Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

15 MAY, 2012

Animated Anatomy of Shakespearean Slurs


Heartless hinds, fishmongers, and lots of thumb-biting.

Nearly two years ago, The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition gave us high-brow verbal sparring lessons with some of literary history’s finest comebacks, taunts, and effronteries. Now, from educator April Gudenrath and the team at TED-Ed comes this primer on Shakespearean insults, which served to unify the audience and to develop relationships between characters in a very short and sharp way.

Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

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15 MAY, 2012

Sex and Punishment: A 4,000-Year History of Judging Desire


How we went from medieval male marriages to executions to marriage equality.

It’s a momentous year for LGBT rights, with Barack Obama’s recent historic endorsement of marriage equality reminding us how far we’ve come since the days of legally punishing sexual orientation — for a grim flashback, we need look no further than computing pioneer Alan Turing, whose centennial we’ll be celebrating next month and who committed suicide shortly after being criminally prosecuted for his homosexuality. Whether bigotry can ever be wholly uprooted from insecure hearts and narrow minds remains to be seen, but we’ve certainly come a long way. How, exactly, did we get here?

In Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, writer and lawyer Eric Berkowitz explores the millennia-long quest to regulate and mandate one of the strongest drivers of human behavior, and the tragic deformities that result from the dictatorship of external authority over the most intimate of inner realities. Tracing how we went from the male bonding ceremonies commonly performed in medieval Mediterranean churches to the lesbian executions in 18th-century Germany, along the entire spectrum of cultural attitudes towards mistresses, goat-lovers, prostitutes, medieval transvestites, adulterers, and other sexual-norm nonconformists, Berkowitz brings an eye-opening lens to one of the most mercilessly judged yet universal aspects of being human.

In the period up to roughly the thirteenth century, male bonding ceremonies were performed in churches all over the Mediterranean. These unions were sanctified by priests with many of the same prayers and rituals used to join men and women in marriage. The ceremonies stressed love and personal commitment over procreation, but surely not everyone was fooled. Couples who joined themselves in such rituals most likely had sex as much (or as little) as their heterosexual counterparts. In any event, the close association of male-marriage ceremonies with forbidden sex eventually became too much to overlook as even more severe sodomy laws were put into place.

Particularly interesting is a discussion of same-sex female relationships, which most scriptures — even those most vehemently condemning of male-male sex — have historically ignored, not because those were considered acceptable but because they appeared too unfathomable to be considered at all:

Can two women love each other sexually? Eighteenth-century morals said no, at least where the females involved were respectable. Among the better classes, lesbian relations were impossible to imagine. Good women could love and embrace each other, sleep together, and write each other passionate letters; all that was noble. But loving and making love were entirely different matters. Unless they were gratifying their husbands, women of ‘character’ were imagined as sexually numb creatures. British judges allowed that females of ‘Eastern’ or ‘Hindoo’ nations might act differently, but not the women of the ‘civilized’ world.

Boing Boing has an excerpt. Sex and Punishment is fascinating in its entirety.

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14 MAY, 2012

René Magritte’s Little-Known Art Deco Sheet Music Covers from the 1920s


From wallpaper to Golconda by way of Art Deco.

Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte may have carved his place in art history as a master of mind-bending, advertising-influenced imagery at the intersection of aesthetics and philosophy, but he also had a little-known early commercial career like other subsequently famous artists, including Warhol. Young Magritte made rent by working as a draughtsman at a wallpaper factory and designing graphic ephemera, among which were some 40 sheet music covers he produced in the 1920s, nearly two decades before Alex Steinweiss invented the album cover as we know it today.

'Marche des Snobs,' sheet music cover (1924). 13 3/4x10 1/2 inches, 35x26 3/4 cm. J. Buyst, Brussels

'Arlita / Chanson Lumineuse,' sheet music cover (c. 1925). 13 1/4x10 1/2 inches, 33 1/2x26 3/4 cm.

'Mes Rêves,' sheet music cover. 1926. 13 1/2x10 1/2 inches, 34 1/4x26 3/4 cm. Éditions Musicales de l'Art Belge, Brussels.

'Le Tango des Aveux,' sheet music cover (1926), 13 3/4x10 1/2 inches, 35x26 3/4 cm. Éditions Musicales de l'Art Belge, Brussels.

Nuits D'Adie/Fox - Trot. Sheet music cover (1925), 13 3/4x10 1/4 inches, 35x26 cm. Éditions Musicales de l'Art Belge, Brussels.

'Un Rien … (Nothing),' sheet music cover (1925). 13 3/4x10 3/4 inches, 35x27 1/4 cm. Éditions Musicales de l'Art Belge, Brussels.

For more on the delightfully obscure nooks of art history, see Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Master Painters and Sculptors.


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