Saturday, July 28, 2007

Vacation from blogging -- and in the meantime

Starting tomorrow I will be taking a break from blogging for about two weeks. Readers who haven't yet taken a break from the Net can take a look at this, "medieval style" real estate in Bend, Oregon. Thanks to Another Damned Medievalist for the link.

Friday, July 27, 2007

What happened to Phil Paine in Europe?

Some time back I promised to keep my readers informed about the adventures of independent scholar Phil Paine as he traveled across Europe. Some of his blog entries were linked to from here (use the label "Phil Paine in Europe" at the bottom of the entry here) until they abruptly stopped. Not, fortunately, because something happened to Phil. Or maybe something did. He explains:

My last week in Czech Republic involved experiences so emotionally intense for me that it has taken two months for me to mull them over. I visited two strikingly different mining towns. One was a ancient city where miners where powerful enough to build their own magnificent cathedral, where the carvings and frescoes represented miners and metalworkers at their tasks, along with the traditional holy subjects. The other was a uranium mine run as a concentration camp by the Communists. Another moving event was a visit to the site of Lidice, the town in which the Nazis exterminated the entire population, including the dogs and cats, removed all the buildings and even dug the bodies from the graveyards, all for the purpose of celebrating their brutality and omnipotence. All this was taking place in a disturbing contemporary background ― one of my hosts’ friends had just been nearly killed by Neo-Nazi thugs, who infest the country, and enjoy the tacit support and encouragement of the corrupt police.

I will discuss all these events in detail, as they become relevant. But, they have impelled me to put down this series of meditations.
The meditations are on the subject of democracy, something that he and I have long been interested and have published about. The first of them are here, listed under July 25, 2007.

More as it becomes available, including the interrupted tale of the European trip.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The crisis of our times

It is indicative of the cause of our current crisis, and its depth, that a commentator in the USA can say the Iraq War had this effect on him, and think he's saying something smart and profound.

I no longer have confidence in the ability of our military, or any military, to solve deep cultural and civilizational problems through force alone. I mean, I thought nothing could stand in the way of the strongest military fielded since the days of ancient Rome. No more.

Here's the column at Belief.net.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Walt Whitman, Years of the Modern

How does this vision from 1865 seem to you today?

YEARS of the modern! years of the unperform’d!
Your horizon rises—I see it parting away for more august dramas;
I see not America only—I see not only Liberty’s nation, but other nations preparing;
I see tremendous entrances and exits—I see new combinations—I see the solidarity of races;
I see that force advancing with irresistible power on the world’s stage;
(Have the old forces, the old wars, played their parts? are the acts suitable to them closed?)
I see Freedom, completely arm’d, and victorious, and very haughty, with Law on one side, and Peace on the other,
A stupendous Trio, all issuing forth against the idea of caste;
—What historic denouements are these we so rapidly approach?
I see men marching and countermarching by swift millions;
I see the frontiers and boundaries of the old aristocracies broken;
I see the landmarks of European kings removed;
I see this day the People beginning their landmarks, (all others give way;)
—Never were such sharp questions ask’d as this day;
Never was average man, his soul, more energetic, more like a God;
Lo! how he urges and urges, leaving the masses no rest;
His daring foot is on land and sea everywhere—he colonizes the Pacific, the archipelagoes;
With the steam-ship, the electric telegraph, the newspaper, the wholesale engines of war,
With these, and the world-spreading factories, he interlinks all geography, all lands;
—What whispers are these, O lands, running ahead of you, passing under the seas?
Are all nations communing? is there going to be but one heart to the globe?
Is humanity forming, en-masse?—for lo! tyrants tremble, crowns grow dim;
The earth, restive, confronts a new era, perhaps a general divine war;
No one knows what will happen next—such portents fill the days and nights;
Years prophetical! the space ahead as I walk, as I vainly try to pierce it, is full of phantoms;
Unborn deeds, things soon to be, project their shapes around me;
This incredible rush and heat—this strange extatic fever of dreams, O years!
Your dreams, O year, how they penetrate through me! (I know not whether I sleep or wake!)
The perform’d America and Europe grow dim, retiring in shadow behind me,
The unperform’d, more gigantic than ever, advance, advance upon me.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The History of William Marshal: the future

The Anglo-Norman Text Society has put out a pricey if very good edition and translation of the classic account of 12th century chivalry and 13th century politics, the History of William Marshal. (I've reproduced the order form here.) The question has been asked, will there ever be a cheaper version? According to a note from Ian Short at Birbeck College, London, posted on the MEDIEV-L forum, yes, eventually:

Yes; we do have plans to re-issue our edition and translation of William Marshall in a more accessible form. We need, however, first to ensure that we sell all of our
first specialist print-run, as we are a learned society and not a commercial publisher.

So now you know. When this will happen I suspect even the ANTS doesn't know.

