Road Trip Through History: Canterbury*

Image courtesy of Hans Musil via Creative Commons

My Own True Love and I began our two weeks in England with a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. We did not find a bawdy Wife of Bath**, but there were plenty of tales.

The most famous Canterbury tale is the murder of Thomas Beckett, archbishop of Canterbury. Beckett was a hard partying buddy of King Henry II. When the then Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1161, Henry gave his friend, Thomas Beckett, the job. To Henry’s unhappy surprise, Beckett took the appointment seriously. He transformed himself from a pleasure-loving rowdy into a serious clergyman who was prepared to defend church privilege against secular incursions—even those from his old friend Henry. Archbishop and King butted heads for nine years. Then, in a moment of frustration, Henry cried out “Will no one rid me this turbulent priest?” This is not the kind of thing kings should say out loud unless they mean it. Four knights took Henry at his word and hacked Beckett to death in his own cathedral during vespers. Soon thereafter, people reported miracles occurring in the cathedral. The pope canonized the murdered archbishop.*** And pilgrims began to travel to Canterbury from all over Europe.

The Beckett shrine is moving, but the stories that really got me were those told in the small scale memorials installed along the sides of the nave recognizing British soldiers who died in wars large and small. A woman who lost her husband and four sons between 1905 and 1915, all highly decorated officers and all killed in battle. A lieutenant colonel who died on August 17, 1808, “while British Arms were successfully supporting the cause of Portugal against the usurpations of France”.**** The officers and men of the 13th Prince Albert’s Light Infantry who perished “whilst serving in Afghanistan, between the years of 1838 and 1842, whether from the fatigue of service or in action with the enemy.” The stories, in short, of men who are anonymous on the pages of history, but who are remembered in stone.


* You could argue that it’s stretching the definition of road trip when the journey starts with a transatlantic flight. But we have a car and My Own True Love is doing a splendid job of driving on the other side of the road. Feels like a road trip to me.

** Though I would argue that My Own True Love rivals Chaucer’s Knight in “chivalry, truth, honor, freedom and all courtesy”.

***Miracles or no miracles, this strikes me as a canny political move.

****A disproportionate number of memorials honor lieutenant colonels--the highest-ranking officers likely to be involved in front line combat, then and now.


A few travel notes for anyone interested in making her own pilgrimage to Canterbury:

  • Organize your stay to include at lease one meal at at The Goods Shed, a farmers’ market with an excellent restaurant. (The butternut squash-goat cheese tart was so good I groaned with delight at the first bite.)
  • Attend evensong at the cathedral. You’ll find the service moving even if you don’t believe or are a hard-shell Protestant.

Blog Love

I'll warn you ahead of time: today's post is going to be a little different than my normal posts. Instead of blogging about history, I'm going to blog about history bloggers. If your eyes are beginning to glaze over, you can leave now and my feelings won't be hurt. But you're going to miss out on some good stuff. Honest.

Last week I was pleased to have a fellow Genghis Khan fan tag me for a Liebster* blog award.  For those of you who haven't heard of it,** the Liebster award is a little like a blog chain letter. Someone nominates you.  You nominate another five blogs with (presumed) small readerships***.  In theory, they nominate five more. The idea is to introduce new readers to blogs you enjoy and hopefully give those blogs an increased readership.  Everyone wins.

First stop: The blogger who tagged me is novelist Bryn Hammond.  Her blog Amgalant is a treasure trove of information about Genghis Khan, the Mongols, and steppe culture in general.  If Central Asia fascinates you, she's your girl. If it doesn't fascinate you yet, she might give you a shove in that direction.

And now, drum roll please,  my nominations:***

1.  I loved Nancy Marie Brown's The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages so I was thrilled to discover her blog God of Wednesday.  She blogs about Vikings, Norse myth, Iceland, and miscellaneous things medieval.  I learn something new from her all the time.

2. Donna Segers' Streets of Salem is local history at its best.  She uses the history of Salem, Massachusetts, as a jumping off point for topics large and small, from historical ephemera to world historical events.  Great photos and interesting commentary.

3.  My guess is that Two Nerdy History Girls, the blog home of novelists Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott, has too many followers to really qualify for a Liebster. I'm including it anyway.  After all, what female history nerd can resist eighteenth century fashion and mores, historical hotties, and tough broads from the past?  Not me, ladies.

4. I don't collect vintage clothing and I don't know much about it, but Lizzie Bramlett's The Vintage Traveler has me hooked.  She talks about the clothes, and does it in an interesting and intelligent way.  More important to me, she talks about the context for the clothes: the fashion industry, clothing manufacturers, cultural norms.  Smart stuff, and great pictures.

5.  Jack el-Hai tells stories about fascinating people from the past, well-known and obscure,  at Jack's Blog.  There are some common threads (medicine, hypnosis, psychology, and the FBI come to mind), but the main thing that holds them together is Jack el-Hai's formidable intelligence and wide-ranging curiosity. I learn something new even when I think I know the subject.

Five very different blogs. Go check them out.

*From the German for favorite

** Including me, up to a week ago.

***The rules I've read vary about how small is small, ranging from 200 to 3000 readers.

**** I going to limit my nominations to history blogs, which leaves out lots of other great blogs that I read, including some written by dear friends.  Sorry, guys.

From The Ruins of Empire

If you've been following along for a while, you've probably figured out that I like books that look at familiar history from another point of view. (For example, here, and here, and here.) It should be no surprise that Pankaj Mishra's latest book caught my eye.

In From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, Pankaj Mishra returns again to the intersection between Asian and Western cultures that informed his earlier work, Temptations of the West.

Misra begins with the statement that the intellectual and political awakening of Asia was the central event of the twentieth century for a majority of the world's population. That event came about as a result of a new class of western-educated Asian elites. As a group, they typically rejected their traditional heritage in favor of western modes of thought, then later re-embraced their native traditions, transforming those traditions in the process.

Instead of concentrating on well-known Asian historical figures, Mishra centers his book on the intellectual journeys of three men who are important historical figures in their own cultures but largely unfamiliar to most Westerners. Journalist and political activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) was a founder of Islamic modernism. Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao (1873-1929) inspired a generation of young Chinese activists with his calls for reform. Indian poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a leaders of the Bengal Renaissance.

Over the course of the book, Misra shows how his characters are shaped by and respond to the familiar events of European imperialism in Asia, giving those events a new perspective for the Western reader. His stated goal is not to replace a Euro-centric view with an "equally problematic Asia-centric one", but to look at both the past and the present from multiple viewpoints. For the most part, he succeeds


This reviewe appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers