Sunday, November 30, 2008


Juan Cole at Informed Comment is hoping that India does not make the mistakes that the USA did after 9/11. His piece includes this worthwhile passage:

There is a danger in India as we speak of mob action against Muslims, which will ineluctably drag the country into communal violence. The terrorists that attacked Mumbai were not Muslims in any meaningful sense of the word. They were cultists. Some of them brought stocks of alcohol for the siege they knew they would provoke. They were not pious. They killed and wounded Muslims along with other kinds of Indians.

Muslims in general must not be punished for the actions of a handful of unbalanced fanatics. Down that road lies the end of civilization. It should be remembered that Hindu extremists have killed 100 Christians in eastern India in recent weeks. But that would be no excuse for a Christian crusade against Hindus or Hinduism.

We could call the extremist cult the "Rivers of Blood" party. They would rather create rivers of blood than let people, say, rent videos at the corner store. Whatever specific thing is "bad," rivers of blood, or military spending, or labor camps are always "good."

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

C.S. Lewis on chivalry and history

Two and a half years ago, early in my blogging career, I was preparing for the first presentation of the chivalry seminar for fourth-year students. One of the secondary sources I was considering using was C.S. Lewis's famous essay on courtly love. I remembered it being good, but I was taken aback by how lively and well expressed it was. I was inspired to include a quotation from the essay in one of my earlier blog entries. You can see the post here.

About a week ago, reviewing material for a new run-through of that chivalry seminar, I read the essay once more, and once again found it worthwhile. I was especially impressed by this passage, which is part of his discussion of the pioneering romance poet, Chretien de Troyes. I include it here for your enjoyment and contemplation

For him already 'the age of chivalry is dead'. It always was: let no one think the worse of it on that account. These phantom periods for which the historian searches in vain—the Rome and Greece that the Middle Ages believed in, the British past of Malory and Spenser, the Middle Age itself as it was conceived by the romantic revival—all these have their place in a history more momentous than that which com­monly bears the name.
Image: a courtly German knight, Der Schenk von Limpurg,from the early 14th-century Manesse Codex.

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Visualize this

In 1215, the church council known as the Fourth Lateran Council required all Christians to support the upcoming (5th) Crusade either by going in person or by supporting others to go in their stead. Pope Innocent III threatened those who did neither thus:

If any shall be found so ungrateful to the Lord as to refuse, we warn them that they must answer for it to us before the terrible judge on the last day. Let all such consider with what conscience and what security they will be able to make their confession before the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, into whose hands the Father has given all things, if, in this matter which so peculiarly concerns them, they refuse to obey him who was crucified for sinners, by whose favor and goodness they live and are sustained, nay, more, by whose blood they are redeemed.

After you've read enough medieval ecclesiastical documents, it is easy enough to see this statement as formulaic. Stop for a moment and take it literally -- or try to. What did Innocent think would happen, really?

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Friday, November 28, 2008

An analysis of the Indian situation

Students in the Islamic Civilization course may be interested in this analysis by Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail.

Image: From the Big Picture.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sports fans in Toronto, Russia

Russian immigrants celebrate a sporting win in Hogtown. Hey, at least they have a winning team! From English Russia.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Canadian Oil's involvement in Kurdistan and Iraqi (dis)unity

Laura Rozen refers us to this article in Mother Jones.

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Will the Maldives disappear?

Yesterday in the Islamic Civilization course I mentioned the Maldive Islands in connection with the travels of Ibn Battuta. Today I discover that there is an AFP video report at the Globe and Mail website, on the effects of climate change and rising sea level on a country that is not much more than a meter above the waves now.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

ISS above, the Cook Strait below

From the Big Picture. Click on the image for a better view.


Happy Crusade! Happy Jihad!

Actually, I don't recommend either one for a roaring good time, unless your tastes run to rivers of blood. This is just my flip way of saying I had a very good time myself preparing and teaching my special topics course on Crusade and Jihad this fall. I'm not exactly done with it yet, there's a final exam to write and plenty of grading to do both before and after the exam, but all of my lectures and accompanying PowerPoint presentations are done.

Part of the enjoyment of this course has been a feeling that the students are also really enjoying it. (Course evaluations will eventually show how much they enjoyed it.) But there has been an intellectual thrill to what I personally have been doing, too. About a quarter of a century ago, when I was a new assistant professor, I taught the Crusades as part of a course on the High Middle Ages. I did a thorough and conscientious job of preparing those crusade lectures. Therefore, it was to a certain amount of astonishment that I returned to the subject in the last year or so (I begin to think about new courses long in advance) and found that the whole subject had changed dramatically in the meantime. The new interpretations of the crusading era were in part a matter of new perspectives, but some of those new perspectives were rooted in hard basic research. What a thrill to catch up with all of that stuff, and be paid for it! Even when I disagreed with the conclusions of the scholars I was reading, I enjoyed the process of engagement immensely.

As for the jihad part of the course, self-education was even more drastic. I have been teaching a course on the history of Islamic civilization for over a decade now, so I wasn't coming to the history of Jihad completely ignorant. Yet looking around for material, I had an even bigger surprise than I did in connection with the crusade scholarship. I found myself using almost exclusively books and articles that have been produced in the last 10 years. Thanks in particular to Carole Hillenbrand, David Cook, Patricia Crone, Christopher Tyerman, and Capt. John "Garick" Chamberlain, I was able to do an adequate and maybe more than adequate job of showing the differences and similarities between crusade and jihad and how the two different ideals clash d in the medieval Middle East and to some degree later. But 10 years ago almost none of the good stuff available to me had even been published. I am grateful to those scholars for stepping into the breach; and I have a nice feeling of being not so far behind the cutting edge of research, even if in this case I am entirely dependent upon secondary works in European languages. And my students have benefited -- at least I hope so.

Image: someone's take on the fall of Constantinople, 1453.

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For your holiday gift lists

Will McLean, re-enactor extraordinaire, wrote a guide to Daily Life in Chaucer's England a decade or so ago; I liked it and once used it as a text for a course on 14th century England. Now, not quite in time for Christmas (but perhaps before New Year's) the second edition is coming out. Bigger, better, and with a snappier cover.

Also maybe in time for Christmas, Darrell Markewitz, blacksmith and ironmonger, is putting out a DVD on his research trip to Denmark earlier this year. The DVD is being put together in connection with a talk he is giving at the Peterborough, Ontario SCA meeting of November 26 (Traill College, 8 pm). To get an idea of what will be included in the DVD and whether you would be interested, have a look at this post on Darrell's all-historical-ironwork-all-the-time site, Hammered Out Bits.

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A sage comment

Jonathan Jarrett at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe wants to remind his readers that medieval charters are more safely seen as demands for royal action, or at least royal authorization for non-royal action, than as evidence for royal policy:

People: we give kings much too much work to have done. I don’t mean to suggest that their days were idle, Alfonso[I of Aragon]’s in particular clearly not, but it’s not as if no-one did anything in these areas without the royal say-so. Most of your life as a medieval settler you’d never have anything to do with the king. By ascribing all this initiative to the king we lift it off the shoulders of the people whose lives depended on these decisions, and to whom we should allow the credit of having taken them.
If you don't know Jarrett's blog but have a real interest in how medieval historians think, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Currently on top: free wine and beer at Kalamazoo, how to eat cheap at other scholarly locales.


Friday, November 21, 2008


John at Dymaxion World points us to an interesting observation at Talking Points Memo, and declines to comment further:

Josh Marshall:
I don't want to draw over-broad interpretations. But historically, the rising incidence of piracy has frequently, if not always, been a sign of the receding reach of whatever great power has taken on responsibility for policing the sea lanes. The decline of the Hellenistic monarchies in the Mediterranean before the rise of Rome. Caribbean piracy during Spain's long slide into decrepitude and before England decided she lost more than she gained from it. There are many examples. I note too that the Russians just announced that they're sending a few more warships to try to get things under control off the coast of East Africa.
The EU is sending an armada as well. Man, there's so much to talk about with this kind of issue. Do I blog about how the combined forces of the industrialized world don't have the necessary assets to put down piracy off the coast of east Africa? Do I blog about how this is a good example of why it's probably a bad idea to go around creating failed states in places like this? Or do we talk about the possible signal of the EU finally emerging as a global military actor in it's own right?

Well, lucky for you I don't have the time to write about any of those things so you're spared a few hundred words of my prose. Ha-ha!
I won't comment, either, except to say that if you fire up Google Earth and search the Google Earth Community for "Somali pirates" you find a variety of downloadable maps on the subject.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008


From the New York Times: filmmakers rally to save "meaning," blame audience for sad state of movie storytelling.


