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.

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 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).

Jun 7 2010

Reading about European Exceptionalism in the Middle Ages (A brief comment)

At the Catholic literary journal Dappled Things, Hugo-nominated sci-fi writer Michael Flynn puts to rest the myth that Christianity held back science during medieval times, and shows how it was rather the opposite that was true:

The philosophers of the “Age of Reason” called the Middle Ages the “Age of Faith,” and claimed that because “God did it!” was the answer to everything, no one searched for natural laws. Some have since imagined a “war” between science and religion, and accused the medievals of suppressing science, forbidding medical autopsies, and burning scientists. Bad times for science and reason!

Or was it? In fact, the Middle Ages were steeped in reason, logic, and natural philosophy. These subjects comprised virtually the entire curriculum of the universities.

Come on: “Steeped in reason, logic, and natural philosophy?” While I have no doubt “these subjects comprised virtually the entire curriculum of the universities” such a suggestion of steepness seems to imply that the majority of Europeans attended universities in the Middle Ages—a steep slope of argument much too slippery for my meager, Middle American footing.

The Age of Faith and Reason » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.