Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Witchcraft Sourcebook (Review)




To get straight to the point—any study of historical witchcraft would be incomplete without The Witchcraft Sourcebook. Collecting documents which illustrate the cultural understanding of witchcraft, the Sourcebook brings together artifacts from the ancient all the way to the modern. Wide ranging in its focus, by the time one finishes this compact collection, they will undoubtedly know a great deal more than when they began.

                I started this book with but the scantest information on historical witchcraft. I knew that during the medieval and early modern period many innocent people were accused, tortured, and burnt at the stake. I knew that religious frenzy and paranoia drove the accusations, as well as to a degree ignorance. But beyond these bare surmises, I had no clue as to the philosophic, theocratic, or social dimension; the exact minutia of the witch-hunts, what constituted a witch and so forth, all of that was a mystery to me. Now, at the end, although I am, obviously, still no expert on these matters, I feel filled in on what transpired. I feel informed.

                This sensation of understanding what happened came about thanks to the tight organization of the Sourcebook. Totaling eight sections with each section chronicling a specific topic pertinent to witchcraft—whether it be the legalistic or artistic representation of it—each section builds on what the previous section established. The end result is that the reader is introduced to an idea’s very best offerings, while using those texts to then build a narrative which frames each ensuing idea; so though much is abridged, skimmed, and sacrificed in order so that the reader is exposed to the most relevant documents, one nevertheless manages to end up with a finely constructed platform for future study.

                As a survey, then, the Sourcebook cannot cover everything, but it does carry the heavy hitters when it comes to what witchcraft was as well as presenting those skeptics which tried to give guidance to those fanatics clamoring for the blood of Satan. It includes sections on how demonic possession was perceived in light of witchcraft in general, but also dramatic and classical representations of witchcraft and how such representations influenced public opinion. Though mostly focused on Western Europe, Eastern Europe does feature on occasion with the end result being a fairly level handed treatment of the vast material available.

                What many will find most handy in this book is its focus on gender. After all, as one of its blurb’s says, of the more than one-hundred thousand people persecuted for witchcraft in the three and a half century scare, many of those persecuted were women. Needless to say, what this gross disproportion is seen, one needs to investigate why so many women were attacked and why men were largely ignored. The Sourcebook takes up this investigative cause and provides the reader with the background information necessary to understand why women were so targeted, as well as in what manner men could, though not always, protect themselves from accusations. Suffice it to say, it has to do with a Biblical hermeneutic and how patriarchy functioned in rural communities.

                Newcomers will want to take note on how each section is prefaced with an introduction clarifying the idea presented, while each chapter comes packed with an additional introduction setting the time and place for the text and its author. So as intimidating reading some of these texts may be when one has no experience in understanding the ancient, medieval, and early modern epoch, Editor Brian P. Levack fills one in on everything needed to understand the context of each chapter and why each chapter is important to the idea explored.

                To conclude, yes, I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who asked me where to begin when researching historical witchcraft. Whether one simply wishes to know a bit more about the period of the witch-hunts, or to better understand the entire context before launching a protracted engagement with historical witchcraft, the Sourcebook will help. While it can get a bit weary reading chapter after chapter should one read straight through, since the topic matter can blend together after a while, even this is a hallmark of its rigorous construction, and should be enjoyed for its handy intertextuality. All in all, I am glad I spent the time and money on this digestible and fascinating history.

The Witchcraft Sourcebook
Ed. Brian P. Levack
348 pages. Published by Routledge. 2004.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Short Class Presentation on Paradise Lost's Opening (Milton Journal)


I want to begin with a minor detour: Milton’s language.

Previously, it was remarked that Milton’s Greek and Latin impaired readers’ ability to properly understand the text, as the mechanics of those languages did not lend themselves to certain aspects of his poetry. Whether or not this is true, I feel that his knowledge of these languages also extends to the narrative structure of Paradise Lost, for as we shall see in the beginning, the action starts off not only epic-ly, but egotistically.

          On page 176, hughes comments via footnote that [...]


