Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hoag's Object

An unusual galaxy, documented by the Hubble, included in The Big Picture's Advent Calendar, 2008.

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Prehistoric burial mounds in southern Sweden

Gaza: Like casino chips

An Arab-American analyst gives Laura Rozen at War and Piece an anonymous interpretation of what is behind the Gaza situation (my word, which shocks me with its bloodlessness):

There are two domestic agendas here. The Israeli one is very familiar... But what people are not asking and is at least as important: what are the f**** rocket firers hoping to do? ... If you look at what people are saying, there is a disconnect between what Haniyah and people in Gaza are saying, and what Nasrallah and Meshal and regional actors say. ... The Hamas leadership in Gaza is saying, we want a ceasefire on our terms. What Nasrallah and Meshal and Iran are saying: Egyptians, rise up ... What’s missing in every analysis I see is that Egypt is the prize, the low hanging fruit ...

Sketch out the regional scenario: two unsympathetic forces hinged by Hamas. You have the Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Iraqi Islamist parties on the one hand, on one side of the hinge. ... And you’ve got the Muslim Brotherhood regional project for overthrowing [moderate Arab regime] governments on the other.

The hinge is Hamas. Because Hamas is a core member of Leninist-style collection of national Muslim Brotherhood parties. It is also the only Sunni member of the pro Iranian alliance because of the money it gets through Khaled Meshal. Hamas is a hinge, Syria is a hinge. You've got Meshal in Damascus who gets lots of money from Iran. Hamas is not neutral in the moderate Arab regimes vs. Iranian alliance rivalry.

Both stand to benefit here. One project advances [unrest] in Egypt to the benefit of the Muslim Brotherhood. And while that is not something to be overjoyed for for Nasrallah, it's very helpful if it advances the Islamist agenda to destabilize your enemies.

It's limited ultimately. It's very unlikely to result in direct destabilization of Egypt. But they shoot for it, and hope that it contributes to the discreditation of all the [moderate, pro American] Arab regimes [egypt, jordan, saudi arabia] and in that sense, shows that there is an authentic movement in the region that has two manifestations, the Iranians and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are resistant to the regional order and the status quo. ...

What you end up with here are two groups of political actors with domestic and internal motivations that largely don’t have to do with Gaza. And they are using the lives of these people like casino chips...

More from the Globe and Mail.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Anti-extremist strategy in Lebanon

You may be interested in this end-of-the-year article, Beirut seems to have upper hand against extremists, from Lebanon's Daily Star. And more on Lebanese domestic politics from the Washington Post, here.

a prosperous street in downtown Beirut.

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Legislative backbone in Iraq

From LithiumCola at DailyKos:

Here is the biggest thing I personally got wrong in 2008. Right around May and June, I was convinced that the Status of Forces of Agreement was just a trick Bush was pulling on American and Iraq, and that there was no way to make it anything other than a trick. But, it turned out that a legislative body was able to put checks on Bush's power. As it happened, that legislative body was in Iraq, not America, and it did it under conditions of occupation, scarcity, fear of assassination, and general violence. This example ought forever to be a shame upon the houses of Congress in the United States. It certainly took me by surprise: the Iraqi people non-violently kicked Bush's ass. Whether this ass-kicking sticks -- whether U.S. forces actually do leave Iraq by 2011 -- is another matter, but there is no denying that the Iraqi people did what Congress did not and more than most people in the West thought them capable of. This should give us great pause, anytime we think we know better than people in other countries.

The lesson, there, for me, is that Washington political culture is even more isolated and corrupt than I understood. The sense of political powerlessness on the part of Democrats in Washington was shown to be, by the Iraqi people, completely and totally without warrant. Further, to my knowledge, not one single so-called expert in the traditional media predicted that the Iraqis could or would use the non-violent power of their legislature to check Bush's ambitions.

And, maybe a little overstated but still worth saying:

Speaking of other things the so-called experts didn't get right: everything else. 2008 was, more than any year I can remember, the year that established there is no such thing as socio-political expertise. Certainly, the things that get one a job in punditing about socio-political matters are no more likely to make one an expert than is, say, paying attention to the news, and talking to other people who also pay attention to the news.

