Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Last Duel

Just recently an official trailer for a Hollywood film, hhas been released to the web. I am very interested for, a number of reasons. First, it claims to be a true story about a real duel of1386 . ,

As I have written a book on judicial duels, I’m interested in what the author and the director, (Eric Jaeger and RidleyScott) have done with a difficult stortScott is an eminent figure in film and he has made movies about duels and other “deeds of arms” Gladiator, say,

In fact, Scott’s very first movie the Duelists was about two officers in opposed armies of the Napoleonic era who fight a parallel war in the form of a running duel which seems to be more important than their personal war.

See the Duelists if you can. It is extraordinary..

Most of the comments i have seen have been complaints by reenactors who are unhappy with the armor and costumes. I suggest that this is not what Scott wanted to focus on. It likely will come across as a very serious film. And if we moderns may feel unhappy with the conclusion of the story/duel, well so did people in 1386.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Time for a papal apology -- or not

What’s with the Pope?
Pope Francis came to the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church riding on a wave of good will. Compared to his rigid and very old predecessor, he seemed to be muuch more of a modern man, or at least someone who better understood the challenges facing the organization. He has shown a willingness or even a determination to deal with the great many lay members and lower clergy who disapprove of some of the traditional teachings of the Church.
Which makes his reluctance to apologize for the Church’s role in running Canada’s now notorious residential schools very puzzling. What is he thinking? Does he understand how this looks, what the effect his position will have on the Canadian church in the short run and the long?
Many of my readers will have no idea what I am talking about. Residential schools were in fact an important part of Canadian life from the mid-19th century until the 1990s, when the last one was closed. Yes, the schools were in operation in your lifetime. The purpose of the schools was to turn “savage” Indians, Metis, and Inuit into “civilized” Canadians. The method for doing this was to culturally assimilate these people by eliminating their languages and institutions. The residential schools were a key part of this policy. Young members of these First Nations group were taken from their families and subjected to a curriculum, if you can call it that, that said everything native was bad and everything white was good.
Perhaps a gentle approach to these goals might have worked, but there was nothing gentle about the residential schools. The “students” were badly fed, isolated from their families, and beaten for various errors, the most important being speaking their own languages, even a few words. The cruelty of the environment was such rthat many, many of these kids ran away and died as a result. Most of the schools were in remote, cold locations, and if you have experience a northern winter in Canada, you can easily imagine that the death rate for runaways was very high.
Now non-native Canadians don’t need to imagine. Twice in the past month, archaeologists and other volunteers, looking for the history of the residential schools and their students have found graveyards filled with hundreds of unmarked graves of students. The first find of about 250 bodies shocked the country; before the week was out, a graveyard of over 700 ws found near another school.
All the reports of residential school problems had not made a dent in the Canadian self-image – on ‘racial’ issues Canada waas one of the good guys, most thought, but all those dead kids made a tremendous impact. It sure did on me, and I already knew about the residential schools.
Now here’s where the Pope comes in.
When in this era an atrocity is brought to light – generally by the children of those who were slaughtered or displaced – those wronged demand that the wronged make recompensation, perhaps material, perhaps in the form of an apology. How much good this may do anyone is certainly open to opinion. But a lot of people have made an apology for the treatment of indigenous children central to their image of justice.
He won’t do it.
Francis has said that a separate and wider apology is not necessary because he has already made one in Bolivia, a country full of indigenous people, in 2015. This is true. There is something going on though. How can the Pope be so willing to alienate Canadian Catholics with such a PR disaster? What consideration can be so strong?
Could the Doctrine of Discovery, where Pope Alexander VI gave away the Western Hemisphere to European powers have some thing to do with it? Or some arcane in church doctrine? Tune back in half a century.

Monday, June 14, 2021

McCormick, Wickham and early medieval economics

Back in the 1990s, I thought I might write a textbook on mrdieval history. In preparation for this I bought two rather new books, Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages and Michael McCormick's Origins of the European Economy. Well, neither book got read until 2021. Finally I have prioitized them and though I don't think I will be writing the textbook, I have come to a new understanding of the Crusades, which is very satisfying. It can be summed up in the question, how different were the Normans from the Bulgars in the period around 1000? I think they were very similar. If we in the European West did not have a prejudice that tells us that Bulgaria is not very important but Normandy is, we would have a quite different point of view of Easttern Europe. More later.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Horses and the laws of arms

 Loïs Forster has written an article on Geoffroi de Charny and military horses.  I only know a brief summary in ‘La place du cheval dans les traités de Geoffroi de Charny,’ in Le cheval dans la culture médiévale, ed. by Bernard Andenmatten, Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, and Eva Pibiri (Florence: Sismel, 2015), pp. 199-219.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Movie clichés

I have been watching lots of Netflix movies and have noticed that there are certain cliches that are repeated A LOT, especially if they are produced in Hollywood or some other major center.  Some are visual clichés, others are dialogue.

For instance:  

    An important character angrily sweeps books and pens and so forth, creating a big mess and showing how disturbed he/she is.

"Thanks-for everything"

"It's all my fault."

And plenty more.

What really struck me is how the writers must feel constrained by these clichés. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Another movie or so

 There are a lot of movies on Netflix that may be better than they look.

One of them is Broadchurch, a TV series about a picturesque region of England (out in the West country)  where some children have have been murdered and a cop who comes from out side the region has the difficult job of figuring out the local culture. Since I  started watching Netflix I have seen quite a few series with pretty much the same plot  -- set in Orkney, Denmark, you name it.  I tend to steer clear of most of these

But Broadchurch is different. How, you ask?  It is absolutely excellent in all respects.  

Not quite as good is Gotham, which is a non-superhero series about Batman's father.  When I say it's not quite as excellent as Broadchurch, that still leaves plenty  of room for enjoyable watching.  Note that I am not very interested in the DC universe, the Marvel universe, or most graphic novels.  Nevertheless, Gotham won me over.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Mr. Sunshine: an unlikely Korean movie

 I have been viewing some Korean TV series and I think I have found the most unlikely movie title of the last few years.  It would be more appropriate to call it AWESOME, and it surely is.  It's a historical TV series which depicts the period 1890-1910, which is a believable history of the end of the Joseon dynasty, when the great powers (especially Japan) are gearing up to take over Korea.  The cinematography is truly fine and I was impressed by the acting.  Give this a chance.

If you are to believe the screen, there never were any Good Old Days in Joseon.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

A classic SF novel includes an interesting verbal usage

I've been rereading Isaac Asimov's novel of robots and overpopulation, The Caves of Steel (1951). Many people on Earth are resisting AI. Seeking a simpler life, they call themselves "Medievalists."

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Another biography of a French warlord of the Hundred Years War: Bertrand du Guesclin

Bryant (trans.), Cuvelier, The Song of Bertrand du Guesclin (Graham-Goering) The Medieval Review Bryant, Nigel, trans. Cuvelier: The Song of Bertrand du Guesclin. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2019. Pp. x, 432. $99.00. ISBN: 978-1-78327-227-3. Reviewed by Erika Graham-Goering Ghent University Bertrand du Guesclin, who rose from obscurity as the son of a minor Breton noble to become one of the most powerful men of the realm as Constable of France, is one of the most remarkable characters of the Hundred Years' War, a period certainly not lacking for noteworthy figures. Unfortunately, the original 24,000-line poem in Middle French written by Cuvelier to commemorate Bertrand just after his death in 1380 is not a readily approachable work to the modern reader. Bryant himself points out that in addition to its length, the verse is unwieldy and inelegant in its style (2–3), and it is perhaps telling that the poem was already rewritten into more compact prose (on two separate occasions, no less) by the end of the decade. [1] But these same prose adaptations, as well as the seven manuscript copies of the poem proper, attest the contemporary popularity of this work, and so it is exciting to see an English translation that finally puts this text before a wider audience in an engaging and readable fashion. Cuvelier's panegyric follows Bertrand du Guesclin from his earliest years to his death, focusing especially on his successive battles and campaigns (though with a happy disregard for strict accuracy if it made for a better story). The early episodes show Bertrand's growth from an ugly wild child reviled by his parents to a respected and admired (though still ugly) tourneyer and captain in the Breton War of Succession (1341–1365). Following his exploits in Brittany and Normandy, the narrative shifts to Spain, where Bertrand took up the cause of Enrique de Trastámara against his half-brother King Peter of Castile. Despite the setback of the battle of Nájera in 1367, where Bertrand was captured and ransomed, his ultimate success in this endeavor earned him widespread recognition and the position of Constable (leader of the French armies) under King Charles V. Glossing over Bertrand's less politically comfortable return to Brittany in the 1370s, the story winds down with the expulsion of the English from the Poitou region, and culminates in Bertrand's somewhat incongruous death by illness during the siege of Châteauneuf-de-Randon, which he nevertheless manages to bring to a successful conclusion. To help structure this lengthy recitation, Bryant has divided the poem into twelve chapters of unequal length that pull together the major narrative arcs, as well as running page headers that identify individual episodes more precisely. These breaks do not always reflect those indicated by the text itself, where Cuvelier stops rather at random to address his audience and reset the scene, but Bryant's schema gives the narrative greater coherence. Throughout, Bertrand is shown to be both a paragon of chivalric virtues such as generosity, loyalty, and bravery--sometimes to the point of excess--and also a brutal, even frightening figure, such as might be used to warn disobedient children: "Hush, or you'll pay for it! Bertrand du Guesclin's here" (22)! This tension alone would make this work an interesting access-point to the aristocratic culture of the late Middle Ages and it offers an intriguing case study in the construction of knightly reputations during this period. In addition, Cuvelier writes particularly vivid descriptions of combat that will be of great interest to students of medieval warfare and tournaments (as I have already been able to confirm first-hand in the classroom). These include a number of striking details, from the act of "pulling up hauberks and haquetons" so as better to run an enemy through under their armor (118) to the female camp followers who kept the knights supplied with water and wine during battle (115, 380), that give an almost cinematic insight into elite attitudes towards violence. But while Bertrand is undoubtedly the subject of the poem, Bryant argues persuasively that the work is about French knighthood itself, and the pursuit of (supposedly) just causes elevated to the status of holy wars. Indeed, Bertrand himself seems to fade into the background for large stretches, leaving the stage to these wider themes. This work is thus an effective source for examining the social history of religious and nationalist interactions, especially in their darker manifestations. Cuvelier's polemic, especially during Bertrand's "Spanish Adventure," is aggressively and often shockingly anti-Semitic and Islamophobic, although rare illustrations of cooperation among the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian populations of Spanish towns shed light on the legibility of the complex socio-religious dynamics of the Iberian peninsula to an outsider such as Cuvelier. In fact, by explaining away these views as "standard" (10) Bryant misses the opportunity to reflect on their specific contextual appeal, both to Cuvelier's intended audience (mentioned in passing by Bryant but left undefined) and to Cuvelier himself (here left incognito but in all probability a clergyman associated with the French court). Similarly, there is ample scope in this work for exploring Cuvelier's inconsistent and even at times paradoxical depiction of gender dynamics, which speaks to recurring contradictions within medieval society itself. Bryant is well-known for producing sharp and usable translations of medieval French texts, and the Song is no exception. In his short introduction, Bryant emphasizes Cuvelier's skill as a dramatic storyteller in the epic tradition of the chanson de geste (while defying strict generic classification). It is this narrative spirit which Bryant sets out to capture in the English rendition, and he does it well. His translation sensibly takes Faucon's critical edition as its base, [2] although Bryant explains that in the interest of clarity and completeness he has preferred readings from other manuscripts where appropriate (these are not individually indicated in the text). Much as his medieval predecessors, Bryant has chosen to transmute the poetry into prose, an effective decision that foregrounds the liveliness of Cuvelier's account. He also adopts a relatively colloquial register which is largely responsible, I think, for his remarkable success at delivering a lively read while by and large faithfully preserving the literal sense of the clumsier original. There are of course moments where his flair for idiomatic turns of phrase leads him perhaps slightly astray: "Lady, you're losing the plot" (29)! is a stretch where "you're being unreasonable" would be both perfectly clear and closer to the original; likewise, "Bertrand of such renown" becomes "big noise Bertrand" (209). Nor is he consistent in choosing either to preserve unfamiliar--if often quite comprehensible--medieval expressions in the text along with an explanatory note, or to replace them with an alternative idiom (with or without noting that he has done so). There are a few outright errors, such as his translation of "Bretaigne Galo" as "Celtic Brittany" (40), a contentious choice even if it were accurate, but in fact it is the standard term for the upper or eastern, Romance-speaking portion of Brittany (in contrast to Breton-speaking lower Brittany to the west, referenced elsewhere in this text). A recurring phrase, "A Dieu le veu," Bryant renders as "God wills it!" (104, 304, 329, 398, 414); while perhaps this resonates with the quasi-Crusade on which Cuvelier imagines Bertrand, the contemporary sense (seen for instance in the poetry of Eustache Deschamps) was rather "I swear to God!", an expression that better reflects Bertrand's penchant for bombastic oath-making. A few longer clauses also become a bit muddied, such as "He [Bertrand] called the herald who'd brought the message--Longueville was his bailiwick--and said..." (304): a stronger reading would be "Bertrand, who had Longueville in his governance, called the herald who'd brought the message and said...", to make it clear that the reference is to Bertrand's county of Longueville in Normandy (cf. 123), not some domain of the herald's. However, I point to these examples not in the spirit of nit-picking, but to give a better sense of the scale on which deviation from the French occurs, which is to say, relatively incidental: nearly all that is essential is here. In fact, I was impressed with how effective this translation will be as a guide for researchers wishing to quickly and easily navigate the lengthy poem, especially since Bryant's preservation of Faucon's stanza numbers make for very convenient cross-referencing with the original. Given the commentary already available in Faucon's edition, Bryant's relatively light touch with remarks throughout is justified to streamline the narrative experience. His footnotes focus especially on providing helpful contextual information such as the identification of people, places, and events, especially where Cuvelier himself got these wrong. If there are a few slips here and there in the details (e.g. identifying the "lord of Laval" at the 1363 siege of Bécherel as Fulk rather than Guy XII [80, note 75], or misrepresenting Charles de Blois's abortive canonization as an annulment [141, note 142]), these remarks remain an effective complement to the translation. Bryant's frequent cross-references in these notes help navigate the somewhat repetitive text while also offering enough reminders that shorter excerpts may be read and understood on their own; at the same time, the text may also be enjoyed without reference to this unobtrusive apparatus. Three maps of France, Brittany and western Normandy, and the Poitou region also help orient the reader, though Cuvelier's highly inventive approach to Spanish geography defies any cartographic aid for that portion of the account. An index of people and places completes the set of tools at the reader's disposal. Taken all together, this translation is a thoroughly valuable resource for medieval social, political, and cultural historians, from undergraduates up through experienced scholars. For teaching, it is a vibrant addition to the all-too-short list of accessible English translations of Middle French sources, one that offers scope for studying quite diverse aspects of life and thought amidst the violence of the Hundred Years' War. The price, which is more consistent with an academic monograph than with student-friendly offerings, may prove the only limitation on its accessibility in the classroom. For more advanced research, it offers a welcome alternative to tackling Cuvelier's verse, but is especially practical as a sort of gloss of the edition that vastly enhances the approachability of this sprawling epic. -------- Notes: 1. Yvonne Vermijn, "Trois traditions manuscrites parallèles: La Chanson de Bertrand du Guesclin et ses mises en prose de 1380 à 1480," in Pour un nouveau répertoire des mises en prose: roman, chanson de geste, autres genres, eds. Maria Colombo Timelli, Barbara Ferrari, and Anne Schoysman (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014), 348. 2. Jean-Claude Faucon (ed.), La Chanson de Bertrand du Guesclin de Cuvelier, 3 vols. (Toulouse: Éditions Universitaires du Sud, 1990).​

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Americans -- too many of them -- abandon their base values

THE ATLANTIC The world watched today as the president of the United States confirmed his critics’—and American allies’—fears, railing baselessly against election fraud, arguing from his perch in the White House that he had won an election whose result remained in doubt. Donald Trump’s remarks signaled a dangerous new episode in the soap opera of his presidency. Waking up to the news that he has claimed victory—despite official and media sources, to say nothing of the Joe Biden campaign, insisting any final result remains some ways off—the world has been forced to confront its faith not just in America, but in the American idea. Before today, the American president himself could be loathed or ridiculed, the nature of American power challenged, and even the corruption of American politics debated. Yet few doubted the strength of America’s constitutional nature, the foundation upon which it built its republic. There have been disputed elections before—hanging chads and worse—but Trump’s comments, made before all the votes have been tallied nationwide and with multiple states up for grabs, signaled a break. This is no constitutional crisis, yet, but a president laying claim to an office he has not won (albeit one he might) is a crisis of its own. The world has long looked at the American experiment with a sense of awe, disbelief, and skepticism that it could hold. In 1835, with the United States a mere fledgling, its original foreign chronicler, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote of the “feverish excitement” that gripped the country at election time, but observed that normality quickly resumed once the result was clear. “As soon as the choice is determined,” he wrote in Democracy in America, “this ardor is dispelled; and as a calmer season returns, the current of the State, which had nearly broken its banks, sinks to its usual level: but who can refrain from astonishment at the causes of the storm.” Today the world watches, wondering whether the latest current has finally broken its banks—the storm of this particular election and this particular president too much for the system to bear. Outside the U.S., there is despair. The impact of what is happening will be felt much further afield, the consequences not just practical and domestic but philosophical and global. Diplomats and officials I spoke with have voiced worry over the future of the U.S.-led Western alliance, and over the implications for countries abroad. Today, with Washington in chaos, its future sovereign unknown, it is the idea of America that risks being submerged, an idea that much of the world has grown to rely on—and, indeed, has adopted. ... De Tocqueville appreciated that underneath the constitutional foundation of American stability lay even deeper trenches—the accepted norms that held its society together. At the root lies its commitment to republican government and the sovereignty of the people. If this goes, then there really is a problem. “Without such common belief no society can prosper,” he wrote. “For without ideas held in common, there is no common action, and without common action, there may still be men, but there is no social body.”
I'm no Brit but during the Brexit fight, it ssure looked like that they, too, had lost track of their norms.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Did Galileo see this? Jupiter and Saturn now

I've had trouble with my health and with using Blogspot (inserting pictures). But I am still here. One of my faves was the recent conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the "blue moon.." a n arrangement thaat hasn't been seen since GALILEO SAW IT. More later

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Another Korean historical movie -- Saimdang memoir of colors

Quite a while back I was singing the praises of Rookie historian goo hae-rung, a very entertaining story of women rising thru 16th-century Joseon (Korea) despite the resistance of aristocratic ministers of the Crown. Well, the pushy women and the stubborn -even evil - ministers are back in a TV series featuring painting, making high-quality paper, and time-travel. Like the other series Saimdang: Memoir of Colors has many of the same elements, including a King who is entirely isolated among his ministers and can be ruthless as a result. There are some flaws. It is really long. And the art is interesting. The 21st century story-line is not nearly as interesting as the 16th century one, but give the other a chance.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Hearts don't break

I haven't been blogging much.  I've got things to say, but none of them very profound or unique.  There are so many people talking about important issues that I don't feel a strong  need to contribute to these conversations.  But...

I am reading some of my old paperback fiction, most of it from the 70s or earlier.  These books are often pretty obscure but good nevertheless.  Example:  Fletcher Pratt's The Well of the Unicorn.  It's a heroic fantasy about a young peasant who becomes a viceroy because of his charisma.

Pratt wrote a number of fantasies  in the 40s and 50s.  They were written out of Pratt's wide knowledge of history and in the case of the Well of the Unicorn early English (16th -18th centuries).  Pratt's vocabulary is remarkably accurate even entertaining.

This book was published in 1948 and got favorable reviews in a number of periodicals, including the New York Times.  By the time it was reprinted in 1973, it was not so unique. But I found it very interesting. I hadn't read the book in 25 years (at a guess) but phrases and usages seemed familiar.  Was it Pratt being memorable, or Pratt inspired by Shakespeare, or Dafoe or any member of the Long Parliament?

Title:  A  character's respomse to the notion of breaking hearts

Friday, August 21, 2020

Another fine book from Getty: Elizabeth Morrison's Book of Beasts


2 of 2,755

Morrison, Elizabeth, ed. Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2019. Pp. xiv, 340. $60.00. ISBN: 978-1-606-06590-7.

   Review by Scott G. Bruce

        Fordham University

This sumptuous catalogue is an awe-inspiring testament to an unprecedented exhibition of medieval bestiaries hosted by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles from May 14 to August 18, 2019. Based on late antique models and reaching a height of popularity in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, medieval bestiaries were collections of pithy stories about the nature of animals (and often plants and stones as well) that explained their symbolic meaning in a medieval Christian worldview. Some of these animals were common, like dogs and horses; others were exotic, like elephants and panthers, while others still were mythological, like unicorns and dragons. 

Medieval bestiaries varied in content, containing anywhere between fifty and one hundred anecdotes, but they all served the same purpose: to educate and entertain medieval readers with stories about manifestations of Christian truth in God's creation. The Getty Museum exhibition was an unprecedented event that brought together dozens of manuscripts representing more than a third of the illustrated medieval bestiaries in existence [me: !], as well as premodern art objects depicting animals in a variety of media.

The exhibition catalogue under review, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, braids together many short essays and over one hundred descriptions of manuscripts and other medieval artifacts. Part One ("Introducing the Bestiary") opens the catalogue with a useful introduction to the history of medieval bestiaries by Elizabeth Morrison, followed by samples of their most enduring stories about the lion, the tiger, the unicorn, the griffin, the elephant, the beaver, the bonnacon, the ape, the fox, the eagle, the pelican, the siren, the dragon, the hydra, and the whale, each accompanied by a full-color illustration. This tantalizing preview beckons the reader to the visual and intellectual riches that follow. Part Two ("Exploring the Bestiary") comprises seven essays. Sarah Kay offers a survey of the textual history of the bestiary tradition from the Physiologus, a late antique collection of Greek moralized animal lore, to the Latin books of beasts that it inspired in the Carolingian period, to the longer, more elaborate bestiaries of the later Middle Ages. Xenia Muratova celebrates the diverse ways that medieval illuminators interpreted the text of Latin bestiaries, noting that "an impressive highly individual approach to the pictorial interpretation of identical models testifies to the creative independence of the artists, the variety of their artistic temperaments, and the richness and diversity of their stylistic methods and schools" (40). Elizabeth Morrison draws attention to the challenges presented by bestiaries for the planners of medieval manuscripts, in particular how they negotiated the amount of space necessary for a work of variable length and its accompanying illuminations, especially when they used different exemplars for the text and the images. Ilya Dines examines the presence of five thirteenth-century bestiaries in multi-text manuscripts to see if the texts copied alongside them inflect their purpose for medieval readers. Since these bestiaries generally appeared in the company of other didactic texts, she concludes that they supported "the same didactic and theological function as the rest of the texts and miscellanies themselves" (71). Susan Crane offers a case study of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodleian Ms. 764, a mid-thirteenth-century bestiary lush with illumination, to show how some medieval artists diverged from received pictorial traditions when illustrating these texts. In this case, she argues that the illuminations of cats and hawks in this particular manuscript suggest that "the Bodleian artist turned away from Christian moralizations to favor the fascinations of the living world" (81). Closing out this part of the book, Emma Campbell examines translations of the Latin bestiary into vernacular languages with an emphasis on medieval French, while Larisa Grollemond charts the interest of secular readers in vernacular translations of this text in the thirteenth century, particularly in a courtly context.

Part Three ("Beyond the Bestiary") features several essays that explore how, in the words of Meredith Cohen, the animal lore of medieval bestiaries "migrated from the book to all other forms of representational art, both secular and sacred" (177). Its widespread influence is evident in textual and pictorial cross-pollination with encyclopedias of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Emily Steiner), with world maps known as mappae mundi made in the decades around 1300 (Debra Higgs Strickland), and with early modern cartography, like the illustrated nautical chart rendered by Mateo Prunes in the sixteenth century (Chet van Duzer). This section of the book also features a short, but thoughtful, essay by Rebecca Hill on beast lore in the Islamic tradition (260-261) in a collection otherwise dominated by western European source materials. An epilogue by Larisa Grollemond explores the legacy of medieval bestiary images on modern and contemporary artists in the twentieth century.

This exquisite catalogue is sure to interest premodern scholars across a wide range of disciplines. Over the past decade, the so-called "animal turn" in medieval literary studies has stepped in time with renewed interest in environmental history among medieval historians. As a result, animals have become a common topic of interdisciplinary inquiry into the medieval past. While this catalogue has immense value as a storehouse of information about and interpretation of the medieval bestiary tradition and the scholarship it has inspired, it also has the potential to play an important role in outreach to non-specialists. Bestiaries are among the most intriguing and accessible medieval sources. As Elizabeth Morrison reminds us, many of our colloquial expressions about animals--"King of Beasts, crying crocodile tears, licking someone into shape, wily as a fox, and perhaps even monkey on my back" (10)--find their origin in the medieval bestiary tradition. With its stunning illustrations and attractive design, this volume is an excellent resource for specialists, but it is also a provocative introduction to this aspects of medieval European culture for discerning readers interested in the premodern past. ​

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

An exciting view of human social evolution. No need to be stuck in the era of Rousseau and the Scottish Enlightenment

 Two Davids (David Graeber and David Wengrow) want to rewrite human history.
The first bombshell on our list concerns the origins and spread of agriculture. There is no longer any support for the view that it marked a major transition in human societies. In those parts of the world where animals and plants were first domesticated, there actually was no discernible ‘switch’ from Palaeolithic Forager to Neolithic Farmer. The ‘transition’ from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production typically took something in the order of three thousand years. While agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after its inception. In the time between, people in areas as far removed as Amazonia and the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East were trying farming on for size, ‘play farming’ if you like, switching annually between modes of production, much as they switched their social structures back and forth. Moreover, the ‘spread of farming’ to secondary areas, such as Europe – so often described in triumphalist terms, as the start of an inevitable decline in hunting and gathering – turns out to have been a highly tenuous process, which sometimes failed, leading to demographic collapse for the farmers, not the foragers.

Clearly, it no longer makes any sense to use phrases like ‘the agricultural revolution’ when dealing with processes of such inordinate length and complexity. Since there was no Eden-like state, from which the first farmers could take their first steps on the road to inequality, it makes even less sense to talk about agriculture as marking the origins of rank or private property. If anything, it is among those populations – the ‘Mesolithic’ peoples – who refused farming through the warming centuries of the early Holocene, that we find stratification becoming more entrenched; at least, if opulent burial, predatory warfare, and monumental buildings are anything to go by. In at least some cases, like the Middle East, the first farmers seem to have consciously developed alternative forms of community, to go along with their more labour-intensive way of life. These Neolithic societies look strikingly egalitarian when compared to their hunter-gatherer neighbours, with a dramatic increase in the economic and social importance of women, clearly reflected in their art and ritual life (contrast here the female figurines of Jericho or Çatalhöyük with the hyper-masculine sculpture of Göbekli Tepe).

Another bombshell: ‘civilization’ does not come as a package. The world’s first cities did not just emerge in a handful of locations, together with systems of centralised government and bureaucratic control. In China, for instance, we are now aware that by 2500 BC, settlements of 300 hectares or more existed on the lower reaches of the Yellow River, over a thousand years before the foundation of the earliest (Shang) royal dynasty. On the other side of the Pacific, and at around the same time, ceremonial centres of striking magnitude have been discovered in the valley of Peru’s Río Supe, notably at the site of Caral: enigmatic remains of sunken plazas and monumental platforms, four millennia older than the Inca Empire. Such recent discoveries indicate how little is yet truly known about the distribution and origin of the first cities, and just how much older these cities may be than the systems of authoritarian government and literate administration that were once assumed necessary for their foundation. And in the more established heartlands of urbanisation – Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, the Basin of Mexico – there is mounting evidence that the first cities were organised on self-consciously egalitarian lines, municipal councils retaining significant autonomy from central government. In the first two cases, cities with sophisticated civic infrastructures flourished for over half a millennium with no trace of royal burials or monuments, no standing armies or other means of large-scale coercion, nor any hint of direct bureaucratic control over most citizen’s lives.

Jared Diamond notwithstanding, there is absolutely no evidence that top-down structures of rule are the necessary consequence of large-scale organization. Walter Scheidel notwithstanding, it is simply not true that ruling classes, once established, cannot be gotten rid of except by general catastrophe. To take just one well-documented example: around 200 AD, the city of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, with a population of 120,000 (one of the largest in the world at the time), appears to have undergone a profound transformation, turning its back on pyramid-temples and human sacrifice, and reconstructing itself as a vast collection of comfortable villas, all almost exactly the same size. It remained so for perhaps 400 years. Even in Cortés’ day, Central Mexico was still home to cities like Tlaxcala, run by an elected council whose members were periodically whipped by their constituents to remind them who was ultimately in charge.

The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.