Friday, March 29, 2013

Picture Day Friday: Cool Library of Montclair

This is the stairwell of the main branch of the Montclair Public Library in New Jersey. To me, this magical stairwell is emblematic of the magic of books.

[Image courtesy of Sarah Wendell.]

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Reading Jane Austen Stimulates the Brain

You guys totally knew this, right? Of course, reading Jane Austen stimulates the brain. How could it not? Take wit, erudition, laughter, high emotion, lovable characters, happily ever afters, pointed social commentary, and DRAMA; shake it up; apply Austen's prose skills; et voilà—an enduring masterpiece.

Natalie Phillips, an assistant professor of English at Michigan State University, is studying how reading Jane Austen's work affects the brain in a study at Stanford University.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "[Phillips] places volunteers inside an MRI scanner, hooks them up to eye-tracking equipment and asks them to read—on a mirror above them—the second chapter of Mansfield Park." In order to test her hypothesis, she needed a a work of fiction that worked as both a beach book and a critical literary work, and Mansfield Park fit the bill.

"The impact on the brain was far more extensive than she had expected. When the students engaged in critical reading, there was a notable expansion of activity in regions of the brain outside those responsible for executive function, which are normally used for paying close attention to a task like reading. Significantly, there was activity in areas associated with physical activity and movement, parts of the brain we use to place ourselves spatially in the world, as though the readers were actually physically present in the story. Concentrated, close reading activated unbelievably widespread parts of the brain that are immensely cognitively complex, on a par with doing hard math problems or working through computer code."

Please visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for more details.

193 years later, Jane Austen still rules!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

RITA and Golden Heart Finalists

The Romance Writers of America (RWA) is the trade association for aspiring and published romance fiction authors. They announced the 2013 finaists for their RITA and Golden Heart awards earlier today. "The RITA recognizes excellence in published romance novels and novellas. The Golden Heart recognizes excellence in unpublished romance manuscripts." The winners of the awards will be announced on July 20 at the annual conference in Atlanta. Here are some of the finalists for the RITA. Go HERE for the full list.

Historical Romance Finalists

Beauty and the Bounty Hunter by Lori Austin
Bride by Mistake by Anne Gracie
Defiant by Pamela Clare
A Lady Never Surrenders by Sabrina Jeffries
The Recruit by Monica McCarty
A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean
Too Dangerous to Desire by Cara Elliott
Wedded in Sin by Jade Lee

Romance Novella Finalists

Breathless by Sophie Jordan
The Duchess of Love by Sally MacKenzie
“Room at the Inn” by Ruthie Knox in Naughty & Nice
Seduced by a Pirate by Eloisa James
“Sleeping with a Beauty” by Leslie Kelly in Once Upon a Valentine
“The Valentine’s Curse” by Jodi Thomas in Be My Texas Valentine

Contemporary Single Title Romance Finalists

About Last Night by Ruthie Knox
Barefoot in the Sand by Roxanne St. Claire
Forever and a Day by Jill Shalvis
Lucky in Love by Jill Shalvis
Melt into You by Roni Loren
Sugar Springs by Kim Law
The Way Back Home by Barbara Freethy
Zoe’s Muster by Barbara Hannay

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Medieval Calendar (Video by The Getty Museum)

This video by the Getty Museum shows a few pages of a medieval calendar. The medieval calendar, in portrait mode a page a month, served as a map of the Church year. While following the method of the Roman calendar in determining dates, it also listed saints’ days and other religious feasts and recorded the phases of the moon. Many calendars also featured related illustrations of saints, feasts, monthly labors, leisure activities, and signs of the zodiac. They, too, divided their month into weeks, but the first day, ninth day (nonce), and fifteenth day (ides) were the most important days and people referred to other days of the month in relation to these three; for example, the 17th of the month was two days after the ides.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Picture Day Friday: St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle

St. Vitus Cathedral is located in the Prague Castle of the Czech Republic. It is the spiritual home of the country, because St. Wenceslas, the Czech patron saint, is buried there. It was built by Peter Parler. The photo below is the nave from the viewpoint of the eastern choir.

The Prague Castle was built around 880 by Prince Bořivoj of the Premyslid Dynasty. It is said to be the largest castle complex in the world with an area of almost 70,000 square meters. Buildings still standing are from the 10th century through the 14th century. Most of the twentieth century has been spent in renovations and restorations of this medieval wonder. The Prague Castle has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site.

[Image courtesy of the Prague Castle website.]

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fordyce Castle and Baron Title for Sale

Fordyce Castle image copyrighted by Many castles in Scotland, England, France, Germany, and other European countries are up for sale these days as the costs for maintaining these edifices is constantly rising. However, a castle for sale rarely comes with its corresponding title. In this case, Fordyce Castle is accompanied by its barony title. A few years ago, I had visited Aberdeenshire. Pity I didn't venture out to see Fordyce.

