The Practice of History

A friend writes:

In practice it seems to have become a norm to say “historians agree,” when when that is not true, or sometimes just on the basis of some recent article or paperback, and which is popular with a certain crowd.

There is almost a tendency to present history as an activity in which some set “findings” have been made that have a fixed meaning.

Such a reality is not true even in many experimental social sciences which at least use statistical significance as a guide to reliability. It is even less the case with history where the nature of the profession precludes such statements. The very historians who do the most detailed archival, philological, and novel work are so often overwhelmed with that that they do not have a very good grasp of other areas of history, and even less the findings of social, psychological, and natural sciences. Whereas those who, because they come across well on camera, who speak most generally often simply do not have enough scholarly depth.

And for people on the left who really really feel that some piece of historiography has totally transformed historical understanding so that they know something that hoi polloi don’t, always keep in mind the sad case of Michael A. Bellesiles [link added].

My favorite example of this phenomenon is provided by Noel Ignatiev’s book, How the Irish Became White (1995). Ignatiev used “white” metaphorically to mean “part of the dominant group.” But since then it has become conventional wisdom that “the Irish weren’t even considered white in the nineteenth century!” One must use metaphors carefully. 

Heraldic Bookplates

To amuse myself during this time of lockdown, I created a bookplate based on my coat of arms (granted in 2006 through the Canadian Heraldic Authority). It’s somewhat Germanic in style, with the crest becoming the mantling. 

This is one of the things that I’ve always loved about heraldry: as long as you follow the blazon, you can depict a coat of arms in any style you wish, the whole thing or only part of it, and with any number of other decorative features. I admit that this is not my first heraldic bookplate! 

This one was drawn for me by Daniel Mitsui in 2014. I love his birch tree, and his mastery of detail in general. 

He also did this drawing for me, which I’ve had put on a stamp, for those paperbacks that don’t quite merit a full bookplate. It consists of the charges from my arms removed and shown on their own, as though they compose a heraldic badge.

Mr. Mitsui also did bookplates for my two daughters, with the shield moved to the side of the tree, and a cadency mark placed on the other side for balance. In Canadian heraldry, a heart denotes the first daughter, and an ermine spot the second. 

The great Gordon Macpherson did this one for me in 2007, consisting only of my crest (and helmet and mantling) and motto (which means “Fight the good fight,” from 1 Timothy 6:12). 

I did this one for my wife in 2003, illustrating her arms from the Bureau of Heraldry in South Africa. 

Gordon Macpherson drew this one in 2007. I quite like its neoclassical design. Technically heraldic impalement (i.e. two coats of arms side by side on the same shield) suggests the wife, as though she is “Mrs. Jonathan Good.” But in these times, I see impalement as representing a partnership and thus both people equally. So this one goes into books that are “ours”!

Shakedown 1979

From Commentary:

The Year the Sky Fell

Review of Black Wave by Kim Ghattas

In the Greater Middle East, the year 1979 felt like the end of the world. Americans know it as the ominous date of the Iranian Revolution, the hostage crisis, and the rise of the grim-faced, murderous Ayatollah Khomeini. But those weren’t the only pivotal events that unfolded back then. The scarcely known siege of Mecca occurred at the same time, and it was equally dreadful—and fateful. In an effort to appease an armed insurrection, the Saudi government sharply reversed what precious little social progress had been made and, in a revolution from above, transformed the country into an even more regressive and repressive place than it already was. The Saudi and Iranian governments, once grudging allies, became sworn, bitter enemies determined to export their own revolutions to the whole Muslim world, across the Middle East and beyond, including to Afghanistan, which coincidentally had just been invaded by the Soviet Union.

Nearly all the worst disasters that have swept across the Muslim world in the past four decades can be traced at least in part back to that year. That’s the thesis of the masterful book Black Wave, by Beirut-born, Emmy Award–winning journalist Kim Ghattas. She traveled from Egypt and Iraq to Iran and Pakistan, and no matter where she went, the people with whom she spoke let loose a tsunami of emotion when she asked how that year had devastated them and their countries. She felt as if she were “conducting national or regional therapy.…Everyone had a story about how 1979 had wrecked their lives, their marriage, their education, including those born after that year.”

More at the link.


If you’re sheltering-in-place, you’ll have plenty of time to read Scott Alexander’s lengthy review of Kenneth Whyte’s Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times. Do so!


Some of our books. This is the medieval section.

