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Here comes The Mongols

The recent death of my mentor and friend, David Morgan (1945-2019), scholar of the Mongol Empire and the author of The Mongols (1986, 2007) compels me to reflect on the reasons why I wrote my book, also titled The Mongols. Professor Morgan’s The Mongols was the first academic book I read concerning the Mongols. Like many, my initial interest in the Mongols came as a result of popular histories, such as Harold Lamb’s biographies of Chinggis Khan and James Chambers’ The Devil’s Horsemen—exciting narratives, but with little scholarly apparatus. While these were enjoyable to read, The Mongols truly introduced me to the complexities of the Mongol Empire, revealing that it was not simply a wave of marauders pillaging their way across Asia. Indeed, it introduced me to what became my career as well as doing the same for a number of other scholars and students to the serious study of the Mongol Empire.

First published in 1986, it was both erudite and accessible to those who knew very little about the Mongols. David also included a touch of humor—just enough to elicit a chuckle and a smile from the reader. Undoubtedly, he influenced my own work and writing style. While his book would undergo 30 printings and see six or more translations, and the second edition in 2007, he often said he awaited a book to replace his as the standard.  Despite his deep erudition, he remained a genial and humble man. His declaration was not out of humility, but the uncomfortable realization that a book written decades ago should never remain the “standard”.  His second edition added a chapter discussing the historiography since its first appearance in 1986, which also corrected some outdated views. In terms of historiography, the historian Morgan’s The Mongols will always be important and foundational to the study of the Mongol Empire.  Yet, as a book to introduce readers to the Mongols, it can be outdated.

When ARC Humanities first approached me to write The Mongols for its Past Imperfect series, I had some reservations as I was writing another book (The Mongol Empire) for another press that would eventually finish at 150,000 words.  I had very little interest in writing a book that might be construed as an abridged version of that much longer book.  Also, I had some reservations about a book titled The Mongols for obvious reasons. Yet, the idea of writing a book of approximately 35,000 words did have appeal. Therefore, I discussed my reservations with Erin Daley, then the commissioning editor of the series. I asked if that instead of writing a more traditional narrative, I could frame the workaround two questions that I deemed rather important not only for the study of the Mongol Empire but also for the study of any empire.  Why did the Mongol Empire succeed?  And then, why did it end?   These two core questions also fit the needs of any teacher who might teach on the Mongols, whether a full course or perhaps a week or two in a world history course.   As for the title?  In this age of keyword searches, it’s difficult to think of a better title, especially one that suited an introductory purpose.

While I always want students to understand the Mongol impact on world history, I wanted to avoid getting involved in that question as I wrote a book on that a few years before (The Mongol Conquests in World History, 2012). Although no one can fully escape this topic when working on the Mongols, I had no desire to revisit that topic in detail. I do have a chapter on it in the book, but it is brief and I hope it entices the reader to pursue the books in the suggested reading section.

I wrote The Mongols with two audiences in mind. The first was first and second-year students in a world history class that might only encounter the Mongols for a fleeting week or two and perhaps for the first time. The second audience would be that well-known public figure, General Reader.  Two lofty but not always achievable goals. Aided by the brevity of the books in the series (100 pages or so), it proved to be an achievable aim. With this size, the General Reader would not be intimidated while the book was also a length that an instructor could assign to a class for that module and reasonably expect the students to digest the information. Furthermore, the pricing of the book would not give the instructor any qualms about assigning it as too expensive for the student budget—an increasing concern in higher education.

While my focus was on these two aforementioned questions, I still needed to provide enough of an overview that it would be sufficient for classroom use.  Furthermore, it needed to be satisfactory enough for General Reader that would not leave too many looming questions.

I believe the book achieved these goals. I must confess that working with ARC-Humanities was a pleasant experience every step of the way.  It is a singular joy when they allow the author the latitude to begin the book with “It was a dark and stormy night…”.  I am grateful for this courtesy as I can now remove it from my bucket list.

With luck, I hope this book will become the introduction to the world of the Mongols for many students.  We, as scholars, should never forget what brought us into the field of history and attracted our curiosity.  While academic monographs are nice and necessary, no one became a historian because of them. I make no claims that my own The Mongols surpasses David’s.  I do hope, however, that its intended audience will find it useful and that it will interest them sufficiently to then read other books on the Mongol Empire.

by Timothy May (University of North Georgia)

Sergiu Musteata on Nomads and Natives beyond the Danube and the Black Sea

The early Middle Ages are of special importance for European history, as this period marks the genesis of many peoples, of state formation, and of the affirmation of feudal relations. Nomads and Natives beyond the Danube and the Black Sea: 700–900 CE spans almost two centuries, from the end of the seventh until the late ninth century. During this time took place a series of political, military, economic, social, and religious transformations.

The research is geographically bounded by natural landmarks, such as the Tisza, Danube, and Dniester Rivers to the west, east and south, to the southeast by the Black Sea coast, and to the north by the Northern Bukovina region. For the first time, the archaeological findings from the Carpathian-Danubian space, including the territories between the Tisza and the Dniester, which are now the component parts of the Republic of Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia and Hungary, have been thoroughly analyzed.

The book re-examines the history of the Carpathian-Danubian region during the eighth and ninth centuries. Thus, the central task is providing an overview of the historical realities to the north of the Lower Danube over two centuries. Writing this book began from the desire to develop a synthetic study through which we will reconstruct, the history of the Carpathian-Danubian region during the eighth and ninth centuries based on narrative, archaeological, and numismatic sources. The diversity of issues presented by such a study requires analysing the following topics in succession: the historiography of the problem, the particularities of the human habitat, the reconstitution of economic occupations, the establishment of the features of spiritual life, the evolution of social relations, the chronological and ethnic affiliation of discoveries, the reconstitution of the political history of the region, and so on. The achievement of this goal, the objectives, and the proposed plan rely on an examination of the composition of the repository of sites and archaeological findings from the Carpathian-Danubian regions during the eighth and ninth centuries. Thus, I will try to point out some issues related to the eighth and ninth centuries, seeking to contribute thereby to the fixing of an image that would allow for an updated scientific interpretation of the early Middle Ages in the regions to the north of the Lower Danube.

In the absence of written sources that directly relate to the eighth and the ninth centuries, the main source base used is the results of archaeological investigations, which for decades have accumulated information about the lifestyle of the population in the Carpathian-Danubian space in the given period.

The study presents a reconstruction of the socio-economic, ethnic, cultural, and ultimately political history of the aforementioned area in the eighth and ninth centuries based on the analysis of the narrative and archaeological sources known so far. In this book, for the first time, the archaeological remains from the Carpathian-Danubian regions (Banat, Crișana, Maramureș, Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldavia, including Bukovina and Bessarabia) are presented as organic unities, which, despite representing inherent parts of a well-defined geographical area over several decades, have previously been dealt with separately, without generalizations performed at the macro-region level. Thus, the work fills a substantial gap in the historiography and puts in a new light the historical and the archaeological issues relating to the eighth and ninth centuries.

by Sergiu Musteaţă

Recording of Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana

23 October 2019

In connection with the publication of Milton’s Scriptural Theology. Confronting De Doctrina Christiana, I have been recording Milton’s opening address to readers (the “epistle”). It is heard in its Latin, so that as with Paradise Lost we can hear an approximation to Milton’s own voicing, as he dictated to a scribe and heard it read back.