Map to Fordyce; Image copyrighted by The castle in located in a village off the Banffshire coast in NE Scotland, 45 miles from Aberdeen airport. The L-shaped tower house has three floors with a corbelled stair tower, shot holes through which to fire upon besieging enemies, and with a nod to modernity indoor plumbing and under-floor heating. The castle itself and the cottages on the property have all been upgraded to four-star holiday accommodation as a bed and breakfast inn. It is said that it can be reverted partially or completely into a family estate.

Thomas Menzies, former lord provost of Aberdeen, built the castle in 1592. It stayed in the Menzies-Dunbar families, until it passed with heiress Ann Dunbar to the Ogilvie-Grants on her marriage to James the 1st Earl of Seafield. It changed hands, including foreign hands (Portuguese and German) before being restored in 2000 by Robert and Fiona Ogilvie McVeigh-Crabbe as their family home. The Castle was A-listed inside and out, so the Crabbes had to work closely with the Historic Scotland society for permissions to do any work.

Now for the low-low price of 800k pounds, you could be a proud owner of a castle and have everyone address you as Baron Fordyce or Baroness Fordyce or my lord or my lady.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Medieval Knight in an Edinburgh Car Park

After the three kings, it's the knight's turn now. And he's been found in a car park, too. They should simply dig up all the car parks in Britain.

The car park was being cleared to build a new Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation. Knowing that the site was the location of the 18th Century Old High School, the 16th Century Royal High School, and the 13th Century Blackfriars Monastery, archeology experts were already involved in the dig. So it wasn't too much of a surprise when they came across an elaborate sandstone slab, with carvings of a Calvary Cross and an ornate sword, marking the grave of a nobleman. The skeleton and grave have now been dated to the 13th century like the Blackfriars Monastery, which was founded in 1230 by Alexander II and destroyed during the Reformation.

(See the BBC article for the photograph and more details.)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Picture Day Friday: Saffron Plant

The bright red-orange stigmas of the autumn-blooming Crocus sativus is the popular saffron spice. It is said to be more expensive by weight than gold these days. In medieval times, it had multiple uses. Dyers used it to impart a yellow or orange-yellow color to textiles, painters and illuminators used it as a pigment, and cooks used it in dishes.

[Image is courtesy of The Cloisters Museum and Gardens in NYC.]

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Finding Alfred the Great's Bones

"After the car park king comes the cemetery sovereign," famously says The Times. Scientists and historians claim to have found the remains of Alfred the Great, undoubtedly the greatest Anglo-Saxon king, buried in an unmarked grave in Winchester. Enthusiastic archelogists are seeking to excavate the grave at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Hampshire.

Unfortunately for them, the grave contains jumbled remains of five people, and so correctly identifying which bones go with which skull and which one of them is indeed Alfred is going to be a tough task. Another tough task is going to be to find a living direct descendant so proper DNA testing can be conducted to identify the skeleton as truly Alfred's. Given that Alfred reigned over England in the late 800s, finding a living relative is a task of monumental proportions.

This is what The Times, irreverently, says about Alfred's remains: "In life King Alfred may have fought a prolonged guerrilla war against the Danes, but his bones have arguably had an even more tumultuous time in death. Initially buried in 899AD beside Winchester Cathedral, with the expansion of the cathedral in 1110AD they had to be moved. Relocated in the newly built Hyde Abbey, he rested in peace for almost half a millennium in front of the altar. But when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the altar and everything around it was lost. During the following centuries, assuming they remained, the greatest of the Wessex royals found themselves beneath first derelict land, then a prison, then beside St Bartholomew’s Church."

Alfred was the first West Saxon king to be called the King of the Anglo Saxons. In 871, he succeeded to the throne of Wessex. In 878, at the Battle of Ethandun, he defeated the Viking King Guthrum, and as part of the treaty, ceded East Anglia to him as Danelaw and the rest of England and Wales became the united Anglo-Saxon kingdom. (Some people say that the signing of this treaty took place in 880.)

As the years of mostly peace followed this, Alfred showed himself to be a just and wise king and human being. Militarily, he reorganizd his forces with a standing, mobile field army, built a network of fortified burhs, and assembled a small fleet of ships to navigate rivers and other bodies of water. He strengthened the economy through a policy of monetary reform, urban planning, scaled taxation, and revamped law codes. In law as in cultural aspects, Alfred was ruled by his ideas of what a Christian person is and what a Christian king should be. He undertook an ambitious effort to revive learning in the entire land under his command, and he was adamant that all available literature should be in the accessible Anglo-Saxon (AKA Old English) language easily understood by everyone.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Richard III and His Second Chance at Fame

Image copyrighted by English Monarchs "It's him!" And with that, the University of Leicester announced the discovery of King Richard III's bones on February 4, 2013. Following DNA and skeletal analysis and genealogical research, lead archaeologist Richard Buckley unambiguously proclaimed that the skeleton discovered under a council car park in Leicester was indeed that of the last Plantagenet medieval king Richard III.

