The Sunday Obituary No. 6


Marcella Pattyn was the last of them, ending a way of life that had endured for 800 years. These places were not convents, but beguinages, and the women in them were not nuns, but Beguines. In these communities, which sprang up spontaneously in and around the cities of the Low Countries from the early 13th century, women led lives of prayer, chastity and service, but were not bound by vows. They could leave; they made their own rules, without male guidance…

via Marcella Pattyn | The Economist.



Word of the Week: Puissant

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court) and how about … puissant?

Oh. Yeah.

A correspondent last week scolded me for my word choice: How am I supposed to use assize in a sentence, she said. This stirred me to search for a word with a broad scope of potential application.

I was thinking about it all week. Then I came across puissant.

How could I not get interested in a word like that?

First off, puissant, an adjective, is defined by Webster’s Fourth as “powerful, strong.” It appears between puisne, or “of lower rank,” and puke, which Webster’s does not really bother to define. (I took this to be an omen.) It is a French word, pretty much, but we can go ahead and say that you pronounce it PWE-sent.

Rudyard Kipling in his study, about this year

Rudyard Kipling. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I came across it in a passage from “Tournament of Shadows,” by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, Counterpoint (1999), which was part of my preslumber puttering last night. This is a history of the so-called Great Game, which was the appalling sketch of black comedy engaged in during the 1800s by the British and the Russians for dominance in Asia. (Our literate readers might recall that it serves as the backdrop in Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”; everyone else can just take our word for it.)

Referring to the East India Company, Mr. Meyer and Ms Brysac write, “Thus, the over the decades, the Company evolved into a baffling hybrid, something less than an independent entity, but far more puissant than any government ministry.” (Let all that cool on the counter awhile, and up pops Gandhi.)

And so I think, with just that, we’ve got a sturdy WOW with a lot of possible uses.

But look more closely at that word.

Doesn’t it remind you of something?

Yes, it does. Drop a letter and you have pissant, which was the pejorative of choice on my elementary school playground. For years I assumed that was just a fleeting child’s mutation, an epithet hacked out of the coarse verb “piss” that no one outside of West Omaha was using. But no. Some wags think pissant has a tradition that dates to the Middle Ages, but we will reserve judgment.

Apparently, a pissant refers to a piss-ant, or wood ant, whose nesting materials are said to give off a urinelike smell. Some sources say that the ant itself smells like urine if you squash it, but we cannot say for sure. (No ants were harmed during the writing of this post.) Webster’s confirms this, sort of. It defines pissant first as “an ant,” and then as the more familiar (to me) “person regarded as insignificant or contemptible.”

And so there you have it.

Webster’s warns that puissant is by now “chiefly literary,” which is another way of saying that only pretentious jerks say it. Still, it seems appropriate for our purposes.

Most examples of puissant on the Web are in French; I’ve included one just so you can giggle a little. Many of the others were, perhaps, marginal uses of the word. For instance, I am not sure how a soccer player can have a powerful contribution, and note that some Harvard puke slathered puissant with the unnecessary “incredibly.”

“Le puissant lobby américain des armes à feu NRA a exclu dimanche tout soutien à une loi de réglementation sur les armes…” via Etats-Unis: le puissant lobby NRA exclut tout soutien à une loi sur les armes – Le Point.

“And that’s often the default interpretation of elves — ethereal and majestic beings wielding an unknowable and puissant magic.” via Galadriel, political animal of Middle-earth | Hobbit Movie News and Rumors |™.

“Berbatov is adept to spearheading the frontline, whilst Kacaniklic’s contributions alongside him are puissant.” via One 2 Watch – Alexander Kacaniklic « Back Page Football.

“It is not difficult to understand why the president wants control over the debt ceiling all to himself. After all, it has been shown to be an incredibly puissant armament.” via An Unfortunate Power Grab | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson.

‘A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century’


A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th CenturyA Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

She is always good, but this is not her best.


It is well worth an interested reader’s time, however. Tuchman’s idea is to tell her story through the life of a French nobleman, Enguerrand VII de Coucy. He was lucky enough, or unfortunate enough as the case may be, to have played a key role in nearly all the momentous events of the time, including the Crusades-ish (emphasis on -ish) Battle of Nicopolis.

