Saturday, July 24, 2004

Come worship at the feet of Kevin Brownlow

For anyone who can get to London this September, a must-see season showing at the NFT devoted to film historian and director Kevin Brownlow. Early modernists may be familiar with Brownlow's superb film Winstanley (as in Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers), which is one of the films being shown. I've only ever seen it on video; it should be mind-blowing on a cinema screen. But they're also showing the controversial It Happened Here, which I've wanted to see for ages; it imagines a scenario in which the Nazis invaded Britain and won the war. These are Brownlow's only feature films; the others are documentaries, and Brownlow is perhaps best known in film circles as a historian of silent films, writer of an authoritative history on the subject, The Parade's Gone By. The great man will appear himself on 13 September. A friend of mine who's a member of the NFT is being charged with the responsibility of getting us tickets.

Around the 'early modern' world II: African Odysseys

This has been a thought-provoking - and exhausting - exercise. My study of African history as an undergrad was confined to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and largely to specific areas of 'British' west and east Africa); stir in a bit of post-grad work on orientalism, missionaries and related topics, and, er, that's about it. This thread on the periodization of African history at H-Africa is well worth reading. Importantly, some contributors argued very strongly for the need to focus on 'indigenous' perceptions and experiences (this one, by an archaeologist, I thought was particularly forceful). Except, perhaps, in terms of 'encounters' with Europeans from the fifteenth century up to imperial conquests, it's doubtful how much relevance the term 'early modern' has to African history. I mean not so much the loadedness of the term 'modern' here as the basic question of whether there is (however roughly) any identifiable, useful 'period', whatever you might choose to call it, that bears any relation whatsoever to these dates. And then, of course, there's the huge diversity of the continent to consider. That's why my brain is spinning today.

I found myself a little concerned at the very, well, 'modern' perspectives expressed by some commenters in the H-Africa thread, such as this otherwise very interesting one: that is to say, the thousands of years in this vast continent before the 'colonial' and 'postcolonial' periods are all to be lumped together as the 'pre-colonial' or 'independent' period? And it has to be said that much of what you can find on the web does just that: a wealth of detailed resources and studies on the last century can be contrasted with surveys that breathlessly cover centuries at a time for earlier periods, or on 'X topic' in some rather timeless 'pre-colonial' setting. I appreciate that the nature of source materials in many areas may not allow the kind of specificity that document-oriented historians are used to, but even so... (And book and article titles that popped up on Google searches indicate that there's interesting research going on out there.)

Anyway, I have tried to find resources that are not in the ultra-superficial league. There is a weighting towards 'political' narratives; more 'social' stuff would have been good, but never mind. I have included very little on Europeans in Africa or slavery and the slave trade - there are already some relevant links at Early Modern Resources. If you bear in mind that it was compiled by someone who was learning as she went along (search strategy? what's one of those then?), you may hopefully find it useful. (If you're reading it and thinking 'I could have done a better job than that' - then get off your arse and do it, OK?)

African Timelines: 15th to early 19th centuries
The Story of Africa: Slavery
The Portuguese in Africa 1415-1600
Exploring Africa: Maps and Travel Narratives
The Eye of the Beholder (maps of Africa)
Antiquarian Maps of Africa
The Black Man's Burden (1920)
Diffusion and other problems in the history of African states
Misunderstanding natives in the seventeenth century

Political African Women of the 16th-18th centuries
Pre-colonial Homosexuality in Africa
Pre-colonial Metalworking Bibliography
Ethnicity in Africa 1700-1850 Bibliography
African Political Entities before the Scramble
Zakat in pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa

Timeline: The Maghrib 1400-1600
Timeline: The Maghrib 1600-1800
Warfare and firearms in fifteenth-century Morocco
Sa'did Architecture
Tunisia's Andalusian Heritage
Libya: Ottoman Regency
Ottoman rule in Algeria
Timeline: Egypt 1400-1600
Timeline: Egypt 1600-1800
Egypt under the Ottoman Empire
History of Ottoman Egypt
Egypt: Ottoman Turk Period
Administration in Egypt from Ottoman Times (book review)
Cairo City Maps

The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms
Timbuktu Libraries
Kingdoms of the Medieval Sudan
Timeline: Western and Central Sudan 1400-1600
Timeline: Western and Central Sudan 1600-1800
The Forest Kingdoms
Timeline: Guinea Coast 1400-1600
Timeline: Guinea Coast 1600-1800
Art,Innovation and Politics in Eighteenth-century Benin
Women in pre-colonial Nigeria

