True Patriot What Ifs

What really differentiates Americans from Canadians? We celebrate our grand national holidays almost simultaneously in early July. We share the better part of a continent and that very long, under-defended border. We watch much of the same TV shows (albeit with the annoyances of geo-location denials on websites) and movies. Wind, rain and snow crosses back and forth across the border with abandon and it’s often hard to tell where one country begins and the other ends if you’re crossing the wooded eastern reaches or trekking through the prairies.

A recent article by Dylan Matthews offered Three Reasons the American Revolution was a Mistake, zeroing in on the weaknesses of presidential democracy, the likelihood of an earlier end to slavery under British law and the slightly less awful Canadian record of First Nations abuses as ways in which an America without the revolution would be a better place. Over at Historiann’s, she’s taken up Matthews’ points and added a few other accolades of her own.

So is Canada the very picture of oppression? Far from it! In fact, Canada is a nation that offered its citizens national health insurance nearly seventy years ago; they had a woman Prime Minister more than twenty years ago; and while rates of gun ownership are high (they’re #13 vs. the U.S., which is #1 in the world), the risk of gun homicide (let alone random mass-murder) is quite low. Furthermore, equality before the law is guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including sex and disability, two categories of people–more than half the population–not included in the U.S. Constitution and its amendments.

What reasonable person wouldn’t prefer Canada to the U.S.?

Aw, shucks, Historiann. You’ll put us all to blush and you know how apologetic Canadians can be in any case. Consider it doubled or double-double (I’ll spring for you at Tim’s).

Seriously, I have to agree that Canada is awesome. Otherwise, why would I have come north almost thirty years ago (this coming Labour Day weekend) and taken up Canadian citizenship early in this millennium? Okay, well, obviously, love for my dear spouse factored in mightily, but also love for this slightly more peaceful part of North America.

That said, I’d have to take issue with some of Matthew’s claims about the benefits of avoiding the American Revolution because, well, counterfactuals don’t work that way. You can’t be certain that because the British abolished slavery in the 1830s America would have been freed of slavery a generation ahead of the Civil War. Some scholars suggest that slavery was the most significant root cause of the Revolution in the 1770s. Others have pointed out that the British both supported slaves against their masters and held out hopes of retaining the southern, slave-dependent states during the course of the colonial contretemps.

Against Matthews’ rosy suggestions of a Canadianized USA, the picture becomes much more hazy. For instance, I have difficulty dismissing the southern states as an impotent rump within British imperial politics in the 1830s in our counterfactual Revolutionless timeline. To keep the colonials within the empire in 1776 wouldn’t have been without cost. Concessions and new connections might have shifted the balance of power in significant ways, possibly strengthening the southern hand within imperial politics. Might this have served to embolden them to armed rebellion at the whisper of legislation of abolition in London in the following decades? Or maybe we would see the change coming from the enslaved multitudes, perhaps rising out of a Caribbean context where, unmediated by American and French revolutionary exemplars, uprisings could have skipped across the sea to those slave states and inspired a real crisis not just in the colonies but back in Britain?

You know that I love counterfactual history something seriously. “What if” makes for interesting thought experiments that historians need in their toolboxes but it’s not either/or. We aren’t faced with the choice of either our current USA or our current Canadian situation if something in the past had gone differently. If history had zigged rather than zagged in 1776, we’d be living with the long range consequences playing out in ways that casual contrast just doesn’t cover. And who knows whether or not we’d have our Tim Hortons?

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Dark Relics: TFA and History #2

One of the most visually arresting moments in The Force Awakens trailer had to be the image of Darth Vader’s iconic helmet. Darth Vader's battered helmet But it’s more than the helmet itself, it’s what it implies. Examine the still closely – see how the worn helmet isn’t just shown on the remains of the pyre? No, this helmet has been carefully retrieved and preserved. It is a relic, a relic of the Empire. And relics have a long history in our own world. Maybe their stories will add some insight into what’s going on as we await the seventh movie.

What is a relic? To a historian of Christianity, a relic is either actual remains or an artifact associated with a holy person. For instance, you could have a relic being a thorn from the crown that Jesus wore at his crucifixion or the bones of a saint, carefully preserved centuries after her or his death. Relics were preserved in churches but were also treasured by individuals who often sought out these significant remains. For instance, in the fourth century, St. Helena, St. Helena (15th c. illumination)mother to Emperor Constantine, discovered the True Cross upon which Jesus was crucified. The relic was revered not only for the historic connection, but for its miraculous powers, in this case, to revive the dead. Throughout history, relics not only memorialized the founders and great figures of the faith; relics also offered worshippers a chance to connect with the divine and the miracles that such a connection might offer. Many wealthy individuals collected relics or, at the very least, sought to visit and draw on their power.

Some relics were as gruesome as Vader’s half-destroyed helmet, even more so. Bits of bone, hair and teeth were treasured by faithful followers. Many were housed in the most extravagant and sometimes macabre housings known as reliquaries, such as this Reliquary Bustbust of St. Yrieix, crafted in the thirteenth century to preserve a fragment of the saint’s centuries-old remains. In the trailer clip, Vader’s helmet appears with less ostentation but clearly some care. Perhaps a supporter of the empire’s restoration sought out the remains and plans to wield them for a Force-driven miracle or to inspire the masses?

Relics had great power in the medieval world, no Force needed! Believers trekked across the continent of Europe and beyond on pilgrimages often to have a chance to view or touch a relic. One of the most famous pilgrimage destinations was Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This UNESCO Heritage site was first popularized in the ninth century for preserving the remains of the apostle James. Over the centuries, a great cathedral and a host of other buildings arose to celebrate the holy power and also to serve the thousands of pilgrims who flocked there. From the trailer clip, it appears that Endor doesn’t play this role for those who have retrieved Vader’s remains. Who that is remains a mystery at this point: possibly the faithful followers of the First Order or one driven individual who seeks to wield miraculous powers wakened from Vader’s remains? In any case, I predict that Vader’s helmet will be employed like a medieval relic to inspire someone who seeks to restore the empire and the power of the Dark Side.

For more on medieval relics and reliquaries, see the Treasures of Heaven online exhibit or the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History’s Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity.

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Star Wars and History: TFA Prediction #1

Did you thrill to the trailer for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens? Then you remember seeing this daunting hulk of a Star Destroyer on the desert world of Jakku: Wrecked Star Destroyer According to other reports, these wrecks are relics of a fierce New Republic engagement with the Empire’s forces fought a year after the Battle of Endor in The Return of the Jedi.

Such monumental remains have their echoes in our own history only instead of star destroyers, ours are naval vessels such as the Graf Spee whose shattered remains cast an impressive shadow that still resonates today and provide interesting hints about how The Force Awakens could unfold. Here’s Historical Prediction #1 for The Force Awakens: thirty years on, that wreck is still of value. That’s a lesson we learn from the story of the pocket battleship Graf Spee.

It was the autumn and early winter of 1939: the opening months of World War II. The German pocket battleship, Graf Spee, preyed upon British merchant vessels: sinking or capturing nine before the British were able to turn the tables. Three British cruisers, the Exeter, Achilles and Ajax wreaked havoc upon the German ship in what is known as the Battle of the River Plate. They forced Captain Langsdorff to seek refuge in the neutral Uruguay harbour of Montevideo, on 13 December, 1939.

However, The wreck of the Graf Spee, listing the Germans couldn’t linger long in the port under the terms of the Hague Convention. Technically, they were supposed to be out of the port within a day! The captain stretched out his reprieve, offloading prisoners of war from his earlier successes and communicating with his superiors back in Germany. It was all to no avail as the three British cruisers waited not far off. Rather than risk his ship’s capture, Langsdorff chose to scuttle, deliberately sink, the Graf Spee in the shallows on 17 December, depriving the British of a valuable prize but also his German masters of a defiant end.

