Monday, 22 September 2014

Ice Cream and War

I recently read two very interesting (and very different articles) that made me think about how preconceptions influence historical writing.

The first article was a review of Niall Ferguson's book, The Pity of War by Jay Winter. Winter argued that Ferguson brought his politics to the study of war, using counter-factual history to support his arguments. For example, Ferguson argued that had the British not entered WWI, there is 'no question' that the Germans would have won the war. Ferguson also claimed that WWI was 'the greatest error of modern history', because its ultimate aim, to end German dominance of Europe, has failed anyway, as Germany now dominates Europe (although economically, not militarily). Ferguson also claimed that the British sacrificed their empire status thanks to the war, and that Britain squandered her assets and manpower on an avoidable and pointless conflict that ultimately led to the decline of the British Empire. Winter disagrees with Ferguson, arguing that there are so many variables that make up history that it is impossible to specify which exact variable caused a consequence, and for example, what exact variable caused the Germans to lose WWI (British entry, the strength of their army, their military planning etc.).

The second article, Making and Eating Ice Cream in Naples: Rethinking Consumption and Sociability in the Eighteenth Century by Melissa Calaresu shows how northern European historians have mistakenly assumed that ice cream must have been a food for the rich because, firstly, they were unaware of the snow trade and secondly, because sources tend to be biased towards the rich (for example cook books for stewards of large houses). This means that historians tend to only have sources of ice cream being served at aristocratic banquets in Naples, and have few sources of it being eaten in coffee and ice cream shops and being sold on the street and made in modest households. Because northern European historians saw how expensive ice was in northern Europe at the time, they wrongly assumed that the same was in Naples, meaning they assumed that ice cream was an expensive treat. In reality there was a snow trade in Naples that meant anyone, from a child on the street to a rich aristocrat, could buy it as long as they had a few coins to spare.

What the two articles show is how historians can often be mistakenly blind sided by preconceptions when looking at evidence, and how important it is for a historian to look at sources from a totally fresh point of view, forgetting the assumptions and prior knowledge they have (or think they have), which may influence their interpretation of sources.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Role of Chance in History

I have just finished reading Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin, which was a hilarious and eye-opening book into the late 17th century. One of the things I found most interesting about the book was, however, how Tomalin described the discovery of the Diaries.

Pepys' Diaries ended up in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In 1812 a Scottish historian, David Macpherson, included a few words from the Diary to illustrate the growth of the tea trade in Europe - Pepys had his first cup of tea and recorded the fact on September 1660, writing the words 'Cupp' and 'Tee' in longhand. Pepys actually wrote the first mention we have in English of anyone drinking a cup of tea.

What is most fascinating about this is how Macpherson found this one reference among six volumes of the Diary, how Macpherson managed to understand the Diary (it was written in code), and how Macpherson came to know to look at the Diary for information on the tea trade in the first place (it was relatively unknown and Pepys was far from a household name at the time).

His book, History of the European Commerce with India was noticed by chance by an Oxford scholar, George Neville, who was intrigued to know what else was in the Diaries - Pepys had after all lived through momentous times - the restoration of the monarchy, the last great plague epidemic, the Great Fire of London of 1666. He set an under-graduate on the task of breaking the code and transcribing the Diary. John Smith spent three years on this task, from the spring of 1819 until 6 April 1822, when he completed the transcription of Pepys' 3,102 pages on to 9,325 of his own, filling 54 notebooks.

Had Pepys not had that cup of tea, Macpherson not found it and wrote about it in his book, Neville been less curious about what else the contents might have held and Smith less intelligent, then the name Pepys might only be known to naval historians, and a very considerable part of what we know about how people lived in the second half of the 17th century would be unknown.

So it is very lucky he had that cup of tea.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

1919 And All That

The first scheduled daily international airline service in the world left Hounslow Heath (the first international London airport) on 25 August 1919.

The Heath was a large flat area south-east of today's Heathrow Airport. It was initially very popular with airlines because it was one of the first airfields in the country with a full customs facilities. Originally a cavalry training ground, the airfield and the surrounding heath land was owned by the Army, and tensions between it and the civil airlines meant a new airport was rapidly developed at Croydon. Hounslow Heath closed as an airfield in March 1920.

