The day has arrived. By which I mean it arrived yesterday, but I was neck deep in grading and trying to avoid Twitter so I missed the publisher’s Tweet.
The important thing is that my book has officially been released from the University of Michigan Press. This means that it is available for purchase and also to read as an open access scholarly resource. Academic books usually have short print runs, sell relatively few copies, and represent a deep investment of tens of thousands of dollars over the course of years to produce, even without lucrative contracts for the authors. This is why most publishers require authors to offset the publisher’s cost with grants and research funds in order to have their work appear open-access, and I am immensely grateful to UM Press for offering me the chance to participate in a new initiative to make a larger number of books accessible this way.
If I’m being honest, this day is more than a little intimidating. This book is a substantially revised (and improved) version of my dissertation research that began about a decade ago and that I carried on through both years of underemployment and the pandemic. I still managed to write the book I wanted to write and I am proud of the final product, but the circumstances under which I was writing created hurdles to getting there—on top of the usual anxieties like imposter syndrome. The little voice in my head who worries about how my scholarship will be received is pacing anxiously, slightly muting my excitement at having it out in the world.
But this is a concern for another day. Today, I am celebrating a personal writing milestone, and I hope that my book gives people a lot to think about.
Last summer I set for myself a reading list of recent work on Roman history, which blended books I came across in book lists, reviews, etc, with crowd-source suggestions. My summer ended up being much busier than I had anticipated, but the list still proved a valuable resource over the past few months and I have a continued to refer to it.
With this in mind, I am starting to put together my reading slate for Summer 2023. This year I want to do a broad survey of food history, with 8–10 books that encompass a range of different approaches to the topic. I have been reading in this area out of interest for the past few years, so there are a number of “obvious” books that I have excluded for no other reason than that I have already read them. The difference this time is that I am looking to be somewhat more systematic in my approach.
This is the list I have come up with so far:
Leonard Barkan, The Hungry Eye: Eating, Drinking, and European Culture from Rome to the Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).
Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
Robert William Fogel, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100: Europe, America and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
Sally Grainger, The Story of Garum: Fermented Fish Sauce and Salted Fish in the Ancient World (New York: Routledge, 2020).
Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
Rachel Louise Martin, Hot, Hot Chicken: A Nashville Story (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2021).
Patrick E. McGovern, Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
Massimo Montanari, Food is Culture, trans. Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).
Jean-Pierre Poulain, The Sociology of Food: Eating and the Place of Food in Society (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).
Adam D. Shprintzen, The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817–1921 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
Ken Albaba, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
Laura M. Banducci, Foodways in Roman Republican Italy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021).
Brian Fagan, Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
Felipe Fernández-Amersto, New a Thousand Tables: A History of Food (New York: The Free Press, 2002).
Paul Freedman, Food: The History of Taste (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
James C. McCann, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (Athens, Oh: Ohio University Press, 2009).
Patrick E. McGovern, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1986).
Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).
Roy Strong, Feast: A History of Grand Eating (New York: Harcourt, 2003).
Caroline Walker-Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
Food history is obviously an enormous topic and I am stretching myself beyond ancient history for this particular reading list, so I am particularly keen to hear recommendations with a particular focus on recent volumes or if there is a methodological approach I am sorely neglecting.
Since this is an academic book, I assume that this will cost me an arm, a leg, a kidney, and the deed to my firstborn child. Did I get that right?
Do children come with deeds?
You know what I mean.
I do. This is perhaps the most exciting piece of news. The book will be coming out with University of Michigan Press as a hard cover volume at their normal price point (about $75), but I was offered an option for my book to be included in a new open-access program. The book will still be found in the catalog and available for purchase, but, in effect, I agreed to forgo a paperback version of the book and instead make the e-book open-access.
So you volunteered to sell fewer books. Why?
A few reasons. First, there is very little chance that this book will sell enough to earn me meaningful royalties, with or without a paperback run. I tried to write my book to be approachable and hope that it sells well for an academic book, but I read the contract and am under no illusions that academic publishing will make me rich. Second, open access makes it possible for more people to read my work and that could, at least in theory, open more doors for me. The third reason is more philosophical. I have benefited enormously from scholars and organizations that make their work available for free. I am always looking for opportunities to pay that forward by publishing open access work where I can, even if I generally haven’t been successful with my articles. Given this opportunity, I took it.
Very noble of you.
It is also practical. I have reservations about the sustainability of open-access publishing over the long term and it is not going to resolve the issues of a crumbling higher-ed infrastructure for the humanities and social sciences, but I’m also intimately familiar with the many difficulties that come with publishing as a contingent faculty member. If making my work open access makes the life of any contingent scholar or graduate student a little easier, then it’ll have been worth it.
When I tentatively raised my concerns about sustainability, my editor told me to have that conversation about my next book. Her answer didn’t really assuage my concerns, but I guess I’ll need to write another book.
So, how’s the next book coming?
Patience. I have a few book projects in mind that I am starting to work on, but each of them is likely multiple years out at this point.
Call it what you will. Book writing takes time under the best circumstances and I am one of many professors who don’t receive research leave. I will likely write more books because I want to write more books—in fact, I already have outlines for three more history books and a novel. But what I write and how quickly will depend enormously on how the other parts of my career develop over the next few years.
I’m excited to be moving on to new work after spending the better part of a decade with this one, I’m also going to enjoy seeing this book out in the world.
I am a Bad Jew by many people’s standards. Other people would deny me even that, since I never had a bar mitzvah and have never belonged to a synagogue. I am only very slowly learning Hebrew. I’m mostly committed to holidays for the food and a loose sense of seasonality. This year for Chanukah I said a blessing lighting candles but decided that I didn’t want to say the others. In recent years I’ve found myself feeling a stronger pull toward my ancestry within the Eastern European Yiddish community than the Hebraic Zionism that I find problematic for its assimilationist obliteration of specific Jewish heritage before considering the actions of the state of Israel.
It was with this background that I read Emily Tamkin’s Bad Jews: A history of American Jewish Politics and Identities. For a history of Jewish people in the United States, the plural in “identities” is important, according to Emily Tamkin. Essential, in fact, because there has been a multiplicity of ways to be Jewish, so too is there a multiplicity of ways to be “Bad Jews,” in any number of respects deficient. Narratives and counter-narratives. Tamkin even includes in her introduction like the one I wrote above to explain how she might just be too bad a Jew to author this book, but perhaps that is just the point.
Bad Jews, which blends history, more than 150 interviews, and a streak of memoir, unfolds in chronologically, with each chapter constructed around two interlocking themes: what might prompt some Jews to characterize others as “Bad Jews” and how Jews fit into the broader patterns of American culture.
American Jewish history is a history, or a set of histories, of immigration and the subsequent oscillation between accepting and resisting acculturation.
While it is common to speak of Jews as a cohesive group, Tamkin invites readers to think otherwise down to the most fundamental levels. Ashkenazim from the Germany and Eastern Europe form the dominant image of what a Jewish person looks like in the United States (and have formed the majority of the population since 1730), but Tamkin notes that the earliest Jews to arrive here were Sephardim who arrived by way of the Iberian peninsula and, thus, early Synagogues followed Sephardic practices. This early arrival also inevitably entangled the Jewish community with slavery, both in terms of employing enslaved labor to construct their places of worship and owning enslaved people. She points out that the first Jewish person to hold a cabinet position was Judah P. Benjamin, a wealthy slave owner who became secretary of state of the Confederate States of America.
Tamkin weaves this same thread back in during the Civil Rights Movement when, in 1965, famously, the Jewish rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Many Jews are rightfully proud of this heritage and Tamkin cites polling form the 1950s that suggests that most Jews considered commitment to civil rights more essential for being a “Good Jew” than support for Israel. And yet, as a number of recent comments from Kanye West, Kyrie Irving, and other prominent African Americans indicate, there is also a longstanding frustration with, if not hostility in, this relationship. Tamkin builds from an analysis of James Baldwin’s essay “Negroes Are Antisemitic Because They Are Anti-White,” to identify the disconnect in that while Jewish allies of the movement emphasize the similarities in their place in American society, African Americans chaffed at the differences in lived experience when most Jews received the privileges of being white. In other words, it isn’t that Jews are not marginalized in essential ways in American society, but they also get to be the landlords.
In turn, this point again reinforces the tensions within the American Jewish community when it comes to Jews of color.
[Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Jews who participated in the civil rights movement are] American Jewish history, but…only a part of it. In the contemporary context, that means grappling with all of American Jewish history and with the various stances American Jews have chosen to take with respect to white supremacy. It also means that those who say that Jews aren’t white only to turn around and malign Jews who do not look white as not really being Jewish are only fooling themselves.
Race is a construct, but it is a construct with lived implications. And there are, in the United States, Jews who go through life as white. This is the majority of American Jews. If they—we—do not wish to be considered as complicit in white supremacy, a good place to start would be by not insisting that we’re more Jewish than Jews of color.
The issue of race stood out because of the current state of discourse in the United States and other books I have read in the past few years like Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene and Koshersoul, both of which address the intersection of his race and his Judaism, but it is only one example of the questions at the heart of Bad Jews. There is no one way to be a “Good Jew,” in Tamkin’s thesis, and thus there is a multiplicity of ways to be a “Bad Jew.” Moreover, these are contested definitions perpetually undergoing regeneration.
