Guest Post: The Universal Spider

Here’s another fascinating essay from the Vacuous Wastrel. You can read the original here.

At the end of my boyhood and at the age of being able to manage a horse, I was brought to Lille before Duke Charles of Burgundy, then called the Count of Charolais, who took me into his service. This was the year 1464.

 A quarter-century after that meeting, Philippes de Commynes was released from imprisonment (he has spent two years in prison, including five months trapped in a small iron cage), and set about catching up on his correspondence. One of his most pressing concerns was responding to a request from an old friend, an archbishop named Angelo Cato, for a contribution toward a history book the latter was hoping to compile, and Commynes appears to have set about dictating a reply as soon as he was free to do so. That reply would take him several years, and was to be divided into six volumes – two further volumes offering an update concerning more recent events would follow in the subsequent years.

Commynes was not, he was at pains to point out, a historian himself. He lacked all of the necessary skills of a historian: he did not speak (at least not with any fluency) Latin; he did not have the literary skill to invent appropriate speeches and episodes to enliven his narrative; his scholarship was far too inadequate to allow him to appropriate finesse historical events into the required classical and Biblical analogies; and his reluctance to lie meant that at times his recollections would fail to give full and dutiful praise to his social betters. He was not a historian – merely a source of information for Cato, who would use it for respectable, literary and historical purposes (and even in that regard, Commynes recommends others who may recall some details more fully). Instead of producing a work of art himself, Commynes laments, “I am merely sending you what immediately comes to my mind.” In place of respectable, scholarly, history, all Commynes can do is describe what happened, and why.

As a result, the Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Commynes as “the first critical and philosophical historian since classical times”; others have called him simply “the first modern writer”. Closer to his own time, Emperor Charles V referred to his manuscript – published after the author’s death and quickly translated into languages across Europe – as “a textbook for princes”.

Although Commynes himself protests that he is providing source material for a biography of King Louis XI of France (and, in the final two volumes, of his successor, Charles VIII), his work soon came to be known by the publishers and scholars as Commynes’ “Memoirs” – understandably, given that the narrative begins before Commynes meets Louis, and continues after the latter’s death. In this edition, the final two books are removed, along with a few digressions, and the scholar responsible believes that they have in this way, as the title indicates, produced a biography – perhaps the first true modern biography – of the monarch known as The Universal Spider. In truth, Commynes’ history is considerably broader than that: a portrait, not of one man, but of an era.

It is an era of immense importance. At least three of the defining events in the last half-millennium of European geopolitics take place in these pages: the rise of a modern, centralised France; the foundation of the Hapsburg empire; and the resolution of the Wars of the Roses. We do not learn much, except implicitly, of the broader social currents of the times; but we are treated to intimate and incisive portraits of the men who shaped the times, not as Great Men, but as terribly flawed men – and above all, the book offers contrasting analyses of two men with whom Commynes was as closely familiar as anyone ever was: Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Louis the Prudent, King of France. The fate of Europe rests in the hands of these two men.

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Let’s set the stage. Commynes is a Burgundian – a native of the confused border area between the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The Duchy of Burgundy has always been, in law, a vassal of the King of France – but as France has been brought close to ruin, by enemies foreign and domestic, Burgundy has become a de facto independent state, swollen by advantageous marriages to the point where the Dukes now dream of an empire that stretches from sea to sea, from their dominions in the Netherlands through to the possessions of their allies in Provence and Savoy. As our story begins, Burgundy is perhaps the richest and happiest nation in Europe: its rich soils thriving under light-touch taxation, it has been at peace for over three decades under the benign, wise rule of Philip the Good, one of the richest men in the known world. Philip is ailing, but the nation waits eagerly for his successor, the fearless, charismatic Charles, Count of Charolais. Philip was godfather to young Commynes, and when the latter is orphaned as a child, the Duke brings him to court, and places him close to Count Charles.

France, meanwhile, has undergone a far more traumatic succession, only a few years earlier. Charles the Victorious, who, with the aid of Joan of Arc, somehow managed to save the nation from English dominion, and from her own civil wars, quarrelled terribly with his son (who once chased Charles’ mistress through the palace with a drawn sword), exiling the young Dauphin, Louis, first to the Dauphiné, and then from France entirely – the young prince was forced to take refuge in, of all places, Burgundy, a glorified beggar at the ducal court. When Charles died, Louis returned to Paris with an avenging fury, purging and disinheriting all those who had wronged him – most of the nation’s wisest and most experienced statesmen have fled to neighbouring princes, and the mood of the nobility is angry and bitter; the king’s own brother plots against him. The king’s writ struggles to run beyond Paris, as feudal vassals like the Dukes of Burgundy and Brittany, and the Count of Provence, are independent in all but name. In 1465, the year after Commynes comes to Philip’s court, France rises up, the great nobles of the land declaring a ‘War of the Public Weal’, a war of nation against king, for the common good. France is on the verge of a final dissolution, and Burgundy’s triumph will soon, it seems, have no obstacle. At that moment, Charles, the Burgundian heir, rides for Paris at the head of a vast army, his godbrother, Commynes, at his side.

Twenty years later, Burgundy will no longer exist. Its core domains will have been reabsorbed into a resurgent France, along with those of Brittany; while its peripheral territories will have fallen into the hands of the rising Hapsburg dynasty, a geographical anomaly that, Commynes seems to recognise, will set the stage for centuries of war. It’s an astonishing reversal of fate. As Commynes puts it:

It seems to me that at that time [the Duke of Burgundy’s] territories could more truly be called lands of promise than any other domains on earth. They were overflowing with riches and in complete peace – as they never have been since. The standard of living and the clothing of men and women were extravagant; the feasting and banquets were on a more prodigal scale than in any other place I have known of; the bathing parties and other entertainments with women were lavish and lax – if a little on the seamy side. In sum, it then seemed to the subjects of this house that no prince was a match for them – at least that none was capable of oppressing them. And in this world today I know of no princely house so desolate.

This is, at heart, the question that plagues Commynes, the question that he sets out to answer through psychology, through military history, and through philosophy: how could it be that Burgundy could fall so rapidly from such grace?

Commynes’ answer, needless to say, is that God did it. And at first, that might seem like a cop-out, but of course it’s not: Commynes is not insisting upon faith in a Godless world, he’s using the concept of a God within a conceptual system in which God is unavoidable. He is, as it were, only rephrasing the question: if nations fall when they fall from God’s favour, why do nations fall from God’s favour? Commynes’ answer has nothing to do with scripture, and little to do with doctrine: again, Commynes’ God is not a creature locked within a bible, but the animating principle of the entire world. To understand the world is to understand God; and although that might be impossible, that’s not reason not to try.

Commynes never really offers a coherent ideology of fate – that would, after all, be hubris. But he believes in a system in which God helps those who help themselves, yet moderated by a sort of karma. Those who do wrong face justice – in the next life, but also often in this. Evil, foolishness, and violation of the constitutional norms of states and societies are often repaid in the same coin, whether on the land – a prince who breaks his word to others finds his subjects break theirs to him – or in the soul – a prince who plots against his courtiers himself plagued by irrational, paranoid fears of his best advisors.

So while his theories may be lofty and divine, their application is more down to earth, and at the heart of Commynes’ history is a pair of contrasting portraits, psychological and political sketches of the two ‘great men’ who he believes have shaped the fates of their nations, for better or worse: Louis and Charles. One French; one Burgundian. One the paragon of a bygone age; the other the herald of modernity.

Duke Charles the Bold (sometimes translated ‘the Rash’) was, we’re given to believe, almost the perfect mediaeval monarch. He is attractive, strong, and intensely charismatic, the kind of man who can turn a battle by riding through it and exhorting his men one by one. He has an indefatigable energy and, Commynes tells us, an almost supernatural ability to suffer: he asks no more of his men than he is willing and able to undergo himself, and his men know it. He is decisive, and courageous not only physically but politically. His ambitions are sweeping. He can be violent, but he is not unusually cruel for his age, and he is good company for his court.

Louis, on the other hand, is a coward. He is plagued, as even he acknowledges, by a big mouth and a sour wit, and he is constantly offending people. He is not physically impressive. He overtaxes his people, and appears to have little sense of shame; nobody likes to spend time with him. He can’t really be trusted – his nickname is ‘The Universal Spider’ after all – and he is instinctively a vindictive, occasionally mass-murdering, arsehole.

But Commynes’ at-the-time-controversial thesis is that it is Louis who is the great monarch, and Charles the deluded prince who dooms his people.

