Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Today I write not of a person but of a thing - The Book of Kells. Monks and manuscripts were a pivotal part of the Middle Ages.
The Book of Kells contains all four gospels in a mixed old Latin and Vulgate text and is done in an Irish majuscule script (I guess nowadays we would call it a font!). It also contains a preface which includes concordance tables arranged in ten canons and some legal 11th century documents that concern the Abbey of Kells. Today there are 339 leaves of thick, finely glazed vellum, although it is thought that there were originally at least 30 more.
Tradition said that the book was the work St. Columba in the sixth century but most of modern scholarship now places it in the late eighth or early ninth century. Where it was written and by whom remains a mystery. Most likely it is the work of several monks. It may have been Columban monks on the Scottish island of Iona before the Viking raids in 806.The friars then fled to Kells in County Meath, Ireland. On the other hand it may have been composed at Kells.
The tenth century was one of pillaging and sacking in Ireland. The abbey struggled to survive against the Danes and others. Somehow the Book of Kells survived. In 1006 it was stolen and buried in the ground. After 2 months it was recovered and remained at the abbey throughout the Middle Ages, venerated as a relic of St. Columba.
1639 saw the dissolution of the monastaries and Kells was handed over to the control of the British Crown. In 1653 the manuscript was brought to Dublin for safekeeping. And in 1661 it was presented to the Library of Trinity College.
Damage was done to the manuscript in 1821 when it was sent to a bookbinder for rebinding. This bookbinder decided to cut a half an inch off the outer margins, which had been beautifully decorated. It was rebound in 1895 but the book was showing wear and tear.
In 1953 the manuscript was repaired and rebound by Robert Powell,a leading conservation bookbinder. He separated the manuscript into four volumes, one for each Gospel.
For more on the Book of Kells go to my art blog artworktoday.blogspot.com

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Patrick Byrne

Today's posting is a little different. Project 2996 has asked those of us who signed up to write a tribute to one of the victims of 09/11/2001 to post it on our blog. My tribute is to Firefighter Patrick Byrne.

Patrick Byrne - Fire fighter, hero. Age 39

Patrick Byrne, the youngest of 9 children, was born in the Tottenville area of Staten island. While he was still an infant, his family moved to Huguenot, then in 1966 settled in Pleasant Plains (Staten Island). His fourth grade teacher remembers a quiet boy who liked to do extra credit current events reports. She also remembers his dog "Poochie" who used to follow Patrick to school and be waiting for him when school was over.
Patrick graduated from Tottenville High School. He then went to Staten island Community College, Sunnyside to study accounting. But he did not like sitting in an office all day and in the mid 1980s started his own roofing business, eventually expanding the business to include carpentry, tile, and concrete work.
In 1985 Patrick decided to take the police exam. He did well but decided against joining the force. Eventually he decided to take the firefighter exam and in 1994 graduated from the Fire Fighter Academy. He was then assigned to Ladder 101 in Red Hook, Brooklyn where he remained until his death. His captain, Thomas Giodano, said that Patrick was a hard worker, an excellent firefighter, the first one to help others. He loved practical jokes and distinguished himself as a "bucketeer", soaking the newest firefighter with a bucket of water poured down from the roof.
Patrick loved dancing and traveling. Two years before his death he took up golfing. He also loved playing ball. He grew up playing stickball and as a adult was active in The Smith League and the South Shore Softball Association. He also played for the firehouse team, the Red Hook raiders. Again, he was remembered as someone who was always there when something needed to be done. He mowed the lawn and kept up the field, and ran the South Shore league in 1994.
Patrick was the first to volunteer and the last to leave.
He loved the music of Bruce Springsteen and U2 as well as going to Ranger and Yankee games.
Patrick was close to his nieces and nephews and was always there to support them in their endeavors.
His mother, Anne, called Patrick her "light and her laughter." His sister, Joanne, said he always wanted the best for everyone.

