Sunday, January 31, 2010

Population crash in Europe?

Hoyerswerda high rise being demolished
Fred Pearce has written a book called Peoplequake and also an article in the Guardian flogging its message of anxiety about Europe's lack of enthusiasm for reproduction. Some excerpts from a meaty article:

On the windswept roof of the Lausitz Tower, the town's only landmark, I meet Felix Ringel. A young German anthropologist studying at Cambridge University, he has passed up chances taken by his friends to ­investigate the rituals of Amazon tribes or Mongolian peasants. As we survey the empty plots of fenced scrub below, he explains that the underbelly of his own country seemed weirder and far less studied than those exotic worlds.

In its heyday in the 60s, Hoyerswerda was a model community in communist East Germany, a brave new world attracting migrants from all over the country. They dug brown coal from huge open-cast mines on the plain around the town. There was good money and two free bottles of brandy a month. But the fall of the Berlin Wall changed all that.


Under communism, East ­German women worked more, and were ­often better educated, than the more conservative western hausfrau. But when their jobs disappeared in the early 90s, hundreds of thousands of them, encouraged by their ­mothers, took their school diplomas and CVs and headed west to cities such as ­Heidelberg. The boys, however, seeing their fathers out of work, often just gave up. In adulthood, they form a rump of ill-educated, alienated, ­often unemployable men, most of them ­unattractive mates – a further factor in the departure of young women.


"There has been nothing ­comparable in world peacetime ­history," says the French demographer Jean-Claude Chesnais. After the Berlin Wall came down, millions of East Germans who stayed behind decided against producing another generation. Their fertility more than halved. In 1988, 216,000 ­babies were born in East Germany; in 1994, just 88,000 were born. The fertility rate worked out at 0.8 children per woman. Since then it has struggled up to around 1.2, but that is still only just over half the rate needed to maintain the population. About a million homes have been abandoned, and the ­government is demolishing them as fast as it can. Left ­behind are "perforated ­cities", with huge random chunks of ­wasteland. Europe hasn't seen ­cityscapes like this since the bombing of the second world war.

And nowhere has emptied as much as Hoyerswerda. In the 80s, it had a population of 75,000 and the highest birth rate in East Germany. Today, the town's population has halved. It has gone from being ­Germany's fastest-growing town to its fastest-shrinking one. The biggest age groups are in their 60s and 70s, and the town's former birth clinic is an old people's home. Its population pyramid is ­upturned – more like a mushroom cloud.

In a school in a partly demolished suburb known simply as Area Nine, I meet Nancy, a tattooed and quietly ­spoken social worker. Forty years ago, her parents were among the new­comers: her mother was a midwife, her father a train driver. "There were modern flats and services here then. It was a prestige development. When you asked the kids what they wanted to do when they grew up, they had ambitions to drive buses or work in the power station. But now parents find it very difficult to encourage their ­children when they have no jobs or prospects themselves. My friends have all left. I'd like to stay, but I have a three-year-old daughter and the schools are no good any more. I'll ­probably go too."


Across the rest of Germany, Hoyerswerda is regarded as a feral wasteland – complete with wolves. Slinking in from Poland and the Czech Republic, they are finding empty spaces where once there were apartment blocks and mines. And the wolves, at least, are staying. A few kilometres down the road, near the tiny town of Spreewitz, wolf enthusiast Ilka Reinhardt can't believe his luck: "We have more wolves than we have had in 200 years." The badlands of former East Germany are going "back to nature". And Europeans should be worried, for some fear that eastern Germany is, as it was back in the 1960s, a trailblazer for the demographic future of the continent.

This is definitely an interesting phenomenon, but strangely I am not moved. First, the traditional population of Europe may be falling, or look like it's about to fall, but the population of the world is still going up, with devastating impacts on climate and the rest of the environment. If Europeans don't want to devote their lives to aggravating the problem, who am I to tell them that they should?

Also, there are sizable parts of North America where the population is thinning out pretty drastically, too. Canada and the United States both have growing populations, but the places where people used to support themselves by breaking the sod or digging mines by hand are clearing out and these areas may well end up with populations of the scale that existed before the huge invasion from Europe. Remember that huge invasion from Europe? That took place because Europe could not support its population under decent conditions with technology and institutions of the time. I am not so sure why people get so excited about this stuff, but it may have something do with the fear of slang-speaking kids wearing baseball caps backwards.

Me, my neighborhood has both wolves and kids with baseball caps worn at various angles. So what.

Image: This is Hoyerswerda.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Whose past? Whose present? More on my personal understanding of history

A while back I posted here about my personal understanding of religious traditions. I wrote about how any religious tradition that is big and important by necessity has to include a whole bunch of different and often contradictory elements. Thus, people who talk about "true X" where X is a big-name religion, seem to me to be talking about their aspirations and not a historical reality.

Yesterday, a post on Richard Scott Nokes' blog, Unlocked Wordhoard, made it possible for me to put into somewhat awkward words another thing I'm fairly sure of after all these years. Let me borrow parts of Scott's post and adapt a comment I left on it. Maybe it will make more sense this time around.

Here is what he said:

I'm using Kathleen Biddick's The Shock of Medievalism in something I'm writing. ... Biddick offers up terminology useful in establishing a framework for talking about medievalism.

Two of the most useful terms, however, are two of the ugliest: pastist (which “argues for radical historical difference between the Middle Ages and the present”) and presentist (which “looks into the mirror of the Middle ages and asks it to reflect back histories of modernist or postmodernist identities”). They're ugly on the page and ugly rolling of the tongue, and are kind of unsophisticated in their construction.* The terms are, however, very useful.

