Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

19 December 2013

The Bubble Reputation


by Eve Fisher

I've been re-reading Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies" because I want to, because I love her writing style, and because I'm really looking forward to the third volume.  But it's made me think about reputation and how it changes over time.

There was a time when Teddy Roosevelt was that madman only one heartbeat away from the presidency - now he's Theodore Rex.  In his own time, Harry Truman was considered an average numbskull - if not downright impeachable, especially for his opposition to General Macarthur and Big Mac's idea of bombing China - but after Watergate, Merle Miller's transcripts of Harry's "Plain Speaking" became a best-seller, and his salty speech and down home ways proved his integrity in a corrupt world.  Every American reader of "Life" Magazine from the 1920s through the early 40s knew that General Chiang Kai-Shek was democracy's one great hope in China; but after WWII, with China gone Communist, his brutal takeover in Taiwan, and his constant demands for money (and nukes), he became widely known as "General Cash-My-Check."
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Chiang Kai-Shek, his wife, Mei-ling Soong, and General Stillwell, who called CKS "Peanut" -
and not affectionately.
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Thomas Cromwell
File:Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project.jpg
Thomas More
And there have been the various cases of rehabilitating the infamous.  Richard III - was he the evil, murderous, usurping crookback of Thomas More's little black pamphlet (although there's no proof that the sainted More wrote it) or the misunderstood, suffering, good king of Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time"? For that matter, was the martyred saint Thomas More the gentle, mild-mannered public servant of unshakeable integrity and equally unshakeable convictions of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons", or was he the hard-core persecutor of Protestants, advocating deceit, torture, execution and extermination for all "heretics" that both Foxe's "Book of Martyrs" and Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" present?  And that, of course, leads to Thomas Cromwell, generally presented - until Mantel's work - as a villain:  unscrupulous, ambitious, jealous, greedy, predatory and ruthless.  Or was this the perfect way to make him the perfect foil for St. Thomas More?

Much of reputation depends on timing.  Histories aren't written in a vacuum, nor are plays, novels, movies, television shows.  There are reasons behind what is written.  Sometimes we know what they are; sometimes we don't.  Sometimes we're too close to know, and it will take later people to figure it out.

For example, there's an ancient historian named Plutarch, who wrote biographies and histories back around 100 CE:  "The Lives of the Noble Romans and the Noble Greeks", and "On Sparta."  They are major sources for historians about the ancient world - especially Sparta, which wasn't known for writing down much of anything.  There are only two problems with Plutarch's work:  his biographies were written to show the influence of character on lives and destinies - and he didn't believe people could change.  And "On Sparta" reeks of nostalgia for a society in which everyone was equal, honest, brave, above sordid things like money and greed and luxury.   And the question is, why did Plutarch - writing 500 years after Sparta was dead and gone - write so admiringly of a society that was totally dedicated to war AND based on one of the most horrifyingly brutal slave-owning regimes in a world that has known some pretty bad ones? Good question.  Well, one answer might be that he was writing during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, which saw the greatest military expansion of the Roman Empire:

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The Roman Empire under Trajan - most of the known world of the day
An ideal time to promote military societies, wouldn't you say?  And slavery (Rome was 50% slaves under Trajan; at its height, Sparta was 90% slaves).  But, since all that military conquest was flooding Rome with goods and citizens were wallowing in excess luxury, let's go back to the good old days, when men were men and fought simply for the honor of it, and the greater good of their polis.