In many respects, the story that Tamkin tells about Jews parallels the evolution of the United States more broadly, and it is important to recognize those connections. However, “Jews” make for a compelling subject for thinking about the United States as a pluralistic polity because of the way that both mainstream Christian Americans and parts of the Jewish community have tried to articulate Jews as an eternal other, separate from and incompatible with the rest of the citizen body.
Bad Jews is not a book one can turn to for answers. That very idea is antithetical even to Tamkin’s project. Rather, this is a book that is designed to think with. I came into it with a strong sense of certain schisms within the broad Jewish community, but I quickly discovered that I had underestimated how deep and multifaceted these divisions were.
This is the second in a backlog of books I read months ago that I still want to write about. Since I am currently re-reading several novels that I’m teaching with this semester, I might even “catch up” before the semester overtakes me too much.
A little more than a decade ago in graduate school I took a Roman history seminar where the professor assigned a (then) recently published book, Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization by the pseudonymous John J. O’Neill, named after an FBI agent killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. There is an old adage that when you read the work of historians, you should listen for the sound of the bees buzzing in their bonnet, and, here, the name alone suggests that one ought to don a bee suit.
[O’Neill]’s argument is two-fold. First, he argues, modern historians have inappropriately discarded the work of Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, who, in the 1920s had articulated a thesis that the Muslim conquests had transformed the Mediterranean and formally ended the Roman system. Far from preserving the Classical inheritance, Muslim society was inherently antithetical to it—and inherently violent. At several points he asserts that religious change in the Indian subcontinent was driven by the need to confront the onslaught:
“One long-term consequence of these invasion was the virtual disappearance of the hitherto prevalent and pacifist Buddhism and its replacement by a form of Hinduism…” (146)
However, he also picks up on the apparent absence of securely-dated archaeological material for the early Middle Ages and thus argues that contradictions found by Pirenne in Mohammed and Charlemagne is evidence that the so-called “Dark Ages” were not real, because those centuries never existed. They were an invention of the German Ottonian dynasty.
Now, professors assign books for all sorts of reasons and seminars frequently have a more productive discussion when there is disagreement. However, I have never seen a seminar so vehement and unanimous in its fundamental rejection of an assigned book. The theme of the course was sociological concepts like complex societies in late antique history and, in this respect, Holy Warriors might have been a productive vehicle for talking about Pirenne and Roman systems if framed as such and paired with some supplemental readings, but I suspect, based on the professor’s response to the class’s repudiation of the book overall, that his purpose in assigning the text wasn’t so much Pirenne as Phantom Time.
The back portion of Holy Warriors where [O’Neill] argues that Charlemagne never existed is based on the Phantom Time Hypothesis first espoused by Heribert Illig in 1991. While challenges to establishing a secure chronology for this period exist, this hypothesis is, fundamentally, based on conspiratorial thinking that simply rejects out of hand any evidence that contradicts it.
Nor is Phantom Time an isolate.
The Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko, for instance, espouses a “New Chronology” wherein there is a conspiracy to deny the Russian Horde (a slav-turk empire, in his estimation) its rightful place in history. Fomenko claims that the history that we know it is an artificial creation based on real events all of which take place since the year 800 CE. Thus, he argues, primary model of Jesus being the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos who (can I say “he claims,” again? I think I should) was born in Crimea on December 25, 1152 and was crucified on the Bosporus on March 20, 1185. Columbus is a Cossack who is also Noah.
Which brings me to Donna Dickens, a social media “historian” who has gained some traction with assertions that ancient Rome is a fiction created by the Catholic Church to synthesize and co-opt indigenous cultures from around Europe and the Mediterranean. Rome of course synethesized and co-opted cultures from around its empire—that is one of the most interesting things about Roman History—but it also existed.
When confronted with evidence to the contrary, Dickens responds by demanding to see hard scientific evidence to verify the dates. As though proponents of theories of this sort don’t dismiss scientific evidence that runs counter to their claims as inadequate, too. In this case, Dickens rejects any evidence based on stone or other materials that cannot be carbon dated.
Anyone familiar with the recent dustup between the supporters of Graham Hancock’s Ancient Apocalypse theories and academic archaeologists has probably seen the allegation of racism levied against pseudo-archaeology. Hancock, for instance, argues that surviving ruins around the world are much older than archaeologists claim and are thus evidence of an early civilization that perished in, wait for it, an ancient apocalypse. The theory explicitly claims that anything sophisticated in indigenous cultures (e.g. agriculture) was introduced by survivors of this ancient flood, which is an echo of how European colonizers articulated their relationship to the people they met the world over.
What I find particularly interesting about Dickens is that she inverts the usual paradigm in a way that echoes the discourse about pseudo-archaeology broadly.
Fomenko, Illig, and the adherents of each theory, broadly speaking, adopt positions that draw people toward the political right. Fomenko’s theory is wildly popular in Russia, while Illig’s appeals to anyone who wants to excise Islam from a complex history of the early Middle Ages.
Dickens, by contrast, is explicitly not right wing. She sees herself as a defender of indigenous cultures in the United States and elsewhere against the predations of the Catholic church and an opponent of a discipline (Classics) concocted by “Victorian eugenicists.” While there are numerous issues with her theory, I have little interest in “debunking” Dickens and less in defending Victorian classicists. Rather, I am fascinated by the phenomenon.
In the first of the blog posts linked to above, Caraher identifies contributing factors to pseudo-archaeology that are equally relevant to other sorts of alternative histories. The whole post is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by two points:
First, Caraher makes an astute observation about the present moment and its relationship to both the past and the future.
In Search of Foreclosed Pasts. One thing that I’ve started to think about over the last week or so is how alternative views of the past tend to emerge at points where there is both perceived discontinuity in the past (i.e. the end of the ancient world, apocalypses, vanish civilizations, episodes of collapse, and so on) and in the present. I guess everyone knows this, but for whatever reason it didn’t quite register with me.
I suppose the reason for this is that when we recognize that the past does not necessarily culminate in the present. That is to say, when we come to realize that our past actions as humans have not necessarily produced a sustainable present. In other words, our current historical trajectory, despite the hopes and promises of progress, has become dead end. Climate change, environmental degradation, social fracturing, and resurgent totalitarianism has revealed the bankruptcy of modernity, scientific thinking, capitalism, and narratives of progress.
As a society, then, we’ve started to look at the past with a growing sense of urgency in an effort to identify a moment when things went wrong. In this context, a renewed openness to new ways (both good and bad) at engaging with the plurality of human experiences has made it possible to explore pasts foreclosed by the hegemonic power of modernity.
I would add to his observation that this historical moment is one when so many traditional master narratives are rightfully being challenged. Mostly, this is a good thing. In my American history survey, for instance, I try to offer students complexity and context that they generally missed in their high school history courses. In fact, I explicitly leverage the fact that they are familiar in broad strokes with the master narrative as something that I can play off in class discussions. Mostly this works, and I often will receive comments about how the course deepened their understanding of US history. However, some few go further to seeing the machinations of a conspiracy at work in every corner of history. I have noticed the ranks of the later group growing in recent years, in part perhaps because of conspiratorial thinking like Q-Anon, but also because so many books that challenge the master narrative are marketed as a secret history.
Second, at the end of the post, Caraher mentions “too much science.” I have been known to joke in some classes that the work that scientists do might as well be magic. I immediately follow this up with deep appreciation and and exploration of what that magic science can reveal about the past, but there is a kernel of truth behind my declaration. I know generally what is going on with a lot of science, but so much of it remains a mystery to me. I think that in a world where science and magic are virtually indistinguishable to a lot of people, there is a temptation to reject it all in favor of what your eyes are seeing or your gut is thinking, no matter how superficial or nonsensical that observation may be. I am reminded in this about how, about five years ago, there was a spate of prominent flat-earthers whose belief was based on nothing more than how Kansas [vel sim.] is flat for as far as the eye can see or, as in the case of Kyrie Irving, that educators are hiding the real truth.
Another contributing factor, I think, is the way in which we interact with texts. I certainly count myself among the number of professors who cringe when my students refer to a history book as a novel. In part, that particular error is like nails on a chalkboard to me, but I think it is also symptomatic of an inability to distinguish between different types of sources and media—something I have been thinking a lot about how to address in my teaching recently because I’m coming to believe that it is an essential part of sifting through the mountain of information at our fingertips online. Some of the challenge is, as Caraher notes, an issue of genre-bending, but I think it is a more fundamental challenge even without the added layer of one form mimicking another.
Nor is it just an issue for students. Years ago at a party I was talking with several people who I think were MIT engineering post-doctoral researchers. When they found out that I was a historian they wanted to know what I thought about Game of Thrones. I was happy to give my thoughts—I had only been reading the novels since middle school—but at some point in the conversation it occurred to me that they were asking my thoughts on its historical accuracy, not as an analysis of the world-building, but in whether this world invented by a single author was real.
When Dickens compares the history of Ancient Rome to Tolkien’s Silmarillion, I think back to this conversation. When every text is offered the same weight, it is altogether too easy to pick and choose the ones that suit the story you want to tell—to say nothing of how it erases the amazing work down by paleographers whose work creates every standard Greek or Latin text that we have from multiple competing manuscript traditions.
This post has gone on long enough, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that these sorts of fictions are ripe for satire. In October 2010, The Onion published what remains one of my all-time favorites: “Historians Admit to Inventing Ancient Greeks.” The article “reports” on a press conference in which historians invent that everything about Greece is pure invention, and I love it because it is both extremely silly and touches on ways in which history is invented, albeit in the sense that making meaning out of the past is a matter of interpretation. The Onion article might be satire, but these sorts of conspiracies are only a joke until they very much aren’t.
Disclosure: Dr. Ellis-Gorman ran a Twitter giveaway for this book. After I won the drawing I told him that I would post a review of the book to my blog.
One of my favorite computer games as a teenager was Age of Empire II. The civilization I played most frequently were the Britons, whose unique unit, the longbowman, I used en masse to devastating effect. I gravitate to the Britons in this and other games principally because the strengths that the game designers give to these units fit my play-style that tends to be quite deliberate, but the reasons for my particular fascination with the longbow and its practitioners were myriad and various.
In part, the longbow had literally become a fixture in folklore. I was, and remain, fascinated by Robin Hood even though the purported chronology of Robin Hood and his trusty bow is ahistorical (royal mandates that are sometimes discussed with this weapon date to the fourteenth century, more than a century after Richard I died). Despite some modern iterations of the story where Robin Hood adopts smaller recurve bows modeled on those he saw on crusade, the longbow nevertheless remains firmly entrenched in this story.
But my interest in those parts of the national folklore coincided with a period in my life when I was fascinated by the battlefield aspect of military history (as opposed to questions of logistics and messaging that I am more drawn to these days). In this context, it was only natural that I be drawn the pitched battles of The Hundred Year’s Wars like Crécy and Agincourt where, the story goes, the English longbowmen triumphed over the knights and hired crossbows of the French. These battles became an essential component of the British national narrative and thus the supremacy of the longbow over the crossbow became almost a shibboleth, at least in the anglophone understanding of the Middle Ages.
It was thus with great interest that I read Stuart Ellis-Gorman’s The Medieval Crossbow. This book, a revision of Ellis-Gorman’s PhD dissertation, is an up-to-date history of the crossbow that aptly explores the ubiquity of the weapon.
The Medieval Crossbow is divided into two broad sections.
The first part of the book is a technical dossier that offers a clear discussion of the different pieces that made this weapon function. While a crossbow is a crossbow, Gorman points out some of the subtle innovations in trigger mechanisms that would release the “rolling nut” and fire the bolt (15–16). While such details might seem like mundane concerns, they also allow Ellis-Gorman to touch elsewhere on the possibility that the European crossbow was not explicitly related to the much earlier Chinese one that used an entirely different trigger mechanism (72–73). This dossier also examines reloading systems (spanning devices) from the stirrup attached to the stock that allow an archer to use his leg muscles in spanning the bow (17–18) to the cranequin gearbox that winches a the string back (18–20)–and more.
The initial discussion of the parts of the crossbow then transitions into an evaluation of the wide range of different crossbows that existed. In short, while all crossbows shared certain characteristics, there wasn’t just one crossbow. In fact, Ellis-Gorman includes in this discussion the short-lived phenomenon of the “gun crossbow” that was a hybrid weapon that was simultaneously a wheel-lock musket and a crossbow (45–46).
This section concludes with a discussion of the different technical and, at times, fanciful, representations of the crossbow that appeared in contemporary art.
The second part of the book offers a chronological account of the medieval crossbow. As is often true in books of this sort, this history has little narrative to it. Instead, Ellis-Gorman leads the reader through a series of events in which the crossbow appeared in order to both demonstrate the how the bow and its use evolved over the course of the Middle Ages and to reevaluate a series of battles in which the crossbow featured. These episodes usually address two related issues: the ambiguity of the sources and the strategic and technical consideration of the crossbow in the event.
Take Crécy, about which Ellis-Gorman says that it would be “impossible to write a history of the crossbow without” (108). After all, this was the battle most conceived of as a showdown between the longbow wielding yeoman archer and the Genoese crossbowman. Ellis-Gorman works through the battle from the technical perspective of the two bows and concludes that the popular narratives about the superiority of one over the other are misplaced when the performance of the crossbowmen can be better explained by the failures of leadership, and points out in the process that even the English went on to employ Genoese crossbowmen in the years after the battle.
More than anything, this reevaluation demonstrates the ubiquity of the crossbow in this period. The bow was an integral and effective weapon of Medieval warfare, and I particularly liked how Ellis-Gorman’s treatment allowed for fuzziness both in when the weapon came into existence and in how it transitioned from primarily a weapon of war to primarily a weapon of sport in the later middle ages.
