Tag Archives: history

Write History as You Would Want to Be Written About

If only all history teachers would take a Golden Rule approach as Yale professor Mark A. Peterson does. It would revive history as a viable college major. (via John Wilson)

“If you take seriously the moral reality of historical subjects as equal to your own and write about them with the respect they deserve, I think that is a valuable skill in terms of how you conduct yourself in your daily life,” says Peterson. “In that regard, I see a serious engagement with the humanities as the most essential thing that anyone can pursue in college. Even subjects that we don’t always associate with ‘the humanities’ such as engineering, computer science, and chemistry deserve the kind of scrutiny that humanistic thinking teaches, the capacity to imagine and interrogate how the discoveries we make and the things we invent will shape the lives, for better or worse, of real human beings like ourselves, our fellow inhabitants of humanity’s only planet.”

Summary of Lost Books Found

Many years ago (before you were born I’m sure) Hernando Colón, son of Christopher Columbus, collected many books from around the world–close to 15,000 tomes.

After amassing his collection, Colón employed a team of writers to read every book in the library and distill each into a little summary in Libro de los Epítomes, ranging from a couple of lines long for very short texts to about 30 pages for the complete works of Plato, which Wilson-Lee dubbed the “miracle of compression”.

— Alison Flood, The Guardian

That summary, The Libro de los Epítomes, was picked up by the Icelandic scholar Árni Magnússon and donated with his collection to the University of Copenhagen in 1730. It has now been rediscovered for the gold mine into forgotten reading that it is and will be made digital next year, giving us good look into the printed material being read in those days. (via Prufrock News)

Egyptian Ship Discovered, Herodotus Triumphant

From the Sunday Guardian: “In 450 BC Herodotus witnessed the construction of a baris. He noted how the builders ‘cut planks two cubits long [around 100cm] and arrange them like bricks.’ He added: ‘On the strong and long tenons [pieces of wood] they insert two-cubit planks. When they have built their ship in this way, they stretch beams over them… They obturate the seams from within with papyrus. There is one rudder, passing through a hole in the keel. The mast is of acacia and the sails of papyrus…'”

Scholars haven’t known how to handle Herodotus’s description of this ancient ship built for navigating the Nile River, because archaeologists had not uncovered any evidence of one or similar construction. Now they have, and they are saying the historical description is accurate in every way. (via Prufrock News)

How Americans Got Christmas

Christianity Today has a series of posts pulling back the curtain on Christmas concepts and traditions. W. David O. Taylor describes the debauchery of 17th century Christmas celebrations, how Puritan leaders outlawed Christmas all together, and the influences that brought it shaped what we celebrate today.

One of those influences was Queen Victoria, who shared her family traditions with the world just as Christmas was beginning to be accepted again in America. (Alabama was the first state to make it legal in 1836.)

As the historian Stephen Nissenbaum summarizes things in The Battle for Christmas, what was once marked by liturgical celebrations at church and festivities in the village, revolving around public rituals and civic activities, eventually turned into a domestic affair, revolving around a children-centric holiday, marked by extravagant gift-giving and, in time, commercial-oriented activities.

Tom Flynn in The Trouble with Christmas adds this remarkable fact: “[It is] surprising how small a role the churches played in the Victorian revival. From its inception, contemporary Christmas was primarily a secular and commercial holiday. The parsons were as surprised as anyone else when after a century-long hiatus, the pews started filling up again on Christmas morning.”

Add to this Dickens giving us the Spirit of Christmas instead of the Spirit of Christ and various artists portraying St. Nicholas as a secular toymaker.

Photo by Jessica Lewis/Pexels

Can We Stop Yelling and Talk a Minute?

For those of us who believe in turning the other cheek (or at least we believe in the one who said we should turn the other cheek, whether or not we think at all about cheek-turning), civility is never futile. But it may be ignored.

The Intercollegiate Review is talking about civility this season. Alexandra Hudson notes the example of most American abolitionists. William Lloyd Garrison “knew that true civility was more than trivial courtesy or naive ‘niceness.’ Civility requires taking our opponents’ dignity seriously, which means taking their ideas seriously, and that sometimes requires forceful and robust argumentation.” Frederick Douglass said, “’If there is no struggle, there is no progress.’ But for Douglass,” Hudson explains, “‘struggle’ did not mean winning at any cost. He knew that if he was to ensure that all enjoyed the advantages of the rule of law, he could not undermine the rule of law in the process.”

Here’s a word from Douglass that still resonates today: “Had the pulpit been faithful, we might have been saved from this withering curse.”

Gracy Olmstead recommends pulling back from our current hot spots and talking face to face.

This would help take the hot air out of online debates and put such discourse back into a humane context. It would also help citizens remember their duty to the physical spaces and neighborhoods around them. The decline of civility is part of a larger trend toward isolation in our society—a pulling away that, while not caused by the internet, has certainly been exacerbated by it.

