Saturday, 24 August 2013

And now, for a bit of maths...

For centuries, humans have been arguing about ethics and morals. Is it ethical to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving children? If you find ten quid on the sidewalk, is it moral to keep it for yourself? Luckily, in 1725, Scottish Enlightenment scholar Frances Hutcheson came up with a foolproof way to measure the morality of your actions. In true Enlightenment fashion, Hutcheson applied rational thinking to a topic that has traditionally relied on emotion or religion. He actually created several mathematical formulas that, when applied, could show whether an action is more or less moral. For instance, take one of his simpler equations:

Hutcheson says that B stands for Benevolence (how virtuous someone is), M stands for Moment of Good (the positive action you perform), and A stands for Ability (how able someone is to perform a positive action). Therefore, in Hutcheson’s equation, benevolence or virtue is equal to the moment of good divided by a person’s ability to perform a good deed. That means that if a person’s ability is greater than the moment of good (for instance, if a millionaire gives only 20 pounds to charity), then the virtue of the moment is fractional. Hutcheson’s formula does make sense. We do congratulate people who give more than their ability may allow (such as someone who works a full day at the office and then also volunteers at a soup kitchen), and shake our heads at those who don’t perform to the fullness of their ability. However, the modern reader may easily find issue with Hutcheson’s approach. People and situations are so many and diverse; can a standardized formula really assert something as ambiguous as morality? If you’re in this camp, keep reading. Hutcheson’s formulas do get more complicated.
Hutcheson continues by adding another factor into his math: self-interest. He notes that some benevolent actions may actually be advantageous to the do-gooder, while others have the potential to harm the person performing the action. For these scenarios, Hutcheson creates two new formulas. First:

This equation is similar to the first, only it represents an action that may benefit the person performing it. In this case, Hutcheson subtracts I, or self-interest, from the moment of good, in order to “find the true Effect of Benevolence, or Virtue”. This means that an action will be less virtuous if it provides too many advantages to its performer. For example, if a student brings their teacher an apple to try to get a better grade in class, this action is less virtuous. On the other hand, Hutcheson also provides a formula for “laborious, painful, dangerous, or expensive Virtue”:

This represents an action which not only does not benefit the performer, but that is even potentially destructive. In this way, self-interest is contrary to benevolence, such as when a person donates their winter coat to a homeless person. Self-interest would dictate that the person should keep the coat to warm themselves, while benevolence says the opposite: give the coat away to someone less fortunate. In this equation, self-interest is added to the moment of good, and increases the virtue of the action.

Interestingly, even in Hutcheson’s rational, scientific approach, we can still see traces of emotion and religion. Even the language he uses—virtue, benevolence—is reminiscent of biblical lessons on morality. Studying theories like Hutcheson’s can show us a mixture of two great ideals in Scotland: religious and scientific enlightenment. We’ve seen Hutcheson take a conventionally religious experiment and modernize it into a mathematical experiment. But we may still be left with questions that can’t be answered with a simple experiment. This raises some questions: how far were the Enlightenment scholars from their religion? And how much did they actually lean on their religious teachings in order to scientifically advance Scotland?

Hutcheson’s ideas and equations can be found in the Innerpeffray Library’s copy of An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, pages 168-170. 


Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Recipes from the olden days

If I provided you with bread, onions, fish, eggs, and brandy, what would you try to make? Maybe you would come up with a nice slice of fish with breadcrumbs, or even some kind of a stew. Or, if you were from 18th century England, you could cook up a steaming pot of typographic ink. Yes, ink! A book in the Innerpeffray’s 20th century collection, A History of Printing Ink by C.H. Bloy, provides several recipes for the ink alongside of its history. Some of the ingredients may seem surprising to the modern reader. Take this 18th century English recipe for ink:

Take 100 lb nut oil. Boil until like a syrup. Purify by adding 2 lb of coarse bread and 12 onions. Boil 35 lb of turpentine apart…When oil half cold, add turpentine and stir. The strength of the varnish should be gauged according to the surface of the paper to be printed.
For red ink, fish glue the size of a nut should be added, or brandy, or egg white.

This ink would have been used in a printing press to print text. I had to look up fish glue and turpentine, and found out that fish glue is the skin or bone of a fish that’s been heated in water, while turpentine is distilled tree resin. So it seems that most of these ingredients are either still available, or possible to make. If you’ve ever had the idea of printing up your own 18th century-style leaflets, here’s your chance!

Going back even further in the history of printing, here’s a recipe for Chinese block-printing ink from 251 A.D.:

Lampblack was mixed in a mortar with a gum solution until it was like a paste. This was placed in moulds to dry and sold in sticks. The printer rubbed up a stick in a concave stone with some water. This ink was ideal for wood cuts and peculiarly. It was of no value for printing metal.

“Lampblack” is a black pigment made almost completely from carbon, collected as the soot of a burned substance, such as oil, fat, or resin. This is another ingredient that could still be obtainable today, albeit messily.

Books are made of more than the tales, poems, or histories that are printed on their pages. A book’s ink, paper, and binding each have their own interesting stories, and many artists devote their careers to papermaking or bookbinding. At the Innerpeffray, you can learn how many of our older books were made, peeking “behind-the-scenes” into what materials went into your favorite tomes. 


Friday, 16 August 2013

Scottish music, inside and out of the Innerpeffray

On Wednesday evening, the Friends of the Innerpeffray Library had the pleasure of attending a talk by Margaret Bennett, a Scottish folklorist and ethnologist. Ms. Bennett was discussing Scottish customs and traditions, as per her book, “Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave”. Two of the loveliest points of the evening were when Ms. Bennet sang traditional Gaelic songs, one a lullaby, and the other a lament entitled “The Lament of Gregor MacGregor”. She reminded her audience of the importance of music in the milestone events of birth and burial. Lullabies, she noted, are a unique time of intimacy between a parent and baby as they interact through eye contact and the human voice. Ms. Bennett also taught us that in times of mourning, the ability to sing signifies the ability to live through tragedy. Some men and women even joined in with Ms. Bennett as she sang her lullaby and her lament, showing the threads of Scottish culture which ran through our group.

There are many traditional songbooks held in the Innerpeffray Library. On display now is the manuscript of a song written by Robert Burns, which was published in Perry’s Morning Chronicle on May 10, 1794. The song is written to Burns’ landlord’s daughter, Janet Miller, whom Burns affectionately refers to as Jeanie in his lyrics. “Wilt thou be my Dearie?”, writes Burns. “When Sorrow wrings thy gentle heart,/Wilt thou let me chear thee?” The page ends as Burns begs, “Jeanie say, thou loe’s me;/ Or if thou wilt na be my ane,/Say na thou’lt refuse me…” This song was inspired by a sweet folly of the heart, a bit different from the weightier subjects of birth and death inspiring the Gaelic tunes sung by Ms. Bennett.

Another offering from Innerpeffray is the tome “Ballad Minstrelsy of Scotland”, published in 1893. It describes a traditional Scottish ballad as “short narrative poems, each celebrating a real or fancied event, and suitable for singing or chanting to some simple natural melody”. We are strictly reminded that ballads “often are, but ought not to be, confounded with songs, which, properly speaking, are the more polished and artistic vehicles of ‘sentiment, expression, or even description’”. This book of minstrelsy provides us with such stories as “The Birth of Robin Hood”, “The Battle of Balrinnes”, and “The Lament of the Border Widow”, whose husband was slain by the king. We can see that these stories do mark lifetime events, such as birth and death, just as Ms. Bennett’s songs did, and perhaps you could even read the words with a “simple, natural melody” in mind.

Here is a wonderful interview with Margaret Bennett backed by several recordings of Gaelic songs, for those who missed her talk or for those who simply want more:


Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Once upon a time, in the Innerpeffray Library...

At the library, we’re so excited about our collection of borrower ledger books dating back to the 18th century. The three books display every loan made to borrowers from 1747 to 1968. But these books aren’t simply data-filled records. The ledgers provide insight into the lives of borrowers, creating a narrative that we modern onlookers can use to paint a picture of life back in earlier days of Perthshire.

One of the most exciting things about the ledger books is how often they can remind us of our own lives. As I was flipping through the borrowing records for the years 1898 and 1899, I noticed that some of the children had borrowed books that I had read during my own childhood in metro Detroit, Michigan. When I saw that young Lorna Cox, accompanied by her governess, Katherine Dodsworth, had borrowed Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-glass, I remembered the first time I discovered and devoured Alice’s adventures. I read Carroll’s books about Alice so much and so thoroughly that I had to buy multiple copies through the years, after the old ones had fallen apart. I had the same nostalgia when I read that the Haxton sisters, Mary and Sarah, had each borrowed books from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” series. Sarah had borrowed the original Little Women, while Mary preferred the later Little Women Married. Like many young girls, the Haxton sisters chose many books about women, reading Alcott’s novels alongside books like Lives of Eminent Women, a biographical book about historical women such as Joan of Arc. Perhaps the sisters dreamed of emulating the women they read about, just as I remember wanting desperately to be like Jo March, with a pen in her hand and a clever phrase always on her tongue. I noticed other familiar books in the ledger: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, borrowed by Miss Jessie McAinsh, was one of my mother’s favorite books as she grew up in Brooklyn, New York. One of my professors at the University of Michigan still enjoys re-reading George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, which was another one of Miss McAinsh’s selections. Clearly, these books have spanned countries, and lifetimes.

Part of the draw of the Innerpeffray Library is the connecting force that its books reveal. Two little girls in two different centuries can read the same novel, and can love the story in the same way. Writing can become immortal, and stepping into the Innerpeffray, to read the texts or thumb through the pages of the ledgers, is a perfect way to travel the same journey as readers of the past.