In fact, my least favorite part of the book had nothing to do with the arguments put forward. Ellis-Gorman opens every chapter with an anecdotal story related to the crossbow. For instance, the introduction opens with a narration of the death of King Richard I of England, who died after taking a crossbow bolt outside Château de Châlus-Chabrol in 1199. As a writer, I understood the impulse. The stories offered him an easy hook for that section while also allowing him to tell more crossbow stories that he came across while conducting research. However, this was also one place where I detected some unevenness in the transition from the extremely narrow audience of the dissertation and a wider audience of a monograph. Basically, outside of a loose chronological fit, I did not always see the relevance of the chosen story to the argument of the chapter. That said, this is a minor complaint: it was not that these sections detracted from the value of this book so much as I sometimes found them distracting while I tried to fit the pieces together.
All told, The Medieval Crossbow is a compelling book. I am neither a medievalist nor a military historian, but I nevertheless gained a new appreciation for this particular piece of technology.
A few months ago I posted a reading list for a hypothetical summer grad class designed to introduce teachers or aspiring teachers to recent scholarship in Greek history. The list (archived and updated here) included eight selections for an eight-week class, as well as a few other books that I considered. I am currently scheduled to teach a Roman History course for the first time next year. My comprehensive exams list is a bit dated at this point and while I have not been wholly neglectful of Rome, I should still probably brush up.
My goal for the list is to have recent 8–10 works that provide a cross-section of approaches to Roman (republic and imperial) History that a) catches me up on key approaches; b) does not just offer a narrative history; c) some of which might offer secondary readings that complement the primary sources the students will read.
So far this is the list I have come up with:
Guy Maclean Rogers, For the Freedom of Zion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021)
Andrew B. Gallia, Remembering the Roman Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
Ian Haynes, Blood of the Provinces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Jared T. Benton,The Bread Makers (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2020)
Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014)
Rabun Taylor, Roman Builders: A Study in Architectural Process (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003)
Lindsey A. Mazurek, Isis in a Global Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022)
Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Divine Institutions: Religions and Community in the Middle Roman Republic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020)
Martijn Icks, The Crimes of Elagabalus (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012)
Kathryn Lomas, The Rise of Rome: From the Iron Age to the Punic Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018)
Steven Ellis, The Roman Retail Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)
Myles Lavan, Slaves to Rome: Paradigms of Empire in Roman Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
Meghan DiLuzio, A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016)
Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018)
Christopher Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)
Barbara M. Levick, Faustina I and II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)
Anthony Birley, Septimius Severus: The African Empire (New York: Routledge, 1999)
The problem right now for both this list and for thinking about how I want to teach this course is that there is an awful lot of Roman History. I don’t have much on the second or third centuries, and there are a bunch of other imbalances or omissions I will want to address—but I also don’t know what I don’t know. What did I miss?
To this point, I have received the following additional suggestions:
Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)
Michael Kulikowski, The Tragedy of Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019)
Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Valentina Arena, Libertas and the Practice of Politics in the Late Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
Harriet Flower, Roman Republics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009)
Kim Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
If you answered “yes,” then I have great news for you. A few months back I recorded an interview about bread in Ancient Greece with Aven McMaster and Mark Sundaram for their podcast The Endless Knot. That episode went live this morning. I haven’t heard the final product yet, but it got an excellent review from Emma Pauly, the person who edited and transcribed the episode.
You can get the episode anywhere you get podcasts or by using this link. Bon appétit!
This is not a review of Matt Gabriele and David Perry’s The Bright Ages (Harper: 2021). The book is a Grand Tour of medieval Europe, a breezy romp that aims to counteract popular depictions of the period as backward and grim that has received a lot of praise and some disingenuous reviews for that purpose. It is an excellent book that sweeps from episode to episode demonstrating how the vibrancy of the medieval period was the result of its connection to a broader world. Rome didn’t fall, they argue, or, at least, Rome’s “fall” didn’t mean what people usually think. Likewise, this is a world filled with powerful women, muslims, Jews, and people with skin tones of multiple hues. There was violence and prejudice in the Middle Ages, of course, but one only needs to read modern headlines to see that violence does uniquely define the period. The result is a refreshing and synthetic introduction to the period that injects humanity and complexity into a period usually viewed through the lens of Romance.
But, like I said, this is not a review. There are other people who have done an excellent job contributing to the discussion around this book. Rather, I want to reflect on the value of something like this for Ancient Greece.