The particular “connection” with my book is that its first chapter analyses the opening address to readers, for its style and tone of voice, which rise to vehemence and impassioned appeal for a hearing. You might not guess this from reading silently, still less from reading English translations! We hear patterning of alliterated plosive /p/, many stinging adjectives of critique of all other theologians, and there is much else about the original words of DDC which my study as a whole tries to bring to life.

Questions arise, however. The readers, myself and Robin Hanky, an Otago Classics colleague, have vociferated cautiously, perhaps too much so. For instance, we have not striven to emphasize incidence of the growling letter /r/, though the letter has plenty of it, and Milton is said to have pronounced it “very hard” like other persons of a satirical disposition.

Or again, given that Milton recommended the Italian pronunciation of Latin, would he have dictated viva voce (Oxford edn line 114) as “vee-vah voe-tche”? In our own reading we have said “wee-wah woe-ke,” simply because we learnt Latin in the “reformed” or reconstruction-of-Roman pronunciation. We stayed with the sounds we knew, for our own understanding, and so for momentum and general conviction. If this sound provokes our hearers, why not do it again differently and better, after more debate?

So! What does the Milton community think about these matters? Those of you who have some Latin are the fit audience though few. But whether or not you have Latin, “thought is free,” and the idea of putting Milton’s Latin on-line deserves comment. Is this a first, or am I behind the action?

By John Hale

See all the blogposts concerning Milton’s Scriptural Theology. Confronting De Doctrina Christiana:

Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology

A Cover You Won’t Soon Forget

Confronting John Milton: How and Why?

Recording of Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana

Collecting Light: Q&A with Bill Endres

28 September 2019

How do you digitize the complex materiality of a medieval manuscript? With features such as layered pigments, what happens to a manuscript’s intricate play of light? What excesses are possible, that is, how can digital technologies extend our knowing beyond human senses? Bill Endres explores these questions in his new book, Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts: The St Chad Gospels, Materiality, Recoveries, and Representation in 2D & 3D. The book is a culmination of years of digital imaging in which Endres applied a range of advanced imaging techniques and devises new approaches to explore and present the eighth-century St Chad Gospels.

In your new book, Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts, you mention unriddling light. What do you mean by this? How does light become riddled and can it be unriddled?

he scribal art of script is an art of generating contrast with reflected light. The contrast makes script written on parchment visible. Parchment reflects frequencies of light that generate a cream color. Inks, such as iron gall, absorb most light and appear dark brown or black. This difference generates visibility. Through aging, wear, and natural threats, such as water damage, ink disappears from the page. Contrast is lost. However, inks form a molecular bond with parchment. Remnants generally exist, but they don’t absorb enough light to generate the needed contrast for the eye to discern the script. Thus, the light is riddled.

The obscure clues of the riddled light, however, have a chance to be unriddle through photography. It can capture frequencies of light beyond the range that the human eye sees, such as ultraviolet and infrared. These frequencies can sometimes reveal clues to read damaged text. The digital also adds further opportunities. Because digital imaging records numerical values for reflected light, mathematics can be used to aid in unriddling light.

 Advanced imaging techniques seem well beyond the mathematical and technical expertise of medieval scholars, let alone the general public. Are these techniques becoming accessible and available for wider use?

appily, yes! One of my goals for this book is to make digital techniques accessible and available to any medievalists or enthusiast. In each chapter, I include a methods section to provide specifics for anyone to get started. Also, I use and discuss the free graphics analysis software ImageJ. It was developed by the U.S. National Institute of Health for analysis of medical images. Since manuscripts are made from parchment (animal skins), analytical approaches for medical images regularly align with manuscripts. ImageJ has a robust community of uses that develops new, easy to install plugins for newly developed imaging techniques. ImageJ provides multiple options for unriddling light.

Some advanced imaging techniques, such as reflectance transformation imaging, have very affordable technical needs. Multispectral imaging, which captures images for different frequencies of light, requires a more expensive camera. However, many digital projects make available multispectral and/or high-resolution color images of manuscripts. If these images are available, any scholar or enthusiast can use ImageJ and attempt to recover damaged content.

For many years, photographers have captured manuscripts and other cultural heritage. Can we rid our libraries and archives of these photographs, freeing up valuable space? New advanced imaging techniques suggest that photographs now capture more nuanced and complete visual information. 

bsolutely not. We tend to think of technology as always progressing, generating new and better results. In the case of the St Chad Gospels, the 1911 photographs are stunningly sharp. But in many ways, sharpness isn’t the issue. Manuscripts, no matter how good the care, are aging. Earlier photographs reveal a younger version. These photographs need digitized to preserve how a manuscript once looked.

However, perhaps more importantly, these earlier photographs provide irreplaceable information to assess aging. Once photographs are digitized, their content is malleable. The content can be stretched into alignment with other photographs, a process called registration, easily done with ImageJ. Registered images can be overlaid and the transparency of the top one adjusted to assess changes. Also, registered images can be subtracted to discover minute changes. For this, photographic efforts, such as those produced by Photostat machines, the precursor to the photocopier and popular in the 1930s, are highly important. Photostat copies are many times the earliest reproduction of a complete manuscript. Photostat copies can include information that is now lost to aging or helps assess aging, such as lost chips of pigment or deterioration of the edge of a page. In some ways, any photographic effort increases in value as time progresses, capturing how a manuscript once reflected light.

You have a chapter on virtual reality (VR). It seems futuristic and designed for gaming and escapism. How might it be important for study and knowing manuscripts?

are and rigor should always be key in any approach to a new technology. However, it is impossible to know what opportunities a new technology offers until we experiment with it. In my experiments with VR, I have found it a wonderful environment for transcription. Not limited by the space of the screen, I always know where I am in the text in relationship to the whole page. Also, I can juxtapose pages generated by different light frequencies and post-processing techniques for recoveries. I can enlarge pages to the size of buildings and move back and forth among them easily, never losing my place. I can speak each letter for recording and later use voice recognition software to generate the transcription. This approach vastly improves my speed and accuracy.

Also, we have to remember that manuscripts were the iMax movie of their day. They startled medieval viewers with their colors and intricacies. It is worthwhile quoting the reaction of Gerald of Wales, a twelfth-century traveler writing about his experience of an eighth- or ninth-century Irish gospel book:

But if you take the trouble to look very closely, and penetrate with your eyes to the secrets of the artistry, you will notice such intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so close together and well knitted, so involved and bound together, and so fresh still in their colouring that you will not hesitate to declare that all these things must have been the result of the work, not of men, but of angels.

