Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Return of Fred the Sheep

A follow-up, courtesy of my friend Carl Anderson, to a story I mentioned last year: working from a proposal by Professor Michael Drout, engineers at Northwestern University have developed a prototype machine capable of extracting sheep DNA from medieval parchment. If researchers then succeed in developing a chemical process that allows them to analyze and classify the extracted genetic material, it will be possible to identify the date and perhaps also the geographical provenance of undated medieval manuscripts.

Northwestern engineering students are also working on a super-hard "dragonslayer" sword, which should make it easier for the school to deal with Chicago's persistent dragon problem.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Statecraft as Mortal Combat

On December 30, 1800, Emperor Paul of Russia made the following announcement in his court's official newspaper: "His Majesty . . . perceiving that the European powers cannot come to an accommodation, and wishing to put an end to the war which has raged fourteen years*, has conceived the idea of appointing a place to which he will invite the other potentates to engage together with himself in single combat on lists which shall be marked at; for which purpose they shall bring with them, to act as their esquires, umpires, and heralds, their most enlightened ministers and able generals, as Thugut, Pitt, and Bernstorff."

Quoted in Edward Emerson's History of the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1902), p. 79. Emerson views this invitation as evidence that Paul's mind had come unhinged, a conclusion also reached by the emperor's inner circle, whose members assassinated him early the following year. From our perspective in the early twenty-first century, though, the idea of resolving international disputes through "single combat" between state leaders, rather than through bloody wars with millions of casualties, seems rather more sane. I suspect it would have been amusing, at least, to view a joust or duel between Tallyrand and Pitt the Younger.

* Paul was doubtless mashing together the Wars of the First and Second Coalitions (1792-1802) with the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-89.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chickasaw Archery

I'm in the early stages of researching a book on the economic history of the Chickasaws, a small but strategically-important southeastern Indian nation that in the 19th century would become one of the Five Civilized Tribes. In the course of re-reading Charles Hudson's description of the 16th-century Chicazas (the principal ancestors of the Chickasaws) in his 1997 book Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun (U. of Georgia Press), I came across this account of Chickasaw archers' military prowess: when the Chicazas attacked De Soto's men in the winter of 1541, they succeeded in killing nearly 60 horses, twelve of which they shot through the heart. The horse of hidalgo Juan Diaz was supposedly killed by an arrow that entered its shoulder, went through the entire body, and "protrud[ed] on the opposite side the length of four fingers" (p. 269). Another died after two arrows entered its heart from two different directions.

Hudson bases this chapter on 16th-century accounts of the Soto expedition, chiefly the narrative of the Gentleman of Elvas. I must say I find this account of Chickasaw archers' virtuosity somewhat difficult to believe - their arrows would have had to have been of the same strength as medieval longbowmen's arrows in order to have that degree of penetrating power. It doesn't surprise me, though, that they would consider the Spaniards' animals important targets, since horses gave Europeans a military advantage nearly as important as that provided by their firearms and steel weapons.