Monday, 31 December 2012

Why Doctor Who Fails at Time Travel in Medieval and Renaissance England

Today, I was doing some research into New Year's during different time periods and checking out some of the awesome calendars people made hundreds of years ago.  Calendars tended to last longer in those days and generally came in book form.  Rather than being the ephemeral items they are today, they were works of art and skill:

 A 1496 copy of the German calendar created by Johannes Von Gmunden (c.1380-1443).  It sold recently for £73,250 ($117,347).  Astrological in nature, but the book also contains a liturgical section.  The moon looks smug though.  It bothers me.

However, I was reminded of something I learned years ago in school -- these medieval and renaissance types used a different calendar back then.  At that point, as I was discussing the nuances of the Julian vs the Gregorian calendars to the other half, he just exclaimed "That's why The Doctor can't ever get anywhere or any-when at the correct time or place!  It's not a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff -- he's just not taking calendars into account!"

I thought about this a moment and was going to disagree because, well, Time Lord.  But then I remembered that The Doctor couldn't even think to save Rory and Amy from the weeping angels by going to 1935 to pick them up.  So it makes sense to me that he could miss the whole calendars thing, which I should probably now explain, given that I've had caffeine and it's showing.

Or this.  They could have done this.  That would have been fine too.  HOW DID HE NOT SPOT THAT?  Okay, calm.  But it illustrates the point.  No common sense.  Or perhaps New York is just too full of flanginium, that rarest, yet most common of metals.  Incidentally, if you know who the artist for this is, I'd love to give them credit -- this is something that I saw floating around the Internet... :(

See, people have found different ways of measuring time.  The Romans had a few ways, the last of which being the Julian Calendar, brought in by Julius Caesar in 46BC to start in 45BC (by our calendars).  Romans of course measured from the founding of their city, Rome, (Ad Urbis Condita) so this change happened in 708AUC and 709AUC.  For perspective, by their calendar, we're now living in 2676, by the way...

The Julian calendar was all very well and good, except for the fact that it was 11 minutes longer per year than nature allows for.  Doesn't sound much until you realise that over the course of four centuries, it gained around 3 calendar days.  By the time the more accurate Gregorian calendar that we use today was introduced to the Catholic countries of Europe in 1582, the vernal equinox was taking place on the 11th March instead of the church's date of the 21st, meaning that 10 calendar days had been unintentionally inserted over time.  This was unacceptable given that the celebration of Easter was tied to the equinox and the seasons were getting out of sync.

This was further compounded by the fact that yes, under the Julian calendar, the year sensibly started on 1st January.  But of course that didn't take Roman Catholic religious observances -- the liturgical cycle -- which began on 25th March.

A Medieval Calendar:  A page from an English Book of Hours (1401-1414) held at the British Library, helpfully filed as "Royal 2 A XVIII".  This page illustrates 25th March (the Feast of Annunciation), which according to tradition is the day Mary was told "Yo.  You're pregnant."  This was therefore the start of the New Year for countries using the Julian calendar.  

So in practice, there was a secular New Year's Day and a religious one.  The year, however, only went up on the religious New Year's Day, 25th March.  Therefore, if Queen Elizabeth were to write a letter dated on the 1st January, 1567, which is correct from her perspective, we'd view it now as 1st January, 1568, which is correct from ours.  She'd also go to bed on 24th March, 1567 and wake up on 25th March, 1568 and this would be entirely normal.

To make matters even more complicated, note how I mentioned that the Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582.  So most of Europe (Spain, Portugal, France, Poland, the Netherlands and all their territories) took this on board.  Britain didn't.  It was Protestant and firmly so; this new calendar thing was clearly a Catholic plot by the Pope to bring Britain back into line!  Many Protestant countries felt this way.  However, the new calendar eventually caught on, in time, because it was more accurate.

Britain, her American colony and her territories took on the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.  By this time, the calendar was in something of a bind, so some trickery was used to fudge the dates and bring them into line.  On 24th March, 1751, the next day was 25th March, 1752.  This was actually normal (religious New Year, remember).  But, it was decreed that the year ended on 31st December, 1752, and therefore the year went up, the next day, on 1st January, 1753.  The calendar was also still out by 12 days, however, so 2nd September, 1752 was followed by 14th September, 1752.  1752 was 72 days shorter.  I kid you not.  They just decided to not have those days that year.

A page from William Hunter's Virginia Almanack for September 1752.  Despite 1752 being 72 days shorter than every other year ever, I doubt he gave 20% off his Almanacks (source).

Apparently, this is all even confusing to historians, mostly because half of them update and half of them don't.  Not exactly helpful, but at least they generally state it at the start of their works.  The Gregorian calendar became the worldwide standard over time, though the last country to accept it was Greece in 1923.  The Greek Orthodox churches, however, still use the Julian calendar.

Just as a note:  This will blow my mind at 4am tomorrow night -- when I remember it and I've had a few.  Although no time travelers ever make note of any of these discrepancies, I'm really glad they don't.  It'd just be confusing.  But you'd think The Doctor could at least install some kind of upgrade for it!

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Monday, 24 December 2012

A Medieval Christmas in England

Over the past few days I've read quite a few articles about how people in medieval times spent their Christmas.  My big bugbear about this is that many articles have spoken about the past as if it's all one big place -- and even as if all of Europe is one big place.  Having lived in a few countries myself, I know that the way one country celebrates Christmas is totally different from another; from that, it's fair to guess that one century also celebrated it in a different way to the others before or after it.  The main problem is that very few accounts still exist from various times that tell how people spent their Christmas -- therefore we amalgamate and extrapolate.  It's fair, though I've tried to keep this post to a limited time period (1340s - 1480s), which has actually been difficult to do.  It's sad that much of the evidence has gone.  Thing is, not all of it has.  Some of it is there, you just have to look for it.

For example, manuscripts sometimes show in their marginalia drawings of mummers and guisers ("performers in disguise") performing plays.  We know that in England's royal courts, for example, plays were written annually for the mummers.  We even have some picture evidence:

Mummers wearing full facial masks as part of a mumming (play).  Mummings took place at Christmas though apart from knowing that they used rhyming couplets, we know little else about the early mummings.  This is from a manuscript created in 1344 for the court of Edward III.  Source:  Bodleian Library.

Sadly, no play scripts or performance details exist from this time period.  In fact, it's only documented in that way from the mid-18th century, but we do know that tradition goes back quite away due to references in manuscripts and pictures like the one above.  We also know that these plays usually cast St. George as the hero and a Turkish knight as the villain.  They also often featured a theme of resurrection, usually where a doctor administers a cure for the fallen.

We also know from reports that Edward VI had a massive Christmas feast in 1482.  He reportedly fed 2,000 people per day, for the entire 12 days of Christmas.  He also took the chance to glam up (just as well as it was his last Christmas), with one guest noting that he was "clad in a great variety of most costly garments, of quite a different cut to those which had usually be seen hitherto in our kingdom."  He was a believer in style and in bling, even when it came to food.  They served up a variety of different meats, including the obvious boar and the not so obvious peacock:

 The feast of the peacock, 15th century.  Yes, when they served peacock, they served it with the feathers.  Well, they took the skin and the feathers off to cook it, and then wrapped them back around the bird when it was done so it was presented at the table looking more like it did when it was alive.  Sometimes, if they were feeling really extravagant, they gilded the combs.  True fact.  For more traditions, check out this blog.

Boar, however, was what Richard III preferred, which is no surprise given that the white boar was his personal emblem.  And it was popular because it's tasty.  Really tasty.  Peacock was, by contrast, pretty tough and not all that tasty, but it was really, really expensive.  In fact, it was the most expensive bird money could buy for around 350 years, according to records kept by London's poultry guild.  So, looks like it was the medieval version of caviar then.  Yes, I have opinions.

Exchanging presents is a fairly obvious custom, still practiced today as it was back then.  Gifts were often bestowed on the members of the court, but the gift giving didn't stop there.  Relics were sometimes gifted to churches.  Titles and honours were also presented to people.... and sometimes, they even threw in the promise of a wife.  In 1470, George Neville was granted a dukedom and a betrothal to Elizabeth of York as a way of trying to pacify the Yorkist supporters.

 Elizabeth of York, not just for Christmas:  Didn't marry Neville in the end.  She did much better for herself by marrying Henry VII and being the mother to Prince Henry (later Henry VIII).  She died when he was 11.

Course, Neville switched sides not long after, which kind of broke the marriage deal.  Still, Elizabeth got a better deal in 1484 when she and Anne Neville (yes, same family, only this one was married to Richard III) exchanged presents of clothing.  According to at least one source, there was a lot of dancing and singing that particular year, so apparently drinking and hangovers was probably also a part of these festivities.  A strong Church Ale was also sold at Christmas, often leading to a lot of dancing, singing and general merriment in the churches and churchyards, which some people frowned upon.  Then again, some folks will frown on anything.  Ah well, sucked to be them!  Happy hangovers!

If you want to read even more about this, head on over to this awesome site:

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Monday, 17 December 2012

The Jesse Tree

It's been a little while since my last posting... You know how it is -- December is a month for family and friends visiting and for panicking and shopping and, well, failing to get stuff done.  I even got a little bit of writer's block, if I'm honest, so I decided to turn to my leatherworking muse to try and shift it.  In doing research for tree designs, I came across the idea of a Jesse Tree -- an unfamiliar idea that actually should be very familiar, as it turns out.

A Jesse Tree from the Winchester Psalter, a 12th century book of psalms from England, made for the brother of King Stephen.  It depicts the line of Christ.  Yep, it's a family tree.

The chap lying down at the bottom is Jesse, father to David, who is the chap on the first fork of the tree.  It ascends up to Mary and then Jesus at the top.  The chaps at either side are actually prophets, holding the scriptures that point to the prophesy of Christ as the Messiah.  It's a fairly common theme in these scriptural family trees -- but they're not just kept to books.  Trees of Jesse are also depicted in stained glass windows in churches and as time went on, good grief, they got grand:

Stained glass Jesse Tree at Saint-Étienne's church in Beauvais, France, created between 1522-1524.  Jesse is the chap in the four-poster bed at the bottom.  To his left is Francis I of France and to his right is the Holy Roman Emporer Charlies V.  The rest are misc kings of Judea plus St. Louis.

It took two years for this to be put together -- it's no wonder really to look at it.  It's amazingly beautiful and detailed.  If you'd like to see better and more in detail pictures, check out this article by Professor Moriarty

It wasn't just stereotypical churchy things that got the whole Jesse Tree treatment either.  I came across a liturgical comb fragment that features this design:

Ivory comb fragment from Bavaria, Germany.  It's from between 1180-1220 and measures 3 5/8"x4" in size and has an insane amount of detail.  Each of the scriptures have writing in Latin, in incredibly small lettering...  How much skill?

Isiah is stood on the left, holding a scroll that translates to "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse...".  I don't think they could have thought of a more unattractive way of putting it.  Yeesh.  That was probably the point though.

I've always wondered where the idea of a family tree actually came from.  Incidentally, the Jesse Tree bears no relation to the Christmas tree, even though I really looked for that connection -- well, you know.  It's December.  Everything has to be Christmas related, right?

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Saturday, 8 December 2012

Jorvik Centre & Coppergate Helm

Last week I went to the Jorvik Centre in York.  I'd been there before as a child, but as that was a very long time ago, I thought I'd give it another visit.  It's a museum based on the Coppergate digs, which have yielded artifacts mostly from the mid to late 10th century, but with several from before that.  It's mainly Viking focused, although there's a good smattering of Anglo-Saxon and other influences too. 

The Jorvik Centre good way to spend an afternoon, though it is definitely oriented towards school groups as it features a ride that you have to go on in order to get from one part of the museum to the other.  I have to admit to not taking any pictures during the ride because it includes moving, talking, mechanical people and I don't know about you, but those things creep me the hell out.  At least one of them has been pooping in a corner since I was a kid.  I think I'm good for pictures of that, thanks...

It's pretty dark inside Jorvik, but I did get a few decent pictures of one or two items.  The exhibits largely give an insight into the day to day life of your average person living in York during this time period; the average, day to day folk -- not berserkers or warriors, but folk.  I kind of like that.