Friday, August 28, 2009

William Caxton

William Caxton was an English merchant, diplomat, and writer. He is most well known for introducing the printing press to England. He was also the first English retailer of books.
Caxton's year of birth is unknown but it is guessed to be sometime between 1415 and 1424. He was born and educated in the weald of Kent. Between 1437 and 1438 he went to London to serve as an apprentice to one Robert Lange, a wealthy dealer in cloth (called mercer), who served as the Master of the Mercer's Company and was Lord Mayor of London in 1439.
In 1446 Caxton went to Bruges where he become successful as a businessman and became governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. Eventually he wound up in the household of Margaret of Burgundy, King Edward IV's sister. Each step up led to greater travel and greater exposure to what was going on in the rest of Europe. While in Cologne he observed the new printing industry.
Caxton immediately saw the value of it. Collaborating with Colard Mansion, a Fleming, he produced the first book to be printed in English in 1473 - Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, translated by Caxton himself. He then made plans to bring the printing press to England.
In 1476 he set up a press at Westminster and the first book printed there was Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Caxton printed books that were popular with the upper classes - chivalric romances, classical authored works, and English and Roman histories. The most important books that he produced were The Canterbury Tales, Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.
Of course, like all new inventions there was controversy. It was feared by the merchant classes that the printed page might wind up among the poor who might "become aware and enlightened of their circumstances" which might lead to civil unrest. In answering his critics, Caxton said, "If tis wrong I do, then tis a fine and noble wrong"
Another important development that Caxton is given credit for is standardization of the English language. Four-fifths of the books he printed were in English. At that time there were no particular rules for spelling and no dictionaries. There were many different dialects and pronunciations. A famous quote from Caxton's prologue to Eneydos (1490), describing an English merchant being mistaken for a speaker of French, illustrates the level of variation between the dialects of England during the Early Modern period. "and specyally he axyd after eggys; and the goode wyf answerde, that she coude not speke no Frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wolde haue hadde egges, and she vnderstode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren: then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym wel.*
After centuries of French being the language of government, English was now the language of Parliament. So Caxton chose the English of the East Midlands' triangle, which included London. Though he did not purposely intend to begin a standardization of the language (it was for convenience in his work), he nevertheless set the ball rolling.
William Caxton died in 1492. He is buried at St. Margaret's in Westminster

Interesting tidbit - It is asserted that the spelling ghost with the silent letter h was adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Dutch spelling habits.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Empress Matilda of England

Empress Matilda of England was born in February 1102. Daughter of Henry I and Matilda of Scotland, granddaughter of William the Conqueror. Matilda, also referred to as Maud, was actually England's first queen, although she was never officially crowned.
When Matilda was seven years old an arranged marriage was made between her and the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V (this is where her title "Empress" comes from, although she was never officially crowned Empress despite the fact that she claimed she had been). In 1111 she was sent to Germany to train to be the wife of the emperor. Henry V and Matilda were married January 7, 1114. In 1125 Henry died. Matilda was now a widow at 23. She and Henry had no children.
Matilda's brother William also died (1120, drowned in the sinking of the White Ship) leaving Matilda her father's only legitimate heir. When her father officially made her his heir she returned to England. Another marriage was arranged for her. This time it was to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. He was nicknamed "Plantagenet" after the bloom flower (planta genista) which he took as his emblem.
Henry was eleven years younger than Matilda and they had a difficult relationship.There were frequent separations, often for long periods.
Henry I, Matilda's father died in 1135. Matilda was in Anjou with her husband so her cousin, Stephen of Blois (also a grandchild of William the Conqueror) immediately made a claim for the throne, breaking the oath he taken swearing allegiance to Matilda. He usurped the crown of England and was planning to do the same in Normandy. Matilda was too far away from England to stop him but she and Geoffrey immediately went to Normandy and began military campaigns to hold onto her claim. By 1139, Matilda felt secure enough in Normandy and turned her attention to England. She had every intention of reclaiming her inheritance.
The civil war that followed was long and bitter. In 1141, Matilda achieved some success when her forces defeated and capture Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln. Stephen was deposed and made prisoner. But her triumph lasted only a few months. As she approached London, the populace were eagerly awaiting her arrival. But then came word the Matilda would not halve the citizens' taxes. When she arrived at the gates of London on June 24, 1141, she found the them closed and the civil war flared up again.
Matilda's most loyal supporter was her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. He had been captured as well. In November a deal was struck - Stephen was released in exchange for Gloucester. A year later Matilda was besieged at Oxford, supposedly escaping by being lowered from the castle in a basket and then fleeing across the snow-covered land in a white cape. In 1148, Matilda and Geoffrey returned to Normandy, following the death of Robert of Gloucester. Geoffrey then turned Normandy over to his son Henry (later Henry II of England.)
Young Henry showed signs of leadership. Though Stehen held on to the crown of England, his reign was troubled and his heir, Eustace, preceded him in death. In 1153 Stephen acknowledged young Henry as his heir. Matilda retired to Rouen and maintained a court there. She died on September 10, 1167. Her body was transferred to the Rouen Cathedral in 1847; her epitaph reads: "Great by Birth, Greater by Marriage, Greatest in her Offspring: Here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry."
The Plantagenets were to become the longest ruling line of kings in England's history, beginning with Matilda's and Geoffrey's son, Henry II (1133-1189) and ending with the much maligned Richard III (1452-1485). Among the Plantagenet kings are Richard the Lionheart (Henry II's son), John (another son of Henry II, who was forced to sign the Magna Carta),and Henry IV, hero of the Hundred's Year War.
Henry II made several important changes in the legal system of England. He established Magistrate courts and an early version of trial by jury. He was the first king to use the title "King of England." He established a lordship over Ireland, beginning centuries of war and rebellion in that country. He also took control of Scotland. Henry II was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, as feisty as his mother. Then there was that disagreement with his old friend Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury ("will no one rid me of this troublesome priest")