Tewkesbury: a medieval town's layout revealed by floodwaters

The town of Tewkesbury in England was built around its Abbey and abbey church. Yes, it's rained a lot in England, and not just in Tewkesbury.

From the Guardian, with thanks to Paul Halsall
who said the poster-sized printed version was even more impressive. Indeed, the electronic version accessible from the above link is better than what Blogger can show.

There really is nothing new under the sun

Except maybe the chainsaws.

Christian vs. pagan in Russia, today. From that amazing site, English Russia.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The complexities of the hijab -- Turkey's upcoming elections

An unusually excellent article in today's Washington Post discusses head scarves in Turkey and how they are at the moment one of the keys to Turkish politics (even Turks seem a bit bemused by this).

Sensibly, perhaps, the article focuses more on what the wearers think than on what the opponents do. For that alone it is worth a look.

It might be interesting to make a list of countries where wearing a hijab looks like a threat to the constitution. Do any but the nuttiest nuts in the USA feel that way? Yet quite a few people in France and Turkey get really charged up on the subject.

Certainly one can see where this attitude comes from in Turkey. It strikes me that the vital issue there is whether women will have a real choice about expressing religion, or not, through headwear. For Turkish women does the wearing of hijab by some mean that soon all will be required to? That's the fear on one side. On the other, those who want to wear hijab certainly face restrictions, and the article shows them desiring the freedom to be Islamic in public.

It would have been interesting if the reporter had asked the hijab wearers about the freedom of other women not to wear hijab -- or did I miss something?

Update: More on the election and the issues from the Washington Post.

Carnivalesque 29

A "carnival" or collection of links (in this case historical ones relevant to Antiquity or the Middle Ages) has just been put up. For your reading pleasure.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

What's going on in the US Senate on Iraq?


The US Congress is a place with odd rules and odder traditions. The Senate has more than its share of Congressional oddities.

If you are trying to figure out the conflict between Democrats and Republicans on war policy, but can't understand what "filibuster" or "cloture" mean, try this article from McClatchy.

Jonathan Dayton, forgotten land speculator

I was born in Dayton, Ohio, so I am pleased to see that Progressive Historians is featuring Jonathan Dayton, after whom it was named, as a "Forgotten Founding Father." My limited research into the life of Dayton left me with the impression that he was mainly notable as a land speculator and sure enough, the PH biography doesn't disagree -- though it mentions him leading a nighttime bayonet charge at Yorktown (!).

I have thought for years that land speculators, and land speculation itself, should not be ignored in the history of the Revolutionary War and its results. There's a book to be written on the US Northwest Ordinance as the model for a republican society. By me? Probably not. But claiming land and the terms under which it would be (re)settled was as important an issue as "taxation without representation," the Navigation Acts, and other aspects of European domination, in the rest of the New World as much as in the United States.

More on deeds of arms

For those who were glad to see a post on the Thirty against Thirty, why not go over to Will McLean's Commonplace Book and see what he's been posting the last few weeks? I note that the Company of St. Michael's classes on how to stage a 14th century deed lacks a section training enthusiasts for a crucial part of the whole event: where chroniclers at home make up and publish a lot of lies about what took place at the combat.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Combat of the Thirty against Thirty: Cheaters?

I have just finished reading for the second or third time Maurice Keen's first book, The Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages (1965). It is a testament to what a brilliant, well-trained scholar with access to the most important archives and libraries can do. Forty years later, I am unaware of any comparable book on the subject. (I'd be glad to hear of another.)

The book's title, as Keen might admit if asked, is a bit of a misnomer, at least if one is interested in the later Middle Ages themselves. The Laws of War has quite a bit to say about medieval theory and practice as a prelude to the more modern era, from Grotius on, when a recognizable "law of war" developed. The emphasis, however, is on the law of arms, which in some respects was quite a different beast. The law of arms visualized a world where Christian warriors of noble background were the protagonists in war -- not just sovereigns as later on, and the focus of the law of arms was the rights of those warriors. I've discussed this myself in the books Jousts and Tournaments (an analysis of Charny's questions about the law of arms concerning those two "sports") and Deeds of Arms (on late 14th century formal combats); see the sidebar on the home page of this blog if you are interested in the books.

Reading Keen's book again reawoke a couple of question about the famous Combat of the Thirty (against Thirty) in Brittany in the early 1350s. Two garrisons, one pro-English, one pro-French (the majority of the 60 being Bretons in any case) challenged each other to a straight-up fight in which there would be 30 on a side, no more, and no one would run away, but rather stay to be captured (for ransom) or killed. The pro-French side won, and writers in Brittany and around Europe praised them for their fortitude (in contrast for instance with the French who ran away at Poitiers a few years later).

It's a famous episode of chivalry, which many people take to mean war pursued fairly and honorably.

I've always had my doubts that the combat was as fair as modern observers would like to think. First there is the matter of the guy on horseback. The pro-French side won, when things looked grim, when one of their members mounted a horse and broke up the tight infantry formation the English had adopted and which seemed impenetrable to their opponents. It seems to me that bringing in a horse late in the game would not be "best practice" today; and indeed, as I showed in Deeds of Arms even at the time fans of the event may have thought that this was a bit dicey.

Another thing that has bothered me for a while is the return of some of the pro-French captives to the fight when the man who captured them, the opposing captain Brandebourch, was killed. This is noted without comment in a Breton account of the episode as if nothing were more natural -- the man was dead, those who had surrendered to him were free of any obligation.

The problem is that as Keen shows, that was not standard practice. If you had surrendered, even if you were rescued, you were obliged to satisfy your captor. If your captor died, his heirs inherited his rights in you.

So were these captives cheating?

It's possible that in this earlier stage of the development of the law of arms, ransom law worked differently than later, or it worked differently in Brittany, something of a wild frontier.

But I don't believe it.

The other possibility that occurs to me is that the captives were exploiting a loophole. The usual thing that happened after the immediate surrender was that a written contract setting terms for ransom was drawn up at the next opportunity. Here, that had not taken place yet. Perhaps the captives used that circumstance to justify in their own minds that a real capture hadn't been consummated. Their friends and their Breton neighbors didn't object, and we actually have no idea what anyone in England thought.

Finally, it should be said that there was a lot of room for sharp practice in medieval chivalry; your own view of what your honor (= reputation) required might give you more or less room to play with the rules -- and the men at the Combat were mostly pretty modest men.

Lunar Landing Day -- 2007

It's all still out there, waiting for us, if we have the wit and imagination.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Archaeology Day: July 19, 2007

Back at the beginning of July I posted this entry in response to Martin Rundqvist's challenge to post pictures of the archaeology site nearest. Mine was a little odd in some ways but at least it was convenient.

Martin has now posted the "Carnival" or collection of links at Aardvarchaeology for your perusal. Martin has a really interesting set of regular readers.

More archaeology in the news. Thanks to an SCA mailing list I was alerted this morning about a treasure trove discovered in Yorkshire by responsible metal detectors, who did the right thing and called in the authorities to excavate and categorize this Viking era find. The BBC has the story and a video.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

More

More cheerful stuff from Inside Iraq.

Sayyid Qutb, Milestones

Sayyid Qutb, 1906-66, is a prominent extremist. A member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, he was executed by Nasser's regime for his radical rejection of all government not based on the word of God. I have read excerpts from his work in the past, and scholarly treatments, but now I am near done with one of his key writings, Milestones.

Qutb qualifies as an extremist because though he claimed to represent a long and well-known tradition, Islam, he implicitly claimed that he and his followers (I'm not aware that he credited teachers, beside the Prophet) were the only ones who understood that tradition. Indeed, he explicitly claimed that the entire world, including the so-called Muslim world, was sunk in a state of pagan confusion or Jahiliyya, just as it was when Muhammed appeared. (He did not explain how or why the divinely-inspired movement led by the Prophet had come to this state, or how this reflected God's will and God's plan, things he was generally pretty big on.)

A central tenet of Qutb's thought has a real 20th century flavor: since Islam means "submission to the will of God," (a standard and central Islamic idea) than any other form of government than the simple enforcement of the divine legislation in the Quran and hadith was tyranny. Man should not obey man. Only Islam is freedom, since in it only God is obeyed. Although "there is no compulsion in religion," non-Muslims were free to worship as they liked, they could not erect barriers to the free preaching of Islam or the enforcement of Islamic law: all non-Muslims should be in the status of "Dhimmis" (protected and regulated by the Muslims), as in many places during the Middle Ages and early modern period. Otherwise they would be legitimate targets for jihad.

Non-Muslims may well balk at this vision, especially the part which says that their own governments, however freely chosen, are illegitimate, but look at it from the Muslim point of view. Many Muslims would likely see this presentation of God's will as arrogant and deeply insulting. For Qutb, what God wants, the law of God, is simple and straightforward and any problems in understanding the Quran are simply resolved using well-known techniques. Yet if the world is sunk in Jahiliyyah, obviously many people who considered themselves Muslims, teachers and scholars, are wrong about many crucial issues. Only Qutb and his Islamic organization -- the only real Muslim movement -- know the truth.

In this you can see how extremist movements that claim to be true Islam are as much a threat to other Muslims as to non-Muslims, if not more so. Qutb called for civil war.

Update, Sept. 9, 2007: Maajid Nawaz, a British/Egyptian militant, rejects Qutb's position.

Monday, July 16, 2007

You still have to know something


I am visiting another Ontario city, mostly to relax and recuperate. But I decided to take advantage of the fact that the local university library, unlike NU's has a copy of the 13th century legal treatise, Coutumes de Beauvaisis by Philippe de Remi, sire [lord] de Beaumanoir. This very important work is usually referred to by the name of the author, i.e. Beaumanoir.

I showed up at the library today, was issued an external reader's card with no fuss, and went off to a catalogue computer, where I found no listing for Beaumanoir under author or title. I knew it was there, so I kept at it, and by recalling the name Coutumes de Beauvaisis (getting the placename spelled right on the second try), found, attributed to "Philippe de Remi," the book and its location in the collection. When I got there, I saw a book labelled clearly on the spine in gold letters, Philippe de Beaumanoir. Which, plus the full title, was also on the title page. I had to dig into the introduction to find "de Remi."

A while back I linked to a James O'Donnell article from the mid 90s where he said sifting through a waterfall of data (rather than building huge collections of data) would be scholars' great challenge in the future. Here was a good example: in the waterfall of data that is the collected assets of the Ontario universities library system, I almost missed my drop of water because of the past efforts of an over-punctilious cataloguer. Fortunately, though I've never had need read Beaumanoir before, I have paid attention and when I really needed to know "Coutumes de Beauvaisis" it was there for me.

Image: a waterfall in Croatia, hailed by a Dallas paper as "pristine."

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Surprise!

Why couldn't it have been us?

Today's religious issues

On Tuesday the pope issued a statement confirming that in his view, the Roman Catholic Church is the true church of Christ, while the Orthodox churches are defective for not recognizing papal authority, and the Protestant churches are a step down from that, lacking as they do a sacramental clergy.

As Atrios at Eschaton remarked, it's not exactly astonishing that the man in charge of this vast, prestigious and traditional institution would have this opinion. Otherwise, he'd be unlikely to be a member. Chester Scoville at The Vanity Press opines that ecumenism, along with other nostalgic efforts at a vaguely defined "unity," is overrated, even if the past efforts to reduce active hostility have been worthwhile.

Reading about this papal statement, which doesn't exactly impress me as very significant, made me think about how the religious issues of any given time are not handled very well in journalistic and even scholarly discussions.

For instance, a historically Christian intellectual culture tends to emphasize theological doctrines (teachings about God, and his relationship to the universe and humanity) as expressing the essential nature of any religion or religious faction. But how much do people really care about the essential teachings of their own faith? Some ideas really are fundamental. I can't see why anyone who doesn't believe Jesus Christ is the savior of the world would even want to be called a Christian. But what about the Procession of the Holy Spirit? It's in some of the earliest "creeds" or statements of faith. Do you know anyone who understands what this means, much less why it is as important to believe as, say, the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment? Why should different ideas about this Procession have separated Rome and the Orthodox churches for over a thousand years?

I think the big issues of religion today, or at least Christianity (but maybe not just Christianity) are things hardly discussed by the gospels or the creed writers from 325 AD on. Here they are:
  • Marriage, who's allowed to have it and under what conditions
  • Birth control and abortion
  • The status of gays in a Christian community: lepers or leaders?
These issues are the ones that are tearing apart traditional alignments. For instance, the world-wide Anglican communion is on the rocks on the issue of whether same sex unions can be blessed and whether gays can be bishops. The protagonists are the national Anglican churches in the United States, Canada, and Nigeria, while the Archbishop of Canterbury, who leads a national church where most members never go to services, tries to keep things together. It looks to me, though, that there isn't much middle ground between Anglicans who want to return to a traditional disapproval of sexual diversity, and those who want the approval of God's church -- the one they belong to -- for their family life, even if Moses condemned it in the laws of Leviticus.

And the Anglican church is hardly the only one in this position.

The religious landscape is always a complicated one with lots of inconsistencies and apparent paradoxes. One Japanese Buddhist leader long ago taught that true Buddhism meant that everyone should be married and no one should be a monk (!). Just looking at the labels or even at the official teachings of the labeled groups doesn't help understanding very much.

Remember when, in North America, getting a divorce was a lifelong disgrace? No? Gather round, children, and I'll tell you a story...

PS: You will note that I didn't list under religious issues people care about the Evolution/Creation as in Genesis debate. Certainly many people do care, but how many of them live outside the United States? Honest question.

The Glorious 12th

July 12th used to be the most popular public holiday in Ontario. I doubt if any of my readers know why. Thus our view of history changes as the generations go by.

If anyone does know about "the Glorious 12th" please explain in comments.

Hint: the holiday does not celebrate an event that took place in Canada. So this requires the winning reader to explain why it was considered significant here.

Also if someone can refer us to a good picture of the Glorious etc., then, now, or somewhere in between, I'll post it here later.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

More of the big picture from another medievalist

Eileen Joy at In the Middle has a provocative post about what history is all about. No simple conclusion; hard to absorb in one reading; but it gives you a jolt. That's what exploring a past culture is supposed to do.

Living in the future, for real



Something I saw on the Web today gave me a real "living in the future" chill: Al Gore speaking via hologram to an audience in Tokyo. This is exactly the stuff of the science fiction I read in the 60s and which was in many cases written 10 or 20 years earlier.

But nobody told me I could watch it via the Internet and learn a few words of Dutch at the same time!

This brings to mind a previous time I had a similar, but more joyful and profound feeling. It wasn't July 20, 1969, though that was a great day. It was at the time of the Nagano Winter Olympics of 1998 (I think) when the centerpiece of the opening ceremonies was various choirs around the world, including one in free South Africa, a South Africa not suffering from genocidal civil war, singing Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

Man, somethings are better than science fiction.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

07/07/07

Robert Heinlein was born on July 7, 1907. His centennial inspired this article in Reason Magazine which does a reasonable job of summing up his career and influence.

As someone who like so many others was deeply influenced in my youth by Heinlein, I have a few things I'd like to add to Brian Doherty's article.

First, it's a little unfortunate, but in the United States perhaps unavoidable, that the whole framework for discussing Heinlein is based on how it fits into American cultural obsessions. I like, however, Doherty's final conclusion that Heinlein was a "full-service iconoclast." Well said: whatever your sacred cow, Heinlein could slaughter it with a few well-chosen words or a long, perhaps excessive rant. Whichever way he managed it, he'd make you think -- if not necessarily agree with him.

Second, Doherty says little, except in connection with conscription, of Heinlein's loathing for slavery, and nothing at all about his hatred for racism. A complete and utter rejection of racism was not so common among Americans of the early 20th century, especially those raised in former slave states. As for slavery itself, no child who ever read A Citizen of the Galaxy (a bit of an homage to Kipling's Kim, but smarter) will doubt for a second that slavery is evil or that slavers' excuses for their attempts to own human beings are contemptible.

Third, and perhaps even more important than the second point, Doherty hardly touches on Heinlein's own great obsession, and the lack says a great deal. Heinlein spent most of his life not just writing about space travel, but promoting the real thing, and his influence on government research into rocketry in the late 40s and early 50s is an untold story. Heinlein believed that space exploration and the expansion of the human race throughout the universe was the obvious road to a great future. His extraordinarily influential juvenile novels were so because they made that future expansion -- with its rewards, costs, challenges and unimaginable discoveries -- look real and attainable. He would be appalled that going to Mars is for most people a fantasy, for the American leadership a cheap talking-point to be trotted out once to distract people from the rolling catastrophe.

He might say now, why can't we have the world of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars -- quite a scary place in some ways -- instead of the futility of the Iraq War and Darfur and heads in the sands about global warming?

Soundtrack: Written while listening to a track called They Came in Peace by Tranquility Bass, cablecast by the Galaxie music network of the CBC.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Zsa Zsa Gabor meets Ataturk

Ataturk was the founder of the secular republic of Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, and one of the most fascinating of the between-the-wars strongmen. From the blog Progressive Historians, a story -- true? -- of one woman's meeting with him in later life. I've given you a link to Part IV -- page back for more, wait with me for the rest of the tale.

A beautiful poster

My previous post used a picture of samosas from the Columbia University Bhakti Club website.

Looking at that site I was struck by the beauty of the poster advertising the Bagavad Gita study group.

At the bottom it says "ancient wisdom for modern times." Wisdom from any source, provided it is genuine, is always welcome here.

Ontario wises up


The news is that Ontario regulators, who in the past have forbidden street vendors to sell much beyond hot dogs and sausages, will now allow them to offer a variety of foods that can safely be sold.

I have two reactions. If we are talking about food safety, did they ever think about what's in hot dogs and sausages? (Probably not.)

Also, I think that this is really going to affect the street scene in Toronto, where there is in fact a "street scene." I'd love to think someone is going to be selling samosas in North Bay. Fat chance: there's not enough street action to support hot dog vendors.

The new seven wonders




For months now there's been a global contest to name the current Seven Wonders of the World.

The results are in!

Here's one site discussing the old ones (all perished except the Great Pyramid).

Image: a wonder I've seen. If it hadn't made the list I would never have been able to grant the list any legitimacy. As it is, we'll see if it catches on. Check back in 50 years.

Also: a neat site I found looking for my picture.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The great conversation, or, the Republic of Letters

Yesterday I met some of my students for September, and there's nothing like seeing them face to face to make me think seriously about what we will be doing in the upcoming academic year.

My attitude towards university teaching has changed since February 2006 when a wily publisher sent me a book by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say: the moves that matter in academic writing. Purportedly a writing guide for undergraduates, it has done as much for me as any student. The book was inspired by writing courses taught by the authors that had all the usual goals of such courses -- an institutional response to the despair felt by highly literate academics when faced by piles of poorly written and thought-out papers. Graff and Birkenstein saw a little farther into this phenomenon than most -- they didn't blame their students' high school teachers. They understood that most students had no idea why they should be able to write a well-documented paper which argues a thesis.

Graff and Birkenstein know why. They understand that no great truth emerges without debate. Any academic paper or controversy of any value is part of a larger ongoing debate on a subject that the debaters really care about and see as affecting them, or connecting in some way with their own experience. Each person's contribution is a response to what other people have already said. Writing an academic paper (and the same applies to the best non-academic writing) is part of something I call "the great conversation" or, to use an 18th century phrase,"the Republic of Letters." The Republic of Letters was an imaginary country where those who cared about ideas, though constrained in real life by divine kings, aristocratic hierarchies and orthodox religious dogmas, could meet as equals, as empowered citizens seeking the truth.

Graff and Birkenstein provided me with a brilliant description of a great conversation; it's actually a quotation from the philosopher Kenneth Burke, who equated intellectual interchange with a passionate conversation at a party:

You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about...You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you. ... The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
This description of debate ongoing, unending rings a bell in my head. In 1976, as I was beginning serious research in what became a dissertation and a book on Fifth-Century Chronicles (see the link in my sidebar), I went to the University of Toronto library to look at what had been recommended as the best place to start: an article written by O. Holder-Egger -- in 1876. I was talking with the dead, as we serious partyers (er, debaters) so often do. Our great conversation extends far beyond the span of one person's life, has more than one strand, or one goal. Our Republic of Letters is vast beyond our comprehension.

The Kenneth Burke quotation comes from a work called The Philosophy of Literary Form, which I haven't read but will talk about anyway. My own work reconstructing bygone eras, my own experience with everyday life, makes me think that his description of the party is a good description of how honest people seek after truth. It might be nice to have an authoritative book or library where all the "real facts," beyond debate, could be found. But actually all candidates for such status have been written and collected as part of ongoing debates, and if anyone uses them now, it's because someone else has a different point of view that the first person thinks must be combatted. Truth is bigger than any of us. The debate is a better guide to it than any so-called authority. And each of us has only a piece of that great conversation, and will have to depart before it's over.

Enjoy the party while you can!

Image: "On tour in the Republic of Letters" by Jonathan Keegan, which illustrated an article of that name by Larry Wolff in the NYT travel section in 1999. For more see this description.

I've had quite a bit more fun in the old Republic than these characters!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Translating Eusebius' Chronicle




Roger Pearse, the public benefactor behind the online source collection tertullian.org (far more than just Tertullian), is challenging the Republic of Letters to pitch in and just for the fun of it, translate the Chronicle of Eusebius into English.

Eusebius was bishop of Caesarea in Palestine at the time of the Great Persecution and the miraculous-seeming turnabout when Constantine became the first Christian Roman Emperor. Eusebius was an important advisor to the new convert and wrote some important works, including the first detailed history of the church and a detailed universal chronology (his Chronicle) that showed how biblical history fit in with pagan chronologies and, by implication, how Christian history contained and superceded pagan history.

Eusebius's Chronicle was a complicated graph-like work for much of its extent, in a way that seems, perhaps mistakenly, modern to us. Or it might: it doesn't survive in its original Greek form, but only in ancient Latin and Armenian translations. But the Latin one by Jerome at least is taken as a pretty accurate reflection of Eusebius' work. It's an interesting document of how 4th century Christians understood historical time, and is our main link between ancient chronology and our own.

Would you like to play with this text, and help make it more widely available? Here's Roger Pearse's invitation:



The chronicle of Eusebius has never been translated into English. But we
have a simple Latin version, and also a German one. Much of it is in
short sentences or phrases, so even a novice at Latin would probably find
something they could do.

I've now put online the entries for the second chunk, starting with more
material from Alexander Polyhistor using Berossus.

http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/eusebius_chron/chunk2.php

I've made it editable so that anyone can enter stuff. Each sentence is separately editable. There's no passwords or logons involved. Anyone can edit anything by just pressing the edit button.

If you know any Latin at all, or German, why not buzz over to this page and contribute a sentence or two?

The intention is that the whole translation should be in the public domain and be put online for everyone.

I'll add some stuff in, but by all means feel free to add notes to each bit you do if something is uncertain and see if someone else can find the answer!

It's a bit of fun, not something serious - if you know amo amas amat, I think you could probably do a sentence or two!

All the best,

Roger Pearse

Image: A late medieval Spanish copy of Jerome's translation of Eusebius.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The dream of a virtual library

All the way back in the early 1990s, James J. O'Donnell, a classical scholar with a particular interest in Late Antiquity, and a pioneer in the scholarly use of the Internet, was enthusing about how the Internet would finally make real the dream of a virtual (or universal) library. Then he realized that the dream was an unrealizable fantasy, one that was perhaps not even desirable. His thoughts, all the more relevant now than 15 years ago, can be found here.

Thanks to Prof. Richard Burgess of the University of Ottawa for pointing this out recently.

Image: I got it from the blog Boing Boing, where it illustrated an article on "the promise of a universal library."

Mercenaries in Iraq

In today's LA Times, which has broken many a good story, there is a substantial article on private contractors working for the American occupation in Iraq. Public records, which the article implies are far from complete, show that there are 180,000 such contractors in Iraq, compared to 160,000 US troops. In other words, the occupation is being supported by a big group of people only indirectly under US government control (although the US taxpayer pays the bill).

One might quibble about whether these are "mercenaries" as in my title, since many, perhaps most, are not there to fight: they are construction workers, translators, laundry workers, and truck drivers. But some unspecified number are heavily armed guards who are there to shoot people. And beyond that? Twenty years from now the stories will still be coming out.

My research on "the law of arms for war," as Sir Geoffroi de Charny called it in the 1340s or 50s is beginning to look more and more like it has contemporary relevance, though I never thought that this would be the case. It looks like the "laws of war" as developed since the Thirty Years War are coming unraveled, with a big assist from the biggest military establishment in the world. The atmosphere is like the days of privateering, or the guerrilla warfare that engulfed France in the late 14th century ("the Black Death changed everything").

Of course, this has been on its way for a while now. The 1980s saw a huge upswing in "death squads" and "militias" that could do for their masters and those who rented them things that governments couldn't admit to doing. And, as in the case of the most successful band leaders of the Hundred Years War, some of their leaders and some of the brokers are rich and respected today, sitting at desks in the halls of government or taking part in behind the scenes "peace negotiations."

Darn, I'm going to have to rewrite the last few lectures in World History...

Image: From an MSNBC story of 2005, American contractors who quit because of the brutality routinely committed by others.

Update: A relevant column from today's Washington Post.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

What motivates terrorists

It's often said that terrorists, especially those who are genuinely willing to die for their cause, are desperate and poor and marginalized. The fact that the latest round of bombers in Britain were doctors challenges us to look past that easy generalization. Juan Cole has what I think is a sensible consideration of the subject.

I should point out that several commenters say, wait until they are charged with something before analyzing their motives. I still think that the scenario Cole sketches is a plausible one.

You are the crown of creation...

...and you've got no place to go!

Less than two weeks ago, the government of Poland was arguing in EU councils that its voting weight should take into account all the Poles slaughtered by Germans in World War II and the natural increase of population that might have taken place had there been no war.

Yesterday the online Guardian ran an article on the harrassment of gays in Poland, including a government body tasked with "curing" them, which has led to an exodus of gays to countries like Britain.

Between 1989 and 1991, the countries of eastern Europe were freed from Soviet domination with hardly a life being lost -- the most miraculous public event I've witnessed, and probably will ever witness. Some of those countries have yet to decide what that freedom means; for some of their people it seems that the nationalist/racist nightmare that was 1930s Europe is attractive. It's not just Poland, and it's not just this issue. The mistreatment of the Roma (otherwise known as the gypsies) is a running scandal.

There has been speculation about whether the Turks, the old enemy of Christian Europe, can really fit into the EU. Incidents like this make it clear that even within its current boundaries there are big issues to be sorted out.

Link: the song on YouTube.





William St. Clair, The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British slave trade

The Atlantic slave trade will naturally come up more than once in my fall and winter course, A History of the Modern World. It is one of the key characteristics of the early modern period (which I define as 1400-1800), and its results can be seen on the faces and fates of the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

The complexities of this trade are well-treated in this new (2006) book by William St. Clair, who has a genius for taking one series of sources and illuminating a huge web of relationships. His sources are the documents preserved in London from Cape Coast Castle (now in Ghana), a British fort established and maintained to promote and protect the British slave trade. St. Clair says that there are few places that are potentially so well known over a long period (1660s to the mid 19th century) . His own presentation of this material is quite wonderful. If only more people could write like this. I haven't finished the book yet, but even if it goes steeply downhill after p. 115 it will still have been an enjoyable and illuminating read.

Students who will be in my first-year class in September (if any come across this) might want to ponder this impressive list from p. 4:

Among those who received dividends from the slave trade were the British royal family, the British aristocracy, the English Church, and many institutions, families and individuals. Plantation owners in the West Indies and North America prospered from the sale of commodities produced by slave labour, as did some of their employess and business partners, and profits remitted to Britain skupported others who never left home. A similar reckoning coud be made for the other slaving nations. But it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that every person in the Europeanised world who put sugar in their tea or coffee, spread jam on their bread, who ate sweets, cakes, or ice0cream, who smoked or chewed tobacco, took snuff, drank rum or corn brandy, or wore coloured cotton clothes, also benefited from, and participated in, a globalised economy of tropical plantations worked by slaves forcibly brought from Africa.

The jam connection never occurred to me...

Image: Loango, now in the Republic of the Congo, an early modern African coastal metropolis.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

"Archaeology" in my backyard

Martin Rundqvist of Aardvarchaeology has challenged bloggers with appropriate interests to take and post pictures of their nearest archaeological site.

I'm not sure this qualifies but I think someone, somewhere, maybe New Mexico, maybe Yakutia, will be interested in this.

