Thursday, November 26, 2009

Summer of research, ridin' and relaxin'

Spring has come late to these parts, and today was one of the first days there was real heat in the sun. I sat on the front porch reading, enveloped in the scents from the jasmine and climbing roses that are running riot around the balcony, watching the fat, furry bumbler bees (as my nephew calls them) slip dozily from bloom to bloom. My coursework is done for the year, so I now have the summer ahead of me to mull over the research project that will occupy a lot of my time over the coming year.

I’ve got some broad ideas about what I want to tackle and how, but I haven’t refined the research question(s) so narrowly yet as to require really intensive reading (or to get alternately obsessed and fed up with the subject). I’m interested in taking up Joan Scott’s challenge to examine the ways that ‘gender constructs politics and politics constructs gender’, so I’m thinking I may do something around competing constructions of misrule and the gendering of dissent during the troubled reign of Richard II of England. That leads to lots of related threads - starting with that classic late medieval triangle of heresy, sodomy and treason - that could also prove rich avenues for investigation.

I love this stage of the process, where I can dip in and out of lots of different books and articles, following up any little obscure angle that intrigues me. It suits my magpie brain. I have a nice big stack of background reading, theory, and secondary sources on the period to work through over the next couple of months, and I’ll also be making a start on tracking down primary sources I may want to use. There is a huge amount of this material for Richard’s reign and its post-deposition aftermath, including a bunch of French and English chronicles and extensive judicial and administrative records. (Bonus - thanks to the prompt from Dame Eleanor Hull, I also discovered my university library has an edition of the Calendar of Patent Rolls for Richard II’s reign stashed in offsite storage, so I won’t need to interloan.)

As this project takes shape over the coming months, I will probably torture you periodically with oblique accounts of my discoveries. But for now, I’m going to go and pour myself a glass of cider, so I’ll leave you with my thoughts on other good things about summer:
  • Monteiths Crushed Apple Cider served over ice in a big goblet
  • Hitting the single track at Makara Peak
  • Eating fish and chips on the beach, and washing away the salty, greasy goodness with a glass of crispy sauvignon blanc
  • Swimming twilight laps around Oriental Bay fountain
  • Breaking out the fairy lights and turning our patio into a Greek-taverna-by-proxy
To those of you facing down winter in unkindly climes, I send my commiserations.

* The image is of a 14th century music manuscript of the English round Sumer is i-cumen in.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Carnivalesque 56 early modern edition

Carnivalesque 56, the early modern edition, is now up at Investigations of a Dog.

There's an eclectic selection of subject matter, from the American Founding Fathers, military culture in Stuart England and Oliver Cromwell's boots through to conjuring tricks, scurrilous political pamphlets and a notorious London sex criminal with a predilection for spanking.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Take that, cultural imperialists!

I’m relieved to see that Google has been forced to see sense on its Google Books digitisation project and concede to a fairer settlement with rights holders. Google promoted its plan to digitise the world’s books and make them freely available online as a magnanimous gesture to education the world over. Unfortunately, the original out-of-court Google Books Settlement disregarded the claims of non-US rights-holders, and had authors and publishers in New Zealand (and a lot of other countries) crying ‘cultural imperialism!’

The attitude that ‘if it’s not currently sold in the US it’s free for the taking’ really got Kiwi writers’ hackles up. (Though it was the pressure put on by the EU and its individual members - France and Germany made formal complaints - that probably made Google back down.)

As the NZ Press Association explained the original deal back in August -

“If a book is not generally available for sale in the US, even though it is widely available elsewhere, it is considered out of print and Google can display excerpts without consent…. It has digitised books by Janet Frame, Hone Tuwhare, Sir Edmund Hillary, Witi Ihimaera, Michael King, James K Baxter and Keri Hulme, all without any permission from anyone.”

These are best-selling, iconic New Zealand authors, whose books are all currently in print and widely available in this country. Just because mainstream US booksellers have not seen any value in stocking them does not make them ‘out of print’ and therefore freely available for Google to do with them what it likes.

Further, while authors and publishers could opt out, asking that their books not be included as part of the digitisation project, “Google was under no obligation to agree to that request. The rights-holder then had the right to take their chances and sue the multi-billion dollar company.”

Yeah, good luck with that, tiny NZ publishing house. New Zealand authors would fare even less well. The local market is so small that even best-selling authors sometimes need to do the odd bit of corporate huckstering to pay the mortgage. There are still some significant problems with the revised settlement (here’s a good analysis), but at least Google has been stopped in its book-plundering tracks and forced to recognise that the world of publishing does not begin and end at the US border.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Debating history-as-fiction and fiction-as-history

While I was busy contemplating the awfulness of Colin Farrell’s bleach job in the film Alexander, Magistra et Mater picked up on my post as the opportunity to ask some deeper questions about “the rising cultural importance of historical novels … [and] the uneasy relationship between the two genres of history and historical fiction.” What, she asks, “do authors or would-be authors of historical novels think that writing fiction allows them to do that more conventional historical forms don’t?”

Amongst the possible answers she poses is the ability to gain a much wider audience and therefore to sell more books than the lowly historian could ever dream was possible. The historical novelist may also have the ability to write more vividly than the historian, though I think this is debateable. Some best-selling 'historical' novelists write dreadfully clunky, lifeless prose (Dan Brown, I’m looking at you!), while some historians have the ability to sweep you along in stories that are more exciting than any fiction. Of course, the novelist also has the unique freedom to make things up when it suits them.

It seems to me that Magistra is also touching on some much bigger issues, such as those old unanswerable questions about the purpose of history and the historian’s role in society, and whether history is an art or a science. If we consider that the historian has some responsibility to reach out to the general public (and I do, because if historians don’t do this, then politicians have free reign to manipulate history to suit their own purposes), then we have to be concerned about developing the communication skills to engage a wider audience at least some of the time. I’m also of the school that believes that the way scholarly and academic history is written - the narrative approach used, the rhetorical constructs chosen and so on - is as much a part of the history itself as the research, the facts, the analysis and the scholarly apparatus.

I find it interesting that Magistra appears to make a very black-and-white distinction between being a writer of fiction and being an historian, as though one can be one or the other but not both. The creative writing that I do definitely enriches and improves my academic writing, and a number of the novelists I enjoy reading are qualified historians (have PhDs in history), so I see more overlap between the genres and skills than she perhaps does. To me, it’s a bit of a cop out to think conveying the facts in dull, workmanlike prose is enough just because the historian’s task is to write about ‘what really happened’. Yes, it’s true that most historians aren’t going to be able to come near what the best writers (of fiction or non-fiction) are capable of, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take good writing as seriously as they do thorough research and well-supported analysis.

I also believe that novelists should not be the only ones aspiring to make us emotionally engage with the past. Historians like Marcus Rediker or Judith Walkowitz have the ability to tell what really happened with faultless attention to the scholarly apparatus, and to make us care about what happened and possibly use that knowledge of the past to help fuel change in the present. To my mind, that is an extremely important skill for historians to possess, particularly those who work on the histories of the marginal and the previously unconsidered (the poor, the mentally ill, migrants, slaves etc.). But it does open up the fraught question of whether academic history should also be serving the causes of social activism (as many historians believe - that was, after all, integral to the feminist history that emerged in the 1970s), or is indeed by its very nature political regardless of any claims to objectivity.

To write history that engages us on both the intellectual and emotional planes does not mean making things up. But it does require a more mindful approach and a commitment to honing one’s writing as a craft in and of itself that perhaps some (many?) academic historians either don’t have time for or don’t consider a core part of the job. In my experience, writing skills are often an under-rated, if not completely ignored, aspect of the teaching of history at university level. (For any history teachers/professors reading this, do you consider teaching the skill of writing in itself as part of your purview? Or is that something for the literature/composition teachers to worry about?)

Magistra is right in saying “Most of the books by academic medievalists/early modernists which do find a wider audience are either on conventional kings and battles topics or are lucky enough to have found sources/archives which contain a lot of information on a small group of people (such as the inquisition records for Montaillou)”. But in the case of Montaillou*, for example, it was not simply the unique nature of the evidence that made it such a popular work but Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s vigorous and accessible prose style, which is characteristic of the best of the Annales school. (It might also reflect a different and distinctly French view of the historian’s function in society, and therefore of what types of skills the profession requires.)

Having said all that, I confess I’m bothered when writers of historical fiction try to blur the boundaries and claim more for their creations than they merit. For example, this quote highlighted by Magistra really disturbs me: ‘As [novelist] Sarah Dunant puts it in History Today: ‘I want to sink the reader deep into the period, to say, “Have the confidence to follow me because I know what is true”'. My response to that is to say yes, Ms Dunant, you may have done in-depth historical research and ‘know what is true’, but when it comes to choosing between what is true and what is interesting or what best moves the story along, you’re going to pick the latter every time.

* This was a history of the lives and beliefs of peasants living in the village of Montaillou, in what is now southwest France, in the early 14th century. It was based primarily on the previously unexamined records of the Catholic inquisitor Jacques Fournier. Le Roy Ladurie's interpretation is profoundly flawed because he took Fournier's highly-mediated accounts as factual descriptions , but the book still stands as one of the first examples of 'history from below', which sought to expand academic history beyond the study of the lives of elites.

Friday, November 13, 2009

History and fiction: The good, the bad, the ugly and the just plain dull

Now that my university coursework is over for this year, I’m planning to spend some time over the summer doing some creative writing. Yes, I am one of those students of history who also harbours a secret longing to write historical fiction. Medieval mystery/crime fiction, to be exact. (I confess, I’m a walking cliché.) I have a few chapters written and a vague plot outline but I don’t really expect to produce anything as substantial as a complete first draft any time soon. For me, fiction writing is primarily a form of relaxation, a way of escaping the constraints and conventions of the academic and business writing that consumes so much of my time. (This blog is another such outlet, where the rules don’t apply.)

Having said that, I do take my fiction writing seriously in the sense that I’m aware of, and try to avoid, most of the dreadful clangers discussed so passionately here. Many historians find historical fiction hard to read (or watch) not necessarily because the authors may bend the facts a bit to suit their plot, but because of their tendency to have their 14th or 16th or 18th century characters act, think, and believe in thoroughly 21st century modes. Thus, you get 14th century serving wenches espousing the values of third-wave feminism and 16th century atheists who declare their rational faith in science instead of God. (The renowned French historian Lucien Febvre wrote a fascinating and very readable book, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais, in which he argued that 16th century French language did not contain the words or constructs - as he put it, ‘l’outillage mentale’ - to even *think* an idea like atheism as we know it today.)

Personally, I don't mind a bit of anachronism in my historical fiction, whether literary or cinematic, provided it's well-written or well-acted and, as Maximus said, I am entertained. Topping my list of execrable historical films is Kingdom of Heaven. On paper (and barring Orlando Bloom), this film had all the elements to make for top-notch cinema. Ridley Scott, crusading knights, Saladin, a leprous king and dirty dynastic dealings over a disputed crown (Ha! I could have said ‘diadem’ there, but enough alliteration for one day)… even if you took no liberties at all with the historical record you’d have a rollicking story. I just don’t understand how it could turn out so absolutely lifeless. Poor old Jeremy Irons spent most of the movie looking like he wished he were anywhere else. Running a close second is Alexander, although it must be said that this film at least had some unintentional humour value. I laughed out loud at Colin Farrell’s appalling bleach job, which made him look like a regular at Hair Jude in Levin. And why on earth did everyone have fake Irish accents? It was like something out of Monty Python.

On the positive side of the ledger I put The Name of the Rose, which manages to pull off an almost impossible mélange of papal and royal intrigue, Aristotelian science versus ‘dark ages’ superstition, apocalyptic prophecies, witchcraft, heresy, demonic possession and a visit from celebrity Inquisitor Bernardo Gui. Oh, and there are a bunch of gruesome murders to be solved by Sean Connery, playing the kind of monk one perhaps wishes hadn’t taken a vow of celibacy. And from the land of the small screen comes my current Sunday night indulgence, The Tudors. I’m not sure how historically accurate this series is (any Tudor scholars out there care to weigh in on this?), but the extremely high production values and the quality of the writing and acting lift it out of the usual run of historico-romantic television schmaltz.

Speaking of schmaltz, I’ve had a kind of hankering lately to watch Shogun again, although I suspect my present self would probably be aghast at it’s mixture of Anglo-centric superiority and rampant orientalism. Whereas my past self was too busy being dazzled by Richard Chamberlain’s samurai swashbuckling. Ah, the early 80s, when Richard Chamberlain reigned as indisputable king of the historical mini-series. Actually, that must have been a pretty new television genre back then. Anyone know what the first historical mini-series was? My memories reach back as far as the mid-70s television phenomenon that was Roots, but was there anything before that?

Anyway, back to my obsession with The Tudors. I'm watching the third series and I’m liking the way the writers have managed to incorporate the complexities of European politics and religious upheaval during this period, instead of just doing the standard romanticised 'six wives' story. They’re not shying away from showing Henry VIII's sociopathic bullying and his anxieties about failing to measure up to François Ier in the Renaissance prince stakes, either. Also, without suddenly making Henry wear a fat suit or start dribbling, the director has managed to convey his increasing dissipation and hint at the horrors to come (which can't be easy for the crew, given Henry is played by the rather dishy Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

Incidentally, I’m no fan of the psychohistory (that is, seeking the answers to questions about complex historical change in the personality quirks of so-called ‘great men’), but out of curiosity I looked up ‘sociopath’ and found these amongst the signs listed in the DSM. If the shoe fits, Henry…

  1. Inability to make or keep friends, or maintain relationships such as marriage - check. (In no small part because he keeps having his nearest and dearest executed.)
  2. Apparent lack of remorse or empathy; inability to care about hurting others - check. (See under 1, above.)
  3. Impulsivity and/or recklessness - check. (“Have you got me my divorce yet? Screw the pope, let’s make ME head of the Church of England!”)
  4. Poor behavioural controls — expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper - Uh, check, check, check, check and check.
  5. Narcissism, elevated self-appraisal or a sense of extreme entitlement -check. (But I’m inclined to give him a pass on this one. He is King of England, after all…)
  6. Tendency to violate the boundaries and rights of others - check. (See under 1, above. See also, ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Francophilia: Asterix in Paris

Two of my favourite French cultural icons are being brought together with an exhibition of Asterix and friends at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. The show, appropriately, is being housed in the museum’s frigidarium, a part of the building that has survived since the Romans ran Gaul.

In the typically irreverent style of Asterix’s creators Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny, the show features some great cartoon parodies of classic artworks.

I love this version of Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV -

And here is their take on Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, with a fish (what, no roast boar?!) standing in for the human corpse -

It’s interesting to hear how Uderzo and Goscinny incorporated historical research into their artistic process. The exhibition’s curator Emmanuelle Héran says that ‘while neither spoke Latin (they relied on dictionaries for quotations) and weren’t experts on Roman or Gaulish history, they did plenty of school-book research. The exhibition shows them devouring Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars and you can see notes Goscinny scribbled in biro on pieces of exercise book paper as preparation for Asterix and the Olympic Games. “No pine trees, cypresses” […] “From 776 B.C. the Games are held for 5 days between the end of June and the first days of September”’.

Apparently, historians were sometimes distressed by their gleeful anachronisms. (I can just imagine the kind of wizened carrot-up-his-bum scholar that would take issue with Asterix. It’s a cartoon, people.) Luckily, Goscinny and Uderzo were more interested in having a laugh than providing accurate depictions of the past. Otherwise, we might never have witnessed the joyous concurrence of a 16th century square-rigged pirate ship and a Viking longboat.

Strangely, while I enjoy reading the Asterix cartoons in French, I think they’re actually funnier in English. I don’t know, maybe the English language is more suited to puns and word play. For instance, the drug reference makes Getafix a much wittier name for a druidic pharmacologist than the original Panoramix. And isn't Cacophonix a more suitable moniker for the no-talent Bard than the French Assurancetourix (which sounds like rental car insurance)?

In French class last term, my classmates and I could get away with drinking wine and waffling about movies, rugby and what we did over the weekend. This term, we have to read French novels and come to class prepared with lots of intelligent things to say about them whilst exhibiting the ability to ‘think in French’. At the moment, I’m leavening my reading of Les Liaisons Dangereuses with liberal doses of Asterix en Hispanie (but don’t tell my teacher).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Inside my brain

Check this out. It’s a Wordle, a graphical representation of this blog showing which words get used the most and relative relationships between different terms. You can basically consider it as a picture of what may be going on inside my brain at any given moment (or at least the stuff that’s fit for public consumption).

I like the quirkily appropriate way some of the associations are working here. Note, for example, the bundle ‘political violence state’ in the upper left quadrant, and at bottom left, ‘Christians bad’ (this is how I felt when the door-to-door Catholics recently came calling while I was studying for my final exam). At top right, we have ‘analysis pain’ and ‘connect better’, which I could read as either a set of instructions to myself or a whimper of despair, depending on how my research is going. And in the middle, the ‘Times Muslims experience’ sounds like I’m advertising an odd sort of son-et-lumière show.

I don’t know if I should thank Jliedl or curse her for the link, given the time I’ve frittered away playing with this toy over the last week or so. Meanwhile, someone more insightful than I am has been considering the Wordle as teaching tool and gateway drug to textual analysis. Over at Muhlberger’s Early History, some unexpected results were obtained by running the text of Geoffroi de Charny’s 14th century book of questions on war through the Wordle generator. Muhlberger notes, ‘I am not surprised that "Charny" and "arms" are big; but I am rather taken aback by the size of "prisoner" and the near invisibility of "knight."’

I might try this out on some of my corporate clients. It would be a great way of hammering home the point I’m always trying to make, which is that they spend way, WAY too much time talking about themselves.

ETA a correction to the name of the Charny text.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Torture museums and public history

When I posted recently on the use of scold’s bridle in early modern England, a number of you commented that you felt as chilled as I did when contemplating the role these devices played in the brutal enforcement of gender and class order. Several of you also mentioned you had seen these devices in museums in the UK and Europe, and that set me off on another train of thought.

On the one hand, it’s essential that museums, as educators and interpreters of public history, tell the full story about the past even when it’s unpalatable for the tourists. But on the other hand, I can’t help but be disturbed by the gruesome voyeurism and the titillation that is sometimes enabled (and even promoted) by museums. It seems that as cash-strapped museums struggle to make themselves more appealing to the tourists, the temptation to go for the sensational in the quest to make a buck may just be getting to be too much for some of them.

Something like the London Dungeon is probably an extreme example that, judging by the way it promotes itself, happily blurs the line between museum and ghoulish entertainment. The Dungeon urges schools to “Put aside the textbooks, bring the past to life and give your class a history lesson to remember with a visit to the Dungeons! … Our teams of live actors blend carefully researched historical fact with outstanding special effects to provide your class with an exciting, educational and unforgettable journey into the depths of history that is, above all, seriously scary fun!” Not only that, but with the Dungeons Resource Pack, teachers can “Take history's horrible bits back to your classroom and allow your pupils to build on their new found knowledge and enthusiasm. …Combine the Dungeons' usual dose of interactive fun and gore with national curriculum topics of study.”

The London Dungeon’s shtick promotes a vicarious experience of London’s ‘dark underbelly’, complete with the usual relish in displaying medieval instruments of torture and recounting the ‘fun history’ of sexual sadists like Jack the Ripper*. As another example, the organisers of this major touring exhibition of historical torture devices don’t baulk at promoting the titillation factor, promising, “Students too, will have the chance to satisfy their curiosity on … Tortura’s more flashy and fleshy attraction.” Can you imagine if this same sensibility - or rather lack of it - was applied to museum representations of more recent history? Say, Cambodia’s Killing Fields or Srebrenica? No? So why does it seem perfectly acceptable to make slick ‘multimedia entertainment’ out of it just because the victims and perpetrators lived in the ‘distant’ past?

I hate seeing topics like the European witchcraft persecutions and the Inquisition treated in ways that cynically exploit our seemingly insatiable desire for images of violence and torture as entertainment (images that are often sexualised in highly problematic ways)**. I certainly don’t believe museums should avoid or sanitise topics like this. But whether they succeed in making people think more deeply - both about the past and the present - or merely give passive viewers a cheap thrill depends very much on how things are presented. Put into their wider social, political and cultural context, such subjects can be powerful prompts to question the forces that shape individual lives and wider society, both historically and in our own time. But too often, these types of exhibits never rise above gratuitous displays of torture implements, presented shorn of all context and achieving little but to elicit gasps of voyeuristic horror.

As museums begin to utilise new technologies to make their exhibits more interactive and engaging (read, more effective at competing for the tourist dollar), I think this is going to become a much more sensitive issue. When you replace dusty old glass cases and typewritten index cards with fully sensory, 3D experiences, the line between education and entertainment is bound to get even more blurred. I think that is going to make it even trickier for museums to deal
appropriately with the dark side of history.

** As an aside, Judith Walkowitz’s The City of Dreadful Delight does a fine job of locating the Jack the Ripper episode within its much broader and more complex historical and cultural context of class conflict, sexual politics, racism and the role of the media in Victorian England. It’s a scholarly work (careful footnoting of sources, full bibliography etc.) but Walkowitz’s clear and dynamic writing style also makes it very readable for the layperson.

** Do a Google image search on ‘inquisition museum’. I rest my case.