Monday, July 27, 2009

Meet me at the Pas of the Beautiful Pilgrim

I will not be blogging for the next couple of weeks. If you are going to the SCA's Pennsic War, drop by this event and say hello to the Duke of Burgundy:

A Recreation of the Pas de la Belle Pelerine

To be held at Pennsic in the Green List, August 3rd, 2009 from 2-5 PM, hosted by the Company of S. Michael

The servants of the Belle Pelerine will hold a passage of arms, meeting all comers in single combat for a push or throw with lance or spear followed by an agreed number of blows with axe or sword. If the comer touches the shield of Lancelot, if either champion falls or is unable to continue they will give a brooch, gem or jewel of whatever value they wish to their opponent's lady. If they touch the shield of Palamedes they are not so bound. Weapons will be provided if needed. Also, there will be group combats with rebated weapons as often and as long as the ladies wish.


The Letter of the Belle Pelerine (the Beautiful Pilgrim)

Summary: a knight rescues a lady beset by brigands. She is on pilgrimage but fears to continue without escort. The knight offers to accompany her, but must acquit himself of a deed of arms first. The beautiful pilgrim asks for valiant knights and others of martial prowess to challenge her rescuer so that he may be freed to protect her on her pious journey.

To all excellent, high and powerful princes and princesses, barons, lords, ladies and gentle knights, who, in their grace, come to read these letters, my recommendations and kind greetings. I, who am called by many the Belle Pelerine, had occasion to become informed of high festivals in the city of Rome. I made preparations to take the road to go there. Because of my weakness, and because I was scarcely accustomed to endure great pains, I went forward by short journeys, doing my devotions at those holy places that could be found on my route. As I made my way in this manner fortune lead me near the sea, near the borders of a high and nearly impenetrable forest, within which pillagers and robbers of the sea were lying in wait, and they came with wild ferocity against me and my companions.

And I certainly believe that we all would have been slain or taken prisoner had it not happened that a knight riding nearby heard the noise and came hastily against the robbers, and by his free generosity delivered me and my company from their hands. And sorely tried by the affray, I fell to the ground as though struck down.

Then the knight lifted me up and took me sweetly in his arms, saying “My dear lady, you have nothing to fear. Take heart and be comforted, by God’s mercy you have been delivered from your enemies. If it please you I will lead you to a good town and a secure place nearby”.

And when he had said this, and I had recovered myself a little and was able to speak I thanked him from my heart for the great courtesy and kindness he had done me.

And I began to think seriously about the peril and danger I was in, considering the way I had yet to go was long, narrow and perilous, and equally that to return to my country with my pilgrimage uncompleted would be grievous and very displeasing. Weeping, I said sir knight, today I am the most troubled gentlewoman in the world, and I don’t know what to do”

And when he heard that he sweetly told me that if he could offer me any counsel, or do anything that the body of a knight could honorably accomplish, he would spare nothing to do it. When I heard him speak so freely and make such graceful offers I disclosed my affairs to him, and how I had come from my country to do pilgrimage, and how I still had a long way to go on a perilous road, and saw the great peril and danger in returning to my country, and how I had no certain safe conduct. I hoped he could supply that, for the love of God and for the pity that all gentle knights ought to have for ladies in distress. And by his courtesy to escort and guide me during my pilgrimage, which as I have said I had great devotion to perform.

The knight thought a bit and he answered “My dear lady I have no wish to refuse you but there is something I must do first and that done, if it please God I will not fail you. I would be shamed and dishonored if I failed to go the whole way with you, guarding and defending you against anything that might occur. My dear lady, I must warn you that in truth I have undertaken a vow, by my faith, which I may not put aside, for first I must accomplish a deed of arms. This is to guard a passage near the tower of Beau-Jardin on the road between Calais and St. Omer in Picardy in the diocese of Thereimance, which was once called the place of Beau-Jardin and is now called the Green List. Which passage I have the intention to guard and will guard if it please God on the Monday the third of August from two by the clock until five, to deliver all gentlemen and knights come of a noble line of a deed of arms declared in certain chapters which shall follow. And, my very dear lady, if it is your pleasure to rest in this country after the travail which you have suffered, I will be ready, once my enterprise is accomplished, to undertake to lead and conduct you wherever you wish and do you all the honor that I may, as I wish to do what pleases you well.”

