Women of the Viking Age Kicked Ass, But That Doesn’t Mean They Were Vikings

September 7, 2014

In the last week, a number of websites have informed their readers that recent scientific evidence shows that roughly half of Viking warriors were female. Tor.com proclaims, “Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female,” while Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing declares that “Half the Remains of Slain Vikings in England Are Female.” Wow, cool! How is it possible that we didn’t know this before? Well, according to Emma Cueto of Bustle, it’s because of evil sexist scholars. Her post boasts the level-headed title, “Women Viking Warriors Existed, Confounding Sexist Scientists Everywhere.” She claims that sexist archaeologists have used sexist assumptions to come to sexist conclusions rather than looking at the actual data:

After all, if archeologists [sic] are letting their sexist assumptions affect the way they collect and classify data about the past, that has some pretty troubling implications. For instance, when people argue in favor of “traditional” gender roles, they often cite history, saying that since this is how things have always been, clearly it’s natural and therefore right.

I’d like to see an example of a modern archaeologist saying that something is natural and right because it was common in the past: “Well, human sacrifice is traditional. It’s been practiced for millennia. So I’ve slaughtered a couple of the slower diggers to appease the gods. What? Stop looking at me like that!”

Human Sacrifice: Traditional, Therefore Required*

Human Sacrifice: Traditional, Therefore Required*

Cueto continues:

And if we are imposing our own ideas about gender back onto the past, that’s not only bad for the modern fight for gender equality, but it’s also just bad science.

So if archeologists could stop making sexist assumptions and maybe start being thorough researchers, that would great. Sound good, guys?

She’s right: doing thorough research is important; looking at as many types of evidence as possible is important. Scholars in all fields should stop imposing their own ideas about gender onto the past, and they should look at the actual data.

It is especially ironic, then, that she appears to be imposing her ideas about gender roles and gender equality onto the Viking Age and that she hasn’t looked at the data. That is to say, neither she nor many of the other writers seem actually to have read the scholarly article that inspired them.

They seem not, for instance, to have noticed its date of publication: 2011. Even the USA Today and Jezebel articles that actually get cited and quoted are from 2011. It’s not entirely clear why this story has been resurrected, although it may have something to do with the popularity of the History Channel’s series Vikings, which features a shield-maiden named Lagertha.

Photo: Jonathan Hession, The History Channel

Photo: Jonathan Hession,
The History Channel
NOT A REAL VIKING WOMAN!

The actual scholarly article, “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ratio of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 AD” by Shane McLeod has nothing to do with female Viking warriors. It only tangentially relates to warriors at all. He’s talking about migrants, early Norse settlers. His focus is very narrow: Norse burials in eastern England from the latter half of the ninth century. Specifically, he discusses Scandinavian burials contemporary with the incursions of the Great Heathen Army (865-878) and a second army that rampaged in the 890s. Considering the narrow focus, it’s dangerous to extrapolate the data to the entire Viking world.

Extrapolation is even more dangerous when we consider that he is discussing fourteen burials. Fourteen. According to osteological examination, seven of the skeletons** were male, six were female, and one couldn’t be sexed because it was a juvenile. This data suggests that there may have been a higher percentage of female settlers during this period than has previously been assumed. It was commonly believed that males–warriors–came first. After they claimed land and began to settle, Norse women began to join them in larger numbers, while many Norsemen married Anglo-Saxon women. McLeod isn’t the first to suggest that more women arrived earlier than was previously thought, although he provides some data to support his contention.

The sample size is, however, tiny. And his findings don’t necessarily contradict the idea that there were many intermarriages between the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons or that more Norse women arrived later.

Here are some things the article doesn’t say: McLeod never says that any of the remains belong to “the slain.” He never claims the female migrants were warriors. Indeed, he refers on several occasions to women and children who accompanied the armies. So where does this whole “warrior woman” thing come from, and what’s up with the sexist archaeologists?

Well, he points out that the sex of Viking Age human remains is often determined by looking at grave goods (this is true of other pagan burials as well). He believes that grave goods may not always be a reliable indication of sex, and he focuses instead on remains that have been sexed by an examination of the bones. And this is fair enough. All data should be taken into account: both grave goods and osteological examination.

Of the fourteen burials he discusses, most of the male remains were found with items traditionally associated with male burials, and most of the female remains were found with items traditionally associated with female burials. There are two exceptions. One is a double burial, a female with the juvenile of undetermined sex. These two were buried with “sword hilt grip, shield clamps, knife” (Table 2, p. 345). Of course, we don’t know which of the grave’s occupants was the proud owner of these items. Another woman was buried with “axe, seaxes, sword pieces in mortuary” (Table 2, p. 345).

So, that’s it–that’s the big sexist scandal. Now, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one thing, osteological examination isn’t always possible. Sometimes there simply isn’t enough bone evidence. And osteological evidence can also be problematic. In fact, McLeod does a good job of showing exactly how difficult it is to make many determinations when dealing with very old human remains. Not only is the sex of the remains a problem, so is determining date, establishing whether the remains are really Norse, etc. So, yes, consider the bone evidence, but don’t ignore the evidence of grave goods. The article does not reveal some sort of nefarious sexist scandal in the field of archaeology.

So are the few women who were buried with weapons warriors? Possibly, but it’s difficult to say for sure. We don’t really know why they were buried with these items. Were there female Vikings? Well, the Vikings Wiki certainly things so:

Shield-maidens were women who chose to fight as warriors alongside the other Viking men in the pagan Scandinavia.

