Sunday, October 23, 2016

Jokerman wins the Nobel Prize


I am extraordinarily pleased that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I am not a hard-core Dylan fan, and I know little of his work from the past 40 years. But I was witness to his phenomenal early career, and that's why I feel confident in concurring with the Nobel Prize committee, probably for entirely different reasons.

Here is a guy who by most standards could not sing worth a damn, was only a moderately good instrumentalist, and whose lyrics by popular or folk music standards were more often than not pretty obscure. When it came to evaluating Bob Dylan's place in the musical universe, Dylan saw himself as a uniquely important singer, and the rest of the world -- at least at first -- saw him as someone who was not even worth listening to, with his terrible voice and his incomprehensible lyrics.

Well, guess who won that confrontation? Guess who was right?

Hat's off to the Nobel committee for recognizing Dylan's unique importance, whatever excuse they offered for doing so.

Their official reasoning for the prize, by the way, is also, quite rightly, a recognition of the importance of the American contribution to the explosive creativity of the late 20th century.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Book of Horsemanship by Duarte I of Portugal, translated by Jeffrey L. Forgeng

A new translation of this fascinating treatise on horsemanship by a fifteenth-century king. This interview with Jeffrey Forgeng comes from Boydell and Brewer's newsletter on their line of medieval history books, the Medieval Herald. Anyone interested in how horses and knights related to each other in the later Middle Ages should have a look.

The Book of Horsemanship by Duarte I of Portugal Translated by Jeffrey L. Forgeng

Jeffrey L. Forgeng is curator of Arms and Armor and Medieval Art at the Worcester Art Museum, and Adjunct Professor of History at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Dr Forgeng, welcome back to the Medieval Herald! Coming so soon after the publication of The Art of Swordsmanship yours is by far the quickest return appearance we’ve had. Does this mean that you were working on your latest publication, The Book of Horsemanship, alongside The Art of Swordsmanship?

I actually finished the initial version of the Art of Swordsmanship more than a decade ago, when I was curator at the Higgins Armory Museum. The museum closed in 2013, and its final years were very challenging for me: writing books was therapeutic, being one of the few things in my life over which I had some control. But what I couldn’t control was the pace of publication, so by the time the Armory closed I had a prodigious backlog of largely completed books. Somehow the backlog started to clear quickly after that: I had two books come out in 2015, two more this year, and I anticipate another in 2017.

When did you first encounter the Livro do Cavalgar?

As the curator of a collection of armor, I am naturally interested in resources that help me interpret these objects for the public. Some years ago a translation of Duarte’s book came out, and I bought a copy. The translation wasn’t accurate enough for me to use it, but there was enough there to make it obvious that the book offered a remarkable window into the material culture of chivalry.

Its author is Duarte I, king of Portugal – did he write it during his reign?

Duarte produced most of the book while he was still crown prince, prior to 1433. As early as the 1410s, when he had only just turned 20, Duarte was playing a significant part in his father’s government, and that role increased over time, but he still found time to work on the book amidst his administrative duties. His first foray into government, helping to administer the country while his father was preparing an expedition to the Moroccan port of Ceuta, brought on a major bout of depression. The Book of Horsemanship seems to have been partly motivated by this episode. Duarte tells us that writing the book helped him occupy his mind constructively during times when his mind might otherwise focus on unhealthy thoughts—I can relate, since translating the work played a similar role in my life. But once Duarte came to the throne he had to set the book aside for a number of years, picking it up again to finish the remaining chapters sometime around 1437.

Was it published and widely read at the time?

Remarkably, no. One might imagine that a book by the king would be well stewarded after his death, but the sole surviving copy seems to have left the country with his widow Eleanor in 1440. The manuscript passed into the holdings of Eleanor’s family, the Aragonese royal house, ending up in the family’s palace in Naples. It was either plundered or purchased by the French crown around 1500, making its way to Paris, where it now resides in the Bibliothèque Nationale. For all those centuries, the Portuguese remembered that Duarte had written a book on horsemanship, but it wasn’t rediscovered until 1804.

How much do we know of Duarte? What sort of man was he and did he make a successful king?

Anyone who reads The Book of Horsemanship will be struck by Duarte’s intelligence and insight. He’s steeped in medieval scholastic culture, yet his insights have a freshness that speaks across the centuries. As a king he was an able administrator, but he seems to have lived under the shadow of his father. In 1437 he tried to repeat his father’s military success with an attack on Tangier, but the expedition was a disaster: the attack failed, and Duarte’s youngest brother was captured, dying in prison a few years later. Duarte himself succumbed to the plague in 1438—though I suspect the stress of the Tangier expedition was a factor as well. The final chapters of the Book of Horsemanship may have been written while Duarte was anxiously awaiting news from Tangier. They are very different from the rest of the book: rushed, breathless, and distracted, and the text breaks off rather abruptly at the end.

The Book of Horsemanship is much more than a guide to riding, it seems to touch on all aspects of equestrianism. Duarte must had had a deep affinity with horses and have held them to be of great significance.

In the past I have always assumed that knights had a strong bond with their warhorses, but Duarte has made me reconsider that. His attitude to the horse is utilitarian: he rarely says “the horse,” almost always a besta, “the animal.” From at least the 1500s equestrian authors have said much about horse psychology, but the subject rarely comes up in The Book of Horsemanship. For Duarte, the horse appears to be comparable to a car today—an object you take reasonable care of, but not something in which you necessarily have any emotional investment.

Do you think that modern riders could still benefit from Duarte’s coaching?

Duarte is a spectacularly insightful analyst of the psychology of riding, addressing crucial questions like fear, confidence, and pedagogy...

The work is singularly important because it’s the sole surviving contemporary source on the definitive skill of the medieval knight. Why do you think this is the only example when many more swordfighting manuals still exist?

Combat manuals are relatively easy to generate: you just have to think of scenarios and come up with possible responses. The permutations are infinite, modular, and easy to illustrate. To write a really good book on horsemanship takes a mind like Duarte’s, capable of seeing through the surface to grasp the underlying principles—while still keeping an eye on material details like whether you should buckle your jousting helmet in front or in back first.

What among Duarte’s advice struck you as most telling of the man himself?

Duarte has a great discussion about how to cultivate and display confidence on horseback. After a lengthy theoretical discussion about confidence, he offers a few specific tricks: if your horse is acting up, he says, deliberately adjust your clothing, as if you were more concerned about the angle of your hood than about your horse. People will think you are a confident horseman, and you’ll start to feel more confident in yourself. But he’s quick to reassure the reader that this kind of deliberate display won’t lead to a habit of lying!

May we ask what your future projects are? Any more translations? I actually undertook the Duarte translation as a waypoint in a long-term project to translate Pedro Monte’s Collectanea. Monte was a Spanish knight working in Italy around 1500s: the Collectanea is a Latin translation by Monte himself of his Castilian treatise on martial arts, sports, military equipment, horsemanship, and other topics important to a knight. But Monte’s Latin is dreadful, and the multiple linguistic layers make this the single most difficult translation I’ve ever done. Duarte has been a huge help: he is another Iberian addressing similar topics from a similar perspective. Coming back to Monte, I find him much easier to understand, and in fact I’m only months away from having the translation ready for press.

The Book of Horsemanship by Duarte I of Portugal

Translated by Jeffrey L. Forgeng

7 colour & 3 b/w illus.; 184pp, 9781783271030, £25/$45, hardback

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Canadian ideals, 1957

This is how the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration greeted a new Canadian citizen in 1957:

Dear Madam,

I wish to take this opportunity of congratulating you personally upon the attainment of Canadian Citizenship. By this certificate of citizenship you have been granted the rights and privileges of the citizen of Canada. These rights and privileges entitle you to freedom of speech, religion, thought and action, the right to vote as you choose, and the right to be secure in your possessions.

Your citizenship carries with it the obligation of defending your adopted country in time of need, of living in peaceful brotherhood with your fellow Canadians, and of doing your part in the preservation of Canadian ideals and institutions.

I extend to you a warm welcome on this solemn occasion and I invite you to share with us the ancient liberties of a free people living together in harmony, under a democratic government which recognizes the rights of all its citizens.

Ellen L. Fairclough,


Note: this certificate of citizenship (?) looks like a letter from the Minister and has no date. Note that the Queen is not mentioned. Nor is the recipient named.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The French Revolutionary Calendar

At a certain point, the dominant revolutionary party in France decided that the new Republic needed to be purged of all traditional, Christian and monarchical symbolism. The new calendar went far beyond a mere renaming of the months. The year and the months were given new starting points, and new names based on the seasons, the weather and the agricultural year were devised.

French historians of the Revolution often use the new calendar when discussing the events of the most turbulent period of the Revolution, in part because that is how dates are identified in the documents they study, but also (I think) because using them gives modern people a feeling for how the Revolution seemed to all concerned as a whole new era of the world. If you are not steeped in this stuff, however, you may find it rather difficult to figure out when the Year II was, or the month of Thermidor.

But wait! Brittanica has an attractively illustrated primer on the months of the Calendar. I think lots of people may find this useful.

Image: One of the great Revolutionary celebrations: the Festival of the Supreme Being 20, Prairial Year II (8 June 1794).

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Purge those evil foreigners

From the Guardian:
Leading foreign academics from the LSE acting as expert advisers to the UK government were told they would not be asked to contribute to government work and analysis on Brexit because they are not British nationals.

The news was met with outrage by many academics, while legal experts questioned whether it could be legal under anti-discrimination laws and senior politicians criticised it as bewildering.

“It is utterly baffling that the government is turning down expert, independent advice on Brexit simply because someone is from another country,” said Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats’ EU spokesman.

“This is yet more evidence of the Conservatives’ alarming embrace of petty chauvinism over rational policymaking.”

Sara Hagemann, an assistant professor at the London School of Economics who specialises in EU policymaking processes, EU treaty matters, the role of national parliaments and the consequences of EU enlargements, said she had been told her services would not be required.
It's the end of the British Empire, at the hands of its own people. Late Roman historians, think of this.

Image: Stilicho, an obvious evil foreigner.

