great river road

My Own True Love and I are in the early planning stages of an adventure. This fall we’re going to drive along the Mississippi from Minnesota to Louisiana on the Great River Road. * Three weeks of roots music, regional food, and historical sites. (Not to mention blog posts.)

It’s an open question whether we’ll make it all the way down river to the the Gulf. We have some old friends on the road that it will be tempting to stop at again: the Fort Crawford Museum at Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, Cahokia Mounds outside of St. Louis, the River Music museum in Dubuque… There are places we’ve wanted to see for a long time: the Ornamental Metal Museum** in Memphis and the WWII Museum in New Orleans to name two. And we are big believers in driving with serendipity. It’s possible that we’ll never make it out of Minnesota.

We obviously have some tough choices to make. I’m hoping to get a little help from the folks who visit the Margins. What are your must-see historical sites along the Mississippi–famous and obscure alike? Which widely heralded sites are duds, or closed for construction? What little town has a great restaurant, bakery, farmer’s market, or music venue? Traveling history nerds want to know.

*Which isn’t actually a single road but a conglomeration of local and state roads. Sort of like the Silk Road.

** So many ways to be nerdy, so little time.


Road Trip Through History: The Alamo

by pamela on April 15, 2014


The first thing that struck me about the Alamo when I visited it with My Own True Love back in October* was how small it is.** It casts a historical shadow disproportionate to its size.

The Alamo is billed as “the shrine of Texas liberty”. Consequently, I expected a monument to the famous last stand of a small band of Texan soldiers*** against Santa Anna and the Mexican Army in 1836.  I wasn’t disappointed.  There was definitely a monument in the best heroic tradition.


But the modern historical site is more than the shrine it claims to be.  The exhibits at the site definitely tell the story of the besieged garrison–and tell it well.  More interesting, at least to me, they also place the event firmly in the larger historical context of the region.

Here are some of the details that caught my attention:

  • The Alamo was originally built as the church for the mission of San Antonio de Valero in 1718–part of a string of missions built by the Spanish to strengthen their claim to the region in the face of French incursions. (It’s no accident that San Antonio and New Orleans were founded the same year.)
  • The mission was supplied with water using technology that was a direct descendent of Arab technologies for making the best use of scarce desert resources–brought to Spain by the Muslims in the 10th century CE. (We divide history up into academic fields for reasons of convenience, but it really is all connected.)
  • Alamo is the Spanish word for cottonwood. (I’m not the only one who wants to know this kind of thing, right?)
  • The story of how the Alamo was saved as an historical monument was interesting in its own right. Adina de Zavel, granddaughter of the first vice-president of the Republic of Texas, was dedicated to the preservation of Texas historic structures. In 1908, “Miss Adina” barricaded herself in the structure for three days and nights to prevent it being razed–a heroic stand on a smaller scale.

The Alamo is a “must-see” if you’re in San Antonio. If you’re in the area, up for a drive and a hard-core history buff, I recommend that you also visit Fort Martin Scott outside of Fredericksburg, which served as a frontier army post for the United States Army from 1848 to 1853. The buildings were closed when we were there, but the site is designed for self-guided tours.

* What can I say? It’s been a busy time here in the Margins. I finally put a sticky on my computer that said “Remember the Alamo”. Which made me laugh for several weeks even if it didn’t get this post written any faster.

** And it doesn’t have a basement. (See Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Or ask Amy Sue Nathan to explain. )

*** Loosely defined


The Crusades From Another Perspective

by pamela on April 11, 2014

coronation of melisende Recently I’ve been reading Sharan Newman’s Defending The City of God: A Medieval Queen, The First Crusade And The Quest for Peace In Jerusalem. It was a perfect read for March, which was Women’s History Month.*

Newman tells the story of a historical figure who was completely new to me. Melisende (1105-1161) was the first hereditary ruler of the Latin State of Jerusalem, one of four small kingdoms founded by members of the First Crusade. Her story is a fascinating one. The daughter of a Frankish Crusader and an Armenian princess, Melisende ruled her kingdom for twenty years despite attempts by first her husband and then her son to shove her aside. Even after her son finally gained the upper hand, Melisende continued to play a critical role in the government of Jerusalem. Those few historians who mention Melisende at all tend to describe her as usurping her son’s throne.** Newman makes a compelling argument for Melisende as both a legitimate and a powerful ruler. (In all fairness, this is the kind of argument I am predisposed to believe.)

