Saturday, March 31, 2007

12th century chess-pieces from the Isle of Lewis

These famous chess-pieces were found before 1831, in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. The picture comes from the British Museum's Compass collection of artifacts mentioned by Ancarett two posts down.

The war to end all war and medieval armor

During the First World War, an American worked to devise protection for troops engaged in trench warfare, taking the best pieces of medieval armor as his inspiration. Above you see one of his pieces, from an MSNBC article on the military museum in Vancouver, Washington. It's worth a look.


British Museum resources

Academic blogger Ancarett directs our attention to cool Web resources from the British Museum. Note that the Artstor resource that she wants for her institution is available to faculty, staff and students at NU, and is accessible through the library site.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Chaucer's Knight by Terry Jones

Some years back I read parts of Terry Jones' Chaucer's Knight; only this week did I actually read it through.

I can see why people get slightly unhinged discussing it; nevertheless, I liked it more than I thought I would.

Jones says that the usual 20th century understanding of the figure of the Knight in The Canterbury Tales is as "a personification of the ideals of knighthood," a character presented straight and not at all as the target of satire; also that the tale he tells to the other pilgrims, The Knight's Tale (not the basis for the movie) is also a straight story representing Chaucer's understanding and valuation of chivalry. Jones disagrees. He thinks that the Knight is a roughneck mercenary of low status who presents himself as a crusader but whose military career is marked by participation in campaigns of dubious worth, even by 14th century standards. The Knight's Tale when reconsidered in that light " a hymn to tyranny, dressed-up in the rags of a chivalric romance." (What a great line!)

I admit that I find it easy enough to believe that Jones is right, that the Knight is not nearly as respectable as he would like to appear, and that the other pilgrims and the original readers of the book would have seen right through him. I know from my own work and teaching-related research that knighthood and crusading both were controversial topics at just about any time. The real problem with Jones' argument is -- Jones' argument.

For instance, in making the case that the Knight is not quite what he seems, Jones notes that he has few retainers, a Squire and a Yeoman. Does it ever occur to him that maybe Chaucer gave him these two retainers because he didn't want extraneous valets and other servants hanging around the company? Jones comes across as a pretty smart guy, surely this must have occurred to him at some point.

What I really think is weak (and here I follow better scholars) is the way Jones contrasts "mercenaries" like the Knight with "real feudal knights." The division between nobles who fought for religion or duty or loyalty and low-born scum who insisted on being paid cash and had to present horses for inspection lest they cheat the people who paid for well-equipped men-at-arms, this division goes against everything we know about 14th century armies and their organization. In every well-organized army, everyone got paid, everyone had contracts, everyone was subject to inspection of mount and equipment. And noble tournaments were filled with people willing to argue about the rules, even the noblest did it.

Jones' book has caused a lot of excitement over the years because the issue is not just whether the Knight was "a verray, parfit gentil knyght" (a phrase of great complexity) but also whether being a "parfit knyght" was a good thing to be. Jones, as those of you who have seen his Crusades series know, comes down on the skeptical side. Oddly, however, he still seems to have the idea that sometime well before Chaucer's time there were knights with a feudal set of values that was more worthwhile than the plundering mentality of the Hundred Years War. Well, I think that Chaucer's Knight, even as Jones presents him, would have fit very nicely in the world of William Marshal.

Image: Above,Chaucer's Knight as portrayed in one of our earliest and best manuscripts, the Ellesmere ms. Below, the whole first page of the Knight's Tale. What a beauty.

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My current research interest is interpreting and contextualizing Charny's yet-untranslated questions on the laws of arms related to war (I've translated those related to jousts and tournaments in my book with the title, Jousts and Tournaments (see sidebar)).

The problem with contextualizing the war questions is finding actual legistlation or commentary on the rights and responsibilities of "men at arms" in the late Middle Ages. I want to do more than say, "this is what Keen (in his 1965 book Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages) said," again and again. Great book, but after 40 years I ought to be able to add something.

Today I finished reading Terry Jones' Chaucer's Knight (I'll comment on that later), and found that he's quoted repeatedly from a 19th century book by Ercole Ricotti, Storia delle Compagnie di Ventura in Italia, a massive work that includes a number of regulations of mercenary companies in the pay of various cities.

Hooray! An academic library in Canada has this book and Inter-Library Loan has already got my request.

The arms of the Visconti family, important players in the wars of Italy. This came from a site called Paradox Place, which has many big pictures of medieval and Renaissance Italian art.


Ravenhill, the Toronto band

I have a personal connection so I will indulge myself with a link.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Handwriting on the wall

The kings know that the emperor has no clothes.

