Archive for July, 2011

The Novgorod Codex

July 29, 2011 7 comments
A page from the Novgorod Codex

A palimpsest is a writing surface that has been written on at least twice; the original text has been erased (at least partially) and the new text added on top. Usually the writing surface is parchment, which is made from animal skin and therefore more durable than paper or papyrus–though palimpsests written on papyrus have survived.

This seems straightforward: until modern times, writing materials were scarce and expensive, and authors would often wash away (with milk and oat bran) an unimportant text and use the “blank” surface for their writing project. The problems (or challenges, if you prefer) start when the overwritten material (the “underscript”) has not been completely erased and is in fact important.
In case readers might think that palimpsests are rare, wholesale destruction of old volumes has occurred in periods during which new writing materials were extremely expensive and hard to find: after the collapse of the Roman Empire, for example, so many biblical manuscripts were overwritten that the practice was forbidden by ecclesiastical order in 691.
And then there are the important manuscripts that exist only as overwritten material–the Archimedes Palimpsest is a famous instance, as is the Sinaiticus Palimpsest.
In the past, the deciphering of underscripts was mainly a matter of a keen eye and discipline. But new technologies, such as ultraviolet photography and the manipulation of digitized images, are making it possible to read very faint underscripts. In fact, the process of decipherment can be seen as emblematic of the scholarly struggle to reconstruct lost versions of stories through analysis of the newer materials that replaced them (as was done to reconstruct the Q Gospel from its surviving text in the Synoptic Gospels).
Some double palimpsests survive–the writing surface has been overwritten twice–and we now possess a hyper-palimpsest, the Novgorod Codex–which consists of three wooden tablets covered with wax that has been overwritten hundreds of times.
Discovered in July 2000 in Novgorod, one of the oldest cities in Russia (first mentioned, 859 A.D.) the Codex dates from the first quarter of the 11th Century and perhaps even from the end of the 10th, making it the oldest text composed  in East Slavic discovered so far. Thus the Codex is contemporary with the reign of Grand Prince Yaroslavl, who controlled both Novgorod and Kiev, and reflects the society of Russia during the time of its Christianization (official date, 988).
To provide further historical perspective, Russia’s conversion to Christianity occurred during the reign of Emperor Basil II, the last great emperor of the middle Byzantine Empire; he brought Byzantine power to its apex and, intensely devout, encouraged missionary efforts in areas lying north of the Black Sea. The Byzantines were Orthodox Christians, but their missionaries competed with adherents of Bogomilism, a gnostic faith which had its origins in the Balkans during the 10th Century.
The uppermost level of writing in the Codex (the so-called “basic text”) records the text of Psalms 75 and 76, written in the medieval dialect of Novgorod. The basic text has been read without difficulty, but the levels underneath it have presented a challenge unlike anything ever encountered during the decipherment of a palimpsest. Leading the efforts at decipherment is the linguist Andrey Zalizniak, Russia’s foremost expert on the Novgorod dialect. Zalizniak believes that the Codex contains traces of thousands of texts, written over a period of decades.
Zalizniak tackles the seemingly impossible challenge of reading the underscripts of the Codex by dividing the Codex into letter-sized sectors and searching for individual symbols in each section. After identifying letters at a certain position, he moves to the next sector and reconstructs its letters. In this way, he builds up “symbol chains” that eventually grow into words and sentences. Linguist Izabel Vallatton has repeated this process behind Zalizniak, confirming some of his shorter chains (20-30 symbols long).
Here is a partial list of the texts that Zalizniak has deciphered so far: 1) numerous psalms, 2) the beginning of the Apocalypse of John, 3) a so-far unknown tetralogy, From Paganism to Christ, 4) a fragment of the unknown text, Instructions of Alexander of Laodicea on Forgiveness of Sins, and 5) a fragment of the unknown text, Spiritual Instruction of the Father and the Mother to the Son. These last two texts Zalizniak believes were written by the schismatic monk Issakiy, who followed the teachings of a self-proclaimed prophet Alexander, who claimed God-like powers of salvation. The tenor of these teachings is Bogomil. Issakiy is apparently the author of the Codex, and it seems likely from some of the writing uncovered that he converted pagan Slavs to gnostic Christianity.
Why might any of this matter? Bogomilism survived into the 17th Century in the Balkans and has been linked to the development of Catharism in the Provence in the 13th Century. Byzantium went into sharp decline after the death of Basil II, but its missionaries prevailed in their struggle with Gnosticism and Russia today is Orthodox. Worth noting is the fact that the sack of Constantinople in 1204 occurred during the pontificate of Innocent III, who authorized the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. In short, the struggle between mainstream Christianity and Gnosticism lasted centuries and has had significant political and cultural consequences. The Novgorod Codex offers us a window onto an early chapter of that struggle.
Image: WikiCommons; Public Domain.

Is Cursive Obsolete?

July 24, 2011 4 comments


Some worthwhile thoughts from a teacher in Seattle. Enjoy!   RT

Is Cursive Obsolete?.

Moon Walk

July 23, 2011 2 comments


DNA evidence suggests that mankind’s exodus out of Africa began 70,000 years ago. We are still at it, and in the next couple of centuries may settle Mars. Then someone or another will overturn (or more likely, complete) Einstein, and we will be hopping from star to star…


Photo: Buzz Aldrin on the Surface; WikiCmns; NASA; Public Domain.

How to Eat an Essay

July 22, 2011 5 comments

The Rag Tree has spent a fair amount of its time offering examples of poetry & discussing the art that makes a poem. But so far, prose has been off limits. In fact, one could do worse when answering the question, What makes a poem a poem?, by saying, “Whatever else it is, it’s not an essay!”

Poetry is a state of mind, and so if it were to appear on a menu, I might compare it to a kick-in-the-rear-of-the-pants cup of coffee, a dollop of superb ice-cream, or caviar on buttered toast–it’s in the moment and it had better be fresh and satisfying. But prose challenges our digestion more than it does our need for novelty or taste, and we expect long-term sustenance from it. Not that it shouldn’t taste like something (especially if it aspires to the status of a fine steak or wild-caught salmon), but it had better keep the animal spirit in us alive and kicking, rejuvenate our plans and hopes, and send us out into the world with a keener purpose and an ability to reach the next milestone.

Everything is grist for the mill. Roast goose, calves’ feet jelly, pigeons, blancmange (not to mention such modern challenges as Ox-tail soup–a delicacy that the author has had occasion to sample), so our digestions require instruction and fortification. I think it best to approach this topic, then, with a sample essay presented as a menu, divided into appetizer, first and second courses, dessert, and digestif (for the sake of simplicity ;)).

Without further ado, then, I invite you to a supper of essay fare and techniques, an inspiration for the next time you dig through words, however well prepared they may be:

1) The Appetizer. Beginning (or tired) essayists invariably offer an undercooked and somewhat troublesome item called the introduction. This is the moment when the essay is most likely to remind us that its very name comes from a French word meaning “an attempt.” If well done, the introduction bears some other name (hopefully savoring of the main body’s interests and idiosyncracies); points out the main attractions to be encountered further along–for instance, an unusual interpretation of the causes of the French Revolution; explains why the topic is important; and offers a sample of the author’s style and wit. From the culinary perspective, introductions can vary from teeth-cracking breadsticks to fiery buffalo wings to perfect dumplings to wilted iceburg lettuce. Get it right and people will start shouting and snapping their fingers for the entree…

2) The First Course. Readers of course look for rib-sticking, belly-filling material here, but the secret to satisfying them lies elsewhere–in an odd item known as the Thesis Statement. The TS is the heart of the essay, what the author has to say boiled down into a brief and compelling sentence or two. Or, if you prefer, you can think of the TS as the chef’s secret ingredient–the ultra-fresh lobster or outstanding, family-recipe chutney–that sets his or her cooking apart from the mediocre. This is what the gourmand/jaded reader comes looking for. For instance, our TS might be: “In contrast to the many, overly familiar explanations for the French Revolution–the desperation of the poor, the corruption of the monarchy and aristocracy, the stifling of scholarship and scientific research–this essay proposes a simpler reason behind the collapse of the Old Regime: namely, the need for better instruction in language skills.” (with pardons to RT’s readers–you are welcome to suggest a more plausible cause, such as “the political radicalization of the Intelligentsia” or “a lack of innovation on the part of chefs across the nation“).

Once the TS has been sampled, the reader expects arguments and evidence in its support. Brief, eloquent, or witty language is also part of the experience–the spicing of the meal, in other words. No style, no fun, no spice, and people will stop eating.

For instance, we could include the following argument in support of our TS: “The lack of an effective educational system, the overweening power of France’s political institutions, and the refusal to recognize the great strides being made in the practical arts and sciences elsewhere all discouraged the pursuit of new methods and applications in France.” Or again, “The clear lack of inspiration in food choices among the elite, the use of high-cholesterol and other unhealthy ingredients, and the preference for large meals all lead to the stultification of original thought among the aristocracy and educated class.” Needless to say, some arguments are tougher to make than others, so beware! You don’t want to overstuff your patrons.

