Eric Tagliacozzo is a professor of history at Cornell University, and his new book In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds From Yemen to Yokohama outlines five centuries of maritime history in the Asian world. In this wide-ranging interview, we discussed how China created trade routes that stretched all the way to Africa’s Swahili coast, the ocean-going history of Vietnam, and the role of consumer goods, piracy, slavery, and religion in the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, Pacific, and beyond.
The Poetic Edda is one of our main sources for Norse mythology, and the poems in it feature tales of gods, heroes, giants, and (of course) Ragnarok. However, not everything in the Poetic Edda focuses on quests, battles, heroes, or monsters. Some of the major poems featuring the Aesir don’t feature the gods fighting frost giants or battling with monsters like Fenris or the World Serpent. Rather, they spend an awful lot of time insulting each other.
In a poem known as The Flyting of Loki or Loki’s Quarrel, the god of mischief crashes a feast and systematically goes around the room insulting each of the other gods. In Harbard’s Song Odin (in disguise as a ferryman) taunts and belittles Thor for no reason at all. Each of the poems is an example of flyting, a Northern European medieval practice of trading comedic, poetic insults for the amusement of onlookers.
Duncan Ryuken Williams’s new book, American Sutra, explores Japanese Internment with a focus on Buddhism. Most Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were Buddhists, and before and during internment these members of the Japanese-American community were treated very differently than those who’d converted to Christianity. Buddhists in internment camps found ways to practice their faith, despite it being discouraged, and Buddhist soldiers were crucial to the American war effort, both in Europe and the Pacific.
Notre Dame Cathedral, the world’s best-known example of Gothic architecture, was partially destroyed in a fire. The church requires extensive restoration, but this is not the first time that Notre Dame has fallen into ruin. When Victor Hugo wrote his 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris (known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English) the church was in disrepair. Hugo’s novel inspired a restoration starting in 1844, and architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc created much of what we, until last Monday, associated with Notre Dame. The picture below is from 1847, during Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration. Note the lack of spire, which had yet to be built.
Change, even tragic change, is a fact of life for monuments, and in this episode we also look at how other famous sites have been transformed throughout their history.
Happy Defenestration Day! On May 23rd, 1618 a bunch of angry Bohemian nobles shoved some government officials out of a window. The Second Defenestration of Prague kicked off the Thirty Years’ War, but today we mark it as a sesquipedalian occasion to celebrate very large words.
Maybe the most famous part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a ladder that’s been propped onto the side of the building since at least the 1750s. The church is sacred to six different Christian sects, all of whom have to agree unanimously on anything in order to change any features of the church. For the past 250 plus years, none of them have agreed on where the ladder came from, who owns it, or where it should go. Tensions have occasionally led to fistfights at the Church of the holy Sepulchre, and the ladder remains a symbol of inter-sectarian non-cooperation.
Italian fascism came to power (and solidified power) by co-opting existing political organizations and interests in Italy. That included the Catholic Church. Since Italian Unification the Church had been at odds with liberal Italy, and for fifty-nine years pope did not even set foot outside the Vatican. In 1929, though Mussolini offered the papacy a way out, with the creation of Vatican City as an independent state. Unfortunately, this would not go entirely well for the church.
Kara Helgren has previously worked for the city of Salem, Massachusetts as a tour guide, leading visitors through the ominously-named Witch House. According to Helgren tourist expectations veered toward the lurid and macabre. Visitors expected tales of ghosts, black magic, and torture. Helgren (whose thesis was about the witch trials) gave them none of that. Instead, she crushed their dreams and broke their hearts with a bunch of historical accuracy.
Decades before the modern versions of the Democratic and Republican parties formed, the US also had a few other major political parties. One was the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Another was the Whigs, who had intermittent success before collapsing in the middle 1800s. Out of the ashes of the Whig party two other parties rose to take its place: The anti-slavery Republican party, and the anti-immigrant American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings.
The Know-Nothings opposed immigration to the United States, particularly from Catholics. Anti-Catholic paranoia has a long history in the US. Catholics (the thinking went) were more likely to be loyal to the pope than the country they lived in, were unable to work with people whom they deemed to be “heretics” and were, in general, less hardworking and virtuous than their fellow Protestants. This xenophobia, paranoia, and bigotry was prevalent enough that in the election of 1856 the Know-Nothings would contend as a major political party, albeit a failed one.
No one knows who wrote The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. There is no record of an English knight alive at the right time with that name who could have written it. One oft-repeated theory is that Mandeville retired to Belgium, lived under a pseudonym, and only confessed his authorship of the Travels on his deathbed. Other than the uncorroborated word of a Liege notrary, though, we have nothing to substantiate this theory.
What we do know is that the work was not wholly original, and combined elements of several pre-existing fantasies and romances into a single narrative. And, despite or maybe because of the fantasy elements, it did so well. It remains a fascinating look at what it means to encounter the unfamiliar, to travel, and to see the world that lies just beyond the lands you know.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
As the Travels of Sire John Mandeville move away from the familiar and the Holy Land, they get progressively more bizarre. The laws of convention and even reality seem to break down as Mandeville encounters cannibals, dog people, weaponized elephants, and headless humans who have faces on their chest. In one particularly striking passage Mandeville says that not only is the world round, but that one can circumnavigate it, and he also characterizes the Kingdom of the Great Khan as perhaps the most advanced nation in the entire world. The book ends with description of the Earthly Paradise, the one spot on the globe that Mandeville, despite all of his experience, cannot reach.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
Easter jumps around. Sure, it’s always on a Sunday, but unlike, say, the U.S.’s Labor Day (which always falls on the first Monday in September) Easter jumps around. It could be on the third Sunday in March. Or the fifth. Or the fourth. Or sometime in April. It jumps around. The dating of Easter comes from a combination of lunar and solar calendars, astronomical events, and religious tradition all crashing together. The result is that Easter is sometime in March. Or April. It’s complicated.
To help shed some light on when Easter is actually supposed to happen, we sat down with Jamie Jeffers, the man behind the excellent British History Podcast. Jeffers has previously gotten into some of the controversies surrounding Easter on his own show, and has detailed how fights over the holiday led to actual, real violence among early Christians. Also, there were some very bad haircuts involved. Again: It was complicated.
Pictured below: The Council of Nicea, which tried (tried) to sort this all out. They only kind of did.
Mahdist Sudan died violently.
The religious state persisted for approximately a decade and a half but after that the British, eager to solidify their influence and control in the region, brought the country to heel. Egypt had never recognized Sudanese independence, and thought of the new country as little more than a renegade province. Under British control and influence, the Anglo-Egyptian forces crushed the independent Sudanese state, making short work of the armed forces. The key to their victory was a new technology: The machine gun.
After the British victory the military and cultural foundations of the Mahdist state were destroyed, and Sudan was soon in the same state of repression that it had previously been in, though instead of dealing with the Ottoman boot, now it suffered under the British.
After successfully defeating the Ottoman-Egyptian and British forces at Khartoum, Sudan formed an independent government based around Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi or “expected one.” Unfortunately for Sudan, though, Ahmad died of Typhus only six months after the birth of the new state, and Mahdist Sudan was almost immediately faced with a succession crisis.
It would only be the first of many trials for the new state. Regional rebellions and border skirmishes, a war with neighboring Ethiopia, and economic isolation and famine would all take their toll on Sudan, and over the lifetime of the Mahdist state, millions of Sudanese citizens would die as a result of violence and privation.
In the early 1880s Sudan suffered under the heel of the Ottoman empire. Military occupation and heavy taxes led to widespread discontent that eventually led to a religiously-infused rebellion. Muhammad Ahmad styled himself as the Mahdi or “expected one,” a prophesized Islamic figure, and drawing on discontent, Ahmad led a rebellion throughout the country.
The British officer Charles George Gordon (pictured below) was put in charge of evacuating Egyptians and other foreigners from the Sudan. But, because of his poor relations with the British and the Ottoman-Egyptian governments, Gordon ended up holed up in Khartoum, under siege by the rebel forces, and eventually dead at the hands of the Sudanese. The Mahdi had successfully defeated the foreign occupiers, and a new state formed under his religiously-inspired revolutionary power.
There is no war on Christmas. But there was.
Contemporary political commentators have, in the past, complained and ranted about a supposed secular war on Christmas, a crusade to erase spirituality and religion from late December, a campaign to turn the occasion of the Nativity into merely “the Holidays.” But, Christmas has always been a season more about revelry and celebration than spirituality. The holiday is a re-appropriating by Christianity of pre-existing Roman festivals such as Saturnalia and the birthdate of Sol Invictus the sun god. Christian reinterpretations are just that: Reinterpretations.
One group that knew this very well was the Puritans, who saw Christmas as a fundamentally ungodly holiday, and sought to ban it and all of its various trappings in both England and Massachusetts. Puritan leaders such as Cotton Mather (pictured below) saw the holiday not as something for the glory of God or Christianity, but directly counter to it. In Puritan-controlled areas shops and businesses stayed open on Christmas, and anyone caught celebrating the offensive holiday was fined the sum of five shillings.
At the end of the eleventh century, a group of would-be conquerors followed a goose on crusade.
The standard (and almost certainly overly simplistic) narrative of the First Crusade is that, in 1095 Pope Urban II rallied religious leaders at the Council of Clermont to retake the Holy Land. After a few stirring speeches and cries of “deus vult!” (God wills it!) a holy war began. Again, this narrative is almost certainly factually incorrect, but it’s stayed in the popular imagination.
The First Crusade, though, was far more disorganized than its neat and tidy origin myth suggest. Several lords, kings, and independent military leaders operated more or less independently. One of the most notable leaders of what would become known as the People’s Crusade was an itinerant preacher named Peter the Hermit who stirred his followers with tales of apocalypse, end times, and final battles. Among Peter the Hermit’s followers was a group of crusaders who followed a goose, claiming that that bird was speaking to them through the Holy Spirit.
The Wicker Man is one of the most creative and fearsome execution devices of all time. A figure of a giant, made of bent wood and reeds, looms up over a desolate Celtic moor, and hapless captives write inside of its cage-like form. A horde of barbaric and bloodthirsty Celts chant in the distance, eager to see the sacrifice, and a Druid, clad in fur and leather, ignites the massive statue and the captives within, sending them as a burnt offering to the insatiable gods who are forever thirsty for human blood.
Like the iron maiden though, there’s scant evidence that the iconic wicker man ever existed. The only evidence that we have to go on is Julius Caesar’s propagandistic memoir The Gallic Wars. Despite that, though, burning effigy festivals are still popular throughout the world today. Guy Fawkes Night, the Burning of Judas, Zozobra, and, of course, Burning Man all remain immensely popular, despite the oldest known effigy probably being more folklore than fact.
Last week the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. It was an amazing victory for equality and a long time coming. There were, however, dissents. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:
[T]he Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?
Roberts’ dissent is a version of the appeal to authority fallacy, with his authority here being the supposed constancy of monogamous heterosexual marriage throughout time.
On the other side of things, several media outlets began posting articles about how, in fact, gay marriage had been practiced a millennium ago by various sects of Christianity with a rite called adelphopoeisis. Two saints, Sergius and Bacchus (pictured below) were probably the highest-profile pair to undergo the rite which formalized and sanctified their relationship.
The articles on adelphopoeisis as an early gay marriage rite went back to one historian, John Boswell, who claimed that it sanctified homosexual unions. Other historians contest Boswell’s claim, and claimed that adelphopoeisis was more of a brotherhood ritual.
In this episode, I take the position that ultimately it does not matter what the nature of adelphopoeis was, and that it is also perfectly acceptable to contravene the traditions that John Roberts held so dear. The rightness of legalizing gay marriage does not rest upon what our ancestors did or did not do, but the future that modern people choose to make.
Hong Xiuquan and his Taiping rebels successfully founded a new kingdom in southern China. The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace sought to overthrow the Manchurian Qing Dynasty and form a new, radically different China. Hong, the supposed younger brother of Jesus Christ, retreated to a life of luxury in an opulent palace, and the actual governance of the kingdom was carried out by his cousin Hong Rengan, who acted as essentially the Heavenly Kingdom’s prime minister. Hong sought out aide from foreign powers to assist the Taiping in their struggle against the Qing, but none came.
Instead, the Manchurian Dynasty and the United Kingdom would join forces to crush the rebels, and the supposed brother of Christ would die ingloriously while besieged in his palace. The image below is a memorial Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in Guanxi.
In the 1850s a man who styled himself as the younger brother of Jesus Christ led China into a bloody rebellion. China in the early 1800s was ravaged by famine, natural disasters, and British meddling that introduced opium (and the Opium Wars) to the population. The country was ripe for rebellion against the Qing Dynasty who, being Manchurian, were often perceived as foreigners by many of China’s Han population. Into all of this chaos and discontent came a man called Hong Xiuquan who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Hong founded an organization called the God Worshipping Society, and he and his Christian rebels would attempt to destroy not only the Qing Dynasty, but also prevailing Chinese ideas of religion and civilization.
This week’s show tracks the reasons behind China’s Taiping Rebellion, and gives a bit of background about Hong himself. Next week’s show will focus on the war itself, and the eventual fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The image below (made some time after the Taiping rebellion in 1886) shows Chinese Imperial soldiers retaking a provincial capital from Taiping rebels.
A website all about the Taiping Rebellion with a fairly obvious URL.
One of the most persistent myths of the Middle Ages was that of Prester John, a mythical Christian king whose supposed domain was located beyond the eastern Muslim regions. Probably the most vivid portion of the myth is a letter received by the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos in 1165 claiming to be from the monarch. The letter (ostensibly written from one king to another, but with an arrogant, bragging tone that glorifies Prester John’s position relative to that of Byzantium) details a kingdom flowing with milk and honey, populated by fantastical animals such as centaurs and fauns, and featuring such wonders as Mount Olympus and the Fountain of Youth.
Some writers, most notably Marco Polo, identified Prester John with the Mongols, and later versions of the story would move his kingdom to Ethiopia. Below is a 15th century painting depicting Ong Khan, a rival to Genghis Khan, as the legendary king Prester John.
Prester John is profiled in chapter three of S. Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages from 1867.
Prester John and Europe’s Discovery of East Asia from East Asian History, June, 1996.
This YouTube video by a medieval studies grad student nicely illustrates the legend of Prester John with action figures. I have a serious amount of admiration for that kind of thing.
A famed artifact, the Cyrus Cylinder, has often been cited as an early proclamation of human rights. The Shah of Iran, the UN, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and an American president all hailed Cyrus the Great as an early innovator of liberalism and tolerance. Unfortunately, though, the historical record does not bear those claims out. Cyrus the Great was a monarch, and the world still falls for his ancient propaganda thousands of years later.