This is a sampling of my personal and educational projects. Some of the older projects, especially those built for Windows, may no longer compile or run without modification.
You're looking at it: web-console powers my personal site. Browse the code here.
A simple operating system for uMPS written in C, implementing phase 1 of the Kaya specification. See it here.
A web app built to evolve web designs using a genetic algorithm. You can read the poster PDF here.
A functional, but incomplete, IRC client written in C++. Download for Linux.
A fair game of blackjack between two clients using cryptography to prevent cheating. View Java source here.
A Tetris-like game written in C++ using SDL for the graphics. View source here.
A 2D platformer written in C++ using SDL for the graphics. Download for Windows.
An arcade-style shooter written in C++ using SDL for the graphics. Download for Windows.
I do freelance software development under Infinite Epsilon LLC. I have over ten years of professional experience across dozens of websites, apps, and games. I can develop:
I am familiar with many development tools and methods, including CMS/Frameworks (Laravel, WordPress, Drupal, Zend, Joomla), web APIs (including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Braintree, Stripe), Linux server administration, Amazon Web Services, RESTful architecture, JSON, object oriented design, version control (Git, SVN), FFMPEG, and Photoshop.
If you have a project you’d like to discuss, feel free to .
Click on a painting to view the full size image. You can also view a few of my paintings in my VR gallery
Brom’s left foot was cold. In truth his entire body was cold, but his left foot was also wet, so it stood out as especially uncomfortable. His mind had little else to do but ruminate on the irony of having a leaky boot as he trudged beside his ox, carrying a wagon load of shoe leather through the winter forest.
Under better conditions, on better roads, he might perch himself on the cart and ride along on the ox’s strength. Of course, that was least advisable when it would be most welcome. This road, hardly worthy of the name, wound around the side of the mountain with a wall of rock on one side and a steep and perilous descent into bare trees and rocks on the other. It was bad enough in the summer when holes, rocks, and roots alternated with impassible mud. Now, in the heart of winter, a bed of snow obscured and enhanced the risks, alternating only with sheets of ice. There was no chance Brom could rest his feet at least until he reached the relative safety of the wide, well traveled road that led into Troutbeck.
It was only mid afternoon but already the sky had a faint yellow tint that hinted at the coming sunset. Clouds covered the sky and he couldn’t tell exactly where the sun was. He guessed he probably had about two more hours of usable light. Enough, he thought, but not a comfortable margin. He forced himself to push a bit harder.
Perhaps it was the cold of his foot, or his study of the sky, but Brom didn’t see this sheet of ice. Suddenly, without warning, he was slammed in the back by the sliding cart. It threw him backwards off the side of the road and he, the cart, and the ox all tumbled uncontrollably over rocks and branches and bushes, past tree trunks, over snow and ice, into darkness.
When Brom woke he was warm. The cart had spilled its sacks of leather over and about him, but that wasn’t all. This wasn’t the winter warmth of blankets or coats or a fleeting fire. It was an encompassing, stable warmth of summer.
He opened his eyes and it took some time to remember where he was. But where was he really? He looked up at the hill he must have fallen down, but it was not covered in snow, not shrouded in clouds on a short winter day. It was dry and green, and bushes and trees flourished with leaves waving in the mild breeze.
Brom didn’t understand how it could be warm down there, but he had heard old Ned speak of the hot springs he’d traveled to in his youth, and he was mostly concerned with recovering his wagon. His ox was nowhere to be seen. Glancing up the hill he’d just tumbled down. he decided to look for a more suitable path back to the road. A thin trail weaved through the trees and he started following it.
As the woods grew increasingly thick and tangled with vines, Brom started to catch wisps of music. Faint and barely perceptible bits of song on the wind. Though he could hardly hear it, Brom was compelled to follow the music. The singers could perhaps help, and at the very least they would know the terrain and would be able to advise him on the best plan for recovering his wagon and returning to the road.
Suddenly wolves began to materialize from the brush. They formed a solid wall of teeth, fur, claw, and muscle around him. Brom had no weapons, no possible way to fight off even a single wolf. He felt faint as he braced for the biting attack that would soon tear him apart.
But the bite didn’t come. Instead he saw a blur of motion from the trees and the wolves turned from him to confront their new threat. Sounds of battle rose in the wood. Snarling and shrieking; the thud of arrows finding their mark; the roar of blazing torch waved in the wind; the vicious tear of spear and blade through fur and flesh; snarling, barking, whimpering; the rustle of scurried retreat back into the bush.
Dead and dying wolves lay all around Brom. He was shaking with fear as the figure walked past the wolves towards him. He struggled to speak without wavering his voice, and almost managed it.
“The wolves. You saved me…” he said. The figure continued to advance slowly, gracefully, but said nothing.
“Who are you?” Brom asked.
The figure was dressed entirely in dark green with a face in shadow. It stood only feet away now, but the reply came from behind Brom.
“Who are you?” said the figure.
Brom turned to face the speaker and saw a mirror image of the dark figure. His gaze darted back to the original figure. He couldn’t manage to keep both figures in his line of sight at once. Whichever way he turned, they seemed arranged to show only one in his range of vision at a time. Sometimes he managed to catch the fleeting glimpse of one in motion at the corner of his eye, but when he rounded on it stood as solid as a statue.
“I am Brom…,” he said, trying to direct his answer in every direction at once. “How many of you are there? Two, three, ten?”
“How many of you are there?” came the answer.
“Just me,” Brom replied, “I have no weapons, I don’t mean to trespass on whatever land this is.” He paused a moment, but no reply came from whatever figure he turned to. He was verging on dizziness trying to follow the figures, although they didn’t seem to be moving, he felt he couldn’t moving his gaze between them.
“My cart fell down from the mountain road. I just need help recovering it…” Brom paused again, then said, “or directions back to town.”
Brom’s vision blurred as if he were looking cross-eyed and a multitude of figures seemed to converge on the single figure standing before him. He was overtaken by dizziness and fell to his back. A gust of cold wind broke through the trees behind the figure, throwing leaves and sand into a thick cloud.
When Brom recovered his vision he was alone. The leaves in the air were orange and lit by an autumnal sun. He stood and looked all around. The trees seemed to have aged months in that moment with leaves bursting into vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows. Dry leaves blew in the wind and the ground was quickly covering with fallen leaves.
Brom turned on the path and started to run for the ruins of his wagon. The trees grew bare and the air grew colder and colder. The day’s light faded from autumn’s sunset to winter’s night. The air grew thick with snow and between the fallen leaves and the snow, the trail was gone.
Brom wandered for hours. Both feet were wet; both legs too. Everywhere was cold. He called out in desperation for help, but there was no sound. No movement, no figures, no wolves, no song. Just the crunching of leaves, and the trudging sound of ever more snow.
The snow was past his ankles when he finally stumbled upon his wagon. Overcome with relief, he took shelter under the overturned wagon. He walled himself in with bags of leather to hold out the cold.
Late the next morning, Brom woke among the wreckage of his supplies. Hardly believing he’d survived the night, he crawled his way back up the hill to the road. It took much of the day to walk back to town in his weakened state, but with help the remains of his wagon and supplies were eventually recovered.
Brom never forgot the music he briefly heard in that summer wood. Not on that day or any that followed in the rest of his long life. As the years passed, he spent many lonely days searching the woods around the site of his accident, but never again felt the warmth of summer in the heart of the winter forest, and never caught another wisp of that sweet, distant music.
I originally developed the characters Matt, Jordan, Ally, and their nemesis, Rusty Nail, for The List. This story is a second for the series.
The sun was just barely touching the highest point of the distant hills. Setting, finally, but the fireworks were still endlessly away. A pebble bounced off the parking sign with a dull wooden thud and fell to the gravel.
“A direct hit,” declared Matt lowering his slingshot with slow pride.
“Now are you ready for those brownies?” asked Jordan with more than a hint of impatience.
“Alright, let’s go,” agree Matt, pocketing his slingshot.
They set off for Jordan’s family’s encampment of chairs, but almost immediately Matt stuck out his arm and turned him around again. Matt ducked down and motioned for Jordan to do the same. “There he is! ” he whispered.
“Who?” replied Jordan in a mock conspiratorial tone.
They crawled behind a row of parked cars and watched as the new kid, Seth, and his family walked by several yards away.
“The thief!” said Matt.
“Oh, not that again,” said Jordan with a groan, “how do you even know it’s the same shovel?”
”It’s one of a kind, and he has the one. What more proof do you need?” said Matt.
“Still just a shovel…” said Jordan uneasily.
“That shovel has seen a thousand summers, and cut a million paths! We found it in the Polluted Pond and it has been in the sacred trust of the Order ever since!” said Matt.
Jordan paused for a moment, and before he spoke Matt cut in again. “And her!” he said.
From the opposite end of the parking lot they spotted Ally walking towards Seth’s family. They all stopped for a moment, then walked on together.
“I knew a girl couldn’t be trusted. She’s a traitor! Come on, we have to follow,” commanded Matt.
“Nothing good will come of this: just missed snacks! My cousins will be here any minute, and they’ll eat all my mom’s brownies! I know it!” whined Jordan.
“Suit yourself” replied Matt, and he crept on, determined. Jordan hesitated only a moment before turning away toward the brownies.
Matt didn’t know what hit him before he was on the ground with a mouth full of sand. Dazed, he raised his head up a bit, but not enough to see behind. He spat dust and collected himself. “Rusty Nail,” he said in a flat voice.
“That’s right,” replied the infamous, nail-wearing mutant.
“I thought we’d seen the last of you at Doomuch,” said Matt as he lifted himself to his feet and turned to his opponent. Rusty Nail was surrounded by two of his minions, Necktie, who carried a deadly whip made of a dozen ties, and Stinky Sock, who never changed his socks, no matter what.
“We don’t have to be enemies, Matt,” replied Rusty Nail in a tone of forced friendliness. “In fact, I think we’re more alike than you realize.”
Matt was taken aback, and just stared quizzically as Rusty Nail continued.
“You see, I’ve been watching you Matt. I know about your problem…” said Rusty Nail.
“The way my slingshot always shoots too far to the left?” asked Matt.
“What? No!” he snapped, and paused to regain his steady tone, “the… shovel…” the last word rolled slowly out of his mouth, and seemed to soak into Matt’s consciousness.
“My shovel!” said Matt.
“I know your pain,” said Rusty Nail, soothingly, “I know what it means to have things taken from me… that is why I’ve decided to help you.”
“Help me!” said Matt.
“That’s right! Together we will vanquish that dirty slug of a new kid and return what is rightfully yours!” said Rusty Nail. His minions grinned with pride and Necktie cracked his whip.
Matt was stunned and his first thought was to break and run for it. But his thirst for vengeance raged within, and it spilled out to his face in a look of dark determination.
“Let’s do it,” declared Matt.
Rusty Nail nearly cackled in response as they turned together to pursue Seth.
A bead of sweat slid down Jordan’s face as he rounded the top of the hill, but the goal was within reach. From here he could see his family’s encampment of lawn chairs and the small folding table. A tupperware container mostly emptied of brownies sat on top of its lid. His cousins were sparring with glow sticks in front of the chairs. Just building up more of an appetite. He walked a little faster.
Jordan almost tumbled over himself to stop as Ally darted out from his flank, breathless.
“Not now, Ally, I’m busy!” he said, annoyed.
“Help … Matt… Rusty…” she struggled to speak.
After a pause she continued more coherently, “I was with the new kid Seth trying to track down the Ice Cream Man when I saw Rusty Nail tackle Matt. He was playing some kind of hunting game with his slingshot, I think, and Rusty Nail must have taken him by surprise. Rusty’s minions were all around him too, Necktie, Stinky Sock, maybe more!”
“I didn’t know what else to do! I ran to find you! Come on, we have to do something!”
Jordan gave a last, longing look towards the brownies, then they turned together and set off to rescue Matt.
“We’ve been walking forever,” said Matt, “why would he have gone this far?”
“He couldn’t have vanished,” squeaked Stinky Sock.
“And he didn’t get by us,” added Necktie.
“Minions! Split off and scout. Be quiet! report back if you spot him,” commanded Rusty Nail.
“Yes sir,” they said, and departed in opposite directions.
“We’ll make quick work of him now,” said Rusty Nail, and Matt grinned in response.
“Look, there’s no trace of the sun left!” said Jordan, exasperated, “where can they be?”
“Does Rusty Nail have a hideout around here?” asked Ally, worried.
“None we know of,” replied Jordan uncertainly.
“I can’t believe we haven’t seen any sign of Seth, either. I guess he found the Ice Cream…” said Ally, disappointment mixing with her concern.
“We’re out of daylight! Where are they?” said Matt.
“It’s hard to find decent Minions these days,” replied Rusty Nail.
They drudged on along a worn path of beaten grass slowly making its way to sand. Suddenly Rusty Nail perked up and pointed ahead. “There he is!”
The path made its way to a short wooden fence, broken where generations of kids had climbed. On the last solid post sat Seth, alone, eating a Super Blizzard Pop.
Matt and Rusty Nail dashed, rust rising behind. Seth looked up, startled, but was too shocked to move. Rusty Nail slammed into his chest and knocked him back off the fence, the Super Blizzard plopped into the sand.
Rusty Nail’s face was demonic in the dimness of the night, his silhouette lit only by the distant glow of lights far behind them.
“Now is your time Matt…” he said, slowly lifting the chain from his neck and extending the nail.
Matt clenched it in his fist, his furry building.
“Time for revenge. Time to join me. Use the nail and unite our forces forever!” Rusty Nail’s voice was almost a growl.
Matt moved towards Seth’s slumped body behind the fence. He gripped the nail with both hands and raised them above his head.
The sky lit up with sparks of red and yellow as the first fireworks exploded overhead.
Matt jumped back and stared into the flames for an endless moment. Another rocket slithered its way up and popped overhead.
“Don’t wimp out now, you worm,” breathed Rusty Nail.
“No,” said Matt quietly. He lifted the nail over his head again and yelled “Run Seth!” as he whipped around and thrust the point at Rusty Nail.
“Treason!” roared Rusty Nail as he caught Matt’s arm and slammed him to the ground. Seth scrambled to his feet and started to escape.
“You’re a dead man, Matt,” said Rusty Nail shaking with rage.
“There he is!” cried Jordan as he and Ally ran to the scene. Seth turned when he saw them, and together they charged toward Rusty Nail. Rusty Nail let out a shriek as he fled the assault, and ran off into the darkness, lit only intermittently by the burst of fireworks above.
After exchanging only glances, the four sat together, wordless, watching the show. The defining moment of the summer had come. When the last embers of the finale had burned out, Ally and Jordan rose first.
“We should head back…” said Jordan quietly.
“Go ahead,” said Matt, “I need a moment with Seth.”
“About the shovel… after this?” asked Jordan in a defeated tone.
“No…” replied Matt, forcing a small smile, “I don’t know anything about a shovel.”
Scratch. Slide. Scratch… Matt gave in to the pavement and fell backwards with a sigh. The stifling July heat surrounded him.
“This is the end,” he said quietly.
Presently he heard footsteps and sat up, dazed. The blue figure of Mailwomen Miggle was approaching.
“Any mail?” asked Matt.
“Bills,” said Miggle cheerfully.
Matt dropped back down.
“What are doing?” asked Miggle.
“Existing” was the reply.
“Hm… I have something here that you might be interested in…”
Matt sat up and stared at Miggled with a puzzled expression.
“One of Bone Boy’s clues,” said Miggle, extending a piece of folded paper to Matt.
Immediately Matt hopped to his feet and snatched the paper, and without a word he ran off down the street.
“Bone Boy, clue, what?” asked Jordon, “Do you want to come in for some cookies?”
“Three summers ago a sixth grader named Bone Boy moved to town. Legend has it that he was the most fun kid ever, and at the end of the summer he made a list. On that list are the secrets to the perfect summer. He knew its power so he hid it well, leaving only three clues behind. After that he was never seen again,” said Matt.
“Wow. Good story. How about those cookies?” said Jordon turning towards the door.
“No time! Don’t you see? We need to find that list and save the summer!” exclaimed Matt, “Look, this is the first clue…”
Matt pulled out the paper and read, “In the place where none should meet, below the long and wooden seat.”
“What can it mean?” asked Matt finally.
“Beats me,” said Jordon, “You know, I really was about to get something to eat…”
“Come on, I know!” exclaimed Matt pulling at Jordon’s sleeve. “It has to be under the bench at Doomuch Park. You shouldn’t meet down there because it’s under the structure!”
Matt started off. Jordon, whose shirt was still locked in the firm grasp of Matt’s fist reluctantly followed. As they rushed by the side of the house they didn’t notice the crouched figure of Rusty Nail, the resident bully whose name was derived from the fact that a rusty nail on a string hung from his neck at all times.
“So, those Milk Membranes think they can have the list for themselves?” said Rusty Nail to himself, “We’ll see about that.”
Presently Matt and Jordan reached the four way intersection on North Millwood Street. Matt pressed the walk button and settled down against the pole.
“What are you doing?” asked Jordon.
Matt only smiled as he started to nap.
Jordon stood still for a bit. Then began to pace. Five minutes passed, then ten and twenty. He watched the cars wizz by and stared into the deep green vortex of the traffic light.
He slammed at the crossed button over and over. “Change!”
“No!” yelled Matt jumping to his feet, “Are you crazy? Pressing the button again resets it!” He sighed and slumped back down against the pole. With a dazed look Jordon fell against the nearby tree and made his way to the ground…
BUZZ! The light turned red and the sign flashed “walk.” Both boys stood up and crossed without a word.
“Finally,” said Jordon as they approached a sign declaring the entrance to Doomuch Park.
They began to make their way toward the towering wooden playscape. It grew out of the dusty earth and reached above the bone dry trees. All areas are a blur with movement: kids of all ages, and a few adults too, pushing and climbing and playing under the blazing sun. It smelled like summer. Jordon and Matt advanced towards the structure side by side.
“Which way to the bench?”
“It’s right in the middle of the second level.”
The two passed by a foot ball game, dodged a Frisbee, and tossed someone their lost ball as it rolled into the sea of tiny pebbles. They rushed to the large wooden stairs and a disoriented third grader fell to his doom in molten lava.
“Matt!” screamed a girl sitting on the fabled bench.
“Hi, Ally,” said Matt.
“What are you doing?” insisted Ally.
“Saving the summer. Too much to handle for a girl so just stay out of it,” replied Matt.
“Oh yeah? Well I’m coming with you!” Ally yelled back, her face growing red.
“Don’t pop a vain! See, girls can’t even argue…” laughed Matt.
“Hey Ally, those potato chips sure look good…” said Jordon.
“Hey! What? Keep your hands off those, Jelly Roll!” screamed Ally.
Jordon backed away and Ally jumped off the bench.
“So, where are we headed,” said Ally.
“We need to find a way under the structure,” replied Matt, deep in though.
“Maybe we could just have Jordon jump a few times,” said Ally.
Jordon’s cheeks glowed as he feigned a smile, “We short try kicking those boards over there.”
Together the three began hammering at the boards. After a minute of beatings they gave way and fell into the dank dungeon of wood chips below. Matt was the first to hop down. Ally followed. Jordon promised to keep watch.
With light seeping in through cracks between boards the two searched the walls and ground, pushing aside trash that had made its way with the light over the years.
“I found it!” cried Matt.
Ally pushed him aside and read the message scribbled in black ink on the wall, “On Morton’s island – Bone Boy.”
“He must mean that island in Morton’s Brook. It passes through this park,” said Matt.
“How clever,” said Ally sarcastically.
The two climbed up out of the hole and together with Jordon headed down across the burnt grass towards the brook; all three blissfully unaware that Rusty Nail had been crouching above them in one of the towers, listening to every word.
The brook was sheltered on both sides by small buffers of forest. During most of the year it runs swiftly through groups of rocks and down strings of water falls, but during the drought of the summer months it slows to a trickle. At its widest point it could easily be hoped; even by Larry Dormper, the forth grader who broke both legs when Rusty Nail pushed him off the highest tower at Doomuch. At the middle of this wide point, maybe a little to the left, an island grew up from the riverbed.
“There it is, and look: the water is so low we won’t even get wet!” exclaimed Matt as he ran ahead.
The three broke apart and began searching through the brush for a clue. Time passed and Ally began to grow impatient.
“Matt! I think this is the wrong island…” she whined.
“You couldn’t tell an island from an ocean!” he spat back, undeterred.
“I found something!” said Jordon holding up a piece of wood. How many times had it been stepped on, face down in the ground? What if only once some kid had turned it over and read its wisdom.
“Dig,” read Ally.
“Dig… Here?” asked Matt
“You couldn’t tell a dig from a… well a… Yes, dig here!” said Ally ignoring the beginning of her statement, “Who has a shovel?”
“I have one,” offered Jordon, “but—”
“My house is closer,” said Matt before he could finish, “I’ll run and get it. Stay right here!”
And off he ran across the baked grass.
A few minutes passed. Ally tried to dig with a stick which eventually broke while Jordon mumbled something about lunch. Suddenly they heard something breaking through the brush.
“Matt?” called Jordon feebly.
“Wrong,” replied a nail wearing mutant emerging from the thick bushes.
Ally screamed as two others came out behind Rusty Nail: Neck Tie, whose whip of ties was legendary, and Stinky Sock, who hadn’t changed his socks since the third grade.
“That’s right,” said Rusty Nail, “Give me the list or my associates here will have to—”
“We… Er… Don’t have the list… Mr. Nail…” whimpered Jordon.
“What did you just call me, Skunk Breath? Neck Tie, Stinky Sock: take them to my tower,” demanded Rusty Nail.
With that Jordon and Ally were carried off to the highest tower in Doomuch Park.
“Guys? Hello?” called Matt, returning out of breath and shovel in hand, “I can’t believe they left.”
He began to dig into the soft earth when he saw the note, written in broken English, “If you ever want to see your friends again, come to my tower and bring the list—Rusty Nail.”
“Oh no! But–” Matt tossed the shovel aside and ran for the tower. Looking up he saw them in the tower: Rusty Nail, his minions, Ally, and Jordon.
He called up, “Hey, Stainless Steel!”
Rusty Nail whirled around, enraged, “What was that?”
“I have your list, but you have to come and get it from me!” Matt waved a folded piece of paper from is pocket.
“Neck Tie, Stinky Sock: After him” yelled Rusty Nail.
All three started down the tower and through the wooden labyrinth. Matt hopped around for a minute as they climbed, then, as they emerged he started out towards the bridge. He tossed the list off into the water. Stunned, the trio rushed by him and followed the list into the water, each swearing revenge. Quickly Matt turned around and returned to the island.
“The list… Did you…” asked Ally slowly.
“No, that was the clue,” said Matt smiling as he recovered the shovel.
