Thursday, April 02, 2020

Heaven on Earth by Richard Landes

This is the first chapter of a systematic and thorough book on millenial ideas and movements.  Landes, whose work I have been following for nearly 30 years, says the following in his listing at

Medieval historian specializing in the apocalyptic movements of the year 1000, more generally the "longue durée" of millennialism (heaven on earth). Began my career by studying a major forger ca. 1000 (Ademar of Chabannes), and shifted when I discovered a major forgery of 2000 (Muhammad al Durah). Currently following the interaction between two apocalyptic movements - progressive left (arc of history) and Caliphaters (Muslims who believe the global caliphate is coming in their lives).
Other chapters may be found at

Image:  Otto III, the Roman/German/Greek of the Year 1000

Friday, March 27, 2020


It;s been a long time coming...


Ridley Scott ... is currently back in Los Angeles and self-isolating while waiting to get back to his latest project, “The Last Duel.” Production on the historical drama, starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, was paused this month and Scott hopes to be back to it soon.

An interesting take on the Fall of Rome and the Black Death and the similarities and differences with the current crisis

 From Rolling Stone.

I have to say that I am very familiar with these ideas, since I have spent much of my scholarly life examining these eras of crisis.


 Ask an Expert on the Fall of Rome: Are We F-cked?

A conversation with a medieval historian about plagues, pandemics, imperial decline — and whether the U.S. is too broken to be fixed

I’d called Wyman — a European historian focused on the end of the Roman Empire and the world it left behind — to discuss his piece in Mother Jones on how societies hold together or fall apart. But like every conversation seems to these days,it quickly turned to plagues and pandemics. Wyman brought up the mid-1300s bubonic plague that basically cut Europe’s population in half. Here’s what, in Wyman’s telling, Europe looked like on the eve of the Black Death.

At the end of a long period of economic expansion and population growth, wages were low and serfs were struggling to get by. Inequality had soared as a small cadre of wealthy elite spent heavily on luxuries. The climate, after a long and stable period, was entering a volatile shift. Oh, yeah, and in the decade before the pandemic, a group of historically massive companies had overexposed themselves and gone bankrupt, triggering an economic crisis.

We sat for a minute with what he just said, both of us aware of the parallels and neither of us particularly comfortable with them. But then he laughed. I did too. It’s dark. I’m terrified. But what else can you really do?
It’s easy to feel powerless right now. We’re stuck inside, watching the confirmed coronavirus case count climb and waiting to find out if any of our social distancing can work, or if we’re already too late. And I’ve started to wonder if we’re all just sort of stuck on the wheel of history, believing we’re shaping our society’s destiny, but more just sort of dragged along in an inevitable cycle. Maybe we need to accept that those people who thought they built a good, stable society were really just beneficiaries of dumb luck — born at a place and time when the wheel is on its way up, rather than during its inevitable fall back down?

Fortunately, Wyman — who, unlike me, has a deep knowledge of history — had a different take, one that’s both more damning of where we are right now but, ultimately, more hopeful about where we can go next.

We discussed those hopes, his piece “How Do You Know If You’re Living Through the Death of an Empire?,” how pandemics have changed societies historically, and how the Romans might have succeeded (or failed) at handling the coronaviruses of their era.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
A recurring theme in your work on the Roman Empire is, basically, that what you learned in high school is wrong: As shocking as they were both at the time and now, the famed barbarian invasions that sacked Rome didn’t end the empire — they showed how far it had already deteriorated. In your essay, you apply that thinking to our modern United States. How does it apply here, with COVID-19?

Crises like these — whether it’s a crisis of political legitimacy, or a pandemic that demands response, or some kind of major external war that crops up out of nowhere — the chances are good that whatever snaps under the pressure of that crisis was probably straining already, was probably barely chugging along already. There’s some kind of deep problem that a crisis is going to expose, bring to the fore, and then break very dramatically for everybody to see.

We see the crisis and we see the break — and we equate the two. We’re narrative creatures. That’s how we understand the world. We understand things as a story with a climax, and the break has to be the climax. It’s very hard for us to turn a more analytical eye and see the collection of very small things that lead up to a systemic break. It’s just difficult. But these disasters don’t create these trends so much as they supercharge them.

