Saturday, May 26, 2018

Welll, where are we? The Long Ships (1964)

In this big Hollywood epic, Norsemen seeking treasure in "Moorish Barbary" are captured by the local king and dragged before him. The whole population of the town turn out to see them.

VIKING: Well, where are we?

VIKING LEADER (ROLF, i.e. Richard Widmark): Civilization.

VIKING: Huh?

VIKING LEADER: You wouldn't understand that..,

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Interviews on the Chivalry Today site

Do you know Scott Farrell's web site for Chivalry Today? It's here.

As you might guess from the title, it is devoted to relating historical chivalry to...chivalry today. One of the best things about it is that it includes many interviews with people who one way or another study and re-create chivalry. Scott is an excellent interviewer and he manages to get something good out of all of his guests.

There is one problem with the site. It's got so much good stuff that finding any specific interview is a bit difficult.

I realized recently that although I've been interviewed twice by Scott but that it isn't easy to find those interviews. So I am putting up posts on my blog and Facebook to alert anyone who might be interested that yes, indeed, the interviews are still available.

Both interviews consist of Scott and I discussing my research into "deeds of arms" and "chivalry" in the Middle Ages.

The first interview is here

The second is here. Segment 3 https://chivalrytoday.com/conversation-with-prof-steven-muhlberger/

Enjoy!

Thursday, May 03, 2018

My contribution; For Honor; Playing Hard

The radio was on in my bedroom and it was playing Q, a morning arts and music show on CBC 1.  The speaker said "...the SCA and re-enactors..." and very soon thereafter talked about his love for "German longsword."  Just like these words and phrases were normal parts of the English language  that many people would have no trouble understanding.


I said to my wife, "If this guy, a Canadian,  can use 'SCA' and 're-enactors' like this, it's largely because of you and me." 

Other long-time participants in the SCA in Canada and especially in Ontario may think this unwarranted braggadocio, but I don't.

Fortunately the radio program had nothing to do with Nazis.  The person  being interviewed was Jason VandenBerghe, a Montrealer who designed the Ubisoft video game For Honor, which was released a couple of years ago. 
VandenBerge was on the air discussing "For Honor" because it is currently the subject of a documentary film,"Playing Hard." It sounds very good. The CBC interview is of interest to people who care about modern ideas of chivalry.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Echo on the CBC -- science fiction, Metis history and graphic novels

https://smuhlberger.blogspot.ca/2018/04/echo-on-cbc-science-fiction-metis.

It is easy to make fun of the Canadian Broadcasting Company/Radio Canada or (for some people) take offense of its so-called political correctness but it really is often a blessing.  I was sitting in a car this afternoon listening to an hour-long show on books (!) and was introduced to a fascinating author,
Katherena Vermette, whose laterst work is a graphic novel, Pemmican Wars, volume one of A Girl Called Echo.  Echo is a contemporary Métis who is (I'm guessing here, I only learned of this novel a few minutes ago) saved from alienation by having a mysterious power to travel back and forth through time.

Sounds good!


But I'm mainly writing this post out of appreciation for Vernette, who gave one of the best interviews I've heard recently on the CBC.  Among other things she talked about how another Canadian author's work as making "the skies open and angels sing."


Imagine how that author must feel to have her works so described on national radio.


Alas, I don't know her name, but somewhere on the CBC site I am sure it can be found.


Image:  Red River carts,  designed and built by the Metis, who were an important element in the fur trade in Canada and Rupert's land.  Here is a whole train of Métis wagons setting out to somewhere.
 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

All over again

 Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian:

In the next few years, Fawcett will be joined by a new memorial in Westminster. This one will be for victims of the Holocaust. When the idea was first floated, I was ambivalent. I wasn’t convinced it was necessary. Surely everyone knew that the Nazis and their collaborators across Europe had murdered 6 million Jews in a bid to eliminate the entire Jewish people. Did we really need to tell that story all over again?