They took part in warfare, and they played vital strategic roles in the battlefield, where the shield-maidens were either part of the front-lines in their shield-wall formation, or were the ones who helped close the gaps in their defense by picking up the shields of the fallen and holding them up themselves. Scholars like Britt-Mari Näsström suggest that sheild-maidens [sic] where transsexual women who where adapted as warriors to fit in.

Wow, that’s super-specific. And there’s absolutely no evidence for it. Shield-maidens are often associated with valkyries, who were mythological semi-divine women–not real, historical warrior women. Lagertha, the shield-maiden from Vikings, may have started out as a goddess or giantess. Lagertha, along with several other warrior women, also appears in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, but these are all within the realm of legend rather than history. Saxo also disapprovingly presents them as transgressing normal female behavior, and they are ultimately defeated. Also in the realm of legend is Hervör of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks.

In semi-historical works, there are a few women who take up weapons. Freydis, the daughter of Eirik the Red and sister or half-sister of Leif Eiriksson, has a great warrior moment in the Saga of Eirik the Red. She has accompanied Thorfinn Karlsefni to Vinland. When the Norse retreat after an assault by the Skraelings (Native Americans), Freydis derides them for cowardice. Because she is heavily pregnant, she falls behind. When confronted by Skraelings, she picks up a sword from a dead man and slaps it against her breasts. This action scares off the Skraelings. She is not, however, a Viking warrior.

Scandinavian women of the Viking era (particularly Icelandic women) had more rights than many other European women, and Old Norse literature is filled with strong, interesting, powerful, influential, respected, and occasionally villainous women, but most of them are not warriors. Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, argues that women who took up weapons were rare in medieval Scandinavia:

Like most periods of human history, the Viking Age was not free from conflict, and war always impacts on all members of a society. It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.

Swedish archaeologist and skeptic Martin Rundkvist agrees that warrior women were very rare during the Viking Age, and he argues that osteological sexing tends to support the evidence of grave goods:

[F]urnished burial is strongly gendered and this correlates with osteological sexing. Looking at richly furnished graves, you get weapon burials and jewellery burials, so dissimilar that you have to seriate them separately when you build chronology. The stuff they tend to share are things like pots and table knives. Almost always the weapon graves contain male-sex bones and the jewellery graves contain female-sex bones.

Every once in a very long while you get a jewellery grave with a single piece of weaponry in it, or vice versa. But in most cases those are cremation graves where it is impossible to know if (to pick a 6th century case from my dissertation about the Barshalder cemetery) the heavily armed cavalry man was buried with a dainty bead necklace around his neck or if his wife just put it on the pyre next to his feet as a parting gift. So it seems that if a few women were buried as warriors, their grave goods would be likely to be 100% weapon-gendered, not mixed.

Like Jesch, he agrees that women in rare circumstances may have fought to protect themselves, but that these were not Viking women:

Did any women ever fight? Yes, I’m sure some did, particularly when threatened by male warriors, as would have been an unfortunate fact of life in that barbaric age. But the ones who joined an armed retinue, lived the ideal warrior life and went to Valhalla must have been vanishingly few.

Finally, he argues that whether there were women warriors in the Viking world has no effect on gender issues today. He does not believe that tradition should guide contemporary actions. Clearly Dr. Rundkvist is not the sexist straw archaeologist that Cueto set up. He ends by saying,

The past is not our mirror and archaeology must resist attempts to use its results or bend its interpretations for political purposes today.

He clearly agrees with Cueto that archaeologists should follow the evidence and that they should not let “their sexist assumptions affect the way they collect and classify data about the past.” Unlike Cueto, however, he seems to believe archaeologists should follow the evidence even when it suggests that Viking warrior women were largely a myth.

*WickerManIllustration” by Unknown Original uploader was Midnightblueowl at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:Midnightblueowl.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

*The remains were not necessarily complete skeletons. Some came from cremation burials.

ES

Sources:

Foss, Arild S. “Don’t Underestimate Viking Women.” ScienceNordic.

Jesch, Judith. “Viking Women, Warriors, and Valkyries.” British Museum Blog.

McLeod, Shane. “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ration of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 AD.” Early Medieval Europe 19.3 (2011): 332-353.

Rundkvist, Martin. “Shield Maidens! True or False?Aardvarchaeology. ScienceBlogs.com.


Review of Shakespeare’s Beehive, Part 1

April 26, 2014

George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler. Shakepeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light. New York: Axeltree Books, 2014. Kindle ed.

beehive-title

Last week, Shakespeare fans celebrated the Bard’s 450th birthday, and two New York antiquarian booksellers announced that they had discovered a copy of an Elizabethan dictionary annotated by the birthday boy.

In 2008, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler purchased a copy of the second edition of John Baret’s Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie, containing four sundrie tongues: namelie English, Latine, Greeke and French on Ebay for over $4000. This copy was annotated in what Koppelman and Wechsler believe is a late Elizabethan or early Jacobean hand.

alvearie

Over the years, several scholars, particularly T. W. Baldwin (in William Shakespeare’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke) have suggested that Shakespeare was probably familiar with and may have owned a copy of Baret’s Alvearie*, along with Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus. Koppelman and Wechsler go one step farther: they believe Shakespeare owned their copy of the Alvearie and that the annotations are in his hand. If this were true, the volume would be of immeasurable value to Shakespeare scholars; in a more literal, monetary sense, it would also be of immeasurable value to Koppelman and Wechsler.

Baret defines each word or phrase in English, then provides the equivalents in Latin, French and Greek. He also includes quotations and aphorisms in all languages. The annotator has added two types of annotations. Koppelman and Wechsler call the first type “mute” and the second “spoken.” The mute annotations include underlined words and phrases, slash marks by major headwords, circles by subsidiary headwords, and other marks. The spoken annotations are additions: words and phrases as cross-references to other entries, corrections, or additional quotations and aphorisms, including biblical quotations in English.

On their website, shakespearesbeehive.com (free registration required), Koppelman and Wechsler have provided a zoomable digitized copy of the Alvearie, as well as a compilation of all the annotations. Regardless of the identity of the annotator, this is of huge value to scholars. A complete digitized copy is useful in itself, and the annotations provide valuable insights about how such a dictionary was used in the Early Modern period.

Why do Koppelman believe the annotator was Shakespeare, and how strong is their evidence? They present their case in their newly published book, also called Shakespeare’s Beehive, which they present as an (extremely) extended catalog description of the their copy of Baret.

Although I wrote my MA thesis on The Tempest, and Shakespeare was a test area on my Ph.D. written and oral exams, Shakespeare and Renaissance literature are not my primary areas of study. I am not an expert on paleography or textual studies. However, I know enough to be profoundly skeptical of Koppelman and Wechsler’s argument and deeply unimpressed by their evidence. Even before examining the evidence in detail, I noticed some red flags that caused me to question their methodology. In their introductory chapters, they are extremely defensive about arguments that no one, as far as I know, has actually made. Of course, when mounting an argument, it is necessary to anticipate possible objections, but Koppelman and Wechsler’s arguments have a strong whiff of straw about them.

For instance, Wechsler is quoted in several stories as saying that scholars “were extremely helpful giving advice, but it was also clear that they weren’t about to jeopardise their reputations with such a claim.” He and Koppelman make similar comments in their book. They even suggest that they won’t be taken seriously because they are booksellers, not scholars:

For two booksellers in Manhattan to purchase, out of the blue, a heavily annotated book from the library of all libraries, on Ebay… it’s understandable that no one would give that a chance.

Much the same thing is said by proponents of Bigfoot, Young Earth Creationism, psychics, Reiki, or any other fringe belief. Why don’t experts in the relevant field back the fringe-proponent up? Because they wouldn’t get tenure, they wouldn’t get published, they’d be mocked and ostracized, they’re in on it, they’re pawns of Big Whatever, they’re closed-minded, they don’t pay attention to amateurs.

But who are these scholars who won’t support Koppelman and Wechsler? They don’t say. In general, they have gotten sympathetic coverage, and scholars have been cautious but not dismissive. Stephen Greenblatt is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying, “It would reinforce, in a fascinating way, Shakespeare’s passion for language. We know that Shakespeare had an eye out for unusual words – but we have only limited knowledge of where he went to find them.” He adds, however, that he has “not had time to weigh the evidence.” Shakespeare scholars would love to find a copy of absolutely anything annotated by Shakespeare. Seriously, they would be absolutely giddy with delight over the Elizabethan equivalent of “roflmao” next to a dirty joke.

But just because they want something to be true doesn’t mean it is true. Good scholars are cautious. Good scholars do not accept an extraordinary claim within days of its announcement. Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library responded to Koppelman and Wechsler’s announcement:

Even the most skeptical scholar would be thrilled to find a new piece of documentary evidence about William Shakespeare. Scholars, however, will only support the identification of Shakespeare as annotator if they feel it would be unreasonable to doubt that identification. This is a fairly high evidentiary standard, since it requires on to treat skeptically the idea that this handwriting is Shakespeare’s and to seek out counterexamples that might prove it false.

This is exactly how scholars in any field should respond to an extraordinary claim. They go on to explain the research methods that will likely be used to assess Koppelman and Wechlser’s claims. These are rigorous and time-consuming, as they should be. Such a high evidentiary bar diminishes the possibility of confirmation bias and cherry picking.

Koppelman and Wechsler also use straw man arguments when discussing the the handwriting of the annotator. The only universally accepted genuine examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting are six signatures on legal documents. All of the signatures are in Secretary hand. Other examples of handwriting that are sometimes attributed to Shakespeare–some other signatures, including signatures in books, and Hand D of the manuscript of the collaborative play Sir Thomas More–are also in Secretary hand. Most of the “spoken” annotations in the Alvearie (and almost all of the annotations in English) are in Italic script. As far as paleography is concerned, this is problematic, but not in the way Koppelman and Wechsler suggest. They argue at length against the suggestion that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have been capable of writing in Italic script. They don’t, however, quote or cite anyone who has actually made this argument.

They even compare this supposed insistence on Shakespeare’s exclusive use of Secretary hand with those who deny Shakespeare’s authorship:

The overriding question…is whether Shakespeare should forever be categorically denied an ability to use both scripts based principally on his Stratford background. Does this not seem oddly in perverse harmony with someone who argues that a provincial boy from Stratford as author is incompatible with one of the great speeches in, say, Henry V?

I suppose it is possible that scholars have argued that Shakespeare couldn’t have ever used Italic script because of his humble background, but Koppelman and Wechsler provide no evidence that this is so. The association between conventional scholars and Shakespeare-deniers is particularly ironic, since Shakespeare-deniers rely, to a large extent, on confirmation bias and cherry-picked evidence. As we shall see, these are techniques at which Koppelman and Wechsler also excel.