What kind of breaks, systemic failures, and supercharged trends are you seeing with our response to COVID-19? Your point about systems breaking that were already stretched thin reminded me of these reports that somewhere between 90 and 98 percent of our nation’s ICU beds are being used all the time.

That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. When you have a society that has optimized for some ideal of efficiency or shareholder value, as opposed to redundancy or resiliency, this is the kind of result that you get. From my point of view, that amounts to a break. Something like repeatedly cutting ICU capacity in order to deliver more shareholder profits, that looks like a broken system to me, or at least one in which the incentives are not necessarily aligned with public welfare.

Put on a slightly different scale, if you have an economy that’s set up such that having to reduce consumer spending in order to preserve public health places such a massive strain on it, there’s probably something underlying that’s unhealthy about that system as a whole. If your system of political economy is not healthy enough to withstand a shock like that or respond to that, something’s wrong. If we end up with 20 or 25 percent unemployment, if we end up with large numbers of people who can’t eat, who are going to be paying thousands and thousand of dollars from medical bills if and when they get sick … those are systemic crises that grew out of problems that existed before the coronavirus.

Sticking with this theme of “crises don’t break societies, they reveal what’s already broken,” how does that pertain to other world-changing historical events? 
Take the “Black Death,” a bubonic plague in the mid-1300s that killed somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of the population. To someone living in it, it seemed like a massive breakdown. But if you look at the conditions in Europe in the run-up to the plague, you’ll see the pandemic supercharged a lot of trends that were already in progress.

So the Black Death came at the end of a long period of economic contraction that had begun way back in toward the end of the 1200s. Before that, there had been this long period of economic efflorescence in high medieval Europe of “the commercial revolution,” where long-distance trade spread rapidly, lots more money was in circulation, the economy grew. But it was built on demographic growth; some populations doubled or even tripled throughout a lot of Europe.

And that meant that by the end of the 13th century (1200s) practically all of the arable land was under cultivation. Even a lot of marginal, mucky, hilly, swampy land was in use. But the effect of having all of these people was that wages were extremely low. There were a lot of people living on the edge of subsistence without land of their own. These were the material conditions that underpinned the peak of the serfdom system, a labor arrangement in which people owed unpaid service to the lord in return for the use of his land.

There’s a climate element, too. Part of the reason for this long economic efflorescence was that it was a period of really good, warm, stable weather. It’s less important for farmers that the weather be good than that it be predictable, because what you need to know is when to sow your crops and when to harvest them. But over the late [1200s] and into the [1300s], the weather gets much worse. It’s much less predictable — it’s wetter, colder. And that reaches a particularly bad point in what’s known as the “Great Famine,” which spikes between about 1315 and 1322. A lot of people died: Hundreds of thousands or millions of people starved to death across Western Europe. So that’s a sign that there is something systemically wrong. And that continued up through the Black Death.
There were also a whole bunch of bankruptcies of very large businesses — unprecedentedly large businesses that in the historiography are called “the Super-Companies” — that were invested all over Europe. They went bust in the middle of the 1340s, before the Black Death. They went under for a lot of reasons, but one of them was because of how overexposed they were and how teetering the economy was.
So you have tight money. You have high population, low wages, high land costs … that’s a recipe for a really bad series of outcomes.

Um, you hear how that sounds, right? [Long silence, followed by laughter]
Yeah, when you lay it out that schematically, it looks bad, huh? What’s interesting is that, while of course you get economic contraction in the aftermath of that many people dying, in the long run, the Black Death made living conditions a lot better in Western Europe, particularly for peasants. Land was cheaper and you were more likely to acquire your own, you got to eat better, more nutritious food and more variety of food, your wages were higher …

But that came at a serious cost. You don’t want to have to “Thanos snap” half the population out of existence in order to get to a point where the peasants are doing better.
There’s something sort of depressing and deterministic about all this, to be honest. If you’re a peasant born in 1330, you’re going to grow up poor and then, as likely as not, die of the bubonic plague before turning 25. If you’re born in 1360, you have a much brighter set of possible outcomes. Are we all just sort of spinning on the wheel? Do you ever worry we’ll tell our grandkids about how good life used to be, and they’ll just look at us in disbelief.

The end of the Roman Empire did not make life worse for everybody, and I think that’s an important point. Life does not have to get worse because of the end of a large-scale political entity. There’s some desperate inequality in the Roman Empire. A lot of groups of people are systemically treated terribly in the Roman system. For most people, there is no baseline assumption that their life has any real value. So the standard of living probably rose for a lot of people in the post-Roman world, population health was probably better, and diets were probably better in large swaths of the world.
That said, life often can get worse because of the end of a political system. There arethings that large-scale states do that make life better or are quite useful in a lot of ways. There’s some evidence that, after Rome, people lived in a more violent world. The simple fact was that people — and there were a lot fewer people in general — lived in much more local worlds. Their worlds were much less urbanized and less connected over long distances. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on how there was a lot less long-distance communication in the post-Roman world.
For our grandkids, I worry a lot about the climate, about a time when you just can’t really go outside in the summer, when you can’t grow certain crops because it’s too hot. I think we could be in a similar situation as post-Roman Europe, in which — if the climate stuff keeps going the way it’s going — we have a more violent world and a more disordered world. It’s not necessarily worse, but we could definitely be telling them about a much, much different world.

But you don’t seem to see societies’ fate as predetermined. Can you point to examples of leaders who’ve successfully pulled systems back together?
Yeah! To keep to the Roman context, there are at least two. There was the end of the Roman Republic, and there was nothing to say the struggle between Augustus and Mark Antony that followed [Julius Caesar’s death] had to end with their world intact, but it did.

Perhaps more interesting is the crisis of the third century, this cascading series of system failures all across the Roman world that included some climatic shock or major drought. There were droughts, famines, and plagues. (It’s hard to know just how bad they were because our sources from this time are so bad.) This is all combined with an economic meltdown, barbarian invasions — the Roman Empire could have very easily fallen apart in the third century A.D.

But there were a couple of emperors who managed to put things back together. The first of them was Aurelian, followed by Diocletian, who essentially rebuilt the Roman system into something much different. The later Roman Empire is a much different beast. It was much more militarized. It had a much larger bureaucracy. It was a much more centralized state. It took massive systemic changes to the empire for it to survive the crisis, to keep it united. And even then, it still didn’t survive more than a few centuries after that.

What lessons can we draw from Aurelian and Rome that apply to today?
The lesson of Aurelian is not that we should be looking for a tough soldier-emperor to make things OK. The lesson is that what Aurelian’s era demanded — if we think it’s a good thing that the empire did manage to survive the crisis — is someone whose skill set matched the moment. What the Roman Empire needed was a gifted military mind with a ruthless streak. We obviously don’t want to recreate anything like the Roman Empire, which was in many ways a horribly oppressive society based on massive human suffering and chattel slavery.

But as we’re looking to solve our current problems, we need people who have the right skill sets. We need people who know how to pull the levers of the political system to direct state resources toward the massive glaring problems that we are facing. We need people who can see a shortage of protective equipment in hospitals and find ways to ensure we are producing and distributing that equipment. If we need to test people for the coronavirus, we need people in positions of power who can guarantee that we are producing, distributing, and utilizing coronavirus test kits. That’s what the situation demands.

We’re seeing who has the skill set to govern — and it’s particularly evident on the state level. The governors who have that, I think, are going to save a lot of lives. It’s not hyperbole to say that in a crisis. The inverse of that is going to be, I think, the governor of Oklahoma. By tweeting out that picture of himself dining out, he might literally have killed people who decide to go out, and then contract the virus. The governor of Florida taking as long as he did to close the beaches during spring break — it’s really hard to overstate how bad that is. The fact that you had the capacity to take steps to stop the transmission of this virus by shutting down mass gatherings and you chose not to do it, that is malfeasance.

I cling to this last line of your Mother Jones piece: “Maybe those future historians will look back at this as a crisis weathered, an opportunity to fix what ails us before the tipping point has truly been reached. We can see those thousand cuts now, in all their varied depth and location. Perhaps it’s not yet too late to stanch the bleeding.” How do we do that?

And at moments like this, we have the opportunity to evaluate what is and isn’t working, and you have the opportunity to make change. Yeah, this crisis is ongoing, but when the dust eventually settles, we will be able to look at the wide and broad strokes and see things that desperately need changing. And hopefully we can use this as an opportunity to build more resilient systems as we move forward.

This won’t be the last shock. We’ve been very lucky that we haven’t had one for a long time. But we’ll have another one.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

"Advice" for COVID-19

More than mere "advice."

