Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Celebrating Robert E. Lee

Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo asks where those Confederate monuments came from, and why.
What is little discussed today is that the North and the South made a tacit bargain in the years after the Civil War to valorize Southern generals as a way to salve the sting of Southern defeat and provide a cultural and political basis for uniting the country with more than military force. That meant the abandonment of free blacks in the South after the mid-1870s. It is important to see this not only as the abandonment of the ex-slaves of the South. It is difficult to pull away the subsequent history to realize that it was entirely possible in the aftermath of the Civil War that the US would be condemned to perpetual warfare, insurrection and foreign intervention. But if the opposite, the United States that went on to become a global superpower, is what was gained it was gained at a terrible price and a price paid more or less solely by black citizens.
However one judges that past, knowing its full history leaves no reason or rationale for continue the valorization of Lee. He was a traitor and a traitor in a terrible cause. That is his only mark on American history. Whether he was a personal gentle man, nice to his pets or a decent field general hardly matters.
Even this though leaves the full squalidness of Lee’s legacy not quite told. There is the Lee of the Civil War and then the mythic Lee of later decades. Today the battle over Lee’s legacy is mainly played out over the various statues of Lee which still stand across the South. The notional focus on this weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville was a protest over plans to remove a Lee statue. But those statues don’t date to the Civil War, the years just after the Civil War. In most cases they date to decades later.
The historical chronology is important to understand. Reconstruction is generally dated from 1865 to 1877 when the federal government withdrew federal troops and allowed the restoration of so-called ‘home rule’ in the South. But black political power and biracial political coalitions didn’t disappear overnight. Though the sheet anchor protecting black citizenship was withdrawn, it took the better part of a generation for what we now recognize as the Jim Crow system to be firmly entrenched throughout the South. To note but one example, the judicial cornerstone of Jim Crow, ‘separate but equal’, only became the law of the land with Plessy v Ferguson in 1896.
That statuary which is only beginning to come down in our day dates largely from this era and constituted a celebration and affirmation of this victory. Not the victory of the Civil War, which was of course a defeat but the sectional victory to define the post-war settlement.
... All of these statues date not from the Civil War Era but from the decades of the establishment of Jim Crow, to celebrate the South’s ability to establish an apartheid system on the ruins of the Antebellum slave South. A statue of Lee in uniform, mounted on a horse in a southern town square has only ever had one meaning: white supremacy. These statues didn’t come to be associated with racism and Jim Crow only after the Civil War had receded into memory. They were created, from the start, to mark and celebrate the foundations of Jim Crow, uncontested white rule. More mythically, but to the same end, they were built to glorify a vision of the South in which her black citizens had no place

Monday, August 14, 2017

A welcome tribute at Pennsic War 46

If you are not interested in the Society for Creative Anachronism, skip this.

I used to be relatively famous in the SCA for being one of the very few people  who had attended all of the yearly Pennsic wars, and for having fought in all the major battles.  Well, my health has prevented me from doing this for the past two years.  This year, somebody did something about it.  My daughter Eanor's husband, who goes  by the medieval name Haroun, decided to host a deed of arms in my honor early in this Pennsic war.  (If you don't know what a deed of arms is, I've got several relevant books on them for sale.)

I had already decided not to be miserable and envious of my friends having a good time, and I had succeded, pretty much, but this deed of arms and the efforts of Eanor and Haroun sure made it easier. One feature of deeds of arms in the SCA is that there is usually a book in which participants record their thoughts about the event, the hosts, etc. For this deed there was a blue-bound book
The fighters who turned out, filled with respectful, eloquent, even philosophical messages.

I was truly touched.

I was also impressed by how well-spoken and thoughtful these people were, remembering that their distinguishing characteristic is that they like to hit their friends with wooden swords while wearing funny clothes.

One person who I would have liked to have seen was Bill Colbert (William de Montegilt), who is one of the most senior members of the SCA, noted also for his long service in unglamorous jobs. I respect William because he joined very early on in the East Kingdom. He was -- like many back then -- an unlikely warrior, one who you might think would not be able to take the punishment. But he's still with us, more than 40 years on.

Pictures to follow.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent A Fourteenth-Century Princess and her World, by Anthony Goodman

I would like to read this book, maybe even own it. The publishers describe it this way.

"Anthony Goodman's brilliant yet accessible scholarship draws in the reader in the most entertaining and vibrant way. He was one of our greatest historians of the later medieval period, whose warm humanity shines forth in his writing. He has given us, as a parting gift, the definitive biography of an exceptional, intriguing woman. I cannot recommend it highly enough." ALISON WEIR

Joan Plantagenet (1328-1385), acclaimed in her youth as the "Fair Maid of Kent", became notorious for making both a clandestine and a bigamous marriage in her teens and, in her thirties, a scandalous marriage to her kinsman, Edward III's son and heir, Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince. Despite these transgressions, she later became one of the most influential people in the realm and a highly respected source of stability. Her life provides a distinctive perspective of a noblewoman at the heart of affairs in fourteenth-century England, a period when the Crown, despite enjoying some striking triumphs, also faced a series of political and social crises which shook conventional expectations. Furthermore, her life adds depth to our understanding of a time when marriage began to be regarded not just as a dynastic arrangement but a contract freely entered into by a couple.

