Sunday, 8 November 2009

Hackney and the 2012 Olympics

So this whole redevelopment of the East End of London will not only bring with it the many social fruits associated with such massive urban regeneration projects, but also the promise of a generation of brighter, smarter and fitter kids. Apparently.
The logic is that all this hullaballoo of the Olympic variety, with the added catalyst of various government-funded local initiatives, will encourage hoards from the disenfranchised youth of the area to grab a hockey stick or bathing costume, or maybe a pair of spikes and baton, and rush with glee to one of the many soon-to-be-developed sporting arenas. Much sporty participation will ensue as well as team playing and increased social cohesiveness. Fitness, brightness, fabulousness and any range of -nesses whose absence have been the cause of a couple of generations' worth of social malaise will improve.
All well, good, noble and so forth, but where on earth do all these bright young things (and a not so bright, nor quite so young Medievalist) go to actually buy the sports kit in order to participate in such a utopian programme? Not Hackney Central, that's for sure. If you're looking for anything other than "sports fashion" - which I take to mean combinations of polyester football shirts, pale pink tracksuit bottoms and black hoodies - Hackney Central, one of the more accessible high streets in the borough, is not where one should go. Thank you, JD Sports, purveyor of flammable mediocrity and Third World-exploiting rags.
Thus for 2012, bare feet and a hockey sticks made of MacDonald straws will have to do instead for the youth of the borough. But as MacDonalds are one of the sponsors, that probably will all work out rather nicely...

Monday, 12 October 2009

Berlusconi Invades Britain!

Well, not quite. But it might be the only hope I have of ever speaking Italian properly. Today has been a day of linguistic tragedy, a complete mental block when it comes to reading the swathes of Italian that had, until today, been pretty commonplace since undergraduate days. Maybe it’s a bit like riding a bicycle. Once you start thinking about the mechanics and forces of physics that keep you upright, going in a straight line at speed along a tarmac road, it all goes horribly wrong and you fall off, with only a couple of scraped, bloody kneecaps full of grit to show for your intellectual musings.

And so I fear this has happened to my reading of Italian. I’ve been thinking about it too much, creating cases and passive tenses where really there are none. Reams of printed word rendered into incomprehensible gobbledygook. But surely this is a simple language by comparison with German or Latin (ablative absolute, anyone?), a musical means of communicating where an abundance of gesticulation, a poetic grasp of rhythm and an avoidance of the full stop at all costs is to be admired, nay, revered. Just going with the flow should be the order of the day. But it’s all gone wrong. Too much Anglo-Saxon cogitation, or maybe a desire for Teutonic efficiency and noun endings has sounded the death knell on the afternoon’s proceedings. I shall shelve away my translation of the eleventh-century Giovanni Diacono’s Istoria Veneticorum for another day, have a cup of tea and ponder the slapstick comedy potential of Berlusconi actually trying to invade Britain. 
Photo from

To help you on your way, I add a link (with Italian subtitles) to a recent ribbing of Signor Berlusconi at the hands of British comedians on the BBC’s Mock the Week. Enjoy! 

Friday, 11 September 2009

To tweet or not to tweet? That is the question

On the off chance anyone out there is procrastinating their life / PhD / job away more than I seem to be at the moment, I am now on Twitter. Yes, a couple of inconsequential microblogs a day, often of complete, febrile drivel, are spewed forth from my keyboard and unleashed into an unsuspecting, uncaring world.
Micro rants of late seem to revolve around Argos, HSBC, voids on library books shelves and Venetian moneys of account from the 14th C.
Oh, and swing dancing. But that is another story, for another day.

Friday, 7 August 2009


How do they do it? The combination of tired tracksuit bottoms, hoody, Adidas trainers and cigarette would scream grot, chav or sociopath on any man born north of the Alps. Put an insouciant Italian male into this ensemble and with the addition of a dandyish pastel green scarf about his neck you have the sort of virility that induces a contemplative, breathy silence in women, with a possible touch of pink about the cheeks that wasn’t there a moment ago.

I think the enforced wearing of frock coats on all non-Mediterranean males is the only sartorial hope there is to restore some sort of a level playing field on the “phwoar” front.

Political Concerns from the BNP to the Archers

I do wish that I could pop up a post chock full of insightful and witty commentary on daily life in East London or regale you with some sort of amusing anecdote found whilst trawling through the reams of wills over enthusiastically photographed whilst in Zadar. Unfortunately, it's all quiet on the Western Front, so to speak. So it might just be the right time to voice a small twinge of concern about Britain today...

So, on Radio 4 last week, I could have sworn I heard a government spokesman talk about foreigners who come and exploit our generous benegits system to the detriment of the indigenous population.


Is anybody out there at all absolutely aghast at the rather potent combination of foreigner, exploitation of OUR generous benefits system and indigenous in a public pronouncement by a government spokesman? Does this not sound horribly redolent of the sort of vernacular adopted by the British National Party and other fascists?

It's when anthropological terms start getting used in a political sense - particularly when it comes to migration policy during a recession - that the alaraum bells start ringing. Indigenous?! For crying out loud, this a nation of mongrels and good couple of thousand years worth of immigration from all over Europe and then later the Empire. Deal with it. If you want to find the truly indigenous go and seek out a grumpy Welshman in Snowdonia whose family, around the time of the Vikings, or Saxons or whatever Scandinavian warrior race kicked the biggest arse, were bullied into that soggy corner and never emerged again.

Methinks the government, in a desperate bid to avoid a shallacking in next year's general election, are trying to seduce the apparently alienated group of white Brits who are ignorant enough to vote for bigoted, fascist meatheads like Nick Griffith. When mainstream political parties are trying to seduce this section of society with similar tactics to the BNP then this nation is screwed. To give the impression that a tsunami of Johnny Foreigners are coming over - not even taking our jobs but going straight for our benefits - is a dangerous, desperate and divisive step to take. I truly hope this madness will stop soon but I worry that such ill-thought and incendiary comments and ideas will become the norm for this, a government in its death throes. A Pandora's box is being opened, which shall not be closed again for a long while. Today, it's only words but I fear what tomorrow will bring...

Or maybe I just misheard an episode of the Archers whilst in the kitchen and in fact all is well with this nation and its astute and competent political class. Maybe, just maybe.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Contemporary art, parsnips and the Hayward Gallery.

Occasionally, after days upon days of 14th C wills or 15th C property contracts from Zadar, I step out blinking into the light of what is apparently the 21st C and gingerly embrace some of what it has on offer. The other day, I felt a spot of contemporary art might be a good thing to complement the medieval metalwork and panel paintings that seem to litter my particular academic path. So off I pootled with a chum to the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank where they have a rather spiffing show on at the moment called Walking in my Mind. 10 artists have interpreted through various media (painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, video etc) their take on the creative and imaginative processes that go into producing their own art. A rather self-reflective - and some uncharitable types might argue self-absorbed exercise - but the results would surely prove a thought-provoking way to spend a Sunday afternoon, even if those thoughts ranged in emotion from expletive-peppered outrage to genuine admiration.

The prizes go to:

Joint favourite

Charles Avery, a Scotsman and accomplished draftsman, fashions flora and fauna, landscape and people that populate his epic and fantastical project, The Islanders. His sculptures and drawings imbue the seemingly commonplace with the bizarre yet without the bombast of Matthew Barney and his Cremaster Cycle, another magnum opus that made manifest - in glorious Technicolor - the rather mad and complex world within the artist’s mind. Although both artists are technically superb, Barney in film and Avery particularly in his drawings, strangely the Scotsman’s understatement and simplicity are what give his work a grandeur that Barney seemed to try too hard to achieve. In human terms, it’s a beauty competition between a tanned, beach bunny blonde Californian in a day glo bikini versus a milk-skinned, wind-swept, auburn haired bonnie Scottish lass in a sensible jumper. Choose what you will but my ideal of beauty lies with the latter.

Most use of packing tape

My chum is now a fan of Thomas Hirschhorn and his cavern-esque installation Cavemanman. Constructed almost entirely of cardboard and packing tape, this would have taken quite a while to put together. For myself, I have now discovered a mild propensity for claustrophobia as a result of my participation in this piece.

Best artist for the wee ones

Yayoi Kusama. I have never seen an 18 month-old child look so gobsmacked before. Possibly the potent combination of giant inflatable spheroid things and white polka dots on a red background. Lots of polka dots.

Best comedy value moment

Pipilotti Rist, Extremities (smooth, smooth). This is a video piece where you wander into a darkened room and sit on a circular bench in the middle. Stars seems to fill room and projectors, well, project, various bits of body on to sheets of diaphanous fabric thus giving the impression that they are floating. Oh, and a voice occasionally announces some piffle about being “butterflowers”. But on this particular afternoon the scene is enhanced by two rather special protagonists:

(Mother and three-year old in the room, admiring floating limbs. Child is thrilled by the "spaceman". Mother just about to depart with child when ginormous floating breast and nipple appears).
Child (loudly): Mummy, mummy, what's that?
Mother (with aplomb): It's a planet, dear. (cleverly keeping with spaceman theme)
Child: Which planet, mummy?
Mother (still with aplomb): It's Venus, dear. (Attempts to drag child out of room. Other visitors in the room starting to giggle)
(Cue ginormous floating phallus).
Child (very loudly): MUMMY, MUMMY! What's that?
(Outright guffaws amongst other viewers)
Mother (aplomb starting to slip): It's a carrot, dear. (spaceman theme starting to slip as well)
Child: Are you sure?
Mother (mortification finally setting in): Ermmm... maybe it's a parsnip. Yes, a parsnip. Come. On. We. Are. Going. NOW!
(Other viewers in gales of laughter).


And after that interlude, it’s back to the wills.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Hot town, summer in the city… and the Death of Michael Jackson

Summer has finally arrived in London, and with it all the dustiness, mugginess and general filthiness associated with 8,000,000 people working, moving, living, breathing in such close proximity to each other with the additional frisson of 30 + degrees centigrade. Needless to say, public transport is somewhat similar to the fate suffered by the arch-heretics of the 6th circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno (Canto IX, 110-123 in case you’re wondering). Not quite the transport of delight that Transport for London is hoping for...

And with summer comes rude boys in East London who are charging around in their souped-up Ford Fiestas with rhythmic noise blasting out from their rather impressive car speakers.

Apparently, the youth of today call this music and I believe this is part of either
a) the run up to some kind of clash to determine who is the more dominant male in the group, à la rutting stags,
in order to advance to

b) A modern sort of preamble to a mating ritual, à la cooing, horny pigeons

without fear of interference from another competitor.

However, as a certain Mr M. Jackson has left this terrestrial sphere for a circle hopefully somewhere well after the Inferno’s final canto, in commemoration of his passing the streets of Hackney, Bethnal Green and Shoreditch are filled with Doppler-effect renditions of Thriller, Bad, Don’t Stop ‘til you get Enough and - in the case of one rather tragic young man who may have lost the plot somewhat in his attempt to attain cool, hip, groovy Alpha-Male status amongst his particular tribe of youths - ABC.
But he can be safe in the knowledge he shall never plummet to the depths of social tragedy as one rather buff young man I spotted driving a BMW convertible down Bethnal Green Road… with Celine Dion on at a worryingly high volume.

He was either a man very, very secure in his masculinity and possibly packing something more powerful than a peashooter should anybody question his choice of music or genuinely thought this incongruous combination of buffness, Ms Dion and not the slightest hint of campness and would actually reel him in a chicky babe or two. Oh dear.

This sort of primal behaviour totally lacking in self-awareness and irony almost sends one straight back to the archival documents in despair at humanity, if they weren’t also full of youths trying to pull young ladies by various similar acts of peacockery and just outright cockery. I wonder what sort of a world we would be living in today if you’d got Michael Jackson on a mandolin in the 15th C? Might these youths of old placed him on a gondola and asked him to belt out a classic disco tune or two as they cruised down the Grand Canal? Might a similarly bemused scholar wearing their equivalent of bifocals have shaken their head and penned a social commentary not unlike this one?


Friday, 12 June 2009

Loverly London

So, that's it for the Venetian output. The Marvellous Matafarri is now back in London for a good long stretch. As and when anything exciting (or not) happens around here, I shall attempt to drag myself away from the reams of secondary literature gathered in Croatia and Venice (surprisingly not that hard to do. I think it's called "procrastination") and put finger to keyboard for your entertainment and delight.

Horrible Handwriting 1,046,148

A tip for posterity; make sure you and / or your scribe / secretary / notary of choice has decent and clear handwriting. I know this is continuing an ongoing theme of this blog but really, I cannot emphasise enough how mind-bogglingly irritating it is to be faced with reams upon ream upon reams of vellum or parchment, packed full of wills, property sales, judicial proceedings, policy decisions or possibly even the answers to world peace and cancer... and not be able to make out a single letter of it.

This has been the lot of the good people of Negroponte, now known as Chalkis on the Greek island of Euboa. The city itself was part of the Venetian “empire” and was one of the first of its protectorates to fall, rather dramatically, to the Turks in 1470. This was not like Venetian Crete in the 17th C when there were loads of warnings that the situation just might end up in favour of the Turks (which it did). This in turn meant time was available to clear the various chancelleries of notarial documents, diplomatic correspondence and various other bits and bobs that collects in administrative drawers over the course of centuries, and ship it all back to Venice.

Not so for poor Negroponte. The locals foolishly bated the Turks by launching a bit of an amateurish sortie against them (burning tents, harrying chickens, that sort of thing... and maybe despoiling the odd Turkish corpse as well) in the spring of 1470: by July it was all over. Definitely no time for bundling up 250 year’s worth of paperwork for posterity’s sake. Although Venetian maritime support did arrive before the final curtain call, due to various degrees of government incompetency (e.g. making a scholar head of the navy. BIG mistake. I can vouch for that.), the galleys held back and the city fell to the Turks. Cue much enslavement of locals, ransacking of buildings and, of course, burning of notarial documents. Nothing destroys a people quite like the destruction of their history and memory.

But back to the 21st C. How does one try and reconstruct life in Negroponte circa 1470? To give the remaining ruins and other artefacts a sort of framework in which to come alive? Hmm... it’s a tricky one. One could try trawling through the thousands of notarial buste in Venice and hope to find something. Or how about a shortcut? Like...the notaries of Candia in Crete? As mentioned above this was another jewel in Venice’s Aegean crown and usefully one with which much trade was done by the Negoponteese. There are not so many notarial buste in the collection as to be nighmarish and Herculean but possibly just enough to get a taster of what the merchants were up to.

Or so you would think. Until thwarted by the truly harrowing and abominable scrawls of Francesco Vlaco (1464-1472), Nicolò Castelfilaca (1467-1497) and Francesco Castelfilaca (1470-1496) that I cannot imagine even passed as handwriting in the 15th C. To the three of you, as punishment for obliterating the posterity of your clients through your horrible handwriting, I condemn you to an eternity of ignominy. To Leonardo Pantaleo (1467-1502) however, I give you a gold star, for being vaguely legible.

And thus mercantile activities of the Negoponteese in Candia are forever lost and I am doomed to languish for an age and more in the notarial archives of Venice. Urgh.

Brits abroad

Good to see that some things don’t change and that an Englishman behaved in as nobbish a manner when inebriated abroad 650 years ago as today. It seems that on the 24th May 1364, Johanes Englesius, hospes, with a group of 10 other men was hauled up for trashing a tavern. Avogaria di Comun, Raspe, 3643, f. 70r


Death of a Notary II

Ah, fear not my patient readers... if there are in fact any out there. Our original notary has returned about 5 folios later. So it was either a holiday or a bad cold that stopped him mid stream.

Death of a Notary

It’s always a worry when the handwriting changes mid paragraph. It’s a bit like that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail when, upon reaching the dread cave of Kyre Banorg, the Knights of the Round Table find "carved in mystic runes upon the very living rock, the last words of Ulfin Bedweer of Regett" which state:

Here may be found the last words of Joseph of
Aramathea. He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail
in the Castle of uuggggggh.

The final word having been carved during the demise of the aforementioned Ulfin Bedweer of Regett.

In my case, I hope I will not be chased out of the Archivio di Stato by a Terry Gilliam-inspired, legendary Black Beast of aaauuugh, although that would certainly cause comment amongst the patrons of the reading room here.

But back to the main point; on the 21st October, 1361 a case was brought against Dominicus de Ruigo, marangonus, qui fuit ad laterand de penelo batiorium et fragend astam dictis penonis. What used to happen once a year was a big punch up between the calafati and the marangoni of the ship-building area of Venice, the Arsenale. Manly men being manly men, that sort of thing. It seems that Dominicus, another 8 marangone and about 4 calafati (FYI Avogaria di Comun, Raspe, 3643, ff. 16v-18r) were all hauled up to officialdom for being somewhat over exuberant in their beating up of each other. In the case of Dominicus though, mid sentence the handwriting and thus the notary changes quite dramatically. This either suggests a holiday or unexpected death thus rendering the scribe in question incapacitated. I would like to hope for a holiday but this being the 14th C, it was probably something decidedly less pleasant, like syphilis, TB or BO. Lovely.

It is these sorts of, at times, mildly macabre musings that keep one going in the archives.

By the way, Dominicus got one month in prison for his efforts.

Venetian Matriarchs

Obviously this one was written at some point in the depths of winter...

I want to be a Venetian matriarch when I grow up. These women own the city in the wintertime, scattering the few tourists aside in their wake as they perambulate about the town. These women have probably birthed a tribe of gondoliers before lunch, their ancestors were possibly doges who ransacked Constantinople or sea captains who kicked Turkish arse at the Battle of Lepanto. The frenzy of battle is only breath away in these Amazons. A flock of American / Indian / Japanese tourists blocking a calle are like lambs in a paddock, suddenly aware their is a wolf somewhere in their midst and they better get out of the way, pronto. The waves of humanity thus part for the Matriarch, a primal sense of respect breaks through all cultural barriers.

The uniform of these women certainly helps. Two fingers up at all the pain and suffering of small and attractively furry animals; the Matriarchs would wear a coat of woolly mammoth if the things were still extant having killed the beast themselves with a particularly poisonous glare. Head to toe in fur of some sort, these formidable, carnivorous creatures could eat a carrot-bothering, alfalfa-munching, mink-snuggling PETA supporter for breakfast should the opportunity arise. Brilliant.

Oh, and they use their power for both good and evil. Don’t even both trying to queue when these women are around. I never though a rugby scrum could ever actually occur in the butcher’s / baker’s / post office, never mind with such elegance. The fur, literally, flies.

Horrible Handwriting

You know, if I could build a time machine and change history in some way, I am sorry to say I wouldn’t do anything selfless for humanity. Examples where my input could help include:

• Making sure Archduke Ferdinand avoided Sarajevo in the summer of 1914
• Encouraging people to wash during the Plague of 1666
• Suggesting King Harold stand a meter or two to the left of right when that Norman arrow was enroute to his eyeball in the Battle of Hastings of 1066.

None of these would be on my “to do” list. In fact, I would be horribly selfish aiding only myself and those barmy few who need to read 15th C notarial documents. I would take aside all the notaries of Europe and say; “Look, for crying out loud. PLEASE write properly. Your 14th C forebears managed it with no worries and - trust me - your 16th C successors will also revel in their clarity of script. Although a significant proportion of your clients are illiterate, there is no excuse for such shoddy handwriting. In centuries to come, scholars (i.e. me) will spend hours agonising over whether the daughter of Elena of Zadar had been taken and possibly assaulted by Francesco and Rupert or if it was in fact a perfectly fair and respectable employment contract, offering Elena’s daughter employment and a roof over her head. Unfortunately, your handwriting is SO CRAP that the key verb looks like nothing more than the scratchings of a Neanderthal, only recently evolved from whatever ape came before, who thought the combination of a stick and some sand might be an amusing way to pass half an hour. Gah.”

Thus I hope to save the world (of mad archival-based types) from migraines, poor eyesight and disturbing interpretations primary sources.

The Medieval Miscellany Reboot. Kinda like the new Star Trek Movie, but not quite as cool. And fewer space ships.

Crumbs... has it really been almost six months since the last post? Oops... on the off chance anybody is still out there I shall stick up a few ramblings I jotted down whilst in bella Venezia. For now, a lovely picture of San Marco to help you get into the mood.

P.S. I did get completely shafted by the weak £ vs all powerful €. On the plus side I think the price hike certainly focussed the mind and ensured the coffee tasted very, very good indeed and the accompanying sugar-charged breakfast brioche was pure ambrosia.