Taking turns they excavated the island for hours, and finally, under the light of a red-hot setting sun they pulled out a piece of paper. It was blank. For some time the three only stared at it, but eventually they laughed and set out together to the west.
A bully foiled, a friendship formed, a summer saved.
I’ve uncovered a lost character from the Canterbury Tales:
A watchmaker was anachronistically there,
His bent back and crooked hands his sins to bear.
He carried the tools of his wicked trade,
The masters of men he slavishly made.
No longer a dial, a candle, a glass;
Banish the sun and moon alas.
Equal hours were his dark art,
Crafting time as empty as his heart.
The Prince of Darkness beside him as he rode,
A pilgrimage was his hope’s last abode.
Through wild rye and tangled brier,
Over paths unworn,
To the old stone wall
That weathers all.
A remnant of lost triumph;
The artifact of forgotten struggle.
When leaves ate wood
And thatch wore to soil,
Crops to seed,
And stock to feral,
It stood there still:
The old stone wall
That weathers all.
As a research prospectus I wrote for my historiography and historical methods class, this piece is not quite a finished essay. Nevertheless, I love the subject and believe others will enjoy reading through it. If you’re working on a similar project, the annotated bibliography should be quite useful. The numbers scattered throughout the text refer to the notes at the bottom.
To medieval Europe, Asia was a distant land of marvels, inhabited by strange creatures as well as monstrous races of humans. The difficulty of travel prevented more than a trickle of European visitors, and it seems that even the few accurate accounts of the region did little to change these views. Europeans based their image of Asia on ancient accounts inherited from Greece and Rome, and filtered these ideas through the lens of Christianity. The view of Asia in Medieval Europe does not seem to receive much attention; it is often relegated to the role of setting a foundation for examination of European colonialism that occurred in later centuries. Nevertheless, there are plenty of secondary sources that cover aspects of the issue to some extent. There are also a fair number of primary sources to draw from, and though finding something truly unique in the well-known sources available would be unlikely, a new take on the sources might be possible. Rather than separating them, I have included my discussion of the primary sources alongside the secondary sources that seem relevant.
I have narrowed my topic a bit from the vague category of “distant lands” to focus exclusively on the Far East. Although it still seems somewhat broad, the overall amount of high-quality primary sources does not seem to be so great that it would be unmanageable. There are only several book-length texts, and some of these are only relevant in discrete sections. An approach that integrates the various areas of investigation-the stories of travelers, the monsters, the ancient sources, the maps, and so on-would provide a more powerful product than the fragmented work that currently exists on the subject. The questions I am most concerned with are the following: what the beliefs were, how they originated and were shaped over time, and to the extent that it can be known, what influence these ideas had on medieval society. The first two have been covered fairly well by the following sources. The third is a more difficult one, but bits of evidence for it are here as well, especially in the secondary sources focused on Mandeville.
Several of the secondary sources indicate the ancient Greek and Roman origins of medieval ideas about the East. Melamed shows how India was seen as a “remote, faraway place on the ‘edge’ of the inhabited world,”1 and writes that medieval scholars “inherited the Hellenistic notions about the mysterious wisdom of the Indians.”2 Lach begins with the ancient origins of ideas about Asia, and notes that during the Middle Ages these concepts were Christianized and embellished with “new geographical fantasies.”3 Because the Bible located Paradise in the east, it was believed that the earthly paradise actually existed somewhere on the edge of Asia.4 Lach identifies three main myths of the East: stories surrounding the deeds of Alexander the Great; the idea of St. Thomas founding a large community of Christians in India; and Prester John, “a story about a powerful Christian ruler to the East of the Muslim world who could be counted upon to aid the crusaders.”5 Together Lach argues that these three can be called the “Medieval dream of the East.”6 Lach notes that the hold of this vision was so strong that it took until “many centuries after Marco Polo before the last of these fables would disappear from scientific and critical literature.”7
Lach also describes some of the monsters that were believed to exist in the East, and notes that none of the later, more factual travel accounts “imparted a greater sense of reality to the popular image.”8 Bovey makes a similar point, arguing that “travel to foreign lands appears to have done little to convince anyone that monsters did not really inhabit the edges of civilization: in fact, the reverse seems to have been true.”9 Bovey hypothesizes that this may be because the monsters were based on “real creatures and people, transformed by exaggeration, misunderstood, and distorted through re-telling.”10 Wittkower agrees on this point, and offers the example of the rhinoceros which he believes was the original origin of the unicorn.11 Wittkower also notes that travel to these countries exposed investigators to the local myths which they were disposed to treat as fact. For example, Megasthenes, who wrote in 303 BC but whose work was a foundation for medieval understanding, claimed to owe much of his knowledge to stories Brahmins told him.12 Bovey also points out an example of a literal interpretation of a passage from the Psalms where the description of a gang of villains as a “pack of dogs” led to the illustration of dog-headed people.13 While the last example was not from the East, it is a good illustration of how monsters can come into existence.
One of the ancient sources of knowledge about the Far East is Herodotus’s Histories. In my own reading of the relevant section of Herodotus I was somewhat disappointed by the vagueness of the statements in the work, but did find a few valuable pieces. India was regarded by Herodotus as the end of the inhabitable world. He describes the wide variety of strange practices there, from a group that kills and eats any person who becomes ill, to others that will kill no creatures. Two stories that surface again in Mandeville are the concept of giant ants that dig up gold and wool that grows on trees.14
St. Augustine’s City of God contains a chapter that poses the question, “Whether certain Monstrous Races of Men are Derived from the Stock of Adam or Noah’s Sons?” Early in the section he provides a long list of these monstrous races. Augustine argues that “whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents … no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast.” Rather than somehow indicating mistakes on the part of God, these monsters are “diversities which can contribute to the beauty of the whole.” In Augustine’s view they are only ugly to humans who have a limited vision of the creation, and if they are in fact humans and not animals, then they must have souls and can seek salvation. The use of the monstrous races here is not allegorical; it shows that they were taken seriously enough by scholars in the Middle Ages to be the focus of theological arguments.15
I discovered that there was at least one divide in the medieval world on the believability of the monstrous races. Phillips quotes the Franciscan missionary John of Marginolli who traveled to China in 1338 as saying, “I never could ascertain that such races of men really do exist … The truth is that no such people do exist as nations, though there may be an individual monster here and there.”16 This quote serves to support the previously stated theory on the origin of monsters, but more significantly it demonstrates a difference in the view of actual travelers versus people who received their knowledge of the East through books or culture. For my purposes, it is the latter view that is more interesting.
An important source of evidence about the medieval view of the East comes from world maps, or mappaemundi. Suárez discusses the origins of the geographical information that influenced the maps. One point he makes concerns inaccuracies in the ancient sources. He writes that “[i]t is often pointed out … that an accurate estimate of the earth’s circumference existed in ancient Greece; true, but grossly inaccurate estimates existed as well and we only know in hindsight which one was correct.”17 It is interesting to consider that these incorrect notions originated from the same classical texts as others that proved to be true.
Woodward describes various schemes for laying out mappaemundi, including the most popular, a T-shaped map with Asia as the top half and Europe and Africa dividing the bottom.18 Although these maps were clearly not geographically accurate, Woodward agues that accuracy was not their primary focus. For actual travel, written accounts and charts were used. These world maps were, rather, “a blending of history and geography, a projection of historical events on a geographical framework.”19 On a similar note, Bovey calls the maps “spiritual geography of medieval Christendom.”20 Because the maps portrayed the world that Europeans believed to exist, rather than a world that was actually measured, they are a fascinating source of evidence for the medieval view of the East. As many of the images in Bovey’s book show, the outer edges of the maps were often decorated with monsters and monstrous races of humanity.
As it is the idea of the East and not its relativity that I focused on, the image of the East in medieval literature is also relevant. Lynch examines Chaucer’s “Man of Laws Tale” to illustrate medieval perceptions of the East. Her main point is the portrayal of the East as an “economy of endlessly multiplying wealth,” in contrast to the “zero-sum game” of European economies.21 She argues that this portrayal “exposes it as concealing an ‘economy of possession,’ at base more envious, grasping, and retentive than the west’s.”22 I considered this an interesting and well grounded argument, supported with evidence from Marco Polo and Mandeville. Some of Lynch’s assertions seem to be less well founded. In one case she writes that the East was portrayed as having a “superstitious and fatalistic world view,” but uses astrology as the example.23 This seems odd to me because I know from my work on the Black Plague that astrology was taken seriously as a science in medieval Europe as well.
One of the most significant primary sources related to my topic is Marco Polo’s Travels. In terms of getting at the medieval conception of the East, the most interesting sections of Polo’s text are not those where he is giving mundane facts about regions he actually saw, but the spots where he repeats, or perhaps invents, stories about marvels he did not witness. These are the area I searched out when I examined the actual text, which was far too long to read in its entirety for this project. Polo wrote that in Tibet there were the “the most skilful enchanters,” who “[a]mong other wonders … bring on tempests and thunderstorms when they wish and stop them at any time.”24 Polo described an island, Andaman, which he did not visit, but nevertheless wrote that “you may take it for a fact that all of the men of this island have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes like dogs.”25 In one section Polo recorded hearing about an animal that was very large and capable of lifting elephants into the air. He admitted that he did not see the creature, but revealed his mythological preconceptions when he wrote that “they cannot be anything but gryphons.”26 In addition to revealing the mindset Polo took to Asia, this instance is another example of how even a source that purports to be providing only the facts can come to the conclusion that monsters exist in the East.
Perhaps the richest path of research I found was on Mandeville’s Travels. This work is a travel account made up by someone who claimed to be an English knight who traveled throughout the East. Its fabricated nature makes it all the more useful for my purposes, because it is entirely the work of the medieval European imagination, uncorrupted by actual encounters with the East. Although the particular journey it describes never occurred, it is important to note that it was meant to be a believable story and was considered true for centuries. Howard writes that Mandeville “created, from a shelf of books, a world of his own devising, a world conceivable enough to have been taken seriously by Christopher Columbus, Sir Thomas More, Jonathan Swift.”27 Heng similarly indicates that Mandeville formed his work by “cull[ing], in combination, ancient sources, the archive of medieval cultural wisdom and records, as well as contemporary state-of-the-art scientific and geographical thinking,” and also provides a list of notables who were influenced by Mandeville.28 Heng additionally quotes Braude as saying Mandeville’s work was “regarded as the most authoritative and reliable account of the world.”29 The very fact that a fabricated account of the East was be the foundation of later medieval thought is itself significant.
Heng focuses on the way Mandeville emphasized the “exotic/erotic, the forbidden/taboo” aspects of the East in the Travels.30 She believes that it was significant that he centered Europe in the world by “constitut[ing] the rest of the world as the periphery of Christian Europe.”31 Much of Heng’s work on Mandeville is hindered to some degree by arguments that appear a bit slippery. For example, when she makes an argument out of the idea that Mandeville’s work “transforms the world outside Europe … into a collection of facts, artifacts, and details,” I cannot help thinking that this is overly abstract, and she does not present any real support or examples that would constitute its significance.32 In a certain sense, any account of the East, even a perfectly accurate one, would do exactly the same thing.
