Sunday, April 30, 2006


Those moments in history we keep returning to

There are some times and places in history where the drama is so palpable, and the issues so compelling, that serious people return to them again and again, hoping to learn something vital from them.

One of those times is democratic Athens in antiquity. The great crisis of the Peloponnesian War is a favorite in any time of crisis where issues of war and democracy occur together. In yesterday's Guardian the historian Mary Beard opines that "the glorious myth of ancient Athens is a poor model for re-creating the virtues of government in the 21st century."

On the other hand, I'm sure that she would agree that just about anyone seriously interested in war, democracy, or history would benefit from reading Thucydides' near contemporary account of the Peloponnesian War. And throw in some plays by Aristophanes while you are at it.

Another classic subject is the French Revolution. The number of books written about it is uncountable. Two are worth mentioning: Simon Schama's Citizens (original cover above), which you can easily order from your favorite bookseller; and the much older but still compelling two-volume set by R.R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution. Both of these are incredibly well-written, and both were produced by great historians in command of a vast amount of material. Palmer's book is about more than the French Revolution, in fact. Its whole point is that the revolutionary movement swept the entire Atlantic world.

Both are in the NU collection.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

For students in HIST 4505 (2006-7): Chivalry seminar

Starting in September, I will be teaching Nipissing University's HIST 4505, which our calendar calls "Topics in Medieval History." Not a very helpful description, is it?

For the benefit of any of my students who stop by here: the subject will be "Chivalry." It's a big subject, especially if you bring in all the various points of view: what poets, chroniclers, preachers, and knights themselves said chivalry was, or should be.

I am in the process of putting together a course outline, a course reader, and a web-page. In the meantime, here's a pre-course reading list for any of you who might be really enthusiastic. It's taken right off the NU library catalogue, and it's just a sample; there is plenty more where that came from. Read one of these, and you have a good head-start; read a second one and you are really off to the races.

Students often associate History with the D section of the Library of Congress classification (or E or F if they study the Western Hemisphere). Note how few of these books are in "D." Lots of fabulous books lurk in B, C, J, H, and U.

CR4529.E85 K33 1999
Chivalry and violence in medieval Europe / Richard W. Kaeuper.

DC33.2 .B59 1998
Strong of body, brave and noble : chivalry and society in medieval France / Constance Brittain Bouchard.

CR4513 .K44 1984
Chivalry / Maurice Keen.

CR4529.F8 P3
French chivalry : chivalric ideas and practices in mediaeval France / by Sidney Painter.

CR4509 .B37 1974
Knight and chivalry / Richard Barber.

CR4553 .H84 2005
Deeds of arms : formal combats in the late fourteenth century / Steven Muhlberger.

DC96.5 .W75 2000
Knights and peasants : the Hundred Years War in the French countryside / Nicholas Wright.

HN11 .D7813 1980
The chivalrous society / Georges Duby ; translated by Cynthia Postan.

DA185 .C64 1996
The knight in medieval England, 1000-1400 / Peter Coss.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Continuing into the summer

All sorts of things have prevented me from blogging since the 22nd, including my computer blowing up. But I do intend to keep this up over the spring and summer.

Today's snippet comes via Explorator from the usually rather shallow USA Today. It's about the use of computer animation and other infotech to study ancient civilization. Somebody will say, "wow, ironic," but scholars of the past have often been on the cutting edge this way. It's practically the price of doing business. After all, if you can only see or analyze as well as the ordinary person on the street, you are -- in the case of archaeology -- going to be reduced to saying, "yeah, looks like a hill, looks like a dusty plain."

The article links to an upcoming game Discover Babylon created by real archaeologists, but I can't make it work. Maybe you will have better luck.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Egypt the treasure house

Grading papers for Ancient Civilization today, I read a lot of short descriptions of Cleopatra and the Second Triumvirate, and it occurred to me that maybe I should have said a bit more about the importance of the competition between Antony and Octavian for the great prize of Egypt, about how much Octavian/Augustus relied on it for funding his regime, and how right up till the end of the period we studied Egypt continued to be a treasure house, feeding for instance Constantine's New Rome.

Since I can't go back and say those things, I say them here. Looking over all those short identification "gobbets" (as they say in England) reminded me of those things.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Unknown to readers of Arabic

There is a lot of facile blather about the globalization of culture, but real divisions remain. Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan, is concerned that many American classic writers -- like Benjamin Franklin, above -- are simply unavailable in Arabic. Few translations have been made, and those few are extremely difficult to find. Sure, speakers of Arabic who know English or French have more options -- though one wonders how available texts are even for them. Millions of educated Arabs who know only their own language have no access to what many people would think are essential works.

Cole thinks this is appalling, and it is even more appalling that official American efforts to promote the best of American culture have been cut back over the past decade or so. He's trying to do something about it.

This leads me to reflect more generally on the notion of access to classic writings in other cultures, or classic writings in the more-familiar past. How much better off than these mono-lingual Arabs are most of us who read English? Read any Ben Franklin lately?

Think about English-speaking Canadians, who live right next door to the USA and have near-instant access to American material. Wouldn't you guess that the most influential material on our view of the USA is in video form? Movies, music videos, TV shows, TV news? The last being a particularly inadequate representation of reality?

It's worth thinking about what people really know, but it's not easy to come up with conclusions.

In the meantime, you might yourself consider reading some good Arabic, Japanese, French, Brazilian or American material. Small as Nipissing University's library looks in comparison to bigger scholarly collections, it contains more good stuff than any one person is likely to read. This, for instance.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Richard Cromwell

One person who often showed up on the Early Modern Europe exam was Richard Cromwell; he logically was cited by people who were writing on the Declaration of Breda. Richard. was the son and successor of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of England. He had no particular qualifications for the job and was soon forced out and/or quit. I always thought he was just realistic enough to know when to go, but this BBC site rather emphasizes that he tried holding onto power for quite a while against serious opposition.

I always wondered what an ex-Lord Protector did with himself. The answer: he ran off to Paris dodging his debtors and any further political trouble. He lived there and in Geneva until 1680 and then returned to England to "live quietly" for another 32 years.

Olympe de Gouges

On the final exam for Early Modern Europe, I misspelled the name of Olympe de Gouges, the feminist writer at the time of the French Revolution. So I thought I'd take this opportunity to spell it right.

The picture above is from a poster for a 2002 conference about her in Taipei.

There is no single really good site about Olympe de Gouges. This one at Middlesex University has both French text and English translation of The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. The Wikipedia article states that de Gouges was executed for writing a critique of revolutionary France from the point of view of an "aerial voyager," presumably a balloonist. Hot-air balloons were then symbols of the utmost modernity and they were a French invention.

Gospel of Judas --- this is what it looks like

This is from the National Geographic "Lost Gospel" site. Thanks to Al-Ahram (Egypt) for the alert.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Further adventures in electoral democracy

Here's a picture of the swing district in the recent Italian election.

In recent years, the government of outgoing Italian PM Sylvio Berlusconi introduced a measure allowing people of Italian descent to vote in Italian elections. The theory behind it, if you can call it that, was that anyone who could prove descent from Italians in the male line should be represented in parliament.

The election turned out to be so close that the electors in "North and Central America," many of whom have a rather tenuous connection with Italy, helped determine the result; which went against the people who introduced the measure.

Bet they didn't expect that!

It will be interesting to see whether overseas representation of people who are Italians by male descent survives this event. Or whether there is a big push for Italians by female or mixed descent to get equivalent privilege.

More on this from Toronto's Globe and Mail.

War of Jenkins' Ear

Thanks to the students in Early Modern Europe who have taught me the fact that Robert Jenkins' ship was named the Rebecca. (No, that's not really the Rebecca above.)

For those of you who don't know the War of Jenkins' Ear, the Web is open for business, even on Easter Weekend. Here's a cartoon of the shocking moment when Walpole, the PM, was confronted with the fabled ear.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Bosnian pyramids?

In various places around the Web you can read about this hill, which may or may not be the first ancient pyramid found in Europe. Here's a post from Dino Avdibeg's blog Unjournaled with some older links.

Ever notice how once people figure out how to make tall buildings with straight sides, they stop making fake hills?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Proclamation of the "General Command of the Armed Forces"

This is current, but in a little less than a year, I'll want to use this proclamation in my History of Islamic Civilization course as an illustration of Arab nationalism in Iraq (English translation below the Arabic).

It will be interesting, to say the least, to look back on this from that unknown future situation.

It's quite possible that this proclamation is a complete fantasy, but the language is interesting nonetheless.

Monday, April 10, 2006

More baloney on the Knights Templar

I'm on a scholarly mailing list of medieval historians and enthusiasts, and they've already been outraged or saddened by a Daily Telegraph article entitled "First Knights Templar are discovered," which seems to imply that there has never before this archaeological discovery in Israel been any real evidence, or perhaps physical proof, that the Knights Templar ever existed.

There have been a lot of bizarre stories told about the Knights Templar since the French King Philip IV ("the Fair") set out to destroy them in the 1310s. But the order is perfectly historical, whatever myths have grown up since.

There are so many amateur sites on the KT on the web that it's hard to sort through them. The old (early 20th c.) Catholic Encyclopedia entry seems to be OK.

Update: The scholar leading this dig, Dr Thomas Asbridge (Senior Lecturer in Medieval History Queen Mary, University of London) responds to another blog, making clear that whatever the Daily Telegraph may have done, he's a legitimate scholar. This was always my impression and nothing in this weblog should be taken as a criticism of Dr. Asbridge, who was only trying to make his work available to the public.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Stitch-counting and sacred history at Selma

Last Friday I talked about historical re-creation and re-enactment in HIST 2105. I discussed the elusive concept of "authenticity," which can mean different things to different people.

One kind of "authenticity" concerns getting the artifacts -- clothes, weapons, accessories -- just right. How "right" is "right enough?" That's where the arguments begin.

According to an article in today's LA Times
arguments of this sort may have killed off Alabama's most prominent Civil War re-enactment, in Selma. In 1995, they had 2,000 re-enactors on the field. This year, fewer than 200 were interested, and the battle's been cancelled. Why no interest?

"It was getting to the point where we weren't exactly welcomed with open arms," said Roger Brothers, captain of the 62nd Alabama unit, who decided to skip this year's battle for the first time in 18 years. He will travel more than 200 miles to another reenactment, in Kennesaw, Ga.

"The stitch-counters had taken over," he said. "If you didn't have what they considered to be the sufficient authentic kit, they looked down their noses at you."
But there's another factor as well. I said in class that US Civil War re-enactment is a kind of celebration of sacred history. Large-scale events of this sort are inspired by the most important turning point in a community's history -- that's why people put their energy and creativity into them.

In Selma, the most important battle for the community probably isn't the battle of April 2, 1865. The town is now 69% African-American and they remember more keenly the attack of state troopers on a civil rights march that took place on March 7, 1965 (above).

They don't do re-enactments, but they are getting a $500,000+ interpretive center.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Knighthood in flower in Spilsby, Lincolnshire

Here I am, writing an article on 14th century chivalry, thinking about the seminar on chivalry I will be teaching next fall, and I run across an article in the Times of London about Spilsby (above) and its successful (so far) program to reduce youth crime by teaching a class on chivalry to 6 to 8 year-olds. More details here.

Friday, April 07, 2006

NU Students: International Mentors wanted

Nipissing University is interested in recruiting mentors for international students during the upcoming academic year. If you are interested, more information and an application (due the 14th) are here.

Democracy's Place in World History

My friend and sometime collaborator Phil Paine and I published an article with this title in the Journal of World History (1993) v. 4, pages 23-45. Phil just discovered that it's now got enough currency to be quoted by politicians: specifically Richard Gephardt, former Democratic Leader in the US House of Representatives in a speech of March, 2005 (PDF). (Also here in a HTML version.) As Phil says, though, Mr. Gephardt seems to have missed the point of the article. Have a look at Phil's comments in his blog at April 4, 2006.

If you are interested in what Phil and I have said about democracy, have a look at the various essays at our site, World History of Democracy. The book referred to at the site has stalled, as both of us have significant responsibilities distracting us. Nevertheless, some of that material may be of use. Anyone who wants a thought-provoking summary of the history of democracy that doesn't start or end with either the American or French Revolutions should have a look at John Markoff's Waves of Democracy: Social Movements and Political Change. Pine Forge Press, 1996. I'm also fond of Robert A. Dahl's Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Significance of the Gospel of Judas

Now I am not an expert on early Christian literature, but as a former expert on another aspect of Late Antiquity, I've read far more about early Christianity than most people.

Coming from that standpoint, I find that most of today's news items on the Gospel of Judas to be very deceptive.

I don't think this tells us a thing about Judas.

It is a 2nd century text, written long after the four better-known Gospels, that is useful primarily to illuminate debates among 2nd century Christians about the nature of Jesus and the meaning of his message.

More on the Gospel of Judas

If you read the news, you may already have seen this: the National Geographic Society has "unveiled" the text of the recovered Gospel of Judas. There is a long piece, with an interview with the writer of a book on the text and its discovery, at National Public Radio's site.

Also, some useful links at the site.

Here is what Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, said around 180 AD about the beliefs of the Cainites who supposedly originated the Gospel (Against all Heresies, Book 1, chapter 31, section 1) :

Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.
I got this translation from the Gnostic Society Library, who have posted this translation, presumably from the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection (now public domain).

Irenaeus was a great ideological warrior and there's no obligation on us to believe everything he said about the "Cainites," but what he says about the Gospel of Judas seems to be consistent with the newly discovered text (which is a Coptic or Egyptian version of a Greek original).

P.S. The hostility to the Creator evident in the excerpt above could use some explanation. Some early Christian groups saw the Creator of the physical world as the enemy of everything spiritual, including Jesus and His true followers.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Your occasional off-topic comment

Deep in the heart of Texas, somebody speaks sense:

"We have a lot of different points of view on the University of Texas at Austin campus. And we certainly support our faculty in saying what they think," said Don Hale, a spokesman for the University of Texas.

"They have the right to express their point of view," he said. "But they're expressing their personal point of view."

If you are curious as to what this is about see this article at the CBC news site.

Christian emperor and Christian empress

Following up from today's lecture in Ancient Civilizations, here are both Justinian and Theodora from the mosaics in Ravenna, Italy. Click on the images for larger, clearer versions.

A David portrait of 1799

What does this tell us about the French Revolution? (1799 is the year Napoleon became effectively dictator.)

Monday, April 03, 2006

Histories of the Near North Conference -- an account

Here's a media account from

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Ancient Civilizations -- the last two lectures

There are no online lecture notes for the last two lectures in Ancient Civilizations. That's because I have written an entire Overview of Late Antiquity, which has been published on the web for the last decade. Class members who want to prepare for lecture should have a look here. The relevant chapters for the upcoming class meetings are chapters 2 and 3, but there's more if you get interested.

The silly illustration is the label of beer made by the Milton Brewery, a British company that makes an "Imperator" range of beers. They claim that this particular beer won a big prize in 2002:

Considering who it's named after, perhaps we should be skeptical. After all, the picture they use is of a broken colossal statue of Constantine made at C's own orders, a statue 8 feet tall. Big talk of being "supreme champion" has always been part of the imperial bag of tricks.

On the other hand if Milton wants to send me a sample, I'm more than willing to give it a fair try.

David's Oath of the Tennis Court

A student in the Early Modern Europe class knows more about this painting than I do , having studied it in Art History, and kindly corrects some of the statements I made about it (click it to see it larger).

For the benefit of the rest of the class I post part of her e-mail, with permission.
The central figure in the drawing is in fact the Assembly President Jean-Sylvestre Bailly, not Sieyes as you thought. You are correct in saying that the men below represent the creation of a new order. These men are three ecclesiastics, and members of the Third Estate, who joined the revolution. From left to right they are: A Carthusian Monk named Dom Gerle, who was not present at the original gathering, Abbe Gregorie and Rabaut Saint-Etienne. They stand for the regular and secular clergy and the Protestant Church. In addition, right of Bailly is Robespierre.

The people above the assembly are the witnesses of this event. As well, the drawing is littered with Freemasonry symbols, of which David was a member. As you may know Freemasonry helped spread the liberal ideas fueled by the revolution. Common imagery used in revolutionary art was the all-seeing eye (representing vigilance) and the square or level (representing equality).

You mentioned how this drawing is reminiscent of David's Oath of the Horatii, yes this is true, he saw this drawing as an expansion on ideas expressed in the Horatii; the heroes in the Horatii are represented in a modern context as the deputies present at the assembly.
Thanks, the correction is very much appreciated! Further reading, from the same correspondent:
Lee, Simon. David. London, England: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1999.
I'm fascinated by David and am glad to have the reference.

Histories of the Near North Conference continues

Today I was at the first session of the community history conference and enjoyed myself immensely. Tomorrow (Sunday April 2) the conference continues @discoverynorthbay, the old CPR station at the foot of Ferguson Street. Parking's free on the weekend, as is the conference itself. Remember that the clock "springs forward" tonight. Here's a link to the schedule.