Cross-Post: Books Before Print


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Erik Kwakkel, Books Before Print (Amsterdam University Press/ARC Humanities Press, 2018) EUR 34 (paperback), 105 (hardcover), 105 (ebook) (available on Biblio)

Erik Kwakkel, excellent book historian and blogger, has a new book out on the medieval manuscript as a well-engineered tool shaped by readers’ habits and desires.

This beautifully illustrated book provides an accessible introduction to the medieval manuscript and what it can tell us about the world in which it was made and used. Captured in the materiality of manuscripts are the data enabling us to make sense of the preferences and habits of the individuals who made up medieval society. With short chapters grouped under thematic headings, Books Before Print shows how we may tap into the evidence and explores how manuscripts can act as a vibrant and versatile tool to understand the deep historical roots of human interaction with written information. It highlights extraordinary continuities between medieval book culture and modern-world communication, as witnessed in medieval pop-up books, posters, speech bubbles, book advertisements,and even sticky notes.

If you are a little bit interested in the middle ages, most of the illuminated manuscripts you have seen are from the 15th and early 16th century … they are roughly contemporary with the first printed books in Europe. Fifteenth-century Europe was richer than Europe a century or two earlier, it had more rich people who could pay for lapis-lazuli blue and gold dust and silver leaf, and the styles of art are closer to our taste. Early printed books imitated manuscripts like ebooks and websites imitated hardcovers and magazines. But medieval book culture was also different than ours: big margins were fashionable, and books were meant to be memorized not read once and passed on. Specialists called codicologists and art historians know many things which sometimes get brushed over in books aimed at a larger audience.

If you work with medieval books, but didn’t get to take university courses on the subject, reading this and a few of the books in the bibliography would be an excellent idea. You can find the affordable paperback edition on Biblio.

Full Disclosure: I know the author

Max Jähns, Red Figure Vases, and Linen Armour


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A leatherbound book with gold impressed title on the spine

Innsbruck’s copy of Max Jähns, Handbuch einer Geschichte des Kriegswesens von der Urzeit bis zur Renaissance. Technischer Theil. (Leipzig: Fr. Wilh. Grunow Verlag, 1880)

Today, we often take it for granted that ancient texts mentioning linen or leather armour must describe the kind with a yoke over the shoulders and a skirt of ‘feathers’ which we see in Red Figure vase paintings and Etruscan tomb paintings. But like many other aspects of this debate, it is hard to trace back before Peter Connolly in the 1970s. People have collected references to linen and leather armour in literature since the 16th century, but for a long time they did not compare it to artwork any more than they compared it to objects in museums. At first this may have been because travelling to collections of art and accurately reproducing them was impractically expensive. Any scholar could see a collection of antiquities, but the one in their patron’s library was not the one in another scholar’s cathedral or a third’s country house, so they could not refer readers to a specific sculpture and expect that they would seek it out in the way they could cite a line of poetry and expect readers to take down another book and read it. Also, the brighter researchers often noticed that many of these passages describe the armour of barbarians: Egyptians, Assyrians, Iberians. John Kinloch Anderson is the first writer who comes to mind who explicitly identified the “linen and leather armour” he saw in Greek texts with the armour with shoulder flaps in Greek sculptures and paintings (Military Theory and Practice in the Age of Xenophon, 1970, pp. 22-23). About a hundred years before, him, a Prussian staff officer named Max Jähns had some different thoughts on this question.
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Historiography, Forschungsgeschichte, and Geschichtsschreibung


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I am going to say a bad word: historiography. The problem with this word is that it can either mean “the writing of history” or “the history of writing about history.” Thus Roman historiography can be history written by Romans, but it can also be the things which people in the last few hundred years write about those Roman writers. Sometimes it even refers to the science of history, and to whether arguments obey the rules of logic and the rules of evidence, as when Karin Wulf writes:

And no, I don’t always read this way [intro, first and last pages of each chapter, conclusion, skim the footnotes, done]. For work that’s in my research area, and when I’m reading for the joy of reading history (which I try to do regularly), I read more deeply and thoroughly. But thinking historiographically, getting a sense of how evidence and argument are related within a book (or essay), and how those relate to other scholarship, I find pretty well served by this approach.

It is as if we had one word which covered novels, book reviews, and textbooks for would-be novelists, but not the words “novel” “book review” and “composition textbook” or “writer’s guide” (or if archaeology and museology were one word, so that sometimes you opened a book hoping for a casual read about Edwardian exhibitions of mummies and found yourself neck-deep in First Intermediate Period pottery chronology). When you see a book like Luke Pitcher’s Introduction to Classical Historiography on the shelf, you have to look closely to see whether it will talk about ancients like Xenophon and Sallust or moderns like Mommsen and Rostovtzeff.

Fortunately, in German we solved this problem a good long time ago. In German we have the two terms Geschichtsschreibung and Forschungsgeschichte. Geschichtsschreibung (“historical writing”) talks about the past, but Forschungsgeschichte (“research history”) talks about what people have said about the past and how they make a case for it. I find that this leads to less confusion.

English does have the term reception history which is the history of how people in general, without policing by a community of experts or commitment to particular professional standards, talk about the past. This can look a lot like the second kind of historiography, but it notices people outside a tiny academic circle. (This can be messier, because while historians usually cite the writers who influenced them, Gary Gygax did not feel the need to explain where he got his definition of a glaive-guissarme, and its hard to prove how much people’s ideas about Xerxes were shaped by seeing Xerxes played by a castrato in an opera). I don’t know why English borrowed this term but not the others, except that since the Second World War American academics have generally been more open to European literary theory than to the German-Dutch tradition of scientific history (although there are exceptions like Michael E. Smith).

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Further Reading: I would like to work through Anna Wierzbicka, Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language (Oxford University Press, 2013) which argues that the quirks of English shape many fields of academic research.

Rochberg on Omens


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Your humble correspondent in the Central European blizzard of January 2019

One of the books which I would like to find time to read is Francesca Rochberg’s Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science (University of Chicago Press, 2016) {available from the publisher}. About a decade ago, she was puzzled why Mesopotamian omen lists include situations which can never occur, such as the appearance of the sun at midnight or a lunar eclipse which moves from west to east across the moon. The Mesopotamian literati were intimately familiar with the movements of the heavens, and had thousands of years of records, so they probably had a firm conviction that this was not the sort of thing which could happen in the ordinary course of events. Were these absurd? The result of block-heads mechanically multiplying omens to cover different combinations of left/right, the three watches of the night, the four directions, and so on regardless of whether that combination was possible? Violations of the order of the heavens on special command of the gods?

Perhaps this is where we step into the realm of the conceivable, or the conceptually possible, as differentiated from the possible, or at least the metaphysically possible … To say certain phenomena in the omen lists are “impossible” or “absurd” because they do not occur and cannot be observed is our judgement and occurs nowhere in the ancient sources. That is to say, our definition of impossible (not in accordance with real properties) is not expressed in the texts. It seems more consistent with the overall makeup of the omen lists that recording a phenomenon as an entry in a codified omen list is evidence that it was regarded as epistemically possible [something which a reasonable person may chose to believe]. That is, the list of statements (P) constitute data, or knowledge, on the basis of which the diviner makes judgements and draws conclusions about what will happen. The use of the terms possible and impossible are, among other things, relative to one’s accepted knowledge of how and what things are.

– Francesca Rochberg, “Conditionals, Inference, and Possibility in Ancient Mesopotamian Science,” Science in Context 22.1 (March 2009) pp. 5-25
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Cross-Post: New Book on Legio IX Hispana


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A book cover with the title in black and a fragment of a Roman sculpture of an eagle below it

Duncan B. Campbell, The Fate of the Ninth: The Curious Disappearance of One of Rome’s Legions (Bocca della Verità Publishing: Glasgow, 2018)

Duncan B. Campbell, the author of many fine books and articles on the Roman army, has published a new book on the mysterious fate of the 9th legion, which fades from the historical record with a building inscription at York dated 108, a scattering of stamped tiles at Nijmegen, and a series of officers who were promoted away from the legion in the middle of the second century CE. It certainly was not involved in the building of Hadrian’s Wall and the other construction projects in Britain after 122 CE. When only the inscriptions from York were known, this lead to a romantic theory that it had been destroyed by the Caledonians or the Brigantes which inspired one of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels. Campbell goes through the history of investigations into this legion, showing how excavations in the Netherlands and Egypt and painstaking work reconstructing the careers of Roman officials allow us to sketch the history of this legion after it left its station at York. This is a story about how scholars methodically build a history of the Roman army and the men who made it up, but also about how once they have committed to a theory, human beings fight to salvage it rather than ask whether a premise was incorrect.