Last week a friend of mine reached out looking for a book to recommend to a student who wanted an introduction to Greek history. As much as I think there is a lot of great research available right now, I struggled to come up with a satisfactory answer. The textbook I use in class, Pomeroy et al.’s A Brief History of Ancient Greece, is okay, but textbooks and books have somewhat different purposes. However, I also struggled to come up with a good alternative because I am not satisfied with how most synoptic histories present ancient Greece.
Here is how I articulate the problem as I see it in the book I am writing:
Histories of Classical Greece tend to follow well-trod paths. A series of political and military events like the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars mark the trail and point out a standard set of sights. Athens is well-represented, for reasons of evidence as much as anything, and puncturing the Spartan mirage has done little to blunt popular fascination, while Thebes and Macedonia make grand appearances in the fourth century. And yet, if one were to complete this metaphor, most of Greek history takes place elsewhere in the forest and only obliquely intersects with the usual paths.
That is, the story of ancient Greece is not the history of Athens or Sparta or Macedonia, but the history of more than a thousand independent poleis scattered across the breadth of the Mediterranean and Black Seas bound by ties like language, culture, genealogy, and Panhellenic institutions that together created an imagined community of “Greeks.”
The primary exception to this rule that I could think of is Paul Cartledge’s Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities (now in the Oxford Very Short Introduction Series). To his credit, Cartledge chooses cities outside of the Balkans, but the approach also atomizes the selections into discrete units that he parachutes into as representative of a time or theme where they interact largely through conflict. Similarly, while Cartledge does not deny interaction with the Near East, I often find off-put by the framing of “Western Civilization” that runs through his accounts of Greek history.
When I teach Greek history I like to seed the ground by pointing out to them the complexity of the topic. Any history is, if you look close enough, but other survey courses I teach have a few choices for narrative arcs to follow that, while imperfect, work for the purposes of the course. A survey of Roman history, for instance, usually centers on Rome. Greek history, by contrast, is more like a Medieval history survey in that there is a plurality of actors continuously in states of conflict and cooperation with one another as well as with those outside the “in” group. What I try to convince my students is that that complexity is what makes Greek history interesting, and we usually conclude the semester engaging with how it often comes to be centered on Athens.
It was perhaps inevitable that at the same time that I read The Bright Ages I found myself making mental notes for the sorts of scenes I would include in a comparable volume on ancient Greece — Cynisca’s victories at the Olympics in the 390s BCE, average Athenians choosing to write “hunger” (ΤΟΝ ΛΙΜΟΝ) rather than a name during an ostracism vote in the 480s or 470s, Greek soldiers in Egypt leaving graffiti on a statue of Rameses II at Abu Simbel in the 590s, and the Greeks working at the Persian palace complexes in the 6th century, the poet Choerilus of Samos spending his large stipend from the Macedonian king on fish, the metics credited by the Athenians with saving the democracy in 403, workers constructing the monumental temples and people petitioning small oracles, to name just a few. This hypothetical tour wouldn’t ignore Athens, Sparta, or major figures, but they wouldn’t dominate the narrative and it would have to push back against both histories dominated by the story of military conflict and those dominated by the so-called Greek miracle
I have strong ideas about what I want to see from this book, but equally inspiring about The Bright Ages was its collaboration that seemed to embody some of the larger themes on the page. Were I to write one of these covering ancient Greece I wouldn’t want to produce it like Athena bursting, fully-formed, from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, like Greece itself, it should be the result of a lively exchange that enriches the overall project.
I picked up Eric Pallant’s new book Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers (Agate Publishing: 2021) a few months ago but only read it during a short break around the new year. In truth, I come into a book like this wearing several hats. I am an enthusiast, someone who enjoys both baking bread and reading food history. I am also a historian who has been slow-cooking a project on ancient bread. If this review comes off as overly-critical, it is because I couldn’t take the latter hat off and found numerous nits to pick with an otherwise-engaging read.
Sourdough Culture is an entertaining but, frankly, rather curious book. Pallant, a professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny College. The book is organized around two broad through-lines that sat somewhat uncomfortably together.
The first narrative hook is a personal mystery wherein Pallant investigates the genealogy of his Cripple Creek starter that has been continuously cultivated since the Cripple Creek Gold Rush of the late 19th century.
The second is a history of “sourdough” bread, ostensibly because the conceptual lineage of Cripple Creek starter can be traced back to the earliest domestication of wheat in Mesopotamia. While individual parts of that history were compelling, I often found the connection to the personal narrative strained.
Pallant is at his best when he explores the technology behind bread-baking. In that vein, I thought the strongest individual chapter was “A Reign of Yeast” in which he traced the emergence of modern yeast in the 1800s and explored the emergence of the industrial machines for producing bread, including a machine for injecting carbon dioxide directly into loaves as a mechanical hack to expedite production. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this transition was also the subject his Fulbright Fellowship. The transition to modern bread is also a process that has well-documented discussions of taste preferences for different types of bread, which is another of Pallant’s recurring interests as a sourdough baker.
