In the Minnesota Valley

Today, Caren and I toured the Minnesota River valley with a special focus on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.


We visited the Lower Sioux Agency site, where the war started when local U.S. government agents refused to give over annuity payments and food due to the tribe members. We also visited the Battle of Birch Coulee, bloodiest and longest (1.5 day camp siege) battle of the war. As someone who is used to the size of Civil War battles, these sites seem tiny, but when you consider the population and density of Minnesota in the 1860s, these actions were huge earth-shattering occurrences. The prairie was certainly on fire.

The end result was the Dakota reservations being dissolved, the native people being exiled to other states, and (most infamously) the hanging of 38 natives in downtown Mankato in December 1862. It still the largest execution ever ordered by the US Government.


More happily, we also hit the Starkeller in New Ulm for some sour beers and viewed the bizarrely huge Hermann Monument. A good birthday weekend.


Podcast: The Anarchy

Here it is: the first official announcement on my upcoming history podcast.

It will look into the background, causes, character and aftermath of the Anarchy in 1100s England.

This is an exciting but rarely discussed (among non-professional historians) period that connects the Norman Conquest with the Plantangenet/Avengin Empire of Henry II and his heirs.

It features a dynasty destroying shipwreck, several powerful female characters which pre-date the over-examined Eleanor of Acquitaine, and a decades-long war that left England largely rulerless.

Bottom line: Empress Maud should have a popular history book and ultimately movie or TV series. This is my effort to jump start that.

I envision this as my first series of podcasts focusing on medieval history. Right now, I feel like it will last about 10 1-hour episodes. Maybe more, maybe a little less. No promises there. And once those are wrapped up, I don’t have a second series topic picked yet. We’ll see what kind of traction I get and I’ll see if the audience has particular interests. More links coming as I get things set up. First episode in June.

As a final request: I need a title for the podcast as a whole. I’m leaning toward Illuminated Medieval right now, but I’ll take suggestions.

Brexit considered


I spent the 90s caring deeply for the European Union. I studied it, I lived in Brussels, I wrote about it, I spoke to its creators. I was lucky enough to have people like Peter Praet, Jamie Shea, and Jerry Sheridan and others as my teachers. So I come to this with opinions and of course with biases, and also with some in-depth education and professional interest. I haven’t always been an accountant or a professional libertarian. I spent the first decade of my working life in International Affairs. (Please enjoy this wikileaks cable with my name in it.)

So Brexit creates mixed emotions for me. Some thoughts in no particular order:

  • I am certainly sympathetic to the notion that pushing power away from the center and farther down to the (or at least closer to the) people is a good thing generally. But a UK disconnected from Brussels does not necessarily make for a freer or more prosperous UK. Please remember what pre-Thatcher, pre-EU Britain was like. That nation has the capacity to go insular and closed very fast. And, of course, it can be the most open, prosperous place on the planet as well. So I think some of my friends celebrations are a bit premature. Garbage in the streets and “Rivers of Blood” Enoch Powell are possible again. Of course, those things are possible with the EU as well, but I think the former communist nations prevent that from happening too fast. More on that later.
  • As my friend Tsvet Tsonevski pointed out this week, one does not simply “leave” the EU. There are dozens of treaties, hundreds of agreements, and probably thousands of regulations which have been incorporated into UK law in one or another over the past decades. How this all is dismantled (will it be?) is subject to potentially years of wrangling. In addition, the UK presumably wants to remain at the very least a trading partner of the EU (see above for that question). So all these rules and regulations will continue to have some level of de facto force in the UK, to the same extent that, say, the US must abide by EU rules to trade with European countries (and vice versa). I would wager that some “Leave” voters don’t realize the degree to which they can’t leave the EU. Ever.
  • An example: CE marking. Hell, I’m subject to CE marking and I don’t live in the EU. Also, CE marking is governed by the EEA. Will the UK leave just the EU or also the EEA? How about EFTA? How about the successor agreements to the WEU? What about this freaking mess in Cornwall? You mean people voted for “freedom” but want free money anyway? Shocking. All this to say that no one really knows what “leaving the EU” means. The (very sketchy and unclear) map is not the territory.
  • I would like people to appreciate the role the EU played in healing wounds post-war in Europe and in successfully bringing the post-Soviet countries out of the that orbit and into the West. Yes, I know we don’t know how things would have played out without the EU. Maybe things would have been just as successful or even more so. But we don’t actually know, and it seems like a lot of people I know who are jumping on the Brexit bandwagon assume the EU was always this regulatory behemoth. But the project in the 50s through the 80s was not that at all. It was a means to creating a larger peaceful market that recognized the political difficulties in such a project, and so slowly but surely integrated the nations of Europe. A valuable and noble project in my estimation. And one that was largely successful when concerned primarily with trade.
  • My old boss Dan Griswold makes some good arguments about possible future UK regret connected to trade dynamics. It’s hard to know but this is a good possibility.
  • Finally, I’ve spent the last few weeks listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series on World War I called Blueprint for Armageddon. He does his usual amazing job, but it makes me worry. Whither Europe?

In summary, uncertainty abounds, regret is already appearing, and I think the stakes are higher than most think. But hey, democracy can’t be wrong.

Lethe and Eunoe


In Purgatorio, Dante puts the source of the mythical rivers Lethe and Eunoe at the peak of the earthly mountain at the antipodes that is Purgatory. After purging yourself of your sins in ascending through Purgatory, you must wade through the two rivers before entering paradise.

The Lethe (Greek for “forgetfulness”) purges your memory of your sins. The Eunoe (“good mind”) enhances your memory of those good things you accomplished in life.

It’s a nice reminder of moving on in our own personal lives. You can’t really move on to bigger and better things until you put the old issues behind you. Heaven with constant reminders of the problems of the past is not really heaven.

There is also an interesting Buddhist flavor here, reminding you to live in the present. What’s done is done, you’ve accounted for it, now move on.

— Reader’s Note —

I encourage everyone to make the full journey from Inferno to Paradiso. Its best done, in my opinion, by choosing whether you want to read for poetry or read for late medieval Italian historical detail. Doing both at once can be overwhelming. Either way, if you do, definitely check out the Dartmouth Dante Project.


Roger II of Sicily

It is Christmas Day 1130 in Palermo, Sicily. On this day, Roger de Hauteville, a descendant of Norman Vikings who had conquered England only 64 years previous, will be crowned the King of Sicily, encompassing all of southern Italy. His creation would exist in one form or another until 1816. He was not your everyday medieval monarch, nor was his royal investiture normal.

He was crowned in the presence of an Orthodox archbishop and by a relatively successful Antipope, Anacletus II. The great-great grandson of Jews who converted to Christianity, this was before institutions like the Inquisition when young men with the wrong ancestors could still be Pope.

Roger had been Count of Sicily since he was 9 years old, under the regency of his mother, Adelaide, a northern Italian whom Roger I had married merely because she was rumored to be fertile and Roger I was getting old with no sons. That paid off.

During the regency of Roger II, Adelaide had remarried in an effort to increase her own and her child son’s potential power. Her new husband was Baldwin I of Jerusalem, King of the Crusader Kingdom. Roger II was named successor to the Kingdom of Jerusalem if Baldwin and Adelaide had no natural children. Unfortunately for Roger, this marriage was declared bigamous (Baldwin had an Armenian wife in Edessa) so he never ascended that holy but cursed throne.

Sicily at the time of Roger’s coronation was a cosmopolitan and multi-cultural place compared to the rest of Europe. Before falling to the Normans, it had been ruled and populated by Arabs and Byzantines in the chaotic wake of the Roman collapse. One of Roger’s advisors and military captains was a man named Christodulus (“Slave of Christ”). He was likely either Greek Orthodox or Western Christian converted from Islam. His title was Emir of Palermo, and was later made Emir of the Sea (Amir Al-Bahr) by Roger. This is where we get the word “Admiral.”


But as usual with history, the real interesting bits in history appear when you look at actual objects. The picture above is of Roger’s coronation mantel (a very large cape). It is now housed in the Hapsburg treasury in Vienna where it ended up after centuries of theft and royal intermarriage. You can see it there on display today.

This is a fascinating piece. First, the gold and silk work is stunning by itself. We have no idea who made this, but they were quite skilled for the time and the technology. Second, it features on both sides a lion attacking and getting the better of a camel. No need to explain that imagery. But the tree down the middle and the edge along the top are filled with Arabic and Islamic shapes and design, many common in mosques at the time.

Most interesting is the writing along the bottom. It is written in Kufic Arabic script and says:

Here is what was created in the princely treasury, filled with luck, illustration, majesty, perfection, longanimity, superiority, welcome, prosperity, liberality, shine, pride, beauty, the achievement of desires and hopes, the pleasure of days and nights, without cease or change, with glory, devotion, preservation, protection, chance, salvation, victory and capability, in the capital of Sicily, in the year 528.

528? Yes, that would be 528 Anno Hegirae, in the year of the Hegira.

This mantel was part of the Hapsburg coronation vestments through the last Austrian Emperor’s crowning in 1916.

Another still-standing example of Roger’s polyglot kingdom is the Capella Palatina in Palermo. It was built by Roger as the royal family’s chapel and features Norman decor, Byzantine architecture, as well as Islamic arches and script throughout. Interestingly, Roger placed no human figures in the church. Those now there were placed by later rulers.

After 1130, Roger consolidated his kingdom, fighting off rebellions as well as the German Emperor and the Byzantine Emperor. He also made a significant effort at grabbing large parts of the North African coast from various Muslim kingdoms. He captured Tripoli in 1146 but this was not lasting. No one in the greater European power structure liked or respected Roger, but he always beat them.

Roger died in 1154 and was succeeded as king by his son William. This monarch is known to history as William the Bad, although it appears that’s just because his barons didn’t like the fact that they couldn’t rebel against him effectively.

Want more on Roger and his Norman predecessors as well as the fate of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily? Lars Brownworth’s Norman Centuries podcast is where you want to go. At the very least, listen to one on Frederick II.


Dungeon, Fire, Sword and a disappointing re-read


It’s amazing how much your taste in literature can change in 20 years. When I first read John J. Robinson’s Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades when it first came out in around 1992, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. What’s not to like: war, adventure, chivalry, deceit, corruption, conspiracy, religious conflict on the grand stage of history, and all true.

Today, its ponderous, filled with political and battle detail that seems extraneous to the actual history of the Templars, and just not very well written. Years ago I gave this book as a gift to people who were interested in the medieval world. I couldn’t do that today.

That said, a detailed history of the crusades is worth reviewing for a few reminders:

  1. It was never really about religion, although it was certainly sold that way. It was about siphoning off second and third sons from Western Europe and sticking it to the Byzantines.
  2. By the end, the Christian crusader states were perfectly happy with peace with their Muslim neighbors, because everyone was making a nice living from trade with the East. But people get greedy and warlike.
  3. It’s not just about Christians and Muslims. The Sunni-Shi’a divide made the early Crusades possible, and the appearance of the Mongols briefly prolonged the shrinking Crusader states.
  4. It is a crime that the Battle of Ain Jalut (linked above) gets zero coverage in most history reviews of the period.
  5. In a world where strength was right, I still find it fascinating that the powers of the day, including King Philip of France and Pope Clement, went through such amazingly circuitous proceedings to get the Templars disbanded and take their stuff. Even in 1300s Europe, where torture, rape and murder were the political norm, it was somehow important to make the whole thing look legit.