A Medieval Book That Opens Six Different Ways, Revealing Six Different Books in One

Technology has come so far that we consider it no great achievement when a device the size of a single paper book can contain hundreds, even thousands, of different texts. But 21st-century humanity didn't come up with the idea of putting multiple books in one, nor did we first bring that idea into being — not by a long shot. Medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel points, for example, to the "dos-à-dos" (back to back) binding of the 16th and 17th centuries, which made for books "like Siamese twins in that they present two different entities joined at their backs: each part has one board for itself, while a third is shared between the two," so "reading the one text you can flip the 'book' to consult the other."

Not long thereafter, Kwakkel posted an artifact that blows the dos-à-dos out of the water: a 16th-century book that contains no fewer than six different books in a single binding. "They are all devotional texts printed in Germany during the 1550s and 1570s (including Martin Luther, Der kleine Catechismus) and each one is closed with its own tiny clasp," he writes.




"While it may have been difficult to keep track of a particular text’s location, a book you can open in six different ways is quite the display of craftsmanship." You can admire it — and try to figure it out — from a variety of different angles at the Flickr account of the National Library of Sweden, where it currently resides in the archives of the Royal Library.

Four or five centuries ago, a book like this would no doubt have impressed its beholders as much as or even more than the most advanced piece of handheld consumer electronics impresses us today. But when the internet discovered Kwakkel's post, it became clear that this six-in-one devotional captivates us in much the same way as a brand-new, never-before-seen digital device. "With a literacy rate hovering around an estimated 5 to 10 percent of the population during the Middle Ages, only a select few of society's upper echelons and religious castes had use for books," Andrew Tarantola reminds us. "So who would have use for a sextuplet of stories bound by a single, multi-hinged cover like this? Some seriously busy scholar." And he writes that not on a site for enthusiasts of old books, Medieval history, or religious scholarship, but at the temple of tech worship known as Gizmodo.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Library of Congress Launches the National Screening Room, Putting Online Hundreds of Historic Films

Public domain fans, pull your noses out of those musty old books on Project Gutenberg, but keep your eyes glued to the screen!

The Library of Congress just cut the ribbon on the National Screening Room, an online trove of cinematic goodies, free for the streaming.

Given that the collection spans more than 100 years of cinema history, from 1890-1999, not all of the featured films are in the public domain, but most are, and those are free to download as well as watch.

Archivist Mike Mashon, who heads the Library’s Moving Image Section, identifies the project’s goal as providing the public with a “broad range of historical and cultural audio-visual materials that will enrich education, scholarship and lifelong learning.”




Can’t argue with that. Those seeking to become better versed in the art of consensual kissing whilst mustachioed will find several valuable takeaways in the above clip.

Personal experience, however, compels me to expand upon Mashon’s stated goal: artists, theatermakers, filmmakers—use those downloadable public domain films in your creative projects! (Properly attributed, of course.)

You can educate yourself about a particular clip’s rights and the general ins and outs of motion picture copyrights by scrolling past the clip’s call number to click on “Rights & Access.”

The Library does emphasize that rights assessment is the individual’s responsibility. Few artists conceive of this as the fun part, but do it, or risk the sort of creative heartbreak animator Nina Paley set herself up for when integrating inadequately checked out vintage recordings into her feature-length Sita Sings the Blues, having “decided (she) was just going to use this music, and let the chips fall where they may.”

A hypothetical example: Liza Minnelli's 2nd or 3rd birthday party at her godfather Ira Gershwin’s Beverly Hills estate?

It’s adorable to the point of irresistible, but alas “for educational purposes only,” a designation that applies to all the Gershwin home movies.

(Watch em, anyway! You never know when you may be called upon to throw an opulent 1940’s-style toddler party. Forewarned is forearmed! Instagram's gonna LOVE you.)

Copyright-wise, a good way to hedge your bets is to look for material filmed before 1922, like The Newlyweds, DW Griffith’s meet-cute silent short, starring America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford. Look to the leading ladies of that era, if you want to find some worthy tales (and footage) to shoehorn into your #metoo documentary.

Sounds like you’ve got a lot of research ahead of you, friend. But wait, there's more!

Recharge your batteries with a visit to Peking’s Forbidden City circa 1903.

Wouldn't that make a fine backdrop to your band’s next music video!

And dibs on the fabled diving horse of Coney Island, whose feats of derring-do were filmed by Thomas Edison.

I could watch that horse dive all day! And so could the audience of that 8-hour puppet opera I may wind up writing one of these days. It’s set in Coney Island….

Readers, have a rummage and report back. What’s your favorite find in the National Screening Room? Any plans for future use, real or imaginary? Let us know.

If you’re not immediately inspired, don’t despair. Just check back. New content will be uploaded monthly. There are also plans afoot to create educator lesson plans on historical and social topics documented in the collection. Teachers, imagine what your students might create with this classroom tool....

Begin your visit to the National Screening Room here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, October 15 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Museum Discovers Math Notebook of an 18th-Century English Farm Boy, Adorned with Doodles of Chickens Wearing Pants

We are trained by tradition to think of history as a series of great men’s (and some women’s) lives, of great wars and royal successions, conquests and tragic defeats, revolutions and world-changing discoveries. The ordinary, everyday lives of ordinary, everyday people seem tedious and unremarkable by comparison. But archivists know better. Their jobs are not glamorous, but what they lack in fame or academic sinecures, they make up for with chance discoveries of the kind that we see here—doodles in the 1784 math notebook of one Richard Beale, a 13-year-old farm boy from rural Kent, England.

The archivists at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) were so excited about this find they made a Twitter thread about it, explaining its provenance in a bundle of eighteenth-century farm diaries, which “are a lot like normal diaries but with more cows.”




The museum’s program manager, Adam Koszary, has a good ear for the medium, tweeting out other witticisms about Richard’s adventures in taking notes: “But, like every teenager, mathematics couldn’t fill the void of Richard’s heart. Richard doodled.” He drew pictures of his dog, incorporated drawings of ships into his equations, and impeccably illustrated his word problems.

One can almost imagine the listicle: “Rural 18th-Century English Folk: They’re Just Like Us!” They think about their pets a lot. They draw when they get bored. They doodle tiny sketches of chickens in pants…Wait what? Yes, a chicken in trousers appears among Richard’s doodles, one of the many charming features that landed MERL’s story in The Guardian and garnered famous fans like JK Rowling. Like seemingly everything on the internet, the chicken in pants has sparked conspiracy theories, such as “Why do the trousers appear to be solid like Wallace’s in The Wrong Trousers?” and “Was Richard Beale acquainted with the town of Hensbroek in the Netherlands?”

These questions, writes Guy Baxter, associate director of archive services at MERL, are only partly tongue-in-cheek. The Dutch town of Hensbroek, does indeed have a coat of arms featuring a chicken in pants that bears a very close resemblance to Richard’s drawing, though it is entirely unlikely that Richard ever traveled to the Netherlands. The arms of Hensbroek “are a famous example of ‘canting’, which uses a pun on a name to inspire the design,” notes Baxter. (Hensbroek literally means “hens pants.”) The origin of Richard’s design is more mysterious. “It is possible that he knew about canting arms,” Baxter admits. “Or maybe he just had a vivid imagination.”

The little story of Richard Beale and his math homework doodles shows us something about our fractured, fragmented world and the anxious, divided lives we seem to lead online, says Ollie Douglas, curator of MERL’s object collections: “Social media is awash with highly personalized engagements and commentaries on the world…. You only need to look through the responses to this single Twitter thread (and that fact that a readymade chicken-in-trousers gif was available for us to shamelessly retweet) to see that the messy complexity of our world is still being shared and that we are all still doodlers at heart.”

Follow the Museum of English Rural Life for updates to this story.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How the Ancient Mayans Used Chocolate as Money

We've had hundreds and hundreds of years to get used to money in the form of coins and bills, though exactly how long we've used them varies quite a bit from region to region. Of course, some spots on the globe have yet to adopt them at all, as anyone who's heard the much-told story of the Yap islanders and their huge limestone discs knows. But the history of money is, in essence, the history of bartering — trading something you have for something you want — becoming more and more abstract; now, with digital crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, it looks like money will ascend one level of abstraction higher. But to imagine what a truly non-abstract currency looks like, just look at the ancient Mayan civilization, the members of which paid their debts with chocolate.

"The ancient Maya never used coins as money," writes Science's Joshua Rapp Learn. "Instead, like many early civilizations, they were thought to mostly barter, trading items such as tobacco, maize, and clothing." Thanks to the work of archaeologist Joanne Baron, a scholar of murals, ceramic paintings, carvings and other objects depicting life in the Classic Maya period which ran from around 250 BC to 900 AD, we've now begun to learn how chocolate took on a major, money-like role in the Maya's economy.




Some images depict cups of chocolate itself, which the Mayans usually enjoyed in the form of a hot drink, being accepted as payment, and others show chocolate traded in the coin-like form of "fermented and dried cacao beans." In many scenes, Maya leaders receive their tributes (or taxes) most often in the form of "pieces of woven cloth and bags labeled with the quantity of dried cacao beans they contain."

Cacao beans eventually became such a valuable currency "that it was evidently worth the trouble to counterfeit them," writes Smithsonian's Josie Garthwaite in an article about the early history of chocolate (a subject about which you can learn more in the TED-ed video above). "At multiple archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala," she quotes anthropologist Joel Palka as saying, "researchers have come across remarkably well-preserved 'cacao beans'" that turn out to be made of clay. "Some scholars believe drought led to the downfall of the Classic Maya civilization," Learn notes, and according to Baron, "the disruption of the cacao supply which fueled political power may have led to an economic breakdown in some cases." That may sound strangely familiar to those of us who — even here in the 21st century, among the many who have gone nearly cashless and may soon not even need a credit card — have breakdowns of our own when we can't get our chocolate.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Designer Creates a 3D-Printed Stamp That Replaces Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill

Above we have a very short video of a hand stamping the face of freedom fighter and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, aka Araminta Ross, over the stony mug of Andrew Jackson, aka Old Hickory, “Indian Killer,” and slaveholding seventh president of the United States who presided over the Indian Removal Act that inaugurated the Trail of Tears with a speech to Congress in which he concluded the only alternative to forcing native people off their land might be “utter annihilation.”

Hero to America Firsters, Jackson has featured on the U.S. twenty-dollar bill since 1928. Ironically, he was bestowed this honor under Calvin Coolidge, a progressive Republican president when it came to Civil Rights, who in 1924 signed the Indian Citizenship Act into law, granting all Indigenous people dual tribal and U.S. citizenship.




Anyway, you’ll recall that in 2016, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced “the most sweeping and historically symbolic makeover of the American currency in a century,” as The New York Times reported, “proposing to replace the slaveholding Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman.”

Furthermore, Lew planned to add historic feminist and Civil Rights figures to the five and ten dollar bills, an idea that did not come to fruition. But as we awaited the replacement of Jackson with Tubman, well… you know what happened. Andrew Jackson again became a figurehead of American racism and violence, and the brutal new administration walked back the new twenty. So designer Dano Wall decided to take matters into his own hands with the creation of the 3D-printed Tubman stamp. As he shows in the short clip above, the transformed bills still spend when loaded into vending and smart card machines.

Of course you might never do such a thing (maybe you just want to print Harriet Tubman faces on plain paper at home?), but you could, if you downloaded the print files from Thingiverse and made your own Tubman stamp. Wall refers to an extensive argument for the legality of making Tubman twenties. It perhaps holds water, though the Treasury Department may see things differently. In the British Museum “Curator’s Corner” video above, numismatist Tom Hockenhull shows us a precedent for defacing currency from shortly before World War I, when British suffragists used a hammer and die to stamp “Votes for Women” over the face of Edward VII.

The “deliberate targeting of the king,” writes the British Museum Blog, “could be likened to iconoclasm, a direct assault on the male authority figures that were perceived to be upholding the laws of the country.” It’s a practice supposedly derived from an even earlier act of vandalism in which anarchists stamped “Vive l’Anarchie” on coins. The process would have been difficult and time-consuming, “probably carried out by a single person using just one set of individual alphabet stamps.” Thus it is unlikely that many of these coins were made, though historians have no idea how many.

But the symbolic protest did not stand alone. The defaced currency spread the message of a broad egalitarian movement. The ease of making Tubman twenties could spread a contemporary message even farther.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Makes The Night Watch Rembrandt’s Masterpiece

When you think of Rembrandt, do you think first of The Philosopher in Meditation? Or The Syndics of the Drapers' Guild? How about Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp? Those paintings may well come to mind, and others besides, but only one demands a great effort indeed not to think of: Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, better known as The Night Watch. Famous for the enormous dimensions that make its figures nearly life-size, and make the painting a showcase for the artist's mastery of shadow and light more fully than any other, it stands not just for Rembrandt's body of work but for the 17th century's Dutch Golden Age of painting as well.

