Interview for Geek Dad/Geek Mom on Racism and Diversity in Speculative Fiction

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St. Maurice

On April 11, 2017, I was interviewed by the blog Geek Dad/Geek Mom. We talked about racism and diversity in speculative fiction, about the state of the art in historical research, and how to locate trustworthy sources when you do your own historical research when writing speculative fiction.

And of course, I recommended some books. And referenced Stargate SG-1.

You can check out the interview here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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10 Things You Need to Know about the Luttrell Psalter

On September 29, 2016, I published the following post on Book Riot.

10 Things You Need to Know about the Luttrell Psalter

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The Luttrell Psalter is one of the most famous manuscripts from medieval England because of the images that decorate its pages. Some of these images have been interpreted as the most accurate portrayals of medieval rural life while others seem to make no sense at all.

However, if we dig deeper into the layout of the images on the page, the Luttrell Psalter reveals itself to be a magnificent example of political satire and wordplay of the highest level.

Here are ten things you need to know about the Luttrell Psalter and its images.

If you would like to read the entire post, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

12 Things You Should Know about the Silver Bible

On December 1, 2015, I published the following post on Book Riot.

12 Things You Should Know about the Silver Bible

The Silver Bible


The Silver Bible, or Codex Argenteus, was created in Italy in the early sixth century. Soon after its creation the book went missing. One thousand years later, it resurfaced in Germany. The story of the Silver Bible is a remarkable one that involves war, theft, unpaid librarians, book collectors, kings, emperors, and queens. On top of all this, the Silver Bible provides insight to the culture and language of one of the most enigmatic ancient peoples, the Goths.

Here are twelve things you should know about the Silver Bible.

If you would like to read the post in its entirety, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

Wesley Chu’s THE LIVES OF TAO and the Spanish Inquisition

Wesley Chu’s novel The Lives of Tao is the first part of a trilogy that tells the story of the Quasing, an alien race who crashed on Earth and who need to live inside a host to survive. By merging science fiction with alternate history, Chu takes us through the history of the Quasing on Earth, explaining how the alien species split into factions—the Genjix and the Prophus. When Chu introduces us to the Quasing in the twenty-first century, these factions are at war with one another.

Tao of the novel’s title is the Quasing Tao of the Prophus faction, who merges with slacker Roen Tan when Tao’s previous host Edward is killed in a confrontation with the Genjix. In an effort to get to know the alien who now resides within him, Roen asks Tao to tell him about his previous hosts, which enables Chu to roll out an alternate history of the world of epic proportions.

This alternate take on history is interesting for several reasons, e.g., it is revealed that every major event in Western European history has been caused by the Quasing, such as the Mongol invasion under Genghis Khan (1162–1227), the Black Death (1347–1350), the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), and even World Wars I (1914–1918) and II (1939–1945).

The one part of Tao’s life story that I found particularly troubling, and therefore would like to discuss here, is the Spanish Inquisition. According to Tao, he and his friend Chyiva felt disillusioned regarding the Quasing’s approach to humans. Together, Tao and Chyiva decided to work for this approach to change. Soon, they attracted a following among other Quasing. The backlash against these betrayers was the Spanish Inquisition. According to Tao, the Spanish Inquisition came about in the following way.

The Council did not tolerate our dissension, and in retaliation called for a cleansing. The Spanish Inquisition spread across Europe, a cover for the Council to rid itself of the hosts of renegade Quasing. They called us Prophus, betrayers. They referred to themselves as Genjix, the old order. (Wesley Chu, The Lives of Tao, p. 274)

There are several problems with Tao’s relation of events. First, let’s take a closer look at what the Spanish Inquisition really was.

Within the Catholic Church of medieval Europe there was a need to stamp out what was considered heresy and instead enforce Church doctrine upon the population. The judicial process through which this was achieved was called an inquisition, from the Latin verb inquiro. In other words, the Spanish Inquisition was preceded by several other inquisitions,  arguably the most famous ones being the inquisition that eventually led to the destruction of the Knights Templar, as well as the persecution of the Cathars in southern France, both taking place during the thirteenth century.

The Spanish Inquisition was established through the issuing of a Papal bull in 1478 by request of Spanish king and queen Ferdinand and Isabella. The Spanish Inquisition was different from previous inquisitions in that it was the most organized. It has been argued that unlike other inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition took the step from being a judicial process to being a judicial institution.

The Spanish Inquisition according to Monty Python

The Spanish Inquisition according to Monty Python.

Another reason why the Spanish Inquisition was different is because unlike previous inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition did not target fellow Christians who failed to follow Church doctrine. No, the Spanish Inquisition was created to target Jews, in particular so-called conversos, i.e., Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity to avoid persecution.

The purpose of the forced conversion of Spanish Jews was to eradicate them as the political and religious threat they were considered to be towards Ferdinand and Isabella. The only problem was that once enough Jews had succumbed under pressure and converted, the conversos were deemed an even greater threat. Indeed, they were suspected of continuing to practice Judaism in secrecy. Enter the Inquisition and its infamous methods to extract confessions and conversions through the use of torture.

The most famous of the Grand Inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition is Tómas de Torquemada (1420–1498), who is believed to have been personally responsible for the torture and execution of at least 2,000 Spanish Jews. In the history of European Jewry, the Spanish Inquisition and the actions of Torquemada, which culminated in the expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492, is a wound that has never healed.

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The Spanish Inquisition according to Mel Brooks.

Moreover, Spain itself is grappling to come to terms with the atrocities committed against the Jewish population of Spain by the Inquisition. On June 11, 2015, a new law was passed granting citizenship to more than 4,000 descendants of the Jews who were expelled in 1492.

With this knowledge of the Spanish Inquisition in mind, Chu’s decision to include the Spanish Inquisition in the war between the Prophus and the Genjix becomes most unfortunate. This sentence is particularly problematic.

The Spanish Inquisition spread across Europe, a cover for the Council to rid itself of the hosts of renegade Quasing. (ibid.)

In other words, according to Chu’s alternate history, the Spanish Inquisition was a cover-up for an internal conflict within an alien species, not a systematic persecution of Spanish Jews that cost over 2,000 people their lives and an estimated 160,000 people their homes. Or perhaps we are to believe that the Jewish victims were mere collateral damage that need not be mentioned?

Overall, The Lives of Tao is a highly entertaining read and I do recommend that you read it. As an historian, I support all inclusion of history in fiction, be it in the form of historical fiction, alternate history, or speculative history. However, as I have stated several times before here on The Boomerang, it is of utmost importance that an author is aware of the many complicating aspects of the historical process he or she decides to include in their story.

Sources
Wesley Chu, The Lives of Tao (Angry Robot, 2013)
Britannica Online, “Inquisition.”
Britannica Online, “Spanish Inquisition.”
Britannica Online, “Tómas de Torquemada.”

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

Book Riot: Reading Old Cookbooks (For History, Not Recipes)

On August 28, 2014, I published the following post on Book Riot:

Reading Old Cookbooks (For History, Not Recipes)

Do you enjoy reading historical nonfiction?

Have you ever thought of reading an old cookbook to satisfy your cravings?

Now you might be wondering, can a cookbook be a historical document?

Let me explain.

At my parents’ house, in the room where the book scorpions live, there is a cookbook from 1886. The title is… If you would like to read the rest of the piece, please click here.

The Reign of Karl XIII. Or Napoleon, the Swedish Revolution, and the Prince Who Fell Off His Horse

By far the most popular name for a Swedish king is Karl. There is Karl XII who lost Sweden’s Baltic empire and who according to legend is responsible for making stuffed cabbage a mainstay on Swedish dinner tables. There is Karl XIV Johan, the patriarch of the current royal dynasty, the Bernadottes. There is Karl XV who supposedly sired illegitimate children all over the realm. And last, but not least, there is the current king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf.

But what about Karl XIII? Who was he?

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Karl XIII of Sweden, painting by C.F. von Breda.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

Karl XIII (1748–1818) was king for a brief time. He ruled Sweden from 1809 to 1818 and Norway from 1814 to 1818. As king, Karl XIII has left few traces behind. I have only come across one public building mentioning his name. The building is a church tower belonging to a church located not far from where I grew up in Sweden.

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The church tower at Västra Tunhem, Sweden. The plaque above the door reads: “In the year of 1810 during the reign of King Karl XIII this tower was built from the ground up.”
Photo: EH Kern

To understand why Karl XIII’s reign in hindsight may seem to have been of little consequence, we have to go back to the year 1792.

In 1792, King Gustav III is assassinated and his son, Gustav IV Adolf, becomes king. However, Gustav IV Adolf was a minor. Karl XIII—at this point in time known as Duke Karl—expected to be appointed guardian since he was the brother of Gustav III. But the relationship between the two brothers was strained. On his deathbed, Gustav III made an addendum to his last will and testament, prohibiting the appointment of Karl as Gustav IV Adolf’s guardian. After Gustav III had passed away, Karl managed to have this addendum annulled and consequently became the legal guardian of his nephew and the de facto ruler of Sweden.

Karl’s guardianship lasted for four years. During those years, Karl was a weak ruler and instead his personal favorite and adviser, G.A. Reuterholm took the reins.  In 1796 Gustav IV Adolf came of age. Karl lost all of his influence and he retired from politics.

Gustav IV Adolf became king during the height of the French Revolution. His response was to explicitly distance himself from what happened in France. By 1796, France’s army, under the leadership of Napoléon Bonaparte, had begun its advancement across Europe in a military conflict that would spill over into the European colonies in North America and Africa and continue unabated until the defeat of France at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Because of his opposition to Revolutionary France, Gustav IV Adolf allied himself with France’s enemies. The result of this was war with Russia, at this time an ally of France. For Sweden this war ended in disaster. In 1808, Russia invaded Finland and advanced as far as northern Sweden. In the ensuing peace negotiations of 1809, Finland and the Åland Islands were handed over to Russia. Finland had been a part of the Swedish kingdom since the middle of the twelfth century and constituted half of the kingdom’s surface. Needless to say, the outcome of the war was crushing and Gustav IV Adolf took the blame.

In May 1809, following a military coup, Gustav IV Adolf was forced to abdicate. This coup is the only one of its kind in Swedish history and is viewed as the closest that Sweden has come to a revolution. In the aftermath of the coup, an extra-ordinary parliament (riksdag) decided that neither Gustav IV Adolf nor any of his descendants were allowed to ascend the throne of Sweden.

But the kingdom still needed a king.

Enter Karl.

Karl XIII was elected king in 1809 on the condition that he accepted the new constitution that regulated royal power in relationship to the power of the riksdag.

However, at this time Karl XIII was an old man without heirs. This meant that an heir to the throne had to be located.

In an attempt to convince Norway to become joined in a union with Sweden, Prince Kristian August was appointed heir to the throne. Everything seemed to have been solved for the best, when in 1810 Kristian August during a military drill fell off his horse and died from his injuries.

The search was on again. A new candidate was located, ironically in Napoléon Bonaparte’s France. The man was one of Napoléon’s Field Marshals who had fallen out of grace with the French Emperor. His name was Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, son of a middle-class lawyer from the town of Pau in southwestern France. Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was legally adopted by Karl XIII as his heir and in 1818 he ascended the throne in Sweden as Karl XIV Johan and in Norway as Karl III Johan.

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Jean Baptiste Bernadotte/Karl XIV Johan. The portrait was painted by Fredrik Westin in 1810, when Bernadotte was known as Prince Karl Johan.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

As king, Karl XIII showed the same traits of political weakness as he had as Gustav IV Adolf’s legal guardian. In fact, he was opposed both to the constitution of 1809 and to Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, but lacking political strength he had no other choice but to concede. Moreover, in 1809 he suffered from a stroke and during the final years of his reign he was incapacitated by health issues and incapable to rule.

During his lifetime, Karl XIII was a dedicated free mason. His legacy as such lives on in the Carl XIII’s Order (Carl XIII:s Orden), awarded Swedish and foreign masons of Protestant faith.

Karl XIII passed away in 1818 and lies buried in the Riddarholm Church in Stockholm.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Nationalencyklopedin Karl XIII
Nationalencyklopedin Sverige Historia Gustaviansk tid (1772–1809)
Nationalencyklopedin Sverige Historia Nytt statsskick
Nationalencyklopedin Sverige Historia Tronföljarval och utrikespolitiskt systemskifte
Nationalencyklopedin Karl XIV Johan
Wikipedia Carl XIII:s Orden

Note:
In English, Swedish kings by the name of Karl are called Charles. Here, I have chosen to use the Swedish names.

 

 

 

History Judges But Who Is Presiding?

A commonly used phrase in political debate is “History will judge.” For example, in 2011, in a comment on ending the Iraq war, President Barack Obama stated that “History will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.” President Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, also used the phrase, for example in July of 2013 when he, according to The Washington Times, stated that “history will be the judge of his record in office.” Several others, ranging from journalists and pundits to politicians and writers, use the phrase on a recurring basis.

As an historian, the phrase intrigues me. It seems as if history somehow is seen as a person with a law degree.

Gavel_&_Stryker
Gavel and stryker.
Source: KeithBurtis

What does the phrase “History will judge” actually mean? And why would an historian worth his or her salt never use it?

First we need to take a closer look at what history actually is.

I define history as an academic discipline that researches the human condition through the study of written documents. History is the study of events connected to one another within the framework of human society, interpreted from the viewpoint of the individuals participating in those events as they happen.

Consequently, based on this definition of history we can determine what history is not.

History is not the same thing as time.
In other words, history does not begin when time begins. Neither does history end if or when (depending on your belief system) time ends. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there were voices who declared “the end of history,” as if historical research, indeed human society as we then knew it, had lost its reason for existing.

History is not the same thing as all human activity.
History is only interested in those human activities that contribute to the creation of human society, expressed in writing in a literate society. Study of the human condition and the creation of human society within a non-literary context belong to research disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology.

History is not the same thing as retrospect.
When looking at past events it is easy to take the outcome or result of those events and extrapolate them to a time before the events took place, as if the people involved would have known what we know. However, this is not possible when researching history. Neither is it possible to predict what events will become historical. At the same time as President Obama stated that history will judge the reasons for the Iraq war, he also said that ending the war after nine years is “a historic moment.” Unfortunately, this is something that not even the President of the United States of America can decide.

The phrase “History will judge” indicates that history is all-encompassing and omnipresent in human society. It also indicates that eventually it will be decided if actions taken and decisions made were right or wrong.

However, it is only possible to judge actions or decisions to be right or wrong if you base that judgment on a set of moral and ethical values. Such values, as we all know, change. For example, less than one hundred years ago it was normal that all women, as well as men below a certain level of income, were not allowed to vote in political elections. Less than fifty years ago it was normal for school children to be hit by their teachers. Today neither of these practices are acceptable. In certain parts of the world, I might add.

Ali G interviews Sir Rhodes Boyson on British Education (YouTube)

The phrase “History will judge” also indicates that sometime in the future there will be someone who makes the judgment as to what actions and decisions were right or wrong. When people say that history will judge, who do they envision making that judgment?

Based on the above definition of what history is or is not, I would argue that if history judges, those presiding will be the historians doing research at that time. The reason for this argument is that what we know about our past is based on information found, interpreted and analyzed by historians.

The only problem with this statement is that if the true judges of history are the historians, the bench will be empty when the court is in session. Any historian who takes his or her work seriously would never pass judgment on past events, processes, or individuals. In other words, an historian would never state whether something is right or wrong, but rather present the context in which an event took place and draw conclusions from there. However, this is not to say that historians accept or condone atrocities, such as, for example, The Holocaust or the Genocide of Rwanda.

Therefore, in public debate, whenever a biased statement on past events is made, that person is either not an historian, or an historian with an ulterior motive.

Next time you hear someone use the phrase “History will judge” or declare a moment to be historic, ask yourself: Who is saying it and why?

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Politico Obama: “History will judge Iraq” war
The Washington Times George W. Bush: History will be the judge; as for opinion polls, “I could care less”
Wikipedia End of history

Note:
Image of gavel and stryker downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Previous posts on related topics:
The Historian as Time Traveler
Historical Truth vs. Historical Validity
Historical Science in Science Fiction
Beginning of Time Is Not Beginning of History
Asimov’s Foundation and the Science of History