is a way that paleographers work to decipher unclear letters and abbreviations in a particular writer’s “hand” or handwriting--you identify words you are certain of that contain the mystery letter, and work from there).

So, who was James Knox Polk Weber?  According to the alumni guides, he returned to Caledonia and became (briefly) a superintendent of schools and then an “experimental farmer and florist.”

Armed with his full name and the digital fruits of contemporary America’s fascination with genealogy, I took to the web, and found:  his grave.


So I now have a full name, birth and death dates (by means of backwards reckoning), and, remarkably, his OWU student ID number:


He’s student 505

An unexpected discovery

This Sunday, my boyfriend and I decided, on a whim, to check out an event at the Ohio State Fairgrounds: the Columbus Paper, Postcard, and Book Show.  

(Picture from the Facebook page of the Columbus paper Show)

(Picture from the Facebook page of the Columbus paper Show)

This was a fascinating glimpse into both the strange world of the collection of ephemera and into the history of writing, books, and the role of paper in all aspects of American life. As I am preparing to teach a class on the history of the book, it was astonishing to see, nestled alongside the more expected abandoned family photos, tourist postcards, and first day stamp covers and preserved in clear plastic baseball card sleeves: driver’s licenses, Navy ID cards, matchbooks, train passes, concert tickets, fraternity dance cards (with miniature pencil still attached!), and old valentines. The mundane evidence of lives lived.

Some merchants had bins of unorganized items for $1 each; others had highly curated collections of military papers and memorabilia. People sorted through piles of picture postcards and autographs, gathered cat books, and sifted through piles of old black and white photos of unknown people--I overheard one woman tell another, as she got up to move on to another booth, “happy hunting!”  It was a friendly crowd, and one vendor said that he had probably sold almost as many things as he had bought from the other booths. It seemed like a swap meet. It was lovely. I once again had a vision of a cultural history project involving postcards sent from Europe back to Ohio…possibly of castles....but I digress.

One of the very first booths I visited was that of Dennis Keesee, a local restauranteur, collector, and historian.  (He’s also written a book about Civil War drummer boys, Too Young To Die--

(Picture from the Facebook page of the Columbus paper Show)

(Picture from the Facebook page of the Columbus paper Show)

I had a lovely conversation with him about a box of honeymoon ephemera and love letters from the 1920s, and why he kept the set together, which led to me mentioning my job at OWU.  

He then showed me a stack of 50 letters written by an OWU alumnus from 1868-1871. They are all written home to his parents in Caledonia, Ohio, clearly saved by them at some point and somehow passed down as a set for almost 150 years.

Mr. Keesee had purchased them at the estate sale of an autograph collector, and though each are valuable and resellable just because of the nature of the envelopes they are in with this particular type of cancelled stamp, he does not like to break up collections, instead trying to keep documents together. We had an engaging conversation about his collecting and selling of papers, about how he finds such troves, and about the potential for using these collections to tell Ohio histories.

The letters were a bit expensive for an impulse purchase, and I am a medieval historian, not an Americanist. But there were fifty of them, and they are darling--just look at this letterhead!


I thought that maybe I could add my skills to the work of Dennis, the autograph collector, James’ parents, and unknown others who saved and sold and stored these documents over more than a century, and we could collectively pull a lost voice out of the past.


Readers, I bought them.


MMXVI. In the eighth and final year of Obama, the kings of Thailand and Cuba died.  An assembly met in Paris to protect Creation, and the Pope declared a Jubilee year.  Many entertainers were lost, including the Prince.  In the Americas, infants were born with small heads, the drought continued, fires burned, and buffalo herds gathered to support the Dakota. Earthquakes in Italy.  The world was warmer than ever before in human memory, and there was civil war in Syria. Fleeing the rise of a new Islamic State, people flooded into Europe, and Britain fled Europe. There was a total eclipse of the sun, a supermoon was seen, and octopodes walked on land. Baby bears were triumphant in sports and born at the Columbus zoo. A tyrant was chosen to lead America, and Pokemon were sighted throughout the world.

This is my imagining of an entry for 2016 in a medieval chronicle or annal. The medieval annal was a deceptively simple form of history-keeping and writing. The annals or chronicles come in many guises, though they are based around a single core organizing principle. Annals were organized chronologically, listing the noteworthy and memorable events of each year, generally reporting interesting, striking, or disastrous events. These included events from nearby areas or from other historical sources.

Chronicles offer a way for us to see how and where stories circulated, and how different communities chose to remember and emphasize events noted by others.

The Annals of Fulda

The Annals of Fulda

Some annals are very brief, often including little more than religious and secular regnal years and noting important deaths. These chronicles often skip several years if not decades at a time, and appear to have been sporadically developed and assembled. The annals of Aachen were compiled sometime in the twelfth-century. The work begins with the year 1 and the birth of Christ. The entries are very short and crisp, and are almost exclusievely about imperial deaths and successions. The entries for the years 1-771 fit on a single page of the MGH edition. Even if you can’t read Latin, you can see here the typical short-entry chronicle form.  There is only one mention of the natural world, a notice of the arrival of what we now know as Halley’s comet.

In contrast, a similarly terse chronicle from Admont includes more than a dozen natural and celestial events alongside the regnal and episcopal events. For example, in 867, there was a comet and an earthquake, and in 897 there was a famine that was so great that “people began to eat one another in turns”. This chronicle, compiled sometime in the twelfth-century, opens with a quick calculation of the number of years from the creation of Adam through the birth of Christ, and then covers biblical and classical events, ending in the year 1143. The chronicle has a regional flavor, including information on Salzburg and Bavaria, the deaths of kings of Bohemia, and the burning of the church of St. Afra during the attack of the Huns.

One of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

One of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Chronicles often built on and borrowed from each other. Even the very short Annales Petaviani, which covered the years 697-799, borrowed from the Annales Mosellani, the Annals of St. Amand, and the Annales of Lorsch. The well-known Anglo-Saxon chronicle is actually a collection of a group of smaller chronicles, compiled over three centuries (up to 1154). The slow layering of authorship and composition makes chronicles tricky to work with. There is rarely a single authorial voice, and most authors remain unknown. Some exceptions are works written as fuller histories but arranged chronologically, such as Regino of Prum’s Chronicon, a world chronicle of events up to 906.

All of these challenges open up new possibilities for interpretation. The annals are composite history—in a sense, they are medieval crowdsourcing, and can be seen as collective efforts by scholars to compile a sense of the defining events of history. We can trace events that make it (via independent authorship or borrowing) into multiple chronicles, and also notice ones that gain only regional traction. For example, the felling of the Irminsul by Charlemagne during his Saxon wars is mentioned in at least ten chronicles, with entries ranging from the clipped, “King Charles was at war in Saxony and destroyed their oak, which was called Irminsul" to fully narrated descriptions of the event.

The selectivity can also work to raise the prominence of local or regional events, a phenomenon particularly noticeable with river floods and other disasters. The Annales Altahenses, for example, after pointing out a solar eclipse in 990, which would have appeared in many different chronicles, notes that in 991 “Fire burned its way up the Rhine, consuming the villas along the banks.” 

The fact that they are largely written and edited well after the events they describe further emphasizes that these are not comprehensive histories, but records of events of significance. Even the shortest annals reflect local events and details, choosing to record and retell events that were seen as important for leaders in the region to remember. They integrate events in the natural, political, and religious worlds, and remind readers of the web of connection and causality. Condensing a whole year into a handful of sentences is, as I can now attest, tricky.

