"Big Data" is a current buzzword in the software industry, but its popping up all over, and turning out to be at least as useful in the humanities as"Big Data" is a current buzzword in the software industry, but its popping up all over, and turning out to be at least as useful in the humanities as in the business world.
Using computers to store, organize, search, filter and sort the historical record is an art still in its infancy, but it is already bearing fruit. Geoffrey Parker's "Global Crisis" is almost certain from the tree of Big Data: the depth, breadth and complexity of analysis would simply not have been possible without advances in modern technology.
That said, this is not a dry book of numbers. Parker brings to life the people and the times, examining the crisis from as many perspectives as possible. It is very clear from the data that the climate crisis of the 17th century was indeed global: it was not some minor aberration restricted to Western Europe, unless events in Western Europe caused crop failures and historic-record weather events in China during the Ming-Qing transition.
As much as one third of the human population died in the 17th century, which saw massive sequential crop failures at different times all over the world, and lacking global trade there was no way to move food from unaffected to affected areas. Until global capitalism really got its feet under the table in the 20th century there was simply no way for humanity to address a crisis of this magnitude.
Records--including official, personal, and natural--across the world show that between 1620 and 1680 there were extreme climate events at far higher frequency than in any other period of human history, and political responses to them were almost uniformly wrong-headed, favouring top-down dictatorial absolutism over distributed democratic control. The abject failure of top-down absolutism on every front set the stage for the more pluralistic, tolerant modern world, where global capitalism eventually was able to do what no other economic system anywhere ever was able to do: actually generate enough wealth to feed the entire human population, and relegate famine to causes solely political, generally caused by partisan absolutists, both Marxist and Fascist.
The book is magesterial in scope and extremely long, clocking in at almost 1000 pages with several hundred pages of references and notes. The same events are covered from multiple perspectives, which does allow a certain amount of skimming, but the insights come thick and fast. Contingency is emphasized, but it's hard to argue with statistics: of the dozens of revolutions that promised to "change everything" in the 17th century, exactly one succeeded, the revolt of Portugal against Spain. From this, we can reasonably conclude that anyone who suggests the appropriate response to any modern crisis is a revolution that "changes everything" is either an historical ignoramus or a flipping idiot. Possibly both.
It's also fascinating how the same dysfunctional impulses affected both governments and revolutionaries the world over. Governments became more authoritarian (because that always works so well) while revolutionaries not only focused on egalitarianism, they actually used the same terms ("Levelers" in England, "Leveling Kings" in China) to describe themselves. Unsurprisingly, the leveling impulse was as pointless and stupid as the authoritarian impulse it opposed.
Human economies are highly dependent on relatively stable background conditions. In the face of the global climate instabilities--partly due to volcanoes, partly due (probably) to the Maunder solar minimum, partly due to internal feedbacks--the global economy of the 17th century faltered, and huge numbers of poeple died.
Today we plausibly face a similar period of unstable climate, mostly due to human activity, and particularly thanks to the successes of anti-nuclear activists in the 70's and '80's, who did everything they could to ensure it was impossible to replace base-load coal with safe, clean, efficient modern nuclear power plants. Although thanks to our integrated global capitalist economy we should be much more robust agasint climate change than the 17th century was, we are still likely going to face hardships, and this book will give a sense of the kinds of things that we know can and do happen, because they have happened before....more
Norman Cantor comes close to the standard set by Michael Grant for semi-popular history. Like Grant, he's expert at moving between abstract synthesisNorman Cantor comes close to the standard set by Michael Grant for semi-popular history. Like Grant, he's expert at moving between abstract synthesis and particular detail. His history lives and breathes, but it isn't just one damned thing after another. There are causes and effects, however obscurely recognized by ourselves and even moreso by the people of the time.
He starts in the Late Roman period and takes his own sweet time getting the period we normally think of as "the Middle Ages" (say between 800 and 1300). His account also extends well into the Renaissance, and this expansive view of the Middle Ages is extremely valuable for placing the currents and causes of the times into the larger context of Western history.
There were certain problems Western Europe inherited from the Roman Empire, like what to do about those damned Germans. But also how to put the Church and State into amicable relation to each other, and how to find justification for law.
