Bill Long 7/25/11
With Reflections on a Southern CA Trip
[*Should be read in conjunction with "On Knowledge Creation"]
The next frontier in learning ought not to concern itself simply with the deepening of knowledge in the various fields, but also with the ways that knowledge is gathered, assembled, organized, classified, summarized, and disseminated. Special attention ought to be given to the scope of what we consider knowledge to be and the way that people can have access to that scope. We will learn as much if not more about the world if we pay attention to the knowledge arranging/disseminating tasks in contrast as to the traditional research tasks.
The reason for this is that we are uniquely able today to have all knowledge potentially at our fingertips at any time. Two centuries ago knowledge rested in the hands of experts and the one copy of a book about a subject in a distant library. If one was fortunate, one could hear an expert expound, and one would take notes on it. A revolution occurred in the 20th century with the mass-production of textbooks and the ready availability of more specialized knowledge through the paperback. Yet if you wanted deep knowledge of a phenomenon, you had to go to the research library, which usually meant a trip of many hours or many days.
With the advent of the Internet, we have possibilities of having all texts available, in all languages, at all times, for everyone. Because the technology is so new, it is as if we have discovered a new universe or world, and people are rushing to lay ownership claims to it much like 16th century explorers laid ownership claims to various parts of the world. Thus I cannot say that all of this is "for free," even though before the end of my life I would like to be able to make that claim. But the truly remarkable reality in which we find ourselves is that the potential for this unlimited knowledge is now with us.
Yet the knowledge is in an unorganized and unfiltered mass. Some of it is readily available online, and you certainly could spend several lifetimes wading through free, good knowledge on the Internet. But there are so many more things that need to be made available in order for us to know our world and our history deeply. And the task of organizing and presenting that knowledge is one that calls for deeper reflection.
Two Examples of My Recent "Deep Learning"
I. When I was at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles on 7/23, I saw an exhibit entitled "Fashion in the Middle Ages." One of the things I noted was an unusual remark next to one of the images saying that, by a law of 1463, nobles were allowed to wear stocking-like garments, with brief tops that didn't fully cover their buttocks. Of course, I would notice such an obscure reference! I called it, to myself, the "buttocks law." Well, I didn't try to buttonhole any of the Getty staff to clarify this reference, but I spent some time today trying to find an statute from that time that would apply.
First, I found the text of the entire "Fashion in the Middle Ages" exhibition online. The relevant exhibit has a picture with the caption "The Emperor Sigismund Arriving in Siena, in The Story of Two Lovers, French, about 1460-70." In the picture is a person with garment just covering his buttocks...no doubt the reason for the picture and the sentence about the "buttocks law." Then the accompanying text, in relevant part, has:
"In an image made by an unknown French illuminator, fashions worn by courtiers who accompanied the Emperor Sigismund reflect the way that impractical dress conveyed status. According to a law of 1463, short gowns that revealed men's buttocks were restricted to the upper classes."
So, that is all we have to go on. I am not quite sure if what is being depicted is the impracticality of the dress, the ideal character of the dress, or the accuracy of the dress at a certain place and time. And, I, frankly wanted to find that law, if at all possible, that talks about "buttocks." But confusion sets in or, better said, some things have to be unraveled, before we can understand, learn from and possibly improve these two sentences. One thing at a time:
A. The image in the Getty exhibit, of the Emperor Sigismund with three women and the "buttocks" courtier, among others, is taken from a French manuscript dating from the 1460s, also owned by the Getty. Well, more specifically, the manuscript contains a story ("The Tale of Two Lovers") written in 1444 by Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II. Here is an excellent blog post by Prof. Zsombor Jekely of Budapest, on the manuscript and the evolution of depictions of Emperor Sigismund. Piccolomini wrote in Latin. The event depicted in the image is Sigismund's trip through Siena, Italy in 1432 on the way to his being crowned Holy Roman Emperor. His court would be in Austria--Vienna. Somehow the story went from Piccolomini's pen in the 1440s to the studio of an illuminator/illustrator in France within two decades.
So, let's get all the languages straight. Sisigmund was born in Nuremberg; thus he was a German-speaker. He was related to King Casimir III of Poland through his mother's line; he learned Polish as a teen. While young he was sent to the Hungarian court, and he learned Hungarian language and modes of life. The story depicting his arrival in Italy is written in Latin and contained in a French manuscript. The illustration appears to have been made in the 1460s because, as Prof. Jekely wisely points out, the fashion depicted in the image is from the 1460s and not the 1430s.
But, by the 1460s, Emperor Sisigmund was long dead--he died in 1437, at age 69. So, what we have depicted in our Getty exhibit, then, is a fashion statement from the 1460s regarding an Emperor who died in the 1430s, and the story about him was originally written in the 1440s. But, whose fashion? In the Getty oral explanation that accompanies the online exhibit, manuscrips curator Kristin Collins tells us that the French illuminator is breathing "contemporary" (i.e., 1460s) French fashion into the pictures, even though we are supposed to be in Italy, and Piccolomini's letters/story are written in the context of Austrian court life. But then, as the explanation goes on, another Getty staffer (Margaret Scott) explains that the women's garments are "impractical" rather than practical.
What does all this mean? Does it mean that the garments of all in the image were French fashions from the 1460s? Or were only those of the women contemporary French fashions? Were they actual fashions or idealized depictions of what certain women/men ought to have worn? So, we have to clarify several things: (a) Is this a actual or ideal depiction of fashion? (b) Fashion of whom? (c) Where? (d) When?
If, after getting answers to all of my questions, and I am far from having satisfactory answers, we conclude that these are ceremonial outfits worn on special occasions by French nobles in the 1460s (see how many assumptions I am making??--and I am probably wrong in my conclusions), then we are just getting started in our understanding. So, I am confused, but I gamely press on to the sentence about the law--which is what got me interested in the first instance.
B. Again, it reads, "According to a law of 1463, short gowns that revealed men's buttocks were restricted to the upper classes." I suppose that sentence was thrown in because it is meant, in some way, to explain the "buttocks guy" in the image. That is, the impression given is that he is wearing a buttocks-exposing garment because the image depicts life around 1463, the law has been passed, only a few people can wear buttocks-exposing garments, and he must have been in the classes of those who could legally wear buttocks-exposing garments.
We need to think about almost all of these assumptions. Let's try to find the law. From reading the text alone, whose law do you think we are talking about? Must be Holy Roman Empire law, right? After all, the people are with Sigismund. But then, you say, well, maybe it is French law, since the illustrator is depicting things according to French fashion. That seems to be the more likely avenue.
But how do you proceed? To cut through the suspense, it actually is referring to an English law passed in the 3rd year of the reign of Edward IV, but I have to tell you how I discovered that....
I discovered it because I had to think through the way that the curator(s) of the exhibit must have done their research. I thought---hm---they must have sought out some reference books to help them fill in information on medieval fashions and costumes. Thus, I found (online), the article in Volume 7 of the famous 11th edition of the Britannica Encyclopedia on "costume." It really is quite an impressive piece, reviewing, in summary mode, dress from ancient Egypt through early modern Europe. As I was skimming the article, I noticed this sentence:
"An act of 1463 ordered that coats should at least cover the buttocks, but fashion achieved suddenly what law failed to enforce" (page 239).
Eureka! This was the quotation that the curator of the exhibit no doubt found and stuck in to the exhibit. After all, people coming through the exhibit want something to smile about; who cares if no context is given. And, in fact, the sentence just quoted itself has its ambiguities. I don't understand the last half of it--does it mean that fashion trumped law, ignoring it so everyone exposed the buttocks? Does it mean that fashion immediately went to longer garments, even though law failed to enforce the law as written?
[Parenthetically, you see now how it is a wonder to me that any clarity is established on almost anything in life...]
In any case, this statement, or quotations of this statement in other reference-types of books, no doubt underlies the Getty exhibit sentence about the buttocks law of 1463. But, the one thing they didn't notice is that this buttocks law is in the section of the Britannica article on the history of British fashion. Do we have any reason to believe that this law was the same as French or Holy Roman Empire law? Of course not. So, we have a reference to the fashion of a Holy Roman Emperor in a story while he was in Italy written in Latin illustrated a generation later by a French illustrator. And, then the legal reference is from England. And, this is supposed to communicate knowledge??
I need another essay to finish my thoughts.