Gerald captures the sense of awe and wonder of a medieval viewer seeing a manuscript, as we experience with iMax movies. VR allows a page of a manuscript to be a commensurate size, translating scale for today’s expectations. Also, it affords a magnified view of details and intricates. But perhaps most importantly, it enables someone to share the same space with a manuscript. I am intrigued by how sharing space is key to forging relationships.

Do you have a favorite advanced imaging technique? If so, what makes the technique so appealing and valuable?

ach technique generates its own marvels and advantages. If I had to choose one, it would be reflectance transformation imaging (RTI). I’ve always loved the play of light when encountering an illuminated manuscript. RTI allows me to bring this play of light to people who are not as fortunate as I am and cannot encounter the physical manuscript. Also, RTI has a low bar of entry, done with a regular digital camera and flash. To be able to show someone the results, allow them to see intricate surface details, such as dry-point writing or the rise of layered pigment, provides an intimate view of the manuscript.

Finally, you propose another name for the Middle Ages, The Age of Visual Wonder. Why? Weren’t medieval times simply a waiting period until the Enlightenment, a period full of barbaric activity, earning it the earlier name of the Dark Ages?

or a long time, people viewed the Middle Ages as intellectually bankrupt, when classical achievements were lost and/or corrupted and intellectual and artistic activity was at a low point. But nothing could be further from the truth. With the invention of the printing press, over the past five hundred years, people have relied so exclusively on the book and text for intellectual activity, it is easy to miss the mental activity and inventiveness of medieval imagery, encouraging a mental chewing, ruminating on the dialogue between text and image. But on a pure aesthetic level, the black and white space of a page of print is sterile. In a manuscript, even the eloquent flow of ink on parchment and the subtle variations of a human hand speak of artistry. But when you add the colors and intricacies of decorated initials, their inventiveness and engagement with the text, you have a visual wonder that rises above any prior or preceding approach to preserving and transmitting knowledge.

Gordon Taylor LRPS © Hereford Cathedral, 2016.

By Bill Endres

* Decorated initials from the St Chad Gospels, MS Lich 1, Lichfield Cathedral, England (CC BY-NC-SA UK).

A Slow-Food Approach to Touring Rome & Understanding its Culture and History

A Q&A with Peter Hatlie, Author and Editor of People and Places of the Rome Past: the Educated Traveller’s Guide

26 September 2019

Any experienced traveler knows the anticipation and thrill of exploring a new city.  And the greater the city—take Rome, for example, one of the world’s premier tourist attractions anywhere—the greater the chance for an amazing, even life-changing experience.  But how to get the most out your visit to Rome?  This book has an answer to that question that is different from that of hundreds of other travel books and thousands of travel agencies.  Our recommendation is: Take it slow; go below the surface of things; and use this book as an invitation to study and reflect upon the great city of Rome while experiencing its unparalleled cultural and historical riches first-hand.  If you are familiar with the deep satisfaction that a slow-food restaurant can bring in comparison to whatever eat-and-run experience you’ve encountered lately, apply the same logic to your next trip to Rome.  There is a difference, and that difference matters. Read on to learn more.

Q: What does this travel book about Rome do that others don’t?  Arguably it represents a new genre of travel literature, combining practical advice about tourism with rich descriptions of important sites, monuments, and works of art.  In addition, it explores the creative forces behind Rome’s rich cultural heritage.  Each of the book’s eighteen chapters is dedicated to a significant historical figure whose life in Rome has left a lasting footprint, be it a monument, a great work of art, or a tangible memory of great ideas and remarkable things accomplished.  Men and women are included in the list of biographical subjects, as are important people from all walks of life—artists, writers, politicians, churchmen and pilgrims. In a sense, the book is a cross between a tourist guide, an encyclopedia and a scholarly endeavor.

Q: What was the inspiration for the book?  Two things actually.  First, it is the outcome of a really successful team-taught course at my university’s study-abroad Rome campus. The course was taught on-site—that is, in churches and museums, on archaeological sites, and along the city’s alleys and streets—every week for over a decade. The course was so well-received over so many years that, well, it was a no brainer to consider turning into a college-level travel book.  Second, in my own travels to the some of the worlds greatest cities—Athens and Istanbul, Amsterdam and London, Stockholm and Copenhagen—I looked in vain for just this sort of guide book. I wish someone would write this same kind of book for those cities, too.  But for now, at least I am confident that such a book exists for Rome.

Q:  We know that the book about the history and cultural heritage of Rome.  But what is its scope and what expertise underpins its research and narrative?  Think of the book as a series college-level lectures, taking the reader to all major tourist sites along with a lot of less-known ones, and covering the history of the city from its origins in the eighth century BCE through the nineteenth centuries.  Each of the eighteen chapters is written by a college professor who has lived and worked in Rome and has special expertise.  The list of contributors includes four theologians, five professors of comparative literature, two classics professors, two historians, two art historians, and two philosophers.  So the book is ultimately about Rome from an interdisciplinary perspective covering all major sites and many lesser-known treasures, and dipping in and out of almost all major historical epoch’s of Rome’s three thousand years of lived history.

Q: Who is the target audience for the book?  The title of the book pretty much gives this question away.  Our target audience is people who like to read and explore the world to the fullest, and who like to engage in serious ideas and get under the surface of things.  They could be college professors, doctors, lawyers and other professionals longing for the kind of depth one encounters in college humanities classes.  College students themselves might profit from this kind of book in a class setting.  More generally, if the book is brought to Rome and used as a tourist guide, I can imagine someone sitting down to read it in the quiet of a church pew located in one of Rome’s great basilicas or sitting on a park bench outside of one of the city’s great museums or archaeological.  Also, it would be a perfect book to read last thing at night or first thing in the morning—say at the breakfast table—before heading out to explore Rome itself.

Q: Do you think the book will have appeal within the crowded market of tourist books about Rome?   Everyone whom I’ve talked with about the book’s concept has reacted positively so far, and the book itself is also well-written, accessible, and really attractive to the eye—full of beautiful photos, among other things.  Early sales figures are also promising, so I’m hopeful that it will be a book that appeals to its target audience and maybe beyond.  Once again, people who want to take enough time to get away from the crowds and probe the depths of Roman culture and history should like this book?

Q:  What’s next?  Another book on Rome? I’m currently finishing a strictly academic publication about an ancient city on the outskirts of Rome which, though once prominent, is now completely lost to time.  The city is called Bovillae, and it was a prominent suburb of Rome from the first century BCE through the second century CE.  Once I finish that project, I intend to explore whether the concept of People and Places is scalable to other cities.  Athens, Istanbul, Amsterdam and Paris, alone, would offer great material for a book like this one.

by Peter Hatlie 

Confronting John Milton: How and Why?

30 August 2019

In this further blog arising from my new study of Milton’s Christian Doctrine, I’m reflecting how I came to write it, as reflections on the purpose and meaning of this kind of research.

See also my other blogposts: Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology and A Cover You Won’t Soon Forget.

