Flavors of History – Alma Boykin

                                    Flavors of History – Alma Boykin


In the beginning there was vanilla, and it was . . .

OK, correction. In the beginning there was olive oil on flat bread with goat cheese, better known as Herodotus. He really does deserve the title of the Father of History, in the sense that he did research, interviewed people who had traveled, and made clear what he knew to be fact, what he had been told was fact, and what he suspected was conjecture. As far as Western history goes, he is the first general historian, and we might say the first social historian, since he wrote about unusual people way over there and what they did. He could also count as an anthropologist, back before the two sides parted company. In China, I’d count Sima Chin as the first historian who was not simply compiling king lists or writing on oracle bones. He is a political historian and intellectual historian, writing about monarchs and the good and bad things they did and if they accorded with his preferred philosophy. No, he wasn’t “objective” but back then historians weren’t supposed to be.

The next major Western historian was Thucydides, a military and political historian. In fact, political and military history dominated the field for quite a while, if you focus outside the Christian Church. People who could write tended to be churchmen and/or affiliated with royal or princely courts. The most important things going on involved ruling, challenges to ruling, inheritance, and how good the patron was. As a result, we tend to find pious descriptions of saintly monarchs (Alfred the Great) interspersed with descriptions of battles and marriages and offspring, or accounts of how horrible the previous monarch was and how G-d, in His mercy and grace, allowed the current claimant to the throne to overcome the bad monarch and replace him. Buried within the accounts, we find nuggets of what moderns consider history.

During the early middle ages (say, 1100s – 1300s or so) we find a lot more national histories written. These are descriptions of the long history of the Bohemians, or Magyars, or Britons (although the English and Welsh started early with Gerald of Wales and the Venerable Bede tracing things back to the Trojan War). The goal was to show how long a nation had been in the land, and how noble and dignified their ancestry was, thus locking in their claims to territory and respect from other, less worthy peoples and rulers. This is when the Magyars staked their claim to Pannonia based on descent from wandering ancestors related to the Huns and farther back, to the sons of a princess and an eagle. The Bohemians didn’t go quite that far, settling on a princess in the 600s or so (pre-Magyar and German) and a plowman. The Kieven Primary Chronicle dates to this period, skipping the mythology for the most part.

Until the 19th Century history focused on what we call today political and military history, with some diplomatic history wrapped in, and historical biography. When people grumble about “history is just dead kings and battles” they are thinking of this sort of writing. But the people writing histories were not interested in “objective” history. They were recording events in order to support a certain side, or to justify certain actions, or to explain why their side won (or lost). And the most important things to the literate people who were not businessmen and women, or clergy, were politics and wars. Politics and wars shaped everything in the world of the nobility and upper classes, international trade and diplomacy, and even some religious matters, so that’s what you wrote about. And that’s what interested the people who had enough extra money to hire scribes to write family histories and accounts of events. A few individuals wrote diaries and detailed accounts of events that they participated in, like Samuel Pepys (most famously), a latter-day version of the old monastic chronicles, but they were not writing history per se and did not claim to be.

Then along came the professional historians, first Gibbon, and then most importantly Leopold Von Ranke, who ordered his students to go into the archives and government documents and write down things as they really happened, no favoritism or glossing. And political history, diplomatic history, and nibbles of economic history appeared in the form of trade histories. The American diplomat George Perkins Marsh wrote the first environmental history in the 1890s, with the book Man and Nature where he compared the descriptions of the Classical world with what he observed as an ambassador, and described what he thought had happened and why. After WWI people began turning away from the older kinds of history, looking below the level of monarchs and ministries, to see what had been going on in departments, counties, parishes, and villages. The French in particular started combing through local records, digging up anything they could find and trying to make sense of it. Called the Annals’ School because of the title of the journal where the first of their work appeared, the French also began looking at the longue durre, the extended stretch of history of places and peoples.

After WWII, with the surge of new people coming into the universities and more access to archives and new tools to analyze things, history either exploded or shattered, depending on how you view things. Political and military history still led the field in terms of respect and number of practitioners, as the box on my office floor containing the full paperback set of Samuel Elliott Morrison’s history of the US Navy in WWII can attest. Governments still funded historical writing. But economic history emerged as an official specialty, and environmental history, women’s history, Marxist and labour history that looked back at the working classes, and peasants and slaves and serfs to tell their story (E. P. Thompson most famously), religious history that didn’t focus on the development of theology or advance a pro-denominational thesis, corporate history and industrial histories, much better histories of non-Western places with South Asia, China, Japan, and so on developing their own standards and patterns and conventions, geographically focused histories such as American West or Borderlands, and new takes on older writings. Medicine developed its own history that lapped into social and political history. Military history shifted from how battles were won and lost into the daily experiences of soldiers, and of civilians around the soldiers, to histories of logistics and supply, how warfare affected society and shaped culture (see Victor Davis Hanson’s early work), and war-on-the ground like John Keegan’s Face of Battle.

Historians also began nibbling, then gulping, the tools of other fields. We crunched numbers and developed Cliometrics, history based on statistical analysis that could be amazingly useful when it worked and miserable to read when it didn’t. We pestered the archaeologists and the Dark Ages turned into Late Antiquity as more and more continuity appeared in the historical and archaeological record, plagues, invasions, and the climatic downturn in the 500s-600s notwithstanding. We harassed geographers (OK, we’ve been doing that since Herodotus), plagued engineers, annoyed ecologists and foresters and naturalists, irked physicists and chemists, “borrowed” from archaeology and linguistics and hydrology and anyone else who forgot to lock up their journals and research notes, and came up with some wonderful results. And some not so wonderful results.

Today, late 2016, you can find a historian looking under pretty much any rock you mention. Music historians, art historians, historians of ideas, environmental historians, historians of sex (not as exciting as it sounds), historians who write about people and animals, historians of water, or fire (Stephen Pyne and yes, that is his real name. He was predestined to go into fire science and pyrohistory). Is this good or bad? It can lead to some pretty dead-end research, because the PhD requirement is to either find something new, or refute something old. Classics and political history especially have grown some pretty esoteric-to-questionable branches, in my opinion. But it also means that anything is fair game for anyone, and you can find works about all sorts of fascinating and odd and intriguing and “that is so cool!” things and peoples and places.

Of course, I’m the poster bad example for someone who could not focus in graduate school and who still refuses to specialize to the extent required by academic standards. So you might not want to follow my lead.

143 responses to “Flavors of History – Alma Boykin


    So much to learn. So many books, so little time.

    • Yes, this! I was at the library book sale yesterday (a room that is open twice a week — usually NOT when I am able to be in town, so I always go when I am there and it’s open), and found a dozen or more books on ancient and classical history, including a boxed and illustrated Virgil’s Aeniads. I looked. I hesitated. And I left them there. I would like to have time to read them, but realistically speaking, it’s not likely to happen any time soon. And probably most of what I was looking at is available free on-line, which takes up MUCH less of my limited shelf space.

      • And probably most of what I was looking at is available free on-line

        Definitely true of the Aeneid. IIRC, I got the copy I’m using from Tufts University: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/

        The little group of Latin enthusiasts in which I participate is currently working its way slowly through Volume VIII. It’s nice to have an English translation at hand so I can see how far wrong I’ve gone before embarrassing myself in front of the group.

    • A few days ago someone brought up a couple of claims about the Civil War here on this blog, and questions started to percolate in my brain. I would *like* to ask them here, or in Sarah’s Diner, but I won’t because (1) it’s a forbidden topic, and (2) I don’t want to kick up hornet nests right now, so I’m not even going to ask permission.

      Which means that if I want to get answers to my questions, I’m going to have to research, which is unfortunate, because I don’t really have the time I would like in order to do the research.

      Sigh. Why does everything in life have to be an engineering problem? (ie, having to find the best solution to a given problem, given conflicting constraints…)

      • Question for clarification: The ban on the ACW only applies to what caused the thing, yes?

        • Most likely yes — but my questions are about what caused the thing, so the ban applies to my questions in full force.

        • I’d phrase it as something like, “if the topic is the ACW and there are more than two comments on opposing sides, stop. You’re in the more heat than light area.”

          Same with religion. We’ve had LOTS of long talks about religion here– but they’re either academic, or sharing resources/information, or pretty much in agreement.

  2. So this is a history of histor{-y,-ies}, thus a metahistory? Careful about the thresholds so there’s the just the right hysteresis.

    • More historiography – who wrote what about the topic (or in the field) before this particular work, and why they are wrong, or just not correct enough.

  3. I’ve gotten interested in the history of 6 and 8 man football in Texas and the small rural schools that still play 6 man there. Many of these schools disappeared over the last 50 years due to consolidation from dropping enrollments, and no one ever noted their history. There are a couple of websites where I have posted my research, mostly from the Newspaper Archive.

    Maybe after I retire in a few years, I’ll write a book on some of it. Depends upon how ambitious I get……

    • My step-father got interested (obsessed is probably a better word) with fire lookout towers quite a few years ago. Cedar remembers hiking up to at least one lookout tower with Grandpa Ron when she was small. He hasn’t written a book, exactly, but he has the biggest (and he says the most accurate) website on fire lookouts in the United States, plus some outside the United States. When he dies, all his material (a large room’s worth — they have no living room, because he took it over for his office and filing cabinets) goes to Oregon Institute of Technology. They’ll have to bring a U-Haul truck to get all the paper stuff, and dedicate a person full-time to the website.

      • *perks up* Website, please? Basically my mom’s entire family is mildly obsessed with wild fires in one way or another, mostly in the prevention category.

        • Pretty sure it’s: http://www.firelookout.com/

          We live near Klamath Falls, and have had a number of fires over the years. The lookouts have been a godsend. (We had a 2000 acre fire 3 miles N of us a couple years back, but we were upwind of the activity. Still spooky.)

  4. Couldn’t help but think of the amateur historians filling their journals with the day to day activities surrounding them. As the professionals attempt to look past the big events into the real grass roots motivations of a past culture such records can prove invaluable. And a precious few even serve as interesting entertainment. Thinking in particular of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    • And wonder at all the digital journals and wonder how many will be accessible in 100, heck, 50 years.

      • Heck, 10 years!

        I’ve been exposed to the challenges of digital archival, and I don’t like the current options….so far, the best solution seem to be “make redundant copies, preferably on something like expensive Milleniata DVDs, then cross your fingers and hope for the best…”

        • Which is why my office has a machine (somewhere) to read I think 9 track reels and only ditched the punch card reader when they realized they’d lost half the cards and weren’t sure which program they were anyway.

          • It took 12 years, but my company finally converted all their legacy software and data to modern formats. They had huge numbers of reels and cards stored in the caves at Iron Mountain, including some from the earliest mainframes from the late 1950’s.

      • I write mine on acid-free paper, with inks that are archival quality. I’m currently hedging my bets with alternating different inks on different days. It call came from thinking about an ancestor’s family bible that was lost. They’re really just notes in a bottle in the sea of time; I have no idea if they’ll be saved or if they’ll be destroyed in some event. In theory, they could last for centuries. In theory.

        I’m writing them in cursive, which could be extinct in a few generations. I’m hoping, though, that the novelty of it will cause them to be saved. Or not. Hard to know what people will do.

        What I want to do is to write down a family gazetteer. That came from the realization I’m one of the last ones to know where they are. I’m recording them in latitude and longitude, and intend to note the latitude and longitude of some landmarks that should weather time pretty well, as reference ellipsoids change.

        • To know “where they are” means where certain family and local history landmarks were.

        • I’m writing them in cursive, which could be extinct in a few generations. I’m hoping, though, that the novelty of it will cause them to be saved.

          Very unlikely. In spite of the fad for schools not teaching it, the sort of folks who do stuff are teaching it to themselves– so they can read notes, adn take them quickly, if nothing else.

          • Even with the loss of cursive training (I must admit that I am one of those who are happy to see it die) – you can still puzzle out well-written pieces. If you can eventually figure out Fraktur, you can eventually figure out cursive…

            Unfortunately, cursive has never been generally well-written, even in it’s “Golden Age.” Although my mother’s problems with old documents were also due to somewhat creative spelling.

            • I find it difficult to read prefect cursive. My mother in law’s cursive looks like it could come off those green display boards that used to line the top of the classroom walls to show you how to do it. Can’t read her handwriting at all. But then, there are those that say the only reason my wife and got married is because we could read each other’s handwriting, and no one else could…

              • My mom has perfect Palmer method handwriting. It’s gorgeous.

                My grandmother’s handwriting was an initial letter, followed by a bumpy line, sometimes crossed or with a dot over one of them.

                My handwriting looks enough like my dad’s that even we occasionally confuse them. Rather angular printing, for the most part.

                • My handwriting resembles one of my grandmother’s, and she never taught me. One of our’s handwriting resembles my mothers, and she never taught ours, either. Genetics and fine muscle control?

            • If you can eventually figure out Fraktur, you can eventually figure out cursive…

              I have some Sütterlin I’d like to sell you.


              • Didn’t say I liked puzzling it out (either one).

                Maybe I’m just too old. Back when we had to chisel things out in stone, we had no temptation to make it all fancy…

            • Even when fooling around with the fancy fonts for book covers with really simple art, there are some fonts that DO NOT WORK.

      • Note:

        A laser printer uses a form of carbon black, which holds up well over time. Stuff printed on acid-free paper through a laser printer should hold up pretty well.

    • The Little House books are kind of interesting because there’s definitely a reason that they’re put in the “children’s literature” rather than the “autobiography” section of the library. From what I know, Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing about her childhood more as she wished it to be than as it actually was. I think there’s still a lot of valuable information about how people lived at that time, but one needs to be a bit careful about taking the things in those books as gospel truth. One project I’ve occasionally considered is trying to find a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s actual memoirs and compare the two.

      • It’s on Amazon. Apparently she wrote this version first and her daughter convinced her to rewrite it for children. Among other things, it talks about the time she watched someone die because he was so drunk that he inhaled flame when he attempted to light his pipe, and the time one of her cousins tried to rape her.

        • Yipe.

          Maybe I should get that, though. Well, first maybe I should figure out whether I already have a copy buried somewhere. (I think what I actually have is someone else’s biography, possibly with some of her letters, but it’s been a while since I looked at it.)

          • You probably have another’s biography. Pioneer Girl was only published a year or two ago (and I haven’t read it yet; the examples I cited were in articles about the transition from the original manuscript to the child-friendly Little House books.)

      • Pioneer Girl, the first version of the stories submitted to publishers is available through the South Dakota Historical Society. It is MUCH more autobiographical. And the book they published is annotated from her journals and letters. They also did historical research to clear up things (like they weren’t in Oklahoma in “Little House on the Prairie” but in Kansas).

        • Laura was only a toddler when the Ingalls Family settled in an area in Kansas that was part of Indian country. The area where they built their homestead was part of the Osage Indian Reservation. (The Daughter and I have visited the site near Independence Missouri. Later on the same trip we visited Rocky Ridge Farm, Laura and Almanzo’s final home in Mansfield, Missouri where she wrote the books for which she is remember.)

          After they left the Indian country they returned to Wisconsin and stayed for four years. I believe that Laura adjusted her timeline for the books after the success of her children’s book Little House in the Big Woods. She also left out several moves and the period when the family lived in Iowa from the books.

          Pioneer Girl had been written before the Little House books and was intended for an adult audience. Laura never found a publisher.

  5. Just to make future history a tiny bit easier, I will take this opportunity to clarify a few things whether they need it or not. As of the date of this comment:

    1. I did not cause the extinction of the dinosaurs.

    2. I did not start the Peshtigo Fire. Or the smaller Chicago Fire.

    3. I did not plot against Archduke Ferdinand.

    4. I did not sleep in the Lincoln bedroom.

    5. I did not start a cult on a bet. Or otherwise, for that matter.

    6. I did not invent “creation science” whatever that is supposed to be.

    7. I did not make a full-scale model of the planet Saturn.

    8. I did not go on stage with a boomerang fish act.

    9. I did not build this city on rock’n’roll.

    10. I did not build a doomsday device.

  6. An interesting question about History is its existence as a viable commercial niche. As in: Why on Earth does anybody (who isn’t required to) read it?

    For Military History, the answer is obvious: people read it to recognize and avoid making the same mistakes that caused previous defeats. That is an obviously useful and potentially career-saving move. But why would anybody read a history of French cooking, to pick one example, or a history of the Krakatoa eruption, to pick another?

    • Why would anyone read my step-father’s 50,000 page website on fire lookouts?!? I don’t find the subject terribly interesting, other than the obvious utility (since we live in the dry West and fires are an annual danger), but it seems like a lot of people do find it interesting, since he has thousands of hits per day.

    • As a retired military officer, I think both military and political history are great! I also like to cook. So, it was incredibly cool to learn that classical French cooking can arguably be traced to the French Revolution. Which, I suppose, is another way of saying “different strokes” and all that.

    • Well, people might read the history of the Krakatoa eruption for much the same reason they would watch “Dante’s Peak” or “Volcano”; there’s something in our species that enjoys watching a disaster from a safe distance/time. I suspect that the popularity of military history derives from much the same thing; some people may read it to avoid making the mistakes of previous generations but I expect the “popular reader” is in it for the fact that battles are exciting.

      • I’ve always been amused at how everyone knows about the Krakatoa eruption, due in the main from a few cheesy books and a movie, but few folks ever heard of Tambora. The 1815 Tambora eruption was the primary cause for 1816 being commonly referred to as “the year without a summer” in most of the northern hemisphere.

        • Christopher M. Chupik

          A similar event is supposed to have happened in 536 AD, causing some serious global cooling worldwide, not to mention coinciding with the end of the Arthurian Era.

        • Simon Winchester wrote an excellent book on the Krakatoa eruption. That eruption and the huge tsunami generated by it became the first huge disaster after the transoceanic telegraph cables were laid. It may have been the first major disaster covered worldwide.

          Tambora was a bigger eruption but fewer people knew. It generated a moderately large tsunami, but the immediate loss of life was an order of magnitude smaller. It is entirely possible that the worldwide effect on the weather eventually cost more lives than Krakatoa (40,000+)

        • Even ox know at least a bit of Tambora.

        • Karkatoa’s prominence in our history is in part an artifact of when it occurred.

          When Tambora erupted in 1815 news traveled a great deal more slowly. People of the time did not as readily make the connection between an eruption and its world wide effects. The conclusion that it was a volcanic eruption in Indonesia that caused freezes in the USA and Europe resulting in a disastrous famine was largely after the fact.

          Simon Winchester observed in his book Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded that by 1883 the world had become connected by telegraph. Cables had been laid across oceans, and so the news of the eruption traveled almost instantaneously. This meant, for example, that scientists became engaged from the start. When in London the effects of the eruption were recorded on seismographs they could make the connection with the eruption as the cause of what they were seeing. They were aware that the colorful sunsets in the Hudson Valley were a result of particulate matter from the volcano. Meanwhile, newspapers and magazines became involved and stories were collected.

    • I have this peculiar fascination with medical mysteries (and am glad to not be at the center of any) and documentaries of industrial disasters or the like (and am glad to not have been near anything of the sort). But horror fiction? Utterly unappealing.

      I suppose my preference in things historical is history of science and technology and the people involved. Though there is the realization that if one could back and witness First Time events, they’d seem very pale and dull as they were the first times – where they just barely worked, and not for long. Since then, there’s been some progress.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      That quote of that pre WWI German book, which I came across through Kratman, about knowing history being useful for shedding excess humanitarian values. Not that I had too much in the first place.

      I got pretty deep into history at an early age. Read widely and obsessively. I am a sponge with a strong memory, and perhaps strong analytical gifts. Eventually I started being able to do qualitative modeling of humanity, which lets me tell when someone is lying to me about human nature. Or perhaps I’m crazy.

    • Because the past is another world.

      I hope I don’t have to explain the appeal of reading about other worlds. *grin*

    • As a cook – knowing the mistakes of the past is just as vital in the kitchen as in the trenches. Maybe not as immediately fatal, mind you.

      Viable commercial niche – don’t know that it is so much; some have done quite well without the support of a patron (private or government), but those are much rarer than the successful genre author.

      I say this as someone who actually looked into becoming a historian when pressured by a persistent college professor (nicely, but persistently). I decided that getting married, having a family, and being able to feed them was more important to me at the time… (No, the prospective and eventual spouse was not going to carry me or a family – she was an anthropology major.)

