Two Links

I wanted to share these before I left:

1. The British Parliament has advertised for a new Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. My friend Hannes Kleineke sketches the history of this office:

To most people taking an interest in the work and procedures of the British Parliament, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (or ‘Black Rod’ as he is known in popular parlance) is an immediately recognisable figure from the part he plays in the ceremonial surrounding the annual State Opening. The ceremonial is, however, only a small part of the duties of the modern ‘Black Rod’, who has overall administrative charge of much of the palace of Westminster.

This was no forgone conclusion: the office of Black Rod was originally that of usher to the King of England’s principal order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, and for several centuries had no direct connection with Parliament. The Parliament Chamber, that is, in modern understanding, the House of Lords, was instead in the care of a different officer, the usher (or porter) of the Parliament Chamber. While the usher controlled access, and was thus able to command fees from intending suitors, his office also had a less glamorous side. The usher’s responsibilities included the preparation of the Parliament chamber and the maintenance of its furnishings, down to the provision of mundane items such as ‘canvas, corde, hamer, nailes, cordes, crochetes, worstede and other thinges’, as the account of John Frampton and William Welles, ushers in 1470, shows. The ushers had to think ahead, particularly when Parliament met away from Westminster: the items provided by Richard Baron and Simon Edward for the meeting of Parliament at Leicester in April 1450 included ‘a chair for the King to sit in’.

More at the link.

2. Moira Lavelle interviews the great Mary Lefkowitz (hat tip: Alex Lesk). My favorite bit:

Q: Some would say you are best known for your book Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History, arguing against the idea that all classical civilization started in Egypt. This is a bit of a departure from your other scholarship. How did this change the course of your academic career

A: In a way it isn’t a departure from my other scholarship. I’ve always been interested in how people get things wrong, so it wasn’t totally a detour. Though it was a detour to learn a lot about Egypt and Afrocentrism, which is a concept white people can zoom along and never know about.

In the ’90s Afrocentrism had this moment. There were linguistic efforts to show that Egyptian was the same as other African languages which it’s not. But Martin Bernal’s work had a moment of chic among people who didn’t know much about archaeology and Ancient  Egyptian history— there was this idea that ‘isn’t it wonderful, now classics can be so relevant, we can be connected to African civilization’. Not that I have any objection of classics being connected to anything. If we ever discover a large body of Egyptian philosophy very similar to Artistotle and Plato, that would be just fine with me. I just don’t think we will. The Egyptian philosophy of that time was very metaphysical, very hard to understand for us.

The other thing that threw me about Bernal’s work was he would always throw in false etymologies of words or places. He argued the word Parthenon came from Egyptian, Pr thn meaning ‘house of crystal’.  But the Parthenon has no crystal in it. It doesn’t make any sense on any etymological level. What etymologists have come up with is a very good list of loan words from Egyptian into Greek from even the 8th century, but these are just occasional loan words. Bernal didn’t know all that, and he just made up etymologies. And so few classicists even knew about linguistics that they believed the stuff.

The reason I got into the whole thing was I was asked to do a review by the New Republic and there was the concept of Afrocentrism, and I had known nothing about it. I remember writing this review and thinking maybe this was the most important thing I’d ever done. There was a whole mythology there that wasn’t recognized as mythology. It’s very interesting in it’s own right as way of gaining a kind of foundation myth. Just like in the early stages of the women’s liberation movement the Goddess Cult idea was very popular. But to say there was a matriarchy in classical religion to begin with is just false.

More at the link.

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?


post at a blog called A Fine Theorem contains an interesting nugget:

The Romans famously conquered Gaul – today’s France – under Caesar, and Britain in stages up through Hadrian. Roman cities popped up across these regions, until the 5th century invasions wiped out Roman control. In Britain, for all practical purposes the entire economic network faded away: cities hollowed out, trade came to a stop, and imports from outside Britain and Roman coin are near nonexistent in the archaeological record for the next century and a half. In France, the network was not so cleanly broken, with Christian bishoprics rising in many of the old Roman towns.

Here is the amazing fact: today, 16 of France’s 20 largest cities are located on or near a Roman town, while only 2 of Britain’s 20 largest are. This difference existed even back in the Middle Ages. So who cares? Well, Britain’s cities in the Middle Ages are two and a half times more likely to have coastal access than France’s cities, so that in 1700, when sea trade was hugely important, 56% of urban French lived in towns with sea access while 87% of urban Brits did. This is even though, in both countries, cities with sea access grew faster and huge sums of money were put into building artificial canals. Even at a very local level, the France/Britain distinction holds: when Roman cities were within 25km of the ocean or a navigable river, they tended not to move in France, while in Britain they tended to reappear nearer to the water. The fundamental factor for the shift in both places was that developments in shipbuilding in the early middle ages made the sea much more suitable for trade and military transport than the famous Roman Roads which previously played that role.

This prompted an interesting comparison from Steve Sailer:

Maybe this is analogous to the recent shift from landline telephone networks to wireless telephone networks. Landline networks, like Roman roads, required a lot of social organizational capital to build and maintain, as Americans had in the AT&T era, but many other countries did not. Lots of cultures, such as the 20th Century Italians, had a hard time maintaining a landline system.

In contrast, cell phone networks don’t require a society to be good at cooperating, so even anarchic Somalia can have decent cell phone service. You just have to have a few people who knew what they are doing.

Similarly, medieval shipping networks required concentrations of technically advanced shipwrights here and there, but didn’t require a giant Roman-like state to keep the roads repaired. The ocean repairs itself.

It is striking how land-oriented Roman culture was despite emerging on the Italian peninsula where no place is very far from the sea, the land is mountainous, and the sea is relatively calm and warm. In contrast, England has fairly mild terrain and the Atlantic ocean is more tumultuous than the Mediterranean sea.

Maybe the explanation is that British rivers were better for transport than Italian rivers south of the Po due to more rain and less severe slopes, so it was easier to get started with inland shipping and then continue out into the ocean as your technique improved. But Italian rivers tended to be short and steep and go dry now and then, so they weren’t as good launching pads for eventual saltwater navigation.

Maybe, but Venice and Genoa did dominate maritime trade on the Mediterranean in the high and late Middle Ages…

For my part I am interested in how little influence the Roman Empire ultimately had on Britannia, certainly when compared to Gaul. I assume this is one reason why French is a Romance language while English is a Germanic one.

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.

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.'”

Chastity Belt

The iron maiden, the one-handed flail, the droit de seigneur, and now the chastity belt – all examples of the “weird Middle Ages” that never actually happened. From the ever interesting Atlas Obscura:

Everything You’ve Heard About Chastity Belts Is a Lie

Including their very existence.

WHAT WAS THE CHASTITY BELT? You can picture it; you’ve seen it in many movies and heard references to it across countless cultural forms. There’s even a Seattle band called Chastity Belt. In his 1969 book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), David R. Reuben describes it as an “armored bikini” with a “screen in front to allow urination and an inch of iron between the vagina and temptation.”

“The whole business was fastened with a large padlock,” he writes. With this device, medieval men going off to medieval wars could be assured that their medieval wives would not have sex with anyone else while they were far, far away, for years at a time. Yes, it sounds simultaneously ridiculous, barbarous, and extremely unhygienic, but … medieval men, you know? It was a different time.

This, at least, is the story that’s been told for hundreds of years. It’s simple, shocking, and, on some level, fun, in that it portrays past people as exceedingly backwards and us, by extension, as enlightened and just better. It’s also, mostly likely, very wrong.

“As a medievalist, one day I thought: I cannot stand this anymore,” says Albrecht Classen, a professor in the University of Arizona’s German Studies department. So he set out to reveal the true history of chastity belts. “It’s a concise enough research topic that I could cover everything that was ever written about it,” he says, “and in one swoop destroy this myth.”

Here is the truth: Chastity belts, made of metal and used to ensure female fidelity, never really existed.

When one considers the evidence for medieval chastity belts, as Classen did in his book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that there’s not much of it. First of all, there aren’t actually all that many pictures or accounts of the use of chastity belts, and even fewer physical specimens. And the few book-length works on the topic rely heavily on each other, and all cite the same few examples.

“You have a bunch of literary representation, but very few historical references to a man trying to put a chastity belt on his wife,” says Classen. And any literary reference to a chastity belt is likely either allegorical or satirical.

References to chastity belts in European texts go back centuries, well into the first millennium A.D. But until the 1100s, those references are all couched in theology, as metaphors for the idea of fidelity and purity. For example: One Latin source admonishes the “honest virgin” to “hold the helmet of salvation on your front, the word of truth in the mouth … true love of God and your neighbor in the chest, the girdle of chastity in the body … .” Possibly virgins who took this advice went around wearing metal helmets and keeping some physical manifestation of the word “truth” in their cheeks, like a wad of tobacco, in additional to strapping on metal underwear. Or, possibly, none of this was meant to be taken literally.

More, including pictures, at the link.

Historical Debate

I quite liked Andrew Holt’s response to Matt Gabriele’s editorial in the Washington Post: “Islamphobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all.” Choice excerpt (emphasis added):

Professor Gabriele may well disagree with these historians [Riley-Smith, Madden, Frankopan, and Crawford, whom Holt quotes], and likely could make a compelling case in some instances. The crusades are complex, after all, and some issues can be approached in different ways. But one of the things I found most objectionable in his piece was the way he claimed to speak for “scholars of the crusades” when I think many of them, including some of the most influential and prominent, do not share his views. To the contrary, I think Gabriele’s seeming rejection of any defensive impetus to the birth of the crusading movement is, by far, the minority position. Although other issues are important to the birth of the crusading movement and sources must always be read critically, the primary emphasis of sources from the era, whether ecclesiastical or lay, highlight the defense of fellow Christians and Christian interests in the Holy Land as the main justification for the calling of the crusade.

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. Those he criticizes, after all, can read the same books and articles I provide above.

Read the whole thing.

Rex inutilis

An interesting post on the OUP blog by Sophie Thérèse Ambler, courtesy my friend Bill Campbell:

What to do with a simple-minded ruler: a medieval solution

The thirteenth century saw the reigns of several rulers ill-equipped for the task of government, decried not as tyrants but incompetents. Sancho II of Portugal (1223–48), his critics said, let his kingdom fall to ruin on account of his “idleness,” “timidity of spirit,” and “simplicity”. The last term, simplex, could mean straightforward, but here it meant only simple-minded, foolish, stupid. The same term was used to describe the English king Henry III (1216–72), as well as John Balliol, the hapless king of Scotland (1292–96) appointed by England’s Edward I. As the elites of these kingdoms knew too well, it could happen on occasion that a man rose to officewhether he had been born to claim it, had won the right to hold it, or had found it thrust upon himwho did not have the intelligence to wield power.

Such a situation was dangerous, for subjects would suffer. In Portugal, it was claimed that Sancho’s inability to govern had allowed Church liberties to be attacked, women to be defiled, and the common folk to be oppressed. England’s Henry III had frittered away his resources, monies needed desperately to maintain his government; the result, it was claimed, was that Henry did not even have the cash to buy food and drink for his household and had turned to seizing victuals from his people, leaving them impoverished. The subjects of John Balliol had, perhaps, the most to fear from their king’s simplicity: John was incapable of standing up to Edward I, when a stand was needed urgently to defend his people from the bullying English king.

The people of Portugal, England, and Scotland knew of a potential solution to the problem of their simple-minded rulers: the rex inutilis theory (literally, “useless king”). This was a tenet of Church law that provided, when a bishop was too infirm to fulfill his duties, for the appointment of a coadjutor to exercise power on his behalf. The theory could be applied to lay rulers too, though it addressed here the problem of incompetence rather than infirmity.

It was the pope who held the power to pronounce a king rex inutilis. The papal court was like a medieval United Nations: its interests ranged from the making of peace between polities to the proper conduct of rulers, and the well-being of all those under the Church’s care. To this end, the pope had a mighty moral weapon in his arsenal: he could depose rulers and free subjects from their oaths of fealty or, as in the case of a rex inutilis, take effective power from his hands.

More at the link.

Exam Question

Both the Vikings (around the year 1000) and the Spanish (from 1492) were Europeans who set foot in the New World. But a majority of the people in the New World now speak Spanish as their native language, while virtually no one speaks Old Norse. What explains the Spanish success at colonization?

This question uses language as a gauge of colonial success, but does it deserve to be? A fuller picture involving law, religion, technology, music, clothing, and other folkways might be more useful. There may, after all, be something “recessive” about some languages. As we learned in class, everywhere the Vikings settled, whether northern England, Ireland, Normandy, or Russia, saw them lose their language within a generation – often without them losing their fighting spirit! The only place this did not occur was Iceland, where there was no local population to get absorbed into. If the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was not abandoned, it is entirely possible that John Cabot, when he arrived in Newfoundland in 1497, would have been surprised to meet blonde-haired Beothuks employing Viking technology. That might indicate some colonial success. Similarly, in Latin America, Spanish may have extinguished native languages, but many native customs continued unmolested.

Be that as it may, it is manifestly apparent that the Spanish colonial enterprise was more successful than the Viking by any number of metrics. L’Anse Aux Meadows was occupied for perhaps five years, and the two small Greenland settlements were abandoned in the fifteenth century, while much of the New World was “New Spain” from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. What explains the difference?

One explanation might be simple geography. Greenland and Newfoundland, even in the medieval warm period, did not have as much to offer in terms of exploitable resources as Central America and the Caribbean. Similarly, the Aztec and Incan empires were already civilized, and all the Spanish needed to do was replace the rulers at the top to win the whole thing; the conquering had already been done for them. Such conditions did not prevail in the extreme northeast.

But differences in time are probably more significant. The five-hundred year gap between Leif Erikson and Hernán Cortés saw the advent of a number of technological and cultural changes that gave an impressive advantage to the Spanish in their colonial endeavors. The medieval silk road that flourished under the Mongols gave Europeans a taste for Asian luxury goods, and the advent of the Ottoman Empire, which impeded this traffic, impelled Europeans to find alternate routes to Asia. Various technologies borrowed from the Arabs and/or developed through Mediterranean commerce allowed Europeans to sail longer distances out of sight of land, such as lateen sails and fixed rudders (allowing ships to tack against the wind, and obviating the need for galley crews), the astrolabe (for determining latitude), the magnetic compass (for determining cardinal directions when the sun or stars are occluded), or the traverse board (for plotting distance traveled). Such technologies allowed for a transatlantic voyage, something the Vikings were not capable of. That it was the Spanish who discovered the New World is also no accident – the union of Castile and Aragon, and its 1492 defeat of Grenada, completing the reconquista, gave it an overweening sense of self-confidence. God was on their side! The fact that Portugal was establishing a route to Asia down the coast of Africa make the Spanish fearful, and willing to gamble on a trans-Oceanic route. This is another difference between 1000 and 1500 – states were simply more powerful, and in competition with each other.

But perhaps the most significant event to occur in Europe between 1000 and 1500 was the Black Death. Europeans alive in 1500 were the descendants of people who had survived the plague (and other diseases like smallpox and swine influenza). They could still die from these diseases, of course, but they had a much greater chance of surviving them than did the native Americans, whose bodies were more evolved to counter parasites than microbes. This biological weapon (coupled with other weapons like firearms and steel swords, the other points of Jared Diamond’s triad, and domesticated fauna like attack dogs and ridable horses), gave the Spanish, and eventually other Europeans, an overwhelming advantage at conquest and colonization.

Angel Roofs

From my friend Tim Emmett, pastor of the Waleska UMC, an interesting gallery on BBC Travel of photographs of angel roofs, which were a regular feature of late medieval English church architecture. The first caption reads:

Think of medieval England’s finest gems, and castles probably come to mind first. But the country has another type of treasure that few people know about: angel roofs. Built between 1395 and the English Reformation of the mid-1500s, these roofs are decorated with intricately carved wooden angels. Only 170 survive today. Because so little of the art from England’s medieval churches survived the Reformation, that still makes these cherubim “the largest surviving body of major English medieval wood sculpture”, writes photographer and expert Michael Rimmer in his book The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages.

Click the link to see a collection of Rimmer’s photographs. I had no idea these were a thing, nor that the Reformation had such a problem with them (after all, angels were biblical – unlike saints!).