Banned Books, Again

My observation is that we’re all hypocrites about freedom of speech. When it comes to speech we agree with, of course we’re in favor of it. When it comes to speech we disagree with, we have all sorts of rationalizations at our disposal about why we shouldn’t have to listen; indeed, why that speech (now designated “misinformation”) should be “deplatformed” or censored, or its speakers punished. I assume that, given the opportunity, everyone would act on this principle, but of course I am most familiar with its operation in academia, where speech from the left is cherished, and speech from the right condemned. ‘Twas ever thus, and I think of it again during the fatuous Banned Books Week, which is upon us once again. Here is a Facebook graphic for this event:

From a Facebook friend: 

News you can use, from Snead Hearn. Guess what? Most threatened books these days are not about rebellious white men! With one exception they’re books by and about LGBTQ people that challenge gender and sexual (hetero) norms.  

From Snead Hearn: 

My genuine thanks to someone on my feed for giving me a reason to talk about something relevant and political that means a lot to me.

It IS Banned Books Week, that’s true. And that’s important! But if you see this graphic (the original, without the red cross-out and note I’ve added) being shared around… it’s wrong. And I think it’s wrong in a kind of deliberately gross way that we need to talk about.

This picture of stacked books didn’t actually come from Banned Books Week. I know that because these are not actually the top 10 most banned books anymore. THESE books haven’t been the most banned for many years. Many of you probably remember them fondly from your youth – I do too, but it was OUR youth when they were being routinely challenged. I suspect they’re being trotted out falsely as current because the current political climate makes it easy to pretend that “woke liberals” are trying to get old classics pulled off the shelves for not being with the times, buuuuuuuut (1) they aren’t, and (2) when these books WERE being banned, it wasn’t the left doing it, it was people upset by Huckleberry Finn discussing American racism, or who thought that 1984 was “pro communist”. In short: it’s never been “the libs” banning these books, y’all. (Psst: they’re usually the librarians fighting to keep the books on the shelves.)

“So which books are actually being banned *now*? Here’s the current top 10, and the reasons why, and you can read more about Banned Books Week at the link

– #1: George by Alex Gino

Reasons: challenged, banned, restricted, and hidden to avoid controversy; for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character; because schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion”; for sexual references; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint and “traditional family structure”

– #2: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin

Reasons: challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, for “its effect on any young people who would read it,” and for concerns that it was sexually explicit and biased

– #3: A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller

Reasons: Challenged and vandalized for LGBTQIA+ content and political viewpoints, for concerns that it is “designed to pollute the morals of its readers,” and for not including a content warning

– #4: Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth

Reasons: Challenged, banned, and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content; for discussing gender identity and sex education; and for concerns that the title and illustrations were “inappropriate”

– #5: Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis

Reasons: Challenged and restricted for featuring a gay marriage and LGBTQIA+ content; for being “a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children” with the potential to cause confusion, curiosity, and gender dysphoria; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint

– #6: I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas

Reasons: Challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content, for a transgender character, and for confronting a topic that is “sensitive, controversial, and politically charged”

– #7: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity and for “vulgarity and sexual overtones”

– #8: Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier

Reasons: Challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and for concerns that it goes against “family values/morals”

– #9: Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

Reasons: Banned and forbidden from discussion for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use “nefarious means” to attain goals

– #10: And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson illustrated by Henry Cole

Reason: Challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content

That’s the ACTUAL list. Maybe you’ll notice a theme.

There are exceptions, but speaking by the numbers (“most banned” is the name of the meme, after all) it isn’t folks on the left who ban books in America. It’s a GOOD thing to care about, but caring means actually knowing what you’re talking about.

And if you *agree* with *these* bans, the ones actually happening now… maybe think about that a minute.

For even more information, here’s the top 100 most banned books of the decade 2010-2019.

Most of the books pictured in the graphic aren’t even in the Top 100 anymore, and none of them is in the Top 10. Which is great! People aren’t banning these anymore. But we should be upset about what they *are* banning *now*. So feel free to use this post and these links to challenge misinformation and support some books that are actually, currently under threat.

