04 August 2012

Mad Blood Stirring

Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta in Renaissance Italy by Edward Muir looks at the nature of Vendetta on the northern fringes of venetian territory through the history of a particular extend struggle between two powerful groups of nobles at from the end of the fifteenth through the end of the sixteenth century.  It focuses most of all on a particularly grisly outburst during the Carnival of 1511.

The struggle between the Savorgnan and Delle Torre family and their followers is tracked in loving detail along with the fortunes of Friuli as its Venetian rulers alter existing power structures to in an effort control Venice's frontiers with the Emperor and the Turks.

In addition to learning the unpleasant rules of Vendetta (where the objective is not just the to kill an enemy, but to utterly disgrace him in life and desecrate his remains in death), there is a good deal of information about the nature of small scale border raiding and ambush in the early 16th Century - a perspective lost (for good reason) in any history of the Italian Wars that focuses on great sieges, decisive battles, and high politics.

The Carnival disturbances went beyond the direct participants in the vendetta; it became a full scale peasant uprising.  In examining this aspect, Muir also gives us a look at life at the low end of the noble class.

Finally, looking a the conclusion of the vendetta - which evolved from ambush, to duels, to a war of words in print - lets us look at the evolution of the "new manners" from the courts of the sixteenth century.  The mechanisms of dueling that survived into our own time -- challenge, choice of weapons, seconds -- is in this corner of the world a late imposition on the older structure of revenge and is to some extent successful in resolving the vendetta by moving he contest from group to individual honor.

A book of interest to people interested in both social and military history; for re-enactors dedicated to the renaissance this might help show the tone of interactions behind the civilized facade.  The difficulty, of course, would come in generalizing from the particular of Friuli to  the wider sphere European or even of purely Italian traditions.

05 July 2012

The Italian Wars

Pearson  has been making a real contribution to accessible scholarship with its Early Modern Wars in Perspective series; this book keeps up the high standard.

In the introduction, Christine Shaw (The Politics of Exile in Renaissance Italy) describes how she was brought on board to work with Michael Mallett (The Military Organisation of a Renaissance State with JR Hale, Mercenaries and their Masters, and many others over a long career) to complete this work.  While Mallett passed away before they could work together, she (with full support from his family) brought the work to completion.

Everyone who knows about the late Italian (or early northern) renaissance knows a bit about the Italian wars.  The battles are a large chapter in Oman's History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century, along with more recent "battle studies" such as Arnold's The Renaissance at War or Osprey's Campaign Series books on Pavia and Fornovo.  The period is a favorite of film and television as well.  Indeed, for a war that was not fought in English the anglo enthusiast has been amazing well served.  Up until now, however, we have lacked a single modern survey in English to place the whole series of wars in context.

That drought is over.  Shaw has produced a complete and solid narrative history that provides a complete background for the whole period, divided into chapters around the strategic themes that unfolded as the wars progressed and evolved.  In addition to the narrative we are provided with solid analysis.  Chapters on the changes in military operations and military recruitment follow the chapter on Pavia and its aftermath (the traditional place to take a big, deep breath) and a final chapter on the results of the wars.  For me, I think this last chapter was the most enlightening since the conventional conclusion for the period is "and then Italy got boring unless you talk about Galileo".

This is not the engaging, personal history of  Tuchman or Wedgwood.  While it is accessible to the amateur it is a first and foremost  a work of professional scholarship.  It is, on the other hand, superbly clean, readable prose well crafted for a 21st century audience.  This would be an excellent reference for an undergraduate or even an advance high-school research paper but it will also doubtless be used by professional historians as the go-to survey work for background reference.

Books in the series, sadly, seldom stay in print long so if you care about the topic for goodness sakes buy it now; university acquisitions are not what they used to be.

10 June 2012

The Dictator's Handbook

The Dictator's Handbook is something quite unusual - a work of popular political science.  I do not mean a book about politics aimed at a mass audience, but a work by academic political scientists -- Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith -- who (with two colleagues) published the founding work of selectorate theory.  The results is like a work of popularized physics: conclusions and some explanation of the reasoning with the math stripped out.  The resulting book offers a compelling explanation about why all governments work -- and fail to work -- the way they do.

The blurb writers make the inevitable comparisons to The Prince, but unless you accept the minority opinion that Machiavelli, a confirmed republican, was writing a parody of princely government, a better analogy in terms of motivation is Edward Luttwak's Coup d'Etat a Practical Handbook.  They are no more interested in educating dictators than Luttwak was; their objective is to inform those of us living in large democracies why dictatorships function -- including those that pretend to democracies -- work the way they must.  And just in case we think it can't happen here in our democracies, the first example is the city of Bell, California.

So what is this wondrous explanation?  The authors offer a series of "Laws"
  1. Keep your winning coalition as small as you can.
  2. Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible.
  3. Control the flow of revenue.
  4. Pay your supporters just enough to keep the loyal.
  5. Don't take money out of your supporter's pockets to make the people's lives better.
Terms such as selectorate and coalition, along with others such as essentials and interchangeables, are carefully explained along with a full explanation of the mechanisms.  The rules are then applied to examples as diverse as Louis XIV and  the Soviet voting system.  It is applied convincingly to the appalling poverty of oil-rich Nigeria and the amazing congressional boundaries of the United States.  It seems to work.

None of this, as the authors point out, says anything about motive.  As Jean Chretien said, "the good politician is the one who wins"; if you ignore these rules, according to the authors, you will neither gain nor keep power and your best intentions will be meaningless.

Am I convinced by their arguments? Yes, pretty much.  I do think that everyone who wants to participate in democracy in an informed way should read this book.  For everyone else, amazing playoffs, eh?

29 March 2012

Matt Ridley's The Red Queen

In The Red Queen, Matt Ridley  provides an excellent introduction to the evolution of sex.  While "Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature" is eventually delivered, in fact he starts at a more basic level - why does sex exist at all?

He begins with the simplest of single-celled organisms - indeed, with their predecessors - to show why gene swapping is useful.  He looks at parasites as a driver of evolution and a promoter of genetic diversity in a population, and how "the tragedy of the commons" is a good analogy for why species with sexes generally (but not quite universally) settle on two.

Throughout the book, there are fascinating details of biology that I had not been exposed to before - like the chromosomal system in lemmings which ensures that there are three females for every male.

Much of the book looks at the behavior of birds - Ridley considers bird mating behavior, which in many species consists of "monogamy with cheating" a fair match for human behavior.

When the book moves on to cover human nature, much attention is also given to our closest relatives.  I now have a fair better understanding of why gibbons are monogamous and chimpanzies are not, for example.  He also presents reasonably convincing arguments for the relative occurrence of polygamy and monogamy (and the near total absence of polyandry) among humans.  

Throughout the book, Ridley reveals science as a human endeavor.  Scientists are names and their theories are examined in context.  Where there is no clear consensus between contending theories  as of yet, the contending arguments are laid out and there is no pretext that "Science knows the truth".  For a reader interested in real science and not just in a collection of "facts" this is invaluable.

The final chapters, which look at asymmetries between male and female human brains and at contending theories of cultural rather than biological origins for modern human behavior, Ridley is well aware he is entering contentious ground.  His arguments are convincing, but he does not pretend that they are the only ones available.

Published in 1993, the book may be mildly dated on matters of biochemical detail but not to an extend that would affect his arguments.  It is entertaining and well worth reading.

24 March 2012

Steven Jay Gould's Essays on Natural History - 1998

Harvard University Press (under the Belknap imprint) has brought Steven Jay Gould's amazing essays on natural history back into print.  My latest Gould purchase is Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms.

Gould set himself the challenge of writing an essay every month, and having set to carried on until his death in 2002.  This particular collection was first published in 1998.  It is not my favorite Gould collection (that this remains Bully for Brontosaurus) but it contains one very important essay - the best and clearest explanation I have found of the teaching of the Catholic church on the matter of evolution.

It is not surprising, of course, that Gould would write about evolution; he was a very important paleontologist who has made important contribution to evolutionary theory.  What is more surprising is that an self-described agnostic Jew would write an essay on Catholic doctrine.  The essay (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) is an example of the respect with which Gould approaches all his subjects of study no matter how far they are from the core of what we would expect to be his world-view.

He begins with an anecdote of a meeting at the Pontifical Institute of Sciences with a group of European Jesuit priests who are also scientists; they were mystified by the idea of scientific creationism and asked what might be wrong with the theory of evolution in America.  He then goes on with the method that makes his essays so powerful - he goes directly to the source documentation to seek the original message.  In this case, Pius XII's Humani Generis  of 1950 and John-Paul II's Truth Cannot Contradict Truth of 1996.  He even goes on to research an error in translation from French into English of John Paul's pronouncement and to confirm the correct translation with the director of the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Science and Human Values.  And what is the key statement?  Referring to Humani Generis, the Holy Father John Paul wrote

Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than an hypothesis.
In other words, that not only are Catholics permitted to believe that the human form came about through evolution (as distinct from the human soul, each individually created by God.) but that evolution should be considered a fact established  beyond reasonable doubt.

That essay is a fraction of the book.  Other gems are an piece on how the meme (common in popularizations of evolution, you have probably read it) that Lamark's prime example of evolution through acquired characteristics was the neck of the giraffe does not actually appear in his books (The Tallest Tale) ; the amazing complexity of apparently simple parasites in their life histories (Triumph of the Root-Heads); an essay on how we know about the hump of the extinct Irish Elk only from ancient cave paintings (A Lesson from the Old Masters); and a look at how a Victorian craze for aquariums changes the way marine creatures are illustrated (Seeing Eye to Eye; Through a Glass Clearly).

It sometimes seems that the short factual essay is a lost art.  Certainly a search for a collection of essays in most bookstores will simply lead to mystified staff.  In Gould's collections you will read fascinating things about important subjects that can be read and digested in a couple of hours.

Since the majority of Gould's writing revolve around Natural History and Evolution, you should not read his books if you do not care about those subjects.  The actual material is aimed at an educated reader (no "grade-5-reading-level" here), and the collections are quite eclectic so hard to use for a student searching for research material on a given topic -- although if you hit one of these essays that matches your topic you have hit pay-dirt.  Mostly, these are just great top-quality brain food.  New ideas, well presented and flawlessly researched with a diverse mix of subjects to keep your reading fresh.