Archive for the ‘History’ Category

India, A History

July 20, 2014

It must be a daunting project for a historian to attempt to write a history of India on one volume. The grand sweep of India’s history, stretching back five thousand years with a bewildering diversity of cultures, languages, religions, and ethnic groups provides so much material that it must be very difficult to decide what to write about and what to exclude. This diversity must also make finding a common theme throughout the history of the subject difficult. If a historian wishes to write a history of France, he has only one nationality to examine. Most French speak the same language, follow the same religion and culture, and have a shared identity. China is somewhat more diverse, but a historian still has the cycle of dynasties to use as a framework. India is more difficult. The subcontinent has only been completely unified as one state under the British and as soon as the British left, the former colony was split between India and Pakistan, and later Bangladesh.

Making matters more difficult the indigenous Indians, the Hindus were less interested in dating and precise dating than some other civilizations, such as the Chinese, and more inclined to mythologize their history. Thus, instead of annals of history with more or less precise dating, we have the great Sanskrit epics, which quite possible contain much true historical information. Many of the persons and events in the epics may be historical, but historians face considerable difficulty in determining just when these events occurred and how they are related chronologically, without the help of archeology. It was only when the Muslims invaded Indian that we begin to get reasonably precise dating.



Despite these difficulties, John Keay does an admirable job of telling the epic story of India in one volume, India, A History.  As someone who did not know very much about this fascinating, and increasingly important country, I was glad to read a history book that lays out the whole story, from its beginnings to the present day, in a way that holds my interest. The maps and charts are adequate, though my Kindle Paperwhite still does not handle graphics very well. I did get somewhat lost in all the exotic and unfamiliar names of princes and dynasties, and occasionally the history of a certain region of India at a particular time, or some of the less prominent kings of a dynasty was somewhat rushed through, but I think that India, A History is an excellent resource for the casual reader to learn about the history of India. Those who wish to study the subject further can use the bibliography John Keay provides. Either way, I think they will find this book useful and interesting.



July 18, 2014

No, I have not decided to write a post about porn. If you look carefully at the first letter in the title, you will see that it is not a p “pee”. It is actually the letter þ or “thorn” which was used in Old English, but has since been dropped. It has the sound that is represented in Modern English by the digraph “th”, so the actual title of this post is “thornography”. I hope you can forgive me for the word play. I have mentioned that the alphabet we use in English was originally the alphabet used by the Romans to write Latin. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, this alphabet continued to be used as the various dialects of Latin spoken in the former provinces of the Empire slowly evolved into the romance languages like Spanish, Italian , or French. The Latin alphabet was carried North and East by Christian missionaries, and so the various Germanic and Celtic peoples used them to write their own languages. The Anglo-Saxons who spoke Old English were among the Germanic speakers. Naturally the speakers of the various languages adapted the letters of the Latin alphabet to suit the needs of their own languages. Letters were dropped or added or the sounds they represented changed. Some languages added diacritical marks such as the accents, circumflexes, dots or curls you may see when studying Spanish, French or some other language. The Latin alphabet originally had 23 letters, the 26 found in English and other European language minus J, U, and W. Before being introduced to the Latin alphabet, the Anglo-Saxons, like other Germanic peoples had used the runic alphabet. When they switched to the Latin alphabet, they added four letters to the alphabet and dropped K, Q, and Z for a total of 24 letters. Two of the added letters were taken from the runic alphabet and two were adapted Latin letters. The altered Latin letters were Æ or ash, which was pronounced something like between the vowels A and E, and Рor eth, which was a sound close to D, perhaps DH. The two letters taken from the runes were þ, thorn and Wynn Ƿ which was used for the W sound. The letter Œ or ethel was also used. There was also a letter Ȝ or Yogh which was simply the English form of G. Yogh was used after the Norman Conquest along with the Carolingian G with gradually replaced it. The letter þ was used in Old English and survived into Middle English, though by the fourteenth century it was being replaced by the digraph th. The Letter Wynn had out of use already to be replaced by W or double U (UU). Over time þ began to be indistinguishable from the letter Y in handwriting. By the time William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476, þ was only used in a few common words like “the”, which people were unwilling to change the spelling. The printing press had been invented in Germany and Caxton was obliged to import the type fonts from Germany. Since the German language did not use þ, he substituted Y. Over time most people forgot about the letter þ and simply assumed the letter in old printed texts was Y. This is why you will often see something like, “Ye Olde Antique Shoppe” in fake Medieval signage. The “Ye” is supposed to be “The” but since the people who make such signs do not know about þ and “ye” is the archaic second person plural pronoun, “ye” just sounds old fashioned, which is the effect they are going for. þ was used by other Germanic languages, particularly in Scandinavia, but it fell out of use there too. The only living language that uses þ is Icelandic where it retains the pronunciation “th”. In order to write thorn, I had to download an Icelandic keyboard, before I discovered that it is one of the special characters on WordPress’s toolbar. Ð and Æ were also on the Icelandic keyboard but I had to cut and paste Ƿ, Ȝ and Œ. The Icelandic language seems to have retained much of the grammar and vocabulary of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings and modern Icelanders can still read the old sagas with only a little effort. þat is all I have to say about þe letters þat are no longer used in þe English language. It seems a shame þat we lost some letters. Perhaps I should start a movement to reintroduce þ into þe alphabet. Maybe not.

Carolingian Miniscule

July 14, 2014

It is still widely believed that Western Europe during the Early Middle Ages, around AD 500-1000, was an intellectual wasteland, a dark age in which the vast majority of the people were illiterate and ignorant. During this dark age the learning of the ancient Greeks and Romans was completely forgotten by the barbarians who overthrew the Roman Empire, and what learning did survive was ruthlessly suppressed by a Catholic Church which worshiped ignorance and superstition. I have attempted to correct these misconceptions in previous posts by writing a little about what historians of the period have to say.

You may be surprised to learn that one of the greatest advances in transmitting the written word from the invention of the printing press all the way back to the invention of writing itself occurred during the so-called Dark Ages. This would be the development of the script called Carolingian minuscule. What is Carolingian Minuscule? In a sense, it is what you are looking at now. That is to say, our modern system of upper-case and lower case letters along with punctuation like periods and commas are derived from Carolingian Minuscule.

The alphabet we use in English comes from the Latin alphabet which the Romans used. They adapted their alphabet from a version of the Greek alphabet, which the Greeks had adapted from the alphabet invented by the Phoenicians. All of these ancient alphabets had only what we call upper-case or capital letters and no punctuation.


This is a little hard to read. Around the first century AD scribes began to experiment with various forms of cursive writing. Some of the Latin letters, when written quickly with a pen, began to resemble the letters we know as lower case letters. These scribes also developed simple systems of punctuation to indicate pauses when reading aloud. There was no difference in meaning between upper case and lower case letters. The differences in the shapes of the letters were simply the result of the handwriting of the individual writer. There was no consistent use of punctuation. As Christianity grew in numbers and influence, there was more interest in creating some sort of system of punctuation to help the reader when reading the Bible or other religious texts aloud during services. There was also a great need for more texts to be copied and any way of increasing the speed of making copies was appreciated.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the experimentation in developing various scripts continued in the monasteries, particularly in Ireland and England. The native Celtic languages of the Irish monks were quite unlike Latin and they felt the need to make the Latin texts they studied and copied easier to read. This, these monks introduced the idea of putting spaces between words. They also started to use different marks to indicate differing lengths of pauses, something like our periods, commas, semicolons, etc. On the continent, the monks and scribes of the Merovingian Franks also used a wide variety of scripts. Because these scripts varied from region to region and even from monastery to monastery and still didn’t have any consistent system of using upper and lower case letters or punctuation, writing in Western Europe was still a mess. These various scripts were not as clear and legible as they might have been and reading and making copies was still something of a chore.

Austrasia, homeland of the Franks (darkest gre...

Austrasia, homeland of the Franks (darkest green), and subsequent conquests (other shades of green). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was the king of the Franks from 768 to 814 and the first Holy Roman Emperor from 800-814. His father Peppin had deposed the last of the Merovingian kings of the Franks and Charlemagne had united the Franks and conquered most of Western Europe, including what is now France, Germany, northern Italy, and a part of Spain. Charlemagne was no mere warlord, though he was fond of fighting. He was aware that education and culture had degenerated badly in his Frankish realm since the fall of the Roman Empire and he was determined to do something about it. He reformed the administration of his empire and put it on a more professional level than it had been for centuries. He introduced new coinage with improved trade and stabilized the empire’s finances. He was a pious Christian and tried to reform the Frankish clergy. Although Charlemagne himself was illiterate, he knew the importance of literacy for administration and established schools to educate the young. He himself attempted to learn to read and write. He had some success with reading but he started too late in life and was never able to learn to write. Since there were few teachers available among the Franks, Charlemagne sent abroad for teachers, particularly from the British Isles. The chief of these teachers was a monk from York named Alcuin.

Minuscule caroline

Minuscule caroline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

York had become a center of learning in England and Charlemagne was eager to hire Alcuin to improve the palace school which had been used to train royal princes for rule. Alcuin introduced a liberal arts and religious curriculum at the palace school and gathered scholars  at Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen in the hopes of establishing another center of scholarship in Francia. He also helped to create the new, clearer, more legible script that came to be known as the Carolingian minuscule. This new script included letters with uniform rounded shapes to make reading and copying easier along with clear distinctions between capital and lower case letters, spaces between words and sentences and a standardized system of punctuation. As a result manuscripts produced in any part of western Europe could be read by a scholar in any other part of Europe. Because the letters were smaller, yet more legible, more words could be fitted on a page, thus conserving valuable parchment or vellum. Under Charlemagne and Alcuin’s guidance, scribes made new copies of every Latin manuscript they could find with the result that if a manuscript or book written in Latin managed to survive into Carolingian times, there is a very good chance that a copy made during that time survives today. In other words, if it were not for the reforms in writing that took place in the middle of the Dark Ages, most of the literature from the Roman Empire would have been completely lost.

Carolingian minuscule was adopted throughout Charlemagne’s empire and its influence survived even after his empire fell apart during the reigns of his grandsons.  Over time this script developed into the Blackletter script which was used in Germany until the twentieth century. Italian humanists came to believe that this script was barbaric and “Gothic” and looked back to the original Carolingian minuscule as the way that properly civilized Romans wrote, believing that the Carolingian manuscripts were original Roman texts. The humanists went on to develop new scripts based on the Carolingian minuscule and when printing was invented, printers used these scripts as models for their typefaces. So, if you can read this, be sure to thank Charlemagne and the medieval scholars who invented our modern letters and punctuation.

Charlemagne. Painted in the year of 14. This i...

You’re welcome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Election of 1816

July 7, 2014

There is not much to say about the election of 1816. There was hardly any campaigning and with the collapse of the Federalist Party, there was little question that the Democratic-Republican candidate, James Monroe, would be elected.

The War of 1812 had ended the year before. The United States hadn’t exactly won the war, but we hadn’t exactly lost it either. The Treaty of Ghent had largely restored the relations between the United States and Great Britain as they had been before the war. Neither side had gained or lost any territory, so the war could be considered a draw. Actually, you might consider the US ahead on points since the last battle of the war, the Battle of New Orleans fought two weeks after the treaty was signed, was a resounding defeat for the British.

In any event, the War of 1812 turned out to be a “good war” and the Federalists who had opposed it were badly damaged by their opposition. The Federalist Party had been declining in numbers and influence for years and the War of 1812 finished them. It didn’t help that the Democratic-Republicans were stealing their better ideas. The trouble the United States had in financing the War of 1812 convinced many Jeffersonians that Alexander Hamilton’s ideas about a National Bank and encouraging American manufacturing weren’t so bad after all.

President Madison decided to follow the example of Washington and Jefferson and did not run for a third term. Instead, he supported the campaign of his Secretary of State, James Monroe. Monroe was yet another of the Virginia dynasty which had supplied the US with every president thus far, except for Adams. He had served in the Continental Army during the War of Independence and had been wounded at the Battle of Trenton. After the war, Monroe entered politics serving as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and the US Senate. He was also ambassador to France under Washington, governor of Virginia, and President Madison’s Secretary of State and War. He was an obvious successor to Jefferson and Madison.

Not everyone thought so. Many in the North were wary of another Virginia president and felt it was time to end the Virginia dynasty. There was some talk of nominating another of Madison’s Secretary of Wars, William H. Crawford, but he declined to run and it came to nothing. In the end the Democratic-Republican Congressional Caucus nominated James Monroe for president and New York governor Daniel D Tompkins for vice-president.


The Federalists didn’t even bother to have a formal caucus to nominate a candidate. Most Federalists supported Rufus King, the Federalist Vice Presidential candidate from the elections of 1808 and 1812. Former Maryland senator and governor John Eager Howard was the informal candidate for Vice-President.


There was hardly any campaigning or excitement in this election, except for a slight controversy about the status of Indiana. When the official count of the electoral votes took place in February of 1817, there were some objections made that since Indiana was not recognized by Congress until December 11,1816 while the Electoral College had cast its ballots on December 4, therefore the State of Indiana did not yet exist and its votes shouldn’t be counted. Others argued that Indiana had been organized as a state, with its constitution on June 29, and that Congress was merely acknowledging a state that already existed. The debate was postponed and since it made no difference to the results, it was never taken up again.

As for the results, it was a landslide for Monroe and the Democratic-Republicans. The popular vote was 76,592 or 68.2% for Monroe and 34,740 or 30.9% for King. At this time only ten of the nineteen states chose their electors by popular vote, while the electors of the remaining nine were chosen by their state legislatures. In the Electoral College, Monroe won all but three states, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware for a total of 183 electoral votes. King, with those three states only won 34 votes. This was the end of the Federalist Party and the first party system of the United States.

The Election of 1816

The Election of 1816




Independence Day

July 4, 2014

The Fourth of July is the day on which the American people celebrate their independence from Great Britain. It is not actually clear why Independence Day is the Fourth. Congress actually passed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776. It has often been thought that the Declaration was signed on the fourth, but that doesn’t seem to be true. There wasn’t any one time when the members of Congress signed the Declaration and there were a few who didn’t get around to signing it until August. Nevertheless, the fourth is the date that stuck. As John Adams wrote to Abigail.

English: "The Declaration of Independence...


The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.


And so it has been, for the last 238 years. May God bless America and grant us many more years of freedom.




Happy Independence Day.



Beyond the Redskins

July 3, 2014

Now that the US Patent and Trade office has, probably illegally but what does that matter in Obama’s America, cancelled the Washington Redskins trademark, what is the next step for Progressives who want to perform some symbolic action and push people around without actually helping anyone? If Simon Waxman of the Washington Post has his way, they will force the military to rename any weapons system named after an Indian tribe. Have any Native Americans come forward to demand such changes? For that matter, is renaming the Washington Redskins really a high priority among Native Americans? No, but Mr. Waxman believes such names are an insult and a slur and is offended on behalf of the Indians.

But even if the NFL and Redskins brass come to their senses and rename the team, a greater symbolic injustice would continue to afflict Indians — an injustice perpetuated not by a football club but by our federal government.

In the United States today, the names Apache, Comanche, Chinook, Lakota, Cheyenne and Kiowa apply not only to Indian tribes but also to military helicopters. Add in the Black Hawk, named for a leader of the Sauk tribe. Then there is the Tomahawk, a low-altitude missile, and a drone named for an Indian chief, Gray Eagle. Operation Geronimo was the end of Osama bin Laden.

Why do we name our battles and weapons after people we have vanquished? For the same reason the Washington team is the Redskins and my hometown Red Sox go to Cleveland to play the Indians and to Atlanta to play the Braves: because the myth of the worthy native adversary is more palatable than the reality — the conquered tribes of this land were not rivals but victims, cheated and impossibly outgunned.

The destruction of the Indians was asymmetric war, compounded by deviousness in the name of imperialist manifest destiny. White America shot, imprisoned, lied, swindled, preached, bought, built and voted its way to domination. Identifying our powerful weapons and victorious campaigns with those we subjugated serves to lighten the burden of our guilt. It confuses violation with a fair fight.

It is worse than denial; it is propaganda. The message carried by the word Apache emblazoned on one of history’s great fighting machines is that the Americans overcame an opponent so powerful and true that we are proud to adopt its name. They tested our mettle, and we proved stronger, so don’t mess with us. In whatever measure it is tribute to the dead, it is in greater measure a boost to our national sense of superiority. And this message of superiority is shared not just with U.S. citizens but with those of the 14 nations whose governments buy the Apache helicopters we sell. It is shared, too, with those who hear the whir of an Apache overhead or find its guns trained on them. Noam Chomsky has clarified the moral stakes in provocative, instructive terms: “We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy.’ ”

Noam Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge and refused to believe the reports that they were massacring half of Cambodia’s population. I don’t think he should be respected for his (lack of) moral clarity. Waxman’s version of Indian history which casts the Native Americans as the hapless victims of the wicked White people, with no hope of defeating the White Man’s superior technology and cunning is actually rather insulting, and perhaps racist. If I were a Native American, I know which narrative I would prefer, the one which casts them as noble, heroic warriors. And, in fact, he is wrong.

The truth is that the Native Americans were quite capable of holding their own against the European invaders, at least until the industrial revolution. The Europeans did have guns and horses which gave them an advantage, but it was not really a insurmountable advantage, especially considering that the Native Americans far outnumbered the Europeans in the early stages of the conquest and settlement of the New World. The Europeans did, however, have a secret weapon, a weapon so secret that even they weren’t aware of it, disease. The European explorers who first discovered and explored the Americas carried within their bodies the germs which caused such diseases as smallpox, measles, cholera, and others. They had built up an immunity but the Indians had never been exposed to these diseases. The resulting plagues decimated the Native population. Had this not occurred, the earliest settlers would have had a much more difficult time establishing a foothold in the New World. When the first English settlers arrived at Jamestown and Plymouth Bay, they did not find a primeval wilderness. They found cultivated land where the cultivators had obligingly died off.

Another factor missing in Waxman’s narrative is the extent to which the Native Americans’ inability to come together to fight what turned out to be a common foe. The Indians were not unacquainted with savage war and deceit. When the French or English showed up, most Indian tribes were eager to trade with them for firearms, the better to fight their traditional enemies, and enlist them as allies to help destroy them. The French Jesuit missionaries were horrified by the near genocidal war between the Iroquois and Huron, touched off by trade with the French and Dutch.

The Spanish conquistadors may have had superior technology and were cruel and desperate men, but they could never have conquered and ruled large empires without the help of native allies, and, of course, disease. The Aztecs were hated throughout Mexico for their aggression and Cortes had little difficulty raising an Indian army with the hope of throwing off the Aztec yoke. That the Aztec yoke was quickly replaced with a Spanish one may seem to indicate that they chose poorly, but then the Spanish didn’t demand that they provide human sacrifices to their God. The Incas were still recovering from a devastating civil war and plague when Pizarro showed up. Their king, Atahualpa, was considered a usurper by the nobility. Most of the peoples that the Incas ruled had been conquered within the last century and didn’t see enough difference between the two sets of conquerors to care who won. They did choose poorly since the Spaniards were far more rapacious than the Incas.

The point of relating this history is to show that the American Indians do have a history to be proud of. They were not helpless, simple-minded victims, nor were they primitive, noble savages who lived in harmony with nature and each other. They were human beings who tried the best they could to preserve their lives and liberty. There is no question that the White man has treated the Red man shamefully. The fact that if the situation were reversed and the Native Americans discovered Europe they would have acted in the same way is no excuse. The least we can do to make amends is to honor them for their noble heritage and not to pity them or presume to speak for them.

Chief Sitting Bull

Not a victim or a child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


June 30, 2014

I found an e-mail in my spam filter written in an unfamiliar language.

Memnun oldum,
Benim adım i kişiyi gördüm ve seni bilmek ilgilenmeye başladı Evelyn, ve, sizinle kalıcı bir ilişki kurmak benim için arzu varsa ben göndermek böylece benim e-posta adresine( yoluyla bana ulaşın benim senin ve benim hakkımda daha sizeanlatmak için resim,
Teşekkür ve Tanrı sizi korusun,

It doesn’t look like any language that I have ever seen. I have, at various times, studied German, Spanish, Koine Greek, and Latin, and while I am far from proficient in any of these languages I can sometimes make out the general meaning of a text written in these languages. This text doesn’t seem to be related to any of them. It is written in the Latin Alphabet, which narrows down the possibilities, but none of the words seem to be familiar. There was a translation written below.

Nice meeting you,
My name is Evelyn i saw your contact and became interested to know you, and establish a lasting relationship with you, if you have the desire for me Please contact me through my email address ( so that i can send my pictures to you and tell you more about me,
Thanks and God bless you,

I don’t think I will take Evelyn up on her offer. I decided to run the foreign text through Google Translate in detect language mode and see if that would identify the language. It turns out that it is Turkish. I don’t think I have ever seen written Turkish before.

Linguists classify Turkish in the Turkic family which is considered part of the Altaic group, though this is controversial. This would make Turkish related to various Central Asian languages, mostly spoken in the Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union like Khazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc. It is more distantly related to Mongolian and various languages spoken in Siberia. Korean and Japanese may be still more distantly related, but this is uncertain. What is certain is that Turkish is not an Indo-European language like English, or the other languages that I am familiar with, which would account for the way in which I could not decipher a single word of the message.

Turkish used to be written in the Ottoman-Turkish Script which was based on the Arabic alphabet. This alphabet was not particularly well suited for the Turkish language, most notably for the absence of short vowels. Arabic is a Semitic language, in which it is not all that important to distinguish vowels in writing. Turkish has more vowels than Arabic and fewer distinctions between certain consonant sounds. Therefore, as part of the reforms that Kemal Ataturk enacted with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a new alphabet based on the Latin Alphabet was created for Turkish. The new alphabet had 29 letters, mostly the same as other European languages but with q,x, and w omitted and six added. They are:

a, b, c, ç, d, e, f, g, ğ, h, ı, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, ö, p, r, s, ş, t, u, ü, v, y, and z

The letters sound about the same as in English, with some exceptions, and I suppose that if I tried to read that message aloud a Turk might understand me. I wouldn’t know what I was saying, though.

English: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introducing the...

English: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introducing the new Turkish alphabet to the people of Kayseri. September 20, 1928 Türkçe: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk 20 Eylül 1928’de, Kayseri’deki Cumhuriyet Halk Fırkası önünde, halka yeni Türk harflerini öğretirken (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Turkish is what linguists call a agglutinative language. Turkish speakers pile affixes onto a base, resulting in long words that in English might be expressed by a phrase, or even a sentence. Here is an example from Wikipedia on how this works.

Avrupa                                                                  Europe
Avrupalı                                                              of Europe
Avrupalılaş                                                         become of Europe
Avrupalılaştır                                                   to make become of Europe
Avrupalılaştırama                                           be unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadık                                   we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadık                                   that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadık                                   one that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadıklar                             those that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımız                    our those that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımızdan            of our those that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmış     is reportedly of our those that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınız you are reportedly of our those that we were unable to Europeanize
Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınızcasına as if you are reportedly of our those that we were unable to Europeanize


Good grief. Every suffix has a meaning or conveys grammatical information. Some other agglutinative languages are Japanese, Eskimo, Sumerian, and Klingon. English is, by the way, somewhere between a synthetic language, one that uses inflections like German or Latin, and an isolating language, like Chinese. We used to have many inflections but have lost most of them over the centuries.

Well, even though I have no intention of contacting Evelyn or sharing pictures with her, I should thank her for giving me the excuse to learn a little about the Turkish language. It has been interesting.


The Christian Dark Ages II: The Early Middle Ages

June 28, 2014

In the previous post, I wrote against the all too widely held belief that the Middle Ages, that period of time between around AD 500-1500 was a Dark Age of ignorance, poverty, and religious fanaticism. No historian has held such a view for more than a century or longer, yet the idea of the Dark Ages still has many followers, mostly, it seems by anti-Christian polemicists eager to revive the outdated trope of an eternal war between science and religion. Since the Middle Ages were a very religious period of time, there could have been no scientific advances. Thus, there are quotes like the ones I copied from an atheist.

I am sure you have heard of the Dark Ages, but if not I’ll help you out. This was when, basically, science was outlawed, to the extent that if you were doing something that the church deemed blasphemous you were killed. This is when we hunted for witches because the bible says to kill witches, homosexuals, those who commit adultery, and the list goes on. If you were not a believer in god you were killed.

In addition this was also the time when the Crusades were going on. So we were killing both our own people and the people of other nations in the name of god. Following god’s laws was one of the worst times in history (IMO).

And Ayn Rand.

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Along with this picture


In my previous post, I hope I showed that the High Middle Ages, from AD 1000-1350, were far from being a dark age. The High Middle Ages were, in fact, among the most dynamic and brilliant in human history. What of the period before the High Middle Ages, the Early Middle Ages from around 500-1000?

The Early Middle Ages could more justly be called the Dark Ages. This was a prolonged period relative economic and cultural stagnation. There were immense dislocations during the fifth century, when the Western half of the Roman Empire collapsed after the invasions and migrations of the Germans tribes and the Huns. Trade and urbanization declined as did education and literacy. It proved to be very difficult to maintain a high level of civilization in the face of incessant war. Still, when the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, and others settled down in the kingdoms they carved out of the Roman Empire, their kings invariably tried to restore Roman civilization with varying degrees of success. Then, when things began to get better, new waves of invaders, the Avars, Bulgars, Moors would disrupt things once more.

Europe, after the "fall" of the Roman Empire

Europe, after the “fall” of the Roman Empire

Under the Merovingian and Carolingian kings, the Franks conquered most of Western Europe. Their greatest king, Charlemagne, even tried, with partial success, to restore the Roman Empire in the West. He realized how far civilization had declined and set about trying to improve education and culture in his vast realm. This is the period known as the Carolingian Renaissance and it is thanks to efforts of Charlemagne’s scribes that many Latin texts survived from antiquity.  Unfortunately, Charlemagne’s empire broke up within a century of his death due to quarrels among his grandchildren and more invaders, this time the Viking, the Magyars and the Saracens.

In the East, the Roman Empire remained intact for two centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. They were hard beset by the Arab invasions of the eighth century. For a century, the Roman or Byzantine Empire, as it is often called in its Medieval incarnation, fought for its life against the Arabs fired with enthusiasm for their new faith of Islam and during this century, even Byzantium suffered from a relatively dark age. The Byzantines withstood the attacks, and incidentally saved Western Civilization just as it was beginning and after their borders were secure, around 800, the Byzantine Empire quickly recovered to become the most powerful and advanced state in Europe.

The history of the Dark Ages, then,was not the history of ignorant religious fanatics wantonly destroying knowledge and suppressing science. It was not a era of intelligence on strike. Rather, the Early Middle Ages were an era in which men worked valiantly in the face of seemingly insuperable difficulties to maintain some level of civilization. Christianity, far from suppressing knowledge and science, played a key role in the preservation of culture. Christianity is a religion of the book and therefore requires, at least in theory, a literate clergy. To meet this need, the Church established cathedral and monastic schools, which kept literacy alive even through the darkest periods. The expansion of Christianity into northern and eastern Europe spread literacy to hitherto illiterate peoples. Western Catholic missionaries taught the Latin alphabet to the Irish, Germans, Anglo-Saxons, and eventually the Northmen. Eastern Orthodox missionaries introduced the adapted Greek letters that we call the Cyrillic alphabet to the Slavs.

In western Europe, knowledge of the ancient Greek scholars was lost and few people could read any Greek.  In that sense the Early Middle Ages might be considered a dark age, yet there was a continuing Latin literary tradition. Contrary to what is still widely believed, there was no general decline in technology during the Early Middle Ages. In most respects there was a steady progress in technological innovation including some important inventions.  Such inventions included the moldboard plow, the horse collar, stirrups and horse shoes, the Carolingian miniscule, the three field crop rotation as well as increased use of legumes to replenish the soil. Better iron smelting techniques were developed and there was wider use of watermills. There was a decline in some areas, especially in architecture, mostly because the various successor states to the Roman Empire lacked the resources to erect large buildings or maintain extensive networks of roads.

To put the matter simply, there was no such thing as the Christian Dark Ages. Christianity did not cause a thousand-year dark age of ignorance and squalor. If it had not been for the advances made during the Middle Ages, it is likely that modern science would never have developed and it was not a coincidence that modern science developed in Christian Europe. Had it not been for the Christian Dark Ages, we would not be exploring the galaxy by now. Perhaps we would only be starting to explore the Earth.

The Christian Dark Ages I:The High Middle Ages

June 26, 2014

I have seen this graphic here and there on the Internet.


The atheist blog where I stole that particular image provides an explanation of the Christian Dark Ages.

I am sure you have heard of the Dark Ages, but if not I’ll help you out. This was when, basically, science was outlawed, to the extent that if you were doing something that the church deemed blasphemous you were killed. This is when we hunted for witches because the bible says to kill witches, homosexuals, those who commit adultery, and the list goes on. If you were not a believer in god you were killed.

In addition this was also the time when the Crusades were going on. So we were killing both our own people and the people of other nations in the name of god. Following god’s laws was one of the worst times in history (IMO).

Ayn Rand described the Dark Ages by having John Galt, the protagonist of her book, “Atlas Shrugged” saying,

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Is any of this true? Were the Middle Ages a period of Darkness in which religious fanatics ran amok,  science was a crime punishable by death, and men of intelligence went on strike? Well, no. The idea that there was a thousand-year period of poverty, ignorance and stagnation caused by fanatic Christians who were opposed to any sort of intellectual endeavor is the result of a dramatic oversimplification of Medieval history and anti-Christian bigotry. It is simply not the truth.

There are not many historians nowadays who would fell comfortable labeling any period of the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages. This is not simply due to political correctness, but an acknowledgement that the period from around AD 500-1500 in European  history was too complex and diverse to be so simply labeled. There were indeed times and places in that period of history that were very dark, but there were also very bright times and places which attained a very highly developed civilization. Any two word phrase simply cannot do justice to the vast sweep of Medieval European History.

In general, historians divide the Middle Ages into the Early Middle Ages, from around 500-1000, the High Middle Ages, from around 1000-1350, and the Late Middle Ages, from around 1350-1500. I will ignore the Late Middle Ages since that period of time is usually referred to as the Renaissance, except to say that there was a sort of mini-dark age in the wake of the Black Death of 1349 and the general breakdown of Medieval institutions throughout the fourteenth fifteenth century.

Europe in 1190

Europe in 1190

I have already dealt with the Scholastic philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages and the important role they played in paving the way for the development of modern science. The High Middle Ages were the period in which the university was developed. European scholars gained access to ancient texts in Greek, and Arabic.  The population throughout Europe increased dramatically. More lands were cleared for settlement. Long distance trade expanded and modern banking and capitalism began to develop. Politically, this was the age in which nationalism began to develop and European states began to be more centralized and more efficiently governed. This was also an age in which the city states of Italy and norther Europe could flourish. Culturally, new movements in art and architecture began and literature began to be written in vernacular languages. The High Middle Ages saw an increase in religious devotion, along with the intellectual ferment, which should put to rest the idea that Christian piety and science are forever at odds. The Dominican and Franciscan monastic orders were introduced and there was an increase in religious activity among the laity which foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation. Among the new technologies either invented by Europeans or introduced to Europe were paper making, the magnetic compass, eyeglasses, the wind mill, the spinning wheel, the first mechanical clock, gunpowder and Arabic numerals, along with the re-introduction of the abacus.

