chickenfeet: (beowulf)
I've been reading some of the volumes of the new Penguin History of Britain (ed. David Cannadine). I've now read the first five volumes which cover the Roman occupation to the end of Elizabeth's reign. I'm struck by what seems to me a massive disconnect between the first two volumes and the three subsequent ones. David Mattingly's Roman Britain: 100-409 and Robin Fleming's Anglo-Saxon Britain: 410-1066 struck me as distinctly innovative. Both used evidence from epigraphy and, especially, rather specialized archaeological techniques (isotope analysis of human remains, pollen analysis, paleo medical evidence etc) to produce new answers to interesting questions about ethic origins and health status of the populations under consideration. They also used inter-disciplinary techniques to explore issues of imperialism and colonialism and the formation of national identity. The subsequent volumes; David Carpenter's The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066-1284, Miri Rubin's The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages and Susan Brigden's Lost Worlds, New Worlds: Britain 1485-1603* just don't. I'm sure they incorporate new scholarship but they read like the sort of top down history that could have been written any time in the last fifty or even one hundred years. This surprises me because it seems that there are many questions about the middle ages that the sort of techniques used by Mattingly and Fleming would be handy for. For example, in the wake of the Black Death did geographic mobility really increase? Or, what were the impacts on the health status of the population of the population growth of the 13th century and its subsequent drastic decline?

So, historians, especially medievalists, out there; Is this a typical methodological difference between historians of late antiquity and the early middle ages versus those of later periods or is it just an artefact of odd commissioning decisions by David Cannadine?

*This is a misnomer. Brigden's Britain appears not to include Scotland. Another odd weakness in the series. ETA: Nor does Rubin's. Unforgivable really.
chickenfeet: (srscat)
Once in a while I read a book that makes me go "wow!" because the author has taken a complex topic, presented it in a comprehensible way and caused me to think differently about some pretty big issues. Göran Therborn's Between Sex and Power; Family in the World 1900-2000 is one of those books. It's what the title says; a sociological history of the family, across the whole world, in the 20th century. It's soundly fact based (which hasn't always been my experience with books on gender related issues) yet is not afraid to grapple with theoretical issues or develop theses that are perhaps unfashionable such as the impact of the Bolshevik revolution on family structure and the undermining of patriarchy in Eastern Europe or the role of the United Nations in furthering the rights of women. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in broad social trends and developments.

Going Dutch

Sep. 4th, 2011 04:52 pm
chickenfeet: (srscat)
I have spent a goodly chunk of the last two weeks reading Jonathan Israel's The Dutch Republic: It's Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806. It's part of my long term project to broaden my understanding of the history of early modern Europe. My knowledge of the history of the Netherlands in this period was largely as a sort of adjunct to Anglo-French and Anglo-Spanish conflict. I was aware that there was much more to know but there isn't a whole lot of Netherlands specific history of the period in English. Now 1130 pages, plus apparatus, later I am somewhat less ignorant. It's a colossal, magisterial book which I wouldn't care to summarize. It covers political, diplomatic, social and economic history in some depth and has more than a little to say about art, intellectual life and religion. I finally get where Arminius fits in. For a Brit, it's particularly interesting to see how different key events in British history appear from a Netherlands perspective. I certainly now have a very different perspective on the Glorious Revolution than the one I acquired from classic English Whig historiography. It may even inspire me to read some Spinoza.
chickenfeet: (widmerpool)
I've just finished PJ Cain and AG Hopkins British Imperialism 1688-2000. I would have to say it's one of the most interesting books I've read in a long time. The book deals with how British domestic and overseas policies were shaped by the financial imperatives of the economic system that developed in and out of London during the period in question. Central to the analysis is the construct of "Gentlemanly Capitalism"; an alliance of landed, financial and rentier interests that, it is argued, dominated British government throughout the period. A crucial element in the argument is that industrial interests were marginal and largely ignored and, by implication, as have been given a role far beyond their actual importance by economic historians, especially those of a Marxisant tendency. It's an argument I find compelling. I can't see how else to explain London's continuation as a financial capital and Britain's continued status as a world power right up to 1939 despite the virtual collapse of British manufacturing between 1880 and 1925. Certainly the authors can find many, many compelling examples where sound money and free trade were seen as far more central to Britain's "national interest" than the preservation of markets for industrial goods.

