Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Feast for the Eyes: Art, Performance and the Late Medieval Banquet, by Christina Normore

From the Medieval Review (online book review source): Normore, Christina. A Feast for the Eyes: Art, Performance and the Late Medieval Banquet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pp. viii, 261. $55.00. ISBN: 978-0-226-24220-0.

Reviewed by Claire Sponsler

University of Iowa


In February of 1454 in the city of Lille, Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, sponsored a banquet whose purpose was to promote a crusade against the Turks who in the previous year had captured Constantinople. Although the propaganda effort failed (the crusade was never undertaken), the banquet itself made quite an impression, as well it might, given that it featured among other entertainments an actor dressed in white satin to represent the Church of Constantinople, entering the hall on an elephant led by a giant Saracen; twenty-four musicians who played their instruments inside a gargantuan pie; and marvelous automata that included a tiger battling a serpent in a desert landscape and a boy riding a golden-horned stag, the two singing a duet as they circled the tables set up for the banqueters. The Feast of the Pheasant, as this astonishing event came to be called, made it into the historical record in unusually detailed form, most notably in the Memoirs of Olivier de la Marche and the Chroniques of Mathieu d'Escouchy, and while it is not the only banquet discussed by Christina Normore, it serves as a running example of the complexities of feasting in late medieval culture--her topic in this multilayered and ambitious book.

It might initially seem odd that an art historian would choose banquets as an object of study, but that, as Normore stresses, is exactly the point, both for art history and for the cultural history of medieval Europe. By focusing her eye on feasts, Normore demonstrates what the history of art stands to gain by broadening its scope beyond the traditional high arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture in order to take in a form that is usually relegated to the so-called, and lesser, decorative arts. What the cultural history of medieval Europe reaps, even more importantly, is a less anachronistic (because less constrained by modern categories of aesthetic activity and notions of individual talent) and hence more accurate view of the insistently mixed-media and collaborative arts of late medieval and early modern Europe, such as feasting, that drew together politics, ethics, religion, and other spheres of social life under the guise of entertainment.

Because Normore is an art historian, it is no surprise that she approaches her subject matter chiefly through the visual and provides detailed close readings of the objects and representations found in lavish feasts, while also turning to other pictorial sources such as manuscript illuminations to underscore her claims. The generous use of illustrations in the book lets the reader track Normore's analysis and offers a tantalizing glimpse of late medieval banqueting in action.

But this book moves well beyond the analysis of discrete visual objects. Normore signals her ambitions by setting feasting within the larger context of festivity more generally, a move that allows her to examine the wide array of activities that took place at banquets, activities that combined the culinary, visual, and performing arts into one complex whole. More specifically, her aim is to demonstrate that feasting "helped form a culture deeply invested in discernment" (3), and thus aided in the creation of a court culture grounded in the exercise of aesthetic judgments.

After an introductory chapter aptly titled "Setting the Table," which does the work of laying out the general argument and considering the interpretive issues surrounding a study of feasting, Normore begins in the first chapter, "Between the Dishes," by asking what, exactly, an entremet was, charting the term's ambiguity when used by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Francophone authors, for whom the word's semantic range included performances, material objects, and foodstuffs. Normore argues that entremets "complicate the separation between media" and, because their production required the collaboration of many different craftspeople, they complicate the separation between "makers" as well (42). Here as elsewhere, Normore is keenly alert to the difficulties of terminology and definition, to the limits of an approach based on a modern taxonomy of artistic forms, and to the need to read with rather than through the material evidence that survives to tell us about these important cultural occasions.

Echoing her claim that the feast was more than just visual display, she pays attention to the sounds and smells of banqueting, as well as to the impact on those who participated. The next four chapters take up various aspects of the way feasts shaped late medieval elite society, by looking at the relationship between banquets and those who participated in or observed them (chapter two, "Spectator-Spectacle"), the success with which feasts intervened in the political sphere (chapter three, "Efficacy and Hypocrisy"), and the meaning of lavish banquets within the ethically-charged notion of magnificence (chapter four, "Dining Well"). The last of those chapters rejects the tendency of modern scholars to equate magnificence with overabundance and instead considers how feasts could function as places "where virtue could be practiced and learned" or as locations where dining could make visible "key concepts of systematic ethics" within a courtly milieu (104). Chapter five, "Stranger at the Table," turns from politics and ethics to an inquiry into feasting's aesthetic ends, particularly in its use of strange and wondrous displays that provided courtly society with "marvels to think with," as Normore cleverly puts it (138).

Readers hoping for an up-close look at one feast will be grateful for the final chapter, "Wedding Reception." Focusing on a specific example, the first night of banqueting that celebrated the marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York in 1468, this chapter aims to strike a balance between anthropologically-oriented studies of feasting as a general social practice and historically-grounded analyses of individual banquets. Normore argues that while it is only within the broad context of late medieval marriage and gift exchange that the complex symbolic and sensory nature of the 1468 banquet can be understood, nonetheless "the specific iconographic and sensual program" (165) of this particular event had distinctive meaning for the marriage at hand: the feasting may have gestured toward all marriages, but it spoke directly to Charles and Margaret's. The conclusion to this chapter serves as a kind of last word for the book as a whole: "the creators of the feast, from the planners to the final participants, worked not only with a particular iconographic program but also within a shared understanding of the proper behavior, values, and aesthetic modes of wedding banquets in particular and feasting in general" (191). In a sentence that drives the book's point home, Normore insists that only when the individual and the general are brought together "can we truly begin to appreciate how and why banqueting captured the imaginations and influenced the actions of late medieval men and women" (193).

