>RBOC – Gray winter day edition

>Blogging bullets:

  • You may have noticed that I have no blog roll. That’s because it was a Blogrolling blog roll, and Blogrolling has ceased to exist. That’s a shame, because it was a handy system (though the ads on it in the last year or so of its existence were annoying). But I cut and pasted the blogroll before that happened, and when I get the energy for it, I’ll repost an updated version of it.
  • I’m thinking of changing to WordPress. Those of you who’ve made the move, how hard is it to move the archive of the blog? What do you like/dislike about each platform?
  • I’m also thinking of claiming my blog as service/outreach when I do my 5 year post-tenure review or when I go up for full professor. Any opinions about that?
  • My partner has been known as Bullock on this blog because I named him in our Deadwood-watching phase, during which time he grew a Seth Bullock-style mustache and goatee. But Deadwood is long gone and my man is clean-shaven. Plus, even though “bullock” meant “young bull” in Middle English and that’s one of its meanings today, it also can mean a castrated bull, which is not the association I wish to project for my Bullock. (Though it is kind of a funny pairing with Virago.) But it would be confusing to rename him. I’m thinking maybe of just putting a “cast of characters” in the sidebar and explaining the origins of the name. Any other ideas?
  • I have been remiss in telling Pastry Pirate fans that she has long been blogging elsewhere. First she was in New Zealand, working and exploring, and now she’s working in Antarctica. No, really. I kind of think “Baking in Antarctica” should be the title of the blog, but since it started before her life on the Ice Planet Hoth (as I like to think of it), it’s called Stories That Are True.
  • Hey, cool, I managed to blog more than in 2009. Not exactly an awesome accomplishment, since I was really lame in 2009, but still an improvement. What should I blog about next?

Work/Life bullets:

  • Our Christmas tree is up, all the Christmas shopping is done, and all but one present is wrapped (because it hasn’t arrived yet)! Hooray!
  • On Thursday, I wired the deposit for the studio flat in Belsize Park. It’s non-refundable, so this makes it official. I’m going to be living, however temporarily, in a flat in London! I’ve never lived in a flat in London before! Heck, I’ve never lived in a flat before (American apartments, yes). How cool is that?!
  • The one-week rent for the studio flat in Belsize Park (the amount of the deposit) is just over my one-month rent in my awesome two-bedroom Rust Belt Historical District apartment and only about $175 less than our monthly mortgage payment. I’ll never be able to live full-time in a big, expensive city again — I’ve been too spoiled by the low cost of living here in Rust Belt. But hey, now I can afford 6-week jaunts there! So, I may live in Rust Belt, but I can better afford life in the big city in small doses. This is what I keep telling myself, anyway.
  • OMG, my sabbatical is half over!!! Ack!!!
  • Something I realized at the various holiday parties this week: asking me “So, how’s sabbatical going?” is as crazy-making for me now as “So, how’s the dissertation coming?” was for me once upon a time. Also, faculty on sabbatical don’t want to talk about work issues. Come on, people, surely we can talk about something else!
  • Bullock is grading finals. He just said to me, “It must be Christmas time, because a student just spelled Commerce Clause like Santa Claus.”
  • Bullock and I are going to BullockLand for the holidays (with Pippi). I spent Turkey Week in Cowtown with my side of the family and starting this year we’re alternating where we go for Christmas so that we don’t have to do the crazy-making hurryhurryhurry to get to one place and then the next. That makes my going out to LA to visit Virgo Sis and go to the MLA much less stressful (so does going to MLA just to go). Of course, so does being on sabbatical, because otherwise I’d be doing MLA back-to-back with starting our Spring semester.
  • Speaking of holiday plans, in case I don’t blog again before we leave:

>Moving on up…

>…to Bel-el-siiiize! [Come on, sing it with me, to this tune.] To a de-luxe apartment in Bel-siiize!

OK, OK, I’m not really *moving* to London, but I am going spend a 6-week research trip from May to June in Belsize Park, a very posh neighborhood that I wouldn’t normally be able to afford. In fact, the apartment I arranged through SabbaticalHomes.com is pretty darn pricey, too, and when I first started looking, I put it pretty low on my list as too expensive. But then I got a little windfall of money I wasn’t expecting, which made me decide that it would be really fun to pretend for six weeks that I’m the kind of person who really could afford a swank place in Belsize Park. And it’s just as well, too, because all the cheaper places that I was interested in — the ones that weren’t way out in SE23 or thereabouts — turned out not to be available for my dates. They were listed as available, but then the owners said they already had parties interested. People! Update your listings! Stop leading me on with your promises of elegant little Bloomsbury 1-bedroom apartments for relatively reasonable prices! Or they said, sorry, but they couldn’t do 6 weeks, they could only do full months. Then say so in your listing! I went through 7 possibilities before the Belsize Park person said yes, it was available for my dates and he’d be happy to rent it at the advertised price with no hidden charges. Hooray!

