Musings on From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History

Course coverI’ve mentioned over and over that I was listening to a lecture series on Chinese history. Welp, I finished it. I also read the guidebook that came with the course, and if you’re wondering if I counted it as a book on my annual list, yes, I did. The lecture series itself was many hours in the listening, and the guide book itself is over 100 pages, so of course I did.

It’s a pretty interesting set of lectures, especially since my Chinese history was somewhat lacking. I read a couple of Wikipedia entries after watching the movie Hero, and I’ve looked at tourist books about China (like this one), but I’ve not really delved into it except where it’s intersected with Mongol history. Well, there was this book. But I’ve only dabbled in Chinese history. Not that listening to a series of lectures is much more than dabbling.

But I did get some insights and found some remarkable things. Including:

  • The fact that this succession of different groups controlling different regions could all be called “Chinese” history. You’ve got, for example, Mongols, Manchus, and various other tribes from outside the Chinese homeland taking over, succeeded by other non-Han peoples running things. But scholars continue to call it “Chinese” history. It would be like calling all of ancient Near East history Babylonian history (or Iraqi, perhaps) history–you’ve got different groups coming in and controlling the region around the ancient city of Babylon, but it’s Akkadian history or Chaldean history or whatnot. There’s not quite the enforced commonality you get in “Chinese” history. One has to wonder if that’s because in the 20th and 21st centuries, there’s a single Chinese government trying to control a large territoriy comprising different tribes’ homelands and to prevent fracturing or another tribe, so to speak, assuming power.
     
  • A lot of the tensions you find in the modern United States have repeated themselves throughout Chinese history. The tension about how much the government should control? See also the Discourses on Salt and Iron circa 81 BC. You see cycles of governments taking power, doing some good, and then focusing on the trappings of power in the capital city and leaving the rest of the country to fall into disrepair until the government falls, and the new government does some good until it becomes decadently focused on pomp, at which point….
     
  • A historian’s detachment to the present day can be misplaced. Historical deaths and brutality are just a story to me, but the deaths of millions by the present regime are not. However, the lecturer treats them all the same.

Is the lecturer pro-Communist China? Yes, but I suppose that’s either an occupational hazard or required to remain in good standing with the current government of China in case one wants to travel there for research. He calls the Long March epic and excuses a lot, including the millions dying in the Great Leap Forward, as though the bureaucratic overreporting were not a repeating motif in centralized government systems (If only Mao had known!). But Communist China is a small drop in the history of the reason, so it does not detract from the lecture series much.

So I’ll need to read more about Chinese history to cement what I heard. Also, I’ll need to read more and hear more to become more familiar with the transliteration of Chinese names and places. Listening to the lectures and reading the guide book afterward was a bit confusing as the spellings don’t match the pronunciations very well.

At any rate, worth my time, and sometimes worth going a little out of the way so I could finish a particular lecture.

Modern Education Has Made History Full of Spoiler Alerts

The latest fad amongst the cool kids and the people who talk about the cool kids is a Netflix True Crime documentary series called Making a Murderer which not only has the cool kids in an uproar about an old murder case but

In a Washington Post piece designed to enflame the cool kids’ ire against Bad Man Scott Walker, we have this bit:

(CAUTION: Some mild spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the show.)

Dudette. It’s a documentary. Can a documentary have spoilers?

Anything that really happened that you don’t know is a spoiler waiting to happen. The modern education system just ruins all the good surprises. Or it would if they taught history. Do they? I don’t know.

But it’s a documentary with a narrative.

Book Report: Carolingian Chronicles translated by Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Walters (1972)

Book coverThis book reads like a gritty ninth century reboot of The Gallic and Civil Wars by Julius Caesar. This volume comprises two separate primary documents contemporary to the events: The Royal Frankish Annals written by one or more unnamed sources during the reigns mostly of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious and then Nithard’s Histories which is about the civil wars amongs the Frank children of Louis the Pious.

Given that most of the Royal Frankish Annals deals with conquering Gaul and then repeatedly fighting, co-opting, and fighting some more the German tribes, you can see where I draw the parallel. The difference lies in the prose: This is official stuff written by someone other than the officials. We get a page or so of description of each year, with an outline of the campaigning against a single foe, a couple of meetings amongst the heads of the tribes either paying respect to or getting called out by the Holy Roman Emperor at annual meetings. Then the emperor goes back to Aachen. It happens mostly that way every year, so it’s repetitive, and the lack of detail for any campaign makes it all blur together.

Nithard served Charles the Bald in the civil war that followed the death of Louis the Pious, so his histories, like The Civil War of Caesar, tell a story for a contemporary audience that casts one side in a better light. Charles and Louis (not the dead one, obviously–his son) take on Lothair. Come on, with a guy named Lothair, we modern audiences would have picked him out as the bad guy even if Nithard had not chronicled how he kept breaking his promises. Spoiler alert: There aren’t many children named Lothair, so you can guess who wins.

The book is 174 pages plus end notes and index. Longer than The Life of Charlemagne, a work contemporary to it. And I’ll probably remember only a couple nuggets from it. Mostly that Lothair lost.

Book Report: Melk Abbey by ABT DR Burkhard Ellegast OSB (2008)

Book coverThis book is a memento/guidebook to the historic Melk Abbey in Austria. Someone got to go there, and I got their book eventually, although the book is available online.

Many of these style books have a lot of photographs and a little bit of text–this book, on the other hand, has a much higher text to photo ratio, but it is an abbey that is almost 1000 years old, so there’s a lot of history to cover. The book has two parts: A detailed history of the abbey (along with some regional detail) and a second portion that goes through the public rooms of the abbey along with their images; however, this second part recovers some of the historical ground covered in the first portion of the book. When I turned the page and was back at the beginning, almost, I was daunted. But I kept through it; the self-guided tour part is the part with the best images of the abbey.

I read this book before I read The Great Wall, and both of them have shaken my self-confidence in my knowledge of history. For although I’m probably better versed in history than most people, it’s a very localized and very high level knowledge of history. I know a bit about English history, I know a bit about American history, I know a bit about Roman history, and I know a bit about European history, at least names and countries after about 1600. But this book goes into detail about the smaller fiefdoms of Austria in the dark ages, and I don’t know anything. It’s a bit humbling (which means my knowledge is a mere half byte at this point–four bits in this paragraph, you see–it’s computer humor). But one of the things I’m really feeling acutely this year is the difference between reading widely and reading deeply–that is, to have a fine-grained knowledge of something very specific such as Austrian history 1000-1500 AD versus the overview I have, which is some specifics but large blank spaces in regional timelines. I’m still opting for broad knowledge, but sometimes books like this strike me with how little I actually know.

At any rate, for a glossy little paperback, the book does have some rather nice images of the interior of the abbey once we get to the self-guided tour part. For example, here’s the library:

I looked at it and thought I have almost as many books. Of course, I really don’t have almost that many books, and certainly not that many old books.

Also, in case you’d like some nightmare fodder, here’s a valued monstrance:

That is an elaborate tree sculpture designed to hold the purported jawbone of a saint. Which it does. I don’t mean to be dismissive of Catholic thought and the importance of saints, but the whole medieval relic worship thing. Ew.

The book was a little longer to get through than I’d hoped, and the most I got out of it was the knowledge that I don’t know much about Austrian history.

Books mentioned in this review:

The Source of My Sinophilia

Book coverAll right, so here’s the story:

A couple of months ago, the dojo where I study changed its policy and allowed students who attain a certain rank to wear a red gi and students who attain a higher rank a black gi (I already wear a black gi because I’m in a class that studies weapons and other forms of martial arts, so this policy doesn’t affect me). One of the other students mentioned to me that they reminded him of a film where a bunch of guys in red gis said, “Sho ’nuff” a lot. He wasn’t sure of the film, but I looked it up: The Last Dragon. When I looked it up, the videocassette was available on eBay for like $40. Now it looks like there’s a new 30th anniversary Blu-Ray and on Amazon Prime.

How topical is this? The film was grounds for a newscaster’s firing in St. Louis just a week and a half ago.

So although I didn’t see The Last Dragon, I started picking up old martial arts videocassettes at the local thrift stores and grocery stores. I got a bunch of Bruce Lee films and a couple of Jet Li films, including Romeo Must Die (which I keep calling Romeo Is Bleeding because I must have seen them relatively close together back in the day), Black Mask, and Hero.Book cover

So Hero is basically a Chinese propaganda film that reinforces the individual’s place under the government. In the film, Jet Li’s character tells the story of how he defeated three assassins who’d tried to kill the emperor, and he brings their weapons before the emperor. Because he fears assassins, the emperor does not allow strangers closer than a hundred paces to him, but as the Hero tells the story, the emperor bids him to advance until Li is close enough to attack him–he was an assassin all along! But he doesn’t attack the emperor. Instead, he allows himself to be killed because he realizes the emperor is trying to end the civil wars plaguing China by uniting “Our Land” (that’s the English translation; in the original Chinese, it is “Everything Under Heaven”). So there’s some revisioning of the story as the tale goes along. It’s an interesting movie, a bit heavy on the wire-work for my taste, but I learned it’s from an actual incident. The story of Jing Ke.

You see, at the end of the Warring States period, the leader of Qin, one of the aforementioned states, was on the march, conquering his neighbors to re-unite China, but he was under constant assassination attempts. Jing Ke knew he had to do something radical to get close to the future emperor (spoiler alert!), so he went to Fan Wuji, a Qin general who’d fallen out of favor, and convinced him that, in order for Jing to get close to the Qin king, he’d like Fan Wuji to commit suicide so Jing could bring the king Fan’s severed head. And Fan Wuji agreed. That’s some hard core hatred right there.

At any rate, the attempt failed, but as I clicked through on some Wikipedia entries, I realized I didn’t know very much about Chinese history at all. Not that I know much pre-Nation-State history of Europe, as I’m coming to learn, but nothing about China.

So I’ve borrowed a couple of books from the library, and I’ve started to listen to the Great Courses/Teaching Company history of China I bought a couple weeks ago.

Now, I can tell the Tang from the Zhou dynasties, the latter from the former Han, and how a former prisoner guard went on to topple the aforementioned Qin empire after some of his prisoners escaped while under his charge. It’s very interesting, and I’m telling the interesting stories I find to everyone.

As some of you longtime readers know, I go in spurts with the historical reading. The Chinese history has surpassed my recent readings into Roman history, and I’ve so far avoided stuffing my bookshelves with unread volumes on the subject, unlike when I got very interested in Aztec history after reading this book or Mongolian history after reading this book. Of course, that is subject to change.

But I’m enjoying this recent binge based loosely on a reference to a 30-year-old C movie. It’s funny how much of my reading and learning comes from something small like that.

Book Report: The Saltville Massacre by Thomas D. Mays (1995)

Book coverThis book might make it look as though I have undergone the fundamental shift (mentioned here) about shifting my focus from reading about classical Greece and Rome to the American Civil War. However, although it might be a sign, it might also only be a sign that I was looking for something short and informative to read on the road. Which I did; I read this in a single sitting during one of my four hour nights at the dojo.

This book focuses on a single campaign/battle, the Saltville Massacre, and describes the events leading up to it, the battle itself including maps of all the major assaults, and the aftermath. It also includes numerous sidebars with short biographies of the officers on both sides. The book is a part of a series, of course.

The Saltville Massacre was an attack on Saltville, Virginia, by a Federal/Union army trying to wrest or destroy the saltworks there. The town and works were defended by a small group of Confederate soldiers and a small group of militia. The Union forces advanced and then stalled and tried to take some ridges but failed. After they withdrew, the Confederates took to the battlefield and killed any wounded black soldiers they found; additionally, a local irregular went into a hospital to settle a personal feud and to kill a couple more wounded blacks. The irregular, Champ Ferguson, was one of two Confederates hung for war crimes.

At any rate, as I said, it was short and informative. If one chooses to study in depth, one becomes used to the conventions of military science books and reading them becomes easier. The battle reminds me a bit of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the local Civil War battle, but since I live within sight of that battlefield, I try to work it into a lot of conversations. Another thing that struck me was the bridge between classical warfare and modern mobile warfare. Although much of the fighting is assaults on defensive positions, the book does include one mention of offering battle–that is, lining up and trying to get the other army to come out and meet you. I haven’t studied that much military science, but that does seem to have fallen quite out of favor for obvious reasons.

I don’t remember where I got this book; however, I’ll keep my mind out for others in the series and others of the kind. They’re quick reads and informative, and cumulatively they’ll make me smarter on military science and history.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: This Was Cicero by H. J. Haskell (1942)

Book coverThis book is nominally a biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, but in reality, it’s a history of the fall of the Roman republic wherein Cicero sometimes makes appearances. I guess the author was working from a lot of Cicero’s letters (as do so many historians from Plutarch on), so he focused on Cicero. But there are huge stretches of the book where Cicero is not mentioned at all, including the first couple of chapters.

The author is a Marxist, of course. He refers often to the proletariat in Rome; he defends Catiline because Catiline was in favor of redistributing the wealth; he name-checks the poor oppressed Sacco and Vanzetti; he touches upon themes and books mentioned in Books That Changed America (namely, conservative opposition to public schools and The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 by Alfred T. Mahan referring to either Pompey or Caesar’s understanding of naval transport of armies); and he often equates good with progressivism/Marxism and bad/corruption/know-nothing aristocracy with “conservatives.” But he’s an early twentieth century Marxist, so it’s lacking in the invective you get in later works.

As I mentioned, the author spends a lot of time talking about things other than Cicero, and he spends a lot of time equating the lives of Roman citizens in Cicero’s lifetime to different periods in history, including seventeenth century England and modern (~1940) America. The comparisons are probably too facile, especially when trying to equate the political groups of the period to modern equivalents (which boils down mostly to Tories/Republicans/Old Senate Factions = bad, Democrats/Redistributionists/Caesar and anyone shaking up the order to make it fairer for the proletariat = good). However:

This is still a pretty good book to read. It is pretty in-depth coverage of Roman history during Cicero’s lifetime, which includes the First Triumvirate and the Second Triumvirate and the Civil War from a different perspective than Julius Caesar. It’s the story of one man with hopes of a restoration of the Constitution that never comes and the slow, continued dissolution of the ideal of the Roman Republic from an ideal state that probably never existed to the seeds of empire based on strong, charismatic men with armies ruling.

It also provides a good deal of context for Cicero’s orations and his other works, including the historical details of why and when the pieces were written. Reading a collection of Cicero’s words will get you a little context, but this book fills in all the gaps.

The author does not paint a flattering picture of Cicero, though. The subject of the book, when he appears, is presented as vacillating, vain, vainglorious, and too much in love with his own oratory. Also, Cicero, in this book, seems to think his words alone could counter armed insurrections of various stripes. A tale with modern parallels.

I enjoyed the book and learned a bunch from it. It’s not without its flaws–politics aside, it does give the subject a bit of short shrift and it has a tendency to draw back from a point in time to provide historical context which gives the reader a bit of whiplash–but informative none the less.

Recommended.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Gallic and Civil Wars by Julius Caesar (2006 ed)

Book coverAs I mentioned, I got this book at the end of December with a Christmas gift card from ABC Books, who were having a half off sale on Folio Society books at the time, which is why I ended up with such a la-di-da edition. But Folio books are pretty handsome editions with heavyweight paper for the pages and a box to keep the dust off the top. I won’t join Folio Society and pay its prices for these books, but when I see them in the wild relatively inexpensive, I might pick them up if they’re something I want to read.

And I wanted to read this book after reading Last Seen in Massilia which takes place during the Civil War.

This book collects not only Caesar’s commentary on the Gallic War and the Civil War, but also the African War and the Spanish War (which were essentially extensions of the Civil War but with Pompey’s sons.

I’ll spare you the complete history lesson, but I will tell you what I learned about Roman warfare in the process:

  • With every campaign, Caesar informs the reader that he has secured a source of corn. This is no mere battlefield heroics tale; Caesar emphasizes the importance of logistics throughout, and the choice of camp sites for their access to food, water, and forage are continuously emphasized.
     
  • The amount of engineering and digging involved in soldiering in the Roman era took me a little by surprise. Whenever camping, the soldiers fortify their camp, and if they’re going to stay a while, they dig a lot of trenches and build earthen walls. To say nothing about the Battle of Alesia.
     
  • The Civil War has a different tone than the The Gallic War. The history of his campaigns in Gaul have the flavor of writing for history; the Civil War account has more of the feel of a contemporary political tract, where he’s justifying what’s going on for current readers, not history.
     
  • Caesar proves awful forgiving at times, allowing those whom he defeats to retain their lives and some of their privileges. This might have been prudent politically and strategically, as it allowed opponents to know that surrender did not mean death. It probably shortened many sieges. This contrasts with the Mongols, who drove refuges from captured towns before them to terrorize their next victims.
     

At any rate, it’s a pretty easy read even though it took me almost two months; as you know, I’ve been reading some other unrelated things alongside it. The translation seems pretty contemporary, and the narrative moves along, although I could have used a couple more maps sprinkled in the text to keep the movements straighter in my head. Also, I admit letting a large number of the names of the participants and places wash over me a bit.

I read a lot of these heady tomes, and I’m reading them, for the most part, and not studying them. I’m not highlighting or taking notes to write a paper on them. Perhaps that makes me less of a student than I should be, but the aggregation of the things I read builds connections between them so I am pretty sure I’m getting smarter as I do. But this isn’t the place for a detailed analysis of the Roman impact on Egyptian politics or the Egyptian impact on Roman politics in the first century BC, nor is it really my interest. Sorry, Googlers.

Also, note: This book was (mostly) written by Julius Caesar. Before the new Testament. Caesar is, you know, Caesar. A figure of such import to history that rulers bore his title two millennia later (that’s the Russian Tzars, as a reminder). There’s something inherently cool in my mind about reading his books. I’ll probably feel the same way about reading Thucydides and Plutarch once I really get into this Greek-Roman History rabbit hole.

I recommend it. It looks like you can get this edition for about $40 on the Internet, but the Kindle versions are cheaper.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Book coverThis book is a souvenir from Monticello. Not my souvenir, as I’ve never been. I probably got this particular book in a collection of thin books for a buck from the Friends of the Springfield-Greene County Library book sale. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but these little packs remind me of the varied grab bags I’ve gotten in the past where remaindered comic books were bagged at three for a buck, and you could only see the front of one and the back of another, so it was pretty much a crapshoot or where ten packs of record singles fresh from juke boxes were bundled ten for two bucks and you could only, again, see the ones in the front and the back. That’s what you get with the bundles of thin books at the book sale, a bundle of poetry chapbooks, souvenir books, or free pamphlet-sized books for a buck. I buy them and read them because they’re quick, and they count for a whole book on my annual quest for the magical reading century mark (which I’ve missed for a couple years’ running now, but I’m well on my way this year so far.

At any rate, this book has text describing the house, grounds, and gardens of Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia accompanied by color photos and diagrams and maps. It’s a tidy little book, something to help guide yourself around the joint and to remember your trip.

Or to make you want to go. Like I do now.

As The Proud Owner Of A Halberd, I Concur

I’ve always said that the halberd is the Swiss army knife of weapons. You’ve got an unarmored peasant side, an armored enemy side, and a mounted enemy point.

MyArmoury.com agrees in an article that explores the overlooked history of the polearm:

Most of these poleaxes, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries, had a spike on the top which allowed them to be potent thrusting weapons as well as being able to attack in both directions (axe or hammer on one side and a hammer or spike on the other). The presence of a spike(s) (or a fluke as it is sometimes called), hammer head and/or an axe head on the same weapons creates problems in classifying these weapons. A single poleaxe may combine the crushing power of the warhammer, the cleaving power of the long-handled (Danish) axe, and the thrusting capability of the spear.

I concur, mainly because it gives me an excuse to re-run this image of a boy and his best friend:

Does anyone else remember the IMAO Peace Gallery? Even IMAO doesn’t.

Michael Williams quips:

Don’t bring a longsword to a poleaxe fight.

I shan’t.

Book Report: Devil’s Pool: A History of Big Cedar Lodge by Charlie Farmer (1995)

Book coverWe spent a couple of days down at Big Cedar Lodge, a resort on Table Rock Lake owned by the Bass Pro Shops people, and the gift store had this book. I’m always interested in very localized history offerings, and this book is hyper localized. Whereas Webster Park: 1892-1992, Elm Ave., Heart of Webster, and North Webster: A Photograpic History of a Black Community, this book chronicles two houses.

Well, a little more than that.

The book starts out with allusions to the Devil’s Pool and its legends, including the story of an Osage named Wah ‘Kon Tah. The section covering this early history of the region is quite nebulous and abstract, as it would have to be. It’s also a bit of an elegy for the beauty of untamed wilderness versus the predations of man who builds stuff on it and ruins it.

The book gets historical when the land is purchased by a pair of fellows, a Worman and a Simmons, who build homes on it for country retreats during Great Depression I. The book looks at the men and their wives for a while and then goes into the sale and transfer of the property until it becomes the Devil’s Pool Dude Ranch in the 1940s. The book includes a number of first hand accounts from those years, but in the 1960s the owner sells it to a man who dies shortly thereafter in an automobile accident. In 1979, a fellow buys it from the Army Corps of Engineers and tries to turn it into a time-share property, but that doesn’t survive. Then the fellow behind Bass Pro Shops bought it and turned it into the excellent resort it is today, which includes some time shares on the property.

So it’s fittingly a short book: although the landscape has been there a while, there’s not a lot of history to report on the property except that people have moved through it. The author plays up the stories of strange apparitions and ghost stuff tarts it up a bit, where some people think that perhaps Mrs. Worman whose ashes were scattered on the property (although she did not die there) might lead to her haunting it. The structure of the book is not straight ahead in timelines, either–sometimes a person is mentioned and gives some account of his or her time there, so it goes beyond where the character was introduced, and after he or she is done speaking, we go back to the time period where he or she is introduced. That could have been smoothed out.

This piece ultimately reads as a for-hire piece, a sort of white paper for the lodge itself. Which is okay, but it’s not a grand historical document.

And let’s be honest: The one bit of history I’d like to know about is what happened to the purchasers of the time share from the 1980s when the Bass Pro people bought it. Because I just bought a time share in it, and I was assured by the 20 year old sales closer guy that we’re covered in the case of the company reorganizing. And I don’t believe him.

Books mentioned in this review:

Old 880 Honored by the United States Mint

The new $100 bills, as reimagined by Old 880:

For the past few years, the Federal Reserve has been preparing to introduce a redesigned hundred-dollar bill into circulation. It will have a Liberty Bell that changes color, a new hidden message on Ben Franklin’s collar, and tiny 3-D images that move when you tilt the bill this way or that. But delay has followed delay. And now again: The New Yorker has learned that another production snafu has taken place at one of the country’s two currency factories, according to a document from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

The cause of the latest blunder is something known as “mashing,” according to Darlene Anderson, a spokeswoman for the bureau. When too much ink is applied to the paper, the lines of the artwork aren’t as crisp as they should be, like when a kid tries to carefully color inside the lines—using watercolors and a fat paintbrush.

Old 880, as you might remember, was a bad counterfeiter of $1 bills.

(Link via Instapundit.)

Book Report: An Ozark Boy’s Story by John K. Hulston (1971)

I bought this book at a local used book store (Redeemed Music and Books, if you must know) on one of my local history sprees.

The author is an attorney, the progeny of a pretty successful businessman in the first part of the twentieth century, and it covers the attorney’s formative years in school, college, and the military during World War II. The first chapters jump around a bit, and I thought it reminiscient of Over the Hill and Past Our Place (also by a successful man looking back on his life from almost the same time period). The recollections in the beginning are rather pasted together willy-nilly, but the book improves as it goes along and as the boy reaches an age where he can remember the stories better.

As I said, he was the son of a successful businessman, so his experiences in the depression years are mostly recognizing that the depression is going on. The lad goes to the University of Missouri and then goes on to become a lawyer before joining the military in World War II. It’s not high history; it’s more of a vanity project where the fellow put his story down for his family. But the glimpses of the cities around Springfield in that era and the college experience make it very interesting in spots. So it’s worth it if you’re looking for that sort of flavor amid a whole lot of name-checking people who mattered eighty or ninety years ago.

The book has a date range on it, 1915-1945. The author has another book about his time as an Ozarks lawyer after World War II, and I’ll keep an eye out for it.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Sicily: An Illustrated History by Joseph F. Privitera (2002)

Book cover After reading the book on Sweden, I guess I got onto a bit of a roll reading this sort of book. This book is a short (150 pages including the index) history of Sicily. It starts about the Greek colonization mingling with the natives (the Sicils) and goes through the height of Sicily, which is right about the beginning of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire period gets short shrift because Sicily was just an exploited province at the time.

A second flowering occurs under the Normans. You know, I’ve mentioned my history bent has been toward English history, so my understanding of the Normans comes from William and his line. Although history books I’ve read mention the Norman holdings in the south, they didn’t go into how and why they were on Sicily. This book does, so I’ve added a bit to my knowledge.

Sicily is about the seventh of the size of Missouri, to give one perspective. It is a big area, and it was not united for much of its history. Fascinating. Of course, its position in the middle of the Mediterranean offered it some advantages early because it was a waypoint for trade, but once the bigger continent-based powers ramped up, they dominated it and it was controlled by bunchs of what the Romans would have considered barbarian tribes and later the Spanish. Huh.

I’m glad I read it. But I realized that most of the books I’ve read so far this year have been library books. That’s not cleaning out the fabled Nogglestead library’s To Read shelves. The last couple of times I’ve been to the library, I’ve asked my beautiful wife to keep me from the stacks. True story.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Swedish History in Outline by Jörgen Weibull (1997)

Book coverEver since I read Warriors of the Way (what? Four years ago? Already?), I wanted to read a history of the Finns and the Norse, but I never found anything in the library that fit those needs. Finally, (four years later), I found this book which is almost close enough.

It’s written by a Swedish economist (so I gather), so it comes from a modern political viewpoint which comes through in a couple of ways.

First, the things I learned about Sweden that I think are interesting: First, when the Norse Vikings moved west, the Swedish equivalents went eastward and ended up setting up trade routes and whatnot through the rivers of Russia and the inland seas there all the way to the Middle East. I did not know that. Also, Sweden really punched above its weight in the middle ages, becoming a sort of military superpower that had holdings and almost a bit of empire into the heart of Europe. Unfortunately, the homeland was a small patch of land in a very cold place that could not support a vast army that was not pillaging the rest of Europe, so it faded.

Another thing: In the book The Barrabas Creed, a Swedish prime minister is assassinated. That actually happened. In 1986, the prime minister was indeed killed. My beautiful wife also tells me this is mentioned in the Steig Larsson books. I guess that weighs heavily on the little country.

Something about Sweden that is interesting, and not flattering: it has a studied neutrality to it that it takes as a point of pride, but the book does mention treaties and defensive pacts that Sweden has gotten into throughout the centuries and particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries where its treaty parties get attacked, and Sweden says, “Sucks to be you. We’re neutral.” This continued into the middle of the last century where Sweden wanted to head up a Baltic defensive alliance, and Norway and Denmark said, “Uh, thanks, but we’ll join NATO. Those mongrel Americans tend to honor their commitments.” Or words to that effect.

The book also gave me a bit of insight into the European mindset. Here in the United States, our political system has never, really, had a king. Sure, there was that guy in England way back when, but the transition from monarchy to constitutional republic was relatively quick (yes, I know it was almost fifteen years from the revolution to the Constitution). In Europe, the gradual erosion of the monarch’s authority to the parliament lasted for centuries. That has to affect your outlook and your traditions some.

As a contemporary bit of scholarship, as it is, the book lauds the left political parties and their triumphs in building a welfare state. The author tries to trace when Sweden became Sweden, and it’s not at the height of its military prowess or that. No, Sweden became Sweden in 1920 with the creation of its welfare state. Additionally, the United States is only mentioned a couple of times in the book, and the mentions don’t salute the United States. Basically, we get pegged for creating a world-wide depression in the 1930s and for causing famine when we entered World War I along with a couple other minor offenses to the world order. Well, one could hardly expect a professor to not ding the United States if it was a professor in the United States, so this should be expected. But it’s dings are just little snipes.

At any rate, I was glad to read this book. It’s from a northern European perspective which is different from the England-centric or classical-centric histories I’ve read a bunch of. As this is an “In Outline” book, it’s short and high-level (although the Parliament-loving is lovingly detailed). So I have a smattering now, and if I get a chance to read another like it, I’ll take it. Hopefully something with a bit more popular history in it and a little less political science.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests 1190-1340 by Stephen Turnbull (2003)

Book coverThis book is a brief (fewer than 100 pages) military history of the Mongols, starting with Genghis Khan. It’s part of a series of short, topical books by Osprey Publishing that look pretty interesting; I’d look for them myself at book fairs, but I recognize that these days, I’m just sniffing among the trash left by Internet-device-enabled book dealers who will find these things before I do and will try to then sell them to me at more than $1 each. Look down there at the price of this one, for crying out loud. It’s almost enough to make me consider not returning this book to the library (but I did).

At any rate, it focuses more on the military conquests of the Mongols starting with the consolidation of their central Asian power base and continuing through their campaigns in Europe, the Middle East, China, and Southwest Asia. Its focus, as I might have mentioned, is on the military strategies and tactics of the Mongols, and the focus really, er, focuses on how brutal they were. This slender volume does not have any of the leavening effect of their administration, religious tolerance, and other homer bits that run throughout Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

Still, it’s a quick read, with lots of images and maps helping to fill the pages. So it’s more like a long encyclopedia entry than a scholarly book. But a good read and a good primer. Man, I’ll have to seek out some more of these Ospery books.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Over the Hill and Past Our Place by Harold Warp (1958, 1976?)

Book coverThis book tells some of the early life of Harold Warp. Who is Harold Warp? He was a farm boy who grew up on a farm in Nebraska in the very early 20th century (no electricity, no internal combustion engines). After he his father died when he was three, his mother ran the farm until she passed away when the boy was eleven. The book collects memories from that era, an era that saw radical changes to the farm. In those eight years, the house got a telephone, animals were replaced with gas engines, and his brother got a car. It’s a fascinating read.

In his 20s, Warp patented Flex-O-Glass and started a company to manufacture it. That went very well. The company, Warp Brothers, is still in business. Warp did so well with it that he donated the land and materials to start Pioneer Village, which is still in operation, near his old homestead.