One of the things I found most interesting about the book was its role as tour-guide to Medieval experiments in collective organization. The general topic of collective organization is a difficult and under-studied one. In business we have the niche discipline of "theory of the firm". In economics there have been studies of cooperatives, collectives and partnerships and why they fail in competition with corporations (in their post-1850's modern sense). Sociologists, political scientists and--as in this case--historians have weighed in as well. But no one has tried to pull the study of modes of collective organization into its own field, and it deserves it as one of the most important aspects of human life.
Monasteries were the canonically successful form of collective organization during the Early Middle Ages, and as such get considerable attention. I had not been aware just how important they had been for supplying armed force to kings in the first five centuries or so after the fall of Rome. They also lead the colonization of lands left fallow by the post-Roman depopulation, and served as nuclei for further intellectual and social development.
As time passed and wealth increased they were supplanted by towns, baronies and finally nation-states, although which developed where was contingent on many things.
The perpetual state of political fragmentation in Germany, for example, meant that baronial or princely estates were the dominant political form, and the inability of the Holy Roman Emperor to impose his will on Germany meant that national institutions never strongly developed. In an example of the almost-casual insights the book provides, it follows from this that the German Church was never strongly curbed by the national government, which led to excesses and bad behaviours that made Germany the most fertile ground for the Lutheran Reformation.
Cantor is particularly good at illuminating causality without imputing intent, and there is a nice section at the end of the book that discusses the "paradoxes" of the Late Middle Ages--the period between 1300 and 1500 when the world was transitioning into the humanist, individualist separation of Church and State, and laying the foundations of what would ultimately become the modern world. There were a bunch of social and intellectual forces that one might expect would produce changes that never happened. The growth of republican thinking and no discernible effect on the autocratic state. The massive depopulation attendant on the Black Death didn't produce an outpouring of pious literature, but in Cantor's words, "entertainment and soft-core pornography" (Boccaccio's Decameron).
He also understands the limits of understanding: in covering the period between 1300 and 1500 he acknowledges it is difficult to pick out any over-arching principles. It was a time of innovation, exploration, growth, decay and change, but compared to the relatively orderly progression of events and ideas that dominated the preceding centuries it is hard to see what is driving it.
In summary: I've not encountered any single-volume history of such a long period except maybe Grant's "The Ancient Mediterranean", and I don't ever expect to again.
I've read a bit of Chaucer and know a bit about 14th century history, but John Gardner does an excellent job of unifying various threads in this accouI've read a bit of Chaucer and know a bit about 14th century history, but John Gardner does an excellent job of unifying various threads in this account of the poet's times.
The main events (from an English perspective) in the second half of the 1300's are the internal politics of the Plantagenets (the children and grandchildren of Edward II by Isabella of France), the 100 Years War (with France, in part to assert the right of the children of Isabella to the French throne), the adoption of English as the language of the court, the Peasant's Revolt, and the Plague. None of these events are independent of each other, yet are often studied separately.
By turning his story on the axle of Chaucer's life Gardner is able to bring them all into a single compact tale, since Chaucer--as a minor member of the court, a sometime soldier and diplomat, and a life-long civil servant (or as close as the medieval world could come to such a thing)--was touched by all of these and more.
As such the book is more times than life, as we know relatively little about Chaucer the man, other than what is revealed by his poetry. Gardner-the-novelist has a keen eye for incidental details that illustrate the timeless nature of human folly, which is fundamental focus Chaucer's humane and insightful poetic stories. My favourite is the claim the Edward II's youngest son, John of Gaunt (born to Isabella in Ghent, Belgium) was in fact a changling, swapped at birth for a Flemish imposter. Modern conspiracy theorists of the "birther" kind might be pleased to know their particular delusion has deep historical roots.
If we know less about Chaucer than we might like, this book puts his work in context and is an excellent reader's companion to the poems, adding texture and locality to their universal concerns and observations on the human condition....more
If the United States were a person, it would be suffering from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and this book explains why.
Allen Guel If the United States were a person, it would be suffering from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and this book explains why.
Allen Guelzo covers the history leading up to the American Civil War in considerable detail, placing the war in the context of evolving political, social and economic differences between the North and the South, and in particular the internal contradictions of Southern society that made it unable to live with the North, or even itself.
The national vision of the United States has been haunted by the horrendous visions of black slavery from the very beginning, and Guelzo argues that the uniquely racist slave society of the pseudo-aristocratic South was ultimately incompatible with the growing push toward a liberal, market-centric, democratic, industrial, "free-labor" republic in the North.
