Thursday, April 16, 2015

"The gleaming cities of Earth...

...Where peace reigns, and hatred has no home."

These are the last lines of the episode "Muse" from the series "Star Trek: Voyager." The episode is characteristic of the series as a whole.

Voyager is not the most popular series in the Star Trek franchise. Like some of the other series – maybe all of them – it started out rather weak, and with characters that were not particularly well developed. But I have seen the series twice now and I think that once the series got rid of the character Kes and brought Seven of Nine into the story, about halfway through, it got a lot better. Sure, there are some fairly dumb and typically dumb stories, but there is some very good science fiction as well.

The episode "Muse" is an example of how serious television, if the creators take it seriously themselves,  can give writers and directors and actors space do all sorts of interesting stuff. The existence of Netflix shows us how some series work very well as they build on previous strengths.
 The characters of Voyager are very good examples of this. They aren't brilliantly done, but they are increasingly good as things progress. The character of the doctor by Robert Picardo and Seven of Nine by Jeri Ryan come to mind. In both cases, incomplete human beings turn into something else as they mature, and as is repeatedly emphasized by the development of the series as a whole, they have to be accepted by the flesh and blood human beings as equals. I think Ryan, whom many people think got the job sheerly on the basis of astonishing physical beauty, had a very tough assignment here and did it very well.

In the case of "Muse" we see an alien culture that seems to have developed to an era similar to archaic Greece. A local poet rescues one of the members of the Starfleet expedition and uses her story to create a drama far away better than anything that has existed in his culture before. It's not really a very believable story when it comes down to it  but it does make you think about how astonishing the effect of early Greek drama must've been. Classicists know this, but how often has this been explored on TV or in any other popular genre of fiction?

The quote I used for a title for this post indicates a final characteristic worth noting. It is spoken by the poet of the alien culture who has visualized Earth as the home of peace and perfection. According to the series, he's absolutely right. The 24th century according to the writers of the series is a time when the most optimistic dreams we have for our future have come true. Sometimes that optimism seems a bit overdone, but I would say that the whole dramatic interest of the series is that it argues that even when peace and concord have come to Earth, there will still be plenty of problems in applying all our best ideas to real-life situations.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Children of ISIS

This article in Rolling Stone is a real thought-provoker.  The children of unremarkable Muslim immigrants to the United States end up embracing the extremist message.

Mariyam's attorney, Marlo Cadeddu, believes that if the Khan kids are guilty of anything, it's a form of magical thinking. "They were naive, and they were sheltered, and they bought into a fantasy of a Muslim utopia," she says. "It's hard to be an observant Muslim teenager growing up in post-9/11 America, and ISIS plays on those insecurities in a very calculated way."
Chicago's Muslim community is one of the oldest and largest in the United States, with a significant portion hailing from the South Asian diaspora. Hamzah's parents, Shafi and Zarine, naturalized American citizens, were born in Hyderabad, the fourth-largest city in India, and are followers of the Deobandi school of Islam, a fundamentalist Sunni strain that stresses strict adherence to Islamic law and has been influential in jihadist networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Khans, however, follow a pacifist movement that preaches that Muslims' true battle is a spiritual one.
An unassuming young man, Shafi was 20 when he arrived in Chicago with his parents, in 1986. In 1994, he returned to India for an arranged marriage with Zarine, then a 21-year-old student at Hyderabad's main university. Back in Chicago, the couple settled on Devon Avenue, an area famous for being a landing point for immigrants from across the Indian subcontinent. In 1995, their first child, Hamzah, was born, followed by Mariyam in 1996, Tarek in 1998 and another sister in 2000. To support his brood, Shafi, who was still putting himself through college, worked as a customer-service representative at a bank. Zarine, who'd given up her scientific ambitions to marry and have children, worked part-time teaching primary school. By 2005, they joined the migration pattern of many other Indian and Pakistani Muslims and settled in the suburbs west of the city, first in Des Plaines, near O'Hare, and then, after their fifth and final child was born in 2011, in Bolingbrook.

Uninspiring though it might be, the Khans found much to appreciate in the suburbs. In America, you got what you paid for: a house, a car, clean streets, medical care. They appreciated the kindness of Americans and, as Zarine often noted, their "respect for hard work and human life." And yet, neither she nor her husband was ever fully comfortable here. The violence of popular culture in particular bothered Zarine. When Hamzah was about eight, the television broke; the Khans decided not to replace it. Though they had a computer with Internet access, Shafi and Zarine monitored their children's online habits, allowing them to watch cartoons and read the news, but never to surf the Internet alone. "We wanted to preserve their innocence," Zarine later noted to the Washington Post.