 But this month brought news of a survey finding that two-thirds of US millennials could not say what Auschwitz is, while 22% of that same age group had not heard of the Holocaust.
Maybe education on this subject is better in Britain, but it was still possible for two Holocaust deniers to be adopted as Labour candidates for next week’s council elections, while the Conservatives nominated a man who once tweeted that he was “sweating like a Jew in an attic”. And it was possible for a supposedly humorous video, in which a would-be comedian repeats the phrase “gas the Jews” 24 times, to go viral.

In other words, the memory of the Holocaust is not secure, just as what seemed to be long-ago battles over racism and sexism have not been won. There is an amnesia abroad that is troubling, as if lessons we thought we had learned need to be relearned all over again.


Monday, April 23, 2018

Ibn Battuta and the Empire of Mali in Extra History



Extra History is a series of hisotrical animations (I guess you could call them that) on You Tube.  Currently EH is posting material on the 14th century Empire of Mali (roughly today's West African country of Mali) famous as one of the world's chief sources of gold, and the location of Timbuktu.  EH is following the travelogue of the footloose Islamic scholar Ibn Battuta, who, if you take him at his word, went from his birthplace  in Morocco all the way to China, beating for distance the somewhat later Marco Polo.

When I was still teaching I loved talking  about Ibn Battuta, whose account gives us a good idea of what Islam meant to people outside the Arabic and Persian-speaking areas of the Middle East.  Ibn Battuta had a rather harsh judgement on these relatively new converts.  Not up to snuff, he said. But you can also get an idea of the flexibility of Islam in this period, which allowed it to appeal to people who lived in the Sahara, on the Russian steppes, and the islands of the Intian Ocean, to name just a few.

This EH series is one of the best of the bunch.  See it here.

Image:  A mosque in Timbuktu. By Senani P at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1831543

I can't help but point out that Ibn Battuta's Saharan journey took place at exactly the time that the Combat of Thirty v. Thirty.

Friday, April 20, 2018

When does anyone ever apologize like this?

ETA is the Basque separatist organization, which has been fighting for their independence in the Pyrennees region of Spain and France for many years.  They are well known for their terrorist attacks, which included blowing up a Spanish PM and a grocery in Barcelona.

Recently they have announced their disbandment.    As part of this process they have -- get this --
apologized to all the people they have harmed.

From the Guardian, today:
The Basque terrorist group Eta, which killed more than 800 people during its four-decade armed campaign, has apologised for the suffering it caused and asked for the forgiveness of victims and their families as it prepares to dissolve.
In a statement released on Friday morning, the group made a full and unambiguous apology for its actions, accepting that it bore “direct responsibility” for years of bloodshed and misery.
“We know that we caused a lot of pain during that long period of armed struggle, including damage that can never be put right,” it said. “We wish to show our respect for those who were killed or wounded by Eta and those who were affected by the conflict. We are truly sorry.”
The statement also recognised that Eta’s “mistakes or mistaken decisions” had led to the deaths of people who had nothing to do with the conflict, both in the Basque country and beyond.
“We know that, owing to the necessities of all kinds of armed struggle, our actions have hurt people who bore no responsibility whatsoever. We have also caused damage that can’t be undone.
“We apologise to those people and their families. These words won’t make up for what happened nor will they lessen the pain, but we speak to them respectfully and without wanting to provoke further suffering.”
I am not going to argue with anyone who has a cynical view of this declaration.  But who ever says "WE WERE WRONG?" in such a case?

Maybe this might be a step towards NOT "MISTAKENLY KILLING LARGE GROUPS OF INNOCENTS IN THE FIRST PLACE?


Sunday, April 15, 2018

"Canada was founded over drinks"

So says a fan of Thomas D'Arcy McGee, one of Canada's "Fathers of Confederation" during  a feature on the CBC's Sunday Edition radio program.  McGee, born in Ireland and for a while an immigrant to the USA before moving on to Canada, evolved from violent revolutionary to proponent of peaceful unification.

