Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Good Friday

April 10, 2018

Today is not Good Friday — or any Friday — but it’s the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.  And none other than Hillary Clinton published an article about it in The Guardian.

While she mentions her and Bill’s attendance at a Christmas tree lighting in 1995, and the participation of a number of women in the preparations leading to the agreement, she does not mention the man without whose negotiating skills the agreement would probably not have happened: George Mitchell.

When Mitchell,, from Maine, retired from the Senate — where he had been majority leader — in 1995, President Bill Clinton named him the United States Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, and it was under his leadership that the agreement took place.

But Mitchell’s tenure as majority leader included the period during which Clinton tried to introduce a national healthcare system, and it’s very likely that someone with the skill to overcome decades of bloody hostility in Northern Ireland might have had some success. Mitchell even declined an appointment to the Supreme Court in order to take on this challenge.

But it was not to be. Bill Clinton made his wife the point person in the healthcare fight. And we know the sad result.

No wonder Hillary Clinton doesn’t care to mention George Mitchell.



Yet more on “Polish death camps”

February 16, 2018

In contradiction to what I wrote the other day, I have discovered (thanks to a reference in the relevant Wikipedia page), that an explicit use of the expression “in Polish death camps” (w polskich obozach śmierci) is found in Zofia Nałkowska‘s 1946 book Medaliony , though a little later in the same section there occurs w obozach Polski (‘in Poland’s camps’), which in the English translation is also rendered as “in Polish camps”.

Zofia Nałkowska (1884–1954) was a prominent figure in post-war Poland, not only as a writer and public intellectual but in politics as well. Several cities in Poland have streets named for her. Will she, then, be posthumously charged with a crime against the reputation of the Polish nation and the Republic of Poland?

And am I a criminal in Poland for citing these references?

British TV history

February 11, 2018

In a post I published the other day, I commented on some (far from all) of the historical distortions perpetrated by the creator of the TV series Vikings, Michael Hirst. This is perhaps an extreme example of what is quite common in Brtish-written televised historical dramas, at least those written directly for TV. Those based on novels are different, since the good British historical novelists (Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel and their ilk) play freely with character and language but stick close to actual history.

In the same Michael Hirst’s The Tudors (mistitled because it’s only about Henry VIII, one of five Tudor monarchs, not to mention their illustrious Welsh predecessors), Henry’s two sisters Margaret (who married James IV of Scotland) and Mary (who married first an elderly king of France and, after he died, her brother’s friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk) are conflated into one, with Margaret’s name and Mary’s history, except that her elderly first husband is king of Portugal, not France.

Another recent example: in the currently airing Victoria, the queen is depicted as jealous of Albert’s friendship with the (unknown to her) mathematician Ada Lovelace, though in fact Ada had been presented at court and it was Victoria herself who, on the recommendation of her favorite politician, Lord Melbourne (who was a cousin of Ada’s mother), made Ada a countess by making her husband Earl of Lovelace. And when Albert’s father and brother, both named Ernest, visit London in 1844(?), both are portrayed as single while in fact both were married; the younger Ernest’s wife Alexandrine was to become a good friend of Victoria’s.

Interestingly enough, as cavalier as Vikings is about history, it tries to be realistic about language. While the dialogue is predominantly in English, accents are used to distinguish speakers of the original languages: all the actors playing Anglo-Saxon characters speak with a standard English accent (RP), those playing Scandinavians with a Scandinavian one, and those playing Franks with a French one. And in a situation where two languages are spoken, the actors actually speak in the original languages — Old English, Old Norse and Old French. (The last is a bit anachronistic, being in an 11th-century form of the language as found in the Song of Roland rather than that of the 9th-century Strasbourg Oaths, but that’s just  a petty quibble on my part.) The presence of the character Athelstan, who is Anglo-Saxon but speaks Norse (and teaches English to Ragnar), is crucial to the plot.

Consider, by contrast, the series The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels, which covers the same ground as Vikings (the Scandinavian invasions of England) but is historically fairly accurate. While it uses the same accent convention as Vikings (even a modern Irish accent for an Irish character), it never makes clear which language is being spoken, since all the characters seem to understand one another without interpreters. (This is not the case in the novels, only in the TV series.)

Now, Victoria falsifies both history and language. Victoria is known to have spoken German with her mother, with her governess Baroness Lehzen, and with Albert. But in the series not only do they all explicitly speak English, but so does Albert with his brother and father, despite a few poorly pronounced German phrases here and there.

And I have already commented on language use in Wolf Hall (based on Hilary Mantel’s novels).

Greece and Macedonia… again!

February 7, 2018

I mentioned in my last post that the old squabble between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia over the latter’s name has started up again. I first wrote about this a dozen years ago, but maybe it’s time to comment again.

The Greeks’ (or, as I prefer, the Grecians’) argument is that the Republic has no right to appropriate the Macedonian identity (including symbols like the Vergina star or Alexander the Great), which to them is Greek, and that much of the Republic’s territory (the northern half was never part of historic Macedonia.

Well, let’s see now. In the (vastly oversimplifying) words of the late Benedict Anderson, nations are “imagined communities”, and the Macedonian Slavs’ choice to imagine themselves as Macedonians (after thinking of themselves as Bulgarians until about 100 years go) is no different from choices other nations have made. For a thousand years, under both Byzantine and Ottoman rule, the Greeks thought of themselves as Romans (Ρωμαίοι in Greek, Rūm in Turkish), and reinvented themselves as Hellenes only at the beginning of the 19th century for the benefit of West European philhellenes. In the Middle Ages, the French thought of themselves as Franks (Franci in Latin and interchangeably Francs or Franceis [modern Français] in French), though the Franks’ historic homeland does not lie in France.

Quite a few nations invented themselves in the course of the past century: Luxembourgers, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Montenegrins…

As for Macedonia being a part of Greece: Greeks are overwhelmingly Orthodox Christians, and as such they should know the Greek Bible, also known as the New Testament. If they were to open the Acts of the Apostles, presumably written by the Greek (or Hellenistic Jew) Luke the Evangelist, they would read (in Chapter 20, Verses 1–3) that “Paul… departed for to go into Macedonia… and… he came into Greece… he purposed to return through Macedonia” (ο Παυλος… εξηλθεν πορευεσθαι εις την Μακεδονιαν… και… ηλθεν εις την Ελλαδα… εγενετο γνωμης του υποστρεφειν δια Μακεδονιας).

Clearly, then, to the Evangelist Macedonia is not a part of Greece, and since in the Christian view the Bible is eternally true, the view that “Macedonia is Greek” is heretical, isn’t it?.

“Vikings” in Luann time

February 5, 2018

About a year and half ago I wrote about something I call “Luann time”, meaning a narrative time frame in which the characters age much more slowly than real time. My examples were, first, the eponymous comic strip, and second, the Inspector Lynley novels of Elizabeth George. In  both cases all the characters are fictitious, and the passage of time is measured by publication time, as well as by references to outside events and by the progress of technology.

In the TV series Vikings, many of the characters are historical or semi-historical, so that time may be measured by known historical events. An actual date is given early in the first season, namely the year 793, historically the year of the first recorded Viking raid, on Lindisfarne in Northumbria, England. The raid, as depicted in the show, is led by one of the series’ protagonists, Ragnar Lothbrok, married at the time to another protagonist, Lagertha; their son Bjørn (later known as Bjørn Ironside) is then around twelve years old.

No dates are shown in any subsequent episodes, but we know (as well as such things can be known, from contemporary Chronicles) that the killing of Ragnar by King Ælla of Northumbria, and the subsequent invasion of England by the Great Heathen Army led by Ragnar’s sons, took place in 865. So that by this time Ragnar and Lagertha would be centenarians, and Bjørn an octogenarian.

In the show,  meanwhile, at this time not only is Bjørn shown as being in the prime of life, but so is his mother Lagertha, who is now the the ruling queen of a kingdom in Norway called Kattegat (in reality the name of the body of water between Denmark and Sweden).

Now, the Luann-like distortion of time is far from the only historical distortion practiced by the show’s creator, Michael Hirst. Kings Ælla of Northumbria and Ecbert of Wessex are  presented as ruling throughout the series; in reality Ælla was king for only a few years in the 860s, while Ecbert ruled from 802 to 839, so that most of the series’ events (the later Viking raids on England as well as those on the Continent) in reality took place during the reign of his son Æthelwulf (839–858), followed by four of the latter’s sons (the last of them being Alfred).

But in the show Æthelwulf is ever the prince, with Alfred as his only son (and biologically not even his) by his wife Judith, the daughter of Ælla. The real Æthelwulf did have a wife named Judith, but she was a daughter of the West Frankish king Charles the Bald, and he married her — when she was about 13 — when his sons (by a Saxon noblewoman named Osburh) were already grown.

The political machinations involving the kingdom of Mercia are altogether fictitious, while the fourth kingdom — East Anglia — is completely ignored.

And then there is Rollo, who in the show is Ragnar’s brother and, after betraying him (not for the first time) by going over to the Franks, is given the duchy of Normandy by king Charles (presumably Charles the Bald, since he identifies himself as Charlemagne’s grandson) and marries Charles’s daughter Gisla, begetting several sons with her.

The real Rollo (originally Rolf or Hrolfr) ruled Normandy from 911 to 927; he may or may not have married a princess named Gisela (a daughter of Charles the Simple, Charles the Bald’s grandson), but the mother of his children was a Frankish noblewoman named Poppa.

All this quibbling aside, Vikings is a compelling drama, and my wife and I watch it devoutly. But we have wondered if it really belongs on the History Channel.


Bulgarian and Macedonian

January 17, 2018

When I wrote about Colombia’s musical diversity in my last post, I neglected to mention that, in addition to its many own regional styles, Colombia is quite hospitable to outside music as well. Salsa is popular everywhere, but especially in Cali. Bogotá is a hotbed of Mexican mariachi music, while the Argentine tango is at home in Medellín (it was where Carlos Gardel gave his last performance before the plane in which he was leaving crashed with another at the airport). And, of course international pop, rock and jazz are as popular as anywhere, though they weren’t so when I lived there in 1977. When Elvis Presley died, all four of Bogotá’s rock bands joined for a memorial concert at the bullring.

But while these musical styles are acknowledged as being external, the llanero music of Venezuela is, as I mentioned, regarded as a part of Colombia’s heritage, including sometimes a change of lyrics as I described in the post. I remember once getting into an argument with a Colombian acquaintance who insisted that a certain well-known Venezuelan song (I think it was Moliendo café) was Colombian (this was before such a question could be easily resolved with the help of a portable device).

I found some similarities between Colombia’s attitude toward llanero music and Bulgaria’s toward that of Macedonia (meaning what is historically known as Vardar Macedonia, now the Republic of Macedonia). I am familiar with the subject because of my lifelong (or at least adult-life-long) addition to Balkan folk-dancing.)

First of all, there are some historical parallels. Colombia and Venezuela were once together as part of Spain’s New Granada, and Venezuela briefly belonged to Colombia after independence. Similarly, Macedonia belonged to the Bulgarian empire before becoming a part, along with present-day Bulgaria, of the Ottoman empire’s eyalet of Rumelia, and was briefly a part of independent Bulgaria before being returned to Ottoman rule. Until about a century ago Slavic Macedonians regarded themselves as Bulgarians (though nowadays such an identification is vehemently rejected), while the inhabitants of southwestern Bulgaria (Pirin Macedonia) continue to identify themselves as both Bulgarians (ethnically) and Macedonians (historico-culturally), and this is how many Bulgarians still think of Macedonian Slavs. A young Bulgarian woman in Plovdiv once told me that when a professor from Skopje gave a lecture (in Macedonian) at her university, the students thought that he was speaking funny Bulgarian.

To this day, Bulgaria and Macedonia share national heroes (such as Goce Delchev and Jane Sandanski), just as do Colombia and Venezuela (such as Simón Bolívar).

And, interestingly, Blagoevgrad hosts a pan-Macedonian festival, just as Villavicencio hosts a llanero one.

With regard to music, Bulgarian regard Macedonian music and dance (especially what is known as lesnoto) as part of their folklore. They don’t Bulgarianize the content of Macedonian songs (which are replete with references to the river Vardar and places in Macedonia), but they do adapt the language. For, unlike the common Spanish of Colombia and Venezuela, Macedonian and Bulgarian are, at least in their standard form, similar but different languages, as I have discussed here (when it comes to actual speech there is a dialect continuum), though the difference is lessened in singing, since the distinctions in syllabic stress and vowel quality become insignificant.

As one example, when the Macedonian song Oj ti pile is sung by Bulgarians it is generally done in Bulgarian, as More pile. One exception is the great Kostadin Gugov, a specialist in Macedonian songs, who makes a point of singing the original Macedonian version.

To summarize:

There is a llanero culture, which Venezuelans consider uniquely theirs, while Colombians regard it as a part of their national culture, and sometimes adapt the contributions from Venezuela to make it more so.

There is a Slavic* Macedonian culture, which “Macedonians” (Slavs of the Republic of Macedonia) consider uniquely theirs, while Bulgarians regard it as a part of their national culture, and sometimes adapt the contributions from the Republic to make it more so.

*I am leaving out the Greek, Albanian and Aromanian (Vlach) elements of Macedonia.

On Catalonian independence – 3

November 6, 2017

As the Catalonia crisis evolves, the vindictive actions of the Spanish government toward the leaders of the independence movement become ever more reminiscent — mutatis mutandis — of those of Philip V, mentioned in my previous post. The main difference is that those imprisoned in 1714 were not separatists (independentistes) but Habsburgists (austriacistes) who favored Archduke Charles of Austria as the prospective king of Spain, since they feared that his French rival Philip would take away their historic self-government, as indeed he did, not only in Catalonia but in the other lands of the Crown of Aragon (Aragon proper, Majorca and Valencia) as well.

A specific reminiscence of those times is the revival by the separatists of the pejorative botifler, originally used for the pro-Bourbon faction, to designate anti-independence Catalonians.

Another parallel: then as now, the initial impulse for Habsburgism/separatism came from the region around Vic. In our day, the first two towns to declare themselves “Free Catalan Territory” (on September 3, 2012) are in that region. And, historically, the Habsburgists were also known as vigatans; it was an assembly of landowners and lawyers from that region that sent two representatives to Genoa in 1705 to negotiate an agreement with a representative of Queen Anne that would provide England’s support for the Catalonian cause. Perfidious Albion, to be sure, broke the agreement in the Treaties of Utrecht in 1713. But some sympathy for the cause persisted (see here and here), and today most of the journalism sympathetic to the independence movement is to be found in the British press.

It remains to be seen what happens if the independence movement once again wins a majority in the parliamentary elections called for December 21. Will Rajoy emulate Philip by trying to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy?




On Catalonian independence – 2

November 1, 2017

In my previous post I mentioned that the Popular Party of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy does not enjoy much support in Catalonia. Rajoy’s administration is regarded by many, perhaps most, Catalonians as especially unfriendly to their land, and the greatest Catalan of our age, the bilingual singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat, has called it “factory of separatists”.

This, too, is reminiscent of the dynastic past. In the War of the Spanish Succession most of Catalonia sided with the Habsburgs, and one result of the eventual victory (in Spain) of the Bourbons, in the person of Philip V, in 1714 was a policy of repression in Catalonia, including especially the banning of the Catalan language from official use and the abolition of Catalonia’s institutions. A petty example of this policy is Philip’s closure of all the universities in Catalonia and the opening of a new one in the small city of Cervera, which had been pro-Bourbon.

Indeed, the same Catalonian nationalists who regard 987 as the beginning of Catalonian independence consider its end to be in 1714, and the date of the final defeat, September 11, is the National Day of Catalonia.

But what was this independence? According to Spanish nationalists, after all, it never existed. Let’s look into the matter.

What may have become de facto independent in 987 was a set of counties ruled by Borrell II. In the Frankish kingdom (Francia) the counties (pagi) had been established around 800 by Charlemagne as administrative units. each headed by a governor (comes or count) named by the king, and supervised by roving royal commissioners (missi dominici).  This system continued in the western kingdom (Francia occidentalis) that split off in 843, but toward the end of the 9th century the power of the kings waned and the counts came to name their own successors, usually their sons, thus establishing the feudal dynasties of Europe. The first count of Barcelona to do so was Wilfred the Hairy (878-897), starting what came to be known as the House of Barcelona. He was the direct ruler of several neighboring counties as well (in particular, those of Osona and Girona were never again to be separated from Barcelona), and was accepted as overlord by others.

This kind of rise to prominence of one count over the others in a given region happened elsewhere in the kingdom. Often these counts took the name of the whole region as their title, so that the counts of Troyes and Meaux became counts of Champagne, and in several cases they became dukes, as those of Burgundy (originally counts of Autun). But the counts of Barcelona (like those of Toulouse) were content with their original titles, along with a listing of all the additional domains that they ruled.

The first reference to Catalonia as a geographic entity dates from early in the 12th century. It was recognized as a legal entity a little later in that century, after the counts of Barcelona had become simultaneously kings of Aragon. Since the 14th century it has been referred to as a principality (principatus).

Now, “Prince of Catalonia” was never used as a monarchic title in Spain (though it was used in legal texts); it was understood that “count of Barcelona” meant that. In the listing of the many titles held by the kings of Aragon, it came directly after the list of the kingdoms and before the titles (such as duke and marquis) that technically ranked above that of count. But elsewhere in Europe the title was used; the Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain), for example, called himself as Fürst zu Cat[h]alonia/princeps Cat[h]aloniae in documents issued in his non-Spanish dominions.

Catalonia, then, was a monarchy of sorts that was in personal union with the kingdom of Aragon and later with the other kingdoms that those rulers acquired (Majorca, Valencia, Sicily etc.), and ultimately also with that of Castile, first with Ferdinand the Catholic upon his marriage to Isabella (until her death) and, for good, beginning with Charles V.

Charles and his Spanish Habsburg successors are known in Spain as the House of Austria, with de Austria being their formal surname, used in particular by illegitimate but recognized offspring who are mistakenly called “of Austria” in English, like this one.

The Spanish Habsburgs continued — as did their Austrian counterparts — the ancestral Habsburg policy of leaving their various domains as self-governing entities. And Catalonia maintained its laws, language and political institutions until they were replaced by the Bourbons, whose French tradition was the opposite — one of centralized rule. This explains Catalonia’s choice in the War of the  Spanish Succession.

But can Catalonia be said to have been independent during those centuries of personal union?

No one would deny that in our days Canada, Australia and New Zealand are independent countries, even though they are all monarchies in personal union with the United Kingdom. But then, nowadays the British monarch reigns but does not rule; the actual governing is done by the parliaments and governments of the respective countries.

It was different in the centuries before the 20th, when monarchs actually ruled, and the constituent units of a personal union, for all their internal self-government, were not really free to adopt policies that were independent of the ruler. And so, Catalonian autonomy — yes. Independence — not really.

On Catalonian independence – 1

October 28, 2017

It’s a common trope among Catalonian* separatists (independentistes) to describe Catalonia’s relationship to Spain as one of colony to empire (see here, for example). It’s no coincidence that the movement has replaced the official flag of Catalonia (the senyera, 1) with a lone-star version (estelada, 2) that is modeled on the flags of Cuba (3) and Puerto Rico (4), former colonies of Spain.

senyera estelada-01211439 cuba  puerto-rico-flag

 (1)                     (2)                        (3)                    (4)

But I think that a better model for the relationship is that between a vassal and a suzerain in the feudal system of medieval Europe. Indeed, Catalonian nationalists (not necessarily separatists) celebrated 1987 as the millennial of Catalonia’s first independence because of what did not happen in 987: Count Borrell II of Barcelona did not pay homage to his overlord Hugh Capet, king of the Western Franks, when the latter was  unable to give him military support against the invading Moors.