Image: Inside the Iraqi parliament, 2007.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dordrecht, Netherlands

DSCF5721 Dordrecht - Canals along the Grote Kerk - The Netherlands
Canals along the Grote Kerk.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Need something to read?

Been abandoned by your regular bloggers?

I've saved up two posts I liked just for this occasion.

The first is Karl Steel posting his final exam for an undergraduate course in medieval romance literature. I am fascinated by the format and wonder if I should revisit what I habitually do. My students, past and present, are welcome to chime in on this issue.

Then there is a "material culture" contribution from Darrell Markewitz on "How widespread were blacksmithing skills in the Viking Age?" Lots of fun in the grubby details.

Image: "Viking Smith," a photo by Wolfgang Arnold.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sufism in South Asia

NU ski trails open

Toivo Koivukoski announces:

The campus ski trails are now in proper shape and ready for skiing. There are approximately 5km of groomed trails, accessible from Athletics, P8, Governors House, and the Pond. The trails are alternately groomed for skate and classic; classic tracks will be set on weekends and when it is cold (like now!), and skate set for weekdays otherwise.

Please kindly refrain from walking or snowshoeing on the groomed trails- there is lots of snow out there to share.

Skis are available for free loan from the Education Center gym.

Many thanks to the NECO Community Futures Development Corporation, the Vice-President Finance and Administration, Andrew Rees, Dave Rees, all those who came out for trail work, and the North Bay Nordic Ski Club for their generous support for this project.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Pining for Jerusalem?

From Jennifer Lynn Jordan:

I recently stumbled upon a really neat blog called Renbaudus. Renbaudus of Bernay is a Norman knight working as a legate for the abbot of Cluny, and Jean Philippe is video-blogging and documenting his journey to the Holy Land. There's a ton of interesting content, including a call to participate in the video-blog. Check it out!

I think the best place to meet Renbaudus is here. It's really just started. If you are interested in following the story or even participating, you can get on to it practically on the ground floor

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

(Non-)Holiday music

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Exploring the Viking Age in Denmark

Darrell Markewitz, ironmonger and Iron Age re-enactor extraordinaire, made a research trip to Denmark in Spring 2008. Now he has packaged hundreds of pictures of sites, museums, and artifacts on a jewelcased DVD, which also includes his extensive commentaries. It is available here now!

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Kindergarten graduation in Baghdad

Those exotic Iraqis. So different from us. So incomprehensible.

From the last installment of the Big Picture's "best of 2008" collection.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Vancouver in the fog

Russian Muslims pray in downtown Moscow!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Viking-era celebrations might have looked like this

But this is actually the 2008 Up Helly Aa celebration in Shetland, an annual celebration vikingized in 1878.

This is one picture from installment one of the Big Picture's "best of 2008" collection. Here is an astonishing Aussie contribution that has nothing to do with war or natural disaster.

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Not-news from the USA

News from Baghdad

An Iraqi journalist blogs on Inside Iraq about an actual new development...


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Crusader motivation

In a famous eyewitness account of the taking of Jerusalem in 1099, the crusading chaplain Raymond of Aguilers described a bloodbath at the Temple Mount (drawing, as has often been pointed out, on the Book of Revelations):

It was necessary to pick one's way over the bodies of men and horses. These are small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to the knees and bridle reins.. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgment of God that in this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was filled with corpses and blood.... Now that the city was taken, it was well worth all of our previous labors and hardships to see the devotion of the pilgrims at the holy sepulcher. How they rejoiced and exulted and sang a new song to the Lord! For their hearts offered prayers of praise to God, victorious and triumphant, which cannot be told in words. A new day, new joy, me and perpetual gladness, the consummation of our labor and devotion, drew forth from all new words and new songs. This day, I say, will be famous in all future ages, for it turned our labors and sorrows into joy and exultation; this day, I say, marks the justification of all Christianity, the humiliation of paganism, and the renewal of our faith. "This is the day which the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it," for on this day the Lord revealed himself to his people and blessed them.

This passage relates to two questions that often come up in studying history, but particularly the history of the Crusades (or for that matter, jihad).

The first might be the question of sincerity. Did so-and-so undertake this project, or conquer this country, or start this war because he sincerely believed in his stated ideals? I find this as a historical question somewhat uninteresting. Every observer has his or her views as to how human nature works in general and in particular cases, say for instance, how kings and emperors act. It is hard to convince people to change their mind on this issue. So arguments about sincerity don't go very far unless you clearly define what you are talking about -- and people generally don't.

Part of the problem is terminology, especially the use of the word "religion." Often when people talk about "religion" they are talking about a creed or set of beliefs that someone else really (or doesn't really) believes in. Or they may mean a set of rules that members of a given religion are supposed to follow. But both beliefs and rules are usually discussed in terms of formal definitions laid down by higher authorities in well-defined religious organizations. If you look in detail about what individuals say they believe or how they actually act, you may well find that these individual "believers" or "followers" not to have the same "religion" as the great authorities. If a theologian says that Christianity believes thus, or a scholar says that Islam demands thus, it is trivially easy to find Christians or Muslims who do not believe or do those things. In any big-name religion, the greatest and most respected authorities only speak for one stream of a very diverse tradition. And if ordinary people attached to that tradition claim to be obedient followers, the outside observer may often find that they don't realize how far they are from literal adherence to proclamations of their leaders; or do realize, and have good reasons of their own for their particular interpretation of what the religion means.

Which brings us to the second question, which might be put this way: "Were the Crusades really about religion? What does holy war have to do with the teachings of Jesus?" My answer to these questions is, yes they were about religion (if you just want a war that were plenty closer to hand in 11th- century Europe) -- but what was that religion like? What was its actual content? Christianity in most varieties is a lot more than the teachings of Jesus. Put aside for the moment the vast diversity of the Bible, which makes it possible to find justification for almost anything in it, especially if you use sophisticated symbolic interpretation. More important, I think, is that even Christians with little or no firsthand knowledge of the Bible have strong opinions about what Christianity is. When we are talking about the motivations of Crusaders it is probably more useful to think about the individuals who trekked across the Balkans and Anatolia and how they acted, rather than what Pope Urban II said at Clermont (important as that might be in other contexts). When we are talking about the religion that led men to Jerusalem and helped produce the slaughter there, Raymond of Aguilers’s version of Christianity is as important as that of any Pope, or of Augustine of Hippo, if not more so.

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Terminology of chivalry

For the second time in two years, I am teaching a seminar for fourth-year students entitled, simply, Chivalry. In the seminar we read a lot of primary sources discussing mounted warriors, vassals, men at arms, and so forth in an attempt to figure out what the knights of the Middle Ages were like, and how they were regarded and supposed to act.

There is a problem of terminology that bothers me a lot as as we work through the material, which is entirely in English translation. If we are trying to define "the medieval knight" and "knighthood" or "chivalry," what about the fact that the figure we call a knight in modern English was called in all of the relevant European languages either "a soldier (miles)" or "a horseman (chevalier or Ritter) or sometimes "a follower (vassal)?" How can we really discuss the evolution of this figure, in a practical or ideal sense, either one, unless we come to grips with the actual terminology? To my shame, I have yet to come up with a systematic answer to this problem, beyond discussing it in class where I feel the need, which is pretty often. I once thought that that would be enough, but I'm dissatisfied.

I am now fantasizing about a seminar where the modern English word "knight" can't be used at all, but where, depending on the original word, one must say "rider," " soldier," or "follower." The use of the word "chivalry" might be even more difficult...

I had a good close look at the Oxford English Dictionary before writing this post, and under the main entry for the noun "knight" I found no definition that reflects what students of medieval warfare often mean when they say "knight:" a mounted, fully armed and armored warrior. Surely it must be in there somewhere.

Image: a symbolic knight.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Meanwhile in that other war

In Afghanistan, a scenario somewhat familiar to readers of Napoleon's Egypt.

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Greeted with flowers (?), sent off with shoes(!)

The Iraqi journalist who threw the shoes (a big insult in Arab cultures) apparently said something like, "Here's a goodbye kiss, you dog."

Juan Cole comments.

Update: another Iraqi journalist comments at Inside Iraq.

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Holy Land Experience in Florida

Jennifer Lynn Jordan alerts all of us who are desperate to see a "John Wycliffe Robotic." And that's the least of it.