He was assassinated soon after he -- and others -- had succeeded in founding the Canadian confederation.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media: Appropriating the Middle Ages in the Twenty-First Century, by Andrew B.R. Elliott

Medievalism can mean several different things: historical re-creation inspired by the Middle Ages, drawing on medieval precedents to shape art and literature, using the symbols of the medieval past to justify modern nationalist movements; the academic study of the Middle Ages. Undoubtedly some of you can come up with more types of medievalism. The adoption of medieval ideas and and symbols by extremists in the last little while is something that concerns me as a medievalist (academic) and a medievalist (hobbyist). These people are stealing my good name by associating medievalism with loathsome ideas and actions, which in some cases include murder. The Medieval Review (hosting site being upgraded this week) slipped into my mail box today, and it included this very interesting book review. I know no more about it than what is written below:
Elliott, Andrew B. R. Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media: Appropriating the Middle Ages in the Twenty-First Century. Medievalism. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017. Pp. 223. $39.95. ISBN: 978-1-84384-463-1.

Reviewed by Richard Utz

Georgia Institute of Technology

richard.utz@lmc.gatech.edu

While researched, written, and published before most of last year's momentous discussions about the role of race, gender, politics, and ideology in medieval studies and medievalism, Andrew Elliott's study is a timely and relevant contribution to the field. It continues the work begun by Louise D'Arcens and Andrew Lynch (eds., International Medievalism and Popular Culture, 2014), Tommaso Carpegna di Falconieri (Medioevo militante: La politica di oggi alle prese con barbari e crociati, 2011), David M. Marshall (ed., Mass Market Medieval: Essays on the Middle Ages in Popular Culture, 2007), and Bruce Holsinger (Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror, 2007), but deepens their insights with a focus on the roles of contemporary media and communication, specifically online medievalisms. It also offers an original theoretical framework for future investigations.

Aware of the often visceral reactions of medieval historians to the public (mis)use of the Middle Ages by non-academic voices, Elliott is careful to prepare a secure theoretical foundation for his subject matter in the first three chapters. He immediately demarcates medievalisms referring to medieval history from heavily mediated popular political medievalisms. For the latter, the Middle Ages is most often merely a "'surprise player' used throughout political discussion by the modern media in order to become a site of identity, a point of identification or an ideological weapon then reused across other media" (6). According to Elliott, these popular medievalisms tend to originate in a three-step process: First, they need to be expropriated from history, as when medieval objects, concepts, and symbols are invoked in a postmedieval context; second, this expropriation is repeated and retransmitted, allowing the meaning of the object, concept, and symbol to gradually stand for new meanings increasingly unrelated to any historical reality; and third, the object, concept, or symbols is assimilated, translated, and modified so that it is completely "divested [...] of its original meanings and context-dependent significance making it ripe to be grafted onto modern concerns" (6). In chapters 4 and 5 of his study, Elliott details this process for the use of the (medieval) crusades by both George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden:

"In each case, though for very different purposes, the cultural symbolism of the Crusades was excised from its original meaning, transmitted through the mass media in a new form, and ultimately became the subject of a dispute not over their original meaning but over their new significance as an ideological weapon. So when bin Laden calls on his fellow Muslims to resist a Crusader invasion of the Holy Land, he is referring to an established tradition which has, through relentless repetition, assimilated the modern armed incursions into the Middle East with twentieth- and twenty-first-century "crusades." Likewise, it is precisely because the term was already in use that Bush's famous description of the War on Terror as a Crusade had such enormous political and ideological resonance"(6-7).

In chapter 6, Elliott shows a similar process at work for the events and media reception of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011 and justified his actions by stylizing himself as a Knight Templar defending western civilization against its allegedly impending Islamization. Chapters 7 and 8 move on to a discussion of the popular political medievalisms of the right-wing English Defense League (EDL) and the Islamic State (IS), respectively.

