The Norman Conquest and all that

My ham-fisted rendition of Edmund Blair Leighton’s 1900 painting ‘God Speed!’ A lady ties a ‘favor’ (an item of her clothing) on the arm of her paramour as he leaves to do battle.

Thanks to the Norman Conquest in ad 1066, French was introduced in the British Isles. French is another one of those Romance languages developed from Latin. The British natives had been speaking Old English/Anglo-Saxon which had Germanic roots (as we heard in Beowulf). The two cultures influenced each other. People were zipping back and forth across the English Channel (my British pal John W tells me on clear days he can see France from where he lives). English and French speakers swapped words (like lamb meat is mutton from French mouton). They influenced each other’s written language, too. Soon after 1066, church hymnals and psalters in England were written in French.

Later on mediæval England’s nobility became fascinated with chivalry, the knightly code of honor, and courtly love. They created a demand for literature that featured those themes. The nobility spoke French and Latin, so poetry was written in those languages. As time went on, French became the preferred language.*

* Courtly love is where a gentleman adored a lady from afar and performed brave, glorious deeds in her name. Often the ladies were other people’s wives. The romance between Queen Guinevere and Sir Launcelot is a famous example of courtly love. In theory the lady’s and gentleman’s code of honor forbade any monkey business—it was a strictly chaste relationship. Chivalry’s ideal man was a ‘verray parfit gentil knight.’ Even so, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee observed, “Well, it was touching to see the queen blush and smile, and look embarrassed and happy, and fling furtive glances at Sir Launcelot that would have got him shot in Arkansas, to a dead certainty.”

https://www.bl.uk/medieval-english-french-manuscripts/articles/the-french-language-before-1200
http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/plaintexthistories.asp?historyid=ac81
https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/european-book-in-the-twelfth-century/vernacular-manuscripts-i-britain-and-france/9C066BEA0B90C2B7A9A3D0B360025A99
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courtly_love
https://chaucertales.blogspot.com/2011/03/meaning-of-he-was-veray-parfit-gentil.html
https://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Mark_Twain/A_Connecticut_Yankee_In_King_Arthurs_Court/Knights_Of_The_Table_Round_p2.html

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The Divine Comedy

Abbandonate ogni speranza, voi che entrate!
Abandon every hope, ye who enter!
—posted above the entrance to Hell

Dante Alighieri

Okay, amici—next up is Dante Alighieri’s (DAHN-tay ah-li-GYAIR-ee) masterwork, La Divina Commedia (lah di-VEEN-ah ko-MADE-yah), The Divine Comedy. Dante wrote it in Tuscan-Italian during his exile from Florence in 1308-1321. The word ‘comedy’ is used in its old sense—this time, it all turns out all right—there aren’t a lot of laughs in this poem. On the other hand, it’s chock-full of mind-boggling imagery. Dante glommed onto mediæval Christian dogma and wrung every last drop of inspiration from it. You and I think of Hell being devils with pitchforks. Dante gives us 9 levels of Inferno, each for the severity of a particular sin. What’s Purgatory like? Dante imagines it as a series of challenges souls need to work through. Heaven, too, has a hierarchy of levels with the Trinity at the tippy-top. Along the way Dante meets people from history, condemned souls frozen in ice, an enormous Lucifer chewing on sinners, sinners drowning in a sea of poison, sinners with their heads twisted backwards as punishment for blasphemously predicting the future (punishments are aptly just—they fit the sin)…it’s the stuff of nightmares. Dante has to be one of the most creative writers ever.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Dante is both the narrator and the main character. He is spiritually lost & confused. Politics forced him to leave his hometown and exile is getting to him. Dante is magically whisked away to the 3 realms of afterlife: Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. Dante’s hero, the Roman poet Virgil, is his guide through Inferno and Purgatory. In Paradise, Dante’s lost love Beatrice (Bay-a-TREET-chay) takes over as guide (she died when they were both young). Virgil shows Dante the horrible eternal punishments for sinners in Hell. When they get to Purgatory, Dante doesn’t just go through and look around like he’s on a ride at Disneyland. He joins in with the other souls to work through his spiritual shortcomings. That way, he’s allowed to see Heaven. Dante’s soul is refreshed and renewed. This is known in writing circles as character arc.

The whole adventure takes place over Easter weekend in ad 1300.* Dante wrote it in his own Tuscan dialect which became standard Italian because of La Commedia’s popularity. Just like The Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy enjoyed a huge audience thanks to the printing press.

