The fragrant underwear of St Nicholas

The medieval miracle stories of St Nicholas are unsophisticated.  One of these, BHL 6168, contains the following episode, which provoked a few unintentional chuckles.

…the blessed and chosen archbishop of our Lord Jesus Christ, Nicholas, when he was about to pass away from this light to the Lord in a wonderful way, and had completed a wonderful life, he gave back his soul to his most holy creator by an evident miracle. …. Then, having washed the most holy body of a holy man according to the custom, they [the clergy] strove reverently to preserve the linens [linteamina] which the living man had used, as being of use to many in posterity.

2.  Now there happened to be a certain man, Jethro by name, who had come from a far country to consult the holy and most wise man. Here, when he found deceased the man whom he had been looking for alive, he began with great sorrow to beg the same priests and clerics, that even something of the holy man’s clothes [vestimentis] might be given to him out of compassion. …

Then the priests and the clerics, considering these things, and valuing such a request and the longing of the man, gave him one of the linens of the most holy man. Then, when Jethro had received the garment of the blessed Nicholas, with great longing he put it back in a new bag, which had not previously been used by anyone for any actual purpose.

I recall that in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, he remarks Johnson admitted that he had “no passion” for clean linen; that is, clean underwear.    Just which “linen” did Jethro receive, one wonders?

It is worrying that there is no mention of washing the clothing.

And he went away happily saying: “I thank you, Lord, because I am carrying the relics of your most holy confessor.” I beseech you, Lord, to give me a son from my loins through these relics of the blessed Nicholas, for your honor and my joy, and public satisfaction.”

3.   Now when Jethro returned to his city, which is called Excoranda, …. he began to build a church, outside the gates of the city on the east side about two stadia away. As soon as this had been completed, Apollonius, the bishop of the same city, dedicated it in honour and memory of St. Nicholas, storing in it that clothing with solemn veneration.

That is, Jethro wisely placed the church, and the reliquary containing the holy underwear, a good couple of furlongs down wind.  For, as we read:

But when the relics of the holy man were placed in a suitable place, they began to emit such a smell [tantum odorem] from themselves that the fragrance [fragrantia] of such an over-strong smell [odoris nimii] extended for two full stadia.

Various miracles then took place at the church, restoring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, etc.  One can only hope that nobody sought a cure for a loss of the sense of smell.  The odour of sanctity, it seems, is strong.  Possibly St Nicholas should have sponsored a soap powder?

To conclude on an even more frivolous note, readers in the United Kingdom may wonder just what brand of underwear was preferred by St Nicholas.  Perhaps he wore “Saint Michael” underwear?

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Some primary sources for the later legends of St Hilda

The Anglo-Saxon Saint Hilda of Whitby is known to us, not from legendary material, but from a first-rate historical source, Bede’s History of the English Church and People.   The ruined medieval abbey still stands on the cliff-top above the town, and there is still an Anglican order of nuns with a priory in the town, the Order of the Holy Paraclete, although it is expensive to stay there.  The modern name of Whitby is Danish; the Anglo-Saxon name was Streneshalc, or some variant thereof.  There is a useful article in the Tablet here, if one can get past all the advertising popups.

But what about later miracle stories?  Surely these must exist?  What is out there?

For hagiographical texts for any saint, one would naturally consult the Acta Sanctorum.  Unfortunately the editors  of that series, the Bollandist monks, have yet to get that far.  Volume 67 only takes us to November 10.  St Hilda is commemorated on November 17 in the Roman Catholic Church, so we get nothing from that source.

The Bibliographia Hagiographica Latina vol. 1, p.583 has only a very short entry:

Hilda abb. Streanaeshalcensis, + 680. — Nov. 17.
Beda, Hist. eccl. iv. 21 (23) ; || Hist. SS. (Colon. 1483), f. 373d-74d (prima sententia post reliqua omnia reiecta est) ; || id. (Lovan. 1485), f. 198v-99v (item) ; || Capgravius, f. 179-80T (quibusdam omissis, quibusdam etiam ex Beda, iv. 22 (24) insertis).

The “Hist. SS.” is Hystorie plurimorum sanctorum noviter et laboriose ex diversis libris in unum collecte, Colon (1483).  This may be merely a version of the Golden Legend, but I was unable to locate a copy.  At all events the Bollandists do not assign any of this material a BHL number.  The Capgrave item we will discuss below.

However there are indeed later medieval texts containing a Life of St Hilda.  These naturally build on Bede, but contain new legendary material.  Here is what I was able to find, scattered across other publications.

The 14th century John of Tynemouth’s Sanctilogium (found in the badly damaged MS British Library Cotton Tiberius E.1) is accessible in a revised form in Capgrave’s Nova Legenda Angliae.  The 1901 reprint by C. Horstman contains a Life of St Hilda in volume 2, pages 29-33.  (Online at Archive.org here).

Another life of Hilda is preserved in the 14th century MS British Library Lansdowne 436, fols. 105v-7r.  This is independent of John of Tynemouth, but unfortunately is not accessible online.

A 15th century manuscript, Cambridge Trinity College O.9.38, contains on ff. 69r-76v a Latin poem written by a monk of Glastonbury, tells us that St. Hilda’s relics were taken to that abbey during the Viking raids.  This has been printed by A.G. Rigg, “A Latin Poem on St Hilda and Whitby Abbey”, Journal of Medieval Latin 6 (1996), 12-43 (JSTOR), to which I owe my knowledge of these other sources.  He also details the sources for the history of Whitby abbey.

In the 16th century John Leland, who called himself “the king’s antiquary”, made visits to all the soon-to-be-abolished English monasteries, and made notes of books in their libraries, plus other incidental information.  Although he never published anything, his tantalising handwritten notes survived, and they were published in the 18th century by Thomas Hearne: John Leland, De Rebus Britannicis Collectanea (1715), vol. 3, pp.39-40. (Online at Google Books here).   Page 39 begins his account of the Whitby area.  He gives extracts from a Life of St Bega, an Irish saint, who had a double monastery at Whitby of monks and nuns, according to Anglo-Saxon custom. There is mention of a “humilis” church of St Hilda at “Greveson”, standing on a prominence called “Sowter” locally, and, he thinks, perhaps once a cell of St Bega.  Then he gives excepts from a text, taken “ex vita S. Hildae”, “From a life of St Hilda”.  This text is otherwise lost.

Ex vita S. Hildae.

Monasterium S. Hildae apud Streneshalc penitus destructum fuit ab Inguaro et Hubba, Titusque Glesconiam cum reliquiis S. Hildae aufugit.

The monastery of St. Hilda at Streneshalc was completely destroyed by Inguar and Hubba, and Titus fled to Glastonbury with the remains of St. Hilda.

Restitutum fuit monasterium de Streneshalc tempore Henrici primum per Guelielmum Perse.

The monastery of Streneshalc was restored in the time of Henry I by William Percy.

Mira res est videre serpentes apud Streneshalc in orbes giratos et inclementia caeli vel, ut monachi ferunt, precibus D. Hildae in lapides concretos.

It is a wonderful thing to see serpents at Streneshalc turned into orbs, and by the judgement of heaven, or, as the monks say, by the prayers of Lady Hilda, into concrete stones.

Locus, ubi nunc coenobium est, videtur mihi esse arx inexpugnabilis.

The place where the convent now stands seems to me to be an impregnable stronghold.

Pictura vitrea, quae est in Streneshalc, monstrat, Scotos, qui prope fines Anglorum habitabant, fuisse vel ad Gulielmi Nothi tempora antropophagos, et hanc immanitatem a Gulielmianis gladio fuisse punitam.

A glass painting, which is in Streneshalc, shows that the Scots, who lived near the borders of the English, were cannibals even in the time of William Noth, and that this savagery was punished by the sword of William.

Eska flumen oritur in Eskdale, defluitque per Danbeium nemus, et tandem apid Streneshalc in mare se exonerat.

The river Eska rises in Eskdale, flows through the forest of Danby [Dalby], and finally empties itself into the sea at Streneshalc.

The “orbs” and “concrete stones” seem to be a reference to fossil ammonites, still to be found on the beaches north of Whitby.  I do not know who William Noth was, unfortunately.

An 18th century extract from John of Tynemouth’s Sanctilogium exists in MS British Library, Stowe 305, on fols. 316-7, which includes the story about the serpents, but also a note about the medicinal properties of the ammonites.  This does not seem to be online, and indeed is an odd collection of mainly early modern items.  Their rather useless catalogue lists this as the last item in the collection, an 18th century paper manuscript:

10. Account of the foundation of Whitby Abbey by Hilda, afterwards 1st Abbess. Lat. f. 316. Paper; ff. 325. xviith-xviiith centt. Folio.