The Story of Africa: Central African Kingdoms
Timeline: Central Africa 1400-1600
Timeline: Central Africa 1600-1800
Luba and Lunda Empires
Kuba Kingdom
The Kongo Kingdom and the Papacy
History of Angola

Timeline: Eastern and Southern Africa 1400-1600
Timeline: Eastern Africa 1600-1800
Timeline: Southern Africa 1600-1800
Kingdoms of Madagascar
The Dutch in South Africa

Friday, July 23, 2004

Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1669

Great title from the BBC. I'm not altogether happy about the stereotypical view of 'Puritans' here: the claim that they "looked down on drinking". They may have looked down on alehouses (the most basic type of establishment, which served only beer, and was the usual haunt of poorer customers), and have been concerned to regulate them, suppress disorderly establishments and act against excessive drinking, but that's not quite the same thing. They were perhaps more exercised than most about drinking on the Sabbath (worst of all, during divine service!), but this view of Puritans as anti-drink in opposition to revelling Royalists is crude. (The notion that coffee, or the coffee house, was in its early days a straightforwardly respectable alternative is also a bit off the mark.)

In fact, Parliamentarians from 1643 - like modern governments - had some reason to want people to be patronising alehouses and the somewhat more up-market taverns and inns, since that was the year that excise duties were introduced. Initially, they were intended as a temporary measure to raise revenue for the war. But the returning Royalists at the Restoration happily adopted this lucrative measure, and spent the next twenty-odd years trying to work out the most effective ways of collecting it. (Try government officials, farm it out, take it back under government control again...) Only after the Revolution of 1688 was the machinery really honed to become part of the tax system that funded British war-making during the eighteenth century. (The classic account of this is John Brewer's The sinews of power; for the period before 1688, C D Chandamon, The English public revenue). It wouldn't be too far out to say that our drinking (in part) funded the Empire... even though the customs and excise generated a massive smuggling industry.

Anyway, however, the article is quite right to point out that drinking could be a political act during the seventeenth century, and into the eighteenth. Especially the drinking of toasts. Now, disaffected Royalist gentlemen drinking toasts to the man they considered to be Charles II certainly was a problem for Interregnum authorities. After the Restoration, of course, the position was reversed and toasting the king was a statement of loyalty. And later, after 1688, there was a choice: between toasting the monarch or the Stuart pretenders. A man who refused to follow the lead of the company he was in could end up being beaten up. One who toasted the Stuarts too publicly could find himself in court on sedition charges (though not in a Tory-run county like Denbighshire where the greatest magnate, Watkyn Williams-Wynn, was strongly suspected of being a Jacobite sympathiser himself, and was rumoured to have had to make a hasty and undignified exit from Shrewsbury to avoid charges of drinking toasts to the Pretender).

Well into the eighteenth century, hard drinking was part of what it meant to be a gentleman; a 'six-bottle man' was a real man. What with all the claret and beef, no wonder so many of them had gout.

Update: The Guardian has also reported on this research. It also tends to emphasise the gruesome and sensational, but it seems a more subtle take than the BBC's version. But I'm just jealous now. Nobody ever came to me when there was a big story about violence in the news asking for rentaquotes about the seventeenth century...

There is a Chronology of English alcohol-related legislation at the lovely website The Pub in Literature: England's Altered State
Eighteenth-century drinking glasses has a wealth of information about the politics of drinking.
Jacobite rebellions gives a quick overview of Jacobitism.
And apparently it wasn't so very different in the American colonies...

Early Modern Resources Newsflash

I've finally made the decision to move EMR to a new host. Of course, once done, this will make no difference to users at all. But it seems safest to assume that at some stage during the move there's like to be some interrupted service. Be patient if you're trying to visit over the next few days and can't get access. I'll post again once it's done and normal service can be expected to have resumed.

This will mean changes over here at EMN too, as the new host offers the techie things required for blog publishing that my old (very basic) hosting account didn't. Watch this space...


I think it's about time I did one of those roundups that are such fun at other sites. Spotted here and there...

Museums gain £20m art in lieu of tax

Tourist attraction carved from ruin. From the ashes...

