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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

May 2015

Medievalists Sometimes Lead the Way into the Future

Before I put away my medieval mindset and get back to  America's Civil War, I have to make one more observation about the purpose and accomplishments that have come out of the annual gathering at Kalamazoo (formally known as the International Congress for Medieval Studies). I spent some time today reading observations from this year's attendees. I couldn't help but notice that many of them were quoting from postings that had appeared on Twitter. And then I stumbled on a long blog post from a first-year attendee, who mused about all the wonderful connections that the internet makes possible today.  "Ten years ago," she said, "all this would have been impossible, and even five  years ago, it would have been unusual."  In some ways, she was right. Twitter wasn't around ten years ago.

But in other ways, I had to sigh over the shortness of people's memories -- because the internet made possible all sorts of wonderful connections way back in the "dark ages" of the 20th century. Because I was there, I feel entitled to remind the youngsters of their electronic history. Two accomplishments stand out in my mind.

1. Around 1991, a few people were playing around with the possibility of using computers to allow scholars to talk to each other in a relaxed and casual setting. The leader of this tiny group was Lynn Nelson, medieval historian at the University of Kansas. He started the discussion list "Mediev-l" with just two other people: an instructor from Boise, Idaho (whose name escapes me at the moment), and me, a brand new assistant  of history at Rhodes College. We roped in our friends, and before long Mediev-l was an active and useful resource for scholars all over the country. Researchers with questions could join the list and get answers to the most elusive bits of trivia. It's still going strong, by the way, although ownership of the list has  passed through several hands.

2. And then (here's the connection to Kalamazoo) in 1995, Lynn Nelson, who was by then too ill to travel to conferences, suggested that some of us should get together at the "Zoo" and figure out what else we could profitably do with the internet as our medium.  And so on a Saturday afternoon in May 1995, five people met in the lobby of Valley II. I remember Paul Crawford, who was still a grad student, Laura Blanchard, who worked at University of Pennsylvania library, Norman Hinton, an English professor, and one other (maybe it was Paul Hassell but I can't be sure), and me.

With Lynn Nelson egging us on from afar, we decided to create an Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies (ORB). And when Lynn could not house it at Kansas, I managed to convince Rhodes College to give us bandwidth to create an online encyclopedia.  In the next eight years, we expanded from the original five people to over 200 authors, each serving as editors of the pages in their own specialties. More important, we were getting 250,000 hits a month on our pages. When I retired, the site passed into other hands in New York and slowly lost ground as the rest of the world learned to use the internet. But I still like to think that medievalists were first.

If you'd like to see what we built, it's still available (and useful!) at http://www.the-orb.net/

That's the sort of thing that goes on at Kalamazoo. I've never heard anyone call it a "Think-Tank", but that's what it is. That's why almost 3000 people made their way to Michigan last week to attend their choice of some 600 seminars. But make no mistake, young medievalists. We've been coming up with new ideas at the 'Zoo for a very long time -- as is entirely fitting for medievalists.


What Would You Buy at the Medieval Conference

Every year in May, medievalists from all over the world come together in Kalamazoo, Michigan , to indulge in several days of living in semi-monastic conditions and pretending that the Middle Ages still have their charms. You'll find historians, of course, but also writers, artists, literature buffs, art historians, archaeologists, real monks, nuns, and priests, philosophers, publishers, editors, and book salesmen.

Young scholars attend to try out their theses and dissertation topics. Older scholars use the opportunity to catch up with old friends and check up on their young students. Some 600 paper sessions give everyone a chance to feel scholarly, and book displays  give everyone who has published a book the chance to walk by a table and think "There's my book!"  In the evenings, innumerable learned societies offer open bars, there's a free wine pour if your tastes run to plonk, and lengthy dinners where the attendees are more important than the food. There's even a dance where the most dignified academics turn into kids at a sock hop.

I attended this amazing gathering faithfully while I was teaching at Rhodes, but I haven't been back since I retired. There are too many people, too much bad wine, too long waits to get through the cafeteria lines, and too many hills to climb.



So what do I miss most? Probably the chance to buy old books and to indulge in some really silly medieval bling. In previous years, I hauled home too many books, but also earrings featuring medieval bugs encased in balls of amber,  a ceramic head of a court jester on a stick, gargoyles, wax replicas of kingly seals, feather quills with ink made of carbon black, and a couple of loose pages from a 14th-century prayer book.

If I had been in at the 'Zoo last week, I would not have been able to resist this wonderful bookbag bearing a medieval curse for all book thieves and borrowers. Thanks to Lois Huneycutt for the picture.

What's a Pony's Life Worth?

The following excerpt from a recent newspaper article explains some of the efforts being made to preserve the wild ponies of South Carolina's Lowcountry.  I wish iIknew someone at one of these organizations, so that I could twist an arm or two and get these wonderful people some help.  If you know anyone who can do that, please pass this information along.


It's been a long, difficult season for the marsh ponies of northern Beaufort County, not to mention the humans working to ensure their health. That's why Venaye Reece McGlashan is happy to report: "Everybody is very happy the ponies have made it through the winter."

The feral marsh ponies -- hybrids of Shetland ponies and marsh tackies -- have roamed the tidal flats near Little Horse Island for about five decades. The herd included about 20 animals as recently as this past fall, when when one wandered into a road and was struck and killed by a car. That's when residents banded together and enlisted veterinarians and animal control officials to help protect the horses.

The marsh ponies were corralled. All were vaccinated. Some were gelded and returned to the marsh, others sent to adoptive homes, according to McGlashan, a retired vet who moved to St. Helena Island several years ago.

The volunteers' action thinned the herd to seven adults and one colt, reducing pressure on their primary food source -- marsh grass, which was becoming scarce. The animals that kept wandering away likely were seeking other places to graze, McGlashan said. Now, the marsh grass is showing signs of new growth, although the horses have been challenged by an unusually cold winter.

McGlashan said she and her husband, Dave, made daily trips to the marsh to supplement the ponies' diet with pellet feed and hay. Neighbors have donated $400 to $500 to purchase the feed, which costs about $15 for a 50-pound bag, she said. Others have donated hay.
The horses seem to be doing well, McGlashan said.

McGlashan said that although the population seems to again be stabilized, a more permanent solution is needed.

"This is not a long-term solution. We cannot do this forever," she said.

Pat Snow, a Horse Island resident who has helped collect and account for donations to help the horses, said this past November that she wants a government agency to declare the area a sanctuary for the ponies. Beaufort County Animal Control director Tallulah Trice suggested that might be possible through the county's Rural and Critical Lands Program.

McGlashan said she also is reaching out to the Fripp Audubon Club, which might have an interest in preserving the surroundings, as well. The tidal flats are attract many birds, and there are rookeries and roosting spots nearby, she said.

Reprinted with permission from http://www.islandpacket.com/2015/03/09/3634196_little-horse-island-revisited.html?rh=1

Pony Pictures

These are the pictures of the current herd of marsh ponies or "swamp tackies." They were taken by Susan Trogdon and posted on the Beaufort Online Facebook page.  I use them here with the permission of both.  Enjoy!

Stories of Survival: The Marsh Tackies

Back in March, I wrote a blog post about efforts being made to strengthen a breed of small horses now known as Carolina Swamp Tackies. 


I was fascinated by the story and almost immediately decided to incorporate their story in my work-in-progress, Yankee Reconstructed.  In that book, set in 1868,  one of the Grenville daughters is a horse-lover, and I thought she would be the perfect person to go out and try to work with this elusive breed.  So I posted a couple of pictures, and then put the idea into a side pocket to think about later.

Coincidentally, on the same day I posted my blog, an article appeared in the Lowcountry's local paper "The Island Packet." Jeff Kidd reported that a small herd of "marsh ponies" had made it through this past rough winter. The author started by offering a quick explanation of where the breed came from and what happened to them:

"The herd dates to the late 1950s, when St. Helena Island resident John Henry "Buster" Gay cross-bred Shetland ponies, popular then as a family pet, with marsh tackies, a breed genetically linked to the horses brought to the New World by Spanish explorers. A population has roamed the area since, at some point becoming feral. They proved quite adaptable, subsisting on what they could graze and learning to find sand paths through the flats to avoid the grip of pluff mud."

Well, today, I have reached a point in my story where Mary Sue Grenville and several members of her family have a reason to travel to St. Helena Island. Mary Sue has a specific purpose in mind -- to find a place where she could start her own horse farm. But that goal depends on whether she can find some of the original Marsh Tacky horses and work to improve them.

As I've been writing, I've had a worrisome thought niggling at the edges of my mind. It warns that some reader somewhere is going to object to a story in which people go out and round up wild horses to tame them into submission for human uses. I've already been taken to task once lately by an animal lover for letting someone shoot two mules in The Road to Frogmore. What to do?

Quite by accident, today's Facebook came to Mary Sue's rescue (and mine, too!). The  website "Beaufort Online" posted an article on the descendants of the Marsh Tackie horses. A reader of the local paper had gone out to see the ponies  of Little Horse island and discovered that while they were surviving the winter, they were in poor shape.  Here's Susan Trogden's story:

"We did our research and kayaked the difficult waters in hopes of seeing them. Our first trip was early last year, and as we got closer, we could see them grazing in the marsh and paying us no attention. We couldn’t help but notice how thin they were, but we thought this was normal since they are wild and live on marsh grass.

"Before: In this photograph from 2014, we see prominent ribs and a lackluster coat. Click to enlarge.


"I snapped a few photos and shared them on my Facebook page. A friend and horse lover, Terry Aitken Long, contacted me privately out of concern for how thin they appeared. She asked if they were the wild ponies and immediately made some calls to get the ball rolling on getting them help. Hay has been delivered occasionally, and they received veterinary treatment last winter.

"Since that first sighting, my friend and I have paddled the waters surrounding this island several times, and we have witnessed their dramatic transformation.  For those of you who don’t feel people should intervene with wildlife preservation, please take a look at the before and after photographs to see what locals have done for these beautiful animals. We no longer see the ribs of poorly-nourished ponies—instead, these photographs show that the animals are a healthy weight with thick coats."

There's much more to her story, and Susan has given me her permission to post the rest of her pictures, but this post has gone on long enough. Stay tuned for the weekend, when I'll post the rest of the story.