Lucretius and the Renaissance

WikipediaIt’s fairly clear, even after reading only a few verses, why Lucretius’s didactic poem, On the Nature of Things – De Rerum Natura –  made such an impact on thought, philosophy, religion and science in the Renaissance. It must have been like a lighthouse in the dark night; a “Eureka” moment for many of the age’s thinkers.

For others, especially the church leaders, it must have arrived like a mortar shell among their intellectual certainties and complacencies; shattering walls and window. An act of war that threatened to tear down whole schools of thought and belief.

While today his descriptions of atoms, void, and immortal substance may seem obvious and even a little quaint, they were revelations then, in the Renaissance. They shook the comfortable world picture of the Renaissance and challenged both faith and science.

Yet Lucretius wrote his poem in the time of Julius Caesar, before the Christian church even began. Then it was lost for more than 1,400 years, to be rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Poggio was hunting lost manuscripts through European monasteries, trying to copy them so he could restore the lost words of the Romans for everyone to read. His discovery of On the Nature of Things was serendipitous in the extreme,* but it opened a Pandora’s box of effects.

Stephen Greenblatt, in his excellent book, The Swerve, about the fortuitous discovery and its impact, opens Chapter Eight with this:

On the Nature of Things is not an easy read. Totaling 7,400 lines, it is written in hexameters, the standard unrhymed six-beat lines in which Latin poets like Virgil and Ovid, imitating Homer’s Greek, cast their epic poetry. Divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease. The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high.

So it’s a tough, challenging read, as much so today as it ever was. I’m reading it, but have to admit it’s a bit of a slog, even in the modern Penguin edition.

Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret.
Life is one long struggle in the dark.
Book II, line 54.

It’s astounding how anyone in Caesar’s day could by reason, logical, analysis and inference alone – no highly technical equipment, no advanced mathematics, no electron microscopes, no particle colliders, no Hubble telescope – deduce the structure of the universe was based on atoms. And then to infer that those atoms were constantly in motion, indestructible and timeless.

That’s what the Epicurean philosophers did. Lucretius, perhaps the last of them (or certainly at least the last outstanding Epicurean) put their theories and ideas together into one long, rhetorical poem to teach his fellow Romans what Epicureans stood for.

In doing so, Lucretius deconstructs and dismisses the theories of his contemporaries about the nature of the universe, using the same tools of thought and reason. Those theories – now long dismissed –  fossilized into accepted dogma for many centuries before his book was rediscovered. On the Nature of Things had no less an impact on Renaissance thought than On the Origin of Species had on modern thought.

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Amo, Amas, Amat…. and what?

Wheelock's LatinMy well-thumbed copy of Eugene Ehrlich’s book, Amo, Amas, Amat and More, is dated 1985. It’s amusingly subtitled “How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others.”

It’s still in print, it seems, or was as recently as 2006. I’ve read my copy on and off for the past 25-plus years, but have not been able to effectively astonish anyone with my grasp of Latin.

Possibly the reason for this is that my grasp of Latin is small. Very small. I had a single year of Latin classes in high school; lessons mostly relegated to the dustbin of my mind along with solving quadratic equations. The rest I’ve scrounged from other books and sources. It’s less a grasp than a smattering of random bits.

I’d like it to be better. As in to actually be able to read and understand at least elementary Latin, not merely recognize that the words on the page are in Latin. Which is, at present, Greek to me (if you’ll pardon the inexecrable joke…). And certainly better able to write it than cutting-and-pasting the inevitable Lorem ipsum placeholder into a draft design project.

So last week I took the plunge and ordered a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, 7th Edition, from Amazon with the intention of teaching myself. And hope not get too distracted by other books, baking, computer games, politics, pets and Friday housework… ooh, a new ukulele….

My learning accomplishments in Latin to date include reading the first 40 or so pages (mostly introduction and pronunciation basics) and memorizing the present tense verb conjugations of two -are and -ere verbs in Lesson One. Which means I’m about a hundred years of effort from having enough Latin in my grey matter to astonish anyone other than my dogs.

