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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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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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Jean Flori's site

I became aware this week that the distinguished French historian of chivalry, Jean Flori, has a website. I am sure that I am not the only person around here who might be interested in this news. Here's the link!

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dr. Michael Cramer's book, "Medieval Fantasy as Performance"

Readers of this blog who have a serious interest in popular historical re-enactment and re-creation, the history of roleplaying, or the SCA might be interested in this note from Michael Cramer. I've seen an earlier version of this work and it is worth your consideration.
This is the first announcement that my new book, Medieval Fantasy as Performance: The Society for Creative Anachronism and the Current Middle Ages, has gone to press and will be available beginning in January from Scarecrow Press.

The SCA is an international organization of medievalists--some academic, some romantic, and some fantastic--who act out their fantasies by adopting medieval persona and interacting with one another at tournaments, wars, feasts, and other festivals, as well as numerous workshops and seminars. Much more than a Live Action Role Playing Game, the SCA is a community of like minded individuals, a group of nearly 100,000 Don Quixotes playing a communal game of make believe. Through the prism of performance studies this book seeks to examine why and how the SCA performs its medieval fantasy, and comes to the conclusion that what the SCA has created, and for more or less the same reasons, is an accidental reconstruction of the medieval King Game.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Syme's Roman Revolution

David Meadows provided this link to a new review of a 70-year-old classic: Ronald Syme's The Roman Revolution. I read this as background material early in my teaching career, because people I respected had vaguely referred to it as a classic. And it was indeed a great book, one that felt fresh decades after publication.

Here's a bit of Steve Donoghue's appropriately well-written review:
Watching how Syme handles all his sources –watching the intricate, hitherto unseen connections and uprootings that he effects by sifting through everything so carefully (he’ll find a passing comment in an epic poem that sheds light on legionary cooking techniques, or a well-known paragraph from Cicero that can be read in a startling new way) – is at once humbling and exciting, and it’s no wonder The Roman Revolution has cast such a long shadow. The subject matter – the carefully-implemented plan by which Octavian took sole, personal control of the Roman Empire (and the equally careful plan to prevent the Romans from realizing the full import of what he was doing) – has been taken up many times by many historians in the ensuing seventy years. Syme’s masterpiece is in all their bibliographies, and most of those later histories of Augustus or the end of the Roman Republic would have been unthinkable had not Syme so impeccably paved the way.

The sobering fact is how little any of those later books manage to offer even a small amplification of Syme. Even now, The Roman Revolution is the first, best modern history of Rome’s preventable and misunderstood transition from Republic to Empire. Surely a Penguin Classic of it is finally in order?

Image: Gaius Octavius, disguised as a conservative senator.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Anyone read this book?

I am quite curious about Antony Adolf's Peace: A World History. Have any of you read this?

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

You can't trust anything these days: mixing up Kentucky and Tennessee

Patrick Neilsen Hayden at Making Light (thanks Brad DeLong):
John Keegan, author of the excellent The Face of Battle (1976) and many other books, is possibly the most widely-respected military historian alive. James M. McPherson is an eminent historian of the American Civil War; his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) is often called the best single-volume history of that conflict.

Keegan has now published his own history of the American Civil War, and McPherson has reviewed it in the New York Times. And by “reviewed,” I mean “discredited it for the ages,” if even only a portion of the factual errors McPherson cites are in fact present in Keegan’s book.

As usual at Making Light, the comments are well worth reading, and in this case add a great deal to the topic at hand.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Christ as tourneyer

I have just finished reading this new book, Holy Warriors: The religious ideology of chivalry, by Richard Kaeuper, and I'll have much more to say about it later. Right now I just want to point out an interesting quotation that shows how one medieval warrior, writing a spiritual autobiography, visualized what he saw as the ideal knight's resemblance to Jesus.

The warrior was Duke Henry of Lancaster, also known as Henry of Grosmont, one of Edward III's best generals in the Hundred Years War. Here is what Kaeuper says on page 41:

Duke Henry sometimes wonderfully reveals his chain of thought, if indirectly. In discussing how the tears shed by the Blessed Virgin will wash the wounds of his own wretched body he comes to nasal wounds, a topic which puts the realist in him in mind of the blows that struck Christ's nose during his scourging. He comments, in all piety, that Christ's nose must have looked like that of a habitual tourneyer, and that his mouth must have been discolored and beaten out of shape. Here he writes with the voice of experience. Warming to his topic, he says that indeed Christ did fight in a tournament -- and won it, securing life for humanity. As a strenuous knight, his conception of imitating Christ readily turns to this martial version of the savior and his role.
Image: the cover of the book, which can be seen better at Google Books.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

From the World Wide Words e-mail list. (The associated website is here).

Review: Historical Thesaurus of the OED
Lexicographers know from historical example and the nature of the
job that they're in for a long haul. Samuel Johnson thought his
dictionary project would take three years, but even with the help
of his amanuenses it needed nine. James Murray worked on what was
then called the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles for
36 years, his labours being terminated only by death. Development
of the Historical Thesaurus began in 1967. Its current director,
Christian Kay, and another editor, Irené Wotherspoon, both joined
as research assistants two years later and so each has completed 40
years of unending slog.

The grand plan was to create a unique work of scholarship and that
is what it is - there's nothing like it in any other language. Most
thesauruses basically take a snapshot of the language as it is when
it is compiled (lexicographers call this a synchronic view). Its
editors will include literary or archaic terms and colloquial or
slang expressions that may one day become part of the standard
language, but essentially they're cataloguing a slice across one
moment in time. The Historical Thesaurus takes the other possible
stance: recording the words English has used for concepts across
the whole history of the language - a diachronic view.

Take "money" for example (a word much in our minds at the moment).
The entry fills a column and tells us that the earliest word for
the concept - in Old English - was "mynet", with "money" itself
turning up around 1290; a glance down the chronological list throws
up "gelt" (first recorded around 1529), "lour" (in use from 1567
on), "mint-sauce" (from 1812), and a host of others from the past
two centuries that we may recognise from our reading even if we
don't use them ourselves: "oof", "lettuce", "ackers", "bread",
"spondulicks", "moolah", "lolly", "loot", and "dosh". All these are
tagged with the date of their first known appearance and - if it
has - the date when it went out of use again.

This is treasure-trove, which careful writers can mine for nuggets
of vocabulary. There's no excuse any more for anachronisms. If
you're creating an historical novel or film or adapting a classic
for television, you can check in this monumental agglomeration if -
for example - your character might have called money "dough" in
1800 (no, because it's first recorded in 1851) or what might have
been a suitable slang term for it in 1700 ("spankers", "cole" and
"rhino" are all possibilities).

The source of this knowledge, as the title shows, is the Oxford
English Dictionary. The compilers of the Historical Thesaurus took
every word in the OED and placed it within a framework of meaning
that they constructed, a monumental task that makes one's mind
reel, as does the thought of creating the framework itself.