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James Murton speaks this Friday, 2:30 pm

Special topics course in the new South Africa

The transition of South Africa from apartheid to democracy was one of the most amazing events of the late 20th century. Next term NU students will have the opportunity to study what is happening in South Africa now. The listed prerequisite is being waived.

From the prof.:

GEND 3057, Special Topics in Human Rights and Social Justice is being offered on Mondays from 12:30 to 3:30 next term.

The course topic is Apartheid and the "New" South Africa.

South Africa's transition to democracy after nearly fifty years of racial segregation is heralded as one of the great triumphs of freedom over brutality in the twentieth century. Not only was civil war avoided but reconciliation, as embodied in the personal stances of President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, became the mantra of the "rainbow nation." Today, fourteen years into democracy, pressing concerns such as crime, poverty, and HIV/AIDS have eclipsed the euphoria of political freedom. In 1994 the ANC government promised "a better future for all." But how much has changed in the 'new' South Africa?

In this survey course we first examine the structure and nature of apartheid and the dynamics of South Africa's negotiated transition to democracy. How did race, class, ethnicity, gender and other social cleavages interact in the struggle for and against apartheid? In the second half of the course, we examine how these social cleavages or groupings interact today both as the "legacy" of apartheid and in the face of new challenges wrought under conditions of globalisation.

Dr. Rosemary Nagy
Gender Equality & Social Justice Program

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Monday, November 17, 2008

What is this?

East is west, and West is east


IOZ reflects on our annual reacquaintance with the cold of space.

Image: Enceladus, one of our fellow travelers in Sol's system.


Gordon Morrell speaks, November 19th, 12:30, A222G

I teach at this time, but no one else should miss it.

You are invited to attend the

Nipissing University Research Lunch

Food For Thought

This Wednesday, November 19th

Time: 12:30 – 1:30pm

Room: A222G

(same room as last year)

Speaker: Gordon Morrell History

Before the Gods Failed: Traitors,

True Believers and British

counter-espionage in the 1930s

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Jonathan Riley-Smith on the 11th c. reformation

The prominent Crusade historian in a 1993 interview at the Christianity Today Library:

In Europe today, if you drive five miles along any road, you will probably find two churches. Nearly all of those churches are built on eleventh- and twelfth-century foundations. Previously, there might have been one church every twenty miles, from which priests would go out to serve the sacraments. Eleventh-century reformers believed religion should be taken into the villages, and this evangelizing drive resulted in a great building program. This burst of construction ranks with anything the Roman Empire did. Someone in 1032 said, “France is becoming white with churches.”

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Friday, November 14, 2008

This is not just a cute kid video

It is the human mystery.

It's all in there somewhere. How did it get there?

Introducing the Emperor Frederick II...

...or at least his shoes!

Do you have any idea how rare surviving medieval shoes are?

Pretty rare!

Rarest of all are the pretty ones.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gobekli Tepe -- the first great human monument

I am not teaching ancient history this year but I am still very interested. It's hard to imagine anyone with a feeling for any sort of early history not being fascinated by this one.

Archaeologists working in that part of the fertile crescent which is now located in Turkey have found a huge hill which seems to be the remains of late Stone Age temple building on a grand scale at a place now called Gobekli Tepe. The great stone structures date to long before Sumer -- as one archaeologist says, there is more time between Gobekli Tepe (9000 BC) and Sumer than there is between Sumer and us -- and in fact before agriculture was invented. Somehow hunter gatherers mustered the resources to build what was not a town or settlement or fortification but simply an immense complex of stone monuments.

Smithsonian Magazine has a very good article, the best part of which for me is the speculation by the archaeologists that it was the demand for resources to build such a site that made necessary agriculture and domestication of animals. For a very long time historians have been telling students and the general public and each other that it was the invention of agriculture which made possible big projects like Gobekli Tepe; but maybe it's the other way around.

Thanks to Phil Paine and Skye Sepp for drawing my attention to this.

Image: Gobekli Tepe from Smithsonian Magazine. This is just one of a collection of amazing pictures at the Smithsonian site.

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Erec and Enide -- mystery solved!

Today in my seminar on Chivalry we were discussing Chretien de Troyes' romance Erec and Enide. I asked my students to explain a famous episode in the romance, in which Erec, an accomplished knight now slacking off because he is happily married, decides to go on quest to prove himself, and drags his wife Enide along with him. Erec, in what appears to be some obscure test of loyalty, requires Enide to remain entirely silent, and gets upset when she does perfectly natural things like warn him of approaching enemies.