The first flight that took off was a de Havilland DH.4a, with a single pilot and seats (in an enclosed cabin) for two passengers. Flight time to Paris was around two and a half hours. The pilot was Lt EH Lawford, and behind, with a load of luggage (including grouse, clotted cream, leather and newspapers) was a journalist from the London Evening Standard, George Stevenson-Reece. Other journalists followed on a later flight, which they then wrote up as having been the first.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Brief History Of The Union

Today 4 million Scottish voters are expected to turn out at over 2,000 polling stations all over Scotland and vote on whether or not they want to make Scotland an independent country. Whilst we won't know the result until tomorrow, I have decided to do a short blog on the history of the union.

For centuries the two countries existed separately with two crowns. English attempts to invade in the 13th and 14th centuries failed, but in 1603 King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne after his cousin Elizabeth I died childless, effectively uniting the crowns.

In 1707 the Act of Union was signed by the English and Scottish parliaments, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Thousands of ordinary Scottish people revolted at what they saw as a 'takeover' rather than a 'merger'. The fact that the Act was signed by Scottish nobles who benefited financially from the union only increased hatred for it.

In 1715 the first Jacobite uprising took place. British forces crushed an attempt by Scottish supporters of the exiled House of Stuart to regain the throne. Thirty years later the second Jacobite uprising took place, led by Price Charlie. His army seized Edinburgh but was defeated at the Battle of Culloden. The Jacobites were rounded up, imprisoned or executed. Shortly after, the wearing of the kilt was banned.

The 1760s saw some of the most influential figures of the Enlightenment emerge such as Adam Smith, David Hume and James Hutton.

In 1885 a Scottish secretary was established after Scottish MPs lobbied for one to prime minister William Gladstone. In 1886 the Scottish Home Rule Association was formed. In 1900 the Young Scots Society, a Liberal group committed to Scottish home rule was created, and by 1914 they had 10,000 members and 50 branches. A Home Rule Bill introduced in 1913 by William Cowan was stymied by WWI.

In 1934 the Scottish National Party was formed in Glasgow, winning its first seat in the House of Commons in 1945, before losing it three months later. In 1967 SNP win their next seat in the House of Commons in a Hamilton by-election.

In 1973 the Kilbrandon Commission recommended devolved assemblies for Scotland and Wales after a four-year inquiry. In 1979 a referendum on Scottish devolution ended with a 'no' vote as it failed to reach the 40% threshold needed. In 1999 elections were held for the first 129-member Scottish Parliament; Labour won 56 seats and the SNP 35 seats. In 2004 the new Scottish Parliament was opened by the Queen in Holyrood, costing £400 million.

In 2011 the SNP, led by Alex Salmond, won a majority in the Scottish elections. Salmond promised a referendum on Scottish independence, after the subject of independence was brought to the surface in 2007 by the Scottish government with hundreds of meetings between the public and ministers.

 In October 2012 Salmond and Cameron signed the Edinburgh Agreement, paving the way for a Scottish independence referendum. In November 2013 the Scottish government began its campaigning by publishing the paper 'Scotland's Future', making the case for independence. Salmond also changed the law to allow everyone over the aged of 16, rather than 18, to vote.

In August 2014 Salmond and Alistair Darling (leader of the Better Together campaign), debated on television, clashing over oil revenues, currency and the future of nuclear weapons. A poll suggested Salmond got 71% versus Darling's 29%. Today is the day of the referendum, and if there is a yes vote, March 24 2016 is suggested as being the date for Scottish independence.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Loch Ness Monster

Last week a photographer claimed to have taken a photograph of the Loch Ness Monster in the Lake District (left). Her claim inspired me to do some research on the Loch Ness Monster and its history. 

The Loch Ness Monster is a creature that supposedly lives in the Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. Whilst its existence has been suggested and 'photographed' many times, it has not been discovered or documented by the scientific community. Popular interest and belief in the animal's existence has varied since it was first brought to the world's attention in 1933.

The most common speculation among believers is that the creature represents a line of long-surviving plesiosaurs. The scientific community regards the Loch Ness Monster as a modern-day myth, and explains sightings as possible misidentifications, hoaxes or wishful thinking. Despite this, it remains one of the most famous examples of cryptozoology. 

On 4 August 1933, the Courier published an article about George Spicer who claimed that  a few weeks earlier while motoring around the Loch, he and his wife had seen "the nearest approach to a dragon or pre-historic animal that I have ever seen in my life", trundling across the road toward the Loch carrying "an animal" in its mouth. This led to a series of people writing into the Courier also claiming to have seen 'Nessie'. These stories soon reached the national (and later the international) press, which described a "monster fish", "sea serpent", or "dragon", eventually settling on "Loch Ness Monster".

On 6 December 1933 the first purported photograph of the monster, taken by Hugh Gray, was published in the Daily Express, and shortly after the creature received official notice when the Secretary of State for Scotland ordered the police to prevent any attacks on it. In 1934 R. T. Gould published a book about his personal investigation and collected records of additional reports pre-dating 1933.

The earliest report of the Loch Ness Monster appears in the Life of St. Columba by Adomnán, written in the 7th century. According to Adomnán, writing about a century after the events he described, the Irish monk Saint Columba was staying in the land of the Picts with his companions when he came across the locals burying a man by the River Ness. They explained that the man had been swimming the river when he was attacked by a "water beast" that had mauled him and dragged him under. They tried to rescue him in a boat, but were able only to drag up his corpse. However, sceptics question the narrative's reliability, noting that water-beast stories were extremely common in medieval saints' Lives; as such, Adomnán's tale is likely to be a recycling of a common motif attached to a local landmark.

In August 1933 a motorcyclist named Arthur Grant claimed to have nearly hit the creature while approaching Abriachan on the north-eastern shore, at about 1 a.m. on a moonlit night.  On 21 April Dr Robert Wilson took a photo of the creature (the Surgeon's Photo), however this was later revealed as a fake. 
Sightings of the monster increased following the building of a road along the loch in early 1933, bringing both workmen and tourists to the formerly isolated area. In 1938, Inverness-shire Chief Constable William Fraser wrote a letter stating that it was beyond doubt the monster existed. In May 1943, C. B. Farrel of the Royal Observer Corps was supposedly distracted from his duties by a Nessie sighting. In December 1954 a strange sonar contact was made by the fishing boat Rival III. The vessel's crew observed sonar readings of a large object keeping pace with the boat for about 800m. In 1963 film of the creature was shot in the loch from a distance of 4 kilometres. Because of the distance at which it was shot, it has been described as poor quality.

In 2003, the BBC sponsored a full search of the Loch using 600 separate sonar beams and satellite tracking. The search had enough resolution to pick up a small buoy. No animal of any substantial size was found whatsoever and despite high hopes, the scientists involved in the expedition admitted that this essentially proved the Loch Ness monster was only a myth.

In 2004, a documentary team for television channel Five, using special effects experts from movies, tried to make people believe there was something in the loch. They constructed an animatronic model of a plesiosaur, and dubbed it "Lucy". Despite setbacks, such as Lucy falling to the bottom of the loch, about 600 sightings were reported in the places they conducted the hoaxes.

In 2005, two students claimed to have found a huge tooth embedded in the body of a deer on the loch shore. They publicised the find widely, even setting up a website, but expert analysis soon revealed that the "tooth" was the antler of a muntjac. The Loch Ness tooth was a publicity stunt to promote a horror novel by Steve Alten titled The Loch.

In 2007, a video purported to show Nessie jumping high into the air showed up on YouTube. This was revealed by the online amateur sceptic's community eSkeptic to be a viral ad promoting the then-upcoming Sony Pictures film The Water Horse. The release of the film confirmed the eSkeptic analysis: the viral video comprises footage from The Water Horse.

Whilst a considerable amount of time and money has gone into searching for the Loch Ness Monster, the failure to prove its existence time and time again shows that 'Nessie' is nothing more than an interesting story tale - as much as we all wish she exists! 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

What Makes A Classic Endure?

I recently read a very interesting article on why some classics survive 'the test of time' whilst others merely gather dust on bookshelves. I thought you might all enjoy it, so here it is;

The question on why some classics last and some become lost amongst thousands of other novels has become particularly prevalent in the last few decades as the number of novels being published annually has reached unprecedented heights. However there are some novels that still stand out, among the masses. It is hard to argue with Giuseppe Verdi’s claim that Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed (1827) was “a gift to humanity.” Many have since claimed that Verdi ranks second only to Dante in Italian literary history, and Manzoni’s contemporaries Goethe and Stendhal have also celebrated his genius, while the critic Georg Lukács said that The Betrothed was a universal portrait of Italy so complete that it exhausted the genre of the historical novel. In Italy, such is the ubiquity of Manzoni’s novel that Umberto Eco claimed “almost all Italians hate it because they were forced to read it in school.” Manzoni was named senator in 1860 by the Italian government; in his greatest honor, Verdi dedicated his Requiem to him on the one-year anniversary of his death.

So why do few outside of Italy care about Manzoni? By comparison, one of the best-selling Italian books of all time is Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1881), the story of a mischievous puppet who dreams of becoming a boy. The scholar Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg has shown that Pinocchio, in his struggle to assert his individuality against the controlling wishes of the outside world, represented the archetypal Italian child in the newly formed nation: the book first appeared twenty years after unification. Similarly, Manzoni’s Betrothed gives us two typical Italian peasants, Renzo and Lucia, who struggle to marry and build a life together amid class inequality, foreign occupation, and church domination.

But here the similarities end: Manzoni’s novel promotes a Christian faith whose adherents are rewarded for submitting to God’s providential wisdom. Collodi’s story, beyond exploring the plight of Italians in their newborn nation, describes how children learn to make their way in an adult society, with all its strictures and codes of behavior. Manzoni’s legacy in Italy is so strong that his book will always be read there. But outside of Italy, those same readers curious about Collodi’s star-crossed puppet are likely never to give Manzoni’s thoroughly Christian universe a second thought.

This contrast, between a celebrated and largely unread classic and an enduringly popular classic, shows that a key to a work’s ongoing popularity is universality. People often criticise the phrase 'universality' because it tends to elevate one group at the expense of another; what’s supposedly applicable to all is often only applicable to a certain group that claims to speak for everybody else. And yet certain elements and experiences do play a major role in most of our lives: falling in love, chasing a dream, and, yes, transitioning as Pinocchio does from childhood to adolescence. The classic that keeps on being read is the book whose situations and themes remain relevant over time—that miracle of interpretive openness that makes us feel as though certain stories, poems, and plays are written with us in mind.

In his Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley writes that great literature is “a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its divine effluence … another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed.” Shelley understood that some works have the magical capacity to resist closure—they read us as much as we read them, by revealing what is most important to our lives individually and our age collectively. Each great book, Shelley writes, is “the first acorn, which contained all oaks potentially”: the meaning we derive from literature changes over time, though the words on the page remain the same.

Sometimes we even look for meaning that isn’t really there—at least not in the way that the author intended it. In 1756, Voltaire proclaimed “nobody reads Dante anymore,” and indeed the Enlightenment had little time for Dante’s religious allegories and Christian doctrine. He was about to go the way of Manzoni’s Betrothed: a classic that was once much admired but now rarely read. Then the Romantics came along and rediscovered Dante, celebrating his individuality and heroism—those same qualities from Inferno that Dante would reject in Paradiso. But that didn’t matter to the Romantics. They creatively misread Dante, and in so doing made him the literary touchstone he is today. Our interest in Dante’s hell, the universality of its concern with questions of justice and crime and punishment, overrides our indifference to his medieval vision of Christianity.

Manzoni famously announced that The Betrothed would reach only “twenty-five readers,” yet his book became a national treasure. Its inability to attract a non-Italian audience isn’t the result of its artistic shortcomings, but of the nature of its questions and themes, which simply don’t appeal to a contemporary audience. No literary work can predict the future, but some do a better job than others in carving out a space for readers of all types and from all epochs. Where Manzoni failed, others, like Collodi, succeed. Manzoni’s novel exudes a Christian faith at odds with an increasingly secularized world; Collodi’s focuses on the eternal plight of children in the land of grown-ups.

W. E. B. Du Bois defended the necessity of a liberal arts education for recently emancipated African Americans by saying, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.” Separated from Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England by centuries, he still found in the plays a universal space where he could explore his common humanity with Hamlet,Macbeth, and Othello. The greatest defence of the classics, he understood, was to keep reading them—and to let them keep reading us.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

TB In The Americas

For years historians have blamed Columbus for bringing tuberculosis to the Americas in 1492. However a new study has suggested that seals and sea lions brought TB to the Americas centuries before Christopher Columbus first set foot there. 
When TB was introduced to the New World it killed as many as up to 95% of the 20 million (possible) Americans who lived there before Europeans arrived, because Americans had no immunity to TB and other foreign diseases such as whooping cough, chicken pox and flu.
An international expert team analysed the DNA of bacteria from three 1,000-year-old human skeletons found in Peru, and found a type of TB closely related to strains that infect seals and sea lions today. Researchers suggest that the mammals contracted the disease from a host animal in Africa, where TB originated about 6000 years ago, and swam across the Atlantic to South America where they were eaten by coastal people who were themselves then infected and spread the bacteria to others.
Genetically, modern strains of New World TB are closely related to European ones, which led to the conclusion that Europeans introduced the disease after Columbus's first contact with Amerindians in 1492. However there is archaeological evidence in skeletons and mummies of tuberculosis in the Americas hundreds of years earlier. Some have suggested the disease must have spread from early humans in Africa, before the Bering land bridge between Siberia and Alaska was flooded at the end of the last ice age about 11,700 years ago. But this fails to explain the European genetic likeness, or the fact that TB is probably a younger disease than that. 
The latest study concluded that TB bacteria in the three ancient skeletons were different to strains found in humans in the Americas today. Having been initially brought over by sea mammals, the disease seems to have been replaced by European strains.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

In Defence Of History

This is a book review/ summary of In Defence Of History by Richard J. Evans. Whilst the book is a summary of a summary, I would highly recommend it to all history students as it has a clear structure and introduces many important points for students to then pursue through further reading.

In Defence of History tries to defend a mainstream notion of history-writing against 'intellectual barbarians', namely postmodernists. Evans emphasises the importance of using primary sources, facts, going back to archives, and advocates 'a return of scholarly humility'. Whilst Evans is a hostile outsider, he provides a good introduction to postmodernism. It becomes clear through the book that postmodernism is not really a single thing, however the core idea is that all things are text, and that an external, objective world is less relevant. Despite his disagreement with it, Evans acknowledges that ideas from postmodernism have been useful in the study of history and historical study.

The book begins with a history of history. Evans beings with  pre-modern styles of history, such as Gibbon’s "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". He cites Leopold von Ranke as the founder of the modern method of historical study; the inspection of contemporary documents and using them to identify causes for historical events and "facts". Evans distinguished between the primary sources and secondary source; the key to this method is to read original documentation with its original purpose in mind and within the context of other documents from that period. Ranke emphasised how important it is not to be caught out by changes in language and unspoken purposes. For Ranke the key subject of history was politics, a view that held sway for many years but since the 1960s has become less popular with a rise in economic, social, feminist etc. history. Since Ranke’s time history has diversified immensely with the increasing focus on non-political history and an appreciation of a wider range of themes.

Evans also identifies the crisis in history following the First World War, a stark reminder to historians that predicting the future is almost impossible, although Evans does not support the view that history is at all about predicting the future. Evans draws a parallel between Toynbee’s "A study of history" which tried explicitly to make laws of history for predicting the future and Asimov’s Foundation series of novels, which are based on precisely this idea. Evans also said that history is a scientific, imaginative and literary exercise, which I will blog on later as I found this particularly thought provoking. 

In contrast to scientific research, the political beliefs, defined broadly to include race, gender and sexuality, have a strong bearing on historical research with fields driven to support currently political agendas and the political leanings of the researcher. The same goes for nationality, with many European historians focused very much on their own nations with a distorted view of their importance. Evans suggests that research is driven by the political agendas of the researcher, and dedicates a chapter to the debate on whether or not history can be truly objective. 

Evans argued that all history is written, consciously or unconsciously, from the perspective of the present. Croce claimed "all history is contemporary history", and Collingwood went even further by arguing that "all history is the history of thought", because the documents left to the historian by the past were meaningless unless the historian reconstituted the thought the expressed. 

An interesting note on style is the forthright criticism of other historians through the book, and also in the afterword where he addresses his critics in detail and at length. I disliked how Evans labelled historians as a 'Jewish historian', 'Marxist historian', 'feminist historian', etc. before introducing them, as I found it added nothing to the book and was unhelpful; whether a historian is Jewish or not should have no bearing on their work. However I accept the fact that it is necessary to study a historian before you study their work; the fact that a historian is Jewish may indeed have an impact on their choice of what they write about and their opinions on their research topics. 

I found it particularly interesting when Evans argued that history had become a means of indoctrination in the early 1900s, for example, used by Soviet the state for the spread of Communism. Evans argued that both Soviet and Nazi historians had failed to use factual accuracy, neutrality and detachment when writing histories of their countries.