Reader questions answered!

A while ago, pressed for time, I asked people to ask me for the answers to questions about history. As they always do, they asked me about things I know nothing about. But I did my best! If you know anything about these topics, you know more than I do, but I’ll do my best.

Why did the Holy Roman Empire never properly form into a country? 

What could possibly be confusing about this?
What could possibly be confusing about this?

“Properly form into a country” presumes that there’s a certain endpoint for the development of a nation-state, which I’m not 100% convinced by, but in Europe, there is a trend toward state formation that I’m in no way smart enough to generalise about. And definitely the HRE is an exception to that trend — it doesn’t become the kind of entity that you eventually see in the 19th century. But I’m not sure that isn’t just because it gets stomped by France early on. That catalyses a lot of the trends that eventually result in the emergence of Germany as a nation, but I don’t know enough about the period and the place to know whether you would have had the same outcome in an HRE that successfully fended off the French. Maybe not, since I think you could argue that its particular form of fragmented feudalism was hostile to those trends? But certainly when you look at a lot of other countries in Europe, Germany is becoming a big nation with a flag and whatnot at the same time they are.

“Lost” countries

Lost countries are kind of interesting — obviously we are all living in some lost countries, since a variety of different English and Welsh and whatever kingdoms and principalities become first England, Scotland and Wales and then the Britain that we roughly recognise. And it’s the same all over Europe — things that we see as being distinct cultural identities originating as combinations of different now-gone countries. And those lost countries persist in some sense even after they’re gone; Northumbria as a kingdom ceases to exist in the mid-10th century, but over 100 years later stuff is going down in the wake of the Conquest and the Danish invasion that reminds you that it was once its own country.

I guess what I mean to say is that in a feudal society the nature of a “country” is a little less well-defined than we’re used to in the modern day. And some of them get subsumed into a larger identity easily (the example in the question was Burgundy, which is a pretty good example), and some don’t (Cornwall retains a really distinct identity, despite having been part of England since basically forever).

I guess what both of these questions are ultimately asking is what even are country, which is kind of an interesting thought in our country at this particular time, right?

Reader questions answered!

Santo licántropos existen (a joke like three people might get)

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OK, so if you are into the medieval and/or ancient world at all, you probably know all about the crazy grotesques that populate the margins of maps. I talked a little bit about sea monsters back when I wrote about the Carta Marina Scandinavia, and sea monsters are cool too, but these are more people-like, and they get to have all kinds of fun. They even turn up in Othello. (Act 1, scene 3)

                 Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle, 
141   Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven 
142   It was my hint to speak, — such was the process; 
143   And of the Cannibals that each other eat, 
144   The Anthropophagi and men whose heads 
145   Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear 
146   Would Desdemona seriously incline: 

I think my favourite guys are the ones with dogs’ heads, the cynocephali, because they turn up in much more interesting places. For instance, some sources hold that Saint Christopher had a dog’s head. You can read a longer discussion of Saint Christopher here, along with Saint Guinefort, a saint who was an actual dog (much beloved of Bernard Cornwell, IIRC). There’s a lovely quote in the Irish Passion of St Christopher

 Now this Christopher was one of the Dogheads, a race that had the heads of dogs and ate human flesh. He meditated much on God, but at that time he could speak only the language of the Dogheads.

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I speak subject to correction, but I don’t think there’s any record of saints from among the monopods or the blemmyae or any of the other fantastical species you find in medieval illustrations. I wonder if it’s something to do with the general portrayal of St Christopher as being faithful and strong but not very bright? I don’t know. 

Now, some of you might have been expecting, from my title, a discussion of Mexico’s greatest hero, Santo, who did, of course, have to be informed that werewolves exist. For you, here is a picture of him in his baller-ass cardigan. 

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Santo licántropos existen (a joke like three people might get)

Sea Monsters!

I like maps; no secret there. In fact, on the wall of my bedroom, facing me as I type, is a copy of Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina, a birthday gift from an old friend. Some years later, my wife had it framed as another birthday gift. I occasionally get hung up going in and out of the room because I’m just looking at its details — the strange creatures, the weird people, the bizarre idea that England is way the hell up in the northern part of Britain, opposite Norway. 

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Today, pal of the blog Chris Chapman pointed out this amazing interactive version of the map, where you can click on each sea monster and read Olaus’s explanatory notes. 

Olaus, or Olof Månsson if you’re feeling prosaic, had the dubious distinction of being the Catholic archbishop of Uppsala. I say dubious because this was actually shortly after the Reformation, and poor Olof never actually got to, you know, be there in his archiepiscopal capacity. 

Olaus Magnus is known partly for his awesome map but mainly for his book, Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, which is all on Google Books in its fantastic original edition. Even if you (like me) aren’t going to slog through a bunch of 16th-century Latin, it’s got some badass woodcuts. 

Researchers at Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the US have suggested that some of the elements of the map might not be so fanciful, and that the whirlpools up there off the Norwegian coast are in fact based on real currents. I’m not so convinced, personally — even if the map resembles reality, that would be one of the only ways in which it does. 

I have no overarching philosophical point about this one. I just like maps. 

Sea Monsters!

The Land of the Hat-Wearing Peoples

Back in 2004, my wife and I went to see an exhibit at the V&A on contact between Europe and Asia between 1500 and 1800. It was fascinating in a million ways, as these things usually are. But what I really remember is an Indian map which detailed all the different parts of India and its neighbours, then relegated everywhere else to one big blob (well, not that big) labelled “lands of the hat-wearing peoples”. It’s funny what people decide to make the distinctive features of other cultures. But fair, in this instance. 

Did you know that “solar topee” is a folk etymology? Some pith helmets were made from a plant called the sola, and English people pronounce “sola” and “solar” similarly. 

The Land of the Hat-Wearing Peoples