Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Return of the mercenary

This Atlantic article explains why they are back in force:

McFate: The private military industry allows you to fight wars without having your own blood on the gambling table. And drones just do that as well. If you think about this as an arms-control issue, both [drones and private military companies] should be part of the same category, because they allow national governments to get involved in fighting without actually having citizens do it. And that creates moral hazard for policymakers, because it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Scholarly editions and databases online

In the good old days of the early Internet, the appearance of a new site or resource often attracted a lot of attention. Now there are so many good resources that it’s quite easy for them to slip by without people who might really be interested finding out about them.

Here are three resources related to medieval military history and chivalry, one of my own particular interests. I am not surprised if you’ve missed them.

What looks like a brand-new one just caught my attention. It is a site devoted to the Spanish epic, the Song of the Cid (Cantar de mio Cid) Its purpose is to make the text more accessible in its original language.  Thus its primary users will be students of medieval Castilian who want to compare the readings of the chief manuscript with a “normalized” text, to a spoken version, to an English translation. There is a lot of useful information packed into the site, and it is really pretty to look at, too. One gripe: it is not so easy to find the English translation. There is a button that takes you straight to it, but that button is not labelled. I rather think that was people who come to the site will be using the English version, even if they are not the core audience for whom the site was built.

A similar site has been around for a while. It is the Online Froissart, which like the Cid site presents textual material in a variety of ways, with once again serious scholars being the core audience. The value of the site is underlined by the fact that the the best print edition Froissart’s over a century old and still unfinished. Looking at book prices for much less specialized and complicated scholarly works, one wonders whether the print edition will be finished and if anyone will be able to afford it on that happy day. The editors of the site have broken down one set of barriers to this key later medieval work.

And how about Armour in Art?  It describes itself thus:  “ is a searchable database of medieval art featuring armour. Items in the database range in date from 1100 to 1450 and are located throughout Europe. Content is varied - frescos, altars, stained glass, reliefs, etc - anything that is not an effigy/brass or manuscript is included.”

Why those latter two exclusions? Because, Mr. Bones, there related sites to cover that of the material. See the links just above.

Even yet, the Internet offers us some good serious content along with the kitty cats and the child stars who have aged so badly.

Breaking a family tradition

Like a lot of Americans and Canadians I have a very mixed ethnic background, but perhaps the one I was most aware of growing up was Irish Catholic. (Despite the German name I had little sense of being German, although it did influence me to take German language courses in high school).  The family tradition around St. Patrick’s Day was pretty simple. We didn’t do anything at all. Of course there was a lot less fuss then about the holiday – something that is true of many other holidays, like Halloween.

So today I am breaking with that family tradition and wearing green. Why ? I don’t know.

It does remind me of my high school history teacher who talked quite a bit about his Irish grandmother and then wore orange on St. Patrick’s Day…

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A twelfth-century description of a judicial duel on horseback