Even the Crusades were a positive development.  As we will see, the Early Middle Ages was a period in which Europe was continually invaded from without. The Crusades were not just the result of mindless religious fanaticism, in which Christian barbarians slaughtered anyone who worshiped the wrong god. The Crusades were an attempt by the nations of Christendom to go on the offensive against enemies who had been threatening them for centuries. Transporting armies across a continent and defeating the Moslims on their own ground took a considerable amount of wealth and preparation. The fact that the Crusaders were victorious in the First Crusade is an early indication that the Europeans were beginning to pull ahead in technology.

The High Middle Ages were not a Dark  Age by any means. Instead, the High Middle Ages must be counted among the most brilliant and dynamic in human history. We would not be where we are today if the High Middle Ages had really been the Christian Dark Ages.

I had intended to take up the subject of the Early Middle Ages which could more justly be called a Dark Age but this post is getting long so I think the Early Middle Ages will have to have a post of its own.




The Incredible Shrinking President

June 13, 2014

That is the title of an article Walter Russel Mead has written in the Daily News. When you consider the contrast between the hype when President Obama was first elected and the public’s increasingly negative view of his job performance, he certainly seems to be shrinking. He came into office promising to heal the planet and now it seems he can’t get anything done. As Mead puts it,

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Less than two years after voters gave President Barack Obama a strong mandate for a second term, the White House is struggling against perceptions that it is losing its grip.

At home, the bungled rollout of the Obamacare website and the shocking revelations about an entrenched culture of incompetence and fraud in the VA have undercut faith in the President’s managerial competency.

Abroad, a surging Russia, an aggressive China, a war torn Middle East and a resurgent terror network are putting his foreign policy credentials to the test. With the GOP hoping to seize control of the Senate in November’s midterm elections, and the inevitable decline in presidential power that occurs as second term presidents move toward lame-duck status, Obama risks being sidelined and marginalized for the remaining two years of his term.

Mead has more to say about the president’s troubles but it is the second to last paragraph that intrigues me.

With 30 months to go, Obama still may have a chance to regain control of both the domestic and international agendas, but to do that he’s going to have to change his approach. He needs to focus on the nitty-gritty, day-to-day business of governing; six years into his administration, the public is fed up with promises and hungry for concrete accomplishments.

That has always been the problem with Barack Obama. He seems never to have been very interested in the day to day business of governing at any point in his political career. His colleagues in the Illinois State Senate and the US Senate remarked that he pref erred giving speeches on the Senate floor rather doing the actual work of preparing legislation in committees. He didn’t seem all that interested in the details of his most important legislation as president, Obamacare.

It is worth contrasting President Obama with another liberal Democratic president who had an ambitious agenda to change America, Lyndon B. Johnson. Both men believed in the power of the federal government to make life better for every American and both entered office with bold plans.On the whole, Johnson was more successful than Obama has been. Johnson was able to get Congress to pass his Great Society programs and civil rights legislation by large, bi-partisan majorities. Johnson took a personal interest in his policies and had an active part in designing the Great Society. Lyndon B. Johnson had spent twenty-four years in Congress before becoming John F. Kennedy’s vice president, serving in both Houses. He knew just who to talk to in order to get a bill passed and he knew how to persuade, intimidate or neutralize his opponents. He was a gregarious man who seemed to genuinely love politicking and policy.

That just isn’t Obama’s style and I doubt it ever can be. He just doesn’t seem to like dealing with members of Congress of either party all that much. There are reports that he is frustrated by the need to lobby people in Congress to get bills passed and would prefer to meet with world leaders and interesting people. He seems to believe that he can get things done by making grand proclamations and then every right-minded person will rush to make his policies happen. It seems that he does not believe that the people who oppose his policies might have different values or priorities and some compromise might serve the interests of both sides. Instead he thinks that any opposition can only be to personal dislike, racism, greed, or some other base motive. Johnson had great skill in crafting legislation to appeal to a broad majority. Obama seems not to be interested in trying

Since it is unlikely that a fifty-two year old man will be able to change his entire personality, the next two years of Obama’s presidency will undoubtedly be much like the last six. It’s going to be a long two years.


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