The early 17th century English text follows John of Tynemouth directly, and may be found in C. Horstman, The Lives of Women Saints of Our Contrie of England, (1886) pp.56-58 (Online at Archive.org here)

A.G. Rigg tells us that St Hilda was a popular saint, at least if dedications of churches and colleges are anything to go by.  If so, the above material seems like rather a meagre harvest of material.  Surely there must be more out there somewhere?

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How did he get *that* reading?? (Again) – Recensio 7

From one of the miracle stories of St Nicholas (BHL 6164), appended to John the Deacon.  The story so far.  St Nicholas has sneaked up on a gang of robbers who have looted a customs-house, which was left under the saint’s protection.

Tunc dixit ad eos Sanctus Nicolaus, “O infelices et miseri, quid agitis? Numquid ignoratis, quoniam ego ipse ibidem eram, quando hoc malum perpetrastis? Nam oculi mei conspexerunt, quando has et illas res abstulistis.” Quantitatem et numerum etiam cunctarum rerum, quae de theloneo abstulerunt, singillatim eis exponens, addidit dicens, …

Then Saint Nicholas said to them, “O unfortunate and wretched ones, what are you doing? Do you not know that I myself was there when you committed this evil? For my eyes saw when you took away these things and those things.” Then he gave the quantity, and also the number of all the things which they had taken from the toll-house, listing one by one to them, saying, , …

He tells them, “All is known!” and they panic and take the stuff back. The Latin text here is what I now think the author wrote.

But I was working from the Falconius edition (1751) here, and when I got to this bit, I was a bit puzzled.  Here it is:

Latin text of the passage in the edition of Falconius.

Which is a bit weird.  How is “quanti autem” the accusative for “exponens”?

Well I happened to have a manuscript open (BNF lat. 989, 10th c.), and I saw this:

Latin text of the passage in manuscript BNF lat. 989.

That made more sense.  “Quantitatem” rather than “Quanti”.  The etiam has moved up, so we end up with “etiam &”, a phrase not  uncommon in John the Deacon.  But the “etiam”‘s do move around in the manuscripts.  It’s probably just a copyist error in this particular manuscript.

Next I looked at the Mombritius, the first edition, published before 1480, and I got this:

Latin text of the passage in the edition of Mombritius.

This confirmed the “quantitatem”, but left the “etiam” alone.  Only “numerum” has now become “munerum”, “the quantity and value also of all the stuff…”.  Nobody else has “munerum”, so this suggests to me that the Mombritius edition was based on a manuscript in Gothic hand, where such slips can be rather easy…

Cartoon showing Gothic book hand and its unreadability

I do love that cartoon!

Next I opened another manuscript, Wien ONB 416 (12th c.), which belongs to a separate family from the other manuscripts:

Latin text of the passage in the manuscript Wien ONB 416.

Here again we have “Quantitatem & numerum etiam”, rather abbreviated.

Then I looked at the Lippoman edition (1515), and all became clear.

Latin text of the passage in the edition of Lippomanus.

Here is our “Quanti”, as Falconius gives it!  And here also is his “autem”, or rather “tatem”!!  The silly fool was copying Lippomanus, clearly in a great hurry, and didn’t notice the hyphen.  So he gave two words, “Quanti autem”, where the nice clear printed copy before him read “Quantitatem”.

It’s hard to believe that Falconius did this, so I would tend to think that his compositor/typesetter did it.  Which means that when Falconius sent his edition to the press, he sent a marked-up copy of Lippomanus to the press, rather than writing out his own copy first.

We get an awful lot of information here about these early editions.

  • The editio princeps, Mombritius, ca. 1480, was printed from a manuscript in Gothic hand, and misread.
  • The second edition, of Lippomanus, ca. 1515, may have used Mombritius but certainly did not copy it.  Instead it gives the manuscript reading.
  • The third edition, of Falconius, 1751, was done carelessly and quite possibly by writing changes into a copy of the Lippomanus edition.  There was no change at this point, but the typesetter misread the exemplar before him and got it wrong.

That’s rather nice, really.  I’ve learned a lot from a little.  Once again, I’ve learned not to rely on Falconius.

