Aug 19 2017

A Soros by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet


A Soros by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

Some people these days say “Soros” but mean “Rothschild,” the way Dostoyevsky did:

Something that is very small for Rothschild is enormous for me, and as to the gain or profit, it is not only at the roulette table that people keep winning and snatching things away from one another….[1]

They must all work like beasts of burden and amass money like Jewish usurers….[2]

“Then, in fifty or maybe seventy years, the grandson of the first Vater last has a really substantial amount of capital to turn over to his son, who turns it over to his, and so on, for five or six generations, when the descendants may be a Baron Rothschild, or Hoppe and Co…”[3]

It was some Jew from Frankfurt; he had remained at my elbow all the time, and I believe had occasionally given me some advice on how to play….[4]

Oh, I never had any pity for those fools, never, nor have I now—I say it with pride! Why isn’t he a Rothschild himself? Whose fault is it that he hasn’t got Rothschild’s millions? ….[5]

Wealth yes, but not on the Rothschild scale; an honourable family, but one never distinguished in any way….[6]

Ganya was annoyed with Ptitsyn because his brother-in-law did not set out to become a Rothschild. [7]

But for “Soros” to mean “Rothschild,” is silly, because, Soros is such a peon, in terms of global reach, a word like “Zuckerberg” would be more appropriate. Yet neither Soros nor Zuckerberg have (yet) an empire whose administration is based on nepotism–unlike Baron Rothschild (and unlike Donald Trump).



[1] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) 1867. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. NY: Bantam Classics. 1964. II, p. 29.

[2] Dostoyevsky, Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) IV, p. 43.

[3] Dostoyevsky, Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) IV, p. 44.

[4] Dostoyevsky, Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) XIV, p. 145.

[5] Dostoyevsky, Идио́т (The Idiot) 1869. UK: Translated by Alan Myers. Oxford World Classics. 1992. III, v, p. 414.

[6] Dostoyevsky, Идио́т (The Idiot) IV, i, p. 487.

[7] Dostoyevsky, Идио́т (The Idiot) IV, i, p. 490.

Aug 18 2017

Custom or Culture: a Modest Distinction

mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Custom or Culture: a Modest Distinction

I was fortunate enough to have something published this week by Real Clear News, of Chicago, under their subdivision of Real Clear Religion.

My piece responds to Rémi Brague’s essay “From What is Left Over” (First Things, August 2017) and its 67 instances of using the word culture.

I point out the modern substitution of the word culture for what used to be called custom to ask: if it is true that the medium is the message, what has been lost by replacing the word custom with culture? Was anything gained by substituting one word for the other?

Read the whole thing here.

Aug 18 2017

When Elders from the Past Speak of Present Circumstances

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland

When Elders from the Past Speak of Present Circumstances

From Jacob Burckhardt’s (1818-1897The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860):

Henceforth men looked only to antiquity for the solution of every problem, and consequently allowed literature to turn into mere quotation. Nay, the very fall of civil freedom is partly ascribed to all this, since the new learning rested on obedience to authority, sacrificed municipal rights to Roman law, and thereby both sought and found the favour of the despots.

And as I’ve pointed out before, the nineteenth chapter of Oliver Goldsmith’s (1728-1774) novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is entitled:

“The description of a person discontented with the present government, and apprehensive of the loss of liberties.”


Looks like a good time to reread this #writer #reading #books #freespeech

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on

Aug 14 2017

The Limits of Limiting Ourselves

pencil shavingsThe Limits of Limiting Ourselves

No, I can’t hope to embrace the whole world in my verses,
no not though I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths,
and a voice made of iron. Be with me, sail down the coastline––
land lies in sight. Nor shall I hold you back with improptu
songs, untoward wandering, and windy introductions.

–Virgil, Georgics II, 41­-46. Translated by Janet Lembke. New Haven, CT: Yale UP. 2005.


Suffice it now to say that [G.E.] Moore attacked the fog that secondhand Hegelians had spread over the British universities. A therapeutic effort was unquestionably called for; but the cure of a disease should not be taken for a panacea, let alone salvation. The limits of its [analytic philosophy’s] applicability should be recognized.

–Walter Kaufmann. Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. 1958. p. 26.


Economy and constraint are companion concepts, for the more highly constrained a system of multiple elements, the more economically it may be described and understood.

–Philip Converse, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” (Originally published in David E. Apter, ed. Ideology and Its Discontents. NY: The Free Press of Glencoe. 1964. Republished in Critical Review. Vol. 18. No. 1-3. (2006). pp. 1-–4 at 11–12.)

Aug 7 2017

Three Weekend Reads

Palazzo de Enzo, Bologna

Three reads I came across this weekend:

The True American [Henry David Thoreau],” by Robert Pogue Harrison, New York Review of Books, August 17, 2017.

The Most Anthologized Essays in the Last 25 Years: in which Joan Didion Appears More than Once,” by Emily Temple,, July 31, 2017.

Nazi-looted books found in German libraries,” Deutsche Welle, August 6, 2017.


Aug 4 2017

List of Books I Read in July

London - Georgian Apartments

It’s July. It’s too hot. Gonna just stay inside and take it easy by reading some books.


Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960 (1987) by Jack Kirby

The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (1992) by Edward Ayers

The Growth of Southern Nationalism, 1848-1861 (1953) by Avery O. Craven

The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains and Rust Belt (2016) by Mark Athitakis

Lone Star Land: Twentieth-century Texas in perspective (1955) by Frank Goodwyn


Intention (1957) by G.E.M. Anscombe

Old Europe

Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books from the Foundation of the City: I-V) (27-9 B.C.) by Titus Livius

The Final Pagan Generation (2015) by Edgar J. Watt

Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse (1340s?) by Richard Rolle

The Maid of France (1909) by Andrew Lang

The Virgin Warrior: the Life and Death of Joan of Arc (2009) by Larissa Juliet Taylor

Joan of Arc: and Sacrificial Authorship (2003) by Ann W. Astell

The Life of Thomas More (1557) by William Roper

The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More, Knight (1582?) by Nicholas Harspfield

John Bull’s Other Island (1906) by George B. Shaw

Jul 28 2017

“The Emperor has no Clothes,” said the Elephant in the Room

Who dare swears that an elephant may not speak?

Now then, does this quotation from about 1582 AD and its depiction remind you of anyone you may know, or may have read about or seen on television lately? Just asking….

Truely, this Cardinall [Wolsey] did [not] heartily loue Sir Thomas More, yea, he rather fared him then loued him. And albeit he were adorned with many goodly graces and qualities, yet was he of so outragious aspiring, ambitious nature, and so fedd with vaineglory and with the hearing of his owne praise, and by the excesse thereof fallen, as it were, into a certaine pleasant phrenesie, that the enormious fault ouerwhelmed, defaced and destroyed the true commendation of all his good properties. He sore longed and thirsted after the hearing of his owne praise, not onely when he had done some thinges commendable, but euen when he had sometimes done that that was naught in deede…. this vainglorious, scabbed, itching follye to heare his owne prayse…. [1]

Forgive the early-Modern English spelling, but I think most of you get it.

I suppose the aforementioned Cardinal had not read Machiavelli’s chapter on “Flattery,” although one of Machiavelli’s most recent editors has pointed out that of Thomas More and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s colleague :

[In 1513] Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s most hardbitten agents, recommended to him a new Italian book on politics. It may or may not have been [Machiavelli’s] The Prince. Pole, writing ten years later (and in a spirit of bitter hostility to Cromwell, Henry, and the English Reformation) said that it was, and that Cromwell, by reading it, had become an agent of Satan. [2]

Machiavelli, in the chapter on flattery, writes:

