Thursday, May 31, 2007

One small incident in the conversion of Europe

From the blog English Russia, a piece of early history: the pagan Horse Stone on Horse Island, the site of horse sacrifices, turned into a Christian church. More detail at English Russia -- one of the best of blogs.

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Canada: Deer runs into provincial legislature

A report from CBC online.

Then, we saw a fox crossing our own field.

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Another entry in the Doubletalk Derby

If it weren't for all the dead and dying people, this would be hysterically funny.

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Ramsay MacMullen, Voting About God in Early Church Councils

In an earlier post I promised to talk about the content of this book.

Dr. MacMullen is interested in two phenomena that he seems to find underappreciated by writers on the later Roman Empire.

First is the huge amount of activity that took place under the rubric of "early church councils." It's easy to push this activity to one side because you are not particularly interested in the development of Christian doctrine; on the other hand, you might be primarily interested in doctrine and not all that concerned with the social or political context. One of the first things that Dr. MacMullen points out to his Martian visitor is that there was a tremendous amount of such activity from the third to the sixth century AD. He comes up with some speculative but not unreasonable numbers for meetings and attendees; he talks about how bishops, their retainers, their messengers and their letters and supporting dossiers of documents crossed the Roman world, at great trouble and to some extent on the basis of imperial subsidies (the Roman post service which expedited not just mail delivery but the travel of officials, which was notoriously expensive). The business of church councils, which it should be noted was not always on matters of correct belief and teaching (doctrine), was a significant dimension of the business of government.

The Martian visitor is impressed.

Second, this network of relationships had a dimension that MacMullen calls "democratic." Not because there was a government based on elections (though bishops were elected) and not because anyone believed the empire was or should be based on democratic principles (it was in theory an absolute, divinely ordained monarchy), but because the people, or large organized groups of people, usually gathered together in towns and cities, especially imperial capitals or large regional centers like Alexandria or Ephesus, exerted pressure on bishops, governors and emperors, and sometimes got their way. The people (the mass of them) had power.

Dr. MacMullen discusses two aspects of this "people power." The first is well known to anyone who knows late Roman history at all -- the factional assemblies that took place in streets, plazas, and the circus (the chariot-racing track) and demonstrated for or against doctrinal positions, local governors, or even the emperors themselves. The competition between Greens and Blues in 5th and 6th century Constantinople is particularly famous -- they were in theory fan clubs organized to support chariot teams, but though they were intensely interested in that subject, their activities went well beyond it. (See my short discussion here.) MacMullen reminds us that the most famous demonstrations and riots were not the sum-total of this "democratic" aspect of late Roman civic and imperial life.

The second "democratic" manifestation analyzed in this book is the conduct of councils themselves -- which conduct was modeled on that of the Roman senate, the imperial consistory, and town councils. Some attention has been directed this way in the past because we have the minutes of such bodies, but usually the councils have been seen as a degenerate form of institutions that were freer and worked better in the republican past. The feature particularly noted has been the chanting of attendees -- chanting that began with long passages of praise for the divine emperor, continued with praises for his wise policies, and then, kinda sneaked in there, complaints and petitions and even denunciations of officials. All these chants were written down and the number of repetitions of each carefully noted.

This seems like a slavish way to run a consultative or legislative body, and maybe it is so. However, MacMullen invites us to imagine how such demonstrations were organized, how they looked to those present (especially when one considers that chants could turn to violence, and that chants might threaten violence to people on the wrong side), how chanting defined parties, how chanting was used to manifest the power of the majority. MacMullen grants as he clearly must that his church councils were easily manipulated by the presiding officers and senior bishops (kind of like the US Senate today), but he argues that people power -- the power of a passionate mass -- sometimes won the day.

Thinking about this material can result in seeing the later Roman empire in a whole new way.

But is this democracy? Or is it mob rule, sometimes or maybe more often than not manipulated by managers behind the scene, a la the Chinese Cultural Revolution? I have my problems with the notion of mob rule, but I have to say that the democracy of the streets and the revolutionary assemblies of the early Christian empire has its resemblances to the democracy of the streets and assemblies of the French Revolution. (Modernity, where are you?) Yes, the revolutionary demonstrations were loud and violent and intolerant in both settings, and led to mass slaughter -- I'll take Canadian democracy, thanks -- but they did respond to the dissatisfactions of large, determined groups of people. Absolute power, accepted out loud by all, again is shown as fragile and chimerical and in need at times of (let's say) mob power.