Update: More on what may be a major diplomatic shift in the Middle East.

And: A report from McClatchy.

Further update: Is there any precedent for this?

Crusading trivia III: Slaughtered rulers

I was under the general impression that rulers, unless they were killed in battle were generally exempt from being murdered by their fellow rulers. However, reading Jonathan Riley-Smith's excellent survey The Crusades has taught me that there was grave danger in being on the wrong side of a 13th century crusade. Here's a few cases where kings and emperors were executed by their rivals:

In 1204, Alexius IV, who had been made Emperor at Constantinople by an army of crusaders from Western Europe, was deposed by Alexius Dukas (Alexius V), imprisoned and strangled. Alexius IV's father, Isaac II died about the same time, and he too may have been killed. Alexius V didn't last very long thereafter. He was unable to defend Constantinople from the westerners, and fled when they took the city. Alexius was captured and blinded by another imperial claimant, Alexius III. This was a traditional Byzantine way to eliminate someone from politics without actually killing him or shedding blood. But this was not good enough for the westerners, who blamed him for killing their stooge A. the IV. When they got hold of him they made him "jump to his death from the top of the column in the forum of Theodosius."

Alexius V was succeeded as Eastern Emperor by the Count of Flanders, Baldwin, the first "Latin emperor" of Byzantium. He didn't last very long, either. He was captured by the Bulgarian ruler Ioannitsa. Ioannitsa claimed Baldwin died in prison, but other stories say Baldwin was murdered.

In the west, decades later, you see another imperial line being ruthlessly destroyed. Frederick II von Hohenstaufen, "the Wonder of the World," had been emperor in the West and King of Sicily before his death in 1250. For much of his life he was at war with the popes, who proclaimed various crusades against him. Frederick left behind a legitimate line (Conrad IV and his son Conradin) and an illegitimate one. The popes were determined to stamp out the Hohenstaufen and launched further crusades. When the final anti-Hohenstaufen expedition succeeded, Conradin, age 16, was executed.

The image above is a depiction of Conradin in happy days, from the famous Manesse Codex (look it up!).

What may unite these incidents is the fact that all the wars were for high stakes: ultimately, the imperial crown, theoretically the highest honor in the world unless you were a zealous papal partisan. Those pursuing such ambitions, or trying to block others from attaining them, had to be ruthless to their opponents. Especially if they posed such a danger that they had already been labelled as enemies of all good Christians.

One is remined of another early 13th century ruler-murder, one without any obvious religious element: the mysterious death of Arthur of Brittany after he had been taken captive by his rival for the Plantagenet heritage, John Lackland (John the only king of England of that name). High stakes there, too, and huge ambition.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Al Biryani -- food from Iraq

Here's a cheerier than usual post from one of McClatchy's Iraqi staffers.

We eat biryani at home in Canada's Near North. Must be that Indian cultural imperialism (joke).

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Crusade and jihad

From Riley-Smith, The Crusades, p. 152:

Innocent IV [1243-54] was prepared to argue that the pope had a de jure, but not de facto, authority over infidels, with the power to command them to allow missionaries to preach in their lands and a right in the last resort to punish them for infringements of natural law, but he stressed that Christians could not make war upon them for being infidels; nor could they fight wars of conversion. Hostiensis [a church or canon law expert of the same time], on the other hand, supposed that the pope could intervene directly in affairs of infidels and that their refusal to recognize his dominion was in itself justification for a Christian assault upon them. He even suggested that any war fought by Christians against unbelievers was just, by reason of the faith of the Christian side alone. This went too far and Christian opinion since has tended to follow Innocent rather than Hostiensis.

Students in History of Islamic Civilization might want to compare these opinions with that of the Egyptian Islamicist Qutb.

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Entropy and Energy, Agents of Peace

A friend directed me to the substantial blog, The Oil Drum: Canada -- Discussion of Energy and Canada's Future. Well, a recent posting just happens to refer to Thomas Homer-Dixon in an interesting ancient history context. And it just happens that Dr. Homer-Dixon will be at Nipissing University this week. He will be speaking on Friday March 30, 7:30 pm in the Weaver Auditorium on Agents of Peace in a Time of Turmoil.

Crusading trivia II: Markward of Anweiler

I've recently noted a pattern in visitors to this blog. An awful lot of people come here to copy or see images. What's odd about this is that all my images come from other sites, where they are still available. I guess Google, which owns Blogger, gives preference to Blogger sites when answering search requests.

Anyway, some images are very popular: Machiavelli on a book cover, the US Constitution, pictures of howling wolves. But the one most sought for recently has been my picture -- somebody's picture -- of Saladin.

