Virginia Hall

Earlier this year I read Max Hastings’s Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 (2004), an account of the war in Europe between Operation Market Garden in the west and the Warsaw Uprising in the east, and V-E Day. An American’s natural inclination is to glorify World War II, given that we forced an unconditional surrender on an enemy that turned out to be monstrously evil, but on the ground it was a sordid mess, and the main thing that I took away from the book is that I’m glad I wasn’t there. Nonetheless, there are plenty of stories of individual heroism to be told about various actors in World War II, including one Virginia Hall, whose new biography A Woman of No Importance was recently reviewed in the Daily Mail:

Miss Hall, was fluent in French, Italian and German when she went to work for the US foreign service before World War II but was invalided out of the service after a hunting accident in Turkey.

Her shotgun slipped from her grasp and as she grabbed it, it fired, blasting away her foot.

By the time she got to a hospital, gangrene had set in. To save her life, the surgeon had to amputate her left leg below the knee.

Always able to see the funny side of things, Miss Hall immediately named her wooden leg Cuthbert.

She was in Paris when war broke out in 1939 and joined the ambulance service.

When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, she fled to London, and with her language skills, was soon recruited by the SOE.

After training in the clandestine arts of killing, communications and security, she went to Vichy France to set up resistance networks under the cover of being a reporter for the New York Post.

After the November, 1942, North Africa invasion, German troops flooded into her area and things became too hot even for her.

She hiked on her artificial leg across the Pyrenees in the dead of winter to Spain.

During the journey she radioed London saying she was okay but Cuthbert was giving her trouble.

Forgetting this was her artificial leg, and knowing her value to the Allied cause, her commanders radioed back: ‘If Cuthbert troublesome eliminate him.’

Although I wonder if her attempt at infecting German officers with venereal disease (from the prostitutes she organized) didn’t violate the Geneva Protocol against biological warfare…

Read the whole thing.

Arthurianism in Early Plantagenet England

My friend Chris Berard is interviewed for Boydell’s Medieval Herald about his new book:

What would you most like readers to take from your book? 

I want my readers to see that the legend of King Arthur, as written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, encapsulates the ‘medieval cultural synthesis’ of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Celtic-Teutonic traditions. I describe Arthur in my book as a composite figure, a “best of” kings compilation. In Arthur one finds dimensions of King David, Alexander the Great, King Æthelstan, King Canute, Charlemagne, and the early Norman kings of England. Geoffrey’s Arthur can be understood as a patriotic resistance fighter and as a champion of established institutional authority. Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain was to the post-Conquest kings of England what Virgil’s Aeneid was to Caesar Augustus. In the History of the Kings of Britain, we find a divinely-ordained, manifest destiny of imperial attainment; recurrent patterns of history that provide an intoxicating blend of mystery and meaning to the past, present and future; instruction on good kingship and good vassalage; and hope for an idyllic future, which can be described as a more perfect version of an already idealized past. The breadth of sources and traditions that Geoffrey drew upon when constructing Arthur combined with his tailoring of the figure to appeal to the particular imperial ambitions of England’s monarchs was the key to Arthur’s enduring appeal. Arthur is a king for all seasons. I seek to situate the medieval Arthurian tradition within the broader context and patterns of Western Civilization, and my hope is that my work will contribute to the recognition of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain as an integral part of the western canon.

More at the link.

Jim Jones and Harvey Milk

In City Journal, a review of an interesting new book: Daniel J. Flynn’s Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco. Excerpt:

Having moved his flock to northern California in the 1960s, [Jim] Jones began leveraging their labor toward political ends, volunteering them for protests or electioneering on behalf of friendly aspirants to public office. Gaining the respect of San Francisco’s political class, Jones became a player in his own right. Many gave him credit for Moscone’s tight victory in the 1975 mayoral runoff, and he was appointed head of the San Francisco Housing Authority. Praised as a hero of social justice and a crusader for racial equality, Jones became an important figure in Democratic politics.

