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Time-Travel Gentlemen, Please On:2010-09-11 00:00:00

So I'll admit right at the beginning that I find a certain irony in the fact that there is so much high-tech, on-line, modern stuff devoted to folk who study ancient things. It makes them sort of like... environmentalists armed with chain saws.

Anyway my particular bit of intellectual clear-cutting is that I belong to the ANSAX-L internet mailing list1, a modern tribute to the ancient age of the Anglo-Saxons or, more properly, the Old English. It so happened that some time ago2 and for a whole week, what I like to think of as the great electro-temporal divide was highlighted by a thread (or since I'm sure we're all scholars here perhaps I should say a topos3, or maybe even a tropos4) on the subject of what it would be like to travel back in time to the Old English Age and drop in unannounced on our ancestors. Now, along with a lot of speculation about temporal paradoxes (you know, along the lines of that old 'What would happen if I went back in time and killed my own grandfather?' sort of thing---and let me take a moment to say here that it troubles me, deeply: I just don't understand why each and every philosopher of time travel has it in for their grandfathers. Is this some sort of deep psychological thing, displacement caused by annoyance with those elderly professors in time-travel school who keep pooh-poohing the very notion---or is it something much darker, about very stern and Victorian grandfathers, that promotes homicidal time-travel research in their grandchildren? I don't know, in fact all I do know on the subject is that my own paternal grandfather used to cut all his firewood to exactly the same length using what I’ve always assumed was an Imperial Standard piece of wood as a template, which he then hung from a nail on the wall. Anyway along with that, and along with some very interesting discussion of various Science Fiction stories, and along with a very Post Modern  sub-thread in which one person deplored the very idea of actually observing the Anglo-Saxons first-hand, on the grounds that it would stop him keeping a critical distance from them as the subject of his study: that visiting them should only ever be part of a thought-experiment: or to give it its proper name a gedankenexperiment5: that it would completely stop him being a scholar of the Anglo-Saxon to try actually visiting an Anglo-Saxon.

Yes, yes, along with all that, by far the most interesting aspect of the whole discussion was the amount of effort that had to be put into fighting that most dreadful example of ageism: Middle-Ages-ism.

Now, to explain, let us try our own gedankenexperiment here, since it’s such a nice word.
So... take a moment and think, what picture comes into your mind when you try to imagine someone living in Anglo-Saxon times?
Well, if your answer is poor, nasty, brutish and short, then you are dead wrong and have fallen for that Hobbes-goblin6 of modern little minds, a foolishly consistent bias against our grandfathers of old. It is a bias that starts around the time of Dante and has run its race from then right down to the time of, oh, Fittipaldi (or some other Emerson7). I suppose it makes us feel better about ourselves to imagine our ancestors as dirty and smelly with bad teeth and short lives. And it is all (largely) a load of old sheep's droppings. Take the notion that the early English didn't bathe: that they had to be cut out of their stiff and filthy clothes every decade or so, with some regularity, and whether they needed to or not. This calumny owes its popularity, in all probability to that vicious book 'A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur' by Mark Twit8.
There is loads of evidence for frequent (if usually not actually daily) bathing by most Early Mediaeval residents of England, and Old-English-period Vikings (who actually did do it daily) were even excoriated for using their excessive hygiene to pick up the sexiest English birds, indeed the Church even had to object, from time to time, to co-educational bathing (which, while it might give its participants quite an education, could hardly be considered dirty).
And finally, my little Mother Carie's Chickens9, how do you think teeth from before the time of refined sugar compare to ours?

So, along (I suspect) with most of the ANSAX-Listers, let me insist that we have no more of this Middle-Ages-ism---or I'll gnash my gums at you.

Cheerio for now
from Richard Howland-Bolton


The title is a reference to the traditional calling, in a pub, of ‘time’ at closing time, that is of course when pubs in Britain actually had closing times.
T.S.Eliot also alludes to it in the pub scene of The Waste Land (The Waste Land: II A Game of Chess l.141 et inf.)


1 ANSAX-L---Anglo-Saxon and Northern European history and literature: ANSAX-L is a special interest group for scholars of the culture and history of England before 1100 C.E. Scholars interested in the later English Middle Ages and those interested in the early Medieval period throughout Europe are also encouraged to join the list. You can join this group by sending the message "sub ANSAX-L your name" to

2  Good Lord, several years actually

3   Gk:τόποϛ place ‘A traditional motif or theme (in a literary composition); a rhetorical commonplace, a literary convention or formula.’ OED

4   ad. L. tropus a figure of speech, ad. Gk:τρόποϛ a turn ‘1. Rhet. ... a figure of speech; figurative language....’
in this case I'm thinking in particular of:
‘5. In the Western Church, A phrase, sentence, or verse introduced as an embellishment into some part of the text of the mass or of the breviary office that is sung by the choir.(Tropes were discontinued at the revision of the missal under PopPius V in the 16th cent.)’ OED

5  G., f. gedanke thought + experiment experiment. OED

6  Hobbes-goblin: conflation of the philosopher and the puca (for puca, see additionally this .)

7  Emerson Fittipaldi, who never (as far as I know) maligned the Mediæval period, unlike Ralph ‘Where’s-WaldoEmerson who did. (and think yourselves lucky that I stopped there and didn’t bring in Emerson, Lake & Palmer , etc)

8  Or whatever name he hid behind: he of the laboured joke and the nasty disposition

9   Mother Carie's Chickens: conflation of a mis-spelled name for the Storm Petrel, Mother Carey's Chicken (Hydrobates pelagicus ) for no very good reason, with the dental disease for a pretty-good reason.

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