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 – Photo gallery from Easter Island. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.


Road Trip Through History? Sort Of.

by pamela on June 26, 2015

plain and fancy Several weeks ago, My Own True Love took me to the Round Barn Theater at Amish Acres in Nappanee, Indiana to see Plain and Fancy, a musical I first discovered when I was in high school. I had developed the habit of checking out obscure soundtracks, opera recordings, and the like from our local library.* I loved the music to Plain and Fancy and I checked out the LP over and over. The play had opened on Broadway more than twenty years previously and had long faded into obscurity. I had no real hope of ever seeing it performed. When I found out that Plain and Fancy is the central show in the summer repertory program at Amish Acres, I was thrilled. I may have even squealed as we drove past the sign.**

Amish Acres is an odd mix: a restored Amish homestead from the mid-nineteenth century used as the center of a “heritage resort”. The site offers tours of the homestead and outbuildings, living history demonstrations, buggy rides, and some efforts at explaining Amish history and culture. A truly glorious round barn has been transformed into a theater which offers a professional summer stock program of musical theater–something that would have been anathema to its original Amish owners. The historical site is a bit dated in its presentation, though it’s possible I’m jaded.*** (I’ve been to a lot of living history programs over the years.) The theater is a lot of fun. The barn is worth a stop all by itself.

Plain and Fancy is the point where the theater and Amish heritage come together. It tells the story of a pair of New Yorkers who find themselves involved with an Amish community for a brief time, with an initial lack of comprehension and gradual understanding on both sides. I must admit, I was afraid I would be disappointed after waiting literally decades for a chance to see the show. I’m pleased to tell you that it’s a charming minor work from the golden age of American musicals. It was the first musical play written by Joseph Stein, best known for Fiddler on the Roof. Plain and Fancy isn’t on the same scale as Fiddler, but shares some of its thematic elements, including an underlying philosophical strain and a respectful exploration of a traditional society. It’s also drop dead funny. If you happen to be driving through northern Indiana and have a taste for classical musical comedy, go.

Next up on the high school wish list, Irving Berlin’s Mr. President.

*Why yes, I did spell nerd with a capital N.

**As those who know me in real life will attest, I am not much of a squealer.

***If you’re interested in a serious look at the history and culture of the Amish, Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups, I recommend the Menno-Hof interpretive center in Shipshewana, Indiana.


Counting The Fallen

by pamela on June 23, 2015

casualties in WWII

The size of the armies and the number of the casualties in a given war, or even individual battle, is always a difficult discussion for historians.

When dealing with pre-modern sources of any kind, historians are cautious about accepting contemporary estimates.* The assumption is that at best the writer of the source did not have access to accurate numbers and at worst he** diddled the numbers to make a victory more glorious or a defeat less humiliating.

Modern** record-keeping makes it easier to feel secure that the size of armies in the field is more or less accurate, but counting the fallen is still tricky. The conditions under which the counting occurs are inherently difficult, the temptation to make a victory more glorious or a defeat less humiliating remains constant, and the definitions of what is counted may vary from battle to battle. Casualties can include dead, wounded, fatally wounded but not yet dead, or missing (a category that is inherently fuzzy).

Accuracy aside, it is hard to visualize just what the body count actually looks like. Forty-eight thousand dead and wounded at the Battle of Waterloo*** is much less than 425,000 casualties in the Battle of Normandy. But what does either number mean, beyond the fact that enough men are dead to populate a small southern city, in the case of Waterloo, or a western state, in the case of Normandy?

Filmmaker and data-journalist Neil Halloran grapples with these questions, as well as the even slipperier issue of civilian casualties, in The Fallen of World War II–a web-based graphic documentary that looks at the human cost of the war. The graphics are as simple and painful as a fist to the gut. Halloran doesn’t just look at how many people each country lost, but when and where they died. Most interesting of all, at least to this history buff/bugg, he compares WWII’s numbers to those of other wars across historian and does not hesitate to draw conclusions about what it all means.

Check it out:

(There’s an interactive option, but I couldn’t get it to run. Possibly an operating system upgrade is needed for either my computer or my brain. If any of you get it to work, let me know what you think.)

*Not surprising given that the further back we go the looser our definition of contemporary. Primary sources means different things for different periods.

**I usually hesitate to use he for the generalized third person singular, but the case of pre-modern history almost all of the sources are in fact “he” due to historical realities related to access to education, etc. [rant over]

***Definitions may vary

****That’s a LOT of teeth.


A Bit of (Really Gross) Waterloo Trivia

by pamela on June 18, 2015

Let’s face it, there’s no reason for me to give you a quick synopsis of what happened at the Battle of Waterloo, what led to the Battle of Waterloo, why it mattered, or the battle’s social/political/artistic impact.  If you are reading this on or soon after June 18, 2015, blog posts and news articles related to the 200th anniversary of Waterloo* are everywhere, in both History Land and the mainstream media of your choice.  It will be harder for you to avoid reading about the battle than to read about it.

I had planned to give you a list of Waterloo books that you might have missed, or forgotten about.**   Instead I’d like to share with you one of the oddest bits of Waterloo trivia that I’ve read in recent weeks:  “Waterloo teeth”.

Rotten teeth were a significant problem in the long eighteenth century*** and false teeth were problematic.  They were expensive.  They were heavy.  Many of the materials used to make them–wood, ivory, and bone–were themselves prone to decay, which resulted in nasty breath and nastier infections.   The best material for making replacement teeth was actual teeth.  (Are you grimacing in disgust, yet?) Prior to the Napoleonic wars, real-teeth dentures were made with teeth from executed criminals, exhumed bodies, or animals.  Gumming your food may well have looked like a better choice.

The denture industry took an upward turn at the end of the eighteenth century when the Napoleonic wars produced a ready supply of young healthy tooth donors.  Teeth stolen from the from the bodies of fallen soldiers became the preferred material for dentures, which became known as “Waterloo teeth”. 

Makes you  want to floss right now, doesn’t it?

*   *   *

Here’s a little something to take the taste out of your mouth:


*It is worth pointing out that Waterloo is shorthand for three battles fought over a period of several days.  Napoleon’s army defeated the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny  and forced the combined British-Dutch forces to withdraw from Quatre-Bras on June 16.

**Okay, just one, which I haven’t yet read. The Sage of Waterloo, in which novelist Leona Francombe tells the story of the battle from the perspective of a bunny living on the modern site of the battlefield. Watership Down meets Vanity Fair?

***One of the side-effects of inexpensive sugar from the Caribbean islands.  The empire strikes back.



King John Was Not A Good Man…*

by pamela on June 15, 2015

It’s a big week in History Land. History bloggers, history buffs, #twitterstorians** and re-enactors are all aflutter about the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on Friday. But today we pause to recognize another historical anniversary, one that is less flashy and more ambiguous–the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymeade in 1215.

[If you want an even shorter explanation of the Magna Carta–with a level of snark that I have not allowed myself–watch this video from the British Library. (Who knew the British Library had attitude?) If you’re reading this via e-mail, you may need to click through to your browser.]

Eight hundred years ago, forty English barons rebelled against what they perceived as excessive tax demands on the part of King John, baby brother of Richard the Lionhearted.*** Rebellion against Norman kings was nothing new. (They were often perceived to be milking England to pay for wars in France–and they often were.) The fact that the disgruntled barons were able to force King John to negotiate was. The Magna Carta was the result of those negotiations: sixty-nine clauses designed to protect the rights of a small elite group of men. Many of the clauses were very specific to the time and place: the removal of fish weirs from the Thames, for instance, had little impact on the larger course of history. Others had enormous, and probably unintended, consequences, most notably the idea that no man, whether king, baron, fishmonger or policeman, is above the law.

In the short run, the Magna Carta was a bust. King John immediately sent messengers to the Pope asking (or perhaps demanding) that the charter be annulled. The Pope, who did not like the charter’s terms and may well have been troubled by the precedent of subjects forcing legal changes on ruling monarchs, issued a papal bull describing the charter as “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people” and declaring it “null and void of all validity for ever.”****  With the charter void, civil war quickly broke out between king and barons. King John raised an army of mercenaries, which suggests that his position was not a popular one. The barons renounced their allegiance to John and offered the crown to his cousin, Prince Louis of France. (A tactic that Parliament would emulate several centuries later in the Glorious Revolution.) The war, and the immediate legal value of the Magna Carta, ended when John died of dysentery on October 18, 1216.

From the barons’ point of view, John’s nine-year-old son Henry looked like a better choice than Louis for king. (Under-age kings provide so many opportunities for the nobility to grab power.) The young king issued three revised versions of the Magna Carta during his reign, the first as a condition of succeeding his father on the throne.

Over the long run, the historical importance of the Magna Carta depended on one clause, buried deep in the original document and seen as relatively insignificant by its framers:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of is rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, not will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
To no one will we see, to no one deny or delay right or justice.*****

When this clause was first written it applied to only a few: “free men” were an elite in a society in which freedom as we know it was rare and the reference to men was literal. In the intervening eight centuries, it has become the foundation for the right to justice and a free trial for all within British Common Law, the American Bill of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–an ideal that we value even though we do not always live up to it.

*To quote A.A. Milne, who was probably referring to an entirely different King John: “King John was not a good man. He had his little ways. And sometimes no one spoke to him for days and days and days.” “King John’s Christmas”. Now We Are Six

**Yes, you read that correctly. Historians on twitter are #twitterstorians.

***Who was not exactly the heroic king that popular history makes him out to be. But that’s another story.

****Not one of his infallible days.

*****“We” being King John and the mouse in his pocket.


If you can’t go to Waterloo….

by pamela on June 12, 2015


Let Waterloo come to you.

Battle of Waterloo

You may have heard–June 18th is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.  Hundreds of thousands of history buffs, nerds, geeks and buggs* will gather in Belgium to watch 5000 enthusiasts and 300 bewildered horses reenact the battle.  My guess is that plenty of them are already there, drinking beer and eating frites. (With mayo, not catsup.  Because that’s the way the Belgians do it.  And a mighty fine way it is, too.)

Those of us who don’t have tickets are not out of luck. **  One of my favorite websites, Military History Now,*** is hosting a real-time virtual reenactment created by game developers Matrix Games and The Slitherine Group.  Eight hours of simulated nineteenth century battle on your computer stream–or at least as much of it as you can bear arrange to watch. That is some serious geek-ery.

Personally, I plan on having it on in the background while I work–the way my Grandpa Mahaney used to listen to the Cardinals while he worked in his shop.

Are you in?****


*My favorite typo ever. Why yes,  I am a history bugg. Aren’t you?

**  In fact, maybe we’re the lucky ones.  That’s going to be one big crowd.

***If you’re interested in “the strange, off-beat and lesser-known aspects of military history”, you’ll love it too.

****Here are the practical bits:

  • Streaming is scheduled to start at 11:30 AM Central European Time (4:30 AM in my time zone), when the initial attack occurred.  Because that’s what a real-time reenactment means.
  • It will be streamed via a TwitchStream channel.  (Don’t ask.  I don’t know.)
  • Check or MHN’s Twitter feed @MilHistNow for updates

A hat tip to friend and fellow history buff Scottie Kersta-Wilson for calling this to my attention.  I love Military History Now, but I don’t always read their posts the day they arrive. I’d have kicked somethng if I’d missed this.


Lovelace, Babbage, and Steampunk Comics

by pamela on June 9, 2015

Normally when I use the phrase “comic-book history” here on the Margins I’m referring to the shorthand popular version of history that we learned as children and carry in our hearts as adults:  Abraham Lincoln dashing off the Gettysburg address on the back of an envelope,  the first American Thanksgiving, Marie Antoinette’s infamous line “let them eat cake–like that.  These historical anecdotes are at best incomplete versions of history and at worst absolutely wrong, but they are emotionally satisfying so they live on no matter how often they are debunked.*

Today, though, I’m going to talk about a real comic book, described by its author as “an imaginary comic about an imaginary computer.”:  The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer.

Sydney Padua starts out with two real people:

Ada_Lovelace_portrait  Augusta Ada King (1815-1852) , the Countess of Lovelace, better known as Ada Lovelace. Daughter of the famous (and infamous) Lord Byron, Lovelace was a talented mathematician.  Most women with that skill in her time would have had no opportunity to use it.  Lucky for her, her mother insisted that she be educated in a rigorous  program of math and science well outside the norm for young women of the time,  hoping  such study would counteract any poetical tendencies she might have inherited from her father. ** (In case you’re not up on nineteenth century gossip, it was a spectacularly unhappy marriage.)

Charles BabbageCharles Babbage (1791-1857) was an irascible and inventive mathematician and tinkerer who is often called the “father of the computer”.  He designed two machines intended to automate complex  calculations:  the difference machine and the later, more complicated analytical engine.

Lovelace was fascinated by his work.  When asked to translate an Italian engineer’s article on the analytical machine  into English, she added her own notes to the piece*** in which she described how code could be written that would expand the use of the machine.  Making her the first computer programmer.  At least in theory.

Padua tells the history of Lovelace and Babbage in twenty-five smart, snarky, footnoted pages–then revolts against the fact that history gives her characters unhappy endings.****  The rest of the smart, snarky, footnoted comic takes place in an alternative steampunk universe where Lovelace and Babbage “live to complete the analytical engine and use it to have thrilling adventures and fight crime.”   Padua takes elements of nineteenth century history (Luddites, for example) and historical personages (Queen Victoria among them) and twists them into unhistorical forms that are nonetheless historically illuminating.  It’s quite a trick and makes me think of Marianne Moore’s definition of poetry as the ability to create “real toads in imaginary gardens”.



*My apologies to those of you who have heard this rant before, either here or In Real Life.

**This seems to have been based on a fundamental lack of understanding of the poetical properties inherent in higher mathematics and the amount of imagination required to make scientific leaps.

***Three times the length of the original article.

****Lovelace had a drug habit, tried (unsuccessfully) to use her mathematical skills to build a gambling system, and died young of uterine cancer.  Babbage, being irascible, was in constant fights with just about everyone and never built his analytical engine.  In part because he was in constant fights with just about everyone.



Wade Ward of Bog Trotters Band, Galax, Virginia. 1937

Recently My Own True Love and I had the chance to see Michael Miles’ most recent one-man musical documentary, From Senegal to Seeger: Stories of the American Banjo. It was a last-minute addition to a long-planned small-scale road trip.  It turned out to be one of the highlights.

We both love the banjo. We’d seen Miles work his music-cum-history magic before. It was a no-brainer.

Over the course of 90 minutes, Miles played music from across a 300-year period on seven different banjos, interspersing the music with poetry, historical vignettes, personal anecdotes, and opportunities to sing along.* The result is an impressionistic portrait of American history seen through the lens of the banjo.

My takeaways?

  • A renewed sense of the banjo as America’s instrument of social change (or perhaps just subversion), from slaves dancing in New Orleans’ Congo Square on Sundays to the folk music movement of the 1960s.
  • The courage and clarity of Pete Seegher’s testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, in which he invoked his First Amendment rights to perform for audiences that had ranged from hobo jungles to the Rockefellers.
  • The poetry of Walt Whitman and Wallace Steven is much easier to understand when recited by someone who does it well.

Miles is an extraordinary musician and performer. (Not always the same thing.) If you get a chance to hear him, go for it! In the meantime, check out the clips on his website.

And if you can’t wait to learn more about the history of the banjo, or perhaps the banjo’s role in history, I strongly recommend Karen Linn’s That Half Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture.


*The audience in South Bend, Indiana, did not sing along with the gusto that we’re used to hearing at the Old Town School of Folk Music but they made up for it with wild applause and multiple standing ovations.


And we have winners!

by pamela on June 2, 2015

As always when I have books to give away, I’m glad that I don’t have to choose the winners based on merit. As always, you responded with book suggestions,* thoughtful commentary, suggestions for future blog posts, and history-nerd humor–both in comments on the blog post itself and in wonderful e-mails. **

I think I’m the real winner here, but some of you get books. (Drumroll please.)

And the winners are:

Big History: Viriam Khalsa
Divine Fury: Scottie Kersta-Wilson
Exile’s Return: Diana Holdsworth
The Profligate Son: HJ and Jane S. Poole
Voyagers of the Titanic: Robert Rhine

Send me your addresses by e-mail and I’ll get the books in the mail.

Thanks for reading, whether you just discovered History in the Margins or have been reading it for years. More historical bits are on the way.

* Because I clearly don’t have enough Big Fat History Books to read.

**Actually, some of you respond with book suggestions, thoughtful commentary, etc even without a book giveaway. I know bloggers who hesitate to include their e-mail address on their blog because they fear spam. They don’t know what they’re missing!


Big History and Big Buts

by pamela on May 29, 2015

Several years ago, when I was working on a Big Project, I stumbled across the concept of Big History.*

It’s basically the opposite of the academic mantra “not my field.”  Proponents of Big History integrate many scholarly disciplines in order to look at human history as a tiny part of the history of the cosmos.  One of their favorite ways of illustrating how new we are is to compress the timeline of the universe from 13 billion years to 13 years. In this scenario, homo sapiens would have been around for 53 minutes.  The entire recorded history of civilization would have existed for three minutes.  “Modern” industrial society has been mucking up the environment for roughly six seconds. In short, we are a blink in the eye of the universe.**

This TED talk by Big History promoter David Christian sums up the basic principles:

[Reminder: if you receive this post by email you may need to go to the History in the Margins website to see the video. Just click the headline or the link.]

It’s fascinating stuff.  My introduction to Big History has inspired me to ask slightly different questions than I used to ask.  Not just how the salt trade functioned, but why our bodies need salt.  Not just when did farming start, but how grain was domesticated.  Not just the role of fire in making tools, but the role of fire in making man.  But, and for me this is a Big But,*** stories about people are what pulled me into history.  Here on the Margins I often focus on the smallest stories.  When I think about writing books, I gravitate toward big sweeping themes.  But whether the scale of my story is tiny or grand, my subject is people, not great flaming balls in the sky.  I’m interested in what happened in that last three minutes,  or maybe just a little bit before.

Which means I’m not quite sure what to do with Big History other than admire the intellectual audacity behind it.  Any ideas?

*Or more accurately, someone beat me over the head with the idea.

**Or maybe a piece of grit.

***And as my best friend from graduate school will tell you, I love Big Buts. (Sorry, sometimes I can’t resist.)