City of Fortune

I thought I knew something about Venice. A floating city carved out of a malaria-ridden lagoon.  Merchant city-state turned maritime empire, with one foot in the Muslim world.  The European end of the desert caravan trade, with merchant entrepôts throughout the Levantine coast.  Canals, gondoliers,  masked balls, gold ducats. Glamor, wealth, decadence, decay.  Or perhaps, in the words of Lerner and Lowe, “just a town without a sewer.”

Then I got a chance to review  Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas for Shelf Awareness and discovered I knew nothing about Venice.

Roger Crowley  returns to the medieval and early modern Mediterranean in City of Fortune, using three defining moments to tell the story of Venice’s development from a “smattering of low-lying muddy islets set in a malarial lagoon” to the greatest power in the region: the city-state’s pivotal role in the Fourth Crusade and the sacking of Constantinople in 1204; the city’s bloody rivalry with Genoa for control of the East-West trade; and its desperate defense against the Ottoman Empire’s expansion into the Mediterranean in the fifteenth century.

As in his earlier books, Crowley’s fast-paced narrative style and vivid character sketches strike a nice balance between the big picture and the telling detail. He tells the story using a variety of voices. In addition to accounts by Venetian doges, merchants and city officials, he uses those written by–often hostile–outsiders, including the poet Petrarch, Pope Innocent III, Norman crusaders, and Cretan rebels.

Trade is the theme that ties Crowley’s story together. With no natural resources, no agriculture, and a small population, Venice depended entirely on trade for its survival. Its relationships first with Byzantium and later with the Islamic world were both the foundation of its prosperity and a source of contention with the rest of Christendom. Control of the western end of the overland trade caravans was the key to Venice’s success as “Europe’s first full-blown colonial adventure.” Crowley ends with the event that would bring Venetian maritime dominance to a close: the news that Portugal had found a sea route to India, rendering the Venetian empire suddenly obsolete.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

The Lost History of 1914

Anyone who’s been following along on this blog knows that, like most history people, I have events and periods that I return to over and over again. Some I’ve followed for years; others are relatively new interests.  One of the constants in my historical life is the First World War.*  It’s always a pleasure to discover a book at looks at the war in a new way.

In The Lost History of 1914, NPR’s Jack Beatty takes on what he describes as the “cult of inevitability” that surrounds historical accounts of the First World War. Most books about the war’s origins focus on the events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in June, 1914, and the subsequent domino effect of alliances that pulled Europe into war.

Beatty, by contrast, considers a handful of events that dominated international headlines in the months before the war: a threatened coup in the German Reichstag over military actions in Alsace, a change in Russian foreign policy based on the Tsar Nicholas’s fears of seeming weak, a potential civil war in Ireland over Home Rule, Woodrow Wilson’s support of Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, and the defeat of a leftist minister in France because his wife murdered a right-wing newspaper editor. At the end of each chapter, Beatty offers a counterfactual account of events that would have changed Europe’s response to the events at Sarajevo.

None of these events is unknown to historians, though they may not be familiar to the non-specialist reader. The originality of Beatty’s work lies in bringing them together as threads in a single story. Looked at individually, each story is a compelling slice of history, told in a conversational style. Taken as a whole, The Lost History of 1914 makes a powerful argument that the chain of events leading to the First World War was not only complicated, but fragile–so fragile, perhaps, that the inevitable war might better be described as the unlikely war.

This review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers

History Carnival #108-April, 2012

Side shows at the Vermont state fair, Rutland (LOC)
Image from the Library of Congress Collection

Welcome to the Carnival!*

In the spirit of April 1st, I’ve sought out blog posts from the last month** that celebrate the foolish, the topsy-turvy, and the quirky.  Blog posts that stand historical truths on their head, or at least gives them a little shake.   No clown noses. No mean tricks.  No whoopie cushions.  Unless, of course, they’re historical whoopie cushions.


Past Imperfect rehabilitates the barbarian’s barbarian in Nice Things to Say About Attila the Hun

The Tenement Museum puts the pickle in its place in Salty, Sour and Controversial.

Stephen Cromack proves that Frodo is a Confucian hero in The Confucians Who Saved Middle Earth

Two Nerdy History Girls are a constant source of quirky delights.  In one of my recent favorites, they overturn The Myth of the Regency Sylph

Got Medieval, another personal favorite, debunks a popular  historical myth in Ring-a-Ring O’Rubbish

Streets of Salem offered an amusing selection of Green Men, medieval to modern, in honor of St. Patricks Day.

Beth Dunn muses on tight pantaloons and The Turn of the Leg.

Brushing Off the Dust tells us how to exercise like a Viking.

Frog in a Well considers the topsy-turvydom of Unesco as a cultural arbiter in the context of Japanese cuisine in Credentialism and Other Modern Traditions

Caroline Shenton tackles the complex question of how much a pint of beer would cost in The Timetravelling Beer Drinker

Vaguely Interesting looks at the unexpected names people give to different types of bread, including Devil’s Fart Bread


As an extra, two great blogs that transform the idea of history blogging:

Phoebe Spanier’s delightful Mirror Sense, an illustrated novel set in Paris and Venice in the the 1660s accompanied by a blog giving historical context for the novel.

Alison Taylor-Brown tells the story of sixteenth century Europe from the viewpoint of one of it’s important figures in Wolfgang Capito’s View.


Next month’s History Carnival will be hosted by Rachel Herrman at Not Even Past.  Get in line for the ride.


*Some of my regular readers may not know about the History Carnival:  a traveling road show of blog writing about history.  A different blogger hosts the carnival each month.

** Okay, I admit it.  I’ve included  a couple of posts from January and February that I couldn’t resist.