Most thesauruses today use the classification scheme invented by
Peter Roget in 1852, but the compilers of the Historical Thesaurus
realised that this wouldn't be comprehensive enough and generated
their own. All knowledge is divided into three broad families: the
external world, the mental world, and the social world, numbered
from 01 to 03. These families are progressively subdivided into
more and more detailed classes. The class 03.10 is work, 03.10.13
is trade and commerce and is money. The classification
doesn't end there - is currency,
is coins and is foreign coins. This last entry
has hundreds of historical terms organised by country, such as the
Dutch stiver and the American sharpshin. To look up the index (the
second, larger, volume of the two-volume work), is to experience a
mass of numbers dancing before the eyes like every lottery draw of
all time rolled into one.

It's an extraordinary work. The pity is that it's so expensive that
only libraries, big institutions and a few well-heeled individuals
can afford it.

[Christian Kay, Jane Roberts, Michael Samuels and Irené Wotherspoon
[eds], The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary,
Oxford University Press, 22 October 2009; hardback, two volumes in
slipcase; ISBN-13:978-0-19-920899-9; ISBN-10:0-19-920899-9; the UK
publisher's price is £250 until January 2010, thereafter £275.]

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Most Holy War: the Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom, by Mark Gregory Pegg

My review of this book is at The Michigan War Studies Review, specifically here.

Here's an excerpt:
A sense of the attractions of this book, as opposed to the several others available on the subject, may be gained from its last paragraph:

God's homicidal pleasure lasted another eighteen years. Mountaintop castles were assaulted. Castrum after castrum was razed to the ground. Young viscounts died of heartache. Counts were humiliated. Toulouse was besieged. Corpses fouled rivers. Great long meandering armies traipsed every summer from the Rhône to the Garonne. Vultures and ravens grew plump. Legates cried out for vengeance. Men died hearing Veni Creator Spiritus. Wives and little girls worked catapults. Great cats assaulted battlements. Skulls were crushed. Murder was a path to redemption. Vines and fields were devastated. A pregnant girl was mocked. Good men became heretics. A young count surrendered to a boy king. Inquisitors scoured the countryside. Heretics dangled from walnut trees. Very few who began the war lasted to the end. The world was changed forever (191)
This is not only a good sample of Pegg's hard-hitting, vivid, and economical style, but a reasonable summary of the book...

This might give the impression that A Most Holy War is an opinionated, emotional tirade, but such is not the case. Certainly there are opinions here, strongly presented, on all manner of events, movements, and developments. But Pegg, concerned to reveal the minds, emotions, and motives of his subjects, skillfully and gracefully uses quotations to give the voices of historical figures--clerics, counts, chroniclers, and troubadours--precedence over his own.

Readers unacquainted with Pegg's scholarship may be surprised by his presentation of the heresy Innocent III was trying to extirpate. In a previous book[1] and several articles and reviews, he has attacked a consensus going right back to the Middle Ages--that the heretics of the South of France, usually called "Cathars" or, earlier, "Albigensians," constituted a dualist counter-church. Its doctrines were descended from those of the Manichaeans, Bogomils, and Paulicians of Christian antiquity, and its growth owed much to missionaries from the Eastern Mediterranean beginning in the eleventh century. Pegg, on the other hand, believes this interpretation depends more on presuppositions of medieval heresy hunters (long since adopted by modern scholars) than on contemporary evidence. Theologians of the Middle Ages tended to see all disbelief as a single subversive plot against the truth. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, ecclesiastical authorities became increasingly obsessed with any deviation from "orthodox" teachings and rituals, both of which were being more strictly defined and enforced. In actual fact, Pegg argues, there were no Cathars or Albigensians till activist monks, bishops, and popes detected and named them....

Whether or not that position ultimately survives criticism, Pegg at least clearly explains his view of the nature of southern French deviance, emphasizing that the heretical leaders were commonly designated "good man" or "good woman," a form of address appropriate to just about any respectable person at the time. Similarly, he contends that the ritual greetings of heretical "believers" to their supposed leaders were mannerly gestures with no particular religious content. In the South, the exchange of courtesies, essential to the peace of a fragmented society, had its own flavor and terminology, and unsympathetic outsiders put a harsh interpretation on them. The efforts of these outsiders to control and reform southern French behavior according to their own standards, according to Pegg, had a strong effect on the culture of the church hierarchy and the theory and practice of crusade. Indeed, "the Albigensian Crusade is one of the great pivotal moments in world history .... The crusade ushered genocide into the West, changing forever what it meant to be Christian, what it meant to be like Christ" (xiv). This is Pegg's sincere justification for considering his book's subject to be a world-historical "pivotal moment."

Remarkably, this book's less than 200 pages of main text includes far more than a critique of heresiology and descriptions of the religious views of various major actors. It also outlines the politics and military activities of a more than twenty-year period through brief but vivid vignettes that well convey the flavor of original source material[.]

If the book has a flaw, it is its failure to draw sufficient connections between the Albigensian Crusade and the general phenomenon of crusading. Readers conversant with the career of Innocent III and his desire to mobilize all of Christendom against its various enemies might well wonder why a crusade in the South of France was so crucial a prelude to later genocide. It would not have taken more than a few paragraphs to make a stronger and clearer connection between the preaching of Gregory VII and Urban II against emperors and Turks, and Innocent's determination to rally Christendom to fight the whole disobedient world, whether Markward of Anweiler or Raimon of Toulouse or the Livs in the Gulf of Riga. The case for the uniqueness of the Albigensian Crusade is not made as strongly as it might have been.

Nonetheless, Pegg has succeeded in writing a stirring and memorable treatment of an event easily overlooked because it does not fit neatly into conventional narrative histories based on national boundaries and categories.

[1] The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246 (Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 2001)

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Review of The Medieval Cook by Henisch

From TMR, a great source for timely reviews:

Henisch, Bridget. The Medieval Cook. Woodbridge, Suffolk:
Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 245. $47.95. ISBN: 9781843834380.

Reviewed by Gina L. Greco
Portland State University

Studies of cookery in the Middle Ages, whether scholarly or popular,
have focused on the production and procurement of ingredients, the
preparation and presentation of dishes, and the organization and
conventions of meals. The Medieval Cook examines these same
topics from the perspective of the different women and men in the
kitchen--peasant housewives, street stall vendors, hired caterers and
master chefs. The result is an accessible overview of medieval
culinary practice that will entertain and inform the general public.