By pointing to the complex cultural and artistic interactions of the banquets devised for the Burgundian court, A Feast for the Eyes makes a welcome and sophisticated addition to an emerging body of work on the persistent mixing of media that characterized the public culture of late medieval Europe. Returning representational forms and recreational activities that have now been slotted into separate disciplinary niches--art, music, literature, theater, politics, religion, food--to their thoroughly entwined states in late medieval culture, Normore joins a new wave of cutting-edge work in medieval studies. As resolutely as its subject, A Feast for the Eyes escapes scholarly categories and invites the appreciation of a wide range of readers.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Who reads this stuff?

Back in the mid-1980s, I spun an article off my dissertation, The Fifth-century Chroniclers. The article was entitled "Prosper's Epitoma Chronicon: Was There An Edition of 443?" and was a brief discussion about...whether the 5th-century chronicler Prosper wrote an edition in A.D. 443! (As you may have guessed!) It could be taken as a fine example of scholarly nit-pickery, but it was worth doing because close scrutiny of ancient and medieval sources is and has been one of the methods we reconstruct the distant past. I thought it might help some readers somewhere while assuring potential employers that I was still at work.

But how many such readers could there be?

Well, this week I got a note from the Academia.edu site telling me that a Russian scholar was interested in having a look at the old article. I brushed it off and sent it off to the site. She saw it and thanked me.

Two days later the site has recorded 27!!!views. Good grief!

If any of you readers is really interested in the historiography of the Later Roman Empire and the origins of the medieval Latin chronicle tradition, the book version of The Fifth-century Chroniclers is still in print.

But if you are just vaguely curious about the answer to the question: I said, probably not.

Image below: Somebody else's book on Prosper.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

BS on the gender-equity cabinet in the new Canadian government.

I have heard a lot of people complaining about the artificiality of the 50-50 split in the membership of the new Canadian Cabinet – it’s half men half women. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised this during the campaign and he delivered on his promise immediately. His action became controversial and a whole bunch of people seem to still be talking about if it were some great crime against democracy and good government. Trudeau is guilty of the crime of arbitrarily appointing people who might not be the best candidates for the job. Even people I generally respect, like a columnist in the Globe and Mail, have said similar things. Both men and women are upset.

I have to say I think the whole fuss is ridiculous. Exactly when was this golden age when the best people in the country or even in parliament or even in the ruling party got their positions purely on the basis of objective criteria, of fitness for the job? For a long time there were no women at all in parliament and thus none in the cabinet either. Since women got the right to vote and the right to sit in parliament, they have been a distinct minority in parliament. Was this based on objective criteria?

Let’s look at how the sausage is made when picking a cabinet. Objective criteria? Anybody knows anything about Canadian politics knows and that if there is one and only one member of the victorious party elected from Saskatchewan or New Brunswick, that person will be in the cabinet. The winning party needs a representative in that province, it needs to convince people in that province that the federal government takes them seriously. If the government neglects to include people from that area, they can kiss goodbye the possibility of winning seats there next time around. Would anybody seriously put forward the idea that the single MP from Saskatchewan miraculously is one of the 20 or 30 most capable people in parliament or even in the ruling party as a whole? That this person deserves their seat at the cabinet table because they fulfil certain objective criteria?

No, cabinets are chosen by looking at what candidates you have and deciding, yes, some of them are more talented than others, but also by deciding some of them will appeal to one constituency or another. Cabinets are chosen to put together a political coalition, but also to advertise the party to the public and give people an indication of what and who the ruling party thinks is important.

The Liberals are saying to the Canadian public that they think women have been undervalued in the past, and they will not be undervalued now. How sincere the Liberals are and how they will actually act is another matter entirely. The promise Justin Trudeau made and the actions that he took in choosing his parliament were advertising. If you are not impressed, well, that’s perfectly all right, but let’s not pretend this is some horrendous deviation from good government.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Close to the Edge

I was in Colorado recently and more than once, for obvious reasons, this song by Yes popped into my head.

Thank you, Yes for joy and pleasure over the decades. PS. From a comment on YouTube: "I was a little girl when this album came out but my siblings were 9 and 11 years older than me and this music cranked on their stereos, along with all the other earth-shattering music of the time. It was like being in the company of angels hearing these artists..."

Saturday, October 31, 2015

What we've lost

Will McLean, who I knew primarily as a medieval re-enactor, recently died, all too young.

To give you some idea of his humane intelligence, and what we have lost in his death,  I offer this post from his blog, A Commonplace Book:

sUNDAY, JANUARY 06, 2013

"Nobody ever suggested that Picasso should spend fewer hours painting per picture in order to boost his wealth or improve the economy."

In the middle of a very wise post about the long term value of accumulated intellectual capital that is often difficult or impossible to measure in monetary terms when it is first produced, Kevin Kelly uses the above example of Picasso as an argument.

It's a very poor choice, because Picasso was enormously successful at monetizing his intellectual output, and acutely aware that he could produce more faster by selling prints and book illustrations than by making individual drawings.

It's a poor example, but his fundamental argument is correct and important. There's a tremendous amount of intellectual output that's completely invisible to conventional measures of GDP. I learned about Kelly's article through Steve Muhlberger's blog. Steve doesn't carry advertising, so his blog is a free gift to the world. In conventional terms, its direct contribution to the economy is zero, but so much the worse for conventional measures of economic activity.

There's a whole enormous but difficult to quantify gift economy where we spend time making things for friends and strangers: blog posts and cat photos and Improv Everywhere performances, mostly unmediated by the exchange of money. We're like a planet of Kirstendalers, living well by spending time as each others' servants.

And one of the great strengths of this gift economy is that transaction costs can be very low. As the citizen of a rich society I can afford to spend my leisure as I wish. I can give it away if I want to.

Now a lot of this simply gives pleasure to friends and strangers, not that there's anything wrong with that. Those that do this do well.

Some fields, like my primary interest of history, don't do a lot to put bread on the table of the poor. Still, those that know their own past better are richer for it. Those that do that do better.

