Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Researching medieval soldiers

A quickie post from me today, as I’m madly trying to do research for a seminar and paper due early in September, and I need to get a couple of weeks of skiing in between now and then.

For those of you who, like me, have to work at a distance from the major UK and US archives, I’ve just discovered ResearchBuzz. This useful-looking site aggregates new information on search engines, online databases and other sources of digital information (including maps and image databases, by the looks of it). They’re not all history-related, but a recent post advised of a new online database of 90,000-odd soldiers who served in the Hundred Years War (1369 – 1453), assembled by researchers at the universities of Reading and Southampton. Related links point to online sources for York Castle Prison records, Great Reform Act plans for Scotland and other such history-related goodies.

I’m going to have a trawl around later this week and see what the database on medieval soldiers is like, so I’ll report back on that and on any other useful links I find. In the meantime, if you’ve got any favourite online databases of historical records (especially for the fourteenth – sixteenth centuries in England or France), please share them with me!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The history of violence

We had an interesting discussion in my French class this week about the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. We started by talking about Rousseau, Voltaire and the Encyclopédie, but then New Guy raised an issue that kicked off a debate I seem to be having on a regular basis lately. New Guy – who is a lawyer and struck me as rather right wing and conservative (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) – suggested that Europe after the Enlightenment and Revolution was much more violent than it had been under the ancien régime. Therefore, he implied, these movements had been generally bad things, which had led to 20th century nightmares like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. I’m well aware that the 19th century in Europe was heinously violent, with revolution after revolution in Germany and elsewhere, but I don’t know enough to make any intelligent comment on the causal connections between those events and the rise of a Hitler or a Stalin. Nor am I trying to downplay the scale of the wars and atrocities that have scarred the world over the last century.

But I do know enough to say that the world before the 18th century was no picnic, either. I think th
ere is a certain romanticism about the distant past – especially our ‘own’ past – that precludes many people from seeing and engaging with its less palatable aspects. The History Channel and Hollywood have a lot to answer for here, with their relentless spectacles of ‘merrie olde Englande’ and the romance of medieval chivalry. But life in general was brutish, particularly if you were female, young or poor.

When people talk about the world being more violent today, I suspect they’re only considering the carnage they’re seeing on the news every night. They’re not considering that in places like England and France, public torture and judicial murder used to be an entertaining day out for the family. (Can Grand Theft Auto really compare to seeing your neighbour being hung, drawn and quartered or burned to death as a witch or heretic?) And while domestic violence is a huge problem in our society, men no longer have the unquestioned legal right to beat their servants, wives and children. (Let’s not forget that masters could beat th
eir apprentices, too, a form of ‘workplace bargaining’ that draconian bosses would probably love to revive.) People who say society is more violent today are also forgetting the completely arbitrary nature of justice a few hundred years ago, when a starving peasant who killed a rabbit for the pot could find himself following it to oblivion at his lord’s pleasure.

And then there’s the Renaissance, which is often portrayed as a sort of golden age when everyone sat around marvelling at the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel. It was also a period when the countries
of Europe were almost constantly at war with each other and with themselves. I heard a podcast a while ago in which Thomas Laqueur was talking about the St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre of August, 1572. Over three days, something like 3000 people were killed in the city of Paris – at that time a city of perhaps 100,000 souls. Think about the impact of violent death on that scale on a population that size. If you live in an average-sized town, imagine what would happen if that many of your fellow residents were suddenly victims of the most extreme and nasty murders. There can have been very few, if any, people who weren’t directly affected by a slaughter that had the streets of Paris literally running ankle-deep in blood.

I don’t know, what do you think? Did the democratic revolutions of the 19th century bring more bad than good? Is the media making us paranoid by feeding us a constant diet of death and destruction (fear sells, after all)? Or is the world truly a more violent place now than it was a few hundred years ago?

* The illustration is a 15th century woodcut of the Dance of Death, an extremely common subject of late medieval art.

** The photo is of the Château d’Amboise. In 1560, a political plot to kidnap the young king François II was exposed here. Between 1200 and 1500 conspirators were executed and their bodies strung up from the château’s walls.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday Francophilia: Le Tour, toujours

On Bastille Day, I watched the peloton roll across the russet plains of the Limousin while thunderheads crouched on the horizon, and I asked myself why I love this event so much.

I actually can’t remember the first time I watched the Tour de France, but I do remember being instantly seduced by the beauty and rhythmic precision of the multi-coloured echelons sweeping along the D roads of rural France. I know it was before Lance Armstrong’s time, because the race is alw
ays different and more unpredictable when he hasn’t got the best, most expensive team in the world calling the shots. It was thanks to Lance, though, that the television coverage shifted from a precious 30 minutes of highlights a day to showing full stages.

It’s the drama that most attracts and holds me, I think. The breakaways that succeed for 150 kilometres, only to be chased down a few hundred metres from the finish line. Hollow-eyed riders literally clenching their teeth in pain as they struggle up monstrous mountains, their entire world shrunk to trying desperately not to lose the wheel of the bike in front. The cat-and-mouse b
attle that erupts a couple of kilometres from the end when a breakaway does succeed, and men who’ve worked together for hours to stay ahead of the bunch suddenly become sworn enemies. And, always, the men battling at the back, even behind the autobus, sharing food and support though they’re from different teams, trying to get each other to the finish line before the elimination time.

Then there are those bigger-than-life characters that seem to consider this as a metaphor for life itself and not merely a job. Tiny Marco Pantani with his enormous heart, soaring up Alpe d’Huez in his trademark bandana and silver earring. The crafty old sprinter Erik Zabel in Hell on Wheels, showing his human side by suggesting rum and coke would make a good recovery drink at the end of a particularly vicious mountain stage. And then there was Thomas Voeckler in 2004’s tour, clinging to the maillot jaune through the Pyrenees and into the Alps, against all hope and expectation. All day long, race radio would report ‘yellow jersey dropped, yellow jersey dropped’. The cameras would show Thomas, head hanging over the handlebars as he crawled along in his painfully awkward pedaling style, looking all but dead. But every time he went down, he would somehow find the guts to fight his way back to the group.

The Tour is, in all ways, quintessentially French. What could be more French than the calf-eyed Richard Virenque, undisputed king of the mountains, openly sobbing on national television as he begged forgiveness for his brush with the perennial Tour drug scandal? Drugs, of one kind or another, have been part of the Tour from its inception, though the early riders favoured cigarettes with a cognac or a bottle of wine instead of EPO or testosterone. And in what other sporting event would the guy who finished dead last – the lanterne rouge – be fêted as much as the winner?

Back in 2006, I was staying in an alpine village when the Tour was due to come through on its way to Alpe d’Huez. For days before, the people living in this charming though somewhat rundown backwater had been decorating their streets and houses with banners, signs and balloons, and on the day of the race the entire town was en fête. They treated us – complete strangers from the other end of the world – as friends and neighbours, related by a common love for this unique sporting event. The Luxembourg rider Frank Schleck won that day’s stage, and the man from Luxembourg who was staying at our hotel celebrated that evening by buying everyone in the hotel bar endless rounds of champagne (the good stuff, too!).

I think the thing I love most is the way the people of France have always taken the Tour to their heart. Year after year, even after all the disappointments of drug scandals and France’s losing streak (much better this year, though, with a clutch of stage wins), they decorate their towns and create massive sculptures out of hay and farm equipment in their fields. They line the roadsides and wait hours for a glimpse of riders who streak past at 50 or 60kph. They hike up mountains and camp out for days for the opportunity to run next to the riders for a few seconds as they drag themselves up to the summits.

And then, of course, there’s the scenery. La belle France, indeed.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Remembering the women of the French Revolution

Mais oui, it is Bastille Day and as usual, I’m raising glass of champagne in honour of liberté, égalité and fraternité and looking forward to the traditional French win in today’s Tour de France stage.

I’ve always been quite stirred by this celebration of reason and enlightenment, but I was just a wee bit disillusioned to find out how undemocratic France’s shift towards democracy really was. Sure, you could have your liberty, your equality and your brotherhood – just as long as you were, well, a ‘brother’. A property-owning male, in other words.

The early days of the French Revolution had carried heady promise for women intent on carving out an active role for themselves in the political governance of the emerging Republic. The sans-culotte women of Paris are famed for their role in forcing Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to leave Versailles for house arrest in Paris, while smart, fiery and passionate women took leading roles in political organisations like the Jacobin Club and even formed their own short-lived Society of Revolutionary Republican Women. Théroigne de Méricourt, swaggering through Paris dressed in her riding habit, took up arms to fight for the radical changes she wanted to see in society. And Olympe de Gouge’s Declaration of the Rights of Women decried the absence of women from the visionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and argued for full suffrage as well as for women to be allowed to be elected to the parlements and to act as magistrates. Olympe paid the ultimate price for her temerity, being guillotined during the Terror.

Many of the early gains these women made in the Revolution were too fragile to survive Napoléon’s ultra-conservative social reforms. But their enduring inspiration fired up generations of feminists who came after them, and who fought and continue to fight for women's rights to full citizenship and full humanity. So today, I’ll raise my glass in memory of Olympe, Théroigne and all the thousands of nameless women who were brave enough to write and campaign and stand side-by-side with men at the barricades, fighting for a more just world.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Corporate-speak and the violence of abstraction

Aaagh!! I’ve spent the last few days on a writing project for a corporate client. This work pays well, but sometimes it certainly takes its pound of flesh, as I discovered today after an exhausting meeting with the business owners to review content for their website. Now, they hired me and agreed to pay me the big bucks because they recognise my ability to communicate with people in writing. They agreed to provide me with a brief on what they wanted to say (okay, their ‘key messages and talking points’), and leave the final decisions on editorial content and style to me. So, I was more than a little peeved when they returned my pages littered with changes.

It wasn’t so much the way they’d altered my active voice to passive voice (what is it that businesses find so compelling in that?), or replaced my plain English with paragraph-long sentences full of incomprehensible jargon. No, it was the way they’d replaced my references to ‘people’ and ‘teams’ with the truly execrable ‘human capital’.

Yes, ‘human capital’. Possibly one of the most offensive, dehumanising expressions in common use today. Just one little consonant and a vowel sound away from ‘human cattle’.

So there we sat, tussling over the changes. I began by trying to keep my outrage in check. "Human capital is a very abstract term, it’s HR company jargon," I said. They said, "It makes us sound global and up-to-date". (Sound global?? What the hell does that mean?) I said, "Wait a minute. You’re supposed to be talking about people you like and value here. Why would you describe them in a way that is so dehumanising?" They dug their toes in.

And then, dear reader, I’m afraid I lost it.

Yes, I delivered a heated little lecture on eighteenth and nineteenth century labour practices and the human exploitation that fuelled the rise of capitalism. I said that ‘human capital’ was an expression slave owners probably would have used had they been cunning enough to think of it.

I stated my belief that the only people who could think this term is acceptable are those who’ve been privileged enough to never have experienced the dreadful, trapped feeling of being ‘owned’ by an employer. Either metaphorically, because you have no choice but to put up with dreadful employment conditions if you want to survive, or literally. I pointed out that slavery may have been abolished in the western world but it still, shamefully, exists elsewhere.

I may have mentioned Irish indentured servants. I definitely channelled E.P. Thompson (via Marcus Rediker) and railed about ‘the violence of abstraction’.

In the end, I couldn’t tell if they were contrite or just convinced I was a bit mad. I hope I’ve opened their eyes, even if only a little bit. But I wonder if I’ll still have a job tomorrow?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A round-up of things (mostly) medieval

I’m in the throes of writing a paper this week and haven’t had much time for musing. So, in lieu of a proper post, here’s a quick round-up of interesting things-historical from elsewhere in the webosphere.

The Guardian considers supposed fear of protest harboured by British politicians, putting recent incidents into a longer historical context which incorporates the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, the 1688 Glorious Revolution (so-called), and Chartist protests in the nineteenth century.

Over in A Corner of Tenth Century Europe, there is a fascinating post that sheds a different light on power structures in 10thC Normandy, pointing to the possibility of heretofore-unconsidered Viking princes operating there independently of the Norman lords.

To continue the theme of power and its uses/abuses, Magistra et Mater has been doing a great series summarising a recent conference dedicated to the historian Pauline Stafford. Stafford’s interests include queenship, family and ‘female lordship’, and Magistra’s posts cover some interesting new scholarship on violence, power and gender in medieval Europe. There’s lots of good stuff here that I’ll be coming back to in a later post (when I have time to write it!).

