Monday, February 23, 2015


I don't consider the Society for Creative Anachronism to be neo-primitivism, exactly, but what Mr. Potter says about authenticity hits close to home.  I've been thinking of authenticity as a near-religious term for quite a while now:

The moral imperative driving  this is what we can call the quest for authenticity. This is the search for meaning in a world that is alienating, spiritually disenchanted, socially flattened, technologically obsessed, and thoroughly commercialized. To that end, “authenticity” has become the go-to buzzword in our moral slang, underwriting everything from our condo purchases and vacation stops to our friendships and political allegiances.

There are two major problems with this.

The first is that authenticity turns out to be just another form of hyper-competitive status seeking, exacerbating many of the very problems it was designed to solve. Second, and even more worrisome, is that the legitimate fear of the negative effects of technological evolution has given way to a paranoid rejection of science and even reason itself.

Modernity, as a civilization, sits at the confluence of secularism, liberalism, and capitalism, and it is not everyone’s cup of coffee. The promise of the authentic is that it will help us carve out a space where true community can flourish outside of the cash nexus and in a way that treads lightly upon the Earth. More often than not, this manifests itself through nostalgia, for a misremembered time when the air was cleaner, the water purer, and communities more nurturing.

It was never going to work out that way. From its very origins, the quest for the authentic was motivated by that most ancient and base of human urges, the desire for status. The authenticity craze of the past decade is simply the latest version of what the economist Thorstein Veblen, in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, called “conspicuous display.” Veblen was mostly concerned with the pretensions of the failing aristocracy and their obsession with obsolete endeavours such as hunting, swordfighting, and learning useless languages. Yet his basic insight – that consumption is first and foremost about social distinction – remains the key to decoding our consumer driven cultural shivers.

As recently as a decade and a half ago, organic food was the almost exclusive bastion of earnest former hippies and young nature lovers — the sort of people who like to make their own granola, don’t like to shave, and use rock crystals as a natural deodorant. But by the turn of the millennium, organic was making inroads into more mainstream precincts, driven by an increasing concern over globalization, the health effects of pesticide use, and the environmental impact of industrial farming. The shift to organic seemed the perfect alignment of private and public benefit.

In the past few juice cleansing has become a 5 billion dollar industry in the U.S., appealing to those who want to lose weight and “detox” their bodies.

It also became an essential element of any “authentic” lifestyle. Yet as it became more popular, the rumblings of discontent within the organic movement became harder to ignore. What was once a niche market had become mainstream, and with massification came the need for large-scale forms of production that, in many ways, are indistinguishable from the industrial farming techniques that organic was supposed to replace. Once Walmart started selling organic food, the terms of what counts as authentic shifted from a choice between organic and conventional food to a dispute between supporters of the organic movement and those who advocate a far more restrictive standard for authenticity, namely, locally grown food.

But when it comes to shopping locally, how local is local enough? If we want to live a low-impact, environmentally conscious lifestyle, how far do we need to go?

The short answer is, you need to go as far as necessary to maintain your position in the status hierarchy.

The problem is you can only be authentic as long as most of the people around you are not, which has its own built-in radicalizing dynamic. You start out getting an organic-vegetable delivery service once a month, then you try growing chickens in your urban backyard. Then the next thing you know, your friends have gone all-in on paleo, eschewing grains, starches, and processed sugar and learning how to bow-hunt wild boar on weekends.

The Whole Food chain plans to start rolling out a system that ranks fruits and vegetables as “good,” ”better” or “best” based on the supplier’s farming practices.

There’s a deeper issue here though, which is that the problem with radicalization is that it breeds extremism. It is one thing to play at being anti-modern by eating only wild game, becoming an expert in axe-throwing, or building a whisky still in your backyard. It is something else entirely to push that ethos into a thoroughgoing rejection of science, technology, and reason itself.

Yet this is where we have ended up. The neoprimitivist logic of authenticity has pushed its way into every corner of how we think, act and consume. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

More (and more chilling) German folk tales

This Salon article talks about "darker-than-Grimm stories" recently discovered in a German archive and now published in English translation.  That cutesy description rang alarm bells for me, but to my surprise the interview with the translator, Maria Tatar, is really substantial. Congrats to the interviewer, Laura Miller, for doing such a good  job.

Some excerpts:

[MILLER] I was struck by several themes that came up repeatedly in these tales. There are a few stories where parents turn against their son because he’s too strong. It doesn’t seem that different from the more familiar stories where the stepmother takes against the daughter who’s prettier than her. We’re always hearing about the wicked stepmother and how she hates Snow White for being the fairest of all. That is a real generational rivalry, but the same rivalry happens between fathers and sons, except it’s about virility or strength instead of beauty. I was fascinated to see that there is a male equivalent of the beauty rivalry.

[TATAR] It’s remarkable, in one particular story, how the parents team up against the son. You would think they would make his strength work for them. Instead, they try to do him in! That’s another great difference between Schönwerth and the Grimms. For the Grimms, it is always the evil stepmother. The fathers tend to be exonerated. Sometimes they just go along with the stepmother, and they’re not described as complicit in any way, just overpowered by this demonic wife. Whereas in Schönwerth, there’s the story of Prince Goldilocks, where the father sends the boy into the wilderness and wants to kill him. That is unheard of in the Grimms’ tales.

  [MILLER] You point out that we have this one-sided view of the way gender works in fairy tales partly because of how the Grimms edited their collection, but don’t you also feel that partly it’s because over time, as the oral storytellers became overwhelmingly female, they also might have focused on female characters more? 

 [TATAR] I’m not so sure. The Grimms picked and chose their stories, and I think that they just had some sort of deep reverence for fathers. Fathers could do no wrong for them. For example, take the story of Cinderella, where the villain is the evil stepmother. But there’s another version of Cinderella that circulated in the 19th century that is called “Donkeyskin” or “Thousandfurs,” and in that one it’s a father who loves his daughter too much. When his wife dies, he wants to replace her with his daughter. So you have a father who is totally out of control. Then he disappears in the course of the 19th century. I guess you’re right, I shouldn’t put it all on the Grimms. It could be part of a general trend toward focusing on evil women. 

[MILLER] Reading this collection made me realize the degree to which intergenerational conflict in fairy tales is not just about the female characters but is a really pervasive theme. It’s about the child’s awareness that as much as their parents might love them, parents also know that their children will supplant them. Children can be threatening in this weird way, as well as being very much desired at times. The parents will fade as the children come into strength, and so the children also represent the parents’ own deaths. So there’s this ambivalence to the relationship. I didn’t really see that before because it had always been presented in such a gendered way in the more familiar fairy tales, presented as a conflict between women about desirability as opposed to something even more universal than that. 

 [TATAR] Fairy tales are about the hyper-dysfunctional family. Think of “Jack the Giant-Killer”: The giant is a proxy for the father. There’s always something terrible going on, these domestic dramas that are larger than life and twice as unnatural. 

[MILLER] What do you in particular find so compelling about this form?

[TATAR] What I really love about fairy tales is that they get us talking about matters that are just so vital to us. I think about the story of Little Red Riding Hood and how originally it was about the predator-prey relationship, and then it becomes a story about innocence and seduction for us. We use that story again and again to work out these very tough issues that we have to face. My hope is that this volume will get people talking about not just the stories and the plot but the underlying issues. >

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World 1914-1991, by Eric J. Hobsbawm

It has been almost a quarter-century since Eric Hobsbawm the daring step of writing history from the outbreak of World War I to the collapse of the Soviet Union. And only now am I getting around to reading it.

This is not a book that I think I would ever read from cover to cover. It is a long one. However, it is so interesting in its many details and its many passages of analysis that I got a lot out of it even just reading a few pages at a time more or less at random.

Here's one fact of 1 million: Hobsbawm points out that of the leaders of the various countries of the world in 1970, a year when baby boomers were  coming of age, almost all were people who had been adults at the end or even at the beginning of the First World War. No wonder there was a lack of sympathy between the establishment and the young rebels! It is typical of Hobsbawm's style that he illustrates the point thus: professors of economic history in France were people who had grown up on or vacationed on farms, and had a pretty good idea of how agriculture worked. They faced students in their classes with no idea what  milkmaids did or the usefulness of manure piles to a working farmer.
Anecdotal history? I love it nonetheless.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Peregrine: Secundus, by Avram Davidson

I recently re-read Peregrine: Secundus, the second book in what seems like an unfinished series by science fiction and fantasy writer Avram Davidson.  Davidson, who seems to have been a classically-educated eccentric, judging by what he chose to write and what he actually produced, delights me.  The blurb on the Berkley Fantasy edition (above, 1981) is for once fairly accurate, "[a] journey to the lighter side of the Dark Ages," though it understates the comedic effects that Davidson achieves.  He knew a tremendous amount about late antiquity and poured it all in to this book, creating a world which is not quite our own past, one  with dozens of small-time Roman Emperors, a plethora of  fiercely competing Christian sects, and such remnants of the pagan past as the Sphinx outwitted by Theseus, now down on her luck.

Is this  book worth your efforts to hunt it (and its prequel Peregrine: Primus) up?

Some samples:

(A member of the Weefolk explains their situation.)

A Weewoman was speaking now, speaking soft and low: he listened. Och, the Gotha push down the Roma and the Roma push down the Kelta And the Kelta push down the Weefolk; thu knowedd this; thu knowedd the Weefolk be we. Indeed they were wee, though scarcely hop-o'-my-thumb wee; Perry realized that if one had to live in holes in the rock, it was a great help to be wee… We study, och, what arts we may, here in the greeny wood… We ferm not for why would we ferm? So they 'ould take our crops, och, and ot last, our lahnd? If we didt ought in metal 'ork, 'ould they not see and smell the forge-smoke and hear the clong of metal, metal-on? We gather the small fruits o' the soil, the thucket, the forest and the fens… The scronnel herbs ond the rune-thorns, the rune- roots ond the magic mosses… and we 'ork and that sort of wise… We spin spells, we weave webs, we moil in magic; these be our arts, such are our crops, in this wise 'lone do we ferm and delve and forge… 
(Christian sectaries react to apparent pagan magic.)
The Neognostic Heterodox Heretical Church thought of almost everything.
What was left of the congregation by this time (a part it had already fled) uttered sundry small anathemas (major anathemas, as was well known, could be issued only by members of the episcopate or by lower clergy under special episcopal license), made the sign of the cross in every conceivable manner, and in some few cases stooped to pick pebbles which they tossed up as a sort of surrogate stoning (indeed, only fairly recently, a sect in Syria had advanced the doctrine that stoning itself might be considered in itself a Sacrament; but they had all been stoned); these congregants may or may not have heard of the law of gravity under that or any other name but there were, very, very shortly, irritated little yelps in various regional accents, of, "Dawn't play the fool, now, I a'n't no fooking eretic, bounce another o' them off me pate and I'll have ar yez, see if I dawn't;" and very similar disaffected outcries.
(The hero rides through a forest.)
Forests of oak, forests of pine, oak for goodly furnitures and the keels and timbers and the great ribs of ships, oak for wine barrels. Pine for tar and planks for said ships and pitch to caulk them with. Pine for resin to pour into the oak barrels to keep the air from the wine and so keep the wine from souring. Pine for kindling for a quick flame; oak for the great glowing beads of coal like lumps of amber, beds of glowing coals to last the night and Roast the ox. A many generation of pine planks would come and go in any one boat and ship, but the oak timbers were forever. Well, almost forever: when the oak went, the vessels went, too. For quickness and haste in rapid service: pine. For endurance, oak.
(One of the augurs makes a mistake.) 
 Very bad form, and enough to have softened the hard heart even of Cato of the Elder, whose coarse comment that "he did not understand how two augurs could pass each other without bursting out laughing," had never been forgiven by them: and never would.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Crusades: defensive wars?

Recently experts on the Crusades have got a reasonable amount of press on whether the Crusades should be condemned or not. One statement made by several of them is that the Crusades were justifiable as defensive wars against Muslim aggression.

Iff you look at maps illustrating the course the Crusades, you usually will see a fairly clear back-and-forth boundary between Christian ruled countries and Muslim ruled countries.

Yet I have a hard time taking this argument all that seriously because I have my strong doubts that warriors in the 11th century, whatever the ethnic or religious background, cared and whether or not a war was “offensive” or “defensive”.

If you look at the 11th century, the century that ended with the First Crusade, and you will find a large number of major wars that resulted in new rulers being imposed on the previous population, which sometimes practiced a different religion from the conquerors. Here is an incomplete list straight out of my head, done without referring to any reference works so there might be some mistakes. It is in roughly chronological order.

  • Conquest of England by Knut (Canute)
  •  Conquest of Norway by Canute
  •  Conquest of England by William
  •  Conquest of southern Italy and Sicily by various Normans
  • Conquest of Anatolia by the Seljuk Turks
  • Conquest of Central Spain by Castile
  • First Crusade


  • It is extremely unlikely that any of the conquering armies saw themselves as ethnically or nationally unified. In some cases it is quite clear that they were ethnically heterogenous.
  • People were willing to travel long distances to take part in wars that might result in conquest. 
  • Also, it is pretty clear that warriors believed that if they were successful in their war they were entitled to all the wealth that they could confiscate, whether that might be lordship over wide territories for the highest ranking and most successful or whether it might be plunder, which just about and everybody expected and hoped for.

Using this perspective, The First Crusade doesn’t seem to be all that different from the other wars listed here.

That doesn’t mean other reasons for wars were not present. William the Conqueror seems have considered himself to have been legitimately named as Edward the Confessor’s heir for the kingdom of England. Some of his followers may have gotten a bit of a thrill from fighting for the right of William to be King. But they did not go home after Hastings to sit around talking about how they had done the right thing. No, they got as much territory and profit out of William’s successful war as they possibly could. Also, the Pope did give William a papal banner to take to England as a sign of ecclesiastical support and a certain amount of religious justification was present in some of these other wars as well. Some people did go home after the first crusade and talk about how they done the right thing. But what plunder could be acquired was always part of the picture. It was a rare warrior – were there any? – who did not think that plunder was a legitimate source of profit in any war.

Visualizing these large groups of armed men roaming the countryside stealing stuff and conquering countries makes me sceptical that the big movements on the historical maps of the Crusades can be explained as “defensive wars.” Looking back over the larger sweep of history I wonder whether “defensive wars” were an important phenomenon in most people’s view of the world before the 20th century. Certainly professional warriors have tended to look at war as a normal part of life, not some terrible breakdown of society as many people feel today. Perhaps a dislike for war was stronger among non-warrior groups such as the peasantry or the clergy (especially monks) and of course large numbers of women. But among the people who led wars and fought wars, did they really think about offense or defence as an important category affecting their decision-making?

Friday, February 06, 2015

Fighting the Islamic State

From Foreign Policy:

The war against the Islamic State, and the brand of extremist violence it exemplifies, won’t be won or lost on the battlefield. Defeating the group, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Thursday, will instead first require debunking the ideological propaganda the group spews to justify its killing.
Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hussein lamented the brutal murder of his Jordanian countryman, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was burned alive by the Islamic State in a video made public earlier this week. “Just bombing them or choking off their finances has clearly not worked, for these groups have only proliferated and grown in strength,” he said. That meant the fight against the group required “the addition of a different sort of battle-line one waged principally by Muslim leaders and Muslim countries and based on ideas — on a reassertion of traditional Islam in the everyday narrative of Muslims.”
That won’t be easy. Even though the pilot’s burning sparked revulsion and fury across the world, the group still has its defenders. The radical British cleric Anjem Choudary defended the Islamic State’s method of killing the pilot in an interview on NewsmaxTV, claiming it was justified because of the women and children killed by bombing campaigns. “In defensive jihad,” he said, “whatever the Muslims can do within the realms of the acceptable behavior, they are doing. And part of that is terrorizing the enemy.” And an Islamic State admirer on Twitter reportedly wrote, “To any pilot participating in the crusader coalition against the holy warriors — know that your plane might fall in the next mission. Sleep well!”
Hussein, who became the first Arab and Muslim to lead the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights when he assumed the role in September, has long been critical of the military-first approach that the United States and governments and international bodies have favored in combatting the Islamic States.
Instead, he’s been pushing for a war of ideas against the group, something that he believes has already started. Last September, in a letter translated into 10 languages, more than 120 Muslim scholars “discredited the cruel, harsh, ideology promoted by the leader of the Takfiris [Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy] in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This is a hopeful beginning and deserves support,” he said during his address Thursday at the Holocaust museum, a powerful setting for a speech by a Muslim condemning atrocities ostensibly carried out in the name of his own religion.
It’s not a new argument for Hussein, but in the wake of this week’s gruesome killing he’s been gaining an array of new allies who have lashed out at the Islamic State’s claim that burning the Jordanian pilot was within the bounds of sharia law.
“Burning is an abominable crime rejected by Islamic law regardless of its causes,” tweeted Saudi cleric Salman al-Odah, according to euters. “It is rejected whether it falls on an individual or a group or a people. Only God tortures by fire.” Sheikh Hussein bin Shu’ayb, head of the religious affairs department in southern Yemen, told the news service, “The Prophet, peace be upon him, advised against burning people with fire.” The Grand Sheikh of Egypt’s Al-Azhar university, Ahmed al-Tayeb, expressed disgust with the act and said its perpetrators deserved to be “killed, crucified or to have their limbs amputated.” Hussein is a realist who knows that the fight against the Islamic state — and whatever will come along to replace it — is going to be longer than any bombing campaign.
“Years of tyranny, inequalities, fear, and bad governance are what contribute to the expansion of extremist ideas and violence,” he said in his speech on Thursday. “Few of these crises have erupted without warning.” And quashing extremism before it grows into the next terrorist threat means discrediting the ideas that are used to justify violence before they can take hold.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany, by B. Ann Tlusty

Ken Mondschein's review will tell you whether you can live without this book:
B. Ann Tlusty’s The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany is one of those books that simultaneously delights and frustrates the reviewer: Delight, for the immense wealth of valuable material it contains, coupled with admiration for the author; frustration, because of the sure knowledge that one is unlikely to ever write a work as good. Then again, few scholars do: Tlusty bases her argument on an intimate knowledge of city archives, especially those of Augsburg and with an emphasis on judicial records, but incorporates a wide number of other sources, both archival and published. These are masterfully synthesized into a nuanced and far-reaching argument that addresses core questions in the historiography of early modern Europe. Martial Ethic, in other words, a definitive work of history, one that deserves to stand beside works on the history of violence and arms in Europe such as those of Ute Frevert and Kevin McAleer for modern Germany and François Billacois, Peter Blastenbrei, Trevor Dean, Robert Nye, and Pieter Spirenberg for the rest of Europe (1) and which ought to be on comprehensive exam reading lists and incorporated into survey courses on later medieval and early modern Europe. It has already achieved well-merited renown amongst the Historical European Martial Arts crowd, but seen from the perspective of Martial Ethic, the Fechtbücher (records of fencing teaching) seem like footnotes to the greater trends and ideas brought out by Tlusty.

However, like all great history, Martial Ethic is not an apolitical work. By this I do not mean that Tlusty’s objectives or arguments are in any way directed towards making a modern political argument, but rather that they resonate with an important contemporary concern—namely the American debate over firearms. This is unavoidable for two reasons: the fact that (as Tlusty points out) American gun culture owes some of its genetic material to Germany, and the fact that the historian’s ever-present obligation to make the past relevant to the present naturally guides us towards subjects of broader interest. While Tlusty’s main aim is to make a contribution to the literature of violence and the growth of the state in premodern Europe, she is certainly cognizant of contemporary resonance. In the same way, it is the reviewer’s obligation to tease out the broader implications of the work under consideration. Therefore, I will first discuss the structure and arguments of Tlusty’s book and what they mean for the historical discipline, and then editorialize on their relevance to modern society.

And there is lots more...

Public pagan worship to return to Iceland

According to the Globe and Mail, they are building a temple:

“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” said Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, high priest of Asatruarfelagid, an association that promotes faith in the Norse gods. “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.” Membership in Asatruarfelagid has tripled in Iceland in the last decade to 2,400 members last year, out of a total population of 330,000, data from Statistics Iceland showed. The temple will be circular and will be dug four metres down into a hill overlooking the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, with a dome on top to let in the sunlight. “The sun changes with the seasons so we are in a way having the sun paint the space for us,” Hilmarsson said.

Monday, February 02, 2015

The American Civil War as a global struggle

Excerpted “The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War”by Don H. Doyle in a recent Salon:

While the war was being fought on the battlefields of Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg, another contest was waged overseas. The Confederacy sought international recognition and alliances to secure independence, and the Union was determined not to let that happen. “No battle, not Gettysburg, not the Wilderness,” one historian claimed, “was more important than the contest waged in the diplomatic arena and the forum of public opinion.” The history of Civil War diplomacy—that is, the formal negotiations among governments and the strategies surrounding them—has been told and told well. This book turns to the less familiar forum of public opinion, which was filled with clamorous debate for four years. It took place in print (in newspapers, pamphlets, and books) as well as oratory (in meeting halls, pubs, lodges, union halls, and parliaments). Wherever free speech was stifled, as it was in France, the debate continued over private dinner tables and at cafés. Whatever one’s views, there was general agreement that the American question mattered greatly to the world and to the future.

The Union and Confederacy each hired special agents, who usually operated under cover of some kind. They were typically veteran journalists and political operators whose job it was, as one of them deftly put it, to give “a right direction to public sentiment” and correct “erroneous” reports that favored the other side. Some bribed editors and hired journalists, while others published their own pamphlets, books, and even newspapers. Few were above planting rumors or circulating damaging stories, and some of what they produced can only be described as propaganda and misinformation. But that was only part of the story of what was more often a sophisticated appeal to ideology and values.

In today’s parlance the diplomatic duel that took place during America’s Civil War can be understood as a contest of smart power, the adroit combination of hard-power coercion with soft-power appeals to basic values. Hard-power diplomacy typically involves the threat or use of military force, but can also include economic coercion (blockades, embargoes) and inducements (low tariffs, commercial monopolies). The employment of soft power involves persuasion and information, but the underlying strategy is to appeal to the fundamental values and interests of the foreign country, to demonstrate that the two countries in question share common aspirations. Soft power resides in “the power of attraction,” not in crude propagandizing.

The Union won and the South lost this diplomatic duel abroad not because the Union possessed an obviously more appealing message. To the contrary, at the outset many foreigners found the South’s narrative of valiant rebellion against the North’s oppressive central government far more attractive. Slavery had never disqualified a nation from acceptance into the family of nations. The United States and most European powers had at some point sanctioned slavery with no loss of status under international law. Confederate emissaries abroad were nonetheless instructed to avoid discus.sion of slavery as the motive for secession, and they happily pointed to Lincoln’s own promises to protect slavery in the Southern states as proof that this was not the issue. Southern diplomats crafted an appeal that evoked widely admired liberal principles of self-government and free trade. The conflict, they told the world, was one arising naturally between industrial and agrarian societies, not freedom and slavery. The industrial North wanted high protective tariffs, while the agrarian South wanted free trade with Eur. Southern leaders had rehearsed their foreign policy for years, and they began their rebellion fully confident that Europe would bow to “King Cotton.” “What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years?” South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond asked in 1858. “England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her, save the South. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.

The American crisis not only heartened the enemies of democracy; it also emboldened them to invade the Western Hemisphere, to topple governments, install European monarchs, and reclaim lost American empires. Suddenly, the Civil War rendered the Monroe Doctrine toothless. Republican regimes in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and, not least, the United States were suddenly vulnerable to imperialist aggression, including nefarious plots to install European princes and recolonize their lands.

The most audacious of European schemes was Napoleon III’s Grand Design for  Latin Catholic empire. It began with an allied invasion of Mexico late in 1861 and led to the installation of the Hapsburg archduke Maximilian as emperor of Mexico in 1864. The Grand Design went far beyond Mexico to envision the unification of the “Latin race” in America and Europe, under the auspices of the French, and to reverse the advances of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism and egalitarian democracy in the Western Hemisphere.As its bid to win support in Britain foundered, some thought due to popular antislavery sentiment, the Confederacy sought to align itself with Napoleon III by adopting a Latin strategy that would make common cause with the French and the Catholic Church against the “Puritan fanatics” of the North. The Confederacy sent emissaries to the vatican, appealing to Pope Pius IX, the archenemy of republicanism, to bless their “holy war” against the “infidels” of the North. They also contrasted the North’s “mobocracy” to the traditions of patrician rule among the South’s European-style gentry. Southerners even encouraged Europeans to think the Confederacy might prefer a monarchical form of government, perhaps under a European prince. on several occasions Southern leaders proposed some kind of permanent league with, or protectorate under, France, Britain, or Spain. All this portended far more than mere separation under a new flag.

Southerners also took pains to emphasize they were sympathetic with European designs to restore monarchy and Catholic authority in Latin America. Confederate diplomats were instructed to repudiate the South’s earlier imperialist ambitions for a tropical empire in Latin America. They assured Europeans that with an independent South, expansion would no longer be necessary.

... At the end of the war, Eugène Pelletan, a leading French republican, expressed eloquently what the American question had meant to the world: “America is not only America, one place or one race more on the map, it is yet and especially the model school of liberty. If against all possibility it had perished, with it would fall a great experiment."

Some readers may feel such unqualified admiration of America was undeserved. The Union, everyone knows, had been painfully slow to embrace emancipation, and America’s deeply ingrained racial prejudice would long outlast slavery. These were only some of the egregious flaws in the nation foreign admirers hailed as the Great Republic.

Yet we miss something vitally important if we view Pelletan and other foreigners who saw America as the vanguard of hope as naive or misguided. Foreign admirers typically regarded the United States not as some exceptional city upon a hill, but as exactly the opposite: an imperfect but viable model of society based on universal principles of natural rights and theories of government that originated in Europe but had thus far failed to succeed there. In the 1860s they were horrified to see government of the people seriously imperiled in the one place it had achieved its most enduring success. Abraham Lincoln was hardly boasting when he referred to America as the “last best hope of earth.” His was a forlorn plea to defend America’s—and the world’s—experiment in popular government.

In the mid-nineteenth century, it appeared to many that the world was moving away from democracy and equality toward repressive govern- ment and the expansion of slavery. Far from being pushed off the world’s stage by human progress, slavery, aristocratic rule, and imperialism seemed to be finding new life and aggressive new defenders. The Confederate South had no intention of putting slavery on the road to extinction; its very purpose in breaking away was to extend and perpetuate slavery— forever, according to its constitution. Had the Confederacy succeeded, it would have meant a new birth of slavery, rather than freedom, possibly throughout the Americas, and it would have been a serious blow to the experiment in egalitarian democracy throughout the Atlantic world.

Long after the defeat of the Confederacy, enemies of liberal, egalitarian society had every reason to look back on America’s Civil War with regret. In 1933, during an after-dinner discussion in Munich, Adolf Hitler bemoaned the South’s defeat in chilling terms: “The beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality were destroyed by that war, and with them also the embryo of a future truly great America that would not have been ruled by a corrupt caste of tradesmen, but by a real Herren-class that would have swept away all the falsities of liberty and equality.” Hitler’s reading of America’s history might have been grotesquely flawed, but his outburst echoed the same refrains against the evils of “extreme democracy” and “fanatical egalitarianism” heard in the 1860s.

The end of Christianity in Iraq?

From NPR:

Piece By Piece, Monks Scramble To Preserve Iraq's Christian History

No, the Middle Ages are not over.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A review of van Liere, Frans. An Introduction to the Medieval Bible

Sounds good to me -- see the end.

van Liere, Frans. An Introduction to the Medieval Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xv, 320. $28.99. ISBN: 978-0521684606.

   Reviewed by Matthew Gabriele
        Virginia Tech

Too often in our teaching and our research we (myself included) neglect the fundamental role the Bible played in medieval Latin culture. We tend to talk around it and only thereby hint at the ways--read, interpreted, even unconscious--in which the object saturated Europe and the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. Perhaps this isn't entirely our fault. Perhaps the Bible was so fundamental a part of the background, so solid the foundation, that we have tended to miss what's right before our eyes. But in so doing we pass that myopia on to our students, reinforcing this too-common misconception. Ah, but there's a salve for this wound! Frans van Liere has written an engaging overview of the Bible, in all its medieval forms, that should quickly become a foundation upon which the undergraduate English-language study of the medieval West will build.

A brief introduction lays out the scope and aims of the book. Perhaps the most useful part of this introduction is a nice two-page overview on common "misconceptions" about the study of religion in the modern Academy--"useful" because the entire theme of the first several chapters can reasonably be summarized as "the medieval Bible is not what we today think the Bible to be" (2-3). Chapter 2, "The Bible as Book," deals with this analytical point by considering its material culture, from its earliest instances as a scroll to the more commonly-known codex. Here, van Liere offers a useful reminder that not all (not even most) Bibles in the Middle Ages were pandects. These partial Bibles were often divided by theme, used in the liturgy, and so common in part because of the prevalence of separate psalters. Chapter 3, "The Medieval Canon," and chapter 4, "The Text of the Medieval Bible," continue this line but from the perspective of content. Even if two codices had the same texts, they were not really the same. Books of the Bible could have different names in different codices and be placed in different orders. Lamentations could be included as part of Jeremiah. Maccabees might or might not be there, and even if it were there, it might be in one, two, three, or four books. Then, even beyond that, even if you were reading the same book in different codices, there was really no guarantee in the early Middle Ages that they said the same thing. Only by the ninth century did Jerome's become the most widely-used Latin translation, and even then the text was subject to consistent editorial "corrections" through the eleventh century. Only in the thirteenth century, thanks to the dissemination of "pocket" Bibles out of the University of Paris, did the text unwittingly move towards standardization.

Now, having thoroughly destabilized the text itself, van Liere introduces the reader to how medieval people made that unstable text move. Chapter 5, "Medieval Hermeneutics," and chapter 6, "The Commentary Tradition," explain how Scripture was interpreted and then disseminated. We start from the premise that "the idea that the Bible was absolutely true, and needed to be read according to its own hermeneutical rules, was not really challenged until...Spinoza" (113). That does not mean interpretations were stable, though, despite protestations from medieval exegetes that they were absolutely not novel in their readings. These readings are always culturally located. Allegorical readings defined early Christianity and were used as a means to define itself against Jews and against heretics, while the Victorines' literalism of the twelfth century created a new type of attentiveness to the periodization of sacred history. And these interpretations were created, read, copied, and transformed again and again. They spread in the early Middle Ages through stand-alone commentaries and florilegia and in the later Middle Ages through the Glossa Ordinaria. But they also spread in works we do not often think of as exegesis. Medieval historiography, for example, was dependent upon inserting contemporary or near-contemporary events into the arc of sacred history, becoming itself "a form of biblical exegesis" (156).

The final three chapters take us outside of the cloister and to moments of interaction between literate religious and the majority of the population. Chapter 7, "The Vernacular Bible," buries the confessional hobby-horse about the reading of the Bible in the Middle Ages by showing how the text in all of its translations circulated and was read outside a narrow clerical elite, even as it remained constricted in its reading audience, that latter fact in part due to the decreased authority vernacular translations had in comparison with the Vulgate. Chapter 8, "The Bible in Worship and Preaching," pairs well with chapter 9, "The Bible of the Poor?" These concluding chapters talk about how most people in the Middle Ages would have experienced the Bible--aurally and visually. Sermons were a form of exegesis in and of themselves and would have been the primary entryway for the laity to the world of Sacred Scripture. Art reinforced the messages of the sermons, which reinforced particular interpretations of passages, which solidified the unstable text. In other words, van Liere's book as a whole begins by destabilizing what we too often think most stable and concludes by demonstrating that art--in manuscript, in glass, in stone--was just the opposite: oftentimes seemingly ephemeral but truly a concretization of a long exegetical process that took into account the actual text, material culture of the codex, the translation in use, the interpretative strategies deployed in particular historical circumstances, and the cultural rhetoric used to disseminate the all of the above.

Overall, An Introduction to the Medieval Bible is a well-produced, affordable, thoughtful, and engaging work. It has useful appendices, including a fascinating "Comparative Canon Chart" (265-268) showing how the structure of the medieval Bible varied across different time periods, a thorough index, and most helpfully a brief but accessible list of resources for further study at the end of each chapter. It is clearly a book designed for teaching but, as I hope I have shown, is one done by a scholar who appears to see well how teaching and research complement one another. Van Liere's sensitive discussion of Haimo of Auxerre's commentary on Jonah (113-116), for instance, is richly textured; van Liere introduces us to the weight of tradition each exegete felt, from previous commentaries as well as a sense of fidelity to the "true" meaning of Sacred Scripture, but also shows the intellectual vigor inherent in that kind of work and how it created something new, even despite itself. And van Liere does all this with economy--an accessible four-page snippet that could find a home in any university course. In other words, this is the work of a scholar who knows his stuff and can convey it clearly to an audience outside of his specialty. That's a treasure. Buy this book. Use it in your teaching. Use it in your research too. Do it now.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Two great women of the medievalist variety

From the Medieval Review.  Many of my readers either know Waddell or will be glad to learn of her.

FitzGerald, Jennifer.  Helen Waddell and Maude Clarke: Irishwomen, Friends, and Scholars. Bern: Peter Lang, 2012. Pp. xvi, 293. €44.40/$62.95. ISBN: 978-3034307123.

FitzGerald, Jennifer, ed. Helen Waddell Reassessed: New Readings. Bern: Peter Lang, 2014. Pp. ix, 342. €56.00/$72.95. ISBN: 978-3034309783.

   Reviewed by Joel T. Rosenthal
        SUNY Stony Brook (emeritus)

Helen Waddell (1889-1965) has been a name to conjure with ever since the first edition of The Wandering Scholars appeared in 1927. She achieved great popularity and success with this collection as well as with a number of subsequent volumes, especially her labor-of-love and best-selling novel, Peter Abelard in 1933. Her works have remained in print, still being virtually "must" reading for a medievalist, and her life and many of her lesser-known writings have continued to be a subject of interest. We have a 1973 biography by Monica Blackett and another in 1984 by Dame Felicitas Corrigan. Corrigan also edited a 1993 volume, Between Two Eternities: A Helen Waddell Anthology with quotations from Waddell and from the many figures whose works she paraphrased and adopted in her own collections, while in 2005 David Burleigh edited a volume of some of her very early work, Helen Waddell's Writings from Japan. In the volumes under review here FitzGerald adds a further dimension to these earlier works, the biographical volume weaving together the lives of two long-time and very close friends, Waddell and the highly esteemed fourteenth century historian, Maude V. Clarke (1892-1935); the volume of edited papers brings together thirteen essays on various aspects of Waddell's writings, life and family, and literary and intellectual affinities.

While previous biographers have looked at Waddell in the setting of her family--liberal Presbyterian missionary father with roots in Belfast, early life in Japan, close ties with her sister Meg, the difficulties in the path of a woman seeking to establish herself as a scholar/writer--FitzGerald draws the parallel lines between Waddell and Clarke, close friends from their student days at Queen's University, Belfast. The ties and impositions of family slowed them both down; Clarke with a mother who went insane (albeit with a supportive father), Waddell as the youngest of many siblings and therefore tied for years to the care of a sickly and alcoholic stepmother, only free to heed the call of scholarly and literary ambition in 1920 when she was over thirty. Clarke overcame the predictable obstacles to emerge as an important historian, suffering from but winning through the denigration of her Irish degree, academic misogyny at many levels, and the heavy duties demanded of residential faculty at an Oxford woman's college. But mostly she knew where she wanted to go and eventually she got there. Finally and firmly established at Somerville she worked with and drew the admiration of colleagues: F. M. Powicke (who had taught both women at Belfast), V. H. Galbraith (who wrote her British Academy obituary), and E. F. Jacob. Only her sad death prevented her from accepting the invitation to write the fourteenth-century volume of The Oxford History of England, this being about as high a tribute as British academia could offer. When that volume did appear, in 1959, it was by May McKisack, Clarke's friend and contemporary.

Waddell, by contrast, found the bonds of academia too narrow, and was rejected several times for positions for which she had applied (and was well qualified). But she had the good fortune to gather enough fellowship money for research in Paris, work that led to those medieval volumes that, soon after publication, brought her fame (and probably a fair degree of fortune). She had begun her serious studies with an interest in the role of women in literature and FitzGerald gives us her hitherto unpublished "Women in the Drama before Shakespeare" in an appendix (187-230). But in the course of Waddell's intellectual development she came to aspire to a wider sweep, a larger vision of the role of literature. As she read medieval sources she found a charm in the material that few had discovered, let alone championed. As FitzGerald says, it was this "that would make her famous; she is distinguished among her fellow 'discoverers' of twelfth-century humanism for emphasizing the inclination towards love, friendship, nature, the bonds of humankind" (77). This sort of "ode to joy" was to be the spirit or theme behind her work, including the collections of Latin poetry that argued for a common vein of human experience from late classical-pagan times through the Middle Ages. The high-water mark of this approach is found in Waddell's fictionalized tale of Abelard and Heloise. Here she manages to identify with each or both in their quest for love and spiritual fulfillment; a follow-up novel on Heloise was planned but never written. When her learned but eccentric books began to attract popular acclaim (and sales figures to match), an academic critic accused her of "jazzing" up the Middle Ages. No doubt, she was guilty as charged--to the pleasure of readers for about three-quarters of a century.

Helen Waddell Reassessed brings together thirteen papers (eleven authors) from a 2012 conference at which all paid tribute to Waddell's unique blend of "scholarship and imagination" (1). The papers are divided into three groupings, opening with "Medieval Contexts." Under this heading Constant Mews discussed how Waddell came to grips with the multi-faceted history of Abelard and Heloise; lust and sin and, simultaneously, a painful search for salvation and peace. Charles Lock looks at the virtual stranglehold that Germanic philology had on medieval studies (at least in the literary realms) and how Waddell rebelled against this, championing Irish-Celtic, pagan, and late classical elements in medieval culture. Ann Buckley tells of the liturgies for some fairly obscure Irish saints--a background that, again, helps explain Waddell's emphasis on this body of literature and the traditions that lay behind it. FitzGerald covers some of the biographical material of her full volume though now she emphasizes aspects of Waddell's continual growth and tries to recapture some of her views about poetry and the human spirit as they had been enunciated in a now-lost lecture on mime.

"Critical Readings" carries papers by Stephen Kelly, Amanda Tucker, Norman Vance, and FitzGerald, looking at such varied topics as the influence upon Waddell or her convergence with Walter Benjamin and R. G. Collingwood, the legacy of liberal Presbyterianism, her Irish roots and the legacy of national identity, and her development during the "lost decade" that she spent tending her step-mother. "Parallel and Influences" does what it promises, in some cases by illuminating links that seem perfectly obvious after they have been called to our attention: David Burleigh on Waddell and Arthur Waley as they both paraphrased and/or translated Chinese verse, Helen Carr on Waddell and Ezra Pound as they both turned to the charm and inspiration of that same body of writing, Louis Watson on parallels between Waddell and Hope Emily Allen (who brought Margery Kempe to our attention), and Norman Vance on the similarities between Waddell's Protestant commitment and the spiritual quest of some contemporary Roman Catholic, Irish figures. Nini Rogers very lucidly puts much of the biographical material into the context of the large late-Victorian family with its many webs of affection and repression.

In this collection of papers on a variety of Waddell-focused topics we range to what we now think of as theory, as in the references to Benjamin and Collingwood, or to comparative religion--setting Waddell against Catholic theologians--or transnational literature as in her writings that looked to China and Japan. Behind it all, was her view of a universal love of expression, whether in joy or sorrow or quiet contemplation--a belief that the common bonds of humanity overleaped the obvious boundaries of language, nation, and religion. FitzGerald does extra service, beyond that of editor and contributor, by including an admirable and seemingly exhaustive bibliography to the collected volume: Waddell's works, large and small and including her own poems and reviews, reviews of her many books, biographical material, literary criticism, and seven dissertations.

As the third biography and the fifth or sixth book on Waddell in recent decades, we may ask why she is still of such interest, a question that goes beyond the power and charm of her writings. Maude Clarke, we can say, was a very good academic historian and students of medieval England still know her work--or they should. But Waddell brought unique qualities to her work and they continue to give her, as well as those books, considerable currency. Interest in her life goes beyond the obviously biographical, though no doubt we all enjoy a story of how adversity is overcome and diligence and perseverance (and a touch of genius) come to the top. In addition, we note (from the many quotations and notes in both books) that Waddell and Clarke--especially Waddell--are rich subject for biography because they wrote so much: letters, notes to themselves and each other and to friends and siblings and colleagues. They chronicled their lives, both the up sides and the down sides, in great detail and the challenge of reconstructing these lives is an intriguing one. These two books take us to a world of a century ago with exciting frontiers and time-honored rigidities. Waddell saw some of her near and dear die in each World War and her writings reflect touches of sorrow and anxiety, as they do of the soaring spirit. In the best sense Maude Clarke represents exacting scholarship; we still honor her for that. Waddell seems to transcend exacting scholarship--in numerous works on Chinese poetry, as in her more familiar work on the Latin West--and we continue to honor her for that; we look at her life and we read what she wrote. No wonder that her legacy is alive and well

Friday, January 23, 2015

Longsword on the New York Times site

This video link will probably disappear sooner rather than later but in the meantime it's an interesting look at one variety of HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts).  These people are inspired by the techniques of the late medieval German masters, but though they strive for historical authenticity in their moves they are not interested in other kinds historical re-enactment or re-creation.  No "thees and thous," as one of them puts it.  (But note that there is one guy on the sidelines who seems to be wearing some kind of medieval clothing and maybe a coronet.)

There is a wide variety of martial arts out there these days, different organizations pursuing different goals.  This may lead to the Balkanization of a field of activity once completely dominated by the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Malian music: Tinariwen on NPR

A "Tiny Desk Concert" from 2012.

A critical view of the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabi

From the Intercept:
It’s not often that the unelected leader of a country which publicly flogs dissidents and beheads people for sorcery wins such glowing praise from American officials. Even more perplexing, perhaps, have been the fawning obituaries in the mainstream press which have faithfully echoed this characterization of Abdullah as a benign and well-intentioned man of peace.
Tiptoeing around his brutal dictatorship, The Washington Post characterized Abdullah as a “wily king” while The New York Times inexplicably referred to him as “a force of moderation”, while also suggesting that evidence of his moderation included having had: “hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded” (emphasis added).
While granting that Abdullah might be considered a relative moderate within the brazenly anachronistic House of Saud, the fact remains that he presided for two decades over a regime which engaged in wanton human rights abuses, instrumentalized religious chauvinism, and played a hugely counterrevolutionary role in regional politics.
Above all, he was not a leader who shied away from both calling for and engineering more conflict in the Middle East.

More here. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Tournament Culture in the Low Countries and England" by Mario Damen

This article is available in the following book:

Hannah Skoda, Patrick Lantschner and R. L. J. Shaw eds., Contact and Exchange in Later Medieval Europe. Essays in Honour of Malcolm Vale (Woodbridge 2012) 247-266.

And also at:

It is particularly interesting for its discussion of non-noble participation in 15th century tournaments in the Burgundian lands.