The civil war between Matilda and Stephen has shown up in modern day literature, most especially as the backdrop in the "Brother Cadfael" mysteries by Ellis Peters. Other novels that feature Matilda are Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, Jean Plaidy's Passionate Enemies, and Sharon Penman's When Christ and His Saints Slept.
Plantagenet kings abound in literature and plays. Henry II was played by Peter O'Toole in 2 films - Becket and A Lion in Winter. Two of Henry II's sons, Richard I (Lionheart) and John, have important parts in Robin Hood. And Richard I makes an appearance in Ivanhoe. Several of the Plantagenets are title characters of Shakespearean plays.
By the way, Stephen's wife was also named Matilda.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Marco Polo

Marco Polo (1254-1324), of Venice, Italy, is one of the most famous travelers in history and probably the most famous who ever traveled on the Silk Road. He stayed in China for about 24 years and went further than any European before him - from Mongolia to China. He became a confidant to Kubla Khan. And he brought back hundreds of stories of China to Europe.
Marco was the son of a Venetian merchant, Niccolo Polo. Niccolo and his brother Maffeo, also a merchant, established a trading post near the coast of Dalmatia ( a region of Croatia).They traveled widely and in 1260 arrived in the Crimean port of Sudak. From they went to Surai on the Volga River where they spent a year trading. A civil war broke out and the brothers had to find another route out of the area. They found themselves stranded in Bukhara in Uzbekistan for three years. At that point the Mongolian ambassador arrived and persuaded them to go with him to meet the Great (Kublai) Khan, who had never seen a westerner. it was an arduous journey which included crossing the Gobi Desert. In 1266 they arrived in the Great Khan's capital of Beijing. They were well received by the Khan and the people of Beijing. The great Khan wanted to know all about the West and the brothers spent a year with him. When they finally left, Kubkai Khan gave them a tablet with stated that they were under his protection. It took them three years to get home. They arrived back in Venice in April 1269.
When they returned to Venice, Marco was 15 years old. He had been 6 when they had left. His mother had died during this time. Two years later, in 1571, Marco joined his father and uncle on a journey to back to Cathay.
They traveled a different route this time, going around the Taklamakan desert and passing through Yarkand, Khotan, Cherchen, and Lop-Nor. Marco proved to be an astute observer of people and their customs. He noticed that in Yarkland the natives were prone to goiters, that there was an abundance of jasper and chalcedony in the rivers of Pem province. But he really brought to life the Gobi Desert. "This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end; and at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat."
"When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason -falling asleep or anything else -he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travelers have got lost and died because of this. Sometimes in the night travelers hear a noise like the clatter of a great company of riders away from the road; if they believe that these are some of their own company and head for the noise, they find themselves in deep trouble when daylight comes and they realize their mistake. There were some who, in crossing the desert, have been a host of men coming towards them and, suspecting that they were robbers, returning, they have gone hopelessly astray....Even by daylight men hear these spirit voices, and often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason bands of travelers make a point of keeping very close together. Before they go to sleep they set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel, and round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path."
---- Marco Polo, Travels