My wife and I, over the course of our careers as historians, have amassed over 4400 books (I catalogued them a few years ago). Our children are well on their way to replicating our habit with their own tastes in literature. We have 27 bookcases of various sizes lining the walls of six rooms of our house. I wouldn’t say that we are hoarders – we’re actually somewhat selective about what we acquire, and the shelves have their own pleasant aesthetic. But when you both have academic specialties, and teach a lot of topics through survey courses, and have any number of secondary interests – and there are a potentially unlimited number of books published on every topic under the sun, well, you end up acquiring a lot of books! In fact, our habit has become a bit compulsive, almost like an addiction. Like all addictions, it has enablers:

I hate shopping, but there are few things I enjoy more than visiting a used book store! Usually it doesn’t take much for me to find an excuse to buy something. Some possibilities:

• This looks interesting.

• I don’t have a book on this topic, and I might need one for a lecture some day.

• I have a book on this topic but this one is more recent/provides a different point of view.

• I have heard of this author and I should have some of his books.

• I have read something by this author and would like to read more.

• I have nearly all this author’s works; all I need is this one to complete my collection.

• It is important to support small bookshops.

And so on. So out we come with an armful. (I do have an Excel spreadsheet of our collection on my phone, so that we don’t end up buying the same books over again.)

Bookshops, however, at least provide you with plenty of books that you do not want to buy. Romance novels, self-help books, celebrity biographies… all so very much beneath the notice of this academic. You find the history section, and then the selection of books that you might want, and then choose the best ones among them. It’s a chase, a filtration process – the aspect of collecting that makes it addictive. The trouble comes when you’re spoiled for choice, like at the book exhibits at the annual meeting of the AHA, where just about every academic publisher operating in America shows up with every historical title they have currently in print. Then you realize just how pathetic your addiction is. My friend Scott claims he fell out of love with stamp collecting when he realized that there were companies out there from whom you could order just about any stamp ever printed. Where’s the fun in that? Similarly, why buy a book on ancient Greece that “looks interesting,” when there have been twenty such books published this year alone that are brimming with current scholarship and are not available in Barnes and Noble, i.e. they are the sort of books that actually command academic respect? Oh, the pain!

But I don’t get to the AHA much. Instead, the normal situation prevails when we visit McKay’s in Tennessee or 2nd & Charles on Barrett Parkway. Joseph Epstein once called such stores “the pool halls of academe” and lately I have come to believe that our habit is somewhat self-congratulatory and illustrates a lack of discipline – or at least a distraction from doing real work. Having walls full of books certainly signifies you as Educated and a Professional Academic, but it also represents what one friend called a “security blanket.” After all, when are you going to read them all? I will say that I do read – last year I read 42 books, most of which were in our collection. But this represents less than 1% of our holdings, and at this rate it will take a century to read everything we’ve got. I could say that they’re there for the sake of reference – “reading” in the academic sense of skimming for information, and then keeping the book on the shelf in case you need to return to it some day, which may be never, but at least it’s there. But I really don’t like reading books in this way (what one author called “book breaking“) – it shortchanges the author and encourages intellectual superficiality. 

“Have you never heard of libraries?” a friend once asked me, to which I replied, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t trust libraries.” And I guess I can say that this is a good reason to keep an extensive collection. It’s always convenient to have a book at home when you need it, rather than having to go to the library the next day, only to discover that it’s missing from the shelves, or that someone else has already checked it out. Having to order a book through interlibrary loan takes even longer, and there’s no guarantee that it will even arrive. And lately libraries are deaccessioning their codexes because “everything’s online anyway,” but I am suspicious of this movement, for a number of reasons:

• it remains (for me) more difficult to read longer works from a screen than from a page.

• you need computer equipment, an internet connection, and a power source to be able to read electronic documents. What if any of these is down? Sometimes they’re behind a paywall or require a subscription for added annoyance. 

• putting things online allows your reading habits to be tracked, and for changes to be made to texts without ever being acknowledged, in the mode of George Lucas monkeying with the original Star Wars trilogy. (Han shot first!) And don’t forget the books that somehow disappear without notice from your Kindle “library.” 

Reinhardt’s librarian Joel Langford once pointed out to me that with music or video recordings, you always need some sort of playback equipment, but with text, all you need is to know is how to read. Thus books will never quite go out of style, unlike CDs or VHS tapes – you don’t need any special equipment to read them, except for a light source. Furthermore, the tactility of books keeps them attractive over computer files. Malcolm Gladwell once wrote an essay about the persistence of paper. An excerpt:

Computer technology was supposed to replace paper. But that hasn’t happened…. This is generally taken as evidence of how hard it is to eradicate old, wasteful habits and of how stubbornly resistant we are to the efficiencies offered by computerization. A number of cognitive psychologists and ergonomics experts, however, don’t agree. Paper has persisted, they argue, for very good reasons: when it comes to performing certain kinds of cognitive tasks, paper has many advantages over computers. The dismay people feel at the sight of a messy desk—or the spectacle of air-traffic controllers tracking flights through notes scribbled on paper strips—arises from a fundamental confusion about the role that paper plays in our lives.