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From my diary

An email arrived late yesterday from the library, advising me that a book had arrived, and apologising in case someone else had notified me already.  This was not the case, so I infer that my book had been sat there at the library for some time.  This morning I went in and collected it, and paid the interlibrary loan fee.  I walked down the street in a thin rain to a cafe, and sat there, with a scone and a diet coke, and examined the treasure.

The book is a monograph by Elaine Treharne, The Old English Life of St Nicholas with the Old English Life of St Giles, Leeds University (1997).  Google Books had alerted me that it contained interesting things, but I was unable to locate a PDF.

A google search on the author suggests that Dr Treharne must have been about the age of twelve when she wrote it, because she seems to be a young scholar even now.

To my delight, in an appendix it contains a Latin text of John the Deacon, while not actually saying so.  This is a transcription from a Cotton manuscript which is not online.  I have already scanned those pages and made a machine comparison with the Mombritius edition which has become my reference text.

The monograph is a very dry volume, as most are, and quite rightly.  I’ve seen two reviews, which merely highlight how useful it is to have a text and translation.  There is also a rather acid review by Bengt Lindström, highlighting a load of errors in the translation and suggesting that the book should not have been accepted for publication.  I cannot comment on any of that, knowing no Anglo-Saxon, but I do know from experience that anybody can improve a translation, and find errors.   It’s very easy.  Actually making the first translation is the hard bit.  However what is indeed useful in the Lindström review is the very many corrections.  It also highlights that many reviewers are not really doing their job.  Improving the book is what a review should do.

Working with the Nicholas literature is hard, because we lack proper critical editions of the texts.  So all that anybody can do is to take small steps forward.  Publishing the Old English text and translation is a very useful thing to do, therefore.  I noticed that in some ways Dr T. was in the same position as I am.  I can’t do a proper job on the Latin text, because the Greek on which it is based has never been translated and is very hard to work with.  So I ignore it as best I can.  Dr T is working on the Old English, so has to bodge her way a bit with what she says about the Latin, because this too has not been studied properly.  This is what everybody will have to do.

I’m doing bits and pieces at the moment.  Meisen’s Nikolauskult volume has reached me, and I have OCR’d, but no more.  I will need to look through it.  I’ve been creating a file with the Latin miracle stories in it, that infest the manuscripts of John the Deacon, and a draft translation of each.  Currently it contains about 30 episodes.  I hope to do a few more, and then I will post it online purely as a tool, for others and for myself, to aid with working with the Latin Nicholas literature.  Then I need to get back to the text of John the Deacon.

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English language review of Albocicade’s “Chrétiens en débat avec l’islam”

French blogger Albocicade, who writes at Les Cigales Eloquentes and also maintains a site of resources on Theodore Abu Qurrah writes to say that his book – Chrétiens en débat avec l’islam, VII°-XXI° siècle: Paul d’Antioche, Anba Jirji al-Semani, Théodore Abu Qurrah, Timothée I de Bagdad (2022), ISBN : 978-2-14-026799-4 – has been reviewed in English very kindly in a Czech publication.  He has details of the book publication and contents here.  It contains primary source material from less-than-familiar authors.

The review by Lukas de la Vega Nosek appears in Parresia 16 (2002), 269-272.  It may be read online here.  Dr Nosek strikes just the right note in reviewing the book, which can only serve to make the contents still more widely known and available.

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Please do plagiarize me, I don’t care: a blogger writes about #ReceptioGate

On Christmas Eve, a blogger named Peter Kidd launched an attack on Twitter on a Swiss academic named Carla Rossi and her RECEPTIO foundation, with a blog post headed “Nobody cares about your blog!” Dr Rossi had helped herself to some images and some of the research on the blog while doing her own research, and had not credited her source.  Unfortunately for her, in fact Dr Kidd was not “just a blogger”, but also a professional, working in the world of manuscripts for the Bodleian and Sothebys, and he took exception to what he saw as plagiarism.  His blog, Medieval Manuscripts Provenance,  contains much original research and supports his career. He wrote to Dr Rossi and complained.  What he got back was an insulting brush-off and a threat of litigation.  His blew the whistle: the business went viral, and a lynch mob formed.  It turned out that Dr R. had also created various shell organisations in order to apply for funding.  Other examples of the use of other people’s work appeared.  Dr Rossi’s reputation is severely damaged thereby.

But I have not followed every twist and turn.  I don’t unreservedly agree with either side.  I notice that Neville Morley at the Sphinx blog raises some of the same issues that I can see.  This business reveals much about the modern “Academia” business, and the pressures upon academics to publish, publish, publish.  I don’t think that using stuff off the web is wrong.  Copying stuff off the web is what everybody does.  All of us need inspiration from somewhere.  Creating one-man institutions in order to jump through the hoops for funding is how everything in academia starts.  Despite the hoo-hah, much of what Dr R. has done is venial at worst, and the beating that she has received is really disproportionate.  But I also think that people shouldn’t dump all over those from whom they borrow.  It will all blow over in a while, I am sure.

None of this is any of my business.  Unlike Dr. Kidd, I am indeed “just a blogger”.  I am not an academic.  I do not have a career.

All the same, I’d like to make clear my own attitude to the use of materials uploaded by me by others. This blog, and everything I do, is a labour of love, nothing more.  Plagiarize me as much as you like!  I do not care.  I am, indeed, gratified if you do.

I place online all sorts of stuff. I have done so for twenty-five years now.  I continue to do what we all did in the early days of the web; to contribute.  I borrow images from wherever, and I don’t credit where that is, quite often.  But I really do not think that it matters.  There is neither money nor prestige to be found here: only honest enthusiasm.

I am very happy for anybody to use anything that is mine, and I don’t expect credit or attribution.  I do not even care.  I don’t care whether the person using my stuff is an academic, or a member of the public.  Both are equal in my eyes.  Help yourselves.  I’ll do what I can for you.

My own purpose is to make the world a larger and better place.  I want people to read ancient texts, to learn, to have better lives and to know more.  Access to this stuff is difficult.  Even an amateur like me can do something.  So I do.  Doing all this stuff makes my life better, and gives me a purpose in life.

I don’t do any of this for recognition, and I don’t really want any either.  I do feel glad when I see evidence that what I do is having an effect.  In some cases I have uploaded some text or other, and found that, over the next few years, a series of academic publications have taken place upon that same text.  None of them mention me, of course, and perhaps it is a coincidence.  But I can hope that it is not.  Sometimes the project clearly  did arise because of my work, which is great.  And they often do right in not mentioning me, because academia is as snobbish as hell, and you can damage your own reputation by mentioning non-academic sources.  I understand.

I don’t want #ReceptioGate to stop people putting stuff online, or using stuff that they find online.  In the end it is just an academic spat.  But the culture of sharing and reuse benefits everybody.  Please… plagiarize me!

Update: From the comments, I ought to make clear that I don’t in any way endorse academic plagiarism, or failure to cite sources.  But use my stuff as you like!

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From my diary

An email from my local library advises that a copy of K. Meisen’s Nikolauskult und Nikolausbrauch im Abendland (1928) has arrived.  Tomorrow I shall go and get it.  I can’t read German very well, so I will have to scan it into a PDF, so that I can use Google Translate on it.  So I think that’s going to take up tomorrow.  I imagine that, once I have done so, I will find that someone long since put a PDF on the web.  At least, that’s what happened the last time!

I read somewhere that Meisen’s book is the best study of the spread of the legends of St Nicholas, and publishes some of the texts.  But I also read that it was always a rare book, because most of the print run was destroyed before it could be sold.  Copies for sale online are indeed very pricey.

While I was working on analysing the medieval manuscripts of the Nicholas legends, I kept tripping over the various miracle stories tacked on the end.  Eventually I got fed up, and started creating a Word document with the Latin text of these, and the Bibliographia Hagiographia Latina number for each, simply so that I could find my way around this mass of stuff.  I’m still working on this file, and I’ve included a rough English translation of each as I go.  They’re mostly short, so this is not hard work.  The majority of the texts were printed by the Bollandists in the early 20th century in their catalogues of Brussels and Paris manuscripts.  They were made of stern stuff in those days.

But even so, they had their limits.  This evening I looked up BHL 6146, and found that they only printed the incipit and a brief description of contents.  So I will have to go and find a manuscript and transcribe it myself.  Luckily I have a PDF of the very manuscript from which they printed their stuff.  I’ll come back to that one, tho, as I am rather on the roll with the others.

A couple of days ago I saw an interesting tweet online by María Ithurria here, which I thought might be of interest to many of us: “This is how a physician ended up arranging the funding for a translation of Justinian’s Digest.”  She posted this portion of Alan Watson, “Aspects of Reception of Law”, in: The American Journal of Comparative Law, 44 (1996) 335-351 (JSTOR):

Many scholars, not just in law, discount chance. By chance I mean something that could not be predicted. Some even deny the existence of any such thing. But I have an example that is irrefutable.  Today (when I was writing — late 1994) Roman law is more prominent in South African decisions than it was a decade ago. Roman law, as received in Holland in the seventeenth century, has always been influential in South Africa, but why the upswing?

In 1977 on his way to the airport, Dr. Carleton Chapman bought in New York a copy of Alan Watson’s, Legal Transplants, without much examination. Dr. Chapman was a physician who was interested in law, and thought the book was about the law relating to medical transplants. Still, he had a life-long interest in legal history, and he enjoyed the book (I presume). He wrote to Watson asking why there was no English translation of Justinian’s Digest.  Watson first thought of not bothering to reply. But he had a visit from Colin Kolbert from Cambridge, who was on his way farther North, who told him to give a response. Watson wrote that there already existed a poor translation,[9] that a new translation would be an enormous task, and that the work involved would carry little prestige, would be unnecessary in the eyes of many, and would be very expensive to produce. Chapman replied that if Watson came up with a feasible scheme for translating he would arrange the funding. Chapman was then the President of The Commonwealth Fund, a foundation primarily concerned with medical research. The outcome was the publication in 1985 of a four volume translation (with facing text) of Justinian’s Digest. It is the existence of this translation that has made the Digest more accessible to South African lawyers, and accounts for the upswing in its use.

[9].  S.P. Scott, The Civil Law, 17 vols. (1932)

We discount the personal element at our peril!

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A complete Ibn Abi Usaibia “History of Medicine” now online in Arabic and English

Something that passed me by, and which I only became aware of today, is that in 2020 a modern scholarly text and translation appeared of Ibn Abi Usaibia’s History of Medicine, from Brill. The author – often known in online forums as IAU – wrote in the 13th century, so it’s basically a bunch of anecdotes about past and present famous physicians.  It’s very readable, and quite fun.  Indeed I uploaded a public domain translation long ago.  But it has never previously been published in English.  Indeed no complete English translation has existed.  But… no longer.

The book is E. Savage-Smith, S. Swain, G.J. van Gelder eds., A Literary History of Medicine, Leiden: Brill (2020), ISBN: 978-90-04-41031-2, in 5 volumes.  The price is massive.  I’ve not seen the book.  Indeed I only heard about it by accident.  Thankfully nobody asked me to review it.  But thankfully it is accessible online, embedded in a online viewer at the Brill site at: https://scholarlyeditions.brill.com/lhom/.  The viewer is indeed a bit baffling to use, but get’s easier as you work with it.  You can plunge straight into the English translation here, where the title is “Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah, The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians.”  Footnotes are like Wikipedia, and pop-up when you click on them.

The Arabic text is also there, as is prefatory material and “essays” – the sort of stuff about manuscripts etc that we find in any modern edition – which is rather good stuff.  The book is divided online into four chunks:

Read the “table of contents” section first, to get an idea of what’s where.  Oddly this is not hyperlinked to the contents.  Nor was I able to find the sections 4-11 of the “Extra” anywhere online.  The “downloads” – including a PDF? – appear to be only available to people with a subscription.  But… a PDF should be made available.

All these sorts of awkwardnesses arise from the difficulties in the general transition in our time to open access, and are not the fault of Brill as such.

According to the website, the team behind this monster was:

The edition is the result of a joint University of Oxford/University of Warwick project, led by Emilie Savage-Smith, Simon Swain, and Geert Jan van Gelder. The team also included Franak Hilloowala, Alasdair Watson, Dan Burt, N. Peter Joosse, Bruce Inksetter, and Ignacio Sánchez.

Well done chaps.

The site states:

Generously funded by the Wellcome Trust, this is an open access title distributed under the terms of the CC-BY-NC 4.0 License, which permits any non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.

Which is how it should be.  Well done, everyone.

I no longer recall how I came to be interested in Ibn Abi Usaibia.  But back in 2011 I became aware of an unpublished translation of this work by Lothar Kopf.  It had been made in the late 60s for the US government, and the typescript was then filed and forgotten at the National Library of Medicine.   But the translation was public domain, and nobody was doing anything, so I made the time and put it online here, with the hope that it would spur interest.

Unfortunately the Kopf translation was incomplete, it turned out.  I have always hoped that somebody would be motivated to go and do the thing properly.  And now they have!

