Covid, Euclid, and the Isle of Demons

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September 24, 2020 by libroshombre

            A series of unfortunate events crippled my understanding of algebra, but geometry made sense, thanks to Pete Johnson, my creatively entertaining high school geometry teacher, who used imaginary monkeys to illustrate his points, which would have horrified Euclid, that strict compiler of geometric principles.  Geometry was employed by ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Indians, and Chinese to simply measure areas and volumes, but to the Greeks it was also a way to discipline the mind, “a system for learning.”  The Greek term for “mathematics” means “learning,” its study was seen as evidence of civilization, and “for many centuries geometry was a part of high culture as well as an instrument of practical utility,” according to J.L. Heilbron’s “Geometry Civilized: History, Culture, and Technique.”

            2300 years ago, Euclid codified geometry into a book, “Elements,” which became a centerpiece to intellectual life thereafter.  The preface to the first English translation of “Elements” was written in 1570 by Dr. John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s principal mathematician and astrologer, as well as her spy, alchemist, and bookman – his was the largest library in England.  He was also quite a mystic and an original 1659 copy of his posthumous book, “Conversations with Angels,” including many kabbalah charts and occult diagrams, is preserved in Noel Wien Library’s Antiquarian Collection.  

Geometry was historically considered too complicated for women to grasp, but in 1704 a magazine devoted to mathematical and logic puzzles “for the Use and Diversion of the Fair Sex”  called the Ladies’ Diary began publication.  This “almanac that catered to women” was published by John Tipper to support his school in Coventry where he was schoolmaster, and was a success, as thousands of women subscribed and contributed to it.

            Gender identification’s built into the Romance languages, and, according to Illinois University professor Dennis Baron’s “Web of Language” blog, “the French Academy wants you to know that the virus is feminine: la covid-19, not le covid-19 … Radio-Canada is also on the case.”  In March they ordered their broadcasters to use “la covid” since the World Health Organization determined the virus’ gender was feminine” while sequencing the novel corona virus DNA.  One of Barron’s readers responded that in French “virus” is masculine, while “disease” is feminine.  So “coronavirus” is properly masculine, while “COVID” and “COVID19” are diseases, and so feminine.

            Considering diseases feminine seems pejorative, but it follows the historic trend of women getting short shrift, particularly in the arts.  Until recently, women were generally considered second-rate, at best, as musicians, artists, and writers, despite exceptions, like Marguerite de Navarre, AKA the Queen of Navarre.   She lived from 1515-1542, and, with her brother, King Francis I, was a leading figure in the French Renaissance.  In fact, historian Samuel Putnam called her “the First Modern Woman.”  Marguerite’s mother was widowed at 19 but ensured that her daughter received a strong classical education, including Latin, and she became a political and diplomatic force to be reckoned with.

            Her only son, born when she was 38, died six months later.  Her grief led to writing “Mirror of the Sinful Soul,” a religious poem that is “an outpouring of surprising intensity: over 1,400 lines of self-accusation and self-abasement.”  It also reflected a Protestant point of view, and, England’s eleven-year-old Princess Elizabeth, decided to translate it, write it out in her own hand, and even embroider the cover as a present to Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s current queen, and her stepmother.  Elizabeth’s precocious translation became a big seller in England when she became Elizabeth I and courtiers curried favor by publishing it, but the original handwritten copy is preserved in Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

            The Queen of Navarre’s most notable book was her posthumously published “The Heptameron,” which is similar to Boccaccio’s “Decameron” and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” in being a collection of stories told by a group of travelers.  Like the earlier works, the Queen’s dealt largely with romance and sexual escapades, leavened with enough religion to stay somewhat balanced, and they were supposed to be based in truth.   One was the first written account of the adventures of Marguerite de La Rocque, a minor French noblewoman who was marooned for years on the Ile des Demons outside Quebec.

            Marguerite’s “close relative” (uncle, brother, or cousin) was one de Roberval, “a nobleman privateer” according to Wikipedia, and Lieutenant General of New France, who was deep in debt and stood to become wealthy if Marguerite died and he inherited her lands.  Naïve Marguerite, “young and unmarried,” accompanied him to Quebec with some French settlers, one of whom became her lover.  Citing religious outrage, Roberval marooned her and a servant near Quebec on “the Island of Demons” (today known as Caribou Island), and her lover swam to her.  Though unpregnant when marooned, Marguerite had a baby who soon died, her maid and lover quickly followed, but she survived on wild game until rescued several years later by Basque fishermen.  She returned to France, the Queen’s recounting made Marguerite a celebrity, and she settled down as a school mistress.

            Meanwhile, de Roberval met a bad, destitute end, because sometimes, as Euclid noted, “the whole is greater than the part.”

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