Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The joy of battle in the History of William Marshal

For next week's Chivalry seminar I had originally assigned a section from the History of William Marshal on the Battle of Lincoln (1217, in living memory for the author). Like the Song of Roland, our main text for next Monday, there is a lot of talking before and during battle, of an encouraging and boastful sort. Going through the History again, though, I was struck by this passage:

16321 [William Marshal] told the bowmen to make sure to

spread themselves out in a long line,

so that, when the French arrived,

16324 their horses would be killed under them.

The Marshal then asked for

two hundred soldiers and ordered them

to be ready to kill

16328 their own horses with their knives,

so as to be able to take shelter behind them,

if necessary, in an emergency.

All those who listened to the earl

16332 displayed their joy

and disported themselves as merrily

as if they were at a tournament.

William is telling his troops that they are in for a real fight. They will be killing horses instead of taking them as prizes, and they'll even slaughter their own if they need to.

The reaction? Joy.

Source for the passage: De Re Militari.

Source for the photo: A Polish reenactment event described here.


A paperback edition of "Framing the Early Middle Ages"

I heard today from Chris Wickham that his huge and interesting book on the transformation of Roman Europe from 400 to 800 AD will be out in November (this month!) in paperback for about half the price of the hardcover.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Iacovetta visit (II)

Here is the nifty poster for the visit by Franca Iacovetta at the end of November/beginning of December, when I get it to upload. (Try clicking on the image.)

There's a free dinner in it for some lucky 4th year History students. See this post for details.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Blue sunset?

Here we have been in the midst of a blowing snowstorm all day. Now there's no falling snow, but as the sun goes down behind a cloudy sky there are blue bands about this color in east and west, while just a few minutes ago the north was pink.

This is not my photo, but something off the web that gives the impression.

"One-third of us are dying, one-third of us are fleeing and one-third of us will be widows."

In HIST 2805, Islamic Civilization, our second-term writing assignment will be based on Anthony Shadid's book Night Draws Near. Shadid, who speaks Arabic and knows Baghdad from before the war, has just visited the city again. Here is his report from the Washington Post. Thanks to Juan Cole for drawing my attention to it.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

NU student success story

Here's a Geography/History major whose story made the Toronto Star. Needless to say, the success is hers rather than ours. We're just glad we could be of assistance.

James Murton's new book

James Murton, NU's environmental historian, has a book coming out soon from University of British Columbia Press on the interaction between government settlement ideology and the ecological facts on the ground.

Production has progressed to the point that there is now a cover!

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Dr. Franca Iacovetta comes to Nipissing University -- 4th year History students take special heed

Nipissing University's History Department is hosting a special event at the end of term.

Dr. Franca Iacovetta of the University of Toronto will be on campus November 30 and December 1. On Friday at 4 pm she will be speaking in the Weaver Auditorium at NU on the subject "Policing Democratic Decency: Spies, Femme Fatales and Scam Artists in Cold War Canada." This talk is open to the public and free, but it would be a help if you would register in advance by writing history @ nipissingu.ca. Wine and cheese will follow.

In connection with this public lecture there will be an even more special event for selected 4th-year history students.

We have twenty spots available for students interested in attending a dinner with Dr. Iacovetta on Thursday evening. This dinner is generously sponsored by NUSU. The dinner will be an opportunity to interact with a leading Canadian historian.

All interested students should email Jennifer Evans at jennyevans345 @ hotmail.com before November 3rd. We will be drawing names from a hat to fill the available spots.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Walter Goffart's "Barbarian Tides"

Alas and alack, though Walter Goffart has repeatedly delivered what should be deathblows to the notion that the fall of the Roman empire can be best understood as the result of barbarian invasions, that venerable hulk keeps staggering on.

I referred to the latest round of debate in this post back in January, when I discussed recent books with easily confused titles by Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather. Both argued that at the beginning of the fifth century, catastrophic military defeat led to cataclysmic civilizational collapse. Both pooh-pooh alternative view points, which the bundle together as "the transformation of the Roman World." They seem to think that anyone who doesn't believe in military catastrophe's ability to thoroughly wreck a worthy civilization in short order is soft, too soft to think that the barbarians were the bad guys.