Fleck’s work on Mandeville emphasizes Mandeville’s conception of non-Europeans as “proto-Christians” on a scale of similarity and difference.33 Fleck believes that Mandeville reinforced in his readers that they are in the center of the cultural world by placing the monsters at the “fringes of their world as a sort of balance to their perception.”34 Fleck indicates that Mandeville attempted to show some similarity in Eastern cultures while maintaining a safe distance.35 In essence he sees Mandeville saying that Asian cultures are on the whole good, but that their religion is imperfect and must be corrected through Christian teaching.36
Having read these writers’ arguments, I turned to the original source itself. Unlike Marco Polo’s work, the relevant chuck-India and beyond-was a very manageable thirty pages and I read through the entirety of it. Although I had read several secondary sources that dealt with Mandeville’s work, I was still sort of amazed by how densely he packed the myths of the East into it. It seems not a page goes by without something worth noting. I will now run through what I believe to be the most significant or interesting of these examples.
Mandeville casually mentioned “dragons and snakes” on a path out of the hills.37 He described “trees that bare wool.”38 His interpretation of the hippopotamus held that it was “half man and half horse,” which is yet another indication of how some of the more bizarre grotesques could have originated.39 Mandeville described the crocodiles he encountered as long-bodied serpents.40 Mandeville believed chameleons live on air only, and on the same page reported rats as big as hounds.41 He says there is a “vast sea of gravel and sand, and no drop of water is in it. It ebbs and flows as the ocean itself does in other countries, and there are great waves on it.”42 On this same page he wrote about trees that grow to bare fruit and shrink away to nothing all in one day, and repeat this process every day.43 Mandeville claimed to encounter “wild men with horns on their heads” and birds that call out to men traveling in the desert, which might have been inspired by parrots.44
Mandeville reported on cannibalism several times, most notably on Islands with giants who “readily eat human flesh.”45 It also comes up in an unusual custom one culture used to honor dead fathers: a priest chopped off the dead man’s head, cut up his body, and fed it to the birds. He then boiled the head and each honored mourner ate a small piece of it. The son made a cup from the father’s head, and drank out of it for the rest of his life in memory of his father.46 I have not determined whether this practice ever occurred or not, but two of the bazaar cultural practices Mandeville wrote about are definitely based in reality. He mentions women who threw themselves in fires when their husbands died,47 and foot binding in women to make their feet as small as possible.48 Horrific as these were, they were not invented by Mandeville or his sources.
Lach and several of the other writers made reference to the belief in Prester John and his Christian kingdom in the East. Mandeville claimed to have actually lived in Prester John’s court for a time. During the 12th century a letter supposedly written by this king was sent throughout Europe. The letter mirrored a great deal of what Mandeville wrote about Prester John. It indicated that his version of Christianity was closer to the European’s than the Greeks’ is. Much of the letter is centered on the abundant wealth of Prester John and the power of his rule. He wrote that he had seventy two kings that paid tribute to him. There is a list of animals that existed in his lands, which included griffons, phoenixes, “men with horns,” giants, pygmies, and others in addition to real animals. He also referenced the sea of gravel and the river of stones that Mandeville described, and the numbers he used in describing the dining situation at his palace were the same as Mandeville claimed.49
Bovey, Alixe. Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
Bovey’s book provides a good general description of the monsters and grotesques of the medieval world, many of which were believed to exist in the East. More significant than the text, however, are the many large, full color images copied from medieval manuscripts. The images may not contribute much to the actual text of a paper, but I do believe they help the researcher develop a more concrete understanding of the medieval world.
Fleck, Andrew. “Here, There, and In between: Representing Difference in the ‘Travels’ of Sir John Mandeville.” Studies in Philology, Vol. 97, No. 4 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 379-400.
Fleck’s article offers an interesting and somewhat different take on Mandeville’s work. Its focus is on Mandeville’s evaluation of non-Europeans in terms of their relative similarity or difference with European Christianity.
Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Heng’s work provides a basic introduction as well as more in depth analysis of Mandeville’s Travels. Her argument emphasizes Mandeville’s focus on exotic activities and places in contrast to Europe. It is useful for getting at the cultural aspects of Mandeville’s Travels.
Howard, Donald R. “The World of Mandeville’s Travels.” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 1, (1971), pp. 1-17.
Howard’s work would serve well as an introduction to Mandeville’s Travels, but has limited value beyond that for my project. It is more focused on the literary choices in the narrative than the “World” in its name implies. Nevertheless, it does make several interesting points and is worth including for those.
Lach, Donald Frederick. Asia in the Making of Europe: The Century of Discovery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Although this book is primarily focused on European exploration and colonization in later centuries, it has a chapter on the ancient and medieval views of Asia. This chapter was exactly what I was originally looking for in secondary sources. In addition to providing a great introduction to the ideas, it includes the names of the primary source authors that those ideas came from, which makes it an excellent resource for additional research.
Lynch, Kathryn L. “Storytelling, Exchange, and Constancy: East and West in Chaucer’s ‘Man of Law’s Tale.'” The Chaucer Review, Vol. 33, No. 4 (1999), pp. 409-422.
The most significant point of Lynch’s article as it relates to my topic is the contrast of Western stability and Eastern excess, which is an interesting take on the image of the East that I have not encountered in other sources. Its overall value was limited to me because I have only read the Prologue and a few selected tales from the Canterbury Tales, and only in modernized language. The Middle English quotes and unexplained references to other tales, though entirely appropriate to this journal’s audience, made it difficult to follow Lynch’s arguments in places.
Melamed, Abraham. “The Image of India in Medieval Jewish Culture: Between Adoration and Rejection.” Jewish History, Vol. 20, No. 3/4 (2006), pp. 299-314.
The vast majority of my research focused on Christian Europe, but this article examines the Jewish perspective. It describes how India was seen as a remote place, and how the lack of direct communication encouraged a myth of secret Indian wisdom to develop. Melamed goes through an interesting discussion of the Medieval theories about the relationship between Jews and Hindus and ways that misconceptions and even linguistic coincidences were used by Jewish scholars to argue for the common roots of both religions.
Phillips Jr., William D. “Voluntary Strangers: European Merchants and Missionaries in Asia during the Late Middle Ages.” The Stranger in Medieval Society. Edited by F. R. P. Akehurst and Stephanie Cain Van D’Elden. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. 14-26.
This book is a collection of essays that, as the name implies, examine the concept of the stranger in medieval society. Chapter two examines merchants and missionaries who traveled to Asia. It provides a good understanding of the Mongol Empire’s influence on the safety of travel, and makes the interesting point that communication was severed so fully with its decline that 16th century missionaries to China did not even realize they had medieval counterparts. Although he does not go into it explicitly, the quotes Phillips used illustrated an important distinction that needs to be made between actual visitors to the East and the writers that did not see the region for themselves. His article supposedly gets into the adaptation strategies used by these European visitors, but Google hid that section in the book’s preview.
Suárez, Thomas. Early Mapping of Southeast Asia. Hong Kong: Periplus Editions, 1999.
Suárez’s book provides a good introduction to the types of maps created in medieval Europe, and made several interesting points about how we should evaluate the intellectual understanding of the Middle Ages. Overall he provides less depth than Woodward on this issue and his view is less nuanced. It would be best read as an introduction before that article. Although his book has a chapter on the Middle Ages, it is short and he quickly moves into Columbus and beyond. It does have the advantage of containing many full color photos of the maps.
Wittkower, Rudolf. “Marvels of the East. A Study in the History of Monsters.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 5, (1942), pp. 159-197.
Wittkower’s work is quite valuable for describing the Greek origins of many of the monsters in great detail, along with providing the specific primary sources that they originated in. In particular, I do not know if I would have been able to find St. Augustine’s small chapter on monsters if it had not been explicitly referenced in this article (some online versions of City of God do not even include a translation of that book, for whatever reason). The most interesting section for my topic is that which describes how even travelers to the Far East could have reasonably reported with complete honesty the existence of the seemingly unbelievable monsters that are described in their texts.
Woodward, David. “Reality, Symbolism, Time, and Space in Medieval World Maps.”
Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 75, No. 4 (Dec., 1985), pp. 510-521.
Woodward’s interpretation of medieval Maps as not merely inaccurate geographic representations, but items rich with symbolism, historical events, and theology, provides insight into the way the medieval mind perceived of the world. It was the first article I read on my topic, and though I did not see its real value at first, this framework has been useful for understanding the medieval image of Asia.
Augustine. City of God, Book 16, Ch 8. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=AugCity.xml&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=437&division=div2.
This short selection from Augustine’s City of God shows how seriously medieval thinkers took the idea that monstrous races inhabited the East. Augustine does not doubt that monstrous races exist any more than one would doubt that deformed humans are born in any society, and constructs a serious theological argument about the nature of God’s creation around them.
Herodotus. “Herodotus on India” from Histories, Book 3. http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/herodotus/index.html.
This text is not a primary source in the sense that it was written in the Middle Ages, but it was one of the ancient sources that influenced later perceptions of the East. After reading about the influence Herodotus’s work had, I was somewhat surprised by how little he actually said. This particular version is nice in that it isolated the few statements on India, but I searched in vain for the translator of the text.
Mandeville, Sir John. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Translated by C.W.R.D. Moseley. London: Penguin Books, 2005.
Mandeville’s Travels is the most significant primary source for this topic. Its thirty or so pages (to put it in modern paperback terms) are filled with descriptions of marvels and monsters of the Far East. Unlike Marco Polo, Mandeville did not actually travel to the East, and his work is a pure representation of what a medieval scholar would have believed about Asia.
Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. Translated by Ronald Latham. London: Penguin Books, 1958.
Marco Polo is one of the most significant sources on this issue. His work was far too long for me to read through for this project, because doing so would have easily eaten away the time that was better spent finding many other sources. The sections of the book most relevant to me are those where he describes places in Asia that he did not actually see, and I believe I was able to find a fair number of them by skimming and using the index. When he is giving an eye-witness description of an area it usually reasonable and may be wholly accurate if one forgives his cultural biases. But when he did not see a place for himself he indulges such mythical conceptions as the dog-headed race of men. This willingness to see Asia as a place of marvels even when he has been there seems to me to be the most interesting aspect of the work.
“The Letter of Prester John.” Celtic Literature Collective. http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/presterjohn.html (accessed April 2010). The site claims to have taken this translation from Selections from the Hengurt Mss. Preserved in the Peniarth Library. Translated and Edited by Robert Williams. London: Thomas Richards, 1892.
This is the text of the forged letter from Prester John. It restates many of the marvels referenced in Mandeville and other sources. For all the references to this letter in the secondary sources, the full text was surprisingly difficult to find in English. I eventually found this version, which is on a site that is not necessarily the best, but claims that the translation is copied from the 19th century book referenced above. Unfortunately the book does not have a preview on Google Books, so I was not able to get it directly from there.
1 Abraham Melamed, “The Image of India in Medieval Jewish Culture: Between Adoration and Rejection,” Jewish History, Vol. 20, No. 3/4 (2006), 300.
2 Melamed, 304.
3 Donald Frederick Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe: The Century of Discovery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 20.
4 Lach, 22.
5 Lach, 24.
6 Lach, 25.
7 Lach, 20.
8 Lach, 29.
9 Alixe Bovey, Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 15-16.
10 Bovey, 16.
11 Rudolf Wittkower, “Marvels of the East. A Study in the History of Monsters.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 5, (1942), 164.
12 Wittkower, 164.
13 Bovey, 12.
14 All the evidence in this paragraph comes from here, which has no page numbers:
Herodotus,”Herodotus on India” from Histories, Book 3, http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/herodotus/index.html.
15 Similarly, everything from City of God is here:
Augustine. City of God, Book 16, Ch 8. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=AugCity.xml&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=437&division=div2.
