Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan

Map of the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the 5th & 6th century, A.D.

Book Review
The Anglo-Saxon World
by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan
Yale University Press
July 30th, 2013

   Calling a book released over a year ago may be stretching the label of, "new release" to the breaking point, but in the world of Medieval History, I'd say a year old still counts as "new."  Certainly it does for the San Diego Public Library, because I found The Anglo-Saxon World in their new non-fiction section.  In the hard-cover edition I read The Anglo-Saxon World is an imposing 3.4 pounds with a 10" x 8" page lay out .  I actually shied away from checking it out for a few months because it looked like either a "coffee table" book or a source book- neither of which seemed particularly interesting.

  Once I actually took it off the shelf to give it a closer look, I quickly saw that The Anglo-Saxon World is neither of those things, rather it is a well illustrated, well mapped work of synthesis that seeks to incorporate recent developments in Anglo-Saxon studies, mostly an up-tick in archaeology within England, the advent of "paleo-genetics" to trace population movements and cross-disciplinary attempts to meld history with studies of the environment.

  The Anglo-Saxon world- which is roughly the story of England from the withdrawal of the Roman Empire to the Norman conquest, has been long maligned by historians.  It is the prototypical "Dark Ages" that struck fear into the hearts of school children and fed generations of popular fiction.  The decline of importance of written sources compared to the Roman Period and the Norman Period put The Anglo-Saxon World at a disadvantage within the discipline of history itself, which for much of the last three centuries has relied on written sources for material.

  The Anglo-Saxon invasion was the product of three tribes of Germanic speaking people: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes.  They conquered much of what we consider to be modern day England, and some of modern day Scotland, and established a multiplicity of Kingdoms, the most important of which were Wessex, in south-west England, and Mercia, in the are today known as "the mid lands."

   One of the points made abundantly clear by the collation of archaeological findings from the last century is that while the is that settlement by actual Anglo/Saxon types was more intensive in the east.  While the West was controlled by Anglo-Saxon monarchs, the actual population appears to maintain a greater connection to the Roman-British past.  The existing British population was not incorporated wholly into the Anglo-Saxon world, rather they were a sort of sub-strate population, members of whom would integrate or disassociate themselves from the Anglo-Saxons depending on their personal preference.
The Anglo Saxon World on the eve of the Viking invasion

  Anglo-Saxon England "settled down" into five major Kingdoms: Northumbria, East Anglia, Wessex, Kent and Mercia.  The whole idea of statehood was better developed in Wessex and Mercia.  Northumbria was a kind of expansive borderland, and East Anglia and Kent were the Anglo-Saxon heartland, where the polities were weaker.

   The Viking invasions of the next several hundred years did not come out of the blue, rather it was an increase in scope, and more importantly, the choice to stay over the winter, that changed the playing field in England.  The Vikings, who possessed cosmopolitan armies composed of Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Hiberno-Norse (Irish Vikings), overwhelmed the Kingdoms in the East, leaving Wessex and Mercia as the last men standing.  The idea of a pre-Norman English identity was produced by the resistance of Edward, King of Wessex, to the Viking invaders, and his eventual subjugation of them, over multiple generations, and with the help of the Mercians.
The famous helmet found at Sutton Hoo

  Then, of course, you had the Norman invasion, which put an end to the high politics of the Anglo-Saxons and their kingdoms, but left a population that largely spoke English, and a political structure that the Normans simply adopted for their own purposes.  Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, the Norman conquerors did not migrate in any large numbers, leaving the underlying population unchanged.  Eventually, they would expand their domain to include the non-English people of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, forming the "Great Britain" of the present.

  The Anglo-Saxon World is broken up between chronological chapters interspersed with shorter segments called "Sources and Issues" which address problems in historiography, recent archaeological finds and their significance to the larger picture, and important texts.  The combination of these discrete hot topic portions and the ample illustrations and maps makes The Anglo-Saxon World eminently readable, not a coffee-table book at all, and a must for anyone looking for a recent summary of academic developments in this area, without actually having to read those sources.

Women in Love (1920) by D.H.Lawrence

Book Review
Women in Love (1920)
 by D.H.Lawrence

  This is the fifth D.H. Lawrence title I've tackled under the auspices of the 1001 Books Project.  Women in Love is a kind of sequel to The Rainbow (1915.)  The Rainbow was banned in England for being obscene because of the "graphic" depiction of sexual conduct.  Today, that kind of description wouldn't get you a PG-13 rating in a movie, but the degree to which Lawrence describes sexual union, let alone the fact that said union takes place outside of marriage ON OCCASION was enough to make him the poster child for literary freedom of speech in the early 20th century.

  The main characters of both novels are the Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun.  Both sisters are in their maturity, their late 20s according to an early discussion between the two of them, and both resist conventional sexual/emotional relationships with the opposite sex in the way that only a male author with an over bearing mother figure writing in the 19-teens could imagine.

  In Women in Love, Ursula is a school teacher and Gudrun is a London based sculptress who has found her way home.  As single girls in their late 20s, they are confronting the pressure to conform to societal expectations, and both shortly form attachments with local bachelors, Ursula with Gerald Crich, the scion of a local coal mining magnate, and Gudrun with Rupert Birkin, a regional school inspector with ties to the same London art scene as Gudrun.  There is also an intense quasi-gay relationship between Gerald and Rupert.

Whereas The Rainbow is a fairly typical multi-generational family drama with one outstanding character at the end (Ursula), Women in Love spends 600 pages details a couple years in the lives of Gudrun and Ursula, and the one relationship they each have with one man each.  True: They do have sex before marriage!  One of them gets married, the other does not, and the one one who does not ends up getting nearly strangled by her beau before he staggers off to die in the Alps.

  Women in Love is also another entry in the D.H. Lawrence vs. over bearing Mothers play book.  Generally, it is fair to observe that the parents to not idly stand by while the two main couples try to actively subvert conventional morality.  Although they are approaching it from a Victorian point of view, a modern reader who has familiarity with some of the emotional consequences of the 1960s sexual revolution, may have more sympathy with the disapproving parents then the lead couples.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Just Call It 'The Caliphate': Historic linkage between the Abbasid Caliphate and ISIS

The Abbasid Caliphate 750-1517

Just Call It 'The Caliphate':
Historic linkage between the Abbasid Caliphate and ISIS

Map of the Umayyad Caliphate: 661-750 A.D.
    Despite almost a quarter century of continuous military operations in the Middle East, the average American (average educated American anyway) knows very little about the history of the Islamic Middle East, and the important historical background of radical Islam and the role that does play in current events in the Middle East.

  The first important historical fact to understand is that while Islam "came" from the Arabian peninsula (present day Saudi Arabia-ish)but  it ruled from farther north, and west.  Major political capitals of the post-Arab/Muslim conquest were Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo.   All three cities had millennial of pre-Islamic and certainly pre-Arabic history, but at the time of the conquest were ruled by Semitic speaking regimes. Further afield, the Arab/Islamic conquest spread into non-Arabic and non-Semitic territories: Spain, of course, but also Central Asia, India and eventually Southeast Asia.

 The second important historical fact to understand about ISIS is the actual history of post-conquest Islam. The "Islamic" world was controlled by a succession of Caliphates, with the two most important being the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 A.D.) and the Abbasid Caliphate (750 A.D.-1517 A.D.)  The Umayyad's were out of Damascus, and the Abbasid's were out of Baghdad.

  The third important fact is to understand the fall of Abbasid's at the hands of Mongols. The Mongols were in turn defeated by the Ottomans, who were Turks.  After the Ottoman conquest, the area of the Caliphate was ruled by Turks, not Arabs.  In the 18th century, the Wahhabi puritanical movement arose in the Arabian peninsula and originally fought against Turkish (i.e. fellow Sunni Muslim) rule.

  The entirety of puritanical Sunni Islam in its present form can be traced to the Wahhabi movement, both in militant (Al Queda, ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood) and more friendly varieties (the Monarchs of the Persian Gulf.)

  The final fact is that the Caliphate's concerned themselves "universal states" in a way similar to the Chinese Emperors- they didn't recognize other polities. This means that much of their rhetoric- I'm talking about the Caliphates- not the puritanical Wahhabis from the 18th century- does not acknowledge other countries.  But, as the history of post revolutionary Iran, and Saudia Arabia and the Gulf Monarchs teaches us, modern day Islamic Republics are able to "play ball" within the modern state system.  They not be our busom buddies, but they aren't will nilly invading the entire world, mostly because they want to survive.

  So if you look at a map of ISIS controlled territory:

Present day ISIS controlled area in Syria and Iraq
   What you see if the proverbial heartland of the various Caliphates that ruled the Middle East for over one thousand years.   This state actually makes MORE sense than the bullshit one cobbled together by the Western Powers after World War II.  It's also a state that is obviously going to be ethnically homogeneous (unfortunately here ISIS is more Wahhabi then Caliphate- the Caliphs were pretty loose dudes.)

  So am I saying "let's just let ISIS have Northern Iraq and Northern Syria!" Of course I'm not.  Certainly, our last two decades of smashing terrorists wherever they may seek refuge has been a huge success in terms of "preventing the next 9/11."  BUT- maybe there is some value in drawing all these guys to one place and making them into government bureaucrats.  I'm guessing most people would rather take a job then blow themselves up.   Once they do that, they are already surrounded by mortal enemies: Turkey to the North, and Iran, Iraq and Syria to the South, West and East, so it's like, they'll be busy.  They'll need their suicide bombers to stay home and help out.

Parade's End (1928) by Ford Madox Ford

Stephen Fry is the obvious choice to play main character Christopher Tietjens

Book Review
Parade's End (1928)
by Ford Madox  Ford
Some Do Not... (1924)
No More Parades (1925)
A Man Could Stand Up- (1926)
The Last Post (1928)

  Nice trick by the 1001 Books people, listing Parade's End as one book, when in fact it is four books published sequentially and then collected at the end in one volume.  The Everyman's Library edition I checked out of the library ran 906 pages, not including Malcolm Bradbury's 20 page introduction.  Ford Madox Ford is a kind of 1920s literary Zelig (or Forest Gump) for the younger among you: Always there in the back ground of major developments in literary modernism during the teens and 20s.

  Ford first received renown as a critic/editor/publisher, his The English Review, which started in 1908, published Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad (who Ford collaborated with on a couple of boos), Henry James and John Galsworthy.  After serving in the British Army in World War I, which inspired many of the scenes from Parade's End, he settled in the Latin Quarter in Paris, where he cavorted with Jean Rhys and befriended James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, AMONG OTHERS.

  Ford was incredibly prolific- authoring over 50 books in edition to his two periodicals, but he is best known for The Good Soldier (1915), which is narrated from the point of view of cuckold as he contemplates the mutual suicide of his wife, her lover (and his best friend) and his best friend's wife.  Like that book, the Parade's End tetralogy echoes with the themes of betrayed lover, notably embodied by Christopher Tietjens, the main character of the first three of four books (he hardly appears in the fourth and final book, which was written against the better judgment of Ford himself, and is largely narrated from the point of view of Tietjens incapacitated older brother.)

 Although it is fair to say that Parade's End is about World War I and Tietjens' experiences there, only the middle two books involve the war itself, with the first book taking place entirely before the beginning of the war and the last book taking place entirely at the end.  Ford was obviously at the heart of modernist innovations in the novel, and the four volumes of Parade's End employ the familiar modernist literary tactics of shifting between narrators and back and forth in time without signalling the reader, but Ford also will use chapter breaks and inter-chapter pauses to make these same shifts, lessening the disorientation felt by the reader.

  The Last Post very much seems like an afterthought, with Christopher's wife receiving something in the way of a comeuppance, and Christopher living in non-marital bliss with his honey-bee.  Ford's portrayal of the trenches of World War I (and the support staff behind the trenches) is very much that of the upper class officer's perspective.  The level of war related horror described in Parade's End pales in comparison to other World War I focused novels, but Ford also succeeds in giving World War I more context than other similarly themed books.

  I would watch a BBC miniseries of Parade's End for sure.  Can't imagine recommending it as a book to someone.  900 pages- who has time for that?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review- Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck

Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga: former dictator of Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo

Book Review
Congo: The Epic History of a People
 by David Van Reybrouck
Ecco Press
Published in English translation March 25th, 2014.

   If you read about world history, whether in newspapers, magazines or books, you will read a lot about failure, because success doesn't move copies.  By that token, the history of the country formerly known as the Belgian Congo, formerly known as Zaire, and currently known as The Democratic Republic of the Congo represents a kind of gold standard of disaster. Any attempt to write a comprehensive history of this region bogs down simply because there is a dearth of any written history about this area.

  Van Reybrouck gets around the lack of written history by actually talking to people who lived it.  He even tracks down a guy who knew the original missionaries who settled at the mouth of the Congo river in the late 19th century. What comes before that point is not exactly shrouded in mystery: there were African run kingdoms in the west, and Arab-African trader states in the east, all of which made their coin through the slave trade. Northern Congo was an extension of greater Egypt, Eastern Congo was within the orbit of the Arab trading colony of Zanizbar, and Swahili was widely spoken in the east as a kind of lingua franca.  Beneath these loosely organized economic entities were an even looser set of ethnic groups.

An ethnic map of the Congo- confusing.

  The initial impetus that pushed Congo to be placed under European control was a mixture of late nineteenth century imperialism, well-meaning attempts to eradicate the slave trade and the febrile imagination of King Leopold of Belgium.  The acknowledged "history" begins with the Berlin Conference of 1885 deciding to turn over an area the size of Western Europe to...King Leopold...not as a colony, but as a personal fiefdom.  When he obtained the Congo, there wasn't even a complete map of the area.  The slave trade in the Congo was real.  Even after it was eradicated in the west, Arab/African groups continued to ship slaves out to the East.

  Due to the vagaries of 19th century European politics, The Congo was turned over to King Leopold PERSONALLY- it wasn't a Belgian colony, rather it was a personal possession of the King of Belgium.  This was a terrible idea on a number of levels, and Van Reybrouck does a succinct job of summarizing why, but basically Leopold wasn't interested in building a state, only economic exploitation and during his period in control he did little to build anything in the way of a colonial state, and simply focused on extracting maximum value from the inhabitants with little regard for their well being.

  The golden period came in the early 20th century when Leopold was forced to turn the Congo over to the Belgian state.  Now the Belgian government was in control, and there were plenty of well-meaning Belgians who understood that colonialism didn't have to be a 100% shit show.  Infrastructure was build, institutions were established, schools, health care.  On the eve of independence the Belgian Congo was a fairly literate, healthy, successful European colony.  Unfortunately for the people of the Congo, independence came quickly, and the subsequent flight of the entire Belgium colonizer class meant that this huge country was left with hardly any professionals- doctors, lawyers, soldiers, politicians, civil servants- almost 100% of those people had been white.

  So while one certainly sympathizes with the reasons to push for a quick break with the colonizing powers(i.e. whatever positive impact they had on the Congo, they were a bunch of racist assholes (for the most part));  it is hard to shake the impression that indepdence was an utter disaster for everyone involved EXCEPT Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, the man who ruled the Congo for the better part of the second half of the 20th century. The Mobutu story is a familiar one- that of the mid 20th century third world strong-man.  In Latin America, they call them "Caudillos."   The main difference between the Latin American varieties and the African is that the Africans tended to have a strong socialist streak, whereas the Latin Americans tended to be right-leaning.

  As it turned, out Mobutu had little personal ideology, being more focused on maintaining a strong grip on power and looting the country, giving rise to the term "klepotracy" to describe a state where theft was the pre-eminent value.  Mobutu managed to stay in power for so long because he was a useful pawn in the Cold War struggles between East and West.  At the dawn of independence, Russia had supported the first prime minster of independent Congo, Patrice Lumumba.  Lumumba is a recognized martyr of the African independence movement, but to his credit Van Reybrouck isn't drinking the kool aid, showing him as an erratic and vainglorious demagogue.

  Van Reybrouck doesn't shy away from the events of the last decade, which have involved the kind of ethnic warfare and horror that almost defy understanding. If you read Congo: The Epic History of a People you will have an understanding, but there are no answers, and the ending essentially abandons that part of the story for a somewhat uplifting close about the efforts of China to step in in place of the West, which has seemingly lost interest.  Hopefully, the information of Congolese teaching themselves Chinese in a matter of months will drown out the story from the woman who was raped on the dismembered corpse of her husband, and whose two daughters were impregnated by the same soldiers who raped her.

  A quote on the back suggests that if you read one book about Congo this year, make it this book.  Of course, for most Americans, it's more like, "If you EVER read one book on the Congo in your entire lifetime, make it this one."  I would agree.

Quartet (1929) by Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys, author of Quartet (1929)

Book Review
Quartet (1929)
 by Jean Rhys

   Quartet is a roman a clef that Rhys wrote about her affair with novelist/writer Ford Madox Ford.  Rhys had a most interesting background, the child of a "creole" family from the Caribbean island of Dominica, she was educated in England but found herself an outsider among her school mates. She drifted into the fast lane, living as a "demimonde" according to her own Wikipedia page.  Demimonde is basically a mistress or otherwise "sexually liberated" woman living in a time before such a thing could be done without incurring stiff societal judgment.

  This book is kind of a proto-beat, proto-bad girl type of "fiction" that would typify the style of the (mostly male) Beat writers.  Her own character spends the entire book at loose ends, passively being talked into one bad idea after another, with no clear idea of where she wants to go and how she wants to get there.  Of course, the whole point of reading a book like Quartet is to observe that as the pool of Authors writing fiction broadens, the types of lives depicted by those writers expands to embrace their personal experiences.  Thus, in 1929 we have books like this one and Passing, which is a more chaste, less robust depiction of the same kind of existence, more or less.

   Under 200 pages, Quartet is an easy reader and does a good job of conjuring 20s Bohemian Paris, albeit in a dark sort of way.

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