Napoleon was killed by incompetent doctors. So, no more conspiracy theories. Boo.

Police recruits sent to university

Naked Olympics. Now that's what I call re-enactment.

Conference nightmares

US summer camps coming to Britain?

The real Merlin Arthur, move over.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Crime's up... no, it's down...

Confusion all round, with the parallel publication of some rather contradictory crime statistics for England and Wales* (Scotland's legal system is separate). But handy for the politicians to play games with.

Row over figures as crime drops by 5%
Violent crime figures rise by 12%
Crime has fallen 39 per cent over the past nine years
A slightly different take: Extra police but detection rate still falls

What's happening here is that the British Crime Survey is suddenly being discounted by Tory politicians because it's showing falling crime levels (and, indeed, has been since the mid-1990s), whereas the police statistics record increases in violent crimes (but falls in most other categories). They've latched onto the one category and set of stats that are of use to them. David Davis, the shadow home secretary, will no doubt have criminologists everywhere in stitches - or in shock - with this assertion: "The most reliable measure of crime is that which is reported to the police".

This is absurd. More than half of the victims of crime do not report it. The BCS gets its data by interviewing 40,000 people a year about their experiences of crime (and also, by the way, their perceptions of it) in order to calculate crime rates. We can debate precisely how accurate it is (it doesn't cover all offences, nor does it interview under-16s; the representativeness of the sample will always be an issue). But, importantly, the way in which police statistics are recorded has changed substantially over the last few years, while the BCS methods have remained largely consistent.

Some government statistics are notorious for being continually revised to make the picture look better: unemployment figures, in particular. To their credit perhaps, this Labour government has for several years now been altering the recording of crimes reported to the police in ways that inflate the figures. In 1998, they included the very minor, and common, category of 'common assault' for the first time. Now, let me point out as a historian of crime that minor assaults are historically amongst the most unreliable of offences to attempt to quantify from official records of any kind. Decisions to complain about them are subjective, often related to existing hostile relationships between the parties and at worst downright malicious; decisions not to complain, conversely, may be motivated by fear of the attacker, by a wish not to make trouble, by mistrust of authorities. And those authorities will vary widely in their inclination, or ability, to intervene at all pro-actively in such matters. (This is why most statistical studies of medieval and early modern violence focus on homicide, which is - we hope - more reliably reported, even though we fear that it's hardly representative of violence in general.)

There was another important change in 2002: all reports to the police now had be recorded in the official statistics unless subsequently shown to be false. You might also add in to the mix increased numbers of police officers to take reports (from 125,000 to 140,000 since 1997). I'm not convinced that all of this quite explains why the discrepancy between the BCS and the police figures is quite so acute in the violence category compared to others, by the way. But when it comes to trends there should be little doubt that the BCS will be more reliable than the 'official' police figures. Unless it's inconvenient for you as an opposition politician in the early stages of the run-up to a general election.

And I'm not suggesting that Labour would be any less dishonest if the boot were on the other foot. If they choose to champion the BCS figures, one suspects that it's merely because it's in their own interests. In fact, they've pulled a fast one of their own here. Last week, they announced a target to cut crime by 15 per cent in the next three years. Today's BCS figures gave them a third of that all in one go. Easy-peasy. David Blunkett says he had no idea of the BCS figures when the 15 per cent target was announced. Yeah, right, David.

*I haven't yet read these because, for some reason I'm suddenly having all sorts of trouble with Adobe Acrobat and I'm downloading a new version (I needed to upgrade anyway), but it's going to take a little while. So I'm relying entirely on (shock! horror!) secondary sources here. Cut me some slack for the time being. I'll get back to you if I find anything worth adding.

Meeting the ancestors

Cronaca has a list of recent archaeological finds in England. It's not just because we have a lot of archaeology. It's also because we have a helluva lot of archaeologists. I had an interesting conversation with an archaeologist from Europe (embarrassingly, I've completely forgotten where. Germany 'or thereabouts', maybe, thinking back to his accent) a couple of years ago, and he explained that they are deeply envious of British funding levels for archaeological work.

