Sunday, December 30, 2007

Holy Grail, Holy Prepuce, and What the...???

I was surprised to read on the News for Medievalists blog that there is a new claim about the Holy Grail. A Glasgow historian named Mark Oxbrow believes that he has discovered the artifact on display at the Louvre.

It is the same plate that I described in my last post which described my morning at the Louvre.

Here is it again:

It is pretty, but I am predisposed without even hearing his arguments to not believe this scholar's opinion. I have a hard time believing that something made out of serpentine, which can contain high amounts of asbestos, would be one of the most sought after holy artifacts of all time.

However, since we have a digital picture frame gracing our mantel, I will from now on say, "oooh look, the Holy Grail!" whenever this photo cycles through the rotation.


Last year at this time I wished everyone a Happy Feast of the Holy Circumcision noting that the Julian calendar was designed to have the beginning of the calendar year coincide with the naming ceremony of Jesus Christ as well as celebrating the day of his bris. I had not touched on the idea that his severed foreskin became a holy relic.

Today I discovered that last year Slate magazine covered the disappearance of the Holy Prepuce in Calcata, Italy. In a sidebar Slate claims that during the Middle Ages that there were up to eighteen different purported Holy Foreskins.

However, the one from Calcata was "according to legend" given by Charlemagne to Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in the year 800, the same day he was crowned emperor.

Legend has it that Charlemagne had received the artifact from angels as he was praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

I do not think Charlemagne ever traveled to Palestine. At least, I have not seen that in any of the biographies and histories I have read about him.

So once again, I am skeptical.

There's also the bizarre belief propounded in the seventeenth century by Leo Allatius that when Jesus ascended into the heavens that his foreskin likewise went skyward. Only it then expanded and became the rings of Saturn.

Sure, that is likely.

Or possibly that instead of being in any of the various reliquaries, that the foreskin of Christ was actually the bridal ring wore by Catherine of Siena.

In order to believe that possibility, one has to forgo all logic and depend heavily on mysticism.

And now to the What The...part of my post. As I was websurfing today to find these various links and anecdotes, I came across something I had been blissfully unaware. It is disturbing.

It involves a religious practice after the bris.

I had not given the subject much thought and then when I put in the search term for bris in Wikipedia I was shocked when in that article it mentioned metzitzah b'peh. It is how a mohel treats the surgical site.

"To promote healing" oral suction is applied to cleanse the area of blood.



That is wrong on so many levels. The question becomes, how many levels can I identify?

Before I begin, I must admit that my day job is as a Clinical Laboratory Scientist so bear with me as I don my cyber lab coat and try to walk non-scientists through my reasoning.

First off, saliva does not include any blood clotting agents. Salivary amylase helps to begin the digestion process, but it will not promote coagulation.

Second, mouths and saliva are not sterile.

Some people harbor small amounts of pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus or Haemophilus influenzae as part of their normal flora, and since newborns are without a developed immune system they are especially vulnerable to infection.

Any bacteria can become pathogenic if given the opportunity.

I do not care if modern day mohels use mouthwash before they apply their mouths to a boy's genitals. It is not a sterile procedure.

Lest you think that I am making this up or think that I am being exceedingly gullible in relying upon Wikipedia as my source of information, I did some further digging. Here is an article from the New York Times about a mohel who had performed a circumcision on a boy who later died from herpes he had contracted due to the oral suctioning. It is dated August 2005.

Oy vey.

And then if you want further confirmation, here is an article from the journal Pediatrics about the dangers of transmitting herpes from that cultural practice.

I honestly do not have the heart to read that PDF article, but I offer it as evidence that this is not an Urban Legend. It is real and it is wrong.

There are many religious practices that at the time they were first introduced had rationales that might not have been readily apparent at the time. Such as the prohibition of eating pork. We know it was due to the parasite Trichinella spiralis which causes Trichinosis.

I cannot come up with any justification for applying one's mouth to a bleeding sexual member.

It is just sick and wrong. I do not care about its lengthy and historical tradition. It is abuse.

If I were to witness a physician perform a circumcision in my hospital and then orally suction the surgical site, I would - as a mandated reporter - be required by law to report them to legal authorities for committing sexual abuse.

For anyone who does not consider this practice on neonates as being abusive, you must also consider that circumcisions are also performed on boys and men who convert to Judaism. Imagine a mohel performing that ritual practice on an adolescent or adult male. Would there be any question of it being sexual abuse in your mind?

I am just seriously creeped out by this practice - and well - I had to share.

And on that strange note, Happy New Year everyone!

Anyone want to chime in with their thoughts on holy relics and/or the post-surgical practices of mohels?


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Thursday morning at the Louvre, Part I or Ou est l'epée de Charlemagne?

For those just joining my France travelogue in progress, you might want to start by reading previous posts which can be found here.