Warp’s story, included as a couple of photocopied things in the back, is as fascinating as the book. Especially when you think in the sheer number of technological changes wrought in the fifty years between Warp’s birth and the book’s initial publication. I mean, he started out in an environment where his mother spent all night repairing clothing by the light of a coal oil lamp and where he and his slightly older brother were allowed to get their own rifle when they were about 10 as long as they would hunt jackrabbits to eat. When I think about the changes I’ve seen since my early days in the 1970s, we’ve got, what? Oh, the “Internet,” which is an extension of computer networks I was using when I was twelve. So we’ve got all the LOLcats we want, but on the 1970s, men were walking on the moon. It doesn’t seem fair, does it?

At any rate, the writing and presentation of the book are a bit slapdash in spots. Sometimes, the chapters collect unconnected incidents and musings where stray sentences of unrelated memories just sort of drop in and then go, almost as though this was dictated while his mind wandered and no one edited it. But overall, it’s a cool book, and at 73 pages, it’s an easy read in one sitting. The book was published and kept in print in association with the Pioneer Village, so you can probably pick one up if you’re in Minden, Nebraska, on vacation. Which I have considered, briefly, on the weight of the book.

Books mentioned in this review:

Old 880

For a decade, from 1938 to 1948, the United States Secret Service conducted one of its most intensive searches for a counterfeiter. The elusive fraudster’s funny money appeared throughout New York City and across the United States but was concentrated on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in a small area centered on Broadway and 96th Street. Although the counterfeiter passed off thousands of bills in a relatively small area over a long time frame, the authorities could not catch the unknown subject. To make matters more embarrassing for the feds, the secretive mastermind who kept them at bay—the man they called Old 880 after his case file number—was counterfeiting one dollar bills. Poorly. Continue reading “Old 880”

Cannons Across The River

In the frontier days, before the American Civil War engulfed the entire nation and after the Revolutionary War turned Tories against Patriots, a smaller conflict erupted into violence between settlements in southeastern Wisconsin. Riots burned bridges that connected Kilborntown and Juneautown, two rivals on separated from one another by a single river. Tensions rose over the course of several years, culminating in the mustering of a cannon prepared to fire upon the enemy. Only a cool speaker with convincing eloquence prevented the neighbors from firing artillery upon fellow Americans.

The land at the meeting place of the three rivers had been visited by the white man for centuries, but by the early 1830s, the remaining Native American tribes had signed treaties to cede the lands. In 1835, these lands sold at an auction in Green Bay to land speculators. Two of the men, Byron Kilbourn and Solomon Juneau, created settlements on opposite banks of the river.

From the start, the two men and their towns were at odds as each tried to promote his settlement and land holdings at the expense of the other. No bridges connected the two towns, and Byron Kilbourn owned a number of vessels that brought trade and settlers to his side of the river—but nothing to Juneautown. The residents east of the river rankled as they were isolated. The founders of the towns even laid their settlements out such that the streets didn’t align to make bridge building easy.

In 1840, the territorial legislature decreed that the ferry system wasn’t adequate, and that bridges should be constructed to join the settlements. The settlements, though, didn’t want to join nor to spend their own money to make travel and trade easier for the enemy. Tensions rose even as the frameworks for the bridges did. By 1845, the simmering rose to a boil called the Great Bridge War.

In early May, a vessel on the river destroyed the Spring Street Bridge. In retaliation, residents of Kilbourntown destroyed the west end of the Chestnut Street bridge. An angry mob in Juneautown brought out the cannon, loaded it, and aimed it for Byron Kilbourn’s house on the other side of the river. As the ruffians were to light the fuse, a level-headed orator amongst them prevented them from striking the tinder, as Kilbourn’s recently-dead daughter lie in state in the home at the time. He prevented the firing, but not further violence. Other riots ensued, and the cannon made another appearance on May 28, 1845, as the Juneautown irregulars destroyed a bridge over the Menomonee River. Again, the east siders didn’t fire, but their efforts continued to impede the bridge builders.

For much of 1845, the two settlements and their ruffians used riots and skirmishes to make points. One crossing the river in either direction needed to be wary and often carry a white flag to pass safely. But the currents of progress carried the settlements downstream, to eventual agreement. In 1846, a greater city charter was ratified. The city of Milwaukee arose from the two warring settlements that had come but one impassioned plea from firing artillery at each other.

The effects of this dispute remain visible today. Bridges and drawbridges cross the Milwaukee River at odd angles to link streets built by two warring settlements in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the people from the West Side think the people from the East Side are crazy (and vice versa).

Further reading: