Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors

by pamela on September 27, 2014

If you’ve spent much time here in the Margins, you know that I’m fascinated by historical boundaries: the times and places where two cultures meet (peacefully or, more often, not) and change each other. One of my favorite examples of a historical boundary is Islamic Spain, where Dar al Islam and Christendom met in exciting and productive ways. Recently I read a new book that shifted my vision of this period by several important degrees.

Popular conceptions about the role of religion in the Middle Ages take two basic forms. One version looks at the medieval world in terms of crusade, jihad and pogrom: a violent collision between mutually intolerant communities of Christianity, Islam and Judaism with long-term consequences for the modern world. The alternate vision, popularized in works such as María Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World and focused specifically on medieval Spain, is that of the convivencia–a culture of mutual tolerance and reason. In Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad, religious historian Brian A. Catlos convincingly argues that neither image is adequate to understand the shifting political, economic, and religious alliances of the Mediterranean world from 1050 to 1200.

Catlos looks at the complex relationship between politics and religious identity in the medieval Mediterranean through the stories of men who straddled communal boundaries in pursuit of power. Muslim and Christian kings made alliances against common enemies of either (or both) religion. Latin Christians went on crusade against other Christians. Sunni Muslims declared jihad against Shi’ites. Jews served as governors, generals, and administrators in both Muslim and Christian kingdoms–and in one case came close to ruling a Muslim state. Mercenary warriors, including the legendary El Cid, switched sides whenever it was in their own interest.

Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors is a fascinating and complex account of diversity, collaboration and conflict in the period when medieval Christianity met the Islamic golden age.

Well worth the read.

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


Who Was The Most Successful Pirate in History*

by pamela on September 23, 2014

Any guesses?  Edward Teach, commonly known as Blackbeard?  Captain Kidd?  Captain Morgan?** Grace O Malley, aka the Pirate Queen?    Sir Francis Drake?***

None of them are even close, though Drake has the distinction of capturing what may well have been the largest prize taken in a single raid: the Spanish galleon Cagafuego.  The title goes to Cheng I Sao (aka Hsi Kai Ching, Ching Shih, Lady Ching,  or Mrs. Ching depending on the vintage and quality of the account you read.), who terrorized the South China Seas in the first half of the nineteenth century–a time when many Chinese women were literally hobbled by bound feet.****

Cheng I Sao

Piracy was a family business in nineteenth century China.  Pirate clans lived on their boats–some of them lived their entire lives without setting foot on land.  Within the world of the pirates. some women held rank, commanded ships, and fought shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.  Cheng I Sao took female participation in the family business to a new level.

According to popular accounts,  Cheng I Sao was a Canton prostitute who married the successful pirate Cheng I in 1801 and soon became his partner in building a successful confederation of pirates from competing clans. When Cheng I died in 1807, his widow took over. She avoided succession struggles by appointing her adopted stepson as her second in command and later marrying him.

At the height of her success, Cheng I Sao controlled 1500 ships and more than 70,000 men, organized in six fleets, each with its own flag and commander. (Talk about a pirate queen!) Her fleets attacked ships of all kinds, from small traders to imperial war ships, and ran a protection racket along the coast.

By 1809, Cheng I Sao was powerful enough to threaten the port city Canton (now Guangzhou).  The Chinese government turned to the European powers for help, leasing the 20-gun ship HMS Mercury and six Portuguese men-of-war.  Big guns were not enough to defeat the pirate admiral’s fleet.  In 1810, the Chinese changed tactics and offered the pirates amnesty.

Cheng I Sao decided it was in her best interests to negotiate peace terms with the Chinese empire.  She proved to be as effective at the bargaining table as she was on the deck of a ship: the Chines granted her pirates universal amnesty, the right to keep the wealth they had accumulate, and jobs in China’s military bureaucracy.  Cheng I Sao retired in Canton, where she reportedly lived a peaceful life until her death at 69 “so far as was consistent with the keeping of an infamous gambling house.” *****

*  If I had my act together I’d have written this post in time for Talk Like A Pirate Day, which was last Friday.  All I can say to that is —-aaargh!

