Alternately enlightening and mystifying study of medieval modes of perception based on period chronicles. Brandt's assertions about how medieval peoplAlternately enlightening and mystifying study of medieval modes of perception based on period chronicles. Brandt's assertions about how medieval people perceived their world, especially nature and man, are sometimes compelling and sometimes utterly opaque. His textual analysis is problematic in that he generally does a poor job in showing the reader precisely how he is reading the passages in question to arrive at his hypotheses. He also seems to take something written in a chronicle as one-to-one evidence for how medieval folks actually led their lives, confusing literature for reality and, for example, confusing how a male chronicler describes a woman's life with a medieval woman's life. For all of that, there are some really interesting points in this short volume. Worth a read if you're really really into medieval history. ...more
This is a really thorough, fascinating look at a much neglected part of American history. Tracing the rise and fall of Comanche power in the southernThis is a really thorough, fascinating look at a much neglected part of American history. Tracing the rise and fall of Comanche power in the southern plains of present-day U.S., Hämäläinen really fills in some gaping holes in America's "grand old" narrative (which famously omits so many events and people) by reinserting the story of the development of Comanche trade dominance from about 1650-1850. For these centuries, the Comanche successfully adapted from a more agrarian existence in the mountains to a nomadic way of life on the plains and proceeded to totally dominate trade relationships between themselves, Spain in the southwest, first France and then the U.S. in Louisiana, as well as the host of other tribes who held stakes in the region's resources (including the Wichita and Utes, among many others).
The only reason this is going down in my shelves as "unfinished" is because Hämäläinen's writing is a little dry and repetitive, and I happened into a used bookstore this last weekend where I found a slew of academic medieval history books that I could not wait to get started on. I also left the Comanche at the peak of their power, where I hadn't yet read too much about the extreme shittiness of my forebears (as a Euro-American) as regards their conduct, in connection with their megalomaniacal race for "manifest destiny", toward the Indian tribes of what would become the United States. I want to pick this up again at some point and finish the story, but knowing a bit of what was coming surely made it a little easier to lay aside for now. ...more
Carthage is not a bad general introduction to the history of this ancient civilization. It is from the late 20th century, however, and it feels even oCarthage is not a bad general introduction to the history of this ancient civilization. It is from the late 20th century, however, and it feels even older than that. It spends more time on Roman and late antique Carthage than on its earlier pre-Punic Wars history, which disappointed me. Additionally the authors seem overly committed to the progress-narrative of sedentary, literate civilizations and are utterly ham-handed (when not blatantly offensive) with regard to race . E.g., Soren and his co-authors use the term "black savages" to describe the sub-Saharan Africans encountered by Phoenician sailors upon circumnavigating Africa. The authors do not use quotation marks or in any other way indicate that this is thought and terminology belonging to the ancient Phoenicians, so the reader is left to assume it is the authors' own thought and terminology represented. Really guys? They are considerably more aware and subtle when discussing class, but I was still in turns annoyed and disappointed with the scope and execution of this work. There are some interesting facts and details peppered throughout, but I would not recommend this to anyone....more
Patrick Geary, as a historian, focuses on the Carolingian period in what would become France and Germany, though he’s obviously conversant with medievPatrick Geary, as a historian, focuses on the Carolingian period in what would become France and Germany, though he’s obviously conversant with medieval history in its entirety, not to mention late classical history. He has published in English, French, Italian and German. He clearly knows Latin and I think he’s familiar with Greek as well. The man is a consummate, impeccable early medievalist.
Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages is the second book of his I’ve read and though his writing itself is not gripping or particularly novelistic (a trait I admire in historians), he writes clearly and well, and the value of his ideas far outweighs any lack of verbal artistry. In this case, he has collected essays and articles published elsewhere and assembled them into an intriguing whole that purports to speak about the relationship of the dead with the living in the early Middle Ages. In effect, the book is primarily about the uses of saints and sainthood in early medieval European religion.
Geary touches on such topics as the development of the cult of saints, the boom in translation of relics starting in the late 8th century, a peculiar and fascinating practice known as the humiliation of relics, and pilgrimage. But couching his discussion of saints and sainthood in a broader context of attitudes toward the dead allows him to speak about gift-giving and conflict resolution; practices which took into account, for instance, property endowed by the dead and the resultant feelings of debt toward the dead that medieval people seem to have felt and taken very seriously. These practices, which seem unusual to us, betray an attitude that meant the dead were very much still a part of living society. The physical death of the body did not signify the social death of the person. The dead still required reciprocity and repayment. In a non-metaphorical way difficult for us to imagine, the dead in early medieval society stayed “alive”, relevant, and continued to influence the choices and actions of the living.
Because this work is cobbled together from previously published pieces, the connection between the chapters can seem slightly tenuous. But altogether Geary makes a good case in his introduction that they belong together. I do wish he had written a corresponding epilogue to tie the ends back up together. Still, for those interested in early medieval cultural history, or historical as well as anthropological methodology concerning attitudes toward death and the dead in a given society, this is an irreplaceable read. ...more
That Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession inspired the novel Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, is the least interesting thing about this strange autobiThat Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession inspired the novel Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, is the least interesting thing about this strange autobiography. I mention it early, so I don’t have to bring it up again.
Chamberlain hand-wrote and illustrated the tale of his experiences between about 1844, when he was an unruly 16-year-old leaving his family home in Boston, to 1849 and his defection from the Glanton gang, a band of mercenary scalp hunters who roved the borderlands of the Southwest in the wake of the Mexican-American War. In between these bookend events, he bummed around Illinois and New Orleans, eventually joined the First United States Dragoons and fought in a number of battles and skirmishes of the Mexican-American War, philandering with as many ladies as possible all along the way. He peppers his autobiographical account with healthy doses of myth and hearsay and even includes one heck of a good ghost story.
Chamberlain apparently wrote his Confession (subtitled The Recollections of a Rogue) sometime after about 1850 when he had returned to Massachusetts, but before the onset of the Civil War, in which he would again fight and earn the rank of brevet brigadier general. He eventually would serve as a warden of state prisons in Massachusetts and Connecticut where, I’ve read, he was a conscientious and sympathetic advocate for inmates, particularly veterans. He died at age 78 in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1908.
I am not familiar enough with 19th-century literary tropes to assert this with more specificity, but it seems fairly obvious that Chamberlain penned his account concertedly in the mode of adventure tales of his day. Clearly he sees himself as a rather likeable anti-hero (a rogue, indeed), who had many adventures, many loves, faced many foes and lived to tell the tales. He was frequently in the guardhouse for some transgression or other during the war. He was a hothead (not to mention a teenager) and could never resist getting into a fight if the opportunity presented itself. He narrates most episodes in his tale with a cheeky bravado and often a tone of humor as if he’s winking at his reader.
For all his swagger, Sam comes across as a fairly sensitive individual. The more upsetting events receive a kind of matter-of-fact gravity: rapes and mutilations of local women; the murder of a Mexican priest by a drunken U.S. soldier; what he calls the “massacre of the cave”, where Arkansas volunteer soldiers slew men, women and children in a cave near Saltillo. As Sam says: “The direct cause of the massacre was the barbarous murder of a young man belonging to the Arkansas Regiment. But this murder was undoubtedly committed in retaliation for the outrages committed on the women of the Agua Nueva ranch by the volunteers on Christmas Day.” (88)
Chamberlain was not unresponsive to the terrible human cost of war on both sides. His untrained but expressive, altogether fascinating paintings also demonstrate a good amount of emotional receptivity.
And yet the narrative overall tends toward this buoyant, devil-may-care tone. I attribute it some to Chamberlain’s youth; he was 16-21 during the events of the narrative and in certain harrowing situations acknowledged himself as “nothing but a boy”. (294) But he was no longer a boy when he wrote the account. And so I tend to attribute the tone – which seems weirder and weirder as the tale progresses and the events become distinctly less heroic and more upsetting – to the conventions of the genre Chamberlain imagined himself to be writing within.
The narrative takes a concerted swerve toward the desperate and brutal when Sam’s lover, Carmeleita, is kidnapped by a villain known as El Tuerto*; a man she was coerced into marrying before she gladly ran off with Sam, and one with whom Sam had previously had a knife fight. Chamberlain attempts to track them down, but then hears of her terrible fate: “El Tuerto had carried Carmeleita to a lone ranch where she was outraged by Canales’ whole gang of demons and then cut to pieces!” (216)**
Pretty much from this moment on in the text, bravado starts to sound forced and hollow as Sam’s circumstances worsen and worsen. The war ends, and he joins a wagon train to California as a ranger but, likely deep in a depression from Carmeleita’s savage end, he acts belligerent and unsoldierly enough that he is eventually strung up by his thumbs. Mercifully one night a mysterious lone rider, who has been following the train, cuts him down; a fellow known as Crying Tom Hitchcock, a truly intriguing character who speaks a mishmash of languages, mimics an array of animal calls and, as his nickname implies, frequently cries copious and unexplained tears.
And so Sam deserts the army and follows Tom, who turns out to be a recruiter for John Glanton. Glanton’s rather terrifying group of desperados were officially employed by the Mexican government to kill “hostile” Apaches***, but in practice they killed (and scalped) pretty much anybody they could get something from. Chamberlain had the good sense to be wary of Glanton’s unscrupulous, often drunken decision-making. And he was appropriately distrustful of Glanton’s sociopathic second-in-command, Judge Holden, who, Chamberlain says, he “hated…at first sight”. (272)
Nevertheless he tagged along with this highly suspect crew for, even he seemed to feel, longer than was good for him. You get the impression he didn’t know what else to do with himself and that, before witnessing some of their depravity firsthand, he found Glanton’s ruthless reputation somewhat romantic.
It is possible Chamberlain was called away from the task of writing his narrative by the Civil War. Given that he lived a relatively long life and never picked the task back up, I could also easily be persuaded that he abandoned the project out of disaffection. As the events become more dire and less heroic, the adventurous tone of the narrative attenuates and grows brittle.
Writing this narrative was an act of memory for Chamberlain. Remembering war exploits is one thing; war is violent and horrifying but it is also societally-sanctioned and there is a long history of literature valorizing appalling deeds, and the people who committed them, when done in the name of war. However much I find lionizing depictions of war (along with war itself) juvenile at best, immoral at worst, the practice is not without many literary precedents.
But a different game altogether is recalling the mutilation of a lover, personal sorrow and humiliation, and a stint with mercenaries notorious for their sadism and wanton cruelty. Perhaps it’s my own reading and a modern psychological sensibility, but I felt like I could detect the disparity between Sam’s adopted authorial voice and how he really felt about these latter events. I imagine him getting to the point in his story when Carmeleita is murdered and then realizing the “fun” part of his tale is over. But he has to keep writing because this is the task he’s set himself and of course everybody wants to hear about his exploits with the infamous Glanton gang. And so he continues. But it just gets worse and worse. Until finally he realizes his story is not a glorious adventure at all, he doesn’t particularly want to relive it anymore, and so he simply stops. The final pages of his Confession end with a definite whimper as Sam flees the Yuma’s massacre of Glanton’s boys, drags himself alone through the desert and nearly dies of thirst.
All in all, this is an absorbing primary source that really cries out for a fully annotated version; one that, to the extent it’s possible, corroborates or refutes some of Sam’s depictions, separates his fact from his fiction, and fleshes out much of the historical context he glances over. I found Sam, as a figure, both sympathetic and repellant, which definitely kept me reading. This source deserves to be much better known outside of enthusiasts of military history. And Sam’s paintings alone are worth picking up this book; for his renderings of battle, sure, but also simply for the northeast Mexican landscape and architecture, a milieu he handles visually with fine detail and one he seems to have admired.
* Who was indeed one-eyed. ** For information about the military leader, Antonio Canales Rosillo, this article provides a good overview. *** “Hostile” in this context vis-à-vis the Mexican government, with whom the Apaches had been waging war since about the 1820s. The governments of several north Mexican states offered bounties for Apache warriors, which eventually meant payment for any scalps that could plausibly be passed off as Apache. ...more