Tag Archives: popular history

Reading History: "The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors" (by Dan Jones)

Having finished Dan Jones’s magisterial history The Plantagenets, I decided to dive right in to the follow-up The Wars of the Roses, in which he documents the civil war that fatally undermined the Plantagenet dynasty and led to their final destruction and their supplanting by the upstart House of Tudor, in the person of Henry VII.

The Wars of the Roses is even more fast-paced than The Plantagenets. Some authors might have erred on the side of detail, immersing us in the byzantine connections among the various players, as well as the numerous battles, skirmishes, and plots that characterized this seemingly interminable conflict. Instead, Jones remains laser-focused on the key players, including and especially the kings Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, Richard II, and Henry VII. In doing so, he allows us to keep a firm grasp of how the conflict unfolded, and how each of the players had their own key part to play as it gradually consumed both of the cadet houses of Lancaster and York.

Jones sets the scene by showing how the success of Henry V in securing the inheritance of France for his son ultimately sowed the seeds for his son’s downfall. For, holy as he may have been, Henry VI simply was not a king capable of handling the enormous burdens placed on him by the time. Gradually, as the realm slipped beyond his grasp, he was confronted by his own rebellious nobles, including notably his cousin Richard, Duke of York. Jones makes no secret of his dislike of Richard, who was a bit too full of himself and prone to showing off.

As arrogant as Richard was, however, this wouldn’t have mattered if Henry VI had been a stronger king and if the Crown as an institution hadn’t been deeply damaged by his grandfather’s seizing of it from Richard II. Throughout the conflict that followed, ruler after ruler thought that they had a better right to it than its current occupant. For Jones, this extends to Richard III, arguably one of the most complicated figures in the entire saga. Jones is fairly judicious in his approach to this very divisive historical figure and, while he ultimately concludes that Richard almost certainly ordered the murder of his nephews (the infamous Princes in the Tower), he also takes pains to demonstrate that Richard was an able king, one who met his death at Bosworth bravely (and who came within a hairsbreadth of defeating Henry).

Jones is clearly no fan of the Tudors, and there’s good reason for that. It would have been difficult for anyone at the time–except perhaps for his mother, Margaret, one of the canniest survivors of her age–to imagine that Henry Tudor would ascend to the throne. However, as Jones demonstrates, he was able to do so precisely because the country had become destabilized enough to render it possible.

Furthermore, Jones makes the wise decision to show us the effects of the Wars after their supposed end with the victory of Henry Tudor at Bosworth. For, as Jones shows us, this wasn’t the end of the dynastic squabbling, not by a long shot. In fact, it would continue right up until the botched execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, Henry’s second cousin and one of the last members of the old dynasty. Those who occupy a stolen throne, it seems, are doomed to always feel unsteady upon it (or, to put it another way, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown).

Though there are many theories as to the ultimate cause and effect of the Wars of the Roses, Jones capably demonstrates that its principal cause was the fact that Henry VI was a weak and ineffectual king, totally incapable of binding together a realm that had already endured a significant amount of stress, still less of managing the numerous feuds that plagued the great families. The ultimate effect of these feuds was to damage, almost beyond repair, the idea of the Crown as an institution. No longer could it be guaranteed that it would be passed down in legitimate line; instead, it could be snatched by any warrior or rebel who thought that he had a better right to it than the current occupant.

All in all, I truly enjoyed this foray into one of England’s darkest yet most fascinating periods. Full of rich detail, breathless narrative storytelling, and perceptive historical insight, The Wars of the Roses is the best kind of popular history.

Reading History: “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” (by Tom Holland)

I have a complicated relationship with the works of the British historian Tom Holland. While I’ve enjoyed all of his books that I’ve read, I’m always struck by two things. First is his tendency to indulge his own stylistic flourishes to an extraordinary degree and, second, to try to craft an all-inclusive argument that subsumes all things into itself. Though these might at first blush appear unrelated phenomena, they are in fact related, and each feeds into the other.

In Dominion, all of the things that I both enjoy and find infuriating about his work are front and center. Stylistically, this book is somewhat self-indulgent. It doesn’t seem as if Holland has any form of impulse control when it comes to his flights of fancy and his rather rakish and cheeky turns of phrase. To put it another way, he sometimes to be so in love with his own clever Now, don’t get me wrong. I like a bit of pizzazz in my prose, but when it’s repeated again and again and again, it starts to get a little cloying and, ultimately, distracting. Sometimes, I think that Holland should really make an effort to find an editor who can rein him in and keep him from indulging in some of his most exaggerated tendencies.

In Dominion, Tom Holland looks into the deep roots of Christianity and how, since its founding, its permutations and adaptations have shaped the modern Western world. Beginning in antiquity, he then moves into the modern world, showing how Christianity is, in essence, responsible for everything from socialism to science to secularism. And, in a rather counterintuitive move, he even suggests that such thoroughly un-Christian institutions such as ISIS are, even if they don’t realize it, Christian (he makes a similar argument about Hinduism and Judaism). Given that Holland has made no secret of his contempt for much of Islamic thought, I suppose I shouldn’t find this surprising, but nevertheless I did find it intellectually disingenuous (to put it mildly) and intellectually imperialist (to put it bluntly).

The real issue with Dominion, and with Holland’s work more generally, is his tendency to mistake his premise for his conclusion. Throughout this book, I kept wanting to hear the actual evidence to support the large claims that he makes. It’s not enough to merely assert that basically ever aspect that we have come to associate with modernity owes its roots in Christianity, and I’m not convinced that you could truly support such a huge claim with any degree of intellectual honesty. However, I’m also not entirely sure that I disagree with some of these assertions–I agree that secularism has no identity without the religious with which it is juxtaposed–but I don’t really think that Holland effectively or convincingly proves this point or, for that matter, many of the other ones. While I think he’s on surer ground on antiquity and the medieval periods, once gets to modernity things start to unravel rather quickly.

And, to be just a bit nit-picky, Holland also tends to make some slight errors that are frustrating because they’re so easily corrected. Early in the book, for example, he says that the Byzantines referred to themselves as such, when it’s pretty well-known that, for the entirety of their existence, they referred to themselves as Romans (even Europeans referred to them as Greeks, not Byzantines). Though these aren’t world-ending, when one is writing a book of popular history, and when one has a particularly large audience, accuracy becomes even more important.

That being said, I do think that Dominion makes some important points. Holland is absolutely right that Christianity was a truly world-changing development, and he’s also right that we in the West (or, to put it somewhat differently, the Global North) do owe much of our patterns of thought and our cultural sensibilities to Christianity. However, to use it as some sort of ur-myth that explains all of modernity…well, that still seems like a bit of a stretch.

Overall, I think that Dominion is vintage Tom Holland, and those with an interest in the broad history of Christianity and its influence on the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds will find it both enjoyable to read and informative. However, it’s also important that they approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism and, if possible, to seek out other sources to flesh out his narrative.

Reading History: “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (by Daniel Immerwahr)

It’s become commonplace in certain circles–particularly the academy–to point out that, throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries America has practiced a form of imperialism, exporting its ideas and way of life throughout the globe, often at the point of a sword (or, more accurately, the barrel of a gun). There is, of course, a great deal of truth to the idea that the United States exerts a substantial influence on the world via ideas and military intervention rather than traditional colonialism. However, as Daniel Immerwahr argues in his new book How to Hide and Empire: A History of the Greater United States, far too little attention has been paid to the territorial possessions that this country has accrued throughout its existence, and his book sets out to correct that.

I’ve long been a fan of popular history. Don’t get me wrong, as a scholar and aspiring academic I definitely still see the value of academic history written for and published by university presses. However, there’s a certain vitality about history intended for mainstream audiences that you don’t (often) find in books written by and for academic audiences and researchers. Fortunately for those of us who devour such things, Immerwahr (a trained history and associate professor of history at Northwestern) manages to combine scholarly rigour with an eye for engaging storytelling.

Thus, How to Hide an Empire is compulsively readable, not just because its subject matter is still so tremendously pertinent, but also because Immerwahr has a strong grasp of both narrative pacing and language. He moves at a breakneck speed through the history of American colonization, yet he also manages to drill down into the details of such far-flung territories as Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico (as well as those territories, such as Oklahoma, Alaska, and Hawai’i that ultimately became states). It also details how, in the decades after the Second World War, the U.S. relied more on technology, transportation, and culture to exert its imperial influence on the world.

One of the book’s great strengths is its emphasis on the ways in which the United States, despite its protestations to the contrary, has from its very beginnings been a territorial empire. Indeed, this “greater United States” (as Immerwahr calls it) was often key to the national interest, whether that was militarily (both Alaska and Hawai’i were, after all, very close to Japan), cultural, or social. In doing so, he also points out how long-lasting these territorial acquisitions were, and he reveals some aspects of the colonial story that many Americans have forgotten. I daresay that, if I were to ask a dozen random strangers whether they knew that the Philippines had been a part of the United States for much of the 20th Century, they would say no. Indeed, as Immerwahr points out again and again, those living in the mainland remain startlingly (one might even say frighteningly) ignorant not just of the fact of U.S. empire, but also of the gruesome atrocities that were being committed on American soil.

How to Hide an Empire peels away the self-mythologizing that Americans so consistently engage in to convince themselves that the U.S. is unlike all of those other countries that conquered so much of the globe in the 19th Century. It forces us to confront the ugly realities of American territorial violence, while also paying attention to the ways in which those living in those territories have fought back against their oppression. Though they did not always succeed in their ambitions, they nevertheless reminded the powers that be on the mainland that they were not to be idly used and abused by their colonial overlords.

The book also points out the fundamental injustices that still characterize the mainland’s relationship with its territories. Those living in those places may (in most cases, except for American Samoa) be United States citizens, but they are denied the right to congressional representation or to vote for president. To my mind, the fact that these injustices continue to go on without people on the mainland taking to the streets in protest, tells you all you need to know about how terrible this system remains.

How to Hide an Empire is necessary reading for anyone who wants to learn about the ways in which the United States has always been an empire, even as it has so completely convinced its own citizens that it isn’t.