The process is laden with decisions. Which disasters to include? Which stories to tell?  Whose death was the most important?  What was good and inspiring? Which of these events will remind my readers of the overall tone of the year?  What may at first glance seem like an uninspiring collection of random events turns out to be distilled historical judgement and evaluation.

So. In short: 2016.  (nsfw!)


The Well-Laden Ship

I spent the morning reading a complex and curious medieval source, Ecbert of Liege’s The Well Laden Ship. I had never heard of this source before, most likely because Robert Gary Babcock’s 2013 translation is the first translation ever done of it. It is a long poem (2,373 lines!) that was intended to teach Latin, but it doesn’t appear to have really caught on (perhaps because, as Babcock notes, it had an “extensive and esoteric vocabulary”), and only one manuscript copy survived.

This source is astonishing. It is full of anecdotes, fables, sayings, wise-cracks, and witticisms, as well as critiques of “modern day” trends. Ecbert appears to have gathered together Biblical stories, folklore, ancient quips and sayings, and later Christian stories. It is a glorious hodgepodge of advice, admonishment, and accumulated wisdom.

Some of the source reads a bit like fortune cookies: “Not every cloud you see threatens rain.” “One does well to distrust a stream, even one that is calm.” Others offer direct moral and educational advice to the students: “Whoever hates his work, surely hated himself first.” “The one who broadcasts all he knows will not be much loved.”

Of course, some of these are instantly understandable, and have lasted across the centuries of human experience: “The steeper the step, the heavier the fall from it.” “I hate a painful nose infection with stopped-up nostrils” and “While the cat’s away, the mouse is seen scurrying about.” But others are distinctly medieval, products of a different, only distantly glimpsed culture. Bawdy jokes abound and a deep shared religiosity infuses the text, as do allusions to an agricultural world and an everyday engagement with animals and the environment (including lots of fish!!!) that most of us no longer experience.

Yet others can push us to see a medieval thought world that most of us don’t imagine—one that pushes against injustice, asks for thoughtful concern for others, and expresses concern for the direction he sees his society trending.

            “When we are inside we often forget the one excluded outside.”

            “Here Money, which encourages evil, corrupts sacred morals. Queen Money, corrupter ofall things, triumphs.”

            “A portion of mankind has learned how to break something, not how to fix it.”

Reading the Well-Laden Ship, I am reminded principally of two other (later) sources. First, the painting Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (based in part on Erasmus’ Adages).

This painting depicts folk sayings alongside more erudite bon mots, all incredibly detailed and lively—who can resist the soldier, “armed to the teeth” “belling the cat”, the roof made of pancakes, or the fisher trying to catch eels by their tails

The other thing that I can’t help thinking about is the Liber Floridus, the encyclopedic agglomeration of natural history, religious history, geography, and local history that I’ve been spending time with on and off for a while now. In this case, it’s not the tone that resonates, but the eclectic nature of both works. They both dip in and out of contemporary, classical, and Biblical knowledge, and both are results of extreme effort, compositional care, and an almost bewildering arrangement of carefully curated randomness.

As for final thoughts?  Eh, I’m off to a campus reception that will hopefully have some nice food, so I’ll go with this one:

“Let another cheese come to me like the one I had recently. When this has been done, you will have me as a true friend.”


When I was at Bourges, I had some free time, and so I decided to see some of the city’s smaller, free museums. One was particularly interesting, the Musée Estève, dedicated to the work of a single artist, the painter Maurice Estève (1904-2001). Estève worked primarily as a painter, but also designed textiles. The museum is in a beautiful 15th century building, the Hôtel des Echevins—a setting that really contrasts beautifully with the artist’s abstract modernity.  There’s a virtual tour here.

I’d never hear of Estève before, and I’m so glad that I took the time to explore the museum—they had it arranged roughly chronologically, so that you could watch his style and skills develop. I was struck by much of his work, though two pieces really stood out. One was one of his tapestries, which really reminded me of some of Calder’s work, and the other was a painting that evoked Viking longships, with beautiful curves and colors.

Yet for me, it’s not the art that lingers—instead it’s a different object in the museum—one of the artist’s paint palettes. His habit was to work with truly large wooden palettes set on rolling tables. He used them for years, until the accumulated oil finally made them unusable. The one they have exhibited was used between 1956-1981, and now weighs 14 kilos because of the accumulation of layers of paint.

The idea that you can see the process—the time, the patience, the ideas, the materials—really stopped me in my tracks.

The artist’s work is literally visible here—not just the product, but the work—the misfires, the brushstrokes, the rough drafts, the dabs and drops and scrapes.

And it made me once again think about how intangible the work that my colleagues and I do is. Recently some “CVs of Failure” have caught attention—lists of all of the things that people apply for and don’t get. That’s an interesting way of listing effort (though it’s also been critiqued as a kind of a voicing of a particular kind of privilege), but still doesn’t hit that same level of visibility of labor as this palette did, and it made me start to wonder what, particularly in a digital age, the tracings of intellectual labor are. Keystrokes? Words written, un-written, re-written…..

Famous authors’ drafts and manuscripts help us see their habits of mind, their ways of thinking.  Can computer files ever play that role?

And what about books read? Many of us don’t have physical libraries anymore, either—we have copies of the books that matter most to us, but gone are the days (or the means) of scholars keeping an “archive” of the scholarly works we’ve read… friend recently tossed a bunch of photocopies (we use PDFs now), another tossed her files from her dissertation after a flood. I have all of my primary sources for my current project as PDFs that I can access on my computer or ipad, and I’m typing (and un-typing, and retyping) my slow efforts at translation into a word processor, and all past attempts disappear…..

Bill Cronon tackled many of these issues in his columns for the AHA, particularly this one.

We learn about the cultures of the distant past by tracking their jottings. We make scholarly mountains out of finding marginal notes of scholars in books they read—there’s a whole site, for example, for Melville’s marginalia. But what does it mean that 100 years from now, later scholars won’t have today’s marginalia?

Just some musings…


Medieval Hybrids

What happens when you cross an elephant with a fish?  I’m really not sure, but a thirteenth-century artist in Metz had a pretty good idea (well, two, in fact): 

This is a fraction of a stunning wood ceiling that was excavated in Metz at the end of the 19th century.  It has been dendrochronologically dated to the mid 13th century, the height of the textual bestiary craze that swept upper-class Europe by storm. Bestiaries, most often found in monastic manuscripts, are a form of encyclopedic work that resonates clearly with another intellectual trend of the era, that of attempting to collect, convey, and interpret universal knowledge (aka encyclopedism). As my students will attest, I had NO idea this was here, and it literally stopped me in my tracks.

One of the things that has always drawn me to bestiaries is the way that they are a seaming together of diverse kinds of knowledge—the ancient and the modern (for them), the real and the imagined, the ordinary and the fabulous. The animals in bestiaries are domestic and wild, small and large, mundane and extraordinarily rare. They are both fish and fowl….but to be honest, I’ve never seen one that tried so completely to jam all of these identities together—it literally includes a hybrid fish/fowl!


The ceiling panels include traditional bestiary animals (unicorns, roosters, fish, etc.), as well as monstrous races and routine (?) hybrids like mermaids.

But most unusual is the heavy theme of non-standard hybrids—ones that may well have been dreamed up by the patron/painter. The bulk of these hybrids are composed of fish blended with other animals and even humans. There is a wolf/fish, a monk/fish (see what I did there?), a stag/fish, a unicorn/fish, a horse/fish, a rather cute duck/fish, and, of course, the elephant/fishes.  Since I have particular affinity for medieval images of elephants, and I’m working on cultural representations of fish right now, these were gold.

The fish half of the hybrids are always the tails, though some individual fish exist on their own, including one fish that simply must be a flounder:


The authors of this ceiling lived at the Mosel/Seille confluence—a city where rivers merged, as, perhaps, did the identities and interests of the clerical and secular elite (we know nothing, as far as I could tell, of who the owner of this ceiling was). I can’t help but think that this kind of ceiling was only possible along a river as vibrant and ecologically and culturally diverse as the Mosel.

Poking around (a marvelous resource), I found this image (from BL, Harley MS 4751, Folio 68r) which similarly imagines a range of fish/terrestrial animal hybrids, and I will admit I started looking for similar representations in the rest of the Gallo-Roman museums we visited—there were MANY of them, especially at Trier (also on the Mosel…..). Of course there were capricorns, sirens, and melusines, but also other hybrids.

I have never seen anything like this ceiling. I’m as drawn to this as I am to the Liber Floridus, and for very similar reasons. Both works have a unique quality where you can so easily see (if you know the standard works the artists are using) individual personalities and minds at work. Both are imperfect, perhaps even a bit awkward in places (there are several repeated hybrid animals on the ceiling), and yet are all the more compelling for that.

The images are no longer vibrant, but still radiate energy. They are shockingly well-preserved and yet, as the museum itself points out, shockingly under-studied. I’ll be ordering the one book on it as soon as I’m back in the States. I am suddenly having thoughts about a post-script to my book project in which I can link this to both standard bestiaries and the Liber Floridus to look at the legacy of earlier medieval and classical ideas about rivers and river life…..but that’s all a very vague set of ideas right now. I’m still absorbing this, and I suspect I will be revisiting Metz sooner than I had first imagined…..


Malta--limestone, sunshine, and water (and lack thereof)

One of my more unexpected and delightful trips this summer was to visit some long-time friends who have just moved back to Malta. I had never been to Malta, and was immediately struck by its landscape, climate, and architecture. The island nation is sun-drenched, and houses and buildings throughout the capital of Valetta and the smaller villages are made of the honey-colored limestone still quarried on the island. The island is very densely populated, and so it often looks like the dense clusters of tall buildings are carved out of the land itself—there is often a remarkable continuity from building to building, and at the harbor of Valetta it is at times almost like the houses are growing out of the rock walls.

 untitled-399 untitled-558

It is startlingly dry, yet has a surprising amount of local agriculture. My friends told me that the agriculture is extensive and varied--but at the same time there is little water—most water is reclaimed sea water, and so everyone drinks bottled water (I can’t ever remember having drunk so much water.  It was unbelievably hot (I was there in late July) and especially at mid-day, the sun was so extreme that you could almost feel it like a weight. But, in the mornings and evenings this was tempered by the Mediterranean breezes, and the evening we spent at the beach swimming in the bathtub warm sea was truly an intoxicating outdoor experience.

I also had the opportunity to see some pretty amazing historical areas and architectural achievements, including from two of the periods that make Malta unique—the dominion of the Knights of St. John and the tremendous and mysterious prehistoric era.  First, in Valetta, I got the chance to explore the co-cathedral of St John, built in the 16th century to be the main church of the Order. From the outside, the Baroque cathedral is both intimidating and unassuming—it is fortress-like, built like so much else on the island from the golden limestone; it is flat and relatively unadorned (especially compared to the height of the Gothic!). But, like so many of the Baroque churches that I became accustomed to in Munich, the façade hides a lavish, over-the-top statement of the political and economic power of its builders:

This was one of the most extreme cathedral interiors I’ve ever seen!

  untitled-427untitled-434 untitled-429

The other buildings that completely floored me were the Neolithic temple complexes of Hagar Qin—two of the at least 11 temple sites on the islands that date to 5600-4500 years BP (Before Present, a dating method from archaeology and the paleo-sciences). These are possibly the oldest free-standing stone buildings in the world, and reflect a vibrant, organized, and stunningly capable early Maltese civilization. The temples are aligned with celestial events, and are organized in complex and protected series semi-circular interior rooms with increasingly limited access.

untitled-2 untitled-16 untitled-27 untitled-38Made of megalithic limestone blocks (including again the golden, soft limestone that allowed for elaborate decoration)  that were quarried on the island and moved on site (possibly using carved ball-bearing style limestone spheres, given the lack of trees), they reminded me of the sophistication of the much later Mycenean tombs and cities. I was lucky enough to see the temples alone (possibly because I was foolish enough to go from 10 am -11:30), and it augmented the sense of privileged access and gave me the chance to more fully appreciate the stunning (and remarkably inaccessible, given the effort of moving all of those stones!) locations of the temples.

I first encountered these buildings  when teaching world history and again as I read Braudel’s work on the ancient Mediterranean—they had (along with the dwarf elephants!)  immediately captured my imagination, and I am so lucky to have been able to see them , and I am astounded by the labor, skill, and cultural resources they represent. They are a reminder of the many many innovations that pre-historic people made, of the global presence of creativity, spirituality, and social imaginations, and of the ineluctable nature of studying such a long ago era. All of these are things that I want to keep reminding myself of and introducing my students to this semester as I teach my ancient history class—and the very first people we will discuss?  The temple-builders of Malta.

Academic platypus, or, "how I became a medieval environmental historian in six easy steps"

I wrote this blog post for the Rachel Carson Center and it will soon appear on their blog,

I will soon be posting a reflection on my time at the RCC, and so first I thought I would share this, written about halfway through my fellowship.

RCC essay image

The project that I am pursuing at the Rachel Carson Center on medieval cultural and religious ideas about river systems brings me in an unusual way back to my first year of college, when I wanted to study river ecosystems in the hope of someday becoming a marine ecologist. It’s admittedly a long way from there to medieval historian, and I have been delighted to spend my time at the RCC remembering all the reasons that I was so fascinated by water ecosystems and also all the reasons that I was ultimately drawn to history and the environmental humanities in the first place.

As a college freshman whose high school heroes had included Jacques Cousteau, Carl Sagan, Bob Ballard, and then-Senator Al Gore (interestingly, I had not yet been exposed to the work or life of Rachel Carson, who I now realize fits quite naturally into this group--perhaps telling of the curriculum of my high school science courses), I was eager to make my mark in the ecological sciences, and to begin a career that would let me work with marine and aquatic ecosystems, turning my fascination for the exploration of the sea and space towards an environmental purpose. As a budding scientist, what I thought that meant politically and ecologically minded scientific work; what I didn’t yet realize was that another thing that bound all of these figures together was not just science, but also a deep sense of the role of people in science, of the power of outreach and storytelling, and an appreciation of the power of history and human culture.

The slow sea-change in my goals and aspirations began during my freshman year, when I took a class on US environmental history, when I was exposed to the field-shaping works of Crosby, Cronon, Merchant, and, most significantly for me, Worster. What really captured my attention was Nature’s Economy, which introduced the significance of tracking the history of how ideas about ecology and ecological values developed. Looking back now, I realize that what drew me into that book is similar to what pulled me into Cosmos and Comet and the essays of Stephen Jay Gould, which I had been reading for years—a fascination with not only what people know about nature, but also with how they know it, and with how both the knowledge and the systems of knowing change over time. I was hooked, and continued to take environmental history classes—but it took me several years to fully commit to history. For that decision, the tipping factor was not environmental thought, but medieval culture.

As a child, I lived for several years in Darmstadt, Germany, where my father was serving in the Army, and my parents made sure that we spent as much time as possible exploring Germany. As a result, my childhood memories are soaked in castles and Volksmarches and small medieval towns with cobbled streets and crooked houses in the way that many Americans’ are filled with camping trips to National Parks, trips to DC, and tours of Civil War battlefields (of course some of those experiences would come my way, too once we moved back Stateside). In very real ways, my experience of the past was in a European, medieval setting. This may help explain how I took to medieval history courses in college like a duck to water (nature metaphors really are hard to avoid when you study them for a living!). I devoured classes on medieval culture, ancient history, Byzantium, England, the crusades, archaeology, the medieval church, etc. In all of this, the period that really sparked my interest was Europe before 1000. As I often tell my students, I was captivated with the degree to which even the most detailed and prominent books on this period were full of the subjunctive tense: people who “might or might not have been” kings of England, places that “should perhaps be considered” among the earliest port cities, etc.  This element of unknowable-ness appealed to me, and I was intrigued by the way that early medieval historical work could (as with the sciences) be just as useful when proving a null hypothesis as when generating new information. This was an incredible and broad undergraduate training (I realize this more and more over the years as I myself am developing medieval curricula), and by my senior year I was convinced that there was a way to combine my conversion to environmental history with my fascination with medieval culture, religion, and society.

Luckily, though there wasn’t a clear path for how to pursue this, and the field of medieval environmental history had not fully coalesced (Richard Hoffmann’s AHR article "Economic Development and Aquatic Ecosystems in Medieval Europe" appeared while I was still in college), I found supportive faculty at the University of Minnesota, and also a network of mentors and peers through conferences. Over the course of working on my Master’s thesis and then my dissertation, I realized that although there was a lot of fascinating work developing on the materiality of the human interaction with nature in the Middle Ages, I was drawn to the blurry edges of that interaction—to the ways that human actions, religion, memory, and storytelling intersected, and in particular the ways in which nature and natural resources were drawn into concepts of sanctity. 

This interest has led to both a book on monastic environmental imagination and my current project, which I am pursuing here at the RCC. In it, I am surveying the literary products of Late Antique and early medieval Gaul and Germany to assess the ways in which rivers, springs, fountains, and other sources of fresh water were perceived by medieval society, and how their use of and attempts to control water were described and characterized in histories, saints lives, and  miracle collections. Through this project I am hoping to access not just the practical and tangible ways that people and rivers were connected, but also the abstract ways that rivers worked their way into broader medieval culture, knowledge, and values. I’ve also reconnected with my fascination with river science!

As a medievalist I sometimes worry that it will be too hard to communicate across the modern/pre-modern divide, but my time here at the RCC has already shown me not only how possible it is but also how rewarding. It has been invaluable to have daily reminders of the lessons we teach our students; that the human history of interacting with the non-human world has deep roots, and that it matters that we both understand modern concerns and issues and also where they came from. I am convinced that the opportunities I’ve had here to learn about modern city-river interactions, environmental political theory, and 20th century German ecotourism will give my own work greater depth and context, and will also help me frame the pre-modern world in ways that help me communicate with the concerns of modernists, and that this is what the greatest benefit of my time at the RCC will have been.



It's been a while since my trip to China, but I’m finally both able and free (time-wise, not censorship!) to write a bit about my experience. I think that what strikes me most about the experience is my realization of just how many different Chinas there are, and how many different experiences of modern (and modernizing) China there are for the people who live in it.

The first stage of was the conference “Disasters Wet and Dry” (LINK), co-sponsored by Renmin University and the RCC. Almost 30 scholars were involved, and it was a dynamic and engaging conference. We spent four days together, first at the University (which is larger than my entire college town! And there are lots of giant universities in Beijing!), and then at an “Eco-hotel” compound near the Beijing airport (which is a story unto itself). We had two full days of sessions, where we discussed pre-circulated papers—the intellectual connections between the papers and the discussions were exciting. I was especially excited by how the addition of the Chinese perspective shifted the time scales of discussions in ways that drew in pre-modern European history, and also contextualized the scales and events of pre-modern Europe in comparison to early China. All told, a successful and thought-provoking conference that added even more complexity in my mind to the issue of the significance and meaning of “disasters” in human history.

After the formal conference, we spent a day on a field trip that highlighted three different aspects of China, all of which complement and contradict each other in fascinating ways. First, we took a bus out to a wetland nature preserve that is highly protected (we needed a permit to get in) and is a vast marshland of reeds that protect a remarkable range of bird, insect, and plant species. It was formerly part of the ocean—one of the people at the conference, who had been living in China for ca. 9 months, remarked that this was the first time he had been in a place that smelled “green” since he arrived.

untitled-137To get there, we drove along a massive highway with very little change of landscape—flat, with extensive tree farms and the occasional rice paddy—punctuated by truly massive apartment towers still under construction.


Getting off the highway, the perspective shifted. We drove through a small agricultural village where you could see both the presence of poverty and the preservation of traditions (including the burial of the heads of family in funerary mounds in the fields).


After visiting the marsh, we hopped back on the bus and headed to Tianjin, a boom-town that is part of the redevelopment program in “high-modernist” China. There, we first went to a traditional Buddhist temple, where I was lucky enough to have one of the scholars from Beijing explain some of the devotional practices we were seeing, including the shrine to the Buddha past, present, and future, which I was able to then recognize in the next temple I was at.

This temple was both a tourist site (possibly more foruntitled-216 localsthan for foreigners) and an active temple, but it was contained within what is called an “ancient Chinese culture street”—a bit like Disney’s Main Street—a place full of “old fashioney” crafts etc.  We also (after three days of lavish feasts) went to a typical Chinese fast food restaurant—the first time we had lots of rice!  After lunch, we spent some more time in the culture street, where one of our remarkable hosts showed us how to do traditional calligraphy (on these really neat mats that you write on with water and as it dries the marks disappear).  Here’s the symbol I made:

untitled-233After this encounter with China past (and China present’s neon-filled version of China past), we got a remarkable, unexpected, and extremely fascinating glimpse of China future.  We went to the “city museum” of Tianjin, which was presented like a modern global business headquarters—inside, we were led on a very scripted tour where we were introduced to the modern planned Tianjin—part of a project of enormous scope and vision to turn Tianjin from a moderate city into a global super-city, international part, and planned community with development zones for business, culture, nature, leisure, residence, etc. This was such an antithesis to the “faux old China” we had just seen—but in many ways this was an equally “faux” China—the scale city model we had to go to the second floor to observe from above (complete with laser show) is just as imagined as is the Chinese culture street. But that imagined city is already being built—we had driven past rows of huge apartment buildings mushrooming up in empty fields, and had already seen the span of bridge with the Ferris wheel in the middle, and had seen many of the buildings of the new downtown cityscape. As one of my colleagues pointed out, this museum, with its models and its computer animation movies (and a 4-D movie where the seats moved so that we would think we were flying through Tianjin), was a very expensive chamber of commerce glossy brochure. We often found ourselves wondering where Communism was within this vision of a high-modernist, business-driven city of the future—turns out, it’s in the very way such ambitious plans can be realized. The state still owns all the land—but they lease it out in 99-year contracts, allowing the government to steer private, capital-generating building and development. Fascinating.