Me, I am not so sure that those terms are useful, but maybe Scott will convince me that I'm wrong when it comes to talking about medievalism. But I doubt it.

You see this touches on one of the most important things about history, namely that every human being has a different perspective on the past, because they are in a different position in the present. A commonplace for some people, of course, but one that people should take more seriously.

I know that Scott has lived in Korea, so that he knows that it is not like the United States, but he also knows it is not entirely incomprehensible. With this experience behind him, he might find Korean culture more or less comprehensible than some other cultures in the world. And again with this experience behind him, he could rate certain medieval cultures as really exotic, and others as kind of tame and boring in their familiarity. Say that Scott also has lived on a farm in Iceland for several years in childhood, and so there are certain things about rural North Atlantic and Scandinavian cultures, even medieval ones, that he can pretty much take for granted. Scott also has a neighbor, we will say, who shares neither of his foreign experiences. Depending on where he is coming from, he might find everything about Iceland to be exotic, more so than South Korea, where at least they have big cities. And traffic lights. Here we have two hypothetical Americans, both of whom we will say are white, about the same age, and well-educated, and they have different histories of the Middle Ages, and different views of the present as well.

I think the only history we can know is the particular understanding we have of the past. There was a real time before us, I am reasonably sure, but what's left of it is a few stories, a few records, a few monuments heavily restored by later architects, and a lot of trash. The history that we discuss and use to bring some kind of order into our understanding of the world is inside our heads, and in the debates we have about people's differing understandings. There are billions of world histories, and at the very least hundreds of different types of history.

It is legitimate to use various schemes to try to relate those differing histories and simplify things a bit, but I find that an awful lot of historians stop there; they really do divide the human experience into "the present," whose characteristics are pretty self-evident, and the "past," the particular slice of the dead and gone that they find fascinating, which all too often stands in for the entire past, or the crucial transition between a singular past and in the present with which we are so familiar with. (Even the present in Nepal?)

I may be overreacting to Scott's post, but at the very least it reminded me of something that drives me crazy. I visualize a discussion in which the participants have forgotten the vast variety of the human experience, and which turns the past and present both into cartoon versions of themselves.

Image: I have never been to Iceland, so I don't know whether they have traffic lights. My 25 years in the Canadian countryside, however, make it easy for me to think that they haven't bothered.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Visit to Wayne State University, Detroit

I should mention, in connection with my praise for the Detroit Institute of Art, that it is right next door to Wayne State University, which I visited yesterday for the very first time. The weather was arctic and there was a wind tunnel effect around the buildings to make it worse, but I was impressed anyway by the grounds and the rather attractive buildings. The research library is a good one and I may be back; it is certainly worth checking out via the online catalog. Surprisingly, if you forget about the tunnel under the river, it's not that much farther from me than the University of Windsor's campus.

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Detroit Industry, a mural by Diego Rivera

Back when I was teaching introductory world history, I became aware that Diego Rivera -- the early 20th century artist and social critic, the man whose huge murals of the Spanish conquest of Mexico probably formed everybody's image of those events and especially what the Aztec looked like (at second or third hand if not directly)-- had some of his work in the Detroit Institute of Art. Somehow I got the idea that it might have been some version of his Mexican historical work.

Well, today I was at the DIA and found out how wrong I was. Diego Rivera was in Detroit in 1932-3, and while he was there he was commissioned by the Ford heir, Edsel Ford, to do original work right on the walls of an interior court built specially for that purpose. It is a depiction Detroit Industry, showing its power, its dynamism, its potential for evil as well as good. What's haunting about the murals are the occasional appearances of warplanes, men in gas masks, and the production of poison gas bombs.

This is an amazing piece of art, and I bet next to no one knows about it anymore. There are lots of pictures on the web, including some posted by the Institute itself, but there's no substitute for seeing this kind of large-scale art in person. I gasped when I first saw it.

At the top of this post, is one small section of the mural which I think comes across fairly well at the scale at which you're going to see it. It shows workers in the foreground being observed by both men and women in dressier clothes. The observers have rather sour expressions on their faces. My theory is that the noise is probably overpowering. Or are they repulsed for some other reason?

I am rather surprised that the generally conservative Ford family patronized Diego Rivera. They must have thought he was the next thing to a communist. I mean, have a look at this (On a communist site yet.) Even the Detroit Industry murals show no sympathy for the captains of industry.

By the way, I should point out that the Detroit Institute of Art has mountains of good stuff in a very impressive building, right downtown in what might be called the museum district of Detroit.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

No sympathy from Professor Dutch

Professor Steven Dutch, a geologist at the University of Wisconsin--Green Bay, has a web page where he has collected complaints he's got from student evaluations and replied to them. I suspect he actually has a rather small number of complainers who use up an inordinate amount of his patience. That's consistent with my experience. One clueless student can take up as much out-of-class time, to no good end, as the entire rest of the class.

Anyway, I really liked this part, which applies to more than students:
I Disagreed With the Professor's Stand on ----

The time to deal with this issue is when it comes up in class. I have no respect for anyone who complains on the course questionnaires.

But the professor might put me down, or the students might laugh at me. Not too likely, but even if it happens, so what? If you don't have courage in the safe setting of a classroom, when exactly are you planning to develop it? When your boss asks you to falsify figures or lie under oath? When someone throws rocks through your minority neighbor's windows? When the local hate group burns the synagogue?

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Unhappy; or, what's the matter with kids today?

A certain number of people in France think they are unhappy about Muslim immigrants and their children for not fitting in to the French way of life. I am not so sure that their self-diagnosis is correct.

The issue that everyone is talking about is the government policy forbidding women -- Muslim women -- from wearing in many public places veils of various sorts and more concealing garments like the burqa. Although there are about 5 million Muslims in France, it is estimated that only a few thousand or maybe even a few hundred women actually wear these things. Yet the government is rolling out the big guns against them.

It was when I read the Globe and Mail report about the wider context of this move that I began to doubt that Islam is really that central to this feeling of France is on the wrong track. Look at these quotations and you tell me:

The public hearing [part of a government-sponsored national debate] was called to discuss one question: What does it mean to be French? It got off to a rocky start...

The next speaker wanted to talk about globalization. “Kids today,” he said, as people around him rolled their eyes, “identify more with Michael Jackson and Madonna than with France."


The French have also been uninhibited in their response to the call for debate, with more than 40,000 comments posted in the first month on the government's national identity website. About 6 per cent, according to the Immigration Ministry, were racist or hateful enough to be removed.

The posts that remain run the gamut from quotations from 19th-century French philosophers to rants about immigrants.

“France has become a colony of Africa,” wrote one contributor. To be truly French, wrote another, one must have “French blood” from both parents “and going back several generations.” Others said all schoolchildren should be required to memorize the Marseillaise and to sing it, on pain of punishment, at least once a week.


Nadine Morano, the junior minister for family affairs, has tried to backtrack for days after she was filmed at another debate advising young French Muslims how to fit in. “What I want,” she said, “is that they love France when they live in this country, they get a job, they not use slang … and not wear their caps back to front.”

I absolutely love the junior minister's remarks about the characteristics of all powerful, unstoppable, heritage-endangering Islam. If you somehow missed that in the last paragraph, that dangerous foreign religion apparently consists of:

Hating France

Not getting a job

Using slang

Wearing [baseball] caps back to front.

Straight out of the Arabian desert in the seventh century! I might buy some of this had I not been a teenager in the 60s, when I was told that wearing jeans to school and growing your hair too long made you some kind of outlaw. Same, same.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

We can have pictures of winter

It's not very wintry in Windsor, Ont., but we can have pictures of ice and cold.

Above you should see an ice scupture at the Ice Museum in Chena Hot Springs, Alaska, as featured on Jim Wright's Stonekettle Station, quite a nice blog.

And following this link you can see "hair ice" which forms on dead wood in certain conditions. I've got dead wood all over my North Bay area property, but I've never seen this.

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Farmers on the move, 8000 BCE

This blog is called Muhlberger's Early History for a good reason: I'm often making a connection between things that happened centuries ago and things that our neighbors are doing somewhere in the world today. In the classroom I love talking about remote origins. If I were teaching ancient history now, you'd bet this would be included ( exceerpt from the UK's Daily Mail):

European farming began around 9,000 BC in the Fertile Crescent - a region extending from the eastern coast to the Persian Gulf and which includes modern day Iraq, Syria, and southeast .

The region was the cradle of civilisation and home to the Babylonia, Sumer and Assyrian empires.

The development of farming allowed people to settle down for the first time - and to produce more food than they needed, leading to trade and the freedom to develop new skills such as metal working, building and writing.

Some archaeologists have argued that some of these early farmers travelled around the world - settling new lands and bringing farming skills with them.

But others have insisted that the skills were passed on by word of mouth, and not by mass migration.

The new study suggests the farmers routinely upped sticks and moved west when their villages became too crowded, eventually reaching Britain and .

The waves of migrants brought their new skills with them. Some settled down with local tribes and taught them how to farm, the researchers believe.

'When the expansion happened these men had a reproductive advantage because they were able to grow more food so they were more attractive to women and had more offspring,' said Prof Jobling.

'In total more than 80 per cent of European men have Y chromosomes which descend from incoming farmers.

'It seems odd to think that the majority of men in Ireland have fore fathers from the near East and that British people have forefathers from the near East.'

The findings are published in the science journal PLoS Biology.

Dr Patricia Balaresque, a co-author of the study, said: 'This means that more than 80 per cent of European Y chromosomes descend from incoming farmers.'

In contrast, other studies have shown that DNA passed down from mothers to daughters can be traced by to hunter-gatherers in Europe, she said.

'To us, this suggests a reproductive advantage for farming males over indigenous hunter-gatherer males during the switch from hunting and gathering, to farming - maybe, back then, it was just sexier to be a farmer,' she said.

I don't think anyone had a clue about this 20 years ago when I first taught Ancient Civilizations. What fun!

(And let's hear it for SE Turkey getting proper credit.)

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Revised thoughts on two of Charny's questions

Those of you who were interested in this post and the conversation with Will McLean in the comments and on his blog may want to know that I've revised my position. Thanks to Will for pushing me to revise and rethink. A serious, engaged critic is extraordinarily valuable.

As I once said of a very helpful senior scholar who looked over some of my unfinished material, "Even when he's wrong he's right."

Here's the current key passage on men-at-arms being dead, captured, or desconfit.
I interpret these questions to mean that the idea of being defeated, desconfit, was so unwelcome that even the dead would reject it. We can easily imagine that being called "defeated" stung, but it seems that there is more to it. Desconfit does not mean defeated in some neutral sense. One relevant but general sense means "destroyed, broken, ruined, reduced to nothingness." There is also is an old and more specific military sense in which desconfit means "routed," a concept of both moral and practical significance for horsemen. Given the existence of the different meanings for this loaded adjective, we can see that there would be room for disagreement about who could be called desconfit and how bad that label might be. Was it a state worse than death? Could running away open a man at arms to an accusation of the deepest dishonor? Desconfit certainly could conjure up a picture of a man at arms running from danger with the enthusiastic help of his horse, for which running away was the most natural response; and the picture is a disgraceful one, at least for the man.
See also Will's personal answer to another Charny question.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Becoming Evil: How ordinary people commit genocide and mass killing, by James Waller

Over the years Phil Paine and I have occasionally sat down and talked about some book that we wished existed. One such book was "Famous Social Science Experiments You Should Know About."

This is pretty much that book. It talks about the nature of human nature, from a social psychology and evolutionary psychology point of view. Some of the most important social science experiments of the 20th century are here, described well, and related to the greater theme, which is how ordinary people become perpetrators of genocide. It is systematic, clearly argued and a good basis for further research. There are some things about it that could've been improved but nothing that reduces its importance.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Phil Ochs

One of the most distinctive voices of the protest folk music of the 1960s, Phil Ochs is pretty much forgotten now. The song I was talking about in the last post, "The War is Over," starts about 6:10.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I believe the war is over...

If you are old enough, name that tune. And the singer.

Back to the present, sort of. Juan Cole argues in a post that the Iraq war is over, and that Obama's policy has worked, but we have not noticed it because media attention has been elsewhere. Bolding indicates my emphasis.

The Iraqi military and police, over which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had largely gained control, proved able to keep order about as well as had their American and British colleagues. In July, 2009, with the US no longer patrolling, attacks and deaths declined by a third, and went on down from there. Despite two dramatic bombing waves in the capital, in August and November, the situation has in most places calmed down on an everyday basis. Flashpoints such as Mosul and Kirkuk remain, but had been violent when the US military was there, too.

Most Americans do not realize that US troops seldom patrol or engage in combat in Iraq anymore, accounting for why none were killed in hostile action in December. The total number of US troops in Iraq has fallen from a maximum of 160,000 during the Bush administration's 'surge' to about 110,000. After the early March parliamentary elections, another big withdrawal will begin, bringing then number down to 50,000 or so non-combat troops by September 1.

Critics of Obama often charge him with failing to end the Iraq War. But there is no longer an Iraq War. There are US bases in a country where indigenous forces are still fighting a set of low-intensity struggles, with little US involvement. Obama is having his troops leave exactly as quickly as the Iraqi parliament asked him to. Most US troops in Iraq seem mainly to be in the moving business now, shipping out 1.5 million pieces of equipment.

The last 4,000 Marines will hand over responsibility for al-Anbar Province, once among the more violent places on earth, to the US Army on Saturday, and shortly thereafter the Marines will depart the country.


Contrary to the consensus at Washington think tanks, Obama is ahead of schedule in his Iraq withdrawal, to which he is committed, and which will probably unfold pretty much as he has outlined in his speeches. The attention of the US public has turned away from Iraq so decisively that Obama's achievement in facing down the Pentagon on this issue and supporting Iraq's desire for practical steps toward sovereignty has largely been missed in this country.


Obama was handed a series of catastrophes. He has done better in handling some than others. But his decision on Iraq was the right one, the one that allows the US to depart with dignity, and allows Iraqis to work out their own internal problems. It is in this sense that Obama won the Iraq War.

What really struck me about the post is the video clip from Al Jazeera on "Sovereignty Day;" I like to think that I read a bit deeper and wider than many people, but the situation depicted here mostly passed me by:

Or maybe it's the fact that video gives you a whole different feel than even good analytical prose.

This indicates to me that I've got to read more news from outside the USA.

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Two Charny questions answered?

A provisional text hot off the screen:
There was an entire lore surrounding the terminology of warfare, which was meant among other things to clarify what was honorable or at least expected behavior. One of the questions I would most like answered, were that possible, it is W37:
Since I have heard it said that one is able to leave and retreat from a battle from the defeated side, if he has acted in seven ways without being killed or taken, without being reproached. How can this be and what are the seven ways?

It would certainly be very illuminating to have Charny's list of seven mitigating circumstances, and whose comments on them, given that he was twice captured and must have twice surrendered himself, even though he did not consider this something that could be done lightly (W79). Unless Charny is disingenuously presenting a list of his own as something he heard from others, the list of seven implies serious discussion, perhaps long debate that unfortunately never found the pen to write it down. There was also debate about defeat, and when it took place, as seen in the curious questions W28 and W29:
There is a battle between two captains in which one party is defeated and many of the party are dead, concerning whom some say that some of those who are dead are not dead but defeated; and many other say of those who are dead that they are dead and defeated. How can this be?

There is a battle as above in which there are many captured, concerning whom some say that although they are captured, they do not regard them as defeated; and there are many others who consider them to be captured and defeated. How can this be?
I interpret these questions to mean that the idea of being defeated, desconfit, was so unwelcome that even the dead would reject it. We can easily imagine that being called "defeated" stung, but it seems that there is more to it. Desconfit in some Old and Middle French texts is more specific than "defeated." It means "put to rout." The answer to these two questions may be that the dead and captured members of the defeated, that is "routed," side are in the judgment of some precisely those who were not routed. They are dead or captured because they did not run away. If this is correct, we are being presented once again with the picture of a man at arms running from danger with the enthusiastic help of his horse, for which running away was the most natural response; and the picture is meant to be a disgraceful one, at least for the man.

Will McLean critiques my position; my reply to him is in the comments on his blog.

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Muhlberger speaks at the International Congress of Medieval Studies: Kalamazoo, May 15, 2010

I have been kindly asked to give this year's Journal of Medieval Military History Lecture, which I consider quite an honor. Its title, which I even think I can live up to, is Chivalry: Military Biographies and other Tales of the Later Middle Ages.
It will take place in Fetzer 1010 at 3:30. This scheduling has a lot to be said for it, since I will undoubtedly work up a good thirst, as will Kelly DeVries, who is the commentator.