 Bone and antler combs found in the Coppergate area of YorkThese were really common objects, however, the evidence points to a crafter making combs at Coppergate as many half-finished combs were found.  The teeth were finely spaced so as to take care of nits and lice.

Having said that, the museum also houses a few skulls and skeletons, with some of those people noted as having "likely died in battle".  One chap in particular had 16 bone crushing or damaging wounds, so "likely" is probably not the word.  I did find myself contemplating exactly how he died, as grim as it sounds.  It is easy to picture a lone Viking warrior, unaware of the line having folded to both sides, being swamped by the oncoming tide of enemy.  His skeleton told the story of someone who'd been a career warrior; I hope his death was at least quick.  It was certainly violent.

Jorvik also houses a reproduction of the Coppergate Helmet (the original being housed at the Yorkshire Museum).  This helm is awesome.  It's an Anglo-Saxon helm from between 750-775AD which was partially dismantled and stashed so that someone could return for it at a later point.  It would have belonged to someone of pretty high status because it's iron, brass and bling:

Reconstructed it it's original glory:  The bar running up the forehead bears the inscription "IN NOMINE:DNI:NOSTRI:IHV:SCE:SPS:DI:ET:OMNIBVS:DECEMVS:AMEN:OSHERE:XPI".  In short "In the name of our Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God:  and to all we say Amen/Oshere/Christ".

All that's known about the helm's original owner is that he was a Christian Anglian called "Oshere".  He likely had a lot of money but even if he was royalty we'd likely never know, given how short a time some of the kings of York stayed in power at this time.

Detail of the nasal bar. Makes you wonder if the guy had been wearing it rather than stashing it, if he'd have been capable of revisiting the well at some point.

The helm reminds me of a later, Romanised version of the Vendel helms from Sweden -- these were also laden with scroll work and usually had a a boar crest where the inscription on this helm lies.  As much as this was an Anglian helm, other influences are definitely apparent, which is appropriate given just how multicultural York was during this period.

As I said, it was a nice way to spend the afternoon and as a bonus, the gift shop is quite good too.  On my way out though, I couldn't help but snap a picture of this:

Now that would be a great way to spend an afternoon...  ;)

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Tuesday, 4 December 2012

17th Century Playing Cards -- Made from Silver

So, in my inbox this morning I found a news story about the re-discovery and sale of a set of playing cards created in Augsburg, Germany, in 1616.  These are no ordinary cards though -- these are actually made of silver and gilded with gold using an archaic mercury gilding technique.  The process is entirely illegal today; given that he would have added gold dust to mercury and then painted that solution onto the silver before firing it in a kiln... yeah.  I'm kind of glad it is illegal.  What's even more mad is that the artist creating this work (a chap named Michael Frömmer) knew it was dangerous at the time; no one really knew how or why it was a health hazard though.

Photograph by Jay Weston.  Visit here for a bigger and better picture.

Thing is, these cards weren't even for playing with.  They were Renaissance bling.  They sat inside a kunstschrank (art cabinet) and looked nice.  It was a way of saying "I have so much money, I can have this work of art and human engineering created for me."  Of course, should the owners fall on hard times, they also had an awful lot of silver on hand that could be melted down.  Security, currency, art and wealth all in one shot.  It'd be a crying shame if it had happened to these though.  The level of detail on these cards is immense and apparently on the same level as copper plates for print.

 King of Swords, dressed as the Holy Roman Emporer -- Likely Charlemagne.  That's an insane amount of detail -- though given it's mercury gilding, insane is possibly the correct word.  Photo by Patrick Debremme.

The Cavalier (or Knight) of Batons, dressed in early 17th century military gear, rocking the popped collar.  I'd love to know what his dog is looking at.  Photo:  Patrick Debremme, via LiveScience. Though I totally object to their use of the term "ancient".  400 years is not ancient!

You may have noticed that these aren't your standard suits that you find in playing cards today.  Back when these cards were produced, most countries in Europe had their own suits.  This German-made deck actually uses Italian suits, which are those of swords, coins, batons and cups (ace to 10).  Like modern decks, there are three face cards in each suit, although these comprise of king, cavalier/knight and knave.  The deck therefore contains 52 cards -- no jokers.

Each card is blank on the back and only around 1mm thick -- thin enough to play with, but not to shuffle.  They measure 3.4" by 2" and are one of only five sets of silver cards... and the only complete set in the world. 

I'm not really sure why this news story has become prominent now, given that these cards were re-discovered (and went on sale) in 2010 at Christie's for a small fortune -- $554,500 to be precise.  But it was an interesting thing to find in my inbox this morning.

If you want to read more about the provenance, Christie's has more info here.

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Friday, 30 November 2012

The Geese Book

By the name of it, you'd think it was another falconry manuscript like De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus, but it's actually a two volume liturgical book that was created in Germany between 1503 and 1510.  It's called The Geese Book due to this illustration in the first book:

 Illustration from the bottom of a page showing a wolf leading a choir of geese, with a fox standing over them.  Keeping the fowl singers in line?  ...I'll get my coat...

The volumes largely contain musical notation for chants with several very decorative illuminations.  It's believed that one monk acted as scribe, whilst another chap was the artist.  Having researched it a bit, I found out that this book is huge -- 25.75" x 17.5" -- and made of vellum with pigskin bindings.  That's a lot of book, which doesn't sound massive until you see pictures:

 Left:  The cover of volume II of The Geese Book.  Sooo very pretty!  
Right:  Pictures of the book being digitised by the good people at The Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies

The book contains a variety of chants for use at different times, some with some gorgeous illuminated margins and letters.  Some of these chants are suggested for use at very precise days, such as the first Sunday in Advent, which, incidentally, has a really beautiful page, with a really odd illustration at the bottom:

Bear and bear hunter in a bear hug.  It looks oddly like a reconciliation rather than the bear attacking...

Even after all these centuries, the gold on these pages is bright and looks absolutely stunning.  The best example is a page with notation for chants on Trinity Sunday.  The whole page is beautiful and in fantastic condition:

Look how shiny that gold is!  Also, I totally agree that the best time to shoot a deer with antlers like that is when it's asleep.  For a higher res and zoomable image, check this page out.

ACMRS has been digitising this manuscript since at least 2004.  It became available online yesterday.  I genuinely feel the need to thank the people who worked on this project for putting it online in this fashion.  Without their work, I would never have lost myself in these two books which were created by two talented men.  If you want to know more, examine the manuscript or even hear the chants (yeah, that hard work was part of the project too!), here's a link that'll take you straight to the online versions of the book:  Enjoy!

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Monday, 26 November 2012

The Smithfield Decretals

In my random googlings today, I came across a manuscript with the weirdest marginalia.  It's the Decretals of Gregory IX with glossa ordinaria, specifically The Smithfield Decretals.  This work was a collection of medieval canon law, designed to replace all the previous collections.  Originally compiled in 1230, this specific manuscript was actually finished around 1300 in Southern France.  Well, the written part was. 

 Top:  The last page of the Smithfield Decretals, including illustrations.  Oh, the folio is half a metre tall, by the way.
Bottom:  Close up of the last line of the manuscript.  Translated, it reads "The whole thing is finished; give the guy who wrote it a drink."  Good man!

Nearly all the illuminations, however, were added 40 years later.  Whoever owned it at that point lived in England and commissioned a group of artists to illuminate every page of the folio.  Some of the pages have pretty illustrations of birds or people hunting boar and are fairly "normal".  Other pages show battles and sieges, with some interesting details:

In this case, the interesting detail is that the castle is being defended by a sword-wielding woman.  Judging by the hairstyles, everyone in the castle is female, barring the face at the window, which could be that of a child.  Still, looks like the guy on the ladder is having a really bad hair day...

There are also some illustrations of Reyard the Fox, who was a trickster character in European folklore.  He is shown preaching to geese, chickens and even a heron.  But of course, geese are tasty...

Nom, nom, nom, geese.  I wonder what this picture could *possibly* be an allegory of... that's almost brave for the time!