We Brits love archaeology. We gobble it up on TV. My favourite, rather than Time Team (Channel 4), was the original format of Meet The Ancestors (BBC2). (Actually, my real all-time favourite is probably the insane spoof We Are History (BBC). But let's be serious for now.) I loved Julian Richards' enthusiasm. The programme was a perfect miniature showcase for all the things that archaeologists do, and, more than that, made it human and personally accessible. Choose one burial - one 'ancestor' from a wide range of periods - as your point of departure. Interweave the exploration of the historical context, up-to-the-minute archaeological wizardry, all centred around - perhaps the inspired bit - a reconstruction of that particular individual including what they looked like. Sometimes they used computer imaging to get the face, but it was the painstaking process using clay that won every time for me. There was something compelling about our periodic visits to the artist's workshop, watching the layers build up, until that bizarre lump of clay with its little white sticks became a recognisable human face.

Meet The Ancestors no longer uses this particular format; fair enough, you could probably only do something so simple so many times before everyone - programme makers and viewers alike, even me - would tire of it. It's become more diverse - and remains a role model, I think, for combining entertainment and education. Still, I miss the original.

Another recent TV favourite, by the way: Terry Jones' Medieval Lives (BBC2). Terry's aiming to "rescue the Middle Ages from moth-eaten cliches and well-worn platitudes". And dress up in silly costumes at every possible opportunity. Does anyone else agree that Terry is the only Python who remains consistently funny (or funny at all, in some cases: step forward, Mr Cleese)?

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Honorary degrees

The Independent notes that it's honorary-doctorate-for-celebs-time again in our universities. And, indeed, some of the choices they reveal here are eyebrow-raising. Jenny Bond? Sir David Frost? Inviting people to share the initials that I worked so hard for simply because they are famous and it'll make a bit of good publicity stinks, right?


Not all honorary degrees are like that. I'm not even convinced that the majority are like that. In my graduation year at Aberystwyth, the university awarded one of its honorary doctorates to someone (Trefor M Owen) who virtually no one outside folklore/folklife studies will ever have heard of, but whose work over several decades has contributed richly to his field. Another recipient has been Rachel Rowlands, Aber graduate and Welsh organic farming pioneer.

Let's have a random look around this year. Leicester University's honorary doctorates this year include Peter Preston (editor of the Guardian); Adam Hart-Davis (irrepressible, popularising historian of science, national treasure); Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys (discovered genetic fingerprinting). At Lancaster, there was Dr David Starkey; Professor Tim Berners-Lee (made possible what you're reading now); Dr Ahdaf Soueif (writer); Sir Ian McKellen (actor, definitely celeb, but does look amazing in his robes). Liverpool: Lord Renfrew (distinguished archaeologist); Professor Sir John Walker (biologist, Nobel Prize-winner)...

On closer inspection, as the list above suggests, many of those awarded honorary doctorates already hold 'real' ones; these awards are being conferred for outstanding lifetime achievements in their respective fields, academic, scientific, artistic or literary. And there is always an interesting 'local' sub-set, not usually for 'scholarly' achievement, but for people who are recognised as important contributors to community and social life. (If anything, on looking at a few of the lists, what niggles me are not the 'celebrity' awards so much as the civil servants and diplomats, who already have their knighthoods, OBEs, etc out of the honours system. But that's my prejudice.)

And honorary degrees are far from a new idea. Cambridge points out that it's been giving them for half a millennium (here's this year's line-up. Watch out for all those initials).

It's all very well to select and lampoon a few particularly dubious choices, as the newspapers seem to do every year. But it's bloody lazy. (And I don't necessarily agree that all the Independent's examples are unworthy, either.) I think there's a problem here, but it's not with individual recipients so much as the sheer scale of the thing. It's almost as though it's become compulsory to have at least two at every single degree ceremony (as if they aren't interminable enough already), and that adds up to a hell of a lot of honorary degrees. Do universities need to award quite so many? How many must some people have on their walls by now?

But then, of course, you could say that it simply mirrors the expansion of higher education, not least in the numbers of 'real' doctorates being awarded, of recent years and, indeed, why should it be any different?

Early modern bloodsports - sorry, ball games

A post from Cronaca that I simply couldn't resist (and gives me an excuse to quote more obscure legal documents...). It reports on documents bringing into question the legend of the invention of baseball in 1839, including a 1791 prohibition on games including 'baseball' at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, within 80 yards of the town meeting house, in order to protect its glass windows. Now, in my first ever foray into the Welsh eighteenth-century court archives several years ago, I came across something rather similar from Pembroke, south-west Wales, in 1789. The governors of the town had enacted an order

putting a stop to a riotous assembly and meeting and to a nuisance... practiced on every Shrove Tuesday within the town and streets of the said borough of Pembroke in playing of football up and down and across the streets of the said town and borough in the pursuit and kicking of which the windows of the houses within the said town and borough were frequently broken and the inhabitants thereof greatly incommoded disturbed and annoyed by the said riotous and unlawful assembly...

