Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Armor and horse terminology


I am currently translating a 15th century treatise by Sicily Herald on the proper running of tournaments and jousts.  It discusses armor and horse harness.  Various pieces of "harness" (for people and horses both) are named.  I can guess what most of these terms mean, and I can find most of them in good dictionaries.  However, it would be nice to have a scholarly treatment (reference work) on this terminology in hand.  Despite the fact that I know a fair number of scholars specializing in military history and a good number of serious re-enactors (including some brilliant armorers) I don't know a good, practical reference work that would help me get the terminology right, and allow me to easily compare Sicily Herald's usage to "standard" terminology.


I know that other people have faced this problem.  Does anyone have a solution?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

History belongs to everyone, sad to say



Historians like to think that their paticular skills and professional knowledge are uniquely important, both for individuals and for society as a whole.  Not much point in arguing these points -- you either agree or disagree.

But if you agree, there is a big price to be paid -- non-historians are always piling in, insisting that their discipline can do a better job of solving the great questions, such as why the Roman empire fell -- if it did.

Sometimes, though, an outsider's approach seems to to hold promise.  Just today I read in a BBC site of a study that suggests that the Black Death (pretty certainly established as the bubonic plague by earlier genetics-based studies) was  not spread by rats, but by human beings.  Here's what they said:
But a team from the universities of Oslo and Ferrara now says the...Black Death, can be "largely ascribed to human fleas and body lice".
The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, uses records of its pattern and scale.
The Black Death claimed an estimated 25 million lives, more than a third of Europe's population, between 1347 and 1351.We have good mortality data from outbreaks in nine cities in Europe," Prof Nils Stenseth, from the University of Oslo, told BBC News.
"So we could construct models of the disease dynamics [there]."
He and his colleagues then simulated disease outbreaks in each of these cities, creating three models where the disease was spread by:
  • rats
  • airborne transmission
  • fleas and lice that live on humans and their clothes
In seven out of the nine cities studied, the "human parasite model" was a much better match for the pattern of the outbreak.
It mirrored how quickly it spread and how many people it affected.
"The conclusion was very clear," said Prof Stenseth. "The lice model fits best."
"It would be unlikely to spread as fast as it did if it was transmitted by rats.
"It would have to go through this extra loop of the rats, rather than being spread from person to person."

...

Prof Stenseth said the study was primarily of historical interest - using modern understanding of disease to unpick what had happened during one of the most devastating pandemics in human history.
But, he pointed out, "understanding as much as possible about what goes on during an epidemic is always good if you are to reduce mortality [in the future]".
Sounds good to me,but then, what do I know?   When it comes  to the fall of the Roman empire (if it did fall), bright, enthusiastic people have grabbed at  a shiny idea (lead in the water supply) and built an elaborate but false explanation on it.  Many other theories about Rome are flawed by the reluctance to face basic questions.

Like, what does it mean that the Roman empire fell?  And was Rome all that great before the so-called fall. Whenever it was.

Image:  This plague map, like many others, shows Flanders (now part of Belgium) asa plague-free zone.  How can that be true?  Flanders was a center of international trade and Flemish merchants went everywhere?  The big white blob that represents Poland is equally in need of explanation.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Favorite posts, 2017

I didn't do a lot of blogging this past year because (1) I spent a lot of time translating the
Good Duke and other medieval sources and (2) I didn't want to spend a lot of time discussing the most obvious subject that people were blogging, since I don't believe I had anything amazingly original to say. Nonetheless, there were posts that did stand out.

Modern ideas of Chivalry

Let's start out the New Year with a story about modern ideas of chivalry.  I found a 15-year-old account of the SCA's Pennsic War lurking on my hard drive while I was looking for something else.  It was a year when a good number of us fighters were revisiting the medieval sources for chivalry (meaning both fighting and non-fighting aspects)  with the desire to see the relevance of the medieval ideas and practices to a bunch of fun-loving reenactors.  Lots of special events touching on this took place that year,

One of the key medieval characteristics of chivalry is the conviction that present-day knights (or men-at-arms) are not living up to the standards of the Good Old Days.  Several modern scholars have pointed out the strong reformist strain in medieval treatises.

At the Pennsic War in question, there was one notable incident that showed the disagreements about the nature of chivalry could easily pop up.  A rather large group of fighters were in one of the camps working on practice exercises based on 14th-century techniques.  No doubt they felt rather virtuous; I did. (Yes, I was one of them.) Most SCA fighting is based on no medieval precedents. Here we were doing something provably medieval!

Then we were called out.  Here's what I wrote at the time:

A male inhabitant of the camp rather self-righteously informed us that all us “gentlemen practicing a martial art” had ignored a lady struggling to put up pavilion walls the previous day.    After our apologies and his departure there was a lot of speculation about whether this had actually happened or how much we were at fault, since none of us had noticed said lady.    I discussed this with lots of people over the next few days, and even wondered rather maliciously if this should be a topic for the chivalry roundtable on the upcoming Monday, instead of the proposed questions.
A victory for medieval re-enactment:  we re-created the lack of sympathy between fighters and non-fighters.  At least we got close.  And everybody got to feel virtuous and that the other guy just didn't get it.





Image:  Damsel in distress.  Did the knight carry her luggage to his camp afterwards?

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Be proud, heralds!

Or maybe this is just a bit over the top.

I am translating a fifteenth-century set of treatises by a man who went under the title Sicily Herald.  He was big on the historic foundations of heraldry and armory.  This morning I was looking at his account of the history of heraldry and read this:
Concerning the seven ages of the world in which are comprised the commencement, the middle and the end of the noble office of arms,
Don't blush!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Done!

DONE!

I rhink that I can HONESTLY say that the translation that Phil and I have been working on (in my case for more than a decade) is done,  Yeah, there's room for correction, and we need an introduction a (finished) glossary and an agent and a publisher, but any reader should be able to understand the Chronicle  of the Good Duke Loys de Bourbon, and get a lot out of it.

In the last couple of weeks I've been anticipating this moment by starting two other translations:

Jacques Bretel's, thirteenth-century poetic account of a grand tournament.

Sicily Herald's fifteenth-century treatise about how they did tournaments back in the Good Old Days.

I have actually started on both.  I think these projects will be considerably easier than the Good Duke.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Omar Muhammed (Mosul Eye) "I am a scholar."