There’s much more at the link. Gladwell is talking about the use of paper in offices, but some of what he says applies to books as well – holding them in one’s hand, marking pages with sticky notes, scribbling in the margins, shelving them by topic – these things actually help us to remember what’s in the book. (This is a drawback of literacy, of course – we have outsourced remembering to the text, so anything that allows us more efficient access to that information is to be cherished.)

While we’re on the subject of tactility, it is good to remember that some books, as objects, are better than others. One is not supposed to judge a book by its cover (or, presumably, other physical attributes), but you really can’t help it. Some of the qualities I appreciate:

• The paper should be smooth to the touch, strong (not disintegrative), and should not yellow with age.

• The pages should be well laid out with spacious margins. Fonts should be attractive and appropriate, with competent leading, kerning, justification and characters per line. The ink should be solid in tone and color, and the letters well defined. 

• The illustrations and graphical flourishes should be attractive and appropriate, and not clash with the typeface.

• Whether hard or soft cover, the binding should not crack or come apart yet should be supple enough to handle with ease. (I don’t particularly care for Folio Society-style leather bindings and gilded page edges, though – that is a step too far.)

• Softcover books should be made so that the cover doesn’t curl up in the slightest humidity, and the cover shouldn’t easily retain and display the grease stains from one’s fingers. Also, it’s nice when that thin film of cellophane that covers some softcover books doesn’t bubble and start peeling off.

• Last but not least, there is that lovely scent. One of the appeals of a book store is the smell of all the old books! A book should certainly not reek of the oil used to print it. 

So I’m not about to get rid of all my books any time soon. I’m certainly not going to adopt the habits of a person I read about in the Chronicle once, who prided himself on keeping no books. If he was working on something, he would get whatever books he needed from the library or interlibrary loan, and after he was done he would return them, and put the topic out of his mind as he moved on to his next project. To my mind this is somewhat anti-intellectual, but it’s likely more conducive to academic success.

Still, a good cull is probably in order….

The Original Windsor Castle


The oldest extant part of Windsor Castle is the central Round Tower, which dates from the twelfth century, although no visit would be complete without seeing St. George’s Chapel (fifteenth century, in the lower ward to the left) and the State Apartments (nineteenth century, in the upper ward to the right). Windsor is one of the more important royal castles, from which the current dynasty takes its name and derives its heraldic badge.


People forget, though, that Windsor was founded as a castle by William I shortly after the conquest – and now a vision of what that castle might have looked like has been produced. From the Independent:

the first Windsor Castle, built in 1071 to deter Anglo-Saxon rebels, is thought to have consisted of a multi-storey wooden keep on top of a large earthen mound flanked to its north and west by a two-and-a-half acre palisaded triangular courtyard (known as a bailey or ward).

It was probably built there for three very specific reasons. Being on a hill it was easier to defend and, because the Thames was unusually narrow at that point, it could be easily bridged. Indeed, it is now thought that the very first Windsor Bridge was probably built by William the Conqueror at the same time that the castle was erected. The third reason was its proximity to an Anglo-Saxon royal palace at Old Windsor – just one-and-a-half miles away.

The reconstruction of that first Windsor Castle (as it would have looked in around 1085) has just been published by the Royal Collection Trust (which manages most public access aspects of Windsor Castle) in a major new book – Windsor Castle: A Thousand Years of a Royal Palace.

Research – carried out by Dr Steven Brindle, co-author of the book and a leading expert on Windsor – has also generated the first ever archaeologically based modern reconstructions of Windsor Castle as it looked in 1216 and in 1272 (as well as in 1085). All three have just been published for the first time in the book.

Read the whole thing, which includes images from the new book. 

Book Reviews

In the discipline of history, the single-authored monograph is the basic unit of scholarship, and an academic’s prestige is usually arbitrated by the number of such books that he can produce, and by the influence that these books have had. No one has time to read every book that gets published, though, so reviewing is an important service to the profession. That is, a given issue of the average historical journal will contain about five articles (often preliminary studies that will later appear as chapters in books), and some seventy book reviews. A review is typically about 1000 words long; it summarizes the book in question and gives a judgment of its quality. The idea is that a scholar will get the journal, look through the reviews to see what’s new, read the ones that are relevant to her interests, and if anything looks really compelling, check the books out from the library, order them through interlibrary loan, or even buy them from the publisher (although academic books do tend to be rather pricey).

