Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gathering the Bones, 4: Thinking Like A Boy

I've put it forward that we're not going to understand the peopling of North America, or the fall of the Roman Empire, or for that matter the Viking Age or the Late Bronze Age collapse until we stop taking claims about identity at face value. And that this is not entirely an issue of dead history. Problematising identity is the first step towards the world state that the species will need to resolve issues such as global warming.

But why can't we solve this problem Colonization style? It's very simple, actually. Wikipedia (on the authority of the best sources, too!), there were 250,000 British Americans in 1700. This is absolutely unproblematic. Working backwards (or forwards from English parish registers), we conclude that 400,000 English crossed the Atlantic westward to the American and Caribbean colonies in 1607--1700.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gather the Bones, 3: Boy Problems, Girl Solutions and Sid Meier's Colonization.

It's pretty intuitive that minor differences in the brains of the two sexes have significant knock on effects that make boys better at x, girls better at y. I don't that it's a defensible intuition, and it is surely beyond the pale to marshal it to a defence of gendered earning disparity, but the strongest argument for social diversity to start with is that it brings multiple perspectives to the table.

So let's go with that. Here's a boy problem that bothered me for years until some girls showed me how that I was thinking about it wrong.

Not a girl in sight!

Haven't had enough yet?

But wait! There's more!

That's not the only Colonization play through on Youtube, not by a long shot. Some people are deeply, deeply fascinated by the way in which European early modern "manufacturing" society (to borrow Maxine Berg's distinction between "manufacturing" and "industrial") established itself on the east coast of North America. The fact that it did not establish itself in Latin America (or even the American South) has provoked ever so much discussion ranging from triumphalism to bittersweet regret. That my triumphalist author attached America to one of its more enduring foreign tar babies suggests that the road that leads from getting lumberjacks onto your  caravel to reality is not well signposted from the road that ends in the fever swamps instead.

Where did we go wrong? Probably, we took too many turns on the right hand, not enough on the left. (Admittedly not the best choice of a woman singing a spooky song per se, but I couldn't live with myself if I linked to this with a straight face.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fall of France, 9: Manpower, Part 5

It snowed out in Burnaby so hard Thursday that the RCMP closed the roads. But our deliveries still got through. I know that I'm dissing on those fat cat executives when I imagine them as the kind of people who've never had to drive on snow-slick roads instead of taking a snow day.

On the road up to Simon Fraser University: Snow Day for reals!

But it's a fact. The performance of skills in our society often happens invisibly, at places and times where no-one else is around to see it, because no-one who is not there has what it takes to be there. If there's an upside to being ruled by technocrats, it is that hopefully they've done a little of this work in their time, and have some sense of how hard it is.

I'm not saying that as a truck driver, by the way, because I'm not a driver. I do hear their complaints a great deal when working as a shipper/receiver, and I certainly feel that there have been places and times when my contribution wasn't appreciated, but I that's true of everyone. That's why for this installment I'm going to drill down on a building where skills have been invisibly performed since 1898, and outside which there have frequently been unemployed people wishing that they were inside exercising those skills. And since I'm a male blogger writing about technology, I will have some enormous machine tools.

Sheffield Forgemasters works, Brightside, Sheffield, U.K.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Fall of France, 9: Manpower, Part 4

So Britain suffered terribly from unemployment in the interwar period, especially in the Third World. You can construe a story about why a Conservative Prime Minister would prefer to see able-bodied men lining up for the dole than learning how to drive a Matador in preparation for standing on the Dyle Line. The army wasn't recruiting to the numbers, so the problem had to be that wages weren't high enough. But if you raise army wages, it puts inflationary pressure on wages in general. Employers will have to pay more. Can't have that!

That does, however sound a little fever swampy. And, after all, there's an equal and opposite alternate whereby the army trains up Matador drivers who, after their separation, flood the labour market and push wages down. Truck driving is one of those underappreciated skill sets that comes under pressure when the economy is bad.

Or when it's snowing in the passes. But that's my point, more or less. It happens high up and out of sight, where you'd imagine that the sort of people who are rich and established enough to make these kinds of decisions aren't likely to be found. I think that there's a deep vein of bullion to be mined out of this conjunction of economic depression, skills of the hand, and national defence. Throw in identity, and maybe I can tie in the Fall of the Roman Empire. But if I do, I'll do it where I've already set myself a lower bar of self-expression, and hot link it here. In the meantime, I'm going to mine that vein. I'll be rich as Frobisher in no time.

Monday, February 14, 2011

And Chicks for Free: The Fall of Rome, V

("Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars.....Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.")

So you'd think people who can read a script can read in general and notice the problem here. Not that I'd build some kind of castle in the air on that basis here. I'd do that elsewhere, although I have to admit that this isn't a promising start. It's what you'd call a systemic error. Here: have a bunch of arguments about whether it was "historically accurate" for Brad Pitt to wear his hair blonde in Troy. You'll notice that people get awfully excited about whether or not the Danaeans were blonde, hence "northern barbarians." Did northern climes formerly produce vast surplusses of people who would, every once and awhile, jump on their oxcarts and their boats and overrun southern climes, where the people of the Middle Kingdom and the Indus, the Mediterranean littoral or Roman Britain were just too decadent to oppose them?

Obvious answer: no. Because

i) Rude, barbarous climes are generally characterised by their inability to support large numbers of people. A few good seasons might produce an excess of, say, rabbits or reindeer in Sweden, but people aren't reindeer, except in the minds of a few ideologues.
ii) "Decadent" assumes what it wants to prove. Historically, large and sophisticated states are distinguished by their tendency to invade their neighbours, not by their "softness" and "unwarlikeness." Generally, we get lines like this from commentators within these societies who are concerned that they're not invading their neighbours enough.
iii) Moving large numbers of people across country is hard. This is why the world's first professional military historian spent so much of his masterpiece cutting down the size of the "barbarian" armies that overran the late Roman Empire from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands of men. (Also because the turn of the Nineteenth Century was one of those going-off-the-rails eras for our thought-leaders.) When you look at the problems of allocating, clearing, and building roads; or feeding troops, cavalry horses and draft animals, you soon realise that it was impossible to move coherent bodies of people across country in demographically significant numbers before the invention of the internal combustion engine. Even seaborne movements are harder than people tend to give them credit for being. And if you want to stop these kinds of things, it's not hard to completely prevent it by systematically building small forts to for surveillance and control at river crossings and on hilltops --the kind of places that the Romans, by and large, didn't bother to fortify because they were so busy building walls around cities and across border marches. (Romans obviously built forts in such places and in large numbers. But they didn't nail down the countryside by doing it systematically, unlike, say, the Normans, who are rarely called better engineer/administrator/statebuilders than the Romans.)

Now, we might see one-way demographically significant population transfers over time. Obviously there was a time before which Iceland was not populated. Yet the better we get at DNA analysis, the less common such movements are in the historical record. The people living around the North Sea and Irish Sea basins are genetically similar to each other, and have been since the Ice Age. For example, Britain, the two populations sort of bleed into each other in the middle. Greeks, if they are related to any groups that moved into the country at any point, are related to people who entered the country from Turkey in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. (Or there has been continuous gene flow east-west across the Aegean since before recorded history.)

And yet in the 98 years between the Battle of Adrianople in 378AD and the abdication of Romulus Augustulus in 476AD, the western Roman empire was overrun by a series of barbarian invasions. By 576AD, with the completion of the "Lombard conquest of Italy," we can safely speak of an era of Barbarian successor states. When people see a blonde north Italian, they are apt to speak of Lombard blood, and we remember, if we do not exactly regret, the old Lombard League's delightful theory that northern Italy has all the industry and the money because north Italians are superior to southern Italians due to the one having an admixture of Germanic "Lombard" blood, while the latter has intermixed with Africans. (Because Africans are genetically incapable of securing patronage contracts from Turin, or something. Look, I don't know. It's science.) Meanwhile, Latin disappeared as a spoken language in Britain, and in the East, they went so far as to go prospecting for barbarians in the middle of the empire in search of a good, warlike strain.

