History Carnival 51
It’s been a good two weeks to be planning a history carnival. Bloggers have been pondering on Zack Snyder’s version of the battle of Thermopylae, with those 300 suicidal Spartans. They’ve been joining in the debate about just how sloppy Michel Foucault was with his footnotes and whether it matters. And they’ve been arguing about exactly how celebratory we should all feel about the 200th anniversary of the British parliament’s abolition of the Transatlantic slave-trade.
History has been getting to parts of the blogosphere that it doesn’t usually reach. So I shall mostly be concentrating on these.
But I’ve not forgotten our more familiar territory – some new museums and historical theme parks, Jane Austen’s new publicity shot and sex in the eighteenth century . . . Not to mention an intriguing niche blog about the turbulent history of English hymns.
Do please click on!
Thermopylae etc . . .
Closest to my own home patch was the opening in the UK of the movie 300 – celebrating the Spartan defence of the pass of Thermopylae (and, so one is led to believe, of democracy) in 480BCE. Most of the world was gripped by the technical side and the new levels of “realism” now achievable in screen slaughter and dismemberment. But some people also began to wonder about quite how true to the ancient world it all was and what modern stereotypes it was playing to – while the Harvard University Press publicity blog smartly saw an opportunity to plug the “real version” of the battle, courtesy of Herodotus.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, ancient historian Victor Davis Hanson (a high profile Republican who wrote the introduction to a book about the making of the movie) reckons that it “conveys the main message of Thermopylae” and he makes a nice comparison between the graphic images and Greek vase painting. But there’s a sensible riposte from Timothy Burke on HNN, as well as some powerful critiques of the nineteenth-century Orientalism that 300 plays to. Nido, the Bahraini blogger, nicely dissects the portrayal of the Persians (“ugly, sissies, faggots, lesbians” . . . to name just four stereotypes). The same point comes over loud and strong from Mustafa Akyol of The White Path (who rightly underlines that, far from being a model of democracy, the Spartans have historically proved a useful role-model for fascism).
Though none of this impresses Grant Jones at The Dougout and none of it has stopped Al Gore (no connection with the ‘gore-fest’ that is the movie) from calling climate change America’s “Thermopylae moment” – as reported by Iain Murray at The Corner.
But for anyone who wants to check out the details of classical Greek warfare and how it might have impacted on the development of Greek democracy – if you read French, go to Danaae’s excellent post on Le Soleil en tête, all about hoplites. This is an amazing blog, which mixes posts about history and the ancient world with a diary of her treatment for a brain tumour (Le Soleil en tête…get it?) and features her brain scan among its photos.
This storm grew out of a review by Andrew Scull in the TLS of Foucault’s History of Madness – a new complete translation of what had only been available in English in an abridged form (and minus the footnotes) as Madness and Civilization. The footnotes are what have largely been responsible for the fuss. For Scull claims, pretty convincingly, that many of them don’t really match the high standards of scholarship we might be entitled to expect. To put it bluntly – clever he might have been, but Foucault was liable to get his facts wrong.
There have been an impressive range of responses on different sides. Gracchi on Westminster Wisdom wonders, a bit ruefully, what happens to a big and influential thesis if its empirical foundations get undermined like this – as does Kiki at Globalclashes. Neurocontrarian dances rather more enthusiastically than either of these on what he imagines to be the grave of Foucauldian theory. A bit prematurely perhaps.
For Jeremy at Foucaultblog has a sober post in which he looks a bit harder at what Foucault himself had to say about historical accuracy – and suggests that “historical inaccuracy” is a charge levelled at Foucault most avidly by those who oppose him politically. That may in some cases (but not all) be true. But the converse – namely that we should let our political friends get away with historical murder would seem dangerous ground to be on. Richard Prouty at One Way Street takes a similar line: much of the anti-Foucault lobby comes from British intellectual Francophobia (and anyway “Foucault wasn’t a historian in the conventional sense. . .rather he was concerned with ‘becoming what one was’”).
While I am on the subject of reviews, I really must point you in the direction of a brilliant double act, “conversation” review (the sort of thing that blogs allow much more easily than print). It’s Dan Todman’s and Brett Holman’s review of Jörg Friedrich’s The Fire: the Bombing of Germany, 1940-45, posted on Airminded and also on Trenchfever.
Celebrating the (end of the) British slave trade
It’s been impossible to miss the media fixation with Wilberforce and co. over the last week or so – some of it nicely celebratory, some of it pious or self-congratulatory. I didn’t at first think that blogs would have much to add, but I was wrong. There are more different points of view, specialisms and nationalities represented on the web than get a voice in mainstream newspaper or radio/tv.
Roger Alford on Opinio Juris, for example, takes a legal angle and links to a good short bibliography. Jewels in the Jungle, an Africa blog from Germany, has a vast and fascinating essay on all kinds of aspects of the slave trade, including the testimony of African traders (and it ends with a plug for the sixth-century BCE Persian King Cyrus who probably counts better than anyone else as the first person in the world known to have taken an official stand against slavery – makers of 300 please note.).
You can find some pointed questioning of the tone of the British celebrations in Helena Cobham’s post on The Notion (reminding us that the number of slaves in America vastly increased after the British abolition of the trade), and on Heraclitean Fire. Meanwhile, on the Guardian blogs, Cameron Duodu posts a brilliant account of a talk on abolition by Wole Solinka at the Commonwealth Club in London, on 26 March.
Rounding up . . .
Museums – real and virtual
Natalie Bennett on myparisyourparis gives a great description of the new (and gratifyingly un-blokeish) Museum of the Decorative Arts in Paris. It sounds rather different from the up-coming Charles Dickens theme park in Chatham, Kent that Kristan Tetens half warns us about, half looks forward to on The Victorian Peeper. But then Dickens isn’t having it quite so bad as Jane Austen, who has suffered from a bad ITV adaptation of Mansfield Park (criticized by some for turning a blind eye, in this year of all years, to issues of the slave trade) and from the indignity of having her portrait spruced up to make a more alluring author pic for the new Wordsworth edition (the subject of a post by Kathyrn Hughes).
Meanwhile museums are putting much more online. The Victorian Peeper, again, reports on a new web exhibition on the roots of Yiddish theatre and another online exhibit on the Chinese in nineteenth-century London.
There’s a report on Scientific Blogging of a PhD by Jenny Skipp – who worked on erotic literature in eighteenth century Britain. The misogynistic themes and images made it look frighteningly similar to its ancient Mediterranean equivalent to me. On which – or on ancient prostitution at least – you can click on Judith Weingarten’s blogspot.
Laments on the state of Economic History (like, what happened to all the economic historians there used to be?) can be found on the Open University blog of The New Republic. Meanwhile Rachel at idlethink wonders about the processes of latent selection at work when a historian tries to assemble informants for oral history.
It’s good to announce History Carnival’s new “aggregator” of history carnivals (to be precise: a one stop shop for announcements of history-related blog-carnivals), and to welcome the military history carnival.
And finally -- thank heaven for blogs, I thought when I saw this. Where else could you find it? If you happen to be interested in the history of English hymns, their origin, translation, censorship etc, look up Catherine Osborne’s post on “The Royal Banners Forward Go” (and there are many other favourites historicized in her earlier posts).
It just remains for me to sign off by thanking all those who sent suggestions in. Sorry I could not use them all, but I enjoyed reading every one.