Putting on my professional hat, my difficulties with Sourdough Culture emerged from the wild inconsistencies and historical faux-pas that make their way into Pallant’s account of the past. Some of these inaccuracies were just problematic throwaways like nebulous and nonsensical terminology like: “At the end of the Dark Ages, when Columbus was sailing…” (“Dark Ages” is not terminology we ought to be endorsing, but, even if it were, Columbus sailed a few hundred years after they “ended.”) Others treated periods with very broad generalities, like this from the first of just four paragraphs dedicated to bread in Ancient Greece:
In 332 BCE, Greece [ed. Alexander the Great, Greece is not a useful descriptor here] conquered ancient Egypt. One would think ancient Greeks, aware of Egyptian baking techniques and smart as they were, would have relied on a similar diet [ed. why? wouldn’t climate and ecology make a much bigger difference?]. However, most Greeks were poor—peasants, farmers, field hands, and their children, everyone except a small handful of elites [ed. this was also true in Egypt…]—and did not consume much wheat bread.
Pallant’s overall point in this section works well enough: the Greek diet was not the same as the Egyptian diet, in no small part because the soil in Greece is not well-suited for producing wheat. However, the way he gets there is muddled and misleading.
I could grump about what Pallant gets right and wrong in those four paragraphs all day, but that misses the point. It is symptomatic of the first of the two big issues that my professional side repeated bumped into while reading Sourdough Culture.
Pallant is not a historian by training which meant that he largely relied on what professional historians and archaeologists had done. His bibliography for this book was not comprehensive (and entirely omits anything on the robust grain trade in ancient Greece), but it also largely reflected the volume of output of research into bread in a given subfield. Egypt and Rome, both of which have relatively lengthy bibliographies on bread baking, received robust sections while, by comparison, the paucity of work on Greece led to cursory treatment.
The second thing that I kept coming back to was what, exactly, Pallant meant by “sourdough.” The hunt for the Cripple Creek starter’s origins seems to imply that he is investigating the history of nurturing a unique starter that provides the yeast for baking as though that might be able to provide for him the origin of his heirloom starter.
It is unlikely, though not impossible, that the starter in my Meadville kitchen was once used in San Fransisco and Mexico.
This could all be tongue-in-cheek to provide a narrative hook (Pallant acknowledges the implausibility, after all), but he includes a story about talking with French bakers who put little stock in the age of their starters. The issue is that yeast for baking is readily available. Different strains will have different taste profiles depending on how they were isolated and what they are fed, but the you don’t necessarily need to carry a starter with you in the modern sense if you can just produce a new one when you arrive. Pallant is aware of this, of course, but he mentions is almost as a concession, disappointed to find the Romance of his Cripple Creek starter dashed by the practicalities of human existence.
In short, the adherence to the Cripple Creek starter as a rhetorical device introduces issues to this narrative. There is a simplicity of the path from the Mediterranean to Western Europe to the Americas to his kitchen that implies a coherent tradition that didn’t really exist. To my mind, naturally-leavened bread is a technique that exists in equal measure in glorious complexity and glorious simplicity that exists anywhere that bread does and is not limited to the traditional loaf. For instance, there are traditions for natural leavening that don’t involve a modern-style starter at all, including in Italy where the archaeologist Farrell Monaco has created a technique for a starter that uses Chickling Vetch and barley rather than wheat. Simplifying these traditions into this narrative does a disservice to these other breads.
Pallant is a talented baker, and the recipes included in Sourdough Culture give me some ideas for my own kitchen. Similarly, there is a fascinating discussion to be had about taste and consumer preferences when it comes to bread. In Sourdough Culture, Pallant has produced a book that puts a toe into these waters and reflects on some crucially unresolved issues about sourdough that are being addressed by research programs like the Puratos Bread Lab and the NC State Sourdough Project. However, reading it as a historian only served to remind me how much space remains for historical research into bread traditions.
At this point I’ve basically given up writing about most of the books I read. Book posts will still make up a non-negligible percentage of the posts here, but I just don’t have time and generally prefer to spend that time reading. Recent reads that may or may not make their way into a full post include David Graeber and David Wengrow’s polemical and hot-button book The Dawn of Everything, Oliver Burkeman’s self-help manifesto Four Thousand Weeks that seeks to recalibrate how we think about the work that we do, Matt Gabriele and David Perry’s breezy grand tour of Medieval Europe, The Bright Ages, and Mel Brook’s show-biz memoir All About Me. I am currently reading the third book in The Expanse series, Abaddon’s Gate.