A question for historians

Supposing you were curious about what people in fifteenth-century England thought about people from other regions of the country, how would you find out the late-medieval reputation of people from Cornwall, East Anglia, Yorkshire, etc? Are some regions more likely to have a reputation than others? Is London the most likely epicenter for spreading word of regional reputation, as countrymen of different regions rubbed shoulders there? Or should one look along borders, with the logic that people from far away may not think about a particular county but the neighbors over the hill or over the river may consider them sheep-stealers or worse? Has anyone done work on these questions already, or would one have to trawl through late-medieval chronicles and letters looking for references to the region in question?


The customs of the Lydians are like those of the Greeks, save that they make prostitutes of their female children. They were the first men (known to us) who coined and used gold and silver currency; and they were the first to sell by retail. And, according to what they themselves say, the pastimes now in use among them and the Greeks were invented by the Lydians: these, they say, were invented among them at the time when they colonised Tyrrhenia.

The page-123 meme is going around again. Not that anyone has tagged me; this is a do-it-yourself version. The book is volume I of the Loeb Classical Library’s edition of Herodotus’s The Persian Wars.

And what is this doing on my desk? Well, I’ve tried about three times to teach myself classical Greek, and I always bog down, though I will say I get a little farther each time. Aside from time constraints, my biggest problem is that neither of the two textbooks I’ve used has enough exercises (so I make up my own and hope I’m getting things right) and nothing like enough to read. I’ve learned a lot of old dead languages, usually by the method of skimming through a grammar, opening up a text and a dictionary, and painfully parsing and translating every. dashed. word. It’s not as if I need to know how to conduct a conversation in Old French (though I am sorry my Latin is not good enough to comprehend papers delivered in Latin at Kalamazoo—I haven’t noticed any such recently, but they used to happen).

Anyway, Herodotus is my newly-acquired attempt to supply the something-to-read that I need. When I was under 25, memorizing paradigms came easily; when I was under 20, I could acquire vocabulary by reading through a list once or twice. The older I get, the harder languages are to acquire or hang onto. The grammar of languages I learned early on stays fairly intact, but vocabulary disappears into the ether. For later acquisitions, even the grammar is dicey. Similarities between Greek and other Indo-European languages I know help a bit (hey, the 2nd-person singular verb ending is like the vosotros ending in Spanish!), but what actually gets a language to stick in my head for any length of time* is narrative. Or aphorisms, nice memorable little chunks of wisdom. I need continuity and something to think about.

What I really want to able to read in Greek is Marcus Aurelius (speaking of aphorisms), but as all his translators note the peculiarities of his style, even I realize I should start with something more straightforward.

My upcoming sabbatical (nine weeks off, and yes, I’m counting) has to go to finishing my book. And it will. But my secret ambition was to make more progress on the book this year, so that I could spend the sabbatical being a classics major, to make up for my mis-spent undergraduate years: really work at the Greek, revive my Latin, get in touch with my inner nineteenth-century British schoolboy.**

*Notice I’ve given up hope of really learning new languages now, and will settle for a renewable acquaintance.

**What? Don’t you have an inner nineteenth-century British schoolboy?

Ein kleines vogelchen

A little bird tells me that there may be a 4-4 instructorship in a German department in The Big City Like No Other next year. Mostly language, some content courses. If anyone out there is interested—or knows someone who is—contact me via e-mail and I’ll put you in touch with the person who can tell you more.

Jeanne de Montbaston

Some time ago, Highly Eccentric tagged me for the Mutated Medievalist Meme, in which one lists seven random facts about one’s favorite medieval person. “Favorite,” as applied to a medieval person: what does that even mean? The one I find most interesting to study? Would most like to meet? Would like to have been? I’m not very good at picking out favorite foods or colors, either; I prefer the full range of variety.

But at last I came up with a rather obscure figure, but one who, indeed, I think I would like to be, if I had to be someone from the Middle Ages (where, in general, life was nasty, poor, brutish, short, ill-served by medical personnel, likely to be lacking in intellectual challenges if you were female, and on and on . . . I like to study the period, but I don’t want to go there). Jeanne de Montbaston was a married woman with an interesting job in Paris: this is a life I can imagine leading.

1. Jeanne de Montbaston was married to Richard de Montbaston, a scribe.

2. They lived in the Rue Neuve Notre Dame, in Paris, in the fourteenth century.

3. Jeanne illustrated books written by her husband. In BN ff 25526, f.77v, she shows them working in their atelier: he spreads his written leaves out to dry, she paints the miniatures.

4. Over the course of a 25-year career, they produced nineteen copies of the Roman de la Rose (or is it 19 years and 25 copies?).

5. After Richard’s death, Jeanne continued their business on her own, taking the booksellers’ oath in 1353.

6. Among other books she illustrated is a copy of the Légende dorée (BN ff 241).

7. The oft-reproduced picture of a nun picking penises from a penis-tree is Jeanne’s work (also in BN ff 25526; shown p. 148 in Michael Camille’s Image on the Edge, among other places).

For more information on Jeanne and her husband, consult the works of Mary and Richard Rouse, particularly Manuscripts and their Makers.

Since I’m coming very late to this meme, I won’t tag anyone; but if you feel inspired, tell us about a medieval figure we should know more about.