Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Creating the Fulani script

Microsoft has a site called "Stories" where they subtly brag on all the wonderful things that can be done with computers.  Today someone directed me to a particular "story" about the invention of a script for the Fulani.

Fulani is an important language in West Africa -- it may have as many as 50 million speakers.  However, it has never had its own script, one really suited to its structure.  People have made do with the Arabic and Roman alphabets.  This has limited the literacy of most uo f those millions.

So who is responsible for this  useful innovation benefiting millions?  Just a  couple of kids!
Related image

An iconic Canadian image -- rural churches on a lakefront

I never saw this beautiful village -- Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia -- until the CBC ran a feature on small towns.  This combination of waterfront and an old, impressive church is pretty typical.  Bonfield, Ontario had one big church on the waterfront.

Friday, August 16, 2019

A new look at slavery

Today's Vox includes a substantial article by P.R. Lockhart on slavery   It's based on a recent book by Edward E. Baptist,  The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismIt has a provocative thesis, that slavery was the first modern big business, which was vital to the growth not just of the American South, but of the entire USA.  

Here's a excerpt from Lockhart :

Of the many myths told about American slavery, one of the biggest is that it was an archaic practice that only enriched a small number of men.

The argument has often been used to diminish the scale of slavery, reducing it to a crime committed by a few Southern planters, one that did not touch the rest of the United States. Slavery, the argument goes, was an inefficient system, and the labor of the enslaved was considered less productive than that of a free worker being paid a wage. The use of enslaved labor has been presented as premodern, a practice that had no ties to the capitalism that allowed America to become — and remain — a leading global economy.

But as with so many stories about slavery, this is untrue. Slavery, particularly the cotton slavery that existed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the Civil War, was a thoroughly modern business, one that was continuously changing to maximize profits.

To grow the cotton that would clothe the world and fuel global industrialization, thousands of young enslaved men and women — the children of stolen ancestors legally treated as property — were transported from Maryland and Virginia hundreds of miles south, and forcibly retrained to become America’s most efficient laborers. As they were pushed into the expanding territories of Mississippi and Louisiana, sold and bid on at auctions, and resettled onto forced labor camps, they were given a task: to plant and pick thousands of pounds of cotton.


The bodies of the enslaved served as America’s largest financial asset, and they were forced to maintain America’s most exported commodity. In 60 years, from 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent. The profits from cotton propelled the US into a position as one of the leading economies in the world, and made the South its most prosperous region. The ownership of enslaved people increased wealth for Southern planters so much that by the dawn of the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region.

In recent years, a growing field of scholarship has outlined how America — through the country’s geographic growth after the American Revolution and enslavers’ desire for increased cotton production — created a complex system aimed at monetizing and maximizing the labor of the enslaved. In the cotton fields of the Deep South, this system rested on the continuous threat of violence and a meticulous use of record-keeping. The labor of each person was tracked daily, and those who did not meet their assigned picking goals were beaten. The best workers were beaten as well, the whip and other assaults coercing them into doing even more work in even less time. 
Read that again:  

The best workers were beaten as well,
As overseers and plantation owners managed a forced-labor system aimed at maximizing efficiency, they interacted with a network of bankers and accountants, and took out lines of credit and mortgages, all to manage America’s empire of cotton. An entire industry, America’s first big business, revolved around slavery.

“The slavery economy of the US South is deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves, and were extracting money from the labor of enslaved people,” says Edward E. Baptist, a historian at Cornell University and the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

 This makes me want to teach Early Modern History again...

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Swimming wild in Britain

One of the best articles I've ever seen in the Guardian.  Extraordinary writers describe their love of swimming in wild locations.

A sample (from Rachel Edwards):
I love our river. It is ours not because we live on it (we don’t), or because we covet ownership of a beauty spot, but because this water flows through our family life. Our stretch of river lies between London and Oxford; it is technically the Thames and not quite the Isis; it is a gentle roar, a rushing calm, a city-country icon that feels deeply personal.

 When I first moved to our south Oxfordshire hamlet, 16 years ago, the river’s appeal was clear: every yard of it is picture perfect. Cross the weir, past the mill house and over the lock, past the weeping willow. Walk on with fields to your right and the river to your left, fringed by greenery that is mature yet exuberant (like many of the locals) and tiny beaches where anglers sit, nodding away the dogs who come sniffing at their bait.