I don’t want to omit an important point on which princes find it hard to avoid error unless they are extremely prudent and choose their advisers very wisely. Courts are always full of flatterers; men take such pleasure in their own concerns, and are so easily deceived about them, that this plague of flattery is hard to escape. Besides, in defending against flattery, one runs the further risk of incurring contempt. For there is no way to protect yourself from flattery except by letting men know that you will not be offended at being told the truth. But when anyone can tell you the truth, you will not have much respect. Hence a prudent prince should adopt a third course, bringing wise men into his council and giving them alone free license to speak the truth—and only on those points where the prince asks for it, not on others. [3]

So that he who hears only the truth gains no respect, but does Machiavelli want to give sound advice, or just appear to? For later on he tells the reader that a prince should always take counsel, but only when he wants it, not when other people want to give it. [4]

Yet all of this is advice that Machiavelli wants to give. Or does he? (Yea, I know, I hate the last question.)

Yet Thomas More is to have said:

[Said Sir Thomas] But when he [Cardinal Wolsey] came forth with his part with my Lordes commendacion, the wylie foxe had beene so well accustomed in court with the crafte of flatterie, that he went beyonde me too too farre. And then might I see by him what excellencie a right meane witt may come to in one crafte, that in all his whole life studieth and busieth his witt about no mo but that one. But I made after a solemne vowe vnto my selfe, that if euer he and I were matched together at that borde againe, when we should fall to our flatterie, I would flatter in latine, that he should not contende with me any more; for though I could be content to be outrunne of an horse, yet would I no more abide it to be [out]runne of an asse. [5]

And of course the fox brings us back to Machiavelli:

A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.[6]



[1] Harpsfield, Nicholas. The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More, Knighte, sometymes Lord high Chancellor of England. 1582(?). Edited by Elsie Vaughan Hitchcock. London: Oxford UP for EETS. 1932. pp. 34–35.

[2] Adams, “Machiavellism: An Outline.” Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica. Translated and Edited by Robert M. Adams. NY: W W Norton. 1977.pp. 227–28.

[3] Machiavelli, Il Principe. (1513). In Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica.  “XXIII. How to Avoid Flatterers” p. 67.

[4] Machiavelli 68.

[5] Harpsfield, The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More 36–37.

[6] Machiavelli, Il Principe “XVIII, “In What Way Princes Must Keep Faith” 103.

Jul 27 2017

Joan d’Arc and the Scottish Bookman Andrew Lang

Anything by the Scottish bookman Andrew Lang (1844–1912) is usually a rewarding read. This is because he was so well-read.

Now the other day I was curious to read up on Joan, or rather Jeanne d’Arc (1412–1431), and I had no hesitation picking up Lang’s biography of her entitled The Maid of France (1908). I didn’t flinch because I knew him to be well qualified to write a sound account. I know he knew all about history, languages, rare books, blue China, medieval poetry, most of the world’s mythologies, European fairy lore and even conducted (with sound skepticism) researches into the paranormal.

Andy Lang wrote modern poems parodying Ronsard and translated Homer. He was the kind of person who could tell the difference between a first and second edition of the extremely rare Histoires ou contes du temps passé or Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals or Mother Goose Tales) by Charles Perrault, published in 1697.

But he always considered himself a journalist rather than a scholar, as he admitted in a note to the widow of his sometime rival, the philologist Max Müller:

My own relations with Mr. Max Müller were those of an amateur, or casual inquirer, who ventured, on a single point, to oppose the conclusions of a man eminently learned. We approached the subject, that of the origins of myths, from different quarters, and saw different sides of the shield as in the old apologue….