Here are some pictures:

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And here is a CNN story on Tianjin:

These impressions of a multi-faceted China, with many different sets of experiences were upheld once I was on my own in the city (which was big, confounding, quieter than I expected, and, yes, dusty from both pollution and the desert slowly seeping in).  A state of the art subway system, neon high-modernist  slabs in Tienanmen alongside communist memorials, stark representations of the ideology of the revolution, ancient gateways (and even Tienanmen’s proximity to the Forbidden city), and Mao’s body and face looming large,

 untitled-295-2 untitled-263all show future China and past China struggling to both coexist and out-shine each other, creating a present China where many people seem to be trapped in the middle, especially those who are older and worked their lives for a system that no longer exists, and leaves them without security or financial stability and those who, though young and excited about the future (“we have our own American dream now” was something that I heard from several younger people) but who, with the economy growing and spiraling, cannot afford to leave their parents’ home, or to invest their lives and monies in the new cities like Tianjin.

Beijing has luxury apartments and shopping zones and poverty-filled hutongs (alleys) where families live in the middle of the bustling tourist districts, separated by unassuming doors and small alleys, and living with clear focus on maintaining their daily well-being.

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The hutongs were full of construction materials, small food stands, drying laundry, and other evidence of the presence of vast amounts of human labor to maintain the city. Bicyclists carry lumber, trees, water bottles (none of the water in Beijing can be drunk until boiled) through the chaotic streets, and luxury cars, rickshaws, and small motorcycle taxis compete for space.

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It was an amazing experience, and I was truly amazed by not only the variety I saw within Beijing, but also by the global variety of human cultures, languages, built-landscapes, lifestyles, and beliefs. Despite globalization, and the fact that I can buy an American flag made in China in Ohio and a Starbucks in Beijing, those differences are still real and enduring—and what make studying history, languages, literature, and the other humanities so richly rewarding.

And an update: a friend pointed me to this highly relevant article:


Natural Disasters?

Realizing that it had been a while since I posted, I had decided initially to write a post about my broader research today, but then the horrible tornadoes in Oklahoma happened, and I decided instead to share some of the reflections and conversations that my colleagues and I have been having over the last few weeks about natural disasters.

One of the RCC working themes this round is “Disasters.” I’m actually here under the “ethics” theme because of my interest in religious sources, but increasingly I have found myself writing and thinking about disasters as they appear in medieval sources, and so I gladly joined in when a colleague who is working on the history of two twentieth-century earthquakes suggested that those interested read some articles and chapters on the way “disaster” has been conceptualized by societies and by scholars (particularly historians) and that we then get together and talk about these responses. The result: by far one of the most stimulating discussions I’ve had here at the RCC—six of us met and just wrestled with these issues for over four hours, asking questions about how comparable disasters are, about how geography and climate does or does not matter, about who it is that determines if an event is a “disaster”, etc.  These are questions that I’ve asked my students to think about in my class on the Black Death, and that will be even more in the forefront this time, as I am planning on spending more time on the issue of comparative epidemics and disasters now that I will need to spend less time on the issue of “what was the plague.”

One of the ideas that we kept coming back to was the issue of “natural” disaster.  The idea that “there is no such thing as a natural disaster” is becoming widely circulated, both in academic discourse (especially the sociology of disaster) and in classrooms. By saying this, scholars, teachers, and activists hope to draw attention to the many ways that disasters, though often triggered by environmental forces, are experienced in ways that are connected to social structures, economic systems and inequities, concepts of value (what is worth protecting?), and intellectual and cultural frames of “normal” and “abnormal.”  I myself have often used this line in the classroom, for these very purposes. Environmental historians, too, always wrestle with issues of environmental determinism—we often don’t want to ascribe so much power to “nature” that the role of humans and human societal responses is undervalued, and so for a long time now this way of explaining the complexity of disaster has been appealing. However, as environmental scholars, our group kept coming back to the issue of whether or not we should begin to recover the role of nature in natural disasters. Should we begin to once again focus more on the geological, ecological, and climatological forces that are at play when disaster strikes?  Have we done enough work to put the human into the frame that now we can put nature back in again?

Do certain landscapes and places and cities and societies experience nature and natural disaster differently?  Does a monsoon system understand flooding differently than a steppe land? Do the people who live in hurricane zones normalize storms in ways similar to the way that extreme cold is normalized in Arctic societies, to where only extraordinary storms merit the label of disaster?  We kept coming back also to the question: What, if anything, is the difference between a natural risk and a natural disaster?

These discussions are also particularly timely for me as I am heading to China tomorrow for a conference on “Disasters Wet and Dry: Rivers, Floods, and Droughts in world history”. I spent much of the weekend reading the pre-circulated articles, and though I can’t discuss them specifically, I noticed some trends about discussions (both modern and historical) about these water-related disasters that paralleled some of the conversations we had in our informal group at the RCC. Mostly, my thoughts right now are circulating around the issue of river disasters. River flooding and drought is particularly tricky for disaster studies, because both are normal features of the water cycle, and both are common throughout the world. What are the “tipping points” that make one flood or drought routine and another a disaster? Are they human, like war or food supply chains or unpreparedness or excessive river engineering that creates flood risk, or are they natural, like unusual rainfall patterns or the ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) or atmospheric patterns or the coincidence of drought and animal disease?

As I prepare to head to what promises to be a fascinating and complex series of discussions, I keep thinking about Oklahoma, and about the immensity of the tragedy and loss that the communities are facing, about all the ways that our social and economic and political systems will influence response efforts, safety, recovery, and even news coverage and cultural response.

But I also keep thinking, we can’t lay the responsibility for the disaster occurring on those same forces. A  tendency in the modern anthropocene is to see every aspect (good and bad) about the world as influenced by us, caused by us, or controllable by us. We have to remember that the world is bigger and wilder and more arbitrary than we imagine or control. Nature acts, and sometimes it acts upon us rather than in response to us. There IS such thing as a natural disaster, and Oklahoma is dealing with one right now.

Hagia Sophia Part two: “I was here”

Some of you might have heard of the famous 9th century Viking runic inscription carved into the balustrade of the gallery of the Hagia Sophia. First, it is worth pointing out that the presence of Vikings in Byzantium was not unusual; the elite imperial Varangian guard was likely composed of Rus Vikings, and there is heavy evidence of constant and steady trade between the Scandanavian regions and the Islamic world, facilitated by Constantinople. The runes are too old to be clearly read, and so we don’t really know what “Halfdan” was doing or thinking at the time he left his mark on this glorious building.


Viking runes

I am fascinated by both modern and historical graffiti, and so I made sure to try to find the runes while I was exploring the Hagia Sophia; the experience of looking for them was fascinating, and opened my eyes to the hundreds (if not thousands) of people who have, like Halfdan, left their mark on the building. Though the Vikings get top billing, there are both older and younger inscriptions surrounding the runes, and inscribed into many of the walls at eye-level throughout the second story. They vary from full names to initials to signs. Some are in Greek, some in Latin, others in Arabic, and even (I think) in Asian characters.



