Book Review: The Complete Gentleman

Miner, Brad. The Complete Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry. 3rd Revised Edition (Washington D. C., Regnery Gateway, 2021)

The reviews on this book were mixed, with several complaining because it was not a guide to manners and behavior – that is, it doesn’t give a clear “do this, don’t do that.” Instead the author discusses the history of the idea of chivalry and who was chivalrous, the Victorian concept of gentleman, and possible large ways to shift behavior and thinking in order to be a better, more chivalrous, gentleman.

Brad Miner points to the movie Titanic and the behavior of some young men while watching it, specifically their mocking the actions of some of the upper-class male passengers. That got Miner to thinking about chivalry, the standards men held themselves to, and where it all began. Thus the book goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, notably the Stoic philosophers and Aristotle, the medieval ideals of knighthood and chivalry, the Victorian reinterpretation of those ideals, good examples and horrible warnings, and so on.

Miner breaks the gentleman into three main aspects – warrior, lover, and monk. He looks at each in turn, and how these three aspects blend together in a medieval or Victorian man. Then he casts his gaze at the present day and the younger generation. How can you be reticent and restrained in the age of social media and “post your feeeeeeelings!”? Miner points to Castiglione’s The Courtier, and the idea that became sprezzatura, the appearance of effortless grace (which applies to men and women, just in different ways.)

There’s a lot to chew on here, especially if you are the parent of a boy, or a young man trying to be better. Being a gentleman is about aspiring to better. We can’t be perfect. But we can be better, we can raise the bar for ourselves, be it in conduct, physical skill, dress, faith . . . The book is a lot of “what is a gentleman” instead of “how to be a gentleman.” Miner implies that if you work on the mind-set, the how-to will follow. I’d add that having a few carefully chosen guides and role-models will help a lot, for man or woman. Because women need to understand the origins of the idea of gentleman, in order to encourage more of them, and to raise them.

The book reads well. It is somewhat breezy, a bit pop-history at times, but his sources check out, and that’s probably the best tone to take. People don’t like reading hundreds of pages of Polonius, or Lord Chesterfield. Many of the sources are Christian, which fits the culture, but Miner points out that you don’t have to be a Christian to aspire to certain virtues. He tends to keep politics out of the work, although there are a few “don’t do this” moments. Alas, vice knows no time nor country. Miner might have given more time to the critics of masculinity, if only to show some of the flaws in their thinking, but that’s not his goal.

I’d recommend it for young men and women, parents of young men and women, anyone curious about where the ideas of “gentleman” came from, and people interested in popular understandings of European medieval culture.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and was given no remuneration by either the author or the publisher.

Oops, I Misplaced Saxony! That’s Awkward.

Things in Europe move. I keep forgetting that, and so my mental map lets me down. I couldn’t find Saxony. It had to be there. It was in his title, but where was it? I’d left Saxony over in the east, where it’s supposed to be . . . in the modern country of Germany. That’s not exactly where “Saxony” could be found in 1100. Oops.

Today, when we use a place name, it usually refers to a specific state, province, nation-state, or location. “Alberta” is a fixed spot on the map of Canada, for example. Especially for Americans, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Texas, those are all places with a set and fixed location, in saecula saeculorum, amen. OK, those of us who grew up in the Cold War are aware that countries split (Czechoslovakia) or reunite (Germany). For people who studied the 20th Century, countries appeared and borders could be briefly fluid (The Austro-Hungarian Empire became: Austria, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Croatia, Slovenia, and a bit of Yugoslavia). But things don’t move all that much, just get parceled out and redistricted. You know, like Congressional districts in the US every ten or so years.

At this point, my European, British, and Medieval historian readers are laughing mightily at the innocence of a Yank abroad. Saxony was a descriptor loooooong before it became a specific region of a country called Germany. Saxons moved into a swath of Central Europe in the 300s or so, give or take, maybe later. “Here be Saxons” was for the Romanized peoples of the south akin to “Here be Dragons.” Just not always as friendly as dragons. Charlemagne dealt with them, several times in fact. His successors, and the later Ottonians, dealt with them farther to the east as they pushed the Holy Roman Empire away from the original Frankish core. Always, Saxony was where you found Saxons.

However, when borders got set for various administrative districts, Saxony as a German Land (state) locked into place. After 1945, for now.

Saxony is northeast of Bavaria, with the Czech lands between them, more or less. Fair use under Creative Commons. Original found at: https://www.mapsof.net/europe/central-europe-political-map

So, there I was, tracing out some things with Frederick Barbarossa and his peers, and looking at the push to settle northern and eastern areas with cities and people, and to establish trade. This is all 1100-1150 or so. And I was reading about Henry “the Lion” Welf of Saxony and Bavaria. The linkage of the two areas made perfect sense, since they have almost-common borders.

But wait, what the heck’s Henry doing up around Hamburg, and Lüneburg, and that area? That’s not Saxony. Lübeck is certainly not Saxony. Why is he interested in things there, when he’s east and south?

*waits for snickers and eye rolling to stop*

Yes, you guessed it. I know better. I was imposing the modern map on medieval German lands. When I finally found a good map of the area at the time of the events described, I felt more than a little foolish.

Note Saxony, well north and west of the modern official Saxony. Because that’s where the Saxons had been and still were. Ouch. Fair Use under Creative Commons. Original source: https://www.theapricity.com/forum/showthread.php?206172-Holy-Roman-Empire-Central-Europe-and-European-Empires

Oh. So Henry the Lion had good reasons to be encouraging development of the northern areas, and the development of the Hanseatic League. And that explained why he controlled so much territory for so long (until his ego wrote a check his skills couldn’t cash.)

Places move, in the sense of “regional names associated with places.” Part of modern Saxony had been in Polish lands or claimed by Bohemia, or both at the same time (until the early 1300s and Casimir III of Poland.) Modern Saxony, and Lower Saxony, and Saxony-Anhalt, had Saxons in them, but were not necessarily Welf Saxony entirely. Yes, I thumped my head lightly against the desk. I know better, much better, but the books I’ve been reading don’t have maps in them. [Insert long cartographic rant here]. So I defaulted to modern maps, and went far astray. No excuses, and I kicked myself once I really started thinking about who was where doing what.

Different Time, Different Minds

It’s hard to get a modern mind into a late medieval or even early-modern mindset. Especially for Americans (and Canadians as well, I suspect), our philosophical and cultural world is so very different from that of the late 1400s-1700 that it’s a wrench. Reading lots of documents and accounts from the time helps, a little, but those are often “official” and rather tidier than the average mental world of the run-of-the-mill soldier, sailor, traveler, or businessman. It takes work, and digging, and a deliberate effort to set aside what we know and to accept the framework of Back Then. And even so, it is an imperfect fit at best, because we lack some of the ingrained culture, the part of the iceberg deeply submerged.

I was thinking about this for a couple of reasons. One, I discovered that some of my students have had certain language patterns ingrained in them, to the point that they don’t see why using a certain term makes zero sense in the context of what they are discussing. Two, it’s the annual “Europeans are horrible murdering conquers who were incompetent as well” furor. Three, working on the Merchant books requires me to put on a different mental “costume” of sorts and to force myself into a world that often collides with my own. [As an aside, Arthur has one foot in that world, which might explain a little of why he is so draining to write as a POV character.] It is a mental world where survival comes first, where casual violence is the normal state of things, not the exception, where death is an everyday reality, where women are very important but not equals, and where life is hard and short. Tarno Halson is just over thirty. If you saw him in person, you’d think he was older because of how he moves and his outlook on life.

So when I read the accounts of people like Columbus, and Bernal Diaz, or descriptions of the Thirty Years War, the world of Ivan IV (the Terrible) as written by people of the time, it can jar and jar hard. I think something that sums up far too much of the Thirty Years War (and warfare into the modern day, outside of Europe and the Anglo-Sphere) is the statue of the soldier and the woman that is one of the plates in Geoffrey Parker’s book about the Seventeenth Century. I’m not going to describe it, other than to say that it is an amazingly well done depiction of something horrible about to happen. But someone commissioned the sculpture, and kept it, and valued it. That, right there, makes me pause and wonder about mental worlds. But I do delve into that world, because if I’m going to come anywhere close to understanding what makes people do things, and how other minds see things, I need to try. It can be entertaining, and amazing, and terrifying. Sort of like making myself think through blood-and-soil nationalism. I understand it, I can explain it, I can even write it as a point of view, but it itches and doesn’t fit.

Our world isn’t that of back then. Our rational scientific answers for “why” would sound as strange to Columbus, or Hugo Groetius, as miasma theory and the need to balance humors, or the casta system of the Hispanic colonies sounds to us. Back then, they had reasons based on observation and extrapolation that made good sense, even if they weren’t correct. Today, we do the same. Some things that were morally wrong in the early-modern world are just fine today, and things we condemn today were accepted as normal. And some things were excessive for both of us. The conquistadors were most certainly not saints. After 700 years of warfare, then crossing the Atlantic looking for riches and glory, well, saints are going to be very, very unusual. You know things had to be horrific when even Cortez wrote that what his allies did to the last Aztec defenders was appalling. So I’m not surprised that the Spanish, Portuguese, and others acted the way they did. Disappointed, perhaps, but not overwhelmed with surprise. So Charlemagne had multiple wives and official (and unofficial) lady friends. As did Charles V, at least the lady-friends part. Um, they were powerful men with lots of money (OK, Charles had some budgeting difficulties. Moving right along . . .) What do you expect? I’d hope for better, but *shrugs*

The point being, when we demonize people from the past for not having our modern sensibilities, we’re demonizing ourselves. When we elevate one group in the past as the pure, innocent victims, and make the others into horrible monsters who should have known better, we warp the story and strip the humanity from both groups. Most Native Americans/First Nations/whatever we choose to call them were not saintly, environmentally perfect Children of the Earth. They enslaved, massacred, loved, dreamed, murdered, seduced, fought, and were people. Likewise the Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, and everyone else. We are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. That’s an amazing – and humbling – inheritance. Warts and all.

Man’s Search For the Future: Omens, Auguries, and Magic Eight Balls

For reasons only known to my subconscious, as I was strolling the other morning, I thought back to the grand conjunction last winter, and how so many people wondered “What does it mean?” What significance, other than being a really neat astronomical event, did it hold? Was it a good omen, a warning, a sign of something Great about to happen? Astronomers and some clergy got irked at all the to-do, because conjunctions like that are not as rare as they seem, and people were “losing the meaning” of the event, whatever that was supposed to mean (varied between astronomer and clerical denomination.)

Alas for the experts, mankind has been looking for hints about the future, or about decision making, ever since Og observed a shooting star and took it to mean something, back in the days of Neandertal vs. Cro-magnon. As a species, we don’t like uncertainty, so we look for clues and hints as to what might be coming. We count stripes on wooly-worms to determine the length of winter and how hard it will be. We make note of the weather the first 12 days of the year, to see how wet or dry the next 12 months will be. We make wishes on the first star, or on shooting stars. We use cards, or yarrow stalks, or fruit peels, or tea leaves, to try and see into the future or to guide decisions. We watch birds in flight, or animals on the move. As a species, we are superstitious, even those of us who are more inclined toward science than to “woo.” We avoid walking under ladders, or always dress in a certain order when we have a big test or presentation or something. And that’s in the “rational, post-Enlightenment” part of the world.

Reading birds is where we get the term auspix, or augury, and thus auspicious. The Romans looked at bird innerds, watched flocks of birds in flight, or observed feeding chickens to see what the future might hold. Some groups read the future in eggs, although exactly how varies from place to place and over time. Certain birds were considered ill omened, like a rooster crowing at the wrong time, and might signify a coming death, or misfortune. If one flew across your path, you would be well advised to turn around and at the very least try a different path. Better might be to go home and wait another day to depart, if possible.

Comets, novae, noctilucent clouds . . . all have been seen as ill or good omens. Haley’s Comet appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, and in Chinese records. Several diaries from just before the outbreak of the Thirty-Years War describe burning lights in the sky, noctilucent clouds and a comet. “Fire in the skies” or “war in the heavens” what did they mean? Looking back, everyone knew – terrible war, and hunger, and plague. In 1066, after the Normans won, of course the comet meant that Harold Godwinson had been an oath-breaker who usurped the throne, and William of Normandy was just and blessed for claiming what was rightfully his. No one asked the Saxons or Welsh their opinion, one suspects.

People look for signs in smaller things. The Rule of Three – three bad things in a row and then you’re OK for a while. If you button something out of order, undo it all, then redo it all, or you’ll have misfortune. “Sneeze on Monday, sneeze for danger, sneeze on Tuesday, sneeze for a stranger . . .” If a bird flies into a house, someone will die. Shapes in tea-leaves. Finding a penny, or a pin, and picking it up. Don’t walk under a ladder. Do make a wish on the first star, or on a shooting star (but don’t tell anyone your wish). Use something like a Ouija board, or Magic Eight Ball (“future uncertain”) to divine the future, or decide what to do. Horoscopes? Tarot? Rune tiles? We want to know what’s coming, for good or for ill.

But don’t step on a crack. You’ll break your mother’s back, you know.

So, He’s Related to Him, and Her, So That Means . . . Arrrrrgh!

Or: Why Environmental History is SOOOOOOO much easier than European history.

Due to a complicated series of events, and research for the next Merchant book, I found myself wading into the politics of the Guelphs and Gibilines, or the Welf and Staufer and Salier families (for those north of the Alps). I’ve been known to joke that the Spanish Habsburg family tree is a stick, because of a number of too-close-for-their-own-good marriages. The alliances, marriages, separations, and relationships between the major and many minor nobles of the Holy Roman Empire, and to a lesser degree (but not too much lesser) Hungary, Bohemia, and Poland look like a thorn-thicket stretching from Wales to Kiev.

Which does tend to explain a few cases of “Why didn’t [Emperor] just slap down [problem person] ten years earlier?” And “Why did he think trying to intervene in [Poland/Hungary/Bohemia]’s civil war was a good idea?” Because he, whoever he was at the time, had a dog or at least an in-law in the fight. Sometimes. Sometimes? Eh, pure power politics, and once or twice I suspect sheer boredom back home.

One reason for all the complicated crosses and out-crosses is that in the 900s-1200s, give or take, the Church did not allow marriages between relatives to the 7th degree. Even second or third cousin was out, unacceptable without a lot of paperwork and penances and really good reasons. So you have Salian princes from the Rhineland looking at duchesses in Anjou, France, but since they have a common great-grandfather, the betrothal is challenged by the Church. It also means that the two family heads on opposite sides of “who gets the imperial crown” fight may also be cousins (probable), uncle and nephew (possible), and step-father and step-son (at least twice and wasn’t that a mess). And the occasional “I’m marrying from way the heck outside the region, in part for dowry, in part because I need neutral help, and in part because I give up trying to shop local.”

OK, perhaps I exaggerate on the last one, but it’s easy to imagine someone looking at the list of possible spouses and having a priest scratch off ten of the eleven candidates, and that last one is only eight years old, and you are twenty. Thus the occasional Byzantine, Rus, Anglo, or Scandinavian popping up in Germanic pedigrees. Trade, diplomacy, and other things played larger roles, but consanguinity was a major legal concern.

So, what I was trying to sort out was: if Frederick Barbarossa’s election as Holy Roman Emperor was a sort of compromise between the (Guelphs) Welfs and Babenburgs (Bavaria, Austria) and (Ghibellines) Saliens and Staufers (Rhineland, central German lands), why did Barbarossa not deal more firmly with Henry of Bavaria and Saxony earlier? Well, in part, the three most powerful dukes—regional rulers—in the central Empire were Barbarossa’s uncles, including Henry of Saxony. Among other things, but the family connection played a role.

However, when we think of Guelphs and Ghibellines, we usually think of Italy. After Barbarossa’s election, the Italians seem to have looked north, shrugged a little, kept the names of the two sides, and continued going after each other for other reasons. Ah, Italian Renaissance politics.

Corvus Corax, the Carmina Burana, and Hip Hop?

Let’s face it, a lot of popular culture is, and has always been, about the, ahem, ars amatoria. Admiring the opposite sex, pursuing the opposite sex, enjoying the company of an enamorata (or enamorato), and on occasion insulting people by publicly declaring them to be incapable of, or less skilled in, certain recreational pursuits.

The group Corvus Corax is among a few that have no problem with celebrating the medieval popular culture, and do it with gusto. In Latin, old Low German, old High German, and a few other dialects, with a blend of period and modern instruments, and mostly modern tunes based on the surviving medieval bits that we have. Some of the songs they do in English, songs that mirror what was sung in the Middle Ages. Let’s face it, partying, drinking, flirting, are pretty much European universals (and Russian, probably lots of Asia as well.) I like their stuff, although I blushed hard the first time I really listened to the words on a few of their songs. Good thing they are not in English, or I’d be a lot warier about listening to them while at Day Job.

Those of you who have sung, or really listened to Orff’s Carmina Burana, and other settings of the poems those are drawn from, know what I mean. Every time we’ve done the Carmina locally, we had to be careful that the kids singing the boy choir part stayed unaware of what is sung around them. It’s not . . . OK, parts are, but only if you know the subtexts of the Latin. Or have heard a certain setting of one number in particular, where the baritone leaves nothing to the imagination. Joyfully leaves nothing to the imagination.

I have no problem with this music, oddly enough. I say oddly, because so many modern songs on these themes make my stomach churn, or my hackles shoot up to my ears. I don’t mind reading the Roman grafitti from places like Pompeii, or seeing pictures of Classical and Medieval erotica. They are not titilating, I guess because they are historical images and artifacts. That’s what people back them liked, or how they insulted each other, and so what? The human race would not be here today if boys hadn’t chased girls until the girls caught them, going back to . . . um, a very long time ago. I enjoy Corvus Corax and some of the other medieval rock groups. (Not the purely pagan things. Those often give me cold chills.) OK, they are singing what today would NOT get radio play. Since it doesn’t get radio play as it is, no biggie.

Modern stuff isn’t fun, or joyful, especially the hip-hop I’ve been forced to listen to. Granted, it is not a large sample, but it is what is on the internet and satellite radio. Male or female lead, there’s no play in it, no sense of mutual chasing and catching. The singers are all about controlling others, not “enjoying a light evening of mutual pleasure” as Master Saldovado phrased it. The medieval stuff I’ve heard or sung is fun. The musicians enjoy the earthiness of it, and enjoy each other’s company.

“Bring a beer here!”

The following is Corvus Corax having far too much fun with a drinking song.

Twenty Years On

I’m not really sure what to say. Most of what I’ve been thinking has been shrouded in cold anger laced with sorrow. The abyss has been looking back at me recently, and that part of my personality needs to stay quiet and under control. Meditating on September 11, 2001, and events since then inclines me to loosen the chains binding that . . . anima . . . and allow her free rein. Those around me don’t need to see that.

The United States was attacked. In the years that followed, Great Britain (London bus bombings) and Spain (Madrid train attacks) were also hit. Almost 3000 people died on September 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and on Flight 93. Others likely died because organ transport flights were grounded with all other air traffic. Air ambulance flights were permitted on the 12-13th, under very, very strict limits, then other types of aviation returned to the skies. The Hudson River corridor even reopened, much to the surprise of a lot of us in aviation. the DC area remains in effect a no-go-zone for the average Sunday flyer.

The United States was attacked. Don’t forget that. No matter what the current pundits claim, or insinuate.

We’ve been critiquing and rehashing everything that came after ever since. “No Blood for Oil.” “Not in my name.” “Don’t Invade Iran.” (That one always left me scratching my head – no one WAS talking about invading Iran.) Now . . . I’m staying away from current events for a reason.

Don’t forget. Tell younger people where you were, what you were doing, what you thought. Tell them the truth as you remember it. Tell them about the bravery and courage, the sacrifices and the efforts that followed. Tell them also about who celebrated the attacks, and why.

Lest we forget, lest we forget.

[Actually, I think I can say one thing I’ve decided on. I’m not one of the Winged Hussars. I’m one of the ones inside the Gates of Vienna, doing everything I can to hold onto civilization and what’s of value, and to help the defenders, so that there’s something left when the relief forces arrive.]

Those who know will know.

“A Famous Victory:” Blenheim and Memory

Someone over at MGC posted the Robert Southley’s poem about the Battle of Blenheim, as part of a discussion about ordinary people doing hard duties while the Great and Powerful . . . do their thing. I bristled a little, but that’s because I have firm opinions about both sides of that conflict. So, first, the poem:

THE BATTLE OF BLENHEIM

by: Robert Southey (1774-1843)

T was a summer evening, Old Kaspar’s work was done,

And he before his cottage door Was sitting in the sun,

And by him sported on the green His little grandchild Wilhelmine.


She saw her brother Peterkin Roll something large and round

Which he beside the rivulet In playing there had found;

He came to ask what he had found, That was so large, and smooth, and round.


Old Kaspar took it from the boy, Who stood expectant by;

And then the old man shook his head, And with a natural sigh,

“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he, “Who fell in the great victory.


“I find them in the garden, For there’s many here about;

And often when I go to plough, The ploughshare turns them out!

For many thousand men,” said he, “Were slain in that great victory.”


“Now tell us what ’twas all about,” Young Peterkin, he cries;

And little Wilhelmine looks up With wonder-waiting eyes;

“Now tell us all about the war, And what they fought each other for.”


“It was the English,” Kaspar cried, “Who put the French to rout;

But what they fought each other for I could not well make out;

But everybody said,” quoth he, “That ’twas a famous victory.


“My father lived at Blenheim then, Yon little stream hard by;

They burnt his dwelling to the ground, And he was forced to fly;

So with his wife and child he fled, Nor had he where to rest his head.


“With fire and sword the country round Was wasted far and wide,

And many a childing mother then, And new-born baby died;

But things like that, you know, must be At every famous victory.


“They said it was a shocking sight After the field was won;

For many thousand bodies here Lay rotting in the sun;

But things like that, you know, must be After a famous victory.


“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won, And our good Prince Eugene.”

“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!” Said little Wilhelmine.

“Nay … nay … my little girl,” quoth he, “It was a famous victory.”


“And everybody praised the Duke Who this great fight did win.”

“But what good came of it at last?” Quoth little Peterkin.

“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he, “But ’twas a famous victory.”

Blenheim, fought near the town of Blindheim* on August 12-13-14, 1704. The Franco-Bavarian army collided with the forces of the Holy Roman Empire under Prinz Eugen von Savoy, and General John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. The French goal was to break apart an alliance that opposed the merger of France and Spain, and to capture Vienna. The English and Dutch fought as one group, the Imperial forces as a second group.

Those of you who have read Elizabeth and Empire know blow-by-blow how the fighting went, because that’s the conflict I based the final battle on. For others, I recommend: https://www.forces.net/services/army/blenheim-battle-created-marlborough-legend. However, the web-site comes with the caveat that it is very English, and I personally would give Prinz Eugen more credit. Which does not take away from Marlborough’s genius, especially in logistics. He managed to move an army from the Low Countries all the way to Bavaria without the French noticing, at a pace that was not matched until the 1900s. The Imperials acted as the anvil for the Anglo-Dutch hammer. It helped that Eugen and Marlborough were personal friends, and had worked together before. They trusted each other implicitly. The result was one of the most impressive victories in all of the wars against Louis XIV.

As with almost all battles, especially ones of this size, the results were horrific. Civilians had been burned out of their homes along the English line of march, part of efforts to starve and disrupt the Bavarians enough that the Bavarian ruler would back out of the alliance with France. Wounded men burned to death in cottages in one of the villages. Men and horses died by the thousands. The results . . . are as Southey describes. The Thirty Years War would have been only three generations past, and the memories were refreshed by the War of the Spanish Succession. Early Modern armies were worse than locusts, floods, and fires combined. They carried waste, destruction, and plague with them, no matter how careful the commanders might be.

There are worse things than war. Not for the poor people caught between the armies, or those who starved because the Anglo-Dutch and Imperials burned their crops and devoured their livestock, no. But had Louis XIV captured Vienna . . . I really do not care to imagine Europe remade in Louis’ image, thank you. I give him about 90% of the blame for the messes he got into. He sent his armies into the field for his own personal glory, since that would reflect on France, and he was France, at least in his own mind. Louis is one of my least favorite historical characters and always has been.

I also have a very soft spot for Prinz Eugen von Savoy. It’s hard not to admire someone who managed to accomplish everything he pulled off, especially someone who does it on a Habsburg budget! And I can sympathize with the grudge he carried against Louis XIV. I admire Marlborough as well, for different reasons. Emperor Leopold I . . . played into Louis’ hands, and they were fighting over Spain. More precisely, which one would end up with offspring on the throne of Spain. No one asked the Spanish, of course. Leopold is also the one who bailed on Vienna in 1683 when the Ottomans came knocking on the door. Granted, he had a reason, but I’m not really a fan. He was pretty average as Habsburgs go, from what I can tell.

So, was the battle a waste and all for nothing, as Southey’s poem implies? If you were a Bavarian citizen, probably. In terms of stopping Louis XIV and blunting the Franco-Bavarian threat, it was critical. For the average trooper on any side, well, it was another battle, a chance for loot, perhaps, and one collision in a long war. The English were all volunteers, some of whom I have no doubt were “voluntold” by judges, relatives, or others that the man really needed to go fight on the Continent or Else. Others were German mercenaries, conscripts, volunteers, and who knows what.

Blenheim, looking back from a high historical vantage point, was important for a lot of people. But it didn’t make things better for anyone, aside perhaps from the people in Vienna who did not face another siege. That’s the problem with dynastic wars. You don’t really have a hero or villain, not like in WWII or Korea. I root for the Imperials just because I detest Louis XIV. Well, that and because of their commander.

Indeed, it was a famous victory.

*I had the chance to visit the battlefield, but opted not to because the people with me were not interested. I regret that a little.

Songs that Didn’t Age Well?

“Land of Confusion” by Genesis came over the radio/music system at the regional Barnes and Noble the other day. I shook my head a little. I’ve tried to use the video for that song as part of teaching the Cold War, and it goes thud for the students. Unless you have a lot of background, or you were alive then and remember all the cultural stuff around Ronald Reagan and US foreign policy and British politics then, the video makes no sense. The song is OK, but again, leaves a listener wondering what the problem was that the song is talking about.

That started me thinking about “modern folk” songs and what still works, as compared to songs that require the listener to already know the story before hearing them. Why does “Which Hat Shall I Wear?” make sense, and “The John Birch Society” go splat? Sting’s “The Russians Love Their Children Too” still gets the point across in a way “Land of Confusion” no longer does. Some are soooo trite, or so tied into their time period that a lot of us tune them out – or flee, in the case of “Imagine” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.”

People have used songs to comment on policy and events going back to . . .forever. Psalm 136/137 [depends on translation of the Old Testament/Tanakh] is one. “By the waters of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” [NIV] The Children of Israel are lamenting their exile and cursing the people who dragged them away from Jerusalem. It’s not one of the Psalms we memorized as kids, and you can see why. But it fit the time, and place, and voices a feeling that many people have shared over the centuries. In England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and all over, people set political texts to folk tunes, or turned current events into doggerel that became childrens’ songs. “Jack and Jill went up the Hill,” “Hector Protector,” “The Skye Boat Song,” which is a lullaby and a political statement.

WWI and WWII saw a lot of music about current events created, some of which . . . stinks. “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor,” isn’t so great. “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” doesn’t have the same effect today, but “White Cliffs of Dover” still packs a punch. “You’re a Sap, Mister Jap?” Catchy but meh, and not universal. The ones that still work, from any conflict or political scandal, are the ones that seem to become universal.

The 1950s, 60s, and later have the same problem, if confusion and forgetability are problems. “John Birch Society” is funny if you understand what the JBS was, and Red Skelton, Pinkie Lee, and others. So, the popular culture of the 1950s and the so-called Red Scare, and the politics of the time. Or perhaps it’s not funny, now that we have the Verona decrypts and know just what the Soviets really were doing with US politics. “Which Hat,” about a hypocritical woman who claims to be all for equality and civil rights, but opposes actually doing anything, still makes sense, because her hypocrisy is so obvious. It’s not as effective as it was then, perhaps, but a lot of us still know people who are all for Great Causes of every kind, as long as the Great Cause doesn’t require any effort on the part of the person espousing it (see Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens for a classic example.) Of the two, I enjoy “John Birch” more, because the guys are having fun. “Which Hat” is more heavy handed.

Sting’s song “The Black Seam” about the coal miners’ strike against Margaret Thatcher’s policies is another one that goes thud, not the least because he gets the science of nuclear energy wrong (no surprise. “Uranium 236” doesn’t rhyme the way he needed to rhyme, so he used “Carbon 14” instead.) It’s not a bad song, but doesn’t make a lot of sense today. “Children’s Crusade,” alas, makes sense, because the heroin trade is still alive and well. “Russians” pokes at all sides in the Cold War, instead of just the US and Great Britain, and Sting used a very, very good Russian melody as the basis for the larger song. I don’t really care for any of those three, but I don’t care for the politics of the anti-nuclear and anti-war movement, either. I find myself talking back to the CD. It’s even worse for all the Vietnam War stuff.

What political songs from the 2000s will still make sense in the future? I have no idea. I don’t know what pop tunes will survive. There’s a lot of winnowing out over twenty, thirty years and more. How many folk tunes only survive because they became hymns? How many political songs from the Gilded Age are recorded today, or performed? Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Owl, or Vampiress?

The painting is “The Owl” by Valentine Cameron Prinsep.

Pure pre-Raphaelite, of course, but that’s not what caught my eye when I saw this on the cover of a catalogue. You see, in the Balkans and a few other places, owls are associated with vampires. Not bats, although bats abide in the same places as (fiction) vampires and everyone knows that Dracula can turn into a bat or multiple bats. At least, movie producers do, based on what I’ve seen. The Latin “strix” (screech owl) became the Romanian strigoi, meaning a vampyric ghost. The term is also a nod to the Greek fear of owls as a form of the bird of ill omen that accompanies witches and other evil-doers.

When you start digging into the actual folklore of Transylvanian vampires, and Balkan vampires in general, the more often you notice that owls are connected with the undead. Also, a person with red hair is automatically suspect. He or she may well be predestined to become a vampire, the same as if he or she had been born on an inauspicious day. It doesn’t matter if the man becomes a priest and lives a saintly life – the odds are strong that his body will leave the grave and steal the lives of his relatives. Better to sneak back to the cemetery, stake the corpse and behead it, or cut out the heart and behead the body, then destroy the heart. (This still happens in some places, even though it is illegal. What’s a few months in prison compared to saving the life of a family member?)

So when I saw the painting, my first thought was “Is she a witch, or a vampire, or was the artist just playing with Greek mythology?” Probably the latter, since Prinsep was a member of the pre-Raphaelite school of painters.

If Arthur and the other Hunters saw the painting? They’d suspect vampire. Had the giant raven that bothered Riverton been an over large owl, the Hunters would have dealt with it post haste.

The Hunters use strigoi, morioi, and nosfiertu to differentiate between different types of vampyric entity. At least, they do in the Old Land. The Hunter clan near Riverton doesn’t worry so much about the nice distinctions, because among other things, they don’t encounter the succubus-like form of cursed undead.

In fact, when an owl lingers in the wrong place, Arthur gets . . . concerned. When Arthur grows concerned, Lelia and Tay start reaching for silver, holy water, strong coffee, and headache powders. Not necessarily in that order. Because it’s going to be a looooong night.