Today, when reading Riley-Smith on the Crusades, I ran across the fact that Pope Innocent III, a champion promoter of holy wars, took against a German named Markward of Anweiler who was creating obstacles to the pope's policies in Italy. Innocent eventually declared a crusade against Markward, calling him "another Saladin" and "an infidel worse than the infidels." So I thought I should post a picture of Markward here and see if large numbers of his fans would show up and copy it for their own uses.

I was joking with myself; I knew there would be no such picture available.

But I was wrong! He's at the top of this post, thanks to Wikipedia. Markward fans, he's all yours. If you stop by, leave a comment.

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Crusading trivia I: Livonia as Our Lady's dowry

I am brushing up my knowledge of the Crusades, in part by reading Jonathon Riley-Smith's The Crusades: A Short History (1987). It's quite a fine summary, with enough detail and analysis to satisfy a pro like me. Those who have never read much on the Crusades might like the briefer book by Thomas F. Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades.

Riley-Smith has lots of interesting little things that you might not find even in a bigger book. One tantalizing fact is that the 13th century German crusaders who fought to conquer and convert Livonia (roughly, today's Latvia) were able to justify their "permanent crusade" in that area by claiming it as Our Lady's dowry, just as Palestine was Christ's patrimony.

If anyone can tell me how these people connected the Virgin Mary with Livonia, I'd love to hear it. My nearest Latvian relative was only vaguely aware of the Marian claim through folksong references to "Mary's land and Mary's people." Using a few Latvian words I was able to find not very much on the Web, just an untranslated political platform for a party called "Mary's Land;" the site didn't have any Marian imagery or specifically religious references.

I'd also love to have a picture of Our Lady of Riga. Best I can do at the moment is the image above of Rigas Dom, the cathedral in Riga.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Spring in Northern Ontario

First the snow goes away -- almost -- and then it comes back.

Picture by Gwen Leclair of Massey, Ontario.

Friday, March 23, 2007

A minute's worth of knowledge

On one of the flakier programs on CBC Radio One, Freestyle, listeners were challenged to "Impart as much useful knowledge as you can to a resident of the 14th century, in one minute."

I learned about this on an e-mail list used by SCA members, who had some fun with it. One person said: "Don't pet the rat." (My thought was, "don't pet the flea.")

The uselessness of saying either gives one pause. What might be useful? Buy up autograph copies of Petrarch and hold on to them for several centuries?

But someone did come up with this: "Wash your hands after bodily functions and before eating."

Which leaves about 50 seconds to explain the benefits.

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

A friend of mine recommended this book and I've just finished reading it. I think there are a number of people out there who might be interested in it for a variety of reasons.

Ehrman is a much-published expert on the Bible. He started reading it closely, in English, when he was a teenager and was born again. His religious teachers were extreme literalists in their interpretation of Scripture and adopting that view he undertook a long quest to find out what the authentic words of the Bible said. He eventually ended up as a master of ancient languages and an expert in text criticism (the systematic interpretation of the text).

Ehrman no longer is a Biblical literalist and in this book he explains why: there's too much evidence that the text of the Bible (specifically the New Testament) comes out of an evolving human tradition, in which scribes copied texts, made mistakes, and made other changes to discourage current incorrect ideas or to promote the truth that all good people knew but wasn't exactly nailed down in the existing text. Ehrman writes in part to show that we don't have the original texts of the books of the NT, nor copies of those texts, nor copies of the copies. We've got a number of versions created by human effort.

This is not a new idea. It's been around for hundreds of years and the imperfections of the text are acknowledged by all experts who aren't literalists. (Pick up a modern Bible and look at the footnoted variations.) Of course, there are a fair number of people who have never thought about this, and Misquoting Jesus is a pretty clear discussion of the state of the question.

Even if you don't care much about the text of the NT, you may be interested in the book. Ehrman the text critic says that he's unaware of any discussion aimed at ordinary people of how critics recover ancient texts from the diverse evidence of the manuscripts. I can't think of one, either. And it's really quite an important discipline. After all, we don't have the original manuscripts of Aristotle, either. (Interestingly, we do have some of Thomas Aquinas' 13th-century writings in his own hand. It's hard to read.)

So if you've ever wondered about how we know what various ancient writers said, this may interest you.

Two more points about Misquoting Jesus. First, the later edition that I have has some stuff in the back of a sort I've never seen before: little featurettes or something which are presumably meant to make the book more reader-friendly. The main ones are a Q and A with the author (where he just repeats his main points less formally) and a piece on what reader response to the first edition was like (generally friendly).