This straw man argument also disguises the real paleographic problem: it is very difficult to compare two different styles of handwriting. With only six rather variable signatures to use as comparison, study of Shakespeare’s handwriting is ridiculously difficult anyway. But Koppelman and Wechsler skirt the issue by focusing on irrelevancies and side issues. They lament, for instance, that people (presumably scholars) will demand scientific proof. They also hint that the general public may be more sympathetic:

Understandably, things bend heavily, even necessarily, under the burden of proof in the quest for any namable [sic] annotator, because we live in an age where an enormous amount of trust is placed in the ability to test and prove something scientifically. In the absence of scientific proof, evidence – no matter the strength – is often deemed unreliable, regardless of how it registers in the court of public opinion. It follows, then, that an inability to precisely test ink from the Elizabethan period will make for a wobbly case in the quest for answers as to the exact age of the annotations in our Baret, let alone to the still more complicated determination of who has added the ink to the pages.

I hardly know where to begin. There is the idea that “scientific proof” is somehow different from–and more definitive than–”evidence.” When a formal distinction is made between “proof” and “evidence,” mathematics and law usually get custody of “proof.” Scientific conclusions–no matter the strength of the evidence–are always provisional. In addition, why would anyone expect “scientific proof” when the relevant field is not a science? One could certainly make the case that the methods and evidence used in the Humanities are often unfairly denigrated in comparison to those used in the sciences, but that is not the issue here.

Scientific testing of the ink would only be relevant if the annotations were suspected forgeries. Again, this does not seem to be the case. Even so, scientific testing would be of limited value–it could show a forger used ink not available during the Renaissance, but precise dating of the ink would be much trickier. There are many non-scientific methods for dating texts, manuscripts, literary works, and handwriting. They have been around for ages and have become refined over time. They do not rely on scientific testing. They are not always 100% reliable, but they work fairly well. In some cases they can provide a narrower date than C14 dating, and they are less destructive. Again, this focus on science is a straw man.

The real issue is the difficulty of comparing Shakespeare’s hand to the annotator’s hand. Because of the different scripts, the comparison may be impossible. More accurately, it may be possible to say with a degree of certainty that Shakespeare did not write the annotations, but the chances are vanishingly small that an examination of the writing will suggest the likelihood that Shakespeare is the annotator.

Let’s consider why the accepted signatures are accepted: they are on official legal documents. That’s pretty much it. It’s the nature of the documents that assures authenticity. They form a pathetically small and poor sample for handwriting comparison. No other alleged example of Shakespeare’s handwriting has been accepted based on a comparison with the signatures. Let us look for a moment at Hand D in Sir Thomas More. For many years, many scholars have suggested that this handwritten passage is the work of Shakespeare: that it matches his style and some of his idiosyncratic spellings, and that it is consistent with his handwriting. The corrections suggest that it is an authorial hand: if Shakespeare is the author, it is his hand; if it is his hand, Shakespeare is the author.

Hand D has been studied and studied and studied. It has been subjected to two computational stylometric studies (that’s sciencey). One, by Hugh Craig and Arthur Kinney, concluded that it was the work of Shakespeare; the other, by Ward E. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza of the Claremont Shakespeare Clinic, concluded that it was not.** All that study, and the jury is still out.

That’s how high the evidentiary bar is. That is how high it should be. Koppelman and Wechsler’s straw man arguments attempt to lower the bar, to trump objections that haven’t even been made yet. Bias in favor of science or against amateur booksellers doesn’t matter. Evidence matters. In my next post, we will examine the evidence.

*Latin for beehive. His students, like bees, went off to find the nectar of words and then returned to him with the fruits of their labor.

**For a discussion of the stylometric studies, see MacDonald P. Jackson, “Authorship and the evidence of stylometric,” in Shakespeare beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, ed. Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Cambridge UP, 2013.

ES

Note: this essay is cross-posted at Skepticality.


Yes, Virginia, There Is a Dragon in Beowulf: Review of When They Severed Earth from Sky

January 3, 2013

In 1988, folklorist Paul Barber published an excellent book about vampire belief, Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. In it he posits that historical belief in vampires and revenants depended, at least in part, on ignorance of the ways illness is transmitted and the ways dead bodies can decay. In looking at accounts of vampires, he separates actual observation of the bodies of alleged vampires from interpretations based on observation. For instance, according to the official report on suspected vampire Peter Plogojowitz:

Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him. (Barber’s translation, Vampires 6)

The blood–or reddish liquid–is an actual observation. The assumption that the blood comes from the vampire’s victims is an interpretation of the physical evidence. This method works very well when Barber is discussing eye-witness accounts. If there is a weakness to the book, it is a tendency to treat all accounts equally: Barber applies the same method to literary works as he does for official accounts. For example, he makes several references to draugar, the undead of Old Norse sagas, particularly Glámr, an especially nasty draugr who appears in Grettis saga:

[While the appearance of Glam's corpse resembles that of vampires, his] activities have little in common with the vampire, because he robs people not of their blood but of their consciousness and their sanity, merely by appearing, diurnally as well as nocturnally, in their presence. Note the the disparity between the assertion and the evidence: we are told that “terrible things happened,” but they consist solely of someone walking about or beating his heels against a roof. (Vampires 85)

This is an oddly cherry-picked account of Glam’s activities. He also kills both animals and people, sometimes breaking every bone in their bodies. The battle between Glam and the protagonist Grettir is described at some length and is very similar to the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. Before Grettir cuts off Glam’s head and burns his body, Glam makes a speech, cursing Grettir. There is no naturalistic explanation for this corpse’s behavior, and it can’t be dismissed as an interpretation of physical evidence. Glam’s activity is integral to the story and crucial to the formation and understanding of Grettir’s character.

