Tuesday, December 08, 2015


Description of the World - Part 22


Eric R, Wolf, Europe and the People without History (The point is, even the people without histories have histories even if they don’t remember them very well or very long. In any case, even before non-European nations knew there were Europeans, trade goods and microbes were changing their worlds irretrievably. Also, some of the people without history dealt with in the book damned well had history. It just wasn’t ours or they didn’t know it was bound up with ours. When I started reading anthropology, vestiges remained of the old notion of Naturv├Âlker, primitives who not only lived in a permanent present subjectively but also objectively because their ways of life changed at a glacial pace. In fact, there have always been Napoleons in penis sheaths and charismatic prophets buck naked on the Upper Nile, battles, revolutions, civil wars. And it isn’t just the names of the big men that change. Customs, including basic features like kinship systems can mutate with remarkable speed. Indeed, the very fact that illiterate societies have sharply limited memories may make it harder for them to preserve ancient forms than we do. There are no liturgies among the Nambikwara that are anything as old as kyrie eleison. In the cases where we have evidence of the evolution of practices, some immemorial rites turn out to be quite recent. The Fore of New Guinea, a tribe that became well known because of its affliction with the prion disease kuru, apparently only began to eat their dead a century or two ago. It wasn’t quite a fad, but without writing how do you distinguish a fad from the way of the elders? I read Wolf’s book the same week I spent six or seven hours wearing down a statistician until he agreed to publish his book with my company. He had just returned from a vacation in Papua, New Guinea and showed me the bone nose plugs he brought back. I remember thinking that manufacturing nose plugs had probably already become a local industry up the Fly river.)


Carolly Erickson, Great Harry: the Extravagant Life of Henry VIII (Looking at Henry’s last suit of army in the Tower of London should suffice to make you think that he was more like Charles Laughton than any of the more handsome Harrys we’ve seen in the movies—the armor looks like a pot-bellied stove and you have to wonder if the king could have stood up wearing it. The historical detail that stuck with me from reading Erickson’s bio was the name Harry got as his popularity faded.. “According to the verse prophecy the sixth king (Henry was in fact the twelfth) after King John would be the Mole, or Mouldwarp, a hairy man with a hide like a goatskin whose fate it was first to be greatly praised by his people, then ‘cast down with sin and with pride.’)

Victor-Lucien Tapie, France in the Age of Louis XIII and Richelieu (The Richelieu in Three Musketeer movies is always the old Richelieu, but he was still fairly young during the intrigues involving Anne of Austria and the Duke of Buckingham. Particular historical events with memorable names accumulate in my memory—the Defenestration of Prague, the Punctuation of Ems, the Tennis Court Oath—but I’ve always been partial to the Day of the Dupes—November 10  if you want to celebrate it—when the rebellious nobles were fooled into thinking that the Cardinal was going to be dismissed by the king and ended up compromising themselves. Tapie thinks the event was not a decisive triumph. Richelieu must have enjoyed it though.)

Phillipe Aries, Centuries of Childhood: a Social History of Family Life (This book made a tremendous impression on me and everybody else when it first appeared, in France in 1960 and only two years later in the U.S. The rapidity with which it crossed the Atlantic is evidence of how impressed everybody was with it—the Savage Mind took four years to get translated, the Grammatology nine. Aries made what seemed like a solidly documented case that childhood was a rather modern invention, that parents in the Middle Ages regarded their kids as little adults as soon as they were weaned. That thesis, like the rather sorry looking paperback copy in my library, looks a bit yellowed and shop worn now. I think the basic problem is that Aries assembled evidence for his theory but ignored other material that tended in a different direction. He also put a strong construction on rather equivocal evidence. For example, that people had their children painted in grown-up outfits hardly proves that they thought of them as miniature adults. After all, we’re still dressing kids up in this fashion and we obsess about childhood. The book provided a predictable thrill because it suited the desire of the time for evidence that culture trumps biology—the prejudice now often runs in the reverse direction. I gather the scholarly consensus about Aries now is that he was right that childhood was different in 1400, just not that different. Personally I do think that children were rather more like adults in the past than they are now, but one of the main reasons for that is perhaps that adults in the past were rather more like children or, to be more precise, were expected to be more like children, docile and obedient if they were peasants or workmen, violent and erratic if they were nobles.)

Ehrlich’s Blackstone, 2 volumes (Ehrlich was an American lawyer who  produced a streamlined version of the Commentaries on the Laws of England with the Latin translated and some of the sections abridged. That was 1959. I’ve never looked at an old edition of Blackstone so I have no idea how faithful this version is to the original. I knew that the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and many supreme court justices took Blackstone as the oracle of the Common Law, which is why I read it. I don’t recall any surprises. Blackstone lists the Right of Private Property as the birthright of every Englishman, but he doesn’t make a fetish of it. He does say ‘the original of private property is probably founded in nature…” but goes on to admit that “certainly the modifications under which we at present find it, the method of conserving it in the preset owner, and of translating it from man to man, are entirely derived from society; and are some of those civil advantages in exchange for which every individual has resigned a part of his natural liberty.” Sensible, even if property was never simply a matter of possession.
  
Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted (This was a textbook for an American history course taught by Joel Tarr, a historian who was then just starting out  (1963), but later became well known as a promoter of applied history and a mavin of environmental history. I ran into him at Carnegie-Mellon seventeen years later. I remembered both the course, which was exceptionally well taught for a new prof, and Tarr.  Even though the book was assigned, I actually read it.)

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