Book Review

From Paul Halsall, a review of an interesting new book:

Ruth Goodman, The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal Into Victorian Homes Changed Everything (2020).

Despite the title the book really discusses the replacement of wood fires by coal fires in London in the sixteenth century, and wood cooking first by coal fires, and then by coal-fired iron ovens in the nineteenth century.

Again the focus is mostly London, where a population increase from circa 50,000 to circa 200,000 in Elizabeth I’s reign meant that hard to find and hard to transport firewood (etc.) was replaced by easy to find and easy to transport sea-coal from the River Tyne region.

There has been a lot of writing on this change to coal, e.g. by John Hatcher, but before Goodman that has not much focused on the implication for cooking.

Basically, she argues wood fires burn in such a way that they allow some forms of cooking but discourage others. Wood and charcoal cooking she suggests retained an elite class aspect, but the urban poor, especially when grates and chimneys became widespread, used coal.

She argues that the lower and variable heat of wood fires encourage slow “thick” recipes (since “catching” was not an issue), but much hotter coal fires encourage thinner soups and methods where you cooked food by boiling it in bags (i.e. puddings, which arrive in recipe books in the early seventeenth century).

She also argues that while roasting in front of a wood fire produced beautiful meat, that was less possible with coal where shape of the fire was not good for spit roasting, and the smoke spoiled the meat. What we tend to call “roast” is instead “baked” meat and owes its predominance to the late 18th and 19th century development of iron ovens.

It is her comments on bread that I found most interesting.

She argues that because bread-baking required large ovens to be done efficiently it was mostly done in the middle ages by professionals. Historians tend to have a lot of information on this because millers and bakers were often well enough off to leave wills and so on.

In actual houses, though, she argues that wood and peat fires (with low heat) meant that much or most grain was in fact prepared as frumentary (a kind of thick porridge) with versions made from wheat, oats, and barley. So while not denying bread was important, she thinks that in medieval England it was less a way of consuming grain calories than is sometimes thought.

Coal fires, however, tend to make thick frumentary recipes “catch” (i.e. burn on the bottom) and as a result she thinks that there was an increase in the amount of bought bread and pies that people ate. They cooked thinner soups and stews but bought bread for bulk. She shows that the percentage of bakers increased in the population of London. So, because coal-fired cooking made stodgy stews less easy to cook, the amount of bread bought outside the home increased.

When smaller iron ranges became available, it was much easier to cook bread at home (which Victorian male authors encouraged in order to stop plaster-adulterated bread), but in fact it was not very economical to heat an oven for one or two loaves, and people did in fact continue to buy commercial bread.

Local Exploration

• I just finished reading Joseph B. Mahan’s History of Old Cassville, 1833-1864, kindly leant to me by my neighbor Mark Leary. I was pleased to learn that Mahan was a graduate of Reinhardt College. The book tells how the Western & Atlantic railroad passed Cassville by, so the city decided to become an education center by sponsoring two colleges: Cherokee Baptist College and Cassville Female College. These closed during the Civil War and were transformed into hospitals, and then destroyed in retaliation for the murders of ten US soldiers whose bodies were dumped on the grounds of the Female College. 

I was pleased to encounter this map, which is probably the most accurate reconstruction of the Cassville Affair that I’ve seen. Note the road that leads to “Wofford’s Crossing,” which is what White was called at the time. 

• On Brooke Road stands one of those chimneys that was once part of a house. You see them here and there around these parts; they make for interesting follies. 

This one, apparently, was once part of a school, according to an Etowah Valley Historical Society sign on the road:

The Boston-Brooke Schoolhouse is not yet included in the catalogue of Bartow County schools on the EVHS website. 

• The iron furnaces mentioned earlier on this blog are not the only industrial remnants on Stamp Creek. If you walk down Old Mill Road and continue on the trail after it ends, eventually you come to the remains of a bridge that once spanned the creek. Presumably this was how the Pool Creek furnace was supplied. 

South of this bridge (but north of Pool Furnace, and on the opposite side of Stamp Creek) are the remains of a building. I took these photos in April, hence the vegetation. 