Drink History from the Fountainhead

They say history is written by the winners, which is obvious because they are the ones still living. History is also written by people who implicitly swear to us they are telling the truth, that they have upturned the facts and have built the most complete picture they can of their subject.

Justin Taylor writes about Stanford professor Sam Wineburg’s book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) and draws out one example of a popular historian who has violated his oath. Howard Zinn urges us to believe the US dropped the bomb on Japan because we had the biggest hammer and we were going to use it. But the proof for this assertion crumbles when we start following citations.

“Zinn did not consult the documentary record to find the original cable. Instead, he relied on a secondary source,” who also relied on a secondary source.

In a related post on the same blog, Thomas Kidd describes how we can avoid sharing fake or falsely attributed quotations. Google Books is a great resources.

That reminds me a quote I’ve looked up without resolution. It’s attributed to Calvin, but I can’t find where he may have written it. “False teaching is easily identified by the fact that it is willingly received by all and is to everyone’s liking.”

It could be that I haven’t found the right translation, but it’s likely in this new age of free quotation someone made it up.

The Ones We Remember

Mary Turner’s story died when she died. Mary Turner’s protest died when she died. Mary Turner’s pre-born baby died when she died. Mary Turner’s name died when she died.

You don’t recognize her name. You don’t recognize her story. And if you were there on May 19th, 1918, you wouldn’t recognize her body either.

Mary Turner was a mother of three. She was a wife to Hayes Turner. She was a woman of colour—and that’s why she was killed in Lowndes County, Georgia.

Samuel Sey tells the horrific story of Mary’s lynching, which took place 100 years ago last May. “Mary Turner is just one of 4,743 Black Americans who were lynched between 1882 and 1968—and you don’t know their names. You don’t know their stories. You don’t know their faces—except one: Emmett Till.”

He offers a simple reason to explain and apply this reality to today.

The End of Vikings and Mayans

Vikings settled in Greenland and grew up to 6,000 over the centuries, but they came to an unclear end in the 16th century, leaving the island country vacant for 100 years. New research suggests one reason for this decline was the bottoming out of their economy, meaning the world stopped asking for walrus ivory.

Matthew Gabriele writes, “Specifically, the Greenland settlements built their economy around the trade in walrus tusks (ivory) and supplied maybe up to 80% of the ivory items for most of Europe between the 12th-15th centuries.”

Some thought the ivory used in medieval luxury items was from elephants, but this research argues that elephant ivory was rare and expensive. The more affordable ivory came from walruses. But this market dried up when the Black Death killed 60% of Europe.

Gabriele also writes about research into the collapse of the Mayan civilization. A paper published in Science this month says a 200-year drought crushed the Mayan empire, to which Gabriele says it’s more complicated than that and we already that part.

“Most likely, it was a number of factors that caused the decline, with the environment being only 1 of them. And this is what can happen when STEM fields ignore the humanities and social sciences. They too often ‘rediscover’ something that other scholars have known for some time.”

We all have our blind spots, don’t we?

The Mississippi Writers Trail

Mississippi has a big presence in the birth of American culture,” said Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission. “The biggest asset is our cultural story, and literature and writing is part of that.”

This history will be spotlighted a newly developing Mississippi Writers Trail with historical markers throughout the state, directing biblio-tourism to sites of interest to Mississippi authors, such as William Faulkner, Jesmyn Ward, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Margaret Walker Alexander, and Richard Ford. One could get started right away with this multi-state website already published. (via Prufrock News)

David, We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Cake

Today, April 20, is the 300th birthday of David Brainerd, a missionary to Native Americans who left a mark on the people of my town and stirred many souls who have read his diary, which was edited by Jonathan Edwards. In honor of the day, Thomas Kidd shares his review of The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon.

In this important book that should be read by scholars of American and British evangelicalism, John Grigg provides a compelling biographical portrait of Brainerd, one of Christian history’s most influential missionaries. It offers new information on episodes such as Brainerd’s famous expulsion from Yale, which may have been precipitated by more persistent, abrasive radicalism than Brainerd simply declaring that tutor Chauncey Whittelsey had no more grace than a chair.

April 9, 1940

Invasion Oslo
German troops march into Oslo, April 9, 1940

Today is a grim anniversary. It was on April 9, 1940, that Operation Weserübung (the Weser Exercise) was implemented by the German army against Norway and Denmark. There was resistance, some of it heroic, but it was no contest in the long run. For the rest of the war, Norway and Denmark would be occupied territory.

If you see the movie The King’s Choice, which I reviewed a few days back, you’ll get the gist of the story of how the government and the royal family fled Oslo and eventually went into exile. One element of the movie that hasn’t aroused much notice is the general fecklessness of the parliamentary leaders in response to the attack. There’s no surprise there; we don’t often look to politicians for valor and sacrifice. But there’s another element, not suggested in the film.

The parliamentary leaders weren’t entirely sure Hitler was the enemy.