Stuck nipple-high in a frozen lake

I’m an illustrator so I gotta tell you about this. Five centuries after Dante, Gustave Doré was France’s highest-paid illustrator (he could make his mortgage payments on time nearly every month) and he decided to illustrate La Commedia. He wanted to publish a deluxe edition. His publisher said, “Meh, not interested,” so Doré invested his own money and printed up just Inferno. Inferno was an instant blockbuster, his publisher said, “I’m an ass!” and together they produced Purgatorio and Paradiso. Don’t ever stop believing in yourself. Doré was a supremely talented artist. If you’ve never seen Doré’s stuff, you’re in for a treat. His images are every bit as inspired as Dante’s words.
https://www.openculture.com/2013/10/gustave-dores-dramatic-illustrations-of-dantes-divine-comedy.html
WARNING! There are paintings of nekkid people in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oO1JTVuhymg
https://www.openculture.com/2015/04/artists-illustrate-dantes-divine-comedy-through-the-ages.html

https://essaypro.com/blog/divine-comedy-summary
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dante-Alighieri/Legacy-and-influence
https://study.com/academy/lesson/the-divine-comedy-by-dante-summary-analysis-quiz.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_Comedy
https://context.reverso.net/translation/italian-english/Lasciate+ogni+speranza
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/comedy

* Just like Ebeneezer Scrooge met 3 ghosts over Christmas Eve night.
http://through-a-glass-brightly.blogspot.com/2013/12/kindred-spirits-juxtaposition-of-dante.html

The Canterbury Tales

Assembling the pilgrims at the Tabard Inn

Who doesn’t love reading Middle English poetry?

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Here’s the Modern English version:

When that April with his showers sweet
The drought of March has pierced to the root
And bathed every (plant’s) vein in such liquor/liquid
From whose potency is created the flower

It’s the first four lines of The Canterbury Tales http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/gp-aloud.htm

The English author Geoffrey (sounds like the American name Jeffrey) Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in Middle English over the years from 1387 to 1400. It’s a frame narrative—it’s a story made up of stories. The frame, the set-up, is that a group of people are gathered at an inn, about to start their pilgrimage to Saint Thomas á Becket’s shrine in Canterbury (pilgrimage is something devout believers do, a way of connecting with God. You travel, but also pray. Today, Christians and Jews make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; Muslims make a hajj to Mecca). It’s a longish trip so the innkeeper says, “Let’s have a storytelling contest along the way. The prize for best story will be a free dinner when we get back.” So off they go.

People of every social class—nobility, clergy and peasantry—went on pilgrimages. A pilgrimage was an ideal situation for a writer doing social commentary. The story each character tells reflects an aspect of life in England at the time. The upper-class knight tells a story about chivalry and romance; the peasants tell bawdy stories and take verbal swipes at each other; the narrator tells a boring story in rhyme; the pardoner tells a moralizing story about how greed kills. 

The Canterbury Tales wasn’t the first book written in English rather than Latin, but it was a bestseller—especially when William Caxton printed it in 1483.

I ought to point out that as authors like Chaucer pioneered writing in their own language, they also shaped their language. Choices the authors made about spelling, grammar and syntax became established standards because they were being written down. Likewise, the early printers like William Caxton were establishing standards for books: size of paper and typeface design. I’ll get back to that in a few posts.

There are 24 (?) individual tales. I don’t think I’ll do my usual patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment of The Canterbury Tales because there’s some adult stuff in there that I can’t avoid since the adult stuff is the central part of some of these stories. As a Sunday school teacher who specialized in the Old Testament I got pretty good at covering those awkward family relationship moments in the Bible without actually—you know—saying what was going on but Chaucer taxes my poor powers of, uh—dissembling. I want you to enjoy your carefree middle-school-aged childhood innocence unfettered by the concerns of carpenters whose wives might be stepping out on them. You can read summaries of The Tales in the links below.

https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/c/the-canterbury-tales/summary
https://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-canterbury-tales/summary
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Canterbury_Tales
https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/the-canterbury-tales
https://www.britannica.com/video/73102/dramatization-Middle-English-lines-Geoffrey-Chaucer-The
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vernacular_literature
https://www.britannica.com/topic/history-of-Europe/The-growth-of-vernacular-literature
https://www.britannica.com/topic/history-of-Europe/Renaissance-science-and-technology
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/103090278954408620/
https://www.dictionary.com/browse/pilgrimage

Of course the matrons of River City had Chaucer’s number. How I adore this—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvhFs2bdRpE

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Beowulf in one sentence

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Yes, you lucky readers, it’s time for my patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment of Beowulf! Ready? Hang on to your horned helmets ‘cause here we go—

The drinking song from The Student Prince ran through my head while I drew this one, so here’s the link. Isn’t that Anne Blyth adorable, though? Mario Lanza does the singing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI3Bcgh4Jko

In Denmark King Hrothgar builds a big mead-hall it’s a big barn where his warriors can hang out and party (mead is an adult beverage) play music and listen to storytellers they’re whooping it up and making a racket at all hours which annoys Grendel who is a horrible monster who lives in the swamp near the mead-hall Grendel terrorizes the Danes every night he even kills a bunch of

them which dampens the party atmosphere none of the Danish warriors is a match for Grendel finally a young Geatish warrior named Beowulf hears about Hrothgar’s situation Beowulf sails to Denmark with 14 guys Hrothgar holds a big feast for Beowulf at the feast a little wiseacre named Unferth says maybe Beowulf isn’t up to the job the music stops Beowulf tells the crowd all about the big things

he’s done the party starts back up again but then Grendel bursts in and Beowulf fights him unarmed because he’s so strong they have a rip-roaring mortal battle and Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off so Grendel limps back to his swampy home to die the warriors party on and eventually fall asleep but things are about to get real Grendel’s mom is a much worse monster who chews gum and kills Danish warriors and she’s all out of chewing gum she comes to Hrothgar’s party and grabs Esher who was the emcee so Beowulf says I’ll handle this and tracks Grendel’s mom to a lake where Esher’s head is bobbing in the water and he thinks this must be the place so he dives down to her underwater lair at the bottom of the lake and they have a knock-down drag-em-out fight the situation looks bad for our hero but there’s a magic sword on the knick-knack shelf Beowulf grabs it and kills her with it so now no more monsters in Denmark King Hrothgar thanks Beowulf with great heaping piles of treasure they have another big party and Beowulf heads home with his pals he gives his treasure to King Higlac who rewards Beowulf with real estate and swords now we skip ahead 50 or 60 years Higlac is dead and Beowulf is king of the Geats there’s an underground cave full of treasure that’s guarded by a dragon some stupid Geat steals a bejeweled cup from the cave while the dragon’s asleep and when the dragon wakes up he knows right away the cup’s missing so he goes on a rampage and burns everything down including Beowulf’s house so Beowulf goes to the cave to kill the dragon but he’s not so young as he used to be they have a harum-scarum fiery battle Beowulf breaks his sword and the dragon bites him on the neck Beowulf’s old pal Wiglaf comes to the rescue and stabs the dragon then Beowulf cuts the dragon in half with his knife (it doesn’t say lengthwise or crosswise) but it’s game over for Beowulf that was his last fight Wiglaf builds a giant tomb for Beowulf with lots of treasure the Geats give Beowulf a viking send-off with a big funeral pyre and bury his ashes and treasure in the tomb.

https://www.ancient-literature.com/other_beowulf.html
https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-suffolk-43045874
Here’s a movie reviewer who gets Beowulf. https://www.salon.com/2007/11/20/beowulf_2/

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Frontier poetry

Well, okay, there’d been vernacular literature before the Renaissance. Poets who lived in the far-flung fringes of the Roman Empire had been writing their stuff in their own language long before the Renaissance. It seems reasonable to figure since so few people spoke or read Latin on the frontier, Latin wasn’t the best language to go with when writing poems. The epic poem Beowulf was written in Old English/Anglo-Saxon and dates from at least ad 1000—probably earlier.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Beowulf is a warrior-hero who slays monsters. His poem is the model for many epics that followed. F’rinstance, J.R.R. Tolkien was a mediæval literature scholar who got plenty of mileage out of Beowulf for his Lord of The Rings saga.* Dungeons & Dragons, Game of Thrones—how about Dune, Star Wars, comic books and superhero movies? How To Train Your Dragon did a neat twist on the Beowulf story. Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is a Beowulf spoof. I have a crackpot theory that Beowulf was the inspiration for Dr Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/youre-a-mean-one-mr-grendel/

Beowulf is a poem but it doesn’t sound like any poem we’re used to hearing. Instead of lines that rhyme with each other, poems from those days used alliteration. The Beowulf author repeated consonants, like in ‘the far-flung fringes’ from 2 paragraphs ago. I was lucky enough to hear Benjamin Bagby perform Beowulf (more alliteration!) in Pittsburgh some years back. Here’s Mr Bagby at the 92nd Street Y in NYC— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WcIK_8f7oQ

* Tolkien wrote a translation of Beowulf—https://www.amazon.com/Beowulf-Translation-Commentary-J-R-R-Tolkien/dp/0544570308 you may also like Sir Gawain and The Green Knight https://www.amazon.com/Gawain-Green-Knight-1996-02-06-Paperback/dp/B014BGYZCC/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=the+green+knight+tolkien&qid=1626837983&s=books&sr=1-3

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Arrivederci, Rome

Three things were happening that I think are worth noticing: 1) the Renaissance was a celebration of Humanism—they revived the philosophical thinking of Greece & Rome and toned down the theology of the Catholic Church; 2) the Protestant Reformation happened because people were already dissatisfied with the Church; 3) Latin had become a way to keep regular shmos from reading and understanding the Bible themselves. Renaissance authors figured out that rejecting Latin in favor of vernacular languages was a way they could communicate directly with their readers.

The Roman poet Horace who deserves a lot more respect than I’m giving him in this cartoon

It looks like the intellectuals of that age were all about giving the Church a kick in the shins, and maybe the Church had it coming. One of the themes of this history is how institutions get bloated, entrenched and run by a handful of elites. The regular shmos put up with it for only so long. When somebody invents a way to work around the elites’ communications apparatus, regular shmos seize on it and the elites lose their power. We saw it happen with the invention of the alphabet. Now we’re looking at how movable type busted up the Mediæval Church’s monopoly on reading & writing.

Geoff Chaucer trying out some new lines in Middle English

Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible was in German. German is vernacular—that is, it’s what everyday regular shmos in Saxony spoke. French is vernacular. English is vernacular. Spanish and Italian are vernacular. They are the romance languages that developed from Latin. From the days of the Roman Republic to the Mediæval period, anything worth writing was written in Latin or sometimes Greek. The Renaissance—the 13-, 14- & 1500s—was different. Authors said no thanks to Latin & Greek and began writing literature in their own language. The printing press allowed them to reach a wide audience.

https://www.definitions.net/definition/vernacular+literature
https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/protestant-reformation/
https://www.britannica.com/topic/humanism
https://www.britannica.com/art/Latin-literature

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Going viral 1517-style

Some people are great self-promoters. Most aren’t. Johannes Gutenberg created world-changing technology but didn’t know how to capitalize on it. Martin Luther saw the printing press and knew exactly what to do.

It was movable type and the printing press that got the Protestant Reformation off to such a fiery start. Within days of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, printed copies were circulating all over Europe. If the Pope had wanted to respond to each one, he’d have to wait for an army of monks to calligraph his remarks on parchment.

In England, across the Channel, they could read what Luther had posted in Saxony just a few days earlier. Can you imagine what it was to have news delivered so quickly? Well, of course you can. Nowadays Martin Luther would take a selfie in front of All Saints Church and post it on Instagram with a link to his blog where there’d be a pdf of his 95 Theses and you’d download it a few moments later. But it was 1517, so he used Gutenberg’s hot new technology to spread his ideas. He followed up the Theses with cheap, easy-to-read printed pamphlets where he defended his arguments in German. These were bestsellers and Luther even got big-shot artist Lucas Cranach to draw illustrations for them—his drawings were made into woodcuts. Luther’s pamphlets would be carried to every port city and printers there would run up copies and sell them.

Luther translated the Bible into German. It was a bestseller, too—5,000 copies.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-power-of-luthers-printing-press/2015/12/18/a74da424-743c-11e5-8d93-0af317ed58c9_story.html
https://www.history.com/news/printing-press-renaissance
https://www.nls.uk/exhibitions/treasures/the-reformation/95-theses/
Yes, it’s a word https://www.dictionary.com/browse/calligraph

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The proud tradition of not making money in publishing