Among his advocates was Harvey Milk, also a newcomer to San Francisco. Milk, formerly a Goldwater Republican, became politically radical in California and repeatedly sought election to office as an outsider to the political machine. Milk attended services at Peoples Temple dozens of times, and wrote effusive letters to Jones. “Such greatness I have found in Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple,” Milk proclaimed.

Milk wasn’t Jones’s only fan. Many powerful people—Governor Jerry Brown, columnist Herb Caen, and Vice President Walter Mondale, to name a few—sought Jones’s blessings and expressed admiration for his dedication to racial equality and a better world. Flynn does a good job of laying out the social and political landscape of the Bay Area in the late seventies and situating the bizarre respect that the Jones cult received within the general fruitiness of the era. Jim Jones’s Bay Area was the same milieu that gave rise to the Zodiac killer, the lost-in-time Zebra murders, and the depredations of the Symbionese Liberation Army. In that context, a wacky preacher who healed the sick and ran drug-treatment centers while promising a racially unified heaven on earth seemed like a salutary influence by comparison.

Read the whole thing, or buy the book.

George Orwell vs… Alex Comfort?!

From Reason (via Instapundit):

In 1972 Dr. Alex Comfort had a colossal hit with The Joy of Sex, making him suddenly rich and famous. Less famously, in World War II Britain, a much younger Alex Comfort had a heated dispute in print with George Orwell.

Orwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the war against Hitler, while Comfort was opposed to the war. Outside narrow literary and political circles, neither man was very well-known. Orwell had published several books and dozens of articles, but he had yet to write Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Comfort, 17 years Orwell’s junior, had produced a couple of novels, several poems, and some works of anarchist theory. His most enduring work came a few years later: Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, which makes a good case that politics is an artificial game preserve for the kinds of anti-social predators whom it is a function of normal social life to curb and discourage….

The Orwell-Comfort debate occurred in 1942, most importantly in the pages of the Partisan Review, an American journal run at that time by former Trotskyists and open to various kinds of anti-Communist left-wing thinking. There was a brief continuation of the debate (in verse!) the following year, in a British socialist weekly, Tribune. The editors of Partisan Review were themselves split on whether to support America’s war against the Axis powers. The leading figure, Dwight Macdonald, was firmly antiwar and never regretted it.

A striking fact about debates over “pacifism,” especially when they occur during a war or during preparations for a war, is that discussion of the most fundamental, abstract principles tends to become disconnected from the practical choices facing decision makers. In the early 1940s there was only one major policy choice for Britain: Either pursue the war against Germany, or accept Hitler’s repeated offers of a peace deal. There were strong arguments on both sides. But in his new book, The Duty to Stand Aside, Eric Laursen gives the impression that there was some third alternative.

Read the whole thing.

Manners Maketh Man

Adrian Woodbridge in The Economist‘s 1843 magazine:

In his new book, In Pursuit of Civility, British historian Keith Thomas tells the story of the most benign developments of the past 500 years: the spread of civilised manners. In the 16th and 17th centuries many people behaved like barbarians. They delighted in public hangings and torture. They stank to high heaven. Samuel Pepys defecated in a chimney. Josiah Pullen, vice-principal of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, urinated while showing a lady around his college, “still holding the lady fast by the hand”. It took centuries of painstaking effort – sermons, etiquette manuals and stern lectures – to convert them into civilised human beings.

Reading Thomas’s book on a train recently I was gripped by a terrible realisation: everything our forebears worked so hard to achieve is now reversing. A process that took centuries has been undone in just a few decades.

There is no better place to observe the collapse of manners than on mass transport. The most basic move in the civilising process was to make a distinction between the public and the private: persuading people to defecate in lavatories rather than chimneys and eat at regular times in designated places, not whenever or wherever the mood took them. Yet today city streets reek of urine and trains smell of fast food. I recently had the misfortune to sit next to a quivering man-mountain on a train who proceeded to slurp a Coke, demolish a Big Mac, munch fries and spill ketchup onto his beard while giggling at a film on his super-sized iPad. His only concession to the fact that he wasn’t in his own sitting room was to wear headphones.

