Tag Archives: History

  • Encountering History through Primary Sources: Medieval England

    As we prepare for this year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, we reflect on the significance of our immensely popular series of primary source texts: Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures. The series, edited by Paul Edward Dutton, has now reached twenty volumes, and has made it possible for instructors to design new and innovative medieval history courses. To mark the publication this season of the new edition of Medieval England, 500-1500: A Reader, and to celebrate the contributions of the RMCC series, we are pleased to share the following post by Katherine Allen Smith on the joys of teaching and learning through primary sources.

    As a first-semester undergraduate, my favorite class was a 100-level history course on “England from Julius Caesar to Elizabeth I.” The class struck that perfect balance between big-picture and personal narrative, and our professor had a knack for telling stories that were memorably sad (Orderic Vitalis’s father leaving his eleven-year-old son in a Norman monastery), dramatic (remember the ailing Richard the Lionheart directing the Siege of Acre from his silk-draped litter?), or gross (think William the Conqueror’s corpse bursting during his funeral at Caen). He lectured from an ancient notebook, turning its onion-skin pages so carefully as to imbue them with an aura of mystery. We freshmen mostly listened and tried to write everything down, the bolder of us asking questions. (As one of the shyest students in the class, I rarely raised my hand, though I was often puzzled by the discrepancies between the pronunciation and spelling of so many English place-names, not to mention the intricacies of medieval currency.)

    This course helped me see that doing history could be as exciting as detective work—like Inspector Alan Grant tackling the mystery of the “Princes in the Tower” from his hospital bed in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time—and awakened me to the existence of primary sources (a foreign concept to many American high schoolers of my generation). These firsthand accounts were a revelation to me. You have to admit, it is pretty incredible that we can eavesdrop on sixteenth-century court gossip via ambassadorial communiqués, or peruse Henry VIII’s personal household budget (and, by the way, you would not believe the quantities of meat and fish he and his courtiers consumed). At the end of that first semester in college, I declared a History major and spent much of the next three-and-a-half years learning as much about the past—in particular, about the medieval and early modern centuries in Europe—as I could.

    The further I’ve gotten from my undergraduate experience, the more clearly I can see the immense value of the critical reading and research skills I gained at college, but also how much I missed out on. In four years of studying history, I learned a great deal about kings and wars, the growth of political institutions and legal systems, but relatively little about the 99% of people who were excluded from power in the past. The vast majority of the historical actors I encountered were men, though at the end of my college career I took a fabulous class on premodern private life which fully integrated women’s experiences (using the groundbreaking first edition of my co-editor Emilie Amt’s Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: A Reader, published by Routledge in 1993). My college self’s view of what constituted a valid historical source was also quite narrow, being confined to things like chronicles, legal records, letters, and speeches; certainly I had little sense of how one might “read” archaeological findings, works of art, or literature as primary sources.

    Graduate school opened my eyes to social and cultural history, to considerations of how variables such as race and ethnicity, gender, social class, and age intersected to shape the experiences of historical individuals, and to the ways in which material culture and literary works could illuminate the past. When I began teaching my own courses, I was eager to expose my students to a multiplicity of historical perspectives, and to share with them the excitement of encountering the past through a wide range of primary sources. I began building classes around the innovative primary source collections that were coming out in the 1990s and early 2000s: Michael Goodich’s Other Middle Ages: Witnesses at the Margins of Medieval Society (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998) formed the basis for a class on the experiences of marginalized groups in medieval Europe, and I was so taken with Jacqueline Murray’s wonderful Love, Marriage, and Family in the Middle Ages: A Reader (University of Toronto Press, 2001) that I created a course with an identical title just so I could teach it. In the years since I discovered Murray’s reader, I’ve developed several courses around UTP’s Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures series: Alexander Callander Murray’s From Roman to Merovingian Gaul and Paul Edward Dutton’s Carolingian Civilization have provided foundations for courses on Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages; the first and now second edition of The Crusades (edited by S.J. Allen and Emilie Amt) has seen me through a dozen iterations of a course of the same name; and since 2006 I have been using the first edition of the Medieval England reader in my class on England from the Romans to the Tudors.

    Working with Emilie on the second edition of Medieval England: A Reader was great fun because it allowed me to revisit that class where I first discovered my love for history, and to add new sources that I think will delight, intrigue, and move students. It was also a real challenge, since we were eager to retain the strengths of the reader’s first edition. Published in 2001, it was notable for its inclusion of many different types of texts representing the experiences and perspectives of medieval English women as well as men, members of different socio-economic classes, and a range of political and spiritual viewpoints, as well as for its incorporation of lesser-known sources alongside old standards of English political and legal history. We aimed to preserve these aspects of the collection while expanding its chronological breadth and incorporating new sources that would offer instructors the possibility of teaching thematically and encourage students to draw comparisons over time and get creative with sources. In the end, we produced a second edition in which fully one-third of the material is new. Here are some of the highlights.

    Recognizing that most surveys of English history begin before 1066, we crafted a new first chapter to highlight key events and institutions of the Anglo-Saxon period from c. 500 onwards, and allow students to assess the impact of the Norman Conquest on the English. Many new sources are meant to work in conjunction with retained sources to elicit questions about continuity and change: readers might trace the concerns of rulers and subjects over several centuries, compare wills made by Anglo-Saxons with those of late medieval Londoners, or trace the evolution of attitudes towards English Jews. We were also keen to include examples of new genres that historians have used creatively in recent years, such as household account books and proof of age inquests, which give a sense of the texture of daily life in the Middle Ages. Finally, the second edition highlights the potential of non-textual sources to shed light on the past, and encourages readers to put texts into conversation with other forms of evidence. We hope you and your students will enjoy juxtapositions like an account of twelfth-century siege warfare with the plan of a contemporary Norman castle and Polydore Vergil’s account of the Battle of Bosworth with a description of Richard III’s recently rediscovered burial.

    This is just a small taste of the new material in the second edition of Medieval England: A Reader, which was just published this semester. For my own part, I am very excited to begin teaching with it! Now, back to working on my syllabus….

    Katherine Allen Smith is Associate Professor of History at University of Puget Sound.

  • In Conversation with Jim Freedman, Author of 'A Conviction in Question'

    A lively narrative account of the first case to appear at the International Criminal Court, A Conviction in Question documents the trial of Union of Congolese Patriots leader and warlord, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. Although Dyilo’s crimes, including murder, rape, and the forcible conscription of child soldiers, were indisputable, legal wrangling and a clash of personalities caused the trial to be prolonged for an unprecedented six years. This book offers an accessible account of the rapid evolution of international law and the controversial trial at the foundation of the International Criminal Court.

    The first book to thoroughly examine Dyilo’s trial, A Conviction in Question looks at the legal issues behind each of the trial’s critical moments, including the participation of Dyilo’s victims at the trial and the impact of witness protection. Through eye-witness observation and analysis, Jim Freedman shows that the trial suffered from all the problems associated with ordinary criminal law trials, and uses Dyilo’s case to further comment on the role of international courts in a contemporary global context.

    We spoke with author Jim Freedman about the inspiration, process, and research behind his latest project.

    How did you become involved in your area of research?

    I‘ve always recognized the potential of international law to protect vulnerable populations and promote peace but for years the practice of international law was ineffective, the cases at The Hague were boring and national leaders were afraid of law’s potential. Then came the international criminal tribunals for (previous) Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia as well as the international treaty that gave birth to the Rome Statute. It was then that the prospects of a truly international court with prospects for international jurisdiction emerged as an exciting reality. I could not resist.

    What inspired you to write this book?

    I had the good fortune to serve on the UN Panel investigating the roots of the 1996-2002 war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the course of serving on this panel, I happened to find myself caught in a very unpleasant cross-fire involving child soldiers conscripted by the warlord rebel leader Thomas Lubanga. When the new International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him and brought him for trial as its first defendant, I felt compelled, personally, to follow the trial.

    How did you become interested in the subject?

    The rapid increase in civil wars and conflict following the end of the cold war has been hard to ignore. It has stymied efforts to address the critical issues of poverty and human rights violations. As an academic and an international consultant, the increasing presence of conflict and its profound impact on efforts to reduce poverty required me to think about remedies to conflict in developing nations.

    How long did it take you to write A Conviction in Question?

