Posted in Books, Historical fiction, Judaism, Religion

A novel of tedium and infodump in Medieval France

I was excited to find this among the $3 books at a used bookstore. My parents bought me the second book years ago, for my birthday or Chanukah, but I’d never read it. Sadly, I yet again had the exact opposite reaction from the crowd re: a very popular recent hist-fic.

Why might that be this time?

1. Ms. Anton gets an A+ for research, a D for storytelling. It’s a bunch of ideas and historical facts patched together. The narrative plods along tediously, with no compelling, well-developed characters or strong prose to compensate.

2. Showing off her research. Ms. Anton dumps in detailed information that has nothing to do with the purported main story, like Medieval French politics, parchment-making, wine-making, and Rashi’s mother’s diary.

3. Stilted, infodumpy dialogue conveying said details. Enough said.

4. Head-hopping deluxe! When we’re in too many heads, too close together, for not enough time each, we’re ultimately in no one’s head, and can’t care about the characters. The trick to handling an ensemble cast is to weave the POVs, just as a great figure skating program weaves the elements in and out instead of clustering them.

5. By the time an actual plot finally emerged (over 200 pages in), I was long past caring about anyone. At least in A Farewell to Arms, I felt bad for the baby for about two seconds!

6. The sex scenes are like Medieval Jewish porn fantasies! I also call BS on Rashi giving fairly graphic sex advice to his own daughters and son-in-law and giving the latter intimate details about his sex life! And enough already with the unrealistic trope of virgins having a mind-blowingly awesome first time!

7. I call BS on men waiting outside the mikvah for their wives and gossiping about who went there! Taharat hamishpacha, family purity, is an extremely private mitzvah, which even many women didn’t discuss with other women till a few decades ago. You’re not supposed to know who went there, esp. if she’s your sister, mother, or rabbi’s daughter! A brother also wouldn’t oversee his own sister’s immersions!

8. Was it really common for women to regularly come to synagogue, not just for holidays and the Sabbath, in the 11th century?

9. The word “gender” is anachronistically used in place of “sex” six times, including twice in dialogue. People in the 11th century DID NOT use that word in that way, EVER! It only became a euphemism for “sex” in the late 20th century, thanks in large part to the vile Dr. John Money and his grotesque experiment with poor David Reimer. The freaking Victorians weren’t afraid to say “sex” when referring to being male or female!

10. Either someone confused the dating, or Ms. Anton SORASed her characters. The timeline says Joheved was born in 1059, yet she’s twelve when the story opens in 1069. Miriam’s birth year is given as 1062, yet she’s nine when the story opens. Joheved’s husband Meir is depicted as four years older, yet he was born circa 1060.

11. Speaking of, I had no sense of these girls growing up. I know there was no concept of adolescence in the Middle Ages, but I never had a feeling for how old they were at any given time, or of going on a coming-of-age journey with them. It felt more like SORASing.

12. Zero character development. Enough said.

13. I call BS on the premarital kissing and making out! Traditional Orthodox couples aren’t even allowed to be alone without a chaperone or hold hands before marriage.

14. Every time a conflict appears, it’s quickly resolved, like when Rashi catches Joheved and Meir making out before they’re married.

15. The blurb makes it sound like the story is about Meir’s disapproval of Joheved’s Talmud study, but he’s totally cool with it after his initial shock. It was extremely unusual for Jewish women (and even most men) to be so educated in this era, yet we never gauge any long-lasting reactions to this from anyone!

16. The depictions of births and midwifery aren’t accurate, as a reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads explained in detail.

17. Constantly interrupting the narrative to define or explain things!

Rashi and his daughters (who really did study Talmud and pray with tefillin) deserved so much better. I’m told the second book depicts Miriam’s husband Benjamin as openly gay, and the community anachronistically accepts this.

Posted in Names, Russian culture, Russian history, Russophilia

A primer on Medieval Slavic names

In the Middle Ages, there were many Slavic tribes across a wide stretch of land. A large portion have long since been consigned to the history books, but a fair number live on in their descendants.

From these disparate tribes came modern-day Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Bulgarians, Moldovans, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Sorbians (mostly found in Germany today), Goryuns (a minority group in Ukraine), Silesian Germans, Kashubians (an ethnic group in Poland), Moravians, and Croatians.