A new site dedicated to the "Song of My Cid" -- the famous Spanish epic -- includes this interesting account of the judicial duel between three of the Carrion clan whose "enfantes" mistreated the Cid's daughters and three of the Cid's chief vassals. Note that the bad guys are unwilling to face the famously sharp swords wielded by the good guys, and bail out by running out of the boundaries. I can't help thinking that structurally this combat may have been like a tournament. Get up and go out to the field, infantes of Carrión, it is time for you to fight like men, the Campeador's men will not fail in anything. If you come off he field well, you will have great honor, if you are defeated, don't blame us, for everyone knows that you went looking for it.- Now the infantes of Carrión are repenting, for what they did they are filled with regret, they wouldn't have done it for all there is in Carrión. All three of the Campeador's men are armed, King don Alfonso went over to see them, the Campeador's men said, -We kiss your hands as king and lord, that you be field judge for them and for us, help us fairly, allow no wrongs. Here the infantes of Carrión have their band, we know not what they will plan or what they won't, in your hand our lord placed us, protect our rights, for the love of the Creator.- At that moment the king said, -With all my heart and soul.- They bring them their horses, good ones and swift, they blessed the saddles and mount confidently, the shields that are well reinforced at their necks, in their hands they take the shafts of the sharp lances, these three lances have their own pennons, and around them many fine men. They now went out to the field where the markers were. All three of the Campeador's men are in agreement that each one of them should strike his adversary hard. Behold at the other end the infantes of Carrión, very well accompanied, for there are many relatives. The king gave them judges to tell them what's right and what isn't, that they not dispute with them about who is or isn't right. When they were in the field King don Alfonso spoke, -Hear what I say to you, infantes of Carrión, this combat you might have had in Toledo, but you refused. These three knights of my Cid the Campeador I brought them safely to the lands of Carrión, be in the right, don't commit any wrongs, for whoever wishes to commit a wrong, I will severely prohibit it, in all my kingdom he will not be welcome.- Now it begins to grieve the infantes of Carrión. The judges and the king point out the markers, all those around them left the field, they showed clearly to all six of them how they are laid out, that there whoever went outside the marker would be defeated. All the people cleared out around there, that they not approach the markers by any more than six lance lengths. They drew lots for field position, now they divided the sun equally, the judges got out from between them, they are face to face, then the Cid's men came at the infantes of Carrión and the infantes of Carrión at the Campeador's men, each one of them concentrates on his target. They clasp their shields before their hearts, they lower their lances along with the pennons, they lower their faces over the saddlebows, they struck their horses with their spurs, the ground shook where they were riding. Each one of them has his mind on his target, all three on three have now come together, those that are nearby think that at that moment they will fall dead. Pedro Bermúdez, he who challenged first, met with Fernán González face to face, they strike each other's shield fearlessly. Fernán González pierced the shield of Pedro Bermúdez, he hit only air, he did not strike flesh, in two places his lance shaft broke cleanly apart. Pedro Bermúdez remained steady, he did lose his balance from it, he received one blow, but he dealt another, he broke the boss of the shield, he split it in two, he went through it entirely, it didn't protect him at all, he stuck his lance into his chest, it didn't protect him at all. Fernando wore three layers of mail, this helped him, two of them broke on him and the third held up, the padded tunic with the shirt and with the mail out from his mouth the blood came, his saddle-girths broke, not one of them was of any use to him, over the croup of the horse he was thrown to the ground. In this way the people thought he is fatally wounded. The other dropped the lance and the sword he took in hand, when Fernán González saw it, he recognized Tizón, rather than wait for the blow he said, -I am defeated.- The judges granted it, Pedro Bermúdez let him be. Martín Antolínez and Diego González struck each other with their lances, the blows were such that both lances broke. Martín Antolínez took his sword in hand, it lights up all the field, it is so clean and bright, he gave him a blow, he hit him a glancing blow, it broke away the top of the helmet, it cut away all the helmet straps, it tore off the mailed hood, and reached the coif, the coif and the hood all were ripped away, it cut the hairs on his head, and it reached well into the flesh, one part fell to the ground and the other remained. When precious Colada has struck this blow, Diego González saw that he would not escape with his soul, he turned his horse to face his opponent. At that moment Martín Antolínez hit him with his sword, he struck him broadside, with the cutting edge he did not hit him. Diego González has sword in hand, but he does not use it,at that moment the infante began to shout, -Help me, God, glorious Lord, and protect me from this sword!- He reined in his horse and, dodging the sword, rode it outside the marker, Martín Antolínez remained on the field. Then said the king, -Come join my company, by all you have done, you have won this battle.- The judges grant it, that he says the truth. Both men have won, I'll tell you of Muño Gustioz, how he fared against Asur González. They strike each other on their shields with such great blows, Asur González, rugged and valiant, struck the shield of don Muño Gustioz, through the shield he broke his armor, the lance hit only air, for it did not strike flesh. This blow struck, Muño Gustioz struck another one, through the shield he broke his armor, he broke through the shield's boss, it could not protect him, he broke through his armor, he hit him on one side, not near the heart, he thrust his lance and the pennon right through his flesh, pushing it through the other side an arm's length, he gave it a twist, he tipped him from the saddle, when he pulled back on the lance he threw him to the ground, the shaft came out red as did the lance-tip and the pennon. Everyone thinks that he is mortally wounded. He repositioned his lance and halted over him, said Gonzalo Ansúrez, -Don't strike him, for God's sake! He is defeated since this is finished.- Said the judges, -This we hear.- The good king don Alfonso ordered the field cleared, the arms that remained there he took them. The Campeador's men left fully honored, they won this combat, thanks to the Creator. Great is the grief through the lands of Carrión. The king sent my Cid's men at night, so that they not be attacked or have fear. Like prudent men they ride day and night, behold them in Valencia with my Cid the Campeador, they left the infantes of Carrión in disgrace, they have fulfilled their duty that their lord demanded of them, my Cid the Campeador was pleased by this. Great is the shame of the infantes of Carrión, whoever scorns a good lady and then abandons her may such befall him or even worse.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

How Islamic is the Islamic State?

Fascinating article in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood. Its concluding passage:
Within the narrow bounds of its theology, the Islamic State hums with energy, even creativity. Outside those bounds, it could hardly be more arid and silent: a vision of life as obedience, order, and destiny. Musa Cerantonio and Anjem Choudary could mentally shift from contemplating mass death and eternal torture to discussing the virtues of Vietnamese coffee or treacly pastry, with apparent delight in each, yet to me it seemed that to embrace their views would be to see all the flavors of this world grow insipid compared with the vivid grotesqueries of the hereafter.
I could enjoy their company, as a guilty intellectual exercise, up to a point. In reviewing Mein Kampf in March 1940, George Orwell confessed that he had “never been able to dislike Hitler”; something about the man projected an underdog quality, even when his goals were cowardly or loathsome. “If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.” The Islamic State’s partisans have much the same allure. They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden.
Fascism, Orwell continued, is psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
Nor, in the case of the Islamic State, its religious or intellectual appeal. That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

The psychology of the Islamic State as described here reminds me of the apocalyptic motivations of the promoters of and participants in the First Crusade.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Buy these books!

