In the Saddle or On the Saddle

It’s a phrase I’ve never, ever really thought about. Why do we say, “back in the saddle” or “swung up into the saddle?” We mount a horse, or get onto a horse, rarely fork a horse (old term, very rarely used today in most places). But saddles are always “into.”

You have to go back to the Middle Ages, and then to the Spanish saddles brought to the New World. Don’t think about a modern English style saddle, which is designed to be light and to allow the rider and horse the greatest sense of contact between them.* Think back to who owned horses and rode them and what most saddles were used for: either stabilizing cargo, or war.

The goal was to keep the rider seated no matter what, especially when you rode with straight, extended legs. The saddles had high pommels and cantles that secured the rider when he was hit from the front or behind. It also helps keep an injured or exhausted rider from sagging and falling backwards or forwards. Sideways is also a bit of a challenge, but you can fall off in any direction if you try. Or the horse helps you.

This is a replica jousting saddle. You get into it, not onto it. Creative Commons fair use. Original source:

Here you see a version of the saddle in action, modified for the rider’s armor. It’s a great article about the how and why of re-creating a medieval saddle, and the results for horse and rider.

A 15th century saddle for show or parade. However, you can see the height of the pommel and cantle. This one is in the Met Museum.

These are the type of saddles most writers talked about, unless they described a specific sort of other saddle – pillion pad, or pack saddle, or box saddle, or side-saddle, or . . . These were the sort brought to the Americas by the Spanish, and used on war horses and mountain horses. Below is a Spanish colonial saddle from the late 1700s-early 1800s. It should look familiar.


To this day, charro saddles and others have higher, more snug pommels (or swell) and cantles than do some other western saddles. Because of this Spanish tradition, it is common in American English to say that you get into the saddle, even if you are riding English style.

Some modern dressage saddles retain the older medieval features if you are doing the Airs Above the Ground (Austria and Portugal, France are about the last places to learn this tradition.) I have a barrel-racing saddle that I love. It has a relatively snug seat, as well as suede on the outside, so the rider fits more snugly for making tight turns and rapid accelerations/decelerations. I got to sit in a replica medieval saddle once, and it really helps lock in your posture and where you put your weight.

And so, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry sang about “Back in the saddle again,” because that’s what vaqueros did, and what modern cowboys do. And reenactors, and advanced dressage, and . . .

*Bareback’s no fun for extended periods, and not stable. For either horse or rider, especially once you shift into the trot or canter.


Who Was Meeting Where?!?

So, some years ago, (like, twenty-five*) I was in Cologne, Germany. The small, family-owned hotel, sat three blocks from the train station and cathedral. It was nice, relatively quiet (backed up to the switching yard, so no wild parties back there) and was convenient. As is my usual habit, I got up very early and went strolling. I got a bite to eat at a stehcafe, a bakery-cafe with shelves for eating off of, but no tables. The name is “standing cafe,” and it was for commuters and working men. I didn’t quite blend in, but everyone ignored me, which was fine. The tea was hot and black and the pastries were fresh.

As I wandered back toward my hotel, I saw a couple guys in leather jackets and pants. Now, the hour being early and Cologne being Cologne, I shrugged. Far me it from me to say anything about people who close the club, then go to a diner until dawn. A few minutes later, some construction guys went by, grumbling about thus and such.

After official breakfast, I heard a mild commotion outside the hotel, and eased my window open and leaned out. In addition to the leather-clad guys, who now numbered well over a score, and construction workers, there were guys in full American Indian regalia, some in US enlisted sailor suits, a few US highway cops, and cowboys. What on earth?

Then the first chords of very familiar music started, and realization dawned. “Young man, there’s no need to feel down, I said/ Young man, pick yourself off the ground . . .”

And of course, everyone danced along with the chorus.

It was a convention of the German Village People Fan Club. The guys were having a grand old time dancing in the street, the rest of us were having fun watching and cheering, and the locals shrugged. Cologne has always been more mellow than other parts of Germany.

I had no idea that there was an international association for Village People fans. There was, might still be, and the members there finished their opening and headed off to the indoor venue. I went back to museum-prowling, art viewing, and history basking.

I’d forgotten about that until the other night, when I was chaperoning a school dance. One of the songs the kids played was a re-mixed version of “Y.M.C.A.” Another teacher and I grinned, and I called, “Backwards skate!” That brought even more memories, because the song was a staple at skating rinks when I was a kid.

*I do not want to believe that it’s been that long, but it has. SIGH. I miss that Germany.

Tuesday Tidbit: Watcher in the Night

Mike and Rich are dismissed for the evening.

After the meal, Brian Houser dismissed them. “Tomorrow will be early enough.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Mike wasted no time going to the main gate, which remained partly open. “Go.”

Rich launched into the outer courtyard where the living history programs, shop, and administrative buildings formed a loose square. Mike tracked his progress by the occasional clatter of rocks—or pottery—and chants of “Ooh, good worm, ssssluuuuurrrrp good worm!” Rich had behaved amazingly well, really. Too well?

He slalomed back, did two laps around his mage, and flopped onto his back, muddy paws in the air. “Dirt’s funny, boss,” he reported.

“Funny odd, or our kind of funny?” As much magic seemed to flow in the air, having it muck with the dirt sort of made sense, ish. Maybe.

“Our kind. No Elementals, none, nada, zip, zilch.” Rich rolled right-side up and shook all over. “Funny taste in the air, dirt too. Trees but no vegetables or eating plants.”

Huh. That is odd. And he didn’t trust the local net access to do any looking. A whiff of bitter tobacco smoke teased his nose, and he smiled. Welcome to Eastern Europe. Smoking wasn’t as common as it had been, but more people smoked than did back home.

The sour presence in the magic shifted. Mike eased into a half-trance, just listening and feeling the world. Rich draped himself over his mage’s shoes. The “flavor” . . .  A little like the peat bog, but not exactly? Yes, heavy with years and a bit of char, like singed but not burnt toast. That didn’t match either the usual sense of forest land in this region, or of the swamp, quite. The presence moved behind them in the castle, then faded as if going farther away or diluted by the night air.

“This is an odd castle indeed,” Mike said.

“It is. But having a separate kitchen in case of fire is a possibility.” Rich wiggled, probably getting dirt on his mage’s shoes.

Mike nodded, then scooped up his Familiar and dusted his feet of the worst mud. “You can’t leave any stone unturned, can you?”

“Not if it’s smaller than I am! I’m a mongoose, remember?” Mad giggles straight out of a bad movie filled the twilight of evening as Mike plodded up to his room, carefully ignoring the smokers spread out along the wall of the inner courtyard.


“Boss, wake up. Defender!” A cold nose on his neck drove away the last bit of sleep fog. “You’re starting to call out, and the shields are weaker,” Tik-Tik reported. “And your alarm’s about to ring.”

Mike rolled far enough to turn off the simple alarm clock without dislodging either the covers or his Familiar. Then he flopped back into the supine position, arm over his eyes. “Blessed St. George, that was one damn strange dream.”

“It was bad enough that you tried to hit something, then began talking in Draku-German.” The mongoose sniffed. “They were some of those phrases he’s too young to know.”

Bad language in German and something else. Great. “Ugh. Glad I don’t remember that part. We were . . . not being chased, exactly, but were trying to renew spells on one of those huge medieval wax seal things? That’s what it looked like. And something kept pestering us, like a were-cat but with garlic breath.”

“Wow. That’s weird even for you, boss.” Rich snickered, then dove under the covers. He emerged at the foot of the bed, looking somewhat flat from the weight of sheet, duvet, and folded blanket. “That’s magic mushroom strange. Shroom shroom, zoom zoom,” and he dove off the bed to do laps of the furniture legs.

Mike rolled out of the bed, then stretched. He had half an hour before early breakfast. The actual diplomatic part of the day wouldn’t start until nine, so he had three hours to kill. Breakfast began at six-thirty, come and go. He did push-ups, crunches, and anything that wouldn’t thump. Then he sat and relaxed, clearing his mind as much as he could. Rich settled onto his lap, still and quiet. Mike recited the morning devotion and prayer in English, for the benefit of any listeners.

As Rich had said, the shields he’d set on the room appeared weaker to his magic senses. Not the secondaries that used mage magic alone, but his personal power had been nibbled. “That matches yesterday,” Mike murmured.

“Yes. As if the other party does not recognize mage magic, only personal and shadow.” Rich hesitated, tail twitching. “Have any other mages visited since the SEE?”

Who else would have? Granted, that was almost fifty years ago, and he didn’t know all the mages in Europe. “I know not. We are rare, and those with larger Familiars might not come as mages.” The lady in Poland with the giant horse certainly wouldn’t have come here with her Familiar. “Perhaps the Hungarians? Heike and Walburga have not, or Draku would know.”

“Worker of shadow, yes, but not mage. And not the ones you are thinking of from Hungary. The mage is blind, doesn’t go far from Budapest. Only to farm vacation, has too much work in Budapest.” Rich shifted his weight. “We do no magic unless pushed, Defender. Hide in plain sight.”

I do not like what you are implying. And I agree. If something went south, they’d be the wild card. “I wonder what I’d have to give up for the Lord to grant us a dull, quiet, uneventful assignment.” Beef, alcohol, sweets, impure thoughts, and hot showers wouldn’t even start to be enough sacrifice to get that level of blessing. “And if I keep thinking like that, I’m going to get hit by lightning while standing in the cellar. Shift, buddy.”

“That would be funny!” Rich slid down to the floor. “Mage on toast, mage is toasted in a wine cellar!” He rolled back and forth, laughing his tail almost off. Mike glared at him, stood, and went to get a shower and dress.

They went to breakfast. The buffet had been set up in the pink-walled room. Mike glanced around, saw the e-g-g-s, and hurried over. He snagged a small bowl and put two soft-boiled eggs in it. He almost got back to the corner table when—

“Eggs! Eggyeggs I smell eggs. Round mounds of wonderful egeegggg!” Mike set the bowl down and yanked his hand back before Rich took it off. Happy devouring sounds followed him back to the food. The young man setting out the last tray gave him a worried look. Mike shrugged.

He’d half-finished his first plate of real food and nursed coffee as Mikolai Kowalczyk walked with slow steps into the room. Damn. He looks like two miles of bad road. The sensitive moved carefully, like an old man afraid of falling. He got coffee and glanced around. Mike stood as the other officer approached. “Be seated. Is this taken?” He waved at the empty seat.

“No sir. Please.”

“Too early for sir.” The Pole set the coffee at the empty place and came back with a laden plate. The caterer’s assistant followed and set a bread basket down on the table. Kowalczyk devoured sausage, cold-cuts and cheese, and a buttered roll before speaking again. “Your Familiar?”

Rich, licking his whiskers free of egg, poked his head above the edge of the table. Mike slipped him a bit of farmer’s bacon.

“Dobrey.” Good. After a sip of coffee, the Pole said in German, “Something moved last night, and I sensed an attempted spell casting. You?”

German I can do. “No. When we arrived, we ran a test. A presence reacted to shield-casting, just a common ward to keep away Elementals and stray magic.” Mike had more coffee as well. “Rich and I decided not to do anything unless forced to defend.”

Rich’s head appeared again and he rested his chin on the white tablecloth. “We don’t do charms or many pre-sets. Mage magic is free-form, mostly.”

Kowalczyk blinked, puzzled. He got more coffee, this with some milk, and sat once more. “How interesting. You are the first mage-Familiar pair I have ever met. You do not need patterns and charm-carriers?”

“No. We can use them, and have. Some mages also use a focus, as someone in the sorcery tradition would, to store power, but we don’t need patterns or to keep season and moon-phase in mind the way coven and sorcery workers do.”

The Pole ate another roll. Mike sampled the dark bread. Sour, heavy, dense, just like he preferred it, especially with real butter and a bit of soft sausage. He gave Rich a bit of the sausage as well, on a spoon. Delighted lapping sounds came from below the edge of the table.

“I know the coven tradition best. Is he truly eating that?”

“Yes. And anything else meat-ish. He also hunts, but not while we are on duty.” Most of the time. I hope. I will never live down the snake episode so long as Shadow and Ears are alive. That had been awkward. Very awkward.

“Different topic. What do you think of Blind Guardian’s latest release? The album.”

Mike smiled. “It’s heavier than I prefer. Evanescence, Ad Infinitum, Delaine, Avantasia, Aurochs’ Ghost, that local group from Bialystok, help me, Rich.”

“Thorn of the Swamp Rose,” came the instant reply.

“Thank you, Thorn of the Swamp Rose.”  

Kowalczyk’s smile grew as they recited names. “That matches my impression. I found their Thirty Years War album more to my taste.” The next few minutes passed quickly as they discussed bands, festivals, and bad fashion choices.

At last Rich sniffed. “The last we heard, the revolving door on the lead singer’s dressing room remained in place, and that they were talking to Marcella, but that was six weeks ago.”

The Pole rolled his eyes. “That’s clearer than what we’re hearing here.” His chair scraped back from the table. “Excuse me. Duty and a briefing calls. Thank you for confirming my observation.”

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Free Cities, Imperial and Otherwise

The free cities of Europe seem to have been one of those odd historical quirks that didn’t arise elsewhere. The first ones go back to the Classical Era of Greece and Rome, and were cities that were founded by a king or prince, and administered by a representative of the monarch, but otherwise governed themselves. A few could coin money. All could defend themselves from interlopers from behind good walls. The pattern continued in the Middle Ages.

Some of the oldest free cities (slightly different from later Imperial Free Cities) were Roman settlements (Cologne, Kempten, Augsburg, Basel). They would later buy or fight their way to free city status, although Cologne never quite made it, leading to ongoing spats between the city and the Prince-Bishops over jurisdiction and taxes. Others developed as foundations made by nobles or abbeys in the 900s-1200s, or were chartered by the Holy Roman Emperors and administered by Vögte (Voigts). The vögte represented the interests of the Emperor and had final say in city management, unless an appeal was made to the emperor himself. These cities took care of their own daily affairs and administration, and had walls. Unless a place had walls and could keep people out for at least two days, it was not a city, most certainly not a free city.

A large number of free cities and Imperial Free Cities date from the 1000s – 1100s. Hamburg, Magdeburg, Lübeck, Rostok, the Hansa cities, were founded or re-founded at this time. Warmer weather with better sea conditions played a role, as did the expansion of Imperial power into formerly Viking-plagued areas. Increasing wealth allowed the cities to buy their freedom. In some cases, if the founder’s family died out, as in the case of Schwäbish Hall, the town became a free city. (Barbarossa wanted the salt revenue, the city wanted freedom, and a bargain was made.) The Imperial Free Cities had seats in the Imperial Diets along with the princes, but their votes counted for less, and so many didn’t actively participate in that part of the Holy Roman Empire’s administration.

When you look at free cities, you will often find that they are based on trade and commerce. All were self governing to a greater extent, all had walls, all had conflicts with magnates (lay or ecclesiastic) who wanted to control and tax them, and all had pretty rigid social stratification based on employment. The Hansa cities* were and are the best known, and Lübeck was the first among equals. Nuremberg too was ruled by the wealthy merchants, the patricians, who made money from metalwork, then weapons, map making, armor making, and engraving (both printed and on objects). Some became city states, but most did not. The numbers waxed and waned as did their collective political power. No major noble liked having a free city in or near his jurisdiction because he could not tax or control them. They provided an option, and some were in some cases amazingly wealthy.

By the 1800s, most cities had lost their independence. The hard times of the 1300s-1400s cost a few their freedom as they sank into debt, or lost population due to plague and war. The wars of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War also took a toll. Napoleon finished off several free cities that did not regain their freedom in the re-mapping of 1815. Without the Holy Roman Empire, being an Imperial Free City meant . . . nothing in legal or economic terms.

*Not all Hansa cities were free cities. London was not. Bruges varied, and even Bruges got cross-wise with Emperor Maximilian, who opted to move the main port to Antwerp. That was the end of Bruges as a financial power.

The Wonderful Past . . . that Wasn’t

Back in December, I did some review of the Romantic movement of the 1800s, and of the modern flavors of it. Some of the environmentalists sound very much like Romantics, although William Blake and Friends lacked the nihilist streak we see today. Some of the pronouncements from “experts” and “influencers” also strike the same chord as the back-to-the-Middle-Ages types of the 1800s. You know, the wonderful Middle Ages when peasants were all hard-working, happy, well-behaved, and respected their Betters? And when nobles were paragons of chivalry, and knew what was best for everyone, and ran things because they were to the manor born, and everyone obeyed and respected them? And sheep and cows were clean, tidy, obedient, and you could picnic in the meadows and woods without getting grass stains on your silk and satin clothing?

I’ll wait for those of you who have ever been around sheep and cattle to stop laughing before I go on.

The longing for a lost Golden Age very far back in human history. The time before the Fall, or when Numa Pompilius led Rome, or before Pandora opened the box, or during the reign of the legendary Good Emperors in China, or . . . Things were simpler, people were better, life wasn’t as hard, the earth gave forth of its bounty without weeds and thorns, and all the children were above aver— Oops, sorry, wrong introduction. Ahem. Anyway. Things were very good, perhaps too good, and then something happened. Now, if that something was the fault of people, or just bad luck, or gods who got irked because people weren’t grateful enough, or who knows why, but the world became harder to live in and people had to work.

Modernity and the various political shifts of the 1700s-early 1900s led to several sorts of nostalgia for the past. Some of it came from fuzzy childhood memories of rural life, memories that blurred out the stench, danger, hungry seasons, and very hard work. Some of it was a reaction to the problems of newly-urbanized society and of concentrated populations (crime, sanitation that left a lot to be desired, stress because of change in general). Some of it was political, with rulers and the old nobility (and would-be old nobility) dreaming of the days when people didn’t challenge them. In the Good Olde Days, might and heredity together made right. But with the Industrial Revolution and the social changes of the 1700s-1800s, the old unspoken understandings and social contracts failed, because people no longer lived in the narrow, tradition-bound world where everyone just knew what to do and how to behave. “Why? Why do we have to do that? Why do we have to listen to him? Why stay here when we can go away? Why not start a business/leave the manor/get the right to vote?” Those are questions not voiced in, oh AD 1100 CE. And some people preferred that world, or at least the world they imagined it to be.

I see some of that today, albeit in different words. “The EU government needs to take over this, this, and that, so that Europe will once again be the global economic power.” With the implication that the proper order of society is for Europe to dominate the rest of the planet, and for Brussels and the Experts to dominate Europe. “We need to go back to farming as it was done before the Green Revolution caused so many environmental problems. We need to honor and nurture Native ways of knowing about farming, and to live smaller and simpler.” “The family farm is the answer, with mixed agriculture and Community-Based lifeways.” (No, I’m still not sure what he meant, although I agree to an extent on the mixed agriculture.*) “We should re-wild Europe.” Or North America. Funny, no one talks about re-wilding most of Asia, or Latin America, and certainly not Africa.

Change is not something I adjust well to. New technology is the near-bane of my existence. However, I also know that “re-wilding” Europe and North America would be a disaster for millions of people, and to a large extent can’t be done without, oh, turning steel, glass, cement, and asphalt back into their ingredients and returning those to the ground. The Ogallala Aquifer will not suddenly return to the surface and fill springs if farming stops tomorrow. Europe won’t be a paradise for wildlife, although parts of Eastern Europe are looking more and more like an American wilderness reserve. Nor will millions of people happily surrender their jobs and political voice to “our betters.” OK, some would, and some do as a lifestyle choice. Jump if you’re feelin’ froggy. I don’t trust other people to know what is best for me. I certainly don’t trust people who have never held a non-government or non-trust-fund job in their lives to run the world. We’ve got some of those already. No, thank you.

The pristine environment, the paradise of the Medieval World, they never existed. But they are so appealing when draped in art, and museum displays, and full of CG lambs gamboling on lush meadows. And I suspect most of us have had a moment or two when living in a less complicated time (but with our modern amenities) has some appeal. I’d like to go back to certain Victorian morés, but with modern sanitation and being able to vote and to work where I choose. I enjoy seeing an un-peopled environment. I also like electricity, hot running water, paved roads, and relatively inexpensive food and clothing.

But that’s the problem with reading a lot of history, and being honest. You know that lambs poop, and that the peasant wars of Europe and China and Japan were numerous and nasty.

Reality’s a bummer if you’re a Romantic. Miniver Cheevy did not have a happy life.

*Mixed agriculture, or safety-first agriculture, means you have a variety of crops as well as livestock on a farm, so that if one fails, there are other options that will get you through. It requires a lot more work, and it’s not as efficient on the large scale as monocrop commodity farming. But it might be better for the soil and for society in the very long run. Opinions differ, as you can imagine.

Book Review: Oceans of Grain

Nelson, Scott Reynolds. Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade World History. (Basic Books, 2022) Kindle Edition

Much recent discussion about world economics and global power, say the last 60 years or so, has focused on petroleum, and occasionally on food. Too much dependence on foreign oil, or OPEC or Russia manipulating the price of oil, or peak oil, and what have you seemed to dominate the headlines at least yearly, with dire predictions about the world’s dependence on oil producing countries. Wheat only appeared when there was a famine somewhere, or someone embargoed someone else (US and USSR, 1979-81, for example) Scott Nelson argues that wheat is far, far more important. Food is life, and control of food is what allows empires to form or fall.

Nelson’s specialty was US history, focusing on the Civil War and the role of food supplies. He grew interested in Russian attempts to mimic the US’s success with wheat, and ended up discovering the writings of the Russian exile Israel Helphand, who wrote during the late 1800s- early 1900s as Parvus. Parvus, a Communist and son of grain farmers and grain traders, argued that control of wheat transport routes and wheat production, along with the industrial proletariat, would be key to bringing about a Communist revolution. Nelson uses Parvus’ writings as a launch point to look at grain trade and civilization in Europe, going back to the Neolithic and the discovery of how to safely store grain, especially wheats.

The western steppes of Europe, what is now Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Russia, have been the source of wheats and other grains for thousands of years. The trading routes were called”black paths” because of the rich black chernozemic soil. Many of those routes formed in the late Stone Ages and continued in use first as roads, then as railroads. Nelson next looks at how empires sought to control food supplies, bringing grain from the periphery of empire (North Africa, eastern Europe, Gaul) to the metropolis (Rome). The Black Death and other plague waves interrupted the flow along the black paths, weakening empires or leading to major changes in how they arranged themselves. The black paths, and later flow out of the Bosporus once Russia expanded south and grain moved with Russia, were the choke points for empire. Then along came the US.

Nelson shifts gears to talk about how the Union Army’s supply chain failed. From that failure, caused by too-centralized a system that led to micro-managing, corruption, and price gouging, came a new way of buying grain through the Chicago Board of Trade – grain futures. This allowed anonymous purchase, which reduced gouging, and made it possible for the army to buy from a large number of individual dealers rather than depending on six warehouse men and grain brokers. The new system worked, as did early mechanization, and after the war, the US became the grain exporter supreme, sending cheap wheat all over Europe. The inexpensive food made Europe’s large-scale industrialization possible. Once Hungarian flour-milling technology also spread to the US, Americans could undercut Austro-Hungary (the former lead flour exporter) as well as inadvertently breaking the centuries old system of grain trading and shipping and storage. This put Russia in a financial bind much like the one that plagued the Austro-Hungarians.

World tensions, the need to control the wheat export points, and international finance, according to both Parvus (in the 1900s) and Nelson, led to WWI and the Russian Revolution. I’m not entirely sure that Nelson is right to put so much weight on wheat trade as a primary cause of the war, because a lot of other things were swirling around between 1910-1914, but his account of how Bolshevik control over the food supply affected the Russian Revolutions and civil war makes good sense.

Nelson is an excellent writer, although there are some disconcerting typos and awkward phrases in spots. He also assumes that readers are already aware of how futures markets work, and have a good understanding of geography during the various periods he addresses. I found myself having to stop, go back, and reread in places, because I’ve not tangled with economic history and world systems theory in several years. He also jumps from topic to topic a bit, but does return to the original theme and tie everything together. The book is very timely, and adds a dimension to the ongoing rolling disaster in Ukraine and the ripples in the world grain supply systems. Once more, the Bosporus is a critical choke point, and the closure of the black paths is leading to trouble (with “help” from other factors, some of which are outside human control.)

I’d recommend this book for those interested in the history of world trade, people looking at the role of food trade in European and US history, and students of the internal conflicts within the Russian Communist movement prior to 1920. The book is quite readable, provided you have a solid background in economic history and finance terminology. It needs more maps, but that is my usual plaint, and maps are easily available on-line if you want to find them.

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

Book Review: Defenders of the West

Ibrahim, Raymond. Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes who stood Against Islam. (Bombardier Books 2022) Kindle edition

I’ve read Ibrahim’s other history book, a study of battles, so I picked this one up as well. I’d heard of El Cid, both from the movie and from a (very hagiographic) older young reader biography I read a long time ago. Richard the Lionheart? Crusader and the good guy in Robin Hood, who was dumb enough to think irking the Duke of Austria was a good idea and then trying to sneak through the duke’s home territory. Jan Hunyadi? The not-a-king king of Hungary. I’d crossed paths with a number of the individuals highlighted in this book, which spans the years 1000 to 1600, more or less. However, other individuals are less well known, or are strangers to the western tradition (Skenderbeg), or have an afterlife unrelated to their real life (Vlad III).

Ibrahim is blunt about where his preferences are. He also uses primary sources from all sides in the conflicts, giving a good view of what the Berbers, Arabs, and Ottomans thought about the different men. He frames each mini-biography with the events of the time, giving the reader context often skipped in modern studies. This can make for odd reading, because often the primary sources are far more laudatory than modern accounts can be, or dare to be, or are supposed to be. Dispassion and balance were NOT considered critical attitudes for historians to have in the Middle Ages or early modern era. That lack of distance might be offputting to some readers. It took me a bit to adjust my mental frame, so to speak, to get past my Historian’s Bristle at effusive descriptions of people’s virtues (and vices, although that’s not something lacking from many current works.)

The biographic chapters are in chronologic order, from Godfrey of Bolougne and Rodrigo de Vivar “El Cid” to Skenderbeg and Vlad III. One thing Ibrahim points out on a regular basis is that these men fought defensive wars. The First Crusade and subsequent were launched in answer to the conquest of the Levant by the Seljuk Turks and the enslaving, robbing, and killing of native Christians (and Jews) and pilgrims from Europe. El Cid and Fernando de Leon y Castile (descendant of El Cid) fought to regain land occupied by the Berbers since the early 700s. Hunyadi, Skenderbeg, and Vlad III challenged the Ottoman Conquest of southeastern Europe, pushing back against Ottoman attacks and aggression. It’s easy today to forget that until 1689, Western Christianity fought a defensive war against Arab/Berber/Turkish forces.

The stories are great reads. Ibrahim lets the material speak for itself, with some additions to clarify places and to put events in the larger context of European politics. He’s not unbiased, but he is upfront about that, so you know what you are getting. I found his reminders about “yes, this lord/petty king turned his coat to survive, but that was normal. What Skenderbeg/Hunyadi/Vlad did was the exception” to be useful.

I’d recommend this to people interested in the various military figures, those curious about primary sources and where to find more (the bibliography and notes are extensive), and people looking for solid role-models for boys (and girls, but now days, especially boys.) Ibrahim does a good job working with the primary sources, and the book is quite readable once you get used to the various styles of the original material. I found his defense of Vlad III a bit intense, but then I remembered that I’ve read the books, and I know the history and politics of that region. Normal people don’t. They know either novel-Dracula, or Vlad the sadistic b-stard of an impaler.

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

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream?

When I was in northern Germany on the Hansa trip, one stop was Schleswig, up near the Danish border. First, we went to see the Viking museum and Haithabu/Hedeby (closed for major remodeling – Boykin’s Law of Museums in action) and the open-air reconstruction, then to the main museum. One of the fascinating things in the museum is the quartet of “bog bodies.”

The “Child of Vindeby” Author photo.

People disappeared into moors (“Moose” in German, “Moss” in some northern English dialects) ever since people discovered the hard way that the solid surface wasn’t solid. Some people died by accident, wandering and getting bogged, drowning and being preserved. Others were murder victims (crime-type violent death) and others were ritual deposits, to use the nice, tidy archaeological term. Those bodies left in peat bogs were, sometimes, preserved, tanned by the tannic acid in the peat waters. Sometimes the entire body and clothing survived, in other cases only parts have remained intact. The bodies are always found by accident, which further reduces the chances of them being “perfect.”

Why were these people left in the bogs? In a few cases, the presence of large rocks, wooden stakes through the heart, and piles of brush held down with more rocks and stakes suggests that the community did NOT want the individual returning to haunt them, or sending plague. Those tend to be relatively rare finds, and more bodies of that sort are found on land. Why sink a vampire (suspected or confirmed) in a bog when you can do it far more safely on solid ground? Some were probably murderers who were staked and left in very unhallowed ground as further punishment, be they Christian or otherwise. A few just got lost and died.

A number that have been found appear to be sacrifices. These are the ones that inspire books, spooky stories, museum displays, and much speculation. The first major work on these, entitled The Bog People, is still the best starting point, even though modern technology and later research have shown some of the early ideas to be incorrect. Peter Glob summarized what was known, what was guessed, and what was suspected, based on the best science at the time. The sacrifices seem to have been unusual in some way – physically different or otherwise slightly outside of society. Several had berries or grains in their stomachs not usually eaten as food, like mistletoe. Some had been strangled, or had been killed by a blow to the head, or by having their throat cut. To whom they were sacrificed is unknown, especially for the ones that are from 1400-1200 BC/BCE or so. The Iron Age sacrifices are also uncertain, although the Celtic gods are probable possibilities, perhaps even the Norse deities, although there’s a LOT of doubt there.

I’d read about the bog bodies growing up, and this was my first chance to ever see one. Or five, in this case. One was not on display when I visited, having been removed for further study. The others are in a separate, dimly-lit section of the museum dedicated to death and beliefs about the afterlife. Since Europeans generally don’t have the taboos about displaying the ancient dead that other cultures have, there were no reasons not to show the bodies, as long as it didn’t lead to preservation problems (unlike Ötzie, who must remain frozen or decomposition will resume.) The larger area talks about beliefs concerning death, what cultures do with bodies, and why these were preserved. Then you come to the actual bodies themselves.

It’s fascinating to see. The lighting is dim for preservation reasons, as well as continuing the sense of mystery and “otherworldliness” we often associate with death. The bodies are in reconstructions of where they are found, if possible. The one above was first thought to be a girl. Later study and better imaging equipment revealed that he is a boy who probably died of disease or other natural causes, possibly related to multiple episodes of malnutrition. Interestingly, he seems to be the only one of the four who was not a sacrifice or “dangerous burial” of some kind.

Old bodies – be they skeletons or bog bodies – don’t bother me the way they disturb some. My culture doesn’t practice ancestor veneration, nor do we believe that a surviving physical body is necessary for an afterlife. I am fascinated by what skeletons and bodies can tell us about everyday life (hard, mostly) and beliefs.

The Ends of the (Roman) World

Well, I’ve seen one of them. The other end isn’t quite as safe to visit right now.

At the gate to the remains of part of the Antonine Wall. Latina Magna Est!
Beyond this point be barbarians.

Hadrian’s wall is the more famous barrier the Romans built in Britain, in part because it was so visible for so long, and in part because it lasted over two centuries. It marked the dividing line between Roman occupied Britain, and Roman influenced Britain. At least the Romans wanted to influence it. Sometimes it was a negative influence.

The Antonine Wall vs. Hadrian’s Wall. From: DigitScotland. Creative Commons Fair Use:

The Antonine Wall, credited (or at least claimed) by Antoninus Pius, was farther north, near modern Sterling. You have to know how to get there in order to get there. It lacks the signage and markers of the southern edition, in part because it was never as permanent or impressive as Hadrian’s wall. Also, the land around the northern barrier is more settled and farmed, and too valuable to be left pasture, unlike far more of Hadrian’s wall.

What you see are two artificial mounds with the fossa, the ditch, in the middle. I’m looking north, toward the dangerous side. Behind me the land slopes more gently, and that was the Roman side. You had an interior ditch, then a wall made of turves (turfs – sod and dirt and wood), a deeper and steeper ditch that donated material for the wall, and then a clear line of sight toward the barbarians. The trees would most certainly NOT block the view.

When I was at the Antonine wall, it was me, one dog walker, the rest of the group, and a mowing crew. I played “dodge mower” as they trimmed knee-high grass back to lawn height.

Looking south from Hadrian’s Wall. The sun was NOT that bright, I assure you. Notice that there are fewer trees here in Yorkshire.

I’ve also been along most of the Limes, the anti-German Roman defensive line that ran from the mouths of the Rhine to the Main then the Danube. From there it followed the river, more or less, until it reached the “Pontic shores where the snowflakes fall,” as Kipling put it. I’ve been from Budapest to the Antonine Wall, but not yet to Rome or to the eastern end of the Roman world.

Been there, hiked that, as far as the last a in Pannonia. From Ray Bishop History.

Some day, perhaps . . .

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.