Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Turkmens hit the silver screen: Resurrection Ertugrul

I don't know anything about the Turkish film industry, but since I started to follow the movie Resurrection Ertugrul on Netflix I have begun to suspect that the best Turkish films, at least, must be very good indeed.

Turkmen is the name given to ethnic Turks who live a cattle-herding, nomadic style. This movie (actually a long-running serial) is about a tribe of Turkmens, the Kiya, and their trials and tribulations in the early 13th century. The movie is classic good-guy v. bad-guy stuff. The good guys are led by Ertugrul, a strong, silent type who stands for a virtuous life led according to tribal custom. The bad guys are just about everybody else -- Seljuks, Ertugrul's brother (at least some of the time), scheming Kiya women looking for a good marriage, the Knights Templar. Most of these people don't give a hang about antique virtue. They just want a good war that they can profit from, or vengeance.

This lauding of the virtuous, represented by the figure of the nomad reminds me of the movie Mongol which I blogged about maybe ten years ago. In that movie Genghis was the only guy playing by the rules. Everyone else was just waiting for a chance to stab him in the back, enslave his wife, etc.

Resurrection Ertrugul and Mongol have something else in common. They are really good. Resuurection Ertugrul has it all. Lots of horses. Huge skyscapes. Great fighting sequences. A world-famous Sufi scholar who leads the good nomads in singing prayer-circles (the music is awesome).

A remarkable feature of the series is the rather minimal dialogue. People say something, assume an expression, and the audience is given time to absorb the significance of what has been said. It reminded me of opera, in which the songs make an emotional point, rather than building a narrative. The narrative gets built anyway, and it's not so hard to follow.

I wondered after about 10 episodes, what the directors would do if they decided to do a big series on the Round Table. It might be really cool.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Essential California

In the early days of blogging, I included many posts from English Russia, simply because that blog had so much odd and interesting material drawn, of course, from the largest country on the face of the earth. Today, the best source of unique stories about a big country is Essential California. And if you don't think California is a country, follow this link.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Matt Gabriele, Peter Burke and Historians as Remembrancers

Manifest Destiny on a global scale

Manifest Destiny was a popular 19th century idea which attributed to the United States the right to expand and occupy the North American continent from coast to coast. Manifest Destiny was associated with the punchy phrase: "Go West, young man" coined by the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who thought western expansion was the way to go, both for (white) settlers and for the country as a whole. Not that he was unique in this prescription. I was thinking about the Opening of Japan (where the US Navy forced the Japanese empire to allow trade between Japan and the rest of the world) in the 1850s, when I realized that there was a lot of "Opening" in the 19th century. Think Opium Wars! Or the French Conquest of Mexico! Or the slaughter of Australian aboriginals (Being investigated right now by the Guardian)! How did they justify their actions? Somehow I doubt that I will ever have time to explore this topic --Manifest Destiny on a Global Scale -- but maybe someone else will. Or maybe someone already has! Image: Greeley.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Deeds of Arms in Italy

A fine video showing high-quality re-enactment by the group Rubeum Ferri in Italy. These people have the kindness to credit me with some of their inspiration.  What's better, they seem to have really understood my argument.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Matt Gabriele shows us some of the many faces of the Middle Ages

Gabriele teaches at Virginia Tech University and regularly writes for Forbes on the relevance of history and the humanities (not that anyone actually admits to that emphasis.  Here's an excerpt from a recent post which touches on my interest in jousts, tournaments and other deeds of arms:

The Medieval Women In Drag Who Maybe Caused The Black Death (But Really Didn't)

A curious thing happened in the middle of the 14th century. According to Henry Knighton's Chronicle, ..., in the year 1348 a group of about 40-50 women dressed in men's clothes began to attend tournaments. They supposedly moved from place to place behaving shamefully, baring their bodies in an "inappropriate manner," spending money, carrying weapons, and apparently performing for the assembled crowds.

