Thursday, January 31, 2008

More from English Russia


The amateur photojournalists (meant as a compliment) of English Russia continue to present us with great images of "1/6 of the Earth's surface." Today I went back to the site and found two treasures: a portfolio of views of Northern Russia (region unspecified) and a group of pictures from Nazi-occupied Russia.

In connection with the first, I was struck by how little this cold landscape looks like my cold part of Canada (though we had clear blue skies today). In connection with the second, I found it interesting to see how many people used the German presence as an opportunity to hold religious processions.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Afghanistan and Iraq: the cost of war

Phil Paine writes on Canada in Afghanistan, asking how much is it costing, and for what?

And on the American front, suicide...

Image: A two-time attempter (see the Washington Post article).

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

From "In the Middle"

In the Middle is a group blog produced by five academic medievalists. Among them they produce some provocative material. If you don't know this blog, but think you might be interested in some heartfelt reflections on the academic life, why not check out this recent entry on The Why I Teach Literature Meme?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mots justes

In a New York Times article, Parag Khanna visualizes a generation-long decline in American influence, and takes it upon him/herself to advise a future president:

No more “us” versus “them,” only “we.” That means no more talk of advancing “American values” either. What is worth having is universal first and American second.

Irbil as tourist attraction

Irbil in northern Iraq -- or if you prefer, Kurdistan -- is the best existing example of how continuous occupation of sites resulted in the creation of "tells," hills made up of the rubble of previous layers of settlement. Irbil (sometimes spelled Arbil) is one city that after maybe 8,000 years is still sitting perched on all that rubble.

Alas, Irbil, at least the old central part of the city, is crumbling and few of the buildings there are still occupied. Bet that's happened before! The municipal authorities, according to this Associated Press/MSNBC story, see an opportunity here. Given a certain amount of investment and peace and quiet, this could be a unique tourist attraction!

I'd go in a heartbeat.

Thanks to Explorator for bringing this to my attention.

Medieval soldiers


Will McLean has a blog called A Commonplace Book: Deeds of Arms and Other Matters Medieval and Otherwise. His interests and mine overlap considerably, which is only natural, since we've been friends for years, sharing information and insights about the history and conduct of medieval deeds of arms.

Will has had some good posts recently. One, called Haubergeons, is a spin-off of a post of mine on "mail-shirts," wherein he spells out some features of the medieval army discussed in the first French ordinance of arms and makes some comparisons to English armies of the same century. I'll be writing on this material, too (mostly the French), so I was interested, and maybe you will, too.

His most recent post springs from his discovery of an on-line data base called The Soldier in Later Medieval England. I know there are people out there who will be as pleased to see this as I was, and Will's own comments are worth reading.

Image: borrowed from the Amazon site for this book.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Amarna finds: religious reform can be hard work


Well, I was just talking a bit ago about "the old con games," wasn't I? So today I saw over at Archaeoastronomy a post on an upcoming BBC TV show on recent work at Amarna, the city/religious center founded by the "monotheist" pharoah, Akhenaten. Here's the key passage:

One of the most shocking findings are the ages at death. There’s a chart you can look at and it’s pretty clear that Amarna was a lethal place. The 2007 report has a chart of its own. This shows that aging a skeleton isn’t always possible, but both charts indicate that a life in Amarna would likely be over at 35. The report by Melissa Zabecki, also from Arkansas, is grim. They had dental caries but probably didn’t complain too much about toothache as they were also likely to have extremely bad backs. Zabecki has found evidence of osteoarthritis and spinal trauma in many of the skeletons. Zabecki’s conclusion is that these people were worked to death. Akhenaten wanted to change Egyptian religion overnight, and that can’t be done without a lot of work. The twisted bones of the workers of Amarna show some of the cost of turning from the old gods.
I've been skeptical for a long while about Akhenaten's reputation as a "worthy heretic" and exemplar of religious progress; I've seen his religious regime as the product of a theological power grab in a heavily-ecclesiasticized society. This is not the first evidence that lots of people died in religious conflicts, either at his hands or those of his opponents.

For more detail on recent work, see the Amarna Project site.

For an aerial view of the ruins, see this BBC presentation.

Image:
Tomb #9 at Amarna, photo copyright Ross Day.

Cornelius Tacitus speaks

One of the old greats, the Roman historian Tacitus ("I, Claudius" is derived from his vision of the early empire) says it all, or at least something significant:

Contradictory rumours have raged around [an imperial death] among contemporaries and later generations alike. Important events are obscure. Some believe all manner of hearsay evidence; others twist truth into fiction; and both sorts of error are magnified by time.

Of course, Tacitus himself has often been seen as the greatest of those who "twist truth into fiction."

The translation is by the prolific Michael Grant.

Phil Paine on Canada's economic future


What can Canada do to break out of economic passivity? (See under Jan. 25.)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Back of the envelope


Over at the Planetary Society blog, Emily Lakdawalla writes about using back-of-the-envelope calculations to estimate certain astronomical facts. Is there a historical equivalent to b-o-t-e calculations?

Image: Mercury's surface, from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Suckers for the old con-games


That's what we are, according to a new essay at Philpaine.com. I am told that we can expect a series of Meditations on Dictatorship, to go along with the Meditations on Democracy.

It might be worth looking at this material while you are at it.

Image: From the site of "Australia's Honest Con Man."

Losing the royal mausoleum


Today in the Medieval England class I talked about the major changes that took place in the reign of King John --

King John was not a good man
He had his little ways
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days
One thing I wanted to emphasize, but neglected, what with talking about Stephen Langton inventing the verse-numbering of the Bible, was an interesting indicator of how much John lost symbolically when he lost the Angevin counties along the Loire.

His father, Henry II, his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his brother, Richard Lionheart, were all buried at Fontrevault Abbey in Maine (?); John lost that region and is buried by himself in Worcester Cathedral in England.

All four have surviving effigies. John's is above; the other three can be seen as part of this slide show.

Picture of a spaceman


From Astronomy Picture of the Day.

(His name is Clay Anderson, and he took this picture of his reflective faceplate.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Monday, January 21, 2008

PROME assignments, HIST 3425

As allowed in the course syllabus, the students in class in Medieval England agreed to a reallocation of second-term marks:

The preliminary assignment, now due a week from Wednesday, i.e. Jan. 30, is now worth 10% of the course grade.

The second term essay is now worth 20%; and is due March 5.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

News from Catal Huyuk


I've always been fascinated by the early town site (representing maybe the earliest town) of Catal Huyuk (Çatalhöyük), in southeastern Turkey (Anatolia), and in my Ancient Civilizations course, I talk about its significance at length.

Well, recently the Turkish Daily News has published a good article on the work that has been done at Catal Huyuk since 1993.

I am pleased to see that my lecture material is still not obsolete, despite this interesting work.

Thanks to Explorator for this.

Image: Recent excavations, from TDN.

Those stumbling strongmen


Marcus Gee in the Globe and Mail makes the case in this column that democracy is more efficient than dictatorship. I agree, but must point out that he vastly underemphasizes the death toll attributable to the dictatorships he cites.

Image: Ukrainian victims of Stalin's famine, early 1930s. This was no accident, it was policy.

Comet McNaught over the Andes, 2007

From Astronomy Picture of the Day. Click on the picture for a bigger view.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Medieval Manuscripts on video


Dr. Richard Scott Nokes has posted links to two YouTube clips on his blog Unlocked
Wordhoard
;
they are the product of one Raul Quintanilla from Nicaragua.

Raul's videos feature images from medieval manuscripts and the music of Hildegard von Bingen. The first shows many pictures of how such manuscripts were produced.

Enjoy!

Image: Bede at work on a manuscript, borrowed from About.com: Medieval History.

MLK and LBJ

You may or may not care about the election-year controversy that inspired Bill Moyers to make this piece on who should get what credit for civil rights breakthroughs in the 1960s United States -- but it's an awfully good personal memoir, brilliantly illustrated. Thanks to Talking Points Memo for posting it.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The rectification of names

I'm no Confucius scholar, and have a very limited understanding of his thought, so I'm basically cherry-picking this quotation from a longer analysis by the Master:

Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”

The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.” “So! indeed!” said Tsze-lu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”

The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.

“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success..."

Boy are we in need of that now!

"Liberal" has meant so many things in the past two centuries that it is probably been a hopeless case for the last half-century. Now "conservative" is equally hopeless -- remember when it meant conserving things and institutions, instead of conscienceless plundering? "Left" and "right" -- is there a good essay on the Web or in print exposing how empty and befuddling these adjectives are, except for making battle-flags?

Phil Paine has written a short piece
(under reading #15474) a critique of Garrett Hardin's article "Tragedy of the Commons" (Science, 1968) and the analysis associated with it, which deserves wide distribution. One part I think is particularly valuable are the remarks on
"paradox" and "irony" (as well as a common (mis)use of "rational"):

Perhaps the key to the article's success is Hardin's constant use of the word "rational", borrowed in a special usage from game theory, and then employed in an arbitrary way which bears no resemblance to any common-sense use of the word "rational". People are always intrigued and delighted by what they interpret as "ironies" or "paradoxes" in economics, sociology, or psychology. It seems especially delicious to contemplate a "paradox" where "rationality" creates chaos or disaster by some supposed necessity, and that is probably why the essay's arguments have been replicated in so many other contexts. But the appearance of such "paradoxes" does not indicate sophistication — it simply marks the presence of sloppy thinking. Paradoxes are the result of confusion, inattention, or inadequacy in the observer. They do not exist in the real world. Hardin's fictional shepherds exhibit only the "rationality" of a heroin addict deciding on a second-by-second basis whether to inject himself. No real shepherd ever thought or behaved in the way that Hardin considers "inevitable". Trust me in this: I was trained professionally as a shepherd. No real life shepherd was ever as stupid as Hardin's imaginary ones.
I've long had the same attitude toward the widespread use of the term "irony." "Irony" has a legitimate meaning, but the casual use of the phrase "Isn't it ironic" (which long predated the song of that title) almost always makes me want to say "You haven't figured out that old scam yet?"

A very good example of words getting away from even intelligent users can be seen in this blog entry at Crooked Timber and the following comments where the "ambiguity" of power-holders who want to manipulate others by cloaking their intentions is discussed. Some writers are clearly talking about projecting ambiguity to deceive, while others let the term "ambiguity" dominate the discussion and seem to think no one knows the truth. No. The ambiguity, or better, some people's ignorance about the true state of affairs, is produced by others who are consciously deceiving or confusing them. It's lying, people. And in the long run, the "ambiguity" of important liars is usually revealed -- long after the great robbery or the slaughter of innocents is over.

Upcoming Conferences: March 28-9, 2008


At the end of March, there will be two consecutive academic conferences at Nipissing, both held at the former Precious Blood Monastery across College Drive from the main complex. (Yes, distant reader, NU has its own monastery! Picture above (taken and copyright by F. Noel!))

The first of these is the Third Annual Community History Conference, sponsored by the History Department. It takes place on Friday, March 28, tentatively beginning at 8:30 in the morning and finishing at 5 pm. In the past this has included a lot of participation by community members and Nipissing History students, and has been a great success. Contact Dr. Katrina Srigley at NU for more details; further announcements will be posted here, too.

Beginning at 5:30 that same evening, in the same venue, will be NU's first Undergraduate Research Conference. It will continue on Saturday. I think the name speaks for itself. Again, more detail as it becomes available.

If you are a NU student in fourth year with a project you think has possibilities, please consider submitting a proposal!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Local history -- the graveyards of New York City

The Economist has a wonderful tour of graveyards large and small in some of the boroughs of NYC. You won't regret having a look.

In Ancient History we spend a lot of time figuring out what graves tell us about past cultures. Just two days ago, we in HIST 2055 had a quick look at what may be Philip of Macedon's tomb If you take the same attitude into more recent cemetaries, there is much to learn. Certainly this article will teach most people a little more about New York and American history than they knew before.

It might also lead you to think about the conditions necessary for the preservation of such evidence.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Greatest Knight: William Marshal on TV in the UK

I've been told that a documentary called The Greatest Knight will be on the series Timewatch, BBC2, on Jan. 19.

Students! Nominate a deserving prof!

The Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Full-Time Teaching and the Nipissing University Award for Part-Time Teaching were established to recognize and honour faculty who display teaching excellence in the classroom.

Students are encouraged to nominate those profs whom they consider worthy.


For information on the application process and nomination forms for each award, please visit the website of the Vice-President, Academic and Research at http://www.nipissingu.ca/academic/, “Teaching Awards”.

Since recipients are entitled to receive these teaching awards only once every five years, please check the list of previous recipients on the website. Hard copies can also be obtained from the Office of the Vice-President, Academic and Research (F309).

Monday, January 14, 2008

An excerpt from the History of William Marshal (trans. Gregory)


The tournament assembled,

And none that had ever gone before

resembled this,

nor ever before were so many blades and shafts

put into serviced in a single day,

for matters were so arranged

that the winner of a challenge took all,

so that each man was looking out for his own fame and glory.

The opening contests lasted a short time.

The large companies and battalions

came together savagely

and with great ostentation,

neither side fearing the other in the least.

When the companies clashed,

the crush of battle was on such a scale

that the field was soon so covered

with lances and splinters

that there was not so much as a way through

to spur on their horses

without being encumbered.

The tournament was a fully-pitched battle,

and was there a better seen.

In many spots there were skirmishes,

and the land around was so drowned by the sound of lance and

sword, and of helmets resounding

from the hefty blows meted out by both sides

that any man present would not have heard

God thundering, assuming that He had,

nor been aware of it;

there were no weaklings on that field.

The count of Saint-Pol was taken there

by the bridle of his horse,

but the worthy Marshal,

like the valiant knight he was, rescued him

from the hands of seven and more who were striving

to do him injury and were leading him away.

On that field the cowards stayed behind.

There you would have seen many a banner

soiled in the mud and trampled on,

and many a knight trampled on too

when they were knocked to the ground.

But the saying used to go that

the brave and the valiant are to be sought

often between the hooves of horses,

for never will cowards fall down there,

never will they so hate their lives

as to be willing to join the fray;

they take care not to do themselves injury,

they have no wish to get involved in that.

There you would have seen knights taken and horses won and lost.

Any man who was able to take another man's bridle

strove with might and main to hold on to him,

and the other did just as much to stave him off,

to join battle with him and defend himself.

At that point, any man wishing to separate the two

by negotiation would have had little success,

for words would have been no use whatever.

To sum up, so much I will say,

that on that day so many feats of arms were performed

that it was a true marvel;

indeed, all marvelled

where so many excellent knights had come from

to sustain such a tournament.

But it was a well known fact,

and plain for all to see,

that on that day the Marshal

performed many more feats of arms by far in combat

than any other man who had come there.

No matter how many of them were amassed, as soon as he launched himself into the fray,

he overwhelmed them

so with mighty blows

that they all withdrew.


Image: William Marshal in action, as drawn by Matthew Paris (13th c.)

Sarah Winters speaks at NU, Wednesday, January 16th

Nipissing University Research Lunch

Wednesday, January 16
12:30 – 1:30pm
Room: A222

Speaker: Sarah Winters, English Studies

From the White Witch to the Dark Mark:
Evil in Children's Fantasy Since WWII

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Pay and equipment for French "mail-shirts," ordinance of 1351

A reader of this post on the "mail-shirts" asked how much vallets (the group I think were also called "mail-shirts") were paid and what equipment they were expected to have. That reader has answered his own question, but I thought others might be interested. I've used the translation of equipment terminology from the 1973 source collection Society at War, edited by C.T. Allmand:

Banneret 40 sols Tournois a day.

Chevalier 20 sols Tournois a day.

Escuyer "bearing his own arms," 10 sols Turnois.

Vallet "accompanying him and armed with a [short] coat of mail [haubergeon (SM)], bascinet with mail [camail (SM)] gorget, gauntlet, and a tunic above the coat of mail," 5 sols Tournois.

And as a bonus, here's what crossbowmen were supposed to have in the way of armor (from the ordinance, no translation):

armé de plates, de crevelliere, de gorgerette, d'espée, de coustel & de harnais de bras de fer & de cuir [wages of 3 sols]
And an extra special bonus, the gear and wages of a shieldman (pavisier):

armé de plates ou de haubergeon, de bascinet a camial, de gorgerette, de harnais, de bras, de gantellez, d'espée, de coustel, de lance; de pavais ou d'autre armeure, de quoi il se porra ou saura miex aidier [wages of 2 1/2 sols].

Friday, January 11, 2008

Materials for a recreation of a deed of arms


Over at A Commonplace Book, Will McLean has been discussing how he designed a re-creation of a later medieval combat at the barrier. All this in preparation for a deed -- tomorrow. I guess I am going to miss it.

Image: McLean himself.

My review of Yuval Harari's Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry

What follows is my review for The Medieval Review, the free, scholarly reviewing forum for medieval studies. It was just sent out this afternoon, and will at some point in the future be posted to the web archive.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550. Woodbridge, U.K.: The Boydell Press, 2007. Pp. xi, 224 $80.00 ISBN: 1-84383-292-5, ISBN: 978-1-84383-292-8.

Reviewed by Steven Muhlberger
Nipissing University


I had my doubts about this book when I heard its title: is "special operations" a term appropriate to the "age of chivalry?" And what might the author mean by "age of chivalry?"

Having read the book I am still unsatisfied with Harari's use of the terms "special operations" and "age of chivalry," but that dissatisfaction has not prevented me from enjoying this book or
appreciating the perspective that Harari has brought to medieval military history. Special Operations is written in such a way that it will inform and entertain the elusive "general reader" while still giving scholars material to think about.

Harari's book has an unusual structure. Chapter one, about a quarter of the book, is an analytical overview of special military operations, their place in medieval warfare and their historiographical treatment to date. The next six chapters each treat a noteworthy land operation or set of land operations in detail, ranging from the taking of Antioch in the First Crusade to the destruction of the mill of Auriol in 1536, in an effort to illustrate analytical points made earlier. Chapter eight provides a short conclusion. Harari states in his preface that the second part of his book, the six chapters devoted to operations, is "aimed at a non-professional readership and consequently forgoes analysis in favour of narrative," adding that in
that section "footnotes and discussion of the sources are kept at a minimum." (x). The author is too modest; his clear, decisive narrative will benefit many readers, and not just amateurs. I found his discussions of the assassination of King Conrad of Jerusalem and the multifarous plots that surrounded the Valois dukes of Burgundy not only interesting but provocative of much thought on how the political environment can shape military behavior.

Harari's narrative chapters, then, make his analysis far more vivid than if he had presented it as a review article in a journal. But what about the argument itself? Were there special operations in the Middle Ages and has Harari added significantly to our understanding of medieval warfare by writing this treatment?

The author gives us the courtesy of putting his definition of "special operations" in the first paragraph of chapter 1:

A "special operation" is a combat operation that is limited to a small area, takes a relatively short span of time, and is conducted by a small force, yet is capable of achieving significant strategic or political results disproportional to the resources invested in it. Special operations almost always involve the employment of unconventional and covert methods of fighting. (1)


"Special operations" thus are defined in, part, by the use of small means to produce large effects. This is a definition derived from language that modern practitioners and theorists have used to
distinguish small, smart, and tricky tactics from "conventional," full-scale warfare using normal weapons. This distinction has hardly ever been used, Harari tells us, to describe warfare before the Second World War, and it is his goal to show that similar tactics, notably efforts to capture fortifications and other infrastructure by stealth, or the kidnapping or assassination of commanders or political leaders, were used in the Middle Ages, were indeed common, and were sometimes extremely important in shaping events.

No reasonable reader would disagree that he has achieved this goal. However, one may question whether tactics and methods that in the late 20th century were called special to distinguish them from "regular combat" were indeed "special" or "unconventional" in the medieval context.

From his usage we can conclude that Harari's "special operations" were unconventional in two ways. First, they used "deceit, treasons, bribe, assassination and other forms of foul play" (9) that violated the standards of chivalric fair play. Special operations were dirty warfare, while chivalric warfare was defined by honor and fair play. Yet Harari never really goes beyond the widest generalizations of this sort. If "chivalry" required "fair play" in war, what constituted
"fair play" and what was, in concrete terms, "chivalry?" Granted, Harari has not written a book on the definition and content of the word "chivalry," (and those who have, have had problems with this difficult issue), but if "special operations" are to be contrasted with the normal warfare of the "age of chivalry," we might expect a little more discussion of "fair play," a phrase, one should note, that is derived from modern sporting terminology.

Harari also distinguishes medieval "special operations" from "full-scale campaigning" (e.g., the Black Prince's chevauchees) without stopping to ask whether the big campaigns were the norm for medieval warfare, or whether the "special operations" were in fact more typical. Certainly there were large armies and large campaigns; some of the best of recent scholarship has derived from systematic digging into the documentation left behind by the most impressive
military establishments. But as a famous story by Froissart points out, even a militaristic era like the Hundred Years War it was not impossible for a leading general to rise to the top of his profession without ever having taken part in a set-piece battle. Those decisive set-piece battles, fought between armies of the leading powers of the time, were a major preoccupation of the scholars who invented modern military history. But does that standard tell us much about what was "conventional" in medieval military experience? Indeed, if Harari categorizes using trickery or sneakery to take a fortification as a type of "special operation," which he does, and for good reason, then this "special operation" must have been in potential and perhaps in actuality, one of the most common military operations of the era, far more than "conventional" battles and "conventional" sieges. This is in fact a point that Harari concedes in the somewhat analogous case of piratical attacks which he excludes from analysis even though they fit his definition of "special operations" because they were too common in naval warfare; "[they] comprised a very significant portion of all naval operations, [which] would mean that many medieval and early
modern naval struggles…were in fact 'special operations wars.'" (2)

Harari seems in a bit of a muddle about what was "chivalrous" warfare, and what was "conventional" medieval warfare. This is perhaps due his acceptance of terms and classifications applied to modern warfare by modern specialists as normal and universally relevant. One suspects that Harari's reason for doing so is that he sees himself as addressing students of modern warfare as much if not more than medievalists; he is reaching out across the usual barriers that divide sub-specialities. How much his use of terminology affects the value of
his analysis will depend in large part on the purposes and needs of individual readers.

Undoubtedly, however, Harari has cast light on a whole class of small-scale but potentially decisive military tactics that have lacked a good recent treatment. It now has one.

Winter wonderland

Snow falls in Baghdad. (From the Associated Press via Yahoo.)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rome (2005 & 2007)

Since Christmas I've had the opportunity to see all of both seasons of the HBO series Rome and I was just as impressed by the entire work as I was by the two episodes I saw back in November. I am not a classicist or a Roman-era archaeologist, so I may have missed some things, but it's the most amazing visual re-creation of a distant time and place I've ever seen. The writing and acting were mostly excellent. There were very few places where I thought the producers and directors were pandering to modern prejudices and preconceptions. All in all, one of the best video presentations of anything I've ever seen. For instance, the episode where Pompey dies was riveting. There was so much in it, and it worked perfectly.

I had my disappointments. In an effort to avoid Cranky Academic Syndrome, I'll mention only one. There were no Greek elements in the presentation of Egypt, Alexandria, or Cleopatra's court. It wouldn't have taken more than a few Greek references to make me happy.

Warning: Rome is full of sex, brutality, and a fair amount of brutal sex. And very few characters, even your favorites, abstain from doing something horrible, generally murder.

Image: Kerry Condon playing Octavia; there are worse things than being a parasitic, drugged-out daughter of the upper class.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Courses I'm teaching, 2008-9


Are we really up to 2008-9?

Soon enough, I guess.

My schedule for next year is not absolutely guaranteed, but it seems very likely that I will be teaching the following 3 courses:

HIST 3805 (formerly 2805), History of Islamic Civilization: A year-long course that discusses the interaction of Islam and world history. Not primarily a course on religion, and not entirely devoted to the Middle East.

HIST 3116 (a special topics designation), Crusade and Jihad: a semester course focusing on the crusade to Jerusalem and the Muslim response. I'm still figuring out the parameters of this course.

HIST 4505, Topics in Medieval History: a year-long seminar for 4th year students on chivalry. Click on the labels for "chivalry" and "Chivalry seminar 2006-7" below, or the chivalry links to the right, for material I posted the last time around.

Image: The Accolade, Edmund Blair Leighton. Knighthood as it should have been?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Back to the Middle Ages: the Mail-shirts

It's been a while since I posted anything on the Middle Ages, so here goes.

I've been thinking about Charny's unanswered Questions on War (1350s) and what they tell us about knights and men at arms -- especially men at arms. To help interpret Charny's text I've been casting about for other documents that will help me interpret Charny's eccentric material. One obvious one is the ordinance of arms that Charny's royal patron, John II of France, issued about the same time.

King John was trying to recruit a better army by raising the pay he was offering; at the same time he defined what kind of status, armor, and horse that various types of warriors would have to have to qualify for the new wages. As a result, his ordinance says something about the terminology used to describe warriors.

The ordinance divides warriors into gens d'armes (men at arms) and gens d'pie' (men on foot). Then the ordinance spends a deal of time discussing the first group. It's clear that gens d'armes to John, his commanders and accountants, were cavalrymen, and well-armored ones at that.

The gens d'armes are also divided into four groups: bannerets, knights, esquires, and vallets. All are expected to have horses and equipment, including the vallets, a term used for servants, though not necessarily low-born ones.

Later on, the same armed and mounted group called gens d'armes earlier is redivided into two groups: gens d'arms and haubergeons ("mail-shirts"). And these paired groups are referred to together repeatedly, in a way that makes clear that they have similar equipment and responsibilities.

In the mid-14th century, Charny tells us, the term gens d'armes was a general one that included many men who were not of knightly rank (or maybe even esquires' rank) but depending on their capabilities might be as good as knights. Am I wrong to think that in the 1350s there were a lot of warriors hanging around who might be seen as either "servants" or "men at arms" dependening on the situation, but whose most obvious attribute was the fact that they had "mail-shirts?" And as a result, such men were commonly called "mail-shirts," even by the king when he was speaking as a legislator?

Image: From the site of GDFB, who will sell you a habergeon.

[Click on the label "Charny" below for more posts on Charny's Questions; or you can click on my book Jousts and Tournaments and acquire for yourself the most detailed discussion of the text.]

Saturday, January 05, 2008

M 51

Some days I think of the vast amount of new knowledge that humanity has acquired in the last 60 years (even in the humanities) and I say, "In the future, if humanity survives, people will look back and ask, 'What the heck were they doing up till the Second World War?'" Other times I think that view is entirely too stingy in granting credit to pioneers of earlier eras who had brilliant insights or just did a lot of hard, systematic work, efforts in both cases that we still benefit from today.