Thank god I don’t have to look for *permanent* housing in London (or any other insanely expensive city). I’m pretty sure I’d go mad in the process or I’d be more willing to commute from Zone 6 or something. The place I’m renting has a monthly rate that’s roughly three times the cost of our monthly mortgage (although at least the bills are included in the rent) for a 600 square foot loft studio (vs. our nearly 2000 square foot, four bedroom house with a yard and a garage). I know that sounds like madness, too, but for my purposes in the short terms, it’s pretty much within the range of the expected. Put in these terms: it’s the same per night as the Holiday Inn Express in the area charges, but I’ll get to live as if it’s my own house (because it will be for 6 weeks), spread out in a bigger space, cook for myself (thus saving on dinner especially), do my laundry in my own space, and so on. And out of curiosity, I looked at a real estate website offering apartments in the area, and the comparable ones had much higher rent, so I think I’m doing well for the area. The only way I’ve done things cheaper is to rent a student room, once at Goodenough College and once at the University of London’s College Hall. But this time I’m going to be there while it’s still term time, so those options aren’t open to me. (Well, Goodenough might have a room available, but you have to share showers. In the summer, when few people are around, it’s one thing, but I really don’t want to share a shower with a hall full of students, even if they’re mostly postgraduates. And last time I lived there, I was three floors up from the kitchen — *very* inconvenient.) If it were available to me, I’d think about College Hall again; its ensuite rooms are very nice and there’s a pantry or two with a fridge and microwave on every floor (though for 6 weeks, microwaved food might get sickening).

Anywho, the place I’m going to rent is swuh-ank! It’s sleek and modern and all recently renovated, top to bottom, with gorgeous, gleaming dark oak floors, huge French windows letting in all sorts of light, and an open-plan kitchen that’s reasonably roomy for a studio apartment. Put it this way: the minute I showed Bullock the pictures, he said, “Oh, that’s NICE!” and he has pretty demanding taste. When I will the lottery (heh), I’d love a pied-a-terre just like it. I’m not the only one, it seems: I contacted one of the previous renters and she said she wished she lived there all year round. She stayed there with her husband and child, so it should be roomy enough for just me.

I promise, though, that while I’m there I’ll work very, very hard at the BL and not sit around my flat pretending to be posh or hanging out with the celebrities who live in the area. And come visit me — I’ll give you the king size bed and I’ll sleep on the couch!

>I think I may be a secret geography geek

>I think maybe I should chuck literature and the Middle Ages and get a degree in geography and planning and learn GIS. Oh, you think I’m kidding do you? I swear, I’m not.

Why? Because today I blew off half a day’s work on things medieval because I got *obsessed* — OBSESSED, I tell ya! — with “Legible London,” the new(ish) “pedestrian wayfinding” project by Transport for London in partnership with Applied Information Group (AIG, but not that other AIG) and Central London Partnership. (I think I’m getting the credits right — or maybe CLP was the real impetus behind it. Or AIG.) I think a couple of hours went by as I read the research behind the project, browsed around on the project websites, and played around with Google street view maps.

(This all began as I was looking deeper into the neighborhood I might be renting in for my 6-week trip in May and June and ended up playing around on the Transport for London site, so I guess the spur to this geographic obsession was the fact that I’m going to London again for research in things medieval. So I’m not really giving up my day job. Yet. Btw, the neighborhood I might be staying in is Belsize Park. Well now, aren’t I posh?)

Back to the subject of the post. If you’ve been to London since 2009 and have walked around the Bond Street, Southbank/Bankside or Bloomsbury/Covent Garden areas in central London (or Richmond and Twickenham areas in the outskirts), you’ve seen the pilot program of this project. Here’s a gallery of what the maps look like — it might ring some bells for those of you who’ve seen and used them.

What got me so jazzed and took up so much of my time today was reading the “Legible London wayfinding study report,” done by AIG and CLP, which you can download in PDF from this page, where it is also summarized. The report is worth reading if you’re interested in maps — the visual, material objects and their design, as well as their abstractions as data, or the psychological processes of “mental mapping” — because I swear you’ll have a fun time reading it, too. You’ll also be interested if you’re interested in design, information technology, urban planning, initiatives to encourage walking (for health of the individual or the planet), or humans’ relations to and cognitive negotiations of space. For starters, it’s a beautifully presented piece of public communication. And hey, I’m not the only one who thought so — AIG won the 2009 Design Week Award for Best Promotional Brochure for a version of it. And it’s *fascinating,* especially if you’ve ever tried to find your own way on foot around London.

One of the recurring themes of the report is that London has no consistent wayfinding system of signage and maps for pedestrians, in contrast to the systems for drivers (not just in London, but across the UK) and public transport users. Instead, an eclectic, sometimes even contradictory, collection of different systems in different neighborhoods has built up over time, and many of them actually aren’t helpful for the way most people navigate on foot. In other words, they don’t give pedestrians confidence (a key term in the report), and so people give up and rely on public transport, even when it would be quicker to walk. And it’s not just the tourists, but the locals, too. So, for example, someone needing to get from Charing Cross tube stop to Covent Garden might go to all the trouble of going down into the tube, taking the Northern Line one stop to Leceister Square, transferring to the Picadilly Line, and taking it one stop to Covent Garden (traveling time 8 minutes, not counting getting in and out, transferring, and waiting for the trains), when instead, they could take an 8 minute walk for free.

