Saturday, December 13, 2014

Ah, fashion!

In 1388, the Good Duke (Louis of Bourbon) was campaigning on the German frontier. As he besieged a castle, one of the duke's servants, a valet of the wine cellar, offered to arrange an infiltration of the fortress. The valet was from that part of Germany, and he figured that he could talk himself and a small company into the castle. Part of his confidence came from the current fashion:
So everyone in the household Duke of Bourbon said that it was a good strategy of war, seeing that in this time everyone was dressed like a German anyway.
I love the Chronicle of the Good Duke.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The French are feeling their oats

Early in the reign of Charles VI (1380s), the French are feeling a bit more confident about their prospects in facing the English. The Chronicle of the Good Duke shows the Duke of Burgundy trying to wind up his royal nephew:
Then the King sent to the Duke, “You speak well my uncle but what are you saying?”

“Monsiegneur,” said the Duke, “I will tell you: It seems to me that he doesn't do anything who does not do more. These English have made war on Monsiegneur your father for a long time, and on you, and they don’t do anything but often cross over to this side, and they are but a little people. Leave off these all little enterprises, do one that will be remembered forever. You are the greatest living King, and you have more people, and it has often occurred to me that we should undertake to cross to England and to strike down the great pride of these English.

Brave words, sir, brave words!

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Research and re-creation

Steven Muhlberger

Delivered at Nipissing University

October 30, 2014

as part of the History Department Seminar Series

I am very pleased to be here before my beloved colleagues and other friends of the History Department, and to have the opportunity to discuss my work and my interests. I hope this will not come across as merely an exercise in self-aggrandizement or nostalgia. It’s meant as a reflection on one person’s meandering path through the vast country that is history, and on the variety of ways that history can be approached. My path is probably more eccentric than most but I think that all of you working historians out there have a tale to tell of how your engagement in the past is not restricted within the boundaries of the notional career path of the so-called “average academic historian.” At least, I hope so.

Reflecting back on my career at Nipissing University and before that at University of Toronto, I consider that I have been very lucky having the freedom to pursue my extraordinarily diverse intellectual interests. I began as a graduate student with a very intense project in which I took long-known late ancient chronicles, key sources for the understanding of the fall of the Roman Empire, and reconstructed the mental universe of the men who wrote them. The standard view of these works was that they were defective fragments of lost official records. My task was to turn the chroniclers from being incompetent historians to being valuable witnesses, who were more closed mouth than we might like, but still people who had something to say for themselves, and whose silences said as much about late Roman times as their explicit statements. Thanks to my supervisor Walter Goffart it was an absolutely first class introduction to an extraordinarily difficult historiographical problem, where analyzing the scholarly tradition surrounding the questions was just as important as reconstructing contemporary accounts of the era.

I was and am very proud of my first book The Fifth-Century Chroniclers because I did not avoid the hardest questions of source interpretations. I believe it is one of those books that is good to argue with and will prove useful to researchers for decades to come. Nevertheless, when I finished the Fifth- Century Chroniclers, I had no desire to take on another highly technical puzzle of that sort. About the time I was hired at Nipissing University, I found another historiographical problem worth exploring. It was 1989; the Iron Curtain was falling, and millions were occupying Tien An Men Square and erecting a statue of the Goddess of Democracy. What did it all mean?

As usual, a pessimistic view of human society emerged very quickly. Specifically an old notion was trotted out are not, in an effort explain away the clear demands of people on every continent for democracy to replace autocracy.

My friend Phil Paine and I found such arguments sour and self-serving. Together we wrote the article “Democracy’s Place in World History” for the Journal of World History, in which we demonstrated that proto-democratic institutions, especially at the local level, are documentable in many parts of the world; the potential for democracy can be found in many parts of the world. Particularly interesting was the comparison between the experience of ancient urban democracy in India and in Greece. The Greek democratic experience is often rated as a crucial moment in world history; ancient Indian democracy is not very well known even in India. Phil and I argued that they were of similar significance – both demonstrating potential for democracy without however guaranteeing it.

This was a daring project and depended on faith that big, difficult historiographical questions could be tackled by historians of normal intelligence and training if they used a careful comparative methodology and paid critical attention to the historiographical tradition. Phil Paine and I had ambitions to do more with the history of democracy but circumstances prevented us working together closely. Our output of the last 20 years on the subject is rather restricted as a result. In the 1990s I was once again looking for direction. I found it in the best place, at home.

Some of you know and others do not that I have been a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism as long as I have been a student of the Middle Ages, that is, for over 40 years. The SCA can be seen as one of the many historical reenactment organizations that have grown up in the last half-century. Except it isn’t much like most of the rest. The normal reenactment organization seeks to re-create a specific time and place. Participants appropriately and accurately dressed and equipped re-create a battle or a scene from daily life. The participants are usually in the position of actors putting on a show for paying customers who, as in most theatre, are a passive audience.

The SCA, however, is not a show for an audience. Rather the audience is identical with the participants. It can be seen as a roving theme party that has been going on in various locales since May 1, 1966. On that day a number of Californians put on in a backyard party which they called an “international tournament.” Guests were encouraged to dress in the style of “any age when swords were used.” The party featured mock ceremony, music and combat with a variety of swords. The winner of the tournament crowned a simple peasant girl queen, and a promising young squire was knighted. And when it was all over they all said “let’s do it again!” And they did.

The SCA evolved into a society focused not on reenacting such historic events as the Battle of Bosworth Field, but the world of the 12 century romances where an ideal king and queen preside over a court of knights and ladies and those who aspire to be such. In the evolving SCA as in the early romances, the tournament remained the focus of activity. Thus the SCA can be seen as a recreation of medieval literature rather than of actual history. Yet there was an early commitment by the individual members and the organization they founded to do things “right,” meaning that an SCA event would aspire to get the visual and physical aspects right – armour, food, costuming, tents and pavilions, beer, mead and cider. The desire to get the props right and the respect given to artists and artisans -- all of whom must necessarily be seen as amateur researchers-- are among the chief things that keeps the SCA from being just a fantasy role playing activity, of the sort now called a LARP (live action role-playing game).

The SCA is a role playing game, an embodied reimagining –in Paul Monahan’s elegant phrase –of some aspects of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. But it is not an attempt to re-create a full and accurate and consistent historical environment. It is important to remember that the first SCA event gave invitees free choice of what historical or even fictional era they wished to portray –one person came as Queen Lucy of Narnia, and there were hobbits as well. That principle of the individual choice of “persona” or in-game identity has continued ever since, although purely fantasy identities have been phased out long ago. Indeed, the most serious efforts at accurate reenactment are located in the individual person. There is next to no effort to maintain a consistent time that embraces everybody at a given event or in the society as a whole. I may come to an event as a 10th century Viking, while you come to the same event in a costume modeled on one worn by Anne Boleyn. The success of the re-creation, in the judgment of those present, doesn’t have anything to do with consistent portrayals of either the 10th century or the 16th. While participants may carefully put together a consistent and accurate persona for themselves as individuals, the social environment they create is a fictional kingdom -- say Ealdormere – and a fictional time -- AS 49, the year of the Society 49. To do an excellent job of embodied reimagining, there is no particular reason that the individual participant needs to know a lot about the actual history of the Middle Ages or even the history of a given country, such as 10th-century Norway. Better one should know how to make or acquire authentically styled shoes or boots.

I realized long ago that my scholarly knowledge of the Middle Ages was going to be of only limited application to my SCA participation. The only advantage of knowing medieval history in any detail is that you can occasionally contribute a decorative element, as for instance in showing people how a medieval heraldic display would differ from a modern logo. Or you can use your knowledge to say, as so many fans of historical fiction and movies do, “that’s not right!” A strategy with a very limited lifespan. The social structures and practices of SCA members are formed by the needs of the 21st century society they are creating and re-creating. For instance, monarchs in the SCA are chosen by combat in tournament. This was never done in the actual Middle Ages, and nobody thinks it was. Why the divergence between re-creation and actual history? To have an hereditary monarch for life would be boring; competition for the crown on the other hand binds society members with an ongoing drama.

But scholarship and hobby, research and re-enactment came together for me in the late 1990s anyway.

I owned an old hardback edition of the Chronicles of Jean Froissart, a famous historian who lived during and wrote about the first half of the Hundred Years War (in the late 14th century). I had bought the book for $20 back when $20 was a lot of money. One day, years later, I picked it up and started reading it cover to cover and was fascinated by the fact that the so-called “chronicle” read more like a novel than the chronicles I was used to from late antiquity or the early Middle Ages. (All the smart people already knew this, but I didn’t.) Since Froissart’s main historical interest was in recording what he called “deeds of arms” (we might also say “chivalric combats”) there were many little anecdotes and a fair number of very substantial stories which illustrated the attitudes and actions of “men at arms” during the Hundred Years War. In other words, Froissart’s historical characters were largely the kind of people that SCA warriors were trying to imitate. This too was common knowledge. Yet very few SCA members, with the honorable exception of an amateur scholar named Will McLean had actively been working with late medieval chronicles with the intention of shedding light on the central activity of the SCA, our tournament combat. SCA members do not read primary materials, at least not very carefully. My reaction on reading Froissart again was that if the proper interpreter took this material and spread it around the SCA, there would be widespread interest among the warrior community. Will McLean already done some of this, as had others such as Brian Price and Daryl Pompeo. So I took it upon myself to excerpt Froissart as I read along and put the best pieces on the website here at Nipissing University, which I called “Tales from Froissart.” It was and is a list of very interesting stories, not all of them the best examples of what we would like chivalry to be, but at least examples of contemporary praise and criticism of noble warriors in action.

I also became aware of a text from the 14th century that had been fearfully neglected, both by amateurs and professional scholars, Geoffrey de Charny’s Questions on the Joust Tournaments and War. The Questions are a collection, compiled by a famous French knight in the 1350s, of questions about legal matters that might arise in both sport fighting (jousts and tournaments) and actual warfare. In some ways this should be a high profile source of information on 14th century chivalry, because Charny was a close associate of the reigning King of France and an active warrior. His opinions as to what chivalry and the laws of arms (as he called them) should be very important to modern scholars. But the Questions are not very helpful if one simply reads them through. Charny provided no answers to the 134 questions he raised. That fact and the fact that there are no obvious parallels to the collection of questions during his time, have seemingly discouraged work on that material. Maybe scholars hate to be wrong? Or perhaps they hate to take chances?

Charny’s questions and my close reading of Froissart’s Chronicles had a common focus. In both cases I was mostly interested in what chivalric combat was like from the contemporary’s point of view. What was a “deed of arms?” What exactly did the participants in such deeds do? And finally, why did they do it? I had a dual interest in answering these questions. Having taken part in what might be called “deeds of arms” in the SCA context for many years, I was interested in how close we had come to the spirit and the actuality of the medieval practice. It was quite clear that we had not come very close to medieval practice. People had known this for a long time. But to what degree was there similarity, both in spirit and in practice? Second, I was interested in the analysis of the historical practice. Back in the 19th century there had been some interest among scholars, mostly amateur ones, in the nuts and bolts and sweat and blood aspects of individual combats and duels. Indeed, duels were not entirely extinct in that century. But since about the First World War, there had been little serious scholarly interest. People tended to follow the lead of the eminent Dutch medievalist Johan Huizinga when he said that chivalric combats – jousts and tournaments and individual challenges – were a preoccupation of the nobility and not taken seriously by anybody else. I was pretty sure he was wrong about that, but at least his dismissal had left a gap in the literature that I felt could and should be filled by somebody like me.

Here is some of the material I have produced since I made the decision. First was a short book called Jousts and Tournaments, which is a translation and interpretation of those of Charny’s Questions which concerned chivalric sports in the 14th century, in an effort to reconstruct the rules used by contemporaries. It is not so easy to see what those rules really were, because as I said, Charny's Questions are unanswered. However, the Questions do show how extraordinarily important horses were to 14th century knights. There are 41 questions about jousts and tournaments, and all but one of them can be boiled down to "in such and such a situation, who gets the horse?" If nothing else, the book reminds us of how central to the identity of the noble warrior his horse was.

The next project was the book Deeds of Arms, in which I investigated the era in which Froissart wrote; thanks to his literary talent he has tremendously influenced our cultural memory of the Middle Ages. In this book I tried to put contemporary descriptions of chivalric sport and chivalric challenges in the context of the politics of England and France during the Hundred Years War. The book was in part an argument that there is no thing in real life that corresponds to "mere sport." One might like to think that sports or re-creations are something of a timeout from real life. But there is no such thing. 14th century jousts, 21st-century SCA tournaments, and the World Series are all parts of so-called real life. What happens in them counts for something. It may not count quite the same way that events in so-called real life count, but they do count. The book was a monograph-length demonstration of how chivalric sport counted, its psychology and symbolism and even its political importance.

Deeds of Arms the monograph inspired a series called “Deeds of Arms,” of which I am the editor and Freelance Academy Press is the publisher. The idea behind this series was that it would present translations of medieval accounts of chivalric combats in a very attractive illustrated format. There was hope that they would appeal to a wide audience, including people who just like attractive books and were not necessarily tremendously interested in the details of medieval combat. The series Deeds of Arms currently includes three books, two of which are basically my work, Royal Jousts and the Combat of the Thirty. I have another one: Will A Frenchman Fight? ready to go whenever the publisher is.

Two more books have come out in the last year or so. One of them is frankly an experiment, a collection of three conference papers on deeds of arms, repackaged as an e-book entitled Formal Combats in the Fourteenth Century. I wanted to see if there was in fact a market for cheap electronic publication of material that otherwise be too slight for publication. This was a no-risk project for me – I had a publisher anxious to do all the work.

This past summer finally saw the appearance of a book that I had essentially finished in my last sabbatical, Charny’s Men-at-Arms. It can be considered the expanded version of Jousts and Tournaments. Jousts and Tournaments used Charny’s Questions to reconstruct the rules for chivalric sport; the new book reviewed that material and added an investigation of the Questions on War, 93 cases about the laws of arms and issues of honor. The result is a group portrait of Charny’s military class and what they thought was important about “the life in arms.”