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Earliest known
portrait of Richard III
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Henry VII
Going back to that early pamphlet on Richard III - rumored to be Thomas More's - it was written specifically to blacken Richard III irredeemably, and to make everyone absolutely ecstatic that Henry VII and the Tudors had come in.  It was a political document, and needed, because Henry Tudor had no legitimate claim to the throne.  He was the grandson of a Welsh bowman, Owen Tudor, who (perhaps) married the French widow of Henry V, Catherine of Valois.  No royal blood there, at least, not English royal blood.  His mother, Margaret Beaufort was the descendant of the House of Beaufort, who were all the descendants of John of Gaunt (son of Edward III) by his mistress Katherine Swynford (the steamy details were the scandal of Europe for 25 years, until he - amazingly - finally married her).  In other words, he had damned little English blood in him, and most of it was illegitimate.  There were still legitimate Plantagenets and Yorks around who had much better claims to the throne.  So when Henry VII finally won the throne of England at the Battle of Bosworth Field, he immediately married his 3rd cousin, Elizabeth of York, got her pregnant as quickly as possible, and declared himself king as of the day BEFORE the battle, making everyone who fought him traitors, and eminently executable.  And he had his court historians - Polydore Vergil, Thomas More, and John Rous - write histories of England that made Richard III, killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, to be the most evil, implacable king who ever lived. Maybe he was.  But then again, maybe he wasn't.

Yeah, like this is serious history
And so back we go to the Tudor era, which keeps getting rewritten. For many years, Elizabeth I was all the rage - or Mary Queen of Scots (who I consider one of the stupidest women in history).  And most of the popular stuff - HBO's "The Tudors", and many novels - are all centered around Henry VIII and his enormous appetite for women, which gives everyone a chance to show what they can do with codpieces, tight bodices and hoisted skirts.  But the serious stuff today is all on the men of Henry VIII's reign - parsing and reparsing Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey.  I am not sure why.  Is it that Cromwell was a blacksmith's son made prime minister, the American Dream writ large on an English stage, minus the execution at the end?  Is it that we all want to be Thomas More, integrity and sagacity combined?  Or that we're tired of saints, and want to hear about the common man?  Or we're sick of religious zealots, and want to hear how to stop them?

NOTE: My next blog is New Year's Day, and I will be doing a review of our own Janice Law's new novel, "The Prisoner of the Riviera".  I started it last night and I can tell you this much: - it's really, really good…

11 April 2013

History is Mystery


by Eve Fisher

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Part of the mechanism in the Athens Museum
Some of you might have caught the Nova show a week ago on the Antikythera mechanism, a device from approximately 100 BCE found in 1901 in a Greek shipwreck near the island of Antikythera.  It is the world's oldest (yet found) working analog computer:

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Reconstruction in Athens Museum

and it generated complete astronomical information and forecasts:  sun, moon, planets, and eclipses, from now until...  whenever.  A very complex machine.  It's assumed the found object was a factory reproduction of an original designed by the great Syracusan mathematician, Archimedes.  In the process of discovering all of this information, the historians used all sorts of mystery-solving techniques - questions, x-rays, research, reconstructions, debates, etc. - to try and figure out what that super-corroded device was, what it was for, and how it was made.  Fascinating.  Catch the reruns, or rent the DVD.

And it explains why so many of us historians are also mystery fans/writers/etc.  Because history is all about solving mysteries, very cold case mysteries, with limited evidence, almost no eye-witnesses, and a whole lot of deduction.  Yes, a lot of people think that history is nothing but names and dates, but I can assure you that's the least of it - the historical equivalent of a GPS system, keeping you afloat in a vast sea of time.  But the real purpose for history is to find out how things got the way they are. History is all about solving the mystery of us. 

Of course, some things never change: human nature (curiosity, greed, anger, pride, love, lust, all the emotions and desires), and what comes of that human nature (the pursuit of power, pleasure, wealth, appetite, and occasionally peace). 


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Frontisepiece to Rousseau's "Emile"
Some things change dramatically, in a paradigm shift that makes it inconceivable (to us) that things were ever different:  our modern concepts of privacy, romance, childhood, individual rights, and personal comfort are all just that, MODERN concepts. Romantic love used to be considered a form of mental illness (read Chaucer).  What we call privacy used to be proof that you were either had no status or were in prison (who would ever be alone if they didn't have to be?).  Rousseau practically invented modern childhood in "Emile" (ironic, considering that he put each of his four children in an orphanage).  And most societies have always been willing to sacrifice individual rights for societal order, especially if it keeps the barbarians (within and without) at bay.

And some things change all the time, especially fashion and beauty, which are simply exercises in the verb "to change". 

Where does technology fit into this?  Well, I couldn't help noticing that, even on Nova, the scientists were constantly amazed at the complexity of the Antikythera Mechanism, and the ingenuity of the ancients.  And this is a classic example of one of the two great biases that historians face, within themselves and within their students/readers/society:
BIAS # 1.  Time is an arrow, leading to us, and we, right now, are living in the best of all possible worlds at the best of all possible times, and anyone in the past who didn't live the way we do, especially in terms of morality, government, technology, and religion, were stupid, not to mention just plain wrong.  A major subsection of this bias against our ancestors' intelligence is all about technology.  I cannot tell you the number of people who say, well, if the ancients were so smart, how come they didn't come up with the technology of today? The answer is to consider where and how technology was used in the ancient world:
    File:Rome Colosseum interior.jpg
  • WAR:  Greek fire; gunpowder; Archimedes and his war machines (first laser prototype; the Archimedes Claw).
  • TIMEKEEPING and ASTRONOMY:  Chinese paper and compasses, originally used for timekeeping, astronomical observations, divination, and prayers; the Antikythera Mechanism, used for timekeeping and astronomy; water clocks, mechanical clocks, etc. 
  • ENTERTAINMENT:  Look no further than the Roman Colosseum, which used a huge amount of technology of all kinds to present battles on land and sea. 
  • PUBLIC HEALTH:  Flush toilets and sanitary systems of the Indus Valley (Harappa, 26th c. BCE), Knossos (18th c. BCE) and other ancient civilizations; public baths (Indus Valley, Greece, Rome,Ottomans, Japanese).
        Sounds pretty modern to me...
    • NOTE:  I'm well aware that time only moves in one direction (at least in this brane), but it's far more like a tree, with multiple branches and twigs and stems and leaves, than an arrow. There have been societies and civilizations that have vanished completely off of the face of the earth. There are echoes everywhere of things and people that were, but left no trace. And even if they leave a trace, no explanation. Not everything connects. History is full of red herrings. 
The other major bias is the exact opposite:  

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BIAS # 2.  We are a degenerate and weakened species, and things used to be much better, back in... well, the Greeks believed in a Golden Age before their own Age of Iron; the Hindus for millenia have believed we are in Kali Yuga, the age of the demon; and today a surprising number of people like to tell me how much better things were in the 1950's (and I suppose they were, if you weren't a woman, gay, black, or other minority). 
    • NOTE:  Just to show how dangerous this bias can be, a classic work of nostalgia history is Plutarch's (ca. 46-120 CE) "On Sparta", in which that violent, anti-education military slave state is presented as the ideal civilization, strong, brave, and free from the corruptions of commerce and money.  Obviously, Plutarch had an axe to grind.  But very few people even think about that.  Because he himself is an "ancient writer" a lot of people swallow everything he wrote as if it were absolute truth, not paying attention to the fact that he wrote almost 500 YEARS AFTER SPARTA'S DEMISE.  That's the kind of thing you have to look out for.  And part of the reason yes, you do have to know your dates... 
My general analysis of bias holders is that the first is primarily held by the young and/or successful; the second is primarily held by older people and/or those who feel throttled by present-day culture (whatever the present day is).  My other great observation is that either bias gives you a perfectly logical reason to ignore the past.  They both imply that we can learn nothing from the past, either because we are absolutely superior or infinitely inferior.  Either way, we are on our own.  Me?  I know that everyone who ever lived were just as human as I, and the basic lesson of the past is that, until human nature changes as completely as fashion or song stylings, history is going to continue to be the same damn thing over and over again.  We'd better start paying attention. 

14 February 2013

References, Anyone?


by Eve Fisher

I know that you can get everything on the internet any more, but I still think it's handy to have a shelf of reference works.  I still have a big fat dictionary, a Roget's thesaurus (the on-line ones are awful), Bartlett's Quotations (the on-line ones are almost all modern), a Dictionary of Science, of Language, of Foreign Terms, of Japan, of various other things, as well as the following foreign languages:  Spanish, French, German, Gaelic, Greek (Demotic and ancient), Latin, Chinese, Japanese, and (my personal favorite) Colloquial Persian. 

There are history textbooks, of which I have shelves, and also certain history books that I consider mandatory for giving you the real flavor of a time and place (what I call time-travel for pedestrians"). 

Liza Picard has written a whole series (and I have them all) about London:  "Elizabeth's London", "Restoration London", "Dr. Johnson's London", "Victorian London." 

Judith Flanders has written many works on Victorian England, of which I have:  "Inside the Victorian home : a portrait of domestic life in Victorian England", and "Consuming passions : leisure and pleasure in Victorian Britain."   What she doesn't tell about Victorian daily life isn't worth telling.  Her most recent work - just out, which I have got on order even as I write - is "The invention of murder : how the Victorians revelled in death and detection and created modern crime."  Woo-hoo!

Speaking of every day life, there's the "Everyday Life in America Series", which includes "Every day Life in Early America," "The Reshaping of Every Day Life 1790-1840", "Victorian America", "The Uncertainty of Everyday Life 1915-1945", etc. I have them all. 


As some of you may remember, I used to teach Asian history at SDSU.  I have TONS of books on Japanese and Chinese history, and making a list of them...  Well, what do you want to know?  Let's just hit some highlights about Japan for today:

The File:Tosa Mitsuoki 001.jpgfirst thing to read is Ivan Morris' "The World of the Shining Prince", about Heian Japan, specifically the 11th century Heian Japan of the Lady Murasaki Shikibu, author of "The Tale of Genji" (Note about Genji - there are 3 good English translations, and I have them all.  I LOVE THIS BOOK.  Feel free to e-mail me any time to discuss it; it's one of my obsessions.)

"Legends of the Samurai" by Hiroaki Sato - from the 4th century to the 19th, these are the stories the samurai told about themselves, building the mythos of the samurai - slowly - over time.

"Japan Rising:  The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe 1871-1873" compiled by Kume Kunitake. See the USA and Europe through the eyes of Japanese who had never been West before - and weren't particularly impressed.  (And who foresee the need for Japan to oversee the Pacific Ocean.)

"Memories of Silk and Straw:  a Self-Portrait of Small Town Japan" by Dr. Junichi Saga - Japan before WW2.


John Gunther (1901-1970) wrote a series of "Inside" books in the 1930s and 40s which are snapshots of Europe and Asia.  I am the proud possessor of two:  "Inside Asia - 1939"; "Inside Europe - 1938".  I consider these priceless because they were written, fairly objectively, before World War II:  and not all the portraits are recognizable by today's standards, especially those of Hitler and his gang. This is BEFORE the world was willing to accept that they were crazy.  Did you know that Mussolini was considered an intellectual?  Did you know that Putzi Hanfstaengl played piano to put Hitler to sleep every night? 

Don't forget diaries.  St. Simon's diary of the Versailles under Louis XIV and Louis XV; the diary of Colonial midwife, Martha Ballard; Lady Murasaki and a host of other upscale women of Heian Japan all kept diaries, and let us never forget Sei Shonagon's "Pillow Book"; Parson Woodforde's diary of 18th century rural Britain; Samuel Pepys, of course; and any others that you can get your hands on for the period/time/place you're interested in.  WARNING:  what I've found is that reading a diary of a period/time/place I'm not particularly interested in can generate a whole new passion...

And then there are maps.  Besides collecting all this other stuff (and I didn't even get to the Chinese daily life histories, etc.) I have atlases galore, including a couple that are very old.  (One came with a church insert that explained the League of Nations, which in itself was worth the price of the book!)  I have regular atlases, an Atlas of World History, of the British Empire, of the Middle Ages, of War, of Ancient Empires, etc.  And a bunch of plain old road atlases.  If nothing else, when I'm really stuck, I can pull them out and plan my next road trip...
I'm not sure where it is, but I'm interested in going there...