Why Did it Even Work? Holy Roman Empire 2.0

A loose agglomeration of cities, territories, church lands, and imperial personal possessions, all held together by . . . Well, by a shared faith, a shared understanding of what an emperor’s role generally should be, and the need to defend against outsiders. Yet it lasted from the late 800s to 1806, surviving the Black Death, Thirty Years War, other wars, and was dissolved by mutual consent, to protect it from Napoleon. Critics claimed that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” to use Rousseau’s sneer, and that it held back the development of a proper Berlin-centered sense of Germanitas and of empire. Except . . . people kept it around, and must have found something of value in it.

In some cases, the title of Holy Roman Emperor was preserved just because someone else wanted to hold the title. That seems to have been the case in the mid 800s, in the semi-gap between the more powerful Carolingians and the first Ottonians. However, by the 1100s the Emperor had come to have the role of mediator and first-among-equals, someone who was (often) above the fray and could hear all sides, then provide possible solutions. Or he could answer calls for help from inside (and sometimes outside) the empire. The emperor was the secular balance to the pope, the sword of the state and of the western Church. He had to balance a lot of things, and much rested on the personality of the individual. Otto I managed it, Frederick II preferred to focus on Sicily and Italian/Roman politics, the Habsburgs kept their eyes fixed in the north . . .

One very important role of the emperor, and of the imperial courts and counsels, was to set standards for city creation and independence. Many cities ended up using the law code developed for Magdeburg, which made a lot of business easier. The free cities had to have walls and had to be able to defend themselves if attacked. No walls – no freedom. The emperor was their final gurantor, in some cases. In others he and his counsel served as mediators and neutral parties when a city or group of cities and a prince-archbishop or noble collided. Cities could buy their freedom, and that was a source of revenue for the emperor. Freiburg in Breisgau (southwest Germany) is one example. They forced out the local bishop from political power and built walls, defended them, then petitioned for independence. It was granted after some wrangling and fee paying.

After the wars of the Reformation (which were as much about Charles V having too much power as they were about theological differences), the Holy Roman Empire turned into a critical place for nobles of both denominations to solve disputes. The counsels were carefully balanced, half Lutheran and half Catholic, to ensure that theological differences were minimized. It worked well until Frederick of Rhineland-Palatine, a staunch Calvinist who came to believe that G-d was calling him to dethrone the Antichrist (Holy Roman Emperor and Pope) and bring about the Second Coming, upset the balance and contributed to the start of the Thirty-Years War.

The Westphalian System of states that developed out of the 1618-1648 period might have been the end of the empire, except that it remained very, very important as a symbol of unity and as a place for mediation and dispute resolution. The threat from the Ottomans was real, and tangible, and wasn’t just a Habsburg or Polish problem. France’s ambitions also contributed to the desire to keep the empire in place as a bloc, even if the emperor couldn’t always muster everyone to work against France as a group (he did at times, as the adventures of John Churchill the Duke of Marlborough and Eugene von Savoy showed.)

When the members of the empire voted to dissolve it rather than allow Napoleon to claim the title, it truly was the end of an era. Later historians tended to dismiss the H.R.E. as a dead weight that kept Prussia from taking over as the rightful leader of the northern Protestant (and Catholic) German speakers, and as a useless relic that should have disappeared even before 1648. The last 30 years have seen a reappraisal, as a new generation ask, “Why keep it? What did people see of value in the empire that led them to preserve it, even symbolically?” It was a link to the past, to the legacy of civilization and Christendom, it served as a place to talk and sort things out before the became war (sometimes), and held deep meaning in the identity of various parts of the empire during fast-changing and scary times.

Relic? Yes. Dead? Not really. Useless? The people of the time felt it served a vital purpose, no matter what later historians declared.

NOTE: I am on the road, and clearing comments or answering questions will be slow, or after Sunday afternoon. Thanks for your understanding.

Eras and Ends

The fall of the Berlin Wall and even more so the collapse of the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union. The death of Elizabeth II. The fall of Constantinople in 1453. 9/11. The coronation of Charlemagne. The first three all inspired people to stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and say or think, “It’s the end of an era.” September 11, 2001 was sort of the end of an era for most people, not so much for those who had been paying attention to world events since the First Gulf War. The coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor was the start of a new historical period, at least according to historians. We use it as an easy start point for the Middle Ages. The fall of Constantinople is either the start of the Early Modern, or of the Renaissance, or both, depending on what you are looking at. I’d argue that it makes a better “Early Modern Era” touchstone, but I’m not a cultural historian.

Some events are so big that people at the time knew, when they heard about them, that something had shifted. Others took a while, or are just useful pegs upon which to hang names and dividing points. Until 9/11, the Challenger explosion was what a lot of people thought would be the touchstone event, the world changer for my generation. It wasn’t, not was the Columbia disaster, either, although that marked the end of the Space Shuttle program – NASA version. Pearl Harbor was a shock, but not a surprise, based on what I’ve read in newspapers from 1939-1940. By the end of ’40, I get the sense that Americans assumed the war would grow, and we would be dragged into it at some point.

For my age group, September 11, 2001 was a point of mental shift, I suspect. Again, not for people who in the business, or for those who had been watching Al Quaeda and other groups. I know one gent (and I wish I could remember who) said that when the Northern Lion was assassinated, he the academic knew that something big was about to happen. But he didn’t know what until the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I knew as soon as I turned on the radio and listened for a few minutes that the world had shifted. I strongly suspect that there were a few people in Europe for whom learning about the final fall of Constantinople to Mehmed II and the Ottomans was a world-shifting moment. The center of the Greek Christian world, the second Rome, was gone. Constantine’s city and one of the great holy sites of Christianity now vanished behind the green wall of Islam, and what could stop the Ottoman advance?

Queen Elizabeth II reigned for all of my life, and a goodly chunk of my parents’ lives. My great aunt, who had a TV, let my mother come over and watch Elizabeth’s coronation. I remember my aunt talking about it. Sort of like I got up terribly early to watch Diana marry Charles (loved the pomp. Not so sure about the 1980s shoulder poofs, but styles change.) Her passing is the loss of a touchstone, of a living link to a very different world. In some ways, it was a better world, in many ways it was a poorer world, but that connection no longer sits on the British throne. I admired her for sticking to her duty, for not following the latest fads and styles of dress or decorum. She maintained a decent reserve, and by decent I mean proper and fitting. She had a good sense of humor, kept her cool during interesting moments, and understood the big picture of priorities. She was a WWII veteran, serving her country and Commonwealth as best she saw.

And era has passed. The world has changed. Just like 21 years ago, just like in 1453, and at other times for other people.

Book Review: When the Sahara Was Green

Williams, Martin. When the Sahara was Green: How Our Greatest Desert Came to Be. (Princeton U.P. 2021) Kindle Edition.

Once upon a time, millions of years, tens of thousands of years ago, the region called teh Sahara was green. Sometimes it held enormous rivers. Volcanoes erupted, were crowned with glaciers, and fell silent. Huge fish swam in the giant lakes and rivers. Lush vegetation of varying kinds grew on the land.

Then something happened. Actually, a very large number of somethings, including the entire continent moving in such a way that tucked the Sahara into a dry swath of climate, and Europe (the landmass) cutting the moisture supply to the northern regions. All long before humans ever wandered the landscape. So, as Dr. Williams points out, you can’t blame humans for the desert. Which may be the most useful point in the book.

Martin Williams is a geologist who specializes in deserts and how they got that way. His first introduction to the Sahara came in 1970, when the group he was with couldn’t go to Libya because of a coup in progress, so they went to an even drier region instead. As he and the group leader went ahead of the others (on camel, as the others got the Land Rovers and other vehicles repaired), Williams noticed evidence of human presence, and of a river, in a place where no water could be seen. That made him curious, and the rest is this book.

Half geology and half travel, the book is a very readable account of the Sahara’s deep history, going back to the Cambrian. It has nice maps and diagrams, although more would be useful, especially in the e-book version. The illustrations are hot-linked, as are the end-notes, so you can go back and forth, but that gets tiresome so I just studied the major diagrams and memorized what was where. Williams has a knack for translating from geology into good prose, and blends the deep past with more recent explorations and observations. He works roughly chronologically after the introduction, going back to the Cambrian and moving toward the present climate regime.

Contrary to popular understanding (and most nature shows I’ve seen), the Sahara is not an endless sea of tan dunes. About a quarter at most of the land is sandy. This is in part because sand is needed to make sand, and large swaths of the area don’t have the right rocks. More common are huge rocky “pavements”, and clumps of hard, black or red hills. Some are volcanic, some are tougher sedimentary remnants (think Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia). Volcanoes in East Africa played a role in drying the region, blocking flow from what is now the Indian Ocean. Africa moving north to collide with Europe, closing the Tethys Sea, didn’t help, since what is now the Med has gone completely dry, most recently during the last phase of the Ice Age. Then things improved until the Younger Dryas, before returning to the current arid phase.

The edges of the desert move. This is not, as Williams points out, because of overgrazing, slash-and-burn farming, or air chemistry. It is because of changing rainfall patterns linked to the North Atlantic Oscillation and the El Niño/Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean monsoon. How are they connected? No one knows yet, but there are a lot of guesses. In wetter phases, the North African grasslands and brush move south, or the sahel region moves north. When things dry out, the Sahara grows once more.

Humans didn’t cause this, but modern governments can make things worse for the people of the desert. Ordering Bedouin and others to stop moving, even when drought moves in for a decade or two, causes misery for the nomads and for the farmers around them. Killing off livestock “to stop overgrazing” isn’t the best answer, per Williams. Understanding the actual reason for the drought, and making space for people to respond in ways that work, is the better solution.

Williams is concerned about human effects on the environment, but he’s not pounding the “two legs bad, four legs good” drum that so many do. I suspect his background being in geology makes the difference – he’s used to looking at the looooooooong term. He talks about the humans who lived in what is now the desert, how they coped with the gradual changes and shifts, and what we know and don’t know.

I highly recommend this book. You don’t have an earth-science background to enjoy it, but it does make for faster reading. The illustrations and charts are good, and there are lots and lots of endnotes for those who want more.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration or consideration from the author or publisher for this review.

Who Runs the Place?: Holy Roman Empire 2.0 Edition

The first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, ran the empire. No one contested that, or if they did, apparently it wasn’t for long. He had, let us say, a dominant personality and decisive way of settling inter-personal disputes. However, after his great-grandsons divided the empire (the Franks had partiable inheritance, so each male had to get land), the role of the emperor dwindled as more powerful nobles gained territory and control, and the internal politics of Rome started to resemble a Mafia soap opera. It took the Ottonians, and what I half-jokingly call Holy Roman Empire 2.0 for the emperor to return to a place of political prominence and authority, and even then he had a lot of challenges from nobles who preferred their feudal overlord to stay both weak and far away.

With the Ottonians came several changes. The kings of France, or rather the Frankish kings, had grown strong enough that they stood on their own, outside the empire. The Ottonians were from the German-speaking lands, and their power base was the middle Rhine Valley, the Main River lands, and over around the Harz Mountains. Like Charlemagne and his successors, the Ottonians moved around a lot, but their “base of operations” was in Goslar, in the mountains to the east, where the newly-converted Saxons and the Slavs resisted imperial rule. The east had no memory of Roman leadership, not really. The Romans never stayed very far north of the Danube, and the Slavic tribes had pushed the Germanic peoples west and either north or south in the 600s-700s, as best we can tell. Or they intermingled with them (Austria, Hungary, Croatia). So the empire now faced east as much as south, fighting and establishing diplomatic ties, and fighting with, the Slavs and Saxons, and starting to move civilization north, into the wet, cold areas of what is now Lower Saxony, Westphalia, Schleswig-Holstein, and Mecklenberg-Vorpom. And parts of modern Poland.

Because the emperors were always on the move, more or less, and occasionally had to go down to Rome to settle things at least temporarily, the local nobles and imperial servants were tasked with running things on a daily basis, and had to be the first on scene when, oh, the eastern Saxons decided to revert to paganism and attack someone (not always in that order), or the Magyars invaded, or the Byzantine Empire deflected someone north and west. Also, most of the nobles were related through marriage or ancestry, and at any time, several had possible claims on deserving the title of Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation. Depending on the personality of the emperor and which nobles had risen to power, this could lead to collisions, or to cooperation. Occasionally, the popes would wade into the fray, as Gregory VII did with Henry IV in 1075-76.

After the Ottonians came the Salians, another dynasty from the Rhine Valley, of whom Henry IV is the most famous, although he’d probably have happily relinquished that distinction. He ended up fighting with the major nobles, his son, the pope twice, and pretty much everyone else. Conflict management and resolution was not one of his strong suits. All this is a bit of a fog for most English-speakers, because we tend to focus on what was going on in Britain at the time – the Norman Conquest and other minor excitements. Also going on was the conversion of Poland to Catholicism, more or less*. Poland became Catholic as opposed to Orthodox, but because they were officially brought into Christendom directly by a Papal missionary from Bohemia, instead of from one of the Holy Roman Empire’s bishops, they were not considered part of the Holy Roman Empire’s lands. The relationship with the Emperor varied from “great friends” to “here we go again, call out the army.”

The emperor was supposed to be a neutral party above the nobles, someone who could mediate, settle arguments before they got out of hand, and who could balance the demands of the free cities with those of ecclesiastic nobles (like the Archbishop of Mainz) and the secular nobles (Saxony, Austria, Bavaria, Swabia, and so on.) He was also tasked with defending Rome and the pope (not always the same thing). Again, since the emperor was always on the move, and sometimes south of the Alps, that left a lot of wiggle room if a noble got ambitious.

Enter two real characters in every sense of the word. Frederick von Staufen and Heinrich of Saxony had nearly equal claims to the imperial throne. Heinrich came from the Welf family, Frederick from the Staufers**. They were almost the same age, and both tended to be, let us say, pugnacious. Frederick of the Red Beard (Barbarossa) ended up on the throne, and Heinrich swore feudal vows of vassalage, promising to help the emperor if needed and to obey – mostly. Their first collision came fairly early, when Frederick had Heinrich’s first marriage annulled after several years, in part because the property owned by the bride’s family surrounded Frederick’s own home base. Heinrich agreed, but he was not entirely pleased. He married the daughter of Henry II of England, which was OK. Yes, that Henry II. Family get-togethers must have been entertaining to watch from outside stabbing range.

The far north of the German lands, notably along the Baltic and eastern North Sea, and been depopulated by the Northern Crusades, and years of Viking raids. Heinrich turned his attention north, and while Frederick was going to Jerusalem and doing things in Italy and elsewhere as well as in the German lands, Heinrich refounded Lübeck, founded Luneberg and Braunschweig, and encouraged other settlements to expand. He established Braunschwig (Brunswick) as his main base. Once or twice, Frederick deputized Heinrich to deal with things while Frederick was tied up in Italy or dealing with Seljuk problems. However, Heinrich grew very powerful, and rather independent. Eventually the two collided. Heinrich lost and for a while ended up in Normandy, acting as diplomat and ambassador for his father-in-law. One can imagine the imperial court getting a little tense when Heinrich came back with diplomatic papers. Heinrich ended up outliving Frederick, then defeating Frederick’s son in battle and retiring to Braunschweig where, to the surprise of everyone, he died of old age.

Heinrich wasn’t the only noble to collide with the emperor. But most others don’t have summer pageants dedicated to the fight. Given Frederick Barbarossa’s personality, and the times he lived in, someone probably would have poked him the wrong way. Rudolph “the Founder” von Habsburg would butt heads with several people, and would resort to dirty tricks to defeat the prince of Bohemia. (Dirty tricks meaning having a rested reserve launch, surround, and beat up on the Bohemians. That was frowned upon by the rules of chivalry. Rudolph was a pragmatist, and a survivor, and didn’t really care.)

First among equals, sword of the Church (sometimes), keeper of order, settler of disputes, and feudal overlord of the lands north of the Alps. The Holy Roman Emperors walked a bit of a tightrope, and it’s probably more surprising that they didn’t have more, greater conflicts with the other men of the empire.

* Parts of Poland remained pagan, or kept lapsing back into paganism, until at least the late 1100s. Then the union with (pagan at first) Lithuania distracted the missionary priests.

**If you are thinking “Welf sounds like Guelph as in Guelphs and Ghibillines in Italy, Dante’s mess” you are correct. In English, we used to say “Staufen” for the family, but the Germans started moving toward “Staufer” for the larger group and “Staufen” for one later branch, as in “von Hohen-Staufen.” English-writers have picked up that usage.

Labor Day – US version

Today is Labor Day in the United States. Depending on where you are, school starts tomorrow if it has not already (sorry home-school kids. No break for you). Public pools and some private outdoor pools close for weekdays, or for the season. The local amusement park will shut down for the season after Monday, and the corn maze and pumpkin patch will be opening soon. Two-thirds of the commercials on TV are for Labor Day sales, as they have been for the past week at least. Halloween candy has started to appear in the store.

Labor Day as a formal event began in the US in the 1870s and 1880s, with the arrival of large numbers of immigrant workers from Europe (as opposed to England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland). Heavy industry needed large numbers of strong backs, and so the steel, railroad, construction, mining (in some places), packing plants, and so on hired “foreigners.” Some Americanized pretty quickly, like a lot of the people from the western parts of the German-speaking lands, while others stuck out more. Bohemians, Hungarians, Poles, Italians all tended to be Catholic, spoke funny, dressed funny, and didn’t blend in all that well at first. And they were willing to work for what seemed like near-starvation wages and to live in cramped conditions until they made enough money to escape to better options. Some employers and industries took advantage of that.

At the same time, the ideas of Karl Marx and others about the role of labor as compared to management, and of the importance of all workers cooperating for the benefit of all, had started filtering into the US. Sometimes, German workers would bring the ideas with them. In other cases it was native-born Americans who picked a few of the socialist ideas and left the rest on the ground. Either way, a labor movement started. There had been local and individual pushes by employees to maintain certain traditional rights (like “Blue Monday” when you were not expected to do much work because of drinking heavily the day before) against increasing attempts by factory and shop owners to tidy up and regulate employees’ behavior. In some cases, labor movements and what we now call strikes worked well. In others, well, Pullman Riots, Molly Maguires, Ludlow Massacre, and so on.

May Day, May 1, as a day of solidarity for the working man began in the US, in Chicago, as a result of the Haymarket Massacre. Whether the police threw the bomb, or an anarchist did it, or one of the labor-movement folks, a bomb went off during a labor rally in the Haymarket Square. The police opened fire, some people in the crowd may have fired back, and other people were injured in the rush of people just trying to get away. This led to a lot of prosecutions, finger-pointing, and seven men were sentenced to death (four executed) for the attack. It was not a great moment for either labor, or management, or the criminal justice system. But May One became Labor Day.

Alas, the first of May in large parts of the US is not a great weather day for taking off and celebrating, and once the date started being associated with off-brand bomb throwers and foreign Marxists, people like Samuel Gompers and other union leaders in the US backed away from May First. If you want to celebrate labor and the working man with things like parades and picnics and outdoor events, why not do it on a day that usually has good weather all over the US? And on a day that is not associated with Communism. So we get Labor Day in September.

I’ve been watching, when schedule permits, Mike Rowe’s series about factory jobs. Aluminum foundries, a brick factory, and similar places feature in the series, and he takes a “day in the life” approach to the places, talking about what they make, who uses their products, and giving a bit of background for several of the workers at the plant. All work factory-floor jobs, trouble-shooting problems, running equipment, designing molds for custom bricks, planning the lay-out and packing needed to make a non-standard brick arch before cutting the bricks to fit and then packing them for delivery, or replacing parts on a smelter or extruder on the fly. One show was about the behind-the-scenes at DFW Airport, everyone from baggage-belt repairmen to ground crews (gas and baggage) to fixing parking-lot lights and chasing birds away from the runways.

These folks work hard, they take pride in their work, and make good money. They might not have more than a high school diploma, but they are smart and creative, which is why they’ve gotten where they are in their jobs. It’s not romantic “heroes of toil” stuff, but frustrations, bleeped words, snarling about whoever put the wrong stuff in the finishing tray, and then satisfaction when everything does what it should and a huge roll of sheet aluminum goes out the door, ready for delivery.

This is what Labor Day’s about – work and the people who do it. The kind of stuff that is easy to forget about some times, especially if you are in a field where you do “think-work,” or if you are not fascinated with “how do they make that” like I am. (Watching production machinery and things like steel mills will keep me entertained for an hour, at least.)

Happy Labor Day for those who celebrate it!

þæt wæs grim cyning: Anglo-Saxon Literature

“That was a grim king.”

The phrase is from the Anglo-Saxon poem “Deor” or as I learned it, “Deor’s Lament.” It is one of the complete (or so it appears) Anglo-Saxon poems we have, and describes mythological and historical figures who have bad times. The refrain is enigmatic to put it mildly. One translation I read (grew up with) was “That passed away – This also may.” Another is “That was overcome, so may this be.” Did the poet mean “I might survive these hard times,” or “May I overcome these hard times” in the sense of a prayer of sorts? The original word leaves it unclear. “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.”

Other poems, often borrowed by people like J. R. R. Tolkien (“The Wanderer”), are equally cheerful and encouraging. However, when you look at things like the Exeter Book fo Riddles, you get a different view of the Angles and Saxons. Ribald double-entendres, witty word-play, bad puns, and other things abound.

One of the most famous riddles is number (modern listing) 25:

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, wifum on hyhte,
neahbuendum nyt; nængum sceþþe
burgsittendra, nymþe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah, stonde ic on bedde,
neoþan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor,
modwlonc meowle, þæt heo on mec gripeð,
ræseð mec on reodne, reafað min heafod,
fegeð mec on fæsten. Feleþ sona
mines gemotes, seo þe mec nearwað,
wif wundenlocc. Wæt bið þæt eage.

Or, in modern English:

I am a wondrous creature, a joy to women,
a help to neighbours; I harm none
of the city-dwellers, except for my killer.
My base is steep and high, I stand in a bed,
shaggy somewhere beneath. Sometimes ventures
the very beautiful daughter of a churl,
a maid proud in mind, so that she grabs hold of me,
rubs me to redness, ravages my head,
forces me into a fastness. Immediately she feels
my meeting, the one who confines me,
the curly-locked woman. Wet will be that eye.

OK, now, before your minds finish going where I suspect they will go, the answers (the collection lacks a list at the back) might be an onion, a leek, or mustard, but the onion is the probable solution.

We don’t have much Old English humor that survived down the ages, or much of anything at all, really, compared to other languages. The Church saved some things, especially if they were religious (“The Dream of the Rood,” and “Caedmon’s Hymn”) or government (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles). Otherwise we are fortunate to have Beowulf, The Wanderer, and a few others.

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? [#]Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?Where the giver of treasure?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu?Where are the seats at the feast?
Hwær sindon seledreamas?Where are the revels in the hall?
Eala beorht bune!Alas for the bright cup!
Eala byrnwiga!Alas for the mailed warrior!


If you think you might know those words, well, Tolkien caught the sense.

In the novels, the lines are spoken by Aragorn, but the way the movie was done, and where they were used, they fit Theoden very well. “Theoden,” by the way, means “prince” with the implication of one with a fate.* Now is that fate a wyrd or “fated to be a prince?” Again, the sense is ambiguous.


*According to some sources. Linguists seem to be arguing over that.

Not Repeating, But Rhyming

China and western Europe have drought. The previous year had flooding and cold. Eastern Europe alternate hot and cool. Parts of North America are dry, then drenched, while other parts get warm for extended periods. La Niña has dominated the ENSO pattern in the Pacific for two years now, and may go neutral or shift to El Niño after February.

We’ve seen this before. The 1200s and early 1300s, the early 1600s, low solar energy output augmented by a bunch of tropical volcanoes going off, with the Italian volcanoes and Iceland’s Katla tossing out their own contributions, caused a massive climatic downturn in the northern hemisphere that led to some of the worst-for-humans weather patterns in centuries. Cold and wet, hot and dry, floods and rotting crops, summers with hard frosts in June, droughts that dried the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, plague and other disease outbreaks, civil unrest and regional wars . . . The Seventeenth Century stank worse than rotten eggs and a dead cow in a confined space in August. And it wasn’t because of CO2 or the internal combustion engine. It was the internal combustion of the sun and some volcanoes.

El Niño and the North Atlantic Oscillation are patterns. They don’t repeat on set schedules, because there are far too many variables, only a handful of which climate and weather people are 100% sure about. To make things more complicated—as if Nature needed help!—there are connections between the snowfall and rain in East Africa and the El Niño pattern. We just have no way to know how it works, but we know it is there because of the enormous Nile flood calendar. Climate specialists can cross-reference written and proxy data from South America and Southeast Asia with the Nile flood records, and there is a clear pattern.

What we can’t predict are volcanoes. A massive volcanic eruption in what is now Indonesia probably played a major role in the weather shift that triggered the rodent population explosion that led to the Plague of Justinian as well as the cold, wet, stormy weather that battered north-western Europe in the 500s. Nor could we predict the spate of tropical volcanoes in the 1300s and 1600s, or the Year Without a Summer (Mt. Tambora, tone it down!) The right volcano in the wrong place can cool things considerably. Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines dropped global temps by 1-2 degrees C for a year or so.

Nor can we pinpoint forecast what will happen exactly where. Eastern Europe might be slightly above average while Western Europe and Britain freeze. Or bake. A heavy winter with lots and lots of snow might be followed by a hot summer and drought. We can guess trends based on recorded and past oceanic temperatures and winds, but all forecasts are odds. My part of the country has good odds of reverting to average-for-the-past-thirty-years rainfall if next year is an El Niño, because that shifts the storms patterns south, more directly over this area. But that’s averages, not “RedQuarters will get 22 inches of rain between February and November.”

So if I seem a bit mellow about the latest “sky isn’t falling and it’s all the fault of the Global North minus China,” it’s because I’m looking at the long patterns. No, it isn’t any comfort when my water bill skyrockets as I try to keep the grass not-entirely-dead or the gas bill zooms because of Snovid ’21: Part 2 the Sequel. (We only got down to -4 F, with windchills of “miserable.” And up here we had rolling four-hour blackouts on a schedule, not the weeks without power like down-state.) Nor do I envy Europe if the predicted effects of the Tonga volcanic eruption do cause colder weather on top of the usual chill. Is it all mankind’s fault? Only if we’ve figured out how to trigger volcanic eruptions, or how to dim the sun, and I do not refer to adding fine particulates to the atmosphere, or putting mirrors in space to reflect “excess” solar energy.

I still don’t like drought, or blizzards, though.

Other People’s Minds

“How could they do that?!? Didn’t they know that it didn’t work/doesn’t work/is terrible and we don’t do that?” It’s a common reaction to some things in the past, or in other cultures still, and I understand it. From outside, it just does not make sense, it is dangerous, “it ended . . . poorly” as the Grail Knight would have phrased it (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), he really should have known better. Except . . . they didn’t or it had always worked, or their world-view was just that different.

Part of being a good historian, in my opinion, is being able to get inside other minds and suss out the logic and reasoning for things. Now, not every historical figure had what we would consider logical and rational reasons for things, especially later in their careers. And sometimes cultures just go nuts, usually because of a lot of external and internal stress. Things snap. Some of Henry VIII of England’s later actions seem insane, perhaps because he was suffering the effects of a traumatic brain injury (and other things). But when you are looking at an entire culture that does something over and over for centuries, there has to be a good-to-them reason. Finding and understanding that reason is not always easy.

I love it when someone moves past, “They did that. Ick. Then this other thing,” and asks, “That’s really strange. It doesn’t make sense in my world. Why would people do that?” It means they really are chewing on the thing and haven’t found a good reason, so they ask someone. Or start digging for themselves into more specialized material to find out why. Why do the governments of Russia seem paranoid compared to other governments? Why did Ivan IV of Russia act as if everyone was out to get him? Why did [insert culture here] practice human sacrifice? Why did people think [toxic thing] was medicinal? We get more cool historical discoveries from questions like that.

“Why does this Scandinavian art from the early Bronze Age looks a lot like depictions of yoga? The Scandinavian culture was descended from the same culture as the Avestas and Vedas. Could there be a connection?” And so some people started digging and came up with some ideas that perhaps, yes, there might be links. We can’t tell without more evidence, but the possibilities are intriguing, and if true, suggest that either 1) there was a lot more long-distance exchange of ideas than we thought or 2) certain cultural practices lasted a lot longer than anyone had imagined. Or developed earlier.

What is the mind set that says a certain thing makes sense? It’s not easy to get into that mental world. In some cases, I really do not like making myself go there. That I can put myself into the world of a Vlad III or Mathias Corvinus, or an Aztec priestess, or certain cultures and figures, bugs the living daylights out of me. I’m not Ivan IV, or Timurlane. But I can sort of understand why they did what they did, even if it horrifies me.

Humans are amazing creatures who do beautiful and horrible things. We created Gothic cathedrals and symphonies and Chinese brush painting and Persian carpets and miniatures. We extirpated entire classes of people (end of Tang Dynasty China), eliminated entire tribes, had tens of thousands of people killed to eliminate opposition to our will. We’re a rather scary species and complicated as all get out. I love it and I fear it.

Now, if only we would stop re-interpreting it, and discovering complications, so I could stop being tempted to buy new books and go to re-worked museums and . . !

Fort of the Spear Shafts

Dunpelder was the old name, the Cumbric name. Later people call it Traprain Law, Trefpren or Trefbryn, “hill by the farm of the tree” or “hill by the farm of the hill.” The older name means “fort of the spear shafts,” which tells you exactly what held pride of place atop the isolated, flat-topped hill. The hill, situated on a ridge, dominates the valley and land around it. The instant I saw it from the highway, I knew exactly what it had to be. And I became excited.

The hill, like a few others scattered around the edges of the Firth of Forth, is a laccolith, a bubble of magma that didn’t quite become a volcano. The core of the hill is made of phonolite*, a rather unusual-for-Scotland igneous rock. Part of the hill has been quarried away, and although you can, in theory, hike or climb up and down that side of the hill. it’s not smart unless you have a friend or two, ropes, and rock-climbing gear. The magma intruded during the Carboniferous, 358 MYA to 298 MYA, or the start of the Permian. Come the Ice Ages, the lump eroded to a crag-and-tail formation, similar to Edinburgh Castle’s rock and the lump in Sterling now crowned with the Wallace monument. The Law is about 360 feet tall, 720 feet above sea level, so not enormous but quite respectable, with relatively steep sides. Keep that in mind . . .

Because it was so unusual, and has a truly commanding view of the mouth of the Firth as well as inland, it has been used by people for a very, very long time. The most famous layer is an Iron Age (pre-Roman) fort attributed to the Votadini tribe. Apparently they got along with the Romans, and a hoard of 44 pounds(!) of Roman “hack-silver” was found on the Law in 1919. This is silver that was broken up and given away by the pound in order to reward [bribe] tribes to be friends of the Romans. The hill was abandoned in the 500s or so, and there is some thought that the people moved to Dun Eiden, or the Burgh of Eiden. The local people still sometimes call the hill “Dunpelder.” Dun means fort, pelder is related to the Cyrmic (Welsh) word for “spear shaft.”

The hill today is out in the very rural countryside of East Lothian, east of Edinburgh. The weather was mild with good visibility below a broken overcast and a nice westerly wind. Great weather for climbing up a steep, grassy hill. I bounced out of the car, sorted out the gate’s complicated latch and three-step entry process, and strode west along the base of the hill. Everyone else followed at a more dignified pace. The trail starts pretty flat and gentle, winds back and forth up the west end of the Law, and then doubles back. That’s where it starts to get steep. I’d guess a 10-15% grade. If the grass had been damp, it would have been very entertaining for the people watching me. As it was I probably sounded like a small steam-engine, huffing and puffing.

I think I can, I think I can . . .

This is where the story gets odd. As you would expect on a week-day with school still in session, the place was not busy. A family with a 4-5 year old was coming down after a lunch picnic, and I met a very fit lady hiker once I reached the top. Otherwise? Just me, the ravens and other birds, and the wind. The rest of the group looked at the first really steep slope and decided that staying on more level terrain was the better part of valor. Two and a half weeks before, I would have agreed with them, because I was so out of shape it’s embarrassing. On that day? No. I charged up the slope.

Why the rush? Because something was calling me. For lack of a better word, I felt like something wonderful waited for me and wanted me to come up and look around. There was a sort of euphoria that got stronger and stronger as I trotted up the slope and passed the remains of the prehistoric turf wall that formed one of the defenses of the hill-fort proper. Everything was right – the wind, the birds, the land around me. I didn’t get the mild to strong negative sensations I encountered at the Varus battlefield in Germany, or at the neolithic sites in the Kilmartin Glen. No, the Law liked me. Which sounds terribly strange, and doesn’t really get the feelings across, but it’s as close as I can come.

Half-way up or so, looking north. Did I mention that the Law dominates the landscape?

I’m sure some of it was the sheer pleasure of actually being physically able to climb the Law. I didn’t gasp or ache like I had back at Hadrian’s Wall, even though the slope was almost as steep. I literally trotted up the 360 feet or so of vertical elevation. I’d plodded, with multiple stops, up the Sill. The adrenaline was running, and had been since I launched from the car. Which, again, had not happened before.

The wind gusted around the hill, stirring the pony-cropped grasses and making the wild-flowers dance. Ravens glided below me, catching the wind as they launched from nests in the quarry face at the east end of the Law. Unseen songbirds chirped and warbled as well. To the west, I could see the blue-distant hills beyond Edinburgh, a dark, rumpled line separating the lush, grassy landscape around me from the blue and white sky. To the north, another Law stood between Traprain and the Firth, with more uplands lumping in an indigo line just beyond the shimmering, pale blue line of the Firth of Forth. The sky blended into the water as I looked east, the North Sea swallowing the horizon, quiet and mild for the moment. I smelled grass, and “clean,” no dust or smoke or other things. Bird song, raven caws, and the rush of the wind alone filled my ears. I walked above traffic noise, and soon above the ravens as well. My breathing, the birds, and the wind were the only sounds in the world.

Just outside the ghost of the old turf wall.

And so I reached the crest.

For someone expecting to find a reconstruction of a fort or something like that, the top would be a disappointment. I was thrilled. The foundations of the Iron Age fort are just visible through the grass, not far from a “wind cairn.” If you don’t know what you are looking at, it would be easy to mistake the ring of dry-stone wall**, not quite waist high on me, for the ruins. Instead, the lower, grass and woody-shrub covered oval of dirt and white rocks marks the ancient fort. Here, people feasted and planned for war, here chieftains received embassies and raised families, here people fled to for protection in times of danger, perhaps. The semi-wild ponies that crop the grasses and mug visitors for treats remained elsewhere that day, so I roamed unpestered. The wind made the plants and grasses dance, bowing to the east. It felt good, happy, welcoming. As if I belonged there.

The Iron Age fort, looking west toward Edinburgh.
The wind cairn and the North Sea.
The fort, and the Firth of Forth.

When I got ready to hike down, nothing urged me to linger. Whatever I sensed, it didn’t try to lure me or bother me, it didn’t whisper to me to stay. I stayed very happy, content, full of delight and joy . . . And wary of turning an ankle, because I wasn’t wearing proper hiking boots, and did NOT want to misstep on the way down. Down is always more of a challenge than up, at least for me. Gravity has never been my friend.

Of all the places I went, monuments I visited, ancient ruins and remnants I circled, Traprain Law . . . It moved me, touched me in a way I feel a bit sheepish trying to explain. That afternoon . . . was the happiest, most joy-full I felt on the entire trip. I’ve not had that sensation in a very long time. Wonder, excitement, mild awe, all the feelings that blend together into joy, a deep joy that lingered well into the evening. It almost felt . . . Almost as if that hike, and staring around from the top of the hill, was the whole point of the trip. Which makes absolutely no sense at all, but that’s the closest I can come to explaining what went through me as I stood atop that wind-washed hill, staring out at the North Sea as ravens and hooded crows glided below me.

*The name comes from the fact that some forms of it making a ringing sound when tapped with a rock hammer. It’s rare because you need a mantle plume or other hard-core hotspot to create. It has no crystals in it per se because of the lack of silica.

** Wind-cairns are to protect hikers caught in storms and so on. I can well believe that being atop the Law in any sort of rough weather could become dangerous very quickly.