Chapter 1, "The Cook in Context," offers an impressionistic survey of
positive and negative attitudes towards cooks and their craft, culled
from a rich variety of sources including Latin exercise books, royal
account books, biblical commentary, Arthurian romance, plays, and
children's games, supported with careful secondary research. The next
two chapters, "The Cottage Cook" and "Fast Food and Fine Catering,"
present different types of amateur and professional cooks, the tasks
they performed, materials they used, and challenges they encountered.
Chapters 4 and 5 explore the diverse expectations and economic
realities cooks addressed, whether preparing meals for the immediate
household in "The Comforts of Home," or entertaining guests on a
lavish scale in "The Staging of a Feast." Throughout these chapters
Henisch continues to draw from an assortment of historical, literary,
and scholarly documents to illustrate her vignettes. The final
chapter, "On the Edge: the Cook in Art," canvasses visual
representations of cooks and their tools uncovered in the margins of
manuscripts, woodcuts, and sculpture. Notes are followed by a Select
Bibliography, Selection of Medieval Recipes, Suggestions for Further
Reading, and an Index.

Each chapter is divided into many short sections, one to seven pages
in length, the majority under four pages. These units, covering such
varied topics as "Hospitality," "Cook and Physician," "Methods and
Equipment," "Eggs," "Street Snacks," "Pie Makers," "Provisioning,"
"Crisis Control," "Economy and Discipline," and "Hell's Kitchen,"
offer the reader savory tidbits and easy entry into the world of the
medieval kitchen. Chapter titles, however, do not give adequate clues
to the content, and readers looking for a discussion of a particular
topic will regret that the table of contents does not outline these
section titles. While an adept user of the Index can navigate the
material, that task would have been greatly facilitated by a list. Of
course, these decisions are often based on a press's editorial
practice, and it is probably unfair to expect such detail in a volume
not intended as a reference work.

Henisch's focus on the cook as both historical person and fictional
character allows her to paint engaging, anecdote-rich sketches
appropriate for a book aimed at a general audience. However, this
organizational choice does occasion a certain amount of duplication
since in each different context--that of the home cook, the
professional cook, the family meal, the feast--many of the same topics
are by necessity revisited. In some cases, identical textual examples
and citations are fully repeated. For example, a reference to Gawain's
bleak mood when denied the pleasure of good food, including the direct
quote "ther he fonde noght hym byfore the fare that he lyked," is used
on p. 3 to illustrate the connection between food and mood, and then
the same the reference and quote reappear on p. 107 to make a similar
point. In a volume this short (200 pages of text, plus back matter),
the editor should have identified and eliminated such reiterations,
especially when the argument could have been supported by a fresh
quotation selected from a new source.

Another drawback to the book's structure is that the rapid movement
between brief chapter sections leaves little room for analysis, and as
a result there is no overarching argument to the volume. To be fair,
the author's stated aim is more descriptive than analytic: "to
consider medieval cooks in the context of time and circumstance, to
show how they were presented in the art and commentary of the period,
how they functioned, and how they coped with the limitations and
expectations which faced them in different social settings" (ix).
While an extensive amount of textual evidence is presented to that
effect, the author seems to take those sources at face value, when a
more critical reading might reveal a deeper and more nuanced
understanding of the context. For example, following the description
of a young woman kneading dough "for her playser and disporte"
presented as a rare "glimpse of the lady of the house at work,"
Henisch simply concludes: "She was really enjoying herself" (111-112).
This quick judgment ignores the fact that the scene is gleaned from a
moral tale juxtaposing a good niece, rewarded for her
affectionateness, with a bad niece, punished for her vanity. Given the
context, which would value moral truth over realism, the attentive
reader would expect the good girl to embody societal notions of female
goodness. The pleasure the character finds in domestic tasks might
therefore reveal much about her society's expectations and values, but
whether that means real women found true delight in what can be back-
straining work remains open to debate. This anecdote is followed
immediately by a section entitled "The Balancing Act," in which
comments on the "grim picture of the domestic misery for a husband
cursed with a feckless wife" (113) again beg the question of what grim
reality the housewife may have faced.

The comprehensive endnotes (531 for 200 pages of text) suggest that
the volume is intended for an academic as well as popular audience.
Scholars, however, will find little new material in The Medieval
, which recycles a large number of textual and visual
references from the author's 1976 book, Fast and Feast: Food in
Medieval Society
. The passage from Sir Gawain and the Green
mentioned above, for example, had already appeared in
Fast (71). Of the nineteen illustrations included in The
Medieval Cook
, six are repeats from Fast and several others
were also discussed, although not reproduced, there. Not only is a
substantial amount of material found already in the author's earlier
work, but it was often presented that first time in a fuller context
that provides more satisfying insight. Unfortunately, the student or
scholar cannot easily turn to that more developed exploration since in
the numerous instances of reused exempla that I detected, not once did
the endnotes indicate that the passage had been cited previously.
While the lack of cross-referencing will not disturb the general
reader--in fact, such heavy notations would have been off-putting to
many--it does diminish the volume's utility to the academic community.
Henisch's own conclusion offers a fitting summary of The Medieval
's strengths and weaknesses: "With patience and close
attention, it is possible to form a vivid, if not entirely coherent,
impression of their craft, a patchwork pieced together from bright
scraps and stray sightings" (202). While specialists will regret the
lack of a coherent argument, the general audience will be seduced by
the lively medley of cooks and kitchens the book presents

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A new translation of the Menagier de Paris

An excerpt of the review on the e-mail list, TMR-L (The Medieval Review), a useful and timely resource you can subscribe to free.

Greco, Gina L. and Christine M. Rose, translators. The Good
Wife's Guide (Le Menagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. Pp. 384. $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-

Reviewed by Kate Kelsey Staples
West Virginia University

According to the fourteenth-century Le Menagier de Paris, the key to being a good wife included these edifying directives: "be your husband and to his commandments, whatever they be, whether they be made in earnest or in jest" (104); "choose rather to please your husband than yourself, because his happiness must come before yours" (104); "it is through good obeisance that a wise woman
obtains her husband's love and, in the end, receives from him what she desires" (119); "protect [your future husband] from holes in the roof and smoky fires, and do not quarrel with him, but be sweet, pleasant, and peaceful with him"(139); "steer clear of swaggering and idle young men who live beyond their means and who, possessing no land or lineage, become dancers" (94). While perhaps shocking to modern sensibilities, or comical in turn, this fascinating and relatively understudied text overflows with suggestions for a woman's obedience, attention to reputation, proper piety, and correct conduct. The anonymous author also advises his audience, presumably his young wife, on the practicalities household management: when to transplant cabbage (212), how to delegate tasks to servants (section 2.3), in what ways to tend to ropy, musty, and moldy wine (221), and how to care for horses (223-228). Completing the manual of instruction is a rich selection of cooking menus and a guide to buying spices and foodstuffs, continuing the practical nature of the guidebook.

As the first modern English translation of Le Menagier de Paris, this edition makes a gem of a text accessible beyond French literary courses. With their clear translation, Gina Greco, Associate Professor of French, and Christine Rose, Professor of English, both at Portland State University, open spaces for discussion of the composition of the late medieval household, the reading practices of the bourgeoisie, late medieval culture, culinary practices, and women's history, more generally.

One of the greatest attributes of this edition is that Greco and Rose present Le Menagier de Paris as we may expect it to have originally appeared. There are only three surviving fifteenth-century manuscripts and one early sixteenth-century manuscript; the original is lost (2). The modern scholarly Middle French edition (Brereton and Ferrier, 1981) omits three sections of the text that appear in the
manuscripts: the Griselda tale, the Melibee tale, and Jacques Bruyant's Le Chemin de povrete et richesse (here, too, appear the first modern English translations of the latter two texts). Karin Ueltschi's Middle French and Modern French facing-page translation (1994) includes the tales of Griselda and Melibee, but consigns Le
poem to an appendix. As the translators rightfully point out, presenting it without these texts or in an alternate order, even if they were not originally compiled by the author, does a disservice to understanding reading practices, the author's goals, and household composition in late medieval France (5)...

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Friday, October 02, 2009

Heart and soul

In the next little while I will be reviewing Mark Pegg's A Most Holy War (on the Albigensian Crusade) for the Michigan War Studies Review. I am just now looking at it. It is a rather slim volume, and I rather expected that it would be an up-to-date -- or not -- summary of what is known about this 13th century crusade in southern France. But now I don't think so. For one thing, I was surprised and impressed by the preface in which Pegg lays it all out on the page, why and how he does history, which is with a great deal of personal involvement. Vide:
Any meditation on the past that starts with the presumption that some things are universal in humans or human society -- never changing, ignorant, immobile, -- is to retreat from attempting a historical explanation about previous rhythms of existence.... Arguing for immutable values from biology is no different from arguing for immutable values from theology -- selfish genes, selfish doctrines, they both deny history. Assuming that why we do what we do, what we think what we think, is somehow or other beyond our control, and that we would be this way in mind and body whether we lived in Cleveland in 1952 or Toulouse 1218, forfeits the vitality and distinctiveness of the past to the dead hand of biological determinism, cognitive hotwiring, psychological innateness, liberal pleas for bygone victims, conservative pleas for God-given principles, and amaranthine mush about authenticity.
I have nothing much to say about this except: I know (and have loved) the word amaranthine from the Gormenghast books I read 40 years ago, ("By all that's amaranthine" said the doctor) and I've yet to find an opportunity to use it myself. Pegg obviously tries harder.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book review Sunday: Europe's Barbarians AD 200-600, by Edward York

Leonard Lipschutz over on MEDIEV-L contributes this:
Last month Edward James, author of The Franks (1988) published an outstanding new scholarly work, Europe’s Barbarians AD 200-600 (2009). The first chapters provide an up-to-date chronological survey, and analytical chapters expertly review current debates, on ethnicity, archaeology, reception by Rome, migration, assimilation, conversion and government. The bibliography is super.

At p. 50 he calls movements of Visigoths and Vandals, movements of “barbarian peoples,” showing reluctance to depart completely from old paradigms. But in the analytic portion, at p. 172, he caves in, stating: "My own conclusion would be that the break-up of the Western Roman Empire occurred because, in the different provinces, local populations began to give their allegiances to local warlords, rather than to the emperor, because those warlords were more effective as protectors and patrons. Not all these warlords were barbarians, but the majority were, because of the domination of barbarians within the Roman army." At the end of the book he states that he has not addressed directly the role of barbarians in the collapse of the western empire. Indeed, he does avoid saying anything about Heather’s Huns thesis. But James seems to anticipate further paradigm changes than he has conceded: "We tend to laugh or sneer at the simplicities or distortions of past views of the barbarians; sooner or later, this will be the fate of this book too."

Regarding ‘warlords’ it would be helpful to have a bold admission that the original forces of Alaric, Geiseric or Clovis, usually described as peoples or tribes, were in fact mercenary armies recruited on Roman soil and named for the ethnic origin of their leader. Regarding ‘the break-up,’ most likely it was not Huns, but a Roman struggle for power in 405 that set off a series of events leading directly to the break-up. When Stilicho finally hired Alaric, in that year, to support his intended attack on the east, the great eastern minister Anthemius responded in kind by hiring Radagaisus and Godegisil to raise armies in Pannonia and create a diversion in the west. Goffart made such a suggestion on p. 79 of Barbarian Tides (2006), and I think that interpretation will ultimately prevail.

Edward James' The Franks was a really good book which I would recommend to anyone with an interest.

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The Long Morning of Medieval Europe, ed. by Jennifer R. Davis and Michael McCormick

I didn't know about this book until a few minutes ago, but I take a positive review by Jonathan Jarrett on such a subject pretty seriously. Here's how it starts:

Yes, I know I was writing about something else but this is important. If you’re working on the early Middle Ages, especially the Continental early Middle Ages, you need to get hold of a copy ofJennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe.1 I got it mainly because I was citing something in that my erstwhile supervisor had written from a pre-print and needed up-to-date page numbers (and also knew that that was good, and that the other stuff in it looked interesting). But only this last week have I got round to actually reading the rest. I’m a fool. While it acknowledgedly doesn’t cover the whole field, and the editors say that they don’t think this could be done by a single volume, they have nonetheless done their utmost to provide a genuine state-of-the-field discourse for each of the themes they do cover.2So, for example, the section on the economy has an intro by McCormick, then twelve absolutely crystal pages by Chris Wickham (who, as that link shows, has finally let himself be pictured on the Internet) explaining how he now sees the European economic system of the early Middle Ages having written his Framing the Early Middle Ages, then Joachim Henning explaining economy at the village level, and so on, and after reading all the essays you’d be set not just to answer an essay question but possibly to teach one. And it’s all sharp and up to date and written by some of the top experts in the field and it reads a lot like a quick way to get up to date on a lot of important thinking.

There's quite a bit more detail (and more to come?).

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Out of the East: Spices and the medieval imagination, by Paul Freedman

This book was a real treat, and not just because much of it was about food and dining. It's one of the best-written medieval/early modern history books I have read in a long time, and one of the most original.

If you have ever eaten, tried cooking or just read about aristocratic food in the Middle Ages -- and aristocratic food is almost all we know about -- you already are aware that medieval feasts included a lot of highly spiced foods. The spices used in "savory" dishes then are hardly ever used today except perhaps in desserts; some, like grains of paradise and zedoary are hardly known. There has been some good scholarly work in recent years as to why medieval cooking and modern European differ so much; Terence Scully, for instance, has explained the connection between the ancient and medieval medical theories involving the four humours and medieval recipies and feast design. But Paul Freedman's book probably is accessible to more readers while actually covering a great deal of novel material.

