A few of my favorite things…

Campus is all spiffed up...

Campus is all spiffed up…

Ah, it’s that time of year again.  Mors nigra, atra mors, The Great Mortality, The Great Plague….

Wait – did you think I was going to wax on about the upcoming Christmas holiday? 

Heaven’s no!  Christmas?  That’s still more than two weeks off.  Can’t go there until I put the Fall semester to bed.

This time of year, my intro class hits the late medieval period (I have no idea how I used to be able to take this class through the Reformation!?)  Mors nigra, atra mors, The Great Mortality, The Great Plague are all descriptors for the massive pandemic that hit Europe in the mid 14th Century.  Now commonly referred to as the Black Death, it’s one of the big points to cover the last section of World Civ.

Isn't that a cheery gif?

Isn’t that a cheery gif?                                       Source

I’ve tried to cover it a number of ways, and this year, since I’ve committed to using group activities at least once in each topical unit, enter the beans!


What we have here represents a medieval manor which is about to be infected by the plague.  Each bean represents a person on the manor.  The plain pinto beans are serfs, the “F” pinto beans are free peasants, the “C’s” craftsmen and the white beans are the “others” the Lord, his lady, the parish priest, the manor knights and men at arms.  One hundred beans in all go into a brown paper lunch bag.

Class breaks into groups, each group gets a manor or a town (ie, a bag of beans).  Estimates are that 1/3-1/2 of the overall population of Europe died in 14th century pandemic.  Splitting the difference, each group blindly pulls 41 beans from their bag.  RIP beans – you are the Great Mortality in this simulation…hopefully the local priest was left alive!

The next step is to assess who is left, and how life goes on now. (there is a score sheet)  It is always an interesting process.  Each group has a slightly different survival outcome which will require different means of coping.  Once all the groups have determined their plan for recovery, I set the manors on each other…yesterday’s pestilence left two manors with lord-less, knight-less ladies.  The surviving knights from the remaining manor, decided the time was ripe to get married!

I blow kind of hot and cold on simulations.  I think students generally like them and I think the point about survival, adjustment and recovery was well established, but I have to admit that I am fully expecting to hear about pinto beans on the final exam!

Of course, all of this medieval stuff got me thinking about the forthcoming medieval knight from the neighborhood…

Is this the lone still? Source

Bonjour Raymond de Merville                                                                                 Source

From what I recall, Pilgrimage is set in the 13th century, so well before the onset of the Black Death.  However, since anachronism in period films is common (it’s all medieval right?!), Raymond dear, your mighty sword won’t help you.  If you see anyone with tennis ball sized black carbuncles on their necks, run away…RUN AWAY!!

Neutrality and Richard Armitage: It’s all a matter of source.

One thing I struggle with as a fan of Richard Armitage is the temptation to take all the source material that emerges about him at face value.  It’s hard not to do when some completely charming new interview or article is released.  I want to believe that every bit of it is a true, unbiased account of this man who fascinates me.  I want to, and I probably do for a minute, but, as a scholar, I’ve been relentlessly drilled on the reality that NO source is completely unbiased or neutral, so I have to step back and consider the source.   There was a really interesting discussion about this concept this week  in Armitageworld, on a non-RA topic (gasp) that brought this issue back to the surface for me.

In studies of the ancient world, neutrality is an elusive thing.  Perhaps the most neutral source I’ve studied is material that I’ve pulled from the ground myself.  Material that has not seen the light of day in almost 3000 years.  It has no voice, it carries no inherent bias, it just is.  The attachment of bias begins pretty quickly though as I look at it and form an opinion as to what it is…which basket it belongs in – pottery?  bone?  stone?  metal?  It goes on from there, acquiring the opinions of all the scholars before me who have studied similar material.  See what I mean about the elusive nature of neutrality?

