Saturday, May 24, 2008

Off to see Lyonesse

I am off tomorrow to visit Lyonesse and other far countries. Wish me safe journey. I will be back in two weeks. I have no idea whether I will be in a position to post.


$5 a gallon

...but you'd never know from the number of people on the highways this weekend, including hundreds of motorcyclists from who-knows-where, cruising in large flotillas, stopping at Tim Horton's, etc...

Back when gas in my area hit $.95 a liter for the first time, and I noticed people still running their cars with their air conditioners in parking lots while using the post office, I concluded that the price of gas was not high enough yet. Maybe it's still not?

Image: a ride in support of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Society (founded in 1863).

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Some interesting insights on argumentation and writing

This week I stumbled across an interesting site by a well-known IT expert, Paul Graham. His site has a variety of purposes, including attracting people with good start up proposals. What I found interesting and worth blogging about were two articles on communication -- or perhaps I should say, rhetoric.

One is probably intended as a guide for people who have never thought very seriously about the structure of arguments, but as Internet users now find themselves involved in quite a few of them. One might call this a pocket guide to rhetoric and dialectic.

Then there's a very short but useful discussion of how Graham thinks effective writing can be accomplished. The essence of the article is:

As for how to write well, here's the short version: Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can; rewrite it over and over; cut out everything unnecessary; write in a conversational tone; develop a nose for bad writing, so you can see and fix it in yours; imitate writers you like; if you can't get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said; expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong;...

Oops, I'm duplicating the essay.


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Canada's Supreme Court tells the government, support Omar Khadr's right to a fair trial

In a 9-0 ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Government of Canada must allow Omar Khadr's lawyers to see evidence collected at Guantánamo Bay by Canadian interrogators. The Court unanimously pointed out that the "judicial" procedure in place at Guantánamo at the time of the interrogations was illegal by Canadian and international law, and that the United States Supreme Court had also ruled that procedure as illegal. The ruling said that Khadr deserved to have access to the information gathered by Canada, and that the government had no excuse to deny him material relevant to his defense.

Details (the Globe and Mail's report) and a link to the Supreme Court's judgment can be found here.

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Red spots on Jupiter

There are currently three!


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Political hunting:"Fabulous beasts can only be slain by fabulous humans."

At the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress I snatched up at a very reasonable price the single display copy of Thomas T. Alllsen's The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History.

My interest was simple. I had noticed in my recent teaching of ancient history that monarchs of nearly every culture we touched on were routinely depicted as mighty hunters. I got into the habit of telling my students "here is so-and-so as Gilgamesh," referring to one of the earliest examples of such depiction. Similarly, in teaching world history I was fascinated by all the pictures left by North Indian and Central Asian monarchs of their hunting exploits and what looked like huge picnics.

I finally had some time today to look at Allsen's book and I'm glad bought it. It is an elegantly written, wide-ranging exploration of how hunting, a practical and high prestige activity through most of history, has also served as a symbol of royal control over nature, and the strength and accomplishment of monarchs. I look forward to having a chance to read it thoroughly.

The environmental historian joining our department in the fall, Dean Bavington, has worked on fishing as hunting versus fishing as modern managed economic activity. I wonder if he'd like to have this book in our collection when he gets here?

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“Once Upon a Time…” @Discovery North Bay, Saturday May 24, 1 pm: Steve Muhlberger speaks

@Discovery North Bay (100 Ferguson Street, the old train station) opens its display of medieval life and culture at 1 pm on Saturday the 24th. I will be speaking, briefly, on "Why the Middle Ages are Important."

I'm glad to be invited; it's good when Nipissing University can contribute to specifically community initiatives.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Summer books for students

I have very limited expectations that students for my fall courses are checking in on a daily basis to see what I think they should be reading this summer. But on the off chance and remembering that is not just students who drop in here, I am going to mention a couple of books that are worth knowing about.

For those who are interested in chivalry perhaps the best book on the subject, one that has been credited with reviving scholarly interest in the subject is Maurice Keen's 1984 work, Chivalry. It is one of those books that make scholarship look really good: well-organized, well-written, and full of ideas.

So you say, if this book is so darned good, why is it not on the reading list for the chivalry seminar? I'm not sure how this will sound, but when a book is this good, basing a seminar on it might be counterproductive. I'm hoping to spend most of the time in class discussing primary sources in all their variety and contradictions, rather than admiring Keen's elegant formulations based on his extremely wide reading. I am keenly (!?) aware that my students don't have unlimited funds. Our course pack and other books will cost quite enough thank you, and I'm not going to have you buy this book just because I think it would be good for you.

On the other hand, this book will be good for you, maybe, there's a good chance, so if you have it available to you, or feel like buying it, don't let me hold you back.

I have another recommendation for students think they are not going to have enough material on the Crusades in the three books required for the course on Crusade and Jihad: it's the most recent survey of all the evidence about the Crusades to the Holy Land before 1300, God's War by Christopher Tyerman. The one review I saw criticized this book for not being a suitable replacement for a 50-year-old three-volume work by Steven Runciman, whose prose and analytical skills were astonishing. That reviewer predicted that the Runciman book would continue to be assigned to students despite the virtues of Tyreman's up-to-date review of the evidence.

Me, I don't think I would recommend either Runciman or Tyerman as the primary text for an undergraduate course. Both works are just too long (Tyerman's book has nearly 1100 pages) if we really expect students to be reading a variety of materials. Nonetheless, Tyerman's work, like Runciman's, is interesting, detailed, and full of ideas. I think the real weakness of Tyerman's book, if you're thinking about a general market, is that it seems to assume a fair amount of knowledge about the general course of the Crusades to the Holy Land. This would work better as a second or third book about the Crusades than it would as an introduction.

One nice thing about Tyerman's book is that it is very cheap for a hardback of its size. If you would like to just completely immerse yourself in the Crusades, look it up at a bookseller's site and be pleasantly surprised.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Beauty and humility

The Perseus cluster of galaxies.

(I'm having trouble posting pictures, but that doesn't mean you can't have a look.)


Saturday, May 17, 2008

Can parking fines be called "medieval?" Maybe.

A lovely post at Got Medieval.

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Mid-May in the Near North


Friday, May 16, 2008

Those people seem to be especially pious

In a couple of American op-ed articles the claim has been made that Barack Obama should not be viewed as a potential American leader who can reach out to the Muslim world, just because his father was a Muslim. In fact, say these pundits (no compliment here), Obama as president would be a complicating factor in American foreign policy: he would be regarded as an apostate and therefore subject to prosecution and the death penalty for apostasy. Edward Luttwack, a longtime purveyor of specious generalizations on very complex subjects (Roman military policy for instance), says for instance:

Because no government is likely to allow the prosecution of a President Obama — not even those of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the only two countries where Islamic religious courts dominate over secular law — another provision of Muslim law is perhaps more relevant: it prohibits punishment for any Muslim who kills any apostate, and effectively prohibits interference with such a killing.

At the very least, that would complicate the security planning of state visits by President Obama to Muslim countries, because the very act of protecting him would be sinful for Islamic security guards. More broadly, most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator Obama’s conversion to Christianity once it became widely known — as it would, no doubt, should he win the White House. This would compromise the ability of governments in Muslim nations to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, as well as American efforts to export democracy and human rights abroad.

This is nonsense, as Juan Cole, a real expert in Shiite Islam, points out on his website Informed Comment. His commentary is well worth looking at.

Cole's discussion raised another point which has often occurred to me but which seldom seems to enter into intellectual discourse, whether it's about current events or historical phenomena. Cole says:
Another error is to see persons of Muslim heritage as necessarily religious. Frankly, most Muslims nowadays don't pay any attention to those kinds of minutiae.
That line reminded me of a conversation with a friend a long time ago. I had grown up in an area where Protestants were the majority but there was a large minority of Catholics. Catholics were regarded as being unusually pious. After all, they went to Mass every Sunday, had their own version of the Lord's Prayer which they insisted upon, and sent their kids to Catholic schools -- except of course when it was too expensive or inconvenient. My friend had grown up in a Catholic-majority area, where being a Catholic was pretty important to local identity, but it was the minority Protestants who were thought to be pious, since they seemed to be the ones going to church on regular basis, not the Catholics, who were just baptized and married in church.

Reading a short general description of what North American Catholics and Protestants were supposed to believe would do nothing to reveal the realities we had grown up with.

Educated people who want to be well informed often fall into a trap simply because they are open-minded and when studying religion that is not familiar to them, go to the library and pick up a book by a member of that religion, usually a member of the clergy or an academic theologian. Those people, however honest and outreaching they are, will probably give their readers what they consider the right slant, but a narrow one, on a very varied tradition, mostly followed -- or not -- by people who have never been to theological school and never considered entering the clergy for a second.

About 15 years ago I read a book on the history of Buddhism -- unfortunately I can't remember its name -- which tried to give the basic facts in about 200 pages. I came away from it very impressed by the variety of that tradition. In fact, I realized a general truth. Any big-time religion must contain a tremendous variety within it or it would never have become a big-time religion in the first place.

This insight, if accepted, should be especially useful for my students in the Crusade and Jihad class. Just because someone is labeled a Muslim or Christian, don't leap to assume that you know what that means for their social and political attitudes and priorities. Look and see what they really were, if the sources allow. Maybe some of the people you are studying weren't unusually pious after all.

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More on the rectification of names

Some time back, in connection with a post by Phil Paine at, I wrote a little piece on "the rectification of names."

Phil has now written a long and meaty essay that explores that theme in connection with recent developments in American and Canadian politics: What Is Progress? What Is Progressive? (Monday,May 12, 2008)

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My world includes Chengdu

I just found out that someone I know was in Chengdu (Sichuan, China) during the earthquake!

Fortunately not harmed.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

The BBC's version of the medieval mind -- and the Middle Ages come to North Bay

Richard Scott Nokes of Unlocked Wordhoard directs our attention to a YouTube-posted trailer for the upcoming BBC 4 Medieval Season. Unfortunately, much web material will be available only in the UK. But we can enjoy this:

And in another jurisdiction,

@Discovery North Bay is pleased to announce the Grand Opening of the “Once Upon a Time…” medieval exhibit, on 24 May 2008, from 1:00 – 3:00 pm, at 100 Ferguson Street. The exhibit originates with the Bruce Country Museum and Archives, and will be in North Bay until 5 September, 2008.

More on this later...

Update: I will be speaking at the Grand Opening on "Why the Middle Ages are Important."

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Inside Iraq: being a parent in Iraq

The French Revolution and Canada -- laughable?

Last week I attended the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It's my favorite academic conference -- the very first conference I ever attended was an early iteration of what's often just called "Kalamazoo" and it rather spoiled me for other models. This year, despite the fact that my energy level is still not quite to previous levels, I had a very good time indeed.

I want to tell you about one incident that led me to reflect on my own historical values. On Sunday morning, the BABEL working group hosted a roundtable called, What Is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies? I hesitate to characterize the "presentism" discussed mostly approvingly, by the members of this roundtable, but a very simple definition might be that if you're a "presentist," you see present and past issues coming together and feel compelled to comment on them, perhaps in forms and in forums where past scholarly practice would not allow such comment.

The Roundtable began with a senior and rightfully admired scholar unsympathetic to this approach commenting upon it. I rather got the impression that she was calling for a circling up of the wagons in scholarship, so that serious issues rather than faddish ones get proper attention. This rather took some of the other participants back, but it did lead to some interesting discussion. Later, the same senior scholar told a story that I believe was meant to illustrate her rejection of trivialities. She told story of walking into her department in a prominent Canadian university, seeing a poster advertising a conference called The French Revolution and Canada and finding it hilarious. And finding it even more hilarious that no one else in the department thought it was funny at all. (One gathers from this anecdote that the senior professor is not originally from Canada.)

I think the anecdote passed over a lot of people's heads, but I've heard the like before. I'm not quite sure what the senior scholar meant, but two possibilities occur to me. The first is that Canada is an inherently humorous place, perhaps one that has no real reason to exist. The relationship between a world historical event like the French Revolution and Canada is absurd on the face of it simply because Canada is not important enough to be part of the discussion of the FR. And as for what people in Canada thought about French Revolution then or since, or whether Canadians might have a unique and interesting view of that revolution, well it's hardly worth considering. The second is that the senior scholar has run into the rather pathetic efforts of Canadian intellectuals to make themselves and their country relevant in situations where those Canadians don't really believe it themselves. This is an attitude I have run into, but more often in the 70s than in any more recent decade.

I hate to think that the senior scholar has been in Canada for decades and still has a condescending attitude towards the country's very existence, but it is one held by some people born and bred in Canada. Certain people, not necessarily important ones, feel that Canada's second- or third-ratedness (in their eyes) diminishes them, and they react by taking every opportunity to slight the country, especially if foreigners are around. They would be oh so much more happy if they were part of a first-rate world power. People with great ambitions sometimes have a very bad case of this desire to disassociate themselves from Podunk Canada. Consider the cases of Lords Beaverbrook, Thompson, and Black, who bought British newspapers specifically so they could someday be members of the House of Lords. Sometimes the Canada-bashers go so far as to become politically active and attempt to incorporate Canada and their own careers in some great imperial project. A truly despicable example of this took place in the fall and winter of 2001, when "conservative" commentators in Canada went on a tear, blaming September attacks on New York and Washington on softheaded Canadian liberalism and Canada's failings as a bad ally.

I think that I came to Canada from the same country and for much the same reasons as the senior scholar, but if I ever would have found the conference about the French Revolution and Canada funny, I can no longer remember feeling that way. It's not so much that I've become Canadian over the years -- though that's part of it clearly -- but more that I have developed a world historian's attitude even if I'm mainly a medievalist. No country, or no country's people, are more inherently humorous than anyone else. They get neither automatic contempt nor automatic admiration from me. You never know where some good idea is going to come from or from where some slimy practice will creep out. If you really want to understand the human condition, you can't start by excluding part of humanity from consideration. Maybe a few people in Bhutan aren't very significant in their current attempts to implement a humane democracy in the Himalayas. But who knows? Let's check back later and see how things actually work out.

Image: Inherently humorous Canadian money.

Update: Fixed some embarrassing errors produced by using dictation software and not checking closely enough afterwards.

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Rule of law and human rights -- only when convenient?

On my way home last night I heard on CBC Radio One that Senator Romeo Dallaire, famous in Canada as the commander of the failed UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda and ever since a strong proponent of human rights and international enforcement, bravely criticized the Canadian government for not insisting that Omar Khadar, captured in Afghanistan in 2001, be treated as the child soldier he is by international agreement. Khader, the son of an undoubted Al Qaeda supporter, was 15 years old when he was captured by American forces. Since then, he has been tortured and interrogated at Guantánamo Bay and is still held there. Although he is a Canadian citizen, and nothing has been proved against him in a court of law, and he falls into the child soldier category, a category recognized by Canada in its operations in Afghanistan, neither this government nor its predecessor has lifted a finger to obtain lawful treatment for Omar Khader. Once again, human rights we as Canadians supposedly stand for -- and claim to be fighting for in Afghanistan -- are tossed out the window when they are inconvenient, or may prove offensive to some powerful interest.

I've known this for a while and have been quite angry about Canada's unwillingness to stand up for decent treatment for all Canadians. What really offended me this time was the fact that the Liberal party leadership in parliament seems reluctant to stand up for Dallaire, a widely-admired man who knows from personal experience how the young and powerless are kicked around in places like Rwanda and Afghanistan. (Indeed, if they are only kicked around in such places...) . Dallaire said:

"The minute you start playing with human rights, with conventions, with civil liberties, in order to say that you're doing it to protect yourself and you are going against those rights and conventions, you are no better than the guy who doesn't believe in them at all.''
This comparison between Canadian delinquency and terrorist practice offended the Tory MP Jason Kenney. I'm not surprised; but I am disappointed that the Liberal leader in the House of Commons, Stéphane Dion, allowed the Tories to make Dallaire the issue. According to CTV, Dion said, "he disagreed with Dallaire's choice of words, and hinted the senator could be disciplined."

The Vanity Press has the appropriate response to Dion's remarks. He should have spoken harder truths: Canada is disgraced by this unprincipled behavior. And it doesn't matter who did it first (the Liberals did), it should stop now. Just because someone has a "dangerous sounding" Islamic name doesn't mean the rule of law does not apply in his or her case. And what is outside the rule of law? Lawlessness.

Image: the world's most dangerous Canadian teenager, before he was imprisoned and tortured.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Medieval soldier of the month

I am currently at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo.

Yesterday I was at a session based on the online database The Soldier in Later Medieval England, and one of the directors reminded me that there is a feature called Medieval Soldier of the Month. Go here to see May's soldier, Walter, 5th lord Fitzwalter of Little Dunmow, Essex.

Back to the conference!

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

I can't wait

Soon I will have time and weather to unleash my Celestron Newtonian reflector telescope, which promises the ability to see "faint, distant objects." Whoo-hoo!

Today, of course, all that can be seen is close, opaque water molecules. Not that the rain isn't welcome.