Fascinating as Melisende’s story is, Newman really caught my attention with this paragraph:

Most Crusade histories tell of the battle between Muslims and Christians, the conquest of Jerusalem and its eventual loss. The wives of these men are mentioned primarily as chess pieces. The children born to them tend to be regarded as identical to their fathers, with the same outlook and desires. Yet many of the women and most of the children were not Westerners. They had been born in the East. The Crusaders states of Jerusalem, Edessa, Tripoli, and Antioch were the only homes they knew.

Talk about a smack up the side of the historical head!

If you’re interested in medieval history in general, the Crusades in particular, or women rulers, Defending the City of God is worth your time.

* It was also nice to spend some time in a warm dry place, if only in my imagination. Here in Chicago, March came in like a lion and went out like a cold, wet, cranky lion.

** To put this in historical context. Melisende’s English contemporary, the Empress Matilda (1102-1167) was the legitimate heir to Henry I. After Henry’s death, her cousin Stephen of Blois had himself crowned king and plunged England into a nine-year civil war to keep her off the throne. Apparently twelfth century Europeans had a problem with the idea of women rulers.


The Other American Colonies

by pamela on April 8, 2014

I struggled to come up with a title for this post that was not United States-centric*–a fact which pretty much sums up the topic at hand. For most Americans** the grade school version of history that we carry in our heads jumps from Columbus in 1492 straight to the arrival of the Puritans in Massachusetts in 1620. *** There’s a vague awareness that the Spanish and the French were out there doing something. Colorful bits bubble through: conquistadores, voyageurs, New Orleans, the Alamo. But for the most part, the story focuses on the development of the thirteen more or less English colonies.

I do pretty well on the French part of the story. For the last fifteen years or so, My Own True Love and I have been on the trail of the French in North America–easy to do if you regularly drive from the historic Illinois Country to the land of the Louisiana Purchase. But I knew I had gaps where the Spanish colonies in the New World were concerned. In the last months of 2013, thanks to family weddings in Texas and Chile,**** I discovered that those gaps were an abyss.

Filling in the hole, one story at a time, is going to take a while. (Not that I’m complaining. This is the kind of history I like best: the places where two cultures meet and change each other.) In the meantime, I’m beginning to squeeze the history of the Spanish colonies into the scaffolding of dates/ideas/images/people from which I view world history. Here are a few of the bits that have caught my attention:

  • Harvard, founded in 1636, was not the first university in the New World. That honor goes to the University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Santo Domingo (now the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo), which was founded in 1538. The Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico (now the National Autonomous University of Mexico) was a close second, founded in 1551. Just to put this in context, the oldest continuously running university in the world is Al-Azhar in Cairo, founded in 960 CE. Europeans called the Americas the New World for a reason.
  • Mexico City was the largest, and possibly the wealthiest, city in the Americas in 1776, with a population of 137,000. Philadelphia, the largest city in the thirteen colonies, had a population of 40,000. Not a meaningful measure in itself, but a useful reminder. Gold and silver from the Spanish colonies flooded Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I’m used to looking at that flood in terms of its impact in Europe and Asia, not in terms of the colonial society that produced it.
  • I was already familiar with baroque poet-nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), who regularly appears in the pantheon of feminist precursors. I didn’t realize that she is simply the most famous of an entire generation of Mexican intellectuals interested in questions of Mexican identity and history. I clearly need to learn more about criollismo: nationalism in another form.
  • And the one that had me gaping with disbelief at my own ignorance: Mexico was a stop on Spain’s version of the Asia trade as early as 1573. The ships known as the Manila galleons brought Asian merchandise through the Philippines to the Spanish port of Acapulco. The goods were then carried by mule to Mexico City and Veracruz, where they were shipped to Spain. A neat way of getting around Portuguese control of the Indian Ocean.

It feels like history nerd Xmas.

* And failed. Or at least failed to come up with something that didn’t sound like the driest survey course text ever written.

**Or at least for most of us raised in the United States, as opposed to those raised in other parts of the Americas. Linguistic sinkholes gape before me. Just like the early days of graduate school when as students of the Indian sub-continent we struggled to find words that did not rest on imperialist/racist assumptions. It isn’t just a question of “political correctness”. Sometimes the language used shapes the knowledge itself.

***Or perhaps the arrival of settlers at Jamestown in 1607, depending on where you grew up or how historically inclined your third grade teacher was. Personally, I owe a great deal of my historical curiosity to Mrs. Bates of Delaware Elementary.

****The educational benefit of weddings should never be underestimated.


The Invention of News

by pamela on April 3, 2014

At a time when digital media is transforming the way news is delivered–and by whom– Andrew Pettegree offers a reminder that newspapers too were once a revolutionary form of delivering information. In The Invention of News: How The World Came To Know About Itself, Pettegree looks at the changing definition, use, control, and distribution of the news from the medieval world to the age of revolution.

Building on his previous work in the ground-breaking The Book in the Renaissance,* Pettegree demonstrates how access to news became increasingly widespread, moving from private information networks run by medieval elites, through sixteenth century news pamphlets and news singers, to the newspapers of the eighteenth century. He looks at the development of postal systems, private couriers and the printing press. He considers the importance of the introduction of paper, the rise of coffee shops and the growth of a literate middle class. He discusses the roles played by news pamphlets in the Reformation and by newspapers in the American and French Revolutions.

Some of the most interesting sections of The Invention of News deal not with the development of new media, but the creation of new audiences. Technology often outpaced demand. Early printers, finding the traditional market for large books would not keep them solvent, created new markets for more ephemeral products. The first newspapers were bewildering to audiences accustomed to news pamphlets that told a single story from beginning to end. Perhaps, at some level, the medium is the message.

* Also well worth reading. Printing and the Protestant Reformation are more closely linked than you might think.

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Foyle’s War

by pamela on March 31, 2014

History buff-ery can lead you to unexpected places. Recently it’s led My Own True Love and I to our living room in front of the television, where we are totally absorbed in the BBC television series Foyle’s War.* It’s a police procedural set during World War II in the town of Hastings** on the southeast coast of England. The main character, detective chief inspector Christopher Foyle, would rather be in the armed services doing his part but his superiors feel he will do more good maintaining order along the coast.

The care with historical detail in the series is impressive,*** but the choice of period is more than set-dressing. The first season is overshadowed by the fear of German invasion. Subsequent seasons follow the course of the war. The murders in each episode derive directly from wartime conditions in Britain.

Even more interesting, from my perspective, is the representation of wartime British society. Patriots and heroes are shown side by side with Nazi sympathizers, rabid anti-Semites, draft dodgers, profiteers, hoarders, and soldiers irreparably damaged by their experience at the front. Innocent German refugees suffer at the hands of Britons whose patriotism has hardened into intolerance and hatred. Soldiers treat women badly. Men in important positions assume their value to the war effort exempts them from the rule of law. The government tries to cover up failures. The memory of World War I is never far away–something we often forget. This is not a simple picture of gallant little England standing alone against the Nazis. In many ways, it makes the instances of bravery, generosity and justice that appear in each episode more impressive.

We just finished season 5, which centers on the announcement of the German surrender. It will be interesting to see if the historical interest of the series holds as Foyle and his team move into the Cold War.

Don’t touch that dial.

* We are not cutting edge television viewers. The first season of Foyle’s War aired in 2002; season 9 is now in production.

** As in the Battle of Hastings–a subtle reminder that the threat of invasion from continental Europe is a pervasive element of British history, from the Romans onwards. No island is an island.

*** The only note that they don’t quite hit is the issue of scarcity. Characters talk about coupons and rations. In one episode, members of the police force drool over food being held as evidence in a profiteering case. In another, the detective team enjoys the bounty available at an agricultural worker’s boarding house. But you never get the feeling that people are never really warm, that clothing is patched and remade to make it last, or that they are hungry. If you want to get a good since of how pinched the average Briton was during the war, I suggest you read letters or popular fiction written during or just after the war. Off the top of my head, I would suggest Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, Angell Thirkell’s novels set during the war (pure fluff but very clear on the scarcity), or Agatha Christie.


How Paris Became Paris

by pamela on March 21, 2014

In How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City, historian Joan DeJean (The Age of Comfort) argues that the real transformation occurred two centuries earlier, when Henri IV set out to rebuild a city that had been ravaged by Catholic and Protestant alike during the thirty-six years of the Wars of Religion. In 1597, wolves roamed freely in the French capital; by 1700, Paris was synonymous with culture, glamour and fashion.

Beginning with the building of the Pont Neuf (literally, the New Bridge), DeJean tells the story of a hundred years of royal vision, private funding, innovative real estate development and public planning. She also looks at how physical changes to the city created new behaviors, new institutions, and new problems. Many of the things that we think of as typically urban first appeared at this time: from public transportation and sidewalks to traffic jams and tourists. (Not the same thing as pilgrims.) Other changes are less familiar: new public spaces in which to promenade led to the new crime of cloak-snatching.

DeJean is also concerned with more than just seventeenth century urban renewal. Using a range of sources including contemporary guidebooks, plays and travel accounts, she explores how the city’s image was reinvented –creating a fantasy of Paris as what Claude Monet would later describe as “that dizzying place.”


The Black Hole of Calcutta

by pamela on March 18, 2014

In mid-eighteenth century India, power was up for grabs. The Mughal dynasty was in decay. Smaller regional powers flourished. European trading companies, which held their trading privileges at the discretion of Indian rulers, were constantly looking for a way to get an edge. The British and French East India Companies, in particular, maintained private armies with which to defend themselves–usually against each other.

In 1756, the British East India Company became involved in a dispute with the new Nawab of Bengal, twenty-six-year-old Siraj-ud-duala. The young Nawab looked on the growth of the British settlement at Calcutta with both greed and suspicion. When he learned that the British merchants, in anticipation of war with France, had begun to expand their fortifications without his permission, he marched on Calcutta with 30,000 foot, 20,000 horse, 400 trained elephants and 80 cannon. The city was defended by a small, badly trained, force of soldiers and militia. Siraj-ud-daula attacked early on June 20.Anyone who could escaped down river by boat in a disorganized retreat. Those who had been unable to escape surrendered by mid-day and spent the night in the the Black Hole, a cell in which the British locked up drunken soldiers. The next day, the survivors were forced to leave Calcutta and made their way downriver to Fulta, where the rest of the Calcutta merchants had taken shelter.

NPG D35936; John Zephaniah Holwell by Henry Dixon & Son, probably after  Robert Edge Pine The incident was made infamous by the account of one of the survivors, John Zephaniah Holwell. Published in 1758, Howell’s pamphlet, titled A Genuine Narration of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen and others who were suffocated in the Black Hole, was popular reading in the eighteenth century and frequently reprinted. Holwell reported that 146 English, including one woman, were held in an 18 square foot cell with one small barred window; only 21 survived the night. Referring to his experience as “a night of horrors I will not attempt to describe, as they bar all description,” he went on to describe the event in horrific detail. The story became part of the mythology of empire when Thomas Babington Macaulay borrowed heavily from Holwell for his own lurid account of the incident in his 1840 essay on Lord Clive.

There is no doubt that the men who attempted to defend Calcutta against Siraj-ud-daula, led by Howell himself, were incarcerated in the fort’s punishment cell, which was called the Black Hole by British soldiers. (The name continued to be used in army garrisons as late as 1863). Details of the story have since been disputed. Holwell’s numbers appear to have been exaggerated. More importantly, his claims of malice on the part of Siraj ud duala have been rejected. While it is clear is that the British prisoners were held overnight in a small, badly ventilated cell on the longest day of the year and that a substantial proportion of them did not survive, there is no evidence that the Nawab ordered the imprisonment or was even aware of it. British atrocities against Indian residents of Calcutta in the days before Siraj-ud-daula’s attack add balance to the story.

From the British point of view, retribution was rapid and thorough. Siraj ud duala’s attack on Calcutta was the first step in the events that would lead to the Battle of Plassey and the rise of the British Raj.


Blood Royal: A Medieval CSI Team In Action

by pamela on March 15, 2014

In Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris, medievalist Eric Jager returns to the world of medieval true crime stories that he popularized in The Last Duel.

On a cold night in November, 1407, a band of masked men assassinated Louis of Orleans, the powerful and unpopular brother of the intermittently insane King Charles, on a dark street in Paris. Blood Royal tells the stories of both the criminal investigation that followed and the subsequent impact of the assassination on French politics.