And at that, when I had heard the sweet words of that knight and thought of the great danger that I had been in. And how, if I had no good safe conduct, I could not avoid great danger. And I, considering that the response of that knight was courteous and his offers gracious I thanked him humbly and remained at his convenience.

And so, very excellent, very high and very powerful princes and princesses, barons, lords, ladies, and gentle knights, I the aforesaid pilgrim am now in a strange country in great trouble and displeasure and greatly wishing to do my pilgrimage. And I will not be able to do without the aid of that knight who has undertaken to lead me on my voyage unless he is able to accomplish his deed of arms.

And so I address myself to your good grace and beg you in all humility as a gentle woman who is in perplexity, and can do nothing without your nobility and franchise. In kindness to the ladies may it please you to give leave and license, and what is more, encouragement to the noble knights of your courts, countries and lordships, by their courtesy, to shorten my voyage by delivering that knight of his enterprise of arms, according to the chapters which will follow.

And also to you, valiant knights, I sweetly beg, for the honor of your ladies, that it please you to do so, and in doing this you will win honor and true renown. And you will always be held in prayers to God and I will pass on your good renown and that of all knights who wish to take pains to acquire it, and I will make known their noble and valiant courage and the love and honor which they bear for their ladies. And that knight requires and also will assure you that nothing will be done in this enterprise out of hate, envy or ill will for anyone and hopes that no one would think the contrary. But instead this is done to occupy themselves and to assay the noble estate of chivalry. The deed will also be done to have the acquaintance and knowledge of good and valiant knights from foreign lands in hopes to know better their valor.

And at present the knights does not wish to be named. but to put aside any doubt or questions that he is unable to perform such occasion I certify in truth that he is drawn of a noble line and of a powerful house and without villainous reproach and that he will be found in this place arrayed on the day declared in the chapters to do and accomplish that said enterprise if it please God. And finally I pray to the high and powerful prince the count d’Estamps that by his good grace it will please him to put the seal of his arms on these present letters and on the chapters of the said enterprise of arms which I shall further declare.

Chapters of the enterprise of arms of the knight who has undertaken to escort the noble lady who they call the Beautiful Pilgrim

First, the said knight, by the good will, leave and license of the very high, very powerful prince and his very redoubted master, my lord the duke of Burgundy, Brabant and Lembourg, will be present in person, the third day of August, in a passage or place near the tower of Beau-Jardin, on the road between Calais and Saint-Omer, in Picardy in the diocese of Teruanne, once called the Tower of Beau-Jardin and now called the Green List. And with God’s help he will guard that passage or place from the hour of two by the clock until five. And by that place will be hung a shield, argent with three bends gules, signifying the shield that was born in his time by the valiant knight Lancelot of the Lake, who was loyal and happy in arms. And near that shield will be a pollaxe and a sword, and a horn such as huntsmen are accustomed to carry in the chase.

Item: and near that shield will be another of checky sable and argent with two Saracens’ swords crossed gules which are the arms of the good knight Palamedes who always sought in his time to acquire a lady bearing arms and searching for adventures and near that shield there will be a pollaxe and a sword.

Item : Near that the said knight will have a pavilion set up where there will be at that time a king of arms or herald accompanied by pursuivants of arms who will do their office in the way afterwards declared.

Item: to better declare the present enterprise of arms of the said knight his intention is that all knights, gentlemen of names arms without villainous reproach who have the desire and wish to do arms, except for the subjects and servants of my lord of Burgundy if it is their good pleasure to touch one of the two shields that is to say the white shield with the three bends gules and the axe or sword or both or the shield checky of argent and sable and the axe or sword or both they will be held to furnish to the knight of the pilgrim the arms which will be afterwards declared and they will not be able to accomplish them in one or the other manner if they have not first touched one of the two shields aforesaid.

