Tag Archives: History

Reading History: Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands (by Dan Jones)

Dan Jones has established quite the reputation for himself as a purveyor of breathlessly-paced narrative histories. From the Wars of the Roses to the rise and fall of the Plantagenet dynasty, he’s always had the ability to convey important historical information in a way that is engaging, enjoyable, and erudite (the crucial, three “e”s of popular history).

In Crusaders, he’s done it yet again, immersing us in the cutthroat and bloody wars for the Holy Land that occupied so much of the medieval period. This is a saga peopled by some of the titans of the Middle Ages, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, and many others. Some of these figures will be somewhat familiar, particularly to those who have watched the Ridley Scott film Kingdom of Heaven–such as Baldwin, the leper king of Jerusalem–while others will be less so. Regardless of how well-known they are, however, Jones manages to imbue each of them with the rich characterization that we would expect from a novel.

As Jones shows, these were men and women of both piety and politics, who strode across the stage of history in all of their barbarity and beauty. He demonstrates how the power of personality was a driving force of these conflicts, and how thin the margin of victory could be in any particular battle. Time and again, it was the foibles of human nature that led to defeat of the Crusaders and the victory of the Muslim forces that they were determined to expel. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the fact that so much of medieval society was founded on status. Small wonder that men and women often found themselves seduced into believing they were invincible.

Yet, for all that the book focuses a great deal on the Europeans, it also gives attention to the other key players in this drama, particularly the various Muslim dynasties that ruled over both Egypt and Syria and that continued, despite everything and despite their own fractious politics, to fight back against (and ultimately defeat) the Europeans who had invaded their territories. Most noteworthy in this respect is the Kurdish warrior who would become known as Saladin, arguably one of the greatest warriors of the Middle Ages. And, of course, it also focuses a bit on the Byzantines, especially the feisty Anna Komnene, whose accounts of the Crusaders are both wickedly funny and incredibly valuable.

As fascinating as the main narrative is, however, I personally found the bits toward the end to be the most illuminating. Here, Jones demonstrates the extent to which the rhetoric of crusading became increasingly debased as various popes used it to justify their own political aspirations. Here, we see crusading zeal turned against the Cathars in southern France in the form of the notorious Albigensian Crusade, as well as the brutal repression of pagans throughout the lands of the Holy Roman Empire. And, of course, crusading rhetoric was also used as a pretext for the expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula through the Reconquista.

Dan Jones has a keen eye for historical detail, and he gives us enough information for us to feel as if we truly have a firm grasp of the broad contours of the Crusades. At the same time, he never loses sight of the thrust of his narrative, so that by the time that you’re finished with the book you’re sort of at a loss as to how it could all have been over so quickly. What’s more, Jones has a voice that’s all his own, though it shares a bit in common with such noted contemporary historians as Mary Beard and Tom Holland (let’s here it for popular British historians!) Throughout the book, you feel like you’re in the hands of a truly knowledgeable guide, and you never get lost.

And, as Jones makes clear, the Crusades are very much still with us, continuing to inflect the ways in which the conflict between the West and the East continues to play out. Reading Crusaders, it’s hard not to feel discouraged about the rivers of blood that have been shed in the pursuit of religious war, if only because the problem seems as intractable as ever. History, it seems, is doomed to repeat itself.

Reading History: “Alexander the Great: His Life and Mysterious Death” (by Anthony Everitt)

By this point, I’ve read numerous biographies of Alexander the Great. Some, such as Mary Renault’s The Nature of Alexander are quite hagiographical, while more recent offerings from classicists such as Paul Cartledge and Robin Lane Fox take a more balanced view. Anthony Everitt’s new book, Alexander the Great: His Life and Mysterious death falls mostly into the latter camp. While on the whole he is fairly complimentary of the Macedonian king and conqueror, he doesn’t shy away from pointing out of some of his significant shortcomings.

Everitt documents Alexander’s life from beginning to end, from his youth in the unruly court of his father Philip to his final days in Babylon. We see him in battle (frequently), and in love (less frequently). We learn of his tempestuous relationships with both his mother Olympias and his father Philip, as well as the many men that surrounded him (and a few of the women).

As was the case with Everitt’s last book on the history of Athens, there were several times when I felt myself growing bored. Part of this is his style, which tends to be very unimaginative and dry, and part of this has to do with how he organizes his narrative. There are times when the book seems like little more than a recitation of the events of Alexander’s life, with only slight glimpses into the more personal aspects.

What he lacks in stylistic grace, Everitt makes up for in rigour and detail. He provides voluminous (some might say exhausting detail) of the various battles that Alexander waged in his attempts to bring the world under his dominion. Everitt argues that Alexander was driven by pothos, a desire to attain the unattainable, and that this was what accounted for his seemingly never-ending desire to embark on the next battle, the next voyage to the unknown.

On the whole, Everitt argues that Alexander deserves the appellation “the Great.” This was a man, after all, who radically reshaped the Mediterranean world, with consequences that would extend far into the future. At the same time, he doesn’t gloss over those instances when Alexander’s behavior was truly terrifying (and terrible), those times when he allowed his anger to get the better of him and committed acts of truly terrible barbarity and atrociousness.

My greatest complaints with the book are twofold. As I alluded to earlier, Everitt doesn’t really pay very much attention to Alexander’s personal life. While he is fairly upfront about the fact that Alexander almost certainly had a sexual relationship with Hephaistion and, later, with the eunuch Bagoas, there’s no real sense of what these men meant to Alexander emotionally. Everitt argues that his avoidance of this subject stems from the sources, and though that’s a fair point as far as it goes, it ensures that Alexander remains something of an enigma, forever hovering just beyond view.

My more significant complaint about this book is how little I felt I learned from it. There were very few revelations in Everitt’s biography that I hadn’t encountered before, and while this isn’t a deal-breaker as far as my enjoyment of the book goes, it does make me wonder why, exactly, we needed another biography of one of the world’s most famous figures. For that matter, I’m not exactly sure why the title makes such a point of mentioning his death, since Everitt clears up the “mystery” fairly quickly, positing (reasonably) that it was probably due to malaria rather than a sinister act of poisoning.

To my mind, one of the most poignant parts of the book comes at the very end. Everitt reminds us that, though we have a fairly copious amount of material from the ancient world dealing with Alexander’s life, there is very little about the Persians that he conquered. Almost the only direct access we have to the Achaemenid dynasty is from the Greek perspective, and Everitt forces us to wonder exactly how our perspective on Alexander might have been very different had we had more from the Persian point of view.

All in all, this is a very serviceable biography of one of the ancient world’s most famous conquerors. Those looking for a no-frills exploration of his life will find that here, while those looking for more original takes would probably do better to look elsewhere.

Reading History: “A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin” (by Simon Jenkins)

Every so often you find a book that is quite upfront about what it is and what it isn’t, and such is Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin. Beginning with ancient Greece and going from there, Jenkins provides a magisterial overview of several thousand years of European history. It’s a bit of a greatest hits of the past 3,000 years of history, ranging over the great convulsions that have rocked the continent almost from the beginning of its existence.

The early parts of the book are a bit too reductive for my tastes, and I would say that the book really doesn’t hit its stride until he moves out of antiquity and into the medieval, Renaissance, and modern periods. There, he starts to provide what I view to be actual historical analysis rather than repetition of the traditional narratives about both antiquity and late antiquity. Once we get into the more recent centuries, we begin to see how the conflicts that roiled these centuries set the stage for what was to come later.

As Jenkins makes clear, Europe has always struggled with two competing impulses: the desire to forge a collective identity and the equally powerful drive to seek self-determination for its constituent parts. Just as importantly, Jenkins points out that Europe’s other continual struggle has been against the impulse to barbarism and warfare. Again and again, Europe has been convulsed by armed conflicts that have left hundreds of thousands of dead. One would think that this would provide an imperative for the various nations to find some way of preventing such conflict, but such peace has proved elusive.

As a result of this deep history, Jenkins allows us to see the reasons for the current struggles and upheaval afflicting the European Union. I would go so far as to suggest that it is this contextualization that is the book’s primary contribution to an understanding of European history. One senses that his own ambivalence about the EU might be coloring some of his conclusions–and some of his analysis–but as a whole I find his diagnosis of the problem (if not his solutions) convincing.

