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Category Archives: History
I’m Henry the Eighth I Am
King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547) is the reason why the Church of England is no longer in communion with the Church of Rome, and is thus the ultimate founder of the Anglican faith. However, the Anglican communion does not celebrate him as such. The only defense that Anglicans can possibly offer is that he’s an example, like Judas, of God working good things through human malevolence. From the Guardian (hat tip: Paul Halsall):
Chilling find shows how Henry VIII planned every detail of Boleyn beheading
Archives discovery shows the calculated nature of the execution and reinforces the image of the king as a ‘pathological monster’
It is a Tudor warrant book, one of many in the National Archives, filled with bureaucratic minutiae relating to 16th-century crimes. But this one has an extraordinary passage, overlooked until now, which bears instructions from Henry VIII explaining precisely how he wanted his second wife, Anne Boleyn, to be executed.
In this document, the king stipulated that, although his queen had been “adjudged to death… by burning of fire… or decapitation”, he had been “moved by pity” to spare her the more painful death of being “burned by fire”. But he continued: “We, however, command that… the head of the same Anne shall be… cut off.”
Tracy Borman, a leading Tudor historian, described the warrant book as an astonishing discovery, reinforcing the image of Henry VIII as a “pathological monster”. She told the Observer: “As a previously unknown document about one of the most famous events in history, it really is golddust, one of the most exciting finds in recent years. What it shows is Henry’s premeditated, calculating manner. He knows exactly how and where he wants it to happen.” The instructions laid out by Henry are for Sir William Kingston, constable of the Tower, detailing how the king would rid himself of the “late queen of England, lately our wife, lately attainted and convicted of high treason”.
Boleyn was incarcerated in the Tower of London on 2 May 1536 for adultery. At her trial, she was depicted as unable to control her “carnal lusts”. She refuted the charges but was found guilty of treason and condemned to be burned or beheaded at “the King’s pleasure”.
Most historians agree the charges were bogus – her only crime had been her failure to give Henry a son. The most famous king in English history married six times in his relentless quest for a male heir. He divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Boleyn – the marriage led him to break with the Catholic church and brought about the English Reformation. Boleyn did bear him a daughter, who became Elizabeth I.
More at the link.
Questions for Discussion
Does Louis XIV’s sobriquet “Sun King” presuppose a belief in heliocentrism?
Why did Hitler never demand the Swiss German cantons as he demanded Austria and the Sudetenland? Were they ever part of a conceptual Grossdeutschland?
In the history of modern France, why do the National Convention, the Directory, and the Consulate all count as the “First Republic,” when a new constitution in 1958 is judged to have produced a new republic, complete with its own ordinal number?
If the Holy Roman Emperorship was elective, why did the Hapsburgs hold it for so long?
Is there a usage distinction between Hapsburg and Habsburg?
Majoring in History
From The Conversation:
Don’t despair if your teen wants to major in history instead of science
It might be your worst nightmare. Your child, sitting at the kitchen table, slides you a brochure from the local university.
“I’ve been thinking of majoring in history.”
Before you panic and begin calling the nearest computer science department, or worse, begin to crack those tired barista jokes, hear me out. This might just be the thing that your child, and our society, needs.
Choosing to become a history major is a future-friendly investment. A history degree teaches skills that are in short supply today: the ability to interpret context, and — crucially — where we’ve been, so as to better understand the world around us today and tomorrow.
We’ve never needed knowledge of history and the skills that come with the discipline more than we do now. Not only is it a good choice of a major for all the usual selfish reasons — you’ll likely get a good job, even if it takes a bit longer than the STEM disciplines, and more importantly you’ll probably be very happy with it.
But for our society more generally, we need a generation with deep capacities to acknowledge context and ambiguity. This idea of ambiguity not only pertains to interpreting the past based on a diverse body of incomplete sources, voices and outcomes, but also how our contemporary judgements of that record shape our choices today.
Our whole society hurts when students turn their back on history. A sense of history — where we have come from, the shared anchors of democratic society, the why and how of our current moment in time — is critical.
Read the whole thing.
I am from Canada, and an historian, but I’m afraid that my knowledge of Canadian history is not what it ought to be. I was pleased, therefore, to be able to visit the Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and to see their exhibit and film on the Charlottetown Conference of 1864. This event was the first formal step towards the union (“confederation”) of four British North American colonies into a new polity, which was granted home rule (“dominion”) status within the British Empire on July 1, 1867.* This “Dominion of Canada,” like the American union to the south, was expandable, eventually stretching “From Sea to Sea,” and all the way to the North Pole for good measure. It achieved legal equality with the UK in 1931 and full constitutional independence in 1982, and is today a first-world liberal democracy, a member of the G7, NATO, NAFTA, and “Five Eyes,” with a 1.8 trillion dollar GDP, a “very high” human development index, and an international reputation for inoffensive blandness.