Item: to put aside the doubts of those knights coming from distant countries that they might not be satisfied in their enterprise if there is a great number of knights who have touched one of the two shields, the one who has touched first will have first place in the arms and consequently the others according to the order in which they have touched the shields according to the report of the king of arms and herald which will put down in writing the name of the knight and when he has touched the shield.

Item: so that the comers need not fear that a solitary knight might be vanquished or prevented by unforseen difficulties from satisfying them before they can accomplish their enterprise, the knight of the enterprise will be accompanied by certain companions calling themselves pilgrims arrayed and prepared to defend the passage.

Item: and if there is any knight of the condition aforesaid desiring to do arms and to accomplish the enterprise and adventure and wishes to touch one of the shields on the day of the Passage of Arms he may come to the place and sound the horn between the hours of two and five by the clock at which sound there will come the king of arms or herald who will demand the name of the knight and the time at which he has come and afterwards he will say “Very noble knight, I and my companion are ordered by my master who has undertaken the escort of the Belle Dame Pelerine who God give honor and joy, to warn and inform you and other noble knights of what they must do if they touch the shields of the enterprise which you see here.”

“In truth no knight may be received to do the arms which pertain to the shield argent with bends gules if he does not have a lady or demoiselle in love who by her grace has retained him as a servant.”

“However, any other knights may undertake and accomplish the arms that pertain to the shield checky argent and sable.”

Item: no lord or knight may perform the arms pertaining to both shields, but must choose one or the other.

Item: and if a knight has sounded a horn and touched the axe he will be held to encounter the knight of the dame pelerine for the following arms: to meet on foot for a throw or push of the lance, whichever better pleases the knight of the dame pelerine and following that to fight with a pollaxe until xvii strokes are struck and set on by one of the two knights. And the said knight of the Dame Pelerine shall provide the lances and axes to do this, both alike, of which the foreign knight will have his choice.

Item: If it happens, which God forbid that either of the knights doing these arms is carried to earth, touching it with hand or knee, or is disarmed or otherwise unable to continue, before the number of strokes is performed in that case the arms will be held to be accomplished and another knight will be allowed to commence his deed if it please him.

Item: And if he touches the sword he will be bound to do the arms which follows; which is to say to come together on foot for a throw of the lance such as the knight of the Beautiful Pilgrim will give and will bear to that place, two alike, of which the foreign knight will take his choice. And after that throw they will fight with the sword, of which the knight of the enterprise will also provide two alike, so that xix strokes are done and accomplished and if either in fighting is carried to earth or disarmed or otherwise unable to continue the arms will be held to have been accomplished as aforesaid.

Item, any champion who has undertaken the arms of Lancelot’s shield and is carried to earth or otherwise unable to continue will be bound to give to his opponent to give to his lady a brooch, ring, jewel or gem.

Item: In fighting neither of the knights may lay hands on the other but only fight with weapons under pain of being blamed and dishonored.

Item: If there are any princes dukes or counts or their children who are not yet knights that would be pleased to come and give succor to the said dame pelerine for the honor of their ladies in consideration of the high lineage and they will be received as though they were knights. And further, any other gentlemen without reproach who are not yet knights but who please the ladies by their nobility and high resolve shall be likewise accepted to perform their enterprise.

Item, there will be in that place certain ladies willing to accept noble knights and gentlemen as their servant who wish to undertake the shield of Lancelot. And further, if there is a champion that is unable to provide the token required if they are unable to complete the arms of the shield of Lancelot, the ladies of their grace will provide it.

Item: If there are any knights squires or gentlemen besides those which have touched one of the two shields or who have completed their enterprise, who would have the pleasure of exercising themselves in arms, they will find in that place during that time a certain number of gentlemen who will be equipped to furnish those who wish and require for the love of their lady group combat in the field or across the barrier, with rebated weapons of six feet in length or less. And these combats will occur as often and for as long as it please the ladies.

Item: there shall be a rich prize provided for the champion that shows the greatest prowess, and for the one that makes the bravest, noblest and most courteous entry upon the field.

Item: If there is any difficulty doubt or obscurity concerning the content of the present chapters of the said enterprise of arms, the aforesaid knight who has undertaken the escort of the dame pelerine retains the right to interpret and clarify the same.

And at the humble and instant supplications of my pilgrim aforesaid, the very excellent and very powerful prince my lord the duke of Burgundy and of Brabant and my very redoubted lord has been declared to be the judge of these arms and the performance of the said enterprise and of his grace and goodness he has taken the charge of holding the place secure as well as all other duties pertain to a judge.

And if it happens because of the high and great affairs of my lord duke he is not able to be present in person he has declared that it shall be done as aforesaid and promised by the high and powerful prince the count of Charolais his son, or by any of my lords his nephews.

And we, John of Burgundy, count d’Estamps and lord of Dourdan at the request of the noble and honored lady the Beautiful Pilgrim, to honor all ladies and to give greater certainty to all the things written above, and likewise that no one may doubt that the knight that has undertaken to escort that beautiful pilgrim will be able to perform his duty in the present enterprise, if it please God to defend against any encumbrance or lawful bodily injury, we have affixed the seal of our arms this day, July the IVth in the year of grace MMIX.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Memories of Catal Huyuk

Not very much like it, but this does make me think of the Neolithic city. And reminds me of Dave Nichols.

It's actually a neighborhood on the outskirts of Kandahar.

From the Big Picture, In Afghanistan, Part Two. Don't miss Part One.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The humble knights of the Temple


For those who found the conclusion of this post rather cryptic, here is what Bernard of Clairvaux said in his treatise In Praise of the New Knighthood about the new Knights Templar. This was something of a promotional "press release" meant to aid recruiting and fundraising:

AND NOW AS A MODEL, or at least for the shame of those knights of ours who are fighting for the devil rather than for God, we will briefly set forth the life and virtues of these cavaliers of Christ. Let us see how they conduct themselves at home as well as in battle, how they appear in public, and in what way the knight of God differs from the knight of the world.

In the first place, discipline is in no way lacking and obedience is never despised. As Scripture testifies, the undisciplined son shall perish and rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, to refuse obedience is like the crime of idolatry. Therefore they come and go at the bidding of their superior. They wear what he gives them, and do not presume to wear or to eat anything from another source. Thus they shun every excess in clothing and food and content themselves with what is necessary. They live as brothers in joyful and sober company, without wives or children. So that their evangelical perfection will lack nothing, they dwell united in one family with no personal property whatever, careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. You may say that the whole multitude has but one heart and one soul to the point that nobody follows his own will, but rather seeks to follow the commander.

They never sit in idleness or wander about aimlessly, but on the rare occasions when they are not on duty, they are always careful to earn their bread by repairing their worn armor and torn clothing, or simply by setting things to order. For the rest, they are guided by the common needs and by the orders of their master.


Image: Bernard

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Why helicopters -- and other things -- often break and crash in Afghanistan

Fortunately for those aboard, this Chinook just redistributed the dust.

From the Big Picture's In Afghanistan, Part Two.

And Part One is here.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Our modern world

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rafsanjani's Friday sermon in Tehran: the flexibility of religion and ideology

Juan Cole published this morning a meaty analysis of Friday's sermon in Tehran by former Iranian president Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani in my view is a smart opportunist, not a radical, but the kind of guy who always survives the revolution and makes billions in the process (he is in fact now a billionaire). His position as successful profiteer and governmental insider puts him in a difficult position. Whatever may be the totality of his motivations may be, he certainly does not want the Islamic Republic to blow up. Thus he argues for an interpretation of the revolution of 1979 that will allow for compromise and unity between the angry reformists and the intransigent hardliners. Juan Cole explains the religious theories involved (the complete post is here):

The reform movement and its allies among pragmatic conservatives have developed a narrative about Khomeinist Iran. They allege that it is ultimately democratic, and that the will of the people is paramount. It is popular sovereignty that authorizes political change and greater political and cultural openness. Precisely because democracy and popular sovereignty are the key values for this movement, the alleged stealing of the June 12 presidential elections by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is intolerable. A crime has been committed, in their eyes. A social contract has been violated. The will of the people has been thwarted.

The hard liners hold a competing and incompatible view of the meaning of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. They discount the element of elections, democracy and popular sovereignty. They view these procedures and institutions as little more than window-dressing. True power and authority lies with the Supreme Leader... in this view ... a kind of philosopher-king, who can overrule the people at will. The hard liners do not believe that the election was stolen. But they probably cannot get very excited about the election in the first place. Khamenei and his power and his appointments and his ability to intervene to disqualify candidates, close newspapers, and overrule parliament are what is important. From a hard line point of view, the election is what Khamenei says it is and therefore cannot be stolen.

Rafsanjani desired in his sermon to lay a Khomeinist foundation for the more democratic view. He began by underlining his own role in the revolution and the establishment of the Republic, and his position as a witness to the values of Khomeini. He said Khomeini discouraged the anti-Shah activists of the 1960s and 1970s from terrorism. Instead, he urged a direct appeal to the people in their villages and mosques, and responsiveness to their desires. He represents Khomeini as saying, if the people are with us, we have everything.

Rafsanjani is saying that the 1978-79 revolution was not Leninist. It was not the work of a small vanguard of activists. It was broad and popular and therefore inevitably, he implies, had something of a democratic character.

The authoritarian view of governance in Shiite Islam is anchored by Misbah-Yazdi and his ilk in the theory of the Imamate. Shites believe that the Prophet Muhammad was both temporal ruler and divinely inspired prophet. After him, his relatives also exercised both functions. His son-in-law and first cousin, Ali, is held by Shiites to be the first Imam, the divinely-appointed vicar of the Prophet. But Rafsanjani quotes a Shiite text showing that the Prophet Muhammad said that even Ali could only rule the people with their consent, and without it he should not try. Rafsanjani is reimagining the Imamate not as infallible divine figures succeeding an infallible prophet, but rather as an institution depending on an interaction between God's appointee and the people he is intended to shepherd.

Another piece of evidence for the popular character of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani says, is Khomeini's own haste to establish lay, elected institutions and to implement a republican constitution. He maintains that Khomeini actually strengthened some of the popular institutions when he made suggestions for revision of the draft constitution. Even having a constitution is a bow to popular sovereignty, he implies, and he contrasts the haste with which revolutionary Iran established a rule of law and popular input into government with the slowness of these processes in countries such as Algeria.

... But Rafsanjani's point is that even the Supreme Leader, whom some see as a theocratic dictator, derives his position from the operation of popular sovereignty.
Note that Rafsanjani's theory of the Islamic Revolution, like that of many reformers, is democratic without being seculer. It is a theory that grows out of Islam and the Iranian Shi'ite tradition, or at least is being reconciled with that tradition. Ditto for the hardline position. Despite the sweeping innovations brought in by Khomenei, specifically clerical rule and the idea that there can be a Supreme religious Leader in the here-and-now, important foundation stones for the hardline view are identified by its followers with the oldest manifestations of Islam and the Shi'ite traditions of the leadership of the family of Ali (and of the Prophet).

If have not picked a side in this quarrel and adopted a religious, Islamic justification for your position, it is hard to say that either of these positions is "more authentic." Both positions have evolved over the last 30 years, and especially the past couple of months. It might be very hard for a learned Iranian Shi'ite of 200 years ago to recognize either as Shi'ism. Note what Juan Cole says about Rafsanjani's presentation, which he backed up with his authority as an eyewitness to the Revolution, the foundation of the Islamic Republic and the role of Khomeini in both:

So is what Rafsanjani is saying about Khomeini and Khomeinism true? Probably only partially. Khomeini is notorious for having rejected popular sovereignty as a principle. But he did put an elected president and parliament into the constitution, and he surely knew what would follow.
One might say that Rafsanjani, the Iranian Thermidorian, is making it up as he goes along. On the other hand, who knows what Khomeini might say today?

The whole situation reminds me of an insight I had nearly two decades ago, when I was reading a short history of world Buddhism. As I went through the book I realized that somewhere, sometime, just about any religious position you could imagine had been defined by somebody as "true Buddhism." I think this dawned on me when I found out that one influential Buddhist had said that true Buddhism meant that no one should be a monk and everyone should get married.

Thinking about this situation, I eventually came to the conclusion that the inherent variety of human experience and dispositions means that any religious tradition that has any degree of success in recruiting and maintaining itself over time has to contain contradictory elements, and be open to new interpretations. Otherwise it will become completely irrelevant and die out.

This further means that the kind of wild and careless generalizations that are often made about religion and culture and their consequences for today, -- e.g. what political structures will result from Confucian or Roman Catholic or Mormon traditions -- should be treated with the utmost suspicion. (Phil Paine has written about this recently.) A very particular instance is Iran today. A week's diligent reading will tell you quite a bit about what Iranian Shi'ites have valued in the past. Faced, however, with a live Iranian Shi'ite, you or I or Juan Cole will not know what she or he thinks, unless we ask. And even then, what that means for his or her future actions will remain to be seen. As Charles Kurzman might say, when life is no longer going along its routine groove, who knows what will happen next, what you will do next? You make it up as you go along, using existing materials in whatever way seems possible or necessary.

Image: Rafsanjani, photo from Wikipedia.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

xkcd.com on chivalry

The Old Pilgrim says: Knights, do your own sewing, or better yet, somebody else's

Philippe de Mezieres (14th century):

The army chief must abstain from overeating and drinking and from public luxury... Remember Godfrey de Bouillon at the siege of Antioch. He was sitting on the ground in a little tent mending a saddle belonging to one of his squires when messengers arrived from the Sultan of Egypt. The Count of Toulouse, the Duke of Normandy and the Count of Flanders begged him to receive the embassy in state. Godfrey said he was more concerned that his Squire's horse should not be chafed by the saddle than he was with the Sultan's emissaries. So the latter were brought to Godfrey, who received them briefly but courteously. The Saracens, old and wise, were profoundly impressed and declared that this man would recapture Jerusalem.

Did Philippe take this idea that leading knights should sew in their spare time from Bernard of Clairvaux?

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

The New York Times finally notices Jack Vance...

...now 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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Here's one for Will McLean

The caption from The Big Picture:
Astronaut Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 mission commander, floats safely to the ground after an accident during a training session on May 6th, 1968. The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) exploded only seconds before while Armstrong was rehearsing a lunar landing at Ellington Air Force Base near the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC).
According to Craig Nelson, the author of Rocket Men, Armstrong went right back to work, and when someone made a fuss about his near-death experience, said "It's always a sad day when you lose a machine."

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A photo collection celebrating the 40th anniversary of Lunar Landing Day


From The Big Picture. Buzz Aldrin, with Neil Armstrong, photographer, reflected in his visor.

Clic the pic for larger versions.

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Brilliant

From xkcd.com -- which is often excellent.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Problems and disasters -- and a piece on India's democratic achievement

Sometime in the last few years I came to the conclusion that one's life may usefully be divided into two parts, one where you're beset with a few or many problems which just seemed to soak up all of your time. This is most of your life. Then something really bad happens and that's it.

If this is a useful insight, it means you better enjoy the times when you have lots of problems.

Right now is one of those times for me. Not including family commitments that right now are taking up a certain amount of time and energy -- e.g., a trip to the Big Smoke (Toronto) and back in one day--I have got a lot on my plate. Just this week on the scholarly front, I wrote and had an abstract accepted for a major conference (the creative energy for one day used up, admittedly to good purpose), and then got an acceptance of a chapter I proposed for a book on the history of democracy, just as I was finally writing about, rather than reading and rereading material about, 14th century men at arms for my book on Charny's questions. That acceptance qualifies as a problem because the chapter, on ancient India's democracies, must be done by September 30th.

These are problems, you say? Stop whining, Muhlberger, you say; better yet, stop showing off! You have (you might rightly say) three good projects on the burner. And you are on sabbatical.

All too true. I am just concerned that something might get burned, or undercooked, on that stove. From where I sit, there don't seem to be too many working days before September 30th.

Problems, problems. But at the moment, no disasters.

I have to admit that I'm very pleased to be included in this book, which is entitled The Secret History of Democracy. Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that I am interested in current democratic movements. It may be less obvious that I have tried, generally working with Phil Paine, to see democracy as not something restricted to just a few countries in the modern era. I have a World History of Democracy website, which you are welcome to visit; to get a taste of my particular perspective on world history and democratic history, see the short excerpt of a paper I gave in Delhi in April 2005 that I've put it at the end of this post. There is plenty of room to disagree with me or ask for clarification. That is what the comment section is for.

Imagine the world in 1900.

Informed observers examine the prospects of four important regions over the upcoming century: Germany, China, Russia, and India. Which would be picked as the most likely to succeed? And which has, in retrospect? Restrict the criterion of success to “lowest casualty count,” to my mind a more sensible criterion than per capita GDP. Who comes out ahead?

I think it is inarguable that, even keeping in mind the tragedies of Partition, the consequent wars on the subcontinent, and many other incidents of violence and disorder, that the casualty count has been much lower in India than in the other three. This alone is a significant fact of 20th century world history. But of equal importance is the explanation for that fact. Indian aspirations for democracy, and Indian implementation of democratic institutions deserve the credit. Again, do the thought experiment. Take away the aspiration, take away the implementation, what would the subcontinent look like today?

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Welcome, NSO guests!

Xinhua, China's official news agency, speaks

Some early art history -- in process

It has been a while since I blogged anything on the Stone Age. To remedy this terrible lack, let me link to a post from Judith Weingarten at Zenobia: Empress of the East on some recent research about who created some of the famous Stone Age cave paintings. She likes the idea that women -- and kids -- helped create some of the earliest surviving art, but points out that there are some yet-unanswered questions about this specific argument, which depends on the different proportions between the 2nd and 4th fingers seen in men and women (2D:4D):
Until recently, according to Pennsylvania State University archaeologist, Dean Snow, most scientists assumed these prehistoric hand prints were male. But, he says, "even a superficial examination of published photos suggested ... that there were lots of female hands there."

Looking at some stencilled hands, Snow could see that "The very long ring finger on the left is a dead give-away for male hands. The one on the right has a long index finger and a short pinky -- thus very feminine."

To assess prehistoric hand-prints from European caves, Snow used modern hands for comparison. "I had access to lots of people of European descent who were willing to let me scan their hands as reference data," said Snow.

By carefully measuring and analysing the Pech Merle hand stencils, Snow found that many were indeed female -- as, for example, those in the 'spotted horse' picture (above). And so he concludes, "We don't know what the roles of artists were in Upper Paleolithic society generally. But it's a step forward to be able to say that a strong majority of them were women."

I hate to be a party pooper but...

this begs three questions.

First, and to my mind most serious, is:

How do we know that today's 2D:4D finger ratio was the same for the early modern humans who painted the caves?
More from Judith here. A good example of how research often progresses by asking lots of simple questions, and not being too quickly satisfied with the first few answers.

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A note of welcome for those attending tomorrow's New Student Orientation

A number of future History students will be attending the New Student Orientation at Nipissing University tomorrow. If you are one of them let me say that this year I am on sabbatical leave, writing a book, and so you will not see me around the campus before September of 2010. On the off chance that you have stumbled across this blog, I thought I should say hello.

The blog shows what I like about being a historian and what I like about Nipissing University. I was trained in the history of the Early Middle Ages and Late Ancient times, but since coming to NU I have taught a little of everything. This is not so uncommon at smaller and medium-sized universities, but I love it. Most of what I teach and research is "early," meaning before railroads, but I have taught world history and modern Islamic history, too. When I look at the news or new scholarly work, there's usually some kind of connection between it and something I have taught or will teach in the future. I try to bring these connections between the present and past, between countries far away and Canada, into the classroom, and for about four years I've been doing the same with this blog. If you are coming to Nipissing University, here is some of what you might expect from me in the future. If you are just a chance reader, you are welcome, too.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Big trouble in China

Students in last year's Islamic Civilization course may remember a short discussion of the Uighurs in China. Like the Tibetans, the Uighurs are not culturally Chinese, and in recent decades they have felt overwhelmed by Han Chinese inmigration. It's not much of a contest numbers-wise, since there are a few million Tibetans and Uighurs and about a billion Han.The tensions nonetheless are severe in the Uighur home province of Xinjiang (formerly called East Turkestan) and as in Tibet last year, there has now been serious streetfighting.

