Saturday, December 13, 2008

Projections of power

Now, I'm no expert on late antiquity (as anybody reading this blog will have guessed), but I'm very excited to read (here) about the archaeological discovery at Kalefeld in Lower Saxony (well over 100 miles east of Cologne) of the wreckage from a 3rd-century Roman-German battle, unknown from historical sources.

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I was a bit taken aback by the broadness of the generalization that "the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which took place in 9 AD, resulted in the Roman’s Empire withdrawal from Germania without any further attempt to conquer the land beyond the Rhine River again". Even with the Rhine becoming the frontier of regular Roman rule, we've known for some time that Rome was able to project its presence some way beyond the frontier, both economically and militarily. There were six Roman invasions of Germania (including amphibious operations north through Frisia and then south up the Weser) between AD 9 and AD 50 alone (Paul Arblaster, History of the Low Countries (2006), p. 15 - but yes, there are more reputable sources for this and if anybody puts a comment in the box asking for them I'll dig them out). That this sort of thing was still going on in the 3rd century is, I admit, news to me - but there are hints of it in Sigrid Undset's Saga of Saints (tr. E. C. Ramsden, 1934), p. 7 (with reference there to a "Professor Schetelig").

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

History of News wiki

Almost exactly a year ago I came home from a conference in Bremen and set about establishing a wiki with the purpose of sharing information from and about the early modern newspaper press. You can find it here. In odd moments since I've been posting transcriptions and summaries of news stories from early modern newspapers, and in particular from the Nieuwe Tijdinghen.

Having tried it out, I'm not convinced that the wiki format offers any benefit over xml tagging beyond a low user threshold (but wikis only come into their own on collaborative projects, and so far nobody else has contributed anything to this, so my mind is not entirely made up yet).

I got an email today about this picture, which ties in very nicely with this news story.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Belgium in Beijing

Here's a picture of Peking University Library (or, as it says on the sign, Beijing daxue tushuguan). PKU hosted a Belgian Cultural Festival where I was invited to lecture, and the photograph shows me on my way to present a copy of the History of the Low Countries to the acquisitions librarian.

The lecture was on a number of books about China published in the Habsburg Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries, and how they reveal as much about the Low Countries as they do about China. In the early 17th century, Dutch and French works derived from Nicholas Trigault s.j.'s De Christiana Expeditione apud Sinas. In the later 17th century a pirated (or more precisely: hijacked) Antwerp edition of Joan Nieuhof's account of a Dutch East India Company trade mission to the Manchu Emperor, Het Gezantschap der Neêrlandtsche Oost-Indische Compagnie, aan den grooten Tartarischen Cham, den tegenwoordigen Keizer van China. And in the 18th century the Brussels printing of a letter from a Jesuit missionary about the history of Chinese script (in response to the hypothesis of the director of the Imperial and Royal Academy in Brussels that it was related to Egyptian hieroglyphs).

D. V. Coornhert

Over the past many months I've been working at translating a book about Dirck Volckertsz. Coornhert into English, to be published by Brill. Yesterday I signed off on the last revisions before the author gives her comments and a whole new raft of revisions have to be made: hopefully the last stage before sending the typescript to Brill, and waiting for the proofs ...

Coornhert is a figure I knew only vaguely as the man who got on Justus Lipsius's nerves so much that he decided to leave Holland and go back to Leuven. Having written a biography of a late-sixteenth-century Catholic controversialist who was also a humorist, moralist, translator and engraver, it's been fascinating to look at the Free Church equivalent. Coornhert was all these things - as well as being a notary public and secretary to the first assembly of the States of Holland to meet without royal warrant.

The book is about his two public disputations with Dutch Reformed clergymen, both organised under the aegis of ad hoc committees of the States of Holland. The established view is that the States organized the disputations to give Coornhert a platform to set out his views on freedom of religion, and keep the Dutch Reformed clergy from getting above themselves. The author of this book shows quite convincingly that the States organized the disputations at the insistence of the clergy, to give them a public forum in which they could once and for all reply to the public figure who had been slandering them in tabletalk and libelling them in print for years. The plan did backfire to some extent, in that Coornhert gave as good as he got, but the intention of the States was more to give the clergy an extra-ecclesial platform than to let Coornhert air his views.

Coornhert was certainly testing the limits of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, but the States were hardly pleased with the way he was doing so. But comparing his fate to Campion's encounter with his Anglican opponents in the Tower Debates shows a lot about the differences between England and Holland in the 1570s and 1580s.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Eucharistic Miracle of Amsterdam

The most embarrassing mistake in my History of the Low Countries is my account of the Eucharistic Miracle of Amsterdam, a 14th-century event that is still an important part of the identity of Catholic Amsterdam: after Catholic worship was outlawed around 1580, the old festive procession was replaced with a "silent procession", the Stille Omgang (the authorities could hardly object to people just walking, could they?), which is still going strong.

Anyway, there is an accurate account of the Miracle of Amsterdam here. My own version was written from memory, and tells the story of a different eucharistic miracle in the Rhineland (also involving the consecrated host and fire). That'll teach me to neglect everything I've ever been taught about note-taking and fact-checking! As far as I'm aware it's the only substantive error in the book, but I await reviewers spotting others ...

Dutch history website

Just typed in "Dutch History" on yahoo, and one of the first things that comes up is the CarPark, a site providing structured lists of links to Dutch and Belgian (draw deep breath) genealogical, cultural, historical, linguistic and topographical sites. It's clearly a labour of love. I'll be putting a permanent link in the sidebar.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Reader review

There's also a review by a reader, on It's wonderful to get the feeling that there are people actually reading the book that haven't been told to!

And another year later again ...

Just to reassure anyone finding this page that it is still active and all comments are welcome -- I've just been glacially slow at posting!

And here's a handy link, to the current Low Countries History seminars at Senate House (London).