That's pretty funky population genetics right there, combined with a lot more certainty about how our genes influence us than regular old scientists have. You'd think that when historians start leading the medical genetics research field that they'd look back, notice that no-one's following them, and begin to suspect that they'd turned off the actual race track at some point. As it turns out, they have.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Books That I Have Read

[Edit: It might be noted that I have made some changes to this entry. This is because a correspondent has notified me of an error, and furthermore one snidely expressed. I apologise.]

So here's something self-indulgent: the twenty best historical monographs that I've ever actually read that have listings in one of my  text file bibliographies. I was going to do something a little more strenuous and go for a top twenty list, but I'm in the midst of moving those over to a more sophisticated format. (Not that sophisticated: the Word2007 Source file system. I sure hope that Microsoft delivers a better version of this that I can transport the data to soon!) So I'd have to hunt down and retype a bunch of titles that deserve to be here. This suggests that the next list should be the even more interesting and eclectic "20 best historical monographs that aren't in my textfile bibliographies for some stupid reason."

I'll get right on that.

The List

Barker, Thomas Mack. Double Eagle and Crescent: Vienna's Second Turkish Siege and Its Historical Setting. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1967. One old fashioned military history. Because it's awesome.

Braudel, Fernand. La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’epoque de Phillippe II. 2nd ed. Paris: Librairie A. Colin, 1966. Only one Braudel allowed.

Cochrane, Eric. Florence in the Forgotten Centuries, 1527-1800: A History of Florence and the Florentines in the Age of the Grand Dukes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. More old-fashioned historiography, and more plainly obsolete; but still a nice read.

Gerhold, Dorian. Road Transport Before the Railways: Russell’s London Flying Wagons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Does it sound interesting? It is. If it doesn't sound interesting, you need to read it even more.

Edgerton, David. England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation. Houndmills, Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1991. The anti-Barnett!

Friedman, Norman. British Carrier Aviation. London: Conway, 1991. It's no gem of the historiographic art, but it reveals that every book on this reasonably important subject published before him was literally just all made up. I know that a great many theses claim this in their introduction, but it's true here.

Gordon, G. A. H. British Seapower and Procurement Between the Wars: A Reappraisal of Rearmament. London, Macmillan, 1983.

Gunsberg, Jeffery A. Divided and Conquered: The French High Command and the Defeat of the West, 1940. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1979. A polemic in the best way. Open this book while listening to Mireille Mathieu's version of the Marseillaise.

Hounshell, David. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

James, John. The Paladins: A Social History of the RAF Up to the Outbreak of WWII . London: MacDonald, 1990. It is beyond amazing how one writer can transform a field of study by good use of such a basic research tool.

Jones, D.W. War and Economy in the Age of William III and Marlborough. London: B. Blackwell, 1988. Like Gerhold above, this belongs on the list because of the sheer power and originality of its insights.

Rollason, David. Northumbria, 500--1100: Creation and Destruction of a Kingdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. This isn't an endorsement of everything Rollason has to say. I'm going to pick and choose here. But wow.

Schabel, Ralf. Die Ilusionen der Wunderwaffen: Die Rolle der Düsenfleugzeuge und Flugabwehrraketen in der Rüstungspolitik des dritten Reiches. Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1994. Pretty definitive. I think it might have been translated, too.

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. London: HarperCollins, 1995. Now that I better understand the context of this work in archaeological and urban planning theory it impresses me a little less. A little.

Shapin, Steven. A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth Century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. The one absolutely necessary book to come out of the Edinburgh School.

Tooze, Adam. The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. London: Penguin, 2006.

Van Kley, Dale. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560–1791. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996. Did you know that there were more pro-Jansenist pamphlets circulating in France in the months (and years) before the Revolution than pro-republican? Van Kley explains why it matters. A lot. We're still waiting for someone to do the same for the American Revolution, although I gather that Clarke has started.

Waldron,Arthur. The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. Cambridge and New York: Canto, 1992; originally Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Outside my field, but then I am trying to write a history of the world.

Walker, Mack. German Home Towns: Community, State, and General Estate, 1648-1871. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971. Another ancient classic.

Wheatcroft, Andrew. The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire. London: Viking, 1995. A conceptual departure on par with Schama. 

And... wow. Not a single woman on the list. I'm tempted to go back and add Sylvia Van Kirk, Alison Weir and Pamela Kyle Crossley, but none of them are in my textfiles, so would properly belong on the list of best books that I have read that aren't in those files. (Which is coming, eventually.) Besides, in the eternal recursion that is liberal guilt, it feels more honest to acknowledge the initial trend and the apparently ineradicable gender bias that it signifies.

I might have stood on the argument that as a military historian I tend to like quintessentially boy books. But that's silly on two grounds. In the first place, the Van Kirk, Weir, and Crossley books answer a "boy" question better than any "boy" answer I've ever seen, something I should probably start discussing soon.  More importantly, haven't I already summoned Marianne to the defence of La Patrie? Now there's a military historian's approach to papering over contested gender identities in a nutshell. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Money For Nothing: Fall of Rome, 4.

So I've promising new insights into the fall of Rome from the perspective of an early modernist.

How am I going to deliver? Consider the most dramatic and physical evidence of this empire that we have to hand, its coinage. About that I want to think, and talk like an Eighteenth Century gentleman, to the extent that a plebe like me can. Why? Because I have a hard copy of Wealth of Nations to crib, a circumstance worth a pause before the end.

So what would a Scottish country gentleman say? To start with, this is a skill of the hands that speaks through the brain. Like Scrooge McDuck, the gentleman would properly start by plunging his hands into a pot of Roman money, and ask himself am I going to accept payment in this stuff?
In some cases, the answer was fairly obvious. The original Roman coinage was copper, and more, including some  ploughed out of the ground from a field not far south of Edinburgh was bronze. Hardly worth bothering with, even if the location gives us pause. Then there would be gold aureii and silver denari, thick, "turtle-like" coins with wide edges, made by an almost unbelievably labour-intensive process involving hammering cold pellets of metal very hard in a race against stress-hardening, or in a loosely-controlled industrial setting for hot-forged ones. (A serious workplace organisational problem, since it led to endemic losses by theft and ultimately labour action by the Roman mint workers that supposedly cost Emperor Aurelian 7000 soldiers' lives to suppress in 272AD.)

Most of the denarii to hand were issued by third century Emperors, and they were awful. And that's saying something. Smith was a cynic about such things. He had seen bad English coin, worse Scottish, and worst French, for princes often find reason to debase their coins, little to increase it, and the very arrangement of the examples tells us all we need to know about the kind of princes who step on their coinage. He is forced to admit that the amount of silver in the English money had gradually decreased from Henry II's good old penny of 1158 until arrested by Philip and Mary, but he  supposes that this must be because of the flood of silver from the New World. (But he is wrong!)  The decline in the Roman case is worse than even a Catholic monarch could contemplate. Starting from an Augustan coin 98% pure, the Roman denarius reached 35% silver content in the late 200s, before Aurelian's strike-breaking.

Aurelian to Diocletian to Constantine is a bit of an elision, but these emperors saw the need for a new coinage. Smith was a little too young to remember the English recoinage crisis of 1696, but the general consensus was that the shift to milled coins had been a great success, even though it was curiously  hard to come by good silver coins in the Britain of Smith's day. (The country would officially switch to a gold standard in 1818.) Diocletian's reforms seem similarly impressive. The old 98% bullion level was restored, and under his successor, Constantine, thin, new coins were issued, the famous solidus and siliquae. The Scottish gentleman would be alert to new risks in the form of clipping and counterfeiting, but Roman coins did not suffer from this, or apparently did not. Nowadays,  metal detectorists have discovered multiple clippedcoin hoards around the British Isles dating from the years after 403AD, apparently. One province was an exception to the rest.

Setting aside what he could not know, Smith and his contemporaries drew a simple conclusion. The Roman Empire fell during the third century AD. The, Domitian unfell it; and new causes had to be sought to explain its next and final fall a century later. Well enough; but we need to understand why.