The Norwegian government in the spring of 1940 was led by the Labor (Arbeider) Party. The Labor Party was by and large a wholly owned subsidiary of Josef Stalin’s Kremlin, which had been bankrolling it for years. Labor leaders in those days didn’t go to the loo without checking with their Russian handlers first.

During spring of 1940, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was in force, making Hitler and Stalin allies. So when the Germans marched in, the Labor leaders were inclined to greet them as friends. The only thing that prevented them from enthusiastically joining in the “Heil!” salutes was the Germans’ incredibly ham-handed conduct.

It wouldn’t be until June 1941 that Hitler would break the pact by launching Operation Barbarossa against Russian possessions. At that point Labor became solidly anti-Nazi, going carefully into denial about their earlier collaborationist sentiments. And so it remains, even unto this day.

Look Again at the Lewis Chessmen

Scholarly paper warning.

David H. Caldwell, Mark A. Hall, and Caroline M. Wilkinson have written an interdisciplinary paper on the Lewis chessmen, uncovered in Scotland in 1831. They are centuries-old, walrus ivory chess pieces, 78 in all. The authors suggest the story may have become too streamlined to reveal reality.

Whether kings or princes from the Isle of Man or descended from Somerled, local nobles or high-ranking clerics, there were several men in late Norse Lewis who could have aspired to own the Lewis pieces, and who would have valued them as gaming pieces. Rather than accepting the deus ex machina  explanation of a passing merchant losing his stock, it is surely more plausible that the Lewis pieces were found in Lewis because that was where they were intended to end up and be enjoyed.
   . . .
There are two final points to make here. First, no matter how or why the Lewis pieces arrived at Uig, it is only a presumption that they were new when buried. If they belonged to a local nobleman or cleric they may have provided many years of enjoyment before they passed out of use. This is a significant point to which we will return after a more detailed analysis of the individual pieces. Second, the circumstances of the hoard’s discovery are so vague that there can be no confidence as to whether it was lost or deliberately hidden.

This isn’t quite the storyline of The Chessmen by Peter May, but you may find it interesting. Abstract to follow. Continue reading Look Again at the Lewis Chessmen

The Draw of Historical Re-enacting

We have many historical re-enactors or living historians where I live. Our neighboring battlefields and monuments need context to understand what happened on this land 150 years ago and more. Just to the north of where I live is a park dedicated to the Cherokee nation and the beginning of the Trail of Tears. A few miles down the road is a national battlefield where the Confederate army won a major battle just before losing a bigger one.

What is the draw and the danger of re-enacting portions of history?

It isn’t only recreational. Craftspeople specialize in creating historical replicas, like the armour that was used in the Marathon re-enactment. Experimental archaeologists test specific hypotheses about aspects of history as a form of academic inquiry. Inevitably, some guesswork is involved; recreating the past means you have to fill in a lot of little gaps in the historical record. . . .

Even within specific groups of re-enactors, people hold a range of views about how closely clothing, items, and activities should mimic the originals. “Some people are button and stitch counters, and they’re not much fun,” says one re-enactor, dressed in wool clothes and standing in a field outside Hamilton, Ontario. (He was taking part in an annual living-history recreation of late medieval Italy, in the spring of 2016.) “They’re so historically correct it becomes ridiculous.”

(via Prufrock News)

The 18th Century Habit of Reading Aloud

In The Social Life of Books, Abigail Williams, a professor of 18th-century studies at Oxford, says . . . the old tradition of reading out loud remained alive and well [during the 18th century contrary to suggestions that reading alone began trending].

She offers many good reasons for reading aloud along with some of the trends and ideas of the day, including this satirical take from  An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting:

Should he be a man of genius and should employ his leisure hours in writing; be sure to shew a tasteless indifference to every thing he shews you of his own. The lame indifference, also, may you put on, if he should be a man who loves reading, and is of so communicative a disposition, as to take delight in reading to you any of our best and most entertaining authors. If, for instance, he desires you to hear one of Shakespeare’s plays, you may give him perpetual interruptions, by sometimes going out of the room, sometimes ringing the bell to give orders for what cannot be wanted till the next day; at other times taking notice (if your children are in the room), that Molly’s cap is awry, or that Jackey looks pale ; and then begin questioning the child, whether he has done any thing to make himself sick.

(via Prufrock News)

Why Does Halifax Send Boston a Christmas Tree Every Year?

On the morning of Thursday, Dec. 6, 1917, the captain and crew of a French munitions ship called Mont-Blanc were eager to reach the safety of Halifax Harbour, and with good reason,” writes John U. Bacon for The Boston Globe. The ship was chock-full of explosives for use against Germany. But before it could reach the harbour, you might say mistakes were made.

The ship exploded at in dock at a force estimated to be one-fifth that of the first atomic bomb.

About two hours after the explosion, Governor Samuel W. McCall sent a telegram to the mayor of Halifax: “Understand your city in danger from explosion and conflagration. Reports only fragmentary. Massachusetts ready to go the limit in rendering every assistance you may be in need of. Wire me immediately.”