Monday, May 11, 2015

A masterful history; an exemplary historian

One of my current pleasures is listening to the In Our Time podcasts from BBC broadcaster Melvyn Bragg.

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history of ideas -- including topics drawn from philosophy, science, history, religion and culture.

The subject matter is wildly diverse; in the last three weeks the broadcasts have taken up the life of pioneering British novelist Fanny Burney, the composition of the earth's core, and Rabindranath Tagore.

Along with my delight in the subject matter, I am drawn to Bragg's programs for another reason: on every one of them, no matter what the topic, at least one of his academic experts is a woman.

It was not always thus. One of the reasons I dropped out of graduate study in history in 1970 was that I almost never encountered women historians. Maybe there were more than the important men running the departments I was in ever pointed me to. But if so, I didn't know of them.

The one exception whose writing I admired and knew I'd never be able to equal was C.V. (Dame Cicely Veronica) Wedgwood. She wrote about continental Europe and England during what we call the "early modern" period, the 16th and 17 centuries.

Recently I ran across her monumental history of The Thirty Years War, first published in 1938. This narrative history is just as brilliant, and feels as sound, as I thought Wedgwood to be, all those decades ago.

What we call the Thirty Years War was a sprawling contest of dynasties and armies that fought out their feuds between 1618 and 1648 across the smaller feudal and commercial states in Central Europe, leaving famine, disease and destruction in their wake. Wedgwood convincingly maintains that, though the Protestant and Catholic affiliations of rulers and their subjects had something to do with this orgy of carnage, the ambitions of kings, kinglets, and generals had more.

In her introduction, she offers the best defense of writing history as the story of "great men" that I've ever seen articulated.

The year 1618 was like many others in those uneasy decades of armed neutrality that occur from time to time in the history of Europe. Political disturbances exploded intermittently in an atmosphere thick with the apprehension of conflict. Diplomatists hesitated, weighing the gravity of each new crisis, politicians predicted, merchants complained of unsteady markets and wavering exchanges, while the forty million peasants, on whom the cumbrous structure of civilization rested, dug their fields and bound their sheaves and cared nothing for the remote activities of their rulers.

For most of "history," what we think of as "history" had about as much relevance to most people as periodic weather catastrophes. What distinguishes the "modern" era from most of the past is that more of us think we ought to matter.

So Wedgwood's book is a story of the men (and a few women) whose intrigues and unreflective stubbornness in ambition launched and perpetuated the fighting. She is not gentle in describing them. Here's a sample of her style, a description of a bit player, a Danish king whose intervention on behalf of his fellow Protestant rulers proved fruitless.

Christian IV was not negligible. His misfortune was to reign at the same time as Gustavus of Sweden, so that popular report, dazzled by so brilliant a rival, has given him too small a place in European history. ... Monogamy had never suited his exuberant nature, and the number of his bastards grew in time to be a Danish problem and a European joke. A good linguist, he was also a good talker.

He encouraged the arts and sciences in his northern capital as few had done before him, and his palaces at Kronberg and Copenhagen reflected in their opulent decorations, their lavish gold ornaments and plump plaster cherubs realistically tinted pink, something of their master's warm and vigorous personality. 'One could hardly believe he had been born in so cold a climate,' an Italian had once commented. ...

Interestingly, for this was one of the facets of writing history for which women were once considered unsuited, Wedgwood is very good at recounting the military maneuvers and battle tactics of the period. She does not shy from explaining how engagements were won by the application of such fire power as was available at the time. Apparently Gustavus of Sweden had a leg up as a tactician on all the other militaries. But, since the armies all lived off a countryside laid waste by successive passing troops, after 30 years the coherence of all these forces simply disintegrated.

Writing in the run up to another all-European war, Wedgwood described this early modern conflict in scathing terms:

After the expenditure of so much human life to so little purpose, men might have grasped the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgment of the sword. Instead, they rejected religion as an object to fight for and found others.

... The war solved no problem. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict. The overwhelming majority in Europe, the overwhelming majority in Germany, wanted no war; powerless and voiceless, there was no need even to persuade them that they did. The decision was made without thought of them. ...

Most of us are still working on having enough clout to thwart our rulers when they get it into their heads that war is the answer -- at least we sometimes have the space to work on that project.
Until I consulted C.V. Wedgwood's Wikipedia entry I had not known she was a lesbian, a partnered for 70 years!


Hattie said...

Looks good. I'll have to order the paperback. It's available on Kindle Audiobooks for free, and I might try it that way, but it takes 20 hours to listen to the whole thing!
Have you read Simplicissimus and Courage by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen?

janinsanfran said...

I have a feeling that the pathetic amount of German I absorbed in order to pass a grad school exam would not be equal to appreciating Simplicissimus. Too bad for me.

Unknown said...

"devious in its course, futile in its result" - might just as well be our recent adventures abroad.