The central claim of Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media is that these various social media and other online mass medievalisms have little or nothing to do with the historical Middle Ages, but only and exclusively exist because of contemporary meme culture. In this culture, traditional models of authority and authenticity for communicating about medieval culture are pretty much irrelevant. Instead of the onerous identification of sources, causes, and paths of transmission, which would challenge ambiguity and inaccuracy, the modes of dissemination for medievalist memes in contemporary mass media are excellent examples of Jean Baudrillard's simulacra, presenting world-wide audiences with copies of copies without an original. However, even a Baudrillardian analysis of the vertical relationships between contemporary medievalisms and the Middle Ages will not do justice to the empty signifiers dominating current mass media. What is needed to understand these medievalist memes is an investigation into the horizontal relationships between various contemporary and multiply mediated mass medievalisms.

Elliott clearly has the background in communication and media theory necessary for dealing with these "elastic," "ludic," "pejorative," and "deliberately inappropriate" (all terms used in Elliott's study) mass medievalisms. In Michael Billig's Banal Nationalism (1995), which explores the uses of nationalism as when someone waves the flag not as part of a conscious and specific expression of national identity, but as a vague celebration of patriotic identity, Elliott has found a perfect model for his own study. He investigates "banal medievalisms," which he describes as bricolages of ideological redeployments of medievalist tropes or memes, or "the Middle Ages in the twenty-first century media landscape" as "unconscious sites of unchallenged heritage and, ultimately, unchallenged reference points in our collective imagination" (16). Like Billig's seemingly innocuous "banal nationalisms," Elliott reveals "banal medievalisms" as an "endemic condition made more powerful by the fact that [they] pass unobserved in most cases" (17). Behind these medievalisms' superficially harmless repetitions and unaware remediations, then, he recognizes the potential for the kind of banal evil Hannah Arendt diagnosed in the quotidian absence and failure of thinking, imagination, and self-awareness embodied by Hitler's Adolf Eichmann.

Many traditional medievalists will consider Elliott's book as external to medieval studies and therefore unrelated to their own work. After all, he is investigating medievalisms that are intentionally extirpated from the past events, texts, and artifacts they study. Moreover, these semantically "flattened" medievalisms are popular and political, two features most academics have learned to treat with disdain or at least caution. However, I would suggest that all medievalists should read his book because they will gain important insights into how their own published work and their teaching will increasingly be perceived by academic as well as non-academic audiences. Even if only to resist the alacrity with which these medievalisms can now spread at an electronic news cycle's notice, it serves medievalists well to comprehend the processes by which certain dominant (and often contradictory) ideas of the Middle Ages come about and are transmitted.

The association between "Middle East" and "Middle Ages" in the early 2000s is a case in point: Elliott documents how politicians, journalists, and others on instant messaging services and social media ceaselessly repeated and repurposed banal tropes and memes of the Middle Ages as regressive, violent, superstitious, primitive, anti-modern, and non-technological, until these tropes and memes ended up in support of political positions completely unrelated to anything we know about medieval culture. Elliott even documents how similar or the same memes of the "dark ages" were employed by the U.S. government as well as by Al Qaeda: If George W. Bush's famous post-9/11 gaffe about calling his "war on terrorism" a "crusade" was the beginning of a wholesale cultural clash between the "modern" west and the "medieval" East, Osama bin Laden employed Bush's neoconservative use of western orientalist/medievalist rhetoric and its elision of Islamism, Islam, and Arabic culture to mask Al Qaeda's own technological sophistication as well as to brand the western interference in the Middle East as a Crusader/Zionist alliance.

Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media would be a valuable contribution to our understanding of the phenomenon of medievalism if only for the wealth of illustrative examples it provides. However, I predict that its real legacy will be in affording a solid theoretical framework within which we can unpack what otherwise might well remain a confusing maze of medievalist mass media references. As Elliott states: "[M]edievalisms are rich with meaning because they are used so often across the mass media that the meaning is made elastic. Thus the (seemingly circuitous) assertion of banal medievalism is that medievalisms have meaning because they surround us, and they surround us because they have meaning" (45). I am grateful to Andrew Elliott for providing us with sound scholarly tools with which to explain the proliferation of banal medievalisms in the last 15 years, and I expect similar guidance about the sociological processes motivating the cultural phenomenon of medievalism from Paul Sturtevant's forthcoming book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism. How long these tools will be efficient may depend on the accelerating pace of new communication technologies and how users and societies negotiate them. And the scholarly monograph, which takes years to write and thus considerably lags behind the speed at which technological change drives communicative practice, may not be the most efficient genre for critically accompanying what the future holds for the study of mass media medievalisms.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Boydell and Brewer's Medieval Herald

Boydell and Brewer's Medieval Herald might be seen as simply a fancy catalogue for this publishing house. But it is very pretty and even more  includes all sorts of supplementary material.

The copy I just received has not one but four different interviews with authors and editors of B and B imprints.

Two of them are of particular interest for me:  The two editors of Frisians and their North Sea Neighbours From the Fifth Century to the Viking Age ( John Hines & Nelleke IJssennagger ) have a lot of interesting things to say about the Frisians of the North Sea coast. They make the very worthwhile point that the Frisians have maintained an ethnic identity for many centuries without  uniformity in language or other cultural characteristics. They don't say so but I would guess that the landscape and seascape of the region has always been the most important common element in Frisian life.  Quote from the interview:

Today, Friesland is one of the twelve provinces of the Netherlands, whilst there also is a region of Ostfriesland in Germany. In Friesland, Frisian is still a living language with a speaking population of around 450,000, and people born here consider themselves as Frisian. The regional identity is still quite strong, and is often linked to traditions of historical events and not least the idea of a historical independence of Frisia. The historical Frisia, however, was not the same as Friesland, but covered a much larger area of the present-day Netherlands and in Germany. In different eras, the area either considered to be Frisia or to be populated by Frisians varied; in Roman times we first hear of Frisii living in the northern Dutch coastal area, while in the exceptionally valuable source Lex Frisionum the Frisian area of around AD 800 was defined as between the Zwin on the modern border between Belgium and the Netherlands and the Weser in modern Germany. In between historical reference points such as these the Frisian area variously expanded and contracted, or was not clearly defined, but the idea of a Frisia and of Frisian people continues with remarkable tenacity.

Frisians in the Early Middle Ages were not necessarily the same people as the apparently Celtic-speaking Frisii of the Roman Period, because of a habitation hiatus (or massive demographic decline) and re-colonization by people from around the North Sea. In general, it can be said that the medieval Frisians are considered as a maritime-focussed Germanic people, who made a name and fame for themselves before and during the Viking Period through seafaring and trade. They were in close connection with their North Sea neighbours, as both written sources and material culture testify, and as is explored in detail in this book.

Laura Chuhan Campbell's The Medieval Merlin Tradition in France and Italy: Prophecy, Paradox, and Translatio is about the Merlin tradition in medieval literature. My interest is the fact that one of the commanders in the Combat of the 30 believed strongly that the prophecies of Merlin guaranteed victory for  his side in that famous deed of arms.

Image:  From the Medieval Herald.

 



Tuesday, March 20, 2018

El Minesterio del Tiempo and the Frankenstein Chronicles -- treats for history fans

Recently I have run across on Netflix two series which I found particularly satisfying because they were clearly created by people who like history as much as I do, and who have taken care to do it right.

One of them is the Frankenstein Chronicles, which might qualify as a good historical movie simply because it stars Sean Bean, but which has so much more.  The story depicts what might have happened in intellectual circles in London after the publication of the novel Frankenstein.  The movie shows as talented scientists being inspired by the book to attempt not just to understand the nature of life and death, but to find the the secret of immortality.

Of course, this doesn't work out very well for them.

What I liked best about the Frankenstein Chronicles was the convincing and detailed depiction of this pre-Victorian era.  Lots of real people show up to add depth to the story:  Mary Shelley, Sir Robert Peel (creating the "bobbies," the London police force), King William IV, William Blake (on his death bed) and several more.  I can't swear to the absolute accuracy of any of these individual portraits, but the nuanced portrayal of the environment as a whole is very pleasing to this retired history professor.  It reminds me of the care put into those prize historical movies of the early 70s, the Three Musketeers and the Four Musketeers.