Clio Bluestocking has a typically insightful post about how the ‘self-help’ culture is producing students with some pretty strange ideas about the abolitionist movement and slavery in the United States.

Closer to home, the winter lecture series at Auckland University is promising to “remove the black singlet ‘straightjacket’ on our history”. Other topics will include the Maori ‘renaissance’, New Zealand at war, and the role of Empire. Also –

It will be argued that “the rebranding of old stuff as trendy and desirable” demonstrates widespread interest in our history. Moreover professional historians cannot ignore the popularity of events such as art deco weekends and medieval jousting tournaments.

Finally, if you’re lucky enough to be visiting New York anytime soon, the Morgan Library & Museum – home of some of the beautiful and quirky illuminations featured as Mmm…marginalia at Got Medieval – is holding an exhibition called ‘Pages of Gold: Medieval Illuminations from the Morgan’.

According to The New York Times, “This quietly compelling show assembles ‘orphan’ leaves (illuminated pages separated from medieval manuscripts and sold, individually, to collectors). Organized geographically, the show allows a comparison of illumination styles in England, Italy, Spain and other countries and regions. It also highlights the figures who created and participated in the market for single leaves. They include an Italian abbot, an English art historian and a mysterious artist known as the Spanish Forger.” Sounds intriguing, yes? If you get a chance to check it out, please report back!

Friday, July 3, 2009

More thoughts on academic careers

I’ve been away for the last few days at a residential graduate seminar and while I was there, I had a few more thoughts on the merits (or not) of the academic life.

The seminar itself was great, just the sort of stuff I love. It was for the standard advanced historiography course, and we all took great delight in debating various philosophical approaches to history and theories of historical change. Three different professors, each of whom seemed oddly suited to their subject matter, guided us through the various sessions over several days.

First up was a be-spectacled, soft-spoken tie-wearing gent (in all senses of the word) who dealt with the 18th and 19th century historians – men like Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay who saw history as a leisurely literary pursuit for the cultured man-of-letters. Next came our Sorbonne-educated expert on the French Annales school. Elegantly dressed and precisely spoken, with beautifully accented French, she shared her experience of studying under the renowned French Revolution specialist Michel Vovelle. Finally – and a stark contrast – our expert on the British Marxists was a bearded, wild-haired enthusiast who regaled us with his own stories of discovering social radicalism as a 19-year-old student at the height of the Thatcher years. (A discovery, which, he wryly pointed out, was the perfect platform from which to launch a rebellion against his staunchly right-wing father – Freud in history, indeed.)

Here’s the thing that gave me pause, though. These people are all very accomplished, with international reputations in their fields and a veritable bookshelf of books between them. They are excellent teachers, each with their own unique style of pedagogy, and all of them take several courses each year alongside plenty of research and writing. But if I decided to follow an academic career path, it wouldn’t be until I reached this level of seniority, after many, many years of hard work (assuming I could even get there), that I would be earning what I earn now in a challenging but not particularly difficult job in the private sector (pro rata based on my hourly rate, as I only work 15 – 20 hours a week).

Their working conditions aren’t great, either. The building which houses the History department was once the epitome of elegant Art Deco, but it doesn't appear to have been renovated since it was built in the early 1930s. Inside, it’s dim and dank with a pervasive smell of mould (and the occasional piquant whiff of dead mouse). There are years’ worth of water stains on the ceiling and, underfoot, carpet that looks like it saw the last days of World War II. A few of the best offices have nice views over the surrounding trees and parks, but it would take a heroic obliviousness to your surroundings not to get depressed in the tiny windowless inner offices. Adding insult to injury, it is quite noticeable that the business and science faculties on this campus are ensconced in much newer, nicer buildings (I know, I’ve checked them out).

The other thing that struck me during this course was the average age of our graduate group. Most of them were at least in their late thirties or early forties, and a couple were a good deal older (I’d guess late fifties – early sixties). Only two were in their early twenties, and appeared to have followed the traditional trajectory from school to undergrad to grad school. This raised a few questions for me. First, is this kind of age distribution unique to my institution? If not, are young people just starting out in their careers no longer very interested in working in the public university system (at lease in the Humanities)? And if that’s the case, where will our next generation of history professors come from?