British North America

Courtesy Ron Good, an article from the New Yorker sure to gin up controversy:

WE COULD HAVE BEEN CANADA

Was the American Revolution such a good idea?

And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent, and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant. We could have ended with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near-continent-wide Canada….

Justin du Rivage’s “Revolution Against Empire” (Yale) re-situates the Revolution not as a colonial rebellion against the mother country but as one episode in a much larger political quarrel that swept the British Empire in the second half of the eighteenth century. Basically, du Rivage thinks that the American Revolution wasn’t American. The quarrels that took place in New York and Philadelphia went on with equal ferocity, and on much the same terms, in India and England, and though they got settled by force of arms and minds differently in each place, it was the same struggle everywhere. “Radicalism flourished in Boston, Bristol, and Bengal, while fears of disorder and licentiousness provoked rural elites in both the Hudson Valley and the English shires,” du Rivage writes. “As radical Whigs gained strength in North America, the political culture of the British Empire became increasingly Janus-faced.”

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: The author asks:

Why is it that, until now, the Civil War cast such a long, bitter shadow, while the Revolution was mostly reimagined as a tale of glory? One reason, too easily overlooked, is that, while many of those who made the Civil War were killed during it, including the Union Commander-in-Chief, none of the makers of the Revolution died fighting in it. The Founding Fathers had rolled the dice and put their heads on the line, but theirs was the experience of eluding the bullet, and, as Churchill said, there is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at without result. Of how many revolutions can it be said that nearly all its makers died in their beds? In the American Revolution, the people who suffered most were not the people who benefitted most, and the lucky ones wrote most of the story. Like everything in history, amnesia has its own causality.

I would go further and suggest that the postwar settlements had a lot to do with it. Former Loyalists were expelled from the new American republic; a lot of them moved to Canada, leaving behind a more ideologically uniform country. The Civil War saw the attempted secession of eleven American states. This attempt failed, but there were simply too many former Confederates to expel them all – reintegrating them into the Union became a priority, at the price of allowing them to wax nostalgic about their Lost Cause for all time.

Angel Roofs

From my friend Tim Emmett, pastor of the Waleska UMC, an interesting gallery on BBC Travel of photographs of angel roofs, which were a regular feature of late medieval English church architecture. The first caption reads:

Think of medieval England’s finest gems, and castles probably come to mind first. But the country has another type of treasure that few people know about: angel roofs. Built between 1395 and the English Reformation of the mid-1500s, these roofs are decorated with intricately carved wooden angels. Only 170 survive today. Because so little of the art from England’s medieval churches survived the Reformation, that still makes these cherubim “the largest surviving body of major English medieval wood sculpture”, writes photographer and expert Michael Rimmer in his book The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages.

Click the link to see a collection of Rimmer’s photographs. I had no idea these were a thing, nor that the Reformation had such a problem with them (after all, angels were biblical – unlike saints!).

Beards

Just discovered this interesting tidbit from the March 2016 Atlantic:

Off With Their Beards!

A very short book excerpt:

The revolution that ended the reign of beards occurred on September 30, 331 b.c., as Alexander the Great prepared for a decisive showdown with the Persian emperor for control of Asia. On that day, he ordered his men to shave. Yet from time immemorial in Greek culture, a smooth chin on a grown man had been taken as a sign of effeminacy or degeneracy. What can explain this unprecedented command? When the commander Parmenio asked the reason, according to the ancient historian Plutarch, Alexander replied, “Don’t you know that in battles there is nothing handier to grasp than a beard?” But there is ample cause to doubt Plutarch’s explanation. Stories of beard-pulling in battles were myth rather than history. Plutarch and later historians misunderstood the order because they neglected the most relevant fact, namely that Alexander had dared to do what no self-respecting Greek leader had ever done before: shave his face, likening himself to the demigod Heracles, rendered in painting and sculpture in the immortal splendor of youthful, beardless nudity. Alexander wished above all, as he told his generals before the battle, that each man would see himself as a crucial part of the mission. They would certainly see this more clearly if each of them looked more like their heroic commander.