Sadly, this minor flaw has become the foundation of When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, co-written by Barber and his wife, archeologist and linguist Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This book has garnered a certain amount of interest among skeptics: Michael Shermer reviewed it for American Scientist and invited Wayland Barber to speak as part of the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series. According to the blurb on the lecture’s video:

How could anyone think that mortals like Perseus, Beowulf, and St. George actually fought dragons, since dragons don’t exist? Strange though they sound, however, these “myths” did not begin as fiction. Barber shows that myths originally transmitted real information about real events and observations, preserving the information sometimes for millennia within nonliterate societies.

Considering their focus on oral cultures, the very short-shrift the Barbers give to some of the most important scholars of oral tradition is somewhat disturbing. Neither Walter Ong nor his extremely influential book Orality and Literacy merit a mention. Nor do Eric A. Havelock or John Miles Foley. Even Milman Parry and Alfred Lord receive only the briefest of mentions, and Lord’s monumentally important work, The Singer of Tales, is not mentioned at all. On the other hand, they seriously cite other works of a slightly more fringey nature, such as Hamlet’s Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend.

In seeking to find explanations for mythological stories in natural phenomena or real events, they seem to give credence to highly questionable tales. Take, for instance, their discussion of the Golden Calf: “What’s that all about? Why a calf?” (Barber and Barber, chap. 3). They gently nudge us toward the correct answer through the Socratic method:

Where had the Children of Israel been living? In Egypt, of course–the country from which they were escaping after centuries of servitude. One can reasonably conjecture that in all that time they had absorbed something of their captors’ culture. (Barber and Barber, chap. 3)

The Golden Calf, they suggest, derives from the Egyptian conception of the sky as a giant cow-goddess, “which could well have been known by folk who had lived in ancient Egypt for centuries. . . . In worshipping [sic] a Golden Calf at dawn, the Children of Israel would simply be reverting to Egyptian sun-worship: they were probably relieved that the sun finally came up, after all that thundering during the night” (Barber and Barber, chap. 3).

They seem to be suggesting that the story of the Exodus is historically true to some significant degree: the Children of Israel were kept enslaved in Egypt; they escaped during a time of dark portents; they wandered in the desert, and, in difficult times, they began to worship the deities of their captors.

There’s just one teeny-tiny problem with this: the stunning lack of documentary, historical or archeological evidence that a large number of Israelites were enslaved in Egypt or that they wandered through the desert for forty years.

The Barbers make a number of dubious arguments (flood stories are really about the precession of the equinoxes), and, even when there may be some truth to their theories, their interpretations are monolithic and reductive, suggesting that there is a single source for a given myth, a single answer to a complex question.

In the last chapter, they discuss fire-breathing dragons, including the one in Beowulf. According to the Barbers, there is no dragon in Beowulf. I imagine that this would come as rather a shock to the poet, who went to such great pains to tell us about the dragon. The Barbers summarize the story and then use “the stripping procedure,” isolating actual “observations” and removing the “explanations,” as Paul Barber does in his vampire book. But how do you decide which are actual observations and which are added explanations in a poem? Apparently, you remove anything that doesn’t agree with your theory. Here are the “observations” that are left after they’ve stripped away the “explanations”:

(1) Someone steals a cup from an old barrow.
(2)  Fire erupts from the barrow and spreads.
(3) Near the stone entrance, our hero stabs blindly at the source of flames while shielding himself (ineffectively) from them.
(4) It smells bad.
(5) People stab deeper, and eventually the flame goes out.
(6) Inside the barrow is treasure but no trace of a dragon’s body. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)

One might argue that the Barbers themselves are adding “explanations” when they say that Beowulf stabbed “blindly,” and they have certainly left out a whole lot of detail. Why, they’ve left out an entire dragon.

They argue that the “dragon” is merely ignited gases produced by decomposition in a tomb that had been sealed until broken into by a thief:

We don’t know the dragon’s appearance, however, because while it’s alive all you can see is flame and once the fire is out there is nothing left. No one ever saw it–they saw only flames and smelled a bad smell. The dragon must be a figment of Explanation: a Willer invisible except for its fiery exhalations, postulated to explain the presence of that barrier of flames. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)

Except that’s not exactly true. The dragon is not visually described in detail, but it is described. It is referred to several times as coiled (hringbogan, l. 2561, coiled creature; ða se wyrm gebeah/snude tosomne, ll. 2567b-2568a, then the worm quickly coiled itself together; Gewat ða byrnende gebogen scriðan,/to geschipe scyndan, ll. 2569-2570, then, coiled in burning, it went gliding, rushed to its fate).

The Barbers’ argument rests, to a large degree, on the argument that the dragon’s body seems to disappear–that it is nowhere to be seen when Wiglaf, Beowulf’s young kinsmen who came to Beowulf’s assistance in the battle, inspects the hoard:

                        Næs ðæs wyrmes þær

onsyn ænig,     ac hyne ecg fornam. (ll. 2771b-2772)

As they translate it, “not of the Worm was there any sign, for him the [blade's] edge had destroyed.” In slightly simpler language: “There was no sight of the worm there, for the sword had carried him off.” Does this mean the corpse had disappeared? Does it mean there never was a dragon. Well, according to the Barbers,

The storykeepers are so sure that a tangible creature must have existed that, four hundred lines later, the poet hedges his bets by explaining the lack of dragon bones a second and contradictory way. When the frightened retainers returned, he says, they pillaged the mound, “shoved the dragon, the Worm, over the cliff, let the wave take–the flood enfold–the guardian of the treasure” [ll. 3131-3133] then carried the dead king to his pyre. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)

So, that would be a “no.” The poem mentions the corpse and what happens to it. Okay, so we have two passages: one says there’s no dragon body; the other says there is. The Barbers identify this as a contradiction and explain the latter passage as “explanation,” an interpretation rather than an observation. And, of course, they are the arbiters of which is which. Now no one claims that Beowulf is free of inconsistencies or contradictions, but I’m not really sure this is a good example. Let’s look at another passage:

                        Bona swylce læg,

egeslic eorðdraca     ealdre bereafod,

bealwe gebæded.     Beahhordum leng

wyrm wohbogen     wealdan ne moste,

ac him irenna     ecga fornamon,

hearde heaðoscerpe     homera lafe,

þæt se widfloga     wundum stille

hreas on hrusan     hordærne neah.

