Monday, January 20, 2014

The Vikings and the Narwhal

I never heard of narwhals until I studied the middle ages. They fascinated me, because I think I saw drawings of them as a kid and thought they were fantasy creatures. They are quite real, however, and also very large. Why did I come across them in class? Because they were hunted by the Vikings.

Since a Narwhal can be 28 feet long and weigh over 3,000 pounds, it's no easy task to kill one, but the real trick is the timing. Like other whales, the narwhal is most vulnerable when it comes to the surface for air, but if it is killed immediately it will sink to the bottom of the ocean. The Vikings learned to stab them with harpoons only after seeing them take in a large breath, enabling the air-filled carcass to float so it could be towed back to land.

The most interesting part of the narwhal is obviously the tusk, which can be up to ten feet long. The coolest picture I've ever found on Wikipedia is on the right, and the caption says it's "[t]he head of a lance made from a Narwhal tusk with a meteorite iron blade." Seriously? Someone found a meteorite, pounded it around a narwhal tusk, and used it as a lance? Is there an epic poem to go along with that? Did he call himself "The Narwhal" and battle injustice with a crudely drawn picture of a whale drawn on his shield? I wish I knew, because that sounds like the most awesome story I've never heard.

There is another thing about these tusks that I think is neat: Vikings convinced other Europeans that they were unicorn horns and sold them with the promise of having magic powers. When medieval people believed in unicorns, it was partly because some of them had seen these tusks hanging on someone's wall with a name plate that read, Unicorn Horn - (according to some Vikings).

The World was ALWAYS Round

I was standing in a bookstore when I overheard a guy telling his kid a lie. "Until about a hundred years ago," he said, "everyone though the world was flat."

Steam erupted from my ears. Did he just say that? (Making things worse is that he was pointing to a book called The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman - a book about economic globalization.) I wanted to make it a teaching moment and correct him, but he was so darned proud of himself. He seemed like a successful, smart guy, so how could he be that misinformed?

In the fourth century b.c., Aristotle explained why the earth was shaped like a sphere in a dull book called Physics. Think about how difficult that would be; without satellite photos, could you prove that the earth is not flat? Aristotle did just that with a series of scientific observations that are brilliant. He wasn't the first person to do this, but his work became the official word on the subject, and throughout the middle ages (which started many centuries later) his scientific teachings were considered unchallengeable. Later, Eratosthenes was able to determine the size of the earth with some simple geometry.

The church never wavered on this notion. Sure, there were a few detractors - just like I've had a few co-workers who thought the moon landing was fake - but the major Christian teachers consistently taught that the earth was not flat. Origen was one of the most well-known writers of the eastern church and he insisted that all of the planets were spheres. In the eighth century, English writer Bede echoed the Greek philosophers where these matters were concerned and refuted anyone who thought the planet was not spherical. Hardly any writer was as popular in the middle ages (and today) as Augustine, and he makes a reference to the earth being round in The City of God. Pope Sylvester II, (a.k.a., Gerbert of Aurillac) who was the pope in the year 1000, was a teacher of science who enjoyed painting globes and teaching students about the earth with an armillary sphere.

This is an armillary sphere. But you knew that.

The most influential book on astronomy in the middle ages was written by a guy named John of Hollywood. (Or, Johann Sacrobosco.) It boringly titled, The Tract of the Sphere. You can read the whole thing online; it's surprisingly simple and short. John of Hollywood insisted that the earth was spherical, just like every other planet, and his works were the foundation of late medieval astronomy.

Still skeptical? How about some art:

This is from Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century nun from Germany who was probably the smartest person in Europe in her time. She taught medicine, science, and theology when she wasn't painting pictures or composing songs. In that painting, above, you can see the earth. It's round. (Look closer and you can see flames around it; in those times it was erroneously believed that flames circled the planet. Hey, no one's perfect.) One of her books attempts to describe the earth and its relationship to God (among many other things) and relies heavily on an understanding of a spherical world.

There have been other, non-western cultures that believed the Earth was flat, but European society always knew the world was round.