Saturday, February 28, 2009

Resources for medieval deeds of arms

I have a great interest in jousts, tournaments and other deeds of arms, and so does Will McLean at A Commonplace Book. Recently he's had two posts of interests pointing to late medieval rules for such things, one showing the way to a recent scholarly article on 15th century German tournament rules, the other listing and excerpting some treatises on judicial duels.


Image: jousting in the time of Emperor Maximillian.

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Democracy: a philosophical/moral/political or an empirical concept?

An extended discussion at the Duck of Minerva.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

E-books: in general and specifically at Nipissing University

Earlier this month, Charlotte Innerd gave a presentation on the state of e-book publishing as it applies to availability of material at Nipissing University. Despite my constant use of the Internet for scholarly and personal purposes, I didn't know at least half of this stuff. She has posted a voice/slide presentation and I highly recommend that you take a look. It is less than 10 minutes long.

Thanks, Charlotte!

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jennifer Farooq speaks tomorrow

Monday, February 23, 2009

What is "medieval modern" fashion?

Is it this? Alas, this is only the Deluxe Barbarian Queen ensemble, not the real cutting edge, high fashion medieval modern. If you want to know more, go visit Got Medieval and become enlightened.

And then maybe you'll have more respect for the creator of the Deluxe Barbarian Queen.

Update: Once you are tired of the Deluxe Barbarian Queen and other forms of fashionable (or not) "medieval modern" and are in the mood for some dense scholarly discussion of serious issues, go here and surprise! -- you may find the medieval modern Deluxe Barbarian Queen looking right back at you!

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Humble petition

According to Niki Ashton, MP for Churchill, the Federal Budget announced on January 27 includes the following line:

“Scholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will be focused on business-related degrees”.

This retrograde and ideologically-driven proposal might kill funding for the purposes that the SSHRC was originally designed to promote. Therefore MP Ashton is sponsoring a petition to delete the sentence.

Please go here
, read the petition, and if you are a Canadian citizen or resident, endorse it if you can.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Muhlberger as blogger

Over at, Peter Konieczny has posted an interview with me about my blogging activities and why I do them.

Anyone who wants to witness my moment of fame should scoot on over.

Of course Peter has lots more there, too. Give the site a look.


Brad DeLong as humble economist

If more economists spoke about their discipline with a humility and honesty found in this post from Brad DeLong's blog, Grasping Reality with Both Hands, we might have a different opinion of them and it.

Not that historians don't have their vices...

Here is the post:
Justin Fox Is Still Perplexed

He wonders:

Brad DeLong tutors me on fiscal stimulus :: The Curious Capitalist - I guess what continues to perplex me at least a little is how lacking in the customary rigor of modern academic economics the arguments for stimulus are. It's basically just, We ran gigantic budget deficits during World War II and the economy got better. That's the kind of argument I would make, not the kind of argument I'd expect from the chair of the Political Economy of Industrial Societies major at the University of California Berkeley. It's just all so seat-of-the-pants. But it's better to be approximately right than precisely wrong, I guess...

"Lacking in the customary rigor..." Justin could mean either of two things:

1. Rigorous economics should produce tightly-estimated conclusions based on statistical sieving of mountains of data, like: when Safeway cuts grocery prices by 1%, its sales rise by 1.456%.

2. Rigorous economics should involve lots of theoretical equations with sigmas and rhos and betas in them.

With respect to the first possibility, Justin's expectations are just too high. We cannot build models up from precisely-known microfoundations--we are not chemists who can calculate how molecules should behave because we know how the electrons and the nucleons that make them up do behave. We don't have that many past examples of large-scale fiscal stimulus programs, and so we do the best that we can--and to be up-front about the partial and uncertain state of our knowledge is part of doing the best that we can.

With respect to the second possibility--well yes, I could make a bunch of arguments with lots of theoretical equations with sigmas and rhos and betas in them, but once again these theoretical equations would not rest on any solid microfoundations. Chemistry theory is built on top of physics theory. But economic theory--it is just a bunch of people looking at historical episodes and saying: "it looks like this is what happened a bunch of times in the past; let's build a model of it." Economic theory is crystalized history. But when the historical episodes out of which theory is being crystalized are as rare and as scarce as they are in the case of large-scale fiscal stimulus programs, why crystalize? Why not just take the history raw?

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Barbarian invasions!

I used to think quite a bit about barbarian invasions and the late Roman world, and I still have an interest. So imagine my delight when Jonathan Jarrett posted his notes on a seminar delivered by Peter Heather at Cambridge earlier this month. Heather is one of the foremost champions of the somewhat contested idea that there were big organized barbarian invasions and that they were significant for the Roman world's ultimate fate. If you're interested in the state of play on this issue, go have a look at an abbreviated version of Heather's arguments and Jarrett's report of skeptical rejoinders

Image: The Total War fantasy version of Barbarian Invasions from

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why We Immunize

A post at the popular blog Making Light that deserves wide readership and a more permanent stand-alone home on the Web.

Kids my age were still getting polio in the USA when I was young.

I think that mass purification of water/proper sewerage and mass immunization are the most worthwhile collective enterprises that humanity has ever undertaken. They are practically the definition of civilization.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009


An illustration of the adaptability of just about any system of symbolism; a Joseph Stalin/Virgin Mary icon, hanging in a church in Strelny:
The church's Beneficiary Evstafy Zhakov said the legend has it that Stalin would often hold discourse with Blessed Matrona of Moscow. And that is the scene depicted on the icon. However, church visitors didn't think it was a good idea and the icon was placed in the church's remote corner.

Beneficiary Zhakov explained that he sees Stalin as one of the nation's fathers, no matter how bad he was. He does not believe Stalin was an atheist.

Someone on the Mediev-L discussion list points out that Stalin has his back to the Virgin and seems to be striding away. Oh, well, he wasn't Russian, either.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A new blog on Before Taliban

My students in HIST 3805, History of Islamic Civilization, may be interested to know that I have started a new blog in which I will discuss the book Before Taliban with the purpose of helping members of the class choose a fruitful and interesting approach to writing on it. Since this is likely to be a very challenging assignment, I think it only fair to throw out ideas and questions that may help you with your initial planning. The blog is called Before Taliban, and is already running. here is a direct link to the introduction.

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The Afghanistan-Pakistan border

Click on the pic for the full effect. Makes you think, doesn't it?

See the Pakistan portfolio at the Big Picture.

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Battle in Bloomington, Illinois

As some of you know, I've been involved in medieval re-creation for a long time, primarily through the SCA, one of the largest and oldest such groups. In recent years, when I've been less active and living in a rural/small city environment, I've heard friends complain about the SCA (which has become a rather expensive and elaborate hobby) losing potential recruits to analogous activities like WoW and boffer groups. But I really haven't seen any of the latter.

This weekend I stumbled across this video at the newssite and it was a revelation. I had no idea there were so many people involved in stripped-down, easy-participation, cheap, low-impact "medieval combat." Or that had it had been going on in an organized fashion for so long. (Here's the same yearly event for 2007 and 2008 videoed by the sponsoring group.)

Also, it was a bit like a trip back in time to my early days in the SCA, when our gear and level of "re-creation" was not much better than what you see in the video (though most of us moved beyond this level pretty darned fast, and we always had more than fighting in our activities). And what the Warlord of Belegarth said in the news video sounded awfully familiar in places. It was a bit spooky.

This is where the young and broke go for their fun now!

I hope that some of the people who love to sneer at SCA eclecticism and uneven quality have a look at this!


Religion in Iraq today

From McClatchy's Inside Iraq, a cheering account of an Iraqi correspondent's participation in the important Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala:

On last Saturday, I started a long journey to Karbala city to commemorate the anniversary of Imam Hussein. The distance to the holy shrine in the holy city of Karbala is 67 miles. I haven't been practicing much sport for the last twelve years because of the type of life I live. So, walking such a distance was a big challenge to my will and abilities as I always show off being a very good athlete for years and years. My colleague came to the office where I spent the night around 5:50 a.m. and the journey started at 6. We reached Mussayib city around 6 p.m. I was completely exhausted but all the pain became a source of joy and happiness when I was received by people from the city begging me to spend the night in the big tents they set everywhere in the city. Young boys were working with their parents to serve us. The people were shouting "Dear the visitors of Imam Hussein, please come and spend the night here, we have everything for you, food and bed. Please give us the honor of taking care of you" Others wrote on big pieces of black fabric "serving the visitors of Imam Hussein is our honor." I chose one of the tents randomly. A tent set by a Sunni tribe who decided to serve the Shiite pilgrims.