But, some ideas are so powerful that they can clearly make a society richer as long as the society survives, and successors that inherit it until they perish, and so on until the end of time. Those that do this do best of all.

One of the great ideas of the 20th century was nonviolent civil disobedience. It made the world better, and once invented could not be uninvented. But the inventors who brought it forward drew no worldly profit from it, but the reverse.

But think of the unlocked potential at the end of the struggle! How many U.S. citizens would prefer the laws and norms of 1954 to those of today? Few, I hope.

There are a lot of ideas like that, although few as powerful. Sometime the first draft is flawed (See: French Revolution 1.0) The second great strength of the 21st century gift economy is that each of us can throw our thoughts into the marketplace of ideas, and others can refute them or improve  on them, and we can respond to do better. Rinse, lather, repeat.

A spooky Halloween sky from Astronomy Picture of the Day

Unfortunately, the APOD post doesn't give a location for this remarkable house.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Remembering the music of the 60s

A few days ago a friend posted to Facebook a poster for the late-1960s band "It's a Beautiful Day," whose album of the same name came out in 1968.  I was inspired to go to YouTube and listen to the most popular track, "White Bird."  Now that song did not make much of an impact on mainstream radio, as I recall, but that video has nearly a million and a half plays and a long list of testimonials from listeners about how much it meant to them.

I am about the same age as these people, and I too have very fond memories of "White Bird." Of course one reason I feel that way is that I was in my late teens, when (according to a cliche that seems to be true) I was acquiring "the music of my life."  But I also am convinced that between about 1967 and 1973 there was an unusual explosion of creativity during which an amazing variety of music was produced by young people.

It's a Beautiful Day (the band) is a good example of the riches that we (those of us who were lucky enough to have alternative sources of music) had thrown at our feet in the late 60s.  Listen to their Top Tracks on YouTube and ask yourself, what genre is this music?  Rock and roll? Folk-rock? Hard rock? There are elements of all sorts of music that would soon enough become traditions of their own.  One has the thought that if there had been no popular music in 1967, and highly cultured aliens had given Earth It's A Beautiful Day all of the music of the 1970s could have been created from that single seed.

But it's not just IABD.  Dozens and dozens of other bands might have played the same roll.

I feel privileged to have experienced this amazing era in music.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Back to the Source -- A documentary on Historical European Martial Arts

Whatever you think of the subject matter -- the re-creation of late medieval and early modern martial arts starting with the surviving treatises from the period -- Back to the Source is quite an amazingly good documentary.

I have enough experience of the earliest SCA and its later evolution to recognize the attractive glow around people who are inventing something from early exemplars and creating a dream -- and creating a community in which the pioneering impulse is very strong.  Some of the interviewees worry that as HEMA progresses and becomes more standardized -- in other words as the pioneers teach a more sophisticated art to a large number of people -- something will be lost.

Sorry, folks, this is guaranteed to happen. You will attract people who want to practice "sport for sport's sake."  Some of them will care a lot more about winning than recreating a historical art.  Where pioneering HEMA members of today may respect scholarship as much or more than winning, a large, developed HEMA community will include plenty of people who value winning and winners more than the historical purists.

Enjoy it while you have got it.  Whatever your particular "it" is.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The national anthem of steampunk

I am a great fan of the era of explosive growth that is the 1850s -- a period which might be called the original and real steampunk era.   A friend of mine, Tim Moran, a recent PhD in American history, cited in his dissertation an actual poem (advertised as a folk song) from the 1850s that catches the excitement of that era:  

Our Fathers gave us liberty, 
But little did they dream,
 The grand results that flow along 
This mighty age of steam; 
For our mountains, lakes and rivers, 
Are all a blaze of fire, 
And we send our news by lightning, 
On the telegraphic wire

Jesse Hutchinson, Jr., 1850, Roude Folk Song Index 4556.

The painting, "American Progress," is by John Gast and dates from the 1870s.

Search this blog for "Beamish" for more unapologetic steampunk fandom.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A love-letter to Canada

Phil Paine's great mountain adventure. This post is mainly for archival purposes. See the illustrated version at Phil's blog. . If you are on Facebook, see Filip Marek's pictures.
What fol­lows here took place dur­ing the sec­ond week of Sep­tem­ber. It was planned a long time ahead. A quar­ter cen­tury of friend­ship between myself and Filip Marek would be cel­e­brated with an adventure.

We both love moun­tains. The Cana­dian Rock­ies has some of the finest, and most of them have not been gelded by roads, habi­ta­tions and ski resorts. A lot of them are as wild as they were when their first human explor­ers came upon them pur­su­ing mam­moths down the “ice-free cor­ri­dor” or per­haps fil­tered in from the Pacific coast. But the choice of des­ti­na­tion had to be a com­pro­mise between the cost and time of access and the degree of wilder­ness. I had only one week free, and Filip could spare not much more.

I chose Mt. Assini­boine, a hand­some 3,618m peak in the south-central Rock­ies, in BC but close to the Alberta bound­ary. The area around it is well pro­tected. No roads are allowed in the 4,000ha region around it. Access is lim­ited to hik­ing in or out on foot, or heli­copter. There are a lim­ited num­ber of camp­ing places, and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion is strict. All sup­plies must be car­ried in, and noth­ing, not even a gum rap­per, should be left behind. This area is in turn sur­rounded on all sides by larger national and provin­cial parks with less strin­gent pro­tec­tion, but still kept wild. The Kanasaskis Range, pro­tect­ing its east­ern flank, puts it into a dif­fer­ent world from the ski resorts and tourist trail of Banff and Jasper. From the Alberta side, it’s rather like The Wall in Game of Thrones.

