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From the Danish National Library, a digitized version of a late 16th Century Book of Jewish Customs (Sefer Minhagin in Hebrew, Minhogim Bukh in Yiddish).  This copy is slighly incomplete, missing at least 2 of the larger wood-block prints and one of the Zodiac/month illustrations.

Sefer Minhagim p.10.png

(image #10, describing Havdallah -- the ceremony at the end of Shabbat)

The Linda Hall Library, a unaffiliated archive of historical science and engineering documents in Kansas City, MO has been working on digitizing their remarkable collection.  One of the nice things they've done is have pre-defined searches, for example the history of the parachute, or their archive of documents related to the building of the panama canal.  The most interesting, however, is their collection of books on timekeeping.  They haven't put up complete books yet, but have illustrations many of the 16th and 17th century sources of note, including Ferdinand Berthoud, Alexander Cumming and some of the engravings from Diderot and de l'Ambert's Encyclopedia.

Go take a look!


Cardano, Girolamo, 1557. De rerum varietate libri XVII. Woodcut on p. 365


I always like it when reality lives up to my imaginings of it.  To wit, here's an extract from a letter written by Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald:

To me heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town; one where I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them truly and well and the other where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on 9 different floors and one house would be fitted up with special copies of the Dial printed on soft tissue and kept in the toilets on every floor and in the other house we would use the American Mercury and the New Republic.* Then there would be a fine church like in Pamplona where I could go and be confessed on the way from one house to the other and I would get on my horse and ride out with my son to my bull ranch named Hacienda Hadley and toss coins to all my illegitimate children that lined the road. I would write out at the Hacienda and send my son in to lock the chastity belts onto my mistresses because someone had just galloped up with the news that a notorious monogamist named Fitzgerald had been seen riding toward the town at the head of a company of strolling drinkers.



Oh, Minya. Bling Bling: Hip Hop's Crown Jewels. New York: Wenner Books. 2005

I wanted to like this book, it came out around the same time as an identically-named auction of some pretty amazing bling by Phillips de Pury, Hip Hop's Crown Jewels.  There the overwrought jewelery of the street met the overformed prose of the modern auction catalog.  Take, for example, the description of Lil John's "Crunk Ain't Dead" pendent:

One of the most outrageous artifacts in the sale doubles as a defiant missive to hip hop critics proclaiming the demise of "Crunk", a catchy southern style of hip hop. With a pendant standing 7.5 inches tall and 6 inches wide, Lil' Jon's Diamond and Fancy Yellow Diamond and gold "Crunk Ain't Dead" Pendant and Necklace created by Jason of Beverly Hills is fittingly documented by the Guinness Book of World Records as the World's "Largest Diamond Pendant."

Sadly this book was none of that, not even a glossy heavily-photographed catalog of actual bling it is more of a series of interviews with promenant Rappers, and hanger's-on (see Jacob Arabo).  Much of the photography is historical and of low quality, and not balanced with much in the way of modern studio work to illustrate the actual pieces, rather all of it tries to capture the artists. Much of it is uncited and uncaptioned.  Sadly much ofthe text comes across as an exercise in "I know that slang term, I'm from the street too", occasionally you can almost hear the interviewee cringe.

In summary, perhaps the one redeeming element was the odd joy I got reading the copy of this book owned by that bastion of hip hop glamour and excess, Harvard's Widner Library.


Ventresca, Robert A. Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.

"Here they do nothing other than dance, night and day, in private homes and in public places.  The newspapers are filled with advertisements of dancing classes...of cafes and clubs for dancing....Just like the decadence of the Roman Empire: panem et circenses" - Pope Pius XII (58)

Pope Pius XII is most likely the most controversial modern Pope, particularly among non-Catholics.  The arguments surrounding his actions and inactions during the lead up to WWII are vociferous enough to be referred to as the "Pope Pius Wars."  From that frame of reference, Ventresca's biography attempts to neither condemn nor canonize, but present the entire life story of Eugenio Pacelli, the man who became Pope Pius XII.  In his major goal, he is successful, the Pius who emerges is neither the Quisling nor the prophet, but a man who tried led the Roman Catholic church through turmoil and upheaval, and who sometimes failed, but not the malicious "Nazi Pope" of some other portraits.  

With some minor complaints, I highly recommend this book, it provides a detailed explanation of the world from which Pacelli emerged, the so-called Black Aristocracy of Rome during the years of the Resurgimento.  This, and the time he spent as Papal Nuncio in intra-war Germany are critical influences on his behavior in the lead-up WWII.  As we get to the rise of Naziasm one oddity, a written tic almost, appears: the German government is never referred to as "German" from 1933 until 1945; it is the "Hitler Government" or the "Nazi Government", but never once the "German Government."  

Throughout the book, Ventresca provides what is lacking from the debates over Pius' wartime conduct, nuance and background.  It is also helpful that the book covers the postbellum period, the 13 years after 1945 figure less in the fighting about his legacy, but are important to create a complete portrait.   They are also influential in another way, it was his longevity that influenced the choice of John XXIII as his successor, which has proven to have been a momentous choice.

Dumbarton Oaks is a weird branch of Harvard.  Based in Georgetown, Washington DC, it supports research into Byzantine art, Pre-Columbian art and landscape design with a library, funding and space for scholars and a public museum and gardens.  We were there to study Byzantine art, so we didn't get to look at the pre-Columbian stuff and the rain kept us inside.  That said, they were preparing a small exhibit on Byzantine manuscript copies of the New Testament, and they let us take a look. (Note that all captions were transcribed from the texts in the display cases and are not my text)

Psalter and New Testament
Dumbarton Oaks MS3 Middle Byzantine, Constantinople(?). ca. 1084, on Vellum The miniature on display (folio 80v) depicts the Annunciation in the upper register and the seated Virgin below. Under the illumination, the text begins with the initial letter 'M', in which the Visitation is nestled. The particular aspect of this composition is the seated Virgin. She gestures to an open book that contains her canticle, seemingly providing guidance for the devotional use of the text. This representation is unique to the DO manuscript.
Washington, DC-Dumbarton Oaks-Psalter and New Testament0353.jpg
Canon Table
Gospel Book Dumbarton Oaks MS5 Middle Byzantine, Constantinople(?), late 11th C. The book contains the four gospels, written in dark brown ink as a single column of twenty lines. It is closely related to a group of more than a dozen manuscripts that were produced in Constantinople over a period of a few decades. The scribes of these books specialized in the production of illuminated luxury lectionaries and gospels for wealthy patrons. Ten lavishly decorated canon tables--concordances of the four gospels--are paired on the first five pages. Each pair is distinct, yet bears similar decorative motifs. One such motif is the presence of fleshy acanthus leaves with flame-like flowers. This book is open to canon table IV (folio 4r)
Washington, DC-Dumbarton Oaks-Canon Table0360.jpg

Start of Luke from a Gospel Lectionary
Dumbarton Oaks MS1
Middle Byzantine, Constantinople (?), Late 11th to 12th C
Vellum, tempera gilding
A Gospel Lectionary -- different from a Gospel book -- contains passages (lections) of the four Gospel arranged in the order that they are read during the Byzantine liturgial year.
This luxurious manuscript is thought to have been produced between the mid-eleventh and twelth centuries, mostly likely in a scriptorium in the capital city of Constantinople. The lectionary is peculiar because, while the first 42 folios were written in double columns, the following 107 were scribed in a cruciform shape. Few other lectionaries exist with the text written in a cruciform format.
The book is opened to the beginning of the readings from Luke (folios 64v and 65r)
Washington, DC-Dumbarton Oaks-0357.jpg
Lectionary Leaf
Middle Byzantine, Constantinople(?), early 11th C BZ.1979.31 The full page portrait of the evangelist Mark is a leaf from a lectionary. The book contained a dedication, indicating that it was presented by Empress Catherine Comnene to the Holy Trinity monastery of Chalki in March of 1063.
Washington, DC-Dumbarton Oaks-Leaf of a Lectionary Book0391.jpg

While there they also brought out a single leaf from an Armenian manuscript of the Alexander Romance, probably about 17th Century, that is in their collection. This illumination shows Alexander attaching a letter to his mother, Olympias, to a bird to send back to her. Though it is on paper, not parchment, and less costly, the iconography is pretty similar to the Alexander Romance in the John Rylands Library.
Washington, DC-Dumbarton Oaks-Leaf of Armenian Alexander Romance0396.jpg

(see the rest of the trip)


Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades: The Baltic and the Catholic Frontier 1100-1525. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 1980

This is an exhaustive introduction to the Northern Crusades, the centuries when the Teutonic Knights and others fought for control of the land, and occasionally souls of the southern Baltic region, modern Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Norway, Finland, Poland and probably parts of Belarus.  It's a massive topic, and Christiansen provides a lively introduction, though occasionally scattered: it's mostly chronological, but not quite always.  The text occasionally falls to "look how clever I am", i.e. "Like Nicholas I, they put their trust in generals Janvier and Fevrier" (p. 165), but not enough to be off-putting. His command of small, bizarrely amusing, details is excellent, "The terrible Johann von Gilberstedt of Halle had been so vigorous in secular life that even after receiving the last rites he had been moved to rape his nurse" (p. 85).  Overall, it's a slow read, but an interesting one, and provides even the most ignorant of readers (as I was), a coherent introduction to an important and mostly ignored phase of the Crusades.