3) The Second Course. This is where the exceptional essayist pulls away from the pack. A good essay will provide an unexpected, persuasive TS and argument; an excellent essay will go farther afield, offering connections to developments and theories that might not immediately suggest themselves. Once again pursuing the French revolution, we might write: “The American Revolution, inspired in part by the constitution of the Iroquois Confederation in New York State, made the revolution in Paris inevitable. In particular, we should consider the effect of native American polities on the constitutional deliberations in Philadelphia and thus on the development of political theory in Europe.” Or, on a saucier note, “The descent into a flat and uninspired cuisine on the part of those charged with the feeding of the most acute French minds, and especially the overemphasis on serving truffles and spun-sugar wedding cakes, is a principle culprit in the decline that lead to the revolution.” Examine your ingredients closely, all you aspiring essayists out there!

4) Dessert. And you thought we were never going to get to the best part! Any essayist worth his sugar knows that without the extra oomph of a little sweet and the yumminess of lemon, or orange, or chocolate at the end of his thoughts, he has left his readers dangling. And in fact, there is no reason why dessert should only be offered at the end–some unexpected flashes of genius and taste, perhaps even a digression into a seemingly irrelevant topic, can build suspense and a grander finale at the close of the meal. For the French Revolution, consider the following: “And in fact, the political and fashion contribution of Marie Antoinette to her husband’s style and decisions (just think of those hairdos!) is often overlooked.” Or, for the chefs out there, “I can state unequivocally that the lack of proper training of truffle-snuffling pigs lead to the revolution.” There’s more in a pig’s snout than you might think.

5) The digestif. I prefer pear liqueur myself–but never overlook the importance of foot and endnotes. Footnote style isn’t that important–but offering unexpected readings and overlooked authors adds tremendously to any word meal! Scholarship (or a good farmer’s market) is after all the heart of the enterprise.

So there it is folks, a meal that should help you tackle all manner of surprising and odd essays and arguments–and enjoy yourself in the process.   RT

* P.S. & thank you to the chef who inspired this post!

* P.P.S. & of course, Margo: we would miss many a feast without your blog, Wordgathering


Image: Menu for Dinner in Honor of General Lafayette, 1824; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

“Contact Light!”– Apollo 11 on the Surface of the Moon

On July 20, 1969 (at 4:17 p.m. EDT), the lunar module (LM) Eagle landed on the surface of the moon. The descent to the surface was tense, peppered as it was by several alarms indicating that the guidance computer couldn’t handle all its tasks as they were received–a nonproblem that didn’t affect the LM. The real problem was that no one was able to predict in advance the actual spot the LM would land on–and there were plenty of places that everyone wanted to avoid–craters, for instance. As the spaceship neared the surface, it passed over a field of boulders, but Neil Armstrong steered clear of it, and with fuel running low (28 seconds remaining), Buzz Aldrin, who had been calling out altitude and velocity data, said, “contact light.” One of the contact sensors dangling from the feet of the LM had hit the ground. Three seconds later, the Eagle landed, and Armstrong said, “Shutdown,” with Aldrin confirming, “OK, engine stop.”

The descent had taken two and a half hours; the LM had landed about 12 miles southwest of crater Sabine D in the Sea of Tranquility. Few events in history have involved the scope of effort, the precision, the courage, and the teamwork that got Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface. A great moment for America–and for mankind.  **


Photo: Shadow Cast by the LM on the Moon’s Surface, JSC Digital Image Collection, NASA, Public Domain.

Cape Kennedy, Apollo 11 Launch

Here, folks, is the Apollo 11 launch in all its glory–the second stage booster ignites as the first stage booster is still firing. Apologies for being a little belated on this; the launch’s anniversary was actually yesterday, July 16 (I’ve got an ear infection that’s slowing me down).  Enjoy!   RT

Happy Bastille Day!

July 14, 2011 2 comments

On the morning of July 14, 1789, a crowd of less than 1,000 people stormed and took the moribund Bastille prison. Though the event had no military significance, it marked the moment when the French Revolution, up until then largely a political crisis, became a popular revolt. The storming of the Bastille also set the stage for the National Assembly’s dramatic Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, issued in August 1789. The brief and powerful Declaration helped sweep away the Old Regime and its aristocracy and gave the principles of revolution and republican government that had been recently enacted in America its first political expression in Europe. Here is the Declaration, and Vive La Revolution!

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

(adopted by the National Constituent Assembly, 26 or 27 August 1789)


  1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
  2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
  3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.
  4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
  5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.
  6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.
  7. No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.
  8. The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.
  9. As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner’s person shall be severely repressed by law.
  10. No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.
  11. The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.
  12. The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted.
  13. A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.
  14. All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.
  15. Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.
  16. A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.
  17. Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified. ♦


Photo:  July Fireworks in Paris; Celeste Hutchins; WikiCmns; CC 2.0 Generic.