But the obstacles to making that walk are many, according to the report. For one thing, the destination isn’t visible in real space, where it is on the iconic tube map (more on that in a minute). In fact, London has few vistas, and with the exception of a handful of tall, iconic buildings and structures, not a lot of landmarks visible from a long distance. It also doesn’t have a lot of long-running avenues, but instead, a warren of streets whose names change seemingly every block, and whose street signs are often blocked, hard to find (especially for pedestrians, as they are often oriented for traffic), or missing. And so even the native Londoner might not feel confident taking the Strand northwest to a left on Bedford to Garrick to Rose to Long Acre to get there. Even if there are signs pointing toward Covent Garden, they’re likely pointing to the market and you need to get near the tube stop. Or if they do point to the tube, there’s only one on Bedford and you won’t see it unless you’re already there. Or it’s one of those little narrow signs (“finger” posts) and you miss it. Or someone has intentionally or unintentionally turned it and you get turned around. Or it says “o.5 km” and you think that sounds like a long way (more on that in a minute, too). Charing Cross to Leceister Square to Covent Garden is easier and the trains do the work for you.

I can understand this lack of confidence even though I’m generally over-confident at pedestrian navigation. At the risk of sounding obnoxious here, I’m actually a pretty good navigator and reader of maps (though add mountains and up and down and I get a little thrown), and I have a pretty complex “mental mapping” system in which I try to combine information from large scale system maps with my experiential mapping of traveling in smaller segments of that space. (For example, I’m the kind of person who knows which direction a subway is going, which direction(s) the exit ramps and stairways go, and therefore, which way I’m facing when I exit a subway or tube stop.) I’m not always right, but I’m rarely “lost.” If I get off track I get back on it pretty quickly and I usually know what I’ve done wrong.

But *man*, I once got pretty darn lost in the Covent Garden area and I blame those damn skinny little “finger” posts that the Legible London report picks on frequently. I stupidly relied on those instead of getting myself a good map and I ended up not only going in the wrong direction entirely, but also disorienting myself because of it. This must have been on my trip in 2007 before the pilot “Legible London” maps were put up! I ended up finally righting myself, but came thisclose to hopping on the tube, even though where I was going was only a 15 minute walk away (the maximum time length that the Legible London study says people consider “walking distance” and that is often faster than the tube). In other words, that incident would’ve made a great data point for the Legible London folks: I lacked confidence as a pedestrian and almost fell back on the tube because of pedestrian-unfriendly signage up top and the ease of use of the tube and its well-designed map.

But the tube and its iconic map are also really misleading. This I already knew, but I didn’t quite realize the extent of its effect. The tube map is a fantastic work of classic design — which the report acknowledges — both in its aesthetic value and its use value, at least in so far as it’s used to navigate the tube. But did you know vast quantities of Londoners use it as a map for above ground, too?! That’s madness! In case you’ve forgotten what it looks like, go take a look (opens PDF). It’s a gorgeous piece of mid-century modernism, isn’t it? Makes you want to sit in an egg chair under an arc floor lamp, doesn’t it? But it’s an abstraction that’s not made to scale — there’s no way of knowing how far one stop is from another and often places are suggestively represented as being closer or farther apart than they are, or in different cardinal directions from each other than they are in real space. And it does funky things to the Thames to fit the design. So, for example, it shows the Thames seemingly going East-West (as a border, not the flow of the water) from Temple to Westminster, and makes Victoria seem like it’s pretty near the bank; thus, on this map, Waterloo is South of Westminster, and the Westminster Bridge thus seemingly runs North-South. Except that none of that is right. In reality, the Thames runs North-South in that stretch; Victoria is to the South-West of Westminster and not near the bank; Waterloo is to the North-East of Westminster; and the Westminster Bridge runs East-West across the Thames. So when people use this map to navigate anywhere but the tube system itself, they’re going to get hopelessly confused — as the report in fact shows. And yet, people rely on it because it’s a really cool, well-designed, easy to use map — it’s just not meant for pedestrians. (And meanwhile, the A-Z guide is made with cars in mind. And it’s complicated and busy and nothing like the simplicity of the tube map.) So what the Legible London project is trying to do is, they hope, create a way-finding system for pedestrians that’s as intuitive and easy as the tube map.

But people have funny intuitions about things. It’s not just the tube map’s fault that people think the Thames runs East-West. The report points out that that’s a common misconception. It doesn’t say this (maybe because they didn’t get language and literature people involved) but I bet it’s partly because there’s a neighborhood called “Southbank” and borough called “Southwark,” and they are, indeed, South of the oldest parts of London, where the Thames does run roughly East-West. Language shapes us as much as iconic imagery does. And history has something to do with this, too, as “the” Southbank was once directly south of what was then the limit of the city. I’ve seen this effect of language, culture and history on oreintation elsewhere, too. When I lived in LaLa Land, a couple of friends wouldn’t believe when I said Malibu was West of Westwood, not North of it. In their minds, they drove “up” the coast to Malibu, and “up” is north, right? And they lived on the “West Coast,” so it must run north and south, right? Well, abstractly and and in big-picture sense, sort of, but really only if you’re looking at it from outside of California. But actually, no, because at Pacific Palisades, it turns West and runs that way until about Point Mugu, and then it goes northwesterly until about Santa Barbara, when it starts going west again, and it pretty much alternates between northwest and west until you get to Humboldt County way up north, where it ironically straightens out. (Duuuude.)