But my exploration of more authentic, more medieval styles of sport combat was not restricted to the page. At about the same time it began to write Jousts and Tournaments, I started to promote what I hoped would be more authentic styles of sport combat within the SCA. This was to some degree a joint effort with my wife Ruta, because together we hosted an SCA event on our rural property and Bonfield, Ontario, something we did for twenty Labor Day weekends in a row. Much of what we did on those weekends were standard SCA activities, but because we had so much space and the whole long weekend, we were able to experiment, to hold challenges and tournaments and for a while at least equestrian games both modern and medieval. We had some jousting on one occasion. The spirit of the event and some of the activities we put on resulted in a certain amount of influence in the SCA community. People came from as far away as St. Louis Missouri to take part. (Repeatedly!) Some of them brought their own elaborate, non-martial re-enactments. One group forged iron and set up a glass-bead furnace. Another group erected a medieval-style barn.

As these last activities indicate, it was not just a matter of me and of my wife dispensing wisdom to our friends and visitors. In our encouragement of higher quality reenactment leading (perhaps) to a better understanding of the Middle Ages, I began to discover that there were plenty of other individuals and small groups doing similar things. One example will suffice. Early on, when I was particularly interested in witnessing some actual jousting, I discovered a non-SCA group in Ontario which was putting on jousting shows. It was led by a man named Shane Adams who was a veteran of Medieval Times, the medieval dinner theater show. Shane from childhood wanted to joust and when Medieval Times came to Ontario from Florida, he signed up. He was disappointed to find that Medieval Times jousting was not the real thing and he became dissatisfied enough with just acting in their show to form his own troupe. In 2002 I witnessed them joust in Elgin, Ontario; the next year I was part of the show in the exalted role of Squire – since I actually had some experience in handling horses they were glad to have me. One thing I learned from the experience of working with Shane's troupe was how dangerous and exciting and thrilling jousting was even in a modern context. When the experienced, fully armored knights came riding out on their huge horses for the climactic contests at the end of the show, the audience went completely wild, filling the arena with sound. Clearly, even in the 21st-century, jousting was not a trivial pursuit. It is or can be a true embodiment of one aspect of medieval culture.

This was just the beginning of my contacts with jousters and other non-SCA re-enactors.

These re-enactors (and I want to be clear that I mean in general military and chivalric re-enactors) come in a variety of flavors. One way to distinguish them would be to divide those who began with a fascination with armor from those who were fascinated by the sword. The first group wants first-class, authentic armor, and when they get it (through vast trouble and expense), they want to use it as it was meant to be used. The sword-lovers learn how to use their weapons in the manner of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance; sooner or later they want to use techniques that are appropriate to armored combat, and they begin acquiring armor. You can see how the groups can come close to merging; but thing that distinguishes them is the fact that in the half-century since the founders of the SCA re-invented medieval tournament on the basis of a few mostly-inaccurate assumptions, actual treatises written in the fourteenth century have been discovered, republished, translated, and interpreted. These sword manuals are the key to the sword-lovers’ practice. There are a variety of schools of HEMA or WMA – Historic European Martial Arts or Western Martial Arts -- based on the Holy Scriptures of the Italian master Fiore or the German master Lichtenaur or some other historic master-at-arms.

The armor-lovers are not necessarily less learned than the sword lovers, but tend to be interested in a rougher, all-out form of combat; there's much less interest in theory and systematic training, and more on bringing an opponent down to the ground. This kind of conduct does not look like fencing, medieval or modern, but much more like wrestling. The most prominent example of this kind of fighting reenactment is the Battle of Nations competition invented in Ukraine and for most of its history a competition chiefly between Eastern European "national teams." When I first heard of Battle of Nations my immediate reaction was "I would hate to be the official who tries to referee Russian reenactors fighting Polish reenactors.” And sure enough the reality did not disappoint. The Russians in particular had no hesitation in using tactics designed to seriously injure their opponents. Stories circulated that the Russians were in fact sponsored by gambling interests, illegal ones that that. When Americans with an SCA background first attended Battle of Nations, there was an immediate culture conflict between the brutal young Russians and the Americans who had come up in a tradition in which fighters “didn’t break their toys” (opposing fighters) so that there would be no shortage of opponents. There was a schism in which many of the national organizations left the old umbrella organization and formed a new one which purported to be more honest and transparent in regard to business affairs and more – chivalrous?—on the tournament field. One result of this conflict is that American veterans of Battle of Nations formed a new US-based league which featured a rougher style of competition than SCA tournament combat, taking on as it did certain features of Battle of Nations.

I have mixed feelings about the Battle of Nations and other “real combat” activities. Perhaps I should heartily disapprove, but I can't escape the connection. This summer I ran into a prominent SCA fighter who was instrumental in setting up the new American organization for “real combat.” He thanked me for making available the phrase "deed of arms" which he found very useful for describing the activities that he and his friends were engaged in. He felt that the interaction between my scholarship and his style of re-creating medieval combat was teaching him and his friends a great deal about the actual past.

Who am I to say he is wrong? There should be some intellectual gain, however limited, however biased towards the modern, in all the creation of imaginary medieval kingdoms I have indulged in over the last four decades. As Dr. Janice Liedl of Laurentian University points out in a forthcoming article, both science fiction and historical fiction have their place in coming to grips with the scattered pieces of historical evidence which is all any of us have to anchor our understanding of the actual past. The facts are always too few and we always have to conjure up connective tissue make a coherent picture of what used to be. In the era of Game of Thrones and Assassin’s Creed historians and their scholarly methods are only a segment of creative historical inquiry. The conclusions we reach using them are no longer quite so privileged. We can moan about this or we can adjust. The adjustment is not so radical. It is merely a recognition that if the past is important it will not attract the attention of sober historians sober historians only. All kinds of imaginative energy will be generated by the widespread interest of all sorts of people. If our expertise is not going to become ignored and irrelevant, we will have to learn to live with popular, one might even say poetic interpretations of the facts. It won't be so hard; after all historians have been doing this for thousand years.

That’s one view of the challenges facing historians in our changing intellectual world. It probably isn’t yours. Variety is the spice of life, or rather an essential aspect of reality and of our efforts to deal with it. Wish me well on my highway – I will continue to work; I wish you well on yours. Books available from: Freelance Academy Press Witan Publishing

Friday, December 05, 2014

Believing in the Arab Spring -- "At this point it’s either the Arab Spring or no Arabs."

Iyad el-Baghdadi in Foreign Policy:

Mariam looked up at me. I’ll never forget what she said next. It was as if she poured all of her frustration, all of her betrayal, all of her pain, into this one question: 
“Do you mean to tell me you still believe? After all of this, you still believe in an Arab Spring?”

I’ll never forget how she said that. I said, “Yes.” And she looked at me like I was crazy. I never got to explain. I’ll try to do so now.

There are three reasons why I maintain my confidence despite all the catastrophes. The first reason is that 2011 happened. It wasnot a dream. It was not an illusion. Millions of young Arabs really did take to the streets demanding liberty, and dignity, and justice. Something green and fresh and beautiful appeared and captured the world’s imagination. It wasn’t a mirage. We really do exist.

We’re not a minority, either. We only appear to be a minority because we’re not organized; we’re not on the menu. When the only options presented are black or white, it does not mean that red or green or blue are a minority. When the only options presented are religious authoritarianism or nationalistic fascism, it does not mean that a third option doesn’t exist. It’s just not on the menu. Our historical responsibility right now is to put ourselves on the menu.

The second reason I am confident is that the friendships that arose since 2011 cannot be unmade. The online scene isn’t “virtual,” ladies and gentlemen. No, it’s all too real. The ideas are real, the friendships are real. Many of us activists have never met face to face — but we talk almost daily about things we care very deeply about. We’re a family. These friendships are forever. Martin Luther King once said, “Those who want peace must organize as effectively as those who want war.” I’m going to adapt this gem as follows: “Those who want liberty must organize as effectively as those who want tyranny.” These online friendships can form the nucleus for an intellectual movement as we work together on campaigns, projects, and books.

The third, and perhaps most important reason why I remain confident, is that the old order, the Arab ancien regime, has, for all its cruelty and deep pockets, no vision or hope to offer beyond sectarianism, demagoguery, and jingoism. It lives on borrowed time supported by mass hysteria; it’s unsustainable. It will bring no stability or growth.

More importantly, they have a dirty little secret. They’re afraid of us. They’re not afraid of those with guns; after all, they have bigger guns. But they’re afraid of those with ideas.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Review of Burgess and Kulikowski, Mosaics of Time

This is the kind of work I was doing at the beginning of my academic career.  It's good to see this coming out.

From the Medieval Review:

Burgess, R. W., and Michael Kulikowski. Mosaics of Time: The Latin Chronicle Traditions from the First Century BC to the Sixth Century AD. Volume I: A Historical Introduction to the Chronicle Genre from Its Origins to the High Middle Ages. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 33. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. xiv, 444. €100.00. ISBN: 978-2503531403.

   Reviewed by William Adler
        North Carolina State University

This impressive volume, the first of a planned four-volume series on the Latin chronographic tradition, represents a robust challenge to the widely-held and largely unchallenged assumption that the medieval annals derived from notices embedded in the margins of Easter tables of the seventh and eighth centuries. To make their case that so-called "annals" are part of a continuous and ancient pre-Christian tradition extending back long before the development of Easter tables, Burgess and Kulikowski (hereafter B. and K.) trace the development of the chronicle genre from its beginnings in ancient Egypt and the Near East, concluding with the twelfth-century universal chronicle of Sigebert of Gembloux.

Underlying the communis opinion about the medieval origins of annals is a putative distinction between "chronicles" and "annals." More sophisticated in structure and style, the former are traditionally thought to originate, either directly or indirectly, in the great Christian universal chronicles of the third and fourth centuries. The terse annotations and tabular listing of years that make up the content of annals reveal their more humble roots in medieval Easter tables. Insofar as it misleadingly reinforces an artificial disjunction between annals and the older chronicle tradition, the authors discard the category of "annals" altogether, subsuming it instead under the broader category of "chronicle." In their usage, the term chronicle encompasses works marked by a year-by-year annalistic structure, wide scope, paratactic style, and brevity in the narrative of events. Subsets of this genre would include consularia (annotated consular lists) and Paschal chronicles (chronicles written within the framework of an Easter table).

In their systematic dismantling of the received wisdom about the origins of medieval annals (or, more properly, medieval chronicles), B. and K. first demonstrate that the chronicle genre was neither uniquely nor even primarily Christian in character. Nor did the Christian adoption of the chronicle, at least initially, have anything to do with the Easter computus. For Julius Africanus (early third century), the study of chronology was at least in part a matter of providing an empirical foundation for Christian apocalyptic speculation. Following the precedent set by Hellenistic Jewish authors and representatives of other peoples of the Near East, Christian apologists also found comparative chronology a highly effective means of confirming both the antiquity of their religion and the derivative character of Greek civilization. Early Christian experiments in comparative Greco-Jewish chronology contained the seeds for more ambitious undertakings, including the great universal chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea.

Eusebius's chronicle plays a justifiably outsized role in the authors' exposition of the antecedents of the medieval Latin chronicle. His incorporation of material from Hellenistic olympiad chronicles, his fresh approach to long-standing chronological problems, and the inventive tabular structure of the second book of his chronicle (the so-called Chronici Canones) show it to be a truly original piece of scholarship. Thanks to the translation and continuation of the Canons by Jerome, the work became well-known in the Latin-speaking world, offering Christian writers in the West a vision of the past that securely integrated Christianity and Rome into the panorama of the rise and fall of nations and kingdoms. Under its influence, the chronicle soon became the dominant form of historical writing throughout the Middle Ages. At the same time, however, medieval chroniclers found it difficult to take over Eusebius's system of reckoning time without modification. In place of olympiads, regnal years and the Abrahamic era, medieval chroniclers found other systems more to their liking, including consular dating, universal years, and most significantly, the Dionysian anni domini familiar from the Easter Tables of the seventh and eighth centuries. While the so-called medieval "annals" may have introduced some new wrinkles into the genre, they have closer links with the ancient chronicle tradition than do the fuller narrative "chronicles" of the Latin West. Aside from the name, the latter have nothing in common with the chronicles of Late Antiquity.

Apart from its value as a corrective to--indeed, a complete inversion of--the conventional explanation of the origins of medieval "annals," the wide scope of this volume (and a thorough index) will make it an excellent, albeit occasionally demanding, introduction to the chronicle in Antiquity and the Middle Age. To avoid taxing readers with potentially distracting details, eight appendixes (as well as appendixes to the footnotes) elaborate at greater length topics treated in the body of the narrative. While a single thesis informs the treatment of the evidence, the authors never lose sight of the sources themselves, the analysis of which is painstaking and nuanced. In anticipation of Burgess's planned monograph on the textual relations and origins of the Irish chronicles, B. and K. set forth an original argument identifying hitherto overlooked ties between Irish chronicles and the medieval and late antique chronicle tradition. Although the overall orientation is in a westerly direction, the authors also include a brief but instructive account of the development of Byzantine chronicles. If interest in chronology is defining of the genre, many Byzantine works termed "universal chronicles" are better classified as breviaria, no more deserving of the designation "chronicle" than their medieval Latin counterparts. Why the annalistic style of recording the past virtually disappears after Theophanes in the ninth would require a study of its own. But the authors' decision to extend the scope of their analysis eastward helps to bring their findings about the Western tradition into sharper focus. To keep the study within a reasonable length and to avoid digging into subjects with which they are less familiar, the authors limit their discussion of Eastern chronicles to Byzantium (227). But as they rightly recognize, sources from the non-Greek speaking Eastern churches can offer another perspective on the survival and transmission of the ancient chronicle tradition. Because they preserve closer ties with Eusebius and Alexandrian chronography, Syriac and Ethiopic chronicles are in some ways better witnesses to this older tradition than their Byzantine counterparts.

The authors are also to be commended for their exemplary exposition of the durability of a genre often caricatured as an inferior and sub-literary form of historiography, amounting to little more than an uncritical accumulation of disjointed events. In response to the charge that they lacked any unifying narrative thread, the authors compare the structure of the ancient chronicle to a mosaic (hence the title of the book). Like the tiles of a mosaic, "the meaning of history...lay not in the details, but in the overall picture offered by the complete work" (33). Claims about the inferior literary quality of the chronicle are both true and irrelevant. As a branch of technical and scientific literature, chronicles, unlike narrative histories, were meant to be used, not to be read as self-standing literary monuments. The practical applications of the chronicle, its underlying "macro-narrative," and its treatment of the past uno in conspectus also explain the survival of the ancient chronicle tradition well into the Middle Ages. In this new setting, the genre proved flexible enough to accommodate various styles and content, ranging from brief notices inserted into Easter tables to more discursive annalistic records. The decentralization of power brought about by the collapse of the Carolingian empire had its own role to play in the spread of the genre to remote parts of the former Frankish kingdom and beyond. Historians involved in the work of fashioning national identities found the long reach and open-ended tabular structure of chronicles like Eusebius' Canons an ideal way to fuse local events with the broader sweep of world history. And because rhetorical skills or even extensive research were not mandatory, the composition of a chronicle was within the reach of writers of only modest literary aptitude. The accessibility of the genre in the Middle Ages resulted in what B. and K. call a "democratization of history": "anyone could be a historian and many took up the task" (129). At the end of their discussion, one thing is unmistakably clear: whether it served as a tool for antiquarian research, apologetic, apocalyptic speculation, or Easter reckoning, the chronicle was a highly functional instrument, in constant evolution and reinvention.

Occasional lapses and questionable claims are virtually inescapable in a work of dense technical content, ranging over more than 1300 years, and traversing so many regions and cultures. It is an overstatement to say that Philo's voluminous allegorical commentaries on the Pentateuch were intended mainly to establish the dependence of Greek philosophers and lawgivers on Moses (108). While it is true that the foundational principle of Africanus's chronicle was millennialist his interpretation of Daniel was, interestingly, non-eschatological. The terms of Daniel's apocalypse of seventy weeks were in his view completely satisfied in Jesus's ministry (cf. p. 117). In their discussion of the reception of Eusebius's chronicle, the authors state that Syncellus criticized Eusebius' Alexandrian critics Panodorus and Annianus (fifth century) for misdating the Incarnation by following pagan wisdom (i.e. Claudius Ptolemy). Syncellus actually faults only Panodorus for this failing (229).

In some cases, the authors also overplay the influence of apologetic on ancient Jewish and Christian chronicles. The two were not necessarily inseparable. From the admittedly little that survives from Demetrius the Jewish chronographer, there is little reason to suppose that he was at all interested in establishing the superior antiquity of Moses and the Jews. Sorting out chronological and exegetical problems in the biblical text, not comparative chronology, seems to have been uppermost in his mind. In their discussion of Christian chronicles, B. and K. state that "apologetic was the essential purpose of Christian chronography" (120). That observation would probably apply better to Tatian, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria than to Africanus and Eusebius. While the latter writers were undoubtedly influenced to some extent by apologetic, they were hardly beholden to it. At a certain point, the scientific requirements of the discipline required them to direct their energies elsewhere. For Africanus, the comparative dating of Moses is more a question of historical method than fodder for anti-Greek polemic. From reading the preface to Eusebius's Canons, one might reasonably draw the conclusion that "even had he wanted to," Eusebius "could hardly have dissociated himself from the apologetic tradition" (120). But his handling of conventional topoi of Christian apologetic chronology invites a different conclusion. In the first book of his chronicle, Eusebius allows that in the pursuit of chronological accuracy, no sources from the past should be exempt from scrutiny and doubt, not even the biblical record. Although initially making the de rigueur case for the overall superiority of Septuagint chronology to competing versions of the Bible, Eusebius (unlike his predecessors) does not adhere dogmatically to its testimony. And after determining that his predecessors had drastically inflated the length of time from the Exodus to the building of the temple under Solomon, Eusebius arrives at a date for Moses much later than the one sanctified by tradition. What all of this suggests is that even a writer as committed to the defense of the Church as Eusebius could dissociate himself from time-worn clichés of Jewish and Christian apologetic when he found them at odds with his own independent judgments.

To the extent that nomenclature lies at the heart of their thesis about the origins of medieval chronicles, the authors' lengthy exposition of the essential features of the chronicle genre is bound to elicit the most interest and criticism. B. and K. recognize that ancient writers are not nearly as scrupulous as they are in their terminology. They also allow that their fine-grained distinctions between "chronicles," "chronicle epitomes," "chronographs," "breviaria" and "epitomes" are unlikely to fine wide acceptance among medievalists (62). But they do make a compelling case both that the differences are substantive, and that any progress in reconstructing the development of the chronicle will require a more descriptive taxonomy than the one currently in scholarly use. There are places in the narrative, however, where the strict terminology becomes unwieldy, especially when it comes to describing hybrid works.  To remain true to their own exacting standards, many works ordinarily classified as universal chronicles now have to be categorized as something else, either as "chronographs" (Africanus and Syncellus), or as history "tricked out with the clothing of the chronicle" (Dexippus, p. 285). The more fundamental question is whether their claims about a connection between medieval "annals" and the ancient chronicle tradition are true by definition. That is, do compositional and structural similarities based on their own definition of the chronicle genre establish historical continuity? The authors have not ignored the question. As their painstaking analysis of the textual history of the Latin chronicle shows, the similarities between "annals" and ancient chronicle are not purely generic; there are also direct and traceable genealogical links.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Craig Taylor's "Chivalry and the Ideals of Knighthood in France..." -- a short review

I have finally finished this book, and feel I owe Craig Taylor a review, especially since it is a good one.

I began this book with the feeling that Taylor was making a lot of pretty obvious points, nothing that I hadn't heard before. Then I shook myself and said that of course this material was obvious to me; if it wasn't, then my reading on the subject of chivalry over the last 15 years was seriously defective.

As the book progressed, it became filled with material that was not so obvious. Taylor carefully analyzes the different perspectives on chivalry that existed during the Hundred Years War, describing the tensions between various points of view held by various observers of wartime France. This approach is very congenial to me; I find that in the short-term at least social or historical debates do not come to a neat conclusion; tensions between various participants continue to affect social debates for a long time, because they reflect important aspects of the structure of society.

Although this is a good review it will remain short one. I will just list some of the chapter titles to indicate where Taylor thinks the important debates were located.

Prowess and loyalty
Mercy (part I):  soldiers
Mercy (part II): civilians and noncombatants
Wisdom and prudence

If you have a serious interest in medieval chivalry, you will not want to miss what Taylor has to say on these subjects. At the very least it will clarify some important issues for you.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A royal visit

 As some of you know, I have been having a close encounter of the SCA kind with the idea and practice of royalty.  It's too early to report on this -- and I may not ever put it in writing -- but I will say that it is quite amazing how the social atmosphere changes when  someone you know well puts on a crown.  The expectations are remarkable and when they are largely fulfilled a great deal of energy can be generated.

Meanwhile, back in the real world...(Man, how I hate that phrase, but it is so commonly used to mark off "mundane reality" from other, special, social constructs)... my university is enjoying today a visit from the premier of the province, the Lieutenant-Governor designate (the soon-to-be representative of the Crown on the provincial level), and ....

Her Royal Highness The Princess Edward, Countess of Wessex, who doesn't even get to use her own first name in her official style.

They are supposed to be telling us something important about aboriginal education.

Let's hope that this won't amount to "it's working just the way it's supposed to."

Stay tuned.
Sophie, grevinna av Wessex.jpg

Image:  to her friends, it's Sophie.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Canadian Viking in the Governor-General’s Court: Medievalism in Pre-war Canada, by Janice Liedl

An interesting article  at about a late 19th century attempt to use Viking exploration and settlement of Canada as a symbol of European settler unity.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A human kaleidoscope

People who wish to introduce medieval dancing into the SCA have a real problem – almost all of our documentation for dances done in the medieval period actually come from late in the Renaissance. Some people who want to dance often use other styles as inspiration, in particular in English country dancing. Once you get past the anachronism here, there's a lot of fun to be had doing known country dances or choreographing new ones.

One member of the SCA, known in it as James Blackcloak has created several new country dance inspired choreographies. Some of them are on YouTube. For your enjoyment, I direct you to this one, entitled St. Paul's Cathedral:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Chivalry and the Ideals of Knighthood in France during the Hundred Years War, by Craig Taylor

I just ran across a reference to this book in the last few days, so this is not a review.  I know Craig Taylor and I consider him a very intelligent historian, so I expect this will be a valuable book. Here is what Cambridge University Press has to say about it:

Craig Taylor's study examines the wide-ranging French debates on the martial ideals of chivalry and knighthood during the period of the Hundred Years War (1337–1453). Faced by stunning military disasters and the collapse of public order, writers and intellectuals carefully scrutinized the martial qualities expected of knights and soldiers. They questioned when knights and men-at-arms could legitimately resort to violence, the true nature of courage, the importance of mercy, and the role of books and scholarly learning in the very practical world of military men. Contributors to these discussions included some of the most famous French medieval writers, led by Jean Froissart, Geoffroi de Charny, Philippe de Mézières, Honorat Bovet, Christine de Pizan, Alain Chartier and Antoine de La Sale. This interdisciplinary study sets their discussions in context, challenging modern, romantic assumptions about chivalry and investigating the historical reality of debates about knighthood and warfare in late medieval France.
And in the grand tradition of overcharging outrageously for academic books, this one even in e-book format goes for $79 US !

I am rather sorry I didn't have a chance to see this before I published Charny's Men at Arms, but in fact my book was essentially finished a year ago. Would it have made a big difference? No. My book is a tightly focused study, Taylor's a much wider one. But if it were a reasonable price I would own this book already.  Note that mine costs only $25.

Monday, July 21, 2014

At last, a book

Faithful readers will recognize this as the infamous book on Charny's questions that I've been slugging away at, with some interruptions from other work since the millennium was young. Really young!

If you don't know the book, it is an investigation of a list of questions put forward by a 14th century French knight Geoffroi de Charny to his fellow aristocratic warriors, presumably to educate them in their duty and privileges as warriors. Because there are no answers given, Charny's questions are an unresolvable puzzle and maybe for this reason there have been few detailed looks at the questions and their purposes. Also, no one I know has translated all the questions before now.

Like historical puzzles? Wonder about what chivalry meant to those who fought in the Hundred Years War?  Is your curiosity piqued by the phrase "who gets the horse?"

Now all this can be yours – the answers, I mean, if you are willing to stick out your neck and propose some yourself.

Here's a link to the publisher.

If you are close with the dollar, you might try poking around this blog for some of my reflections on Charny's questions over the years.

Sunday, July 06, 2014


The mystique that surrounds armor, then and now, is masterfully evoked in this BBC 4 documentary.

Another answer -- Shevek speaks

Shevek the anarchist from another planet speaks to the dissatisfied people of the homeworld:
It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when it is forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers and what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And
the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.
I am here because you see in me the promise, the promise that we made 200 years ago in this city – the promise kept. We have kept it, on Anarres. We have nothing but our freedom. We have  nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful. If it is Anarres you want, if it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it with empty hands. You must come to it alone, and naked, as the child comes into the world, into his future, without any past, without any property, wholly dependent on other people for his life. You cannot take what you can have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Charny's answer

People who know my scholarly work on the writings of Geoffroi de Charny, a fourteenth century knight, may associate me with "Charny's questions," a set of hypothetical problems related to "the law of arms" meant to be analyzed by knights, squires and "men at arms" so that they would be better prepared to relate with other aristocratic warriors.

Charny's questions are unanswered.

But if you want his answer to the problems of the life of arms, consider this from Charny's Book of Chivalry:
[T]hose who have the will to achieve great worth [who] because of their great desire to reach and attain that high honor … do not care what suffering they have to endure, but turn everything into great enjoyment. Indeed, it is a fine thing to perform great deeds, for those who rise to great achievement cannot rightly grow tired or sated with it; so the more they achieve, the less they feel they have achieved; this stems from the delight they take in striving constantly to reach greater heights. And great good comes from performing these deeds, for the more one does, the less one is proud of oneself, and it always seems that there is so much left to do.

Charny's answer?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

John Keane, Antarctica, and sovereignty

An interesting but in some respects puzzling article, Antarctica: Notes on the Fate of Sovereignty,
 came across my screen this morning. It is by John Keane, author of The Life and Death of Democracy and other works on the world history of democracy.

The recent article appeared in The Conversation and is not necessarily all that clear to the reader new to his thought. In his magnum opus, Keane made the interesting point that what we generally call democracy now is the 19th century version of that practice, in which sovereignty is exercised by elected representatives. Keen believed that this type of democracy is not sufficient for the conditions of either the 20th or 21st century. He convinced me, largely because looking at the United States with its 18th-century Constitution and Canada with its 19th century parliamentary structures, we see that in neither case do the common people have a meaningful role in government, once the very rich and very influential have had a chance to undermine these earlier approximations of democracy. Democratic governments, 19th-century style, exercise sovereignty, absolute power justified by ancient beliefs that are deeply undemocratic, even when exercised by a prime minister or cabinet instead of a monarch.

Keane's prescription for greater democracy in modern times requires in his phrase "monitory democracy," institutions that monitor other institutions and investigate and correct problems that arise from the natural oligarchical inertia of human societies.

If you have this background, this new article makes a lot more sense.

Keane believes that Antarctica may avoid the trap of sovereign government, since international agreements that created the institutions of Antarctica are not based on  sovereignty. Keane argues – unfortunately without much in the way of concrete examples – that a network of monitoring institutions have grown up in Antarctica, and this may be an example for everybody else in times to come.

Fascinating excerpts from the article:
The examples remind us that in matters concerning Antarctica and its future, sovereignty remains a keyword. But what exactly does the word mean? What can we say about its genealogy? Has the settlement of Antarctica altered, or at least compounded, its range of meanings? Has Antarctica begun to loosen the grip of sovereignty on our political imaginations?

Jean Bodin, Les Six Livres de La République (first published 1576)
Click to enlarge

Straightforward replies to these questions are difficult, but we can safely say the category of sovereignty is fundamentally a political concept. It therefore needs to be handled with care. Its theological origins are worth noting. So, too, are its ‘meme’ qualities, its propensity for replication and mutation and time-space variation (an example is the early modern doctrine of popular sovereignty, which is an earthly form of the originally Christian theological doctrine of God as the singular source of political authority). It’s worth remembering as well that the sovereignty principle has triggered bitter controversies about both its meaning and legitimacy. What is nevertheless striking is the resilience of the early modern European doctrine of sovereignty, whose earliest definitions are traceable to such political writers as Jean Bodin, De la république (book 1, chapter 9): ‘All the characteristics of sovereignty are contained in this, to have power to give laws to each and everyone of his subjects, and to receive none.’
This way of political reasoning, repeated by Thomas Hobbes and a thousand subsequent writers, was arguably bound up (Lauren Benton’s A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900 points out) with the expansion of European empires through webs of corridors and enclaves, such as sea lanes, rivers, and roads connecting island bases, missions, trading posts, towns and garrisons. The establishment of sovereignty over foreign lands, we can say, took place not merely by force of arms. It also happened through imperial acts of legal possession against the claims of rivals. In addition to legal talk of sovereignty, various other techniques were used to establish sovereign claims: the planting of flags and crosses; the establishment of settlements; the drafting of maps and travel itineraries that eased officials' navigation within distant realms; and the creation of new governing structures that served as carriers of the sovereignty imaginary.
It was within this historical context that William Blackstone’s well-known and influential Commentaries on the Laws of England(1765-1770; book 1, introduction, section 2) forcefully presented a version of the sovereignty principle. ‘How the several forms of government we now see in the world at first actually began, is matter of great uncertainty, and has occasioned infinite disputes’, he wrote. ‘However they began, or by what right soever they subsist, there is and must be in all of them a supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority, in which the jura summi imperii or the rights of sovereignty, reside.’
Such thinking, the belief that ‘sovereign is he who decides on the exception’, owed at least some of its force to its theological bent, or so argued the Weimar jurist and political thinker Carl Schmitt. ‘All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularised theological concepts’, he wrote in Political Theology, so that ‘the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver…The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology’. In other words, sovereignty is a word bound up with disagreement, mounting tensions, political outbursts, power struggles that may well end in the surprise declaration of a state of emergency (what Schmitt called the Ausnahmezustand). The principle of sovereignty is bellicose. It supposes the possibility and desirability of unlimited power, omnipotence. Sovereignty can’t be shared. It is indivisible. It comes alive at the moment when those who control state institutions decide arbitrarily for others what is to be done, and see that it is done, if necessary by robbing their opponents of their liberties, properties, livelihoods and lives.
Antarctica could be said to be a strange new form of slow democracy. By that I am not referring to the familiar point (once attributed to Thomas Carlyle, the lover of noble talent, no great friend of democracy, and recently repeated by David Runciman), that democracy is cumbersome, slow and inefficient, but in due time the voice of the people will be heard, and their latent wisdom will prevail, through good leadership. I rather have in mind something more complicated, more enigmatic and more pragmatic: under Antarctic conditions, when questions arise concerning who gets what, when and how, and who represents whom, matters are typically subject to open deliberation and decided through what are called decisions, measures and resolutions - each following their own practical rule-bound logic, and each subject to a unanimity rule. Decisions bear upon internal organisational matters of the ATCM. Resolutions are not legally binding on the contracting parties; they are hortatory texts, directed beyond their ranks to include various interested parties. Then there are measures, which are legally binding once they have been approved by all the Consultative Parties.
Decisions, resolutions and measures are all encased within multilateral legal networks that highlight the passing away of the fiction of the legal sovereignty of territorial states. Yes, talk of sovereignty survives. Perhaps it is on the increase, often sustained by bizarre definitions (the Argentinaclaim, for instance, is based on such ragbag criteria as ‘historical heritage coming from Spain’, former ‘seal-hunting activities’, ‘installation and management of lighthouses’, scientific and military operations and the ‘rescue’ of two Englishmen from misfortune). ...Despite these anomalies, the new Antarctic reality has moved beyond the old world of sovereignty. The polycentric governing institutions of the continent are proving durable, in no small measure because they come clothed in law. Subject to legalisation through forms of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ (erga omnes) legal arrangements, these institutions regularly function as brakes on attempts by states to exercise power arbitrarily, without public scrutiny, in the old sovereignty ways.
If Antarctica is a law-abiding post-sovereign polity comprising a salmagundi of clumsy power-sharing institutions, themselves designed to produce and administer decisions subject to the exercise of voting rights, then matters are made even more complicated, conceptually speaking, by the fact that its governing instruments are not tied in any simple sense to territory. Entangled in world-wide webs of interdependence that are oiled by space- and time-shrinking flows of communication, Antarctic politics does not stand in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. Spill-over effects, arbitrage pressures and butterfly effects are common. The upshot is that things that happen politically within and around the continent sometimes have effects elsewhere, in far-away locations. The reverse also commonly happens: events, information flows, declarations and deals that happen in far-off places can and do touch off immediate consequences in Antarctica.
Click to enlarge
Sovereignty and the Domination of NatureIt is not often noted that Antarctica has dispensed with the formal imagery of sovereignty. It’s true there is an emblem of the Antarctic Treaty, featuring a white continent marked by lines of latitude and longitude; and there’s a richly contested variety of both serious and satirical cartographic representations, ranging from the continent wrapped in national flags, including the ensign of the short-lived Nazi protectorate of Neuschwabenland, to the multi-coloured LGBT flag map of Antarctica. Yet the fact is that Antarctica has no official flag, no national anthem or currency or coat of arms. Something much more historically unusual and of deeper long-term significance is also at work: a novelty that brings us back, full-circle, to the lead theme of the Antarctopia pavilion.
Put simply, Antarctica is the first continent to rid itself of the bestial metaphors in which the doctrine of sovereignty always came wrapped. The point is typically ignored by journalists, diplomats and scholars alike. Expressed in terse terms, sovereignty always had a feral snarl. The big and pompous modern European idea of sovereignty typically supposed that a people living within a territory would otherwise quarrel and be violent, and tear one another to bits, unless governed, above all in moments of exception, by a sharp-edged form of armed power that is unified, unconditional and indivisible.
The whole idea of state sovereignty supped with the devilish image of the sovereign ruler pitted against the wild animal. Sovereign are those rulers who manage to separate themselves from, and rise above, the world of nature, which was typically thought of as a fear-ridden domain ruled by beasts locked permanently in deathly power struggles. Sovereign rulers are different, or so it was argued. They bring orderly rule. Yet in laying down the laws, within a demarcated territory, using force if necessary, they reserve for themselves the prerogative of acting outside the laws, just like wild animals.

Take a well-known early example of this seductive but self-contradictory vision of sovereign rule: Machiavelli’s recommendation (chapter 18 of The Prince) that the good and powerful ruler must act as both a lion and a fox. Sovereign are those rulers who know that they must of necessity roar like a lion and be as crafty as a fox, so as to scare and cajole the resident population into conformity, for the sake of its own self-preservation, within a demarcated territorial setting, protected from its external enemies. In this well-known formulation, the condition of possibility of sovereignty is also its undoing. For it turns out that the ruling sovereign and the wild animal beast are an oddly matched pair. In order to act in sovereign ways, the sovereign by definition must overcome the beast within itself. But by acting in an unbounded fashion, the sovereign behaves just like a beast, ruling ultimately through fear and violence, unconstrained by customs, laws and procedures which, for the sake of order and good government, it nevertheless creates and then imposes, onto others, from the outside.
Since the 1950s, numerous developments in Antarctica have strongly challenged, and in some cases rejected outright, the deeply anti-democratic, bestial imagery coded into the old sovereignty principle. As Ben Saul, Tim Stephens and others have warned, the paralysing uncertainty surrounding the polity of Antarctica should not be underestimated; but, in fact, the rejection of bestial imagery may be the most important, and irreversible, achievement of the governing arrangements of Antarctica, where metaphors of fixed territory, rule and wild animals are conspicuous by their absence.
What are the symptoms of this metamorphosis? Most obviously, governing arrangements in Antarctica reject the fixed territorial mentality and the will to dominate nature built into the doctrine of sovereignty. Just like the continent’s birds, sea cucumbers and free-swimming snails, which know no fixed abode and (remarkably) find the energy and bearings to migrate annually from pole to pole, the legal and governmental institutions targeted at the continent are co-defined by, and connected to, parallel and sometimes overlapping mechanisms located elsewhere. Antarctica is the embodiment of the quantum principle of non-locality: those who seek to govern the continent are daily reminded that the continent is not ‘dead’ or lifeless territory. It is a vibrant biosphere, comprising living systems permanently in motion, interconnected with the rest of the planet. Symbols of the vibrancy are the seals that want to play and interrupt scientists as they go about their fieldwork; and the emperor penguins that seem as naturally skilled at the arts of posing and performing before cameras as they are in organising altruistic wave-motion huddles to ensure that each individual penguin member stays warm. The UN Highly Migratory Fish Stocks Agreement and the High Seas Fisheries Compliance Agreement are two revealing institutional cases of the same point: both agreements involve efforts to protect endangered species of fish, which of course recognise no fixed territorial boundaries, and whose protection and nurturing require alternative arrangements guided by precautionary principles.
Humble stewardship of the dynamically contingent, the fragile and the vulnerable: especially since the adoption (from the end of the 1980s) of the Environmental Protocol and its numerous Annexes, these metaphors, and general sympathy for the biosphere, have come to replace the old bestial images of sovereignty. The flipside of this semantic switch is a new politics of representation of the non-human world. When analysing the ‘spirit’ and practices of such bodies as the Convention on Biological diversity (CBD), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Agreement on Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), all of which politically shape Antarctica as we know it today, what’s striking is how they widen and deepen inherited meanings of political representation.
What’s meant by this? All human societies create ways of registering or re-presenting their interdependence with the natural world and its (sometimes invisible) elements by means of verbal, oral and pictorial signifiers. Antarctica obeys this rule, but gives it a twist. It’s perhaps an exaggeration to put things this way, but the continent is a world-leading laboratory in the arts of enfranchising nature. It brings to life, and puts into practice, new ways of imagining the political inclusion of the biosphere as a legitimate, potentially equal partner, within human affairs. In Antarctica, the nature/politics dualism of the doctrine of sovereignty no longer makes sense. It’s not just a continent where non-human nature constantly makes its presence felt among the humans who dwell or visit there. It’s also (conversely) a place where awareness runs high among humans that there are different ways of representing and acting upon the biosphere. In other words, the biosphere is not seen as raw, non-human, ‘out there’ nature, ripe for human exploitation, but as a complex set of interacting living elements whose significance is shaped by human perceptions and actions, which are themselves bound up with the deep dynamics of the biosphere.
By experimenting with new ways of practically extending voices and votes to our fragile biomes, Antarctica does more than revive and stretch the principle of the political representation of non-human domains. Arguably, the most far-reaching political significance of Antarctica is the way both positive and threatening developments there prompt fundamental 21st-century questions about whether human beings are capable of humbling ourselves by collectively recognising our ineluctably deep dependence upon the biomes in which we dwell. Are human beings capable, in theory and practice, of ridding ourselves of our own anthropocentrism? Can we live beyond the still-dominant view that we humans are the pinnacle of creation, lords and ladies of the universe, ‘the people’ and their states who are the ultimate source of sovereign power and authority on Earth? Is Antarctica perhaps even an important harbinger of the global commons principle, a reminder that the Earth’s surface should not be carved up by national jurisdictions?
These are fundamental political questions that await twenty-first century answers. 
Image:  Narmer, club-wielding sovereign lord of Egypt:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A great sorting out?

Two experts in the Middle East have been more useful to me than most of the more prominent ones. They are Juan Cole and Joshua Landis. If you are interested in what is going on there and how it will affect us in North America, read this and this.

Here is an example of what Landis has to say:

My advice to Obama would be to lay low. This sectarian-nationalist process has been boiling up for a more than a century. It should be seen as part of the breakdown of the Ottoman order and emergence of nationalism. I compare what is going on in the Levant today to Central Europe during WWII. In Central Europe, the great powers drew national borders after WWI, carving up the lands of the defeated empires without rearranging the peoples to fit them. Thus Poland was only 64% Polish before WWII. Czechoslovakia was made up of close to 25% minorities. WWII was the “great sorting out.” (Read: ) Over the war years, the peoples of central Europe were rearranged according to the WWI borders. By the end of WWII, Poland and Czechoslovakia had been reduced to their core Polish and Czechoslovak peoples. They got rid of their unwanted (Jews) or guilty (think the 12 million Germans of central Europe) minorities, along with many others. It was a nasty and brutal nation-building process.
Of course, in the Middle East, the emergence of national identities is bedeviled by competing religious identities, which seem to be stronger than both “Arabism” or “Iraqism.”
I doubt we will see high degrees of Shiite-Sunni cooperation in the coming months. If the U.S. sticks its long oar into this mess, the U.S. will end up with a broken oar. It seems possible that within the next two years, ISIS will largely be destroyed by the concerted action of both Iraqi and Syrian forces with help from Iran and possibly the U.S.  Sunni Arabs will not be pacified so long as they receive scant justice and minimal political representation in both Syria and Iraq, but ISIS cannot represent their needs. It is an expression of sectarianism run amok.