Marco spent a year in Suchow(Dunhuang). The center of the asbestos industry (I had no idea that asbestos was around so long!) was in Uighuristan. Marco wrote on how to clean asbestos cloth - you throw it into the fire. The Polos brought back from Cathay a specimen of asbestos cloth and presented it to the Pope.
Marco also wrote a detailed history of the Mongols, including the rise of Mongol Empire and the life of the Great Khan.
Finally the long journey was over. Kublai Khan was told of their impending arrival. In May 1275 they arrived at Shang-Tu, the Khan's summer residence. They had traveled for 3 1/2 years and a total of 5600 miles. Marco recalls his meting with the khan:
" They knelt before him and made obeisance with the utmost humility. The Great Khan bade them rise and received them honorably and entertained them with good cheer. He asked many questions about their condition and how they fared after their departure. The brothers assured him that they had indeed fared well, since they found him well and flourishing. Then they presented the privileges and letters which the Pope had sent, with which he was greatly pleased, and handed over the holy oil, which he received with joy and prized very hightly. When the Great Khan saw Marco, who was then a young stripling, he asked who he was. 'Sir' said Messer Niccolo, 'he is my son and your liege man.' 'He is heartly welcome,' said the Khan. What need to make a long story of it? Great indeed were the mirth and merry-making with which the Great khan and all his Court welcomed the arrival of these emissaries. And they were well served and attended to in all their needs. They stayed at Court and had a place of honor above the other barons."
Marco became a favorite of Kublai Khan and was appointed to several high posts. He served at court and was sent on many important missions in China, Burma, and India. Some of the places he saw were not seen again by Europeans until the 19th century.
Marco reported on his many travels around China. He was in awe of China's great wealth and industry. He wrote of their iron industry which produced about 125,000 tons a year (this level of production was not reached in the West until the 18th century). Salt production was about 30,000 tons a year in one providence alone.A canal transportation system linked China's cities and markets. Paper money and credit facilities were highly developed. The citizens, who could purchase paperback books with paper money, eat rice from fine porcelain bowls and wear silk garments, lived in a prosperous city that no European town could match.*
The Polos stayed in China for 17 years. They had acquired great wealth.Kublai Khan was in his late seventies and the Polos were concerned that when he died they might not be able to get their fortune out of the country. The Khan reluctantly let them go after they agreed to escort a Mongol princess to Persia in to marry a prince.
The journey home took 2 years but Marco did not record much of the journey. But 600 passengers and crew died, why it is not known. When they arrived in Persia they learned that the prince had died 2 years before. So the princess married his son. In Persia they also learned that Kublai Khan had died. His protection outlived though him; by showing the Khan's "golden tablet of authority" they were able to travel safely through the bandit infested region.
Marco wrote: "Throughout his dominions the Polos were supplied with horses and provisions and everything needful......I assure you for a fact that on many occasions they were given two hundred horsemen, sometimes more and sometimes less, according to the number needed to escort them and ensure their safe passage from one district to another."
The Polos arrived home in December 1295.
Three years after arriving back in Venice, Marco commanded a galley in a war against the city of Genoa. He was captured and taken prisoner. Marco spent a year in a Genoese prison. One of his fellow prisoners was a writer of romances named Rustichello of Pisa. After some reluctance, Marco dictated his adventures to Rustichello. The book was known during his time as The Description of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo. It was an instant best seller - ok maybe "instant" is the right word. After all the printing press hadn't come to Europe yet. It was one of the most popular books in Medieval Europe and had a major impact. But it become known as Il Milione -The Million Lies and Marco was called Marco Milione. People, while enjoying the book, did not believe the stories were true.
Marco retuned to Venice in 1299 and married Donata Badoer. They had three daughters. He died in 1324 at the age of 70. On his deathbed he said, " I have only told the half of what I saw!" Among his belongings were quanitites of cloth, brocades of silk and gold,and coverings just like those mentioned in his book. There were also other precious objects, among them the "golden tablet of command" given to him by the Great Khan.
"Did Marco Polo really go to China?"has been a question for centuries. Marco never learned the Chinese language, despite being fluent in several other languages and spending 17 years there. His name never occurs in the Annals of the Empire which recorded the names of foreign visitors. Nor did ever mention certain articles which were part of everyday life in China such as women's footbinding, calligraphy, or tea.
Whether they were true or not, his adventures captured not only the people of his time, but people through the centuries. You just have to hear his name and immediately an image of this adventurer/traveler comes to mind. His book opened the minds of men to think of what possibilities might lie to the East.
Today there is much research and authentication of Marco Polo and his travels. Much of what he wrote was verified by travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries.Marco is more respected than ever because the characters and countries he talks about did actually exist. Chinese historians have found the book to be of great value in understanding the important events of the 13th century.
Although Marco receive little recognition from geographers during his lifetime, some of the information in his book was incorporated into maps of the later Middle Ages and in the 15th century it greatly influenced both Prince Henry of Portugal (the Navigator) and Christopher Columbus.
Marco's system of measuring distances by days' journey turned out for later explorers to be very accurate.
According to Henry Yule, the great geographer: "He was the first traveler to trace a route across the whole longitude of Asia, naming and describing kingdom after kingdom.....". Today topographers have called his work the precursor of scientific geography.
I end with Marco Polo's words: " I believe it was God's will that we should come back, so that men might know the things that are in the world, since, as we have said in the first chapter of this book, no other man, Christian or Saracen, Mongol or pagan, has explored so much of the world as Messer Marco, son of Messer Niccolo Polo, great and noble citizen of the city of Venice."

The manuscript picture is Marco Polo arriving with elephants and camels arriving at Hormuz on the Gulf of Persian from India.
The following website was the main source of my information.

Monday, June 29, 2009


Leonardo of Pisa, also known as Fibonacci (son of Bonacci) was born around 1170 in Pisa, Italy. he was given the name Fibonacci after his death. It meant "son of Bonacci", which was the nickname of his father.
Fibonacci was a mathematician that many consider "the most talented mathematician of the Middle Ages." His most notable contributions are introducing the Hindu-Arabic numeral system to Europe and a number sequence known as the Fibonacci numbers.
Fibonacci's father directed a trading post in Bugia, a port east of Algiers in North Africa. Young Leonardo often traveled there to help his father and began to pick up the Hindu-Arabic number system. He recognized that doing mathematical functions would be a lot easier with these numbers rather than with Roman numerals. He began traveling around the Mediterrean, learning as much as he could about the Hindu-Arabic system. He returned to Pisa around 1200 and in 1202 he published Liber Abaci (Book of Abacus or Book of Calculation.) Thus the system was introduced to the Western world.
Liber Abaci advocated using the numerals 0-9 and place value. He referred to this as modus Indorum (method of the Indians). He showed the practicality of it by applying it commercial bookkeeping, conversions of weight, calculation of interest, money-changing and other applications. The book was well-received and had huge impact on European thinking.
Liber Abaci also introduced to the West a mathematical sequence now known as the Fibonacci sequence. The sequence was known to Indian mathematicians as early as the sixth century.
Fibonacci died around 1250.
In the 19th century a statue of Fibonacci was erected in Pisa. It is located in the western gallery of the Camposanto, a historical cemetery on the Piazza dei Miracoli.
Fibonacci Sequence
The Fibonacci numbers are 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8,13,21,34,55,89,.... By definition the first two numbers are 0 and 1 ( although some some omit the 0 and begin with 1,1) and each remaining number is the sum of the previous two. In Liber Abaci Fibonacci posed the following problem:
The following paragraphs are from
How many pairs of rabbits will be produced in a year, beginning with a single pair, if in every month each pair bears a new pair which becomes productive from the second month on?
It is easy to see that 1 pair will be produced the first month, and 1 pair also in the second month (since the new pair produced in the first month is not yet mature), and in the third month 2 pairs will be produced, one by the original pair and one by the pair which was produced in the first month. In the fourth month 3 pairs will be produced, and in the fifth month 5 pairs. After this things expand rapidly, and we get the following sequence of numbers:
1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, ...
This is an example of a recursive sequence, obeying the simple rule that to calculate the next term one simply sums the preceding two:
F(1) = 1
F(2) = 1
F(n) = F(n – 1) + F(n – 2)
Thus 1 and 1 are 2, 1 and 2 are 3, 2 and 3 are 5, and so on.
This simple, seemingly unremarkable recursive sequence has fascinated mathematicians for centuries. Its properties illuminate an array of surprising topics, from the aesthetic doctrines of the ancient Greeks to the growth patterns of plants (not to mention populations of rabbits!).
(I do not want to get bogged down in mathematics. To read the whole article use the above link)
The Greeks believe that the equation they refer to as f(phi)
was the most most pleasing, indeed the aesthetically perfect proportion, and all of their artwork, sculpture, and especially architecture made use of this proportion. A rectangle whose sides had this proportion was called the Golden Rectangle.
Whether or not you agree with the Greeks’ aesthetic judgment, it's a safe bet that Nature herself does:
The growth of this nautilus shell, like the growth of populations and many other kinds of natural “growing,” are somehow governed by mathematical properties exhibited in the Fibonacci sequence. And not just the rate of growth, but the pattern of growth. Examine the crisscrossing spiral seed pattern in the head of a sunflower, for instance, and you will discover that the number of spirals in each direction are invariably two consecutive Fibonacci numbers.
The Fibonacci sequence also occurs in music.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Matteo Ricci

Well, the first post was of a famous king. Now the not so famous. Matteo Ricci S.J. For non-Catholics S. J. means Society of Jesus. In other words, a Jesuit.
Matteo Ricci was born October 6, 1652 in Italy. He died May 11, 1610. He studied theology and law at a Jesuit school. In 1577 he applied to be a missionary to India and in 1578 he was dispatched to Goa, a Portuguese colony in India. In 1582 he left India and went to China. And it is here that his story gets interesting.
Right before arriving in China he spent some time on the Portuguese island of Macao. There he began to learn the Chinese language and customs.He became one of the very few western scholars to master the classical Chinese script. He moved inland and settle in Zhaoqing, where he stayed for 6 years. It was here that he composed the first European style map of the world in Chinese. He, along with Michele Ruggieri, also complied the first ever European-Chinese dictionary. They developed a consistent system for transcribing Chinese words into the Latin alphabet. Unfortuneately the manuscript was lost in the Jesuit archives in Rome and not re-discovered until 1931. It was published in 2001.
Ricci traveled around China for a few years. He spent a couple of months in Beijing but had to leave because of a war with Japan. He did not return to Beijing until 1601. After presenting the Emperor with a chiming clock he became the first westerner to be allowed in the Forbidden City. He did not meet the Emperor himself for several years but was given free access to the city and met other important
officials and leading members of the cultural scene.
The Emperor did grant him patronage and allotted him a generous stipend that helped the Jesuits in China.
What got me interested in Matteo Ricci was a book I read several years ago called The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan D. Spence. It was a common memorization tool in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to place what you wanted to remember in a mental room, house, etc. depending on how much you wanted to remember. People had to rely on their memories back then. There were no notepads to jot things down, computers, blackberries. The majority of people didn't read or write, especially in the Middle Ages. They kept everything in their memory. Father Ricci showed the Chinese how to do this. He told them that the size of the building depended on them. It could be an intricate palace with hundreds of buildings or a simple pavillion. They could even just use a corner of a room or a closet. The structures were solely in their head and could be based on real places, made-up places, or a combination of both. To everything that we wish to remember, wrote Ricci, we should give an image; and to every one of these images we should assign a position where it can repose peacefully until we are ready to reclaim it by an act of memory. Since this entire memory system can work only if the images stay in the assigned positions and if we can instantly remember where we stored them, obviously it would seem easiest to rely on real locations which we know so well that we cannot ever forget them.But that would be a mistake, thought Ricci. For it is by expanding the number of locations and the corresponding number of images that can be stored in them that we increase and strengthen our memory. Therefore the Chinese should struggle with the difficult task of creating fictive places, or mixing the fictive with the real, fixing them permanently in their minds by constant practice and review so that at last the fictive spaces become "as if real, and can never be erased."*(from J. Spence's book).
Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese about Christianity and Catholicism by using concepts they already knew. He also allowed them to keep certain customs that were part of their heritage, such as veneration of the dead. Later missionaries such as the Dominicans and Franciscans complained to the Vatican about Fr. Ricci's methods.
When Father Ricci was still in Beijing when he died. Foreigners were not allowed to be buried in China, they were buried in Macao. The Chinese made an acception for Father Ricci. His tomb is located in the campus of the Beijing Communist Administrative College. His statue stands in front of Beijing's South Cathedral.
In China today, Father Ricci is still hailed as the world's greatest "foreign guest".His contributions to Chinese science, math, and various other subjects continued to be appreciated by the Chinese.
Next year is the 400 anniversary of Father Ricci's death. Pope Benedict XVI has asked the bishop of Macerata, Italy (Fr. Ricci's birthplace) to prepare for a Jubilee Year in honor of this anniversary.
for more on Matteo Ricci:
The picture above is Matteo Ricci (left) and Xu Guangqi (徐光啟) (right) in the Chinese edition of Euclid's Elements (幾何原本) published in 1607.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


This blog will center on people of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I am starting off with a king but I hope to concentrate on lesser known people

“He was six feet four inches tall, and built to scale. He had beautiful white hair, animated eyes, a powerful nose...a presence ‘always stately and dignified.’ He was temperate in eating and drinking, abominated drunkenness, and kept in good health despite every exposure and hardship.”
- EINHARD (the King's secretary) describing Charlemagne