God didn't like that, so according to the Chronicle a storm would suddenly form to disrupt the festivities. Then, shortly afterwards, Knighton recounts that the Black Death arrived in Europe and ravaged the countryside. Left unsaid, but narratively clear, the women's behavior caused God to punish England for their sins...

According to Prof. Sonja Drimmer from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst this anecdote inadvertently opens a fascinating window onto how gender roles were seen in Europe during the late Middle Ages, and more importantly how those roles were sometimes overthrown.
Dr. Drimmer, ...pointed out that it's interesting in and of itself that Knighton decided to write this episode down. Medieval histories are always selective in what they include..., but the anecdotes when taken together always reveal a deeper message that the author's trying to convey. In this case, Dr. Drimmer said:
the chronicler seems to have expected his audience would see women wanting to perform as men (and assert their sexual agency by “displaying their bodies”) as entirely plausible, particularly in a privileged space that was designed to assert rigid gender roles.

In addition, ...Dr. Drimmer pointed to something else (maybe) going on in this particular episode. She asks us to think about how the scene itself would have looked. ...This could have been something approaching what we think of today as drag performance.
In other words, Knighton more than likely decided to include this in his Chronicle because this was something that really happened and he was really freaked out about it.

For some time, scholars have talked about how boundaries are often drawn between peoples at moments when assimilation and cultural interactions are at their most fluid....  In this particular instance, what really seems to have bothered Knighton here was not just that these women were performing while dressed like men, but that everyone else thought that that was fine. Indeed, there's evidence that cross-dressing by men and women at medieval tournaments was relatively common.
Knighton may confirm some of our Game of Thrones-esque expectations about the European Middle Ages, one marked by God's wrath and a conservative religiosity. But, despite his intentions, Knighton also undermines our expectations by showing us a vibrant Middle Ages filled with color, pageantry, laughter, and performance - one in which people don't act like we think they're "supposed to." In other words, Knighton almost by accident shows us a slice of the real Middle Ages, populated by living, breathing human beings.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

No, clergy and laity didn't always see eye to eye in the Middle Ages

Godfrey of Bouillon is selected as ruler of Jerusalem in the wake of the First Crusade (no, he didn't get it from the Archangel Gabriel, whatever they thought in the 17th century); instead, a panel was struck to investigate the various candidates.

Sez William of Tyre:
This was done so that the electors might thus be more fully and more faithfully informed of the merits of the candidates. Those who were later very closely questioned under the required oath by the electors were forced to confess in secret the vices of their lords and likewise to enumerate their virtues, so that it might be made plain just what sort of men their lords were.

When the Duke's household were questioned among the others, they replied that, among all the Duke's actions, the one which most irritated his servants was this: that when he entered a church, even after the celebration of the liturgy had been finished, he could not be drawn out. Rather, be demanded of the priests and those who seemed experienced in such matters an account of each picture and statue. His associates, who were interested in other things, found this boring, even nauseating. Further, his meals, which had been prepared for a certain and appropriate hour, grew cold and most unappetizing because of these long and vexing delays.
The electors who heard these things said: "Blessed is the man to whom are ascribed as faults those traits which would be called virtues in another." At length, after consulting with one another and after many deliberations, they unanimously elected the lord Duke. They brought him to the Holy Sepulcher of the Lord most devoutly, chanting hymns and canticles.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Where do the waiters live?

Back in the early 80s, I travelled regularly to the Bay, where a friend of mine, in the time between my business meetings, showed me around the cultural sights.  The food he introduced me to was particularly wonderful.  I remember a Cambodian restaurant where the food clearly was influenced as much by Paris as by grandma's kitchen.

My friend and I talked about many subjects.  One of the most passionate rants was my friend's terror at the prospect of being pushed out of his apartment -- a not-unlikely prospect.  He had a decent job, but no security against sudden rent increases.

Which made me wonder, in this city of restauants, where did the waiters live?

