Very interesting article in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Richard Rex of Cambridge University, examining the history and historiography of the English Reformation. For me, it brought back happy memories of learning from the late great Stanford Lehmberg at the University of Minnesota. Read the whole thing.
An interesting article in the National Post:
An uncensored look behind the Iron Curtain: Long-lost images of Stalinist Russia snapped by a U.S. diplomat.
Long after their father had died, the family of former U.S. Army Major Martin Manhoff invited Seattle-based historian Douglas Smith to take a look at some photos. Manhoff had been posted to the U.S. embassy in the Soviet Union from 1952 to 1954, and he had shot some colour photos while there.
In boxes that had lain almost untouched for 50 years, Smith was soon gazing at a treasure trove of rare candid images from one of the most closed societies in human history.
Smith is now looking for a permanent home to house the collection. With his permission, the National Post presents a small selection of the Manhoff archive below.
Click on the link to see these remarkable images. They don’t resemble the propaganda posters, but they’re not exactly the grim 1984 aesthetic either. I’m especially happy to read the name Douglas Smith, who came to Reinhardt for a talk on Catherine the Great back in 2008 for our Year of Eastern Europe and Russia. Check out his latest book on Rasputin.
Another successful meeting of the Georgia Medievalists’ Group took place today at the Atlanta International School. Our lineup included:
Adam Oberlin, Atlanta International School: “Mapping Middle High German”
Ryan Lynch, Columbus State: “Compilation, Transmission, and the Contours of Textual Reuse in Classical Arabic Historiography”
Jonathan Good, Reinhardt University: “The Arms of St. Michael”
Micheal Crafton, University of West Georgia: “The Bayeux Tapestry: William’s Aeneid”
John Clements, ARMA: “Renaissance martial disciplines and close-combat teachings”
This last presentation was the longest and most enthusiastic. John Clements runs the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, which is dedicated to recreating late medieval and Renaissance fighting techniques, by closely following the instructions as laid down in any number of early modern fighting manuals. Check out his article “Swordfighting: Not What You Think It Is” for more information.
For what it’s worth, the Historical Writers’ Association has conducted a poll of its membership, to vote on the worst Prime Minister of the last hundred years. From the Guardian:
Margaret Thatcher has narrowly beaten David Cameron to be named the worst prime minister of the past 100 years by historical writers.
The Historical Writers’ Association surveyed its membership on their views of the 19 prime ministers who have led the UK since 1916, in advance both of this year’sHarrogate History festival later this week, and Theresa May’s 100th day in office on 22 October. Thatcher, who died in 2013, came in first with 24% of the vote, followed by Cameron (22%) and Neville Chamberlain (17%).
Authors singled out Thatcher’s attitude to society as a chief problem with her premiership. “She destroyed too many good things in society, and created too many bad ones, then left a social and moral vacuum in which the selfishly rich and unimaginatively fortunate could too easily destroy still more of what they don’t need and can’t see that everyone else does need,” said the writer Emma Darwin.
“Thatcher made the idea of society, in the sense of a community that cares for all its members and accepts the premise that people need support and should not be stigmatised for it, an anathema,” wrote historical novelist Catherine Hokin in her response. “It is easy to demonise politicians and resort to ad hominem rather than policy attacks, but Thatcher encouraged the worst behaviour across all aspects of society and we are still reaping her poisoned harvest.”
But Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, begged to differ: “I disagreed with Mrs Thatcher, I fought her all the way. But I thought she was a great and necessary destroyer. Some of those old structures she pulled down had to be pulled down, but what she wasn’t was a builder.
“Oddly enough, this will offend some, I put her down as one of the most successful PMs of all time, not because I agreed with her, but because she laid out her stall and she achieved it, and Britain in many ways was stronger afterwards – although in many ways it was also weaker, particularly our sense of communities,” said Ashdown, who will speak at the festival later this week about his latest book, Game of Spies.
More at the link.
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.
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:
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.
Reporter 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….
From the Guardian:
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.
Not so jovial after all: how historians misunderstood William the Conqueror
The history books refer to William the Conqueror as jovial and generous, among other surprising qualities recorded in an 11th-century Latin text written after the king’s funeral.
In fact, historians have got him wrong. A new translation of the rambling chronicle reveals that such praiseworthy adjectives were directed at someone else completely – a recently deceased abbot rather than the late king.
The discovery was made by a British historian, Marc Morris, while researching his forthcoming book on William of Normandy, whose conquest of England in 1066 altered the course of the nation’s history.