Do we really need an analysis of the fall of Rome no more advanced than the one offered by Edward Gibbon? Gibbon's still on the shelf and his scathing view of the Christian Middle Ages is hard to beat if that's what you want.

Without being notably pro-barbarian myself, I find this attitude to the fall of Rome, even the notion of a unique fall of Rome, not very productive of true historical understanding. I am much more sympathetic to two other books, Walter Goffart's Barbarian Tides and Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages. Two quite different books have one thing in common. They take the attitude that just because a particular style of late Roman imperialism came to an end, the world did not. They are not nostalgic books.

Ward-Perkins and Heather for some reason have picked on Goffart as the epitome of the soft-hearted "transformationalists" who apparently believe that nothing really bad happened in the fifth century. This strikes me as a bizarre characterization. Walter Goffart is actually best known for a detailed analysis of an old and creaky theory of barbarian settlement that doesn't hold up to modern scrutiny. He's also a skeptic of theories of historical development that depend on romantic imagery of "barbarian migration." Barbarian Tides is his re-entry into the argument.

One thing that keeps niggling at me is this question: if you are an English historian, or one who grew up reading English, are you more likely to be enamored of the notion of civilizational collapse, simply because the economic and social structure of Roman Britain did indeed collapse to be replaced by something quite different? One of the strong features of Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages is that he admits that something quite unique happened in Roman Britain; but also that every other region of early medieval Europe had its distinctive character, too. This strikes me as a more useful way of thinking about things than trying to locate that unique moment when "Rome" (capable of being defined in so many ways) fell.

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Video and history -- HIST 1505

In class today I asked you to consider what popular video presentations like Disney's Pocahontas and the 2005 movie The New World say about "history" which I more or less defined as "what people right now are thinking about the past.

Did the video material I show inspire any interesting thoughts in you?

If so, feel free to post them in the comments.

Note: the picture above may be in an older medium, but it too is a reconstruction. The artist had no more contact with Virginia in 1607 than the producer or director of the movies.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Topology conference at NU

Our Topology Research Group is sponsoring a mini-conference on Medicine, Computer Science and Mathematics on Friday, October 27 starting at 3:30. Have a look at the abstracts to see if you'd be interested.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Professions of yore

As a historian I am interested in old words and the sometimes obsolete phenomena they designate. One such word is "bodger," which originally designated a once-important occupation. According to Wikipedia, a bodger was
a polelathe worker, who made wooden goods from green wood, such as chair legs or candlesticks. These handmade chair legs were not of a lesser standard, and would be sold on to furniture factories for assembly.
Some people still do this work as a craft, or in the spirit of William Morris's medievalism: see the Bodger's Home for more.

Well, yesterday I ran across what looks like an even more obscure and presumably dead occupation. Chris Wickham, on p. 355 of Framing the Early Middle Ages gives us this passage in describing settlement patterns of old Ireland:

...the Vita of Aed mac Bricc of Killare, dating to around 800, refers to an itinerant ringfort maker who was asked by a rich man (dives) to make a triplex murus around his arx, clearly a significant status-symbol.
At first blush one would expect that all the itinerant ringfort builders are gone. But it's a big planet, with lots of people and lots of niches to support all kinds of activity. So I ask: are there any itinerant ringfort builders out there?

Monday, October 23, 2006

The death of Canadian Gaelic

Phil Paine sees the suppression of what was once Canada's third language as an example of a large ugly wave of 19th century thought. (October 22 entry).

The image is from a site devoted to the Ontario Gaelic District.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Shia-Sunni accommodation?

One of the historic divisions within Islam is between Shias and Sunnis, who disagreed in the early days about who should hold the position of caliph or successor to the prophet. In any religion, disagreements of this sort concerning who held and may hold religious and political authority is not one that can be easily overcome, and suspicion between people who identify with the rival traditions is one of the drivers of the fighting in Iraq.

Juan Cole in today's Informed Comment has an entry that is worth quoting in full:

The Mecca Declaration, a joint ruling of Shiite and Sunni clerics from Iraq, forbidding a Muslim to shed the blood of another Muslim, is in danger of going unheeded, according to close analysts of the region.

Be that as it may, the declaration is historic. According to al-Sharq al-Awsat [Ar.], it maintains that the differences between Sunnis and Shiites are a matter of personal interpretation (ta'wil), not a difference over basic principles (usul). To have such a declaration sponsored by Saudi Arabia, which adheres to the Wahhabi branch of Islam that was historically negative toward Shiites is a conceptual revolution. The statement has implications for Sunni-Shiite relations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.-- not just in Iraq.

Events in Iraq demonstrated that Western Powers could use the Sunni-Shiite divide to help overthrow governments, dominate major countries in the region, and even break up whole countries. The regional elites are increasingly deciding that Sunni-Shiite ecumenism is necessary to avoid more of these disasters.
Cole, being an expert on Shiism, may be more likely than others to believe a theological ruling will make a difference. But it might, and it's exactly the kind of thing that will get little play in the international media, whether it's effective or not.

Partition in the Middle East

The whole last century of Middle Eastern history has been influenced by the idea that partitioning it to accommodate the desires of numerous groups for self-determination will improve the messy political situation. A famous attempt was the secret agreement between the British and the French of 1916 (above) to divide the Arabic-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire between them. It didn't quite work out the way it was drawn, but the current boundaries of the Middle East are indeed a product of post-World War I agreements. And there have been problems ever since, notably in Palestine/Israel, but by no means only there.

People who don't know what to do about the hopeless situation in Iraq but feel they have to say something have been kicking around the idea of a partitioned Iraq, or at least an Iraq with a weak federal structure. This is filling people who actually live in the Middle East with foreboding. See this unusually good newspaper article from the Chicago Tribune, which Juan Cole alerted me to.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

HIST 1505: Please read this document for Thursday's lecture hour

Please read the following for Thursday's class (our usual two-hour lecture time).

It's a Microsoft Word file to download.

More on the Labour Day iron smelt

An SCA photo site has a whole gallery devoted to the Iron Smelt that took place on Labour Day. (See my previous comments here.) You can look at individual photos and read the ironmaster's comments, or use the Fullscreen Slideshow function. (The ordinary Slideshow doesn't seem to be working at the moment.)

Thanks to Kyle for making this available.

Friday, October 20, 2006

That Beautiful Somewhere

Well over a decade ago, A.W. Plumstead, an English professor at Nipissing University, wrote a novel called Loon. When I finally got around to reading it about three years ago, I loved it. This was about the same time Plumstead's friends succeeded in convincing him to make it into a movie.

The movie, That Beautiful Somewhere, was shown at the University last night, and though there are many differences between movie and book, it was quite fine once it got rolling: good cinematography, great soundtrack, and unbeatable performances by the leads. It had me on the edge of my seat by the end.

That Beautiful Somewhere is making the rounds of the movie festivals and is off to one in Cairo soon.

See the Internet Movie Database listing here.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

More on death in Iraq

Gilbert Burnham, the chief author of the recent Johns Hopkins study of mortality in Iraq since the invasion, talked today on a Washington Post Live Discussion about methodology and the results of the study.

Update October 25: See Jefferson Morley's World Opinion Update for more conflicting opinions.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings

For a number of years now, re-enactors have been going to Hastings to recreate the decisive battle of 1066. This year, the BBC site has video.

Alas, it seems to be available only in the UK. There are some still pictures.

Update: 122 more still pictures, some of them pretty amazing.

Reflections on Imperial Ignorance

Copyright image surprise!

Over at Whiskey Bar, a political blog, Billmon reflects on the ignorance of those who rule empires, in the present and in the past.

Students in History of Islamic Civilization may be surprised to find that they already know more than some important policy makers.

Monday, October 16, 2006

More on Late Roman-Early Medieval continuity

I've recently read Walter Goffart's Barbarian Tides, where Goffart reconsiders many of the crucial issues of late Roman history after a long career of contributing provocative ideas and painstaking analysis of the sources to the field.

Goffart gives credence to this statement by the distinguished historian Alexander Demandt:

In the genealogy of the ruling class there was an abrupt break in the third century AD, but no break in the Volkerwanderung, no break during the end of the Roman Empire, no break in the dark senvth century. From the time of Diocletian on we have continuity in the rulking families into the Middle Ages and further on. (Barbarian Tides, p. 193; Demandt "The Osmosis of Late Roman and Germanic Aristocracies," in Das Reich und die Barbaren.)

This is quite different from what Wickham says (see here) though I see that Wickham talks about male lineage being insecure as if that in itself proves discontinuity. I'll check to see if Wickham cites or comments on Demandt and report back.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Another survey in Iraq -- 600,000+ dead?

Today's news about Iraq includes a report of a public-health survey that concludes that since the American-led intervention in Iraq, over 600,000 people have died by violence in Iraq. About 2.5% percent of the Iraqi population.

This is no fly-by-night survey. It was designed and carried out by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, and published in the Lancet, perhaps the foremost English-language medical journal in the world. One can assume as a first step (which assumption must be verified, of course) that this study used a respected methodology. The Lancet would be playing with fire -- and the destruction of its scientific reputation -- if this survey was methodologically flawed. It's been around since 1823 and there's a lot of reputational capital built up.

Nonetheless, this survey will be strongly condemned. The question is, how many critics will have done their homework before speaking up?

This is one of those issues where both honesty and technical competence have to come together to solve a difficult and controversial problem. Lacking either, we're in a world of wishful thinking, unsubstantiated claims, and outright propaganda.

I see this as relating both to earlier posts on "war today" and to my earlier discussion of Chris Wickham's project to survey just about the whole former Roman Empire from 400 to 800 AD. A different kind of problem, accounting for social, economic and political change in a sparsely and unsystematically documented period, rather than in a war zone. But without such efforts, how close can you get to the truth?

In Iraq, the problem exists whether the answer on such basics as casualties are easy to come by or not. There is a scientific challenge here that should be met as well as possible.

See what Juan Cole has to say on the issues raised.

Update: Daniel Davies in the Guardian's Comment is Free section. Either the numbers are right, or the study is fraudulent. Discussion also at Brad DeLong's site (Oct. 13 entry).
Further update:
The Washington Post's World Opinion Roundup covers the reaction; also, there was on October 19th a Washington Post Live Discussion with Gilbert Burnham, the lead author of the survey in question.
Update October 25: See Jefferson Morley's World Opinion Update for more conflicting opinions.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Reminder: Muhlberger at the ROM

I'll be speaking on chivalric deeds of arms at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on Thursday evening, October 12, 2006 at 7 pm.

Details here.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

I am working my way through this magnum opus by the respected British historian Chris Wickham (at least I respect him, and the British Academy and Oxford University Press, too).

It concerns the social, political, and economic transformations of the Roman world over a fascinating but difficult-to-document period of history, 400-800. It's based on years effort by Wickham to come to grips with often sparse primary sources in over half-a-dozen ancient languages and vast secondary commentary and theorizing in many more modern tongues.

I am of at least two minds about this book. It is really big and correspondingly expensive -- $175 US. This will put it beyond the reach of many, many university libraries. It seems to me that Oxford University Press has chosen to reach out to a very narrow audience indeed, by chosing a smaller press run and a higher price. They are saying that out of 6 billion + human beings on the planet, 6 billion + will not have access to this book. The people who will have access are just a rounding error. And if they made that choice, then to some degree Wickham and the British Academy which funded his project made the same choice.

They all might say, well, if the project was worth doing, it was going to be at least as big (800 + pages of exposition, not including bibliography) and how many people do you expect to read it anyway? And there's definitely something to that argument. I'm a professional historian who has worked in this period (but no longer) and is still really interested in it and I have barely enough time to look at it. But the self-fulfilling prophecy part of this argument still bothers me. I'd be a lot happier if I knew that this material would be available in some form to the 6 billion +, and not just to those of us who are part of the rounding error. A shorter summary by Wickham later? Of 350 pages? Or maybe Google Scholar will have a role in disseminating the book's conclusions?

If this book is as good as it seems, it shouldn't just be assigned to a few grad students at high-level research universities.

And there's where my "second mind" about this book comes in. I am eating it up. Wickham has set out to make big generalizations and then nuance them. No doubt he has made errors that specialists will pillory him for, but scholarship on the really big questions only progresses when people really stick their necks out. If they come up with something interesting enough, their faulty generalizations will inspire debate and research for a century to come.

Maybe Wickham will play that role.

Here's something from the book that illustrates what I mean. Wickham argues -- if I understand him right -- that over the 400 year period techniques of aristocratic exploitation of land and cultivators didn't change that much and that many of the same families must have been involved the whole time. Yet aristocrats did not retain a sense of historical continuity over that period. Here's what Wickham says on p. 168:

By 800 there is not a single person anywhere in the former empire, with the sole exceptions of the Mamikonean and Bagratuni families in Armenia, whose male-line ancestors in 400 are securely known. And yet, in 800 a high proportioni of the city-level aristocratic families were assuredly still around, speaking Latin, Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Berber, German, Welsh.

Don't you feel you know a little more, just reading that?

Two further points: the big flaw in this book is that the Balkans are not discussed. Wickham says he just could not handle the additional languages he'd need to read the relevant scholarship. A real practical hurdle, I admit. But in the 3rd and 4th centuries the Balkans were a really central part of the Roman Empire and is it really justifiable to leave that region out? Could he perhaps have got a collaborator for that section? Certainly there ought to be a response from some daring Balkan historian that relates to Wickham's admittedly incomplete synthesis.

And for those of you wondering how I got into the rounding error, no, I did not spend my own money. Nor did I use the university's money, given all the other books we need for our direct teaching mission. A generous donor, an amateur of history who shall remain anonymous here, bought it and after reading it sent it along to me. I hope that donor -- a person I happen to know has an instinct for picking the good books -- got as big a kick out of it as I am.

Little detail: the photo used for the cover is of a site called Serjilla in Syria. Clicking on it twice should give you a bigger version.

Update: It occurs to me that my reaction to Wickham's quote makes me look pretty gosh-wow about the use of that Armenian evidence to qualify his broad generalization. Perhaps so. But one reason I am impressed is that after 160 pages of this book, I'm convinced that Wickham was pretty careful in checking his facts right across the old empire. I like a book that takes all the regions of the post-Roman world seriously. Note: though he left the Balkans out, Wickham intends to discuss both Ireland and Denmark where possible and relevant.

A quick and dirty view of Iraq's conflicts

...according to the LA Times.

Any graphic or map is really only a starting point, of course.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The current crisis and the larger context

Today I read Juan Cole's Informed Comment on the situtation in Iraq and was really struck: I can't believe the status quo in Iraq can last much longer.

Some readers might be tempted to dismiss Cole's comments because of their snarky and angry tone, and Cole's honestly earned reputation as a harsh critic of George W. Bush. I however have been reading Cole since at least April of 2004 and he has a much better track record on Iraq than ordinary journalists. He can and does read the Arab language press, inside and outside Iraq every day, to cite just one of his advantages.

But perhaps as important as the bad news is the contrast between his commentary and the political commentary in other American blogs. They are all focused on the current sex scandal in the US House of Representatives, the apparent sexual exploitation of teen-aged congressional pages by a Congressman, and an apparent long-standing coverup of this problem by the House leadership (Speaker, Majority Leader, Majority Whip, and the man in charge of Republican campaigns for the House).

Now I'm not one to dismiss the importance of this scandal; I really think this symptomatic of the rot in Washington, where torture is now acceptable and habeas corpus is a threat to the Republic. Yet it's striking that apparently no one in official Washington and no one who observes Washington, whatever their politics, seems to have 5 minutes a day to think about the looming catastrophe in Iraq. Looking back over months of news reading, I realize that this is not unusual.

Meanwhile, over at Brad de Long's blog, the question of military history as an intellectual discipline is being discussed. Brad and his readers are discussing, ultimately, a proposition put forward by somebody-or-other that what the world needs now is more good "operational" military history, military history focused on winning wars and the avoidance of losing wars. This idea seems to miss the lesson that people who fought in the Second World War, especially Americans and Canadians who did so, derived from that huge slaughter: the focus ought to be on avoiding wars.

Here's my comment on that thread, reproduced and lightly edited:

Operational military history has its place, but more good operational military history does not result in better military history.

[...] The main lesson of the history of the period since 1950 would seem to be:

1. Major and middle powers will hardly ever fight each other in a stand-up conventional war.

2. Powers with big air forces (the US almost anywhere, various regional powers in their areas) can absolutely destroy civil society in a target area. But those same powers have no capability to impose their chosen order on that area.

3. There are a lot of places in the world where civil society is so weak that a few goons with guns can destroy it even without aerial bombardments. It is very hard to do anything about that chaos from outside.

What does "operational military history" have to say about this situation?

We need to realize how fragile civil society is and to muster the techniques and the will to strengthen it before the majority of the world descends into checkpoint and suicide-bomb hell.

Unfortunately the most powerful complex of forces in the world -- the various interests that direct the actions of the US government -- has not just abandoned but set out to destroy the institutions and practices developed since 1945 to avoid nightmares that people in 1945 could so easily visualize, since many of them had directly experienced blitzkrieg and prison camp hell.

The intellectual and political challenge of "military history" today is identifying the pathology and learning how to short-circuit it.

No, let's not ignore war, but let's start acting like it's a dangerous plague that will visit our peaceful neighborhood sooner than later.

Could be improved, I guess, but that's what I think about the failures of intellectuals (or people who advertise themselves as such) in tackling the question of war.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Zoroastrianism in Iran today

Zoroastrianism, one of the classic religions of antiquity, seems to be getting a bit of press recently. There's a big five-day festival and the foreign press seems to be using this as a hook to cover the state of the religion in Iran, its ancient homeland.

Above you see part of a picture feature at BBC News. I can't see a date anywhere so perhaps it's been there for a while. The feature will give you a few basic facts, no more. More substantial is an article in the Guardian, always a source of good things, that talks about discrimination against the Zoroastrians by the Islamic Republic. Are things better or worse than they were under the Shah? People disagree.

The article refers to "forced mass conversions" to Islam after the 7th century. I'm under the impression that most scholars doubt the existence of "forced mass conversions." But you can see from the article how lesser pressures over a long period might have the same effect.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Multi-colored Mars

I have praised Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books here before.

Now I have found that there is a Google Mars site. O frabjous day!

That means one could reread Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars and follow the geological action on your computer screen.

Or you could print out Ralph Aeschliman's PDFs and do it the old fashioned way!


Sunday, October 01, 2006

Another fantasy of the End Times

In AD 70 (70 CE), the Roman general (and future emperor) Titus brought the First Jewish War to an end by taking Jerusalem. All the sacred treasure was looted, taken back to Rome, and paraded through the streets before being put on permanent display in the Temple of Peace.

In 455, the Vandals took Rome and the treasure, hauling it off to Carthage, their capital.

In the next century the Roman general Belisarius conquered the Vandals and took the Temple treasure to the new capital, Constantinople. At some point thereafter it seems to have been returned to Jerusalem, still under imperial rule. But then it was lost in the Roman-Persian wars of the 7th century.

A British archaeologist named Sean Kingsley is now publishing a book in which he claims he knows where the treasure is -- in the old monastery of Theodosius in Judaea, presently the West Bank.

For those who are always looking for a reason to fight over the Holy Land in anticipation of the end of time, we now have another reason.

What I would like to know is, how much of the information about the treasure's travels is actually new? If as I suspect this information is lying around in libraries all over the scholarly world, why hasn't anyone gone looking in the monastery of Theodosius before now?

Or maybe they have: See the interview with Kingsley at ynetnews.com.

This statement from the interview about the archaeology of the Temple Mount rings a few alarm bells with me:

"No ancient pottery has ever been published from the holiest place on earth, but from what I saw during my visits, with an afternoon's formal research of these holy deposits I could have prepared a scientific article on the history of the Temple Mount in all ages," he says.

That simple, is it?