Some of the extinct tribes also lived on lands which are today part of Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia, Austria, Greece, Hungary, and Bosnia.

Linguistic history:

Until about 500 CE, there was a Proto–Slavic language, descended from Proto–Balto–Slavic and ultimately Proto–Indo–European. Then, by the 7th century, it splintered into many dialects. When Orthodox Christians were compelled to use Church Slavonic, much vernacular was lost.

The Slavic language family eventually broke into East, West, and South branches. Some linguistics believe there also once existed a North branch.


If you can read any of the modern Cyrillic alphabets, you can decipher a good portion of the Early Cyrillic alphabet, which is still used to write Church Slavonic. The trickiest thing is how the letters are formed. It’s more like artsy calligraphy than plain block printing.

It’s quite a bit harder to decipher Glagolitic script, the oldest known Cyrillic alphabet. It was created by Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the 9th century. There are almost no letters in that alphabet I can recognize.

History of naming patterns:

In the pre-Christian era, children under the age of 7–10 had “substitutional names” meant to trick evil spirits. This was a result of high childhood mortality. Kids who managed to survive at least to age 7–10 were considered special, worthy of a real name and adult status. This new adult name was bestowed during a ritual haircut.

Non-Christian names were banned by the Council of Trent, but Polish nobility (esp. Protestants) tried to preserve their real names. Commoners mostly chose names from the Church calendar, on which only a handful of Slavic names were represented.

Exceptions were made for names whose meanings referenced God, such as Bogdana, Boguslav, and Bogumila.

Name sources:

Many Old Slavic names contain the elements mir(a) (world; peace), mil(a) (precious), and slav(a) (glory). Names ending in these elements are used by both sexes (with the feminine forms ending in -a). After Christianization, many of these names were replaced by Slavified versions of Greek saints’ names.

Names derived from simple nouns and adjectives were typically used by peasants. Such names include Vesna (Spring), Zora (dawn), Brana (to protect), Plamen (flame), Vuk (wolf), and Mladen (young).

Other single-source names expressed affection, hope, and good wishes for newborns.

Names with two root words were also popular, intended as wishes for newborns. Examples include Zbigniew (to expel anger), Kvetoslava (flower of glory), Rodimir (family peace), and Vratislava (to bring back glory).

Sample names:


Agneszka, Aneszka (Agnes)
Anfusa (Flower)

Bogdana (Given by God)
Bozhena (Divine)

Desislava (Tenfold glory)
Dragoslava (Precious glory)


Lyudmila (Favour of the people)

Militsa (Gracious)
Miloslava (Gracious glory)

Radoslava (Happy glory)
Regelinda (Soft advice)
Rogneda, Ragnedda (Battle advice)

Slavitsa (Little glory)
Stanislava (To become glory)

Tomislava (Torture glory)

Yaroslava (Fierce glory)


Athanasi (Immortal)

Berislav (To gather glory)
Blazh (Sweet, blessed, pleasant)
Bogdan (Given by God)
Bogumil (Favoured by God)
Bogumir (Great God or God’s peace/world)
Boguslav (Glory of God)
Boleslav (Greater glory)
Borislav (Battle glory)
Borisu (Snow leopard, wolf, or short)
Borivoy (Battle soldier)
Bozhidar (Bozho) (Divine gift)
Bratomil (Gracious brother)
Bratoslav (Brotherly glory)
Bronislav (Protection and glory)

Chedomir (Child of peace/the world)
Chestibor (Battle of honour)
Chestirad (Happy honour)
Chestislav (Honour and glory)

Dalibor (To fight from a distance)
Desislav (Tenfold glory)
Dobrogost (Good guest)
Dobromil (Good and gracious)
Dobroslav (Good glory)
Dragomir (Drashka) (Precious glory) (love this name!)
Dragutin (Precious)
Drazhan (Precious)

Gostislav (Glorious guest)

Kazimir (To destroy peace/the world)
Krasimir (Beauty of the world/peace)
Kresimir (Spark of peace; to rouse the world)

Lyubomir (Love of the world/peace)
Lyudmil (Favour of the people)

Mechislav (Sword of glory)
Milivoj (Milosh) (Gracious soldier)
Milodrag (Milosh) (Dear and precious)
Milogost (Milosh) (Gracious guest)
Miloslav (Milosh) (Gracious glory)
Mirche (Peace/world)
Miroslav (Peace/The world and glory)
Mislav (Thought of glory; my glory)
Mstislav (Vengeance and glory)

Ninoslav (Glory now)

Premislav (Glory stratagem)
Premysl (Stratagem, trick)
Pridbor (First battle)

Radomil (Happy and gracious)
Radomir (Happy peace/world)
Radoslav (Happy glory)
Radovan (One who brings joy)
Ratimir (Battle of peace/the world)
Rostislav (Growth of glory)

Samo (Alone)
Slavomir (Glory of the world/peace)
Sobeslav (Glory for oneself)
Stanimir (To become peace)
Stanislav (To become glory)
Svetopolk (Blessèd people)
Svetoslav (Blessèd glory)

Tikhomir (Quiet peace/world)
Tomislav (Torture glory)

Veceslav, Vecheslav (More glory)
Velibor (Great battle)
Velimir (Great peace)
Vitomir (Master of peace/the world)
Vladimeru, Vladimir, Volodimeru (Vova, Volodya) (Famous rule)
Vladislav, Volodislavu (To rule in glory)
Vlastimir (Sovereignty of the world/peace)
Vlastislav (Sovereignty of glory)
Voitsekh (Soldier of comfort/solace/joy)
Vratislav (To return in glory)
Vsevolod (Seva) (To rule all)

Yarognev (Fierce anger)
Yaromil (Fierce and gracious)
Yaromir (Fierce peace)
Yaropolk (Fierce people)
Yaroslav (Fierce glory)

Zbignev (To dispel anger)
Zdislav (To build glory)
Zhelimir (To wish for peace)
Zvonimir (The sound of peace)

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Religion, Silent film

Superstitious fears through the ages

With a budget of almost two million kronor, Heksen (Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages) was the most expensive Scandinavian silent ever. It premièred in Stockholm, Malmö, Göteburg, and Helsingborn on 18 September 1922, and 7 November in Copenhagen.

In 1919, director Benjamin Christensen discovered inquisitor Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) (1487) in a Berlin bookshop. For almost 200 years, this was a huge bestseller second to only the Bible.

Kramer called for the extermination of all “witches,” with detailed descriptions of torture to extract “confessions” before burning at the stake. This played a major role in the increasingly cruel, brutal, barbaric persecution of “witches” till the 18th century.

From 1919–21, Christensen studied everything he could find about “witches” and witch-hunting. The original playbill by the première included a long bibliography.

Though he was Danish, his funding came from Svensk Filmindustri. This provided complete creative control, and money to buy and refurbish the Astra studio in Hellerup, Denmark.

To maintain a dark hue, Christensen and his cameraman, the venerable Johan Ankerstjerne, only filmed at night or in a closed set.

Filming ran from February–October 1921, followed by a year of editing.

Though the film received many positive reviews, it was banned in the U.S. and heavily censored in other countries. In 1941, there was a Danish re-release with a long intro by Christensen and different intertitles. In 1968, a shortened version was released with a jazz score and narration by William S. Burroughs.

Film critics and scholars widely consider Häxan to be Christensen’s masterpiece.

The film opens with a scholarly examination of the history of the belief in sorcery and evil spirits, and how earlier societies saw the universe. Historical illustrations, woodcuts, and a mechanical animation are presented with commentary.

We then move to sorcerer Karna’s underground home in 1488, where she and her assistants prepare potions with snakes, frogs, a thief’s finger, cat feces, sparrows, and a dove’s heart. One of her clients gets love potions to win a fat monk’s heart.

Meanwhile, a neighbor spies on two med students who’ve dug up a body for an autopsy, and denounces them as witches.

The Devil (Christensen) frightens a monk and seduces women, most notably Apelone, an old woman he tortures with moving and disappearing gold coins.

Chapter 3 begins the story of Maria the Weaver, an old, poor woman accused of witchcraft. Jesper the Printer has fallen ill with dizziness, and his wife Anna is convinced he’s bewitched. Lead divination confirms this.

Maria comes to beg, and Anna gives her soup. Eager for someone to blame, Anna accuses Maria of witchcraft, and the visiting inquisitors haul her off.

Maria cracks under cruel torture, and gives a false confession. She says she’s birthed many of the Devil’s children, with Karna and her coven as midwives. Maria gives details of a witches’ Sabbath, and implicates Anna, her mother, and many other women who’ve mistreated her.

Young monk Johannes is coerced into denouncing Anna’s sister. Another monk promises to smuggle her out if she reveals the secret of thunder water, but it’s a cruel trick.

Chapter 6 explores tools and methods of torture. One of Christensen’s actors insisted on trying the thumb screw herself.

Christensen then uses the story of Sister Cecilia to  illustrate how many nuns, suffering from nervous tension, caused entire convents to break out in alleged insanity and demonic possession.

Chapter 7 opens by saying many women accused of witchcraft were old and poor, often with physical deformities and conditions like tremors. In the modern era, they’re taken in by nursing homes and pious organizations.

Christensen says the actor playing Maria not only believes in the Devil, but says she’s seen him by her bedside. Her prayerbook’s illustrations are shown.

Christensen retrospectively diagnoses “witches” with neuroses caused by “hysteria,” which could be humanely solved in modern clinics.

Though hysteria has been soundly debunked by countless doctors and scientists, superstition is still rampant in its own way today, and the elderly and poor still suffer.

Though Christensen claims over 8 million people were burnt as witches, that number is extremely inflated. I’ve heard as low as 40,000 and as high as one million. But regardless of the real number, those were innocent people whose lives were ended because of superstitious fears.

Posted in 1910s, Dante, Divine Comedy, holidays, Movies, Religion, Silent film

Italy’s first feature film


I had the privilege of adding Italy’s first feature film, L’Inferno, to my list of silents seen as #1,117. I can’t believe I’d never had a chance to see it before, given how famous and important it is, and how in love with Dante I am. I went back and forth with a few versions before finally settling on the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It seemed the most appropriate, as jarring as it was to occasionally hear singing.

Released 10 March 1911 by the Teatro Mercandante in Napoli (Naples), this film was over three years in the making and a huge international success. In the U.S. alone, it made over two million dollars. Since it was over an hour long, theatre owners felt justified in raising ticket prices.

L’Inferno is not only widely considered the first true blockbuster of film history, but the finest film adaptation of any of Dante’s writings ever. I wish they’d gone all the way and done Purgatorio and Paradiso as well!


1910s films have always been kind of hit-or-miss for me. They remind me of a gangly preteen or teenager with growing pains, in process of finding an established place in the world. Films had evolved beyond short snippets and one-reelers, but the medium couldn’t jump right into fully-blown perfect features and longer short subjects. Everyone was still learning how to tell stories via moving pictures, and that included acting techniques, camera movement and angles, and scripts.

This excellent 105-year-old film isn’t one of those 1910s films which disappointed me. It does such a wonderful job of bringing Dante’s otherworldly journey to life. The scenes and characters are based upon the famous 19th century woodcut illustrations by Gustave Doré, which were very familiar internationally.


If you’ve read The Divine Comedy, you’re probably familiar with the general outline of the story. On Good Friday in the year 1300, Dante wakes up in the Wood of Error, no idea how he got there or how he lost the way so badly. He takes heart from the rising Sun, and begins climbing the Delectable Mountain.

Dante is ambushed by a leopard (lust), a lion (pride), and a female wolf (avarice). He turns back in terror and encounters his idol, the great Roman poet Virgil. Here the film takes a turn from the book by showing Beatrice summoning Virgil to rescue Dante.


The film does such a wonderful job at bringing Dante’s rich imagination to life, and depicting each Circle and Ring of Hell. Along the way, several famous stories are told in flashback, such as the stories of murdered lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, and the unfortunate Count Ugolino. Some scenes from the book are left out, and some of the geography is altered, but overall, it’s really faithful to the source material.

Some arrogant modern-day folks who can’t think outside of CGI might mock the special effects and otherworldly creatures as lame and outdated, but I really loved them. There was so much effort put into making this film, and Doré’s illustrations really are brought to stunning life.

Some of the creatures are still just as terrifying in the modern era, like Bertram de Born holding his own severed head, the giant head of Lucifer eating a person, and thieves transmogrifying into snakes.


L’Inferno contains one of film’s rare few depictions of Prophet Mohammed. His chest gapes open and his entrails hang out. Dante, like most Medieval Christians, was under the false impression that Prophet Mohammed was a schismatic, though he was never Christian to begin with!

I’ll have a future post discussing how to handle and express discomfort with things like this when reviewing older books and films.


There’s really no substitute for reading the book (all the way through, not just Part I!), but the film does a masterful job at showing many of the scenes and conveying the essence of this great work of literature. However, since film technology wasn’t yet equipped to film in the dark, we don’t get to see the stars Dante and Virgil behold again when they climb out of Hell at the end.


It’s hard to put into words just how very, very much Dante means to me, how much I love and admire him. He represents the best the human race is capable of, a beautiful antidote against all the evil, ignorance, and cruelty that exists. No matter how far we might fall, how badly we’re lost, there’s always hope of finding our way back.

Posted in Music

Medieval music

(This is edited down and revised from one of my old Angelfire posts. I’m really proud of how many superfluous words I’m able to expunge from these recovered old posts. I had a really bad habit of going off into the weeds with off-topic rambles and inappropriate editorializing, and was just way too wordy overall.)

I discovered Medieval music in the Musical Appreciation class I took my junior year at university. This was the first music class I actually enjoyed, since it was about history and real musical compositions instead of notes, keys, and other stuff I never understood. Our textbook was written by a fellow who went to my original shul; he also selected the music on the 3-CD companion.

I fell in love with the Kyries and other monastic chants. They have an otherworldly feel, like you’re actually in a Medieval monastery. There were also some early Medieval compositions and a gorgeous Occitan troubadour song by Beatriz de Dia, “A Chantar.” (Occitan was a dialect from Southern France.) The instrument featured most prominently is a vielle, an ancestor of the violin.


Other Medieval instruments I fell in love with:


Copyright Sguastevi

The dulcian, an ancestor of the bassoon, originated in the first half of the 16th century, though it sounds more Medieval than Renaissance to me. It’s like a more melancholy bassoon. My character Eulalia Qiana Laurel (one of Cinnimin’s many grandchildren) plays both a dulcian and vielle, which perfectly fits her sad, dark personality. She also loves spiders, bats, dressing in black, and melancholy poetry. Her mood springs from her parents’ attitude towards her as the seventh girl in a row.


Copyright blackbiird; Source Flickrlaute

The lute remains one of the most popular instruments from this era. It’s very lightweight, though it gets out of tune easily. It sounds like a cross between a guitar and harp.


The dulcimer also remains very popular. It’s played with miniature hammers, and is similar to a zither.


© Pruneau / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

A viol da gamba is another ancestor of the violin. They were very high-class and courtly, and remained quite popular in England even after the violin had come into vogue. A viol bow is convex, not concave like a violin bow. They had to be played while seated, and the most popular models had six strings.


Bagpipes are mentioned in the Bible, and are believed to have originated in Sumeria. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, they tended to only have one drone. Around 1400, a second drone was added, and after 1550, a third drone was introduced and give it its modern sound.


The lizard (a tenor cornett), the even-curvier serpent (a bass cornett), and the zink/cornett itself were created in the Late Middle Ages, and similar to a modern-day recorder. They very closely replicated the sounds of the human voice.


The harp dates back at least as far as the Bible. Troubadours and court musicians had to play by ear or memory. In Medieval folklore, it was said to be imbued “with supernatural powers which could destroy the feynde’s might.” A 12th century Welsh law book stated: “The three items indispensable to a gentleman were his harp, his cloak, and his chessboard, while the three proper things for any man to have in his house were a virtuous wife, his cushion on his chair, and his harp in tune.”


The rebec, which originated in the Arab world, was seen as low-class. It varied in sizes and pitches, though the three-stringed model was most popular.



The hurdy-gurdy was very highly regarded. Before 1300, most were so large they required two players.

Important Medieval musicians in a nutshell:

Josquin Desprez (ca. 1450/55–27 August 1521) created the system of musical notation, and was one of the most important composers of all time. Prior to Desprez, a song or composition was often never played the same way twice.

Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300–April 1377) is the most famous of all Medieval composers. He wrote songs and poetry in his native French, created illuminated manuscripts, and broke boundaries in a quest to make music more personal and dramatic. Many people today consider him avant-garde. His best-known work is Mass of Notre Dame.

Leonius (born ca. 1135) and Perontius (born ca. 1200) made music polyphonous (many voices) instead of monophonous (one voice).

Early Music Resources

Josquin Desprez

Guillaume de Mauchaut

International de Machaut Society

Early Polyphony