Rival Queens

by pamela on July 31, 2015

Nancy Goldstone has made a career of telling the often forgotten and always dramatic stories of powerful women in medieval Europe.*  In The Rival Queens: Catherine de’Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom, Goldstone turns her attention to Renaissance France and its role in the growing struggle between Catholics and Protestants across Europe.

The betrayal to which the title refers is the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which thousands of French Huguenots were killed when they gathered in Paris to attend the unwilling Marguerite’s wedding to her Protestant cousin, Henry of Navarre. In fact, the massacre is only the most extreme of the betrayals–personal and political alike–which Goldstone describes.

Goldstone overturns the ruling historical evaluation of Catherine as an able, if Machiavellian, ruler and Marguerite as a sensual dilettante. Instead, she shows Catherine manipulating her children in order to maintain her power in France. Marguerite stands in counterpoint to her, growing into a woman of courage and integrity. Goldstone makes a compelling case for both portrayals, using first-hand accounts from the period, including Marguerite’s memoir.

Firmly rooted in history, The Rival Queens combines the pageantry and passion of a Philippa Gregory novel with the Byzantine plot and violence of A Game of Thrones. It is a story of intra-family rivalry taken to the level of “scheming and conspiracy, treason and treachery”. Religion is its battlefield; sex, tale bearing and the withholding of maternal love its primary weapons.


*Including The Maid and the Queen, yet another contemporary retelling of Joan of Arc‘s story.


This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


From The Archives: Squeeze This!

by pamela on July 28, 2015

I know it’s hard to believe, but even history bloggers sometimes think about something other than history.  We knit, canoe, wrestle bears, feed people, drink whiskey, and play with the cat.* Whenever we get the chance, My Own True Love and I pull on our dancing shoes and two-step and waltz to a Cajun band.

The heart of Cajun music is the accordion–a fiendish instrument by any standard. So when the editor at Shelf Awareness was looking for someone to review Squeeze This!: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America I waved my virtual hand in the air and squealed “Pick me!”  (Oddly enough, no one fought me for it.  Go figure.)

Ethnomusicologist Marion Jacobson’s Squeeze This! is a serious work of musical and cultural history written in an engaging and accessible voice. **

Jacobson goes beyond a consideration of the accordion as physical artifact.  Writing in the tradition of Paul Berliner’s The Soul of Mbira  and Karen Linn’s That Half-Barbaric Twang,  Jacobson also looks at how the accordion operates in social, cultural, and symbolic terms.

Squeeze This!  begins with Jacobson’s inadvertent introduction to America’s “accordion culture” and ends with the modern accordion revival, which repositions the often-derided instrument “as avant-garde, edgy, even sexy”.  In between, she discusses how the role of the accordion in American society evolved in response to changes in immigration law, the death of vaudeville, the rise of radio, the invention of the electronic microphone, cultural assimilation, cultural preservation, and the youth culture of the 1960s.  She traces the rise and fall of the accordion in popular culture through the careers of the musicians who play it, from Guido Deiro to Weird Al Yankovic.

Possibly the most interesting portion of the book is Jacobson’s exploration of the accordion as “a low-tech, anti-postmodern antidote to synthesizer saturation”. Subversion, the search for authenticity, and the contrast between images of female sexuality and male nerdiness are not topics commonly associated with the accordion and accordion players.

Squeeze This! is not just a book about accordions.  It will appeal to readers interested in both the development of American music, America’s cultural history as a whole.

Now if you’ll excuse me–I think I’ll lure My Own True Love away from his desk for a quick two-step down the hall.  They’re playing our song.

The body of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers


* Note bene:  I’m not claiming I do all of the above.

** Warning for Cajun music enthusiasts and other fans of the button accordion.  Jacobson focuses almost entirely on the piano accordion.  Squash down your prejudices and read the book anyway.

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Talk Amongst Yourselves

by pamela on July 24, 2015

My Own True Love and I are on our way to Iceland, where we expect to have lots of history-buff adventures.  I’ve scheduled some blog posts for the time we’re gone, but I thought it was a good time to introduce you to history blogs written by fellow readers.* (Many thanks to Jane S. Poole, who inspired this idea.) Check each other out.  You may find a blog you love.

Obviously I only know who you are if you leave comments on blog posts, send me emails, or interact with me in some other way.  And I may have missed someone as I went through four years of blog comments/correspondence.**  So if your blog isn’t here–or if you want to share a blog you love that isn’t on the list–feel free to add it to the comments.

Here we go, in no particular order:

France Rolleston: A Victorian Lady

Paper Sleuth

République No. 6

The Vintage Traveler

Time Traveler Tours & Tales

Round and Square

God of Wednesday

Streets of Salem


*At first I planned to list all the blogs written by readers, regardless of topic.  That turned out to be impossible–DOZENS of you write interesting stuff on topics that have nothing to do with history. (Let me tell you, it hurt to leave off the book people.  And the artists.  And my youngest sister.)  As it is, I’ve defined history as widely as possible.

**Crazy or just compulsive?  You decide.


Song of the Vikings

by pamela on July 21, 2015

As I’ve mentioned before, My Own True Love and I are in countdown mode for a history nerd trip to Iceland.  As a result, my head is full of Vikings. *

We’re going on a tour based on Nancy Marie Brown’s excellent Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths.  The heart of Brown’s book is the thirteenth century Icelandic poet, chieftain, and schemer  Snorri Sturluson, whose poetry is the source of much of what we know about Viking culture and Norse mythology.**  Brown uses Snorri as a lens through which to discuss Norse mythology, the complicated world of medieval Iceland, and the even more complicated  aesthetics of skaldic poetry.***   Some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with the cultural impact of Snorri’s poetry on later artists–think Wagner, Tolkien, Gaiman, Marvel Comics.

Brown is an excellent story teller.  If you’re interested in Tolkien, Vikings, medieval history, or the roots of Thor and Loki, I strongly recommend Song of the Vikings.

Stay tuned for breaking news from the field.

*Not to mention hiking boots, sunscreen, flexible layers, water bottles, and an overseas phone plan.

**It’s important to point out that the Viking period is generally defined as lasting from the  eighth through the eleventh centuries.  When he’s writing about the Iceland of his time, he’s a primary source; when he’s writing about Norse mythology he’s an oral historian.  Or at least that’s my humble take on it.

***James Joyce is a breeze by comparison.


Are You Listening to History?

by pamela on July 17, 2015

His Master's Voice

Over the last three years I’ve become a fan of podcasts. They’re great to listen to when I’m doing things that require my hands and eyes but only a small part of my brain: chopping vegetables, washing dishes, reconciling bank statements, sorting through the pile of mystery papers on the floor next to my desk. For the most part, I listen to podcasts about the craft and business of writing,* with an occasional side trip into popular culture. **

Recently I had a revelation. (You see where this is going, right?)

In the course of research, I stumbled across New Books In History: a podcast that interviews academic historians about their work. I’m glad I found it. The interviews are well done, but definitely academic in scope and tone. It’s more like listening to a college lecture than two smart, opinionated and funny writers discussing narrative structure and character development in The Philadelphia Story. *** And it’s a nuisance to stop what I’m doing to take a note. Which I often want to do. Because these people are smart.

But beyond its intrinsic value, NBH made me think “History podcasts!” and “Duh!” A quick glance at the choices in iTunes was both overwhelming and dispiriting. I downloaded several that seemed to meet my criteria: broad interests held together by a set of personal historical concerns on the part of the podcaster(s), a quirky aesthetic that doesn’t descend into farce, an appealing voice.**** In short, the podcast equivalent of History in the Margins.***** Once I find a few I like, I’ll share.

But in the meantime, I’m hoping you’ll share. Do you listen to podcasts? How do you find them? Are there history podcasts you love? History podcasts you hate? What makes a good history podcast? Etc.

I really want to know.

* If that’s your thing, I strongly recommend the various podcasts put out by the people at Storywonk and Dan Blank’s Dabblers v Do-ers.

**Or better yet, popular culture as a vehicle for understanding narrative structure.

***The Popcorn Dialogues. They stopped recording in 2012, but there is lots of good stuff here,

****Literally as well as metaphorically. The voices on some podcasts that I listen to regularly drive My Own True Love out of the kitchen.

*****Yes, yes. I’ve thought about it. But not any time soon.


Female Samurai: Warriors and Otherwise

by pamela on July 14, 2015

Tomoe-GozenFemale samurais are stock figures in modern anime, manga, western comic books, and fantasy novels:  hard-fighting, often hard-drinking, badasses with swords and bows.  The key word is fantasy.

In medieval Japan, samurai was a class distinction as well as a job description.  Women who were born into the samurai class were samurais whether or not they were warriors.  As members of the warrior class, they shared the martial code of loyalty and honor known as bushido.  Many of them were trained to use the naginata–a deadly scythe-like weapon–and carried razor-sharp daggers on their belts. They shared the disgrace when their male relations failed on the battlefield, following them into exile and even death.