AP has an article  that should make all others who call themselves scholars humble.  It tells the story of an Iraqi historian who time and again blogged from inside the "Islamic State" so that the world should know the truth of life in occupied  Mosul. A long excerpt:
Less than a year into their rule, in March 2015, he nearly cracked. IS beheaded a 14-year-old in front of a crowd; 12 people were arrested for selling and smoking cigarettes, and some of them flogged publicly. Seeing few alternatives, young men from Mosul were joining up by the dozens.
 The sight of a fanatic severing the hand of a child accused of stealing unmoored him. The man told the boy that his hand was a gift of repentance to God before serenely slicing it away.
It was too much. 
Mosul Eye was done. He defied the dress requirements, cut his hair short, shaved his beard and pulled on a bright red crewneck sweater. He persuaded his closest friend to join him. 
“I decided to die.” 
The sun shining, they drove to the banks of the Tigris blasting forbidden music from the car. They spread a scrap of rug over a stone outcropping and shared a carafe of tea. Mosul Eye lit a cigarette, heedless of a handful of other people picnicking nearby. 
“I was so tired of worrying about myself, my family, my brothers. I am not alive to worry, but I am alive to live this life. I thought: I am done.”
 He planned it as a sort of last supper, a final joyful day to end all days. He assumed he would be spotted, arrested, tortured. The tea was the best he had ever tasted. 
Somehow, incredibly, his crimes went unnoticed. 
He went home.
 "At that moment I felt like I was given a new life.” 
He grew out his hair and beard again, put the shortened trousers back on. And, for the remainder of his time in Mosul, smoked and listened to music in his room with the curtains drawn and the lights off. His computer screen and the tip of his cigarette glowed as he wrote in the dark. 
The next month, he slipped up. 
His friend the ex-taxi driver told him about an airstrike that had just killed multiple high-level Islamic State commanders, destroying a giant weapons cache. Elated, Mosul Eye dashed home to post it online. He hit “publish” and then, minutes later, realized his mistake. The information could have come from only one person. He trashed the post and spent a sleepless night. 
“It’s like a death game and one mistake could finish your life.” 
For a week, he went dark. Then he invited his friend to meet at a restaurant. They ate spicy chicken, an unemployed teacher and the gun-toting ex-taxi driver talking again about their city and their lives. His cover was not blown. 
The historian went back online. Alongside the blog, he kept meticulous records — information too dangerous to share. 
His computer hard drive filled with death, filed according to date, cause of death, perpetrator, neighborhood and ethnicity. Accompanying each spreadsheet entry was a separate file with observations from each day.
“IS is forcing abortions and tubal ligation surgeries on Yazidi women,” he wrote in unpublished notes from January 2015. A doctor told him there had been between 50 and 60 forced abortions and a dozen Yazidi girls younger than 15 died of injuries from repeated rapes.
 April 19, 2015: “The forensics department received the bodies of 23 IS militants killed in Baiji. They had no shrapnel, no bullets, no explosives and the cause of death does not seem to be explosion. It is like nothing happened to the bodies. A medical source believes they were exposed to poison gas.”
 July 7, 2015: “43 citizens were executed in different places, this time by gunfire, which is unusual because they were previously beheadings. A source inside IS said that 13 of those who were executed are fighters and they tried to flee.”
He noted a flurry of security on days when the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, seemed to be in town.
 Many in Iraq, especially those who supported the Shiite-dominated leadership in Baghdad, blamed Mosul for its own fate. Mosul Eye freely acknowledged that some residents at first believed the new conquerors could only be an improvement over the heavy-handed government and the soldiers who fled with hardly a backward glance at the city they were supposed to defend.
 But he also wrote publicly and privately of the suffering among citizens who refused to join the group. He was fighting on two fronts: “One against ISIS, and the other against the rumors. Trying to protect the face of Mosul, the soul of Mosul.” 
He tested out different voices, implying one day that he was Christian, another that he was Muslim. Sometimes he indicated he was gone, other times that he was still in the city. “I couldn’t trust anyone,” he said.
In his mind, he left Mosul a thousand times, but always found reasons to stay: his mother, his nieces and nephews, his mission. 
But finally, he had to go. 
“I had to run away with the proof that will protect Mosul for years to come, and to at least be loyal to the people who were killed in the city.”
And he did not want to become another casualty of the monsters.
“I think I deserve life, deserve to be alive.”
A smuggler, persuaded by $1,000 and the assurances of a mutual acquaintance, agreed to get him out. He was leaving the next day. Mosul Eye had no time to reflect, no time to change his mind.
He returned home and began transferring the contents of his computer to the hard drive. He pulled out the orange notebook with the hand-drawn map of Mosul on the cover and the outlines of what he hoped would one day be his doctoral dissertation. Into the bag went “Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca,” an obscure American satirical novel from 1770 that he had ordered from Amazon via a new shop that was the only place in town to order from abroad online.
It was time to leave. 
He wanted to make sure his mother would never have to watch the capture and killing of Mosul Eye.
On Dec. 15, 2015 he left Mosul, driving with the smuggler to the outskirts of Raqqa, a pickup point that alarmed him. From there he and other Iraqis and Syrians were picked up by a second set of smugglers and driven by convoy to Turkey. 
They had no trouble crossing the border.__
In Turkey, Mosul Eye kept at it: via WhatsApp and Viber, from Facebook messages and long conversations with friends and relatives who had contacts within IS. From hundreds of kilometers away, his life remained consumed by events in Mosul.
By mid-2016, deaths were piling up faster than he could document. The IS and airstrikes were taking a bloody toll on residents. His records grew haphazard, and he turned to Twitter to document the atrocities. In February 2017, he received asylum in Europe with the aid of an organization that learned his backstory. He continued to track the airstrikes and Islamic State killings
He mapped the airstrikes as they closed in on his family, pleading with his older brother to leave his home in West Mosul. Ahmed, 36, died days later when shrapnel from a mortar strike pierced his heart, leaving behind four young children.
It was only then that Mosul Eye revealed his secret to a younger brother — who was proud to learn the anonymous historian he had been reading for so long was his brother.
“People in Mosul had lost hope and confidence in politicians, in everything,” his brother said. Mosul Eye “managed to show that it’s possible to change the situation in the city and bring it back to life.”
As the Old City crumbled, Mosul Eye sent coordinates and phone numbers for homes filled with civilians to a BBC journalist who was covering the battle, trying to get the attention of someone in the coalition command. He believes he saved lives.
Then, with his beloved Old City destroyed, Mosul Eye launched a fundraiser to rebuild the city’s libraries because the extremists had burned all the books. None of his volunteers knew his identity.
An activist who helped co-found a “Women of Mosul” Facebook group with Mosul Eye describes him as a “spiritual leader” for the city’s secular-minded.
“He was telling us about the day-to-day events under ISIS and we were following closely with excitement as if we were watching a movie. Sometimes he went through hard times and we used to encourage him. He won the people’s trust and we became very curious to know his real personality,” said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she believed she was still in danger.
From a distance, finally writing his dissertation on 19th century Mosul history in the safety of a European city, he continued to write as Mosul Eye and organize cultural events and fundraisers from afar — even after Mosul was liberated.
The double life consumed him, sapped energy he’d rather use for the doctoral dissertation and for helping Mosul rebuild. And it hurt when someone asked the young Iraqi why he didn’t do more to help his people. He desperately wanted his mother to know all that he had done. 
He felt barely real, with so many people knowing him by false identities: 293,000 followers on Facebook, 37,000 on WordPress and 23,400 on Twitter. 
In hours of face-to-face conversations with The Associated Press over the course of two months, he agonized over when and how to end the anonymity that plagued him. He did not want to be a virtual character anymore.
On Nov. 15, 2017, Mosul Eye made his decision.
“I can’t be anonymous anymore. This is to say that I defeated ISIS. You can see me now, and you can know me now.”
He is 31 years old. 
His name is Omar Mohammed.