Nalles æfter lyfte     lacende hwearf

middelnihtum,     maðmæhta wlonc

ansyn ywde,     ac he eorðan gefeoll

for ðæs hildfruman     hondgeweorce. (ll. 2824b-2835)

[Beowulf's] slayer also lay dead, the terrible earth-dragon, bereft of life, oppressed by evil. The coiled worm could no longer control the ring-hoard, for iron edges had carried him off, hard battle-sharp remnant of hammers, so that the far-flyer, stilled by wounds, fell on the ground near the hoard. Not at all did he go flying through the air in the middle of the night, glorying in treasures, showing his form, but rather, he fell to the earth on account of the handiwork of the war-chief.

For three hundred years, no one could inspect the hoard, in part because no one knew it was there, but also because there was a big old dragon lying on it. Wiglaf, however, is able to examine the hoard and bring back selected items to show the dying Beowulf because the two of them had killed the dragon. The passage above says that the dragon fell dead near the hoard. Near it, not on it. Wiglaf can inspect the hoard because the dragon is lying dead nearby. He is not on the hoard as he had been for the last three hundred years.

The passage above makes it quite clear that there is a dead dragon lying around: bereft of life, it rests in peace. It’s shuffled off this mortal coil. It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-dragon!

Is it possible that marsh gases from sealed graves played a role in the evolution of the fire-breathing dragon? Maybe, but I think it’s clear that there is more to the story than this. More importantly though, the Barbers “strip down” Beowulf to a point that it is no longer Beowulf. They are not simply removing interpretation from observation, as Paul Barber did in his examination of official accounts of vampire exhumations. They are stripping away anything that doesn’t fit their theory and overemphasizing anything that they think does support their ideas. They are cherry-picking and, to a large extent, they are telling their own story, not the one the Anglo-Saxon poet told.

I recently wrote about the ways some Young Earth Creationists interpret the monsters in Beowulf to support their worldview. What the Barbers are doing seems precious little better. Unlike the Creationists, though, they are real scholars–they should do better.

ES

References:

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland and Paul T. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Princeton UP, 2004. Kindle edition. No page numbers.

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Skeptics Society Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series, California Institute of Technology, Mar. 6, 2005. DVD.

Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight and Finnsburg. 4th ed. ed. R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. U of Toronto P, 2008. All translations are mine, except where indicated.

Siebert, Eve. “Monsters and Dragons and Dinosaurs, Oh My: Creationist Interpretations of Beowulf.” Skeptical Inquirer Jan./Feb. 2013.


Video Proof of Our TAM Panel!

September 27, 2012

For those of you who were skeptical that the James Randi Educational Foundation would allow Bob and me to appear on a panel at The Amazing Meeting 2012, we have evidence!


Jesus H. Christ (Mrs.)

September 27, 2012

Adapted from my segment on Virtual Skeptics. That’s Virtual Skeptics, available now for all your skeptical needs on YouTube or virtualskeptics.com.

Last week, Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, dropped a bombshell at the tenth annual International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome: she had found Mrs Jesus.

Specifically, she had studied a small, roughly rectangular scrap of papyrus that contains a Sahidic Coptic text. The fragment is torn on the top, bottom, left and right, so it is difficult if not impossible to get a good idea of the entire context of the passage. The one thing that got people’s attention, though, is the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” Jesus also says that a woman, possibly the wife, will be able to be his disciple. He also mentions his mother and a woman named Mary, although it is not entirely clear if “Mary” refers to the wife, his mother or another woman. Although it is common in Christian texts to refer to the Church as Jesus’ wife, the personal context of the passage makes a literal interpretation of “my wife” more likely.  According to King, “The meaning…’my wife’ is unequivocal; the word can only have this meaning. Given that Jesus is the speaker, the possessive article indicates that he is speaking of his wife” (King 18).*

Oh. My. Married. God! The Da Vinci Code was right!

Hang on a sec. First, The Da Vinci Code was not right. Not in any world. Jesus and Mrs. Jesus, YHWH and Asherah, Buddha and Buddhessa, the Vishnus,  Zeus and Hera, Odin and Frigg could all come down from on high and proclaim in a variety of languages that The Da Vinci Code was right, but that still wouldn’t make it right: it would just prove that those gods are fallible and unworthy of worship. Such a declaration would immediately remove a god from the God Stakes.