I am anxious to say is, that Mr. Max Müller always met my criticisms, often petulant in manner, and perhaps often unjust, with a good humour and kindness perhaps unexampled in the controversies of the learned and the half-learned. I shall always remember with pleasure certain occasions when Mr. Max Müller turned my own laugh against myself, with victorious humour and good humour. Our little systems have their day, or their hour: as knowledge advances they pass into the history of the efforts of pioneers. [1]

But as I read through Lang’s book on Miss d’Arc, I kept getting slightly irritated how Lang keeps crowbarring in anecdotal, information concerning Scotland, information often parallel to Joan and events going on in France. On the other hand, I’m new to Joan and her world. I don’t know squat about the Hundred Years War, except that Wikipedia tells me, yes, Scotland and France were often allied against England during the war.

So it does make some sense for a Scotsman like Lang to retell Joan’s tale in the manner that he does. And I haven’t forgotten that Lang often wrote for “the seriously self-educated.”[2] That means Lang wasn’t writing for Oxbridge dons, though many respected his expertise and were his friends, but for the seriously self-educated reading public in late Victorian–early Edwardian Britain. That kind of reading public would probably have known a thing or two about the war beforehand, and might well have appreciated Lang’s anecdotal gestures.

Yet I really don’t feel I learned very much, except about Lang’s adoration for Joan as well as most things Scottish. The book did have some jewels:

The mournful truth is that the historian has a much better chance of being read if he gives free play to his fancy than if he is strictly accurate. But to add the figments of fancy to the facts on record, to cite documents as if they were warrants for the statements which they do not support, is to wander from history into the enchanted forest of romance.[3]

Lang never plays with the facts as he warns here, but his fancy for Joan (and Scotland) sometimes distracts him from telling a plain story with the facts clearly presented, even if the fancy is interesting in itself to some readers:

How did Jeanne overcome the scepticism of Baudricourt so far that he ended by allowing her to have an escort? To answer this question entails what Sir Walter Scott calls “a boring attempt to see further into a millstone than the nature of the millstone permits,” —a process which Sir Walter, as an historian, thought highly undesirable…. [4]

Jeanne endured the irons, the chains, the hideous company of the merry men, because she refused to be on parole not to attempt an escape. This is one more example of her matchless courage and resolution. For five months she bore things intolerable rather than give her faith to any man, rather than abandon the chance of resuming her task. Great in everything as she was, we here see her at her greatest. [5]

I’m glad I read Lang’s The Maid of France, but nonetheless remain surprisingly underwhelmed.



[1] Müller, Max. The Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Friedrich Max Müller. Edited by his wife. Vol. II. London: Longmans. 1902. pp. 428–29.

[2] As Elanor de Selms Langstaff writes in her biography: “Lang did not write for the newly literate, but, good Scotsman that he was, speak he did to the most serious of the self-educated,” (Andrew Lang. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co. 1978. p. 14).

The distinction between scholars and journalists was emphasized by Walter Kaufmann in his The Future of the Humanities (1977):

The journalistic orientation poses an immense threat to the future of the humanities. Some old-fashioned humanists felt that whatever was not worth reading ten times was not worth reading at all. They concentrated on books that had survived for centuries, and they ignored what seemed ephemeral—often even science, because it kept changing. The predilection of journalistic teachers for what is “news” and their concern with the latest fads endangers the conservation of the greatest works of the human spirit. (NY: Reader’s Digest Press. p. 21)

Kaufmann suggests studying George B. Shaw’s distinction:

The Newspaper Man, a cheerful, affable young man who is disabled for ordinary business pursuits by a congenital erroneousness which renders him incapable of describing accurately anything he sees, or understanding or reporting accurately anything he hears. As the only employment in which these defects do not matter is journalism (for a newspaper, not having to act on its description and reports, but only to sell them to idly curious people, has nothing but honor to lose by inaccuracy and unveracity), he has perforce become a journalist, and has to keep up an air of high spirits through a daily struggle with his own illiteracy and the precariousness of his employment. He has a note-book, and occasionally attempts to make a note; but as he cannot write shorthand, and does not write with ease in any hand, he generally gives it up as a bad job before he succeeds in finishing a sentence. (The Doctor’s Dilemma. 1906. NY: Brentano’s. 1909. IV, p. 92)

[3] Lang, Andrew. The Maid of France. London: Longman’s. 1908. pp. 14–15.

[4] Lang 73.

[5] Lang 252–53.

Jul 26 2017

Works of Art versus the Art of Hard Work: Some Recent (& Not So Recent) Examples


I don’t know where the cliché “Are you working hard or hardly working?” originates from, but it recently came to mind as I was reading Frank Goodwyn’s Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective (1955) where a few passages made me huff:

As in the case of older Texans, their faith was bolstered by a strong equalitarian outlook. They scorned all aspirations to identify themselves with the self-styled elite by cultivating a fondness for deliberately complex musical, artistic, and literary patterns. Their basic philosophy prevails to this day, coloring the political and cultural life of the state. Their blanket endorsement of plain labor and their suspicion of all exclusively intellectual activities are well depicted in the answer that one West Texan gave when I asked him whether his town had produced any successful artists, writers, actors, or musicians. “No, sir,” he said. “None ever had time for such things. All have tried to work and make an honest living.” [1]

I suppose all work and no play means West Texas has no “complex” music, at least it didn’t in 1955. Perhaps it’s why I (being born in West Texas) never learned how to properly read (and therefore never bother to attempt to write) poetry. Continuing with Goodwyn:

Most Texas versifiers are still too busy being poets to write good poetry. Anxious to excel in the literary world’s critical eyes, they adopt the classic poet’s manner without capturing his fire. They follow his metrical rules without fully feeling their powers shying from clichés and baying the moon in accepted bardian style. They think they have to speak in terms of Greek mythology and cosmic dreams, treating the seasons as if they were lovelorn spirits and the heavenly bodies as if they were rational creatures. The task of expressing these trite ideas without using the trite words which have traditionally conveyed them is too much for the average Texas poetaster, as it would be for anyone else. He hence emerges with little more than a few lame lines in slender books printed at his own expense. [2]

As Mark Athitakis has recently pointed out in The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt (2016) one of the reasons Laura Ingalls Wilder focused on hard work, particularly in her first work Little House in the Big Woods (1932), is because, when one is living in a frontier environment as she did in her childhood, one quickly appreciates hard work’s relationship to survival. Wilder’s emphasis on the relationship of hard work and survival is part of what made it a hit with Depression-era readers when the book was first published. [3]

Athitakis then goes on to show that some contemporary writers of the Midwest have been much more hesitant in their enthusiasm for portraying hard work, even when portraying hard work as it relates to the act of writing, as in Athitakis’s example of Lionel Shriver’s novel Big Brother (2013), which I have yet to read. [4]

Now when it comes to the concept of hard work and contemporary nonfiction writers of the Midwest, J. D. Vance has recently observed in Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016):

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness. During the 2012 election cycle, the Public Religion Institute, a left-leaning think tank, published a report on working-class whites. It found, among other things, that working-class whites worked more hours than college-educated whites. But the idea that the average working-class white works more hours is demonstrably false. The Public Religion Institute based its results on surveys—essentially, they called around and asked people what they thought. The only thing that report proves is that many folks talk about working more than they actually work[5]

The concept of hard work (and sometimes the mere appearance of hard work) was very much accompanied with that of survival for most non-whites in the early and mid-twentieth century South. As Isabel Wilkerson shows in The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) with the example of Robert Joe “Pershing” Foster:

The friend showed him what to do, and Pershing worked beside him. He looked up and saw the foreman watching him. Pershing pretended not to see him, worked even harder. The foreman left, and, when he came back, Pershing was still at work. At the end of the day, the foreman hired him. Pershing finished out the summer stacking staves, not minding the hard work and not finding it demeaning. “Sometimes,” he said, “You have to stoop to conquer.” [6]

For Pershing, survival eventually meant leaving the South. But others were determined to stay (and they did), like the parents of actor Wendell Pierce as he, a native to New Orleans, writes in The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken (2015):