One very interesting subject Freedman covers is how the appeal of some of the favorite exotic spices faded dramatically when European merchants gained direct, routine access to them. People still wanted cloves and nutmeg, but they no longer thought of them as powerful, almost spiritual substances. And when it became known that grains of paradise came from the mundane West Africa (precisely, "the Grain Coast") and not the earthly paradise, Europeans slowly lost interest in them.

There is much more in this book -- lots about early European exploration and the role of spices in motivating it -- and I highly recommend it to anyone who finds this review in the least interesting.

Update: Phil Feller directs us to an NPR interview with Freedman.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Medieval attitudes and their depiction in -- or absence from -- historical novels

Over at Magistra et Mater:

My post on historical novels (and the responses to it) have got me thinking a bit more about the difference between modern and medieval mentalities, or rather, the differences that historical novelists need to contemplate and possibly find ways to express. This is my first attempt to say what I think the most important differences to note are (please join in with your own suggestions in the comments). I also want to suggest some possible mental exercises/thought experiments to help both historians and novelists contemplate these differences

1) An acceptance of hierarchy, injustice and inequality.
This is often a difficult ‘modern’ concept to unthink: how could people accept the subordination and oppression of peasants, slaves, women, etc? I find memories of childhood (the more traditional the better) useful here (and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that children’s historical novels often stand up better than adult ones). You have to do what you are told, however unfair it might seem, because you are a child and ‘they’ are adults and that’s just how it is. And most children don’t spend most of their time raging against this, both because they don’t know that things could be different, and because there is no conceivable way to change the system. Instead, they spend any spare mental energy working out how to get along in this unfair system, or how to cheat it without getting caught, or dreaming about a better world, or waiting for something to change, or just enjoying whatever good bits there are. Transfer that to the medieval subordinated adult, and that seems to me a basic template for how you might react to a society that is biased against you. Most of the time, most of the oppressed don’t rebel: that’s a basic historical fact.

Lots more good stuff here!

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rowing to democracy... the title of a New York Times book review of John R. Hale's Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. I've speculated on this myself in this blog, so I'm interested.

An excerpt from the review:
Mr. Hale’s thesis in “Lords of the Sea” is that the construction of the mighty Athenian navy, composed largely of lightweight warships known as triremes, in which 170 oarsmen rowed in three tiers, led directly to Athens’s Golden Age and its advanced form of democracy. For more than a century and a half, from 480 to 322 B.C., Athens’s city-state of some 200,000 people had the strongest navy on earth. “Without the Athenian navy there would be no Parthenon, no tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides, no ‘Republic’ of Plato or ‘Politics’ of Aristotle,” Mr. Hale writes. “Before the Persian Wars, Athens produced no great traditions of philosophy, architecture, drama, political science or historical writing. All these things came in a rush after the Athenians voted to build a fleet and transform themselves into a naval power in the early fifth century B.C.” The hard work of building and maintaining a fleet pulled the society together. The protection the navy afforded Athens allowed it to prosper, to fend off the enemies that would have overrun it and changed its tolerant and inquisitive character. Among those who commanded fleets or squadrons of triremes were the playwright Sophocles and the historian Thucydides.

“Lords of the Sea” is, largely, a book about war. It describes a running series of water and land battles between Athens and its shifting enemies, including Persian and Spartan armies and navies.

Mr. Hale points out that the use of triremes ushered in “a new age of warfare.” For the first time “battles were being fought where the majority of combatants never fought hand to hand with the enemy — indeed, never even saw the enemy.” Triremes won battles by ramming opposing ships, and cunning was even more important as brute force.

The naval success that built Athens also, in the end, helped destroy it.

Another pirate story?

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Defenders of the Faith: Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent, and the Battle for Europe, 1520-1536, by James Reston, Jr.

James Reston, Jr. has written a number of histories of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but till now I have never read any of his books. So when The Penguin Press asked me if I'd like to review Defenders of the Faith for this blog, I said "yes."

Reston states in his Foreword that this book is "a work of historical literature, accurate in every respect but winnowing [names, dates and places] to the essentials..." Translation: this book (which contains lots of detail in any case, is an old-fashioned narrative history. It's a story, not a discussion of how scholars have interpreted the material and why. There is definitely a market for this sort of thing, always has been and always will be. And Reston has picked an interesting period, when the Ottoman Turkish Sultan and the German-Spanish Hapsburg Emperor fought for the domination of Europe, just as the Reformation split the Christian churches of Europe. Reston can honestly present this as a time when the future was up for grabs. No need to hoke up the historical drama, it's really there.

If you read this book, you should be prepared to believe that such periods are best understood by following the exploits of rulers and generals and the occasional religious leader. Defenders of the Faith strikes me as a little too focused on them, to the neglect of their historical background. For instance, Reston thinks Martin Luther is an interesting and important figure, but he spends very little time discussing why he developed the ideas he did, why he took a stand, and why his fellow Germans followed him in such numbers. Why the Reformation, why Germany, why the particular shape it took? Are the answers to these questions so obvious? A few well-chosen paragraphs could have told the readership, not all of them well-informed on the structure or theology of the Catholic and Lutheran churches, some key facts that would help put this "sometimes violently angry" monk/professor into a more vivid context. It seems to me that Reston's talents lie in the direction of describing dramatic set-piece battles, confrontations at court, or the Diet of Worms where Luther defied Emperor Charles V.

I could complain some more about things that I found frustrating or things Reston handled well (relating the chronology of all the complex military and diplomatic maneuvering), but this should give you an idea of whether you'd like the book.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

The New York Times finally notices Jack Vance... that he's 92 and blind. A development right out of Vance's fiction, which is always more like "real life" than you might suspect at first blush. To say the least.

Carlo Rotella is to be congratulated on an excellent article. Thanks to Brad DeLong for pointing this out.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A History of Modern Iran, by Ervand Abrahamian

This short and recent book (2008) doesn't tell you everything you might want to know about 20th century Iran, for instance it says little about the Iran-Iraq war, but it very usefully focuses on a consistent theme, the building of a modern state in a country where governmental power was extremely limited in 1900. Except for occasional long lists of personal names that will not mean a lot to most potential readers, the book is quite well-written. The author has a talent for the appropriate quotation, and it seems that Iranians over the years have had a talent for producing those quotations. For instance, an opponent of Mossadeq in the early 1950s expressed his opposition thus (page 116-17):
Statecraft has degenerated into street politics. It appears that this country has nothing better to do than hold street meetings. We now have meetings here, there, and everywhere -- meetings for this, that, and every occasion; meetings for university students, high school students, seven-year-olds, and even six-year-olds. I am sick and tired of these street meetings...