Battle of Nicopol, 1396, by the Master of the ...

Battle of Nicopol, 1396, by the Master of the Dresden Prayer book from the Gruuthuse Froissart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In which he was captured.

And. After which he died in captivity of the plague.

Nicopolis (1396), of course, is an interesting battle because of the hubris displayed by the French knights. Interesting because the 13th and 14th centuries seem to be time spent waiting for French knights to display (fatally) their hubris.

In this case, though details of the battle are understandably murky, it seems that that the moderate gains won by an initial charge of French knights were foolishly spent by antsy, younger (probably snail-sucking) knights who believed they had already won a great victory. In the end, those in the Western army who were not killed or left to die were captured, a harsh, buzz-kill ending to what turned out to be the last thing anyone could uncontroversially call a crusade.

Forty years earlier, the French nobility basically pulled the same stunt against the English outside Poitiers in the was-longer-than-100-years Hundred Years War with perhaps even more disastrous effects. Apart from the concomitant death and destruction, the French king was captured and the wrangling over his ransom would prolong the war for decades. As a contemporary chronicler put it, “all went wrong with the Kingdom and the state was undone.”

Battle of Crécy between the English and French...

Battle of Crécy, from a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(But, wait. There’s more.) Ten years before that, at Crecy, terrain and English longbows frustrated a similar bold attempt with, if you will allow me, perhaps even more disastrous effects. Crecy transformed what was probably just a desultory English raid for plunder into the already-mentioned, generations-long Hundred Years War.

Never mind that, in 1302, a rash charge by knights against an army of Flemish amateurs outside Kortrijk should have been the only lesson the French needed to learn. So many French nobleman were skewered by angry farmers in this battle that the sanctuary of the local church was festooned with golden spurs. In fact, in perhaps the worst display of sportsmanship in history, the Flemish called it the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

Still, four blundering, bloody defeats in about 100 years time, certainly within living memory, was not enough to shift the medieval mind-set. Nineteen years after Nicopolis, 113 years after the Golden Spurs, the English defeated the French, thanks again to an ill-advised charge of knights, at perhaps the most famous tussle of the Middle Ages: the Battle of Agincourt.

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the Flemish line of battle during the Battle o...

The Flemish line of battle during the Battle of the Golden Spurs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Chapter 3: ‘The Trebuchet’


“Gentleman,” a chief of T section said sharply, cutting into a misty morning.
The chief, a lean, cardigan-wearing man named Bulick, assumed a college professor’s learned disaffection. He was speaking softly, but authoritatively — as if he could not conceive of being interrupted.

“I give you,” he continued with a short pause intended for minor dramatic effect, “the trebuchet.”

Indeed, Bulick would not be interrupted; he was addressing a peculiar assembly. About a dozen human forms dotted the wet grass at his feet. These were uniformly nude, lathered in a kind of clear oil and bound tightly with plastic straps into the standard, summer-fun-time, diving-board cannonball position: legs bent, knees beneath chins, arms wrapped around the whole.

Most were upright, but a few were tipped on their sides. Only a few were actually awake, though Bulick’s curt announcement had the effect of rousing the rest. As their eyes blinked open, and adjusted to the gauzy light, they seemed to display equal measures of confusion and fright.

Above them loomed a trebuchet, a piece of medieval military equipment — a siege engine, the wonks would call it. Imagine a magnificent, mechanical brontosaurus, wrought in reinforced steel, with great rubber tires instead of feet and a huge sling of black nylon drooping from its polished head.

The trebuchet was, in its time, used to hurl heavy projectiles at an enemy, typically when the enemy was hunkered down in a fortified place. But there are few practical limitations on its use, as would soon be obvious.

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The End of Evil

Look at the really long-term picture and violent crime rates are way down. Institute of Criminology professor Manuel Eisner reaches all the way back to the 13th century to report that typical homicide rates in Europe dropped from about 32 per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages down to 1.4 per 100,000 in the 20th century. Sadly, of course, for all of their decline, U.S. rates are still more than three times that — a rate above what Eisner suggests is the Western average for the 1700s.

via There Will Not Be Blood – By Charles Kenny | Foreign Policy.