Books I don’t need but still buy

Over the last few days, as is my wont, I bought some used books. Some came from a book stall at the fair that happened this past weekend in my neighbourhood, others from charity shops.

Here are the history-relevant recent purchases:


I read Ray Page’s book ages ago, and although I’m sure it’s out of date now, hey, it was £1 and it will be handy to look some things up for someone who is not a runes guy. And I gueess I do tutor the impact of Empire part of the history GCSE, so a big illustrated book about it could come in handy.

I have no earthly use for a collection of engravings from 17th-century alchemical texts. But it was £1 and they’re so cool.

This … is the kind of thinking that has led me to own a lot of texts relating to esotericism and the occult.


Well, I say “lots.” It’s obviously not “lots” by the standards of someone who actually studies the subject, but I’m not that. And insofar as I care about magical and supernatural beliefs — and I do — the things I care least about are alchemy and sort of 18th-19th century ritual magic. And yet I do keep acquiring books about them.

Partly it’s because there are a lot of books out there on the topic, and partly, I think, it’s because they look so cool. I can’t pass them up!

I suppose it does provide lots of material and cool set-dressing for other creative endeavours, but I do worry that people will get the impression that I’m some kind of genuinely knowledgeable occulty type, when I’m just a sort of aesthetic dabbler.

Books I don’t need but still buy

Stories, history, Movie Monday: an example

Imagine that it is the moderately distant future and you are a historian. Some highly specific catastrophe has wiped out historical records except for films (let’s say a cautious film buff built a very secure archive on the moon). Your task is to reconstruct the history of the Second World War, but the only tool you have available is war movies.

You would actually be able to get quite a lot, I should think: for instance, you’d be reasonably easily able to work out the dates, the places and the major combatants. You would be able to identify characters who almost certainly existed (Churchill, FDR, Hitler, various generals, various celebrated heroes, villains or victims). You could probably reconstruct a lot of the uniforms, equipment and technology, even some of the slang and language. You would know that there was a lot of fiction in your sources, but there would also be a lot that even the fantastical sources would agree on.

You would probably get a very exaggerated idea of the role of the US and Britain relative to the USSR, but you’d be a smart, critical person and you would think to yourself that this might be because of the much larger English-language film industry. You would know a lot less about the war in

When it came to specific incidents, though, it would be a lot harder. There are plenty of major battles that have several films about them, so it wouldn’t be hard to pin those down, but I suspect that there are a lot of quite real people and incidents which appear in only one film. You’d be unsure about those: you would know that “based on a true story” was a literary trope (with only a film archive surviving of Earth’s culture, you’d be something of a film-studies expert, after all) and not automatically credit it. So there would be a huge range of stories where you just wouldn’t be able to tell whether they were real or false.

You’d wind up arguing about historical events largely as works of art: so, for instance, Kelly’s Heroes has all the tropes of a comedy film, and comedy films are typically not historically accurate, so that one is probably unlikely. But there would be debate about it in each case. And there would be a huge number of events which were important but which, because they were simply never made into a movie, were completely lost to your knowledge — people whose actions influenced history greatly but who no one of your era would ever hear of.

You would be very conscious that you were studying, not a thing, but the stories told about that thing, and understanding those stories would be a challenging task in itself, requiring its own specific expertise.

This is — a little bit — what it’s like being a historian in most periods.

Now, I’m not saying that Movie Monday is anything more than just an excuse for me to mock things for the kinds of stories they tell about history. I just thought it was a fun analogy.

Stories, history, Movie Monday: an example

This! Is! Historical! SPARTAAA!

So my history class is currently in the middle of its unit on the ancient world, much of which focuses on forms of government — y’know, monarchy, democracy, oligarchy, all that kind of thing. And that means contrasting classical Athens and Sparta.

One of the problems of teaching history in the overview kind of system the curriculum we’re using demands is that you tend to pick particular places as examples and then not look at how they changed over time. It also tends to reduce things to a simplified view of what they were like, but that’s unavoidable when you’re teaching a lot of material in a limited space of time.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with generalisations per se. They’re just part of how we think, and they have upsides and downsides like everything else. But it is a problem when we take the simplified version of things — which is naturally a little extreme — and then use it as evidence of a society that was super extreme.