In planning for this trip I amassed a long list of sites that I had to see and others that I would like to see if time permitted.

I knew that the Louvre museum was open late on Wednesday nights. I thought it unlikely, but possible that we could have visited the Louvre then.


There was no way we had any energy left after our walking tour, visiting the Cluny, and the Crypte archéologique to squeeze in another major sight-seeing venue like the Louvre. So on Thursday morning we set out to visit what is probably the world's most famous museum.

Earlier in the week we had walked down Rue de Rivoli on our way to see the Tuileries gardens and discovered a fashion district. We struck teenagers, multiple shoe stores, as well as heavy traffic. We decided to avoid that street and instead took the road that paralleled the Seine. The shops on that street tended to be filled with pets and plants. If you want a puppy, kitten or begonia in Paris, go stroll there.

The Louvre itself has a fascinating history that dates back to the twelfth century and Philipe Auguste who built the walls surrounding Paris. It was a fortress designed to protect the city.

Over the years it evolved to being a palace and is now an art musuem.

We entered the courtyard or Cour Carrée and were impressed at its size and grandeur. See if you do not imagine armies being staged on the flagstones.

Of the many classical images and statues gracing the side of the Louvre, my favorite is the goddess of wisdom and victory, Athena.

I tried getting a picture of Athena whenever I saw her in France and she rivals Joan of Arc in popularity, at least by the number of statues I saw.

Before we made our way into the main entrance our eyes spied something that reminded us of home.

Being fans of Stephen Colbert, we had to preserve this memory.

Then we entered the belly of the beast and began navigating our way through the vast holdings. I went to the information desk and asked, "Ou est l'epée de Charlemagne?" and was directed to the first floor of the Richelieu wing.

There we found Joyeuse, the sword associated with Charlemagne, but this artifact was created long after his death.

I do not know if the whereabouts of the real sword used by Charles the Great is even known, but it was still worthwhile seeing something made to honor his memory.

Here is the impressive hilt

and the jewel encrusted scabbard.

It might not be an enchanted blade like the legendary swords of Excalibur, Durindana or Balisarda, but I am sure a sword such as this would have been coveted and the source of endless duels if anyone ever dared to wield it.

The Medieval Objets d'art also contains a statuette that is considered to be either Charles the Great or his grandson Charles the Bald.

And side view.

Either way, I like the ruler on horseback.

One thing that the museum contains that they distinctly attribute to Charles the Bald is this sacramental plate.

As I listened to its description in my headphones I almost burst out laughing when I heard that the plate was made of serpentine.

Serpentine while a beautiful green stone can contain asbestos. Just as the Romans used lead pipes for plumbing without knowing the health hazards, so apparently did the Carolingians use a potential source of asbestos without knowing its potential hazardous nature.

Then again, as long as it does not flake off, I am sure the host would probably be fine just touching the serpentine surface. However, I would not advise churches going out today and procuring serpentine for such uses.

In a neighboring room was a reliquary associated with Charlemagne. It reportedly contains one of his arms.

I saw a lot of reliquaries in France. The idea that saints were dismembered and then had body parts sold and sent all over Europe is something that I as a modern twenty-first century woman find creepy.

I would much rather have saints buried whole and in one place than have their bodies carved up and dispersed like dandelion seeds in the wind. I tried visiting the tomb of Saint Namphaise, but was thwarted by electrical problems at the church. I like the idea of going to one tomb to pay respects to someone rather than having their soul and/or essence chopped up into tiny bits. The idea of praying to an arm, finger, jawbone, et cetera of a holy person is not something that makes me feel comfortable. Instead it feels sacrilegious to do that to someone's body.

I think it is ironic that Charlemagne himself was treated in this manner after he was made a saint since during his reign he donated many reliquaries to churches. Toulouse reportedly had received many such gifts from him, but they no longer know which if any of their remaining reliquaries came from him.

These holy relics from saints helped spur tourism in the form of pilgrimages to the various basilicas. That was part of the medieval economy.

Here is another reliquary in the Louvre claiming to contain a piece of the true cross.

Here is it close up. Whether or not this reliquary contains a true religious artifact or simply a sliver of wood, the intricate and elaborate detail in the piece shows how much the idea of the true cross was worth.

Another religious artifact is the cover for holy writings. I have a hard time imagining that a work with such splendor would ever be used except for ceremonial purposes on rare occasions.

And up close.

From ninth century Metz comes this amazing casket carved from ivory. I love things like this.

Here is another view.

And what survey of the Medieval period would be complete without a good violent scene?

That is about all the pictures I can fit into this post. Next time I revisit this subject I will show pictures of Islamic art in the Louvre as well as other art that we saw since "we were there."