“I am a scholar.”

Friday, December 15, 2017

Yes music for the day: Foot Prints

 A bit of self-indulgence here (OK, more self-indulgence).

As some of you know, the British "progressive" rock band Yes is one of my favorites.  I started listening to them in 1970.  For varioius reasons, I didn't follow them after 1973, and they fell out of favor with the taste-makers, so I had little encouragement to go back to them.  A few years back somebody gave me a near-complete collection of Yes and to my surprise I found that what I liked about Yes, the soaring instrumental music, was well represented  in most of the later albums.  Listening to the music through earbuds, I find myself in the best songs sinking down through layers of astonishing interwoven beauty.

I attach a  YouTube piece Footprints. Up until 2:20 both the music and lyrics are rather sappy.  But I find the rest astonishingly good, especially the music but even most of the lyrics.  The sections that begin at 2;20 3:30  4:50 7:40 ;will show you what I mean.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3lngl3P6cs


The Robot Wars begin -- report from the San Francisco front

The very fine radio show As it Happens (CBC) has this report from the Robot Wars.

The area around the San Francisco HQ of the SPCA is very popular for homeless people who camp out on the sidewalks.  The other people who use the area are not enthusiastic about this.

Solution?  The SPCA fired its security guard who used to harass the campers ($14/hr) and replaced him/her with a robot ($7/hr).  This 400 pound  patrol robot goes around  flashing lights, making noise and scaring pets.

This "solution" has some people noting that if you lose that $14/hr job you are not likely to find SF's hot real estate market any more affordable and you may end up living in... Others say what's with an organization that is dedicated to reducing cruelty adopting such a tactic in a self-satsfied way: E.g.
 "Although we had already limited the use of the robot to our parking lot, we think a more fully informed, consensus-oriented, local approach on the appropriate use of these new devices will benefit everyone —whether it's on public space or in private parking lots...
Reports say that opponents of robot harassment have already smeared BBQ sauce on  the robot's sensors.

I hardly tink it will stop there.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Those damned hippies!



