Happy St Patrick’s Day!

One of my minor scholarly ambitions is one day to write a short history of big-haired lady Classicists, from the seventeenth century onwards. But one of the reasons that this may be a more challenging exercise that it sounds is that it is sometimes hard to tell whether lady Classicists have big hair or not, given their fondness for being painted wearing large military helmets in the style of the Roman goddess Minerva.

I mentioned this to someone in Celtic Studies the other day, and she observed that lady Celticists in centuries gone by also liked to pose for portraits in flowing Celtic costumes. So there may be a significant comparative dimension to make the project a bit more complicated and interesting than I’d initially anticipated.

But I was interested in the remark about lady Celticists for another reason, which is that I’m a first cousin, six times removed, of Charlotte Brooke–not the international fetish model, but the distinguished eighteenth-century lady Celticist. And so the question immediately poses itself: did she have big hair?

Well, it seems that it’s quite a tricky question. I can’t find any images of her in any of the places you might expect to find one–in the catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery, on her Wikipedia page, in the ODNB, or in the front matter of reprints of her major work. And I’m told that although there was a likeness made of her in the eighteenth century, no-one seems to know what happened to it, whether it survived–or, crucially, whether it recorded a lady Celticist with big hair or not. So the mystery persists.

Anyway: all that is really just a long and frivolous introduction to say that while I was scratching around looking for Charlotte Brooke-related material on the web–and finding along the way that she has her own roundabout in Co. Longford!–I learned that there’s a gorgeous new-ish edition of her major work, Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789), edited by Lesa Ni Mhunghaile, and a copy arrived in the post the other day. And it’s very good indeed: really well done, and I’m going to learn a lot from it.

Danes apologise to Irish for Viking raids!

Over here

… Years ago a man who worked for the council sweeping the streets where I grew up used to wear a large Viking helmet (with horns, yes, yes, I know). Somebody wrote to the local newspaper to say that it might frighten elderly residents, whereupon somebody else replied to say that they’d really have to be very old if they had childhood memories of being scared by Vikings.

UPDATE [5pm]: Or not, as the case may be (and as Dan spotted in the comments).

Gerald of Wales on the Beaver

There’s quite a bit more interest in beavers among the readers of the Virtual Stoa than I think I had anticipated. So, to attempt to sate your demand for round-the-clock beaver-blogging, here’s chapter 19 of Gerald of Wales’s 12th century classic, The History and Topography of Ireland (which featured in the Virtual Stoa eighteen months ago). Don’t be misled, by the way, by his remark about how “Ireland has badgers but not beavers” into wondering why the beaver features in a book about Ireland. It’s not that kind of book. It’s not the bit about the testicles, that I clearly misremembered in comments below. Perhaps that’s Pliny, or some Roman writer.

The beaver and its nature

Beavers use a similar contrivance of nature [to that of badgers, discussed earlier – Ed.]. When they are building their homes in the rivers, they use slaves of their own kind as carts, and so by this wonderful means of transport pull and drag lengths of wood from the forests to the waters. In both kinds of animal (badger and beaver) the slaves are distinguished by a certain inferiority of shape and a worn bare patch upon their backs.

Ireland has badgers but not beavers. In Wales beavers are to be found only in the Teifi river near Cardigan. They are, in the same way, scarce in Scotland.

One should remark that beavers have wide tails, spread out like the palm of the human hand, and not long. They use them as oars in swimming. And while the whole of the rest of their body is very furry, they are entirely free from fur on this part, and are quire bare and slippery like a seal. Consequently in Germany and the northern regions, where beavers are plentiful, great and holy men eat the tails of beavers during fasting times – as being fish, since, as they say, they partake of the nature of fish both in taste and colour.

But about these and their nature, how and with what skill they build their settlements in the middle of rivers, and how, when pressed by an enemy, by the loss of a part they save the whole – a contrivance most commendable in an animal – will be more fully explained when we come to deal with the geography and description of Wales and Scotland, and the origin and nature of the people of each. We shall find another opportunity of doing this, and to another purpose, with God’s help and if life be spared…

[Gerald of Wales snippet from the Penguin ed., translated by John O’Meara, pp.48-9.]


I’m concerned that all four verses are about to disappear from the internetweb. So here they are again. Sing along please, drink in hand. Double points to anyone who knows the verses in Irish.

Why spend your leisure bereft of pleasure,
Amassing treasure, why scrape and save?
Why look so canny at every penny?
You’ll take no money within the grave.
Landlords and gentry with all their plenty
Must still go empty where’er they’re bound.
So to my thinking, we’d best be drinking,
Our glasses clinking in round on round.

King Solomon’s glory, so famed in story,
Was far outshone by the lily’s guise.
But hard winds harden both field and garden;
Pleading for pardon, the lily dies.
Life’s but a bauble of toil and trouble,
The feathered arrow, once shot ne’er found.
So lads and lasses, because time passes,
Come fill your glasses for another round.

The huxter greedy he blinds the needy
Their straits unheeding, shouts, “money down!”
His special vice is his fancy prices,
For a florin’s value he’ll charge a crown.
With hump for trammel, the Scripture’s camel
Missed the needle’s eye and so came to ground.
Why pine for riches while still you’ve stitches
To hold your britches up — another round!