If you are coming to Kalamazoo, please consider dropping in.

To see the whole Congress schedule, go here.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A barrier fight in time of war, as told by the Chronicle of the Good Duke

This incident took place about 1363, and the writer's chief informant was the John de Chastelmorand mentioned as the standardbearer below. He told this story in the 1420s.
Two days before the English came before Troyes, a gentleman named John de Nedonchel, captain of Plancy, spoke to the Duke of Bourbon, saying "If you, my redoubtable lord, wish to grant me fifty men at arms, gentlemen, I will make for you a fine adventure, for the English ought to pass by this path along the river."

The Duke of Bourbon immediately had those of his household whom he loved the most mount up to go there, including John de Chastelmorand, who carried his standard, and many others of his household, and they went to Plancy where they remained for two days before the English came, and the people of the Duke of Bourbon made before the gate the most beautiful barrier that anyone had seen for a long time, and they called it La Barrière amoreuse, and it was convenient for the English to pass by.

So it happens that the English came to pass by Plancy, and all the companions were armed outside their barrier, and the English seeing them put foot to the ground to come and fight; seeing this, those of the garrison of Plancy, because there were so many English opposed to them, withdrew inside their barrier where they were well stocked with shot; and immediately the English advanced, thinking to gain the barrier, and those of Plancy and of the Duke of Bourbon vigorously defended against them by their shot and their lances, and there were performed the most beautiful arms lasting nearly two hours; for when those inside saw their advantage they came out all at once, and charged in among the English, and their charges succeeding to their honor, they withdrew inside, and these charges which those of the barrier made kill seven English men at arms and the shot injured a large crowd of them. And in enduring this danger there died at this barrier [three men of the Duke of Bourbon; and one was seriously injured.]
Image: an SCA barrier fight, with no "shot" (French, trait) involved.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Wit and wisdom of the Hundred Years War

I am working on my translation of the Chronicle of the Good Duke and am at the part where the author's informant is remembering the Breton campaigns of the 1360s. Some memorable lines seem to have stuck in his mind.

If we are to believe the Chronicle, Bertrand du Guesclin, Constable of France and a Breton himself, used this local proverb to convince Duke Louis of Bourbon ("the good duke") to attack the castle of Jugon early in their joint campaign:
He who has Brittany without Jugon
Has a cloak without a hood.

The Chronicle also describes the siege of Brest, also in Brittany, where both sides were in trouble. The French outside could not find anything for their horses to eat because of continuous heavy rain; the pro-English garrison were worse off -- they were eating their horses.

The garrison commander, the famous Englishman Robert Knolles, made this observation during negotiations with his French counterparts :
You have made me eat my horses here in this castle of Brest, as I made you eat yours at the siege of Rennes; so go the changes of fortune and war.
And he didn't surrender.

Image: Brest, showing surviving fortifications, historic vessels, and modern infrastructure

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

The changing of the guard

If you live long enough, you end up in this situation: you are now a member of the oldest living generation in your family. I lost my father, mother, and favorite aunt in 2009. My parents died within 5 weeks of each other.

There are a lot of things I could say, but here is one aspect particularly relevant to this place and time.

As a historian, I am struck by the fact that if I or my brothers or my cousins don't remember some aspect of family history, it is gone. (Of course, you don't have to be a historian to feel that way, but I am one.) Who else remembers that my stubborn grandfather, who tried to turn a promising idea, prefabricated concrete houses, into a business during the Depression, had to take backbreaking jobs like emptying a coal car with a handshovel just to get by? Or that he was crushed or maybe angry to hear that Will Rogers had died in a plane crash? Or that his wife, my grandmother, would go into the University of Cincinnati medical school and harass the faculty into giving serious consideration to admitting her talented daughter? Well, others do know things like this, but if we want to know more, we can no longer ask my father or one of his siblings. On my mother's side, to which I was much closer growing up, connections with my grandfather, grandmother and aunts and uncles are similarly fuzzier than they were nine months ago. Does anyone remember the piercing signal my mother was able to whistle when she was a kid? Back in the 1920s?

My parents, who came from modest working backgrounds, prospered slowly in the post-war world and enjoyed a comfortable quarter of a century of retirement until their health deteriorated. For most of that time they lived in a family-sized house surrounded by treasures; not for the most part extremely valuable things, fthough they had some very nice furniture, but beautiful pictures and artifacts with a lot of family meaning. A few years back they moved into a retirement village and had to winnow the collection down to what would fit into a 5 room cottage, but the best of the stuff, and the most significant, was all there. To some degree we were able to revisit our family past any time we visited.
When my parents died, all of this was scattered. My brothers and I and the younger generation took away what we could, with priority given to things with strong memories attached, but quite a bit had to be left behind for other people to claim. It was a real pang to realize that we would never be able to visit our family history collection again. And it made me reflect on how history is lost, and exceptionally, made and preserved.

One of the few benefits of going to two such funerals in short order is to realize how good a family I've had.

Image: A Muhlberger family treasure, a wooden bar brought back from Korea, being used by a grandchild in a way my parents would approve of.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Fun with ice in Switzerland

For once, this is not the Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin, China. See this and more at the Fire and Ice portfolio at the Big Picture.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ships in a wintry port

From the Vesseltracker blog.

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Haiti's "national debt"

Haiti is still financially crippled by paying for the freedom of their slave ancestors. Foreign Policy's Annie Lowrey explains this appalling historical injustice, citing the long and detailed Alex von Tunzelmann article in the Times of London:
Haiti, as a nation, has suffered violence, unrest, juntas, and natural disasters. One thing it need not suffer anymore, given the earthquake? Its debt obligations. This Times of London article explains how Haiti became so indebted in the first place.
The appalling state of the country is a direct result of having offended a quite different celestial authority -- the French. France gained the western third of the island of Hispaniola -- the territory that is now Haiti -- in 1697. It planted sugar and coffee, supported by an unprecedented increase in the importation of African slaves. Economically, the result was a success, but life as a slave was intolerable. Living conditions were squalid, disease was rife, and beatings and abuses were universal. The slaves’ life expectancy was 21 years. After a dramatic slave uprising that shook the western world, and 12 years of war, Haiti finally defeated Napoleon’s forces in 1804 and declared independence. But France demanded reparations: 150m francs, in gold.

For Haiti, this debt did not signify the beginning of freedom, but the end of hope. Even after it was reduced to 60m francs in the 1830s, it was still far more than the war-ravaged country could afford. Haiti was the only country in which the ex-slaves themselves were expected to pay a foreign government for their liberty. By 1900, it was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments. In order to manage the original reparations, further loans were taken out -- mostly from the United States, Germany and France. Instead of developing its potential, this deformed state produced a parade of nefarious leaders, most of whom gave up the insurmountable task of trying to fix the country and looted it instead. In 1947, Haiti finally paid off the original reparations, plus interest. Doing so left it destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile. Haiti was trapped in a downward spiral, from which it is still impossible to escape. It remains hopelessly in debt to this day.

This September, Haiti qualified for the cancellation of $1.2 billion of its $1.9 billion in external debt. To ensure the recovery of the nation and the livelihoods of its 9 million citizens, the IDB and any other lenders should fully cancel any remaining debt obligations.

If current debts are written off, it will be a remarkable and maybe unique manifestation of morality in international finance.

Maybe the big bankers can dip into their bonus fund?

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

University lectures, yesterday, today, and tomorrow

University lectures began in the 12th century, when the first European universities evolved in certain centers of learning. "Lectures" involved professors (called "masters") reading and commenting on key books which were often in that pre-printing era unavailable to students.

Lectures in their original form have long been obsolete, and over the years there have been no shortage of people saying that live lectures should be replaced by something else -- TV lectures as were tried at my alma mater, Michigan State University 40-some years ago, online lectures, computerized interactive this and that, all in the name of greater efficiency and lower costs and the general trendiness of being on the cutting edge.

This has always rung false for me. Of course even the best lectures have their limitations, and being a "best lecturer" takes work and talent, but I've always believed that lecturing adds something to the learning experience that you might not get otherwise.

Today, over at the medieval group blog In the Middle Jeffrey Cohen expressed what I feel about this issue by describing his goals and the successful first day of one of his classes this term:

As I explained to my 90 undergraduates in "Myths of Britain" yesterday, being truly present is a commitment both teacher and students must make in order for a class to thrive. We've become accustomed to the solitude of checking email on an iPhone rather than being aware of the world moving around us, so to have 75 minutes as a community is a gift that ought not to be squandered. I spoke about my syllabus's Code of Courtesy at ITM recently. Its objective, I explained to my students as I introduced it, is to give us the moments of intense togetherness that we can't have if people are walking in and out of the room, texting, chatting with a neighbor. All I ask them to give to me and to each other is the commitment I give to them.

So far so good. I was nervous about my first class because I hadn't been in front of a room of students since last April. Keeping 90 restless adolescents interested is also a considerable challenge. But I walked out of the room happy, if exhausted: they have already proven themselves eager conversationalists. Something about my emphasizing their obligation to disagree with or at least question me skeptically seems to have resonated well.
I found it inspiring!

Image: medieval students hearing a "lecture." None of them are texting or surfing, but some seem to be sleeping or just talking.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Driftglass on Mark McGwire's steroid use

The blogger Driftglass is capable of drawing amazing, well-written insights out of any aspect of American life. Here he is on Mark McGwire's admission that he was using steroids when he racked up his amazing home run records (in Major League Baseball, for those who don't know). The emphasis is mine:

Baseball is a business in which thousands of people have tens of billions of dollars at stake.

It provides a service which is entirely voluntary -- no one is forced to attend a game, watch one on teevee, listen on the radio, or read about on dead trees -- and yet, as we saw with the case of Tiger Woods, the revenues generated by this utterly unnecessary activity keep hundreds of media companies and secondary businesses solvent.

These businesses dance always on the edge of disaster -- trafficking in fickle, wispy products like yearning and nostalgia, with a public that could so very easily wake up one day and find the whole ritual too ridiculous and ridiculously expensive to play along anymore.

Like every other bubble of the last 30 years, the Home Run Bubble was a perverse outcome created by incentive structures which rewarded bad behavior, punished ethical behavior and placed a premium on secrecy and protecting corrupt institutions.

It is a lesson that we are obviously incapable of learning.
File this one under "bubbles as a general historical phenomenon."

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Real, odd 14th-century names

The Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval historical re-creation I have been part of for a long time -- a shockingly long time -- has as a pioneering role-playing environment, some contradictory elements. SCA culture encourages research and serious re-creation, especially in regards to artifacts; at the same time there has been a "do your own thing" ethos, right from the very beginning.

When it comes to SCA members adopting personas and names, you end up with a mishmash of fantasy and non-medieval elements, because new members tend to pick names and identities before they know much of anything about medieval naming practices. There are established members who know quite a bit about this subject, but getting new members to listen to them is not so easy. People want to do their own thing.

One of the peculiar things about the situation is that in the real Middle Ages there were large numbers of oddball names. In fact, in today's SCA you are not safe in thinking that a weird name is necessarily the result of an ignorant mistake. Maybe the bearer knows things you don't know. I've been caught making premature judgments more than once.

Today I was reading a passage from a French work of the 15th century, The Chronicle of the Good Duke, which tells the story of Duke Louis of Bourbon and his military companions over decades of the Hundred Years War. The passage concerned a period in the 14th century when Louis and his gang succeeded in keeping English and mercenary troops from riding and raiding over the French countryside. But one of the English leaders was a little more daring and he had to be hunted down. He was named "Michelet."

What is odd about that? One of the most famous French historians ever is a nationalist-romantic 19th century scholar named Jules Michelet (above) whose interpretation of the Hundred Years War is particularly famous. He was quite a storyteller on top of his tireless reading of sources and archives, so he is still influential today.

"Michelet" looks to be a diminutive of "Michel," so I guess I should not have been surprised, but I found it astonishing to have that name staring out at me from an account of the Hundred Years War.

A few lines later I found out that one of the Frenchmen who hunted down "Michelet" was named "Odin." Perhaps this name had nothing to do with the pagan god of earlier centuries, but there it was. Odd.

Someday I will have to tell you about my friend who owned Odin's bowling shirt. Until then I leave you a depiction of Odin with no bowling shirt, nor any references to the Hundred Years War.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Religious development is not just a matter of chronology

Kamal Al-Solaylee's Yemeni family is a lot more conservative now than it was in 1975, when the picture above was taken. Al-Solaylee talks about this in a Globe and Mail article.

Isn't this about the time a teenaged Osama bin Laden was touring Sweden?

Juan Cole has an interesting post
on outright radicalization, namely the radicalization of Humam al-Balaw, the double agent who killed a number of CIA operatives in Afghanistan. No surprise to me that a figure with his background -- educated Jordanian-Palestinian -- would be hostile to American policy. Quotation from Cole (bold is my emphasis):

What is fascinating is the way al-Balawi's grievances tie together the Iraq War, the ongoing Gaza atrocity, and the Western military presence in the Pushtun regions-- the geography of the Bush 'war on terror' was inscribed on his tortured mind.

Morally speaking, al-Qaeda is twisted and evil, and has committed mass murder. Neither the US nor Israel is morally responsible for violent crackpots being violent crackpots. Al-Qaeda or a Taliban affiliate turned al-Balawi to the dark side. Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught us the proper response to social injustice (and it should not be forgotten that Gandhi had a significant following among the Pashtuns). But from a social science, explanatory point of view, what we have to remember is that there can be a handful of al-Balawis, or there can be thousands or hundreds of thousands. It depends on how many Abu Ghraibs, Fallujahs, Lebanons and Gazas the United States initiates or supports to the hilt. Unjust wars and occupations radicalize people. The American Right wing secretly knows this, but likes the vicious circle it produces. Wars make profits for the military-industrial complex, and the resulting terrorism terrifies the clueless US public and helps hawks win elections, allowing them to pursue further wars. And so it goes, until the Republic is bankrupted and in ruins and its unemployed have to live in tent cities.

So, yes, this al-Balawi person was going to help Jordan and the US find al-Qaeda leaders Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Sure he was. Walmart does better background checks on its store clerks than the CIA and Jordanian intelligence did on this guy.

You also may want to read the comments to that post.

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On Killing: The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

I read this book in hopes of getting some insight into the war atrocities that routinely accompanied the sack of cities in pre-modern warfare. This book, however, was surprisingly weak on war crimes. It's much better on the psychological barriers to killing in warfare, how such reluctance can be overcome, and what the long-term price is.

If anyone can direct me to the book I am really looking for, I'd appreciate it.

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Airport security

I was flying this week and had the opportunity to test out the new scanning system on my way home. Unfortunately I didn't get to see how I looked -- I just know it presumably confirmed that I wasn't carrying any dangerous items.

On that trip my luggage contained some heavy pieces of metal -- family silver, a big tuned windchime made of hollow tubes, and a mantel clock from the 19th century. When we got home we found notices from the Transportation Safety Administration that the luggage had been checked and if TSA busted something, well, sorry but those are the breaks. I found that reassuring. They ought to be able to catch suspicious tubes etc. in my luggage.

It was all dealt with without anyone being obnoxious.

Update: Then there is this.

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Hard-hitting quote

From the New York Times, on America's imperial overstretch affecting relations with Yemen:

The administration doubled Yemen’s economic aid last year, but as Barbara K. Bodine, another former ambassador, pointed out, the amount “works out to $1.60 per Yemeni.”

“That won’t even buy you a cup of coffee in Yemen,” she added, “and they invented coffee.”

Ethiopians, BTW, have a widely-accepted claim on coffee.

Image:Yemen Hufashi green coffee beans.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Defeat by 1000 cuts?

Mark LeVine in Al Jazeera:
Indeed, far from heralding a more successful US effort to stamp out Islamist terrorism, the soon to be deepening footprint in Yemen is a sure sign of America's defeat in the war against violent extremism in the Muslim world...

Think about it. One angry young man with about three ounces (around 80 grams) of explosive material, $2,000, and a pair of specially tailored underwear has completely disrupted the US aviation system.

It does not even matter that he failed to blow up the plane.

The costs associated with preventing the next attack from succeeding will measure in the tens of billions of dollars - new technologies, added law enforcement and security personnel on and off planes, lost revenues for airline companies and more expensive plane tickets, and of course, the expansion of the 'war on terror' full on to yet another country, Yemen.