      Actually, I’m somewhat glad – as Alma noted, in academia you are expected to get rather narrowly specialized. As an amateur, I am free to get into any period that piques my interest at the time, and without a single worry about whether it is politically correct research. (I do have a serious disadvantage in that I can’t get into dusty archives – although that is getting better as more are put on line.)

      • If you have research plans, know what you want and need, and are polite, you can get into a lot of archives. I can only think of a few with restrictions on who can use them, and even then it may vary with collection and file. If you want to go prowl the Archives of the Indies in Spain, hmm, you’ll probably need a letter of reference just to get on the wait list, but approaching the facility with a little background research and a specific interest and goal does wonders, even when I was an undergrad.

        • Back in the 1980s, the Archivo de Indias was quite nice when I wrote them. Got copies of some good information through the mail. So was the Vatican, who pointed me to a local source. OTOH, I had to contact the state Secretary of State for the state archives to give me the time of day, and I never heard back from the Imperial War Museum at all.

          It all varies. A lot of information is public record, so in many places all you have to do is go to the right place in a court house and start reading. More and more of it is showing up online, making it even easier.

        • If you have research plans, know what you want and need, and are polite, …

          Rather amazing how many think only the first of those criteria are required. Somewhat less amazing is how many believe incorrectly they meet the second.

          • And unhappily, some archivists and librarians are obstructive, or simply refuse to do their jobs. (Usually the incompetent ones.) Fortunately they are not numerous. I usually have good luck.

          • Starting with “I want to look at ranch stuff” for example, at the West Texas Collection at Texas Tech (or San Angelo) won’t get you farther than being pointed to the computer indexing. “I would like to look at the Matador Ranch archives for the eastern division because I am writing an article about range fires” works wonders,(and shows that you’ve bothered to check their on-line holdings already) and if the archivists are interested, they may point you to things they’ve tumbled to in their own work.

        • Was thinking more of the expenses – an academic can take advantage of grants (frequently “piggybacking” their own special interest on an “official” trip that is funded by someone else).

          My eldest sister had a fascination with the history of English embroidery. The people at the British Museum and other places over there were extremely helpful to her – but the trip was entirely on her own dime, and her time was very limited.

          • If you have a history of local interest articles and other things, you can also get grants from outside academia.

            • *nod*

              My mom cherishes her copy of a book that was basically “the kids of the guys killed in the last Indian raid in California started stuff rolling to get some real research done before everyone died,” incidentally also managing it before data was destroyed. Oh, “corrected.” (Because it totally makes it bad to kill homicidal corpse-desecrating bandits if they’re the wrong race.)

              The wool crafts group over the hill does a lot of history funding, too– frequently related to whatever the new fad of sheep is, but techniques are involved, and holy cow are the spinning machines that they’ve started making (with traditional inlays) awesome! Got a whole section put in at the fair.

              • I still remember the casual comments in A Dynasty of Western Outlaws by Paul Wellman about the author’s interviewing of those involved in the history he wrote of. (Mostly lawmen on account of obviously it was only the survivors.)

    • I started reading military history when I was 4 or 5 years old. I think Southerners in general are more likely to read history because we’re continuously reminded of it.

      • Yeah, but there’s more to history than the War of Northern Oppression, you know…

        • True, but as the man said, and not getting into the discussion of it… But it’s in our back yard. Mothers and fathers and grands and great-grands will take their children on a walk and point out a ridge where ancestors died, where that ridge was aflame with the fire of rifles in the night, where Sherman’s boys raped a local gal, where a plaque on the roadside or a sign that states “Unknown Confederate Dead” only tells you the barest notion of what went on there.

          It’s history bound up in family. It gets absorbed at the kitchen table making biscuits and deer jerky, at weddings and funerals and family reunions when the family gets together, quarreled over and reconciled, researched and revealed. There are old cavalry sabres and rifles over mantels and photographs in grainy grey for kidlets to point at and wonder.

          It’s not just the ACW, we’ve vets from every war in living memory that America fought in, and those get disgustipated, too. But ask Sarah sometime about her father reading old inscriptions in the original Latin for her when they went a-walking. I imagine it’s something similar- Portugal has a different, deeper history, but mothers and fathers will be telling sons and daughters about *their* history, and the history of their people, for generations yet.

          History that you live in gives something of a different perspective. Perhaps parts of it you take for granted, others become more than they ought- we’re human, and fallible that way. But I believe it’s inevitable as little boys growing into men and little girls into women: human beings tell stories. Stories about history and who we are, those have been part of being human as far back as we can look into the mists of time. I don’t expect that’ll change, and that’s a good thing for folks like me. *grin*

          • And it’s not just the US South. Go to parts of Europe, generally eastern parts, and you get to hear “oh, yes, g-g-g-grandma hid us in the woods that used to be over there the last time the Ottomans came through, and said it wasn’t as bad as the family story about running from the Mongols.”

    • You answered you own question: “But why?”

      We’re a curious species. And what is history if not a huge pile of explanations to “why? why? why? why?”

  7. Keep in mind that so much of history, even the so-called objective history, is built through flawed memories, wishful thinking, inadequate physical records (assuming that they were correct – I’ve been looking at old Census records, and I’m not that hopeful about the accuracy of other records), and other physical artifacts.
    It’s lore, actually. Lore of the Elite, not the folk. And just as likely to be wrong, slanted, or biased.

    • While it’s true that writing history, like reading and writing itself (at least to the degree the folks here do it) is an activity of an ‘elite’ (an ‘elite’ with not all that much of an overlap with the evil, evil, elites people go on about), I think it a mistake, an example of that modern over-pessimism that borders on despair, to think that history is little more than a record of people’s biases and wishes. Much modern history is – Marxist ‘history’, for sure, where it is required to fit, say, the Crusades or the Burned-Over District into a framework of fantasy economics. But much history is not, but really is an honest attempt to take a look at the past.

      Things really did happen. Honest people have often done their best to pass the stories on. That is no small thing, and as likely to be as true as anything we humans do. With a little practice and self-awareness, it is possible to tell the difference most of the time.

    • Absolutely. You have to keep in mind who wrote the notes, who saved what papers, which agency might have an ax to grind. If you look at two great histories of the Dust Bowl, for example, Donald Worster’s _Dust Bowl_ and Goeff Cunfer’s _On the Great Plains_, you find two very different conclusions about the dust bowl. Worster focused on three communities in the worst-hit part of the area and used federal documents and some interviews. Cunfer looked at the entire Great and High Plains from 1870-1940 using the ag census data as well as dust reports, and came to a different conclusion. Worster is much easier to read, but Cunfer’s more attuned to what my research shows to have happened in the large area.

      • Metaphorically speaking, everybody is going to get a view that’s changed by where they are standing and what they look for.

        I can’t count the number of times my parents have had entire conversations about animals they spotted a quarter of a mile away and across the road, over the river, halfway up the hill– while my siblings and I are looking for them, and folks like my poor husband are going “Animals? There are animals?”
        (over half a century each of animal management in one flavor or another; they just SEE it)

      • Then you get into the details from the people “on the ground.” Several excellent works that have been produced by family historians there.

        Unfortunately, not my family – by the time my mother became intensely interested in history, my grandmother and all three of her brothers had passed – they were the Kansas farmer side of the family. I remember the stories of the walls of dirt coming at them, which is what most people think of – but I also remember the stories of the constant cleaning, the worries about the fields, the not-too-bright guv’mint agents coming around, the repossession sales of the neighbors…

    • Something I remind potential readers of my journal is that history tends to be filtered through world view. That includes what I write down as well. That said, it’s more of a matter of what’s presented and what’s not.

      Yes, you can get erroneous accounts. But unless an account, or others by the same person, are shown to be erroneous, there’s no real reason to doubt them. It’s actually easier to get bit by dismissing it out of hand. Just ask the historians who doubted Caligula actually had people going through a Roman temple to enter his palace. Or when I discounted an account of local iron smelting, only to find a chunk of hematite the size of my fist. As Reagan said on another subject, trust, but verify.

      Census records are pretty accurate. Sometimes you find someone listed by a nickname. So are deeds, survey plats, court records, wills, letters, and more. One advantage of a bureaucracy is they keep lots of records, and that can work to your advantage. There’s also church records and diaries. For most of the 20th Century, there’s photos as well.

      There’s all sorts of reliable sources out there. I used to take footnotes and bibliographies as jumping off points for additional research.

  8. For some reason the subject of history this brought to mind all the clichés and bad writing in the tv show “World War II” that they keep remaking. Battalions of storm troopers dressed in all black. Villains with a tendency to go into apoplectic rage when they doesn’t get their way. The good guys are too good while the bad guys have no redeeming qualities. And the characters are so stupid doing exactly the wrong thing just for the sake of the plot. Like when one country attacks their own allies in the middle of the war for no reason what so ever.

    Critical battles won by shear luck while carefully planned battles fail because of poor timing or bad roads..

    I mean all the coincidences, clichés and bizarre motivations that would never happen in real life make it the worst show ever.

    (blatantly stolen from here http://squid314.livejournal.com/275614.html)

    • Just to mention that in WWII the Germans early on discovered it was useless to predict American actions bases on written American battle doctrine and manuals, since we never followed the books. German units were forced to react to what American units actually did, not what they were supposed to do.

      • I now imagine a far future, where this history is regarded with suspicion at best and as pure fantasy more often.

        “So… the Allied forces conquered the Axis and then… just went home?”
        “Pretty much. Hung around a while to see things going again.”
        “They stayed to help and then left?!”
        “And then there was the Marshall Plan to help as well.”
        “Oh. Brother. And this superweapon, this ‘nuke’ was NOT used to try take over the rest of the world.”
        “Nope. A lot of testing and show, but that’s about it.”
        “Uh huh. Now, tell me where the dragons fit in all this.”
        “What are you talking about?”
        “Well, everything else is so fantastic, there just has to be dragons.”

  9. By accident, the first two histories I read were Herodotus and Thucydides. (The accident was being born into a blue collar family that viewed schooling solely as how one got a better job, but yet somehow ending up at a Great Books school. Stranger than fiction, and all.)

    One could do much worse. First, they are screaming fun. Reading Herodotus is like having some not-quite-sane world-traveling uncle regaling you with amazing stuff; Thucydides takes a little more attention (lots of Greek names & places to keep straight) but is also fun.

    Second, it’s pretty easy to know when they’re cheerleading (not often, in both cases). While not quite ‘just the facts, ma’am’, they both are interested in what really happened as best as they can tell.

    So I got the impression that history was fun and educational. Then was as often as not disappointed in more modern works. Lots more preachy people with bones to pick. It’s almost like message fiction! Heck, some of it *is* message fiction.

    • I think it’s a common mistake to assume that history is written by “winners”. Sure, sometimes it is, but it’s not all that hard to find history written by “losers” as well.

      It’s far more accurate to observe that history is written by the people who write things down, and do so in such a way that others want to pass on and preserve their works.

      • I recall a bit from a work of fiction since officially pulled off the net (unofficial copies were why it was pulled) where a demon explained that they had won a war of independence for Hell, not been cast out of Heaven. The next couple lines went roughly like this:
        “That’s not the way we heard it.”
        “And who told you the version you heard?”

        • When the creation of man was first mooted and when, even at that stage, the Enemy freely confessed that he foresaw a certain episode about a cross, Our Father very naturally sought an interview and asked for an explanation. The Enemy gave no reply except to produce the cock-and bull story about disinterested love which He has been circulating ever since. This Our Father naturally could not accept. He implored the Enemy to lay His cards on the table, and gave Him every opportunity. He admitted that he felt a real anxiety to know the secret; the Enemy replied “I wish with all my heart that you did”. It was, I imagine, at this stage in the interview that Our Father’s disgust at such an unprovoked lack of confidence caused him to remove himself an infinite distance from the Presence with a suddenness which has given rise to the ridiculous enemy story that he was forcibly thrown out of Heaven.
          –C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        And sometimes the history is written by somebody not involved in the “fight”.

        IE An outsider recording the history of the conflict between two different groups.

      • I think your observation is related the one where folks pointed out that invaders who killed off all the men, married the women, and then left the women to raise the kids…tended to have kids who were basically the guys they’d come in and killed. And that’s who did the histories.

      • Generally with a purpose you might want to take into account.

        Of course, sometimes you find something written by a person whose purpose is orthogonal to what you want to find out. This is wonderful

        Take Aelfric. Anglo-Saxon monk. He wrote a Colloquy with the intent of improving the novices’ conversational Latin. And the subject he wrote it on was occupations. People writing about Anglo-Saxon society invariably draw on it heavily.

        Or Hard Tack and Coffee by John D Billings. He explains in the intro that the boys he told stories about his Civil War experiences were fascinated by the details of camp life, as well as the battles, so he’s writing them down for future generations. (Lots of other people were writing about the battles.)

        Then, even the most biased writer is most reliable when it’s not about his purpose. It has been my observation that if a writer uses a metaphor — the subject of the metaphor is probably spot on.

      • Oh? I’m sure you can find the history book written by one of Cornwallis’ staff officers right after the war that refers to George Washington as the “Father Of His Country”. Heck, even a hundred years after…


        The American Rebellion

        Twas not while England’s sword unsheathed
        Put half a world to flight,
        Nor while their new-built cities breathed
        Secure behind her might;
        Not while she poured from Pole to Line
        Treasure and ships and men–
        These worshippers at Freedoms shrine
        They did not quit her then!

        Not till their foes were driven forth
        By England o’er the main–
        Not till the Frenchman from the North
        Had gone with shattered Spain;
        Not till the clean-swept oceans showed
        No hostile flag unrolled,
        Did they remember that they owed
        To Freedom–and were bold!

        History is always written by the victors….. especially when it’s a real war where victory is defined as survival.

  10. I’m almost convinced that requiring something new (or debunking something old) to earn a PhD is somewhat harmful to the advancing of knowledge.

    Making this a requirement can shut out people who can do well in learning the subject in question, and then helping others understand the subject. This is even doubly so a problem when, once someone gets a PhD, the person is expected to continue research, regardless of their abilities to teach.

    Of course, there’s also the problem of having too many PhD’s, but I’m convinced that this is a problem because the Federal Government gives out student loans like candy, no questions asked; if we had to get a private, bankruptible loan, lenders would be MUCH more concerned about how you’re going to be making a living, once you’ve gotten out of school….

    But we’re not likely to do that, because as a society we’re convinced that the only way to prosper is to get an education; this, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary (both with uneducated successful people and highly educated people working in Starbucks).

    • Making holding a PhD a requirement for teaching at certain levels would seem inappropriate, as neither of the two required qualifications relates to a capability to impart knowledge to others.

      • I’m completely in favor of removing requirements for credentials for teaching — all one needs is to prove one’s competence in the field you wish to teach — and a PhD is by no means necessary nor sufficient for demonstrating said competence.

        Having said that, to be a professor at a college, you’re generally expected to have a PhD, and that PhD (as well as the position itself) is generally expected to produce new research. I sometimes think that this requirement is counter-productive.

    • The idea that education creates jobs is one of the more baffling current insanities. Rather, existing demand motivates people to study (I didn’t get an MBA for the fun of it – I had a family looking to me (the fools!) to take care of them financially, and the *demand* for that training already existed).

