Wednesday, 16 July 2014

How Early Medieval Are You? Take our quick quiz and find out!

[This is a quiz I used to hand out in the last lecture of my sadly-defunct early medieval history survey course, 'Between Empires', for a lark and because getting the jokes relies on having paid at least a little bit of attention.  It is a bit old now (2009) and pretty York specific in reference to pubs and clubs, most of the latter having closed subsequently (!) but I am sure you will get the gist.]

Answer the following questions:

1: You feel as though you have a bit of a cold coming on.  Do you:
A: Go to the pharmacist and ask for the most appropriate cold medicine they have?
(1 point)
B: Ignore it.  It’s that time of year and it’ll probably go away? (2 points)
C: Go to the tomb of Saint Martin of Tours and lick some dust from the top of his
            tomb? (3 points)

2: You a see an unkempt man with dishevelled clothing and wild hair approaching you.  Do you:
A: Think ‘Goodness me, it’s a professor of history’ (2 points)
B: Prostrate yourself before him and beg him to bless this year’s harvest? (3 points)
C: Cross the road on the grounds that it looks like a bit of a ‘care in the community’
            case? (1 point)

3: You are down the pub.  As an opening gambit in a conversation, which of the following would you choose?:
A: So, doesn’t look like this’ll be a good season for The Blues, after all that. (2 points)*
B: So, anyone seen that new Jack Black film? (1 point)
C: So, the Divinity.  One nature or two? (3 points)

4: When considering Tony Blair and the Iraq war, your view is that:
A: It was an illegal war and as a so-called Labour prime minister he had no business
            going to war as Bush’s poodle. (1 point)
B: Well, it was an unfortunate business and it’s turned out as a bit of a mess but hey,
            wars are what heads of state have to do sometimes. (2 points)
C:  Consider him a craven coward and no sort of head of state by anyone’s definition for
            not leading the troops into the attack in person. (3 points)

5: A good night with the lads involves:
A: Getting tooled up, crossing the border into Scotland, carrying off anything that
            isn’t nailed down and setting fire to everything that is. (3 points)
B: Several rounds in the pub followed by a night of debauchery in Ziggy’s/Salvation/The
            Gallery (2 points)
C: Getting in some cans and watching the footie on Sky Sports (1 point)

6: At the next election you will vote for:
A: The Tories (2 points)
B: The Greens (1 point) **
C: Vote? (3 points)

7: Do you shower:
A: Every day? (1 point)
B: Only when it’s raining (3 points)
C: I prefer to have a bath, preferably with 50 of my best mates (2 points)

8a: Boys: Which of the following to you find most attractive? ***


A; 3 points, B: 2 points, C: 1 point.

8b: Girls: Which of the following do you find most attractive? ***



A: 1 point; B: 2 points; C: 3 points.

9: In a closing-time fracas, a young ruffian punches you on the nose.  Do you:
A: Swear and cuss, but leave it – these things happen when you’ve had a few? (1 point)
B: Call ‘Injury Lawyers Are Us’ and sue their sorry ass? (2 points)
C: Get several of your mates together, wait for the culprit or any member of his family, kill them and hang their body on a fence, possibly burning their house down too for good measure? (3 points)

10: The most important quality you would look for in a mayor would be:
A: The ability to look after and effectively represent the interests of his or her
            constituents (1 point)
B: A refusal to take any crap from foreigners (2 points)
C: A hammer (3 points)

* If, by ‘The Blues’, you mean Chelsea FC deduct one point from your score; if, however, by ‘The Blues’, you mean the Blue circus-racing faction, add one point to your score.
** Unless, by ‘The Greens’, you mean the Green circus-racing faction, in which case add two points to your score.
*** With apologies for the shameless hetero-normativity of this question…

How did you do?
26-30 points: Congratulations! You really are a very early medieval sort of person, although perhaps not someone I’d like to get to know too well.  It might be a good idea to get a wash, too.  There’s a reason no one sits by you in the lecture.  You will go far, perhaps not far enough for your class-mates, but nevertheless with a good chance of ending up as Pope, Emperor, or at the very least, Vice-Chancellor.