Richard was killed in the Battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire, the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses, on August 22, 1485. In commemoration of that event, 100 white roses were laid at a sundial by invited guests at a ceremony last week. Of the battle, Paul Lay, editor of History Today, writes in The Guardian irreverently that the skeleton demonstrates "the tactile brutalities of 15th-century warfare: eight wounds to Richard's head, two to his body and the postmortem humiliation of a knife to the buttocks, giving new meaning to the expression 'gettin' medieval on your ass'." writes that "Examination of the remains have shown that Richard had no kyphosis or withered arm, despite this being a feature commonly attributed to him and his face is shown to be warm, young, earnest and rather serious." Richard III was made the object of fun and ridicule by history, and the University of Leicester and the Richard III Society are keen to redress the unflattering light shined on his life by Shakespeare and the Tudors. They're hoping the remains will help retell his story.

Image copyrighted by the Richard III Society The Richard III Society, working with the University of Dundee, undertook the task of reconstructing Richard's face from the remains. Caroline Wilkinson, Professor of Craniofacial Identification, said, "His facial structure was produced using a scientific approach, based on anatomical assessment and interpretation, and a 3-D replication process known as stereolithography. The final head was painted and textured with glass eyes and a wig, using the portraits as reference, to create a realistic and regal appearance." Janice Aitken, a lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, painted the 3-D replica of the head, that Professor Wilkinson created, using protrait painting techniques combined with historical and contemporary references.

Along with the skeletal remains, the medieval church of Greyfriars was also unearthed. Historical evidence shows that Richard was first buried in the Church of the Annunciation of Mary the Virgin, i.e., the Newarke at Leicester. Legend has it that in the 18th century, the Franciscans of Greyfriars "asked for permission to bury the late king in their friary church, where he was afforded a place of honour in the choir, i.e. the area before the holy altar."

Now, according to the Richard III Society, Sir Robert Burgess, Vice Chancellor of the University of Leicester and the Right Reverend Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, [have] confirmed that King Richard III will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral.

For more details, visit the websites of The University of Leicester and The Richard III Society.

[Edited 3/12/13: It's now come to light that death threats have been made over the issue of whether Richard III's remains should be buried in Leicester, or at Westminster Abbey. The decision of Leicester Cathedral still stands.]

Friday, March 8, 2013

Picture Day Friday: Winchester Cathedral

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Mystery of the Anglo-Saxon King Canute

Bones! Bones! Bones! This post starts a series of three posts on skeletal remains discovered of England's kings: Canute, Richard III, and Alfred the Great.

This post will cover Canute, the 11th century Anglo-Saxon king. According to the Medieval News, forensic scientists will examine "the skeletal remains of Anglo-Saxon royalty that have lain in wooden ‘mortuary chests’ at Winchester Cathedral for more than 350 years." According to the Daily Mail, "the [mortuary] chests have been placed in the Lady Chapel to allow researchers to begin examinations without removing them from consecrated ground." Detective archaeologists from Bristol University will use DNA techniques to identify the remains. The remains of some of the Anglo-Saxon royalty were originally buried at Winchester Cathedral, but their remains were scattered by looters who ransacked it during England's Civil War. They were then willy-nilly stuffed into these chests and reburied at the cathedral.

Canute, one of England's great Anglo-Saxon kings, started life as a Viking, known as Knud in Danish and Knut in Norwegian. He participated in multiple raids of England at the turn of the last millennium, but in 1016, he won a decisive victory over Edmund the Ironside. Shortly thereafter, Edmund died, leaving Canute as the sole king of England. In 1018, King Harald of Denmark died and through familial relations, Canute became king of Denmark, too. Norway fell next, and by mid 1020s, Scotland had fallen, too.

Thus, Canute was the first king to rule over a united British Isles free from internal and external strife. As a result, trade, art, literature, and religious life thrived in the 20 years of peaceful reign that followed. But all these stellar achivements is not why Canute is remembered in history.

He is remembered for these words uttered while he sat on a throne with the waves lapping at his feet: "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey." His courtiers thought Canute could command the tides like God. Now, Canute was a religious man who believed in the power of God as infinitely greater than man's. So to humor his courtiers and to teach them this lesson, he studied the tides, chose a time and location for his throne to be situated at the ocean shore, and as the tide came in, commanded the waves to advance no further. When they didn't, he had made his point that kings might be great in the eyes of man, but were nothing in the face of God's power.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Picture Day Friday: White's Gentlemen's Club London

The gentlemen's club for aristocratic Londoners was established in 1693 in St. James square by an Italian named Francesco Bianco (AKA "Francis White"). The first address was at 4 Chesterfield Street and it later moved to 37-38 St James's Street, where it acquired its famous bow window (of Beau Brummell fame) and its equally famous betting book for wagers placed by members.