Take Sparta for example. Ever since 300, the classical wargamer’s obsession with Sparta and the Spartans has spread into popular culture in a way that is … unfortunate. Partly this is a success for the way that the Spartans viewed themselves, but partly it’s a problem, since people draw conclusions about what is or isn’t likely or possible in the real world based on an example that is itself a distorted view of the real thing.

Let me therefore just introduce some additional info about Spartan society and the Spartan military that you might not be aware of. People who really study classical history in detail know all this stuff, but since I wasn’t really one of them for most of my life, I didn’t know any of this until a year or two ago. I am still not an expert, so please forgive me if I overgeneralise; I hope that my main point will still be clear.


So: the Spartan military. It is absolutely true that Spartan citizens — that is, male members of Spartiate families — did undergo a rigorous programme of military education that produced people who were essentially full-time professional soldiers. Indeed, Spartan law prohibited citizens from having jobs so that they could focus on army life and training. Supporting a full-time army is an expensive task, and it required a lot of commitment from a state that wasn’t super wealthy. If all the Spartans had to rely on militarily was their actual citizens, they would never be able to meet the manpower demands of a prolonged conflict.

Of course, most people in the Spartan (or Lakonian or Lakedaimonian or whatever you want to call it) state weren’t citizens at all. And I’m not just talking about women and helots, either: the citizens of surrounding towns weren’t Spartan citizens, since they weren’t Spartiates, but they were also required to fight in the army. In the campaign leading up to the battle of Plataea, we hear that the Spartans supplied 5,000 Spartan hoplites and a further 5,000 perioikoi hoplites. These perioikoi were inhabitants of other areas ruled by Sparta — the name literally means “near the house” — and unlike Spartiates they were allowed to have actual jobs. However, they also fought in the army and indeed served, in the later Spartan army, in the same morai or divisions as Spartiates.

In addition to the periokoi there were also skiritai, inhabitants of another Spartan-controlled region who served as peltasts, or medium-light infantry. Once the skiritai gained their independence the Spartans were forced to fill the gap by hiring mercenaries. And there’s some evidence that the Spartans used their helots (slaves or serfs) as psiloi or light infantry.

In fact, we even find evidence of helots fighting as hoplites. In the late 5th century, helot hoplites fought for the Spartans and were freed at the end of the campaign. These former helots were called neodamodeis (“new citizens”), and clearly they were able to fight effectively despite not having had a lifetime of brutal military education. In the aftermath of the battle of Leuctra in 371, the Spartans tried to make up the loss of men (they got whomped by the Thebans) by offering to free any helot who volunteered to fight; they got thousands of volunteers.

So far from the picture of a society focused exclusively on war and crunches, we get a more complex picture of a society with a military aristocracy who pride themselves on martial virtue and who form the elite corps of a larger army which has all the regular-Joe soldiers you’d expect from an army of the age. That’s much more plausible than the idea of a society where all the men are made of leather and abs and just think about fightin’ all the time.

But if that’s the case, where do we get these exaggerated ideas of Spartan manly-manness? It’s a combination of factors. First, both contemporary accounts and the work of later historians tend to focus on the things that are unusual about a given society. So when Plato talks about Sparta as a “timarchy” — a military state — he’s talking about the ways in which it was different from other Greek societies, and perhaps taking the ways in which it was similar for granted. Additionally, Greek sources tend to think about citizens first and foremost, with others often being kind of invisible. When we think about ancient Athens, for example, we tend to think of the political role of an Athenian citizen, which is certainly an interesting thing to think about — but even in that famed democracy, actual citizens probably made up only 10% or so of the Athenian population (citizens were free adult males born to two citizen parents). So when Greek writers talk about “Spartans” they mean Spartan citizens, even though Spartan citizens were actually a minority of all the people living in the Lakonian state. Most of the written evidence concerns Spartan citizens, and most of the good stories are about Spartan citizens, so it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that Spartan citizens were typical.

Anyway, I know I’m always going around saying “it’s more complicated than that” when I look at portrayals of historical periods in the media, so I thought I would take a moment — more of a moment than I anticipated, actually — to give a worked example of that greater complexity.

This! Is! Historical! SPARTAAA!