One piece of advice, if you're thinking of reading the book, make photo-copies of the various maps at the front.  I was not at all familiar with the geography, either topological or political, of the area and found myself having to flip over to the maps quite often


Gazing on the Deep: Ancient Near Eastern and Other Studies in Honor of Tzvi Abusch. Jeffrey Stackert, Barbara Nevling Porter and David Wright, Ed. Bethesda, Md: CDL Press. 2010.

First a bit of background, Prof. Abusch was a professor at Brandeis while I was there and I technically took 2 semesters of Akkadian with him, though they were primarily taught by his grad student Kathryn Kravitz.  

This Festscrift is a massive tome in honor of the 70th birthday of Tzvi Abusch, and as appropriate to such a volume it covers a wide range of topics within the span of Prof. Abusch's field, the history of the Ancient Near East.  In this case that has somewhat expanded to include 2500 years of Mesopotamian history and literature, linguistic and religious topics in the Old Testament, topics in post-biblical Jewish history and an article on an Indian Myth.  To actually finish the 670 page volume you'd need to have the ability to read German, Latin, Akkadian and Hebrew, as well as a knowledge of related fields.  

That said, the articles I was able to understand are a fascinating collection of pieces of scholarship.  Some focus on Tzvi's main field of research, demons and whitchcraft, while others hew to the specialities of the author, eg. Prof. Ravid's article on the Jews of Venice.  The most interesting ones, from my perspective are the weird little ones that seem to be "something interesting, but not enough to publish in an academic journal".  An example of the last category was one of my favorite bits, an analysis of the bitemarks that are sometimes seen in clay practice tablets to establish the age of the student scribes(Guinan, Ann and Erle Leichty. "Tasteless Tablets" pp. 49-51).

Several of the articles fall prey to the academic foul of "more footnotes then text" on the page, but that is luckily rare in the volume.

All told, it is an excellent read for those interested in the fields covered, and gives a much deserved nod to the life, work, and academic influence of the honoree.

West, M. L. Indo-European Poetry and Myth.  Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007.

   What this book tries to do is trace elements of epic stories through the Indo-European prehistory, from Hittite and early Indian epics to late-medieval eastern Europe.  The book is organized into 12 rather large chapters (overall text is just over 500 pages), each is then broken into subsections.  The subsectional breakdown is not regular, sometimes it's by topic (i.e. Chap 11: Kings, The Queen, King and Horse, etc) and sometimes it is by region (Chap 7: Nymphs, Indian Nymphs, Iranian, etc.).  The overall conclusions about thematic elements, which are truly Indo-European, which belong to a subgroup and which came from outside sources, are conservative enough to not come across as "ooh, I found a thing somewhere else, must be a pattern" and well defended.  The author has command of a wide range of sources, translating all but the most obscure (primarily the Nartic tales and early Lithuaian works) himself.  The one weakness of this approach is it doesn't always provide a immediate reference if one is looking for the context of a quote.  A larger problem with the primary-source use is that it expects, at a minimum, a knowledge of Latin, French and the ability to read ancient Greek.  Familiarity with Russian, at least the alphabet, would have helped with a few sections as well.  
     Occasionally, throughout the text, West lets his "cleverness" run away from the direction of the text.  These pieces would probably be amusing in the context of a spoken lecture, but in the text they are an odd digression, eg. "The ancient (H)rego...was a rector, a director, a corrector..." (p. 413) or in a discussion on the slaying of dragons, "Now, of course, dragons are a protected species and it is illegal to harm them...." (p. 430).  These don't add much to the argument but interrupt the flow of the text.   These complaints are minor in the context of the excellent, if weighty, work and do not give me pause in praising it. It's not only interesting for the subject matter, but the primary sources are so wide ranging that, when one can read them, they provide previously unknown mythologies.  This book would be especially of interest to one writing in the style of earlier epics, as the topical organization provides a ready reference for form and content.  
     It suffers from Oxford University Press disease, the paperback edition is $85, but if you can find it in a library, I highly recommend it


E. R. B. L.

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Apparently he's as trite a poet as he was verbose as a writer.  The illustration, signed J. H. W, isn't too impressive either.

Lytton, Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton, Earl of, 1831-1891.
Lucile : manuscript, [not before 1860]
MS Am 889.433



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