It would be daft to end without giving a story from Ibn Abi Usaibia, who is an interesting and amusing writer, ideal to dip into.  This one, chosen at random, came from here [10.1.7]  I have paragraphed it for readability online, and removed the footnotes.  The translator was Alasdair Watson.  The story belongs to the time of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, who died in 861 AD.

During the time of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, Muḥammad and Aḥmad, the sons of Mūsā ibn Shākir, used to plot against all those who had a reputation for advanced learning. They had already caused Sind ibn ʿAlī to be sent to Baghdad after having estranged him from al-Mutawakkil, and had plotted against al-Kindī so that al-Mutawakkil had had him flogged. They had also sent people to al-Kindī’s house to confiscate all his books and had placed them in a repository which was given the name ‘Kindiyyah’.

They had been able to do this because of al-Mutawakkil’s passion for automata. The Caliph approached them concerning the excavation of the canal known as the Jaʿfarī canal. The Banū Mūsā delegated the project to Aḥmad ibn Kathīr al-Farghānī who had built the new Nilometer in Egypt. Al-Farghānī’s knowledge, however, was greater than his good fortune since he could never complete a work and he made an error in the mouth of the canal causing it to be dug deeper than the rest of it so that a supply of water which filled the mouth would not fill the rest of the canal.

Muḥammad and Aḥmad, the two Banū Mūsā protected him, but al-Mutawakkil demanded that they be brought before him and had Sind ibn ʿAlī summoned from Baghdad. When Muḥammad and Aḥmad realized that Sind ibn ʿAlī had come they felt sure they were doomed and feared for their lives. Al-Mutawakkil summoned Sind and said to him, ‘Those two miscreants have left no foul words unsaid to me concerning you, and they have squandered a great deal of my money on this canal. Go there and examine it and inform me whether it has a defect, for I have promised myself that if what I have been told is true, I will crucify them on its banks.’

All of this was seen and heard by Muḥammad and Aḥmad. As Sind left with the two Banū Mūsā, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā said to him, ‘O Abū l-Ṭayyib, the power of the freeman dispels his grudges. We resort to you for the sake of our lives which are our most valuable possessions. We do not deny that we have done wrong, but confession effaces the commission, so save us as you see fit.’

‘I swear by God,’ Sind replied, ‘you well know my enmity and aversion for al-Kindī, but what is right is right. Do you think it was good what you did to him by taking away his books? I swear I will not speak in your favour until you return his books to him.’ Thereupon, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā had al-Kindī’s books returned to him and obtained his signature that this had been done. When a note from al-Kindī arrived confirming that he had received them to the last, Sind said, ‘I am obliged to you both for returning the man’s books to him. Accordingly I will inform you of something that has escaped your notice: the fault in the canal will remain hidden for four months due to the rising of the Tigris. Now the Astrologers (ḥussāb) agree that the Commander of the Faithful will not live that long. I will tell him immediately that there was no error in the canal on your part so as to save your lives, and if the Astrologers are correct, the three of us will have escaped. But if they are wrong, and he lives longer until the Tigris subsides and the water disperses, then all three of us are doomed.’

Muḥammad and Aḥmad were grateful and mightily relieved to hear these words. Sind ibn ʿAlī then went to see al-Mutawakkil and said to him, ‘They did not err.’ The Tigris indeed rose, the water flowed into the canal, and the matter was concealed. Al-Mutawakkil was killed two months later, and Muḥammad and Aḥmad were saved after having greatly feared what might befall them.

Most of these names will be unfamiliar to most people; but it hardly matters, and anyway Brill provide footnotes.  What a rich picture we get of life at the court of the Abbasids!  This sort of stuff should not be only for Arabic speakers.

This is frankly a treasure.  I’ve long wished that someone would grab hold of this fascinating book and do the necessary scholarly work.  Now, at last, they have.

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Fascinating extra stuff at Google Translate for Latin

About a year ago Google Translate for Latin changed, and started to produce very good translations indeed.  I commented on this in April 2022 here.  I never saw any announcement of this.  But yesterday I again saw something new.

I pasted into the Latin box part of a medieval miracle story of St Nicholas.  It produced a quite decent new-style transation.  Then, by accident, I clicked on the English of one sentence.  A box sprang up, giving two other versions of the same Latin sentence, both somewhat different from mine, and two English translations of them!  Here is what I see this morning:

Google translate output

So my sentence reads:

Finita vero oratione, in altum in nomine Domini cubitum et dimidium fodit, continuoque sufficienter emanavit abundantia aquae.