The most interesting surmise about Milton’s additions to his original design is the suggestion that he added the first two books somewhere late in the process of composing his poem in order to provide it with a standard epic beginning—a plunge into the midst of the action at the start. 

And this certainly makes sense as the reader is indeed “plunged” into the action headfirst; with rebel angels presented in hell moping about like petulant teenagers who only become roused thanks to Satan’s caffeine infused voice-- forgive the unorthodox reading—we are to remember well that Milton’s tale is universal in that it tackles all aspects of the human condition.

But, let’s get to the actual text: after the opening invocation—more on that later— we are plunged into Hell with Satan and Beelzebub debating their failure to overthrow God; Beelzebub is dispirited but Satan rouses him via discourse: it is not that they “failed”, per se, but that they were momentarily deceived by God’s hidden powers. Now that they know, however, God’s supposed limits, they have the upper hand, and so Satan waxes eloquently on how it is God’s fault for imbuing the angels with envy and so it is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. After this, Beelzebub is cured of his pessimism, so Satan then rallies all the other fallen angels. MEANWHILE, Pagan Gods, “demons”, from all history are assembled (eleven in all). Naturally, this being Milton’s militant quasi-nationalistic Protestantism, all are related as Sinfully cultured barbarians (this occurs from page 221-224). Brought together, these demons are described as a massed army. Satan implores them to wage a new war while Mammon, another demon-pagan-God in Satan’s ragtag collection of misfits, leads a different detachment to forge PandÓ•monium, Satan’s capital, from the raw materials of hell (of which, there is evidently much to choose from). Finally, the book ends with Satan and company holding council.

          So that is the summary. Interesting? Yes! It is everything a great yarn needs to keep you up at night, not including the textual density. But, the most amazing thing about this book isn’t Satan, but Milton’s opening invocation.


[read opening invocation; lines 1-26]


          <<Superficially, what is this invocation about? How does Milton imagine the poem?>>


On one hand, it is Milton introducing Paradise Lost. One the other hand, it is boasting Milton up as a writer, justifying Paradise Lost; an act, which, it should be noted, was the reverse of secular medieval writers who would often preface or end their books with a lengthy apology for the ill-suited content and beg God forgiveness for writing in the first place. What this tells us about Milton is that he believes in his work, as he should considering the study he has under his belt at this point in his life. But this also tells us that Milton is not exactly conservative. This anti-conservatism emerges in the fact of Milton’s larger-than-life de-valuing of the church founders.

          <<Textually, how does this devaluing manifest?>>

Through blank verse. Odd, you say? Well, buckle up, because it is going to get even odder.

          Upon publication of Paradise Lost, Milton’s contemporaries were shocked. But they were not shocked at Milton’s content—how Satan is treated as a sort of fallen hero. No, they were shocked at his verse. For, in the entirety of English poetry up to that point, poetry had rhyme to it. Paradise Lost’s verse, though, lacks any such notion because Milton, believing that rhyme was the “invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame meter” (210), thought ‘English Heroic Meter’ was superior.

          Here begins a thread which will occur all throughout the opening invocation.  <<Why does Milton reject rhyme>>

Yes, because he has his own poetic elitism, but also because he views himself as reclaiming a piece of “ancient liberty”. The history here matters because, as we will see in the opening invocation, Milton views his epic poem as something much more than mere writing.

Ultimately, this invocation is Milton preaching the alleged record of Satan’s fall but without the theological authority of the Church Founders, those “ancient fathers” in which the Argument refers; when Milton speaks “Fast by the oracle of God; I thence / Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous Song” he is superseding the Church Founders and directly saying that God himself is assisting him with his “song”, i.e., poem. This stance culminates when he says “I may assert eternal providence, / And justify the ways of God to men”, thus, Milton sets himself up as the penultimate authority when it comes to the divine—he alone is extrapolating God’s will, the logical inference being that he and God, at least when it comes to knowability, are one-in-the-same—that God is working through him, like a prophet.