I go in the water whenever the mood takes me: I have dunked myself to chill out a fraught afternoon and to commune with the dawn. I have been in with boat-weary friends, my husband, and – ill-advised, of course – alone (usually an angler is within shouting distance). To have a regular routine would kill the magic for me. The impulse, like the water, must be wild and free. When I do go in, it is always in summer – I marvel at those with hardy, moon-white bodies who smear themselves in goose fat and launch into wintry seas. I will never be one of their number. Even in a heatwave I mince in, arms bent and aloft, waiting for the cold water to stun my broiling core. Waist depth is optimum; I feel freed but embraced; I think about dipping my head under for a while. No earrings, no watch, offline. I’m ready.

I emerge each time alive but more so, skin teased and tingling, braids dripping, my mind washed of dark clutter; I am, if not quite reborn, then absolved by unseen river gods for as long as the water drips down my calves. Our river restores, rewarding even the most timid dip with cool inspiration. And so, in I go.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

What I thought everybody knew -- Man has baby

Today on CBC Radio's comedy show "The Debaters" was in Calgary, and much of the debate was on the desirability of building a new arena.  Big issue in that city.

One question thrown out to one of the debaters was to finish a famous quote by Montreal mayor Jean
Drapeau in his promotion of the 1972 Olympics:
"The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby."
Of course the Montreal Olympics lost millions.  And just about everyone quoted Drapeau if they had any motivation to oppose a sports boondogle.

I was surprised, then, that the Calgary crowd didn't react at all.

Of course, these were Albertans being indifferent to Quebec; and I think the Debaters appeals to a younger crowd; and by no means do I count as young.

But it is another lesson in the dangers of assuming you know that "everybody" knows what you know, even recent historical events.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Heroic female historians in old Korea

I'm just now watching an entertaining Korean mini-series on Netflix, Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung.  It is not exactly easy to follow, but not hopelessly obscure, either.

Goo (Lady? or is that her family name?) Hae-Ryung is a young noblewoman sometime in the early modern period (at a guess). She loves literature, Korean, Chinese and European.  She may also be Maehwa, the author of the latest fad in Korean romance novels. Or maybe it's the young prince second in line to the throne who is Maewha.
The Korean state at this time works like the Chinese system.  Applicants for government jobs study classic literature and write exams based on that material.  The highly-educated office holders look down on the material written in Korean alphabets, on Korean novels, and on the people who read them.  Goo Hae-Ryung is a promoter of popular literature.  Lots of teenage girls are crazy for romances and when they hear that Maehwa is going to sign copies of his/her most recent book they practically riot.
The royal councillors decide to repress this "movement" by recruiting female historians OR forbidding the recruiting of female historians.  The King, who has been the target of bureaucratic criticism, takes the opportunity to open history offices to young women...Of course the male historians resist...

I am liking this series for its cinematography and the humorous depiction of character.  The music's good, too, which you might expect at a time when South Korea is strutting on the world music stage.

If you by chance run into me in person, I'll tell you both my Korean bureacrats' story and my De militarized Zone (DMZ) story.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Last month I was talking about fanfic, Byzantium, Byzantine literature and such. I was inspired by an the site article related to Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire, where the author talked in a very interesting way about the relationship between fan fiction and Byzantine literature.

Well, I got the book from my local library and I am reading it now.  Is it good?

Yes. Yes, indeed.

More about Martine here.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Obituary for Gary Duncan of the Quicksilver Messenger Service

QMS was my favorite American band in the late 60s.  This Washington Post obit says a lot about the band :

Gary Duncan, a guitarist and singer for Quicksilver Messenger Service, an electrifying mainstay of the San Francisco psychedelic scene that rivaled Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead in the late 1960s, died June 29 at a hospital in Woodland, Calif. He was 72.

His wife, Dara Love Duncan, said he had fallen 10 days earlier and suffered a seizure and cardiac arrest before being taken off life support.

Formed in California in 1965, Quicksilver Messenger Service helped create the “San Francisco sound,” fusing rock, blues, folk and jazz in a luminous blend that made them a staple of venues like the Fillmore, Avalon Ballroom and California Hall, where the air was filled with the smells of incense, marijuana and patchouli.

“You listen to these records and they take you back to a simpler time,” Rusty Goldman, a friend of Mr. Duncan’s and rock archivist known as Professor Poster, said in a phone interview. “Their music was pure. Everyone always left their shows feeling high on the music as well as whatever else they ingested.”

Mr. Duncan was not yet 20 when he joined Quicksilver Messenger Service and began making loose, heavily improvised music with drummer Greg Elmore, bassist David Freiberg and fellow guitarist John Cipollina, with whom he developed a complex, vibrato- and reverb-heavy interplay

For a time, the band also featured guitarist Jim Murray and songwriter Chet Powers (known by his stage name Dino Valenti), a Greenwich Village folk singer who had written the peace anthem “Get Together” before being busted on drug charges that kept him from performing with Quicksilver Messenger Service in its early years.

Known for its brilliant, drug-infused live performances, the band initially resisted following peers like Jefferson Airplane into the recording studio. “We had no ambition toward making records,” Mr. Duncan once said, according to the website Best Classic Bands. “We just wanted to have fun, play music and make enough money to be able to afford to smoke pot.”

But after 1967 performances at the Human Be-In and the Monterey Pop Festival, where they took the stage alongside acts including Jimi Hendrix, the Who and Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service landed a contract with Capitol Records, resulting in their self-titled debut the next year.
Generally considered their finest studio effort, the record opened with a cover of Hamilton Camp’s “Pride of Man” — “Oh God, pride of man, broken in the dust again!” — and included “Gold and Silver,” a rock reworking of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” co-written by Mr. Duncan.

Their follow-up, “Happy Trails” (1969), was described by Rolling Stone as “the definitive live recording of the late-Sixties ballroom experience,” and ranked No. 189 on the magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums. Featuring extended jams built around the Bo Diddley songs “Who Do You Love?” and “Mona,” as well as Duncan compositions including “Cavalry,” it showed “that psychedelia was about more than just tripping out,” Rolling Stone wrote.

Offstage, band members lived at “a commune in Marin County where all manner of musicians, old ladies with babies, dope dealers and human driftwood coalesced into a barely functioning whole,” according to “A Perfect Haze,” a history of the Monterey Pop Festival by Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik.

“At rehearsals we’d sit there and play for seven, eight hours straight, 10 hours,” Mr. Duncan told ethnomusicologist Craig Morrison in 2001. “We’d play ’til we’d just fall over and the hands were bleeding. I’d go in the rehearsal place and take a bunch of amphetamine and some LSD and just play for like a day and a half. And end up in the weirdest . . . places, not knowing . . . if it was actually any good or not.”

After the release of “Happy Trails,” Mr. Duncan left the group for about a year — in part because of drug use, Freiberg said — and then returned to record “Just for Love” (1970). The album included Quicksilver Messenger Service’s only single to reach the Top 50, “Fresh Air,” as well as a fresh-from-prison Valenti, who took over lead vocals after Mr. Duncan and his bandmates had taken turns at the mic.

Mr. Duncan played on subsequent albums before the group disbanded after the release of “Solid Silver” (1975). He revived the Quicksilver name in the late 1980s and in recent years toured with Freiberg, who also performed with Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, groups whose popularity had long ago eclipsed that of Quicksilver Messenger Service.

“Nobody really wanted to be a celebrity,” Mr. Duncan once told the website Classic Bands . “That’s kind of like the way all of us are. Virgo is the sign of the hermit in the Tarot cards. We were all hermits and still are.”
By most accounts, Mr. Duncan was born Gary Grubb in San Diego on Sept. 4, 1946, and raised in Ceres, Calif.
He gave few details on his upbringing but said he was a Native American orphan who “grew up with rednecks,” built and fixed cars, worked at canneries, served in the military and spent a year in prison for marijuana possession before launching his music career in earnest. “I didn’t think I would live past 25,” he told Classic Bands.

Under the stage name Gary Cole, Mr. Duncan sang with the California garage-rock band the Brogues — their single “I Ain’t No Miracle Worker” was included on “Nuggets,” an influential compilation of early psychedelic rock — before linking up with Quicksilver Messenger Service
They chose the name because four of the musicians shared the Virgo astrological sign, which is said to be “ruled,” in astrological terms, by the planet Mercury. Mr. Duncan recalled band members saying, “Well, let’s see — mercury’s the same as quicksilver, right? Mercury’s the messenger god? Quicksilver Messenger Service.”

In addition to working as a musician, Mr. Duncan had stints as a machinist, welder, diver, longshoreman and sailor, once taking a schooner from Malta across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Panama Canal, up to San Francisco and then across the Pacific, according to a 2007 report in Britain’s Observer newspaper.

He was also a self-avowed smuggler (of what, he did not say) and ran with the Hells Angels motorcycle group, declaring, “They can be dangerous and I’ve got a detached retina to prove it, but if they take you in, and they did, they’ll stay with you until the end.”

His marriage to Shelley L. Duncan — who wrote a memoir of their relationship, “My Husband the Rock Star” — ended in divorce, and in 1978 he married Dara Love. In addition to his wife, of Richmond, Calif., survivors include two children from his earlier marriage, Heather Duncan of Tracy, Calif., and Jesse Duncan of Merced, Calif.; three sons with Love Duncan, Thomas Duncan and Miles Duncan, both of Richmond, and Michael Duncan of San Francisco; and several grandchildren.

Mr. Duncan said he began playing the guitar because it was the instrument of rebels and tough guys. “If you’re going to play an electric guitar, you had to know how to kick people’s [butt], because they would be waiting to kick your [butt] when you came off the stage because they knew their girlfriends thought you was cute,” he told Morrison.

“Every guitar player I ever met was [nasty], because you had to be,” he added. “I had a guy walk up to me one time and punch me straight in the face when I was about 14 years old. I hit him in the back of the head with a Telecaster; he’s walking with a limp, now. I done him in. You had to fight to play.”

Thursday, June 27, 2019


Neil MacDonald in the Globe and Mail:

I've also seen Senator Elizabeth Warren up close.

It was in a union hall in Kentucky in 2014. She was stumping for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who was trying to unseat Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, but Grimes might as well not have been in the room once Warren — the tiny, intense former Harvard professor — took the stage.
Elizabeth Warren fully intends to change the system, and says so.

When she said how good it felt to be with working people in a workers' hall, you knew it wasn't a platitude. When she talked about taking on the venality of corporate America, you knew she meant it. As she talked, plainly and without the usual dumbed-down patronizing, the small talk in the crowd died. People stared. When she finished, they roared.

The only speaker I have ever seen hold a crowd like that was Lucien Bouchard, speaking to audiences of Quebecers in 1990 about the betrayal of the Meech Lake Accord.
Both politicians burned with intelligence, and radiated principle. Neither gave a toss for political triangulation. Both left their listeners convinced they meant what they said and would do it, and that to them, only the people mattered.
If you are not Canadian, the reference to Lucien Bouchard will pass you by.  But if you are and  remember 1990...well, look up Bouchard on the net.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

50 Days to the Moon

The Fast Company site is in the middle of a series on the first moon landing.  It contains all sorts of topics related to the Apollo 11 mission, technical, political, and cultural.  Here's an example: 
Once Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Eagle on the Moon, the Apollo 11 astronauts and their spaceship were actually lost.

  Oh, Mission Control never lost radio contact with them. But NASA was never able to figure out where, exactly, on the Moon they had set down, while they were on the Moon. And NASA sure did try.

 The landing area on the Moon that had been picked out for Apollo 11 was about the length of Manhattan and twice as wide. In photo surveys, it looked plain, flat, and bland—not interesting for geologists but a safe place to land a spaceship, the first time human beings ever tried that on a place off of Earth.
  But up close, the Sea of Tranquility was anything but tranquil. As Armstrong and Aldrin flew down toward the Moon in their lunar module, Armstrong was looking out the window and the spot the autopilot was flying them toward was, as Armstrong described it, a crater the size of a football field, littered with boulders, some as large as cars.
Not a comfortable place to try to land a gangly four-legged spaceship.

So Armstrong took manual control of where the lunar module was flying to—the spaceship computer still did all the actual flying, but Armstrong was instructing it where to go and at what speed.

In the end, he and Aldrin set down several miles from the original landing spot—on safe, level Moon ground, but not where they had planned to land. Armstrong, in particular, had studied photographs of the Sea of Tranquility in preparation for flying to it and knew the landmarks and the landscape of much of the area.

Andrew Chaikin, in his account of the Moon landings, A Man On the Moon, describes Armstrong’s reaction to landing in unfamiliar Moon terrain: “As he looked out (at Tranquility Base), Armstrong wondered where he and Aldrin had landed . . . . (He) searched the horizon for some feature he might be able to identify, but found none.”

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

2009 -- Stephen Harper's self-congratulatory history of Canada

CBC quotes the PM at the G20 conference:

“We’re so self-effacing as Canadians that we sometimes forget the assets we do have that other people see,” he said, speaking with a rare passion.
“We are one of the most stable regimes in history. ... We are unique in that regard,” he added, noting Canada had enjoyed more than 150 years of untroubled Parliamentary democracy.
Just in case that was not enough to persuade doubters, Harper threw in some more facts about the geographically second-largest nation in the world.

“We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them,” he said.

So all that land just fell into the laps of British and French colonizers settlers?

Friday, May 24, 2019

More on San Francisco's "gentrification"

Earlier this month I was recalling my visits to the Bay Area in the 80s and my puzzlement, then, about where the waiters lived in such an expensive city, one famous for its restaurants.

Well, I still don't have an answer to that question, but the "gentrification" (millionairization?) of SF (and other places too) is notorious. Essential California just now directed me to a substantial article in SFGATE.  An excerpt:

San Francisco has also become less welcoming of altruistic professions, as teachers and social workers are priced out of housing.
 The Sierra Club, founded in 1892, decamped to Oakland three years ago after its annual rent was projected to increase by almost $1.5 million. "Nonprofits are fleeing San Francisco. They can no longer afford it, " says Doug Styles of the Huckleberry Youth Program, founded during the Summer of Love to assist runaway teens. Retaining staff is a challenge. "We're missing that middle and lower economic group."
 Everyone has a story about what isn't here anymore. The inability to find a hardware store, a shoe repair, a lesbian bar, a drag-queen bar, an independent music club, the commercial casualties of vertiginous rents.
 Retail operations have resorted to quasi-nonprofit practices to stay afloat. Beatts' Borderlands Books, specializing in science fiction, mystery, fantasy and horror, remains afloat through $100 annual sponsorships from more than 500 customers, akin to a public television station, and $1.9 million in loans from 50 patrons to purchase a building in the Upper Haight. Restaurant owner Guerra launched a GoFundMe campaign to help defray rental costs. She also had to raise prices, which many small businesses have been forced to do.

Residents worry that such businesses will soon disappear, replaced by twee boutiques of artisanal socks, rain-scented candles and so many succulents. "All businesses that are part of the memory and tradition and the lives of San Franciscans are going away so fast, replaced by little hipster groovy shops that also feel transient, preserving some fake memory of the city," [Rebecca] Solnit says.
Artisanal socks!  The humiliation!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Reviewing "Chivalry in Westeros"

My review is posted at an appropriate time.

Jamison, Carol Parrish. Chivalry in Westeros: The Knightly Code of a Song of Ice and Fire. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2018. Pp. 217. $29.95. ISBN: 978-1-4766-7005-8.

   Reviewed by Steven Muhlberger
        Nipissing University (retired)

This century's most important work of popular medievalism is without a doubt George R.R. Martin's multi-volume A Song of Ice and Fire and the 8-year-long TV series A Game of Thrones which is based upon it. (In the following review I will call this work, books and TV series both, Game of Thrones, in line with common usage). Thousands upon thousands have read the books or pirated the episodes off the internet, and "Game of Thrones" has become a catchphrase used to describe vicious, bloodthirsty politics or Machiavellian intrigue. It is now a cheap but evocative way of characterizing our current situation as "medieval," that is, "bad." 

Game of Thrones has transcended normal levels of popularity. Readers and writers and film producers have swarmed over it, not only demanding more of the story but also the opportunity to create their own versions. The desire to engage with Game of Thrones springs from the fact that having caught the imagination, the story and the setting are both familiar to the audience and capable of being added to, to suit contemporary taste. Earlier examples are Ben Hur, the book and the movies, and the Lord of the Rings and other works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ben Hur made the Holy Land and the passion of Christ, a sacred setting and story for a 19th century audience, more accessible; Tolkien made a vast magical world by mining the aesthetics of the Middle Ages. Martin also builds on a medieval foundation. The world of Game of Thrones, the fictional continent of Westeros, is medieval enough to be familiar and unique enough to make the story fresh. 

Jamison is one of the many who find Martin's mix of real and invented medieval history fascinating. She is certainly well qualified to critique and enjoy Game of Thrones--her academic expertise includes both medieval literature and medievalism. The preface and chapter one establish the parameters for her examination. Medievalism is defined in a number of ways perhaps most usefully by Tom Shippey as "the study of responses to the Middle Ages at all periods since a sense of the medieval began to develop." [1] Of course this is a very broad definition, and Jamison narrows it down; of the many possible medievalisms, her subject is Martin's contribution to the literature of chivalry. 

Chivalry in Westeros systematically works its way through a variety of issues that arise in any discussion of chivalry. Jamison is particularly interested in "the code" of chivalry and how the ideals professed by various characters in Chivalry in Westeros and the stories those characters cite in discussions with each other shape an informal debate on the nature of chivalry and its relationship to other values supposedly held by the society at large. The way in which traditions emerge from such debates, oral and written, is the subject of two whole chapters. One suspects that this analysis may have been included for the benefit of students or teachers who have not thought much about the workings of literary tradition before picking up this book. The treatment certainly is quite extensive with discussion of many actual medieval chivalric works.

Interestingly, Jamison gives pride of place to an examination of the chivalric virtue of franchise. For the purposes of this review, franchise can be defined very briefly as nobility, though it might be equated with chivalry. Franchise, like chivalry, is multi-faceted. Here it is examined in detail because it reflects the idea that real knights are of noble birth and have such obvious attributes as provable noble descent and physical beauty. Of course, neither in our Middle Ages nor in Westeros are all knights actually noble, or in unambiguous possession of the proofs of superior status. Jamison cites many examples of "social climber" knights. Franchise is tricky--and the possession or lack of it is a matter of debate. Many people who in fact do not possess basic characteristics of knighthood take a rather cynical view of the old standards; others need to fake it if they are to be anything more than "hedge [poor] knights" scraping by on the basis of a modicum of prowess or willingness to engage in treachery. The result is that chivalry, despite the sins of many who claim to be practitioners and a recurrent skepticism about its reality, is clearly central to the culture of Westeros. The bulk of the book examines such virtues and characteristics of chivalry as loyalty, prowess, vengeance, and peace-weaving and how they actually shape behavior in Westeros.

Discussion of chivalry is a discussion of ideals versus reality. It is in the nature of such debates that they are unlikely to be resolved. In Jamison's presentation, the problems with chivalry spring not from the faults of individuals, but are inherent in the incoherence of chivalry. It is a matter of broken ideals rather than broken people. [2] Likewise, it shows that whether one consults with medieval romancers, the chroniclers of the Round Table, or George R.R. Martin on the reality of chivalry, the same themes emerge. 

Jamison states at the beginning of Chivalry in Westeros that her interest in using Martin's work was as a jumping-off point for teaching medieval literature and medievalism. In the last chapter, "Conclusions," she returns to this point--how Game of Thrones can be used to enhance (or, admittedly, serve to hinder) a non-specialist's understanding of the Middle Ages. She makes a rather convincing case for the usefulness of Game of Thrones in teaching medievalism, namely when it is done well and the students are receptive. Jamison refers to her experience in incorporating Game of Thrones in courses on medieval literature. Some students wrote papers touching on such sophisticated topics as the creation of "authenticity" in our accounts of medieval history and culture. Likewise students used Game of Thrones to shed light on modern concerns. Her descriptions of her students' accomplishments were very persuasive. This student work sounds on a par with work that has been produced by some of my better students when they get really inspired by a topic. At this point in history, Martin's vivid pseudo-medieval world can lead some students and scholars in interesting directions.


1. "Medievalisms and Why They Matter," Studies in Medievalism(s) XVII: Defining Medievalism(s), ed. Karl Fugelso (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2009), 45-54. 

2. p. 113: "[Le Morte Darthur] is not simply a tragedy of character; it is a tragedy of ideas...chivalry is noble but fatally flawed, fatally unstable and so too must be its practitioners," quoting Kenneth Hodges, Forging Chivalric Communities in Malory's Le Morte Darthur (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 2.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Restoring Notre Dame

 This post is a public service.  It was copied to the MEDIEV-L e-mail list by Terri Morgan.  Thanks, Terri.

A friend, Ian Steward,  who does reconstruction of historical buildings (mainly in the US but also in Europe & Canada) posted this on his Facebook account and gave permission to share it. I believe it may be germane to the discussion.  – Terri Morgan

*Pulls up soap box, climbs up*

It's been less than 48 hours, and it's amazing, though it shouldn't be, how much misinformation and just plain lies are floating around about Notre Dame. As a professional timber framer/architectural conservator with a Master's in Historic Preservation, who teaches Preservation Carpentry and is actively engaged in the preservation trades world, I felt the need to weigh in.

So, let me take a moment to put some things out there.

1. "The firemen did not do a good job."
-The fire brigade did exactly what they were supposed to. They got the people, then the artwork and artifacts out, then they fought the fire by keeping the stones cool so they would not break, and by keeping the fire from spreading. The only part of the structure which was seriously compromised was the stone vaulting under the spire, which was a later addition and was heavier than the vault could handle under stress. Especially since it turned into a flaming spear.

2. "There aren't the right trees, in France anymore" "The trees are too small"
- The oak is a prevalent tree in France, nay in all of Europe, to say that the trees don't exist is nonsense. Also, there were replacement trees planted during the le Duc restoration, so they're now rounding the 170+ year mark, perfect for this restoration.

3. "We don't have the craftspeople capable of doing this work."
- Stop, just stop. That sentence is flat out an insult, to myself, and to anyone else who plies my trade. In France there is an ancient Guild which does just this, the Compagnon, in the United States, there is the Timber Framers Guild. As for the other crafts, they are still alive and well, how else would buildings be restored? The Preservation Trades Network, the Engine Shed in Scotland, just to name a few are places where these trades are kept alive.

4. "It will have to be rebuilt to modern specifications"
- Why? It lasted for 800 years, and as I said earlier, did exactly what it was supposed to. The wooden part on a cathedral is seen as expendable, it's designed to burn and not damage the arches underneath. It's designed to be repaired/restored, like it was in the 19th century by le Duc.

5. "Lead is poisonous and shouldn't be used as a roof"
-Lead is also perfect for a cathedral roof, it doesn't succumb to oxidation and in this case, can last for nearly eight centuries. Think using lead is bad, don't go up and snack on the roof, otherwise you're good.

That's all for now. And so to end on a lighter note. I hear the investigation as to what the cause of the fire was is still ongoing. I think we should ask Quasimodo, I think he has a hunch...

*Climbs off soapbox*

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Fanfic, Byzantine literature and 21st century culture

I have mused here before on how the science-fiction subculture that was so important to me in the 1960s and 70s has emerged as a very important element in current "popular" (right word?) culture.  I am hardly the only person to notice this. because many scholars -- generally a bit younger than me--study "popular" culture with the same seriousness that they study anything else.

And they often do that because they are producers of "popular" culture as well as part of its audience.

Take for example Arkady Martine's article:

On the Cult of Originality: What Byzantine Literary Culture Can Tell Us About Fanfiction,

. which appeared recently on the site, being a major science-fiction and fantasy publisher. Martine is interested in the phenomenon of fanfiction (fanfic).

Fanfic is a derivative (unoriginal?) art form. If you love Mr. Spock and wish there were more stories about him, and I have a great idea for a Sherlock Holmes novel that Conan Doyle never thought of, and we write up our particular visions and (usually)distribute them in a non-commercial way, that is fanfic, written by and for fans. tells us that Martine is a fan writer whose first commercially published novel A Memory Called Empire has just come out. Martine is also a published scholar on the subject of Byzantine literature. Byzantine literature of the Middle Byzantine period is often considered unoriginal and not very good at all, because it draws so heavily on other people's work.