It’s hard for people today to understand it, but for black folk back then, a strong will like Mamo’s and Papo’s, joined to a rock-hard sense of discipline, was a tool of survival. [7]

With regard to hard work and Southern whites, consider the nonfiction writer Rod Dreher and his family situation. Even though his father Ray Dreher graduated from LSU, “he was a man who had no business confined to a desk. It wasn’t in his nature,”[8] because “Paw had not wanted to go to college; he thought he belonged at trade school, where he could improve his mechanical skills, which were his passion.”[9] In contrast, Ray describes his son Rod as a child who “had your head in books all the time,” unlike Ray and Rod’s sister Ruthie who “loved nature, and being outside.” [10] Later on when Rod and Ruthie attend LSU:

Ruthie thought I was getting away with something, and not only because I managed to ace tests even though I had stayed out late drinking beer and barely studied…. [11]

We were both straight-A students, but Ruthie earned her grades through hard work and grit; academics came much more easily for me. [12]

Ruthie and Ray revered hard work in a way Rod (at the time) did not; they even defined the concept differently than he did, where in a sense, physical accomplishments were valued more than mental feats. At times, for Rod, even something as physical as preparing a dinner for his family ended in resentment, because, frankly, concocting a hoity-toity bouillabaisse just ain’t the same as stewing plain ole gumbo. [13] Rod describes his father’s worldview:

To him, preferring the world of ideas to the natural world was no mere aberration on my part. It was personal, and constituted a failure to love. If I loved as I ought to love, I would desire the things he desired. [14]

If that wasn’t enough his sister and her husband felt similar to their beloved patriarch:

Hannah [Rod’s niece] said she and her sisters had grown up with Ruthie and Daddy disparaging me as a “user”––my father’s word for the most contemptible sort of person, one who gets things done craftily, usually by taking advantage of others. [15]

Rod’s hard work as a writer was never fully accepted by his family.

As I attempt to bring these thoughts to closure, let me contrast these contemporary American concepts of hard work, and their relation to survival, and their relationship to creative output (particularly writing) to the life and work of James Joyce––an Irishman who worked hard on his writing—some might say too hard, at least some of the time, because it is hard work to learn to read him properly, no matter what they say in West Texas.

As his biographer Richard Ellmann acutely observed:

We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries, to understand our interpreter….[16]

He does not wish to conquer us, but have us conquer him. There are, in other words, no invitations, but the door is ajar.[17]

At one point Joyce confessed:

“My literary work during the last eleven years has produced nothing. On the contrary my second book Dubliners cost me a considerable sum of money owing to the eight years of litigation which preceded its publication.” [18]



[1] Goodwyn, Frank. Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective. NY: Knopf. 1955. p. 239.

[2] Goodwyn 339.

[3] Athitakis, Mark. The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt. Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing. 2016. pp. 37–39.

[4] Athitakis 39–43.

[5] Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. NY: HarperCollins. 2016. p. 57.

[6] Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. NY: Random House/Vintage Books. 2010. p. 131.

[7] Pierce, Wendell. The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken. NY: Riverhead Books. 2015. p. 21.

[8] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. pp. 3–4.

[9] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 63.

[10] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 9.

[11] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 35.

[12] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 8.

[13] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 78–79; How Dante 19–20.

[14] Dreher How Dante 10.

[15] Dreher How Dante 27.

[16] Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford UP. 1959. p. 1.

[17] Ellmann, James Joyce 4.

[18] Ellmann, James Joyce 404.