21-25 points: Very good, but there’s still room for improvement. Perhaps, if male, you could invest in some edged weaponry or, if female, experiment with the erotic use of wildfowl when next on the dance-floor at Ziggy’s.

16-20 points:  Not bad but you clearly aren’t trying hard enough.  Try growing your hair longer and cutting some bits of it off or tying it up in an interesting ‘ethnic’ fashion.  Alternatively, why not try and start a heated debate on an obscure issue of Christology when next down at The Charles, preferably one that descends into a full-blown car-park barney? 

10-15 points: Rubbish. Not medieval at all.  You clearly invest far too much of your self-image on such flighty modern things as technology, labour-saving devices, health-care and personal hygiene.  I can see we have work to do with you !  There are things you can do to help yourself, though.  See below for our useful self-help advice.

How can I make myself more early medieval? 
You may well be asking yourself this.  Don’t worry, though: there are many things we can all do in a number of areas, no matter how un-medieval we might feel ourselves to be.
  • You could start by spending more time on Micklegate on a Friday night.  From there you could graduate up to The Spread Eagle or even, if you feel really confident about your growing early medieval-ness, The Beeswing. 
  • Remember, though, that small steps are always the best.  Gradually work your way down through un-perfumed deodorants eventually to none at all. 
  • You can change your diet, too.  Cut out modern imported fruit and vegetables from outside Europe (many of the things we take for granted in our cosseted modern lives were unknown to medieval folk: potatoes, oranges, tomatoes, etc).  Then cut out meat – remember only the rich could afford such luxuries.  Then cut out fish, and then cut out everything else except apples, lentils, cabbages and onions.  Don’t rule out the occasional treat though: feast on some road-kill cat once a month.  Every other autumn, you could go for a month or two without eating anything at all, except mouldy grain or grass.  Watch those pounds fall off! 
  • As a conversation-starter, try catching an amusing skin-disease, or the plague. 
  • But don’t neglect life’s little pleasures, like romance!  Boys, when you’re about twenty-five and tired of hunting, fighting and spending time with prostitutes, find a nice girl and settle down.  More specifically, a nice girl who has only just hit puberty – there are plenty to be found on street corners in the Tang Hall area.  Remember, boys, as a real early medieval man you don’t want them too old!  Girls, as unmarried 18- to 20-year-olds, let’s face it you are on the shelf but you can always take a life-style choice which is both rewarding and genuinely early medieval … and become a nun!
Good luck, but remember, above all, that we at the University of York Department of HistoryTM are always here to help!
© Ave! Magazine 2009

Monday, 14 July 2014

A survey on how dramatisations of history may (or may not) promote interest in the subject

If you have seen I Claudius and/or Rome and would be willing to spend a few minutes answering a questionnaire on the subject, to help one of our MA students in his research, please go to this link.  Thanks very much indeed.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

I support the public sector strike...

... So I am posting a link to this old piece, which may be one of my better efforts (though I later became more disillusioned with Occupy).  I expect all the same issues will arise so it'll save me from making all the same points again.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The Siege: the Chalke Valley front reopened

Last year I was invited to speak about Worlds of Arthur at the Chalke Valley History Festival.  I turned it down ... and later regretted it but they were full by then.  I turned down the invitation because I looked down the list of speakers and, apart from Amanda Vickery, could not see anyone that I recognised as a historian rather than a writer, broadcaster or media celebrity who dabbles in writing about history.  I had a horrible feeling that I would not be able to resist opening my talk by paraphrasing a line from a Rowan Akinson monologue and saying 'there comes a moment in every history festival when an actual historian gets to say a few words...'