Review of Woolgar, C. M. The Culture of Food in England 1200-1500

Reviewed by Paul Freedman
Yale University
No longer a neglected field, the study of medieval food has flourished recently. At one time it was the dearth of food, outright famines or food-supply problems that occupied the attention of historians, but taste preferences, the food styles of the Middle Ages and the development of cookbooks are now being investigated as part of an expansion of interest in material culture and in food history generally. Scholars such as Massimo Montanari, Bruno Laurioux and Trude Ehlers have enriched our knowledge of the international and regional fashions and practices in medieval cuisine while the basic standards of living have been explored by Pere Benito for Catalonia or Christopher Dyer for England. A virtue of this new and wide-ranging book by C. M. Woolgar is its treatment of both the effort and business of obtaining food and the manner of cooking and serving it. Food shortages and the difficulties of weather, war and low crop yields are considered, but so are banquets and less extravagant manifestations of festive aesthetics and appreciation. Medical literature and advice is included as are the flexible interpretations of monastic dietary regimens, but the emphasis here is on the gustatory experience of ordinary people, ordinary people with enough prosperity to have some choice in what they consumed, to be sure, but not necessarily nobles.
Woolgar does not rely exclusively on court cookbooks, accounts of great feasts or other evocations of princely entertainments. Those celebrated events, however, influenced the tastes of the other classes, down to the merely modestly well-off. Woolgar emphasizes that while certain effects such sculpted entremets such as edible castles or giant pies, or peacocks cooked and sewn back into their skin and feathers were beyond the reach of all but a tiny elite, aristocratic tastes for highly-spiced food and wine or consumption of game or lampreys were adopted by their social inferiors. Cloves and nutmeg might be prohibitively expensive, but cinnamon was widely used and pepper became so common by the mid-fifteenth century as to be associated pejoratively with the higher peasantry.
Limited to England, the book does not provide a wide-angle view of medieval cuisine as a whole, nor does it concern itself much with regional differences. It is, however, a thorough and fascinating study in depth, imaginatively using sources especially archaeology, household accounts and coroners' records. In an earlier book, The Great Household, Woolgar looked at the aristocratic way of life, including dining, on the basis of the physical remnants of grand houses and castles as well as the records of purchases for these households. Here particular use is made of the records left by officers in charge of supplying the kitchens of ecclesiastical as well as noble houses, showing the organization of large-scale buying a few times a year, more frequent opportunities afforded by regional fairs (especially for luxuries such as dried fruit or spices), and the everyday supplements from markets and urban retailers. Such purchases were in addition to basic commodities such as wheat, malt or meat supplied by dependent tenants or storage centers set up to supply itinerant courts.
New here is the use of evidence of unnatural death to reconstruct what snacks people were munching on or what food-seeking activities they were engaged in just before they accidentally drowned, fell or were burned or scalded to death. The coroners' inquiries provide snapshots of daily life, serene but retrospectively grisly prologues to tragedy. Children and the elderly fell into wells and ditches intending to get a drink of water (43), the consumption of water being more common than historians usually believe. Hot water was also hazardous and we can see brewing and boiling of vegetables in large cauldrons going on through the accounts of unfortunate mishaps (35-36). The results of drunkenness, hunting accidents and falling out of orchard trees are common food-related incidents immortalized by coroners' rolls.
Food has always served as a marker of social distinction, not just dividing those who have more than enough to eat from those who are hungry, but also within the category of the affluent, those who occupy various stages of privilege. Divisions within the comfortable classes were codified less by formal sumptuary laws than by arrangements for banquets whose various tables featured different numbers and types of dishes depending on the social quality of those invited. The exhaustive details of carving and ceremonial are presented here as evidence for a food culture that was regulated, formal but at the same time convivial. In common with the Victorian banquet. the medieval feast featured an intimidating display of precious metal, elaborate décor, fancy dress and remarkable and copious food—but it was organized in an entirely different fashion. Tables were movable and rooms were used for various purposes other than simply dining. Musical and theatrical entertainment was more important than in the nineteenth century. Woolgar is particularly innovative in describing the culinary festivities of regional guilds, particularly in Stratford-on-Avon, whose feasts were ample, immense even, but not as refined or exotic in terms of the actual food served as at those arranged for the aristocracy.
Woolgar mentions aspects of dining that the reader will very likely have wondered about without ever knowing quite the answer: how much meat was consumed in monasteries and with what justification for straying from the Benedictine Rule's austerity; where dining took place (meat-eating was often kept separate in monastic communities), how much in the way of vegetables, fruit, cheese (all considered beneath the notice of court cooks and chroniclers) were consumed by the affluent and in what forms, when spices first became de rigueur (after the 1270s), or the introduction of beer with hops as opposed to the domination of ale.
Woolgar shows diners having a good time together. Food was an important form of social distinction and entertainment. Medieval ceremoniousness in comparison with modern habits is part of an overall regime of commensality. Although not in every respect enviable, the medieval centuries constitute a world in which all chickens were free range, people knew where their food came from, and the company at the table was exempt from some of the distractions that today interfere with our pleasure in dining.


Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Review of Will a Frenchman Fight? ed. Steven Muhlberger Deeds of Arms, 4.

I'm grateful for this positive review but I wish the reviewer had said more about the main theme of the book, the often conflicting demands of military effectiveness and individual honor in the minds of men at arms of the time.

Muhlberger, Steven, ed. and trans. Will a Frenchman Fight?. Deeds of Arms, 4. Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2015. Pp. viii, 102. $24.95. ISBN: 978-1-937439-17-0.

Reviewed by Katherine Hodges-Kluck

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Will a Frenchman Fight? is Steven Muhlberger's third contribution to the Deeds of Arms Series. This sourcebook focuses on the great chevauchée, or raid, led by Thomas of Woodstock, first earl of Buckingham, through French territory in 1380-81. The book opens with an 18-page introduction, followed by selections of Froissart's Chroniques and Cabaret d'Orville's 1429 Chronicle of the Good Duke. As Muhlberger explains, Cabaret received his information from the French knight Jean de Châteaumorand, who recollected the events of his youth. Together, therefore, these chronicles provide two contemporary perspectives on the raid. The book concludes with a short bibliography for further reading.