I recently got a royalty statement from my main publisher, Freelance Academy Press, and I'm sad to say that sales of been rather anemic the last six months. I know there are more people who are interested in this material than have heard about it. Also FAP does a classy job of printing and binding and illustrating these volumes. Finally, the price is right. The books are about a third the price of some of the other similar works put out by mainstream publishers. So I'm going to do my bit to get the word out, something that everybody who publishes these days is told they have to do. FAP carries three recent books by me. All of them concern "deeds of arms" or chivalric sports and warfare in the late 14th century. All of them include translations of accounts from that period plus my own analysis of the material. I think I am quite a good writer so a lot of people should find my approach easy to understand and even entertaining. First, there is "Royal Jousts". This book describes famous jousts of the 14th century as described by people who took part in them. This is the time when the kings of France and England competed not just on the battlefield but also in their sponsorship of chivalric sports. The best part of the book is the description of the jousts at St. Inglevert in the 1390s. It's famously described by Froissart, but other people wrote up the event too. I've included those other descriptions. If you are curious about what jousting meant to knights of the time, this is your book. Second is "the Combat of the Thirty." This is a famous incident of 1350s in which Breton – French men at arms fought English and mercenary men at arms for the fun of it. Each group controlled a strategic castle, but the war itself had bogged down. Out of boredom or other calculations, the captains of these garrisons decided to fight "30 against 30 with no one running away." Some people at the time thought it was a foolish pointless fight, while others thought it showed a true knightly spirit, unlike for instance the French cavalry who had run away from the battle of Crecy. There may have been some doubt too about whether the winning tactic was a fair one or not. Modern reenactors love to reenact this one. If you have friends who love the Hundred Years War, get them this book. The third book is "Charny's men-at-arms." Geoffroi de Charny is the famous knight of the 1350s, among other things the first owner of the shroud of Turin. He was a trusted advisor of King John II of France and took part in John's efforts to revitalize chivalry in his kingdom. One project that Geoffroi de Charny participated in was an effort to revive knowledge of the "law of arms" that governed the relations between knights and knights (or "men at arms"). With the King's encouragement, Charny put together a list of questions about how the law of arms applied to jousting tournaments and warfare. Interestingly, he did not include or record any answers to those questions. So "Charny's questions"as they are usually called doesn't give us a codified legal document, but rather a list of things that practical warriors worried about – ransoms, who was qualified to fight in tournaments, and various questions of honour. Let me also urge you to suggest to your local public library or academic library that they buy them books for their collections. These are not just books for scholars. Scholars will like them, but so will people of a variety of back grounds interested in some of the most colourful aspects of the Middle Ages. Buy these books at Freelance Academy Press.

Monday, February 23, 2015


I don't consider the Society for Creative Anachronism to be neo-primitivism, exactly, but what Mr. Potter says about authenticity hits close to home.  I've been thinking of authenticity as a near-religious term for quite a while now:

The moral imperative driving  this is what we can call the quest for authenticity. This is the search for meaning in a world that is alienating, spiritually disenchanted, socially flattened, technologically obsessed, and thoroughly commercialized. To that end, “authenticity” has become the go-to buzzword in our moral slang, underwriting everything from our condo purchases and vacation stops to our friendships and political allegiances.

There are two major problems with this.

The first is that authenticity turns out to be just another form of hyper-competitive status seeking, exacerbating many of the very problems it was designed to solve. Second, and even more worrisome, is that the legitimate fear of the negative effects of technological evolution has given way to a paranoid rejection of science and even reason itself.

Modernity, as a civilization, sits at the confluence of secularism, liberalism, and capitalism, and it is not everyone’s cup of coffee. The promise of the authentic is that it will help us carve out a space where true community can flourish outside of the cash nexus and in a way that treads lightly upon the Earth. More often than not, this manifests itself through nostalgia, for a misremembered time when the air was cleaner, the water purer, and communities more nurturing.

It was never going to work out that way. From its very origins, the quest for the authentic was motivated by that most ancient and base of human urges, the desire for status. The authenticity craze of the past decade is simply the latest version of what the economist Thorstein Veblen, in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, called “conspicuous display.” Veblen was mostly concerned with the pretensions of the failing aristocracy and their obsession with obsolete endeavours such as hunting, swordfighting, and learning useless languages. Yet his basic insight – that consumption is first and foremost about social distinction – remains the key to decoding our consumer driven cultural shivers.

As recently as a decade and a half ago, organic food was the almost exclusive bastion of earnest former hippies and young nature lovers — the sort of people who like to make their own granola, don’t like to shave, and use rock crystals as a natural deodorant. But by the turn of the millennium, organic was making inroads into more mainstream precincts, driven by an increasing concern over globalization, the health effects of pesticide use, and the environmental impact of industrial farming. The shift to organic seemed the perfect alignment of private and public benefit.

In the past few juice cleansing has become a 5 billion dollar industry in the U.S., appealing to those who want to lose weight and “detox” their bodies.

It also became an essential element of any “authentic” lifestyle. Yet as it became more popular, the rumblings of discontent within the organic movement became harder to ignore. What was once a niche market had become mainstream, and with massification came the need for large-scale forms of production that, in many ways, are indistinguishable from the industrial farming techniques that organic was supposed to replace. Once Walmart started selling organic food, the terms of what counts as authentic shifted from a choice between organic and conventional food to a dispute between supporters of the organic movement and those who advocate a far more restrictive standard for authenticity, namely, locally grown food.