Adapted from Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair, by Christopher Oldstone-Moore, published by the University of Chicago Press in January.

New Book by Karen Owen

Very pleased to note that Karen Owen, director of Reinhardt’s Master of Public Administration program, has published a book, Women Officeholders and the Role Models Who Pioneered the Way (Lexington Books, 2016). Buy it at Amazon or at Lexington Books.

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From the website:

Recent electoral seasons in American politics demonstrate women’s keen interest, involvement, and influence as candidates and officeholders. Women possess political ambition, albeit in varying degrees, and as such, women seek opportunities to be politically engaged and affect America’s representative institutions. This book analyzes why American women run for political office, and explores how political role models, identified as publicly elected officials and/or those who have served in the political arena, have greatly motivated women to run for higher political office, including seats in the U.S. Congress and state governorships.

Evidence from personal interviews with ten congresswomen and fifty-five female state legislators reveals the ambitious nature of female politicians, the encouragement of political factors in their decisions to advance in politics, and their perceived responsibility to be role models to other women. Moreover, in studying thirty-five years of elections data, I find substantial support for how female political role models influence female state legislators’ candidacies and electoral outcomes to higher office. This work highlights the importance of women as symbolic representatives; female politicians are instrumental in emboldening a new generation of women to engage in politics. Role models in politics indeed have a purpose and an influential nature.

Book Review

From Dissent, a review of an interesting book:

Love and Death in Revolution Square

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016, 704 pp.

Svetlana Alexievich’s father became a communist after Yuri Gagarin flew into space. “We’re the first! We can do anything!” he told her. She too became a believer. “Disillusionment came later,” the 2015 Nobel laureate for literature writes in Secondhand Time, the final installment of her five-volume exploration of the Soviet soul.

Like nearly every child growing up in the USSR, I also dreamed of meeting a real, live cosmonaut. Yet my wish came true only a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union. Last September, Valentina Tereshkova, the world’s first woman in space, addressed the inaugural gala for the London Science Museum’s exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. As Tereshkova came off stage, I seized the moment. Tripping over my words, I told her that for a child growing up in faraway England while his country was falling apart back home, her achievement was one of the few things that kept me proud of my once great motherland. Tereshkova glared at me. “It must have been tough, growing up in England,” she said and walked away, past her charred re-entry capsule encased in glass a few feet away.

What did I expect? A Soviet person has no time for those who have not suffered. War, displacement, hunger, and forced labor underpin Alexievich’s work like the pulsating ostinato in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. “We know how to suffer and talk of suffering,” she wrote in her first book in the series, War’s Unwomanly Face,  a collection of testimonies from women about their experiences of what is still known throughout the former Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War. “Suffering justifies our hard and bitter life. For us, pain is an art.”…

Ever since its adoption by Russian president Vladimir Putin as an ersatz official ideology, Soviet nostalgia has been dismissed by Western commentators as a hankering for strongman leadership and great power status. Certainly, that is how it has been cannily deployed by the Kremlin: through the revival of militarized Victory Day parades, irredentism in Ukraine, and revived alliances with former client states such as Syria.

However, as Alexievich shows in Secondhand Time, for many of its former citizens—often derided as sovoks, a cruel pun on the word for dustpan—what the Soviet Union represented most was not geopolitical but moral superiority. This may seem a strange way to describe a state that imprisoned and executed millions of its own citizens. But as one woman reminds Alexievich, “socialism isn’t just labour camps, informants, and the Iron Curtain, it’s also a bright, just world: everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others.”

The spiritual aspects of socialism are rarely discussed in Western accounts of the Soviet Union. As the Russian-born anthropologist Alexei Yurchak showed in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, the USSR had a distinct moral order broadly shared even by those who disagreed with the regime or its politics. A cornerstone of Soviet ethics was the belief that, as one man tells Alexievich, “it’s shameful to love money, you have to love a dream.” Other values included altruism, self-sacrifice, a concern for the weak, the elevation of group over individual concerns, and the rejection of wealth and materialism. The country’s sudden dissolution proved to be more traumatic to many of Alexievich’s characters than the suffering they had endured at the hands of the USSR.