The schooner trading ‘tween Spain and Aden
Returns well laden with oil and corn.
And from Gibraltar her course she’ll alter
And steer for Malta and the Golden Horn.
With easy motion they sail life’s ocean
With ne’er a notion they’ll run aground.
It’s nought but miming, so ends my rhyming
And still we’ve time in for another round!

Sunday Bestiality Blogging

The Virtual Stoa is unusual among websites in not being chiefly a repository for images of animal porn. But things are now going to change, bringing this page into line with the rest of the worldwide internetweb.

This discussion below got onto the subject of Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland (composed around 1185), and this provides me with ample excuse to reproduce two of the classic mediaeval illustrations that accompany §56, on “A goat that had intercourse with a woman”, and §57, on “A lion that loved a woman”.

Here’s Gerald on the Irish goat:

“How unworthy and unspeakable! How reason succumbs so outrageously to sensuality! That the lord of the brutes, losing the privileges of his high estate should descend to the level of the brutes, when the rational submits itself to such shameful commerce with a brute animal!”

Gerald then sagely observes that

“Although the matter was detestable on both sides and abominable, yet it was less so by far on the side of the brute who is subject to rational beings in all things, and because he was a brute and prepared to obey by very nature. He was, nevertheless, created not for abuse but for proper use…”

And here’s Gerald on the French lion:

“Sometimes when he escaped from his cage and was in such fierce anger that no one would dare to go near him, they would send for Johanna who would calm his anger and great rage immediately. Soothing him with a woman’s tricks, she led him wherever she wanted and changed all his fury immediately into love.”O Beasts! Both! Worthy of a shameful death! But such crimes have been attempted not only in modern times but also in antiquity, which is praised for its greater innocence and simplicity. The ancients also were stained with such unspeakable deeds. And so it is written in Leviticus: “If a woman approaches any beast to have intercourse with him, ye shall kill the woman, and let the beast die the death”. The beast is ordered to be killed, not for the guilt, from which he is excused as being a beast, but to make the remembrance of the act a deterrent, calling to mind the terrible deed.”

Is this sound reasoning from our Gerald? Six hundred years later, this argument was apparently still being made, calling forth Jeremy Bentham’s dissent in his classic essay (and longstanding Virtual Stoa favourite) “Of Offences Against One’s Self“. There he considered the problem of human-animal sex (“Accidents of this sort will sometimes happen; for distress will force a man upon strange expedients”), but expressed the thought that laws against this kind of things were probably a bad idea. He then wrote this:

“Some persons have been for burning the poor animal with great ceremony under the notion of burning the remembrance of the affair. (See Puffendorf, Bks. 2, Ch. 3, 5. 3. Bacon’s Abridg. Title Sodomy. J.B.) A more simple and as it should seem a more effectual course to take would be not to meddle or make smoke about the matter.”

Bentham then turned his attention to the “most incontestably pernicious” of “all irregularities of the venereal appetite”, which was masturbation, though while he judged that this was Very Bad Indeed, he didn’t really think it should be banned, either, for “no punishment could ever have any effect” as “it can always be committed without any danger or at least without any apparent danger of a discovery”. So there we are. (Which reminds me that I haven’t yet read Thomas Lacqueur’s Solitary Sex, though I’m looking forward to very much indeed. No time, no time.)

[Gerald of Wales snippets from the Penguin ed., translated by John O’Meara, pp.75-6.]

A Song (of Sorts) for Europe

Nick Barlow addresses the issues that matter.

(An mp3 download of Father Ted Crilly’s Eurovision entry for Ireland, “My Lovely Horse, incidentally, is available here.)

(And Kieran Healy’s post on the subject from last year is also well worth another look.)

UPDATE [14.5.2004]: Kieran has more, vital social scientific preparatory reading for this year’s contest. And there’s also a Eurovision Drinking Game.

The World’s Favourite Song

The BBC World Service has announced that the World’s Favourite Song is… “A Nation Once Again” by the Wolfe Tones…

A Nation Once Again

When boyhood’s fire was in my blood,
I read of ancient freemen,
For Greece and Rome who bravely stood,
Three Hundred men and Three men.
And then I prayed I yet might see
Our fetters rent in twain,
And Ireland, long a province, be
A Nation once again.

And, from that time, through wildest woe,
That hope has shone, a far light;
Nor could love’s brightest summer glow
Outshine that solemn starlight:
It seemed to watch above my head
In forum, field and fane;
Its angel voice sang round my bed,
‘A Nation once again.’

It whispered, too, that ‘freedom’s ark
And service high and holy,
Would be profaned by feelings dark,
And passions vain or lowly;
For freedom comes from God’s right hand,
And needs a godly train;
And righteous men must make our land
A Nation once again.’

So, as I grew from boy to man,
I bent me to that bidding–
My spirit of each selfish plan
And cruel passion ridding;
For, thus I hoped some day to aid–
Oh! can such hope be vain?
When my dear country shall be made
A Nation once again.

A splendid choice by the peoples of the world, and a fine, fine song.

Chris adds [23.12.2002]: An Irish friend tells me that it has long been known that the Republicans and the Devil have all the best tunes and that this comes as no surprise to the Unionists, for whom they have long been synonymous…