Of course, once Reynard is caught, he must face  justice for his crime.  Hanging is a fitting medieval punishment for theft and murder:

The geese and ducks require retribution!  Though how on Earth that goose intends to fire that bow is beyond me...

Given that Reynard was a wily type, he probably managed to talk them out of it at the last, mind.  The manuscript has many story pictures of this type, including the revenge of the bunny rabbits, a knight jousting against a snail, and a dragon attacking a windmill.  If any of these descriptions take your fancy, a catalogue of images is available here:

I swear, there is even one captioned "Man attacking a butterfly."  I'd love to know the context for that one...

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Saturday, 24 November 2012

America's First Pictures

So two days after Thanksgiving.  I was going to do an article about it, but then steak and beer happened, because what's more American than steak and beer?  Anyhow, it got me to thinking about the first Europeans to settle in America.  No, not the pilgrims and their first Thanksgiving in 1621, but the people who tried to settle at Roanoke, the lost colony.

Detail from Hariot's Briefe and True Account of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1590, showing Roanoke island, the colony and settlement of the local area.

In 1585, a group of 107 men were left on the island to establish a colony at the north end of the island -- probably not far from the one pictured above.  So, having had contact with them in 1586, Sir Walter Raleigh sent out an additional 150 colonists including several women and 9 children to settle on the island.  A friend and colleague of Raleigh's called John White led the mission, taking his daughter and son-in-law with him.  He was an artist and cartographer who'd visited before on the 1585 mission and created maps like this:

 Map of Virginia, from 1985, as printed in Hariot's book.  Roanoke is shown above and to the left of Trinitey Harbor.  Ah, those Elizabethans and their quirky spellings!

White also drew and painted pictures of the flora and fauna of the area, including pictures of the native peoples.  This was actually part of his and Hariot's mission, as people back in England wanted to know what was out there -- after all, resources tend to be good to have.  So they both wrote and drew the first pictures and descriptions of The New World.  The illustrations were mostly done by White and they're incredibly interesting.  For example, there's these two gorgeous pages of nature illustrations:

 Left:  "Meesquouns. Almost as bigg as a Parratt."  A Northern Cardinal.   From the British Museum Online.
Right:  A tiger swallowtail butterfly (Mamankanois) and a pufferfish (Tanborel).  This is one of 113 pages of drawings from White's explorations, done in pen, ink, graphite and watercolour.  British Museum Online.

He also created the first pictures of the local people.  I find the picture of the native woman from Florida the most striking:

Yeah, those are her tattoos.  I am such a wimp as I can't even bring myself to get one, much less anything this spectacular!

 Although there are also pictures of less friendly locals too:

Skirmish at Bloody Point, Frobisher Bay.  English with the St. George's cross flag, shooting at Inuit on a cliff.  Bet that went well...

White created around 113 pictures of this type, which you can find at the British Library Online

Sadly, when the colonists arrived on Roanoke in 1587, they found the previous 107 settlers all gone, with only a skeleton left at the barracks to tell a grim tale.  Of course, this made the colonists want to leave, but the fleet commander refused to sail them all back.  Making the best of a bad situation, the colonists set up shop and embarked on improving relations with the local Croatoan tribe, fearing that other tribes may kill them due to earlier cultural misunderstandings such as accused theft, raids and outright murder.  During this time of improving relations, the first European was born in America -- Virginia Dare.  She was White's granddaughter.

The colonists insisted that White go back to England to ask for support as they felt they were still at severe risk from the locals.  Sure enough, he went back that same year, leaving his family at the Roanoke colony.  However, he was unable to make it back to the colony for nearly three years thanks to a small problem with a massive Spanish Armada that required all the boats in the English Navy to be on hand.  By the time White made it back to the colony in 1590, all that was left were some dismantled buildings and the words "Croatoan" and "Kro" carved into a tree.  No one knows what happened to the colonists or White's family for sure.  It's possible that they were taken in by local tribes, that they died in a raid, or that they were kidnapped.  What is a certainty, however, is that they must have been brave to even consider settling there in the first place.

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Edit:  I almost forgot!  If you're interesting in reading a transcript of Hariot's book, you can find it online here: