Airbrushed From History: The Founding of Russia, the Islamic Role in the European Renaissance, Mali, and Genghis Khan’s Pax Mongolica

History of the World Part 4 – The Middle Ages

BBC (2018)

Film Review

Episode 4 is my favorite as covers numerous topics airbrushed out of mainstream history textbooks.

It begins with the founding of the city-state of Kiev by Oleg of the Viking Russ tribe in 882 AD and his domination of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea and East-West trade out of Constantinople. Sixty years later, the King of Kiev Vladimir the Great would adopt the orthodox Christianity practiced in the Byzantine Empire.

The film goes on to describe the flourishing classical (Greek and Roman) learning in the Islamic Empires urban centers, particularly Cordova (in modern day Spain) and Bukhara (in modern day Uzbekistan).

A substantial portion of this episode focuses on the conquest of the largest land empire ever in the 12th and 13th century AD by the Mongol Genghis Khan. His main legacy was Pax Mongolica, which led to the reopening of the Silk Road, restoring land-based trade between Europe and Asia. This would lead to Venetian Marco Polo’s famous visit to China in 1275 AD, where he served 12 years as special advisor to the Mongol Chinese Emperor Kubla Khan.

The last empire discussed is the vast African empire of Mali, which was unknown to the western world until the emperor Mansa Musa (a devout Muslim) arrived in Cairo in 1324 with 60,000 followers. They were on a 2,000 mile pilgrimage to Mecca.

The film finishes by exploring the role of Muslim scholarship in the revival of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge in the Italian city states – and ultimately the European Renaissance. It uses as an example of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous fresco The Last Supper. The latter incorporates the laws of perspective, largely based on Muslim innovations in math and geometry, and the knowledge of human anatomy the Muslims inherited from the ancient Greeks.

 

How the Irish Saved Civilization

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe

by Thomas Cahill

Hodder and Stoughton (1995)

Book Review

This book covers the history of Ireland from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century to the sacking of most Irish monasteries by Viking invaders in the 11th. It mostly focuses on the life of St Patrick (aka Patricius), a Romanized Britain kidnapped into slavery by Irish pirates in 401. In Ireland, he was forced to work as a shepherd for six years until he heard God’s voice telling him he was free to leave.

On his return to Britain, he undertook religious studies to become a priest and bishop and returned to Ireland as a missionary – the first in Church history to minister to so-called “barbarians.” He was also the first person in history to speak out against slavery.

In addition to converting Irish Celts to Christianity, St Patrick played a crucial role in establishing a network of Irish monasteries. As Ireland lacked significant population centers prior to the Viking invasions, these monasteries served as hubs of wealth, art and learning.

As barbarian hoards overran most of the former Roman Empire, most European libraries were burned and “copyists” who had copied classical texts (mainly for the wealthy Roman elite) vanished everywhere except in Irish monasteries.

The Irish invented the “codex,” a method of producing books as multiple pages of parchment rather than a single scroll. Like the Jews before them, the Irish enshrined literacy as a central religious act. Irish was also the first vernacular language to be used (written down) for popular literature, at a time when books elsewhere in Europe were all in Greek or Latin.

 

Reclaiming Our History: The Myth of Celtic Purity in Ireland

The Story of Ireland: A History of the Irish People

BBC

Film Review

This is the first (of five) episodes in the BBC documentary series on the history of Ireland, which provides a comprehensive history of the use of (English and Scottish) settler colonialism to subdue the indigenous population. This model which would be copied in North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and by Israel in the displacement of the indigenous Palestinian population.

Part 1, covering the period 8000 BC to 1100 AD, dispels the myth of Celtic purity in Ireland.

It describes the first human settlers arriving in Ireland immediately after the last Ice Age. They would begin farming around 4,000 BC, and there is clear evidence of trading with the Baltic region and Iberian peninsula from 2,500 BC on. Contrary to more recent mythology, ancient Irish inhabitants weren’t genetically distinct from Celtic settlers in Britain or northern France.

During the Roman occupation of Britain (55 BC to 383 AD), the early Irish exported cattle and leather products to British elites.

Following the departure of the Roman legions in 383 AD, Irish raids on the west coast of Britain increased. Britons were captured as slaves to fuel Ireland’s thriving slave trade. St Patrick, who is credited with bringing Catholicism to Ireland, was a Welshman initially brought to Ireland as a slave.

Ireland’s feuding tribal kings welcomed the advent of Christian monasteries to help them consolidate their power. The monks developed a written alphabet for the Celtic language, and Irish monasteries became a global center of learning as literacy declined on the European continent.

Over the 8th, 9th and 10th century, Ireland was hit by a series of Viking raids and invasions. The latter, who had trade routes extending as far as the Baltic Sea and Constantinople, established the city of Dublin as Europe’s largest slave market.

By the 11th century, the Vikings had thoroughly integrated into Celtic society through intermarriage and conversion to Catholicism.

What Causes Civilization to Collapse?

collapse

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive

Jared Diamond

Penguin Books (2005)

Book Review

This book was very different from what I expected. I anticipated an account of the environmental mismanagement that caused the collapse of prehistoric civilizations such as Easter Island. Collapse is actually a detailed historical analysis of a wide spectrum of both failed and successful societies. In addition to Easter Island, Diamond also covers the vanished Anazazi civilization in New Mexico, the Mayan civilization, the Viking settlements of Iceland (which persists to the present day), Greenland and Vineland (present day Newfoundland and New Brunswick), pre-1853 Japan, the New Guinea highlands and modern day Rwanda and Australia (the modern society he describes at highest risk for collapse).

Diamond’s thesis is that the ability of any society to meet the survival needs of its members depends on certain basic preconditions. He maintains historical forest management is the most critical – deforestation features in every historical collapse he mentions. Forests are not only essential to provide fuel for cooking, heating and refining metal, but loss of forest cover leads to soil erosion and destruction of topsoil, as well as decreased rainfall and fresh water shortages.

In some societies Diamond analyzes, collapse was the direct result of environmental mismanagement. In others, the odds of survival were extremely low to begin with, due to low rainfall, a cold or windy latitude or poor soils. In many cases, a political factor such as war, lack of external supports (eg trade), overpopulation and/or a greedy ruling elite diverting resources to luxuries were important contributing factors.

The section I found most interesting concerns the New Guinea highlanders, who (prior to the arrival of Europeans) maintained an environmentally sustainable civilization via bottom up direct democracy for over 46,000 years.

Chasing the Super-Y Chromosome

adam's curseAdam’s Curse: A Future Without Men

by Bryan Sykes

Book Review

Adam’s Curse is a book about the Y chromosome, which carries the genes determining the sex of mammals. The title is misleading. There’s only a brief discussion in the final chapter regarding the instability of the Y chromosome (due to mutations), which Sykes predicts will lead to its eventual distinction in 5,000 generations (125,000 years). Most of the book concerns the history and evolutionary function of sex differentiation, the use of the Y chromosome and maternal DNA (carried on the mitochondria*) to trace historic migrations, the phenomenon of “group selection” (whereby individuals are genetically programmed to sacrifice themselves for their species) and the genetic basis of patriarchy and homosexuality.

Because neither maternal DNA nor the Y chromosome undergo recombination** at the time of cell division, both remain highly stable over thousands of generations. This feature been invaluable in tracing the prehistoric migration of Neanderthals, Polynesians, Vikings, Native Americans, Australian aborigines and other population groups. Sykes subscribes to the “selfish gene” theory, which asserts that most of human behavior is directed towards the survival of our unique genetic material, ie our genes drive behavior that favors their survival.

The study of thousands of Y chromosomes reveals that “super-Y” chromosomes occur much more frequently than others. In most cases they’re derived from testosterone-driven warriors (eg Vikings and Mongol warriors like Genghis Khan) who used their aptitude for violence, ruthlessness and wealth acquisition to spread their Y chromosome to a disproportionate number of women.

According to Sykes this “crazed ambition of the Y chromosome” to “multiply without limit” leads to endless wars, land annexation and enslavement of women. As he points out in his introduction, it’s quite rare for women to commitment violent crimes, become tyrants or start wars. He also has grave concerns that this unholy alliance between “super Y chromosomes” and an unchecked drive for wealth and power is leading to imminent planetary destruction.

A British financial analyst recently made the observation that the global economy would still be intact if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters. Recent studies show women make better financial traders because they’re more risk adverse.

The chapter I found most interesting concerns the genetic origin of sexual reproduction, ie the exchange of genetic material during reproduction, and male and female sexual identity. I was particularly fascinated to learn that organelles like chloroplasts (plants only) and mitochondria were originally bacteria, with their own DNA, that were captured by larger cells. This modification enabled the larger cells to produce much more energy, which allowed them to specialize and become multi-celled organisms.

My second favorite chapter concerns research into the genetic basis of homosexuality. Geneticists have identified an SRY gene on the Y chromosome that switches on testosterone production when the embryo is six weeks of age. Embryos exposed to testosterone develop male sexual organs. Those that aren’t are automatically programmed to become female.

There’s also a brain structure called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BST) which determines a child’s gender identity and sexual orientation. Testosterone exposure during embryonic development causes it to be larger. It’s much smaller in women, homosexuals and transsexuals. Especially after the birth of one or more sons, women develop antibodies to the H-Y antigen on the Y chromosome. These antibodies, in turn, act to lower fetal testosterone levels, resulting in a smaller BST.


*A mitochondria is an organelle found in large numbers in each cell responsible for respiration and energy production.
**DNA recombination involves the exchange of genetic material between different chromosomes or between different regions on the same chromosomes.