History on Display: Genghis Khan

I want to make it clear right from the beginning that I think Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes have gotten a bum rap in the annals of history. Most of our ideas about the ferocity of the Mongol invasion come from contemporary accounts of Genghis Khan’s admittedly ferocious campaign against the Turkish kingdom of Khwarizim: one of the rare cases where the losers wrote the history.* While there is no doubt that the Mongol invasions were bloody, violent, and cruel, it’s not clear to me that they were any more blood-thirsty than the Vikings**, the Romans ***, or the Crusaders****

The more I learn about the man I like to call Genghis the Great, the more fascinated I am. So I was really excited when a Genghis Khan exhibit opened at the Field Museum here in Chicago.

Like most exhibits at the Field Museum these days, the exhibit is an engaging multi-media blend, with artifacts from Mongolian museums as well as its own collection, filmed interviews, video reconstructions of historical events, and 21st century relatives of that old natural history museum staple the diorama. They do a good job of balancing the different views of Genghis Khan as conqueror, state builder, and father of modern Mongolia, both figuratively and literally. (Recent studies suggest that a substantial proportion of the modern population of Mongolia is descended from Genghis Khan. ) Some of the most fascinating exhibits look at Genghis Khan’s life through the lens of modern Mongolian nomads. Personally, I was fascinated by the working model of a trebuchet and thrilled to see one of the metal passports that gave travelers free passage through the enormous Mongol empire. (Yeah, yeah, I’m a history geek. Who else would write a history blog.)

The exhibit runs through September 3. If you’re in Chicago, make time to see it. If you can’t make it to Chicago, you’ll have another chance. It will open at Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History in October.

In conjunction with the exhibit, I’m giving away a copy of Jack Weatherford’s excellent Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World . Just leave a comment on the blog to be included in a random drawing. (Sending me a private e-mail, as many of you do, doesn’t count for this. If you don’t know how to leave a comment, let me know.) My Own True Love will chose a name on 6/26.

* The Persians and Turks had an advantage in the history wars. There was no written Mongol language until Genghis Khan commissioned its creation.

**Whose annual raids were so fearsome that the Christian liturgy in the British Isles included a special prayer: “Save us, oh Lord, from the fury of the Northmen.”

***Who not only sowed salt in the fields of Carthage after they razed the city, but invented a nasty form of execution known as crucifixion. Maybe you’ve heard of it?

****Who by their own accounts practiced cannibalism after the siege of Ma’arra in the First Crusade.

Why the Mayflower?

Image coourtesy of the Library of Congress

There is a statistic floating around that irritates me. The words aren’t always the same, but the factoid is: “Today 10% of all Americans are descended from the settlers who arrived on the Mayflower.”

No one ever says where the number came from. That’s enough to make my teeth grind all by itself, but it’s not the main thing that bothers me about the statistic. I’m perfectly prepared to believe it’s true, given the realities of geometric progression and population growth. *

What I don’t understand is why it matters. I’ve never seen a statistic on the number of modern Americans descended from the original Jamestown settlers, the earliest Spanish colonists in the American southwest, or the first Dutch settlers on the Delaware River. (Not to mention the number descended from the refugees from British debtor’s prison who settled colonial Georgia.) ** I don’t want to disrespect the courage or importance of the Plymouth colonists. *** They sailed across the Atlantic in a frighteningly small ship to start new lives in a wilderness. But so did the first Jamestown settlers–and all the rest. The Plymouth colony wasn’t even the first settlement.

So why have the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, and the stories related to them elbowed their way to the front of the line in America’s foundation myths? Why does anyone think it’s meaningful that 10% of Americans today are descended from the settlers who arrived on the Mayflower?

Personally, I blame it on an effective PR campaign.  Of course, American history is not my field, so maybe I’m missing something here. Anyone have a better explanation?

[Rant over.]

* I’m equally prepared to believe someone made it up.
** The numbers may well exist, buried in specialized academic papers or the reports of local genealogical societies, but they don’t show up as an accepted fact in popular history.
*** Okay, I admit it. On a bad day I can work up a little historical indignation about their vision of religious freedom, or more accurately, how it has been transformed in popular history. But that’s a post for another day. And it in no way diminishes their courage or importance.

Squeeze This!

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.