I refer you to an earlier post of mine about Banned Books week, and my criticism still stands: what does it mean for a book to be “banned”? Forbidden by federal law like meth? Or just removed from the shelves of your local public library?* Oh dear – I guess we’ll have to order it from Amazon then! Thankfully, all of these books are available on Amazon (I checked), so even if the squares in your town have succeeded in getting My Princess Boy pulled from the shelves of the library, you can still buy it over the Internet for the price of two packs of smokes or five Monster energy drinks. 

But you know what you can’t buy on Amazon? F. Roger Devlin’s Sexual Utopia in Power, Roosh V’s Game, or Colin Flaherty’s Don’t Make the Black Kids Angry. All of these were available, and then all of a sudden they weren’t (and something tells me that you won’t be able to find them at the local library either). Now, you could say that they’ve been removed for a good reason – to which I reply, maybe so, but I don’t want to hear anything from you about “banned books.” Just come clean and say yeah, we’ve taken a side. A poignant coming-of-age YA novel about a transgendered teen is simply better than a “red-pill” book about the allegedly true nature of women, according to this standard. One deserves protection and promotion, the other condemnation and erasure.** That’s fine, but don’t complain about “the left” being unfairly tarnished as “book banners.” If anything, it’s the left that desires the removal of Huckleberry Finn on account of That Word, the left that does not like 1984 on account of its bleak portrayal of Communism, and the left that wants the removal of Harry Potter, not on account of witchcraft and spells, but because of J.K. Rowling thinks that trans women aren’t really women.

But if there is anyone concerned with censorship and Free Speech in the abstract, then libraries are not the places to look. Libraries have finite space and cycle books in and out all the time – besides, books are a dead medium! Instead, let us concern ourselves with immense power of Big Tech, which is far more relevant and pervasive. 

* And what does it mean for a book to be “challenged”? A request that it be removed from the shelves for reasons of content? Whoa… that’s serious!

** I realize that my original argument now applies to me: these books have not been “banned,” and if you can’t buy them from Amazon, then buy them somewhere else. This is true, although I can’t help but notice places selling this sort of thing tend to get their ability to process credit card payments yanked, which is indeed getting pretty close to “banning.” 

Dr. Seuss

This post isn’t all that topical anymore, but a recent visit to the University of Minnesota’s Children’s Literature Research Collection has helped to answer a longstanding question that I had.

In March of this year, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the organization that owns the rights to the works of Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), a.k.a. beloved children’s author “Dr. Seuss,” announced that they would cease publishing six of his books. After “working with a panel of experts, including educators,” DSE determined that these six books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong”: 

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937)
McElligot’s Pool (1947)
If I Ran the Zoo (1950)
Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953)
On Beyond Zebra! (1955)
The Cat’s Quizzer (1976)

At the time, DSE did not elucidate exactly how these books’ contents were “hurtful and wrong.” This is the usual quandary – you want people to know that that an offense has been committed, but you don’t want to draw attention to the details, lest you end up amplifying the offense. But I’ve always believed the Faber College motto that “Knowledge is Good,” and that ordinary people deserve to know what’s going on. So, courtesy the Children’s Literature Research Collection, in particular its Kerlan Collection, First Floor Tarpley presents the apparently problematic details of these works (two of the books weren’t available at UMN, but I found them online).

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Summary: Walking home from school, a boy named Marco sees a horse and wagon on Mulberry Street. Dissatisfied with such an ordinary sight, Marco keeps inventing and adding details to it, such that by the time he gets home he has “seen” a great parade of exotic people and creatures. 


• The couplet “Say—anyone could think of that,/ Jack or Fred or Joe or Nat—/ Say, even Jane could think of that” can be read as sexist: four boys are alike in mediocrity, while the one girl is even worse.

• One of the things that Marco invents is an elephant bearing a “Rajah,” perhaps truckling in Orientalist stereotypes.

Kerlan Collection.

• Another thing that Marco invents is “a Chinaman who eats with sticks.” 

Kerlan Collection

“Chinaman,” as a term, is “often pejorative,” and his bright yellow skin tone, slanted eye, conical hat, and Qing-era queue are stereotypical as well. The geta shoes that he wears are actually Japanese. With the popularization of Chinese food in the United States, “eating with sticks” is no longer remarkable. 

McElligot’s Pool (1947). Summary: Marco reappears, this time fishing in McElligot’s Pool – a fool’s errand, according to a passerby, since the pool has no fish, but lots of junk that people have thrown into it. But Marco imagines that the pool might be connected to an underground river that eventually leads to the sea, which would allow him to catch all kinds of exotic fish from all over the world.


• One species of exotic fish is the Eskimo Fish from beyond Hudson Bay.


“Eskimo” is now somewhat pejorative (“Inuit” has been prescribed as an alternative name for some time in Canada, and the Edmonton Eskimos CFL team recently became the Edmonton Elks). The fur parkas the fish wear might be seen as stereotypical. 

• Another fish, from “the world’s highest river in Tibet,” has an odd-looking Tibetan watching it.


If I Ran the Zoo (1950). Summary: A boy imagines running the zoo. If he did, he would release all the “ordinary” animals like lions, giraffes, and zebras, and find fantastic ones as substitutes, such as the It-Kutch, the Preep, and the the Fizza-ma-Wizza-ma-Dill.


• To capture a bird called a Bustard, and a beast called a Flustard, the narrator must travel to the desert of Zomba-ma-Tant, “with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant.”

Kerlan Collection.

Kerlan Collection.

These creatures may not be real, but real people do have “slanted” eyes (actually: upper eyelids with epicanthic folds) and one generally does not make a big deal about this fact. 

• The “scraggle foot Mulligatawny” may be found in the “Desert of Zind.” The “brave chieftain” who rides him may be parallel to the “Rajah” above.  

Kerlan Collection.

• The “tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka” from the “African Island of Yerka” is carried by two natives of rather stereotypical appearance. 

Kerlan Collection.

• Our narrator has designs on “A Gusset, a Gherkin, a Gasket, and also a Gootch from the wilds of Nantasket.” 

Kerlan Collection.

These creatures would be carried by “eight Persian princes,” characters not unlike the Rajah or the brave chieftain.

Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953). Summary: Peter T. Hooper, tired of the same old scrambled eggs from a hen, goes hunting rare and exotic eggs from various creatures, like the Rufflenecked Salamagoox or the Tizzle-topped Grouse.


• Peter T. Hooper explains his project to his little sister, looking like a pickup artist in a bar.

Kerlan Collection.

• The book includes an exotic character named Ali, another Orientalist caricature.

Kerlan Collection.

Kerlan Collection.

• Other creatures in the book are “Wogs” (“the world’s sweetest frogs,” but also a pejorative name for an East Asian) and the “Kwigger” (a name uncomfortably close to a certain other word). 

On Beyond Zebra! (1955). Summary: A boy has mastered the alphabet, and invents further letters after Z, like Yuzz, Wum, or Snee. These letters are used to begin the names of various exotic creatures. If Z begins Zebra, then Yuzz can begin Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz (pictured).

Kerlan Collection.

Kerlan Collection.


• Not only is a letter called “SPAZZ” (in my day, a diminutive of “spastic” and an insult), it is used to spell “Spazzim, a beast who belongs to the Nazzim of Bazzim.” These Nazzim of Bazzim are seemingly Orientalist caricatures.

Kerlan Collection.

• The player of a “kind of hunting horn called the o’Grunth” (to attract a Flunnel, a creature beginning with the letter FLUNN) also looks somewhat Orientalist.

Kerlan Collection.

The Cat’s Quizzer (1976). Summary: This book has no plot as such, but instead challenges the reader to answer a series of questions, some simple, some difficult, and some just absurd. 


• On one spread, the reader is asked how old one has to be to be Japanese. The Japanese is shown wearing a stereotypically conical hat. 

Internet Archive.

Internet Archive.

• The caption got cut off with this one, but the original reads, “Which is Taller? A Tall Pigmy or a Short Giant?”

Internet Archive.

“Pigmy” (or more commonly “pygmy”) as a byword for a phenotypically short person is “sometimes considered pejorative.”

(The answers given at the back of the book: “All Japanese are Japanese the minute they are born” and “I know that a short pigmy is never taller than a tall giant. And a tall giant is never shorter than a short pigmy. But about the tall pigmy and the short giant – I give up on that one.”)