He told the Observer: “It’s very difficult assessing people’s personalities at a distance of a millennium, but academics for the past 50 or 60 years have written that … he was quite jovial, cheerful, eloquent, good-natured – not the brute you might suppose.”
Morris decided to go back to the original text, which was written by a Burgundian monk called Hugh of Flavigny after William’s burial in St Stephen’s Church at Caen in Normandy. “Every biography of William on my shelf mentions Hugh’s description of William the Conqueror in the context of the king’s funeral in 1087.”
The chronicle has been in print since the 19th century, in a multi-volume collection titled the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, but only in the original Latin – “flowery Latin at that, not the normal administrative Latin that most medieval historians – like me – can cope with,” Morris said. “I looked at this passage and thought it doesn’t look right to me.”
He asked a Latin expert, Professor David D’Avray of University College London, to translate it. The new version revealed that the adjectives do indeed appear in the text, but in relation to a little-known abbot. The praise was not about William but “this admirable man”, Abbot Richard of Verdun.
Morris said: “So this house of cards came crashing down. There’s no good evidence for a genial, jolly, jovial William the Conqueror. It’s clear from looking at academic biographies written in the past 50 years that it has always been mistranslated.”
I was actually unaware that William had a jovial reputation. I always thought that his pre-“Conqueror” nickname, the title of this post, was descriptive of him in both senses of the word, i.e. not only was he illegitimate, he also indulged in the “harrying of the North,” and this sort of thing:
During William’s siege of Alençon, a disputed town on the border of Normandy, in the late 1040s or early 1050s, residents are said to have hung animal hides on their walls. They mocked him for being the grandson of a tanner, referring to the occupation of his mother’s father. To avenge her honor, he had their hands and feet cut off.
One obvious way is the rise in visibility. Many young Americans may, for the first time, be hearing from historians and be seeing them on a regular basis in major news media outlets. Historians certainly appear in the press all the time, but the difference now is the stage. During a presidential election, nearly all of America is paying attention to media, and particularly in such a divisive and unusual election as this one. It is an especially good time to be visible.
While being visible, we also can demonstrate the core values of our profession. We can continue to showcase the dispassionate wisdom and clarity of thought that is treasured by those of us in the discipline and sought by those outside it. In a climate of constant shouting and bickering, contemplative thought may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it can offer a refreshing alternative and inspire younger folks that they, too, can be an impactful voice of reason when America needs it most.
• From the Guardian (originally the Chronicle of Higher Education): “Uncovering the brutal truth about the British empire” – an article on Caroline Elkins’s heroic investigation of the British fight against the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya – yes, it involved detention camps and torture, contrary to the official line (although be sure to check out the section on criticism of Elkins’s work).
From the Guardian:
Altered Pasts review – counterfactual histories should be fun
Historian Richard J Evans is no fan of ‘What if?’ speculation, unless it is used for humorous purposes
We love a good counterfactual, don’t we? They are a bit of fun, in which we tweak history’s nose by imagining what might have been. Even Edward Gibbon did it in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, when he speculated what might have happened had Frankish ruler Charles Martel not defeated the Moors in 732: “Perhaps the interpretations of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed.”
That is nose-tweaking with a vengeance – and as Professor Evans points out, it was also a dig at Oxford, where Gibbon had spent “what he called the most idle, and the most unprofitable years of his life”. But Evans disapproves of the current trend for counterfactuals, and arrives like a stern teacher to break up the frolics of naughty schoolchildren. And once his argument hits its stride he makes a very good case.
It is interesting to be reminded that so many of the historians who go in for this kind of thing (Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts, Norman Stone, Adam Zamoyski and, earlier, JC Squire, a notable literary figure of the interwar period, along with the contributors to his 1931 volume If It Had Happened Otherwise) are rightwingers. The first chapter of Altered Pasts is called “Wishful Thinking”, and you can begin to feel distinctly queasy when you notice how many counterfactual histories describe a reality in which the British empire never declined or, even worse, where Hitler had won the second world war.
It is notable how many counterfactualists tend to be Eurosceptics, or deeply suspicious of anything that might come to be a federal Europe; in his chapter on counterfactuals in fiction, Evans notes that Robert Harris’s Fatherland – which may be regarded as the modern counterfactual novel par excellence – is steeped in a distrust of Europe. I must admit I missed this aspect of the book, but in my defence, I was just after an undemanding holiday read at the time.