More at the link.

Book Review

From the Economist, via Tim Furnish, a review of Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values.

IN THE early years of the Enlightenment, a few brave philosophers challenged the Christian order—an apparently hopeless task. But their efforts paid off, and tomes have since been written, by authors from Diderot to Richard Dawkins, about the triumph of secular man. What, after all, has Christianity ever done for us?

Rather a lot, argues Nick Spencer in an excellent new book, “The Evolution of the West”. Mr Spencer, who is research director at Theos, a religious think-tank in London, picks up from Larry Siedentop’s epic work from 2014, “Inventing the Individual”—a reassertion of how much the Western world owes to Christianity. It is not a popular thesis but, like a prophet crying in the post-modern wilderness, Mr Spencer provokes reflection that goes far beyond the shallow ding-dongs of the modern culture wars. He wants to make sure Westerners know where they came from as a way to illuminate where they are going.

Starting with the ancient world, he takes the reader on an extravagant journey to meet, among many others, Augustine of Hippo and John Locke as well as Thomas Piketty. The author believes that the fact that Christianity became the religion of the European establishment has blinded people to what a revolutionary doctrine it was (and is). And he clearly believes it can still play a role. The Christianisation of Europe, he says, was not a bunch of reactionary clerics trying to shut down a noble, free, secular ancient world, but a new idea of “a voluntary basis for human association in which people joined together through will and love rather than blood or shared material objectives”. Christianity declared that humans “have access to the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group”.

Out of this, with a reinjection at the Reformation, came the origins of the modern world: a belief in equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system and the assertion of natural rights leading to individual liberty, as well as the notion that a society built on the assumption of moral equality should have a representative form of government.

More at the link.

Medieval Book Curses

I recall a notice at Dartmouth’s Baker Library on the way out of the stacks, a reproduction of a sign from the University of Salamanca threatening people with excommunication if they steal or damage the books in any way. This is what came up on an image search; it looks familiar to me:

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And now, courtesy my colleague Curt Lindquist, an Atlas Obscura article on the bad things that monks would promise to those who messed with their book production:

In the Middle Ages, creating a book could take years. A scribe would bend over his copy table, illuminated only by natural light—candles were too big a risk to the books—and spend hours each day forming letters, by hand, careful never to make an error. To be a copyist, wrote one scribe, was painful: “It extinguishes the light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the viscera and the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys, and weariness to the whole body.”

Given the extreme effort that went into creating books, scribes and book owners had a real incentive to protect their work. They used the only power they had: words. At the beginning or the end of books, scribes and book owners would write dramatic curses threatening thieves with pain and suffering if they were to steal or damage these treasures.

They did not hesitate to use the worst punishments they knew—excommunication from the church and horrible, painful death. Steal a book, and you might be cleft by a demon sword, forced to sacrifice your hands, have your eyes gouged out, or end in the “fires of hell and brimstone.”

“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”

More at the link.

On a similar (if slightly less apocalyptic) level, a friend of mine once printed up a number of bookplates reading “The wicked borroweth, and returneth not again” (Psalm 37.21) for placement in the prayer books of the church that he was priest of.

Farley Mowat

My hometown of Port Hope, Ontario has had a number of notable residents, among them Joseph Scriven (author of the hymn “What a Friend we have in Jesus”), artist David Blackwood, impresario and explorer William Leonard Hunt (the Great Farini), and author Farley Mowat, who died in 2014. I remember seeing Mowat around town, and everyone knew the story about him mooning the guests at a banquet, by means of illustrating that no underclothes were worn under a kilt. Now Chris Robert, a high school teacher of mine, sends me images of a monument constructed to honor Mowat and moved this past weekend to its current site on the east bank of the Ganaraska River. You can see Port Hope’s town hall in the background.