I am told this was a carriage works! 

• The nearest railway depot to Cassville was Cass Station, two miles to the south of Cassville, not far from where Burnt Hickory Road crosses the Western & Atlantic. The depot burned down in 1969, but the nearby ruins of the old cotton warehouse and Quillian’s store may be explored. I took these photos in July. 

UPDATE: A couple more discoveries:

• The Goodson Cemetery is found on Goodson Cemetery Road near Lake Allatoona. The road itself is blocked off and the cemetery is in a rather unkempt state, which is a shame (a YouTube video illustrates what the cemetery looked like in 2015; whatever cleanup they did at the time has since been erased by the forces of nature). 

I was interested to discover the grave marker of Jacob Stroup (1771-1846), one of the major figures in the local antebellum iron industry, in the form of a miniature iron furnace. 

It reads:

Sacred to the
Memeory [sic] of
Iron Master
Jacob Stroup
Born 19 Mar 1771
Died 8 Nov 1846
GGG Grandfather of
John R. Jackson
Phone 770 445 3591

Judging from the font (and the publication of a phone number, including area code!), it would appear that this marker was erected by Mr. Jackson some time in the late twentieth century. It’s a shame that it wasn’t better constructed in the first place, though. 

It seems that the current grave marker of Stroup’s third wife Sarah Feuell Stroup dates from the same point in time. 

This one dates from much earlier – 1817, which is really quite early for white settlement in this area.

Of course, there are also many poignant reminders of just how common childhood mortality once was. 

• This photo is not historical as such but these two street corner preachers, spotted on January 2 in Cartersville, are certainly in a long tradition: 

I’ve got to commend their creativity, although I have no idea what “Hooters Hookers” or “Twerker Berzerkers” are…

An Age of Plunder

From the New York Times (hat tip: Dan Franke): a review of Toby Wilkinson, A World Beneath the Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology

No civilization has visited itself upon the Western imagination as powerfully as that of ancient Egypt. With its fathomless mystery, its architectural majesty, its artistic inspiration, civic order and sheer volume of wealth, ancient Egypt has captivated us and compelled us not just to understand it but to possess it — to literally grab our shovels, dig up its stuff and haul it home with us.

Who’s “us”? By all accounts just about everybody in history who found himself in Egypt while the digging was easy, and even long after Egyptian law made it difficult. The idea was that possession of a nice piece of ancient Egyptian art would lend a stamp of legitimacy — a greater greatness, let’s say — to any empire or, indeed, any private back garden in Dorset. The Greeks pondered it, the Romans started it and various Europeans got awfully good at it. But, as the Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson demonstrates in his excellent new book, “A World Beneath the Sands,” nobody in history succumbed more feverishly to the compulsion to take hold of ancient Egypt nor succeeded at it more thoroughly than the British and the French.

Wilkinson’s ambitious focus is the hundred years of Egyptology between Jean-Francois Champollion’s groundbreaking deciphering of the Rosetta stone in 1822 and Howard Carter’s sensational discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. During that century of exploration and excavation the science of Egyptology was shaped as much by benevolent curiosity and genuine scholarly interest as by the cutthroat imperialist rivalry between Britain and France.

Both nations had a burning desire to best the other in the struggle to gain control of Egypt politically and archaeologically, and both used the Egyptian collections in their national museums — the Louvre and the British Museum — as the measure and symbol of their success. Whoever seized the biggest statues and tallest obelisks, whoever got the best and the most of Egyptian antiquity and lugged it home and filled their museum with it would be the de facto winner. Winner of what exactly isn’t Wilkinson’s present concern, but his evidence suggests it meant more than just colonial expansion or the crucial access to India that Egypt offered. The bitter contest was, it seems, as much pathological as it was practical.

Read the whole thing, and also Brian Fagan, The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt (2004). 

Ernst Kantorowicz

From the Chronicle of Higher Education (hat tip: Paul Halsall), a remembrance of a mildly famous mid-century episode:

The Right-Wing Medievalist Who Refused the Loyalty Oath: On Ernst Kantorowicz, academic freedom, and “the secret university.”

