Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Gapminder from Google

Thanks to Brad de Long, I now know about Gapminder 2006, a graphical representation of development statistics. And now you do too. Good food for thought for would-be world historians.

For my faithful readers

History departments get a lot of free books from publishers in hopes that profs will put them on their reading lists. Sometimes this actually works. Other times the books just pile up.

This month the NU History Department got four copies of the latest edition of a very good book on the European Witch Hunt. The first three readers to contact me via comments to the blog get their names put on a copy, which I will hold for them until September. No, I won't send them anywhere.

Update: They are gone. I am happy to say all three went to NU History students. I've posted your requests as comments so you know who you are.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The secret history of Diego Garcia

I knew about the bases on Diego Garcia, but until I read this article in the Guardian, I didn't know about the deportation.

Spectacular, transient art

On Saturday I was in Ottawa, looking across the Rideau Canal at a group of big top tents where the remarkable circus troupe Cirque de Soleil was performing.

Hearing the music wafting across the canal was as close to a Cirque performance as I've ever been, but I have seen them on TV, and that's been enough to spark some deep thought about history. The first time I watched a Cirque show, I was struck by the fact that every amazing thing they were doing was independent of modern technology. See the picture above for acrobatics accomplished using cloth hangings suspended from a high place; beautiful, skillful, but not high tech. The lighting and amplification of the music was done with electricity, of course, but it could have been done, much less easily, without the modern machinery.

This led me to think -- this could have all been done in the Bronze Age, and who would know? The big difference is that, then, such a show would have bankrupted an entire culture, while our culture can easily afford Cirque de Soleil and much, much else.

Of course, I am not the first person to have such a thought. The highly respected author of historical novels of the classical period, Mary Renault, has written two books about Theseus, legendary king of Athens, and the man who defeated the Minotaur in the Labyrinth: The King Must Die and Bull from the Sea. In the first book, which I have not read, Theseus is shown as a bull-jumper at Minoan Knossos; in the second, he's king of Athens, doing kingly things. At a couple of points in Bull from the Sea, King Theseus runs across another former bull-jumper and as narrator says, roughly, "No one who was not there will ever know what it was like to be a bull-jumper in the court of Minos."

And of course that is true: we don't know what that Bronze Age art at Knossos really represents. Maybe the fact that it absolutely fascinates us is a clue that they did something amazing there, and our legends and stories about Minos and the Minotaur are a pale shadow of an astonishing, shocking, thrilling, if not necessarily admirable reality.

There is some connection to my scholarly work. I've written two books on chivalric deeds of arms, and one thing that is quite remarkable is that jousts, tournaments, trials by combat and chivalric challenges were really important to those who took part. For centuries they were a key part of social life, and a symbol of noble status, both for individuals who took part and for communities which sponsored and witnessed them. However, if you want to know exactly what it was like to take part, it's not so easy to find out. Factual accounts of deeds of arms (as opposed to fictional ones) are pretty rare.

No one who was not there will ever know what it was like to be a jouster at the court of King Arthur -- or, rather, Edward III.

More relevant material in my books Jousts and Tournaments and Deeds of Arms, and at my website Deeds of Arms.

War in the 21st century

Once again, I touch on current events. This morning a quick look at Google News Canada and the Washington Post provided three examples of war in the 21st century. Students who will be in my History of the Modern World or History of Islamic Civilization should consider these articles as background reading. They show how easy it is for modern military forces, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and East Timor, to destroy public order, or civil society if you will, resulting in the chaotic impoverishment of a whole society. And the chaos is long term. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with its widespread destruction and huge refugee movements, took place in December, 1979; the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, in 1975.

Friday, May 26, 2006

History repeats itself in Afghanistan

I try to stay a certain distance from current political issues, but I would like my readers to have access to this report from the Asia Times by Syed Saleem Shahzad, which rather confirms my own suspicions; namely, that sooner rather than later Afghan distaste for foreign occupation will outweigh distaste for the Taliban and the NATO mission will be in an impossible situation.

Notions that foreign allies of one Afghan faction can help it incrementally build a stable regime are completely unsupported by the history of interventions in Afghanistan. The Afghans are far too independent for that.

A short account of the 1842 British disaster in Afghanistan, apparently originally from the San Francisco Chronicle, is here.

The best source for Afghan news on a daily basis is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which despite its origins as an American voice in Cold War Europe, has more real Afghan news than any other media outlet I know -- it goes well beyond the latest NATO casualty. You can subscribe by e-mail to regular reports on a variety of topics. This is stuff you won't find anywhere else.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

World history and world languages

Two related sites that are too good to pass up, and serendipitously (see map above, Serendip's right there), they fit in nicely with today's theme of "what world history means to me."

In the post below I talked briefly about big patterns that are sometimes hard to see. Another important aspect of world history is taking the whole world and all the people in it equally seriously. That doesn't mean "everyone is as good as everyone else" (whatever that might mean), but that no one is dismissed out of hand.

The scholarly tradition I grew up in privileges European and neo-European history above all other history. In Canada, Canadian, American and European history dominate the curriculum and many other areas are hardly taught, even to History majors in big universities with great History departments. When I launched a course in the History of Islamic Civilization in the early 1990s, there were really no comparable courses in any History department in the entire province of Ontario. (It would be interesting to know how many there are now.) And I have to say that my course is just a survey put together by someone with no Middle Eastern, South Asian, or Southeast Asian languages.

This lack of non-European, non-neo-European history really is not good enough.

The cure? It would be nice if there were more tools and reference works that look at the whole world from one angle or another. Like

Ethnologue: Languages of the World:An encyclopedic reference work cataloging all of the world’s 6,912 known living languages

a lovely site where you can look up "Geez" and find out that it is the "Official liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Ancient language of the Aksumites." (This is actually an extinct language, which shows you that Ethnologue is more comprehensive than it seems from its own description.)

The site also tells us that Canada has 15,000 Latvian speakers and 5,000 Assyrian Neo-Aramaic speakers.

Once you are done reveling in this material you can then go to the Global Mapping International site to see Dr. Stephen Huffman's gorgeous and detailed World Language maps. For all you graphic learners.

Now that we've got the tools, we just need a willingness to use them.

Planet of Slums

I am teaching introductory world history in the fall. What is world history? Just a summary of everything that has happened?

Maybe it is more useful to look at world history as an attempt to discern big patterns that affect or have affected all of humanity. Sometimes these patterns are so big that they are hard to see. One of my favorites is the spread of addictive or semi-addictive substances around the world: not just "drugs" like opium, but "drugs" like coffee and refined sugar. Over the centuries, millions have died in slave camps to provide sugar to the world, and life on a coffee plantation is probably not a barrel of laughs either.

The book featured today I've not actually read yet, but it seems to attempt to analyze a big pattern that has developed recently, in which a "large minority" of the planet's population lives in huge slums in the shadow of luxurious "modern" cities inhabited by the favored few. Mike Davis, the author of Planet of Slums, discusses his ideas in a two-part interview (I) (II) with Tom Engelhardt at his thoughful site, Englehardt's site is always good for providing an unusually penetrating view of current events, but you'd better have high tolerance for bad news if you are going to read it regularly.

Friday, May 19, 2006

We're all cousins

There's a lot of nonsense about "race" out there. I've long known it was nonsense, but I've never seen it explained so clearly as by Steve Olson in the LA Times, in an article with what some might consider the provocative title, "We're all Jesus' children."

As the subtitle puts it: "The DaVinci Code got its genealogy wrong. If anyone's descended from Jesus, it's all of us."

The Flores Island "hobbit" debate continues

This is really an "early history" topic.

Many readers probably remember the news of the discovery of fossils of very small humans or near-humans on the Indonesian island of Flores. Just in time to coincide with the cinematic Lord of the Rings, scholars revealed evidence that a mere 18,000 years ago (no time at all in the timescales appropriate to human evolution) there was a variant human species about the size of hobbits, running around in a rather isolated part of southeast Asia.

A big deal, if true.

There was always an alternative view, that H. floresiensis was not a different brand of humanity, a parallel line to our own ancestor, but simply a group of individuals suffering from the genetic condition of "microcephalia" who ended up in the same place. Well, that position is now getting a wider hearing. Don't expect this debate to end any time soon.

For more, see National Geographic.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Historical novels and historical visualization

An awful lot of what we know about the past -- or think we know-- comes by way of hugely successful historical novels, many of them written in the 19th century and repeatedly made into big budget movies in the 20th and since. Think of Dumas' Three Musketeers and Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, or The Talisman which had a big influence on Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven -- at least, so I'm told.

Are those images accurate? Well, let me tell you the tale of With Fire and Sword, written in the 1880s by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, about the glorious period when Poland in confederation with Lithuania, bestrode Eastern Europe, occupying most of what is now Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. Sienkiewicz himself lived in a period when this same area was occupied by Russia, Austria and Germany, and there was no Polish state or citizenship. With Fire and Sword is set in the 17th century when, if you follow the novel, Poland-Lithuania through shortsightedness in high places lost control of Ukraine, which descended into revolt, invasion, and chaos.

It's meant as a great historical tragedy, and the lost wonders of the Ukranian landscape are a big part of the tale.

Interestingly enough, Sienkiewicz, who lived in Warsaw, had never seen the Ukranian landscape. He reconstructed it for himself and his Polish readers -- most of whom must not have lived in Ukraine either -- on another great, spacious steppe, the American prairies, which he had visited. Thus Sienkiewicz may have seen Ukraine as Poland's "Lost America."

The above image is from the 1999 film version of the book. I wonder where they went to film the sweeping plains and mighty rivers of Ukraine?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Phil Paine on reading Jane Jacobs

Phil Paine discusses the noted New York/Toronto thinker, Jane Jacobs, who died recently, and tells us one of the most important insights he learned from her:
I first read her when I was a young teenager, and one sentence of hers had a profound impact: “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” Remembering this sentence saved me many times from being taken in by the endless waves of fake “rationalism”, pseudo-science, and mysticism masquerading as reason that characterized the century I grew up in.
More at

Monday, May 15, 2006

History Carnival 31 at Airminded, which is usually concerned with history of early British airpower, hosts History Carnival 31 starting today. Go see what's on offer.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The benefits of a liberal arts education

Cruising around the web I ran across a the text, at, of Rebecca Solnit's commencement address for the Department of English at the University of California at Berkeley. Addressing students who were largely born in 1984, she discussed the power of books to change reality:

Books themselves sometimes change the world directly: you can talk about nonfiction like Diderot's Encyclopedia, about the Communist Manifesto, The Origin of Species, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, about an essay that mattered a great deal only a very long time after it was written, Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"...

After a long discussion of books she thinks important, Solnit then ends up with the best part of the speech:

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." The state of the world is always a jumble of opposing ideas, of uprisings and crackdowns, of wonder and horror. Fitzgerald's forgotten next sentence is, "One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

Hopeless is one story, otherwise is another; go tell it on your mountain or internship or wherever you're headed, but never forget that you know how to dismantle stories, how to question them, how to compare and contrast them, and maybe sometimes how to invent or reinvent them. This is vital, since your task as the young being cut loose at this moment of graduation from what we, the old, have to give is to reinvent the universe, the universe made out of stories -- to change the stories, to tell them, to bury them, and to give birth to them. A difficult task, but not an impossible one. Not if you remember, as readers and scholars might, that we are living in an impossible world already.

This is entirely in line with an insight I've had in recent years, as I tried to reconstruct medieval "deeds of arms." What did they actually do in formal combats? I finally came to the conclusion that even those on the spot, watching a given challenge, usually disagreed. What we have, often enough, are the products of their disagreements, the stories they told about the event. We can't witness the event, or reconstruct it very well, but we can hear the stories.

Stories are very, very, important.

The image above on its originating site at the Technical University of Berlin, is very large. Click on it and have a look at the 7 artes liberales.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Canadian Census -- Help future historians!

If you are subject to the Canadian census being taken this month, historians both professional and amateur are urging you to answer "yes" to question 53:

53. The Statistics Act guarantees the confidentiality of your census information. Only if you mark "YES" to this question will your personal information be made public, 92 years after the 2006 Census. If you mark "NO" or leave the answer blank, your personal information will never be made publicly available.

Does this person agree to make his/her 2006 Census information available for public release in 2098 (92 years after the census)?
Much of what we know about 19th century Canada comes out of census returns. Most of it is fairly impersonal stuff, like age, place of birth, occupation. Until recently nobody could see how the release of century-old data would hurt anyone, but there has been a controversy over the release of early 20th-century data. Thus this question.

If you answer "no" you will be contributing to the historical blindness of future generations. A systematic source compiled at great expense will be unavailable, unless legal doctrines change.

This idea of confidentiality forever strikes me as absurd. Think how much credit bureaus know about you right now. Or Google. Yes, especially Google.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Geoffroi de Charny speaks!

Not a lot of medieval knights wrote books. One of those who did was Geoffroi de Charny, who fought in the first phase of the Hundred Years War and died at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356.

Charny was an unusual character. For one thing, he was the first recorded owner of the Shroud of Turin. (Above you will see a picture of the church at Lirey in France that Charny originally built to house the Shroud.) For another, he wrote not one but three books touching on chivalry. One of them, a down-to-earth consideration of the rules for peaceful and warlike chivalric deeds, I partially translated in my book Jousts and Tournaments. A more important work, The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny, has been edited by Richard Kaeuper and translated by Elspeth Kennedy. There is a cheaper edition with less scholarly apparatus under the title A Knight's Own Book of Chivalry.

That's a very good title, actually. Charny, who had a very active military career, was recruited by the king of France, Jean II, to write about chivalry for the king's own knightly order, the Order of the Star. When he did so, he just let it rip. It is unlikely that Charny picked up a pen and wrote the books himself. He likely dictated to a secretary. The Book of Chivalry in particular, if read aloud, gives you the sense, accurate or not, that this is what he really was like when he held forth about important subjects among "men of worth."

You can imagine this man as your commander on the battlefield very easily when you read stuff like this: one should be dismayed at the thought of undertaking great deeds, for the above-mentioned men of standing tell us truly that those who have the will to achieve great worth are already on the way to great achievement. And they speak the truth, for because of their great desire to reach and attain that high honor, they do not care what sufferings they have to endure, but turn everything into great enjoyment. Indeed, it is a fine thing to perform great deeds, for those who rise to great achievement cannot rightly grow tired or sated with it; so the more they achieve, the less they feel they have achieved; this stems from the delight they take in striving constantly to reach greater heights. And great good comes from performing these deeds, for the more that one does, the less is one proud of oneself, and it always seems that there is so much left to do.
Inspiring? I think that this has something to say even to those not very impressed by knights and chivalry, not to mention war...

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Monday, May 08, 2006

On-line source material for the Chivalry Seminar

I am still putting together material for my Chivalry Seminar (HIST 4505, Topics in Medieval History). Here are some collections of source material available on line, some of which will be used in that course, starting in September.

First, courtesy of De Re Militari, a scholarly association for those interested in medieval warfare, there is an extensive collection of Primary Sources on Warfare in the Middle Ages. Wow! Someone just directed me to this today, and I'm astonished by how much there is.
It is supplemented by a List of Primary Sources from External Websites, which also looks very, very big.

Not listed on either of those sites are some collections that I have put together. One of them is Tales from Froissart, which makes available excerpts from the late 14th century chronicler of chivalry, Jean Froissart. He was quite a famous man in the 19th century and had a lot of influence on Walter Scott, perhaps the most important modern interpreter of chivalry. Froissart was also prominent in his own time -- read some of his stories and see why.

I also have two sites on what I call "formal deeds of arms," as practiced in the 14th century. Deeds of Arms collects descriptions from the chronicles of the time; Deeds of Arms -- From the Archives collects archival documents that shed some light on such chivalric demonstrations.

The illustration above is, by the way, from William Morris, the artist, designer, utopian and great Victorian fan of all things medieval.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Ancient religious debates come back to life

Sometimes it seems that nothing ever really goes away.

Explorator 9.2 is out today with its usual goodies. Two things really caught my eye today.

The first was a review in the progressive Jewish newspaper Forward of two books on the role of female deities in ancient Hebrew religion. The more interesting is William G. Dever's Did God Have a Wife?, a survey of the archaeological evidence that Hebrew religion before the Exile to Babylon was not exclusively focused on a single male God, and an argument that such veneration wasn't a foreign element in Hebraic religion, but indigenous.

The paper gives a hint as to the contemporary relevance of such debates when it notes that the reviewer, Jay Michaelson, " will be leading the Nehirim spiritual retreat for GLBT Jews this month."

The illustration above, by the way, is a sculpture by California artist S.R. Kelley, who draws inspiration from Neolithic and Bronze Age art of Europe and the Middle East. It's called Ashera, which is the name of both a mother goddess and a kind of shrine known in Biblical times.

The second Explorator item on the theme of "it just keeps coming back" is from the Guardian, and concerns a court ruling in Greece. On the petition of modern Greek pagans, an Athens court has lifted the ban on the worship of the ancient Greek gods. How long has this ban been in place, you have to wonder? Ever since Theodosius criminalized paganism in the 380s?

Or is this a more modern ban?

Is this the beginning of a new (or old?) era in Greek religion? More from the Guardian:

Vasillis Tsantilas told the Guardian,. "We will petition the Greek parliament, and the EU if that fails, for access to worship in places like the Acropolis, for permission to have our own cemeteries and, where necessary, to re-bury the [ancient] bones of the dead."
Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The real stuff on the Templars

I scoffed a while back at a news item concerning the Templars, who have become a favorite and now well-publicized subject of modern occult thinking and conspiracy theories.

For anyone who wants to get past the modern overlay of Templar mythology, there are some good books out there. Those with access to Nipissing University's collection can get them here.

For those who are adventurous, there is Malcolm Barber and Keith Bates' The Templars : selected sources. It contains a brief historical introduction and dozens of original sources in English translation.

Maybe more readers would be interested in narrative accounts. For you, we also have two other books by Malcolm Barber: The new knighthood : a history of the Order of the Temple, an overall view of the organization till its destruction by Philip IV of France in the 14th century, and The Trial of the Templars, a detailed account of that destruction (so like a Soviet purge). This is history that is both sober and exciting. When your friends start talking about The Da Vinci Code or Holy Blood, Holy Grail, you'll already have the straight facts.

All of Barber's books are still in print and can be ordered on-line.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

C.S. Lewis on medieval literature

In preparation for my seminar on "Chivalry" I am rereading some key articles and book chapters to see how suitable they are for classroom use. One of these articles is the classic (book publication: 1936) essay "Courtly Love" by C.S. Lewis, author of Narnia, other fantasies, and a lot of Christian polemic originally intended for a popular British audience. (Material on Lewis' writings is all over the Web).

The "Courtly Love" essay is at least 70 years old this year, but it's still useful, I think, when supplemented by other more recent discussions. It is, for one thing, amazingly free of academic jargon. There are passages that take the breath away. For instance, I quoted this one for years in a course I used to teach:

It seems to us natural that love should be the commonest theme of serious imaginative literature: but a glance at classical antiquity or at the Dark Ages at once shows us that what we took for 'nature' is really a special state of affairs, which will probably have an end, and which certainly had a beginning in eleventh-century Provence. It seems -- or it seemed to us till lately -- a natural thing that love (under certain conditions) shoud be regarded as a noble and ennobling passion: it is only if we imagine ourselves trying to explain this doctrine to Aristotle, Virgil, St. Paul, or the author of Beowulf, that we become how far from natural it is.
Note the complete lack of jargon here. Also (hey, I'm a historian) how his ideas are grounded not in high-flown theoretical assertions, but in historical examples. If you want to argue with Lewis, you know where to begin. And he shows what can be done with ordinary, everyday words.

It seems to me that not too many scholars today want to be as clear and forthright as Lewis was here. But I'm not nostalgic; I think this kind of writing has always been rare.

I am actually pretty far down the ranks of admirers of Lewis's fiction -- there are now millions of adults who fell in love with Narnia as kids, not to mention the kids who are reading about Narnia now -- but I do appreciate the fact that he had a cosmic vision. I grew up a science fiction fan, before it was commonplace, and there is something that Lewis has that a lot of people lack. Look at that quote again and note this:
a special state of affairs, which will probably have an end
Ah, yes, Clive, you got that right.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

History Carnival 30

Can't do better today than to give a link to History Carnival 30 at Clioweb, a collection of links to some of the best in history blogging.

I just noticed that the author of Clioweb, Jeremy Boggs, is less than 3 weeks away from his comprehensive Ph.D. exams, a key hurdle on the way to the ultimate goal of Phddom. Jeremy,

For those of you NOT preparing for your comprehensives, or writing your first book, Clioweb has some links that look worth checking out.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Surviving Garments Database

Faithful readers will remember me mentioning my lecture on medieval re-enactment and re-creation in NU's HIST 2105 at the beginning of April. In that lecture I talked about how re-creation and re-enactment is often inspired by a desire to re-create "stuff," clothing for instance, or armor, or food.

Sometimes serious re-enactors end up with an unusual amount of expertise, because they are motivated to find out things (St. Augustine's underwear) that few serious scholars are interested in.

When you get someone who is both re-enactor and scholar, you sometimes end up with a great synergy.

One such person is the linguist Heather Rose Jones, who has also been sewing medieval clothing for about 30 years. Long ago she figured out that there are a surprising number of surviving garments from medieval and ancient times, but that there is no central reference work to help interested parties find them. So now she has created the Surviving Garments Database. No pictures, but for the serious researcher, a goldmine.

My picture? This is the coronation robe of King Roger II of Sicily, who ruled in the 12th century. He was of Norman background, but his new kingdom (which included much of the "boot" of Italy) had a significant Islamic population. Islamic influence is given credit for the use of symbols here: a palm tree showing prosperity, and lions savagely pulling down camels, which might also mean prosperity to some people at the time. Click on the image to get a really good view.