      But we live in a world where the same people believe raising the price of sugary drinks will make people buy fewer of them but raising the price of hiring people has no effect on how many people get hired. So economic clarity is not a feature of the modern world, it seems.

      • Education does create jobs … for educators. Also for Deans, Assistant Deans, and various heads of administrative departments.

        • For certain values of ‘create’, sure….

          • BobtheRegisterredFool

            Seen and unseen…

            That said, the people making sure that decision gets made are the people getting the kickbacks. They don’t care about the other possibilities, because the other possibilities are not going to pay them.

        • And lately, education has been creating far more jobs for deans, assistant deans, and various heads of administrative departments, rather than educators.

          It ought to give one pause when a State allocates more money to public education because class sizes are too big…and, oddly enough, the number of administrators grows at a faster rate than the number of teachers…

          • From some of the talks I’ve had with faculty members, it isn’t just that there are too many administrators, it’s that there are too many of the wrong sort of administrators. For example, you get vice presidents of diversity, multiculturalism, inclusion, Title IX compliance, and minority student resources, each with there own full staffs. Meanwhile, the departments are having to cut back on the administrators who do things like coordinate textbook orders, so the professors are either having to do those things themselves or dump them on the department secretary who already has too much to do as it is.

            It’s not that administration and support staff is unnecessary (one of the best pieces of advice I got in grad school was, “Argue with your advisor all you want, but treat the secretary like the queen she is”), but colleges seem to be bulking up on the wrong type of administration and forgetting that they are the SUPPORT staff, not an end in and of themselves.

            • “Three people you should never, ever tick off: your IT specialist, your archivist, and your departmental secretary. They hold your career in their hands.” Dr. [Redacted] on the first day of Historiography class at [Redacted] University.

              • I’ve never had explicit advice like that, but I *did* get the vibe from everyone in the math department that the Secretary was revered, and for good and obvious reasons. It was absorbed by osmosis.

                The math department didn’t really have an IT specialist or an archivist that I was aware of, but if we had, I could definitely see the rule applying to them.

            • It’s been a while since I’ve looked closely at administration, but I could certainly see that. On the one hand, I can imagine a department where all administrative stuff was handled by professors rather than administrators — although I can easily see how having an administrator for textbook orders would be *very* useful — on the other hand, you don’t need to look hard to see all these useless administrators popping up, either.

          • yeah, when there are more administrators than teachers, something is ‘up’

        • And education based credentialism creates vast swaths of HR jobs to manage screening out those individuals with demonstrated experience successfully doing a job who do not have the required degree checkbox.

  11. BobtheRegisterredFool

    You’ve given me some reading to do for a project.

  12. Christopher M. Chupik

    It’s been interesting researching the Arthurian legends for one of my projects. There’s so little solid history about that period in Britain that it’s small wonder that mythology has grown to fill its place. It doesn’t help that many of the names the historians of that time used, like Arthur — “Bear” — may well have been nicknames.

    Will the real King Arthur please stand up?

    • As long as you don’t object to his being fictional. . . .

      In the hunt for Robin Hood, it turns out that the oldest references to him are NOT the reference in Piers Plowman, but in various documents where people have the last name “Robinhood” (spelling varies).

      So you would have John Robinhood, and Will Robinhood, and Jack Robinhood. And these seem to be mostly references to people involved in crime.

      Now there’s a plentiful way to make the “reality” muddy.

  13. My sister and I just moved our parents into a nursing home. Now we have to figure out what to do with a houseful of books that are probably 80% history and 20% conspiracy theories.

    I shipped home the only books I’ve ever used for historical research, Collier’s Ecumenical History of Britain, or something close to that. Because when I came to the end of Ellis peter’s Cadfael series I had to find out what happened next.

    I didn’t think about a college history department possible wanting some of them. Hmmm . . .

    • Also ask at private/parochial schools, and if there is a homeschooling network, you might let them know.

    • I acknowledge suffering some concern over the quantity of History books that are also conspiracy theories.

      • Oh, the history books and the conspiracy books are quite easily differentiated. The whole house is full of books. Thousands of books. Might be in the tens of thousands. There a shed in the back yard said to be full of them (modern, plastic, sealed, stop cringing!) Closets full. Attic. TG there’s no basement.

  14. Since this is a history post, I suppose it’s not entirely off topic to bring to your attention that John Glenn has passed away.

  15. Sister holding PhD in cellular physiology was refused science teaching job because she was “over qualified”. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
    As secretary in medical school told incoming residents, “Let me know when you are leaving the hospital as the boss will ask. If I can tell him, he won’t care why, but if you haven’t told me so I can tell him, you will be very unhappy when you return.” It only took them one time to learn that. Would be fun to read about medicine from the lower-ranking perspective, i.e., no MD degree, I sometimes think.

    • Technically, I’m overqualified for my job. OTOH I seem to do well, thus far no one’s called to have me fired, and having a few doctorates in the high school looks good for academic credentialing. And I’m not bored because of the variety of topics and the continuing ed I make myself do.

  16. Been watching The Great War channel on the youtube. Entertaining.

  17. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    Yet for all the history being written about, far too few people know anything beyond what happened seemingly last week. Which means that in spite of all the historian’s efforts, Santayana’s curse will still inflict it’s pain and the gods of the copybook headings will still have things to say.

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