2020 Decade-Ender, or, the Isidore Option

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a cloudy sky over distant mountains, closer mountains, a small castle in woods, and grassy farmland
The Brenner Pass, Schloss Ambras, and a crossroads downstream from Innsbruck.

So, it is 2020. It has been an odd year in an odd decade. And while I am tempted to just note who was king and the most exciting thing that happened in the heavens, I want to finish this section of my chronicle. The conjunction of Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter in May was exciting but there are other things to write.

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Twelve Early European Fencing Manuals

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reprints of four early European fencing manuals on an ironing board covered with a colourful cotton print

Today anyone who wants to can download photos of almost all the European fencing manuals written before the 20th century, and often buy a convenient reprint or translation. But this makes it difficult to get a sense of the genre as a whole. Which manuals should someone who is just getting interested in the subject read first? How can we decide which texts our readers or listeners are likely to know, so that when we mention them it helps them understand? The last academic monograph on the subject, Sydney Anglo’s The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (2000) is organized by themes so information on any one manual or tradition is scattered across different chapters.

So this week, I would like to give a short list of books which is representative of European fencing manuals before the middle of the 17th century.
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Some Thoughts on “Fuzzy Nation”

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Fuzzy Nation (by John Scalzi: Tor, 2011) is a fun quick read of a novel, and I hope it inspires more people to read H. Beam Piper. The author has the good taste to blog and to focus on what he loves about old science fiction not on proclaiming that he is morally and intellectually superior. But I found one difference between the original from 1962 and this book from 2011 revealing about cultural change in the past 50 years.

The Terro-Human Future History is a world where the United States ceases to exist early in the First Century Atomic Era, and human civilization is rebuilt in Latin America, South Africa, and Australasia. In the 7th century Atomic Era people think of the United States about as often as we think of the Timurids or Srivijaya, and the racial prejudices of the First Century Pre-Atomic have been dissolved by the result of seven centuries of intermarriage amongst the survivors. Piper had a romantic sympathy for the Confederate States of America, but he loved giving characters names like Themistocles M’Zangwe. Fuzzy Nation is set in a world where people go to Oxford and Duke, come from North Carolina, and allude to Andrew Jackson and Star Wars.

Both writers create imaginary cultures which have a few of their own culture’s quirks (Piper’s cocktail hours and tobacco smoking, Scalzi’s environmental impact statements and universal surveillance). But one writer assumed that not just the United States but the whole European great power system would vanish just like other mega-states and power systems have in the past, and the other made sure that the reader knows that in the far future Duke is still a place to go to law school and Oxford is a very prestigious university. I find that, as Mr. Spock would put it, fascinating. One novel tells readers that the customs of their tribe are not the laws of nature, and another promises that there’ll always be Chicago.

Fuzzy Nation is avaialble on Bookfinder (hardcover edition). If you enjoy my work, please support this site.

Cross-Post: FS Geibig Erscheint

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In honour of his retirement from Veste Coburg, a Festschrift for arms-and-armour scholar Alfred Geibig has been published.

Contributions in English and ?German? are by Heiko Berger, Raphael Beuing, Dirk H. Breiding, Heiner Grieb, Heinz Huther, Armin König, Arne J. Koets, Stefan Mäder, Jürg A. Meier, Ingo Petri, Christopher Retsch, Mario Scalini, Tobias Schönauer, Jens Sensfelder, Wilfried Tittmann, Heiko P. Wacker, Roland Warzecha, Herbert H. Westphal, Bob Woosnam-Savage and Joachim Zeune.

Hieb- und stichfest – Waffenkunde und Living History. Festschrift für Alfred Geibig (= Jahrbuch der Coburger Landesstiftung, Bd. 63, 2019), Petersberg 2020, ISBN 978-3-7319-1027-5 (488 Seiten, 29,95 €, erscheint 12/2020)

You can order via email here: sgvcoburg@bsv.bayern.de and read the original German announcement here

What Did the Persians Do For Us?

Younger me would have been ever more excited, his David Macaulay books are coming to life! Repairing the piers of the foot bridge downstream from the Hofgarten on the river Inn, Austria in summer 2019.

The Centre for Ancient Cultures in Innsbruck is a glass and steel building full of carefully catalogued books next to a grain field and a car dealership. A block away on one street is a church, a block away along another is a Chinese buffet. Our building and its neighbourhood embody the heritage of the ancient Near East

Most of the crops and animals which fed and clothed Eurasia until the Columbian Exchange were domesticated in the Near East. Many of the trees in our orchards come from the mountains of central Asia through gardens in Iran. Writing has been independently invented at least four times, but it was Near Eastern Semitic-speakers who turned hieroglyphics into the aleph bet gimmel which became our alphabet. And it was people in the fertile crescent in the first centuries CE who turned Near Eastern texts and customs into the largest single family of religions today, and their descendants who kept the Fertile Crescent a place of great religious diversity until the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

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Another Lovecraftian Revelation c/o Dimitri Nakassis

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I grew up thinking that guff about the ancient Greeks being uniquely rational, creative, free, and so on was as dead as Theosophy. The writers who influenced me as a child, like Peter Connolly or L. Sprague de Camp, either ignored it or mocked it, and none of the teachers and books which influenced me at university took it seriously. But I am watching a talk by Dimitri Nakassis on “Orientalism and the Myceneans” and I am coming to a horrid revelation.

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Incurious Black Magic

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a keep and church atop a hill with cloudy sky in the background

Burg Freundsburg over Schwaz, Tirol.

This fall, I have been thinking about why some communities did not feel right for me. I enjoy learning from different types of experts, from craft workers to retired thugs to academics, but the kind of journalists who write opinion pieces and columns always gave me a bad feeling. I have trouble talking about feelings, but I think I can articulate two reasons why I feel this way.

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Some Comments on Turner on Old World Iron

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an outline map of Eurasia with coloured dates marked on it, all multiples of +100 or -100 except for the year 1

Map 1 from Turner 2020. “First acceleration in the use of iron across Afro-Eurasia … When iron becomes a material used for multiple object types … iron is used on a much greater scale 100 years after the proposed date and on a much smaller scale 100 years before the proposed date.”

Someone associated with the SESHAT project has taken Andre Costopoulos’ suggestion to focus on things which leave good archaeological evidence like metallurgy. They wrote a study of the spread and improvement of iron technology across the Old World. That is a topic that I am an expert on, so how does the paper hold up?

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My First Book is Out

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the cover of "Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire: Past Approaches, Future Prospects" (Franz Steiner, 2021)

Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire: Past Approaches, Future Prospects. Oriens et Occidens Band 32 (Franz Steiner Verlag: Stuttgart, 2021) 437 pp., 8 b/w ill., 4 b/w tables. ISBN 978-3-515-12775-2 EUR 74,– (softcover) (publisher’s website)

My first book is coming out from Franz Steiner Verlag this month. Its the first book on Achaemenid armies since 1992, and the first written by someone who can read any ancient Near Eastern language. I show that most of what we think we know about Achaemenid armies and warfare goes back to classical writers and to 19th and 20th century stereotypes about the east. So many books sound the same because they are repeating the ideas of early authorities in new language. By focusing on indigenous, contemporary sources and placing the Achaemenids in their Near Eastern context- the standard methods in Roman Army Studies and Achaemenid Studies since the 1980s- we can tell a different story.

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Remembrance Day 2020

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a view from a hilltop across treed suburbs in cloudy weather

Mt. Douglas as seen from Mt. Tolmie, November 2020

Today is Remembrance Day. I am not as mobile as I would be in an ordinary November, and neither of the ways people often talk about Remembrance Day feels right to me. Some people turn it into a festival of peace and forget the third verse of John McCrae’s poem, others (mostly in other countries) a festival of aggressive nationalism. But I am in Canada, and today I will remember something.

Once about 35 years ago, a boy was born in Canada to Canadian citizens. As a child, he was brought across the sea to a hard place to stay with some of his parents’ friends who were not very nice people. And then fire fell and killed his parents and their friends and faceless soldiers came and a grenade blasted. He was fifteen.

Those soldiers took him to a place beyond the law and kept him there for questioning. And while they did not have any basis for this and a wounded child did not have much to tell them, his parents and their friends were dead or escaped, and they wanted someone to punish. So they paid witnesses their thirty pieces of silver, and invented a new charge that had never before existed in law, and announced that he was some kind of enemy combatant or terrorist who had laid mines and thrown a grenade. Sometimes, people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time and get used as props in a political stage play.

And to their shame, four Canadian prime ministers from two different parties went along with this, just as they sent Canadians to fight and kill and die alongside those faceless soldiers. For many years he was in that place beyond the law in front of a kangaroo court, although he was a Canadian citizen born in Canada and an alleged child soldier. And so as people before kangaroo courts do, he eventually confessed and was sent to Canada, and Canada is not beyond the law so a little while later he was free. And one of those Canadian governments kept fighting him in court, until the government’s lawyers went into a conference room with their bosses and shut the doors and the bosses walked out sweating and announced a ten million dollar settlement. The last I heard he was studying nursing.

Some people with different passports were even unluckier: the same people who ran the kangaroo courts and the hiring of witnesses and place beyond the law had an organized program to murder or kidnap and torture people who got in their way. As I write this, some of those tape-shredders and book-burners are in offices with title and pension and the power of life and death. On the 21st of January 2021, some of them will be carrying their effects out the door in a cardboard box. And that is not justice, but it is a start.

I do not know how many people remember Omar Khadr. But I remember.