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Books! (Empires of Multiple Types Edition)

War, Capital, and the Dutch State (1588-1795) (Pepijn Brandon, 2018/#110): Brandon looks at the anomaly of sorts that is the Golden Age Dutch state within the framework of the "military revolution" and the model of the fiscal-military state. After all, the usual story is that changes in military technology and tactics led to such a large increase in the costs of war that, to remain competitive, states had to develop strong, centralized structures for taxation and control of their military, yet the Dutch remained a contentious, heterogeneous but not hierarchical union of provinces, not to mention multiple overlapping institutions (e.g., they eventually had *five* independent Admiralty Boards, plus two variously independent trading companies that were pretty much their own navies), and, far from being feeble, they kept at bay pretty much every great power in Europe, by land and by sea, at one point or another (granted, the Hapsburg were trying to do everything at the same time, but you try to avoid being overrun by even a multi-tasking Hapsburg Empire ).

The author describes the Dutch model as a federalist-brokerage system, emphasizing that although private brokerage of state functions diminished comparatively in this era through most of Europe, it never did disappear (I'd add that the contemporary US is a very... peculiar exemplar of this when it comes to their military, not to mention their justice system). In the case of the Dutch, he argues that they kept both the federal structure and the highly fragmented brokerage system not because they wanted to for ideological reasons (although it wasn't without support) but because it worked for them, and other things they tried didn't pan out. The three running examples described in the book are the coordination of long-range military activities between the Admiralty Boards and the trading companies (where the systemic co-optation of the Boards by the large trading families was in fact something of a feature of the system; family, personal, and business relationships gave the Dutch state more strategic integrity than it'd seem based on a purely institutional description), the organization of naval production in shipyards, and the military solicitors who mediated troop payments between provincial treasuries and the (officer-owned) regiments, handling both the financial logistics and, critically in this era, extending credit to compensate for arrears in state funds. This looks extremely messy, sure, but (a) contemporary centralized systems didn't work very well either, and (b) it was an extremely good way to funnel credit from the uniquely deep pockets of the Dutch private financial system into the military, in a decentralized and relatively robust way, a feat that, as much as any other, explains the long survival of the Dutch Revolution.

I was particularly interested by what the author describes as the naval revolution. Changes in military technology on land were longer and more complex than a simple "trace italianne breakthrough" model would imply, but on sea there was a sharpish development of large, specialized warships that rendered the armed merchant ship pretty much obsolete for war (dual-use ships having long been the bulk of navies). These ships were the most complex and expensive objects (or rather, systems) Early Modern Europe built on a regular basis, and here the Dutch shipyards (mostly the Amsterdam one) took the torch from Venice's Arsenal as perhaps the most impressive proto-industrial production site in the continent. Not in terms of technology — new labor-saving devices were few and far between — but centralized production, storage, and maintenance, a strong inclination (derived in part from widespread commercial training or at least familiarity in pretty much everybody in government) towards close financial and logistics control, the weakening of traditional worker and guild rights, and even a chronotope (not the author's term) modern enough to have "factory clocks" in the yards, bells for breaks, and so on (no longer a church bell or even clock, but a worksite one) made for a surprisingly modern workplace. I agree with the author that the complexity, expense, and strategic priority of naval construction are probably underrated factors in the (pre-technological) development of proto-industrial methodologies of work (not to mention accounting; the Dutch learned double-entry accounting from the Italians, and applied it more extensively).

To close, the book postulates that the traditional view of Dutch decline as caused by the aristocratization, corruption, etc., of institutions, and the inherent shortcomings of its decentralized system, is wrong on two accounts. First, because this decline was long, partial, and relative (even past its geopolitical prime, they remained perhaps the wealthiest per-capita society in Europe, if not the world), and second, because the system proved resistant to change not because it didn't work, but because it did. Through its close family and patronage links, the state remained responsive to the needs of its commercial classes in ways that were beneficial to them in the short term (e.g., letting the British do the bulk of naval warfare, while concentrating on convoy protection), but not in the long term (i.e., when the British decide to do that bulk of naval warfare against you).

Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science (Francesca Rochberg, 2018/#111): An intriguing, but at times annoying, attempt to understand cuneiform knowledge (the body of cuneiform tablets going from the Old Babylonian timeframe in the second millennium BCE all the way to the Hellenistic period) in its own non-teleological terms, neither pre- nor proto-rational, much less pre- or proto-scientific, but rather working within its own conceptual frameworks and goals.

The main claim of the book is that the culture of cuneiform scribes — with all of the variations expected in fifteen not very politically stable centuries — lacked a concept of nature — not the paradigmatically "Greek" one, but also not the possibly mythical on itself mythical worldview ascribed (mostly by Western researchers) to non- and pre-Western civilizations. In Rochberg's view, the scribes were engaged in a descriptive and predictive endeavor, but without any interest in, or perhaps even a conceptualization of, physical or metaphysical causal processes behind observed phenomena.

The way Rochberg puts it — and this is very pleasingly Borgesian — they saw phenomena, particularly but not limited to those seen through astronomical observations and haruspicy practices, as potential vehicles for omens, understood as signs from the gods. This is the part of the books' reasoning I find most compelling: although the long and detailed lists of "if this is seen, this will happen" rules for the interpretation of omens (epistemologically validated by their linear preservation from an antediluvian divine origin) might suggest a form of causality of fate, in fact they expressed a form of something akin to divine laws in the legal sense. They weren't conditional in the sense of "if you see this, there's a chance of this other thing happening", but rather "if you see this, this other thing will happen, unless you successfully ask the gods for a verdict for it not to." As the author describes it, the language in which omens rituals were described, as well as the way they talked about the gods, seems to support this interpretation. In fact, the relationship between omens and the expected future events was based in nothing more stable than a combination of visual analogies (e.g., between features of the liver and geographical ones) and, most interestingly, linguistic and even orthographic ones. It's somewhat similar to later Renaissance Hermetical-and-or-Christian hybrids, although with an absolutely different (one might say, and at least the author does, without any) metaphysics.

This is a very interesting concept of law, predating (perhaps genealogically, although the author isn't committed to this either way) later Stoic, Christian, and mechanistic views of natural law. There's no concept of nature as separate from the divine, nor of it being the same thing. It's all just things you see, what they mean in terms of what will happen — this according to the divine design — and what you can do to change it. It's satisfying pragmatic.

The second (and later) mayor body of knowledge studied by the author, the "mathematical" astronomical tables, is also interesting. Its use of arithmetic to predict astronomical phenomena is in a way quite modern (and their seven centuries' worth of continuous observations, including as well things like wars, commodity prices, and so on, nothing short of astonishing), but their worldview incredible different, even from the geometrical one of the Greek and Hellenic astronomers: they seemed uninterested in what was causing what they were seeing, and they had no expectation, or perhaps concept, of their calculation methods having anything to do with this putative underlying nature of things. Essentially, they built predictive mechanisms as an interpretative framework for observations, a normal baseline to be able to observe deviations (possibly for divinatory process, although there's no direct evidence extant) — just as the older divinatory rules based on unobserved and unobservable things (e.g., "if you see Jupiter in (some place where it is impossible for it to be seen, that means (thing) will happen"), this is suggestive of goals not directly tied to understanding what they were seeing, as opposed to reading it.

