Casualties of Knowledge.

Progress, the expansion of knowledge, the continual narrowing of possibility toward truth: wonderful things all. But what of the casualties? That is, what of the once enthusiastically propagated facts which, proven false, are cast aside? Since the invent of written history our disproved facts have been allowed to linger on well past their halcyon days of import, muzzled castrati shoved unceremoniously behind the curtain and stricken from the handbills. What are we to do with them?



It then rolls around on the fallen grapes to spear them with its quills, so it can carry the fruit home to feed its young.
That sound like one of those urban myths that is plausible enough to make you raise your eyebrows in astonishment when you first hear about it but weird enough that you call bs a day or 2 later after discussion and googling. 
But you’re right. Today we are born cynical. We have to go searching for the magic.

posted on 06.11 at 09:51 PMpeacay


The preservation & transmission of some of these factoids has a good deal to do—or so I’ve read—with a reverence for written authorites, and a desire to preserve the words of ancient authors: many of the weird animal attributes having been passed down from classical writers such as Pliny by way of the Physiologus Sometimes the illuminators of medieval bestiaries effectively contradicted the garbled texts they illustrated by basing their designs at least partly on observation & common-sense… so there’s a sense that these legends were kept alive just because they were of ancient origin & thus somehow inherently valuable and laden with wisdom. Also, bestiaries were at least as much moralising works, as they were natural-historical ones…

posted on 06.12 at 03:57 AMmisteraitch


All hail the nonist!

posted on 06.12 at 05:30 AMmr. danieru


I don’t like to think we are “born cynical,” more like we are “born into cynicism.”  I like to think there are at least a few years there between budding awareness and frowning rejection. Either way we reach cynicism quickly enough.

As for the moralizing of the bestiaries… Indeed. I chose to leave out the allegorical message included for each entry, wanting instead to focus on the particulars rather than the “wisdom” each was meant to impart. 

these legends were kept alive just because they were of ancient origin & thus somehow inherently valuable…

I suppose this is still one of the reasons at work in our reverence toward ancient scholars. Not all of them were geniuses after all, ingenious to a man, but often totally wrong. Still they are the giant’s shoulders.

I’d say another reason for the propagation of these ideas from century to century is a simple matter of geography. In many cases (animals who are regionally distributed being a fine example) the subjects of their writings were of things they’d never seen with their own eyes. Hence it makes sense for Augustine to simply relay what Pliny had said on a subject, Pliny being the most respected source available, even though it was 400 years later, a span seemingly sufficient to have dispelled incorrect notions.

In any case it does still amaze me how brilliant the ancients could be, having so little to build upon, and how moronic we moderns can be, with 2000-plus years of knowledge at our disposal. But then maybe it’s just the ol’ cynicism acting up again ay?

posted on 06.12 at 08:28 AMjmorrison


Interesting that you’d bring up the “born into cynicism” thing. Reading these descriptions reminds me of childhood ideas about the world around me, where everything was layered with mystery and complexity, imposed either through imagination or misunderstanding.

While its obvious to associate these “facts” with ancient wisdom, I wonder were they also an element of the beginning of our removal from the natural loop?
Would truly primitive people who lived much more within their natural surroundings (Aborginals, Native Americans) have held these elaborate ideas about the animals around them? The facts are so specific and so wrong that they suggest a certain distance alright. I see you’ve covered that, bringing up geography in your last comment, but hedgehogs and bees are not exactly exotic animals…

I’m just ruminating though. The facts from these ancient encyclopedias could just as likely have been obtained from descriptions of natives.

posted on 06.12 at 10:39 AMPierce


Of course I enjoyed. I love a good bestiary. Thanks!

posted on 06.12 at 10:34 PMbluewyvern


I also forgot to add, the thing about knowledge in the Middle Ages is that scholarship was based not on questioning and hypothesis and experimentation, but on reverence for established authorities. A good scholarly work took the form not of an original study, but of an annotation, commentary, or gloss of an existing (often ancient) work. With such a tradition-based model, awkward or inconvenient assertions couldn’t be challenged or disproven, just rationalized, re-contextualiuzed, and explained—but never discarded.

Thank goodness science came back.

posted on 06.13 at 10:03 PMbluewyvern


@pierce: Good point. In the book On Bullshit one of the main hypotheses as to our propensity for bullshit is being obliged to have an opinion about things we’ve never actually experienced. If I myself, being an urbanite, were obliged, gun to temple, to write a bestiary today there would likely be a whole lot of bullshit involved. Except for the sections on pigeons, roaches, and squirrels of course.

@bluewyvern: Understood. And yet you’d think some of the “facts” being so easily observable, even accidentally, would have been thought twice about. Someone must have put a salamander in a pot for a nice snack and noticed it did not extinguish the fire. I’ll go with Misteraich’s assertion of “moralizing.” In Hrabanus Maurus’s case especially since he was above all a theologian, with all that implies.

posted on 06.16 at 09:19 AMjmorrison

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