The Magic of Lists

King_Henry_IV_from_NPG_(2)A few weeks ago I sat down at the end of a tiring day and picked up a biography of King Henry IV of England I’d been reading. It was that time of the evening when my mind skitters about for a while before settling on the printed page before me—stray thoughts about the day arise, reminders to add something to my calendar, or my to do list. Lists. At any point in time I have so many lists, particularly about the book in progress and future books. Yes, I am a list maker. There is something about adding an idea to a list that eases me, helps me let it go for the moment. And that evening what finally focused my mind was an amusing, fascinating list of some of the items Henry Bolingbroke, heir to the duchy of Lancaster, collected to take with him on crusade in Lithuania (from The Fears of Henry IV, Ian Mortimer, Vintage Books 2007):

7 lb. of ginger
11 lb. of quince jam
4 lb. of a conserve of pine nuts
2 lb. of caraway seeds
2 lb. of ginger sweets
2 lb. of preserved cloves
3 lb. of citronade
2 lb. of “royal sweets”
4 lb. of red and white “flat sugars”
6 lb. of “sugar candy”
3 lb. of “royal paste”
2 lb. of aniseed sweets
2 lb. of sunflower seeds
2 lb. of mapled ginger
2 lb. of barley sugar
2 lb. of digestive sweetmeats
1 lb. of nutmeg
2 lb. of red wax
and 2 quires of paper.

What a sweet tooth! In addition,
506 lb. of almonds
112 lb. of rice
14 lb. of cinnamon
10 lb. of sugar syrup
a huge amount of ale (960 pints arriving in 24 gallon barrels)
10 flitches of bacon
40 sheep
and he bought copious amounts of fish of all sorts along the way.

On crusade?! Reading the list lit up my imagination. All these items—I could see them, I imagined the shops, the haggling. I wondered about how they transported all this. This is how nobility traveled, even on crusade.

What is it about lists? From a New Yorker article:

“…lists tap into our preferred way of receiving and organizing information at a subconscious level; from an information-processing standpoint, they often hit our attentional sweet spot. When we process information, we do so spatially. For instance, it’s hard to memorize through brute force the groceries we need to buy. It’s easier to remember everything if we write it down in bulleted, or numbered, points. Then, even if we forget the paper at home, it is easier for us to recall what was on it because we can think back to the location of the words themselves. Lists also appeal to our general tendency to categorize things—in fact, it’s hard for us not to categorize something the moment we see it—since they chunk information into short, distinct components. This type of organization facilitates both immediate understanding and later recall, as the neuroscientist Walter Kintsch pointed out back in 1968. Because we can process information more easily when it’s in a list than when it’s clustered and undifferentiated, like in standard paragraphs, a list feels more intuitive. In other words, lists simply feel better.” (“A List of Reason Why Our Brains Love Lists” by Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker 2 Dec 2013)

The merchant Richard Lyons plays a prominent role in my novel The King’s Mistress. When I was still deep in research, a friend urged me to read the inventory of goods owned by Richard Lyons drawn up by the sheriffs of London at the time of the seizure of his property in 1376. “The spoons!” he said. “The cushions! You won’t believe it.” Reading it gave me such a strong impression of the man, how carefully he presented himself, how he valued presentation (“The Wealth of Richard Lyons”, A.R. Myers, in Essays in Medieval History Presented to Bertie Wilkinson, ed. T.A. Sandquist and M.R. Powicke)

nature03My files are full of lists of medieval herbal remedies. Here’s a collection from various sources for dog bites:
Betony for the bite of a mad dog—pound it very small, and lay it on the wound.
Plantain—If a mad dog bites a person, pound it fine, and apply it; it will quickly heal.
Vervain—for the bite of a mad dog, take it and whole gains of wheat. Lay them on the bite so that the grains are softened by the moisture and become swollen; then take the grains and throw them to some chickens. If they refuse to eat them, then take other grains and mix with the plant in the same way as you did earlier and lay this on the bite until you feel that the danger is gone and drawn out.
Burdock—for the bite of a mad dog, take the roots of this same plant, pound them with coarse salt, and lay this on the bite.
Cockspur—pound with grease and bake in bread—but takes far too long.
Yarrow—grind it with wheat seeds and put on wound.
Calendula—for the bite of a mad dog, pounds it into a powder, then take a spoonful and give it to drink in warm water, and the person will recover.
Black horehound—for dog bite, take the leaves of this plant pounded with salt. Lay this on the wound, and it will heal in a wonderful manner.
Bulbus (tassel hyacinth)—Mixed with honey it cures dog bites.

Your imagination lit up as you read those, didn’t it? Are you a list maker? Or a collector of lists? We’re not alone. Umberto Eco called the list “the origin of culture” in this article:

I have more articles about lists—a long list of them! But I’ll stop here.

4 Comments on “The Magic of Lists

    • They do, don’t they? Just as lists of words in old languages give us a glimpse into the environments of those who spoke them. Glad you enjoyed the post!


    • Glad you enjoyed it! The book is typeset, looking quite official now. Very excited.


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