From 1859, the UK Parliament was under the control of the Liberals, who favoured both dominion status and confederation: they wanted to offload the expense of running the colonies onto the colonies themselves, and were prepared to allow them greater control over their domestic affairs as the price of doing so; they also wanted to strengthen “British North America” against the United States, engaged as it was in a bloody Civil War, which might turn north at some point. Thus the Charlottetown Conference, which was held September 1-9, 1864. It was originally called to discuss the possibility of the union of the three British maritime colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, and it was held in PEI because that colony was the most initially recalcitrant: it was the smallest, and feared that it would be swamped in any proposed union; it also was doing quite well economically and saw only a downside to joining up with others. But politicians from the United Province of Canada heard about the conference and asked to join, and they ended up dominating it, with John A. Macdonald and George Brown presenting a suave and ultimately convincing case for a union that included Canada (i.e., Ontario and Quebec), in between lots of eating, drinking, and socializing. Canada was itself a victim of frequent constitutional deadlock, and was presumably hoping for a new arrangement that might break this unfortunate situation.
The film (which I wish I could find on YouTube) makes apparent that this gathering was a men’s club; no women formally participated, and no Native people either. All the same, the Conference was a success, leading to the Quebec Conference the next month, at which the 72 Resolutions were adopted, outlining the framework for a proposed union that potentially included Newfoundland, British Columbia, Vancouver Island (at the time a separate colony), and the Northwest Territory as well. The central issue was whether the union would be a unitary state or a decentralized country on the model of Switzerland; the result was a compromise between these two poles, with an elected lower house and an appointed senate.
Two years of debate followed before the London Conference of 1866, which hammered out the British North America Act for the three colonies still interested: Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The BNA Act received royal assent on March 29, 1867, and passed into law on July 1 of that year. Prince Edward Island ultimately decided that it was not interested, and even the other maritime provinces had misgivings: in New Brunswick, the Anti-Confederation Party won the 1865 election, but was defeated the following year; in Nova Scotia, Anti-Confederates won 36 out of 38 seats in the provincial legislature in 1867, unfortunately (for them) too late to prevent Confederation from happening. The Anti-Confederates thought that the Maritimes would be overwhelmed in the new country. Their opponents claimed that the Maritimes were powerless anyway, and union with Canada was their only hope of influence, a view that ultimately prevailed.
This is the facade of Province House in Charlottetown, where the PEI Legislature sits and where the Charlottetown Conference was held. As you can see, it is currently under restoration, so this is the only view of it I can provide.
In the Confederation Centre for the Arts, however, one can see a replica conference table for delegates…
…and (for now) a statue of an important participant and first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald.
Prince Edward Island, as it happens, did join Confederation in 1873. In just a few years it went from prosperity to near bankruptcy, largely as the result of that archetypical nineteenth-century prestige project: a railway. The story was that the builders were paid by the mile, and that every small town on the island demanded railway access, so the railway took a meandering path across the island, raising its cost significantly. Canada agreed to take on these debts and to finish the project, and to provide a permanent link with the mainland; thus did PEI become a province, and Charlottetown can now boast that it is the cradle of Confederation.
This was not the case in Newfoundland, which joined Confederation only in 1949. Newfoundlanders had heard of the Charlottetown Conference, but too late to attend it; they had come to the Quebec Conference, but only as observers. The Newfoundland election of 1869 was fought largely on the issue of Confederation, with the anti-confederates winning 21-9, and putting the issue to rest for the time being. It resurfaced in 1895 after the failure of Newfoundland’s Union and Commercial Banks, but no agreement with Canada could be reached, and Newfoundland retained its independence and weathered the financial storm. In 1907, as the result of the Imperial Conference that year, Newfoundland received dominion status within the British Empire – but this was largely a formality, as the colony had enjoyed responsible government since 1855.
However, Newfoundland lost this status in 1934, and reverted to being a crown colony, the only dominion ever to do so. No longer did Newfoundland enjoy even responsible government – instead, it was run by an unelected seven-man Commission of Government, civil servants directly answerable to the British Parliament. The Great Depression had hit Newfoundland hard, and rather than default on its debt payments, it agreed to a suspension of its parliament until such time as it could become self-sustaining. But this never came to pass. According to Greg Malone in Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders (2012), a secret deal was struck between Canada and the United Kingdom during World War II which would deliver Newfoundland into Confederation, in return for Canada forgiving certain wartime loans it had made to the UK. With Newfoundland a province, Canada’s strategic position could be improved – it would have the Gander and Goose Bay airfields, at the time essential refueling stations for transatlantic flights, and the risk of Newfoundland joining the United States and becoming a sort of eastern Alaska would be obviated. Disputes over the fishery would be minimized, and Canada would get its hands on the potential mineral and hydroelectric resources of Labrador.
Malone claims that Confederation may have been inevitable, but he insists that Newfoundland should have had responsible government reinstated first, as had been promised. Then the place would have been in a much better bargaining position with Canada. As it stands, the British essentially negotiated with Canada on behalf of Newfoundland, not particularly caring for the details so long as it was no longer their problem. A referendum on the arrangements was still seen as politically necessary, however, and three choices appeared on the ballot in 1948 – continuation of the Commission of Government, a return of responsible government, or confederation with Canada. In the first round responsible government won, but it did not receive an absolute majority, so a runoff was held the next month, which Confederation won with 52.3% of the votes cast. The option of union with the United States was kept off the ballot, and the Confederates, led by the charismatic Joey Smallwood and secretly funded by Canada, enjoyed an immense tactical advantage.
But whatever the details, the Newfoundlanders voted for it, right? Ultimately, there’s no arguing against the results of a referendum. The really shocking claim of Malone’s book, though, is that the vote was rigged; that responsible government really won the second referendum of 1948, and that dirty tricks, of the sort allegedly played in Illinois during the presidential election of 1960, ensured a surplus of about 7000 votes in favor of the correct outcome. Thus did Canada get control of Newfoundland’s fishery, which it has mismanaged, and of the development of the iron mines of Labrador, which employ many locals but whose profits flow elsewhere. The Churchill Falls Generating Station, a joint project between Newfoundland and Quebec, ended up being a terrible deal for Newfoundland, but according to Malone Ottawa forced them to ratify the agreement for the sake of bribing Quebec not to secede.
It was eye-opening for me to visit a part of Canada that has such genuine and persistent grievances against the federal government. This is very seldom an issue in my home province of Ontario. And yet, if the ubiquitous appearance of the maple leaf flag indicates anything, Atlantic Canadians are not hoping to secede any time soon.
* It seems to me that the word “Confederation” has survived much better than “Dominion” has in the Canadian vernacular. “Dominion” now connotes a colonial junior-partnership, and was never really translatable into French. “Confederation” suffers neither of these drawbacks, and lives on in the names of such things as the Confederation Centre, Confederation Bridge, Confederation Square, etc. In my youth there existed a supermarket chain named Dominion which has gone the way of all corporate mergers, and I believe that at one point there was person known as the Dominion Geographer in Ottawa. Otherwise, I can think of no other everyday appearances of this word. Good thing Canada is a “Confederation,” though, not a “Confederacy.”
From the Economist
Some saddening news:
The study of history is in decline in Britain
As the country navigates a historic period, it is losing its skill at interpreting the past
Whatever you think about recent events in Britain, you cannot deny that they qualify as historic. The country is trying to make a fundamental change in its relationship with the continent. The Conservative Party is in danger of splitting asunder and handing power to a far-left Labour Party. All this is taking place against the backdrop of a fracturing of the Western alliance and a resurgence of authoritarian populism.
Yet even as history’s chariot thunders at a furious pace, the study of history in British universities is in trouble. The subject used to hold a central position in national life. A scholarship to read history at one of the ancient universities was both a rite of passage for established members of the elite and a ticket into the elite for clever provincial boys, as Alan Bennett documented so touchingly in his play The History Boys. Prominent historians such as A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper were public figures who spoke to the nation about both historical and contemporary events. The Sunday Times had Trevor-Roper on retainer to write special reports on big news stories and Taylor’s televised lectures attracted millions of viewers.
I would tell you to read the whole thing, but the rest is behind a paywall.
From Mark Bauerlein
I’ve quite enjoyed the work of Mark Bauerlein of Emory University, and his March column for Minding the Campus does not disappoint:
The president of the Modern Language Association is Judith Butler, who specializes in gender theory and whose humanistic feel for language may be measured by the clotted, clunky prose she writes. Her humanitas is limited, but that’s no stumbling block. Scholars and teachers are valued more for their ability to rehearse a theoretico-political interpretation of a text (which can be just about anything) than for their erudition or connoisseurship or aesthetic discernment. It is more important for a job candidate to show she can cite Butler properly than it is for her to explain why Moby-Dick is a great book.
I hope you see the problem. The reason we have a humanities crisis in the first place is that undergraduates aren’t enrolling in humanities classes in sufficient numbers. They’re going elsewhere, to business, psychology, and STEM.
And why is that? Because students come to the humanities for inspiration. They are guys who like Hemingway and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” girls who love impressionism and Mozart and Virginia Woolf. For at least some of them, the social justice approach turns them off. They want to look at Monet’s lilies, not consider the “male gaze.” They are struck by Ivan Karamazov’s atheist crisis, not by class relations and the peasantry. The bare humanity and soaring rhetoric of Frederick Douglass hit them more than his blackness.
Current humanities professors regard those loves as mystifications, or as denials of the realities of race, sex, class, and empire. The freshmen and sophomores who enroll in their classes thus find that their inspirations are suspect and unwanted. They are told that their passions need to be politicized. The descriptions of the fields quoted above can only appear to them unappealing. Only those 19-year-olds who already share the leftist vision want to hear more of it, and they aren’t enough to keep enrollments healthy
What can the humanities professor do? Her training through graduate school has primed her to think in just these identitarian, progressive terms. It’s what got her a job and will ensure her promotions. We have a heavy indoctrination coming from above, while at the same time a steady estrangement from below, on the part of the undergraduates.
Read the whole thing.
The Declining Major
Somehow I don’t think that “fostering community” will halt the decline of the history major. Every group on campus does things like this; structural problems like the immense cost of tuition and politicization of the subject matter remain much more important.
From the always-interesting Slate Star Codex (direct quotations):
• A Swedish news team went to Gotland to film a segment on the problem of amateur treasure-hunters disturbing archaeological sites. To collect footage, one of them borrowed a metal detector and went around an archaeological site in what they figured was a treasure-hunter-like way. Just after filming finished, the metal detector started beeping – and thus was made the largest discovery of Viking treasure in history, 148 lbs of silver worth millions of dollars.
• Early 18th-century London looked a lot like the setting of the average superhero comic – plagued by crime, weak on policing, crying out for a charismatic figure to take matters into his own hands. Enter Jonathan Wild, the “Thief-Taker General”, who won public adoration by catching all the worst criminals and bringing them to justice. Spoiler: he was secretly a mob boss who arranged all the crimes, then arranged to “solve” whichever ones benefitted his reputation.
• Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke once held the world record for beer drinking, and “suggested that this single feat may have contributed to his political success more than any other, by endearing him to an electorate with a strong beer culture”.
• Did you know: the Punic Wars officially ended in 1985.
• Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122, is widely believed to be the oldest person ever. Scientists were puzzled by her health and long life, which was an extreme outlier even among record-holding supercentanarians. Now a Russian gerontologist presents evidence that Calment was a fraud – she died at a normal age, and her daughter assumed her identity for financial reasons.
Our Appeal Has Become More Selective
Some sobering news from IHE:
History has seen the steepest decline in majors of all disciplines since the 2008 recession, according to a new analysis published in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History.
“The drop in history’s share of undergraduate majors in the last decade has put us below the discipline’s previous low point in the 1980s,” reads the analysis, written by Benjamin M. Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University.
Some numbers: there were 34,642 history degrees conferred in 2008, according to federal data. In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 24,266. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, there was a 1,500 major drop-off. And even as overall university enrollments have grown, “history has seen its raw numbers erode heavily,” Schmidt wrote, especially since 2011-12.
“Of all the fields I’ve looked at, history has fallen more than any other in the last six years,” he says. The 2012 time frame is significant, according to the analysis, because it’s the first period in which students who experienced the financial crisis could easily change their majors.
The data represent a “new low” for the history major, Schmidt wrote. While a 66 percent drop in history’s share of majors from 1969 to 1985 remains the “most bruising” period in the discipline’s history, that drop followed a period of rapid enrollment expansion. The more recent drop is worse than history’s previous low point, in the 1980s.
I think that one of the main reasons for the decline in the history major is on account of university tuition fees continually rising far beyond the rate of inflation, so that students, of necessity, must see university as a financial investment that needs to start paying off immediately, rather than an incubator of cultural literacy, informed citizenship, and a personal life philosophy, as it may once have been. I am not saying that history majors can’t perform well in a wide variety of jobs, precisely because they can conduct research and present it coherently, it’s just that they have to overcome certain hurdles before they can convince people to hire them. I would not discount the politicization of the discipline, although this is not nearly as bad as some commentators would like to suggest (the profession as a whole might lean to the left, but you can always find professors who keep their politics to themselves, or who are even conservative). But I take consolation in the fact that our appeal really is selective: to do history properly you need intelligence and motivation, literacy and hard work. These qualities are less common that you might imagine.