Here is the news from this year's festival.  Oh dear.  Poor old Dan Snow.  I used to be relatively tolerant of Snow jr.  Then came his Royal Navy series.  Quite apart from the mind-numbing stupidity of the comment about Elizabethans gathering 'under the dome' of St Paul's, the story was just a triumphalist, jingoistic master-narrative - no mention (that I noticed) of the mutinies at Spithead and The Nore, no mention (that I noticed) of the fact that British captains were paid enormous bounties for capturing French or Spanish vessels because they were so much better built than British warships; just hearts of oak and jolly tars.

Then I noticed his Twitter moniker as 'the history guy' - 'the', not 'a'.  THE history guy.  L'histoire, c'est lui.  Regardless of the fact that he has no historical qualification beyond a BA.  A bit of humility perhaps?  It is all very revealing of what I have called 'the Siege', the taking over of historical discourse by untrained or barely trained amateurs, its reduction to the lowest intellectual common denominator - 'who we are and how we got here' - and their promotion of the most conservative national master narratives.  Snow's piece 'debunking' the so-called myths of the Great War was the summation of this (see also here for my general ire with this piece).

Oh but poor Dan has allegedly received hate mail because of this.  What, in his delusion (to be generous) he appears to think is that he was debunking these myths.  Note the reference to 'the work I was doing'.  In reality, Snow has done nothing but paraphrase the writings of a small, linked, not disinterested, coterie of reactionary military historians (most of whom I don't hold in high regard but they are at least historians, discussed in the previous post), amateur enthusiasts and retired army officers.  The military historians have done the actual historical research here, parroted and paraphrased by the popularisers.  Maybe he hasn't even done that, but left it to his researchers.  Leaving aside the strange comment about 'glorifying awfulness' (how does one do that, Dan? And isn't it you or rather the writers you are piggy-backing on who is/are putting glory into the war?) and the factual error ("I've got people saying for example, the first day of the battle of the Somme 60,000 British soldiers were killed or injured in a day. That's the worst day in the history of the British army.  People would say to me, emailing tweeting, saying 100,000 people were killed in a day. I'd say actually they weren't, 60,000 were."  No Dan, about 20,000 were, the rest were injured, missing or captured), how does he think actual historians, actual people who have got their hands dirty in actual historical research feel about his posturing?  I doubt he cares.  I doubt his audience does.  If I were sending him hate mail it'd be about that pretentious stance rather than the First World War (or World War One as he likes to call it, à l'Américaine).  

While I am on this subject, recently-outed one nation Tory Jeremy Paxman has also been touring 'his' book about the First World War, doubtless also researched second-hand by BBC employees.  He had the nerve, while correctly castigating Cameron for suggesting that there be street parties to celebrate the war, to refer to someone who could have been a great historian but instead was a charlatan.  Whom could he mean?  Not our old chum Fire His Ass Ferguson, surely?  I'm not often in the frame for defending Ferguson, or whoever, but it seems to me that writing and publicising a book, written parasytically off other people's research, as 'history' and a status as a 'historian' while having no qualification is the very definition of charlatanry.

That is the threat actual history is under.  As government cuts threaten to slash history departments' coverage down to the 'popular' areas, any chance that historical research might be able to serve the purposes it is there for is stifled by the likes of these fraudulent media "historians" who dominate public access to the subject.  

We Were All in it Together. A Brief (and basic) further historiographical reflection on the Great War debate

The piece I wrote on interpretations of the Great War in January has become the second most popular post on this blog.  Since then I have been doing a fair amount of reading of Great War history, on which more anon, time permitting.   I may indeed update and add to this post in the following days.  For now, let me recommend Hew Strachan’s The First World War as an antidote to the sheer oceans of second-rate or worse tripe available.  In particular, allow me to draw your attention to the blurb on the back cover, which describes the mud, blood and futility, not as a ‘myth’ put as ‘only part of the truth’.  I think that alone serves to mark it out from the Haigiography.  OK, I think the conclusion drawn at the end, that it was not a war ‘without purpose and meaning’, is a tad ambiguous and the phrase ‘objective truth’ appears on p.xix without evident irony but it is a book that anyone taken in by the Haigiographers ought to read as a corrective.  It is subtle and aware of material and historiography in several languages, unlike the almost entirely Anglocentric and Anglolexic (to steal a term from the late Tim Reuter) Haigiography.  Indeed it goes some small way to reassure me that – at least on occasion - people with prestigious posts in the Oxford history faculty may actually indeed deserve their resources and prestige.

