Diapers, Jokes, and Mercy Seats

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August 5, 2022 by libroshombre

            She was known as Maud to the Saxon serfs, and Matilda in the Latin by the nobility, but either way she was the ill-tempered Empress of the English-Normandy empire that was established by her grandad, William, whom his Saxon serfs called The Conqueror.  Matilda was overly acerbic, according to the public library’s nonfiction graphic novel titled “Corpse Talk: Queens & Kings and Other Royal Rotters” by Adam and Lisa Murphy.  She had some cause for her irritability; at age eight she was married off to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, but she loved that part of her life.  As the Murphys suppose she said, “I was the first lady of Europe’s most powerful empire!  I was loved and respected, and everyone had to do what I said.”  Then her worm turned when her big brother died in the “White Ship Disaster.”

            The White Ship was the vessel carrying William, the 17-year old heir to the English throne, from Normandy to England while his dad, Henry I, was on another, faster ship.   William and the entire crew became wildly drunk, decided to take a shortcut to overtake his father, hit a rock and drowned – “sort of a medieval joyriding accident” – and her dad named Matilda the heir apparent.  As described in Brewer’s Dictionary of Fact & Fable, the White Ship Disaster was disastrous to the country as well, since William’s “death led to the conflict for the crown between Stephen, who was the grandson of William the Conqueror, and Matilda, or Maud, the daughter of Henry I.”  This period was known as “the Anarchy”; it wasn’t the first Plantagenet civil war – her uncles had one following the Conqueror’s death – but this conflict ground on for 15 years, during which Matilda punched the King of Scotland, her uncle, in the head for suggesting she act more civilly, and she was kicked out of London in a popular uprising.  Nevertheless, her son won the war and eventually became King Henry II.

            Reading about Matilda’s hissy fits was fun because the “Corpse Talk” series calls itself “the hilarious and mind-expanding comic book talk show that brings the dead famous to life!”  I glanced through “Living Like a Tudor,” another library book, and though the writing wasn’t engaging, two worthy items merited further study: a photo of cathedral floor tiles in a “diaper pattern,” and another of a misericord.   I know baby diapers all too well but hadn’t a clue about a diaper pattern, until I consulted the Online Etymology Dictionary who revealed the word’s interesting past.  In the 1350s, diapers were “costly silken fabric of one color having a repeated pattern of the same color woven into it … perhaps via Medieval Latin ‘diasprum’ from Medieval Greek ‘diaspros’ (‘thoroughly white’) … from ‘dia’ (‘thoroughly’) + ‘aspros’  (‘white’) … ‘Aspros’ originally meant ‘rough,’ and was applied to the raised parts of coins (among other things), and thus it was used in Byzantine Greek to mean “silver coin,” from which the bright, shiny qualities made it an adjective for whiteness.” Our modern term “diaper,” originally meant “textile fabric having a pattern not strongly defined and repeated at short intervals,” and evolved in the 1400s to mean “linen where the pattern is indicated only by the direction of the thread, the whole being white.”  It changed to mean “a napkin or cloth of diaper;” and, finally, in 1837, the modern sense emerged: “a square piece of cloth for swaddling the bottoms of babies.”

            The misericord, (aka “mercy seat”) was popular among medieval church goers, since the prayers were lengthy and required participants to stand with hands raised throughout.  Some unknown woodworker invented a small shelf to go underneath the pews that could be lowered so a standing person could lean back against it the during prayers for physical relief.  The first mention of misericords was in the 11th century BCE when elaborate carvings were beginning to decorate churches, and Wikipedia’s article on them mentioned that “it was the apprentices who were allowed to carve the seats, while the masters did the more impressive works.”  Wikipedia noted that “the vast majority of English misericords date from the 14th and 15th centuries and are curiously most often depictions of secular or pagan images and scenes, entirely at odds with the Christian iconography and aesthetic that surround them.”  In other words, they’re diverting and fun.  Try googling images using “strange misericord” and judge for yourself.

            My personal library contains lots of fun history books, the poster child of which is Debra Hamel’s “Reading Herodotus: A Guided Tour through the Wild Boar, Dancing Suitors, and Crazy Tyrants of ‘The History’.”  It’s not in our public library, sorry to say, but if you want a fun way to enjoy an almost unreadable classic, Hamel’s book is worth seeking out through the interlibrary loan program.  She wrote that “Herodotus traveled around the ancient world … sightseeing and talking to people and digesting their stories.  The result of his inquiries is a seminal work of western literature … the prose masterpiece he composed – a mix of geography and ethnography, political and social history, mythology and propaganda … can’t be faulted because Herodotus fails to adhere to historical standards that didn’t exist yet when he was writing.” 

            “Besides,” she continued, “Herodotus’ ‘History’ is a fun read … filled with sex and violent death and divine prophesies.  It’s also a very long book … What’s needed with Herodotus … is a ‘good parts’ version of ‘The History,’ a book for the everyday reader who’s unlikely to slog through all the ‘begats’ to get to the juicy bits … a loose retelling of Herodotus’ account, with obscure reference explained and the boring bits left out … A look at the table of contents of this version suggests that my own interests tend to the scatological, sexual, and sophomoric … In other words, lengthy descriptions of dedicatory gold ingots?  Out.  But stories about medicinal urine and retaliatory cannibalism and historical significant flatulence were keepers.”

            That’s the sort of history sure to capture readers hearts and imaginations, and, like all effective communicating, it’s all in the telling.  That’s what Marcus Tullius Cicero claimed when he wrote an essay on humor described in a modern translation by Michael Fontaine: “How to Tell a Joke.”  It was a section in Cicero’s “On the Orator,” a study in the power of persuasion, for to him, cracking a good joke was a political and legal weapon for bringing debate opponents low. His book constructs a fictional dialog that debates whether we can learn to be funny or must be born humorous.  A later Roman, the poet Horace, said “a joke cuts through matters of importance more efficiently than severity.”  But Cicero employed wisecracks so often that some thought it damaged his arguments, but others, like the later Roman scholar Macrobius, considered Cicero “the most hilarious orator in Roman History.”  In his book, “Saturnalia,” Macrobius included 53 of Cicero’s jokes, that were drawn from a complete (but now lost) 3-volume collection of Cicero’s witticisms that his loyal slave-librarian, Tiro had compiled.

            Unfortunately for us, ancient Roman humor didn’t age well.  In fact, to Romans the word “humor” meant “biochemical,” while the Latin term for a joke is “ridiculum,” and if someone was “salsus,” they were either “briny” or “salted with humor.”  History has shown that ancient humor is rarely funny, but some modern versions aren’t either.  In “Funny Things Happened on the Way to the Forum,” an InsideStory.org article, Brett Evans described an example: “In the street one day, Cicero overheard a would-be politician canvassing for votes. This man’s father was a well-known cook. Cicero interrupted the man’s political spiel and said, ‘Roast assured — I’ll support you!’ So there you have it. The dad joke was invented over 2000 years ago by the greatest orator of the Roman Empire.”

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