We see this belief realized via Milton’s repeated usage of the word “first”. Not only is it repeated ad nausea (six times alone in the first three dozen lines), but it is repeated so in order to force a connection—a brazen one, that Milton’s use of “First” not only throws the Iambic Pentameter off track—thus creating this uneven musical score—but forges a connection to Milton being the first to talk about the fall. Yale professor John Rogers calls this “retrospective anticipation”, and Milton uses it to startling ends.

Why it’s startling is, of course, because it is a fiction—Milton could not have been at the Creation, yet he is talking as though he was there. Why this is, is because Milton is usurping “that Shepard” (i.e., Moses’s), place, or in the very minimum, trying to steal some of his thunder: the passage beginning with “And chiefly Thou O spirit” and runs through “Instruct me, for Thou Know’st” claims that the Holy Spirit—that which instructed Moses, was present AT the Creation. Thus, since Milton is writing about the Creation, and claims to be being moved by this same spirit which was there, he is not only making a bold theological claim—one with radical connotations for his Monism—but saying that his authority is on par with that of Moses himself. So, if there is any ‘first’ which is most important in this blank versed invocation, it is undoubtedly this one.

Well, all of this is an accordingly epic pose for an epic writer to take. Also, one that is a wee bit heretical, depending on your theological orientation. In the end, Milton’s open invocation is a case study in how to be both self-aggrandizing as well as almost divine. If there is anything more transcendentally over-the-top, then I have not heard of it.

But, that being said, I have only scratched the surface of what this invocation is about. And because I have waxed eloquently enough on my own, probably to the point where I am in danger of usurping Satan’s throne, I should pass the torch to you people, who probably have more interesting things to say anyways.

Monday, June 19, 2017

First mate, New Instructions! (Enchanted Assemblages)



Once again, I have brought myself to make revisions to the overall design of my Gawain-adaptation.
No, you will be pleased to know that the game is not undergoing another top to bottom revision. That would be absurd and likely cause a mental break; no, I am merely re-focusing the aesthetic and gaming poetics. Essentially, the game has remained the same—I am not subtracting anything from the game. All that I have published before—about the Nodes and game world—will remain in the final product. Instead, I am merely re-orienting the game toward an action focused lens.

Previously, you will remember that the game wasn’t so much a game as it was a piece of interactive literature. Though the adaptation has remained a piece of interactive literature, now the interactive part has been expanded to demand more of the player. Instead of the player passively wandering the world, absorbing the culture, story, and history before making their own reality altering interpretation, they will now be tested more astutely.

What I am thinking is this: combat and situational challenges. Both of which are encoded as threads of Critical Theory.

The idea is that the player will encounter certain foes and certain challenges which will require them to select certain “Manipulations”, spells or attacks, which instead of being displayed forthwith, are displayed as the actual processes to perform them. So, to illustrate, one manipulation could be composed of [Step Forward, Raise Left Hand, Shout ‘Zephyrus’] and that could unleash a specific spell/attack which is associated with some specific bit of critical theory, something which has a specific use in a specific situation, but is able to be used generally (in keeping with the inability of the player to die and there being no incorrect interpretations, other than literalism, of course). What underlies this idea is that there is an internal consistency behind each action; the ‘Raise Hand’, in other words, done in isolation, has a different effect/affect than if it were to be done in conjunction with the ‘Step Forward’ and the shouting of a word. Ultimately, though it would take a lot of experimentation to get it right, I would like each word—something which has its roots in either Middle or Old English—to correspond to a specific set and sub-set of critical theoretical ideas, while the physical gestures which accompany the words, act as a kind of interpretative fulcrum, like a specific effect of close reading or de-familiarization; theory which, in itself, does not act as critical theory, but which supports its interpretative process.

In effect, what I want to develop is a critical-theoretical economy which is semiotically encoded. Of course, this will be a laborious undertaking, but one which I feel would be well worth the effort. Penultimately, though, the question becomes ‘by what means is this theory encoded?’ Is the theory encoded by literal poetics? Is each critical-theoretical tradition encoded by a different Middle English dialect or poetic style? And so on.