Charlemagne - Charles the Great, King of the Franks, Holy Roman Emperor - was born on April 2, 742. There are two Charlemagnes - the historic and the legend. Only King Arthur vies for the title of the ideal Christian king in the Medieval world. (with Richard the Lionheart a distant third.) But whereas Arthur is mostly myth (although there was a real King Arthur; that will be another day), Charlemagne is mostly fact.
He was the eldest son of Pepin II, also known as Pepin the Short. When Pepin died the Frankish kingdom was divided between his two sons - Charles and Carloman. In 771 Carloman suddenly died and Charles, age 29, became sole king of the Frankish kingdom.
The Franks originated in were a western Germanic tribe. Between the third and fifth centuries many of the Frankish tribes had raided Roman territory, while others joined the Romans. As the Roman Empire collapsed, the Franks were taking over. By the fifth century they had taken over the Western Roman Empire, but the it was not one kingdom, but several different ones.
By 490, King Clovis had conquered all the Frankish kingdoms except one and formed one Empire.Clovis I was the first King of the Franks in 509. (guess where we get the name France). But Clovis continued the tradition of dividing the kingdoms between sons. So he left each of his 4 sons part of his kingdom. Then they had sons so it was divided even more. By 534 it was a mess, with constant feuding and rivalry.
Eventually three subkingdoms emerged - Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy. These ups and downs continued until 751 when Pepin I had himself crowned and began a new dynasty - the Carolingians.
When Charles became sole king Europe was splintered and returning in turmoil. The Franks had reverted to their barbarian ways, neglecting education and religion. In the North, the Saxons were pagans, In the south, the Catholic Church was trying to recover lands taken by the Lombards. Charles was determined to strengthen his kingdom and bring order to Europe. He launched a 30 year military campaign. By 800 he was the ruler of Europe. With the establishment of a central government, Charles restored a great deal of the unity of the old Roman Empire and
paved the way for the development of modern Europe.*
In 773 pope Hadrian II sent Charlemagne an plea for aid against the Lombards who were invading the Papal States. Charlemagne complied, took the crown of Lombardy, and accepted the role of protector of the Church. Over the next several years he commanded 53 campaigns, leading almost every one of them himself. He conquered and Christianized Bavaria and Saxony which helped to shield Italy and put off the Moors of Spain from invading Francia. There were several other campaigns, all which were successful.
In 799 Pope Leo III was arrested by the Romans and beaten. The Pope escaped and fled to Charlemagne, asking Charlemagne to intervene. Charlemagne agreed and went to Rome in Nov. 800. By Dec. 23, Leo was restored. On Christmas Day, Charlemagne was

at Mass. As he knelt at the altar to pray, the pope crowned him
"Emperor of the Romans. Supposedly Charlemagne did not know
the Pope's intention and really did not want it. They were not happy
in the East Roman Empire - in Byzantium. (modern day Turkey,
Syria, etc). Byzantium had controlled the Roman Empire for the past
3 or 4 centuries. it wasn't until 812 that the East recognized
Charlemagne as emperor. Thus power was re-established in the west.
Also by this act, pope Leo III established papal supremacy over a unified Christiandom. (at right Charlemagne being crowned Holy Roman emperor)
Europe was re-united, power was, for the most part, back in the west. But this was not Charlemagne's only accomplishment. Charlemagne is known as much for his reforms as for his military accomplishments. After his crowning, Charlemagne returned to France. He put in place a more efficient government. He divided the kingdom into several administrative districts, appointed military governors along the borders, sent out messengers to check on how things were in the kingdom and then report back to him. He also traveled through the kingdom himself in order to keep in contact with the people. He standardized coin minting and encouraged trade with other nations. And, probably most significantly, brought literacy back.

Charlemagne was a great admirer of learning and education. He saw to it that all his children and grandchildren were well educated and set about educating himself as well.(But he never could learn to write.) His actions in this area brought about what is called the Carolingian Renaissance. He did it with the help of a monk named Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon from York. Alcuin set up a classical curriculum for the palace school that was set up to educate the monks and clergy, most of whom were illiterate.Schools were organized in the parishes, not only for the nobility but for everyone.
A scriptorium was set up, not only manuscript copying but for correcting the hundreds of manuscripts that had been copied by illiterate monks. By doing this, Charlemagne instituted a standard form of writing style. Letters were now written in upper and lower case, with punctuation and separation of words. It is the script that we still use today.
He standardized medieval Latin, encouraged uniform religious practices, roads and bridges were repaired,laws were put into place to protect peasants from serfdom, and many other reforms..
Unfortunately, much of what he put in place disintegrated a generation or two after his death in 814. Not only was Charlemagne no longer around but the barbaric tribes once again began their invasions. These invasions came to an end by the latter part of the 11th century with the rise of feudalism. But the roots of modern Europe were now planted.

Charlemagne's throne

Charlemagne's Tomb Charlemagne entered the world of legends and songs during the feudal era. In France, chansons de geste (heroic poems) were written about his exploits, the most famous one being the Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland).