Short and Long Cycles (of Courses)

Publisher’s reps are emailing me with increasing frequency, asking what I’m teaching next year and what textbooks I’m going to adopt. I’ve had to consult some documentation to see what that will be because I am teaching a metric whackload of new courses – three brand new ones, to be exact, two of which I’m team-teaching so that means they’re set aside three familiar classes (and one new distance course that I’ll offer online for the first time next January).

There are some courses that I always teach – Western Civ is a historian’s version of Freshman Comp (and just about as much fun as a course concept even though I try to liven it up each year). I taught Renaissance Italy for eleven years running before I ran screaming from what had once been a favourite subject. I give graduate level historiography and methods a serious side-eye having taught it all but three years in this millennium.

Repetition can wear me down. In fact, the major reason that I’m preparing a distance course is to relieve pressure from an over-popular course in Ancient Near Eastern history which can be offered more often online (with another academic taking over the instructor’s duties) than I want to do in the classroom.

I know some academics advise a tight rotation of select courses – come up with a two-year rotation and stick to it. I tend towards the other extreme: I prefer a three or four year plan of teaching that allows me to get a break from a subject and turn towards other interests. I also am always game for a neat new course concept (which is how I ended up co-teaching a course on the history of the occult next year).

I suppose this is also my way of coping with the necessary repetition. I may have to teach the first half of Western Civ every year from now until retirement, but I have fun new courses on the history of war and on the history of crime to leaven the boredom, at least for next year.

What about you? Are you drawn to new course concepts or options (even new themes in a core course would count) or do you prefer to keep your teaching to a tight set of regular-repeated topics?

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Here Be Dragons: A Book Review

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston might not be the title of a book that you’d expect to find reviewed on a historian’s blog. But that’s where you’d be wrong because this fabulous new YA fantasy has wide appeal in no small part because it’s a wonderfully clever bit of alternate history served up in a story you won’t want to put down.
The Story of Owen cover art
As exciting and engrossing as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter debut which married wizardry with an orphan’s coming of age, The Story of Owen uses dragons to drive a story of friendship and growth wrapping around Owen Thorskard, grade eleven transfer student and dragon slayer in training, and Siobhan McQuaid, an aspiring music major who may have just found a practical application for her talents as bard to the budding hero.

Johnston is a wizard of world-building, taking one new and compelling twist to turn our modern world into a dangerous prospect for young Owen and Siobhan. Industrialization didn’t just roll out factories and Fords, in Owen’s fantasy world, it also fuelled a boom in a scary ecological niche – dragons. Thus dragon slayers have become the vital force in protecting urban industrial centres as well as oil-rich regions and shipping routes. But why, then, oh, why, is this young dragon slayer coming of age in the rural world of Trondheim, Ontario?

That’s one of the many mysteries that unfold over the course of the book, explored through the perspective of small town student and would-be composer, Siobhan. She befriends Owen on his first day at school but, despite her best attempts to let the cool crowd take her place, finds Owen a fast friend. He, in turn, sees something in her smart assessments in their history class that links the two in an attempt to revive the ancient alliance of dragon slayer and bard.

All of this isn’t just for show. Just as in any other great story, there’s a threat looming ever closer. The rural world of Trondheim is under siege from the same forces that depopulated Detroit and most of Michigan: dragons. Owen’s family may have produced many great dragon slayers but is a high school junior really ready to take on not just one, but a host? Owen may just have to, with Siobhan by his side, molding his story and sniffing out the roots of this growing crisis.

“Listen! For I sing of Owen Thorskard: valiant of heart, hopeless at algebra, last in a long line of legendary dragon slayers. Though he had few years and was not built for football, he stood between the town of Trondheim and creatures that threatened its survival.

There have always been dragons. As far back as history is told, men and women have fought them, loyally defending their villages. Dragon slaying was a proud tradition.

But dragons and humans have one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. From the moment Henry Ford hired his first dragon slayer, no small town was safe. Dragon slayers flocked to cities, leaving more remote areas unprotected.

Such was Trondheim’s fate until Owen Thorskard arrived. At sixteen, with dragons advancing and his grades plummeting, Owen faced impossible odds—armed only with a sword, his legacy, and the classmate who agreed to be his bard.

Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I alone know the story of Owen, the story that changes everything. Listen!”

Along the way to the spine-tingling conclusion, you keep bumping into perfect little vignettes of alternate history. Eloise (of Eloise and Abelard fame)? A dragon slayer. Yes, she was just that bad-ass of a medieval woman! Buddy Holly? Not just any musician, but the last great bard who chronicled the deeds of a dragon slayer. The day the music died wasn’t just a tragedy for fans, but it also cut off a major connection between the dragon slayers and the people they protected.

Queen Victoria, 1843

Queen Victoria features in Johnston’s rich alternate history

Queen Victoria? She was not just an imperial figurehead (as if!), but a determined protector of the British people and their lands who masterminded the impossible task: shifting a hatching grounds of the flying predators safely away from her favourite British haunts. Canadians will also enjoy a little thrill as, with the story set in modern-day Canada, the True North features naturally, from the steel mills of Hamilton to the outsized legacy of Lester B. Pearson. Lightly handled, all of this background never overwhelms but wonderfully sets the stage for Siobhan, Owen and other determined souls to save Trondheim and nearby Saltrock from the deadly menace of dragons that grows worse every day.

The Story of Owen delivers on every level for readers of all ages. I can’t wait for the release date so I can start making good on the promised gifts of copies to fellow book-lovers. If you’re a YA fan, you have to put Johnston’s book on your must-read list and if you’re not a genre fancier, you should still give it a whirl. A second book in the story world, Prairie Fire is due out in March of 2015. I know that I can’t wait!

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What I Learn Teaching Women’s History

This term I’m revisiting a course on pre-industrial western women’s history. The last time I taught it, I was pregnant with my eldest child who’s now university age. Yes, I am that old.

Obviously, the course has been completely revised for the new millennium. No dragging out reams of yellowed lecture texts. A lot has changed in history in the intervening years and I wanted to take advantage of those advances in scholarship while also implementing a more appropriate model of assignments than “some essays, maybe a midterm, and a final exam.”

It’s working wonders, no doubt aided by choosing one of my favourite recent books in women’s history as a course textbook: Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Every few weeks, students write a short response paper analyzing one part Bennett’s argument in light of another reading of their choice and we have a discussion based upon the material. Sometimes the discussions are pretty fabulous as when we tackled how history textbooks they know have (or have not) incorporated women’s history. This sparked a lot of passionate discussion about what should be and why it isn’t always in the master narratives of our discipline. I’m happily anticipating their response to her chapter on economic history “Less Money Than a Man Would Take”. Nothing ferrets out faulty assumptions and presumptions like taking your argument down to the building blocks and essential concepts – women’s history critiques of the status quo consistently makes that happen.

I’m also pleased with the way students have embraced a presentation-heavy course model. Each student makes three presentations over the term on individuals, concepts or events that were important to pre-modern women’s history. Most days we have three to five presentations at the start of class, which are worth every minute of class time that they fill as the audience listens attentively (presentation subjects are fodder for the final exam) and ask questions thoughtfully as well as answering questions posed by the presenter. I’m learning that even in a third-year course, we can set a pretty high standard for formal participation, “ownership of the course” by students, if you will, where they craft mini-lessons on the subjects they’ve chosen. It’s helped me direct the rest of the class much more usefully as I take up the reins after their presentations and can use that time to fill in the gaps or build upon their insights.

It continues to be a pleasure to teach this class, to introduce them to a wealth of fascinating history and learn from the classroom experience how invigorating a clean sweep can be from the professor’s perspective. My only regret is that it will likely be many years before I teach this particular course on campus again (for complicated issues of workload and curriculum) but I’m certain that the lessons I’ve learn here won’t go to waste.


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Milestones & Memory at the Old Bailey

Happy New Year or, perhaps, happy Twelfth Night. It is the eve of Epiphany and also the return of our academic term. We mark time in various ways – by the year, by our age and, sometimes, by memorable events or milestones. I noticed this the other week when I was exploring my favourite historical database, Old Bailey Online and ran a search for “Christmas”. It returned 4417 hits, most of which were in reference to a particular Christmas Day as in the testimony given against Mark Fenton for housebreaking in February 1695: “he Prisoner came to see the House (it being to Lett) a little before Christmas last”.1

Other Christian holidays also figure in the trial reports and Ordinary’s Accounts that make up the database records, but much less often: Easter less than a thousand, Michaelmas over five hundred times, Midsummer half that and Whitsun half that again. Epiphany occurs five times, three of the accounts referring to one Epiphany Parker (tried in 1776 and 1777 for crimes, but only found guilty in the second instance, for which she then appears in the punishment summary to work five years on the river.2 The other two mentions of the holiday focus on readings, albeit in very different circumstances (one, the Ordinary’s description of his readings for the third Sunday of Epiphany and the other, a man suffering mental illness, who assaulted his daughter after reading the gospel for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany.

Another interesting temporal term, “birthday” comes up over 250 times beginning in the 1740s, with frequent links to the monarch’s birthday which would have been a noteworthy moment of public celebration (as well as, possibly, an opportunity for street crime or public conflict).

I began to explore other temporal phrases, such as “Tuesday last” which turns up 241 instances. These types of phrases are more elastic – suggesting trials that closely followed offenses, allowing individuals such as Sarah Loyzada to locate her experience precisely as in her account from the December 1732 trial of Ebenezer Dun:

“I live in Castle-Yard in Houndsditch . On Tuesday last was a Fortnight, I made my House fast, and went to Bed. The Watch call’d me up about 1 in the Morning, I found my Kitchen Casement taken off, and miss’d 4 Pewter Dishes, a Stew-pan, a Sauce-pan, and a Coffee-pot.”3

If I can take the time to read through another couple of hundred trials, I may come up with another group of test phrases and terms to see how the past is measured in these accounts: what are the habits of mind and turns of phrase that leap to the tongue when explaining when something happened in eighteenth or nineteenth century London courts? How did individuals and the broader society parse time outside the formal strictures of the calendar? How did people remember and recall, then, and what does it tell us about English life?

1. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 06 January 2014), February 1695, trial of Mark Fenton, alias Felton (t16950220-27).
2. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 06 January 2014), February 1777 (s17770219-1).
3. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 06 January 2014), December 1732, trial of Ebenezer Dun (t17321206-23).

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Reading London

I’m simultaneously shocked and tickled pink to be teaching a course relating to my research specialty at the graduate level. After more than a decade teaching historical methods and years before that teaching nineteenth century European social history (don’t ask), teaching “Topics in British History” will be a positive pleasure.

The course theme is London, 1550-1950. Do you want to read along with my M.A. students? Here’s our reading list:

I’m also steering them towards many outstanding websites, including the following:

Am I missing anything great? Suggestions are eagerly welcomed in the comments. Classes begin January 6th with the first three articles on the list and we’ll wrap up the meetings in early April.


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Virtue is. . .

Not sure if it’s a reward or what, but I’ve been spending most of this month with my nose to the proverbial grindstone. I’ve been marking and writing and preparing teaching. The writing has come to a frenzy of productivity as my deadline looms.

I’ve also submitted the complete manuscript of The Hobbit and History to our publishers. It’s going to look very nice when it comes out in 2014 but no time to think of that now. I need to be writing!


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Woman’s Rule: The Challenges Facing Daenerys

In Martin’s Game of Thrones series, the character of Daenerys Targaryen casts a long shadow. From the moment that rumours of her wedding to Khal Drogo come to King Robert’s ears back in Westeros, he is determined that she should die. Was it because he saw the young woman, herself, as a serious threat to his throne? No. Robert Baratheon’s fears were tied up in Daenerys’ possibility to bear a son who would challenge the Baratheon kingship as he makes clear in this first season conversation with Ned Stark.

This is a familiar conception of women and political power for medieval historians. The great conflict of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France derived from a difference of opinion on female inheritance. When Charles IV died in 1328 without any direct male heirs, there was a legitimate question about who should succeed. King Charles’ closest male relative was his nephew, Edward III of England, son of Isabella of France. Edward’s claim was rejected in favour of another cousin whose royal French descent had never been sullied by passing through female lines – Philip VI, the first Valois king.

The principle invoked by French jurists and courtiers in support of Philip’s claim was a tradition in French history known as Salic Law. An early medieval Frankish law code, the Lex Salica included a provision which held that “of Salic lands, no part of the inheritance shall come to a woman but the entirety of the heritable land shall come to the man.” What exactly was Salic land and what was meant by “the inheritance” wasn’t exactly clear. Hotly contested and even amended over the centuries to allow female inheritance, the principles of Salic Law were revived in the fourteenth century to exclude Isabella’s lineage from claiming the French crown. When England’s Edward III failed to accept this judgment, war ensued but it was never on behalf of putting his mother on the throne. (Knowing what we know of Isabella who was implicated in the death of her husband, Edward II and luridly termed “The She-Wolf of France” in some histories, her son might well be forgiven for wanting to bypass Mother Dearest.)

Principles of inheritance in Westeros seem very much in line with this particular medieval mentality that land and rule were manly concerns. We are told of a bloody and devastating civil war between two branches of the Targaryen family known as the Dance of the Dragons. The death of King Viserys left two possible contenders: his elder daughter, Rhaenyra, and her younger half-brother, Aegon. Their dispute tore apart the kingdom and the resolution of the civil war relegated women to the last-chance position of inheritance, a view almost as drastic as the Salic Law. (Read an excerpt from Martin’s “The Princess and the Queen, or the Blacks and the Greens”, forthcoming in Dangerous Women published by Tor (December, 2013).)

This devastating civil war bears close resemblance to another infamous episode in English medieval history – the Civil War of Stephen and Matilda. Lasting from 1138-1154, this cousinly conflict devastated England so utterly that one contemporary chronicler swore that it was as if “Christ and his angels slept”. Although not so closely related as their Westeros parallels, Matilda (the old king’s daughter and recognized heir) and Stephen (her cousin whose royal right came through a female line) represented similar choices. More medieval English nobles preferred Stephen to Matilda (who was sometimes termed arrogant) but many were loyal to Matilda, if only to honour their oaths to King Henry I. Matilda was relentless and effective: her husband’s campaigns brought Normandy under her control and, for a while, she held power in England, too. But the divide was too deep to paper over. The anarchy ended only when Stephen agreed to recognize Matilda’s son as heir – the future Henry II.

Matilda and Isabella were sidelined from the succession, but that is not a role that Dany is ready to accept. Perhaps it is because she believes herself to be the last Targaryen after her brother’s gruesome death? If so, she might well be expected to meekly step down in favour of one of the other claimants being groomed, such as Young Griff, or an eventual son as Robert feared. I believe that Daenerys is not just putting herself forward as the last of her line but that she has come to believe in herself as a legitimate, even the predestined ruler, with no apologies needed for her gender.

Consider this snippet from Dany’s conversation with a hostile mercenary captain, Prendahl, who disputes her ability to wage a campaign:

“Woman?” She chuckled. “Is that meant to insult me? I would return the slap, if I took you for a man.” Dany met his stare. “I am Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons, khaleesi to Drogo’s riders, and queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.” – A Storm of Swords

Here, Daenerys stands against the historical notion that a woman was only a vessel of royal inheritance. Daenerys Targaryen sees her self-worth more than in her presumed position as the last of the Targaryens. She adds to those distinctions others that are hers and hers alone: the Unburnt, because she survived her husband’s funeral pyre which hatched the dragons which she sees as her children (and also as vindication of her Targaryen right to rule). From these virtues, it is a short step to assert her role as queen of the Seven Kingdoms, not in trust for an unborn son, but in her own right.

However, just as with the Ghiscari captain’s disdain, Daenerys has much to overcome to make that last boast into a reality – the widespread prejudice in Westeros and beyond against a woman’s right to rule. For this last challenge, history offers other interesting parallels, from the military exploits of Joan of Arc to the self-assured reign of Elizabeth Tudor. Which model of women and inheritance will win out in George R. R. Martin’s world? History cannot say, but it shows that Daenerys’ problems will not end on the battlefield but can extend on indefinitely with the entrenched prejudices against women’s rule.

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