Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lies, damned lies, and the official version

At the Harper's site is an article by Sam Smith called The revision thing: A history of the Iraq war, told entirely in lies. with a further subtitle, "All text is verbatim from senior Bush Administration officials and advisers. In places, tenses have been changed for clarity."

I have to wonder how many ancient monuments are the exact equivalent of this, except they were meant to be taken seriously. Yes, I'm looking at you, Ramses II.

Thanks to Randall Winn for the tip.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is the past another country?

Brad DeLong gave me the opportunity today to put a deeply-felt conviction of mine into words.

Brad was quoting from a blog called The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, whose author, Rufus F., was reflecting on the Odyssey.

[Brad]: Rufus F. on the Homecoming of Odysseus:

Homer “The Odyssey” | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen: I find his homecoming strange though. After winning a test of strength, Odysseus and Telemachus slaughter the suitors. The whole scene is excessive; he claims to kill them for their outrageous violence, but it amounts to boorish behavior and a failed plot to kill Telemachus. It would make more sense to run them off: “Scram, wimps!” Instead, Odysseus kills every last man for having dropped in for a visit and deciding to stay for several years...

[Brad:] It's considerably worse than that: consider the servant-women of Odysseus's palace who had consorted with the suitors:

"I will tell you the truth, my son," answered Euryclea. "There are fifty women in the house whom we teach to do things, such as carding wool, and all kinds of household work. Of these, twelve in all have misbehaved, and have been wanting in respect to me, and also to Penelope....

[T]he women came down in a body, weeping and wailing bitterly.... [T]hey took the women out and hemmed them in the narrow space between the wall of the domed room and that of the yard, so that they could not get away: and Telemachus said to the other two, "I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used to sleep with the suitors."

So saying he made a ship's cable fast to one of the bearing-posts that supported the roof of the domed room, and secured it all around the building, at a good height, lest any of the women's feet should touch the ground; and as thrushes or doves beat against a net that has been set for them in a thicket just as they were getting to their nest, and a terrible fate awaits them, even so did the women have to put their heads in nooses one after the other and die most miserably. Their feet moved convulsively for a while, but not for very long...

Here's what I said in comments (touched up a little):

I am not so sure that the past is another country... Can't you imagine a similar scene taking place in another neighborhood in our own time, with the woman killers giving a similar justification? Remember that even in his own time that Odysseus was a smalltime pirate; today, unless he got particularly ambitious and inconvenienced the big guys,perhaps by hijacking a ship off the Horn of Africa, he would rate no space in the New York Times. Certainly the killing of the insolent women would get no coverage. Neither would the destruction of their elementary school or women's health clinic.

My point was, that the past is not one country, and our time is not a single country either, and the differences between different countries in any one era are very big sometimes' and broad similarities exist between some past countries and some in the present. Not everything that existed in the past exists in some corner of our own world now, but I believe that many things that existed in the time of, say, the Greek dark ages have rough analogues today. The failure to recognize that, I think, leads to one of the big errors of historical understanding: focusing on one country, one short period, one culture, one imperial court, one literary circle, and saying "this was the human experience on planet Earth at such and such a time."

And another serious mistake is to believe that some phenomenon that you find impressive or repulsive is absolutely unique in human history.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Whose past? Whose present? More on my personal understanding of history

A while back I posted here about my personal understanding of religious traditions. I wrote about how any religious tradition that is big and important by necessity has to include a whole bunch of different and often contradictory elements. Thus, people who talk about "true X" where X is a big-name religion, seem to me to be talking about their aspirations and not a historical reality.

Yesterday, a post on Richard Scott Nokes' blog, Unlocked Wordhoard, made it possible for me to put into somewhat awkward words another thing I'm fairly sure of after all these years. Let me borrow parts of Scott's post and adapt a comment I left on it. Maybe it will make more sense this time around.

Here is what he said:

I'm using Kathleen Biddick's The Shock of Medievalism in something I'm writing. ... Biddick offers up terminology useful in establishing a framework for talking about medievalism.

Two of the most useful terms, however, are two of the ugliest: pastist (which “argues for radical historical difference between the Middle Ages and the present”) and presentist (which “looks into the mirror of the Middle ages and asks it to reflect back histories of modernist or postmodernist identities”). They're ugly on the page and ugly rolling of the tongue, and are kind of unsophisticated in their construction.* The terms are, however, very useful.

