Reading Roundup: Unconventional Gods & Elitist Fashions
My New Year’s Resolution for this year was to try and keep better track of what I read in a sort of modified resonance calendar and I thought it might be nice to share some of my January highlights, since I was going back over them as part of a spaced repetition practice anyway.
I got a couple of books for Christmas that I dove into, and though I haven’t finished them yet, this month I spent some time with:
- The Golden Thread by Kassia St. Claire — In particular, it detailed trade values for various measures of silk. I don’t have a totally clear view on how big a bolt of silk was, but it was definitely used as a measure of value and the book explains the exact price, which was interesting from an economics perspective.
- The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor — The section I read in January mostly focused on how they used eagles to hunt all kinds of things, even wolves (in order to defend their sheep) which is amazing, but I also found an obscure reference about a giant sacred rock that was worshiped by the early Scythians that reminds me strongly of the narrator of The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. I’m going to do some more digging — but of all the cool things in The Amazons, that was one of my favorite easter eggs.
- Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie — I particularly enjoyed the Army of the Lady and how the first Tang Emperor’s daughter played such an enormous role in overthrow the previous (terrible) ruler of China.
- Maya plumbing: First pressurized water feature found in New World — A lot of people who read my books, which is set in the bronze age, react to seemingly-modern elements like showers or sewers with a sort of, “uhh, you know that wasn’t invented yet?” tone, but as I’ve written about before, infrastructure in ancient civilizations was generally better than most people think, so I particularly enjoyed this 2010 research paper about how the Mayans probably had fountains, pressurized toilets, etc.
- “What did a Roman parking lot look like?” — Lots of fantastic information about stuff like paid litter-bearer stands (like cab stands) in places where wheeled conveyances were illegal (i.e., the Roman cities). Neat stuff about how often games in the Colosseum took place, who paid for it, why, and when. Also, apparently Rome had public slaves? I had no idea and am sort of puzzled by how that might work.
- Paintings in Classical Antiquity — There was a really great comment that outlined the major painting techniques throughout history, one of which involved wax, which I was excited about from a worldbuilding perspective, since one of the fantastical creatures in Verraine produces large quantities of wax for export.
- “How would ancients go about learning totally foreign languages?” — It hadn’t ever occured to me (although it makes intuitive sense) that the Columbian experience of being totally ignorant of a local language and being unable to find a translator would have been relatively unique; ancient times had enough bilingual speakers, related dialects, and local trade that this was rarely an issue. My mind went immediately to two places: this article that covers how Cortes managed to communicate with the Aztecs (which I first read years ago and is actually what eventually led me to being a subscriber to Scott Alexander’s blog, Astral Codex Ten) and L. E. Modesitt Jr.’s Sage of Recluse, where even after an interdimensional anomaly plopped the spage-age protagonists down on an iron age planet, they discovered that their languages were related.
- How do sleep patterns vary between forager and farming communities? — I really enjoyed this from a worldbuilding perspective, because sleep patterns are rarely something that get integrated into novels I read, but sleep is actually really tied to culture. Nomads might wake up often to tend a fire, and pastoral communities would be more prone to cosleeping.
- Why did the ancients engage in so much raiding? — I’ve always wondered about this myself, and the commenter does a great job explaining how many premodern societies literally had entire social classes dedicated to waging war for profit, power, glory… and, frankly, loot.
- Why are long, straight swords so popular? — I always thought that sword shape had more to do with climate and local vegetation than anything else, but apparently, the popularity of long straight swords throughout post-Roman Europe and Asia mostly has to do with similarities to the Roman weapons. Curved weapons were probably more effective, but were often considered “lower class” because of their resemblance to peasant weapons.
- What makes “Milk and Honey” so special in Abrahamic religions? — I love filling in what I like to call “the Phoenician gap,” and this thread goes into a lot of detail about Phoenician trade. It makes me think of Phoenicia as being very similar to Poland in that the Canaanites were sort of trapped between superpowers and although the Canaanite city-states were culturally aligned with one another, the different city-states fell to different powers at different times (i.e. Egypt, Assyria). The main takeaway seems to be that milk and honey was able to be traded by the Phoenicians because the mountain part of their territory wasn’t taken over as much and couldn’t support “normal” agriculture but they could raise sheep and have advanced beekeeping, so it became “the land from which milk and honey flows.” Milk and honey didn’t mean “wealth” to the Israelites (they weren’t luxury goods or anything) it meant safety because the Phoenician coast was fairly safe from invaders, which the Israelites would have valued.
- This thread has some nice stuff about giving-away cultures like the Salish tribes who functioned pretty well without what we would call “an economy” and were really quite communist in a way.
- The Rise of the Nation-State thread is really useful for understanding the perspective of people who are not part of a nation-state, because actual “nation-state” organizations are not actually the historical norm in many places, and the peoples on the fringe being able to take their ball and go home is really fascinating. The key concepts of statehood are: census-taking, surveying, and taxing — because leaders need to know what their assets are in order to muster them for conflict. Border control is key and wasn’t always really a thing during time periods without strong central government, particularly in Europe.
- This thread goes into some amazing detail about the history of fashion and how elitist markers changed with the 14th century tailoring revolution from being more about expensive materials to being more about cutting edge styling. It also specifically touches on how peasants and people in different time periods would have experienced societal change over their lifetimes.
- This piece discusses why claims that it was “almost” industrialized before the Mongols came along and smashed the Song Dynasty are terrible claims. It goes into detail about the prerequisites for industrialization and how necessity is the mother of invention and what not that would be useful for planning out an Industrial Revolution in Verraine.
Have you read anything worth sharing lately? Let me know in the comments!