“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. 

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.

Hoover

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!