May 27, 2010

Life Along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield

The cities between Kabul and Chang'an are famous to us, and saw wealth in the first millenium CE, because of the trade routes between East and West, also between Tibet and India. They were ecologically fragile, with scant or unreliable water supplies and terrible weather. But there were dozens of kingdoms, cultures, entire religions that rose or survived in this web of cities connected by traders. (Perhaps it's an example of island biogeography for ideas.) Also, cloth and paper -- and the religious trading societies seem to have been widely literate -- survive pretty well in dry cold salty territory.

Whitfield summarizes the general history, and the kinds of records we have and the history of those records, in the first chapters. Each subsequent chapter is a biography or pseudo-biography of someone with a reasonably characteristic life, one era to the next, over 250 years from 750 CE to 1000 CE. None of these lives are easy, given the combination of marginal ecological existence and the tides of conquest running in all directions, but that makes them exciting to read about.

There are wonderful pictures, of the objects and wall-paintings that survive, or at least survived long enough to be photographed. (Whitfield works at the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, which links web access to collections all over the world. She argues that Aurel Stein was more responsible for saving some of the artifacts of Dunhuang from destruction or smuggling than not.)

Interesting early 'bio-signature': illiterate persons putting a forefinger down under their name, and the positions of the joints marked on the contract.

The long story of life on a hard trade route reminded me of two other books that I don't seem to have mentioned. The Mummies of Urumchi, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, describes the astoundingly well-preserved mummies and fabric salt-frozen into the edge of the Tarim Basin desert as the last water dried up about 1000 BCE. One of the points of contention is where the mummified civilization came from, and who, if anyone, are their descendants now. Whitfield describes rather a lot of the small civilizations of 1000 CE as being of unknown origin, even down to 'East or West?', although I suppose we have a better guess at their descendants. Wayland Barber is also an experimental archaeologist, someone who understands the evidence by figuring out how to use or reproduce it; her specialty is fiber and cloth, still important in Whitfield's period; the "Silk Road", after all.

Or, considering ecology more than trade, Eagle Dreams, by Stephen Bodio: what it's like to hunt with a golden eagle in Mongolia. There was a lot of romanticism in that book, about how tough the steppe-dwellers are compared to lowland dwellers. Certainly they are. They're also clearly at the top of a food-chain with a narrow base; Bodio describes his confusion at looking at grazing-grounds that seemed to be made of rocks only, no grass. Consuming a higher proportion of what's available probably crowds out more of the creatures that could live there if humans didn't. Bodio seemed to assume it was ecologically virtuous (or at least, defensible despite its carnivorous, aggressive, gunpowder-happy style) because the absolute consumption seemed lower. I suspect absolute consumption is actually pretty high, because it takes a lot -- of calories, to start with -- just to survive there; it's comfort that's low. On the other hand, it's (a version of) a system that did co-exist with large wild animals for hundreds of years, so can be at least locally reasonably sustainable. (One is not socially allowed to keep a hunting eagle for more than a few years, which is an impressive social stricture given how hard they are to catch and train.) On the third hand, I don't know that the steppe pastoralists have been a local lifestyle on a historical timespan.

Whitfield's period overlaps Tibet's time as an expansionist military empire, which still confuses me. How did they support the manpower? Did the expansionism export young men and import NPP? How is this related to comfort vs. consumption, as in the Mongolian example? It fits ibn Khaldun's theory of conquerers-from-the-desert becoming soft, conquerable city people, sort of.

Find in a Library:

Life Along the Silk Road

The Mummies of Urumchi

Eagle Dreams

So wrote clew.

October 26, 2009

Mathematics in Ancient Iraq, Eleanor Robson

I didn't have time to skim this, let alone read it, but each chapter is coherently summarized both at the beginning and the end. Also, the pictures have good captions. It's a pity to reward this clarity by remembering only scraps.

Still, these are the scraps I have:

It's astounding how long the repetitive, empirical, pre-deductive* mathematical tradition lasted with very little change: more than a millenium, easily, of what has to have been person-to-person transmission. It is not really astounding that surveying was a living tradition that long, but it's surprising in hindsight that there was so little innovation when the techniques were so laborious. This is, I imagine, partly due to legal precedent not wanting innovation, as in the law now; but perhaps it's the necessary 'long tail' to an exponential rate of change. (Dyed linen string, from wild flax, seems to be at least 30,000 years old; possibly one of the things that got us through the Ice Ages.)

There were clearly numerate female workers, and this is often followed up by comments that they may have always worked for women, not for men. But look, that means there were a steady supply of women who owned and ran farms and other businesses (as is clear from some of the records).

The image on the cover is of a woman, a goddess of measurement -- Neal Stephenson fans will recognize the image as 'carrying a 1 and a 0'. Well, no, she's holding a rope and a stick, because geometry came first and good measurement was one measure of a good state.

Officially, one of the things that didn't change was prices and work rates and workers' wages, and many of the surviving records seem to be back-calculating one of these from others. I couldn't tell if the evidence was that wages were actually changing under the table, or unchanging and immiserating various parts of the population, or what.

Spreadsheets got invented in cuneiform! Rather late in its span, and much of the innovation may have been in a very few offices, but still. Row totals checked against column totals, and explanatory comments in some cells. Very clear even in the pictures of the clay tablets.

back to that 'pre-deductive' dig; the last chapters take on the Accepted Belief that all was rote memorization of slightly wrong formulae until the Greeks axiomatized and brought light. I was really skimming at this point, and it seems to be a delicate and contentious argument, but it looked to me as though there was -- very close in time -- the beginnings of innovation among the last of the workers in cuneiform, and evidence that no-one heard what the brilliant Greek dilettantes were doing for a while. Perhaps perhaps it was an age in which innovation was bound to happen, because the exponential curve was ticking upwards (on what process? Trade? Climate change? Accumulation of experience? What?) and it would happen everywhere, as with the calculus.

Find in a Library: Mathematics in Ancient Iraq

So wrote clew.

March 19, 2009

Farmers of Forty Centuries, F. H. King, D.Sc.

I'd like to find a contemporaneous review of this book. King toured China, Korea and Japan with an expert eye on their intensive, sustainable agriculture and what seems to me to be a radically approving tone for his day. There were still anti-Chinese settlement laws and riots up and down the West Coast, after all, and Jack London was mocking foreign farmers specifically for their prudence and industry. Current reviews of this (it's still in print) are all in the trail of Wendell Berry, who approved; I looked it up because of a half-crankish reference in a composting journal.

King, for someone clearly approving, comes across as a transparent, inquisitive author, who must have had a busy translator to extract all the techniques and price-lists and explanations that make it into the book. Mostly, this is a travelogue with 'pods' (in Elise Hancock's words) of dense agro-tech exposition hanging off; and many photographs of a startlingly pre-industrial world.

The frame of King's curiosity, though, is his claim--as a Wisconsin professor of agriculture--that the U.S. could not possibly sustain its wasting methods of agriculture, its intentional losses of topsoil and nutrients, and that the Far East had a long history of supporting high populations, and probably knew something we needed. From the Preface (by a Dr L. H. Bailey):

We in North America are wont to think that we may instruct all the world in agriculture, because our agricultural wealth is great and our exports to less favoured peoples have been heavy; but this wealth is great because our soil is fertile and new, and in large acreage for every person. We have really only begun to farm well.

Following, many details of how the fields are leveled, green and muck manures preserved and spread, crops and fallow rotated, irrigation accomplished, markets made. King points out early that the areas around the China Sea are of naturally high productivity, being warm and well-watered (by rain, as well as rivers that bring them silt); but the astounding effort put into farming every square foot, into dredging that silt out of an enormous delta--by human labor--to raise and, indeed, create the land, is no less amazing. King was always happy to notice what clever tricks cycled nutrients, but modern lazy I, I notice that the cleverness usually relies on human effort and a good bit of desperation. There were also devastating famines in China, over those forty centuries. I don't know if they were less common there than in, say, Europe; and this seems crucial to enthusiasm for the book... If we are to consider if this is a good plan for humanity (and many permaculture enthusiasts do), then I want to know how many population crashes that 'sustainability' requires. King quotes an interlocutor saying that in poor years the girl children are sold or given away, which King refuses to believe.

It would be nice to think that we could have a less dense population, and still recycle as intensively, leaving a margin for ourselves and natural systems. It seems unlikely to me. Not just the physical labor, but the constant attention, seem to me to be so extreme that we would not keep them up without a constant fear of personal failure and starvation:

But above any other factor, and perhaps greater than all of them combined in contributing to the high maintenance-efficiency attained in these countries, must be placed the standard of living to which the industrial classes have been compelled to adjust themselves, combined with the most rigorous economy which they practise along every line of effort and of living.

The permaculture doomers assume that we'll have that fear soon enough, and will want to know how to survive; fair enough. Or possibly we will teach our robots to do it for us. Wall-E would have been a much, much better movie had Wall-E found a copy of this book.

Interesting details: comparing the smallest unit of currency, the cash, about 1/1750 of a US dollar at the time, to the smallest unit, used "On the Pacific coast [of the U.S.], where less thought is given to little economies than perhaps anywhere else[...] the nickel". Foot-propelled paddlewheel passenger boats cost less per passenger mile than the US railway tariff. King suggests diverting the lower Mississippi over the "200 miles of country" behind its levees, in order to preserve and increase fertile farmland. "Everywhere we went in China, the labouring people appeared happy and contented, and showed clearly that they were well nourished. The industrial classes are thoroughly organized, having had their guilds or labor unions for centuries." The compost practices were detailed and labor-intensive; Chinese villagers built clamps of mud over aging compost; the Japanese National Department of Agriculture published plans for a handsome stercorary. (It's evident that Japan had more timber than China.) There's a reference to 'parking' but the word means 'making a park of' land, planting trees.

Find in a Library: Farmers of Forty Centuries

So wrote clew.

March 08, 2009

The Lives of the Necromancers, William Godwin

You wouldn't think a book with this title could be as dull as this one is. It opens with a promising assurance that it has the highest historical ends in view, not low titillation, but I didn't think it achieved either. I didn't get very far, though.

Project Gutenberg file #7082:Lives of the Necromancers

So wrote clew.

