Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Attention, all you Poles and Lithuanians!

From the Medieval Review, an excerpt from a long and positive book review. I know some of my friends and readers will be very interested!
To see this review with the correct diacritical marks, please see the web archive:

Frost, Robert. The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania, Vol. 1: The Making of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, 1385-1569. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xxv, 564. £85.00/$135.00. ISBN: 978-0-19-820869-3.

Reviewed by Piotr Górecki

University of California-Riverside

This could (but will not) be a short review. Robert Frost has written an outstanding book, as good as it is big--a major contribution to the history of the polity linked by the hyphen in its title, and to the history of early modern Europe. The book is a major benchmark in Frost's distinguished output addressing specific aspects of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's history, situated in the broad context of its contemporary Europe. [1] It consolidates Poland-Lithuania's entrance into top-tier scholarship conceived and written in English over the past twenty years or so [2]--a process parallel, and related to, an analogous inclusion of Poland, Lithuania, and East Central Europe in the general historiography of medieval Europe. [3]

Frost introduces his book as an histoire événementielle, prompting my one (slight) disagreement with him. The tag is too modest and self-effacing. The book's story frames, and brilliantly develops, a wide range of subjects, all visible to the reader. This is in fact a profoundly thematic book. That said, it is indeed structured as one continuous, seamless narration, huge in its scope and its particulars. Its subjects are, so to speak, layered throughout the text, and developed in its course. As a result, the book is best read in its entirety, from beginning to end--a most worthwhile exercise, because Frost's prose is outstanding: tightly-packed yet translucent, highly engaging and interesting in basic storytelling terms, and witty. We have here a lovely example of the current return of "narrative" history at its best, into the core of what we do.

Especially conspicuous are three interrelated subjects: people, places, and constructs. The book is a biographical gallery of a huge number of individually etched actors: kings of Poland; dukes and grand dukes of Lithuania; contenders for those two offices; and a myriad other specific protagonists who made up the political worlds presided by these rulers. No less important is a collective generic actor: the political community, [4] above all the royal or grand-ducal "council"; the noble, or knightly, "assembly," or "general assembly"; and higher-level collectivities, such as the "nobility," "boyars," "Poles," "Lithuanians," and, perhaps most recurrently, "community of the realm." The places are: the major realms, or polities--Lithuania, Poland, Masovia, and "Royal" Prussia [5]--of which the first two formed the principal union, the second two joined it through unions with Poland; the localities where the major phases of the story occurred, and left a written record; and the localities relevant to the governance and administration of the four polities comprising the union.

And there is much more...

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Voting for a third-party candidate

When Americans talk about "third parties" they do so in the context of a political culture that for a very long time has given so much importance to a competition between two major parties that voting for or founding or working for a "third" party has to be assumed to be futile. Except, of course, for those who hold idealistic or even utopian hopes that can't be realized by working through one of the two major parties.

I have a pretty wide idealistic streak myself, but I find myself extremely frustrated by what I consider the unrealistic appreciation of the possibilities of American politics on the part of so-called protest voters. And not just American politics. We are taught that elections decide policies. I think it in a large polity like United States or Canada that is seldom the case. At least you and I as individuals can't guarantee that our needs and wishes will be addressed in any sort of direct way. Far more often we are in the position of voting against catastrophe and I believe that has to be the top priority. It's not just a matter of this year, though the situation in the United States is a very dramatic illustration. When people whose intellect and goodwill I respect talk about voting for the Greens or the Libertarians because they like some aspects of their programs, I want to scream that "the top priority this year is avoiding catastrophe."

That they don't realize how crucial this is makes me wonder where such protest voters were in the year 2000 when protest voting was a important factor in the election of George W. Bush. Think of the environmental damage and the disastrous state of the Middle East that can be traced back to Bush rather than Gore being the president when important issues had to be decided. The entire human community has suffered great harm that will go on for centuries because of the results of that election. The protest voters --what did they get for their idealistic stand?

Image: You can always vote for the regular guy.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Blogging medievalism: Sypeck and Gygax

Back about a decade ago, when I started this blog, I felt a bit like a Johnny-come-lately. Lots of professional medievalists, a pretty bright and eloquent bunch, were already churning out commentary or autobiographical reflections at a great rate. I had a long list of their blogs. Of course those days are pretty much dead, as bloggers have moved on to faster, simpler platforms like FB or Twitter &c. Blog lists at the side of many a blog link to forums that haven't been added to since 2011. But there are the honorable exceptions, for instance Jeff Sypeck's Quid Plura?. Jeff is a Charlemagne scholar who is both light and serious in his way of handling things, all sorts of things, including his own poetry. Long may Quid Plura? wave.

A good example of Jeff's virtues is the blog entry/review “Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution…”. It is a discussion of the importance of Gary Gygax, a co-inventor of Dungeons and Dragons, and the significance of D&D itself. The focus of the post, however, is Sypeck's contention that despite the appearance of an interesting biography of Gygax, Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons there is no fullinvestigation of the life and thought of this key figure of the popular culture of the past half-century.

This passage says much:
Early on, Gygax supported his family as an insurance underwriter, but Witwer suggests that the main influence of this job on his game-writing hobby was the convenience of the office typewriter. I don’t doubt that the typewriter was handy—but isn’t it noteworthy that a guy who spent his days poring over actuarial data would go on to craft a game around pages and pages of probability-based tables? I wish Witwer had drawn this connection; there’s meaning in it. It’s charming that one of the quirkiest countercultural pastimes, now an endless wellspring of self-expression and creativity, has roots in a field that most people find utterly deadening.

The biggest surprise in Empire of Imagination pops up halfway through the book, when Witwer writes about conflicts between the Gygaxes and their children in the late 1970s:

Another point of dissension between Gary and his son was that Ernie had drifted away from his parents’ faith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In times past, Gary had made attempts to pull away from gaming in favor of devoting more time to his faith, but such efforts were always short-lived. And while not “devout” by Jehovah’s Witness standards, Gary and Mary Jo had maintained the religious affiliation and expected their children to follow suit.

Wait—what? The Prime Mover of geekdom and godfather of role-playing games, dogged by accusations of promoting demonology and witchcraft, was a Jehovah’s Witness? That’s a heck of a revelation not to poke with a stick. Was he born into the religion? Did he adopt it as an adult? Witwer doesn’t say. Twenty pages later, Gygax and his wife break from their church over gaming, drinking, and smoking, and that’s that. But how can it be that the co-creator of a game steeped in magic, mysticism, polytheism, and violence was active in a faith most of us think of as uncompromising and austere? Are there traces of the religion in the design of D&D, and if so, what are they?

It’s clear from Witwer’s lengthy sketch that Gygax demands a thorough intellectual biography. He was a complex autodidact whose inner life wasn’t easy to categorize or explain, the product of an unrepeatable alchemy of place, time, and personality—but unless someone can conjure a compilation of interviews, letters, and reminiscences by family and friends, Empire of Imagination may be the best glimpse of his life we’re going to get. It’s engaging and earnest; it just doesn’t feel done.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Acts of the Apostles and the riots of the Roman Peace

I am currently reading the New Testament more or less in the order that it was written. I began with the Acts of the Apostles, which discusses the missionary efforts of Jesus's followers after his ascension to heaven.

Taking the Acts as a historical document, I am very impressed by how chaotic social religious and political scene was in this era of "Roman peace." Many of you know that during this apostolic era was characterized by strong opposition to the new Christian movement by a variety of better established Jewish and Greek/Roman parties. It is remarkable how nervous the established powers seem to have been – how quickly they ran to the Roman authorities to denounce the new religious movement. There is a lot of actual fighting described or implied, and of course sometimes the opponents of the Christians got them imprisoned, beaten up, and murdered.

We have to wonder-- at least I do – whether the reaction by the established religious authorities was justified or completely out of proportion. Is there a big difference between these two alternatives? Either way it's not exactly happy days in the Eastern Mediterranean in the first century A.D.