Till just before I finished my BA at Oxford (1957-61), my working mind was fully occupied by Greek and Latin, and their history and philosophy. These demanded full attention, in vacations too, the way I was being educated! Then it occurred to me that “work” and “working life” had other meanings. If I wanted to be paid for working, I might well have to do something else for the rest of my days. Rather belatedly I considered: banking; librarianship; the civil service; other things, unspecified. None appealed as much as continuing to engross myself in Greece and Rome. I trained to teach secondary-school Classics, since I saw no future tertiarily, feeling overshadowed by the swifter greyhounds (prizewinners and the like) in my Oxford’s Classics cohort.

   All I knew was: I wanted to be paid to do what I could enjoy; and conversely.

Training instead as a secondary teacher (1961-62), I discovered the joy of teaching English. Then, teaching at a grammar school (1962-65) confirmed the scope and delight of working within my own mother tongue. It showed me too that I did not enjoy teaching more Latin than Greek, nor teaching compulsory Latin to unwilling students. I went back to university, to Edinburgh (1965), to train in English studies, which then meant English literature; canonical, the good and proven stuff. That way I could be paid to do what I could enjoy more of, and enjoy more of what I would be paid to do.

Just before taking this plunge, which I have not once regretted, I consulted my Oxford mentor, Eric Gray. “If you do this,” he said, “do focus on scholarship not criticism.” I took him to mean, “Avoid the evaluative subjectivism of the likes of F. R. Leavis.” Yet I found Leavis stimulating to read, in fact exciting, alongside the works he deemed “great,” as in his “Great Tradition” of the English novel. Only five novelists! Then six, when he readmitted Dickens. Freakish but challenging. Was I taken in by Leavis’ egotistical rhetoric, as if no one knew what was good literature but him? No, I had my own unsystematic but quite varied reading experience to compare with his. Strong personalities can inspire or mislead students. So can one-eyed teachers. But English studies, and reading itself, remain “the common pursuit of true judgment.” Good reading, and comparing notes, is life-blood for the mind.

Scholarship, however, must guide and control it. Leavis’s narrowness led him into mistakes. John Butt, lecturing us by tape-recorder from his deathbed in my first days at Edinburgh, pointed some out. It makes a difference in which edition you read Henry James; or the Prelude, or Hamlet. And in each case it makes a different difference. How best can scholarship inform evaluation? Both are part of our civilized heritage, as for music.

I learnt something of systematic scholarship and its value in that first year at Edinburgh. Eclectically, in only two or three papers, and their periods of literature. How spotty English studies can still be! Now more so, taught by specialists, and wooed into taking our humane subject at all in these mad utilitarian times, students can ignore most authors and periods and even genres if they choose. It has been made worse.

So real immersion, and responsible learning of what there is and how it has been preserved and studied and theorized, tend to wait till graduate studies. Now, by the chance of my own changeover from Classics to English, this happened to me. I waited till the doctoral years, having at last found how I wanted spend my working life, to study literature seriously, systematically, for practice and theory— every which way, in the year of “reading into my field,” Shakespeare’s comedies. I knew I wanted to stay with Eng Lit, to the highest level of research and teaching I could attain. This was in the vague hope that research would equip teaching, without needing too much dilution or compromise. Good reading should achieve this: good reading, I had by now found from exemplars, is infectious.

Sometime in the four years at Edinburgh I was sitting in the Library café with a friend, Brian, discussing The Future, our futures. I had been reading Anna Karenina, and somehow or other this led me to confide that all I wanted out of life was to write books, have children, and garden. Career, apparently, didn’t figure, though somehow or other the three prime aims would need to be funded. Was I being realistic, absurd, pathetic, or what? Some satisfactions of life are simple and deep, and if you feel this, then you find some way or other to fulfill them, often without foreseeing how. If you want to be a medievalist you will write books. If scholarships won’t fund you, you do it the old way, in the rest of your time. Publishers likewise: will find ways, one way or another, to connect intelligent people with each other through books.

Not that I thought mine had been the right way of coming to these realizations! Far from it. Much too roundabout and accidental. But that’s showbiz.

And I was still doing catch-up with reading of basic authors through the first few years of my working life. Not at first in Canada (1969-71), where the students’ first degree, and consequently my own teaching load, remained spotty. I got away with being narrow and eclectic while still completing my PhD (1971). Not so at Otago (from 1971 onwards), because of its belief (then) in the canon, and its peculiar way of encompassing it in the BA degree. Continuing from an earlier time when staff resources were few, and New Zealand did not attract many expats, we lectured to all three years of students at the same time, for one period of literature. Next year, similarly, on a second period. Same on the remaining third, the year after. This was called the Cycle. It compelled me to read just ahead of my students for the first three years. No time to publish anything!

It wouldn’t happen now. It couldn’t. I’m a unique species, if not extinct. Yet I must just say, I met some of the great minds at an age when I could appreciate and understand them, better than if I had met them at age 17 or 18. Coleridge for example: the thinker, about poetry and much else. “Mind-blowing” is for once the right word.

Of course I knew that if I wanted to secure tenure, and make my mark among peers, I must also research and publish. “Publish or perish” is a cliché from before my time (where it is becoming “Publish and perish,” more of which in a moment). I should have had a book, or at least essays, to peddle, from my thesis work. I didn’t, for some years. Why not? Isn’t a doctoral dissertation meant to contribute original work to our knowledge, and to be publishable?

So it was said, yet already this was doubtful —papering over the cracks, ignoring the funding imperatives and societal / bureaucratic realities. Universities obey money imperatives, including student consumerism, and institutional pandering to it. Laboriously, I made chapters into conference papers, and sometimes published essays. But fashions were changing. My thesis topic, how Shakespeare used his sources — evaluation based on scholarly research, thereby meeting the criteria of both Gray and Leavis, in fact—did not suit Shakespeare studies by the 1970s. The air was filled with performance study, with political or feminist or postcolonialist readings, and the imminent surge of theory. And it soon got worse, taking attention further from a base in literary scholarship. I finally published my book The Shakespeare of the Comedies: A Multiple Approach in 1996! It incorporated a few of the emerging trends, this time just before they changed again.

Trends are constant in change. It was a fashion to favour criticism over scholarship. The proportioning of theory to reading practice keeps changing, and also which theories out of the centuries of theorizing, are trending. What endures is reading, and sharing the understanding of it. To these, scholarship is essential. And, despite protests, personality— not our own but those enduring authors’. Writers are our companions. Great writers are good companions. Think of Chaucer or Dryden, They still illuminate books, and life, and our lives, social or existential. Reading and research must always serve them, connect us with them, on their terms as well as our own. Books, in whatever form they come to us, must on the whole and in the main serve these constants.