This book has given me a lot to think about.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Modern conceits, man from Mars, baby in the well


I have just finished reading Ramsay MacMullen's Voting about God in Early Church Councils and I haven't entirely made up my mind about it. I will say that I'm grateful to the book vendor at Kalamazoo who had it on display!

MacMullen's books are not your usual academic tome. Voting like others of his works is based on vast scholarship, but the presentation of his ideas has been boiled down to a mere 118 pages (notes not included). This is thanks to a concise, allusive prose that occasionally takes some work to figure out. But there is no bafflegab or shilly-shallying here. Did MacMullen ever study the Roman historian Tacitus? This is an opinionated work and MacMullen has no time -- being nearly 80 -- to appease unsympathetic critics.

MacMullen appears a classicist through and through but there are some touches that really mae the book seem alive and dust-free.

First let's look at the opening lines:
Before getting very far into a subject so familiar as the formation of Christian creeds, it may help to think of it for a moment in a detached way. If the distance between it and ourselves can be brought out--if we can try to see the scene and its actors afresh and in all their strangeness -- we may bring a more curious eye to our observation, we may really look, taking nothing for granted.

Suppose for a moment that a visitor from Mars asked about the setting for this essay--and no one more detached can be imagined--might he not need to be told the most obvious things?
Well, no classicist or church historian that I'm aware of has begun an essay like that! The funny thing, though, I've been using the conceit of a visiting or observing Martian for decades for similar purposes, imitating the one person I know who's been doing it longer, my friend and sometime collaborator Phil Paine. He uses it a little differently, to force himself and his listener to take the Yakuts and the Patagonians and the Mordovians to be roughly as worthy of attention as the Swiss, the Swedes and the Californians if you are generalizing about humanity as a whole. Recently I've breezed past blog entries where the visiting Martian has made a brief appearance lending perspective, and I have to wonder, is this becoming more common? If so, if people take the exercise in perspective seriously, good!

Another passage of MacMullen's leaves me with mixed feelings. Talking about the widespread interest in doctrinal disputes during the later Roman empire, he says (p.35-36):
Our sense of how absolutely wonderful we ourselves are in our modern world may lead us to discount the capacity of the capacity of the ancient: for example, the capacity to disseminate ideas so as to engage popular interest...Their understanding of such major realities...beyond their own back-door, or realities that counted -- was not like the modern sort confined to meretricious photo ops, celebrities, or babies stuck in wells. Hence my supposing more consequential communication in this period of the empire than generally in our own world today.
Oh, Tacitus redivivus, you burst the balloon of our self-regard!

But when I get beyond my admiration for this passage, I wonder about it. I understand MacMullen's disgust for what passes for "media coverage;" in an era where the US constitution is being gutted and the treasury plundered (with inevitable consequences for the non-American world), the coverage all too often goes to (in a current phrase) Missing White Women. But is the comparison valid? Maybe Dr. MacMullen should look past cable news to the places where people who are interested in consequential matters meet and discuss more easily than ever before.

Also, I find this passage a bit odd in that I think Dr. MacMullen's personal opinion of church controversies is not really all that high. But more on the content of the book later.

Finally, the remark about the baby in the well made me wonder, what about that baby in the well? My younger readers may never have heard of that baby (Midland, Texas, 1987) but she was real and she was rescued, and if this website is accurate, she's a healthy adult today.

Image: Marvin the Martian, one of those hostile, all-too-engaged-in-Earthly-affairs Martians.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Iraq, early summer 2007

Those of you interested in the history of Sufism and its connection with current events may want to look at this background blog post on Sufism in connection with the bombing of a Sufi shrine in Iraq. This is exactly what Cole is expert in, so it's worth a look.

Meanwhile over at The Vanity Press, Chester Scoville has this right-on-the-button critique of the American delusions that lead to bad foreign policy winning popular support. I won't excerpt -- I'm hoping people will read what Scoville has to say.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Algerian women rise up

...and take control of the economy while wearing hijabs. See this from the New York Times.

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Living history

"Living history" has a normal meaning these days as a form of historical re-enactment or re-creation that is fairly strict in its efforts at accuracy.

I'm using it here in another sense -- as "history" that is still around. Like Clifton's Cafeteria in Los Angeles.

Once upon a time the place "fast food" occupies in North America today was held by cafeterias, which were a feature of the downtown areas where many jobs were located. If I remember family stories correctly, my grandmother worked for years in one called "Koontz's."

Well, the tide has been going out for such cafeterias for a long time now, but thanks to the LA Times (upon which may blessings shower down), I now know that even in the home of modern suburbanization some cafeterias still survive, including one of the most distinctive, Clifton's Brookdale branch. According to the story by staff writer Larry Gordon, this place has been serving the same food, to some acclaim, since 1935, when it opened.

Even better, it still preserves the original decor: a simulated redwood forest which includes "a waterfall, a tableau of a family fishing for trout and a tiny inspirational chapel perched on a rocky ledge."

As an architectural historian named Chris Nicols says."It's incredible to have a total immersive environment from the '30s that you can just walk into for the price of a cup of jello."

(The picture above is from this blog which includes the unprompted comments of a young customer.)

Not exactly my usual early history (before railroads, I like to think) but on the other hand its not exactly easy to find an undisturbed human environment that is over 70 years old. I was in New Delhi in 2005 and you'd be hard-pressed to find one there. There are a few sites that are centuries old but most of the rest has been built quite recently.

I can only echo the person in the article who said, roughly, "get out an enjoy these things while they are still there."

On a related theme, what about a feature of my own country that I never heard of, that has been called "the eighth wonder of the world," which has been fairly undisturbed for the last 1.3 million years?

In Northern Quebec, over a million years back, a huge meteor hit the ground, creating a 3.44 km wide crater that actually sticks out of the ground. It's been there ever since, collecting rain water that, thanks to being isolated from pesky primates, is very, very pure. It's called Pingualuit Crater (this site provides a permalink usable in Google Earth)and there's a very good article in the Globe and Mail about it.


The purity of the water in the absence of a local population and natural groundwater inflows means the sediments that do exist should be a valuable record of the climate, and more, over the past million years or so. Indeed, scientists have just drilled out a core and are no doubt hard at work on it.

There are days when I think the past is utterly lost, and we just have the present and its evidence for preceding mysteries. This is not one of those days.


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Friday, May 25, 2007

Phil Paine in Transylvania and other adventures

Phil Paine, who has been hitchiking around Eastern Europe, seeing historical sites and the current scene, is catching up on his travel blog.

Image: a view of Sarmizegetusa.

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Carnivalesque 27

Aadvarchaeology hosts a collection of ancient, medieval, and archaeological blog posts at Carnivalesque 27. Included: Geoffrey Chaucer's report on the Kalamazoo Congress of Medieval Studies.

Stuart Carroll, Blood and Violence in Early Modern France

One of my scholarly interests is chivalry, and I've written quite a bit about formal combats, or "formal deeds of arms." Thus I was glad when a colleague alerted me to the existence of this book, and another ordered it for the library.

The dominant understanding of the early modern duel (16th-17th century) in France is that it was a more civilized and ritualized form of the more barbarous blood feud, one of the symptoms of that historiographical favorite "the rise of the modern state." Carroll disagrees. I quote from p. 159:

The early modern French duel thus differed from its medieval predecessor in its lack of rules and in its brutality...[at the end of the 16th century] "They do not fight," the Venetian ambassador explained, "as usually is the case in Italy to the first or second drawing of blood, with seconds who separate them when time is up." Instead they fought to the "bitter end."

This quotation comes at the end of a chapter on "Combat" that some of my readers will find interesting.

For more see the H-Net (H-Law) review by Howard G. Brown.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

David Cook's Understanding Jihad

Not long ago I praised David Cook's book Martyrdom in Islam for shedding considerable light on important aspects of the evolution of Islam. I've now read his Understanding Jihad and am perhaps more impressed by this earlier book.

Once again Cook takes a single important issue in Islam and traces its significance over the centuries. Here he argues that the notion that military activity in the name of Islam is the "lesser jihad" and that (peaceful) religious and moral struggle is the "greater jihad" does not show up in texts written in Islamic languages for Islamic audiences. Indeed, the notion that the initial conquests in the name of Islam have always been taken as a confirmatory miracle demonstrating the truth of the Quran and its revelation, and as a result Islamic audiences have always been influenced by the notion that Islam would eventually spread across the whole earth and that fighting would be a legitimate part of that process. That notion made it particularly difficult for Muslims to tolerate 19th century European conquest of the Dar al-Islam and makes such incursions as the founding of Israel or the invasion of Iraq even more humiliating than they might be otherwise. He also argues that the rather muted response by Muslims (most of whom are no more bloodthirsty than anyone else) to the self-righteous claims of Muslim jihadists is rooted in the feeling that jihad is a legitimate and core part of the religion.

As in Martyrdom in Islam, Cook uses lots of primary materials and ranges over most of the Islamic world, putting jihad into all sorts of interesting contexts. Recommended.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

From Paleo-Future: Anachronisms of the Future

The unique blog Paleo-Future has a news article from 1911 about a phenomenon that teaching historians and sharp-eyed filmgoers are now experiencing on a regular basis!

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Yurts -- are they everywhere?

A few days ago we spotted a yurt within the city limits of North Bay. At about the same time a friend told me she had a French friend who rented yurts to campers. You can see that rental site here. They also rent teepees (as I spell it) and "trapper tents" which look a lot like tents used by Civil War and other re-enactors on this side of the Atlantic.

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Courtly love: a definition

This term has been a difficult and controversial one since it was invented in the 19th century. But now, thanks to an undergraduate's final exam, we have the answer:

"Courtly Love: She married Kurt Cobain."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

From Explorator, May 2007

I have on occasion recommended the long-standing resource Explorator, an e-mail newsletter on archaeology and ancient history that comes out most Sundays. I often find the most amazing stuff there.

This past weekend had two topics that amazed me. One was out of Norway, where someone last August, high in the mountains, found a leather shoe in a snowdrift. First opinions were that it was a thousand years old!

Wrong!

They now think it is 3400 years old!

More searching of the ground led to finding arrows and a wooden spade.

Fallout from global warming?

Explorator also pointed me to a story from Britain, where the A-level exam in Ancient History was on the chopping block. That would mean that what North Americans call high school students could no longer specialize in that topic. Fans of ancient history fought back and won the day. One thing that helped is that they won the sympathy of the cabinet minister in charge of schools, who sits in the Lords. His title is Lord Adonis.

How could they lose with divinity intervening for the cause?

Image: A terra-cotta "Dying Adonis" from the second or third century BC.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Bayeux Tapestry: a medieval "graphic novel" in a video version!


I was just talking about a graphic novel, 300, and its recent movie version, er, 300. This reminded me of a really old graphic novel, or perhaps we should say graphic history, that has also been redone in video form: the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a huge embroidery history of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 that hangs in a church in the Norman city of Bayeux. It shows the story of William the Conqueror taking possession of England from the point of view of the winners -- many people think that it was made for William's brother, Odo, the fighting bishop of Bayeux (and after the conquest, Earl of Kent).

The modern animation of this work gives it more impact to our eyes, which are accustomed to moving pictures and which are disappointed when we don't get state of the art images. But students in the upcoming course, Medieval England, might want to consider how impressive this embroidery 70 meters (230 ft.) long was to contemporaries. And indeed it's a very detailed story well portrayed (even if some parts are obscure to us). You have to wonder who conceived of this project, and whether they had any precedents to refer to. I can't think of any.

In Medieval England we will be covering 1100 years or so. The sources for that huge range of time will be diverse. Sometimes we'll only have archaeology to guide us. But we will always be trying to make the connection between what a written work, piece of art, artifact, or site meant originally, and what it might be able to tell us now.

For a non-animated version of the BT, see this site.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Mordred Prince of Britain

When I was growing up reading science fiction, one of the oddest notions was the idea of alternate history. It's a common idea now, but back then you seldom ran across it outside of the small circle of science fiction readers, unless the subject was, what if the South had won the Civil War?

In such stories authors often gave their heroes technology that altered the time stream, weapons maybe, or even the printing press. But what about an alternate history where it's just an artistic image that's different? How big a difference could that make?

