St. Maurice and the Eagle

This post comes almost two years too late, but this falsehood has shown a remarkable tenacity:

Background: the “Unite the Right” rally, held in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017 really unnerved a lot of people. Whatever the facts about what happened, the narrative has been firmly established that Donald Trump’s election emboldened members of the far (or “alt-“) right to “come out,” and to start demonstrating in favor of racism, nativism, and xenophobia – and to kill a counter-protester by running her down with a car. Donald Trump then claimed “moral equivalence” between the two sides, thereby illustrating his fundamental awfulness.* Some of the participants in the rally made reference to things medieval, on the principle that the Middle Ages represent white Europe unsullied by mass non-white immigration. Such references seemingly implicated the discipline of Medieval Studies, and they provoked a huge reaction: the Medieval Academy, along with almost thirty other groups, unequivocally condemned “the appropriation of any item or idea or material in the service of white supremacy,” and continued:

As scholars of the medieval world we are disturbed by the use of a nostalgic but inaccurate myth of the Middle Ages by racist movements in the United States. By using imagined medieval symbols, or names drawn from medieval terminology, they create a fantasy of a pure, white Europe that bears no relationship to reality. This fantasy not only hurts people in the present, it also distorts the past. Medieval Europe was diverse religiously, culturally, and ethnically, and medieval Europe was not the entire medieval world. Scholars disagree about the motivations of the Crusades—or, indeed, whether the idea of “crusade” is a medieval one or came later—but it is clear that racial purity was not primary among them.

This impulse has animated some people ever since. They are not willing to ignore such things as being beyond their concern or control (people refer to the Middle Ages all the time for various reasons, and there’s nothing professional medievalists can do about it, because they don’t actually “own” that time period) or as just a small part of the overall imagery presented at the rally (Charlotte Allen counted “exactly two” medieval costumes, and as Tom MacMaster notes, the protestors made far more use of nineteenth and twentieth century imagery than they did medieval). Instead, it has become extremely important for some people to present the Middle Ages in such a way that “rescues” them from white nationalists. Now, I’m no white nationalist, but as I said before, I don’t care for truth-bending either, no matter how noble the cause.** It’s a bit of a stretch, for instance, to designate the Vikings as “multicultural and multiracial.” (No, you can’t cherry-pick the one former Arab slave who took a Danish wife and settled in Normandy. You need a proper population sample! Numbers are of the essence here. That Vikings ended up losing their identity wherever they settled is the opposite of multicultural.) And as Andrew Holt said about the Crusades:

I can understand Professor Gabriele not wanting to give ammunition to those on the political right with whom he disagrees, particularly when they make crass calls for medieval solutions to modern problems, but misrepresenting what scholars of the crusades think is not the way to do it, and will backfire in the end.

This brings us to the black eagle of St. Maurice, referenced in the tweet above. The story goes that St. Maurice was a third-century commander of the Theban Legion, a Roman unit recruited in Upper Egypt and composed entirely of Christians. Emperor Maximian ordered them to march into Gaul, where they were to be employed in putting down a rebellion. Ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods for the success of the mission, the Thebans refused, and were twice decimated as a punishment – with the survivors then massacred. This took place at Agaunum, now Saint-Maurice, in Switzerland. As the name change reveals, St. Maurice became the stand-in for all the other martyred Thebans, some 6600 of them, and a monastery was established there in his honor. St. Maurice subsequently became a popular medieval saint, a patron of Savoy, Lombardy, Burgundy, and Sardinia, a patron of soldiers (particularly the Pontifical Swiss Guard), and of weavers and dyers, and the namesake of many religious foundations, including twenty-two English churches. Most important, for our purposes, is his patronage of the Holy Roman Empire, which seems to date from the reign of Henry the Fowler (919-936). Henry granted the Swiss canton of Aargau to the Abbey of St. Maurice in return for Maurice’s lance, sword, and spurs, which became part of the regalia used at Imperial coronations. Henry also built Magdeburg Cathedral, dedicated to St. Maurice. Emperor Otto the Great translated the saint’s relics there in 961, and had himself entombed there upon his own death in 973.

Of course, it must be said that, in common with many early martyrs, there is no historical evidence that St. Maurice or the Theban Legion ever existed. The earliest sources attesting to them date from 150 years after their alleged executions, although it is entirely possible that some Christians really were put to death in the area, from which an elaborate story was later spun. According to an article in Greenwich Time, St. Maurice wasn’t depicted as black until the thirteenth century. Why this particular attribute? It’s logical that someone whose origins were so far up the Nile should acquire a sub-Saharan phenotype, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the etymological similarity of “Maurice” to “Moor” had something to do with it. Why this shift should have happened in the thirteenth century I do not know, although it does point to medieval European knowledge of non-white Christians, perhaps inspired by contact with Ethiopians during the Crusades (Ethiopians maintained a presence in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), or as the result of an Ethiopian embassy to the pope in the late fourteenth century. Just as the Three Kings, from the twelfth century, could be depicted as European, African, and Asian, one for each of the three known continents, so also does a black St. Maurice point to the universality of Christianity. In this sense, the medievalists are right: medieval Europeans clearly were not “racist,” but only because they were deeply Christian, and truly believed that every person on Earth was a potential member of the faith. (An artistically black St. Maurice says nothing about the presence of phenotypically sub-Saharan Africans in Europe.)

Lucas Cranach the Elder & Workshop, Saint Maurice, ca. 1522-25.

