In the first two weeks of August there was a great kerfuffle about a BBC educational cartoon which showed a couple in Roman Britain who would be called multiracial in Late Capitalist Britain. Angry essays were typed, tweets flew with the wrath of the Stymphalian Birds, and many people hurried to let the Internet know which faction they aligned with. Neville Morley did a good job of summarizing how most ancient historians think about the problem in his blog post Diversitas et Multicultaralismus (no, a dark-skinned official and his light-skinned wife would not have been unheard of at Bath or Hadrian’s Wall; genetic data is exciting but just one of many kinds of evidence which historians draw upon to understand the past; genes are only loosely connected to identity). The Romans could be horrible snobs and bigots, but most of their stereotypes and slurs were directed at people from other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean … they do not seem to have been very interested in whether people had dark skin and kinky hair. In this post, I would like to talk about one of the methodological questions I have after reading the Wellcome Trust paper from 2015 by Leslie et al. which some people have been citing as evidence that negligible numbers of people from Africa had children in Britain before the 20th century (doi:10.1038/nature14230).
One of the treasures housed in the Castelvecchio of Verona is an extraordinary silver plate. It dates a bit later than the Sasanid silverwork which I have blogged about before, to the age which gave us Maurice’s Strategikon when East Romans, Goths, and Lombards were struggling for control in Italy and destroying what was left of the wealth and learning built up in the centuries when Rome ruled the world.
Inside Urim there is death, outside it there is death. Inside it we are to be finished off by famine. Outside it we are to be finished off by Elamite weapons. In Urim the enemy oppresses us, oh, we are finished.
– The Lament for Sumer and Urim, lines 389-402 (ETCSL 2.2.3)
More than 140 civilians have been killed in less than a week while trying to flee western Mosul, according to military sources [among the besiegers], as the Iraqi army seeks to close in on fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in the armed group’s last stronghold in Iraq.
According to the [besieging] military on Thursday, most of the fatalities were women and children.
– “Mosul battle: At least 142 civilians killed in six days” http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/06/mosul-battle-120-civilians-killed-days-170601113018034.html
Blindfolded, tied up men with dislocated shoulders dangling painfully from ceilings. Teenage boys, hands tied behind their backs screaming for mercy, only for a soldier to execute them in cold blood. Ashen-faced women clutching onto their terrified children after they had just been raped. These are just some of the scenes taking place in Iraq.
Ali Arkady, the Kurdish photojournalist who documented the abuses of Iraqi government troops, said he had originally set out to cover the soldiers’ heroism in the fight against ISIL. But after witnessing their crimes, his conclusion was that these men were “not heroes, but monsters”.
Arkady said he witnessed Iraqi soldiers – not Shia militias – perpetrating a wide array of abuses including abductions, torture, and rape. Not only did Shia soldiers rape one of their Sunni allied tribal fighters, but in one particularly horrifying instance, interior ministry fighters were gloating about raping a particularly beautiful girl. Their comrades, apparently jealous, vowed to pay the already violated and scarred girl a visit themselves.
– “Iraq Deserves Heroes, but Has Only Monsters,” http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/06/iraq-deserves-heroes-monsters-170601083337240.html
But those who were blockaded at Alesia , the day being past, on which they had expected auxiliaries from their countrymen, and all their corn being consumed …, convened an assembly and deliberated on the exigency of their situation. … When different opinions were expressed, they determined that those who, owing to age or ill health, were unserviceable for war, should depart from the town … The Mandubii, who had admitted them into the town, are compelled to go forth with their wives and children. When these came to the Roman fortifications, weeping, they begged of the soldiers by every entreaty to receive them as slaves and relieve them with food. But Caesar, placing guards on the rampart, forbade them to be admitted.
I believe that Richard the Lion Heart responded the same way to this gambit, but my books on medieval history are still in the old country.
Further Reading: Steve Muhlberger, “The Toronto Morality Play”
One of the big problems facing anyone studying ancient economies is that it’s very difficult to tell how much things cost at any given time. Records of market prices are sparse at the best of times and often nonexistent, and even where such records exist, they’re usually exceptional or represent only a single transaction. But sometimes historians get lucky …
– Matthew Riggsby, GURPS Hot Spots: The Silk Road p. 34 http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-hot-spots-the-silk-road
Gamers and novelists often want to know something which historians are not eager to answer: how much did practical things cost in the past? Historians of older periods tend to be very aware of the limits of a source which just says “five pounds of iron nails worth thus-and-such,” and admire the work of specialists in recent times who construct methodical serieses and statistics and turn them into charts with lines and inflection points. But characters in a short story or an adventure game are much more likely to buy a drink or a sword than ten bushels of barley. The writers of roleplaying games almost never have time to do the research, unless the game is set in very recent times and they can mine their collection of old Sears Catalogues and Baedekers. (Also, their customers tend to become just as attached to “a longsword costs 15 gold pieces” as they are to “magic missile always hits,” and in our decadent and decimalized age they sometimes revolt against something as simple as pounds/shillings/pence). So this week, I thought I would honour the release of Matthew Riggsby’s GURPS Hot Spots: The Silk Road with a list of some resources which I have found.
I sew by hand, and I like to use this needle case. It holds pins better than my pincushion, it is easy to pack away and set up wherever I am working, and I like the feel of the stamped leather in my hand. I bought it from someone at a medieval fair 20 years and several lifetimes ago.
Now, if you ask most people how ancient and medieval people stored pins and needles, they will show you metal or bone cylindrical cases with lids, and maybe speculate about leather or wooden versions. As for the pins and needles themselves, they will usually point out clumsy things suitable for making sails or picking a lock. But there is a problem of evidence. They point to these things because they appear in collections of small finds and are reported by metal detectorists. And wee little fishbone or steel needles don’t survive as well as giant bronze ones, and are not as easy to detect and identify. A folding needlecase is just as hard to spot, especially if it is not of vegetable-tanned leather. Hide which is treated in other ways, with drying, oil, fat, or alum, tends to break down in the ground, and in many cultures these other treatments were much more common than tanning with oak or other sources of tannins. A folding needlecase also suits conditions before the 20th century, because it required few materials or tools: just a scrap of leather and felt, which can be made from the ‘cabbage’ left over from cutting larger items, and a needle and thread to put it together. Before the 20th century, preparing the materials for clothing was usually much more expensive than turning them into a specific product.
So how long have people been using these before someone at the fair sat down at their crafts table to earn some pocket money? I have no idea. But I would expect it to be very long indeed, and much longer than I can prove. In studying ancient history, you have to accept that all kinds of things were done which you can’t prove. And I am OK with that.
Further Reading: http://larsdatter.com/sewingkits.htm Carol van Driel-Murray of the Archaeological Leather Group has been one of the leading figures in laying out the evidence that vegetable tanning was not the dominant way of treating hides in the ancient and medieval world.
Sixt Wetzler of the Deutsches Klingenmuseum, Solingen, is organizing a conference which some of my readers might be interested in. It will take place in Germany on 9 and 10 November 2017.
St. Martin Conference is the title of a new series of academic conferences held at Deutsches Klingenmuseum (German Blade Museum) in Solingen, Germany. It will be dedicated to topics from the field of edged weapons: their production and cultural history, the schools and traditions of their use, and their reception in modern culture, among others.
The first St. Martin Conference on 9./10. NOV 2017 will be discussing “Fight Books in Comparative Perspective”. From the famous wrestling scenes of the cemetery site of Beni Hasan in Egypt to self-defense manuals of the globalized martial arts world of the 21st century: The depiction and description of body techniques of combat is a phenomenon that can be witnessed throughout history and worldwide. For several hundred years, such techniques have been laid down by image and/or word in a huge number of fight books from (at least) Europe, India, and East Asia, and were largely, but not exclusively concerned with the use of edged weapons.
The books are among the most significant and informative artifacts of martial arts culture, and their interpretation is an important task for martial arts studies.
The conference wants to open a comparative, multidisciplinary approach towards these artifacts. Scholars from all relevant fields (martial arts studies, literary studies, linguistics, art history, cultural studies, Asian studies, history, sports and movement sciences, among others) are invited to discuss topics that could include:
• Materiality: What can the material properties of a fight book reveal about its intended function and actual use?
• Depiction of technique: What visual strategies are applied to render movement into image?
• Textuality: Which terminologies and forms of text are chosen to convey the techniques to the reader?
• Weaponry: For which weapons are the described techniques intended, and what does that reveal about their audience?
• Martial arts context: What do the books tell us about the martial arts world they are part of?
• Wider historical context: Which role do the fight books play in the society they belong to, and how do they reflect it?
In the last years, questions concerning fight books have mainly been discussed on the basis of medieval and early modern European examples. The conference explicitly wants to widen the scope, both geographically and historically. To this purpose, a minimal working definition of “fight book” shall encompass all kinds of media that try to systematize and/or transmit body techniques
for close quarter combat. Contributions are welcome on all types of relevant source ‘texts’, from the abovementioned Egyptian murals to modern, digital media. They can either focus on a single text (or family of texts), or contrast sources from different times and places with each other. The goal of the two days will be to integrate the presented studies into a common perspective. During the conference, the Klingenmuseum will exhibit its rich collection of fight books, the oldest of which date from the mid-16th century.
The deadline for proposals (a 300 word abstract plus a 100 word biography) is 31 May 2017. For more information see http://www.klingenmuseum.de/assets/files/CfP_Fight_Book_Conference_RZ.pdf
A few half-timbered houses survived the bombing of Nürnberg, and several of them have become museums. The Fembohaus is dedicated to life in Nürnberg from the 15th to the 18th century, and one of its charming decorations is this painting of a fool driving another fool in a barrow.
While I can’t pull the lid off Ninkasi’s vat to announce some projects which are still fermenting, today I would like to remind my gentle readers about two other new publications.
First, I have a short article on Marduk and Tiamat in issue 9 of Ancient History magazine. The focus of that issue is on Athens in the fourth century BCE, but there are also articles on Sicilian and Egyptian topics. If you like Peter Connolly’s The Ancient City you will like this issue. Check it out!
Second, I have obtained permission to release a pre-print of my paper on the mnemonic techniques employed in the writings of Fiore dei Liberi, a fencing master from Friuli who died some time after February 1410 CE. It was scheduled for a conference proceedings which was intended to appear in 2014 but which has been delayed. I hope it has something useful for fencers who want to learn more about medieval studies, and medievalists who want to learn more about physical culture. You can download the PDF from my website. (It is not beautifully formatted, because I made it from a PDF of the proofs which I had to convert to LibreOffice to edit then back to PDF to post; I am sorry, but going through the file and correcting the formatting would be very time consuming, and I can’t afford to take that many hours away from my other writing projects).
The most recent issue of Ancient Warfare magazine (X.6) contains an article on the battle of Chang-Ping in the Warring States period where allegedly several hundred thousand conscripts lost their lives. In western Eurasia, the first reliable evidence that anyone brought a hundred thousand or more combatants to a battle appears around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. (I could talk about what counts as reliable evidence, but suffice it to say that this is an empirical question and that numbers in stories about armies long ago and far away do not count). Occasionally one hears higher figures from India or China. Does any of my gentle readers know if those sizes are based on any real evidence, or just the usual choice between the various numbers given in stories about the battle?
Back in 2014 I began a project to address a problem which I noticed. Amateur students of armour seemed to have trouble finding written sources, and historians specialized in one period sometimes seemed not to notice things which I saw again and again in the world history of armour. For example, my reading in the world history of prices in general, and armour prices specifically, makes me read the statement that Athenian settlers needed to bring arms worth 30 drachmas differently than some other ancient historians do (for a list of sources, see Van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities, p. 52, plus the Salamis Decree from the Acropolis at Athens). From watching the traffic on my blog, I noticed that if you give people a link to sources, many of them will follow it. In my view, making sources available is the single most important thing which historians can do: interpretations change and are a product of our culture, but sources are foreign and reading enough of them makes it hard to have any simple interpretation of history, or believe that people in other cultures and other times think just like we do. But often sources on armour are published in out-of-print books in a handful of libraries, or available in old translations by people who were not especially interested in material culture.
Unfortunately, I have had to put this project aside for two years now, so I think it is time to make sure that my gentle readers know about Armour in Texts.