Oh, I note that lists a book called Misquotes in Misquoting Jesus: Why you can still believe, so if you come away from Ehrman outraged, that's out there.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Old histories of the future

Thanks to the blog Patahistory, I now know about the blog Paleo-Future, which is subtitled "a look at the future that never was."

I've barely had a look but already I know that I will enjoy this immensely, and some of my readers will love it, too.

The picture above is currently at the top, entitled "Aluminum from Canada." But was this a view of a future that never was, or a futuristic present that we've forgotten? A reader of Paleo-Future sends a link showing the Atomium erected in Brussels in 1958 as part of Expo 58 -- the year that "Aluminum from Canada" appeared as an ad. And it appears that it's still there!

Oh, but it hardly matters, does it? You can get nostalgic or maybe hilarious just looking at this!

Was honesty an important medieval virtue? And what is honor?

That's the question that Richard Nokes asks in his blog. For his initial take on the question, see this post, and if you have anything to contribute please let him know.

I have another question. Often in recent literature (last couple of centuries) the word "honor" is used to describe integrity, so that if you are true to yourself you can consider your honor to be untouched, even if nobody appreciates your quality. But it seems to me that in medieval literature it is more normal to equate "honor" with the respect that others have for you. Thus if you are rich, famous, powerful and fashionable, you have honor even if you massacred the people of Limoge; while if you are dragged in your shirtsleeves before the king's justices and have your head hacked off, you have no honor, even if it is all a put-up job.

Am I right in these impressions? If there has been an evolution, has anyone traced it?

Image: Maids of honor from Is there a Yes, and a, too, but neither is about weddings.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

McClatchy's Iraqi staffers blog

McClatchy's Washington Bureau website is always worth a visit. Linked to it is a blog written by their Iraqi staffers.


The new world of information -- citizen muckrakers

In this recent post I discussed the American political commentary site Talking Points Memo as a model of what new things could be done with the Internet.

And now here is something else.

In connection with the scandal surrounding an apparent attempt by the White House to completely politicize the US Department of Justice, the White House has released a mountain of documents, 2000 pages or more, to the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.

Since this is being done rather unwillingly, the document dump is meant as a delaying tactic to take some of the pressure off the White House, there is certainly a lot of chaff meant to slow detection and revelation of the wheat. After all, a normal journalistic outfit would take quite a bit of time to go through 2000 pages, right?

The response of TPM has been interesting. They've pointed to the material (see the "What's new" section of that page) and asked their readers, many of whom are better acquainted with the scandal to date than most reporters, to rake through the material and report back on a comment thread for one of TPM's blogs.
I am in awe.

I also wonder about the future of expertise. I count as an expert in a couple of fields and as someone with a wide knowledge of history in general. Students come to Nipissing University to be taught by people with my kind of qualifications, and the university pays me well because by traditional standards I'm pretty good. It strikes me, though, that people like me, and the much higher paid op-ed writers and think-tankers, are going to have to work pretty hard in the future to justify our positions.

I don't think that "in the future there will be no experts" or "we will all be experts," or that "the university is doomed." There is always room for good facilitators and there are unfortunately always plausible phonies. I think however that the world of knowledge and information will be much more fluid. People will be unable to understand why Wikipedia was so controversial.

Image: That, my friends, is an antique muckrake. I've raked a fair amount of muck in my time and I'm glad to see what the proper tool looks like.

History Seminar Series, Friday March 23

The History Department Seminar Series wraps up its year with a special seminar, in which two of the Department's senior students consider 18th century and 19th century nationalism and social relations in southern France and early Canada. Come out and see the future of history!

Time and place: Friday, Mar 23, 3:30 pm in Rm A224.


William Hamilton, "When Twigs Crack Don’t Whistle"

This project examines the story of La Bete, a real, wolf-like creature which terrorized the Gevaudan region of southern France from 1764-1767. By focusing on the peasants and by putting “La Bete back into the Gevaudan,” the story reveals much about peasant life, religion and social relations in ancien regime France, while demonstrating that the history of everyday life may be discovered in the most unusual sources.

Sean Graham, 'Traitors, Invaders, and Slavers: British North American Attitudes towards the United States, 1775-1867'

This paper traces anti-Americanism through Canada's formative years by looking at the significant events that marked the period. There is also discussion on the current state of anti-Americanism in Canada and the impact this period had on our modern perceptions of the United States.

Chantel Lavoie at NU, Monday March 26

From English Studies:

The final event of the Department of English Studies' 2006-2007 Speaker Series will be the visit of Dr. Chantel Lavoie of the University of Toronto. The topic of Dr. Lavoie's talk will be “Lies, lies, lies (good, bad, and ugly) in Harry Potter," and she'll be with us on Monday March 26, 2007, 3:30 – 4:20 p.m., in Room H104.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


At the bottom of the main page of a blog called "Medievalisms" (once again, thanks to Richard Nokes for mentioning this) is this quotation:

The principle of the Gothic architecture is infinity made imaginable. - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Wow! Thanks, "Carolingian" (M's owner)

Egyptian dissidents

Students in History of Islamic Civilization may be interested in Anthony Shadid's latest: a series on the failures of the Egyptian opposition movements.

Others may not know that Shadid is an American reporter for the Washington Post who speaks Arabic and who is responsible for some of the best interview-based reporting on the effects of the Iraq War on Iraqis.

Update: the second and concluding part.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Guedelon Castle

This post is basically a repeat of one from Unlocked Wordhoard, a blog written by an Anglo-Saxon scholar, Richard Nokes, who teaches at Troy University in Alabama. Besides routinely purveying interesting or clever posts, Nokes' blog has the added attraction of being banned in China (at least at the moment and probably by mistake).

Anyway, Nokes has made me aware that enthusiasts in France are planning to build a castle using 13th century methods: Guedelon Castle. Since there are only 35 of them, and local peasants can't be coerced into doing the work, they expect it to take them 20 years.

My guess is that they will either find a way to pick up the pace or it won't get done at all. I have some experience with such projects.

Richard Nokes cleverly suggests that you avail yourself of Google Images to find pictures of the project.

The new world of information -- TPM in the LA Times

I'm not optimistic enough to think that the existence of the Internet, by itself, will save democracy. That, as Tom Paine indicated, depends on the constitution of the people. However, if the people are there, the Internet sure helps.

Since spring of 2004 I have been following the news out of the Middle East and the United States very closely, out of curiosity and fear of the dangers that surround us. During that time, hardly an important piece of information or a real insight has first come to me directly from an established media outlet.

What I consider the real news-- surprising stuff that changes your perspective -- has usually come to me via an amateur reporters, in other words, a blogger. Most of the time the raw information is in the established media someplace, but has been buried or been left unanalyzed, and the report reflects a useless "conventional wisdom," i.e. what people think when they don't think. Blog reports or sometimes comments left on other people's blogs have provided me the essential warning signals that something big is happening that in another era I would have expected to be featured in the New York Times, but now isn't.

The same applies to commentary. So much discussion of the Middle East in particular is characterized by the arrogance and ignorance of high-paid columnists. When they are right about something, someone smart but completely obscure has beat them to the punch by 6, 12 or 24 months.

Perhaps things have always been that way, but now I, living in the remote cold countryside near a small obscure city have access to all this good stuff and very quickly, too.

Of course there is a lot of garbage on the Internet, too. It's just that diligent searching to find sites and forums that I trust has enabled me to locate a number that have less garbage than the New York Times.

How does this work? A very good article in the LA Times (read fast, it will be gone in a week) describes how an excellent site has grown from one guy and a computer to a small business doing well by doing good.

One thing that isn't mentioned in the article that should be. The established media are staffed by or owned by people who are fat and comfortable. Josh Marshall at TPM is hungry and mad as hell.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The land God gave to Cain

On seeing the Labrador Coast in 1534, Jacques Cartier called it "the land God gave to Cain."

Nevertheless, some people willingly visit and even live there.

This week saw the thrilling end of a 2000 kilometer snowmobile race -- fittingly called "Cain's Quest" -- which nearly proved to be an impossible dream. The top three teams only got through because they helped each other out. When it came to crossing the finish line, they decided to do it together. They are asking that the top prize be split three ways.

Organizers are still considering the request.

Whatever happens, I'm impressed.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The price of empire

From McClatchy Newspapers (US):

One-quarter of Iraq, Afghanistan veterans filing injury claims

Think of the implications of that.

Margot Badran on Egyptian feminism in the 20th century

As a supplement to today's lecture on Egyptian feminism, I offer a link to an article that Margot Badran wrote for a special issue of Al-Ahram on Egypt in the 20th century.

This is only one example of the first-rate content often provided by Al-Ahram.

Two other of her contributions on Islamic feminism are here (Al-Ahram, 2002) and here (, 2006).

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

The limits and prospects of digitization

I don't read the New York Times anymore, because its disgraceful performance on the political and military issues of the last five years has forced me to regard it as a giant disinformation effort. Yet the NYT still pays people to do really good articles on other subjects, and occasionally a friend or another blogger will alert me to something important there.

This time it's Ancarett I have to thank for an article called History, Digitized (and Abridged), which you should read fast before it recedes behind a paywall. It explains why when I go looking on the Web for historical pictures of the Suez Crisis or Iran's Islamic Revolution I don't find a lot. Digitizing costs a lot of money and archivists and librarians in rich countries are scratching their heads about how to pay for digitization, and how to prioritize.

Nonetheless, I was very impressed by what is being done. For instance:

Donald J. Waters, program officer for scholarly communication at the Mellon Foundation, said his foundation had also become increasingly selective over the years.

By way of example, Dr. Waters pointed to the papers of Matthew Parker, the archbishop of Canterbury in the 16th century who collected ancient manuscripts to prove the early existence of an independent English-speaking church that was responsible not to the pope but to the king of England. For centuries, those papers have been locked up at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. Mellon is financing a project to put them online.

"It takes a special skill to select stand-alone collections that have a durable appeal in the marketplace of scholars, which is the marketplace that Mellon cares most about," Dr. Waters said. "As interesting and as important as standout collections in individual libraries and archives might be, the mere fact of digitizing them does not mean that once they are online they will attract and sustain an audience."

The Parker collection, Dr. Waters said, meets all these criteria — it is a core collection for a variety of fields: linguistics, ecclesiastical and religious history, English history, art history, medieval studies. He added, however, that the materials have a long history of restricted access, largely to protect the materials because they are so important.

"Digitization would allow much broader access to the contents," he said, "which is sufficient for much research, without exposing the physical manuscripts to added handling."

If that's not good enough for you (and medievalists will be slavering) how about this:

...a virtual version of the vast Forbidden City in Beijing, which I.B.M. is building in partnership with China's Ministry of Culture. When it is finished, early next year, the site will include interactive, three-dimensional images of ancient thrones, artwork and military implements.

The point of this article is that as some works get more available, others risk being ignored because they are too difficult to digitize, or too obscure. But then many medievalists and a variety of other scholars have known this "problem" in another form for a very long time. Most medieval and ancient works are generally accessed in editions by modern scholars, which are often a digest or compilation of different versions of the work as it is passed down in manuscript (handwritten form). Most old works are not available in the form the original author wrote them, but in a variety of copies. Most scholars, even those working on the hard problems in the original language, are content with printed editions, but there are some things you will never figure out unless you go to the national library of some European country and look at the mss. (manuscripts).

And then there are all the works not yet edited. Lots of things haven't been read in a long time. Someone once pointed out to me (I wish I could remember who) that most doctoral dissertations written by scholars in the Middle Ages haven't been read since the guy passed his oral exam!

So there are many discoveries made, and yet to be made, by people determined enough to look at the old documents (or objects) and not just at the printed version in a convenient book at the closest good library. Or at the webbed version.

I guess we do have to hope that the old stuff continues to be stored and made available, but this new problem is not really so new at all.

Some bridges will do anything to get into the news

Pity the poor Milvian Bridge. Being the site of the historic battle between Constantine and Maxentius has not been enough to make it a first-rate tourist site in Rome.

But never underestimate the power and motivation of an ancient monument to stay in the foreground. After all, the ancient Seven Wonders are still in the minds of millions even though just about all of them are ruinous. (And that's being charitable.) You think that's a fluke?

So now the Milvian Bridge has become the Bridge of Love.

Bomb on Mutanabi Street

Students in the History of Islamic Civilization course may remember Anthony Shadid's conversations with Muhammed Hayawi owner of the Renaissance Bookshop on Baghdad's Mutanabi Street, the center of the booktrade in Iraq's capital.

The Washington Post reports that the bombers have finally attacked this intellectually vital area, and Hayawi was killed.

Update: Anthony Shadid writes an appreciation of his friend.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Stunning Saturn: US taxpayers' money well spent

NASA has put together a photo essay of images of the Saturn system taken by the Cassini probe.

What would the astronomer Cassini think if he knew his name was associated with such glory? But then, it was named after him by those grateful to him for showing the way.

Thanks to the News Blog for alerting me.

More on the Cassini-Huygens Mission here.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Will the Internet lead to world peace? Maybe not

This story from the English edition of Spiegel Online (Germany), on the YouTube wars between Greeks and Turks, shows how technology can be used gratuitously to insult your traditional enemies, long-distance.


I was rather looking forward to the new movie of the last stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae (the pass is above), under the impression that it was being made from Steven Pressfield's novel Gates of Fire, which I rather liked. I learn from a review at the Washington Post by Stephen Hunter that the basis of the movie is Frank Miller's graphic novel 300, and according to Hunter, looks like it:

It's entirely an overblown visual document with an IQ in the lower 20s. It doesn't even bother to mention the strategic context of the Battle of Thermopylae...