This is getting too long, so other assorted bits: My main complaint is that the "cuneiform scribes had no concept of Nature" thesis is constantly mentioned, by only seldom argued; it's not that the author doesn't present evidence, but this is done piecemeal and later, so I'm left with the impression that it's not as well-supported as the book seems to assume. The lexical lists (basically list of related words) seem to have been organized by functional rather than physical or ontological criteria (e.g., metal beads put together with woods); this is on itself interesting. I'm constantly fascinated by the idea that writing was originally, as far as we can tell, administrative, or at least it was administrative no later than it was poetic. Personal astrology was a later development, based on the (later) concept of the zodiac (which the Hellenes got from them, and so on down to our newspapers). The collections of astronomical observations are quite sophisticated; they are very numerical when they want to be, but I'm partial to an older approach using a list of "Normal Stars" along the zodiacal path used as references (so you'd say something like "such-and-such-night, we observed Mars two fingers above such-and-such star"; it's practical). The fact that they very explicitly said when they couldn't see something because it was cloudy or raining, and/but registered the calculated version of what they expected to see, is both in accordance with our not always followed epistemic best practices and a bit mind-bending when you think about the relationship between seeing-and-predicting for them. Finally, and this is perhaps a summa of the books' argument, the Akkadian term for the interpretation of omens (e.g., extracted livers, unusual births, astronomical phenomena) is possibly at the root of the later Jewish term for the exegesis of sacred texts (and later for the similar Islamic tradition). I'm used to thinking of hermeneutics being applied to observations later than, and by analogy with, the hermeneutics of sacred texts, but perhaps the former idea predates it. What if (and I know this is both wrong and hyperbolic, but, well &mdash) what if we (alright, the West-of-India, East-of-the-Atlantic, North-of-the-Sahara bits) began writing specifically holy texts with the purpose of doing hermeneutics of them, because that's how we understood the world?

What if our first metaphysics was rooted on the pun?


Travelling Chronicles: News and Newspapers from the Early Modern Period to the Eighteenth Century (eds. Siv Gøril Brandtzæg, Christine Watson, and Paul Goring, 2018/#112): What it says on the title. My impression is that I found it interesting, but I find that the only note I made was that one of the co-owners of the Morning Post went to Paris in 1791 to cover *the* journalistic event of the decade, the French Revolution (recall that news was first and foremost, and for the longest time, international news). He was the first correspondent in the modern sense — not somebody who, for reasons that might have been but generally weren't related to direct monetary payments, send news by letter, but rather somebody the newspaper sent somewhere to write and send those letters — predating by quite a bit who I thought had been the first "proper" one, or at least, the first modern war correspondent, William Howard Russell (the guy The Times sent to cover the Crimean War; the development of the telegraph, predictably changed both the logistics and the content and aesthetics of news, just as the development of solid postal networks was what made possible and shaped the newspaper itself). Ah, and there was also an interesting chapter about the coverage in French newspapers of travel expeditions and travel books, specially in the XVIIIth-XIXth centuries; it's quite interesting how the very mechanics and problems of communication at a distance heightened the interest of the reports — an aesthetics of communication failures; I got echoes of Verne — and the complex travels of travel reports, from the physical movement of, e.g, journals (often in advance of, and sometimes the last word from, a long-range expeditions), to their development into academic reports and eventually popular books.

My main response to the book was emotional, I think: a nostalgia of the never experienced (although I was an early and eager newspaper reader on account of my family having been in the distribution side of it for two generations) — let's call it the charm of brief written reports from far away places difficult to get to and to hear from. Nowadays our access to places and information is, except in very special cases, almost universal, and wherever a place is pragmatically difficult to get to (e.g. Antartica) whoever goes there comes back with a wealth of images, data, text, sounds. We are more limited by time and attention than by distance, so the beauty of the explorer's travel book, the brief report, the news from places exotic (the thrill of knowing about them) is no longer possible.

It's a good trade overall. It's a fantastic trade. Overall. But the fact that it's hugely positive bargain doesn't mean there isn't a tiny cost, and I'm human enough to feel a trace of pain for it.

Printing a Mediterranean World (Sean Roberts, 2018/#113): Late XVth century, Italy. One Francesco Berlinghieri — Florentine, close friend of Marsilio Ficino and Lorenzo d'Medici among other notables, silk trader, scholar, civic officer, once diplomat to Mantua — published the Geographia. I hadn't heard of it, but it turns out it's something of an (in)famous work for students of the period. It's based on Ptolemy's Geography (the rediscovery — or rather smuggling out of Constantinople just before it was Istambule'd — of which was something of a point of civic pride for Florence), in the sense that it incorporates Ptolemy's long, dry, boring list of places with coordinates, his maps, and his initial chapter describing his cartographic method, but all very much reworked via: multiplier pictorial frames highlighting Berlinghieri's authorship of both text and maps (a bit weirdly for what we mean by "author", but Renaissance people had different ideas), modern-ish maps of Italy and other parts of Europe, a revamped visual language for the maps based on the Florentine tradition of painted miniatures (e.g., miniature drawings of forests and mountain ranges), and, most importantly, a very and consciously Dantean narrative framework in Tuscan language in terza rima in which Berlinghieri was chilling with a friend outside Florence and, I kid you not, the clouds open Monthy Python-style and Ptolemy himself appears and takes them on a seven-day trip around the oikumene. Also, instead of just listing places, "Ptolemy" and "Berlinghieri" mention the "new" (Christian, post-Ptolemaic) names for places on the original list, and discuss a bunch of mythological, "historical", historical, and etymological information about those places, from flattery of local rulers (more on that below) to mentions of battles, to millennia-and-a-half-old reports of natural resources. It's an extremely eclectic mix of a huge number of sources, both classical and contemporary, pagan and Christian, the doings of Apollo and the glories of the Crusaders. Historians have tended to disparage the book as behind its times in methodology and content (e.g. there's no mention of recent discoveries), but Roberts notes that Berlinghieri wasn't attempting to do Early Modern cartography (an anachronistic concept anyway), but rather Renaissance cosmography partially inspired on Dante's peculiar mixture of astronomic precision, pagan mythology, and Christian cosmology.

The author dedicates much of the book to, and perhaps focuses it on, the material conditions of the Geographia. And it is a peculiar one by our standards! It's a printed book, one of the most complex printed in Florence by that time, with the relative novelty of printed maps – but it's also a not very well printed book, its visual quality and number of errors quite worse than contemporary books printed elsewhere (particularly North of the Alps). What Roberts argues is that, first, clean lines and so on are based on our (or at least later) expectations of what a printed book must be, but, most importantly, than Berlinghieri's use of the book wasn't, by and large, to make it a mass, repeatable commodity that would make it a commercial success. A more accurate model for his intentions, as embedded in the Renaissance's still very strong "gift culture", was to send heavily customized versions of the book to prestigious scholars and rulers (most of the later, those days, fashioning themselves as the former). Although we do have rather crappy extant copies of the plain book, the ones that reflect what he wanted to do are the ones that include things like gold leaf details, coats of arms of the recipient everywhere, hand-painted maps, and so on; as Robert indicates, that "second phase" of production does away with many of the quality issues (errors are painted over, map legibility much increased by colors, etc), and there's every possibility that Berlinghieri didn't care much about the printing problems themselves, not just because it was still a novel and fragile technology, with key technical skills still jealously guarded and more prevalent across the Alps than in Italy, but also because those "hybrid" (but only according to our ideas — it's not clear they considered printing at that time as so much of its own thing) objects were what he cared the most about.

The trigger for this research, by the way, is that Berlinghieri not just intended to count Mehemed II among the recipients of the book (prompting the idea that this was perhaps as much a Florentine diplomatic move, one normal by the practices of inter-ruler diplomacy in Renaissance Italy, which involved a lot of well-chosen and giver-representing gifts; and do note that Berlinghieri, as pretty much every high-status Florentine, was always, in some way, representing Florence at least potentially), but also, as he made the faux pas of dying before the book was done, Berlinghieri sent specially luxurious copies to both his heir Bayezid II and his hilariously nomadic rebel half-brother Cem, who was passed around Europe like a potentially radioactive by also potentially useful asset (I think he was held by the Hospitaliers, Savoy, the French, the Pope, and finally by the French again, this time in Naples). The politics of sending a gift to a guy you had written in favor of crusading the hell out of aside (Renaissance people: no more consistent than us, in that or any sense), it wasn't as a strange move as it'd seem to people like us more used to a clear and antagonistic division between "East" and "West"; yes, the religious difference was clear and worthy of, again, lots of holy and brutal violence, but there was also a clear sense of some shared cultural coordinates. Greek knowledge was assumed by both (with perhaps not much difference in the legitimacy of doing this, whatever the word might mean), and Berlinghieri could send Bayezid his book with the certainty that he'd understand the framing of it, even if he'd have to have it translated aloud; after all, Bayezid owned copies of the Geography and was at least nominally familiar with it. In fact, at that point in history, at least for the Turks, a clear "Islamic culture" was still being developed, and Bayezid was happy to assimilate (and not just shallowly deploy) cultural and political markers relevant to the new societies he was now ruling (e.g, things like effigies in coins, or, you know, the Empire thing). It's only later, it seems, that the Ottomans would shift their main cultural and religious focus back to the Arabian peninsula.

Anyway, presenting the book to the not very filial half-brothers added to a list that included a lot of Italian rules, King Corvinus of Hungary, and so on — almost a who's who of people who Berlinghieri wanted to sort of flatter (by personalizing their copies, but also by mentioning them or their ancestors in a positive way in the text itself — although not the Turks, interestingly) but having them enjoy the (small but perhaps real) feeling of status of having a book that other, more powerful people, had had a copy of also personalized for and dedicated to. And, of course, have Berlinghieri's book, with his name and his painting prominent as well in the book (in his studiolo, looking every inch the geographer) in the libraries and studios of all those powerful people. Each book, partly because of its uniqueness, partly because of the authorial framing, was a signifier of a lot of people to their recipients: themselves, their families, other powerful people, and Berlinghieri himself.

It's not clear he got any direct benefit out of this, but this was part of how some people in that society engaged in self-fashioning and what we'd call networking. Eat your heart out, LinkedIn.

The Greatest Empire: A life of Seneca (Emily Wilson, 2018/#114): Wilson's language is as good as you'd expect, and she's also very psychologically insightful. The Seneca she describes is someone who, mutatis a huge lot of mutandis, I think a lot of us can understand. On one side he has a sincere desire to figure out and put in practice what it means to live well — on the other hand he keeps stumbling into doing dumbass stuff out of shallow motives, sometimes but not always aware of it. He likes fame but frets about losing his authenticity, is proud of his talents but can't praise himself openly (while also being unable or unwilling to stop humblebragging to the entire Empire). He fears the effects of riches but makes as much money as he can, dedicates books to analyzing and defending in a thinly veiled way what, if anything, he owns to whom, while never fully quieting his doubts. He's not above abject flattery (both giving and enjoying), but never without throwing passive-aggressive shade. He wants to like other people, and perhaps he does, but he wants to be liked more, and struggles constantly with the fact that he doesn't like himself. The most successful and influential private man in the Empire, he felt powerless and eventually he was. Caught in the tide of an ambition that would've been healthier for him had it been unmixed with a (perhaps narcissistic) sense that he *had* to be Good (or, alternatively, the other way round), he feels to me like he was always going where his talent and self-doubt took him to, to well-deserved fame and an exile heavier on his pride than on his back, to becoming the most powerful tutor in history to one of the least teachable pupils that could be imagined, to wealth and fear, and a sense of death dodging him that perhaps he never once didn't feel, and never, once, felt he was finally ready for.

He died like he lived — making an spirited, talented, and ultimately futile attempt of doing it well, although a failure at something many of his contemporaries didn't attempt, and only mocked because he was a very prideful man that happened to be a master of his language and a slave to his pen.

And for a failure he became hugely influential; even if Nero learned nothing from him (assuming he had much to teach), he was one of the main shapers of Latin, one of the roots of Western drama, an inspiration to every writer of a mirror of princes and of Montaigne through his self-fashioning, brilliant, hypocritical, deeply felt letters, and perhaps through him to all of us. The mocked wealthy philosopher whom the Christians wanted for themselves (when they didn't condemn in the strongest terms). I'm sure he'd have liked to know of the longevity and ubiquity of influence... and I'm sure that it wouldn't have done anything to soothe the gnawing self-doubt of his days.

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