My recent reading has included much material about California, which seems to be taking, once again, a leading role in the evolution of modern culture.   This article, If San Francisco is so great, why is everyone I love leaving? sadly describes how people who don't have family money, or who did not early on become skilled programmers just can't live a decent life in the city.  You can't do something interesting and useful, like open a bakery. 

These people who are fleeing from SF would count in most people's judgment as "middle class." Whether that is still a useful category.

I, however, still have the old puzzle bu zzing around my brain: Where do the waiters live?

Later... The New York Times demonstrates how pre-historic my question is: Thousands of New Millionaires Are About to Eat San Francisco Alive

Quotes: Jonathan K. DeYoe, another private wealth adviser in the region, started working with tech clients in 1997 during the first dot-com boom. He said it was pretty exciting back then. Now, as he thinks about thousands of new millionaires coming onto the scene, he is worried about the region’s inequality. “There’s some who’ve talked about pitchforks,” Mr. DeYoe said. “And I don’t think we’ll go there, but there’s a point when that makes sense.” “It’s very visible,” Mr. DeYoe said. “This kind of wealth is very visible.”...
[P]resenting was Deniz Kahramaner, a real estate agent specializing in data analytics at Compass. “Are we going to see a one-bedroom condo that’s worth less than $1 million in five years?” he asked the crowd. “Are we going to see single family homes selling for one to three million?” No, he said, not anymore. The energy rose as he revealed more data about new millionaires and about just how few new units have been built for them. San Francisco single-family home sale prices could climb to an average of $5 million, he said, to gasps.

Should I continue to blog?


I spent most of December trying to debug my computer, and as a result I got very little writing done.  This led me to wonder -- is this blog necessary?

I started it back when personal blogs were rare.  If I found an interesting article or post and included them in my blog, I could feel that I was likely performing a service.  Also, I was teaching history, and the blog was a good place to preserve interesting topics more or less relevant to my courses.

I haven't been teaching since 2015, and the amount of interesting material available through commercial sites or twitter is much, much larger than it once was.  My time and energy is devoted to bigger projects (The Chronicle of the Good Duke, and "Murder," which may both be coming out this year).  And of course my health is not what it once was.

My readership, according to Blogger stats, seems to be OK.  But I would like to know what those numbers represent.  So I would very much appreciate hearing from you if you do in fact read this blog.  Tell me how often you read it, what you find valuable in it, and let me know if it has a place in the world of reading.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Yes, it’s the Space Age

  Yesterday a CBC news reader talking about the New Horizons probe moved on to the next story by saying “Meanwhile, here on Earth,” and gave a little laugh. Disbelief ? Delight? Whatevever the case, I don’t think we will be laughing at  such usages for much longer.  Ultima Thule - or today, thanks to China, the far side of the Moon - is a place that you can go. Or at least, send a package to.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Rule of Law state

Canada's Foreign Minister, Crystia Freeland, has been reminding the Chinese government--which has been mistreating Canadians who work in China at NGOs because they don't like what our courts have done in an extradition case--that Canada is a Rule of Law state and intends to keep acting accordingly.

She has been using Rule of Law phrase so consistently that it is bound to stick in official and semi-official usage, at least for a while.

I wonder if this bugs the Chinese. After all, the opposite is "outlaw state."

I rather hope it bugs the hell out of them.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Joseph McGill on the US Constitution

Joseph McGill, a preservationist dedicated to maintaining the physical remnants of American slavery

One of the things that we need to understand is that 12 of our former presidents were slaveowners, eight of whom owned slaves while they were in office. Even those who contributed to those major documents that we live by today — you know, the Constitution’s ‘We, the people.’ It should have read, ‘We, the people,’ comma, ‘here in this room,’ because otherwise that document meant nothing to you.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

This looks good: University of Pennsylvania Press publishes a history of usury and debt

UPenn Press is bringing out a paperback edition of Charles R. Geisst's
Beggar Thy Neighbor: A History of Usury and Debt.