Our plan was to meet at a hos­tel in Cal­gary, then take a bus the next day to Can­more, Alberta, a ski and rid­ing resort in the Bow Val­ley. We overnighted there, which gave us an evening to explore the town, climb­ing up to some hoodoos that over­looked the town, and amus­ing our­selves look­ing at the absurd abun­dance of wild rab­bits hop­ping around the town. Almost as numer­ous were Ford 550 cab trucks. The local library was equipped with a climb­ing wall — not some­thing you expect in a library in Toronto. Its exten­sive local his­tory col­lec­tion revealed that Can­more was orig­i­nally a coal min­ing town, first set­tled by dour-looking immi­grant Finns of such prodi­geous fer­til­ity that they would have inspired the envy of the rab­bits. The present pop­u­la­tion is the usual multi-racial, multi-lingual Cana­dian mix­ture, with a notice­able pres­ence of local Black­foot, Sarcee, and Cree.

In Can­more, we faced the first strate­gic uncer­tainty in our plans. To reach Mt. Assini­boine, we would hike 28km from the trail­head, going over Assini­boine Pass to a small log cabin near Lake Magog, where we would stay for three nights. This entry hike was sup­posed to take between seven and ten hours. Overnight­ing on the trail was not encour­aged, since it’s griz­zly coun­try. So we would have to start rea­son­ably early. But to get to the trail­head at Mt. Shark, we needed to go through the nar­row pass between Mt. Run­dle and Ha Ling Peak, then fol­low a 40km gravel road. There is no pub­lic trans­porta­tion along this road, so we had no choice but to get up early and hope that we could hitch-hike to the trail­head and get there with a suf­fi­cient win­dow of day­light. For­tu­nately, we got a ride within half an hour, with a charm­ing woman who knew the moun­tains and trails.

The sec­ond uncer­tainty was our phys­i­cal con­di­tion. Both of us had leg injuries. I had an as-yet unhealed stress frac­ture in my left leg, that was still occa­sion­ally painful, and Filip has some kind of ongo­ing plan­tar prob­lem. Filip is a big, mus­cu­lar guy, much more ath­letic than I am. I’m a pudgy lit­tle guy, nobody’s visual image of an out­doors­man. Though I have a long his­tory of out­door activ­i­ties, in recent years I’ve been pretty urban. My last hike on this scale — a long uphill grind in the moun­tains of Tran­syl­va­nia in 2007 — left me par­a­lyzed with exhaus­tion, unable to walk the last klik to my goal. A short hike up Mont du Lac des Cygnes in Que­bec, last spring, was easy enough, but didn’t indi­cate any great degree of spry­ness. Frankly, I had no idea if I would be able to do this. It’s cus­tom­ary for peo­ple to heli­copter in to the moun­tain, then hike out over the pass, mak­ing most of the trip down­hill. I had pur­posely arranged things in reverse, so that the test of our met­tle would be at the start. The 28km hike would be uphill most of the way, start­ing with a 65m descent to the Upper Spray River, then a 650m rise to Assini­boine Pass.

Another uncer­tainty was the weather, always a gam­ble in the Rock­ies. We hiked under a grey, over­cast sky. We were both resigned to the pos­si­bil­ity that rain­storms or even snow­fall might sig­nif­i­cantly reduce both vis­i­bil­ity and com­fort. In fact, the woman who gave us the ride had informed us that Lake Magog’s alpine val­ley was snow­bound that morn­ing, but was expected to melt off by the time we got there. While there was a gen­eral pre­dic­tion of clear­ing weather in the next few days, moun­tains tend to chop up such pre­dic­tions into micro-weather, with large vari­a­tions between dif­fer­ent enclaves.

As it turned out, the cool, grey weather was a bless­ing. The upward trek was not nearly as dif­fi­culty as I had feared, and we made rapid progress with­out work­ing up a sweat. After only a few hours, we came upon a bull-moose. This was some­what unusual, as moose are noc­tur­nal. I have had a lot expe­ri­ence with this charm­ingly stu­pid ani­mal. This one was a young male, with a rack of antlers raw red from either fight­ing or scratch­ing. I wasn’t sure if it was rut­ting sea­son here, but I knew it was so back in Ontario. Moose can be dan­ger­ous, if you get too close to them, espe­cially rut­ting males, and we had turned a cor­ner that brought us quite close to him. But he looked at us with bored dis­dain and walked away. This was to be our only encounter with a large ani­mal. We had pur­chased a can of bear spray in Cal­gary, since it is more or less required, because there are numer­ous griz­zlies in the area. How­ever, grizzly-human encoun­ters are rare. Usu­ally, they hear the noise of humans from far off, or smell them in the air and avoid them. We met two par­ties of peo­ple mak­ing the more pop­u­lar down­ward trip. At approx­i­mately the half-way point, the val­ley we fol­lowed climbed out of the for­est and opened up into alpine meadow, hemmed in by spec­tac­u­lar cliffs. Only the last por­tion, where the trail had become muddy and nar­row, and the climb over Assini­boine pass, rather steep, bro­ken up, and still snowy, was any sort of challenge.

We made it to the cabin in good time. The snow had mostly melted, but Mt. Assini­boine was still invis­i­ble, hid­den behind a mist of clouds. We were tired, but not exhausted. There was already a fire in the stove, and we met our cabin mates. We could not have been luck­ier. They were a charm­ing fam­ily of Métis back­ground: a hus­band and wife, a teenage daugh­ter by an ear­lier mar­riage, and a dig­ni­fied elderly aunt. The hus­band had once been a ranger at Assini­boine, and knew the place by heart. Two sons were with them, but were tent­ing in the bush, rather than stay­ing in the cabin. They all had the quiet, soft-spoken calm and con­fi­dence that would make them an ide­al­ized sam­ple of exem­plo familia canaden­sis. I had expected to share the cabin with the inevitable Aus­tralians on walk­a­bout, or some noisy macho types. This fam­ily was a bless­ing to us, mak­ing the whole expe­ri­ence sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter than expected.