Every Labour Day long weekend for over a decade I've had a crowd of people camping in my back field for an event under the auspices of the Society for Creative Anachronism. A lot of the usual SCA things happen there, but because we've got a lot of space, a fair amount of time (long weekend) and something like a guarantee that the site will be available for a number of years, some more than usually ambitious and serious projects have been launched.

The archaeological connection is illustrated by the first two pictures. Darrell Markewitz, historical re-creationist, metalworker, and independent scholar, is fascinated by the process of making metals, especially the documented-only-by-archaeology methods used by the Vikings and other northern Europeans in the "Dark Ages" (you know, before they turned on the lights). Darrell knows the L'Anse aux Meadows site in Newfoundland well, and has for a long time been thinking about the smelting of iron that apparently took place at this small, temporary settlement. When he first camped here lo these many years ago, he dug a basement or "booth" like the one found at the real site, to see what the postulate metal workshop may have been like. Then, last year, with a host of collaborators, some long-term and dedicated, plus many more who willing to do a bit of hard labor for a laugh, he made a great big lump of decent-quality iron using no electricity to stoke the fire, just human muscle power and a double bellows he'd designed himself.

(Any errors in this summary are mine.)

So here is the booth or depression where the work was done. Real booths have superstructures, tents or huts.


Here's a closer shot showing the clay furnace after use (picture from today, in fact), propped up by some stones. The hole on the front is where the bellows was inserted.


A couple of other pieces of "above ground archaeology" on the same site. A monument to the local ravens, carved by a gentleman named "Foote," some years back, and painted by me last year.
And here's the biggest project, though it remains unfinished, a "meadhall" made of pieces from an old barn, recreating roughly imported English vernacular wood architecture as found at Jamestown, Va.
I hope Martin agrees that this is an appropriate entry for the "archaeological site nearest you."
Can't get much nearer, and if it's not old enough, only time can help that.

Here's where it gets really messy

Or should I say, here's where the catastrophe widens unstoppably? I hope that's wrong.

Juan Cole in his blog Informed Comment, points to a story in the UK's Guardian reporting that Turkey, after years of restraint, is threatening to invade Iraq to deal with Turkish Kurd guerrillas (the PKK) hiding there, if the United States doesn't do something about the PKK's hideouts there.

Since the war began, I've been reading (often in blog comments) that "the Turks will do something crazy and then we [= the USA, the West, the world] will be in trouble." It never seems to occur to anyone that the Turks have been, despite great provocation, very uncrazy. No doubt because they actually live in the Middle East (or is it Europe? the eternal question) and know how bad things can get. Certainly they don't want all of Iraq's troubles to spill over their border. Iraq was in terrible shape before the invasion; Turkey is a reasonably stable and productive country that might someday be part of the EU.

But this news out of Turkey is ominous. The man making the demands on the US (which may not be capable of doing anything on the Turkish frontier in any case) is not some general or some editor, but the foreign minister Abdullah Gul.

We'll see.

Back to Juan Cole, whom I cited earlier: this University of Michigan professor has been running one of the great war-related resources for a long time now. He summarizes a lot of material in non-European languages and has links to lots of easier to read news and commentary. He often discusses material that no one in the professional media is discussing in depth. I don't always go along with his opinions, but I read his blog every day I'm by a computer.

Cole has now started a new blog to complement Informed Comment, i.e., Informed Comment: Global Affairs, in which he is teaming up with other observers to comment on a wider number of issues. (And maybe start a TV franchise!). The first blog post on IC:GA was two days ago, and since then it's covered some interesting stories indeed: female genital cutting in Egypt (perhaps some good news on that; at least some perspective); the new amusement park in Qandahar, Afghanistan; and the gasoline shortage and riots in Iran.

The story on Iran brings up some facts not usually discussed, especially that having large amounts of cheap oil in the ground can have disastrous effects on the domestic economy. Canada exports lots of oil and gas, but we do have other things to sell (like wood pulp and nickel, and oh, yeah, a little brainpower). If oil prices dropped dramatically tomorrow it would have some serious effects on parts of the economy, but I bet the federal budget would still be balanced next year. Cheaper energy might reduce the prices of Canadian manufacturing and allow our international customers to buy more of our resources.

If the price of oil dropped tomorrow, the governments of Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria would be in serious, immediate trouble. In fact, with oil at or near an all-time high, Iran is already in trouble. The government is hooked on high world prices, and the population is hooked on low domestic prices, which makes life a little more tolerable. Iran is like many other countries where oil is just about the only prop holding up a poorly developed economy.

Canada's economy could use some diversification, both in what we make and who we sell it to, but so far our economy and our government haven't been corrupted by oil wealth.

It's always 1938

I have no particular gripe with this article, just with the fact that it seemed necessary.

This, from the same source, is very good:

But history has its own ways, and we cannot make the long-dead titans we admire give us their modern blessing.