A different way of looking: the importance of understanding cultural context

One of the great difficulties with historic research is being able to put archeological material, especially written material, into the correct cultural context – to understand what it meant at the time. Too often we draw inferences based on our own contemporary cultural perspectives and use of language. Particularly if we have grown up immersed in a single culture, it may not even occur to us that there is another way of looking at things.

Yet this is an area where historical research can have a profound impact on modern society and its ability to handle cross-cultural misunderstandings and conflicts – simply by acknowledging that there is  a different way of looking at things, that there are concepts and words that cannot be easily or precisely translated between languages and cultures.

Anyone who becomes fluent in a second language has probably had the experience of thinking or dreaming in that language, and not being able to exactly translate these back into their first language. Umberto Eco, probably best known to medievalists as the author of novels The Name of the Rose and Baudolino, discusses this phenomenon in detail in his book Experiences in Translation (University of Toronto Press, 2008). He has an arduous writing style, and the book is extremely hard going if you are not at least minimally fluent in French, Italian and German, because he uses examples from these languages to illustrate his points, but you can get the gist of what he is saying nonetheless.

Another, more easily understood discussion is contained in this ABC Radio National article Were the ancient Greeks and Romans colour blind? in which Mark Bradley, Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Nottingham, talks about the writings of the ancient Greek Homer. He asserts that many of the descriptive words or phrases that have previously been interpreted as referring only to colour – in the modern, chromatic sense – are more accurately interpreted as synaesthetic descriptions intended to capture other qualities in addition to colour alone. This can be compared to the way in which modern poets use metaphor to capture the essence of a situation, rather than using concrete, literal descriptions.

By contrast, descriptions which were thought to be merely poetic can sometimes be shown to be more literal, based on new scientific evidence, as in the case of the ancient blue dye tekhelet which is described in the Torah as being used to dye the fringes and tassels on specific Hebrew prayer garments. This article and this one talk about recent archaeological finds and their interpretation.

In addition to the purely written word, pronunciation can have a have a profound effect on meaning, bringing into play rhymes, puns and other word play which expand on the single-word interpretation. This short video clip: Shakespeare: original pronunciation gives a number of examples.

In the case of material objects which may have been shifted or partly destroyed by burial or storage conditions over hundreds of years, filling in the missing pieces based on  assumptions of context and usage can lead to wildly differing and highly disputed interpretations of the whole. One example is this highly contentious interpretation of women’s Norse clothing. A less disputed example of re-interpretation of evidence in context is the reconstruction of the cutting layout for the pourpoint of Charles du Blois, which is explained on the basis of the garment having been cut and pieced from a small and narrow length of fabric for which the author was then able to give dimensions.

The underlying message is that in historical and archeological research and re-enactment, it is important to be aware of the cultural context of objects and practices, and also to be aware that our understanding of this context may change over time based on new evidence. Reading widely around your chosen field of research is important, even if the information does not apply directly to your own area of interest; as is keeping abreast of new discoveries and new interpretations. There are a number of useful archaeology news sites that can help keep you up to date. Below are just a few of the ones I follow. The short articles on the sites are usually linked to an original report or scientific research paper.

Past Horizons
Popular Archeology
British Library medieval manuscripts blog

Happy researching!

The fun of getting sidetracked

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 8.36.11 AMToday I came across an interesting post by a US college student who has transcribed and recorded the musical notation which appears on the buttocks of a figure in the right hand panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych. The original post can be seen on her tumblr blog.

I went on to watch the episode of the BBC documentary Renaissance Revolution devoted to this painting, narrated by British art critic Matthew Collings. I became interested in finding out more about one particular image in the right hand panel, that of the bird-headed figure sitting on a chair eating people then excreting them. The bird is identified as a nightjar in the documentary, and although the symbolism of owls in the painting was discussed, that of the nightjar was not. I was also intrigued by the whiskery appearance, and given the accuracy of the portrayal of other birds, wanted to see if that was what they really looked like.

So off to wikipedia I went to find out about nightjars. First question answered – yes, they do look like the painting. They are nocturnal, which is relevant to their being one of the “hell” birds, but probably more important is the myth that they suckle on goats, (described at least as early as Aristotle’s History of Animals, c350 BCE; and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History 77-79 CE), which gives the nightjar its Latin name Caprimulgus (capra nanny goat + mulgere to milk), and its common name in several other languages (German zeigenmelker and Italian succiacapri). Given the nightjar’s alleged ability to cause blindness in the goats it suckles (a witch-like or demon-like power), and the medieval symbolism of goats as Satan or agents of Satan, I thought that the nightjar in the painting could more accurately be interpreted as a demon, rather than as Satan himself (which was the BBC interpretation and also that on several other information sites about the painting).

I googled “academic discussion of the Garden of Earthy Delights” to see if there was any further information on the interpretation of the nightjar-headed figure in the painting, and found this discussion. The author of the blog article describes the figure as the Prince of Hell, and refers to it being inspired by the 12th century Middle English poem The Vision of Tundale. So off to find a modern translation of the poem to see if this was correct. The extract below describes a creature which certainly could be the inspiration for the one in the Bosch painting:

“The beast sat in the middle of a frozen lake swallowing terrified souls which burned inside its body until they were nearly wasted away, but then they were expelled from this horror in the creature’s excrement and left until they had recovered and become whole once again.”

So, not Satan/the Prince of Hell/the devil, but  simply a “beast”. A Google image search to look at a few other medieval depictions of Hell and Last Judgements shows that there are usually multiple demons rather than a single Satan/devil. I feel fairly sure my interpretation has merit. But far more satisfying was the knowledge that in a very short period of time I had been able to combine my own limited knowledge of art history and art symbolism and some easily located internet information to answer – by myself – the sort of question which I once thought was the province of professional academics.

My approach to research is rather stream-of-consciousness at the start of the process, just rambling through information that interests me and following links. ALWAYS bookmark your links, you’ll probably want to look at them again later. Then start asking questions and search more until you’ve answered them. Write up notes as you go, noting the links to any reference material you’ve used. When you think you’ve finished writing, read over it, and for each statement you’ve made, ask yourself: “how do I know that?”. If you’ve made an unsupported statement, search for information to confirm it. The more primary sources you have (eg actual items or original writings) the better you will be able to support your argument. As you become more and more expert on a topic, you will find that you already have the information and references to support your underlying assumptions, so you can ask more difficult and complicated questions.

The key to finding reference material is in learning where to look and how to phrase your questions. There is nothing wrong with using google searches, wikipedia, blogs and videos as part of your process, as long as you realise their limitations – don’t accept any information at face value. An insatiable curiosity and a tendency to get sidetracked are also a big help – you never know what gems you’ll find.

Escape from Gilligan’s Island – the value of a medieval mindset in re-enactment

I’ve written a short article on the value of entering the medieval mindset when re-enacting, rather than merely “medievalising” modern concepts and material goods (something I call the “Gilligan’s Island approach” to re-enacting). Click the link below to read and download the article.

Escape from Gilligan’s Island – Entering the Medieval Mindset