Hindu Nationalism

Another misuse of history. From Reuters (courtesy Stephen Bartlett). Choice excerpts:

By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists aim to assert their dominance over India

By RUPAM JAIN and TOM LASSETERFiled March 6, 2018, 11 a.m. GMT

NEW DELHI – During the first week of January last year, a group of Indian scholars gathered in a white bungalow on a leafy boulevard in central New Delhi. The focus of their discussion: how to rewrite the history of the nation.

The government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi had quietly appointed the committee of scholars about six months earlier. Details of its existence are reported here for the first time.

Minutes of the meeting, reviewed by Reuters, and interviews with committee members set out its aims: to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth.

Interviews with members of the 14-person committee and ministers in Modi’s government suggest the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in this nation of 1.3 billion people – a kaleidoscope of religions. They want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus.

In doing so, they are challenging a more multicultural narrative that has dominated since the time of British rule, that modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions. That view is rooted in demographic fact. While the majority of Indians are Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths account for some 240 million, or a fifth, of the populace…

According to the minutes of the history committee’s first meeting, Dikshit, the chairman, said it was “essential to establish a correlation” between ancient Hindu scriptures and evidence that Indian civilization stretches back many thousands of years. Doing so would help bolster both conclusions the committee wants to reach: that events described in Hindu texts are real, and today’s Hindus are descendants of those times.

The minutes and interviews with committee members lay out a comprehensive campaign to achieve this, including the dating of archaeological sites and DNA testing of human remains.

Culture Minister Sharma told Reuters he wants to establish that Hindu scriptures are factual accounts. Speaking of the Ramayana, the epic that follows the journey of a Hindu deity in human form, Sharma said: “I worship Ramayana and I think it is a historical document. People who think it is fiction are absolutely wrong.” The epic tells how the god Rama rescues his wife from a demon king. It still informs many Indians’ sense of gender roles and duty.

Sharma said it was a priority to prove through archaeological research the existence of a mystical river, the Saraswati, that is mentioned in another ancient scripture, the Vedas. Other projects include examining artifacts from locations in scriptures, mapping the dates of astrological events mentioned in these texts and excavating the sites of battles in another epic, the Mahabharata, according to Sharma and minutes of the committee’s meeting.

In much the same way that some Christians point to evidence of an ancient flood substantiating the Biblical tale of Noah and his ark, if the settings and features of the ancient scriptures in India can be verified, the thinking goes, then the stories are true. “If the Koran and Bible are considered as part of history, then what is the problem in accepting our Hindu religious texts as the history of India?” said Sharma.

Modi did not order the committee’s creation – it was instigated by Sharma, government documents show – but its mission is in keeping with his outlook. During the 2014 inauguration of a hospital in Mumbai, Modi pointed to the scientific achievements documented by ancient religious texts and spoke of Ganesha, a Hindu deity with an elephant’s head: “We worship Lord Ganesha, and maybe there was a plastic surgeon at that time who kept the head of an elephant on the torso of a human. There are many areas where our ancestors made large contributions.” Modi did not respond to a request from Reuters that he expand on this remark.

This is nuts! I repeat my query: Is it not possible to value your country, and the truth, at the same time? Bartlett told me of another forum of this dispute, in which Hindu nationalists triumphantly claimed that a study of mitochondrial DNA proved that “the Aryan invasions never happened!” Unfortunately for them, this conclusion was overturned pretty quickly, since mDNA is passed down from mothers – but not by Y chromosome DNA, which marks for maleness. A study of that suggests, indeed, that (male) warriors arrived and procreated with local women.

My Hanson and Curtis world history text has an inset box dealing with a similar issue (page 69):

Whose History of Hinduism is Correct?

Historians of religion often have a different understanding of a given religions tradition than do its adherents. Studying documents and art objects from specific periods, historians see all religions as changing over time, and they often have evidence revealing that different groups – the illiterate and literate, men and women, rich and poor – understand the teaching of a religion in divergent ways. In contrast, believers sometimes maintain that since their own understanding of a religions tradition has been true since the founding of the religion, it is the only correct view. Pluralists see Hinduism as an evolving, changing set of beliefs, while the centralists lean toward the view that the Vedas have always been the primary texts of Hinduism, which they believe existed since time immemorial.

These two views have collided head-on in India. In 2010, Penguin Press published a book entitled The Hindus: An Alternative History, by a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, Wendy Doniger. The book offers a pluralist perspective, presenting materials in languages other than Sanskrit, the language of India’s high tradition, to highlight the experiences of women and untouchables. Because Hindus debate certain core beliefs of Hinduism, such as vegetarianism, nonviolence, and the caste system, Doniger argues that there is no single, correct teaching, or orthodoxy.

In 2011 a small Hindu group, called Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Movement), led by a retired school principal, filed a civil claim against Penguin in Indian courts. “The book is in bad taste right from the beginning,” the principal told BBC. “If you see the front page, the picture there is also objectionable since it portrays a deity in vulgar pose.” The book cover features a painting of the blue-skinned deity Krishna riding on a horse made up of multiple bare breasted women.

Choosing to settle out of court, in February 2013, Penguin India recalled all remaining copies of the book and promised to destroy them….


Sigh… I wish publishers would not be so willing to succumb to the heckler’s veto (cf. Yale UP’s decision to publish a book about the Danish Mohammad cartoons, without actually publishing the cartoons).

Medieval Academy

Device of the 93rd annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America (2018), at Emory University.

The springtime meeting of the Georgia Medievalists’ Group was folded into something much grander: the 2018 annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, held this past weekend at Emory University (specifically, the Emory Conference Center Hotel – what you can do with Coke money!). This one was my third, after Minneapolis (2003) and Phoenix (2011). Phoenix, as I remember, was controversial – Arizona had recently passed an anti-illegal-immigrant law, and there was tremendous pressure on the Academy not to hold the meeting there. They went ahead with it anyway, largely for financial reasons, although they changed the theme, especially welcoming presentations dealing with medieval immigration and xenophobia. (My paper, on the Flemish weaving community of fourteenth-century London, which was decimated during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, fit with this theme very nicely.)

This conference was not quite as controversial, although it threatened to be. Unbeknownst to most people, there has been some conflict in the medievalist world of late, with some people claiming that the entire field is inherently racist, and others objecting to this identification. This conflict has taken place largely over the Internet, with all the hyperbolic self-righteousness that such interaction usually entails. To address the issue, the conference organizers arranged for a plenary session of Medievalists of Color, whose presentations were actually pretty good and did not descend to the level of an Internet comment thread, despite occasional references to “white fragility”* or the notion that “research is violence.” They also avoided calling out their opponents by name, which was a nice gesture. (As much as I would love to see a revival of medieval-style academic debate, the topic here is so sensitive that the bad consequences would surely outweigh the good, if people who don’t believe that the field of Medieval Studies needs “decolonizing” were to be given equal time.)

As ever, it was good to see old friends and to make new ones, and most of the papers were pretty good. My favorite presentation was the final plenary, by Michael McCormick, of the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard. Apparently researchers at SoHP can now deduce the atmospheric content of the past from the ice cores of Greenland or Antarctica without even melting them, and with a much finer granularity than previously (gleaning two million data points for a period twenty thousand years, for example). Thus have they determined that human metallurgy has been putting pollutants into the air for a very long time; it’s not just a function of the Industrial Revolution. Even more interesting is a partnership between the SoHP and the Max Planck Institute in Germany called Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean, which aims to reconstruct the human settlement patterns around the Mediterranean going back to the late Bronze Age. I was amazed to learn that teeth contain evidence of one’s diet up to age twelve or so. Pulp in the molars of corpses contains evidence of disease-causing bacteria; what researchers are now able to determine is how the DNA of a disease mutated over time (specifically, the Yersinia pestis bacteria of the plagues of Justinian in AD 541-42), which allows them to plot exactly where it appeared and when, and thus to reconstruct ancient trade routes. Fascinating stuff!

Other highlights of the conference included the facsimile of the Bayeux Tapestry, on loan from the University of North Georgia (with many copies of the pamphlet explaining it, by yours truly). The conference program was the most edifying I’ve ever seen: in addition to maps, the schedule, and the list of participants, it also featured short articles on the founding of Emory, Emory’s campus architecture, noted medievalists Kemp Malone, Stephen White, Thomas Lyman, and George Cuttino, the Candler School of Theology, the Pitts Theology Library, the Carlos and High Museums, and other things of local or medieval interest. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out the excellent heraldry of this conference! The Medieval Academy’s coat of arms is a wonderful thing, featuring a splendid rose-en-soleil. 

The Academy’s journal is Speculum, and its device features a hand holding a mirror – a punning coat of arms, since speculum is mirror in Latin (it has a different meaning now, of course).

Both of these coats of arms, I understand, were designed by Pierre de Chaignon la Rose, who also came up with Harvard’s heraldic system in the 1930s.

Emory University itself uses a fine, simple coat of arms, featuring a crossed trumpet and torch. It is based on the university seal, which dates from 1915.

* Thesis: anyone who interprets opinions he disagrees with as “violence against bodies of color” does not get to talk about white fragility.

Whitesboro, N.Y.

A followup to a post from 2015: the village of Whitesboro, N.Y., has modified its seal as of this past summer. The seal still illustrates the wrestling match between Hugh White and an Oneida chieftain, although it now shows the two as evenly matched; it does not show White actually winning. The landscape is also more interesting, and the clothing more historically accurate.


A Christmas Post

Interesting article on Intellectual Takeout:

The Myth of the Pagan Origins of Christmas

It’s generally accepted that early Christians adopted December 25th as the day of Christ’s birth to co-opt the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Some believe this fact undermines Christianity.

But according to Professor William Tighe, this “fact” may actually be a myth.

Based on his extensive research, Tighe argues that the December 25th date “arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.” He also goes so far as to claim that the December 25th pagan feast of the “’Birth of the Unconquered Sun’… was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance of Roman Christians.”

In the Jewish tradition at the time of Christ, Tighe explains, there was a belief in what they called the “integral age”—that the prophets had died on the same days of their conception or birth. Early Christians spent much energy on determining the exact date of Christ’s death. Using historical sources, Christians in the first or second century settled on March 25th as the date of his crucifixion. Soon after, March 25th became the accepted date of Christ’s conception, as well.

Add nine months—the standard term of a pregnancy—to March 25th, and Christians came up with December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth.

It is unknown exactly when Christians began formally celebrating December 25th as a feast. What is known, however, is that the date of December 25th “had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time (Roman emperor from 270-275), nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.” According to Tighe, Aurelian intended the new feast “to be a symbol of the hoped-for ‘rebirth,’ or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire…. [and] if it co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.”

As Tighe points out, the now-popular idea that Christians co-opted the pagan feast originates with Paul Ernst Jablonski (1693-1757), who opposed various supposed “paganizations” of Christianity.

I have never heard of the notion of “integral age,” and it seems a dollop of fudge to claim that it was conceptually important for someone to die on the “same day as his conception or birth.” Well, which is it? Moreover, I have never heard of the observance of the Crucifixion being fixed on March 25, or on any other date for that matter – Jesus was executed at Passover, which is a movable feast against the solar calendar. In observance of this, the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection has always been movable as well. Wikipedia on the Computus

Easter is the most important Christian feast, and the proper date of its celebration has been the subject of controversyas early as the meeting of Anicetus and Polycarp around 154. According to Eusebius’ Church History, quoting Polycrates of Ephesus, churches in the Roman Province of Asia “always observed the day when the people put away the leaven“, namely Passover, the 14th of the lunar month of Nisan. The rest of the Christian world at that time, according to Eusebius, held to “the view which still prevails,” of fixing Easter on Sunday. Eusebius does not say how the Sunday was decided. Other documents from the 3rd and 4th centuries reveal that the customary practice was for Christians to consult their Jewish neighbors to determine when the week of Passover would fall, and to set Easter on the Sunday that fell within that week.

At some point it became important for Christians to ensure that the celebration of Easter did not coincide with Passover – and anyone who calculated it differently, like the Irish, was committing a grievous error. But note that in either case Easter was still movable. March 25 is the feast of the Annunciation, certainly, but only in relation to December 25, the (non-movable) feast of Christ’s birth.

So I can’t say that I’m convinced. Tighe’s instincts might be correct – people have accused Christianity of being a mélange of paganism ever since the Reformation, but this question is not something you can give a blanket judgment about; you have to examine Christian beliefs and practices on a case-by-case basis, and provide real evidence for pagan influence, and not simply “parallels.” But sometimes paganism really has influenced Christianity, if only through competition, and I would say that that still seems to be the case here. 

Lachlan Macquarie

From the antipodean ABC, courtesy my friend Lachlan Mead, an article assessing the George Washington of Australia:

Fact check: Was Lachlan Macquarie a mass murderer who ordered the genocide of Indigenous people?

The claim

Lachlan Macquarie, governor of NSW from 1810 to 1821, is often remembered by history as a man of the enlightenment who brought civilisation to the colony.

Indeed, the plaque attached to his monument in Sydney’s Hyde Park reads: “He was a perfect gentleman, a Christian and supreme legislator of the human heart.”

But late last month Bronwyn Carlson, head of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, challenged this during an ABC RN Breakfast interview.

Asked if she would be satisfied with a different or additional plaque, Professor Carlson said: “Would people be satisfied to say this: ‘Here stands a mass murderer who ordered the genocide of Indigenous people’?”

Is this characterisation of Macquarie accurate? Did Macquarie commit mass murder? Did he order genocide? RMIT ABC Fact Check delves into a fraught and controversial part of our history.

The verdict

The issue is not cut and dried.

In April 1816, Macquarie ordered soldiers under his command to kill or capture any Aboriginal people they encountered during a military operation aimed at creating a sense of “terror”.

At least 14 men, women and children were brutally killed, some shot, others driven over a cliff.

Although Macquarie’s orders included an instruction to punish the guilty with as little injury to the innocent as possible, archival evidence shows he knew innocent people could be killed.

In addition, Macquarie explicitly instructed his soldiers to offer those Aboriginal groups encountered an opportunity to surrender, and to open fire only after meeting “resistance”.

These instructions appear to have been ignored. Historical records suggest the soldiers offered no opportunity to surrender, opening fire on a group of people ambushed at night and who were fleeing in terror.

Macquarie appears to have glossed over this failure in the weeks following the massacre, telling his superior back in England that his men acted “perfectly in Conformity to the instructions I had furnished them”, and claiming the soldiers had indeed encountered resistance before opening fire.

Macquarie was ultimately responsible for his men. By today’s standards, his actions — and lack of action in not bringing soldiers who disobeyed his instructions to account — would, as a minimum, likely be regarded as a war crime involving a disproportionate response that led to a significant loss of life.

And, depending on the definition, the incident might also be described as “mass murder”, perhaps akin to recent military massacres in which innocent civilians attempting to flee were killed.

The issue of whether or not the actions amount to genocide is a complex one. A legal definition of genocide did not exist until after World War II. It is questionable whether this can be applied retrospectively to Macquarie’s actions, which took place some 130 years before the UN General Assembly made genocide a crime under international law.

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Macquarie set about deliberately to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, as per the UN definition, however misguided and destructive some of his Indigenous policies might have been. It is, therefore, problematic to suggest that Macquarie, as an individual, was guilty of ordering genocide.

However, it can be argued that the impact of the wider conflict between Aboriginal people and Europeans (whether soldiers or vigilante settlers), combined with a range of other factors — the loss of land and food sources, the spread of disease, the removal of children, and alcohol abuse, for example — contributed to the large-scale loss of life and culture that resembled genocide.

Experts contacted by Fact Check acknowledged the nuance in the arguments, but differed in their interpretations of Macquarie’s actions and his culpability or otherwise.

Read the whole thing.

The Symbolic Middle Ages

According to Dorothy Kim, assistant professor of English at Vassar:

Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students… What are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms? Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. So, are you going to be apathetic weapons dealers not caring how your material and tools will be used? Do you care who your buyers are in the classroom? Choose a side.

You really have no excuse to address whether your medieval studies is a white supremacist medieval studies or not. You also do not have a choice in whether you are part of this debate because the debate is already prevalent and public. Our students are watching and will make judgements and calls on what side you are really on. I suggest overt signaling of how you are not a white supremacist and how your medieval studies is one that does not uphold white supremacy. Neutrality is not optional.

OK, I’ll choose a side, and that side is a firm stand against this sort of twaddle. I really hate moral bullying – “If it’s important to me, then it needs to be important to you! You’re not allowed not to care – if you deny the problem, you’re part of the problem!”

But maybe the only “problem” is your own warped perception of reality?

Apparently the “alt-right,” whatever that is, takes inspiration from the Middle Ages (and from the Classics too). They like the idea of Crusaders cracking Muslim skulls, and they also like to contemplate a Europe before the advent of mass non-European and non-Christian immigration. But how many people are we actually talking about here? And how big of a problem is this, really? People can idealize any era of history that they want, for whatever reason they want. We always feel sad when other people don’t share our enthusiasm for our subject – well, here are people who love the Middle Ages! How about harnessing that enthusiasm and nudging it towards the academic consensus – on the off chance that one of these types should actually appear in our classrooms? It’s really no different from how one treats students who idealize ancient Egypt, Native Americans, the Caliphate, matriarchal prehistory, or pseudo-history of the Da Vinci Code variety. You accept the students where they are, and gently explain that their vision of the past might not be entirely accurate – and you make sure to explain that whatever happened in the past doesn’t necessarily make for good policy today.

I really don’t believe that “the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists.” I think that most ordinary Americans are fully capable of distinguishing between professors of medieval studies and young men dressing up as Knights Templar. It would not occur to them to think that we are endorsing the Charlottesville rally, any more than we are endorsing Knight Transportation or King Arthur Flour (or, for that matter, that the classics department is endorsing the Atlanta Gladiators or the American Legion). To suggest that they can’t is condescending and rude, and more than a little self-dramatizing. In fact, I would say that Prof. Kim’s post is an example of Joseph Epstein‘s observation that much in current academic life is “either boring or crazy,” and for whom publishing an article about it was like “opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at play, as if to say, ‘Betcha didn’t think their behinds were quite so purple as that.'” Most people roll their eyes at the sheer craziness of much academic dispute, and shed no tears when politicians cut our funding.