September 16, 2008

Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich

One of the minor questions in this "History of Collective Joy" is that of where dancing comes from, why it should be a universal action and pleasure. She hypothesizes that humans, or proto-humans, learned to do it to frighten off predators. The idea is that a group of people moving in unison look like a threat as big as the group, not a bunch of threats only as big as the puny individuals.

Now we know it works for giant honeybees, which do the wave to repulse wasps.

I can't remember if Ehrenreich extends the hypothesis to the possibility that moving in unison actually makes a group more dangerous to attack, but cooperation and communication are how humans now survive, and of course we do both with music. Dancing at predators might not be a false signal of a false size, but a true signal of a true skill, just as the bees also dance to each other when the wasps are gone.

The dance of the bees is a language; well, it has a grammar in the programming sense, although it's probably Not Done to refer to it as a language in the natural language sense... William Calvin sketches how the capacity for language might have arisen from the pre-processing needed to hit a rabbit with a thrown stone; the capacity needed to dance well is going to be harder to calculate (he neatly shows that the accuracy and speed needed to hit a rabbit, compared to the slowness with which signals travel through arm-muscles, mean that the whole throwing action is laid out in the brain before it's sent to the muscles to be executed there). Some of dancing is exactly unlike throwing the rock: there are many ways to bring a foot down at a given time, but the problem is to coordinate among all the dancers what that time is. And this implies a need for communication, and mirror-neurons and maybe rhythm, fired up exactly when the muscular activity is high. Irresistable just-so stories.

Find in a Library: Dancing in the Streets

Find in a Library: The Throwing Madonna

So wrote clew.

April 03, 2006

Feast: A History of Grand Eating, Roy Strong

I could not enjoy this catalogue of convivial excess because I felt a constant undertow of teleology, specifically that the purpose of all Western feasting (it has no other) was either to prepare for the English rich in the late 1800s, or to mourn their vanishing. Pleasant as mahogany and fish-slices are, I doubt they were either more convivial than the triclinium or more excessive than the nef.

The book may have begun as articles for Country Life, which might explain the slant.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

August 30, 2005

The Culture of the Roman Plebs, Nicholas Horsfall

It's a short little monograph, as the largest fact is that nobody knows much about the (language) culture of the Roman plebs because nobody wrote much down about it; the evidence he can cite is scene-setting, or circumstantial, or drawn from polemics against the plebs written centuries apart.

Horsfall's argument that the plebs probably had musical culture despite "their culpable unGreekness" p. 25) is a delicate outline; we know they sang, to memorize (arithmetic) or express political opinion or repeat the pleasures of the theater. Maybe we don't know what languages they could sing in. He thinks they probably knew some Greek, what with so many soldiers rotating through Greece, and so many Greek workers and slaves living in Rome. That would open the Greek plays the elites did write about to common enjoyment:

This is not to suggest that the mass public went to the theatre so as to learn Greek myth. There were indeed attractions of a very different order, but there is no profound incompatibility between unblushing delight taken in the most lurid special effects, flames, storms, battles, drives of animals, ghosts and a genuine love for the old tragedies.

That's page 59 and an argument for the serial comma.

The rest is detail, not all about music, pleasant if you like to imagine ancient Rome, not susceptible to more compression. He writes kindly of Lindsey Davis' accuracy in the details of material culture there.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

August 16, 2005

The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance, Joscelyn Godwin

Readers will have their own opinions on whether men, and women, are psychologically different now from what they were 400 or 10,000 years ago. It is the kind of opinion that is unlikely to be shaken by argument, because for the historically-minded, much of ones worldview hinges on it. The present book is intended as a modest contribution to the question, not so much in the hope of resolving it as of stirring up the waters and foiling any attempt at an easy answer.

The specific question to which Godwin gives no easy answer is: When the new humanists of the Renaissance started surrounding themselves with classical culture, building temples with statues of antique gods, and dressing, for some special occasions, as like the ancients as they could, what did they think they were doing?

One of the answers is that it was an escape from the actual religious pain of the time. Philosophers who couldn't answer the questions that rent Europe with religious wars could escape into a 'religion' which had no conflict because no-one really believed it.

Another answer is that they were doing magic; that enacting images of a perfected world, images full of hidden meanings and correspondences, would bring this world closer to perfection. How this compared to Christian ceremony, I don't know. Godwin points out connections both to esoteric traditions that may have believed they were doing magic, and to public spectacle used to cause political faith... Oddly, he says we have no modern parallel to the heroic entries and processions, when I think I've seen citizen-parades with mythic allegories in several towns: on the Fourth, of course, but also for military occasions and Gay Pride parades. Opera, to close the circle, was developed by classicizing musicians.

The subject-matter is still, as it was when new, pretty and suggestive to look at with only its exoteric meanings. Godwin provides many illustrations, because he's concentrating on visual art; unfortunately they're smallish and blurry on uncoated paper, but they're good enough for pointers to pretty copies. There are also plentiful pointers in the text to arguments for mystical meanings, even to claims that secret orders maintained esoteric meanings for centuries, while their members were Christian prelates and kings. The text itself is very un-argumentative on the subject, saying, particularly of gardens such as the Villa d'Este, that these claims can likely never be proved to reason, but to walk through the garden spells it out to the imagination.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

July 13, 2005

Classical Greek Architecture: The Construction of the Modern, Alexander Tzonis

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee 
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, 
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, 
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. 

A while ago City Comforts had a minor theme on columns, colonnades, classicism and neo-classicism in architecture. One of the obvious problems was that 'classicism' is regularly redefined. I don't think the discussion there really settled on a definition; David Sucher felt that the term is used to mean anything pre-automobile, especially with columns and cornices. The architects (?) were earnest that classical architecture is a language in which c. and c. are words but not required words; they didn't demonstrate this in Backus-Naur. I found an online version of Vitruvius, which I boiled down for a comment (copied below); he's very appealing, I think, in his combination of aesthetic and practical concerns.

Classical Greek Architecture stood out on the new-books shelf of the library for its size and glossy whiteness. Its purpose seems to be to reprint some lovely, probably pre-WWI photographs of classical ruins, especially the Acropolis, said ruins sizeable and white on unpeopled hills. Most of those ruins are of temples and temenos, temple complexes, not places many people lived; but the book also has site plans of entire cities, and close-ups of columns and bases.

The text was probably speaking to those who already know; for one thing, its 'modern' seems to mean 'not archaic', and almost to mean 'rational'. There is a little historical comment on one of the more recent 'moderns', which explains some of the anxiety around The Decipherment of Linear B. 19th c. and 20th c. scholars, especially German ones, really wanted the classical Greeks to have come as a group from Northern fastnesses and immediately leapt to greatness, without cultural cross-pollination; so the language of a pre-greatness not-blond group wasn't 'supposed' to be Greek. Perhaps there was a little crosstalk between that theory and the desire to remake the world that led also to what we think of as Modernist architecture. That's my interpolation; Tzonis is explicit that classical revivals have been used for all sorts of political movements, not all compatible with each other, and indeed that the Homeric age itself was doing exactly the same thing: "forging a Hellenic identity through reconstruction of the past." (p. 23)

Even inside that reconstruction, there was a split now familiar; Tzonis, partly in tracking cultural cross-pollination, remarks that technicians, builders and makers, were already thought of as naturally cosmopolitan and often expats; he cites the Odyssey, Herodotus, Plutarch. Culture at large found innovation worrisome because it might be impious.

They had plenty of innovation, including the introduction (possibly from Egypt) of gridded urban planning, to which the Greeks used to separate public/business and residential areas and also to reflect the democratic equal allocation of land shares (p. 150). Of this: "stoae began to flank the main streets... enhancing environmental comfort and enabling social interaction." Also, "the stoa became the first kind of building in ancient Greece that was used as a means of defining an outside area... of forming places, rather than simply as an independent object inserted in space." There's a lot more by Tzonis on how the columns around a building made it a discrete spatial object, unlike the stuck-together palace complexes of the Mycenaeans; and also an object that was an expression of a total rational plan, of world-making. The pictures show the grid beginning to apply to everything, not just the buildings in a new town and the columns along the building but the elements of the frieze and the stones themselves of the wall, all on the same grid. It still looks pretty good; I expect it stunned the perception of anyone who had seen only natural, never comprehensible, geometry. This is where Tzonis sees the modern; systematic thinking, with "no place for falsehood or accident".

Therefore I can believe a great deal of architectural mysticism on the part of the Greeks, although it's hard to believe that, for instance, the Myceneans didn't experience their palaces as defined places. I was also struck by how the technical challenges of building were being met by columns; the Telesterion of Eleusis held thousands of people, the Thersilion has a surprising arrangement of columns allowing (I think) good sightlines for the people in it.

ISBN: 2080304429

Moving from Greece to Rome, Vitruvius appeals to my practical sense. My cherry-picking of his On Architecture, copied from City Comforts, where we were arguing over the usefulness of classicism for cities with cars:

I was going to say what Chris Burd just said about the grid being classical even if you think it's obvious. I'd go a little further and say that the enthusiasm that built the courthouses and public squares in the gridded railroad towns was often consciously, if naively, classicist.

About how classicists would deal with the urban car: there's precedent, of course. The city is built to be navigated on foot, and wheeled traffic for heavy deliveries is limited to after dark. Works for me. Heck, it might take the Eleusinian Rites to build transit in Seattle. (I am mixing my references. Sorry.)

Seriously, though, you could consult Vitruvius to see if the canonical classical architect is concerned with plan as well as elevation. One summary of Book V, put up by Bill Thayer, runs:

"In which the author warns you that architecture is highly technical, then proves it in spades in his exposition of civil public spaces: the forum, the basilica, the theatre and its porticos, the palaestra and the baths; harbors. "

There are specific measurements for pillars and so forth, but part of the Classic habit was the reasoning given for the standardized site designs. Particularly 3-Rules-relevant stuff:

"for the convenience of the spectators, the intercolumniations must be wider; and the bankers' shops are situated in the surrounding porticos with apartments on the floors over them, which are constructed for the use of the parties, and as a depôt of the public revenue. "

"The basilica should be situated adjoining the forum, on the warmest side, so that the merchants may assemble there in winter, without being inconvenienced by the cold. "

"The tribunal is in the shape of a segment of a circle; the front dimension of which is forty-six feet, that of its depth fifteen feet; and is so contrived, that the merchants who are in the basilica may not interfere with those who have business before the magistrates. "

And, my favorite; a completely utilitarian reason given for a cornice:

"The [curia] walls, moreover, at half their height, are to have cornices run round them of wood or plaster. For if such be not provided, the voices of the disputants meeting with no check in their ascent, will not be intelligible to the audience."

Later he worries about the walkways of the city; they should ideally be protected, verdurant, well-drained, and made of charcoal that will serve as fuel during sieges.

In book VI he considers private buildings. He also manages to explain why every climate except that of Italy develops inferior people, but the discussion of climate starts with:

"These [private buildings] are properly designed, when due regard is had to the country and climate in which they are erected. For the method of building which is suited to Egypt would be very improper in Spain, and that in use in Pontus would be absurd at Rome: so in other parts of the world a style suitable to one climate, would be very unsuitable to another..."

His practical argument for arches: beams sag and are very hard to repair in place. The upper story, he says, can be built as you like, beams or arches, because it can be redone if you get it wrong.

So wrote clew.

May 30, 2005

The Decipherment of Linear B, John Chadwick

Chadwick is compact, eulogistic, and informative; this is a great bit of expository writing without being only expository writing.

The plain story is how Chadwick and Michael Ventris deciphered the written language of ancient Crete and Mycenae, partly by the logician's approach they practiced as codebreakers and mapmakers in WWII but partly by realizing that the spoken language might have been a form of Greek.

Chadwick doesn't explain why many Educated Men of his day were so surprised, even displeased, to find this precursor to Greek. The emotion that made sense all through was how sad he was to decipher these tablets, unread for thousands of years, and find them the prosaic arrangements for the failed defense of a civilization. Ventris died young too.

Chadwick, John. The Decipherment of Linear B. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.

So wrote clew.

March 01, 2005

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, Edward Gibbon

More scraps:

A martial nobility and stubborn commons, possessed of arms, tenacious of property, and collected into constitutional assemblies, form the only balance capable of preserving a free constitution against enterprises of an aspiring prince.

The character of the tribunes was, in every respect, different from that of the consuls. The appearance of the former was modest and humble; but their persons were sacred and inviolable. Their force was suited rather for opposition than for action. They were instituted to defend the oppressed, to pardon offences, to arraign the enemies of the people, and, when they judged it necessary, to stop, by a single word, the whole machine of government. As long as the republic subsisted, the dangerous influence, which either the consul or the tribune might derive from their respective jurisdiction, was diminished by several important restrictions. Their authority expired with the year in which they were elected; the former office was divided between two, the latter among ten persons; and, as both in their private and public interest they were averse to each other, their mutual conflicts contributed, for the most part, to strengthen rather than to destroy the balance of the constitution. ^* But when the consular and tribunitian powers were united, when they were vested for life in a single person, when the general of the army was, at the same time, the minister of the senate and the representative of the Roman people, it was impossible to resist the exercise, nor was it easy to define the limits, of his imperial prerogative.

We should disgrace the virtues of the Antonines by comparing them with the vices of Hercules or Jupiter. Even the characters of Caesar or Augustus were far superior to those of the popular deities. But it was the misfortune of the former to live in an enlightened age, and their actions were too faithfully recorded to admit of such a mixture of fable and mystery, as the devotion of the vulgar requires. As soon as their divinity was established by law, it sunk into oblivion, without contributing either to their own fame, or to the dignity of succeeding princes.

Faustina, the daughter of Pius and the wife of Marcus, has been as much celebrated for her gallantries as for her beauty. The grave simplicity of the philosopher was ill calculated to engage her wanton levity, or to fix that unbounded passion for variety, which often discovered personal merit in the meanest of mankind. ^2 The Cupid of the ancients was, in general, a very sensual deity; and the amours of an empress, as they exact on her side the plainest advances, are seldom susceptible of much sentimental delicacy. Marcus was the only man in the empire who seemed ignorant or insensible of the irregularities of Faustina; which, according to the prejudices of every age, reflected some disgrace on the injured husband. He promoted several of her lovers to posts of honor and profit, ^3 and during a connection of thirty years, invariably gave her proofs of the most tender confidence, and of a respect which ended not with her life. In his Meditations, he thanks the gods, who had bestowed on him a wife so faithful, so gentle, and of such a wonderful simplicity of manners.

During the second Punic war, the Romans imported from Asia the worship of the mother of the gods. Her festival, the Megalesia, began on the fourth of April, and lasted six days.
The streets were crowded with mad processions, the theatres with spectators, and the public tables with unbidden guests. Order and police were suspended, and pleasure was the only serious business of the city.

In the lucrative provincial employments, the minister shared with the governor the spoils of the people. The execution of the laws was penal and arbitrary. A wealthy criminal might obtain, not only the reversal of the sentence by which he was justly condemned, but might likewise inflict whatever punishment he pleased on the accuser, the witnesses, and the judge.

What Gibbon improperly calls, both here and in the note, tumultuous decrees, were no more than the applauses and acclamations which recur so often in the history of the emperors.
The custom passed from the theatre to the forum, from the forum to the senate. Applauses on the adoption of the Imperial decrees were first introduced under Trajan. (Plin. jun. Panegyr. 75.) One senator read the form of the decree, and all the rest answered by acclamations, accompanied with a kind of chant or rhythm.

February 20, 2005

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, Edward Gibbon

No, I can't possibly comment on Gibbon; "reckless to consult, impertinent to commend", as was said of a different "damned thick square book". I can just keep a commonplace-book of presently apt quotations.

There are some that particularly need context. The Project Gutenberg edition has at least two sets of editorial footnotes, each with useful added archaeological discoveries; the first is also sputteringly devoted to arguing that Gibbon abused eloquence to make Christianity look less moral and successful than it was. The second editor is mostly interested in defending Gibbon from charges of historical inaccuracy; on the point of evangelicism, he says:

It is idle, it is disingenuous, to deny or to dissemble the early depravations of Christianity, its gradual but rapid departure from its primitive simplicity and purity, still more, from its spirit of universal love. It may be no unsalutary lesson to the Christian world, that this silent, this unavoidable, perhaps, yet fatal change shall have been drawn by an impartial, or even an hostile hand. The Christianity of every age may take warning, lest by its own narrow views, its want of wisdom, and its want of charity, it give the same advantage to the future unfriendly historian, and disparage the cause of true religion.

Where the defender of the faith really goes off the rails is in his complaint that Gibbon does not recognize the slowly-ameliorated condition of slaves in the late Empire as the unavoidable result of Christianity. The second editor cites various authorities on the mixed causes of improvement; Adam Smith among them; but completely spikes the argument in one sentence:

Gibbon, it should be added, was one of the first and most consistent opponents of the African slave-trade.

Contextless quotes, following:

...a degenerate race of princes...

(Try that aloud.)

These disadvantages, which now operate in their fullest extent, were formerly corrected by the labors of a numerous people, and the active protection of a wise government. The hills were clothed with rich beds of artificial mould, the rain was collected in vast cisterns, a supply of fresh water was conveyed by pipes and aqueducts to the dry lands. The breed of cattle was encouraged in those parts which were not adapted for tillage, and almost every spot was compelled to yield some production for the use of the inhabitants.

(A footnote, in an extensive argument over whether Gibbon was wronging Christianity by describing the Middle East as agriculturally poor. I find the argument itself bewildering, and I'm sure the old scholarship has been surpassed; but I like the details of "making two blades of grass grow where one grew before". )

The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
The situation of the Greeks was very different from that of the barbarians. The former had been long since civilized and corrupted. They had too much taste to relinquish their language, and too much vanity to adopt any foreign institutions. Still preserving the prejudices, after they had lost the virtues, of their ancestors, they affected to despise the unpolished manners of the Roman conquerors, whilst they were compelled to respect their superior wisdom and power.
In the commonwealths of Athens and Rome, the modest simplicity of private houses announced the equal condition of freedom; whilst the sovereignty of the people was represented in the majestic edifices designed to the public use; nor was this republican spirit totally extinguished by the introduction of wealth and monarchy.
The solitudes of Asia and Africa were once covered with flourishing cities, whose populousness, and even whose existence, was derived from such artificial supplies of a perennial stream of fresh water.

More later. I had to decant some bookmarks because I had screenfuls, on my Palm. It is annoying to lose track of who's writing a given footnote, but on the other hand I'm finding Gibbon easy to absorb in measured little doses.

Project Gutenberg text #731; there's also a HTML version, file 890.

November 18, 2004

Anglomania, Ian Buruma

This is a suggestive, though not conclusive, meditation on the persistent appeal of the life of the English gentry; Buruma is a half-outsider of all sorts, and kindly towards people's comfortable delusions.

He returns often to his own experience of Anglo-ism and Anglomania, which is as full of counterbalances as a crib ornament. He grew up in a quietly snobbish section of The Hague, where all the respectable people imitated out-of-date upper-class Englishisms; but Buruma had grandparents living in a perfect old vicarage in Berkshire; but the grandparents were the children of Jewish immigrants from Germany, and their perfect English life could not be called instinctive, though it was heartfelt. With this opener I was afraid the book would never leave the cosy grounds of reminiscence, as in Auden's

Oxford philosophy, to be cursory,
Never really leaves the nursery;
All those arguments anent
What Nanny really meant.

Fortunately Buruma has an outward-looking as well as an inward-looking tendency, and can quote a broad range in conditions and eras of people who admired, more or less enviously, some image of the English gentleman. (There are little side-notes on the occasional extension of this to merely British gentlemen, and sometimes even to the health and independence of the English working class, whether yeoman or union; but mostly it's about the English gentleman who can pretend to be of private means.) What's interesting is how various, even contradictory, that image has been; and how various, even contradictory, are the actions one image could inspire. What's funny is how effective the most ersatz versions were, from Queen Victoria's imaginary medieval Highlands to Leslie Howard's screen career.

The shortest summary I can make of Buruma's finding is that the idea of a permeable upper class, in a nation peacefully based on the equality of law, was strong enough to outweigh any evidence that actual England didn't live up to the idea. England symbolizes muddling through, avoiding excesses of principle that would only have to be undone later. This is a common view.

A distinction more particular to Buruma is that England was representative of all the trading cities, especially the ones on the western coast of all of Europe; cosmopolitan, lawful, open cities that had learnt to benefit from social change. The opposing principle was that of the Blood-and-Soil nativism in which all status was inherited.

Now, given even my frivolous dips into English novels of the last three centuries, I think more attention should have been paid to the tension between these ideas in England itself. The Manchester man is not 'the English gentleman'. Buruma's point is probably that Manchester and Country Life co-existed better in England than elsewhere. I think one should check whether the tolerance followed the wealth, rather than generated it. The strongest form of the 'city air makes free' argument is that the tolerance causes the wealth; but one does notice that the Low Countries were for some time noticeably more open than their neighbors, and then rich—so far so good—until conquered by those aristocratic neighbors, including though not mostly England. Having a protective ocean lets a nation feel awfully smug for a while.

I think the smugness is intrinsic to the charm; if one is fantasizing about the perfect life, one might as well dream of being effortlessly at the top of a meritocracy. Many a Victorian three-decker novel is a story of compromise inside the English gentry, the compromise between shutting out meritocracy vs. letting it in. The worse novels, descending to pulp romances. are more about 'effortless winning'; Mary-Sue-ism.

Ken McLeod somewhere mentions the final political triumph of a barely-permeable upper class, that it seduces the most competent of the unfortunate away from the interests of their birth-fellows.

ISBN: 0375502068

November 16, 2004

The Stone of Heaven , Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark

Subtitle: Unearthing the Secret History of Imperial Green Jade

These reporters competently render a glamorous subject gloomy, and suggest that a dull subject is rather interesting. The glamorous subject is "Imperial Jade", the best, greenest, most glowing jade, found in remote Burma. The gloom is cast by the bad effects that power & money seem to have had on everyone rich enough to afford the jade. We start with the pathetically ineffectual emperor Qianlong, progress through the alternately wasteful and hypocritical sackings of Chinese and Burmese palaces (early armies destroyed what they couldn't walk away with; the British were organized enough to haul off most of the extravagances, but they spent a lot of effort on paperwork and runaround denying that they'd done it), have a side-note on Shanghai glitterati, mostly Barbara Hutton and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and wind up in the present day, in which the mines are run by slave labor even worse off than slave labor usually is. This last is really awful; for one thing, drugs, disease and modern military power have finally destroyed the tribes indigeneous to the jungly hills around the jade mines. For more than a thousand years, those tribes had been picking off enormous armies that tried to capture the mines, and to have them replaced by systematic immiseration does not make Modernity look like Progress; it seems more like an argument for Deep Green.

The only comfortable part is the authors' hunting facts through archives, frequently moldering ex-British archives in India. They could, for instance, find the letters from Corporal Puff denying that the Queen's troops would take anything for their personal enrichment; and then the auction announcement, at General Puff's death, that his estate was selling jewels from the coffers of an Imperial concubine of China. All the archives are falling to dust, and have been redacted by forgotten censors anyway; it reduces my faith in history.

ISBN: 0316525960

May 03, 2004

Eat My Words, Janet Theophano

I like the idea of collecting receipt books, manuscript or published, and deducing what one can from them about the last four or five hundred years of social history. I wish this particular attempt had had either more direct quotations from the sources, or a more sweeping theory. I expect it's a useful academic book, but the refrain of being neither able to prove nor to disprove a pattern as suggested in the work of [lastname], [date] wasn't any too gripping. (For instance, that an upper-class woman who wrote down a servant's recipe might have been respecting the servant, by treating her work like that of a friend; or might have been arrogating the cook's intellectual property.)

Some of the excerpted work was fascinating, usually by contrasting expectations of Femininity with a vivid experience of it. Elizabeth Raffald left service in the 18th. century, married a market gardener, became a commercial success running something very like a deli (meats, portable soup, sweets) and published The Experienced English Housekeeper, which was not the last of her successful enterprises. We don't seem to know as much about Mrs. Abby Fisher, who survived slavery and became a caterer and cookbook author.

There were also notes left in family or personal collections of recipes, suggesting sometimes how much the author enjoyed cooking and recipe-keeping, or sometimes how unsuitable and onerous it was.

ISBN: 0312233787

April 20, 2004

Made from Scratch, Jean Zimmerman

Subtitle: Reclaiming the Pleasures of the American Hearth

I was ill-disposed to believe in Zimmerman's good intent, or clarity of thought, can't tell, after page 3:

A woman named Elrina lived with her husband in a small wooden shack in the corner of the back lot behind the house, and she helped out in the kitchen. Mostly, though, my grandmother herself dished up the stewed tomatoes, chicken-fried steak...

If you're claiming to honor the work of taking care of a family, it's insufficiently generous to extend honor only to your grandmother, giving her the credit for dishing out the food (that Elrina had cooked?). If it's honorable work, Elrina gets her share of the honor. The lady of the house doesn't get moral credit for work done by someone else.

I think Zimmerman wasn't actually playing that game, although it's so familiar from nineteenth-century social engineering that I also don't think she should go that close. I think Zimmerman's problem is that she hasn't really decided how she wants to live (she's guilt-stricken by SAHMs, gourmet neighbors, etc.), she doesn't have Laura Schenone's capacity to live imaginatively in two contradictory understandings, and she didn't digest her source reading well enough.

I found it difficult to credit her scholarship after p. 58, when she claimed that Homer was the scribe of the Odyssey as the Brothers Grimm were scribes of folktales. Less clunking error: it's all very well to go swimmy about Hestia's honor as the ancient goddess of the hearth, but do remember that she was knocked out of the Top Twelve to make room for Bacchus. Nor am I convinced by the interpretations Zimmerman puts on plausible facts; she seems to take 19th. c. discussions of the woman's sphere at face value. E.g., p, 84, by 1916 there were 17,778 home economics college students, most wanting to teach home economics, compared with 213 in 1905. This is not great evidence that seventeen thousand women wanted to practice, or preach, the home arts. It's great evidence that they wanted to be paid. And if the time she cites as rich in the home traditions wasn't good enough to justify them for themselves, it's not good justification for them in ours.

I quit reading somewhere in her introduction of first-stage feminism. I'd rather reread her sources. The rest of this is really not a fair review, since I just flipped through the last two-thirds of the book.

It seems to me that she wants to justify taking the time to make her family surroundings pleasant by imbuing them with all the grandeur and importance of goddesses and cultural transmission. But Etheldred of The Daisy Chain could explain why that doesn't work; if you're devoted to taking care of other people, you can't send in a bill explaining how you want them to reward you for it. (You can if you're doing it professionally, of which more later.)

I also don't recognize her narrative of what monobloc feminism wanted women to do. She seems personally to have swung from wannabe groovy hippie teen-hood to 1980s careerism to her current state of doubt. I know more feminists who combined interesting work with whole-grain bread-baking from the start, and don't have to have a midlife crisis about it. Besides, Schenone again was more interesting about generational attitudes towards traditional women's work.

There's the ghost of a book on how to arrange the very survival of non-market activity in here. Zimmerman says, repeatedly, that everyone needs to do some of the housework, that we have to value the work of caring and maintenance and cleaning up, because (my summary) not doing so will lead to environmental, health and labor-market disasters. Works for me, but previous go-rounds have indicated that no degree of sententious belief in the sanctity of the home was sufficient to defend the homes of the poor from the garbage of the rich.

I was totally unconvinced by her assumption that buying professionally made food doesn't involve caring, even if it's just as good as you would have made yourself. For one thing, remember Elrina. Think of the good wife in Proverbs, or any cheesemaking farmwife. They fed many people; they cooked or oversaw cooking for the spinning maids, the hired hands. Cooking is a skilled art as well as drudgework, so there's always good reason to let the best cook cook for everyone; and the best cook cooks with care and attention even if she's selling the result. Maybe we should be thinking about how to recognize love and care whether they're paid or not.

I'm sorry I didn't get to Zimmerman's chapter on sewing and needlework, because I have been cynically wondering whether the current fashion for knitting is a feeble attempt at self-sufficiency before the Depression hits, or preparation for the anti-women's-rights backlash. When I'm not cynical, I find it adequately explained by the starvation of the senses that indoor life and cars and mass production have given us. Making anything is better immersion in several senses at once than shopping can be.

ISBN: 0-684-86959-4

April 18, 2004

Libraries in the Ancient World, Lionel Casson

Sumerian and Akkadian libraries were utilitarian and hard to organize; Greek ones were literary and slightly better catalogued; Roman ones bilingual, mostly literary, and perhaps too much given to showy architecture instead of investment in books. The Library of Alexandria was probably as good as its myth. Early Christians were unusually attached to the codex instead of the scroll, but not uniquely so.

And, although this book is packed full of details supporting that summary, it's a short book. We know of libraries by accident. A clay-tablet one survived the fire and abandonment of a palace; likewise scraps of one were preserved at Pompeii; but libraries take so much maintenance that they die easily. Some are known to have existed only because a letter in another town refers to borrowing a book or scribe from the lost one.

This would be less unnerving if the libraries had been only elitist, little-used buildings, but that doesn't seem to have been true from the Hellenic period on. Bequests were made to provide libraries, books, teachers for whole towns; in at least one case, the bequest provided for teaching both boys and girls. We know people read for fun (antique potboiler novels are tremendously, thunderingly bad). They were built next to the Forum, in Rome, to be useful; and built into the baths and gymnasiums, to be popular. But if cities are an epiphenomenon of population, then libraries are an epiphenomenon of cities, and even more fragile.

There's nothing about ancient Chinese libraries; they're entirely outside Casson's remit. Fair, but frustrating.

ISBN: 0-300-08809-4

April 03, 2004

A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, Laura Schenone

Subtitle: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances

Schenone can hold two contradictory ideas at once, which is vital to her project. She writes about the most common and emotional and conflicted food, how everyday cooking was forced to change in the huge waves of migration and innovation that have shaped the US. The three common elements are cheapness, and class-consciousness, and the ties to traditional life through traditional food. This is not a history of the luxurious and thought-out local cuisines of our nation. Still, Schenone can find something good to say about almost everyone and almost every food. (Plantation mistresses don't get a sympathetic word, but JELL-O brand gelatin does.)

The main story is nothing I haven't read elsewhere, but it is a brisk connected introduction to its subjects. To summarize the historical arc: Immigrant women were, first, desperate to find anything to feed their poor families with; second, obliged to cook the old dishes as a duty to keep the old ways alive. Less-recent immigrants got sniffy about the uncouth, smelly food eaten by the new (or native) people; food became an element of indoctrination, more or less benign (e.g. Settlement Houses, more, vs. Indian schools, less). Women's sphere of work got much smaller as manufacture moved out of the house. Women finally moved out of the house, leaving no-one to do thoughtful cooking. How that void will be filled is still not clear—is Alice Waters the anomaly, or are Lunchables?

The best thing in her writing is a willingness to describe the good and the bad that women found in each condition, and a gusto to imagine what it was like and to look at what happened next.

She starts with samp, considers how English and African food traditions had to adapt to the different grains in the New World. (Boston brown bread is an English steamed pudding with New World corn and rye and triangle-trade molasses.) Considers the energy and self-respect of women who went out on week-long gathering trips, as many Native Americans did, or controlled the dairy, as Englishwomen did. She has more sympathetic imagination about what this was like long ago than is pukka scholarly, but her imaginative descriptions are clearly set off with "Perhaps..." or similar. She also found an authentic log-wide hearth to study cooking at, and relished the athleticism of heaving the hot logs and huge pots, kicking the embers, testing heat with a twig or her hand.

A recurring feature of her half-nostalgia is that immigrants were often too poor in the Old Country to eat its cuisine. In the States, they weren't preserving 'the way it was' as much as 'the way it should have been'. It would be interesting to work out how much culinary practice went back from the US to the various old countries, once they'd caught up and the whole world had enough to eat. I need to properly read and cook from A Mediterranean Feast, which goes into alarming detail about the poverty around the Med.

Schenone clearly likes to eat and cook, without pretending that it isn't work. This keeps the last section, on modern food, from coming to a clear conclusion, but it also keeps her from being preachy. She isn't happy about the current US diet or the lack of time that drives it, but after writing the whole dairying-to-war-work history she doesn't assume it's going to stay the way it is forever, as long as we remember that we have to do something about it sometime.

ISBN: 0-393-01671-4

March 09, 2004

Memory and the Mediterranean, Fernand Braudel

Prehistory and ancient history, even of the Mediterranean, wasn't Braudel's real field; and this book is decades old and was put away unfinished; but it's still a characteristic pleasure to read. He made a story of the rise and recombination of civilizations, but does not hang it all on single persons, or ascribe intent to a civilization that would only make sense in a person. Instead, he describes the little that is known, leaves clear his chain of reasoning when leaping to a conclusion, and is affectionate towards quite disparate groups, especially as they managed to spend their energies on trade or food or dancing or anything but war. Two current scholars, one of prehistory and one of ancient history, put in tiny emendations - usually just footnotes referring to more recent discoveries, or a phrase indicating that Braudel was right or wrong in a conjecture.

Notes to myself, of things I wondered at:

Chickens in Egypt in 1500BCE? So early? I thought Gallus gallus was SE Asian. Has anyone mapped the dispersal of the common chicken? and if so, who had to count the bones in the middens?

He has a careful, serious explanation of the layout of story graphics in Egyptian and Mesopotamian friezes, like a strip cartoon. Oddly, he says Movement is therefore sacrificed. Depends on where you learned the convention, I guess. (p 131)

In the rise of the nomads (always part of a mixed economy with agriculture): Herds of [...] sheep, goats and cattle (though not pigs). (p. 139) Pigs later? Wild pigs are terrifying, but so were wild cattle. Pigs may well have been worse. So, when pigs? Compare with chickens.

Hittites: the nice warrior-nomads. At least, after sweeping through Asia Minor and fighting Egypt to a draw, they turned to diplomacy, leaving the signature in 1280 of the oldest peace treaty of which the text has survived. Also, nice art, not a theocracy, and womens' status seems to have been as liberal as in Crete. (p 144) It's the (later but loosely similar) Scythians who may have had women warriors, depending on how recent excavations are interpreted, I think.

The Hittites also look better because they come before the hardly-understood collapse of the 12th century BCE, in which the Mycenaean cities were burnt or deserted, writing and technologies were lost, whole peoples moved as—refugees? nomads? invaders? The climate explanation, p. 151, makes one think of ENSO. The only records, apparently, were left by Egypt, who didn't really know where the masses were coming from. Egypt called them the "People from the Sea", and fought off waves of them, or at least diverted their settlement. As for the Philistines, with or without the pharaoh's consent, they settled in the land to which they would give their name—Palestine—which they had to defend against the Hebrews. (p 154)

And after that, which sounds bad enough, several hundred years of dark age - the Iron Age, which Braudel associates with the common possession and "democratization" of weapons, and also with war becoming endemic and more cruel. He also looks at it as an enormous economic depression. (pp. 155-163, various)

Indo-Europeans burble into or out of central Europe, identifiable because they cremated their dead and left the remains in fields of urns. (p 168) Urn Buriall?

Eventually civilization restarts, especially the Phoenicians trading with, or colonizing, the back-of-barbarian West of the Mediterranean. Braudel skips over many "who was first" quibbles. He probably doesn't have a dog in the fight; in the first place, he's happy when people are making and trading and moving about; and in the second he regards the whole Med as one culture.

Historical humor: Carthage made a mint by trading with the backward people in Spain for silver. Enough silver has circulating to move the gold:silver exchange rate in Egypt from 1 : 2 to 1 : 13! (p. 188). This is funny because that makes twice that Spain has been a conduit for a significant fraction of the coinage in its world-circuit and apparently come off the worse for it both times.

Creepy but consistent bit of Carthaginian religion: in times of crisis, they sacrificed the aristocrats' young sons. (On altars, not in war.) Late in their history some aristocrats bought and sacrificed other children, to save their own; this was such a sacrilege that it required another two hundred children to be sacrificed to expiate it. (p. 199) (No note as to how they checked, er, provenance the second time. And really, at that point sacrificing the fathers would have seemed more effective.)

Economic viewpoint, related to the Phoenician success making landing in primitive places, and Alexander's unsuccess despite conquering Persia; best strategy is to have both primitive and advanced areas in your circuit. ...the Mediterranean belonged to whoever could embrace it from end to end, linking up the high point and the low point of commerce.... (p. 224) Over and over, a city lucks into cheap grain from a hinterland it acquired for other reasons, and leaps to a much more productive, division-of-labor material economy. This was good for the people on top of the city on top of the division. Not so clear about everyone else.

Added on the 11th:

The Etruscans seem to have popped up out of nowhere. Hunh.

Wishing that Alexander had conquered to the West instead of the East is ambitious! Fits the pattern of 'embracing the high point and the low point' as done by the Phoenicians, above; east of Greece was more of a par with the Greek citystates. His other comment is that some of Alexander's cities lasted a thousand years and then collapsed in the Muslim conquests, leaving no trace of Greek language, thought, cultural ties (pp. 249-250). Hm. I'd want to know more about how Greek those cities were after his death. Merv, Harat, Kandahar; all are named, in the map of Alexander the Great's empire in 323 BC, (p. 338) as "Alexandria 'of ...'". What institutions had they taken, did they exchange people as well as trading goods?

His history of Rome is extremely brisk, probably because there's so much written about it elsewhere; and the end was written in the expectation of a second volume on Byzantium, which is more a tease than tidy. Wondering about the Greekness of the cities above especially invites curiosity about Byzantium.

ISBN: 0-375-40426-0

January 04, 2004

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay, LL. D.

This is reprinted mostly for the first three chapters on financial manias, respectively The Mississippi Scheme, The South-Sea Bubble, and The Tulipomania. The first two are particularly reminiscent of the junk bond and dot-com crazes.

Is there no warmth in the despair of a plundered people?-- no life and animation in the picture which might be drawn of the woes of hundreds of impoverished and ruined families? of the wealthy of yesterday become the beggars of to-day? [...] Is it a dull or uninstructive picture to see a whole people shaking suddenly off the trammels of reason, and running wild after a golden vision, refusing obstinately to believe that it is not real, till, like a deluded hind running after an ignis fatuus, they are plunged into a quagmire ? [...] Nobody seemed to imagine that the nation itself was as culpable as the South Sea Company. Nobody blamed the credulity and avarice of the people,--the degrading lust of gain, which had swallowed up every nobler quality in the national character, or the infatuation which had made the multitude run their heads with such frantic eagerness into the net held out for them by scheming projectors. These things were never mentioned. The people were a simple, honest, hard-working people, ruined by a gang of robbers, who were to be hanged, drawn, and quartered without mercy.

The rest of the manias are oddly assorted between minor fads, e.g. beard-wearing or catchphrases; vicious crazes, e.g. the witch-hunts; and frenzies that caught the imagination because they were related to real or accepted interests, e.g. alchemy or the Crusades. This is a weakness of the recent reprinting; MacKay's longer original (see URI below) had a more sensible arrangement, as by PHILOSOPHICAL DELUSIONS, NATIONAL DELUSIONS, etc.

His era comes through in several shibboleths. He seems to by default distrust Catholic clergy, although the farther in the past they are the more he recognizes them as the civilization of their era, and he probably disapproves of Protestant credulity just as much. The chapter on the Crusades starts with the ones that were popular delusions, but sticks with the issue well into the period of courtly intrigue and international power-relations; I think a gentleman in his Tennysonian day might not have been able to get off the chivalric hobbyhorse, once well-seated. He often refers to popular romances, as by Sir Walter Scott, to remind his readers where they've heard of someone before.

The alchymists included not just early scientists, but early ?theosophists? or New Agers. Of the Rosicrucians:

Man was not surrounded with enemies like these [incubi and succubi], but with myriads of beautiful and beneficent beings, all anxious to do him service. The air was peopled with sylphs, the water with undines or naiads, the bowels of the earth with gnomes, and the fire with salamanders. All these beings were the friends of man, and desired nothing so much as that men should purge themselves of all uncleanness, and thus be enabled to see and converse with them. They possessed great power, and were unrestrained by the barriers of space or the obstructions of matter. But man was in one particular their superior. He had an immortal soul, and they had not. They might, however, become sharers in man's immortality, if they could inspire one of that race with the passion of love towards them.
Poetry and Romance are deeply indebted to the Rosicrucians for many a graceful creation.

From a long list of methods of fortune-telling:

Kleromancy, by lots.
[...]
Arithmancy, by numbers.
Logarithmancy, by logarithms.
[...]
Koseinomancy, by sieves.
Axinomancy, by saws.
[...]
Oinomancy, by the lees of wine.
Sycomancy, by figs.
Tyromancy, by cheese.
Alphitomancy, by meal, flour, or bran.

I particularly like "by cheese". It's spelled "Tyromancy" in the print edition and "Typomancy" in the Gutenberg etext. I have had recourse to the OED - "tyromancy" is right.¹ (And Rabelaisian.)

That makes "Typomancy" a self-describing word.

The magnetisers had plenty of wierd ideas, among them the weapon-salve reminiscent of some of Jo Walton's books; and mummy. Mummy has turned up too often in my reading; Loudon's wife Jane Webb wrote an early book on it, which I haven't gotten a copy of yet, and there's A. S. Byatt's Mummy Possest, and somewhere a reference to mummies used as fuel for trains - where in goodness did I read that? - and mummy was a painter's pigment for a while. The magnetisers even used homegrown mummy:

The fifth mummy of peculiar power was made from criminals that had been hanged; "for from such there is a gentle siccation, that expungeth the watery humour, without destroying the oil and spirituall, which is cherished by the heavenly luminaries, and strengthened continually by the affluence and impulses of the celestial spirits; whence it may be properly called by the name of constellated or celestial mummie." The sixth kind of mummy was made of corpuscles, or spiritual effluences, radiated from the living body; though we cannot get very clear ideas on this head, or respecting the manner in which they were caught.

Source? At least a recommendation of a novel?:

No young women were allowed to follow the army, to the great sorrow of many vicious and of many virtuous dames, who had not courage to elude the decree by dressing in male attire. But many high-minded and affectionate maidens and matrons, bearing the sword or the spear, followed their husbands and lovers to the war in spite of King Richard, and in defiance of danger.

A rare explanation of a mania:

After this time, prosecutions for witchcraft are continually mentioned, especially by the French historians. It was a crime imputed with so much ease, and repelled with so much difficulty, that the powerful, whenever they wanted to ruin the weak, and could fix no other imputation upon them, had only to accuse them of witchcraft to ensure their destruction. Instances, in which this crime was made the pretext for the most violent persecution, both of individuals and of communities, whose real offences were purely political or religious, must be familiar to every reader. [...] The Frieslanders, inhabiting the district from the Weser to the Zuydersee, had long been celebrated for their attachment to freedom, and their successful struggles in its defence. As early as the eleventh century, they had formed a general confederacy against the encroachments of the Normans and the Saxons, which was divided into seven seelands, holding annually a diet under a large oaktree at Aurich, near the Upstalboom. Here they managed their own affairs, without the control of the clergy and ambitious nobles who surrounded them, to the great scandal of the latter. They already had true notions of a representative government. The deputies of the people levied the necessary taxes, deliberated on the affairs of the community, and performed, in their simple and patriarchal manner; nearly all the functions of the representative assemblies of the present day. [...]The invincible courage of these poor people proving too strong for their oppressors to cope with by the ordinary means of warfare, the Archbishop of Bremen applied to Pope Gregory IX. for his spiritual aid against them. That prelate entered cordially into the cause, and launching forth his anathema against the Stedinger as heretics and witches, encouraged all true believers to assist in their extermination. A large body of thieves and fanatics broke into their country in the year 1233, killing and burning wherever they went, and not sparing either women or children, the sick or the aged, in their rage. The Stedinger, however, rallied in great force, routed their invaders, and killed in battle their leader, Count Burckhardt of Oldenburg, with many inferior chieftains.
Again the pope was applied to, and a crusade against the Stedinger was preached in all that part of Germany.

Purporting to explain a symptom of witchcraft:

Modern physicians have often had cases of a similar description under their care, where girls have swallowed needles, which have been voided on the arms, legs, and other parts of the body.

Good heavens; really?

During the height of the witch-hunts, there were still "white-witches", or astrologers, left in peace or consulted on finding black witches. That seems odd on the face of it, though consistent with the general theory that the witch frenzy was displacing social stress onto the people least able to defend themselves. Astrologers were usually well-off and scholarly and connected. The other distinction, of course, is between telling people what's likely to happen to them and trying to cause it - MacKay follows the Witch Mania with the Slow Poisoners, who needed no supernatural assistance.

He disapproves of popular representations of stylish thieves and bandits, arguing that plays can lead boys into delinquency. Nor were only boys overcome, it seems:

The fame of it [The Beggars' Opera] was not confined to the author only. The person who acted Polly, till then obscure, became all at once the favourite of the town; [Lavinia Fenton, afterwards Duchess of Bolton.]

Odd moral, given by MacKay:

Poets, too, without doing mischief, may sing of such heroes when they please, wakening our sympathies for the sad fate of Gilderoy, or Macpherson the Dauntless; or celebrating in undying verse the wrongs and the revenge of the great thief of Scotland, Rob Roy. If, by the music of their sweet rhymes, they can convince the world that such heroes are but mistaken philosophers, born a few ages too late, and having both a theoretical and practical love for
"The good old rule, the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power,
That they should keep who can,"
the world may, perhaps, become wiser, and consent to some better distribution of its good things, by means of which thieves may become reconciled to the age, and the age to them. The probability, however, seems to be, that the charmers will charm in vain, charm they ever so wisely.

And, to finish off this commonplace of quotes with a fair summary:

The bonds of reason, though iron-strong, are easily burst through; but those of folly, though lithe and frail as the rushes by a stream, defy the stoutest heart to snap them asunder.

URIs: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/author?name=Mackay%2c%20Charles

ISBN: 0-517-88433-X

This print edition is in a different order than the original, and is abridged to boot.

¹ Project Gutenberg may have changed it by now.

November 12, 2003

Bridge, Church and Palace in Old London, John E. N. Hearsey

This isn't as good a book as Old London Bridge. It doesn't tie its three subjects together at all well, has few anecdotes that aren't in Home, and doesn't have much storytelling sense of how history was changed by the buildings, or people affected by them. Also, worse illustrations.


Query: what is a Chapter House? the kind attached to a cathedral? I've read the Barchester novels and I still don't know. The Cathedral of Salisbury says:

The Chapter House was the meeting place of the Cathedral clergy or Dean and Chapter who sat on the raised plinth seating, the east end reserved for the Dean, Precentor, Chancellor, Treasurer and Archdeacons and principal officers. The head marking the Dean’s stall has a triple face, sometimes said to represent circumspection - one of the qualities needed in a Bishop. (Some however say it is the Master Mason looking at his completed work). The name 'Chapter' derives from the practice of reading a chapter of the Bible at their meetings.


An entertaining banking precedent, from Hearsey:

A curious legacy left by this Bishop to the cathedral was a thousand marks to be put in a chest kept in the treasury, from which a poor layman might borrow £10 against a suitable pledge. The Dean and principal canons could borrow £20, the Bishop between £40 and £50, and noblemen and citizens £20. The loan was valid for a year, and if the pledge was not redeemed after that, the preacher at Paul's Cross would declare that it would be sold in fourteen days' time. The chest had three keys: one ket by the Dean, the second by the eldest canon resident and the third by the Warden of the Old Fabric.


Cavendish's The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, which gives descriptions of banquets in York Palace, later Whitehall, sounds like source material for E. R. Eddison's Fish Dinner in Memison.


Hearsey, John E. N. Bridge, Church and Palace in Old London. London: John Murray, 1961.

October 20, 2003

The Footnote, Anthony Grafton

Not exactly a history of the footnote, but a history of the historical footnote, or of footnotes as a symptom of being a respectable historian - later, a requirement of being a professional historian. Much is obscure to the non-historian. Grafton delicately reminds one of this by describing the ability of Italian historians to offer insult by omitting a reference that only those in their particular clique know to expect.

The rhythm of the book is pleasant for an amateur, though; it goes backwards in scallops - starts with current practice, says moreorless ~All this is of course due to the work of Ranke~, describes Ranke's scholarly evolution in its chronological order, winds up ~but of course Ranke was not as original as he claimed~, continues the pattern of orderly forward progress interrupted by great backward leaps. If I knew enough about his subjects to have come up with the earlier cases on my own, this might be a series of happy resolutions, or it might seem like unneccessary manipulation of a naturally more simple story. Can't tell.

Of footnotes in general:

He had to agree that the provision of documentation was more likely to provoke dissent than assent from a modern reader. Cited documents necessarily suggested that a problem could be solved in ways other than that chosen by the historian.

One can read the whole thing with one's mind on blogging and online discussion and directed links etc., but I don't thnk it's worth it to do so, unless you're actively seeking historical analogies. There are lots of vivid cultural battles that were fought partly in terms of whose histories were believed and on what grounds, if you are so seeking. I best like Pierre Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary, which Grafton gloriously describes as only a thin and fragile crust of text on which to cross the deep, dark swamp of commentary. Bayle was an exiled Huguenot who fell out not only with the obvious Catholic power in France but with at least one Protestant institution. He set out, early in the 1690s, to provide a dictionary of all the mistakes in other works of reference, above all those in the vastly popular Grand dictionnaire historique...Anything the reader learned elsewhere and did not find contradicted in Bayle would be true. - oho, no wonder he irritated his allies, but one does see modern applications. Happy story, actually, the project made him a living and sold spectacularly well.

I am left curious about the form - let alone the history - of footnotes or their equivalent in classical Chinese scholarship. The nearest reader of any kind of Mandarin hypothesizes verba interlinearis, but cautiously. Maybe Jonathan Spence has covered it.

ISBN: 0-674-90215-7

August 27, 2003

Old London Bridge, Gordon Home

A seventy-year-old history book is usually a historical source itself. This one is not shocking in its views; it is, rather, sweet, considering with equal affection the many stages, makeshifts, and heroic repairs of the bridges that have stood where London Bridge does. Unlike Black Lamb, Grey Falcon or even Three Men on the Bummel, this 1931 book makes WWII sink into the background of the imagination. Disasters happen. Traffic patterns are eternal. (How eternal? London Bridge, the sand in the pearl when the world was London's oyster, might be where it is because just before the Romans¹ got there sealevel was 12 ft. lower and there was a low-tide ford. That's even better than the army-horse/train-gauge story.)

Bridge-building was a medieval work of charity, so Church foundations were set up to build and maintain them. The houses and shops that lined the old Bridge were meant to help fund it; their rents went toward upkeep. This did not prevent money being borrowed from or for the Bridge. It's a nice idea. Columbus may be trying it again.

I was reading Margaret Frazer's The Bastard's Tale while reading Old London Bridge, and was amused that a political scandal in the first appears (noises off; the procession would have seen the Bridge) in the second. Better yet, for real roots of fluff fiction, a joust fought for pride by knights in armor; on the Bridge itself, which was on average only twelve feet wide, and was in many parts covered by the houses' throwing out upper stories to meet each other in midair. I presume shop-signs would have been taken down for the event.

"The King to all and singular, our Sheriffs, Mayors, Bailiffs, Ministers, and faithful subjets, within and without our liberties, to whom these present letters shall come: Greeting. Know ye, that because our beloved and faithful John de Welles, for the perfecting of a certain Passage of Arms within our Kingdom of England, against David de Lyndeseye, of Scotland, Knight, as he appears to have been calumniated by the said David--he is petitioner to us for the security of the said David, with his followers and servants coming into our Kingdom aforesaid..." ...Then follows a clause covering the chance of any outlaw seeking to enter England in Lindesaye's protection... The date of the document is January 22nd, 1389-90.
The day for the encounter arrived, and the two knights fully armed in the plate armour of the period were conducted to the Bridge, where a daïs had been erected for Richard II and the members of his Court. All the suitable positions were occupied by the nobility, and elsewhere the populace crowded every available corner. When all was in readiness the heralds gave the signal and the two horsemen, spurring their heavy horses, charged full at one another. Spears were broken, but both warriors remained seated firmly in their saddles. "The people beholding how stiffelie earle (sic) David sat without moving, cried that the Scottisman was locked in his saddle. He hearing this, leapt beside his horse, and verie nimblie mounted up againe into the saddle, armed as he was, to the great wonder of the beholders."
With fresh spears a second course was taken and once more the weapons were splintered "and yet without anie great hurt on either part." At the third collision Lord Welles was borne from his saddle and fell heavily to the ground, being "sore hurt." The onlookers appear to have thought he was killed, but Lindesay was quickly off his horse, and, kneeling by his side, he tenderly held him in his arms until the doctor came to tend his wounds.

Valor and tenderness made the Scotsman popular in London at the time. I wonder if he did not remain more famous in Scotland; He was proclaimed and belted Earl of Crawford in 1398 - and Crawford is the shining family in the twelve long, Dumas-dense historical novels by Dorothy Dunnett.

Hundreds more years of complicated engineering and its complicated funding are decorated with charming anecdotes that happened near the Bridge. The house/shops had rooms right down into the piers, and loading-doors for stock at river level. Tricky, as the Thames was so thwarted by the bridge that the fall of water through it was sometimes five feet high. Even more efficient, one house built a pen for food fish into the protective starling.

With mixed efficiency, the city grain stores were at one end of the bridge, near shipping and mill-power but sadly vulnerable to mold.

The illustrations are jackdaw and plentiful - copies of amateur archaeologists' drawings of old work exposed by new; trade cards from the successive trades that clustered there; stonework from old bridges long since moved. Home's prose isn't as delightful as Picard's, but he appreciates a good phrase found elsewhere.

Home, Gordon. Old London Bridge. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1931.

¹Of course this history starts with the Romans. I don't understand the determination of the English to see themselves as the last Romano-Britons, and I wonder often if it existed before the British Empire, and the poem on the statue of Boadicea suggests one heck of a grudge; but like their obsession with gardening, it produces some wonderful books. From Auden's Bathtub Thoughts (c. 500 - c.1950):

Hail, future friend, whose present I
With gratitude now prophesy,
[...]
So thought, I thought, the last Romano-Briton
To take his last hot bath.

June 08, 2003

Sultry Climates, Ian Littlewood

Subtitle: Travel & Sex.

Tease! After the suggestive title & the seductive dustjacket, Littlewood writes a beautifully severe introduction, explaining where he curtailed the book and why - the astringincy is lively in itself, and it promises both a well-ordered book and a field of extensions from it.

Littlewood announces that he limits himself mostly to France , Italy, and Tahiti; to English travellers' published accounts; and that he leaves out professional travels - "business travel, military service, colonial administration and the like." And he suggests that he need not spend words explicitly condemning the exploitative behavior he describes; and that dividing tourism into 'sex' and 'other' categories is facile. "To propose other places and people as spectacle, which is what tourism does, promotes an essentially amoral response to experience, and sexual spectacles are just one aspect of the general tourist experience."(p 49).

The first few chapters are a brisk trot through the rise of the Grand Tour. Boswell, logorrheic, is the meat of it; Thomas Coryate, who Tim Moore followed with mixed results, appears. So does Fanny Trollope; I think Trollope's biographer cited the same worry about English girls at risk of gaining non-English habits that Littlewood does.

I know I've read a funny description, by Fanny Trollope, of a tourist trip down some boringly lovely and historical river (Germany?) during which a new husband reads, quiveringly, from Lord Byron. His new bride raises her handkerchief to her eyes, which he takes as a show of sentimental tears, and everyone else sees hiding yawns of boredom. Littlewood hits his stride with Byron's notorious travel, sexual escapades, stunning book sales based on the illicit thrills of foreign ways - Littlewood's title, of course, is from Byron's Don Juan:

What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate's sultry.

So after Byron the link between tourism and sexual license was too widely admitted to be covered by antiquarian studies. Littlewood writes, of Jekyll & Hyde or the Victorian tourist generally,

It is not that he is a hypocrite - both the pleasure-seeker and the respectable doctor are genuine sides of his nature - but there is no social mechanism that allows him to give expression to the pleasure-seeker without compromising the gravity of the doctor.(p. 120)

The pleasure sought is very often homosexuality or pederasty, increasingly dangerous for a man who stayed in England. There were harder-to-define claims that England was stuffy and grey and boring in all ways. However, in being descriptive rather than judgemental, I think Littlewood ends up condemning many of the sex tourists most forcibly, out of their own contradictions. Someone who always gives his young paramours cricket-belts has not found a value-system free of Englishness. Worse, men who have affairs with poor boys in poor countries, instead of each other, are not great evidence that they were touring for freedom in general instead of the freedom they get from being on top of the heap. They wanted, perhaps, to feel like outlaws but to be safe. Byron at least abandoned safety.

Gaugin was even worse: he had to move to progressively poorer islands to find women he could bribe into sleeping with him, because he was visibly syphilitic.

Odd connection to WWI - everything connects to WWI or Fanny Trollope - some lines from Rupert Brooke, on his way back from sun-drenched romance in Tahiti, describing the possible war as an escape into 'cleanness' from tired old civilization. More credibly, after WWI, sun-worship for reasons of public festival & universal hygiene became common in the UK and Germany. That might even be admirable, a resort to valuing the good things that don't need rationing.

The famous female travellers (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, etc) are mentioned, and it's clear they had an interest in sexual freedom too, but there aren't nearly as many details - ten, twelve pages total.

To look up: John Pemble, The Mediterranean Passion, for evidence that the Victorians liked a tanned skin even in women.

ISBN: 0-306-81155-3

May 20, 2003

Beloved Lady, John C. Farrell

I am not going to get through this, alas. It is above my upper bound for dryness in writing.

Jane Addams' ideas are not a dry subject. Thing the First that annoys me in this book is that it doesn't seem to be about her ideas, or the history of her ideas, as much as the social context of her ideas - exactly when she talked to John Dewey about ideas credited to one or the other of them, for instance.

The ideas are interesting: the interrelation of social justice, social engineering, democracy, education, the assimilation of immigrants, religion, pacifism, labor rights. It's not as though any of these questions are settled yet. I am still looking for a book on what Addams thought, and not what her committee-members said about it in private correspondence. (After I get a grip on the ideas, this history would probably be much more interesting.)

ISBN: none.

LCCCN: 67-16916

Copyright 1967 by the Johns Hopkins Press. Copyright by a US press, printed in the US, & the dustjacket gives a price only in shillings: "in U.K. only". Publishing and copyright are very odd.

January 15, 2003

Consumer Society in American History: A Reader, Lawrence B. Glickman, ed.

This isn't the collection on the subject I was looking for; that one is edited by Goodwin, Ackerman and Kiron and I remember it as having a lot more numbers, being economic history. This owes enough allegiance to "cult stud" history to have an essay by Baudrillard in it; and that essay crystallized my opinion of cult stud, which is that it repeatedly fails to meet its repeated promise because it would usually be better done as a novel. Baudrillard's arguments can be convincing, but - like a good worldbuilding novel, whether SF or roman fleuve - they are not logically supported and usually cannot be so. As someone said of something else, they are not substantiative enough to be wrong. However,
Work, leisure, nature, and culture, all previously dispersed, separate, and more or less irreducible activities that produced anxiety and complexity in our real life, and in our "anarchic and archaic" cities, have finally become mixed, massaged, climate controlled, and domesticated into the simple activity of perpetual shopping.
needs some disprovability to be science, but would be a fine lead-in to Cory Doctorow's novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

Interesting subjects in Consumer Society : total debunking, with numbers, of the stereotype of "man earns/woman consumes" starting in the late 1800s when it became fashionable. The sole excuse, and it's flimsy, for the error is that male consumption was mostly done in all-male environs; men's clubs of all degrees of permanence and swank took up a lot of money and provided a lot of glamour and stuff. (Ballrooms, fancy dishes, costumes with dyed feathers and silk sashes, fur coats, sports-watching clothes.) The essay on the history and politics of Hot Rod magazine was good too; hotrodding started in the 20s - it seems ot me that some real inventions were probably made by amateurs that early, but the essay doesn't say - and the magazine supported what is clearly a hacker culture. The best reason to work on one's machine is the reward for skilled effort, and the unity if human and machine; doing it for a living is both a goal and a risk, since it makes one's work less pure; the magazine is balanced between defending the culture from the suspicious mainstream, and trying to provide older, wiser advice to the young hotheads who might be justifying mainstream suspicions.

So wrote clew.

January 03, 2003

Wealth and democracy, Kevin Phillips

Several related books, I thought, that mostly coalesce into one rising argument. One is a lists-and-anecdotes history of who the richest people in the United States have been since the Revolution and where their money came from. (In approximate order of waves of wealth: privateering, military procurement, railroads, oil, manufacturing, finance, tech.) Another is a discussion of the politics around this: being on the right or wrong side of a war can make or lose a fortune, obviously, but you can also make a fortune by having the connections to reap most of a government giveaway: letters of marque, land grants, monetary policy, military procurement. Every so often there's a wave of political objection, e.g. the Populists and Progressives.

The last book is a comparison of the economic histories of the Spanish, Dutch, British & US empires, arguing that the last two were already doomed in the period of their greatest wealth. In both cases their economies had mostly converted to pure finance, hollowing out the industry and common weal within the nation and leaving it vulnerable to shock. Phillips certainly implies that the US is already in that stage. He has some lovely contemporaneous quotes identifying the beginnings of each nation's rise, e.g. from Charles Wilson's Holland and Britain

the Dutch technician was to the 17th century what the Scottish engineer was to the 19th century...to be found wherever profitable occupation offered and...wherever government or private enterprise was in need of technical or managerial skill.
American engineers were that after WWI; right now I'd say India has the baton, or China.

The main argument of the book is an indictment of current US politics for having been captured by the small interest group of people who have enormous amounts of money. The history, US and elsewhere, shows how such capture has played out before; his analysis of the last 20 years of US fiscal politics suggests that it's playing us now.

So wrote clew.

December 02, 2002

How the Scots Invented the Modern World, Arthur Herman

Herman writes that Virginia Woolf said that one of Sir Walter Scott's literary virtues was that the reader never knew which side of the issue he was on while reading his novels. This is not a virtue that can be credited to Herman, who is so enthusiastic to prove that the Scots were necessary to every important development of modernization that he gets sloppy with his definitions; Scots abroad are Scots (no Scots-Irish, because he argues that they didn't blend: he calls them Ulster Scots), non-Scots in Scotland produce Scottish work, Gibbon counts as a Scot "for all intents and purposes" because he studied Scots writers but the Adams brothers do not become Italian by studying Italian architecture. I also find him sloppy in distinguishing between his summary of what an important Scot thought, and his assertion of the obvious truth demonstrating that the Scot in question was right; and also he tries to lead the reader by alluding to some current popular fallacy that the eighteenth-century Scots had already seen through, without explaining what the fallacy is.

When reading something so tendentious, it's hard not to look for the Heffalump; and I did catch him out in some at-best-dubious assertions. I could have believed that the Adam brothers improved classical architecture by adding servant's stairs, except that Rybczynski's The Perfect House mentions servant's stairs in the Villa Cornaro and shows them on the floorplan. Later he explains the Jardine's forcing the opium trade into imperial China with the argument that "Britain had no drug problem" in 1827 (considered relevant because it put fault for Chinese opium addiction on Chinese weakness); I checked Martin Booth's Opium . Booth confirmed widespread opium addiction among the poor of the Fens, for instance, who also needed opium as a medicine. Now, maybe Herman didn't know this, or maybe he thought all the use of opium in England was medicinal, but - from Opium -

When, in 1828, the earl of Mar died...his insurers refused to honour his life insurance, contending his [opium] habit affected his life expectancy. A few years later, a Professor Christiansen of Edinburgh concluded to a Scottish court that opium-eating shortened life.

Herman is familiar with the lives of other Earls of Mar, but this still might be sloppy scholarship accepting Jardine's rationalization; it isn't written clearly enough to tell if he was asserting that Jardine's rationalization was true. At least he didn't praise Prof. Christiansen immediately after admiring Jardine, the way he admired the Ulster Scots' armed land-grabs in the New World right after praising the innate Scots respect for private property.

A book asserting that Adam Smith begot the modern world would be plausible. (comment from my other half: "And Clausewitz!" I don't think there's any reason to consider Clausewitz Scots.) I'll try Rothschild's Economic Sentiments for that. What Herman finally convinced me of was not that the Scots made the modern world, but that the British Empire used the Scots to make the modern world. Scotland was a whole nation of younger sons, willing to learn a new language, do the dirty engineering, fight some nasty battles, for a chance to earn a place in the center of civilization. Even Herman's brief summary of Scotland in the 20th century was of a poor and low-wage nation, the ignored 'good child' of England as Ireland is the harassed 'bad child'.

Interesting tidbits; Highlanders fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie routed more-experienced, better-equipped troops more than once, something to consider when reading pulp fiction battles between savages with swords and troops with distance-weapons. They didn't win the war. Later, when Sir Walter Scott was inventing cod-Highland pageantry to amuse drunk king George IV, there was one group of real Highlanders sent, bare survivors of the clearances. They were so scruffy and frightening that they were shuffled away, fed scraps, not allowed to march.

So wrote clew.

October 24, 2002

Lost Languages, Andrew Robinson

This survey of ancient scripts, excluding Asian ones, and the attempts to decipher them, is a very pretty book. Excellent use of two-color printing, sanserif text that manages to be readable by looking modern and clean and not like a (manu) script at all, and great pictures of mysterious writings. It would be a lovely present for someone already interested in the archaeology of these areas who doesn't know much about the scripts.

Odd that the Asian languages are left out, since they're mentioned as proof that we can't assume writing represents speech in the way that Western alphabets do.

So wrote clew.

September 04, 2002

Slave in a Box, M. M. Manring

A case-study of a deeply creepy classic of advertising. The title refers to the 'Aunt Jemima®' brand of pancake mix, still sold by Quaker Oats.

The editor and millworker who bought a bankrupt flour mill in 1889 had aspirations in marketing, not culinary brilliance. They wanted to distinguish their flour from bulk flour by selling it in printed cardboard boxes, which in turn were only a decade old. They came up with the recipe themselves; while wondering what to call it, the editor went to a blackface minstrel show, picked the name 'Aunt Jemima' out of a cakewalk song which had been written by a black musician fourteen years earlier. The cooks and the logo were all originally white men, borrowing images of free labor and (to be generous) nurturance. Manring discusses the transferences and inversions and masks that made this likely in the post-Civil-War US; there are lots, but the catchiest one is that the lifestyle of the prewar Southern rich (pastoral, sensual, irrational, symbolically feminine) was marrying the wealth of the (mechanized, modern, rational, symbolically masculine) North. The examples of actual ad campaigns (illus. by N.C. Wyeth) have three themes: the reconciliation of Northern and Southern men after the war (no white women around); the leisure of antebellum life (Colonel Higbee had female guests and staff, but no wife or daughter of the house); and the helpless little new bride who would lose the love of her husband if her pancakes don't improve. The worst one has Aunt Jemima feeding Confederate officers to help them back through enemy lines.

Presumably the first two campaigns expected the probably-female shopper to imagine herself as the missing mistress of the plantation. She must have been dreaming of having someone else do housework: from 1890 to 1910 white women's participation in the labor force rose and the number of domestic servants declined. That is, more women were doing more of their housework in less time, as standards of housework went up. Some of that was possible because equipment improved; some was an attempt to use up the 'extra' time women no longer spent in the family business or farm, without sending them out to another business or farm. (See The Home-Maker and her Job and For Her Own Good.) They would probably have bought pancake mix just because it was quick and edible - there were campaigns aimed at camping Boy Scouts with just that theme, and no Old South - but it's likely that they bought a lot more to stay on top of the racist, sexist, labor-theft imagery wrapped up in Aunt Jemima.

Black publications recognized the insult at least from 1919. Ad surveys of black consumers established in the '20s that they loathed the image. The NAACP ran protests and boycotts into the 1960s, when Quaker Oats was still hiring women to act as Aunt Jemima on tour. Quaker Oats has now changed the image slightly - she went through a period of being a working grandmother, and is now not very visible on 'her' own website, which announces The Aunt Jemima® Brand has a reputation for quality and is used by millions of moms and dads who take pride in preparing hot healthy breakfasts for their families.. Manring has a reasonable circumstantial argument that the offense the Aunt Jemima image still causes is balanced, commercially, by a (to be generous) unthinking racist pleasure in the image.

The copyright on this book is not held by its author, but by the Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia. Is that an increasing trend? If popular works are owned by for-profit corporations, and scholarly works by academic corporations - legaly nonprofit, but just as interested in perpetual revenue streams - when will anything come back in the public domain so that the can resuse and rework what we call 'our' culture? If there had been a real Aunt Jemima, who held the copyright and trademark in her own image, her heirs might have a different view of how to sell pancakes. They would have had, for instance, an image of female strength and competence, not just hard work and servility. Unfortunately, advertising speaks of love and pride but it sells with fear.

So wrote clew.

August 21, 2002

For Her Own Good, Ehrenreich and English

I just remembered that I have a copy of this, which is a 1978 history of professional advice to & about women. Their introduction compares the rationalist soution to the Women Question (let women and men do the same work) to the romantic one (believe that women and their work are special and outside rational cost/benefit analysis).

They also have an entire chapter on "Microbes and the Manufacture of Housework". Lillian Gilbreth, however, doesn't appear in the index.

So wrote clew.

May 28, 2002

The Oxford Book of Letters, Kermode & Kermode, eds.

It is difficult to express the degree of degradation into which the operatic amusement is sinking the European mind - First you have every possible means of excitement - music - passion - acting of the coarsest and most violent kind - glaring scenery - everything that can excite in the highest degree - then, the people, who are rich and idle - take this excitement every night - till it ceases to be an excitement any [more?]But they still go, because it is fashionable -
[...]
the actors - unable to draw attention by just or quiet play - seek for it by rant - and only obtain it - momentarily - by shrieking or performing miracles of pirouettes - so the entire school of dramatic writing, music - and dancing, is degraded lower and lower - and - one evil reacting on another, the final result of the general corruption is still unseen - and to come.
Dearest love to my mother.

Thus John Ruskin in 1852. I like opera in a popcorn-and-jujubes way myself.

The most striking letter in the book so far is Fanny Burney's description of having a mastectomy in 1812 - no anaesthetic! - but she lived until 1840. It doesn't excerpt as well as Ruskin, though.

So wrote clew.

May 13, 2002

The Road to Ubar, Clapp

Brave & clever investigations find great Ubar, which was probably never great by the standards of the rest of the world.

The author manages not to be disappointed by this - well, not much; certainly not scornful or resentful - and writes about the search well enough to demonstrate the importance of Ubar to the people who remembered it as great.

So wrote clew.