New Content: Demon-Killing and Caliphates

I have long been fascinated by the Crusades, the Crusader states, and the military orders. Piers Paul Read’s The Templars is a magisterial book that fits in well with the newer generation of Crusade historians (good-bye, “ambitious younger sons”, hello “pious armed pilgrims”). The Templars, of course, met their brutal end before the Middle Ages were over, but the Knights Hospitaller survived, first on Rhodes, then on Malta, where they became the great anti-Turk sea-lords of the Mediterranean. They survive today as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a charitable organization with knightly flavor.

That history and a few viewings of Hellboy has inspired a piece of fiction, perhaps the stepping stone of a larger work:

View story at Medium.com

On a related note, the claim of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to the Caliphate of all Islam let me down the rabbit hole to learn one or two things about what went down in the Mid-East in the 20th Century. Most interestingly, I learned that the House of Saud has been ruling in the Arabian Penninsula for a long time. Check out the rest at my new svbtle.com blog, Histeria. A relevant quote:

The Caliphate is imperial by nature: it’s godly goal is to expand the ummah. Every Caliphate has stagnated and collapsed when it hit its military limits. That was true of the Umayyad Caliphate, the Abassid Caliphate, and the Ottoman Empire; it will be true of ISIL.

Where exactly those limits are is the question of the hour.

from “Monarchy, Legitimacy, and the ISIL Caliphate

And of course, there’s my music tumblr, Every. Damn. CD. I just finished up with Led Zeppelin. Rockabilly to follow.


The Secretary of State Ain’t What it Used to Be…

There was a time when being picked as Secretary of State was tantamount to being flagged as the frontrunner for the next Presidential election. Six Secretaries of State have gone on to become President. However, the last such was James Buchanan in 1856. Since then, we see far more failed Presidential Candidates (William Jennings Bryan, Charles Evan Hughes, Edmund Muskie, John Kerry) than Presidents in that slot.

I suspect that Hillary Clinton viewed the position as one of sufficient prestige to make her the Designated Successor after a successful eight-year Obama Presidency. If she can pull it off, being the first Secretary of State to be elected President since the collapse of the Whig Party will be almost as impressive as being our first female President.

However, that might not work out so well:

Only 43 percent of U.S. voters hold a favorable opinion of the former secretary of state, while 41 percent of voters have a negative view, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Tuesday. That’s a significant shift from the same poll taken in Jan. 2013, just before she left her post with the Obama administration. Back then, 56 percent had favorable views compared with just 25 percent who had negative views. A Feb. 2009 poll showed Clinton’s approval rating topping out at 59 percent.

Maybe Buchanan just left a curse on the job, but I suspect that foreign affairs are a lot more fraught with controversy today than in our splendid isolation before the First World War. When American foreign policy could be summed up as Monroe Doctrine + Manifest Destiny, the job was easy. Today, it’s very much something you can screw up, and I feel as though Clinton’s numbers would be better if Obama’s foreign policy was less in tatters.


Did World War 1 Cause the Collapse of European Values? Or was it the Other Way Around?

A provacative reversal of conventional wisdom, discussed by John O’Sullivan in a long-but-worthwhile article at National Review.

Kimball raises the question of whether cultural, psychological, artistic, and social movements were, not the consequences of the Great War, but instead among its causes. Without going overboard on this — since the upsetting of Europe’s balance of power by Bismarck’s creation of the German Empire in 1871 and then by Kaiser Wilhelm’s bid for world power outside Europe were plainly important non-cultural causes of 1914 — Kimball makes a persuasive case that 1914 emerged in part from the explosion of radical cultural modernism that was symbolized especially by the riots of enthusiasm and rejection that greeted Diaghilev’s 1913 production of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ballet.