And what happens when the next attacker turns out to have received ideological or logistical training in yet another country? Perhaps in Nigeria, which is home to a strong and violent Salafi movement, or anyone of a dozen other African, Gulf, Middle Eastern or South East Asian countries where al-Qaeda has set up shop?

Will the US ramp up its efforts in a new country each time there is an attempted attack, putting US "boots on the ground" against an enemy that is impossible to defeat?

Such a policy would fulfill al-Qaeda's wildest dreams, as the US suffers death by a thousand cuts, bleeding out in an ever wider web of interconnected and unsustainable global conflicts.
Looking at US initiatives since 2001 it is hard to day he's wrong.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Simplicius Simplicissimus: a forgotten classic

I have taught my year-long course on early modern European history 1400-1800 maybe 10 different times. From the beginning I was aware that there was a classic novel of the 30 years war called Simplicius Simplicissimus, written in German not long after the events it describes. The book is considered a valuable resource for people studying the war and the experience of soldiers in it. I never had time to get hold of it myself, since it wasn't in any of the University libraries that I frequented.

I have temporarily relocated for my sabbatical and now have been able to put my hands on the book. And you know, it is really good. It is a typical 17th-century satire where the hero is a fool, which is to say that he has a clear-eyed view of what other people do and why they do it, and the same for himself, for whom he makes no excuses. Simplicius starts out as a poor orphan, and travels through society rising and falling in wealth and status, mostly depending on his luck at any given time.

A book like this has a real chance of being absolutely deadly to modern tastes. But somehow it isn't, at least not in this translation by George Shulz-Behrend from 1965. The prose is clean and light with no fake archaic flavor. In fact, it has a real contemporary feeling, meaning fresh and contemporary by the standards of the middle 60s. Not so long ago even if you weren't born then. Despite the fact that it exposes the sins and foibles of all sorts of people, it isn't brutal as it so easily could be.

The main fault of the book is that the author, Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, throws in more digressions that I care for with the result that the book is about 20% too long and sort of runs out of steam rather than ending properly.

Image: the cover page of the 1669 edition.

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Yemen and al-Qaeda

A discouraging report from an expert in the journal Foreign Policy. Desertification meets terrorism.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Favorite posts, 2009

Will McLean, who has more good ideas than most people I know, has just inspired me to select my favorites among my own posts of 2009. Just click here.

Image: a British gold quarter-sovereign from 2009.

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Medieval soldiers' experience

I am now listening to a podcast: The Soldier’s Experience of Battle in the Middle Ages by Clifford Rogers, Professor of History, United States Military Academy at West Point. I have heard Rogers speak in person several times and he is always good; this seems to be up to his usual standard. Thanks to him, to Andrew Lowry for alerting me, and to the New York Military Affairs Symposium, which has posted a number of military history podcasts.

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Torture is still on the table

Andrew Sullivan is one of the few prominent commentators trying to roll back the easy approval of torture as a reasonable or even necessary tactic which of course the United States must use (bold indicates my emphasis):

The Bush administration treated the shoe-bomber exactly as the Obama administration has treated the pantie-bomber - and convicted him the way no one has yet convicted anyone directly connected to 9/11. But after years of banging the drum for torture as a routine tool for US government, and accountable only to one supreme leader, the right has now shifted the goalposts again. The ticking time bomb is now an ancient criterion. Torture, for Cheney, is about treating every seized terror suspect as an intelligence target, and the entire system he created - of lawless prisons, disappearances, black sites, freezing cells, stress position shackles, upright coffins, neck-braces to slam prisoners repeatedly against plywood walls, waterboards, sensory deprivation techniques, dietary manipulation, forced-feeding, threats against relatives and children - was designed for torture as its end.

Marc Thiessen, one of those most committed to institutionalizing torture as part of the Western tradition, wants to torture the Detroit pantie-bomber:

It likely would not be necessary to use the waterboard to get Abdulmutallab to talk — only 3 terrorists underwent it and only 30 had any enhanced techniques used at all. But the vast majority of Americans have it right: You don’t put an enemy combatant who just committed an act of war into the criminal-justice system — and you certainly don’t give him a lawyer and tell him “you have the right to remain silent.” You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.

There is a lie in this, of course. Far, far more than thirty people were subjected to the torture techniques Cheney borrowed from the Gestapo, the Communist Chinese and the Khmer Rouge. Hundreds were treated this way at Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper, Camp Nama (under the authority of Stanley McChrystal), Bagram and in many secret sites taken over from the KGB (yes, I'm not making this up!) in Eastern Europe.

But here's the critical line:

You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.

That's the line that defines torture. If you can impose enough mental or physical pain or suffering to make someone tell you something you want to hear you have forced them to say something, true or false, to get the torture to stop. The fact of the matter is: this is illegal under any rational understanding of domestic and international law. In fact, domestic and international law mandates that governments do not even contemplate such measures, especially in extreme circumstances.

So National Review is urging law-breaking at the very highest levels of government. They are urging an extra-legal, extra-constitutional apparatus to seize and torture terror suspects outside of ticking time bomb scenarios as a matter of first resort. And yes, if they are advocating it against the pantie-bomber now, days after his capture, it is a first resort.

This is how far Cheney and the pro-torture camp have moved the debate, and why Obama's calm attempt to overlook it is dangerous in the message it sends. What the Cheneyites themselves once refused to do, with Reid, they are now demanding Obama do to the pantie-bomber.

More here.

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Friday, January 01, 2010

More Buzkashi for the New Year

The Big Picture provides us with this great pic of the classic Afghan game, here being played near Kabul on December 9, 2009. Think William Marshal's 12th century melee tournaments.

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