Read the whole thing. Article title is a reference to a famous book on the subject.

Mormons

I just discovered an insightful TNR review essay by Jackson Lears, a relic of Mitt Romney’s presidential bid in 2012. A choice quotation:

In many ways the history of the Mormons follows the classic pattern described by Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, and other sociologists of Christianity: the routinization of charisma, the transformation of an ecstatic sect into an institutional church, and of the Mormon Ethic into the Spirit of Capitalism. But such an account neglects the persistence of Mormon beliefs, which mix familiarity with strangeness. The familiar parts evoke central themes in popular American evangelicalism—the faith in bodily resurrection and the reunification of families in heaven; the waning but still powerful sense of millennial expectancy, which encourages the stockpiling of goods for Armageddon; the conviction that America has a divinely ordained part to play in the sacred drama of world history, with Mormons themselves cast in the leading roles. Even Smith’s beliefs that Mormons were a covenanted people like the ancient Israelites, that America was the new Holy Land, that when Christ returned he would show up in Jackson County, Missouri—all of this was a more specific and literalist version of themes evoked by Puritans from John Winthrop to Jonathan Edwards.

Read the whole thing.

Let’s Call it Swimming

From History Today:

How Europe Learnt to Swim

For 1,500 years, Western Europe ‘forgot’ how to swim, retreating from the water in terror. The return to swimming is a lesser-known triumph of the Enlightenment.

Humans first learned to swim in prehistory – though how far back remains a matter of debate between the paleoanthropological establishment and the followers of Elaine Morgan (1920-2013), who championed the aquatic ape hypothesis, an aquatic phase during hominid evolution between 7 and 4.3 million years ago. Even though we may never have had an aquatic ancestor, compelling evidence exists for the swimming abilities of the representatives of the genus Homo since H. erectus, who appeared some 1.8 million years ago. In the historical period, the myths of the ancient civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean testify to a positive relationship with water and swimming, mediated until late antiquity by a pantheon of aquatic gods, nymphs and tritons.

By the medieval period, the majority of Western Europeans who were not involved in harvesting aquatic resources had forgotten how to swim. Swimming itself was not forgotten – but the ability to do so hugely decreased. Bodies of water became sinister ‘otherworlds’ populated by mermaids and sea monsters. How do we explain the loss of so important a skill? Humans have never given up running, jumping or climbing, so why did so many abandon an activity that was useful to obtain food and natural resources, vital to avoid drowning and pleasurable to cool down on a hot summer’s day?

The retreat from swimming began during late antiquity, as evidenced in the writings of the fifth-century Roman military writer, Vegetius, who bemoaned the fact that, unlike the hardy legionaries of the Republic, ‘whose only bath was the River Tiber’, the recruits of his day had become too used to the luxuries of the baths and had to be taught how to swim. Roman baths were furnished with large, shallow basins (piscinae), but these were designed for soaking and sitting and not swimming. Nevertheless, is it conceivable that the majority of the population of the Western Empire could forget how to swim? It is, if one considers the size of the urban bathhouse infrastructure and the concentration of the population living in inland cities in the late-imperial period. In 33 BC, Rome had 170 bathhouses; by late-fourth-century, that number had grown to 856.

Much more at the link, although as a friend pointed out, the Roman Empire may have been based on cities, but the vast majority of people did not live in them.

The author of this piece, Eric Chaline, wrote Strokes of Genius: A History of Swimming (Reaktion, 2017). My friend Nicholas Orme wrote a history of British swimming that I see is still in print. The post title is a lyrical reference.

Horse Racing

Mike Huggins talks about his newly-published book Horse Racing and British Society in the Long Eighteenth Century at Proofed, a blog of Boydell and Brewer:

I had not realized how important the annual racing week was in the leisure calendar of so many county and large market towns during the eighteenth century, helping foster consumerism and the urban renaissance. For many women of the middling classes for example, the racing was almost incidental, but was looked forward to for weeks before with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. It offered many social opportunities; socializing with the titled and the county set, attending assemblies, balls, the ordinaries or the theatre, appearing in the grandstand, and dressing up, demonstrating status and conspicuous consumption.

Racing was equally significant politically. The early Jockey Club was much more than a racing club. Its members were mostly Protestant, Whig and committed to the defeat of Stuart Catholicism, and were usually MPs or otherwise leading figures in the political elite, like the Duke of Bolton. Racing played across divisions of Whig and Tory, court and country or Hanover and Jacobite in complex ways. Hanoverian sons demonstrated their independence against their father by spending money racing. Race meetings were sites of assembly for political discourse where prospective and current parliamentarians lobbied for support, exploited the dynamics of patronage, or used attenders as focus groups.

More at the link.

“Book Breaking and Book Mending”

From Slate (via Paul Halsall):

Most academic books aren’t written to be read—they’re written to be “broken.” That should change.

In January, Karin Wulf, a history professor at William and Mary, wrote an installment for her blog, Vast Early America, that promised to teach “How to Gut a (Scholarly) Book in 5 Almost-easy Steps.” The blog post, which described a process for getting the gist of a book without having to read it cover to cover, tossed a lifeline to doctoral students everywhere struggling with the overwhelming impossibility of keeping pace with their weekly reading requirements. “I don’t always read this way,” Wulf cautioned. “For work that’s in my research area, and when I’m reading for the joy of reading history (which I try to do regularly), I read more deeply and thoroughly. But thinking historiographically, getting a sense of how evidence and argument are related within a book (or essay), and how those relate to other scholarship, I find pretty well served by this approach.”

….

There is an insidious feedback loop where academic writing is concerned. Academic works in the humanities are written by authors who survived their doctoral studies by book breaking. When successful doctoral candidates then publish, they’re inclined to write in a way that makes book breaking possible, especially if they hope to see that book on a course reading list. After all, it’s not just students who need to be able to get the gist of a new book quickly—professors must do so as well. When the target audience has no time, need, or inclination to read books in their entirety, then books at a basic level are written not to be read in a conventional sense. It’s a short bus ride from that reality to academic books that are not particularly readable. By “not particularly readable” I do not mean that ideas are not presented clearly, or that the prose is necessarily stilted or burdened by jargon. What I mean is that the books are written without regard to elements and narrative techniques that are fundamental to nonfiction in a trade setting—that academic writing is often hostile to storytelling as a way of conveying important truths.

Read the whole thing.

Happy Independence Day

From the Atlantic, via Dartblog:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Famed black abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass posed this question before a large, mostly white crowd in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852. It is “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,” Douglass explained, adding that he felt much the same: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! … This Fourth [of] July is yours not mine.”

A little over a decade later, however, African Americans like Douglass began making the glorious anniversary their own. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, the nation’s four million newly emancipated citizens transformed Independence Day into a celebration of black freedom. The Fourth became an almost exclusively African American holiday in the states of the former Confederacy—until white Southerners, after violently reasserting their dominance of the region, snuffed these black commemorations out.

Before the Civil War, white Americans from every corner of the country had annually marked the Fourth with feasts, parades, and copious quantities of alcohol. A European visitor observed that it was “almost the only holy-day kept in America.” Black Americans demonstrated considerably less enthusiasm. And those who did observe the holiday preferred—like Douglass—to do so on July 5 to better accentuate the difference between the high promises of the Fourth and the low realities of life for African Americans, while also avoiding confrontations with drunken white revelers.

Yet the tables had turned by July 4, 1865, at least in the South. Having lost a bloody four-year war to break free from the United States and defend the institution of slavery, Confederate sympathizers had little desire to celebrate the Fourth now that they were back in the Union and slavery was no more. “The white people,” wrote a young woman in Columbia, South Carolina, “shut themselves within doors.”

African Americans, meanwhile, embraced the Fourth like never before. From Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Alabama, they gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in late 1865.

Read the whole thing.