A couple of days ago I read an article -- Washington Post? -- which I cannot find.  Too bad, because it was thought-provoking. The middle-aged author was using his mother (who must be my age or a bit more  as an example of how counter-culture people  had provided  many of the supporters of the Trump movement but  more importantly many people who rely on Fox News for their information.  "My mother," said the writer "was a hippy in the 60s and hitchhiked across the country in the 70s.  Then she turned into one of those people who rant constantly about the stories she finds in Fox News."

Well, if like me you have witnessed the changes in American society in the last half century, you know some people like that.  Being a hippy was not just about peace, love and understanding; it was about rejecting conventional authority, and a vague anarchism.  (I remember a meeting of young supposed libertarians at the World Science Fiction Convention of 1973; they were so repellent that a friend of mine who had up till then called himself a libertarian never did again.)

I have mixed feelings about the Grateful Dead's Uncle John's Band, and have for quite a while.  Do you blame me?

Image:  Their walls are made of cannonballs.  Wall by Alexey Shestak.




Monday, December 11, 2017

3000, more or less -- and a new book



Blogger tells me that the previous post is number 3000.  That's not quite accurate.  I started blogging on a different platform, and I was very active on the blog back in the pre-twitter days.  Also the 3000 posts that Blogger counts includes drafts saved by the blog.

Still, it seems that a celebratory note is appropriate.  ESPECIALLY since yesterday I started another a new book, an English translation of Le Tournoi de Chauvency.  Le Tournoi is a verse account written in 1285 of a tournament in the north of France.  The poem seems to be a lighthearted celebration of the "noble, beautiful and good people" who took part, either as participants or as audience.  It's one of the few tournament accounts about real people.  Most such descriptions are about tournaments in Arthur's court or at least in Arthur's time.

So have a festive breakfast! I will say more about Chauvency soon.


Money to burn on books? Check out ISD holiday offerings






ISD is a disributer of Medieval Studies scholarly books, generally high quality books from small presses.  For instance they distribute my Deeds of Arms series by Freelance Academy Press.

Last week I got a special offer flyer from them and it made my mouth water.  The boks on offer were mainly art oriented and the contents promised to be interesting and beautiful.

Note that these books are by no means cheap, but they have been marked down substantially.  Just the thing, if you can afford it, to give to the love of your life -- or  yourself, if you can justify the expense.


The William Morris Manuscript of The Odes of Horace
by William Morris, introduction by Clive Wilmer, translated by William Gladstone

9781851244492
Hardback, 2 volumes, 186 pages (facsimile + 240p commentary and translation, 183 col illus.)
Publication Date: November 2016

Regular Price: $275.00 /
Special Offer Price: $195.00

Pompeii, a Different Perspective:

Via dell'Abbondanza, a long road, well traveled​

by Arthur Stephens and Jennifer Stephens

9781937040789
Hardback, 126 pages
Publication Date: June 2017
Regular Price: $50.00 / 
Special Offer Price: $40.00

Mosaics of Ravenna: Image and Meaning
by Jutta Dresken-Weiland
9783795432065
Hardback, 320 pages
Publication Date: July 2017

Regular Price: $108.00 /
Special Offer Price: $87.00

Martin Luther. Treasures of the Reformation: Catalogue
edited by the Minneapolis Institute of Art and The Morgan Library and Museum​

9783954982233
Hardback, 504 pages, 488 color illus.
Publication Date: September 2016
Regular Price: $44.95 / 

Egyptian Wall Painting

by Francesco Tiradritti

9780789210050
Hardback, 392 pages, 350 color illus.
Publication Date: December 2008
Original Price: $150.00 /
Special Offer Price: $60.00
Publisher: Abbeville Press

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The Good Duke now speaks English! Done, sort of (again)

Back on October 13, I announced on this blog that I had (sort of) finished my translation of  the Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis de Bourbon.  Maybe one more  run-through and I'd be able  to start a new project.


Well,  my collaborator Phil Paine and I have done considerably more than that since October.  The problems we faced as we worked on the remaining trouble spots were really difficult -- which only makes sense if you think about it.