What I hope to enact by focusing on this idea is simple: that the player learns to associate signs with theory—action and performance, since such have an actual theoretical result underpinning it. So though it is one which, superficially, only exists in the game, as long as they remember the theory behind the sign, then they will remember the theory itself and be able to combine their own pieces willy-nilly; if this is the case, then it serves to stand that they have learnt the theory itself. In which case, then my goal of teaching the player critical theory will have succeeded.

This is why I now want a heavier emphasis on combat and situational crisis. Because it is only with the player constantly kept on their feet that they will constantly feel the need to return to the Knightly Bootcamp and remember what every sign means; whether this memorization happens by brute force or natural inclination, matters little. What matters is that the player confronts the material with the idea that their participation within the game world is one which requires an engagement with the material.

Which, of course, brings me to my next point—how to encourage an engagement with the material?
I was thinking of a point system. Even with combat, as I said, there is no possibility of dying in this game—perhaps, if the player chooses literalist readings, they will be pushed back a degree in terms of progress, but since those places are fairly obvious, should a player decide just to power through the game without recourse to what the signs means—a course of action which will go against their Fidelity to the game—there is no overt penalty for doing so, they still finish the game (though, really, if such was the point for them, why even play the game when they could simply read the original poem instead?). So I feel that to nudge people in the right direction, some kind of point or ranking system be introduced.

Such a system is still a befuddlement to me, but my early ideas about it involve high points for interpretations/spells/Manipulations which directly confront the challenge or situation at a primal level—an epistemological standing. Of course, this runs the risk of issuing hermeneutic edicts, that one interpretation is more correct than another; this would, of course, go against the spirit of the adaptation, but considering the scenario, it may, perhaps, be warranted as a necessary evil, one which has some caveats attached to it.

Will have to think on it some more.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Ohthere’s Voyage to the White Sea & Wulfstan’s Visit to Estonia




Both of these short extracts are simple travel narratives. They do not pretend to be epic meditations on the human condition nor do they recount epic legends; rather, they are but the record of two gentlemen—the former a Norwegian, the latter perhaps another Norwegian or maybe an Englishman— who traveled abroad in order to discover the world.

Ohthere’s story involves Walrus hunting. Indeed, his tale is wholly concerned with walrus hunting in relation to ethno geography. As Ohthere hunts walruses, he also tells of his sea travels and who, if anyone, he meets. With an eye for who lives where and how these people interact, the idea of this narrative is much like a hunting log intermixed with a business ledger on top of a traveler’s communique. Though subtle in how it disseminates its information, specifically on how Ohthere talks of the people he encounters, it is a surprisingly engaging story for whose subject matter is unsurprisingly boring.

Wulfstan’s visit to Estonia follows the same recipe, though as far as I am concerned, it is more thought-provoking. Or in the very least less boring.

So, as you may have guessed, Wulfstan visits Estonia. He recounts how there is many kings who fight one another, how the commoners drink mead, and, most interestingly of all, how when the city kings die, they are put on display in their homes, sometimes for months on end, while their relatives party. Only after this great party is the body cremated; even here, though, Wulfstan recounts how the body may be either cremated or embalmed—on ice!

I am not sure of the specifics of ‘ice embalming’ but it sounds fantastic, like an appropriately ‘metal’ way to be preserved (as the kids would say). Wulfstan lingers on details like these and it is what bestows this narrative with some more adventurous oomph then the previous travel log. In short, it feels like that Wulfstan is wondrously stupefied by the place he is visiting, as opposed to describing it in passing as an intrepid observer. (Plus, there is less details on walrus hunting, so that is a plus, though perhaps not if you’re a walrus hunting historian.)

What I have taken away from these stories, as ephemeral as they were, was how modern they felt. Since each account was written, you know, over a thousand years ago, I feel that this is a well-earned accomplishment. I also suppose it testifies to the continued love of the human mind for adventure, that whether you are discovering something for the first time, ever, or just re-discovering something that someone else beat you to discovering, it does not ever get less amazing to explore the world and grasp it through your own hands.

The Witchcraft Sourcebook (Review)

To get straight to the point—any study of historical witchcraft would be incomplete without The Witchcraft Sourcebook . Collecting d...