". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Edge of the World by Michael Pye

The NYT's Sunday Book Review includes a very good history I read last month, The Edge of the World, by Michael Pye.

This history has one of the best analysis of the other roots of European trade and capitalism in the centuries we used to call the dark ages and the middle ages, before the Age of Nation States. His thesis is the mercantile peoples around the North Sea are as essential to how this process played out as the merchants, traders and money lenders around the Braudelian Mediterranean coasts. Or, as he puts it, he's not denying or minimizing the process that took place in these post-latin empire locations, but that without examination of the Vikings, Frisians, Hansa, etc., the picture is missing essential pieces, particularly how Charlemagne's Empire operated on these foundations that eventually merges the north and south into, for a while, the European Christendom.

Pye, perhaps sensitized by being a gay man, instead of employing the default "he" tends to employ "she" which always caught my attention, proving how deeply run the gender assumptions in history, whether written history or history merely referred to.

He also gives women as traders and entrepreneurs adequate space in his text, drawing attention to how central women commonly were in the trade and financial history of Europe -- and which is hardly ever included in the landscape portrait in the histories of trade, finance and money, at least until recently, and then confined still mostly to monographs, dissertations and narrowly focused scholarly works. Pye includes the many significant contributions of women without exaggerating or special pleading.

Map of the Hanseatic League
One of the two most fascinating revelations in The Edge of the World for this reader is his nuanced description of what the Hansa was and how it operated. In those days already, it was pure, unchecked capitalism. The Hansa existed for one thing, was concerned with one thing only -- making money. The Hansa

In het midden van de vijftiende eeuw beleefde de Hanze zijn hoogtepunt. Haar invloed strekte zich uit tot de mondingen van de Rijn en Maas, Engeland, Finland en Estland. De handelaren hadden in deze periode dankzij hun economische invloed en militaire kracht zoveel macht, dat ze zelfs het beleid van het Heilige Roomse (Duitse) Rijk wisten te beïnvloeden.
acknowledged no responsibilities, no obligations to humanity, community, even family, and certainly not to any lord, and not even to its own people. Its only concern was to make money and make more money. The destruction this unfettered, unregulated system caused is well described, again without exaggeration or dramatizataion. The reason the Hansa eventually fell apart was the rise of the monarchal nation-state, which was the only entity large enough, and powerful enough, to have a military arm that could check the Hansa operations because it was richer, i.e. had more resources and income streams via taxation than the Hanseatic League could muster.  In conflicts then, with monarchs, the Hansa lost its bases and resources, overpowered by monarch's armies.

The second revelation were the Beguines, of whom I'd not heard of previously, as I'm not a medievalist.

How they dance beguine in the Caribbean

How Eleonar Powell and Fred Astaire tap-dance the beguine in "The Broadway Melody of 1940"

Cole Porter plays "Begin the Beguine"

The beguine I knew is a popular, social dance, with accompanying songs and rhythms. The beguine appeared in the French Antilles, back in the earlier decades of the 20th century, built, as are so many of the musics of the Caribbean on what we call the habanera.

In this case however, the Beguines were women who lived secular yet ascetic, scholarly yet entrepreneurial lives in compounds separate from men and heterosexual society in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries in middle-northern Europe, particularly the Low Countries.  The compounds housed only women and their children. They were not affiliated with the Church. There were no vows. They could leave any time, and they could marry if they wished -- though with marriage they had to leave the béguinage community. Some of them

became very wealthy through trade and other mercantile activities. Most histories of the Beguines concentrate on the mystical aspects of some of the women, and the turn toward more overtly religious activity that happened in the 14th century. Pye, however, isn't interested in that aspect, but in what the histories hardly ever elaborate on or even mention: the forms of work and money-making the women of these communities practiced -- and their literacy.  Some of them were notable

scholars.  I kept thinking what a haven the Beguine communities must have been for so many different kinds of women, particularly in a day when there was really no language to even think about diverse orientations that we now group under the classification of  or gay. As a beguine you need not marry and you most certainly were about working.  You could exist as a single woman!  Though now mostly affiliated with the Church in some manner, beguine communities still exist.

Throughout The Edge of the World 's  prose is lively and fast-paced, yet packed with information in every sentence that will be new to many if not most readers who are not scholars of these centuries.

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