Human linguistic creativity. Or not.

Is this blog post's title a snowclone?

Image: snow.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why the 60s and 70s were a good era for generating medievalists

Read here.

Image: or it could be a Hendrix album.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Things I learned teaching "Crusade and Jihad" this fall

Since September I have been teaching a special topics course on Crusade and Jihad. In my very first teaching jobs, courses on the Early and High Middle Ages at the University of Toronto, the Crusades certainly came up (in the early medieval course they were one of the very last topics); but that was a quarter-century ago. I did not rely on my past understandings of the Crusades this time around, but read a lot of new material, most of which has appeared since 1990 or even 2000. I am particularly grateful to Thomas Madden for putting together a collection called The Crusades: Essential Readings and Christopher Tyerman for his huge new narrative history, God's War.

Here are the new thoughts and perspectives that I gained concerning crusading as a result:

1. Back in the day, I had a very French and English view of the Crusades. Now I take the Germans a lot more seriously. Next, the Italians.

2. I was fascinated by the number of northern European fleets that took part in early Crusades, fleets that were organized across what we think of as national boundaries. It is particularly interesting because we know very little about the people who had the clout and connections to put together such fleets. The maritime world was apparently a different political sphere entirely.

3. The connection between crusading and Imperial ideology fascinates me. This perspective I owe to Christopher Tyerman, who carefully analyzed and described the involvement of King Conrad, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Emperor Henry VI, and Emperor Frederick II. Not to mention the would-be Emperor Charles of Anjou.

4. Having not read a lot of German accounts the Crusades, Tyerman's book was the first to make me aware how odd it is that we (or at least I) take almost without thinking the side of Frederick II’s enemies when evaluating the significance of his crusade to Jerusalem.

5. Perhaps most valuable to me is that reading lots of primary and secondary accounts of wandering crusading armies renewed my awareness of warriors as constituting for some purposes a separate society, battening on the settled communities through which they traveled. This awareness will come in useful when I write my next book, Men at Arms.

As far as what I learned about jihad this fall: I learned, thanks to Carole Hillenbrand, David Cook, Patricia Crone and Capt. John "Garick” Chamberlin, among others, that there's a lot to learn and that systematic historical discussion is just getting underway.

Image: a French king and a German emperor fight a sultan.

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Get real

I promised in the previous post not to obsess about Canadian politics, but I hope this one says something about the current situation that no one else has brought up yet.

In the last federal election, the Conservatives got a plurality of seats, but not a majority. Their traditional rivals the Liberals did very poorly, but still formed the official opposition. When Parliament met about two weeks ago, our unlovable PM pulled a stunt so provocative that he unified the other parties in the House against him -- no mean feat. The PM then asked the Governor General to close Parliament temporarily in hopes that the opposing coalition would fall apart. As it well may.

Here is the thing I am commenting on. The federal Liberals are now in the process of replacing their leader, the one who did poorly in the general election, with a new one, and they are doing it without any reference to the ordinary members of the party. They are simply going with the candidate who has the most support in the Liberal caucus in the House of Commons. I suppose they can do that, but like the PM's stunt it shows up in complete contempt for the political realities of the country and of their own party's position. Today on CBC Radio One, there were a lot of former Liberal voters calling in saying that they understood that there needed to be a new leader in time for the reopening of Parliament in late January, but why couldn't a modern political party arrange for consultation with the membership in that timeframe?

The answer, Mr. Bones, is that no Canadian political party is modern. To be modern now means that you have to have absorbed the lesson of the Obama victory in the Democratic resurgence that preceded it. You have to realize that the party that actively engages with its grassroots members, and members of the general public who have never been involved in a partisan organization before, well, that party has a hope in hell of doing something. Otherwise not.

I know this. Why don't these professional politicians know it? they are now going to attempt the brave feat of running a national party with no grass roots at all.

Image: any implied insult to horses and buggies is regretted. This was a good technology at the time.

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The history of democracy, again

In the last month, I have been asked to write an article and review a book on the world history of democracy. I was trained in early medieval/late antique historiography, wrote a book on that subject, and then went on to study chivalry and write two more books on that. But in between those two periods, I wrote, with Phil Paine, what may be my most important work, an article called "Democracy's Place in World History," (Journal of World History, 4 (1993): 23-45).
Fifteen years ago now! And although I have no intention of abandoning chivalry -- I have at least one more book in me on that topic, which I hope to substantially write in an upcoming sabbatical -- something tells me (specifically, letters from editors in my e-mail box, electronic nudges from Phil Paine) that it's time to do some more on the world history of democracy. So you can expect more posts about it here.

In my view the history of democracy has many aspects, and it is a vital theme in all of human history even when manifestations of democracy seem missing. I will not be obsessing over every twist and turn of Canadian or American political life -- plenty of that to be found elsewhere. I hope I will find inspiration to talk about bigger and more obscure issues.

For instance, have a look at this post from Jan Chipchase's blog Future Perfect. As I understand it, Chipchase travels the world for a big consumer electronics firm, trying to identify future trends in consumer usage of existing and potential products. A lot of what he does involves seeing what people who do not have access to current technology might do with it if it were made available. The interesting part of his approach is that he has a strong respect for the ability of people currently too poor to have, for instance, bank accounts to understand what they might do if a cell phone made saving and transfering money easy instead of impossible, as it is for them now. He is interested in the future customer's ideas of how complex the future might be designed, even if the future customer is, say, illiterate. This, to me, is part of the current history of democracy.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

An ancient Saharan petroglyph of a captive giraffe

One surviving bit of the culture of the last wet era in Saharan history, from The Big Picture (click to see the "big picture," or go here to see a whole collection of Saharan archaeology pics.)

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Medievalists.net now open!

Peter Konieczny tells me his all-purpose medievalists' news and resources site, Medievalists.net is open and ready to meet your every need. Go see what it has to offer.


Atlas of True Names (or something close)

Many place names are made up of archaic words whose meaning is not obvious. What if, suddenly, the meanings of those words were suddenly revealed and all place names were simple phrases in your language -- like, say, North Bay? Well, the map -- not to mention the insides of our heads -- might look a little different, as in the Atlas of True Names, or the excerpted map above (click to see it up close).

Thanks to Strange Maps and its alert readers for the tip. See Strange Maps for commentary and further links.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

The formation of aristocracy

This post by Driftglass is the best thing of its sort I have ever read, except perhaps for some of Phil Paine's better essays.

Someone asked Drifty (to rephrase the actual comment) why his excellent scathing analysis got so little attention when others of less talent and penetration were now on TV, even. Here is an excerpt from his reply:

Well, by way of an answer, let us remember what Jebus Himself said:

“For where two or three have gathered together in My name,
there will be a velvet rope to keep the rabble away from the cool kids.”

In all human activities, there is a velvet rope; those on the sunny side of it sometimes relish it, sometimes try to kick it down, and sometimes believe it is porous or even imaginary; those on the cold side of it know that it is as real and high and hard and topped with broken glass as any security wall girding a Mexican estate.

Sometimes the velvet rope has a sign hanging from it advising those who seek admittance that they need only work a little bit harder. A little bit longer. A little better.

A little smarter.

A little sexier.

Shinier. Sparklier.

A little more topical.

A little more scholarly.

A little less snooty.

A little to the left and a skosh to the right.

Those on the cold side of it know that this ain’t exactly 100% true.

“Better, smarter, abler” is awesome -- it can get you a guest pass to the bar and once in a great while a key to the kingdom -- but there are way, waaaay too many mopes and nitwits waved right on in as their betters dance their asses off in the foyer, year after year, to pretend that competence in any way correlates to success.

It took toxic decades of Hate Radio and Fox Network junk food to create a public desperately hungry enough for honesty and intelligence to allow a “Daily Show” or “Colbert Report” to flourish not merely as great comedy, but as the Reality Based Community’s de facto teevee news and opinion HQs.

It took the collapse of the global economy, the shredding of the Constitution and a failure in Two!Count!Em!Two! wars after eight, solid years of unrelenting, daily, epic fuckuppery by an Administration of openly sneering idiots and traitors, before Americans reluctantly sent the Party of “I Wanna Haz A Beer With You!” packing and took a hopeful flier on the Smart Guys.