It is much more difficult to find an neutral written account of the ancient world.  Even in the modern world when news agencies carry taglines like “Fair and Balanced”  a wise consumer should know that this is only marketing – every source carries at least some bias.  I have a favorite example that I use to illustrate this to my students which I think makes the point well:  the word TYRANT

dictionary.com entry for TYRANT

dictionary.com entry for TYRANT

Most English speakers are aware that this word carries a negative connotation in English.  Few contemporary rulers would find it a compliment to be referred to as a tyrant.  Looking above at the etymology, or origin of the word, we can see that it originates in the Greek word τύραννος (tyrannos).  Consulting the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon.   That’s by far the most famous and often employed Ancient Greek to English dictionary…mine is a Middle Liddell…as opposed to the pocket version Little Liddell or the “only libraries have space for this”  Great Scott.  (I am not unaware that it is more than a little funny that classicists name their dictionaries…I’d like to note, for the record, that I’m an archaeologist 🙂 – I named my trowel)  Sorry, I got distracted – my more observant students notice this happens often and find ways to cultivate it .  Back to the matter at hand:

τύραννος…according to Liddell and Scott, prior to the 6th century BC,  meant “an absolute sovereign unlimited by constitution.”   This definition will probably throw up a lot of red flags for a modern audience accustomed to a larger degree of participation in elected, constitutional governments, but for the vast majority of ancient Greeks, the “unlimited by constitution” part wasn’t particularly problematic.  It all comes down to who wrote the constitutions and who they protected really.  I’ll come back to that idea later, but first I’d like to illustrate one of the reasons why τύραννος became a nasty word for the Greeks and came into English as such.

In large part, this is due to the rule of two generations of tyrants in 6th century Athens known as the Pisistratids.  When Pisistratus seized power in the 6th century, he was a tyrant by Greek definition since he had no constitutional authority to rule Athens.  Even so, he was tremendously popular with the majority of the population…that is, the common people.  In general, he was a capable and qualified ruler who made a multitude of changes to the Athenian state and economy that primarily benefited the common people, but often at the expense of the elites, making him wild popular with one group and increasingly hated by the other.  Athens flourished under his rule.   As is often the case in history though, the seduction of establishing a family dynasty was powerful, and when he died, Pististratus “left” the control of Athens to his two sons (Hippias and Hipparchus) which started out well enough, but went south quickly.  In a weird sequence of events related to a love triangle, Hipparchus was assassinated, and after his death, Hippias began to act much more like the modern definition of a tyrant, leading to his eventual exile and the foundation of the famous Athenian democracy at the end of the 6th century.   In the following years, the murderers of Hipparchus, Harmodios and Aristogeiton were held up as symbols of the new Athenian democracy, having defeated the evil of tyranny (leaving out the fact that they had killed Hipparchus for personal, not political reasons).


Statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Naples. Roman copy of the Athenian version by Kritios and Nesiotes
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So there’s the backstory, but how did the word tyrant become so universally understood as a negative term?  How did a few bad decisions by his son wipe out all of the progressive changes made by Pisistratus?  It becomes a matter of the source of the accounts…that is, who recorded these events?  By and far, the history of the ancient world was recorded by educated elites – in this case, the very same educated elites whose power and wealth had been systematically attacked by Pisistratus, and later his sons.  These same elites wrote the constitution of Athens (which benefited them over the common people) that Pisistratus had violated to seize power.  Despite the notion of a democracy in Athens, functionally, the wealthy elites still dominated it, in the early stages especially.  Pististratus and his sons became the fall guys of tyranny, Harmodious and Aristegeiton, the martyred heroes of democracy.   Considering those sources,  it is any wonder that the word tyrant carries a negative slant?  There is really no such thing as a neutral source of this event.  Even the most even handed ancient historian, Thucydides, himself a landed and wealthy citizen of Athens, carried bias.

To approach neutrality, I think we have to be willing to look beyond what is written, to read between the lines.  For me, this is much harder to do when it comes to accounts on Richard Armitage.  I have a much more emotional reaction to him that seriously impacts my immediate ability to be critical of what is written.

yet another ascroft

Yet another Robert Ascroft
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

Just look at him for goodness sake!  How’s a girl supposed to remain neutral!?