Me, I am not so sure that those terms are useful, but maybe Scott will convince me that I'm wrong when it comes to talking about medievalism. But I doubt it.

You see this touches on one of the most important things about history, namely that every human being has a different perspective on the past, because they are in a different position in the present. A commonplace for some people, of course, but one that people should take more seriously.

I know that Scott has lived in Korea, so that he knows that it is not like the United States, but he also knows it is not entirely incomprehensible. With this experience behind him, he might find Korean culture more or less comprehensible than some other cultures in the world. And again with this experience behind him, he could rate certain medieval cultures as really exotic, and others as kind of tame and boring in their familiarity. Say that Scott also has lived on a farm in Iceland for several years in childhood, and so there are certain things about rural North Atlantic and Scandinavian cultures, even medieval ones, that he can pretty much take for granted. Scott also has a neighbor, we will say, who shares neither of his foreign experiences. Depending on where he is coming from, he might find everything about Iceland to be exotic, more so than South Korea, where at least they have big cities. And traffic lights. Here we have two hypothetical Americans, both of whom we will say are white, about the same age, and well-educated, and they have different histories of the Middle Ages, and different views of the present as well.

I think the only history we can know is the particular understanding we have of the past. There was a real time before us, I am reasonably sure, but what's left of it is a few stories, a few records, a few monuments heavily restored by later architects, and a lot of trash. The history that we discuss and use to bring some kind of order into our understanding of the world is inside our heads, and in the debates we have about people's differing understandings. There are billions of world histories, and at the very least hundreds of different types of history.

It is legitimate to use various schemes to try to relate those differing histories and simplify things a bit, but I find that an awful lot of historians stop there; they really do divide the human experience into "the present," whose characteristics are pretty self-evident, and the "past," the particular slice of the dead and gone that they find fascinating, which all too often stands in for the entire past, or the crucial transition between a singular past and in the present with which we are so familiar with. (Even the present in Nepal?)

I may be overreacting to Scott's post, but at the very least it reminded me of something that drives me crazy. I visualize a discussion in which the participants have forgotten the vast variety of the human experience, and which turns the past and present both into cartoon versions of themselves.

Image: I have never been to Iceland, so I don't know whether they have traffic lights. My 25 years in the Canadian countryside, however, make it easy for me to think that they haven't bothered.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

The Onion throws down the gauntlet to real historians

On some level you have to love this:
Following 1,000 years of cultural decline and societal collapse known as the Dark Ages, the 15th century brought forth the Renaissance, an unprecedented resurgence in learning and the arts, which four or five guys pretty much just strapped onto their backs and carried the whole way.

"Our research indicates that da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Galileo basically hoisted the entire intellectual transformation of mankind onto their shoulders while everyone else just sat around being superstitious nimrods," said Sue Viero of the Correr Museum of Art in Venice, Italy. "Here's da Vinci busting his ass to paint such masterpieces as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, while some loser like Albrecht Dürer is doing these dinky little woodcuts that are basically worthless."


While some claim the three- century-long movement would not have been possible without the contributions of lesser-known sculptors and thinkers, most scholars said they would challenge anyone to name an image by Jan van Eyck or Francesco Guicciardini that's more iconic than, say, Donatello's Mary Magdalene.

"It's a no-brainer, really," cultural anthropologist Diane Messinick said. "Mediocre talents like the playwright George Peele or renowned court painter Federico Brandani were pretty much the equivalent of the guy at work who brews a fresh pot of coffee while you're busy making sure there's still a company to come back to after everyone gets back from goddamn Christmas break."

Added Messinick, "Hacks."

We need these researchers to look into who had the biggest ego in the Renaissance. They are clearly well qualified to do the project.

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Syme's Roman Revolution

David Meadows provided this link to a new review of a 70-year-old classic: Ronald Syme's The Roman Revolution. I read this as background material early in my teaching career, because people I respected had vaguely referred to it as a classic. And it was indeed a great book, one that felt fresh decades after publication.

Here's a bit of Steve Donoghue's appropriately well-written review:
Watching how Syme handles all his sources –watching the intricate, hitherto unseen connections and uprootings that he effects by sifting through everything so carefully (he’ll find a passing comment in an epic poem that sheds light on legionary cooking techniques, or a well-known paragraph from Cicero that can be read in a startling new way) – is at once humbling and exciting, and it’s no wonder The Roman Revolution has cast such a long shadow. The subject matter – the carefully-implemented plan by which Octavian took sole, personal control of the Roman Empire (and the equally careful plan to prevent the Romans from realizing the full import of what he was doing) – has been taken up many times by many historians in the ensuing seventy years. Syme’s masterpiece is in all their bibliographies, and most of those later histories of Augustus or the end of the Roman Republic would have been unthinkable had not Syme so impeccably paved the way.

The sobering fact is how little any of those later books manage to offer even a small amplification of Syme. Even now, The Roman Revolution is the first, best modern history of Rome’s preventable and misunderstood transition from Republic to Empire. Surely a Penguin Classic of it is finally in order?

Image: Gaius Octavius, disguised as a conservative senator.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The dangers of academic history

Sometimes it is amazingly inaccurate. Sometimes it is amazingly corrupt in its values.

I am currently reading about government in ancient India, in particular the views of Kautilya (a kind of Machiavelli figure from the third century BCE). The book I am reading, which I will not name, is the product of an Indian scholar who lectured on this material for decades before writing it down. He sees Kautilya's Arthasastra, a book on how a monarch can create an ideal state, as an actual description of something that really existed, an ancient welfare state. Not only does this scholar think that Kautilya's prescriptions were actually carried out, he has nothing but good to say about Kautilya's ideas.

On taking prescription as reality, here is what he says about preparations for putting out fires:

The master of the house had to keep ready tubs full of water, ladder, leather bags, winnowers, hooks; but besides individual house-owners government saw that at places near crossroads thousands of pitchers filled with water were kept always ready to fight any outbreak of fire. Thus something like modern fire brigades were available at short calls.

Imagine that!

Then there is this policy, which the author finds quite understandable, though in need of some defence.

According to Kautilya, "traders, artisans, musicians, beggars, buffoons, and other idlers who are thieves in effect if not in name shall be restrained from oppression of the country people." It was with this view of protecting the simple village folk that Kautilya provided that no ascetic other than a vanaprastha, no company of other than of local birth, and no guilt of any kind other than local cooperative guild will find entrance in the village; nor shall there be in the village buildings intended for plays or sports, nor in view of procuring money, free labor, commodities, grains and liquids in plenty, shall actors, dancers, singers, drummers, buffoons, and bards make any particular disturbance to the work of the villagers, for helpless villagers are dependent upon their fields. Indirectly these provisions highlight the state's deepest concern for production the villagers even at the cost of depriving mirth, frolics and entertainments available in the cities.

This was written in 1976, the "year zero" of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. I once read a collection of official documents of the revolution, and it sticks in my mind that the official economic plan promised that after years of slave labor the surviving population of Cambodia would eventually, after the revolution was a success, be provided with extra dessert several times a year.

I have nothing against the welfare state that really is a welfare state, but it angers and terrifies me that smart people cannot or will not see the difference between dealing with preventable or predictable problems, and this kind of serfdom.

Image: Kautilya

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gregory of Tours and Obama

A fine little essay from Magistra et Mater. An excerpt:

Historians once largely believed what Gregory of Tours wrote in his ‘Ten Books of History’ (which is how the History of the Franks is now more accurately referred to). Gregory might be naive (all that reporting of miracles), but his artlessly gory portrayals of Merovingian life told us all we needed to know about the horrors of Merovingian society.

A more recent view of Gregory, along with many other medieval historians, is that his history reflects his own prejudices or that he is writing propaganda. Nevertheless, even though his text is not transparent, we can read through it to get useful material. We can see the outlines of particular actions by his enemies through his distorted stories about them. Alternatively, for social/cultural historians, even if his stories are not true at all, but purely propaganda, they reflect what a king or a queen or a bishop could feasibly do. Propaganda, after all, needs to be plausible.

I would have adhered to such views once, but recent events have made me less certain. If you look at many of the claims circulating in the US about Barack Obama, (such as the claim that he is not a citizen) they’re not remotely plausible, and yet they’re widely accepted. One answer is that this is simply because such stories have been pushed so hard by particular powerful interest groups. But there are implausible stories which have achieved wide circulation and belief without such long term propaganda efforts: Slacktivist has an interesting example of one.

And some claims go beyond the merely deeply implausible to a different level. Take the claim that Obama’s plan for health care involves ‘death panels’, for example. You could see this as an extreme distortion of some possible plans for living wills or not paying for heroic treatment of the terminally ill, but it’s probably better to see these statements as symbolic. Obama is an evil ruler and therefore of course he is planning death panels, because that’s what evil rulers do. And, in glorious circularity, he is planning death panels and so that is ‘proof’ that he must be an evil ruler.

I’ve just been reading Martin Heinzelmann,Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century (CUP, 2001) who argues convincingly and in great detail that Gregory is using symbolic figures in the Ten Books of History: the Good King, the Bad King, the Good Bishop etc. What he doesn’t really get into is looking at how that might affect historians who actually want to know something about the sixth century (as opposed to those wanting to understand how Gregory’s mind works). If Gregory’s stories are largely symbolic, can we take anything factual from them beyond a few names and events? Or are we faced not just with a distorted mirror on the Merovingian past, but a fantasy view of it?

I have wrestled with this question before, in regards specifically to Gregory of Tours, but I increasingly find my own contemporaries at least as mysterious as people of the 6th century. Can people really believe such things (you name it)? And if they don't believe it...but perhaps that's what M&M means.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

In Italy first book (1991; reprinted 2006) is quite expensive!

The Fifth-Century Chroniclers: Prosper, Hydatius, and the Gallic Chronicler of 452
di Steven Muhlberger - Francis Cairns Publications - November 2006
Prezzo: € 113.07
Disponibilità: Normalmente disponibile in 25/30 giorni lavorativi

Questo libro potrebbe essere di difficile reperibilità presso i nostri fornitori

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, by Charles Kurzman

In this book, Charles Kurzman examine some of the more common causes or retroactive explanations of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and finds them all lacking. He contends that Iranians joined the protest movement against the Shah when and as they decided it was a viable movement. This judgment by Kurzman reflects his view of how people interact. See page 138:

Viability does not explain why the movement turned out as it did. Rather, viability is not predictive. Its focus on the variability and confusion of protest runs counter to the project of retroactive prediction [identifying causes or factors that would allow an observer to predict the outcome]. In this sense, it is not an explanation but an anti-explanation. Instead of seeking recurrent patterns of social life, anti-explanation explores the unforeseen moments when patterns are twisted or broken off. Instead of emphasizing routine behavior, it emphasizes "deviant" cases and statistical "outliers." Focus on the fringe reminds us that the whole fabric of social life -- all behaviors and institutions that we take for granted, that seem unchangeable -- may be vulnerable to unraveling, that the fabric survives only through our collective expectation that it will survive.

What is left when we part from retroactive prediction? Understanding.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Read me speaking Finnish

Last month I was contacted and interviewed by Juha Rudanko representing the Finnish print/online journal Kumppani, for a special issue on democracy, which is now out in both electronic and hardcopy form. The issue and the article which my interview contributed to are now out. If you'd like to see how I might speak in Finnish if I knew the language, go here. The original interview with Rudanko is below.

Image: a Finnish woman votes in an early parliamentary election (1906?) .

Interview (March 5, 2009):

1. What are the most important examples of democracy in the history of non-Western societies? Is there anything comparable to ancient Athens?

In part the answer to this question depends on what you mean by democracy.
Greek democracy in some ways seems much less democratic than the regimes in
modern democratic states, because so many residents, slaves and people of
foreign origin, not to mention women, were permanently excluded from the political
process. Greek democracy was called that because the ordinary or poorer male
citizens were involved in decision-making and the execution of the laws, and
if the involvement of male citizens is a measure of democracy, Athens for a few
generations was more democratic than modern states. Taking the Greek measure of
democracy, there are many independent and semi-independent small states in history
that qualify. Among them are the Indian republics from the time of the Buddha to
about the time of Alexander the Great. There is plenty of both Indian and Greek
testimony to show that they were numerous Indian republics with democratic
constitutions about the time when democracy was widespread in ancient

2. What is the significance of recognizing democratic traditions in non-Western
societies? Does such a recognition have political implications today (ie.,
countering the notion that advocating democracy in non-Western countries
is an imposition of Western values)?