What is he doing, I asked?

One student supplied a very convincing answer: "It's like today when a man and woman are in a car and get lost, and the woman suggests that they stop and ask them for directions and the man refuses."

A bolt of enlightenment! My reaction was that if they had roadmaps in the 12th century, Chretien could have inserted it into the narrative and we would perfectly understand what was going on.

Image: The cover from a recent translation published by Yale.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Southern Lights and Milky Way over Antarctica

From The Big Picture. Click for a larger version of the photo.

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The Great War

As in the rest of life, many people on the web are commemorating the end of the First World War. I have a hard time not denouncing the First World War any the time the subject comes up, so I am Always reluctant to say much publicly on this date. However, the estimable Laura Rozen at the valuable news site War and Piece provided a link to this thought piece by Jeet Heer, which comes close to expressing my feelings, so if you are interested, have a look. At the very least it's better than anything I could've come up with at the moment.

You might also have a look at what Nicholas Sarkozy said: good and maybe even politically brave, but it took 90 years for someone to say it.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

More fighting over the Holy Sepulcher

A brawl between Greek and Armenian clergy leads to two arrests. From the New York Times, with thanks to In the Middle.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Correction to readings for HIST 3805 for Wednesday, November 12

The sufi poetry page is here.

A sufi-inspired Bollywood video is here.

For Quranic verses about "hijab" see this site.

You can search Hadith for "hijab" at this site (MSA-USC Hadith Database) using the window halfway down the page.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Democracy redefined?

I think the Obama campaign has raised the bar.

Of course, winning the election was the easy part.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Sweeter music by far

All the chatter from the United States today is about the importance of voting, and how people are willing to stand in line forever if that's what it takes.

Far sweeter music than the talk about the greatness of the American Empire, the greatest since Rome, that even pre-9/11 had become so pervasive (to the point of being a noticeable catch-phrase in the fictional "liberal" White House of Jed Bartlett).

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Fighting over the Holy Sepulcher

Just about everybody has heard of the Crusades, the greatest conflict over the site of Christ's burial and resurrection, known as the Holy Sepulcher. Not so many know that disputes over the site have continued right up until the present day. The Crimean War, not so long ago as early historians calculate things, was sparked by a spat over jurisdiction of the shrine between Russia, France, and the Ottoman Empire. Lots of people died in that one and nobody even remembers what it was about.

Back in crusading days, the bad guys in regards to this issue, if you asked any Christian, were the Muslims or, as they were charmingly called back then, infidels. The more recent flareups, including the one that ended in Sevastopol, have been entirely between Christians.

And they are at it again! I did not know until I heard this story, but there is an entire monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And it is in such bad repair that it may at any moment fall through the roof and destroy the entire church. And there is a big argument between the Coptic clergy and the Ethiopian clergy and the church about who rightfully controls the monastery, and until that is sorted out -- a dispute that goes back at least until 1970 -- nothing will be done.

The story in all its details, or as many as most people can stand, is here at the Times Online site.

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My favorite story about Richard Lionheart

It comes from Steven Runciman's A History of the Crusades Volume 3, pages 37-8. If it comes across as rather Monty Python-esque, so be it:

King Richard decided to travel by land from Marseille. He seems to have disliked sea voyages, perhaps because he suffered from sea-sickness.... he waited until he had heard that his fleet had arrived at Messina and then, it seems, sent most of his escort by ship to Messina to prepare for his arrival. He himself continued on horseback, with only one attendant. When he passed near the little Calabrian town of Mileto he tried to steal a hawk from a peasant's house and was very nearly done to death by the furious villagers. He was therefore in a bad temper when he reached the Straits of Messina a day or two later.

Says a lot, doesn't it?

Image: William of Normandy and Harold of Wessex in happier days.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Standing in line to vote

From Daily Kos -- a photo essay that goes beyond any one election.

Then, if you can stand it, there's this.

Image: Voting just after the Civil War.

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Ever wanted to know more about Kamchatka than where it is on the Risk board?

Here's where you go.

Image: Can't say it's a particularly remarkable example.

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Sick of the American election?

You may need, to quote Atrios, a locked windowless room with a vat of vodka. Or this healthier alternative:

Thanks to Another Damned Medievalist for this.