A particularly interesting aspect of this line of analysis is how the authors deal with the evolution or self-reinvention of the gentlemanly capitalist elite. Central to this is the creation of the Gladstonian state as a successor to "Old Corruption"; the high spending, high taxing entity that won the long struggle for global supremacy with the French. The expansion and transformation of the public schools and the old universities to be the training grounds for the entrants to this elite is seen as central to the process. The authors also have an interesting perspective on how the Labour leadership was brought into the fold in the 1940s as the Treasury and the City sought to create a new form of Empire out of the Sterling Area.

It's not a light read; 680 pages plus apparatus of dense argument and a fair amount of quantitative data, but it really is one of those rare books that force one to reconsider some pretty basic assumptions about patterns of historical development. It also makes me ask (though it's beyond the authors' scope), what is Britain's role in a world where she is neither a financial nor an industrial power and what does it mean to be British. How do you reinvent a value system that was predicated on a world that no longer exists? Similarly, if the inflow of vast amounts of foreign capital and the nurture of the service industries associated with them tend to lead to a hollowing out of the manufacturing base then whither America?
chickenfeet: (right)
Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 is a brilliant book. It's a really nuanced and comprehensive account of the rise of the Kingdom of Prussia from the Mark Brandenberg to the dominant player in the German Reich. Like most English speaking people of my generation (who know anything at all about German history) I was brought up on the trope of "Prussian militarism" as either the dominant force in German policy or, at best, as a kind of cancer in the German body politic. Anybody who took the old European History 1917-1939 'O' level paper will recognise it!

By contrast, Christopher Clark locates a fundamental ambivalence in Prussian history derived from Prussia's fundamental geo-political weakness; centering a triangle of Great Powers. As late as 1860 The Times was denouncing Prussia's "supine" foreign policy. Clark also gives a very insightful analysis of the constitutional peculiarities of the post 1871 Reich and how they were manipulated by various players up to and including the NSDAP. I learnt a lot and I thought much of the ground covered was material I understood pretty well. Highly recommended!
chickenfeet: (redflag)
Norman Naimark - "The Russians in Germany A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949", Cambridge, Mass 1995

This a hefty read; almost five hundred pages plus apparatus. It's a good reminder too that history is not inevitable. Few events seem more inevitable in hindsight than the division of Germany or the collapse of Soviet communism but as Naimark demonstrates neither seemed likely and the latter unthinkable to the Russians and Germans who shaped the Soviet Zone and ultimately created the GDR.

Soviet policy in 1945 favoured the creation of a demilitarised, neutral and anti-fascist Germany that would eventually mature into a People's Democracy on the Russian model. The manifest superiority of the Soviet system had been demonstrated by the Soviet achievements in the 1930s and, above all, by the victory over Germany. An overwhelming sense of cultural and political superiority drove the policy makers in the Soviet zone.

However, the need to pillage German industry and agriculture to rebuild the ravaged Soviet economy and the unwillingness or inability of the occupation authorities to restrain the behaviour of Russian troops in the zone alienated large sections of the population. Even among dedicated communists and socialists support for the 'Russian way' was eroded by robbery, rape (on a scale probably unprecedented in history, confiscations and the activity of the Soviet security agencies. By late 1946 support for the KPD had all but evaporated and the elections of that year were a huge blow to the Soviets. Increasingly policy veered to accepting the division of Germany with the eastern portion under clear Soviet control.

Naimark, using documents made available from Soviet and GDR archives in the 1990's reconstructs the story in convincing detail with thematic chapters on extraction of reparations, robbery and rape, cultural and educational policy, political developments, the creation of the apparatus of the police state and so on. It's very comprehensive and impressive.


Feb. 23rd, 2007 02:07 pm
chickenfeet: (viking)
[ profile] chickenfeet2003 reading a book on pirates? Has frivolity overwhelmed the dry and scholarly environs of Scadding Avenue? Not quite. I've been reading Marcus Rediker's Villains of the Nations - Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. It's quite good, though, being Rediker, one has to scrape the Marxist theory off with a trowel to get at the stuff about pirates. Anyone who has read his previous books or anything by Peter Linebaugh will know what to expect. American academics do not wear their theory lightly however much they emphasise their debt to Edward Thompson!