Boy, do I not need to spend my money on that. But of course most filmmakers have given up trying to get people in my age group (over 25, over 21 on bad months) into the theaters.

I admit I would have loved the monster CG recreation of the Battle of Helm's Deep at an earlier time in my life, but in future viewings of The Two Towers I may be forced to fast forward.

I wonder if I can find a copy of The 300 Spartans?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Early Church Fathers on line

In recent years the news has been full of sensationalistic exposes of early Christianity's hidden secrets: the Da Vinci Code, the fuss around the new manuscript of the Gospel of Judas, and now the nonsense of the tomb of Jesus and his family.

If you really want to know the "secrets" of early Christianity, many of them are right there on the Web: English translations of the "early church fathers" are readily available.

Two sites worth knowing are the Christian Classics Ethereal Library and the collection of additional Church Fathers' writings at

These works preserve the early debates and interpretations of Christian authorities in the first centuries after Christ. You can read this stuff until your eyes fall out.

And if you decide you want an imaginative expose, try the movie of The Last Temptation of Christ. It has no particular claim to be true, but it's a good story.

History of William Marshal now complete in English translation

William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke is one of history's most famous knights on the basis of an early verse biography that very few people have read.

Despite the fact that the History of William Marshal tells us most of what we know about early French melee tournaments, and that it preserves the memories of a man who knew every English king between Stephen and Henry III, only those who are proficient in 12th century French and have access to a scarce 19th century edition have been able to read the work. The rest of us have had to rely on summaries by various modern scholars. Those scholars include some of the best in the field, but still.

Recently the Anglo-Norman Text Society has been publishing an edition and English translation in three volumes: two of the poem itself as edited by A.J. Holden and translated by S. Gregory, and the third volume of commentary and notes by D. Crouch. Volume 3 has just come out, completing the set.

I bought volume 1 a couple of years back because I'm interested in early tournaments, but I was impressed by the richness of the source. Anyone interested in researching early Plantagenet history will want to read it.

The books are not easy to find. They don't show up on the US version of Amazon, for instance. Therefore I am including ordering information from the form sent me by the publisher:

Anglo-Norman Text Society, Birbeck College

Send me ......... copy/copies of volume I/II/III of the History of William Marshal @ 35 pounds (members of the ANTS) or 49 pounds + 4.50 pounds p. & p. for each volume. I enclose total payment of ......... (cheque payable to "Anglo-Norman Text Society" in sterling only).



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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Where to the House of Lords?

I'm tired tonight so the bulk of the substance here will be in links to the Guardian.

Once upon a time, all members of the British House of Lords were hereditary peers, who were created by the Crown (or the Cabinet using the powers of the Crown. The Lords could block the will of the Commons.

Just before the Great War, the powers of the Lords were curtailed, making the Commons supreme.

Later in the 20th century, the practice of making hereditary peers ceased and most members of the Lords were appointed for life only. Lots of senior politicians got seats this way.

At the very end of the 20th century, Blair's government took votes away from most hereditary peers, which gave the balance of power in the Lords to the appointees.

Since then there's been a feeling, apparently, that the reform of the Lords has to go farther -- especially since there are suspicions that the Labour Party was selling life peerages for campaign cash.

Well, last night there was a non-binding vote in the Commons that indicated that the majority of MPs want a wholly-elected upper chamber.

What remains to be seen is what actually is enacted, and whether the existing peers will try to block the reform. But it looks like an undemocratic lever is being taken away from the Cabinet.

I have to ask -- if the Lords become elected, what excuse will remain for Canada's ridiculous and unelected Senate?

And I love the fact that this happened when Jack Straw was Leader of the Commons, even if he favored a more conservative measure. What did John Ball and Wat Tyler have to say, Jack?

Here's the Guardian on the vote, the Guardian leader (editorial), background on Lords reform, and a chronology of the Lords and its evolution.

50 years of Ghanian independence

Today's lecture in Islamic history discusses "Anti-colonialism and Nationalism 1945-1962" as it related to the Islamic and especially the Arab countries.

We won't be talking much about Ghana but I thought I'd point out that the former British colony of the Gold Coast became independent fifty years ago yesterday, and there are a number of news stories on the Web reflecting on a half-century of sub-Saharan experience. For instance, see this article on Al-Jazeera, which has pictures and interviews with people who have witnessed it, including Comfort Obeng, above, who remembers the time when Britain ruled.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Bad news about Afghanistan

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Five Civilized Tribes and the "Freedmen"

(Click on the map for a larger image.)

The Washington Post has as bizarre a story of racial ideology and classification as you'd care to run across.

Back in the early 19th century Indians of the American Southeast reacted to a growing settler presence by aggressively exploiting as many of the opportunities of the new era as possible. For instance, the famous Sequoyah, though illiterate himself and not a speaker of English, realized that white settlers' ability to write was a big advantage, invented for the Cherokee language a syllabary. Cherokee schools and printing shops soon followed.

It was initiative and accomplishment like this that gained for these peoples the designation of the Five Civilized Tribes. It was not enough to protect them from settler envy and bad faith, and in the 1830s they were deported, with the connivance of President Andrew Jackson, to distant Oklahoma.

By that time the Five Civilized Tribes had also adopted the practice of using black slave labor. The slaves went with their owners to Oklahoma (the "Indian Territory") where they remained enslaved until the end of the Civil War, when the US government insisted that the slaves be freed and enrolled as members of the various tribes.

One hundred and forty some years laters, there is an effort to purge the ranks of the tribe of "freedmen" unless they can show some native descent.

This is a very unappealing story. Read the Post for the details.

Update: The Guardian (UK) reports on the results of the vote.

The crucial military role of horses -- 1815

In the Chivalry seminar I've been teaching this year, I've emphasized the crucial role of chevaux in chevalerie. So of course I perked up when David Lloyd-Jones, in the continuing discussion of Mr. Darcy's wealth at Brad DeLong's blog, said:

David Friedman and I conducted roughly this discussion online a couple of years ago, tied to the intelligence that the Duke of Wellington (who incidentally owned the two fastest horses in England and, by my estimate, rode them an astonishing 54 miles on the day of Waterloo) paid his farrier 4,500 pounds a year. We agreed on this being roughly $300K.

I can't vouch for the mileage figure, but if it's in the right ballpark, it means you couldn't be Wellington at Waterloo without fabulous horses. And that the Iron Duke had an iron bottom.

Update: This post was reposted at Brad DeLong's blog, where it attracted these comments.


Friday, March 02, 2007

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

I decided to read some classic American political novels a few days ago and began with All the King's Men.

Wow! Wow! Nobody ever told me that such writing existed!

For instance, when the narrator, a reporter named Jack Burden, first meets Willie Stark, a smalltown guy who knows nothing about anything, yet:

"The editor told me to find out," I said, "and why he wants me to find out only God knows. Maybe it is because it is news."

That seemed to be enough to satisfy him. So I didn't tell him that beyond my boss the managing director there was a great high world of reasons but to a fellow like me down in the ditch it was a world of flickering diaphanous spirit wings and faint angel voices that I didn't always savvy and stellar influences.
Jack Burden sure does write nice. It's because he's a historian, or at least someone who almost finished a Ph.D. in history:

And he told me to dig it [a scandal] out, dig it up, the dead cat with patches of fur still clinging to the tight, swollen, dove-gray hide. It was a proper job for me, for, as I have said, I was once a student of history. A student of history does not care what he digs out of the ash pile, the midden, the sublunary dung heap, which is the human past. He doesn't care whether it is the dead pussy or the Kohinoor diamond.

See this comment from the Internet Movie Database on the 1949 movie version for cogent remarks from 2000.

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Mr. Darcy's wealth

Economist Brad DeLong reprints in his blog a Golden Oldie from his archives and you readers might find it worth a look.

In Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Bennett is very impressed by Mr. Darcy and his "10,000 a year," meaning 10,000 pounds of disposable income. Brad asked his readers how much this might be worth in 2003. A very interesting discussion of the value of money and historical comparisons resulted.

The discussion took place rather to the side of one important point. Would the characters in P&P have taken this number seriously just because the overexcited Mrs. Bennett offered it? As one commenter said early on, no mere "gentleman" would have had that kind of income. A duke, maybe, but Mr. Darcy was not even the son of a peer.

Brad DeLong's reflections on the original discussion are here.

Liechtenstein invaded!

I've loved the idea of the tiny independent principality of Liechtenstein since I was in grade three and we were studying geography. In more recent times I discovered the existence of Ulrich von Liechtenstein, the 13th century jouster who wrote fantastic accounts of jousting expeditions where he competed in disguise (on one, he dressed as Dame Venus in honor of Love). Then, in 2001, in the movie A Knight's Tale, the fictional peasant (Londoner?) Will Thatcher used Ulrich's name as part of his disguise as a noble jouster (how cool is that?).

So you can imagine my distress and horror to find that Liechtenstein was recently invaded by the Swiss army.

But no worries. This Swiss withdrew when they found they'd gone astray and no one in Liechtenstein even noticed.