The present situation, with the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, dismissing the government of Catalonia and replacing it with appointees from his own political party, is reminiscent of what happened in Austria in 1276, when the emperor Rudolf I (of the house of Habsburg) dismissed Ottokar II (who was also king of Bohemia) from the dukedom of Austria and placed the lands under direct imperial administration, to be governed by his sons.

Of course, the originally Swabian Habsburgs remained as rulers of Austria until 1918. Rajoy, on the other hand, has promised to hold new elections in Catalonia on December 21, and it’s unlikely that his party (the modern equivalent of a medieval dynasty), the Partido Popular, will do any long-time governing there, not being very… popular in Catalonia: it got 8.5% of the vote in the last election. Most of Catalonia’s center-right vote goes to the main nationalist party, formerly Convergència and now PDeCAT.


*I prefer to use “Catalonian” rather than “Catalan” when referring to the territory (the so-called principality) of Catalonia; I use “Catalan” for the language, culture and ethnicity, both inside and outside this territory. I like to make this distinction whenever the English language allows it, as with Somali and Somalian, Slovak and Slovakian, and even Greek and Grecian. This way I can talk, for example, about Catalonian Catalan as distinct from the Balearic and Valencian varieties of the language. What’s more, the French sculptor Aristide Maillol and the Valencian writer Joan Fuster considered themselves Catalans, but they were not Catalonians.


Grand Tour

July 8, 2017

I wasn’t planning to write about the goings-on of this year Tour de France, only a note about its geography. But I feel compelled to make a few comments after the events of the last few days.

Yesterday’s photo finish in stage 7 was resolved in favor of Marcel Kittel over Edvald Boasson Hagen on the basis of, we are told, the superior camera technology (shooting at 10,000 frames per second) available to the judges. Okay, I’ll take their word for it.

But Tuesday’s decision in stage 4, disqualifying Peter Sagan for supposedly elbowing Mark Cavendish, was based on the same videos that everyone else saw, and as far as I can tell the cycling world — riders and fans — agrees that no such elbowing took place. The videos — from front, back and above — have been shown over and over, and the obvious conclusion is that if anyone did anything dangerous it was Cavendish. Only the mainstream media (AP, BBC, Reuters and their ilk) follow their usual habit accepting the verdict of a judicial authority as fact, and so they write simply that Sagan elbowed Cavendish. But this is not like a criminal case in which one writes “alleged” before conviction but drops it after.

The judges’ decision has left aourg bad taste reminiscent of Bush v. Gore.

Back to what I was going to write about.

That fateful stage 4 wended, it so happens, through the territory of what once had been the Duchy of Lorraine. The previous stage (which Sagan won) did so through what is still the Grand Duchy (Grand Duché, Großherzogtum) of Luxembourg.

What makes Luxembourg “grand”?

Before about 1800 there was only one grand duchy in the West, that of Tuscany, resulting from the expansion of the Duchy of Florence under the Medici. But Napoleon, in 1806, made several of the German states allied with him into grand duchies, and the Congress of Vienna (1815) made even more, Luxembourg being among them. Before that, except for the twenty years (1795–1815) of being annexed to France, it had been a just plain duchy within the Holy Roman Empire, like Lorraine, but without its own dukes: the title was held, after 1477, by Habsburg kings or emperors, together with the rest of the Low Countries.

Oddly enough, when Luxembourg was just a duchy, it was much grander (plus grand, größer) — by a factor of more then four! — than the present grand duchy. It was elevated from an originally German (Franconian) county to duchy in the 14th century when it absorbed some adjacent counties, some of them in the neighboring Walloon country,  and from that time on French became the preferred language of government. This remained the case even after the Walloon part was split off (the last of Luxembourg’s partitions) and given to newly formed Belgium in 1839; that part, in fact, included a  the region of Arlon, the provincial capital, where at the time the ut spoken language was Germanic (Luxembourgish), though by now it’s mostly French.

But officially little Luxembourg (the luxem part was originally lucilin, which both means and is cognate to ‘little’) is still grand.

The Duchy of Lorraine was larger than Luxembourg even at its largest, but it never got a chance to became a grand duchy: it was absorbed into the kingdom of France in 1761. But at least it is now a part of the French region called Grand Est.