Thursday, July 27, 2006

What should professional historians think of Wikipedia?

Thanks to the World History Blog for citing this article on Wikipedia.

The Archimedes Palimpsest

Thanks to Paul Halsall, I've just learned of a model website, one devoted to the Archimedes Palimpsest. It combines basic information for the casual reader with unique material vital to specialists, all in a friendly and well organized format.

In the Middle Ages, the normal writing material was parchment (treated animal skin), much more expensive but far tougher than our paper or ancient papyrus. Kept dry, it lasts a very long time. I myself have handled and used a parchment book from the fifth century.

Sometimes an old book would be reused. The parchment would be scraped clean and a new text would be inscribed on it.

The Archimedes palimpsest is a manuscript where several ancient texts, including unique ones by the scientist and engineer Archimedes of Syracuse, were turned into a Byzantine prayerbook. There's enough of the older material left to be usable by scholars interested in this brilliant ancient figure.

Another Paul Halsall put it, the book "has its own Web site." I love the concept, I love the way the phrase rolls off my tongue.

Low blogging in August

Between a freeze on the university web site for maintenance, and my being away for a while, there's not likely to be a lot of action here until late August. But I should be back.

C.J. Cherryh's Brothers of Earth

One of the pleasures of living a life of moderate length is that sometimes you get to revisit part of the past. Having a bunch of old books around the house mainly adds to the clutter, but occasionally you pick one up and re-experience an old pleasure.

I'm an old science fiction reader. I came to history via SF. So I have many SF books of the 60s and the 70s in the basement (off the floor!); not so many new ones. This past week I read, maybe for the third or fourth time, Brothers of Earth by C.J. Cherryh, the first book by an author of reasonable reputation. Brothers of Earth is really the only book of hers that I particularly remember, and that's because it is, to my mind, an interesting reconstruction of the ancient Mediterranean.

The plot of the book concerns two humans on opposite sides of a galactic war who end up stranded on a primitive planet inhabited by humanoids at the Iron Age level. It is the social depiction that I particularly like. The humans both end up in a merchant city-state where there are two groups: the descendents of the aboriginal people, whose cities and villages were long ago conquered by overseas invaders, and the descendent of those invaders. The latter, the Families, still dominate trade, the fleet, and the "Senate" and set the overall religious and cultural tone. The descendents of the aboriginals are slowly recovering from that long-ago conquest and some agitators among them are wearing the old clothing and practicing the old religion and insisting on their rights as the original people of that stretch of coast.

To add to the complexity and the fun, the descendents of the invaders are at odds with their city of origin overseas. In that "shining city," they are seen as traitors to their religion, and entirely too soft on the aboriginals. They deserve no better than to be reconquered by people who will uphold the superiority of their ancestral ways.

Cherryh's characters and plotting are very good in this book, but it's these social and cultural complexities that make the book for me. When I enter into this world, I get a little feeling for what it must have been like in a Greek, Phoenecian, or Etruscan colony in the Mediterranean basin some generations after the conquerors came from the sea and set up their fortress in the best harbor in the area.

Some might say that this is a false understanding. Me, I think that all our understandings of the past are partial, even flawed, and dependent on imagination. You have to be careful with imagination, but without it you've got nothing.

If anyone knows what C.J. Cherryh was thinking about when she wrote this, I'd love to know. It might have been something else entirely. Or maybe she made it up out of whole cloth.

As I said above, I'm not particularly interested in more recent science fiction. Last year, however, a friend sent me three of the best SF novels I've ever read: Kim Stanley Robinson's series, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. Not only does it have the best and most realistic depiction I've ever seen as to how science works, and affects daily life, it is the capstone of the American utopian SF tradition. They are the best. That's it. Argue with me if you dare.

There are a lot of catastrophes and wars in the Mars books, but I wish the future looked as bright in real life as it does in Robinson's universe.

If you are interested, Robinson has a lot of good material on the Web.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Books for Nipissing's HIST 1505, Modern World

This year's students in first year World History, and students from last year, might take note that we are using exactly the same textbook (Worlds Together, Worlds Apart by Tignor etc.) and the same book of source readings (Discovering the Global Past : A Look at the Evidence vol. II).

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A new Carnivalesque

...which I found out about when I started getting hits from it.

Again, I'm complimented and happy to please.

Monday, July 24, 2006

War today

There are so many wars raging in the Eastern Hemisphere that it's hard to keep track, or find a satisfying analysis. It is especially hard when idiots like John Roberts on the CNN network are allowed to pose as intelligent people, saying yesterday, apparently with a straight face while commenting on Lebanon, "Typically Middle East conflicts don't usually have much of an affect on us here in the United States, but the world is changing." One wonders if he has ever been based in New York City, or even visited the place.

When you do find some good analysis, or even honest reporting in the public sphere, it's good to latch onto it.

A lot of people are talking about the difficulties of "fourth generation war" which is supposedly war where "non-state actors" can take on and beat militarily establishments, where moral and morale components are more important than how many guns, helicopters or computers you have. Whether this analysis or terminology is valid, certainly "non-state actors" have done well against superpowers in the last generation.

The current war in Iraq (in danger of being forgotten by the very people paying for it) is a good example, and one that will come up in History of Islamic Civilization. Explanations for the dramatic failure of American efforts in Iraq are obscured by the fact that lots of influential people are still denying that there has been a failure. So this article, part of a series in the Washington Post, is welcome. You might be interested in the whole series, or the book it comes from, Thomas E. Ricks' Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. It hasn't actually been published yet but it will sell like hotcakes. The NU library will have one, if our buyers can shove themselves to the head of the line.

The picture above is of Grozny, in Chechnya, a real forgotten war.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Lord Balfour and the Middle East

In 1917, Lord Arthur Balfour (seen above, second from the left, visiting Tel Aviv at a later date) issued the "Balfour Declaration," which promised that the British, when they won the current war, would favor "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine..."

It's a pretty famous document.

Imagine then my surprise yesterday as I sat in a London hotel reading the Times, to see a letter on the Middle East crisis signed by "Lord Balfour." His successor, of course, but still...

House of the Blackheads: a 14th c merchant guild HQ in Riga

Something I did not see in Latvia is the "Malngalvu" or "House of the Blackheads," a merchant guild headquarters built during a time of commercial prosperity, just before the Black Death, in 1334. The building you see here is not the original. It was bombed during the Second World War and the ruins were leveled by the communist regime later. The current restoration was built as part of the celebration of the 800th anniversary of the city of Riga earlier this decade. There are a number of such celebrations going on this decade -- I saw the 800th anniversary of Cesis on TV while I was there (pretty impressive, actually).

I find these celebrations a bit odd, given that the settlements at Riga, Cesis, Valmiera, and elsewhere were foreign impositions by German Christian invaders on Liv and Lett pagans. I have a guess as to why these seem worthwhile to today's Latvians (cultural descendents of the old Letts). Does anyone have one of their own, or better yet, some facts?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Cēsis castle and town

With all due respect to Turaida's status as Baltic regional historic centre, Cēsis has the better castle. Here are a couple of images.

The words for "castle" and "city" are still closely related in the Latvian language. Cēsis has survived the wars of the 20th century less damaged than many European cities and the impressive fortification is surrounded by a pleasant, medieval-scale town, which looks even nicer than the one picture I found on the web:

What is missing from this picture is the summer greenery and the pleasant parks. Latvia has only one big city, Riga. The rest are quite small, so even when you are in the middle of an urban center, it's clean and relatively quiet. Perfect weather as we've had this week never hurts of course.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Latvia -- land of giants

OK, maybe it is just my Latvian cousins-by-marriage, but there do seem to be a lot of very tall and healthy people in Latvia. Perhaps it is because the country abounds in high-quality whole-grain bread and dairy products, and this time of year, fresh fruit.

