Gone fishin’

by pamela on September 29, 2015

fishing nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e1-1e8b-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wI’m up to my knees in the rushing waters of history right now.  Once I climb out, dry off, and have a reviving shot of whiskey or three,  I’ll be back in here in the Margins with new stories.  I promise.

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Was Prof. Bhaer A 48-er?

by pamela on September 25, 2015

Unlike most of the women I know who grew up reading Little Women, I was never indignant that Jo March married Professor Bhaer instead of the adolescent golden boy, Laurie.  That kiss in the rain under the umbrella defined romance for me.   I was always firmly on Team Professor.  And now I think I know why.*  I suspect Professor Bhaer, Fritz to his friends, was a 48-er.**

Revolution of 1848. Berlin.

As is so often the case with me, it’s been a multi-step epiphany, spread over several years.

I took my first step toward this realization  four or five years ago when My Own True Love and I visited my hometown Civil War battlefield, Wilson’s Creek.  Walking the self-guided tour at Wilson’s Creek was a regular part of my childhood and adolescence, so I didn’t expect to learn anything new.  Silly me.  In that visit I realized for the first time how many Germans took part in the battle.  Not German-Americans.  German immigrants.  In fact, at least one unit was made up entirely of Germans who spoke no English.  They had marched south from St. Louis into the sauna of a mid-South summer to fight with patriotic fervor for their adopted country.  Interesting, I thought, then my attention was diverted by George Caleb Bingham’s Order No. 11. The question of Germans in the Civil War slid into a back pocket in my brain.

Germans in the Civil War grabbed my attention again a couple of years later, when I was working on a book on the history of socialism*** and plunged into the revolutions of 1848–something I had only been peripherally aware of before.  Sometimes called the “revolution of the intellectuals, the movement began on January 2, 1848, when Palermo, in Sicily, rose up against its ruler.  Over the next four months, more than armed rebellions occurred across Europe, in France, Austria, Prussia and most of the smaller German and Italian states.  There was no single revolutionary organization or movement.  No coordination across national boundaries.  In state after state, socialists, intellectuals,  middle class professionals, the urban poor and the peasants united against absolutism and the remains of feudal privilege.  In state after state, the revolutions failed, put down with varying levels of brutality by governments with no interest in participatory government.  By 1849, not only had the revolutionary impulse been crushed, but the political situation in many countries was more repressive than it had been before the revolts.

Thousands of German revolutionaries fled to the United States in the last half of 1848.  Most of them settled in the newly industrializing cities of the Midwest, where they profoundly shaped the culture of Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Ohio. A substantial minority settled in the Texas hill country.  Others found work in the textile mills of New England. They opened small manufactories, established newspapers, and formed mutual-aid societies. As a group, they fit in well with the “benevolent empire” of reform associations dedicated to  temperance, asylum and penal reform, women’s rights, education, and, most important of all, abolition that stretched across the northern United States in the years before the civil war.  Having lost their own fight for greater freedom in their home countries, they were for the most part fervent abolitionists.  When the Civil War came they enlisted in disproportionate numbers to fight in what to their eyes was a simple fight for freedom.

And what, you may ask, does all that have to do with Professor Bhaer?  Patience, children.

Recently, in the course of doing research for another book,**** I had the opportunity to read not only the description of the home life of one of the 48-ers who immigrated to America, but his letters to the woman he married.  They paint an appealing picture of a domesticated revolutionary:  a little house lovingly kept and simple pleasures shared with friends.  The tone of the letters was  sweet, playful–and very familiar.  They nagged at me for a couple of days and then I got it–Professor Bhaer! Gustav von Olnhausen sounded exactly like Professor Bhaer!  I was gobsmacked.

Once I’ve turned this manuscript in, I’m going back to Little Women to see if there are any hints that I’m right.  That romantic kiss under the umbrella has nothing to do with it.

*To all my male readers who are glaring at their screen or giving baffled shrugs, trust me.  History is about to begin.
**Not to be confused with the ’49-ers of the California Gold Rush.  Though now that I think about, I wonder if the United States was affected by the Hungry ’40s in ways other than the flood of new immigrants? Anyone?
***Apologies for the blurt of self-promotion.  But if I don’t toot my own horn occasionally, who will?
****Details coming in a later blog post.  Don’t touch that dial!


Mongol Invasion of Japan

Japan had expected the Mongol invasion for years.

In 1266, Kublai Khan, the new Mongol emperor of China, sent envoys to Japan with a letter addressed to the “King of Japan”–a title guaranteed to offend the Japanese emperor.  The letter itself was equally unpalatable.  The Great Khan “invited” Japan to send envoys to the Mongol court in order to establish friendly relations between the two states–code for the tributary relationship China habitually imposed on its neighbors.  The letter ended with an implicit threat:  “Nobody would wish to resort to arms.”  Both the largely symbolic imperial court at Kyoto and the military government at Kamakura, which had controlled Japan since the late twelfth century, chose to ignore the khan’s overtures.

For several years Kublai Khan was distracted by more immediate concerns: subduing the newly conquered province of Korea and his war against the Song dynasty of southern China. It was 1274 before the Mongol emperor turned his attention to Japan once more.  On November 2, a fleet of 900 ships sailed from Korea with over 40,000 men, including Chinese, Jurchen, and Korean soldiers and a corps of 5,000 Mongolian horsemen.  The invasion forces landed first at the islands of Tsushima and Iki, where the local samurai were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of their attackers.

With the intervening islands secured, the Mongols moved on to the Japanese mainland, landing at Hakata Bay on November 19.  The Japanese were waiting for them, alerted by the news from Tsushima and Iki.  When the Mongols landed, the twelve-year-old grandson of the Japanese commander-in-chief fired the shot that was the traditional opening in a samurai battle:  a signaling arrow with a perforated wooden head that whistled as it flew to draw the attention of the gods to the deeds of bravery about to be performed.  The Mongols responded with raucous laughter.

It was an omen of how the day’s battle would proceed. Both armies depended on their archers, but their fighting styles were dramatically different. The Japanese were accustomed to fighting in small-group or individual combat, seeking out worthy opponents by shouting a verbal challenge. They fired single arrows aimed at specific targets. The Mongols advanced in tightly knit formations and fired their arrows in huge volleys. Their movements were accompanied by roaring drums and gongs, which frightened the Japanese horses and made them difficult to control.  When the Mongol forces pulled back, they fired paper bombs and iron balls that exploded at the samurais’ feet–something the Japanese had not seen before.

mongol fleet destroyed in a typhoonSeriously outnumbered and baffled by the invaders’ tactics, the Japanese were not able to hold the beaches.  By nightfall, they had retreated several miles inland. Instead of pressing forward, the Mongolian forces returned to their ships for the night. A successful attack the next day seemed inevitable, but that evening an unseasonable storm struck the Mongol fleet, dashing its ships against the rocks.  With their ships smashed and about one-third of their force dead, the Mongols withdrew.  The Japanese hailed the storm as a divine wind (kamikaze), sent by the gods to protect them.

Seven years later,  Kublai Khan tried again. The Mongols launched a two-pronged attack against Japan, with a combined fleet of almost 4,000 ships and 140,000 men. The Eastern Army sailed from Korea on May 22; the Southern Army sailed from southern China on July 5.  The two fleets were to meet at Iki and proceed together against mainland Japan.  The Eastern Army subdued Tsushima and Iki in early June.  Instead of waiting for the Southern Army to arrive, they moved on to Hakata Bay.

Japan had used the intervening years to build earth and stone fortifications along the coast of Hakata Bay.  When the Mongols arrived, Japanese defenders  repulsed the attack from a secure position behind the defensive walls. When the Mongols retreated, the Japanese took the war to them,  using small boats to attack the Mongosl at night.  After a week of fierce fighting, the Eastern Army retreated to Iki Island to await the arrival of the Southern Army.

The two Mongol forces rendezvoused in early August.  On the evening of August 12, the Japanese attacked, using the “little ships” tactic that had been successful before.  The Mongols responded by linking their ships together to create a defensive platform.  The battle continued through the night.  At dawn, the exhausted Japanese retreated, expecting a decisive attack and the subsequent invasion of the mainland.  Instead the Mongol ships, still linked together, were caught in a typhoon that dashed the ships against each other and the shore.  When the typhoon subsided, the surviving ships headed out to sea, leaving thousands of stranded soldiers behind them to be massacred by the Japanese.

Japanese chroniclers cited the winds as proof that the gods themselves protected the island.  The idea of “divine winds” (kamikaze) that protected Japan against invasion remained an important element in Japanese political mythology as late as the Second World War.


Art + History+ Artist

by pamela on September 18, 2015

Two years ago and a bit, I shared a link with you about a video series produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art  in which curators talked about how individual pieces in the museum had changed the way they see the world.  It was charming and smart and in a short enough format that I could justify watching it as soon as it appeared in my in-box*–208 minutes spread over the course of a year fits into anyone’s schedule.

Evidently I’m not the only who loved it because the Metropolitan Museum is now producing a related series, The Artist Project.  Contemporary working artists–different ages, genders, ethnicity, media–discuss works of art in the Metropolitan’s collection that spark their imagination.  Some of them discuss works in their own media.  Others chose a work that has no obvious relationship to their own, until they talk about it.  The relationships between curator and art were intelligent; the relationships between artist and art are more intense and more personal and no less intelligent. Some of the artists focus on what a work meant in their own lives or an extraordinary artistic technique.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the episodes that stick with me the most are the artists who are deeply aware that works of art that transcend time are also rooted in their own time. Listening to an artist discuss how the form and content of , say, Kongo power figures or Egyptian mummy paintings are formed by their purpose is always interesting and often illuminating.  Sometimes when you add art to history you get more than art history.

Give it a look–you can afford two minutes a week, right?

*Unlike, say, the 15-18 minute long TED talks that show up in my in-box every day.  Which are also worth watching.  Eventually.


Reading My Way Through Roman Britain, Part 3

by pamela on September 15, 2015

British journalist Charlotte Higgins (It’s All Greek To Me) was always fascinated by the classical world, but that fascination didn’t extend to Roman Britain. She thought of Britain as an unglamorous outpost on the edge of the Roman Empire–an opinion shared by most Romans of the time-. A visit to Hadrian’s Wall changed her mind. Under Another Sky: Journeys In Roman Britain is the story of her search to understand Rome’s 360-year occupation of Britain and its influence on the British sense of history and identity

Higgins travels across Britain in an unreliable camper van in search of traces of ancient Rome. She walks the tourist-friendly Hadrian Wall and tracks down the remains of Londinium through modern London with the help of a map published by the Museum of London. She visits small museums, major museums, and a tourist trap called Iceni Village. She interviews archaeologists, museum curators, farmers turned innkeepers near Hadrian’s Wall, and a full-time Roman centurion who appears at museum events and school programs. She considers the unexpected cache of Roman “postcards” known as the Vindolanda writing tablets, an influential eighteenth-century forgery of a Roman text, and re-imaginings of Roman Britain by later generations of British antiquarians, poets, military engineers and composers, including Benajmin Britten’s soulful Roman Wall Blues, composed for a radio play by W. H. Auden.

Under Another Sky weaves together Britain’s history and contemporary landscape into a complex and fascinating whole that is part travelogue, part history, and wholly charming.


This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Reading My Way Through Roman Britain, Part 2

by pamela on September 11, 2015

Guy de la Bédoyère’s The Real Lives Of Roman Britain: A History of Roman Britain Through The Lives of Those Who Were There is not a narrative history of Roman Britain. (De la Bédoyère has already written several versions of that narrative.) It is instead an attempt to look at the 360 years of Roman occupation in terms of human experience rather than “the generalities of military campaigns, the antics of emperors, the arid plains of statistical models and typologies of pottery, the skeletal remains of buildings, and theoretical archaeological agendas.” [p.xi]

The attempt is not entirely successful due to a problem that de la Bédoyère identifies early in the book as “visibility”. There is surprisingly little evidence, physical or textual, about the Roman experience in Britain and even less about individuals–often no more than a name and a hint. (Sometimes not even a name. One individual, known as the “Aldgate-Pulborough potter”, is recognizable only by the distinctive incompetence of his work.) Consequently, much of the book is devoted less to the lives of Roman Britain and more to an evaluation of the available evidence.

In lesser hands, this close analysis of inscriptions, clay tablets, pottery shards, and, yes, the skeletal remains of buildings could be as dry as the dust from which they are taken. De la Bédoyère considers each bit of evidence with wit and imagination, leading the reader with him on the path of discovery rather than simply providing her with his conclusions.


This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Reading My Way Through Roman Britain, Part 1

by pamela on September 8, 2015

"Hadrian's wall at Greenhead Lough", with thanks to Velella and Creative Commons

“Hadrian’s wall at Greenhead Lough”, with thanks to Velella and Creative Commons

Thanks to the luck of the book-review draw, I recently ended up reading two books on Roman Britain back-to-back.* The two books are very different. Guy de la Bédoyère’s The Real Lives of Roman Britain is an attempt to look at the period of Roman occupation in terms of individual human experience–a frustrating endeavor because there is surprisingly little evidence. Charlotte Higgins’s Under Another Sky: Journeys In Roman Britain is a more personal attempt to understand the Roman occupation and its continuing influence on Britain’s sense of history and identity–think VW bus and hiking Hadrian’s Wall.** Both were fascinating; taken together they gave me a rich picture of a period I mistakenly thought I knew something about.

My reviews of both books will appear in coming posts. In the meantime, here are some of the things that surprised me:

  • Rome controlled Britain for 360 years, assuming a floating definition of control. That’s almost twice as long as Britain ruled India.
  • Britain was a hotbed of revolt against Rome for most of those 360 years. I knew about Boudica, the female ruler who led an uprising against the Romans in 61 CE.*** And because I knew about Boudica I was vaguely aware that the Druid stronghold at Mona (modern Anglesey) was believed to harbor dangerous rebels. But I knew nothing about, for example, the Gallic Empire, a short-lived break-away regime founded by Marcus Cassianus Latinus Postumus ***in 259 CE in Britain’s northwestern-provinces. Postumus and his successors borrowed all the attributes of a “real” Roman emperor, including coins minted in their names, consulships, assassinations and usurpations.
  • I knew that the pre-Roman Britons left no written history. That what we know about them comes from Roman accounts and archaeological finds. (Some of which are pretty spectacular.) I didn’t realize that what we know about the experience of the Romans themselves in Britain is also based on relatively limited evidence. For instance, the primary source for Julius Caesar’s not particularly successful invasions of Britain in 55 and 54 BCE are Caesar’s own accounts, which are certainly contemporary but by no means unbiased.

There’s a lot to learn out there.

* Usually this happens in response to a major historical anniversary, but unless I’m missing something this time it was just because.

**And yes, I am now thinking about hiking along Hadrian’s Wall.

***Thank you, Antonia Fraser

****Which does, in fact, mean posthumous. The name was given to a man born after his father’s death.  Who knew?


Death in Florence

by pamela on September 4, 2015


My first encounter with Girolamo Savonarola’s attempt to scourge Florence of religious corruption was George Eliot’s historical novel Romola, which I read in tiny bites as a distraction from historical history during my first year of graduate school. It was lush, dramatic, and exactly what I needed as I struggled with semiotics, deconstructionism, post-colonial theory, and the Bengali alphabet. I didn’t feel any inclination to read more about Savonarola until Paul Strathern’s Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City turned up in my books to review for Shelf Awareness for Readers. It was lush, dramatic, and filled in some major holes in my understanding of Renaissance Florence.

In the late 15th century, the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola led a frenzied and occasionally violent campaign to return the city of Florence–and the Roman Catholic Church as a whole–to the principles of early Christianity. For three years, the self-proclaimed prophet ruled as the city’s moral dictator. His career reached its highpoint in 1497 with the Bonfire of the Vanities: the public burning of playing cards, masks, mirrors, “indecent” books and pictures, and other items the puritanical monk deemed morally questionable.

Savonarola’s brief reign is often treated as an interlude of religious fanaticism within the enlightened secularism of the Renaissance.* In Death in Florence, Strathern (author of several books dealing with Rennaisance Italy, including The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior) paints a more complicated picture, placing Savonarola within a broader context. He considers Medici political aspirations and financial machinations, papal corruption, the shifting political allegiances of Renaissance Italy, medieval scholasticism, Renaissance humanism and the physiology of prophetic visions.

Perhaps most interesting is Strathern’s depiction of the relationship between Savonarola and Lorenzo de Medici, a complex tangle of admiration on the part of the prince for the monk’s scholarship and piety, patronage relationships, power struggles for control of the Dominican order and secret death bed negotiations. Death in Florence is ultimately an account of two competing visions of Florentine glory–one political and one religious, both of which would help shape Europe in the coming century.

Almost enough to make me re-read Romola.

*Okay, so I know a little more than I let on. What can I say, stuff crosses my path.


And we have a winner!

by pamela on September 1, 2015

As usual, a book drawing here on the Margins brought out interesting answers, including memories of earlier trips to Iceland and an introduction to the breathtaking photography of Jamie Young, which makes my efforts look like a toddler’s scribbles.*  As usual, I’m glad we pick a winner in a totally random way.

And our totally random winner is–Karen Holden.

Thanks for playing, thanks for reading.  More historical adventures are on the way.


*Not that I  even claimed any skill at photography.


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.