But the tweet above was about another emblem: a black eagle borne by one young man on a shield at Charlottesville, and by St. Maurice on a banner in a painting dating to the sixteenth century, judging by the style of the armor. Why does St. Maurice carry such a banner? The image tweeted seems to be a preliminary sketch or an elaboration of a painting of St. Maurice by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). It originally formed part of an altarpiece, commissioned by Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, for a church in the Saxon city of Halle. Saxony, of course, was within the Holy Roman Empire, and the banner that St. Maurice holds is actually the banner of the arms of the Holy Roman Empire – a black eagle displayed on a gold field.

“Shield and Coat of Arms of the Holy Roman Emperor, drawn in the style the late medieval period. Also used as shield of arms (generic) by the King of the Romans.” Wikipedia.

One finds other Imperial representations of St. Maurice bearing this shield.

Apparently from the Church of St. Antony, Bitterfield-Wolfen, c. 1499.

Design for Reliquary bust of St. Maurice. Heiltumsbuch, fol. 228v., 1525-1527. Aschaffenburg Hofbibliothek.

In other words, the eagle is associated with the Holy Roman Empire, and St. Maurice is one of the patrons of the Empire; thus does he bear the shield of the Empire. It’s not actually “his,” or it’s only his at second hand. We see this with other saints – sometimes St. George, a patron of England, is shown bearing the three lions of the kings of England, and sometimes St. Michael, a patron of France, is shown bearing the fleur de lys of the kings of France. It might be somewhat egotistical for a votary to assign his own attribute to his patron saint (rather than for a votary to bear his patron saint’s attribute as an act of devotion), but it did happen from time to time.

St. Maurice, therefore, is by no means the “original” bearer of this standard. The reason eagles are associated with the Holy Roman Empire is because the Romans themselves employed eagles as identifying devices, particularly of their legions, and when heraldry developed in the twelfth century it was only natural that the Holy Roman Emperors should have chosen an eagle as an identifying device. Eagles were also used by other successor empires to ancient Rome, including the Byzantines (specifically, the Palaiologos dynasty that ruled it from the eleventh century), the Tsars of Russia, and Napoleon as the Emperor of the French. You could say that Maurice, as the commander of a legion, has a natural right to an eagle as his own attribute, but it would make far more sense for this to be in the form of a Roman aquila (a three dimensional sculpture of an eagle atop a pole), and you would need to find actual artistic evidence of him doing so prior to the twelfth century and the elaboration of heraldry. In other words, the succession seems to be Eagle -> Empire -> St. Maurice, not Eagle -> St. Maurice –> Empire.

As for the other eagle, that appears to be a commercial product of an outfit called West Wolf Renaissance:


From the website:

VIKING BLACK EAGLE SHIELD WITH FORGED IRON BOSS

This is a beautiful handmade and hand-painted wooden Viking shield featuring a Black Eagle design inspired by Viking and Norse shields of old. This shield features a solid oak body which measures about 30 inches across and is 1/2 inches thick…. Because this shield is made of real wood, please note that the wood-grain background shown in the pictures may vary slightly from the shield you receive (this is simply due to the nature of the wood). The front of the shield has also been applied with several coats of topcoat/varnish to protect it through the centuries. So whether for the wall or the battlefield, this shield is well balanced and ready to serve.

Note that the design is “inspired by” Norse shields – it is not necessarily a reproduction of an actual shield. It looks to me like it was taken from Wikipedia’s rendition of the Raven Banner:

Other shields offered for sale by West Wolf Renaissance feature medieval, classical, Mayan, and even cinematic designs (e.g. the emblem of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars, or the houses from Game of Thrones). The company also offers reproduction/fantasy jewelry, clothing, and weapons. Who buys this stuff I do not know, but presumably there are LARPers or “fandoms” out there who enjoy playing medieval dress-up, without scrupulous attention to historic detail.*** It might be possible, therefore, that the company helped itself to the shield of the Holy Roman Empire and reimagined it in a Viking style, but my hunch is that the two shields actually have nothing to do with each other. To show an eagle “displayed” (i.e. spread out) is a logical way to show it, black is a common enough color to show it in, and the background hue is coincidental – the HRE shield is formally gold, whereas the Viking shield is just natural wood. (Actually, if the shield is based on a real Norse model, then it would have priority over the shield of the HRE, since the Vikings were active before the development of true heraldry, and we could accuse the HRE and St. Maurice of bearing a stolen Viking shield! Furthermore, it might not even be an eagle: note that it’s in the style of the Raven Banner, and one of the words in the URL is “raven.” It would certainly make sense for the bird to be a raven, given that it’s an attribute of the Norse god Odin.)

Any symbol can have a variety of referents. As the lion is the king of the beasts, so also is the eagle the king of the birds, and like all emblems has been used at various times and various places, by various people, to reference various things. (Actually, in a Christian context, an eagle is most likely to be associated with St. John the Evangelist.) Even a black eagle “displayed” on a lighter-colored background is not the exclusive property of any one group, and you simply cannot take two superficially similar things and juxtapose them in the service of “proving” anything. This is one reason why Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is so ridiculous. No, you actually need to establish a chain of transmission, and you would think that art and cultural historians would understand that.† I mean, St. Maurice can also be shown wearing a red cross – does this mean that the “true, original” bearer of this device is St. Maurice, not St. George, St. Ambrose, or the Diocese of Trier?

Medieval Milanetc.

But what do you expect from Twitter? The place is a sewer, the “crystal meth” of social media, and it seems to encourage people in their worst habits of mind. Not only is there the 140-character limit, which prevents the elaboration of complex ideas, there is also a great premium on winning social status through scoring “sick burns” or at least by acquiring lots of followers. Thus our tweeter’s assertion that “Nazis aren’t happy” about her juxtaposition. Who are these people, and are they really all “Nazis”? Or is this all just an imaginary setup to prove to her claque how brave a fighter she is?

Alas, memes can be powerful things, and this one has firmly lodged itself in the medievalist consciousness. Even the executive director of the Medieval Academy went in for it (from All Things Considered, September 2017):

LISA FAGIN DAVIS: There was one young man who was carrying a shield with a black spread eagle that was clearly co-opted from either the Holy Roman Empire or – there’s actually a saint. And it’s kind of ironic. He’s an African saint who carries that standard. And I suspect the gentleman carrying the shield didn’t realize that.

ULABY: That was St. Maurice, revered during the medieval period. He came from Egypt.

It was relayed on History.com in December 2017:

One man carried a round shield decorated with a black eagle. It was a curious choice, considering the eagle image is strongly associated with a Saint Maurice, a Roman general of African descent who became a saint in the early Middle Ages

The white supremacist in Charlottesville carrying that image was probably unaware that it’s strongly associated with a black Catholic saint, and this disconnect illustrates a larger trend. Hate groups that adopt medieval iconography as symbols of white supremacy usually have misconceptions about that historical era. One of the most common? That Europe in the Middle Ages was unvaryingly white.

Earlier this year I heard a speaker who repeated the idea that the Viking eagle of Charlottesville was really the eagle of a black saint, and just recently another friend posted this to Facebook, from one of her students’ exams:

Historians have the difficult job of interpreting sources in the context they were intended. With white supremacy, gender equality, and current social classes, it is nearly impossible to see the past through an unbiased scope uninfluenced by these current issues. In Charlottesville many protesters used a medieval symbol as a symbol of racial hatred, when truthfully the symbol was worn by a black saint.

So it looks like this notion will be with us for some time to come…

Once again, I state that I am not in favor of white supremacy – although I confess that, apart from the car crash, I didn’t find the Unite the Right rally to be any more shocking than what Antifa routinely gets up to at its demonstrations. But in general I am in favor of proper historical analysis, developed with as much detail as necessary, and not superficial Twitter-zingers, even in the service of things we dearly want to believe.

In brief:

• The arms of the Holy Roman Empire date from the twelfth century and are a reference to the Roman eagle.

• St. Maurice, as a patron of the HRE, bears the arms of the HRE in some depictions, but it’s not a symbol of St. Maurice as such.

• St. Maurice, as an Egyptian, only began to be portrayed as black starting in the thirteenth century.

• The West Wolf Renaissance shield is either a reproduction of a Viking design, or an imagined one (they did not answer my email enquiry).

• If it is a reproduction, it predates the shield of the HRE, and is probably better seen as Odin’s raven; either way, its connection to the shield of the HRE is almost certainly coincidental.

• Truth exists, and it’s more important than feelings.

• Academics should get off Twitter.

* Joe Biden recently launched his presidential campaign in Charlottesville, pledging to stand against whatever forces manifested themselves at the Unite the Right rally. John Derbyshire had something to say about it:

[Joe Biden’s] video didn’t lean on the Charlottesville events so much as on the narrative of them constructed and broadcast by Cultural Marxist media outlets, then re-broadcast and re-re-broadcast in a determined and successful effort to smother any account of what really took place….

The Cultural Marxist narrative of Charlottesville is triumphant in major media and probably among the public at large. That narrative has only collapsed among the tiny sliver of the population who have read all 207 pages of the Heaphy Report…. Certainly Joe Biden had no qualms about retailing the dominant narrative in all its brazen mendacity.

[Clip:  And that’s when we heard the words of the President of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were, quote, “some very fine people on both sides.”

Very fine people on both sides? With those words, the President of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.]

I don’t myself buy the “moral equivalence” argument. One side in the Charlottesville fracas had the sole intention to hold a legally-permitted rally in defense of a historic statue; the other side had the intention to disrupt that rally violently. Local politicians and law-enforcement encouraged and assisted the latter faction. Moral equivalence? I don’t see it.

What did the President actually have in mind when he spoke the words Joe Biden’s quoting? Here’s what Trump said:

[Clip:  And you had people — and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally — but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.

Now, in the other group also you had some fine people; but you also had trouble-makers. And you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats … You had a lot of bad people in the other group.]

Plainly what was in the President’s mind there was the idea that there were some Nazi nutcases mixed in with the defenders of that statue; and there were some anarchist nutcases mixed in with the clergymen and cat ladies who initiated the violence. The fact remains that the first group, Nazis and all, had lawful permits to be where they were and do what they were doing, and the second group didn’t, but the authorities let that second group attack the first anyway.

See Ann Coulter’s column also.

** But… quod est veritas? This is an interminable debate, which might go back to the conflict between realists and nominalists in medieval universities, or to Livy and Pollio, if Robert Graves is to be believed. Postmodern historians are fond of saying that there’s no such thing as truth, only competing narratives, and that all history writing is essentially fiction. No, there is no such thing as an omniscient and unbiased historian – we all come to the table with our perspectives and areas of strength (and weakness). But there is a big difference between people who acknowledge this and still hold up the idea that events actually happened in the past, and we can get at them through studying sources that have come down to us from those events, and people who believe that since truth is so elusive, we might as well not even try, and we can say anything we want about the past, because why not?

I cannot abide this position. Any respect that historians get is utterly dependent on people trusting us to deal honestly with the past. They know we are liberal, but they still think that we know some facts that others don’t. However, when we say whatever we want because it is in accord with our politics, that is a problem.

*** I am of two minds about this. In general, just as I favor a search for Truth in historical scholarship, I am also in favor of getting the details right in any sort of historic recreation. But I am also fully aware that such concerns can border on pedantry and wet-blanketness. If the goal is to have fun, then why not go for an overall effect, rather than get bogged down in all the details?

† No, I am not prepared to accept any arguments based on “serendipity” or “synchronicity” or any other such mumbo-jumbo.

Dare Stones

I have just discovered the existence of South’s version of the Kensington Runestone. From the Brenau Window:

In November 1937 as America clawed its way out of The Great Depression, a Californian man showed up at the history department of Emory University in Atlanta with a most peculiar object – a 21-pound chunk of rough veined quartz with some foreign looking words chiseled into its surface. The man said he found the rock in a North Carolina swamp, about 80 miles from Roanoke Island, while he was driving through on vacation. The strange stone caught the attention of one of the professors, Dr. Haywood Pearce Jr., who also served as vice president of Brenau, where his father was president. The inscription on the stone read “Ananias Dare & Virginia went hence unto heaven 1591,” and a message to notify John White of that news bore the initials of the author of the carved writing, EWD, presumably those of Eleanor Dare.

Although Emory’s historians weren’t interested, Pearce and his father certainly were. Perhaps they concluded that, if this chuck of rock indeed marked the graves of America’s “first white child” and her father, it might well be the thing to put their college on the map. They wound up paying the California man $1,000 for the treasure.

Anyone who has used tiller, plow or trowel in Appalachian dirt will swear the region grows rocks. But nothing plows better than cold cash. To make a long story short, over the next four years, similar rocks popped up all over the place, mostly found by four people. Pearce and his father over the years acquired close to 50 of the huge stones, all with similar inscriptions unearthed as far south as the banks of the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. Although the Pearces’ fervent explorations and money never turned up graves or any other evidence to authenticate the stones, a team of Smithsonian Institution-commissioned historians – headed by the venerable Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard – traveled to Gainesville and, in a preliminary report, assigned some validity to what had then come to be known as “The Dare Stones.”

David Morrison’s article notes that the Saturday Evening Post, in 1941, conclusively proved that most of these stones were forgeries, but what about the original one? From the Washington Post on July 5 (hat tip: Ron Good):

In the past few years, researchers have been taking another look. For one, the letters etched on the first stone look very different from the others. It doesn’t contain any suspiciously modern words as the others do. Plus, Dare was “moderately educated,” Schrader says, and her husband was a stonemason. It’s reasonable to think she may have learned the skill from him.

In 2016, Schrader had a sample of the stone analyzed by the University of North Carolina at Asheville, exposing the quartz’s bright white interior.

“The original inscription would have been a stark contrast to the weathered exterior,” science writer Andrew Lawler wrote for National Geographic. “A good choice for a Roanoke colonist but a poor one for a modern forger.”

Schrader said he would like to marshal the funds for an “exhaustive, geochemical investigation,” but first, this fall, a Brenau professor will assemble a team of outside experts to analyze the language more thoroughly.

“The type of English that’s on the stone was really only used for about a hundred years, so it’s a nice time marker to be able to study,” Schrader said.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. (I make no comment on the use of “Virginia Dare” by white nationalists – if the rock is authentic, then it’s authentic, and if it’s fake, then it’s fake. What “uses” it is put to are beyond the investigator’s concern.)

Historians Wanted

From the OUP Blog (via Paul Halsall):

Why the past is disputed and academic historians (don’t) matter

Recent years have witnessed a proliferation of disputes over how the past should be used, with alt-right demonstrations over the planned removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville/VA, the Hindu nationalist rewritingof Indian history, or the refashioning of the rural past in post-coup Thailand among those most widely reported. In all these instances, academic historians have either been sidelined, or have become the victims of politically motivated onslaughts. Still, the disputes per se are not a late modern phenomenon. Similar debates occur in any society that records its past. They form part of historical culture. But why is this so, and is there really nothing distinctive about the contemporary experience?…

The rejection of views, not because they are mistaken or flawed, but because those who voice them possess expert knowledge, is a distinctly late modern phenomenon. All the more reason why professional historians should not stand by! For if we fail to speak up, we abrogate our responsibility towards the very societies we study. If we allow their experiences, lives, and thoughts to become mere playthings to mendacious moderns, to be plundered and pillaged at will, we dehumanise both the past and the present.

Of course I agree with this, although I’d agree a lot more if professional historians didn’t have their own agendas…

Historians Against Trump

Ron Radosh (on PJ Media) says something I happen to agree with. Major excerpts:

Big Surprise? There Is Now a ‘Historians Against Trump’ Group

As they once did in their protests against the Vietnam War, American academic historians are now trying to use their positions in academia to present “scholarly” reasons why Donald Trump must not be president of the United States. They have formed a group called “Historians Against Trump” (HAT), since obviously “Historians Against War” was not appropriate for this salvo.

Their “Open Letter to the American People,” published on their website, is one of the most arrogant, pretentious piece of claptrap they could possibly have written. Why have they written this letter? This is their reason:

“Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.”

I am no fan of Donald Trump, and I am not going to vote for him this election, but their argument does not stand up. First, what if there was a large group of conservative historians in the academy who decided to write an open letter about the election, claiming “the lessons of history” as their reason for arguing we should vote Republican? The HAT would no doubt loudly condemn them for using the fact that they are professional historians with Ph.D.s as the reason they should be listened to….

In response to their letter, Professor of Law Stanley Fish has written a column in this Sunday’s New York Times. Mercilessly slashing all of their arguments, he boils them down to noting that in effect, all they are saying is “We’re historians and you’re not,” and hence they are obliged to inform Americans that the lessons of history tell us Trump should not be elected. That they have Ph.D.s is not proof that they can equate “an advanced degree with virtue.” Fish writes:

“By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees….[which] does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.”

As a historian who has been fighting this good fight for too long a time, I fully agree with Fish that historians should not as historians be making “political pronouncements of any kind.” In trying to “invest their remarks with the authority of their academic credentials,” as Fish puts it, they are forfeiting the very sine qua non of what being a historian means. The long years of study and the skills they acquired, which earned them advanced degrees, do not come with the right to use those degrees to tell Americans how to vote.

Why does this not go absolutely without saying? Of course, people have the right to oppose Trump, as vociferously as they want. Like Radosh and Fish, though, I am chary of historians pretending that their profession gives them special insight into current politics – or rather, I am amazed that these wise, Olympian understandings always seem to be “liberal” in nature when, like all political positions, they are often no more valuable or true than their opposites. And I especially dislike it when these groups manage to get the American Historical Association or other ostensibly nonpartisan, professional organizations to endorse their points of view. We saw this ten years ago at the annual meeting of the AHA in Atlanta. As I wrote at the time:

Even during the Vietnam war the AHA would not pass an anti-war resolution, but now, be it resolved:

“that the American Historical Association urge its members through publication of this resolution in Perspectives and other appropriate outlets:

  1. To take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and
  2. To do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.”

Perhaps it passed because it doesn’t actually say that “The AHA condemns this war,” but still… it’s annoying when you discover that you’re still in college, with the student government earnestly passing sophomoric resolutions on your behalf. Wankers.

(See Radosh’s article about Eugene Genovese’s successful opposition to an anti-war resolution in the 1960s.)

Later on in 2007, still steamed, I elaborated:

Here is the resolution, in all its inanity:

“Whereas the American Historical Association’s Professional Standards emphasize the importance of open inquiry to the pursuit of historical knowledge;

“Whereas the American Historical Association adopted a resolution in January 2004 re-affirming the principles of free speech, open debate of foreign policy, and open access to government records in furthering the work of the historical profession;

“Whereas during the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terror, the current Administration has violated the above-mentioned standards and principles through the following practices:

“excluding well-recognized foreign scholars;

“condemning as “revisionism” the search for truth about pre-war intelligence;

“re-classifying previously unclassified government documents;

“suspending in certain cases the centuries-old writ of habeas corpus and substituting indefinite administrative detention without specified criminal charges or access to a court of law;

“using interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, Abu-Ghraib, Bagram, and other locations incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society;

“Whereas a free society and the unfettered intellectual inquiry essential to the practice of historical research, writing, and teaching are imperiled by the practices described above; and

“Whereas, the foregoing practives are inextricably linked to the war in which the United States is presently engaged in Iraq; now, therefore, be it

“Resolved, That the American Historical Association urges its members through publication of this resolution in Perspectives and other appropriate outlets:

  1. To take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and
  2. To do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.”

Of course I have no problem with people who oppose the war, but I would really appreciate it if they would speak for themselves, or form groups for the specific purpose of opposing the war, rather than trying to shanghai the rest of us into taking their position. Yes, the price of liberty is constant vigilance, and I, and as many people as I could have mustered, should have gone to the business meeting and spoken out and voted against this resolution. But it would be really nice if I could take it for granted that I didn’t have to do such a thing. In the world in which I would like to live, people know their place, and would be deeply ashamed of the bloody rudeness of taking a group that is ostensibly a professional association for historians, and trying to turn it into an activist group opposed to the war in Iraq. “Oh, but this issue is too important for such considerations of bourgeois propriety!” they claim. No, it isn’t. Despite the deepest, most self-dramatizing desires of these people, we are not facing the imminent fall of the Constitution and the imposition of martial law in favor of some neo-Nazi regime. Oppose the war by all means, but leave the rest of us out of it! This really is college-sophomore stuff – like “jeans day,” when you are to show your solidarity with homosexual rights by wearing jeans, or so proclaim the few posters here and there about campus, put up the day before the event. So you wear jeans like you do all the time, and no matter how you may feel about gay people, you find that you are cast as supporting them! (Ha ha, caught you!) And no, I don’t find the logic of this resolution very compelling. The attempt to link opposition to the war with the practice of history is about as true as a resolution reading: “Whereas we are distracted because we don’t know where the terrorists are going to strike next, and whereas the violent homophobia and misogyny of Wahhabi Islam are deeply offensive to us, Be It Resolved That the AHA supports President George W. Bush in the Global War on Terror.” Something tells me that a resolution like that is not going to pass any time soon, because we are dealing with American myopia. Some people can’t get visas to come to the United States, and some documents are being reclassified, and some prisoners were abused at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib! How terrible! OK, but why not compare these things to, for example, the sort of things enumerated in this article. Opening paragraph:

“Academics who study China, which includes the author, habitually please the Chinese Communist Party, sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously. Our incentives are to conform, and we do so in numerous ways: through the research questions we ask or don’t ask, through the facts we report or ignore, through our use of language, and through what and how we teach.”

Here is a perfect example of government policy specifically curtailing the practice of history. Will the AHA pass a resolution condemning this? (And, while we’re at it, condemning China’s atrocious human rights record as being “incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society”?) Fat chance: what we do is evil, what they do is “their culture.”

What really gets me though, is when my fellow professors can’t keep their damned liberal opinions to themselves, and shout them in socially inappropriate venues, and are then surprised when state legislatures want to cut their funding, or propose affirmative action programs for conservatives. They simply have no idea where such things came from! Help, help, we’re being oppressed! (Forget college sophomores – these are high school sophomores! The Holy Grail of being a teenager – being yourself, and being accepted for being yourself. But if you remember from high school, very few people actually got to do this; the rest of us had to choose between compromising our “selves” to fit in, or adhering to them and being ostracized. But to demand the right to spout your ideology while being cherished and affirmed for it… what wankery!)

Recently Noted

• In the Los Angeles Times: “History isn’t a ‘useless’ major: It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty of”

• Related, from Forbes: “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket”

• And from History Today: “Sorry, Vice-Chancellor. We need more historians of the sixth century.”

• From Higher Ed Tech Decisions: “New App Lets Students Discover History All Around Them”

• On Angry Staff Officer: “History: The Overlooked Military Discipline”

• From In the Middle: “The Ethics of Inventing Modernity: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve

• From National Review: “Bernard Lewis at 100: An Appreciation”

Astronomical Geometry

From the National Post:

Clay tablets reveal Babylonians invented astronomical geometry 1,400 years before Europeans

The medieval mathematicians of Oxford, toiling in torchlight in a land ravaged by plague, managed to invent a simple form of calculus that could be used to track the motion of heavenly bodies. But now a scholar studying ancient clay tablets suggests that the Babylonians got there first, and by at least 1,400 years.

The astronomers of Babylonia, scratching tiny marks in soft clay, used surprisingly sophisticated geometry to calculate the orbit of what they called the White Star — the planet Jupiter.

These tablets are quite incomprehensible to the untrained eye. Thousands of clay tablets — many unearthed in the 19th century by adventurers hoping to build museum collections in Europe, the United States and elsewhere — remain undeciphered.

But they are fertile ground for Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in Berlin, whose remarkable findings were published Thursday in the journal Science.Ossendrijver is an astrophysicist who became an expert in the history of ancient science.

For a number of years he has puzzled over four particular Babylonian tablets housed in the British Museum in London.

“I couldn’t understand what they were about. I couldn’t understand anything about them, neither did anyone else. I could only see that they dealt with geometrical stuff,” he said this week in a phone interview from Germany.

Then one day in late 2014, a retired archaeologist gave him some black-and-white photographs of tablets stored at the museum. Ossendrijver took notice of one of them, just two inches across and two inches high. This rounded object, which he scrutinized in person in September 2015, proved to be a kind of Rosetta Stone.

Officially named BH40054 by the museum, and dubbed Text A by Ossendrijver, the little tablet had markings that served as a kind of abbreviation of a longer calculation that looked familiar to him. By comparing Text A to the four previously mysterious tablets, he was able to decode what was going on: This was all about Jupiter. The five tablets computed the predictable motion of Jupiter relative to the other planets and the distant stars.

“This tablet contains numbers and computations, additions, divisions, multiplications. It doesn’t actually mention Jupiter. It’s a highly abbreviated version of a more complete computation that I already knew from five, six, seven other tablets,” he said.

Most strikingly, the methodology for those computations used techniques that resembled the astronomical geometry developed in the 14th century at Oxford. The tablets have been authoritatively dated to a period from 350 B.C. to 50 B.C.

The people of Mesopotamia — what is now Iraq — developed mathematics about 5,000 years ago. Among them were the Babylonians who wrote in cunieform script and, over time, adopted a sexagesimal (base 60) numbering system. Early mathematics was essentially a form of counting, and the things being counted were mostly sheep and the like.

Mathematics progressed, as did the sharing of knowledge in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquering journeys across Asia. The ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos argued for a heliocentric universe — one in which the Earth orbited the sun, contrary to what seems to be the case when one looks at the sky. That view was shared by another astronomer, possibly Greek as well, who lived in Mesopotamia on the Tigris River and was known as Seleucus of Seleucia.

But Ossendrijver said nothing in the newly decoded computations suggests that the ancient scientist or scientists who etched the tablets understood that heliocentric model. The calculations merely describe Jupiter’s motion over time as it appears to speed up and slow down in its journey across the night sky. Those calculations are done in a surprisingly abstract way — the same way the Oxford mathematicians would do them a millennium and a half later.

“It’s geometry, which is itself old, but it’s applied in a completely new way, not to fields, or something that lives in real space, but to something that exists in completely abstract space,” Ossendrijver said. “Anybody who studies physics would be reminded of integral calculus.”

Which was invented in Europe in 1350, according to historians.

“In Babylonia, between 350 and 50 B.C., scholars, or maybe one very clever guy, came up with the idea of drawing graphs of the velocity of a planet against time, and computing the area of this graph — of doing a kind of computation that seems to be thoroughly modern, that is not found until 1350,” he said.

Alexander Jones, a professor at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, praised Ossendrijver’s research, which he said shows the “revolutionary brilliance of the unknown Mesopotamian scholars who constructed Babylonian mathematical astronomy during the second half of the first millennium BC.”

La Sainte Chapelle

From the Guardian:

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Laser surgery restores Sainte-Chapelle stained glass window to Gothic glory

Seven years’ work on Gothic chapel in Paris finished to mark anniversary of birth of Louis IX who commissioned it to house his collection of religious relics.

One of the Gothic wonders of the medieval world, the stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in central Paris have been restored after seven years of painstaking work.

The restoration was finished to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of King Louis IX, who commissioned the chapel in the mid 13th century to house his collection of religious relics, including what was believed to be Christ’s crown of thorns and part of the cross.

The work involved dismantling the huge windows into small panels and cleaning them with lasers. An outside “skin” of glass has been moulded on to the original windows to protect them from traffic pollution, without altering their look.

The chapel is one of the earliest surviving buildings of the Capetian royal palace on the Ile de la Cité, along with the Conciergerie.

The two-level building, which was built in just seven years in the 1240s, is a small but spectacular example of the Rayonnant style of Gothic architecture, with little stonework and 15 huge stained glass panels and a rose window added a century later.

The 6,458 sq ft of stained glass windows in the upper chapel illustrate biblical scenes from both testaments. Overwhelmingly deep red and blue, they depict 1,130 biblical figures.

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More at the link.

Old Sarum

Salisbury Cathedral, constructed in the early thirteenth century in the newly fashionable gothic style, is one of England’s most splendid. Here it is on a WWII propaganda poster by Frank Newbould, via the Imperial War Museum.

Republished under the terms of the Imperial War Museum Non-Commercial License. IWM PST 3640.

But the cathedral wasn’t always in this Salisbury (“Sarum” in Latin). On top of a nearby hill lie the remains of the former cathedral, designated Old Sarum. Whatever population surrounded this cathedral migrated to the new one over the course of the Middle Ages, leaving the hilltop abandoned. One thing that did not move, however, was the “borough” status of Old Sarum, which continued to send two members to Parliament until 1832 – including, at one point, William Pitt the Elder, later to become Prime Minister. (Disraeli: “England is governed not by logic but by Parliament”). Basically, whoever owned the land was able to nominate both members of Parliament. This “rotten borough” and others like it were abolished in the Reform Act of 1832.

Old Sarum itself had been occupied during the Iron Age, and was quite important during the twelfth century, as new discoveries reveal:

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Archaeologists reveal lost medieval palace beneath prehistoric fortress at Old Sarum

The archaeological site of Old Sarum located in Wiltshire, England, has a rich history stretching back at least five thousand years. But it was William the Conqueror’s selection of the site for his royal castle in the 11th century that left the greatest mark on this historic landmark. Now geophysical surveys have revealed that what lies beneath the surface may actually be one of the largest medieval royal palaces ever found, built within the grounds of a vast Iron Age fortress, and hidden beneath fields for more than 700 years.

According to a report in The Independent, the high-tech scans carried out by archaeologists from the University of Southampton, including magnetometry, earth resistance, ground penetrating radar, and electric resistivity tomography survey, have revealed the foundations of dozens of houses and an enormous, previously unknown complex, measuring 170 ms (558 ft) long and 65 m (214 ft) wide, which is believed to have been a royal palace.

“The prime candidate for constructing it is perhaps Henry I sometime in the early 12th century,” said one of Britain’s leading experts on high status medieval buildings, Dr Edward Impey, Director-General of the Royal Armouries.

The complex was arranged around a large courtyard with 3 m (10 ft) wide walls, and included a long building, which was probably a grand hall. There is also evidence of towers and multi-storey buildings. If it is indeed a medieval royal palace, it is the largest of its kind ever found in Britain. Up until now, archaeologists were only aware of the much smaller complex on top of the man-made castle mound.

Old Sarum was originally an Iron Age hill fort, built in 400 BC on a site that had been inhabited since at least 3,000 BC. The site was used by the Romans, becoming the town of Sorviodunum. The Saxons also used the site as a stronghold against marauding Vikings.

In the 11th century, William the Conqueror, having gained control of England, chose Sarum as the location for a royal castle. The fact that it lay inside a large hill fort meant that defenses could be constructed very quickly. The castle was built on a motte (raised earthworks) protected by a deep dry moat in 1069, three years after the Norman conquest. The construction of a cathedral and bishop’s palace occurred between 1075 and 1092. A royal palace was then built within the castle for King Henry I and subsequently used by Plantagenet monarchs.

By 1219, the limitations of space on the hilltop site had become cause for concern, with the cathedral and castle in close proximity and their respective chiefs in regular conflict. The abandonment of Old Sarum by the clergy during the 1220s marked the end of serious royal interest in the castle. The castle continued in use, but was largely abandoned by the 16th century.

 

More Greek Archaeology

From the Ottawa Citizen, via my friend Robert Black:

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The biggest travelling exhibition on Ancient Greece ever assembled opens Dec. 12 in Montreal. And the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, which will host the stunning exhibition next summer, played a key role in making it happen.

Entitled The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great, the show spans nearly 6,000 years of history and features more than 500 precious archaeological treasures from 21 Greek museums. About 300 have never before left the country.

After its run at Montreal’s Pointe-à-Callière Museum ends in April, the exhibition will shift to the Canadian Museum of History for four months starting June 5. Then it’s off to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the National Geographic Museum in Washington, where it will wrap up on Oct. 9, 2016.

“I really think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition,” says Mark O’Neill, the Canadian Museum of History’s president and CEO. “It’s going to make Ottawa a real cultural destination next year.”

You can build audiences with exhibitions like this, O’Neill says. “I have every expectation that we will with this exhibition, as well.” The museum expects to attract 150,000 visitors. Pointe-à-Callière is projecting a similar number.

The Gatineau museum heads a four-museum consortium that, in conjunction with Greek authorities, organized the exhibition; something it had never done in its 25-year history. How it came to play the leading role is a tale of luck, timing and interests aligning.

In the spring of 2012 Jean-Marc Blais, the museum’s director general, raised the idea of a Greek exhibit with Eleftherios Aggelopoulos, then Greece’s ambassador to Canada.

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More at the link.

Elgin Marbles

In the wake of the British Museum’s decision to lend of one of the Elgin Marbles to Russia, the Telegraph asks, “Why are the Elgin Marbles so controversial?” and provides some answers:

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What are the Elgin Marbles?

A collection of stone objects – sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features – acquired by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens between 1801 and 1805, during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens was a part.

What is the Parthenon?

Regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. Built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin. By 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained.

Did Lord Elgin steal them?

Not according to the British Museum, which says he acted with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself.

Lord Elgin was passionate about ancient Greek art and transported the sculptures back to Britain by sea.

Where are they housed?

The objects were purchased by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816, following a Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry which fully investigated and approved the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions. They were presented by Parliament to the British Museum, where they have remained on display ever since.

Why the controversy?

The sculptures are the subject of one of the longest cultural rows in Europe.

The Greeks have demanded that they be returned to their homeland. Greece maintains they were taken illegally during the country’s Turkish occupation and should be returned for display in Athens. The Greek government has disputed the British Museum Trustees’ legal title to the sculptures. Some suggest that Lord Elgin bribed Turkish officials and effectively stole the marbles.

But the British say that Lord Elgin legally purchased the statues from the Ottoman Empire before Greece won its independence and that it would set a disturbing precedent for major museums if they were returned.

Many British historians consider them relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state.

When did the row begin?

The first serious discussion about returning the Elgin Marbles is said to have been initiated in an exchange of correspondence in a newspaper in 1925, with Courtenay Pollock arguing that the time was right to make the gesture towards Greece.

Since then the issue has been raised by the Greek authorities with almost every British ambassador to Athens.

The British Museum says that the Acropolis Museum in Athens allows the remaining Parthenon sculptures to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. It says the Parthenon sculptures in London are “an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history”.

Why the recent publicity?

In October, lawyer Amal Clooney – the wife of actor George Clooney – said Greece had “just cause” for the return of the marbles.

Mrs Clooney, who is part of the legal team advising the Greek government on possible action in the international courts to force the return of the marbles, claimed Britain should be embarrassed for retaining them.

However, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, ruled out a return, arguing that they gave “maximum public benefit” by staying in London.

What now?

The row will only escalate with the lending of the river god Ilissos to Russia. Greece will no doubt be furious that the British Museum is prepared to send part of the Parthenon to Russia but not back to the Athens.

What survives of the Parthenon?

Roughly half now survives: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.

Where can the surviving sculptures be seen?

Around 65 per cent of the original sculptures survive and are located in museums across Europe. The Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum in London have about 30 per cent each, while other pieces are held by other major European museums, including the Louvre and the Vatican. The British Museum also has other fragments from the Parthenon acquired from collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.

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I think that one of the keys to this whole controversy is the line that “Many British historians consider them relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state.” A grad school professor of mine told me once that the ideology of the modern Greek state, founded in 1832 as a result of a revolution against the Ottoman Empire (and the help of the UK, France, and Russia), is that the state is in fact a continuation or reassertion of the Classical polis of Athens. A Greek I once spoke to hinted that he actually believed this. As such, one can see how the Elgin Marbles would assume such an outsized importance – and how any Ottoman treatment of them was completely illegitimate. Such uses of history are hogwash, of course. Why is the modern Greek state not figured as a continuation of the Byzantine state? Or a reassertion of Classical Sparta – or Bronze Age Mycenae? You can’t cherry-pick what you most value from history and ignore everything else that’s happened before and since (apparently Israelis used to practice archaeology on this principle, by shoveling off the Ottoman, Byzantine, Roman and Hellenistic layers in order to get to the Biblical ones that they were really interested in, and which their own state, they claim, is simply a new instantiation of). It is amusing to read how the British see the Parthenon as having fallen into ruins – this is a trope in furta sacra (accounts of medieval relic thefts), and employed to justify those thefts. Even the notion that “if they had been left in place, the air pollution in Athens would have damaged them” is not necessarily a watertight argument: when I lived in London a story broke that in the 1930s the British Museum cleaned the sculptures a little too enthusiastically, thereby destroying traces of the original colors used to paint them. Besides, say the Greeks, when they come back will go into a specially-designed Parthenon Museum, where they will be protected from the climate (my brother-in-law has visited this, and claims they’ve got an empty room all ready for them).

But I think the Elgin Marbles should remain in the British Museum anyway. The Marbles do not belong to “Greece”, they belong to all of Western Civilization. And spreading things around geographically is like diversifying your investment portfolio – it helps to guard against the whole thing being destroyed in some disaster. Besides, Greeks, how about some gratitude to the people who helped free you from the Ottomans in the first place?!

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Here are some pictures of the last time I visited the Duveen Gallery in 2010:

I took one of these pamphlets but I can’t find it now. The British Museum website probably gives just as much information.