But I digress. The point is, it’s not the Tube’s fault if bright people in car-dependent LA also don’t know their West from their North. Let’s get back to London, where people have just as many cockamamie ideas about where things are and how to get to them as SoCal people do. Lots of Londoners walk, but more would walk if way-finding signage were designed with their needs in mind. And the more people walk, according to the report, the fewer cockamamie ideas they have about where things are in relation to one another — the better their mental map is. (OK, so that *does* explain SoCal, because as the song goes, “Nobody walks in L.A.”) According the Legible London folks, one of things pedestrians need to be more confident and therefore to walk more and further is to have maps oriented “heads up” — that is, in the same direction they are facing when they read it. Funny thing is, this actually once nearly threw me off when reading one of their signs in Southbank as I was making my way to Waterloo station. It was oriented to the South because it was facing that way, which was also the way I needed to go, but I very nearly went in the opposite direction until I noticed. But I’m used to the “north is up” convention and how to compensate for that, and most people are not, apparently. I can give that up, since there’s nothing inherently right about “north is up” — as we medievalist know, many medieval maps were oriented to the East — and the most sensible orientation is the one most useful in context (and so north-pointing maps are useful when you’re orienting by the North Star — not so much on the street in London!).

To give you another cool example of how the new maps are designed around the needs of pedestrians: if you go back up to that “gallery” link and look at the first three pictures in it, you’ll see some of those pedestrian-friendly elements. Though the maps are largely aerial, they give at least the outlines of all buildings and then 3D images of landmark buildings and popular destinations. They’re also generally more detailed, because of course a walker can take in more detail than a driver. And, perhaps most important, they give distance in time measurement instead of space measurement and show maps with a 15-minute walk radius (and also a 5-minute radius) because people are more likely to walk 15 minutes away than 1.3 km (.8 miles). As their pilot programs and surveys have shown, it also makes people realize that a lot of things are closer together than they think. London is a very dense city, with a lot of sensory stimuli in a 15-minute walk, which can make it seem much bigger geographically than it is. I’m a runner (or well, I was), so I’m used to thinking in both time and distance, and I can read “1.3 miles” and know how long it will take me to get there and that that isn’t a long distance. But to most people it sounds daunting, even to native Londoners. Creating a system of maps that helps people digest their city in manageable chunks–bringing it down to human scale–actually does important social and cultural service, connecting people and neighborhoods, and in a huge megalopolis like London, that’s no small feat.

As new and forward-thinking and digital and innovative that AIG and this project are on many levels, I think one of the reasons I love it — and one of the reasons I love maps of all kinds — is that it melds the old and the new. It takes old forms of travel, forms that Chaucer’s pilgrims would have known in their London and Southwark — traveling by time (one day’s ride to X town) and by itinerary (pass the old church and turn right at the next crossroads) — and melds them with satellite images and GIS and the latest research on cognition and “mental mapping,” along with forms of cartography somewhere in between (the map of a whole area, for example, instead of just the turn-by-turn itinerary that a GPS [or “SatNav” in the UK] system would give), and brings London’s distant past, the near past, the present, and the future (a more walkable, 21st century London) together, much the way that the city itself is a palimpsest of time and history. I really hope this project successfully expands to the entire city and its outskirts.

>On relics, medieval and modern, sacred and secular

>Sorry for the silence, especially given that I’d promised to get back to blogging more regularly. Blame “LeechBlock,” a plug-in for Firefox. It lets you bar yourself from certain websites during times you set, and I set it to bar me from Blogger (among other things) from 9-5, M-F, to help me focus on my work. And I haven’t been getting up early enough to start the day with a post, and by the end of the day I need to get away from the computer because my back is killing me. I need to be at the computer during the day because I’m working on a editing project that is due very, very soon, but unfortunately, I tweaked my back a couple of weeks ago, so that sitting has been uncomfortable — so you can understand why I don’t want to do it for long.

Anywho, that has nothing to do with the subject of this post, which is all about relics, because this summer I got to see — and even hold (sort of) — my very first relics (one of them right here in Rust Belt State, no less!). Perhaps you find that surprising, given that I’m a medievalist and grew up Catholic, but I think there are some reasons for the belatedness of my encounters with relics. (And also, as the post title suggests, one of these “relics” is neither Catholic nor medieval. But I’ll get to that.) First of all, the Catholic subculture I grew up in — midwestern, suburban, largely well-off — was kind of trying to pass as WASP, I swear. I have another post in mind in which I might try to explain that more, but you’ll have to take that as a given now. At any rate, I don’t think I even *learned* about relics until I was studying medieval literature, or if I did, the Catholics who taught me scoffed at them. And though I’ve seen many, many reliquaries in museums, it’s not often that the relic is still in it (or if it is, it’s not visible). This especially true in the US and the UK, for obvious historical reasons.