Put simply, Louis has two key strategies at all times: avoid any true military contest; and, if in doubt, bribe everyone. He’s a political and military cockroach, constantly retreating, constantly negotiating (with multiple people, in contradictory ways), constantly stalling for time. He reminds me, if you’ll forgive the fantasy/pop-culture reference, of George RR Martin’s Littlefinger: he doesn’t exactly have a plan, as such, but he continually sows chaos, knowing he will eventually, somehow, benefit from it. Every alliance is against him is turned against itself. He follows a terribly Christian theory of politics: if your enemy strikes you on one cheek… thank him, applaud him publically, write the man a great big cheque, and ask him to slap someone else for you.

This is why, partway through the book, Commynes abruptly flees Charles’ military encampment and becomes one of the King’s chief advisors. It’s not just him – everybody does it. The pay is better, and the life much easier.

Ultimately, Louis’ greatest strength is his willingness to appear weak. He may remember slights, but he publically forgives them, and promotes his enemies; he may be opinionated, but he listens to his advisors, and he corrects his mistakes. At times, he even uses his weakness as his trump card, and works to maintain it. He gives advice to his enemies on how to defeat his allies (because he wants his enemies to feel strong, and hence to feel able to wait, rather than weak, and hence desparate to act). At one stage, fearing an explosion among the common soldiers that will destroy an alliance, he intentionally makes himself visibly vulnerable, to shame his allies into de-escalating the situation. It’s behaviour Charles – who at one point humiliates Louis by in effect holding him prisoner – could never endure. Charles is a more traditional, vain prince who cannot abide disgrace – and it’s ultimately that stubbornness that dooms him, and Burgundy, when he first attacks, and then refuses to retreat from the seige of, Neuss, despite being needed urgently elsewhere. It’s what leads to him lying dead in a ditch, his corpse unrecognised. Throughout Commynes’ account, Louis’ prudence, his ruthless exploitation of his own impotence, is contrasted sometimes explicitly but more often between the lines with the vanity and vainglory of the other princes of his age: Louis’ willingness to be weak, whch Commynes suggests is a lesson from his time as a beggar at the Burgundian court, is in effect a form of power. Perhaps the most striking example is when Louis is “forced” to pay “homage” to a number of English lords – he obsequiously sends them regular tribute, via an intermediary who, naturally, needs their signatures to prove to Louis that he hasn’t stolen the money for himself. It’s humiliating for Louis and a clear win for the English, they believe, even if they allow that the transactions can remain secret for the sake of Louis’ dignity… …except that now, if those lords ever give their king advice that’s not in Louis’ best interests, he can reveal (to their king or their public) that they are secretly on the payroll of a foreign power, receiving a regular pension for their services, and he has the carefully-catalogued original receipts to prove it. Only Louis can make being conquered into a form of dominance.

Commynes never exactly gives us a rounded or deep portrait of his king, as we might expect from a modern writer. And yet, through descriptions and through anecdotes, he constructs a striking and understandable image – reading Commynes, we feel as though we know Louis, just as we know Charles. Other characters benefit in this way as well, although many – such as the Count of St Pol – are too historically insignificant for the reader to really invest in. Others are shown briefly, but brilliantly – one of my favourite moments is the only appearance of Emperor Frederick III, who responds to a detailed military-diplomatic proposal with a rambling parable about bear-hunting. It’s a moment that perfectly displays both why Commynes can’t stand the man (he’s over-cautious to the point of inaction, lazy, pretentious and not that bright) – and why he deeply respects him (he’s an old man whose experience has bought him considerable wisdom, and he’s the only ruler secure enough in his position to be able to fob off monarchs with irritating parables without any consequences).

After the two duelling princes, probably the third character in the story is Edward IV, whom Commynes sees only from a distance (it’s disputed whether he may have served as an ambassador to England at some point, but it’s not mentioned here in any case). Edward is a monarch famed for his military prowess and valour, but, unlike Charles, he’s really only in it for the quiet life, prioritising food, women and entertainments. Through overconfidence, he manages to lose his entire kingdom in only 11 days. But this is England, where, as Commynes constantly laments, politics is not very stable or sophisticated – so he’s able to invade England, win two major battles, overthrow and kill the Earl of Warwick, and Henry VI, and the Prince of Wales, and complete a round of mass executions of his enemies, all within the span of another 26 days. Everything hinges on his being welcomed, while still virtually without troops, into the city of London, and Commynes explains the three main reasons why, after some debate, he was given access: his wife had just given birth and, awh, a royal baby, how exciting and cute!; he was deeply in debt to many of the richest merchants in town, who realised that if he didn’t regain the crown he’d never be able to pay them back; and most importantly, he can rely on “the influence of many ladies of rank and rich citizen’s wives”, because after a decade of womanising they were all “very good friends indeed” of his, and they nag their husbands until they let him in. It’s a reputation that gives Louis pause, and one of his priorities in negotiating with the English monarch is ensuring that the man never, ever visit Paris: “He’s a very handsome king,” Louis worries out loud to Commynes. “He’s crazy about women. He could find some clever sweetheart in Paris who would say such nice things to him that she’d make him want to come back…”

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It’s a bizarre conjunction of great affairs of state – seasoned with little philosophical asides – with the intimately personal. It’s not, perhaps, great history by modern standards – broader social developments get only a sentence here or there – but it’s a very entertaining way of writing. It’s half Macchiavelli, half gossip column.

That intimacy, indeed, is sometimes almost shocking in its modernity. Commynes is emphatically not writing a mediaeval hagiography – sure, he he doesn’t go into many details on the sexual side of things, and he glosses over many things that might be of interest to a modern reader. But he depicts his characters as human beings – human beings who he in many cases knew extremely well. This is particularly striking in the later parts of the narrative, when the fortunes of the princes decline in turn. Charles is beset by mental illness after a military defeat, and although Commynes never uses that exact term, there’s little ambiguity in his description – he’s not shy about calling it an illness, and he’s not shy about the fact it’s primarily an illness of the mind. He even hypothesises a little about the appropriate treatment. The doctors and priests of the day favour blood-letting, and making the man bloody well shave properly for a start; Commynes, on the other hand, suggests beginning with humility before God, before moving on to talking therapies, discussing one’s fears and shames openly out loud, not worrying about disgrace, in a safe environment with a trusted friend or advisor (as “it is ineivtable since we are men, that deep griefs stir violent passions”). Sadly, trust is a rare commodity for rulers, which may explain why so many of these princes are at least a little mad…

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Charles the Bold, Commynes’ first master

[It’s another example, incidentally, of how God is used in this world-view, not as a tool of superstition but as a call to reason. Commynes believes that when a man like Charles loses a campaign, it’s appropriate to ask what went wrong. But he mustn’t become lost in self-recrimination, and religion offers him a way out: instead of asking what is wrong with him, he can ask why God may have failed to favour him on this occasion. It allows reflection and consideration of one’s actions, without self-blame. Throughout the book, we see this mindset in which God is central not because of what he does – Commynes does not believe in a God who actively performs miracles willy-nilly, and does not even particularly stress God’s role as a rule-giver, except indirectly – but because of how human beings act toward Him…]

Similarly, Louis’s quality of life rapidly deteriorates when he suffers a series of debilitating strokes. At one point, Commynes literally has to hold the king as he spasms, and Louis’ speech is at least temporarily so impaired that Commynes has to translate what may be a deathbed confession to a priest who can’t understand what the king is saying. To say that Commynes was close to his subjects is an understatement.

It’s true that the book is closer to a series of anecdotes than to an academic historical analysis, although there are elements of the latter: Commynes does lay out a fairly detailed chronology of the wars and the diplomacy, and does his best to explain events in geopolitical, psychological and theological-philosophical terms. But it’s the anecdotes that stand out, combining a clear and personal touch with a lacing of dry, observational humour. It’s suprising just how modern Commynes feels in style, if not always in beliefs, and many moments continue to resonate with modern readers, either because of how things have changed (Commynes’ frequent exasperation toward the barbarian English and the way their leaders never fail to be equipped with a suspiciously convenient prophecy) or because of how they haven’t (Commynes’ old-man complaints about self-important minor celebrities these days constantly telling you to “speak to my people!”…). And while there are moments of tragedy, there are also a suprising number of moments of pure farce. At one point, for example, Louis is hosting a messenger from one of the Duke’s vassals, who is thinking of coming over to Louis; Louis, pretending joviality, baits the man into doing insulting impressions of the Duke, pretending to be a little deaf so that the man does his impressions as loudly as possibly; but, in the time-honoured traditions of Frence farce, what the messenger doesn’t realise is that Commynes is crouched alongside the Burgundian ambassador, hiding behind a suspiciously large screen in one corner of the room. The ambassador is outraged on the Duke’s behalf, and Louis succeeds in sowing even more disquiet between the Duke and his vassal.

[Other monarchs would have seen the vassal as an ally, helped him, and used him against the Duke. But Louis knows you can’t trust a traitor. Instead, by weakening the vassal still further by betraying him to the Duke, he forces the vassal to come to him in a more fearful, and hence dependent, state, while distracting the Duke, and pretending friendship with him. In Louis’ world, you help your enemies and you hurt your friends…]

[Of course, sometimes Louis sees the right time to strike directly. He summons one enemy/friend to court, for example, by pleading for his help in a difficult time, saying that he could really do with having “a good head” around to advise him at a time like this. He then, having dictated the letter, observes to his henchmen by way of explanation: “I do not mean us to have his body – only his head. The body can stay where it is…“]

The greatest virtue of this books, however, and of Commynes as an author, isn’t just his access, or even his deadpan wit (which is always interesting, and amusing, but too dry to really be lovable). Instead, it’s his wonderful honesty. Now, apparently in the 20th century it was fashionable, particularly among offended Belgians, to paint Commynes as a serial liar, fundamentally dishonest in every word – but while that seems hard to believe to me (or to the editor of this translation), it doesn’t really matter in terms of the book’s value as a narrative, rather than as a historical source. Because either Commynes is truthful, or else he’s the most gifted liar in literary history, and in either case it’s the impression of honesty that is so powerful in reading these memoirs. Commynes has his own opinions, but he is scrupulously even-handed in discussing even his personal enemies. His goal throughout – perhaps reflecting the origin of this project as source material rather than a published text – is not to definitively paint history, but to understand it, and that requires him to see both sides of every dispute, and recognise the virtues as well as the vices of every participant. The result is a far more complete and sympathetic portrait of his life and times than we might expect… and a more accurate depiction of the conflicting thoughts common in his age.

Because if the book is interesting as a specific history, and as a guide to statesmanship, it’s most fascinating as a window into a bygone age – a window refreshingly devoid of the usual stained glass. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this comes close to being absolutely required reading for any fan of fauxdiaeval fantasy or historical fiction, and should certainly be obligatory for anyone wanting to write a story set in a similar culture.

Most strikingly, Commynes provides a very different picture of twilight of the middle ages not because of differences in how he sees the ruling systems, but because of the context of those systems. Put bluntly: this is not a little world of feudal clockwork; this is a vast, largely empty world in which a tiny number of feudal overlords play their games amid a vast ocean of people who, most of the time, don’t care in the slightest. Yes, by modern standards all these rulers are brutal dictators. But what Commynes shows us, and which is essential to understanding that brutality, is the naked weakness of a mediaeval prince, and the near-total impotence of all their structures of power. Charles, after all, yearns to construct an empire, but even this great leader of a great nation cannot accomplish it; Louis’ driving ambition is to modernise and harmonise the French legal code and bring a universal rule of law to the whole nation, but even this intelligent and ruthless man cannot accomplish it. These are men beating their heads against unbreakable walls, while at the same time holding on for dear life.

Surprisingly, it is the people who are at the heart of Commynes’ perception of politics. He is not a great fan of the ordinary people trying to rule themselves – he rolls his eyes at the predictable brutality and naivity of the endless revolutionary committees of the Low Countries – but he believes unshakeably that power comes only through the consent of the people. He sings the praises of the Parliament of England and its democratic powers – while he has no time for commoners making decisions, he does see them as a valuable veto force standing in the way of tyranny and foolish monarchs. But for him, the question is not whether the people should have power – that is an absurd question, because it suggests that there is any way to remove power from the people – but how it can be better organised. The power of the people is omnipresent throughout this narrative. It’s the power that lynches dozens of nobles every day whenever anger breaks out in a Belgian town (the nobles may be bastards, but they’re mostly legal bastards, whereas the commoners send for the hangman the moment they’re in charge); it’s the power that slaughters every English straggler and leaves their bodies in ditches, regardless of what peace treaties may be made between monarchs, and the power that sends commandos creeping through the streets of Peronne, happily willing to murder both King and Duke in their beds. It’s the power that coalesces a bunch of Swiss peasant farmers into what will become the most feared military force of the age; it’s the power of the common soldiers, who in the end decide not only how to fight, but whether to fight, whatever their generals might want. When the Pazzi family decide to launch a coup d’etat in Milan, it’s the power that determines, in a matter of minutes, which family will have its entire membership swinging from the church rafters by the end of the day, and which family will be in power. Above all, it’s the power of cities to control their own walls.

Because again, this is a huge world, and these are very small kings. In all these wars, very few armies are ever larger than the militia that could be mustered by a medium-sized town: a city like Amiens or Liege is a major challenge even for a monarch to subdue, and a city like Paris or London is effectively impregnable – the size of army necessary to either beseige or storm such a city simply is not achievable in this era. The fate of kingdoms rests, therefore, on the whim of common townsfolk. It’s the people of London who choose to accept Edward IV – then almost without resources – as their king, and in so doing doom the Earl of Warwick; just as it’s the people of Paris who decline to yield to the Duke of Burgundy and his allies, and in so doing leave Louis as their king and France as a viable nation.

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Louis the Universal Spider, Commynes’ second master

As for those princes – well, it’s not long into the book that we’re thrown into the Battle of Conflans, and we see its absurd chaos, its contingency, its nonsense. Commynes tells us quite explicitly; monarchs and generals may form up their strategies, but there is no monarch on earth who can direct a battle according to his plan. A general does not so much direct his army, as ride it. So too, a monarch sits in his saddle upon the roiling chaos of his nation, prodding here, whipping there, offering carrots in one direction or another, but by and large able to do no more than desperately keep his seat, or else fall and be unceremoniously trampled.

These men are half statesmen, half petty mafiosi. It’s very easy for simplistic accounts to see them as only one and not the other – all politicians, or all robber barons. But Commynes shows us how they can be both at the same time. “In all of them were good and evil” he warns us, speaking of the great princes of his day, “for they were human beings.” 

The depiction of women is also of interest (among many other topics). Commynes is writing in an extremely male-dominated world, and most of the women of the story go entirely without mention (there’s no way to tell, for example, that Commynes himself is married, and you’d have to read very carefully to notice that either the Duke or the King were married). Commynes essentially takes it as read that it’s men’s role to dominate, politically and socially, just as that’s also the role of the upper classes. And yet there is a refreshing lack of misogyny. Commynes doesn’t have to insist that men are superior, or argue that women shouldn’t have power – because in his culture, those questions don’t even arise. God has simply willed that men have power – there’s not need anyone inventing notions like male superiority to explain why that may be. Which means that when individual women do have power, Commynes has no grounds to object. He may depict Marie of Burgundy as naïve – after all, she inherited one of the greatest empires of Europe when she was still a teenager – but he doesn’t fail to respect her goodness, her popularity, and the beginnings of a sharp intellect. He is almost fearful, yet respectful – and depicts Louis as almost fearful – of the intelligence and ruthlessness of the Duchess of Savoy. The autonomy of women seems greater than one might expect here: not only can women veto arranged marriages at least some of the time, they can even insist upon love-marriages, even when strongly against the interests of the families and nations. Louis, for instance, is forced to accept the marriages of the Duchess’s two daughters, which strengthen his enemies, when the Duchess points out that the women are in favour of the matches, and that they’re not just political ploys. Similarly, even at a time when Marie is tantamount to held hostage by commoners, they are unable to pressure her into marrying their preferred candidate (Commynes wryly notes that it was seeing him and getting to know him that probably doomed his suit with her…). There are also surprisingly hints at a chivalry out of keeping with the general violence of the world: during a war, when soldiers are being murdered on the streets, Louis has his secret messages conveyed by a young woman, on the grounds that a woman alone can travel freely without harrassment, where a man would be at risk of attack by brigands. [Commynes, interestingly, does not make clear that it’s actually a woman who ends up imprisoning him in a tiny cage for six months…]

In short, where these memoirs excel is in vividly, intimately and fair-handedly depicting this late-mediaeval world and its characters, and in doing so with wit and insight.

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Where they fall down, however, is in the sheer complexity of the events under discussion. It’s here that Commynes does indeed fail to be a true historian: what we are given is not so much a narrative as a whole mass of information, in mostly (but not always) chronological order. Take any few pages, and the sequence of events appears clear, because Commynes writes clearly; but as the pages mount up, so does the sheer assembly of places, dates, titles and, every few sentences, shocking betrayals. [Betrayals that sometimes fail to betray anyone, because the betrayal is betrayed before it can betray anyone…*] It’s not unclear, it’s just… a lot. It’s very dense, and that’s why it too me a surprisingly long time to read through the book, because after ten pages or so of the count of this and the bastard of that and trying to remember which one is Corday and which ones is Cordres, I just needed a change of scenery. Of course, that’s partly my fault, for not being in the righ frame of mind – as I say, Commynes does try to make these confusing events understandable, and I’m sure if I were in an academic mood I’d have no trouble with it, but as light entertainment reading I found it was making my head hurt.

[It doesn’t help that Commynes adopts mediaeval naming practices, which is to say he usually called people by their titles. This means that the same person can be known by two different names in one sentence (at one point he notes something along the lines that a person has been of service to the Count of Charolais, and was rewarded by the Duke of Burgundy – the latter being the same person as the former, but several years later), while the same name can refer to multiple different persons (as the name is inherited when its holder dies). When you have people like the King’s brother, who wears about six different titles in six years, this can get confusing…]

Some help, to be fair, is provided by the translator/editor, Paul Murray Kendall, who remains largely on the sidelines but who does chip in with the occasional explanatory footnote. Those coming to the text for academic reasons may be frustrated at how little commentary is provided, but for the casual reader I think it’s about the right amount – enough to let us understand what’s going on, but little enough that the narrative still feels like the work of the original author. Further background information on the author and his time period are provided in a forward, which could perhaps be more detailed in places but does probably as much as is strictly required. As regards the translation itself, it’s pretty good – there are moments when it seems to veer too far into modern colloquialism, or else too far into stilted archaism, but this will be a problem with any translation of a historical text that attempts to retain something of its character while still fully conveying its original meaning. By and large, I think the tone is successful – it has a clarity and straightforwardness that suit the style of the author, without appearing to try too hard to be contemporary. One small irritation is the way Kendall edits out some of Commynes’ tangents, replacing them with brief summaries – this is either done too much, or else it’s done too little. I can understand why an editor would want to trim the fat here and there, as Commynes does ramble on a little at times; but Kendall includes so much of the original text that it’s a little head-scratching why he’s bothered to edit out the handful of extra pages that he’s excised, while leaving other things in – I think I’d have been happier either with a more ruthlessly focused text, or else the whole thing in all its glory. But as we do only lose a handful of passages, this is honestly a very minor quibble.

[Another such quibble: not only as the translator stuck on the striking but non-original title, “The Universal Spider: The Life of Louis XI” to Commyne’s text, but the SAME translator has also written his OWN biography of Louis XI, using the exact SAME title. This is understandable – “The Universal Spider” has to be one of history’s coolest soubriquets, and it’s understandable the writer didn’t want to waste it on just one book title – but also probably a bit of a pain for people trying to find this specific edition (which is, incidentally, the old Folio Society edition).]

*this is a book in which a vassal can attempt to murder his liege and their entire family with a cannonade, and the next page we can be told with a straight face that “never was any man more loyal to another than [vassal] was to [liege]”. Oh, and while he’s trying to murder his liege’s family with cannons, the vassal also sends out two flasks of wine, because the liege’s daughter is giving birth, and it seems the decent thing to do to ease her labour a little. I mean, obviously he’s not going to not murder her or anything, but it would be unchivalrous not to give a woman wine when she’s in labour…

Picturef
Marie the Rich, the tragic Duchess of Burgundy

In conclusion, in writing a text entirely for his age, without the pretenses of history (indeed, several times Commynes declines to describe some well-known event, because “you”, being people of the same era as him, will no doubt know just as much as he does…), Commynes has inadvertantly written something both invaluable as a historical document, and at the same time timeless. It’s a fascinating resource for anyone interested in the time period or its culture, not only for its intimate, first-hand account, but also for its combination of unvarnished honesty and wry irony; it is also remarkable as a study in political leadership, and one that has had a great deal of influence throughout the centuries. It’s dense with action and a little prone to tangents, and casual readers probably shouldn’t expect to skim through it all in an afternoon unless they have excellent heads for details, but fundamentally it’s an entertaining and understandable account, translated attractively. I thoroughly recommend reading it.

And if that’s my conclusion, what conclusion did Philippe de Commyne reach, half a millennium ago? In the end, this student of statescraft is left extolling the virtues… of the quiet life.   By the end of the book, Louis is dead, his life crippled by paranoia – a king, Commynes says, who had so often condemned his enemies to dungeon cells is left, in his castle reinforced with iron towers, with no more freedom than a single courtyard, across which he is too frightened to walk to mass. Charles is dead, his lust for glory and military fame ending anonymously in the dirt – his mind and his courage stripped from him, and his body at the last left naked and unmarked in a common field. Marie is beautiful, witty, and phenomenally wealthy, held virtually hostage by her people, and dead of a tragic accident. Edward IV is dead; and his sons are dead, killed (Commynes believes) by his brother, and his brother is dead on the field at Bosworth. Charles, Duke of Berry, is dead, as is Francis, Duke of Brittany, and Frederick III will soon follow. Commynes, from being the closest friend and advisor to the king, is cast into an iron cage. France is set for a new round of wars, and Burgundy, Commynes’ homeland, has been destroyed and subjugated. So why, in the end, wonders Commynes, should anyone bother with ambition? Nobody can more fully subjugate a man than by his own fears; to be fearless is to treat others well, and that requires having as little to do with great affairs of state as possible. And so I’ll end where our author ends, and give Philippe the final words…

“Thus you have seen so many great men dying within a few years of one another, men who laboured so hard to increase their power and attain glory, but who experienced such sufferings and toils, and thus shortened their lives – and perchance their souls could be the worse for it…

…But to speak plainly, as a man who has no learning, save for some little experience he has gained, would it not be better for them and all other princes, and for men of medium station who have lived under these great ones and will continue to live under those now reigning, to choose the middle way in these matters? That is, to burden themselves with fewer cares, to work themselves less hard, to undertake fewer enterprises – and to have greater fear of offending God and persecuting their people and their neighbours by cruel means… …and, instead, enjoy ease and honourable pleasures? Their lives would be the longer for it, illnesses would come later, and their deaths would be the more regretted by a greater number of people, and looked forward to by fewer, and they would have less reason to fear death.

The most splendid examples of humanity give us to realise what an insignificant thing is a man, and how miserable and brief this life is. Neither the great nor the small, as soon as they are dead, are anything; and everyone holds the corpse in horror and loathing, while the soul, on the instant, must be judged. And already sentence has been passed upon it, according to the works and merits of the body.” 

Home-Baked Charts #5: Birthplaces of China’s New Leadership

At the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last month, hundreds of Chinese officials were elevated to new positions within the Party hierarchy. This gives us a chance, among other things, to look at where within China its politicians were born, to see if any regional patterns stand out. 

Let’s start with the members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest-ranking group in the Party: 

Although Xi Jinping was born in Beijing and Zhao Leji in Qinghai, both of their ‘ancestral homelands‘ were in Shaanxi province. Similarly, Wang Huning, though born in Shanghai, has his ancestral home in Shandong province. Xi Jinping, Wang Huning, and Zhao Leji are the three holdovers from the previous 19th Politburo Standing Committee. Xi was also on the 18th and 17th Standing Committees, going back to October 2007

Next is the Politburo, which now has 24 members, including the seven Standing Committee members:

Three Politburo members (including Xi) were born in Beijing; four were born in Fujian, where Xi spent most of his career before becoming general secretary of the Party in 2012. Xi was in Fujian for 17 years until 2002, which was more than half of his career between 1979 and 2012: 

Beyond the Politburo, there is the Party Central Committee, which currently has 205 full members, roughly two-thirds of whom made it on to the Central Committee for this first time this year. I was able to find the birthplaces for 194 of those 205; the 11 I couldn’t find I will list below: 

The 11 Central Committee members I could not find birthplaces for were the following: Wang Zhijun, Wu Hansheng, He Hongjun, Zhang Lin, Zhang Hongsen, Hou Kai, Hu Yuting, He Junke, Gao Xiang, Huang Jianfa, Lei Fanpei  

Most Politburo and Central Committee members were born in eastern or northern China – not surprisingly, where most of China’s population lives – whereas far fewer were born in the country’s western or southern provinces. See for example the difference between China’s most populous province, Guangdong, in the southeast, and China’s second most populous province, Shandong, in the northeast.

 population density map (right) and topographic map (left) of China 
China’s provinces by population (x-axis) and area (y-axis); for purposes of comparison, also included are California, Texas, and Alaska

Native-born populations of provinces like Guangdong were highly under-represented on the Central Committee. This is true even after adjusting for the fact that Guangdong had not yet become the most populous Chinese province 50-70 years ago, when most of the current Committee members were born: 

Part of the reason for the under-representation of provinces like Guangdong might be that when the current leadership generation was young, many fewer people in these provinces spoke Standard Northern Mandarin primarily or fluently as do today. In other words, these outcomes could be the result of regional differences that existed in the past, which no longer exist to nearly the same extent today, yet linger in the form of Party personnel simply because almost all of its top positions are filled by older men.

On the other hand, perhaps the under-representation of high-ranking officials born in certain provinces does reflect ongoing regional differences within the Party system, in which, roughly speaking, the north and east is the dominant political core of the country, in comparison to the deep south or west. Or maybe there are other explanations for these differences that are only indirectly related to politics, reflecting regional economic or cultural traits that have led people toward certain careers.

Whatever the reasons are for it, similar regional patterns hold, to varying degrees, in the birthplaces of China’s new Central Military Commission chairmen, and in the birthplaces of China’s provincial party chiefs (aka party secretaries) and government chiefs (aka provincial governors, mayors of municipalities, chairpersons of autonomous regions, or chief executives of special administrative regions):

The two who were born in Beijing, namely Xi Jinping and Zhang Youxia, respectively the chairman and (one of two) vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, have similar backgrounds. Both had prominent fathers born in Shaanxi. Zhang’s father was a founding general of the People’s Liberation Army, who during the 1940s led its Northeast Army Corps at the same time as Xi’s father was its political commissar. 
Jiangsu and Guizhou are today the only provinces with native-born party secretaries. Both are somewhat notable individuals: Jiangsu’s party chief Wu Zhenglong, who has served in Jiangsu since 2016 (in roles such as party chief of the provincial capital, Nanjing, and then as governor of the province), previously served as party chief of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi, following the removal of the previous Taiyuan party chief during Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, of which Shanxi was targeted more intensely than any other province. Before that, Wu served in Chongqing during the administration of Bo Xilai, before Bo’s infamous fall and Xi’s rise in 2012, after which Wu became secretary-general of Chongqing’s party committee. In Guizhou, meanwhile, the current party chief is Shen Yiqin, who previously served as (according to Wikipedia) “the first female Governor of Guizhou, the first Governor of Bai ethnic heritage, and the first Governor to have been born in province since 1993”.

As for provinces like Guangdong, no current provincial chiefs were born there, and there has not been a native-born party chief there since Xie Fei, a Politburo member, in 1998. And yet the party chiefs of Guangdong have mostly been significant political figures. All but one of the past five of them since 1998 have joined the Politburo Standing Committee. (The exception, Hu Chunhua, was snubbed last month: not only was he not added to the Standing Committee as had been expected, but he also lost the spot he had held in the Politburo). Most recently Li Xi, Guangdong party chief from 2017-2022, was elevated to the Standing Committee, and now serves as the head of China’s anti-corruption department (replacing Wang Qishan, who was himself a vice-governor of Guangdong earlier in his career). The other three 21st century Guangdong party chiefs added to the Standing Committee were Li Changchun, Wang Yang, and Zhang Dejiang. [Among a number of important roles, Wang and Zhang also served as the party chiefs of Chongqing immediately before and after Bo Xilai; Zhang was also party chief of Zhejiang immediately before Xi Jinping, and then went to Guangdong just after the SARS outbreak began there; Wang meanwhile was the politician most associated with the relatively liberal “Guangdong model” of development]. The current party chief of Guangdong, who just started the job in October 2022, is Huang Kunming, who previously worked with Xi Jinping both in Fujian (Huang’s birth-province) and in Zhejiang.

Earlier still, major figures who served as Guangdong party chief include Zhao Zhyiang, who later became the Party’s General Secretary until he supported the 1989 student protests; Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun, who became Guangdong’s party chief after the Cultural Revolution and presided over the province’s economic re-opening, then later spent his retirement living there; and marshal Ye Jianying, Guangdong’s first party chief and governor in the Communist era, who was born in Guangdong and who later became the top military leader involved in overthrowing the Gang of Four and backing Deng Xiaoping after the Cultural Revolution.

Provincial government chiefs are generally considered less powerful than provincial party chiefs, and it is more common for provinces to have native-born government chiefs than party chiefs. Currently there are five native-born provincial government chiefs: in the province Henan, in the two special administrative zones Hong Kong and Macao, and in the autonomous regions Xinjiang and Guangxi (2 of China’s 5 autonomous regions; their government chiefs are an ethnic Uyghur and ethnic Zhuang, respectively. Similarly, Inner Mongolia’s government chief is an ethnic Mongol, though she was not born in Inner Mongolia).

To focus yet again on Guangdong, the only Guangdong-born governor at present, Lan Fo’an, is the governor of Shanxi provice. He previously worked for the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the unit of the Party in charge of the anti-corruption campaign. Conversely, the governor of Guangdong is Shanxi-born: Wang Weizhong, who was previously the party chief of Shenzhen, and before that was the party secretary of Taiyuan, Shanxi’s capital, in 2016, following the especially intense anti-corruption campaign there. Wang replaced Ma Xingrui (born in Heilongjiang), Guangdong’s governor until the end of 2021, who has gone on to become party chief of Xinjiang.

In contrast, all three of the governors of Guangdong who preceded Ma, from 1996-2016, were born in Guangdong, and spent their entire careers there. Before that, Ye Xuanping (the son of Guangdong’s first party chief and governor, marshal Ye Jianying) was governor of Guangdong, his native province, from 1985-1991, and mayor of Guangzhou (Guangdong’s capital, one of China’s major cities) from 1980-1985. [A more recent Guangdong-born mayor of Guangzhou, Wang Qiangliang, was one of the higher-ranking figures brought down by the anti-corruption campaign in 2014. Guangzhou’s current mayor is a northerner, who took up the job at the beginning of this year following the simultaneous resignation of the city’s previous (Guangdong-born) mayor Wen Guohui and (Hunan-born) party chief Zhang Shuofu]. Previous native-born governors of Guangdong, Chen Yu and Ye Jianying, served from 1948-1953 and 1957-1967. Serving between them was Tao Zhu, from neighbouring Hunan; it was only in 1969 that a northern-born governor was first appointed to the province.
This chart comes from an article by Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution earlier this year, showing how the length of provincial party chiefs’ and government chiefs’ tenures have declined during the past generation

The high-ranking central secretariat of the Party Central Committee has a different regional pattern, with none of its secretaries born in coastal provinces apart from Fujian. But with only seven secretaries, it is a small sample size: 

Looking back at all of the Standing Committee members over the course of the past three decades, again the basic pattern holds, with the north and east predominating and the south and west unrepresented. Even for some of the most populous provinces like Guangdong and Sichuan, or for that matter Henan (the populous but poor interior state in north-central China), there have been zero Standing Committee members appointed at any of the past six party congresses who were born in those provinces:

*Here I’ve double-counted: for any individual who served on two separate Standing Committees (or in Xi’s case, four), they were counted twice on the map above

Similar patterns might also hold true more widely, for Politburo and Central Committee membership. For example, according to another article by Cheng Li: “Southern China has been grossly underrepresented on both the 18th and 19th Central Committees (CCs), holding only one and two percent of seats, respectively, even though the region makes up 12 percent of China’s population and 13 percent of its GDP. There was not a single representative from Guangdong — despite it being China’s richest and most populous province — among the 205 full members of the 18th CC, and there is only one full member representing the province on the 19th CC: Minister of Human Resources and Social Security Zhang Jinan (1957), who was born in Guangdong. Zhang is expected to retire from his ministerial position soon.Like the 18th Politburo, no current Politburo members were born in the southern or southwestern regions, which together make up more than a quarter of China’s population and more than 20 percent of the country’s GDP. The absence of Cantonese and Sichuanese representatives in the two recent Politburos sharply contrasts with the early years of the reform era when the country was largely led and influenced by heavyweight leaders from Guangdong (like Ye Jianying) and Sichuan (like Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun, and Yang Baibing).”

In contrast, the birthplaces of the earlier, revolutionary era of the Party leadership show a different pattern, in which the north and the east do not predominate, Guangdong is not un-represented, and Hunan province in particular (Mao’s birthplace, among others) figures highly:

I’ll end by quoting a third article by Cheng Li: “Over the last century, the Chinese national leadership often disproportionately recruited elites from certain geographic regions that were perceived to be important in each period. When Sun Yat-sen, a Cantonese native, founded the Republic of China after the Revolution of 1911, his fellow Cantonese, especially those who attended the Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou, comprised a significant portion of the political and military elite during the first couple of decades of the Republic. Similarly, when Chiang Kai-shek controlled the nationalist government in the 1930s and 1940s, his fellow Zhejiang Province natives occupied some of the most important posts in the government, including military and intelligence operations. As for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres, most veteran leaders, known as “Long Marchers,” came from central China –– Hunan and Hubei provinces, in particular. This geographic orientation was mainly a result of the origins of the Chinese Communist movement in the 1920s and 1930s, as initial support came from peasants in these areas. Many peasants-turned-revolutionary soldiers later became national leaders of the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC). Approximately 41 percent of the members of the Eighth Politburo of the CCP formed in 1956 were born in Hunan, and about one-third (33 percent) of the members of the Ninth Politburo in 1969 were born in Hubei. Altogether, leaders from provinces in central China occupied more than half of the Politburo seats in each of these two Party Congresses (59 percent and 52 percent, respectively). The “gang of four” (sirenbang) leaders who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, especially toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, were largely from Shanghai. They wielded enormous power and influence over the country in the final years of the Mao era, when they promoted many fellow Shanghai natives to important positions. Under the leadership of both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, China experienced disproportionate representation of leaders from the east coast, with large contingents hailing from Shandong and Jiangsu provinces. On the 15th CC in 1997, about 45 percent of full members were born in eastern China. According to a study of military elites in the 1990s, well over one-quarter of high-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) came from Shandong Province, and altogether 52 percent of China’s top military officers were from eastern China.”
10 Yuanshuai (‘marshals’) and Da jiang (‘grand generals’)

Home-Baked Charts #4: A View from the Provinces

Countries frequently get compared to one another, and so do provinces and states and territories within countries. But we don’t usually compare provinces or states in different countries to one another. Let’s do a bit of that now.

Largest Populations

prov

Above are the world’s 34 most populous ‘first-level administrative divisions‘ – provinces and states and territories and the like. (Statoids, they are sometimes called). 17 of the 34 are in China. 11 are in India, including the largest by far, Uttar Pradesh, which is home to more than 200 million people. All are in Asia except for Sao Paolo in Brazil and California in the US.

Some of the largest of these places used to be even bigger than they are now. Uttar Pradesh lost about 5 percent of its population and 18 percent of its territory when the Himalayan region Uttarakhand broke off to become a state of its own in 2000. Sichuan, formerly China’s most populous province*, lost about 26 percent of its population and 15 percent of its territory when Chongqing was separated from it in 1997. China’s most populous province today, Guangdong, lost about 8 percent of its population and 16 percent of its territory in 1988 when the island of Hainan became its own province. And Andhra Pradesh, formerly the most populous state in southern India, lost approximately 39 percent of its population and 41 percent of its territory when a new state, Telangana, was created in 2014.

*Sichuan was also formerly the world’s most populous province, before Uttar Pradesh overtook it around 1960. Back then, both had about 70 million people; today Sichuan has 80 million, whereas Uttar Pradesh has ∼233 million.

Provincial Population as a Percentage of National Population

This chart above shows the size of countries’ largest provinces or states in relation to their overall populations. In the US, for example, it shows that the largest state (California) is home to approximately 12 percent of the country’s total population. In Canada, by contrast, the largest province (Ontario) is home to about 38 percent of the Canadian population. Argentina has a similarly high percentage of its population living in its largest province (Buenos Aires), but it also has a much bigger divide between its largest and second largest provinces than Canada or most other countries have.

The only country ahead of Argentina on the graph above is Pakistan, where the largest region (Punjab) has about 47 percent of the country’s population and the second largest (Sindh) has about 27 percent. But then, Pakistan only has 7 regions, whereas Argentina has 24 provinces.

I’ve tried to take this into consideration in the graph below. In this graph, the x-axis shows the number of first-level administrative divisions that each country has, while the y-axis shows the percentage of the country’s population that lives in its largest administrative division:

*Russia and Japan are each listed twice on this graph. Without an asterisk, they show Japan’s 47 ‘prefectural entities’ and Russia’s 80+ ‘federal subjects’, respectively. With an asterisk, they show Japan’s 8 ‘regions’ and Russia’s 9 ‘regions’. The non-asterisk ones are probably better to consider as being first-level administrative divisions. Also, a correction: China’s should be slightly higher than shown on this graph: its largest province, Guangdong, has about 9 percent of its population, not 7 percent as shown above

You can see that Argentina is still an outlier here. (As is Turkey, on the opposite end of the chart. Turkey has 81 provinces, but a sizeable chunk of its population lives in its largest one, Istanbul). In fact, not only is Buenos Aires by far the most populous of Argentina’s 24 provinces, but it also surrounds the “Autonomous City of Buenos Aires”, which is itself the fourth most populous administrative division in the country:

250px-Map_of_Argentina_with_provinces_names_en

Combined, the two Buenos Aires’ account for about 45 percent of Argentina’s population. This partly reflects the fact that Argentina is a highly urbanized country; its population is tied with Japan’s and the Netherlands’ at 92 percent urban, according to the World Bank, which is higher than in any other major country. In Argentina’s closely contested presidential elections in 2015, the two candidates vying to become president were the governor of the province of Buenos Aires and the Chief of Government of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, respectively. (The current president, elected in 2019, previously served as a legislator in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires). Buenos Aires also directly borders the country’s second and third most populous provinces, Cordoba and Santa Fe. Together Buenos Aires and its neighbours account for about 75 percent of Argentina’s population.

Chile (+Antarctica & Islands), administrative divisions - en - colored 2018.svg

Argentina’s long neighbour Chile is similarly urbanized (88 percent of its population lives in an urban area), and similarly has more than 40 percent of its population living in the largest of its (16) regions, the Region Metropolitana de Santiago, where the country’s largest city is located.

Brazil_states_named

Brazil too is highly urbanized (87 percent urban), but unlike Argentina and Chile, its second largest city, Rio de Janeiro, is not so much smaller than its largest city, Sao Paolo. Brazil has 27 first-level administrative divisions, the largest of which, Sao Paolo state, is home to about 22 percent of the country’s population. The country’s three most populous states (Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro) directly border one another, and together account for 40 percent of the population.

Map of Chinese Provinces | China map, Chinese province, China world

In other big countries, like the United States, China, and India, the most populous provinces or states account for a smaller share of the total population. Guangdong is home to about 9 percent of China’s total population, California 12 percent of the US population, Uttar Pradesh 16.5 percent of India’s population.

In the US, even clusters of states are fairly small: California and its immediate neighbours combined are home to only about 15 percent of the US population. A similar 15 percent is in New York state and its immediate neighbours, or – overlapping somewhat with New York – in Pennsylvania and its immediate neighbours. Texas and its immediate neighbours account for only about 12 percent of the US population.

India states.png

By comparison, Guangdong and its immediate neighbours are home to about 24 percent of China’s population. In the more populous northern part of China, the province of Henan and its immediate neighbours have about 33 percent of China’s population. And in India, Uttar Pradesh and its immediate neighbours have about 42 percent of the country’s population, not counting Nepal, which it also borders. Uttar Pradesh’s southern neighbour, Madhya Pradesh (“central state”, whereas Uttar Pradesh means “northern state”) and Madhya Pradesh’s neighbours together have an even higher 46.5 percent of India’s population.

germany-regions-map-printable

In Germany, the fifth most populous German state, Hesse, directly borders all five of the other most populous German states (North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemburg, Lower Saxony, and Rhineland-Palatinate). Together Hesse and its neighbours account for 78 percent of Germany’s total population. Hesse’s chief city is Frankfurt, a European finance and transport hub. The most populous of Germany’s 16 states, however, is North Rhine-Westphalia, home to 21.5 percent of the country’s population. Its largest city is Cologne. It is also the only state to border both the Netherlands and Belgium, both of which are densely populated too.

In France, Paris’ Île-de-France region similarly has just under 20 percent of the population of France’s 13 non-overseas regions, with about 12 million inhabitants. Along with its five neighbouring regions Île-de-France has almost half of France’s total population. (France also divides its territory into 101 departments, 5 of which are overseas. The biggest department – with 2.6 million people – borders Belgium; the second biggest is in Paris).

On the graph earlier, I included England, rather than Britain as a whole. Britain has four constituent countries (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), England of course being the largest of these, with 84 percent of Britain’s population. Within England, none of the nine regions shown in the map above has more than 15 percent of the English population. The three southeastern regions – London and its two surrounding regions – have about 45 percent of the English population (and so about 38 percent of Britain’s total population).

Prefectures of Japan - Wikipedia

A less demographically lopsided archipelago is Japan, where the largest regions are located in the centre of the country. This map shows 8 regions and 47 prefectures; the largest region (Kanto, shown in green) accounts for about 34 percent of Japan’s population, while the largest prefecture in that region (Tokyo) accounts for about 10 percent of Japan’s population. The three central regions (Kanto, Chubu, and Kansai, shown in green, turquoise, and purple here) together are home to 97 million people, about 77 percent of the country’s population.

Largest Economies

Above are 34 of the largest provincial economies, ranked by gross domestic product (in nominal terms). 13 of the 34 are in the USA, 9 are in China, and 13 are in other countries. Japan’s Tokyo prefecture had the largest GDP here apart from the three largest American states and Chinese provinces, but if we were to have used Japan’s biggest ‘region’, Kanto, in which Tokyo is located, it would have had a larger GDP than any state or province other than California. Then again, if we were to add Hong Kong’s economy to that of its close neighbour Guangdong, its nominal GDP would be about the same size as Japan’s Kanto region.

(Of course, these are just estimates of gross domestic product; economic figures such as these should be taken with an especially large grain of salt. They’re subject to error and change, and are only meant to approximate the income of an economy, rather than the net worth).

The largest of these places have economies bigger than those of major countries. California’s nominal GDP is greater than Britain’s, France’s, or India’s. Combined, the first-level administrative divisions shown on this chart account for between a quarter and a third of global economic output.

Largest Territories

Finally, here are the 30 largest administrative divisions in terms of territorial size (in square kilometres) on land. All 30 of these are larger than France. The largest of all, Russia’s Republic of Sakhka (also known as Yakutia), is nearly as large as India. 7 of the 30 places on this list are in Russia. 7 are in Canada. 5 are in Australia (that’s every Australian state apart from Victoria – where Melbourne is – and the island-state Tasmania). 4 are in China, 4 are in Brazil, 2 are in the US, and 1 is in Chad.

Before 1999, when Canada’s largest administrative division, Nunavut, broke off from the Northwest Territories to become its own territory, the Northwest Territories was the world’s largest region. Its population, however, was tiny; it had only about 70,000 people. Yakutia’s population, in contrast, is roughly 1 million. Alaska’s population is roughly 730,000.

Combined, these 30 administrative divisions occupy approximately 27 percent of the world’s land outside of Antarctica or Greenland. Yet they are home to only about 2.5 percent of the world’s population, 195 million people; roughly two-thirds of whom live in Texas, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Minas Gerais, or Ontario.

Earthquakes and other disasters

This article uses death tolls as a point of comparison between natural disasters. I know doing this can come across as callous, or simplistic. But I hope that it can help to put events usefully in context.

Leaving aside Covid-19, no single natural disaster in the past decade caused more than 50,000 deaths. In the past two decades however, at least eight natural disasters have done so. The deadliest of these was most likely the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, which caused an estimated 230,000 deaths, most of them in Indonesia but many also in Sri Lanka and other countries in the region. This was followed by the 2005 Kashmir earthquake (~87,000 deaths), the 2008 Burma cyclone (~138,000 deaths), the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (~88,000 deaths), the 2010 Haiti earthquake (~46,000-316,000 deaths) and a heat wave, drought, and wildfires in Russia in 2010 (~56,000 deaths). An earlier heat wave in Europe in 2003 resulted in an estimated 70,000 deaths.

One obvious pattern here is the destructiveness of earthquakes and earthquake-triggered tsunamis. They caused four out of these eight disasters, including the two deadliest.

Financially too, earthquakes have usually been the most devastating disasters. The most expensive natural disaster in modern history was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, which caused approximately 20,000 deaths (very few of which were due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which the tsunami triggered) and resulted in an estimated 400+ billion dollars worth of damage, adjusted for inflation, according to Wikipedia. (The 2010 Northern Hemisphere heat waves, if viewed as being a single natural disaster, may have been even costlier). That same year, the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand cost an estimated $44 billion, itself one of the most expensive modern-day disasters. The second most expensive disaster was another Japanese earthquake, in 1995 in Kobe (~6,400 deaths; ~$330 billion worth of damage). Third costliest was the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China (~88,000 deaths; ~$176 billion).

The five most expensive natural disasters apart from these earthquakes may all have been hurricanes in America, each one taking place since 2005 (Katrina); three taking place in 2017 alone (Harvey, Maria, and Irma). Yet even the 2017 hurricane season as a whole cost less than either of Japan’s big earthquakes.

A good source on natural disasters is Vaclav Smil‘s book Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years, published in 2006. It looks closely at the dangers posed by many different types of disasters, including low-probability, high-impact events like asteroid strikes, supernovae explosions, and mega-volcanic eruptions. According to Smil, the most common disasters of late have been floods and storms, but the deadliest have been earthquakes:

Of course, these do not come near the figures of the deadliest modern epidemics, not just Covid-19 or the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920, but also others such as the 1957-1958 Asian flu (~2 million deaths), the 1968-1969 Hong Kong flu (~1 million deaths), and the AIDS epidemic (~32 million deaths in its 60 years, for an average of 530,000 deaths per year, with a peak of 1.7 million deaths in 2004, most occurring in southern Africa). Nor do they approach the number of deaths from other horrible, avoidable problems, such as road accidents (~1.3 million deaths per year in recent years), indoor air pollution (~2-4 million deaths per year), or war (~30,000-200,000 deaths worldwide per year during the relatively peaceful past decade). They also do not come near the death tolls from the very worst natural disasters, like the floods that occurred in northern China in 1887 (~900,000-2 million deaths, perhaps half of which were caused by a resulting pandemic and famine) or in 1931 (~400,000-4 million deaths).

These lists of disasters do not include food crises or famines, the causes of which are often more political than environmental. The deadliest food crises to occur in recent years were the droughts in East Africa in 2011, which resulted in an estimated 50,000-250,000 deaths, and perhaps also in the Middle East in 2011 and 2012, which may or may not have been a major cause of the Syrian civil war. The worst cases to occur in recent decades include the famines in North Korea from 1994-1998 (~240,000-3.5 million deaths), in Ethiopia from 1983-1985 during part of its civil war (~1.2 million deaths), and above all in China from 1959-1961 during the Great Leap Forward (~15-55 million deaths).

Obviously these Wikipedia statistics need to be taken with a large grain of salt. They often range widely: the death toll estimates for the recent 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example, run from 46,000-85,000 (according to a report made by the US Agency for International Development) to 160,000 (according to a University of Michigan study) to 316,000 (based on numbers from the Haitian government). The death toll from the 1976 North China earthquake, perhaps the deadliest post-WWII natural disaster, ranges from 240,000-650,000.

All of these estimates may also overlook indirect causes of death and destruction, and certainly they do not include the significant non-fatal consequences disasters usually cause. The 2015 Nepal earthquakes, for example, led to around 8,000 deaths, but 3.5 million people were made at least temporarily homeless by them. The heat waves in Europe and Russia in the 2000s killed tens of thousands of people, but many of those who they killed were already seriously ill. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan led not only to death and destruction directly, but also to increased pollution from coal and lignite, as it caused Japan and Germany to shutter most of their nuclear power plants.

Historically speaking, northern China and Japan have suffered some of the deadliest earthquakes, though in China’s case this has had more to do with the country’s population density than with the intensity or frequency with which it tends to experience earthquakes, which has generally been lower than that faced by Japan and other countries along the Pacific rim. Before the terrible earthquakes in Sichuan in 2008 and Hebei in 1976, there was the Gansu-Ningxia earthquake in 1920 (~273,000 deaths). Three years after that, the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake in Japan caused ~100,000-143,000 deaths, destroyed large parts of Tokyo and Yokohoma, and was, at the time, probably the most destructive disaster experienced by a modern industrial city. Possibly the deadliest ever earthquake occurred in Shaanxi, in northern China, back in 1556, killing an estimated 100,000-800,000+ people.

Along with the 1976 Hebei earthquake, the other deadliest disasters in the late twentieth century were the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone (~140,000 deaths), the 1975 typhoon and resulting collapse of the Banqiao Dam in central China (~230,000 deaths) and the 1970 East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) cyclone (~500,000+ deaths). That East Pakistan cyclone, which is likely the deadliest cyclone to have ever occurred, may also have triggered Bangladesh’s war of independence the following year. The cyclone struck just one month before Pakistan’s first ever democratic election was held at the end of 1970, and the poor flood-relief efforts by the Pakistani military government in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone is thought to have helped influence a large majority of Bengalis to vote for the Bengali nationalist Awami League. This in turn led to an alleged genocide being carried out by Pakistan against Bengalis, and ultimately to a brief but deadly war being fought between India and Pakistan.

Bangladesh and the Philippines are notable here, as being arguably the most prone to natural disasters, of various kinds, of any large countries. The Philippines in particular regularly experiences earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, and volcanic eruptions. Even as Bangladesh suffered one of its deadly cyclones in 1991, in the Philippines that same year the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, just outside of Manila, killed 847 people and caused “the largest stratospheric disturbance since the Krakatoa eruption in 1883, dropping global temperatures and increasing ozone depletion”, according to Wikipedia. It was the second largest known eruption in the twentieth century, trailing only the eruption of Novarupta in Alaska in 1912.

At least ten times greater than these eruptions however was the Mount Tambora explosion in Indonesia in 1815, the only volcano in recorded history other than Krakatoa to result in a death toll above 30,000. The Tambora eruption is estimated to have killed 70,000-250,000+ people, mostly through its impact on the global climate: it may have caused the famines of the “Year Without a Summer” in the Northern Hemisphere in 1816. Nearby Krakatoa too killed most of its victims indirectly, by triggering what may have been the third deadliest tsunami in recorded history (~36,000–120,000 deaths). The only deadlier tsunamis were caused by the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004 and by the Messina earthquake in Sicily in 1908 (~75,000-123,000 deaths).

Going back all the way to Mount Vesiuvus’ destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum in 79 AD, only ten volcanic eruptions are estimated to have killed more than 10,000 people — a far lower figure than the number of deadly earthquakes, storms, or famines. Since Krakatoa in 1883 there have been only two very deadly eruptions, one in Colombia in 1985 and the other on the Caribbean island of Martinique in 1902. The Martinique eruption killed all but two of the 28,000 inhabitants of the town of Saint-Pierre – one of the survivors a prisoner in a jail cell who had been arrested the previous night. The Colombia eruption resulted in an estimated 23,000 deaths, and led to the creation of the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program in the United States, which six years later helped evacuate 75,000 people from around Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, keeping the death toll from that much larger eruption low.

Two months before the eruption in Colombia, which was the deadliest natural disaster in Colombian history, Mexico experienced the deadliest disaster in its history, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which caused an estimated 5,000-45,000 deaths. A number of other disasters in recent decades have had death tolls within a similar range. These include earthquakes in Gujarat, India, in 2001 (~13,000-20,000 deaths; India’s current prime minister Narendra Modi was given his first big job in politics because of the perceived inability of his predecessor to handle the aftermath of this earthquake), in Turkey in 1999 (~17,000 deaths), in Iran in 1990 (~50,000 deaths), and Armenia in 1988 (~28,000 deaths). Apart from earthquakes, it also includes cyclones in Central America and Mexico in 1998 (~11,000 deaths), Bangladesh and India in 2007 (~15,000 deaths) and southeastern India in 1977 (~10,000-50,000 deaths), and flash flooding and landslides in Venezuela in 1999 (~10,000-30,000 deaths).

The United States, in contrast to these countries, has been mostly spared from deadly natural disasters. The Great Galveston hurricane in 1900 was the probably the deadliest disaster in American history, resulting in the deaths of 8,000-12,000 people. Heat waves in 1901, 1936, 1980, and 1988 may each have resulted in 1000-10,000 deaths. And the country does face a significant risk from earthquakes, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. (This Pulitzer-prize-winning New Yorker article about this topic is worth reading). Thus far however the deadliest earthquake the US has experienced, in San Francisco in 1906, resulted in a relatively low number of deaths (~700-3000). The next deadliest, in Alaska in 1946, caused 165 deaths. Alaska then experienced the world’s second-highest-magnitude earthquake of the past century, in 1964 – a magnitude 9.4 – which caused 143 deaths.

Like Alaska, certain places in the world have been struck repeatedly by large earthquakes. The most notable of these may be Valdivia, in Chile. It experienced the most powerful earthquake on record, in 1960, an earthquake so powerful that by itself it accounted for roughly 25 percent of the world’s seismic energy released in the 20th century. (The next two biggest in the century, in Alaska and Sumatra, together accounted for roughly another 25 percent). The first big earthquake ever recorded was also in Valdivia, in 1575, according to Wikipedia.

The next three big ones after that, all in the 1600s, were in Chile as well, including one in the capital, Santiago. Valparaiso (in central Chile, near Santiago) was then hit with big ones in 1730 and 1822, and Conception (on the coast between Valdivia and Valparaiso) in 1751 and 1835. More recently, the Chilean coast south of Valparaiso was struck by a magnitude 8.8 earthquake in 2010. It was 500 times more powerful than the earthquake Haiti had suffered through a month earlier, but, with only 500-550 casualties, it was hundreds of times less deadly.

The other area to flag in this regard is the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia. It has been hit with one of the only two recent earthquakes with a magnitude of at least 9; namely, the deadly Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004. (The other magnitude 9+ earthquake was the costly Japan earthquake in 2011; until then most experts had not believed that an earthquake above 8.4 was even possible in Japan). Before that, no 9+ magnitude earthquakes had occurred since Alaska in 1964 or Chile in 1960. A magnitude 9 earthquake is about 33 times more seismically powerful than a magnitude 8, and over 1000 times more powerful than a magnitude 7. Sumatra was also hit by three of the only four recent earthquakes in the magnitude 8.5-to-9 range (in 2005, 2007, and 2012; the fourth was Chile’s in 2010). Before 2004, there were no magnitude 8.5+ earthquakes since Alaska in 1964.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_earthquakes_1900-.svg

Going further back into human history, Sumatra also has the honour of being where Mount Toba erupted, around 75,000 years ago, in an explosion at least a dozen times greater than even Tambora’s was in 1815. The Toba catastrophe theory “holds that this event caused a global volcanic winter of six to ten years and possibly a 1,000-year-long cooling episode. In 1993, science journalist Ann Gibbons posited that a population bottleneck occurred in human evolution about 70,000 years ago [with fewer than 10,000 humans left alive in the world], and she suggested that this was caused by the eruption.” This theory is still debated today. It may serve as a reminder – as if we needed another one – that it pays to keep an eye on all the things that can go disastrously wrong in the world.

The world population during the 1920s was roughly 2 billion, rather than 8 billion today. So the per capita annual average death toll from these disasters a century ago might have been something like 50-200 times greater than it has been in recent years. Note also that during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s there weren’t any magnitude 8.5+ earthquakes, whereas between 2004-2012 there were six of them, two of which were magnitude 9+

Home-Baked Charts #3: Population Growth Since 1950 in American and Mexican States, Canadian Provinces, Caribbean Countries, and Beyond

The idea for this post came from the picture above. As you can see, the fastest population growth in the United States has been in southern and western states, led by Nevada, Arizona, and Florida. Northern and central states have grown much more slowly, and West Virginia’s population even shrank a little bit. In the following charts, I’ve graphed the data above, and added in Canadian provinces, Mexican states, and Caribbean countries to provide further points of comparison. The x-axis shows population growth between 1950-2016 in percentage terms, the y-axis shows total population size as of 2016 (in millions).

This first chart shows just American states and Canadian provinces:


The big standouts in the US are California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada. In Canada too, the southernmost province, Ontario, and the westernmost provinces, Alberta and British Columbia, grew the fastest. But, Canadians not having a proper Sunbelt to move to, even Quebec’s growth rate was faster than all but nine US states.

Now let’s add in Caribbean and Central American countries, and Puerto Rico:


The populations of these countries grew faster than most American states, though none matched the growth of Arizona or Nevada. The most notable standouts were Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, and Guatemala; the Caribbean islands grew more slowly.

Now let’s add in the Mexican states. Mexico has 32 states, but the following chart shows only 29 of them; I could not find the relevant statistics for the states Oaxaca or Durango, and did not include the state of Quintana Roo here because its growth has been so incredibly rapid since Cancun was developed in the 1970s that to include it would have distorted the entire chart. (You can see what that looks like further below).


As with the Caribbean and Central America, Mexican states have grown faster than American ones. As in the US, the fastest-growing Mexican states have tended to be near the US-Mexico border, and near California and Arizona in particular. These include the two Baja California’s, Sonora, and Neuvo Leon.

The big standout, however, is Estado de Mexico (State of Mexico), which includes part of Mexico City. In contrast, Ciudad de Mexico, which includes the historic centre of Mexico City, had one of the slowest-growing populations. This is similar to America’s District of Columbia, the population of which has actually shrunk since its peak in 1950, even as the population of Washington’s metropolitan area in Virginia and Maryland has grown relatively quickly.

Now, let’s add in the outlier that is Quintana Roo. Its growth, based on Cancun, is similar to Nevada’s Vegas-driven growth. But whereas Nevada’s population in 2016 was around 17 times larger than it was in 1950, Quintana Roo’s was nearly 70 times larger than it was in 1950:

Finally, let’s compare the growth of US states to countries worldwide. Here is the population growth rate of some of the biggest countries in the world, compared to five of the fastest-growing American states:


This may just be a coincidence but, as in the US where desert states like Arizona and Nevada have grown the fastest, so too in the world have desert countries grown the fastest:


While Nevada’s growth rate has been about the same as Kuwait’s, the comparison between sin cities Las Vegas and Dubai (in the United Arab Emirates, the biggest growth outlier in the world) might be the most apt.