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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Holiday Snaps

In clinching proof that I am incapable of switching off the academic brain even when surrounded by beautiful countryside, unfeasible numbers of storks, fine food and excellent beer, I have been getting cross with an innocuous History of Croatia. The first 80% of the first chapter is more or less okay – the account of the Romans is unnecessarily confused by the fact that the author knows Octavian and Augustus are the same person but clearly isn’t sure why and certainly doesn’t see any need to explain it to the reader – but then we come to the arrival of the Croats. They came with other Slavs. Or not. Their language is Slavic, but other characteristics point to a different origin, according to some theories. They were a distinct group. Or perhaps they weren’t. Maybe they actually came from Iran. But we don’t actually have any evidence. It’s all a mystery. (more…)

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992 Arguments

How do we teach our students to argue, in an appropriate academic manner? At least one of the key elements is to help them to recognise, and criticise, different sorts of arguments in the secondary literature – and then to encourage them to turn this critical sense on their own work, to question every statement that they make and probe every possible weakness. But this needs to be critical criticism, so to speak; criticism that’s tempered by a sense of realism, of what is actually possible in historical studies – and by an awareness that there is rarely a single straightforward answer to anything, or a single correct approach. For example, identifying every source, ancient and modern, as ‘biased’ may be true, and better than total credulousness, but it’s generally unhelpful; at best it’s a first step rather than a conclusion, given the impossibility of finding a source that doesn’t have its own perspective, concealed or unconscious or otherwise. And if I thought it would help, I’d spend a lot of time citing Matthew 7.1-5… (more…)

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Expert Opinions

As I’ve remarked before, I am never going to become a popular writer of history: my books will never be sold in railway stations or airports, or reviewed in proper newspapers or included in celebrities’ Books of the Year choices; they won’t ever have embossed gold writing on the cover; I won’t ever be invited to the Hay Festival or the Chalke Valley History Festival or the like, and as for television… Partly this is the result of wilful refusal to submit to mainstream tastes (no, Lord Bragg, I won’t talk about bloody Spartacus…), and partly sheer inability to think or write in the right sort of terms even if I wanted to – I mean, my idea of an accessible work for a general audience was a polemical account of modern theories of imperialism and the reception of the Roman Empire… (more…)

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Reading David Andress’ thought-provoking new book Cultural Dementia*, on the ways that the anger and resentment of much contemporary politics in the UK, France and USA are founded in confused, self-serving and largely imaginary ideas of national pasts, I’m inevitably reminded of Thucydides, and his denunciation of the Athenians’ unwillingness to make any effort to enquire into the truth of the past but simply to accept the first story the hear – especially, we may surmise, if it flatters their sense of themselves and their place in the world, like the story of the tyrannicides that served as a foundation myth of democracy. The duty of the historian – the theme that I’m lecturing on in Toronto this week, as it happens – is to struggle to uncover the truth of things, to treat everything critically, to make no compromises for the sake of personal loyalties or entertainment, to acknowledge ambiguity and complexity, and try to help others to come to terms with it. (more…)

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If you’re ever short of a case study in the anxiety of influence, turn to the new BBC Civilisations series. It’s a programme which, in important ways, makes very little sense unless you’ve seen the original, while simultaneously doing its utmost to telegraph a wish to distance itself from much of what was supposed to be great the first time around. It’s a reboot made not by fans – which brings its own problems, of course – but by people who want to cash in on the cultural capital of the brand while at the same time claiming superiority. Basically, it’s the American remake of Inspector Spacetime, only with pretensions. (more…)

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Once again, I’ve remembered to keep track of the blogs I’ve especially enjoyed over the last year (with the curious exception of April – I don’t know, at this remove, whether I was too busy to read anything, or not much was published, or I was feeling hyper-sniffy at the time so didn’t think there was anything worth recommending. Very happy to get suggestions in the comments of great things that I’ve missed). This doesn’t claim to be a definitive list, just the stuff I came across – often via the Twitter, which continues to be a great way of keeping up with what’s going on in different regions and fields, despite all the management’s efforts to ruin it and drive everyone away – that deserves a more than ephemeral readership… (more…)

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So, when I announced my Exeter inaugural lecture a few weeks ago, I was persuaded to arrange for it to be recorded, for everyone who wasn’t in a position to trek down to Devon on a Thursday evening. It has turned out to be surprisingly and annoyingly difficult to make this happen, but we have the technology…

This is offered to the general public with the usual caveat that it was written far too hastily while trying to do too many other things at the same time, and so it would have been much better if delivered in different circumstances; and the slightly less usual caveats that (1) it was recorded from the very top of a rather weird, extremely precipitous lecture theatre, which is why you mostly see the top of my head from a steep angle, and (2) my watch was ever so slightly slow, so my brilliant timing actually meant that the recording cuts off literally seconds before the end. (more…)

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