Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Congress, 2009

Kalamazoo Congress, that is.

I had more enjoyment, intellectually and socially, this time around than I can remember -- and I am a great fan of the Kalamazoo get-together. When before have I picked all good sessions and all good papers? Whenever have I had so much good companionship? I am not complaining about previous experiences, not in the slightest!

My paper on arms and law in the 1350s had the good fortune to be part of the popular De Re Militari series, and it was well attended. The response made me think that when I do write my book on Charny's Questions on War, there will be a reasonable audience for the work. Reassuring! I am also to have an opportunity to speak on the subject of my choice in two years' time. By that time, perhaps, I will have a chance to reread "The Book of the Good Duke," and come up with something of general interest from it. (Some of you may laugh at that choice, but there really is such a book, and it's good.)

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

The purpose of history

The anonymous author of Ahistoricality is reading Tosh's Historians on History, and picked this interesting quotation from Hugh Trevor-Roper:

"The exact scientists are a kind of pre-Reformation clergy, and their function is to perform their miracles, to continue their Church, not to make themselves intelligible to laymen: for their control of the means of salvation and damnation makes the lay world so dependent on them that it will tolerate and subsidise them even without understanding. But the humane subjects are quite different from this. They have no direct scientific use; they owe their title to existence to the interest and comprehension of the laity; they exist primarily not for the training of professionals but for the education of laymen; and therefore if they once lose touch with the lay mind, they are rightly condemned to perish." -- H.R. Trevor-Roper, 'History: professional and lay' (1957), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 328-329.

Comments?

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Who's the myth?


Over at Vanity Press a couple of days ago, Chet Scoville noted this story from Yahoo News, which I copy in its entirety:

LONDON (AFP) - Britons are losing their grip on reality, according to a poll out Monday which showed that nearly a quarter think Winston Churchill was a myth while the majority reckon Sherlock Holmes was real.

The survey found that 47 percent thought the 12th century English king Richard the Lionheart was a myth.

And 23 percent thought World War II prime minister Churchill was made up. The same percentage thought Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale did not actually exist.

Three percent thought Charles Dickens, one of Britain's most famous writers, is a work of fiction himself.

Indian political leader Mahatma Gandhi and Battle of Waterloo victor the Duke of Wellington also appeared in the top 10 of people thought to be myths.

Meanwhile, 58 percent thought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Holmes actually existed; 33 percent thought the same of W. E. Johns' fictional pilot and adventurer Biggles.

UKTV Gold television surveyed 3,000 people.


Chet found this depressing, but since last year I do my best to avoid letting anything depress me, since that improves nothing. So, trying to take a more positive view, I ask myself these questions:

How, in a world saturated with fiction, can people who are not historians keep the mythical and the real sorted out?

How many historical figures do even intelligent people have filed away in their memories? How sure of their reality can they be -- if put on the spot by a pollster?

Is it amazing that people think Richard Lionheart is a myth, since most accounts (Ivanhoe-inspired) are pretty mythical?

Didn't medieval people think Arthur is real? Don't a lot of people think that now?

Isn't it perhaps understandable that someone with the poetic last name "Nightingale" associated with saintly charity, might be considered a legend?

Shouldn't literature profs be pleased that Dickens has more public reality than Churchill?

On to another myth. One spinoff of the Greatest Show on Earth is a debate about Barack Obama, and whether he's like JF or RF Kennedy. I was around for Kennedy's assassination, and was much affected by it, but have in the last 20 years or so have come to think he was mostly image. The issue of Kennedy's true standing was interestingly raised today at Ezra Klein's blog, by him and his commentators. Have a look.

P.s. My youthful Kennedy infatuation makes me very wary of discussing certain issues with people who were teenagers when Reagan was president.

Image: Mother Teresa. Or somebody.

Update: As Prof. Nokes points out, Will McLean looked farther than I did, and found the top 10 list of fictional characters believed by the public to be real. And behold, Will shows that the people who made the poll don't know their history very well.

Here's the list,

  • 1) King Arthur – 65%
  • 2) Sherlock Holmes – 58%
  • 3) Robin Hood – 51%
  • 4) Eleanor Rigby – 47%
  • 5) Mona Lisa -35%
  • 6) Dick Turpin – 34%
  • 7) Biggles – 33%
  • 8) The Three Musketeers – 17%
  • 9) Lady Godiva – 12%
  • 10) Robinson Crusoe – 5%

and here are Will's remarks. My own addendum: I'm pretty sure Dafoe modeled Robinson Crusoe off a real shipwreck survivor. Ah, yes, Alexander Selkirk.


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