Today I visited Turaida castle, an early thirteenth-century castle built by the conquering Teutonic Knights, who brought Christianity and German domination to the eastern Baltic coast. I was amazed by the size of this place -- it is comparable to the castles planted in Wales by Edward I of England in the late 14th century. An interesting difference is that this was built of brick. Turaida is supposed to be one of the best historic sites in the Baltic, and that is easy to believe when you see it.

Across a gorge is the hill where a hillfort of the ancient Livs was built in an unsuccessful attempt to oppose the Teutonic Knight. Nothing left of it but the hill itself, but the site is dramatic and the whole Gauja river area is very beautiful.

One figure associated with the Turaida area is Caupo a leader of the Livs who early on converted to Christianity, took a trip to Rome, and was given a Bible by the Pope (an expensive gift then!). The question is sometimes asked, was he a far-seeing progressive, or a traitor? Modern Latvians aren't generally too keen on him.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Fun at Leeds

I attended the International Medieval Congress at Leeds earlier this week, and it reminded me of one of the less-known pleasures of the academic life: for many of us, our scholarly brothers and sisters are an international bunch, and once you start taking part in that life, you meet all kinds of interesting people from a variety of countries. The major international conference, if well-run and friendly, is the best place for that kind of interaction, and medieval studies has two of them, one at Kalamazoo, Michigan and the other at Leeds in West Yorkshire. It is at such places that you can find which famous scholars (or more likely younger but someday-to-be-famous scholars) are good dancers, and whether they like disco, the 80s, or more recent music.

Not all conferences have dances; actually medieval studies may be unique for having them. Just in case you were considering your options for your graduate education.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Off on a trip until July 22

Since I will be flying around various places, including Riga, I doubt that I'll be posting much if anything.

But you never know!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A little late for the 4th of July

There is a constitutional theory held in the United States called "Original Intent" or "Originalism" which puts a very high value on what the founding fathers of the United States said and meant when they wrote the Constitution back in the 1780s and 90s. In other words, if you can figure out exactly what their words meant back then, this should be your guide to what the Constitution means today. (I usually don't refer to that will o' the wisp Wikipedia, but the Originalism article has some interesting external links.) In a response to this, and to a more general reverence for the revolutionary generation, Mark Kurlansky in the LA Times writes an article opining that maybe the founding fathers (or more usually "the Founding Fathers") didn't know everything.

A point Kurlansky doesn't bring up, but is worth thinking about, is that the US Constitution is the oldest governing document in the world. Some argue for Britain's constitution (not a single document), which some date to 1689, but that hardly holds up when you look at the vast changes it has undergone in the 19th and 20th centuries and even since 1999 (huge changes in the structure of the House of Lords).

Anyone have another suggestion for an older constitution? San Marino?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Update on Kuwaiti elections

A UPI article I found on

Brutus celebrates tyrannicide

Thanks again to Explorator, ABC News and AP, we have a story about a rare Brutus coin from the civil war that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar. Brutus, the most famous of the assassins, gathered an army in Greece for the inevitable showdown with the Caesarian party. When he had to pay them, he had special coins made up, showing his own portrait and a commemoration of the Ides of March. On the right we have the words EID MAR, two daggers and what is probably a "liberty cap," the symbol of emancipation from slavery -- a symbol well-exploited in French Revolutionary times.

This is in the news because a new, illegally excavated example of the coin was exported to Britain. When it was proved that it had been exported without permission of the Greek government, it was returned to the country of origin.

ABC/AP says this coin was a legionary's day's pay. I wonder about the source of the coin. Was it part of a "horde" or buried treasure (a lot of people's substitute for a savings account)? Or did someone lose it?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Bosnian pyramids? Probably not

Thanks to Explorator, I can now link to this article on the claim that there were ancient pyramids in Bosnia. The short version: probably not.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

How identities change

On a day that used to be called "Dominion Day" here in Canada, celebrating the country's status as a British Dominion, England is pushed out of the World Cup, and the CBC's online headline is what?

World Cup Ecstasy for Portugal!

And in the NY Times, a travel/food article about Vancouver called what?

Cooking as if Punjab were part of Canada!

We could use a bit of that Punjabi cooking here in North Bay...