Fanfic, or close to it.

But is it inherently inferior?  Martine the scholar argues pretty convincingly that Byzantine fanfic has got the virtues of current fanfic. One of the main virtue being community building.

Have a look.

Makes me lick my lips in anticipation -- medieval Genoa

A recent book comes to us from the Medieval Review:

Benes, Carrie E., ed. A Companion to Medieval Genoa. Brill's Companions to European History, 15. Leiden: Brill, 2018. Pp. xxvii, 560. $229.00. ISBN: 978-90-04-36061-7.

   Reviewed by Laura K. Morreale
        Independent Scholar
And the first paragraph makes it sound so, so attractive:
On page one of chapter seventeen, entitled "Genoa and the Crusade," author Merav Mack argues that "Genoese history is a narrative not of one city but of distant but closely-linked parts of the Mediterranean" (471). Although this statement appears near the collection's end, it neatly encapsulates editor Carrie Benes's vision throughout A Companion to Medieval Genoa, a work that emphasizes connections between the Genoese local and remote, comprehensively fleshed out in the book's maps, figures, glossary, and eighteen essay-length chapters.  
Now in real life, I could never afford this -- well, maybe if I studied Italy-- but I admire the editor and the article authors  for the ambition of their enterprise.  In a different lifetime I might have written works that emphasized connections  "of distant but closely-linked parts" of the Mediterranean and other regions.

Image:  Genoa as a top Mediterranean port today.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Thinking about the past -- Agincourt

French authorities are investing lots of money in the historical displays at Agincourt. Why? Tourist spending, of course!

But the real story, as far as I am concerned is the grown-up emphasis in the historical presentation, particularly on the French side, as reported by the BBC.
When the old museum opened on the site in 2001, its exhibition boards said 9,000 English soldiers fought 30,000 French at Agincourt.

The new centre, expected to open in the autumn, will reduce these figures to 8,500 English and 12,500 French.

It's still an upset, but a long way from Shakespeare's underdog story of Englishmen outnumbered five to one.

Before diehard fans of Henry V cry foul, Mr Gilliot [the museuum director]says the numbers were agreed in consultation with historians from England and France.
They are based on research by Professor Anne Curry of the University of Southampton, who studied financial records at the National Archives in London.
Records show that Henry V took 12,000 men with him when he set out from Southampton and left many of them behind to man the garrison after an earlier victory at the port of Harfleur.

Prof Curry says her findings are respected by medieval historians, but unpopular with some English fans of the Agincourt story.
 Chain mail to hate mail
"I've had hate mail and trolling and I've been astonished how seriously people take these things," she said. Prof Curry thinks this can partly be explained by how Agincourt is seen in England in patriotic terms. When she attended the 600th anniversary of the battle in 2015, people came draped in St George's flags. There is a sense of "how we have fended off France in the past", she said.

Prof Curry believes Agincourt's myths persist in part because so many people claim to be descended from soldiers who fought there. Unsurprisingly, her research on the size of the armies has not faced resistance in France. But regardless of the troop tallies, it still seems surprising that the French national and regional governments are investing so heavily in a lost battle.

'Just history'
But Mr Gilliot says patriotism in France is "different".
"We had the revolution in 1789, and since this period we don't really care whether a battle was lost or won by what we call the 'ancien regime'," he said.
"It is just history." Mr Gilliot says the level of knowledge of this historical period differs between French and English visitors.

"We are very surprised that a lot of English people know their national history very well and sometimes we have visitors who are descended from a nobleman who participated in the battle," he said.

"English people want to know where the castle was that Shakespeare describes in his play, or to visit the battlefield.
For the French visitors, the questions are very different, they often ask who won the Hundred Years War. We are seeing that the Medieval period is not really covered in schools in France."
'No boasting'
But he has never met English visitors boasting about the result.
"Our English visitors are very respectful, interested and well-educated, and they sometimes help us by pointing out problems in our translations," he said.