In 1950, Ernst Kantorowicz, a distinguished professor of medieval history, was fired from the University of California at Berkeley for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty, which had been mandated, in a fit of Cold War panic, by the University of California’s Board of Regents. Kantorowicz principally objected to the Board of Regents’ requirement that all professors with U.S. citizenship declare in writing that they upheld the Constitution and were not members of any organization advocating the government’s overthrow.

Kantorowicz was by no means alone in his refusal to sign. Across the UC system, another 36 tenured professors lost their jobs alongside him. As it turned out, California’s Supreme Court overturned the sackings. By then it didn’t matter much for Kantorowicz. He had already found a job at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Looking back, this incident may seem trivial enough: just another display of Cold War paranoia, just another demonstration of supine conciliation on the part of university authorities.

But we shouldn’t let Kantorowicz’s firing fall out of institutional memory. If anything, his act has become more rather than less significant, because, paradoxically, the reasons he gave for his refusal were so peculiar, so out of touch. They were remote from ordinary ways of thinking about the professoriate’s role and status then. They are even more remote now. This very remoteness can suggest new ways for professors to relate to the university system today, as it becomes unmoored from centuries-old traditions and legitimations and as the empire of obsolescence expands.

In refusing to sign the loyalty oath, Kantorowicz did not appeal primarily to the notion of “academic freedom” as articulated by John Dewey and others earlier in the century. Nor did he refuse to sign because he was any kind of leftist. To the contrary, he was (as he put it in the pamphlet he wrote about the affair) a “conservative” who, as a volunteer fighter against the Munich 1919 uprising, had actually killed Communists.

His reasons appealed to a different conceptual or institutional tradition than any acknowledged either in modern politics or by modern academic administration. He believed that a professor is “entrusted with” an office in a particular “body corporate,” or corpus mysticum, i.e., a university. That status was defined in medieval Europe when universities were established as a universitas magistrorum et scholarium — as bodies made up of students and professors and nobody else.

As a corporation, the university had a particular legal status. It could not be identified with the sum of its members; it was rather a disembodied entity, permanent and immortal. What enabled the scholar to participate in the university was professorial office, which endowed its bearer with “dignity.” Dignity, thus conceived, is not a personal comportment but a quality essential to office. Or rather: In a permanent, mystical institution, dignity fuses office to the private personality, as Kantorowicz put it in his most famous book, The King’s Two Bodies (1957).

As a corpus mysticum, the university is a corporation in a different sense than the modern business enterprise. Because students and professors were the embodied corpus mysticum, regents or janitors, for instance, do not themselves belong to the university proper. They are attached outsiders. Janitors, for instance, merely keep the campus clean. Regents ensure that formal university procedures as mandated by the state are observed. But as members of the university’s body corporate, professors were not employees at all.

In other words, for Kantorowicz, a professorship was a public trust. No one had control over professors. No one measured their performance. The dignity of the professorial office called upon its bearers to act according to their “conscience,” which was held to be inseparable from the professor’s “genuine duties as member of the academic body corporate.” Furthermore, dignity required them to enact their conscience with “passion” and “love.” It involved a willingness to sacrifice their embodied self for the sake of the office: a concept of sacrifice whose historical origins included God’s sacrifice of Christ’s humanity.

Yeah, I’d say that sounds out of touch! For more on this episode read the whole thing, and the chapter on “The Nazi Twins” in Norman F. Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages (1989). 

“How to Write Fake Global History”

A review of Alan Mikhail, God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World (Liveright, 2020) in Cyber Review of Modern Historiography. Excerpt:

Mikhail’s book is part of an unfortunate trend by which “global history” has become an excuse for authors to make outlandish claims, based on the belief that they will not be subject to the usual scholarly scrutiny. A flagrant example from France is the prize-winning book by political scientist Romain Bertrand, L’histoire à parts égales (Le Seuil, 2011), a pell-mell compilation of undigested materials lifted from the work of specialist scholars and wrapped in a package of politically correct Left Bank tiers-mondisme. Bertrand has set a trend in France, in which histoire globale has often come to stand either for indifferently conceived encyclopedias like L’histoire mondiale de la France (Le Seuil, 2017), or for works that borrow heavily and with scant acknowledgment from English-language scholarship. More recently, in the Anglophone world, we have a trade book by another Yale historian, Valerie Hansen, entitled The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalisation Began (Scribner, 2020). In this work Hansen produces the same generic descriptions of “exotic” eastern marketplaces as Mikhail, both of which seem to be taken from tourist brochures. (Selim’s Trabzon, according to Mikhail already had “flaming Indian red pepper,” long before these peppers arrived in India from America: GS, p. 67). But Hansen also claims that in the year 1000 CE, the circumnavigation of the globe was possible for the first time, because the Vikings (or Norsemen) had made contact with north-eastern America, and – in a dubious leap not supported by leading specialists – also allegedly with the Mayas. As the noted historian Noel Malcolm has written in a critical review of this book in The Telegraph (19 April 2020): “Hansen triumphantly declares that in 1000 these Norsemen had thus ‘closed the global loop,’ and that ‘for the first time an object could have travelled across the entire world.’ But one has to ask: even if archaeologists were to find a Viking-owned bronze Buddha in Newfoundland, would that really tell us anything about the start of a global process? This key part of the ‘process’ was not resumed until the voyages of Columbus; and even if the Vikings had stayed in place much longer, they would not have found any large-scale North-East American trading network to connect with. Globalisation surely means more than one pin-prick contact on the edge of a continent.” Authors like Mikhail and Hansen seem in turn to draw on earlier speculative and dubious global histories to build their houses of cards. In another skeptical review, the Columbus specialist Felipe Fernández-Armesto wrote in the Wall Street Journal (17 September 2011) of these earlier works – notably one by Carol Delaney on Columbus – that they demonstrated “incompetence in research, a lack of critical discrimination and a chutzpah reminiscent of Columbus’s own,” and further that the authors (Delaney included) “have embarked on their odysseys in leaky vessels, with sails full of hot air instead of a speeding wind.” Now the authors dealt with by Fernández-Armesto were not professional historians, with positions in the history departments of prestigious universities. Yet, Carol Delaney’s Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (Free Press, 2011), a book that the critic describes as “indifferent to coherent narrative or rational chronology,” is heavily drawn upon by Mikhail (and cited thirteen times) in the lengthy first section of his book which tries improbably to link Columbus to the Ottomans. What the specialist critics had said was obviously of no interest to him.

Read the whole thing. I have a review of Hansen’s The Year 1000 to be published soon in Arthuriana

A New Theory of Western Civilization

In the October 2020 edition of The Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz reviews Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous:

Around 597 A.D., Pope Gregory I dispatched an expedition to England to convert the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent and his subjects. The leader of the mission, a monk named Augustine, had orders to shoehorn the new Christians into Church-sanctioned marriages. That meant quashing pagan practices such as polygamy, arranged marriages (Christian matrimony was notionally consensual, hence the formula “I do”), and above all, marriages between relatives, which the Church was redefining as incest. Augustine wasn’t sure who counted as a relative, so he wrote to Rome for clarification. A second cousin? A third cousin? Could a man marry his widowed stepmother?

He could not. Pope Gregory wrote back to rule out stepmothers and other close kin not related by blood—another example was brothers’ widows. He was lax about second and third cousins; only the children of aunts and uncles were off-limits. By the 11th century, however, you couldn’t get engaged until you’d counted back seven generations, lest you marry a sixth cousin. The taboo against consanguineous family had expanded to include “spiritual kin,” who were, mostly, godparents. (It went without saying that you had to marry a Christian.) Pope Gregory and Augustine’s letters document a moment in a prolonged process—begun in the fourth century—in which the Church clamped down, and intermittently loosened up, on who could marry whom. Not until 1983 did Pope John Paul II allow second cousins to wed.

You might assume that this curious story of how the Church narrowed the criteria for marriageability would be relegated to a footnote—a very interesting footnote, to be sure—but Joseph Henrich puts the tale at the center of his ambitious theory-of-everything book, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Consider this the latest addition to the Big History category, popularized by best sellers such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The outstanding feature of the genre is that it wrangles all of human existence into a volume or two, starting with the first hominids to rise up on their hind legs and concluding with us, cyborg-ish occupants of a networked globe. Big History asks Big Questions and offers quasi-monocausal answers. Why and how did humans conquer the world? Harari asks. Cooperation. What explains differences and inequalities among civilizations? Diamond asks. Environment, which is to say, geography, climate, flora and fauna. Henrich also wants to explain variation among societies, in particular to account for the Western, prosperous kind.

WEIRD is an acronym for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.” Read the whole thing, or the book itself.

Robin Hood

Sean McGlynn reviews Lesley Coote’s Storyworlds of Robin Hood: The Origins of a Medieval Outlaw (2020) in the Spectator:

Not such a hero: the tarnished legend of Robin Hood

Far from being a selfless righter of wrongs, the outlaw was a brutal killer, according to the original ballads

Britain’s two most famous legendary figures, King Arthur and Robin Hood, remain enduringly and endearingly elusive, and thus ever-fascinating: Arthur slumbering in the mists of nebulous Avalon, Robin as a hardy perennial somewhere deep in Sherwood Forest. Historians, folklorists, Eng Lit academics and cranks — the list is not mutually exclusive — enter these realms at their peril. When I did so a few years back, a headline in the Sun alarmingly proclaimed: ‘ROBIN HOOD FROM TUNBRIDGE WELLS, SAYS HISTORIAN.’ To put it mildly, that was a rather reductive and misleading summary of my research; but it certainly raised my awareness of being ambushed while ambling along the edenic Greenwood pathways. In her engrossing book on Robin Hood, Lesley Coote also considers a geography beyond Sherwood Forest for the legend: ‘It may have differed according to the area in which the stories were being told.’ It almost certainly did, as I have long argued.

Coote rightly recognises that the folklore originates from at least eight centuries ago. Thus, even this primary source is probably more fictitious than historical. And that befits Robin perfectly, a character who, as Coote explains, undergoes constant cultural reinvention: ‘In relatively recent times, Robin Hood has been depicted as a superhero, a rebel, a war-weary outsider with “issues”, and a hoodie-wearing “lad”.’ Indeed so: in the 2018 film, he is a steampunk environmentalist for the woke generation.

Coote convincingly shows how Robin was adapted to the culture of the late Middle Ages as a variation of the fabliaux, pastourelles and tales that were popular across Europe and which were widely known in England, in which ‘the character of the outlaw and that of the minstrel are blended together in the greenwood storyworld of Robin Hood, and together they become the hero’. The constants remain in our cultural referencing of the hero: the Merry Men, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest and Robin as the selfless righter of wrongs.

Read the whole thing

New Book by Tim Furnish

Adjunct Professor of History Timothy Furnish has just published a new book, The Coin of the Islamic Realm: Insurgencies and the Ottoman Empire, 1416-1916

From the description:

Countering terrorist groups is one of the most important military, intelligence, and foreign policy issues in the world today. Over three-quarters of global terrorist organizations claim Islam as their motivation, according to the US State Department’s official figures. Most wage violent jihad in order to extend the reach and severity of Islamic law, and to (re)establish a caliphate. They are thus an insurgent threat to existing Muslim states, as well as a terrorist danger to the West. Works on this issue deal almost entirely with how Western powers have fought terrorism and insurgencies: the French in Algeria, the Brits in Malaysia, the Americans in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. But Islamic states have had to fight their own Muslim insurrections, across space and time. The Ottoman Empire is the best example of this. Controlling territory on three continents (Asia, Europe and Africa) and lasting for over 500 years, the Ottoman caliphate was challenged by many movements that declared jihad in the name of a competing brand of Islam. Both these insurgencies and Ottoman counterinsurgent responses are worth studying in their own right. But they may also provide insights into how modern versions of these movements could be parried—and defeated. This work is the first book-length treatment of the topic matter, written by an expert in Islamic history with experience in the field of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.

Order your copy at Amazon. Congratulations, Tim!