This picture of Messier Object 51 is a good example of old and new work coming together. The bigger, more spectacular galaxy is known by its number in Charles Messier's catalog of "deep sky objects" which was compiled between the American and French Revolutions. Messier had no way of knowing that M 51 was 31,000,000 million light-years away. He was just interested in bright objects that might be confused with comets, and the catalog was meant to help other skywatchers separate permanent from temporary features of the sky. His catalog is still of use today.

The picture of course is the result of one of the proudest accomplishments of modern technology, the Hubble project. And I guess the fact that we can -- even with backyard telescopes -- see better than Charles Messier (and his assistant Pierre Mechain) but still use his numbers, illustrates that some of the most impressive and constructive examples of human collaboration stretches across the centuries.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Two reactions to Obama's win

I am avoiding commenting on the unusually prolonged US presidential race, but I cannot help but link to two American reactions to Barack Obama's victory in the Iowa Democratic Party caucases:

First, Brad DeLong.

Second, Lower Manhattanite at the Group News Blog.

Cast an eye over the comment threads.

These posts could be an education in American politics.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Background to today's politics in Pakistan


Juan Cole rightly calls this long entry on Pakistan by expert observer Barnett Rubin at Informed Comment: Global Affairs "a college education all on its own." I can speak with a little authority on this because I teach one of the few undergraduate courses offered by an Ontario university on Islamic history, and I can tell you that you won't get anything this substantial from me on Pakistan, post-independence (1947, more than 60 years ago!). Nor on India, either, and India contains very important Muslim communities. And Bangladesh, once part of Pakistan, hardly gets mentioned.

I have my excuses, of course, even valid ones. I've used the time I've allocated to post-WW II history to discuss mainly Egypt, Israel/Palestine, and to some degree Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. That may not be good enough any more. I may have to reallocate time, putting the conquests of Egypt and Bengal in the late 18th century at the end of term one instead of the beginning of term two.

Al-Ahram: Zeno's paradox in today's Egypt


A habit I hope to cultivate this year is to read at least one article from Egypt's English-language online weekly, Al-Ahram, every day. I won't be reporting on all of them -- that would be tedious for all concerned -- but some of them will certainly get links from this blog.

Today's reading was a report on traffic jams and urban crowding in Cairo. It's entitled Zeno's Paradox, the relevance of which phrase is clear when you look at Wikipedia's entry on Zeno's Paradoxes, which sums them up thus:

You can never catch up.
You cannot even start.
You cannot even move.

If you read the article you'll see how appropriate this phrase is for a city of 17 million which has facilities for 4.5 million.

Image: The 6 October Bridge.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

HIST 3425, preliminary assignment, second term

If by some odd chance, some of you Medieval England students are looking here during the holiday, rejoice! I have finally posted the first part of the 2nd term assignment, which involves looking at the Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England at the NU library site and using the record of one parliamentary sitting to answer a few basic, but not necessarily easy questions.

I had hoped that we could discuss this assignment on Monday, but that is looking less likely. Parts of the NU net are down, which makes PROME unavailable at the moment. Nevertheless, have a look at the assignment and especially what I have done with it.

What have I done?

I quickly realized that you students would have a very hard time extracting even the basics from these records. The modern English translations don't provide easy explanations of what legal terms mean, for instance, and though each parliament has an introduction by modern editors, I'm willing to bet that with just the background you have now, those introductions won't help much -- at least the first time through.

So what I did was add to the assignment sheet my own answers for the questions, based on the parliamentary roll for the April 1384 meeting. I actually found it pretty difficult to do this. I had to read the roll twice, and after that it took most of an afternoon to write up my answers (which include extensive quotations from the April 1384 roll).

Even if PROME continues to be unavailable, download and print out the assignment sheet and have a close look at it.

The meter turns over today

Sometime today the Sitemeter reading on this blog will show 100,000 visits. This does not mean I've reached 100,000 people, since my maintenance visits account for a fair number of them, but it's the number I've got. And a nice round one it is.

Thanks in particular to all of those who are out there hunting for a cool picture of Saladin, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, a plate of biryani, or a sheet of Canadian paper currency. And of course, my actual readers.

Happy New Year!