More here.

Image: Pilgrims at the shrine in 2008.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Chivalry and religion in the Middle Ages

As we reached a natural pause in my seminar on chivalry, I asked my students what they have learned about the Middle Ages in the course so far. One of the more common answers (illustrated with specific examples) was that the importance of religion, even in this sphere where they had not necessarily expect to see it, had really made an impression. Now I am sure that all of these people were aware that religion was important in the Middle Ages, but having it demonstrated to them in concrete form and in detail made a big difference. This is one thing I love about seminars, where you can really get into the material.

Image: Galahad receiving the Grail from the Grail maidens, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (19th c.).

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The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Laura Rozen's War and Piece put me on to this article in Foreign Policy: Panic in Kabul, is Islamabad next? and it led me to a recent publication by the same author, Shuja Nawaz, on the FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

Image: Kabul.

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Reminder: Cooper speaks on justice in ancient Athens

Craig Cooper, Dean of Arts and Science and classicist, will speak on Friday, Feb.13 2:30 pm, A224, on "Determining Justice in Classical Athens." Abstract here.

All welcome!

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Orion's belt

Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, L to R, and a bunch of nebulae.

I can see these stars outside my front door, every clear winter night.

From Astronomy Picture of the Day.

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Preparing for Before Taliban: some online reading

Students in my History of Islamic Civilization course are finishing their second major essay, based on Daughter of Persia, an autobiography of an Iranian woman of great interest. The next assignment will be an essay on a quite different book, David B. Edwards' Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan jihad. The title is accurate: it concerns how a variety of the Afghan people experienced the complex politics of pre-Taliban Afghanistan. It's going to take some work to come to grips with this material and so here I suggest some reading from online sources.

Just last Sunday, Juan Cole published along piece at his blog Informed Comment on the challenges of the situation. He has quite pessimistic view of the possibilities for the success of Western intervention. But he just doesn't assert an opinion, he supplies some interesting material through his links and I strongly suggest you take advantage of them.

After that, maybe you would like to meet the new generation of Taliban, the current batch of fighters, a generation or more removed from the people you'll be reading about Edwards' book. The Globe and Mail back in March had a feature called Talking to the Taliban, in which an Afghan correspondent spoke to various insurgents about what was important to them. It might be worth your while to see this, since it is your taxes and neighbors who are being devoted to defeating these people.

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The 300 Spartans (1962) and Charlie Wilson's War (2007): two historical movies

Last night I took it easy and watched two movies: The 300 Spartans, the 60s film that inspired the Frank Miller graphic novel and the recent movie The 300, and the much more recent Charlie Wilson's War, which tells the story of a Texas congressman who took the initiative in financing covert operations to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with, as IMDB says, unexpected consequences. They really provided an interesting contrast in filmic style.

I saw The 300 about a year ago and enjoyed it, though I did not think it was a particularly serious movie. Lots of perhaps unintentional laughs in that treatment of the battle of Thermopylae. Certainly in decades to come, people will kill themselves laughing at the cultural hangups revealed in the movie. But it was enjoyable. At least once.

Like Frank Miller, I saw the older movie treatment as a child and I wondered how the previous film would hold up. The answer is, not very well at all. It had its virtues: Greek landscapes, reasonably good depiction of military operations, some good sets (for instance, Xerxes' royal pavilions). The story, however, was slow and plodding and really not very much truer to the real situation than the Frank Miller version. It was a movie made up of old Hollywood clichés of character, and if you have seen enough old movies you could've written it yourself. My guess is that very few people today would write something similar from scratch. The year 1962 as seen through this particular lens, seemed a long way back.

I am not familiar enough with the small details of US policy towards the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to critique Charlie Wilson's War as a depiction of history, but it certainly is a modern movie. Movies go a lot faster now, they are much more efficient in setting the scene and characters and establishing plot points. Of course this movie was produced by Mike Nichols and written by Aaron Sorkin, who are consummate pros, but what they are professional at is noteworthy.

Interestingly enough, this weekend I also saw the classic British flick Darling (1965), when Julie Christie burst upon the film scene and won an Academy award for one of her first roles. She was fabulous but so was everything else. It had that same efficiency of pacing that I noted in Charlie Wilson's War. Perhaps someone better acquainted with the history of film could tell me how unusual those qualities were when they appeared in Darling.

As for yesterday's two films as historical films, let me quote something that a friend of mine posted at her blog two days ago. Sandra Dodd said:
So I'm sewing and watching Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a movie [about St. Francis and St. Clare -- SM] I will love for life despite that criticism of those who can't appreciate religious-art in the form of a movie. Had it been a painting with discrepancies from the historical record, or a sculpture, or a medal, no one would care. But make it HUGE, with real scenery and real medieval buildings and costumes and music, and people say "the armor is crap" and "Clare wasn't that age," and blah blah. ART. Art.
You know, I hear a lot of that, too, and I too get impatient.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cuneiform, politics, and international law

From the Tehran Times:

About 700 Iranologists and Iranian cultural heritage lovers have recently signed a petition asking President Barack Obama to prevent confiscation of Iran’s 300 Achaemenid clay tablets loaned to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

The petition has been organized by the European Iranologist Society (Societas Iranologica Europaea, SIE) in its website

The petition reads the artifacts “being cultural property, should not be considered as a common property, whose financial value can be exploited for the purpose of legal compensation.”

“The antiquities belong to the cultural heritage of Iran on behalf of human kind and should therefore remain in public hands.

“We therefore, well aware of the separation of powers, nevertheless apply to you in order that this unconscionable decision with irreversible consequences should be avoided.

“A country such as the United States should not be complicit in the sale of the world’s cultural heritage.”


In spring 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Blanche Manning ruled that a group of people injured by a 1997 bombing in Israel could seize the 300 clay tablets loaned to the University of Chicago and the university cannot protect Iran’s ownership rights to the artifacts.


The tablets were discovered by the University of Chicago archaeologists in 1933 while they were excavating in Persepolis, the site of a major Oriental Institute excavation.

The artifacts bear cuneiform script explaining administrative details of the Achaemenid Empire from about 500 BC. They are among a group of tens of thousands of tablets and tablet fragments that were loaned to the university’s Oriental Institute in 1937 for study. [My emphasis, SM] A group of 179 complete tablets was returned in 1948, and another group of more than 37,000 tablet fragments was returned in 1951.

Image: One of the tablets, showing Old Persian written in cuneiform.

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

Canterbury Tales Prologue: as it really was?

Someone over at the MEDIEV-L mailing list alerted me to this piece of art, which reminds me of the early adventurous days of rap, when I would not have been surprised to hear Plato's Republic on the radio.

It is my personal opinion that since Chaucer was 14th century writer, addressing a 14th century audience, that there is some real chance that this is the original form of the Canterbury prologue. They were weird back that, almost as weird as we are.

There's that much misused "we" word. You know what to do with such statements...

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It's all around us, all the time

But in some places it's more concentrated and more interesting: I'm talking about trash generated by human beings.

The Medieval Material Culture Blog here reprints an article from the Times Online, which talks about one of the more interesting and accessible sources of historical trash, the Thames estuary in England. I have lots of friends who own medieval artifacts that were recovered from this area. Says the journalist, :

When the tide is low and the weather fine, I sometimes walk the dog on the London Thames foreshore. After a good many years I am still amazed at what you come across if you train yourself to see what you are looking at.

Naturally there are broken pub glasses, plastic bags, bottles and buckets, disposable cigarette lighters, condoms, all the detritus of a string of nights before, but the leavings of the past are often strewn even more thickly. There are the half-decomposed, near-petrified, balks of timber going back to Neolithic times, the remains of barge-beds, medieval bricks, tiles and fragments of glass; rings and medals, pins and nails from many centuries; clay pipes and, more rarely, clay wig-curlers, bones, masses of ceramic shards, shoals of Victorian oyster and mussel shells; and strange fragments of marine equipment, hanks of unravelling rope — even the skeleton of a boat left to moulder a couple of hundred years ago.

Once, on the pebbly strand between Blackfriars and Southwark Bridges, where the Millennium Bridge is now, I interviewed Mike Webber, the archaeologist who headed the Museum of London’s 1998 survey of the tidal Thames foreshore. I thought I knew that stretch, and could guess what might turn up on it, but I was proved utterly wrong when he casually bent down and handed me a short, curved object.

“Have a walrus tusk,” he said. “Look, there,” he continued. “A waster. That’s a London delft floor tile, where the glaze spoiled in the kiln, so they chucked it away. Probably from the Bear Lane pottery over there.

“That pottery ring is the mouth of a sugar mould, like a rhubarb forcer for making sugar loaves. Look, there’s the base. Perhaps there was a sugar wharf here …”

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Luca Marchio, intrepid traveller

There are plenty of TV shows about people doing incredibly dangerous things in exotic locales, but give a thought to Luca Marchio, an Italian "tourist" who went to Iraq, and visited Irbil, Falluja, and Baghdad just like they were normal destinations. So far, so good. See the New York Times article.

tourist shopping in Falluja. Also, below, the statue of Scheherazade in Baghdad from another New York Times article.

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Craig Cooper speaks; Friday, Feb. 13, 2:30 pm

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A champion historical re-enactment

Duplicating the reported ancient Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa! Complete with months-long delays!

A really good article at

I am truly impressed.

Image: the ship, Phoenicia.

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Jonathan Jarrett supplies a useful term for a phenomenon I have also noticed, and also scorned, protochronism:

I think that perhaps all historians, once they have found their speciality, should then be forced to take a course on the period before it. It’s so often tempting to emphasise a particular phenomenon of one’s field and then say that it started with your subject population, but as with rock music (which all goes back to Chuck Berry, really, except that which he stole from the blues, which is quite a lot, and wherever the bluesmen (and blueswomen) got it from…) there’s always someone out there working on an earlier period going, “but I could point you to twenty of those from my stuff!” or similar. I’m most used to this with high medievalists claiming the discovery of the individual, or autobiography, or sovereignty, which could easily be paralleled from Carolingian or Anglo-Saxon source material if they wanted to ask anyone, but that might challenge their unique selling point…1 But it happens in my period too, and then the answer is usually “the Romans got there first”. And often the Greeks before them. And hey, if we had sources from Mesopotamia, who knows? Obviously at various times people have actually originated stuff, but not half as often as it is alleged.

Hey, Jonathan, we have mountains of sources, literally, from Mesopotamia...but I suspect you know that and simply jest. (Lots of those sources, BTW, concern sovereignty, or something that looks a lot like it.)

One thing I didn't see spelled out in this little essay is that the moment of the origination of whatever key feature is identified with a dividing line between real history (right up to the present) and a prehistory of slope-browed troglodytes who don't really count. The protochronistic moment isn't an isolated innovation, however important, but the origin of MODERNITY! And US! In ALL OUR PRE-DEPRESSION GLORY!

Yeah, I tend to be skeptical of such claims.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

30th anniversary

February marks the 30th anniversary of the climax of Iran's Islamic revolution. RFE/RL has an article asking whether this durable revolution can also be seen as a successful one. Well, the question remains unanswered, but there is some good material in the article nonetheless. Also at the same location you can find a collection of famous pictures of the Iranian revolution, or at least the huge crowds that turned out against the Shah. And don't miss the launching of an Iranian satellite, the first such launch without foreign help.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Reminder: Robin Gendron speaks on Inco and Indonesia on Wed., Feb. 4

Here's the info on this upcoming History Department seminar:

Update: Jessica Parkes, a student in our MA program, should have been listed as co-presenter.

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