Evans has his sights trained most firmly on Ferguson, who edited the 1997 essay collection Virtual Histories, which reinvigorated the genre. Ferguson, Evans explains, not only shows his hand too clearly in his introduction and own contribution (the Royalists winning the English civil war, etc), but contradicts his own anti-determinism. Counterfactualism’s practitioners prefer great people and events to broad trends, but Ferguson is determinist when it suits him – when it comes to the causes of the first world war, for instance. Evans’s undermining of Ferguson is all the more convincing because he gives Ferguson a good deal of credit and respect before shooting him down. You cannot be a responsible historian, he says, while ignoring the “lengthy chain of causation” that history is about and “the strong degree of arbitrariness in such speculations” in the first place.
The trick, then, is to avoid being too serious about it, and not to let your thinking be guided by the bees in your bonnet. (Catholics imagining a world without the Reformation – that’s another popular train of thought.) Evans cites with great approval the “What If …” columns written by Dominic Sandbrook for the New Statesman between 2009 and 2011. These were some of my favourite bits of the magazine, in which his counter-historical musings were the basis of hugely amusing gags, such as when the descendants of Oliver Cromwell, “Praise-God” and “Ed” Cromwell contest the leadership of the Labour party; when Sir George Harrison, in a Beatles-less world, becomes a plutocratic curry magnate; and the speculation that ends: “The beret and the polo neck remain essential components of English national dress, pétanque is still our national sport and, above all, everybody loves a mime artist. What a tragedy for England it would have been if Henry V had died young.” That is the way to go about it: not to treat the genre as a way of fantasising about the removal of your grievances. Counterfactuality is not a respectable historical tool, so don’t treat it like one.
• To order Altered Pasts for £8.19 (RRP £9.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Ron Radosh (on PJ Media) says something I happen to agree with. Major excerpts:
Big Surprise? There Is Now a ‘Historians Against Trump’ Group
As they once did in their protests against the Vietnam War, American academic historians are now trying to use their positions in academia to present “scholarly” reasons why Donald Trump must not be president of the United States. They have formed a group called “Historians Against Trump” (HAT), since obviously “Historians Against War” was not appropriate for this salvo.
Their “Open Letter to the American People,” published on their website, is one of the most arrogant, pretentious piece of claptrap they could possibly have written. Why have they written this letter? This is their reason:
“Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.”
I am no fan of Donald Trump, and I am not going to vote for him this election, but their argument does not stand up. First, what if there was a large group of conservative historians in the academy who decided to write an open letter about the election, claiming “the lessons of history” as their reason for arguing we should vote Republican? The HAT would no doubt loudly condemn them for using the fact that they are professional historians with Ph.D.s as the reason they should be listened to….
In response to their letter, Professor of Law Stanley Fish has written a column in this Sunday’s New York Times. Mercilessly slashing all of their arguments, he boils them down to noting that in effect, all they are saying is “We’re historians and you’re not,” and hence they are obliged to inform Americans that the lessons of history tell us Trump should not be elected. That they have Ph.D.s is not proof that they can equate “an advanced degree with virtue.” Fish writes:
“By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees….[which] does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.”
As a historian who has been fighting this good fight for too long a time, I fully agree with Fish that historians should not as historians be making “political pronouncements of any kind.” In trying to “invest their remarks with the authority of their academic credentials,” as Fish puts it, they are forfeiting the very sine qua non of what being a historian means. The long years of study and the skills they acquired, which earned them advanced degrees, do not come with the right to use those degrees to tell Americans how to vote.
Why does this not go absolutely without saying? Of course, people have the right to oppose Trump, as vociferously as they want. Like Radosh and Fish, though, I am chary of historians pretending that their profession gives them special insight into current politics – or rather, I am amazed that these wise, Olympian understandings always seem to be “liberal” in nature when, like all political positions, they are often no more valuable or true than their opposites. And I especially dislike it when these groups manage to get the American Historical Association or other ostensibly nonpartisan, professional organizations to endorse their points of view. We saw this ten years ago at the annual meeting of the AHA in Atlanta. As I wrote at the time:
Even during the Vietnam war the AHA would not pass an anti-war resolution, but now, be it resolved:
“that the American Historical Association urge its members through publication of this resolution in Perspectives and other appropriate outlets:
- To take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and
- To do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.”
Perhaps it passed because it doesn’t actually say that “The AHA condemns this war,” but still… it’s annoying when you discover that you’re still in college, with the student government earnestly passing sophomoric resolutions on your behalf. Wankers.
(See Radosh’s article about Eugene Genovese’s successful opposition to an anti-war resolution in the 1960s.)
Later on in 2007, still steamed, I elaborated:
Here is the resolution, in all its inanity:
“Whereas the American Historical Association’s Professional Standards emphasize the importance of open inquiry to the pursuit of historical knowledge;
“Whereas the American Historical Association adopted a resolution in January 2004 re-affirming the principles of free speech, open debate of foreign policy, and open access to government records in furthering the work of the historical profession;
“Whereas during the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terror, the current Administration has violated the above-mentioned standards and principles through the following practices:
“excluding well-recognized foreign scholars;
“condemning as “revisionism” the search for truth about pre-war intelligence;
“re-classifying previously unclassified government documents;
“suspending in certain cases the centuries-old writ of habeas corpus and substituting indefinite administrative detention without specified criminal charges or access to a court of law;
“using interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, Abu-Ghraib, Bagram, and other locations incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society;
“Whereas a free society and the unfettered intellectual inquiry essential to the practice of historical research, writing, and teaching are imperiled by the practices described above; and
“Whereas, the foregoing practives are inextricably linked to the war in which the United States is presently engaged in Iraq; now, therefore, be it
“Resolved, That the American Historical Association urges its members through publication of this resolution in Perspectives and other appropriate outlets:
- To take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and
- To do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.”
Of course I have no problem with people who oppose the war, but I would really appreciate it if they would speak for themselves, or form groups for the specific purpose of opposing the war, rather than trying to shanghai the rest of us into taking their position. Yes, the price of liberty is constant vigilance, and I, and as many people as I could have mustered, should have gone to the business meeting and spoken out and voted against this resolution. But it would be really nice if I could take it for granted that I didn’t have to do such a thing. In the world in which I would like to live, people know their place, and would be deeply ashamed of the bloody rudeness of taking a group that is ostensibly a professional association for historians, and trying to turn it into an activist group opposed to the war in Iraq. “Oh, but this issue is too important for such considerations of bourgeois propriety!” they claim. No, it isn’t. Despite the deepest, most self-dramatizing desires of these people, we are not facing the imminent fall of the Constitution and the imposition of martial law in favor of some neo-Nazi regime. Oppose the war by all means, but leave the rest of us out of it! This really is college-sophomore stuff – like “jeans day,” when you are to show your solidarity with homosexual rights by wearing jeans, or so proclaim the few posters here and there about campus, put up the day before the event. So you wear jeans like you do all the time, and no matter how you may feel about gay people, you find that you are cast as supporting them! (Ha ha, caught you!) And no, I don’t find the logic of this resolution very compelling. The attempt to link opposition to the war with the practice of history is about as true as a resolution reading: “Whereas we are distracted because we don’t know where the terrorists are going to strike next, and whereas the violent homophobia and misogyny of Wahhabi Islam are deeply offensive to us, Be It Resolved That the AHA supports President George W. Bush in the Global War on Terror.” Something tells me that a resolution like that is not going to pass any time soon, because we are dealing with American myopia. Some people can’t get visas to come to the United States, and some documents are being reclassified, and some prisoners were abused at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib! How terrible! OK, but why not compare these things to, for example, the sort of things enumerated in this article. Opening paragraph:
“Academics who study China, which includes the author, habitually please the Chinese Communist Party, sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously. Our incentives are to conform, and we do so in numerous ways: through the research questions we ask or don’t ask, through the facts we report or ignore, through our use of language, and through what and how we teach.”
Here is a perfect example of government policy specifically curtailing the practice of history. Will the AHA pass a resolution condemning this? (And, while we’re at it, condemning China’s atrocious human rights record as being “incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society”?) Fat chance: what we do is evil, what they do is “their culture.”
What really gets me though, is when my fellow professors can’t keep their damned liberal opinions to themselves, and shout them in socially inappropriate venues, and are then surprised when state legislatures want to cut their funding, or propose affirmative action programs for conservatives. They simply have no idea where such things came from! Help, help, we’re being oppressed! (Forget college sophomores – these are high school sophomores! The Holy Grail of being a teenager – being yourself, and being accepted for being yourself. But if you remember from high school, very few people actually got to do this; the rest of us had to choose between compromising our “selves” to fit in, or adhering to them and being ostracized. But to demand the right to spout your ideology while being cherished and affirmed for it… what wankery!)