16 John of Marginolli quoted in William D Phillips Jr, “Voluntary Strangers: European Merchants and Missionaries in Asia during the Late Middle Ages,” The Stranger in Medieval Society, Edited by F. R. P. Akehurst and Stephanie Cain Van D’Elden (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 19. Note that the “…” is included in the original.
17 Thomas Suárez, Early Mapping of Southeast Asia (Hong Kong: Periplus Editions, 1999), 66.
18 David Woodward, “Reality, Symbolism, Time, and Space in Medieval World Maps.”
Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 75, No. 4 (Dec., 1985), 511.
19 Woodward, 514.
20 Bovey, 15.
21 Kathryn L. Lynch, “Storytelling, Exchange, and Constancy: East and West in Chaucer’s ‘Man of Law’s Tale.'” The Chaucer Review, Vol. 33, No. 4 (1999), 411.
22 Lynch, 415.
23 Lynch, 416.
24 Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, ed. & trans. Ronald Latham (London: Penguin Books, 1958), 174. The only thing I removed here was the word “they” to make the quote fit in my sentence.
25 Polo, 258.
26 Polo, 301.
27 Donald R. Howard, “The World of Mandeville’s Travels.” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 1, (1971), 1.
28 Geraldine. Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 240.
29 Heng, 239.
30 Heng, 243.
31 Heng, 249.
32 Heng, 248.
33 Andrew Fleck, “Here, There, and In between: Representing Difference in the ‘Travels’ of Sir John Mandeville.” Studies in Philology, Vol. 97, No. 4 (Autumn, 2000), 380.
34 Fleck, 385.
35 Fleck, 393.
36 Fleck, 400.
37 Sir John Mandeville, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, trans. & ed. C.W.R.D. Moseley (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 166.
38 Mandeville, 167.
39 Mandeville, 167.
40 Mandeville, 176.
41 Mandeville, 177.
42 Mandeville, 169.
43 Mandeville, 169.
44 Mandeville, 169.
45 Mandeville, 174.
46 Mandeville, 187.
47 Mandeville, 175.
48 Mandeville, 187.
49 “The Letter of Prester John,” Celtic Literature Collective, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/presterjohn.html. Site claims this translation comes from Selections from the Hengurt Mss. Preserved in the Peniarth Library, ed. Robert Williams (London: Thomas Richards, 1892).
Mornings begin cold and dark for in the late fall. I often go out walking before the sun rises and wander the sides of roads past rows of houses lit by the moon and an occasional street light. On days when I am fortunate enough to walk at dawn I almost invariably choose the same destination: the Quinnipiac River Linear Trail at Lakeside Park. This trail, which passes by a lake and through a forest, provides a continual source of experiences with nature. I come to nature with a firmly scientific view of life’s origins in evolution, and believe nature can be used as an inspiration to help humans construct meaning and purpose in their lives. Strictly speaking, humans are as much a part of nature as any other animals, but for the sake of avoiding unwieldy language I will use this term as a shorthand for describing places and creatures that have been left free, or mostly free, of human development. It is easy sometimes to be swept up by the conveniences of modern life and become disconnected from the natural world. Certainly, the progress of technology and the myriad benefits humanity can gain by exploiting natural resources contribute strongly to the quality of human life. All the same, time spent in nature is also a vital part of the experience of life, and it is in humanity’s interest to preserve some portion of wilderness and to spend time out in that wilderness. This time in nature offers an opportunity for quiet contemplation, a sense of a connection to the earth, and the chance to experience unmediated lessons about life.
The essential method of connecting with nature on the trail is walking. Walking is a slow and contemplative means of transportation. It is also a physical process, and puts the walker in contact with the earth with no separation aside from a thin layer of clothing. Henry David Thoreau used walking as a means to connect with nature and even cast it as an extended metaphor about a way of approaching life in general. Thoreau calls for all walks to be taken in the “spirit of undying adventure” (Thoreau 181). Only if you are “ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends,” and if you have “paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs,” are you truly ready for the sort of walk he advocates (Thoreau 181). Thoreau sees walking as a way of separating oneself from the stifling culture of civil life and seeking “absolute freedom and wildness” (180). Walking is more than a way of learning about nature. The act, the very experience of walking, is the essence of its significance. Thoreau believed he could not neglect walking for a day without “acquiring some rust,” and even feels sorry if he waits to walk until too late in the day (Thoreau 182). He cannot understand how his neighbors can “confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together” (Thoreau 182). This sentiment mirrors my own. I go out every morning regardless of the weather or the amount of work that needs to be done. By now, like Thoreau, I cannot imagine starting a fresh day without a walk. Thoreau stated that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World” (192). This wildness must be experienced directly. There is something inherent about the physical experience that must be felt, and not merely read, contemplated, or considered.
It is important to realize that Lakeside Park is not absolute wilderness. It is more of a negotiation between wilderness and civilization. The trial is paved, for one thing. How much more aesthetically pleasing it would be if, rather than homogeneous black tar, the trail were blazed out of hardened earth with the forest encroaching to varying degrees on either side. It is also less than a mile in length and incongruously ends immediately after crossing a large, rusty bridge. Thoreau bemoaned the development of wild spaces, and wrote about observing a “worldly miser” overlooking formerly wild land the he was planning to fence in (184). Thoreau imagined taking a second look and seeing that the “Prince of Darkness was his surveyor” (184). Thoreau’s Prince of Darkness has surveyed every inch of this place, but even so, he has spared an amount of land sufficient to provide a genuine experience of nature.
The intrusion of the highway is the most difficult obstacle to overcome when experiencing nature in the park. Annie Dillard notes at one point in her explorations that there is a “55 mph highway at one end of the pond,” but then she goes on to causally cross it on foot, which is not something those who value life would do on the Parkway (877). I have tried using my sound canceling headphones to combat the noise of the passing cars, but found the experience eerie and disconnected, far worse than the problem I sought to correct. It would be easy for me to hate the highway, but then any other day I could just as easily be on it. While I might never miss that particular highway if it were closed off and torn up, I would by no means advocate destroying all highways. It would be short-sighted at best to rail against the highway that interferes with the enjoyment of my walks as I blissfully drive past other people’s special places. It may be that humanity can find better ways to manage its incursions into nature. For now, if the price of technological progress is a bit of noise on my walks it is a reasonable, if unsavory, price to pay. Even Thoreau at Walden had to contend with the train, and if the intrusion of the highway is more present and disturbing than the train it only serves to mirror the greater development and penetration of technology in the modern world.
Upon entering the park and following the paved path, the lake itself is the first major sight. Community Lake takes its name from the Oneida Community, a utopian religious commune that resided beside it in the 19th century (Quinnipiac River Trail Advisory Committee). What is called the “lake” is actually three distinct bodies of water all fed by the Quinnipiac River that runs between them. The west-most body of water, middle in size, is the only one of the three accessible from the trail. Its coast is densely crowded with brush, but there are several small paths and one slightly larger one carved out down to the bank. The lake is modest in size, but beautiful at any time of the day or year. In the winter it freezes over; in spring its banks are renewed with life; in summer it is home to such a multitude of plants and bugs that it absolutely teems with life. It is not possible to escape a summer trip to the lake without feeding half a dozen mosquitoes, at least. In fall it becomes ablaze with color for a fleeting moment, and now, in late fall, the lake is in transition. Loren Eiseley might call this transition a “border of two worlds,” and the experience of witnessing it can allow one see life from an “inverted angle” (488). As the lake’s still warm water meets the frigid morning air, mist rises and drifts across the surface. When illuminated by the rising sun, making its way over the leafless trees of the far bank, this offers an experience of nature that defies any attempt to reduce it to coldly rational scientific processes.
Moving up from the lake, massive and impenetrable columns of reeds appear first, growing out of several inches of standing water. These give way to a vast field of untamed grasses which gradually merge into the forest. During the winter months there is a dirt path easily followed through the field, but in fall it is still almost entirely obscured by the waist high grasses. If you don your boots and sturdy pants and venture through the grasses, it easy to imagine yourself immersed in true wildness. Although the paved path is behind you, and the highway never distant enough, sensory perceptions can at times blend with imagination to create an experience that almost transcends the reality of the physical environment. As Dillard experienced the eclipse, she imagined herself traveling beyond the barrier of death into another world (884). When the golden light of a setting sun lights up the tops of the tall grasses and the bare branches of the distant maples, I have found myself feeling that the earth is truly alive with mystical potential. I consider it solely an experience of my senses combined with my imagination, and make no claims about any realm of true spirits. Nor would I suggest that such feelings are available only in undeveloped nature, as one can easily be inspired by the ruins of ancient civilizations, a dazzling cityscape, or an unassuming row of well crafted houses. Even so, at times like those, the sense of connection to nature can be profound, and can contribute to a feeling of purpose or satisfaction in a life crafted by the unthinking, unplanning, and uncaring hand of evolution.
By late November the leaves are almost entirely off the trees. They are blown from the path unless the rain sticks them to it, but they blanket the forest floor. Looking up from the fallen leaves, the forest itself is now opening to exploration of both the eye and the body. The visual horizon expands and contributes a sense of grandeur to the environment. Expanding from various areas of the paved path is a network of poorly maintained dirt foot paths. Throughout the summer these trails are consumed by the forest. At best they are crowded by the dense undergrowth, and in many cases they are entirely lost to the forest. By late fall they are fully revealed, and indeed the whole forest opens to exploration in any direction, bounded only by the highway on one side and the river on the other. As the leaves fall away the forest is already starting to take on the starkness of winter which gives the forest a semblance of the kind of desolate beauty Abbey finds appealing in deserts. The lake will soon be covered with a shell of ice, snow will dust surfaces, and even the trees will creek and whistle and crack as the whole world seems to freeze. A crisp fall day or a balmy spring afternoon beings droves of people to the trial, but few are seen navigating the dormant and slippery world of the trail in winter. For me it is the highpoint of the trial’s year. As I wander through the forest, freed of restriction and utterly alone, it is the time when the wildness of the place is most evident and most encompassing.
The experiences of the lake and field, and similar experiences had at innumerous other spots throughout the landscape are emotionally satisfying. Their importance comes from the way the experience feels as it occurs. If, however, one wants to offer explanations or particular insights about the world from nature, myths can be constructed that take experience in nature as their basis. David Rains Wallace argues that old myths were founded on an archaic view of the world, and that in order to move forward, humanity must construct new myths based on its more advanced understanding of the natural world. Rather than “inflating our human consciousness,” by giving human characteristics to non-human creatures, these new myths would attempt to understand the non-human experience of life and discover in it ideas relevant to humanity (Wallace 935). Wallace focuses on living creatures, but also mentions that such things as a “symbiotic superconsciousness” he feels in the forest are “not outside scientific possibility” (935). I would expand this and argue that all of nature, and not merely those parts with consciousness, can be used to construct meaning through myth. These new myths are not fundamental truths deliberately expressed by some natural force. They are interpretations, and rather than discovering meaning in nature, humans are creating it. Keeping these limits in mind, such myths are valuable resources that help attribute meanings to life from the comical to the profound.
Eiseley, Dillard, and Thoreau each construct myths of this kind from their experiences of nature. Eiseley writes about coming across birds that spontaneous burst into song even as a raven sat among them, feasting on some of their offspring (491). He interpreted this song as a “judgment of life against death,” and used this natural event and the emotions it provoked within him to construct a lesson about life (Eiseley 491). Dillard recounts a story of a weasel that attached itself to an eagle that descended down to grab it. When the eagle was shot by a hunter, the “dry skull of a weasel was fixed by the jaws to his throat” (Dillard 877). Whatever happened to it, the weasel never let go. Dillard casts this event as a metaphor for living in the moment the way animals do, writing that it “would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure to grasp your one necessity and never let it go” (879). Like the weasel dangling from the eagle, she imagines letting your pure necessity pull you wherever it might, “till your eyes burn out and drop” and “your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields” (Dillard 879). Thoreau constructs a powerful myth when he writes that “[t]he sun sets on some retired meadow, where no house is visible, with all the glory and splendor that it lavishes on cities” (205). Having been inspired by the glory of the sunset, and in awe at its seemingly infinite, everlasting, and fundamentally equal presence, Thoreau is able to glean an egalitarian ideal from nature.
Having read and contemplated these new myths, I decided one Sunday in early November that I would write my own. I crafted it as a short poem:
The Stone Wall at Tagamore Swamp
No tame trail leads one there
Through wild rye and tangled brier,
Over paths unworn,
To the old stone wall
That weathers all.
A remnant of lost triumph;
The artifact of forgotten struggle.
When leaves ate wood
And thatch wore to soil,
Crops to seed,
And stock to feral,
It stood there still:
The old stone wall
That weathers all.
My essential point in the poem is the struggle between the human and non-human influences in wilderness areas. I chose to cast it as an old farm that was slowly eroded away by the forces of nature. The crops and animals melded into the wild environment as the house decayed. And yet I did not want to make it a simple story of nature conquering humanity. Rather, nature beats back at the most brazen environmental changes, but is unable to overcome the stone wall, a symbol of humanity’s improvement upon wild nature. A working and sustainable balance is found.
There is in reality no particular stone wall or any eroding farm I observed while writing the poem. Beyond not being called Tagamore Swamp, I’m not sure the small inundated areas of the park could even necessarily be considered a swamp. I did, however, write the poem on the path, and I believe that the atmosphere contributed significantly to the creative process. Thoreau wrote that a poet should “impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him,” and “derive” words “so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring who nailed words to their primitive senses” (196). I cannot say with any certainty how the poem would differ if I had written it sitting at my desk. I do believe, however, that being out there in some semblance of wilderness helped me generate the inspiration for the subject and especially the flow of the poem.
One morning I was observing the shapes of trees in the predominantly red oak area of the forest. The oaks came in every size from scarcely a few inches around, to one massive tree that is easily a yard in diameter. That tree, the giant red oak, has been endowed by humanity with the honor of its own plaque. Around it other trees seem to grow up in every conceivable spot, and fit their structure to whatever the environment will allow. One of the thinner oaks has a bow shaped trunk that starts to diverge into two halves around a nearly hollow center as it meets the ground. A thicker one begins with an enormous trunk that splits into three smaller trunks a few feet off the ground. There are branches that go straight up, and others that bend horizontally or down. Trees grow out of flat ground or emerge from hillsides with equal ability. Some even grow out of shallow streams and ponds with root structures exposed by the erosion of soil. While we have a platonic concept of a tree, every individual tree has a unique shape and structure. Each one is a record of the life of that organism and is its expression of adaptation to the environment.
As I stood among the oaks, noting their structures, I scrawled “trees grow where and how they can” into my notes. Confronted with the oppressive end of semester workload, it was comforting, or perhaps simply alluring, to observe a seeming flow and lack of stress in nature. After Eiseley observed the judgment of the birds, he writes that “the mind which was my human endowment was sure to question it and to be at me day by day with its heresies until I grew to doubt the meaning of what I had seen” (Eiseley 492). When I originally copied this observation into the outline of my essay I was assaulted by these same heresies. I thought to myself that it was too obvious, and besides, it might not even be correct; perhaps an evolutionary scientist would say that plant species fight fierce battles for their territory and the lesson should be exactly the opposite. But Eiseley is convincing, and I realized that it was true in at least one sense: the sense that it was the thought that the forest inspired within me at that moment. So I stand by it, putting my faith in this instance in my own personal experience of nature.
Wandering through a forest and contemplating trees and lakes is my own means of connecting with and experiencing nature. It may not appeal to everyone, and everyone should find their own way of expressing that desire by making the time to be present in nature, however broadly one might define that term. The experience of nature is important to living an authentic life, one that is not solely mediated by society’s norms and values. We all bring these things into nature of course, and our experience there is, and should be, a mixture of what we bring and what we find. It is what we find, though, that would be missing without those direct experiences. These mixtures of ideas from society and those derived from nature can form a new mythology that addresses questions science cannot reach, ultimately allowing us to construct our own meanings for life, what it means to be human, and humanity’s place in the world.
Dillard, Annie. “Living Like Weasels.” The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. Robert Finchand John Elder. New York: Norton & Company, 2002. 876-879.
—. “Total Eclipse.” The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. Robert Finch and John Elder. NewYork: Norton & Company, 2002. 880-891.
Eiseley, Loren. “The Judgment of the Birds.” The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton & Company, 2002. 486-493.
Quinnipiac River Trail Advisory Committee of Wallingford. “Wallingford Oneida Community (Lake).” Informational display beside the trial, 2002.
Thoreau, Henry David. “From Walking.” The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton & Company, 2002. 180-205.
Wallace, David Rains. “The Human Element.” The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton & Company, 2002. 930-936.
This is an essay I wrote for my class on the history of medicine. It provides a window on the fascinating world of medieval thought. The numbers in brackets refer to the notes below the text.
The most devastating outbreak of the Black Plague struck Europe from 1347 to 1350 and is estimated to have killed between thirty and fifty percent of the population. Modern science reveals that the plague was caused primarily by bubonic plague spread through fleas carried on rats. A pneumonic form of the plague that could be spread between humans also existed, and some historians believe that other diseases such as anthrax may have operated in conjunction with bubonic plague. Lacking this scientific understanding, medieval Europeans turned to religion, astrological and humoral theories, and allegations of conspiracy to explain the devastation that consumed their world. While largely ineffective in preventing or treating the plague, these ideas probably did provide some comfort and even some sense of control by attempting to pull the plague out of the dark realm of the unknown. Medieval theories and beliefs concerning the plague’s causes provide a window into the understanding of disease, medicine, and the wider world during the Middle Ages.
Christianity was one of the most dominant forces in medieval Europe. After the fall of Rome, the church emerged as a powerful stabilizing institution. William Zouche, the Archbishop of York, wrote in 1348 that the plague was “surely caused by the sins of men who, while enjoying good times, forget that such things are the gifts of the most high giver.” To Zouche, it was evident that such a devastating plague could only be the work of God against unrepentant sinners. The “only hope” he wrote, was through “orisons and prayers,” to convince God “to turn away this anger.” Zouche commanded that processions be held every Wednesday and Friday in every church, from the cathedral to the lowly parishes, and that special prayers be said daily. Upon hearing news of the plague’s arrival in a “neighboring kingdom” from the east, Ralph of Shrewsbury, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, urged his fellow clergy to pray “devoutly and incessantly,” to prevent “a similar pestilence [from] stretch[ing] its poisonous branches into this realm.” The writings of Zouche and Ralph reveal a view of the world in which God takes an active role in the affairs of humans, and their spiritual activities have consequences not only after death, but in the world around them.
Despite their best efforts, prayer did not halt the advance of the plague into England. In 1349, King Edward III sent a letter to the bishops of his kingdom. He blamed the people for the spread of the plague, because instead of humbling themselves before God, their “sinfulness and pride [were] constantly increasing.” Among the survivors of the plague, Edward noted that “charity has grown more than usually cold.” This condemnation may in part refer to victims of the plague who were abandoned by the healthy who feared contact with the infected. Edward believed the plague had its origins in divine retribution, and feared that such practices would provoke God further, leading to a “much greater calamity.” He continued to urge prayer and religious devotion “so that merciful God might repel the plague and illness and confer peace and tranquility.” Edward was certain that by driving out “spiritual wickedness” from the people, the “malignancy of the air and other elements will also depart.” Edward’s writings affirm the intimate connection between the spiritual and physical worlds in the medieval mind. Wickedness of the spirit, in Edward’s eyes, manifested itself in the bodily corruption of the plague. Only by purifying the soul could they hope to maintain the health of the body.
As the plague was generally considered to be divine punishment, there was a great deal of discussion about the particular sins that had invoked God’s wrath. An anonymously written poem from the fourteenth century lamented that “vices rule unchallenged,” and “[n]o one thinks on the crucified Christ.” The author believed that the victims of plague suffered and died “as a token of vengeance” for their sins. He lays out a vision of a society which had become corrupt to the core. “[P]eace and patience are thoroughly plundered,” he writes, and “love and justice are not at home.” A great deal of abdication of responsibility and abuse of power are recounted. The poet laments that “the sloth of the shepherds leaves the flocks straying,” and “the poor suffer through the depravity of the rich.” Rater than wisdom, this writer sees that “[r]ulers are moved by favour.” In a treatise on the Ten Commandments from the 1360s, the author argues that children of the day did not properly respect their parents, and asserts that “it is in vengeance of this sin of dishonouring and despising fathers and mothers that God is slaying children by pestilence.” Facing the plague, chroniclers of the period turned their sights to the problems of society to explain why such incomprehensible suffering could occur.
In 1355, Heinrich von Herford placed the blame for the plague on the deplorable state of the clergy. He wrote that “the heresy of simony grew so strong among the clergy, and overwhelmed them so completely, that everyone … in some fashion openly bought and sold spiritualities of all sorts.” The selling of religious positions had grown so common place, according to Herford, that the perpetrators not only went unpunished, but even without shame or remorse. Herford reports that aside from positions in the church, actual church buildings and objects such as alters were traded for “money, women and sometimes concubines.” Worse still, members of the clergy gambled with these possessions. He writes that that they “staked them, lost and won them, on a game of dice.” The purchasing of positions led to “foul tempered, illiterate, underage, inexperienced, [and] stupid” people in all levels of the church. If one wanted to trace the source of the plague, Herford believed they need look no further than “their careers and their doctrine.” As God’s representatives and highest servants on earth, the clergy had a sacred responsibility to lead virtuous lives. All around him, Herford was dismayed to find examples of this trust being betrayed. Surely, if the most holy among them had fallen into such deep sin, they could only expect disaster.
New fashions in clothing were also cited as a source of divine displeasure. Henry Knighton recounted that, during tournaments, “a troop of ladies would turn up dressed in a variety of extraordinary male clothing, as if taking part in a play.” He saw these women as “deaf to the demands of modesty,” and inviting the wrath of God. In 1344, an anonymous monk recounted that, for about eighteen years, the “English have been madly following outlandish ways, changing their grotesque fashions of clothing yearly.” They abandoned the “decent style of long, full garments for clothes which are short, tight, impractical, slashed, every part laced, strapped, or buttoned up, with the sleeves of the gowns and the tippets of the hoods handing down to absurd lengths.” This monk was so shocked by the new fashions that he believed those who wore the new clothes looked “more like torturers, or even demons, than men.” The monk was certain that the “sin of pride” represented by the new fashions would “bring misfortune in the future.” After the 1348 outbreak, John of Reading saw the plague as this misfortune. John claimed that the new styles of clothes were so tight that they “did not allow them to kneel before God or to the saints.” Searching for a reason for the plague, writers latched on to changes they saw as destructive to society. In the religious atmosphere of the Middle Ages, with its close association between the material and spiritual worlds, it was not at all strange that any alteration in the highly ordered world could manifest itself in a calamity such as the plague
The belief in the plague as an expression of God’s anger gave rise to the Flagellant movement. A chronicler writing in 1349 explained that the Flagellants took their name from “whips [flagella] which they used in performing the public penance.” Flagellants roamed throughout Europe, assembled in towns, and collectively whipped themselves to atone for the sins they believed had summoned the plague. Although the Flagellant movement began with papal support, it eventually spiraled out of the church’s control and came to be seen as subversive. After Pope Clement VI threatened the Flagellants with excommunication, other religious and secular leaders took action against Flagellants which included public beatings and occasionally executions. The extremism of this movement indicates the desperation felt by those who lived through the plague, and the depth to which they believed in the religious explanation of its origin.