My point today is simply a very basic historiographical one.  The currently fashionable narrative sees the critical position taken towards the First World War as inevitably located in the liberal culture of the 1960s.  ‘The most disrespectful decade’, Gary Sheffield dubs it, in a comment which surely seems pretty revelatory of his own political stance.  Take the tooth-spitting, mouth-frothing ire directed at ‘Oh What a Lovely War’, a ‘fatuous burlesque’ one wargames writer calls it in a gratuitous comment.  These people seem incapable of either comprehending the concept of satire or of seeing the film version at least in context - as an anti-war production that drew a lot of its popularity from the fact that it was released during the Vietnam War.  Be all that as it may, there is one point that ought to give us pause when considering Haigiographic revisionism as somehow representing the Truth, correcting ‘myth’.  Take the following list of soi-disant revionist (reactionary) authors : Steve Badsey, Gordon Corrigan, Christopher Duffy, Paddy Griffith, Richard Holmes, Alan Mallinson, Ian Passingham, Gary Sheffield. What do they all have in common (apart from sharing historical capabilities ranging, in my estimation, from ‘poor’ to ‘not particularly good’)?  No?  They are all retired army officers and/or have at some time been involved in teaching army officers, whether at Sandhurst or Cranfield.  Another raft of work (including, and I am not making this up, a PhD that shows that even the cavalry was well handled and made an important contribution in the Western Front) comes from the same stable.  To be fair, Strachan also taught at Sandhurst, proving that such points cannot ever be taken as having automatic, predictive, formulaic validity.  But be that as it may, surely that ought to calibrate their work and its claims to represent the ‘truth’ at least as much as the vague claim that work critical of the conduct of the war was produced in the permissive, ‘disrespectful’ ‘sixties.

Pursue the point.  If it is relevant that critical work stemmed from a particular ‘progressive’ moment in British history, when the post-war settlement furthered the welfare state, free education, proper health care and a general sentiment that ‘patriotic’ national wars of the old type, led by the traditional ‘Old Etonian’ social elite, were rather less than desirable, is the historical context of Great War revisionism not also significant?  Is it irrelevant that this work, seeking to rehabilitate the officer class, the Edwardian social elite, while denigrating liberal politicians, should be produced when Thatcherite and sub-Thatcherite (New Labour) governments were unpicking that post-war settlement, attacking the welfare state?  Is it insignificant that a political attack on critical attitudes to the war should be led by the government that is promulgating an insidious ideology of ‘we’re all in it together’ while making the rich richer and the poor poorer, while distracting the working class by creating out-groups of foreigners, whether immigrants or ‘Europe’, while promoting the entirely misleading ‘blame the Germans’ reading of the war’s causes and trumpeting patriotism and British values?

The old lie.

I will have more to say on this.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

It was 100 years ago today

That Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand ... And the rest is history.  Food for thought and especially, as Hew Strachan says in the introduction to the new edition of his history of the First World War, reflection on the wisom of escalating individual acts of terrorism into national acts of war.

Friday, 27 June 2014

An Interview with Giorgio Agamben

Can be found on the Verso blog here.  It is extremely interesting for all sorts of reasons and regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will see why I am drawn to Agamben's way of thinking, although as yet I have not read all that much of his work (for, as with so many continental philosophers, there is a lot of it).  But what, in particular, I would like to highlight is his statement that man (in the sense of homo rather than vir) has to measure up to his past.  This seems to be so much more helpful a way of approaching history and its value than the usual tosh (no pun intended) about learning who we are and how we got here.