Well it is that time of year when you have a little time to reflect. And I have decided that I am no longer happy using Facebook. I hate the experience and they are undermining democracy. And I waste too much time on Twitter. I love the experience but I can’t seem to take it in moderation.
History books themselves have their own history. History has always been a subject that interests people, and it was always a reasonably large proportion of whatever the available media of the day was. And as parchment gave way to paper, and paper in turn became a mass market commodity more and more people were able to afford to indulge their interest in what had gone on in the past. So the popular history book intended for just anyone who was curious about the past started to appear in the 1930s and by the 1950s was an established genre.
One of the giants of popular history was Thomas Costain whose books sold in huge quantities. I think I missed out growing up because I have a feeling my teenage self would have loved them. The style of writing is the key. This is history written as a story.
So what you get out of this history book is basically a rather old fashioned view of history – but that is in itself quite interesting. How people in the fifties thought about history tells us quite a lot about what they believed in general. They were interested in character and had a much clearer idea of what was right and wrong than we do. So when a medieval king fiddles the system to his advantage, Thomas Costain regards this as a personal failing of the king involved.
It is worth exploring this one a bit. The king in question was Henry III and his modus operandum was to swear to comply with requests from this subjects for concessions. And once he had done so, he would apply to the pope and get the agreement annulled. This annoyed his subjects and in their exasperation they turned to Simon de Montfort. He proceeded to get parliament going, setting up history for several centuries of progress in the direction of democracy.
So basically the formula is that history is full of characters, and it is legitimate to invent stuff you don’t know to fill in the human side of things. History has a direction and a purpose and like fiction it always contrives to have a happy ending.
Is this sort of history any use today? I have to say I find it grating to read more than a small dollop at the time. Hearing how pleased William the Marshall was when he finally got home after the wars for a bit of a rest is just annoying when you know there is simply no data on his emotional state. The frequent value judgements are irritating even when the values expressed are ones we still hold, which we often don’t. But it does make things very memorable, so if you want to have an overview of what was happening in the Middle Ages it isn’t a bad option.
Elections can often be dramatic and unpredictable events. But they are often soul destroying and boring as well. The UK’s 2015 one was just dispiriting. The referendum on the EU was not much fun either. And when Theresa May called her snap election in 2017 it looked like it would simply be the worse possible example of the genre.
The Holy Roman Empire gets written out of European history to a large extent. This is despite having been founded by Charlemagne and ended by Napoleon and having played a big part in the history of wide chunks of Europe in between.
I am a big fan of the RamClub series where a celebrity is asked to listen to an album that they haven’t listened to before. The only trouble is that as I’m not a celebrity I won’t ever get asked to do one. So I have decided to do my own.
I have had a lot of success with a free web based app called The Most Dangerous Writing App. It is pretty good for the price, and in fact does the job it sets out to do pretty well. It is taking a little while to get used to it, but I am finding that it is both increasing the amount of writing I am getting done and the quality. Writing against the clock isn’t ideal for every writing task of course, and it is totally bloody useless for editing. But for getting a quick draft out it is superb. And to my surprise it is also forcing me to use shorter and easier to read sentences. And it is even improving my typing speed.
The extraordinary flowering of thought in Athens in the fifth century before Christ has demanded an explanation but has defied submitting to one. People have suggested all sorts of reasons from the development of the Greek economy to the availability of exceptionally nutritious shellfish.
Maximus had achieved almost nothing in his short reign. And certainly, setting up the most humiliating sack of Rome itself earns him pretty much the uncontested medal for the most unsuccessful holder of the purple. But his foreign policy did bear one fruit. He had sent the seasoned veteran politician Avitus to negotiate with the Visigoths. The negotiations went well and Avitus got the support of the Visigothic king Theoderic.
The death of Attila was greeted with enthusiasm and relief by most of the courts of Europe. It must have been like having a troublesome neighbour finally move away. But in Carthage there was one man who was sad to see him go. His alliance with Attila had been Genseric’s trump card which had prevented the long overdue reassertion of the empire’s authority over the fertile strip of northern Africa that the Vandals and their Alan allies had wrested from them.
Dr Johnson is supposed to have said of Milton’s Paradise Lost that all admire but few have wished it longer. The BBC’s three hour history of Istanbul aka Constantinople aka Byzantium on the other hand really could have done with being a good deal longer. How is anybody supposed to tell the story of a place with such an event filled history in so little time? Brevity and compression are great things in many ways, but you can take them too far. Quite apart from having to leave so much out, you also just don’t get the sense of depth you need to appreciate such a large subject.