Monday, September 29, 2008

The federal election -- Dr. Gendron speaks at Nipissing University

From Dr. Robin Gendron, Department of History, NU:

As you may have heard, I have been asked by the History Club to speak and take questions about the current federal election/past elections in Canada. I'll be doing so Wednesday at 11:30 in room A224 (I think that's correct). The History Club is generously providing lunch for this event as well.

If any of your students might have an interest in attending, please let them know of this talk.


Although the prolonged dramatic agony of the US election tends to overshadow our short, economical process, this election has a lot of potential to change Canada one way or another. Don't miss your chance to get some important background material before you cast your vote.

And from me, thanks, Robin, for doing this.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Got Medieval gets medieval

There is an interesting and intermittent blog named Got Medieval that in recent weeks has been specializing in rude marginal illustrations of superhero monkeys and other peculiarities in medieval manuscripts. This by itself, no kidding, has been a contribution to understanding the past. But today the blog transcends mere illustration and amusing commentary. The blogger, whose name is Carl S. Pyrdum (III), uses his blogging podium to great effect, drawing attention to one of the most irritating generalizations about the Middle Ages made by non-specialists. This is what blogs are for, having a place to put thoughts of this sort is why I have mine, though I am not sure I've ever written one this good about the Middle Ages. I want all of my students who have any interest in the farther past to read the whole post, which is called The Myth of Pre-literacy. I don't know if I can manage to convince them, or the rest of you, to go there and read, but have a look at this sample:

Before the printing press, people had books--not as many books, surely, but they had books. And some of them loved books. They loved books the way BoingBoingers love Altoid tins and open source software projects. As hard as it is to believe, books were themselves once a cool, innovative technology, and that "once" happened well before Gutenberg came along.

Medieval book enthusiasts were DIYers. They made their own books. They copied texts they liked, freely editing and recomposing--or hacking, remixing, and cut-and-pasting, to use the right lingo. Take a certain fifteenth-century Englishman who went by the name "Rate," for example. We know him, because he signs his name to a manuscript collection he put together, a book today held by the Bodleian Library that goes by the name MS Ashmole 61. It's what specialists would call "a commonplace book," and as other medieval scholars have pointed out, commonplace books had a lot in common with blogs. Scribes collected together texts they liked and copied them down into books for their personal use. If there was a romance floating around they liked, they would "rip" a copy of it into their commonplace book, alongside other things that caught their interest-- including recipes, sermons, devotional stories, saint's lives, dirty jokes (including fabliaux), registers of their finances, lists of animals that start with the letter A, the birthdays and christening days of their children, songs, and so on, and so on.

... People were simply a lot savvier consumers of texts in the Middle Ages than they're often given credit for. If they saw a miniature they liked in one book, they might go to their local bookshop and ask for a version to be pasted into one of their books. Or they might take their business to one shop over another because, "That scribe they have there does a mean Piers Plowman, and his Chaucer's not bad, either."** At least one manuscript of Wace, the French translator of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, inserts all of Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian romances into the middle of the history's section on King Arthur--which would be kind of like pasting the script of the Untouchables into your 20th Century American History textbook right after the chapter on Al Capone or splicing up Shakespeare in Love to serve as a frame to your copy of Romeo and Juliet.

As I've argued here before, it's absurd to think of the printing press as a sudden world-shattering technology. People were jazzed about the printing press because it allowed them to do on a larger scale things that they already were doing with written texts.

Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.

Oh, BTW. This man seems to be looking for a job. Someone hire him quick and stick him in front of your best students, or maybe your average ones.

Image: Superhero monkey.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Somehow seems appropriate for upcoming election debates

...in the US and Canada.


Jethro Tull, playing The Clasp live in 1982 (first 4 minutes), studio track here, the lyrics here.

Synthetic chiefs with frozen smiles, holding unsteady courses
Grasp the reins of history high on their battle horses.
And meeting as good statesmen do before the TV eyes of millions
Hand to hand exchange the lie, pretend to make the clasp.
Jethro Tull was one of my favorite bands between 1968 and 1973, when I stopped following them. Someone gave me a whole collection of their later works about two years ago and the consistent quality they have maintained since 73 surprised me. Looking back forty years I can see why this band still appeals to me: Ian Anderson's personal mythology and mine overlap significantly. His use of symbolism in The Clasp really hits home.

