Friday, June 30, 2006

One of those myths about early history

I am currently rereading Vernon O. Egger's A History of the Muslim World to 1405, which is one of the assigned texts for my upcoming class on the History of Islamic Civilization. Once again I am impressed. At least half the book is devoted to things that even most historians haven't heard of, like the Oghuz Turks. Yet Egger manages to keep the material under control and put across why this stuff matters.

This has led me to reflect on one of the great myths of early history, especially prevelant among people who don't study it, but one that sucks in people who do, too: the idea that before the train, the steamship, or the airplane, people were a lot more immobile than they are today. This idea is in a literal sense true, but incredibly deceptive in the image it gives us of the real past. Because even if presidents couldn't fly to Baghdad and back in the course of a day or so to make a political appearance, and even if ordinary people couldn't drive from North Bay to Toronto in half a day, both personal and public business stretched over large areas, and politics and war moved far and fast across the map, about as often as not.

Of course many know of the huge movements of the Mongols and the empires they created, but these are treated as tremendous exceptions when in fact they happen all the time, if maybe not quite on that scale. For instance, the migrations and campaigns of the obscure-to-most-of-us Oghuz Turks all across central and southwestern Asia, from the Aral Sea to the Aegean in the course of the late 11th century look phenomenal. It was one of the factors that turned Anatolia, known as the heartland of the Roman Empire in 1000, into what we call Turkey today. Impressive and exotic, yes? But at the same time a rather obscure group known as "the Normans" were conquering England, southern Italy, Sicily, parts of North Africa, and preparing to take part in further infiltration into Ireland and Scotland. Oh, yes and don't forget their key role in the First Crusade, a successful conquest of Palestine.

Indeed, the movers and shakers of the world routinely are aware of things that take place far away, and have political and economic interests in remote locations. And often travel there to promote their interests, often with an army or navy behind them.

Think about Richard Lionheart, French-speaking, Norman-descended, Poitevin-at-heart King of England and his willingness to drop everything in the west and run off to Jerusalem, intervening in Sicily and conquering Cyprus on the way. Pretty exotic -- except that it happens all the time.

Monday, June 26, 2006

How legends begin: Romeo and Juliet and Francis of Assisi

I'm subscribed to a long-established and valuable e-mail list called MEDIEV-L. It's not all serious stuff there -- in fact, some think that there is too much discussion of, for instance, movies set in the Middle Ages and how bad they are.

Today, however a story on the subject of guides and the tales they tell really caught my fancy.
Gotthard von Manteuffel tells the story:

As a student in Italy in the 60s, I tried to make some money as guide (I had to pass a pretty stiff exam to do it), but the stories I collected then were all of funny questions by tourists. On the steep side ("Tarpeian Rock") of the Roman Campidoglio [or Capitoline] Hill there are (were ?) two cages for animals, who are supposed to have some symbolic connection with this place : One with an old bedraggled eagle and one with some mangy wolves. An American lady asked "Are these the actual descendants of the wolves, who tore Romeo and Juliet to pieces in the Colosseum ?" A quick-witted girl-colleague answered "Yes. But they repented and kissed the hand of St. Francis of Asissi afterwards !"
If you ever wondered how odd stories start...

Thanks to Gotthard for permission to retell this one.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Don't leave your unique Anglo-Saxon sword in a suitcase until you die...

...or it might end up in a dumpster, as this article in the Telegraph (again thanks to Explorator) demonstrates.

Unfortunately, the article does not say why this sword is unique in construction. Maybe there will be more news forthcoming?

East Anglia -- historical treasure house

No part of the earth is without its historical interest, but we all have our favorites. For my family, East Anglia is a bit special. It's a part of Britain that was extremely important in the Middle Ages but which has been a bit off the beaten track since then. As a result, the medieval landscape and the buildings of East Anglia are well-preserved.

Today Explorator has a link to an East Anglian tourist site that concerns Roman remains. It's an interview with one Andrew McCloy, co-author with Andrew Midgley of Exploring Roman Britain, a book which, like many others over the years, tells you how to experience the British landscape by walking the ancient roads and paths that cross it. The interview and the pictures with it are so good I'll just let you have your own look and not try to summarize.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Women run for office in Kuwait

After years of demonstrations and agitation (one demo of 2005 is shown above), women are not only voting in the June 29th election in Kuwait, but running for parliament. (Correction: women who are Kuwaiti citizens are voting; all those guest workers, male and female who make the place run, still have no political rights.)

Interestingly, Kuwait is hardly alone in the Middle East in granting female suffrage. Today's Globe and Mail not only has an article on Kuwaiti developments, but a summary of female political rights in other countries in the region.

Whether elections mean anything is a different matter, but that concern isn't restricted to any single country, region or culture.

For more on female suffrage, you might want to look at -- I don't know what! The Globe and Mail used Freedom House information, but it's not easy to find there. You'd think there would be a good, reliable summary somewhere on the Web, but I'm having trouble finding one. I don't trust this. The idea that women had the right to run for office in the USA by virtue of the Constitution in 1788 strikes me as a particularly ahistorical one.

Any help appreciated.

Freedom House, I note, has an interesting new publication, available online, called How Freedom is Won: From Civic Struggle to Durable Democracy (a PDF file). Summary: it's not just elections. But then, Tom Paine said that.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Afghanistan again

In the upcoming fall and winter terms, in my History of Islamic Civilization course, I will certainly be discussing Afghanistan, including the most recent events. Given that, I feel an obligation to students in that course and other faithful readers to point out a statement by Afghan President Karzai (above), taken from the Associated Press via CBS News:
"It is not acceptable for us that in all this fighting, Afghans are dying. In the last three to four weeks, 500 to 600 Afghans were killed. (Even) if they are Taliban, they are sons of this land," a clearly frustrated Karzai told reporters in Kabul.
Then go back and read my post from May 26.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

And you thought the Middle Ages were over

Paul Halsall, the scholar who put together the Internet Medieval Sourcebook (and a number of other sourcebooks online), has drawn attention in his English Eclectic blog to a Nike ad (which you can see in a number of places, such as the Sun Online, but which I cannot duplicate here); it features Wayne Rooney, England's striker in the ongoing World Cup.

The ad shows Rooney in a cross-like pose, daubed with a cross in blood-red.

This is the cross usually called "the Cross of St. George" and represents England when taken separately from the rest of Great Britain or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (The Union flag or Union Jack is a British symbol, not an English one; the various British countries compete separately in international football (soccer)).

As Paul Halsall points out in his blog, the Cross is actually not George's, but Christ's "Cross of the Resurrection," which George carries as Christ's champion. So this is a real "crusading" symbol in the literal sense of the term. Christ himself is shown with the banner in a variety of paintings, such as this one by Piero de la Francesca that Halsall cites.

Further, St. George can't be claimed as a unique English figure. For one thing, he was a late Roman figure from the eastern part of the Roman Empire in the 3rd cenury. The story goes that he was a soldier who defied the emperor Diocletian when the latter, a pagan, was purging his army of Christians. George was killed as a martyr.

During the later Middle Ages, George became the "soldier's saint" and as a result he became the patron of a number of belligerent communities, including several Italian cities, England and Georgia in the Caucasus. Georgia (called Sakartvelo in the Georgian language) is apparently not named after the saint, but is called that by foreigners from a Persian designation Gurg.

When I see a "coincidence" like that, I suspect a joke or a pun is behind it. I visualize medieval Georgians (who were mainly Christians, and had lots of Muslim neighbors) saying "if those infidels want to call us Gurg, we'll give them George." Nothing is more powerful than a timely smart remark. Look up the origin of "OK" if you don't believe me.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The land of the two rivers is down for the count

Fifteen minutes on the Internet will find you more bad news stories about Iraq than you can bear to read. But this report from the New York Times beats most of them. The war began with the plundering of Iraq's historic treasures and the destruction of historic sites. The political instability is now threatening the land and water itself.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Congratulations to Nipissing University graduates

This past weekend was convocation at NU, and some of you students whom I have spent the last three or four years teaching received your BAs in History.

Congratulations! May you look back at these years as well spent ones.

I'm sorry I couldn't be there, but family obligations pulled me away.

Friday, June 09, 2006

An odd story from Cuban history

I am reading Robert E. Quirks "Fidel Castro" and found this story about a curious incident in the political history of the early 1950s (that's as early as this history gets). It concerns a prominent senator Eduardo "Eddy" Chibas:

"Every Sunday night at eight o'clock Cubans turned their radio dials to CMQ. They wanted to hear Eddy Chibas denounce the Prio goverrnment. It had become the most popular program in the country. During his last broadcast in July 1951 he charged that the minister of education, Aureliano Sanchez Arango, had stolen public funds to build a number of luxurious houses in Guatemala. He promised to give documentary proof in his next program. During the following week charges and countercharges appeared in all the newspapers. Chibas had overreached himself. On August 5, while most Cubans with radios listened attentively, he admitted that he had no evidence. And as the program closed, he cried: "This is my last gunshot to awaken the civic consciousness of the Cuban people!" With that dramatic announcement, he shot himself. He was unaware that, because he had talked past the hour, the microphone had already been disconnected."

Despite early optomistic prognoses, Chibas died 11 days later.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The flag of liberty?

One of the most amazing things I've seen in a historical movie was in the film Amistad. Amistad portrays real court cases of 1839-40 where kidnapped Africans who succeeded in taking control of a slave ship and then landing in the United States were put in the position of justifying their rebellion and proving that they were free people.

Throughout the movie, the British -- who had abolished slavery throughout their empire by this time -- are shown as the good guys, while the Americans are depicted in a distinctly unadmirable light. The amazing scene I alluded to above is near the end of the film when a British naval vessel attacks a slave depot on the coast of Africa. It is preceded by a shot where the Union flag fills the whole screen, and the message is clear.

What amazed me is that any American director (it was Steven Spielberg) would do such a thing. Americans are a very flag-proud people, and that screen-filling shot was no casual gesture.

The contradictions of slavery in a "free America" are usually treated in connection with the immediate lead-up to the Civil War, but they disturbed American policy and conscience in the revolutionary period. American Quakers were among the very first Christians to assert that slavery was wrong (and then actually free their slaves); yet some of the most famous American patriots were slave owners and leaders of societies built on slavery.

This subject has not exactly been neglected by professional scholars, but it's likely to get a lot more attention in the near future, thanks to a new book on the subject by superstar historian Simon Schama, Rough Crossings (here reviewed in the New York Times). I call Schama a superstar because he is smart, treats interesting subjects (the French Revolution, the Dutch contribution to early modern Europe), and writes very, very well. I think it's safe to say that Schama will influence more people's awareness of the issue of slavery in revolutionary America than any recent historian.

Further links of interest: There is a Canadian site on the story of "Black Loyalists," many of whom ended up in Canada. It includes a summary of the role of Guy Carleton, early governor of British Canada, a man who doesn't come up in ordinary discussions of Canadian history (that I've noticed). He's a figure who represents well the interconnections between American, Canadian, Native, and imperial British history, in addition to his role in the issue of slavery.

Also, I've found on the Web one of my favorite documents of the era, a letter to a Massachusetts newspaper by a former slave, Caesar Sarter, written in 1774 to tell his rebellious neighbors that when defending their own liberty they should think of the Africans among them:
Would you desire the preservation of your own liberty? As the first step let the oppressed Africans be liberated; then, and not till then, may you with confidence and consistency of conduct, look to Heaven for a blessing on your endeavours to knock the shackles with which your task masters are hampering you, from your own feet. On the other hand, if you are still determined to harden your hearts, and turn a deaf ear to our complaints, and the calls of God, in your present Calamities; Only be pleased to recollect the miserable end of Pharoah, in Consequence of his refusal to set those at Liberty, whom he had unjustly reduced to cruel servitude.
This was written before the Declaration of Independence. Read the whole letter here (PDF).

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Paine and Common Sense

If I weren't teaching "Chivalry" as a fourth-year seminar, I'd likely be teaching "Democracy and Representative Government in the 18th Century." And if I were, I'd be quoting this profound line from Thomas Paine's Common Sense:

...the plain truth is that it is wholly owing to the constitution of the people, and not to the constitution of the government, that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Alexandria's ancient university

Here's something I missed.

Back in 2004, a Polish-Egyptian joint archaeological campaign dug up what Grzegory Majderek, quoted in the NY Times archive called ''the first material evidence of the existence of academic life in Alexandria.''

Alexandria was one of the greatest cities of the Graeco-Roman world, and the site of a early and prominent "Museum," or temple of all the Muses, divine sponsors of the arts and sciences; associated with the Museum was the great Library for whose destruction so many have been blamed for. The early Ptolemaic (Macedonian) monarchs of Egypt were great patrons of scholarship and Alexandria continued as an intellectual center long after the Romans took over.

As this article in Egypt's Al-Ahram points out, the location of the Library is still a mystery, but something really exciting has recently emerged: a complex of small auditoriums suitable for lectures, associated with a larger theatre/lecture hall that would hold as many people as the all the smaller ones together. The whole complex is interpreted as an academic institution with substantial facilities for lectures and student oratorical presentations.

One of the most interesting things is that this "University of Alexandria" was in this flourishing state after the banning of pagan worship by Christian emperors -- the complex is dated to the fifth through seventh centuries. The seventh-century Persian invasion damaged the baths in the neighborhood and some of the buildings were incorporated in an early cemetary after the Arab conquest.