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

Hear Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Pioneering Compositions for Music Boxes

We now remember Karlheinz Stockhausen as a pioneer of electronic music, laboring away in studios dominated by hulking early synthesizers and tape machines toward a new sonic experience, but he wrote his most popular work for much humbler devices: music boxes. Composed in 1974 and 1975, Tierkreis, the German word for zodiac, consists of twelve melodies, each representing a sign on that astrological calendar, each centered on a different pitch, each played on its own dedicated music box. You can hear (and see) all of the Tierkreis boxes in action in these videos:

Despite their simplicity, Stockhausen’s twelve- and sometimes fourteen-tone serial compositions may sound like nothing you ever heard come out of a music box in childhood. But children must have made up a significant part of their early audience: these melodies made their debut as part of the fairy-tale music theater piece called Musik im Bauch, or “Music in the Belly,” a phrase Stockhausen used to describe the noises that would issue from the insides of his young daughter Julika, to her great delight. After coming up with the twelve melodies, quite possibly the first music ever originally composed for the music box, he had to order the boxes themselves custom-made from the Swiss manufacturer Reuge. You can see an original Tierkreis box, playing the Aries melody, in the video below.

Reuge, according to Dangerous Minds’ Oliver Hall, “continued to manufacture the zodiac boxes into the eighties. In ‘98, Stockhausen-Verlag produced a limited run for the composer’s 70th birthday, followed by another series in 2005. The Pisces, Aries and Sagittarius boxes are sold out, but the shop still has a few of the others left at €310 a piece.” Pricey, certainly, but what a gift they would make for musically inclined friends born under the other zodiac signs, given that Stockhausen, writes All Music Guide’s Robert Kirzinger, “carefully considered the characteristics of each sign and each month of the year, as well as the personalities of people he knew were born under a particular sign, in composing this work.” Such a compositional scheme may strike astrological non-believers as odd, but remember: this was back in the age of Aquarius.

via Dangerous Minds

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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.

Jurassic Park Without Dinosaurs: Watch Humans Stare in Amazement at a World Stripped of CGI Creations

How many times have you encountered an otherwise perfect view spoiled by a newly erected high rise, a construction crane, or a CGI brachiosaurus?

Constantly, right?

Video editor William Hirsch makes light work of Jurassic Park’s primary attractions’ first appearance, literally erasing them from the scene.

Hirsch estimated that it took him about a week to get rid of those pesky ‘saurs using nothing fancier than After Effects’s built in tools, which include the motion tracking software Mocha.

It’s equal parts ridiculous and lovely to see humans suddenly thunderstruck by the unspoiled landscape they’ve been driving through.

These days, of course, Laura Dern would have to glance up from her phone, not a paper map.

Though it’s not such a stretch to imagine Jurassic Park’s author’s successor, the late Michael Crichton’s literary heir, hard at work on a dystopian novel titled Park.

At the time of its release, Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs were a special effects game changer. Their numbers were supplemented by some non-computer-generated animatronic models, though no doubt Spielberg was apprehensive given the way his robotic sharks acted up on the set of Jaws. The human players may have had more screen time, but the dinosaurs’ 15 minutes of footage has resulted in a lasting fame, extending decades beyond the expected 15 minutes.

Unexpectedly, Hirsch’s dinosaurs, or rather, lack thereof, have generated the most excitement with regard to his project. But his attention to detail is also laudable. Above, he reveals how he tweaked the access badge dangling from the rear view mirror of the park’s all-terrain vehicle.

Are we wrong to think that John Williams’ swelling original score feels more organic in this dinosaur-free context? Rivers, trees, and vast amounts of skies have been known to spur composers to such heights.

The potentially lethal prehistoric beasts are out of the way, but that line “We’re gonna make a fortune with this place” retains an air of ominous foreshadowing, given the plentiful natural resources on display. Sometimes humans can do more damage than dinosaurs.

If that feels too intense, you can also retreat to the escapist pleasures of the original, below.

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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.

Brian Eno Reveals His Favorite Film Soundtracks

Think of “interviewing Brian Eno” (listen to it here) like a piece of his generative music. Yes, the man has no problems talking and actually encourages it. But input the same old questions about those same four albums (you know them, right?) and you get the same old answers as output. Feed in a completely different subject–like his favorite film soundtracks–and lo and behold, a very intriguing 80 minutes follows.