Just because the ship went down didn’t mean that all was lost. If the British could get access to the wreck, still largely accessible to the tugs that operated in Montevideo and divers who could pry out prizes, they could plumb some of the secrest of the German navy. But Uruguay was still officially neutral: the country didn’t declare for the Allies until January, 1942, after Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, the British devised a clever plan. The German government was persuaded to sell the wreck of the Graf Spee to one Julio Vega in 1940.

In The wreck of the Graf Spee reality, the purchase was orchestrated by the British ambassador to Uruguay, Sir Eugen Millington-Drake. Parts of the wreck were then removed and studied by the British during the war. Even today, the wreck remains a highly sensitive property contested by private salvagers and the German government as recently as 2008. That Star Destroyer that we see in The Force Awakens could also be prized by salvagers as well as the rival powers of the Resistance (the remnants of the Rebellion) and the First Order (the Empire’s aftermath).

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Research Is a River

Teaching term is well and truly over. Except for supporting my grad student’s major project, I can focus on my research and publishing plans.

What are they? Well, there are a few ongoing projects that need to be shepherded to the next step but I’m actually at that happy if terrifying moment where I contemplate what’s next. I know, in big strokes, what my research plan is, but what’s the best next step? What’s the smoothest option? What will be quickest to publish or pull the project together? What’s best?

Trick question. There’s no best step, there’s just any good next step. Stop dithering and just do it, I remind myself. Sometimes the rougher, less perfect research prospects offer the most reward. I thrill to research challenges like learning a new set of sources or discovering a new element in an old story. So now it’s time to go back to the primary sources and immerse myself for a while, writing out bits and pieces until I see where the research is taking me next.

On Monday I’ll open up my research folders, virtual and real, and get back into the stories of women’s lives in early modern England. As I’ve said before, the best advice for me is to write early, write often. While a busy term might eat away at that discipline, it’s easy enough to restore now that teaching is at an end. I just need to let the river run.

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I Should Be Grading

My dreams are haunted by grading. My days are devoted to grading. I turn on the computer: oh, look! There’s grading! I look over at the nearby table: a stack of exams waiting for grading. Let’s not forget the senior and grad student projects that, you guessed it, also need grading!

Grading, grading, grading, grading!

(The above works best when you say it with the intonations of Jan Brady bewailing her perfect older sister, Marcia.)

I don’t figure that I’ll be out from under this grading-induced guilt mountain around the end of the month. Until then, have a classic bit of academic tomfoolery: A Guide to Grading Exams or what I call “the staircase method”. Tempting but no. . . .

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Off Balance

I admit, while this term has been wonderful in terms of my face-to-face class time, exploring the possibilities of my newly-developed online course and interacting with students or colleagues at the university, I’m feeling seriously off balance when it comes to my grading.

You could say that I’m in grading jail. It’s a prison of my own devising and it’s not terribly onerous except, of course, for the nagging feeling that I should be grading all the time. (Last night’s hour of watching “Wolf Hall” was strangely mediated through marking source analyses of “Erra and Ishum” and “Nergal and Ereshkigal”.)

I clearly assigned too many things at the end of the term but given that Canadian academic terms are only twelve weeks long, I’m loathe to request a substantial assignment much earlier. The next time I offer the Crime and Punishment course, I’m going to cut my Old Bailey assignments from four to three. All of those were being handed in during the second half of term: quite unbalancing my marking workload. I’ll assign a lit review in the first half of the term in place, getting a course objective addressed earlier in the course where it will be quite useful.

I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do with my other unbalanced course. I’m going to have to rethink the assignments and course structure a bit more thoroughly for the online course on the Ancient Near East. I don’t want to ditch the primary source analyses – they’re vital! – but I do need to think about the rhythm of term and what all can be accomplished in twelve weeks. There are six quizzes (one for each unit), two primary source analyses, a project proposal and a short research paper plus the exam. That feels like too much, especially in the last half of term. Some of those need to go and some need to be reorganized. I’m still thinking this one through.