But when it comes to shopping locally, how local is local enough? If we want to live a low-impact, environmentally conscious lifestyle, how far do we need to go?

The short answer is, you need to go as far as necessary to maintain your position in the status hierarchy.

The problem is you can only be authentic as long as most of the people around you are not, which has its own built-in radicalizing dynamic. You start out getting an organic-vegetable delivery service once a month, then you try growing chickens in your urban backyard. Then the next thing you know, your friends have gone all-in on paleo, eschewing grains, starches, and processed sugar and learning how to bow-hunt wild boar on weekends.

The Whole Food chain plans to start rolling out a system that ranks fruits and vegetables as “good,” ”better” or “best” based on the supplier’s farming practices.

There’s a deeper issue here though, which is that the problem with radicalization is that it breeds extremism. It is one thing to play at being anti-modern by eating only wild game, becoming an expert in axe-throwing, or building a whisky still in your backyard. It is something else entirely to push that ethos into a thoroughgoing rejection of science, technology, and reason itself.

Yet this is where we have ended up. The neoprimitivist logic of authenticity has pushed its way into every corner of how we think, act and consume. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

More (and more chilling) German folk tales

This Salon article talks about "darker-than-Grimm stories" recently discovered in a German archive and now published in English translation.  That cutesy description rang alarm bells for me, but to my surprise the interview with the translator, Maria Tatar, is really substantial. Congrats to the interviewer, Laura Miller, for doing such a good  job.

Some excerpts:

[MILLER] I was struck by several themes that came up repeatedly in these tales. There are a few stories where parents turn against their son because he’s too strong. It doesn’t seem that different from the more familiar stories where the stepmother takes against the daughter who’s prettier than her. We’re always hearing about the wicked stepmother and how she hates Snow White for being the fairest of all. That is a real generational rivalry, but the same rivalry happens between fathers and sons, except it’s about virility or strength instead of beauty. I was fascinated to see that there is a male equivalent of the beauty rivalry.

[TATAR] It’s remarkable, in one particular story, how the parents team up against the son. You would think they would make his strength work for them. Instead, they try to do him in! That’s another great difference between Schönwerth and the Grimms. For the Grimms, it is always the evil stepmother. The fathers tend to be exonerated. Sometimes they just go along with the stepmother, and they’re not described as complicit in any way, just overpowered by this demonic wife. Whereas in Schönwerth, there’s the story of Prince Goldilocks, where the father sends the boy into the wilderness and wants to kill him. That is unheard of in the Grimms’ tales.

  [MILLER] You point out that we have this one-sided view of the way gender works in fairy tales partly because of how the Grimms edited their collection, but don’t you also feel that partly it’s because over time, as the oral storytellers became overwhelmingly female, they also might have focused on female characters more? 

 [TATAR] I’m not so sure. The Grimms picked and chose their stories, and I think that they just had some sort of deep reverence for fathers. Fathers could do no wrong for them. For example, take the story of Cinderella, where the villain is the evil stepmother. But there’s another version of Cinderella that circulated in the 19th century that is called “Donkeyskin” or “Thousandfurs,” and in that one it’s a father who loves his daughter too much. When his wife dies, he wants to replace her with his daughter. So you have a father who is totally out of control. Then he disappears in the course of the 19th century. I guess you’re right, I shouldn’t put it all on the Grimms. It could be part of a general trend toward focusing on evil women. 

[MILLER] Reading this collection made me realize the degree to which intergenerational conflict in fairy tales is not just about the female characters but is a really pervasive theme. It’s about the child’s awareness that as much as their parents might love them, parents also know that their children will supplant them. Children can be threatening in this weird way, as well as being very much desired at times. The parents will fade as the children come into strength, and so the children also represent the parents’ own deaths. So there’s this ambivalence to the relationship. I didn’t really see that before because it had always been presented in such a gendered way in the more familiar fairy tales, presented as a conflict between women about desirability as opposed to something even more universal than that. 

 [TATAR] Fairy tales are about the hyper-dysfunctional family. Think of “Jack the Giant-Killer”: The giant is a proxy for the father. There’s always something terrible going on, these domestic dramas that are larger than life and twice as unnatural. 

[MILLER] What do you in particular find so compelling about this form?

[TATAR] What I really love about fairy tales is that they get us talking about matters that are just so vital to us. I think about the story of Little Red Riding Hood and how originally it was about the predator-prey relationship, and then it becomes a story about innocence and seduction for us. We use that story again and again to work out these very tough issues that we have to face. My hope is that this volume will get people talking about not just the stories and the plot but the underlying issues. >

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World 1914-1991, by Eric J. Hobsbawm

It has been almost a quarter-century since Eric Hobsbawm the daring step of writing history from the outbreak of World War I to the collapse of the Soviet Union. And only now am I getting around to reading it.

This is not a book that I think I would ever read from cover to cover. It is a long one. However, it is so interesting in its many details and its many passages of analysis that I got a lot out of it even just reading a few pages at a time more or less at random.

Here's one fact of 1 million: Hobsbawm points out that of the leaders of the various countries of the world in 1970, a year when baby boomers were  coming of age, almost all were people who had been adults at the end or even at the beginning of the First World War. No wonder there was a lack of sympathy between the establishment and the young rebels! It is typical of Hobsbawm's style that he illustrates the point thus: professors of economic history in France were people who had grown up on or vacationed on farms, and had a pretty good idea of how agriculture worked. They faced students in their classes with no idea what  milkmaids did or the usefulness of manure piles to a working farmer.
Anecdotal history? I love it nonetheless.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Peregrine: Secundus, by Avram Davidson

I recently re-read Peregrine: Secundus, the second book in what seems like an unfinished series by science fiction and fantasy writer Avram Davidson.  Davidson, who seems to have been a classically-educated eccentric, judging by what he chose to write and what he actually produced, delights me.  The blurb on the Berkley Fantasy edition (above, 1981) is for once fairly accurate, "[a] journey to the lighter side of the Dark Ages," though it understates the comedic effects that Davidson achieves.  He knew a tremendous amount about late antiquity and poured it all in to this book, creating a world which is not quite our own past, one  with dozens of small-time Roman Emperors, a plethora of  fiercely competing Christian sects, and such remnants of the pagan past as the Sphinx outwitted by Theseus, now down on her luck.

Is this  book worth your efforts to hunt it (and its prequel Peregrine: Primus) up?

Some samples:

(A member of the Weefolk explains their situation.)

A Weewoman was speaking now, speaking soft and low: he listened. Och, the Gotha push down the Roma and the Roma push down the Kelta And the Kelta push down the Weefolk; thu knowedd this; thu knowedd the Weefolk be we. Indeed they were wee, though scarcely hop-o'-my-thumb wee; Perry realized that if one had to live in holes in the rock, it was a great help to be wee… We study, och, what arts we may, here in the greeny wood… We ferm not for why would we ferm? So they 'ould take our crops, och, and ot last, our lahnd? If we didt ought in metal 'ork, 'ould they not see and smell the forge-smoke and hear the clong of metal, metal-on? We gather the small fruits o' the soil, the thucket, the forest and the fens… The scronnel herbs ond the rune-thorns, the rune- roots ond the magic mosses… and we 'ork and that sort of wise… We spin spells, we weave webs, we moil in magic; these be our arts, such are our crops, in this wise 'lone do we ferm and delve and forge… 
(Christian sectaries react to apparent pagan magic.)
The Neognostic Heterodox Heretical Church thought of almost everything.
What was left of the congregation by this time (a part it had already fled) uttered sundry small anathemas (major anathemas, as was well known, could be issued only by members of the episcopate or by lower clergy under special episcopal license), made the sign of the cross in every conceivable manner, and in some few cases stooped to pick pebbles which they tossed up as a sort of surrogate stoning (indeed, only fairly recently, a sect in Syria had advanced the doctrine that stoning itself might be considered in itself a Sacrament; but they had all been stoned); these congregants may or may not have heard of the law of gravity under that or any other name but there were, very, very shortly, irritated little yelps in various regional accents, of, "Dawn't play the fool, now, I a'n't no fooking eretic, bounce another o' them off me pate and I'll have at yez, see if I dawn't;" and very similar disaffected outcries.
(The hero rides through a forest.)
Forests of oak, forests of pine, oak for goodly furnitures and the keels and timbers and the great ribs of ships, oak for wine barrels. Pine for tar and planks for said ships and pitch to caulk them with. Pine for resin to pour into the oak barrels to keep the air from the wine and so keep the wine from souring. Pine for kindling for a quick flame; oak for the great glowing beads of coal like lumps of amber, beds of glowing coals to last the night and Roast the ox. A many generation of pine planks would come and go in any one boat and ship, but the oak timbers were forever. Well, almost forever: when the oak went, the vessels went, too. For quickness and haste in rapid service: pine. For endurance, oak.
(One of the augurs makes a mistake.) 
 Very bad form, and enough to have softened the hard heart even of Cato of the Elder, whose coarse comment that "he did not understand how two augurs could pass each other without bursting out laughing," had never been forgiven by them: and never would.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Crusades: defensive wars?

Recently experts on the Crusades have got a reasonable amount of press on whether the Crusades should be condemned or not. One statement made by several of them is that the Crusades were justifiable as defensive wars against Muslim aggression.

Iff you look at maps illustrating the course the Crusades, you usually will see a fairly clear back-and-forth boundary between Christian ruled countries and Muslim ruled countries.

Yet I have a hard time taking this argument all that seriously because I have my strong doubts that warriors in the 11th century, whatever the ethnic or religious background, cared and whether or not a war was “offensive” or “defensive”.

If you look at the 11th century, the century that ended with the First Crusade, and you will find a large number of major wars that resulted in new rulers being imposed on the previous population, which sometimes practiced a different religion from the conquerors. Here is an incomplete list straight out of my head, done without referring to any reference works so there might be some mistakes. It is in roughly chronological order.

  • Conquest of England by Knut (Canute)
  •  Conquest of Norway by Canute
  •  Conquest of England by William
  •  Conquest of southern Italy and Sicily by various Normans
  • Conquest of Anatolia by the Seljuk Turks
  • Conquest of Central Spain by Castile
  • First Crusade


  • It is extremely unlikely that any of the conquering armies saw themselves as ethnically or nationally unified. In some cases it is quite clear that they were ethnically heterogenous.
  • People were willing to travel long distances to take part in wars that might result in conquest. 
  • Also, it is pretty clear that warriors believed that if they were successful in their war they were entitled to all the wealth that they could confiscate, whether that might be lordship over wide territories for the highest ranking and most successful or whether it might be plunder, which just about and everybody expected and hoped for.

Using this perspective, The First Crusade doesn’t seem to be all that different from the other wars listed here.

That doesn’t mean other reasons for wars were not present. William the Conqueror seems have considered himself to have been legitimately named as Edward the Confessor’s heir for the kingdom of England. Some of his followers may have gotten a bit of a thrill from fighting for the right of William to be King. But they did not go home after Hastings to sit around talking about how they had done the right thing. No, they got as much territory and profit out of William’s successful war as they possibly could. Also, the Pope did give William a papal banner to take to England as a sign of ecclesiastical support and a certain amount of religious justification was present in some of these other wars as well. Some people did go home after the first crusade and talk about how they done the right thing. But what plunder could be acquired was always part of the picture. It was a rare warrior – were there any? – who did not think that plunder was a legitimate source of profit in any war.

Visualizing these large groups of armed men roaming the countryside stealing stuff and conquering countries makes me sceptical that the big movements on the historical maps of the Crusades can be explained as “defensive wars.” Looking back over the larger sweep of history I wonder whether “defensive wars” were an important phenomenon in most people’s view of the world before the 20th century. Certainly professional warriors have tended to look at war as a normal part of life, not some terrible breakdown of society as many people feel today. Perhaps a dislike for war was stronger among non-warrior groups such as the peasantry or the clergy (especially monks) and of course large numbers of women. But among the people who led wars and fought wars, did they really think about offense or defence as an important category affecting their decision-making?

Friday, February 06, 2015

Fighting the Islamic State

From Foreign Policy:

The war against the Islamic State, and the brand of extremist violence it exemplifies, won’t be won or lost on the battlefield. Defeating the group, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Thursday, will instead first require debunking the ideological propaganda the group spews to justify its killing.
Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hussein lamented the brutal murder of his Jordanian countryman, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was burned alive by the Islamic State in a video made public earlier this week. “Just bombing them or choking off their finances has clearly not worked, for these groups have only proliferated and grown in strength,” he said. That meant the fight against the group required “the addition of a different sort of battle-line one waged principally by Muslim leaders and Muslim countries and based on ideas — on a reassertion of traditional Islam in the everyday narrative of Muslims.”
That won’t be easy. Even though the pilot’s burning sparked revulsion and fury across the world, the group still has its defenders. The radical British cleric Anjem Choudary defended the Islamic State’s method of killing the pilot in an interview on NewsmaxTV, claiming it was justified because of the women and children killed by bombing campaigns. “In defensive jihad,” he said, “whatever the Muslims can do within the realms of the acceptable behavior, they are doing. And part of that is terrorizing the enemy.” And an Islamic State admirer on Twitter reportedly wrote, “To any pilot participating in the crusader coalition against the holy warriors — know that your plane might fall in the next mission. Sleep well!”
Hussein, who became the first Arab and Muslim to lead the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights when he assumed the role in September, has long been critical of the military-first approach that the United States and governments and international bodies have favored in combatting the Islamic States.
Instead, he’s been pushing for a war of ideas against the group, something that he believes has already started. Last September, in a letter translated into 10 languages, more than 120 Muslim scholars “discredited the cruel, harsh, ideology promoted by the leader of the Takfiris [Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy] in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This is a hopeful beginning and deserves support,” he said during his address Thursday at the Holocaust museum, a powerful setting for a speech by a Muslim condemning atrocities ostensibly carried out in the name of his own religion.
It’s not a new argument for Hussein, but in the wake of this week’s gruesome killing he’s been gaining an array of new allies who have lashed out at the Islamic State’s claim that burning the Jordanian pilot was within the bounds of sharia law.
“Burning is an abominable crime rejected by Islamic law regardless of its causes,” tweeted Saudi cleric Salman al-Odah, according to euters. “It is rejected whether it falls on an individual or a group or a people. Only God tortures by fire.” Sheikh Hussein bin Shu’ayb, head of the religious affairs department in southern Yemen, told the news service, “The Prophet, peace be upon him, advised against burning people with fire.” The Grand Sheikh of Egypt’s Al-Azhar university, Ahmed al-Tayeb, expressed disgust with the act and said its perpetrators deserved to be “killed, crucified or to have their limbs amputated.” Hussein is a realist who knows that the fight against the Islamic state — and whatever will come along to replace it — is going to be longer than any bombing campaign.
“Years of tyranny, inequalities, fear, and bad governance are what contribute to the expansion of extremist ideas and violence,” he said in his speech on Thursday. “Few of these crises have erupted without warning.” And quashing extremism before it grows into the next terrorist threat means discrediting the ideas that are used to justify violence before they can take hold.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany, by B. Ann Tlusty

Ken Mondschein's review will tell you whether you can live without this book:
B. Ann Tlusty’s The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany is one of those books that simultaneously delights and frustrates the reviewer: Delight, for the immense wealth of valuable material it contains, coupled with admiration for the author; frustration, because of the sure knowledge that one is unlikely to ever write a work as good. Then again, few scholars do: Tlusty bases her argument on an intimate knowledge of city archives, especially those of Augsburg and with an emphasis on judicial records, but incorporates a wide number of other sources, both archival and published. These are masterfully synthesized into a nuanced and far-reaching argument that addresses core questions in the historiography of early modern Europe. Martial Ethic, in other words, a definitive work of history, one that deserves to stand beside works on the history of violence and arms in Europe such as those of Ute Frevert and Kevin McAleer for modern Germany and François Billacois, Peter Blastenbrei, Trevor Dean, Robert Nye, and Pieter Spirenberg for the rest of Europe (1) and which ought to be on comprehensive exam reading lists and incorporated into survey courses on later medieval and early modern Europe. It has already achieved well-merited renown amongst the Historical European Martial Arts crowd, but seen from the perspective of Martial Ethic, the Fechtbücher (records of fencing teaching) seem like footnotes to the greater trends and ideas brought out by Tlusty.

However, like all great history, Martial Ethic is not an apolitical work. By this I do not mean that Tlusty’s objectives or arguments are in any way directed towards making a modern political argument, but rather that they resonate with an important contemporary concern—namely the American debate over firearms. This is unavoidable for two reasons: the fact that (as Tlusty points out) American gun culture owes some of its genetic material to Germany, and the fact that the historian’s ever-present obligation to make the past relevant to the present naturally guides us towards subjects of broader interest. While Tlusty’s main aim is to make a contribution to the literature of violence and the growth of the state in premodern Europe, she is certainly cognizant of contemporary resonance. In the same way, it is the reviewer’s obligation to tease out the broader implications of the work under consideration. Therefore, I will first discuss the structure and arguments of Tlusty’s book and what they mean for the historical discipline, and then editorialize on their relevance to modern society.

And there is lots more...

Public pagan worship to return to Iceland

According to the Globe and Mail, they are building a temple:

“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” said Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, high priest of Asatruarfelagid, an association that promotes faith in the Norse gods. “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.” Membership in Asatruarfelagid has tripled in Iceland in the last decade to 2,400 members last year, out of a total population of 330,000, data from Statistics Iceland showed. The temple will be circular and will be dug four metres down into a hill overlooking the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, with a dome on top to let in the sunlight. “The sun changes with the seasons so we are in a way having the sun paint the space for us,” Hilmarsson said.

Monday, February 02, 2015

The American Civil War as a global struggle

Excerpted “The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War”by Don H. Doyle in a recent Salon:

While the war was being fought on the battlefields of Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg, another contest was waged overseas. The Confederacy sought international recognition and alliances to secure independence, and the Union was determined not to let that happen. “No battle, not Gettysburg, not the Wilderness,” one historian claimed, “was more important than the contest waged in the diplomatic arena and the forum of public opinion.” The history of Civil War diplomacy—that is, the formal negotiations among governments and the strategies surrounding them—has been told and told well. This book turns to the less familiar forum of public opinion, which was filled with clamorous debate for four years. It took place in print (in newspapers, pamphlets, and books) as well as oratory (in meeting halls, pubs, lodges, union halls, and parliaments). Wherever free speech was stifled, as it was in France, the debate continued over private dinner tables and at cafés. Whatever one’s views, there was general agreement that the American question mattered greatly to the world and to the future.

The Union and Confederacy each hired special agents, who usually operated under cover of some kind. They were typically veteran journalists and political operators whose job it was, as one of them deftly put it, to give “a right direction to public sentiment” and correct “erroneous” reports that favored the other side. Some bribed editors and hired journalists, while others published their own pamphlets, books, and even newspapers. Few were above planting rumors or circulating damaging stories, and some of what they produced can only be described as propaganda and misinformation. But that was only part of the story of what was more often a sophisticated appeal to ideology and values.

In today’s parlance the diplomatic duel that took place during America’s Civil War can be understood as a contest of smart power, the adroit combination of hard-power coercion with soft-power appeals to basic values. Hard-power diplomacy typically involves the threat or use of military force, but can also include economic coercion (blockades, embargoes) and inducements (low tariffs, commercial monopolies). The employment of soft power involves persuasion and information, but the underlying strategy is to appeal to the fundamental values and interests of the foreign country, to demonstrate that the two countries in question share common aspirations. Soft power resides in “the power of attraction,” not in crude propagandizing.

The Union won and the South lost this diplomatic duel abroad not because the Union possessed an obviously more appealing message. To the contrary, at the outset many foreigners found the South’s narrative of valiant rebellion against the North’s oppressive central government far more attractive. Slavery had never disqualified a nation from acceptance into the family of nations. The United States and most European powers had at some point sanctioned slavery with no loss of status under international law. Confederate emissaries abroad were nonetheless instructed to avoid discus.sion of slavery as the motive for secession, and they happily pointed to Lincoln’s own promises to protect slavery in the Southern states as proof that this was not the issue. Southern diplomats crafted an appeal that evoked widely admired liberal principles of self-government and free trade. The conflict, they told the world, was one arising naturally between industrial and agrarian societies, not freedom and slavery. The industrial North wanted high protective tariffs, while the agrarian South wanted free trade with Eur. Southern leaders had rehearsed their foreign policy for years, and they began their rebellion fully confident that Europe would bow to “King Cotton.” “What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years?” South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond asked in 1858. “England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her, save the South. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.

The American crisis not only heartened the enemies of democracy; it also emboldened them to invade the Western Hemisphere, to topple governments, install European monarchs, and reclaim lost American empires. Suddenly, the Civil War rendered the Monroe Doctrine toothless. Republican regimes in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and, not least, the United States were suddenly vulnerable to imperialist aggression, including nefarious plots to install European princes and recolonize their lands.

The most audacious of European schemes was Napoleon III’s Grand Design for  Latin Catholic empire. It began with an allied invasion of Mexico late in 1861 and led to the installation of the Hapsburg archduke Maximilian as emperor of Mexico in 1864. The Grand Design went far beyond Mexico to envision the unification of the “Latin race” in America and Europe, under the auspices of the French, and to reverse the advances of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism and egalitarian democracy in the Western Hemisphere.As its bid to win support in Britain foundered, some thought due to popular antislavery sentiment, the Confederacy sought to align itself with Napoleon III by adopting a Latin strategy that would make common cause with the French and the Catholic Church against the “Puritan fanatics” of the North. The Confederacy sent emissaries to the vatican, appealing to Pope Pius IX, the archenemy of republicanism, to bless their “holy war” against the “infidels” of the North. They also contrasted the North’s “mobocracy” to the traditions of patrician rule among the South’s European-style gentry. Southerners even encouraged Europeans to think the Confederacy might prefer a monarchical form of government, perhaps under a European prince. on several occasions Southern leaders proposed some kind of permanent league with, or protectorate under, France, Britain, or Spain. All this portended far more than mere separation under a new flag.

Southerners also took pains to emphasize they were sympathetic with European designs to restore monarchy and Catholic authority in Latin America. Confederate diplomats were instructed to repudiate the South’s earlier imperialist ambitions for a tropical empire in Latin America. They assured Europeans that with an independent South, expansion would no longer be necessary.

... At the end of the war, Eugène Pelletan, a leading French republican, expressed eloquently what the American question had meant to the world: “America is not only America, one place or one race more on the map, it is yet and especially the model school of liberty. If against all possibility it had perished, with it would fall a great experiment."

Some readers may feel such unqualified admiration of America was undeserved. The Union, everyone knows, had been painfully slow to embrace emancipation, and America’s deeply ingrained racial prejudice would long outlast slavery. These were only some of the egregious flaws in the nation foreign admirers hailed as the Great Republic.

Yet we miss something vitally important if we view Pelletan and other foreigners who saw America as the vanguard of hope as naive or misguided. Foreign admirers typically regarded the United States not as some exceptional city upon a hill, but as exactly the opposite: an imperfect but viable model of society based on universal principles of natural rights and theories of government that originated in Europe but had thus far failed to succeed there. In the 1860s they were horrified to see government of the people seriously imperiled in the one place it had achieved its most enduring success. Abraham Lincoln was hardly boasting when he referred to America as the “last best hope of earth.” His was a forlorn plea to defend America’s—and the world’s—experiment in popular government.

In the mid-nineteenth century, it appeared to many that the world was moving away from democracy and equality toward repressive govern- ment and the expansion of slavery. Far from being pushed off the world’s stage by human progress, slavery, aristocratic rule, and imperialism seemed to be finding new life and aggressive new defenders. The Confederate South had no intention of putting slavery on the road to extinction; its very purpose in breaking away was to extend and perpetuate slavery— forever, according to its constitution. Had the Confederacy succeeded, it would have meant a new birth of slavery, rather than freedom, possibly throughout the Americas, and it would have been a serious blow to the experiment in egalitarian democracy throughout the Atlantic world.

Long after the defeat of the Confederacy, enemies of liberal, egalitarian society had every reason to look back on America’s Civil War with regret. In 1933, during an after-dinner discussion in Munich, Adolf Hitler bemoaned the South’s defeat in chilling terms: “The beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality were destroyed by that war, and with them also the embryo of a future truly great America that would not have been ruled by a corrupt caste of tradesmen, but by a real Herren-class that would have swept away all the falsities of liberty and equality.” Hitler’s reading of America’s history might have been grotesquely flawed, but his outburst echoed the same refrains against the evils of “extreme democracy” and “fanatical egalitarianism” heard in the 1860s.

The end of Christianity in Iraq?

From NPR:

Piece By Piece, Monks Scramble To Preserve Iraq's Christian History

No, the Middle Ages are not over.