Sunday, July 08, 2018

Life along the Detroit River

Today my wife and I were walking along the Detroit River and we saw a Great Lakes freighter roughly like the one above.

The obvious differences:
  • The ship we saw was much, much bigger.  It had at least six (maybe seven) stories in the very large sterncastle. 
  • It was moving very fast.
  • It didn't have a forecastle.
  • It was moving FAST
Another treat!

Aeon: The origins of writing

I stumbled across this article -- The Deep Roots of Writing -- on this site -- Aeon.  I love the history of writing and if you do too, go and read.  Other articles on Aeon look to be equally substantial.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Franchise -- a 15th century definition of a knightly virtue

Professional scholars of chivalry and serious re-enactors alike sometime find it difficult to understand or explain why "franchise" (a term used in Roman times and the Middle Ages to indicate  the possession of political rights by citizens) is a chivalric virtue.

This past I discovered an early 15th-century explanation by a Belgian scholar and herald, Jean Courtois, known best by his professional name of "Sicily Herald."  (He would have counted as a Frenchman in his own time; he was called Sicily because he worked for the French-speaking king  of Sicily.)

The discussion of the virtue of franchise is the longest I know.  I have translated it for the numerous friends anxious to know more.
So if you have worked on the "Franchise Problem" and not been satisfied, here is a contribution by an expert (Sicily, not me).
Here we speak of franchise and liberty in the conflict with servitude.
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
A knight rightfully should be chosen from a very noble and free status, franchise is of great excellence and praise which well knows how to direct as touched upon above. Properly speaking, the free person cannot suffer to endure serfdom. Now, according to the teaching of philosophers, there are two kinds of serfs, that is to say serfs by nature and serfs by law. And to understand which are the serfs by nature, they are the ones who lack intelligence, excellence, effectiveness, reason and judgment: and these people must be led and governed by virtuous and prudent wise men. This thing can be proved by the soul which is immortal and perpetual, as everyone knows, which, according to reason and law, ought to govern the body; and the body, which is mortal and corruptible, ought by reason to obey the soul; and so as to things which according to reason virtue must proceed and have authority and power over the vices. Serfs by law are those who are taken in battle. For anciently the victors were able to keep in perpetual servitude those who they had vanquished. For this reason franchise falls from his condition into bondage, shame and disgrace, cowardice and the weakness of his body and all reproaches generally to be a serf according to the law. For a noble knight should entirely prefer to be slaughtered and suffer death, rather than  his prince or country should receive shame, dishonor, or destruction, by the weakness of his body, nor that his person lives in reproach, nor also in servitude to his enemy. For that reason his condition of franchise is bounteous, generous, liberal, and loves honor, and above all things he hates the arrogant and flatterers, felons and covetous, and cannot bear to endure their conduct, concealed malice, or indolent manners. But from its nature, it spares the weak, the poor and the small people, and has pity, and so loves the commonwealth; and the condition of franchise all good knights are held to their power to guard widows, orphans, the small people, and innocents from outrage, force and violence in the public places, cruel and malicious, as was said above.
Full bibliography to be added.  The book that contains the text is in Google Books and the title is "Parties ine'dits de l'oeuvre de Sicile" edited by P. Roland, Mons, 1867.


Thursday, June 07, 2018

Election Day in Ontario

Today is the provincial election day in Ontario.

It's an odd day. In particular, people are taking it very seriously; as well they should, given that the Ontario equivalent of Trump (the small time equivalent) has a lead in the polls. He has the potential of doing a lot of damage.

But there have been dangerous elections before. In none that I can remember have there been so many SCA people talking about the elections on SCA forums, including whom they intend to vote for. Granted, I wasn't paying attention to the Bush vs Gore election before election day.

My wife and I walked to our poll, holding our registration certificates in our hands, and we were greeted with smiles and positive comments by people on the street, who recognized the cards we were holding. In side the polling place, things were equally cheerful. It was overall a very cheerful occasion.

Image: No! No! No!

Saturday, June 02, 2018

My era of NHL Hockey

Looking at some videos of pro hockey from the early 80s,I realize that I have an era during which I actually knew the players and had a rough idea of how the teams were playing.

My Torontonian friends will find this hilarious.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Cavalry in World War 1; Transcaucasia

For about a year now I have been following a historical series on YouTube. It's called The Great War, and its gimmick is to follow the events of each week, a hundred years later. It also includes "special," that is topical, episodes. It's really quite good, and can be found here.

I have learned quite a bit from this series.

First, I have always been under the impression that cavalry in WWI was used in the margins of the conflict. Mentions of cavalry have been in the style: "Do you know that the [whatever in whenever] were still using cavalry in WWI? [smirk, smirk]," as if they were just too dumb to think of tanks. But I have learned from the Great War that this is entirely the wrong way of looking at cavalry. Everybody had cavalry; in fact they didn't have enough. Second, the war in Transcaucasia (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, etc.) was BIG!

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 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


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

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,

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?


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

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.