Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus and CressidaAfter reading the play by Shakespeare last week, I decided to tackle Chaucer’s epic 8,000-line poem about the Trojan lovers, Troilus and Cressida (or Criseyde as Chaucer writes it). It’s a long, somewhat meandering piece that begins, in the Online Medieval Classical Library version:

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!

To thee clepe I, thou goddesse of torment,
Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne;
Help me, that am the sorwful instrument
That helpeth lovers, as I can, to pleyne!
For wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery fere,
And, to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.

Okay, that’s the Middle English original. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But don’t give up yet. Read it aloud. Slowly. Pronounce each vowel as you would in Spanish or Italian. Sorwe becomes sor-weh. Parte is par-teh. You will at least hear, and perhaps feel, the rhythm in his words, the rhyming scheme.

You can hear how Chaucer would have pronounced his words on the Harvard Chaucer site. Or listen to parts of or the entire poem at Librivox.

You can also take several online courses in Chaucer that will help teach his language and style, like this one at Harvard U. The site also offers a handy interlinear translation of several fragments (although not complete poems) where the Middle English line is followed by a modern version. I have a paperback edition of the Canterbury Tales like that and it’s very helpful and quite readable.

Here’s the same two initial verses translated by Kline:

Troilus’s double sorrow for to tell,
he that was son of Priam King of Troy,
and how, in loving, his adventures fell
from grief to good, and after out of joy,
my purpose is, before I make envoy.
Tisiphone, do you help me, so I might
pen these sad lines, that weep now as I write.

I call on you, goddess who does torment,
you cruel Fury, sorrowing ever in pain:
help me, who am the sorrowful instrument
who (as I can) help lovers to complain.
Since it is fitting, and truth I maintain,
for a dreary mate a woeful soul to grace,
and for a sorrowful tale a sorry face.

Somewhat easier to understand, don’t you think? Continue reading “Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde”

Racism and the US Civil Rights movement retold

Civil Rights marchersAs I read through Rick Perlstein’s book, Nixonland, about American politics and life in the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights movement and the reaction to it by white Americans, the narrative astounds me. Such anger, such violence. Such sadness. It seems like such an alien place, dystopian, almost fictional, like an Orwellian novel.

I was, it seems from my reading, not really aware, not fully cognizant of just how bad it was. But then, it looks eerily familiar – some of the photos look just like those taken during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Am I merely juxtaposing my own feelings on it, conflating the two? After all, I was there. Wasn’t I?

Growing up in Canada, I never experienced the clashes that rocked America, especially in the Fifties and Sixties.* I saw the marches, the riots on the TV news, but never really felt their impact at home. Nor understood what they meant. Racism was such a bizarre, foreign concept that it didn’t make any sense.

I watched with youthful fascination at the stark black and white images of the protesters being set upon by police dogs, beaten by police batons, hosed with water cannon as they marched – mostly peacefully – for the right to sit in the front of a bus, use a washroom, to vote or have their children attend a school. Black and white, white vs black.

It simply didn’t make sense. Were people being beaten, even killed by those appointed or elected to protect them? People had to fight, often against violent reaction for the simple right to vote in a democracy? Why were others using brutality, violence and fear to prevent them? There was no logic, no sanity to any of it.

Not simply because I was young, but also because, as far as I was aware then, racism didn’t exist in our WASP neighbourhood, so there was nothing to compare it with. It certainly wasn’t in our household, in the little bungalow built in one of Toronto’s earliest east-end, post-war suburbs. Race – as a topic of animosity – didn’t exist: not because there were no people of colour, different ethnicities, religions or backgrounds, but rather because those differences simply didn’t matter.

To kids, anyway.** Continue reading “Racism and the US Civil Rights movement retold”

The Missing Lines

Mesopotamian tabletThe National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum – once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*.

In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came in. According to Wikipedia:

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: “the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Akkadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.”[4] Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki Statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.
In addition, the museum’s aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.
The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.
One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, “estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue.” The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum – the looters “probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.” It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

The looting was severe enough to spawn several books and magazine articles (also here and here). The museum is still rebuilding and not open to the public, a decade later.

One of the side effects of the war was to end international archeological research into the region. And while we wait to see if the country ever settles so it becomes safe enough to resume such activities, looters continue to steal everything they can, including from archeological sites.

The Museum reported that many of its cuneiform tablets were looted, although some were later recovered. Those tablets contain some of the oldest writing in the world, among them the epic of Gilgamesh (the tablet shown in the image above, is the 11th tablet in the epic, from the library of Ashurbanipal (Assyrian King 669-631 BCE), now in the British Museum).

Continue reading “The Missing Lines”

Albert and the Lion

Book of Albert poemsA recent comment on Facebook – “You just can’t resist poking the bear…”* made me remember a poem by Marriott Edgar that I enjoyed as a child in the 1950s: Albert and the Lion. I actually first heard it orally – we had a collection of old 78s and a wind-up gramophone in the basement. Among the musical treasures were several monologues by Stanley Holloway who read this and several other poems about Young Albert, accompanied by a piano that accented his words.

There was a book, too, probably brought from England by my father when he came over in the late 1940s. It had this and several other poems by Marriott. It was published in the 1930s and had great illustrations.I found the cover online at another blogger’s site. The poems were funny, but also darkly comic, like this one:

I’ll tell of the Battle of Hastings,
As happened in days long gone by,
When Duke William became King of England,
And ‘Arold got shot in the eye.

Albert and the 'eadsman
Or this one about the headsman and the ghost of Anne Boleyn:

The ‘Eadsman chased Jane round the grass patch
They saw his axe flash in the moon
And seeing as poor lass were ‘eadless
They wondered what what next he would prune.

He suddenly caught sight of Albert
As midnight was on its last chime
As he lifted his axe, father murmered
‘We’ll get the insurance this time.’

Boy's Own AnnualI may still have a copy of Edgar’s wonderful book in my own collection. Not sure what became of it, but it was well-read even when I first found it. I remember it well. remember the feel of it, how the pages smelled, how it folded in my hands as I sat on the couch and read it. It had the English price on the cover, which was a number very odd to a boy raised in Canada. Just added to the magic.

My father had brought an odd assortment of books with him, including several Boys’ Own Annuals, some dating from the early 1900s. I read them, too, in that basement, while 78 rpm records played. I still have a couple of those Boy’s Own books, upstairs. We used to get parcels at Christmas with Beano and other British comics in them. But I always went back to the Albert poems.

I can still hear Holloway’s Lancashire voice intoning the words as I read them in the book. “Sam, Sam, pick oop tha moosket, Sam,” said Holloway, dryly. My father was from the north, outside Manchester, and probably didn’t find the accent funny or his odd grammar mysterious, but I delighted in it and loved to imitate it.

I loved those recordings. I listened to them over and over and I can still remember many verses and lines. And of course many of these are on YouTube today. Wonderful memories… here’s what I used to hear. Imagine an eight-year-old strutting, pretending to be the characters, making faces like the bemused parents, frowning like the dour magistrate, poking his imaginary stick at the lion:

Here’s the poem itself. The verses that came to mind are in bold:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
‘E’d a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

They didn’t think much to the ocean
The waves, they was fiddlin’ and small
There was no wrecks… nobody drownded
‘Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

So, seeking for further amusement
They paid and went into the zoo
Where they’d lions and tigers and cam-els
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent posture
With the side of his face to the bars.

Now Albert had heard about lions
How they were ferocious and wild
And to see Wallace lying so peaceful
Well… it didn’t seem right to the child.

So straight ‘way the brave little feller
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took ‘is stick with the’orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
And pushed it in Wallace’s ear!

You could see that the lion didn’t like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im
And swallowed the little lad… whole!

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence
And didn’t know what to do next
Said, “Mother! Yon lions ‘et Albert”
And Mother said “Eeh, I am vexed!”

So Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly, when all’s said and done
Complained to the Animal Keeper
That the lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it
He said, “What a nasty mishap
Are you sure that it’s your lad he’s eaten?”
Pa said, “Am I sure? There’s his cap!”

So the manager had to be sent for
He came and he said, “What’s to do?”
Pa said, “Yon lion’s ‘eaten our Albert
And ‘im in his Sunday clothes, too.”

Then Mother said, “Right’s right, young feller
I think it’s a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we’ve paid to come in!”

The manager wanted no trouble
He took out his purse right away
And said, “How much to settle the matter?”
And Pa said “What do you usually pay?”

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said, “No! someone’s got to be summonsed”
So that were decided upon.