The town crier was sent out to proclaim the new prohibition. However, some 'tumultuous and disorderly' inhabitants of the town were disinclined to leave off their game and went ahead anyway. (I wonder what happened in Pittsfield?)

If only windows were being broken, the Pembroke Shrove Tuesday football might in fact have been a relatively civilised affair compared to the violent and bloody ball games played in various parts of Europe during the early modern period (and earlier). These were frequently played between neighbouring parishes, involving all the local able-bodied men: a form, in fact, of minor warfare. There were few restrictions on kicking and throwing the ball, and cudgelling the opponent in possession until he dropped it was permitted in the best-known version played in south-west Wales, knappan or cnapan (possibly of Viking origin). There were other types of game; in Glamorgan, they played bando (or bandy), with long curved bats (akin to modern hockey sticks). Nor were these games only for the plebs; an eighteenth-century Anglesey gentleman, William Bulkeley, often recorded his prowess at football in his diary, and the blood, broken bones and bruises it produced.

What happened in the nineteenth century - and I strongly suspect that baseball is another example of this - was not so much the invention of games like soccer and rugby (with its own founding myth) as their re-invention: new rules, new discipline, for the new industrial age. Not least in the increasingly crowded streets of towns and cities with their vulnerable windows and polite middle class residents; a trawl through urban archives of the late eighteenth century would very likely reveal many more cases like those of Pittsfield and Pembroke. The new codes and institutions of the nineteenth century were, in one sense, a long-term solution to the problem encountered at Pembroke: it was just not so easy to make people give up their favourite games. And it's still not that easy to take violence out of the equation, on or off the pitch.

Update: I wanted to add some links for you (but I did have to go to work this morning, you know).

The radical history of football
Cnapan and Bandy
Cornish Hurling
Entertainments in early modern Dartford
Florentine football

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Seventeenth-century rebellion, political responsibility, unrest and rumour

I've been in the archives going through Cheshire court files for 1685-87 over the last few days, and realised that I'd just missed an anniversary that's worth commenting on. On 15 July 1685, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth was executed (a thoroughly botched job, apparently; beheading often was) on Tower Hill for leading an unsuccessful rebellion against the not-terribly popular Catholic James II.

Now, living in an age where politicians merely start wars and leave soldiers - and civilians - to pay the price, that really is taking ultimate responsibility for your political actions.

Anyway, the reason that the court files jogged my memory is because of prosecutions for seditious words. The formal record of a criminal trial in the English early modern legal system, the indictment, is usually an arid, formulaic document (written in Latin until 1733). However, indictments for seditious words included details of what the accused had allegedly said. Some say most about the fears of those in government, like the prosecution of a man in 1665 for saying that 'hee had rather fight against the king then drincke a cup of beare'. (I haven't found any in these particular files, although I've seen them elsewhere, of prosecutions for saying that one 'did not give a turd for the king'.)

But the indictments also show that for some in the stronger Protestant areas of Cheshire, the failure of Monmouth's rebellion was a terrible disappointment, one that could barely be faced; there was clearly much grasping at straws. Take this declaration, on 28 July, days after the news of the execution would have reached even the remotest villages: 'The Duke of Monmouth is alive he's alive, he's alive, and the king is dead King James the second, King Charles [II] his brother is dead, and Monmouth has an army within thirty two or thirty foure miles of Oxford God blesse him God blesse and prosper him and his army, I wish myselfe with him'. Eighteen months later, this woman was unbearably bitter: 'There is no king in England nor hath beene since midsumer last was twelve month'. And despite the public execution, the rumours that would not go away. February 1687: 'I have beene with the duke of Monmouth about a fortnight ago at sea where he hath a considerable fleet with him and will be here 'ere long with a more considerable army then he had before'. Anyone interested in the subject of political rumour can do no better than Adam Fox's marvellous book on Oral and literate culture in early modern England, by the way.