** Not just a brand of  rum

***After all, a privateer is just a pirate with a license to steal

****They were also barred from holding public office and had limited opportunities for education and employment, but this didn’t make China unique.

*****What?  You expected her to take up knitting and mahjong?


When Paris Went Dark

by pamela on September 19, 2014

When Nazi troops marched into Paris in June, 1940, the city surrendered without firing a shot.*

In When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 , historian Ronald C. Rosbottom explores face-to-face interactions between occupiers and occupied, the effect of the Occupation on daily life in Paris, its psychological and emotional impact on Parisians and its legacy of guilt and myth.

Drawing from official records, memoirs, interviews and ephemera, Rosbottom tells a story that is more complicated than simple opposition between courage and collaboration, though he offers examples of both. He discusses the fine line between survival and collaboration, the distinction between individual acts of resistance and the Resistance and how occupiers and occupied utilized the hide-and-seek possibilities of Parisian apartment buildings. He considers the act of waiting in line both as an illustration of the difficulties of everyday life and as a replacement for forbidden political gatherings. Above all, he describes the Occupation as gradual constriction of Parisian life within ever-narrowing boundaries.

Rosbottom does not limit his discussion to the Parisian perspective. Some of the most interesting sections of When Paris Went Dark deal with the German experience in the city, a complex mixture of tourism, conquest, envy and isolation. His account of Hitler’s early-morning tour of the capital soon after its surrender is particularly illuminating about the Nazi Party’s ambivalence toward cities in general and Paris in particular.

When Paris Went Dark is an important and readable addition to the social history of World War II.

*I will admit with only the slightest embarrassment that when I think “Nazi occupation of Paris” the images that come to mind are straight out of Casablanca. That will probably never change. Because putting pictures in our heads–accurate or not–is one of the things great art does.

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


Edith Cavell: “Patriotism Is Not Enough”

by pamela on September 16, 2014

Edith Cavell

Not all the heroes of the First World War fought in the trenches.

Forty-nine year old British nurse Edith Cavell was the director of the first nurses’ training school in Belgium. When Germany occupied Brussels in the first month of the war, Cavell refused to leave. She turned her clinic into a Red Cross hospital and cared for wounded soldiers from both armies.

On November 1, 1914, Cavell took her heroism to a new level when a Belgian resistance worker brought two British soldiers to her door. Hiding Allied soldiers was punishable by death, but Cavell took the soldiers in without question. She hid them for two weeks while plans were made to take them across the border into the Netherlands, which remained neutral throughout the war.

These two soldiers were the first of more than 200 Allied soldiers whom Cavell helped escape from German-occupied Belgium during the first year of the war. Working with a resistance network, she provided medical care for wounded soldiers, hid the healthy until a guide could escort them over the border, and made sure they had money in their pockets for the journey.
Catching Cavell in the act became a priority for the German political police, who assigned an officer to the task full-time. Searches of the clinic became more frequent. (On one occasion she hid a wounded soldier in an apple barrel, covered with apples.)

On August 5,1915, the Germans arrested Cavell. Told that the other prisoners had confessed, she admitted during interrogation that she had used the clinic to hide Allied soldiers. Ten weeks later, Cavell and 34 other resisters were tried for assisting the enemy. Five, including Cavell, received the death penalty.

American and Spanish diplomats tried to get her sentence commuted without success; her execution was scheduled to be carried out the next day at dawn. When an English chaplain visited her that night to offer her comfort, he was surprised to find her calm and collected. Cavell told him, “I realize that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” As he left, Rev. Gahan told her,”We will always remember you as a heroine and a martyr.” Cavell answered, “Don’t think of me like that. Think of me only as a nurse who tried to do her duty.”

Cavell’s hope to be remembered “only as a nurse” was idealistic–and unrealistic. The British propaganda office at Wellington House used her story both to increase enlistment in Britain (the number of volunteers doubled in the weeks after her death) and to increase anti-German sentiment in the United States.


Two Stories In One?

by pamela on September 12, 2014

Dear Readers,

I’m hoping you can help.

I’m in the initial stages of writing a new book proposal. Or more accurately, I’m in the initial stages of writing three book proposals springing from the same big topic in an effort to decide which one works best.* The structure of two of the proposals is straightforward, but the third is problematic: parallel events that occurred in very different times and places.

I’m looking for models of historical works that have successfully used two stories, either combining them in a single narrative or linking two separate narratives.

The first example I looked at is Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations). The book is beautifully written, but I found it perplexing until the end–not necessarily a condition I want to inflict on readers. The first section, “The Many Deaths of General Wolfe” looks at the death of General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 from several different vantage points, including that of nineteenth century historian Francis Parkman. The second section, “Death of a Harvard Man” tells the story of the murder of Dr. George Parkman in Boston in 1849. For most of the book, the two are linked by a single reference in the first section to “Uncle George Parkman” and the general theme of death. Schama finally shares the element that joins the two stories together on page 320 of the 327 page book: “Both the stories offered here play with the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration…These are stories, then, of broken bodies, uncertain ends, indeterminate consequences.” It’s all very clever,** but the connection comes so late in the book that it’s not very satisfying as narrative. Kind of like a murder mystery where the author holds back a vital clue so the reader has no hope of solving the puzzle.

Eric Larsen’s Devil In The White City is the obvious next choice, but it seems to be in one of the boxes we have not yet unpacked.

Any suggestions of other possible models I could read while I dig through the boxes?

Many thanks.

*Not very efficient, but sometimes the only way I can find out what I think/know/believe is to write my way through.
**Just for the record, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s a lovely and illuminating piece of deconstruction.


Victorian City

by pamela on September 9, 2014

Victorian City

In The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London,* social historian Judith Flanders (The Invention of Murder) reminds us Charles Dickens was a journalist before he was a novelist. The London that stands at the hearts of his novels–so vibrant that it’s almost a character in its own right–is not only a work of the imagination but the reportage of a great observer. From his first works to his last, Dickens recorded and reinvented the people of London’s streets and the world they inhabited. His earliest readers recognized the jokes behind his often-sly accuracy; today, the lines between imagination and observation are less clear.

Using both Dickens’s novels and a wide range of other contemporary accounts, Flanders attempts to look at the streets of London as they existed from 1812 to 1870, a period of tremendous transformation and growth. (The title The Victorian City is a conscious misnomer. As Flanders points out, the great recorder of Victorian London spent almost half his life under the rule of Victoria’s uncles.) Beginning with workers making their way through the city in the early morning and ending with the seedy side of Victorian nightlife, Flanders provides a detailed picture of both familiar and unfamiliar aspects of life in 19th-century London: markets, prisons, gin palaces, brothels, slums (known as “rookeries”), the mail stage and hackney cabs, and the health problems caused by overflowing cemeteries and overflowing cesspools. The Victorian City, filled with squalor, social injustice, larger-than-life characters and expansive prose, is Dickensian in every sense of the word.

The Victorian City is an engaging exploration of the city and social conditions that inspired Dickens’s novels.

* Not to be confused with Asa Brigg’s classic Victorian Cities. also well worth a read.

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


In Which I Stop Reading And Start Writing

by pamela on September 5, 2014

V0040734 A woman is sitting at a desk in a library, writing a letter.

Yesterday I reached that undefinable moment in my current project when it is time to stop reading and start writing.

For smaller projects, the moment when I’m ready to make the leap is obvious. Sometimes I reach the point where I’m not learning anything new about my subject. Other times I reach the less satisfactory* point where I’ve read everything I can find to read and hope I can spackle over the holes in my knowledge as I go. Either way, it’s time to plunge in.

With larger projects, the line between research and writing is fuzzier. I’ve never found a way to measure “enough”. I certainly never reach the point where I’ve read everything there is to read. In fact, I regularly suffer from heart-pounding moments of panic when I realize that my source lists have spiraled out of control–again.**

And yet, that magic moment comes when I know it is time to make the leap. I can see the shape of the book. I’ve identified dramatic scenes or engaging details with which to catch a reader’s imagination. The pile of books as yet unread suddenly feels burdensome rather than exciting. I am restless, fidgety, eager to start. ***

I definitely don’t know enough yet to write the book. I probably don’t know everything I need to write the book proposal. I don’t even know what I don’t know. I will find holes, write past them until there is more hole than narrative, pause to search for answers, and write again.

Today I start.

When do you know it’s time to put down the book and pick up the pen start typing?

*i.e, absolutely terrifying.
**The seductive voice of the research demon can a terrible thing. I once identified 24 academic books as sources for a 250 word article before I caught myself.
***Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m always fidgety.

Image courtesy of The Wellcome Library

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Jezebel or Joan of Arc?

by pamela on September 2, 2014

Rani_of_Jhansi In June, 1857, Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, belatedly committed herself and her kingdom to the revolt variously known as the Indian Mutiny, the Sepoy Rebellion, or the First Indian War of Independence.

A Break in Tradition

The rani had long-standing grievances against the British. She was the widow of Gangadhar Rao Niwalkar, ruler of the kingdom of Jhansi. Several months before his death, the childless raja adopted a distant cousin named Damodar Rao as his son and made a will naming the five year old boy as his heir.

Adopted heirs were an accepted practice in Indian kingdoms–both Gangadhar Rao and his predecessor were adopted heirs. Unfortunately for Lakshmi Bai and her son, under the rule of Lord Dalhousie the British began an aggressive policy of annexing Indian states on what now seem flimsy excuses, most notably the Doctrine of Lapse. The British already exercised the right to recognize the succession in Indian states with which they had client relationships. Dalhousie now claimed that if the adoption of an heir to the throne was not ratified by the government, the state would pass “by lapse” to the British. Not surprisingly, few adopted heirs were so ratified.

When Gangadhar Rao died in 1853, Dalhousie refused to acknowledge Damodar Rao as the raja’s legal heir to the throne and seized control of Jhansi. Laksmi Bai, with the support of the British political agent at Jhansi and the advice of British counsel, immediately contested the decision. She continued to submit petitions arguing her case until early 1856. All her appeals were rejected.

Growing Discontent

Meanwhile, discontent had been building among the sepoys in the British East India Company’s army, thanks to a number of British decisions that appeared to be designed to undermine the faith of both Muslim and Hindu sepoys and make it easier to convert them to Christianity. The final straw was the rumor that cartridges for newly issued Enfield rifles were greased with a combination of beef and pork fat. Since the cartridges had to be bitten open, such grease would make them an abomination for both Hindu and Muslim sepoys. British officers were slow to respond to the rumors. By the time they assured their men that the cartridges were greased with beeswax and vegetable oils, the damage was done. On May 8, 1857, discontent turned to rebellion at the army garrison of Meerut. Eighty-five sepoys who refused to use the Enfield rifle were tried and put in irons. The next day, three regiments stationed at Meerut stormed the jail, killed the British officers and their families, and marched toward Delhi, where the last Mogul emperor ruled in name only.

Thousands of Indians outside the army had grievances of their own against the British. Soon Indian leaders whose power had been threatened by British reforms rose up, transforming what had begun as a mutiny into an organized resistance movement across northern India.

On June 6, troops in the East India Company army in Jhansi mutinied. Two days later, they massacred the British population and soon left for Delhi. Given Lakshmi Bai’s long-standing grievances against their government, the British were quick to blame her for the rising in Jhansi, though evidence for her initial involvement is thin. In fact, she wrote to the nearest British authority, Major Walter Erskine, on June 12 giving her account of the mutiny and asking for instructions. Erskine authorized the rani to manage the district until he could send soldiers to restore order.

With the region in chaos, Lakshmi Bai soon found herself under attack by two neighboring principalities and a distant claimant to the throne of Jhansi. Finding it necessary to defend her kingdom, she recruited an army, strengthened the city’s defenses and formed and alliance with the rebel rajas of Banpu and Shargarh. As late as February she told her advisors she would return the district to the British when they arrived.

On March 25, Major General Sir Hugh Rose and his forces arrived at Jhansi and besieged the city. Threatened with execution if captured, Lakshmi Bai resisted. In spite of a vigorous defense, on April 3, the British broke into the city, took the palace and stormed the fort.

“The Bravest and Best”

The night before the final assault, Lakshmi Bai lashed her ten-year-old adopted son to her back and escaped from the fortress, accompanied by four companions. After riding 90 some miles in 24 hours, the rani and her small retinue reached the fortress of Kalpi, where she joined three Indian leaders who had become infamous in British eyes: Nana Sahib, Rao Sahib and Tatia Tope. Defeated again and again through May and into early June, the rebel forces retreated before the British toward Gwalior.

On June 16, Rose’s forces closed in on the rebels. At the request of the other leaders, the rani led what remained of her Jhansi contingent into battle against the British. On the second day of fighting she was shot from her horse and killed. Gwalior fell soon after and organized resistance collapsed.

British newspapers named Lakshmi Bai the “Jezebel of India”, but Rose compared his fallen adversary to Joan of Arc. Reporting her death to William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, he said: “Although she was a lady, she was the bravest and best military leader of the rebels. A man among the mutineers.”

In modern India, Lakshmi Bai is a national heroine. Her story has been told in ballads, novels, movies and comic books. Rose’s praise is echoed in the most popular of the folk songs about her: “How well like a man fought the Rani of Jhansi! How valiantly and well!”


In Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, historian Joyce E. Chaplin describes around-the-world voyages as geodramas in which travelers present themselves as actors on a global stage–a metaphor that she extends by dividing her history of circumnavigation into three “acts”.

Chaplin begins with the fearful sea voyages of early modern man, when mariners who attempted to sail around the world were as likely to die as not. She moves on to the confident years of the imperial age, when circumnavigation became both a tool and a beneficiary of Western domination. She ends with the renewed fears and challenges of circling the globe that arose first with aviation and then with space travel. The dangers of orbiting the earth in a space ship are surprisingly similar to those of circumnavigating the globe in a fifteenth century caravel.

Round About the Earth is more than a series of adventures, though Chaplin tells plenty of stories about both major and minor figures in a lively and engaging voice. (Magellan, who didn’t actually make it around the globe. Darwin, who never conquered seasickness. Laika, the first animal in space, whose terror, pain and death were broadcast via radio and television signals.) Chaplin intertwines her travelers’ accounts with discussions of the political contexts that defined them, the technological innovations that made them easier, and, perhaps most interesting of all, the way they were reported. From bestselling fifteenth century travelers accounts to NASA’s television broadcasts, circumnavigation has been about the story as much as about the adventure.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers


My Own True Love and I recently decided to cancel our Great River Road Trip. It was a good decision; our old cat and our old house both require our attention and the Mississippi will still be there come spring.

Under the circumstances, it seems appropriate to consider a bigger picture than road signs, road maps and our GPS.  In short, globes.

Globes: 400 Years of Exploration, Navigation and Power, by professional globe-restorer Sylvia Sumira, is a history of globemaking from the late 15th through the late 19th centuries, when globes were used as educational tools, scientific instruments, and status symbols. It is also breathtakingly beautiful.

The first two sections of the book are scholarly articles in which Sumira considers not only who made globes, but why and how. The first of these, “A Brief History of Globes”, is clearly for specialists. The second will fascinate anyone who has wondered how globe makers wrap a flat map around a ball–a step-by-step description of the construction of printed globes from the process of forming a papier-mâché sphere around a mold to the challenges of fitting 2-D printed sections (triangular pieces called gores) around a 3-D object.

The text is almost irrelevant next to the photographs of sixty historic globes, most of them from the collection of the British Library. They range in rarity from an unusual hand-painted globe made in 17th century China to mass-produced globes from the end of the 19th century. Sumira includes printed gores drawn by master cartographers, self-assembly paper globes made as inexpensive educational aids for children, tiny pocket globes, elaborate clockwork globes, celestial globes that map the heavens and an oddly modern 19th century teaching globe that folds up like an umbrella. The brief essays that accompany the photographs consider each object both in terms of its provenance and historical context and also as a work of art.

Certainly worth a spin, Globes will grab the imagination of anyone fascinated by maps.

This review (or at least most of it) previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.