I will give a fig for it


When it is appropriate to do so, I love talking about food and the origin of various crops in my history classes -- in the past, this has generally meant world history and ancient history courses. Ancient Middle Eastern crops came out in discussing the background to early Islamic history a couple of weeks ago, and I had a fair amount to say about dates, a very important crop in Iraq at any time in its history. Soon after, I ran across this National Public Radio piece on figs as one of the earliest crops, a possibility revealed by new explorations near ancient Jericho, which rated a mention in my discussions of early towns and agriculture. I promised a link to the Islamic history class, and here it is!

Image: from NPR, showing an ancient fig (L) next to modern Iranian and Turkish figs (R).

Fascinated by the present

...for the moment at least. NU students who took intro World History with me will not be surprised that I'm occasionally apt to go off on a presentist/futurist tear.

For those who don't mind seeing this in an "early history" forum, look at this (and you may like that whole blog).

Spaceport Baikonur, Kazakhstan

A collection of pictures of this key Russian-run installation from the Big Picture. As noted on the BP site,

When NASA's last scheduled Space Shuttle mission lands in June of 2010, the United States will not have the capability to get astronauts into space again until the scheduled launch of the new Orion spacecraft in 2015. Over those five years, the U.S. manned space program will be relying heavily on Russia and its Baikonur Cosmodrome facility in Kazakhstan.

Moon Rays over Byurakan Observatory, near Yerevan, Armenia

From Astronomy Picture of the Day. As usual, click the image for a bigger, more beautiful version.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Memories of Rome (President's Choice?)

At home, Americans are arguing over whether the financial system will collapse or whether the rich will be allowed to turn everyone else into debt slaves. Meanwhile, in South Asia, American forces have been crossing the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, and Pakistan has been shooting down American drone airplanes. And no one much seems to be paying attention to the second. Or the fact that the Pakistani government almost almost got blown up en masse a few days ago.

This reminds me of those good old Roman days when the entire provinces might rise in revolt because of senatorial money lending practices, and when the senators involved were forced to commit suicide, it was in regards to some entirely unconnected matter, like pure imperial animus.

Image: the death of Seneca, whom Abelard and Eloise thought was a great philosopher, but whose moneylending contributed to the great British revolt against Rome. I wonder if A and E knew about that? I doubt it. Painting by Gerrit von Honthorst.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The American Crisis

I can't say nothing about the Great Treasury Robbery. I am going to post some excerpts from other sources.

From Devilstower at Daily Kos, an essay called Three Times is Enemy Action:

"Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is Enemy Action."
-- Auric Goldfinger

James Bond's wealthy nemesis may have had an obsession with gold, but he judged, quite correctly, that if people keep putting your plans awry, that was likely their intent.

[Much relevant history, justifying the "three times."]

The sub-prime mortgage crisis that has not only come so close to utterly destroying the markets, but has ruined the value of many people's homes and left millions with mortgages they can't pay, was also the outcome of the deregulation created by these men. The very predictable outcome. When taxpayers are left holding the bag for $1 trillion this time around, it's hard to believe it's any sort of accident.

This is enemy action. This is a bullet deliberately fired into the economy by men willing to exercise their ideology regardless of the cost to taxpayers. Men who have every expectation that they can plunder the system again and again, while the public picks up the tab. John McCain may not have had his finger directly on the trigger, but he was there. He assisted. These were his personal friends and philosophical comrades. He may not be the high priest, but he has been a loyal acolyte in the cult of deregulation.


From Boztopia.com, an article called Seven Simple Reasons to Oppose the Bailout:

[Reason 6] Constraining our future. As I said yesterday, not only will this bailout deny us access to capital that we could have used for countless new projects and investments that we desperately need, but it will further constrain us from engaging in any sort of new infrastructure building or real innovation to put this country back on track. While Obama’s administration may be able to push through legislation that amends or changes existing laws, the real big-ticket items–climate change mobilization, national health care, broadband investment–will not happen without capital to fund them. This is a political time bomb designed to sabotage any attempt Obama will make at real change by hamstringing him financially until the Republicans move to take back Congress in 2010. It’s no coincidence that Paulson’s package is on a two-year timeframe, after all.

And just for the least glimmer of hope, an anonymous e-mail supposedly from an angry Democrat in Congress:

...I also find myself drawn to provisions that would serve no useful purpose except to insult the industry, like requiring the CEOs, CFOs and the chair of the board of any entity that sells mortgage related securities to the Treasury Department to certify that they have completed an approved course in credit counseling. That is now required of consumers filing bankruptcy to make sure they feel properly humiliated for being head over heels in debt, although most lost control of their finances because of a serious illness in the family. That would just be petty and childish, and completely in character for me.

I'm open to other ideas, and I am looking for volunteers who want to hold the sons of bitches so I can beat the crap out of them.

Friday, September 19, 2008

It's Ramadan -- Pictures from around the world


The Big Picture has a wonderful selection.

Image (it was hard to pick just one): "A seller of traditional Syrian sweets calls out for customers in the Meidan quarter of Damascus September 2, 2008."

A direct image of an extra-solar planet


Read more about it at Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Viking shield discovered in Denmark


Reenactors and re-creationists of all sorts will be happy to hear this news: a Viking era shield found in Denmark, reported here from Yahoo news.

It will be some time before such data as original weight and construction will be available. The reason the shield is still around, long after all the others have been beaten to flinders, is that it was found waterlogged in wet soil. Much effort will have to be put into removing and preserving it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A mass rally in Pyongyang, North Korea

The design is entirely made of people. Click for a bigger view.

Robespierre and all those dead Montagnards are grinding their teeth in envy.

More rare pictures of North Korea at The Big Picture.

Two statues in Minsk, Belarus



From English Russia. Plus some other marvelous stuff.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Recent American politics in a nutshell

If you haven't been following American politics very closely, and wonder how the country ever got into the state that it is in now, this story from TwinCities.com may put a subhuman face on the situation. As quoted in Laura Rozen's blog War and Piece:

Gabriel Nathan Schwartz was a Colorado Delegate to the Republican National Convention. During the convention, Schwarz, 29, wasn't shy about talking to the media. ... In an interview filmed the afternoon of Sept. 3 and posted on the Web site LinkTV.org, Schwartz was candid about how he envisioned change under a McCain presidency. "Less taxes and more war," he said, smiling. He said the U.S. should "bomb the hell" out of Iran because the country threatens Israel.

Asked by the interviewer how America would pay for a military confrontation with Iran, he said the U.S. should take the country's resources. "We should plant a flag. Take the oil, take the money," he said. "We deserve reimbursement."

A few hours after giving that interview, Schwartz took a hooker back to his hotel room, where she drugged him and stole more than $120,000 in cash and jewelry.

You can see the interview with Schwartz here. Don't miss it. I mean really don't miss it.

I have to wonder how his investment portfolio is doing this week.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Rejects


The Los Angeles Times has an interesting article about the most popular Iranian movie ever, The Rejects, which concerns the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Even more interesting is the video feature which shows clips from both Iranian and Iraqi war films. Most of the students in my course on the history of Islamic civilization, I bet, are probably not even aware of this war, but the article and film clips give you an idea of how huge this to people in the region.

Image: Iranian troops in the "big war."

HIST 3805 students -- Index to lecture notes

Lecture notes from an earlier version of History of Islamic Civilization -- back when it was HIST 2805 -- can be found here.

Please remember that it is an out-of-date list which I hope to replace soon. And that the dates for lectures are not this years'.

Musical robots, 1967 and 1999: Along Comes Mary

Last night I was listening to Randy Bachmann's music show on CBC2. Bachmann, who comes across as a marvelously intelligent and informed person, plays a selection of popular music organized around various themes. This is not exactly an original idea, but he does it well.

Last night his theme was songs named after women. He happened to mention a song by the Association called Along Comes Mary. I was around in 1966 and 1967 when the song was popular and I remember it well, so I looked it up on the YouTube time machine. (That's how I think of it.) It was there all right, and I had a few minutes of appreciating how odd and how unfamiliar something I actually lived through could seem:



Then, just because it was there, a video of the 1999 Bloodhound Gang cover of the same song (does not embed but you can watch it here), with a curiously similar theme. Could it be that the Bloodhound Gang had access to this old film back in the 90s?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

"You cannot import social change. But the knowledge can be transferred."

As someone who claims to be interested in the history of democracy and its modern fortunes, I must admit I have neglected to pay sufficient attention to the work of Gene Sharp, author of the Internet "bestseller" From Dictatorship to Democracy, which has been part of the mix in several anti-authoritarian revolutions since it was written in 1993. There is an interesting article about Mr. Sharp, his work, and his influence in of all places the Wall Street Journal. Thanks to Laura Rozen at War and Piece, one of the most valuable news blogs around, for bringing my attention to this again. She also refers to some of her own earlier articles on Mr. Sharp, which are here and here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

My article on The Combat of Thirty against Thirty is out


This week I was informed that my article "The Combat of Thirty against Thirty," which is based on a conference paper of 2005, is now available from Brill in the collection
The Hundred Years War (part II): Different Vistas, edited by Andrew L.J. Villalon and Donald J. Kagay. It's always nice to be published, but being included in a classy Brill collection has its drawbacks. Brill aims at the research library market and their books are priced accordingly: $175 US in this case.

This pretty much guarantees the book will not find its way onto the shelves of private individuals.

If, however, you are desperate to hear the latest word on the Combat of the Thirty against Thirty, you have two alternatives. You can buy my recent book Deeds of Arms, which has a whole chapter on the same incident (or get your university or public library to buy it). Or, quicker and cheaper yet: follow the tag "Combat of the Thirty" at the end of this post and see what I've already said here.

Image: I failed twice to paste in an acceptable image of "Different Vistas" so I'm just going with Deeds of Arms.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Recreating the Middle Ages on the road to Compostella


In my class on Crusade and Jihad, we were talking about pilgrimages just today, and the difficulties associated with them came up. But I wasn't thinking about this!

This probably is relevant to the Chivalry seminar, too...

Al Qaeda: defeated?

I was not going to post on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, since I had nothing unique or new to say.

I still don't, but I just got around to reading Juan Cole's post for today at his blog Informed Comment. Cole is an expert on Shiism, speaks and reads Arabic, and is a strong critic of the destructive Bush-Cheney policies, so when he says that the original Al Qaeda has been defeated, and surveys the state of terrorist organizations in the Middle East to prove his point, he's worth listening to.

Canadians will be interested in what he has to say about Afghanistan.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The White House interrogation room


Who could have ever guessed that there was such a thing? Well...

See ThinkProgress for the dirt.

What I want to know is how many interrogation rooms and prison cells does VP Cheney have?
How long till we find out?

The Role and Mission of the Canadian Navy in the 21st Century

From Dr. Robert Gendron of the History Department:

On Tuesday, September 16th, Nipissing University will host a talk by Commander Stuart Moors on "The Role and Mission of the Canadian Navy in the 21st Century." Commander Moors will talk about the Canadian Navy and things like Arctic sovereignty, coastal defence, disaster relief, and anti-terrorism. This should be a very enlightening discussion of the substance and purpose of an aspect of Canadian defence policies and I hope that everyone will join us for it. I would particularly ask faculty members to announce the talk to their classes.

The talk takes place on Sept. 16th starting at 7 pm in A137. It is free and open to everyone from the campus community and the broader community as well. Many thanks to Dr. Peter Ricketts, the VP Academic and Research, and Dr. Craig Cooper, the Dean of Arts and Science, for sponsoring this talk.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Winners Walk of Hope against ovarian cancer

Earlier today I took part in the Winners Walk of Hope, a Canada-wide effort to raise funds to fight ovarian cancer. Thanks to all who supported my walk and my wife's.

In Ottawa, where I was, the weather was pleasant and there was a big crowd of walkers. Some were wearing shirts commemorating loved ones lost to this disease. I, who could so easily be in their place, felt for them.