Links, Various

The Conversation: “How the extinction of ice age mammals may have forced us to invent civilisation”

Why did we take so long to invent civilisation? Modern Homo sapiens first evolved roughly 250,000 to 350,000 years ago. But initial steps towards civilisation – harvesting, then domestication of crop plants – began only around 10,000 years ago, with the first civilisations appearing 6,400 years ago.

For 95% of our species’ history, we didn’t farm, create large settlements or complex political hierarchies. We lived in small, nomadic bands, hunting and gathering. Then, something changed.

We transitioned from hunter-gatherer life to plant harvesting, then cultivation and, finally, cities. Strikingly, this transition happened only after the ice age megafauna – mammoths, giant ground sloths, giant deer and horses – disappeared. The reasons humans began farming still remain unclear, but the disappearance of the animals we depended on for food may have forced our culture to evolve.

New York Times: “Marvin Creamer, a Mariner Who Sailed Like the Ancients, Dies at 104”

It is daunting enough to circumnavigate the Earth with the aid of modern global positioning technology, much less with medieval and Renaissance tools like a mariner’s compass and sextant.

But Professor Creamer, in the grip of an obsession that had held him for years, shunned even those newfangled contrivances, as well as a radio, a clock and a wristwatch.He chose instead to rely on his deep knowledge of the planet and its vagaries, and be guided by nothing more than wind, waves, the sun by day, and the moon and stars by night.

Under cloud-massed skies, he could divine his location from the color and temperature of the water, the presence of particular birds and insects and even, on one occasion, the song of a squeaky hatch.

Skills like these, he long maintained, had let the master mariners of antiquity answer the seafarer’s ever-present, life-or-death question — Where am I? — and in so doing sail safely round the world.

“From everything I’ve read, the ancients didn’t feel uncomfortable out there,” Professor Creamer told The New York Times in 1978. “They didn’t have navigational tools, but they didn’t seem afraid to go to sea. I felt they might have known what they were doing, that they might have made predictable landfalls and having once hit a coast could have returned there.”

Newsmax: “‘Mystery Is Over’ Regarding Lost Colony of Roanoke”

The English colonists who came to what became known as the “Lost Colony” never actually disappeared, according to a new book.

Rather, they went to live with their native friends, the Croatoans of Hatteras, The Virginian-Pilot reports.

“They were never lost,” said author Scott Dawson, who has researched records and dug up artifacts where the colonists lived with the Indians in the 16th century. “It was made up. The mystery is over.”

Dawson’s book, The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island, which was published in June, highlights his research.

We Are the Mighty: “The last shots of the American Civil War were fired in Russia”

Historians don’t talk much about naval action during the Civil War, certainly not as much as they do about the ground combat. If it’s not about a riverboat, the Monitor and the Merrimack, or damning torpedoes, it just doesn’t get the same attention.

The CSS Shenandoah did a lot of things worth talking about.

Her flag was the last Confederate flag to be lowered and she was the ship that took the Civil War to the global stage, looting and burning Union merchant shipping from Africa to India to Russia and back.

She took 38 prizes and more than a thousand prisoners, some of them joining the Confederate ship.

Shenandoah was built by the British. A fast, steam-powered screw ship, the Brits transferred her to a Confederate skeleton crew under Capt. James Waddell off the coast of Africa. From there, Shenandoah terrorized American ships in sea lanes around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Pacific, and into the Bering Sea off Alaska.

At the time, however, Alaska belonged to the Russian Czar. And the Czar was friend to the United States. When Shenandoah began burning American whaling fleets in his territory, the Czar was not at all pleased.

Even after the Civil War was over, Shenandoah continued her Pacific rampage. The skipper just didn’t believe Lee’s surrender ended the war, even when American whaling captains told him so.

Pretty soon, he was the only Confederate still fighting. So he moved to shell the defenseless city of San Francisco. It was on his way to California that he met a British ship who confirmed the news: The Confederacy was gone and the captain and crew of the Shenandoah were going to be tried and hanged.

With every Navy in the world looking for Shenandoah and a hefty bounty on his head, Capt. Waddell disguised the ship, stowed its weaponry, and made a mad dash for Great Britain – the long way around.

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.