Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) and History Stardom

The death on October 1 of Eric Hobsbawm at the age of 95 marks the end of an era.  Indeed, Marc Mulholland calls him “the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Historian.”  (The Guardian‘s obituary is here; more comments here).

Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012 (Photo BBC) 

For those who fear that his passing also heralds the demise of Marxist history, there is comforting news from England, where reports of a young generation enthralled by Hobsbawm will certainly make many a (male) historian’s heart beat faster.


For Manhood and Empire

A short note on the Olympics, before they’re over (August 12 is the last day!): Louis Menand has an entertaining review of their history in modern times in The New Yorker (Glory Days).  He recalls the great moments, especially in athletics, like Ethiopian Abebe Bikila Imagewinning the Rome 1960 marathon running barefoot, signaling Africa’s enormous potential to the world at the height of decolonization.  (I am too young to remember that race but old enough to remember Bikila’s next Olympic marathon in Tokyo, in 1964, which he also won, now with shoes.)

Bikila’s heroics coupled with today’s marvelous win of the US team in the Women’s Soccer final, before 70,000 spectators (!), put an ironic spin on the original purpose of the modern

Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times

Olympics.  As Menand points out, when Pierre de Coubertin launched the games in 1896, he was inspired by the efforts of the British physician William Penny Brookes who had started a few years earlier the Wenlock Olympian Games in the town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, “as a means of fortifying British manhood.”  “Britain’s culture of sports,” de Coubertin maintained, “is the reason for its empire.” To quote Brookes:

If the time should ever come when the youth of this country once again abandons the fortifying exercises of the gymnasium, the manly games, the outdoor sports that give health and life, in favor of effeminate and pacific amusements, know that that will mean the end of freedom, influence, strength, and prosperity for the whole empire.

Student Dissidence at Dartmouth, Antebellum Edition

In the summer of 2010, Ore Koren (’12) conducted research in Dartmouth’s Special Collections on student life in the 1820s-1850s.  The results of his project are now available for viewing on the department’s Exhibits webpages.


Newspapers, letters, pamphlets, and college catalogues of the Jacksonian era show remarkable evidence of strong student opinions on the salient issues.  As Ore comments:

Different interpretations of religious ideas and of states’ rights, of abolition and Colonization, and of personal rights, all unsettled the region. A microcosm of New England and, due to the relatively large number of students from Southern states, of the United States, Dartmouth College (and the Town of Hanover) was a harbinger of the changes that perturbed the country before, during, and after the Civil War. The College’s student body, with its growing tendency to challenge the College’s faculty and its conventions were the locomotive that drove these changes.

Of the classes of the 1820s, the Class of 1827 was worth particular examination. Its members demurred the status quo on at least two occasions. On one occasion, after believing that one of their fellow classmates has been maltreated by the faculty, the class members embarked upon a three-day rampage, in which they stoned members of the faculty, burned the president in effigy, and burned down a barn. On a second occasion, upon hearing that Edward Mitchell, an emancipated slave from the south who passed the entrance exams, was denied admission, the students submitted a petition denouncing the faculty’s decision and demanding the immediate admission of Mitchell. This petition is a unique document and the language used in it is immensely progressive, especially when bearing in mind the time and place in which it was written.

During the 1840s several student publications appeared. The most famous one, of course, was The Dartmouth, which represented the prevalent opinions of the time and place in which it was written. The Dartmouth ridiculed various minorities, from French Canadians to Native Americans, and sometimes explicitly portrayed slavery in a positive light. Nevertheless, other of its articles were unique, particularly the one defending Shakespeare’s Shylock.

At the same time other publications appeared, which were satirical in nature even if very crude. The target of these publications’ mockery was almost always members of the faculty, most notably the College President and champion of slavery Nathan Lord.

The majority of my research revolves around the Dartmouth OEstrus, a satirical publication printed by the students between 1854 and 1857. Unlike other satirical publications, the writers of the OEstrus showed rather refined writing and humor, and the ideas mentioned in this publication appear many times uncharacteristic of what is expected from an early 19th century New England institution of education. I made every attempt to contextualize this publication by providing information about the names and events mentioned in the four volumes of The OEstrus.

Another contemporary satirical publication was The Waif. Based on the writing used in The Waif, it was probably written by the same writers as the OEstrus, who were members of the Class of 1856. I also discuss The Waif in this study.

The goal of this website is to present a picture of the winds of change that blew through Dartmouth College during the first part of the 19th century. By examining student dissidence I intended to illuminate a part of Dartmouth history that is relatively less known, but that is always relevant.

Hemingway Letters Update

Back in April 2010, I noted that in the past half century Hemingway biographies have largely ignored the papers he left behind at Finca Vigía, his Cuban home, in 1961, and I reported that in 2009 copies of most of these materials had finally become available at the Kennedy Library in Boston, which houses the extensive Ernest Hemingway Collection.

Consolidation of the papers and growing international cooperation among Hemingway scholars have now resulted in a massive project, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters of Ernest Hemingway, to publish his approximately 6,000 letters, of which about 80% have not yet appeared in print.  The first volume, covering the years 1907–1922, has already been published; a dozen or more volumes are planned.

The Introduction to the edition by Sandra Spanier, the general editor (Vol. 1, pp. xi-xxxiii), has more on the vagaries of the Hemingway archives.  An interview with Spanier is here.