I must have felt this lack on some unconscious level — how can I call myself a real medievalist if I haven’t seen a relic?! — and managed to turn this summer’s travels into “Dr. Virago and the Quest for Relics.” OK, that’s not *all* I was doing, but I did consciously seek out three encounters with relics, and then accidentally encountered another one in a museum closer to home. The last one, the one in the museum, was one of the few rare visible relics in a museum-owned reliquary; it’s the least exciting one, especially since it was the last of the relics I saw this summer, but I thought it was kind of serendipitous and funny that all this time I could have seen a relic in my own backyard. The overseas ones were the ones I actually sought out.

The first one was the hand bone of St. Etheldreda in St. Etheldreda’s church in Ely Place in London (just off of Holborn Circus and next to Charterhouse St). My quest to visit St. Etheldreda’s started when I purchased a book called Secret London (or was it Hidden London?? I don’t have it to hand now) on my first day in London this summer — to kill time at Waterstone’s on Malet St. while waiting for my room at College Hall to be available. Both St. Etheldreda’s and its neighbor, Ye Old Mitre pub, were in the book, and since they weren’t far from Malet St., I decided I wanted to pay a visit to each — the pub because it looked adorable and the church because, OMG!, a relic you can see! of a pretty cool Anglo-Saxon saint whose Life by Aelfric I’ve used in Old English and so know something about.

I went to the pub first with my friend Mark on a pub crawl that also featured the Princess Louise, the Cittie of York, and Blackfriars, all of which I recommend. But I’ll have to do a separate post on those, especially so I can post pictures of Blackfriars, which is an *extraordinary* Art Nouveau extravaganza, and of the Mitre, which really *was* freakin’ adorable (although its history is tied up with Reformation and the Bishops of Ely in kind of a nasty way — at least according to history of St. Etheldreda’s on their web site). And so when I was looking for something to do with my friend C. and we decided on another pub crawl, I talked her into starting at the Mitre, but only after we paid a visit to St. Etheldreda’s first.

St. Etheldreda’s was cool and fascinating not just because of the relic. Since the late 19th century, it’s been back in the hands of Catholic church, so there were stained glass windows and statues commemorating Catholic matyrs to the Reformation who were all associated with the church or its nearby neighborhood, including Carthusian monks from the monastery up the street on Charterhouse St. The Carthusians were commemorated in the stained glass window made in 1964, and scenes of their execution lined up with scenes of the Passion. Yeah, not subtle. But it’s pretty extraordinary to see such religious propaganda in England on the *Catholic* side of things. And while it must not have riled people up in 1964 in England, imagine such a thing being installed in Northern Ireland at the same time (or a decade later!). It’s weird to think about the history *and* the present of religious strife in England and its dominions and to look at that window in peace in a quiet church on a placid little street in London today. You can see the window itself, as well as the statues commemorating other martyrs, here.

But back to the relic. The guide book said it was kept in the sacristy and if we asked nicely, we’d be able to see it. So, we asked nicely. And the man (lay caretaker?? he wasn’t a priest) who we asked cheerfully marched up to the altar and the sacristy, opened the decorated coffin the relic is kept in (which I actually didn’t see from my vantage, but you can see it here), brought over the reliquary, and *handed* it to us! OMG! I’m *touching* a relic — weird! (To this day I keep thinking I could have turned to C. and said, “Run!” and we could have disappeared forever with the relic of St. Etheldreda. Not that either of us would have *really* done that, but it amuses me to think it.) And actually, we weren’t really touching the relic itself — just the surprisingly heavy reliquary, which was hand-shaped and had a little window through which you could see the bone. The web site says it’s an “incorrupt” part of her hand, but it looked like a bone to us. And it had a bright red spot painted on it — anyone know what that’s about?

So that was my first relic, and being the kind of person fascinated with the macabre, I was fascinated with it, even though, in retrospect, it wasn’t all that exciting. No, there was a *much* more exciting set of relics awaiting me at the Basilica San Domenico in Siena, Italy: the finger and *head* of St. Catherine of Siena. I have C. to thank for this, too, because she saw them first and told me I had to see them because they totally topped St. Etheldreda. And boy, was she right!

You can’t take pictures of St. Catherine’s head, and my measly camera wouldn’t have been able to handle it anyway, because you can’t get very close — the chapel is roped off. (You can get much closer to the finger — at which I stared for a considerable time — but again, no pictures.) But luckily, there are images out there on the web that I can borrow. OK, prepare yourself to be a little grossed out.

