Archive for August, 2008


“Что кинул он в краю родном?”

On Friday, the world awoke to war in the Caucasus, a region not known for cultivating the neighborly arts. While reporters scramble to explain recent history, medievalists can offer deep background. The medieval pasts of Russia and Georgia are rich and complex in their own right, but look at where they’re fighting: Ossetia. History buffs will emit a happy “aha” when they learn who the Ossetes are: the descendants of those early medieval zeligs, the Alans.

Originally from Iran, the Alans were a nomadic confederation of elite mounted warriors who lived between the Black and Aral Seas. When the central Asian steppes began disgorging people, many Alans rode west, a cloud of lassos and spears just a few hoof-beats ahead of the Huns.

Recruited by Rome, Alans fought for emperors and claimants to the throne; in the late 2nd century, Maximinus the Thracian, whose mother was an Alan, became the first emperor with full barbarian roots, and other Alans rose through the ranks. Alans crossed the frozen Rhine with the Vandals in 406, they helped them lay siege to Hippo, and a 5th-century Alan mini-dynasty briefly ran Constantinople. Bernard S. Bachrach, author of A History of the Alans in the West, thinks the feigned retreat may have been the Alan contribution to Western military tactics. He also entertains a curious but unprovable notion: that if aspects of the Arthurian legend passed to Britain through Armorica, where Alans were known to have settled, then the sword-in-the-stone motif may be a distant echo of the Alan depiction of their war god, “a naked sword thrust into the bare earth.”

The Alans left no record of their language and little trace of their culture. We know they existed because others wrote about them, but you can find their old homes if you know where to look: in France, in place-names such as Alençon, Alaincourt, Alland’huy, and Allamont; Alagno, Alan d’Riano, Allegno, and Alano di Piave in northern Italy. Of course, the Alans who came west are no more, having long since been assimilated by other European peoples—but the Alans who stayed in the Caucasus are back in the news, partly because they rummaged through their medieval past.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, with North Ossetia as part of Russia and South Ossetia lumped in with Georgia, the Ossetians looked to historians, philologists, and archaeologists to tell them who they were. Was “Ossetia,” a Georgian term filtered through Russian, the name they should use? Shouldn’t they call themselves “Alans”? As Victor Shnirelman explains, speakers of the two Ossetian dialects, Digor and Iron, argued over whose speech was more pure; North Ossetia became North Ossetia-Alania; and the Alan name was slapped on everything from soccer teams to supermarkets. Never mind that “Alans” may have been a term used only by outsiders; or that the name “Ossetia” probably comes from *ās, which the Alans used to refer to themselves; or that the original Alans were famously inclined to assimilate and be assimilated. The Alanian nationalism of the 1990s soon took on moral and racial overtones, especially as neighboring enemies tried on the name for size. The Ossetes should have looked westward for precedent and warning: Once you buttress your national identity with medievalism, expect politicized folklore to beguile the public —and to take on a life of its own.

If you’ve paid attention to another conflict with medieval roots, then you saw this war coming. When Kosovo declared independence in February, the South Ossetia separatist leader insisted that his people had an even stronger case for autonomy, while Russia sent ominous signals that confirmed the earlier fears of EU foreign policy types. In the days to come, journalists will try to explain the matrix of grudges between Russia, Georgia, the two halves of Ossetia, and nearby Ingushetia and Chechnya. Chances are they’ll overlook this snippet from a 5th-century poem by Claudian about an Alan warlord

cui natura breves animis ingentibus artus
finxerat inmanique oculos infecerat ira;
vulneribus pars nulla vacat rescissaque contis
gloria foedati splendet iactantior oris.

whom nature had moulded with small limbs but great courage and dyed his eyes with a terrible anger. No part of his body was free of wounds and, torn by spears, the glory of his disfigured face shone more proudly.

Expect to see more anger, wounds, and disfigurement out of the Caucasus. And when you start to hear talk about glory and pride, don’t be surprised if it takes on a medieval tinge.

“It was Friday morn when we set sail…”

Friday! A fine day for maritime disasters, casual clothes—and some quick weekend links.

Steven Hart calls Aleksandr Solzhenetsyn “unanswerably correct about one huge subject…and buffoonishly wrong about almost everything else.” I’m struck by how many great writers he could be describing.

JLJ at Per Omnia Saecula collaborates with her sister to bake medieval cookies.

The Economist notes the destruction of Beijing’s medieval streets and explains “why it still pays to study medieval English landholding and Sahelian nomadism.”

Planning a Roman holiday? Studenda Mira recommends the new Julius Caesar bio. (I do, too, by the way.)

If you didn’t get to take a summer vacation, let Wil Cone show you Provence and Switzerland.

Ephemeral in New York discovers the Jeanne d’Arc Home for “friendless French girls.”

Jake Seliger suggests that media pundits would benefit from reading The Best Software Writing.

How ’bout a Roger Miller video? Here’s Leroy Powell, giving “River in the Rain” the heartfelt cover it deserves.

“Red are the sunsets in mystical places…”

Over at Unlocked Wordhoard, Scott Nokes is getting ready to teach Old English this fall. I’ve seen the excellent rapport Scott has with his undergraduates; his current crop of students can look forward to a memorable semester.

But why dabble in a dead language, especially if you’re not a medievalist? Scott has spelled out several pragmatic reasons for studying Old English, all of which I heartily endorse. Here’s an addendum to his list; naturally, the actual pragmatism of each entry is in the eye of the beholder.

To get to know your native language better. You understand that “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” and “to attempt, to quest, to locate, and not to quit” convey the same basic meaning even as you sense that these phrases resonate with wildly different tones. There are historical reasons why that’s so—and dabbling in Old English will allow you to look at any snippet of modern English and behold those gnarled medieval roots. If you’re a writer, you’ll benefit immeasurably from this wisdom. It’s one thing to have vague feelings about the implications of diction; it’s quite another to know exactly why you choose the words you do.

Because you’re paying how much per credit hour? You can spend $1,500 to have some TA explain the obvious (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is totally about society’s destruction of natural human impulses”), or you can learn to read the poetry and prose of a lost medieval world. The English curriculum is stereotyped as being easy, and often deservedly so, but when you study Old English you enter a less forgiving realm of history and hard grammar. It’s not always hospitable, but it does have its charms. For one thing, no one ever starts a sentence with, “What this poem made me feel was, like…”

Because Old English is a gateway drug. You do eight or nine lines—think “Caedmon’s Hymn”—and you figure that’ll be it: youthful experimentation. But you can’t quit, and soon you’re taking Middle English, or studying German, or dabbling in (Bože moj!) linguistics. Filthy, filthy linguistics. Your parents pray it’s a phase. How will they explain to your grandmother than you’re a…medievalist? When she was growing up, the world was a different place; people didn’t talk openly about such things…

To gather new data points about human nature. Old English poetry is like nothing else you’ll read in college: stoic, brooding, high-minded, unfrivolous, and formal. Sometimes, even my students who’ve served in the military are baffled by the foreignness of the Anglo-Saxon heroic code but haunted by the elegies, while irreligious students are often surprised to find themselves impressed by the inventiveness of “The Dream of the Rood.” That first encounter with Old English poetry can be unnerving, like the rustling of soil on a grave, but Anglo-Saxon poetry prepares you to think more deeply about the difference between the transient aspects of culture and traits that are timelessly human.

To learn something no one else knows. At some point after you graduate, someone—cousins, co-workers—will be musing about a quirk of modern English, and they’ll decide it’s time to ask the English major. Wouldn’t it be nice to wow them with a technical explanation about i-mutation or strong Germanic verbs?

Because it’s not as difficult as you think it is. Some English majors—and professors—are impressed when a medievalist can rattle off the opening lines of Beowulf from memory. They shouldn’t be. Study Old English and you’ll learn much about mnemonic devices and the amazing human capacity for memorization and oral composition—and you’ll stop being one of the easily impressed.

Because you can earn valuable prizes. Last year, I won a Major Award in the trivia contest at my office Christmas party because I knew the Old English cognate of “wassail.” Sure, the Major Award was a florescent green T-shirt with a cartoon monkey on it, but you don’t have one, do you?

“If I had a million dirhams…”

What did history taste like?

In Becoming Charlemagne, I used a pile of sources to speculate about how eighth-century Baghdad looked and felt. Scholars are fond of mentioning that the smells of medieval cities would have overwhelmed the modern nose—but the kitchens of the caliphs would have been a revelation.

As Charles Perry has pointed out, the cuisine of early medieval Baghdad was unlike the Middle Eastern menu of today. Rice wasn’t steamed but was mashed into porridge; dishes contained a medley of aromatic herbs; and stews were flavored with murri, the juice from moldy barley—which, Perry informs us, tasted exactly like soy sauce. “There’s no hummus or tabouli, no stuffed grape leaves, no kibbe, no baklava,” he explains. “Many dishes have strange, clanking medieval names like bazmaawurd, kardanaaj, isfiidhabaaj and diikbariika.”

Since Perry, author of Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, was kind enough to adapt several medieval Islamic dishes for modern ingredients and measurements, I thought I’d whip up some tabaahaja, a sweet lamb dish recorded by Yahya ibn Khalid ibn Barmak.

Yahya was an interesting guy. His family, the Barmakids, were the protectors of a Buddhist shrine in what’s now Afghanistan. After the family converted to Islam, Yahya’s father, Khalid, helped fund the revolution that brought the Abbasid caliphs into power, thus leading to the founding of Baghdad in A.D. 762. Yahya himself was tutor and mentor to the caliph Harun al-Rashid, who sent Charlemagne an elephant; Yahya’s sons, Fadl and Jafar, were two of the most powerful men in the caliphate.

Reveling in the Persianized culture of the urban elite, the Barmakids threw the best parties in Baghdad—until Harun, for reasons no one really understands, destroyed the family and hung Jafar in pieces from a bridge.

Today, when movies feature a sinister vizier named Jafar, that’s a distant echo of the Barmakid story as filtered through the Arabian Nights and 19th-century Orientalism. You also may be familiar with those irreverent early-Islamic pop singers, the Barmakid Ladies.

Okay, okay, back to Yahya’s recipe.

A pound of lamb leg waits to be smothered in a marinade of soy sauce (murri substitute), honey, cinnamon, coriander, and black pepper. I splurged on good lamb, but iffy kitchen experiments warrant only cheap-ish spices.

Fun fact: the Islamic world was centuries ahead of medieval Europe in its adoption of bear-shaped plastic containers.

Here are the lamb-leg bits and pieces, soaking like harem girls in a hot tub.

Two hours later, the marinade hits the oil in the Le Creuset saucepan with an excited sizzle.

In an alternate universe where Charles Martel failed to stop the Muslim advance at Poitiers, the French never invented pricey cookware. Also, I would have a goatee.

Half an hour later, the lamb is ready for the vizier’s table. It’s been garnished with cilantro, but I left off the optional mustard greens and rue, the latter because finding a bitter abortifacent anywhere but in a garden store is difficult even in an area full of Asian markets, and hunting for it is too creepy to be worth the trouble.

Behold: tabaahaja. If lamb were candy, it would be this. The marinade has become a glaze so sweet it’s wince-inducing; the most prominent flavor is cinnamon; and the overall taste is reminiscent of spare ribs at a Chinese restaurant.

The vizier and his entourage would have eaten tabaahaja with flatbread and washed it down with fruit juice. (I opted for a tortilla and black cherry soda.) Harun himself was partial to gazelle milk, so let’s spare a sympathetic thought for history’s forgotten hero: the servant whose job was to milk the gazelle.