The first half of the book is told as a medieval murder mystery, based on working notes of the investigation written by Guillaume de Tignonville, provost of Paris and the law-enforcement officer responsible for finding who killed the royal duke. Except for the absence of modern forensic science, Tigonville’s investigation techniques will be familiar to any fan of police procedurals: from interviewing witnesses to tracing physical clues. Jager maintains a high level of suspense throughout the enquiry as Tigonville and his men eliminate suspect after suspect until they uncover the shocking solution.

The second half of Blood Royal, while equally interesting, is more traditional history. Jager examines the power vacuum in the royal family left by Orleans’ death, the civil war that followed, and Henry V’s opportunistic invasion of France. He ends with the rise of Joan of Arc on the horizon.

Blood Royal will appeal to history buffs,* true crime fans, and anyone who loves historical mysteries or police procedurals.

A Lagniappe**
If historical true crime calls your name, I’d like to call your attention to two more excellent books. I enjoyed them both, but some how never got around to mentioning them on the blog.***

Holly Tucker’s Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution is smart, riveting and occasionally gruesome. (There were passages that I would have read with my eyes closed if such a thing were possible.) Set in seventeenth century Paris, Blood Work tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Denis, a doctor who transfused calf’s blood into a well-known Parisian madman in his search for medical answers. Several days later, the madman died and Denis was charged with murder. If you like your mystery and history tied up with big questions about the point where morality and science meet, this one’s for you.

For those of you who prefer your historical crime with a little less gore, I highly recommend The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han Van Meergeren by Jonathan Lopez. Smart, riveting and not at all gruesome, The Man Who Made Vermeers is a tale of forgers, Nazis and the glittering art world of the 1920s and 1930s. It’s probably the only book ever nominated for both a national Award for Arts Writing and an Edgar for best non-fiction crime book.

*That would be you, right?

** Or, if you prefer, “But wait! There’s more!”

***Sometimes it feels like blog post topics are like an impatient crowd. Most of them wait their turn, but one or two always elbow their way to the front.

Much of this review–minus the asides, the snarkiness, and the extras–previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

Several weeks ago, fellow Historical Novel Society member Cora Lee shared an idea that she’d been having fun with for a few months and asked if any of us would like to play along. She took the idea of “Flat Stanley” and gave it a historical twist, creating “Flat Arthur”– a two dimensional version of the multi-dimensional Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington (1769-1842).*

Would I like to play along? Oh yeah! Over the next few months, Flat Arthur will travel with me hither and you. (Mostly to one library or another. Sorry, your Grace.) You can follow his travels and travails on my Tumblr site.

You doubtless know Wellesley as the general who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, the feat for which he was created the 1st Duke of Wellington. Here are a few bits about Wellington that you may not know:

  •  He gave his name to knee-high rubber boots.** He probably did not inspire Beef Wellington
  • He earned the nickname the “Iron Duke” during his first term as Prime Minister (1828-1830), thanks to his opposition to parliamentary reform. His position was so unpopular that he installed iron shutters on the windows of his home in London to keep angry crowds from smashing them.***
  • Wellesley enjoyed his first military successes in India through a combination of talent and nepotism. He fought at the Battle of Seringapatam against Tipu Sultan in the Fourth Mysore War. His older brother, Richard Wellesley, who was Governor-General of India, promoted him from colonel to major-general and named him Governor of Seringapatam and Mysore, honors that caused friction with senior officers who were by-passed in his favor. Major-General Wellesley retroactively earned his promotion with a stunning victory at Assaye in the Second Maratha War.

Stay tuned for more Wellington tidbits and Flat Arthur sightings.

* Here’s the blog post in which she introduced the idea for those of you who aren’t familiar with the original “Flat Stanley”.

**He could have given his name to something much less dignified than boots. The emperor Vespasian introduced public lavatories to Rome, where they are still known as vespasianos.

***The comparison with Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, is irresistible. She embraced the nickname after it appeared in the headline of a piece in the Soviet newspaper Red Star, three years before she became Prime Minister. You can’t blame her: her previous political nickname was “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher,” earned when she cut free milk for schoolchildren from the budget during her tenure as Minister of Education. But I digress.