The fol­low­ing day was still over­cast, and Mt. Assini­boine still remained hid­den. The Lakes around the moun­tain are charm­ingly named: Gog, Magog, Og, Sun­burst, Cerulean, Mar­vel, Glo­ria and Ter­rapin. Each is strik­ingly dif­fer­ent in appear­ance. Given the weather, we decided to spend the next day walk­ing the mostly level and unde­mand­ing trail to Og Lake, which turned out to be slightly creepy-looking and des­o­late, sur­rounded by bare rock and a wide beach of peb­bles. By the time we returned to the cabin, my leg was act­ing up. I passed on a sec­ond hike, and spent time relax­ing around the camp, while Filip headed up to Won­der Pass. He returned just as it was get­ting dark. He had actu­ally crossed the pass and was able to look down at Mar­vel, Glo­ria and Ter­rapin lakes, but Mt. Assini­boine remained shrouded in cloud. We bunked down for the evening. I had wor­ried that my chronic snor­ing would be a social prob­lem, but it turned out that every­body snored. In the mid­dle of the night, I woke and went out to pee. The sky had cleared and stars come out. The North­ern Lights were shin­ing. Not a spec­tac­u­lar dis­play, with multi-coloured cur­tains, but at least a vivid glow and flicker. I told Filip about it, and he went out for a look, then the young girl came out as well.

The next day was clear and sunny. Mt. Assini­boine emerged fully and grandly. With it’s Matterhon-like shape, it dom­i­nates every­thing. The ice-bound pyra­mi­dal peak, even in a clear sky, leaves a smoke-like white plume of ice par­ti­cles as the wind swirls past it. That’s why it’s named Assini­boine. The Assini­boine are a plains tribe who never lived any­where near it. But George Daw­son, Canada’s emi­nent 19th cen­tury geol­o­gist and explorer (author of Geol­ogy and Resources of the Region in the Vicin­ity of the 49th par­al­lel from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Moun­tains, with Lists of Plants and Ani­mals Col­lected, and Notes on the Fos­sils from the Kil­ladeer Bad­lands) thought it resem­bled an Assini­boine teepee with smoke emerg­ing from it’s top.

. This was our big day. The weather was per­fect. Sunny, but never too hot. The air was as clear as crys­tal. All around were spec­tac­u­lar moun­tains, cliffs, gorges, forests, glac­i­ers, lakes, rocky wastes, moun­tain mead­ows, bogs, rivers, and giant boul­ders that might have been tossed by the gods play­ing mar­bles. But Assini­boine loomed over them all, like a mother sur­rounded by her chil­dren. First, we walked around lake Magog to the foot of the great boul­der field that descends from the glac­i­ers. Filip took a dip in the frigid lake, while I more ratio­nally soaked up the sun in the moun­tain mead­ows, men­tally play­ing Mahler’s fifth sym­phony in my head. I tested out the boul­der field, but deter­mined that it was far too unsta­ble and crevace-filled to safely spend much time on. One boul­der was about the size of a small house and looked like it had been lobbed to its place by a giant cat­a­pult. Every few min­utes you could hear some­thing falling off the moun­tain, the noise echo­ing on the sur­face of the lake. The area was so beau­ti­ful, it was dif­fi­cult to force our­selves to move on, but we found and fol­lowed the trail that would take us around the north­ern flank of the moun­tain and past Sun­burst Peak to a chain of three lakes, Sun­burst, Cerulean and Eliz­a­beth. Each of these lakes has a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter. Cerulean nes­tles against the gigan­tic, jagged wall of Sun­burst Peak. This wall looks like a huge moun­tain, loom­ing over the lake splen­didly, but it is actu­ally noth­ing more than an out­ly­ing arm of Assini­boine, dwarfed by the later. Eliz­a­beth Lake is named after Eliz­a­beth von Rum­mel, a Bavar­ian aris­to­crat whose fam­ily was dis­pos­sessed and impov­er­ished by the out­break of World War I, and fled to Canada to work as ranch hands. Eliz­a­beth grew up to be the “Baroness of the Rock­ies”, an expert moun­taineer and nat­u­ral­ist, utterly devoted to Assini­boine. We found her cabin, hardly any big­ger than the one we were sleep­ing in, where she lived until her death in 1980.

Again, my leg started act­ing up, and I rested while Filip climbed a ridge that gave a view of Nestor Peak and some more val­leys to the north and west. Filip pointed out that my ten­dency to take a faster pace prob­a­bly brought on the pain. Usu­ally, I pulled ahead of him on the trail while he kept to a slower pace, but in the end, he was often able to climb where I couldn’t. But forc­ing myself to slow down was dif­fi­cult. After see­ing the three lakes, we started up the switch­back trail that led to high ridges called the Niblet, the Nublet, and the Nub. By this time, our beauty-experiencing cir­cuits were over­loaded, but every time we climbed higher and the for­est momen­tary opened up for a view, there was another jolt of it. Finally, we came to this:

This is what we had been seek­ing, and we had found it. A place that would express, not only our friend­ship, but the best things within us. When you are at such a place, you real­ize the insipid­ness of most human pre­ten­sions to wis­dom. The silli­ness of orga­nized reli­gion and ide­olo­gies, and the pathetic, child­ish squab­bles and squalid obses­sions that we find our­selves enslaved to, all become noth­ing in the cold, pure air around these hun­dred thou­sand cathe­drals of nature. When some fatu­ous ass claims to be able to know all about God’s com­mand­ments, or the infal­li­ble Mar­ket, or the pre­des­ti­na­tion of the Dialec­tic, or what­ever else the march­ing morons are ped­dling this week or next, I will always have this scene in my head to keep me sane and unswindled.

