Friday, September 29, 2006

Der Spiegel on Afghanistan

Here's a German view of the situation in Afghanistan. It's not very cheery.

Guan Yu and the Canadian undergraduate

Students in HIST 1505 already know this, but I thought others would be interested.

On Thursday I was talking about the difference between offically sponsored religious cults and local cults in Ming China. Our textbook referred to the example of Guan Yu, a legendary warrior and Buddhist saint who was honored in both ways, officially and unofficially, with the difference being that even the imperial officials thought the unofficial cult was more worthy of support. I threw in the fact, which I'd learned by exploiting my subtle research skills (Google!) that Guan Yu went on to be the hero of a famous romance novel, then operas, and in recent times, video games.

And sure enough, several students had played some of those games and knew old Guan Yu well.

Good thing we started this World History survey a few years back, or we'd be seriously behind our students...

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Zheng He in the People's Republic

Thanks to a correspondent on the H-World list, I've been alerted to an article in the Independent about the use of Zheng He in China "as a symbol of emerging modern China's peaceful rise." There is a replica ship being built for display at the 2008 Olympics.

Unfortunately the Independent article (of 15 September) has already gone behind a money-wall. If you are interested, though, keep an eye out -- it will pop up somewhere else.
For instance, see this World Security Network post reprinted from the International Herald Tribune.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Zheng He

Students in HIST 1505 -- History of the Modern World -- who today heard about Zheng He's voyages in the Indian Ocean might want to look at this older post. It's one of the ones that gets the most hits from outside readers.

The War in Context

I've just discovered a site called The War in Context, a collection of up-to-date news and analysis from a variety of sources.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Current problems in the history of democracy

I have a long-standing interest in the history of democracy as a world phenomenon. What I've written on this subject has been done in collaboration with Phil Paine.

Recently Phil has been writing in his blog about the coup in Thailand. Thailand, he points out, is a pretty important country with a lot of potential and a lot of problems. After reading various news sources and corresponding with people from Thailand, he has concluded:

The fact that Prime Minister Thaksin just happened to be the richest man in the country makes it plain that his regime was "democratic" in name only. That is not what happens in genuine democracies. It is clearly no real loss to the world democratic movement that he has been ousted, even though the precedent of military action is extremely damaging. But Thailand is still left in the position of having no real democratic infrastructure.
What is a democratic infrastructure? It is local democratic institutions well-integrated with higher levels of government:

In a functioning democracy, a head of state gets into their role by working their way through layers of public service, until they have proven themself responsible to larger and larger electorates. The most successful national democracies were built on foundations of democratic process on the local level.

Thai democracy, says Phil, was a "shell" or "mock" democracy, because no such process produced the regime of Prime Minister Thaksin.

Phil then makes this further point:

The existence of such shell democracies or mock democracies is more of a hindrance to evolving functioning democracies than outright dictatorship. With a crude dictatorship, the problem and the alternative are clear. With shell democracies, ordinary people are left with the impression that this kind of "big man" autocracy is what the word "democracy" is supposed to mean, and so the idea of democracy itself falls into disrepute.

Speaking of things that throw democracy into disrepute, what can one say about the current situation in the United States, a country that likes to think of itself as the foremost champion of democracy? Congress, under a great deal of pressure from the White House, seems set to pass a bill not only legitimating torture, but abrogating the principle of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is a procedure which says no one can be imprisoned unless a court determines that there is legitimate reason to do so. Although the current bill is being presented as a defense against foreign terrorists, Americans too could be arrested and held indefinitely under its provisions.

I will restrict myself to saying that although English warlords of the 13th century, when writing Magna Carta, keenly appreciated how important the principle and procedure was to their continued freedom, Americans of 2006 seem to be largely oblivious to what is happening, and their elected representatives are going to pass the bill.

This is a major event in the world history of democracy.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Carnivalesque XVIII at Blogenspiel

Another Damned Medievalist offers the latest "Carnivalesque" collection of links to blogs discussing the Middle Ages.

Muhlberger speaks at the Royal Ontario Museum, October 12

Thursday October 12 (Study Week here at NU) I will be in Toronto speaking to the Friends of the Medieval Studies Society of the Royal Ontario Museum.

The talk is entitled "The Moral Economy of the Medieval Deed of Arms," and is scheduled for 7-9 PM. For more information see the ROM's website.

History students -- information on graduate funding

If you are a History student with ambitions toward graduate studies -- or an English Studies student, or a Philosophy student -- you will want to tap into Federal funding.

Fortunately our Research Office is holding two information sessions this week about funding through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS-M).

They are running it on the theory that it's never too early to be informed. They want to talk to all serious students, 1st through 4th year.

There are two sessions, Wed. October 4 (in A 133) and Thu. (in H 108), both 10-11:30 AM.

They will also be talking about funding for the sciences through NSERC on Tues. Oct 3, at 10 (H 108) and 3 (F 214)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Part-time work for History students

Nipissing University has a student work-aid program called NIPWORKS. If you qualify on financial grounds, you can work for such august organizations as the History Department and the NU Institute for Community Studies and Oral History (ICSOH). In fact, those two bodies have positions they can't fill. For more information, contact the History Chair, Dr. Francoise Noel.

War today, again

Back on July 24th, while the most recent war in the Middle East was still raging in Lebanon, I wrote a post called War Today, in which I commented that "certainly non-state actors have done well against superpowers in the last generation."

Another way of looking at this is that big, expensive, technologically sophisticated military establishments have done, and indeed are doing poorly against movements and organizations that the media call, with doubtful accuracy, "militias."

Have a look at this New York Times article about the poor condition of United State Army's Third Infantry Division and ask yourself, what mighty enemy has inflicted this damage?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Lucy's baby: Really, really early history

I must have been pretty busy this week to miss commenting on "Lucy's baby," the most important find relevant to human origins in quite a few years. I always talk about this stuff in connection with HIST 2055, Ancient Civilizations. If this announcement had been made this time last year, it would have been quite a treat to bring it into the classroom.

The find is an almost complete 3-year-old girl child who lived in what's now Ethiopia about 3.3 million years ago, and then was killed and buried by a flash flood in the desert. This flood led to the fossilization of nearly all her bones, producing a very unusual situation for paleontologists: they can actually see the just about the whole structure, not just extrapolate what it might have been.

The girl is being called "Lucy's baby" because the previously most complete human ancestor of the same early species, Australopithecus afarensis, discovered in 1974, was called Lucy by her discoverer. Since Lucy was an adult and the two individuals are of the same species, it clearly felt natural to designate the girl this way, even though she lived many thousand years before Lucy.

I will leave interested readers to look for more details and read on the significance of this find -- it's all out there -- but I will raise an interesting point from the BBC account. Paleontologists found the fossils back in 2000 and have been chipping them out of sandstone ever since. This gives you some idea of how difficult and painstaking is the work of the paleontologist. Working as I do in a university, I can't help thinking about their funding problems.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A story from the steppes

In both World History and Islamic Civilization we've discussed nomads and their environments. Here's a story from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- one of the best news services around -- about the collapse of populations of saiga antelopes in Central Asia.

Friday, September 22, 2006

There are two kinds of students

There are two kinds of students: those who know where the money is, and those who don't.

Guess which kind gets the money?

For Nipissing University students looking for internal scholarships, bursaries and awards, this is your guide. (Or you can look in the paper copy of the University Calendar.)

The deadline for applying for many of these is November 1.

Don't forget to look for outside sources, too.

The Carnival of Bad History #9

Miland Brown of the World History Blog is hosting the latest Carnival of Bad History. Check it out!

A giant of world history

In a comment to my post entitled What You Can Look Like at 41, Phil Paine seconds my remarks on the historical significance of public health measures and says:

People like Dr. John Snow, who discovered the link between water delivery systems and cholera, and who fought heroicly against established powers to institute the necessary legal and technological solutions, will someday be regarded as the true giants of history.

A quick look at the web revealed that there is a very large and substantial site on John Snow. From the Urk! department I note that I am already quite a bit older than he was when he died.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A woman jouster -- Dionisia

Ramon Lull's opposition to the possibility of women knights reminded me of this story:

The 13th century records of the English Hotot family preserve a story of one of their ancestors, Dionisia, who “when a maiden, clad in a tunic, with a hat upon her head and armed only with a hollow shield, about the seventeenth year of King Stephen (1151) …attacked a certain knight, with one blow of her spear bringing him to the ground, and carried off his horse.” Edmund King, ed., A Northamptonshire Miscellany (Northampton, 1983), 8.
This from my Deeds of Arms, p. 3 n. 5.

Problems with HIST 1505 web documents?

Some students in History of the Modern World, HIST 1505, have told me that they are finding their way to an out-of-date course outline. I have tried going to it from my academic home page and more indirectly by going to the home page for the course and from there to the course outline. Both routes seem to get me to the identical and correct course outline.

Can someone explain the problem to me in detail?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Ontario Graduate Scholarship

This scholarship, valued at $10,000 for two terms or $15,000
for three terms, is available to students who have a minimum 80%
average on their last 20 one-term courses and who intend
to register in an approved graduate program at an Ontario university.

The internal (NU) deadline for applications is October 20.

What you can look like at 41

In yesterday's Globe and Mail there was an interview with designer and actress Sadie Frost concerning her recent nude anti-fur poster for PETA, which also appeared in the paper. (I can't find it in the on-line G&M but an article at the PETA -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- UK site shows the poster.)

The Globe article in the paper quotes Frost, who has been a looker all her life and no doubt holds herself to a high standard, as referring to her age of 41 and her four children, and saying about the picture, "Hopefully people won't be too repulsed by it."

Not much chance of that.

I thought a lot about this picture, because I think Frost, beautiful as she is, is no genetic freak. Nor has she been raised in extraordinary luxury, as far as I can tell. (She would insist I mention she's a life-long vegetarian.) I have concluded that this shows what a woman can look like at this stage of life if she hasn't been working the whole time in a rice paddy or a textile factory, or rotting in a refugee camp. And face it, if there are a lot of people in bad circumstances, there are millions who have lived, by historical standards, very healthy lives.

And it's not just a matter of wealth or living in an "advanced" society. In April 2005 I was in Delhi for a week, and most of the people on the street looked quite healthy to me -- in part because they weren't carrying the extra weight so many in North America now do. It was quite a revelation.

This summer, in a New York Times article I haven't been able to find again, there was a detailed discussion on historical medical research that suggests that good fetal health and good health in the first two years of life makes all the difference -- delaying degenerative diseases that used to be common in what we would now consider young adulthood for decades.

I've often thought that effective, and often very simple and relatively cheap public health measures are the best investment a society can make. We can afford, as a world society, lots more than we do now. It would make a world of difference. It already has.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Anousheh Ansari

It is indicative of the way Iran and the USA have been entangled since World War II that the "first Iranian in space" should be an American telecommunications millionaire. See the Independent for more.

The legend of Saladin

Saladin, the Kurdish warlord who recovered Jerusalem for Islam in 1187 and provoked the Third Crusade (the one in all the movies), is really famous in our time as a great and admirable Muslim leader. And he was famous in medieval times, too. In the chivalry seminar, we saw him used by an anonymous French writer -- in the Ordene de Chevalerie -- as a demonstration that even a great and admirable warrior can't be a real knight unless he was a Christian. (Lull believed that only good Christians qualified as real knights.)

But has Saladin always been famous? On MEDIEV-L this morning Andrew Larsen said no:

I think it’s important to realize that Saladin’s name has not continuously carried resonance for Muslims ever since his life and career. Saladin appears to have been largely forgotten within a few generations of his death. The main reason for this seems to have been the career of the Mamluk Sultan Baibars, who successfully defeated the Mongol threat in 1260 at the battle of Ain Jalut. As a consequence of this, he became a major Muslim folk-hero and remained such down into the 19th century, overshadowing Saladin as a great Muslim warrior.

I suspect that Saladin’s eclipse was also do to his failure to create a lasting Ayyubid state. When he died, his empire was virtually bankrupt and his sons and nephew and brother immediately fell to fighting for control of the state, rapidly dismembering it.
I also suspect that it might also be evidence that Saladin was not universally hailed even in his life. His ‘official’ biographer Baha-ad-Din has to spend a good deal of effort explaining why Saladin failed to perform basic Muslim duties such as the Hajj and fasting during Ramadan. Saladin put a great deal of effort into propagandizing the Muslim world to accept him as a great defender of Islam, but it must have been obvious to many Muslims that he was trying to justify his aggression against other Muslim states.

As a result of all this, Saladin was essentially forgotten for most of the period from c.1300-c.1850, at least in the Middle East. He was not a culturally significant figure. The recovery of the memory of his character seems to have a great deal to do with Muslims who traveled to western Europe for educational purposes in the later 19th century, and there discovered the medieval European version of Saladin, a great and noble warrior with sincere religious convictions. When they returned home, they brought the memory of Saladin as well as the memory of the Crusades back with them. The earliest Arabic history of the Crusades was only published in 1898 (if I remember the date correctly). Soon after that, ‘Saladin’ was adopted as the pen name of a Syrian writer opposed to European imperialism in the Middle East, and Saladin was transformed into an anti-imperialist warrior who rose up to defend Muslims out of sincere religious conviction (instead of the political ambitions that seem to have truly motivated him). The modern Muslim world has enshrined him as a (if not the) prototype of the mujaheed, the Jihad warrior. Political leaders such as Hafez al-Asad and Saddam Hussein sought to maintain his memory for political purposes, and Hussein actively depicted himself as a second Saladin (somewhat ironically, given that he actively persecuted Saladin’s people, the Kurds). Similarly, Muslim terrorists have found Saladin an extremely useful figure for their own purposes.

My point in all of this is that Saladin is not an example of the Muslim world having extremely long memories. Rather, the figure of Saladin, essentially discarded by the Muslim world, was revived in the 20th century for political purposes and altered to suit the needs of a modern struggle. A rough modern parallel might be the way that certain of the American Founding Fathers have been co-opted by modern American fundamentalists in an effort to prove that America was founded as a Christian nation. This is not an example of the memory of the Founding Fathers as Christian paragons surviving into the 21st century, but rather an example of how modern Americans have sought to recast convinced Deists as passionate Christians for 21st century political purposes. Another example is the Milosevic government’s very successful campaign to revive the memory of the 14th century battle of Kosovo as part of a campaign against Kosovar Albanians.

Andrew wants it pointed out that he's not an expert on Medieval Islam, but that since he teaches the Crusades every year he's done a bit of reading. He refers the curious to the 2nd edition of Jonathan Riley-Smith's Crusades: A Short History as a starting point.

I'll add that if Muslims in the Middle East were mostly forgetful of Saladin before 1850, Walter Scott sure knew who he was.

Were there women knights?

In HIST 4505, Topics in Medieval History, otherwise known as the Chivalry seminar, we were all wondering why Ramon Lull, who wrote an early treatise on knighthood and chivalry, went out of his way to say, twice, that women could not be knights.

A contributor to the MEDIEV-L list contributes this link, which goes to a description at of the Order of the Hatchet of the late 12th century:

There is a case of a clearly military order of knighthood for women. It is the order of the Hatchet (orden de la Hacha) in Catalonia. It was founded in 1149 by Raymond Berenger, count of Barcelona, to honor the women who fought for the defense of the town of Tortosa against a Moor attack. The dames admitted to the order received many privileges, including exemption from all taxes, and took precedence over men in public assemblies. I presume the order died out with the original members.

Well, old Ramon Lull lived in Aragon (where Barcelona is located) in the 13th century. Maybe this was what he was thinking of!

More on Manuel II Paleologus

For information on the Byzantine emperor so surprisingly cited by the pope see the entry at De Imperatoribus Romanis, a solid scholarly resource devoted to Roman emperors. Reading an excerpt from the Manuel entry at English Eclectic, I was struck by the precarious situation that this "emperor" lived in, so near to the empire's final collapse. He had to fight his own subjects at the behest of the Ottoman Sultan. The debate on Islam vs. Christianity that the pope referred to supposedly took place when Manuel was on campaign on the Sultan's service.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A remarkable site on a WW2 POW camp

World War II is not "early history," I admit, but I was struck by how this family has used the Web to make sure a story important to them is told:

Stalag Luft I Online.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

HIST 2805 and 1505 -- Background reading for our discussions in March

What did the pope say about Islam?

I've read the speech Pope Benedict XVI made at the University of Regensburg (in a provisional translation posted by the Vatican at its own site) and I'm not quite sure what he was saying about Islam or why he referred to Islam at all.

I have two theories. The first is that he does have a critique of Islam in the back of his mind and that this concern spilled out into this speech, which is really about another subject. The second is that the pope, who as Joseph Ratzinger was a well-known academic theologian as far back as the 1950s, was tempted by nifty quotation and used it as a springboard into his main subject, which use has resulted in a furore that hardly would have been raised by his speech otherwise.

The quotation is from a work presumably written by the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus (a portrait of his son Constantine XI stands in for him above). The pope refers to a recent edition by Adel Theodore Khoury (who has written a pile of books on such subjects as "Tolerance and Islam") of a dialogue that supposedly took place between the Christian emperor and a Persian. They supposedly discussed (maybe the dialogue is a fiction) the relationship between Islamic and Christian teachings. During the exchange, Manuel, who spent much of his life fighting the Ottoman Turks, says (here's the controversial passage):

Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

It isn't a big stretch to see this as an insult to the Prophet of Islam, and thus the protests. But I'm not quite sure why it is in the speech at all.

The subject of the speech was the essential relationship between reason and faith, something Ratzinger/Benedict has been thinking about since 1959, and an intellectual and theological position that Catholic thinkers in large numbers have supported since at least the 12th century (the pope would say, much longer). If you are interested in this fascinating subject, you really should read his speech.

But why on earth quote Manuel II's inflammatory characterization of the Prophet? Learned the emperor may have been, but I've never seen him in any list of theological heavyweights. It seems that he's here because in the dialogue he (according to the pope's summary)
"addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general...explain[ing] in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul."

The pope thinks that the dialogue demonstrates an essential difference between Christian (or at least Catholic) and Islamic conceptions of God. Says the pope, Manuel's "decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature... not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature." As "the editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry."

Then the pope goes on to talk about whether belief in the reasonableness of God and the religious practices God prescribes is "merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?" The rest of the speech is on this subject and the place of reason in theology, and theology in the intellectual life of our day.

I rather get the impression that Pope Benedict XVI has given us a quick summary of what he sees as deficient in the belief and practice of Islam. Maybe we're going to hear more on this subject. A theological debate on the reasonableness of God and Islam will intensely interest a fair number of people, but I guess most people won't really get into it.

We still don't have an answer to the question, why did the pope quote that one passage from Manuel's dialogue that slams the Prophet and everything 'new' that he 'brought'? I'm sure that Benedict XVI has a lot of disagreements with the Prophet's teachings; and what Muslim could think otherwise? But doesn't he know that insults directed to the Prophet close down the possibility of discussion?

The pope by necessity is a politician and maybe he's got some deep reason for floating this sentiment lifted from Manuel II. Maybe Manuel can say for him what he'd rather not say directly.

Or maybe he just was taken by the quote, and in tried and true academic fashion, just had to throw it in.

In HIST 1505 -- History of the Modern World -- Mark Crane and I are working with a writing book called They Say/I Say: The moves that matter in academic writing. The authors of this fine book urge students to think of themselves as part of a continuing conversation, and to construct their papers by reacting to someone else's work or position -- agreeing with it, partially agreeing with it, or disagreeing with it. Outline what "they say" and then tell the reader what you say.

As far as I am concerned, the pope was using precisely this (pretty standard and generally useful) methodology. And here we see the limitations of that methodology.

When you pick your starting point, you may want to think long and hard about whether your choice of what "they say" carries more baggage than it appears at first glance.

Update: In an earlier update I said: "Adel Theodore Khoury, the author of works on tolerance in Islam, seems to be a different person from Theodore Khoury, the editor of the dialogue of Manuel II Paleologus, and the edition seems to date from 1966." Thanks to a correspondent, I now know that Adel Theodore Khoury and Theodore Khoury are the same person. There is an interview with him (in German) here. Thanks to the reader who alerted me.

Also see more on Manuel.

Further: A British journalist
argues that the pope can't be seen as a shy, naive scholar, and suggests another context.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Graduate school

Many of us university professors rather hope that some of our best students will follow in our footsteps, go to graduate school, and become professors themselves -- and tell stories in their senior seminars about Old What's Iz Face, the beloved and eccentric character who encouraged them on their way.

But does it make sense? Grad school can be expensive, it takes years out of your young life, and permanent jobs -- except for a brief period a long time ago -- are always in short supply.

Academic blogs have kicked this around a lot, but this post seems a really well-balanced take on the question.

Nipissing University news and events

NU's website has a page devoted to news releases from the institution, and an event calendar that lists some of the activities that take place around here. I've added links to these two resources to the link list on the right.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A quest has an unexpected ending

There I was, searching in what might be a vain quest (if you are in HIST 2805, see below). A voice called out to me from a cave. There he was, the wise hermit of Arthurian lore, standing before his acolytes, expounding on chivalry. He turned to me and made his demand -- why was it that Arthur, regretting the breaking up of his Round Table as the knights prepared to quest for the Holy Grail, commanded them to perform one last great joust?

And you know, I was able to tell him!

(Click on the picture to see a larger and clearer image.)

HIST 2805 now meeting in A 236

In response to the dismay I encountered among students with the prospect of meeting in A 118, I scouted around to find a better room and came up with A 236. I forgot to poll the class about whether it was indeed an improvement. Let me know on Monday.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Maps: beautiful lies?

From today's Washington Post, a map of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which as the Post notes, are only nominally under the control of the Pakistani government. It may be that Osama bin Ladin is hiding here. It's certainly a region where local politics reigns supreme, with the men with the guns indifferent to who sits in palaces in Kabul, Islamabad, Washington, or Moscow.

Not long ago, much of the world was like the FATA region. Then, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, states and empires became strong enough that politicians and map-makers could draw lines everywhere and pretend they represented hard-and-fast boundaries between unambiguous political units. Pretend is the word, because the reality on the ground in FATA and elsewhere was quite different. The reason their are "failed states" in the world today is that some states were little more than pious hopes.

I love this map, and just about all other maps, unless they are sloppy and ugly. Useful as this is in directing attention to an unstable and strategic area, it lies to us too. It tries to define a place where the lines drawn on maps are almost entirely fictious, by drawing lines on maps. The best joke here is that FATA ends neatly at the supposed Afghan border. What are the odds that conditions change radically when you cross that marker (if you can find it in the mountains)?

Update: For a taste of Pakistan's wild frontier, see an article in the September 11 Guardian.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

A funerary brass -- Sir Nicholas Dagworth

In the later Middle Ages, prominent people were buried in churches and had monuments erected to them. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, such monuments were restricted to royalty and bishops, and were three-dimensional stone effigies. In the fourteenth century and later, engraved brass effigies, usually set in the floor of the church, made such monuments more widely available. You only had to be rich, not filthy rich.

Above is the best reproduction I could find of a brass that I have a personal connection with. It is located in Blickling, Norfolk, England and commemorates Sir Nicholas Dagworth, who came from a family of Hundred-Years-War plunderers. Sir Nicholas spent freely to have a very distinctive monument -- no off-the-shelf, out-of-the-catalog designs for him. The gauntlets are finely shaped and decorated with fine engraving; the lower edge of his surcoat (tight tunic over the body armor) is done in an oak-leaf design. And the crest on his helmet ends in the head of a hawk (not shown here).

My connection? When I first visited England, you could for a small amount of money "rub" brasses -- use a crayon and a roll of paper to make a copy of the original, as you might now use a pencil and a piece of paper to create an image of a coin. One of the brasses I rubbed was this one. Soon after that, someone figured out how to create a brass copy of the ancient brass, and "brass rubbing centers" sprang up, not just in Britain but elsewhere, too. Rubbing the originals was forbidden. This was probably a good thing, since rubbing brasses does wear them down. However, going to the church, kneeling on the hard stone floor for an hour or more, and reproducing the design at its original site did make you think about the monument and its setting. It was a kind of contemplation that I'm not sure you'd get in a "brass rubbing center."

One thing worth thinking about is how important it was for many people to be shown, in death, as warriors wearing the best armor available.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Historical Geography at NU

(Click for a bigger view of this neat map.)

Are you looking for 6 credits worth of History or Geography?

Dr. James Murton is teaching a course on Historical Geography, coded GEOG 3235. Despite its designation as GEOG, it also counts toward History degrees.

Why take it? If you want to explore how imperialism, nationalism and the environment shaped the landscape of North America and the world, this could be for you.

For more information, contace Dr. Murton at jamesm {at} or by phone at NU.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Welcome new NU students!

Today is the first day of classes for Arts and Science students, and an appropriate time to say hello to students -- or anyone else at Nipissing University -- who may be discovering this blog for the first time.

I created the blog because there is not enough time in the classroom to say all that might be said. Often I'm asked to make announcements in class, which I often forget to do. Even if I don't, it's not an effective way to transmit the important details. Thus, the blog is a place to put the most relevant announcements.

But far more important is the blog as repository of the interesting digression. University history courses shouldn't be hermetically sealed against intrusions from current reality. On the other hand, too many side comments about how the course material relates to the news or other scholarship can derail the course presentation.

When I see something really interesting yet not strictly relevant, I have a place to put it, where it will reach exactly the people who have taken the extra trouble to have a look at my most recent comments.

I have a hope that this side forum will add texture to my courses for some students and for the variety of outside readers who wander by. I know it adds an element of fun and creativity for me.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Finally, some good news from Iraq

I have taught ancient history for long enough that I am fascinated by the phenomenon of the Marsh Arabs of lower Iraq.

The marshlands of Mesopotamia and Egypt had a crucial role in the invention of agriculture and the rise of civilization. In regions that were drying out with the retreat of the glaciers, the fish and birds and plantlife bordering the Tigris, Euphrates and Nile rivers supported a denser human population than anywhere else in the world. It was in these regions, too, that irrigated agriculture could develop.

Right up to our own time, the Iraqi marshes have supported a style of life very similar to the marsh culture seen in early Mesopotamian art. (For some images illustrating the point, see Laputan Logic). The marshes were fertile but out of the mainstream of Iraqi life.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein, the marshes were one area where you could hide from his regime. After the revolt following the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein decided that this refuge was too dangerous to his regime and decided to destroy it by draining the marshes. A huge human and ecological disaster resulted. (This is again best illustrated by Laputan Logic.)

So where's the good news? The fall of Saddam has led to a reversal of his drainage works and the marshes, against all expectation, are reviving. The news comes from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Iraq Report (a source I have recommended before). To read about it, see this issue; the section on the marshes starts about halfway down the page.

Jousting in Central Ontario

This Saturday, in conjunction with the Severn Bridge Fall Fair near Washago, Ontario, International Jousting Association-Canada will be holding the IJA-Canada 2006 National Championships and Falconry Hunt. Not too many details, unfortunately, and the Fair doesn't seem to have a website of its own.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Making iron the hard way

Last weekend some friends of mine in the Dark Ages Re-creation Company (DARC) did something rather spectacular -- they smelted iron from ore using techniques common to northern Europe before the 12th century. The fuel was commercial charcoal pounded small by hand; the ore was rock ore from an abandoned American mine of the 18th century; the furnace was built on the spot out of clay and hay, and the fire was stoked by hand, using a bellows built to resemble what few pictures we have of such things at an early period.

It was a pretty dramatic experiment, since the DARC smelters had a number of problems with the bellows and airfeed, and at one point there was quite a bit of pessimism about the outcome. Without exactly the right temperature, they thought that they might end up with only cast iron (for which medieval Europeans had no use) instead of something closer to steel.

In the end it was a great success. They didn't get as much good metal as they hoped to -- 1.5 kilograms rather than 4.5 -- but what they did produce was so hard that it may indeed be a steel suitable for weapons or tools.

And they did it all with no use of electric power -- just human strength multiplied by the bellows!

It was quite a dramatic demonstration of "experimental archaeology." The DARC crew are not academics, but they probably know as much about early European iron smelting as anyone else anywhere.

If you want to know more, see this and this.