Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review of Russell Crowe's "Robin Hood"

I had thought that I wouldn't ever watch the new Russell Crowe* Robin Hood movie. But then I saw it at King Soopers for $19.99 and thought "well, maybe I should watch it being a wannabe medievalist and all and have a special interest in the Norman period, especially it relates to Richard and John". (Yes, sometimes my internal dialogues are this long). So I picked it up and brought it home. That evening I cajoled threatened bribed convinced my wife to watch it and we picked the Director's Cut version because, honestly, the theatrical release usually sucks when compared to the Director's Cut (i.e., Blade Runner). I was especially interested because I recall hearing an interview with Russell Crowe where he talked about how they were making it "more historically accurate", especially around Richard and John. I was wary, but hopeful.
Unfortunately, for a movie claiming "historical accuracy" around Richard and John, it was far off the mark. If I had the desire, I could watch it again and pick out all of the things that were inaccurate. From what I remember, though, there was almost a serious lack of understanding of what "England" was in the Norman period. One has to remember that William I (the Conqueror) was the Duke of Normandy. You'll remember that as the place in France that the Allies invaded in World War II. Richard and John still owned that tract of land and, when Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine (and her huge tracts of land - sorry, it had to be said), they acquired even more of what is modern-day France. The French King, Phillip, on the other hand, pretty much owned Paris and nothing else. His dukes and barons were only partially supportive of him and only when it suited them. The king of France was a (feudally) weak king indeed. There is sequence in the movie where the French invade England - across the English Channel. Which they wouldn't have needed to do - they just could of walked north to Normandy and invaded there. Not as dramatic, no, but it showed a pretty poor grasp of the European map of the day.
The second thing was that everyone spoke English, even Richard and John. Who most certainly didn't - they spoke Norman French (see my first post). There's a scene where Richard is walking among his troops (Henry V anyone?) and meets Robin Longstride - and they have a lengthy exchange. Which they couldn't have because Robin didn't speak French and Richard didn't speak any version of English (that we know). There's even another scene where Phillip II asks a vassal to speak English to him. *facepalm*
King John
I do think that Ridley tried to do something in rehabilitating John. John's not nearly as nasty or as venal as is normally portrayed. John wasn't a bad king, in general - he wasn't his brother and certainly not his father (Henry II), who was about as strong-willed a man as you could find. Richard, on the other hand, was certainly not as saintly and kingly as people believed either (or as the latter Robin Hood stories attested). He hated England, hated the English, once said he'd sell London if he could find a suitable buyer, and spent most of his time with his lover, Phillip II (remember him? This was a plot point in The Lion in Winter - a fantastic play and great movie)**. Richard was all "manly man" on the outside, but there is pretty strong evidence that he was at least bisexual. He was also a great pragmatist. When he invaded the Levant and Holy Land in the Third Crusade, he pretty quickly discovered that he couldn't hold it without spending his entire life and all of his resources defending it. Rather than do that, he decided to broker a deal with Saladin to protect pilgrims coming to Jerusalem.
Overall, the movie is fun, but don't look at it for historicity. Quite a few of the things in the movie are just plain wrong (some I pointed out above) and I think much was done for moviegoers' tastes as opposed to accuracy (the invasion of the British coast, for instance). Robin Hood is one of those interesting pieces of medieval history that's carried forward to the modern era. Original Robin Hood ballads were entertainment with occasional fable-like morals. Only later (around the 16th century) did the "evil Prince John" enter the picture - most of the ballads before then were just about Robin and his men being likable outlaws. This movie, while engaging and telling a good ripping yarn, is moving the pendulum back toward history - just not quite far enough.***

* Why no Brits play Robin Hood in major movies I'll never know.
** There's no real evidence that Richard and Phillip were lovers, but oh, if they had been...
*** I don't think American movie audiences can handle the truth (with a tip o' the hat to Jack).****
**** You'll notice I backed off using NB for footnotes. I've just decided that I like the *'s better.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Religion in the Middle Ages

When examining the past it's very easy to put a modern bias on events and cultural norms. As Carl Pyrdum shows at his blog Got Medieval (a GREAT site!), there's an awful lot we don't understand very well - especially some of the marginalia that's present on manuscripts. Maybe it's just juvenile humor at it's best (worst?). Monkeys and animals and grylli. It's surprising to think that Monty Python and the Holy Grail got an awful lot of things "correct" - trumpets being blown by posteriors, etc. (with the caveat that Arthur was supposed to be around in the 5th century, not the 14th). Still, we are apt to bring our societal and intellectual baggage and bias to our analysis.
A great example of this was when I  was studying the English Civil War (17th century). In brief, the Jacobite kings (James, Charles I, and Charles II of England - who were Scottish) were very unpopular with the English. They even accused them of being closet Catholics (this was after the creation of the Anglican church by Henry VIII). A civil war erupted between those who believed in Parliament's absolute authority and those who believed in the monarchy. Unfortunately for Charles II, the Parliamentarians won and he was tried and executed. Remember - this was before the French Revolution were such things became commonplace. One thing that struck me while I was reading the documents from the era (via the Thomason Tracts, an AMAZING collection of pretty much everything printed during this turbulent period) was that God was an ever-present force in these peoples' lives. When Oliver Cromwell would write to the Parliamentarians of his advances into Scotland or Ireland, he saw the hand of God actively helping their cause everywhere. God made it rain very little so the stream would be fordable and his army could advance. God provided a fog that allowed his troops to establish a stronger encampment that enabled them to repel the enemy. Bringing my 21st century biases, though, it was easy to be cynical about the omnipresence of God, but I found it easier to believe that there was sincerity in that due to the history of religion in Europe. And that reason was the start of the Crusades.
Why the crusades? The one thing that had really outlived the western Roman Empire (the eastern still existed as the Byzantine Empire) was the Church. Not the Catholic church, because that didn't exist - this was the precursor to that and the Church was pretty much THE religious institution for Christianity in western Europe (small, outlier groups existed, but the Church was the Microsoft of its day). In 1095, when the Byzantine emperor (Alexis I Komnenos - and yes, I had to look that up) asked Pope Urban II for help in quelling the uprising happening in modern-day Turkey and the Levant, the Pope saw it as an opportunity to expand the influence of the Church and, in his wildest dreams, to even recapture the holiest of cities, Jerusalem (pretty much the only city in the world that is important to 3 major religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The Pope communicated out through the Church's hierarchy to the parish priests to tell the people of the horrible atrocities being committed by the heathen Muslims in the Holy Land. That these atrocities weren't being committed didn't really matter - the Muslims controlling Jerusalem were actually quite accommodating - it was all just medieval propaganda.
The Peasants' Crusade meeting
the Seljuk Turks - and not doing well
The reason this figures prominently in understanding the early modern mindset about God is that in 1096 entire villages picked up and went on Crusade. This so-called Peasants' Crusade (the outcome shown right) was actually the first march to the Holy Land - the major army that Urban II wanted was still in the early planning stages. But the people, with their fervent belief that this Crusade was truly God's work, left their fields, their homes, their lives, to protect Christians in Jerusalem. To say the Church was surprised would be a bit of an understatement. Unfortunately, the peasants (about 40,000 of them) weren't well led and, at one point, even decided to follow a divinely-inspired duck. Needless to say, when they finally did meet the actual enemy, they were pretty much slaughtered.
To the medieval/middle ages mind, God was omnipresent. Not only was he everywhere, but he took direct action in the world. He wasn't passive, setting up the rules and then letting things happen - if something bad happened to you, it was God letting the Devil do it; good, it was God. God made it rain, made the sun burn your crops, created the insects that plagued your food. In hindsight, it's hard to think that the peasants wouldn't march to war to do God's work - especially when extolled to do so by their priests (who were still their sole conduit to their deity).
Richard I of England
The Lionheart
The regular Crusades kicked off later that year and did finally result in the capture of the Holy Land by Christians for the first time in history. The Christian kingdoms would only last about a century before finally being driven off by the forces of Saladin. There would be many more Crusades to follow (including the Third which made a household name of the Fighting Fairy, King Richard the Lionheart (and that guy Robin of the Hood) and the Fourth that just decided to sack Constantinople instead of going all the way to Jerusalem - they were sort of convinced to do it by the Doge of Venice).
So where does this lead us? In the centuries between the Peasants' Crusade and the English Civil War, the belief that God took an active role in daily life was relatively unchanged. And while we may look at events and writings of the middle ages and early modern periods with a skeptical eye, we must always temper that with the understanding of God's role in these peoples' lives. Maybe that's a good attitude to have even when not looking just at the middle ages.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Compulsory review of Timeline by Michael Crichton

One of books I read while in grad school was Timeline, by Michael Crichton. First, let me say that I've always been a big fan of Crichton - even "crappy" books like Sphere were vastly entertaining and I enjoyed the twists and turns. Timeline, on the other hand, was a facepalm (before we'd invented the word) from start to finish.
The Crichton hardcover edition
(for which I sadly doled out $20)
One thing I'm often asked (okay, I'm not, but it sounds better if I say that they do) is whether the activities of the "history" students in the book at all resembles actual historical study. Sadly, no. What I recall hearing from my colleagues at CU about the fictional college was "man, I wish I was in that program! Go dig up crap and do field research? Hell yes!" It really felt that Crichton confused archaeology and history. I mean, it would be great to be working in the actual sites where these things took place, but only in Wonderland would history students be conducting an archaeological dig. Why? Because they're not archaeologists. Now the Wikipedia article says that it's a combination of historians and archaeologists, but I don't ever recall that being clearly stated in the novel.
The novel did expose to me something that I found extremely interesting - the study of historical architecture. I've always been intrigued by how some structures and substructures came into being, where, and when, so that was a pleasant surprise. I think had I been able to continue pursuing my academic career that I may have had a focus in architectural history.
The rest of the book reads like a screenplay that had to be novelized so it could be optioned for a movie. The action sequences are straight out of a Hollywood movie (which it later became). Why they then had to novelize the movie was somewhat surprising as they'd already done that work in advance. (Yes, that was pretty caustic.) There is, of course, a joust and there happens to be an historian who's an excellent jouster (he's apparently toured with Ren Fairs all over the US before deciding to study history - not really, but you'd think so). It's all way too pat and dumbed down for American audiences.
On an aside, I've noticed that trend for some years, especially with the sad excuse for a film, No Point to Remakes of No Return. A close friend of mine does love him some Bridget Fonda, but he's also appreciative of the subtlety of French cinema. Point of No Return is a remake of La Femme Nikita, a brilliant movie about a girl who's trained to become an operative of the French government. The Fonda flick, unfortunately, wasn't okay with ambiguity or slowly building tension. In Nikita, there's a scene where Nikita is called in to deliver a tray with a variety of listening devices (and perhaps more) to a room containing some not-so-nice men. She delivers the tray and is dismissed - no explanation; her job is done and she leaves. She never really knows what happens. In No Point to Remakes (my friend's relabeling, but it's apropos) she delivers the same tray service and then leaves. But on her way out, the entire top floor of the building EXPLODES! SHE WAS CARRYING A BOMB! *facepalm* Yeah - not so much for the subtlety. Wait - did Uwe Boll direct that one? Anyway, back to the story (yes, pun intended) at hand.
I would like to say that Timeline is a good read, but it's not. It's a fun read, but only if you're willing to suspend your disbelief all the way to the moon. It's terribly contrived, terribly executed, and predictably finished. It all gets wrapped up with a nice bow at the end and we can all leave the theatre put the book down with a satisfied grin. I liked the earlier Crichton work a lot better and I liked the science in this one, but from an historian's perspective, it came up WAY flat.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Geocentrism and the Middle Ages

Flyer for the Geocentrism conference
The site might have
exceeded bandwidth...
I was over reading one of my favorite blogs - Bad Astronomy - when I stumbled on an article Phil Plait had written about an upcoming conference about Geocentrism. He does an amazing job in this particular article deconstructing the theory. In brief, geocentrism (lower-case g) is using the Earth as a frame of reference when describing the universe (much as heliocentrism is used to describe the sun as the center of our solar system). But geocentrism doesn't necessitate the belief that Earth is the center of the universe, fixed, and unmoving - it simply posits that Earth can be viewed as stationary in relation to other objects in the universe. There is another Geocentrism (with a capital-G) that believes that the Earth is immovable and fixed in the universe and the rest of the universe revolves around us (i.e., it's the center of the universe). It's this Geocentrism that Phil takes to task in a way that I can only envy. I have some good understanding of Newtonian physics and relativity, but he understands and can communicate it in a way that I appreciate and enjoy. And I encourage you to check out the article.
The reason that I'm even remotely interested in this is that there's a whole heap-load of myths about what the inhabitants of the middle ages believed, Geocentrism being prime among them. I mean, they all thought that the Earth was the center of the universe and that the world was flat, right? It wasn't until Christopher Columbus came along in 1492 and proved them wrong. Oh, yeah, and that Galileo guy got punished for believing that the sun was the center of the solar system, right? Fortunately, no.
Just a couple of things about this whole thing. First, the Greeks back in the long-ago's BC knew the world was round. How? They'd done experiments with wells in Alexandria and Syene showed that the sun didn't create the shadow the same way it would were the world flat. In fact, those shadows proved it had to be a sphere. (By the way, it was really Eratosthenes in the second century BC.) Plus, they'd seen eclipses and the shadow of the Earth on the moon is round (although you could likely argue that's because the moon is round). Regardless, Eratosthenes had calculated the circumference of the spherical Earth quite accurately (for the day). It was relatively well-known (by the semi-educated, at least) that the Earth was not flat. For the average medieval peasant, though, eking out an existence on a small plot of land for a feudal system that destroyed any potential for advancement, whether the world was flat, spherical, or a Mobius strip was just not something they cared about. So, Columbus was wrong. Not about the world being a sphere (because he and most everyone else knew that), but apparently he couldn't do basic math and thought the world was much smaller than it was. And on his way west he hit that big landmass between him and India. Oops - his bad.
Tractatus de Sphaera -
with Ptolemaic System

Second, let's take the geocentric/heliocentric/acentric thing with Galileo. The problem was that those self-same Greeks who had determined that the world was a sphere also contended that it wasn't moving. I mean, if it was, wouldn't it leave everything behind? If the ground were to suddenly move, the things that weren't fixed to it (birds, etc) would move in space and not of their own volition. Since that wasn't happening, the ground had to be firm and not moving. They created the Ptolemaic system (shown right) which laid out that the heavens were a series of spheres set around the Earth. This worked great until they started looking at all of the planets outside the orbit of the Earth (Mars, etc) - those planets moved backwards sometimes (went retrograde - something with which astrologers were very familiar) and if everything were just moving around above us, that couldn't easily happen. So they added spheres to the spheres and that seemed okay for a while. But then Copernicus said that maybe this whole Geocentric thing was bunk. And then something weird happened with Galileo - he found moons orbiting another planet (Jupiter). And he found that the phases of Venus were far better explained by it orbiting the Sun than orbiting the Earth. Suddenly Copernicus' theory was looking pretty good. In the end, the primary charge against Galileo was that they thought he was saying that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe. Again, a heliocentric view is perfectly valid using frames of reference, but Heliocentric (capital-H) is still very wrong.
Tychonian System
There was a major contender to Copernican theories at the tie and that was the theory of Tycho Brahe (he of the silver nose). His system (shown right) moved some of the planets to the orbiting the sun and the rest orbiting the Earth. It was sort of an amped up version of the Ptolemaic system that tried to address some of the things that Galileo had observed (Brahe was a scientist, after all). In the end, though, Occam's Razor sliced through the whole mess and what made the most sense (and made the math look really pretty, something that every mathematician and astronomer likes to see) was a model where the Earth was just another of the wanderers around an average star we call Sol.
For the Geocentrists out there (and thankfully there are far fewer than the number who believe that Obama is a muslim), the math just doesn't really work out for an Earth-as-the-center-of-the-universe model. One thing Phil raises is that Pluto would need to travel faster than the speed of light to race around the world and rise on the next day. And that doesn't even include the other much-further-away objects out there. It may seem like they're going that fast, but we all know that the 186,282 miles per second limit isn't just a good idea, it's the law. Of course, most of the bases for these theories comes not from scientific observation (because that would pretty much destroy any potential for the theory to be correct), but rather it's because in the poetic parts of the bible there are statements like "the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved" (Psalms 93:1). Okay - so maybe Archimedes is wrong (the whole lever and world thing?), but the Psalms wax poetic, not scientific. Not eating pork? Good idea when you couldn't cook your meat thoroughly. The world being fixed and stationary? Yeah, not so much.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will point out that one of my relatives is a staunch Geocentrist. He wrote an entire paper about why Copernicus and Kepler were wrong. My cousin Jack included it in the book on the deVaux family history. Admittedly, I got lost in the mathematics and couldn't finish it. Then again, I also staunchly believed in geocentrism, not Geocentrism, so it made it more difficult to find the gumption to read it with an open mind. Wait - that's what we need more of in the world. Oh, snap. Guess I need to find that book and get to reading...

N.B.: the two manuscript pics are from Wiki, so if you happen to see them, you'd be right in asserting that I foisted stole borrowed creatively commons'd them.
N.B. 2: N.B. means nota bene, which means "note well". I will use that rather than footnotes for most things I post. I know that some people have never seen this (having been told so by some people).

Ex Mediis Aevis, Scientia

I've decided that in the interest of being able to discuss the blog in the third person easily, without having to actually spell out the blog name every time (Got Medieval is far easier :), I'll be using the abbreviation EMAS. I think it should make things a little easier to understand and, perhaps, a bit nicer on my writing style. Just as an FYI more than anything else. You may now resume your regularly scheduled reading.

Otto Von Development Blog

Hello all,
Just a quick note that you should check out the blog I'm doing about starting up my own company doing iPhone and Facebook games. It's located here and has been an interesting (and somewhat meandering) ride so far and there's more to come!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Who were these Templar guys?

When you think of the Crusades - the trip to the Middle East that Richard the Lionheart did "way back when" - the one group you probably think of are the Knights Templar, or the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. These were the guardians of the pilgrims to the Holy Land. These are the guys who wore the white tabards with the big red cross on it. These are the guys upon who Dante (to the right) in Dante's Inferno were based (more on that in a later post).
The Knights Templar were formed when Hugh de Payens and his relative Godfrey presented themselves to King Baldwin of Jerusalem (didn't know there was a European king of Jerusalem, did you?) and offered to help protect the pilgrims streaming in from Europe to the Holy Land who were getting beaten up left and right by the locals. Baldwin agreed and gave them the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built upon the supposed site of the famed Temple of Solomon. This becomes the basis for almost every "esoteric" conspiracy theory on the planet.
The order was relatively small to begin with - only nine knights - and they were pretty poor. Even their sigil (seal - left) showed their commitment to remaining destitute - it showed two knights on a single horse (this later became the source of some pretty salacious rumors, but more on that later). The one thing that the Templars had in spades - besides braggadocio - was military skill. They were absolutely feared by the forces who fought them. The other thing they had was one major propagandist working for them in Europe - (future) Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was very skilled at soliciting support for the burgeoning group and soon they became more popular and young knights with little to do in Europe decided to join the order. Well, and those who had to expurgate some sin they'd committed.
The order grew and, for the conspiracy theorists, it was due to what they had uncovered beneath the mosque in the old Temple of Solomon. This was actually the basis for much of the plot behind Foucault's Pendulum, one of the most amazing books written about Templar conspiracy theories. Back to the story at hand... What the order began to do was brilliant for the time as nothing like it had existed - they created international banking. Pilgrims could deposit money at one of the commanderies in Europe, receive a receipt, and then in the Holy Land convert it back into cash. For a small transaction fee, I'm sure. And if someone happened to die on the way and never come claim his money, well, all the better for the order. Regardless, it actually made the order very wealthy and powerful in Europe. When the Christian Holy Land collapsed in the 13th century, the Templars were forced back to their strongholds in Europe.
Unfortunately for the Templars, they were a state unto themselves in the middle of feudal Europe. Philip IV (the Fair) of France, who had some gambling debts or had written too many bad checks or something, saw the potential of grabbing money from the Templars if only they could be dissolved somehow and their assets reverted to the French crown. (The situation was a lot more complicated than that, but in general Philip needed money, the Templars had it and had been dealing with some bad publicity about their rituals, and Philip saw an opportunity to make out like the proverbial bandit). He convinced the Pope, Clement, to declare them persona non grata and the Pope ordered all monarchs in Europe to seize Templar assets. Not every monarch acted and some didn't act immediately; Philip, though, acted very quickly. On Friday, October 13th, 1307 (perhaps the reason for the "Friday the 13th" myth), French army units all across France raided the commanderies and seized the knights. Amazingly, the Templars gave up without a fight (also a source of a lot of conspiracy theory). Some confessed quickly to all kinds of heresies, including spitting on the cross, engaging in homosexual sex (the sigil's two knights on the horse being the source of this one), and worshipping an idol of Baal. Nearly all confessed in the end. Admittedly, if someone were coming at me with pincers to rip off my nipples or putting a cage of rats on my head, I might say pretty much anything to avoid it. Then again, I'm not a Templar. The Grand Master, Jacques de Molay (pictured right), and the commander in Normandy later recanted those confessions before their executions. Both were then burned at the stake for relapsing.
The order was dissolved, Philip got his money, and the leaders and some members of the order were executed. The rest were either absorbed into the Knights Hospitaller (another medieval military order that managed to avoid the issues that engulfed the Templars) or allowed to live in obscurity. The order was officially removed from the Church rolls and the order disappeared. Except it didn't.
The main group claiming some kind of Templar heritage are the Freemasons (disclosure: I am a past master of my lodge). The theory was that some Templars fled France and landed in Scotland where they created the basis for Freemasonry. The group expanded its influence and eventually codified its rituals in 1717 with the creation of the Grand Lodge of England. Additionally, the boys' Masonic group is called the Order of De Molay (only 18 and older are allowed to join Freemasonry, but this is the male equivalent of Job's Daughters).
On the other side, there are people who have re-established the order (although I don't think they're doing the whole "warrior monk" thing). They're even suing the Vatican to try to regain the "stolen" assets of the order. Not to be Mr Negativity, but yeah, good luck with that. Given that the order was officially disbanded by the Pope and that nothing short of a Papal reinstatement can recreate the order, these guys seem like a bunch of glory hounds looking for their litigious "payday".
And then there are those on the "other other side". The order was never destroyed but lived on with the great treasures secreted from the Temple of Solomon. It's these people that Foucault's Pendulum so delightfully eviscerates and I leave it to you to learn about it. It's also these people who wrote the book The Knights Templar Revealed. I'm in the midst of reading my way through it and when complete will write a review. Then you can decide for yourself whether to spend the $1.99 (used) for a copy (here's a hint - don't).
Hope this little discourse has been educational and enjoyable. And why I find the Templars such an interesting point of Crusades history. More later!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Medieval Games Review

It's been out for a while, but I just recently found Medieval Games by Vir2L Studios for Wii. I picked it up thinking to finally indoctrinate introduce my daughter to some medieval themes beyond the Colorado Renaissance Festival. While the Ren Fair is fun, beyond the jousting it's more an amalgam of things fantasy, renaissance-y, and medieval-y. (Not to mention the variety of ninja, warrior princesses, and pirates.) Not really medieval (or renaissance-y for that matter). No matter - it was time to have some fun with Medieval Games!
Cathy is only 7 but she kicks a$$ at Wii. Especially the sword games. We got Wii Sports Resort and her favorite games (and the ones she's best at, even beating her old man regularly) are the sword ones. I thought Medieval Games might have a few sword-like games and it does - just not quite as nice as the ones in Resort (although she does still kick my butt).
The game has three primary modes - tournament, storybook, and free play. The tournament mode lets you play against other players in an attempt to score the most points and win a basic tournament. Free play lets you play any of games you've unlocked via storybook. Storybook mode is where the meat of the game is.
You select one of 8 characters (5 male, 3 female) and travel around a game board, competing in events, trying to earn enough money to be crowned the winner. There are three storybooks, each a little more complex and a little longer than the previous. It's a combination of board game and mini video game. You roll a virtual die and then move your player token around the board, collecting coins, dueling other players, or competing against the other players. There are a few tournament competitions in which you can win a trophy worth some hefty cash, so getting the trophies helps you along your way.
The storybook games are actually pretty difficult if you're playing against the computer. Some of the characters excel at certain games and it can be very hard to beat them. One of the competitions is a dancing competition that would give Tony Manero a run for his money. Well, okay, only if Tony were a jester and suffering from plague. Still - entertaining.
For the games, there's a pretty diverse collection, some of which were actually medieval games of skill, including an archery competition, some (very) basic dueling/swordplay, and, of course, jousting! It's not a whole lot better than the Defender of the Crown (1986) jousting but, when you think about it, how much better could you make it? (For those of us born before man walked on the moon, Defender of the Crown was the shizzle graphics-wise - TOTALLY kicked a$$. Then again, anything with more than 4 colors was pretty freakin' cool at the time.)
The jousting was probably the most entertaining for me, but the dimensionality (or lack thereof) is a bit difficult to overcome consistently. I end up relying on the "thrust the wiimote forward NOW!" cues than the visuals to make the impact more forceful. Thankfully, no one suffers the fate of Henry II - the worst that happens is you get knocked off your horse. Which is still, trust me, not a trivial occurrence; many jousters, including those in the burgeoning "extreme sport" version, can be pretty seriously injured hitting the ground.
My daughter totally loves this game and has enjoyed playing every weekend since we got it. Is it medieval? Only in the most generous terms. Is it fun? Well, that's a totally different story.
Here's the scorecard:

Game play:


Good, but some tasks don’t give you much time to learn



It's cartoony at best, but it's light-hearted



The cheese factor is in full swing, but a blast

Overall Grade:


Good game; fun for the whole family


Everyone (although it is challenging for younger players)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Graduate student skills

So one thing I mentioned in my first post was that I've done pretty well in retaining some of the skills I learned in grad school. So, to that point - what do I think is the most important graduate school skill? Funny you should ask...
By far, the one thing you will be doing in graduate school is reading. LOTS of reading. No, really - LOTS and LOTS of reading. Like two to three books a week. And if you're a TA there's even more reading because you also have to read (or need to have read) the books your students are required to read. So let's leave it at "lots of reading" and go from there.
You could spend some money and time taking one of those speed reading classes, which might be a reasonable investment depending on how far you plan to take your academic career. But some quick guidance may help you save some money but still manage to absorb all of that information.
One thing that most people do, but don't realize, is read at the speed of talking. You read as if you're giving a lecture (well, okay - a little faster than that). But the "voice in your head" is doing the talking and it's like you're reading the book to yourself. Which, if you're doing it for pleasure, it a perfectly good pace. Or if the book is incredibly dense with material (common with technical texts but I once ran into that with a book on Prussian history - SO dense it was practically impossible to read it quickly). If, on the other hand, you've still got two books to read and a paper for your class on Thursday, "speed of leisure" isn't really a good pace. What to do?
The main thing is to recognize that you can actually absorb the content even if your inner voice is not reading it to you. You can read the content faster than your voice can keep up and still glean the information from the text. Let's give it a shot. Pick something up nearby - could be anything - and try reading it at a faster pace than you usually read at, but not too much faster. Then read it at your normal pace and see if you missed anything. Go ahead - try it. I'll wait for you to come back.
See? You picked up the pace a little bit and still managed to get the content. Now the trick for grad students is to pick up the pace a little more and a little more. Keep increasing the pace until you hit that speed that is just below your speed of comprehension. Just make sure that you're still getting the content out of the piece. When you're starting, go back occasionally and re-read it at a slower pace to make sure you're still getting all the content. I personally think the hardest part is maintaining the pace. I find that when I read for a while I tend to slow down and go back to my leisurely pace again. I have to remind myself occasionally to speed up again.
With this little bit of advice, you should be able to keep up with the rapid pace that is graduate school (or regular college even). Best of luck!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Quick note on the name