The 1380-81 chevauchée was a response to duke of Brittany Jean de Montfort's call for aid after he was exiled for opposing the French king's attempts to exert royal jurisdiction over the ducal succession in Brittany. Will a Frenchman Fight? does an excellent job of highlighting the precarious situation which de Montfort faced. Out of favor with Charles V of France and charged with treason, the duke turned to the English for assistance, only to be thwarted by his own lords who refused to accept foreign support against their fellow countrymen. The introduction and primary sources in Will a Frenchman Fight? highlight these overlapping and frequently conflicting layers of leadership and allegiances, which in turn shaped France's military response to the rebellious de Montfort and his would-be English allies.

Muhlberger's introduction begins by outlining some of the major events of the four decades leading up to Buckingham's raid, including the Black Death, the English victory at Poitiers, the capture of the French king Jean II, and the Jacquerie rebellion. Muhlberger effectively demonstrates the economic pressures that shaped Edward III's and Parliament's military decisions on the one hand, and Charles V's struggles to "re-establish royal authority" in France on the other (5). The rest of the introduction then breaks down the sequence of events for the chevauchée and discusses the varied motivations of the French and English soldiers involved in it. The author assumes some basic knowledge of the first phase of the Hundred Years War, and the major players involved. It is not until midway through the introduction, for instance, that the reader learns that Buckingham is the "son of the King of England" (13), and only in the color plate of Buckingham's coat of arms in the middle of the book that the reader finds the earl's full name and titles.

The primary source section of the book presents the events of the chevauchée in chronological order, following the English on their march through enemy territory, their largely unsuccessful attempts to engage their enemy in battle during the winter months, and finally their retreat back to the coast. The primary texts have been thoughtfully selected to highlight the nuances of the complicated political, as well as tactical, situations posed by the English presence in France. As the book's title suggests, the sources shed light on "a variety of different kinds of combat and different motives for fighting" (3). In particular, they depict the tensions between 1) open pitched battles like those of Crécy and Poitiers, which favored the English; 2) the pragmatic but unpopular scorched-earth tactics employed by both the French and the English armies at the expense of the French populace; and 3) the desire of individual knights and squires on both sides of the conflict to demonstrate chivalric honor through individual combat.

The sources are divided into eight sections, throughout which chapter numbers and titles from the original texts are included as subheadings. Six of the sections are drawn from Froissart, while the remaining two (which are relatively short by comparison) are from Cabaret's chronicle. In the first section, titled "Buckingham's Campaign Begins," Froissart describes the exchange of ambassadors between Brittany and England, and Edward III's subsequent plans for an armed expedition into France. The chronicler discusses the deployment of troops, the effects of international alliances on events, and the capture of prisoners of war. The next section, "The Confrontation at Troyes," describes the skirmishes between French and English forces outside that city. The third section, "The Deeds of Arms at Toury and Marchenoir," follows the English army's travels into Brittany and the reception that the English received in various towns along the way, a reception that ranged from lukewarm to outright hostile. This section also includes Froissart's account of the death of Charles V. In "Buckingham in Brittany," Froissart shows the complicated political situation facing Jean de Montfort. He also describes the siege of Nantes and the coronation of the child king, Charles VI. The next passage, "The Siege of Nantes," is drawn from Cabaret's chronicle. It describes how the French defenders of the city used a variety of tactics to drive back and defeat the English besiegers. The next two selections, both titled "The Deeds of Arms at Vannes," give first Froissart's and then Cabaret's descriptions of individual combats between some of the knights and squires of the two armies. The final section, "Nicholas Clifford and Jean Boucinel," turns again to Froissart's text, outlining the peace concluded between Jean de Monfort and Charles VI, the English retreat out of Brittany, and an individual chivalric combat between Clifford and Boucinel.

While English translations of portions of Froissart's Chroniques have long been available, Cabaret's chronicle is less familiar to English readers, and this book makes a welcome contribution by including passages from it (though one wishes they were longer). Muhlberger's translations are clear and appealing to readers of all levels. This book should be a popular one for use in college classrooms, as it is accessible, attractive, affordable, and offers many topics of potential discussion.

The weaknesses of the book are largely structural. There is no index, and although Muhlberger defines specialized terms such as a outrance within the text (17), a glossary of such terms, as well as of important names, would make the book more user-friendly. Moreover, the two maps that the book reproduces (France at the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360 and at the death of Charles V in 1380), while in full color, are antiquated--one dates to 1877--and rather difficult to read. The book would benefit from a map that clearly plotted the route taken by the English army during the raid and the locations of important cities and skirmishes specifically mentioned in the text. It would also be useful to have in-text references to the images in the color plates at the center of the book.

Ultimately, this source reader presents a detailed view into an exciting yet lesser-known episode of the Hundred Years' War. Rather than placing attention on the famous battles like Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, Will a Frenchman Fight? shows the more common side of war: one marked by short skirmishes, inconclusive raids, prolonged sieges, individual desire for honor, bad weather and disease, and the vicissitudes of fortune and politics.


Monday, October 03, 2016

Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner

I have read other books by Eric Foner and have yet to find one that I didn't learn a great deal from. One of the things I learned from this one, which is a condensed version of a much larger work, is that the racial politics of the United States shows an amazing amount of continuity. Other works I have recently read have shown the discourse of immigration and religious identity now seen in the United States then was also present in the 1840s and 50s. Thinking about the 1860s and 70s shows a similar similarity between now and then. It just feels so familiar. Years ago when I first started teaching 20th century European history and world history I came to the conclusion that for a great many people World War I did not end in 1918 – large parts of the world were still at war or at least in a chaotic condition until about 1922. I wonder if it makes sense to separate the Civil War from Reconstruction using the usual date of 1865 as a dividing line. The amount of violence that took place in various parts of the South is quite astonishing. The majority of conflicts were in fact initiated by Southern whites, and there are very few violent incidents where white casualties outnumbered Black casualties.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Attention, all you Poles and Lithuanians!

From the Medieval Review, an excerpt from a long and positive book review. I know some of my friends and readers will be very interested!
To see this review with the correct diacritical marks, please see the web archive:

Frost, Robert. The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania, Vol. 1: The Making of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, 1385-1569. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xxv, 564. £85.00/$135.00. ISBN: 978-0-19-820869-3.

Reviewed by Piotr Górecki

University of California-Riverside

This could (but will not) be a short review. Robert Frost has written an outstanding book, as good as it is big--a major contribution to the history of the polity linked by the hyphen in its title, and to the history of early modern Europe. The book is a major benchmark in Frost's distinguished output addressing specific aspects of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's history, situated in the broad context of its contemporary Europe. [1] It consolidates Poland-Lithuania's entrance into top-tier scholarship conceived and written in English over the past twenty years or so [2]--a process parallel, and related to, an analogous inclusion of Poland, Lithuania, and East Central Europe in the general historiography of medieval Europe. [3]

Frost introduces his book as an histoire événementielle, prompting my one (slight) disagreement with him. The tag is too modest and self-effacing. The book's story frames, and brilliantly develops, a wide range of subjects, all visible to the reader. This is in fact a profoundly thematic book. That said, it is indeed structured as one continuous, seamless narration, huge in its scope and its particulars. Its subjects are, so to speak, layered throughout the text, and developed in its course. As a result, the book is best read in its entirety, from beginning to end--a most worthwhile exercise, because Frost's prose is outstanding: tightly-packed yet translucent, highly engaging and interesting in basic storytelling terms, and witty. We have here a lovely example of the current return of "narrative" history at its best, into the core of what we do.

Especially conspicuous are three interrelated subjects: people, places, and constructs. The book is a biographical gallery of a huge number of individually etched actors: kings of Poland; dukes and grand dukes of Lithuania; contenders for those two offices; and a myriad other specific protagonists who made up the political worlds presided by these rulers. No less important is a collective generic actor: the political community, [4] above all the royal or grand-ducal "council"; the noble, or knightly, "assembly," or "general assembly"; and higher-level collectivities, such as the "nobility," "boyars," "Poles," "Lithuanians," and, perhaps most recurrently, "community of the realm." The places are: the major realms, or polities--Lithuania, Poland, Masovia, and "Royal" Prussia [5]--of which the first two formed the principal union, the second two joined it through unions with Poland; the localities where the major phases of the story occurred, and left a written record; and the localities relevant to the governance and administration of the four polities comprising the union.

And there is much more...