As Glenn Greenwald eloquently notes here, it is a trait that runs through every institution that traffics in influence and power:

Leading candidates for [Hillary Clinton's Senate seat] seat still include John F. Kennedy's daughter (Caroline), Robert Kennedy's son (RFK, Jr.), and Mario Cuomo's son (Andrew). In Illinois, a leading contender to replace Barack Obama in the Senate is Jesse Jackson's son (Jesse, Jr.). In Delaware, it was widely speculated that Joe Biden would be replaced by his son, Beau, and after Beau took his name out of the running because he's now serving in Iraq, the naming of the actual replacement -- lone-time (Joe) Biden aide Ted Kaufmann -- "upset local Democrats who believe the move was a ham-handed attempt to engineer the election of Biden’s son, Beau, to the Senate in 2010."

Meanwhile, in Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed by her father to take his seat in the U.S. Senate when he became Governor, yesterday warned Sarah Palin not to challenge her in a 2010 primary, a by-product of tension between those two as a result of Palin's defeat of Lisa's dad for Governor. In Florida, Mel Martinez's announcement that he won't seek re-election in 2010 immediately led to reports that the current President's brother, Jeb, might run for that seat. And all of that's just from the last couple of weeks.

The Senate alone -- to say nothing of the House -- is literally filled with people whose fathers or other close relatives previously held their seat or similar high office (those links identify at least 15 current U.S. Senators -- 15 -- with immediate family members who previously occupied high elected office). And, of course, the current President on his way out was the son of a former President and grandson of a former U.S. Senator.

Isn't this all a bit much? It's true that our political/media class in general is intensely incestuous and nepotistic. Virtually the entire neoconservative "intelligentsia" (using that term as loosely as it can possibly be used) is one big paean to nepotistic succession -- the Kristols, the Kagans, the Podhoretzes, Lucinanne Goldberg and her boy. Upon Tim Russert's death, NBC News excitedly hired his son, Luke. Mike Wallace's son hosts Fox's Sunday show. The most influential political opinion space in the country, The New York Times Op-Ed page, is, like the Times itself, teeming with family successions and connections. Inter-marriages between and among media stars and political figures -- and lobbyists, operatives and powerful political officials -- are now more common than arranged royal marriages were among 16th Century European monarchs.

Because at the heart of any human enterprise, there is a club, and “better, smarter, abler” alone rarely gets you in it.

Image: A recent edition of the Almanach de Gotha, traditional listing of aristocratic claims.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

The conjunction over New South Wales

Got 15th-century armor? Fall of Constantinople video

I thought readers might be interested in this e-mail, especially readers near New York who own armor and love heroic last stands:

Hey folks. This is the last call for the "Fall of Constantinople" music
video shoot.

The project has gone very well so far (I portrayed Janos Hunyadi in a scene
shot last weekend, which required me dying my hair black), but they can
always use a few more people in armor to portray knights and soldiers on the
walls of Constantinople in 1453. From the research we have done, it seems
that the Italians came with their contemporary European armor, so anything
that can pass for mid-15th century gear will do nicely. They say everyone
who is part of the shoot will get face time on screen. This is a no-pay gig,
but they will provide food and a copy of the video once it is done.

The rehearsal is Saturday, June 6, in Astoria, Queens, and the shoot will be
Monday, November [December?] 8, also in Queens.

This is a 12-minute music video/short film for the Greek-American heavy
metal rock band Phoenix Reign (http://www.phoenixreign.com) and has already
been booked into a couple of film festivals.

If interested, contact Chris at cpollatos1@verizon.net

Image: Art from the Phoenix Reign site.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Jupiter, Venus, and Luna over LA

It has been so cloudy here for so long that I have been unable to see this conjunction!
From Astronomy Picture of the Day. Click on the picture to get a really large view.

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House of Saddam

Since my Crusade and Jihad course is all over (except for the final exam and a lot of grading), next term posts inspired by the Islamic Civilization class will likely be more common. Since we will be talking about the last two centuries, a lot of posts may not qualify as "early history."