Don’t Climb Every Mountain

Freddie Wilkinson, an alumnus of this History department and experienced high-altitude mountaineer, reports in today’s New York Times on the prospects for the upcoming climbing season at Mount Everest:

Sadly, events on the south (Nepalese) side of Mount Everest this season suggest that while the risks inherent in climbing the mountain have never been greater, a majority of Everest climbers are increasingly estranged from the decision-making process. Two intersecting trends are to blame: the rising number of people attempting the mountain, and the cumulative effects of global warming, which is slowly yet steadily drying out the Himalayas, resulting in rockfalls, avalanches and sérac collapses.

Torture for Tourists

Last month I picked up this flier at an airport hotel in Amsterdam.  As I was leaving early the next morning, I didn’t have the chance to check out the city’s Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments in person, but looking at its web pages and a few other materials online, I wonder what’s going on there.  The Museum claims (from the flier):

In the Middle Ages, Torture was a widely known punishment for almost all crimes committed, ranging from rape to murder, and above all for heresy. (…) Museum of Medieval Torture instruments displays over 100 devices used to torture people during medieval times.  This unique collection, recreated by pictures and drawings, serves as a grim reminder of how poorly humans can treat one another.  As you look at the devices and read about how they were used, you’ll cringe… You’ll leave thankful our society has pasted [sic] the dark ages behind.

And cringe I did.  My students know my response to this sort of nonsense: no, torture was not used as a form of punishment “for almost all forms of crime” in the Middle Ages, and definitely not for heresy.  Medieval executions could certainly be grim, but torture, if applied, served to extract confessions, not to punish.  It was a means of interrogation, to gather proof.  And most importantly: there’s nothing particularly medieval about torture.  Quite the opposite is true.  As is well known, the Roman judicial system laid the basis of modern practice by allowing torture in the questioning of slaves, extending its application by the late Empire to lower-class citizens suspected of certain crimes against the state.  Medieval authorities used it sparingly until the revival of Roman law around 1200-1250.  Its widespread application is a typical feature of the Early Modern state in the 16th and 17th centuries, not the Middle Ages.  And of course its heyday came in the 20th century (though the 21st century is off to a promising start in this respect, too).  As my colleague and one-time co-authorEdward Peters, wrote so eloquently in his authoritative Torture (2nd edition, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996):

Paradoxically, in an age of vast state strength, ability to mobilize resources, and in possession of virtually infinite means of coercion, much of state policy has been based upon the concept of extreme state vulnerability to enemies, external or internal.  This unsettling combination of vast power and infinite vulnerability has made many twentieth-century states, if not neurotic, then at least extremely ambiguous in their approach to such things as human rights and their own willingness (the states would call it ‘necessity’) to employ procedures that they would otherwise ostensibly never dream of.

He added, pointedly:

The best recent evidence indicates that torture is [now] used, formally or informally, in one country out of every three.

Little did he know, back in 1996, that his own country, the USA, would be among the happy 33% that practice torture today.

A “medieval” Iron Maiden in the San Gimignano collection. As Wolfgang Schild has demonstrated in 2000, these devices are not medieval but were invented and first assembled around 1800 from various museum objects for the purpose of commercial exhibition, which is of course the procedure here as well

How fortunate indeed that we have “pasted” all of that behind!  And then there is this: a little googling reveals that the Amsterdam Museum of Medieval Torture is only one local outfit of what looks like a commercial enterprise spanning the European continent with “torture museum franchises” in various cities: there is the Prague Museum of Torture, a Museum of Torture in Krakow, Poland, in Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany, and a Museo della Tortura e di Criminologia Medievale in San Gimignano, Italy (attention folks: “The Museum of Medieval Torture is located right in the heart of the historical center of San Gimignano, near our welcoming and charming Hotel L’ Antico Pozzo, the perfect accommodation for your stay in Tuscany”oh dear Santa Fina, tell me it’s not true).  The San Gimignano museum states that it has “sponsored exhibitions of some of its more interesting pieces across the globe, from Argentina to Tokyo.”  I am sure people in Argentina were bemused to learn from Italians that torture existed in … the Middle Ages.  There are also signs of a local unit in Tallinn, Estonia, though that may have been a temporary exhibit.  I suspect that much of the stuff in these places indeed consists of plates and “replicas” that can be easily packed up and moved elsewhere as soon as the local desire for torture titillation has dried up.  They all have similar websites promising the same “medieval” horrors offered up with the same pious platitudes about human rights abuses in a distant past.  The Amsterdam museum even promises “educational tours” but that webpage is still under construction. As far as I can tell, not a single object in these museums actually dates from the Middle Ages; and there is not a word of instruction on the real practice of torture, past or present, the mechanisms of power it serves, or the arguments invoked to legitimize it.

Oh yes: the Amsterdam Museum offers a children’s discount; bring your little ones, who can enjoy this for only 4 Euros!

Home Sweet Home

Sold at a November 24-27, 2011 auction, by Bubb Kuyper, one of Europe’s most prominent auctioneers of printed and manuscript books:

Photo: Veilinghuis Bubb Kuyper, Haarlem

(from the catalogue:) 55/ 81  [Objects for booklovers]. (Bearded man in his study). Scale model of a private library w. 2 bookcases, comprising 9 shelves w. ±100 imitation miniature books, mixed materials, in a glass bottle (Ş13,5, length 25 cm.)., 20th cent.

Sold for 210 Euro.

H/t: Boekendingen