More importantly, while King, who is not herself a papyrologist or Coptic linguist,** admits that “Coptic paleography is notoriously difficult to date” (8), she places the handwriting of the papyrus in the second half of the fourth century and suggests that the original (in Greek, presumably) was probably written in the second half of the second century (based on similarities to the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of the Egyptians. So, assuming the fragment is authentic and assuming these dates are correct, the fragment is relatively late, and there is no particular reason to assume that it represents The Truth.™

King calls the fragment The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, even though she admits that there is no clear evidence that the work is a gospel (not enough text survives to determine genre); there is no indication that Mrs. Jesus is the putative or pseudonymous author; and there is no evidence that she is even the primary subject of the work. King also uses the words “recto” and “verso” in a way that strikes me as nonstandard. Usually those terms  indicate (respecitively) the front and back of a leaf from a codex. Here it is not even clear that the work comes from a codex, and even if it does, the paucity of text and the damage to one side makes it impossible to determine which side comes first. For King, “recto” means “along the fibers” and “verso” means “against the fibers.”

The provenance of the fragment is murky at best. The owner has chosen to remain anonymous, although he or she apparently also owns a 2nd- to 4th-century fragment of the Gospel of John in Coptic. This fragment came from the same batch of Coptic and Greek papyri as the “Take my wife” fragment (King 2). Where these fragments came from originally, no one knows. The anonymity of the owner and the murkiness of the provenance raise concerns that the fragment could have come from the illicit antiquities trade.

King makes several arguments in favor of the fragment’s authenticity. She notes that the papyrus seems to be genuinely old but admits that it is possible to acquire blank scraps of ancient papyrus. However, she believes that the condition of the ink argues for authenticity: it is badly worn and in some places illegible. The “verso” is particularly badly damaged, with only a few recoverable words. There are also minute traces of ink at the edges of the fragment, suggesting that the text was cut off from a larger original. Where the papyrus is damaged, the ink has faded or disappeared. King argues that if the fragment were a modern forgery on old papyrus, we would expect to see the damaged areas filled with ink.

The ink will be subjected to non-destructive tests. These will not provide a definitive date but should show if the ink is consistent with that of other ancient papyri. A more definitive test, such as Carbon 14, cannot be used because that would destroy too much of the tiny fragment.

On the other hand, the references to “my wife,” “Mary” and a female apostle seem almost too good to be true. It’s not just Da Vinci Code fans who are hungry for this kind of evidence. Perfectly normal, literate people have become interested in the gnostic gospels that suggest the crucial role women played in some sects of the early church. References to an intimate if not necessarily sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary have sparked a great deal of interest among feminist bible scholars and Christian women. And, boy howdy! this tiny, tiny fragment hits all the sweet spots, without containing a single complete sentence.*** Several other religious artifacts that seemed to good to be true, such as the James ossuary and the Jordan lead codices, were rather quickly declared likely forgeries.

The Gosple of Jesus’s Old Lady appears to be headed in the same direction. In the peer review of King’s article, two of the three readers questioned the fragment’s authenticity, and King’s article shows that there are anomalies, such as non-standard grammatical forms. King defends these by reference to the Gospel of Thomas, but its similarity to that text may be problematic. Within days of the momentous announcement, New Testament scholar Francis B. Watson of Durham University argued that the Gospel of Jesus’s Main Squeeze was cobbled together from bits and pieces of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. While he makes a compelling case, it is difficult to judge, without knowing Coptic, whether the similarities result from a modern forger lifting scraps from Thomas, or whether, perhaps, the two works merely share verbal parallels.

Many of the scholars at the Coptic conference where King revealed the fragment have also questioned its authenticity, suggesting that neither the handwriting nor the grammar looks right. Indeed, the backlash has been so immediate and so widespread that the Harvard Theological Review has walked back its commitment to publish the article in the January edition.  On Friday, one of the co-editors said that they had only “provisionally” accepted the article for publication, pending the results of scientific tests and “further reports from Coptic papyrologists and grammarians.”

So, it seems King’s announcement may have been premature, but she notes that she was looking for comment and criticism. In the draft of her article, she freely mentions the reservations of her readers. The media reaction to her announcement, however, has been predictable. Headlines scream that there is new evidence that Jesus had a wife or that King claims Jesus was married. Neither of these statements is true. It is well-known that early Christians held widely diverse views, even about Jesus’s nature (was he fully divine, fully human, or both?). The fragment doesn’t provide evidence that Jesus had a wife; if it is authentic, it merely provides evidence that some early Christians thought he had a wife, a view that doesn’t come as much of a surprise to scholars who study the early church.

A minority of Christians has reacted predictably as well, declaring the fragment inauthentic simply because they don’t like what it says. A commenter on a post called “Christian Scholars Not Fazed by ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife ‘” somewhat ironically declares:

This fragment is little more than another attempt to discredit Jesus and hence Christianity. Any impeachment upon Jesus’ character would be fuel to the devil which if this parchment were true would have been evident by now the devil would not have let an opportunity like that go begging. You [another commenter] blaspheme when you say that He was “kissing on Mary all the time” not  only is that not scriptural but it defames His character. For Jesus to have a  wife is to suggest that there was a passion within His nature which His Deity  could not overcome thus diminishing His ability to overcome for the world. He  would not have had the desires of a human in this regard because He came to do  the will of the Father which was to live a pure and sinless life and die as  God’s sacrifice for sin to atone for the sins of the world.

This is for you, “An Evangelist”:

References:

King, Karen L., with AnneMarie Luijendiik. “‘Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…”‘: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus.” Draft. http://news.hds.harvard.edu/files/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0917.pdf

Watson, Francis. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake gospel fragment was composed.” Revised. http://markgoodacre.org/Watson.pdf

*The Coptic word can mean either “woman” or “wife;” the use of the possessive suggests that “wife” is the more appropriate reading.

