books, literature, research, Uncategorized, writing

The Cycle of Life in Books

When I began my master’s degree program in history I quickly discovered that the ancient history professor believed in books. He taught all the best classes–ancient history was my primary interest–and so I saw a lot of him. He would routinely assign twenty books per semester-long class. We would then discuss the ideas and approaches the writers took. He also said that you cannot really understand a civilization without two things: knowing their language, and reading their stories.Language wasn’t my strength. But books? Yes, I could get behind that.

We read Gilgamesh when we studied the ancient Mesopotamian hero, and parts of the Bible, and Greek poetry, and Roman plays. He told us the story of the Roman Triumph, when a victorious general, at the height of his glory and manliness, would ride a chariot through the streets of Rome with the crowd lining the streets in adoration. Occupying the chariot next to him was a slave, who held a gold crown above his head. He would also whisper in the general’s ear, “Remember, you are mortal.”

There is a time for life, and glory, and triumph. And there is a time for death. Medieval people knew this as well, surrounded by death as they were, from plagues and accidents and wars. They would often show a skull in art, a memento mori. A reminder of death.

young_man_with_a_skull2c_frans_hals2c_national_gallery2c_london
Young Man with a Skull, Frans Hals (1582/1583-1666), Wikipedia Commons Public Domain

A popular poem during this age was “Erthe upon Erthe”, written in Middle English. It was often inscribed on the front or back pages of books.

English translation:

Earth has been miraculously created out of earth
Earth has attained a high position on earth out of nothing
Earth has fixed all his thoughts
On trying to raise earth to heaven on earth

Earth wants to be an earthly king
But earth doesn’t have a clue how on earth to go about it
When earth breeds earth and brings his reward home
Earth and earth will have to bid each other a tragic farewell

Remember, o man, that you are ashes
And into ashes you will return

Earth conquers castles and towers on earth
Then says earth to the earth, “All of this belongs to us”
When earth has built up his defences on earth
That is when earth will really get his come-uppance from earth

Earth is piled up on earth like dirt on dirt
He who swans around the earth, glittering like gold
As though earth won’t really have to return to earth
Will soon find earth indeed becoming earth again, no matter how much he tries to fight it

I really wonder why earth loves earth
Or why earth should toil and work for earth’s sake
Because when earth is brought to the earth of his grave
Earth back in the earth will stink to high heaven

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Kaz/Pixabay

In Middle English:

Erthe out of erthe is wonderly wroghte
Erthe hase geten one erthe a dignite of noghte
Erthe upon erthe hase sett alle his thoghte
How that erthe upon erthe may be heghe broghte

Erthe upon erthe wolde be a kinge
Bot how erthe to erthe shall thinkes he no thinge
When erthe bredes erthe and his rentes home bringe
Thane shall erthe of erthe have full harde parting

Memento, homo, quad cinis es
Et in cenerem reverteris

Erthe upon erthe winnes castells and towrres
Thane sayse erthe unto erthe, “This es al ourres”
When erthe upon erthe has bigged up his barres
Thane shall erthe for erthe suffere sharpe scowrres

Erthe goes upon erthe as molde upon molde
He that gose upon erthe, gleterande as golde
Like erthe never more go to erthe sholde
And yitt shall erthe unto erthe ga rathere than he wolde

Whye erthe lurves erthe, wondere me thinke
Or why erthe for erthe sholde other swete or swinke
For when erthe upon erthe has broughte within brinke
Thane shall erthe of erthe have a foul stinke

You can see from this poem that memento mori was on the anonymous author’s mind. To dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.

We no longer put such morbid thoughts in our book dedications, instead choosing to honor loved ones or mentors. Perhaps, though, we should remember, like that Roman general of old, that one day we, too, will be gone. I try to do so in order to keep from being lulled into the complacence that everyday life brings. It reminds me to work, to create, to write while I still can. Memento mori.

 

 

history, reblogged

“Ask me anything you like…” – John Julius Norwich

Ah, Byzantium! Such a sparkling, beautiful, corrupt place – just the way I like it! Enjoy this most excellent write-up on one of the premier historians of Byzantium, and more, as well.

If It Happened Yesterday, It's History

 

This featured post had originally intended to highlight a collection of history books that bloggers or enthusiasts would find interesting enough to read. After setting aside some favourite books in my home library that I had wished to ‘recommend’, I realized there were far too many. Narrowing them down into author categories I realised one author stood out from the rest. John Julius Norwich. A week ago I had decided to email Lord Norwich as to whether I could interview him with a series of short questions to add a little depth to my write up. To my surprise, I received a reply and before I knew it I was sharing correspondence with a literary great. I explained to him my passion for history and Byzantium and my plan to present questions to him, with his reply being,

Ask me anything you like. But I warn you, I’m…

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