Laudo, laudas, laudat, laudamus, laudatis, laudant… plus the imperative: lauda and laudate. Impressed yet? Yeah, so were my dogs. But it’s one small step further along this path than last week. A journey of a thousand li starts beneath one’s feet, as Lao Tzu wrote. This is my early footing, then.

I dug my Ehrlich off the shelf this morning, along with a couple of aged Latin dictionaries and every book about Latin I could find in my collection. It’s a fairly thin lot. But I need some extra help as struggle through Wheelock’s Latin on my own – a lot more than I currently have on the shelves.

I need at least one collection of Latin verbs nicely conjugated for my enjoyment, plus grammar guides, workbooks, and some better dictionaries. And maybe some source material (interlinear translations would be nice), like the one I have for the Canterbury Tales).

Ka-ching, the Amazon.ca cash register is singing (hinc illae lacrimae…) (okay, I had to dig that one out of a file of Latin phrases…)

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Corn and other breads

Corn breadThe last loaf of January, 2014 was a machine-made corn bread, made using a recipe from Washburn’s & Butt’s 300 Best Canadian Bread Machine Recipes book that I’ve mentioned previously. It’s a good book for bread machine users.

Unlike my previous efforts to tinker with bread recipes, I used the basic, printed 1.5-lb. recipe without any alterations this time (not even in the salt). Medium crust setting, basic (white) bread menu selection. The results were good, if not spectacular.

The recipe calls for 1/3rd cup of cornmeal. I used a commonly-available, supermarket brand, the sort I often use for dusting pans, parchment paper and the pizza peel, to prevent sticking. However, it didn’t really give the bread a noticeable corn flavour or the mealy/gritty texture one expects in corn bread and muffins.

I later found a bag of Bob’s Red Mill medium grind cornmeal which is less refined and will likely impart more flavour next time I make this bread, and likely heighten the texture.

Bob’s Red Mill products are available at several local supermarkets. I don’t know what sort of cornmeal is available at the local Bulk Barn, but will check next time I’m there.

Corn breadThe bread came out with a nice, light and distinctly yellow crumb, consistent throughout the loaf and evenly cooked. It had a light top crust, but a bit crunchier side and bottom.

The flavour is pleasant – in part because the recipe called for an egg (and I had some free-range eggs on hand, which are always tasty), 1 tbsp honey, and 1/4 cup skim milk powder. These add to both the texture and taste.

We tried the bread with soup one day, and with beans-on-toast the next. The cornmeal makes for a crumb that doesn’t stay together as well as an all-wheat bread, so it has a tendency to break apart. It toasts well, however. This week we will likely finish the loaf with some four-bean chili (not, of course chili con carne, which is Texan, not a Mexican dish) one night for supper.

Next time I will try some variations with this bread, aside from using the better cornmeal. I will look up cornmeal recipes online, too, to see what amounts others recommend. I don’t know if 1/3rd cup is sufficient, or if additional cornmeal will make the crumb even more friable.

I may add some gluten flour to boost the stickiness; this may avoid the tendency for the bread to crumble. I may also try buttermilk instead of water and milk powder. I’d also like to try substituting agave syrup or even molasses for honey, and maybe even some Osprey bread flour (from the K2 mill in Beeton) for a portion of the unbleached white.
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Reading Thucydides at last

BookshelfSomewhere on one of my bookshelves, is an old Penguin paperback copy of History of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. It’s a bit worn, pages lightly yellowed, glue a little brittle. It’s been sitting on the shelf, stacked with many other paperbacks, piled two deep, floor to ceiling, for the past two decades and more.

It’s never been read, not completely. I read the introduction, maybe some small sections, back in my wargaming days, 30 or 35 years ago. Like many of its companions on that shelf, it’s a book I put aside for the days when I expected to have more time to read such works. My retirement. Insert canned laughter here.

Of course, when I bought it, in the 1970s, I hadn’t expected to be in politics, writing books and articles on municipal issues, blogging, playing the ukulele, and furiously baking in my “golden years.” How did I ever get so busy?