This accessibly written account of her life sets her in the full context of her world, and vividly portrays a spirited medieval woman who was determined to be mistress of her fate and to make a mark in challenging times.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Richard III: the new evidence

Back when I was young and naive, I thought that Richard III of England, a famous villain, had been hard done by. Part of it was the belief, common among "Ricardians," that the evil king had been slandered by his enemies, who said that he was a hunchback, the physical distortion reflecting his twisted soul.

I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that Richard was much like any other royal thug in an unstable kingdom. But the idea that Richard was the victim of a disinformation campaign -- that made sense to me.

Years later, Richard III's body was found in Leicester (people always say "buried in a car park," but the the tomb was originally inside a prominent church. Guess what! Richard did have a bad case of scoliosis, namely a twisted spine. Experts who examined the skeleton had to wonder, whether the one good thing even his enemies were willing to grant him, courage and skill at arms, could possibly be true. A very interesting research project located a living Briton with a very similar case of scoliosis. This man, hight Dominic Smee, was put through his paces. He learned to ride a warhorse, wear armor, fight on foot and on horseback, and was tested for general fitness

. Guess what!

.Mr.Smee did very well. He did have some restrictions on his breathing due to his asymmetrical rib cage, but he was quite capable otherwise.

Guess what Mr. Smee did for fun, before he became the dead king's body double?

He was a reenactor at the Battle of Bosworth historic site.

There is a very interesting documentary on the subject here.>

Image: Larry Olivier as the evil king.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Life in the incomprehensible future -- a classic scenario

It is a scene in many a time-travel novel.  Boy genius, who works in his secret lab, creates a device that will take him to the future (he's not interested in Julius Caesar or even Cleopatra).

So he goes to the near gfuture and finds that its pretty much what you'd expect, with a few inventions more or less.


There is one cultural or religious or social innovation that absolutely shocks the boy genius and his friends.  How  can people who are otherwise so much like them think/believe/do that? B.g. flees to the farther future where a certain normality has been restored.

It occurred to me a little while ago that we have -- many of us -- crossed over such a line, and would deeply  shock time travelers from the near past.

Why so?  Same-sex marriage.  We are the weird ones, no matter who we are married to and the b.g. can't get over us.                                                                                        

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Green Count by Christian Cameron

I know two excellent writers of fiction, one being Robert Charles Wilson, the traveller of time, and Christian Cameron, the historical fictioneer.  I've talked about Wilson here recently, so now it is Christian's turn.

Fear not, Christian! I have nothing bad to say about you or your most recent book, The Green Count!

I am also not going to go into great detail about the virtues of Mr. Cameron.  They are two: he combines a tremendous knowledge of the periods he writes about with believable characterizations of people who lived in those periods.  This a necessary skill for anyone who wants to re-create the people of the past; even someone who does a mediocre job is doing something remarkable.  Mr. Cameron is no mediocrity, however.  He is a master.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Jesus took the bread, broke it, and said...

...what's in this stuff, anyway?

Surely not! But out of the Vatican this week comes word that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has ruled that gluten-free bread cannot be used for the Eucharist (Holy Communion), since entirely gluten-free breads require the use of additives, which means the bread can't be considered to be "natural."

I think the members of the Congregation might want to get real jobs.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

None dare call it treason?

It seems we are beyond that now.  From Talking Points Memo:
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) on Tuesday said the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether members of President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia may turn toward “potentially treason.”
“We’re now beyond obstruction of justice, in terms of what’s being investigated,” the former vice presidential nominee said on MSNBC. “This is moving into perjury, false statements, and even into potentially treason.”
Donald Trump Jr. on Sunday admitted he met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer in June 2016 because he was told the lawyer had damaging information about Hillary Clinton that could help Trump’s campaign.
The New York Times on Monday reported that publicist Rob Goldstone, who contacted Trump Jr. about the alleged compromising information, suggested to Trump Jr. that the Russian government was behind the alleged “helpful” information.
Trump Jr. on Tuesday released the emails he and Goldstone exchanged, including a reference to a “Russian government attorney” flying from Moscow for the meeting.''

The title of this post is a reminisce of the "good old" John Birch Society days (50s and 60s) when that right wing group was throwing around accusations  very freely indeed!

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Another example of "fandom" as the new mainstream

I've remarked before in various conversations about how things that used to be of interest only to "fans" (originally science fiction fans, then fans of fantasy, comics and movies based on previous fannish products) have been for quite a while part of the mainstream.

Another example in today's Guardian (not exactly culturally radical by my standards).  Actually, two:

Somehow I still don't feel part of the mainstream...

Sunday, July 02, 2017

The Vimy myth

We travelled to an SCA event in Whitby yesterday, and returned to Windsor today.  For most of that drive we listened to CBC Radio One.  Excellent material, more excellent than usual.

The most thought-provoking program today was the Sunday Edition (closely followed by "The House," the regular parliamentary affairs show, this weekend devoted to the role of colonial parliamentarians in the negotiation of Canadian Confederation).  Sunday Edition talked about the role of the battle of Vimy Ridge in the First World War in creating modern Canadian nationalism.  

Sunday Edition started out by giving the usual account of why Vimy was important:

It wasn't until April, 1917, the story goes, when Canada stormed a battlefield in the North of France and seized a hill that had been held by the German army, that the country came of age, emerging as a united, resourceful, vigorous and valourous 50-year-old nation.

The Canadians were given little chance of taking Vimy Ridge from the Germans. But the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force — all fighting together for the first time in the Great War — hurled an awesome artillery barrage at the German position and surged across the battlefield, forcing the Germans to retreat. 

After a four-day battle, nearly 36-hundred Canadian soldiers lay dead in the cold, corpse-littered muck and slime, and 7-thousand more were wounded. But they held the Ridge and helped shift the course of the war toward an Allied victory.

Since that time, Canadian politicians have seized on the Vimy victory, as a symbol of Canada's coming-of-age, o f its independence from Britain, as the smithy in which Canadian nationhood was forged.
The segment was an interview with Ian MacKay, one of the authors of "The Vimy Trap."  According to MacKay, there was no surge of Canadian nationalism connected with Vimy.  As late as the 1930s, the overwhelming evaluation of the war, especially among those who fought it, was that the Great War was a futile catastrophe and that peace was a necessity.  Two people who felt strongly that way were two future prime ministers, John Diefenbaker (Conservative) and Lester Pearson (Liberal and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize).  They like many others made no connection between  the Great War and the growth of Canadian nationalism and sovereignty.  Canada's military history is not universally lauded as an encouragement to nationalism.  In both world wars, for instance, French Canadians were extremely skeptical of the need to support the British Empire, for obvious reasons (note the Seven Years War otherwise known as "the Conquest" and Canadian participation in the South African (Boer) War.)

I find it very unfortunate that both of our most recent prime ministers (one Conservative, one Liberal) have gone out of their way to talk up the Canadian war record for its supposed nation-building role.  I was not raised Canadian so the First World War holds no magic for me.  Indeed, when I have taught the war --not as part of Canadian, U.S. or European history but always as part of world history-- I've had to  hold myself  back from denouncing it as one giant war crime.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Lest we forget

Another in my series of "the best of" my blog. The Toronto Morality Play Among other things, proof that all our present problems can't be blamed on one politician or one party.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Progress on the Chronicle of the Good Duke

Followers of my work know that I have been translating the 15th-century chivalric bibliography The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis of Bourbon for a good while now. (Gulp! since 2010!) I just finished my third run-through of the Chronicle this very morning. The next full run-through should be the concluding one!

Image: The French court of Charles VI in the time of Duke Louis!

Rape in Game of Thrones and ISIS -- realistic medievalism?

Jeff Sypec examines in his blog the idea that rape in Game of Thrones is a positive element in George R.R. Martin's fictional version of the Middle Ages -- more realistic because more brutal. At the same time some ISIS supporters claim Islamic authenticity for their mistreatment of non-ISIS women and girls. Is there any truth to this?
Jeff, who is quite an intelligent guy, looks at this question from a number of different angles. For instance:
Even though [Amy S.]Kaufman [author of "Muscular Medievalism" in the 2016 issue of The Year’s Work in Medievalism,] isn’t blaming Game of Thrones viewers for ISIS, her article won’t sit easily with many fantasy fans. I appreciate that she isn’t just sniping on Twitter; she’s drawing a sober, thought-provoking analogy. I like her strident contrarianism, and I think she’s right to wonder what the pop-culture ubiquity of Game of Thrones actually means. Even if you’re certain the answer is “not much,” why not ponder it further anyway? As I write this, my TV is advertising “Game of Thrones Night” at Nationals Park in D.C., complete with t-shirts and a chance to “visit an authentic Iron Throne.” If someone mugs for a selfie with a TV-show prop on a fun night at the ballpark, what is it they’re trying to be a part of? Why do they need to believe so badly that fictional violence gets us closer to the “real” Middle Ages?
“The medieval era is the dumping ground of the contemporary imagination,” Kaufman writes, “rife with torture, refuse in the streets, rape, slavery, superstition, casual slaughter, and every other human vice we supposedly stopped indulging in once we became ‘enlightened.'” It’s worth asking what we miss seeing in the Middle Ages if we’re invested in only this view. Despite what George R. R. Martin believes, his dark, despairing fantasy isn’t any more “authentic” than the Disney-princess version, nor is it less harmful. Observations like Kaufman’s always bring me back around to a blunt conclusion by medievalist and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”
It might be worth reminding both Jeff and Amy that the idea of the Middle Ages was invented specifically to serve as a background for recent progress. A very large number (if not all) the depictions of the Middle Ages will always be negative in many respects.
I am pleased by the excellence of Jeff's blog post. He's a survivor of what us (habitual classifiers) will probably call the Golden Age of Blogging. (There is no Golden Age of Twitter, sorry.) Nice to have such a meaty discussion.
Image: Jeff's from Maryland, and the state flag is a welcome reminder of an earlier age of medievalism.  Jousting is, or has been, the state sport.