The Riddle of the Labyrinth — Margalit Fox

Cover of The Riddle of the Labyrinth

The Riddle of the Labyrinth
Margalit Fox
363 pages, including notes & index
published in 2013

Linear B is one of those ‘mysteries from history” I’d read about in the local library in the early eighties as a child, browsing through the stacks of occult, ancient astronaut and weird history books, listed along with better known examples like Schliemann’s quest for Troy. It’s one of those pieces of history I sort of, kind of knew about, of how tablets in an unknown language were found on Crete, providing evidence for the existence of a literate, “advanced” Bronze Age civilisation hundreds of years before the rise of the Classical Greek civilisations. But I never read much more about it because other subjects like Schliemann’s discovery of Troy looked much more interesting.

in The Riddle of the Labyrinth Margalit Fox sets out to prove me wrong by telling the real story of the decyphering of Linear B and Alice Kober, the largely forgotten woman at the heart of it, as well as of the archaeologist who found the tablets, Arthur J. Evans and the amateur linguist who finally decrypted them, Michael Ventris. In many ways this is a sad story: both Alice Kober and Michael Ventris died young, one dead of cancer, the other in a car accident, with Kober’s role in the decypherment for a long time remaining obscure because of her untimely death, while Ventris’ accident came at a time he was feeling depressed about what to do with the rest of his life… It’s also a detective story, as Fox tells the story of how the three of them each in turn helped the process of decyphering along.

Read more

A History of the Vandals — Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen

Cover of A History of the Vandals

A History of the Vandals
Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen
360 pages, including index
published in 2012

Of all the Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire, the Vandals have the worst reputation for reasons that have little to do with what they actually did. Mostly this is of course due to the simple fact that they lent their name to vandalism, coined in the wake of the French Revolution to describe the destruction of religious artworks by revolutionairies by equating it to the infamous sack of Rome in 455 CE, which in itself had already been exagerrated by pro-Roman historians for various political reasons. The Vandals then have never had an even break, always been the bogeyman to an Europe much more inclined to identify itself with the grandeur of Rome than with the ‘barbarians’ that ended its reign.

This attitude perhaps explains why books about the Vandals are rare in English, with A History of the Vandals being the first general history of them in English. Then again it could also be because unlike the Franks or Lombards or Goths, the Vandals had their largest impact outside of Europe, in the empire they created in North Africa and hence can’t be used as semi-mythical ancestor tribe for a modern European nation. This, as well as the fact that for a century they were the most successfull of the ‘barbarian’ successor states to the Roman Empire could also explain why they and not those Goths or Huns were used and abused as the villains in the Fall of the Roman Empire.

Read more

Women writers Wednesday — blogging edition

Part something in an irregular series.

So yeah, today I would like to spotlight some of the female bloggers I started reading in the past of couple of weeks, partially thanks to the whole ongoing SFWA kerfuffle. Everytime we’ve had an outbreak of sexism in science fiction fandom it also has brought new female voices to the foreground and this time hasn’t been any different.

Natalie Luhrs has been one of the most sensible voices during the SFWA controversy, as well as with the more recent Loncon Jonathan Ross fiasco. Beyond that, she also has a great ability to find interesting and thoughtful links.

S. L. Huang like Luhrs has been a voice of reason during the recent sexism scandals, is a new writer whose first book will be published this year and who keeps writing great posts on the same subjects I would’ve written about, but she does it better.

Susan Abernethy writes about history and her blog is a treasure trove of posts about well known and not so well known parts of history, especially British history.

Loretta Chase & Isabella Bradford also write about history, both in their dayjobs as bestselling writers of historical romances and on their blog. They seem to have a real affinity for the Georgian era, but roam wide and far and have a knack of finding links to other interesting blogs — like Susan Abernethy’s above.


To call a woman a kenau in Dutch is to call her a harridan, a bitch, harsh, strident, aggressive, taking on masculine qualities. It’s a slur that’s rooted in an actually existing, historical woman, Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, a Haarlem born widow, woodsmerchant and shipbuilder who became famous due to her role in the siege of her hometown by the Spanish in 1573.

As you of course know, the Netherlands fought the Eighty Years War to liberate themselves from Spanish and Catholic oppression, a large part of which consisted of the siege and countersiege of rebel or loyal cities. Haarlem in the 1570s was one of the richest, most important cities in the north of Holland and when it rebelled the Spanish were quick to put it down. The siege ended in a defeat for the rebels, but not before Kenau’s role in it had become legend.

19th century painting of Kenau Hasselaer on the walls of Haarlem by Barent Wijnveld and J.H. Egenberger

As legend has it, Kenau Hasselaer was the leader of an army of women who fought together with the men on the walls of Haarlem, pouring boiling pitch and water over the Spanish troops attempting to climb the walls. How historical this is, has been disputed, but what’s undisputed was that she was involved in supporting the soldiers on the walls, organising repair works and the like.

But of course the idea of Kenau Hasselaer as the firebreathing leader of a monstrous regiment of women is much more interesting, something that was played up in Dutch propaganda after the siege and which ultimately led to her name becoming the synonym for an aggressive woman, with the connection to the historical figure forgotten. A new Dutch movie, which premiered only this week, seeks to restore that connection, to rehabilitate Kenau as a name of pride, not a slur.

Course, being a Dutch film it’s not likely to be much good, but the idea is interesting.

Sun City

Little Steve van Zandt talks to Dave Marsh about Sun City, Paul Simon and the fight against Apartheid, on the eve of Bruce Springsteen’s first tour of South Africa:

And I met with AZAPO, who had a very frank conversation — I was talking to the translator — about whether they should kill me for even being there. That’s how serious they were about violating the boycott. I eventually talked them out of that and then talked them into maybe going kinda with my thing.

They showed me that they have an assassination list, and Paul Simon was at the top of it. [NOTE: In 1986, Paul Simon recorded tracks for his Graceland album in South Africa, in direct violation of the cultural boycott.] And in spite of my feelings about Paul Simon, who we can talk about in a minute if you want to, I said to them, “Listen, I understand your feelings about this; I might even share them, but…”

What strikes me almost thirty years later is how modern the Artist United Against Apartheid project was, especially compared to the other Big Cause projects (We Are the World, Live Aid). Much of that is of course because Little Steve was smart enough to bring hip-hop artists into project, not just pop and rock musicians. Also how much more and much more explicitly political. The famines in Ethiopia were presented as natural disasters, but Little Steve and co from the start made clear not only that the South African government was to blame for Apartheid and its evils, but also how much western support it received over the years. “Why are we always on the wrong side” indeed.

The Normans — Marjorie Chibnall

Cover of The Normans

The Normans
Marjorie Chibnall
191 pages including index
published in 2000

So the Normans eh? Bunch of Vikings who plundered the English and French coasts for a while, before the king of France made an offer they couldn’t refuse and they settled in what became Normandy, named after them, to defend France against, well, other Vikings. Traditionally this is supposed to have happened in 911 CE. unlike other Scandinavian invaders attempting to set up stock in the countries they raided, these Vikings not only survived but thrived, creating essential a new people, the Normans and a new country, Normandy, in the process. Not only did Normandy become a powerful duchy, more or less indepdent from the kingdom of France, from there on William the Conqueror went on to take over England and Wales and invade Ireland, while other Normans went on to the Mediterranean and found kingdoms in Sicily and Antioch.

What the Normans managed to do looks a whole lot like what earlier “barbarian” invaders like the Goths did to the Roman empire, grabbing a piece of it and settle there in return for protection against other “barbarians”. But, as Marjorie Chibnall explains in her book, the Normans were “a product, not of blood, but of history”, not so much a people on the move as in the “classic” — and quite likely never to have happened in that form — people movements of Late Antiquity. Instead, it was a tightly knit group of warriors loyal to a specific ruler which took over and created Normandy, mixing with and ruling over the original populations. It was similar ties between ruler and noblemen that would later enable William the Conqueror to win the English kingdom.

Read more

Female brewers in early modern Holland

Gravure of female beer brewer

Here’s an interesting history paper by Marjolein van Dekken about female beer brewers in Holland during the fifteenth-seventeenth centuries:

As an important part of daily nourishment, women had always produced beer at home and for their own household. However, in Holland from the beginning of the thirteenth century beer production for the general market commenced. In the developing cities more and more labour was divided among specialised craftsmen. Professional breweries were established and the beer industry became a serious trade. In several cities of Holland like Haarlem, Delft and Gouda, the brewing industry played a major economic role during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even after the industry’s decline from the second half of the seventeenth century, breweries remained important for the local economy in those cities.

The full article is available as a Word document. It’s part of a project that looks at women’s work in the early modern period:

Foreign travellers who visited the Dutch Republic in the early modern period were impressed by the remarkable prominence of Dutch women in public places. Dutch women were reportedly independent and capable entrepreneurs, conducting business either in their own name, or that of their absent spouses. To what extent these frequently repeated observations reflect historical reality is still not clear. There is evidence that the economic success of the Dutch Republic is reflected in the position of women on the labour market. Two opposite hypotheses can be formulated. According to some historians female labour market participation in the Dutch Republic was lower than in neighboring countries. The economic prosperity and the high standard of living enabled the practical realization of the ideal of domesticity. Many women could afford not to work, and withdrew from the labour market as early as in the seventeenth century. According to the second, opposite hypothesis female labour market participation in the Dutch Republic was higher than elsewhere. Dutch gender norms were not very strict, women performed paid work on a large scale, and thus contributed to the increase of income and the standard of living and to the economic success of the Dutch Republic.

Things change

Some new horrible history I learned about today: forty years ago today In New Orleans, thirtytwo people were murdered through arson, in what was the largest mass murder of LGBT people in US history:

Just before 8:00p, the doorbell rang insistently. To answer it, you had to unlock a steel door that opened onto a flight of stairs leading down to the ground floor. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen, expecting a taxi driver, asked his friend Luther Boggs to let the man in. Perhaps Boggs, after he pulled the door open, had just enough time to smell the Ronsonol lighter fluid that the attacker of the UpStairs Lounge had sprayed on the steps. In the next instant, he found himself in unimaginable pain as the fireball exploded, pushing upward and into the bar.

It’s a horrible, upsetting piece of history, depressing even, but what is important is that it is history and things are getting better, as Joe Belknap Wall argues:

Forty years ago, when I was five, I was destined to be a victim, but things changed. We spoke up, sat in, made our points. Things changed.

Thirty years ago, when I was fifteen, I was destined to be a marginal citizen, but things changed. A disease came out of nowhere and shook the world, even as our President did nothing and said nothing, even as the population cracked jokes and shrugged it off and the preachers waved their crosses to stir up the hate, but we spoke up, stood fast, and made people see. Things changed.


Today, I am forty-five, and I am still a citizen without full protection under the law, but—

Today, I can marry in my state, and receive the protections accorded to the rest of my neighbors. If I fall victim to a crime driven by hate, it will be investigated. Few, if any, people will laugh and point and make a mockery of my basic human dignity. I am no longer required, by the dominant cultural norm, to be ashamed of who I am, and the people who once felt empowered to fuel the fires of hatred and intolerance are the ones on the run. The last of the churches built on foundations of hate are being deserted by their children, who were not raised with the old faith that had them accepting an injustice because they were told to, and the louder they get, the more they demonstrate that it’s all just a death rattle, destined to go silent as the older generations fade away, and the churches may yet turn back to the message of love.

When I feel that hot rush of rage, reflecting on what happened forty years ago today, I want to say “WE ARE COMING FOR ALL OF YOU,” but I don’t need to. The future is coming, and daylight and information wipe the world clean of those old, ugly falsehoods and make fools of those who used to get away with promulgating that fetid, soul-killing bullshit. There are miles to go on the way to a just, open, loving world, but we have come farther than ever before.