Tag Archives: history

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.”

“The ’70s was such a different era.”

Isaac Chotiner interviewed a man who wrote a lot about today’s most prominent villain Harvey Weinstein but not about his actions as a sexual predator.

“The book was not about Harvey per se,” Peter Biskind told him. “It was about the explosion of independent film in the ’90s.”

But Chotiner pressed him on whether he’d heard stories of Weinstein’s (or other people’s) aggressive immorality.

“There was a lot of free sex in the ’70s,” Biskind said. “This was the era of free love, so everybody was stoned all the time. . . . There was a general feeling in the ’70s, and I think it has always been true in Hollywood, all the way back to silent pictures, that rules don’t apply to them, which was the name of Beatty’s last movie. It’s the air they breathe. They are not constrained by civilian morality, put it that way.”

Were the ’70s really as debauched as all that? Ross Douthat thinks so. Continue reading “The ’70s was such a different era.”

Beethoven’s Fifth As It Was First Heard

Gerald Elias paints a slice of life in 1808 Vienna for someone looking forward to the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Of course, as a music lover, you sing in your parish choir and play duets and trios at home with the family (you on piano, and assorted family members doing the vocalizing). You are partial to Mozart’s concert arias, though they are the devil to get through unscathed.

The only music that is possible for you, or anyone in the world, to hear is live, face-to-face. That makes life pretty quiet. The cows low in the field on the hill, the goldfinches chirp in the linden tree in front of your house, the easy flow of the brook gurgles behind it. At night, sometimes you can hear loud talk from the tavern on the corner, but otherwise from dusk until dawn life is essentially silent.

While you wait for the performance to begin you wonder why it takes Beethoven so much longer to write a symphony than other composers – a mystery to you because from everything you’ve been told, his symphonies are rough around the edges, disconnected, and make an altogether unpleasant noise. The program, which Beethoven himself is conducting (though it’s well-known he’s hard of hearing), is as crazy as the man himself: the Sixth Symphony, one of his concert arias, the Gloria from his Mass in C, and his Fourth Piano Concerto, which Beethoven will perform himself. That’s the first half.

Medieval Women Were Not Waifs

A new exhibit at the Getty offers a revealing look at women from the Middle Ages.

With an understandable weariness, the exhibition’s creators acknowledge, both on the introductory museum label and catalogue book jacket, that most people imagine medieval women as damsels in distress, being rescued perhaps by a dragon-­hunting St. George. One has to meet the popular mind, fattened by dismissals of the Middle Ages (“a world lit only by fire”), where it unfortunately lags. But to slay this myth as surely as St. George speared his dragon, the curators unfurled manu­scripts of a different, lesser known legend, that of St. Margaret. Consumed by a dragon, Margaret ripped her way out of his stomach herself with a crucifix. Like Jesus, it seems, Margaret could be born (from a dragon at least) without the help of a man.

The International Support for American Independence

“Americans today,” Ferreiro says, “celebrate the July Fourth holiday under somewhat false pretences.” Yes, the colonial-wide support of Boston in the wake of the Coercive Acts (1774) was a factor in pushing British Americans toward independence. So was the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. So were the ideas of the founding fathers and the activism of ordinary colonists who destroyed the homes of tax collectors, tarred and feathered loyalists, and burned tea. Yet, as Ferreiro shows us, the men sitting at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress also realized that a declaration of independence was their only real chance of securing the foreign aid necessary to defeat the mighty British army and navy. As Virginian Richard Henry Lee put it in June 1776, “It’s not by choice then, but necessity that calls for independence, as the only means by which foreign alliance can be obtained.”

John Fea draws these ideas from Larrie D. Ferreiro’s Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It. He says French and Spanish diplomats wanted to push back Great Britain’s power (particularly the French after their defeat in the French and Indian War) and exploited ways to encourage our War for Independence. (via Prufrock News)