When in Doubt, Ask the Past

Codex Manesse 292v Schulmeister EßlingenEverybody needs advice sometimes. Whether everybody wants it is another matter, but there’s a reason so many people love Cary Tennis, Dan Savage, and Dear Prudence (although I do NOT like the videos, Prudence—such a lack of intimacy). In my day, kids, we had the choice of Ann Landers and Dear Abby, and god forbid you were wondering about anything… you know. Weird. Still, every once in a while you really need to go back to the classics for some good, timeless counsel. And I’m not talking about looking to Jane Austen for dating tips, or Daphne du Maurier on the ins and outs of marrying widowers. In the greater scheme of things, they’re rookies.

If you really want guidance for the ages, your best bet just may be Ask the Past: Advice from Old Books. The wonders of digitization have made it possible to consult Renaissance etiquette treatises, 17th-century child-rearing manuals, and fin-de-siècle fitness books—among others—for insight into problems you surely wouldn’t be able to solve otherwise. Edited by Elizabeth Archibald, an early medieval education historian at Johns Hopkins, Ask the Past is a veritable treasure trove of wise words.

You’ll learn How to Kill Fleas with goats’ blood (bear or badger blood works too, apparently, but in the absence of goats, bears, or badgers in the Bronx I’m not going to stop Frontlining the pets any time soon). How to Change a Diaper gives us the criminally underused verb “bepisse.” And for parents or caregivers of younger children who may be wondering How to Serve Wine to Your Toddler, you will discover that:

Children should always drink common wine, diluted more or less according to the strength of the wine and the lesser or greater age of the child, because older children can drink their wine mixed with less water; white is better than red.

Finally, a good use for white wine.

I am personally most excited about How to Make a Dog Do Chores, from Rolfe Cobleigh’s 1910 manual Handy Farm Devices and How to Make Them. This is clearly a work of genius. Now if I can just figure out how to teach my dog to put together a nice PowerPoint presentation on metadata, I’ll be in business.

(Illustration is from the Codex Manesse [c. 1304] under How to Treat the Freshmen—timely advice for those of us heading back to school this week.)


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