I did learn quite a lot about the quantifiable economic impact of piracy in the period in question (1713-26) and there is a good section on the notorious women pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read. It only cost me $6.99 in the remainder bin which seems fair enough. If I'd paid the cover price of ₤18.99 I might have been less pleased!
chickenfeet: (armadillo)
I've just finished reading NAM Rodger's The Safeguard of the Sea and The Command of the Ocean; the first two volumes in his naval history of the British Isles which takes the story from Anglo Saxon times to 1815. It's a very ambitious study encompassing strategy, naval administration, technology, the sociology of shipboard life and, most interestingly, the impact of naval affairs on the broader national history. The net result is that there is a lot to be got out of these books for anybody interested in British history even if the thought of reading conventional military or naval history gives him or her hives.

I have a pretty good knowledge of British history and, I thought, a better than average grasp on many of the key periods under discussion from a naval point of view but I kept getting jolted by this book, not just by positions that Rodger actually advances but ways in which he made me think about particular issues that he wasn't discussing directly.

Things it's had me thinking about:

1. If Edgar really did achieve effective hegemony over mainland Britain and its dependent islands by the use of seapower then William's neglect of the fleet is pretty much responsible for the emergence of a Scottish kingdom (among other things).

2. The failure of the Norman kings to maintain a fleet reffectively turned the earldom of Pembroke from an English dependency to a player in the dynastic struggles around the Irish Sea. Where does that leave the thesis that Strongbow's seizure of Dublin was the ur act of English/British imperialism?

3. Edward I starts to look a whole lot less impressive as a strategist when one asks how much more the money he spent on castles might have achieved if it had been spent on a fleet.

4. Henry V starts to look like a pretty damn excellent all around strategist.

5. I didn't realise Charles II was so involved in naval affairs.

6. The discussion of comparative English and French shipbuilding technologies in the 18th and early 19th century casts a new light on why the Royal Navy kept winning battles against long odds.

7. The analysis of issues in the War of 1812, especially to someone who has been exposed to both the American and Canadian national myths about it, is fascinating. I had no idea that Madison almost drove the New England states to secede.

8. The relationship between the Royal Navy and the English industrial and agricultural revolutions really needs to be studied more. There seems to me to be some parallel with the way in which the US military build up in the 1940s transformed the US economy and society. In both cases, of course, creating an almost accidental world power.

9. Rodger's analysis of how many times England/Britain has been successfully invaded since 1066 is a delicious knock at a core national myth.

I'm sure people whose expertise and reading lies in different areas to mine would find other and equally stimulating insights. It's definitely worth a read!
chickenfeet: (widmerpool)
I've read a lot of books on WW2 but Total War: Causes and Courses of the Second World War by Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint and John Pritchard is far and away the best general history. I've just finished reading it for the third time and I have once again gleaned any number of previously overlooked insights.

For me, volume two dealing with the East Asian and Pacific War is the most revealing. Partly that's because like most people I suspect I have a much greater knowledge of the European and middle eastern wars than of events in the far east. The revised edition is particularly strong because Guy Wint's Sino-centric insights are reinforced by John Pritchard's intimate knowledge of the Tokyo War Crimes tribunal documentation (including much material that was never produced in open court). Overall, this volume is a splendid antidote to the US centric Manichaean version of popular culture. For a start it puts the conflict with Japan firmly in the context of the long running struggle between the European Powers, the USA and Japan for bits of the carcase of Imperial China. It also deals at length with twists and turns of US diplomacy in the 1920s and 1930s and the respective roles that anti-Japanese racism in the US and the rather odd image of Chiang Kai Shek and the Kuomintang that was current in American public life, played in the evolution of US foreign policy. I was also intrigued by the extent to which British fears of Japan drove appeasement in Europe. Japanese politics and the mechanisms by which the army came to be the principal arbiter of policy are also well covered.

There's so much good stuff it's hard to pick and choose. I'll pick one to close on. Pritchard's description of the disfunctionality of American foreign policy making in the 1930s is eerily reminiscent of much more recent events; poor intelligence analysis, inter service rivalry, open hostility between the State Department and the armed forces, a hysterically xenophobic press, sheer ignorance of other countries and, above all, no effective co-ordination of policy. He was writing in 1989!
chickenfeet: (paths)
I've been reading quite a lot recently. The list has included:

Physics and history for the most part )

Shout out

May. 1st, 2006 12:39 pm
chickenfeet: (enigma)
This is a shout out to those of you who have a better knowledge of British history in the Romano British and immediately following periods. I understand that the current academic consensus is strongly against the "old" theory that what we call England was largely created by significant numbers of Germanic incomers and that what is believed to have happened is the widespread adoption by the existing population of a cultural package with roots across the North Sea. OK, I think I can buy into that in general terms but the bit I can't get my mind around is the language issue. How does a settled population with a long history and a settled culture come to adopt an entirely new language? I can't think of any other examples or parallels. Anybody able to help me out on this?
chickenfeet: (wrong)
This is a shout out to anyone who is familiar with current thinking on the "Daughters of Eve" and "Lucy" hypotheses. What's the current cutting edge thinking on the validity of mtDNA based analysis? I think I've seen heard/stuff that suggests that uncontaminated mtDNA is virtually impossible to find and that therefore the whole ball of wax needs to be treated with some scepticism but I might have been imagining it. Opinions and pointers to recent papers on the subject most appreciated.


Apr. 20th, 2006 07:17 am
chickenfeet: (history)
This is a post that has been kicking around in my head for a while but has been dragged kicking and screaming to the surface by this post from the lovely and thoughtful [ profile] frumiousb. My reaction to the post was that it was curiously detached. It could have been written about the Peloponnesian War. I couldn't write with that kind of detachment about the Somme or Ypres. It's too close. My grandfather was there. The chapel at school was filled with tablets commemorating the Old Boys who died there.

So, my broader question is "when does history start (or end, if you prefer)?". Is it a matter of time or more to do with some sense of personal connection? There's certainly a sense in which, for me, the Vietnam War is "further away" than WW1 So what says the blogosphere?
chickenfeet: (widmerpool)
I recently got hold of a copy of David Carpenter's The Struggle for Mastery, the volume of the new Penguin History of Britain that deals with 1066-1284. I really like it. It was comprehensive in the sense that it gave good coverage to social and economic as well as political issues. More particularly it treated the British Isles in a holistic way (well maybe a bit light on those parts of Scotland beyond the sway of the King of the Scots but generally pretty good). I finished it feeling I had a much better grip on a period I've never really quite understood. Anyhow, I liked the Carpenter enough to want to explore the rest of the series. I'm not sure how many of the volumes have yet made it into paperback, or even print, in the UK, but there were only a few available here so my choice was limited. Susan Brigden's New Worlds, Lost Worlds covering 1485-1603 had pretty stellar reviews. Besides I used to play rugby with her brother when we were at school together so I went with that one.

I had a really mixed reaction. On the one hand it's a really excellent book in its own right. It's particularly strong on the intellectual history of English protestantism and it has very comprehensive coverage of Irish issues. On the other hand it scarcely touches on economic issues and, worse, all but ignores Scotland except insofar as developments in Scotland impinged directly on England. Now I appreciate that Brigden wrote the book she promised to write in her preface, and a fine job she made of it, but what was the series editor (David Cannadine) up to? Either the series is a history of Britain or it's not! And if it is, how on earth can the series editor allow an omission as crucial as the reformation of the Scottish church? I'm frankly flabbergasted.

I have to say I'm wary now about the other volumes. The reviews haven't all been stellar and if there is no consistency in coverage and style, what's the point?
chickenfeet: (knocker)
Bishop Hugh of Lincoln built up a relic collection of fabled size and quality. He needed frisking on leaving any shrine for he was always trying to break bits off bodies, on one occasion biting a fragment out of Mary Magdalene's arm before slipping it to his chaplain in classic pickpocket mode.