In her turn, she will be expected to produce book reviews herself. Summarizing a book is time consuming, but not too difficult. It’s an exercise in the art of précis – of making the book’s message as simple as possible, but no simpler. The tricky part is judging the book’s quality. For that, you need to know what else has been published on the same topic, and really good review will cite those works in proof – it will “situate the work in the historiography,” as the jargon has it. The temptation is always there to give the book the benefit of the doubt, on the assumption that the author has more expertise than you do, and nothing would have gotten published if it wasn’t pretty good in the first place. However, a scholar owes it to his readers to seek out and mention any errors of fact or overall weakness. Moreover, some books just aren’t very good, for various reasons. I know someone who will refuse to review such books; she’ll just send them back to the journal editor, since writing an honest review might alienate the author, and “you never know who might be on a fellowship selection committee.” This move is better than just lying about a book’s quality, I suppose, but to me it’s cowardly, and I don’t like it. We get tenure for a reason: the idea is that we are licensed to speak truth to power without having to fear for our livelihoods. Such guaranteed job security is not just about opposing Trump, the alt-right, evangelical Christians, Wall Street, or the State of Israel from our perch in the Ivory Tower, but also about calling out the members of our own profession on their mistakes, as uncomfortable as that might make things for us at our next big conference. (At the same time, I don’t believe in being gratuitously mean, like one grad school professor who gave me a C- on a book review that I had written for his seminar, with the comment “you are too nice!” – I had criticized the book, just not forcefully enough for his liking.)

So when you’re reviewing a book you try to be fair, and if it has any problems to find a middle ground between turd-polishing and being a big jerk. And you definitely try to review the book that was written, not the book that you wanted to read (another thing that too many academics like to do). 

I myself have managed to publish a number of book reviews over the course of my career – by my count 25, some of which have been referenced on this blog. My most interesting experience with book reviewing began in the autumn of 2009, when I received, from the editor of Reviews in History, a draft of a review of my own recently-published book on St. George by Sam Riches, who herself had written a book about the saint. She liked some aspects of my book, but had some reservations about it, and concluded that “it is not the definitive work on St. George in the English tradition – that has yet to be written.” I received the review because one of the features of Reviews in History is that it gives the book’s author a chance to respond. Now, at the time, I believed that one should never respond to a review. This was the message of Paul Fussell’s “Being Reviewed: The A.B.M. and its Theory,” republished in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. The “A.B.M.,” to Fussell, is the “Author’s Big Mistake,” that is, a “letter from an aggrieved author complaining about a review,” which “generally delivers the most naked view of the author’s wounded vanity” and reads “as if some puling adolescent, cut from the high school basketball team, has published a letter about how good he really is, and written it not very well.” So I let it slide, and the review was published in January 2010, with the notice that “the author of this book has not responded to this review.” 

But I came to revise my opinion over the next couple of years. Fussell’s examples of A.B.M.s were taken mostly from the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, and mostly involved works of fiction, or popular non-fiction. Academic books, I came to perceive, are somewhat of a different matter: they make arguments, which can be defended, and as long as one sticks to the facts without getting testy, then it’s all part of the conversation. I read a number of responses to reviews that were in this vein, and I figured that there would be no harm in my doing it too. So in the summer of 2012, I took some time out of my life to pen a response to her review, which I’m pleased to say that the editor of Reviews in History posted, even at that late date. (For the record, I was never upset that Dr. Riches didn’t give my book fulsome praise. It is better to be talked about than not talked about!) Read both and decide for yourself who makes the better case. 

As a result of my contact with the editor, he asked if I would care to review a book that he had just received. I said that I would be happy to, and he sent it to me. I read it twice, as is my habit – it’s one thing to dash off a review for a graduate seminar the night before the assignment is due, it’s quite another to write for publication – you want to make sure that you have really understood what the author is trying to say, because you want to be fair and you don’t want to appear sloppy in print. This operation took a little longer than I hoped, and I got the review to him two weeks after the deadline he had given me. In response, I received an email with the subject line “Terribly sorry” and a message saying that “I forgot that I had two copies of that book, and I gave the other copy to someone else for review.”

“So I take it that review was better than mine?” I responded jokingly.

“It wasn’t, actually,” he replied. “But I’ve already sent it out for the author’s response!”