In fact, you could give a quick overview of medieval and Early Modern hands from these inscriptions!

But truly, the ones that really grabbed me, and the ones that I will probably remember long after other details of my trip have faded, were the simple crosses or other marks of the (possibly illiterate) pilgrims visiting this holy site. One person simply marked his presence by drawing a stick-man on the wall:


What I keep thinking about is the way that so many people have been compelled to leave a part of themselves, to mark their visit and their presence in this place—to say to the world (and possibly to God/Allah) “I was here.”  My visit mattered. My time here is worth noting. I think this is more than just “tagging”—itself also a fundamental claim of presence at a particular place, because of the cultural, spiritual, and historical meaning of the building. There is no denying that it is an exceptionally special place (see my last post), and this would not have been lost on visitors, even if they didn’t speak the language or culturally identify as “Byzantine.” I suspect this is much less like spray painting a wall and a lot more like buying conch shells at Compostelo, kissing Oscar Wilde’s grave (for a sad update, see here), taking a rubbing from the Vietnam memorial, or throwing a coin in the Trevi fountain. It’s a way of proving to yourself that you have made a meaningful trip, that it has changed you, that you acknowledge the power of the place, and that somewhere, deep down, you want it to matter that you were there.

Today, we do that with pictures (I’m perfectly complicit in this), but when that wasn’t an option, people chose other means. This is famously true of Persepolis’ ruins, where many people have left their mark, including Cornelius de Bruijn, a Dutch artist who was the first to publish drawings of the site, and Henry Stanley (of Dr. Livingston fame).

This is of course not only things that people do to buildings they visit. They do it to buildings they build as well. The pantheon of Rome (until now my favorite building I had ever visited) shouts to the world, “M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIUM·FECIT”, or Marcus Agrippa son of Lucius made this during his third consulsip.”

For the Hagia Sophia, I keep returning to how similar the actions of the people who etched crosses onto the walls were to the actions of an Emperor who commissioned the building—the desire to be remembered, to be noticed, and to leave behind a trace of your presence in a place that has meaning to you.  After all, isn’t the idea of “I was here” exactly what lies behind Justinian’s Solomon quote???

Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia

Last weekend, I went to Istanbul (erstwhile Constantinople) I have been slow to post lately because of how overwhelming and, frankly, indescribable my experience in Istanbul was. It is a place that is different from anything else I’ve experienced. I’ve never been that far East, never been to a predominately Islamic country, even though Istanbul is relatively secular, and have never ever been in crowds of people quite like those I encountered last week. I am sure that once I spend time in China in May, I will in retrospect realize how similar Istanbul was to other places in/connected to Europe, but for now, my overwhelming impression is how Eastern it is (and though I did not go to Asia, one afternoon I could see it from my boat). I packed an incredible amount of things into three days: Topkapi palace, a boat ride on the Bosphorous, a trip to the Byzantine church of Chora, visits to the Blue Mosque and the Suleyman mosque, wandering around the city’s maze of streets, visiting the Grand Bazaar and the spice market, seeing the remnants of Constantinople and walking along the Theodosian Land walls. But of course the main thing I did, and the main reason that I seized the opportunity of living relatively close to Turkey, was to visit the Hagia Sophia. I suppose I made a pilgrimage of sorts there.


And it was worth it—it is an astounding, dazzling, and completely confounding building that reminded me forcibly of the power of space and place in religious and spiritual identity. Even though no longer a church (which it was for almost a thousand years—more if you count earlier buildings on the same spot) or a mosque (which it was for nearly 500 years), the air of spiritual devotion lingers palpably, and the space is charged with the energies generated by 1500 years of religious worship. Plus, it is unfathomably big.

Yet that’s not always apparent from the outside. I think what struck me most immediately was that even though it is a vast building, it has the same architectural effect as other, smaller, Byzantine churches like San Apollinaris in Ravenna—unassuming and oddly small-seeming from the outside (unlike, say, Gothic cathedrals) and surprisingly and suddenly vast on the inside.


Even from a distance, the building hunkers down; it feels like it is growing out of the ground slowly rather than leaping out.


Clearly, this is a big building, but on the outside, the closer you get, the easier it is to lose a sense of that. These are pictures of the entrance to the church—no sense of scale anymore.


Even upon entering, the enormity of the interior space is not immediate: unless you enter through the main imperial ceremonial doors. If you enter from the side (as most people would have), you still can’t fully sense what’s coming:



Then suddenly this vast space opens up and you can’t even SEE the top of the building at first. You really do just feel like you are in a vast outdoor space; then eventually you start to realize the miracle of the dome and the vibrance of all of the amazing details.


What bowled me over was that even though I realize it would have been much brighter originally (see this “restored” part) you realize how even glowing and sparkling and full of color, THAT would not have been overwhelming in the way that the smaller churches are. Instead, the giant size would have given the decorations (often truly overwhelming in Byzantine churches) an oddly muted and simpler feel. The space is simply so big, that you can’t take in anything but empty space at first—it’s only when you start poking around that you see the smaller things. I think, in fact, that what I will remember the most is the feeling of being in a big, clear, outdoor space, but knowing all the time it was built.

This building would be amazing in whatever context, but knowing that it was built (in five years!!!) in the sixth century, and is still (with interventions, of course) standing and powerful and so stunning is a poignant reminder of the vitality and creativity and vigor of people of the past; we are often so fixed on a sense of historical progress that we imagine we are the innovators, forgetting both that the spirit of innovation existed in the past and also that the innovations of the past can still evoke a sense of marvel today.

The Danube

I took two very different trips over the past two weeks, both of which involved the Danube River, its changing history, and two very different river/city interactions. First, I went to Regensburg, which still has (esp for Bavaria) a great deal of its medieval architecture and city plan intact, including a bridge from the twelfth century. The next weekend, I went to Vienna, where I presented for the first time on my newest research project (including some early medieval poems on the source of the Danube) and also met with friends and colleagues who are part of a research group that is doing a long-term environmental history of the Danube, and took a walk along the course of the former Danube. During the early and high middle Ages, Regensburg was an important economic and administrative city in Bavaria, and had a great deal of wealth and prestige (in part because of its strategic Danubian location). This only increased when the Steinerne Brücke (Stone bridge) was built across the Danube, connecting the city to Eastern land traffic. It’s a massive bridge, and remains in use up to today, though now it is pedestrian only.untitled-228This was as you might guess a massive building effort, and the project required not only huge amounts of materials, but also an extensive labor force, who all, of course, had to eat!  Enter the Regensburg Wurstkuchl, that allegedly opened all the way back in the 1100s to serve food to the bridge workers. It eventually took over a small storage shed built along the medieval wall alongside the quay to continue to serve dockworkers and bridge traffic. Today it still serves beechwood smoked wursts  and kraut (that’s all they have!) and you can sit out alongside the bridge and the Danube enjoying a very medieval view and experience.

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(note that the back of the wurst hut is the vestige of the old medieval town wall!)

In addition to this remarkable piece of medieval engineering, another aspect of life along the changing Danube really stuck out to me: the presence of historical and modern flood markers on buildings noting the high water points of memorable floods.

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Here are examples, both from the walls of the Wurstkuchl, <--one from 1893

and one -->   from 2011.



