Sunday, May 31, 2009

Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques, by William R. Short

A personal recommendation by Jeff Sypeck at Quid Plura. I haven't heard any reaction from re-creators or re-enactors yet.

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Iron-making in Wareham, Ontario, May 30

Last day in May, summer's on its way...


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Saturday, May 30, 2009

A re-created medieval battle in Russia

When I got involved in medieval re-creation in the early 70s, Russia was a faraway and generally inaccessible place where the kind of fun we were having would not have fit in. Now, however, an energetic and classy re-creation (Alexander Nevsky versus the evil German Crusaders? English Russia saith not) looks much the same there as it does in North America.

Images: Love that fort!

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Medieval women's magazine?

That is what the Toronto Star called this 15th century manuscript unearthed by Wilfrid Laurier University English professor James Weldon. More properly, it is a commonplace book, an interesting genre of writing not unlike blog writing (or better, diary writing) in some respects. Janice Liedl, a Laurentian University historian who has worked with such things, comments on the Star article:

While the Star’s characterization of the work as a precursor to a modern women’s magazine in the vein of Chatelaine or Cosmopolitan is a little bit over-the-top, it does seem to be a great example of a purpose-assembled collection of manuscript material ranging from medical recipes to literary excerpts, what we might call a florilegia [florilegium sm]. By the sixteenth century, these collections were known as commonplace books. And, contrary to the comments of some of the newspaper readers, literate women were hardly unknown at this time or uninvolved in producing their own manuscripts of either original works or anthologies. So this document is hardly unprecedented but I’d say it’s because of that context that the story seems all the more interesting.

I’ve worked with a number of women’s commonplace books at libraries such as the Folger (and really ought to get back to some of that line of enquiry, one of these days) that have a similar range of subjects, though most of those seem to be in the hand of one copyist, presumably the user who collected the tidbits of particular interest by copying them as they were encountered, rather than literally pulling folio sheaves together. This manuscript, from the images provided, has very different “hands” and might be assembled from different texts produced at many times and places. So it seems as if this set of texts have been more “collected for” an individual reader than “collected by” an individual copyist as most of the commonplace books have been.

So I’ll wait to see if some more information about this manuscript percolates out into the scholarly community. It’s certainly an example that I’ll be using in this fall’s senior seminar when we discuss gender implications for reading and writing in the early modern period!

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Our savage era

Over at Daily Kos, there is a diary showing excerpts from the Google Earth atlas of North Korea. (The original site is here, but I found it a little impenetrable.) Below are two images that chilled me.

"The image above depicts an area covered with mounds. It's speculated these mounds are actually mass graves for some of the more than 2 million people that starved to death in the famine of the 1990s. "

Then there is this:

"The structures in the picture are just a small portion of a North Korean prison camp called 'Camp 16.' The entire camp measures 18 miles by 16 miles (four times the size of the District of Columbia). No ground level pictures of the prison camp have ever made it out of the country."

Now you know why the pictures and films of liberated concentration camps at the end of World War II are so important.

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Carnivalesque 50

Monday, May 25, 2009

Behind the house, today

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, by Charles Kurzman

In this book, Charles Kurzman examine some of the more common causes or retroactive explanations of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and finds them all lacking. He contends that Iranians joined the protest movement against the Shah when and as they decided it was a viable movement. This judgment by Kurzman reflects his view of how people interact. See page 138:

Viability does not explain why the movement turned out as it did. Rather, viability is not predictive. Its focus on the variability and confusion of protest runs counter to the project of retroactive prediction [identifying causes or factors that would allow an observer to predict the outcome]. In this sense, it is not an explanation but an anti-explanation. Instead of seeking recurrent patterns of social life, anti-explanation explores the unforeseen moments when patterns are twisted or broken off. Instead of emphasizing routine behavior, it emphasizes "deviant" cases and statistical "outliers." Focus on the fringe reminds us that the whole fabric of social life -- all behaviors and institutions that we take for granted, that seem unchangeable -- may be vulnerable to unraveling, that the fabric survives only through our collective expectation that it will survive.

What is left when we part from retroactive prediction? Understanding.

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Hoppaquin Hay (Quinn)

Hoppaquin Hay is a man-at-arms mentioned in Froissart's Chronicles. I like to think of him as "the famous singing cowboy of the 14th century." I threw out that name as a possibility when we got the horse, and soon enough he was known as (the Mighty) Quinn.

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End of May, Bonfield, Ontario

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Crossing the Chenab valley to vote in Jammu, India

More views of the Indian general election at the Big Picture.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

A friend of mine lent me this book more than a year ago. Because it is nearly 800 pages long, it got shunted aside during my preparation for the Crusade and Jihad course and the subsequent school year. I never gave up, however, because even though my tolerance for fantasy has been reduced over the years, this tale of two English wizards trying to revive English magic during the Regency era fascinated me with its sheer storytelling vigor and its mastery of the English language. This is a book where one character can write a review of a book by another for the Edinburgh Review and do a convincing job of it. However, much of the book's charm is subtler than that. Take, just for one example, this passage from page 704, when Mr. Norrell is rushing from London by carriage to Yorkshire to confront Jonathan Strange. Here is what happens when he reaches the toll barrier at Islington:

Mr. Norrell gazed idly at a shop window ablaze with lamplight. It was a superior sort of shop with an uncluttered interior and elegant modern chairs for the customers to sit upon; in fact it was so very refined an establishment that it was by no means clear what it sold. A heap of brightly colored somethings lay tossed upon a chair, but whether they were shawls or materials for gowns or something else entirely, Mr. Norrell could not tell. There were three women in the shop. One was a customer -- a smart, stylish person in a spencer like a Hussar's uniform, complete with fur trim and frogging. On her head was a little Russian fur cap; she kept touching the back of it as if she feared it would fall off. The shopkeeper was more discreetly dressed in a plain dark gown, and there was besides a little assistant who looked on respectfully and bobbed a nervous little curtsy whenever anyone chanced to look at her. The customer and the shopkeeper were not engaged in business; they were talking together with a a great deal of animation and laughter. It was a scene as far removed from Mr. Norrell's usual interests as it was possible to be, yet it led to his heart in a way he could not understand. He thought fleetingly of Mrs. Strange and Lady Pole. Then something flew between him and the cheerful scene -- something like a piece of the darkness made solid. He thought that it was a raven.

The toll was paid. Davey shook the reins and the carriage moved on towards the Archway.

There is more storytelling here than in many whole novels. I have not had much luck recommending this to my friends, since an awful lot of them have read it already. But if this passage appeals to you, this book may be for you.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Hands-on undergraduate education"

Always a good thing, where possible. A film short at the OU site is here. "OU" here is Ohio University in Athens, Ohio; Patrick Muhlberger is a relative.

I found it odd that one speaker referred to the USA as "here in the States." An undercover Canadian?

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Hubble over the Cape Verde Islands, from Shuttle Atlantis

And work in progress in the light of a crescent Earth:

Both from the Big Picture.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Robin and Marian (1976): the middle-aged Middle Ages

Robin Hood comes back to England after 20 years away, crusading and fighting in France, and finds that his old love, Marian, is now an abbess. And she is not young, or particularly impressed by his devil-may-care attitude. Everybody else Robin knew back when is old or dead. Nevertheless, he proceeds to try to live up to his own self-image and the even bigger legend that has grown up around him in his old neighborhood. The results are tragic, though derived from an actual Robin Hood ballad.

This is a remarkable movie. It stars Sean Connery, Robert Shaw, and a luminous Audrey Hepburn. The screenplay author is James Goldman, who wrote the Lion in Winter and They Might Be Giants. The director was Richard Lester, who gives this material an unheroic treatment similar to that which he gave to the Three Musketeers and the Four Musketeers a few years earlier. The physical setting, the buildings and the costumes are very good if not perfect. What really makes the movie is the psychological reality, of Richard Lionheart dying of his own greed and determination to be a king, or the contradictory impulses that drive Marian's behavior.

I probably should not say that this is a movie about middle-aged people for middle-aged people, but it is, and I mean it as a compliment. I certainly can't think of a better historical movie of this sort.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Down to earth scholarship

Cleaning out my mailbox after the trip to Kalamazoo, I came across a link to this Telegraph obituary for Margaret Gelling, whose work I was entirely ignorant of. But now having heard of it I am very impressed, and you may be able to guess why from the following excerpt.

When Margaret Gelling began her career as a research assistant at the English Place-Name Society in 1946, the field was dominated by scholars such as Sir Frank Stenton, who, as she put it, "empathised with the ruling classes" and were more interested in place-names designated by members of the elite, such as Kington or Knighton ("royal manor" and "estate of the young retainers"), than by names with a popular origin.

The topographical vocabulary of the early Anglo-Saxon settlers was highly nuanced and exact, she argued, because in an age without maps or signposts, the distinctions between a "knoll" and a "creech", a "don" and a "brough" or an "ofer" and an "ora" would have been very important navigational concepts. As a result of her work, place-name scholars no longer indulge in etymological speculation without looking at the landscape first.

Margaret Gelling's work offered an insight into the Anglo-Saxon imagination, and provided an invaluable reference tool for archaeologists looking for previously unknown sites indicated by place-name references to, say, farming or ancient routes. She also showed how a study of place-names can help historians gain a more accurate picture of early history.