Here is one. HBO (at least in the USA and presumably Canada) will be showing a miniseries called House of Saddam. It focuses not on Iraq under Saddam, but on the tensions and conflicts of the ruling dynasty. Saddam Hussein as Tony Soprano. You can now go to the HBO site and see a trailer, and if you do you'll notice that Saddam and his associates all wear "international-Western" clothing and are surrounded by furnishing and buildings that could be anywhere in the modern world. At least visually there is nothing "Middle Eastern" about this gang. I don't doubt that this is accurate. Even Saddam Hussein as Tony Soprano is not a bad take.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Hubble telescope Advent calendar

The Big Picture started running yesterday an Advent calendar of astronomical delights from the Hubble. Since I missed the initial announcement, there are now two offerings here.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

More on the Mumbai attacks

Juan Cole at Informed Comment has a very interesting article called Indian Muslims Refuse to Bury Militants (following a BBC story). I quote extensively:

The Muslim community in Mumbai says it doesn't want the gunmen who attacked Mumbai to be buried in the Muslim cemetery, on the grounds that they are not Muslims.

A spokesman for the Muslim council said, ""These terrorists are a black spot on our religion, we will very sternly protest the burial of these terrorists in our cemetery . . ."

Certainly the perpetrators are criminals from the point of view of Islamic law. The Qur'an forbids murder (qatl) and the classical jurisprudence on jihad forbids the killing of innocent noncombatants, sneak attacks, or the undertaking of military action without the authorization of duly constituted Muslim authorities.

Although removing an avowed Muslim from status as a Muslim, which is called 'takfir' or faith-denial, is frowned on by the mainstream Sunni tradition, it may be legitimate in this case, given the egregious departure from Sunni law, practice and belief in which the perpetrators engaged. It is an ironic twist, since the radical vigilantes are the ones who have been declaring normal people non-Muslims for the past few decades.
More here.

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Chris Wickham on medieval assemblies

Most of the time I am happy to be in a rather out-of-the-way location, surrounded by huge piles of snow (well, maybe not that part, but snow kept me at home today); occasionally I wish I were someplace where I could just drop in to London's Institute of Historical Research, and hear someone of the quality of Chris Wickham ( not too many of those actually) talk about a subject that interests me both as a medieval historian and as a historian of democracy. On November 17, Wickham gave a paper entitled "The Culture of the Public: assembly politics and the ‘feudal revolution,'" and I was not there!

Fortunately, Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe was there, and with his usual generosity he has now reported on it. A short excerpt from the report:

His key points were, roughly, that the ideal of an assembly of free men giving you as ruler legitimacy in your actions is always important, and that throughout the Middle Ages someone doing something can add legitimacy to their action by arranging that it happens in public before witnesses.2 Despite this, large-scale public assemblies stop [he is talking about the era of the "feudal transformation"].3 Local courts remain roughly the same, but the top stratum of the social stratification is lost. (You see the similarity to my earlier pitch.) The new assemblies of, for example, counts and their followers, don’t have the same function of placing actions in public, because they are closed; the ‘public’ are disenfranchised and it doesn’t seem to matter...of course bishops continue to use such tactics throughout the Middle Ages when they need to take some action onto a higher level, the best examples being the councils behind the Peace of God. So there are many ways to deploy a public gathering in the pursuit of the reinforcement, or indeed the destabilisation, of power.

His conclusion was however that the most effective assemblies are regular ones. An assembly that someone knows is going to happen gives them stability. They can bring the case then, so they don’t need to ravage your lands now; they will be able to protest, albeit in a stage-managed fashion, so violent action now is both less legitimate and less necessary. On the other hand, ad hoc assemblies show weakness, and are often disrupted or produce unexpected results (”Dieu le veult! Dieu le veult!“) With observations like this, and more work on how assemblies are used both by their organisers and participants, we might have another wedge with which to open up this topic over which we continue unwillingly to trip.

As so often in discussing the history of democracy and developments that lead to or undermine it, questions of scale and who is the "public" are all important. I hope that Chris decides to publish something about this, and relate the question of "public" to the notion of representation found in later parliaments. In what sense are the parliamentary Commons the "Commons of England?" For that matter, in what sense are a group of bishops "The Church?"

Image: the Council of Vatican II.

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