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The origins and reality of chivalry

The eminent military historian John Gillingham wrote an article "Surrender in Medieval Europe: An Indirect Approach," which appeared in the book How Fighting Ends: A History of Surrendered. H. Afflerbach and H. Strachan (Oxford U. P. 2012).  I found it  It's one of several articles on surrender, the origin of non-combatant status, and chivalry by Gillingham.  He has a lot of provocative things to say about the development of war.

Here are some excerpts of Gillingham's arguments:
 My subject ... is the narrower one of warfare in the field during the first seven hundred years of the ‘Middle Ages’, roughly from the fifth to the twelfth century. Some of the most fundamental developments in the history of war in this partof the world took place towards the end of these seven centuries: the discontinuanceof the ancient practice of enslaving prisoners, the emergence of an effective notion of non-combatant status and the growth of the practice of ransom - all developments relevant to the still unwritten history of surrender....
I shall distinguish two main phases characterised by two very different cultures of war...

Phase  One. In this phase warfare typically involved the killing of men in battle, and after battle the enslavement of the defeated, especially their women and children. Later lawyers called this bellum Romanum, but contemporaries were probably more familiar with it as the Old Testament model of war.  As is well known, this appears to be the conduct of was characteristic of Homeric Greece and of many early societies.  In Phase One, surrender appears to have been shameful and very rare. 

Phase Two. In this phase of warfare, the ‘common’ soldier was in greater danger than the powerful; the rich had a better chance of being spared and held to ransom. For the first time in history, non-combatant immunity existed in the sense that although enemy soldiers might intend to ruin civilians economically by destroying or taking their wealth, they no longer went out of their way to kill or enslave them,
The shift from Phase one to Phase two marked one of the most important developments in the history of war. It occurred at different times in different regions. Hence Gerald de Barri’s explicit statement (made c. 1190) that in his day in French-style warfare the custom is to take prisoners and ransom them, but in Welsh and Irish warfare to massacre and cut off heads.

If Phase One is the Old Testament, Phase Two represents the Age of Chivalry, including its much mocked care for damsels in distress. In Phase Two women might be raped or seized and threatened inorder to extort money from their husbands or fathers, but on the whole that sort of conduct was regarded as reprehensible by those men who wrote about war or who held high military command. In Phase One, by contrast, the capture and enslavement of women and children was ‘not the occasional excess of the lawless…..not a cause for shame but, if successful, a source of pride.’

Few medieval authors noticed the shift, but one who at least referred to it was Honoré Bouvet. In L’arbre des batailles he expressed his conviction that wars in hisday were carried on with greater restraint than in the past: ‘nowadays we haveabandoned the ancient rules of making slaves of prisoners and of putting them todeath after they have fallen into our hands’. Instead ‘by written law, good custom andusage, among Christians great and small, there exists the custom of commonly taking ransom from one another.
So, did chivalry mean more to warriors of the Central and Late Middle Ages than historians have been willing to grant?

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Master cliches of the 21st century

I have been watching movies on Netflix and I've started to notice how the storytelling talents of mainstream movie makers are constricted by repeated returning to a rather small number of cliches.  This is particularly true of English-language films; films from other regions and linguistic cultures not so much.

I'm going to start my collection of master cliches here and add to the list as I come across others.

"It's all my fault."  followed by another character absolving the speaker of responsibility for some crime or mistake. "It's not your fault."
"He's a good man." This is repeatedly applied to some good guy, often for no apparent reason.  But at least you know where he stands in the moral universe of the movie.
It doesn't take much thought to see how the interaction between these cliches can and do restrict the potential stories available to the main characters.

More later.

Monday, February 03, 2020

"I wish wearing flat-irons on our heads would keep us from growing up."

The quotation I've used in the title of this post is taken from Louisa May Alcott's book Little Women. I basically read it because I realized that I was surrounded by women who absolutely loved it.  Also I am in a book club where we have read some interesting books on growing up.

I immediately saw why this is a classic.  Charming (but imperfect) characters, extraordinary writing, an intimate look at the past.  And for girls, a family that you might love to have.

One thing that really struck me was how close Alcott's language (from 1862) is to North American English today.   Ideas and assumptions vary (see the discussions of marriage!) but the vocabulary and sentence construction would be familiar to any reasonably educated person.

I offer up the example of the post title.  The flat-iron reference might puzzle a good many modern readers, but a good many might get it fairly easily from context.

