Monday, April 30, 2007

Steve Muhlberger speaks at Kalamazoo, May 12, 3:30 session

Along with thousands of other dedicated scholars of the Middle Ages, I will be presenting a paper at the 42nd International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is kindly hosted by the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University.

My paper will be in the 3:30 session on Saturday, May 12 in Schneider 1145. The title is "Non-noble deeds of arms in the Late Middle Ages."

I love the Kalamazoo Congress and when I'm not running off to its sister Congress in Leeds, England, I usually attend the whole thing. This year I can't guarantee I'll be there on any day but Saturday. If you want to say hello, why don't you come to the paper?

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell was a daring British traveler whose pre-World War One experience in the Middle East made her a key advisor on colonial policy in that area after the war -- more influential than Lawrence of Arabia. Some credit her with drawing the borders of modern Iraq and making possible the Hashemite monarchy that ruled there until 1958.

After reading a New York Times review of a recent book about her I went looking for pictures on the Web. (I showed at least one in Islamic Civilization but it was pretty fuzzy.) I stumbled across some pictures of "the Bell family" and this excellent page called (oddly) Gertrude in Persia. Give it a look.

The top picture shows her in Baghdad in 1917. The one below is a cartoon showing her in action.

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A wave of conversion to Shiism?

Some of my students in Islamic Civilization may be interested in this article from the NY Times Magazine. In officially secular but Sunni-majority Syria, people are converting to Shiism at an unknown but surprising rate. The reasons are quite varied. This article underlines how complicated and unpredictable religious and political affairs are in the Middle East.


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Military Q&A in 16th century Italy

Some of my readers know that I'm very interested in the Questions composed by the mid-14th century French knight Geoffroi de Charny on the law of arms. I've translated the questions on jousting and tournaments in a book called -- oddly enough -- Jousts and Tournaments (see sidebar) and I want to work this summer on his questions on war, a more challenging project.

Two things are notable about Charny's Questions. First, they have no answers. This leaves us wondering whether all or most of the issues were really debatable, and he was looking for answers, or whether it was more of a training exercise for the high-ranking French knights who were his audience.

The second noteworthy thing is that though Charny conceived of his questions as cases in "the law of arms," they don't concern issues that many of us would expect to be treated in a discussion of "the laws of war." There is next to nothing in the "war" questions concerning matters such as discipline, proper equipment, pay, things that later medieval monarchs who issued ordinances for their armies were demonstrably interested in. Charny's "laws of arms" are almost exclusively concerned with the rights of "men at arms" -- fully equipped and trained warriors, respectable men -- in dealing with each other.

So Charny's Questions are an odd and provoking composition. What the heck was he up to, and how did his ideas fit into the current thinking about war and warriors?

One of the challenges of interpreting Charny is finding other documents that are in some way
comparable. This month, however, I stumbled across something really neat -- another set of military questions from about two centuries after Charny. Questions that have answers!

Of course, they are quite different from Charny's questions in many respects. My Italian is rather slow and rusty, but this appears to be a set of questions posed by one " sig. Gio. Battista Dal Monte" to prospective captains who wished to work for the Republic of Venice. The questions concern tactics and the management of armies, and are followed by "suitable answers" that a good captain would presumably offer.

Neat, eh?

I am very interested to hear from anyone who can identify the " sig" GBDM.

Oh, the source of this document is Ercole Ricotti, Storia delle compagnie di ventura in Italia, Torino, 1847.

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Canada: worst country in the world

High latitude kind of person? See this report on Vitamin D deficiency and cancer.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

The Athenian navy: could they beat the 300?

I am going to start by pasting in a post from Adrian Murdoch's blog, Bread and Circuses and my own reply to that post:

The faculty of biological science at Leeds has some interesting research about the fitness of ancient rowers:

We may not be as fit as the people of ancient Athens, despite all that modern diet and training can provide, according to research by University of Leeds exercise physiologist, Dr Harry Rossiter.

Dr Rossiter measured the metabolic rates of modern athletes rowing a reconstruction of an Athenian trireme, a 37m long warship powered by 170 rowers seated in three tiers. Using portable metabolic analysers, he measured the energy consumption of a sample of the athletes powering the ship over a range of different speeds to estimate the efficiency of the human engine of the warship.

By comparing these findings to classical texts that record details of their endurance, he realised that the rowers of ancient Athens - around 500BC - would had to have been highly elite athletes, even by modern day standards.

Thanks fo AJ for passing this over.

And here's what I said, more or less:

[The demos (common citizens) who were paid to row Athenian warships] have often been accused of being a belligerent, imperialistic group because more war meant more pay (and presumably more profit from the empire).

If these guys were a large group of physical fitness fanatics, too, you can see how they might be a rather fearsome political pressure group.
Would you want to face these guys in a heated debate in the assembly -- 6000 overexcited Greeks all determined to exercise the sovereignty of the people?

I still have not seen 300, but when it came out lots of people remarked on the physiques of the Spartan heroes, and somebody said, roughly, that beautiful architecture and literary debates and even democracy were all very well, but sometimes you needed people who could give the opposition a kick where it counted for something.

Even at the time I thought, "Friend, you have no appreciation for the dynamic of Athenian democracy;" now I think, "Friend, who had better sixpacks, the rowers or the infantrymen?"

Bread and Circuses is well worth a look for all sorts of ancient material, especially concerning the Later Roman Empire. See this on a movie on the last emperor in the west.

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Constitutional conflict, mano a mano

The US House of Representatives wants Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to testify about fraudulent claims that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium from Niger, which claims were featured in the justifications for invading Iraq. Rice, who was National Security Advisor back then, seems inclined to refuse on the grounds of "executive privilege," i.e., that the President needs candid advice and certain discussions should remain confidential. The House has thus issued a subpoena, which requires Rice to appear or face arrest or other legal sanctions.

The only problem for the House is that the normal way to enforce such sanctions is through the office of the US Attorney for the District of Columbia, who works for and was appointed by the President, and might not be terribly motivated to expedite the House's will.

Stalemate? Well, have a look at this article in Slate which points out that the House has an officer of its own, the House Sergeant of Arms (one Wilson Livingood) who has both the legal authority and a weapon to enforce the House's will: the weapon being the Mace of the House.

The Slate article gives enough detail about both the British and American history of legislative bodies directly exerting jurisdiction to get you started on this fascinating topic (though if you go further don't ignore the history of the Roman Republic). I'd just like to say something about the symbol (?) of authority, the mace.

The mace is really no different from the scepter, and both are clubs. Have a look at this ancient Egyptian portrait of "Narmer" who may be the first king of the first dynasty, and note how he is using a scepter/mace to beat down his enemies. Do a Google Images search for "scepter" and one for "sceptre" and look at the images from older art. A scepter/mace is a symbol of power, and the jurisdiction -- ability to command and punish -- which is the essence of power.

For long periods of history, those who claimed jurisdiction held a scepter or mace to make their claim visible. In the Middle Ages, that included more than individual lords. A collective body with a significant degree of self-government and authority could have a mace, too. Like a university, which still has the power to grant legal rank (bachelor, master, and doctor) recognized by other authorities, and has its own rules of internal governance.

Does your university have a mace? Mine does, see the image above, in which Dr. Ted Chase is carrying it to a Nipissing University convocation.

I said the mace was a "symbol (?)" because battles over jurisdiction in the old days were often real battles. Slate cites a couple of examples in the article cited above. I don't know about the British/English Commons history of fisticuffs, but in the pre-Civil War days in the USA, it was not so unusual for members of Congress to beat each other up. One famous incident, the beating of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks, helped bring on the war and shape the Reconstruction.

Has anyone written a social and pugilistic history of the pre-Civil War American Congress? Please tell me if you know of one.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

A blogger leaves Iraq

Perhaps the most well-known Iraqi blogging in English calls herself "Riverbend." After years of sticking it out in worsening conditions, she and her family are finally leaving Baghdad and Iraq. Her comments are here.


Exolife excitement

In the Daily Telegraph (Australia) there is an article from the Daily Mail (also Australia) which says, way, way down at the bottom:
It is difficult to speculate what - if any - life there is on the planet.
Of course most of the top of the story is filled with just such speculation, including these florid opening lines:

ABOVE a calm, dark ocean, a huge, bloated red sun rises in the sky - a full ten times the size of our Sun as seen from Earth. Small waves lap at a sandy shore and on the beach, something stirs...

Now this surely is a neat discovery and much better news than anything else in the news today, but I have to chuckle and wonder how many readers understand how faint the signals on which the planet's existence and nature.

As an old science fiction fan I'm glad to hear it, but I will get really excited when we go there or they come here.

It's nice to see other people getting excited about something this positive, instead of hate-driven fantasies about what their human neighbors are like.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Recipe for fascism (history of democracy thread)

Can one use the term fascism for any current political movement, philosophy, or strategy without being merely abusive?

Shall we just skip over that question for now (though comments are welcome)?

Naomi Wolf argued in yesterday's Guardian, in an article called Fascist America, in 10 easy steps, that many of the necessary actions needed to install a dictatorship in the United States have already been initiated, and most Americans are oblivious.

I liked that article for two reasons.

The first is that I share Wolf's concern with the ailing condition of American democracy. Skip down to the bottom of her piece and read what she says about the Military Commissions Act, all of which is factual, and then tell me what you think. "It can't happen here (or there)" isn't good enough: it already has.

Second, it is a clear argument on an important subject which does not depend on ad hominem attacks. These days "important" critics spend all too much time arguing through the contradiction of their favorite foes in the ranks of punditry. Wolf's argument is a straightforward argument based on citations that anyone who can read it on-line can easily follow up. Further, I like her comparative methodology. The current situation and its component features are not unique in history. We can make systematic comparisons to understand what's going on now. How rare such an approach is!

I usually think of at least one additional point after I've numbered them, so here's number 3: Wolf writes well. Take this passage here:
It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the profile of barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things look normal on the surface; peasants were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922 [when Mussolini marched on Rome]; people were shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden put it, the horror is always elsewhere - while someone is being tortured, children are skating, ships are sailing: "dogs go on with their doggy life ... How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster."
As you can imagine, if you read an earlier post I wrote today, my reaction to this insightful evocation of how events work is "more of this, please."

Image: An Umbrian harvest, 1976.

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William Marshal, in my library

I am now the proud owner of the full new edition and translation of the History of William Marshal issued by the Anglo-Norman Text Society. As to why I am so pleased, and why you might want to consider acquiring it yourself, see my earlier discussion of the History.

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Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire

I remarked on this book when it was issued at the same time as Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome (see this earlier post and this one, too). Now I'm actually reading it. I don't know what I think of it's argument (I'm not quite sure what the argument is, yet), but already on page 18 I can see that it may attract a wide non-specialist readership by retailing in clear prose things that specialists already know. On p. 18, for instance, Heather in talking about the aims of Roman elite education says this:

They...saw their literary texts as a kind of accumulated moral database of human behaviour -- both good and bad -- from which with guidance, one could learn what to do and what not to do. On a simple level, from the fate of Alexander the Great you could learn not to get drunk at dinner and throw spears at your best friend.

Well, it made me laugh. Simple things for simple minds, I guess.

A friend of mine has already criticized this book for precisely this kind of thing, but I think that more scholars should reach out in this way. Of course, that presumes they have something worthwhile to say. But if you do have something worthwhile, why not express it with wit and grace? Recently I almost didn't get through a good study of Hezbollah because it was slow and wordy, while I'm stalled at the beginning of a book on Wahhabism, an important subject I should know more about, because the author can't resist extraneous travelogue material. As a result my eyes went wandering until they rested on Heather's book.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Help needed from big thinkers!

Can you suggest a good book or two?

Last year I assigned two "big picture" books for my Ancient Civilizations course (a second year course) and asked students to compare and contrast. Neither was really an "ancient history" book, but they were books that reflected on the wide sweep of human experience and discussed the significance of ancient developments in that perspective.

The two books were:
David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History
and Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress.

I'd love to assign a similar paper for the upcoming year's Ancient Civilizations but I need one or two new books that make an interesting contrast and have something to do with ancient history (mainly the ancient Middle East and the Mediterranean).

You don't have to be an ancient historian or a historian of any sort to be helpful in this quest; you just have to have a good idea. Neither of my previous choices were typical historical works.

Any thought you put into this, and any suggestions you make, will be gratefully received.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

How the news media fail us

Did you know about this? I was teaching about the Middle East during the 138 days this demonstration has been going, and I don't recall seeing a word about it in the Washington Post or the Toronto Globe and Mail. Maybe it's my failure but I don't think so.


Father of lies

The current movie 300 is based on a "graphic novel" (sorry, can't take that phrase seriously), which is based on a movie of the 1960s. Some Iranians have been outraged by the bizarre and ahistorical depiction of the ancient Persians, just as some Kazakhs have been by Borat. (The Uzbeks and Tajiks are just glad they dodged that bullet.) I have some sympathy for the Iranians, but haven't felt it necessary to keep track of their counterblasts, since in the end they'll just have to lump it (or make their own movie).

Somehow, though, I took a look at this article by Amir Nasseri in the online Persian Journal. Nasseri is upset, too, but more about Herodotus' supposedly contempory account, written sometime after the war, maybe a generation. Why, he asks, do people appeal to Herodotus against 300, when he himself tells a half-mythological tale that is inherently improbable?

Nasseri's not the first person to make these points, but he makes them reasonably well. I, too, have wondered how classicists over the century have found it possible to believe Herodotus' military statistics, or at least some of them.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007


Quote from a student paper:

[As Howard Patch said,] Chaucer had a "mature and realistic mind, equable enough to observe that all shall pass and that odd things occur along the way."


Brave New War, The Upside of Down, and the fall of the Roman Empire

Andrew Sullivan's blog directed me to the inside flap blurb of John Robb's Brave New War as printed at Amazon. These passages caught my eye:

In Brave New War, the controversial terrorism expert John Robb argues that the shift from state-against-state conflicts to wars against small, ad hoc bands of like-minded insurgents will lead to a world with as many tiny armies as there are causes to fight for. Our new enemies are looking for gaps in vital systems where a small, cheap action—blowing up an oil pipeline or knocking out a power grid—will generate a huge return...

How can we defend ourselves against this pernicious new menace? Brave New War presents a debate-changing argument that no one who cares about national security can afford to ignore: it is time, says Robb, to decentralize all of our systems, from energy and communications to security and markets. It is time for every citizen to take personal responsibility for some aspect of state security. It is time to make our systems, and ourselves, as flexible, adaptable, and resilient as the forces that are arrayed against us.
Two weeks ago I was reading a similar argument in Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Upside of Down, though H0mer-Dixon, without ignoring "security," is more interested in the environmental challenges we face.

A couple of short reflections. Robb's subtitle is The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. It's not clear from the blurb (which was probably written by a staffer at the publisher's office, or even a free-lance editor) whether Robb believes that globalization, defined in the blurb as "worldwide economic and cultural integration," has been a matter of centralization, of more power in the hands of presidents, billionaire investors, and media owners. Opponents of globalization have seen it that way and you can understand why. But the globalization that some fairly ordinary people, obscure academics at small Canadian universities for instance, have enjoyed the fruits of, has never been a matter of centralization. We in North Bay, Ontario have been empowered to do work that formerly would only have been possible for people based in Toronto, New York, Oxford or Paris. So some of us are pretty keen on this idea of decentralized and flexible systems. Like the Internet, which numerous governments and "intellectual property owners" have already tried to rein in as a threat to their old-style power.

A worthwhile globalization is a matter of creating civilized networks that are more robust and powerful than the networks of people who want to blow up things and shut people up in secret prisons. It doesn't strike me that this is an unprecedented challenge. Some of the tactics of the destroyers and the slavers may be new, but the world has always been infested with small groups who want to make big killings -- literal, financial, or both -- and don't care who gets hurt in the process if it's not them. The new terrorists aren't going to be content to be crawling around blowing up pipelines forever. Some of them are looking forward to that Swiss bank account, that luxurious compound on the Riviera, that imperial palace filled with beautiful and compliant servants. These guys aren't all crazed, self-sacrificing martyrs. They employ crazed martyrs. And you can bet they appreciate the role of law and law enforcement in securing their gains. There's a big danger to innocent life and the productive economy and our environment as a whole from the cheapness of some possible aggressive tactics, but in some ways it's the same old game. The future world, if we avoid environmental collapse, may solve terrorism simply by strengthening slavery.

My second reflection is on the current debate about the fall of the Roman Empire (the fifth-century fall) between people who equate it with "the End of Civilization" (Bryan Ward-Perkins) and people who don't think it was an ending of unprecedented significance (say, Peter Brown and Walter Goffart). I really think that the unresolved and maybe unresolvable debate is about what civilization is. Is it a situation where a leisured minority sit around in the palace library, enjoying bread made from Egyptian wheat and dipping it in Syrian olive oil or Spanish fish sauce, and debating the great ideas of the ages, while other people dig minerals from the earth in dirty, dangerous mines, or harvest cotton in the hot sun, and die young? If that's it, then there was probably a lot less "civilization" in large parts of the formerly Roman world after AD 400 than there had been for some centuries, in that it was far more difficult to assemble a large variety of enviable luxuries in one spot through the routine operations of centralized imperial power. And there is more civilization now, because here I sit, not even close to being rich by Canadian standards, but able to read, think and then speak to a privileged minority around the world while hundreds of millions sweat profusely (and all too often, die young).

But it might be worth considering whether the height of luxury -- whatever luxury you prefer -- is the only measure of civilization.

I say, bring on those resilient decentralized networks and extend them as far as we can. The only alternative is slavery for somebody.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Woman scholar in disguise, Krakow, 15th century

Over on the MEDIEV-L e-mail list, Andrew Larsen a few days back told this story about a woman who studied in disguise at a late-medieval university. With his permission I am reproducing some of his remarks here. Thanks to Andrew and Michael Shank both:
Michael Shank discovered a fascinating case of a woman at the university of Krakow who studied there for several years disguised as a man).

She studied at the U. of Krakow for a few years, until two men made a bet that she was actually a woman, and then jumped her and tore her clothes off.

As a girl she had studied at a grammar school. When her parents died, she used her inheritance to enter the university and lived in disguise at one of the student hostels. She was unmasked by a "soldier in the house of a burgher named Kaltherbrig" and his companions. When
unmasked and taken before a judge, she was asked why she had done it. She replied "for the love of learning." She was sent to "the convent", where she became a teacher ('Magistra') and later on abbess. Shank suggests thatthe incident happened somewhere between 1400 and 1420.

For Shank's brief article on this incident, see Michael Shank, "A Female University Student in Late Medieval Krakow", _Signs_ 12 (1987), repr._Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages_, ed. Judith M. Bennett et al, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989).


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Walmart's world -- where their products come from

This relates to the last lecture in World History two weeks back. A better view at the originating site (or try clicking on the image above). I wonder what else might be there?


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Inside Iraq

It is easy to treat the war in Iraq as a problem in American politics. Most of the news sees Iraq from the outside. If you want to see it from the inside and don't read Arabic, try this blog, Inside Iraq, which is written by Iraqis who work at the McClatchy Baghdad News Bureau. In line with my resolution to restrict my commentary to items with a certain historical perspective, I'm going to put a permanent link to this forum on my sidebar.

It's strong stuff, hard to read, but if you read it you will (a) learn any number of things and (b) find it difficult to feel that Iraq and its problems are on a different planet. Especially if you've ever played Diablo or Grand Theft Auto.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Help send an independent scholar to Transylvania

Phil Paine, my sometime collaborator, is going to Transylvania. He's still raising funds for the trip. If you have work he could do from a Toronto base, have a look at this post and his description of contract research work he's done in the past.

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Early History and current events

My Fall/Winter courses are over, except for the final exam in Islamic Civilization, which my students are now preparing for. While Islamic Civilization and World History were running, I had them to excuse my commentary on current events in the Middle East, commentary that drew me away from my professed focus on "Early History" (roughly, history before railways).

So now that my excuse is gone, what will I do?

I could protest that World History will be back in September, and since I always take it up to the current year, I can comment away all spring and summer with a clear conscience. To do that, however, risks turning this into a current events blog, and there are plenty of those -- probably around 30 million of them.

On the other hand, I'm not going to give up commenting on recent events. First, it is one of my deepest convictions that what is happening in the world now is not unprecedented, that the past is more familiar and the present more exotic than we often give them credit for being. There is often something to be learned and intellectual pleasure to be gained in making historical connections across time and space. Second, current issues are vital. What's happening in the Middle East is of the greatest importance. The battle now raging over the US constitution and for the soul of America is also of extraordinary significance, and not just for the USA and Canada. Truly, my heart has been in my mouth since April, 2004.

These two areas in particular touch on things I've taught and researched over the years (see my CV for a list of publications if you are interested). If this blog is a bit of a bulletin board for my activities as a faculty member at NU, especially a place for things I'd mention in class if I had the time, then the commentary is appropriate.

I am going to do my best, however, to link to only the most important stories, or to ones that have a good historical perspective to suggest. For instance, one of today's links is to Juan Cole's daily Informed Comment where he suggests that Richard Cheney's idea that the tide of 21st century history favors American empire is dead wrong, and offers his reasons for thinking so. This post should mean something to Islamic Civilization students.

Perhaps even more interesting is one of the comments to that post, which reflects a thought I've had. Arnold Evans says:

I think a simple lesson is that post 1945, if a nation is hostile, no amount of sanctions, bombs or occupying troops can make it non-hostile.

This is a lesson that applies to Iraq, and also to Iran, Cuba and North Korea.

This sounds like a utopian, lovey-dovey peacenik idea, but the cold, hard real fact is that sanctions, bombing and occupation really do not work for the reasons described in the essay.

The United States will be much better off when it learns the lesson.

I don't know anything about Arnold Evans except that he has a blog called Middle East Realities in which he matches his perceptions of those realities against more common ones, by making predictions based on his ideas, posting them, and then letting the reader judge. I haven't actually gone through his archives and tested his accuracy, but I must say that it's an interesting idea.

I think I'm going to keep an eye on Evans. Here's part of a post from January worth the attention of a historian of democracy in world perspective (i.e., me):

A major reason democracy is an advance is that a group that becomes more powerful than its rivals has a non-violent way of attaining control of government - and does not have to wage a war that it probably could win.

When pro-Iran elements won the elections - even though Iraq was under direct US occupation and the US was flooding Iraq's electoral system with money, free television and other resources - the whole point of democracy is that now the pro-Iran elements don't have wage the war they probably could win.

America is now saying it wants to fight the pro-Iran elements even after the pro-Iran elements won the elections. That defeats the entire purpose of elections, and the pro-Iran elements are probably (definitely) going to win anyway, just like they won the elections.

Somebody should teach the United States about democracy. It sounds ironic but it is not a joke. US ideals about democracy are consistently put to the test in the Middle East and the US consistently, not just Bush but consistently for over 50 years, demonstrates that it does not understand or accept the theoretical underpinnings or consequences of democracy.
No, Arnold, I don't think you are joking, and irony is a much overused concept. And anyone who says something that cogent and applicable to our historical understanding has a place in this blog, whether they are talking about Early History or not.

Image: the bombing of Beirut, July 2006.

Monday, April 16, 2007

That Beautiful Somewhere -- Toronto opening

This announcement is from Bill Plumstead, author of the book Loon and the executive producer of the movie made from it, That Beautiful Somewhere:

In the movie business you become rather crass at snatching every opportunity for publicity. Our film "That Beautiful Somewhere" opens in Toronto this Friday, April 20,(also in Montreal at the Forum) and will play until at least Sunday, 22, at the Empress Walk 10 theatre on Yonge St North.(10 screens). In the newspaper listings it's under "Empire Theatres." The subway stop is North York Centre.There is free parking under this complex for moviegoers. If the weekend box office is solid, they'll keep us on for another week. Check us out at Thanks.
I recommend this movie.

Friday, April 13, 2007

World War II veterans

In the last couple of days I have had the opportunity to talk to veterans of World War II, one with experience in Europe, another who hopped from island to island in the South Pacific. Both of them had medals that they haven't had a chance to talk about for years. ("I don't know why I got that medal. I didn't do anything. I didn't save anybody. I just survived.")

Let me urge any students who may be reading this, or anyone else, to take a moment to sit down with people you know who experienced the war or any other fascinating past event, and let them talk. Don't restrict yourself to warriors, either. There are plenty of other kinds of stories.

You will kick yourself in later life if you don't do this while you still can.

Image: German prisoners captured at Anzio, Italy, in 1943.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Democracy and ideology

Phil Paine talks about democracy as Childhood's End. (See April 9 entry.)

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Nomad life disrupted in Darfur

I know that some of my intro World History students will be taking Ancient History with me in September. One of the first topics we will be tackling will be the balance between nomadic and settled human groups. This article from the Washington Post about Darfur gave me something to think about -- especially the part about the boredom afflicting impoverished nomads.


Saturday, April 07, 2007

An exercise for my outgoing students

If you want your Easter holiday to be a lighthearted one, you may want to put this exercise off for a couple of days.