That’s what happened when Hugh Cornwell (lead vocalist of The Stranglers) interviewed Mr. Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno–that’s Brian to you–in 2013 for his short-lived internet radio show on film.

Eno has always had an interest in film. As he mentions in the second half of the show, he produced his 1976/78 album Music for Films not for any specific film, but in the hopes that they would be used for soundtracks in the future. Also, he hoped that the descriptive titles–“Alternative 3,” “Patrolling Wire Borders”–and the evocative music would lead listeners to create films in their heads. Since then every track has been used at least once, and documentarians like Adam Curtis have used Eno to great effect.

The only track, he reveals, on that album to be written for a film was closer “Final Sunset” put to great, transcendent use in Derek Jarman’s 1976 film Sebastiane.

But if you think Eno might choose similar ambient tracks or instrumentals during the rest of the interview, you’re in for a surprise.

As he grew up, Eno had no exposure to what was “cool” and what was not. And that led to an ear that heard things stripped of cultural context. When he plays a track from the musical Oklahoma called “The Farmer and the Cowboy,” we might just be able to put aside our memories of high school productions and hear the weird, humorous and very exciting vocal arrangement underneath. Similarly, despite not being the biggest fan of Elvis Presley at the time (“I was a snob,” Eno says), he selects this jaunty pop number “Didja Ever” from G.I. Blues. “One of the wittiest, cleverest bits of writing,” as he calls it, written by Sid Wayne and Sherman Edwards, who wrote at least one song in every subsequent Presley movie.

Eno also has space for the jazz of Miles Davis and the evocative score for Louis Malle’s 1961 film Elevator to the Gallows, in particular how it was recorded: improvised live while watching the screen. (Not mentioned: its huge influence on Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack.)

There’s much more in the interview to check out, including the source of a sample used in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and one of David Bowie’s best but most underrated songs. Listen here.

Related content:

Brian Eno’s Advice for Those Who Want to Do Their Best Creative Work: Don’t Get a Job

The “True” Story Of How Brian Eno Invented Ambient Music

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Explore an Interactive, Online Version of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, a 200-Year-Old Guide to the Colors of the Natural World

In a post earlier this year, we brought to your attention Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours. Used by artists and naturalists alike, the guide originally relied on written description alone, without any color to be found among its pages. Instead, in the late eighteenth century, German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner painstakingly detailed the qualities of the 110 colors he surveyed, by reference to where they might be found on animals, vegetables, and minerals. The color “Pearl Gray,” for example, might be located on the “Backs of black headed and Kittwake Gulls,” the “Back of Petals of Purple Hetatica,” or on “Porcelain Jasper.”

The literary possibilities of this approach may seem vast. But its usefulness to those engaged in the visual arts—or in close observation of new species in, say, the Galapagos Islands—may have been somewhat lacking until Scottish painter Patrick Syme updated the guide in 1814 with color swatches, most of them using the very minerals Werner described.

It was the second edition of Syme’s guide that accompanied Charles Darwin on his 1831 voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, where he “used it to catalogue the flora and fauna that later inspired his theory of natural selection,” as historian Daniel Lewis writes at Smithsonian.

While we might think of taxonomies of color as principally guiding artists, web designers, and house painters, they have been indispensable for scientists. “They can indicate when a plant or animal is a different species or a subspecies,” Lewis notes; “in the 19th century, the use of color to differentiate species was important for what it said about evolution and how species changed over time and from region to region.” For historians of science, therefore, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours represents an essential tool in the early development of evolutionary biology.

Other color dictionaries followed, “designed to give people around the world a common vocabulary to describe the colors of everything from rocks and flowers to stars, birds, and postage stamps.” Some of these were highly specialized, such as the two-volume set created by the French Society of Chrysanthemists in 1905. All of them, however, strove to meet the high bar set by Werner when it came to level of detailed description. These are guides that speak in human terms, in contrast to the nomenclature most often used today, which “is really a machine language,” Kelsey Cambell-Dollaghan writes at Fast Company, “numerical hex codes crafted to communicate with software on computers and printers.”