In 1348 the Paris medical establishment put together a report on the plague. These physicians maintained that God was the ultimate cause of the plague, but attempted to explain the physical mechanisms through which it operated. The report was supposed to have drawn from the “opinions of the most brilliant ancient philosophers and modern experts, astronomers as well as doctors of medicine.” By the time of the plague, the Hippocratic-Galenic tradition of medicine had been reintroduced into Europe, and this understanding is infused with astrological theories throughout the report. The Hippocratics theorized that the body was composed of four humors, each of which represented one of the four elements. Health resulted from proper balancing of these humors, and disease was caused by imbalance. In the Paris report as well as other medically focused documents, medieval physicians spent most of their time explaining the causes of this imbalance and how to avoid them.
The report asserted that multiple causes combined to bring about the great mortality of the plague. The first of these causes was the configuration of the planets. The blame is specifically laid on an astrological event that occurred in 1345. They wrote that “[i]n 1345, at one hour after noon on 20 March, there was a major conjunction of three planets in Aquarius.” This distant event caused “a deadly corruption of the air.” As evidence for this causal connection, the report cited Albertus Magnus, who wrote that a “conjunction of Mars and Jupiter causes a great pestilence in the air.” Even as the physicians in Paris attempted to attribute the plague to natural processes, their explanation was built upon the examination of distant and unalterable astrological phenomenon. It is permeated with a sense that humans are subject to forces of the natural world over which they have no control.
The Paris staff also examined unusual geological events and changes in climatic patterns. Noting that an earthquake had recently occurred, the physicians posited that “the escape of rottenness” from the earth during the quake contributed to the plague. They noted that “the ancients, most notably Hippocrates, are agreed that if the four seasons run awry, and do not keep their proper course, then plagues and mortal passions are engendered that year.” In Hippocratic medicine, it was believed that the weather could cause the four humors within the body to become imbalanced and lead to disease. The Paris physicians went on to record that the “seasons have not succeeded each other in the proper way.” In their attempt to rationalize the devastation of the plague, the physicians invoked anomalies ranging from the astrological conjunction to earthquakes and changes in the weather pattern. Each of these factors was cast within the framework of the Hippocratic-Galenic tradition, and together they formed a more or less logically consistent explanation of the inexplicable mortality.
While environmental factors were vital to the Paris physicians’ understanding of the plague’s causes, they also discussed why some people got sick and others remained healthy. They wrote that “no cause is likely to have an effect unless the patient is susceptible to its effects” (163). Any activity that made the body “hot or moist” was suspected. They specifically cited “too much exercise, sex and bathing” as dangerous. Interestingly, “persistent worriers” were identified at higher risk, and “babies, women, and young people” were also believed to be more susceptible to the plague. Even the more secular theories of the plague did not escape religious and social sentiments. The persistent worriers may have been identified as unhealthy not because their activity caused stress or other physiological reactions about which medieval medicine had no knowledge, but because worrying revealed a lack of faith in God to provide for the future. The other populations at heightened risk, children and women, were viewed as weaker than and subordinate to men in the Middle Ages.
Strangely, the Paris document did not lay out any dietary recommendations, the cornerstone of Hippocratic treatment. In his 1365 treatise on the plague, John of Burgundy asserted that the cause of “the mortality is not only the corruption of the air, but the abundance of corrupt humours within those who die of the disease.” Although he accepted the idea that the air had been corrupted, John placed more of an emphasis on the factors that made individuals susceptible to the plague. He believed that people should “avoid over-indulgence in food and drink, and also avoid baths and everything which might rarefy the body and open the pours, for the pours are the doorways through which poisonous air can enter.” John suggested eating “little or no fruit,” and “season[ing] food with strong vinegar.” By keeping the proper balance of humors and avoiding dangerous activities, John proposed it was possible to reduce the risk of falling ill from the influence of the corrupted air.
In 1364 John Sacobus wrote about avoiding the plague. Sacobus began by suggesting that the reader should “meekly confess his sins, for it is the highest remedy in time of pestilence.” Clearly Sacobus believed that God had the power to heal and protect from the plague, but he also provided more secular advice. He recommended avoiding every kind of “purification and stinking,” among which he included “fleshly lust with women.” Sacobus advocated the use of herbs such as leaves of bay tree, juniper, and wormwood so that the bad air can be “made feeble.” This suggests the idea that corrupted air could be purified, or at least repelled, by pure air. Indicating the concept of contagion, Sacobus warned against common baths and suggested avoiding people in general. Like John of Burgundy, Sacobus recommended using plenty of vinegar in food because “all sour things stop the way of humours and suffer no venomous things to enter into a man’s body.” Sacobus confidently asserted that the validity of his advice was proven by his own health.
Written a generation after the 1348 outbreak of plague, one treatise argued against the astrological explanation of the plague. The author maintained that such an astrological event would affect all people equally. He seemed to dismiss the idea that individual susceptibility played a role in determining who became sick. This author’s explanation rested on the “corrupt and poisonous earthy exhalation[s]” released during earthquakes. He attempted to prove that air within the earth is corrupted by recalling that men who enter previously sealed wells were sometimes asphyxiated. He also points to the occurrence of an earthquake shortly before the plague began in Germany. He did nothing, however, to address the same kind of criticism he laid against the astrologers: why the air corrupted by earthquakes, which presumably would be dispersed evenly, affected different people in different ways.
The ordinances enacted by cities in their efforts to prevent the spread of the plague also illustrate how it was understood. Examples of such ordinances exist from the city of Pistoia, Italy in the year 1348. The regulations begin by declaring that no one “shall dare presume to go to Pisa or Lucca; and no one shall come to Pistoia from those places” without being granted special permission. This quarantine tactic is just about the only prevention strategy of medieval medicine that modern science would deem at all effective against the plague. Several rules deal with the theory that infected corpses could corrupt the air. They required that bodies remain within their homes until “they have been enclosed in a wooden box, and the lid of planks nailed down so that no stench can escape.” Similarly, graves were to be dug sufficiently deep “to avoid the foul stench which comes from dead bodies.” To combat the dangers of corrupted food, numerous regulations were set out for the proper processing of meats. The regulations of Pistoia reveal that though they may have misunderstood the mechanism of disease, medieval officials recognized the reality of contagion. Such regulations subtly reject the idea of the plague as divine punishment, for the will of God certainly could not have been thwarted by a city council. It also seems to deny the theory of air universally corrupted by a distant astrological event. These practical regulations, which were set out with no intention of explaining or theorizing on the origins of the plague, have turned out to provide the most practical medieval understanding of the plague.
The most sinister medieval theory of the plague’s origins is the idea that it was intentionally introduced through a Jewish conspiracy intended to exterminate the Christians. A Franciscan friar recorded in 1349 that some believed “the Jews planned to wipe out all the Christians with poisoned wells and springs everywhere.” Indicating the sophistication of the medieval justice system, the friar confidently wrote that “many Jews confessed as much under torture.” To escape the torment of medieval torture, Jews claimed they had “bred spiders and toads in pots and pans, and had obtained poison from overseas.” The friar went on to claim that “bags full of poison” were found in wells and springs where the plague had occurred. The Castellan of Chillon also discussed confessions obtained through torture. He wrote that a Jewish prisoner recalled the “Rabbi Jacob” sending him a poisonous powder with a letter demanding he poison the wells on threat of excommunication. The man went on to confess that “one evening he secretly put the poisonous powder under a stone in a spring.” The man also claimed that similar instructions were give to other Jews, suggesting a large conspiracy. Like the religious arguments about the plague, belief in the Jewish conspiracy sprung from a desire to assign blame for the devastating pestilence. Rather than believing that it was God’s just punishment for the sins of the Christians, advocates of the Jewish conspiracy placed the responsibility for the plague on the devious designs of an unfamiliar group. The lack of an adequate scientific understanding of the plague in this instance fueled a practice that only added to the human suffering of the plague years.
Although the belief in the Jewish conspiracy was wide spread, it also had significant opposition. The “justices, officials, and councilors of Cologne” compiled a letter to the people of Strassburg stating that they were “of the opinion that this mortality and its attendant circumstances are caused by divine vengeance and nothing else.” They forbid “any harassment of the Jews in our city because of these flying rumors.” Pope Clement VI also stood against the accusations. He wrote that “it cannot be true that the Jews, by such heinous crime, are the cause or occasion of the plague.” Although there would be no punishment terrible enough if the conspiracy were found to be true, Clement argued that “throughout many parts of the world the plague, by the hidden judgment of God, has afflicted and afflicts the Jews and many other races who never lived alongside them.” In Clement VI’s mind the plague was undoubtedly the work of God, not a widespread and virtually impossible act of conspiracy.
The medieval understanding of the Black Plague offers a window into the religious, medical, and social beliefs of the Middle Ages. It was almost universally believed that God was the source of the plague, and that it was intended as punishment for the sins of humanity. Some used astrology and the tools of medicine inherited from the ancient world to understand the physical mechanisms of the plague’s origin and spread. Out of a mixture of anxiety and prejudice, Jews became the scapegoat for some who alleged the plague was the result of a grand conspiracy. The writings that survive allow one to peer into that distant society at its greatest moment of crisis and discover how the people who lived through the disaster used the framework of medieval beliefs and social structures to comprehend the devastation they saw unfolding around them.
1 Cantor, Norman F., In the Wake of the Plague (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 7.
2 Cantor, Norman F., 13-16.
3 Zouche, William, “Intercessionary processions (1),” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 111.
4 Zouche, 111.
5 Zouche, 111.
6 Ralph of Shrewsbury, “Intercessionary processions (2),” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 112.
7 Edward III, “Edward III to the bishops, 5 September 1349,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 117.
8 Edward III, 117.
9 Edward III, 117.
10 Edward III, 118.
11 Edward III, 118.
12 Edward III, 118.
13 “The sins of the times,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 126.
14 “The sins of the times,” 126.
15 “The sins of the times,” 126.
16 “The sins of the times,” 126.
17 “The sins of the times,” 126.
18 “The disobedience of children,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 134.
19 Herford, Heinrich von, “The failings of the clergy,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 127.
20 Herford, Heinrich von, 128.
21 Herford, Heinrich von, 128.
22 Herford, Heinrich von, 128.
23 Herford, Heinrich von, 128.
24 Herford, Heinrich von, 128.
25 Herford, Heinrich von, 128.
26 Knighton, Henry, “Divine disapproval of tournaments,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 130.
27 Knighton, Henry, 130.
28 “Indecent clothing as a cause of the 1348-49 epidemic,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 131.
29 “Indecent clothing as a cause of the 1348-49 epidemic,” 131.
30 “Indecent clothing as a cause of the 1348-49 epidemic,” 131.
31 “Indecent clothing as a cause of the 1348-49 epidemic,” 131.
32 “Indecent clothing as a cause of the 1348-49 epidemic,” 131.
33 John of Reading, “Indecent clothing as a cause of later outbreaks,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 134.
34 “The flagellants,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 150.
35 Ziegler, Phillip, The Black Death (New York: John Day Company, 1969), 95.
36 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 158-163.
37 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” 163.
38 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” 158.
39 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” 159.
40 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” 159.
41 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” 159.
42 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” 159.
43 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” 161.
44 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” 161.
45 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” 161.
46 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” 163.
47 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” 163.
48 “The report of the Paris medical faculty, October 1348,” 163.
49 John of Burgundy, “The treatise of John of Burgundy,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 185.
50 John of Burgundy, 186.
51 John of Burgundy, 186.
52 Jacobus, John, “The dangers of corrupted air,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 176.
53 Jacobus, John, 176.
54 Jacobus, John, 176.
55 Jacobus, John, 177.
56 Jacobus, John, 177.
57 “Earthquakes as the cause of plague,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 177.
58 “Earthquakes as the cause of plague,” 178.
59 “Earthquakes as the cause of plague,” 178.
60 “Earthquakes as the cause of plague,” 178.
61 “Ordinances against the spread of plague, Pistoia, 1348,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 194.
62 “Ordinances against the spread of plague, Pistoia, 1348,” 195.
63 “Ordinances against the spread of plague, Pistoia, 1348,” 195.
64 “Ordinances against the spread of plague, Pistoia, 1348,” 196.
65 “Ordinances against the spread of plague, Pistoia, 1348,” 198-199.
66 Gigas, Herman, “Well-poisoning,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 207.
67 Gigas, Herman, 207.
68 Gigas, Herman, 207.
69 Gigas, Herman, 207.
70 “Examination of the Jews captured in Savoy,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 212.
71 “Examination of the Jews captured in Savoy,” 212.
72 “Letter from Cologne to Strassburg,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 220.
73 “Letter from Cologne to Strassburg,” 220.
74 Clement VI, “Mandate of Clement VI concerning the Jews,” in The Black Death, trans & ed. Rosemary Horrox (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 222.
75 Clement VI, 222.
Deep in the dense army of green,
Beyond the swift and twisting stream,
Well hidden this place too few have seen:
Composed of twisted branches, bushes, and beam.
Through long summer days well spent,
Through heat and rain it never bent.
This place in time now lost,
But never forgotten.
There was a great age, so we are told.
Have you forgotten now that you’re old?
Or has its memory grown sublime,
Through the endless shifting of treacherous time?
Were the sun’s beams more clear,
Did the moon evoke more fear?
Were dark forests deeper,
Did the tallest peaks stand steeper?
Indeed they did and were in lore,
All this and so much more.
This time so elusive but sadly sought,
Its seekers diligent but temporally caught.
Always behind does it cower,
Sometimes ten years, others an hour.
We may never find it, but still must go.
We may be there now; how would we know?
Out where the rolling red meadows meet wood
Roamed a starving wolf who’d hunt if he could,
But weak as he was, with hunger so deep,
He couldn’t outrun the pasturing sheep.
The wolf knew in the pen he’d have his pick,
But quickly met he the sharp shepherd’s stick.
So the wolf sunk to the ground deep in thought;
When he rose it was a sheep suit he sought.
That night he moved as a sheep to the line,
Soon to sample his feast: fat, filling, and fine.
But for sheep the shepherd hunted as well;
To sheep went the blade, but ’twas wolf that fell.
I recently had the pleasure of being truly snowed in for the first time. Nothing in my previous experience with snow prepared me for the reality of 38 inches. Merely descending my front stairs was a challenge, and blazing a footpath to the corner of my street, which connected to a street that was (barely) plowed, was the slowest and most intensive “walking” I’ve ever done, including the most difficult paths on Sleeping Giant. With every step I had to propel myself through snow that was about up to my waist, and was even deeper in places. A distance that usually takes about three minutes to walk took about a half hour.
My world was transformed for days following the storm. The streets bordering on the opposite side of the block remained unplowed for two to three days, but by the middle of the first day solid footpaths were beginning to form down the center of each, and a kind of pedestrian mobility was restored.
During this time the unplowed streets became a kind of wilderness. There were absolutely no moving cars, and, early in the morning, few people or noises. The taboo of the street was strong enough, though, to make me constantly turn my head to check for approaching cars despite the physical impossibility. The trails of packed snow and trenches between snow banks lent novelty and a sense of discovery to streets I’ve walked a thousand times before. Looking back now, with the quickly melting snow almost a memory, it is as if I was in a different place, now lost, separated by circumstance more than distance or the short time that’s passed. When spring comes with its softening wave of rebirth, budding branches, and chirping birds, the blizzard’s paths will be as visions from another world, inconceivable. To varying degrees any kind of weather can create this transformative element in a place. A trail hiked under a comfortable sun is almost a different place than the same trail hiked under the mists of fog or the dim light of the moon.
I am drawn to these changes by a desire stronger than mere variety. There is something in me that is fed by rain and snow and fog. After too many days of “beautiful” weather it starts to shrivel. The darker the clouds, the more dense the fog, the heavier the rain, the deeper the snow, the faster the wind, the more it builds what I call the sublimity of gloom. A sort of gloom not depressing, but mysterious, in league with moss covered medieval ruins, robed figures, and rays of sunrise barely visible through mist rising from a warm lake on a cold winter morning.
This piece is more of an exploration of an idea for a short story than the story itself, but since I haven't yet picked it up again for elaboration, I'm posting it as-is.
It’s been twelve days since the drop. Twelve days! I could easily believe it was as many years. Already my pre-drop memories seem somehow foreign: glimpses of a different life, a dream-like alternate reality. And yet I don’t know that I’d say I’ve woken from that dream so much as I--and all of us-- have fallen from true life into an endless nightmare.
But it is a waking dream, for sure. That, above all, makes the rest so hard to bare. And yet I am luckier than many. From our private strip at the Zoo we run four flights a day, and by time everything is taken care of, I get about five hours per day. In crowded areas, or places with small airports or fuel shortages, I’ve heard of people whose ration is a mere four every two days. And still they say the tunnels could be months away for most. Hard to believe.
I suppose I should start at the beginning, not that anyone needs any introduction to the orange cylinders. Made from unknown elements, they’re about two inches long, and a third of an inch wide. Held in your hand, they feel metallic, and heavy for their size. Yet they bounce off objects, and, even falling at terminal velocity, cause little damage to whatever they hit. They resist grouping in a magnetic way, and float in water.
They came on a sunny April afternoon. A Thursday, the last normal day, at least, the last normal morning. They didn’t sprinkle out slowly. The bulk of them fell with exacting precision, everywhere across the earth at precisely 3:42 EST. I was showing a group of third graders through the reptile house when the drop came like a thud across the roof and outside. From the windows we saw the orange landscape for the first time, unreal and alien.
There was general panic, but we didn’t immediately know the full, terrifying reality. We thought it was some kind of accident, a local disaster of some kind. Deadly, radioactive, perhaps, but still with hope for escape. It quickly became clear that nowhere, not on land or sea, city or deepest wilderness, was there anywhere to escape the presence of the cylinders. Nor could any such area be cleared, because although there was only one great drop, there was, thereafter and still, a continual, intermittent sprinkling of cylinders across the globe.
Even so, at first, there didn’t seem to be any particular danger in them either. Few people and little property were damaged in the drop. The cylinders didn’t explode or seem to eliminate any sort of wave or radiation. They proved unbreakable by any means, but also through x-ray appeared to be completely solid, hiding nothing, and seemingly capable of doing nothing. And so it was the prevailing opinion, for those first confusing hours of the crisis, that if the world was in imminent danger, it would come in the form of some second wave. The orange cylinders were certainly an aesthetic and perhaps ecological disaster, but not in themselves particularly dangerous.
But gradually, like a spreading, slow roar of thunder the reality of humanity’s plight was understood. Sleep. Anyone who was asleep or went to sleep after the drop was absolutely unwakeable. Immediate alarm rang out through all channels: DO NOT SLEEP! But what were we supposed to do, really? We basically all thought it was over then, and for too many, it was.
It might be considered that never before had humanity’s mere existence hung on so tenuous a thread. By chance it was discovered by one of the last flights that was then landing--all future departures having been ordered canceled during the emergency-- that those who nodded off during the flight, but awoke before landing, were not affected by the cylinders on the ground or even the momentary presence of those bouncing occasionally off the sides and windows. It was later discovered that one single cylinder carried aboard accidently, or stuck between two crevices rather than bouncing groundward, was enough to doom the sleepers. But beyond that, no one has yet determined the exact safe distance from the cylinders for sleeping, though it is of the utmost importance for the purpose of the underground tunnels now being constructed. I’ve heard some advocating the extremity of using human test subjects to conduct such experiments. Frankly, after we’ve lost so many -- what are they saying now, about 75% of the world population asleep, and most of those without adequate care to live much longer? -- it does not seem so extreme even to me anymore.
As I mentioned earlier, I was fortunate to work for the Zoo, which maintains a private airstrip and fleet of two cargo planes specially fitted for large animal transport. For most people, getting and staying close to an airport where they could receive their flight ration was the immediate concern, and maintaining their position there the continual occupation. Few have maintained their ordinary schedules, and fears about food shortages and other disasters loom as advancing shadows of disaster on the horizon. But for now it seems we’re reaching a stasis, even in this strange, mixed up life alternating between the sky and the earth, and I have confidence that when we finally make our way to the tunnels, a new sort of life will emerge. If, as we must always think post drop, a second, equally unthinkable, wave of attack does not come from the great abyss of space.
Twelve days later we don’t know much more about the origin or final purpose of the cylinders than we did then. That they come from outside our world is obvious. That they were sent here by some guiding hand of intelligence seems likely as well, though nothing -- nothing at all -- has followed the cylinders to confirm this theory. I heard someone say the other day that they think the Aliens operate on a different time scale, or perhaps that they see the spraying of an entire inhabited planet like we would the spraying of an ant hill. Not, perhaps, entirely guiltlessly, if we really dwelt on it, but we don’t dwell, and we might easily spray without ever really checking up on the results. We certainly don’t hover over the dying colony and watch as the poisoned ants shake and writhe into shriveled corpses. If they stop showing up on the kitchen counter, problem solved. Maybe to the alien intelligence rising species such as humans are seen in a similar fashion, a thing to be passively sprayed, but given little other thought so long as they give no further indications of trouble.
I saw a Dance of Dreamers group again this morning, just before 11:00, as I was loading up the plane for Joseph’s flight with the cats. This group was even more disturbing than the last--it had children among it, seemingly with their parents. All carried pillows and blankets, and many had instruments or other noisemakers with them. Some crazy, furried blaring overcame all the individual clamor and only added to the surreal atmosphere. I felt at that moment such a confliction. On the one hand I nearly shouted out at them to quit their despair, to do their part to rebuild life rather than shrink from it, even then as I felt it completely, another part of me wanted to run after them, to follow on their fated march into the night, and to lay down with them, to exit the nightmare of life into the deep eternal sleep, literally then perhaps metaphorically to follow. I hated them for their actions, yet I was drawn to them, and hated them all the more for that.
Day four of the reduced rations. With unreliable fuel shipments, and the gradually diminishing population of the Zoo in any case, the drop to a single flight made sense… but the duration of three hours hours is a killer. True, every third is still six hours long. But with Tunnel 72 not scheduled to open until July 16th, I feel the days and weeks ahead as physical weights suspended on my back. How comforting it would be to lay them off, to rest, to sleep…
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