I had a good laugh about this. If nothing else it shows the importance of meeting deadlines! As it happens I easily placed my review somewhere else. Generally editors won’t accept unsolicited reviews – they have no idea about the agenda of the would-be reviewer – but after explaining the situation they were happy to publish it, and they didn’t even ask me to shorten it. The editor of Reviews in History asked if there was anything he could do for me. I said that there was a book I was interested in reviewing, and he arranged to have it sent to me. This one I ended up reading three times, because I found it difficult and I wanted to do it justice, even I didn’t like it very much (attributable largely to a disciplinary divide – I am a historian, the author was a literary critic). The review was published in the fall of 2013; the author, as I had originally, chose not respond. 

That summer, I had further contact with the editor of Reviews in History on account of another review of my book that I discovered in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology. By that point my book had been reviewed about a dozen times in various venues – again, some people liked it, others didn’t, and that’s fine. This review, however, sounded strangely familiar. As I read it, I realized that a large chunk of it was simply plagiarized from Sam Riches’s review in Reviews in History! Like a good citizen, I immediately informed Dr. Riches and the editors of Reviews in History and the JEGP about this gross violation of scholarly protocol, and the JEGP withdrew the review in its next number. The author, one Giovanni Narabito of the University of Messina, did not seem to have much of an institutional presence there, and a bit of googling eventually revealed a plausible explanation. The Wikipedia entry for Italian crime boss Giuseppe Narabito explains that his clan “established a cell in Messina on Sicily,” where they “exercise considerable power up to the present. The clan turned the University of Messina into their private fiefdom, ordering that degrees, academic posts, and influence be awarded to favored associates.”

It could be that “Narabito” is the Italian equivalent of Smith or Jones but it sure looks like someone was promoted for non-academic reasons here. But why not just stick to protection rackets and drug smuggling, I wonder? Those activities are a lot more lucrative!

Robert K. Massie, 1929-2019

From the New York Times:

Robert K. Massie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who wrote gripping, tautly narrated and immensely popular books on giants of Russian history, died on Monday at his home in Irvington, N.Y. He was 90.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, the literary agent Deborah Karl.

In monumental biographies of Peter the Great (1672-1725), Catherine the Great (1729-96) and Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra, who were assassinated with their five children and others in 1918, Mr. Massie captivated audiences with detailed accounts that read to many like engrossing novels.

I’ve read only one of his books: Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (1991), which I enjoyed. The article claims that:

Some criticized Dreadnought as lacking disclosures from original materials — a regular criticism of Mr. Massie’s reliance on secondary sources — but others praised his dramatic description of a grand failure in crisis management.

But that was not the impression I got when I read the book; in fact, I thought that he relied too much on extended quotations from letters, speeches, or telegrams, etc. (Yes, primary sources are important, and some of these make for good reading, but I’ve always thought that it’s bad form to quote them repeatedly and at length – exert some power over your sources and incorporate their ideas into your own prose.) Otherwise, the book was quite compelling, and it was fascinating to learn about such people as Kaiser Wilhelm, Bismarck, Holstein, Eulenburg, or Hohenlohe; and on the other side Queen Victoria, Lord Salisbury, Joseph Chamberlain, Cecil Rhodes, the young Winston Churchill, Herbert Asquith, Jacky Fisher, or David Lloyd George, and about the process by which Nelson’s Victory was transformed into Fisher’s Dreadnought. Those two strands never really come together, and the book doesn’t even end with the Battle of Jutland, but it remains an engaging portrait of that important period of European history parallel to Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower (1966). 

The “Flax Age”

From Literary Hub (hat tip: David Winter), an interesting proposition, excerpted from The Golden Thread by Karissa St. Clair:

What If We Called It the ‘Flax Age’ Instead of the ‘Iron Age’? Correcting the Historical Bias Against Domestic Materials

Archaeology has traditionally had a fundamental bias against fabric. Fabrics are after all highly perishable, withering away within months or years, and only rarely leaving traces behind for those coming millennia later to find. Archaeologists—predominantly male—gave ancient ages names like “Iron” and “Bronze,” rather than “Pottery” or “Flax.” This implies that metal objects were the principal features of these times, when they are simply often the most visible and long-lasting remnants. Technologies using perishable materials, such as wood and textiles, may well have been more pivotal in the daily lives of the people who lived through them, but evidence of their existence has, for the most part, been absorbed back into the earth. 

There are exceptions, of course, and traces can and do survive, usually thanks to an unusual climate: freezing, damp anaerobic conditions or extremely dry ones. The climate in Egypt, for example, is ideal for preserving all manner of usually perishable things and we subsequently know far more about ancient Egyptian textiles than those from most other regions. As archaeology has matured and diversified, scholars have increasingly looked for—and found—evidence of fine, complex textiles stretching farther back than anyone would have guessed. Their beauty and the skill needed to make them suggest a very different image of our earliest forebears than the club-wielding, simpleminded thugs of popular imagination.

Read the whole thing