Is our prime minister a statesman or a mob leader? What type of prime minister says "I will speak to the people" every time he is faced with a political problem? I always considered this man to be unsuitable for high office. But I never imagined, even in my worst nightmares that an old man of seventy would turn into a rabble rouser. A man who surrounds the Majles with mobs is nothing less than a public menace.
Abrahamian also likes economic and social statistics, but he uses them well. The growth and development they document is impressive.

One theme I followed with interest was the role of elections and the Parliament or Majles in Iranian politics since 1906. Some of this sounds pretty familiar, for instance this discussion of how Reza Shah controlled all the elections in the 20s and 30s (page 73):
Reza Shah retained the electoral law but closely monitored access into parliament. He personally determined the outcome of each election and thus the composition of each Majles ... the control mechanism was simple. The shah -- together with his chief of police -- inspected the list of prospective candidates, walking them is either "suitable" or "bad,"... the suitable names were passed on to the interior minister, who, in turn, passed them on to the provincial governor-generals and the local electoral boards. The sole function of these boards was to hand out voting papers and supervise the ballot boxes. Needless to say, these words were all appointed by the central government. Unsuitable candidates who insisted on running found themselves either in jail or banished from their localities. Consequently, the successful candidates were invariably "suitable,"...
Cambridge University Press has an "e-widget" that gives you a preview of the book.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Two book reviews from Phil Paine

The most widely read person I know is Phil Paine. (Some of my colleagues consider me widely read, but next to Phil I am a piker.) Over on his website, Phil has a monthly list of books, articles, and online resources that he has read, with occasional reviews of things he finds particularly noteworthy -- which is not necessarily to say, "good." Today he posted (June, 2009 section) two reviews, one critical and one very appreciative.

(Samuel P. Huntington) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

This is a stupid book. Unfortunately, it's also been a very influential one.

Huntington starts out by playing the old "civilizations" game, popular from the late 19th century onward. Nobody any longer takes you seriously if you talk about nationalities in a silly, anthropomorphic way ("The Dutch are cheese-eating, practical people, but they are doomed to failure as nation because they smoke too much marijuana and their feet must hurt from wearing wooden shoes"). But if you shift the discussion to "civilizations", big segments of the globe defined by arbitrary criteria, you can get away with it. You can define these "civilizations" any way you want, but usually they end up being nothing more than a map of the world's major religions. This is not surprising, since these mega-religions are usually accompanied by enough visual cues that you can quickly guess which one you are in by the shapes of buildings, clothing, or other material evidence. There is, of course, some common-sense truth to the observation that places where Islam is predominant have similarities, and places where Christianity is practiced are connected to each other, etc. It is an easy, but intellectually dubious further step to assume that the human race is divided into mega-tribal subdivisions, almost like species, and that these can be neatly drawn on a map. Anthropomorphizing these divisions is merely the old fallacy of "innate national character" writ larger. It appeals to the impulse to see the world in cartoons. This is exactly what Huntington does, way, way too much to make his work credible....

Huntington's knowledge of cultures is pretty shallow, because his main interest is really in the "clash" part of the book's title. The book is really about dividing the world into football teams so that you can imagine strategies of play between them... who should align with whom, and who is the "natural" enemy of whom. That's why the book appeals to so many armchair political pundits. You only need to remember a handful of "civilizations" and their accompanying cliché phrases to "get" everything. No need to bother remembering the names of hundreds of countries, or even consider the motives of individual human beings. Easy peasy.

What Huntington is really about becomes evident toward the end of the book, when he engages in a tirade against the evils of "multiculturalism", a phenomenon which he grotesquely misrepresents. The human race is, in his view, divided into distinct species, and, surprise surprise, nothing but trouble can result if they mingle. He kind of sneaks up on it with hundreds of pages of stuff about regions and religions, but what it's really about is how dirty foreigners should be kept out of America because then it will "no longer be America". Why? Because they don't have "Western values", And what are these "Western values"? Well, among them he repeatedly lists "pluralism and tolerance". So Americans and Europeans should, it seems, exclude people of different ethnicity in order to protect "pluralism"!! He even casually states, as if it were a forgone conclusion, that if the U.S. went to war with China, then Mexican-Americans would automatically refuse to participate, because it would "not be their war". This was so silly that I actually bust out laughing when I read it, startling fellow riders in the subway. The subway car was a typical Canadian one --- utterly and sublimely multicultural --- so the silliness of it was particularly delicious. It's plain that underneath Huntington's wacky logic and feigned scholarship, there is nothing more than another sclerotic old man having an apoplectic fit because he went to the corner store and saw signs in the window in funny-looking alphabets....
(Edward L. Ochsenschlager) Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden

This is a brilliant book. Ochsenschlager was engaged in an important archaeological project in Iraq, starting in 1968. The site was the Sumerian city of Lagash. Puzzled by some unglamorous, but intriguing artifacts, he started looking for analogies among the local people to interpret them. The local people included Bedouin tribes, the agricultural Beni Hasan, and the famous Mi'dan [Marsh Arabs] who lived in the reed-filled swamps at the conjunction of the Tigris and Euphrates. All these people (in 1968, at any rate) lived material lives thought to very closely resemble that of the ancient inhabitants of the land when it was Edinu, the Biblical Eden (hence the book's title). Thus, the author was drawn into the peculiar discipline of "ethnoarchaeology", in which most archaeologist still feel uncomfortable. Archaeologists are comfortable with places and objects. They aren't anthropologists. When they try to be, even in the laudable quest to understand ancient artifacts, they can easily screw up. Ochlenschlager is unusually sensitive to the pitfalls. ...

Ochlenschlager examined the making, use, and transformations of every article he could find --- weapons, storage containers, cookware, boats, musical instruments, children's toys. This could only be done in a serious way over many years, with extreme sensitivity in dealing with people, earning their trust and overcoming the perils of misdirection and misinterpretation. None of this is easy, and he shows exactly how it can be done right, or badly. Almost anyone who reads historical or archaeological interpretations of material evidence should read this book.

Some of the most delightful parts concern children's toys, and they reveal one of the marvelous subtleties of human behaviour to which most historians are oblivious:

In 1968 children in the villages over the age of 3 or 4 always made their own toys out of mud. Abandoned mud toys could be found everywhere in village courtyards, alongside the canals and marshes, and even in the fields. Unfortunately, domestic toy making disappeared rapidly. Manufactured plastic toys, available in nearby market towns, gradually replaced them. By 1970 a wide variety of cheap plastic toys was available to those of every economic level. Most children were attracted to these plastic toys because of their bright colors and their relative durability. At first children would continue to make toys that were not available in the market out of mud, but that came to an abrupt end in 1972. So popular had the new plastic toys become that most villagers could find no reason to continue using mud toys short of lack of money. Indeed cheapness came to be thought the sole criteria for continuing to make toys out of mud, and this impacted that part of the father's honor which depends on his ability to provide adequately for his family. To make a mud toy under these conditions was to bring dishonor on the family.

