". . . 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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Reading: Rome, Merovingians, Charlemagne, the Middle Ages & the US War of Independence

     . . . .Having the night before finally finished reading Ian N. Wood's The Merovingian Kingdoms 450 - 751 (1994), way back on May Day night (the 1st) we began our new Read-Aloud-Before-Bed work: The Middle Ages (2014) by Johannes Fried, trans. by Peter Lewis.

Guess with whom The Middle Ages begins? Theodoric and Boethius, of course, whom I first met at the start of the year in The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (2009) by James O'Donnell, which I lived with for some very happy weeks early this year, as well as in Wood's book.

Fried's Middle Ages covers 500 A.D. up to Columbus's voyages to the New World and Luther's Reformation -- though not the voyages or the Reformation per se. I approve of his perspective that the Middle Ages end decisively with the invention of printing, the incalculable extracted wealth out of Africa, North America,  the Caribbean and South America, and the protestant revolution -- which latter, perhaps, couldn't have happened the way it did either, without two entire continents suddenly available to pillage.

El V had been reading The Middle Ages by himself for a long time but whenever there was an interruption -- and there were many,  Cuba being only the most lengthy -- he had forgotten anything he might have absorbed. He would start over because upon resumption it felt as f he'd never read it at all. He loves the author's view of time and geography and everything about how the translation is working. He thinks though, he didn't have enough prior historical knowledge that would allow him enough focus to truly comprehend, and thus remember.

Working with Woods's book the way we did, reading it aloud together, as much as we made fun of it, laughing and giggling, still, we remembered the material. So we decided to do Fried's book this way too. It's a lot longer, however. Already though, I can tell Fried is a great historian, and a very good writer. All the messy non-organization an other problems of Woods's book -- none of that for Professor Fried! Germans are terrific scholars of the Middle Ages anyway, especially those who take a long and wide view.  However, he is not an historian for the general reader.  He's an historian for those who have the tools to read carefully and follow long, complex arguments and whose minds already possess a fairly detailed outline for European history in those 1500 years.

Kirkus review of The Middle Ages here.

This second review that includes Fried's book is worth reading if only to remind oneself -- if one needs reminding -- that one cannot rely on reading a single work to learn what needs to be known about an era, an event -- or anything at all, for that matter. This is true if only due to the unconscious biases of the authors, which, by the way, includes reviewers themselves, and those who publish them.

For myself, the second Roman history by which I've been  engrossed this year was The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire (2012) by Anthony Everitt. It's the most detailed account of the founding of the city of Rome and pre-Caesarian Rome I’ve read. It's particularly good with the Etruscans and Carthagenians, and the pre-Republic wars with the Greeks.

I admired so much the author's way with latin, matter-of-factly dropping in information, without digressing or making anything of it. For example, he will inform the reader that a position such as pontifax comes from the original duties of building, guarding and repairing the bridges -- pontem. Bridges and ships -- another Latin word that matters -- rostrum:
Latin Rostra, plural, a platform for speakers in the Roman Forum decorated with the beaks of captured ships, from plural of rostrum] a : an ancient Roman platform for public oratorsb : a stage for public speakingc : a raised platform on a stage. 
Not only do these bits illuminate the  surrounding content, but provoke delight.

I've begun a third Roman history, Adrian Goldworthy's (2016)  Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World. It's too soon to know what I think of it yet, but so far it's very promising.

Another history read this spring was Kathleen DuVal's (2015) Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution -- an account of the English colonists, the various Native tribes, and the French and Spanish in the Floridas, Louisiana and the Mississippi territories and their conflicting support for the War of Independence or those who preferred to stay loyal to England.

But now it's all Charlemagne, all the time.

Last week el V brought home for my pleasure Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne (2000) by Richard Hodges. This slender book made me hug and kiss him! It's one of the titles in the Debates in Archaeology series. It deals with what I've been trying to figure out since my attempts to get a handle on the Merovingians and the Franks. While giving credit where credit is due, this book clearly lays out the refutation to the Pirenne Thesis, which I've been doubting for quite some time, which, in fact, provoked a lot of this reading in the first place.

The most extensive unfolding of Pirenne's Thesis is found in his works, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (1925),  and Mohammed and Charlemagne (1935).

The Pirenne thesis was propounded by Belgian historian Henri Pirenne. In his famous essay on Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937) Pirenne argued that the continuity of Roman civilization in transalpine (northern) Europe after the fall of Rome, created real change in Europe came from the rise of Islam, not barbarian invasions.[1] His famous summary said, "Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would have probably never existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable."[2] That is, he rejected the notion that barbarian invasions in the 4th and 5th centuries caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. Instead the Muslim conquest of north Africa made the Mediterranean a barrier, cutting western Europe off from the east, enabling the Carolingians, especially Charlemagne to create a new, distinctly western form of government.
Since the 1980's historians who disagree with Pirenne's Thesis have gained a great deal of critical acceptance, which goes along with their choice to characterize that whole long period between the 5th century and 1500 as the Middle Ages. Historians of these matters divide themselves, according to academic jargon, as 'optimists' and 'pessimists'. Hodges is an unabashed 'optimist' -- as is, for that matter, Woods.

They tend to agree that Rome never did fall, per se, particularly when factoring in the endurance of Rome in the east. Archaeology's discoveries have played an enormous role in these matters since the 1970's, which weren't in play for Europe in the era of the World Wars. Prior to this historians of Europe seldom if ever included archaeology's studies and discoveries in their scholarship, which they do now.  Digs at emporia sites such as Viking era, Birka, Dorestadt in Friesland, founded specifically for trade, with their goods, mints, monesteries and trade routes across the eastern Rhineland, the Black Sea and down to Constantinople make persuasive argument in favor of the optimists.

Johannes Fried biography here.
Then, yesterday when I was at the library to pick up materials on the conflicts between Bonanza farming and smaller homesteading farmers in the Red River Valley, I spied two copies of a book displayed in the new book section. It was Fried's Charlemagne!  I've been so longing for a good biography of this figure! Also translated by Peter Lewis, Charlemagne is even more hefty than Fried's Middle Ages covering 1500 years.  Admirably, in this age of subtitles that cram in every possible key search word, as with his 2014 The Middle Ages, Fried kept to the most simple title possible -- a single word.

These are the first sentences of the Preface:
"The following book is not a novel, but it is a work of fiction all the same -- a fiction based on this author's visualization of Charlemagne. And even though the resulting image does, quite properly, adduce all the available evidence from the period in question, it is nonetheless subjectively formed and colored. It is impossible nowadays to fathom the depths of a life lived more than twelve hundred years ago, so the only thing remaining for a writer to fall back on is his own imagination . . . . Perhaps those same critics will also censure this author for the way he has chosen to approach his subject, although all they would be able to offer would be a different, no less subjective and fragmentary image.  An objective portrayal of the great Carolingian ruler is simply not possible."
El V in particular loved hearing this, from the PW review, as he just cannot get enough of Spanish history prior to Cristobal Colon's voyages.
Fried also elucidates the role the Franks played in Spain, both in the battle against the Basques at Roncevalles (778) and in later dealings with the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates.
Win-win for us both.

We decided to buy Charlemagne. It's too extensive a work not to have on hand for reference. It's going to take me the rest of the year to read it through as it's such a dense accomplishment of scholarship and interpretation.

Also, as the author's German, deeply concerned with the philosophical significance of historical temporality (reminds me here very much of Jan Assman's The Mind of Egypt:History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs (2002) in particular, not to mention other of Assman's works which I / we have not read, alas), and its a translation, the text and syntax are thick, ungraspable by skimming pixels on a screen.

Sometimes while reading I feel as if the signification of the sentence and paragraph are water I'm attempting to pick up with my hand and pour into my organ of comprehension -- the significance drains away before it gets to the mind.

So German, this temporal -- as opposed to chronological narrative -- approach to history as meditation on time itself.  One can see it, and how it has influenced modern historians, as with the Annales School -- so French! --  (at least now I can see it, I couldn't of course when I first encountered the Pirenne Thesis as an undergrad). As my linear track, narrative-oriented mind lacks any philosophical bent, and this massive life's work of scholarship is pinned to philosophical concepts of time and and interpretation -- you can imagine my struggles.

These are the books that have been my consolations in the previous 12 days. At the end of April we received the terrible, unexpected news that someone very dear to us both had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  M's diagnosis was four months more at most.  It didn't take anywhere near that long, thank goodness as he was in terrible pain. He passed early Friday morning.

His wife and daughter are devastated. M has produced a significant, beautiful, strong, body of art over his career, so dealing with his estate is complicated.  Handling his funeral and / or memorial is also not straight-forward for several reasons, starting with the fact that he was a fully trained and initiated houngan in the Vodun religion.  Several of their friends are working with his wife, helping her to make the decisions and take the actions, both spiritual and practical.

At the same time over the past 6 days quite a few of the March Oriente Travelers were here to participate in the first reunion.  During these days some of them who live here, including el V, had had music gigs long scheduled.

So it's been a busy, complicated, sorrowful, and happy run of time since I posted last.

I am so grateful to have the consolations of friends, music and history to get me through these very sad times.

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