The practice of charging interest on loans has been controversial since it was first mentioned in early recorded history. Lending is a powerful economic tool, vital to the development of society but it can also lead to disaster if left unregulated. Prohibitions against excessive interest, or usury, have been found in almost all societies since antiquity. Whether loans were made in kind or in cash, creditors often were accused of beggar-thy-neighbor exploitation when their lending terms put borrowers at risk of ruin. While the concept of usury reflects transcendent notions of fairness, its definition has varied over time and place: Roman law distinguished between simple and compound interest, the medieval church banned interest altogether, and even Adam Smith favored a ceiling on interest. But in spite of these limits, the advantages and temptations of lending prompted financial innovations from margin investing and adjustable-rate mortgages to credit cards and microlending.

In Beggar Thy Neighbor, financial historian Charles R. Geisst tracks the changing perceptions of usury and debt from the time of Cicero to the most recent financial crises. This comprehensive economic history looks at humanity's attempts to curb the abuse of debt while reaping the benefits of credit. Beggar Thy Neighbor examines the major debt revolutions of the past, demonstrating that extensive leverage and debt were behind most financial market crashes from the Renaissance to the present day. Geisst argues that usury prohibitions, as part of the natural law tradition in Western and Islamic societies, continue to play a key role in banking regulation despite modern advances in finance. From the Roman Empire to the recent Dodd-Frank financial reforms, usury ceilings still occupy a central place in notions of free markets and economic justice.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

What North Bay used to be famous for


I spent a couple of decades, more really, teaching history at Nipissing University in North Bay Ontario.  The University was quite close to the back up NORAD nuclear defense HQ. which is the subject of this short documentary. A little before or after I started at Nipissing, the Hole and the air base were downgraded and lost their fame.  One of my colleagues, Kees Boterbloem, taught a couple of classes on the Cold War and  he got permission to take his students down in the Hole. One time I got to tag along!

It was undramatic, but I was glad not to miss it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Outlaw King (2018)

 The outlaw king is a recent movie depicting the struggle of Robert Bruce to establish Scotland's independence from England (a country ten times it size) in the early 14th century.

Some good aspects of OK:

  • Costumes and armor look good
  • The landscapes are AWESOME (in the proper sense of the word)
  • It's been a while since I studied up on Scottish history. but there don't seem to be any gratuitous anachronisms.
But the movie lacks:
  • In depth characterization
  • sufficient explanation of the political situation of Scotland 
 The result was that I didn't  care about the main characters and their motives (such as they were). Robert Bruce was completely flat. The Prince of Wales (Edward II) was a character out of melodrama.  Why did Edward I want to conquer Scotland anyway?

I think the movie-makers tried much harder than most to get the history right, but they
would have done better if they had inserted maybe three scenes of explanatory material.  If you go into this movie without any background except the notion "England bad, Scotland good" you

will no get no more than that.  Of course there is a sizeable audience for just that sentiment...

Image: The Bruce family on vacation

Monday, November 19, 2018

Political beliefs

 For some months now I've been reading the commentary of Umair Haque.  His understanding of the current political situation, especially in the United States is so bleak that it reminds me of Old Testament prophecy, or maybe the crazier elements of the Reformation.  

But as this recent essay indicates, 

Umair would not thank me for the comparisons to prophets.  And in fact what he says about  political beliefs is surely the most important part of this post. It is certainly worth serious thought.

A substantial excerpt:

I want to tell you the story of the greatest lesson in history, which you probably don’t know. It’s the one the 20th century is trying to teach the 21st — but we, blinded by ideologies, weary and failing ways of thinking about the world, society, and ourselves, are still only just barely struggling to grasp it — if we are not resisting it outright. After all, we are not even twenty years into this century — so it’s no surprise the last one’s greatest lesson is yet unlearned.
There’s a question that’s as old as time. How do we build ciities, countries, towns, societies — worlds, lives — which prosper, endure, soar? Some said — the brutish and the shallow, mostly: “We gain by taking what is theirs! Let us enslave and exploit them! Why, they are not people at all!” And then cooler and wiser minds replied, shaking their heads: “No, no. We mustn’t do that. We must lift everyone up — and everyone is a person — never pull anyone down.” So. Shall we prosper by exploitation — or through liberation? Through subjugation and slavery, through hate and violence — or their opposites, equality, freedom, justice? Here’s a fact. Nobody really knew. So we humans, being the blind things we are, settled for the best we could: we debated it for millennia, with more and abstruse and abstract theories of morality, ethics, politics, economics. Here’s another fact. We didn’t know the answer — until now.
I was amused — if not surprised — to read, somewhere in a little corner of the internet, a description of myself as a socialist. In that accusatory way that Americans — at least some of them, on the fringe — still use the word. Amused because, well — let me describe my politics to you. My politics are very simple. I try not to have any. LOL — what? I’m sure that leaves many of you bewildered, even surprised. “But you’re always going on about capitalism and — “ Very true, so I do. So what in blazes do I mean?
You could in one way describe my politics, if you are very insistent of putting people in little boxes and neatly labelling them, this way. I suppose that I’m a pretty ordinary kind of social democrat — the kind that most people who aren’t Americans, but live in rich countries, are, from Europe to Canada. I think that the superior social contract at this juncture in human history is simple and straightforward ... That social contract goes like this: people provide one another the basics of a good life in modern terms, which means health care, education, some minimal income and savings, retirement, and so on. Capitalism — at a human scale — takes care of thmy politics” in the sense that people usually mean the term. They are not my beliefs, moral, social, cultural, and so on, based on theories of some such and this that, which I am trying to push on you, to persuade you of, mistakes to correct in you. They are not beliefs — things I don’t know, but presume, or hope, or wish to be true — in any whatsoever ....) So if they aren’t my beliefs, then what are they?
They are facts. Nothing more and nothing less. Just facts. It is a fact that people are happier in social democracies. It is a fact that people are richer, wealthier, closer, live longer, saner, better lives, in nearly every regard. There is nothing subjective or unknown about that statement, and so it is not a belief in any way whatsoever. Do you see the difference here — between fact and belief? You might think that I’m splitting hairs — but I think that both the future, and the greatest lesson in human history that you probably don’t know lie right here.
Why? Let me explain backwards. What’s unique about America? It’s that it got the social contract of modernity, which I described above — people provide each other the necessities, and capitalism provides the luxuries — absolutely backwards. America, unique amongst rich nations — all nations, in fact, tried a social contract where capitalism provides people the necessities, and the luxuries, things like yachts and mansions and so forth, are often had by way of a kind of weird, inverse socialism — cronyism, how close you are to powerful politicians and capitalists and so on, how many subsidies you can grab, how much you take from others.
Now, it doesn’t take a genius to have said: hey, listen…this social contract probably isn’t going to work out. Not only does capitalism have no incentive, reason, or motive to provide people the necessities, if the way to get rich is by everyone exploiting everyone else in the first place — then a society will never really go anywhere at all. And that is exactly what happened in America during my whole adult lifetime. Society literally went nowhere.
I mean that in the hardest possible terms. Society literally went nowhere.Incomes went nowhere. Life expectancy fell. Social mobility dropped. Depression and suicide rose. And so on. Along every indicator you can imagine or think of, America has made zero progress during my whole adult lifetime. That is not a belief. It is not my opinion, it is not a subject for debate — it is simply a fact. America tried out yet another social contract based on exploitation — capitalism, after segregation and slavery — whose results were as predictable then as they are real today: as people grew poorer, they turned to authoritarianism, instability became collapse, and here we are today, hoping a Blue Wave will stem the tide.
But if I start “believing” things about political economy, about society, about the world, then what happens? I can’t do my job very well if I “believe” things to be true, instead of know them, can I? Then I go from being something like an observer — or maybe intellectual, or maybe just an educated person, or maybe just a civilized one, you can choose — to being something more like a fool, someone who has rejected knowing, scorned truth. Do you see the problem here? It applies to you, too.
So why are we cursed with this burden of political beliefs? Why can’t more of us simply let go of beliefs — and say — whatever labels and ideologies the world, my society, my culture has trained and taught me to “believe” in, I will hold them lightly, tentatively, skeptically? Strangely, if you think about it, we can’t shed the burden of belief because it is a new thing to be able notto have political “beliefs.” Think about the world. Until the 1970s or so, it was eminently reasonable to say something like — “Who knows? Maybe capitalism is better. Maybe communism is! Maybe authoritarianism is. Or maybe apartheid states are the best kind to be! Who knows how the average person will be better off?” You see, we didn’t have much evidence about much at all, when it came to different modes and models of political economy, society, social contracts, and so forth.
Let me put that to you much more starkly. We could have said, probably until the 1970s or so, that America was a rich and powerful nation — and it was still segregated. Furthermore, it had gotten rich through slavery as much or more as through innovation. Europe, too, was still rising from the ashes of war — at that point, Spain was still a military dictatorship, and Germany still a split, riven nation. Who was to say which system was better, out of all the many choices political economy had to offer? Remember my question? It’s as old as time.
Over the last fifty years or so, a revolution hidden in plain sight has taken place in the world — which has gone too often unnoticed — and especially not American intellectuals, which is why Americans are in the dark about it (even though they intuitively get it, a full 70% of them can be described today as something like emerging social democrats anyways.) That miracle was this — European social democracy began to pioneer history’s highest living standards ever, period, full stop. Within fifty years — just fifty years! — less than one human lifetime, shattered, wrecked societies like Germany, Spain, and France had achieved the following things: the world’s longest lifespans, richest and largest middle classes, most equitable distributions of wealth, and so on. Scandinavia, taking it further, built history’s, and the world’s happiest, most egalitarian, and wealthiest societies.
Does prosperity come from exploitation — or from liberation? No one knew. Hence, millennia of bitter debates, about morality, religion, society, and so on — which simmered until the boiled over, finally, in a century of grand social experiments. American capitalism, Soviet communism, German fascism, and so on. That century was the last one.

The system that resulted in Europe, which came to be called “social democracy”, was revealed to be the most powerful lever of human possibility that had been discovered, ever. It was so powerful, in fact, that it made an impoverished, ruined Europe more prosperous in every single way than America in a single human lifetime.
Now, it’s equally important to understand the rejection, if you like, of the alternate hypothesis. Since the beginning of time, human beings have been ruled by the most brutal and foolish among them — and such minds have said: “the way to prosperity is through enslaving and exploiting and abusing others! As long as we can get them to do our work, with the whip or the chain or the trinket — why, we will be kings!” America, sadly, has a tendency to listen to such minds, over and over again. Hence, the basics of the hypothesis it has been testing have always remained more or less the same — prosperity results from exploitation.
But American collapse tells us that exploitation does not lead to prosperity. It leads to poverty amidst grotesque amounts of plenty, like having to choose between medicine and shelter even if you’re “middle class””, that is, profound and terrible inequality, which causes instability, which sparks authoritarianism, and so on.
That’s why America is where it is. It is a nation, sadly, which is largely ignorant, by design, of the greatest fact in the world, one of the greatest facts in history: that we have the missing formula for human prosperity, finally, after millennia of strife and war and hate and ruin. It’s simple. Prosperity comes from liberation, not exploitation. That formula — or that recipe — is at this point in human history, an empirical reality,
That is why I try not to have politics, my friends. Politics are largely empty vessels, hopefully obsolete things, in this day and age, really. The future won’t be made with people with political beliefs, as it was yesterday. That is because we have stark evidence about those beliefs, finally, after all the long midnights of human history — all the slavery, all the hatred, all the whips and all the chains. Where did they lead? Upwards — or downwards?
Today — this juncture in human history — really is different. We don’t need to believe, like blind people, anymore — to guess and hope and wonder. We simply need to see what is front of our eyes. The future will be made, then, by radical pragmatists. Who can take history’s great lessons — and apply them. But that is only because they understand them.