Archive for the ‘History; It's Good To Think About’ Category

Went to Veckring, France, today, about 45 minutes away, to see the biggest fort on the Maginot Line.  I had always thought that it was a totally stupid project that cost billions and accomplished nothing.  Why did the French build a fortified line from the Lux border to the Swiss one in the 1920s and ’30s, with the idea of keeping the Germans out, when in WWI the Germans had not come that way, but through Belgium?  Well, it seems that nobody but Hitler and a few others could imagine crashing through the hilly part of Belgium, the Ardennes, in 1940; so the Line wasn’t all that stupid.  Plus the French hoped it would hold up the Huns until the Fr. could completely mobilize, which would have taken weeks.  Finally, the French population was much smaller than the German pop. post WWI, roughly 41 million to 66 m in Germany in the early 1930s.  And the German pop. was growing much faster.  Therefore the French tried to rely more on fortifications than on men.  Well, it didn’t work.  The Germans smashed through the Ardennes in May 1940 and simply bypassed the Maginot Line.  The only military function it did have was in late 1944, when the Germans held it and fired shells at American troops, until more artillery could be brought up on the weak side of the line, i.e. from the rear, to silence the German guns.

Anyway, a lot of equipment in the fortress at Hackenberg, the largest on the Line, still works.  The gun turrets rise out of the ground, rotate, and do everything but fire.  The diesel generators (not the originals, which the Germans took out after 1940 to use at submarine bases in occupied France) and a small electric-powered train work.  You get two long rides on the train, which was intended to haul ammunition and supplies around.  The tunnels have held up well–and of course there has been a lot of restoration.  And now it looks like the most peaceful place on earth.

uniforms of French colonial troops

The French colonial troops fought well, but in both wars in

Europe they learned that white people could be poor and

could be killed.  Not good for the future of colonialism.

watch the turret turn

Give me fields without guns, please.

Happy Easter.


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Well, Eurofans, I have been away for a while, to Hannover, where I gave a paper at a conference, then Frankfurt, Bad Nauheim, Idstein, Worms, Heidelberg, Mainz, and Speyer again.  My friend Carl came over on his spring break and we rolled around in Das Auto, plus walked a lot.

Cossacks getting ready to speak in Frankfurt

First, here’s a pic of Russian Cossacks getting ready to speak on the main square of old town Frankfurt.  We saw them walk into the square; Carl spotted them first and even commented that their hats looked Soviet.  I had seen Cossacks in their self-designed uniforms in Ukraine, where they are considered extreme Russian nationalists.  The Ukrainian cops don’t like them much because they stir up trouble, act really important, and sometimes fool people into thinking that the uniforms mean something.  Anyway, I walked over to the guys in Frankfurt and asked in Russian where they were from.  “Russia,” one answered.  Yes, I said, that seems clear, what town?  Rostov-na-Donu, Rostov on the Don–the classic Cossack town, or so they would like to think.  Several years ago they went on a rampage in the city market there, knocking down stalls run by Georgians and Asians, beating up people.  Needless to say, I didn’t mention any of that.  Carl and I walked off, planning to come back in a few minutes to hear what the Cossacks had to say.  But when we returned 10 minutes later, no trace of them.  Maybe the German cops said no go.  Too bad I didn’t hear them, but it was good, in 1 sense, to see them.

For the moment, I’m going to put up just a few photos of details of sculptures on or in German cathedrals.  I do like the churches themselves, but, as in Italy, I’m hooked now on the small touches here and there that for me make the places come alive.  On this trip, I looked carefully at the figures of apes, bears, lions, hideous faces, put usually on the outside of the cathedrals.  The goal was to keep evil spirits away.  But why such a fear of evil spirits in Christian holy places?  Wasn’t the Church with a capital C or the power of Jesus enough to keep away evil?  Or were the twisted faces more for the ignorant masses, an appeal to their constant belief in magic, whether flowing through the church or not?  Just for decoration?  Now, these figures are not the ends of downspouts, as they are at Notre Dame in Paris.  These are just stone carvings.  Maybe I’ll research the topic some day.

on the Speyer Dom

head from the Speyer Dom

The Dom at Worms (say Vorhms)

Worms lion, outside the church

The final figure suggests that evil spirits could physically attack people.  The West was on the way to the creation of the Big Devil and of  witches as his actual servants on earth.