Anyone who wants to know more about ovarian cancer or efforts to stop it should go here.

Image: The excellent traditional folk band which played at the start/finish line.

Grave goods

Darrell Markewitz, author of the Iron Age ironmaking blog Hammered Out Bits, has contributed to a museum show called Grave Goods at the Woodstock Museum in Woodstock, Ontario. The show, open since Friday, will continue until November 1. For links to more details go here.

Canadian federal election called

The election will take place on October 14th.

Americans in the middle of the Longest Campaign probably don't want to hear this.

Image: Elections in Canada as in many other countries begin with writs issued by the Crown (often in the person of the local Governor-General). This goes back to the practices of medieval England. But could I find a picture of a medieval writ of election? No.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Face

I remarked some weeks ago about the amazing things Kenneth Branagh does with his "ordinary English face." What about the late Alec Guinness, seen above as the spy George Smiley in the brilliant 6-part series Smiley's People (1982)? Smiley, appropriately given his profession, is a character who defies characterization, and Guinness evoked that and the whole secret world of spies by doing very little with his face except look out of it. Oh, but look out of it he surely did!

I should say that just about everyone else was just about as good.

Find Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Smiley's People and view them over a week for a matchless cinematic experience. Don't frustrate yourself trying to follow the plot -- you'll probably get it all in the end. Just soak in it.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Viking-era glass bead making


Here is a detailed discussion of one of the activities at the SCA event at my property this past weekend.

Monday, September 01, 2008

A Hollywood future history

Last year I posted a number of entries about "living in the future" -- how I sometimes felt I had slipped into a science fictional world.

Sometime over the weekend a writer who calls himself IOZ, and who devotes his blog to scathing satire and sacred cow massacres, wrote this, a fine example of the "living in the future" genre, if not necessarily one I would've written myself. It is called Apocalypse Cow.

Living in the future is like totally awesome. One guy running for president is a secretly Muslim mulatto terrorist subversive, the kind of dude who's supposed to be living outside the city walls in the radioactive wasteland that was once the earth. His running mate is a loquacious droid assembled in the basement of a secret Visa/Mastercard facility. His opponent is an insane former soldier who can't conceal his cruel rictus whenever the topic of Death comes up. His opponent's running mate is one of Captain Kirk's girlfriends. I swear to Jesus that the Mayan's were right about this whole 2012 thing. I might have become a Christian if someone had told me the End Times were going to be this fucking hilarious.
It would all be much funnier of course if I were sure we would survive it all.

Conversations around the campfire

For the last 16 years my wife and I have been hosting an SCA camping weekend at Labor Day. A variety of reenactment and recreation activities take place including armored combat, archery, riding ( back when we had enough good horses) as well as all the kinds of things to take place at any sociable camp -- a lot of cooking and partying in particular. Llarger than usual craft projects sometimes take place. This time there was both pewter casting and Viking glass bead production.

Because this takes place on a long weekend, there is lots of time to talk to people. Here are two conversations that occurred.

I was talking to a friend about this and that when he started telling me a story about how in 1988 when he was 17, his father took him out of school and they crossed and Mongolia went to Tana Tuva in then Soviet Siberia to attend a Siberian throat singing Festival. It was one of those stories where a mature person recalls a formative experience of youth. a woman listening to the story eventually shared with the rest of us which she it had a striking experience in 1989 -- she'd been in Norway, heard what was happening in Berlin, and went there in time to help tear down the Wall with her own bare hands.

The next day, I told a third person about the Tana Tuva story and was just about to mention the Berlin Wall tale that followed it, when the person I was speaking to started telling his 1989 story. He had crossed China and the Soviet Union and was in Eastern Europe when it became evident that the old system was falling apart. His experience of that phenomenon was a ride with an East German who had come to Hungary with the specific purpose of escaping to the west -- Hungary's communist government had already taken down in section of the Iron Curtain. He went on at some length telling how it affected him to talk to this German who was a bundle of hopes and illusions and fears, for instance that he might never see his aged mother again, though his sisters might live long enough for him to see them.

There are many interesting and unusual people in the SCA, and conversations tend to reflect that. But this was really quite exceptional.