Gutenberg was able to print many more copies of the Bible than could be handwritten by monks in the same amount of time. His output left the scriptoria in the dust. More means less expensive—lots more people could afford to own a bible. Think of Henry Ford cranking out inexpensive cars, one every hour and a half. https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2020/07/03/more-cars-please/ Gutenberg could crank out bibles all day long and customers could snap ‘em up as soon as they came off the press, right? The guy should have been a millionaire, right? Nope. It didn’t work out that way. What did he do wrong? This: he didn’t have a distribution system set up. Only a few people in Mainz, Germany could read, so his hometown customer-base was tiny. The tragedy is Gutenberg might have found many enthusiastic customers in Europe’s big cities. Put six bible sales-guys on boats to the universities and libraries in Venice, Rome, Athens, London, Alexandria, Paris—you think they wouldn’t bring home some big orders? It appears Gutenberg never thought to do that. In the business world, nothing happens until the sale is made. Gutenberg conquered every challenge except sales. He wound up owing everybody money and his creditors took everything in his shop. There’s an important lesson here (for me, especially):

Go out there and find your customers!

While I have you here—if you like this blog, please recommend it to your pals. Tell me if you’d like some promotional postcards (tell me your address at jmanders@aol.com). I cherish the hope that I’ll be able to print these Western Civ User’s Guides and start promoting them at comic cons and librarian cons and homeschooling events. I need to go out and find my customers.

As always, I’m very grateful that you weirdos read this stuff.

Door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen were a staple of gag cartoons a few decades ago. https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/e/encyclopedia_salesman.asp

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Any rags?

A rag collector in Paris late 1800s

In spite of Frederick’s decree, Europe’s papermakers simply got on with making paper. They added a twist to the recipe: rags. Rags means old cloth like towels, tablecloths, bedsheets, curtains, handkerchiefs, dresses, shirts, pants, socks, underwear, twine, even rope. In Europe, rag fiber meant linen or hemp. Buying old rags sprang up as a side business to support the papermaking business. Rag content in paper makes it pretty nice to draw and paint on. Here in the USA rag means cotton fiber. Rag paper is PH neutral—it contains very little or no acid so it doesn’t yellow over time. The European process was still pretty much the same one the Chinese used: you throw fibrous material into a vat of treated water and break down the fibers until you get a slurry.

The watermark found on many pages of Gutenberg’s bibles.

Most of Gutenberg’s bibles are printed on paper. He got his paper from a mill in northern Italy. The pages have a watermark—the logo of the mill is ever-so-slightly indented into the paper. You only see it when you hold the paper up to the light. How fitting is it that the watermark on the pages of the Gutenberg Bible is in the shape of an ox head? An ox head was the original shape of the first letter of our alphabet: aleph. https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2021/01/11/canaanite-turquoise-miners-fool-around-during-lunch-break/

https://www.bl.uk/treasures/gutenberg/paper.html
https://www.papiermuseum.ch/manufaktur/#Papierproduktion
https://www.artistshelpingchildren.org/kidscraftsactivitiesblog/2012/02/how-to-make-paper-from-rags/
https://www.ehow.com/how_6132991_make-rag-paper.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9Pvk-mzEUs
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rag-and-bone_man
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ragpicker
Here’s Betty and rag man Bimbo (this cartoon is pre-Hayes-Code—parents, shield the kids’ eyes when Betty reveals her undergarments):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcGCGhjHFuU
Here’s a good article about paper:
https://vintagepaper.co/blogs/news/rag-paper-what-is-it
https://www.themorgan.org/collections/works/gutenberg/invention-of-printing
Here’s how a watermark is made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQwTblKyU8g

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Paper or parchment?

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II—’the Wonder of the World’ as his pals liked to call him

The invention of papermaking slowly—like a thousand years slowly—made its way to the Middle East and then Europe. In Spain and Italy, mills began cranking out paper in the 1100s. This paper was for writing on (of course, right? Printing wasn’t a thing yet).

Paper was considered not as good as parchment. There’s a sacred aspect to parchment. Parchment had been the preferred writing surface for religious and legal documents since the days when it replaced papyrus. Still, paper was less expensive than parchment, so customers started making the switch to paper.

The land-owning barons and earls who sold livestock to make parchment saw the new paper industry cutting in on their profits, so they sandbagged the demand for paper. In 1221 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II decreed that paper documents were invalid—which meant contracts written on paper weren’t legally binding. Lawyers, judges and government officials had to use the more expensive parchment just to keep their documents valid. It’s a sad fact that big business will always enlist cronies in government to squash their competition. Always.

http://www.holyromanempireassociation.com/holy-roman-emperor-frederick-ii.html
https://beyondforeignness.org/8966
https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/kings-queens/emperor-frankenstein-the-truth-behind-frederick-ii-of-sicilys-sadistic-science-experiments/

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