Independence Lost:

by pamela on August 28, 2015

Those of you who’ve been hanging out in the Margins for a while now know there are some types of history books that can be counted on to make me say “I want to read this”:

  • Books that tell a story we think we know from a radically different persepctive
  • Books that deal with people outside the mainstream of history
  • Books that tell a story I didn’t even know existed
  • Books–oh, well, you get the idea.

In Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution, historian Kathleen DuVal, author of The Native Ground, reminds us that the American Revolution was part of a larger global conflict involving France and Spain, and that Britain had 13 other colonies in North America and the Caribbean that were also affected by the war.

West Florida, which included much of what is now Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, had only recently become a British colony–part of the redistribution of imperial territories at the end of the Seven Years War– when the Continental Congress declared war on Britain. Located on the border between the British and Spanish empires, and a distant frontier for both, it was home to former French and Spanish citizens, British loyalists fleeing the disruptions of the revolution and well-organized Indian nations with their own agendas. The possibility of a Spanish invasion was real, and at least some of the colonists thought Spain was a better choice than Britain or France if push came to colonial shove.

DuVal considers how eight very different colonists–a second-generation African slave, a young Cajun with a deep-seated hatred of the British, leaders of the Creek and Chickasaw tribes and two British couples who chose different sides in the conflict–responded to the dangers and opportunities that the revolution brought to their doorsteps and the impact of those choices. While each of these characters stands in for a larger population, the complicated calculus of self-identity, self-interest and personal history that they use to make decisions about the world around them makes it clear that revolution and politics were always personal.

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


Over the last few weeks, the topic of Nancy Marie Brown’s Song of the Vikings has come up once or twice here on the Margins. (Okay, more than once or twice.)

Some of you may have broken down and bought a copy. For those of you who haven’t, I am please to announce that I have a copy to give away.

To throw your name in the middle-sized mixing bowl, just leave a comment here on the blog or send me an email and tell me:

1. Why you want to go to Iceland,*
2. What you liked best when you went to Iceland, OR
3. What fascinates you about the Vikings, or sagas

My Own True Love will draw a name on September 1. Not coincidentally, that’s the day Brown’s new book, Ivory Vikings, will be released. Vikings, chess, trade routes, luxury goods, and a tough broad or two. I can’t wait to read it.

* If you want to be contrary, I suppose you could also tell me why you have no interest on going to Iceland or speculate on why Iceland is currently a hot destination


Road Trip Through History: 871 +/-2

by pamela on August 21, 2015

In 2001, an Icelandic construction crew was excavating a basement for a new hotel in the historic district of Reykjavik when they made a major archaeological discovery which included not only the oldest relics of human habitation in the area, which date from before the “official” settlement day of 871CE, plus or minus a year or two*,  but a complete tenth century long house.  Today the site is displayed in its original location**   as part of a small but spectacular multimedia museum.   Ghostly videos of everyday scenes from Viking life play out across a panoramic display of the modern Icelandic landscape–not only a cool effect, but illuminating as well  Interactive exhibits show how a long house was built and used.

My take aways?

  • Long houses were a lot smaller than the sagas would lead you to believe.  Roistering must have been done shoulder to shoulder.  No wonder fights broke out so often. ***
  • Tephro chronology:  a form of archaeological dating that uses the relationship of finds to layers of volcanic ash.  The layers of ash that are part of Iceland’s soil have been tied to written accounts of historical eruptions and layers of ash recovered from the Greenland ice cap.****  One layer in particular is important for dating early sites in Iceland: a two-colored layer of ash dating from around 871 CE, known as the “settlement layer”.  Artifacts found below the settlement layer (like the bit of wall found in 2001) date from before the first known settlement of Iceland.
  • Icelanders have mad museum building skills.

If you can only visit one museum in Iceland, the Settlement Exhibit at 871 +/-2   is the one to see.

* Hence the name of the museum

**Literally under the hotel.

*** I had a similar revelation at the much less interesting National Museum of Iceland, where the outline of a Viking ship on the floor made it clear just how small the  dreaded dragon boats must have been.  Not a ship I’d want to go to sea in.

****Evidently layers of ice can be dated like tree rings.  Archaeology gets more fascinating all the time.


Road Trip Through History: Reykholt

by pamela on August 18, 2015

In the thirteenth century, Reykholt was one of the three major estates controlled by Snorri Sturluson, poet, chieftain, and would-be king of Iceland.  Reykholt was wealthy estate and luxurious by the standards of the time.  Snorri literally built a house fit for a king, planning renovations inspired by the palace of the Norwegian king.  His renovations including the expansion of a bathing pool fed by a nearby hot spring into the medieval equivalent of a hot tub.*


Snorri’s hot tub at Reykholt


Reykholt was also the site where Snorri met a violent end in 1241 at the hands of men who supported Snorri’s former sons-in-law against him in the struggle for the control of Iceland.  Snorri received a warning that Gissur of Haukadale and Kolbein the Young were plotting against him; he doesn’t seem to have cared.  On September 22, Gissur’s men entered Reykholt unopposed and broke into Snorri’s sleeping quarters.  The elderly poet jumped out of bed and ran into the neighboring building, unarmed and dressed only in a nightshirt.  He took refuge in a cellar storeroom while Gissur’s seventy men searched the house.  When Gissur discovered Snorri’s hiding place, he sent five of his men down into the cellar where they struck him down.

Today, little of Snorri’s estate remains.**  Reykholt is home to Snorristofa, a research institution  devoted to promoting research into the Snorri, the sagas, and medieval Iceland.   For those of us who have no need of their small, excellent library or their writers’ cottage, the institute offers a well-designed exhibit of the major themes of Snorri’s life: in many ways the cliff notes version of Song of the Vikings.

*Hot springs were a big deal in medieval Iceland. Not only did they provide a reliable heat source in a cold place with limited access to wood for fires, they also provided warm water for cooking, bathing and washing clothes.  More important, if less obvious to a modern American, control of a hot spring had serious agricultural benefits.  Warm water meadows meant grass sprouted sooner in the spring and stayed green longer, making a richer hay crop and the ability to keep more of the horses, sheep and cattle by which wealth (and survival) were measured.

They aren't kidding when they call them hot springs!

They aren’t kidding when they call them hot springs!

Today hot springs not only provide geothermal heat and cheap electricity, they also power greenhouses–an astonishing thing in a place where  historically all vegetables have been imported.  One of the unexpected highlights of the trip was the stop at a farmstand that was selling greenhouse-grown strawberries. IMG_0732 Really excellent strawberries.  My Own True Love and I ate a pint of them in the van on the way to the next stop.  Okay, I’ll admit it.  He let me have more than my share.

**Even the hot tub is a reconstruction.


As I’ve mentioned before, Iceland is a small place and much of it is mountain desert–think the Rockies without the pines. In what passes for arable land, the present lives on top of and alongside the past. Dig the foundation for a new building and the odds are that you will find the foundation of an old building, and possibly an even older building under that. Not every historical site or archaeological dig can be turned into a museum. With the exception of Thingvellir the idea of a Gettysburg-style expanse of land is impossible. Even historical markers as we know them are few and far between.

It makes for a different type of history-nerd holiday. For much of this trip we saw the places where things happened but not remains or even visual representations of the events. The site of an inland harbor, and where it stood in relation to a major estate, but no reconstruction of Viking ships in harbor.* The place where a famous battle took place, but no maps of troop movements. Instead of events, we’ve concentrated on the relationship between the nature of the land, its resources, a way of life, and the way it appeared in the Icelandic sagas. Why hot springs were important. Why men didn’t fight on horseback. Why the “long fire” in a chieftain’s feasting hall was a bed of coals rather than a roaring blaze. Quite frankly, if it weren’t for our guide, Nancy Marie Brown,–writer, Viking expert, and fan of all things Icelandic– we wouldn’t have a clue what we were looking at or why it mattered. **

At the end of our first day in rural Iceland the soles of my boots separated from the top.  duct tape to the rescue!

At the end of our first day in rural Iceland the soles of my boots separated from the top. duct tape to the rescue!

All of which is a long way of saying that I was very pleased to get to the Settlement Center at Borgarnes. I was ready for a museum. The Settlement Center is a small museum with two well-crafted exhibits. One covers the discovery and settlement of Iceland by Vikings from Norway, a period several centuries before the focus of our tour. The second tells the story of one of the most colorful of the Icelandic sagas, the Egils Saga: complete with a gloomy poet-beserker hero, battles, love, betrayal, a wicked sorceress/queen,*** and hidden treasure.

At first I was disappointed to learn that both exhibits required an audio tour, a technology with which I have a long-standing hate-hate relationship. In fact, the audio and physical exhibits worked together beautifully, like 3-dimensional picture books for adults.

Here are some of the details that caught my imagination:

  • Early settlers threw carved high columns, intended to be part of their main hall, overboard and settled where they came to shore. This seems like a large-scale version of divination by tossing rune sticks.
  • Problematic relationships with the kings of Norway were a constant theme throughout the Viking period.
  • A woman could claim as much land as she could drive a cart around in a day.