You can find a shorter, earlier version of his argument from Karwansaray Publishers and buy The Fate of the Ninth from Amazon.

Full Disclosure: I have traded emails with the author

The Iron of Khorsabad


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A gate tower six modern stories high with the gate passing through the ground floor

One of the western gates of the city of Bologna, September 2018. Note the put-log holes in the brickwork. Photo by Sean Manning.

Around 1853, gangs of workers under French supervision were excavating Sargon’s palace at Khorsabad, the ancient Dūr-Šarrukin (Fort Sargon). One of the great courts had some long storerooms along one side, and in one which they numbered 86 (or 84), they found marvelous things: “un vèritable mur métallique, occupant tout un côte de la chamber.” The orderly piles of ironware filled a space 5.80 metres wide, 2.60 metres deep and 1.40 metres high: hammers, pick-axes, grappling irons, chains, ploughshares, and fish-shaped iron ingots with a hole through them. The hoard must have weighed more than a hundred tons,* and was so plentiful that it was handed over to local blacksmiths to make sickles, wagon fittings, and other necessary objects. One of them remarked that aside from the famous Persian iron (wootz?) he had never yet worked better metal. Other objects like ploughshares were put back into use by the local farmers and served their purpose. This was all for the best, since most of the artefacts from Khorsabad were sunk by brigands near the Shatt al Arab at Kurnah in 1855 as they were being shipped to Europe. This was the period when the excavators at Susa built themselves a castle to protect themselves and their goods from robbers.

Finds like that were not uncommon in the early days of Assyrian archaeology. At Nimrud, the north end of chamber SW7 contained a mass of rusted scale armour piled 35 cm thick in spots. Groups of rusted-together scales can still be found in museums. Later the graves of three queens rich in ivory, gold, crystal and silver were uncovered at that site: probably Yaba, Banitu, and Atalia who lived in the eighth century BCE and were laid to rest with appropriately gruesome curses upon anyone who violated their chambers. These finds give us another perspective on early iron after looking at the lancehead from Deve Hüyük and the akinakes from the dealer in Iran. By the seventh century BCE, the Assyrians were incredibly rich in iron, and this presupposes a massive industry of charcoal burners and miners and smelters and forgers. So far, the only trace of this is the objects they produced.
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2018 Year-Ender


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A snowz foggy mountain range with green woods below and streetlights turning on

Nordkette, Christmas Eve, 2018

There is snow in the Nordkette, but it is the warmest year in Austria since measurements began in 1767. This winter I am spending Christmas and New Year in Innsbruck rather than burn a lot of oil and money to visit my family. I have some new books to read, friends to drink a coffee or a Glühwein with, and jobs to apply to.

This year I became Dr. Manning, saw my first journal article printed, went hiking with friends, and discovered that Assyriologists are surprisingly interested in talks about swords. Visits to this site increased about 10% despite my slower posting. The most visited pages were Learning Sumerian is Hard, How Heavy Were Doublets and Pourpoints?, my description of how the historical fencers drifted away from me, Fashion in the Age of Datini, and From Aleph Bet to Alphabet.

This fall produced the usual crop of people wondering if keeping a personal website is anachronistic. I don’t see anything wrong with being anachronistic, and as I look at the political economy of the Internet this decade, I see some things which maybe they have not considered.
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Cross-Post: Plataea 2021 Pre-Registration, 28 June to 5 July 2021


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A group of men and women in hoplite kit on a sandy beach

An Ethiopian hoplite on the beach at Marathon circa 2011 or 2015. Photo courtesy of Hoplologia Toronto, photographer unknown

Word of the king: the naked Yaunaya who live in the middle of the sea are plotting an uprising at the city of Plataea. Because they have no king, they expect that it will take three years to organize their wicked plot, saying:

This is initial registration while we recruit and sort out new people and equipment creation. Expect to pay $1000 round trip airfare to Athens and approx. another $750 for a week in Greece which will include side trips to Thermopylae, Artemesium, Delphi and of course Athens. There will be martial arts instruction and some tours included free. We will try to find bus transportation and local hotel or B+B lodging so you have the cheapest fee and so we’re all together. IMPORTANT: We only care that you have a passion for history and/or martial arts. We are race and gender neutral/friendly. We are LGBTQ friendly and have LGBTQ members. If you do not like the idea of women or people of colour in your phalanx, or LGBTQ folks, you should stop right here and do something else in 2021.

The king’s troops from all lands shall go to the city of Plataea and smite the Yaunaya!
. . .

For further information and the signup form see

The Biggest Assyriological Film Festival in History


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A crowd at an academic conference in a lobby with a stone floor, concrete walls, and several tables of books, snacks, and registration papers

The crowd at the 64th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale cum 12th Melammu-Seminar, 16-20 July 2018 in Innsbruck

Back in July the International Assyriological Association held its annual Rencontre in Innsbruck. I could talk about some of the papers I heard and posters I saw, or the curious characters I meet at these, but I am very tired, so I will just talk about one aspect: the largest festival of films in ancient Near Eastern languages in history.

“But Sean,” you must be saying, “it was only two films as part of a five-day conference. Does that really constitute a film festival?” Hear me out! Two films makes a plural, according to the best cuneiform tradition, and it was indisputably a festive occasion. If a celebration where films are showed before their release into theatres and/or streaming is not a film festival, what is? And while I admit that being the largest festival of films in Ancient Near Eastern languages is a bit like being the world’s most prominent armour historian-ichthyologist, if someone wants to beat our record, they are free to organize a showing of three films in ancient Near Eastern languages, say at the 14th Melammu-Symposium in Los Angeles ({ki}AN.TÚR.HI.A).

Both films are adaptations of famous literary texts. Edubba A- The Film is one of the stories about life in the tablet-house preserved in Sumerian on tablets from the age of Hammurabi. Assyriologists debate whether these reflect life at the time of the oldest surviving copies, or are more like J.K. Rowling telling a public-school story based on other public-school stories … it seems that in the age of Hammurabi there was a rush to record Sumerian texts which had previously been memorized on clay. You can find Edubba A- The Film on the Berner Altorientalisches Forum.

The Poor Man of Nippur is a Babylonian tale of poverty, injustice, and one young citizen’s revenge. The original tablet was copied for Qurdi-Nergal at Huzirina (modern Sultantepe, Turkey) sometime between 701 and 619 BCE. This story uses many of the patterns and tropes seen in the folktales collected in the last few hundred years, such as the “History of the First Larrikin” in a medieval Arabic manuscript, so again trying to work out its exact age is difficult. In the interest of equal representation, I can report that this film acknowledges not one but two goats and an archaeological park in the credits. You can find The Poor Man of Nippur with subtitles in your choice of languages on YouTube and a link to a translation of the Akkadian on the CDLI:wiki.

Enjoy! I will embed the videos below the fold.

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Textile Cultures of Archaic Italy and Greece


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Colour photos of a section of woolen textiles preserved as copper salts or ashes

A sample of weft-faced wool tabbies from Greece, 800 BCE-500 BCE. Note the 1 mm long red lines for scale. Photos by Margarita Gleba and Joanne Cutler published as Figure 10 in Margarita Gleba, “Tracing textile cultures of Italy and Greece in the early first millennium BC,” Antiquity 91 (2017) pp. 1205-1222

This week I had a chance to talk with Margarita Gleba about her work on Iron Age (1000-400 BCE) textiles from Spain, Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria. Thousands of fragments are known, often preserved in the corrosion products on bronze grave goods such as vessels or broaches, but understanding them requires rare knowledge and expensive equipment for taking high-magnification photos, and the details are often scattered in publications which are hard to find and use different language to describe the same thing. A Cambridge History of Western Textiles had a brief section on this material which I would like to read, but publication was delayed for almost 20 years while the archaeology moved on, and until this week I did not know of any other overviews.

Most of the peoples from Britain to Afghanistan grew flax and tended sheep and used drop spindles, warp-weighted looms, and tablets to turn linen and wool into cloth, but they made different kinds of textiles in different regions. Textile technology was hard to change, because in recent cultures, girls started to learn to spin and weave as toddlers and spend much of their childhood mastering the skills (Susan M. Strawn, “Hand Spinning and Cotton in the Aztec Empire, as Revealed by the Codex Mendoza,” It is very difficult to change a skill practised for so many years, or persuade adults to take lessons in a skill which children are supposed to master. Moreover, it was bound up with the local crops, climate, and taboos: the sheep in different areas produced wool which was good for different things, and there was a divide between cultures which wove textiles to shape and wrapped and pinned them into garments, and cultures which wove long rectangular pieces, cut them up, and sewed them into garments.
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