David Carpenter The Struggle for Mastery; The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284 p454
chickenfeet: (thesee)
Sometimes there is intense pleasure to be had in going back and rereading an old favourite. Last night I started to read Marc Bloch's French Rural History for the third or fourth time. Now my respect for Bloch as a historian and a person is only just short of idolatry but I had forgotten just how radical he was. Lucien Febvre's preface to the second edition of FRH really is quite fascinating on that point. Here was a man, who in order to understand medieval agriculture got out of the lecture room and the library to talk to real peasants about how much dung an ox produces, how much land that fertilises and how that might affect choices about crop mix. By looking at how "actually existing" landlords and tenants operate he can ask questions about the strategic options and choices facing the rural population that simply can't be considered from wills, cartularies etc. 'It's a fantastic example of how something apparently obvious but previously unthought of can revolutionise a discipline. It's not often that an academic work conceived in the 1920s still retains such a degree of freshness and relevance.
chickenfeet: (knocker)
The BBC has had a bunch of historians select a list of the ten worst Britons of the last millenium, one for each century. Here's the list:

1900 to 2000: Oswald Mosley (1896-1980)
1800 to 1900: Jack the Ripper
1700 to 1800: Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765)
1600 to 1700: Titus Oates (1649-1705)
1500 to 1600: Sir Richard Rich (Lord Rich of Leighs) (1496/7-1567)
1400 to 1500: Thomas Arundel (1353-1414)
1300 to 1400: Hugh Despenser (The Younger) (died 1326)
1200 to 1300: King John (1167-1216)
1100 to 1200: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (c.1120-1170)
1000 to 1100: Eadric Streona (died 1017)

Now the first thing that strikes me is that they are all English (or Anglo Norman) so the claim to be the worst "Britons" looks a bit dubious.

Anyway, here are my thoughts:

Mosley. Bad for sure but worse than say Douglas Haig, incompetent slaughterer of nearly a million of his countrymen (and a Scot)? And how about the grocer's daughter; prop to apartheid and mainstay of torturers around the world as well as being one of the all around malevolent figures in British politics ever.

Jack the Ripper. Be serious! He murdered a handful of people. He's small beer. My vote would go to Lord Cardigan for a lifetime spent as a pernicious booby. The Duke of Cambridge would be a close second.

The Duke of Cumberland. ROTFLMAO. Why not Charles Edward Stuart whose ridiculous pretensions triggered that relatively minor incident? In fact my vote would go to Henry Dundas, another Scots crook and one of the great embezzlers of all time.

Titus Oates. This from a century that produced Charles I and Judge Jeffries. I think not!

Sir Richard Rich. No way. Henry VIII himself gets the nod. Why shoot the monkey when you can have the organ grinder?

Thomas Arundel. Maybe. I don't think the century is rich in major villains. Henry Tudor would be a candidate and maybe Henry Percy.

Hugh Despenser. I think a century that has Edward II, Richard II, Piers Gaveston, Roger Mortimer, Queen Isabella and Thomas Holland can do better than Hugh Despenser. Richard II gets the nod.

King John. I think John has had a bad press. He inherited a mess and did his best to sort it out with little help from his fractious subjects. My vote goes to Simon de Montfort, an all around trouble maker and particularly greedy and murderous extirpator of Occitan culture.

Thomas Becket. Too much competition here, principally from England's most overrated monarch, Richard I. He bled the country white to finance his overseas ambitions. If one were looking for the worst of the lot he would be high on the list.

Eadric Streona. Interesting choice. The only other candidate I would offer would be Edward the Confessor. By not clearly sorting out the succession he caused a major calamity.
chickenfeet: (knocker)
I came across the following passage in Sir Maurice Powicke's The Thirteenth Century 1216-1307:

The married life of Henry and Blanche was brief and tragic. Their baby son was accidentally tossed by his nurse over the battlements of the Navarrese castle at Estella.

Henry, in this case, was king of Navarre; reigned 1270 to 1274. Blanche was Blanche of Artois, niece of Louis XI, who later married Edmund, Earl of Lancaster.

Now tossing babies off battlements is unusual at the best of times but to so toss the heir to the throne and accidentally at that is truly mind boggling. Can anyone throw any light on this incident.
chickenfeet: (thesee)
Does anyone happen to know how much the Greek language used in the Eastern empire changed over the 1200 or so years of its existence? When I think how much most languages that i have any idea about have changed over a similar period I would expect the changes to be significant. That said, I've never seen references to "Middle Byzantine Greek" or anything like in anything I've read about Byzantium.
chickenfeet: (Default)
Oodles of noodles

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