So today's announcement should be limited.  What's done is an acceptable translation from Middle French to modern English.  Truth be told there are a very few spots where figuring out what the best equivalent in Modern English is still uncertain.  Also missing are a short glossary of mostly military terms, a map (maybe) and an introduction that will help non-specialists understand the context of the chronicle.


And there is one big thing that remains to be done; I have to retranslate our rather literal English translation into a modern one.


Why is this necessary?  Well, let me tell you of my own experiences.  About ten years ago, I was teaching late medieval history.  I did my best to find accessible, affordable, translations, or translations that were in the public domain.  There were a few century-old public domain works that might have been fun, but as I looked them over, I realized that they would be very difficult for students of the 21st century to read.  Somebody would have to translate the translation first!


That's what I have to do now.  I'm going to treat the text Phil and I have produced and act like it is the base text, and transform it into a modern work, without constantly going back to the Middle French original (though you and I know that I will be looking closely at that original.


It will be a challenge to keep some of the medieval flavor., to avoid too much exoticism or a very dull 21st century presentation.   OTOH, it should be fun to try.



Monday, December 04, 2017

Trump and Russia: It was that close

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo argues that a defacto alliance between Russia and the USA came THAT CLOSE to being implemented in the earliest days of the Trump Administration:


Since this rapid settling of accounts with Russia is no longer the focus or at least at the forefront of coverage, we need to refresh our memories of exactly what was intended. The Trump transition planned to move rapidly in its first days and weeks in office to engineer a dramatic reshuffling of policy toward Russia, in essence a grand bargain which would start with lifting the December 2016 sanctions as well as those imposed in March 2014 for the annexation of Crimea. But it wouldn’t end there. It was also to include a basic reorientation of policy in the Middle East (a policy of close collaboration with Russia in Syria and Iraq/ISIS) and at least some shift in US policy toward Europe and the EU. ...

Despite the claim that Flynn had gone rogue and that Vice President Pence was lied to, details that emerged in the Flynn plea documents make clear that Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak were widely discussed among President Trump’s top advisors. Pence almost certainly knew about them, though we as yet have no direct proof of this. Events were moving rapidly. A string of denials about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak were hit with a rush of leaks that refuted each in turn. By February 13th Flynn was out. The next day President Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into his activities. Comey politely refused. Events were moving quickly and badly.


Various reports, including Isikoff’s, tells us that the staff planning for a rapprochement which was kicked off in the administration’s first days continued. Indeed, in the months since we’ve seen it pop up here and there. There have been repeated hints of discussions to return the diplomatic compounds seized by the Obama administration in late December. In his May trip to Europe Trump had to be coaxed and prodded to commit to the defense of NATO allies. We saw it in Trump’s bizarre and semi-secret Oval Office meeting with Kislyak and Lavrov just after firing Comey. Still, it seems clear that by mid-February, with Flynn fired and the Russia scandal dominating the headlines, any hope of an immediate and thorough-going reset in relations with Russia were abandoned as unrealistic. While the desire is clearly still there, it has been the drama of the unfolding investigation, rather than a grand partnership with Russia that has dominated the news and the administration ever since.


Image:  The new alliances that resulted from the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756

Friday, December 01, 2017

Josh Marshall's excellent Christmas book list


Image:  Chris Wickham, one of the excellent historians listed here.



Josh Marshall is the editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo, my favorite source for news out of Washington, DC.  I think he is pretty smart and judicious.  Marshall, it seems, was trained as a historian, and I think it shows.

When not writing or managing, Marshal reads history.  He has made available some of the best histories he's read recently, and his list shows remarkable good taste.  I'm including most of that post  here.

Enjoy!

The cauldron and promise of Eastern Europe.
As I noted, I’m generally not interested in reading about contemporary history. And things from the last 100 years I generally see as contemporary history. But I’ve been interested lately in the recent history of Eastern Europe and the aftermath of World War I. These are two very different but related books. Vanquished is about the aftermath of World War I in the East – the relevant point being that the war really didn’t end in the East until the early 1920s. In many respects there were continuing cycles of brutalizing violence in the East that continued – with only a relatively brief interruption in the late 1920s – right through into World War I. This is critical to understanding the origins of fascisms and all the subsequent history of the continent. An engrossing, really important read.
The Reconstruction of Nations goes back into the Early Modern period. It’s largely a history of and a paean to a certain strain of cosmopolitan, multi-national Polish history. I have a general knowledge of the very different path to the formation of nation-states in Eastern Europe versus Western Europe. This book helped me understand that history at a much, much deeper level. It also greatly deepened my understanding and perspective on the current struggle between nationalism and multinationalism which is roiling Europe and in many respects the entire globe. These are both books I highly, highly recommend. (I also did a podcast interview with the author of Reconstruction of Nations.)
Pre-History
History from one certain understanding begins with writing. Writing is when most of the things that historians use to understand the past come into view, when some of them even come into existence. But of course the human past did not begin with writing. Writing is a fairly recent development and in some parts of the world it’s extremely recent. Indeed, writing itself, certainly in its literary permutation, is often less reliable that modern archeology, at least on the things archeology lets us see clearly. These are three books that look at the distant past, often spanning thousands of years, mainly before the advent of writing. By Steppe, Desert and Ocean is simply the last 10,000 years of Eurasian history, the vast and surprisingly integrated stretch of land from the Pacific coast of China to Spain – where did human civilizations first develop over this expanse, how did they came into contact with each other, what were the key drivers of change. Excellent book.
Pathfinders covers some of the same territory but from a different vantage point. We tend to think of the history of exploration as the history of largely Western Europeans traveling to the Americas, Africa and Asia starting in the 1400s. There’s a whole complex and political debate about whether this counts as discovery versus conquest. But set that all aside. People have been traveling and settling new places for thousands, even tens of thousands of years, starting from the initial migrations out of Africa and culminating in the island explorers who spread out from southeast Asia to populate most of the islands of the Pacific. Basically, how did humans go from an origination point in one part of Africa to populate almost the entire globe, all long before the history of any kind of writing. Almost all long before Western European exploration. That’s this book. Fascinating read.
The last of these three is one of the densest books I’ve read in a very long time but also one of the most transformative in my understanding of numerous topics. It’s so dense that I would recommend reading it even if you read only the first half and then find it simply too tough going after the first half. (That’s what happened to me the first time. Then months later I went back to try to tackle the second half.) Because to me it went from being very dense and complex to almost impenetrable. That probably doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation. But, a transformative learning experience about the history of language, archeology, history and much more.
About half the world speaks an Indo-European language. It’s by far the biggest language family. That is largely because the ancestor language “proto-Indo-European” is the ancestor language of major languages in India, Iran and most of Europe. From Europe, English and Spanish came to dominate the Western Hemisphere. That’s a lot of people. But where and when did this language come from and how do we prove it? The premise of this book is that the speakers of this original language began in the steppe lands north of the Black Sea, which is to say modern southern Ukraine and southern Russia with Romania, Moldova and a few other countries in the mix. I don’t even know where to begin in explaining the book. But that’s what it’s about. It’s not an easy read but I found it a deeply fascinating and transformative one.
Rome
Here are three books on Rome. We begin with the city itself in its republican period and end up with the civilization of Rome in which the city of Rome itself had become a peripheral part. SPQR is a new treatment of the whole civilization from one of our leading contemporary historians of Roman history. A very good read. The Triumph of Empire is a new look, a new interpretation of what we once called the early decline of the Romand Empire. That is what we might call the long 3rd century that takes us from high imperial years of the Antonine emperors – Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius – to the the breakdown of the third century and reconstitution of the empire under Diocletian and Constantine. I found it a very interesting discussion and history of just why this happened, the mix of successional breakdown, invasions, the rise of a new, more aggressive dynasty/state in Iran, the changing structure and personnel of the empire beginning in the early third century which anticipated the very different composition of the imperial government starting in the 4th century. If you’re interested in this period, I found it an illuminating, interesting read.
Finally, Chris Wickham’s book on the Late Antique period and the ‘Dark Ages’. The concept of a ‘dark ages’ has been under assault by historians for decades. From another perspective, it has progressively had its historiography colonized by historians from the classical period. All of these histories are – broadly speaking – efforts to understand this period on its own terms rather than just a long period when everything went to shit between the Classical era and the Renaissance or at least during the High Middle Ages. Wickham looks at the period as parts of an evolution from the classical world, still deeply formed by many of its basic assumptions. He is also attempting to push off efforts to look at this period as the proto-history of modern states. So looking at the societies and states or quasi-states of 8th and 9th century Gaul isn’t a way to understand the deeper history or origination of … say, modern France with all its nationalist mythologies. As with all these histories, modern archeology is making itself felt at the expense of the literary record which was always incomplete and wanting. Anyway, another really illuminating and pleasurable read, like every book I’ve read by this author.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