Also on Facebook is a Spanish series, El Minesterio del Tiempo. The Ministry of Time is a branch of the Spanish government devoted to preventing unauthorized time travelers from changing essential elelments of the past -- specifically the Spanish past.  I have screened only about a quarter of the series, but most of it so far shows the ministry agents most concerned that famous artists and writers are able to produce the works that they contributed to Spanish culture.

There are other entertaining features of the story.  You probably wouldn't think of Spain as the most likely country to have a monopoly on time travel technology.   If so, know that the characters agree with you!  Anyway, the Spanish time travel technique is not obviously technology.  It was invented by a 15th century rabbi, and ever since his time, the Ministry has been secretly using doors that go from one time and place to another.  If there is an explanation for this. or for the creation of the Ministry itself, it is not clear to me.

But perhaps the best part of the series is the way the characters deal with a power that potentially makes them omnipotent.  All the agents have been plucked out of the normal time stream, sometimes after some family tragedy.  The agents can go back to their original environment any time they want, but they risk damaging their (our) timeline and their own mental health if thety do so.

El Ministerio del Tiempo is getting better as it goes along.  The actors are great.  Are they top-ranked stars in Spain?

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Welsh (or the English)

From the Guardian, an essay on anti-Welsh bigotry by

There are myriad examples of such ignorance [in the English press] But the one that stands out to me was the widespread snooty dismissal by English journalists as made up of an anecdote about a woman in a hijab confounding a bigot by speaking Welsh on a train. None of them, clearly, had ever been to Cardiff.

Don’t get me wrong – these subtle examples don’t send Welsh people running home to their mams in tears; we are a tough people. But they do betray an attitude that, at its most extreme, amounts to xenophobia, pure and simple. And often on the part of liberal English people who would be horrified to be called racist.

Anyone with a cursory familiarity with the history of Welsh oppression will know why. It smacks of a residual colonialist insecurity at sharing an island with a minority whose language you cannot understand. But while hundreds of years ago that will have seemed threatening to the English imperialist world order, now such defensiveness just makes you look pathetic. So what if a small number of people speak Welsh? What’s it to you? Why do you care so much? Is a part of you ashamed to be monoglot, aware that to the rest of the world, it looks a bit, well, low-achieving?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ghosts and Zombies by Phil Paine


Ghosts and Zombies -- another perceptive piece on the political illness of our times.  Phil is a sometime collaborator of mine.  He has been looking at the challenges, the successes and the failures of democracy for longer thant the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

A great leap forward in our knowledge of Jupiter





The Guardian reports on the new information about the planet Jupiter gained by the Juno spacecraft.  We're learning much more about  its structure.  The big news is that if there is a solid center, it's way way deep.  Mostly Jupiter seems to be a congregation of big, deep, fast hydrogen and helium storms.

The new findings, based on extremely sensitive gravitational measurements, also begin to paint a picture of the internal structure of the planet.

On an imagined journey from the outside to the centre, one would first encounter a cloud layer of 99% hydrogen and helium, with traces of methane and ammonia. The density at the surface is about 10 times less than that of air, but the gas becomes denser and denser towards the centre of the planet. At about 10% towards the centre, the gas becomes so dense that hydrogen becomes ionised, turning into a metallic hydrogen gas approaching the density of water. About 20% towards the centre, helium condenses into rain. And in the deep interior, where pressures are about 10 million times higher than at the Earth’s surface, scientists think the gas exists as a dense soup speckled with rocks of heavy metal.
“There may be a small hard [solid] core very, very deep, but we’re thinking it’s just dense gas enriched in heavy elements … it’s not a solid that you can imagine,” said Kaspi. “The normal concept of gas, liquid and solid don’t really hold at these pressures.”
Image:  Storms at the South Pole.