The Occasional Joke

Nurse: Patient's name?

Centurion: Marcus Licinius Crassus

Nurse: And his date of birth?

Centurion: 115 BC.

Nurse: All right. And what is he here for?

Centurion: Cataphract surgery.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Recently read

Something about that 'ol veil of obscurity ... I continue to be fascinated with the remote and poorly-understood corners of history -- as well as those that are being debated fiercely by academics. My recent reading is following this path.
  • A Mojave War Reminiscence 1854-1880, Ed. A.L. and G.B. Kroeber, 1973, University of California Press, re-released in 1994 by Dover Books. The executive summary is that during the period cited in the title, the Mojave Indians in California and Arizona met, fought, lost to, and eventually sided with white settlers and soldiers. They were then used as go-betweens with the other, less cooperative tribes in the area, until the fighting (and Indian populations) tapered off in the 1880s. The book is a reproduction of an oral memoir by a Mojave, Chooksa homar (sic; the Editors don't provide an explanation for why the second name of most of the Mojaves in the book is not capitalized,) with extensive notes and references by the Kroebers (father and son). It was a pretty tawdry tale, all around, since both sides (especially the civilian whites) were prone to bushwhacking and murdering parties they perceived as the enemy of the moment. It's a short read, but it has a couple of good maps, including a glue-in fold-out. As far as the personalities, unless you're a student of the area and period, the only name you might recognize is that of Lewis Addison Armistead, later Confederate General, but in 1858-59, a Captain in the US Army. He was in charge at Fort Mojave when the most formal fighting (if "formal" is even appropriate) took place, and afterward, the Mojave Tribe settled down into a more or less compliant state.

    The Mojave who was interviewed, mostly in 1903, was a boy when these events took place, and both the lapse of time and the vagaries of translation (and, the Editors hint, a desire not to upset white people) have made it difficult to match up the fights and peace talks in the narrative with recorded places and dates. There are some quite well-reproduced plates, though, especially one showing a Mojave leader, Yara tav, wearing his white-provided uniform -- some kind of military frock coat and a bicorne hat, worn, like Jack Aubrey's, athwartships.

    Frankly, very few people reading this blog will be interested in the book; it's no Two Leggings. But for me, especially when it came up remaindered for $4.00 -- it was a necessary addition to the bulging library that is our basement.

  • Richard & John -- Kings at War, Frank McLynn, 2007, Da Capo Press. Now you're talking, baby! This one was right up my alley, and might be up yours, too, especially if you enjoy tales of pride, slaughter, greed, slaughter, infidelity (marital and political or both), slaughter, and um, more slaughter. Remember The Lion in Winter, from all the way back in 1968? O'Toole, Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins ...? Well, O'Toole was Henry II, Father of the grasping Richard and the miserable little weasel John. Those two are the subject of McLynn's book.

    Traditionally, Richard ("The Lionheart") has been portrayed as a good king, if sometimes a bit hasty; John, on the other hand, got a complete panning: "bad king," "John Lackland," even "John Softsword." As always in the quest for each succeeding generation's PhD thesis, it became trendy for historians to challenge these perceptions, painting Richard as bad and John as good. (I'm simplifying wildly, here, if you can't tell -- the book takes many pages and many a snarky remark to set all this out.) McLynn doesn't agree with the revisionists, and puts a very good case together that adds up to: "Yep, the traditional view is correct: Richard, good, John, bad."

    Now that might be considered a spoiler and put you off the book, knowing how it all comes out (The Pope did it.) But along the way, in his 482 pages, not counting vast numbers of references and notes, he covers the social, economic, military, and religious matrix in which these kings, good, bad, or indifferent, wallowed. (Can you wallow in a matrix?) For me, it was a great coincidence, since I'm doing other reading and researching on the period 1150 to 1250 or so, in western Europe. I loved it, not only for the slaughter, but for the vast amount of work McLynn obviously put into it, piling up the evidence against John and smiting the inferences (which is all they seem to amount to) that the revisionists bring up in his defense.

    Anyway, this one might be more to the general reader's liking than the Mojave one. It gives you lots of evidence, if you feel you want it, for arguing with revisionist historians about John and Richard and their separate merits, and although McLynn clearly believes he's closed the case on this one, you can still draw you own conclusions. My own view is that Richard was a smart homicidal maniac and John a dumb one (unlucky, too.)

  • Through So Many Dangers, Robert Kirkwood (AKA Robert Kirk), Ed. Ian McCulloch and Timothy Todish, 2004, Purple Mountain Press. I have to caveat this: I have just opened the book and read part of the first chapter, but I wanted to get it into this post so that it doesn't get forgotten (like Over-diagnosed did -- I still haven't written that up, I find.)

    Kirkwood (which he shortened to Kirk when he wrote his memoirs) was a soldier in the Royal Highland Regiment in the mid-eighteenth century. He served in America during the Seven Years War (which we persist in calling "The French and Indian War,") was a captive of the Shawnee Indians for a period, and eventually survived to write memoirs. It's a beautiful production: a large format softcover, with lots of illustrations selected by the Editors, short biographical notes of the people mentioned, and other supporting material. Again, I've barely started it, but I'm looking forward to it.

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