Only a few samurai women became samurai warriors, but their stories are a constant thread through Japanese history.  The most famous was the twelfth century warrior Tomoe Gozen, who fought alongside Minamoto Kiso Yoshinaka in the Gempei War* and collected enemy heads as battle trophies just like one of the guys.  Her story became the subject of songs and a popular Noh play.  But Tomoe was not the only female samurai to fight in Japan’s seemingly interminable internal wars.  Tsuruhime, known as the sea princess of Omishimia, defended that island  against expansionist threats from the Japanese mainland in 1541.  Thirty-six years later, Ueno Tsuruhime led thirty-three other women in a suicidal charge against the army of a rival warlord–preferring to die in battle than commit the ritual suicide prescribed by her husband. (The tactic failed.  The besieging samurai proved reluctant to kill women who fought back.)  Near the end of the Amakusa rebellion in 1589-90,  the wife of the castle commander of the largely Christian stronghold at Hondo and several hundred other women cut off their long hair, tied up the hems of their kimonos, armed themselves with weapons and rosaries, and sortied from the broken castle gate in a final desperate attack.

Even in nineteenth century, when the world of the samurai was coming to an end, some women from samurai families  joined their fathers, husbands and brothers on the battlefield against the forces of the Meiji emperor.   In Daughters of the Samurai,  Janice Nimura tells the story of one young woman who tried to take a more active role in the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877.  With her family stronghold under siege, “the teenager scavenged pieces of discarded armor, chopped off her hair, pulled down the corners of her mouth in a classic samurai grimace, and announced that she was off to join the fighting.”  In her case, the samurai value of obedience won out over the samurai value of courage–when her mother forbade her to leave the castle she stayed put.  But other women, old enough or stubborn enough not to be controlled by parental commands, chose to fight rather than fulfill more traditional roles related to the defense of a stronghold or commit ritual suicide.   In one extraordinary case, Kawahara Asako decapitated her mother-in-law and daughter to save them from dishonor at the hands of the enemy before she took up her naginata and joined the fight against the imperial army.

With the exception of Tomoe Gozen, who appears to have fought because she was good at it, these stories share common themes of defense and desperation.  A far cry from their modern pop culture descendants.

*In which two samurai clans–the Taira and the Minamoto–duked it out for control of Japan.  The Gempei War ended with the Minamoto’s victorious establishment of the first shogunate–a form of government by military dictatorship in the name of a puppet emperor that would last in various forms from 1192 to 1867.  In case you were curious.


Here There Be –Sea Monsters?

by pamela on July 11, 2015

My Own True Love and I are in countdown mode for a trip to Iceland.  You can expect future posts to be full of Vikings and other things Nordic.  Here’s a little something to get us all in the mood:

Olaus Magnus. Carta Marina

In 1539, Swedish mapmaker Olaus Magnus produced what was then the most detailed map of Northern Europe. Known as the Carta Marina, it was two-meters of up-to-date information regarding both land and sea.    Magnus’s illustrations were realistic when it came to land, but the further he got from the shore the more fantastic his illustrations became. In Sea Monsters: A Voyage Around the World’s Most Beguiling Map, Joseph Nigg (author of How To Raise and Keep a Dragon), takes the reader on a sea monster-sighting expedition through the map  using Magnus’s own commentary as a field guide.

Nigg charts a course through the waters of Magnus’s cartographic masterpiece, sailing north from the southwest coast of Norway past the ray-like rockas, giant lobsters, beached whales, and sea serpents, to the greatest of all sea monsters, the Kraken. Each stop on the voyage is a single beast which Nigg first describes in Magnus’s own words.  He then discusses its place in traditional monster lore and its legacy in later maps and natural histories. It’s easy for a map-loving reader to follow along.  The book jacket unfolds into a copy of Magnus’s map.

If you’re interested in maps, monsters or beautiful books, Sea Monsters will keep you enthralled.

Part of this post appeared many moons ago in Shelf Awareness for Readers


Shin-kickers From History: Joan of Arc

by pamela on July 7, 2015

Joan of arc Several months ago, I asked a group of family and friends to tell me what they knew about Joan of Arc, aka St. Joan, aka the Maid of Orleans–no stopping to look up the details. I needed to know how familiar the average smart, well-read, non-specialist is with her story.* The accuracy and detail of the answers varied, though everyone knew she was French and no one said “Joan who?” ** As I read the answers, one thing stood out: the people who remembered the most were all women who had been fascinated by her story at that age, somewhere between 9 and death, when smart girls look for historical role models to tell them that it’s okay to be tough/mouthy/opinionated/different.***

I was one of those girls. I’m still fascinated by Joan, and other warrior women. And I was delighted when two new biographies of the Maid of Orleans landed on my book shelves in recent months.

In Joan of Arc, historian Helen Castor returns to the subject of powerful medieval women that she explored so successfully in She Wolves. Castor brings a new twist to a familiar story, signaled in the use of “a history” rather than “a biography” as a sub-title. Instead of starting with Joan, she begins with the turbulent history of fifteenth century France, placing Joan’s achievements within the context of the bloody civil war that began with the assassination of Louis, Duke of Orleans, at the instigation of his brother, the Duke of Burgundy, in 1407. ****

Castor takes the reader step-by-step through the labyrinthine story of a France divided between Burgundians, the supporters of the French royal family, and the opportunistic claims of England’s Henry V to the French crown. Joan appears in the narrative one-third of the way through the book, when all hope of the French dauphin claiming his throne seems lost. Even after she appears, Castor never loses sight of the larger picture, placing Joan’s story within the context of previous French visionaries, politics within the French and English courts, and the realities of fifteenth century warfare.

Written with both scholarly rigor and the narrative tension of a historical thriller, Castor’s Joan of Arc makes the story of St. Joan more understandable, more complex, and more extraordinary. Or as cultural historian and mythographer Marina Warner put in in her own study of St. Joan: “so grand, so odd, so stirring.”

One of these days I’ll get to Kathryn Harrison’s Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured. Then it will be time for compare and contrast.

* Note to self, next time you have this kind of question, post it on the blog. *Headsmack*

**My favorite answer captured the essence of the legend without reference to historical detail: “She was that sturdy girl that wore armor, carried a sword, fought the bad guys, stormed their castles, was burned at the stake for her troubles, and smiled while burning…thus Sainthood. ???????????”

***I’d love to think that modern pre-teens didn’t need these role models the same way we did in the Dark Ages before the women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I’m afraid it’s not true. Hence the popularity of the A Mighty Girl website and the #LikeAGirl campaign.

****That assassination was the subject of another book I loved, Eric Jager’s Blood Royal. Read together, the two books illuminate not only the period, but each other. It’s thrilling when that happens.

The guts of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Happy Fourth of July

by pamela on July 3, 2015

Fourth of July Picnic, Rogers, Arkansas (MSA) 4th of July picnic in Rogers, Arkansas, ca 1904

Here in the United States we’re heading into the Fourth of July weekend: one of those holidays where the point is easily lost in the trappings.

Take a moment in your celebrations to remember what we’re celebrating:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Picnics and fireworks are nice. Civil rights are better.

Image courtesy of the Missouri State Archives


One of the other places I hang out on the internet is Shelf Awareness for Readers–a very cool review publication that reaches the e-inboxes of avid readers twice a week.* I review new history books, with an occasional excursion into cookbooks or misc. reference works. Some of those reviews find their way here. Some of those books spark blog posts that are only vaguely related to the review. It’s been four years and almost 100 reviews–time flies when you’re reading.

In celebration, here’s the post that came out of my first Shelf Awareness review:


Once upon a time, like many nerdy little girls, I wanted to be an archeologist. Today I get my hands grubby with old books and the occasional leaking ink pen instead of the sands of time, but my copy of C. W. Ceram’s classic Gods, Graves and Scholars remains a prized possession and I still enjoy a good archeological read.

I was delighted to have the chance to read and review The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo.

Anthropologist Terry Hunt and archaeologist Carl Lipo turn the accepted wisdom about the ancient culture of Easter Island on its head in this well-written story of scientific discovery.

From the time the first Europeans arrived on Easter Island in the eighteenth century, Westerners have been fascinated by the island’s monumental stone sculptures and baffled by how an impoverished prehistoric culture could have built them. The standard explanation was that the island had once been as fertile as other inhabited islands in the Pacific. Over time, its population committed ecological suicide, cutting down thousands of giant palm trees to support the statue cult.

When Hunt and Lipo arrived on Easter Island in 2001, they expected to simply add a few details to the already well-developed account of its early history. In their fourth year of fieldwork, they found evidence of the giant palms that scholars believed covered the islands when Polynesian settlers first arrived. It was a major discovery. There was only one problem: the oldest layers were several hundred years later than the latest accepted date for colonization. If the island was deforested over decades instead of centuries, then everything archaeologists thought they knew about the early culture of Easter Island was in question.

Hunt and Lipo re-examined, and re-built, archaeology’s fundamental assumptions about Easter Island, using discoveries from other Pacific island cultures, local oral traditions, previously discounted field research, satellite images from Google Earth, studies by evolutionary biologists, game theory, and accounts by early European observers. They make a compelling case against the traditional version of Easter Island’s prehistory. Instead of “ecocide”, they describe a culture of careful environmental stewardship. And along the way, they prove how a small number of men can make a giant monolith “walk”.

*I read Shelf Awareness as well as review for it. My fellow reviewers are the source for many, many books on my own to-be-read list.

AhuTongariki” by Ian Sewell – IanAndWendy.com Photo gallery from Easter Island. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.