Welcome to Your Historical Compass

"The purpose of this blog is to generate discussions about historical issues. Students, enthusiasts, and friends are all welcome to join by reading and participating with comments. I hope to generate interest in history and offer help to the perplexed." Caleb Johnson

Wednesday, September 28, 2011



Ever wonder why they say history repeats itself? One of the reasons they say this is geopolitics. But what is geopolitics? In short, geopolitics is how geography affects the way nations, armies, and people groups interact. For example, England has avoided many of the conflicts that plague the continent of Europe. Why? The English Channel. This narrow piece of water separates England from the rest of Europe and has served as its greatest defence against invaders. Most recently, it featured as the largest anit-tank ditch of World War II that ever stopped the Nazi Blitzkrieg. The point is that the English Channel isn't going away. It is constant and dependable. The English Channel, then, is a geopolitical phenomenon.

If we look on the other side of the continent, we'll see Russia. Russia has several geopolitical features, but one that has greatly influenced its history is the fact that almost all of Russia's seaports freeze over in winter. This leads the Russians to seek out and conquer warm water seaports like the ones on the Black Sea. However, there is one problem for the Russians with their Black Sea ports. In order to get to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea, every ship must pass the Dardanelles Straits through the old city of Constantinople, or Istanbul,since its fall to the Turks in 1453. The Turks often block the Mediterranean off from the Russians when they disagree, which is often. This leads the Russians to seek the conquest of Istanbul as a matter of national interest. In this case, the Dardanelles and Istanbul are the geopolitical feature. Not much is going to change the fact that the Russians want control of those straits in order to secure their trade routes.

It is important to understand geopolitics in order to understand the world and its history. The more you understand how the earth itself guides the course of history, the less you'll have to ask yourself why this, or why that. If you can get the constants down, then you can pick up on the consistencies and repetitions. So the next time someone says history repeats itself, you can tell them one of the reasons why.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Battle Sequence 1: Bouvines

Dear readers,

Welcome to the first installment of my series "Battle Sequence." This series will feature the exploits of warriors and armies from the annals of the historical record. Each sequence will include such items as the cause of the battle, weapons technology, field deployment, etc. Let the battles begin!

King Phillip accepting the submission of his barons.
Where: Bouvines, Flanders
When: 1214
Who: King Phillip II of France vs. allied forces consisting of Germans under emperor Otto IV, French rebel barons, and an English contingent.
For What:  The fate of France as a united kingdom, or a divided feudal state.
How many: Approximately 15,000 (King Phillip) vs. 20,000 (Allies)

In a classic episode of Medieval politics, several French barons decided to rebel against their feudal king, Phillip II. Always eager to undermine the French crown, the English King John decided to seize this opportunity to expand his dynasty's holdings in Gascony and Normandy. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV also decided to capitalize on the confusion, so all the magnates got together and made common cause.

Phillip, on the other hand, was grateful to God for the opportunity to subdue his rebellious nobles and seize their lands. This is due to the state of France at this time. Many parts of the country were ruled semi-independently by various nobles, while other parts were under English control because of political marriages. The French king only had direct control over a small area around Paris called "Ile-de-France," so this was a perfect opportunity to expand his power.

The belligerents mustered their armies and marched roughly toward each other. They met in Flanders near the town of Bouvines. After hearing mass, the French king prayed to God for victory over the rebels. The king was flying his special banner, the "oriflamme."  This was used only when fighting heretics, rebels, and Saracens. The armies were drawn up in a simple deployment of two lines divided into three battles. In other words, they were going to charge straight at each other in one climactic clash. With the emperor and the king at the center of their respective armies, they directly engaged each other in the field. Both men were thrown from their horses, recovered their mounts and resumed fighting. In a vicious struggle for the centre, the French and German nobles fought with the tenacity of their class. Eventually, the Germans faltered and the French won the center. The allied line started to crack and soon the whole army was in a route. The nobles and knights rode over the fleeing lines of the allied forces, capturing many. The French had won and only the emperor managed to escape capture.

Despite the length of the battle, only two hundred horsemen were reported killed. This is a testament to the equilibrium of offensive technology against defensive technology. The armor of the knights and foot soldiers had reached the point of almost complete protection from swords, arrows, and lances. This would eventually change with the advent of the longbow and handgun. For the soldiers engaged at Bouvines, however, it seemed to be a mere exercise of their martial livelihood. Significantly, only  crusades included as many representatives from so many different countries, making Bouvines one of the most international battles of the age.

For the rebellious nobles, a large ransom was gathered to buy their release. Bouvines is an excellent example of how medieval battles were a lucrative affair for the victors. Phillip not only seized their lands, but also reaped huge revenues from the ransoms their families paid. The English Barons lost all their lands in France and King John was held accountable. A year later in 1215, he was forced to sign the Magna Carta and the English formed their first Parliament. In the end, France was put on the road to a more centralised and unified state and King Phillip was given the cognomen "Augustus" for his bravery and valor.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Russian Literature

Dear Friends,

Allow me to recommend to you the great literary works of Russia. Deep within the forests of the Russian hinterland, or perhaps tucked away in one of the onion-shaped domes of the Kremlin, are some of the best pieces of prose this world has to offer. My favorite Russian authors are Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. They concentrate mostly on Russia's unique perspective of the human condition. Life, love, war, and death are the most common themes. These men eloquently relate the lives of Russian people during the mid-19th century. Some of the books have even been made into movies and I can recommend War and Peace (1956, starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda). If you're looking for a happy ending, choose War and Peace. However, if you're looking for a deeper, darker journey to a greater truth, I would recommend reading Letters from the Underground by Dostoyevsky. In it, Dostoyevsky shows how Jesus Christ is the great inequality, as he was the son of God sent to save the underground man.

Love them or hate them, but please read them. Don't feel intimidated by the size of the works. If necessary, find an audio copy at your local library. I promise you that you'll never view Russia the same way after reading one of these great books.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Welcome to Your Historical Compass

Dear readers,
Welcome to my new history blog. This blog will feature historical posts, songs, links to my favorite historical websites, illuminating photographs and more. I look forward to the discussions, laughs and thoughts we'll share together through this blog.

For my first post, I decided to write about a Medieval topic. The Middle Ages will feature heavily in my posts since it is my favorite period of history. The topic? The globe. Contrary to popular belief, people in the middle ages knew that the world was round. Astronomy did not disappear after the fall of Rome and the well educated  knew just as well as the ancients that the world was flat. The myth rises from the stories that sailors told in order to scare avid listeners. Many told stories of sea monsters, and falling off the edge of the world in order to inspire fear and amazement. This is why many of the common people believed that the world was flat.