Posts Tagged ‘history’

August favourites #9: history books

August 9, 2018

I read a lot of history, partly to make up for giving up my study of it after O level, and partly because I feel that understanding the present and then trying to imagine a better future world depend on understanding the past. There are three historians currently writing whose work I respect immensely. Eamon Duffy writes carefully and thoughtfully about the Reformation in England, and what was lost during those turbulent times, and his detailed picture of Catholic England goes some way to countering the strident Protestant accounts that had corruption and idolatry at the heart of it all; it was far more complicated than that, as were the political and social reasons for the English Reformation. Then there is Diarmaid MacCulloch, a historian of religion, the scope of whose work astonishes me: a three-thousand year history of Christianity which I shall shortly go back to, and a weighty tome on the entire European Reformation, covering two centuries, as well as some excellent TV programmes on religion. Finally, and I think I will name him as my favourite, is Norman Davies, a scholar whose work on the history of Poland has earned him a mighty reputation even in that country. He has written the only complete history in English of that nation, as well as histories of more specific episodes such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 and various others. That’s before you turn to his history of Europe, and his history of the Atlantic Isles.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Not a historian

October 15, 2015

I made a very deliberate choice at 16. I chose to change one of my A level courses from History to English Literature; the consequences have been with me ever since. I don’t regret the choice at all; my sixteen year-old self told me that I could always read history books anyway. And since then, I have.

So I have pursued my own particular interests in history, quite eclectic and I’m unsure whether anyone else shares them. History of Poland (my ancestry), history of Eastern Europe and the Second World War (my origins). History of religion (brought up religious, one never seems to leave it behind). And the question of experts and expertise often rears its head: one of the things I can’t always be sure of is how reliable a particular writer is, what axes s/he has to grind, that might be getting in the way of a clear understanding and judgement. Is X a ‘real’ historian, or just a populariser for the masses?

Expertise is a tricky thing; I once read that sometime in the seventeenth century there was so much knowledge being discovered and published that it was no longer possible for any one educated person to keep up with it all. Isidore of Seville was lucky: he lived a thousand years earlier. No-one can now be up-to-date in the entirety of any field of knowledge or learning. At school, students used to regard me as an expert on literature. True, I had studied, and acquired degrees, but what they didn’t know, unless they dared to ask, was where my gaps were – the periods I hadn’t studied, the lectures I’d skived, the authors I’d never read because I found them too dull… they knew I was well up in Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries, Jane Austen, twentieth century literature from all sorts of odd places…

It was also empowering to students to demonstrate to them that there were subjects in which they were also experts, especially compared with me, and I remember the dawning of the awareness, as I drew to the end of my time at school, that there were some areas where I now knew (almost) as much as my teachers, and clearly after a few more years of study, I had surpassed them. I used to remind my best students that they would also be in that position one day, and how empowering that would be.

History I find fascinating, partly because it connects me with the rest of the human race and our collective past, which I can never be part of, though it has surely shaped and influenced me, and also because it reminds me that there is a future which I will never know about or be part of. The human story is a fascinating one, and I waver constantly between marvelling at our achievements as a species and being overwhelmed by our apparent collective stupidity. We can create stunning works of art and music: Bach’s cantatas still leave me speechless, and I can never forget the day over forty years ago when I was fortunate enough to be taken to a cave in the South of France where I saw real cave paintings from thirty thousand years ago… And then, we invent horrendous devices of torture and mass destruction and still fondly imagine that war and greed are capable of solving the world’s problems, leading us to a better future.

It has been fascinating, over the course of a lifetime, to see how research in certain areas of history seems to have changed and developed our understanding of various periods – thinking particularly of new material coming to light about Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, for instance. Equally, though, I have noticed perspectives changing, themes and topics moving up and down an agenda according to what suits research interests and also the interests of today’s politicians: history is clearly not a neutral discipline! But, I’m not so sure I’d necessarily make the same decision if I could rewind to my sixteen year-old self…

On reading history…

May 4, 2015

I had planned to do A-level History when I entered the sixth form, but on the first day, I switched to English Literature. Thus are historic decisions made. This means that, although I have never lost my interest in history, my knowledge is scattered, unstructured and probably pretty uncritical. It hasn’t put me off, though!

I studied Ancient History at school and still retain some interest in Ancient Rome and its politics and achievements; it enabled me to make sense of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, too.

Having had a fairly religious upbringing, I’m also interested in religious history. I’ve been taught the history of the Reformation several times, from various different perspectives. For me, the crucial issue has been how spiritual organisations have so quickly lost their way and got into bed quite shamelessly with secular powers, and the subsequent mayhem that this has caused throughout the centuries. I have found books written half a century ago by Philip Hughes very interesting, and much more recent tomes by Diarmaid MacCulloch very stimulating. I don’t think my reading counts as balanced historical knowledge, though.

I’m somewhat interested in the history of this country, although I am put off by the Ruritanian monarchy to which we are expected to submit, and the appallingly damaging and damaged class system which endures while everything else seems to crumble around us. Delusions of grandeur based on the glory of past centuries don’t help either. Norman DaviesThe Isles was very interesting, and challenging, when I first read it, and I’m thinking of going back to it. Shakespeare’s history plays have made rather more sense when I’ve explored their historical background.

As someone who is half-Polish, I’ve long been interested in the history of that country and of Central Europe in general, which has been so radically different from the experiences of the natives of our small island that I’m repeatedly brought back to the idea that here in England we don’t really know very much about the rest of the world at all. Poland fascinates me in numerous ways: an elective monarchy (!?), the first country to abolish corporal punishment in schools (allegedly), a country with crazy and romantic notions about itself, delusions perhaps in a similar way to those of the English. A country that has moved around the map over the centuries, so that maps of where my forebears came from are maps of nowhere, places that do not exist. Here again, Norman Davies’ writings have informed me and also made me think a great deal, and more recently, books by Timothy Snyder which explore the incredibly complex national, political and racial issues of that part of the world have been very illuminating.

My previous post alludes to my interest in the history of the Second World War; my teaching of literature at school has led me recently to become very interested in the First World War too, visiting various battlefields and trying to imagine the mindset of politicians who could make such mayhem happen, and those who participated in it (often voluntarily!) as soldiers.

Finally, I suppose because somewhere I yearn for utopia, I read quite widely about the Soviet experiment. It failed, horribly and murderously, and has enabled capitalism to retrench its hegemony on the grounds that communism and socialism ‘have been tried and have failed’. And, as one Polish relative, who is a historian, pointed out to me once, the Soviet era was just another way for a different group of people to get their snouts in the trough… But, I am fascinated by the possibility that humans might find a way to do things differently, though they probably won’t in my lifetime, and I will always remember that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it…

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