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Photo: Chris Robert

Why an upside-down boat, you ask? Well, this is a reference to Mowat’s book The Farfarers (1998), which impressed the Port Hope Friends of Farley Mowat. From the plinth:

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Photo: Chris Robert

I had never heard of this before, and I confess that the passive-voice construction “are believed” in the first paragraph made me suspicious (Wikipedians will automatically insert a superscripted [by whom?] whenever they find stuff like this). Moreover, there is a long tradition of imagining the arrival of pre-Columbian explorers to the Americas for various reasons – is this just the latest example? Who were these people, and what exactly did Thomas Lee discover on the Ungava Peninsula?

I do not have a copy of The Farfarers to hand, although you can look inside the book at Amazon. According to the summary at Wikipedia, Mowat claims that even before the Vikings, settlers from the island of Orkney, chasing walrus ivory, reached Iceland, then Greenland, and then arctic Canada. Mowat calls these settlers Albans, after “Alba,” a Gaelic name for Scotland, and believes they were the descendants of the prehistoric inhabitants of the British Isles, pushed to the fringes by Celts and then Romans. Thomas Lee was an archaeologist at Laval University; his excavations on the Ungava Peninsula uncovered stone building foundations that Lee thought were temporary shelters built by Vikings around the year 1000, the same time as their settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Lee also found a stone landmark that he dubbed the Hammer of Thor on the assumption that it too was Viking, although it could simply have been an Inuit inukshuk. So it seems that Mowat was reinterpreting Lee’s data – Lee did not originate the theory of the Albans.

Thus, it probably comes as no surprise that the editors of Canadian Geographic designated The Farfarers as “highly speculative” and noted that “no professional archeologists are known to share Mowat’s theories.” Stuart Brown of Memorial University noted the “small problem” of a complete lack of “reasonably compelling evidence,” with the book being “entertaining as fiction, [but] far from convincing as fact.” As much as I hate to run down a hometown hero, these assessments are probably accurate. Mowat did indeed have a reputation of never letting the facts ruin a good story. I recall a 1996 cover story in (the now sadly defunct) Saturday Night magazine, with Farley Mowat as Pinocchio.

farleymowatsatniteReporter John Goddard investigated the research and composition of Mowat’s bestselling book Never Cry Wolf, and discovered quite a few things that he simply made up.

As a historian, I confess that I cannot approve of this schtick….

Thomas Becket’s Book of Psalms

From the Guardian:

Thomas Becket’s personal book of psalms ‘found in Cambridge library’

A Cambridge academic believes he has discovered Thomas Becket’s personal book of psalms, an ancient manuscript the martyred saint and so-called “turbulent priest” may have been holding when he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

Dr Christopher de Hamel, a historian at Cambridge University, stumbled across the book during a conversation with a colleague. De Hamel, author of the just-released Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, had said that books belonging to saints were generally not used as relics, and his fellow historian replied that he knew of an exception.

He showed de Hamel an entry from the Sacrists’ Roll of Canterbury Cathedral, dating to 1321, which gave a detailed description of a Psalter, or book of psalms, in a jewelled binding, that was then preserved as a relic at the shrine of Becket in the cathedral. Becket, archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170, was murdered by four knights inside the cathedral, who took on the task after supposedly hearing Henry II remark: “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”

De Hamel said that he read the Psalter’s description, and realised he had seen it before: an Anglo-Saxon Psalter in Cambridge’s Parker Library bears the same description on its flyleaf. It is undoubtedly the same manuscript from Becket’s shrine, he believes.

A 16th-century note says the book once belonged to Becket, but “everyone has always said it was ridiculous,” said de Hamel. “Becket is a big name and there’s a list of his books. This isn’t one of them.” But a link had not previously been made between the 14th-century inventory and the Parker manuscript.

In a piece in Saturday’s Guardian Review, De Hamel lays out how the Psalter was clearly made in Canterbury, and dates from the very early 11th century. It was probably, he said, made for the private use of an archbishop, likely Alphege, who was archbishop from 1005 to 1016, when he was killed by the Danes in Greenwich. Alphege was later canonised, and was Becket’s personal patron saint.

“People hadn’t matched it up, and suddenly there it was,” said de Hamel. “The inscription says this is the Psalter of the archbishop of Canterbury. It clearly is a private Psalter … I assume Becket had come across the book and taken it into his own possession.”

More at the link.