Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Roll it!

From the New York Times At War blog:

MINGORA, Pakistan — The Taliban are gone in Swat, and one of the best illustrations of their absence was on display a few days ago at a local cinema: the movies are back.

The men began lining up at 10 a.m. Forty-five minutes later, they began surging past a security guard into the courtyard through a side gate. They sidestepped the ice cream vendor and shoved and jostled their way to the box office for 150-rupee tickets. Seats are cheap; there are wooden benches, no recliners, no popcorn, no candy. But there are cigarettes, excitement and testosterone aplenty.
There's more...

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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Pennsic War, July-August 2009

A while back Will McLean posted a video on the most recent Pennsic War. It rather got overshadowed by the Staffordshire Hoard, but now I will embed the video, a classy job by Voice of America. (No, I'm not in it.)

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Staffordshire hoard website

R.S. Nokes passes on the link for the clearinghouse website.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Galactic center, Milky Way

More on the Staffordshire hoard

The BBC has a good article.


... there are two main possibilities.

The first is that this treasure has been purposefully deposited, like an offering to a god.

But, from my 21st-Century perspective, I find it bewildering that someone could shove so much metalwork into the ground as an offering. That seems like overkill.

The other possibility is it's a treasure chest that got lost, or they couldn't come back for it.

The material is predominantly associated with war - swords, sword fittings, bits of helmets and the like - but all the precious metalwork has been stripped.

That means they're not treasuring the objects as wholes,they're taking the precious metals off and keeping them.

Most things we find from the Anglo-Saxon period are what we call "chance finds", in other words the things people lost, or hoards purposefully deposited, or finds from burials.

But hoarding is more associated with the Viking period. Things like big coin hoards are more a 10th-Century sort of find. This is a strange phenomenon in this country for the 7th Century.

People will now be working to understand when the material was deposited, then we'll look at what we know of the history - which is not a lot - to tie it down.

The finds date from a wide period, which is unusual, so the first thing this may do is help us improve our dating of the Anglo-Saxon period.

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What I said about Spain and India -- a follow-up to the "Bad Samaritans" post

Ha-Joong Chang said in his book Bad Samaritans that "cultural explanations" of economic development often seem to be self-justification based on 20/20 hindsight. Here's what I said in 2005 at a conference at the Political Science Department of the University of Delhi about how similar discussion of the world history of democracy often misses the point.

What we need, as the record of modern democracy becomes longer and more detailed, is to focus on two things: distinct cases (to avoid the lifeless, silly, or counterproductive overgeneralizations); and the connections between democratic developments across borders and across cultures, so that we can progress from a number of national or regional histories of democracy, to a true world history.

To illustrate the importance of this effort, let’s look at the case of Spain, a provocative puzzle for any historian of world democracy. Spain was early on affected by the French Revolution, but for more than a century and a half thereafter, Spanish democracy seemed like an impossible dream. Spain appeared doomed by its culture and history to either authoritarianism or chaos. Yet in the mid-1970s democracy emerged in post-Franco Spain, and despite separatist sentiment and intermittent domestic terrorism, it has survived and flourished. The case of Spain, like the similar case of neighboring Portugal, confounds easy generalizations about the historical roots of democratic development.

For a very long time it was obvious to historians and commentators of all sorts that Spain, with its absolutist monarchical tradition and its intolerant religious establishment, must be outside the grand democratic tradition of the “West;” yet somehow despite all that historical baggage, in a moment and without attracting much attention, Spain transformed itself into a member in good standing of the democratic club. I cannot claim that this democratic transition has not been studied.[1] But one wonders how many historians not concerned with modern Spain have thought seriously about it, and whether any of them have revised their understanding of Spanish or European history in light of it. As a historian I can hardly argue that “historical baggage” is irrelevant to the life of a society; but clearly in the case of Spain a focus on historical baggage, on the national history and cultural history of Spain, narrowly conceived, deceived us all. Spain deserves more study, and it deserves to be put into a wide context, not as an odd exception, but as a prime datum in the political history of the late 20th century world.

The same can be said, even more forcefully, for India. That India is not like other successful democracies is a well-worn cliché. For non-Indians, how much thought follows the phrase “world’s largest democracy?” Very little, I suspect. The importance of India’s success so far, for the world as a whole, may not be widely appreciated in India, either. Let me briefly state my point of view, which is based on a simple comparison of India with some other, well-known countries.

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?

[1] Indeed, one of the first systematic treatments of the new democratic developments of the late 20th century was partly inspired by the Spanish case: Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1986).

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Bad Samaritans, by Ha-Joon Chang

I just discovered this book, which came out a couple of years ago, thanks to Brad DeLong, who provided a link to a pre-print to chapter 9, "Lazy Japanese and Thieving Germans
- Are Some Cultures Incapable of Economic Development?"

Phil Paine and I have been working from a similar set of ideas when we discuss the world history of democracy (or political systems of other kinds). If I were teaching first-year World History, this might be the first thing I would have my students read. Anyone interested in world or comparative history should be exposed to this.

Here are some killer quotes:

So there you go. A century ago, the Japanese were lazy rather than
hardworking; excessively independent-minded (even for a British socialist!)
rather than loyal “worker ants”; emotional rather than inscrutable; lighthearted
rather than serious; living for today instead of considering the future
(as manifested in their sky-high savings rates). A century and half ago, the
Germans were indolent rather than efficient; individualistic rather than
cooperative; emotional rather than rational; stupid rather than clever;
dishonest and thieving rather than law-abiding; easy-going rather than
These characterisations are puzzling for two reasons. First, if the
Japanese and the Germans had such “bad” cultures, how have they become
so rich? Second, why were the Japanese and the Germans so different from
their descendants today? How could they have so completely changed their
“habits of national heritage”?


Not being able to see this, culture-based explanations for economic
development have usually been little more than ex post facto justifications
based on a 20/20 hindsight vision. So in the early days of capitalism when
most economically successful countries happened to be Protestant Christian,
many people argued that Protestantism was uniquely suited to economic
development. When Catholic France, Italy, Austria, and Southern Germany
developed rapidly, particularly after the Second World War, Christianity,
rather than Protestantism, became the magic culture. Until Japan became
rich, many people thought East Asia had not develop because of
Confucianism. But when Japan succeeded, this thesis was revised to say that
Japan was developing so fast because its unique form of Confucianism
emphasised cooperation over individual edification, which the Chinese and
Korean versions allegedly valued more highly. And then Hong Kong,
Singapore, Taiwan, and Korea also started doing well, so this judgment
about the different varieties of Confucianism was forgotten. Indeed
Confucianism as a whole suddenly became the best culture for development
because it emphasised hard work, saving, education, and submission to
authority. Today, when we now see Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia,
Buddhist Thailand, and even Hindu India doing economically well, we can
soon expect to encounter new theories that will trumpet how uniquely all
these cultures are suited for economic development (and how their authors
have known about it all along).


Fortunately, we do not need a cultural revolution before economic
development can happen. A lot of behavioural traits that are meant to be
good for economic development will follow from, rather than being
prerequisites for, economic development. Countries can get development
going through means other than a cultural revolution, as I explained in the
preceding chapters in this book. Once economic development gets going, it
will change people’s behaviour and even the beliefs underlying it (namely,
culture) in ways that help economic development. A “virtuous circle”
between economic development and cultural values can be created.
This is essentially what happened in Japan and Germany. And it is
what will happen in all future economic success stories. Given India’s recent
economic success, I am sure we will soon see books that say how Hindu
culture – once considered the source of sluggish growth in India (recall the
once-popular expression, “Hindu rate of growth” 29) – is helping India grow.
If my Mozambique fantasy in the Prologue comes true in the 2060s, we will
then be reading books discussing how Mozambique has had a culture
uniquely suited to economic development all along.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Boxes and boxes of gold

That's what one expert said about the biggest Anglo-Saxon treasure trove ever found -- a huge collection of items, many of them stripped off weapons. This has got to be the hidden wealth of a king or a very successful army at the end of a string of luck. The image above, from the BBC story, is engraved with a biblical verse in Latin: "Rise up O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face." Says the BBC: "It has two sources, the Book of Numbers or Psalm 67, taken from the Vulgate, the Bible used by the Saxons."

If you want to see more -- lots more -- go to this Flickr page and use the slide show.

Top story in the UK today, I hear.

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I am writing a book on 14th- century men-at-arms based on Geoffroi de Charny's Questions on the joust, tournaments and war, especially the war section. As was the case in my 4th-year seminar last year, I am wrestling with terminology, especially the words "chivalry" and "knight." "Chivalry" as a word indicating an ideal or a standard of behavior is a tricky word, as David Crouch has shown in his Birth of Nobility recently, and Charny hardly ever uses that word, even in his Book of Chivalry. "Knight" is unique to English, and doesn't like other "chivalric" terms in other languages mean "horseman" or "warrior/soldier." I am going to have to be very careful in using "chivalry." I have an idea of how to proceed with the word "knight"-- use the words "chevalier" and avoid "knight," as much as possible. Avoiding an English term in a book almost entirely about Frenchmen should be reasonably practical.