Recognizing democratic traditions worldwide is important for the same reason
that studying world history impartially is important. The story world history
has been told for at least couple of centuries as if all the virtues of humanity
were concentrated in one region of the world arbitrarily designated as "the West." Every writer or speaker who invokes the West does so so that he or she can claim
to represent everything good in human culture, simply because certain books are
theoretically taught in the better schools of his or her country. That is why
you will never get a consistent and sensible definition of what is the West and
what is not the West. In regards to democracy, no one gets to claim it for their
own unless they actually implement democracy in daily life, both official life
and unofficial social interaction. It doesn't matter whether your high school
teacher read Thucydides or mentioned his history your history class,
it matters what you are doing now, whether you have honest, effective
elections, transparency in government, civilian control of the military, etc. Put it another way: Finns at the beginning of the 20th century were among the
first not only to implement women's suffrage but to elect women to governmental
posts on the quasi-state level (as a result of the revolution in 1905). Do you
think many people outside of Finland are aware of this? Don’t you think that
someone really interested in how democracy develops and thrives ought to be
interested in the Finnish case? And does it matter in the slightest whether
Finland was Western or Eastern in 1905-7, either in the eyes of contemporaries
or in the minds of scholars today? The same principle applies to looking at
democratic and quasi-democratic traditions wherever they exist, or have existed
in the past. Endlessly rehashing the French Revolution (fascinating as it is)
will not teach us everything we need to know about the human possibility of

3. The history of democracy is conventionally told in terms of ancient Athens
and the evolution of liberal thinking in Western Europe from the 17th century
onwards, culminating in the democratic revolutions of the 18th century. What do you
think of the conventional story? How would you tell the story of democracy?

The conventional story referred to is a perfect example of what James Blaut called
"tunnel history." This is the idea that nations or cultures move through history
in hermetically sealed tunnels which keep them from interacting with each other in
any essential way. The idea that we owe modern democracy to the Athenians or the
Greeks ignores the vast differences between Athenian institutions and the medieval
and early modern institutions that led to European and North American democratic
regimes. Efforts to democratize European culture have involved adapting medieval
institutions, such as the English Parliament, which originated in an era when even
the greatest English scholars knew next to nothing about the details of Athenian
life in the age of Pericles. Since the details have become widely known again,
Athens has served as an inspiration for thinking about the virtues and vices of
democracy, and plenty of people have taken the case of Athens as a bad example,
a terrible warning. An honest person has to admit that the record is ambiguous. If we think that democracy is an important aspect of human political life -- and
it is hard to argue against it even if you disapprove of democracy -- and if you
have a world view that truly takes in the whole world, historical study of democracy
should involve systematic investigation of attempts by various actors to make
government more open and inclusive, and how well or badly such efforts have worked
out, and why. This involves using an approach that is almost anthropological in
its orientation, but there are plenty of historians who use anthropological insights. There are already paleoanthropologists doing useful work in the evolution of human society and its relationship to modern political ideas and practices. Finally, there should be less isolated discussion of democracy in country X or democracy in country Y, and more efforts to see how democratic ideas and strategies move across conventional boundaries. How can one understand the events of 1989-91 without such an orientation?

4. Have the ancient democratic traditions in non-Western countries had an impact
on democracy in the 20th century? For instance, were the ancient republics of
India an inspiration for democracy in India after independence?

This is well documented in the case of India. Foreign scholars in the 19th century
tended to see Indian history as static, and the Indian political tradition as
entirely dominated by ahistorical ideas of caste with Oriental despotism
superimposed. This visualization supported the idea that Indians needed an
arbitrary (colonial) government to tell them what to do, and that it would be a
long time before such inapt students could learn to govern themselves. Thus when
scholars, both Indian and non-Indian, discovered in the sources that like Greece
India had its ancient republics, it was a big deal. This took place around 1900-20,
and among other things inspired one strain of Indian nationalism. In more recent
decades, the study of ancient Indian institutions of all sorts has been less
involved in actively promoting modern ideology, but as this very diverse political
community debates its democratic experience and future, this may be changing.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Feeling insecure? Blame the Vikings!

Ever wonder how historical images and reputations get propagated, reworked, and repropagated?

Magistra et Mater,
a real medieval historian, was struck by a UK press denunciation of supposed efforts to supposedly minimize Viking rape and pillage. She asked:

I want instead to ask another question: why is it so necessary to modern Britain that the Vikings were violent? This can’t simply just be put down to right-wing prejudices about immigration (although this crops up in the Daily Mail): Simon Schama had pretty much the same attitude to Vikings in his History of Britain (BTW, the best takedown of Schama’s TV history style I’ve yet seen is here).

There is a very interesting contrast here with an earlier British attitude. If you look at some of the classic popular histories from the first half of the twentieth century, such as Our Island Story or 1066 and All That, then the Danes (not yet the Vikings) are simply one among many violent attackers of early Britain. There is nothing that particularly distinguishes their violence from that of Romans, Saxons or Normans. The same attitude is still shown by Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories. But generally in Britain, it is now the Vikings alone whose violent reputation must be defended or revised: no-one outside history facilities really cares how violent the Saxons were or whether Hengist was coarser than Horsa. Why does Viking violence now spark the imagination in a way it didn’t 100 years ago? There’s been the discovery and display of much more material culture (as in Jorvik), but we’ve got more Saxon stuff as well.

It’s also not a reflection of modern politics in the normal sense: there are no significant anti-Scandinavian prejudices here. If you’re going to demonise the EU via the past, then Normans as proto-French and Saxons as proto-Germans are a better bet. But if you look at which aspects of the Vikings are remembered, you get the clue. It’s not Canute/Cnut or even the Danelaw which strike the modern imagination, and King Alfred is surprisingly absent. It’s the raids, from Lindisfarne in 793 onwards. What this country remembers about the Vikings is the sudden alarm of longboats appearing at a ‘peaceful settlement’ (this was the main trope in Simon Schama). It’s not the threat of invasion and conquest (Britain being ‘overrun with fire and the sword’) that sends a thrill of terror up British spines now. It’s the small-scale, unprovoked, seemingly random and meaningless violence that does that: the Vikings as the first terrorists.

So there you have it, cherry-picking of useful images once again...

Re-enactors at the Dublin Viking Festival.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Jonathan Jarrett supplies a useful term for a phenomenon I have also noticed, and also scorned, protochronism:

I think that perhaps all historians, once they have found their speciality, should then be forced to take a course on the period before it. It’s so often tempting to emphasise a particular phenomenon of one’s field and then say that it started with your subject population, but as with rock music (which all goes back to Chuck Berry, really, except that which he stole from the blues, which is quite a lot, and wherever the bluesmen (and blueswomen) got it from…) there’s always someone out there working on an earlier period going, “but I could point you to twenty of those from my stuff!” or similar. I’m most used to this with high medievalists claiming the discovery of the individual, or autobiography, or sovereignty, which could easily be paralleled from Carolingian or Anglo-Saxon source material if they wanted to ask anyone, but that might challenge their unique selling point…1 But it happens in my period too, and then the answer is usually “the Romans got there first”. And often the Greeks before them. And hey, if we had sources from Mesopotamia, who knows? Obviously at various times people have actually originated stuff, but not half as often as it is alleged.

Hey, Jonathan, we have mountains of sources, literally, from Mesopotamia...but I suspect you know that and simply jest. (Lots of those sources, BTW, concern sovereignty, or something that looks a lot like it.)

One thing I didn't see spelled out in this little essay is that the moment of the origination of whatever key feature is identified with a dividing line between real history (right up to the present) and a prehistory of slope-browed troglodytes who don't really count. The protochronistic moment isn't an isolated innovation, however important, but the origin of MODERNITY! And US! In ALL OUR PRE-DEPRESSION GLORY!

Yeah, I tend to be skeptical of such claims.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Happy Crusade! Happy Jihad!

Actually, I don't recommend either one for a roaring good time, unless your tastes run to rivers of blood. This is just my flip way of saying I had a very good time myself preparing and teaching my special topics course on Crusade and Jihad this fall. I'm not exactly done with it yet, there's a final exam to write and plenty of grading to do both before and after the exam, but all of my lectures and accompanying PowerPoint presentations are done.

Part of the enjoyment of this course has been a feeling that the students are also really enjoying it. (Course evaluations will eventually show how much they enjoyed it.) But there has been an intellectual thrill to what I personally have been doing, too. About a quarter of a century ago, when I was a new assistant professor, I taught the Crusades as part of a course on the High Middle Ages. I did a thorough and conscientious job of preparing those crusade lectures. Therefore, it was to a certain amount of astonishment that I returned to the subject in the last year or so (I begin to think about new courses long in advance) and found that the whole subject had changed dramatically in the meantime. The new interpretations of the crusading era were in part a matter of new perspectives, but some of those new perspectives were rooted in hard basic research. What a thrill to catch up with all of that stuff, and be paid for it! Even when I disagreed with the conclusions of the scholars I was reading, I enjoyed the process of engagement immensely.

As for the jihad part of the course, self-education was even more drastic. I have been teaching a course on the history of Islamic civilization for over a decade now, so I wasn't coming to the history of Jihad completely ignorant. Yet looking around for material, I had an even bigger surprise than I did in connection with the crusade scholarship. I found myself using almost exclusively books and articles that have been produced in the last 10 years. Thanks in particular to Carole Hillenbrand, David Cook, Patricia Crone, Christopher Tyerman, and Capt. John "Garick" Chamberlain, I was able to do an adequate and maybe more than adequate job of showing the differences and similarities between crusade and jihad and how the two different ideals clash d in the medieval Middle East and to some degree later. But 10 years ago almost none of the good stuff available to me had even been published. I am grateful to those scholars for stepping into the breach; and I have a nice feeling of being not so far behind the cutting edge of research, even if in this case I am entirely dependent upon secondary works in European languages. And my students have benefited -- at least I hope so.

Image: someone's take on the fall of Constantinople, 1453.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why do historians study the subjects they study?

It's not just that they are faddy people, says Magistra and Mater, in a rather long (but interesting!) post:

Chris [Wickham] has contributed enormously to socio-economic history, and much of the talk was implicitly a call for this to be prioritised, in combination with archaeological expertise. Indeed Chris explicitly contrasted the fruitful relationship of history with archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s (with a historical tendency towards broad-sweep structural analysis, based on socio-economic history) with the historians’ later move away from archaeology with the linguistic turn. This meant that post-processural archaeologists in the late 1980s and 1990s found historical collaborators hard to come by.

It seemed clear to me in the talk that what Chris really wants is the 1970s back, but it’s not just structuralism that now seem as out of date as glam rock (and less likely to be revived). The big problem now is that socio-economic history provides few obvious reasons for studying the Middle Ages, let alone the early Middle Ages. Why should the economic history of the Middle Ages be of interest to anyone but specialists? My sense is that until recently there were two possible broader connections. If you were interested in grand Marxian analyses, then slave and feudal modes of production were an important part of the model to be studied. Meanwhile for an analysis of the roots of industrialisation or capitalism as a whole, late medieval England and its textile trade or late medieval Italy and its banking system were useful places to look.

The problem is that current global capitalism has advanced so far that many of the early steps look entirely irrelevant...

In contrast, other aspects of the early Middle Ages do seem to have more obvious contemporary resonance. Early medieval historians exploring theology, the construction of ethnicity, the development of the state, gender roles or the use of history as propaganda can all show connections between then and now in a way that has become difficult for early medieval socio-economic history. Archaeology can contribute to some aspects of these themes (it’s been very important for looking at ethnicity and culture, for example), but it’s not central to these issues in the same way as it is to socio-economic history.

That doesn’t mean that the study of medieval socio-economic history isn’t valuable or important in its own right, but I can’t see it returning to centre stage again. Chris ended by presenting an analysis of historical change in Palestine and Syria in the period 500-900. It was a good example of how much you can deduce from an area with a well-explored archaeological record without going to written sources. However, I’m not sure that many people apart from Chris are going to feel that the most important fact about seventh-century Islam is that it led to little change in the economy of the Levant. Arguing that archaeology should be an equal partner with history rather than its handmaiden may be a sound position, but it isn’t really going to be effective if what is offered is an attenuated vision of history where structural pattern has replaced story. [Emphasis Muhlberger.]

The bolded passage is the part that really caught my eye. Like M&M, I have tremendous respect for Chris Wickham and his work, but even without a lot of exposure to recent literary theory, my work of the last ten years has focused on why people tell the stories they do, in my case about war and chivalry.

Image: Could this come back???

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