**Stop laughing, Brian and Bob. You’re adult men with beards–it’s not that funny.

***This isn’t entirely fair. There are a couple of complete independent clauses (e.g., “Mary is [or is not] worthy of it”). They may or may not be complete sentences, but they aren’t complete thoughts.


This Week in Conspiracy (9 Sept 2012)

September 9, 2012

Apparently, the entire Internet did not appreciate the meaning of last week’s conspiracy-related snark. What I was trying to say was that you should not take conspiracy theories at face value because they are often unreliable. So I’m going to do another week, and I would very much appreciate it if the entire Internet would give me its full attention. Surely that is not too much to ask? Please try to keep up, Internet.

Nope.

Twit of the week:

Alex Jones, who just couldn’t be more of a scam artist:

My gut tells me #Gold is only going up. Call Midas Resources & Ask about the ‘Alex Jones Specials’ 800-fwe-f2w7 — Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones)

As Carl Sagan said in the reading I just assigned my students, “I try not to think with my gut.”

That’s what I have. We’ll have another episode of the Virtual Skeptics live on Wednesday night at 8:00PM Eastern. Keep your eyes here or watch for the #virtualskeptics hashtag.

RJB


A Brief Note on the Sokal Hoax

January 31, 2012

Yesterday, chum of the Skeptical Humanities site, Sharon Hill of the Doubtful News blog, posted a generally excellent piece about skeptics putting on hoaxes. Go read it. But be ye warned, she ventures like a deer into the barreling Mack track that is Skeptical Humanities when she says:

Many other hoaxes can be found on the Museum of Hoaxes website including the famous Sokal hoax where Alan Sokal sent in a paper full of gobbledegook words to a journal to see if it would be accepted. It was. He succeeded in dramatically demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals and embarrassing his field into reaction.

Well, not exactly. Sokal was a physicist, who was attempting to make a point about certain critics’ misuse of scientific terminology and a sort of absurd posturing that one often sees in the postmodern camps of literary theory.

In the schools of thought that concerned Alan Sokal, all language is basically a game and meaning is never absolute. He was prompted to perpetrate the hoax after he read Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Gross and Levitt. In Higher Superstition, the authors, both working scientists, look at a lot of the big names in critical theory, including Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, and others and show in excruciating detail how utterly unqualified to have an opinion about the scientific matters on which they publish. Most of what they find is gobbledegook, not unlike the science word-salad of newage gurus like Deepak Chopra and Ramtha, the guy from outer space who lives inside a lady.

Gross and Levitt notice that there are some similarities between the schools of thought that accrete around these academic gurus. In these cliques, you are generally rewarded for exaggerating the socially liberating potential of… whatever text you are looking at, whether it is Finnegans Wake or the back of a Happy Meal. (I’d rather read the back of a Happy Meal, to be honest.) They notice a particular ritual vocabulary, the presence of which seems to validate whatever is being said by the critical theorist, but which is impenetrable to mortals. And, lastly, they especially focus on the ways in which critical theory has presumed to critique not only the language in which science is communicated, but the content of the science itself, that is, that in the extreme forms of this criticism, all reality is merely a linguistic construct, often one that somehow offends the political principles that motivate the cultural critics. Therefore, the critic concludes: “Science is wrong. I just recreated the entire world. I’m pretty much a genius.”

You’d like to think that I’m joking, but take Sandra Harding’s closer to her book, The Science Question in Feminism:

“When we began theorizing our experience…we know our task would be a difficult though exciting one. But I doubt that in our wildest dreams we ever imagined that we would have to reinvent both science and theorizing itself to make sense of women’s social experience.”

So, this sort of self-important posturing by the scientifically illiterate does exist, and this is what Gross and Levitt demonstrated in spades in their book. How far can it go, wondered NYU physicist Alan Sokal?

Pretty far, it turns out.

Sokal submitted a paper to the postmodern critical journal, Social Text, called, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” It’s a screamer. It makes no sense. The editors of Social Text accepted it without any changes (they had asked for some, but Sokal refused, and they ran it anyway). It seems they were excited to have a physicist speaking their language and trusted him.

Oops.

When “Transgressing the Boundaries” went to press, Sokal released yet another article in a different publication exposing the hoax. I was an undergraduate at the time and missed the controversy the first time around, but it was intense and still ignites fierce debate about the meaning of the hoax, academic honesty, and a whole range of other issues, many of which Sharon identifies with respect to other hoaxes. I discussed this hoax in a paper I gave in April, “The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory.”

What is important for the purpose of this post is that the Sokal Hoax does not actually demonstrate what people have said that it demonstrates. A sample size of one does simply does not qualify all-inclusive statements like “[Sokal] succeeded in dramatically demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals….” He did, after all, only show that one journal of a specific academic bent, postmodern criticism, was WAY too uncritical about what it accepted, not that humanities journals are in decline.

The type of problem that Social Text represented back in the day (it is not often noted that the editors re-schooled themselves in science after the hoax was revealed, much to their credit) should not reflect on the myriad of other journals that use accumulated evidence and genuine expertise to make statements and meaningful arguments about history, linguistics and languages, literature, rhetoric, media, music, ethics, philosophy, theology, and all the other fields of study that fall under the purview of the humanities writ large. Yes, critical theory sometimes is wacky, but sometimes it’s sensible, even enjoyable. No, critical theory is not the humanities, though by the grandiose posturing that some practitioners have adopted, you might be tempted to think that they were.

This is the point of this blog, to show that there is more to the humanities than theorizing feminist algebra, whatever that is, and to remind our friends in the sciences that we are doing serious, scholarly work as well.

RJB


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