Some years back I was thinking about how Shakespeare wrote many of his "biographical historical" plays -- the non-English ones-- about characters that were really obscure. Who would ever have heard of Lear or Macbeth if Shakespeare hadn't used them to build a striking dramatic situation? Next to nothing is known about Macbeth and I have my doubts that Lear ever existed. Even the characters of Julius Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra as we know them were somewhat new to his audience, since Plutarch's Lives had only recently been translated from ancient Greek into western European languages.

I thought, what if Shakespeare had not gone for the obscure figures he could shape to his liking, but preferred to reshape famous ancient legends? What if he'd done an Arthurian play? Instead of writing about a melancholic, haunted Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, he'd put his genius into portraying Modred (Mordred), Prince of Britain?

What would it mean to Anglophone culture -- world culture -- if these famous words were associated with the treacherous bastard son of Arthur?

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

Maybe none. But maybe...

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The movie "300" -- not fantastical enough

If there are any student in NU's upcoming course on Ancient Civilizations reading this blog -- instead of having fun in the sun -- here's a topic worth thinking about.

Will McLean in his blog Commonplace Book says you shouldn't be thinking about ancient Greece when you watch the recent movie on "Thermopylae," 300. Lots of people have said the same but Will provides us with a science-fiction rationale that makes sense of the 300 scenario -- sort of.

That's amusing in its way but then Will goes on to make quite a profound point. When the Frank Millers of the world try to make an edgy fantasy of the past, they seldom are fantastical enough. This analysis is not offered in a mean-spirited way, but with full acknowledgement that for any author, filmmaker, or other artist, recreating even the known aspects of the past is hard -- especially if you harbor any hope that your audience will be able to relate to the finished product. This is a really fine post.

Update: link to the entry is now fixed.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Marutha of Maiperqat


Love that internet.

A public benefactor named Roger Pearse has for some time now been posting translations of works by the early "church fathers" (bishops, monks, and other early ecclesiastical writers).

Today I got a note that he's posted an unpublished account of the Council of Nicaea by the obscure writer Marutha of Maiperqat. The Council of Nicaea, A.D. 325, was one of those crucial moments when a diverse, amorphus movement, the Christian churches, tried to define itself as "the Church," by specifying what real Christians believed and condemning all others as heretics (people with false opinions instead of true faith).

Well, of course, this effort and later ones ended up splitting the Christian assemblies (original meaning of ecclesia or "church") into hostile alliances, especially in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Council of Nicaea, which was called and presided over by Constantine, also provided a precedent for imperial control of the churches and their doctrine (not that this was ever entirely successful).

Now, today, for the very first time ever, you can read one sectarian account of that event, one not widely available for many centuries.

This seems to be a good time to mention that Ramsay MacMullen, a well-known historian of the Roman empire, has published a book called Voting About God in Early Church Councils.
I can't wait to get hold of it.

Image:
The Church Fathers at Nicaea.

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Two different planets

Read the American news about Iraq, read the American debate on Iraq (any positions you care to read), then read this from an Iraqi employee of an American news service, McClatchy.

But then things are always different in the imperial capital than out on the frontier.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Councils in Venezuela (history of democracy thread)




Today's Washington post has a very interesting article on Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. It's about the founding of community councils to partially replace elected mayors and municipal councils. It's not exactly clear how these councils are constituted, but the article states that for "big decisions" the elected councillors have to go back to community assemblies for a final decision.

I don't know quite to think about it. I haven't bought into the official American propaganda about how evil and threatening Chavez is, since it's entirely self-interested, but neither do I trust Chavez. The danger sign for me is that his preferred political methodologies seem to be ranting at the population for hours on end about every subject imaginable, and throwing government money around like there's no tomorrow. He reminds me all too much of Castro the Omniscent, not to mention every 20th century dictator you've heard of and all of those you haven't.

Also, the use of "community councils" can be a mere mask for dictatorship. Khaddafi abolished all the government institutions of Libya in favor of assemblies supposedly inspired by Berber customs, but guess who still controls everything, notably the energy revenues that constitute practically the entire economy the country?

Going back a couple of centuries, there are also the "section assemblies" of Paris during the Revolution that gave democracy such a bad name in Europe during the 19th century. "Section assemblies" were grassroots neighborhood groups that elected an electoral college which elected members of the National Assembly. After they chose the electoral college -- by voice vote -- the people were supposed to go home and let their betters run the government and guide the revolution. Well, a lot of them came back the next day, and the next, and the day after that and in the name of the people continually critiqued the elected government.

Sounds all very democratic, yes? Unfortunately, the sections in Paris became dominated by people convinced that they knew what the people wanted, and that everyone who opposed the people were evil "aristocrats." Continual voice votes in each section allowed the local aristocratic stooges (not necessarily nobles or even rich) to be identified and expelled. The sections, full of zealots, set up a communication network, armed themselves, and eventually seized control of the capital. This was a further step to dictatorship and government by Terror.
(The awful flavor of the word "terrorists" comes in part from the open use of terror -- revolutionary justice dispensed by kangaroo courts leading to execution -- by the resulting regime.)

So these community councils could go nowhere or worse. On the other hand, according to the WP article, there's a lot of enthusiasm on the popular level for this experiment, even among opponents of Chavez. Some people think that the old institutions of local government, which go back to colonial times, are worthless and the new councils may provide a way for them to solve some of their own problems. I direct you for some relevant thoughts about the vital role of local government in real democracies in Phil Paine's blog (under Sept. 25).

Good luck, Venezuela!

Image: Chavez surrounded by "the people"(?).

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Phil Paine in Europe -- Prague

Phil Paine's account of his trip to Europe has been interrupted by the inaccessibility of Internet connections in places like Transylvania. But now he's in Prague and beginning to catch up.

Image: Lots of people crammed into a picturesque old street, sans tacky signs.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Nir Rosen on classic colonial tactics and their consequences in Iraq today


Nir Rosen is an accomplished American journalist who has written from the ground in Somalia, Jordan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. Today in the Washington Post he wrote a response to a previous WP column by Paul Bremer, the man who ruled Iraq for United States' coalition for the first year after the invasion. Bremer insisted that his policies were right and necessary (forget about effectiveness. Rosen, who saw more of Iraq than Bremer ever did, disagrees. Rosen is particularly adamant that Iraqis generally did not think of themselves in sectarian terms before the occupation (my students will remember that Anthony Shadid agreed). Here is an important quotation from Rosen's column:

In Bremer's mind, the way to occupy Iraq was not to view it as a nation but as a group of minorities. So he pitted the minority that was not benefiting from the system against the minority that was, and then expected them both to be grateful to him. Bremer ruled Iraq as if it were already undergoing a civil war, helping the Shiites by punishing the Sunnis. He did not see his job as managing the country; he saw it as managing a civil war.

Actually Rosen says much harsher things, but they should not be read out of context.

I include this post not to add to the uncountable number already denouncing Bremer, but to draw attention to the classic "divide and rule" tactic that Rosen attributes to Bremer and those who hired him, accurately, I think. In last year's Islamic Civilization course I tried to put current events into a long context -- actually more than one -- and I thought that students from that course might be interested in this informed perspective.

Nir Rosen has a website which includes links to articles (lots of 'em) . He also has a book.

Image: One of many American references, public and private, to partitioning Iraq. If you read American blogs you find that even people who are vehemently "against the war" all too often think that the USA should impose such a "solution." It's like they never heard of the big two partitions of 1947, Palestine and India, and the consequences thereof. Not to mention Vietnam and Korea...

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Yurts from Russia invade Ontario

I know a lot of people who do historical re-creation of various eras and various levels of seriousness. Thus when I saw yesterday a yurt by the side of Highway 11, in a boat dealership, I had this feeling that I probably knew the owner/builder.

Well, probably not. Today's English Russia features pictures of yurts made in that country which, according to that blog, are now being marketed commercially as cheap housing and (I guess) in Canada as camping gear. The many pictures of yurts in the English Russia post look quite like what I saw, including the decorative wooden door spotted by my companion.

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David Cook, Martyrdom in Islam: a recommendation


I soon hope to be talking about the ancient and medieval history classes I will be teaching in the fall, but right now I'm reading material on early and current Islamic history. Some of the books I picked up in the last month or so were not worth mentioning here. But on Saturday I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan for the 42nd International Congress for Medieval Studies, and bought two really good looking books at promotional prices.

One was The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin by Boha al-Din ib Shaddad, who actually knew Saladin and whose work has been published in Ashgate's series Crusade Texts in Translation. I'm looking forward to it.

Right now, however, I'm in the middle of a truly excellent book by David Cook, Martyrdom in Islam. (See cover above.)

I teach the history of Islamic civilization, not the history of the religion, Islam, but of course you can't do one without saying quite a bit about the other. The great challenge of my course is to make the connection between doctrine, the emotional impact on believers of that doctrine, and
the historic energies that have been generated by attempts to implement Islam, or to alter it.

This is tough and I'm not sure that I've ever done more than a mediocre job. I don't have deep background in the subject, just a lot of nerve and a burning certainty that someone should teach this material in Ontario universities.

So I am very happy indeed to find a book this good, which I may use for classes in the future, and will certainly order for our library.

It strikes me as an excellent second book on Islam for anyone really interested in Islam from a historical or religious studies point of view. The first would be any one of a number of books that briefly and systematically discuss the beliefs, the rituals, the institutions, and the historical development of Islam over the centuries. There are several good short books of this sort. Cook's book goes over some if not all of the same material from a different angle, since he is interested in describing the characteristics and effects of the Islamic concept of martrydom, and putting them all in historical context.

He does a fabulous job of this. I've learned all kinds of useful things that longer and presumably more complete books had not made clear to me. I've read lots and lots about the Sunni-Shiite division, but I feel I understand their mutual hostility and incomprehension better, now that I've read Cook.

I note that our own NU library has a Cook book called Understanding Jihad and I look forward to reading it. He also seems to have two more books on Muslim apocalyptic.

One question: if David Cook can write this cogently and accessibly on such important subjects, why is he only an assistant professor at his home institution?

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Jamestown 400th anniversary

A blogging historian I know has an interest in the early settlement history of North America and has been taking part in the 400th anniversary of the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia. Her post on this includes links to some of the best Jamestown sites, so I will link to her.

The image above is from one of those sites, Historic Jamestowne.

It's a silver seal showing a skeleton to remind the owner that life is short.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Islamophonic on the Guardian website

Do you like to listen to podcasts? Perhaps you'd be interested in the Guardian's weekly show on Muslim life in Britain.

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Why I love English Russia

English Russia is a site which gives you some extraordinary picture of life in Russia today, every day. Many of the pictures are astonishing or hilarious.

I mean, Stalin himself is not funny, but who could not laugh at this? Granted, if you knew either Stalin or the car's owner, you might have a different reaction.

Why do I link to this site from an "early history" blog? The world historian in me has to love a site whose premise is: "just because something cool happens daily on 1/6 of the Earth's surface." Even the in the "sixths" we hardly ever think about.

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Two developments of interest to students of Islamic Civilization

I am writing this and subsequent similar posts for the benefit of the students who just finished the course in Islamic Civilization, if any are still reading and any regular or chance readers who are also interested in recent news about Islam and Muslims. I have two items for today.

This past week saw an election for President in France, which was won by the "conservative" candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy. I put "conservative" in quotation marks because old terms like "conservative" and "liberal" have all sorts of meanings and certainly don't translate well across political systems, or generations. Heaven knows, for instance, what "conservative" is supposed to mean in the United States these days.

In any case, Sarkozy, who is a descendant of Hungarian immigrants himself, is widely considered to be anti-immigrant, especially Muslim immigrants. As a result of French colonialism in North and West Africa, there are a lot of French Muslims, some of whom come from families that have been there for generations. Juan Cole a few days back had an extended piece on his blog, Informed Comment, discussing what Sarkozy's narrow French nationalism -- leaning toward an ethnic or cultural or racial national identity rather than a civic one, "open to all ethnicities." If you know nothing about this set of issues I'd recommend taking a look; if you know more than Cole does, or have a different view, please comment, or send a link to something good.

Phil Paine, still traveling in Europe, has been writing about similar issues. Recently he found himself in the poor but famous London district of Whitechapel, where he saw unhappy Muslim youth wandering the street, radiating a sense of being excluded. Phil, who has lived in Toronto practically since it was "The Belfast of the North," has experienced many waves of immigration and I take his observations on such a matter very seriously. Here's what he says on another tricky word, "multiculturalism:"

I hear repeated references to “multiculturalism“ in Britain, but the word seems to have a different flavour here than back in Canada. In Britain, it seems to refer to government and institutional efforts to get Britons to accept Muslims as fellow-citizens, or at least to tolerate their presence. In Canada, acceptance is taken more or less for granted. The word there refers to the efforts of immigrant community organizations to preserve and transmit the elements of traditional cultures to the generation born and raised in Canada. One usage presumes that assimilation is difficult, the other that it is so swift and effective that there is a danger that parents and children might not understand each other. But the two countries have such profoundly different histories and social systems that the different attitudes and results are understandable.

This brings to mind my mind the "immigrant grandmother test" which I put forward on the very rare occasions I hear someone of old Canadian stock making remarks about immigrants not fitting in. I say, ask any immigrant grandmother about her grandkids. She'll say, perhaps sadly, "Oh, they are Canadian."

For more on this from Phil: go here and read the May 4th entry.

Another recent set of developments come out of Turkey. My former students know that the constitution and philosophy of Turkey is secular, despite the fact that 99% of the Turkish population is Muslim. This is due to the fact that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who built the modern Turkish state on the post-WW I ruins of the Ottoman Empire, was personally quite hostile to Islam and believed that the Turks had to join "the whole civilized world" by adopting European standards in just about every sphere of life, from the alphabet, to the law, to the wearing of fedoras instead of fezzes or turbans.

As you may imagine, a strictly secular constitution in an overwhelmingly Muslim country doesn't suit everybody, and for the last 20 years or so political parties that prize the Islamic heritage have proved pretty popular at the polls. The current ruling AK party (controls the cabinet and parliament but not the presidency) is one of these. Recently the AK put forward its foreign minister as a candidate for president, a powerful post. A significant number of people took to the streets to protest this nomination in the name of Ataturk's vision. In one interview I saw, a woman in her 60s said that the AK was trying to take them back to "the Dark Ages."
AK's candidate was blocked in parliament when the opposition parties were able to deny quorumm on the crucial vote. What's going to happen next? A law may be passed making the presidency a popularly-elected post.

In the past, when threats to Ataturk's model, whether socialist or religious, seemed to be strong, the Turkish military, which sees itself as the guarantor of his legacy, has intervened, either behind the scenes or through an open military coup. For them and many others, secularism trumps democracy. Could a coup be launched this? What would be the consequences for Turkey and the world? Remember, this is the most stable country in the Middle East, a candidate for European Union membership. Should it prove to be unstable...(an article that cites Algerian experience since 1990 as a warning).

On the other hand, what happens if AK takes control through democratic means? Plenty are willing to argue that they are a democratic organization, hardly extremists. But there are violent extremists in Turkey, as in most other places, and other Turks fear them.

Update: A huge demonstration of secular Turks against the ruling Islamist party on May 12.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Phil Paine in Europe

Not going to Europe but wish you were? Independent scholar Phil Paine is enjoying his first trip there in some years, and writing a colorful and intelligent commentary while he does so. (I love the Internet.)

If you want to tag along with him, go here and start with the April 28 post; then go here and start at the bottom.

Image: London's Guildhall.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

To my students, 2006-7

My work is done. Grades are submitted, and the research papers for the chivalry seminar can be recovered at my office. If you want to speak to me personally, I will be back in North Bay in about 2 weeks; or there is e-mail.

When I was ill this winter, the exercise of teaching was one thing that kept me going. As I started to get better, I began to realize what a privilege it is to teach undergraduates really interesting material. The fact that many of you responded did not hurt.

I should be at Convocation to see some of you graduate. If you're coming back next year and aren't in one of my classes, say hello anyway.

The image comes from our Chinese language site, which I didn't know we had.

PS: Like last year, I intend to post over the summer.

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An interesting set of recent quotes

Chester Scoville has some interesting quotations from American pro-war writers over at his blog, The Vanity Press. There are days I am that angry.

Do people talk like this in Canada?

Image: Mussolini as the people.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Medieval Warm Period at Medievalists.net

I haven't had much time to explore this yet, but some of you might be interested in a feature over at the Medievalists.net site, focusing on the Medieval Warm Period, a climactic phenomenon getting a lot of attention as we try to come to grips with climate changes today.

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Medievalists.net up and running

Medievalists.net "aims to provide scholars and people interested in the Middle Ages with information and resources."

Congratulations to Peter Konieczny, the editor, on the launch of this ambitious project.

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