Seditious words, unlike treason, was not a capital felony, but that didn't mean that offenders got off lightly. The usual punishment was a spell in the pillory, sometimes a whipping, and a heavy fine. Those who could not pay were likely to find themselves spending months in prison, reduced to writing - or finding friends who would write on their behalf - begging petitions to the judges for mercy.

Not that the Glorious Revolution immediately brought freedom of speech. In the Old Bailey Proceedings (1674-1799), fifty people were tried for seditious words in London after 1688. But nearly all of these were before the mid-1720s (with one or two following the 1745 Rebellion). I haven't done the counting yet, but I suspect that will be outnumbered in the 20 years or so of seventeenth-century Cheshire indictments that I've recorded - in a much smaller population than that of eighteenth-century London. It's a fascinating subject that has yet to be extensively studied.

Anybody wanting references for the primary sources quoted or, indeed, the few secondary works that I've come across is welcome to get in touch with me.

Cliopatriarch of Wales?

Some of you may have already spotted this.

Partly because I'm a sucker for a bit of flattery, I've accepted an invitation to blog at Cliopatria. (The title is not my invention, by the way. And I do fear that if it gets out beyond the blogosphere, it might get me shunned by two different groups of my acquaintance: a) feminists and b) those of the Cymry Cymraeg (the native Welsh-speaking Welsh) for whom y Saeson (the English) in Wales are only to be tolerated at the best of times. Well, I don't think they talk to me much anyway.)

I was surprised to be asked (actually, I was gobsmacked). After all, I don't blog about politics (well, not party politics) very often. I keep writing about obscure bits of the planet. I'm an early modernist. I'm not American. OK, we do share a concern with history and some affinities in political views. Anyway, I'm working on the presumption that they want me for the differences as much as the similarities. Let's hope that it produces some interesting results.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Wannabe Lords and Ladies

I never cease to be amazed at what people will buy, or try to, in this case. This site warns you in no uncertain terms: "You cannot purchase a genuine British title, with one exception, the feudal title of a Scottish baron; and certainly cannot buy a peerage title". The author should know, seeing as he's the seventh earl of Bradford. Browse around for a spendid mixture of upper-class English snobbery (can't have the hoi-polloi calling themselves Lord This and Lady That, can we?) and what ought to be bleedin' obvious advice (but then, most advice against frauds seems blindingly obvious). His lordship does not, sadly, comment on the way in which the Jeffrey Archers of this world give the very strong impression that, in fact, any slimy git can acquire a peerage if they happen to have the right friends and give enough money to the right people.

I can understand why people buy fake degrees, but why, in the twenty-first century, does anyone still want one of these absurd anachronisms?

Jobs Bulletin (also studentship)

More from this week

Post-doctoral Research Assistant, Oxford Brookes University, working on CESAR, an online database of information about the French theatre between 1600 and 1800. You need a PhD on some aspect of early modern France; a high level of competence in French; and experience in using "electronic research-support methods, preferably online databases". Two years, £21,010-22,954. Deadline 13 August 2004.

Research Fellowships, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Four years, stipends starting from £14,455 p.a. living in college. Deadline 29 October 2004, to start October 2005. (These are for any subject; there will be hot competition.)

Research Studentships and Bursaries for MA study in English Literary Studies, Middlesex University. One of the research areas is English Literature and Culture 1500-1700 (there is a more detailed list of topics within that). Twelve months; the studentships pay tuition fees + living grant of £11,000; the bursaries pay tuition fees + £650 towards living expenses. Deadline 7 September 2004 (for October 2004 start).

A sample from H-Net Jobs

Assistant Professor, Mediterranean Europe, 1300-1700, University of Oregon. 'Priority' to applications received by 1 November 2004.

Tenured Scholar, Early Modern Europe, Columbia University. 'Would like all applications by' 15 October 2004.

Assistant Professor, Late Imperial China, University of California, San Diego. Reviewing applications from 1 October 2004 (start July 2005).

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Modern science, meet the Old Masters

Here's an interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education: Art History Can Trade Insights With the Sciences. I saw a TV programme, last year I think, presented by David Hockney on the theory (proposed by Charles M Falco, a physicist) about the use of lenses in 15th/16th paintings. It seemed perfectly sane to me - and a good demonstration that practising artists now could have particularly useful insights into the work of other artists in the past... Not being an art historian, I didn't know that they were quite so upset about the whole idea.