Tired, but happy, we made our way down to the cabin. After another night’s rest, we climbed up again to the Nublet. Filip made a try at the higher van­tage of the Nub, but gave up. We came back in time to pack up and ready for the heli­copter. The pilot took us up, but took a less direct path in order to search for a hiker reported injured some­where. Some­times we seemed to be mak­ing close approaches to peaks and ridges. From above we could see range after range of moun­tains, into the infi­nite dis­tance, for this was a great ocean of moun­tains, into which you could throw a dozen Switzer­lands and lose them. We had seen but a tiny, insignif­i­cant cor­ner of it. And that was too big for us to grasp, too beau­ti­ful to find words for.

I am pro­foundly grate­ful that I was born, grew up, and live in this coun­try, which has given me a wealth of beauty and a feel­ing of free­dom that not even ver­min like Prime Min­is­ter Harper can take away from me. Filip’s Face­book page has bet­ter pho­tographs. He has a bet­ter cam­era and is a bet­ter photographer.

My interview with Medievalists.net: chivalry in the era of the Hundred Years War

Five Medieval Minutes with Steven Muhlberger


By Danièle Cybulskie

This week at Medievalists.net, we’ve been thinking a lot about The Hundred Years’ War, so we thought we’d bring you five minutes with an expert on fourteenth-century chivalry and combat. Like so many things in the Late Middle Ages, The Hundred Years’ War was deeply influenced by chivalric ideals, like personal honour and prowess on the battlefield. Professor Emeritus Steven Muhlberger, scholar and avid member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, has written many books on fourteenth century chivalry and combat, a full list of which can be found below. Here are five medieval minutes with Steven Muhlberger.

DC: How did you get interested in the fourteenth century and its culture of chivalry and deeds of arms?

SM: First, the entire Society for Creative Anachronism was based on re-creating a tournament, and when that was a lot of fun, continuing to do so. The founders of the SCA were influenced by a number of writers, in particular Jean Froissart, a 14th century historian who specifically wrote to promote chivalry as he understood it. So when I joined the SCA in my university years, I was already being influenced by the 14th century. I started to take a more scholarly interest in the 14th century and chivalry in the late 1990s. Again, Jean Froissart was my main influence. Froissart is an amazing writer. His book is full of vivid stories. Your readers can easily find some of them on the web.

DC: In your work, you’ve looked closely at how chivalric ideals like honour and valour affected medieval identities. How much did chivalry influence people’s sense of self in the fourteenth century, both men and women?

SM: When people talk about chivalry today, they are often talking about relations between men and women. The classic example is, should men these days open doors for women, and if they don’t is chivalry dead? A friend of mine once said, the difference between courtesy and chivalry is that chivalry involves killing people. Chivalry in the 14th century was a warrior’s ideal.

Since most of society was run by warriors in the Middle Ages, the answer to your question is that chivalry was very important, but it affected men more directly than women. Even men who were not of the upper class might imitate the manners of upper-class warriors. In earlier centuries, warriors who were armed servants had climbed up the social scale by inventing the idea of chivalry – which were the virtues and practical skills that a good soldier needed – and promoted it as an ideal that improved their standing. Women participated in this by being judges and observers of the efforts of those men. People acting out chivalry had a number of audiences that they played to and one of them was noble women.

DC: I think it’s so important that you pointed out the interest of non-noble people in deeds of arms. While many (if not most) people think of formal deeds of arms as solely being the domain of the nobility, you’ve said in Formal Combats in the Fourteenth Century that “the popular enthusiasm for formal combats depicted in the movie A Knight’s Tale is closer to the facts of the matter”. What do you think drew people from all walks of life to love formal combats like tournaments?

SM: The association between chivalry and ruling meant that activities associated with knights had a special prestige. Formal deeds of arms were an opportunity for one group of people to show off their skills – particularly their horsemanship – and for other people to appreciate how bold and daring they were. If you have ever seen a joust in person, you know how exciting it is just to watch. Today’s tamer horse sports are exciting enough; 14th century horsemanship was even more impressive.

DC: Also in Formal Combats in the Fourteenth Century (I love this book, by the way), you mention war as a kind of “trial by battle writ large”, citing Edward III’s challenge to Philip VI to a trial by combat as an essential part of what became The Hundred Years’ War. How much of an influence did chivalric ideals have on The Hundred Years’ War? Did most of the commoners forming the infantry subscribe to these ideals?

SM: The influence of chivalry on different classes of people is an interesting question. One aspect of chivalry is that at least some of the time noble warriors on either side treat each other with respect. The common practice of capturing nobles and holding them for ransom moderated the effects of warfare on the high-ranking warriors. Ordinary soldiers could generally not expect that kind of good treatment. Nobles however in their dealings with each other very often played to the political public by advertising themselves as behaving in line with chivalric ideals.

One example from the 1340s: King Edward of England besieged the French town of Calais and built a fortification outside its walls to keep the French from relieving the garrison. The French king eventually showed up and challenged Edward to come out from his fortification and fight an open field of battle for possession of Calais. Edward refused to do that because he was very close to forcing Calais to surrender and he was safe in his fortified camp. We know that this was criticized by the French as being an unworthy way to fight. Edward was claiming to be King of France, and what kind of king could he be if he would not fight his rival when he had the opportunity? But as a practical strategy of warfare Edward was right to hold back and he took Calais.

DC: Speaking of French chivalric challenges, in Royal Jousts at the End of the Fourteenth Century, you look at jousts, especially the St. Inglevert jousts, as a way of building bridges between England and France during The Hundred Years’ War. How might combat have brought nations together in friendship?