So let me turn Prof. Kim’s invitation on its head: what have you done, medievalist, to combat this craziness? What have you done to prove to Middle America that your discipline and profession deserve to be taken seriously?

Babylonian Trig

Evelyn Lamb in Scientific American:

Don’t Fall for Babylonian Trigonometry Hype

Separating fact from speculation in math history

You may have seen headlines about an ancient Mesopotamian tablet. “Mathematical secrets of ancient tablet unlocked after nearly a century of study,” said the Guardian. “This mysterious ancient tablet could teach us a thing or two about math,” said Popular Science, adding, “Some researchers say the Babylonians invented trigonometry—and did it better.” National Geographic was a bit more circumspect: “A new study claims the tablet could be one of the oldest contributions to the study of trigonometry, but some remain skeptical.” Daniel Mansfield and Norman Wildberger certainly did a good job selling their new paper in the generally more staid journal Historia Mathematica. I’d like to help separate fact from speculation and outright nonsense when it comes to this new paper.

What is Plimpton 322?

Plimpton 322, the tablet in question, is certainly an alluring artifact. It’s a broken piece of clay roughly the size of a postcard. It was filled with four columns of cuneiform numbers around 1800 BCE, probably in the ancient city of Larsa (now in Iraq) and was removed in the 1920s. George Plimpton bought it in 1922 and bequeathed it to Columbia University, which has owned it since 1936. Since then, many scholars have studied Plimpton 322, so any picture you might have of Mansfield and Wildberger on their hands and knees in a hot, dusty archaeological site, or even rummaging through musty, neglected archives and unearthing this treasure is inaccurate. We’ve known about the artifact and what was on it for decades. The researchers claim to have a new interpretation of how the artifact was used, but I am skeptical.

Scholars have known since the 1940s that Plimpton 322 contains numbers involved in Pythagorean triples, that is, integer solutions to the equation a2+b2=c2. For example, 3-4-5 is a Pythagorean triple because 32+42=9+16=25=52. August 15 of this year was celebrated by some as “Pythagorean Triple Day” because 8-15-17 is another, slightly sexier, such triple.

The far right column consists of the numbers 1 through 15, so it’s just an enumeration. The two middle columns of Plimpton 322 contain one side and the hypotenuse of a Pythagorean triangle, or a and c in the equation a2+b2=c2. (Note that a and b are interchangeable.) But these are a little brawnier than the Pythagorean triples you learn in school. The first entries are 119 and 169, corresponding to the Pythagorean triple 1192+1202=1692. The far left column is a ratio of squares of the sides of the triangles. Exactly which sides depends slightly on what is contained in the missing shard from the left side of the artifact, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. It’s either the square of the hypotenuse divided by the square of the remaining leg or the square of one leg divided by the square of the other leg. In modern mathematical jargon, these are squares of either the tangent or the secant of an angle in the triangle.

We can interpret one of the columns as containing trigonometric functions, so in some sense, it is a trig table. But despite what the headlines would have you believe, people have known that for decades. The mystery is what purpose the tablet served in its time. Why was it created? Why were those particular triangles included in the table? How were the columns computed? In a 1980 paper titled “Sherlock Holmes in Babylon,” R. Creighton Buck implied that through mathematics and cunning observation, one could sleuth out the meaning of the tablet and offered an explanation he thought fit the data. But Eleanor Robson, in “Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Babylon,” writes, “Ancient mathematical texts and artefacts, if we are to understand them fully, must be viewed in the light of their mathematico-historical context, and not treated as artificial, self-contained creations in the style of detective stories.” It’s arrogant and will probably lead to incorrect conclusions to look at ancient artifacts primarily through the lens of our modern understanding of mathematics.

What did it do?

There are a few theories about how Plimpton 322 was created and used by the person or people who made it. Mansfield and Wildberger are not the first to believe it’s some sort of trig table. On the other hand, some believe it links the Pythagorean theorem (known by these ancient Mesopotamians and many other civilizations long before Pythagoras) with the method of completing the square to solve a quadratic equation, a common problem in mathematical texts from that time and place. Some believe the triples were generated using different numbers not included in the table in a “number theoretic” way. Some believe the numbers came from so-called reciprocal pairs that were used for multiplication. Some think the tablet was a pedagogical tool, perhaps a source of exercises for students. Some believe it was used in something more like original mathematical research. Academic but readable information about these interpretations can be found in articles by Buck in 1980, Robson in 2001 and 2002, and John P. Britton, Christine Proust, and Steve Shnider from 2011.

If it is a trigonometry table, is it better than modern trigonometry tables?

Mansfield and Wildberger’s contribution to scholarship on Plimpton 322 seems to be speculation that the artifact could be used to do trigonometry in a more exact way than we do now. In a publicity video by UNSW that must have accompanied the press releases sent to many math and science journalists (but not to me—what gives, UNSW?), Mansfield makes the claims that this table is “superior in some ways to modern trigonometry” and the “only completely accurate trigonometry table.”

It’s hard to know where to start with this part of their claims. For one, the tablet contains some well-known errors, so claims that it is the most accurate or exact trig table ever are just not true. But even a corrected version of Plimpton 322 would not be a revolutionary replacement for modern trig tables….

Is base 60 better than base 10?

Perhaps the utility of different types of trig tables is a matter of opinion, but the UNSW video also has some outright falsehoods about accuracy in base 60 versus the base 10 system we now use. Around the 1:10 mark, Mansfield says, “We count in base 10, which only has two exact fractions: 1/2, which is 0.5, and 1/5.” My first objection is that any fraction is exact. The number 1/3 is precisely 1/3. Mansfield makes it clear that what he means by 1/3 not being an exact fraction is that it has an infinite (0.333…) rather than a terminating decimal. But what about 1/4? That’s 0.25, which terminates, and yet Mansfield doesn’t consider it an exact fraction. And what about 1/10 or 2/5? Those can be written 0.1 and 0.4, which seem pretty exact.

Indefensibly, when he lauds the many “exact fractions” available in base 60, he doesn’t apply the same standards. In base 60, 1/8 would be written 7/60+30/3600 which is the same idea as writing 0.25, or 2/10+5/100, for 1/4 in base 10. Why is 1/8 exact in base 60 but 1/4 not exact in base 10? It’s hard to believe this is an honest mistake coming from a mathematician and instead makes me even more suspicious that his work is motivated by an agenda.

Plimpton 322 is a remarkable artifact, and we have much to learn from it. When I taught math history, I loved opening the semester by having my students read a few papers about it to show how much scholarship has gone into understanding such a small document and how accomplished scholars can disagree about what it means. It demonstrates differences in the way different cultures have done mathematics and outstanding computational facility. It has raised questions about how ancient Mesopotamians approached calculation and geometry. But using it to sell a questionable pet theory won’t get us any closer to the answers.

Medievalism and the Alt-Right

From a Facebook friend:

Apparently, I’m the only academic historian who isn’t terrified of the “alt-right.” Every medieval studies thing seems to be consumed with a wave of fear… fear that somewhere in a basement somewhere, a white supremacist Trump-loving gun-toter is blogging about how great the early Middle Ages were.

And, as a result, witch-hunts and general tomfoolery have broken out among the “woke” medievalists. “Why does the Alt-Right love our period so much?” they cry. Why is there so much hatred out there?

I’ll ignore the second question for now (I don’t want to argue ad hominem), and not to be flip, but I think the question is being asked wrongly. It isn’t why do “they” love the Middle Ages, but why do “we” notice it and worry?

Many, many, many parts of the past are attractive to various agenda-driven nuts, not just the Middle Ages and not just the “alt-right.” Take a look at the historiography of the Israel/Palestine conflict and what that does; both sides have many “activists” working to erase the other group’s past (and to a vicious level). Look at various Celtic Studies, Irish or Scottish history, nineteenth century American history, almost any historical narrative of much of the past in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Aegean, South Asia, Korea, and on and on. Far right (often actual fascists) make sure that sources like Wikipedia are useless for topics like the early history of India, anything to do with Kurds or Armenians, and so on.

On the medieval world, yes some members of the alt-right fetishize certain aspects of the period, e.g. the Crusades or the Vikings or the myth of the Norman yoke, all of which are regular features of west European self-conceptions and all of which are hardly new inventions. Need we point out that there’s a straight line back to Walter Scott & Co. that connects Crusaders and Klansmen?

Or should we point out that those same now labelled “alt-right” fantasies have had pretty solid backing? Why is Louis IX the saintly king of France? What, after all, did the French military first do upon entry into Damascus? Crusades fantasies play into twentieth and twenty-first century European dealings with Muslims.

And in Muslim views of Europeans. Arab nationalists hold up the counter-crusade, and many of the more violent Islamist groups are heavily medievalist-driven to an extent almost no one else is. (There’s a self-proclaimed Almoravid army in North Africa, ISIS models itself – down to reinstating slavery! – on a close reading of seventh century texts, Salafis dress as though it were 632, and so on.)

One could go on; how many discussions of politics and conflicts are full of World War II mythohistory? How many US discussions are about a mythic eighteenth century?

Looking to the past for better models is, inherently, a conservative move. “The past was better” is basically conservatism in brief. So, of course conservatives are interested in history. And, with the breakdown of authoritative knowledge via the Internet (and some fashionable intellectual trends), those who are loudest get noticed – and they don’t need to be correct.

Where I teach, I know that I will run into people who are part of what has been termed the “ankh right” and there will be hoteps in my classroom in a few weeks when we cover ancient Egypt. I will aim to get them into thinking about ancient Egypt on its own terms and not through modern nationalist fantasies but the way to do that is not by saying “oh they are terrible and liars.” (Unfortunately, for me, because I actually engage in non-aggressive pedagogy with said hoteps, I was labelled in a job interview as too black for a well-known US school by a classicist!)

The past is the past. Looking to it for comforting myths (of any sort, left , right, north, south, white, black, whatever) is never going to do anything but create fiction. Getting upset about one group’s unwholesome influence makes me wonder: How is it possible you just noticed this?


Quite a bit of this is about “they were selling a symbol of Odinism at Leeds and that is sometimes used by far-right groups or individuals” (or Celtic crosses or terms like Anglo-Saxon and so on and so forth) “so any use of those is by definition tainted” and similar lines on other things.

The logic (and the panic) could have been scripted by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer (and so on) if one were to substitute “shahadeh banner” for Thor’s hammer or anything else. Now, there are real world (as opposed to online only) far right Islamist activists; they actually control actual territory and they actually kill actual human beings, and they base their actions on their interpretations of early medieval texts (many of their leaders actually have advanced degrees in early medieval studies) but we have a word for people who would ban all symbols and activities and studies that those folks are involved in.

In other words, I bet a lot of the people in the panic over evil Odinists would probably be up in arms over an attempt to ban sales of items that have symbols used by ISIS – and rightly so – even if one is threat is much more real.

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

From the Washington Examiner:

Stephen Miller is right: Lazarus’ immigration poem is not US law.

There’s been some argument over who came out ahead in the picturesque set-to between White House staffer Stephen Miller and CNN reporter Jim Acosta over the White House support of the immigration bill sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue. On one point at least it seems to me that Miller had the best of it when he charged that Acosta was being “ahistorical.”

Acosta kept reading and reciting the Emma Lazarus poem written before the Statue of Liberty was erected in 1886 but not inscribed at its base until 1903: “Give us your tired, your poor,” etc. His plain implication was that the United States had an open immigration policy back in the years before World War I.

That implication is flatly false. The early republic did not have a federal immigration policy, but as immigration started rising well after the end of the 1792-1815 world war between Britain and France, the state governments did inspect immigrants alighting from sailing and then steam ships, with a view to excluding those with communicable diseases or unable to support themselves economically and thus likely to become “a public charge.” For more information on this, see Vincent Cannato’s 2010 book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.

In the 1880s the federal government took over the task of screening immigrants, building the Ellis Island inspection station which opened in 1892 within easy sight of the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island processed millions between 1892 and 1914, when the outbreak of World War I pretty much cut off overseas immigration, and again from 1919 to 1924, when a sharply restrictive immigration act was passed, barring virtually all immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

The Ellis Island regime was not, however, the kind of open immigration system Jim Acosta and an increasing number of liberals and Democrats seem to favor. For one thing, the most tired and poor seldom made it to the United States, because they lacked the money or the heartiness to afford or weather even steerage passage on a trans-Atlantic steamship. More importantly, the government excluded those deemed (at their Ellis Island inspection or elsewhere) suffering from communicable diseases, those deemed to be insane or “loathsome” and those “likely to become a public charge.” (Here’s a sample of exclusions for such reasons.)

More at the link. See also:

Jim Acosta, Racist Apologist for White Privilege

White House adviser Stephen Miller made short work of CNN’s Jim Acosta at yesterday’s White House press briefing on immigration. Acosta enjoined, “It sounds like you’re trying to engineer the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country through this policy,” by giving preference to English speakers. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s 1.2 billion English speakers are African or Asian.

Acosta claimed that preferential treatment for English-speaking applicants would benefit people from Great Britain and Australia. Scathingly, Miller replied:

“I am shocked at your statement, that you think only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree. This is an amazing moment. That you think only people from Great Britain or Australia would speak English is so insulting to millions of hard-working immigrants who do speak English from all over the world. Jim, have you honestly never met an immigrant from another country who speaks English, outside of Great Britain and Australia? Is that your personal experience?”

There are about 1.2 billion English speakers in the world, including 125 million Indians, 90 million Filipinos, 79 million Nigerians, 30 million Bengalis, 28 million Egyptians and 15 million Pakistanis, according to Wikipedia. More than half of all English-speakers are non-European. Barely a tenth of English speakers outside the United States live in Britain, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Acosta’s gaffe was epically ignorant and racist in the extreme.

Acosta repeatedly interrupted Miller, chanting “Give me your tired, your poor…,” a line from Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet The New Colossus which is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. If anything, Miller handled the CNN journalist too gently. He might have said: “America had no restrictions to immigration in 1883, and millions of white European immigrants poured into the American heartland. To accommodate them we drove out the Native Americans. By 1890 there were only 250,000 Native Americans left in the United States, compared to 2 million or more before European settlers arrived. In other words, we gave privileges to white people and killed or displaced people of color. You can argue the merits of this policy, but we don’t want to return to a situation in which immigration occurs at the expense of people who were here first.”

The Academic Life

I used to subscribe to the American Scholar, a quarterly literary magazine sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, edited between 1974 and 1998 by the witty and literate Joseph Epstein, who always contributed an essay under the pseudonym “Aristides.” His last one, “I’m History,” was particularly good; two quotations that stayed with me over the years:

The truth was, I found much in current academic life either boring or crazy, and I didn’t want to devote much space to things in which I could not take any serious interest. I tended to view the occasional article that we ran on these strictly academic subjects as, in effect, opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at play, as if to say, “Betcha didn’t think their behinds were quite so purple as that.”


In academic argument… the radicals almost always win, even though they rarely constitute a majority. Conservatives, dependably a minority, usually don’t care enough to take a strong stand against them. Liberals, the poor darlings, though generally the majority, are terrified about seeming to be on the wrong side of things and so seek compromises that inevitably favor the radicals. The model here is the Russian Duma, with the minority of Bolsheviks cracking the moderation and ultimately the backs of the Mensheviks.

Slightly related, a Facebook friend notes the following, about the Chronicle piece on the Leeds Conference, with which I happen to agree:

Okay, so several weeks later, I’m still hung up on this:

“[Medieval studies] has been rather proud of its resistance to critical theory, which then just attracts even more people to the field who themselves want to be resistant to theory and see medieval studies as a safe place — a safe place to be elitist, a safe place to be white, a safe place to be Christian, Eurocentric, misogynist, etc.”

It’s really intellectually dishonest to equate skepticism about critical theory and being a Christian with being a neo-Nazi.

To say nothing about how we can easily turn this critique on its head: “American Studies has been especially welcome to critical theory, which then just attracts other people interested in critical theory to the field and turns it into a safe space for them, marginalizing everyone else interested in different approaches…” etc. No one seems to think that that’s a problem.

Also related: the accusation that the expression “Anglo-Saxon” is inherently racist. This essentially boils down to the fact that at one point it did not simply refer to a set of dialects spoken in early medieval England, but also described white people of English descent (as in “WASP”), sometimes approvingly. So in true wet-blanket, Debbie-Downer fashion, we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. A certain Tom had something to say about this:

There’s been a lot of traffic in my little corner of the internet lately that suggests that the field of early medieval studies, and Anglo-Saxon studies in particular, has a problem. The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is racism, with a side helping, it seems, of sexism. I don’t think I have any insights that can solve such serious problems, I am sorry to say, but I think I do have some observations to make that might help us understand where our discipline is now, how we have gotten here, and what we can—and cannot, or should not—do in the present moment.

The whole discipline, the claim has been made, is tainted by the way in which the very terms “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-Saxonist” have been employed, from the nineteenth century to the present, in ways that explicitly or implicitly align with ideas of whiteness and white racial superiority. There can be no real argument with this point that the terms have been used by racists: it is true, and it has long been known. But the notion that these terms are now irrevocably tainted is one that I am not (yet?) persuaded of: different speech communities often use identical words with differing senses. Like even the worst characterizations of Anglo-Saxon studies, America, too, has a long history of both open and institutional racism, and yet I am not sure that we should wish to change the name of the country, just because the politics of some Americans includes white supremacist attitudes.

Also, whenever someone tells me that I need to steep myself in the “critical discourses that address systemic racism both explicit and implicit,” as does a “Collective Statement by Medievalists of Color” (none of whom actually has the courage to sign their names to it), I want to reply that wish that more medievalists would educate themselves on the dialectical materialist process that drives all of history, and from which everything else is a distraction. After all, both “systemic racism” and “dialectical materialism” are unfalsifiable Theories whose adherents essentially tell everyone “either you agree with me, or you’ve got false consciousness,” and who will thus inflate all data points in accord with their worldview into cosmic significance, while dismissing everything that isn’t as completely inconsequential. Whenever I hear that “systemic racism dictates that we are all entangled in its articulations and practices,” I can’t help but think of Ben Kenobi saying that The Force “surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” This is fine for the Star Wars universe, but needlessly mystical when considering our own.

Finally, from another Facebook friend, the following amusing observation:

I’m too tired to read sentences like: “Scientists create spaces of representation through graphemic concatenations that represent their epistemic traces as engravings, that is, generalized forms of ‘writing.'”