The major arguments mounted by art historians against his theory fall into seven categories: (1) artists did not need to "cheat" because they were highly trained in drawing from observation; (2) artists did not need lenses because they were so talented; (3) such devices would have been too cumbersome; (4) no written proof, from artists or others, exists that lenses were used; (5) artists could have used a grid instead of a lens to get the perspective right; (6) the lens hypothesis has been overstated; and (7) even if true, it is of no interest to art historians.

Now, I do find myself wondering how fair this summary is. Are art historians quite as silly as (1) and (2) make them sound? But let's not quibble too much for the moment.

The problem with numbers 1-4 is that they fail to rule out the use of optical devices. Whether or not artists had the skill and/or training to draw without lenses, whether or not the lenses were cumbersome, and whether or not anyone at the time wrote about them, artists still may have used lenses. The arguments about training and talent are also inconsistent with the general acceptance by art historians that Renaissance artists used geometry to draw in perspective...[and] sometimes used tools such as strings, grids, and planes of glass... to get the perspective right. The problem with the grid argument is that the use of a grid might explain how artists got the perspective right, but not predict the smoking gun, the errors.

For my money, after reading the details of Falco's argument, it seems to me that it's that last point that stands out as the most compelling point in its favour. But I'm no scientist. As a historian, however, I don't think that (4) can be written off that easily. Yes, it's true that silence in written sources does not rule out the use of lenses (and arguing too much from silence is dangerous); but it does seem odd. Is there no documentary evidence at all? (Not even anything nicely ambiguous?) And, importantly, how does that compare with written evidence for other innovatory practices of the time? If important developments - including those listed - were usually recorded by somebody, then the silence really needs some explanation. It might, indeed, be related to (6) and (7), which seems a particularly crude reduction of an important issue: it isn't entirely unreasonable to suggest that a technique by that went unrecorded and was completely forgotten about (suggesting that few artists ever used it, perhaps) may not be that historically significant. Is it?

Still like the theory though.

Why I use the Guardian

I'm not doing any statistics, but the Guardian's website is probably my single most common source of news here. It's the news site I head to first. Now that's partly because it's also the newspaper I read most often. But it's also because the web site is so bloody good. Clearly, I'm far from alone in thinking this. Their readers' editor, Ian Mayes, has this week had some respite from his usual postbag of complaints and corrections (following on from his column last week about the paper's plans for the future). The praise isn't just from us lefty-liberal types in the UK, either. The stats tell the tale, too: 100 million page impressions and 9 million users a month, "far ahead of any other newspaper website in the UK, and in the US second only to the BBC among favoured UK news sites". More people read the Guardian online than in print.

In contrast to so many other newspapers' sites, everything that appears in the print version (and considerably more, though there are a few subscription services) can be accessed free of charge and without any registration requirements. I am getting around to registering with some of the papers that demand it (NY Times, Washington Post, Telegraph, Scotsman), but it's hard to be bothered when all you want is a casual browse to pick up on interesting nuggets. Path of least resistance and all that. As for The Times, which you can't even search past the last seven days without a subscription...

And as a British academic looking for news, especially about higher education and the humanities and social sciences, the education section is hard to beat. BBC education news is better on schools than post-18; the Independent's education section is far less extensive (and a fair bit of it requires a subscription). Neither they nor the Telegraph have anything to match the Guardian's research section (unless you're a scientist). I also think the reporting of these stories tends to be better than its British rivals; remember my story last week about teaching on the Empire in British schools? Of these four news sources, only the Guardian seems to approach a balanced view of the Ofsted report concerned; the rest simply selected one part of it for a dramatic story. (I won't accuse them of outright misrepresentation, since I still can't get a view of the report in order to judge for myself. Ofsted sent me a link, but to something completely different...)

However, for all these reasons, I have a tendency to rely rather too heavily on this one source. Quite apart from the dangers of only reading papers whose politics you (largely) agree with, the Grauniad remains, for all its global reach and international coverage, primarily a British-oriented paper.* I need to get out more. So, a question for readers around the world: if it's serious, easily findable education and academic news - especially on humanities and social sciences - you're looking for, which (apart from HNN, naturally) are the best online sources and newspaper sites?

*And, as Scottish friends of mine would point out, specifically rather English (not to say London and south-eastern) in its outlook. But I think there may be worse offenders...