Image: Louisa May Alcott

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Josh Marshall, historian

Josh Marshall, editor and founder of Talking Points Memo, has some cogent points to make about Alan Dershowitz's defense of Donald Trump in the ongoing trial:

Dershowitz is justifiably acclaimed as a criminal defense and a particularly appellate defense attorney, notwithstanding decades of escalating notoriety as a grandstanding attention whore. He is not a constitutional attorney. He is not an historian. And he is not any other kind of expert on impeachment. But now he’s spent a few weeks ‘reading all the books’ and he’s got it figured out.

This is the most classic sort of dilettante’s history. Understanding the past means more than just ransacking the library for proof texts and quotes. If we are trying to reconstruct the range of arguments the authors of the Constitution were making and how most Americans – who were indirectly responsible for ratifying the document – understood them you need a grounding in the history and debates of the time. Words do not speak for themselves. They have meaning in a particular historical context. We are not bound in our use of these words by their original historical context but we cannot make sense of them or any use of them for our own purposes if we are ignorant of that context.

To put it baldly, if it’s a topic and area of study you know nothing about and after a few weeks of cramming you decide that basically everyone who’s studied the question is wrong, there’s a very small chance you’ve rapidly come upon a great insight and a very great likelihood you’re an ignorant and self-regarding asshole. Needless to say, those are odds Dershowitz is happy to take. Dershowitz has now ‘read all the relevant historical material’ and has it covered.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Friday, January 17, 2020

Constructing Catalan Identity: Memory, Imagination, and the Medieval, by Michael A. Vargas

Vargas, Michael A. Constructing Catalan Identity: Memory, Imagination, and the Medieval. Cham (CH): Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Pp. xiv, 197. €93.59. ISBN: 978-3-319-76743-7.

Reviewed in The Medieval Review

 Reviewed by Rutger Kramer
        Radboud University, Nijmegen

About midway through the first part of his latest monograph, Michael Vargas reminds the readers that “this book is not a standard political or cultural history” (51). Instead, his goal is “to reflect upon the relationship between the past and the present”, and thereby propose a way of looking at modern Catalan identity as a product not of the history of the region, but of the way present-day (mis)conceptions about Catalonian history have informed more recent developments in the North-Eastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. The result of his efforts is a book that reads more like a long essay than a short historical study, but which is no less thought-provoking and stimulating for it. Indeed, Vargas’ Constructing Catalan Identity is not a standard history, but takes the reader on a fascinating journey through one historian’s thoughts on a highly complex set of circumstances: a carefully written book that should nonetheless be handled with care.

This is also a timely book. The region of Catalonia, and the Iberian Peninsula as a whole, has been in the limelight again recently, both in the current media cycle--especially the ongoing  developments following the referendum for independence in 2017--and within the field of medieval studies--where recent publications such as Cullen Chandler’s Carolingian Catalonia: Politics, Culture, and Identity in an Imperial Province, 778-987 (Cambridge, 2019) or Vicente Lledó-Guillem’s The Making of Catalan: Linguistic Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Times (Cham, 2018) show various ways in which the perceived Otherness of Catalonia can be a catalyst for ongoing research. Combined with the still-growing interest in medievalism and the increased awareness of the way the past is used and abused to fan the flames of political discourse, Vargas’ monograph appears poised to become part of a larger debate. In that sense, the fact that the author is quite open about his own agenda may be a boon to the book as a whole, as his convictions may serve as a better conversation-starter than his observations. And even those who disagree with this ultimate conclusions about Catalan identity (for instance, those who find themselves drawn towards the conclusions reached in Gabriel Tortella’s Catalonia in Spain: History and Myth (Cham, 2018), which approaches the issue from an altogether different angle) will be taken by Vargas’ lively and engaging style of writing, rendering the book accessible to academics and students as well as people who are simply interested in Catalonia’s past, present and future.

After the introduction (1-16), in which the author explains his personal reasons for writing the book the way he did, Constructing Catalan Identity is divided into two parts. The first of these, “Inventory” (17-90), is about what Vargas has dubbed the “component parts of Catalan collective memory” (15): a series of examples from medieval history that are still visible in Catalan landscapes, customs and mentalities. The second section, “Making Meaning” (91-181) is aimed at looking “how meaning is made as Catalans reconfigure the parts according to changing circumstances” (15). This section is finished by an epilogue (167-181) which, if only for reasons of editorial elegance, would probably have worked better as a separate counterweight to the introduction, but which does a solid job of tying the various strands together and explaining how the events of 2017 were not only part of long-term developments, but also caused by the way those involved would perceive the moyenne durée-history of Catalan-Castilian relations.