On the other hand, if you reserve any time for serious contemplation, this may be an appropriate subject.

For students in intro World History: Read the following report by Glenn Greenwald. Compare the people he quotes to various 19th and 2oth century ideologues discussed in Worlds Together, Worlds Apart.

For students in Islamic Civilization: Compare the impression you have of Iraqis from reading Night Draws Near to the picture sketched in the sources quoted by Greenwald.

Untermenschen, if you don't know, is a German word often translated as "sub-human."

Two treats from Unlocked Wordhoard for the holiday

Part of my regular reading is Richard Scott Nokes' blog. Nokes is an Alabama medievalist with a sense of humor and a personal touch in his writing.

In the past week he's posted two interesting things, one light-hearted that he's just passing along, the other quite serious and all his own.

The first is a YouTube video which shows the Bayeux Tapestry as animation. Those of us who are already familiar with the BT are astounded by how good this is. Those of you who don't know the BT should get on the Web and look up some good discussions of this unique piece of embroidery which was commissioned by the victorious Normans soon after they conquered England. There is an excellent disc version of the BT that you can buy, which includes lots of background material, but I can't find a link because there are a lot of free, online versions cluttering up my Google search.

The original Nokes contribution is his discussion of how he tries to put Boccaccio's apparently lightheared Decameron into its original context. As a history teacher myself I'm quite impressed.

As is often the case, clicking on the image above -- a short section of the BT -- will give you a bigger better image.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

It's not Joan of Arc

Sometime in the 19th century, when the pressure was on to have Joan of Arc recognized as a saint, somebody faked up some relics using material from an Egyptian mummy.

Now they've been found out. CSI does it again! (Well, not exactly.)

For details see the online version of Nature.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Danger in Israel/Palestine

Another article on the perils of the current deadlock. This article sketches out Israel's demographic dilemma.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Hometown Baghdad

America on the sidelines -- another reading for Islamic Civilization

Here's an informative and opinionated post from The most striking passage:

Arab regimes most closely allied to the U.S. face mounting crises of legitimacy at home, damned not only by their authoritarianism, but also by their paralysis in the face of U.S. and Israeli violence against Arab populations. Delivering the Palestinians to statehood is now seen by those regimes as essential to their own domestic political survival.

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Methodist church becomes mosque in a Lancashire town

Students in Islamic Civilization may want to read this NY Times article.


Another day, another theory about the Great Pyramid

Thanks to Al Jazeera I now know that a French architect named Jean-Pierre Houdin thinks he's proved that the Great Pyramid was built by using a ramp that was inside the outer skin. Unfortunately the 3D animation that has convinced others did not work on my rather old computer at work. If you want to give it a try, go here.


Roland online

Today was the last class meeting of my Chivalry seminar. One member was speaking on the Song of Roland, and she used her laptop computer and NU's wireless network to show us the famous Bodleian ms. of the epic, and to play us an audio clip of someone reciting its first stanza in Old French.

Can I do less? No.

Here's the Bodleian manuscript and the audio clip.

Image: Charlemagne flanked by Roland and Olivier, from Notre-Dame Cathedral in Strasbourg.


Scotus for Dunces and medievalist humor

The Kalamazoo-based International Congress of Medieval Studies is coming up and I was looking at its thick, information-packed program yesterday and got some good laughs.

Laughs? Even medievalists themselves live in fear that the subjects they study are dry and boring (even though the period is full of blood and vinegar) and as a result the Congress program has numerous attempts to give papers and publications snappy titles. Some of these are laughable (in other words, pathetic) while others are rather clever.

One I sincerely liked was a paper on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight entitled "Two Beheadings and a Funeral."

But the real belly-laugh was reserved for a book on the Franciscan theologian of around 1300, John Duns Scotus. Congratulations to Mary Beth Ingham (and Franciscan Institute Publications) who had the nerve and the marketing savvy to call her book Scotus for Dunces: An Introduction to the Subtle Doctor.

Why is this funny? Ask your nearest medievalist, or look up the origin of the word "dunce."

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

World democracy watch: American authoritarianism

Some Americans have just lost track of the essentials, as constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald points out. Despite the date, this is not an April Fool. (You may see an advertisement after the link but you can skip it.)