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wednesday afternoon in Paris, Part II - The Crypte Archaelogique

Once again, I am trying to pick up from where I left off on my travels through France. For those new to this blog, previous posts can be found here.

After spending our morning on a walking tour, a leisurely lunch on Rue Mouffetard and then in the afternoon spending a few hours at the Cluny we were tired. Our feet and legs were sore and I was in desperate need of an afternoon nap.

Except, I had more on my agenda to cover that day.

The Crypte archéologique is underneath the large courtyard in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, so it was also in front of Hôtel Dieu the cool historical place we were staying. It was also nearing 4 pm and we needed to go there before closing.

The name fits the place because it is an archaeological site. Ancient Paris or Lutecia can be seen in the stones uncovered here.

I tried my best to pay attention to what things were when we took pictures, but I will admit that due to our exhaustion we looked around at ancient stone work but we did not take good notes.

The maps and the maquettes are easier to explain. Although I should warn anyone planning on visiting Paris that those were part of a special exhibit that I think only lasts until May 2008.

I was particularly interested in these exhibits since it is what historians think Paris looked like at various times in history.

Here is a relief map of the swampy, marshy land mass that was once Lutecia.

Here is a map of the Roman settlement of Lutecia. There is not a lot shown on this map, but you can see the forum, the théâtre, and the citadel (although that is not marked.)

Here is a maquette of Roman Lutecia and you can see that it was a thriving city.

The Romans for all their efforts building this great city did not create much in regards to defense. The most was some ramparts on the island, but not on the left bank which from the above maquette shows was populated. Here is a map of the Roman defensive walls on the island and its proximity to the Palais.

Here is the description they gave of the remnants of the ramparts.

Here are the vestiges of the ramparts that remain.

Because there was not much to protect the city of Paris, it was plundered repeatedly by the Vikings in the ninth century. The left bank suffered tremendously.

Centuries later, Paris was protected from invading armies when Philippe Auguste had a large wall built surrounding the city whose length was about 5,200 meters and enclosed nearly 250 hectares. (According to Jean-Denis G.G. Lepage's The Fortifications of Paris.)

Here is a map of that great wall.

And the maquette showing how densely populated historians believe Paris was at that time.

Here is another maquette that shows the old Hôtel Dieu's location in proximity to Notre Dame. Part of it used to be on top of a bridge over the River Seine.

Compare that to an old wood cut that hangs in the current Hôtel Dieu. You can still see the building crossing the river.

There is also not much space between the buildings, little room for a plaza in front of Notre Dame.

Here's another view of the maquette and this time you can see medieval houses and how crowded they were.

Below is a cross section to see exactly where the Crypte and all its holdings are in relation to Notre Dame. Off on the left of the picture is the cathedral, at the bottom of the picture is where Hôtel Dieu is now situated, the top of the photo is the Seine River and the left bank.

If you squint you can see the statue of Charlemagne represented. (Hint look under the name Charlemagne!).

Ah yes, more ruins and Roman arches!

After finishing here, we needed to rest. Having an extravagant night out on the town was not something we had any energy for. Instead, we grabbed a sandwich baguette, a bottle of wine and we ate in our hotel room. We slept for a few hours and then...we got went out again.

You see, Notre Dame was having a multi-media show about the history of Paris that started every night at nine o'clock. I simply had to see it one night.

We sat in the hard chairs watching the slide show with English subtitles, hearing Gregorian chants and feeling warm air surround us.

Once the show passed the time of Philippe Auguste, I found my eyelids drooping more and more. It was the "I will just close my eyes for a few seconds" promise that made me realize that both of us would be far more comfortable just surrendering to sleep than continue to nod off while sitting upright.

Next time: the Louvre.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

This holiday season, the colors are Red and Black

Left to right: Pat Tyler, JuanitaMartin, Gil Mansergh, Jennie Butler, Debbie Koehler, Linda McCabe, Deborah Taylor-French, Ana Manwaring. Photo by Rob Koslowsky.

Today's blog entry is a fashion tip. It is not something I discovered by reading any magazine or newspaper column. Nope. It comes from my own personal experience of finding myself wearing the same exact outfit as three other people at a recent holiday gathering.

My writers club meets monthly and at our December meeting we had not only a guest speaker but a holiday celebration.

So I wanted to look festive for the occasion. I looked in my closet and pulled out one of my favorite blouses. It is fuschia colored and it looks appropriate in winter. I grabbed a pair of black slacks and then, as an afterthought I paired it with a black blazer.

My color scheme was black, fuschia and black. I thought it looked smart, albeit an uncomplicated look, but it worked for me.

I had no idea that it would be the most popular color scheme of the day.

Juanita Martin first brought that to my attention when she came up to me and said we dressed alike. I looked at her classic red sweater and at first I did not see the commonality. That's because I was stuck on fuschia not being really red. (I had to consciously consider that fuschia was closer to red than say yellow or green.)

Once I got past that temporary mental road block, I saw she was also wearing a black blazer, red shirt, and black slacks. Then I looked at Gil Mansergh and he was wearing the same color combination as well.

Then there were others wearing red and black so we had a group photo taken.

This is the second meeting in a row that Gil and I have dressed alike. In November we both wore camel colored blazers. I hardly ever wear that blazer, and yet that day I did. We looked like twins.

If Gil shows up in January wearing a teal dress to match me than I will really know that something fishy is going on with our wardrobes. (The mental picture of him in a dress is making my eyes cross.)

Seriously, we had a wonderful meeting and we were fortunate enough to have the lovely and talented Jordan Rosenfeld come and speak with us again. This time she had a brand spanking new book to sell and sign. We were in fact her second stop on her book launch.

She talked about her book and the various ingredients you need to create a good dramatic scene. While all of those things are important and I shall read her book once the crazy holiday season is over, I enjoyed her discussing how the book came to be.

Jordan has an MFA in Fiction and Literature and has yet to get any of her novels published. Yet, she has written many articles which have been published about the craft of writing in Writers Digest.

She joked about that, but it is what helped get her the book contract. Jordan was a known commodity to the editors because she had worked with them successfully in the past with articles.

Jordan came up the concept for the book after having worked as a freelance editor for several years and noting similar problems in many different manuscripts. She noticed that many writers found it difficult to create the integral building block of drama, otherwise known as "the scene." She looked through the large catalog of book titles that Writers Digest offered and she did not see one that addressed this topic.

She pitched them the idea. They liked it and then she put forth a proposal which they accepted.

Then all she had to do was write the book.

The old advice of "know your market" is something that Jordan's success story exemplified. She did not just send random queries out for an idea she thought up over breakfast. She identified a niche, she did her research, articulated her idea well, and had established her expertise and credibility with the publisher.

That is how you become successful. You need to know the industry, find your creative niche, and be professional every step of the way.

Left to Right: Juanita Martin, Linda McCabe, Jordan Rosenfeld, Karen Batchelor, Ana Manwaring, Kate Farrell
photo by Rob Koslowsky

Happy holidays everyone!


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Wednesday afternoon in Paris, Part I - The Cluny

If you are new to this blog, I have been concentrating most of my recent entries on reconstructing my trip to France. Previous posts on that topic can be found here.

After my husband and I left Salle de Manger on Rue Mouffetard we walked to the Musée national du Moyen Age also known as the Cluny.

The building itself once housed the abbots of Cluny, and in its basement are vestiges of the Roman baths. The flamboyant gothic arches inside the building can be seen here:

However, I was not as concerned with architecture as I was with the holdings in the museum. First up were the accoutrements of war.

Behold, a shield and dagger.

Then helmets and a buckler.

The plain but utilitarian chain mail which was the armor used for centuries.

One of the nastiest artifacts of medieval warfare is a low tech landmine known as the chausse trape. There are four spikes and there will always be one sticking upwards. It will hurt if you or your horse step on it.

Just looking at it makes me go "owwwww."

In that same room was a beautiful tapestry on the wall from the 15th century featuring Wild Man of the Woods imagery. It is entitled Hommes et femmes sauvages dans un jardin.

The Cluny houses the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in low light, but for me, I preferred the lesser known WMOTW to the popular licorne series.

I also enjoyed the various carved ivories.

Here is an intricately carved horn.

Book covers, most likely for a Bible.

A casket for valuables.

And check out this babe. She is hot.

She even has a satyr hanging around her skirts. She is a lot better looking than this image of Saint Paul that is from either the 6th or 7th century.

I do not know who they used as their contemporary model, but the prominent nose and belly does not create a particularly flattering portrait.

The Cluny also had a collection of ancient jewelry that is dazzling.

I love these Visigothic eagles. I would love to wear reproductions of these.

Here are some smaller pieces of jewelry.

This necklace reminds me of wealthy rap singers.

It looks really heavy and gaudy. Not something that suits my style.

However, I like these buckles.

Just when we think that our ways of life are new, visiting a museum can help ground us in the knowledge that no there are some cultural fashions that are far older than say the 1960s. Here we can see that tremendously large belt buckles has been around for a long time.

I imagine it would be heavy. It might also work to counteract the effects of the belt in holding up the pants. Similar to tool belts on plumbers.

Here is a beautiful belt ornament. Imagine how long it would have taken to make, and how much it cost.

Then there were impressive religious artifacts. I am in awe just looking at them.

We did not get very many good pictures from the Roman baths, and so I will conclude this long post with an image of Jupiter (AKA Zeus) that was found in the basement of the Cluny.

Next time I shall show you images from the Crypte Archaeologique underneath the courtyard of Notre Dame Cathedral.