Are you ready? It’s pretty grotesque, so I thought I’d warn you before you scroll down.
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Here it comes, St. Catherine’s head:


Now *that’s* an incorrupt relic! (OK, it’s partially corrupted, but it qualifies for incorrupt status.) Weird, huh? I was kind of creeped out and utterly fascinated at the same time. It was like rubbernecking at an accident. Standing and contemplating all of this, I had one of these moments where I thought, alternately, “What kind of weird freak-show religion did I grow up in?????” and also “Wait, *am* I Catholic? This is totally weird and alienating to me.” It was one thing to hold a reliquary with a bone in it and think, “Hm, interesting!” and another to look at this and be kind of dumbfounded, as I was.

But you know what? It’s not just medieval Christians and modern Catholics who preserve and display the dead among the living…and that brings me to the modern, secular “relic” I also paid a little “pilgrimage” to, back in London, and this was also thanks to that quirky guide book and my residence in Bloomsbury in a UCL dorm this summer. Have you guessed yet what modern, secular relic I visited?

That’s right, Jeremy Bentham! Here’s good old JB, with his wax head, this time in pictures I took myself:


And lest you think Jeremy’s presentation is much more decorous than Catherine’s, let me remind you that underneath those clothes stuffed with straw is JB’s skeleton. And those are his clothes and accouterments. And once upon a time, JB’s preserved head was also on display — between his feet! — as you can see in this picture from the nearby display [WARNING! Another grotesque human head coming!]:



(Sorry about the blurriness — because of the glass case, I couldn’t use flash. But perhaps some of you are grateful you can’t see that mummified head clearly!)

Bentham called this little display, which he arranged himself before his death in his will, his “auto-icon,” so he had to be thinking of the religious valences of the word “icon.” And sure, given that it’s Bentham the Utilitarian we’re talking about, he was probably *playing* with that notion and had no intention of being actually venerated. But still, the little display that University College London has erected around him — not to mention the UCL Bentham Project as a whole — isn’t all that different in its curatorship and its tone of appreciation from the display of Catherine’s head and the San Domenico web site. The Dominicans and UCL may be fans of, respectively, Catherine and Jeremy for different reasons, and Bentham’s fans don’t expect him to intercede in the spiritual realm for the them, but they’re fans nevertheless.

The other thing that unites Catherine and Jeremy — besides the division of their heads from their bodies! — is that both heads have been the object of theft. Catherine’s head was originally secretly brought to Siena from Rome, where the rest of her body lies, and it’s now under such tight lock and key because of subsequent attempts to steal it. And JB’s head is no longer on display because of an infamous theft of it by King’s College London students in the 1970s. What is it about mummified heads that make people want to steal them?!?!

And I think underlying both the religious relics and the secular one are our complicated relations to death and (im)mortality. The two heads, especially, seem to want to keep the memory of and admiration for these two figure alive, to show the ways they conquered death, whether spiritually or intellectually, but they also announce our universal mortality, and in that way serve also as memento mori. Catherine and Jeremy likely had very different attitudes towards the meaning of that mortality, but they couldn’t escape it, and they each seemed consciously attentive towards that — Catherine refusing to eat anything but the Eucharist at the end of her life and JB writing his will with instructions about his “auto-icon.”

And it’s probably my own obsessions with/fears of death that has me so simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by these relics.

>RBOS: Random Bullets of Summer

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  • Hm. Random Bullets of Summer sounds like a gansta rap album title.
  • Thanks to everyone who offered congratulations and huzzahs and woo-hoos in the last post. And Karl, that David Wallace as anonymous blogger joke never gets old with you, does it?
  • I have made my summer UK travel plans. I will be at the NCS in Swansea — I have trains and planes arranged — then visiting a friend in Yorkshire for a few days, and perhaps catching up with a former student who will be completing her MA in Medieval Studies at York. And then I’ll be in London from the evening of July 27 just through the 30th (I leave the morning of the 31st) to look at a couple of manuscripts at the BL, and maybe out at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, too.
  • Get this: in order to get in to the library at St. George’s Chapel, I have to pay for admission to Windsor Castle. Hm. I haven’t been there since I was a kid — maybe I’ll do the touristy stuff, too, when I’m done with my manuscript.
  • For those who want to know, you can book train tickets through TheTrainline.com only if you have a UK mailing address to post them to. They’ll tell you you can’t use a non-UK credit card, but I did. (They also claim you can’t even register with a US address any more, and I seem to have done so. But then I remembered I already had an account from back in 2004, and logged in and purchased my tickets with that account.) The AmEx has been charged and my Yorkshire friend should be getting the tickets any day now.
  • I decided to stay at The Euro Hotel in London, partly on Mike Drout’s approval of it for what it is, and partly because it seemed to be the only cheap place available of the places really close to St. Pancras and the BL. I like the fact that it’s on a little crescent street and it’s relatively cheap for London — 55 GBP for a single with shared shower and toilet (the online reviews say the showers are very close, clean, and never busy). I’ll let you know what I think after I’ve stayed there — or even *while* I’m there, as they have free wireless (another attraction).
  • So I think I may fiddle with the blog design. It’s summer — I have time. JJC finds it too soothing after my old template’s screaming orange. (Though was it really that screaming? I always thought of it as an autumnal ’70s rust, and so went with a complementary color with the new design.) He also tsk-tsk’d the flowers at the bottom. OK, so it’s a little genteel and froofy, but I love English gardens (the picture was taken in Cumbria). But he has a point. It’s not very Virago-like. Any ideas?
  • Pippi is also getting ready for summer. I took her to the groomer today. It’s the first time since we’ve had her that I’ve handed her over to strangers and walked away. It was very traumatic for *me*. But for her? Nah. Her attitude was all “ooh! new people to love me! new scents! other doggies! let’s go!” Sigh.
  • So you know what I just realized now sucks about being tenured — aside from more service work? Now I only do a dossier every five years, so I have to be super-organized and save all the proof of what I’ve been up to in research, teaching, and service for five long years. D’oh.

>I can’t read!!!!

>You have to imagine the post’s title in the voice of a distraught dog (if dogs could talk). It’s a reference to a dog treat commercial from about 5 years ago where the dog gets all excited when his human comes home from the store with bacon-flavored treats. He runs around the house, trailing her, while a voice-over cries in excitement, “Is that bacon?! Do you have bacon?! Is there bacon in there?! It sure smells like bacon!!” And then when the bag comes down to his eye-level, he cries in utter despair, “But I can’t read!!” Totally hilarious. At least to me.

Anywho, I chose this lament as the post’s title because today I spent my first day having to deal with 15th century documents in Latin. Oy. So far I’ve been ridiculously lucky in that everything that I’ve encountered up to this point was in English. But starting today, my luck ran out. Now, you’re probably thinking, “Hey, you’re a medievalist. *And* you went to Catholic schools. Don’t you know Latin?” Yes, I do. But not fluently. I need a grammar and a dictionary by my side. And that’s when I’m reading it in modern, printed texts. These texts, you see, are manuscripts, written in a 15th century version of the “Secretary” hand, which, if you ask me, is the Worst. Hand. Ever. (Though I’ll take the 15th century version over the crazy mad loops of the 16th century version.) Here’s an image for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, but let me tell you, it looks all nice and neat and easy here and that’s *not* what happens when it’s in a civic record! And when 15th century (or any medieval century) people write in Latin, they don’t write everything out. They abbreviate every damn word, leaving off endings and sometime middles. And to top everything off, my paleography skills are rusty. Though they’ve gotten better over this trip, it still sometimes takes me a long time to decode what a particular scribble is supposed to say. When it’s in English, it’s a bit like playing Hangman — get enough letters and the rest falls in place. When it’s in Latin, and abbreviated, and your Latin is hella rusty, well, you suddenly feel pretty damn illiterate. Hence the title of this post. (Hm, maybe I should go buy this. Cute.)

Oh, and I’m reading from microfilms, which also makes it a little difficult, though these are pretty damn good ones, at least. And on the upside, I can make copies of and print out the relevant pages and work out the words I’m missing now when I get home to my dictionaries and grammars. Plus, what I’m looking for are records about a particular person — who once owed a manuscript I’m writing about — and so it makes it an easier task to go through the records looking for his name. I don’t actually have to read the pages I’m looking at unless they’re about him. But, oh, god, it’s incredibly boring. Imagine paging through hundreds of pages of strings of digits looking for repetitions of a particular string and you’ll get the idea.

I think, by the way, this is one reason why I like good police procedurals. I empathize with the characters when they have to pour through some civic records office looking for some suspect’s adoption records or whatever because all they have is part of a name and a general time span, or something like that. I feel their pain.

So why am I doing this? I’m not entirely sure! Seriously, I don’t know what I’ll find and if I can use it, but I figure the more information I have about the owner of this manuscript, the more I can say about how the fifteenth century additions to it in the margins and flyleaves reorient the book as whole toward this owner’s social world. But man, getting back to the literary texts in the manuscript itself is going to be such a treat!

>Celebrity sightings in London

>JJC not only saw, but sat next to Jude Law while dining at the cafe at Salisbury Cathedral. (The proof is in this post, ninth picture down — though don’t be in too much of a rush to see Jude or you’ll miss the best cute kid pictures ever. Jude is behind the man with the unnerving stare.) OK, that’s not London, I know, but the Cohen clan was based in London. But read on…

I, on the other hand, jogged past and locked eyes with Viggo Mortensen. But alas, I don’t have proof. It happened somewhere between the Tower of London and Paul’s Walk on my way back on this route on Saturday (between miles 5 and 6, going west — he was going east).

At least I *think* it was Viggo. The guy was the right height (i.e., not at all tall), and it really looked like his face. That bone structure and cleft chin are pretty remarkable. But if it was him, he’s dyed his hair dark and is bulking up for some role (or for himself) — hey, if Brad Pitt can do it, Viggo can, too.

Then again, I get a little loopy when I run.

ETA: Says Bullock: “It might not have been him though, there must be lots of Danes running around London and their gene pool really isn’t all that large so they probably all look alike.” Te-hee! Maybe what I saw was a Viking who’d just sailed up the Thames. Anyway, Bullock’s a Swede (well, Swedish-American), so his comment is even funnier in a intra-Scandinavian grudge-match context.