Jul 25 2017

How Much was a Plum Worth in the Middle Ages? Reading Richard Rolle

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

So a while back I was reading The Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and his School (1932) by Raymond Wilson Chambers (1874–1942), a friend of Tolkien’s, and came across this intriguing passage concerning someone I’d never hear of before, the medieval mystic Richard Rolle (1290/1300–1349):

Rolle’s date, his style and his popularity give him a supreme place in the history of English prose. In English or in Latin he was, during the latter half of the Fourteenth Century and the whole of the Fifteenth, probably the most widely read in England of all English writers. Investigation of English wills and of documents bearing on the ownership of books seems to show a dozen owners of manuscripts of Rolle for one or two of the Canterbury Tales. Such devotional books were likely to be worn to bits, and not to come down to posterity at all: yet Miss Allen has examined between four and five hundred of them, in Latin or in English, scattered through the libraries of Europe and America. [1]

And later I learned from an article by Margaret Deanesly (1885–1977):

Among English books, those of Richard Rolle seem to have been most frequent—partly because his glossed English psalter was the only biblical book which the laity might use without license.[2]

So in light of the life-long quest to understand the Middle Ages I undertook several years ago, I recently decided to read some Richard Rolle. Hence I found Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse (1988) edited by S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson for the Early English Text Society.

I must say I found very little “mysticism” in Rolle. His religion seems pretty plain, ordinary, and orthodox, even when compared to a non-radical like Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758),[3] but maybe that’s what made Rolle so popular.

Now it’s been a while since I dove into Middle English, and it took some slow adjusting (is his surname pronounced like rôle, or does it rhyme with Raleigh?), but I found a few gems by Rolle such as:

þe fyre of his loue lyght oure hert, and þe swetnesse of his grace be our comfort and our solace in wel and in woo. [4]

[the fire of His love light our hearts, and the sweetness of His grace be our comfort and our solace in well and in woe.]

Elsewhere Rolle writes that “loue is hard as helle.” [5]

But I was especially struck by his strange comparison of apples to castles:

Bot sum men þat loueth nat wisely, like to children þat loueth more an appille þan a castelle. So doth many; þay gvf þe ioy of heuyn for a litel delite of har fleisshe, þat is noght worth a ploumbe. [6]

[But some men that loveth not wisely, like to children that loveth more an apple than a castle. So doth many; they give the joy of heaven for a little delight of her flesh, that is not worth a plum.]

Just how old is the metaphor and phrase “not worth a plum?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, both “plum” and “worth” are very old words, even within Old English. Google Book’s Ngram viewer finds the phrase extremely rare before 1800, [7] peaking at about 1837 and slowly decreasing since then.

And are (or were) plumbs worth less than apples? Were they worth less because they bruise more easily?

Plums and pennies #books

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on



[1] Chambers, R. W. The Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and his School. An extract from the introduction to Nicholas Harpsfield’s Life of Thomas More edited by E. V. Hitchcock and R. W. Chambers. EETS: Oxford UP. 1932. 1957. p. ci.

[2] Deanesly, Margaret. “Vernacular Books in England in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.” Modern Language Review. Vol. 15. No. 4. (October 1920.) 349–58 at 352.

[3] Rolle doesn’t dig too deep into epistemology and ontology as Edwards occasionally does:

BEING. It seems strange sometimes to me, that there should be Being from all Eternity; and I am ready to say, What need was there than anything should be? I should then ask myself, Whether it seems strange that there should be either Something, or Nothing? If so, it is not strange that there BE; for that necessity of there being Something, or Nothing, implies it. (Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings. Edited by Ola Elizabeth Winslow. NY: Signet Classic. 1966. pp. 45–46)

[4] Rolle, Richard. Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse. Edited by S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson. Oxford UP. EETS. No. 293. 1988. “The Form of Living” 5.

[5] Rolle, “Lyrics” i, 43.

[6] Rolle, “The Form of Living” 22.

[7] Under its entry for “nose” the Oxford English Dictionary quotes from Frances Burney’s (1752–1840) novel Ceclilia, or, Memoirs of an Heiress (1782): “Bad way too,” cried Briggs, “never get on with it, never see beyond your nose; won’t be worth a plum while your head wags!” (V, ix, 67).