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!!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year Richard Armitage…


No, no, no…not THAT  “wonderful time.”  It’s the wonderful time of the year when my Topics in Ancient History class gives their presentations on Pompeii and Herculaneum.  As always, the first topics snatched up were those relating to sexuality, brothels and prostitution.  I am currently on a countdown to when the famous Priapus fresco from Pompeii will make an appearance.   For those who have not met him, Priapus was a Roman deity associated with the harvest and fertility whose most marked attribute was his ithyphallic appearance.   The anticipation of running into Priapus and the subsequent student reaction to him is killing me! (my classroom pleasures on this level are few and far between…don’t judge me 😉  )

What makes it even better this term is that thanks to my RL Facebook feed, I can see that Priapus fresco and raise with this little gem…

Priapus de Rivery

Priapus de Rivery – Musee de Picardie, Amiens

This bronze piece, dating to first half of the first century CE,  was found in Rivery France in 1771, and is said to be the earliest known piece of Gallo-Roman art in the Musee de Picardie collection.  Pretty big statistics for such a little guy.  I’ve blown him up here to show his details.  (although I can’t find his actual dimensions, looking at images of him in situ in the museum case, I’d say he’s about 8-10″ (20-25cm) in height.)   Here Priapus is depicted wrapped up in a cucullus…a cloak with a hood of a variety that is apparently typical of Gaul (modern France).  I love the beautiful bits of patina on the piece and especially the detailed treatment of his feet and footwear.  (I have a thing for tiny bronze toes).  But speaking of his details, one seems to be noticeably absent doesn’t it?   A certain ithyphallic element seems to be missing.  Or is it…

priapus 2

Au contraire!  This Priapus doesn’t have a phallus…he IS a phallus.  Always models of efficiency, this Roman sculptor made a kind of two-in-one piece!  I know that I should look at this with the appropriate level of scholarly seriousness, but honestly…this amazing running phallus immediately calls to mind a fine summer tradition in Wisconsin –

The Klement's Sausage Races at Milwaukee's Miller Park

The Klement’s Sausage Races at Milwaukee’s Miller Park

*wiping tears of hilarity*  Ahem, yes.  Sorry.  Scholarly seeking of Richard Armitage in the Classical Tradition…right.   Thanks to today’s image from Pilgrimage, I have fresh material to work with…

priapus compare

The intense gaze, the Gallic garments, the “pointy” imagery of the heads…the mind does wander as to what’s under that hauberk.

All in a day’s work people, all in a day’s work   🙂

Ἐννοσίγαιε & ἵππων τε δμητῆρ: Richard Armitage and Poseidon

“Earth Shaker” and “Tamer of Horses” are two of the most common epithets of the Greek god Poseidon.  Among the first generation of Olympian gods, Poseidon is a brother to the king of the gods, Zeus.  When he, Zeus and their other brother Hades drew lots to divvy up the cosmos, Poseidon drew the sea.


This spectacular, bronze (a bit over life size at 6’10” – 209cm) of a bearded male god dating to around 460 BC is an excellent example of the early Classical “Severe Style.”  Debate on his identity has raged since the late 1920’s when he was discovered on the sea bed off the coast of Cape Artemision.  The position of his left hand indicates that he would have originally held something, but whether that something was a thunderbolt of Zeus or a trident of Poseidon is lost to time.  The debate rages on, but he is quite commonly identified as a Poseidon simply because he was found in the sea.

Mentions of the name Poseidon exist as early as the late Bronze Age in the Linear B texts of the Mycenaean Greeks…although the deity seems to have been connected to the underworld rather than the sea.  By the time Greece recovered from its dark age, Poseidon had emerged as a full fledged sea god of great importance to the resurgent maritime culture of the Greeks who prayed to him to watch over them at sea.  He was the patron divinity of numerous Greek city states and was second only to Athena in importance in Athens as a civic deity.  The “earth shaker” was ever present in a region regularly touched by earthquakes.  I’ve always found it rather interesting that this aquatic god was also commonly associated with something so connected to the land as horses.  The “tamer of horses,” then taught that skill to mankind.

I think Poseidon may be the only Olympian I’ve left untouched after two years – not surprising that I struggled to find some usable parallels between the god of the sea and the dude who dislikes deep water!  But then lo and behold, along came Pilgrimage…which appears to be a kind of medieval road trip movie tracing the journey to carry a holy relic from Ireland to Rome.

Any way you slice it, a medieval journey from Ireland to anywhere in continental Europe required crossing water, and, where there are swords in medieval Europe, there are usually horses, so Poseidon nicely fits the bill for a little pagan production blessing…call it “covering all the bases”  🙂

It certainly looks as if at least part of the Pilgrimage cast is getting ready to get wet….

Hard to say right now if Richard Armitage will be on the boat, but I’m just guessing the water crossing will not be a calm one. (that would be kind of boring wouldn’t it?)  I think an homage to the god of the sea is well in order to ward of monk tossing waves.  As to the “tamer of horses”?   I’d bet there’ll be some horse “taming” going on in this film as well…it’s an awfully long walk across Europe after all!

There's not a horse scene in The Red Dragon is there?

There’s not a horse scene in The Red Dragon is there?

Where’s the Ἐννοσίγαιος you ask?  I really hope there’s no sign of the “earth shaker” personality of Poseidon in the near future!