A Cheerful Winter Story

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George Monbiot has a story to tell about life in the jungles of Brazil.  The Guardian published it here and I urge my gentle reader to read his story before they read my thoughts, because it is a good story.

While as an ancient historian I should perhaps deny all knowledge of everything between Romulus Augustus and Napoleon Bonaparte, I have heard a version of this story before: Chaucer’s Pardoner tells it (a Modern English rendition is available here).  The theme of the discoverers of treasure murdering each other for it is a popular one, with a famous cinematic version in Humphrey Bogart’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  This puts me in ancipiti.

One basic principle for interpreting historical sources is that a story which closely follows fictional patterns is also likely to be fictional.  One can observe that the stories about the humble childhood of Cyrus the Great resemble stories about Sargon of Akkad, Moses, Romulus and Remus, and a number of Greek gods, and that therefore they are likely to be invented.  It is certainly possible that a medieval English story crossed 600 years, the Atlantic and a language barrier to be retold amongst Brazilian miners.  Monbiot’s informants could not have known everything which they told him, although a bit of inquiry at the nearest airstrip would have let them piece together the outline.  Yet many details are different, and the similarities are the sort of thing which the situation demands.  The recipients of a windfall often quarrel over it, those determined to commit murder often use rat poison, and the killers would have had no way to know that their food was poisoned.  While the principle that too good a story should be doubted makes me uncertain, I can’t claim to know that Monbiot’s story did not happen in the jungles of Brazil.  Let Robert Service have the last words on another gold rush:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold

0 thoughts on “A Cheerful Winter Story

  1. Tak Hallus says:

    It is interesting to compare the modern concept of copyright and patent with the historical version. Archimedes was reluctant to publish The Method (Integral Calculus) lest others take credit for his discovery. Medieval minstrels could memorize entire performances at a single hearing and repeat or riff on them in other venues later.

    That led to a wide spread diffusion of popular memes and useful inventions.

    The Library at Alexandria used to search ships arriving in the harbour for books and would make copies of novel works.

    Anyone who saw an Archimedes Screw in action could make their own pump based on the principle, without paying a patent fee to Archimedes.

    Patents started out as a way to let well connected people collect fees and pass part of it back to the crown, regardless of who actually invented the protected item. Patents were even granted for common but vital materials such as salt.

    Is there anything similar to patents before the ones granted in Sybaris for novel gourmet items?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      The closest thing I can think of is cases where a subculture claims exclusive rights to certain knowledge or actions- interpreting dreams with wisdom from before the flood, performing this dance, carving that motif on a post before their house. Those can often be enforced by the society at large (those 16th/17th century Spanish tailors had to fight endless legal battles just to print books with diagrams of the most efficient way to lay out certain garments) but they don’t have the same assumption as modern patent and copyright systems that knowledge belongs to ‘the public’ and should be freely accessible to all at some date.

  2. Herodotus Didn’t Say That, Eduard Meyer Did | Book and Sword says:

    […] has been too long since my last cheerful winter story, so on this Winter Solistice I will tell […]

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