Monday, July 31, 2006

Revisionism: It's "good" if I Agree with it or "I'll Have my Historical Cake and eat it too!"

William Nolte (via Arts and Letters Daily) begins his review of Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev's The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—the Stalin Era with:
[Alger] Hiss and [Whittaker] Chambers worked together as Soviet source and courier from late 1934 until the latter’s defection from the underground in 1938.

Two generations of controversy can be compressed into that spare, declarative statement from The Haunted Wood, by Allen Weinstein and former KGB officer Alexander Vassiliev. Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. Not “according to Whittaker Chambers.” Not “an alleged Soviet agent.” After more than five decades, Hiss's treason can now be stated simply as fact.

But truth is rarely so simple, especially in a case that has stirred so many emotions and is so intertwined with issues larger than the veracity of the two men, Hiss and Chambers, who stood at its center. In December 1998, National Public Radio reported that “recent revelations have convinced some scholars that Hiss was guilty.” [Italics added.] For 30 years, defenders of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg protested their innocence; now they protest their sentencing, with bare mention, in many instances, of the ground that has shifted under the issue.
Thus--despite the stereotype that all academic historians are (boo, hiss) revisionists--do we have an example of the resistance of some academic historians to revision. (Warning: generalizations imminent).

So often we hear (mostly from the political right) about the revisionism done by historians that has served to undermine the "true" history of our country. This, in turn, has led to a widespread assumption that all revisionism is bad. But then we have this. I would bet that this example of revisionism would be considered "good" by most on the right.

Meanwhile many of the historians on the left--who have been at the forefront of revisionism--have been reluctant to accept this particular instance. And here we have the commonality between the two: revisionism is good or bad depending on one's ideological predisposition. Of course, the necessary precursor to that is that the history that should (or shouldn't) be revised is good or bad depending on one's ideological predisposition.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Goffart's Barbarian Tides

Walter Goffart, whose Barbarians and Romans was an important source for me during my MA thesis work, has written a new book (Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire) that will eventually make it to my bookshelf. I suspect that when taken together, both Tides and Heather's new Fall of the Roman Empire will provide anyone interested in the early Middle Ages with an up-to-date survey of current scholarship. For myself, I am definitely of the "Goffart School" (with a nod also to Patrick Geary, btw). Here's the publishers blurb:

The Migration Age is still envisioned as an onrush of expansionary "Germans" pouring unwanted into the Roman Empire and subjecting it to pressures so great that its western parts collapsed under the weight. Further developing the themes set forth in his classic Barbarians and Romans, Walter Goffart dismantles this grand narrative, shaking the barbarians of late antiquity out of this "Germanic" setting and reimagining the role of foreigners in the Later Roman Empire.

The Empire was not swamped by a migratory Germanic flood for the simple reason that there was no single ancient Germanic civilization to be transplanted onto ex-Roman soil. Since the sixteenth century, the belief that purposeful Germans existed in parallel with the Romans has been a fixed point in European history. Goffart uncovers the origins of this historical untruth and argues that any projection of a modern Germany out of an ancient one is illusory. Rather, the multiplicity of northern peoples once living on the edges of the Empire participated with the Romans in the larger stirrings of late antiquity. Most relevant among these was the long militarization that gripped late Roman society concurrently with its Christianization.

If the fragmented foreign peoples with which the Empire dealt gave Rome an advantage in maintaining its ascendancy, the readiness to admit military talents of any social origin to positions of leadership opened the door of imperial service to immigrants from beyond its frontiers. Many barbarians were settled in the provinces without dislodging the Roman residents or destabilizing landownership; some were even incorporated into the ruling families of the Empire. The outcome of this process, Goffart argues, was a society headed by elites of soldiers and Christian clergy—one we have come to call medieval.

As I've argued before, the repercussions of the flawed historiographical assumptions made by earlier historians of the Early Middle Ages are still felt today. The different historiographical approach offered by Goffart (and Geary) shows the way for other historians to engage in some much needed revision of the period.

(via Eileen Joy at In The Middle)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Old Providence

Art In Ruins is devoted to documenting old architecture (and more) in and around Providence, Rhode Island. There are pictures of buildings that no longer exist and more recent pictures of old buildings in various states of disrepair, refurbishment or preservation, too. I particularly liked the historical section (surprise!), especially this rare photo of Providence c.1903.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire

James McCormick has read and reviewed Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History.

Heather offers a newly refreshed summary of the events, balancing the cultural relativism and cynicism of post-WW2 historians with the practical insights of industrious archaeologists. Romans come off a lot less decadent and inept than Edward Gibbon would have them. Christianity gets less of a "ding."

The great benefit of this book, to my mind, is that it is geared to the educated but non-academic reader, and it appears to cover most of the basic facts and puzzles of the time period. The arguments are outlined, and the author maintains his own point of view without trampling those of others. The entire sweep of the century between the first Goths crossing the Danube (376) and the final imperial reign in the western empire is laid out methodically and readers can reach their own conclusions if they wish.

Where did bad luck or Roman political stagnation or barbarian political evolution play a role? What circumstances distinguished the western empire from the eastern? And how did the lack of military and demographic advantage work against the Romans in tackling first the Persians, then the Goths, and finally the Huns? The book gives readers all the information they need to ponder these questions for themselves.

I intend to order it soon!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Historical Consumerism

Original post 7/12/2006

Another Damn Medievalist pointed me to the Observers posting of this speech by UK Historian Stephen Fry about why history matters. (Fry is promoting the "History Matters - Pass it on" campaign that is currently underway in the UK). Fry's speech is a very accessible introduction to the sort of high-brow, jargon laden debate in which historians engage all of the time. That is why it's so important. Hopefully, the discussion that Fry has instigated amongst historians will be just as accessible. (In answer to Ralph's question: Yes, I'd say this is worthy of a Cliopatria Symposia) .

Jeffrey Cohen at In The Middle solicited his readers to explain why history mattered to them, which led to a discussion of the different motivations for why Americans and British study the Middle Ages. Cohen admited that Tolkien was a motivation for his entrance into the field of Medieval History. The same goes for me, but my interest in history preceded my exposure to Tolkien and other Fantasy authors. (Aside: I used to read a lot of "high Fantasy", but now I'm too busy reading "real" stuff to spend time on reading fiction...I should change that. Historians can learn a lot about the craft of writing from works of fiction). For that matter, I also liked comic books (what 11 year old boy didn't?) and fantasy movies. Looking back, Conan ("To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!") probably had an influence on my interest in those Early M.A. barbarians. However, I'd have to say that the "tipping point" for my entry into formal historical study was genealogy.

To begin with, I learned that my last name wasn't always the last name of my patrilineal line. In fact, "Comtois" is a "dit" name. "Dit" is basically the French equivalent of the English "aka" (also known as). The "real" last name of my paternal ancestors was Gilbert dit Comtois: "Gilbert known as Comtois" or "Gilbert the Comtois". As for the name "Comtois," it means "of, or being from Franche Comte," a historic region in Eastern France. "Franche Comte" means "Free County" and it was historically known as the "Free County of Burgundy". Some time during the late 19th century, while my ancestors and many other French-Canadians were making the seasonal transit between Quebec and the New England textile mills, the "Gilbert" got dropped by those in my direct line. (Some of my "way back" uncles kept the "Gilbert" instead, so I could have just as easily have been Marc Gilbert as Marc Comtois).

As I was tracing my patrilineal line back through New England, Quebec and finally to Besancon in Franche Comte (now Besancon is part of the Department of Doubs), I also studied the history of those places. As I went further and further back, I finally bumped into the Burgundians of the Early M.A. and the Sequani of Antiquity. Before I knew it, I was taking a Grad level Medieval History class at Providence College and considering going for an MA in my "free" time. The rest is history (I couldn't resist!).

I believe that my story can serve as an example of how personalized interest can lead to deeper historical learning. My initial interest in history was antiquarian--I just liked old stuff (still do). Then I became interested in not only my particular family history, but also the larger historical forces that shaped the decisions they made and, subsequently, their lives. In this way, I gained a deeper understanding of both my personal past and the past of my country.

Well written and accessible history can make people realize that they have a stake in the past. The success of popular histories, particularly biographies, in recent years can attest to that. But even these histories appeal only to those who already have a curiosity about history in and of itself. What about the rest of the people who don't neither have an intrinsic interest in history nor think that history is important to them?

Part of this attitude may be because the "average Joe" doesn't have anyone "famous" in his past. This may be an unfortunate side effect of history as biography. Of course there are many historical biographies about average folks living during compelling times, but these biographies often serve as an introduction to a previously unknown person. Without a historical radar, so to speak, how can someone not looking for such a history know it exists?

This brings me back to genealogy and how it led me to history. As I said, I was already a consumer of history, so I'm not a perfect example of a disinterested person suddenly having his historical fire sparked by personal interest. But there is something about the "appeal to the personal" that historians may be able use as a toehold in the public conscience. Perhaps in our "me" culture, the easiest path to a more widespread acknowledgment of the importance of history is to explain to people that everyone has their own history. It's there, you just have to take ownership of it.

Genealogy is just one avenue that could be used to pique those personal interests. Pop culture is another with historical movies and tv shows. ("So you like this movie, guess what is based on?"). These are not new ideas--the History Channel(s) and others devote hours of programming to just this sort of thing. But taken together, they can be viewed as parts of a whole: an approach to history that I'd call historical consumerism. Find out what people are interested in, and then deliver a little history with it. To quote Mary Poppins, "A spoonful of sugar..."

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Who's Who? Me!

Well, I must confess that this is a little too close to self-congratulatory puffery for me, but I suppose I should mention that I've been "selected" to be in Marquis' "Who's Who in America" 2007 Edition. How did it happen? Well, I'm not sure how they got my name, though I suspect it was MA related, and after reading the mailer, I thought, "What the heck?" So I filled out the info for my bio and sent it back to Marquis.

They responded with their first pass on how my bio would look in their register, asked for a few corrections and included an order form--you know, a "special offer"--for me to fill out. Seeing that one copy cost well above what I could afford (or at least legitimize!), I took a pass, but followed up with the corrections. Now my curiosity was piqued to see if it was a money making scheme or if I had "it" to be a "who." Well, two days ago, I got a letter that said I was in. . . along with another order form. We'll see if my acceptance gets lost or not when it is discovered that I haven't committed to purchasing the book. (I don't mean to cast aspersions on Marquis, but, like many, I've seen this sort of "special offer" rescinded before).

Until then, my ego and I will take comfort in being associated with the likes of Presidents, Astronauts, and Johnny Depp. Amongst these giants strides a middle-class Dad from Rhode Island who happens to blog, coach soccer and loves the Sox and Pats.


About those "Hidden" French in the Anglosphere...

I guess my off-the-cuff ruminating about the differences between Canada and the U.S. and Australia wasn't so far off. James Bennett mentions the effect that the Quebecois had on the Anglo-Canadians in this much broader post about the differences within the Anglosphere:
Take any broad and internally diverse cultural-linguistic area, and divide it into two or more state regimes. Prior to this division, the different cultural streams in the different regions will strike a balance of interests and attitudes. Alter the proportions of those regional streams, even if all the ingredients are the same, and the political outcome will be different.

One of the important facts about post-World War Two West Germany was that it was substantially more Catholic than Germany as a whole. Thus the Catholic Christian Democrat tradition and ideology was able to serve as a dominant political philosophy for the new republic, under the leadership of Christian Democrats like Conrad Audenauer, who would have not so easy a timee in a united Germany.

In Anglosphere terms, the same effect meant that the quite similar political temperaments of New England and anglophone Canada had substantially different impacts on their respective nations: the New Englanders have always been one part of a mix that also included Southern lowlanders, Scots-Irish, and midland Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers, while the anglo-Canadians have always needed to seek compromise with Quebecois.

From this start, we then add two and a quarter centuries of different state actions, and the different shared experiences of American and Canadians, respectively. (Or the quite different experiences of the various regional cultures in the British Isles and of their descendants in other parts of the Anglosphere.) These add up over time.
There's a whole lot more to Bennett's piece that's worth reading. Particularly interesting are his ruminations about the national narratives of Britain, America, Canada and Australia and how these nations couldn't have taken on their current characteristics-- culturally and geographically--had it not been for a few "Lockean bargains" made between "Burkean communities".