Round they went to the Police Station
In front of a Magistrate chap
They told ‘im what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his o-pinion
That no-one was really to blame
He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing
“And thank you, sir, kindly,” said she
“What waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy lions? Not me!”

~~~~~

Memory’s like that.  Sometimes the oddest things happen. I spent a pleasant morning finding this stuff.

Albert and the Lion
* The comment was not related to the poem, by the way, but rather ab irato; critical comments by another blogger about what I write here.

Rereading the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Wikipedia: Sullivan image for V. 51There are many books weighing down my bookshelves into soft, drooping curves, but not many of them have the privilege of tenure. Only a handful have travelled with me for more than a couple of decades; a small selection of tomes that are read, perhaps infrequently, but more than once, and still manage to speak to me every time.

Most of my books have, over the years, been donated to libraries or sold to bookstores, to make room for the new ones always crowding in and demanding attention. Those that have escaped the culling so long are ones that mean the most to me. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is one of them. You may know it for this memorable verse:

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
1st Translation: 51

Khayyam was a Persian mathematician, philosopher and astronomer. He wrote between 1,200 and 2,000 quatrains (depending on which researcher is counting.). He lived from around 1048 CE to 1122 CE.

I first encountered the Rubaiyat when I was in my pre-teens. I can’t recall today whether it was one of those gems buried on a public library shelf that I found (I waited in the library after school for my father to come home from work and collect me), or if it was among my father’s books I found tucked away on a bookshelf at home. Either way, it stuck with me. Since then, I’ve owned several editions of it. Two sit cheek-to-jowl on my shelves today.

“‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.”
1st translation: 49

Edward FitzGerald, a reclusive and somewhat odd scholar, first translated the collection of stanzas from the ancient Persian in the mid-1850s. Seventy-five of the quatrains were published anonymously in 1859. It took almost ten years for it to become well-known.Today it stands as one of the greatest works of English poetry.

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.”
1st Translation: 7

Robert Sherriffs illustrationI wasn’t aware, at the time when I first found it, that there were several translations of the book, and that the number of verses and their order would change in each (starting from 75 in the first to 110 then reduced to 101 in the last three, but because he replaced some, the total unique verses in all editions is 114).

FitzGerald continued to work at his translation, adding and subtracting verses, from his original, re-ordering and tweaking the wording right until his death. Four versions were published in his lifetime, and a fifth was published after his death, based on notes he left behind.

My copies include a 1951 reprint of the first translation, with the stunning B&W illustrations by Edmund Sullivan reproduced. The other is a 1963 reprint of a 1947 edition, with the first, second and fifth translations, colourfully illustrated by cartoonist Robert Sherriffs. Samples of both are in this post.

While later translations may represent an improvement in the translator’s art, for me the first is still the best. It was the one I first discovered, the one I carried with me while hitchhiking around the country in the 1960s, and the one that still moves me most today. However, I find some of the later versions are sometimes slightly better, slightly more powerful or smoother. That’s why it’s good to have several editions.

For example, verse 7, above is rendered thus in the subsequent editions:

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter – garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing.”
2nd-5th translations, verse 7

Which doesn’t strike as quite as lovely, or poetic as the first. I don’t like the change from “the” to “your” in the second line because it personalizes what I see as a more universal sentiment.. And I really don’t think the bird of time should “flutter,” which seems less potent and more random than “fly.” “Fly” scans better, too.

Fitzgerald’s work is overall, however, magnificent, beautiful, and problematic (it even spawned many parodies). It reflects the best of Victorian literary aspirations; flowery and rich without being saccharine, deep without being stodgy or moralizing, readable in whole or in part. It is rich in imagery and symbolism. His chosen rhyming scheme makes it easy to read and memorize – the AABA scheme has even been called the “Rubaiyat” method.

The poet T.S. Eliot wrote, on reading the Rubaiyat:

‘Like a sudden conversion – the world appeared anew, painted with bright, delicious and painful colours’

However, it is not really very accurate, at least by today’s standards of translation. It’s certainly not literal. In fact, it may be considered more an interpretation than a translation. Wikipedia notes:

“…as a translation of Omar Khayyam’s quatrains, it is not noted for its fidelity. Many of the verses are paraphrased, and some of them cannot be confidently traced to any one of Khayyam’s quatrains at all. Some critics informally refer to the FitzGerald’s English versions as “The Rubaiyat of FitzOmar”, a nickname that both recognizes the liberties FitzGerald inflicted on his purported source and also credits FitzGerald for the considerable portion of the “translation” that is his own creation.”

Fitzgerald himself recognized this, and wrote in a letter to a friend and fellow scholar:

“My translation will interest you from its form, and also in many respects in its detail: very un-literal as it is.”
(letter to E. B. Cowell, 9/3/58)

Later he would write to the same friend,

“But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle”
(letter to E. B. Cowell, 4/27/59).

Scholars have reacted differently to FitzGerald’s work; some with scorn, others with understanding praise:

“…FitzGerald was faithful to the quintessence of the poetic message communicated by Khayyam: that while taking well-deserved liberties with the original text, he recreated the original poet’s message in forms and metaphors more familiar to his Victorian audience -hence his incredible popularity in literary circles of his time. The ‘Wine of Nishapur’ in this sense represents the intoxicating essence of the Quatrains of ‘Umar Khayyam, the fiery way of beauty and wisdom imbibed in Persian by Edward FitzGerald, then outpoured again in Victorian cups of charm and grace.”

from 1921 editionFitzGerald’s Rubaiyat can be read in many different ways: as a long poem with an overarching theme; a series of short poems with loose thematic connections; aphorisms about life and meditations on morality and mortality (like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius) a religious commentary (in particular a Sufi or Islamic manifesto); a non-religious spiritual guide (like a Persian Bardo Thodol but through life, not the afterlife), an intellectual exercise in translation, or in interpretation (like Witter Bynner’s or Ursula Leguin’s editions of the Tao Teh Ching), or as randomly chosen thoughts for today (like I Ching verses).

No matter how you approach it, it is both beautiful and potent, even more than 150 years later. The Telegraph noted that, by its 150th anniversary in 2009, Fitzgerald’s version had been printed in “650 different editions, with illustrations by 150 artists. It has been translated into 70 languages and set to music by 100 composers.”

Since FitzGerald (yes, he capitalized the G), many other writers have attempted to translate the verses into English and other languages. Whether they have equalled or surpassed FitzGerald’s efforts, is a personal choice. As Wikipedia notes, the tone of the translation depends on one’s own personal philosophy:

The nature of a translation very much depends on what interpretation one places on Khayyam’s philosophy. The fact that the rubaiyat are a collection of quatrains – and may be selected and rearranged subjectively to support one interpretation or another – has led to widely differing versions. Nicolas took the view that Khayyam himself clearly was a Sufi. Others have seen signs of mysticism, even atheism, or conversely devout and orthodox Islam. FitzGerald gave the Rubaiyat a distinct fatalistic spin, although it has been claimed that he softened the impact of Khayyam’s nihilism and his preoccupation with the mortality and transience of all things. Even such a question as to whether Khayyam was pro- or anti-alcohol gives rise to more discussion than might at first glance have seemed plausible.

FitzGerald himself seems to have been somewhat of a fatalist, or nihilist, albeit gently so. He grew increasingly disenchanted with Christianity, and eventually gave up attending church. His own outlook on mortality and the fleeting nature of life is evident throughout all of his versions, but it’s far from a pessimistic work.

The Rubaiyat.com compares versions by five translators (Fitzgerald – four editions – Brodie, Talbot, Sadie and Whinfield; Brodie is an ‘anagrammatic paraphrase’ of FitzGerald).You can also compare the first, second, fourth and fifth FitzGerald translations, as well as the Whinfield at Arabiannights.org.

It’s fascinating to compare how others have turned the original into their own words.It’s even fascinating to see how Fitzgerald himself struggled to refine the verses. For example, in his first translation, Fitzgerald wrote this:

“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”
1st translation: 11

In the second edition, this became:

“Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
2nd translation: 12

For the third to fifth editions, this became:

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
3rd-5th translations: 12

As the Rubaiyat.com shows, this is sometimes represented by more than one verse, depending on the translator:

“Some wine, a Houri (Houris if there be),
A green bank by a stream, with minstrelsy;—
Toil not to find a better Paradise
If other Paradise indeed there be!
~~~

In the sweet spring a grassy bank I sought,
And thither wine, and a fair Houri brought;
And, though the people called me graceless dog,
Gave not to Paradise another thought!
~~~

Give me a skin of wine, a crust of bread,
A pittance bare, a book of verse to read;
With thee, O love, to share my lowly roof,
I would not take the Sultan’s realm instead!
~~~

So long as I possess two maunds of wine,
Bread of the flower of wheat, and mutton chine,
And you, O Tulip cheek, to share my hut,
Not every Sultan’s lot can vie with mine.
Whinfield, verses 79, 84, 452, 479

and:

If in the Spring, she whom I love so well
Meet me by some green bank – the truth I tell –
Bringing my thirsty soul a cup of wine,
I want no better Heaven, nor fear a Hell.
~~~

Whether my destin’d fate shall be to dwell
Midst Heaven’s joys or in the fires of Hell
I know not; here with Spring, and bread, and wine,
And thee, my love, my heart says “All is well.”
~~~

Give me a scroll of verse, a little wine,
With half a loaf to fill thy needs and mine,
And with the desert sand our resting place,
For ne’er a Sultan’s kingdom would we pine.
~~~

Let Fortune but provide me bread of wheat,
A gourd of wine a bone of mutton sweet,
Then in the desert if we twain might sit,
Joys such as ours no Sultan could defeat
Talbot, verses 25, 40, 149, 155

Others translate it into a single verse:

A Poem, and Trees a-blowing in a Wind.
A Brew I’ll drink — base Needs of other Stuff
Ignore. Ah see here how we do behave;
Indeed for us a Song is just enough.
Brodie, verse 12

and:

Ah, would there were a loaf of bread as fare,
A joint of lamb, a jug of vintage rare,
And you and I in wilderness encamped –
No Sultan’s pleasure could with ours compare.
Sadie, verse 16

There ar a lot of versions of the Rubaiyat online, as well as a lot of scholarship. Several post-2000 editions are listed at omarkhayyamrubaiyat.com, although they all appear based on FitzGerald.

You can read all of FitzGerald’s various editions, as well as at least half-a-dozen others online. But I recommend instead that you get a print version. It’s the sort of book you will want to read on a Sunday afternoon, over a glass of wine, or just before bedtime, when you can ponder each verse in the quiet of the night. Besides, every home library should have a copy. It’s one of those books, like Shakespeare’s collected works, you should not be without.

I try to read it, if not always in one sitting, at least in its entirety, every few years. It’s always worth the time to do so.

“Whether at Naishápúr or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.”
2nd translation, verse 8

Is Machiavelli relevant to today’s municipal politicians?

Niccolo MachiavelliAre the political theories of a 16th-century Italian diplomat relevant to today’s municipal politics? Yes, assuming you know and have read his works, not just the bumper-sticker over-simplification that says, “The end justifies the means.”

Actually, Machiavelli never wrote those words. That’s a modern condensation. It’s also an erroneous paraphrase of what he wrote in The Prince, because it overlooks a lot of his comments on the effect of some types of behaviour on the honour and reputation of the ruler. Machiavelli stressed the cause and effect of a ruler’s actions on his power, his honour and his reputation. He had little interest in rulers who abused their power.

Machiavelli did not advocate cruelty or violence towards subjects, and was highly critical of rulers who abused their power. He argued that mistreatment of people would not win loyalty, trust, or obedience. But, he said, expedient methods could be justifiable if there are clear and measurable benefits from those acts.

Machiavelli today is also known from the adjective “Machiavellian,” which suggests something evil, underhanded, and sneaky in politics. But that, too is a false impression.

Shortly after its publication, both the Catholic and Protestant churches condemned The Prince. It was even banned in Elizabethan England and the Pope placed it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Banned Books) in 1559. The churches believed Machiavelli’s works fostered political and moral corruption because presented politics outside the church’s control and influence. Machiavelli did not believe in the divine nature of power, and this challenged the churches’ authority. Hence the demonization, and the attribution of duplicity to the term “Machiavellian.”

Many people recognize that he wrote Il Principe, (in English: “The Prince,”) but few municipal politicians can lay claim to actually having read it. More’s the pity because it has a lot of lessons for today’s politicians.

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are like Machiavelli’s principalities: they are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval nobility, with the mayor at the top and the nobility squabbling of their portion of the power below. The mayor plays the role of Machiavelli’s ruler of Florence: a strong state trying to control the client states, some of whom are allies, others are resentful and want their independence. Uppity or subservient… doesn’t that sound like many on today’s municipal councils?

Machiavelli wrote, “…the hereditary prince has less cause and less necessity to offend; hence it happens that he will be more loved; and unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him; and in the antiquity and duration of his rule the memories and motives that make for change are lost, for one change always leaves the toothing for another.”

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are like Machiavelli’s principalities: they are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval nobility.

Sounds a lot like political incumbents, doesn’t it? One estimate suggests incumbents have a 40 percent better chance of getting re-elected than newcomers have of getting elected. Every one of us knows of incumbents who stay in office from inertia, rather than by great acts or by taking brave and principled stands. But Machiavelli warned against complacency and stresses the need to win the public’s love and gratitude. Never take the electorate for granted is a subtext message in The Prince.

Machiavelli’s principalities – indeed most of the nations of Europe – were in constant conflict, often open warfare with one another. Aren’t today’s municipalities also in conflict with one another? Not through armies and war, of course. We’re more subtle than that.

Sure municipalities have regional agreements, share some resources, and cooperate where it is expedient to do so. But every municipality is competing for visitors, for growth, for provincial funding, for new industries and businesses, and for reputation. There isn’t a municipality in Canada that wouldn’t see its neighbours plowed into the ground if it meant the municipality was able to attract a major automobile plant.

Yes, I think Machiavelli has a lot of relevance for today’s municipal politicians. I have a new book in the making about this, so stay tuned. (Update: read my work on my Machiavelli blog)