And the default translation is:

Having finished his prayer, he dug a cubit and a half deep in the name of the Lord, and immediately a sufficient abundance of water emanated.

But the popup box also gives:

Having finished his prayer, he dug a cubit and a half deep in the name of the Lord, and immediately a sufficient abundance of water emanated.

Finita oratione, fodit cubitum ac semissem in nomine Domini, et statim emanavit aquarum abundantia.

When he had finished his prayer, he dug a cubit and a half deep in the name of the Lord, and immediately a sufficient abundance of water flowed out.

Finita oratione, fodit cubitum ac semissem in nomine Domini, et confestim fluxit aquae copia.

What on earth is this, I wonder?  It’s fascinating, of course.  Are there texts out there, in which this version of the Latin may be found, with that translation?  I tried googling for the two sentences, with no result.  Or is there some other explanation?

Google does fiddle with Google Translate.  Boxes can indeed appear, offering various options; and then the facility disappears as silently as it appeared.

Google does not share all of its resources on the web.  I once read that there is a server, somewhere, with all of the books in the world on.  They scanned them; but the publishers wouldn’t let them use them for Google Books.  But that doesn’t mean that they cannot use them in other ways.  Possibly this is the source of the other material?

I do wish Google would be more transparent.

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Whatever became of the World-Wide Web?

The only certainty in life is change.  If things are bad, the only certainty is that they will be different soon.  If things are good, the only certainty is that they will be different soon.  This can be a comfort, or a warning.  But it is a fact.

What brought this on, you may ask?  Well, I write this blog on WordPress.  I don’t use most of the features.  But one that I do use is the “Jetpack Social”, which automatically posts a notification to a couple of twitter accounts when I write a new post.  Or it did.  This post is the first where it won’t work.  Why?

You currently have 0 shares remaining. Upgrade to get more.

That’s right.  On the right of my working area, some words have appeared: “You currently have 0 shares remaining. Upgrade to get more.  More about Jetpack Social”.  By “Upgrade”, of course, they mean pay them money every month for the same service that I enjoyed for the last 10 years for free.  No thank you.

This is an example of the good old, bad old commercial habit known as predatory pricing.  You give your product away, create a monopoly – after all, nobody will bother to produce an alternative – and then, once you have the monopoly, you start charging them for basic functionality.  It’s illegal in many countries.

This leads me to some rather rueful reflections.

I started contributing to the World-Wide Web in 1997, writing HTML pages.  This I did for very many years.  I came very late to the blogging world, and missed the boom entirely.  But I’ve found the format very useful, and I have blogged for about 20 years now, using WordPress.

The web exists because it is trivially easy to knock up a few webpages in basic HTML.  Or, at least, it was.   Now it is very very difficult to do without something like WordPress to do all the formatting for you.  The result is that around a third of the web runs on WordPress.  The practical effect is to exclude, to place the power in the hands of a handful of privileged individuals who control the platforms.

Blogging platforms were adopted because they were free, and even easier to use, and looked better.  Or, at least, they were.  WordPress too has become fearsomely complicated.  The default writing editor is now too complicated for me, and I use the old one.  And because it is so complicated, it has to have constant security updates.  So, although the software is open-access, in practice you must use the latest one.  The practical effect, again, is to centralise power.

Google exists because it was such a great search engine compared to the others.  At least, it was.  Now all you can find is advertising for commercial products.  Because Google holds the monopoly, they show you stuff that makes them money.  That means that stuff that is free is not their priority.  So, in practice, Google is not a search engine any more, but a portal.  So where do you go when you need a search engine?

Monopolies and cartels are evil things.  Yet here we are.  The free, open world-wide web, where anybody could contribute, and anybody could say anything, has gone.  The world-wide web looks very like the offline world.  It is controlled, monetized and taxed by people who contribute nothing to it, but demand total control.  They have not hesitated to abuse this power for political purposes, just as broadcasters have done for all the years of my life.

I miss the old web.  I don’t want this commercial, despotic monster, controlled by people whom I should not care to know.

But where do we go now?

I have no idea what the answer is.  Change is the only certainty.  All the same, I miss the old web.

PS.  Apparently this will be my 4,445th blog post.  According to WordPress.

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