There was also an interesting temporary set of displays around the city showing the height at individual locations of the flood from 1994 and then, at the top of the sign, the estimated height of where a “hundred year flood” would come up to in that same location.

I was quite intrigued by this combination of public history, environmental education, and risk awareness, and when I talked to a colleague who has worked on medieval and early modern river flooding, he pointed out part of what this campaign may be doing—it turns out that Regensburg used to have many many more markers on buildings of historic flood levels, but that today, many owners are removing them, because they hurt the resale value! (Of course, taking the sign off doesn’t change the flood risk at all, and perhaps even increases risk due to setting aside awareness of floods….but perceptions….)

So, this was my first peek at the Danube; my second experience exactly one week later was a very different way of thinking about change over time and the erasure of the markers of the river’s past on a city. Through my role with the journal Water History, I have been lucky to get to work with a special issue on the Danube, featuring the work of an Austrian team working on the environmental history of the Danube. It’s a groundbreaking project and an exciting interdisciplinary group of historians and scientists. One of the things that they have demonstrated is the tremendous amount of change that has taken place over the past 1000 years both to the river itself (which until recent times was a very active and fluctuating river) and to the relationship of the city and the river. Saturday, I went with one of the project members (Gertrud Haidvogl) on a walk in the middle of downtown Vienna to see this first-hand.  She took a reconstructed map of the river from the early 1700s (part of the broader project) and laid it over a satellite image of the modern city—and we headed out.

Here was once the main arm of the Danube and an area of fishing houses:


Here is the Donaukanal, which in the 17th and 18th centuries was not only part of the main branch of the Danube, but also probably at least twice as wide with islands in it.


And finally, the modern “Danube,” set aside from the modern town through a massive engineering project that also made it straight and predictable.


It is a fascinating story, and one that should be soon available for you to learn more about--I will post links once the journal is available for readers!! It was a remarkable thing to see the complete scale of the transformation, to understand more tangibly how completely the river and its history have slipped away from the city, and to see the magnitude of the deliberate changes that have been made to the Danube.

Put together, these two experiences of very different stretches of the Danube showed both how connected the river still is to some of its past identities and how much people have deliberately altered their relationship to this river, and even tried at different points to both record and forget the fluctuations of this massive river.


Last weekend, I took a train to Prague, where I explored a cathedral, poked around the medieval old town, crossed back and forth across the Charles Bridge, learned a lot about the city's Jewish history, toured a fantastic art museum, saw a surreal theater/ballet/movie performance, had some definitely not watered down Budweiser, and even found a flock of plastic penguins. Though it would be impossible for me to fully convey my experience, I wanted to share a few highlights and overall impressions of the city. First, the cityscape. Prague reminded me a lot of Vienna (unsurprisingly, given that they were  both important Hapsburg seats of power, and both led some of the late 19th and early 20th century architectural revolutions). There was  a really dynamic blend of architectural styles, with medieval, early modern, modern, and even high modernist/cubist buildings fighting for space and notice, yet oddly all blending in together into a colorful jumble.


Furthermore, the older sections of town are a maze of older streets, adding to the feeling of surprise when you turn corners and see new things, or when a narrow alley opens up suddenly onto a major square.

The city also laid out along the river, and the river and its crossings (for centuries only one bridge, now called the Charles Bridge) have shaped the city's history and economic fortunes. Today, and in the medieval past, the river is towered over by the Prazsky Hrad, the castle/cathedral complex that is one of the more fascinating blends of past and present that I've experienced in a Castles/Cathedrals context.

The first Christian church on the site dates from the 10th century, when Prague's Prince Vaclas (Wenceslas) converted to Christianity.The crypt still contains some architectural remnants of the first church, but the present cathedral was untitled-98begun in 1394.

The new Gothic cathedral was begun by Charles IV in honor of Prague becoming an archbishopric, and he brought in foreign architects (first French and then, after his death, an Englishman). The death of the second architect in 1399 again halted construction, which was then completely abandoned as a result of the Hussite wars. (A side note, my train to Prague was called the Jan Hus. The other is called the Franz Kafka--I think I chose safely.)

It was not until the 19th century that work on the cathedral resumed, when this time Czech architects and artists took over, building the entire nave in a style that at first blush, fits smoothly into the overall medieval style and scale of the Gothic cathedral. It was finished in 1923, making the entire construction period almost six centuries! The next two pictures show the cohesion of the plan:



But what makes this truly fascinating is that when you look closer, the modern artists made the interior and exterior details, art, gargoyles, statuary, wall paintings, etc. unabashedly modern.

untitled-99 - CopyThe windows were designed and executed by contemporary painters, the crypt's royal tombs were redesigned to fit  Beuax Artes styles, and there are Jugendstil touches everywhere. It is clear to see how this became a showcase for Prague's cultural and artistic goals, and also a symbol of the city's imperial history and connections.

Not to ignore the castle--it also has a modern afterlife, since it is still the everyday workplace (though not residence) of the Czech Prime Minister.

One of the other true highlights of my trip was spending a morning in the historic Jewish quarter, where I toured several synagogues, visited the Jewish history exhibits, and saw an extraordinary holocaust memorial. The Jewish quarter (now called the Josefov) dates to at least the late 1200s, when the Jewish community was granted its own liberties by the king (locking them thereby, as in France, into a strange dependent/protected relationship with the state). The medieval history was rife with tensions, including an awful 14th century pogrom, but in the main this was a thriving community, and in the 1700s and early 1800s, produced some amazing architecture within the district, including the stunning 1846 Spanish Synagogue. (I wasn't allowed to take pictures within the synagogues, unfortunately). Because of its beauty, when the Nazi's occupied Prague they left much of this old Jewish quarter intact, and then built a new, "model" ghetto outside of Prague at Terezen/Theresienstadt.

Which brings me to the memorial--beginning in the 1950s, a memorial was made inside the Pinkas synagogue; the names of the victims from Prague were written on the walls. In the 90s, UNESCO funding helped its restoration, and now 80,000 names are hand painted throughout the many rooms of the building. It was one of the most simple and shocking memorials I've seen. Crushing. Also, the official picture can't help you understand the scope--it is an entire synagogue covered in names. Floor to ceiling. My first glimpse of room after room of people floored me. (Again, I couldn't take pictures, but it's really worth the moment to look at these links)

There was a museum spread between two of the historical synagogues, that focused on the community, its changing makeup, privileges, and persecutions. One thing I feel the need to point out though is that the only time that women appeared in the exhibits were as victims of the Nazis (or as resistors to them within the Prague Ghetto)--there were no sections on women's work, on the 19th century Jewish family, etc.

In contrast, the other museum in the Josefov, the Museum of Decorative Arts, was quite innovative, and taking some real conceptual risks, integrating the work of current sculptors, glass-blowers, and other artists alongside the historical design they showcase. The building itself is a stunning 19th century building, and it hosts collections of textiles, glass and ceramics, clocks, jewelry, bronzeworking, graphic arts, photogrpahy, etc. The entire hall of timepieces was really the highlight for me! It also has a "Cabinet of Wonders"--a room holding a hodgepodge of intricate and intriguing pieces from throughout the history of Czeck design. Adding to this was a truly interactive feel--not only the modern pieces in dialogue with the past, but also creatively designed wall cases that stretched from floor to ceiling and let visitors move the shelves up and down on a track (like those old cases for baseball cards and coins in collectible stores, but GIANT), and each room had the main items on display and then dozens and dozens of drawers you could open to see even more pieces. It was a delightful museum, and highlighted the reasons that Czech glass is really so famous.

As you can see, there was a lot that captured my imagination, and I'm really happy that I took the time to visit, even though I knew next to nothing about the city beforehand. A wonderful reminder of the payoffs of curiosity and a bit of spontaneity.

(ps--told you so!)  untitled-483

Rivers Week

Last week I was surrounded by rivers--literally and intellectually.  It started with a Sunday afternoon trip to Austria (only two hours away!) where a friend and I took a guided snowshoe hike in the Alpine foothills near the remaining "natural" bed of the Isar River, which flows North and eventually provides Munich's drinking water and rivershore (but more on that later)--up in the nature preserve where we were it is still a clear, cold, fast, and gravelly river. Just north of the preserve and right along the Austrian/German border the river is dammed to create flood reservoirs and help water engineers control the downstream levels. However, in a quirk I didn't understand until later in the week, trucks are paid to routinely take gravel from above the dam and put it back in the river below the dam. I wasn't able to get a pic of the waterworks, but here's part of the Isar's Alpine watershed (I'm not entirely clear on whether it's the Isar or a tributary): untitled-189

At the end of the week, I attended a conference workshop hosted by the Carson Center, "Rivers, Cities, Historical Interactions" that brought together scholars from all over the world who are working on the complex ways that (mostly) modern cities interact with their rivers. The first day of the conference included a walk along the Isar in downtown Munich, led by an ecologist and a sociologist who specialize on the Isar. We learned about the medieval history/legends of Duke Henry the Lion bridging the river, about the modern canalization and embankment of the river, and of even more recent attempts to restore some of the "natural" river properties by undoing embankments and allowing the river to partially regain its earlier qualities of meanders, fluctuating gravel islands (that's what the dam/gravel issue is tied to!--if they didn't routinely ship the gravel to the other end of the dam it would 'silt up' with gravel. The Alpine rivers are so fast that they carry large gravel pebbles hundreds of kilometers away). Here are two pictures of today's Isar.

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In this first one, you can see portions of the more "naturalized" river bed. However, planners did make the decision to fix the shores--the river will be maintained like this rather than allowed to move its gravel banks around.


And here you can see the differences between the re-naturalized Isar bank (left) and the still (and probably permanently) embanked/canalized bank (right).   Apparently in summers, up to 40,000 people a day come to the riverfront, and there's even a permanent wave that is surf-able in one of the parks.

The workshop then continued, lasting through Saturday night. I learned a great deal about the work that people are currently doing on the issue of river history, in particular about the history and legacy of modern and contemporary attempts to regulate rivers, to use rivers to enact new and changing concepts of the roles of governments, cities, and industry in urban development, and in one particularly striking paper, on the ways that traditional boatman songs in China mapped out the river and showed the relationship between urban cultures.  I met some very engaging and interesting people, and was left  encouraged about my decision to pursue river history yet also a bit more concerned about some of the gaps in historical discussions and analysis that exist between pre-modern/modern and (perhaps more importantly for my current project) cultural and urban/enviro-tech/political approaches.


Meet Fortunatus, Poet and Saint

In the waning years of Roman Imperial authority, two young scholars, Felix and Fortunatus, were studying in Ravenna. Weary and eyesore, they experienced a healing miracle at a Martin shrine in Ravenna, when they put oil from a lamp on their tired eyes. This small act of devotion is one of literally hundreds of miracles stories attributed by Gregory of Tours to St. Martin of Tours, the bishop and former Roman soldier. It attests; indeed, to the spread of Martin's cult, was increasingly important in Southern Gaul, and to continued connections between the former centers of Roman power and the former frontiers, increasingly becoming new centers of culture, economy, and Christian identity. It is in many ways unremarkable

Yet for one of the scholars involved, this miracle might very well have been life-altering.

Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus was born in the 530s or 540s in Italy, and as a young man was educated in Ravenna, where by his own account, he was exposed to a traditional elite Roman education: “sipping a few tiny drops from the waters of grammar, taking a small draught from the stream of rhetoric, I have barely had my rusty edge sharpened by the whetstone of law.” (trans by Judith George). He had already started to promote his poems, writing two to prominent Italian bishops. Yet Fortunatus decided to strike off on his own and leave Italy--heading North for the lands of St. Martin.

We can't be sure how large a role the miracle he experienced in Ravenna played in Fortunatus' decision to journey North to Gaul, since he was of course also drawn north by his desire to launch his budding career and to establish a literary reputation. Fortunatus appears to have recognized the potential of connecting himself to the Frankish court. He arrived in Gaul in 566/567 after a lengthy journey, and quickly became enmeshed in the royal court. Trying to earn the patrons and privileges that a life of letters required, Fortunatus quickly tied himself to the Frankish court, writing most of his earliest poems for Sigibert’s court and for local bishops. Many of these were poems of praise, and they highlighted both Fortunatus' talents and the symbols of power and identity of both Frankish and Gallo-Roman elites. He praised bishops for their building projects, compared them to classical figures, and promoted their literacy. Fortunatus’ reputation as a poet who could help give your political and ecclesiastical efforts both validation and the ring of Romanitas spread quickly, and he became a popular and prolific poet.

Fortunatus also wrote hagiographical works--lives of saints and martyrs, miracle collections, and hymns. He worked alongside Gregory of Tours to gather local miracle stories, and eventually became bishop of Poitiers, at which point he slowed his literary works (unsurprising, considering bishops at that point were spiritual leaders, mayors, judges, politicians and trained diplomats rolled into one). After his death his fame and reputation lingered, and he was celebrated (though never officially recognized) as a saint.

Yet since his youth, Fortunatus was first and foremost a poet--he wrote nine books of poems of varying length and on topics as wide ranging as flowers, food, castles, episcopal duties, and wedding celebrations. He composed ABCdarian poems (where the first letter of every line or verse when read straight down is the alphabet) and carmina figurata (a popular form of poetry in the Early Middle Ages when the words could be read in several directions and were visually laid out on a grid / picture) on the true cross.  Here's an example of one of his figured poems:

carmina figurata 2

Though many of his poems are light and even comic, he did not shy away from tackling trickier issues including theology, good government, and the tabloid scandal of the day, the shocking murder of Galswinth, the Visigothic princess who married Childebert I. He wrote a poem defending Gregory of Tours from charges brought against him, praised saints and bishops for their attempts to quell heresy, and expounded on the nature of the cross.

In his poetry Fortunatus depicted the complexities, concerns, and preoccupations of the sixth century Gallo-Roman elite, who were struggling to navigate political change and conflict, the growing cultural force of Christianity, the continuing gravitational pull of classical culture, and the new economic, urban, and geographical realities of Merovingian Europe.

He also wrote about rivers. A lot. He described river trips he took, wrote a silly poem about how angry he was because his boat had been requisitioned by the royal cook, described the spring and fountain of Bordeaux, portrayed the fear of river disasters and drought, and rejoiced in the beauty of a calm summer day along the river banks. He wrote about fish, and baths, and boats and wine, and gives us a remarkable glimpse into the myriad ways that people living alongside rivers in the early Middle Ages saw them as economic arteries, pleasant sites of recreation, roads, source of food and livelihoods, and as sites resonant with religious meaning.


images from the British Library