Exception: for an English-speaking audience, you can't call the Knights of the Round Table anything but "the Knights of the Round Table," no matter what Edward III and his best Angl0-French buddies may have called them.

Another point of usage: Charny wrote a verse treatise on the life of arms called Livre Charny. I and other people I know usually have Englished this as The Book of Charny. But it occurred to me the other day that the real English title ought to be Charny's Book. A real "duh" moment, that may give us some real information on the chronology of Charny's writing career. Don't you think that this would be an appropriate title for your first rather than your second or third work, if your name was Charny?

Image: I am running out of good pictures that evoke Charny. This sticker is associated with the town of Charny in Quebec. See here.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Just doing our job, ma'am

If they fix things in your neighborhood, consider yourself lucky.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gregory of Tours and Obama

A fine little essay from Magistra et Mater. An excerpt:

Historians once largely believed what Gregory of Tours wrote in his ‘Ten Books of History’ (which is how the History of the Franks is now more accurately referred to). Gregory might be naive (all that reporting of miracles), but his artlessly gory portrayals of Merovingian life told us all we needed to know about the horrors of Merovingian society.

A more recent view of Gregory, along with many other medieval historians, is that his history reflects his own prejudices or that he is writing propaganda. Nevertheless, even though his text is not transparent, we can read through it to get useful material. We can see the outlines of particular actions by his enemies through his distorted stories about them. Alternatively, for social/cultural historians, even if his stories are not true at all, but purely propaganda, they reflect what a king or a queen or a bishop could feasibly do. Propaganda, after all, needs to be plausible.

I would have adhered to such views once, but recent events have made me less certain. If you look at many of the claims circulating in the US about Barack Obama, (such as the claim that he is not a citizen) they’re not remotely plausible, and yet they’re widely accepted. One answer is that this is simply because such stories have been pushed so hard by particular powerful interest groups. But there are implausible stories which have achieved wide circulation and belief without such long term propaganda efforts: Slacktivist has an interesting example of one.

And some claims go beyond the merely deeply implausible to a different level. Take the claim that Obama’s plan for health care involves ‘death panels’, for example. You could see this as an extreme distortion of some possible plans for living wills or not paying for heroic treatment of the terminally ill, but it’s probably better to see these statements as symbolic. Obama is an evil ruler and therefore of course he is planning death panels, because that’s what evil rulers do. And, in glorious circularity, he is planning death panels and so that is ‘proof’ that he must be an evil ruler.

I’ve just been reading Martin Heinzelmann,Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century (CUP, 2001) who argues convincingly and in great detail that Gregory is using symbolic figures in the Ten Books of History: the Good King, the Bad King, the Good Bishop etc. What he doesn’t really get into is looking at how that might affect historians who actually want to know something about the sixth century (as opposed to those wanting to understand how Gregory’s mind works). If Gregory’s stories are largely symbolic, can we take anything factual from them beyond a few names and events? Or are we faced not just with a distorted mirror on the Merovingian past, but a fantasy view of it?

I have wrestled with this question before, in regards specifically to Gregory of Tours, but I increasingly find my own contemporaries at least as mysterious as people of the 6th century. Can people really believe such things (you name it)? And if they don't believe it...but perhaps that's what M&M means.

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Scenes from the last Afghan war

...done in ballpoint pen by a Russian soldier. From English Russia.

Russian soldier in Afghanistan draws pictures

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Then there is this...

Behind the Veil, a video report on women in Kandahar from the Globe and Mail.

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Meet the Afghan Army: Is It a Figment of Washington's Imagination?

This is one title of an article by Ann Jones in Tomdispatch.com and the Huffington Post that simply must be read. Will any Canadian MP have the guts to ask the Government where the Afghan Army is?

The killer excerpt (lots more, it's a long and detailed article):

The Invisible Men

What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn't the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered. American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to "operate independently," but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?

My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of "Basic Warrior Training" 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it's a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin -- the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets -- and many are undoubtedly Taliban.

American trainers have taken careful note of the fact that, when ANA soldiers were given leave after basic training to return home with their pay, they generally didn't come back. To foil paycheck scams and decrease soaring rates of desertion, they recently devised a money-transfer system that allows the soldiers to send pay home without ever leaving their base. That sounds like a good idea, but like many expensive American solutions to Afghan problems, it misses the point. It's not just the money the soldier wants to transfer home, it's himself as well.


Recently Karen DeYoung noted in the Washington Post that the Taliban now regularly use very sophisticated military techniques -- "as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. Army's Ranger school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments." Of course, some of them have attended training sessions which teach them to fight in "austere environments," probably time and time again. If you were a Talib, wouldn't you scout the training being offered to Afghans on the other side? And wouldn't you do it more than once if you could get well paid every time?

Have a cheery day!

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

This (among many other things) is Communist China, 60 years on

The National Grand Theatre, lit and surrounded by water.

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Geoffroi de Charny, VIP

Those of us who have read and enjoyed Geoffroi de Charny's 1350s treatise The Book of Chivalry quite naturally think that he was a pretty important guy. But while writing the introduction for my book Men at Arms it really hit home to me how an extraordinary a figure he was.

In evaluating the past it is sometimes hard to avoid overrating people who wrote or were written about in surviving, high quality works. Plato's had lots of followers; but what would you think if you were in a position to meet him in 4th century BC Athens? Just another "I am not a sophist" rich boy crank? (Am I giving away too much here?)

So in thinking about Charny I have sometimes leaned towards thinking that he was a sometimes-tiresome pedant whom the other knights and courtiers used to tease by asking him hard questions about chivalry, and then not listening to his sometimes overlong answers. That could be Charny.

However, looking closely at the not-very-extensive evidence for his life, I have come to the conclusion that not too many people ever ignored G. de C.

First, everyone agrees that Charny started out as an "obscure" knight and not a rich one. His early campaigns, starting around the age of 30 (in other words, not a raw kid), saw him leading a small retinue made up only of squires. He himself was a bachelier who did not quite dare to call himself a chevalier and the title does not seem to have been offered him for some years. He may have had a certain amount of good will among the more important people due to old family connections, but as William Marshal had found out earlier, this does not reliably pay the bills.

Nonetheless, consider these facts. Starting about 1347-8, Charny was given high command on the northern front (the region of Calais), a role he played off and on until fall of 1352. At one point he was called Captain General of the wars of Picardy and the frontiers of Normandy, a pretty exalted title and a pretty exalted role. Correct me if I am wrong, but this is the kind of position you might put a prince in. If you, as king, had a good reliable prince.

Another fact: When in the course of his duties Charny was captured and carted off to England, the King of France (eventually) bought him back for 12,000 ecus, one heck of a lot of money when the French crown was strapped for cash and always on the lookout for ways to save money. My conclusion: King Jean II felt he desperately needed Charny back.

Finally, the clincher. In the mid-1350s, the King's cousin Charles the Bad of Navarre, a man who thought he had as good a claim to the French throne as Jean, was making a lot of trouble, relying on his royal descent, his strong position in strategic Normandy, and his natural talent for intrigue. He was hard to handle -- that family conflict thing, acted out by two guys with crowns on their heads. When this touchy situation had to be resolved, who did Jean send to talk to Bad Charles? Who got to hear all the dirty secrets of the dynasty retailed? Well, a whole delegation, but among them was the formerly obscure Geoffroi de Charny.

You see what I mean.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A linguistic anthropologist delivers his spiel

Stephen Chrisomalis at Glossographia revisits an old debate. A couple of tasty passages:

I do not believe there are any grounds at all to believe that there is such a thing as ’science’ to be made clearly distinct from ‘the humanities’ – that at best these are used to designate semi-useful collocations of perspectives, and at worst, they are self-serving labels used to isolate oneself and to denigrate others. ...

[C.P.]Snow lived and worked at the height of modernism in the academy: for the social scientist, behaviorism, functionalism, and structuralism were all in full bloom. What he did not foresee, and could not possibly have foreseen, is the emergence of the ‘Science Wars’ or ‘Culture Wars’ in which two camps defined themselves in opposition to one another. Starting in the 1970s (or earlier or later, depending on who you ask), ’science’ was severely criticized from various angles that we might generally label postmodern or poststructuralist. The response from ’scientists’ (do people really call themselves ’scientists’ unironically any more?) ranged from ignoring the new trend to bafflement to outright hostility. Certainly the response from the scientific community followed the initial criticisms of the humanists.

In fact, however, the label ‘war’ is quite inappropriate since very little of the academic discussion that we might now define under one of these terms actually involved academic debate between the two camps. Rather, the sides served as useful straw men to be marshalled in front of one’s fellow-travelers, serving as an emblem of clan identity (as a shibboleth). Moreover, drawing these boundaries allowed one to safely ignore that which lay beyond them as unnecessary, irrelevant, or just plain wrong. Just as we recognize that you can’t draw a line around ‘a culture’ without asking who is doing the defining and for what reason (and in whose interest), I believe that there is ultimately very little behind the distinction between Science and Humanities that cannot be explained in terms of a rather narrow set of interests, both internal and external....My question ultimately rests on how distinct the humanities and the sciences were as concepts, prior to World War II, and what explanation we might give if they have become increasingly distinct over time. I proposed, only half-jokingly, that to define the humanities as a bounded group of disciplines allows Science to define ‘those whom we do not have to fund’, and to define Science allows the humanities to define ‘the object of our newfound ire’.

There is quite a bit more at the blog, in this and other posts. Glossographia is a blog we could easily have more of if the author wasn't, you know, doing real academic work (as most interesting academic bloggers are).

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Play along

Driftglass sends us this Penn and Teller piece on the game "Greatest Human Being."

Got another candidate?

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

From the NYT: Fashion in Iraq now

I was reading a short time ago about the visible spread of conservative dress among Iraqi women over the last decade. Now things may be swinging the other way.

Image: Engineering students in Baghdad.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Froissart lives!

Will McLean says:
Eric Jager's The Last Duel (New York, 2004) is written in the spirit of Froissart. And I don't mean it in a good way. I mean that just like Froissart, Jager likes to present a vivid and compelling narrative full of convincing detail, and he doesn't mind making stuff up to do it.

And then Will goes on, correctly, to critique Jager's account of "the big fight scene" as a modern, uninformed fantasy.

Now I thought the book was OK in general, but I think that representatives of the (major) publisher had a lot of input into its shape. Note the long list of such reps at the head of the book. It's a simple enough story that I don't think it needed so much massaging by people with no particular historical expertise.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Historical re-creation, up close and personal

From a recent joust in Ontario. Click the pic for an even closer impression.

Thanks to Kyle Andrews.

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

An episode in universal history: the face of war

Someone told me this story this evening.

A Hungarian woman carrying bread passed by an internment camp where Polish PoWs were being held. Some of the prisoners called out to her and she gave them some of her bread. The German guards were incensed and began to shout at her. The woman drew herself up to her full, stern-mother height and said, "Don't fuss, when it is your turn I will give you some."

Eighteen months later, the camp was indeed full of Germans...
Image: American intelligence troops search German Prisoners Of War in the Menil la Tour prison camp.

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More discouraging news from Iraq

Many of my readers are academics or students and naturally have their complaints about their educational institutions. McClatchy's Inside Iraq has a story that may be hard for most of us here to match:

One of the old story that I heard was about the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was when one of his advisers told him that corruption had invaded most of the ministries. The story says that Churchill asked him "how about the ministries of education and justice?'. The adviserr said "they are fine until now". Churchill answered him "then England is fine"

I do not know for sure whether the story is real or no but what I care about is its idea or main point. It gives an idea about the importance of the two ministries.

During my work, I heard different stories about corruption including these two ministries. I heard about judges who released insurgents and criminals and I heard about teachers who gives high marks for money but all I heard were stories without evidences but the story of the Monday was somethings different.

I saw one of the my friends who teaches English language in of the high schools. After few minutes of talking about the main issue that all Iraqis talk about , I mean security situation and life troubles, I asked him about his work and thought to hear some complains because of the lazy students but the story he told me was something completely new for me and killed any hope to have a new good life in this country.

He told me that one of his student is the son of his educational inspector. My friend told me that this student could not pass the exams because he knows nothing about English language. The educational inspector duty is to check whether the teacher is doing his duty correctly and to help him in passing over any problems to improve the level of the students but this one is completely different.

In addition to neglecting his own son, he threatened to send my friend to jail because he did not give the success mark for his son. The educational inspector said "I will send this teacher to jail and if he believes that anyone can help him then he is wrong"

It looks that our problem is so deep because people who are supposed to apply law consider themselves as exceptions.

I know that any building starts from the base and the base of building a new country starts from scholls where the youngs get either the rights principles or the wrong ones. For sure, having people like this inspector would never install the right bases


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The burning planet