While we were in Borgarnes we stopped at a second museum that proved to be an unexpected delight. The exhibit Children Throughout a Century is a photographic essay of Icelandic children in the twentieth century, punctuated with physical artifacts. This is the sort of exhibit that can go sadly wrong–and often does. The Borganes Museum clearly has a top-flight curator in charge.  Instead of a small collection of local photographs and worn-out toys, dutifully identified with name and place,  Children Throughout a Century was a full room of uncaptioned photographs, displayed floor to ceiling in a way that showed changes from decade to decade without diminishing the impact of individual photographs. Artifacts–some directly related to childhood, others emblematic of a way of life–were displayed in shadow boxes hidden behind related photographs on hinged doors. From an American perspective it was fascinating to compare and contrast Icelandic images with those I carry in my head. (And a bit of a shock to realize how dated the images from the years of my childhood looked.) No Viking connection, but definitely worth seeing if you have a chance.

*I’ve written about the design of Viking ships a number of times (though not here on the Margins), but now I understand the importance of that design with my gut and not just my head. They were swift, narrow-hulled ships with true keels and shallow drafts that could sail long distances in the open sea using either oars or sails. Unlike the wider, deeper-hulled ships of western Europe, they could land men upstream from the mouth of a river or on the beach of a small island. The symmetry of the design, with an identical bow and stern and the mast at the exact center, meant the ship could go in either direction. Being able to withdraw from shore without turning around meant the ships could leave as quickly as they landed, increasing the blitzkrieg feel of a Viking raid.

**The dates for next year’s tour are already posted. Sign up now.

***Who learned her magic from the Lapps in Finland–a throwaway line that made me want to know more.


A LAGNIAPPE: For those of you who don’t see a history-nerd trip to Iceland in your immediate future (or even those of you who do), I strongly recommend the video series Journey’s End as a introduction to the link between the sagas and history.


We visited the national park at Thingvellir, aka the Assembly Plains, on what our Icelandic hosts assured us was a rare perfect day: sunny and warm enough that we peeled off not only our rain coats but our heavy sweaters.

Located in a geologically unstable rift valley where the American and European tectonic plates meet,* Thingvellir has been described as the heart of Iceland. It was the site at which the 36 chieftains of Iceland, accompanied by their families and followers, met each year for the Althing, or General Assembly, to settle disputes and debate the law. The gathering centered around Iceland’s only elected official, the lawspeaker, who recited one-third of Iceland’s law code each year in a natural amphitheater known as the Law Rock. But the Althing was more than just a legal gathering, it was a two-week-long market, fair, sporting event, and nationwide party. Sometimes it was a nationwide brawl. Anyone who could come did: thousands of them.

The Law Rock at Thingvellir

The Law Rock at Thingvellir

The Althing was a political force from 930 CE to the thirteenth century. As chieftaincies merged through inheritance, purchase, trickery and outright seizure, power between the chieftains became increasingly unbalanced; the gathering became less an exercise of democracy and more an exercise of law by battleaxe. In 1262, hoping for greater stability, the chieftains of the Althing gave away their independence and swore allegiance to King Hakon of Norway. The original Icelanders who fled Norway to avoid the rule of the first Norwegian king were no doubt cursing and kicking the walls in Valhalla.

In the nineteenth century, when Iceland** was caught up in the same Romantic nationalism that swept through Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire,*** young Icelanders took up the Althing and the Sagas as a symbol of Iceland’s heroic and independent past. Thingvellir became the site for nationalist debates and on June 14, 1944, half the country traveled there to hear Iceland’s declaration of independence from Denmark.****

Today,the Icelandic parliament is known as the Althing and Thingvellir is the site of Iceland’s national celebrations. It is a place of incredible beauty, with a few discreet historic markers for those interested in its past and well laid out trails for those interested in a long walk. Just don’t count on a warm dry day, even in July. Sweaters and rain gear are recommended.

*And are now parting company at the rate of 1/4 inch a year, suggesting that eventually Iceland will be torn in two by its own geology. (Interestingly, Kenya’s Great Rift Valley is not technically a rift valley in geological terms. The things you learn when you go a-roving!)

**Then part of Denmark rather than Norway. Scandinavia’s political history is complicated.

***Note to self: write the dang post on Romantic nationalism.

****Which was occupied by the Nazis at the time and in no position to fight to keep control of a rocky island the size of Kentucky.

Image courtesy of Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 4.0


Road Trip Through History: Reykjavik

by pamela on August 7, 2015

My Own True Love and I started and ended our Viking history adventure in a city no Viking ever saw: Reykjavik, literally Smoky (or perhaps steamy) Bay. It is fundamentally a grey city, built of concrete, stone and glass in an array of textures and shapes that save it from bleakness and livened by shots of pure color in the form of small houses made of corrugated metal,* lavish flower beds, and brightly colored rain-gear.

A modern Icelandic take on Smoky Bay

A modern Icelandic take on Smoky Bay

The thing that struck me most about Reykjavik is how modern it is–literally.

According to the party line, Iceland was settled in the 9th century by refugees from Norway, where Harald Fair-Hair had made himself the first king and was busy claiming all the land for the crown.** But the early settlers didn’t build towns. They came together each spring in the great gathering known as the Althing to settle disputes and define the law. In later centuries, Icelanders formed temporary settlements along the coast during the fishing season. But all of these settlements scattered when their purpose was done.

Reykjavik the city–as opposed to Reykjavik the chieftain’s manor–was founded in 1751 by a representative of the Danish crown, making it the first permanent town in Iceland. (Just to put this in context: Boston was founded in 1630.) As late as 1845, the city’s population was no more than 1000. Like all colonial cities, it was based on trade. In the case of Reykjavik, that meant cod, first dried and later salted. ***

And speaking of cod, here are some of the highlights of our time in Reykjavik:

  • The Maritime Museum focuses on the fishing industry in Icelandic history, from the days when Icelanders built six-oar boats from driftwood and fished with individual lines to modern freezer trawlers. I was particularly taken with an exhibit on Icelandic seawomen from the medieval period to the present. Fascinating stuff.
  • 871 +/-2 –a small museum based on an archaeological site that deserves (and will get) its own blog post
  • A city-walk led by a self–defined “history graduate”: the tour guide was smart, informed, opinionated, and funny. I highly recommend this even for those with no particular interest in history. (Not that this describes any of the Marginites, but you  might travel with anyone like that.) They also run a tour called Walk The Crash, led by an economic historian (we really wanted to take it, but we couldn’t make the schedule work) and a pub crawl.  Here’s the link for anyone planning an Iceland trip:
  • Licorice. I am not a big licorice fan, but Icelandic licorice is good stuff. And a good thing, too, because the chocolate is forgettable.

*I was astonished to learn that the corrugated metal buildings date from the nineteenth century. I think of it as a modern material. Shows how much I know.

**As always with foundation myths, you have to take this one with a “yes, but”. It is clear that explorers from Norway reached Iceland once or twice before Ingólfur Arnarson established himself on the future site of Reykjavik. Even more interesting from my perspective, there is some evidence that monks from Ireland or the Scottish islands were already in Iceland when the Norwegian settlers arrived, presumably having traveled overseas in their coracles– small round boats made of willow covered with skin and tar that make Viking longboats look like ocean liners. It is not clear whether the Vikings killed the monks or simply drove them off.

***Fishing is still important in Iceland, but tourists have replaced cod as the country’s primary industry.


In Search of Sir Thomas Browne

by pamela on August 4, 2015

There are times when the book I read isn’t the book I think it’s going to be.* This happened to me recently with science writer Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ In Search of Sir Thomas Browne. I expected a biography. And I had Browne confused with someone else altogether, though I am no longer sure who. Possibly Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy?

I got a quirkier and more interesting book than I was expecting.

In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century’s Most Inquiring Mind is neither a biography of Browne nor a critical study of his writings. Instead it is the intellectual equivalent of a buddy road trip.

Aldersey-Williams became interested in Sir Thomas Browne–a physician, scientist and debunker of popular myths–more than 20 years ago. In the intervening years, he found himself stumbling over Browne at unexpected moments. Finally, feeling “haunted” by Browne, he decided it was time to haunt Browne in return. Using Browne’s writings, rather than his life story, as a framework, Aldersey-Williams travels in the physician’s footsteps, both literally and intellectually. He looks for traces of Browne’s life in modern Norwich (home to both men) and explores the echoes left by Browne’s varying preoccupations in modern thought. He explores questions of scientific certainty, uncertainty and error, the meaning of order in nature, the reconciliation of science and religion, and the extent to which truth is knowable. He uses Browne’s fascination with the recurring form of the quincunx,** his efforts at cataloging the birds of the Norwich marshes and his role as the expert witness in a witch trial as tools for understanding the intellectual landscape of both the 17th century and the modern world.

In the end, Aldersey-Williams argues that Browne is important not because of his answers or his baroque prose style, which inspired writers as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jorge Luis Borges, but for the questions he asks.

* I’m not the only person this happens to, right?

** An arrangement of five objects with four at the corners of a square or rectangle and the fifth at its center

Most of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


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.