SM: A joust between people who were on opposite sides in a war could either intensify their hostility or moderate it. In the case of St. Inglevert the French champions began by wanting to challenge the English to a competition in which they could prove that despite serious defeats in the past the French were the best chivalric warriors (warriors on horseback). Politicians on both sides – and these were nobleman themselves — were looking for an opportunity to negotiate a peace treaty so the challenges were repackaged as a friendly competition between the French champions who proposed it and anybody from any country who wanted to show up. It turned into something of an Olympic competition in jousting. Since the skill they were exercising in this competition was a specifically noble style of warfare the joust ended up being a very friendly occasion, emphasizing what these nobles had in common despite the war. I don’t know any Olympians myself but I’m sure they come back from the games with stories about how great the people in the other teams were. And I bet the Olympic Village has some great parties. St. Inglevert was a month of parties interspersed by very high level athletic competition.

DC: No wonder it was so well-chronicled! Given your expertise on formal combat and all things chivalric, I have to ask the most important question of all before you go. Who would win at a tournament: Lancelot or Gawain?

SM: We only know what the storytellers give us, and it seems to me that they unreasonably favor Lancelot. Who would you like to lead your army? Gawain for sure.

To learn more about fourteenth-century chivalry and formal combats, check out Steven Muhlberger’s many books on the subject (I recommend Formal Combats in the Fourteenth Century as a great starting place for Kindle readers). Volume four of the Deeds of Arms series, Will a Frenchman Fight?, will be available shortly from Freelance Academy Press. In the meantime, check out his blog Muhlberger’s World History.

Monday, September 21, 2015

On libraries

This is a Soviet-era technical library that I first saw on the pioneering Russian picture-blog English Russia.  Any scholar or other lover of books has to have a visceral reaction to this scene of apparent devastation.   But quite recently I visited a nearby university library, and though its books are on shelves in proper order according to the Library of Congress, my experience of taking a good look produced in me some very mixed feelings.

Let me make clear that the University that I am talking about (and will not name) is quite a decent one. It is not a dump. Its facilities are in good shape and are being renewed as we speak. The institution is hiring a bunch of new permanent professors. I am sure you can get a good education in any number of fields at this place.

All the more shocking was that I found when I went to check out the holdings in medieval French history. The books were astonishingly old. I entered university in 1968 and I have retired this year from my position at Nipissing University. The books I was looking at were in almost every case older than my entire career as a medieval historian. I did find one book from the early 1990s, the first volume of Jonathan Sumption's history of the Hundred Years War; also Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. And that was pretty much that. (I also looked for books on chivalry and didn't find any.)

One thought that I had was that this is a neater version of the Russian library above. The university has a simulacrum of a collection of French medieval history, but not a useful one any sense. If I were still teaching and somebody handed in a research paper in which all the references were to books that could be found in this library, I would be very tempted not to accept it.

What to conclude from this experience? Well, it is clear that for a very long time no historian at the university in question has had a serious interest in teaching the Middle Ages or making possible for their graduate students to study that era. We do have to make our choices. No one would be amazed at a lack of books about Uzbekistan  in a North American university library of moderate size, even though Uzbekistan is a pretty important place if you have a world history orientation like I do. But still, France?

On the other hand I also felt that my sentimental attachment to books might be just that, a sentimental attachment. Those books in the nearby university library are about as useful to a serious scholar of medieval history, or even a serious undergraduate student, as the Russian technical journals are to a working engineer in Russia today.

Over the years since 1968 there has been an explosion of scholarship by medieval historians, literary scholars, and so forth. They have extended our understanding of the Middle Ages immensely. But the idea that the immediate products of that work are going to last forever and must be preserved – I find myself much less certain of that.

People will say, "what about our electronic books and journals?" Well yes, I wait to hear your wisdom on the subject?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What's wrong with the Canadian Conservative Party

I needed to include this column in my blog. It says so many important things.

There’s truth in advertising after all – Stephen Harper isn’t perfect


The Globe and Mail

Published Friday, Sep. 11, 2015 1:26PM EDT

It’s clear the Conservatives were caught off guard by the general public’s recent swell of concern for Syrian refugees, a cause for which the party has never had much time. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander once criticized Ontario’s decision to provide health care to asylum seekers at the provincial level, after the federal government had ended it, by saying “Simply arriving on our shores and claiming hardships isn’t good enough. This isn’t a self-selection bonanza, or a social program buffet.”

Various Conservative MPs have campaigned on this and similar sentiments.

It’s almost as if the party has been governing a different country than the one in which it lives, and when the actual country turned up – using a language the Conservative party doesn’t understand any more and certainly doesn’t speak – the Conservatives made the classic mistake of talking in their own language really loudly.

“We also are the most generous country to refugees in the world,” Mr. Alexander said, kicking things off on CBC’s Power and Politics, the day the picture of Alan Kurdi’s body, lifeless on the beach, hit the papers.

“Our country has the most generous immigration and refugee system in the world. We admit, per capita, more people than any other,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself said, in response to that same photo, before retreating to the security of security issues – pretty much saying that he’s barely keeping Canada safe as it is and Canadians themselves can’t be trusted to vet anyone

. What we were hearing there from our PM was a convenient conflating of immigrants with refugees, one that’s popular with Conservative politicians just now and, frankly, when you’re being this loose with your definitions, you might as well throw in vacationers, and boast that everyone may purchase as many small glass bottles shaped like maple leaves full of maple syrup as they wish upon arrival.

Mr. Harper compounded this by confusing Canada being first even in the generous and not entirely relevant category of new arrivals per capita with us being 24th. This level of numerical literacy does not inspire much faith in him as the steward of the economy his party claims him to be.

“We’ve been ahead of the game,” Paul Calandra crowed later, also on Power and Politics, before taking the hotly contested Conservative Refugee Talking Point Hyperbole Prize with “I’m glad that our European allies … are starting to catch up with us.”

To be clear: As of last month, Canada has, according to the government, taken in 2,374 Syrian refugees. As of March, 2015, Germany had taken in 105,000.

Last weekend 25,000 refugees (from all countries) arrived in Munich alone.

I half expected Mr. Calandra to follow that one up by congratulating Europe on catching up with Canada in its construction of classical Greek temples.

It’s difficult to imagine a more tone-deaf response than the one Canadians have been offered, and we’re not really that difficult to please.

We’re a nation of a generous but not particularly naive people. Few were expecting politicians to say, “We made a mistake,” and most would have accepted an immediate “We can do even better!” but that is not what we were given.

Over all it has felt as if Canadians have just called out “Hey, we can help!” – only to have the Prime Minister and many in his party assure them that, no, they cannot, enough is being done. Any greater effort on anyone’s part could only spell disaster, because, unlike a good many other nations and the UN just now, we’re just not up to the task of screening refugees.

The Conservatives are, they almost seemed to assure us, in way over their heads – so we should vote for them.

There’s a political and marketing tactic so established that it has its own acronym: FUD. It stands for fear, uncertainty and doubt. Traditionally, FUD involves a strategy of spreading vague anxiety about the merits of one’s opponents, or their products.

It’s a tired ploy but in the past few weeks we have seen it boldly reimagined; Mr. Harper has had the questionable vision to apply FUD inward.

He appears to be, rather industriously, trying to actively make the public fearful, uncertain and doubtful about himself.

The “Stephen Harper isn’t perfect but…” ad could be said to have launched the effort. Then, when for reasons known only to himself and his producers, CBC-TV’s Peter Mansbridge interviewed each of the party leaders this week one-on-one outdoors in different woodsy locations (it was a bit like watching the world’s worst fishing show), Mr. Harper said: “I’m not perfect, but…”

We are, it feels, mere days away from being offered “Stephen Harper, the devil you know,” as a campaign slogan.

What we needed to hear was not that the problem is too big and that we are too small and should be more afraid than caring. What we needed to hear was: “We’ll roll up our sleeves, you pull out your couches,” because most of us know this story.

I grew up close to a Ukrainian family. The mother came to Canada right after the Second World War as a little girl, her family having fled Ukraine when the Russians invaded. They travelled first on bicycles – she was three, her father pushed hers – and then on a sled someone gave them, which her father pulled, all the way to Germany.

Once in Germany, they were processed to come to Canada, where an uncle had sponsored them, and – this is what I never forgot, although I think I only heard the story once – the little girl’s arm was broken and her mother chose to remove her daughter’s cast and sling, so fearful was she that the family would be rejected as unhealthy, perceived as a potential burden to Canada.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I was meant to take away from this story, but it stayed with me as a kind of parable about the value of my country.

To my young self, it was in part a story about how much people wanted to come here, and the difficult, possibly pragmatic choices and calculations a parent might make in order to achieve that end, but mostly the story was almost comedic to me then because: They were coming to Canada, to join family, of course we’d let them in.

That the mother – coming from some other, terrible, place, not realizing that her child’s broken arm would not be held against the family – was something resembling a punchline to me, and that this struck me as remotely funny, struck me as serious then, and more serious these past few weeks.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Medieval Mounted Combat

The Jousting Life has made available some amazing demonstrations of how cavalry combat in the Middle Ages may have worked. Have a look at this YouTube video and tell me you aren't impressed.

What impresses me is the level of horsemanship that is both demonstrated and implied.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Folk of the Air

I promised a couple of weeks ago to discuss The Folk of the Air, a novel by Peter S Beagle, which contrary to the opinion of some readers I think is a very successful piece of literature.

It might be considered a novel of hippy-dom in the San Francisco Bay area in the early 1970s. It is also a book about the intrusion of supernatural elements into a modern community. And most of all, it is a contemplation of the ideas and attitudes that in real life created the Society for Creative Anachronism in that same Bay Area in that same era.

Peter Beagle, who enjoys a very high reputation among a certain group of fantasy readers, is in this novel perhaps not as careful to construct a unified work of art as in some others. There are a few weak spots in the book that support that analysis. However, one can also argue that Beagle has got countervailing strengths which allow him to deal with a number of themes in interesting ways. The novel is complicated and diverse, just like life.

My own interest in the book is unsurprisingly in the way he portrays the early SCA (as the League of Archaic Pleasures), not as it was but as it might have been. Beagle says a lot about the SCA, especially the SCA in its earliest days, and he is very fair in his portrayal. He shows the good the bad the mundane and the bizarre that can accompany a serious effort to revive historic activities and culture. Like the early SCA, Beagle's League of Archaic Pleasures exists for good reasons and bad. People have a variety of motivations, not all of them good, and not all of them contemptible either. If you are a long-time member of the SCA like I am, you recognize people thinking and talking about the activities they have taken up and the Society they have created, taking pleasure in them, and wondering whether what they're doing makes any sense. Beagle does not answer their question.

One can argue that this kind of social fantasy is dangerous, and Beagle is quite aware of that. He deals with the dangers by portraying them as age-old supernatural forces that reemerge from elsewhere to intervene in and exploit the favourable environment created by the existence of the League. Beagle is able to make the reader shiver almost as much as the characters in the book to when confronting unexpected and uncanny manifestations.

I was talking about this book to a friend who had had it unread on the shelf for years and realized that my younger friend might find this to be a historical novel about a certain time in California's history. It is after all nearly a half-century old.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Coming soon in this space: reflections on Peter Beagle's *The Folk of the Air*

This post is here to remind me to write about Peter Beagle's extraordinary The Folk of the Air.

The short version. If you have never read it, read it, especially if you are interested in California in the 70s, the SCA, or just enjoy really good writing. If you have read it, pick it up again.