Thursday, March 30, 2006

NU History students --- money going begging

NU History students who are in their final year of full-time study, who plan to pursue a Bachelor of Education degree in the following year, either at Nipissing University or at another university, may be eligible for the Smith Award. Check with the Student Awards Office (F218) for the process and eligibility.

See this link.

The secret chocolate recipe of the later Medicis

Thanks to the student who sent me a link to a really interesting piece from on the efforts of Cosimo III (above), Grand Duke of Tuscany, to counter Spanish domination of "chocolate culture."

In the 17th century, chocolate was a hot, usually bitter drink. The Spanish, who had conquered the Central American originators of chocolate, set the standard for the substance. Cosimo III, whose state of Tuscany was pretty much a Spanish satellite, decided to fight back by having a superior jasmine chocolate blend created so that Florence, not Madrid, would dominate the world of chocolate cuisine.

A museum display in the Civic Museum of Monsummano Terme reveals Cosimo's secret and if the version is indicative, gushes over the brilliance of Cosimo's gastronomic coup.

However, there is another way of looking at it: the site from which I borrowed the portrait, characterizes Cosimo as one of the worst of the generally worthless later Medicis: "a disaster or the State of Tuscany, and the penultimate nail in the coffin of the Medici dynasty."

I'm generally a Tom Paine man: "the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise;" but occasionally, I must admit, that some benefits trickle down to us unwashed masses. Paradoxplace attributes the invention of the pianoforte to Bartolemeo Cristofori, an instrument maker of Cosimo's time.

Here's the jasmine chocolate recipe from

10 librae of roasted cocoa, cleaned and coarsely minced (1 libra = 12 oz.)
fresh jasmine petals
8 librae white sugar
3 ounces vanilla flowers
6 ounces cinnamon
2 scruples (7.76 grams)ambergris

Put layers of cocoa and jasmine flowers in a box, one layer over the other. Let it rest for 24 hours, then change the jasmine flowers with fresh ones. Repeat 12 times. Add the other ingredients and combine them on a warmed marble surface until the chocolate dough forms.

Have fun, and let us know how it turns out. Especially the ambergris part.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The war continues

World War I is not over yet.

In October of 1916, Private Harry Farr, after two years of fighting in the trenches, refused to return to the front. He was tried for cowardice and on conviction was executed. He refused a blindfold before the firing squad.

His 92-year-old daughter, Gertrude Harris, has been trying for the past 13 years to get Harry a posthumous pardon. She has evidence that he suffered from shell shock, or in today's terminology, post-traumatic stress disorder. The British defense minister, who refused Gertrude's request in February, has decided to reconsider.

Good luck, Gertrude.

This is not a unique case. According to The Times, to which I am indebted for this information, "17 alleged cowards in the British Army [were executed] during the First World War [and] a further 289 soldiers were shot for desertion and disobeying orders."

Here's Harry. Remember him when you think of "the Great War."

Update: Harry may get his pardon.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

A whole new world of knowledge

Something very interesting happened on the Internet this past week.

The Washington Post web site hired a young right-wing blogger to comment on news and policy. A lot of readers were outraged that he was hired, considering him to be a shallow, dishonest bigot.

But that's not the interesting part. Within a couple of days other bloggers, using only Google, dug up numerous examples of this young blogger's repeated plagiarism, and he was forced to resign.

All sorts of questions arise from this, like why was he hired in the first place, but the really crucial aspects are this: 1. It took next to no time for the young blogger's critics to nail him to the wall; and 2. the Washington Post web site seems to have made no effort to check out his past commentary.

The second point indicates that we are in a whole new world of knowledge. Supposedly authoritative institutions and individuals as well are going to be under constant scrutiny by thousands if not millions of people who were not long ago forced to be a passive audience.

And authoritative institutions are having a hard time facing this fact. See the reader commentary directed at the editor of the online version of the Post here.

Friday, March 24, 2006

A national custom

I disavow the common Anglophone attitude -- at least in North America -- of baiting the French, as though they were some uniquely risible nation. Start looking for risible nations and you'll have a long list and rankings on it will be hard-fought-for.

However, I don't consider it ridiculing the French to point out that when they -- or at least enough of them -- get upset with their government, demonstrators and rioters pour out in the street. As the Early Modern Europe course approaches the Fall of the Bastille (above, and see a contemporary account here) it's worth knowing that urban riots and peasant uprisings -- both features of France in 1789 and the years that followed -- were pretty common parts of early modern society. There's an interesting description of a French bread riot in 1725 here, for instance. Note that the women of the town were usually the ones who led bread riots, which will be relevant to those of us in class when we reach "the October Days."

Burke, some of you will remember, thought that the October Days, because of the unprovoked killing of certain royal retainers at Versailles and the insult to the Queen, was the realization of a totally evil human impulse. Whether or not he was right about that, the spectre of widespread disorder was frightening to respectable people like Burke, and not necessarily a remote threat. (The British upper class energetically hung and "transported" many thousands of its poor and unruly lower class.)

One of the issues surrounding the French Revolution is that it was a riot -- and a peasant revolt t00 -- that got out of hand. Perhaps other people in France thought, "just another Parisian riot." Once they got the idea that this riot wasn't going to stop, it's easy to imagine that some of them were even more frightened and angry than they were initially, and that others who had welcomed the downfall a corrupt and disfunctional royal government got profoundly uneasy.

I'm not going to make the shallow claim that the current French urban riots are just like those of 1789, 1648, or 1356, but it is interesting that these things happen in France more often than in other rich countries.

For those interested in more, here's what appears to be an Anarchist account of May 1968. Last fall's riots are discussed by the Christian Science Monitor here, and the current ones are discussed in several articles listed in the Guardian here.

UPDATE: The Guardian has alerted me to an Unrest in France blog.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Not a lynx?

There is some evidence that the big cat at NU may have been a cougar. It's not impossible.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Treasures from an Egyptian dump

As has been noted before, Egypt is a very dry place, unless you are on the old Nile flood plain. Unfortunately nearly every inhabited place is on the flood plain, and most perishible remains of normal life have rotted away, just like they have in most other countries.

But the old town of Oxyrhynchos (now el-Bahnasa), located as it is on dried up canal, is different. And because it has been unaffected by flooding since the 7th century CE (AD), its dump has preserved unparalleled treasures: a huge selection of the documents, public and private, of a Hellenistic and Roman-era town in Egypt. We can read all sorts of literary, legal, and personal writings, and so for us, Oxyrhynchos is one of the best-known cities of the Roman empire.

According to Wikipedia, which has the most extensive discussion of the site and its importance that I could find, excavation of the dump for documents began in the late 19th century, during the British occupation of Egypt, under the supervision of some Oxford scholars. They hoped to find the lost works of antiquity, and eventually some were in fact found. But perhaps more important than the literary works are the personal records and correspondence of ordinary Egyptian townspeople of the Roman era. We'll be discussing some of these in class tomorrow. For distant readers, have a look here (following the excerpt from Strabo).

The most interesting thing I found out while writing the post is that 100,000 papyrus fragments have been found, and 4,700 have been published. And this with an energetic publishing program of about a volume a year. Clearly a project without end.

Update: For more material, see the Papyrology site at Oxford.

Greuze and David

Today's lecture in Early Modern European history discussed how Simon Schama in his 1989 book on the French Revolution, Citizens, used the artists Greuze and David as indicators of dissatisfaction that existed in France with Old Regime culture just before the Revolution.

I looked around for good site and this is what I found:

For Greuze, World Wide Art Archive has a long list of links to on-line paintings and on-line museum exhibits featuring the artist.

For David, Artchive has an introduction, a list of links to other articles on the artist, and a link to images of his work.

Above you will see one of those images: his grim portrayal of 1789 of the original Brutus of early Roman times, receiving the bodies of his sons, whom he'd had executed to save the early Roman Republic. Clicking on it may get you a larger version of the painting.

Monday, March 20, 2006

NU: Lynx spotted near Chancellor's House Mar 20

For those of you out-of-town, this is an unusual sighting. More often, it's bears.

Roman villas

In the book I referred to in today's lecture, Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome, the author argues that the Romans at their height created a level of physical comfort not attained in many later centuries. Some of what Ward-Perkins says is controversial, but certainly the Romans knew a great deal about comfort.

One symbol of Roman comfort is the villa. One meaning of "villa" is a rural mansion which was the center of an extensive aristocratic estate. Such villas brought urban comfort into the countryside.

Using Google Images I found one particularly nice site, a Virtual Visit to Torre Llauder, a villa of the late 2nd or early 3rd century in Catalonia, Spain.

The picture above is a Roman villa in Norfolk, England, as seen by aerial photography. The complex was revealed by the contrast between crops growing on the old walls and those growing elsewhere. We owe much of our modern archaeological knowledge to quite recent technological advances such as this.

Study sheets for final examinations

These are available at my office, H 312.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

More seriously now...

We've passed the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and there is no sign that peace will return any time soon.

Since I teach the History of Islamic Civilization in 2006-7 I follow developments in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world pretty closely. For those of you who want to know more than the very little that appears in the average media outlet, try Today in Iraq. You quickly will find that it has an editorial point of view -- anti-war -- but there is no other site that will give you as much access to reports on Iraq as this one. If there is a better one, I'd like to know about it.

I cited some links to Iraqi-written weblogs in an earlier post.

Mary Queen of Scots' football?

If the Scotsman is not putting us on, this football may actually be connected with Scotland's most popular queen. This charming story came to me via the Archaeology in Europe blog, which I learned of from Explorator, an ancient history newsletter you can sign up for via Yahoogroups.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Friends of the Mediaeval Studies Society Symposium

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is sponsoring a symposium next weekend -- specifically on Saturday, March 25 -- on behalf of its Friends of the Mediaeval Studies Society, a new special interest group. I will be speaking on the text illustrated above -- the chronicler Froissart's account of a chivalric deed of arms with political implications.

What you see above is a joust between the French lord of Clary and Sir Peter Courtenay, an Englishman, over whether Courtenay had "spoken too freely" about French courage, or the lack thereof. Since the French and English had just finished campaigning against each other and the French had won, you'd think that such a private confrontation would have been beside the point. But then, explaining why the deed made sense at the time is what the paper is all about.

More information about the symposium is here.

Friday, March 17, 2006

St. Patrick was a Briton

Most of the pictures of St. Patrick I could find on the web are for some reason done in a Byzantine style -- there seems to be a modern artistic/devotional movement inspired by the traditional icons of the eastern churches.

So I decided to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with a different kind of popular image.

Something I like to point out to people who feel more Irish than me is that even though Patrick was the apostle of the Irish and is now their patron saint, he was a Briton, or a Roman, or both. In any case, he came from the other big island next door. Don't be deceived by the possibility (see the old Catholic Encyclopedia) that he was born in present-day Scotland. Patrick was not a Scot. In his time, the 5th century, "Scotia" was a name for Ireland. The name has migrated.

And to be quite clear, Britons in the 5th century were not English. The English (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) back then mostly lived in present-day Germany and Denmark, in the Angle, though a few pesky immigrants were showing up in Roman Britain.

Missed the Ides of March -- the Roman Calendar

I was too busy this week to remark in class on the Ides of March, the day on which Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. (Above is a reproduction of a coin issued by his assassins, which shows the daggers and displays a freed slaves cap, as a symbol of the liberation of the Roman people from Caesar's tyrrany.)

Before 44 BCE, the "ides of March" was just the name of a day on the Roman calendar. The Romans had a very peculiar way of keeping track of the days and those who want to study them seriously have to wrestle with that calendar at some point. To be brief, there were three days in the month that acted as reference points: the ides (1st) , the nones (5th or 7th, depending on the month), and the ides (13th or 15th). Other days were designated by counting backward to the next reference point. What we call the 2nd of March was identified as the "6th of (or before) the nones of March," while the next day was the 5th of the nones.

One result is that "days of the kalends of March" are all (except for the kalends itself) are in the month of February!

There are plenty more complexities in the Roman calendar. An attractive and detailed site, Calendars through the Ages, is here.

Next, I guess, I'll be looking for an excuse to explain the not-quite-so-arcane "pounds-shillings-pence (Lsd)" currency system used by the English and many other Europeans in the past.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Nipissing Students: Job on Parliament Hill

This just came in the mail and has a deadline of March 20. "The Parliament Hill Players" -- AKA your government -- are hiring "first-person historical costumed interpreters at Parliament." If you are bilingual and have the talent, you can play Sir John A, Lady Agnes Macdonald, Maria Lipinska, Sir Georges Etienne Cartier, and others, for money!

There is a poster outside my office, H 312, with details.

You must be available for auditions sometime between March 25 and April 2, and for the whole program period of June 5 to September 4.

We might call this a variant on public history...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

More ancient manuscripts

There is a new Carnivalesque, a collection of historical items found in various blogs and news sources, posted at Archaeoastronomy. This one is Carnivalesque XIII and is dedicated to ancient and medieval history.

Included in this collection is my previous entry here on the Gospel of Judas. It's been interestingly paired with a post at Varnam about the oldest Buddhist manuscripts known, which have also been a subject of controversy, explored in more detail at the site for the Buddhist Channel. These manuscripts, you see, were smuggled out of Afghanistan from their former home, Bamiyan, the location of a historic early monastery. Smuggling antiquities out of their country of origin is widely disapproved, but given the destruction of Buddhist monuments at Bamiyan (above) by the former Taliban regime, which may not be out for the count yet, their sale may have saved them.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Gnostic Gospel of Judas

Just as interesting and significant as the Dead Sea Scrolls are the Gnostic Gospels, known mainly through manuscripts discovered in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1948 (about the same time as the Dead Sea Scrolls were found). Like the DSS (briefly described here and here), the Nag Hammadi collection includes a lot of non-canonical religious literature from later antiquity. "Non-canonical" means that these are writings that did not get on "the list" of approved or authoritative works drawn up by "Church Fathers." In other words, there are surviving gospels that are not included in the standard New Testament, including for instance the Gospel of Thomas (a page is pictured above). Most theologians do not believe that these non-canonical writings go back to the times of the apostles, or necessarily represent the views of the people after whom they are sometimes named, but that they were written later to promote "gnostic" interpretations of Jesus's message. (Here is one view of gnosticism by people who take it pretty seriously.)

Mainstream scholars see these works as a gateway into the rich religious world of the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E. (A.D.); however, you can understand that lots of people get excited when the word goes out that the Gospel of Judas may become available, published by the National Geographic Society next month.

As important as what the text may actually say -- given that it is probably a 2nd century creation -- is the ethical question posed by the NGS publication. This manuscript has been known to exist since at least 1983, and it hasn't surfaced yet because it can be regarded as stolen property -- it was dug up and taken from Egypt without authorization, as in the case of so many finds before. The current owners (holders?) have been trying to sell it for millions ever since.

Scholars have been torn. Pony up the money and get the text into the public forum? Indeed, save what may be a very brittle manuscript by making sure it's being cared for properly? Or will paying the holders legitimize their activities and make sales of illegally obtained manuscripts more likely and more lucrative in the future?

A tough question indeed.

Curiously, I was unable to find a copy of the National Geographic Society's official statement on their site. The best treatment is the Christian Science Monitor's story.

UPDATE on April 6, from National Public Radio. Also see my more recent post.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Voice of America Pronunciation Guide

Just came across this site, which contains many difficult names of people and place who are or might be in the news.

Warning: It loaded very slowly when I visited it.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke has come up in Early Modern Europe more than once. Here's a portrait and a link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

NUSU's trip to "Medieval Times" Friday March 31

NUSU, the student government here at Nipissing University, has arranged a trip to the medieval dinner-theater presentation, "Medieval Times."

For more details see the NUSU events page.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

End of "feudal" government on Sark

Above you should see "La Seigneurie," the home of the hereditary lord of the English Channel Island of Sark. In my Early Modern Europe course I've often talked about how the big-name countries of Europe are really made up of little enclaves with distinct histories, customs, and laws. Sark's a great case of this: very close indeed to the coast of England (but closer yet to Normandy), it is neither part of England nor part of the United Kingdom. It is a lordship founded in the 16th century and dependent directly on Her Majesty Elizabeth II. There is a seigneur or lord and a mostly hereditary parliament (the "Chief Pleas"), whose seats are chiefly allocated to the holders of the original 40 tenements into which the island was divided on settlement.
At least, that's how it worked until recently, when the petty lords of Sark decided, following the advice of human rights lawyers, to bring in universal suffrage. A good portion of the 600 people who live on Sark will now have some say in how things are run. This is being ballyhooed in the media as the end of "feudalism" (see this Telegraph article) but as a medievalist I have to say I admit the term only under protest. (Ask me about my reluctance if you are interested.)

Sark's own website is here.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Nipissing University Conference on the Near North

On April 1 and 2, Nipissing University faculty and students will join community members for a conference entitled "Histories of the Near North: Discovering our Community's Past. See this PDF of the program. The conference grows out of the commitment of NU's History Department to the community history of North Bay and its region, and our desire to work with community-based historians and our own undergraduate students to document and disseminate that history.

If you are interested, write historyn AT (AT=@)

And while you are at it, visit the home page of NU's Institute for Community Studies and Oral History, ICSOH.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Ancient Civilizations will not meet on Monday

There will be no class on Monday, March 6. See you on Wednesday!

The cinematic time machine

Seventy years after her movies were originally released, Shirley Temple is once again receiving huge amounts of fan mail from kids who are seeing her on DVD. For more on this unusual life, see the LA Times.

Empire of the Sun -- telling the truth about history

In today's Guardian J.G. Ballard, who I always think of first as a science fiction writer, reflects on his boyhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, the novel he wrote about it, and the movie that was eventually made about it.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

How deadly was gladiatorial combat?

Next Wednesday I'll be lecturing in Ancient Civilizations on the gladiatorial games, so I was very interested to hear an archaeologist commenting on the subject on CBC Radio's As It Happens. The occasion was the analysis of gladiatorial remains found in Ephesus, now in Turkey. It seems that the wounds found were limited in number and type, suggesting that the combat was limited by certain rules and perhaps was not fought to the death. The Austrian archaeologists have found a number of fighters who seem to have been killed by a "squarish hammer-like injury to the side of the head," which they speculate may have been administered to wounded gladiators backstage.

Earlier research by a friend of mine, Prof Steve Tuck of Miami University of Ohio, research based on comparing ancient depictions of gladiatorial combat with medieval treatises of arms, suggested that the fighters were highly trained and supervised by referees. He and others have argued that most of the time gladiators did not die, or even suffer incapacitating wounds. They were too expensive and popular for that.

I'd be very interested to hear what Prof. Tuck has to say about the new archaeological evidence.

A new era of knowledge?

Toronto's Globe and Mail has this interesting article on how you can tap into the collective wisdom of interconnected humanity.