Thursday, November 26, 2015

Description of the World - Part 11

Marc Bloch, French Rural History (Perhaps because it’s only a couple of days after the attacks in Paris,  I’m minded to note that this fine French historian was killed by the Gestapo for his participation in the Resistance ten days after the Normandy invasion. He belonged to a generation of Frenchmen who explored the interstitial spaces of history, in his case, what was literally between the roads, i.e., the fields.)

Michael Psellus, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (I try to at least sample old history books. We think of history as an exercise in remembering, but that’s ambiguous. The modern accounts of Byzantium are attempts at recovering the past, but books like this one are attempts to create memory for the future. He was throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean, not examining the flotsam that had washed up on the shore. Of course people still write about events in a projective way, especially aging politicians, but I wish professional historians would do it as well.

René Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes: a History of Central Asia (Most of the Mojave desert east of LA is anything but a picturesque desert. A lot of it looks like an immense vacant lot full of scrubby weeds and blowing trash. You might also liken it to the back of your computer, a dusty region of tangled wires because this is where the power lines and railroads that power LA plug in—if EM radiation is bad for you, it’s a wonder anybody survives stopping for lunch in Victorville. I think of Central Asia as another obscure site of vital connections—I mean the steppes, not the urbanized regions of the Stans, which are crucial to human history in other ways as Frederic Starr explained recently in Lost Enlightenment. Religions, armies, diseases, and languages moved back and forth across these immense spaces, not to mention the silk that gave the routes their name. The Romans called Scythia, the Western part of this expanse, vagina gentium, which means both the womb and scabbard of peoples. While making sure I was spelling vagina gentium correctly, I ran across a white power website that bewailed the fact that central Asia was no longer what it once was, the womb of the white race. I guess they don’t count the Turks, Mongols, Huns, etc. as peoples. Apparently real humanity pretty much means Caucasians for these folks, and Caucasian is understood literally. The mystique of the Indo-European still lives as well as the notion, belied by the history of Eurasia, that purity, not mixture is the secret of creativity.)

Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. (Most of what I know about the kings and battles sort of history of Anglo-Saxon England comes from having read the first volume of David Hume’s History of England, which, unfortunately I lost. Casualty of a divorce. I haven’t gotten into the source materials much.)

Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (Modern historians are like Wellington’s army. They have to be willing to go anywhere and do anything, in a determined quest to understand all the planes and aspects of human life irrespective of the monoglot disciplines that claims sovereignty over the various particulars. Most traditional histories were quite different. For a long time, history was essentially a branch of rhetoric that focused on politics and personalities and assembled moral exempla and useful instances for public purposes—that’s what the biographies of Michael Psellus or the Roman history of Livy were like and a good deal of pop history is still like. Some of the old historians tried to extract general conclusions from the evidence—Thucydides, Polybius, Tacitus, Machiavelli, Guicciardini—but trying to understand the past more broadly wasn’t very common. (Herodotus was an exception, he ought to be enrolled among the Annales school honoris causa.) The real predecessors of historians like Le Goff were the philologists and antiquaries who practiced an Archimboldian science, i.e., a practice of assembling sense out of heterogenous materials. Example of what I mean: Le Goff makes a connection between the scholastic notion of the just price and the fact that the denizens of the medieval universities formed a consumer society of fair size—1,500 academics at Oxford in 1380. In an era of low crop yields, it took a great many peasants to fill that many academic gullets and a great effort on the part of urban bourgeoisie to figure out how to pay for their upkeep. Demographics, agriculture, mentalities, economics, politics…)

George Duby, The Knight the Lady and the Priest: the Makingof Modern Marriage in Medieval France (A book I never got around to reading, but may yet. This exercise is like visiting a bookstore except that I don’t have to pay for anything.)

George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (A line I underlined for some reason: “The very year in which the victories of Byzantine Empire over the Persian began is the Muslim year of the Hijra.” The first edition of the book appeared in 1940. I must have read it at the end of the 60’s or the beginning of the 70’s when the Middle East wasn’t the focus of international politics and Islam was mostly just considered an unpleasant relic of the Middle Ages. I recall a science fiction novel from that era about a classics prof who somehow traveled back in time to 6th Century Italy. The prof threw in with the Ostrogoths, but wrote a letter to Justinian advising him to send an army to central Arabia to take care of take care of a certain rabble rouser. In those days, it was simply taken for granted whose side you’d be on.)

Ferdinand Gregorovius, Rome and Medieval Culture (I forget which Italian made the point—Machiavelli?—that no territory could be ruled so badly as the papal states unless it were in the power of a sacred authority. A secular authority would have been overthrown and replaced with something more competent. Rome itself typified this idea in the Dark and Middle Ages: it was a failed state that Europe would never let fail once anf for all, a permanent Somalia, but a Somalia that mattered very much no matter how wretched it became. Much of the history reads like a parody of the ancient struggle of the patricians and plebs. The local nobility early on achieved and then somehow maintained an extreme level of decadence while the Roman mob retained an absurd sense of entitlement and importance, even in the era when cows grazed the slopes of the Palatine. Gregorovius was a 19th Century German Protestant who had to struggle against his own distaste for his chosen subject matter to be objective by the lights of the historiography of his times. This reader of chronicles of nonsense and disorder doesn’t always feel the imperative need to try.)

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