The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Eoin Purcell

A re-enactment of The Battle of Stamford Bridge
A re-enactment of The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Complex stories
One of the battles that has most fascinated me over the years has been King Harold Godwinson of England’s victory over the forces Norwegian force of King Harald Hardrada and Earl Tostig Godwinson (that’s right, Harold’s brother) at Stamford Bridge (that link will take you to Wikipedia, but this one for the UK Battlefield Resource Centre is excellent as well). The battle did not go well for the Norwegians. Google Books has a great account of the battle here in The history of England from the earliest times to the Norman conquest by Thomas Hodgkin.

What has always amazed me about that battle and the characters involved is that in Harold Godwinson we have on the one hand the known villain of subsequent (and of the contemporary) propaganda especially the amazingly effective Bayeux Tapestry (a quite incredible piece of public propaganda which is well worth visiting). Harold has come down by the victor of the Battle of Hastings word as an oath breaker.

Because of that twist of faith, we don’t remember Harold’s own victory at Stamford or the fact that he was seen by many Saxons as England’s bulwark against Norman influence. What’s more because of Hastings, we don’t hear the story of the brother’s Godwinson or indeed of Harald Hardrada who as the link above makes clear had a fascinating life himself.

All told, Stamford Bridge and the ignored heroism or at the very least success if you will of Harold reinforces for me the sense that very often history recalls not the reality of a persons life but only the most resonate aspect of it, that events which have relevance are often overshadowed by subsequent less important but better recorded happenings.

Enjoy the weekend!
Eoin

John Quincy Adams Lives … (Vicariously Through Twitter)

Eoin Purcell

What a very cool project by the Massachusets Historical Society to reproduce a line a day from the diary of John Quincy Adams on Twitter: beginning with his journey to Russia on 5 August 1809. They also have a site dedicated to the journals. Today’s line:

8/12/1809: Calm morning, and stiff head breeze all the rest of the day. Lat: 43-52. Read lives of Lycurgus and of Numa.

I have, by the by, inserted links to the text referred to, Plutarch’s famous work commonly called Parallel Lives. You can download it, free, from GBS! How much fun is the internet? Loving it,
Eoin

No Seriously: The Plague

Eoin Purcell

I was getting on the Dart to travel back from Sydney Parade to Glasthule when I stumbled across this rather exceptional story in Metro*:

A second man has died of pneumonic plague in northwest China, in an outbreak that prompted authorities to lock down a town where about a dozen people were infected with the highly contagious deadly lung disease, a state news agency said.

And if you think that is the worst of it, how do you like this:

Pneumonic plague is spread through the air and can be passed from person to person through coughing, according to the World Health Organization. It is caused by the same bacteria that occurs in bubonic plague — the Black Death that killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Bubonic plague is usually transmitted by flea bite and can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early. Pneumonic plague is one of the deadliest infectious diseases, capable of killing humans within 24 hours of infection, according to the WHO.

Worrying no. Some quality material on the plague is available on Google Books in case you are in the humour for digging and reading:

THE most memorable example of what has been advanced is afforded by a great pestilence of the fourteenth century which desolated Asia Europe and Africa and of which the people yet preserve the remembrance in gloomy traditions It was an oriental plague marked by inflammatory boils and tumors of the glands such as break out in no other febrile disease On account of these inflammatory boils and from the black spots indicatory of a putrid decomposition which appeared upon the skin it was called in Germany and in the northern kingdoms of Europe the Black Death and in Italy la Mortalega Grande the Great Mortality

The Black Death in the fourteenth century. By Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker, Benjamin Guy Babington

There is much, much more, all of it worth reading. I think, this is a limited outbreak I stress and expect that it will not, unlike the Swine Flue Virus we are currently experiencing, cause widespread fear and panic.
Eoin

* The link is to the Yahoo News version of the story, Metro is not online.

The Death of Robert McNamara

Eoin Purcell

Some years ago now a friend lent me his copy of Fog Of War, which was at once a brilliant and yet incredibly intriguing documentary featuring Robert McNamara. I had always wondered about The Vietnam War, feeling that it was deeply misunderstood at a public level and that although the underlying policy that motivated it (containment) was valid, the way the policy was being pursued (through warfare) was undermining the policy and the reputation of the United States.

Fog Of War only offered more questions and made the story even more complex. Errol Morris, the director of that movie has a thoughtful piece on McNamara over on the New York Time’s website. One section that struck me was this:

His refusal to come out against the Vietnam War, particularly as it continued after he left the Defense Department, has angered many. There’s ample evidence that he felt the war was wrong. Why did he remain silent until the 1990s, when “In Retrospect” was published? That is something that people will probably never forgive him for. But he had an implacable sense of rectitude about what was permissible and what was not. In his mind, he probably remained secretary of defense until the day he died.

I think what I like about it us the sense that there is no black & white in cases like this.

For more thoughts and coverage of McNamara, read this or this or this.

In Dublin, taking it easy,
Eoin

The Revenege of Geography

Eoin Purcell

Robert Kaplan Strikes Again
Kaplan writes an elegant and persuasive article about how Geography affects the world! In many ways it is a plea for a realist view of the world:

Realism means recognizing that international relations are ruled by a sadder, more limited reality than the one governing domestic affairs. It means valuing order above freedom, for the latter becomes important only after the former has been established. It means focusing on what divides humanity rather than on what unites it, as the high priests of globalization would have it. In short, realism is about recognizing and embracing those forces beyond our control that constrain human action—culture, tradition, history, the bleaker tides of passion that lie just beneath the veneer of civilization. This poses what, for realists, is the central question in foreign affairs: Who can do what to whom? And of all the unsavory truths in which realism is rooted, the bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic of all is geography.

What I like about the piece is threefold
Firstly I enjoy his references to philosophers and historians. The philosophers are Isaiah Berlin and Thomas Hobbes, both with interesting and illuminating things to offer reader. And Google Books has plenty items in Full View for both though frustratingly in the case of Hobbes, not a Leviathan available for extract so instead you get a rather nice but non-downloadable Forgotten books edition! Which seems crazy when the base text is well out of copyright!

His historical references are numerous but Mahan and Braudel stand out! One eye opener was Nicholas Spykman (for more on his truly intriguing views here is a very nice overview) of whom I had never heard but of whom Kaplan say:

Similarly, the Dutch-American strategist Nicholas Spykman saw the seaboards of the Indian and Pacific oceans as the keys to dominance in Eurasia and the natural means to check the land power of Russia. Before he died in 1943, while the United States was fighting Japan, Spykman predicted the rise of China and the consequent need for the United States to defend Japan. And even as the United States was fighting to liberate Europe, Spykman warned that the postwar emergence of an integrated European power would eventually become inconvenient for the United States. Such is the foresight of geographical determinism.

For another thing
Secondly I like his concept of:

geography in the most old-fashioned sense. In the 18th and 19th centuries, before the arrival of political science as an academic specialty, geography was an honored, if not always formalized, discipline in which politics, culture, and economics were often conceived of in reference to the relief map. Thus, in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, mountains and the men who grow out of them were the first order of reality; ideas, however uplifting, were only the second.

And maybe I feel that way because I wish to justify my recent (and fabulously cheap) purchase of Keith Johnston’s A Sketch of Historical Geography which is a truly excellent text worth owning and you can read in the lovely Open Library edition here, but I think there is something to what Kaplan says. Something that informs the rest of the piece.

And finally
I like his closing exhorting for us all to:

learn to think like Victorians. That is what must guide and inform our newly rediscovered realism. Geographical determinists must be seated at the same honored table as liberal humanists, thereby merging the analogies of Vietnam and Munich. Embracing the dictates and limitations of geography will be especially hard for Americans, who like to think that no constraint, natural or otherwise, applies to them. But denying the facts of geography only invites disasters that, in turn, make us victims of geography.

I very much enjoy Kaplan but sometimes I’m left with as many questions as answers with him, not that that is a bad thing!
Eoin