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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Holland’

The most distinctive cry of the professional academic historian, to be heard (with only minor regional variations) throughout the Western world, is “Yes, but it’s rather more complicated than that.” Historians as a species concern themselves with detail and specificity, to an almost obsessive degree; highlighting the unique features of every period and every culture that mark them out from every other period and culture, and regarding any attempt at generalisation across periods or cultures or even individual cases with, at best, hearty suspicion (while relying on any number of unspoken generalisations) because, of course, it is actually rather more complicated than that.

It’s for this reason that historians really need to pay attention to the wonderfully-titled ‘Fuck Nuance’ (Abstract: Seriously, fuck it) by sociologist Kieran Healy (more…)

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Perhaps the most striking thing about Tom Holland’s fine and interesting article in this week’s New Statesman on ‘Why Empires Fall: from Ancient Rome to Putin’s Russia’ is how far it ignores, and even at times rejects, the promise of the title. What the casual reader might expect to find under such a heading is a general theory of the imperial life-cycle, perhaps drawn primarily from Rome as the archetypal empire and the paradigm of decline and fall, that can be applied to the present (focusing on Russia for a change, rather than the usual debates about the USA as an imperial power). Instead, Holland offers a range of narratives of different imperial collapses, emphasising the complexity of events and the plethora of competing interpretations, and also identifying the great counter-example of China; it’s all thoroughly historical and historicist, eschewing the kinds of social-scientific theorising that one might find in Michael Doyle or Michael Mann or in a typical ‘Empires Ancient and Modern’ op-ed. What does persist through time, in his account, is not a universal principle of imperial destiny but the belief in the paradigmatic status of Rome, regularly revived as model, ideal – and awful warning.

The article doesn’t go so far as to state clearly that the real problem with trying to learn from the past is the persistent belief that we can do this because the pattern of future events has already been set in the past. Indeed, there are a few points (more…)

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Tom Holland has been doing the Twitter equivalent of prodding me with a pointed stick, loudly advertising the fact that he, Vic Reeves and Tanni Grey-Thompson were going to be discussing late Roman economic policy on ITV this evening, purely to annoy me. He must have a new book to plug, and wants to provoke a bit of controversy-related publicity. I determined, therefore, not only to watch the programme but to like it; after all, it’s great that there is still a bit of archaeology on television, at prime time no less, and it emphasises the possibility of constructive co-existence between professionals and enthusiastic (and often very knowledgeable) amateurs, and shows a wide range of fascinating objects with interesting back stories, and the celebrity presenters (including our Tom) do the necessary job of refusing to take academic equivocation for an answer from the various experts, without drowning out their caveats altogether. Interesting to note that the unifying theme of the programme was something to the effect that in this ever-changing world in which we live in, some things remain the same, rather than emphasising the equally plausible but perhaps less comforting idea that the past may in many ways be another country. Shades of heritage and Our Island Story…

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The new book by Tom Holland on the origins and rise of Islam and the collapse of the Roman and Persian empires, In the Shadow of the Sword, has been gathering mixed reviews in the general press. Barnaby Rogerson in the Independent dismissed a few of Holland’s ideas on the birth and nature of Islam as fanciful or speculative, but saw these as only “slight flaws” in an otherwise compelling narrative of the period; Michael Scott in the Telegraph produced a masterpiece of evasion, describing it as a handsome volume tackling an important question from a novel perspective with a fluid style that was “also bound to encounter the full spectrum of critical reaction”; Ziauddin Sardar in the New Statesman objected, more in sorrow than anger, to Holland’s dismissal of the entire Muslim scholarly tradition on the development of Islam and the Qur’an and his reliance instead on the controversial theories of Patricia Crone and her associates. Finally, there was the magisterial academic demolition job offered by Glen Bowersock in the Guardian: “Holland came to his work on Islam unencumbered by any prior acquaintance with its fundamental texts or the scholarly literature… Holland seems to have confined himself largely to interpreters, learned or otherwise, writing in English, but his efforts to inform himself, arduous as they may have been, were manifestly insufficient… Holland’s cavalier treatment of his sources, ignorance of current research and lack of linguistic and historical acumen serve to undermine his provocative narrative.” Holland has now offered a response to the last of these. (more…)

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