I do have a few quibbles with the book. While Jenkins makes it clear from the beginning that most of the figures he discusses will be men–presumably because most of the most important figures in European history have been male. I find this to be a rather disingenuous argument, and it runs the serious risk of marginalizing those figures who have actually been far more influential than Jenkins seems to give them credit for.

All in all, A Short History of Europe is a useful guide for those who may not have much of a knowledge of European history and want to understand how it is that the entity that we know came into being. It also helps us to understand why it is that Europe continues to be such a draw for so many people around the world, a continent characterized by its utopian desires and the concomitant inability of those desire to be fulfilled.

Reading History: “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mid of America” (by Greg Grandin)

Note: My sincere thanks to NetGalley for providing me an ARC in return for an honest review.

Every so often you read a piece of history that is blistering, refreshing, and utterly compelling. Such is historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. This book explores the ways in which the frontier as a concept, a myth, and an ideology has remained central to how America has conceived of itself and how, in the latter part of the 20th and the early 21st Centuries, the myth has at last begun to collapse upon itself.

The End of the Myth is roughly chronological, starting with the American Revolution (when the frontier was basically the Appalachians) and moving into such epochal events as the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War II, and the recent financial crisis. He has a keen eye for detail and an ability to parse primary texts to expose the assumptions undergirding ideologies. Indeed, so sharp is his close reading ability that I almost felt at times like I was reading a trained English professor (which, coming from me, is quite the compliment).

Two figures loom large in his analysis: Andrew Jackson and Frederick Jackson. The former was the first populist president, a man who based his “egalitarian” vision on the brutal exploitation and oppression of people of color and Native Americans. The latter was, arguably, one of the most influential historians of an era, one whose theorization of the frontier provided a set of parameters within which any discussion of this concept must take place.

As Grandin points out throughout the book, the frontier has, from the beginning, symbolized the political aspirations of the United States. That is to say, it has served a multitude of purposes: as a safety valve, as the engine of empire, as a means of social control. So long as there was a frontier, the inner problems facing American politics–white supremacy and all of its ugliness foremost among them–could be projected outward. Those toxic, destructive energies could be used to expand the boundaries of the nation, while simultaneously serving the needs of those in power.

Beyond the realities of the political, however, the frontier has also served as a unifying me The frontier, and the promise of infinity that it represents, allowed Americans to believe that they were immune to the cyclical nature of history, with its rise and fall of empires. The frontier promised perpetual growth. Because of the frontier, America could convince itself that it existed outside time itself, a fantasy that would inevitably come crashing down into ruin as the realities of the limitations of the frontier became more and more obvious as the 19th and 20th Centuries progressed.

As Grandin explains, now that the frontier has utterly closed, the very energies that it was meant to channel have redounded upon the country. In the wake of globalization, endless wars in the Middle East, and the financial meltdown of 2008, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. The social unrest and problems that have always existed at the heart of America’s accomplishments–and which were, to an extent, deflected by the frontier–have now burst into the open. The wall, with all of its ugly rhetoric and racist overtones, is the ultimate physical symbol of the closing of the frontier.

Grandin pulls no punches in what he sees as the political ramifications of the frontier myth and its demise in the 21st Century. Sometimes, in fact, I found his political claims (and investments) overshadowing his historical consciousness, particularly in his analysis of the Clinton and Obama years (admittedly, this may be because of my own political investments). Nevertheless, I do think that there is a danger in allowing one’s political investments to so transparently mold the perspective one takes on events.

Despite that, this is the sort of bracing, politically-engaged history that is like a breath of fresh air. Grandin tears away the air of obfuscation that allows so many (particularly white) people to believe that the frontier is some sort of infinitely tappable resource that can be exploited at will. Just as importantly, Grandin suggests that, if we want to create a more just and equitable country, we must confront the very ugly and violent parts of our collective past. Only by confronting our original sins can we move forward into a hopefully bright future.

Trump and the Terror of History

In my work on the post-war historico-biblical epic, I talk a lot about the “terror of history.” It’s a term with a lot of baggage and ideological weight, first mentioned by the philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade is his book Myth of the Eternal Return and taken up by the historian Theofilo F. Ruiz in his book The Terror of history:  On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. It’s a provocative term precisely because it encapsulates so much of what we know, subconsciously at least, to be true about the processes of history.

They are, in a word, terrifying.

By terrifying I mean many things, but the thing I want to focus on here is the sense that the movement of history forward seems to always be beyond the ability of the individual human being to either comprehend in its totality or to effect in any meaningful way. An unfortunate side-effect of this is also the sense that those left in the path of history are often the most victimized and marginalized. The march of history, and also its cycles, often brutalize human life in ways and at a scale that are truly horrifying to contemplate. One cannot help but think of the philosopher Hegel’s infamous suggestion that history is the slaughter bench of humanity, the altar upon which collective humanity sacrifices those whom it wants to be rid of. While the 20th Century is often shown to be a truly horrific period in that regard, boy is the 21st giving it a run for its money.

Of course, we on the Left like to believe that history, with all of its horrors and all of its perpetual uncertainty, is a steady and relentless move forward toward a more just and peaceful world. We like to believe, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We like to believe, sometimes we have to believe, that somehow everything will turn out okay in the end, that the better angels of our nature will take over and we will somehow learn to show compassion to our fellow humans. That somehow the compassion that seems to be hardwired into the mammal brain will overcome the brutal reptilian id that always seems to lurk at the corners of our collective consciousness, ready to strike out with fangs and claws and rend the fabric of civilization, reducing it to primal shreds.

However, as scholars like Tobias Stone have shown, there is a certain terrifying circularity to the workings of human events. We as a species seem determined to enter into periods of enormous and catastrophic destruction of our own kind. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We just keep wanting to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again, grinding ourselves up in the relentless wheel of time’s turning. Whereas Eliade argued that the terror of history came from the abandonment of the circular notions of time prevalent in many archaic societies (his problematic term) in favour of the relentless forward momentum of modernity, to my eye it is the circularity that is the truly terrifying understanding of time. How can we go on, when we know that any progress we made is destined to meet the same resistance as it always has, forcing us to take a giant three steps back for every step forward?

The terrifying nature of Trumpian history is more than just the candidate himself. It is also the tide of red–of white conservatism, of bloodthirsty savagery–that threatens to inundate us. Part of it can be quantified, of course. One need look no further than the hundreds of stories of racial and gendered assault that flooded social media and various nonprofits in the days since the election. Words that were formerly and rightly decried as hate speech have now been given new license to exist out in the open, validated by a presidential candidate who used “political correctness” as a clarion call for all the white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-semites, misogynists, and homophobes to come out of the woodwork and loudly and proudly declare themselves liberated from the chains of civilized discourse. This is a red tide that threatens to drown all those who would see the world a better, more just world.

And though many have focused (with good reason) on the fear of minorities in this new era of Trump, the consequences of Trump’s victory for the war against climate change are even more terrifying to contemplate. We know we are living in the anthropocene, and now that powerful force has a name and a face, and it is Donald J. Trump. The United States of America, supposedly the telos of history’s forward progress toward a cleaner, more sustainable planet, has now turned its back on that progress. We have, through our election of this man and his party, abrogated our responsibility as a global power and unleashed a new and even more terrifying period of history.

So what do we do with ourselves now that we live in this era in which the terror of history has once again threatened to grind us up and leave behind a trail of bodies (both literal and metaphorical?) Do we simply abandon ourselves to the seeming inevitability of decline and destruction that seems to loom on the horizon, blazing and frothing at every opportunity.

The short answer is:  of course not. If there is a silver lining to this entire horror, it is that perhaps Trump will indeed galvanize the Left. If Hillary Clinton’s impending victory in the popular vote–which looks to be quite substantial, by the way–is any indication, there are a lot more on our side than there are supporting the terrifying creature now poised to occupy the White House. However, it does not have to stay that way. We really do have an unparalleled opportunity to show ourselves and the world that we are a country of thinking, critical citizens and that, when we band together, we truly are stronger together.