You might well come away with a much more sympathetic understanding of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who did his best to stay out of the conflict between the established Jewish authorities in Jerusalem and Jesus's movement. It may have been commonplace to credit the Romans and their representatives with peace and reform, but if you were one of the governors mentioned in Acts, you probably felt that your office was like a wild horse, and you would be lucky to stay on it.

A battle over the meaning of 9/11

My contribution to counteract the current effort of Facebook to censor a dissenting voice.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


When Canada was supporting the "Coalition" war in Afghanistan, there was very little effort to bring the reality of that war, from any perspective, to the public. Canadians were shooting, getting shot, bombing and getting blown up. However there were no presentations to speak of what this conflict might mean to a real or even a fictional Canadian or Afghan.

Except Afghanada.

Afghanada was a radio drama series, part of a long tradition at the CBC. That tradition was being eroded by funding cuts. But somebody took a chance and commissioned a four-episode series about the war.

It took off. In the end, the CBC made 103 episodes. One hundred and three.

I am relistening to the series and it is, just as I remember, very down to earth and focused on Canadian soldiers, Canadian medics, Afghan civilians, casualties of all sorts.

You can go here and buy the majority of these episodes.

Image: The LAV III, practically a character itself.

By Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum - Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Mohenjo Daro hits the big screen!

Mohenjo Daro is one of the sites associated with the very ancient Indus Valley Civilization, which is roughly contemporaneous with the earliest Mesopotamian civilizations. They had writing but we can't read it. Thus when somebody decided to produce a movie, named Mohenjo Daro, about this long-ago era, they had to make just about everything up.

The news here is that they seem to have done a good job! At least according to AE Larsen, a scholar who runs a historical movie blog An Historian Goes to the Movies . Have a look at the trailer above. It's gorgeous! Oh, yes, Larsen reminds me that the remake of Ben Hur is imminent. It looks good, too.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Socotra Island: The Most Alien-Looking Place on Earth

Well, I just discovered this on another blog: Dark Roasted Blend. It's been around for a long time, and I suspect that it's a treasure house.

Here's some of the "alien" landscape of Socotra Island:

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Not quite so welcome

Canada has got a lot of praise recently for its generous attitude towards admitting Syrian refugees. And rightfully so.

But Canadians are not so keen on another group: rich, mainly Chinese immigrants who have been moving into the Vancouver area for years and driving up real estate prices to a more than merely remarkable extent. That real estate boom (and a somewhat different boom in places like Toronto) has a major effect on the national economy as a whole. And it makes it easy to blame foreigners for this unbalanced, potentially perilous situation.

Of course, the word racism comes up, in part because British Columbia has a history of excluding Asian immigrants.

But it's not a simple situation. A recent article in the Globe and Mail discussed at length the fact that different groups of Chinese immigrants don't get along with each other; older immigrants and their children and grandchildren don't feel any great solidarity with new immigrants from other regions.

Here is one Globe and Mail article. There are plenty more. Like this one about the not exactly rich, not necessarily immigrant.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Loeb Classical Library saves civilization

The Loeb Classical Library is a bit over one hundred years old. It was meant to be useful to a wide group of readers -- each volume has not just the original text but also a facing translation into English. As you can imagine many people who had an excellent classical education scorned the project. The poet John Talbot is one of the defenders of the LCL:
I have a little apocalyptic fantasy that involves the collection of Loebs in my local library. It’s a complete set, from Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn to the twilight of Ammianus Marcellinus. The very sight of it is reassuringly tidy: all the sprawling energies of a thousand years of Greek and Roman thought and song, distilled and compacted into these snug matching volumes, the Greek bound in olive drab, the Latin in scarlet. Run your fingers over the spines. Here are The Classics.

Then comes a nuclear holocaust. My local library, like others around the world, is mostly pulverized, but an accident involving molten rubber preserves the case of Loebs intact within a sealed airtight cavity beneath the rubble. Centuries elapse and deposit their layers of sediment. Above ground, the descendants of the survivors plod on, speaking a crude version of English, and when their vestigial civilization is at last stable enough to permit cultivation of the liberal arts, their curiosity turns to the prior civilization, ours, whose evident sophistication is attested only in the occasionally exposed ruin, or in fragments of excavated texts. Of this second category, a half-page of Danielle Steele, the corner of a Dunkin’ Donuts advert, and the odd shred of Paradise Regained are all scrutinized, edited, and interpreted with equal zeal. The fragments are exasperating: they imply a vast literature, and behind it a teeming culture, all tantalizingly out of reach.

Until one day when excavation unseals that underground cavity, and for the first time in so many centuries, sunlight falls on those green and red spines. The whole Loeb Classical Library, dedicated to preserving whatever could be salvaged from an even earlier lost civilization, has itself survived intact. The excavators fall upon the cache and discover not only the English (which they can mostly make out, though it appears to them as remote as Chaucer to us) but also, to their astonishment, on the facing pages, two strange, even more ancient languages, one with an unfamiliar alphabet. Amid a storm of speculations it is posited that the English is the key to the other two tongues, and in time a latter-day Champollion steps forward and reconstructs the grammar of Latin and Greek. His successors, pioneer scholars of the recovered ancient languages, are at first awestruck—what are these voices speaking out of the dust?—and then electrified, as they begin to read and assimilate Homer and Sophocles and Lucretius and Augustine. These voices must be emulated; the standards are daunting but stimulating; though ancient, they point the way to something new. Academies are organized for teaching the new languages; young souls (they will become poets and historians and scientists) are once again smitten by the songs of Sappho and Catullus, the grave brilliance of Thucydides and Tacitus, the searching effervescence of Plato’s Socrates and Aristotle’s dogged earthbound inquisitiveness. The post-apocalyptic world shrugs off its torpor, hums with ideas and energy and hope. I suppose what I mean by all this is that it is good to know that the Loeb Classical Library is there, patiently waiting, in case any civilization (not least our own present one) should require a renaissance.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Kyrgyzstan: horses, camels and traditional costumes

Go see Oodarysh (or horse fighting).

I was wondering whether Oodarysh players or jousters would feel they owned the macho high ground, should they meet. But then I realized that if the jousters I know are typical, they would all want to try the other sport, as soon as anyone would give them 30 seconds of instruction.

Courtesy of the Globe and Mail.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The stakes in the American election

I'm resisting the urge to comment on the presidential election as best I can, but this post by Hunter at Daily Kos is sensible and eloquent:
You may note, readers, that I have little patience for the premise that both parties are equally crooked and that We Might As Well Stay Home, or however it is being phrased in any of its particular election incarnations, and so have little patience for Jill Stein's pitch to Sanders supporters this go-around. We have already put this theory to the test, after all: We were told it would make no difference whether we elected a not-progressive-enough lifelong politician or his counterpart, an overprivileged idiot man-child with a middling business record and no intellectual curiosity whatsoever. We tested the premise, and came away with smoking holes in the ground, wars, worldwide instability, nuclear proliferation, massive deficits, and a global recession.

So, apparently, there is at least a little difference in results depending on whether you elect a not-progressive-enough, too-corporate-connected lifelong politician or an overprivileged idiot man-child spouting gibberish. There are not many opportunities to test political theories in real life, but we have tested this precise one using the entire collected resources of the nation, and been uniquely privy to the results.

There may once have been a time when it was true that there was insufficient difference between the parties to vote for either. It has not been true in my lifetime, however. When one party is proudly implementing voting restrictions against minorities, you are obligated to not merely ignore them, but defeat them. When one party is proposing an ethnic minority be scrutinized, rounded up, and shipped from the country en masse due to the "danger" they pose, you are obligated not merely to snuffle your theoretical disapproval, but to stop them. If you value a supposed American tradition of freedom of religion but suppose that the asked-for closing of the border to members of one particular religion would be an acceptable risk, so long as your own conscience is not sullied by having to vote for someone you don’t like very much either, you clearly believe your conscience to be worth more than other people's children.

You are proudly declaring that you will move forward, you will ford that river to a more progressive future in which racism is condemned and Americans who look different from you or believe different things no longer live in fear—but not if it requires getting your shoes wet. Carry me, my fellow Americans! Carry me across this one more time, and I promise I'll be right there marching with you again when we've reached the next dry road.

If you cannot tell the difference between the rhetoric and policies espoused by the Republican Party during the Obama presidency and that of the Democratic Party during the same period, or between now-nominee Donald Trump and now-nominee Hillary Clinton in specific—and it seems Jill Stein is among those who cannot, or who is willing to at least pretend at it—then you are declaring that those differences are no big deal. The xenophobia, the racism, the angry nationalism, plus the declarations from a sitting House member on the accomplishments of the white race, the insistence that religious rights of employers trump those of their employees, the mocking of the very notion that the American worker might deserve a little more than mere poverty, papers please laws targeting minority drivers and voters—those are all so unimportant to you as to be mere background noise to your own complaints. That does not speak well of your political acumen. It suggests a person who is not, in fact, paying attention.

It is something that can be spouted only by people who feel that the worst abuses of the idiot man-child and his allies will not fall upon them. They are not, after all, the ones being targeted. So the risk can be taken. You can be assured that the people whose shoulders that risk is being heaped upon, however, will notice.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

William Marshal

Some insight on the character of William Marshal. He is lying on his deathbed:

The Marshal called to John of Earley

and said "Shall I tell you surprising thing?"

"Yes my Lord, but do not tire yourself out."

"I don't know what it all means

But in truth I can tell you this,

That for the last three years or even longer,

As far as I know, I haven't had

Such a great lords to sing

As I've had these last three days;

I can truly say as much,

But I don't know that it will please God."

John replied: "My Lord, do sing

For the love of God, if you're capable

Of giving yourself to that. The heart would take comfort

In your body and that would be a good thing,

For your joy would be restored.

It please God, it would be helpful

For it might bring back your appetite."

"Be quiet, John," the earl said,

"Such a song would do me no good at all,

For the people here, I believe,

Would think I was a madman.

Most of them would think, hearing me sing

That I was out of my mind."

He would not sing, nor could he.

Then Henry Fitz Gerold said:

"My lord, in the name of our God of glory,

Send for your daughters,

And they will sing some piece

That will do you good and comfort you."

The daughters were sent for and they duly appeared,

For they were glad to obey his commands.

"Matilda, you be the first sing,"

He said. She had no wish to do so,

For her life at the time was a bitter cup,

But she had no wish to disobey

Her father's command.

She started to sing Since she wished to please her father,

And she sang exceedingly well

Giving a verse of a song

In a sweet, clear voice.

"Joan, sing on as best you can!"

She sang one verse from a routrouenge,

but timidly.

"Don't be bashful when you sing," said the earl,

"For, if you are, you will not perform well

And the words will not come across in the right way;

the words you've just sang certainly didn't."

So the marshal taught her

How to sing the words.

Once the song was finished, he said to them:

"My daughters, go in the name of Christ

Who guards and protects all those who believe in him;

I pray to him to grant you his protection."

As was fitting, they took their leave.

Once they had left his bedside,

He said: "There are five of my daughters,

I believe. If all of them hold together,

So it please God, it could well be

That great good could come of it."

-- From the S. Gregory translation of the History of William Marshal, Anglo- Norman Text Society

Friday, July 29, 2016

Why the Middle Ages Are Important

Back when I was still teaching medieval history at Nipissing University, I was asked to introduce a display on the Middle Ages put on by the North Bay museum @Discovery North Bay. I wrote this script but did not deliver it. Only a handful of people showed up for the opening, so I was able to lead them through the display and make the same points in a more personal way, while discussing the artifacts and reconstructions. It was fun, doing it that way. Nevertheless, coming across this script on my harddrive today, I found that I liked it. So here it is. Note the first paragraph, which explains what I found rewarding about working at a small, obscure university.

Why the Middle Ages Are Important

May 24, 2008

@Discovery North Bay, opening of "Once upon a time..."

I would like to thank @Discovery North Bay for the invitation to speak at today's opening. Nipissing University was founded by citizens of North Bay and the surrounding region because they believed their home region could make an original and worthwhile intellectual and cultural contribution to Canadian life. When the university and the community meet here on occasions like this, we are fulfilling the dreams of those founders.

Why are the Middle Ages important? I don't have to argue today that they are important because the exhibit itself is proof enough. It was not created by professional academic medievalists, but by museum staff who work with the public all the time, and their judgment was that people in Ontario want to know more about the Middle Ages. If their own contacts with the public were not good enough, they could point to such recent films as the Lord of the Rings, or the three different recent movie versions of Beowulf, or the wild success of the Da Vinci Code, book and movie both. None of these modern cultural products show the Middle Ages as they really were. They are all consciously or unconsciously legendary or mythological reworkings of medieval material. Tolkien knew medieval literature better than almost anyone, and was a brilliant and original analyst of Beowulf, among other things, but when he wanted to talk to a contemporary public, he created a whole new world, similar to northern Europe in the Middle Ages but in many ways vastly different. And it's not just modern people who have reworked the Middle Ages to make a point. The anonymous Beowulf poet didn't show his hero as a normal person in normal country in a normal time, but put him in a landscape full of monsters and superhuman challenges. Thus when modern film directors mess around with Beowulf they've got good precedent.

But “Once upon a Time,” even though its title evokes the Middle Ages as a source of modern dreams, is not a mythological treatment. Like scholarship in other forms, it tries to get behind the myths and legends and appreciate the people the Middle Ages in this case the later Middle Ages as the home of real people with real problems and real aspirations, who came up with solutions and created social institutions that are still alive in our own world.

“Medieval” is often used to mean something like “unfathomable cruelty,” a phrase I stole from Carl Pyrdum, a graduate student at Yale, but much that we are familiar with and value in the modern world originated in the Middle Ages. The people who invented the phrases “dark ages” and “middle ages” meant to put down the postclassical era, and inspire people to build a better modern world to rival the great accomplishments of antiquity. Yet we can hardly do without the heritage of the Middle Ages. To take two examples relevant to Canada, both parliament and universities came out of the efforts of knights and warriors on one hand and clerics on another to improve their own society. The original members of the House of Commons were knights, seeking effective and fair government, the original university students and teachers were members of the clergy, seeking to understand theology and law, universal and human order. The Middle Ages created things so large that we hardly appreciate their medieval origins: in pre-medieval times there was no England, no France, no Poland, no Russia. The Romans had fantastic public bathhouses but no mechanical clocks, yet by the end of the Middle Ages every important town in Europe had a public clock. Think of Big Ben next to the British Houses of Parliament and not far from Westminster Abbey or the University of London and you think about our practical medieval heritage.

I hope you enjoy “Once Upon a Time…” which highlights some of the more striking and beautiful accomplishments of the Middle Ages. But I hope you will take a moment, when looking at the artifacts and reconstructions, think about the people behind them: the real medieval people who are the subject of the exhibition, and the real modern people who put it together for you. You'll get a taste of the fascination of the Middle Ages today, but just a taste. I hope it will inspire you to look closer. One thing about history is that no matter how good a given reconstruction is, there's always more. Life is big and complicated and hard to describe. “Once upon a time..." can be the end of your journey to the Middle Ages, but I rather hope there will be a beginning or perhaps a new beginning.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Joe Biden speaks for America

I heard that Joe Biden's speech to the Democratic National Convention was really good so I had a look at it. It surely was a classic American speech. Its very accurate and very straightforward attacks on Donald Trump were appreciated too. What I really noticed, however, was this how the speech revealed something I've noticed before in American rhetoric. Americans have no problem believing and saying that their country is unique and uniquely good, that it includes all the virtues of all of humanity, and always has led and is leading the way into the future, which America owns. (That last bit was pretty much exactly what Biden said at the end of the speech.) How many countries in the world can believe this about themselves? Most of us who do not live in the United States or say China perforce have to take a considerably more modest view of our place in the universe.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The war comes home

Saddam Hussein's Iraq was once known as the Republic of Fear

. There were at least two books with that title. Today I saw in a grocery store the cover of the Canadian newsmagazine Macleans. The cover story was -- you guessed it -- The Republic of Fear. And what country do you think Macleans was talking about?