    Approximately seven years. I had followed the trial of Thomas Lubanga from its beginning in 2006 but was finishing another book at the time. I began to commit myself fully in 2010. The trial concluded in 2013 and I worked as steadily as possible on the writing until early 2017.

    What do you find most interesting about your area of research?

    Bringing about justice for international crimes of war and crimes against humanity poses very unique challenges that are different from those faced by trials in domestic courts. The Rome Statute and the ICC trials have made a real effort to draw selectively from existing law conventions of various legal traditions and to find legal frameworks that are capable of addressing these very special and very serious international crimes. It is fascinating to follow how principles and practices at the ICC have struggled to find ways of bringing justice to victims of these crimes.

    What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

    I have realized that it is not just the difficulty of drafting laws and trial procedures for an international court that poses major challenges for the ICC; it is also the lawyers themselves. Some lawyers who come before the court are very committed to justice. But some are just as much interested in showing their prowess in winning cases by manipulating evidence. There might be room for this in domestic law where high profile lawyers can also be celebrities, but it has little place in high stakes international criminal trials.

    Did you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of this book?

    The crimes have taken place in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rwandan and Ugandan authorities have also been implicated in the perpetuation of these crimes. The trial itself has been held in The Hague, Netherlands. Extensive and repeated travel has been unavoidable.

    What was the hardest part of writing your book?

    I very much wanted the book to be an exciting read. At the same time, it had to present relatively complex legal issues clearly. Ensuring that the book was both eminently readable and, at the same time, represented the critical legal and academic issues accurately was perhaps the most difficult challenge.

    What are your current/future projects?

    I am currently in the middle of a book on the rise of Moise Katumbi, his unusual parentage and the role he is sure to play in opposing President Kabila and supporting free elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?

    I very much like to read non-fiction, especially books that present new ideas. This includes Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, Spacex and the Quest for a Fantastic Future and Jennifer Doudna’s A Crack in Creation, Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution.

    What is your favourite book?

    Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet

     

  • The Order of the British Empire after the British Empire

    Written by guest blogger Toby Harper.

    2017 was the centenary of the Order of the British Empire. Lloyd George’s war government created it in 1917 to recognize the voluntary civilian war effort in Britain and throughout the British Empire. At the time it was without precedent in the British honours system. It was distributed on a far greater scale and to a wider social range than any previous honour, most of which had been reserved for a narrow band of social and political elites. Today the Order is still the most numerically-important of all the state honours given out twice a year by the British Crown to citizens who have been judged worthy of recognition.

    Since the 1950s politicians, journalists and potential recipients in both the former empire and Britain have argued that the name is offensive, inaccurate, and anachronistic. This debate flared up again last year at the Order’s centenary. One of the main objections to changing the name at the centenary was that it was difficult or impossible to formally change the name of an order. This was not true: the Order was an invented tradition which had changed multiple times, evolving with changing requirements of British and sometimes even colonial governments. Yet this has been a common defense of the name, along with numerous other objections: that the name was popular; that Australians liked it (a decade before they dropped it); that only the wrong sort of colonial subjects disliked it; that those who disliked it were in a minority; that those who disliked it did not understand it; that Prince Philip (who proposed a name change) was a meddler; and that the name had historic, traditional weight.

    My article in the Canadian Journal of History charts the sporadic debates about the name in parliament, the press, Whitehall, and the Palace. It shows how a small group of civil servants defended the name against objections from a range of people who worried that it compromised the Crown or the Government in their relationships with colonial, former colonial, and British citizens. At the core of this defense of the name, I argue, was a nostalgia for empire that sought to defuse its legacy. The name was not problematic or offensive, its defender’s argued, but quaint. The Order was transmuted almost overnight from an imperial to a national one, in the process forgetting its roots in imperial politics and ideology. By the beginning of the twenty-first century this meant that British citizens of imperial descent were effectively offered a deal: accept this nostalgic version of empire in order to be included, or reject it and be alienated from a widely publicized and generally popular national institution. In other words, the Order of the British Empire now offers official inclusion at the price of forgetting empire.

    Toby Harper
    Toby Harper is an assistant professor of history at Providence College, Rhode Island. His latest article, “The Order of the British Empire After the British Empire,” appears in issue 52.3 of the Canadian Journal of History/Annales Canadiennes d’Histoire and is available here for FREE for a limited time: https://doi.org/10.3138/cjh.ach.52.3.05

  • One in a Thousand: One Hundred Years Later

    One hundred years ago, Eddie McKay, the WWI flying ace featured in One in a Thousand, was shot down and killed. To commemorate his life and death, and the publication this year of Eddie's story in an innovative new microhistory, author Graham Broad discusses how he was compelled to research, write, and publish Eddie's story. To learn more about Eddie McKay, you can of course get your hands on a copy of One in a Thousand, but we also urge you to check out Eddie's account on Twitter: @AEMcKayRFC

    I don’t believe in such things, but if I did, I’d say that Eddie McKay was pursuing me.

    About fifteen years ago, when I was a TA in the Canadian history survey at Western, I was asked to give a guest lecture about Canada in the First World War. It was my first lecture and I was quite unsure of myself, but I knew that the lecture would be more meaningful for the students if I told them about someone from their own university who had been killed in the war. The campus had no First World War cenotaph—it’s a long story—but I found Eddie's name in an old book about Western’s history. I looked into his story briefly. He was a rugby player who became a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Perfect.

    I spent a few hours in the university archives looking for a picture of him to no avail. I left, stretching and yawning, rubbing my eyes, and paused to glance for a moment at a nearby display case. And there was an old and yellowed photo of Eddie McKay, wearing his rugby team uniform, looking straight back at me from the pages of a scrapbook about Western’s sports history. I alerted the archivist. “That’s weird,” she said. “I flipped to that page at random this morning.”

    Odd things like that happened again, over a decade later, when I decided to write a book about Eddie, like the time I took my laptop to the local market for a change of scenery. Sipping coffee and writing, I looked down for a moment at the top of the table. Somebody had etched “Eddie” in it. So that was weird, too.

    Again, I don’t believe in that stuff, but Eddie McKay does haunt me in a way. I can’t really claim to know him. Even if he had survived the war, it’s improbable that I ever could have: he would have turned seventy-eight the year I was born. Would I have liked him, or would he have liked me? He was athletic and a soldier. I am bookish, uninterested in sports, and unmilitary. And it would be incredible if he did not share many of the commonplace sentiments of his own age that rightly find no place in our own. Yet something about him compelled and still compels me inexorably. I’d mention him once a year when I guest lectured, and later in my classes when I started to teach. Then in 2007, I persuaded my senior seminar to do a little class project about him. Together, we gathered material about his life, at least the stuff we could get locally, and placed a commemorative marker for him on campus. I pass it often. My wife, who works at the university, can see it from her office window.

    In 2013, I hashed out an idea with Natalie Fingerhut, the Higher Education History Editor at University of Toronto Press. A biography, of sorts, of Eddie McKay. Could it be done? I dunno, I said. I’m not sure if there’s enough material. What the students and I had gathered in 2007 provided no more than a sketch. Even better, she proposed. It would really be two biographies: the story of Eddie McKay and the story of how I wrote that story—or failed to write it. A pedagogical microhistory.

    So, I committed biography, as they say. Sort of. I was able to locate only about six documents relating specifically to Eddie’s life prior to his twentieth year, for example, so the “biography” was pretty much confined to the last three years of his life when he was a student and soldier. Moreover, the experience of thinking my way through things I had taken for granted, such as how I went about doing history, why I believed the things I discovered about the past were probably true, laid me bare. Oh, back in the day I had taken the obligatory theory and methods courses, and I had wandered the thickets of “theory” over many hours of beer and argument with classmates who were convinced that there was nothing in this world that we could be convinced about. But I had always believed that, for all the interventions of the post-modernists, the core methodology of the historical profession hasn’t changed much over the years. We write about more things and often take a broader perspective, but fundamentally it seems to me that most historians do what historians have been doing for a very long time: they gather evidence to tell stories and make arguments about the past.

    My book, One in a Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps, is the story of a promising young man who was killed in a terrible war. It is also the story about how I struggled to learn what I did about him, how I came to certain conclusions—however tentative—about him, and how I dealt with gaps in the record and the mysteries I couldn’t resolve. Where is he buried? Who was the mystery woman who inquired after him when he failed to return from his final patrol? What was in the envelope, addressed to him, that was never sent by the President of UWO in 1917? The book serves as an entry point, then, for students wanting to learn more about historical theory and method. It’s possible to skip the methodological discussions and read the book as biography alone, but it’s my hope that readers who come for the history will stay for the historiography.

    Eddie McKay was killed in action the day after his 25th birthday, 28 December 1917. For the past two years, I have been tweeting significant events in his life from @AEMcKayRFC. You can follow him there. In a future blog post, I’ll ruminate some about how I learned to stop worrying and love the tweet.

    Graham Broad is Associate Professor of History at King's University College at Western University and the author of A Small Price to Pay: Consumer Culture on the Canadian Home Front, 1939-1945 (2013).

  • A Short History of the Ancient World, Part Two: Igniting Curiosity

    To mark the publication of our new and beautifully illustrated textbook, A Short History of the Ancient World, we are featuring two back-to-back posts by the authors. Today, Heidi E. Kraus discusses the importance of using history, art, and literature together to help inspire students to ask meaningful questions and to pursue answers.

    I recently attended a session at an academic conference dedicated to undergraduate teaching. A question arose related to curiosity: how do liberal arts professors teaching an undergraduate audience inspire curiosity in our students? I have often joked that if I could find the answer to this omnipresent question, I could make a million dollars and retire. How do we reach students in today’s culture—one consumed with the instant gratification that digital technology affords—let alone inspire them? How do we ignite a fire in them to ask questions or to pursue answers to the seemingly unanswerable?

    One could argue that this is not our job as college professors. We deliver the material, we present the facts, and we facilitate the connections that might fan the flames of curiosity. Rather, this argument might go, students need to take the initiative. We cannot be responsible for making our students curious. But, while the student must be in the driver’s seat of their own education, what if we as professors worked to make the material we profess more relatable to our students? What if we were decidedly interdisciplinary and collaborative in our approach to teaching and scholarship, informed by our fields of expertise but not restricted to them? What if we modeled for our students why this material matters?

    A Short History of the Ancient World is a textbook that models this collaborative, interdisciplinary approach. With classicist Nicholas K. Rauh’s uncompromising manuscript as a foundation, I was invited to join the project as an art historian, interjecting over fifty images and art historical analysis wherever appropriate. The text is supplemented by sidebars similar to what you will find in art history textbooks: Art in Focus, Materials and Techniques, and Primary Sources. For example, Chapter 2 provides the reader with a chronological survey of Ancient Egypt from circa 3100 to 1069 BC. Framed within Rauh’s broader discussion of why ancient civilizations rose and fell, this chapter considers the character and conduct of Egyptian art by examining works like the Palette of Narmer and The Book of the Dead of Hunefer. I sought to bring the relevancy of antiquity forward to the Modern period by discussing the impact of Napoleon’s monumental Description de l’Égypte on Western culture and the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone by Champollion in 1822. By highlighting visual culture both in this chapter and throughout the book, we wanted to put forward a more complete version of history, and one that chooses to emphasize the culture and society in the creation of that history.

    While the story of antiquity is often told through the lens of Greece and Rome, A Short History of the Ancient World exposes the student to ancient non-Western civilizations in Africa, China, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent. In addition to the impact of visual culture on these civilizations, literature serves as an important thread throughout the book. Nearly every chapter contains a sidebar dedicated to a primary source. One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 4, which focuses on the Iron Age Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and includes a discussion of Phoenician and Assyrian art, an analysis of the Palace of Darius at Persepolis, as well as an excerpt from an account of the destruction of Persepolis from the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus. The passage is accompanied by Joshua Reynold’s 1781 painting of Thais setting fire to the city, giving a powerful textual and visual connection to an otherwise distant historical event. Using literature, history, and art, the book encourages students to connect to the material via multiple avenues.

    The book begs the question: what can we learn about our own civilization by studying those that came before, how they rose to power, how they functioned, and why they fell? Useful for surveys, upper-level courses, and seminars, the book’s versatility is among its many strengths. A Short History of the Ancient World does not come with a guarantee to spur the curiosity of our undergraduates or to solve the problems of our present, but it does try an exciting new way.

    Heidi E. Kraus is Assistant Professor of Art History and Director of The De Pree Gallery at Hope College.

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