, A Burgundian Death. The tournament in Le Chevalier Délibéré

I have just discovered that the Academia.edu site has a number of publications about the medieval tournament.

For instance, A Burgundian Death. The tournament in Le Chevalier Délibéré
Still slogging away at the Good Duke.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sensible politics

Politicians are our employees, and no matter how likable they are, and no matter how much of ourselves we see in them, we have to be able to critique them openly and harshly, like the self-interested, careerist, complete strangers that they are. Our country’s very existence is predicated on the notion that we, the regular people, are in charge. We cannot look to political figures as people who are owed loyalty. Every decision someone who holds office makes is a decision they should be held accountable for justifying. “Because I said so” is a fair thing for a parent to argue, it is not something an elected official should ever suggest. 


Image: Didn't get the memo

Monday, October 30, 2017

Face-mask bans of the future!

Earlier this month, Austria brought in a law that bans face-covering and now the head of the Austrian police union, Hermann Greylinger, wants it scrapped.
"It is unenforceable," says Greylinger.
Austria's law, like the one in Quebec, broadens the prohibitions on face-covering to avoid the appearance of discrimination, so police are being called to investigate anyone wearing a costume. Last week in a Lego store, they tried to arrest a Lego Ninja.




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Polizei stürmt Lego-Store in Wien. Grund: Verstoß gegen das Vermummungsverbot.

 The unanswered question:  Why is a bunny wearing glasses the official mascot of the Austrian parliament?
"The  [Austrian prohibition on face coverings] was not written as a burka ban for constitutional reasons and now this crap is happening," [Hermann Greylinger, [head of the Austrian police union] says.
 [He's complaining about police being required to enforce the ban.
Aamna Mohdin is a reporter with the digital news outlet Quartz. She covers European issues related to diversity, immigration, economics and justice. She's been watching the confusion in Austria since the ban was implemented.

"I think at the heart of the problem is, you can't make a law that specifically targets Muslims and get away with it," she tells me on Day 6.
"That's discriminatory. So the governments in Europe and in Quebec, they have to create laws that will somehow hold up in court.When you do that, you're kind of confronted with the awkward fact that people wear face-coverings for all sorts of reasons."

Those reasons include promoting a new line of Lego.
"The Austrian police ended up raiding the Lego store in Vienna after receiving a complaint that a Ninja Lego was violating the face-covering ban. And it kind of led to this really extremely heated argument," Mohdin says.

"No fines were issued to the woman because she was willing to take off the head covering. And the police agreed that the face-covering that she was wearing fits the exemption that was within her professional occupation."

Police were also called to respond to a human sized bunny that is official mascot of the Austrian parliament, a man dressed as a shark, and a university student who covered her face because she was cold.

Police suspect they're being called by people who want to draw attention to the absurdity of the law.
Lesko, Austrian Parliament MascotLesko, the mascot of Austria's parliament in 2014. (Parlamentsdirektion / Bildagentur Zolles KG / Martin Steiger)
               Policy based on misperception
Mohdin estimates there are 150 women in Austria who wear a veil. In Quebec, the number may be even lower. She says when polled, people tend to overstate the percentage of Muslims living in their country.

Mohdin believes the popularity of laws banning face-covering is tied to a misperception of the overall numbers of Muslims in those jurisdictions.

"In France, they overestimate their Muslim population by like 17 times or so, and I think that's because we kind of feed into this narrative that there's this Islamic invasion, especially in Europe — this fear that people who don't fit our culture, norms and values are coming over here, and they're overtaking everything that we hold dear."