Without some knowledge of the role of honor and its requirement that men provide strong financial support to their families in these villages, what reasons would archaeologists give for the sudden and complete disappearance of mud toys? Bold colors and increased durability seem the most reasonable, and in part logical, answers, as the villagers found these attributes attractive at first. But logic alone does not begin to explain why old forms disappeared completely and with such speed; the compelling power of color and durability must not be overestimated. The children themselves were a real problem. When they had only the few animal forms sold in the suk to play with, they sometimes had to be forcibly stopped from making additional toys of mud. They missed the freedom of making any toys they could imagine and playing any game they wished. The kind and number of toys available now limited their games. Attractive colors and durability may have given impetus for the change, but it was the challenge to family honor that made parents forbid their children to make mud toys.

It takes a remarkable person to make such an observation. This book is full of such things.They'll inspire an acute reader to understand not only the culture of the marshes, and the artifacts of the ancient civilization of Lagash, but also many puzzling aspects of human life in general.

Plenty more stuff where that came from!

Image: A Marsh Arab settlement.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

In Italy first book (1991; reprinted 2006) is quite expensive!

The Fifth-Century Chroniclers: Prosper, Hydatius, and the Gallic Chronicler of 452
di Steven Muhlberger - Francis Cairns Publications - November 2006
Prezzo: € 113.07
Disponibilità: Normalmente disponibile in 25/30 giorni lavorativi

Questo libro potrebbe essere di difficile reperibilità presso i nostri fornitori

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Friday, June 12, 2009

More on today's presidential election in Iran

Juan Cole directed me to this Al Jazeera/YouTube video on Iranian-Americans (and Iranian students in the USA) voting in the Iranian election:

What really struck me was the statement by the youngest man that the election was about "democracy and being a citizen of the world" as if they were the same thing. This strongly reminded me of the atmosphere that produced the democratic revolutions of the just pre-World War I period as described by Charles Kurzman in Democracy Denied 1905-1915. Iran, of course, had one of the revolutions in that transnational movement.

Update: photos of voters and leaders from the Big Picture. Clearly, sales of paint and posterboard have gone through the roof.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Holy books?

Phil Paine critiques the practice of using books as talismans:

There should be no Holy Books. Our species would make a significant step forward if it forsook the habit of declaring books to be sacred scriptures. The belief that certain books aren't just the writings of human beings, but direct revelations from a divinity, or that they are "sacred" has caused no end of mischief. But I plead my case precisely because I love and respect books. There is some profound wisdom to be found, if one cares to look, in certain books. But there seems, in my view, to be no greater insult to a wise person than to turn their work into a silly magical talisman, to be mindlessly chanted and ranted, rather than read and judged with reason.

A noteworthy feature of holy scriptures is that people seldom read them. They may run glazed eyes over them. They may fix on whatever passages appear to confirm their base passions, their petty hatreds, or their tribal customs. They call on their authority as a trump card, usually under the direction of some self-declared religious authority. But they hardly ever actually read them.

More here.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

I have just finished reading this highly-acclaimed novel of the recent Afghan and Afghan-American experience. I recommend it if you can bear to read a novel that the Observer's reviewer called "shattering... devastating" and which features a lot of brutality towards children. I think, however, that I will be reading Hosseini's second novel.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

A short review of Alison Brysk's book, Global Good Samaritans

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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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blood and Oil: Memoirs of a Persian Prince, by Manucher Farmanfarmaian and Roxane Farmanfarmaian

Manucher Farmanfarmaian is a brother of Sattareh Farman Farmaian, author of Daughter of Persia, an autobiography that my students in the History of Islamic civilization are reading is the basis for a paper. Blood and Oil is also an autobiography, and it is at least as well-written as Sattareh's book. Manucher, as a boy, had quite a different experience of their mutual father, and of course quite a different career. Can he ever tell a story! (Roxane, his co-author, is his daughter.)

This book is recommended to anyone who read enjoyed Daughter of Persia, or is interested in Iran, or in global oil politics and the formation of OPEC. Unfortunately, the Nipissing University library does not have a copy. I got mine through interlibrary loan.

Manucher has an eye for telling detail. Here he remarks about the extraordinary generosity of friends in England who, though hardly rich, helped him with a loan when his father's death cut off his fund transfers from Iran temporarily:

Their generosity was all the more poignant because in England at the time racism was rampant. At university foreign students were shunned. We were not allowed to hold student office, and the college deans, at a meeting held at the beginning of each year, went so far as to warn girls away from us, insinuating that we were from base cultures.... it was not just the university but British society in general that held such views, from the foreman of the garage where I worked one summer to the rich lady with the Daimler who had her butler repeat everything I said because it was below her dignity to converse with me directly. All the more extraordinary, then, were the Philipses' confidence and goodwill.

And on his return trip via India during wartime:

Though in England Persians were looked upon as darkies from an inferior race and religion, here [in Bombay] we were regarded as esteemed guests -- of England of course, not India. We were invited to stay in the toniest hotels, and the doors of every chic restaurant were open as long as we wore dinner jackets or tails (which we invariably did)-- though an Indian would be thrashed were he to venture even a glance inside.

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The Modern Middle East: A History, by James L. Gelvin

This is the textbook I am using for the second half of my course on the History of Islamic Civilization. Today I read a long passage in preparation for tomorrow's lecture, when a student will comment on it. As always, my reaction to this direct, clearly-written and sensible book is:

"Boy, this is good."

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Democracy Denied 1905-1915: Intellectuals and the Fate of Democracy, by Charles Kurtzman

I am fortunate enough to be reading this new book and reviewing it for the Journal of World History. I can't say too much about it yet, but have a look at the blurb on the dust flap and see if you don't anticipate something good:

In the decade before World War I, a wave of democratic revolutions swept the globe, affecting more than a quarter of the world's population. Revolution transformed Russia, Iran, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Mexico and China. In each case, a pro-democracy movement unseated a long-standing autocracy with startling speed. The nacent democratic regimes held elections, convened parliament, allowed freedom of the press and freedom of association. But the new governments failed in many instances to uphold the rights and freedoms that they proclaimed. Coups d'etat soon undermined the democratic experiments.

... this thoroughly interdisciplinary treatment of the early 20th century upheavals promises to reshape debates about the social origins of democracy, the causes of democratic collapse, the political roles intellectuals, and the international flow of ideas.

Bring on that international flow of ideas!

