Monday, 14 May 2012

New to me last week

A campaign is under way to bring this mediaeval chess piece (which was discovered in Habrough churchyard, a little north of here, in the 1980s) to the museum at Immingham. It was striking to learn that it exists and how beautiful it is, and I’d really like to think it might be roughly contemporary with Rognvald jarl Kali Kolsson (who died in 1158) the first and second of whose poems in the Orkneyinga Saga which I’ve been trying to translate boasts of his chess playing prowess and tells of his being stuck in Grimsby on a trading trip. The archaeologists who worked at the back of St Michael’s, Little Coates a while ago told me that most work for people like him isn’t on major projects but is simply done following those digging a pipeline, and it turns out this is exactly the circumstances in which the Habrough piece was discovered.

The only surviving copy of the mediaeval text of an alliterative Morte d’Arthur is held in the Cathedral Library. It appears that a fifteenth century Yorkshire squire copied it, one of his descendant’s husbands gave his manuscript to Durham Cathedral in the hope of preferment, and a Canon of Durham brought it with him when he became Bishop of Lincoln; it isn’t the only work which would not have survived but for his copy. The opening of Simon Armitage’s new translation of it, about which we heard him speak when he came to talk in the Cathedral Library in the week, includes lines which I think would do well as a prayer at the beginning of my next sermon there is due course, and I look forward to reading further into it:

May words trip from my tongue at this time,
not hollow and vain but in honour of Him,
and which profit and please every person who hears them.

Hearing Armitage speak about translating poetry prompted me to spend part of my Day Off putting some of the things I’ve tried to translate and write in order, including having a go at creating a new haiku:

Half the blossom falls
half clings to the Spring branches
making a lace tree.

David Hockney remarked in a documentary about the way in which the invention of metal tubes for paint (patented in 1841) changed art. He said that Constable (who died in 1837) did most of his work back in his studio taking a long comfortable time trying to represent clearly what he had seen, while the Impressionists (who exhibited in the 1870s and 1880s) were able to paint in the open air and thus worked faster. I wonder whether art historians also speculate about the way photography was becoming common at exactly the same time; a sub-conscious reaction might have been that, since exact reproduction could now be done as it were automatically, art should move to a more atmospheric approach.  I like the way that factors in the 1840s and 1850s which were quite divorced from painting itself might have been what shaped its development.

New Scientist reports the discovery that, say, 2.5 million years ago a human genetic mutation which doubled a particular gene happened to enable the brain to make far more connections and thus made modern humans possible.  Reading this with my brain, it seemed disconcerting to be discovering something about this previously elusive step, as well as to know how much is richly new to me every week as a result.

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