But what, exactly, makes The Night Watch Rembrandt's masterpiece? Walter Benjamin once said that every great work either dissolves a genre or founds a new one, but this painting fits neatly in an established tradition: the civic guard portrait, civic guards being the groups of wealthy citizens who pledged to defend a city should it come under threat. As Dutch painting moved away from religious subject matter toward commissioned portraiture, civic guards made fine clients, possessed as they were of both the desire and budget for large and expensive group scenes. But even within the genre, everyone involved must have suspected that, when Amsterdam mayor Frans Banninck Cocq hired Rembrandt van Rijn to paint him and his civic guard in the late 1630s, something impressive would result.




"What hits me right away is the balance that Rembrandt strikes between chaos and unity," says Evan Puschak, the video essayist known as the Nerdwriter, in his analysis of The Night Watch above. "He clearly wanted to create a canvas with a lot of movement, but the challenge was to make that movement — people lurching in different directions, performing a variety of actions — cohere into a unified whole." Therein lies the secret to The Night Watch's transcendence of its genre, a transcendence achieved through a quality we might now call dynamism. Rembrandt also makes use of visual techniques more closely associated with cinema, such as a "depth of field" achieved by rendering Cocq and his lieutenant with the utmost clarity and gradually reducing that clarity in the figures behind.

As with any masterpiece, the more you look at The Night Watch, the more you notice. You may even start to sense a joke: "The Night Watch is capturing the moments before the company sets out to its collective purpose," says Puschak, "but the painting almost makes us doubt that they'll ever get there." By the time of the painting's completion in 1642, he notes, civic guards had less to do with actual defense than with ceremony, "and at a certain point these companies became clubs for men to play with their weapons and chip in with fancy group portraits. It's not inconceivable that Rembrandt may have been secretly making fun of them." Maybe masterpiece status doesn't absolutely necessitate creating or destroying a genre. Nor, perhaps, does it absolutely demand a sense of humor, but surely the works that have one, like The Night Watch, stand a better chance of attaining it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Europe’s Oldest Intact Book Was Preserved and Found in the Coffin of a Saint

Photo via the British Library

If you’re a British history buff, next month is an ideal time to be in London for the British Library’s “once-in-a-generation exhibition” Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, opening October 19th and featuring the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the “world-famous” Domesday Book, and Codex Amiatinus, a “giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716” and returning to England for the first time in 1300 years. But with all of these manuscript stars stealing the show, one special exhibit might go overlooked, the St. Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest surviving intact European book.

A Latin copy of the Gospel of John, the book was originally called the Stonyhurst Gospel, after its first owner, Stonyhurst College. It acquired its current name because it was found inside the coffin of St. Cuthbert, a hermit monk who died in 687 and whose remains, legend has it, were incorruptible. This supposed miracle inspired a cult that placed offerings around Cuthbert’s tomb. Just when and how the small book made its way into his coffin remains a mystery. It was likely sometime between the 700s and 800s CE, when his body was moved to Durham due to Viking raids.




When Cuthbert’s casket was opened in 1104, the book was found “in miraculously perfect condition,” writes the British Library, inside “a satchel-like container of red leather with a badly-frayed sling made of silken threads.” Scholars have dated the book’s creation to between 700 and 730, and its interest for academics and lay people alike lies not only in the legend of St. Cuthbert but in the book’s physical qualities and its own uncorrupted nature. As Allison Meier writes at JSTOR Daily, “the 1,300-year-old manuscript retains its original pages and binding,” a remarkable fact for a book of its age.

Its condition makes it an “important example of Insular art, which was created on the British Isles and Ireland between 600 and 900 CE.” The general features of this style involve “the layering of pattern, line, and color on seemingly flat surfaces,” notes Oxford Bibliographies, in order to create “complex spatial patterns.” Scholar Robert D. Stevick describes these properties on the ornate dyed leather covers of the St. Cuthbert Gospel:

There is interlace pattern in two panels on the front cover, step-pattern implying two crosses on the lower cover, a prominent double vine scroll at the center of the front cover—elements of this early art that have been well catalogued for their individual features as well as for their affinities to similar decorative elements in other artifacts.

Bound with a sewing technique that originated in North Africa (and therefore often called “Coptic sewing”), the “simple but elegant” book, Meier explains, “reflects the transmission of publishing knowledge across Europe” from the Mediterranean. Its small size and placement in a leather pouch is also significant. St. John’s Gospel “was sometimes employed as a protective talisman,” worn in a pouch on the body to ward off evil. Why one of Cuthbert’s admirers would have given such a talisman to his corpse remains unclear.

If you can’t make it to the British Library to see this fascinating artifact in person, you can see its miraculously well-preserved binding and pages in scans at the British Library site here.

via JSTOR Daily

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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