Nowadays, it seems these books may have to wait a little longer to be read. Some of them, anyway. The pile of books in progress beside the bed seems to get refreshed with new titles all too often, and few of the older ones make their way into it.

Thucydides sits on the shelf with similar Penguin editions of Herodotus, Xenophon, Josephus, Suetonius, Caesar – historians of ancient Greece and Rome. He shares shelf space with Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hardy, Wolfe, Baudelaire, Austen and other great writers of fiction. Many of them were put aside for later, although others have been read.

There’s a whole collection of Latin American authors I picked up in the 70s; mostly read back then, but many deserve rereading. There are collections of classic Japanese and Chinese poets. Books by popular modern authors – Michener, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Burroughs (read most of those), Kerouac (ditto), Heller, Vonnegut. There are philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Voltaire, Hobbes, Suzuki, Spinoza. Plays by Wilde, Shaw and Sophocles. Essays by Orwell and Voltaire.

Some days, I despair I’ll ever get to them. They deserve to be read, all of them. Each is a gateway to a whole world, a universe, even. Now and then I pick one up, read a chapter, maybe a poem or an essay, but it goes back on the shelf for years after that.

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Water, water, everywhere

K2 flour breadHydration matters. Not just to athletes and long distance runners. It matters to bakers. How much water is in your dough is crucial to how the crumb develops. It’s amazing how a few grams more or less of water can make a real difference in the resulting loaf of bread.

This week I did a little experiment that got me thinking about hydration. I made a loaf of bread in the machine using the “French” recipe and settings, (see my previous post about making French bread in the machine) but this time substituting the same volume of K2 organic bread flour for the called-for white bread flour. The result was a dense, misshapen loaf – tasty but not anywhere near the result I had expected. Very crisp crust. And I think hydration was the reason.

Or, more accurately, the lack of sufficient hydration for that kind of flour. But because the recipe is in volumetric measurements, not weight, the calculation of actual hydration is at best inexact. In future, I will have to measure then weigh the ingredients before mixing, to better understand the hydration percentage.

K2, by the way, is a small flour mill in Beeton Susan and I visited late last year. Great artisan products, and a bread market on Sundays. Worth taking a trip. I came home with 10lbs each bread flour and Red Fife flour.

Red Fife labelRed Fife is a Canadian heritage grain, a whole wheat flour I have only used minimally, but plan to experiment more with in the coming weeks. I do not know the exact protein percentage of either (although this NatPost article suggests Red Fife has lower protein, this report on a lab analysis suggests that’s not true: but that “the gliadin protein level is ~35% of this wheat’s overall gluten protein content. Wheat gluten’s insoluble proteins are gliadin and glutenin. This compares to ~80% gliadin protein levels found in a popular modern bread wheat.” And the nutritional label (see image on left) on this site suggests it’s actually higher protein that commercial AP or bread flours – 15%! Food With Legs site has a label that shows 13%. Harvest Hastings shows it at 13.4%, however… and if you wonder what the falling number of 340 cited is, see here and here*).

In my few tests, whole wheat flours and artisan blends tend to have different weights than the usual commercial bread or unbleached white flour I use. Plus the weight per cup changes depending on whether the flour is sifted or fluffed (or compacted).

My own per-cup weights are sometimes as much as 20% more than those shown in books and on sites for the weight of a cup of flour (typically 125-140 grams unsifted for AP flour, but I’ve weighed it over 160g). That would throw off the recipe’s hydration which is based on commercial all-purpose or bread flour (and a good reason to have recipes listed by weight, not volume).

By the way, Lime Leaves and Taste Buds says this about Canadian whole wheat flour, just adding to the reasons to buy artisan flours rather than commercial blends:

Even more disheartening is that fact that whole wheat flour sold in Canada is not necessarily whole grain due to a ridiculously outdated piece of 1964 regulation which allows millers to legally use “whole wheat” on the label despite their removal of up to 70 per cent of the wheat’s germ!!!

As a sidebar note, the K2 bread flour has a wonderful texture, a bit like having cornmeal added to the bread. That may lessen somewhat if there is higher hydration and longer fermentation time to soften it. However, I really liked the texture and flavour. But back to hydration…

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