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Voting for a third-party candidate

When Americans talk about "third parties" they do so in the context of a political culture that for a very long time has given so much importance to a competition between two major parties that voting for or founding or working for a "third" party has to be assumed to be futile. Except, of course, for those who hold idealistic or even utopian hopes that can't be realized by working through one of the two major parties.

I have a pretty wide idealistic streak myself, but I find myself extremely frustrated by what I consider the unrealistic appreciation of the possibilities of American politics on the part of so-called protest voters. And not just American politics. We are taught that elections decide policies. I think it in a large polity like United States or Canada that is seldom the case. At least you and I as individuals can't guarantee that our needs and wishes will be addressed in any sort of direct way. Far more often we are in the position of voting against catastrophe and I believe that has to be the top priority. It's not just a matter of this year, though the situation in the United States is a very dramatic illustration. When people whose intellect and goodwill I respect talk about voting for the Greens or the Libertarians because they like some aspects of their programs, I want to scream that "the top priority this year is avoiding catastrophe."

That they don't realize how crucial this is makes me wonder where such protest voters were in the year 2000 when protest voting was a important factor in the election of George W. Bush. Think of the environmental damage and the disastrous state of the Middle East that can be traced back to Bush rather than Gore being the president when important issues had to be decided. The entire human community has suffered great harm that will go on for centuries because of the results of that election. The protest voters --what did they get for their idealistic stand?

Image: You can always vote for the regular guy.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Blogging medievalism: Sypeck and Gygax

Back about a decade ago, when I started this blog, I felt a bit like a Johnny-come-lately. Lots of professional medievalists, a pretty bright and eloquent bunch, were already churning out commentary or autobiographical reflections at a great rate. I had a long list of their blogs. Of course those days are pretty much dead, as bloggers have moved on to faster, simpler platforms like FB or Twitter &c. Blog lists at the side of many a blog link to forums that haven't been added to since 2011. But there are the honorable exceptions, for instance Jeff Sypeck's Quid Plura?. Jeff is a Charlemagne scholar who is both light and serious in his way of handling things, all sorts of things, including his own poetry. Long may Quid Plura? wave.

A good example of Jeff's virtues is the blog entry/review “Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution…”. It is a discussion of the importance of Gary Gygax, a co-inventor of Dungeons and Dragons, and the significance of D&D itself. The focus of the post, however, is Sypeck's contention that despite the appearance of an interesting biography of Gygax, Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons there is no fullinvestigation of the life and thought of this key figure of the popular culture of the past half-century.

This passage says much:
Early on, Gygax supported his family as an insurance underwriter, but Witwer suggests that the main influence of this job on his game-writing hobby was the convenience of the office typewriter. I don’t doubt that the typewriter was handy—but isn’t it noteworthy that a guy who spent his days poring over actuarial data would go on to craft a game around pages and pages of probability-based tables? I wish Witwer had drawn this connection; there’s meaning in it. It’s charming that one of the quirkiest countercultural pastimes, now an endless wellspring of self-expression and creativity, has roots in a field that most people find utterly deadening.

The biggest surprise in Empire of Imagination pops up halfway through the book, when Witwer writes about conflicts between the Gygaxes and their children in the late 1970s:

Another point of dissension between Gary and his son was that Ernie had drifted away from his parents’ faith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In times past, Gary had made attempts to pull away from gaming in favor of devoting more time to his faith, but such efforts were always short-lived. And while not “devout” by Jehovah’s Witness standards, Gary and Mary Jo had maintained the religious affiliation and expected their children to follow suit.

Wait—what? The Prime Mover of geekdom and godfather of role-playing games, dogged by accusations of promoting demonology and witchcraft, was a Jehovah’s Witness? That’s a heck of a revelation not to poke with a stick. Was he born into the religion? Did he adopt it as an adult? Witwer doesn’t say. Twenty pages later, Gygax and his wife break from their church over gaming, drinking, and smoking, and that’s that. But how can it be that the co-creator of a game steeped in magic, mysticism, polytheism, and violence was active in a faith most of us think of as uncompromising and austere? Are there traces of the religion in the design of D&D, and if so, what are they?

It’s clear from Witwer’s lengthy sketch that Gygax demands a thorough intellectual biography. He was a complex autodidact whose inner life wasn’t easy to categorize or explain, the product of an unrepeatable alchemy of place, time, and personality—but unless someone can conjure a compilation of interviews, letters, and reminiscences by family and friends, Empire of Imagination may be the best glimpse of his life we’re going to get. It’s engaging and earnest; it just doesn’t feel done.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Acts of the Apostles and the riots of the Roman Peace

I am currently reading the New Testament more or less in the order that it was written. I began with the Acts of the Apostles, which discusses the missionary efforts of Jesus's followers after his ascension to heaven.

Taking the Acts as a historical document, I am very impressed by how chaotic social religious and political scene was in this era of "Roman peace." Many of you know that during this apostolic era was characterized by strong opposition to the new Christian movement by a variety of better established Jewish and Greek/Roman parties. It is remarkable how nervous the established powers seem to have been – how quickly they ran to the Roman authorities to denounce the new religious movement. There is a lot of actual fighting described or implied, and of course sometimes the opponents of the Christians got them imprisoned, beaten up, and murdered.

We have to wonder-- at least I do – whether the reaction by the established religious authorities was justified or completely out of proportion. Is there a big difference between these two alternatives? Either way it's not exactly happy days in the Eastern Mediterranean in the first century A.D.

You might well come away with a much more sympathetic understanding of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who did his best to stay out of the conflict between the established Jewish authorities in Jerusalem and Jesus's movement. It may have been commonplace to credit the Romans and their representatives with peace and reform, but if you were one of the governors mentioned in Acts, you probably felt that your office was like a wild horse, and you would be lucky to stay on it.

A battle over the meaning of 9/11

My contribution to counteract the current effort of Facebook to censor a dissenting voice.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


When Canada was supporting the "Coalition" war in Afghanistan, there was very little effort to bring the reality of that war, from any perspective, to the public. Canadians were shooting, getting shot, bombing and getting blown up. However there were no presentations to speak of what this conflict might mean to a real or even a fictional Canadian or Afghan.

Except Afghanada.

Afghanada was a radio drama series, part of a long tradition at the CBC. That tradition was being eroded by funding cuts. But somebody took a chance and commissioned a four-episode series about the war.

It took off. In the end, the CBC made 103 episodes. One hundred and three.

I am relistening to the series and it is, just as I remember, very down to earth and focused on Canadian soldiers, Canadian medics, Afghan civilians, casualties of all sorts.

You can go here and buy the majority of these episodes.

Image: The LAV III, practically a character itself.

By Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum - Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Mohenjo Daro hits the big screen!

Mohenjo Daro is one of the sites associated with the very ancient Indus Valley Civilization, which is roughly contemporaneous with the earliest Mesopotamian civilizations. They had writing but we can't read it. Thus when somebody decided to produce a movie, named Mohenjo Daro, about this long-ago era, they had to make just about everything up.

The news here is that they seem to have done a good job! At least according to AE Larsen, a scholar who runs a historical movie blog An Historian Goes to the Movies . Have a look at the trailer above. It's gorgeous! Oh, yes, Larsen reminds me that the remake of Ben Hur is imminent. It looks good, too.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Socotra Island: The Most Alien-Looking Place on Earth

Well, I just discovered this on another blog: Dark Roasted Blend. It's been around for a long time, and I suspect that it's a treasure house.

Here's some of the "alien" landscape of Socotra Island:

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Not quite so welcome

Canada has got a lot of praise recently for its generous attitude towards admitting Syrian refugees. And rightfully so.

But Canadians are not so keen on another group: rich, mainly Chinese immigrants who have been moving into the Vancouver area for years and driving up real estate prices to a more than merely remarkable extent. That real estate boom (and a somewhat different boom in places like Toronto) has a major effect on the national economy as a whole. And it makes it easy to blame foreigners for this unbalanced, potentially perilous situation.

Of course, the word racism comes up, in part because British Columbia has a history of excluding Asian immigrants.

But it's not a simple situation. A recent article in the Globe and Mail discussed at length the fact that different groups of Chinese immigrants don't get along with each other; older immigrants and their children and grandchildren don't feel any great solidarity with new immigrants from other regions.

Here is one Globe and Mail article. There are plenty more. Like this one about the not exactly rich, not necessarily immigrant.