Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Assassin's Creed II

I've never even seen Assassin's Creed played, but I hear enough about it to know that for a certain segment of the population, it's the main thing they know about popular medievalism.

This Christmas, Assassin's Creed II might be the most popular medievalist product out there. Here's story about it.

Has anyone out there played it yet? How is it in terms of historical accuracy or literary themes?

Medieval HOs and Gunpowder has a set of videos of the Historical Ordnance workshop testing medieval gunpowder recipes. Though we think of the sword, spear, bow and the shield as the mainstays of medieval warfare, there was gunpowder. The problem with gunpowder is that it required ingredients that often couldn't be found locally and therefore couldn't really be mass-produced in the way required for transforming warfare.

In a sign of my continuing immaturity, I snickered every single time the speaker on the Historical Ordnance Seminar referred to it as the "HO group."

h/t Cronaca

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Medieval Warm Period and the CRU E-Mails

Recently hackers broke into the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit and posted about 62 megs of internal e-mails about the CRU's work.* The e-mails have caused a scandal because they appear to suggest that the CRU researchers have been burying and manipulating data to create the illusion of man-caused global warming.

For a layman reading the e-mails, it is hard to tell -- sometimes in private conversations academics have short-hand ways of talking about things that could be misconstrued if overheard. I'm going to contact a friend much more expert in such things than me to get his take, to see if these are innocent remarks, evidence of sloppiness, or outright nefariousness.

As regular Wordhoarders know, I've been very critical of the treatment of the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in this country. In the past, NOAA has posted summaries of its research on their paleoclimatology page that I found misleading and at odds with the actual research cited. Until last year, NOAA's page suggested there there was no Medieval Warm Period, but they quietly began to acknowledge it (along with the Little Ice Age), but they fudge it by writing, "In summary, it appears that the late 20th and early 21st centuries are likely the warmest period the Earth has seen in at least 1200 years." Incidentally, elsewhere NOAA still calls it the "so-called Medieval Warm Period."

In any case, some of the commentary about the CRU e-mails has been regarding the Medieval Warm Period, but much of it has been redacted to just include the dirty stuff, so here I offer you the more complete context from an e-mail exchange started on June 4th, 2003:

[W]hat I had in mind were the following two figures: 1) A plot of various of the most reliable (in terms of strength of temperature signal and reliability of millennial-scale variability) regional proxy temperature reconstructions around the Northern Hemisphere that are available over the past 1-2 thousand years to convey the important point that warm and cold periods where highly regionally variable. Phil and Ray are probably in the best position to prepare this (?). Phil and I have recently submitted a paper using about a dozen NH records that fit this category, and many of which are available nearly 2K back--I think that trying to adopt a timeframe of 2K, rather than the usual 1K, addresses a good earlier point that Peck made w/ regard to the memo, that it would be nice to try to "contain" the putative "MWP", even if we don't yet have a hemispheric mean reconstruction available that far back [Phil and I have one in review--not sure it is kosher to show that yet though--I've put in an inquiry to Judy Jacobs at AGU about this]. If we wanted to be fancy, we could do this the way certain plots were presented in one of the past IPCC reports (was it 1990?) in which a spatial map was provided in the center (this would show the locations of the proxies), with "rays" radiating out to the top, sides, and bottom attached to rectanges showing the different timeseries. Its a bit of work, but would be a great way to convey both the spatial and temporal information at the same time. 2) A version of the now-familiar "spaghetti plot" showing the various reconstructions as well as model simulations for the NH over the past 1 (or maybe 2K). To give you an idea of what I have in mind, I'm attaching a Science piece I wrote last year that contains the same sort of plot.

Anyway, there you have it in fuller context for you to form your own opinion. Obviously, the dirty part people are talking about here is where the writer discusses trying to "contain" the Medieval Warm Period by consciously employing the logical fallacy of cherry picking a data set.

*I hesitated at first to post something that was illegally hacked, but I decided to press forward because 1.) the e-mails are already now fully public, and 2.) now that people know they are there, they've also been made public through legal means as well, and 3.) when in doubt, it's better to talk about the facts. My apologies to any Wordhoarders who find this ethically questionable.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Beautiful Odin Figurine

What I want for Christmas can be found at Stæfcræft & Vyākaraṇa: a stunning figurine of Odin on his throne.

Did They Have Thanksgiving in the Middle Ages?

This is the time of year that people invariably ask me about Thanksgiving in the Middle Ages. Did they have it? What was it like?

Tolkien tells us, "Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both yes and no," and the same could be said about academics. The answer about medieval Thanksgiving is both yes and no.

Let's start with the "no." Thanksgiving as Americans think about it is a national holiday. Though the general idea of thanking God for the harvest is so ancient as to be pre-historic, for Americans it is also tied into a particular historical moment: The first (American) Thanksgiving at Plymouth* in 1621, when the pilgrims invited the Wampanoag indians to join them in thanking God for saving them (with the Wampanoag people and their interpreter, Squanto, as God's presumed primary instruments).

So in that sense, Thanksgiving is a strictly American holiday. That being said, it is part of a broad, global ritual of thanking God (or the gods) for the harvest, and so is not at all particularly American.

Lots of other countries have harvest festivals today, called any number of things, including Thanksgiving. Indeed, I've never lived in any country that didn't have some kind of harvest festival, but it may be that some cultures don't. Whether you're thanking Demeter, or the spirits of your ancestors, or the Christian God, the general forms are similar -- a merry feast of thanksgiving.

So what about the Middle Ages? Well, if you think about the liturgical calendar, you'll see that there are lots of feast days just as there are days for fasting. Those feast days often functioned much as we might consider Thanksgiving. Indeed, a town with a local saint whose feast day was in the fall might find very little gap between the saint's day and the harvest celebration.

Want an example? Read the opening of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- the setting is a Yule celebration at Camelot. Yule, of course, is today closely related to Christmas, but if you read the description it will also sound a lot like Thanksgiving. In that description I think we see an idealized version of what a medieval harvest festival might look like.

What did they eat? This is a tough one, since the "Middle Ages" spans many centuries and spills over from Europe onto north Africa and west Asia -- it no doubt differed from place to place. One place might have pork as a tradition, while another might have goose, while another might have venison. Some of the foods Americans traditionally associate with Thanksgiving are New World resources, and so would definitely not have been eaten, turkey being the prime example of this.

Regardless of what you eat or what you call it, Thanksgiving is part of a tradition that stretches back beyond the Middle Ages, probably into pre-history. Agrarian societies are very aware of the various forces beyond are control that can lead to a good or lean harvest, and even today when most of us don't grow our own food, we see that forces beyond our control can shape our financial ability to buy that same food. Even today, we understand that we need to thank God for all we have.

*Yes, I know you Jamestown folks claim the first, so please don't write any angry e-mails. I'm talking about the popular imagination here, and outside of Virginia, when people think of the first Thanksgiving they think of Plymouth.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Still Breathin'

I've received many concerned e-mails about the lack of blogging on the Wordhoard -- it's been about three weeks.

No need for concern. I had a string of terrible technical problems that all got repaired about the same time that I entered the busiest two-week period of the semester, a time that I'd planned for slow blogging.

Basically, I'm taking a short haitus from blogging, during which time I'm thinking about some changes I'd like to make to it. Unless the muse strikes me, I'll probably take just a few more days of thought. During this time I've not been reading other people's blogs either.

Think of it as a sort of sabbatical, after which I hope to tweak the direction of the Wordhoard a bit. Don't worry -- I'll be back shortly, no I'm not sick or injured, and yes I plan to keep the Wordhoard going.