Categories: Modern
Tags: ,


Posts on events in the last few hundred years

Editing and Translation Services

Do you need a second pair of eyes on that book, paper, or project report? I have been editing business and academic writing since 2013. Aside from ancient world studies and medieval studies, I have experience creating software documentation and a background in academic computer science. Because of my time living in Austria, I have experience with the challenges of writing in a second language or a new field.

Read more

Ownership History is Hard and Often Does Not Matter

This terracotta statuette from Babylon is one of very few images of a woman in the ‘Elamite robe’ or Faltengewand from the Achaemenid period. Photo of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum, object VA Bab 00405 by Olaf M. Teßmer CC BY-SA 4.0

To establish the ownership history of a manuscript, you need to do archival research in auction catalogues and library catalogues and lists of bookplates and stamps. This history will usually have gaps, because ownership is not a physical property of an object which leaves indelible traces, but a social agreement. People steal books and manuscripts, people sell books and manuscripts which don’t belong to them, people forge evidence that a book or manuscript belonged to someone famous, and people burn the records of grandpa’s used books business to tidy up after his death. Its hard to track the ownership of Greek manuscripts during the fifteenth century for the same reason its hard to track the ownership of antiquities during the 1940s. And if you are using a manuscript to understand the ancient world, the ownership history is not really important. Let me explain.

Read more

How To Track Down a Manuscript of a Classical Text

a colour photo of a Greek manuscript with a small round stamp in the bottom margin
The first page of the manuscript of Herodotus in Florence, courtesy of

Over on another site, Anoneuoid asked how to track down the past owners of a manuscript of a classical text such as the “A” manuscript of Herodotus in Florence (manuscript Laurentianus 70.3).

The first place to start when tracking down the manuscripts of a classical text is a critical edition (that is, an edition in the original language with notes in the margins about how the manuscripts are different from each other and the printed text). I have the Clarendon edition by Karl Hude which was last updated in 1927 but still seems to be the standard edition of Herodotus (the 2015 edition by N.G. Wilson has some updates). Hude discusses the manuscripts in Latin because until recently that was the best way to give a classicist in Egypt and a classicist in Norway equal access to his thoughts. He does not say much on the history of the manuscripts because he is more interested in which are most useful for reconstructing what Herodotus actually wrote.

You can find a much more detailed discussion of the manuscripts of another ancient text and their owners in Philip Rance, “Aineias Tacticus in Byzantine Military Literature,” in Nick Barley and Maria Pretzler, eds., Brill’s Companion to Aineias Tacticus. Brill’s Companions in classical studies (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017).

Read more

Baumwolle is an Old Word

a Victoria, BC street scene with a brick building and a brick building with a stone facade
The building one street up, at Government and Fort, reminds me of architecture from the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire!

Cotton is an old word, but people west of India and north of Sudan often call cotton “tree wool.”

iṣe naš šipati “the tree which bears wool” (inscription of Sennacherib of Assyria describing plants in his garden, 705-681 BCE) Chicago Assyrian Dictionary volume “I” p. 217

“This breastplate had been stolen by the Samians in the year before they took the bowl; it was of linen, decked with gold and tree-wool (εἰρίοισι ἀπὸ ξύλου), and embroidered with many figures” Herodotus 3.47.2 (c. 430-420 BCE) tr. A.D. Godley slightly adapted, cp. 3.106.3, 7.65 on tree-wool in India and Theophrastus, On Plants IV. 7, 8 on cotton grown on the island of Bahrain (Akkadian and Sumerian Dilmun, Greek Tylos)

Middle and Modern German Baumwolle “tree wool, cotton” (already appears in Erec by Hartmann von Aue around the year 1185 per “boumwolle”, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm do not have much to say. The line about a saddle cushion soft as a cotton (ein Paumwol) is line 7703 of the Ambraser Heldenbuch so there is Innsbruck content!)

Do my gentle readers know this calque in other languages?

Read more

Forecasting Future Wars is Hard

the title page of a book printed in black and red with a little print with the publisher's logo
The book that launched a thousand raids and burned the topless towers of Minas Tirith! H.G. Wells’ “Little Wars” the first modern wargame for civilians. Image care of

Since 1805, combat between well-equipped air and naval forces has become rarer and rarer. This is because states which can produce such forces have little to gain from fighting one another, and because it has become harder and harder to sustain such forces at all. In the 19th century, the Royal Navy was usually overwhelmingly superior to everyone else (although the French and the United States sometimes gave it a run for its money). Since the 1950s, the US air force has had a similar advantage over everyone else’s. Small states look at these navies and air forces, decide they can never defeat them, and either stop bothering with their own navies and air forces, or side with one of the big powers, or hide in harbour or in neutral countries when war approaches (the fleet-in-being strategy). Big states do some spectacularly stupid and thoughtless things, but rarely something as stupid as getting into a war with their allies or a nuclear power, and pretty much all the states with sophisticated air forces and navies are either each other’s allies or nuclear powers.

This means that stories about how a future naval or air war would go are fantasies based on speculation and imagination and peacetime tests, not observation and experience of actual warfare.

Read more

Coiled Shields and Helmets

a coiled grass bowl wrapped with light brown and off-white fibres on a vanished wooden tabletop lit by a candle and an electric lamp
A little bowl like this was all my budget could afford, but its still handy for holding my sewing things!

One weekend in May 2023 I did two things on a weekend which involved spending several hours away from home doing things with people I did not know in 2013 other than the day job (!). When I was passing through downtown Victoria I stopped at a stall run by Journey House Actions, a Rwandan charity. They sell bowls, baskets, and jars of coiled grass ropes laced with dyed sisal fibres. As I worked my way through them, I was struck how much they were like the Turkish shields in Schloss Ambras.

Read more

Just Another Grunt

a plain linestone statue of a god with a tall hat on his head, a club or axe in his right hand, and a tombstone-shaped shield in his left hand
A Statue of the Egyptian god Reshef from the Third Intermediate Period in the Metropolitan Museum of Art care of

Early on, the Indy Neidell World War Two documentary split off a series War Against Humanity from its narrative of the ground and surface naval wars. Their story presents the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ in December 1944 as a trivial thing, because the allies quickly put forces in place so that German forces could never break through to anywhere really dangerous, and because by the standards of winter 1944/1945 the forces involved were not huge. They even spend lots of time talking about how specific Anglo generals tried to take credit or shift the blame. I feel like that is the wrong story to tell, because the real story is all the ordinary people who ended up dead, or crippled, or frostbitten when they had started to think they would survive the war more or less intact. Here is one of those stories by the late Fred Pohl:

Read more

Were Hessians Really Mercenaries?

grassy pastures separated by woods on a cool cloudy day
On these plains above Jena in 1806, the Prussian army was having a really bad day. Photo by Sean Manning, October 2016

In my first book, I talked about how ‘mercenary’ is more a moral and political term than a neutral category. People use different names like allies, volunteers, professionals, Private Military Companies, and mercenaries depending on their moral and political stance on those soldiers (in ancient Greece or Sir Charles Oman’s England, this was deeply tied up in aristocratic suspicion of anyone who had to work for a living). A year or two ago, military historian Alex Burns made a similar point about Hessian soldiers in the American Revolutionary War.

Read more

Reverse Chronological Order Considered Harmful?

Most blog templates are full of links, but most traffic is to either recent posts or search results. (And since web search does not work very well right now, and Google forgets the old web, relying on search engines is risky). Maggie Appleton has an essay on people who have thought how link structure shapes how we navigate websites.

Joel (Hooks) also added Amy Hoy’s How the Blog Broke the Web post to the pile of influential ideas that led to our current gardening infatuation. While not specifically about gardening, Amy’s piece gives us a lot of good historical context. In it, she explores the history of blogs over the last three decades, and pinpoints exactly when we all became fixated on publishing our thoughts in reverse chronological order (spoiler: around 2001 with the launch of Moveable Type).

Maggie Appleton, “A Brief History and Ethos of the Digital Garden” (2020)
Read more

The Triumph and the Tragedy of Atrocitology

To be honest, though, I’m sometimes embarrassed by where I have been forced to find my statistics, but beggars can’t be choosers. Very few historians have the cold, calculating, body-count mentality that I do. They prefer describing the quality of suffering rather than the quantity of it. Often, the only place to find numbers is in a newspaper article, almanac, chronicle or encyclopedia which needs to summarize major events into a few short sentences or into one scary number, and occasionally I get the feeling that some writers use numbers as pure rhetorical flourishes. To them, “over a million” does not mean “>106“; it’s just synonymous with “a lot”.

Matthew White,

Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (W.W. Norton and Company, 2011) lists 100 tragedies, but the 101st tragedy is the book itself. White worked very hard to find numbers for various atrocities, and noticed that often he could find no source for the number in the glossy magazine or the airport book. He noticed that some of the numbers seemed to be just made up, he noticed that some didn’t seem to be meant to be taken literally, and he noticed that often the new book or article relies on the old book or article without correcting its mistakes or asking whether we have learned anything since. When I look at the website which became the book, I see how he came close to agreeing with me that almost all of these numbers before the 19th century say more about other modern numbers than about the past. He could have written a good book about how we just don’t know how many people were killed by Tamurlane, or the An Lushan Rebellion, or the Crusades. But instead he wrote yet another book full of made-up numbers backed with footnotes, and he gave old nonsense a whole new audience when a very famous Canadian psychologist took his numbers and ran with them.

Read more
paypal logo
patreon logo