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 13, 2009

Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, 1550-1820

British History Online has webbed a searchable version of this reference work, for serious research or serious fun.

Image: Market Hill in St. Edmundsbury, 1700.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise, First English translation, edited by Ken Mondschein

I haven't actually seen this book yet, but it is in an area I have some interest in. Here's part of the publisher's blurb:

Camillo Agrippa’s widely influential Treatise on the Science of Arms was a turning point in the history of fencing. The author — an engineer by trade and not a professional master of arms — was able to radically re-imagine teaching the art of fencing.


His treatise was also a microcosm of sixteenth-century thought. It examines the art, reduces it to its very principles, and reconstructs it according to a way of thinking that incorporated new concepts of art, science and philosophy.

Contained within this handy volume are concrete examples of a new questioning of received wisdom and a turn toward empirical proofs, hallmarks of the Enlightenment. The treatise also presents evidence for a redefinition of elite masculinity in the wake of the military revolution of the sixteenth century. At the same time, is offers suggestive clues to the place of the hermetic tradition in the early-modern intellectual life and its implications for the origins of modern science.

Camillo Agrippa’s Treatise on the Science of Arms was first published in Rome in 1553 by the papal printer Antonio Blado. The original treatise was illustrated with 67 engravings that belong to the peak of Renaissance design. They are reproduced here in full.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Carnivalesque 50

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Carnivalesque 49 -- Ancient/Medieval edition, April 2009

This is my first time editing Carnivalesque, the blog carnival that alternates between early modern (c.1500-1800CE) and ancient & medieval topics (up to c.1500CE). I hope you like my selections, which I've been collecting for a while.

Those of you who missed Carnivalesque 48 may have missed the announcement that medievalist Judith Bennett's History Matters: Feminism and the Challenge of the Patriarchy was to be the subject of a roundtable discussion by a series of feminist historians, with each post touching on some important questions about what it means to be a historian, what it means to be a feminist, and what it means for the two to intersect. The first discussion was hosted by Notorious PhD, and you can follow the now-complete series from there. Don't forget the freestanding comments by Magistra et Mater; the first of six is here. This excellent and substantial blogger has also recently delivered a well-deserved, commonsensical whack to that 18th-century sacred cow, "rational economic thinking."

Speaking of women in history, and neglected ones at that, did you know that Queen Zenobia hath a blog? Yes, the third century rebel against/savior of the Roman Empire in the East? Actually, it is Judith Weingarten who has the blog, Zenobia: Empress of the East, which is about that lady but includes other things as well.

Those of us who study distant but colorful eras (like Zenobia's) find our work all too often completely ignored by a public that would go nuts if they only knew what they were missing. If you write a book called Becoming Charlemagne, as Jeff Sypeck has, you are unfairly doomed to obscurity. Or are you? Go on over to Quid plura? and let Jeff explain to you why his opus should be the next pop-culture TV blockbuster series. After all, there is plenty of precedent; ancient material is very much at home on the Internet, as the alert Jennifer Lynn Jordan at Per Omnia Saecula, among others, have discovered for us.

I am a textual historian myself, but I have a lot of respect for people who deal with the material remains of the past, or reconstruct them. There are some good blogs out there on material culture. Darrell Markiewicz, a longtime blacksmith and historical metalworker talks about his work on a regular basis at Hammered Out Bits. Two of those "bits" caught my eye in the last little while. The first was where Darrell recanted his skepticism about legendary weapons made of meteoric iron. No such of a thing, he thought, until he stumbled across new evidence in the form of a wondrous weapon. I am glad he was honest enough to admit his mistake, otherwise I would never have known! He also put some time into reconstructing one of the first trademarked objects of northern European origin, +ULFBERHT+ swords. Don't miss his discussion of them.

From iron to slate: Jonathan Jarrett over at the excellent A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe reminds us once again that some Visigothic charters were written on stone, even though I don't think Jonathan's ever had the pleasure of handling such document. A good time to bring up hard copy in Iberia; at the other end of the peninsula, the most extensive inscription in the ancient Southwest Script has recently been found, which like all others on this sort was written on slate. Stephen Chrisomalis at Glossographia tells the story and supplies the links.

Will McLean at A Commonplace Book, also working at a bit of a remove from the originals, wants to know what an écranché shield was, what a targe was, and what an ecu was. Will, like me, is interested in late medieval deeds of arms, and for all I know he is building authentic shields as we speak. He is a serious reenactor and has built some amazing stuff in the past. He has worked on texts as well: this time he supplies us with a link to a fine article on German tournament rules of the 15th century.

A tournament/jousting fan? Don't miss the 16th-century Burgkmair Tournament Book at the beautiful and new-to-me booksite, BibliOdyssey. For me, however, it is hard to beat the visual impact of two photos from Kyrgyzstan, where the sports of the medieval nobility survive: Kok-boru (the same game as Afghan Buzkashi) and falconry, if that's what you call it when they use golden eagles instead of hawks and falcons. Both of these come from The Big Picture, the regular news photo blog from, one of the treasures of the Web.

One of the joys and/or torments of being a serious student of the farther past, whether as a pro or as a well read amateur, is the opportunity to try to correct popular and journalistic clichés about our favorite times. I say "try to correct" advisedly, because these things never get corrected -- there is an infinitely deep pool of misinformation, and journalists in particular seem to know exactly where it is. However, the effort of correction sometimes reaches the few people who actually care, and sometimes produces witty results.

I, for example, would never have learned about the new medieval datum about the Robin Hood legend if various intelligent bloggers had not been irritated by superficial reports of it. The superficial reports seem to focus on the idea that not everybody loved Robin Hood. no wonder the papers made such a fuss! He must be the only person in history not universally popular. But the blog Medieval News filled me in on the substance behind the writeups, and had even more. Thanks!

And did you know that the hamster wheel was a medieval invention? Well, the people over at do, and surprisingly enough they are right! At least, Carl Pyrdum at the ever-reliable Got Medieval traces it back indeed to late antiquity and Boethius' underappreciated second work on consolation, The Consolation of Owning a Pet Hamster. Even experts in illumination and sixth-century philosophy may be surprised to hear that some striking pictures from this work still survive!

Alas, not all journalistic historical discoveries and popular misconceptions are created equal. Jonathan Jarrett has a rant, a very substantial and entertaining rant on Celtic fonts and interlace. A perfect example of how a good rant can be cathartic not just for the writer for the reader as well.

Myself, sometime in the last while I was tempted to rant or at least poke fun at, costume advertising featuring the Deluxe Barbarian Queen. But then Eileen Joy came along at In the Middle and showed me that I should not; at least not without some thought. In all seriousness it was a moment of enlightenment.

To tie this up, let me mention that Paul Halsall, that benefactor of all humankind, and especially students and teachers of the past, blogs over at English Eclectic. It's usually personal observation, but it's not seldom, well, heaven on earth or something much like it.

And, oh yes! Nokes is back. Now that he has a fully-functional computer, the Wordhoard is Unlocked once more.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

John Law and the Mississippi Bubble

For decades and decades now, the National Film Board of Canada has been financing, producing, and distributing amusing and informative films. Now just about the entire output of the NFB is available free for nothing at their website. My colleague Françoise Noël points out that one of their featured items at the moment is a cartoon account of one of the first get rich quick schemes to wreck an economy with paper money and inflated assets -- The Mississippi Bubble. Go here and learn about the most infamous of Scottish economists, John Law.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

The not-so-good-old days

Medievalists are are constantly being put in the position of responding to the modern connotations of the word "medieval." For many modern people the Middle Ages acts as a dumping ground for every nightmare that can be attributed to humanity. The great witchhunt of European history took place after the Middle Ages; the purges and holocausts of the 20th century put most medieval slaughters, ruthless and cruel as they may have been, in the shade. We often find ourselves pointing out such things to people who carelessly use "medieval" to mean "bad." (Indeed, my dictation software heard that last usage of medieval as "and evil" so we are seemingly in the position of fighting the machines, too.)

But we must face the fact that most of history, including the Middle Ages, were not exactly the good old days. Some scholarly blogging posts of the last week or so underline this.

Jonathan Jarrett, I believe, started the ball rolling with a post on Sex slaves in the early Middle Ages: what’s the evidence? over at his blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. his point was that he didn't know what the evidence for sex slavery might be and he hoped someone would enlighten him. Soon after, he found himself shocked by reflecting on well-known evidence about the prominent monastery of Cluny in eastern France. As he put it, "slaves are all through the material from Cluny [in the tenth century]." that reflection, and chance meeting with another medievalist blogger, Magistra et Mater, went into this post on trading "ancillae [slave women]."

At the same time Magistra et Mater has been writing about some subjects that might excite prurient interest, but deserve serious thought, too. For instance, how exactly were disobedient monks flogged in the time of the Carolingian kings? And somewhat less grim, were families about the same time somewhat reluctant to write off their daughters as ruined if they indulged in a little premarital sexual activity? Maybe for good practical reasons the Carolingian Franks were a little less likely to condemn such girls than some other cultures. These are all isolated points perhaps, but important for visualizing how things actually worked for individual people, like a monk about to be flogged, or the teenager worried about how dad is going to react to her little adventure.

Finally, the subject of slavery (mostly later than medieval) is discussed by Phil Paine in this post, inspired by a book on 18th century Moroccan slavery (item 16305). Conclusion: there is no "nice slavery," ancient, medieval, early modern, or current

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Stage Beauty (2004)

I never heard of this movie until Dr. Cameron McFarlane of Nipissing's Department of English Studies offered a paper on it in the History Department's seminar seried. I couldn't make the seminar, but his abstract was enough for me to hunt down a copy, which I have just watched. Am I ever glad I did. This is a topnotch historical movie with a serious theme but lots of fun, too.

The protagonist is a star actor in the time of Charles II who has spent his whole career portraying women, a specialized but essential skill since women are forbidden to appear on the stage. He has a young, good-looking female dresser who wants to act. In a comedy of errors, he loses his career and identity when women are allowed to act and men are forbidden to take crossdressing roles. And she, who does not have his training or talent, becomes a star instead.

That, and much, much more. Highly recommended. Thanks, Cameron!

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007) -- a killer review... for the ages.

I haven't seen this movie and after this comment from a friend I'm in no hurry:

"Elizabeth" is to Elizabethan history as "Muppet Treasure Island" is to ... Elizabethan history.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Beef and Liberty by Ben Rogers

A friend lent me this book with an enthusiastic recommendation, and I'm glad he did. Anyone who wonders about the origin of John Bull, or why Jack Aubery's sailors play the song "Roast Beef of Old England" before battle will enjoy this book. Likewise those who might want to know more about the comparative development of national cuisine in England and France, or the great era of the English satirical cartoon. Enjoyable and informative both.

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