The earliest signs of this cultural revolution appeared in the late 1880s, but they gathered force and speed in the decade leading to the Great War with the Futurist movement in Italy, vitalism in French philosophy, Vorticism in Britain, Freud and Freudianism in Vienna, the emergence of Picasso and James Joyce, the huge enthusiasm that greeted Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes throughout Western Europe, and much else. Though these are very different phenomena — some self-consciously primitivist, others self-consciously complex and obscure — they all share a common sensibility: a rejection of the traditions, restraints, values, and standards that characterized the Victorian age in favor of spontaneity, instinct, and the breaking of barriers. “We want no part of the past,” said Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose “Futurist Manifesto” was inspired in 1909 by a night of reckless driving that ended with the car in a ditch and the poet calling ecstatically for the triumph of speed and machinery and the closing of museums.

This rebelliousness did not long confine itself to aesthetics. It soon manifested itself in a more general rejection of restraints and standards in morality, law, politics, business, and other aspects of life that had previously been regarded as distinct from the cultural realm. And though this sensibility and its accompanying movement spread throughout Europe, it found its most receptive audience in the cultural, bureaucratic, and even military classes of the new German Empire, which, since its foundation in 1871, had shown extraordinary progress both in industrial power and in technical innovation.

I like this thesis because War is something that is willed by people. This is true even of World War I, which often gets treated as some kind of odd political weather event. The ecstatic joy that could be found among people when the war broke out speaks to a yearning to destroy and to seek dominion. Certainly the German military that eagerly destroyed Belgian cathedrals had very little conservatism in it. The trouble with treating nothing as sacred, is that nothing becomes sacred.

It also gibes with the thrust of a book I have long admired, The First Total War by David Bell, which argues that the spirit of the French Revolution brought a totalizing spirit to the Napoleonic Wars and subsequent global conflict. The pre-revolutionary abandonment of values led not to justice but tyranny, not brotherhood but blood.

To be fair, it’s entirely possible that the Kaiser simply wasn’t able to fight the war like he wanted…

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The Oxfordians Done Found Me!

William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623Some time ago, I put up a quick post called “Oxfordians: The Birthers of the Elizabethan Renaissance“, taking on the grammar-school argument of Oxfordians. This has at last earned a reply, from one earlofoxford17. I post it below, intermingled with my responses:

If “grammar school” in Elizabethan England was such a “cradle of serious learning,” and Stratford school, which Shakspere MAY have attended, was the intellectual equal of Harvard, then where are all the works of all the geniuses that were there at the same time? Why isn’t English literature filthy with Shakespeares?

I think you can do better than this. The argument is that someone who went to a 16th-century grammar school could have written Shakespeare’s plays, not that everyone who went there would do so. I can easily reverse the terms of your response: if Harvard, or Oxford, or Cambridge, are such cultural powerhouses, why don’t they graduate a flock of Shakespeares every term? In any case, Shakespeare didn’t learn how to write plays in school. Shakespeare learned to write plays from acting in plays and working on plays with other playwrights. Shakespeare’s real teachers were Kyd (graduate of the Merchant Taylor’s School), and Marlowe (who did go to Cambridge), and the rest of the crew. As MFA’s in Theater did not exist in those days, I can’t imagine where else he would have learned it.

The mystery is that many of the sources that Shakespeare uses were available only as manuscripts, owned by wealthy individuals. How did Shakspere gain entrance to those private libraries without leaving a trace? Why is there no mention by anyone that “Good Will Shakespeare visited my library Tuesday last…”? Why is there no mention of a living breathing Shakespeare until Ben Johnson claims AFTER HIS DEATH to have employed him as an actor?

Why would there be? As a playwright, Didn’t Shakespeare occupy a social position somewhere between a pimp and witch? Isn’t the whole crux of the Oxford theory that Mr. de Vere had to use a stand-in to produce his plays, because for an aristocrat to write for the stage was unseemly? More to the point, does this circumstantial evidence exist for ANY of the Elizabethan playwrights? Is there a “Thomas Kyd was in my library today” or a “I lent Good Ben Jonson my copy of Plautus”? I myself doubt how necessary it would have been for Shakespeare to pour through these valuable texts to write what he did. No one has ever accused Shakespeare of putting too much accurate detail into his plays (Bohemia has a coastline?). He knew the basics and ran with them. Creativity and spirit are what we prize in Shakespeare, not rigid formulations of Classical form, such as Sir Phillip Sydney trafficked in. By the same token, how much real history would Marlowe have needed in order to write Tamberlaine the Great? Recall that the historical person of Timur the Lame was nearly two centuries and half a world away from Marlowe. What sources did he use? Where is the evidence that he had access to them?

The doubt about Stratford springs from the realization that the story of the famous playwrite is not backed by evidence on the ground. Had he written one or two plays we might be able to accept his intangibleness, but the Stratford story demands a very public individual over a considerable period of time.

No, it demands evidence of a playwright at a time when no one particularly cared about playwrights. No one asked Shakespeare what he thought about the Spanish Armada, or whether the Queen ought to marry, or if the Book of Common Prayer was maybe a bit too la-de-da. Shakespeare wrote plays, and people liked them. Expecting his contemporaries to look at him with our historically-dazzled eyes is a bit silly. Which could explain why Ben Jonson thought to mention him later, because he saw Shakespeare’s name vanishing, and thought that unjust. Shakespeare’s works fell right out of fashion in the 17th Century, and only enjoyed a revival in the 18th. We are forced to conclude that Shakespeare did not become SHAKESPEARE until well after his mortal coil was shuffled off.

At a time when paper was rare and used until it was covered, no one thought to save a souvineer of the famous man. Or even record in there diary that they met him…

I’m sorry, I don’t follow this. What does the scarcity of paper have to do with souvineers?

The conclusion is that the name Shakespeare was not famous in his day, but that rocks the Stratford foundation..the story of a fulltime writer /actor /heavy drinker in London at the same time as he was a businessman in Stratford is just not supported by the reams of letters, manuscripts and receipts that would be left behind. But despite no real evidence to support it, the theory is still there, but the emperor has no clothes.

I was given to understand that there was no shortage of evidence on Shakespeare’s business dealings in Stratford. Given that playwrights were paid only a pittance for their work, I don’t see why a man who earns his living one way and lives his dream in another is so wildly implausible. And forgive the repetition, but do you expect this standard of attestation for Shakespeare’s peers? How much evidence is there that explicitly spells out how Thomas Nashe earned a living from writing The Choice of Valentines? Or denotes how Ben Jonson made ends meet? And if the lack of evidence is so damning, consider this: when the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays were published in 1623, both De Vere and Shakespeare were long dead. There was no longer anyone to protect from the truth: de Vere’s son Henry was in prison for mouthing off about Buckingham, so no one would care if his dad’s theatrical activities were finally outed. So why did Hemminges and Condell keep up the lie? Why did Ben Jonson write a poem to preface it? What point had the conspiracy when everyone who could have been hurt by it was dead and buried? Or if they did not know, why did no one come forward? Where is the evidence that anyone in 1623 doubted that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?

Game of Roses, or How George R.R. Martin Gave New Names to Historical Persons

I see my friends getting all excited for the new season of Game of Thrones. It almost makes me wish for HBO. But as I’ve said before, I’ve read the books, and as I’ve said before, Martin has drawn heavily on the actual history of 15th-century England in creating his saga. Sure, most people with a basic knowledge of the Wars of the Roses will see York and Lancaster in Stark and Lannister, but it goes deeper than that. Some of the key characters are practically reincarnated versions of real people who played the game of thrones in an England drenched in war.

To wit: (Spoiler-Free for anyone who has seen up to the end of Season 3 of the series, but hasn’t read the books) (more…)

Alexander the Great Haunted His Followers For Decades

Which, of course, we knew. The Tale of the Diadochi would make a grand tragedy were it not so feverishly complicated. There have to be five or six tragic heroes among them, each one more hubris-laden than the next. But this book, which I’ve just started:


…spells out everything in clear, beat-by-beat style. There’s probably a dynastic study of the Argeads coming up on this blog, but how this story hasn’t been turned into an epic cable series  (Showtime: this is how you beat Game of Thrones. The story’s all-written already!) is beyond me. There are even compelling female characters who aren’t Alexander’s mom!

I’m two chapters in, and savoring every word.