If you want to know how serious this trouble is, see the picture below, showing paramilitary police assembled in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi. It's one thing to hear "20,000 police" on CBC Radio and another to see this:

More at the Big Picture.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Is it rural Russia, or "I survived a Japanese game show?"

I laughed out loud at this video from English Russia, but once again it reminds me of off-the-beaten-track Canada. Especially with all the rain my area has got this year.

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Cosmic truth?

Someone sent me a link to this painting by James Christensen, Michael the Archangel Battles the Dragon While Almost Nobody Pays Attention.
That's exactly how it works. Nobody is paying attention to the vital, heroic struggle. One can just hope there is a hero out there, fighting and winning. How Michael Moorcock! How Gene Wolfe!

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Friday, July 03, 2009

On her way to jail?

From the Guardian and every place else:
Alaska governor Sarah Palin, former Republican vice-presidential candidate, said today she is resigning from office at the end of the month, raising speculation that she would focus on a run for the White House in the 2012 race.

My speculation, on the other hand, is that a humongous scandal is about to break and that she'll be spending months if not years in courtrooms and committee rooms.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Juan Cole extravaganza

Juan Cole has stated in the past that he gets most of his work done at night; he must have got very little sleep last night putting together on Informed Comment a large collection of material on a variety of subjects. I will particularly point out this video from Al Jazeera, which is as good for showing downtown Tehran as it is for the latest news from that city. It's always good to check your preconceptions:

Cole also refers us to Elizabeth Thompson's new study on democratization in the Middle East ( pdf text here) which tries to identify the appropriate historical analogies that might help understand the problem. From her introduction:

  • The recent U.S. intervention in Iraq highlights the misuses of history: American leaders employed analogies to World War II to justify the invasion and to predict success in establishing a democratic regime after. These analogies proved to be a poor guide to nation building in the short term. In the long term, they have deeply aggravated U.S. relations with Iraqis and the rest of the Arab world.
  • A more effective use of history would have been to refer to the precedent of World War I, a crucial moment when American policy could have supported indigenous Arab constitutional democracy--but, fatefully, did not.
  • For the new administration, the Arabs' experience of "justice interrupted" after World War I can still be a useful touchstone for promoting democracy in the region.1 This precedent alerts us that foreign intervention can spark a deep-seated and negative political reaction in the postcolonial Arab world and that reform in Arab politics must begin with respect for national sovereignty. It also reminds us that constitutionalism and the desire to participate in the community of international law are enduring values in Arab politics.

Lots more in Cole's extravaganza, including news from Pakistan.

Fortunate Son

Juan Cole in Informed Comment says this about Dick Cheney and sacrifices in Iraq:

Dick Cheney reacted to the cessation of unilateral US patrols of major cities in Iraq, saying that he had concerns that the "insurgents" might launch more attacks and that “I would not want to see the U.S. waste all the tremendous sacrifice that has gotten us to this point."

First of all, Cheney didn't make any sacrifices in Iraq. He deferred his own military service five times because he 'had other things to do.' [We all did! -- SM]The 'sacrifices' were caused because he purveyed falsehoods to the US public in order to get up that war, hinting around that Saddam was in bed with Usama Bin Laden and telling senators that Iraq was two years away from having a nuclear bomb. So the sacrifices were of other people's children, and his role was merely that of an Aztec high priest cutting the heart out of the victims.


Any time I think about Cheney and his five draft deferments, this song is not far behind:

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Tehran: the cats are happy

Juan Cole passes along this "final dispatch from Tehran," which I don't dare summarize. Don't miss it.

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Baghdad: 50 degrees C and a sandstorm outside


Just one remarkable picture from the latest installment of The Big Picture.

Well there is this shot of the crater left by that bombing in Kirkuk:



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Canada Day thought

From a Globe and Mail comment thread on the Canadian self-image:
I am more grateful than I am proud to live in Canada.
Lucked out this time!

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