In recognition of Werner and Syme’s contribution to color nomenclature, Smithsonian Books recently republished the 1814 edition of their guide, and the revised 1821 edition has been available for some time as scans at the Internet Archive. Now it has received a 21st update thanks to designer Nicholas Rougeux, who has created an online interactive version of the book, “with additions like data visualizations of its 100 colors and internet-sourced photographs of the animals and minerals that the book references”—a feature its creators could never have dreamed of. You can read Werner’s complete text, see all of the colors as illustrated and categorized by Syme, and even purchase through Rougeux’s site cool 36” x 24” posters like that above, starting at $27.80.

It’s true, viewing the book online has its drawbacks, related to how Syme’s paint swatches are translated into hex codes, then displayed differently depending on various screen settings. But Rougeux has tried to compensate for this difference between print and screen. On a publicly accessible Google Doc, he has provided the hex codes “for each of the 18th-century hues, from Skimmed Milk (#e6e1c9) to Veinous Blood Red (#3f3033).” Not nearly as poetic as Werner’s descriptions, but it’s what we have to work with these days when reference books get written for computers as much as they do for humans.

See the interactive Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours here.

via Fast Company

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Werner’s Nomenclature of Colour, the 19th-Century “Color Dictionary” Used by Charles Darwin (1814)

Goethe’s Colorful & Abstract Illustrations for His 1810 Treatise, Theory of Colors: Scans of the First Edition

The Vibrant Color Wheels Designed by Goethe, Newton & Other Theorists of Color (1665-1810)

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

1,100 Classic Arcade Machines Added to the Internet Arcade: Play Them Free Online

Once we could hardly imagine such things as video games. Then, all of a sudden, they appeared, though for years we had to go out to bars — and later, purpose-built “arcades” filled with video game machines — in order to play them, and we paid money to do so. When they came into our homes in the form of consoles we could hook up to our television sets, we at first felt only disappointment: these versions of Space InvadersDonkey Kong, and Defender neither looked nor felt much like the originals into which we’d pumped so many coins. But only now that the technology in our homes has long since surpassed most of the technology outside them can we play faithful reproductions of all our old favorite games without going out to the arcade.

Not that many arcades still stand, although the Internet Archive has made up for that absence by building the Internet Arcade, which we previously featured here on Open Culture a few years ago. Having made it possible for us to play an enormous variety of classic arcade games free in our web browsers, the Internet Archive looks on its way to creating not just the largest arcade in existence but an infinite arcade, the kind that Borges would have imagined had he grown up in the video-game age.  Just last week, developments in the software that powers it allowed Internet Archive to add more than a thousand new machines to the Internet Arcade, from games for which we had to wait in line back in the day to obscurities on which few of us have ever even laid eyes, let alone hands, before.

“The majority of these newly-available games date to the 1990s and early 2000s, as arcade machines both became significantly more complicated and graphically rich,” writes the Internet Archive’s Jason Scott, “while also suffering from the ever-present and home-based video game consoles that would come to dominate gaming to the present day. Even fervent gamers might have missed some of these arcade machines when they were in the physical world, due to lower distribution numbers and shorter times on the floor.” You can explore the new wing of the Internet Arcade here, some of whose most popular games include Puzzle Bobble (better known in the West as Bust-a-Move), X-MenMetal Slug 5Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, and Street Fighter Alpha 2. Maybe their sound and graphics no longer wow us as once they did, but the years have done nothing to diminish their fun factor — and for many of us, not having to spend our quarters will always be a feeling to savor.

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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.

Flannery O’Connor Renders Her Verdict on Ayn Rand’s Fiction: It’s As “Low As You Can Get”

For all the grotesque humor of her stories and novels, Flannery O’Connor took the writing of fiction as seriously as it is possible to do. Even at the age of 18, she saw the task as a divine calling, writing in her journal, “I feel that God has made my life empty in this respect so that I may fill it some wonderful way.” Intense self-doubt also made her fear that she would fail in her mission, a too-familiar feeling for every creative writer: “I may grovel the rest of my life in a stew of effort, of misguided hope.”

In acquiring the needed confidence to push through fear, O’Connor also acquired a theory of fiction—a serious and demanding one that left no room for frivolous entertainments or propaganda. “I know well enough that very few people who are interested in writing are interested in writing well,” she told a student audience in her lecture “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” (collected in Mystery and Manners).

Writing well, for O’Connor, meant pursuing “the habit of art,” a phrase she took from French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. While she admits that Art is “a word that immediately scares people off, as being a little too grand,” her definition is simple enough, if vague: “something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself.” When she gets into the meat of these ideas, we see why she could be so harsh a critic of fellow writers in her many letters to friends and acquaintances.

In one particularly harsh assessment in a May, 1960 letter to playwright Maryat Lee, O’Connor wrote, “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

The reference to Spillane is interesting. Rand corresponded with the crime novelist and admired his work, seeming “greatly pleased,” William Thomas writes at the Randian Atlas Society, by his “sense of life,” if not “enamored of his skill in conveying it.” Surely Rand’s hyper-individualistic, purely materialist “sense of life” repelled O’Connor, but her objections to Rand’s fiction would have certainly—if not primarily—extended to the writing itself.

In her lecture, O’Connor elaborates on her definition of the art of fiction by telling her audience what it is not:

I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. Then they find themselves writing a sketch with an essay woven through it, or an essay with a sketch woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing.

Rand’s fiction presents readers with speechifying heroes who serve as one-dimensional exponents of Objectivism, and cardboard villains acting as straw caricatures of the democratic or socialist philosophies she loathed. Books like Atlas Shrugged embody all the marks of amateurism, according to O’Connor, of writers who “are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.”

For O’Connor, the habit of art requires keen observation of complex human behavior, compassion for human failings, a genuine openness to paradox and the unknown, and a preference for idiosyncratic specificity over grand abstractions and stereotypes—qualities Rand simply did not possess. Perhaps most importantly, however, as O’Connor told her student audience in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” the writer’s “moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense.” One imagines O’Connor felt that Rand’s moral sense could only produce profoundly impoverished drama.

Read more of O’Connor’s letters, full of her informal literary criticism, in the collection The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor.

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

The Talmud Is Finally Now Available Online

In South Korea, where I live, the Talmud is a bestseller. Just a few years ago the New Yorker‘s Ross Armud reported on the improbable publishing success, in this small east Asian country, of Judaism’s “dense compilation of oral laws annotated with rabbinical discussions, consisting of about two and a half million words.” Some of those words dealing with such pressing questions as, “If you find a cake with a pottery shard in it, can you keep it? Do you have to report the discovery of a pile of fruit? What do you do if you find an item built into the wall of your house?”

The much shorter “Korean Talmud,” Armud writes, with its parables, aphorisms, and topics that run the gamut “from business ethics to sex advice,” makes a reader feel like “the last player in a game of telephone.” But Joshua Foer, the science writer who co-founded Atlas Obscura, might say that the Jewish Talmud has long left even Jewish readers in a similar state of befuddlement — if, indeed, they could find the text at all. Looking to get a handle on the Talmud himself back in 2010, he found that, shockingly, the internet had almost nothing to offer him. And so he began working, alongside an ex-Google engineer collaborator named Brett Lockspeiser, to correct that absence.

“Last year, after years of work and negotiations, Foer and Lockspeiser finally succeeded in their quest,” writes the Washington Post‘s Noah Smith. “Through a nonprofit they created called Sefaria, the men are bringing the Talmud online in modern English, and free of charge.” Sefaria’s library, available on the web as well as in app form, now includes a variety of texts from Genesis and the Kabbalah to philosophy and modern works — and of course the Talmud, the centerpiece of the collection, the relevant resources for which had not been in the public domain and thus required no small amount of negotiation to make free.

Sefaria’s creators have combined all this with a feature called “source sheets,” which allow “any user on the site to compile and share a selection of relevant texts, from Sefaria or outside, surrounding a given issue or question.” (Smith points to the most popular source sheet thus far, “Is One Permitted to Punch a White Supremacist in the Face?”) At about 160 million words with 1.7 million intertextual links and counting, the site has made a greater volume of Jewish texts far more accessible than ever before. Readers, even non-Orthodox ones, have been discovering them in English, but if Sefaria wants to increase their traffic further still, they might consider uploading some Korean translations as well.

via Kottke

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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.

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