Category Archives: History

People have always been just as crazy as they are now.

Patrick Leigh Fernor, A Time to Keep Silence

Cover Art

A Time to Keep Silence is Patrick Leigh Fernor’s account of his experiences as a guest in two French monasteries during the 1950s, and his visit to a long-abandoned monastery carved out of the rocks in Cappadocia, Turkey. It’s a short book, less than a hundred pages; it describes the monasteries and tells their histories, but doesn’t get too heavily into analyzing what it sees. Fernor has theories, but he doesn’t try to definitively explain why the monks chose a silent, regimented lifestyle, or what it means to them. He doesn’t feel qualified.

Fernor begins in a Benedictine abbey, where he comes to feel relatively at home. He then moves to a Trappist monastery where the monks’ lives consist of ceaseless work, endless prayer, and a distinct lack of central heating.1 He has less direct contact with the monks and their values never cease to be alien. Finally, he describes the long-abandoned Cappadocian monastery, not a living place but a part of monastic history, its inhabitants long gone. Fernor zooms out as he goes. Each section creates more distance between the reader and the monks, each section takes away from the reader’s sense of connection. Compared to most nonfiction A Time to Keep Silence is structured backwards; it begins looking like it might have the answers but it leaves with only questions.

Fernor’s more certain about the monastery’s effect on himself. At first the lack of distraction is disorienting. He spends most of a couple of days asleep. He suspects he was recovering from “the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries,” created by the thousands of minor stresses and demands on our attention everyone faces every day, which have grown exponentially in the fifty years since this book was published. He feels peaceful, focused, and attentive.

You don’t have to be religious to see why certain people might find this attractive. We live in a world of noise, distraction, and random hostility. Sometimes even the most ordinary inanimate objects–jar lids, DVD cases, computer programs, new shirts full of pins–are out to get you. Sometimes you just want to get the hell away.

“The Abbey was at first a graveyard,” says Fernor; “the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders.” Fernor doesn’t share in the monks’ religion and doesn’t try to explain what their lives are all about, but I suspect for at least some of them the answer to that question is closer than it seems.

  1. The Trappist monastery’s program was developed by a seventeenth-century aristocrat gone radical. According to a legend recounted in the book, after his mistress died he walked into her sickroom to find the undertaker had decapitated her body to fit it into the coffin, casually leaving her head on a table. ↩

The Crusades Drag On

Gustave Dore does the Fourth Crusade.

When I open a book called The Fourth Crusade I sort of expect to read about the Fourth Crusade, so the preface to Jonathan Phillips’s The Fourth Crusade came as a speed bump. It’s a two-page argument that the “holy war” has no equivalent in modern Western societies—we’ve given it up for the “just war,” so good on us. It became easier to understand what the hell this was doing here when I checked the copyright. This book about a turn-of-the-thirteenth century European army whose targets had nothing to do with the stated purpose of their war would have been getting its final polish at about the time George W. Bush’s Iraq war was getting started. The preface is a troll prophylactic. “I’m not criticizing the Fearless Leader!” says Jonathan Phillips. “Honest!”

Once you’re past the prologue this is a readable layman’s overview of a war that, even by crusading standards, was pure sleaze from start to finish. It started with propaganda: a round of sermons exhorting the faithful to head out and take Jerusalem back from the Moslems. (Wikipedia gives most of the credit to Fulk of Neuilly. According to Phillips the guy didn’t actually do a hell of a lot, but I wanted to mention him because I like the name “Fulk.” More parents should name their kids Fulk, is what I say.) Some people signed on, partly out of self-interest: crusading would buy them forgiveness for their sins. Which was great, because by the time a crusade was over they’d need it. Continue reading The Crusades Drag On


Skimming through a random selection on Project Gutenberg–the July 2, 1853 issue of Notes and Queries–I came across this weird little incident:

Curious Posthumous Occurrence.—If the following be true, though in ever so limited a manner, it deserves investigation. Notwithstanding his twenty-three years’ experience, the worthy grave-digger must have been mistaken, unless there is something peculiar in the bodies of Bath people! But if the face turns down in any instance, as asserted, it would be right to ascertain the cause, and why this change is not general. It is now above twenty years since the paragraph appeared in the London papers:—

“A correspondent in the Bath Herald states the following singular circumstance:—’Having occasion last week to inspect a grave in one of the parishes of this city, in which two or three members of a family had been buried some years since, and which lay in very wet ground, I observed that the upper part of the coffin was rotted away, and had left the head and bones of the skull exposed to view. On inquiring of the grave-digger how it came to pass that I did not observe the usual sockets of the eyes in the skull, he replied that what I saw was the hind part of the head (termed the occiput, I believe, by anatomists), and that the face was turned, as usual, to the earth!!—Not exactly understanding his phrase ‘as usual,’ I inquired if the body had been buried with the face upwards, as in the ordinary way; to which he replied to my astonishment, in the affirmative, adding, that in the course of decomposition the face of every individual turns to the earth!! and that, in the experience of three-and-twenty years in his situation, he had never known more than one instance to the contrary.'”

A. B. C.

I suspect the gravedigger had no idea what had happened and, rather than appear ignorant in front of our nameless correspondent, invented this totally specious bit of insider knowledge on the spot. The only other possibility–discounting zombies–is that some medical authority in Bath had, as often as possible for at least twenty-three years, been overenthusiastic about declaring people dead. Stupid though it is, that idea will probably still keep me awake tonight.

The Secret History

Emperor Justinian

Procopius was a respected historian back in his day. Upright. Sober. The go-to guy if you wanted to know what was up with Emperor Justinian.

So everybody was kind of surprised when, a few centuries later, somebody dug up The Secret History. Procopius hated Justinian. Hated him. Hated hated hated hated hated him. Not as much as he hated Empress Theodora, but still a lot. It wasn’t that Justinian was stupid. It wasn’t that he was corrupt. He managed to be stupid and successfully corrupt at the same time: “never of his own accord speaking the truth to those with whom he conversed, but having a deceitful and crafty intent behind every word and action, and at the same time exposing himself, an easy prey, to those who wished to deceive him.”

The Secret History was where Procopius vented the bile he couldn’t pack into his official histories without getting executed. He starts out… what do they call it these days? “Shrill?” As the pages go by he gets shriller and shriller until he reads like a steam whistle. Look at the chapter titles from the Penguin edition—I think they were added by the translator, but they give you the flavor. They start with “Belisarius and Antonina,” and progress to “Justinian’s Misgovernment,” and then “The Destruction Wrought by a Demon-Emperor,” and by “Everyone and Everything Sacrificed to the Emperor’s Greed” Procopius’s face is bright red and he’s muttering to himself and steam is jetting out of his ears and you’re sort of afraid he’ll pull out a couple of pistols and shoot up the room like Yosemite Sam. (Then you remember he’s been dead for over fourteen centuries. We’re safe!)

Continue reading The Secret History

The Littlest Presidential Biography

Project Gutenberg has an RSS feed of new and updated titles. I check it sometimes; you never know what’s going to turn up. The best title I’ve seen recently is Lives of the Presidents Told in Words of One Syllable, by Jean S. Remy. “Wow,” I thought. “This is the kind of historical reference you could give a Fox News commentator!”

I thought Jean had given herself (himself? Was s/he French?) quite a challenge—like writing a novel without the letter E. I mean, “president” itself has three syllables. So does “Washington.” “Lincoln” has two. Maybe Jean was just very informal. She would call Washington “Wash,” and Lincoln “Link,” and the President would be “The Prez.” Just like drinking buddies. (I dunno how things were in 1900, but that’s what people look for in a President these days, right?)

But the actual book looks like this:

At this act Eng-land was up and in arms, and sent o-ver great ships and ma-ny men to help fight the French. The first step that Eng-land took was to send men to warn the French a-way from the Eng-lish forts in Penn-syl-va-ni-a; and Wash-ing-ton, who knew bet-ter than a-ny one else the rough wild woods, and who was a friend of the In-di-ans, led a lit-tle band of sev-en men through the dense, dark woods and o-ver riv-ers filled with float-ing ice, up to the French lines. He told the chief man of the French troops just what the Eng-lish said, but this French man would not give up one inch of ground that he had won from the In-di-ans, and gave Wash-ing-ton a note to take back with him, in which he said as much.

Jean didn’t use words of one syllable—she stuck hyphens in polysyllabic words and redefined them as multiple single-syllable words. Man, that’s cheating.

Bonus Fun Fact!

On the whole, Jack-son’s term was a good one for the land; and so well did the peo-ple like him, that he is the on-ly pres-i-dent of whom it has been said that he was bet-ter liked when he went out of of-fice than when he went in.

I am not totally sure this is a compliment.

A Voyage Long and Tedious

As I’ve mentioned before, history is big and the layers go down forever. The more you read themore you realize how much you don’t know. The narrative you built out of the things you remember from school is full of holes.

Tony Horowitz had a hole moment on a visit to Plymouth Rock. A guide told him that among the top tourist misconceptions (along with the idea that the ten-foot Indian statue is life-sized. What is wrong with these people?) is the conviction that Columbus and the Pilgrims came over on the same boat. And he wondered: what did happen over that century and a half, anyway? So he wrote A Voyage Long and Strange. And I read the jacket copy and thought, hey, good question.

I didn’t get very far. Horowitz came to the project as a journalist rather than a historian. He seems to have assumed, without really thinking about it, that a history writer should travel to places where things happened. So to prepare for his chapters on the Norse he wandered around Newfoundland, and before writing about Columbus he visited the Dominican Republic.

Not that historians don’t travel. But Horowitz isn’t doing original research; he’s digesting already well researched information into a manageable lump for a general audience. So it’s not clear why he’s taking these trips. Occasionally he hits on some insight into how the history influenced the character of these places today, but these insights are rarely deep and his travels are mostly standard magazine-article tourist ramblings.

And he won’t shut up about them. He doesn’t introduce Columbus by describing the present Dominican Republic, or use his trip as a follow up to the history. He jumps back and forth within the same chapter, and can’t seem to get through more than a couple of pages of history at a time. Constantly, just as the book was getting into, say, the history of the Taino, it would stop dead so Horowitz could gripe about the difficulty of renting a car in Santo Domingo. I gave up somewhere during Horowitz’s quest to trace Coronado’s route through empty desert interspersed with a series of modern-day tourist sites. Somewhere in the world may be the perfect book to rectify my ignorance about that century and a half. This isn’t it.

Harpies and Peanuts

Wilde attributes this joke to Carlyle: a biography of Michelangelo that would make no mention of the works of Michelangelo. So complex is reality, and so fragmentary and simplified is history, that an omniscient observer could write an indefinite, almost infinite, number of biographies of a man, each emphasizing different facts; we would have to read many of them before we realized that the protagonist was the same.

—Jorge Luis Borges, “On William Beckford’s Vathek

In the early 16th century, aspiring artist Bartolomeo Torri was thrown out of his teacher’s home after he got a little too absorbed in his anatomy lessons: “for he kept so many limbs and pieces of corpses under his bed and all over his rooms, that they poisoned the whole house,” wrote Giorgio Vasari. Cherubino Alberti fixated on medieval siege engines and filled his home with model catapults. Later, Franz Xavier Messerschmidt believed he was pinched and abused by a “Spirit of Proportion” who could be warded off by pulling grotesque contorted expressions, which Messerschmidt recorded in sculpture.

The cover of Born Under Saturn

Margot & Rudolf Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn is a history of “the Character and Conduct of Artists,” as the subtitle puts it. And, yeah, a lot of these guys are characters. Others were normal, well-behaved types, but, honestly, you’re not going to read this book for Rubens or Bernini. But Born Under Saturn isn’t a freak show. The Wittkowers are analyzing popular ideas about artists, and although stories of eccentricities, feuds, and crimes make this book more readable than a straight academic treatise they also serve a purpose: the varied mass of biography breaks down cultural stereotypes about artists.

Continue reading Harpies and Peanuts

The Incredibly Strange People Who Stopped Speaking Occitan and Became Mixed-Up Frenchmen

History is fractal. At the top is the history of nations as singular entities. England declared war on France, Japan closed its borders… on the high-school-textbook-summary level we talk as though nations are monolithic blocks animated by ants marching in lockstep. But nations aren’t made of ants; they have factions and movements and territories, and this internal history is the next level. Then you have the history of individual factions, and particular territories, and cities and boroughs and streets, all the way down to the histories of individuals. There the fractal analogy breaks down. You can’t really write histories of an individual’s internal organs, with the possible exception of Winston Churchill’s liver which declared independence in 1951.

The Discovery of France
I always sort of thought about France as an ant monolith. Even reading Dumas didn’t change this much. My old United States-style high school education treated foreign countries as sort of hazy unimportant little islands off in the far distance. It still lurks in my subconscious. Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France was a great corrective. It turns out most of what we think of as “French culture” has, historically, been the culture of Paris. Away from the city, Parisians would find themselves in a wildly varied mosaic of provinces united only by the encircling national border. For a long time the north of France and the south didn’t even speak the same language. There were towns so isolated that everyone considered it their civic duty to hack a wandering cartographer to death in a fit of superstitious paranoia.

That’s the thing about fractal history: the farther down you go, the weirder it gets. Remember how bored you were in high school Western Civ? You were dealing with the lumbering impersonal history of monolithic nations. Sentences like “England declared war on France” are the stock in trade of textbooks. The declarations of war and treaty negotiations happening up at the nation level are important, but dry. When you drill down to the lower levels, that’s when things get interesting. That’s where you can see humanity in its particularity, and peculiarity. The best history is about people doing what they do best: behaving very, very strangely.

And, man, French people are strange. Of course, so is everyone else—although most of us don’t notice the strangeness of our surroundings, having grown up in them—but anyone who’s just read The Discovery of France could be forgiven for feeling as though France was a weirder place than most—a surrealist country that might have arisin from a conclave of New Weird writers. There are whistling languages and spiderlike shepherds on ten-foot stilts who covered ground at eight miles an hour. Villagers live in caves carved into the sides of quarries. Marshes host a community of fishermen “whose long-legged beds were lapped by the water at high tide and who learned to sail almost before they could talk.” The author of a French-German phrasebook advises her postilion (coach driver) that “I believe that the wheels are on fire. Look and see”—amazing not only for the implication that this was a common enough occurrence to need a standard translation, but also for the idea that this was not something a postilion would notice without help. Survivors pour out basins of water from a house where someone has died, in case the victim’s soul washed itself on the way out—or “tried to extinguish itself,” if on its way to hell.

It’s like an encyclopedia of strange. And yet none of these people would have thought themselves unusual. Neither do we. But two hundred years from now a thousand readers of 21st century history will come up for air, closing their books or switching off their Kindles or whatever, with dazed expressions and universal cries of “Huh?”