Star Wars and History: Samurai and Nazis

~ This is the last of a six-post series called Star Wars and History. ~

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Samurai with faceplate

Star Wars draws on history for its look and feel as much as for its plot choices. In particular, the samurai of Medieval and early modern Japan contribute their style both to good guys and bad buys. Darth Vader’s armor looks like a night black, plastic version of samurai armor, and the Jedi’s robes have medieval Japanese feel too. Continue reading “Star Wars and History: Samurai and Nazis”

Decline on Downton Abbey: Why the Nobles and Gentry Went Broke

Spoiler Alert: This post reveals details of Downton Abbey, through Season 6, Episode 1.

On Downton Abbey, Earl Robert repeatedly faces financial trouble. Many of his fellow nobles and gentry find themselves in even more dire straits. They cope by selling off their birthright — castles, houses, treasures, and land — and living humbler lives. Why do these apparently rich people teeter on the edge of financial ruin?

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Earl Robert’s cousin “Shrimpie” is forced to sell his beautiful castle. (In the real world, this is Inveraray Castle, Scotland.)

For most of their history, Britain’s nobles and gentry lived off of the profits of farming. But by the early 20th Century, agricultural wealth had been dwarfed by the riches of industry. Farms still made money but proportionately much less, and they couldn’t easily support the upper class’ high cost of living or the tax burden of industrial society. And many nobles and gentry could not or would not supplement their income by working. Continue reading “Decline on Downton Abbey: Why the Nobles and Gentry Went Broke”

Terrorists and Barbarians

Vive la France
Vive la France

In the wake of terrorist attacks like Friday’s mass killings in Paris, we often call our enemies “barbarians.” They are not. Barbarians like the Vikings, Huns, and Xiongnu lived on the fringes of civilization and preyed on their richer and more settled neighbors. But they did not hate their victims. If fact, they often admired them and adopted their ways. The barbarians were not intolerant. Nor were they even immoral by the standards of their times, since few pre-modern societies condemned violence against outsiders. Barbarian raiders were just opportunists; looting and pillaging offered their fastest route to wealth. Continue reading “Terrorists and Barbarians”

Snow White May Have Begun as a Sexy Goddess

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“Freyja and the Necklace,” by J. Doyle Penrose (1862-1932), c. 1913

In the myths of the Norse and other Germanic peoples, Freya is the beautiful goddess of sex, love, and fertility — and of war and death. She drives a chariot pulled by cats, treasures the pig as her sacred animal, and wears a powerful golden necklace called Brisingamen. According to one story, Brisingamen is the work of a troop of dwarves. While visiting the dwarves’ cave, Freya sees the beautiful necklace and begs to buy it. But the misshapen smiths already have plenty of treasure, so they demand a higher price. In exchange for the necklace, Freya stays in the cave until she’s slept with each dwarf. Continue reading “Snow White May Have Begun as a Sexy Goddess”

European Antisemitism Isn’t Back

Islamist attacks on Jews have triggered repeated warnings about the return of antisemitism to Europe. Benjamin Netanyahu recently capitalized on the concern by suggesting European Jews flee to Israel. One American commentator went so far as to invoke Hitler’s last will and testament, suggesting the Nazi dictator’s ideology has come back far faster than Hitler himself predicted. But do these terrorist attacks really return Europe’s Jews to the dangers of the Nazi era, or to the antisemitism of Europe’s last few centuries? No. Continue reading “European Antisemitism Isn’t Back”

How Disobedient Confederate Generals Saved America

The South didn’t have to surrender in 1865, at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Its armies had lost, but Confederate soldiers could’ve taken to the hills and forests to fight a guerrilla war. Southern generals had plenty of role models — including the American guerrillas who’d frustrated the British during the Revolution. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered his generals to do the same. Had they obeyed, the Civil War might have dragged on for years, darkening America’s character. Guerrilla combat often degenerates into terrorism, with both sides targeting civilians and killing for revenge. Democracy itself could’ve suffered. The Confederacy might even have won, since many in the exhausted North already wanted to give up in 1865. (Imagine the 20th Century without a unified America to oppose totalitarianism.) Continue reading “How Disobedient Confederate Generals Saved America”

History of the Fortune Cookie

The first record of fortune cookies comes from Japan in the early 1800’s, not from China, according to Rude Dude’s Book of Food, by Tim Myers. The Japanese flavored their treats with ginger and miso — not exactly the cookies we know — but they did squeeze written fortunes into the crease. The owner of San Francisco’s famous Japanese Tea Garden, Makoto Hagiwara, apparently introduced the concoction to America. Both Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans saw an opportunity, and soon both community’s shops and restaurants offered fortune cookies. Neither culture had a major dessert tradition, so fortune cookies helped feed the American sweet tooth, particularly as they evolved from the Japanese ginger and miso treat into the cookies we know today. Continue reading “History of the Fortune Cookie”

Did Hobbits Live among Us Recently?

Homo floresiensis
Homo floresiensis (reconstructed)

The Indonesian island of Flores and its neighbors host two unusual languages, called Ke’o and Ngadha. They have extremely simple grammar — surprising for Austronesian languages, which generally have complex grammar. Languages often simplify when they share land with foreign-language speakers, and the two groups communicate through a “creole” or simplified dialect. (English simplified that way after the Vikings invaded.) But until recently, Flores history hasn’t offered an obvious candidate for the foreigners in question. In 2004, however, anthropologists discovered fossils on Flores from a species they named Homo floresiensis: a small relative of ours often called “hobbits.” (See my post on hobbits and other pre-humans.) Linguist John McWhorter has suggested these hobbits provide Flores’ missing linguistic link. Continue reading “Did Hobbits Live among Us Recently?”