The Revolutions Are Coming!

The other week, I mentioned that I would be starting to look at South American history because I know nothing about it. The problem is, when you know nearly nothing about a subject that’s already broad, you also know nearly nothing about where to start.  I figured the best approach was to start with what I know. And I know revolutions.

Right, now’s your chance to bail before I fully nerd out. I don’t get to play with revolutionary theory very often anymore. You’ve been warned.

There was a bit of my brain that went insane over this. Because once you start applying a context you know well to a situation you don’t, it’s a really fun intellectual game of if and how the construct of revolutionary theory — specifically western (and if you’re familiar with the concept of the north/south divide, that also becomes a factor) revolutionary theory — applies to South American revolutions. And where and why they overlap with other revolutions and where and why they differ. There’s a lot to look at, and I am here. for. it.

Starting with Chile in April, I’m doing a monthly series on revolutions! We’re going on a trip around the world to look at the patterns of revolution and see what we can do about sorting out what the fifth generation definition of revolution might be. I had wanted to look at this as my thesis project when I was doing my second MA, but it was WAY too big a topic for the amount of time we had. My advisor told me that what I was staring at was a PhD project. So that idea was scuttled.* I still don’t exactly have the time — thus the monthly aspect — but I have no academic pressures and no deadlines. I learn what I learn at the pace I learn it. Of course, the downside to not having academic pressures or deadlines is that I also don’t have access to academic databases that would be helpful.

BUT! I’m smarter than the average bear. I’m only two years outdated on the academic research because I saved PDFs of every single article I pulled for my initial research phase of that scuttled project. I may also be able to persuade a friend who is taking some extra coursework in tax law to download an article or two for me.

These entries are going to be more academic and more detailed than most of what I’ve posted here. Because I want the challenge of it. You’re free to skip them (I mean, you’re free to skip any and all of my posts, really). They’ll be drier than my normal posts. But if you want to “watch” me work through an academic process, as it were, hang out! See what happens!

*It ended up being about nationalism and violence in second- and third-culture football fans in North America.


Lesson #411: Why September Is Not the Seventh Month

I was doing some things with larger numbers this week. Septillion through decillion large. Which got me onto how September’s name implies it is the seventh of something, but it’s the ninth month in the Gregorian calendar. October is not the eighth month, November is not the ninth month, and December is not the tenth month.

So how did we get here, misnaming our months?

The answer is actually pretty simple. In the ten-month, lunar-based Roman calendar, September was the seventh month of the year and was followed by October, November, and December. Then, when the Roman calendar was replaced by the Julian calendar in the first century BCE, no one thought, “hey…this doesn’t really follow anymore”. Or, more likely, no one listened to the pedants who no doubt raised the very logical question of why we were mis-numbering months.

More on the Roman Calendar here and here.

Lesson #410: The Winged Hussars

Midweek, my mother texted me a blurb without any context. As she’s wont to do. Just sort of a “here’s a thing”. Credit where’s due, these things are usually interesting.

This week, it was about the Winged Hussars. This is exactly what it sounds like. Hussars who wore wings into battle.

The Hussars were cavalry units in Eastern and Central Europe* that date to at least the 16th century. Their first mention appears in Polish treasury documents in 1500. They were originally made up of exiled Serbs and Hungarian mercenaries, but, as a rule, most people talking about the Hussars are talking about the Polish-Lithuanian cavalry unit that existed from the 16th to the 18th centuries. After the collective reforms of the Polish king and the Lithuanian Grand Duke in the mid-16th century, the Hussars were considered an elite cavalry shock unit that drew heavily from the Polish nobility.

The Winged Hussars wore wings on their backs. They were wooden frames into which eagle, goose, or ostrich feathers were mounted. The purpose of the wings is unclear. Many historians argue that they were a psychological scare tactic. The wings clattered and the wind rushing through them while at a gallop made a humming noise. Also, they looked pretty badass. Another suggestion is that they helped to protect the soldiers’ backs against enemy weaponry. Another is that the wings served to inoculate the Polish horses to the noisemakers employed by the Ottomans and Tatars.

There aren’t a lot of good sources in English or French available online. A lot of what’s available in English is drawn from the Wikipedia page. But the Wiki page cites a whole slew of academic work in Polish, so if you’re interested, you can read that page here. There’s also this page. Most of what’s available in French is about the French Hussars, which were (and remain) light cavalry regiments that do not have wings.

Random note: I realized in conversation — about the Far East — with a friend and fellow travel junkie today that I know nothing about South American history. Like at all. I often end up learning about European and Ancient religious history because those are my areas of expertise/interest. But I bet the South Americans have some cool stuff going on too. Keep your eyes peeled for some lessons from that part of the world in the coming weeks.

*Though there are currently Hussar units in: Argentina, Canada, Chile, Denmark, France, Ireland, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Peru, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and Venezuela.


Lesson #408: The Martini

I’m reading a book I’d have liked far better 15 years ago, before I spent a few summers in Minor League baseball and before I embarked on a series of long-distance road trips across entire continents. It doesn’t matter what the book is, because a. it’s not that great and b. what’s important here is that it mentioned the origin of the martini.*

The book makes a brief note, in a discussion about Joe DiMaggio being from Martinez, California, of Martinez being the birthplace of the martini.

Now, I’m an academic skeptic, so give me a little gobbet like this one without any other context and without citation, and I’m going to run with it. So here’s the real story on the martini:

The martini was created. And that’s about where the agreement on its creation stops. Some people believe that a precursor, the Martinez, which is a wine glass of vermouth with a shot of gin in it and was served at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco in the 1860s is the inspiration for what we call a martini. Some believe it was developed by the Italian gin distiller Martini & Rossi. Some believe it was created by an Italian immigrant bartender at the Knickerbocker hotel in New York just before the First World War.  Some believe it was developed in England and named for the Martini & Henry rifle the British army used in the late 19th century. No one, apparently, believes the martini was first created in Martinez, California.**

What’s most interesting about the martini is that because of the ease of distilling gin — so easy it could be done in, say, a bathtub — it became a very popular prohibition drink in the US. It was way more vermouth than gin, then. Probably because bathtub gin isn’t the highest quality gin one can make. The martini maintained its popularity through the 1940s and 50s, at which point there was some difficulty in obtaining good quality vermouth, so martinis were mostly just chilled gin by the 1960s. And then they fell out of favour until (what I just assume was) some skeezy bartender looking to get girls decided to start messing around with martinis and brought us all the appletini in the 1990s — which is made with vodka, not gin. So thanks? I guess?

You can read more about the martini here and here.

*Fun fact: for as much as I love beer, I have never had a martini. I enjoy tequila now and again, but I’m not huge on liquor on the whole. I also have a general aversion toward gin for a couple reasons, not the least of which is it tastes like I’m drinking a Christmas tree.

**To be fair to the author, the book was written in the late 80s, and as someone who was alive and aware and remembers the late 80s (however vaguely one remembers the everyday of one’s childhood), I know for sure that I could not have easily found this information at the time. However, even being a personal narrative doesn’t excuse just dropping that information in without having been to see a reference librarian. I know for a fact those existed in the late 80s.

Lesson #406: Beguines

I’m reading a fascinating book right now — Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.* It’s not my normal fare, but it sounded really interesting, especially as an unmarried woman, so I checked it out of library. My parking fines at work.** Anyway, historically, independent women are not as rare as we imagine they were. In America, unmarried women are largely responsible for: the abolitionist movement, the suffragist movement, labour reforms, and the gay rights movement.

One of the things I’ve learned in reading this book is that, in medieval Europe, women who were unmarriageable for whatever reason — age, ability, lack of dowry, lack of suitable husband, being widowed by the Crusades — didn’t necessarily have to go into convents. For unmarried women who did not wish to enter the convent (and effectively marry Jesus), there was the beguinage.

A beguinage was a house or houses or neighbourhood of unmarried women who were committed to a life of Christian service and were free to leave for any reason they wished. It was expected that they would remain unmarried in their lives as beguines, and that their time as beguines would be devoted to service to the poor, a trade such as textile making, and/or teaching. However, they did not take vows of chastity, poverty or lifetime devotion and were not required to liquidate any assets they had upon entering the beguinage.

These orders emerged in Northern Europe in the 12th century and were most popular in The Netherlands and Belgium in the 13th and 14th centuries. Belgium saw a resurgence in popularity of beguinages in the 17th century, but their numbers never reached that of the medieval period. The last beguine, who was been born in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and served in Belgium died in 2013.

The Medieval Church alternated between a laissez faire attitude toward beguines and outright denouncing them as heretical.*** Not taking vows and giving everything they owned to the Church seems to have been a sticking point.

There’s not a whole lot of information available online about beguines and beguinages, but see here, here, and here.

*This line made my cousin in a major Canadian city and me laugh, “92% of college girls surveyed in the 1920s said they had participated in sexual, below-the-neck fondling, and that, by this time, “young middle-class men were more likely to lose their virginity with women of their own class than with prostitutes.”” We spent a good five minutes discussing what above-the-neck fondling was. The best we could come up with was a wet willy and a nose boop.

**Although, since I split with my ex, I haven’t actually *had* a parking fine because I’m spending significantly less time in his parking gestapo neighbourhood.

***This is pretty rich considering the medieval Papacy was a revolving door of simony, murder, illegitimate children, power hunger that would put Game of Thrones to shame, and literally disinterring a deceased Pope to put his corpse on trial. As previously noted, I *love* the medieval Papacy because it’s completely bonkers.

Lesson #388: French Indochina

One of my favourite books (Marguerite Duras’ L’Amant) is set in Vietnam during the French occupation. And, oddly, Indochina came up among my friends last week because one recently bought a new suit from a company that was named something similar (I think it was “indochino?”) and two friends and I asked, legitimately, I felt, “were they Vietnamese?” and he kind of stared blankly.*

So I decided today to go searching for why Vietnam was called French Indochina during its colonial years. Well, not the French part. That part’s pretty obvious.

Turns out that technically speaking, Indochina — which is an actual geographical thing — is made up of Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. But because I learned history in American schools, I know way more about Vietnamese history than I know about the rest of Southeast Asia combined, so I never learned that Indochina is an actual geographical place.**

Fun thing I also never learned in school because America never fought a protracted war in Cambodia or Laos…French Indochina covered all of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as a small Chinese enclave, Guangzhouwan.

At its inception in 1887 — though the French had been in the area for more than 200 years before this — French Indochina was made up of Laos and Vietnam. Cambodia was annexed in 1893, and Guangzhouwan followed in 1900. It remained that way until Guangzhouwan was returned to China in 1946. And then there were a lot of people in the antebellum years — particularly in that part of the world…Africa didn’t join the party until about a decade later — who weren’t particularly impressed with the whole colonialism bit. This led to the First Indochina War,*** which ran from 1946 until an agreement was reached at the 1954 Geneva Conference — at which France agreed to relinquish control of all its holdings on the Indochinese peninsula. Unfortunately, neither South Vietnam, nor the United States agreed to the accords, so things went a bit south after that…

Not a lot of good sources online — most mention Laos and Cambodia as briefly as possible before moving on to Vietnam (this is what I was talking about above), but the wiki article actually has a pretty good bibliography listed. I’m slightly impressed.

*He’s delightful, but he’s not that bright.

**Though, if I’d thought about it for just a moment, I’d probably have realized that it being situated between India and China would make the whole thing pretty self-evident.

***Which included the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which you should be familiar with if you’ve ever listened to Billy Joel. Or Miss Saigon. Or you had any course in French or Asian colonial history. Probably one of the two former ones though.

Lesson #383: Fionn mac Cumhaill’s Split Boulder

The Irish oral tradition is so fantastic. If you’ve never read The Táinin my opinion the most fun and exciting part of the Ulster Cycle –I’d encourage you to do so. It’s good stuff ! Then again, I absolutely love the old sagas/epics. I have a lot of them in my personal library.

I was watching the latest McDonagh (John Michael of The Guard, not Martin of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths)/Gleeson project, Calvary today. Because I like black comedies best of all. Though Calvary isn’t really haha funny like The Guard is, it’s still got its moments.* And on the whole, it’s very, very good. Anyway, there’s a part where Brendan Gleeson’s character is telling his daughter about the legend of the split rock — because they’re at the split rock — and it’s really very interesting.

I’m not as familiar with Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool as you’ve all probably heard him called, because English) as I am with Cú Chulainn, the great hero of Ulster, but I know the basics. He was a mythological warrior who shows up in the Fenian Cycle, but also in legends originating in Scotland and the Isle of Man.** Fionn had a band of followers called the Fianna.*** He’s also, in some legends, referred to as the giant responsible for building a series of stepping stones from the North of Ireland over to Scotland; it is for him that Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave — in tribute of which one of my favourite pieces of music was composed — are named.

Anyway…the boulder. In Co. Sligo, near the town of Easkey, there’s a giant rock that’s been split in two. Science blames the last ice age, but science is unimaginative. Legend has it that Fionn and another giant by the name of Cicsatóin (or just members of the Fianna, depending on what you read), were hanging out one day. The pair decided to make a game of throwing a pair of massive boulders from their place in the Ox Mountains into the sea, 20 miles away. Cicsatóin succeeded****; Fionn did not. Enraged, he strode down to the rock and whacked it with his sword, splitting it in two. According to legend, you can safely pass through the boulder twice, but a third attempt will end in you being smushed by the rock.

You can read more here and here. And probably in the Fenian Cycle, which I can’t find you full text of, but there’s a pretty good synopsis here. As this is all legend, these aren’t exactly what one would call credible sources, but it’s legend, and part of the fun of legends is that they aren’t verifiable.

*And also, Aiden Gillen with his proper accent, which took some getting used to after years of hearing him as Littlefinger.

**My favourite of the stories I know tells how Fionn created both the Isle of Man and Lough Neagh when ripped up a part of the land to throw it at a Scottish rival. He missed, and the land wound up in the Irish Sea.

***Yes, that is where Fianna Fáil comes from.

****Legend also has it this is why the waters around Easkey have such good surfing.