The 11th century was a crucial period.  The Worms cathedral was begun between 1000 and 1025, Speyer begun 1030, as part of a great wave of church building in the West.  Consider these changes in the 11th c:  1022 first known execution of heretics for many centuries, Orleans, France; Synod of Rome demands celibacy for priests, 1047; schism between the eastern and western churches, 1054; first slaughter of Jews, Spain, 1063; expansion of claims for the papacy’s right to spiritual rule, 1049 on; Seljuk Turks capture Jerusalem, 1070; first official ghetto for Jews, Germany, 1084; First Crusade, 1095.  Western Christianity began to attack Muslims, soaking Jerusalem in blood.  Okay, the Arabs (Moors) had swept into Spain in  711, so maybe they started it.   But in the Solomon Temple in Jerusalem, “men rode up to their knees and bridle reins in blood,” wrote Raymond of Agiles about the Christian capture of the city in 1099.

Must write a book, tentative title, “The Most Critical Century:  Christianity Goes to War at Home and Abroad, 1000-1100 AD.  Please submit any snappier titles you can think of.

Don’t let an evil spirit eat your head.

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My wife has come and gone.  We had a great time in Brussels, Trier, and here in Lux.  She will be back in May with our daughter and her (the daughter’s!) boyfriend.

Brussels:  about 992,000 people.  Not many tall buildings; in fact, I don’t think we saw much over 10-12 stories.  The old part of the city has nothing over 6-7 stories.  Everyone loves the Grand Place (note that for old phrases, another e.g. being Grand Mere, the e that should be at the end of Grand for female nouns is missing), and it is one of the most striking ensembles I’ve seen.  The buildings are not ancient, partly because in 1695 the French came around and aimed their cannon at the tallest spire on the square.  They succeeded in destroying most of it, except of course for the spire they were aiming at.  It’s remarkable how much damage the French caused in this general area, mostly during Louis XIV’s wars but also in the spread of the French Revolution.  They looted, burned, shelled, stabled their horses in historic buildings, etc.  I’m not saying that revolutions are bad and should be avoided at all costs, as Edmund Burke did.  Revolutions, including the Russian and American ones, are never planned.  They make their own twists, turns, and violence according to circumstances–and according to the violence that greets them from conservatives.  It’s not logical to oppose revolutions as somehow stupid or inherently bad.  It is useful to ask why revolutions take the course they do.

Where was I?  Ah, Brussels.  We stayed in a 4-star hotel, which to my mind was a 3-star place with a pretentious lobby and a great central location, in a fairly tacky neighborhood.  And why don’t the Belgians put a few ATMs around?  Or did they ship them all to Lux?  But when we walked a few blocks away from the hotel, we found absolutely gorgeous spots.  Here is the Petit Sablon square:

And chocolate everywhere.  We had heard that Godiva chocolate, so highly esteemed in the US, is considered just pretty good in Belgium.  I had seen a lot of chocolate in Bruges in Jan. and had even eaten some; wonderful!  But one cold day in Brussels we got hot chocolate in a Godiva shop.  The choco barista made it with chunks of various kinds of chocolate and milk kept at a high temp. in a small machine.  Out of this world!  Not the kind your mother gave you made from powder.  Must make real hot chocolate at home.

And fine food everywhere.  Finally found out what chicon (try some recipes if you can handle the French) means; it’s not in my dictionary.  It’s a local word for endive, which I thought was only used cold in salads.  But steamed and doused with sauce or au gratin, it’s excellent.  One night we each had a bucket of mussels with different sauces.  Loved them.  Belgian beer:  there are many kinds, but each of the several I tried had lots of body and terrific flavor.

But back to the tacky side:  the most popular and most photographed figure in Brussels is the Mannekin-Pis, a figure of a little boy taking a piss.  The thing turns out to be all of about 2 feet tall.  It really is a fountain peeing a small stream of water.  Every day it has a different outfit on; I have no idea who dresses it and who decides what it will wear.  Okay, so there’s a statue of a little boy taking a pee.  Cute and harmless.  But why do the tourists go bonkers about it, crowding around it (luckily it’s up on a wall with a fence around it), taking pictures, laughing as though it’s the funniest joke they’ve ever seen?  And why did my wife and I go to see it–well, we just happened to walk past it–3 times?  And why are replicas of the Mannekin-Pis, many of them several times the size of the statue itself, available in everything from stone to polyester to chocolate?  Of course, many of the copies are fountains with little hoses you can hook up, so that at home you can have a fabulous time watching it pee.  Maybe tomorrow you can watch the grass grow.  For a Freudian delight, you could have your statue pee chocolate, or the statue could be chocolate, and you could have your favorite relatives over to eat it.

So here’s the M-P, followed by dedicated tourists and a display of replicas you can buy for hundreds of euros.

The crowd called out for more.

Get enough for the whole family.

While we were in Brussels–we only heard about this–a young mother of 3 tried to resist a car-jacking and was shot to death.  The cops caught the trio who did it.  That could happen any day in any American city.  But somehow that event brought Brussels full circle for me:  great beauty, great food, the world’s best chocolate, seedy and goofy, a center of dumb jokes and violence.

Viva Brussels.

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Back from a week in Italy.  Bari on the Adriatic Coast, Cetara on the Amalfi Coast, and many a hill town in between.  Pompeii and Ravello, fabulous cathedrals–I’ve come to like the details of carvings and interiors more than I care about the architecture–to each his own.

To get to my apt./hotel room in Cetara, I had to climb 95 steep steps.  At Amalfi, Metara, Ostuni–up and down, over the steps and cobblestones.  No place for sissies, and I wonder how great all this is for old people.  They should move to flat places, but people can’t afford to move in any event.

The first rule of Italian driving (I rented a little Lancia, which more or less held its own, except that after a while on mountain roads in second gear, it was really hard sometimes to get the car into third) is not “never look behind you”; it’s never look beside you.  If you did, you’d freak.  There’s no room to get by the truck coming up the hill, but you do.  People and cars dart out from side streets, and that’s your problem, not theirs.  The streets are narrow, cars and scooters are parked everywhere, people are walking everywhere–it’s nuts.  I have seen the like before, e.g. in Jamaica and Turkey, but a week of Italian driving will cure you of worrying about peripheral vision.  Don’t bother.

By the way, Western Europe is absolutely car crazy.  There is good public trans, but everyone wants a car, and it seems that most people have one.

Got back to the chateau at 3:30 AM this morning, and today felt like I was walking through jello.  So I’ll just put up a few pictures and call  it quits for now.

Positano, Amalfi Coast


bodies at Pompeii, preserved in a plaster process

Chimneys, Matera

pulpit, Ravello church (begun 1080)

carvings at Trani Cathedral, begun 1097

Happy to be back in my home away from home!

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Arrived back at the Chateau today after 4 days and nights with my students on the trail of witches. Trier, Germany; Nancy, France; Speyer and Rothenburg, Germany, in that order. The point was to see places where the hunts were of very different intensities and to see an exhibition on witchcraft trials and materials in Speyer. All four towns were part of the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. The hunts were furious and devastating around Trier; of medium intensity in Lorraine, of which Nancy was the capital; and mild indeed around Rothenburg. In each of those 3 towns we went into the archives, met with professors who were specialists on the hunts in that particular location, and did some other tourism on the side. The students behaved really well except for one night in a youth hostel in Speyer. They asked good questions of the professors and, I think, had a fine time in general on the trip.

Here we are in the Rathaus (city hall) of Rothenburg. The picture is not by me–I’m the one in the black jacket in the center–and I’m afraid it’s out of focus. But you can get some idea of the group.

The dog (a cool 15-year-old German pooch) is named Dixie.

The banner at the back of the hall is the Hapsburg 2-headed eagle. Of course the old joke is that it didn’t know which way to face, toward Western or toward Eastern Europe. Trouble on both sides, to put it mildly, especially with the Ottoman Turks and their legacy in southeastern Europe.

The Speyer Dom (cathedral), begun in 1030. Still very much a Catholic church, with a continuous line of bishops since then.

We got into some places and to see some things

that no tourist, or even the vast majority of local

people, ever see. Some examples follow.

Students with a letter signed by Charlemagne, dated before the year 800, Nancy archives

entrance to the jail cells in Rothenburg; no later than the 15th c

I won’t say that the devil is in the details, but here are some details.

Speyer Dom door handles (! not original !)

little packets with spells to ward off evil magic, 1690s, Rothenburg archives

Eisenhut Cafe, Rothenburg, entrance door to the toilets

I think that we had a really good trip. Something that I started to plan a year and a half ago worked out well. Up to the moment we left, in fact until we got onto the bus this morning to return here, I was tense about how the big and little things would go. Now that it’s over, I feel somewhat drained and


And may all your study tours be bright.

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First, meet my reindeer. Well, he’s real, but he’s not mine. I stumbled upon him in a small zoo in Maastricht. I had never been close to one before. Funny, they’re pretty small; this is a full-grown adult, judging by the antlers. But he is shorter than a pony, e.g.  Anyway, good-looking and proud of it.

Over the week end I went to Aachen, or Aix-la-Chapelle in French, to see Charlemagne’s tomb and and church. Then over to stay at a hotel just outside Maastricht Sat. night. On Sunday morning into Maastricht to look around the town a little, esp. at the way Catholic and Protestant churches have existed side by side since the Reformation (which began 1517-21, you’ll remember), and outside Maastricht to go into some extensive caves.

Charlemagne had a fairly small but beautiful church built in the early 800s. Apparently little is left of the original interior decoration–or lack of it; the church was quite plain. Now there are elaborate mosaics all over the interior arches that date from the 19th century.

Interior view; the marble decoration on  the arches and the floor tiles date from much later. The chandelier was a gift to the church from Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in the 1165.  Hitler named the invasion of the USSR in 1941 Operation Barbarossa; don’t know if the emperor would have been pleased.

Charlemagne loved the number 8, so the church is in the shape of an octagon.  It’s also patterned after earlier churches in Ravenna, Italy, and Constantinople (Istanbul).  I’ve been to the latter, called Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) several times.  It is stunning.  Char. himself, or the bones of someone mighty like him, are in a sarcaphagus of wood, silver, and gold in the  Aachen Cathedral.  But at burial they removed his skull.  The church has only part of it now; the guide said that probably the rest was cut up and sold to other places as holy relics to put on display.  Not that there wasn’t a huge business in fake relics.  And many people went to see such things.  Out of faith?  Hope for a cure or a child?  Desperation?  A kind of insurance policy?  Or may be all of those.

The caves in Maastricht are man made.  The Romans started digging here for marl, a kind of soft yellow limestone that can be cut easily but which hardens on exposure to air.  Many buildings in the town are made of it.  Marl is no longer quarried here, but there are 120 miles of tunnels.  Don’t go without a guide, not that you’re allowed to.  It would be extremely easy to get lost.  During WWII, the Dutch Resistance used the caves, paintings like Rembrandt’s Night Watch were hidden here, and people from Maastricht took shelter here during Allied bombings.

So here are some Maastricht vignettes.

A figure on the street; Carnival is coming, and things are getting strange.

St. Servatius

We can’t leave the area without a taste of the devil

Marl cave wall art

The devil’s mustard is right; I had a taste,

but the kick kept on kicking, and it was too much for me.

Exterior view of the AachenDom (cathedral). The tower is a 15th c addition.

On Sat night on the hotel outside Maastricht was as clean and cozy as only the Dutch can do it.  I don’t know why, but you feel their ability to make things right.  And an excellent dinner, especially the curry tomato soup.

Back through the Ardennes ahead of the snow, which was great.  Returned to the chateau about 4:30; by 5:30 the car was again covered with snow.  I made dinner for a prof from Brussels, another sweet guy.

Snow kept falling all night; the morning was a mess, with many people late.

Tired but warm and dry, and with no plans to drive anywhere for a while–the mini study tour by bus starts in 2 days.

Easy on the mustard, friends.

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Last weekend, Jan. 24, went to Metz. All yellow limestone buildings. That might drive me crazy if I stayed there a long time, but it’s an impressive ensemble to look at. Best of all, no surprise, is the cathedral. A kind of squatty Gothic thing from the outside, no high bell tower, but fabulous windows. Some of the windows are by Marc Chagall; but in truth I like the old ones a good deal more.

Chagall window detail, 1960. Not taken by me. I couldn’t get a good photo inside.

At the main entrance, carvings of people going to heaven show them fully clothed, or robed, but those going into the mouth of hell are naked. I’m not going to say it would be more fun going in naked, but somehow heaven always sounded really dull to me. Anyway, here’s the pic:

Would such carvings, or the mosaics or frescoes of fierce devils chomping on souls in Italian churches, really have frightened anyone into good behavior? To my mind, no, unless people were primed by some experience to feel the wrath of hell–Luther scared almost out of his mind as he crossed an open field in a thunderstorm, lightning all around. I believe that the depictions of hell were more interesting and entertaining than depictions of heaven–of which, I am convinced, there were very few.

Here’s another one I did not take, from the Florence Baptistry:

Scary? I don’t think so! Cool to look at if you’ve come straight from the countryside (or from New York, for that matter)–absolutely.

And these big devils do not figure in Orthodox art, i.e. icons. So no witch hunts in Orthodox lands. Or maybe I said that before.

Anyway, Metz was a fine stop for an afternoon. And once more, the French show how good they are at decorating shop windows.

Yesterday started to feel sick while teaching my class. Made it through, then had to lie down. Could only eat bananas and drink Coke during the day. But did get my hair cut. Pas trop court–not too short–means here, apparently, don’t scalp me. So I have a little hair left. Today felt much better. And I finally got my x ray. Took the train this time to Esch, which was much better than trying to drive through the crazy center of another old town. So now I have done all the stages of trying to get a visa that I can–all the docs go off to the Min. of Foreign Affairs.

Coke and bananas to you when you need them.

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