From the outcome with Shakespeare, I saw that my research and publishing life had to change. Yet it was initially only by chance that I switched to Milton, to his voluminous Latin works, and so eventually (Eureka!) combining what I had studied, to appraise his works on their own terms, terms Latin and Neo-Latin, Classical in the broadest sense. That I did this was necessity but first of all, a happy accident. A reading-group was formed from among humanities departments and medicine, to read later Latin classics; anything between Augustine and Newton. We began with Boethius. (What a key text for medieval studies! Everyone for centuries knew this, Chaucer translated it, and so on.) After Boethius, Augustine, then Galileo. Tough stuff. Not many of us could understand Galileo’s study of the moons of Jupiter even after translating its Latin… Which prompts the thought, that some of the time spent on Latin, for example doing Latin proses ad nauseam, would have been better spent on Galileo. Syllabuses and curriculums and timetabling were imperfect, then as now.  Let us hope today’s nonsensical mixture of utilitarian constraint and unthinking permissiveness will change; and teaching and publishing with it. (Humanities are cheaper than most STEM subjects…)

At all events, one such neo-Latinist neophyte turned to me and said: “what about English Latinists? What about Milton? Didn’t he have a reputation for his Latin poems?….”

Indeed he did! And then I knew nothing about it. It was not merely time to catch up on Milton, but time to know his work as a whole, and (since I had Latin, and needed a second string to my research bow) the time was NOW. Since that moment, circa 1980, I have never looked back. All my books on Milton involve his Latin as much as his English.

My new book is my seventh on Milton. His multilingualism became my gladsome niche, through the 1980s. By chance I had learnt Italian at school, but ad hoc I undertook classical Hebrew in that decade, to equip myself for exploring all of Milton’s languages.

It also happens that the world has fewer and fewer people who have those languages and share this interest. While there are any at all, and while I keep my wits, I have a niche indeed.

          My perspective pays dividends all the time, by understandings, and equally by avoidance of misunderstandings. It is a general and autonomous good, that we preserve understandings within a culture. Not to know our past is to be impoverished, and less prepared for future uncertainties.


But still it might be asked, why do you expend so much effort on what is the most obscure and least read (and longest and most fatiguing) even among his Latin writings? Haven’t you got better things to do? After all, De Doctrina Christina is a glorified commonplace-book, in an antiquated approach to an obsolete metaphysic; tedious and schematic even to look at.

A meek reply might be: (1) Milton wrote works more boring than De Doctrina! (2) It is read more, not less, these days, partly because the revived authorship controversy publicized it. (3) Theologians and intellectual historians, early-modernists in general, have ben alerted to the mid-century crisis in Protestantism, the stirrings of secularism which go with historical study of scripture.

The truer reply is personal. Because of my work on Milton’ languages from 1980 to 1991 I was recruited to the multidisciplinary research team investigating the authorship of De Doctrina. Some scholars thought it inauthentic. Most disagreed. The team looked at all the evidence afresh — signatures, writing, paper, scribes, stylometry, history of the MS, just about everything. My role, as the Latinist, was to assess the statistics of word-usage: did the work use “bad” or late Latin in ways which Milton the purist could not have? Do favourite words within De Doctrina match ones in Milton’s echt– Latin? I put much effort into this collaboration, so enjoyable after all the earlier lonelier toiling.

I used this work again in my writing for the book of the project, Milton and the MS of De Doctrina (Oxford 2008). And more still in editing De Doctrinafor the new Oxford Complete Works of John Milton (2012). Yes, Milton: our research had vindicated his authorship. All of this work helps establish what we mean by “Milton,” his body of writing, the person, his views, beliefs, his opinionated personality. How could a Miltonist not rejoice to be a part of this!? And never mind how many hours or days it needed; or how long it still takes. There is always more to do. This is really living.

           To keep company with a person you admire and respect, through their thoughts even after their death, is what makes me tick. The same holds good for anyone who enjoys living through reading, critically but with admiration. If a job or emolument comes with it, so much the better.

            These three large undertakings with De Doctrina were all collaborations. After envying scholars who had a team to slot into (as scientists do in a lab) or many other disciplines with fieldwork, I relished the teamwork and companionship, at long last. But collaboration had also meant suspending my own individual likes and dislikes regarding De Doctrina. Was Milton always so rigid? Yes and No.  So now I have written my own response to the work. Subtitled “Confronting” it. I feel I have earned the chance to offer a shorter, much more personal monograph. Milton’s Scriptural Theology, yes, and Confronting it.

I see M’s Scriptural Theology as culminating and completing my odyssey. It offers critique and scholarship, on a rare and valuable expression of Milton’s genius; made more not less intriguing by its warts and kinks. I offer a reading of it which combines scholarship with critique (true to my early belief in using both). It harnesses my Latin, too, paying incidental tribute to my languages, and to the authenticity of reading original not translated words. I dwell on this, even to Latin-less readers.

To them especially. No previous study of De Doctrina has so insisted on Milton’s original words, dictated in his blindness to a motley succession of scribes. Sometimes he was desperate, and used whoever was passing and had some Latin. A great man. What guts! Many, many thanks to Simon Forde and the noble seaworthy ARC that rescued my manuscript from the perils of publishing in these troublesome times.

by John Hale

See all the blogposts concerning Milton’s Scriptural Theology. Confronting De Doctrina Christiana:

Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology

A Cover You Won’t Soon Forget

Confronting John Milton: How and Why?

Recording of Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana

A Cover You Won’t Soon Forget

 15 August 2019

The cover’s Latin words and phrases are chosen equally from Milton’s topics and from his personal style in examining them. 

Its prevailing monochrome is chosen to suggest print, and bibles, and academic and clerical garb, or the pen and ink of a controversial manuscript. 

Polemic is suggested in the lineation, by jagged diagonals, tilting and crisscrossing. 

Individual words are chosen for prominent topics, for individual aptness or for typical style and reasoning:

Haeresis: In Greek, hairesis meant simply “choice,” as you find it used in Aristotle’s Ethics, for example. But in New Testament Greek it was producing the adjective, hairetikos, “heretical” (choosy, picking and choosing, by willful wrong-headedness). Milton claims to be no heretic, only one choosing in freedom, like Paul. The word exemplifies Milton’s learning and self-advantaging use of definition.

De filio: “Concerning the Son.” By far Milton’s longest and most original chapter (I. 6) in De Doctrina. He does not find any evidence for the Trinity in scripture, or else (it’s not always clear which) evidence supporting the explanation prevailing in his day: “three persons in one God.”

persona, and drama personalitatum: “person” and “the drama of personhoods”, where drama is sarcastic. The Latin words are reduced in meaning and coverage, being late Latin, marred by churchmen’s obfuscation. Strictly, he says — that is by more reductive etymologizing— it translates prosopon, the “mask” of a Roman or Greek actor. How can that help explain the Trinity?

Amesius noster: in what sense is William Ames “ours,” noster? As another English Protestant, or as a hero who went into exile for his beliefs? Or as a basic source of Milton’s own theology? Or one who agreed with him? But in the same chapter Milton flatly disagrees with him! At any rate, Ames like John Selden is one of the remarkably few thinkers whom Milton names as friend or ally.

mihimet ipsi: what is safe “for me myself”? Strong emphasis is made by the lengthened form of mihi, “to me”, and ipsi extends it further. Does this declaration in the Preface point to Protestant individualism? Egocentricity? Existential firmness… How best to describe it, is the question to which my book responds, and which Milton is asking of us. I relate it to his use of the parable of the talents. “That one talent which is death to hide”: it would be “death” to him if he were to hide his own talent for inquiry.

duntaxat: an emphatic word for “only.” Milton uses it to restrict a definition, to what he finds in scripture (rather than in traditions or liturgies), and also at times to what he is prepared to find in scripture. Once he uses duntaxat three times in the same sentence, to keep civil and church government out of Christian practice.

non nisi: similarly to duntaxatnon nisi or “not unless” helps Milton keep necessary regulation to a minimum…

nihil mihi tutius: but this time the negative expression works more like a litotes, to make a strong positive. “Nothing is safer for me” in ascertaining what beliefs are safe and sure than to go back to the Bible, and to accept nothing but what (in Milton’s judgment) is to be found there.

O vos exigua fide: “O ye of little faith!” After reasoning more and more passionately against clergy pay, and established churches which abuse their power, he lets fly against these feeble believers. Using the words of Jesus himself, more in anger than in sorrow, the allusion reproves the churches by the words, and voice, of the strongest possible authority. The Latin version seems to be Milton’s own.

by John Hale

See all the blogposts concerning Milton’s Scriptural Theology. Confronting De Doctrina Christiana:

Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology

A Cover You Won’t Soon Forget

Confronting John Milton: How and Why?

Recording of Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana

What does Medieval Podillya, an Unknown Multicultural Frontier in the East of Europe, Tell the World Today?

 16 August 2019

In the mid-fourteenth century, expansion of Europe eastward to lands where no one had any idea of “Europe” seemed inconceivable. However, a bizarre endeavour of Lithuanian princes, who had themselves just recently become Christians, managed to move the European frontier into territories that belonged to nomadic peoples. This expansion created a new historical region called Podillya. It was a remote land on the edge of Medieval Europe, where contested territories regularly turned into a battleground. Today it is part of Ukraine. In this very place, then and now. we can observe how European values struggled to embed themselves into people’s everyday practices.

This book demonstrates how six centuries ago a settled Christian population, which until the second half of the fourteenth century had lived under the Tatars, succeeded in escaping the hardships of the steppe and adopted a new regime, on how to administer property, practise law, and live as a multi-ethnic community. It tells how the new rulers of the territory, the Koriatovych brothers, the ancestors of the Great Lithuanian Duke Gediminas, turned this vast territory into the easternmost redoubt of Christendom. It shows how the new legal structure imported from the West attracted nobles, bourgeois, and mercenaries from Central Europe to move east to advance their careers.

I talk about three things in this book. First, I explore where Europe ends in the east in the late-medieval period. What makes Podillya interesting is that it undermines a notion that creating a new region in Europe in a region that knew no kind of statehood or governance by ruling families stood little chance. Nowhere else can we observe such a European frontier moving eastward so far and so fast. And yet, Podillya managed to take advantage of the trade routes running from east to west, carrying exotic goods – silk and expensive fabrics, spices, and also slaves – from Asia into Europe.

Second, I show how Podillya absorbed rulers from different countries and traditions, and how they came together to support the Koriatovych brothers who in turn gained the support of the Polish King Kasimir III the Great and the Hungarian king Louis I, so becoming their vassals. This led to them establishing a Catholic diocese in the city of Kamyanets and introducing European practices to Podillya, primarily land ownership by fief.

Third, I outline how, after Podillya’s partition in two, Western Podillya became the easternmost province of the Kingdom of Poland and became a place where local and incoming nobles created a specifically elastic community, serving the monarch in return for offices and lands, whilst at the same time forming a protectorate of magnates, such as the Buzcackis. All of these factored into making by the fifteenth century the Podolian voivodeship a unique territory on a key frontier with Asia.

While writing this book it became clear to me that the history of Podillya is a model for something bigger. This bigger thing is a history of modern Ukraine – a large country that emerged on the same Eurasian border. Podillya in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries matches the Ukrainian experience of the same time. There too, European practices prevailed in a part of the country. Some of them have survived till today as a vague recollection and understanding of the rule of law and justice. They manifest themselves in public protests against the abuse of power.

Today Ukraine is facing a choice very similar to the choice Podillya faced six centuries ago. This choice is difficult and not obvious for many. Back then, Podolians could have continued to pay tribute to Tatars as money well spent in return for a quiet life. Now, Ukrainians face a similar dilemma – a choice to live as before and serve people in power or foreign rulers, or to bring power into the hands of the people. Late-medieval Podillya provides examples of identical situations. In 1464, the Podolian nobles opposed their local magnates, the Buczackis family. The nobles agreed to collect a special tax in return for reclaiming control (by them and the king) over the main city in the Podolian voivodeship – Kamyanets. The money was paid to the Buczackis who controlled the monarch by virtue of being his creditor. But joint action to assert the authority of the king and the local nobles over their main city was an exemplar of solidarity that later evolved into parliamentary practices

Another perhaps surprising aspect of late-medieval Podillya is its multiculturalism, which we see thematically and linguistically. Few Podolian sources are written in Ruthenian; the majority are in Latin, but hugely influenced by Old Polish. This is a huge challenge for scholars, particularly with spelling and interpreting proper names. For example, Podillya is the Ukrainian name for the territory. However, this name exists in hardly any English text. Instead we find transliterations from Polish (Podole) or from Latin (Podolia). It is even more complicated working with proper names that have been in use in English for a while: Kamyanets, if it were properly transliterated would be spelled Kamianiec, Kamenets, or Kamenetz reflecting Polish, Russian, or Jewish spellings of the city’s name. I struggled to remember that the Buczackis family should be spelled in this Polish way to follow established convention, while the name of the city from where their name originates would be transliterated as Buchach. I followed the rule that everyone who came to Podillya from Bohemia should be spelled in Czech, Lithuanian princes in Lithuanian, and Moldovan rulers in Romanian. So, the multiculturalism of Podillya has strongly invaded the present-day English narrative of its history. Something of a historical irony.

A final point I make is that border provinces of empires are never homogeneous. They do not always want to remain in the political and cultural orbit of old imperial centres. When they become the objects of expansion by European countries, as happened in Podillya, the provinces actually face a choice to accept or reject new structures and laws. It is a process. Native people and newcomers take time to find a shared language and align the past with new values. This had a direct impact on the ability of the local people to form a new state. The inability or lack of desire to unite is a function of the heterogeneity of the population. It is extremely hard, painful, and time-consuming to shape a community that has a chance to later evolve into a nation out of diverse people who are united only by their place of residence.

As you may intimate, these historical lessons have much relevance to countries in east-central and eastern Europe today.

by Vitaliy Mykhaylovskiy

Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology

Why did Milton write De Doctrina Christiana?