To dispense with the inevitable "what does it mean?" questions, let me explain the name of the blog and its relevance to me. The motto of the Apollo 13 mission to the moon (ex luna, scientia - from the moon, knowledge) was a play on the Navy's motto ex scientia tridens (from knowledge, sea power). The Apollo 13 motto later became the basis for the motto of Starfleet Academy in Star Trek (Ex astris, scientia - from the stars, knowledge). Being a fan of both science (in all its forms) and Star Trek (in most of its forms), it made sense to play upon the motto with ex mediis aevīs, scientia* which means - from the middle ages, knowledge.
It is often said (but, apparently, rarely believed) that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. As an example, we've now had three separate modern presidencies who've tried "voodoo/trickle down/Bush" economics. And in each case we've had a recession (this most recent the worst since the Great Depression). I'd say that not only are the stewards of our country (presidents) not learning from history, but we (the American people) are certainly failing to learn as well.
What do the middle ages have to teach us? What knowledge can we glean? One main lesson is our relationship with the world around us. For instance, historians were not overly surprised at what happened in Iraq following the downfall of Saddam's regime. Power vacuums are a common theme in history, as strong leaders are succeeded by weaker leaders. Sometimes a person's "cult of personality" is what keeps a country together (as was the case in Iraq). Without a strong individual to curtail the internecine strife between Shi'ite and Sunni, the religious and political differences were bound to explode in a firestorm. And they did. These kinds of things are often ignored by the "power elite" because they fail to fit their worldview. Which is sad, because they're really not obtuse if you look at it in the right light (and yes, hindsight is always 20/20, but some of these things are just that obvious).
So I hope to bring a little enlightenment (ha, ha - historian joke) to the middle ages and, perhaps, to your understanding of it. There are reasons why the world is why it is today - and that's because everything up to today made it that way. The middle ages are just a slice of that perspective, but the foundation for much of the Renaissance and enlightenment were laid by those "masons". And the world today is nothing if not the sum of its yesterdays.

* This was originally ex medius aevus, scientia, but I've since found a fantastic Latin website - Numen - that helped correct my spelling. It can actually provide you all of the forms of basic nouns, which is simply incredible. Yay technology! Still not definite on whether it should be singular ("middle age/era") or plural ("middle ages"), so it's staying plural for now.

Obligatory Initial Post

So it's become somewhat obligatory (and, I'm sure, cliche) to have a "first post" post, so here's mine. Let me provide a little background about what this blog covers and, probably more interesting to you, the potential reader, why I am remotely qualified to be doing this.
Several years ago I was a graduate student at the University of Colorado (CU) at Boulder in the Early Modern British History program. I was studying the Wars of the Roses, the noble civil war in the 14th century. I had always fostered a strong attraction, however, to the Norman period in English period (William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionhearted, John, et al) and, associated with that, the Crusades. CU didn't offer a medieval program, just early modern to modern, so I figured I'd get my master's at CU and then transfer somewhere else to get my Ph.D. in medieval history. The preparatory classes to take a medieval program, even in English or British history, were pretty significant - at least 3 semesters of classical (Roman) Latin plus French (at least enough to be able to read modern French) and then additional extracurricular work to learn ecclesiastical Latin (the version used by the Church in the middle ages) and Norman French (which is different than medieval French). Unfortunately, I had to drop out to do the whole "work" thing (which is where my other blog about Otto Von Productions comes in) to pay bills and such. The trouble was that I had relatively marketable skills in software engineering that made it difficult to let go of the corporate teat called a salary. I decided instead to focus on becoming independently wealthy. Or, failing to win Powerball, to generate enough residual income from a self-employment standpoint that I could return to school and get my degree.
Well, far too many years have passed to make my return to school an easy one. My grades, while good, have aged likely too far to be useful, and my GRE scores are nearly a decade past expiration. The skills I learned in grad school, though, are still fresh and I continue to read the journals, books, and other accoutrement of medieval studies. My Latin's pretty rusty these days, but I'm hoping that with some extra effort over the coming months that I'll be able to bring that back up to snuff (although I was only ever a B+ student in Latin, so be forewarned). The things that have never left me are my desire to learn and desire to teach. And to correct fallacies. I cannot tell you how many things I've read or heard about the Templars or the Freemasons or some "esoteric agenda" dating back to King Solomon or whatnot - and they're almost (all) bunk.
I hope that you'll find the journey a lot educational, a fair bit iconoclastic, and a little humorous. Okay, a lot humorous. But I hope you'll come along and enjoy the ride through the middle ages and even some modern day stuff.