Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 2001
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Half a century in medieval Paris
An audacious map thief revealed
Treasures from the tomb in Syria
Making manuscripts more accessible
A new take on Shylock

Half a century in medieval Paris

There's no record of how John W. Baldwin was welcomed to Hopkins when he arrived as a PhD candidate in the 1950s. But his valedictory lecture, closing 40 years as a member of the Johns Hopkins history department, was delivered to a packed house.

Baldwin, the Charles Homer Haskins professor of history, received his Hopkins PhD in 1956 and joined the faculty in 1961. Author of nine books, elected to numerous academies including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Baldwin invited the audience at his farewell lecture to accompany him on a tour of Paris in the year 1200.

Baldwin: Au revoir, farewell
Photo by Jay Van Rensselaer
He drew on the major scholarly works of his career, including his latest book, Aristocratic Life in Medieval France: The Romances of Jean Renart and Gerbert de Montreuil, 1190-1230 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). He had turned to the popular romances for a portrait of medieval aristocratic life that could not be gleaned from the laconic Latin clerical records of Philip Augustus's reign.

"Both theologians and chancery clerics wrote in Latin," Baldwin said. "Satisfactory as it was for expressing the concerns of church, school, and monarchy, it obscured those of the vast majority of the population who as laymen were illiterate. While the direct voices of the bourgeoisie of Paris and the peasants of the countryside may remain beyond recovery, I thought that I might be able to hear those of the lay aristocracy if I attended to the contemporary vernacular literature that was composed for their entertainment."

Baldwin cited the romances for more vivid accounts of aristocratic life. For example, Jean Renart described the feast laid out at a knighting: "To count the dishes isn't easy, there were so many: boar and bear and venison, cranes, wild geese, and roasted peacock. The servants did no dishonor to whom they brought a ragout of vegetables and lamb...and fat beef and force-fed goslings. Everyone had the choice of red and white wines..." Bon appetit.

As part of his tour, Baldwin described the "unpaved bogs, virtual sewers of mud, excrement, and garbage" that were the streets of the time. He discussed the virtual immunity from prosecution granted to clerical students (they tended to trash taverns in pre-Lenten festivities), the organization and pedagogical methods of the newly established University of Paris, and Philip's aversion to jongleurs--the actors, musicians, and storytellers who entertained the aristocracy.

In his concluding remarks, Baldwin wryly expressed his faith in the traditional use of texts by historians--in the wake of post-structuralism, whose adherents criticize the use of texts to reconstruct historical context: "Our texts...remain the glass through which we can peer into the past despite fissures, deformities, and opaqueness. ...When the historian despairs of overcoming the obstacles in the text, then the text becomes not glass to see through but a mirror which diverts the historian's vision back to himself or herself... When that occurs, as has become fashionable in medieval studies, the historical endeavor is abandoned, and we would be more candid to retitle ourselves as writers of fictions of the self."

He then smiled and concluded, "I am quite aware that if this valedictory address were offered at a job interview today, the department might find reason to look elsewhere, but I am profoundly grateful to Johns Hopkins University and the guarantees of academic tenure for a half century of freedom to pursue the Paris of 1200 and thereby the goals of the historical endeavor." --Dale Keiger

An audacious map thief revealed

In late December 1995, Miles Harvey was in his favorite Chicago coffeeshop, when a one-column story in the Chicago Tribune caught his eye. The story reported a theft: maps had been sliced from a 1763/64 book, The General History of the Late War, held at Hopkins's George Peabody Library. Harvey, a freelance journalist who harbors a lifelong interest in maps, was intrigued. Thus began his pursuit of Gilbert J. Bland Jr., who turned out to be an audacious map thief and the alleged vandalizer of old books in more than a dozen research libraries across the United States and Canada.

Harvey recently published an account of his effort to understand Bland in The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime (Random House, 2000). "This case captured my imagination from the start," Harvey says. "I wondered about the maps, and about why someone would travel across the country and to Canada to obtain them."

The undoing of Gilbert Bland began on December 7, 1995, when Jennifer Bryan, a University of Maryland PhD candidate working on her dissertation in the Peabody Library, became suspicious about Bland's furtive behavior. She thought she saw him tear a page from a book, but wasn't sure. When he kept glancing over his shoulder at her and finally drew out a card catalog drawer to conceal his hands from her, she reported him to Peabody security. Three security officers confronted him, and Bland hastily gathered his belongings and fled the library. The officers gave chase. When they caught Bland a block away, they found he'd sliced four maps from the General History and stashed them in a notebook, which they recovered from some bushes where he'd tossed it during his flight.

Bland offered to pay $700 in restitution, cash on the spot. After conferring with the university's general counsel, Peabody officials decided to accept the offer. Says Cynthia Requardt, head of special collections for Hopkins's Milton S. Eisenhower Library, "The courts in Baltimore were so clogged with cases that, for what appeared to be a fairly singular incident, it would probably never come to trial, so we might as well accept restitution. In retrospect, it was the wrong decision."

Some maps Bland stole were centuries old.
Says Harvey, "That decision came under a lot of criticism from other libraries. But I want to say that, first, some of the people who are criticizing Hopkins were from libraries that had not done what Hopkins did, which was catch Bland. The second thing is, if Hopkins made a mistake in letting Bland go, they sure didn't make a lot of mistakes after that. Their initial action can be questioned. Their secondary action cannot. It was heroic."

The secondary action came after Donald Pfouts, director of security for Peabody, examined Bland's notebook, which Bland had carelessly left behind after he was released. Pfouts found page after page of lists: maps and books and other research libraries. Peabody officials checked their records and realized that Bland had visited their library three months previously. To their dismay, they examined the volumes he'd requested and found more missing maps. Requardt immediately began to call other libraries, and she posted word of Bland's theft on ExLibris, an Internet listserv monitored by librarians and rare book dealers. "The news of this case spread extremely fast," Harvey notes. "Had Hopkins not taken that action, we would not know to this day that this was a coast-to-coast crime spree."

Requardt's notice went out on December 7, 1995. Four days later, Brown University posted word that Bland apparently had visited its library, and two maps were missing. Similar notice --nine missing pages-- came from the University of Chicago on December 26. Two weeks later, the Newberry Library in Chicago found that Bland had been there in 1994, but nothing seemed stolen. The final tally came to 19 libraries allegedly visited, from Delaware to British Columbia. It's not clear how many books he damaged and maps he stole (he was convicted of four thefts), but the count of maps found in his possession or turned in by people he'd done business with appears to be at least 250, some of them more than four centuries old. Bland brazenly sold stolen maps from a map store he operated with his wife in Tamarac, Florida.

The FBI eventually arrested Bland. He negotiated a plea bargain in which for a reduced sentence (he ended up serving 17 months in jail for federal and state convictions) he would direct authorities to the maps he had stolen. Police found a stash of 150 in a Florida storage locker, and tracked down about 100 more from dealers. Requardt says Peabody has yet to recover all of what was stolen by Bland. In the wake of the thefts, she adds, security at the Peabody Library has been revamped.

Harvey spent four years working on his book. Bland never consented to be interviewed. Says the author, "I ended up thinking that the map I drew of his life was a lot like those maps that he was stealing, in that I think I got the shorelines in a fairly accurate manner, but the interior is still terra incognita." --DK

Treasures from the tomb in Syria

Surprised archaeologists from Hopkins and the University of Amsterdam will be a while figuring out the undisturbed tomb they recently unearthed in Syria. Their discovery is the oldest intact Syrian elite burial chamber ever found. Around 4,300 years old, it promises to yield new understanding of one of the world's first urban societies.

Since 1994, a team led by Hopkins professor of Near Eastern Studies Glenn Schwartz, and Hans H. Curvers, from the Dutch university, have been excavating a site at Umm el-Marra, near the present city of Aleppo. Last summer, they were working on what appeared to be a rectangular room dating from around 1800 B.C. What they discovered inside, however, led them to completely rethink their assumption.

Ancient ceramic vessels: virtually undamaged.
"Inside the room, we started finding complete ceramic vessels," Schwartz recalls. "That's unusual. Generally, there are only two circumstances in which you will find complete vessels. One would be if you had a building that had been burned and the people hadn't had time to rescue the contents. The alternative would be a tomb, where pottery was left and nothing disturbed it thereafter." Even more puzzling, he notes, was that the date of the pots was much earlier than expected. The group had just been excavating from the Middle Bronze Age. But this pottery was from the Early Bronze Age, some 500 years earlier, around 2300 B.C.

In all, Schwartz and his team uncovered eight sets of human remains in the tomb.

"It didn't make any sense to me," says Schwartz.

Then they discovered two, large lozenge-shaped metal objects, which turned out to be made from silver. Says Schwartz: "Who would be leaving silver around? That's when the idea hit us: 'Maybe this is a tomb, not a room.'" When they soon found intact skeletons, the verdict was in. They had indeed found an undisturbed tomb, uncovering eight sets of remains, in all: two women buried each with a baby at her knee, three men, and a third baby. The skeletons were adorned with jewelry of various sorts, the women more so than the men, suggesting they were of higher social standing.

The archaeologists have no idea why the tomb--which was wealthy, free- standing, and in the center of the ancient community--has remained unplundered for millennia. They re-concealed it to prevent any disturbance of the site. They hope to return to further excavate in one or two years. Their initial finds were reported in the January 2001 issue of the journal Antiquity. --DK

Making manuscripts more accessible

For scholars of medieval texts, dispersal of manuscripts is a common source of frustration. If you want to do a close comparison between a manuscript held in Paris and another one that resides in New York, your problem is obvious.

Professors also find themselves stymied, since the centuries-old originals are fragile and cannot tolerate repeated handling every semester by a dozen graduate students in a seminar. Hopkins professor Stephen Nichols set about resolving the second problem, and ended up making progress on the first.

Nichols, chairman of the Hopkins Romance Languages Department, has been deeply involved in an experimental project to digitize three copies of the Roman de la Rose, an exceedingly popular and influential French poem of the 13th century. The manuscripts are held by the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, and the Bodleian Library of England's Oxford University. High-resolution digital images of the manuscript pages now can be examined via the Internet with a Web browser. The viewer can compare folios from separate manuscripts by opening a second browser window, find specific miniatures and rubrics (the decorative initial letters of illuminated manuscripts), and text-search the final 1,000 lines of each copy.


Photos courtesy Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MS. W. 143 Folio LR
Roman de la Rose is an odd but highly significant text. Its first 4,058 lines were composed around 1230 by Guillaume de Lorris, about whom not much more is known than his name. This section is a dreamy and unfinished allegory about the wooing of a maiden. It has been described as a handbook on courtly love. About 50 years later, a poet named Jean de Meun decided to finish the poem, and appended a large tail to a small dog--adding more than 18,000 lines that are a virtual encyclopedia of information and opinions on a wide range of topics contemporary to the 13th century: astronomy, the newly emergent bourgeois class in medieval France, the hoarding of money, the duty of people to increase and multiply, and a variety of other subjects. The poem was copied so many times during the next three centuries that around 300 copies still exist in museums around the world.

When Nichols learned in 1997 that his colleagues in France planned to digitize some of the manuscripts, he suggested moving part of the project to the United States. "I knew the Eisenhower Library at Hopkins had just gotten a new digital camera that was a much higher resolution than anything these guys could afford," he recalls, and he hoped to gain access to the originals held at the Walters, Morgan, and Bodleian.

No model existed for creating digital manuscripts of this sort, so in November 1998, financed by funding from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, medieval scholars and experts in digital technology convened a colloquium to discuss how to convert manuscript pages to pixels. The three manuscripts were scanned, and Brian Harrington of the Eisenhower Library's Digital Knowledge Center and Elizabeth Brown of the library's catalog department created an on-line prototype titled "Roman de la Rose: Digital Surrogates of Three Manuscripts."

A few months ago, the project received an additional $65,000 from the Kress and Gladys Krieble Delmas foundations for the second phase of the project, which will develop more sophisticated search capabilities, improve navigation and display of the manuscripts, and create a database of Old French variant spellings.

Students and scholars who wish to study the three manuscripts can access the digital images via the World Wide Web, leaving the originals undisturbed. They also can compare manuscripts, which vary not just in their decorative elements, but in text. Nichols says that different scribes inserted different interpolations: "The scribe decides, 'This section reminds me of a story, so I'm just going to add this.' So he'll go on for 50 or 60 lines, adding another anecdote. That would seem trivial, but if, for example, [the addition] were a moralizing anecdote, that can change the way in which the whole manuscript was being read. We can study the changes and this can tell us how this thing was being read, and how something in the Middle Ages retained its popularity. This helps us understand cultural movements."

If this prototype succeeds, the Eisenhower and Morgan libraries would like to add other manuscripts. Nichols, who admits the project has grown way beyond his initial expectations, smiles and says, "You might describe this as the enthusiasm of running for office followed by the sinking feeling you get when you're actually in office. The more we got into it, we realized this is a much bigger project than we thought. We bit off more than we could chew, and now we're chewing it." --DK

A new take on Shylock

For most of its 400-year existence, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice has been regarded by readers, audiences, and critics alike as a comedy pitting Christian love against Jewish venality, mercy versus vengeance, and moral paradigms in conflict. Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, demands a pound of flesh from Antonio, a debtor in default. Robert Schneider '74 begs to differ.

The text of the play, says Schneider, simply does not support the standard reading. In his recent book Shylock, The Roman (, 2000), Schneider argues instead that the play is closely modeled on ancient Roman comedy, in which the Elizabethan ideal of Roman honor--serious, self-restrained, and elitist--is mocked by the festive irreverence of Roman comedy. "The traditional paradigm just doesn't explain consistently why the characters behave as they do," he says. "If Portia stands for Christian mercy, why doesn't she give mercy to Shylock?" More fitting, Schneider says, is to view Portia as a player in Roman comedy, in which she takes the villain and deceives him, defeats him, and gives him his due. "That's what happened in a Roman festival," says Schneider. "The boss-man got the business."

Schneider began to develop his own ideas about Merchant as a Hopkins undergraduate. He knew that Shakespeare, as an educated Elizabethan, was familiar with the comic plays of Plautus, and that an acknowledged source for Merchant is Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Romans (a source as well for Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Timon of Athens). Furthermore, Schneider knew that Roman comedy inverted the customary hierarchy: slaves outwit masters, immorality wins over honor. Viewed through Schneider's new reading, Shylock goes from being the ruthless usurer (though he remains, Schneider acknowledges, an anti-Semitic stereotype) to an example of Roman honor: a man who believes in family, law, the established social order, sober responsibility, rightful authority, the sanctity of a bond. "His Jewish identity is secondary to his dramatic function: to be the foil to those comic characters who would subvert the civilized values of thrift, rightful authority, justice, and law."

Schneider is not a professional scholar, but editor-in-chief of Compaq Computer's global intranet publication newsCPQ. Though scholarly presses rejected his manuscript, at least one well-established professional has read Schneider's book. The eminent critic Leslie Fiedler has described it as "relevant and illuminating." --DK