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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The view that the great cathedral of history is being built brick by brick by historians, some of them filling gaps and forming pillars, while the majority of them add their small bricks in the form of monographs […] is not entirely a wrong one–but we must recognize that the greatest of cathedrals are never finished; they are in constant need of cleaning and refurbishing, indeed, of all kinds of repairs–and also that every generation may see them differently.

— John Lukacs, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History (Wilmington, Del. : Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000), pg. 21fn

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A little color

About one-fifth of the front of the Topps Baseball 2018 Series Two baseball card pack is coated in a shiny turquoise color.

Generations of my ancestors rarely (if ever) saw a color like that. Its existence in the world was limited to the jewelry and paintings owned by the wealthy and privileged.

And now that color is coated on a piece of foil that can be bought for the equivalent of 11 minutes of work at the local minimum wage.

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Yet what any individual in the Frankish Empire [of the 8th century AD] got to read was often a matter of chance. The full range of classical literature was by no means still available in its entirety. Much had disappeared and had been lost forever. Because of lack of knowledge of the language, almost everything in Ancient Greek had by now vanished from the educational canon of the Latin people, insofar as those works had not been translated or popularized in Latin in the classical period or late antiquity. Indeed, the image we have of ancient Roman literature has to this day been fundamentally shaped by the Carolingian age’s eagerness to read such works. Every piece of Latin literature that this period managed to get hold of and save has been preserved for posterity; conversely, the works it shunned or never got to know have been lost forever.

— Johannes Fried, Charlemagne (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University, 2016), pg. 274.

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The most impressive application of Ibn Khaldun’s approach is his historical and sociological elaboration of the cyclical pattern of rise, peak, and decline. If a society becomes a leading civilization or even the dominant culture in a region, according to Ibn Khaldun the peak of this civilization is always followed by a period of decline. This means that the next cohesive group that conquers this civilization is a gang of barbarians by comparison. Once they have established their control over the conquered civilization, these barbarians are attracted by its more refined aspects, such as literature, art, and science, which are subsequently assimilated or appropriated by the oppressors. The upshot is that the next group of barbarians repeats this process, as a result of which the pattern of peak and decline actually leads to an accumulation of knowledge and culture.

— Rens Bod, A New History of the Humanities; Oxford, England : Oxford University Press, 2013; pg. 97.

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“Before cameras, educated, well-to-do travelers had learned to sketch so that they could draw what they saw on their trips, in the same way that, before phonograph recordings, bourgeois families listened to music by making it themselves at home, playing the piano and singing in the parlor. Cameras made the task of keeping a record of people and things simpler and more widely available, and in the process reduced the care and intensity with which people needed to look at the things they wanted to remember well, because pressing a button required less concentration and effort than composing a precise and comely drawing.

–Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece : On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (New York : Penguin, 2005), pg. 33.

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Walls, cities, and barbarians

“The premodern city was a walled space protected by defensive installations. Even when walls no longer fulfilled a military purpose, they continued to operate as customs boundaries. When they lost that function too, they served as symbolic markers of space. Whole empires expressed their superiority over the ‘barbarians’ around them by the sheer force of their technological, organizational, and financial capacity to build walls. Barbarians might destroy walls–they could not put them up. Walls and gates separate city from country, compression from dispersion. […] [S]ince the 1980s Americans have enjoyed putting up new walls: the ‘gating’ of prosperous apartment complexes and city districts, combined with protective walls, tall fences, and watchtowers, is still a growing trend. This colonial practice spreads whenever income differences and socially segregated housing reach a certain threshold. It has become common even in the big cities of (still officially socialist) China.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pg. 297.

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The Scots were right to vote “no” on the referendum for independence because the referendum was misleading. However Scotland voted this week, and whatever the Scots may wish, they will not be independent of England. A vote cannot widen the River Tweed. A vote cannot reduce England to having the same population and wealth as Scotland. The irresistible gravity of geography keeps Scotland in England’s orbit. Breaking away is not an option. The only option is how the terms of the relationship are defined. And Scotland will have more leverage with England in a union in which the Labour Party depends on Scottish votes than as an independent country.

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Though the Scots have decided to remain in the United Kingdom, the closeness of the referendum and the panic that gripped the UK government during the last week before voting suggest a parallel between the fate of the Habsburg Empire after its great Napoleonic War struggle and the fate of the United Kingdom after World War II. Both seemed healthy and stable (though considerably weakened) for two generations. Then the cracks started to appear, with the Habsburgs having to agree to the Dual Monarchy in 1867 and the UK having to grant devolution in 1999. And now the UK is experiencing a great ferment over separatism, just as the Habsburgs did during the late 19th century.

Could the British Isles of the 21st century resemble the Central Europe of the 20th century? Could we see the United Kingdom break into five countries: Southern England, Northern England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, and Northern Ireland? Could Prince George end up as George Windsor, a latter-day Otto von Habsburg, combining prestige and humility to become an honored statesman within his family’s former realm?

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“It was a tendency [during the nineteenth century], especially after 1860, to conceive of governance not merely as control of strategic centers but as ongoing activity on the part of regional authorities. […] This territorialization was bound up with the projection of imagined shapes of the nation onto mappable space [e.g., showing the British Empire in red on a world map], with the formation of nation-states, and also with the reform of empires and the consolidation of colonial rule, which was understood for the first time as control over countries rather than simply over trading bases. In line with this revaluation of viable territories, there was a dramatic reduction in the world total of independent political entities–in Europe from five hundred in 1500 to twenty-five in 1900. […] In 1780 no one thought it strange that Neuchâtel in Switzerland should be subject to the king of Prussia, but by the eve of its accession to the Swiss Confederation in 1857 this had become a historical curiosity.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pgs. 107-08, 112.