He didn’t. He dictated it, being blind.

Then how do you know he composed it?

His name is on the MS, which survives. Views expressed, such as on Predestination or Divorce or Tithing, match Milton’s views expressed elsewhere. His prodigious skills in the biblical languages match those of his other prose works.

So all the more, why did he undertake this enormous task?

Irritation, he says, with the mistakes and bad logic of other theologians; for only the Bible can be trusted as evidence for safe belief, and he will now assemble what the Bible says on every single point.

What does he mean by safe belief? And unsafe?

Unsafe beliefs include ones based on tradition and church authority. Safe beliefs on the other hand may be lesser ones. He’s very thorough. Tiny texts preponderate as proofs in the manuscript’s earlier layers.

Give some examples.

Milton works his way through all details of belief, worship and conduct, systematically, and often with prosaic declarativeness.  But at the other extreme he demolishes the current explanations of Trinity, as three “persons” in one God, in a chapter of many thousand words. This orthodox understanding of godhead in scripture, he says, is not to be found in scripture. He forgoes his usual organization by commonplace book topics, to tackle orthodoxy head-on. What he attacks, however, is both the current explanation of personhood in terms of hypostasis, and any explanation whatever. He won’t have a bar of it.

Is he usually heterodox?

Quite often, but more eclectic.  On Predestination he opposes Calvinism and sides with Arminian orthodoxy. On Divorce he opposes all the mainstream churches. On Tithing he rails against established clergy, the English one especially. The common thread is free will, and individual choice.

Is that all?

No, the other aspect is personal fervour, do-it-yourself, and a Latin eloquence which can become positively incandescent. In these places, the work waxes most readable, at its most passionate.

Doesn’t he seek to persuade by reason?

By his version of reason, yes. But “reason” includes many axioms, and a way he has of limiting interpretation, to a bare minimum. Least is best—for no obvious reason, since theology has grown rather than shrunk in scope, developing as needed or challenged such applications as the Trinity. Trinitarian theology has begun stirring even in the Old Testament. How much more likely that the New will become more, not less, open to it. It is well visible in Matthew 28.19, or in Pauline invocations.

Milton grinds axes, then?

Yes. And his presuppositions blind him to the very perspectives from which historical scriptural theology began, in Leviathan and elsewhere.

Stern words! What do you mean?

Milton says the Old Testament’s textual authority outweighed that of the New. This assists his line of thought (pre-known from the English pamphlets) on Divorce. The patriarchs divorced, just as they upheld polygamy: ergo both were still permitted. Yet how could the O. T. have a more reliable text than the N. T. when it tells of Moses describing his own death? But Milton must disallow development in the New, just as marriage customs must not have changed.

Then would not De Doctrina be a backwater, even had it reached publication before the Restoration prevented it?

Yes and No. Hindsight does negate Milton’s timeless and nitpicking scholastic synthesis. But his onslaught on the Trinity makes it count, as part of the mid-century questioning of the traditional thought-forms. In all his enquiries alike he has an admirable driving eagerness, not to mention a power of expression which is ill-served by translation but is manifest in the original Latin.

How would you sum up his undertaking?

He himself summed it up as a treasure, gained like that of the householder in the parable, and readied to be given forth. Perhaps the true imperative was more personal. To change the parable, De Doctrina expresses “that one talent which is death to hide.”

What do you think your own study [link] of De Doctrina achieves?

It recovers the commitment and intensity of Milton’s undertaking, its energy and zeal. Though these qualities seem at times misguided, and somewhat unlikely to produce safe belief for anyone but Milton himself, my study shows how his mind works, in a systematic theology—kinks, curves, and presuppositions included. And in his other theology, the poems, his mind works differently, with an awakened imagination that is revealed by the contrast.

By John Hale

See all the blogposts concerning Milton’s Scriptural Theology. Confronting De Doctrina Christiana:

Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology

A Cover You Won’t Soon Forget

Confronting John Milton: How and Why?

Recording of Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana

Plagues Past, Paths Forward

July 29, 2019

Just about this time five years ago, I was finishing up what had been an extraordinary adventure. I had spent the year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, ostensibly to work on the impact Arabic medicine had had on 11th– and 12th-century Europe. I made good headway on that project, discovering at least a dozen new manuscripts, “cracking the code” on several key developments in intellectual history, and finally putting a human face on my key protagonist, the immigrant Tunisian monk, Constantine the African.

But at the opening reception for Visiting Members in September 2013, the Director of the IAS, Robbert Dijkgraaf, had done what directors are supposed to do: he had given us a directive. “Forget the proposal you submitted when you applied last year, and do something big, bold, and urgent.” Those probably weren’t his exact words, but they were what I remembered. So, while I continued my manuscript hunting and textual collations, I jumped headlong into an additional pursuit: figuring out how to turn a new area of genetics into a new kind of history.

The “prompt” to this work were developments in genetics research that had occurred since the beginning of the 21stcentury. That might not sound very “medieval,” but you’d be surprised! New work in genetics had shifted the ground in studies of plague, one of the most lethal diseases in the world and the cause (“alleged cause,” some doubters might have said) of the pandemic events that bookended the Middle Ages: the Justinianic Plague of the 6th to 8th centuries, and the Black Death of the 14thcentury. This was history done not by traditional historians, but by “historians in lab coats.” I had been wrestling with this question myself since around 2005, when I first heard rumors that research was being done by microbiologists who do what microbiologists do: study microbes. (“How dare they?”) It took two iterations of a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar in London to persuade me, but by 2013 I was finally convinced that maybe this “new genetics paradigm”—studying the history of infectious diseases by working from the molecular level on up—had something going for it.

My bold adventure at the IAS resulted in the inaugural issue of The Medieval Globe, produced under the visionary editorship of Carol Symes at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The volume, entitled Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death, brought together historians, biologists, and anthropologists to address a simple question: “So what?” What difference, we asked, did the new findings from genetics about the mid-14th-century Black Death, or other plague pandemics, make for what we did as historians of medicine, paleopathologists, immunology researchers, or bioterrorism experts? As noted in the review of the volume by historian Lester Little, the enterprise was intended from the outset to be provisional. We knew that new work from the sciences about the evolutionary history of the single-celled bacterium, Yersinia pestis, was coming so fast and thick that keeping up with it was a vertigo-inducing endeavor. With funding from the World History Center at the University of Pittsburgh, we were able to publish open-access, making the volume readily discoverable and facilitating interdisciplinary awareness of our work. 13,500+ downloads later, it has been a stunning success—its own quick obsolescence being the best measure of that.In the past five years, the field of plague studies has transformed several times over. In 2015, researchers discovered Bronze Age plague strains, and in subsequent years have pushed that new chronological horizon back into the Late Neolithic. Studies documenting the existence of what seems to be a unique European lineage of Y. pestis, seeded by the Black Death strain, offer strong support for our initial idea in 2014 that, as Ann Carmichael hypothesized, plague may indeed have focalized within western Europe itself. And while we knew already in 2014 that a Y. pestis genome from the First Plague Pandemic in the sixth century had been successfully sequenced, it has still been flabbergasting, in 2018 and 2019, to see genetic evidence of how early that lineage must have emerged out of the Tian Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan and how much the Justinianic Plague strain diverged within Europe.

The work in genetics thus continues to dazzle. But traditional bioarchaeologists and historians have been no sluggards these past years (even if we remain much more poorly funded). Indeed, we’ve been keeping the geneticists on their toes. Medieval Globe contributor Sharon DeWitte has continued her prolific and pioneering studies, looking for factors that might have created differentials in survival or subsequent health of populations in northern Europe. Some of that work has been in alliance with Fabian Crespo, who has continued to investigate the immune competence of historical populations. The work of Anna Colet and her colleagues on the tragic persecution of the Jewish community in Tàrrega has become the focal point for new work by Susan Einbinder exploring the post-Black Death commemorations of Jews for the afflictions they had suffered.

Stuart Borsch has carried forward his efforts to document and quantify the demographic effects of the plague in the Islamic world, while Michelle Ziegler has pushed forward her interests in disease landscapes. Robert Hymes’ work on the possible presence of plague in Mongol China has begun to win converts, with a new book by Timothy Brook set to feature plague as a key factor in the fall of the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty and the rise of the Ming. My work with Kathleen Walker-Meikle and Wolfgang Müller on the “misdiagnosed” leprosy image was taken up and furthered by Lori Jones and Richard Nevell, who not simply turned the mighty juggernaut of Wikipedia around, getting the leprosy image removed from the plague/Black Death pages in multiple languages (which get millions of views every year), but also persuaded numerous Internet outlets and publications to rethink their uses of other “misdiagnosed” images.

Fig. 1: Since 2014 when we first published our study about this image of leprosy in James le Palmer’s Omne bonum, the British Library has scanned the entire two volumes of Royal MS 6 E VI, thus allowing anyone in the world to examine for themselves the chapter “On Ministrations by a Disabled Cleric.”

And as if all those transformations weren’t enough, there has been the stellar success of Nükhet Varlık’s work, which she previewed in her 2014 essay, “New Science and Old Sources: Why the Ottoman Experience of Plague Matters.” Her 2015 book, Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347–1600, has earned an astounding four book awards, all from different academic societies, most recently the American Association for the History of Medicine. If ever there was proof of the broad historical significance of the intersections of disease and history, or the value in using the most rigorous methods to explore them, it is this pioneering study.

The most daring offshoot of the Pandemic Disease volume came out in December 2018: a special issue of the online journal Afriques on the theme, “The Black Death and Its Aftermaths in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Critical Exploration of Silence.” “Silence” was the operative word, since aside from a few passing references, the possibility that plague had penetrated Africa below the Sahara has not been a part of Black Death narratives. The work of archaeologists in Europe, where the presence of plague was now confirmed by aDNA, offered a new model of what might be considered a “plague imprint” in the physical, built environment: signs of contracted, or even abandoned, human settlements. Gérard Chouin, on the one hand, and Daphne Gallagher and Stephen Dueppen, on the other, took paradigm-shifting work, such as that by archaeologist Carenza Lewis, as a charge to look for absences in the West African late medieval landscape: things that are not there, signs that, in negation, mark an unnamed catastrophe. Marie-Laure Derat, another contributor to the Afriques volume, looked to the eastern part of Africa and found surprisingly rich documentation in Ethiopian written sources of the effects of plague there, right down to the importation of European plague saints by the local Christian communities.

And where was the “net” of genetics to support this great leap of faith in carrying plague’s story into Africa? What promise did palaeogenetics hold for other parts of the world if no plague aDNA had yet been retrieved outside of Europe and western Russia? As Lori Jones and I muse in a forthcoming paper on infectious disease history in the Indian Ocean World, local aDNA is not necessary to start seeing the larger, global implications of an evolutionary approach to infectious disease history. In my chapter of the 2014 Medieval Globe volume, I had laid out why the new evolutionary understanding of Yersinia pestis was pointing a finger at East Africa and saying “There’s something going on here!” In my essay for the Afriques volume, I revisited that genetics evidence. Just as a philologist infers textual transmission from a stemma, so an evolutionary geneticist can infer lines of biological inheritance from a phylogenetic tree. (In concept, the two kinds of diagrams are identical.) Using my 2016 observations about a split in the branching of Y. pestis’s evolutionary tree right after the Black Death, along with evidence from colonial records and oral traditions, I sketched out how a Russian strain of plague may have reached East Africa in the late medieval period. It survives there to the present day.

Figure 2: Detail of the Yersinia pestis phylogenetic tree marked to show the later medieval polytomy (the “Big Bang,” circled in red) and the new branches it created, both those retrieved from aDNA (black labels) and those from modern isolates (peach-colored labels). The African branch is “1.ANT.” From: Monica H. Green, “Putting Africa on the Black Death Map: Narratives from Genetics and History,” Afriques 9 (2018), https://journals.openedition.org/afriques/2125.

My ultimate goal in diving headlong into plague research had always been pedagogical. The blogpost I wrote for Arc Humanities in 2015 focused on my teaching, and I’m proud to say that my 2018 essay, “On Learning How to Teach the Black Death,” has been the second most frequently viewed and downloaded item on my public webpage.

So yes, this project was “big.” And “bold” (or boldly ambitious), too. But was it “urgent”? Five years ago this month, I left Princeton and was driving home to Arizona. When I had radio reception, I was listening to news coming out of West Africa. The still-uncontained outbreak of Ebola was taking dozens of lives every week. The barely contained panic in the reports was palpable. When I returned home, I knew that my task—the one way I could help as a historian—was to “teach the crisis.” With a new colleague-in-arms, Stephen Casper, I started an Ebola Archive: the crisis could best be understood, we thought, by getting a sense of where the disease came from, where it might be heading, and how those most immediately affected (not simply healthcare providers but the local populace) might have understood what they were experiencing. In other words, we attempted to bring all the perspectives that I and my colleagues had just used to approach the Black Death. In January 2015, I wrote up a new foreword to the print edition to Pandemic Disease: “The Black Death and Ebola: On the Value of Comparison.” It breaks my heart to re-read it now, with a new Ebola epidemic still out-of-control in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What does the medieval past have to teach the present? Sometimes, looking for “medievalness” is the wrong thing to do. Madagascar’s outbreak of plague in 2017 had nothing to do with the Middle Ages, but everything to do with the modern processes of globalized trade and labor. But we only know when and how to make such comparisons by having a deeply immersed understanding of both past and present. The “new plague paradigm” has proved a powerful tool, not simply for geneticists (for whom Y. pestis has now become a “model organism”), but for historians and archaeologists, too. If I could give a directive to other medievalists, it would likewise be to “do something big, bold, and urgent.”

by Monica H. Green