The war itself was, like all wars, not necessary to achieve anyone's goals. It was merely the worst of all possible solutions to the problems facing Americans in the mid-1800's, the one least likely to achieve its stated ends, and the most inefficient means available for the one single end it actually did achieve: the preservation of the United States as a single country. But for a nation that has always been led by men who hear the voice of God telling them to do terrible things, war was the easy option.
Guelzo does a good job of placing Emancipation in context, and emphasizes that most anti-slavery agitators were at best weakly supportive of civil and political rights for freedmen. His account of the war itself includes a nicely interwoven texture of social history along with the battles, and a lucid account of the political and personal gyrations that saw the numerically and financially superior North fight ineffectively and incoherently for the first several years of the conflict.
His account of Reconstruction is relatively short, as it practically must be. It is to all intents and purposes an event that is still going on as Americans continue to struggle with the trauma that layered itself on top of their national schizophrenia. Something close to one in ten young men died by violence and disease and malnutrition and neglect--those factors collectively known as "glory"--in the war years and after, and the larger social questions of racism, civil rights and political participation for all Americans are still not resolved, as modern political parties continue to gerrymander and pass "voter ID" laws that the manipulative operators who filled the void left by Lincoln's death would recognize as variations on their own theme.
Because when you hear the voice of God in your head telling you to do terrible things, the one thing you will never admit is that you were wrong to do them, or back down from your relentless pursuit of the goals they have directed you toward, regardless of the human cost....more
This is the most remarkable biography I have ever read.
I have a basic grasp of the Napoleonic era, and have read histories of the Peninsular War and t This is the most remarkable biography I have ever read.
I have a basic grasp of the Napoleonic era, and have read histories of the Peninsular War and the Russian Campaign and the like, but I have never read such a clear and evocative precis of the little Corsican sociopath himself.
Like the little Austrian sociopath 150 years later, the man himself diminishes the more you know about him. The child of a rebellious political environment, always arrogant and self-aggrandizing, he changed the face of Europe for the worse, killing upwards of three million human beings and wounding and assaulting untold millions more in the process.
A brilliant, energetic and improvisational general, he never mastered the disciplines of logistics and intelligence the way his ultimate nemesis, Wellington, did. Alan Schom details his pattern of failure from the abortive and incompetently executed Egyptian campaign onwards, and documents the same mistakes made over and over by a arrogant little prick who was so self-involved he was incapable of learning from his spectacular and deadly mistakes.
The only thing lacking--which is hardly a critique of this masterful biography!--is an examination of the sociology of dictatorship. How is it that such spectacularly incompetent administrators repeatedly insinuate themselves into the highest offices, from the Roman Republic to modern day developing nations to the rather broken republic to our south (I am writing this from Canada)?
If you want to learn more about how the political landscape of Europe was reshaped 200 years ago by a disgusting nutjob and his legions of emotionally-addled followers, you could not do better than read this meticulous, lively and well-reference work. ...more
This is an impressive work of popular history, focusing on the life and times of one of Rome's strangest politicians.
Cato the Younger was the great-grThis is an impressive work of popular history, focusing on the life and times of one of Rome's strangest politicians.
Cato the Younger was the great-grandson of the famously puritanical Cato the Elder (he of "Carthago delenda est" fame, or however it goes.) Growing up in the shadow of his great ancestor's reputation, and following his own proclivities toward abstention and self-denial, he became an acolyte of Stoic philosophy and adopted a wide range of extremely eccentric behaviours, from wearing and outdated and simple toga to refusing to wear shoes. The authors liken this to a modern senator showing up in 18th century costume to a regular day's business.
The real strength of the book is the careful yet lively accounts of Rome's political battles in the tumultuous decades of the late republic. This is a story we've all seen or read parts of, but it's a complex and confusing tale of shifting alliances and unfamiliar institutions. I've read a fair number of contemporary histories as well as modern accounts of the same period, and this one does an extremely good job of threading a coherent path through the chaos of events. The authors wisely skim over some of the weirder political machinations (Julius Caesar's ploy to hold office despite being pontifex maximus is given no mention) while giving fair accounts of the relevant ones, particularly Cato's strange treatment of his wife.
They also draw fewer parallels to the intransigent and politically tone-deaf conservatives of the present day than they might, but that's a good decision. It lets the reader decide to what extent history is repeating itself, or perhaps merely rhyming.
If you have an interest in late republican Roman history--and really, anyone who is interested in the struggles of democracy in the present day ought to be--this is an excellent book for both neophytes and relatively knowledgeable readers. ...more