A Big Fish Story

"Now, creature of the surface shall thy praise be sung, O mighty silure, whom, with back glistening as though with olive oil of Attica, I look on as a dolphin of the river--so mightily thou glidest through the waters and canst scarce extend thy trailing body to its full lenght, hampered by shallows or by river weeds."* Waller_aus_dem_Ossiacher_See This account by fourth-century poet and teacher at the Imperial Court, Ausonius of Bordeaux, is from The Moselle, a long hymn to the Mosel River. One of the many remarkable things about this poem is a list of all of the fish of the Mosel, with their attributes and  characters poetically described. He continues: "But when thou urgest thy peaceful course in the stream, at thee the green banks marvel, at thee the limped waters [marvel]. Intrigued by this "gentle whale of our Moselle" that "brings glory to the mighty stream," I figured surely this was a poetical exaggeration, part of Ausonius' attempt to portray the Mosel as bigger an better than not only other rivers, but also the sea.But as I started to explore some fish data, it became increasingly clear that he silure was most likely the silurus glandis, otherwise known as the sheat-fish or the wels catfish. Stamps_of_Germany_(DDR)_1987,_MiNr_3097_I

These fish that like both fresh and brackish water, can grow to over three meters and live up to 100 years. They are smooth, big, ugly, and indeed a bit "whale-like" in their bulk and appearance. (Do a google image search--I dare you!) But recently, Ausonius' gentle giant has become a monster! It is "built to kill" according to Animal Planet, is a potential "man-eater" and even (gasp!) attacks defenseless dachshunds. Headlines scream "Hunt for a man-eater"; "Der Monster-Wels aus den Schlachtensee" and that "Giant catfish in India turn to preying on humans." So how does a perception of a fish change so much over time?

In part, this shift is due to some high profile incidents from the last decade. In 2008, German swimmers claimed to have been attacked by something big while swimming. One young girl was reportedly drug underwater, and several adults had their legs bitten badly. An article from the Spiegel magazine includes this information: "We don't go in the water any more," Berlin student Stephanie Kahl told Bild. "We just stay near the shore, where the catfish can't go." Jeremy Wade, in his book River Monsters (he's also host of an Animal Planet show with the same name) wrote, “Although there is no physical evidence to support any of these stories, the attacks in Germany seemed to lend them credence and revive speculation that there might be a freshwater man-eater in the heart of Europe.” It would in fact be easy to simply blame our modern fascination with "killer" nature--see for example this new weather channel series. But though this is clearly a contributing factor, the modern focus on the wels as "man-eater" is, surprisingly, nothing new!

An 1853 essay from Fraser's Magazine on the wels and some other fishes pointed out that there were rumors of small boys being found inside their stomachs, “and from the paunch of another, who had fattened for sixteen years in a hole under a gentleman’s kitchen, and was eight cubits long,a man’s hand, with three gold rings on the fingers, was pulled out." However, the anonymous author went on to note, the neighbors were not overly quick to blame the fish, since "the circumstance of finding any part of a man stowed away in such a pantry was sufficient to create a strong suspicion of violence and unfair play.” So, a littoral example of feeding ones enemies to the fishes?

Clearly, by the 1700s (when it was scientifically named) and 1800s, there was already an association between the wels and not only monstrous size but also monstrous (and, I should note, barrier crossing) behaviors--in this case eating (or, as is more likely, scavenging) of humans, but many modern you tube clips and articles emphasize the ability of the wels  to "beach" itself to catch small prey on land--breaking the barrier of fish "safe" in the water. Granted, the medieval sample of references to the wells is much smaller, but if Ausonius is at all representative, these ideas were not foremost in the experience of the wels before the 1500s. So--what changed?

Though I must here admit to being only at the start of trying to unpack this, I suspect that we have here a change in human perceptions of an animal in part driven by changes in climate and river use that first caused the wels population to shrink dramatically in Western European rivers and then, more recently, to return. Though the wels is not treated as a full "invasive" species, it is considered an "introduced" species now in many parts of Europe where it was native before the Little Ice Age made river temperatures too low for successful wels populations. As an interesting part of this temperature dyamic, part of the reason the wels might now be returning is the increasing temperatures of rivers like the Rhine due in large part to industrial activity and waste (see Marc Cioc's excellent book on the Rhine for the many effects of these developments). Introduction has been largely connected to sport fishing (for example to the Ebro river in Spain and the Scottish Lake District (Nessie, anyone?) Thus, the wels it no longer a familiar part of the river, but a foreigner whose behaviors (protecting the eggs in the grasses during mating season, or scavenging dead bodies) are unknown and decontextualized, becoming "attacks."

This is just a small moment from my research, but is at least leaving me hopeful that I will not only find interesting things about rivers in medieval sources, but will also find meaningful connections between the tangible ways that people related (or not) with their ecosystems and the ways that they inscribed nature into their cultural imaginations.

(*note translation from the Loeb edition of Sidonius Apollinaris' poems--I haven't been working on my own yet)


On Saturday, I took advantage of the blanket of snow that has covered Southern Germany this week, and hopped on a train to Fuessen in order to go see Neuschwanstein, the castle built by Ludwig II of Bavaria in the late 19th century. For those who don't know, Ludwig was the young heir to a beleaguered Bavarian State in 1864. He quite quickly became caught up in first the Seven-Years War and then the Franco-Prussian war, and consequently in 1870 agreed to Bismarck's creation of the German Empire, thus losing both Bavarian independence and his ow sovereignty. He had always been interested in the arts and in Germanic myth, and became the patron of much of Wagner's work. Particularly once he lost his actual political power (and had his nation swallowed up by another), he became even more wrapped up in a view of mythic kingship, heroic nationalism, and escapism, and slowly descended into eccentricity and/or madness. He died (likely by suicide) in 1886, a day after being deposed for mental instability. Despite this rich and complex biography, he is now best known outside of Bavaria for his castles: Herrenchiemsee, Linderhof, and Neuschwanstein.  I'll write more about his castle-building campaign in later posts--for now, I'll just share a few impressions and pictures of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau (which I last visited as a kid).

As my colleague Tom Lekan (who studies tourism) pointed out, despite the site's popularity, Schwangau and the castle complexes are remarkably underdeveloped in terms of crazy tourist infrastructure. In fact, it was oddly refreshing to me that the ambiance had changed very little since I was here as a child. The signage is even cute and unobtrusive!

We chose to skip formal castle tours for now (I'll go back and see both castles later in my stay) and take the hike up to the steel cable bridge (the Marienbrueke) that Ludwig rebuilt in order to hightlight the beauty of his castle. This was really a great day--the walk was strenuous but beautiful, and the snow muted everything--the forest was hushed--you could hear branches creaking and the heavy snow tumbling down off of the pine trees. As you climb up through the 19th century fir forest, you only rarely see the vista down below, and never see the castle (last seen from below in town). Then you reach the bridge, and, well, see this:

Ludwig's eccentric, extravagant, and ambivalent castle (bankrupted 19th century Bavaria, underpins modern Bavaria's economy) is extraordinary--and I'll write more on it after I do the full tour. What I was most struck by this trip (beside the crystal beauty of the snowy Bavarian landscape) was how much Hohenschwangau contributes to this story.

Hohenschwangau was Ludwig's "childhood home"--his father built this "lego castle" on the site of a ruined 12th century castle between 1832 and 1836. It is "Neo-Gothic" and It became the family retreat from court life in Munich, and one can see how much it's stylized medievalism and "wilderness" setting must have influenced the artsy, imaginative young Ludwig. It helps contextualize his own Orientalism and Romanticism, yet also highlights the scale and expense of Ludwig's castles by contrast.

All in all, a wonderful day out, and I'm looking forward to returning and to seeing all three of Ludwig's palaces.

Manuscripts and Munich

Hi everyone! I arrived in Munich on Tuesday afternoon, and spent that day settling into my new apartment, which is both cuter and smaller (in a good way) than I expected. Wednesday I went to the Rachel Carson Center for the first time, and met my new colleagues and compatriots and filled in all of my paperwork, etc. Thursday is when things really got going--I went to work in the morning, and started working with Ausonius' poetry (4th century Latin poet--but more on him in another post), and we had our first lunchtime colloquium--which happen every Thursday. At these, the Carson fellows take turns giving 20-25 minute research talks for the other fellows, the Center's graduate students, and anyone from the public who wants to come. This week's was on Canadian mining pollution. I am already recognizing through the talk and through many interesting conversations with other fellows how different and engaging it will be to be surrounded by other environmental historians.

Since I am trying to really set a M-F work week for myself, on Saturday I went exploring.The morning began with a terrific surprise--Snow! So I headed down to the Altstadt to wander around with my camera before heading to a planned trip to a museum exhibit with two of my new colleagues: Pracht auf Pergament or "Power on Parchment, treasures of the book arts from 780 to 1180. Those of you who have taken classes from me know how much I love early medieval manuscripts--this was an exhibit hosted by the Bavarian state archives of75 manuscripts! It was astounding in its scope--seeing so many of the highest quality manuscripts all at once is not over overwhelming, it is also highlights the range and variety of artistic and spiritual work they represent. For a tiny taste of this, see their full catalog.

And they GLOWED! It was amazing (excellent exhibit design in terms of showcasing this) how each one shone and glittered--I was almost bowled over by one page that was an almost completely illuminated (covered with gold leaf) crucifixion scene--when you looked at it from the side, you could see the whole scene, but when you were directly in the beam of its reflected light, all you could see was a golden glow, with the figure of Christ (completely free of gold leaf) standing out starkly from the background. Such an amazing blend of religious intent, artistic imagination, and wealth.

And these were powerful expressions of wealth, spiritual power, and secular control. Many of these were manuscripts prepared specially for kings and queens, or for high celebrations of the most powerful monasteries--they were jewel-encrusted (either at the time or, frequently, in the later Middle Ages), gilded, and full of expensive illustrations and illuminations (see the Uta Codex for example). Yet even with so many manuscripts gathered together, it was surprisingly easy to focus on the beauty, charms, and power of each one (hats off to the exhibit designers--the layout of the exhibit managed to enhance both the collective power and individual beauty of the manuscripts). And there were some very important individual manuscripts that I never expected to be able to see in person: the Bamberg Apocalypse (on loan), the Evangelary of Otto III, the Perikope of Henry II, etc. Yet for me some of the highlights were being introduced to some manuscripts I had not known about.

One that stands out is the Sacramentary of Henry II (you can see it on the exhibit catalog, but read about it in English on this facsimile site). The first thing that struck me is how thick and heavy a manuscript made of 360 vellum pages is! It was also incredibly beautiful and intricate, with one of the most amazing single pages I've ever seen (the one on the left in the facsimile image). When you first looked at it, it resemble the carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels; as you shifted your gaze around, you could read the end of a prayer. It was next to an elaborate crucifixion scene, but I couldn't stop looking at and thinking about the words on the facing page--it was a very personal reminder of the ultimate prayerful and meditative goals of these manuscripts.

A second manuscript that really struck me was a gospel book produced at the monastery of Ottobeuren around 1165. It was bold and vibrant, with a striking immediacy and directness to the illustrations. It had bold, clean colors and very thick, black lines. Here's an image from it.

A few notes on the exhibit--one of the most interesting things to me about this is it's clear experimentation (sometimes extraordinary, sometimes less than successful) with newer modes of information technology. First, the elaborate website, which is great to explore (but absolutely NOT a substitute for a visit, so they really lose no audience that way--and wow, I went early in the morning, and so got in relatively quickly, but there was a line of over 200 people two hours (!) later when we left). Secondly, they attempted an iphone app, which I had hoped would be a different way than audioguides to navigate exhibit, but no, it was unfortunately more of an extended advertisement than a practical thing to use while in the exhibit. But it made me truly curious about the potential for richer apps for museum or historic site navigation. They still used those horrible handsets (that you had to pay for, and that contained 'privileged' information) and this led to the predictable traffic jams around certain MSS. They also made a huge mistake of putting all of the textual information about the MSS in each room on one giant wall plaque rather than with each of the respective MSS, leading to a shallowness of info unless you deliberately sought it out, which I observed very few people doing.

Finally, and most strikingly, they had a separate room where you could use the website's digital editions on full sized touch screens, where they informed people more about the medieval technology of bookmaking (absent from the main exhibit), and where they showcased an astounding modern technology--a giant flatscreen digital book with an interactive "3-D" manipulation technology. You stood at a series of lasers, and moved your hands to turn the pages, pull the book closer, or even close it and turn it around in your hands. Truly captivating and also quite fun, after being so tantalizingly close to the real books.

Alright--enough!  Clearly, I loved this experience. :)  Spend some time on the website--it's worth it.

New Orleans Saints

I spent the weekend before my big trip in New Orleans, attending the AHA (American Historical Association) meeting. It's an annual conference for professional historians, and this year in particular, it was full of panels relevant to my research interests. I was initially kicking myself for having scheduled a trip so close to Departure Day, but now I'm thrilled that I decided to come. I'm a person who thrives on the conference energy, and I'm already feeling eager to start research next week--in part fueled by some particularly engaging panels and presentations on saints, hagiography, and Christian attitudes towards nature. On Thursday, I attended a session that was largely focused on Protestant and evangelical views on nature, and included a terrific paper by Mark Stoll of Texas Tech, whose long term project connects pivotal American environmental movement figures with their denominational identities. I've been lucky enough to see Mark present several parts of this work before, and his blend of intellectual and cultural history alongside an almost prosopographical approach to the figures' background reminds me conceptually of the ways that some medieval scholars treat the intellectual history of the medieval world (albeit with more evidence than we have.....).

From there, I went to a session on medieval and early modern hagiography (writings about saints) and had the chance to hear a paper by Rachel Koopmans about Thomas Becket's miracles, in which she asked the interesting question of whether we can identify the miracle that started Becket's cult. (I found myself thinking a lot about St. Foy during this talk--in part because she does seem to have a "kick start" miracle--when Guibert's eyes were restored.) I had the opportunity to spend a bit more time with Rachel during the conference, and the work she's doing on orality, miracle, and the "subterranean" ways in which rumors, miracle stories, and now lost conversation between medieval people shaped the sources and cult we see is inspiring.

Finally, yesterday I had the remarkable opportunity to attend a session on Peter Brown's new book, Through the Eye of a Needle, a work on the role that wealth (and the redefinition of wealth) had in changing the world of Late Antiquity. Four scholars gave talks about things from their own fields that the book prompted them to re-examine or re-explore, and then he responded to these papers. When he began his comments, he noted that there were a few reasons that he pursued this book project, one of which was that he decided that he "wanted to write a book about change over a long period of time." He also wanted to change some of our sense of who it was that drove some of those changes, and he appears to have focused much of the book (I haven't read it yet) exploring the "mediocres" or middling class men and women of late antiquity who lived through the transformation of the Roman Empire into the medieval West. He (and the other scholars) pointed, for example, to the hundreds of North African bishops of small, even rural, areas who slowly changed the church and society as just as worthy of study as Augustine--and they suggested that it is these everyday people making slow and constant changes that add up to cultural shifts. In Brown's words, in such momentous changes, "The heroes are not always the stars."

This was refreshing, and left me both once more under the sway of his eloquence and rhetoric, but also eager to read his book, to challenge my own sense of the meaning of power and money in early Christianity, and (importantly!) to start on the very first phase of my research project--examining two poets who Brown and his colleagues mentioned directly as important bookends for this period of transition: Ausonius and Venantius Fortunatus. I'm not sure where my next few weeks of reading Late Antique poetry will lead me, but I'm even more excited to get started than I was at the start of the week.

Los Geht's!

Watch this space!

At the prompting of some students and friends, I am going to try out keeping a blog of my semester abroad--starting on 8 January, I will be a Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, working on a project on medieval rivers. I'll try to post here about my adventures in Germany and other far-flung parts of the world, about cool things I learn about the medieval world, and even share some photos.

The title of the blog is inspired by my travel-learning class. :)