Update: It wasn’t Viggo, just his evil twin (because the evil twin is always the one with the dark hair). I have it on the good word of Viggo’s personal secretary biggest fan (see comments here and here) that he’s on holiday in Denmark and his usual blond dreaminess.

One of these days, btw, I do mean to get back to serious blogging, including finally doing that Thinking Blog meme that Bardiac tagged me for (thanks Bardiac!).

>Random Bullet Points of London

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  • I ran an 8-miler today from ‘home’ to the Thames north bank and along it to Waping. I’d never been to Waping and it’s really cool, at least along the river. There are all sorts of re-purposed and refurbished (and not so refurbished) warehouses and cool little pubs hidden in them — like the Captain Kidd.
  • Note to self: don’t do a run through a major tourist attraction at midday on a Saturday. Running by the Tower of London and Tower Bridge would be much cooler early in the morning before opening. And it doesn’t even have to be *that* early to beat the tourists. Cobblestones are bad enough without having to play “dodge the tourist.”
  • Mad dogs and Englishmen…and runners go out in the midday sun. I wasn’t the only one out today, and not even the only one trying to dodge the tourists at the Tower. This made me feel like less of an idiot.
  • To the asshole Italian tourist who thought it would be funny to run up right behind me, into my personal space, and pant like he was doing Lamaze: yeah, I’d like to see you even try and keep up with me. Loser.
  • Not all of my day was spent running. I also taught Hassan the bartender in the college bar how to make a “black and tan” (half lager, half Guinness). He pronounced the color “really nice” and said he’d have to try it later.
  • And Hassan taught me exactly why you have to let a Guinness set before serving it (and why a black and tan probably should have the Guinness poured first). It’s not just that it has a big head (though it does), but the color and clarity improve with a little waiting, too. I watched it as it went from smoky brown to its usual clear blackish amber.
  • And I read some more Ed McBain in the courtyard of the college, sitting in the sun on a bench.
  • I’m also doing laundry so I’ll have some socks for a planned roller-blading outing tomorrow (if the weather holds), and though I’ve done laundry now three times in the college laundry, I only just now figured out where the drawer for the detergent cube thingies is, and only because someone else was there with his open. D’oh! I’ve been putting them in the barrel itself (which the directions say will do if you don’t have a drawer). Well, how should I know they were hidden behind the key for all the little pictures?
  • Yes, I *am* having a mellow, do-nothing day, why do you ask?
  • In other news, the other day I found and bought an apple green t-shirt at Benetton on sale for 6.95 that goes perfectly with my awesome new skirt. Excellent!

>This job is painful

>I nearly cried out “Fuck! Ow!” in Private Archives #2* today when I smashed my pinky finger. I smashed it good and hard, because it *still* hurts a little to type with it, and it was awhile before I could calm down and get back to skimming archival material for the couple of names I’m there to try and find. (*No, I haven’t mentioned Private Archives #1, but I will in another post.)

And how exactly did I smash the said finger? (FYI, I love saying “the said x” — it’s all over these documents.) I’m not sure. I think I just smacked it against the box that the big fat, heavy manuscript came in. Or perhaps I caught it between the big fat heavy manuscript and the box, since I was lifting the manuscript at the time. Whatever I did, it hurt like hell.

Yeah, they really shouldn’t let klutzes into archives. This is the first time I hurt myself, but the other day, at Fancy University Manuscript Room, while looking at one of their “select” manuscripts, I decided I needed to smell it. I have no idea why. I’m weird. But when I bent down to do so, I nearly got lipstick on it!

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In unrelated news, in my first week here I discovered a bookstore near me that sells really cheap, but not used, paperbacks. I keep buying Ed McBain police procedurals for £1.99. And can I just tell you: I *love* Ed McBain. Love, love, LOVE him. I don’t know why I hadn’t read him before, given my affection for more contemporary hard boiled detective fiction and police procedurals, but I hadn’t. And it somehow seems weirdly wonderful to discover such an American hard boiled writer in England, birthplace of the “golden age” of the ‘softer’ variety of mysteries (Agatha Christie, et al.).

>Accidental warblogging

>[The title of this post is a play on the term “warchalking.”]

I’m in the BL. I enabled my wireless because I wanted to use the catalog from my seat. I’m not supposed to be able to access the real internet without paying for access (the BL site and its catalogs are free to access), but somehow I did. I feel naughty. And this is bad, because I don’t need distractions from work. In fact, enough said — I’m getting off the bloody internet.

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In other happy accident news, I ran into JJCohenand his lovely family while we were each on our respective way to our day’s destinations, just walking down the street. How funny to run into someone you know (and mostly virtually) in a city of some 7 million people and about as many tourists and visitors. Granted, I was only steps from my home here, but it was still a pretty surprising coincidence. Although I didn’t get a chance to talk to them for long, I pronounce them all delightful. Kid #1 especially cracked me up, in part because he’s about the same age I was the first time I came to London. I’m glad I got a brief chance to meet them all in real life.