Chicago's western suburbs have a drab, workaday quality filled with featureless strip malls and equally nondescript homes. Once lily-white, the area's demographics have followed national trends, and South Asians now comprise almost six percent of the population. In the past decade, at least 15 new mosques and Islamic cultural centers have sprung up throughout the area, quickly assimilating into the landscape: mosque, 7-Eleven, McDonald's, church, Walmart, halal butcher, Taco Bell, synagogue, Planet Fitness.

On September 11th, 2001, Zarine and Shafi had been living together in Chicago for seven years. Hamzah was six, Mariyam four; the younger two siblings were toddlers. The Khans, who were horrified by the attacks, tried not to watch the news. Sometimes, Zarine would hear about women's scarves getting pulled off in public, though it never happened to her. She did, however, get random stares while shopping. Given what happened on 9/11, that was "understandable," she rationalized. But in Chicago, as in most cities across the country, there were more overt examples of discrimination.

Everyone had heard the stories of people who had been hassled or detained at the airport, or whose immigration papers were mysteriously held up. Many Muslim families knew of at least one child who'd been teased and called "Osama" or "terrorist" on the playground. It was assumed, in an era of FBI stings (including several in Chicago), that if a stranger entered a mosque during Friday prayers and started spouting extremist rhetoric, he was likely an informant.

Instead of sending their kids to public schools, the Khans enrolled their children in an Islamic primary school, and later in the College Preparatory School of America (CPSA), a private Islamic day school that bills itself as providing "academic excellence in an Islamic environment." Mohammad Chaudhry, a friend of the Khans and a former board member of their mosque, also sends his kids to CPSA, which he feels has helped instill in them the proper Islamic values. But it's also a safety issue, he admits. "To be honest with you, I don't want my kids being told they're terrorists."
One of Hamzah's teachers at CPSA, who spoke to Rolling Stone anonymously (the school has refused to comment on the Khans and has instructed its faculty to do the same), doubts Hamzah had the skills needed for a scientific career. "He wasn't cut out for engineering," he says. "He always came across as really naive, just kind of simple." Sexual innuendos went over his head. Though he had a circle of friends, he lacked the go-along-to-get-along sensibility that others took in stride. According to the teacher, cheating has occasionally been a problem at CPSA, where tremendous pressure is put on kids to excel in the sciences, but Hamzah never took part. "That's part of that innocence," he says. "The rest of the kids are like, 'Look, you can't always be this goody-two-shoes.' "

Hamzah saw in Islam a world of infinite wisdom whose rules and ancient history intrigued him. Steeped in the stories of Muhammad, his companions, and the sultans and caliphs who came after them, Hamzah viewed those days as a "simpler" era when Islam flourished across a vast empire, or Caliphate, and the Muslim ummah, or global community, was united. By college, though he still enjoyed making funny videos with friends and listening to rappers like Waka Flocka Flame, he'd begun to see those pursuits as shallow, lacking the honor and romance of being a true champion of the ummah. In 2014, he created a Tumblr page he called "Torchbearers of Tawheed," dedicated to "posts about important events and people from Islam dating from the period of Muhammad [peace be upon him]," though he sometimes posted his own poetry, too. On Twitter, he dubbed himself @lionofthe-d3s3rt – a take on his name, which means "lion," and a reference to historical freedom fighters in the Middle East. He trimmed his beard in the manner of an Arabian prince, and then, because it looked so good, he posted a picture on his Google+ page, standing in front of a suburban home, his black hair wrapped in a Saudi-style headdress, chin raised, eyes fixed on some distant point. Mecca? Chicago? Burger King? Who knew?

Mariyam, while equally invested in her dreams, was more focused. A voracious reader, she made her way through most of the young-adult novels on The New York Times Best Sellers list, and spent hours making plans. She was going to be an astronaut. Then she decided she'd rather be a paleontologist, or a surgeon. Like her brother, she also became a hafiz, which in her case took three years, as she was meticulous about the Quran, memorizing each phrase and passage backward and forward until she could recite it without error. "I like things to be perfect, and I like to be the best at them," she says. This was obvious by simply looking at her, if she'd have allowed it.

Though wearing the niqab isn't generally required in Islam, Mariyam, like her mother, chose to cover all but her forehead and her eyes. In public, Mariyam, a tiny five feet two, appeared as a mute appendage to Zarine, to whom she is fiercely attached. But at home, where she covered only her hair, she was a different, more dynamic girl: intellectually curious, chatty, sometimes angst-ridden and moody. She was concerned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She worried about the suffering of Muslims — especially the children — wherever they were. She also worried about the usual teenage things: her hair, her skin, her weight. Embarrassingly, she now admits, she was obsessed for a while — OK, for about three years — with Linkin Park, whose lyrics she memorized and wrote everywhere. There were also the boys-suck ballads of Taylor Swift, more of a secret passion. Boys themselves were strictly off-limits in the hyperconservative interpretation of Islam imparted by her parents. She could still laugh, joke, ride bikes and climb trees with her brothers, but once she hit puberty, strange boys were to be avoided unless she needed to ask someone for directions.

This, for the most part, was OK, because more than anything, Mariyam was painfully shy. Her niqab was her shield, and behind the veil she could observe, which she did, keenly, but didn't have to engage. This shyness, combined with her innate perfectionism, created a deep well of anxiety that struck her immediately after she finished memorizing the Quran. She'd missed the entirety of middle school, though she'd tried to keep up through home-schooling. As a result, all the torment of those awkward early-teenage years, the best-friendships, rivalries and petty jealousies — all of that had passed her by. So she told her mother she didn't want to go back to school. Zarine begged her to change her mind. "I used to tell her every single day, 'You're going to regret this when you're in college,' " Zarine recalls. " 'You're going to say, "I missed high school life." ' " Mariyam insisted she'd be better off being home-schooled and enrolled in a correspondence program. And so, ninth grade passed and then 10th.
 Apart from her studies, her outlets were baking, drawing and watching YouTube videos. She developed a passion for elaborate Arabic eye makeup, which she'd experiment with in her room, trying the Indian-princess look one day, a sultry Arabian look the next, always making sure to take it off before anyone could see. Though she never admitted it, the loneliness was excruciating. After a while, even a trip with her mother to Walmart was exciting.
And then, at 16, Mariyam began to change. She stopped listening to music, stopped watching anime and reading novels. She no longer missed her friends or worried about whether she should return to high school — she knew there was no point. The only thing that mattered to her was religion. While her brothers and sister were off at school and working on projects for the next science fair, she would rush through her lessons in order to curl up in a corner and read the hadiths, the second-hand accounts of the teachings and proverbs of Muhammad, as well as books by many other Islamic scholars.
By 2013, Mariyam had become immersed in the crisis in Syria, or Shaam, as she now called it, which is also what the Islamic State called the territory — encompassing large swaths of Syria and Iraq — that it would later dub the caliphate. Taking the cause as her own, she joined in a hashtag campaign for a Muslim prisoner and retweeted photos of victims of violence in the Middle East. She was influenced by Islamic forums that promoted a stridently anti-Western view — all non-Muslims were "kuffars," all Shias "apostates," and all mainstream imams, Islamic scholars and virtually any Muslims who "watered down their religion" were "coconuts": brown on the outside, but white at the heart.
Though ISIS promoted a hitherto unknown pageant of cinematic brutality to the world, believers like Hamzah and Mariyam were hearing a different message. By declaring the "caliphate," ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was fulfilling a dream cherished by generations of Muslims and Islamic leaders, including Osama bin Laden, who saw it as a long-term goal, albeit one that might take generations to realize. In his first video appearance as self-annointed caliph, Baghdadi issued a direct call to not just fighters, but also doctors, judges, engineers and experts in Islamic law to help build the new "Islamic State," where all Muslims were now obligated to go. This is a vastly different message from what previous iterations of jihadis have promoted, noted Loretta Napoleani, author of a new book on ISIS, The Islamist Phoenix. "In the old days, Al Qaeda was sending a negative message, which was 'Come be suicide bombers and live in paradise with 72 virgins,' " Napoleani said at a recent talk in New York. "This time, the message is 'Come and help us build a new state, your state . . . a Sunni political utopia . . . that will protect every single Muslim. . . .'  This is a very, very seductive message, and it's also a positive message."

All of the Khan kids were active on social media, but for Mariyam, it was more than just an outlet — it was her voice. Mariyam's life was full of rules, but online she could be anyone she wanted to be: a good Muslim girl, an advocate for the oppressed, even, in a way, an honorary boy who, veiled in the anonymity of the Internet, was free to engage with a bubbling new subculture of people, mostly young men, who she'd never have been able to look at, let alone speak to, in real life.
She found them on Twitter...

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?