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“In Britain not a single political refugee from the Continent was prevented from entering the country, or subsequently deported, throughout the nineteenth century. No one thought that Karl Marx in London or Heinrich Heine in Paris should be subject to a gag order. No extradition treaties existed with other countries. Requests for legal action to be taken against regime opponents living in London were invariably rejected and sometimes not even answered. Nor was criticism of British imperialism legally barred in any way. Politically active exiles generally were regarded neither as saboteurs of British foreign policy nor as a danger to internal security.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pg. 139.

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The united kingdom

As the referendum on Scottish independence approaches, it’s worth noting that for all of the nationalism north and south of the River Tweed, Scotland and England really have become a united kingdom that would be painful to disentangle:

  • Millions of English have at least some Scottish ancestry.
  • Most of the Protestants in Northern Ireland have Scottish roots.
  • The queen is the daughter of a Scottish mother.
  • The current prime minister is the son of a Scottish father.
  • The prior two prime ministers were Scots.

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What is a newspaper?

“The special characteristics of the newspaper [as it developed in the 19th century] were: (1) publication at regular intervals; (2) production by an editorial team; (3) division into separate departments and fields; (4) reporting that went outside the regional and social horizon of its readers; (5) a rise in topicality, which in Germany meant that the proportion of news less than a day old rose from 11 percent in 1856 to 95 percent in 1906; (6) increasingly industrial production, based on the latest technology, which required considerable capital investment for a mass circulation press; and (7) a fluctuating market that depended on daily decisions by customers at the newsstand, except in the case of subscribers.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pg. 30.

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“In the 1830s and 1840s, several European countries were gripped by a passion for statistics. It made things visible that had previously been hidden or taken for granted. The poor appeared as a social entity only when they were counted, and the resulting emergence of ‘poverty’ as an abstract concept helped to arouse a moral commitment. Statistical societies and journals were founded, and government offices were called into being to gather, evaluate, and store social data. Politics rested more than ever before on exact information. […]

“The nineteenth century can be seen as the century of counting and measuring. The idea of an all-embracing taxonomy now grew into a belief that the power of number–of statistical processing or even ‘social mathematics,’ as the Marquis de Condorcet, a bright star of the late Enlightenment, put it–could open up truth itself to human reason. It was in the nineteenth century that societies measured themselves for the first time and archived the results.

“There is much to suggest that they sometimes went too far. In some countries, more statistical knowledge was produced than could be scientifically and administratively handled. Statistics became what it still is today: a form of political rhetoric. The categories that statisticians had to develop were reified in the hands of government bureaucracies. Categories that statistics made technically necessary–classes, strata, castes, ethnic groups–acquired the power to mold reality for administrative departments and, indeed, in society’s perception of itself. Statistics had two faces: a tool for sociological description and explanation, and a powerful mechanism for stereotyping and labeling people. In both respects, it became a central element of the social imaginary. Nowhere was the second face more apparent than in the colonial world. Where social relations were much more difficult to understand than in close and familiar surroundings, many European observers and administrators succumbed to the false allure of objectivity and exactitude […]”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pgs. 28-29.

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“The image of the Other that Europeans had when they set out to conquer the planet is of a naked savage, a cannibal and pagan, whose humiliation and oppression is the sacred right and duty of the European–who is white and Christian. The cause of the exceptional brutality and cruelty that typified whites was not only the lust for gold and slaves that consumed their minds and blinded the ruling elites of Europe, but also the incredibly low standard of culture and morals among those sent out as the vanguard for contact with Others. In those days ships’ crews consisted largely of villains, criminals and bandits, the inveterate, avowed rabble; at best they were tramps, homeless people and failures, the reason being that it was hard to persuade a normal person to choose to go on a voyage of adventure that often ended in death.

“The fact that for centuries Europe has been sending out its worst, most repulsive representatives to meet Others, and to meet them for the first time into the bargain, is bound to cast a sad shadow over our relations with Others, to shape our common views about them, and to fix stereotypes, prejudices and phobias in our minds that sometimes appear in one form or another to this day. I am sure of this even to this day, when I hear apparently serious people say, for instance, that the only solution for Africa is to colonise it again.”

–Ryszard Kapuściński, The Other (New York : Verso, 2008), pg. 22.

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“The beloved village priest, that staple figure of Romantic fiction, was a very rare breed [in 18th-century rural France]. In most people’s minds, the man in black was supposed to be useful, like a doctor, a snake-catcher or a witch. He should be willing to write inaccurate letters of recommendation, to read the newspaper, and to explain government decrees. He should also be able to pull strings in the spirit world, influence the weather and cure people and animals of rabies. […] Naturally, this put the priest in a tricky position. If he refused to ring the bells to prevent a hailstorm, he was useless. If he rang the bells and it hailed anyway, he was inept.”

“Jesus Christ was a relatively minor figure [in 19th-century eastern Brittany, relative to the Virgin Mary and the Devil]. In the not-so-distant past, he had walked the land dispensing practical advice. He was known to have been a beggar, which explained his resourcefulness and cunning. In pseudo-Gospel stories–told as though they were local events–Jesus would try to beat some sense into his muddle-headed sidekick, Saint Peter: ‘You fool! You never blab about an animal’s faults at the fair before selling it and getting your hands on the money!'”

–Graham Robb, The Discovery of France : A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War (New York : W. W. Norton, 2007), pgs. 127, 131.

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