The “Inventory” of Catalan identity consists of “Events and Accidents” (21-28); “Princes and People” (29-50); “Patrons, Protectors and Creative Defenders” (51-68); and “Castle, Coast, and Cathedral” (69-90). The first of these aims to show the events taking place within Catalonia, and how these already marked the region out as different from the rest of Spain. It is in the memory of medieval history, Vargas argues, that we should look for the roots of what he calls “Catalanism”. From this point of departure, he moves on to descriptions of (popular images of) the legendary leaders of Catalonia, and how their actions are seen to have contributed to processes of state formation on the peninsula. Mixing fact with fiction, Vargas here explains the legacies of Wilfred the Hairy (r. 870-897), Ramon Berenguers I (1023-1076) and IV (1114-1162), and James I (1208-1276), as well as Pau Claris (1586-1641) by focusing on the stories told about them rather than their actual deeds. This approach is added to by the inclusion of stories about the wholly fictional Comte Arnau and Otger Cataló, who was allegedly responsible for naming the region: powerful people who played a role in shaping Catalonia, and whose stories have taken on epic properties in the modern mindset. The next chapter follows a similar tack, but looks at more spiritual component parts instead. It describes the impact of competing saints’ cults (to wit: Eulalia, Mary, and George) as well as the influence of “Catalans, who, having captured the powers of a particular muse, turned their creative efforts to the defense of Catalan interests” (51-52): poets, architects, and especially the many people involved in the creation of the Catalan anthem, Els Segadors. The inventory concludes with a series of reflections on space and architecture and how these anchor the Catalan popular imagination to the land. Moving from the Montserrat mountain range or the church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona, Vargas also uses this chapter to make the point that buildings can represent negative memories as well: to many inhabitants of Barcelona, the infamous Montjüic Castle stands as a lasting representation of Spanish overlordship and abuse of power.

The chapters in the first part are engaging and full of interesting information, seemingly catering as much to tourists as to people researching Catalonia for scholarly purposes. Throughout, Vargas has started from the present, and used every methodological tool available to explain his points. This sometimes leads to a somewhat haphazard reading experience, as informative passages are interspersed with methodological digressions (ranging from anthropology and psychology to philology and folk studies) and we are given many previews of the second part already. This, combined with the colloquial style and an over-abundance of signposting, might be off-putting to readers used to the conventions of the genre, but should not detract from the contents offered. More vexing in this part is the sometimes bewildering combination of information and generalisation: whereas written sources are approached with scrutiny, the explanations for the modern mindset are given in the broadest of terms, in which “Catalans” are given credit for many things without it being backed by, say, anthropological fieldwork. It is here already that the essayistic nature of the book becomes apparent, as a more stringent use of terms and methods might have helped the argument take shape a bit more clearly.

The second part of Constructing Catalan Identity consists of showing how these building blocks come together at various points in time to present people who identify (or not) as Catalan with options to give “meaning and purpose” to the “stories [they] tell about themselves” (94). It starts with some reflections on “Decadence and Renaissance” (95-114), two key concepts in Catalan historical self-awareness. “Decadence”, in this context, denotes a period of decline from the late Middle Ages to the modern era. This decline, interestingly, has been blamed both on Spanish interference and on Catalans who allowed this interference to take over, once more highlighting the difficult relation between Catalan past and Spanish present. The counterbalance to decadence is the Renaixenca, a cultural movement that started in the nineteenth century with a view towards returning Catalonia--and the Catalan language--to prominence by reinventing the mythologies of the medieval period. This was never a “historian’s” movement, but always a “social project” aimed at convincing modern Catalans that the reality of their identity could be historically justified. Vargas continues with a similar juxtaposition, this time between “Medievalizing and Modernizing” (115-135), a chapter that looks at various strategies of reinterpreting and reimagining the landscapes described in chapter 5. It is perhaps the highlight of the book, challenging the reader to think about their own perceptions of “old” and “new”, and what uses of space may tell us about not just our own preoccupations but also the powers at play behind the decisions to restore, modernize, tear down or rebuild. Each of these, Vargas argues, has a place in the construction of the Catalan landscape, and each of these impinges on the identities of inhabitants and visitors alike. The final chapter, simply titled “Fighting Words” (137-165) delves deeper into the questions raised by the persistence of one of Catalonia’s most prominent identity markers: the language. All that preceded, Vargas posits, the stories, the declines, the protests, the renaissances, have been expressed in either Catalan or Castilian, and each time that decision mattered.

This second part is easily more methodologically challenging, although the readers taken by Vargas’ style and convictions might not notice it like that. However, it is here in the sections where the book is engaged in “Making Meaning” that some shortcomings also come to light. One of these is that, as much as the introduction and the book as a whole show the author’s engagement with theoretical concepts and willingness to retain a nuanced stance, he just as often speaks about “Catalans” as a group that, though diverse, is an entity that can be described in collective terms with collective agency. The interplay between the leading figures and politicians on the one hand and the popular response to their initiatives on the other could thus be treated more carefully, as Vargas occasionally falls into the very trap he cautions more pro-Spanish historians to avoid. In that sense, three things are especially conspicuous in their absence. Firstly, a more thorough engagement with medieval Catalonia’s dealings with its neighbors to the North and South: the Muslims and the Franks are mentioned in the course of the narration of the myths, but to understand these roots it would have been interested to probe deeper into the way the underlying discourse and dynamics between the powerful and the storytellers would have changed over time. Secondly, although the Franco regime and its destructive stance towards the history of the region is often mentioned, it is never made quite clear what the impact of the government’s educational policies might have been: to what extent is the “renaissance” of Catalonia a response to a perceived lack of knowledge in the very recent past. Finally, Vargas’ self-professed sympathies for the Catalan cause, while never a hindrance to his scholarship, do stand in the way of his willingness to engage with the causes and consequences of nationalism and its impact on Catalonian identity. Again, this is mentioned and marked as problematic in general terms, but this reviewer could never shake the feeling that the author was willing to give Catalonian nationalism the benefit of the doubt, whereas other nationalisms were weighed and found wanting.

These issues are why the book should be handled with care. They are, however, by no means reasons to ignore Vargas’ arguments: his transparent stance vis à vis his own preconceptions is commendable in that respect, as he never gives the reader the impression of “objectivity”. In fact, this may well be one of the book’s greatest strengths. Vargas has written an unconventional book by the standards of medieval academia. But then again, these are unconventional times, and books like these, where an author uses their knowledge of a region and their expertise with the historian’s craft to make points that are of immediate political value, might be just what we need to realize the ongoing relevance of medieval studies--while making the general public aware of the complexities involved in trying to explain whatever is going on in the present.​

2:13 PM (34 minutes ago)

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Evil in an unfamiliar face

There is a chronic over-supply of evil, scheming individuals on this Earth.  Many of them can be located in traditional areas, to the point that certain empires, royal dynasties, and slave empires are well-known for generating evil cultures and evil leaders in cycles.

But now it seems we have a new competitor -- Australia.  

If you haven't noticed, that cute and civilized continent is on fire.  It's not just the driest parts of Australia that are burning.  When the state of New South Wales, a rather southerly region not as hot as many other Australian regions is one of the central fire zones, I have to wonder whether it might be too late to save Australian civilization.

 Even more shocking is the fact that the federal government is doing its level best to prevent any practical efforts to save the country.  Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister (image below), and both the Labour and Liberal parties, are using their power to support the high-carbon (coal and gas) economy and discredit the science that shows how catastrophic the current policies are.  The rich (who are very much invested in carbon) don't care. 

This is not just an Australian situation.  This man, Scott Morrison, is sacrificing you and your children for power and profit.  He is your enemy.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Monday, January 06, 2020

14th-century robots,.again

Every once in a long while I re-run one of the best posts from my blog.  And there are some really good ones.  This is surely of interest to those who missed it the first time.

In a book review by Aleks Pluskowski of Scott Lightsey's Manmade Marvels in Medieval Culture and Literature (New York: Palgrave, 2007), sent me free by the TMR service , I read the following:

Scott Lightsey's Manmade Marvels is a remarkable and unique work on a neglected aspect of late-medieval society. Lightsey reveals a world of artificers and technologists, of complex clockwork devices and colourful automata: a
world where supernatural, fantastic and exotic mirabilia were pulled from the imaginary realms of romance, and--literally--brought to life for the entertainment and exultation of war-fatigued courts.Since surviving examples of these machines are incredibly rare, Lightsey draws on literary and documentary sources, complemented bya range of artistic representations.

...His first case study of automata draws on the prologue to Piers Ploughman, which describes a mechanical angel that crowns Richard II during his public coronation in London. Here, Lightsey situates this marvel within a newly established culture of aristocratic visual display; a growing tendency towards luxurious ceremonial which would come to define the Ricardian court. Indeed, this clockwork coronation is seen as nothing less than formative for Richard's own attitude to the calculated display of
I looked at a modern version of PP and I must admit that I can't see how the reader is supposed to know that it is a mechanical angel. I'll follow it up.

However, I have no doubt that this robotic messenger was possible, because as an undergraduate I read Huizinga's classic early-20th-century book, The Waning of the Middle Ages, where he talks about a lot of clockwork figures used in princely ceremonies. Yet I must admit that despite my early exposure to this fact, I've never integrated "mechanical men" into my visualization of the Middle Ages. I suspect that few of my readers have thought about Richard II as King of the Robots (a kind of dressier Dr. Doom?).
For years I've teased friends who think that the 14th century is the bee's knees of medieval history by saying, half-seriously, that the 14th century isn't the Middle Ages at all. Now I can say, "Dude, what about all those robots?"


  1. The mechanical angel at the coronation is described in Thomas Walsingham's history. I think Lightsey is assuming that Langland's angel is a reference to that, and Langland would expect his audience to make the connection
  2. a kind of dressier Dr. Doom

    It's a few centuries too late, but may I recommend Neil Gaiman's 1602?

Thursday, January 02, 2020

In the future -- or the past

The blog Wait but Why has an interesting discussion of how far the past can seem to people of today, depending on how old they are.

Some excerpts:

So here are some New Years 2020 time facts:
When World War 2 started, the Civil War felt as far away to Americans as WW2 feels to us now.

Speaking of World War 2, the world wars were pretty close together. If World War 2 were starting today, World War 1 would feel about as far back to us as 9/11.

The Soviet Union break up is now as distant a memory as JFK’s assassination was when the Soviet Union broke up.

[It's] worth mentioning that my 94-year-old grandmother was born closer to the Andrew Jackson administration than to today. [Me:  that hardly seems possible but I did the arithmetic!]
 If you were born in the 1980s like me, a kid today who’s the age you were in 1990 is a full 30-year generation younger than you. They’ll remember Obama’s presidency the way you remember Reagan’s. 9/11 to them is the moon landing for you. The 90s seem as ancient to them as the 60s seem to you. To you, the 70s are just a little before your time—that’s how they think of the 2000s. They see the 70s how you see the 40s. And the hippy 60s seems as old to them as the Great Depression seems to you.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Sunday, November 10, 2019

What all girls ~ 12 years old in Windsor talk about ALL THE TIME

Today at the Anglican church I attend it was a mixed bag.  Usually the pastor is really good, makes me think of famous medieval preachers (who unfortunately usually got into serious trouble).  His main sermon was quite all right but not one of his best.

The church service had begun with a Remembrance Day (Veterans' Day for you Yanks) which was put on for the benefit of the Scouts, the Wolf Cubs, and the Girl Guides.  This benefit I did not appreciate at all.There were quite a few of these kids and our pastor mixed with them, drawing them out in a humorous way.

Then it happened. He asked a group of maybe 12-year-old girls "What  is it that girls your age talk about all the time?"  And the girls answered in unison CARS.

Tell me, was I set up? This is Windsor, after all. Was somebody else set up?

Anyway I much appreciated that moment.

November 9 -- A day late in commemorations

I was not in good enough shape yesterday to draw attention to two things that meant something to me.

First was the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989).  This obviously meant a lot to people at the time.  Sadly, there is now an all-too-active right-wing movement in what used to be East Germany.  Here's one report on that phenomenon.  Angela Merkel grew up in the East and no doubt is discouraged that at the end of her political career she is still fighting the same fight.
Then I ran across a video of the group Genesis on YouTube, (link to be fixed)performing live in 1973, in Detroit, right across the river from me.  Is there a direct connection with the Cold War? Or, for that matter, Brexit?  But trouble was on its way.  Oh, trouble was here.