Blogs > Cliopatria > Zombie Errors and Interesting Periodization

Mar 27, 2004 3:28 pm

Zombie Errors and Interesting Periodization

One of THOSE errors we can't seem to kill.

You know,"everyone in 1492 thought the world was flat until Columbus proved them wrong." That kind of thing.

There are two stories about ancient and medieval art in today's New York Times -- the first about a splendid show of later Byzantine art at the Met, the second about a show of art from A.D. 300-600 at a private gallery. One article is worth reading, the other is for sighing over.

First for sighs. The author offers us some background:"In 324 Constantine, now sole emperor, made Christianity the state religion, which had a profound impact on Christian art and the decorative arts." We have done a very bad job teaching people about that one. In 324, Constantine legalized Christianity in the entire empire. Using the term"state religion" for Christianity has to wait until Theodosius I in 380. Those 56 years are full of interesting developments, including a full-scale attempt to return the Empire to practicing still legal paganism. The LT-ANTIQ listserve has been commiserating about this zombie error today.

The better article talks about the show of later Byzantine art; the organizer made a very interesting decision: the show doesn't stop in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople to Mehmet the Conqueror. Instead,"Ms. Evans has contrived a terminus for the show, 1557. That is when a German scholar, Hieronymus Wolf, came up with the word Byzantium, derived from the name of an ancient Greek town, Byzantion, near which Constantinople was founded, to describe what had then become a phenomenon of history, a lost empire of Hellenic origins based on the Bosphorus, the past of Yeats's future dreams."

It's good to have a vivid reminder like this that cultures and art traditions don't always start and stop at neat dates with battles and rulers. It should be a very interesting show.

Feel free to leave your favorite 'zombie error' in the comments. I always call them 'zombie errors,' by the way, because if you put a stake in the heart of a 'vampire error' it stays dead.

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More Comments:

John C Quiggin - 3/31/2004

My favourite is the "tragedy of the commons" popularised by Garrett Hardin. Partha Dasgupta once quoted his opening para and said " there can scarcely exist a passage as widely quoted as this containing so many errors in such a short space".

The basic error underlying all the others was the idea that "common" pastures were open to all comers.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/27/2004

I never heard that one! I guess it isn't too deeply embedded.

Ophelia Benson - 3/27/2004

Here's one. That nobody thought much of Shakespeare until the Romantics or the Victorians or the 20th century university. If that's true one wonders why Pepys went to his plays so often, why Dryden bothered to re-write him, why Pope and Johnson had one or two things to say about him, and so on. Eeet's a meeeth.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/26/2004

Is this where we get to list our favorite "Zombies?"

Mine is Marco Polo. I don't know a single Asianist who actually buys his story whole: the errors in his Travels are substantial (how can someone live in China for twenty years, and not know the difference between a li and a mile?), and supporting documentation entirely lacking. He may have made it to Central Asia, though I have my doubts about anything past Byzantine borders. His Chinese sections read like gazeteers (which were very widespread in Song-Yuan China) rather than observations: his description of Hangchow, of course, is anthologized in just about every world history reader published today. And every one introduces it as a primary document based on observed fact. AARRGGHH.