For example, she challenged the view – based largely on the writings of the sixth-century historian St Gildas – that the ancient Britons were forced out to the "Celtic fringe" by the Anglo-Saxon invaders. If that were true, she asked, why do so many place names in southern England have Celtic origins? "If you believe Gildas, the Anglo-Saxons would have been chasing the ancient Britons, catching up with one who wasn't fast enough and saying, 'Look here, before I cut off your head, just tell me the name of this place'."

In 2001 new genetic research confirmed that the majority of Britons living in the south of England share the same DNA as their "Celtic" counterparts, suggesting that, far from being purged when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the fifth century, many ancient Britons remained in England.

Image: Gelling in an appropriate pose.

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Fleetwood Mac, Big Love

I've never been that much of a follower of Fleetwood Mac, but I heard this on the car radio while crossing Michigan and the guitar part just struck me.


Friday, May 15, 2009

The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England, by Derek G. Neal

Derek Neal is a colleague at Nipissing University, and this is his first book. I think it will be a hit, because he takes on a set of current scholarly issues and manages to discuss the theoretical perspectives and source material with great clarity. The cover illustration makes me laugh, because Derek specifically says early in the book that he is interested in non-elite Englishmen and that there will be little or no "swordplay" in it; I am unaware that he mentions armor or helmets anywhere in the text, though shoes do show up briefly.

If you are tempted to think that gender is just another trendy scholarly fad you can safely ignore, I challenge you to read this book and then say it didn't enrich your view of later medieval England, or didn't impress you with the possibilities of this kind of analysis.

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Phil Paine finds his own memorial to genius and heroism in Toronto

He describes a rare moment:

When I first began to read seriously in history, as a boy, my instincts led me to avoid looking for heroes. Trying to find people in the past to admire and respect can be a trap. One is bound to be disappointed. The sad truth is that scoundrels and monsters routinely find their way into history books, but good people do not. The very fact that one is a decent human being virtually guarantees that one will be forgotten. Historical figures propped up as models or champions of this and that usually turn out to be outright frauds, or at the very least to have genuine accomplishments marred by major flaws. But there was one historical figure that I could not help admiring, and that was Frederick Douglass, whose Autobiography inspired me from childhood. And I did not know until recently that I could walk on the very floor where Douglass walked and spoke, right near my own home.

At the corner of King and Jarvis stands St. Lawrence Hall. This fine structure was built in 1850 to provide a venue for public meetings, concerts, balls, and other cultural events of the little city that was then maturing out of its crude frontier beginnings. Over the next century, the hall would be used to echo the voice of Jenny Lind, display the curios of P.T. Barnum, and be used as a practice dance hall by Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. The structure is well preserved, and an excellent example of the Renaissance Revival style of the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike most such structures, it has maintained its intended function throughout its existence.

The timing of its construction was propitious, for there was an important issue for public discussion: the recently enacted Fugitive Slave Law in the United States. This law allowed agents from the southern slave states to conduct a reign of terror in northern states, kidnapping runaway slaves, and many free blacks, and dragging them back to the slave pens of the south. It effectively unleashed the tentacles of the monstrously evil institution of slavery throughout the United States, canceling out existing abolitionist reforms. This hideous injustice would soon lead the United States into a bloody civil war. The activities of the Underground Railway, the organized resistance movement which smuggled escaped slaves to freedom in Canada, were now much more dangerous. Upper Canada had enacted legislation for the abolition of slavery in 1793. On the issue of slavery, Canadians were consistently and adamantly on the side of the angels. The underground railway terminated in Toronto. Escaped American slaves formed free agricultural communities scattered around rural Ontario, and much of the resistance was organized here.

So it's not surprising that Frederick Douglas came to Toronto, and spoke at the newly-built St. Lawrence Hall to a cheering crowd of 1,200 on April 3, 1851[1]. Yesterday, I entered the building, and walked through the empty hall, which has not much changed in general appearance.

Since I acknowledge so few heroes from the annals of history, I rarely get that special thrill that historians can enjoy... the pleasure of planting one's feet on a spot trod by a paladin. I once stood rapt with pleasure in front of Mozart's house, listening to one of his arias being sung. But Mozart's is an example of a tragic life, transcended by genius, and can hardly serve as an example to follow. I have no transcendent genius of my own, so his example is useless to me, personally.

But the work of Frederick Douglass has long been, for me, a kind of guidebook in the quest for freedom and human dignity. The man was a genius, no doubt about it, but it was a real-world genius.

Read the whole thing.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Down the road a bit, just now

More beauty in iron

Beauty in iron

Long ago, when various young nuts and idealists were forming the SCA and a variety of other medieval re-creation organizations, starting with just about no real knowledge of material culture, we often read about the tremendous achievements of ancient artisans. One of which was the pattern-welded sword. Thus I was thrilled and impressed when Darrell Markewitz posted the above picture and a link to the originating website on his blog. The artist in question is Jake Powning.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mapping the conflict in NW Pakistan

Besides this map, the BBC provides details on the various districts involved in the current conflict.

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Michael Drout's Old English course in less than five minutes

Michael Drout is a leading expert in Old English literature and the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. He is also a witty and charming man.

Now, thanks to an anonymous student or students in his Spring course, you can learn everything you need to know about Old English literature in a matter of minutes.

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Reminder from the Star Trek universe

Torture, taking glee in torture, and justifying torture are characteristics of the bad guys.

Image: on a more cheerful note, isn't it great when moviemakers now need to depict the Saturn system, they can accurately do so?

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Congress, 2009

Kalamazoo Congress, that is.

I had more enjoyment, intellectually and socially, this time around than I can remember -- and I am a great fan of the Kalamazoo get-together. When before have I picked all good sessions and all good papers? Whenever have I had so much good companionship? I am not complaining about previous experiences, not in the slightest!

My paper on arms and law in the 1350s had the good fortune to be part of the popular De Re Militari series, and it was well attended. The response made me think that when I do write my book on Charny's Questions on War, there will be a reasonable audience for the work. Reassuring! I am also to have an opportunity to speak on the subject of my choice in two years' time. By that time, perhaps, I will have a chance to reread "The Book of the Good Duke," and come up with something of general interest from it. (Some of you may laugh at that choice, but there really is such a book, and it's good.)

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Muhlberger speaks at Kalamazoo: Friday, May 8, 1:30 PM, Fetzer 1035

At the end of this week I will be at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan. I am delivering a paper on Friday at 1:30 PM in section 273 (Late Medieval Military History: England and France) on "Law and Arms: Charny’s Questions, the First French Ordinance of Arms, and Their Precedents." Please come by if you are in the area and free of other commitments, or can't bear to miss another discussion of Charny's Questions. Me, I'm hooked on the stuff.

Image: Fetzer Business Development Center.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945-1958: Atrocity, Law, and History, by Hilary Earl

I was at the university today and ran into my colleague Hillary Earl, who was glowing over the fact that she was holding copies of her new book. And well might she glow, it looks like a beaut.

This is not the only book to come out of our department recently; I hope to report on Derek Neal's book on masculinity in late medieval England in the near future, as I am reading it now. Also, Françoise Noël is in the last stages of indexing her most recent book. She has so many that I can't remember if this is her fourth or fifth monograph.

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Facts and speculation on the Little Ice Age in Scotland 1645-1715

From the BBC news site. I particularly liked this:

The late Prof HH Lamb, a world renowned climatologist, investigated the impact of the Little Ice Age on Scotland for part of his book Climate History and the Modern World.

He wrote of arctic ice expanding further south and of reports of Inuit people arriving on Orkney between 1690 and 1728. One was said to have paddled down the River Don in Aberdeen.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Torture works, of course. But for whom?

For the Dark Lords of Torture, who are living in comfort and respectability. So far.

Update: but then there's the reassuring fact that the fourth-graders care.

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The ups and downs of "Dutch socialism"

Read this and you will see perhaps why a Dutch professor at Nipissing University used to say about Canada: "I want to pay more taxes."

Thanks to Paul Halsall for pointing this article out.

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Effigies and the development of English armor

Will McLean connects us to a webpage where Doug Strong analyzes funeral effigies of armored men in 14th- and 15th-century English churches. Having examined a lot of them in person back in 1972, I am quite convinced that people who commissioned these monuments were paying for the very best they could afford, and were very fashion conscious.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Walking around the property after supper

How can you tell that Barack Obama has been a university professor?

From a New York Times interview:

I want to emphasize, though, that part of the challenge is making sure that folks are getting in high school what they need as well. You know, I use my grandmother as an example for a lot of things, but I think this is telling. My grandmother never got a college degree. She went to high school. Unlike my grandfather, she didn’t benefit from the G.I. Bill, even though she worked on a bomber assembly line. She went to work as a secretary. But she was able to become a vice president at a bank partly because her high-school education was rigorous enough that she could communicate and analyze information in a way that, frankly, a bunch of college kids in many parts of the country can’t. She could write —

Interviewer: Today, you mean?

Today. She could write a better letter than many of my — I won’t say “many,” but a number of my former students at the University of Chicago Law School.

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Friday, May 01, 2009

A sad commentary on America and torture

Dan Froomkin in the Washington Post sites the sad results of a recent poll:

And CNN reports: "The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.

"More than half of people who attend services at least once a week -- 54 percent -- said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is 'often' or 'sometimes' justified. Only 42 percent of people who 'seldom or never' go to services agreed, according to the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life."

A sad commentary on America and torture

Dan Froomkin at the Washington Post reveals this sad survey result:

And CNN reports: "The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.

"More than half of people who attend services at least once a week -- 54 percent -- said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is 'often' or 'sometimes' justified. Only 42 percent of people who 'seldom or never' go to services agreed, according to the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life."