Everyone likes a story with characters, redux

So like every other dork in the world I have been listening lately to the hit musical Hamilton, which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, the guy on the $10 bill. If you pay attention to this stuff, you will know that it is a huge hit, blends hip-hop with Broadway, yadda yadda. And, of course, it’s about a historical figure, which makes it particularly interesting to me.


Hamilton is particularly interesting because he’s one of those people where I think most people know who he was but I doubt any of us who aren’t really serious students of American history have a sense of what he was like, which is what the musical really appears to be about.

Now, me being me, and having a heart of stone, I like the political songs best. Obviously “The Room Where It Happens” is great, but I’m currently enjoying “Washington on Your Side.”

Let’s show these Federalists who they’re up against / Southern motherfuckin’ Democratic-Republicans! is a great line.

Of course, the play tends to elide much of its history — for instance, it has the Burr-Hamilton duel take place right after the 1800 Presidential election (which is also a fun song) rather than several years later. And this elision has some weird effects. For example, in “The World Was Wide Enough,” Burr sings:

Now I’m the villain in your history / I was too young and blind to see / I should have known, I should have known the world was wide enough / for both Hamilton and me

OK, fair enough, but I suspect “too young” is an artefact of casting a handsome actor in his mid-30s to play the part.


Burr, by contrast, was 48 at the time of the duel — something that the narrative of the play makes clear when Hamilton describes their “thirty years of disagreements.”

Anyway, I’m not nitpicking — that’s the nature of historical adaptation and telling a story that takes place over a long period. What are they gonna do, run off and subtly change the makeup every time they get the chance?

What I’m curious about is how this is going to affect public perception of Hamilton. In cases where there’s only really one work of popular media about a character, we often see that our sense of who that person was — and our sort of instinctive sense of whether we like them — comes from that portrayal. I think that goes double for someone like Hamilton, a guy who people kind of assumed was just another boring pillar of patriotic virtue.

The other really interesting thing about this is that the portrayal of Washington, as far as I can tell, is very much within tolerances: unbending moral rectitude, far-seeing concern, etc. Some things you can’t mess with.

I think that I’d like to see the early US done as some disastrous third-world post-independence shambles, which is what it must have looked like to contemporary British observers.

Everyone likes a story with characters, redux

Rainy Tuesday Roundup

Not a lot going on here at One Gonzo Plaza at the moment, although I do have some fun trips planned for the near future. In the meantime, though, here’s a collection of shorter items.

  • I read another Bernard Cornwell Viking-y novel. I honestly can’t remember if I had read the previous one, because they are pretty much all the same. I’m not hating; dude sells books with his formula and that’s fair enough. But they really are a bit repetitive. Gruff hero, bad priests, likable sidekicks, outnumbered!!, won anyway. They’re even pretty similar to his post-Roman Britain books, reading “Vikings” for “Saxons” throughout. Those ones were better, though. Anyway, my point is that if you can write what is essentially the same damn book ten times but in two totally different historical periods I wonder how much the period really matters. I suppose he chose them for similarities.
  • Further to recent thoughts about how many books I own, packing up books (well, so far, thinking about packing up books) for an impending future move has got me thinking about periods I want to expand my collection on. Like, I’m not really a modern guy, but I keep seeing books about modern history that I am interested in. I had the chilling realisation that I felt the same way when looking at my comic book collection and wondering which titles I wanted to collect seriously.
  • There are days, and today is one of them, when I feel like the edutainment grind is a lot of work for comparatively little reward. Looking back over this blog actually helps me feel like I have written and done some OK things.
  • I promise better jokes on Thursday.

That is all; it wasn’t much of a post but it counted.

Rainy Tuesday Roundup

Sensationalism, romanticism and all that stuff.

I have written on this blog before about sensationalism and the kind of mixed reaction I have to it. I’ve had several conversations recently, though, that had me thinking about it again. As always, I’m just thinking out loud here — quite unsure how I feel.

So if we’re going to talk about sensationalism, let’s talk about berserkers.


So, if you’re like most people, when you think of the Viking period, you think of berserkers — fearsome warriors clad in bear or wolf skins who would go into an unstoppable battle frenzy! Everyone likes a good berserker, and they turn up in everything from the TV show to games about the period. You can see a few such characters I’ve painted up for wargames above, so don’t imagine that I’m immune to the fascination.

The berserker image is potent, and it’s potent because it’s simple — giving up everything and surrendering yourself to this overwhelming fury. It’s the simplicity that gives it its intensity, and the intensity that gives it its popularity. But like all very simple images, it’s an oversimplification.

I recently watched a video about berserkers by Nikolas “lindybeige” Lloyd, which I thought was very good, although in my view it comes to too sweeping a conclusion: “it wasn’t like this, it was like that,” instead of it “it wasn’t like this, we’re not sure what the deal was,” which I think is where the evidence points.

If you’re interested in reading more, I would check out Berserkjablogg, which I think (I should have written it down) is run by lindybeige’s source. In particular, the cited passages are in this post. Based on the literary evidence — and that’s a whole extra kettle of fish right there, of course, but since the literary evidence is largely where our berserker image comes from, it might as well be what we use to criticise it — it seems like we’re seeing much more complicated, some kind of understood social identity of being a berserk. This identity had something to do with animal qualities, but it doesn’t mean that some kind of unreasoning frenzy was a psychological reality for the Vikings particularly.

Now, to me, that’s actually much more interesting. But just like everyone else, it’s the sensational, romantic version of the thing that attracted me in the first place. And although I don’t hate to lose it — I can keep the fantasy version in my head with the real one with no problem — I do feel like on the one hand I want to deplore the way movies and games simplify everything while on the other hand I want to … revel in it?

Sensationalism, romanticism and all that stuff.

“Things they never taught you” redux

I was back in California over the spring, as I may have had cause to mention, to attend my wife’s sister’s wedding. On the day before the ceremony, we made a quick stop by a craft shop to pick up some decorations for the reception. While there, I saw something that really took me back: a whole section of supplies for building one of these.


Now, if you are a Californian this will make perfect sense to you; at some point or another — usually in fourth grade, I think — California schoolkids build a model of one of the missions set up by the Spanish and later Mexico in Alta California in the 18th and 19th centuries. Because everyone does it, craft shops actually have a section that’s just full of little brass bells and pantiles and so on. There is an accompanying report; I can’t even remember which one I did (San Francisco Solano?), but I remember that I tucked some authentic string or something into the report as a piece of evidence that I had been there. And someone in the class made a model out of sugar cubes, which if you think about it are more or less the right colour and probably quite easy to work with.

Anyway, my point is that this is a shared historical experience, something that seems common only across a quite limited pool of students — well, OK, millions of them in California, but still not many compared to the world at large. If I recall correctly, it is (or was) part of a philosophy that starts kids out with the history of California, then moves them on to the history of the United States, then the world. Which sounds like a sensible idea in theory, but I don’t recall it actually working like that, so maybe I’m wrong.

Whenever I teach history, I run into these weird little land mines of ignorance. I frequently get students — teenagers, I’m talking about — who don’t know who the Pope is, for instance. And I don’t mean the current Pope, I mean they don’t know what a Pope is. And it’d be easy to decry that as the ignorance of the young, but I don’t think that’s it, necessarily. I mean, there is a lot of stuff to take in, and people often don’t know what students don’t know.

I’ve spoken in the past, I think, about how there will always be these articles about the things they don’t teach you in school, and how whenever I read one of those it turns out to be about something they taught me in school. Like, you’ll often hear that schools don’t teach about west African medieval empires, but mine sure did. I still remember seeing a full-page painting of a king of Mali sitting there contemplating a block of salt. Or maybe Ghana.


Although certainly many don’t cover that topic. But that’s what I mean; there seems to be a lot of variation, and my schools left out a lot of stuff as well. What they didn’t cover I didn’t even know about until I came to university here in the UK and realised I knew nothing about British history. And I thought of myself as an Anglophile …

Part of the problem is that history doesn’t have a natural progression like, say, math. I’m sure there’s some discretion in the order in which you teach math, but fundamentally you need to know how to do this thing before you do the next thing, at least at a basic school level. With history, not so much. Everything connects to everything else in every direction, and even if you adopt a strictly chronological model you’re going to leave some parts of the world out. I would guess everyone has some part of history that they just remained profoundly ignorant about until it was embarrassingly revealed.

What’s yours?

“Things they never taught you” redux