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Sounds great -- some Canadian early history

Coasts of Canada by Lesley ChoyceA fascinating book review of The Coasts of Canada: A History by Lesley Choyce, over at

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Archaeological riches of Ephesus (Turkey)

Jonathan Jarrett's blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe has a fascinating piece inspired by a seminar talk by Professor Charlotte Roueché on the challenges of archaeology at Ephesus (mainly, a common one: everyone wants to concentrate on their favorite period) and the particular insights that can be gained at this amazing locale:

[T]he extent of stone-carving in these cities, which is huge—Professor Roueché had a picture of a fair-sized wall at Aphrodisias covered in imperial edicts, including Diocletian’s price edict which you may have heard of and which we only have from stone—was apparently dwarfed by the number of more temporary painted inscriptions. Such an amazingly lettered culture is implied by this that it does seem quite alien to Westerners, who too often acquire an idea that writing is the preserve of the Latin Church. At Ephesus, the theatre seats are covered in carved graffiti; as Professor Roueché said you begin to think that everyone was carrying a chisel and hammer in their back pocket in case they passed a blank surface…

Lots more good stuff there!

Also, Jarrett has, for you philosophical scholars and would-be scholars, a meditation
on owning books.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Got Medieval gets medieval

There is an interesting and intermittent blog named Got Medieval that in recent weeks has been specializing in rude marginal illustrations of superhero monkeys and other peculiarities in medieval manuscripts. This by itself, no kidding, has been a contribution to understanding the past. But today the blog transcends mere illustration and amusing commentary. The blogger, whose name is Carl S. Pyrdum (III), uses his blogging podium to great effect, drawing attention to one of the most irritating generalizations about the Middle Ages made by non-specialists. This is what blogs are for, having a place to put thoughts of this sort is why I have mine, though I am not sure I've ever written one this good about the Middle Ages. I want all of my students who have any interest in the farther past to read the whole post, which is called The Myth of Pre-literacy. I don't know if I can manage to convince them, or the rest of you, to go there and read, but have a look at this sample:

Before the printing press, people had books--not as many books, surely, but they had books. And some of them loved books. They loved books the way BoingBoingers love Altoid tins and open source software projects. As hard as it is to believe, books were themselves once a cool, innovative technology, and that "once" happened well before Gutenberg came along.

Medieval book enthusiasts were DIYers. They made their own books. They copied texts they liked, freely editing and recomposing--or hacking, remixing, and cut-and-pasting, to use the right lingo. Take a certain fifteenth-century Englishman who went by the name "Rate," for example. We know him, because he signs his name to a manuscript collection he put together, a book today held by the Bodleian Library that goes by the name MS Ashmole 61. It's what specialists would call "a commonplace book," and as other medieval scholars have pointed out, commonplace books had a lot in common with blogs. Scribes collected together texts they liked and copied them down into books for their personal use. If there was a romance floating around they liked, they would "rip" a copy of it into their commonplace book, alongside other things that caught their interest-- including recipes, sermons, devotional stories, saint's lives, dirty jokes (including fabliaux), registers of their finances, lists of animals that start with the letter A, the birthdays and christening days of their children, songs, and so on, and so on.

... People were simply a lot savvier consumers of texts in the Middle Ages than they're often given credit for. If they saw a miniature they liked in one book, they might go to their local bookshop and ask for a version to be pasted into one of their books. Or they might take their business to one shop over another because, "That scribe they have there does a mean Piers Plowman, and his Chaucer's not bad, either."** At least one manuscript of Wace, the French translator of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, inserts all of Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian romances into the middle of the history's section on King Arthur--which would be kind of like pasting the script of the Untouchables into your 20th Century American History textbook right after the chapter on Al Capone or splicing up Shakespeare in Love to serve as a frame to your copy of Romeo and Juliet.

As I've argued here before, it's absurd to think of the printing press as a sudden world-shattering technology. People were jazzed about the printing press because it allowed them to do on a larger scale things that they already were doing with written texts.

Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.

Oh, BTW. This man seems to be looking for a job. Someone hire him quick and stick him in front of your best students, or maybe your average ones.

Image: Superhero monkey.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

The Constant Gardener, by John le Carré

On the weekend I finished John le Carré's 2001 book, The Constant Gardener. I realized after I was done that Carré has been writing superior novels for over 45 years. How exactly his genius manifests itself in this particular novel is through the evocation of character Ghostly people slowly solidify to become very, very real. It's a sad book about great crimes inflicted on poor people by the rich, greedy and powerful -- in this case, the pharmaceutical industry. But as Carré says in the afterword, the book is like a picture postcard compared to the reality on the ground. You don't want to believe him, but he compels your belief with his skill and his track record.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Another good bookshelf to explore

A number of times in the last two years or so I have linked to Phil Paine's blog over at his multipurpose website. Not so often often I have mentioned his latest reading section. The last few entries in that section gives me the excuse to remedy that lack.

Two books particularly caught my attention. The first is #16396 -- yeah, Phil reads a lot -- (Michael H. Shuman) The Small-Mart Revolution ― How Local Businesses are Beating the Global Competition. Here are the comments that caught my attention:

I would like to see everyone involved with urban reform and with democratic renewal activism to read this book. There is a powerful undercurrent of change going on in both the United States and Canada, definitely something moving up from the grass roots and ignored by both the media and the elite political drones. It's something far more creative and significant than a mere flaky fashion for "anti-globalism" demonstrations, with which the reader might at first confuse it. It's the fact that people — ordinary people — are starting to question the orthodoxies they have been taught about how things "have to be", and realizing that their self-interest, as well as their future, depends on re-envigorating local economic and political power...

At the heart of his study are the premises that every consumer choice that prefers local sourcing over distant sourcing increases the "multiplier effect" of transactions in an economy, and that import substitution is the engine economic growth. He exposes the disastrous consequences of bribing and luring distant corporate powers into a locality rather than creating conditions for organic local economic creativity...

He also grasps that those same governments will quickly "agree" with rational critics and make a big, but entirely phony, show of following the rational path, while changing nothing. This shows that he has some real-life experience of trying to reform things. But he is at his best when he describes situations where dedicated people have actually made advances in democracy and prosperity, despite all the obstacles. The good news is that those advances are more numerous and vigorous than one would guess. The media have no interest in telling you about them. To describe these successful initiatives, Shuman coins the acronym LOIS ("local ownership and import substitution").

A much briefer comment on another book struck close to home:

16397. (Robert McCloskey) Homer Price.

This was one of the "children's classics" that I had glanced at as a child, but never actually read. A pity. McCloskey was a gentle humorist with a charming style and great human empathy, who chose to write for children rather than, say, subscribers to the New Yorker. He was also a talented artist, in a style reminiscent of Ernie Pyle. The world he writes about now seems so far away that a contemporary child might have some problems interpret it. It would seem exotic, rather than comfortingly familiar. But if you are an adult with any feeling for American social history, the child-viewpoint stories about pet skunks, donut machines, and giant balls of string will be fascinating.

I read that book as a kid and more or less recognized the environment, even though it was about pre-World War II times and I was born after the war. after all, Homer Price lived near me!

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