Monday, June 26, 2006

The Medieval "Bling" Factor

(As Glimpsed from Wikipedia)

My long-lost Aussie friend Wendy Bracewell once told me an amusing story of a xenphobic little Australian boy in elementary school who reacted to his teacher's reference to "foreigners" by muttering,
"Furriners are bastards."

His teacher overheard and admonished him, "Johnny! Now, that's not very nice. This year, I'm going to try to change your mind about foreigners."

And she spent a lot of classtime that year teaching about the many foreigners who had made various sorts of important discoveries, invented various types of useful devices, or accomplished various kinds of great feats.

At the end of the year, she turned to Johnny, who had quietly listened to all of the evidence demonstrating the greatness of foreigners, and said, "Well, Johnny, I guess you have a different opinion of foreigners now."

Johnny grinned and said, "Yep. Furriners are clever bastards."
I'll admit to some conflicting allegiances here. I rather like Johnny's attitude. On the other hand, here in Korea, I'm one of those clever bastards. Well, I like to think so. The clever part, anyway.

And as one teaching Medieval English literature ... among other things that I don't do especially well, such as teaching American culture and Western civilization ... I find my modernist self in the position of defending the 'Dark' Ages to my little-Johnny students who think that the Medievals were primitive barbarians.

Well, they weren't primitive and barbaric, and here's one more bit of evidence. According to a BBC News report, "Rare sword had 7th Century bling," a sword found at Bamburgh Castle in 1960 that had been fogotten by the archaeological world has been rediscovered and metallurgically tested:
Experts at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, say X-rays of the 7th Century sword prove it was made from a unique method using slices of carbonised iron .... They revealed the blade of the sword, which predates the Vikings, was made up of six, individual strands of carbonised iron bonded together .... Archaeologist Paul Gething said [that] ... "What makes it unique is that the billet is made up of six strands of carbonised iron, which have been micro-welded to bond them together. There have been swords found before which have been made of up to four strands, but none have ever been found with six. This is a vastly superior sword which, in its time, would have had serious bling factor."
See? Those Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons of the seventh century had highly sophisticated metallurgical technology. I guess that changes your opinion of the Medievals.

Little Johnny grins and says, "Yep. Them Mid-Evils was sophisticated barbarians!"



At 6:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Bamburgh Castle, know it well, but I have to come to news from Korea to hear this. That says something for blogging. What a great story about "bastards". This sword must be the "bling" sword that ended the life of Beowulf's "mere-steppers".

At 6:38 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, maybe you can help me on something, too.

What, exactly, does "bling factor" mean? More precisely, what does "bling" mean?

I have a sense for its meaning, but I've never heard it before.

I think that I've been away from an English-speaking environment for too long...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jewellery? I can't quite figure out how that characterizes this sword. Does it imply great value? Status?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:44 PM, Blogger Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...


As my wife owns a store that sells beauty supplies marketed to black women, I speak with some authority on the "bling" issue.

"Bling" means shiny and implies value. Remember cartoons when you were a kid? That glint that comes off of diamonds is called "bling bling."

More broadly, "bling" implies an ostentatious show of wealth. Note that the wealth can be suggested, rather than real, as some of the $.99 jewelry we sell is said to have "bling."

At 3:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK. "Bling". Dr Richard Scott Nokes is quite right, with just a bit of North English translation added. "Bling" is a word that has filtered through American hip-hop into popular UK youth culture. It is used to refer to jewellery, particulary gold. There has been quite a cult made of popular archeaology programmes in the UK...inevitably, the media don now speaks with a mixture of academic and street lingo. Hence, "serious bling factor". In the UK, "bling" implies cool/having credibility. A parallel is being drawn between the hearth-guardians and a hip-hop posse, so the hip-hop "bling" passes over into the Anglo Saxon world to mean "kudos", as swords indeed did in that warrior ethos.
Also, he appears to be using "factor" in the sense of "X-factor" which has currently passed into English to mean "that special something". He is reading from one culture over to another to show his modern grasp of both! So, to translate, "bling" implies that the sword had a star quality that conveyed status on its owner. Hell, and you thought Medieval English was abstruse.

At 4:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Steph, thanks for the compliments.

Gypsy Scholar accepts them with aplomb.

I, however -- the offline Jeffery Hodges -- know that I am not so clever and in the presence of the unwarranted compliment stand abashed to feel how awfully good the virtue of cleverness would be.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scott, thanks for the explanation in the American context. I've lived nearly 20 years away from the States, and the longer that I stay away, the less that I know.

Eshuneutics, thanks for the explanation in the British context. I agree that our language is abstruse, especially when we hear it explained in all of its abstruseness, but you did a fine job of clarifying the obscure, glittering bling.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:11 AM, Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

I've been to Korea and I got the impression that one of the things in the Korean past that they were most proud of was the ironclads they used to defeat the 16th c Japanese invasion with: the turtleboats.

Could you make a connection? Or don't they care about turtleboats any more.

Don't feel too bad about not knowing "bling." If you weren't a hard core hip hop fan, "bling" probably was unknown to you before 2005.

At 7:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The recognition of how sophisticated "Dark Age" swords were is well over fifty years old, but the news media keeps treating it as an amazing new discovery. (I am very tired of astonished reports that recent analysis has revealed that the Vikings didn't make their own best swords, but imported them; which has been known for about a hundred years, and is exactly what European records and the Icelandic sagas both say pretty explicitly! Yes, selling swords to the Viking was regarded about as favorably as selling Winchesters and whiskey to the Indians in a Western movie; and it was probably much, more more profitable.)

The present blade does sound exceptionally complex, and correspondingly expensive, though. Why this would have had a visual aspect -- a bling factor -- may not be immediately obvious.

Students of Old English may be familiar with what are called pattern-welded blades (an alternative term for "micro-welding," which doesn't sound so incredibly high-tech) from notes to "Beowulf." Or, even better, from H.R. Ellis Davidson's wonderful book on "The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England," which decades ago explained the metallurgy involved to humanities types in the English-speaking world. It is a little dated, but still worth reading. And is very good on how Migration-Age to Viking-Age swords are described in the (mostly later) texts.

It seems that the contruction method allowed interesting patterns to be brought up when the blade was properly polished -- rather like the Japanese katana, although the intended result was different, and possibly much flashier. Especially if the image of a snake rippling down a groove in the center of the blade in Germanic literature is more than a conventional figure of speech.

The sword's intended owner may have needed to do no more than display the bare blade in the correct light, and then flex his wrist a bit, to let knowing onlookers see that it must be quite remarkably complex, and correspondingly sharp, flexible, and strong. Not a sword a wise man would want to come up against.

At 1:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Steve, thanks for the comment. Interesting that you should mention those 'iron'-clad turtleboats. According to this JoongAng Daily article, "The worst calamity in Korean history," a certain scholar named Samuel Hawley disagrees with other Korean scholars:

"Mr. Hawley's study of contemporary descriptions inclines him to believe that the turtle shells were simply heavy wooden roofs with iron spikes to repel enemy boarders"

So if I were to allude to the turtleboats, I'd have to bring up this new theory and then have to face a lot of angry Korean students.

Therefore, trying to interest the students in a Medieval sword by a reference to Korean history might backfire in this instance.

But the suggestion is interesting. Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian, thanks for the excellent information, and especially for the remark about "pattern-welded blades," which is a much better expression than the high-tech "micro-welding," as you have noted.

I knew that there was a better way to refer to the welding technique but couldn't dredge it up.

Jeffery Hodges

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