Tomorrow the first group of students in my three courses writes their exam. Wave to the Crime and Punishment class who have been entirely awesome. Seriously: one of the best class groups I’ve taught in over twenty years. The last exams will be written on the twenty-fourth where we’ll see what the students in our fun team-taught course on Early Modern War can do. Three classes, three sets of exam papers: there’s about a hundred exams I’ll be expecting to see in those courses. Well, maybe eighty-five or eighty-eight, as my co-instructor in the war courses will take half of the pile.

I also have a whackload of graduate and senior project reviewing to do. How many fifty page papers can you respond to in an already busy week? Again, it’s part of my workload but not entirely predictable (most of it comes much later than I would like or theoretically expect as I plan my term). The only predictability is that these project papers will always come later than we want and just when marking’s heaviest.

For now, I’m dropping some revision notes into my virtual class folders to remind me how I want to rebalance the assignment plans for the next time I offer the course (likely one to two years away). I should also put a note in my calendar for next fall when we’re likely to be discussing graduate supervisions reminding me to expect some crazy times in March and April when all of those papers land in my inbox. Maybe next year I’ll feel well-balanced when it comes to marking. That’s the hope!

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Deliciously Criminal

This term I’m teaching a new history of crime and punishment course. It’s inspired all sorts of fun forays into the Old Bailey Online database, particularly as I’ve shown students how they can search on any number of topics. The research is frequently delicious and I mean that in both the enjoyable and the culinary ways. For instance, we can study thefts involving food or food as an incidental in the course of testimonies.

The most obvious “food theft” might be poaching and, yes, this was a concern even in a city such as London. Convictions for game law offences show an awful lot of fallow deer at risk (as well as the occasional pond full of carp). This case from 1725 features three deer killed by two violent poachers, whose dangerous ways were intimately experienced by one Charles George:

The Prisoner stept to me with a Pistol in his Hand, and swore if I did not go back, he’d shoot me. I was not sure that my Piece would go off, and so I retreated, and found two Deer lying dead, and they look’d as if they had been torne by Dogs. In the mean time the Prisoner and Biddesford got over the Pales. It fell out that some Countrymen were coming by soon after without-side the Pales, (for there’s no Foot-Path thro’ the Park.) I cry’d out Thieves, and they join’d together to assist me. I got over the Pales, and there found another Deer with his Throat cut, and not quite cold. The Prisoner and old Biddesford took their Way towards Roger’s Ferry, and we pursued them. When they came to the Ferry, they turned about, presented their Pistols, and swore we were dead Men, if we came a Foot nearer. However, when they were gone off, we took a Boat after them: They landed at the Half-Mile Tree, (about half a Mile from Kingston) and we were not far behind them. Biddesford was shot in the Fields, and the Prisoner was taken in Kingston, with a Powder-Horn and naked Knife in his Pocket.1

In another case, the sharing of brandy between men and cheesecake between women helped to acquit a family of murder. Seriously! At least that’s what the Proceedings for the 1708 trial of Webb Rawlins, Elizabeth Rawlins and Gabriel Huff for the murder of Jacob Hamson suggests, although the details are sketchy.

The Prisoners in their defence deny’d the Fact and Huff produc’d several Witnesses, to prove that he was at Home from the Morning till he went to Bed, and was that Night at Supper with some Friends at his own House, which was at Old-street, it being St. Crispin’s Day, a remarkable time: Webb and Elizabeth Rawlins produc’d Witnesses who depos’d they had not been from Home that Day, neither had there been any Company at their House from the Morning till their time of going to Bed, except one Man for a Quartern of Brandy in the Morning, and a Woman in the Afternoon for a 2 d Cheescake: Upon the whole, the Jury acquitted the Prisoners.2

I wonder if the jurors wrapped up their day with a little brandy and cheesecake or perhaps a bit of venison?

In case you’re interested, I dug up a 1747 Lemon Cheesecake recipe courtesy of Sasha Cottman, a Regency romance writer whose most recent book I picked up because, hey, historical fiction and recipes? That’s another delicious idea.

Notes
1. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 28 March 2015), April 1725, trial of John Guy (t17250407-57).

2. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 28 March 2015), December 1708, trial of Webb Rawlins Gabriel Huff Elizabeth Rawlins (t17081208-23).

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