So it seems that a lot of Dr. Seuss books feature a plot in which the narrator turns away from the mundane to an imaginative world of the fantastic and bizarre. Unfortunately, one of the ways that Seuss marks for “fantastic” or “bizarre” are actual details from non-Western cultures, which by contrast casts white North Americans as “normal.” This is not how we try to think anymore. 

Once the DSE made the announcement in March prices of the discontinued books shot up on Ebay. Here is a screenshot I took at the time.

Ebay, March 2021.

But the e-commerce site quickly announced that it would not be party to such trade and banned it. One currently searches in vain there for any of the discontinued titles. I seem to remember Amazon making a similar announcement, although its banning was not as absolute as Ebay’s, as you can still find some used copies on Amazon at inflated prices.

Amazon, September 2021.

Amazon, September 2021.

Amazon, September 2021.

The real question is: what was DSE thinking in making the announcement? Dr. Seuss really is beloved, and a lot of people were scandalized that the guardians of his legacy were apparently turning against him. Whether these books are really all that offensive (I make no comment on this, although I wonder if DSE actually consulted any Asians and Africans about them), why did DSE feel the need to tell everyone that it was withdrawing them from publication for political reasons? Books go out of print all the time, and when people enquire about them, the usual answer is that they weren’t making enough money. Against this there is no argument, so why not just do that?

Alternately, why not quietly bowdlerize the books, something else that happens all the time? Richard Scarry was a pioneer on this front. Dr. Seuss’s works themselves have occasionally undergone this treatment: witness a key difference between the original Cat in the Hat (1957), featuring an unnamed narrator and his sister Sally…

Andrew Kay and Associates, Pty Ltd.

…and the PBS cartoon show The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! (2010-18), in which the original narrator is replaced by Nick, Sally’s neighbor, for reasons of diversity.

In a similar way, the “Chinaman” on Mulberry Street at one point became a “Chinese man,” and had his skin lightened and his queue lopped off. 

Jake Beal’s Next Step.

One can think of any number of ways that these Seuss books could be modified to keep them in accord with the current mores, either by changing the text, changing the illustrations, or even just omitting a page or two. (No, I’m not going to draw a comparison to the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 – as long as editorial changes are acknowledged, and the originals available in places like the Kerlan Collection, I’m fine with children not getting the impression that Asians, Inuit, or Africans are somehow exotic or bizarre.)

So why did DSE do what it did? The simplest answer is that like most people right now in academia, publishing, government, the nonprofit sector, or even corporate America, they’re beholden to a certain ideology, and they get points in the eyes of their colleagues for acting in accord with it. They never think that they might be alienating everyone else, and potentially hurting their bottom line, but if they are, it’s a price they’re gladly willing to pay (viz. the recent behavior of the NFL, NASCAR, Dick’s Sporting Goods, etc.). As John McWhorter puts it in another context: this operation might “function as it were to make [DSE] feel noble, and look noble to one another. They were doing their duty as religious parishioners displaying their faith.”

A more complex answer is that the announced discontinuation might be a manufactured scandal. It is better to be talked about than not talked about, as Trump has repeatedly shown, and there is no such thing as negative publicity. DSE is making money on the books they’re still selling (perhaps because people are buying them out of fear that they too will soon be withdrawn?), and they might be making money on the books that they’ve stopped publishing, by selling them at inflated prices through third parties. If so, it’s a cynical and brilliant ploy. 

An answer between these two poles is that DSE is sacrificing some of the obscure titles to protect the popular ones, like Horton Hears a Who! (1954), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957), Green Eggs and Ham (1960), The Lorax (1971), Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (1990), and the most famous of them all, The Cat in the Hat (which some people consider to be a racist portrayal of a blackface minstrel performer). The current mores dictate that one’s entire career can be ruined by a single slip-up, and Dr. Seuss is certainly in danger of this, on account of some of his early work on Madison Avenue and the anti-Japanese cartoons he did for PM magazine during World War II (plus, he’s just an old white guy anyway). So DSE decided to throw the “slip-ups” under the bus, while keeping the less objectionable (and more lucrative) stuff. But if this is true, DSE is playing a dangerous game! Any acknowledged association between “Dr. Seuss” and “racism” will come back to haunt them. 

Without knowing the people involved in making this decision I have no idea which one of these answers is true, although Occam’s Razor suggests the first.

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!